Uncharted Territory

Before I get deep into the theme of this chapter, I am going to start with something of a slightly lighter nature by following up with that volcano adventure I mentioned toward the end of last chapter. It is uncharted territory for me, nonetheless, since I have never hiked up an active volcano, but it will evoke more of the “warm, fuzzy feeling” thing than that which will follow. On to the fun! Active volcanoes are HOT, even when they are not spouting lava. It was so nice to get out of town and finally be able to use all my spiffy outdoor gear and get some good exercise and fresh air (free from chicken buses!). I can’t believe everyone in the group trusted Pedro and me to organize the event and make things happen; I didn’t even really know what I was doing or what we were getting into, but I was very pleased that everything went smoothly and everyone had a really great day! No injuries, no robberies, no one falling into the cone toward the center of the earth, all good. The hike up takes a good hour and a half, and it is fairly intense – definitely got the heart rates up and resulted in sore gluts for several days after. Along with the two guides, we also had a big group of Guatemalans accompanying us, ready and waiting to sell any one of us a walking stick or access to a “taxi natural” (horses) if at any moment we needed the extra support. Three or four people did decide to spend the second half of the ascent enjoying the beauty from the elevated view on the back of a natural taxi; they got in a little extra relaxation along the way. After trekking across a charcoal-like, lava rock-laden strip of land, we arrived at some heat vents that line the sides of the cone which were emitting enough heat to set a branch on fire AND roast marshmallows. And that is exactly what we did. A couple of us had packed bags of Guatemalan, two-toned pink/ blue/yellow/white marshmallows, some people collected sticks on the way up, and a few others shared their “chikys,” which are little Guatemalan cookies with a chocolate layer, so we could make s’mores over the heat vents. This was definitely a highlight of the trip! We weren’t actually able to hike all the way up to the top of the cone (the guides aren’t allowed to take people up there), but the entire time spent being with everyone, getting our bodies moving, and exploring what we could up there was worth it. We arrived filthy-dirty, hungry, and maybe slightly sun-burnt on previously unexposed areas (i.e. shoulders) back in Antigua to spend the rest of our free day.

Pacaya Volcano

Our "jumpers" in front of Pacaya Volcano

The idea for this chapter originated somewhere between weeks four and six in country when I realized I was approaching my “time away from California” record. I can lay claim to a handful of solid volunteer, study, and vacation trips both around the states and outside the country which have credited me with the “world traveler” reputation among my family and friends, but I have never been away from home for longer than six weeks at a time for any trip. Many of you will probably not be surprised when I say that long-term commitment is neither a common term in my vocabulary nor a prevalent habit of my lifestyle. I thought long and hard before signing up for the Peace Corps because I don’t usually do things that are longer than “short-term,” and 27 months seemed like such a big chunk of time. I know – it’s really not. (You can only imagine how the thought of med school, dental school, and boyfriends would scare me)! Hahahaa… But here I am, ready to break some habits and put some serious time into something that I believe will really be worthwhile. As much as I enjoy the freedom that comes with not being permanently tied to anything, I am learning that when time is invested, an experience of a different quality is felt – a deeper satisfaction or connection, per se. I understand commitment and always do what I say I am going to do and show up to where I say I am going to be (although not always in a timely fashion), but these upcoming two years away from home are definitely going to push me into new waters – not only regarding the amount of time I will be away, but also taking into consideration the new world of Guatemala in which I will be living.

A stark illustration of the current circumstances of Guatemala occurred only a few weeks in while I was still taking Spanish classes. One day in class, our language and cultural facilitator, Martín, shared a film with us about the Guatemalan civil war; the war that lasted for 36 years and came to an end only 15 years ago in 1996. The deep-rooted causes of the war were extreme poverty, economic disparity, political suppression, and racism directed toward the indigenous Maya people of Guatemala – all of which have existed since the Spanish conquistadors infiltrated the country in the 1500s. The gap between the governing “ladino” elite (Guatemalans of Spanish/European descent) and the poor, indigenous Maya peasants of land, money, and power has always been conspicuous and has induced several uprisings against the government – this civil war by far the worst, fought by the Guatemalan government and its military against the rebelling, indigenous guerrillas and their supporters. Both sides used terror and violence as their main tactics, disregarding civil and human rights for nearly four decades. The government raided rural villages (mostly in the western highlands) in search of guerrillas and their supporters and killed anyone who they believed was affiliated with the rebellion, often entire villages, in mass genocide. Innocent men, women, and children were murdered, other people were tortured, and many more went missing. By the end of the war, marked by a Peace Treaty, over 200,000 deaths were recorded along with 40,000-50,000 disappearances; the Guatemalan government was charged with many accounts of human rights violations and credited with over 400 massacres.

