A Point in Punctuality

If I were to throw out the phrase “mañana, mañana” in regards to the pace of something or a start date, would most of you would chuckle at the comment, comprehending the cultural reference being made in respect to time and that the phrase roughly translates to an indirect way of saying, “Yeah, right. That’s never going to happen”? I am going to assume the affirmative and also that it is a widespread notion around the world (or at least in the United States) that Latin American culture can be described as very slow. Guatemalans are aware of their reputation, too, and embrace it: they call it “hora chapina,” which means “the Guatemalan hour” or simply “on Guatemala time.” (Chapín and chapina are the adjective forms that Guatemalans use to describe anything particularly “Guatemalan”). Guatemalans have quite the sense of humor in this department, often priding themselves on the reputation that things will almost always start half an hour to an hour after the determined start time, the same way that the boys in the orphanage I spent some time at in India prided themselves on their cultural reputation testifying, “Indians are known for cheating”–it was an adaptive strategy for basic survival on the streets, and each boy developed his own method during several games of UNO that we played. I have found that when people accept an idea about their own culture to be a part of their identity, they either consciously or subconsciously (not quite sure which) live in such a way that meets the standard.

Having identified this punctuality standard for Latin America, I was both relieved and apprehensive when I found out that my assignment was for Guatemala. You see, I have somehow created my own reputation for being slow and punctually retarded over the years. As much as I would like to claim inheritance of these hand-in-hand traits from BOTH of my parents, I suppose I should own up to it this time. Does anyone remember that clay-mation cartoon “Gumby”? Well, my sisters and I used to watch it all the time when we were little; we called my sister Christie “Gumby” because she was so tall, and guess who got dubbed “Pokey,” the tag-a-long, orange, sidekick donkey? Yours, truly. One time in grade school, I wanted to get the perfect attendance award so badly that I was determined not to miss a single day of school that year, and so I didn’t; I would have received the award had it not been for the copious collection of tardies on my report card. I think that let down jaded me for life. In college, I knew it took exactly 8 minutes to walk from my dorm room to the science building and so I would depart my house 8 minutes before class started, never taking into account how long it would take me to ascend several flights of stairs or wait for the elevator. Same thing for driving to work: I could make it there in 27 minutes during rush hour (although sometimes it required occasionally slipping in and out of the carpool lane)! Unfortunately, the result has been that I am consistently two to five minutes late to everything routine – guaranteed. And if it’s a party or something else casual, you can put bets on me being around an hour behind. (At least I’m consistent – does that count for anything)? So you can imagine my relief in believing that I would not have to struggle much to fit into the time scheme of Guatemala. But then a dreadful thought occurred to me: what if after living here for two years, the culture of time would have a negative effect on me and actually worsen my habitual lateness? Like punctual retardation squared? That would be a compound problem, no doubt, and I would feel terrible for anyone who would have to put up with me. So, following an examination of hora chapina, I’ll let you know how things are working out…

I arrived a whole day behind to my weekend getaway to Panajachel, but I still got to spend some time with my good friend and fellow PCV, Megan.

Driven by the pressure to be successful and the ticking away of clocks haunting them like the croc who stalks Captain Hook (prompting his anxiety) in Peter Pan, Americans never seem to have enough time. Whereas in the United States and probably other first world countries as well, time is money and the people both work for it and are at the mercy of it, Guatemalans make time bow down and kiss the ground they walk on. While delving into the topic a bit further, I discovered that this conspicuous cultural phenomenon is not only characteristic to Latin America but to many other developing nations as well. The disparity between the concepts of time functionality can be described by the terms “monochronic” and “polychronic.” The following definitions of these two terms are taken from a book we all got during PST called Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook, and I will be using some information from this book (pages 104-105, in particular) in the following paragraphs to help explain the topic. Monochronic: Time is the given and people are the variable. The needs of people are adjusted to suit the demands of time—schedules, deadlines, etc. Time is quantifiable, and a limited amount of it is available. People do one thing at a time and finish it before starting something else, regardless of circumstances. Polychronic: Time is the servant and tool of the people. Time is adjusted to suit the needs of people. More time is available, and you are never too busy. People often have to do several things simultaneously, as required by circumstances. It’s not necessary to finish one thing before starting another, nor to finish your business with one person before starting in with another. Americans tend to fall into the monochronic category while Guatemalans are ruled by a polychronic lifestyle. (Keep these terms close as I will be discussing them further as the chapter continues)!

Here is a universal illustration of relaxation – feet propped up overlooking a beautiful lake. These are my feet over Lago de Atitlán.

Now carrying over 6 months in country, I believe I have experienced enough to acquire rights to objectively write on this fascinating idea called time. Everyone is always talking about it – here and back home. “I can’t believe she’s a year old already! Where has this year gone?” or “I have so much to do; I don’t know how I’ll ever finish by the end of the month!” or “Yes, I want to hang out, but my schedule’s booked for the next three weeks.” Sound familiar? Something that might come from my dad: “It’s just been non-stop here lately. Training for a new computer system, work meetings, then Lyndsie’s piano recital, so-and-so’s wedding, church conference all week, have to fix the sink, drive two bus routes on Sunday, trying to work on my truck, and then the holidays are just around the corner – and you know how busy that time of year is!” This might be typical from my mom: “Oh, my gosh! It’s Christmas Eve already and I haven’t wrapped a single gift yet!” Guatemalans talk about time, too, but with a much less crowded perspective. For example, I hear a lot of “What’s the date today?” because no one really keeps track. Along with the date come questions about what time it is because there are hardly any clocks on the walls nor watches on people’s wrists. People here are often looking for new ways to pass the time as opposed to scrounging around frantically for any handful of free seconds they could possibly squeeze in to take a breather. I don’t get it. It makes me wonder how each concept of time came to be and – like the chicken or egg debate about which came first – whether it is the habits of people that dictate their culture or a culture and its degree of development that create the habits of its people. And does one’s culture have such a strong influence over a person’s habits that it makes it practically impossible for a polychronic-reared person to function in a monochronic society – or vice-versa? Or is it just a matter of adaptability and molding one’s habits to slip into the pace of the society in which he or she is trying to live? I don’t think I’ll come up with the answers by the end of the chapter, but at least I can investigate…

