Round Round Get Around, I Get Around!

One of the most alluring aspects of the Peace Corps is the individual experience and non-stop adventure with endless opportunity for a volunteer to make his or her own path through an unknown and mostly unstructured third world part of a country (or just a third world country, in general). Currently in Guatemala, there exists chaos and change amidst a deep-rooted traditional culture. This is a place of unwritten rules coupled with the absence of any regulation at all in many areas. I am absolutely thriving off of the unpredictability of each passing day as it provides “mind food” for me. I am completely immersed and find myself happier and more relaxed than I have been in a long time, regardless of the workload and non-stop training schedule. I keep getting on these ridiculous highs regarding food, volcanoes, thunderstorms, conversations or time spent with my family, bucket baths, running in my community, our dog, black beans, the work my group has been accomplishing in our health center and for training, road trips, public transportation, other volunteers, chocolate-dipped ice cream waffle cones at the local ice cream spot, or even just a great song playing on my iPod. The freedom of a “no rules” culture is invigorating; however, the low measure of country controls directly affects the level of danger, lack of security, and frequency of transportation and crime-related incidents in country.

This is our dog, Brinkley, named after the dog in You´ve Got Mail, but half of my family calls him ¨Ne-ne,¨ short for Negrito because he has a black tongue. He loves to eat chicken and pan dulce, take a bucket bath once a week, and guard the front door.

Let’s take, for example, the rules of the road. Oh, wait…there are none! Even better reason to talk about it… Guatemala has streets, roads, and highways, but not always lanes or directions so the rules are more like “guidelines.” Intersections often don’t have stop signs, only big cities use stop lights, and I have hardly seen any speed limit signs. I have, however, seen signs on the highways that say “Moderate Velocity,” which apparently allows for a wide range of interpretation based on my observations of vehicles either crawling at a tortoise pace or flying with Superman speed down the same road. One good thing about not having a dependable system on the road is that people are forced to pay attention and seem more astute to their surroundings. Accidents definitely do occur often, though. On the mostly cobblestone streets and sometimes paved, gravel, or dirt roads, pedestrians and dogs have to watch out for themselves and not trust that they will be protected. Most of the time, vehicle operators seem to respect the space of objects or people on the road and attempt to go around them, but there are no guarantees. There is also a lot of “going around” vehicles that are moving too slowly – big rigs passing busses or vice versa, motorcyclist-scooter riders passing tuk-tuks (sounds like “toot-toot,” but with a k – this is the same vehicle as an auto rickshaw in India), and even bicyclists whizzing by pick-up trucks. Everyone seems to enjoy their own pace and will eventually get where they need to go even if it means taking a roundabout route because there is a tractor in the middle of the road that broke down or there is a rally or funeral procession blocking all the main streets in town or the highway that runs along the base of a volcano is under two feet of water which is gushing down the mountainside during a storm. It happens (and I have already experienced all of the aforementioned situations). This is the land of expecting the unexpected, and even if you don’t know what to expect, you should at least be prepared to be flexible and/or wait. Waiting is pretty much a guarantee when it comes to public transportation.

Guatemala’s public transportation system revolves around old school busses from the States that have been restored and painted. These camionetas, also known as chicken busses – so named for the frequent transport of chickens, actually represent one of the most reliable systems in Guatemala that I have yet witnessed. The chicken bus crew consists of the driver and his ayudante (helper/assistant), the guy who “regulates” passengers and collects bus fare. The reason I used quotations is because regulation doesn’t really exist. The busses have to reach their quota of passengers every day, and if the quota is achieved, any extra passenger means profit for the duo. So the duo will allow as many people to cram into the bus as can possibly fit (breathing room and personal bubbles are of little significance), and then they will speed through town or down the highway as fast as they can go to reach the destination, unload, and do it all over again. A chicken bus is color-coded, decorated ostentatiously, and labeled according to the route it takes, usually between two major cities. Every bus I have been in has a crucifix somewhere near the front and has a female name such as Norma, Esmeralda, or Primarosa painted on the side, which is used along with the color scheme to identify routes. There is a lot of stop-and-go in between the major cities as people are always getting on and off at smaller towns and villages or just on the side of the road. There really aren’t very many official bus stops nor are there precise bus schedules, but it is really easy to catch a bus. You just stand on the side of the road, put your arm out to your side, and flap your hand up and down once or twice. They’ll stop for you. You could also run after the bus, and if the ayudante happens to see you, he’ll make sure you get scooped up. (I’ve only had to do that once or twice).