The movie we watched, La Hija del Puma (The Daughter of the Puma), follows the journey of a Maya girl whose family flees their village just as the militia is approaching and takes refuge in Mexico. The girl goes back into Guatemala in search of her missing brother who, it turns out, has joined with the rebel forces in an effort to protect the rights of his family and the Maya people. It was a powerful film that conveyed both the level of injustice and the fear instilled in the people during that time. There were some extremely graphic parts, as seen from the girl’s perspective, of the ruthless massacres of the highland villages including helicopters surrounding villages from above and endlessly firing away at everyone and everything below, military groups locking people in churches before shooting at them and setting fire to them, and a one-on-one standoff between a hesitant soldier looking into the eyes of an innocent, confused child right before he ends the child’s life. Needless to say, the effect the movie had on me was beyond simply tearing up. That same afternoon, our group went to Pedro’s house to celebrate his host mom’s birthday and have a little party for her. While we were there, just outside the house we heard a tuk-tuk hit a dog in the road, and the dog started yelping and whimpering loudly. I got up to see what was going on and saw that everyone outside was just looking at the scene and then continued doing what they were doing. I mean, it was just a dog anyway, no big deal. There are street dogs all over the place, many of which are wounded or have visible skin or intestinal infections; but as I watched the injured dog lick its wounded, bleeding hip and hobble off on three legs, I lost it and just started sobbing uncontrollably. Between the film and the dog, it was just too much to process in one day. I was overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, not so much by the fact that I couldn’t do anything, but by the idea that the people during the war and even the dogs in the street (I know, very different) were in an unfair predicament, had no way to protect themselves, and had very few people on their side. I have seen similar disparities regarding the value of a life in places such as India, but when I knew I would only be exposed to these harsh realities temporarily (I only spent a month in India), it was easy to put up a wall and block them out, just to get through it in one piece. That day threw in my face the idea that this is what I will be living with for the next two years, not just a month, and I am facing the fact that I cannot block everything out and that I MUST learn to accept the conditions that exist here and learn to work with them.

In the past several months, I have read plenty about the Guatemalan civil war and studied it so that I could understand a little more about the state of the country. Two or three paragraphs don’t do it justice, and although I hesitated to even write about it at all – both for the heavy content as well as the possibility of controversial opinions, the aftermath of the civil war here and the underlying issues that caused it are so integrated into the culture, daily life, and values of the Guatemalan people that I couldn’t leave it out. This background information will hopefully provide some understanding to you regarding the current conditions of Guatemala, and please remember: what I have written and what I will write is from my personal experience, through my eyes. The people and the communities that were affected by the war have been picking up the pieces for the last 15 years and are still trying to mend. An accurate word that has been thrown around in regards to the Guatemalan people is resilient; it is a nation of strong people who have a hopeful outlook toward the future. However, trust is very hard to come by if you are an outsider to a community. There is initial and ready hospitality, but the willingness of Guatemalans to deeply confide in someone can only be earned by time. Time is life here. I have also experienced a different attitude toward human life and people’s rights. I don’t know if it comes from being calloused by living in a land ravaged by civil war during which news of deaths and disappearances was a daily occurrence or if it roots from the poverty, malnutrition, and constant struggle for survival that taints a good portion of rural-living Guatemalans or if it is derived from being accustomed to the frequency of freak accidents that occur in this country due to a deep culture of fatalism. The difference may be attributed to a combination of these things or some other cultural belief that I do not understand yet. It is difficult to explain, but for fear that I may say something out of ignorance in an effort to try to put my finger on it, and considering how sensitive this topic is, I’ll think I’ll stop here.

Several people from home have heard about issues surrounding Guatemalan safety and security and, very concerned, have commented to me about it. I’m not going to sugar-coat what goes on here and tell you that it is a completely safe, peaceful, and happy place, but I can address the steps Peace Corps has taken to prevent safety and security-related incidents and how we have been trained to protect ourselves. One thing that I want to point out is that the Peace Corps has been present in Guatemala since 1963 and has not been forced to evacuate, not even when the civil war was at its peak of violence in the early 1980s. During that time, volunteers were pulled out of the “hotspots,” mainly in the western highlands. (Now, the majority of the current 230-240 PCVs are working back in these areas, where the need is greatest). The cell phones that PC supplies for us are a major step in safety and security. We have an alert system via texts run by our Safety & Security Officer, David. Not only does he inform all of us of areas that are “off-limits” for PCVs due to states of siege, high crime rates, etc., but he also informs us of severe weather alerts and unsafe road conditions so that we steer clear. PCVs are currently not allowed to be in the capital, Guatemala City (unless we have special permission) or the northern department of Petén. There are also certain outdoor spots such as volcanoes that we are advised to avoid because they are notorious for the bandits who linger on them, waiting to pillage all belongings from every hiker and take advantage of every woman while they are at it. There are many places here that are extremely dangerous to women simply for the fact that men seem to be able to have their way; we are advised to stay in groups or have a male companion. We also have emergency action plans for individual sites and each department in place in case volunteers need to consolidate for any reason. Also, if we leave our sites for a night or for several days, we are required to report our whereabouts information just in case something happens. PC has gone to great lengths to establish a web of protection across the country.