Let’s start with meetings, parties, get-togethers, and any other things with a supposed start time or due date. Whereas in a monochronic society, schedules are sacred, in polychronic Guatemala, deadlines are mere approximations. Most people show up half an hour to an hour after the start time, and if they do show up “on time,” they already have the expectation that they will be waiting for a good chunk of time while everyone else trickles in. Instead of beginning at the start time, most events commence when the person running them decides he or she is ready to start. Also, the polychronic concept that “to be late is simply to be late” like it’s no big deal can be observed in the Guatemalan belief that it is courtesy for a person to announce his presence to everyone in the room when he arrives late (aka if everyone else has already started) with a “Buenos días” or a “Buenas tardes” to acknowledge the group and even a couple handshakes if he feels like it. This was definitely an awkward thing to get used to since in the US, to be late is considered rude, and if a person happens to find himself in that position, he tries his hardest to tiptoe his way in to the back of the room as invisible, silent, and non-disruptive as possible. And if he doesn’t have such a graceful entrance, everyone around him may act annoyed, and the situation could be an embarrassing one for the perpetrator. Arriving and entering late is considered an interruption which is “bad” in a monochronic society; conversely, Guatemalans view interruptions as a part of life and welcome them with open arms. For example, cell phones are never turned off during meetings or visits. If a person gets a call, he or she is expected to take it. People answer phone calls all the time here – during dinner, while driving, at the doctor’s office, basically all the “no-no” places to answer your phone in the United States. And there is no “Can I call you back? I’m busy right now.” The conversation is always carried out. It can be a little nerve-racking when the driver on your chicken bus or micro takes a phone call at the same time he starts sliding into the lane of oncoming traffic while speeding up so he can pass another chicken bus in front of him. (Even if there were laws against talking on the phone while driving here, there really would be no way to enforce them). Lastly, in regards to getting some sort of project finished, there may be a deadline or due date, but that usually stands in more as a focus point to get (or keep) the project moving and should be taken with a grain of salt. This is yet another example of monochronic versus polychronic: Americans tend to be task-oriented and concentrate on getting the job done whereas Guatemalans are focused more on people and establishing relationships. Guatemalans don’t mind letting life happen – even if it means putting a project on hold.

This is Taira and Osman in front of the house we live in, waiting for guests to arrive for Sarahy’s birthday party. The 3 o’clock party “started” sometime between 3:30 and 4.

A very good example of life happening here is called rain. I have begun to refer to Guatemala as the land of eternal unpredictability, but if there is one thing a person can absolutely count on every time, it is that if it is raining, people are not going to leave their houses to go to some event (unless it is really important, like a graduation or wedding or something). I don’t blame them. With unpaved or uneven roads, rain usually means lots of mud and puddles as well as wet clothes, wet shoes, and mud tracks all over the house. Without washing machines, dryers, complete insulation, consistently paved roads, or efficient drainage, rain can be pretty inconvenient here. There is hardly ever notification if plans are cancelled due to rain – it is just understood that no one is going to show. Rainy season is from May through October – heavier in the latter months, so we have experienced several “rainy day” situations since our arrival in site. Back in August, a group of us ladies from the health center formed a basketball team to compete in the annual Quiché health fair women’s basketball tournament. The plan was to have practice three times a week, and they always scheduled it for 5 PM. The funny thing was at that time of the year, a storm would roll in regularly almost every afternoon beginning between 3:30 and 4:30. Needless to say, we only successfully had one or two practices. (San Andrés ended up not having a team this year, but two of us jumped ship and play for Canillá, landing 3rd place in the tournament). Another situation came up with going out to the aldeas. A few weeks ago, we were on our way out to an aldea to weigh babies in the morning when it started dumping. To get to this particular aldea, we have to take a car for 15-20 minutes, then climb a steep hill for another 20 minutes straight up to get to the school where the ladies congregate with their children. That day, there was no transportation that passed us by and we would have had to walk about three hours total in the downpour to get to that aldea. So we just didn’t go, and chances are, no one would have showed up that day with their babies anyway! That day also happened to be the beginning of a two-week long storm that swept the country, leading to a declared nationwide “State of Calamity” due to rising rivers, landslides, and all-around dangerous road conditions. During this time, PC ordered a “Standfast” for all PCVs, meaning that we were not allowed to be traveling and needed to remain in our sites. It’s not like I could go anywhere even if I wanted to because all public transportation in and out of my town had ceased – the micro drivers were refusing to drive because the road to Quiché (the unpaved one) was so bad that they all kept getting stuck in the mud and couldn’t pass. It was like a giant game of slip-n-slide for trucks, vans, and busses. Only it wasn’t fun. When I headed out for my weekend getaway at the lake that very first weekend in October, I didn’t get very far the day I left my site; our micro got stuck in the mud. It took me six hours to get to Quiché that day instead of the usual two. The experience I had out there on the road was unforgettable, really cool, and even kind of fun, actually, but it is probably something I’ll only want to do once in my life.

