Heigh Ho! It’s Off to Work We Go!

Because so many of you have been dying of curiosity to know just exactly what it is that I do here every day (and have thus been inquiring) , this whole chapter is devoted to satisfying that interest and giving a little insight as to what constitutes Peace Corps “work.” Let me start with the history of PC at my site. The first PCVs, Mat and Sarah, arrived in San Andrés in summer 2008; they were a married couple. They were part of the same program as us (Healthy Homes) although I believe that it was called something else in 2008 and doubled up with a “Healthy Schools” focus as well. According to their Close-of-Service (COS) report, they worked together in a couple schools in aldeas (villages) around San Andrés and completed  infrastructure projects (cement floors) for about 20 homes in an aldea called Limón. They also worked closely with a non-governmental organization (NGO) out here called Water for People. They completed service in summer 2010. That year they were going to be replaced by a male and female volunteer, but only one male volunteer, Shawn, ended up arriving. Shawn did an early termination (ET) of service within his first month in site due to family-related stuff back home. So it had been about a year between volunteers by the time Perry and I arrived. The “guy in charge” here who works with Basilio and the PC program is Dr. Nájera. He requested to have both a male and female volunteer placed here. In my opinion, the situation Perry and I are walking into couldn’t be better. We are not first-time volunteers so we are not completely starting from scratch; the doctor and a handful of other people in the health center and around town are already familiar with what PC does and/or knew Mat and Sarah. However, since we are not direct replacements, we are not stuck in the “Mat and Sarah” shadow, and we have the wiggle room to create our own identities and do our own work. In regards to whether we will be replaced, our work is aimed at both the sustainability of healthy lifestyle practices in the communities in which we will be working and of the PC program. There are 69 aldeas of San Andrés; there is no way that Perry and I can do effective work in all of them – we are shooting for 4 to 6, at most. There is definitely room for PC to expand the program here; however, there have been some recent changes in the Healthy Homes project, namely cutting the number of new volunteers per year in half due to the security state of the country as well as changing the time of the year that the HH program starts. So although we are aiming for sustainability, having replacements will depend on the progress of our work and the availability of new volunteers. But I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Back to the here and now…

Well, we are not exactly working with seven itty-bitty men; instead, Perry and I have been paired up to work with four little women. I am going to veer off-topic for a moment here to make note of the physical stature of Guatemalans: they are small people. At 5’6” and coming from a family where my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and all but one of my six siblings are taller than me (mostly lingering a few inches above or below six feet), I have never considered myself “tall and slender,” simply average height and even short – if my older sisters have any say in the matter! But I realize now that when considering height, it is all relative, and out here, sometimes I feel like a giant. I am practically a whole head taller than a lot of the people, especially women, whom I encounter. The Guatemalan body type for both men and women seems to be very straight and slightly curvy on women. And not all Guatemalans are little – the more rural you go, the smaller they seem to be. This trend in physique probably is somewhat based on genetics, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the main culprit is the incessant malnutrition that has crept into the history of the people in rural villages out here. I am going to reserve my analysis of the Guatemalan diet and more on malnutrition for my food and eating chapter (next!), but I do want to mention that learning more about the deep-rooted health issues here such as this one reveals where the knowledge and education are lacking and opens up a lot of opportunity for “work.”

Three of our four counterparts. From left, Pascuala, Rosa, & Magdalena.

Before PCVs arrive at site, Basilio works with the counterpart agency, usually a health post or center, in each community to arrange for work partners for each volunteer. In most occasions, each PCV is set up with one “counterpart” with whom he or she is supposed to work for the next two years. In our situation, Basilio and Dr. Nájera decided that Perry and I will have our “four little women” counterparts between the two of us. These girls are not the same counterparts who were assigned to Mat and Sarah and so have not worked with PCVs before. All four ladies work at the health center. Magdalena, Pascuala, and Marli all have the title of educadora/enfermera (educator/nurse), and Rosa is an educadora. When it comes to working with us, Rosa is sort of the leader of the group. Not only is she the oldest at 22, but she has a fantastic personality and charisma that I think the others look up to – a certain independence and maturity. She is also married and has a 5-month-old baby boy. Magdalena, 20, is a little spitfire with a ton of energy, not as much patience, and plenty of laughter to go around; she gets things done and knows how to keep people in line. Pascuala, 21, has a very sweet nature and is a little more timid than the others, but she and Magdalena are like two peas in a pod; they rent a room together in town and act like sisters. We have the least contact with Marli, 19, because we don’t see her all the time – she is in charge of a health post in one of the aldeas. (Health posts are associated with [rural] aldeas, whereas health centers are usually found in higher-populated small towns). Marli is a hard worker and definitely knows what she is doing. So Perry and I, at 25 and 24 respectively, are not only older than all of our counterparts, but we are also the “Licenceados” who attended university and have Bachelors’ degrees. We are in a position where they are looking to us for direction when it comes to the work we do. At the same time, though, we look to them to see how things are done and to learn how to interact with the communities and learn the ropes, per se. I believe there is a lot of respect and patience among the six of us and together, we will make a great team. I have really enjoyed getting to know them during these first few months. I am getting especially close to Rosa and have a feeling that we are going to have a lovely friendship; she is someone I have been able to confide in and with whom I share a lot of my thoughts and ideas. We have learned that Mat and Sarah didn’t really work with their counterpart, but we have sort of decided that we are not going to do any work without ours; it is supposed to be a partnership. I believe that in order to achieve sustainability, it has to be the people here who keep things going, and these young women are so eager to learn from us and are already picking up on some of our teaching styles and activities so why not share with them as much as we can while we are here? I’m not an expert on everything health-related, but I am realizing that I know more than I thought I did (and have some resources here to continue that learning), and what I do know might be able to help effect some positive changes in people’s health and well-being out here. What’s the point of having an education if you are not going to do anything with it? In addition to just being all-around fantastic, three of our four counterparts speak K’iche and act as translators for us. Yep – we definitely need them!