In addition to the possibility of major civil and natural disasters, there exist the everyday, personal incidents that anybody could encounter. These can include everything from petty theft and robbery to assaults, rape, and vehicle accidents. These all occur on a regular basis, (but they happen all over the world, not just in Guatemala). During training, David stressed the importance of taking personal responsibility for our own safety and always being alert. He taught us the Cooper Color Code System which basically covers four states of awareness, including always watching and planning a step ahead to prevent being victimized by aggressors, who tend to be opportunistic. As important as it is to be attentive to all the types of incidents that could happen, it really sucks to be on guard one hundred percent of the time. Every time I leave the house, enter a busy market, or board a chicken bus, it crosses my mind that it might possibly be the last time I see whatever I have with me and so I have to think twice about what leaves the house. The valuables – money, phone, and possibly passport – stay as close to my body as I can get them, whether they are in a money belt or my bra (the bra is the recommended place for women to carry things, according to David). Putting a lot of stuff in pockets and having open purses/bags should be avoided since this is a land of professional pick-pocketers, however, it is a good idea to keep a small stash of “quick cash” in a pocket to hand off impromptu. Bus assaults are not uncommon, especially near Guatemala City. David also trained us how to respond if we are unlucky enough to be on a bus that is being robbed: hand it all over, don’t make eye contact, and do NOT try to run (unless someone is attempting to take you away). Clearly, there is a high risk factor that comes with living in and traveling around Guatemala. The key is to keep your common sense on hand. We all know that it is dangerous and have been made aware of what we could face and trained on how to react in such situations during the course of the past three months. It is every trainee’s right to weigh the pros and cons of the current conditions of the country and to make a decision as to whether he or she wants to walk away or stay and serve the two-year term. By officially swearing-in as volunteers, we are all accepting the risks involved and claiming responsibility for our own actions and for the well-being of the people for whom we came here to serve.

Ok, enough of that. Hopefully that will be the most (and the worst) I will have to say in regards to both the civil war and security here. Back to the daily grind of training! Spending so much time in our small groups really started to wear on all the PCTs as everyone’s different personalities and work styles emerged. For all the Saint Mary’s readers, the situation can be related to a travel January-Term trip, you know, when after a week and a half, you really get tired of being forced to spend time and do things with the same group of people – more then half of whom you would never in a million years hang out with for fun – and then you realize that you still have two and a half more weeks to go? Yeah. It’s like that. But just as I met some of my closest friends and best travel buddies during Jan Term trips, I am noticing similar friendships developing that I know will last a lifetime. These are the friends who are going through similar experiences and with whom I can share jokes and laughter about all the miscommunication, cultural differences, and new “friends of the intestines” that we are encountering in Guatemala. We all know that there will be difficult days ahead, but it is nice to recognize that certain people will surely be part of the local support system when and if those times come. I’m not by any means undervaluing the support that comes from home; the support systems are extremely different, yet both very necessary. As much as I like to think and say that I can do everything by myself, I know that’s not true, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without people helping me along the way, backing me up, giving me a pep talk every now and then, or just coming along for the ride. Plus, it’s not as much fun to do everything by yourself anyway. Well, in our Alotenango group, Pedro and I have meshed really well and are on the same page while the other two girls have similar work and lifestyle habits and have thus closely bonded to each other as well.  All of us trainees are ready to have our own sites and our own homes. Pedro and I have helped each other bear through training by going for runs, having little escape days to Antigua, and scheming about our futures in our own sites. We have also tried to add a little variety to our strict training agenda by maneuvering trips to other training towns into our schedule to “further cultural understanding.” One such trip we took was to an organic Macadamia Nut Farm (called Valhalla) in the neighboring town of Dueñas. After touring the serene plantation, we settled at a picnic area beneath the trees and surrounded by a flower garden and ordered a specialty brunch that included blueberry macadamia nut pancakes with macadamia nut butter. I prefer macadamia nuts coated in a layer of coconut and then milk chocolate or folded into white chocolate chip cookies, but the pancakes were definitely de-lish!