The day I headed out for my weekend getaway, this is what happened to the micro I was in. Here’s a good look at our road during rainy season!

In a monochronic society, when plans are made, once agreed upon, they are fixed. On the contrary, in a polychronic culture like Guatemala’s, nothing is ever set in stone – plans are often changed around or cancelled if something else comes up that is considered to be more pressing or important. There is a very common phrase that is used among Guatemalans that illustrates this ever-changing mindset. It starts out with,“Fíjese que…,” translates to, “Well, it turns out that…,” and is usually followed by the reason that the person has to withdraw from the commitment they had made with another person, group, or project. Anytime a person hears a sentence started with this phrase, he should automatically tap into his Plan B, because by the time one is accustomed to hearing it, that person should know good and well to go everywhere with a backup plan tucked away somewhere in one of his pockets. “Fíjese que…” can actually be considered a courtesy because half the time when someone has to change his or her plans, notification to other parties involved isn’t practiced. This may be related to the cultural trend where direct communication is lacking in order to avoid the awkwardness of confronting or disappointing someone. So if a person is used to direct communication and has an event or meeting planned, it is good practice for that persone in order to have any peace of mind here to expect to be left in the dust regularly. Anything could happen! Geez! No one knows what life is going to throw at them at any given moment! Sick child, phone call from a relative, event in the park, somebody’s birthday, power outage, escaped farm animal running loose on the road – why, these are things that aren’t always predictable or preventable but are very much a part of life, and you can’t expect them to fall perfectly within the boundaries of a set window of time. No boundaries and no limits here. And trust me, that phrase runs deep and steady in this Guatemalan culture just as blood runs through the veins of its people.

On another note regarding windows of time, we Americans are used to stores having “hours of operation” signs posted on their doors, and often store owners like to cater to the needs of their clientele – staying open later and keeping all items well-stocked for the convenience of the customer. Well, “customers” aren’t so spoiled here. Many families run small shops, called “tiendas,” right off of their houses. There is a range in the variety of merchandise available from eggs, sugar, milk, and other grocery items to candy, sodas, snacks and basically anything you could find at a 7-Eleven (except exchanged for the Guatemalan brand) – even laundry soap; then you have the stores that sell plastic or electrical appliances for around the house, clothing and shoes, baked goods, raw meat, and even internet and phone credit “recharges.” These stores have very loose hours of operation. This is how it works: tiendas are open when their doors are open and people are there, and there’s no way to predict when they are NOT going to be there. Also, if you go in for a particular item, let’s say toilet paper, and there isn’t any in stock, the store owner will simply tell you, “No hay” or “Se acabó” (which mean “there is none” or “it ran out”) in such a way that he is conceding that there is nothing he can do about it and you should go somewhere else. He’s not worried about losing business. Someday, he’ll have more toilet paper in stock, he’ll sell it until he runs out, and then he’ll be out until he gets more – whenever that may be. There’s no telling.

Taking into account the possibility of life events happening randomly, Guatemalans do not do a lot of planning ahead. When we have a community meeting or charla in one of our aldeas, the dates are scheduled as we go. There is no master plan or syllabus to stick to. We just show up, do our thing, and at the end of the charla throw out a possible topic and date two to four weeks in the future for the next meeting. Sometimes people remember, and sometimes they don’t. I usually call the appointed contact in the town a couple hours before just to confirm – there is no sense calling too far in advance. And unless there is some other big event occurring near a particular community the day we plan to have a charla there, we can bet that people will come to our charla. You see, people are never too busy here (or in other polychronic societies). Perry and one of the guys from the health center, Lisandro, went up to the park to play basketball a few weekends ago, and just as they started, one of Lisandro’s friends drove by. They asked him if he wanted to play, and since he didn’t have anything to do, he just parked and jumped right in with them for an hour or two. This situation falls in line with the tendency of people here to just plan everything as it goes. This leaves plenty of un-booked time to engage in leisure activities whenever one feels like it. (Granted, there is not an abundance of entertainment options the farther away from a city you go, but that factor could contribute to a completely different topic so I won’t go there just yet).

This is Taira and I on the day of Sarahy’s birthday party. Taira planned the party and made all the invitations and decorations by hand. She passed out invitations for the party only 4 or 5 days in advance.