An illustration of her playful personality, here Magdalena is throwing a stick into a tree to get the fruit, jocote, down to eat. This girl is ALWAYS fruit-hunting in trees!

So what is a typical workday like? Well, our base is the health center, although this is not where we do our “work.” When we first got to site, we were showing up at the health center at 8 AM, Monday through Friday. Dr. Nájera told us that he wanted us to take about three months of just kind of hanging out so the people get used to seeing us and having us around. He said everything is tranquilo here – “mucho relax.” Perfect. Really. I’m not being sarcastic. There is no pressure. I don’t do very well when people push me to do something and I am not ready or prepared for it. Perry also likes to go at a slow, efficient pace. We have heard of other PCVs who got busy right away, but that just wouldn’t work for us here. This time is crucial for us to get our bearings, filter ideas, and most importantly, build relationships with both our counterparts and some of the communities in which we plan to work. So a regular day at the health center consists of…well, not too much. Working hours are from 8 AM till noon, then after a two-hour lunch, the afternoon shift is from 2 PM until 4:30. The health center offers 24-hour emergency care, but most people come in for consultations, vaccinations, etc. in the mornings. Perry and I, however, hardly ever interact with the patients. We just “hang out” with the educators and a bunch of other health center staff. To be honest, it can get boring, but the doctor knows his culture better than we do, and I understand that time needs to be invested FIRST before anybody opens their doors to us. It is all about trust, or “confianza,” as they say here. And Guatemalans are not quick to trust. Once we learned that our counterparts go out to aldeas a couple times a week, we started going out there with them. Dr. Nájera didn’t want us to jump into any aldea work right away, but we suggested that it is a good way for the people to “get used to us” and he agreed. He had already picked out two aldeas for us to work in before we got to site, but he said we should get to know as many aldeas as possible so we can see what we like and pick maybe one or two more each to focus on. So every chance I get to go out to an aldea, I jump on it. On the other days, we are in the health center, and I feel like we have had a lot of success so far in regards to integration in the workplace. We have started to bring reading or Spanish materials to study while we are there so we can feel at least somewhat productive. We have weaned off some (I hardly ever go in during the afternoons anymore), and the people there are used to us coming and going sporadically and sometimes separately now; they know most of what we will be doing will be in the aldeas. Some other PCVs got stuck in a rigid 8 to 4:30 schedule at their workplaces and everyone there expects them to show up, but nothing goes on; I am glad Perry and I established a loose and flexible schedule here. We have been warned by other PCVs that if you take on too much too soon, you will get overwhelmed and might not be able to follow through with all the projects you start. But there is only so much sitting around doing nothing that I can take. Another piece of advice from past PCVs: “If you want work, go find it. It won’t come to you.” And so, out to the aldeas we go!

This is our "office" where we work at the health center. Rosa is standing; the other girls, Josabet and Maholly, also work in there and in some aldeas, as well.

This is an example of a typical hike to an aldea. We are on our way to Pajquiej!