Pedro and I

Just as the stress of training started visibly wearing on everyone, we began field-based training (FBT) and got out of town for a week. All the language/community groups were split up so we all could be refreshed with new faces, and each new group of 9-10 set off in different directions of Guatemala with a technical trainer, a language/cultural facilitator, and a micro-bus (15-seater van). The point of FBT is to visit current PCVs in their sites to see what their living situation is, see the kind of work and projects they do on a daily basis, and observe the different types of communities in order to get an idea of what sort of community we would like to be placed in or under which conditions we would work the best. The week wasn’t all sitting back and observing, though; our trainers gave us plenty of work to do. We had two to three activities per day, including charlas, workshops, a cooking class, and a radio show for which we were responsible for running, all in Spanish, of course, working within small groups. I was personally involved in a dental hygiene workshop, an HIV workshop, and an environment/trash charla where we went over the difference between organic and inorganic waste, how long materials take to decompose, and methods to dispose of the different types of waste. All the activities we did also gave our trainers the chance to take notes on our work styles and with whom we work well or not-so-well. We visited two different types of sites in different departments for three days each. (I keep referring to “departments” in this chapter. These are like states in the U.S. – each department has a capital and a governor, etc. Guatemala has 22 departments in total). Our first stop was to see PCV Susan in Canillá in the department of Quiché. She is the only Healthy Homes volunteer in her site, has a small town, but not rural, and enjoys the warm to hot climate of her site. While the majority of our group was dragging in the heat and getting eaten alive, I went for a run with Susan and was in heaven! The next place we visited was San Cristóbal, Totonicapán. There are four female PCVs who live in town or in surrounding aldeas (small, rural villages), and they work individually and also collaboratively with each other; we were told that someone in our training group will be replacing one of them who is at her close-of-service. The sites in this area range from 9,000-13,000 feet and, although beautiful, are very, very cold approximately ten months out of the year. I spent three days in misery and consequently discovered what kind of site I DON’T want. All in all, it was a fun, busy, and intense week; furthermore, a lot of group bonding occurred during all the sing-a-longs we had in the micro (I brought portable iPod speakers with me so we took turns playing different iPods and making special requests), the late nights playing games and talking in the hotels, doing group work, and getting stuck in the mud in the middle of a cornfield – more than once.

Poster/activity we used during the dental hygiene workshop in Canillá. (Artistic skills courtesy of Lindsey Souza).

San Cristóbal, Totonicapán

About a week after we returned from FBT, we set out again for another four days of IDA, or Individual Directed Activities. Those in the group who had not yet achieved the minimum Spanish level spent individual time with their language/cultural facilitator in our training communities, while all those who had reached the minimum level were separated and sent off to visit individual volunteers in their sites. This was the first training activity/field trip that we did completely on our own, without any PC trainer moderating or coming along with us. I was partnered up with another trainee, Jessica, and we set out all by ourselves in Guatemala to find the town of Cunén, Quiché where PCV Kate lives and was going to host us for IDA. It took about four and a half with three bus changes to get to her little town. During the course of the four days, the hosting volunteers were instructed to have us participate in some charlas or community activities, show us how to cook a meal, and share with us an idea of what the typical volunteer lifestyle is like. All of the current volunteers we have come across tell us all the same thing: “Training sucks. Just get through it. Volunteer life is so much better because you get to make your own schedule and go at your own pace.” Hallelujah! Every time I hear that, it is music to my ears. Kate had a really great set-up with a three room house all to herself and a hammock on her front porch looking toward the distant hills. Of the four departments in which PC is going to be placing all of us and to which they have been sending us for our activities, Quiché happens to be the warmest, so I am lucky to have been able to spend time here both times.

The first night, Kate had a big celebratory BBQ Guatemalan style for the group of people in her community who completed the first half of English classes that Kate has been teaching for over a year, the next day, we traveled out to the town of Nebaj where we visited three other current PCVs from different programs (non-Healthy Homes), that afternoon we wandered through the market to find some stuff to cook for dinner, and that evening, we made our very own vegetable stir fry over brown rice. The third day we were supposed to be doing a dental hygiene charla and a cooking class with a women’s group in one of the aldeas Kate works in. We took a micro half an hour up a highway, got off seemingly in the middle of nowhere, hiked about an hour through some hills and forests until we came to a house at the edge of a small community, waited a good 45 minutes, and finally admitted to the fact that nobody was going to show up. Kate guessed that there was probably some other community activity or meeting that they all decided to go to and – consistent with the cultural idea that direct communication is easier to avoid if the situation is going to be awkward – nobody gave a heads up that their plans had changed. That is just how things happen here. So we gave the charla to all the kids and their grandma who lived at that house instead. The funniest moment was when the grandma asked, “Well, how am I supposed to my brush my teeth? I don’t have any!” Then she showed us her three teeth and chuckled. It was a time when we really wanted to laugh, but had to hold it back. She thanked us for coming to teach the kids how to take care of their teeth; she said no one ever taught her so all she ever used was water and that is why all her teeth fell out. It was neat to know that an elder in the community can see value in what we are doing. Our last day in Cunén, Kate took Jessica and me on a special hike to her favorite spot – a waterfall about an hour and a half away. The last two days I felt like I had been plopped into the Disney movie Pocahontas. It all started when I was gazing out over endless, untouched hills as we were hiking out of the aldea. I thought to myself that I must feel exactly how John Smith felt when he was off exploring the “new world” by himself: “All of my life I have searched for a land like this one: a wild and more challenging country I couldn’t design. Hundreds of dangers await and I don’t plan to miss one…!” Yep. Just like that. And then, I got to play Pocahontas during our waterfall hike when we slipped into some cornfields on the side of a sloping hill and created our own path through to the other side where we needed to be. Once we reached the gorgeous waterfall, we started hopping across the rocks over the water, just like Pocahontas was doing right before she met John Smith face to face. And to top it off, Jessica and I decided to serenade Kate with “Just Around the Riverbend” the whole way back. It was special. And magical – true to Disney style. We thought we were pretty imaginative and talented. And cool. While we were still at the waterfall, I was able to sneak in a little rock climbing which was refreshing (I miss it!), and we also snacked on xecas with some peanut butter and nutella that Kate brought along with us. A xeca (pronounced “SHAY-kuh”) is a bagel-like, whole-grain sweet bread for which Cunén has a great reputation. They are so tasty! It was a really fantastic way to end our visit with Kate.

