Bucket Baths & Summer Camp

“Welcome to Peace Corps. Hahahaa.” I have probably heard that phrase more than a hundred times since I have been here. It has actually become sort of a joke among us trainees. Line up for shots! Welcome to Peace Corps. Fill out more paperwork. Welcome to Peace Corps. No internet for a week. Welcome to Peace Corps. Your toilet doesn’t flush? You can’t speak the language well enough to communicate properly with your host mom? You don’t HAVE a toilet? You have developed a strange rash on your arm? You had to stay awake an entire night through the morning to catch a plane? You ate corn tortillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Your 30-pound backpack can’t fit any more stuff in it because of all the pamphlets, booklets, and handouts your training director and PC medical staff personnel keep giving you? Welcome to Peace Corps! Ahahahaa.

Our group of 52 Peace Corps Trainees, or PCTs – in a 3 to 1 ratio of females to males divided into two projects, Healthy Homes and Youth Development – arrived safely in Guatemala two weeks ago Wednesday. We spent the first three days at PC Office/Headquarters in the Santa Lucia highlands where we had informational sessions about medical, safety and security, and PC procedures. We began our malaria prophylaxis almost immediately and also received our “walking around” allowance for two weeks, 30 Quetzales (equivalent to $4) a day, which can go a long way in Guatemala. We divided into our two groups and met our technical trainers. Over the course of the three days, language interviews were also conducted in order to divide us up into small language-learning groups. For the first three nights, we stayed with host families in the same town where PCHQ is located. Peace Corps compensates the families who take in trainees/volunteers for three meals a day and any other necessary expenses such as water, electricity, cleaning, laundry, etc. There really isn’t much that we PCTs need to worry about. The allowance they give to us has been more than sufficient; in my 72 pounds of checked luggage and 25-pound carry-on, I have everything I need and a little more so I really haven’t needed to purchase anything significant (besides bus fare, a belt, and ice cream). Peace Corps really takes care of us. Guatemala is one of the few countries in which PC volunteers are provided a cell phone for health, safety, and security reasons. The cell phones PC has given us will be used for the next 27 months with a small portion of minutes that resets monthly. (We can purchase minutes if we need more). It’s a pretty sweet deal! We can talk to all other PCTs, PCVs, and PC staff for free, and I do not get charged for incoming calls. I do, however, get charged for texting. If any family or friends would like to have my phone number, please e-mail me, and I will send it to you. I am supposed to have my phone with me at all times…

It is such a great feeling to finally be here! I am so happy! I am also surrounded by 51 other people who went through the same stuff to get here although each of us had a different timeline ranging from five months to about two years from the application submission to the departure date. Just that alone bonds us. Our group is really fantastic and completely supportive of each other – and everyone’s eccentricities. We have a lot of big personalities and entertaining characters. (It is just what happens when you get enough people who are independent and crazy enough to join the Peace Corps). There is a clear vibe of mutual respect among us, and everyone seems to be very interested in getting to know each other. One of the other trainees here actually did the same youth-to-youth program with Amigos de las Americas the same year I was with Amigos; she went to Panama the same summer I went to Mexico! Small world… But we are all in this together, each of us adding some skill, talent, and/or personality trait to the group, learning to work as a team and appreciate the unique qualities in the people around us. Our Country Director (CD) gave us a speech about being a part of the Peace Corps during which she said that it isn’t so much a sacrifice as it is a unique privilege to have this opportunity to live and serve in another country. During PC prep in the Unites States, most of us PCTs were getting similar reactions from people: “You’re so brave!” or “What a sacrifice you are making! Thank you for your service!” or “Wow, you are really courageous; I could never do anything like that!” Sure, there is an aspect of sacrifice involved with this commitment, however it is so minor compared to what we will get back from this experience. There are a range of motivations among us for joining PC, many similar, but I am not about to claim that my motivation to join was entirely selfless. It’s not like someone begged each and every one of us to go live in a third world country. We are all here because we WANTED it badly enough. Anyone who didn’t want to be here isn’t here, and I can honestly say that my first two weeks in Guatemala are already worth the entire time I spent in preparation. Let me indulge you…