As part of their jobs, our counterparts are each assigned to a handful of aldeas which they must visit once a month to weigh the children under five, hand out vitamin or nutrient supplements, and sometimes give vaccinations. Some of our counterparts also make house visits to monitor the progress and growth of conspicuously undernourished children. We probably go out with them to two or three aldeas per week. Sometimes we can get a ride in a pickup if one passes by, but otherwise we walk. Depending on the aldea, we have walked any amount of time from twenty minutes to an hour and a half to get there, and it really is great exercise, although it can get hot. I LOVE going out to the different aldeas! This is where you can really get a glimpse of the indigenous lifestyle. My guess is that 70-95% of the people in each village speak K’iche, and there are many who do not even understand Spanish. When we go out to an aldea, we set up at the grade school where all the women (and occasionally a few men) bring their children. We hang the baby-weighing scale from some beam up above and sometimes have a regular scale with us as well to weigh the bigger kids. So most of what we do in the aldeas right now is weigh babies. And how exciting it can be! Some of the little ones absolutely detest the baby-weighing scale. I don’t blame them. It consists of a material harness that they have to slip their legs through, and then we drape the strap of the harness over a metal hook that is attached to a dangling scale like a swing, and the kids are just hanging there. So each morning is filled with squirmy, screaming munchkins. Most of the kids are really good and calm, though; there are usually only one or two wild and crazy ones, kicking and yelping and stuff. Something I have noticed is that the use of diapers for babies/toddlers is an uncommon and barely existent practice out here. Oftentimes, the children will be wet and/or smell like urine, and that is just “normal.” Luckily, it’s only a fraction of the kids per group – not every one! Sometimes before we start the baby weighing, either one of us or one of our counterparts will give a 15-20 minute charla, or informational talk. So far, I’ve done a couple charlas on diarrhea prevention, methods of water purification, and breastfeeding. Over the last couple months, I have really enjoyed interacting with the people in the aldeas and just getting to know the different communities and geography around San Andrés. From the children to the mothers and from the schools to the landscapes, each aldea has a unique character. It is really interesting to compare the routes to get to each one and then observe the many different mannerisms and ambiances of each community and its people.

Each aldea has its unique route; in order to get to Tzitzima, we have to cross a river. (This time, I lost my balance a little and ended up with a socked-foot in the muddy water. Here I am rinsing out my sock). America and Pascuala are getting set to continue our journey...

Perry is baby-weighing in Pajquiej.

Just as everything about these aldeas is new and interesting to us, many of the people in the aldeas are fascinated by us as they have never seen “gringos” before. A lot of the women and children stare at us and when we try to talk to them, they just grin, giggle, and turn away – even when we are trying to speak to them in K’iche. When some of the babies take a look at me or Perry, they get a terrified look in their eyes, start crying, and cling to their mothers; this happens regularly. Rosa tells me that the ladies comment on my blue eyes a lot. Light-colored eyes, often referred to as “celeste,” are extremely rare out here. Most people have a dark brown eye color, although I have seen a handful of young girls and women who have hazel eyes that are just striking with their skin tone and features. If the hazel eyes catch my attention and I have seen plenty of hazel eyes in my lifetime, you can only imagine how blue or green eyes would stand out to people who rarely leave their village. One time we were working in a really far aldea and a couple of the little girls were immediately taken by me. They started out by staring at me, then they began sneaking up behind me, poking my arm, and running away, and finally got to a point where two or three of them were surrounding me petting my arms. Apparently arm hair is another oddity out here. I have this nice little layer of fine, blonde fuzz on my arms that they just thought was so pretty and peculiar; I glanced at their arms to try to figure out why they were so obsessed with mine and found that they had no hair. No wonder. That same day it was really hot outside so I unzipped the bottom half of my zip-off pants and took them off. That was probably the best reaction from the kids! The look in their wide eyes was like, “Whoa! What are those?!” My white legs probably blinded those poor kids; they were surely mystified… A last comment on interesting aldea trends is regarding the age of mothers out here. I have some trouble deciphering the age of women, but I have seen a lot of older women come in with toddlers as well as girls who look like they just got out of grade school toting around infants of their own. I met one 16-year-old girl at the pools with her 2-year-old son, 5-year-old little brother, and her mom who seemed to be around 50. The lifestyle is definitely different out here. When I see the girls who come weigh their babies, I think to myself, “Wow. I could never have a kid at 14! I could hardly take care of myself then – I am just now REALLY learning how to cook, nor did I fully understand the reproductive system, balanced nutrition, infections and diseases, and the importance of vaccinations. And here these girls have to take full responsibility of a new little life before they themselves are even completely developed!” We aren’t going to be able to change a whole culture, but there is definitely room in the near future to do charlas and activities relating to family planning education and how the reproductive systems functions…

The rough outline of our PC Healthy Homes project over the course of two years is as follows: the first couple months in site serve for getting settled, getting to know our communities, and deciding where to work; from the time we enter our site and all during the first year, the focus is on health education via charlas in schools, community meetings, waiting rooms at health centers, etc. and is directed toward behavior change of health-related habits. Once a strong rapport is developed with a community and we think there are enough people who will continue healthy practices, we could present the possibility of infrastructure projects in the households. If this is the direction toward which we decide to move with a community, we make a timeline and begin doing regular house visits to ensure that the families are putting into practice the things we will be teaching them in the charlas; the families have to earn projects, per se. Not all PCVs do infrastructure projects with their communities. It all depends on the needs of the community and the participation of its members. At Mid-Service Training (next July), we will spend a week learning the how-to regarding the construction and maintenance of the infrastructures such as latrines, wood-burning stoves, etc. In the months following that, the projects can be implemented. In addition to that set-up, there are endless opportunities for “secondary projects,” including but not limited to tire gardens, English classes, bottle projects, cooking classes, or anything that a PCV can think of or wants to carry out.