Jessica and I in front of the waterfall in Cunén.

Now, meet Basilio. He is the man in charge of our futures in Guatemala. He is the person who determines where each of the 37 Healthy Homes volunteers in this round will serve. Basilio has worked with Peace Corps, Guatemala for 36 years so he knows what he is doing and has seen every type of volunteer. He is the guy who finds communities who both need and want volunteers and places the volunteer there who he thinks is best suited for the community. He is also my boss. Basilio does a series of individual interviews with each of us during the course of training to get to know us personally and to see what sort of site we are interested in. Some of the factors to consider are whether we want a rural or an urban site, a hot or a cold site, an individual or a partner site, a new site (first volunteer) or a replacement site, a site with a health post (tiny) or a health center (large and busy), and a mostly Spanish-speaking or mostly indigenous language-speaking site. It is difficult to voice where we “want” to be because so many of us came here with the attitude that we will serve wherever we are needed the most and thus have the idea of leaving it to fate. Once I found out there were actually going to be some hot sites, though, I started voicing my preferences. I told Basilio that if he put me in a cold site, I probably wouldn’t bathe regularly, and that would be a bad example for a health promoter to set. He laughed at me, but I was serious. A hot site was really my only important request to Basilio. For the rest, I basically told him that I want a little bit of everything. I told him that if he placed all the communities on a spectrum from the most rural, small, indigenous, no electricity, individual site to the large, urban, Spanish-speaking, multiple-sitemate spot that I want the site right in the middle of the spectrum. I told him that I could adapt to wherever he puts me, but I would like to be able to cook a variety of foods for myself (not just potatoes, corn, and tortillas), I don’t really want to be near a bunch of Peace Corps people, and I don’t function at my peak when it’s freezing outside. He chuckled and told me, “Yes, Ale, I know your style.” When I heard Basilio was going to put a male-female pair in a hot site near Canillá (that I had seen when we were leaving Canillá during FBT), I got my heart set on it and adjusted my original preference of wanting to be alone for my Peace Corps experience and told Basilio that I was open to the idea of working with a male partner. I have always gotten along and worked well with male partners in the past, so I’m not worried. In addition, I believe there is a little extra security associated with a male partner, as well as the possibility of doing work that includes both genders in the community – the males are more likely to engage if it is with someone who relates to them.

So after way too many weeks of analysis and speculation of who would get which sites and who the partners were going to be, all the anticipation finally came to an end on site assignment day. Before Basilio makes his final decisions, he takes into account input from our technical trainers, language/cultural facilitators, training director, and the volunteers who have had contact with us. It’s a big volunteer-site jigsaw puzzle, but everybody seems to have a significant amount of trust in Basilio. Most people were extremely satisfied and excited with their site assignment; there were only a few who were a little disappointed. It tended to be the people who didn’t voice their preferences when they had the chance. Basilio gave me EXACTLY what I wanted so I am happy that I spoke up. I will be serving my two year term in the small town of San Andres in Quiché that is an hour and fifteen minutes away from the capital of Quiché along a winding dirt road. I feel like I am in right smack dab in the middle of Guatemala, in the heart of the land. Population is 2,200 in the “municipio” (the main town/city), with 69 surrounding aldeas (pronounced “all-DAY-uhs”). It is a hot site with an altitude of 1,300 meters (around 4,000 feet). I have a male partner, Perry, who became a good friend of mine during training. We will be working in a CAP (Centro de Atención Permanente), which is a health center that offers 24-hour care like a hospital, and we will also be traveling out to some aldeas to work with the small rural communities. Spanish is spoken and understood, but there is a high indigenous population so we will start learning the Maya language, K’iche’, as well. It’s a little bit of everything, just how I like it.