During the first three nights in Santa Lucia, I stayed with two other girls in a house a few blocks from HQ. Our host mom, Doña Eva, was in charge of the house and lived there with her 6 children (ranging from 3 to 24), her daughter’s husband, and her granddaughter. I am pretty sure half of them had to give up their rooms for the three nights we were there because we were definitely staying in “lived in” rooms. After dinner the first night, I volunteered to bathe first so Eva said she would get the water ready for me. I was about to face my first bucket bath and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Not gonna lie – I was a little bit nervous. After I stepped into the bathing area, I found myself standing in front of a relatively small plastic tub (my guesstimate is 5 gallon capacity, give or take) of warm water with a small plastic bowl, called a guacal, next to it that I would use to dump water on me. As I stood there wondering how exactly I was going to execute the task at hand, I couldn’t keep from laughing and thinking to myself, “Well, I guess this is what I signed up for. Welcome to Peace Corps! Hahahaa.” It wasn’t bad, and let me tell you – I am SO happy that I cut off my hair before I came here and that I can only imagine what a hassle it would be to deal with long hair right now. So I successfully bathed myself and then had to impart tips for the bucket bath experience to the other two girls who were next in line. By day three, we were claiming to be professional bucket-bathers! No big deal. The only thing catch is that you have to go fast when you are trying to shave your legs (or shave only one!) because the water can get cold. Bucket bathing is not only an art, but also a great way to conserve water – kind of important when your water supply is limited. We spent the rest of our free time at Eva’s home entertaining the 3-year-old girls who never seemed to run out of energy…

Melisa, my 3-year-old host sister in Santa Lucia.

Next up: language group placement. I haven’t studied Spanish since high school. And I scored two points short of the level I needed to achieve on the proficiency test PC had me take in order to qualify for service in a Spanish-speaking country. Technically, I wasn’t originally supposed to be in Latin America, but a twist of fate landed me here. After our interviews in Spanish, all the Language/Culture trainers convened and divided up everyone into groups of three to four people who speak more or less at the same level. Somehow – I have no idea why, but, somehow… I was placed in a group with three native Spanish speakers who all have Latino parents and heritage. I was extremely confused so I did a little investigation to make sure they hadn’t accidently mixed me up with some other native speaker who was supposed to be in that group instead of me. No mistake. They placed me at an “advanced low” level with three “advanced high” speakers with the intention that we can learn from each other (or more so that I can learn from them)! They all speak really fast and have pretty good vocabulary, whereas I speak extremely slowly but know the grammar and usage of the language well so we help each other, and it makes for a functioning symbiotic relationship among us. Each language group was assigned to a community based training (CBT) town where we moved in with new host families (one trainee per family) and will complete the 11 weeks of PST before we swear in as volunteers in mid-July. So Mayra, Tatiana, Pedro, and I see each other practically every day and have had 4 to 6 hours of Spanish/Guatemalan culture class 6 days a week for the last 2 weeks. That is a lot of Spanish, and I admit that sometimes I’ll be looking straight at someone who is speaking Spanish to me and I am completely, 100% tuned out. It happens. Brain is on overload. And my group is on the fast track. I do believe that the full immersion concept is effective, though; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing half the stuff in my journal, dreaming partially, and saying my prayers in Spanish. (Malaria meds instigate vivid dreams)! I am completely shocked at how well I am speaking and how quickly the language is coming back to me, but I still have a lot to learn. This is actually our last week of straight Spanish class, though. There are three groups that are done with language and moving straight into hands-on technical training next week. There is no problem with boredom around here since PC keeps us so busy!

My Spanish group: Tatiana, Pedro, me, & Mayra in Antigua

On the day I was placed with my new host family in my CBT town, I was ecstatic! Our Spanish group of four got assigned to the little town of Alotenango, about 20-30 minutes (by bus) away from Antigua. I was greeted with open arms with my new host mom, Doña Amalia, and my host dad, Don Julio, who then gave me a tour of their home and my room. I was so excited to see my room! I have tile floors, a full-size bed, a dresser/closet with a mirror, a little desk, and a window. I was definitely prepared for something less than what I got so I feel very lucky. My house is mostly open to the outside with insulated rooms along the corridor, and Amalia and Julio have a bunch of plants which makes it feel like I have a garden in my house – or like my house is in the garden. Not really sure how to look at it, but it is great! We also have a toilet, sink, and bathtub/shower! Granted, we only have running water every other day, and on the day the water comes, nobody really knows what time it will start. So during the “on” days, I can flush the toilet, wash my hands with running water from the faucet, and take a hot shower. Did I mention how lucky I am? On the “off” days, I take bucket baths, dump a bucket of water into the toilet to “flush” it, and wash my hands and face and brush my teeth at the pila. The majority, if not all, of rural households in Guatemala have a pila which is a sink-like cement structure that sort of resembles a fountain and/or hot tub where water is stored for daily use. This is a staple household structure, especially for communities in which there is no consistently running water, and it can be used for washing dishes, doing laundry, brushing teeth, etc. (For bucket baths, water is taken from the pila and then heated). Peace Corps also requires that in any household in which volunteers stay, there must be a source of purified water for drinking and brushing teeth. My family has a special filtration container in the kitchen; another option in some homes is to have the 5-gallon jugs of “agua salvavidas.”

