Odds & Ends of Cultural Trends

Living in a third-world country and being surrounded by a culture completely different from that in which I was raised, naturally I am exposed to various behaviors and cultural trends that just seem downright odd and completely strange to me. The bulk of this chapter has developed based on the accumulation of my observations of things that I consider misfits—the things that sometimes make me raise my eyebrows, scrunch my face, and go, “Huh?” And since I couldn’t figure out where else I was going to put a lot of this stuff, I decided the “misfits” deserve a chapter of their own. I know this is a busy time of year for everyone and you all are rushing around for holiday preparations so I am going to attempt to make this one full of light-hearted fun and hopefully a little shorter than my other chapters so you can all get back to your shopping, baking, and wrapping!

Before I jump into the fun, I will do a wrap-up of November. I was out of my site for most of the month, starting with the day I left for Xela (pronounced “SHAY-luh,” it is the second-largest city in this country, just behind the capital, Guatemala City) to run in the half-marathon. And I did it! I participated in my very first half-marathon and ran the whole thing! At an altitude of 7,000 feet, I was definitely hurting (and the uphill parts were difficult!), but I ran the last 3 kilometers (out of 21) on pure adrenaline and sprinted across the finish line after 2 hours and 16 minutes. I’m estimating that at least 85% of the 2,285 half-marathon participants were male—running alongside a whole nine of us PCVs. The entire event was extremely organized and went smoothly. I was very happy to be a part of it. Also, I have to say, it is a pretty cool feeling when you successfully complete something that you didn’t know you could do or that you may have been intimidated by in the past. 🙂

From Xela, I went directly to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, where the Peace Corps Office is located for a week of “Reconnect.” Our training group of HH and YD volunteers who started in April reunited to share with each other our progress in our sites, ideas for projects and starting health promoter groups, and examples of approaches that have or haven’t worked. Our trainers and second-year PCVs also introduced to us a variety of documents, forms, and diagnostic tools that we will be implementing into our work in our communities. Those two days were followed by three days of language training (either Spanish or a Maya language) as well as break-out sessions with 2nd-year PCVs to receive training on small scale projects such as nutrition workshops and tire gardens, bottle projects, and a how-to approach for working with midwives. It was definitely a full week, but it was really nice to catch up with a lot of old friends and to see how everyone has changed and adapted to their sites and their work. The trend with the guys is that many of them have dropped a noticeable amount of weight since first arriving in country, and in the ladies’ department, a good handful have found for themselves Guatemalan boyfriends!

A very sad part of the week was that on the first day of Reconnect, Pedro decided to ET. He had been considering an early termination for a while and finally made the decision. He is a Registered Nurse and worked in a hospital before he joined PC, and the kind of work PC has us doing is not as busy or hands-on as Pedro is used to and likes to do. So he headed back to his hometown, Bend, Oregon, at the end of that week —(shout out to Sean! Bend DOES exist!). But, fear not! He was only home for a couple weeks and just returned to Guatemala about a week ago. He may get a job as a nurse at one of the hospitals out here for a while, (he established a pretty extensive network of Guatemalan friends/contacts in the time he was here already so I think he shouldn’t have any trouble getting in), but he is also refocused and eager to pursue further education back in the States. Although I believe that Pedro made the right decision for himself, it is always hard to see one of our own leave. He and I pep-talked each other through training and ran that darn hill time after time together in Alotenango. He was like a brother to so many of us and a support system that I thought I could always count on so it was a huge wake-up call when he left. I didn’t realize I would take it hard, but it came at a time when I was discovering that other support systems I have been depending on aren’t as real or steady as I thought. I knew very well before joining that Peace Corps offers an individual experience, a personal journey of sorts, and I thought I was ready to tackle it head-on, all by myself. In reality though, I have been subconsciously fighting being alone since the beginning. What can I say? I’m a social being! It’s not just me, though; I notice similar patterns and behaviors in other PCVs who are compensating for being away from their families and loved ones as well. (We are all grateful for the endless love and encouragement we get from home, but you guys are really far away, and sometimes we crave something a little closer in proximity.) With that enlightenment, the stark realization hit me that I had been counting on several people whose support I was only pretending to believe was present but didn’t actually exist. It’s a funny life out here, and our minds can surely play some tricks on us! I’ve heard that some Peace Corps people really do go crazy… Lol! Well, I have since discovered healthy, productive ways to fill my time, and now that I surrendered the faux-comforts I was hanging on to, I am actually getting pretty comfortable standing on my own two feet. Once I looked around me and started reaching out, I found that I was surrounded by some very special people right in front of my face, and I am learning to appreciate what I already have instead of trying to force something that will never materialize.

