The Posh Corps

When I received my invitation to serve in Guatemala, I read over the description of my assignment and the possible living and working conditions: rural villages, hikes up to 90 minutes one-way to get to a town I might be working in, and housing which may or may not include electricity and running water. The only experience I could compare it to was the time I spent in Michoacán, Mexico during my Amigos de Las Américas service when I was 18. For six weeks, I lived with a host family in a rural village while implementing a youth-to-youth program during the summer. The house did have electricity, but running water was out of the question, and complete insulation of any home didn’t exist (so mice, birds, scorpions, and the like could enter and exit through the holes in the adobe and mud brick walls as they pleased). As far as the water situation went, well, I became an expert at makeshift rock toilets in the backyard because there really was no “bathroom” facility. We also bathed in a community water hole (in which small turtles resided) and washed our clothes on the rocks that encircled the water hole. I am not sure that I was ever really squeaky clean at any point that summer… I alternated two Nalgene bottles filled with water from the other [contaminated] community “drinking” water hole and thus treated my water with iodine tablets and corresponding neutralizing tablets (to remove iodine color and taste) – and chewable Vitamin C tablets when I ran out of the neutralizers. One time, I chopped a chicken’s head off with a machete in the front yard, and we ate it for dinner in tacos with potatoes. Another time, we got caught in a torrential downpour and had to trudge through water halfway up our thighs in the flash-flooded soccer field we had to cross to get home. I managed to make it through that summer in one piece. So, when deciding whether I would be up for the possibility of facing those conditions during Peace Corps, I figured that I had done it once already so I wouldn’t have a problem handling and adapting to similar conditions again. Well, cheers to low expectations! I have volunteered to let the U.S. government run my life, más o menos (more or less), for the next two years. And so, welcome to The Posh Corps!

Fellow PCV Riley is perfectly demonstrating how we all handed our lives over to the Peace Corps the day we swore in.

Let me start with how we are supposed to survive financially since this is technically not “employment” but volunteer service. PC provides a monthly living allowance to each volunteer (approximately $375) that is meant to cover the costs of food, rent, postal services, phone, internet, and travel expenses. In other words, we are not really being paid for our work, but we are being supported to live comfortably at or near the same level as the Guatemalans by whom we are surrounded. (Supposedly, there will be a little money left over each month that can be used for recreational purposes, but I’m definitely feeling a little tight right now with living expenses). For the first month of service, PC also allots a “settling-in allowance” (about $400) in addition to the living allowance for big, start-up expenses such as furniture and cooking supplies/utensils. Although the standard of living is much lower in developing countries, many have still been able to keep up with the ever-developing technologies in communication. I have mentioned my cell phone several times before. It’s not a Blackberry or an iPhone 4 (or is it 5 yet?), and it doesn’t have a texting keyboard, but it is functional, and I can make calls relatively easily. I just have to pay for phone credit a couple times a month. Same goes for the internet. I have access to the internet! Who would have thought that I would have internet in my own room? Not me. But I do! I have a little internet modem called a Tigo stick that is like a flash drive (Tigo is one of the cell phone/internet services available out here – also services all PC phones), and all I have to do is buy chunks of time credit to charge to my Tigo stick. So I do not have internet ALL the time, and the signal doesn’t always stay strong, but the fact I can get it in my room without having to take my computer anywhere is something I would consider an unexpected luxury.

As far as “free” time goes, we are allowed to spend three nights (spread over two weekends) per month “out of site;” the rest of the time we are expected to remain in site. That leaves two weekends for travel and or visiting other PCVs in different sites and departments. (Just a few weekends ago, Perry and I traveled to the capital of the next department over, Huehuetenango, to meet up with a handful of other PCVs for a social weekend and exploration of some of their sites). There are rules about what time on Fridays we are allowed to leave and what time we need to be back at site (recommendations are against traveling after dark), but those are flexible depending on the situation. For example, PCVs are not supposed to leave site before 2 PM on a Friday, however, the last micro usually leaves from my town at 1:15 PM so if we don’t leave early, we’re not going anywhere. In regards to official vacation time, we were originally told that we would receive two vacation days, or “annual leave” days, for every month of service not including the three months of training. That makes 48 days that we can use in an 18-month period (we are not allowed to use vacation time in the first six months or last three months of being in country). A recent change in PC policy has resulted in a reward of four extra days of annual leave for PCVs, starting with my training group. The policy change is that now PC is requiring that PCVs live WITH a host family or IN a family compound for the entirety of their service – in hopes of fewer security incidents. After visiting many current PCVs in their own houses (some in family situations) and getting our hopes up for having our own space and independence for two years, this news did not go over well with my group. In fact, it really was a downer – dashing way too many hopes of the freedom to move about our own space and cook and bathe and clean whenever we feel like it. But, the now 52 (instead of 48) vacation days are supposed to supplement the torture of losing that freedom and wished-for space to decompress. When you look at it, though, that’s just short of two months of vacation time. Not bad for 27 months away from home, so there really is not much room to complain…