This is the chicken bus that runs between Alotenango and Antigua. The chicken bus experience happens inside...

Since PCTs and PCVs are prohibited from operating motor vehicles during service, we have to rely mostly on chicken busses to get around. I remember when I turned sixteen and got my wheels; I was all of a sudden free to run my own life and get to where I needed or wanted to go in my own time. Wheels equaled independence and allowed me to take on more responsibility. As much as I enjoy getting around though, I think I have done way too much driving recently, averaging 20,000 miles a year for the past two plus years in my little car. To be honest, I got really tired of driving everywhere, and as much as I love having a car so I can run my own schedule, I think these two years will be a nice break from it. Originally associating my wheels with freedom, I am changing my mind for a while and rejoicing in the escape from all the pressure to be everywhere and see everyone ON TIME, ALL THE TIME. Granted, I did that stress thing to myself (I’m good at that), but now is my opportunity to unlearn some bad habits and create newer, nicer ones. Plus, the chicken bus “experience” is definitely one to be savored time after time…

My mom related a story to me once about how when she was younger, she and her friends once crammed like 10 to 13 people (don’t remember the exact number) into her Volkswagon Bug. They were doing it for fun. Now imagine that situation being a part of your daily life. That is the introduction to the chicken bus experience. There are 20 seats in the average chicken bus, but the posted capacity is 87 persons (although I don’t think any fire marshal would ever get on a bus to check capacity). How can that be possible? Let me explain… Two people can fit comfortably in a seat. But in Guatemala, a person who finds himself sitting next to only one person should consider himself lucky. The norm here is three to a seat, and the maximum I have seen is seven (three women, three children, and a toddler). The rest of the available space is in the aisle of the bus that averages 6-12 inches of space across for people to stand between the seats on the sides. The bus companies have conveniently added metal handle bars that run along the ceiling and on top of the backs of seats so people can hold on, which is absolutely necessary, especially when the bus is speeding up so he can pass a slower bus along a windy highway through the woods. It’s like a roller coaster! AND, it can be a great workout: when you are standing and holding the ceiling bars, you get a nice core exercise, but if you are in a seat, it’s all arms.

As for seating arrangements, every spot has a different dynamic. The spot by the window can be nice because you can get some air, however, it is easy to get uncomfortably squished up next to the metal side of the bus and difficult to get past the other two people in your seat when your stop comes up. The aisle seat is a rough place to be. Most of the time, you are not really sitting entirely on the seat; in fact, you are lucky if you can get a butt cheek and a half on it – the rest is hanging in the aisle, and often times you may find yourself sitting hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder with the person in the aisle seat on the other side (that is how small the aisles can be). In addition to not having full toosh access to your seat, the person in the aisle seat also has to deal with all the people standing in the aisles or passing by in order to get on or off the bus so he or she constantly has to lean in and squeeze up against the other two people in the seat. If you don’t know the person sitting next to you on the bus, don’t worry, you will get REALLY close REALLY fast. That goes for the people standing in the aisles next to you as well. Every body part from elbows to hips, butts, bellies, and boobs, will, at some point be pressed up against you. When it’s a bum right in front of my face, the only thing that runs through my head is, “Please don’t fart right now… Please don’t fart right now… Please…” The chicken bus can be a great place to let one rip, though – there are so many people that no one will ever know it was you! Mom, I know that you are thinking that this is not a ladylike discussion, but all I can say is that when you are eating black beans at breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and so is practically everyone else in the country, well, must I explain any further? Anyway, in my opinion, the best spot in the bus is between the window seat and the aisle seat because you are snug as a bug in a rug. Away from the metal side, and free from dealing with aisle mess, the middle seat person can actually get comfortable and relax a little bit. Squished? Yes. But it is not a big deal since 1) you are sitting completely on a seat and 2) you are surrounded by two warm bodies in appropriate positions (as opposed to random body parts) which creates a very stable, almost cozy, situation.

Another example of a chicken bus.