This is the pila at my house. The left hand side is the sink part for the washing. The plastic bowls on the ledge are guacals.

In my household, there are mostly women. Besides my mom and dad, I have three host sisters – all in their twenties. Xiomara, the youngest who is 23, is the only one who is married, and she and her husband of three months live next door – too far away, according to Dad! My other sisters, Helen (27) and Fluvia (29) both live at home, went to college, and have jobs they enjoy. Helen is a Spanish teacher in Antigua which is great because she wants to help me with Spanish, and I can help her with English. (We also have a dog, Brinkley, who kind of looks like a little bear, but I will talk more about dogs in another chapter). On the day I arrived, I was trying to get the family line-up and names and ages straight with Amalia and Julio, so I confirmed with them, “Ok, so there are three daughters?” Julio responded, “No. Four.” As I stood there trying to figure out where I miscounted because I could have sworn he had said there were only three girls, he laughed and continued, “You are my daughter!” That made my day. I’m pretty sure I teared up a little bit because I felt like love was just being dumped on to me – and they didn’t even really know me yet! But that is just how it is here. I have felt so welcomed, and I am so blessed to be a part of such a supportive family. Of course, I have been the recipient of adoptive parents before and have appreciated every ounce of generosity directed toward me. In addition to my own “real” parents, I feel like I have my Sunnyvale parents, Phoenix parents, New Delhi parents, San Diego Buenavista parents, and now, my Alotenango parents as well as a handful of other families who occasionally take me in. I feel like I could add “parent collector” to my resumé! Thank you to all of you for loving me, supporting me, letting me be myself, and putting up with me. Don’t know how you do it…

Did I tell you about how lucky I am? My host mom has the reputation of being a great chef! I’ve been in this house for about two weeks and not once have I been disappointed with a meal. Of course, there is a bottomless supply of black beans, corn tortillas, and coffee in Guatemala, but my mom really mixes it up. I LOVE her FOOD!!! Let me start with the beverages. I’m not a coffee drinker so I drink lots of water, tea for breakfast, and every homemade lemonade and fruit juice that my mom makes from scratch. Strawberry juice, mango juice, pineapple juice, cantaloupe juice, papaya juice, and HORCHATA!!! The best horchata I have ever tasted! She is amazing. Banana pancakes, soups, salads, flor de isote (the national flower of El Salvador…it really is a flower…and we really do eat it…cooked), tamales, chili relleno, chicken dishes, eggs, huevos rancheros, tostados, potato soufflé and a whole bunch of other tasty dishes that I forgot how to pronounce. Guatemalans in general include carbohydrates (usu. bread, tortillas, or pasta) with every meal. Lots and lots of carbs! The only dietary preference I included for the PC host family placement sheet was that I like to make sure I get enough fiber if possible, so facing the carb culture frightened me some. But I have no complaints. My mom serves me fresh fruit almost every day and loads of vegetables – some that I have never heard of but taste so good when she makes them! I do make sure I get my share of carbs, though, particularly on the days I go running. During most of my meals, I find myself saying over and over in my head, “I am so lucky. I am so lucky.” That is all I can think to say, practically every meal.

About a week ago, I had a great discussion with my parents about nutrition. We talked about proteins and amino acids and which foods offer the different nutrients, the importance of fruits and vegetables, and a standard for grains (make half your grains whole!). A few days later, I noticed that my mom had replaced the corn flakes breakfast cereal with a cereal “integral” (whole-grain) which made me SO happy; we looked over the nutrition label together and talked about it for a little bit. Realizing that a short discussion can effect a small, positive habit change was a neat feeling for me. In contrast to what I expected, I have not put on weight, even with all the fantastic food I eat, either because everything I eat is fresh or because I am making sure I exercise when I can, or both. I am eating three consistent meals a day that are well-balanced and nutritious. And I haven’t gotten sick either…yet. I told my host mom that I do not have any cravings for American food because I am getting more delicious food here than I could have imagined! In reference to my own cooking habits, though, I am going to borrow the perfect phrase that a friend of mine once used for himself: “I cook a little bit…sometimes.” But man, if I can find the time, I need to learn some recipes and techniques from Amalia because when I am on my own in site, I think I’m going to have to cook for myself, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. Plus, I want to take all the good meals with me!