At this point, I have a pretty good idea of my plans for working in aldeas. The doctor already picked two aldeas for us: Limón and Pajquiej. We have already been to both several times and are slowly starting up there; there is a good chance that we will be working toward infrastructure projects in these aldeas. At first, Perry and I had talked about working together for the two years so neither of us would miss out on anything. After about a month or so, we starting leaning toward working separately as our work styles and Spanish speaking levels began to dictate our individual paces. We discussed that neither of us would have to depend on the other if we worked separately and also that we could expand the program to more communities thus reaching more people. So we planned on sort of picking out which aldeas we liked and going from there. And now, since we already started working in the first two aldeas together and neither of us is willing to drop either one, we decided that we are going to work together in Limón and Pajquiej, and then separately in the other aldeas we choose. That way we have a team thing going on, but we still get enough time for individual experiences and  self-started activities and projects. There are two aldeas that I really like and have my eye on. They are Xoljá and Tzitzimá. I want to start slow and feel it out, but so far, I really like the locations and the people of both of these communities. My plan is to start up health lessons and activities in the schools and possibly do more in-depth charlas for the women when we go to weigh babies once a month. School gets out in mid-October and doesn’t start back up until mid-January. I think I’ll make my moves then… Although work seems slow right now, when I look at the calendar, I can just see time flying by. I know we are going to get really busy starting around the six-month mark in site. Also, our work is not limited to our aldea communities; there are options to do work outside of our site on a larger scale. One option is to team up with an NGO that works in multiple parts of Guatemala – there are many of those. In fact, we will be working with an NGO that is coming to San Andrés in about two weeks to give consultations to people with birth defects such as cleft palettes and extra digits (as well as a few other reparable conditions) and set up free surgeries within the next few months. Another option, which is where my head is, is to get involved in a country-wide PC program, supported mainly with 2nd-year and 3rd-year PCVs. For example, PC is actively spreading HIV and AIDS education and awareness and working with the Ministry of Health (at the national level). There is an HIV representative from PC (a volunteer) in each department in which PC serves. The HIV rep coordinates workshops and meetings to train Guatemalan health workers in health centers and posts throughout the department. Right now, the HIV rep for my department, El Quiché, is my friend Susan (a 2nd-year PCV) who lives in Canillá, the next town over from mine. I am planning on working closely with her during the next year, and if I am prepared enough, I may move into her position when she COSs next July. But there is a lot that could happen before then. As you can probably see, there IS a lot of work, and we are just getting started!

Girls from Tzitzima. Juana and Maria, the second and third from the left, are a big part of the reason why I am choosing this aldea and school to work in.

So far we have held a couple community meetings in both of our “assigned” aldeas. I’ll start with Limón. One day at the health center, a man, one of the COCODES from Limón, invited Perry and I to a COCODE meeting. Each aldea has about seven COCODES. They are like the town council, chosen by the people in their communities to be “in charge” and make decisions for the community. I have only seen male COCODES, no women. So when Perry and I showed up at this “meeting” with Rosa and Marli, we quickly discovered that we weren’t there to “observe” – we were supposed to be running the meeting and they had only come to hear what we had to say! Would have been nice to know that ahead of time. Lol! We introduced ourselves and said a little about our work and then set up a day to have an all-community meeting on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks from that day. Limón is a small aldea with only about 30 houses and 150 people, más o menos. Around 50 men, women, and children showed up to our first meeting, where we did some activities based on getting to know the geography of the aldea, the yearly calendar of events/crops/school/etc., and the typical daily schedules of the people. Mat and Sarah had worked here so the people are familiar with PC and the set-up of the program. Unfortunately, some of the men decided to start speaking for the whole community, trying the run the meeting, and telling us what projects they want. Mat and Sarah already did cement floors with this aldea so one guy decided that everyone in the community should get latrines now. Another guy showed up inebriated an hour and a half late and started his own show, but made sure he let us know that everyone in the community should get laminas for their houses. Gringos in Guatemalan aldeas are commonly associated with money and projects, so we walk in and they see big dollar signs (or Quetzales, rather) on our foreheads. We reiterated that the focus of our program is on the health education and that is where we are going to start. We also requested that they choose a different day of the week to meet with us. They said, “Well, Sundays are the only days that work. Mat and Sarah used to come on Sundays, every two weeks.” Mat and Sarah weren’t working with counterparts – we are. Our counterparts get paid for Monday-Friday, the weekends are for rest and family time; Rosa’s entire family comes to her house every Sunday. Also, Sunday is the big market day in town when most of us do our shopping and errands, and some weekends Perry and I or our counterparts leave town. Another difficulty about Sundays is the lack of transportation. Cars just don’t pass by on Sundays – people are resting. It would take us about 2 ½ hours to walk to Limón and another 2 ½ to walk home. And with meetings that they want to start at 3:30 or 4, we would be walking half the distance in the dark. But one man said, “Sundays only,” and nobody else spoke up. So we scheduled another Sunday meeting for a month out.