So now you have a bus that is packed to capacity (and probably beyond that) with people. Now add backpacks, bags, groceries and chickens. This makes for a very “juicy” environment, as my friend Emelye likes to call it, especially on extra hot or humid days. But wait! We forgot about the ayudante! He still has to collect bus fare from everyone. The more people the better, and to make his money, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And so he does. Fearless, I tell you. He starts from one end of the bus and strategically pushes through the crowd collecting money AND making change for those who need it. He doesn’t even need to hold on; he just leans up against people for stability. One memorable ayudante who works on one of the routes from my town to Antigua has a jolly personality and this fantastic beer gut – and he is not afraid to use it. He is the most impressive and entertaining ayudante I have come across. In order to move through his bus, he will lean in, mostly bent over,  toward the three people in a seat, rest his belly on aisle-seat-person’s shoulder or arm while he is hovering over that person’s head, shuffle his feet toward the next spot, then lift his belly and move on to continue his collection like nothing ever happened. Every time I see this guy, it takes everything in me to not burst out in laughter, but the situation is just so hilarious that I can’t always hold it in. He’s my favorite, I think, plus, he has this distinct voice that we can recognize from halfway across the bus. Well, I could go on and on about chicken bus experiences, but I’ll try to wrap this up. Something I have definitely learned to appreciate is the innumerable ways in which a human body can contort and fit into a space where, at first glance, there seemingly is no space. If someone needs to get on or off a full bus, he or she WILL find a way twisting and shifting past the whole crowd in a not so graceful, yet perfectly functional, manner. (As for backpacks, you just hold them over your head as you work your way through the crowd). Also, unfortunately, the nature of the chicken bus environment creates perfect opportunities for criminals to act. In addition to frequent and inevitable pickpocketing, full bus assaults and robberies do occur, although mostly near big cities like the capital (Guatemala City). Well, if you couldn’t tell from the four or five paragraphs I spent on the subject, I am thoroughly entertained by the chicken bus culture and cannot wait for some of you to experience it firsthand.

Among other types of vehicles, a few more basic modes of transportation in Guatemala are bicycling, walking, and running. Walking is probably the most common method of getting around in the whole country. Everybody walks. I have walked every day since I have been here. Not everyone has access to a car, nor can some people afford one. A lot of the villages in Guatemala are seriously poor. Also, when putting extremely rural areas into consideration, it is inconvenient for a car to get to the villages because the roads are not suitable for vehicles. So everybody walks. They walk to the grocery store. They walk to the health center. They walk to their relatives’ house on the other side of town. They walk to the internet café, to school, to the fields to work, to the bakery, to the soccer field, etc. In Antigua, it is the same. You just learn to rely on your feet to take you to where you want to be. Of course, there are many vehicles and all the pollution that come with those (and I have a sneaking suspicion that smog checks are not standardized), but many towns are small enough to walk almost everywhere. When we are not walking or taking a chicken bus, though, we PCTs get picked up by our PC technical trainers in the 15-seater PC microbuses. Every Thursday, all the Healthy Homes trainees get picked up and have a technical session in a town about 30 minutes away from my town. In the past several weeks, our training has revolved around preparing and giving charlas. A charla is an informational session (about health topics in our group) that usually includes some sort of activity and discussion in which the audience can participate. PC really stresses the “experiential learning cycle” and “non-formal education,” built on the concept of learning by doing. In other words, our method of teaching and sharing information is not like a teacher lecturing and talking at the students; it is more hands-on and participatory, finding ways to get information across by how it directly relates to the people involved. It is an interesting philosophy, but makes a lot of sense when you see it in action. I enjoy most things about training, and I think we have some great trainers for our project. I don’t understand why we have to do half of the paperwork PC people make us fill out – and this has been a huge annoyance to me, but the trainers know their stuff and use a lot of positive reinforcement with us, which I can definitely appreciate.