In regards to my site, I couldn’t imagine anything more suitable to my liking. For months before I came to Guatemala, all I envisioned was frolicking among lush green hills with a pretty blue sky and puffy clouds in the background. Ok. Not exactly frolicking or picking wild flowers, and I’m not sure where the idea of hills came from (maybe Google Earth?), but all I know was that I was drawn to that vision. And now here I am in the little valley of San Andrés, tucked away amidst miles and miles of rolling hills, similar to the set-up of where I attended college. There is green everywhere and almost every type of tree from pines to tropical banana trees. At 4,000 feet, the rural town of San Andrés is definitely not tropical (and thus does not come with the high humidity and oversized bugs), but is not high enough to be categorized as part of the mountainous highlands, which are accompanied by biting cold, thin air, and loads of rain. Instead, my town is considered one of the few “hot sites” and has a nice dry heat with cool evenings, reminiscent of Sacramento summer nights. Even though we are still in the middle of rainy season, San Andrés does not get dumped on throughout the day. The sun is hot and strong, and if it’s going to rain, the wind picks up in the late afternoon as the ominous clouds roll in and drench the town for any length of time from 10 minutes to several hours. It’s usually a heavy rain, but often short-lived, then everything dries up and gets warm again. Every now and then it rains through the night. I am so lucky. I really do feel badly for all the other PCVs in sites that are cold and wet all the time; they have to deal with laundry that doesn’t really ever dry all the way and with wearing layers of clothing and using several blankets at night – in August, north of the equator! That’s just not right. And as I have been indulging in a daily bask under the sun (there’s really no way to get away from it because we are walking a lot), I have developed a fantastic farmers’ tan, extra freckles (not that I need any more), and a lovely watch tan to top it off. I don’t think I have ever gone through a bottle of sunscreen so quickly or consistently, and my light brown hair is now very streaked by the sun; at this rate, I might be blonde by Christmas! Anyway, I just feel completely spoiled in my hot little verdant paradise over here…

This is one of the views I have about a 10 minute walk away from my house. It shows the river that runs through the hills around San Andres.

One thing I want to mention is that San Andrés seems to be town that gets a lot of money pumped in from the States. A good number of households have really nice set-ups. I feel like about two-thirds of the people I have contact with here have some connection to the United States; they either spent several years working there or currently have a family member (or several) or a significant other who is living and or working in the States. I was astonished to see one of my counterparts wearing the exact same watch as me – a simple black Casio that I found on Amazon.com for like $7 before I left for Guatemala; she said her sister who is living in the U.S. sent it to her. *SIDENOTE: Don’t assume all Latin Americans you see in the U.S. are from Mexico; you’d be surprised at the percentage that represents all the other Latin American countries. And, yes, there IS a difference.* A handful of people here speak some English, but surprisingly, many of those who spent extended periods of time in the States (up to 15 years) only know very little English. They say this is due to the fact that they never had to interact with a lot of English speakers. Imagine that. If I came to Latin America and hung out with English-speakers all the time, I would hardly learn an inkling of Spanish. Now, here I am, an almost lone American in my community, completely surrounded by Spanish-speaking Guatemalans. Consequently, the immersion is facilitating fluency, or at least a level of speaking and understanding that is beyond simply functional. There are many aspects of Guatemala that are laden with “American” influences – and practically all the people who talk to us ask us when we are going back to the States and if they can come with us. It is interesting to observe other people’s perspectives on what I consider my homeland. Also, based on the current state of our town, Perry and I have deduced that San Andrés will be our home and represent our base, but the majority of our work will take place in the aldeas, where the people seem to really be in need of health education and assistance.

Perry and I walking on the main street in our town. This is where everyone sets up on Market Days. The streets are packed on Sundays!

Now, on to my new home! Unfortunately, after spending a month in my first room in a different woman’s house three blocks form work, I decided that the situation was too uncomfortable and my house and room not secure enough to stay, but I will explain more toward the end of this chapter. So I just started renting a room from a family on the quiet side of town – but still my walk to the Health Center is only just over five minutes. Oh, the joys of a small town! The owner of the house actually lives in the United States so his parents, Doña Gloria and Don Asisclo, who live across the street, take care of it. The house is one-story with easy access to the roof and surrounded by a part brick, part white iron fence. I feel very secure in this house thanks to that fence/wall, the strong doors to enter the house, and the sturdiness of my own door and windows to my room. The set-up is rectangular-shaped with six glossy brick-walled rooms bordering the outer part, a tile-floored corridor that circles three sides of the rectangle between the room and the center, and a beautiful garden in the middle of the house that is completely open to sunshine and fresh air. Don Asisclo does the gardening here, and he sure makes it feel like a tropical getaway: he has planted palm trees all around the premises between the house and the outside fence-wall and has a variety of other large-leafed tropical plants and flowers potted or planted in the center part of the house – complete with cement pathways for anyone to browse through and get lost in “the jungle.” There is a large pila for laundry and dishes. Of the six rooms, one is rented out from Monday through Thursday to a woman who works at a school in town, one (which has a door to the outside of the house) is used by a man only on Sundays as a little shop he sets up during the big Sunday market day, two are used for storage, one is now currently occupied by me, and the last one is inhabited by another one of Doña Gloria’s sons, Osman, and his wife, Taira, and 3-year-old daughter, Sarahy. I hardly interact with the temporary renters, but Osman, Taira, and Sarahy are my new family, and I think they are absolutely wonderful! Osman and Taira are just about my age and have interacted with me and welcomed me since the day I moved in. They have a small refrigerator of which they are letting me use a section, and they have a nice little kitchen set-up in the corridor right by the pila with a microwave, stove, and table. Taira offered to let me share that space with them and use the stove as well; we are just going splitting the cost of the gas tank. We have already shared meals together – sometimes I cook, sometimes Taira cooks, and sometimes we cook and eat separately. But Taira is very friendly (all of our chats are contributing to my Spanish), and I feel blessed to be in such great company in a household with more amenities than I thought were possible in the Peace Corps. And I’m not quite finished with that list…