This is one of the views we get while walking to Limón.

Departing from this aldea left a bad taste for us. The lack of flexibility and unwillingness to work with us as well as the sense of entitlement are extremely frustrating and make it so we don’t want to work there. So we decided to put our foot down. For this third community meeting, I organized a list of nine different health themes that we can offer and planned to present the list and take a community vote to see what things were their top priorities. When we showed up at 3:30, only two women and a man were waiting outside the school. By 4 o’clock, we had a couple more, and when we started the meeting around 4:15, I think the total was 10. We did an icebreaker to get to know names and encourage participation. Then we presented our themes and took an anonymous vote. Each person received three black beans to make three votes, and they took turns going around to the side of the school to vote, where Magdalena and Pascuala were “monitoring” the envelopes and translating the Spanish themes to K’iche when needed. One guy – a notoriously disruptive one – kept trying to watch, but I told him that wasn’t fair to the others and he had to wait and see with everyone else. When we tallied up the votes, the top three priorities to them in order were 1) Diarrhea, the disease cycle, and personal hygiene, 2) Maternal health and breastfeeding, and 3) The environment, trash, and recycling. So now we have a starting point! The next line of business was to set a date for the next meeting. We expressed our dilemma with Sundays again and they said, well, Sunday is the only day. And we were like, “Well, where is everyone then? Only 10 people showed up today.” It was the men who were adamant; the women seemed willing to work with us. Finally, Perry said to them, “Look. If you don’t want our help and the access to this health education, we don’t have to be here. There are a lot of aldeas around San Andrés, and I’m sure they need help, too. We can go work in other aldeas if this is not important to you.” Our next meeting and first charla in Limón will be on a Thursday afternoon in a couple of weeks. 🙂

Our experience in Pajquiej has been entirely of a different nature. The first time we went there to weigh babies, Rosa introduced us. We thought the people already knew that we were going to be working in their aldea because the doctor had “selected” Pajquiej. It turned out that the doctor hadn’t yet told them he had selected them to be paired up with us. So we were like, “Here we are!” and they were like, “Great! Now, who are you exactly?” So, again caught a little off-guard, we had to backtrack a little and explain what Peace Corps is: that the U.S. government sends trained professionals to countries that request assistance, that we are living in San Andrés for two years, and that our HH program is focused on health education and practices in the households. The people here were so excited. Sandra, our community contact and one of the leading ladies in Pajquiej, said to me, “Thank you so much. No one has ever come here from the outside to teach us or help us in any way. This is really great what you guys are doing.” Now, wouldn’t that make YOU want to stay? It has been a one-eighty from Limón since the beginning – and nobody has asked us for “projects” in Pajquiej! We have had all our meetings in Pajquiej with the same outline/set-up as those which we held in Limón. The people here are different, though. There has been full participation and enthusiasm in every activity we have done, and the men and women work together. Even when everyone is just waiting before a meeting or when we go to weigh babies, I have observed that the people in this community are very affectionate toward each other. They are patient, united, and close, and they demonstrate the utmost respect for not only us and the girls who come from the health center monthly to weigh babies and give supplements, but also every person – old or young, male or female – who lives among them. (This is an example of how the character of each aldea varies). Vibes of happiness and warmth exude from these people which make me so eager to get in there and get my hands dirty! I can easily see myself becoming quite attached to this aldea, and I can’t wait to get to know its people more. We did the same “bean voting” in Pajquiej, and the top themes they chose were 1) Indoor air pollution and respiratory infections, 2) Family planning and reproductive [system] health, 3)Malnutrition/Nutrition, and 4) Diarrhea, the disease cycle, and personal hygiene. We have several other health topics that we can cover, but we are starting with what each community wants and needs and by considering their voices, we are signaling that we are here to work together with them, thus encouraging participation. Our next meeting and first charla in Pajquiej is at the end of next week. This community is receptive so I want to get in there every two to three weeks, if possible.