I went through a rough time during which I was over-sensitive and making issues out to be bigger than they really were. It mostly had to do with adjusting. My enthusiasm was tempered with frustration, especially when it came to my language group. We zoomed through two weeks of Spanish classes with WAY too much homework and not nearly enough time to complete or process it, and then we were pretty much done with Spanish. I am not used to being at the bottom of a group, working with a group in general, or being pressured to learn at a faster pace than is comfortable for me. And yet it was all piled on at once. And I had to deal with it. (I usually try to avoid group situations because I know I need a lot of time to process things, and I don’t like feeling the pressure of people waiting on me so I tell people to go on ahead, and I’ll get there when I’m ready). I began having self-doubt regarding my language ability, and my insecurity showed which led to people patronizing me which made me even madder and had a cascade effect to the point where I was claiming to have a problem with the machismo culture. (It’s funny how many problems you have once you start thinking negative thoughts). I was overwhelmed with no opportunity to step away and take care of my needs and yet I was expected to keep performing and showing something for myself. I was running on fumes, and all I wished was that they would give me a second to fill up my gas tank and have a moment to recharge so I would stop slopping through everything. The PC trainers say, “Think of PST as the longest job interview you will ever have.” That was comforting. NOT! Then we started making visits to the Health Center in our town, and I was frustrated again. I was thinking things like, “They already have health promoters and people to talk about hygiene and diseases, why do they need us?” or “We are only going to be in this town for two more months. What is the point of trying to get involved when we are just going to leave soon?” The worst was regarding the people who worked in the health center and how they would speak to the rest of the people in my group (all the native Spanish speakers who understand) and not me really. It was the idea that “they’ll explain it to the other girl later.” I felt like my group didn’t need me, and I was also upset because I felt like I was incapable of taking care of myself. I believe the majority of these feelings rooted from being placed with native speakers, but I have scraped by and gotten my work done, and although I don’t enjoy being overly-pressured, I think being in an advanced language group has helped me picked up the language quickly. I also recently found out when doing a “culture matters” assignment for our training director that there are five typical phases of adjustment for PCTs and PCVs. All the feelings of frustration and lack of confidence that I was having align with the description of phase two (initial culture shock), which comes after the honeymoon phase. I’m am happy to report that I have cleared that phase and moved on to the third, which is called “initial adjustment.” Thank goodness.

I shouldn’t have been worried about my language ability; I can speak clearly and correctly, and I understand pretty much all conversations now. After being completely confused initially, I finally accepted that I belong with this group because I have decided to attribute my Spanish ability to my understanding of English grammar combined with a photographic memory and my personality type. My memory is ridiculous (in a good way, mostly). I categorize things and remember things that I see or write (visual learner). I hardly had to study in school once I committed information into my mind’s file cabinet, but the curse of knowing that I learn fast and retain information easily is the habit of procrastination. Also, I remember anything that has to do with numbers: birthdays, mileage, prices, statistics, addresses, ratios, recipes, the exact number of minutes it took to drive to work or walk to class, and even phone numbers of classmates that I had in grade school. I can’t help it. It just is what it is. It has been a huge blessing in the Spanish department, though! We also did a personality test with our whole Healthy Homes group, and I identify with the group that deals in facts, figures, logic, and data analysis. Big surprise. Lol. This is also the personality type of which people tend to move slowly because they need to take time to process everything. They are also objective and tend not to respond to emotional appeals (thus appearing as insensitive sometimes), are extremely thorough and attentive to details, and don’t like to make decisions until they have all the information. The best way to communicate with this personality type is to be direct and have patience (family and best friends, take note). So now that I know my personality type, it makes sense that I was struggling so much with the fast pace of everything at the beginning. Time pressure is my worst nightmare. Performance pressure, pressure of exams, multi-tasking pressure – all of that I can handle, but I will crack under time pressure. It’s not pretty. And many of you have seen it. I wish we had taken our personality tests BEFORE being placed in language groups so they could predict all my “cracking” ahead of time and maybe schedule in a little more free time during training for people to get their groundings and decompress. (I am not the only one who feels this way – the majority of our entire group is in the same boat regarding free time). So now that you all know me so very well since I talked about myself for the last two paragraphs, I’ll move on to something more exciting… Antigua!

The cathedral lit up at night in the central plaza in Antigua.