Site assignment day with a giant map of Guatemala. (The color of the folders people are holding represents the department in which they will be serving). Basilio is the man in the white shirt.

The week after site assignments, we met our counterparts and then went on a four-day site visit to see where we will be living, meet the people at the health center, and get to know the town a little bit. Let me tell you, site visit is one of the most awkward parts of training because you really have no idea what is going on, you are by yourself (or with a partner, but no other PC people), your counterparts don’t really know what to do with you, you are not sure where your next meal is going to come from, and you are supposed to be negotiating rent and living terms with a family whose house you just got plopped into. Sounds like fun, huh? On top of the confusion and awkwardness, you have points where you are bouncing all over the spectrum of thoughts and emotions, experiencing like fifteen different emotions within a seven minute span. One thought could be a high on how fantastic the natural beauty of the land and community are, and then it switches to a low when you think of the small, empty room in a stranger’s house that you are supposed to make your own and you have no idea where to start. The list goes on. It’s crazy. After site visit, we all decided that the reason there are so many rings to jump through to get into PC is because if you didn’t have enough time and determination invested in your Peace Corps service, site visit would surely scare you away! I definitely imagined something a little different than what I have in terms of my living situation, but sometimes you get what you want, just not in the form you were expecting, so I am eager to see what other surprises await me. In the meantime, I can be nothing but grateful for where I have been assigned.

To wrap up the theme of my chapter, some uncharted territory is the kitchen for me. I’ve never really had my own space to take over and cook in or I have been “busy” so I have never put much effort into the culinary arts. But I have decided that it is time for me to get good at it because if I don’t learn it now, when I am going to? I finally have the time, interest, and motivation so I asked my host mom if she would teach me how to make a couple things and let me do them with her in the kitchen right next to me guiding me along. (Learning by doing is the best way to go)! She was very pleased by this request, and since I have developed a bit of an addiction to black beans, we started with those. I prefer liquefied black beans made with onion, garlic, and a little bit of salt; she also showed me how to make the refried type – those are really the best. Thanks to Doña Amalia, I also have banana pancakes, lemonade, tomato sauce (all from scratch), cincronizadas, and a handful of other simple dishes ready to take with me to my site. I shared some of my “American” dishes with my host family as well. There are only two things I really claim to make well: Mom’s chicken divan and banana cream pie from scratch. In Guatemala, I was lucky enough to find the ingredients I needed to make those dishes, but some of them came in different forms so I was a little nervous. I also didn’t know how to translate “divan” into Spanish, so I renamed my dish to “pollo divino” – divine chicken. And it must have been that good because afterward, my family told me that I am allowed to get married now since I proved I could cook something. Lol. It was really nice to be able to eat some banana cream pie, too. I’m no longer worried that I will have to go two years without it…  Some other firsts for me are that I bought and figured out how to handle both a pineapple and a papaya. I know, it’s just a couple of big fruits, but I have never done it before and was a little intimidated and can now be proud of my baby steps in the kitchen.

In addition to honing my cooking skills, I have decided that I am going to master the skill of French-braiding my own hair. I don’t think my French-braids are acceptable enough to wear outside of my house yet, but they are getting better, so maybe soon. My hair is actually long enough already to be able to French-braid AND to get it all up in a ponytail; I attribute it to the pre-natal pills that PC gives us as our multi-vitamin because they have extra iron. A few weeks ago, I was stung by a bee for the first time in my life; it hurt, but I am happy to finally know that I am not allergic to bee stings. My last “first encounter” for the day is that I can claim my first big Peace Corps parasite: giardia! Giardia is a parasitic protozoan that is possible to contract in the U.S. as well. I will spare you the details of the symptoms (you’re welcome), but they are obvious enough that I was able to correctly self-diagnose with my handy-dandy rural medical book, Where There Is No Doctor – a gift from PC to all trainees, before the lab results confirmed it. And my little intestinal friends came just in time for the 4th of July party that PC throws every year for all the volunteers. Combining giaradia and the meds for giardia aren’t exactly part of the equation for fun, but I went anyway. Didn’t want to miss out on the American summer cuisine of juicy cheeseburgers, hot dogs with “the works,” French fries, green salad with real salad dressings (as opposed to the lime and salt that Guatemalans use), potato salad, and brownies (made by the U.S. Ambassador himself)… It was neat to meet a bunch of the other PCVs at the party as well and run into others whom we had already met during training. I also invested in some raffle tickets, and considering how not-so-good I was feeling, winning three cool prizes made up for it! Unfortunately, I had to take my hot dog to-go because I really wanted to eat it and just couldn’t get the appetite for it; after a day, I decided it wasn’t going to happen and had to feed it to a chucho (that is what they call street dogs out here). The first round of meds for my “protozoa friends” was ineffective so the docs had to put me on something more intense. Even now, I’m not completely sure that they are gone; the little buggers are persistent!