Attached to my rather spacious room, with brick walls, tile floors, and practically complete insulation, I have my very own private bathroom with a sink, shower area, and a toilet. A real toilet. Not a latrine, not a hole in the ground, and not made of rocks. It’s a porcelain toilet with a seat and a cover as well! Not only is this a luxury to have a real toilet, but I have never in my life had a bathroom of my own that I didn’t have to share with siblings, roommates, or other people’s company. Wow. I didn’t know joining the Peace Corps could be this good. I have electricity all the time, unless a storm causes a short (couple seconds) power outage, and I have running water – sometimes. The water comes at 6 in the morning and lasts until around noon. When the water is here, my toilet flushes, the sink runs, and the shower works. Unfortunately, there is no water heater for the shower, and I’m not a fan of cold showers first thing in the morning, so I probably won’t be using that much. No worries, though. I have my bucket baths! In my shower area, there is a faucet and a large guacal (“gwah-KAHL” – those bucket/tub/bowl things that come in all different sizes and practically all Guatemalans use either at the pila or for laundry, baths, etc.) which I fill up every morning. Once the water leaves, I use this little tub as my water source for the rest of the day. I have a small bucket that I dip in and fill to flush the toilet, I use a small guacal to scoop some water for hand washing, and, at the end of the day, I fill up a 5-gallon bucket for my bath. Another perk is that I have a nifty little water-heating device (called a calentador) that I plug into the wall and plop into the bucket for about 20-25 minutes until my bath water is nice and warm – even hot if I’d like. It doesn’t get much better than that. I don’t have a washing machine, dryer, or dishwasher, but washing dishes and doing laundry by hand at the pila isn’t so bad, just a little time consuming. Plus, it’s good for the mind, body, and spirit to put your nose to the grind every now and then, right?

The drinking water options here include any one of five or six different methods for getting purified water. Just as in Mexico, water from a faucet – or a “chorro” as it is called here – has not been treated and can contain any sort of microscopic organism from the nematode Strongyloides to the protozoan Giardia, not to mention unfriendly bacteria. Pilas also technically contain standing water – it is good practice to drain and wash the pila at least once a week – so different insects such as mosquitoes can come by and lay some eggs; within a few days, you’ve got dengue larvae or something of the sort swimming around in there. (I’ve fished worms/larvae out and examined them in more than one home already). Needless to say, pila water should not be used to drink, brush teeth, or cook (unless it’s boiled).  So what are the options? Well, you can drink bottled water which goes for 3 Quetzales, but if you’re drinking 2-4 bottles a day, you’re using a lot of plastic and the trash and recycling situation here is a completely separate beast that I’m going to leave alone right now. Another option is to buy small plastic bags of water for 50 cents (half a Quetzal) apiece; you can drink right out of the bag or use them to fill up a bottle (2 bags will fill more than a bottle). Two basic options are to use faucet water and boil it for at least one minute and to use faucet water and chlorinate it (4 drops to a gallon and let it sit for 30 minutes before drinking). These cost practically nothing except for the chloro or the gas/firewood to heat the water – and the time, of course. Another interesting method of water purification consists of filling a clear plastic bottle, putting a lid on it, and leaving it out in the sun for a day (at least 6 hours and preferably on a rooftop). The radiation kills the microbes (obviously doesn’t work on very cloudy/overcast days), and it becomes drinkable water – for free! This, along with the previous two methods discussed, is actually something we teach to rural families out here who don’t have a lot of extra funds. Some PCVs use this method as well for their own water. A common “purified water” option that many households use is Agua Salvavidas – the 5-gallon jugs like the kind Alhambra delivers in the States. Delivery trucks pass through towns here in the same manner. Each tambo (I’m not sure if that’s English or Spanish – I can’t keep track anymore, but it’s the same thing as a jug, I guess) costs 15 Quetzales and holds 20 liters so it takes anywhere between a week and ten days to get through it. The majority of Peace Corps volunteers use Agua Salvavidas for their 2-year span, but I didn’t like the idea of having to wait for water trucks or having to ration my water if I’m toward the end and don’t know when the truck’s coming. So, naturally, I chose what I thought was the best and most efficient option available to me. (Take note: this is the part where I think I am just SO darn clever). During the 11 weeks of PST, I put as much of my $4-a-day living allowance aside, and, just before I moved to site, I invested in an ecofiltro for 350 Quetzales (about $45). Eco-filters are starting to show up in many Latin American households as a safe, sustainable way to purify water. The filter is made out of natural materials (clay, sawdust, and colloidal silver) and needs to be replaced once a year (a new filter costs 200 Quetzales). The receptacle has a 16-gallon capacity and a spout at the bottom. I keep my eco-filter in my room and fill the clay pot maybe every other day with faucet water; it takes two to three days for a full pot of water to filter through to the receptacle. I can drink as much as I want, use however much I want for cooking and brushing my teeth, and still have enough to share! I will never have to worry about water or paying for it since I paid all upfront (just have to buy a new filter next July). I did the math, and the total Q550 that I will have spent on my eco-filter by the end of my service is less than half of what I would have spent buying Agua Salvavidas (and the water-dispensing unit that goes along with it) for two years. I got a couple other PCVs in my group to jump on the band wagon with me, and all of us are extremely satisfied with our purchases, especially when we hear stories of PCVs running after water trucks and of host families monitoring household water usage. I LOVE my eco-filter!!! (See? I told you I was smart. Hehee).  Ok…I’ll stop gloating now.

This is a view of my site, San Andres, at dusk from the top of one of the surrounding hills.