Pedro and I in Panajachel. His great personality will be missed.

Shortly after Reconnect, Thanksgiving vacation started. (Normally, we do not get days off for an American holiday unless it is also celebrated in Guatemala, but our PC “supervisors” were kind enough to make an exception for Thanksgiving.) Of course many of us PCVs wanted to take advantage of the string of free days in a row, so a good majority of PCVs planned long-distance trips. I was part of a group that headed to the eastern part of Guatemala, where the treasures of the rainforest and Caribbean coast are located, awaiting curious explorers. Our group consisted of 11 PCV ladies and one Guatemalan boyfriend (who was quite the trooper for being surrounded by all women for almost three days), and we started our journey at a little lodge tucked away in the jungle just up the mouth of the Rio Dulce, the river that flows to the Honduras Bay/Caribbean Sea. Of course, the jungle experience wouldn’t be complete without mosquito net-covered beds in our bungalows and tarantulas roaming the premises. On Thanksgiving morning, six of us ladies went out to the dock on the river to do some morning yoga, and while I was leading our little group with the sun salute (a yoga routine), two camouflage army boats filled with army men passed by our dock, traveling up the river. Since they were sporting the American flag, we thought it would only be appropriate to greet them with big smiles, waves, and a Happy Thanksgiving! I think they were pretty excited to be greeted by such lively women, and I probably wouldn’t be far from the truth if I said that on their way back down the river, some of them were probably wishing they could get off their boat and join us in our yoga practice! It was a really fun couple of moments for the six of us, too, and it made us proud to be healthy, American Peace Corps women serving in Guatemala on Thanksgiving morning. (We decided that we were all very grateful to have two boats full of smiling army men pass by us to kick off the day!)

Dusk on the Rio Dulce

The dock on the river at the Hotelito Perdido (our yoga spot)!

Kathy and Anna kayaking on the Rio Lampara

After breakfast, we all tackled our planned activities for the day. My plan involved three other ladies, Kathy, Ale, and Anna, and we decided to take the kayaks out for the day. This was a pivotal move during vacation because it was the beginning of our “fierce adventuring foursome”—the four of us ended up spending most of our time together on random expeditions throughout the entire weekend. And what a great group of girls to be surrounded by! I’ve known Kathy since the very beginning, but I had hardly spent any time with the other two girls, and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know such positive, happy, and fun ladies. So we headed out on our kayaks in search of the Lampara Waterfalls, not really knowing the exact direction or how long it was supposed to take, but we were up for exploring the jungle along the river and we even ventured deeper into the rainforest via tributaries. After about 2 hours of rowing, we finally got to the end of the Lampara River, parked our kayaks, and began hiking through the jungle on a hunt for our destination. We were all in sandals and the jungle was so muddy that we ended up trudging along the rainforest floor barefoot. (We made sure to check our feet for hookworms on our way out!) Anna was like a fearless Amazon warrior woman as she led us through the thick foliage of a relatively unmarked trail to the waterfalls. Once we got there, we unpacked our picnic lunch on a big rock and chowed down, and then we swam and played on the waterfalls and in the fresh pools for a little while before heading back. We returned to the lodge just before dusk—6 hours after our departure—to the rest of our group waiting on the dock for us, cheering us on. (We’d been gone so long, they were thinking about sending a search party for us! Lol!) Exhausted and thoroughly satisfied with our day, we wandered into the dining area where a non-Turkey Thanksgiving dinner was served family-style. We had a traditional seafood dish of that area called tapado; it is a mix of seafood (fish, crab, shrimp, etc.) cooked in coconut milk with a curry flavoring—only ours came just with a big fish, eyes, tail, bones, and everything! We had salad, rice, fried eggplant, and coconut bread for our side dishes, and just before dinner, we went all around the table so each person had the opportunity to say a couple things she was grateful for. It really was a fantastic day and an unforgettable jungle Thanksgiving!