4th of July Burgers with Dani and Chelsea.

Our last week of training consisted of two and a half days of wrap-up, training evaluations, last-minute details, and a “commitment to serve” session where each of us had the opportunity to share our deepened motivation with the group before we took our oath. What started as intense training weeks that we thought would never end turned into a final month of training that passed in the blink of an eye. The statistics are that only about 90% of trainees make it through PST to the swearing-in ceremony. Our training group of 52 (37 Healthy Homes and 15 Youth Development), however, defied the statistics. Not only are we one of the biggest training groups to have come through Guatemala in a cycle, but every single one of us completed training and officially swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer (goodbye PCT, hello PCV!) on July 14, 2011. The ceremony took place at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Guatemala City and consisted of all of us saying our oath together, each of us receiving our individual certificates and shaking the Ambassador Stephen McFarland’s hand, and then a social gathering with light refreshments, including the Ambassador’s famous brownies. It was a really exciting and proud day for all of us.

Receiving my certificate during the swear-in ceremony with Ambassador McFarland. Our Training Director, Craig Badger, is at the podium.

To top it off, a couple of us discovered a piano in the living room, and Warren – an extremely talented musician in our group who used to play piano back home every day since he was 16 and hasn’t touched a piano since he left – almost begged for the Ambassador’s permission to play, which was readily granted. A few of us settled in the living room while Warren started to play. Familiar with his playlist from several discussions we had had prior to that day, I started throwing out suggestions for him and he said that if I would sing it with him, he would play it. So we began, and a crowd started trickling in. The Ambassador came up to us and requested that we perform in front of everyone (all the PC people, plus all the other government officials and staff at his residence) before the end of the gathering. Word kind of got around during training that I studied vocal performance in college and that I have a little bit of a voice on me (because I can’t keep my mouth shut when a good song comes on!), but I hadn’t REALLY performed yet. Warren and I started with a duet to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and encouraged the whole room to join in during the chorus, then I jumped into opera mode with a little “O Sole Mio,” and Warren concluded the set with “Walking in Memphis.” Everyone enjoyed themselves so much! And Ambassador McFarland even asked to get a picture with us. Lol! It was completely invigorating to get back in touch with something that I love so dearly, and I could tell by Warren’s eyes that he felt the same way. The way we so naturally connected to make good music on a whim without rehearsing was impressive, at least to me. It was a very special couple of moments, and I am so happy I had the opportunity to add a little bit to the already wonderful day. Among the size of our group, the spirit, commitment, and animation of all 52 of us who took an oath, and the live entertainment at the end, we are sure that our group left a mark that day. Ambassador McFarland is on his way out soon, concluding his term serving in Guatemala, but I don’t think he is going to forget the final group of Peace Corps volunteers that he led in their swearing-in ceremony.

Warren and I making music at the Ambassador's residence. This was during "Don't Stop Believin'."

After our swear-in, we were free! We had three days to do whatever we wanted before we had to arrive at our sites. Everyone went to Antigua the first night to celebrate our graduation to volunteer life and freedom. Those were some good times. I’m pretty sure most of our group hung out in Antigua for the next couple of days, as well, but I got out of town! The morning after swear-in, I jumped on a bus (not by myself) and headed for Monterico, the most highly recommended beach town on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. On the southern border of the country, you will find black sand, palm trees, hammocks hanging from bungalows right on the beach, and all the relaxation you can imagine. No where to be, no work to do, no one to report to, and no schedule. It was so nice to be by my Pacific Ocean! The water’s a lot warmer down here than it is in California, though, but it is not recommended for swimming because the riptides are so strong right now. Hammocks all afternoon, a nice dinner, swimming pool, night-time walk on the beach in search of turtles (no luck), and a fantastic breakfast at Johnny’s Place right on the sand watching the massive waves crash on the shore. (Long story, but we got suckered into paying for a guided turtle walk, when the guide knew very well that the turtles don’t come to shore to lay their eggs until August and September. We found that out AFTER paying. Next time, we are doing our OWN turtle walk now that we know where to go). Besides that, it was an absolutely perfect getaway right before moving to site and officially starting service. I definitely plan on going back to Monterico…during turtle season.

I moved to my site on Sunday, the 17th and have just been trying to settle in. I’ve been in Guatemala for over three months now, and I’m not really missing home too much. I think about some people from home often and how cool it would be if they could be out here with me to experience some of this stuff firsthand, but I am not in a rush to hurry home. I am really happy here and not trying to “get through it.” There is no where else I would rather be than where I am right now. It is nice that things have finally slowed down a little bit and I can get my bearings. I know I dropped off the map for a while. That was due to all the traveling around for training with no downtime. This is my longest update yet because it sums up almost two full months PLUS some Guatemalan history. I had a difficult time writing it. The next chapter will be much more fun, I assure you. It’s going to be all about how cool (and safe) my site is! So until then, take care, and enjoy the read.