Perry's friend, Jelmer, got this shot of us during our first impromptu meeting in Pajquiej.

Most of the other PCVs from my training group are starting to get into a nice work trend in their communities, as well. For some, especially replacement volunteers, the work is fast-paced and they already have target groups (often formed by former PCVs) in their communities to work with. For others, things are moving at a much slower pace and they are getting a lot of pleasure reading under their belts. The best thing is that everyone’s experience is their own, and we all have a different pace. Unfortunately, not everyone is always satisfied with the program or the line of work, and recently, our training group had its first loss. A girl from the Youth Development (YD) program, Elizabeth, ET’d at the beginning of September. An “early termination” is when a PCV makes the decision that he or she is not going to continue service to the program end date, in our case, July 2013, and returns back to the States. If a PCV does an ET, he or she does not receive the full benefits of PC and those that come with being a “Returned” Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), like access to the Fellows grad school program, non-competitive application to federal government jobs, etc. People have all kinds of reasons to ET, and they are all valid. Some reasons may include an important family situation, the feeling like a PCV is filling a job that could belong to a host country national, the idea that “this is not what I expected,” and the list goes on. Whatever the reason, the important thing is that the person is true to himself/herself. And we all have different priorities… Elizabeth is almost 28, already has a Master’s degree, and was looking for something to really get her career going; Peace Corps work just wasn’t the right fit. I think she was also offered a fantastic job opportunity to start a school in New York. We all have different motivations to be out here and to stay out here. I also believe that among our PC community, there is a lot of respect for anyone who at least tried this thing called Peace Corps out. It’s not for everyone, but sometimes you don’t know that until you make an attempt to find out.

Throughout this chapter you may have noticed that I kept putting the term “work” in quotations, like so. That is because this doesn’t feel like work. It is work, though. I am using my brain and my skills, and I take time to read and study and prepare for what I need to do during the weeks, but this is like no work that I have ever had before, and I love it. I have the freedom to go at my own pace, but that doesn’t mean I am being lazy. I am self-motivated and have a plan. I just don’t really have to answer to anyone. Of course, there is the doctor who is technically our supervisor, and there is Basilio, but we just have to submit a monthly calendar of our plan and schedule to Basilio and give the doctor updates every now and then. This work situation has given me the opportunity to reflect on my previous job situations and the current difficult job situation in the United States. One of the books I have read out here already is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She started an investigative project in 1998 of the American economy during which she left home and went to three different cities for a month or two at a time and tried to start from scratch applying to “low-wage” jobs – i.e. waitressing, housecleaning, retail, etc. – to see if she, as a single, middle-aged women could make ends meet between her income and outgoing costs for rent, gas, food, and work supplies/uniforms. In two of the three cities, she had to take on a second job just to get by; in the third city, she had such a difficult time that she abandoned the project before she reached the one-month mark. By the end of the experiment, she discovered that it was practically impossible to get ahead or have any money leftover for “extras.” Not only did she notice that her physical well-being was suffering because of the physical labor, lack of rest, and inaccessibility or lack of funds to ensure proper nutrition, but she also saw that her fellow employees in these jobs resided in barely acceptable living situations, also were undernourished, and struggled to support other family members and children – not to mention dealing with unexpected medical bills or car trouble. Talk about stress! The low-wage work world results in a vicious cycle and there often seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; well, maybe a 50 cent raise in a year or two. Plus, low-wage workers are always at the mercy of their superiors who have the right to dictate. Barbara Ehrenreich (a writer with a PhD in Biology) comments, “What surprised and offended me most about the low-wage workplace (and yes, here all my middle-class privilege is on full display) was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and – what boils down to the same thing – self-respect” (Nickel and Dimed, 208). Without experience or education, many people in the low-wage work force HAVE to stay there – there simply is no other option.

See? I do work! Lol. Here I am studying Spanish in our office at the health center. This is typically how it goes and often where I like to sit.