Barefoot hike in the jungle in search of the waterfalls!

Kathy, Anna, and Ale enjoying our picnic lunch on the rock.

Kathy, Anna, and Ale playing in the pools by the Lampara waterfalls.

Me on the waterfall!

On Friday morning, we all hopped in a boat that took us down the river to the coast of the Honduras Bay/Caribbean Sea, where the town of Lívingston is located. Accessible only by boat and surrounded by thick rainforest, Lívingston is a Guatemalan city with a culture that is unique to any other in Guatemala. There is a handful of Hindu people and typical Maya/ladino Guatemalans, but the majority of the population is made up of Garífuna, the black Guatemalans who have the genetic influence of the Caribbean. The atmosphere as well as the music of Lívingston is also consistent with that laidback “Caribbean” feel. National Garífuna Day happens to be on (or around) November 25th, which is why so many of us decided to spend our holiday weekend in Lívingston—so we could experience the cultural festivities. (My rough estimate of PCVs that I encountered in Lívingston or that I knew were there was between 40 and 50.) Once we got settled, we headed straight to the beach! This particular beach was pretty much claimed by PCVs for the weekend. The water was warm and shallow for a long way out, and we could easily see Belize in the distance. We spent two days in a row at this beach wading in the water and chatting, playing Frisbee, reading, playing volleyball, and sun-bathing. (I know better than to try to tan, so I passed my time at the beach attempting to remain the whitest person out of everyone there! That wasn’t too hard…) There were a lot of PCVs around who I had not met before, both guys and gals, and it was really nice meeting and getting to know a lot more of the PC “family” in such a relaxed environment. There are some really neat people out here! There are also a couple crazies, but that’s to be expected… Although by this point we were mingling with PC guys as well, the four of us ladies still considered “girl time” the top priority of the weekend. It was much needed, I think, by all of us, and each other’s company was totally appreciated.

A small sample of PC ladies enjoying ourselves at the beach.

To be fair, a representation of PC men...a little bit of their personalites unveiled!

One afternoon, my adventure crew hiked out from our “claimed” beach to a well-known attraction in Lívingston called Siete Altares (the Seven Altars). After a nice walk along the shore, the path cuts into the rainforest and leads to a series of small, freshwater cascades that pass through the vegetation on their way out to the sea. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also extremely peaceful listening to the streams trickle as they passed like velvet over the smooth rocks. On Friday, a huge group of us went out dancing till all hours of the night, and on Saturday, my adventuring foursome went off again to treat ourselves to some fine Italian dining at a restaurant that I had read about in my Insight Guide. Second only to girl time and our spontaneous escapades, playing volleyball on the beach was definitely a highlight of my trip—it felt so good to get my hands on one again! I had a couple other eager “volleyball people” around me to play with, and we played until our forearms were so bruised that it hurt and we couldn’t play anymore. By the end of the weekend, nearly every muscle in my body was sore and I was randomly marked with bruises—half of which had unknown origin, but it was all worth it! This was the first extended vacation I have taken since arriving in Guatemala. It was also my first visit to the Caribbean, let alone a beach on an east coast, so I got to see the sun rise up from an ocean horizon for the first time, and it was just gorgeous! All in all, it was practically perfect in every way, and I am delighted not only that I had the opportunity to travel to such a beautiful place, but also that I got to share my experiences with some really cool people.