With the settling-in allowance that PC gave us, I did some serious damage directed toward room set-up and kitchenware. When I arrived in my first room, I was confronted by a daunting emptiness. I went for almost a week without a bed. (Russell, that travel sack sleeping bag is amazing)! Now, before I departed for Peace Corps, I had decided that if I were going to be living in conditions with meager access to comfort-related amenities, the least I could do was make sure my sleeping space was slightly luxurious. On the suggested packing list, PC had put “a set of full-sized sheets,” so I went on a mission to find the prettiest, softest, yet most reasonable sheets that I could use for two years. I happily concluded my search when I settled on a set of full-sized, 500 thread count, 100% Pike cotton (I don’t know what the difference is from any other sort of cotton, but this detail is helping me embellish my description), made in Portugal sheets  with matching pillow cases in Iris-purple – fit for a queen. So I had been toting my sheets around, just waiting for the right bed to dress with my luxury item when I went to the furniture store to make my purchase. Some people were trying to convince me to go for a smaller, less expensive bed, like a twin, because I was living in a small room at the time. But I am 24 years old and have 1) never bought a bed for myself and 2) never had a bed of my own that was bigger than an extra-long twin or a double. Even my two younger brothers both had bigger beds than I had! Granted, they are 5-10 inches taller than me and have bigger feet and muscles and all that jazz, but still… For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to pick out exactly what kind of bed I wanted, and I wasn’t budging. There was no way that I was going to keep my pretty purple sheets locked up in my suitcase for two years while I slept on another twin bed. Oh-no. So I went big. I picked out the best quality, full-sized bed that I could find – although I was partially influenced by the color of the mattresses themselves (tealish-blue with purple/pink), and paid in full, spending more than half of the allotted settling-in allowance. I now sleep like a baby every single night embraced in purple softness with a thin, grayish-blue flower-designed blanket. I can sleep on the left side of the bed or the right, diagonally or smack dab in the middle with all my limbs splayed out like the five points of a star. It’s great! And so worth it. Even though things are shaping up to be pretty posh for me here, my bed will always be that number one comfort “zone.”

To set up the rest of my room, I stuck to the blue-purple-teal theme and started with items to get organized and cleaning supplies since I do not really function well when I am surrounded by disorder and messes – who does? I visited some carpenters in town and placed an order for some wooden shelves. It was pretty neat to be able to walk in and draw a picture of what I wanted and give them exact measurements of length, height, and distance between the shelves and then have the shelves in my sketch show up at my house a few days later. Now I have a sturdy, wooden, six-compartment set of shelves that will act both as my bookcase and my dresser, as well as the dwelling place to some other knick-knacks and such. And I have a dependable carpenter right around the corner! Everything else in my room is made out of plastic – 2 stools, a small table to prop up my eco-filter, plastic baskets for food storage and kitchen supplies, and two 3-tiered storage basket units. I also immediately invested in a flyswatter and a broom, a.k.a. the spider-killer – they are much less intimidating from four feet away. Then there are the cleaning supplies: soaps, scrubbers, disinfectants, and rags – to clean up the spider guts, of course, along with the occasional moth, ant, or mosquito. Luckily, I haven’t had to deal with unbelievably sized creepy crawlers, and I really am trying VERY hard to overcome my fear of spiders. Lastly, I started up my kitchen collection with a couple fantastic knives, a cutting board, a peeler, two non-stick frying pans, a lidded pot, and a bunch of plastic dishes and storage containers. My last two kitchen items are the grandest of all: I have a pressure cooker AND a blender!!! I am going to make magic happen in the kitchen! This is definitely not the Peace Corps I had in mind, and I think you can all agree with me now that I am utterly spoiled. Family and friends: feel free to visit – I’ll make you nice and comfortable and feed you well. 🙂

Well, it turns out that I actually spent WAY more money than I was really supposed to due to an un-cashed check I wrote to PC in early July to pay them back for money they lent me because they were having problems setting up my bank account for two weeks in the beginning (they had misspelled my last name). For some reason, I thought they were going to cash the check right away, and I don’t have easy access to my bank account so I couldn’t monitor it, and I ended up using almost all of what I assumed was my monthly allowance. When the PC finance lady e-mailed me a week ago and told me she was cashing my check that day, I had to call her and tell her that it probably wouldn’t be such a good idea. Oops! Hehehee. So that BIG check is coming out of my September allowance which is going to make for an interesting month. Lol. So much for Monterico again! HAHA! But, hey, at least I have my room set up all comfortably and my delightful cooking supplies ready and waiting…

Hike up a hill! This view includes many of the aldeas around San Andres, and the little strip of town (by my face) is Canilla.