I know this is getting long, but I have one last really cool thing to share about my living situation. Alotenango is surrounded by three volcanoes!!! Only one of them, Volcán de Fuego, is active, though. The other two, Volcán de Agua and Volcán Acatenango have been dormant for a long time. The view from my bedroom door every morning is breathtaking – I stare straight at two volcanoes. Then I can go upstairs to the roof and get a view of the third volcano and the entire town. I stare at them every day, waiting for Volcán de Fuego to go off. I’ve seen smoke, but no lava flow yet. I guess it erupted last week, but I missed it because I was taking my bucket bath. It’s going to happen again, though; I just know it! But don’t worry, most of the lava supposedly flows down the other side, so my town is not in danger of the volcano. Families who have been here for generations say that we are in a safe location. However, Guatemala is due for a big earthquake. There are three tectonic plates that meet in Guatemala which are connected to three major fault lines. Do Haiti, Chile, and Japan ring a bell? Check it out if you want a geology refresher…see where are those fault lines come together. I don’t want to scare you, I just think it is interesting, that’s all. I am enjoying every moment here so much that I suspect the 11 weeks are just going to fly by. Two weeks already have. There is always a bittersweet feeling connected to any pre-determined temporary situation; and I can speak of many years experience of “temporary situations,” so I am just going to savor as much as I can.

The view from outside my window. Volcan de Feugo is on the left, Volcan Acatenango on the right.

As far as summer camp goes, well, I think I have to rephrase it as summer school. PC keeps us busy with group activities and technical training days on top of the language and culture classes. It is like summer camp in the sense that all of our activities are planned out for us and we do not ever seem to stop, but in addition to running us ragged six days a week, PC and the language teachers give us assignments and homework! Too much of it. It is all good, productive information, and the trainers especially stress the importance of the community tools. In a way, it is nice to have someone else running my life because I don’t have to stress about making money, paying bills on time, making my schedule, and taking on other responsibilities; all I have to do is show up. It has been a long time since someone has run my life for me. I usually like to do it myself, but I guess I can enjoy the break a little bit. We are also expected to spend a lot of our time with our host families and integrate into the training community. They really push the full immersion experience and encourage us to detach ourselves from our pasts, per se, so we can have the full experience. A lot of us aren’t ready to let everything go yet, though. It is an interesting situation. So even though I was carefree when I first got here, I do have say that I have been a little stressed out with all the work and demands placed on the trainees. There is so much that is expected of us and just not enough time in the day. Plus, we are trying to form new relationships AND keep up with the ones from home. Something has always got to give, it seems. Usually, it is either the “me” time or sleep. I have been so exhausted mentally and physically because of the influx of information; it is really a lot to take in at one time, and it has been overwhelming, to say the least. There is no time to really relax, and we basically have to give up our independence until we get through training. I just keep telling myself to trust the process. Peace Corps has done this before and as much as all the rules and regulations on us suck right now, I believe that I will be properly prepared for service when the time comes, and I will get a lot of my freedom and independence back once PST is complete. One fun outing we had was a half day trip to Antigua with our Spanish teacher (since we aren’t really allowed to be there by ourselves right now). Antigua is great! It is definitely a favorite spot among both the locals and tourists so hopefully I will be able to spend some more time there in the near future. I’ll share a more about Antigua in my next post, though.

There are so many things that I am learning and that are in my head; I’ve been dying to write! I didn’t mean for this to be so long, but this is my outlet. It is so bad that I pretty much have my next chapter all set up; it is just a matter of finding the time to write it. Welcome to Peace Corps. Ahahahaa. I don’t have consistent internet access or free time so my updates will be really long bursts of information for now. But this is my story so I am going to write it however I like. Read it if you can, and if you don’t have the time to get through all of it, just know that I am happy and healthy and that Guatemala is a beautiful place with a wonderful, deep culture.

Here I am, very happy, at the top of Sky Cafe in Antigua with Volcan de Agua in the background.

Love,

Alexandra

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19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Momma
    May 13, 2011 @ 20:36:50

    Oh, Baby ! This is just as beautiful as you are. 🙂 Thank you so much for teaching us all of your new information and sharing your experiences w/us ! Welcome to the Peace Corps. Ahahahaa ! Love, Momma 🙂

    Reply

  2. jim & kathy blaschke
    May 13, 2011 @ 21:00:41

    A terrific beginning to a life changing experience for you! Your enthusiasm and flexibility are important assets on this “journey”!! Loved reading every word from this post! Keep us connected.