Consequently, with the lack of planning ahead comes very little stability. Many workplaces here have yearly contracts, and every January jobs are either renewed or given out to a fresh batch of people. This happens mainly with city jobs as opposed to privates enterprises because the power to assign city jobs (like positions in teaching, the health field, and in the municipal office, etc.) goes directly to the mayor and other government officials. So for workers in any of these fields, keeping a job depends solely on the luck of the draw, the whim of the government officials, and the chance of whether or not they personally know the mayor as opposed to having merit or consistency of performance. Thus, many families can only plan one year at a time and may not ever get their roots down anywhere because they may be constantly moving to find work (or trying to go to the States to find more consistent work than they have here). On the bright side, although there is no guarantee of a stable income, this situation allows for a significant amount of freedom and flexibility of schedule and location. Just as I started getting excited about some great ideas and work plans I had formed with my counterparts for the next couple months when I plan to get started in two or three schools, I learned that everything could change in January. So much for that! Who knows if they’ll even be here in January! There are fewer nurses available, so Magdalena, Pascuala, and Marli have better chances of sticking around, but my dear Rosa – the one who never fails to show up and who has been working very closely with me – has a much slimmer chance of job renewal. She is an “educator,” and apparently there is a long waitlist of teachers/educators looking for work. When I first found out that the health center may get a completely new slew of employees in a couple months, I was a little frustrated, thinking, “Why the heck did they make us think we were building trust for a working relationship with these girls if they are just going to yank them away from us?” It doesn’t make sense to me that some institutions start over completely from scratch every year – no wonder you can’t get sustainability here! But this is the system, and I cannot control it, so why bother with frustration? I just have to accept the way it works and learn to work within [or around] it. Even if Rosa isn’t employed in a few months, I know she is willing to come out with me to a handful of aldeas a couple times a month – that is, if she still decides to live in San Andrés. We have already started making our backup plans, and we will just have to wait and see what happens… Our current mayor lost the election this year which means the town gets screwed over while the mayor hoards as much money as he can for the next couple months until the new mayor takes office. Why shouldn’t he take the money from the people? He doesn’t know when he’ll have access to a solid income again, and he has to take care of his family and his own needs, right? Lol. Unfortunately, the political realm has control over even basic human necessities such as water. My water doesn’t come every day anymore – it is turned off every second, third, or fourth day now. We have backup water stored, but it’s just the inconsistency that is so characteristic of a place like this that makes me both annoyed and entertained. Shoot, even with cell phones, there are no plans and contracts. People just buy phone credit as they need it. As you can probably gather, if you want to experience a place where every day you have to fly by the seat of your pants, just go spend some time in a developing nation where there is so little to depend on…

That moves me right along to the topic of transportation. No one can never really rely on there being transportation or how long they’ll have to wait to get to their destinations once they do get a ride, so they might as well bring a book to read or something else to do to pass the time. Being made to wait is normal here – the world does not revolve around the individual. Lol. Transportation is tricky, though. The micros leave promptly or as soon as they are full, so people have to get there on time or early in order to get a seat. One time I was even early and waiting for the 8:45 micro to pick me up, but by the time it got to me, it was packed to the brim and couldn’t take any more people! That day I started walking and, as luck would have it, I got a ride to Quiché in the back of a pickup. Hitchhiking has a completely different connotation in Guatemala than it does in the States. Here, it is safe! Hitching a ride with a passing car is something practically everyone does if they don’t have their own vehicle – and even sometimes if they do. This is especially common out in the rural parts of the country. Another thing to consider for transportation is that road conditions are often unpredictable, as pointed out above with the big October storm. No one ever stresses in situations like that, though, because they know there is nothing they can do about it. Road rage is practically nonexistent in this country – at least when you are away from the cities. People just roll with the punches and deal with each situation as it presents itself. There is not a lot of worry – especially not over losing time. When traveling through Guatemala, putting a whole day (or at least half) aside to get from point A to point B is customary. My PST host family from Alotenango lives just outside of Antigua, which is about five hours away from my site. I swear the way I measure time is warped now… A five to six hour trip here is no big deal; you get there when you get there and just plan to leave at a time that puts you at your destination before dark. If I wanted to go for a cross-country trip here, I could just hop on public transportation and get to pretty much anywhere I want in this country within a day or two. Visiting my host family, which I have done three times since I moved to my site, takes just as long as it would for me to take a trip from my house down to Southern California, which I used to do a handful of times every year. There are two differences, however: one is that catching four different routes and people-watching on the chicken busses is definitely more interesting than Highway 5, and two, I don’t get as exhausted since I’m not the one driving – although sometimes I wish I were! I do miss my car on a regular basis, especially the trunk. My car wouldn’t last a week out here on this terrain, but it is the space and independence I miss. Oh, how I crave order some days! Order and organization on the roads, in grocery stores, and even when we go to the schools to weigh kids. I am really sick of people cutting in front of me when I am “in line” at the store since I am accustomed to the American monochronic mindset that people actually do wait in a line for their turn. Even when we try to organize the chaos of baby-weighing, in many aldeas the women just swarm around our table from every direction shoving their child’s records in our faces. When I have tried to ask the ladies to form a line, most of the time they just smirk at me with a look that says, “You’re joking, right?” It was a little overwhelming at first, but all I can do is laugh at it now. By stressing out about it, I would only be hurting myself.

There is so much waiting around when it comes to transportation that people have plenty of time to get some reading done or even slip in a catnap, as this guy is demonstrating on the chicken bus.

That’s another thing. The overall stress level in people’s lives here is low. Life happens, and there is sometimes nothing anyone can do about it. There is no sense in complaining because that doesn’t change anything and no one here is going to feel sorry for anyone else, so people might as well keep moving. To Guatemalans, the world does not stop spinning on its axis if something bad happens. Life goes on and they go right on with it… Since start times and deadlines are relative, and life events are not calculated or measured by the passing of time, there is not a lot of pressure on people on a daily basis. So which is better – a society in which things may or may not ever get done, there are few guarantees of anything, yet minimal levels of stress or a society in which productivity reigns as projects are successfully completed and predictability is the law of the land but nothing is really ever finished as there will always be something else to do and thus very little time to rest? Is it naïve to take time for granted, believing that there will always be more of it, like Guatemalans do? Or is it Americans who are ignorant, always racing the clock and afraid that the sand is going to run out? If they are so worried about the sand running out, they’re going to end up spending their whole lives watching each grain fall until there is nothing left and it’s all over. That would be sad…and pretty boring, I think. With all their fretting, Americans have brought upon themselves so many health problems ranging from high blood pressure and heart attacks to anxiety, insomnia, and stress-triggered outbreaks of various strains of the Herpes virus, for example shingles, which is acutely associated with the nervous system. (These are only a few examples). I’m no psychologist (so don’t hold me to anything I say here), but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even depression is caused by stress and time pressure in people’s lives. Depression is connected to feelings of worthlessness and not making the mark or “succeeding.” It’s when people feel like they are not good enough. To whose standard are they holding themselves, I would like to know? My goodness, we are so hard on ourselves! Now, how many cases of clinical depression have you heard of in third world countries? There aren’t many, I can assure you. So what’s the problem? Too much time on our hands to get all tangled up in our own minds? Or not enough time to keep our heads clear and priorities straightened out?