To wrap up the setting of my new town, I’ll indulge on the great outdoors. The endless hills provide plenty of opportunity for a heartbeat-rising hike any time of the day. There is one we like to go up every now and then that has a great view of the whole town of San Andrés, and from the top of the hill next to it, we can pretty much see the majority of the surrounding aldeas and over to the next town, Canillá. There is no gym here to workout in, but when I want to run, I have my choice of routes: the road toward Canillá is winding with lots of hills so I can go that way when I want a good challenge, and, now that I moved and am closer to a different road that exits toward another town, I can run that direction for a mostly flat, straight-shot until I feel like turning around. On top of that, I could have my very own personal trainer if I wanted to. My sitemate, Perry, is from Arizona, also majored in biology (like me! Only he did chemistry, too), played soccer for Northern Arizona University, and comes from a line of Peace Corps family including his parents, who met in the PC in Costa Rica, his aunt, his cousin, and his oldest sister – who did PC in Nicaragua and ended up marrying a Nicaraguan whose last name is Nicaragua. (Every time Perry or I recount that detail of his sister’s story, I just think it’s the funniest thing). After graduation, he was playing semi-pro soccer in Washington and working as a personal trainer on a military base with his focus on cross-fit. He has already constructed a makeshift gym with weights and bench-press at the back of the Health Center with some of the guys who work there. So if I ever really felt like getting my butt whipped into shape, I know who would be willing to put me to work! I haven’t felt like it yet. I enjoy my runs and mellow workouts at home, but it’s nice to know I have that option. Sometimes, on really hot days, we can walk to the edge of town and take this little path down to our very own natural swimming pools for a dip. The two cement pools are man-made, but they were built right where the stream runs down to a river, so they fill up with natural spring water and anyone can use them. (Someone is paid by the town to clean them out weekly, I think). Pretty cool, huh? That’s not all. During the colder months, people retreat to a different spot about a 15-minute drive out of town called Aguas Calientes – so named because of the natural hot springs – and they go hot-tubbing! I haven’t been there yet since the rain flow into the river interferes with the hot spring effect, but I can’t wait to get out there sometime between November and February. I’ve heard that people have boiled eggs in the hot springs – that’s how hot they can get. The very last enchanting detail of my town is the fireflies. They start illuminating right around dusk with either a greenish or orangey glow. If I go for a run, I usually am returning just as dusk is rolling in, so as I get into town, I am greeted with my little sparkling fans buzzing about in the greenery on the sides of the road, welcoming me back. (At least that’s the way I look at it)! The very first time this happened, I got that warm, fuzzy feeling – like the one you get when you are at Disneyland watching the fireworks show at the end of the night and Tinkerbell comes out and waves her wand in sync with the show, all the while with “When You Wish Upon A Star” playing on the loudspeakers. Well, it’s not Disneyland out here, but at least the fireflies can evoke the same feelings I might have at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (By the way, I’m not quite sure where all these Disney references in my writing are coming from, but I guess it goes to show what an influential guy Walt Disney was)!

Swimming in our natural pools at the edge of the forest with two girls from town.

Perry's makeshift gym at the Health Center. He and the guys poured the cement for all the weights and constructed the benchpress.

As magnificent as my new town and living set-up are, unfortunately, not everything out here is just as peachy. There have to be some obstacles – or bumps in the road, rather. Let me actually start with the road and transportation. Not good. First of all, the road is not paved. To get to Quiché, which we use to refer to the capital, Santa Cruz del Quiché, where our bank and big stores are, it takes anywhere from 1 hour, 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on what type of vehicle we are in, who is driving, and what the road conditions are. (Make it 3 hours if your bus overheats and breaks down 10 minutes after the ayudante added water to the engine from a stream via large plastic bag, and then you wait on the side of the road with a bunch of Gautemalans for almost an hour until a “rescue bus” comes for all of you). Our public transportation is either a camioneta (chicken bus) or a micro bus, but those only depart San Andrés for Quiché every hour from 4:30 in the morning till 8:45 and then again at 12:30, 1:15, and sometimes 2 PM. And then that’s it for the day. So if you want to go to town and you miss the bus, you’re SOL – unless you can catch a ride with a random passing pickup truck, but there are no guarantees. Lots of people have pickups out here, and often people just load up in the bed standing or sitting, ride to their stop, then pay a small “pasaje,” or fare, to the driver. We’ve ridden in plenty of pickups to get out to the aldeas; one time we even shared the back with a couple of goats. Another common way to get around is via motorcycles or “motos,” which are very convenient for traveling the up-and-down, winding, unpaved, country roads. PCVs technically do not have permission to ride on motos, unless there is absolutely no other safer option under a desperate circumstance; they are “too dangerous.” Back to the rocky dirt road between Quiché and San Andrés. Did I mention it wraps around the sides and edges of hills and mountains? With no guard rail of any sort? And no lanes? Oh, and by the way, seatbelts don’t really exist here either; I’ve worn a seatbelt once in the last five weeks. Must have something to do with the fatalist culture – if you’re meant to die in a car accident, well it’s going to happen no matter what so why try to prevent it? Apparently, there was money set aside a couple years ago to get the road paved, but somewhere along the line between the political officials and guys who lay the asphalt, some Q80,000 disappeared. Everyone knows that the money was there once upon a time and that there is nothing they can do about it now. Elections are coming up in a week or two; maybe the next round of officials will make that road happen! Until then, everyone is stuck with a roller coaster ride home. Right now, the road is terribly worse due to the rain. There is SO much mud. It’s like the micros are playing slip-n-slide on the side of a mountain. So exciting!!!  It’s even more exciting when the micros can’t climb a hill because the mud is so deep or the camionetas have to break out their chains or even when one side of a pickup or bus slides accidentally into a ditch on the side of the road – and then add a downpour while you’re waiting for the situation to get resolved! (Welcome to the day I arrived in site). No matter what the roads are like, though, the transportation is rather dependable for getting from point A to point B; you just never know what’s going to happen along the way.

Me in the back of a pickup with a goat, on my way home from an aldea.

Perry with the goat!