    Reply

  3. Dennis Iseger
    May 14, 2011 @ 04:37:44

    Alexandra! I really enjoyed reading your update! It already sounds like a pretty good adventure! Hope everything is allright. Btw, what is a ”care package”? You mentioned it in an earlier email. Does this mean healthcare products? Let me know! Good luck over there!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      May 16, 2011 @ 15:25:49

      Hi Dennis!!! A care package can be anything really. If there is anything I need from home, my family can send a package! I do not really need anything yet (health care products are supplied by the Peace Corps), so a care package is more like a treat for me. Books, DVDs, snacks, photos, etc. Right now they are keeping us so busy with all the work that I really do not have time to enjoy books and movies, but once I am “in site,” things will really slow down for me and I am going to need entertainment! Hope all is well with you! It is always really great to hear from you. 🙂

      Reply

  4. Jim McFadden
    May 14, 2011 @ 10:30:39

    Dear Alex,

    Well, you ARE courageous and lucky! Your musings have put us right there in Guatemala. They are so engaging, funny, and full of life that they read like a book (now that’s an interesting thought!).

    May God continue to bless your PC sojourn and Happy Easter!

    Peace and good will,
    Deacon Jim

    Reply

  5. Krista (boyfriend)
    May 14, 2011 @ 11:03:08

    I love it and love that you are loving every part of it.. Not that I expected anything different! Also, may just say that putting “parent collector” on your resume is the funniest and truest statement every! If they had an Olympic event you be the gold medalist time and time again! Lol! I am happy to hear you are safe, awkwardly bathed and feed well! I miss you and am always praying for you!
    Love, your boyfriend

    Reply

  6. Linda
    May 14, 2011 @ 15:04:55

    Alex, you are amazing. Thank you for sharing your life in Guatemala with us here. It is nice to feel connected to you even though you’re away, and I know that you’ll get through the PCT stronger than ever. You can do anything in the world, and the world knows it too!

    Love you TONS,
    Me

    Reply

  7. Christina
    May 14, 2011 @ 16:01:38

    Alex, this is so awesome! I must say I was a little intimidated at first to see how long your post was, but now that I’ve read it all I’m SO GLAD I did!! Thank you for sharing this with me (all of us!)–I feel so inspired and uplifted 🙂

    Reply

  8. Russell
    May 16, 2011 @ 14:39:16

    Oh what fun, I enjoyed your post. It sounds like you are having awesome experiences I am so jealous. The pictures remind me of Chili and Mexico what fun. Can’t wait to learn how to cook new things when I come down. Mari and I are shooting for the end of July or early august for 10 days if you are fine with that. I might call you soon for a quick chat. The length of blog was I wanted more and was intrigued. All good content. Any way Bienvendidos a La organization de paz! : ) might write my next post in broken spanish!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      May 16, 2011 @ 15:33:59

      Yay!!! You guys are planning to come down together? Sweet! You will be my first visitors! By mid-July, I will be at my site, but as of now, I have no idea where that will be. We should talk soon to work out dates and get on the same page! I cannot wait to see you guys! And bring on the Splanglish!

      Reply

  9. Lan
    May 18, 2011 @ 11:02:34

    I enjoyed reading about your experiences. Thanks for sharing & keep it up. Be safe!

    God Bless,

    Lan

    Reply

  10. Kathryn Mayerhofer
    May 20, 2011 @ 09:13:58

    Love reading your story. You are a gifted writer, I feel as though I am there with you. Please take care, learn lots, but above all enjoy this adventure of a lifetime! love, Kathryn

    Reply

  11. Karina Gillette
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 11:07:11

    Hi Ally! What a blessing it was to hear this! I loved the part where Julio called you his daughter, it totally melted my heart. What an incredible feeling to be so loved by someone who was recently a complete stranger! I was especially joyful to hear you telling about the geologic situation. I felt like you were writing just for me 🙂 How cool to see volcanoes every day! As for earthquakes, remember: earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. So if you feel one starting, get away from things that fall on you (but don’t run into the street and get hit by a car) and you’ll be just fine. It will be like a fun surfing ride. Thank you so much for giving us this update, it really feels like we are keeping in touch as usual. You’re writing brings everything to life!
    Thank you so much again for sharing your life and wanting to keep in touch with everyone. I miss you and love you so much. We are praying for you!

    Love,
    Karina (and Robert too!)

    Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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