This is Lago de Atitlán, a place where both Americans and Guatemalans go to de-stress. The lake is spotted with 3 volcanoes along its border, and the town of Panajachel is in the center of the photo at the edge of the lake.

Everywhere you go in the world, you will find that people and cultures have different priorities from your own. If I made it seem like Guatemalans don’t have a lot of health problems from the paragraph above, in this section I will enlighten you about some of the types of problems they deal with that are uncommon or even unheard of in more developed parts of the world. In mid-October, a team of doctors and administrators working with an NGO called “Partners for Surgery” came to San Andrés to give consultations and examinations at our health center to people who may qualify for a free surgery for various conditions including cleft lips/palettes, hernias, tumors, fused or extra digits, ovarian cysts, and prolapsed uteri, among others. The three doctors giving examinations were Canadian and spoke limited Spanish; I was used as a translator for the entire day to the doctor who knew practically zero español. My counterpart, Rosa, also helped us out that day by translating K’iche’ to Spanish when necessary. So Karen (the doctor), Rosa, and I teamed up and worked straight till 3 in the afternoon. (It was refreshing to have a really busy day at the health center)! I basically got to be Karen’s shadow for the entire day, translating for her wherever she went, observing the work she was doing, and asking questions. Since she was the only female doctor, all the women with “lady problems” were sent to us. It was an extremely eye-opening experience as I saw some things that I didn’t even know could happen to people.Women came in with their uteri falling out – eight, nine, or eleven kids later. I saw two that were literally 90% of the way outside of their bodies! I also went with Doctor Karen while she performed procedures – removing a polyp from the cervix of two different women who were getting the NGO-offered “rapid test” PAP smear in another room. (Of the forty-something PAPs they did that day, HPV was only detected in one lady). We also had a hernia case in a two-year-old boy. His hernia was about the size of a golf ball in his right testicle and was inhibiting proper growth of his right leg – which was stick-thin, preventing him from walking. These are just a handful of cases that qualified for the surgery. (A team of different doctors will come out in a couple months to perform the surgeries). The experience I had that day really made an impression on me. It was probably one of the more rewarding days I’ve had out here so far – I felt so exhilarated by the end of it and just sat on the edge of my bed that afternoon trying to process the day and the bazillion thoughts that were running through my head. In addition to the amazing things I saw, I ended the day finally believing that am pretty fluent in Spanish. Thinking that my vocabulary was insufficient, I was a little apprehensive to translate for a doctor in a medical situation, but the whole day was such a huge success that my confidence was definitely boosted (although there is always more to learn). Also, considering the events in my life that happened earlier that same week, I can easily say that my experience that day could not have come at a more perfect time in regards to re-engaging me to be 100% immersed in this country and what I am doing here.

Most of my work involves hiking to aldeas, and since I don’t have a puppy of my own, I just adopt the tag-a-longs that follow us from their houses along our path – only for about a half an hour at a time.

There are many other common illnesses in Guatemala that people in the States do not encounter regularly. These have less to do with birth defects and deformities that are simply a byproduct of a lifestyle that is hard on one’s body and more to do with living conditions and hygiene. This is directly related to my work as a health promoter – seeking to educate families and implement behavior change. Some of the leading threats to people’s health and even lives out here include diarrheal disease, upper respiratory infections (such as tuberculosis and pneumonia), malnutrition, parasitic infections, Hepatitis, malaria, dengue fever, dermatitis (skin conditions), and freak accidents. The last time I visited my family in Alotenango (a little over a week ago), I got an update of everything that’s going on. The news of the town is that a 10-year-old child was kidnapped, a drunk driver ran into a mother and her two children walking along the street, killing one of the kids, and three people were in a motorcycle accident when it lost control going around a turn and started rolling – the driver, a father of three, died and the other two passengers are in grave condition. All this happened in ONE week! To top it off, upon arriving at the house, I learned that my 23-year-old host sister, Xiomara (the youngest, married one), has had paralysis in both of her legs for about a month and can’t walk right now; she’s been in the hospital for a week and a half, and the doctors are supposed to be doing some tests soon to figure out what the cause is. (Please say a prayer for her and my family here). When any “freak accident” or anything like the aforementioned occurs in the United States, it is considered tragic, but here it seems that these things are normal and that the people are accustomed to them. It’s a different world. And it is inevitable that when there are no guarantees, people place a different value on life and loved ones. Maybe things aren’t taken for granted so much when one never knows how long they are going to last…