Antigua is one of the hotspots in Guatemala. It has the most prominent Spanish language school/program in all of Central America, I believe, and it is a popular vacation stop for Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, among many others. The attraction is the feel of the town. It has a lot of older buildings with colonial-style architecture, hence its name, and the town itself is just mellow. Antigua isn’t very big; in fact, it is only a fraction of the size of Alotenango (where I live). There is a great artisan market on the weekends, plenty of nice restaurants and sports bars as well as cafes, fast food restaurants (like McDonald’s and BK), bookstores, ice cream and pastry shops, and an abundance of entertainment spots, especially tourism agencies. There is a beautiful cathedral in the central park area, and many random cultural events or live music performances that take place in the park. Because of all the foreign (meaning mostly American or Canadian; anything but Guatemalan) Spanish students as well as all the foreign expatriates, including Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who either have an extended stay or live here permanently, anybody could get by easily in Antigua using only English. Everyone in my training group loves Antigua, but for the first month, we weren’t allowed to be there because we were supposed to be with our CBT families all the time and home by dark. We still have those rules, but PC scheduled a whole two and a half free days for us during our 11-week PST. The first free “half day” was four weeks in. Fifty-two adults (aged 21-28, plus a 48-year-old) had just spent a month run on somebody else’s schedule, having to adhere to other peoples’ rules, be home by dark, do reading and hand in assignments, and be taken care of mostly by host moms. The general feelings were a loss of identity, tired of being treated like children, and wishing to have the freedom and make decisions like the adults that we are. I believe that if you treat people like children, they will act out; and if you treat people like professionals, they will mostly demonstrate competence. Well, under our conditions (which are apparently the strictest Peace Corps has ever had in Guatemala), once they allowed us a free afternoon, it was like a big bunch of caged and crazed monkeys being let loose on the streets of Antigua. Without going into too much detail, I will say that the afternoon was much needed and well spent “blowing off steam.” By the middle of the afternoon, probably 95% of our group ended up at the same spot and did some serious bonding. Let’s just say that none of us is ever going to forget that day…and neither are the people who work at that spot. But everyone was safe and on their ways with enough time to get home before dark. All in all, a good, fun afternoon.

Warren, Chelsea, me, & Dani enjoying free time at the Irish pub in Antigua. Yummy nachos!

In addition to getting around Antigua, we have had the opportunity to take several other PC-organized excursions around Guatemala. Every Tuesday, each Spanish group takes chicken busses from their towns to Santa Lucia, where the PC office/headquarters is. The whole group of 52 is together on theses days (the 37 of us in Healthy Homes, plus the 15 in Youth Development) from 8-5 for more medical and safety sessions, PC policy overview, cultural/historical discussion, and more technical training. These are long days, but it is nice to visit with other trainees who we don’t see on a regular basis. We are also becoming integrated into the PC Guatemala community (there is something like 270 PCTs and PCVs currently in country). Not only are current volunteers helping to train us with workshops and methods to go about executing our projects, but also there are some PCVs who plan shadow days for us to go to their communities, see their houses, and accompany them to their work sites to get an idea of what we will be dealing with in the near future. The first PCV we met was an Agriculture/Marketing volunteer in Patzun, but there are many other PCVs who keep popping up as well, mostly from Eco-Tourism. The cool thing is that the PCV community is tight-knit and everyone has pretty much “got your back” as long as you are want to be a part of that networking system.

Another “field trip” we took was to Guatemala City, which is normally off-limits for us because of the high crime rates and frequent assaults. Our language and culture trainers escorted us there via chicken bus for half a day so we could learn for ourselves how to get there, see where the United States Embassy and the main hospital are located, and practice using the “trusted” taxis (as well as identifying the shady ones). We then met up and had lunch in one of the huge malls. For an hour or two, it felt like we were in the States and not Guatemala, especially while we were all eating at the food court and surrounded by American chain restaurants like Taco Bell, China Wok, Togo’s, Burger King, a sushi place, among many others. It was interesting to browse the stores and compare prices. A cute top I saw at one store was priced at 300 Quetzales (about $40). Back home, if I really wanted to buy that shirt, I could do it easily without blinking an eye. But doing the math, based on my daily allowance, that shirt would have cost me 10 days worth of what I am living on! It put some things in perspective, for example, what sorts of things we NEED to survive, as opposed to spending money just because we have it. One last trip we took as a big group was to the Maya ruins at Iximché. Our training director, Craig, arranged for us to be a part of a traditional Maya cultural ceremony. There was a lot of symbolism during the ceremony regarding the directions (NSEW), the types of flower petals, the colors of the candles, and each ingredient that was added to the fire, including sugar, honey, dried berries, sesame seeds, rum, fruit juice, and lots of candles. The woman who performed the ritual was basically praying the whole time for our PC projects to be blessed and for each of us to have happiness, good health, peace, and success during out time in Guatemala. She also gave thanks to God and our ancestors, and invited us to participate by tossing candles into the fire with an intention, if we so desired. It was a very special and unique ceremony. Everything was new and interesting for the first 30 minutes or so, but 2 hours later – with lots of prayer repetition, I think everyone was secretly wishing that the fire would hurry up and burn everything on the stone platform so we could go have lunch. We were given some time to explore the ruins a little bit and hang out together – we started up a Frisbee game! – then we had a delicious lunch and headed home. It was a really nice outing, and a little break from the daily grind.