Another extremely annoying aspect of Guatemalan living is the endless noise. This country is so flippin’ LOUD. First you have the camionetas; when a chicken bus is passing, you can’t hear a doggone thing. Then there are all the other vehicles honking their horns and such. They also have pickup trucks that drive around town with giant speakers in the beds blaring marimba music or rambling off announcements or advertisements. It’s the worst when they camp right in front of your house. Also, households can get away with playing music at whatever volume they feel like – often for the whole neighborhood to hear. The thing about noisy neighbors, though, is that you can’t say anything. Guatemala has a culture in which using direct communication is generally not the way to go about things. So to avoid an awkward moment, you just let your neighbors do as they please and mind your own business. It’s funny how touchy Americans are about disruptive neighbors while Guatemalans just accept it as a part of life. (Different cultural views on how much power an individual has – individualism vs. collectivism – probably has something to do with this, as well). A few more man-made noises are generators/motors that start-up at 6 in the morning and firecrackers and “bombas” – big, booming firecracker that sounds like a gunshot (only much louder) and makes your heart jump every time – that people use for celebrations. Celebrations for birthdays, weddings, confirmations, first communions, holidays, and saints’ feast days, among others. I’m pretty sure every day of the year is marked as a feast day for some saint or another, but the birthdays are the worst. Firecrackers are set off at 4:30 or 5 in the morning right outside the birthday person’s house. What a great birthday wake-up call, huh? I think I’m not going to tell anyone in this town when my birthday is – or I’ll just skip town when it rolls around. The last of the noise, but least controllable of all, comes from the animals. The street dogs go crazy and get into street fights every night. Once one dog starts howling, they all join in. Then there are the roosters. Whoever went around telling people that roosters crow when the sun comes up was fibbing. Roosters have serious problems with their egos and think they should be heard whenever they feel like making noise. 9:30 at night or midnight, perhaps? How about 2 in the morning? And then again at 4:30, just so they can beat the rising sun. Good thing I’m a heavy sleeper. Last, and definitely the worst, is Señor Burrito, the donkey who lives in the field by my old place. He was worse than the roosters, baying away at the same sorts of hours, only louder. Have you ever heard a donkey cry out? It starts off with an extremely high-pitched scream that stretches anywhere from 4 to 8 seconds before he starts the chronic hee-hawing – also high-pitched. He thinks he’s dying or something. I know, Señor Burrito, the horses pick on you and nip at your neck, and your tail just isn’t as full, long, or attractive as theirs, but really? Wailing as loud as you can isn’t going to change anything. Well, just when I started scheming on ways to shut burrito man up, I moved. That was the end of that. And my new house is off the main road and away from any fields. It is nice and peaceful, and I can actually hear my own music when I turn it on.

Probably the hardest part about being in a new town is dealing with the people. Not only are we new, but we are gringos, as well. For the first couple months in site, at least, most PCVs feel like they are in a fish bowl. Everyone stares at you and watches every thing you do. People want to know where you came from, what you are going to do for the day, and what your plans are for the weekend. In a sense, it is almost like celebrity status. We are new, different, and interesting – and everyone wants to know if we are casado or soltero, married or single. Perry has already received the secret admirer texts: “How good-looking you are!” While I’m obviously not married, my answer tends to be “más o menos” or “a veces” (sometimes) to pretty much all the personal questions that get thrown my way, and I am careful about who has my phone number. This is also a small town and gossip spreads like wildfire; it is called “chisme” here, and since there aren’t abundant options for entertainment, chisme is the main source. After seven years in the restaurant industry, plus attending relatively small schools and working in the small town of Los Gatos just before joining PC, I understand how gossip permeates the lives of closely associated people and know that it’s best to fly under the radar. We especially have to be careful in the first couple months because it takes awhile for people to gain confianza (trust, confidence) in outsiders so a wrong step could seriously affect the progress of our work. A fish can’t jump out of its bowl whenever it feels like, though, so right now, there is added pressure. It’s like joining a sports team that has been together for a couple years; there is an initial trial period during which you have to prove yourself before the already tight team really accepts you. And no one is interested in your talk – they want to see the walk. That’s my strategy: try to stay out of the talk and let my actions speak for themselves. Of course, this will take time.

The other people problem many of us have been encountering has to do with testing boundaries. People will push in the beginning to see how much they can get. Unfortunately, gringos – which basically qualifies all light-skinned non-Latin American people – are associated with money and wealth so they are often the targets of people trying to take advantage. It’s a strange but common “how much can I get?” mentality. It has been especially difficult for those of us who moved in with families or into communities that are not familiar with Peace Corps. Pedro’s new host dad asked if he could borrow Pedro’s laptop and use his internet because he had gotten a virus on his own; he later requested to use a pair of Pedro’s sandals (after he had entered Pedro’s locked room while Pedro was away and spotted the sandals). Pedro made the mistake of saying yes both times. (Pedro ended up moving out after a couple weeks). In the first week at his site, Warren had people coming by his house and offering him tortillas or some other food item, then asking him if he would give them 100 Quetzales. Others who would come by to “greet” him stood outside the front door looking over his shoulder the whole time trying to see what he had in his house and then asking if they could have whatever they saw. The last, most entertaining visitor is a woman who frequently stops by his house and asks him if he’s “looking for a woman,” and then she tries to take his household items. According to volunteers who have been in country for a while, this behavior is normal; they advise us to hold our ground in the beginning and loosen up after some time when it feels comfortable. I haven’t had too many boundary testing requests, just the woman from my first house wanting to use my cell phone to make calls because she was out of credit on her own phone. Then her 10-year-old daughter wanted to sleep in my bed with me. That one didn’t fly.