That idea triggers my thoughts on the concept of failure. I have noticed that my fear of failure has pretty much vanished here, and I wonder how much it is connected to time pressure. Before, I never wanted to do something incorrectly or badly because I didn’t think I would have the time to go back and fix it. It had to be just right on the first try or I wouldn’t do it at all. Also, believing I didn’t have enough time to complete something used to scare me out of starting anything, but here, I feel like if something doesn’t turn out right, it’s no big deal because I will have plenty of opportunities to try it again if I want to. For example, I didn’t used to cook very much back in the States. I had two staple dishes to my name: chicken divan and banana cream pie from scratch. I believed that I didn’t really know how to cook and so I stayed pretty far away from the kitchen, eating mostly “easy-prep” things, like cereal and taquitos or restaurant food, and I was content with that. But now since my health and nutrition are in my own hands, I had to get over my fear of creating a kitchen catastrophe and just get in there and start experimenting. The first time I cooked black beans, I didn’t cook them long enough, and I used WAY too much salt. The second time, I burned them. And the third time, I forgot to add salt. Making those mistakes didn’t bother me, though, nor did it deter me from trying again. Having the willingness to mess up is the tool necessary to make something great. I am happy to say that I regularly whip up tasty batches of black beans now, and I am morphing from a clumsy caterpillar into an agile butterfly in the kitchen. Another thing is that I am not afraid to mess up an idea or activity at a charla we are doing. It takes a little while to learn the system of communication with the people in each aldea so if something doesn’t go so smoothly, I’ll just think of a way to be more effective the next time. I believe failure is a notion conceived by an individual based on the expectation of his or her own performance. As a performer, I have struggled with this concept for years being so afraid at times that what came out of my mouth wasn’t going to be perfect, I could hardly even open my mouth to sing. Well, that was silly! All the business of not being “good enough” can sure immobilize a person sometimes, and just think of how much life a person could miss out on if he or she is stuck like that! Taking chances is the name of the game; there are no guarantees for anything after all. And if you don’t step out on a limb, how the heck are you going to be able to test yourself to see how much you are really capable of doing? (Of course, I guess not everybody always wants to know how much they are capable of). There is a famous question-quote that is perfectly thought-provoking for this topic. It is “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” If you believe hard enough, you may get the feeling that nothing is impossible and that you have the world at your fingertips. So, think about it: if you removed all time constraints and pressure in your life, what would YOU do? Where would you spend your time?

Here I am with Sarahy, who is now 4 years old and reminds me so much of my little niece, Riann. I miss my family, but at least I can spend some time with my pseudo-family here.

Nike has their famous “Just Do It” slogan, but it seems so difficult to implement in the United States – you can’t “just do it” when there are deadlines to meet and so much more to do. Here in Guatemala, I am “just doing” more things without worrying than I ever did at home. (Granted, I don’t have to worry about earning a living). For instance, I am going to run in my very first half-marathon this coming weekend. If I were in the States, I’d be thinking, “No way! I’m not prepared for that.” But I figure if I just start and keep moving, I’ll eventually cross the finish line… My friend Russell wrote a book several years ago about his adventures in Ecuador (which I was a small part of) and Mexico and his personal development that took place during a span of several months at the end of college. He gave me a copy to read when he was finished. I always intended to get to it, but just let it sit on a shelf – never seeming to have the time to pick it up and start reading. I had it sent to me from home a few months ago, and I finally read it. It was very insightful and entertaining with parts making me laugh so hard that I started crying. I just wonder though, what took me so long to open it up? By observing how my own habits have changed here, I think back to the question from the beginning about whether it is possible for people from one world of time to get by in a world that functions on an entirely different concept of time from the one they already know. I sometimes wonder if, when I go home, I will fall back into the fast-paced lifestyle that seems necessary in order to “succeed” in the US – that which I have always known, or if I will be able to maintain the easygoing pace of Latin America. I have productivity ingrained in my being, and with all the reading and writing I’ve been doing lately, I see that it has only taken a little spare time to myself to get back in touch with my studious nature. But is it just a matter of a series of trivial distractions that can sweep a person away from his or her own nature or desires? Can the workings of a society have that much influence over a person’s life?

I’m going to go all individualistic and American here and say that I believe the way a person runs his life is in his own hands and based on personal choice. However, if one lacks the knowledge of a different method or the experience of a different way of living, then he is not really making a choice. In this situation, since he only knows one way, that is what he will do, but he is not actually choosing it because he doesn’t even know that there is another option. In my opinion, when people do not take the initiative to take a step out of their boxes, educate themselves, and figure out what is important to them, that is when they get stuck in their bubbles and their society gets the best of them. At least being aware that there is a different way and discovering how that way works is a start to finding a balance in life. I look to the way some of my friends live at home, and it puts my mind at ease, seeing that it is possible to counteract the societal pressure to always be one the run to catch a thousand time commitments on one’s schedule. I admire my friend Krista for her ability to foresee the possibility of plans changing and for allowing herself the flexibility to decide what she wants to do when the time comes – as opposed to three weeks in advance. Her family is a top priority in her life and there are few things – only occasionally – that ever take precedence over them. She stands her ground when it comes to making time for the things she holds dear in life, and anyone who knows Krista understands that. I also look to Robin and Karl, the couple with whom I lived for the 8 months prior to moving to Guatemala. They are the epitome of low stress! They have a family, and they both have jobs in fast-paced, technology-driven America, but their household is so laidback. They keep drama at a distance, don’t spend a lot of time worrying, and are always learning and doing new things, whether it is ceramics, cooking, learning to play the guitar, or rock climbing. I should nominate them to represent Nike! They are very active, but more importantly, they really spend time forming relationships, getting to know people, and then loving them. I also have friends who never seem to have enough time to keep up with relationships because “life gets pretty busy” with all the things they are trying to accomplish or all the drama in their lives that consumes their time. I know I used to be a friend like that to some people… I guess sometimes it can take awhile for a person to discover what his or her priorities are in life and to realize the people and things that are really important to him or her. I firmly believe that where one puts his or her time is where the heart is. Whether it is a physical presence, a phone call, a note, a prayer, or even just a thought directed towards family, friends, work, or a pastime, everyone spends their time somewhere. If you pay attention to where your time goes, you may learn something new about yourself or even identify something in your life that you’d like to change. To Guatemalans, time is life.