This is the indigenous woman who performed the maya ritual for us, during the ceremony.

Rachel, me, Perry, Brady, & Megan at the Maya ruins at Iximché.

Back in my town, we have started working in the Health Center on a regular basis. I understand now that being in this town is for practice for when we get to our sites. It is difficult sometimes to have patience when all we want to do is jump in with both feet and get things done, but by taking one thing at a time, we learn a little more each day. The man with whom we have been working in the Health Center, Carlos, has been very enthusiastic about including us in his work. And that answers another previous doubt I had before: we are here as extra hands to help where needed. Yes, there are already health promoters, but we all have different methods and techniques for getting the information across, and the more of us that there are, the more people we can reach. I gave my first charla (in Spanish) in the waiting room of the Health Center about two weeks ago. My topic was oral rehydration therapy so we discussed the dangers of diarrhea and dehydration and went over the benefits of oral rehydration and which ingredients are necessary to help the body maintain nutrients. I then demonstrated how to make a cheap, homemade oral rehydration solution (suero casero with water, salt, sugar, and optional fruit juice) and had two audience members come up and make the solution after me. Then we let everyone sample the ORS and passed out recipe cards as a souvenir. I felt like my charla was successful because the women were paying attention and interactive, probably because they can relate since diarrhea is common in these areas. My favorite moments were just after my charla. Two women were waiting to ask me questions. One, in particular, was asking me how much of each ingredient to use. I asked her if she received a recipe card. She said she had, but she didn’t know how to read. I had been warned of illiteracy in the community so I had made my recipe cards with drawings as well as words, but to have a woman actually approach me and admit that she couldn’t read but really wanted the information stood as an obvious reminder about why I am here. Even though it was such a simple topic, my first charla experience was rewarding and also boosted my confidence. Since then, my group and I have taken turns doing individual charlas as well as group charlas in the waiting room, mostly about Hepatitis A, upon Carlos’ request, since Hepatitis A is rampant in the community right now. Carlos has also invited us along for house visits in the community during which he checks up on reported illnesses in the community and house/cleanliness conditions. We are going to be doing house visits during our service when we get to our sites so this is great practice! Entering people’s homes is a very personal experience for them, and eye opening for us. Some people in the community in which I am living now have so little: dirt floors, wood/stick walls, no insulation, difficult access to good water, and rather dysfunctional latrines. At one house, we even saw hatched mosquito larvae swimming in the family’s water source – Carlos told us those are the parasites responsible for dengue fever. It was right in front of my eyes; this is how people are living here. It is one thing to hear about the severity of living conditions in third world countries, but to see it yourself, for real, is a whole different thing.

On a brighter note, everything else in my host family and community is going well. The weather is fantastic, averaging between 75 and 85 degrees every day. We are headed into the rainy season, but what that means is a nice, beautiful day with a short rainstorm that rolls in during the late afternoon or evening for now. Unfortunately, with the rain comes standing water and thus mosquitoes; rainy season means malaria and dengue fever. Mosquitoes have never really been fans of my blood, so I normally travel unscathed and have only found two bites in the six weeks I have been in country. However, as Pedro and Mayra are being eaten alive every day, the prediction is that I will be the one who ends up with dengue. Can’t wait! Another exciting thing is that I finally saw the volcano erupt!!! It goes off often during the day, but it is not possible to see the fire, only the mushroom clouds of smoke and ash. I have seen it twice at night, though. The first time it was just an orange glow in the pitch black sky, but the second time, I looked up at the perfect moment just as red fire and lava spat out of the cone. It was so cool! And now I am satisfied with my volcanoes, although still slightly obsessed. As far as exercise goes, I have been running three times a week with Pedro along the highway that wraps around the base of the volcanoes. The first half of our route is about 80% uphill, and our entire run lasts 30-35 minutes for now. It kicks my butt, especially because of the altitude, but I am definitely getting used to it. I am so used to doing things by myself on my own schedule, but here in Guatemala, I can´t really do that right now. It can be tough to be a woman here. A woman walking down the street alone receives a lot of attention. I am happy that I don´t get bothered when I am with Pedro, with the exception of the ¨holla honks¨ while I am running. It is practically every other car, and it was old the first day, but that is part of the culture so we just have to try to ignore it. But it is annoying. Running is great as far as ¨me time¨ goes, and it definitely helps keep me balanced. One of my host sisters is also now motivated to run, and she recruited her best friend to be her running buddy a couple times a week. In addition to running, I try to do some simple exercises for abs, upper body, and legs in my room when I can. There are actually a bunch of active people in my training group so we keep each other motivated and are always searching for opportunities to get out and do something together.