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Thank you to Nick and Norm for the care packages you sent! I have received several packages and a letter so far, and I know that a couple of you have sent things that are still in transition. As active as we are out here, it is really nice to receive mail (even though it can take awhile!) because it makes me feel connected, so thank you all for thinking of me.

Congratulations to my high school friend, Hayley, and her new husband, Stuart, on their marriage. Hayley, you looked absolutely stunning and both of you so happy!

Happy Birthday to my July-baby sisters, Christie and Lyndsie! Sounds like you both have a lot of positive changes happening in your lives right now, so I think it is going to be a great year.

Happy EARLY Birthday to my nephew, Arik, who will be 6 on Tuesday! You are getting so tall, handsome, and way too smart! Keep up with all your reading and sports. I’m so proud of you!

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Miguel Ayala
    Jul 29, 2011 @ 02:23:44

    Hey Alexandra;
    I have been keeping up with all your posts and have enjoyed everyone of them. It looks like you are having an excellent time out there. Enjoy it! Guatemala is a beautiful country. Elease tells me everyday that she feels bad for not replying to each one of your post :(, she misses you deeply. I can now realize that you are and will always be an integral part of of her life. Just wanted to let you know that we are doing well and are in search of a house. We have not decided on our special date to get married as we are still waiting for me to finish school. I hope you the best of luck, make memories and be safe!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Aug 04, 2011 @ 13:57:12

      Thanks, Miguel!
      Elease sent me a nice update a few days ago, and I am happy to hear that you are both doing so well!!! She told me some wedding planning ideas that she has — love that she’s keeping me up to date. I miss talking to her so much and having our little lunch dates! But, we make do with what we have for now… Thank you for keeping in touch and for all the support. You guys are the best!

      Reply

  2. Momma
    Jul 29, 2011 @ 12:12:20

    Hello Sweetheart ! I am so happy to see you got this sent out. It was a rather complicated one to write, I think. I love that you teach us so much about a place we have never been before and then feel as if we have been there “Through Your Eyes” ! It does take an excellent writer to bring one into the book w/them. 🙂 I am so happy that you had the opportunity to sing and perform at the Ambassador’s home! I know how much it means to you to sing. It means a lot to me, also, and I do so miss you singing to me or for me to be at one of your performances. I really DO miss it…and you. As per usual, my dear girl, do great things and make a difference in the world. 🙂 Oh, by the way, my shoulder surgery went very well and I have only had some mild discomfort w/it. Such a deal ! I am typing w/my right hand as we speak…so to speak ! Lol ! No worries. Call you soon. You are my Wednesday girl, btw. So, who ever gets to whomever first works for me ! Love you like a rock, Momma 🙂 Oh, I see that one of my high schooll friends, Aleta left a nice comment on the last blog for you. Very cool ! I had no idea she was on. She is very sweet. 🙂

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Aug 04, 2011 @ 14:02:15

      Thanks, Momma! I was going to call you last night, but I think I’m out of “saldo” (credit on my phone) so I have to wait for another triple day to roll around. Got the package you sent! Yay! I’m glad your surgery went well; I was wondering about it. Thanks for being my “biggest fan” in everything I do. 🙂 Love you!

      Reply

  3. Elease
    Aug 04, 2011 @ 16:10:17

    Ally!

    I finally got to sit down and read every word of this blog. I was confined to my aunt’s cabin last weekend with no internet….and then returned straight to work for 3 fourteen hour shifts.

    Your blogs are written so well with so much great detail.
    I really enjoy reading them. My favorite part was your experience at the Ambassador’s home. That sounds really special and I can just hear your voice. I miss your singing and your laugh and of course our extravagant lunch dates and pedicures.

    As I continued to read this blog, I went on to admire your courage and bravery and your optimism…traits I always admired about you and why I appreciate our friendship so much.

    I think of you often and am so happy to hear you are right where you want to be.
    I love you and miss you.
    I’ll look forward to your next blog!
    Can you send me your address so I can send you a care package?
    EleasePeterson@aol.com

    BFF ~ Elease ~

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Aug 08, 2011 @ 22:23:30

      Ooh, yes, those pedicures! Lunch dates of Thai food and Il Fornaio are running through my head! Soft bread with olive oil and vinegar, salmon salad, turkey panini, and the best part — creme brulee! Working on my next chapter — The Posh Corps. It’ll be a lot easier to get through. Lol! Glad you had a nice time at your Aunt’s cabin (a break from the internet is nice sometimes). Love you!

      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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