My host sister from Alotenango, Helen, and I got to spend some quality time together when we went out for pizza at a restaurant overlooking ruins in Antigua last week.

To wrap up this discussion, I hereby grant myself a brownie point in punctuality. Don’t get your hopes up too much – I’m not saying that my personality has changed or that I will ever stop being the slow, processing type, but I am recognizing self-improvement in the way I view and handle time. Getting a taste of my own medicine on a regular basis gives me a little perspective. Lol! So my point is for gained perspective and for learning to NOT stress out over time anymore. For being such an organized planner, I am actually adapting really well to the lack of planning here, and I am learning to go with the flow. By depending on the unpredictability of the land, I am learning to incorporate “cushion time” into my planning. Even when I am prepared for something to happen and things don’t go as planned, I am enjoying the impromptu challenge to be creative and think outside the box. I do respect setting deadlines, but I see them more as a guideline to focus a project (except when it comes to paying bills, but if you pay those early, you don’t even have to think about the due date). In regards to running a meeting or catching the bus, I have gotten much better about my punctuality. If we show up too late after our determined start time for a meeting, the people would probably have gone home already! And if I don’t get to the micro early, it might leave without me – on the whim of the driver – and then I don’t go anywhere! It’s different when you have to depend on other people in order to get anything done (collectivist/community culture). There is less pressure on oneself – less stress and accountability, but much patience and flexibility required, which I am acquiring more of every day. I am enjoying the freedom of it all and formulating a different outlook on the passing of time. I feel like I have all the time in the world! Things that require a significant time commitment – for example, med school, grad school, or any other continuation of education or training as well as other “personal endeavors” – don’t seem so threatening to me anymore. I’ve always had a fear of signing away chunks of my life thinking I would lose that time, but I have a different view now: life is what we make of it, and just because I am in school doesn’t mean that my life will be boring; in fact, it could probably be more interesting than just working! Besides, I’ve always liked school, well, the learning part of it anyway. Russell says, “Time is humanity’s greatest asset; it can neither be gained nor lost, but only fulfilled to the best of our abilities.” So with that tucked in the back of my mind, I am learning to engage in what is right in front me, and I feel like the time I have spent here has been extremely fulfilling thus far – both in experiences and growth. I can’t help constantly thinking about the future since I have so much time to formulate new ideas and discover my likes and dislikes, but I don’t think it is taking me away from living in the present moment. If anything, it is enriching the activities I do on a daily basis.

When I get out for a weekend, I often get to enjoy the company of some fellow PCVs. Here Jacob, myself, Linnea, & Riley are out dancing in Panajachel.

Jenny and Linnea are celebrating Halloween dressed as Harry Potter and Pippi Longstocking, respectively, during our get-together in Huehuetenango.

Well, I spent the whole of October in my site, with the exception of the very first weekend when I went to Lago (Lake) de Atitlán and Panajachel and the very last weekend for a Halloween get-together with a bunch of PCVs in Huehuetenango. So for about four weeks in between those two ventures, life in San Andrés was eventful, to say the least. First I’ll start with the animal situation. I consider myself a “dog person,” and I was hoping that upon moving in to a stable place in Guatemala, I would be able to have a little puppy companion. Well, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter since I moved into a house that came with a bunch of complimentary cats – one of which was pregnant at the time. The night I got back from the lake, I had a feeling that Mama Kitty was going to pop so I invited her into my bathroom onto a towel I laid down and sure enough, 3 hours later, there were three fresh kittens – two girls and a boy – to add to our collection around the house. They’re at a cute phase now that they have learned to scamper around and play with each other. Their names are Serena (the calm, firstborn), Bella (the one with the pretty face), and Nacho [el macho] (the only boy). October also included the NGO event, Sarahy’s 4th birthday for which we threw a Barney-themed party, Taira starting a job in town for which she had to go through almost two months of interviews and testing, sharing recipes and cooking together with Taira, and even planning a game night at home. Basically, although the weather was miserable for two-thirds of the month, October produced the first real feelings of integration for me here. Taira is my new best girlfriend which is awesome because she is just like my girlfriends from home – easygoing, intelligent, classy, and kind. We relate to other well and have become very close. Relishing in the fact that I was a homebody for practically a month, I had a chance in October to get caught up on a lot of “keeping in touch” which made me feel good because as November slides nicely along, it will take me away from my site and my “routine.”

The kittens added a lot of entertainment to our household. Here, Nacho is only about a week old – eyes not yet opened – and fits perfectly in the palm of my hand.

This is Sarahy on her birthday – so excited as she waits for the party to start. All the Barney decorations Taira made by hand. We spent all morning blowing up balloons and spreading pine needles all across the floor which is a tradition for Guatemalan parties – both to be festive and for the scent. It smelled like Christmas all day!