The active volcano in my town, Fuego, erupting during the day! See? Nothing to worry about...

On that note, our next free day is coming up, and Pedro and I have organized a trip to hike up Volcán Pacaya, which is an active volcano about and hour outside of Antigua. It took us two weeks to get safety clearance from both our training director and the head of security. We opened the trip up to the whole group of 52, and 31 people signed up. Pedro did some hunting and bargaining for group tours and found a great rate for us, including a Peace Corps discount (people who know PC out here know we don´t have a significant financial means and that we are not ¨tourists¨). Everybody is so excited to get off the beaten path, to see some of the famous Guatemalan landscape, and to make a decision by themselves without having to go by PC schedules. Free days are amazing. I can´t wait to be a volunteer and make my own schedule. I am here for two years and want to travel around all of Guatemala. After researching the geographical and cultural aspects of the country, I just want to get out there and experience all of it. Guatemala is not that big which translates to ¨manageable¨ in my mind. For a start, we have Field-Based Training (FBT) coming up during which we leave our CBT towns for six days and travel out to other departments (like states) in Guatemala where current PCVs are living and working. Our Healthy Homes group will be divided into four smaller groups, each with a tech trainer, and we will be working with the PCVs basically giving charlas (including an HIV workshop) all week. This is supposedly the best part of training so everyone is excited for that as well. My group will be visiting volunteer sites in Quiche and Totonicapán.

Well, I need to close this chapter now. It is time. I have reached my 6-week mark since the day I left the home, which means I have now passed my record for ¨longest period of time away from home.¨ I´m in a different mind-set now than I ever have been in, so I am not worried. Maybe this will be part of the next chapter, though…

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Congratulations to my brother, Jeffrey, for his high school graduation and to my cousin, Robert, who just joined the Air Force. I’m so proud of you both!!!

Happy Birthday to all my May-baby family members—Mom, Dad, Zack, and Bean! I am really happy that I was able to talk to each of you on your special day!

Some people have been asking about care packages and other ways to support me. Once I get to my site, my situation will change (I have a feeling my spot may not be quite as luxurious as the one I am at right now). Also, there may be an opportunity to make a contribution to a community project later on, but that won’t happen for probably another year, at least. For now, my needs are pretty much taken care of, but there are a few things that I can think of that would be extremely useful to me:

*The book 501 Spanish Verbs. It has complete conjugations of each verb, plus usage. This would be such a huge help for me! Especially since Spanish class is over… (Whoever can send me this item, please leave a comment here on my blog letting other people know so it doesn´t get purchased twice. Thanks!)

*Wet wipes. Don’t care if they are antibacterial or face wipes or just regular wipes. It can be pretty humid here and there is a lot of dust (especially from the volcanoes), so wipes will make it easier to keep myself and my surroundings clean.

*Casual, lightweight tops. I took them seriously when they said to pack lightly. I have been rotating the same 5 or 6 tops since I left home. I don’t mind wearing the same outfits all the time, but I don’t know how long they are going to last. My girlfriends and sisters know what I wear… This is not a necessity, I will eventually buy clothes in Guatemala as I need more, and I do not need anything fancy, but if you see something with my name all over it and feel like sending it my way, that would be awesome!

*I shouldn’t indulge my sweet tooth any more than I already do, but sweets and snacks are always nice! The chocolate in Guatemala just isn’t the same… (Not a big fan of peanuts, though).