In regards to the lack of free time one has when he is she is consumed by work, Ehrenreich observes, “What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life” (187). My dad has been at the same company for over 30 years and has been working overtime since he was eighteen. He has managed to more than sufficiently provide for his family the whole time, thank God, but he rarely gets time to rest. I have also watched my sister, a single mother-of-two, struggle with getting stable work in this economy. Recently, I just checked in with my best friend and learned that she is currently attending full-time school AND working two part-time jobs to support her 2-year-old, another family member, and her husband who is also working part-time and going to school. She is non-stop seven days a week and also has to make time to study, clean the house, take care of the dogs, and cook for her family. She has a positive attitude about the situation, though. Ehrenreich notes, “I am wondering what the two-job way of life would do to a person after a few months of zero days off. If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in?” (106). I believe my best friend will succeed at what she sets out to do; she is very focused and knows how to balance things well and take a little refresh time every now and then. But the precarious flirting with the possibility of burnout reminds me of when I was in college full-time and working two – and at one time, three – jobs while studying biology and the other chemistry, physics, and calculus classes and all the labs that go along with those. (No wonder I didn’t have time to write my papers! HAHA!). I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I graduated college. My self-respect points skyrocketed and yes, I was very proud. Granted, I didn’t actually receive my degree for another year and a half when I finally finished the last of my coursework/late research papers, but I still knew I was free and there was no going back – education is one of the few things that no one can take from you once you have it, and I am so grateful for mine! It gives me the ability to create the kind of life I want for myself and for my family – both current and future. I was waitressing at Macaroni Grill at the time, and had been there for about 3 years. In the two or three months approaching graduation, I was getting really fed up with the corporate dictatorship and micro-managing style and scare tactics they use toward their employees.  Upon graduation, I was so happy I could just sing! I knew I didn’t need (or want) corporate, low-wage work anymore and that I could walk away whenever I wanted to. As many of you know, I walked out of Macaroni Grill and right into another restaurant. Lol. Forbes Mill Steakhouse has private ownership, though, and I couldn’t possibly consider waitressing there as low-wage work. The difference is that I wanted to be there – it was my choice. I actually really enjoy restaurant business. It is fast-paced, it allows for a lot of opportunity for individual style and personality to emerge (as long as it’s not corporate!), and – the best part – there are always new customers to study! Although it can be repetitive, it is never boring, (especially when you like to talk as much as I do). Forbes Mill was the perfect job to prepare me financially to leave the country for an extended time, and I also had plenty of networking opportunities and met some fantastic people there, some of whom are still in touch with me and supporting what I am doing now.

So what’s the point of my rant on the economy and working? Well, reading that book and identifying cause and effect of lifestyle, wages, freedom, and health also brought to mind the situation of many of the poor people out here in these Guatemalan villages. A lot of time gets spent trying to earn money to feed a growing family. Day in and day out, it’s the same cyclic pattern as described above with Americans who live at or below the poverty line. Here, many health problems result because there is little money for proper sanitation. And malnutrition occurs frequently for an endless number of reasons. Then, if there is a car problem, leaky roof, or sick child, the money goes to those things which might result in less money for food. And then come more babies and thus more stress because the income now needs to be shared with another mouth to feed. Money can fix a lot of things, but there is not an endless supply of it; education, however, can last forever, be shared, and multiply. There is such a lack of education among the people in these villages. They could have less slightly stressful lives if only they knew better. Since grade school, I have believed that education was going to be my golden ticket to a physically-spiritually-psychologically healthy life, and I am still learning and putting my knowledge into practice to create and live as low-stress of a life as possible. By tying stress level, wages, and education together here, and believing that education has the potential to greatly impact the quality of one’s life, I think I can help improve the health and well-being of at least some of the people here via basic health knowledge and demonstration of preventative health measures. Believing that education is the key that unlocks the door to a land of opportunity, I have studied my way into a position where I am allowed to think for myself, express my beliefs, and work independently. I really like being self-supervised and I just might decide to never for work anyone else in my life again, if I can help it! Haha! PC has shown me where there is work to be done but given me the space to creatively decide how I am going to do it. It’s perfect. And even if I can’t fix everything, the goal here is to work toward hakuna matata. It means no worries.

Rosa & Magdalena working in Tzitzima. I am working on getting them to be less serious for picutres...this was a good one!

On that thought, life in my site has been splendid. I love where I live minus the occasional run-ins with creepy crawlers. I have more than once found myself standing on my bed with my broom in my hands, “on-guard,” ready to attack large, jumping spiders that are running across my floor. I also have a “how many mosquitoes can I kill with my bare hands today?” game. And I think a Drosophila melanogaster couple hooked up and started a family in my room – the fruit flies can be more annoying than the mosquitoes! When I see a spider run under my bed, I have trouble getting to sleep because I am distracted with images of it crawling onto me in the middle of the night or worse – into my mouth! Taira told me that she moves around the furniture in their room every couple weeks to clean out the critters so I took her advice and did a deep-cleaning of my room last weekend. I have actually been a little OCD about my cleaning habits here, which Perry pointed out to me. I have everything very neat and organized, and I sweep and scrub and wash meticulously. I realize that it is a mechanism for feeling like I have some control of my environment; when everything else is foreign here, and all I have is my little space, I am going to try my hardest to make it comfortable and make it mine. But I have been put in check a time or two, acknowledging, as my friend Russell reminded me, “We aren’t the only ones who live here; there are lots of other little creatures that live in our world and have rights to come and go, too.” Food storage has been a bit of a problem for me due to cats and miniature ants (that are like half the size of a flea and fit anywhere!), but I am trying to learn to live in harmony with them. Gallon-sized ziplocs sent from home and a used peanut butter jar have become my allies in this battle. I just hope I can get used to sharing my space with all these little bugs – half of which I don’t even know what they are – because I fear that it’s the little things like these that can send someone over the edge, or at least cause a little paranoia. I just need to put things in perspective every now and then, that’s all.