When the rain stopped, the wind picked up, launching kite season in Guatemala. On All-Saints Day, which is a national holiday here, I made my way down to Sumpango, near Antigua, to be a part of the annual giant Kite Festival. With an atmosphere similar to that of a county fair, this well-known cultural event was the most organized Guatemalan affair I have yet witnessed and had the biggest, most elaborate kites I have ever seen. The gigantic kites were just for show, but all the “smaller” and medium-sized kites had the chance to fly! I’m glad I got to be a part of such a wonderful event. To top off November thus far, a few days ago, Guatemala had the run-off presidential elections and everything was peaceful and went smoothly. The way this country is run on the national level might entirely change come January! But Guatemalans are used to ever-changing plans and policies. Haha! The rest of my month may very well be an exciting blur. I leave town Saturday to run the half-marathon in Xela on Sunday morning, then from there I head straight to Antigua because I have “Reconnect” (where our PST training group reunites and gets more information on how to implement our work) and Maya language (K’iche) lessons all week at the PC Office, then I’ll visit with my host family again for a day or two. I’ll only be back in site for a couple days before I head out again for Thanksgiving vacation – I am planning to go out to the Caribbean coast to visit Rio Dulce and Lívingston with a group of [mostly second-year PCV] girls. When I get back to San Andrés, we have féria going on for the last couple days of November (I’ll talk more about that next time). So this is my travel month, and I am looking forward to every second of it! The weather here is beautiful now and still warm although there is a chill in the air, and, all in all, I am very healthy and happy.

This is the Kite Festival in Sumpango, cotton candy man and all. Each kite was equally ornate as it was enormous!

Going down the line, each artist had a chance to fly his own kite. Here is what a giant kite looks like flying high above the crowd. It can be dangerous to the crowd when they come crashing down! But I guess that is just part of the excitement of the day…

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Thank you Grandma for the note with the St. Mary’s article! And thank you Kellie and Linda & Michelle for the fantastic care packages with goodies, entertainment, and lots of peanut butter! YUM! I’m a happy camper… 🙂

Happy Birthday to my November-baby family members, Teri & Ariana!

Happy [Early] Thanksgiving to everyone! Turkey is one of the things I’ve been missing A LOT here (as well as cheddar cheese, sour cream, Italian food, a really good, tender steak with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus on the side, and crème brulée), and this is my first Thanksgiving ever that I will not be eating turkey, so please have a little extra in my honor, if you can find the space. Oh, and throw in a nice big piece of pumpkin pie with a good-sized dollop of cool whip, too!

Guatemala doesn’t try to mess with time and thus does not practice Daylight Savings. So for the handful of you who call me every now and then, keep in mind that I am now two hours ahead of (later than) PST/California time!

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Janine Lendl (Momma)
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 00:32:39

    Hey Sweetheart ! Good one ! Lol ! I like the time theme. Nice for you to be able to take the time to analyze things while living them and making choices for yourself. Love all of your pics…you certainly do look healthy and happy. Life is good ! Ahhhh, yes. Let’s talk about this more, mmm…manana. Hee hee ! You know how I kept telling you that you were fluent in spanish ? See, you are and have been for a long, long time. It’s nice to see that you no longer have to worry about how good at things you are. You just are…because you put the effort in and you pay attention to the details necessary to succeed at all you do. I believe that anyone reading your blogs can tell that for sure ! Lol ! Love you bunches and bunches ! Oh, and so sorry for calling you so late ! Lol ! Had I finished your blog, I would have known how the difference was. Fun talking to you, though. So looking forward to seeing you, as the whole fam damily is, for Christmas time. Love, Momma 🙂

    Reply

  2. jim & kathy blaschke
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 10:08:37

    Alexandra! Great pictures and a wonderful explanation/development of the difference in the concept of time in Guatemala [“African time” for our son, Sean, is much more like Guatemala than California!!!] We really do enjoy reading your blog and wish you the best in your time there! Kathy and Jim

    Reply

  3. Christina
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 22:36:34

    I loved your discussion on the observance and role of time in different cultures. It really is something interesting to ponder. When Aundrea and I were in Texas visiting my dad after Christmas, one of the nicest things was not to worry about time. To get up when the sun wakes you up and to eat when you’re hungry not because it’s “lunchtime” or “dinnertime” is a really wonderful thing. I too struggle with being on time and it’s interesting to think about how much more productive I could be if I wasn’t so worried about time. The older I get, the more stressed out I feel about time, but that’s not really going to get me where I want to go. I’ve been trying to find ways to simplify my life and I’m finding that in order to do so I need to figure out what my real priorities are and not feel so much pressure to do things on anyone else’s schedule. Thanks so much for the food for thought 🙂

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 17, 2012 @ 16:04:41

      Wow! You’re catching up pretty quickly. Lol! I had fun writing this chapter. 🙂 I think technology makes it difficult to keep track of what is important sometimes. Because communication is so accessible and in so many forms, it seems to create the sense of obligation to answer or “please” people right away.

      Take social networking, for example. Maybe an average person has 300-400 friends. Are all those people really that important that one has to stay up-to-date with their entire lives and make sure he or she says “Happy Birthday” whenever a FB birthday notification pops up? Granted, social networks have done amazing things for connecting people, but if it weren’t for the work resources I have access to on my account, I would probably have deleted it by now…

      I have found that just by changing my environment around, I have been able to break some habits and step back a little to re-evaluate my priorities. Granted, starting from scratch in a place that is like another world far from loved ones will inevitably show a person who or what is important in his or her life. Not anyone can just “leave” for two years, but everyone has the ability to step back a bit and change his or her environment around…

      Maybe someday we will both be better at being on time. (Yeah, right!) Lol. Or at least we can make it so that time does not stress us out so much. (And, yes, I agree with you that productivity increases with the dismissal of time constraints.) Ttys!

      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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