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Elease
    Jun 08, 2011 @ 21:31:18

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I read it all aloud to my mom as she washed the dishes in the kitchen, lol. I miss you like crazy! What is your cell phone number so I can call you? I love hearing about your experiences. I forward these to my mom, brother-Bobby, and Miguel and I can’t tell you how much my brother loves reading these from an Anthropology degree perspective. Hope to talk to you soon. Love you so much girlfriend

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jun 21, 2011 @ 22:47:55

      Girlfriend! Miss you to pieces and think of you often. I am glad that your family enjoys my story as well. 🙂 Thank you for sharing! Just saw a concert update for the summer at Shoreline and made me a little bit sad because we have had so much fun the last 2 summers! And this year is going to be a hot one, I think… Hope we can talk soon!

      Reply

  2. Krista (boyfriend)
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 13:17:43

    I love reading these blogs, I feel like I am talking to you the whole time I am reading and .. Yes I totally laugh to myself lol! Also, I will keep an eye out for some tops for you! I knew you packed to light lol!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jun 21, 2011 @ 22:53:05

      It is like talking to me, huh? The conversation is one-sided, and I never shut up! Lol. No, I hope you do talk back to me and really make it a conversation. Speaking of, boyfriend, we should have a phone date soon…

      Reply

  3. Alisa
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 13:05:01

    Your blogs are awesome! Sounds like your experience thus far is amazing and a great opportunity for growth. Look forward to future blogs and we’ll send you a care package once you are settled in your PC assigned destination. Love, Alisa and Paul

    Reply

  4. ariana
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 16:06:00

    hey ill see if i can find that book for you the next time i take beanie to the book store she has been staying here with me for about 3 weeks now so we go about every 2 weeks but thats not a for sure thing and i need an address to send it to you! love you
    your sister ariana

    Reply

  5. ariana
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 16:07:45

    ps- ill also go through my clothes and see what im not wearing that might work for you k love you and ive been following your blog and im glad you are doing better! kids miss you too!

    Reply

  6. bethany eytchison (twin)
    Jun 13, 2011 @ 02:22:20

    OK seriously, it sounds like you are having WAY too much fun. You are going to end up living there huh?? Oh What an amazing adventure you are having! I love the stories and being able to see a glimpse of what your daily life is over there. Such a different place! I pray that you continue to stay safe and sound. miss you much! look forward to the next post!!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jun 21, 2011 @ 23:00:03

      Twin!!! Lol. Always and forever. Yes, I am having lots of fun, but it is lots of work, too. I know it will be worth it, though. Every day there is something new or different, and even when it shocks the heck out of you, there is no choice but to embrace whatever is right in front of you… Hope you are well and that things are a little more settled for you now than they were last time we talked. Miss ya!!

      Reply

  7. Aleta
    Jun 15, 2011 @ 23:54:08

    I am so happy to see this, I can’t wait to read everything and get emails…thanks so much…and most of all, thanks to Janine for inviting me here….big hugs!

    Reply

  8. Jim McFadden
    Jun 18, 2011 @ 13:24:14

    Alex, as always I appreciate your remarkable flexibility and self-awareness. The chicken-bus
    description was out of a Ken Kessey work.
    The “Sac Bee” recently ran an article (June 4) in which 22 year old Brook Devlin, a grad. of UCD, took a medical leave of absence. Her job was to teach nutrition and health at 36 remote schools in Guatemala. She opined that the civil war that waged during the ’90s has created a culture of fear and violence. But, she noted that the people are very resilient after such a violent past. She experienced a lot of street violence to the point where she she didn’t feel safe traveling alone to the villages. “My stress level was very high,” she said. “Volunteers have been threatened at gunpoint and with machetes. Stuff happens on the buses every day–there was a bus massacre one town over.”
    She was evacuated home to NorCal for 45 days for medical reasons. She said, “I love interacting with the people,. They need my help badly, but at what cost?” She concluded the interview by saying, “I’m still an active volunteer. They want me to figure out if it’s healthy for me to go back, or if it will be too much.”
    It doesn’t seem that it’s “too much for you.” I trust that you are taking safety precautions, especially having companions with you.

    Take care and God’s blessings on your ministry, Alex.

    Peace and good will,
    Deacon Jim

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jun 21, 2011 @ 23:09:02

      Mr. McFadden, thank you for sharing this. What she related is accurate and very present in everyday life here. Peace Corps informs us of effective precautionary measures to prevent being a crime victim, but there is never a 100% guarantee. I will address this issue more in my next chapter. Thank you for your support!

      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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