When we get to site, we first move in with a family that PC has picked out for us and [kind of] negotiated rent. Once we step foot in site by ourselves though, we are on our own, making our own business negotiations and finding our way without PC getting involved. These families are different than our community-based training town families. The families who took us in during PST are used to having trainees and working with PC. Most of the time, the families in our site are not. And there are definitely negatives to living with some of these new families. Perry only spent four days in his first house, and I only lasted a month. When I first met the host family during site visit, I didn’t have the best feeling, but I wanted to – in Peace Corps spirit – give the situation some time and try to adapt. It seemed that every day I had to pep talk myself into saying that I would find the balance very soon. Each day got more awkward, though. The roles with our CBT families are clearly defined; in this house, they weren’t. I wasn’t sure what the woman wanted – she would yell up to me from downstairs the way she did with her daughters, try to get me to go drink and party with her and share secrets as if we were best friends, then act very distant while she showed me the electricity bill and told me how expensive it was and that Guatemalans are accustomed to taking cold water baths, implying that she didn’t want me using the warm shower. (Electricity and water were included in my rent). I never received a key to my house or my room, anyone could get into my room because there were 3 panes of glass missing on my door window, and, one of the 4 times I was locked out of the house, the woman showed me how to break in using a piece of paper. Nice and UNsafe. I also felt very monitored as she always wanted to know where I was going, what I was doing, and what time I would be back along with watching me cook, eat, and clean. As soon as things escalated to the petty level and people at the Health Center started approaching me asking how my living situation was going (because apparently the woman decided to take her opinions and share them at the Health Center, where we both work), I decided to give up on finding a balance. She had called PC, told them I was using a bunch of her stuff, and demanded that I increase rent by 40%. That wasn’t going to happen…

The white house is where I used to live. It was a pretty nice place except for the security issues and company.

After plenty of experience trying to rationalize with manipulative people and realizing that it is never going to happen, the only thing I knew to do was get out – and fast. It’s a terrible feeling knowing that you need to get out, but you have nowhere else to go. Been there, done that, and to have to experience it again really really sucked. It was the most miserable two days out here so far. (Mom, I am sorry I called you and burst into tears, but I really needed that pep talk, so thank you). Here we are, having left friends, family, and many things comfortable behind to come out here and help some people only to be greeted by people who don’t care what we are doing and are only interested in how much they can get from us. Maybe I was expecting too much, but most Guatemalans have hospitality running through their veins, and after living with such a warm and generous host family in Alotenango and then being switched to a cold, unwelcome environment really threw me for a loop. It made me realize that it is the people here who are going to make or break the positive experience, just as in most things in life. And you will find the same personality types all around the world, only fine-tuned with the culture pick. Some people are just better off not living together because their personalities just don’t flow. That was the case here. As soon as I found a new place, I let the woman know that I was moving, and I got out within a couple hours. Everything was civil, some thank yous and goodbyes, and I was off to a fresh start – and so relieved. From the moment I crossed the threshold of my new place, I already felt the warmth and kindness overflowing. This is a calm, peaceful, and open home, once again bringing to mind some of the benevolent, generous people who have welcomed me into their homes in the past. It makes me want to have a home someday where people come in and feel relaxed and at peace. I have future plans to set up a spectacular guest room in my house once I get a home of my own. (That probably won’t be for a little while, though)…

Lastly, I will brief you on the whirlwind of thoughts swirling in my head as far as personal development goes. Before I embarked on my Peace Corps adventure, I was saying things like, “I want to find myself.” Well, after four months in country, I have realized that I already know myself pretty well – what I like, how I work, who I want to be around, etc.; now, it’s just a matter of developing that person and getting back in touch with myself. I have had a list of projects I’ve been wanting to do, books that I’ve been wanting to read, music I’ve been wanting to learn and perform, and things I’ve been wanting to study (I’ve saved vocabulary lists from grade school, Spanish workbooks from high school, and biology textbooks from college with the plan to dig back into them), but my projects always seemed so distant as I pushed them to the side. When I was in high school, my guidance counselor and now very close friend of mine, Cynthia, used to tell me all the time, “Alex, you need to take care of number one; if you’re not taking care of yourself, how are you going to sustain taking care of other people?” I always understood the concept, but implementing it was another story. Taking care of other people is practically encoded in my genes, and I find that out of a fear of being selfish, I give and give and give to make other people happy. I know that at least some of you who are reading this can relate. Now, I am starting to work with the idea that selfishness and self-love are NOT one and the same, and that loving oneself is a very healthy practice because it uncovers the light within and gives one confidence to shine out – and share that light with others. For too long, I haven’t been taking care of me. When I look back and try to find a reason as to why I haven’t tackled all those projects I wanted to get to, I wonder, “What the heck was I doing?” Well, I determined that since I don’t like to disappoint people or miss out on anything, I was spreading myself thin among people who wanted my time and letting short-term distractions consume my life all for the sake of pleasing others, I guess. For what – to boost my ego? I’m not quite sure, but I can honestly say that it was very stressful and extremely draining. Giving away too many pieces of yourself so freely may result in not having much of anything left for the things or people you really care about and have passion for. If you don’t give yourself some time and “soul food,” how are you ever going to be healthy, energetic, and complete enough to fully commit and give yourself to something you believe in? I know what I believe in – it has a lot to do with why I am here in Guatemala – and am trying to be careful not to let frivolous distractions cloud my vision.