Since I didn't have pictures of my house before, here is a little glimpse. This is the corridor that goes around the house. My room is straight back (bathroom light is on), and some of my laundry is hanging out to dry. Normally I dry it on the roof, but this day was a rainy one.

Here is a shot of my room right now. (I had washed my sheets and blanket that day and the blanket wasn't dry yet, that's why it's missing).

Well, as September comes to a close and I wonder where the heck it went, I realize that I am getting comfortably settled here. I’m enjoying being around Taira, and her daughter, Sarahy, is very talkative with me now. Taira is intelligent, fun, confident, active, and kind. Sometimes we go running or swimming together, and we often swap food ideas and cooking techniques in the kitchen. Also, we are both respectful of each other’s things and space, but often end up sharing. Living with her reminds me of when I lived with my friend, Bethany – not only the dynamic, but also the way both of them are always so happy and laughing all the time. It’s nice to be around, especially since I’ve been missing my girlfriend time! Since I have been spending a lot of time by myself, I am seeing just how much like both of my parents I really am. I’ve started a rag collection just like the one my dad has so we can always have something handy to wash a window, scrub a mark on the floor, or wipe our hands. And I make crazy lists like he does. And besides being a shorter spitting image of my mom and talking incessantly like she does, I process things like her and work out things in my head how I think they are supposed to happen, don’t always communicate how I see it happening, and if it doesn’t work out how I had it in my head, it knocks me off my rocker for a second. Working on my flexibility… Lol. But I am trying to embrace my inherited habits. There really is no getting away from them, is there?

This is our "kitchen," where Taira and I spend a lot of time together.

This is our nice, big pila, where I do my dishes (right side) and wash my clothes (left).

My health has been great overall with the exception of a violent two-day bacterial infection I got from eating street food. In a 24-hour period, I went to the bathroom more times than there are hours in a day and yet I was still [barely] functioning, but a little bit of Cipro and a lot of Gatorade fixed that. I never cease to be amazed by what the human body is capable of doing… Since we have been hiking a lot, I started doing some yoga videos in my room to stay flexible and keep my joints “juicy.” I am also planning to run a half-marathon with a couple other PCVs in November. I spent the first weekend of September with my host family in Alotenango, but I have been in site all month since then. We have actually had a bunch of visitors this month, each staying for four to five days. One PCV was here for five days during the time of the Guatemalan presidential elections (we had a 3-day “standfast” during which we couldn’t leave our sites, but some PCVs were relocated during that time because their sites had a higher risk of unrest), another one just came to see our site and spend some time with us, and two different PC Spanish teachers spent a week here each while they were having Spanish lessons with Perry. (PC called Perry and offered to send out Spanish teachers for further practice and he took them up on it. Why not?). I have an advanced Spanish grammar workbook with exercises that I am borrowing from the office and working through because I still have lots of room to improve my Spanish, too – it can be such a puzzle! I do speak well, I just still have trouble comprehending what people say to me sometimes. I’m not very good with audio-learning. Anyway, it has been fun to entertain all of our guests – we always eat really well when we have visitors! And I like the fact that people are coming to me for a change. I am accustomed to going to other people to visit since I have never really had my own place, but now, I can welcome people into my own little “home.” I am ready to have a weekend getaway, though! I’m heading to the lake for the weekend in Panajachel!!! I’ve seen pictures and it is just beautiful there! The high-altitude lake is surrounded by three volcanoes and some unique lakeside villages, but Panajachel is the “touristy” part of the lake. I’m really looking forward to doing a good amount of exploring and maybe getting a couple nice meals at the string of Pana restaurants, as well as catching up with other PCVs. Now that I am done writing, I can go play! Yay!

Walking through the front door into the foyer of my house, this is what you see. With a view and home like this, who needs a weekend getaway, right?

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Thank you to Teri, Robin, Elease, and Norm for the care packages! From the kitchen supplies and spices to the ziploc baggies, new workout (SMC!) t-shirt, restocks on my sunscreen, face wash, and lotion, plus all the other little goodies and reading material, I feel like I am good to go. AND, I have a camera again! Yay! Muchas gracias to all of you.

Happy Birthday Linda and Jos! Thinking of you and wishing you lots and lots of happiness this year! 😀

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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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