Here, now, I am making the time to finally start really taking care of me and doing what I want to do. I’ve read 3 books already this month and am on to the fourth, I run and workout regularly, I wear my French-braid outside the house now, I sing and play my music all the time (in my room), I am cooking fantastic meals for myself, trying new recipes, and experimenting with new foods, and I am writing every day. I feel free to let my passions unfold. I am learning to cater to my own physical, psychological, and spiritual health needs, and although it is slow, I feel a little stronger every day. I’m not used to being alone or by myself for such long periods of time, but if this is what it takes to get back in touch with the person I am and want to become, then bring it on. It’s not exactly easy, and I have gone through more mood swings than I thought possible – even for a woman, but I think those come with the territory and the nature of this experience.

To close on a positive note, Perry and I have been successfully integrating into our workplace and getting to know our counterparts and some of the aldeas fairly well. I will delve into that topic in the next chapter, though!

Perry caught this shot of me with two our our counterparts, Rosa and Marli, walking to one of the aldeas in which we may be working.

I broke my promise. I said this chapter wouldn’t be as long as the last one, but I just couldn’t stop writing. I bet all my past teachers who could never get me to write would be (and are) wondering where this cascade of words is coming from. I was the girl who always seemed to have writers’ block. (I should have told them that all you have to do is send me out of the country and I’ll write like crazy)! I have failed classes, postponed college graduation, and got moved out of a PC Africa placement (in exchange for Guatemala!) all because I haven’t been able to write very many papers in a timely fashion. And I have gotten a lot of crap for it from family, friends, and even unbelieving strangers. Well, my papers and writing habits have been my claim to notoriety for the last 10 years, so I might as well continue making my mark in the writing realm. Maybe I can remedy that notoriety thing and turn it the other way. Anyway, thanks for being a part of it!

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Thank you to Mom, Teri, and Grandma for the cards, packages, and photos! I LOVE mail days! 😀

Happy Birthday to my handful of fabulous girlfriends who all have birthdays within a week and a half before and after today – Agustina, Krista, Fiona, and Elease! Wish I could be there celebrate with you!!!

*I lost my camera a month and a half ago so have been short on photos. Missing so many great photo opportunities! (Thanks Perry and Jelmer for sharing some of your photos). But I am dealing with insurance paperwork for my claim and have another camera on the way, so hopefully I’ll be able to capture some neat shots pretty soon.*

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Elease
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 16:13:13

    Ally,

    First of all, thank you for the birthday wishes. As I approach 25 I find myself looking for calmer and more intimate birthday celebrations. I plan to celebrate with just a few close friends over dinner in San Francisco. I will be thinking of you. I miss you so much and I miss our connection and our deep conversations.

    I’m so happy that this blog arrived on my two week vacation! I just spent an hour reading over it slowly and taking it all in. I just returned from a peaceful camping trip with my dad, my two brothers, and Bobby’s girlfriend Elena. (Miguel had school).

    I laughed out loud when I read that you sat in a pick-up truck with GOATS!
    Funny! I enjoyed hearing about the warmth that you feel with your new family. I’m sorry to hear your last experience was awkward and uncomfortable. It sounds like you escaped in the best way that you could.

    You are always so creative with your bedrooms. I can just imagine how you are piecing your room together in your special way that you do. I have so many fond memories of our college rooms and the hours we spent looking over them talking til the early hours of the morning.

    Many of the pictures you attached remind me a lot of Ireland. It’s very green and hilly like these pictures. I miss that sense of traveling and finding myself through meeting new people and seeing new things. I admire your experiences you are gaining. You write with such great detail I almost feel like I am there experiencing your challenges and excitements.

    It’s comforting to hear that you are having such a positive experience in the Peace Corps (for the most part:)). I liked how you concluded your blog about how this experience is helping you find yourself and get to know yourself and most importantly that you are learning to take care of yourself even in such a new and challenging adaptation.

    I really would love to learn Spanish fluently. I need to buy CD’s and listen to them constantly and HELLO..use MIGUEL for practice! 😉 If we do have children I would love for them to be fluent in Spanish and English.

    We recently offered on a house in Concord that we are really hoping to get. It’s actually the 5th house we have offered on but this was is in a court, it’s new, it’s quiet, it’s only 5 miles from work, and I can just see us making a lot of memories there. I’ll keep you updated 🙂

    What time of things would you appreciate in a package? You wouldn’t use the type of stamps we use? How about socks? Or clothes? Or journals? Anything else I could add that you have had on your mind? I will confirm your address in an e-mail.

    I love you and miss you Ally. I look forward to continuing our lunches and pedicures when you return. In the meantime, I will be there reading your blogs, sending you packages, and supporting you and thinking about you.

    Love,
    Elease

    Reply

  2. Momma
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 17:10:53

    Oh, Alexandra ! You had me so laughing at some of the funniest things you wrote ! You probably don’t realize that the pictures of you, your phone calls (even crying [Lol !] ), and your writings ARE “Soul Food” for Momma whilst you are in Guatemala. I do so miss you and am very proud of the way you choose to handle things that make you uncomfortable. I am so happy that your great bed makes you feel luxurious ! I get it ! Love you bunches and bunches ! Momma 🙂

    Reply

  3. Christina
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 21:42:27

    Hi Alex,

    I’m having so much fun reading about all of your adventures! I’m definitely behind in my reading, but I will absolutely keep my word and read every one (although not in the most timely fashion lol). I think about you often and feel inspired by your accounts of life in a distant land. Aundrea and I are trying to save up so we can visit!

    Love,
    Christina

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 17, 2012 @ 15:43:53

      Christina! It is so nice to hear from you! That would be awesome if you and Aundrea could make it out to visit. From what I have seen, the average price for a round trip ticket is $500-$650, but I have heard of both higher and lower prices than that. I have a year and a half left! 😀

      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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