Sunrise in Lívingston

Now, back to a day in the life of Peace Corps living… Let me start with the toilet paper situation. It’s a pretty funny thing here. Unlike in the United States where it is just assumed that every bathroom will have TP and you can flush it down the tiolet, here there is almost never any toilet paper in the restrooms and all TP goes into a trashcan because it cannot be flushed (or else it would probably clog the pipes). Oh, and good luck finding a restroom to use at that! Most people who live out in the rural villages do not even have a specified place to relieve themselves at their own homes. Some people make their business off of running a public restroom where not only is there an entrance fee to pay, but the toilet paper comes at a cost as well! It can be very irritating how stingy people are about TP here, but everything costs money and people who do not have money at their constant disposal have different priorities in life. This TP attitude I believe has led to many people having become accustomed to just not using toilet paper at all, but for those people who do like to be clean and dry, it’s best to get in the habit of carrying their own TP or tissues around. (Kellie, thanks for sending a stockpile of pocket tissues my way—they come in handy!) From my observation, most of the time only women are paying to use the public bathrooms because men can (and DO) pee anywhere and everywhere. They just unzip and go wherever they please: on the side of the road, on a tire of a chicken bus, next to a tree, on the wall of a building, basically any place they can stand. It is so customary out here to see a guy standing with his feet hip-distance apart and his back maybe  half-turned that one might start feeling out of place if there weren’t at least one guy peeing somewhere in a 360-degree glance around. It reminds me of the way male dogs go around marking everything in site. I feel like it is an extremely unbalanced system though because women don’t have that same freedom. Women do resort to the bushes if they REALLY can’t hold it, but it seems to be more taboo than when the men go right in front of everyone and their mothers. Even in the schools, there are sometimes bathrooms, but they haven’t functioned for years. There is no running water. There are spiders and dust and dirt collecting on the toilets, but no worries, the boys and men can go use the bushes if nature calls. It astonishes me that such a basic human function and right to use a bathroom is not accommodated for with consideration of the masses in mind, but one, I am “American” so maybe I expect too much, and two, I am female, so why should I expect men to take into account the bathroom situation if they do not deem it a problem? I’m not so sure how I can single-handedly resolve the issue here, so in the meantime while I’m scheming, I’ll just make sure to have TP in my back pocket at all times…

To add on to all the funny behaviors and odd habits, I have a nice collection to slightly elaborate on. First of all, people walk around with their zippers down or gaping open on the pants ALL the TIME. At first, I wanted to tell people, but then I saw so many flies open that I realized people just don’t care. I don’t know whether it is that they forget to zip up or that their zippers just aren’t functional, but they don’t seemed to be worried about their horses getting out so I don’t even bother informing them that they had better close the barn door… Men also have this belly-rubbing thing they do. They like to pull their shirts up halfway, exposing their gut and occasionally giving it a rub or a pat. Normally this happens when they are just “hanging out” so belly-rubbing is a sort of past-time for them. We were told during training that there is sometimes a special meaning behind belly-rubbing—that it can be a signal from a man letting a woman know that he is interested in her, but I just like to assume they expose their bellies to get a little air or to show they’re “relaxing.” In regards to the women here, (and keep in mind that most of these behaviors are prevalent in the rural parts of the country, not so much in the bigger cities), they seem to not mind exposing themselves either—only with them it is chest exposure. In the middle of the market, at the schools while waiting to get their children weighed, on the busses and micros, if there is a woman with a child whom she still breastfeeds and the kid gets hungry, up comes her shirt within a few seconds. I have never seen so many bare bosoms hanging around so freely. But looking back on everything previously mentioned (bathroom situation, zippers, and boobs), it should be clear that there is very little consideration for privacy in this culture. Shame doesn’t really exist here either. No rules, no boundaries, no privacy, no shame.

Perry, Rolin, and (Perry's friend) Jelmer displaying how the belly-rub is done.

The clothing situation is worth mentioning in this chapter as well. Most indigenous women wear the traditional Maya clothing, called traje típico (pronounced “TRAH-hay TI-pee-coh”). It consists of a thick woven piece of fabric used as a skirt called corte, which is held up by an intricately embroidered belt that is wrapped tightly around the waist. The blouse, called a huipil, can consist of any combination of lace, embroidery, beading, sequins, and uniquely sewn patterns. A cool thing about traje típico is that each region of Guatemala has its own variation, whether it is the woven pattern or number of colors used in the corte, the length or thickness of the corte, or the style, cut, and design of the huipiles. Some regions even use hats or fancy hair wrap decorations. (I have seen a lot of hair wrap accessories in the older women more so than younger women.) After traveling a lot around different parts of Guatemala, I have started to recognize the traje of certain regions. In the high altitude regions, the traje tends to be thick, long, and warm; in the northern Quiché town of Nebaj, the traje has mostly red tones with knee-length red and white-striped corte. The traje of my town, San Andrés, seems to be rather scandalous compared to other regions because the huipiles that the women wear are midriffs with lacy backs! This makes sense when the temperature of San Andrés is considered: it is always so warm here that ventilation in clothing is necessary. There is men’s traje típico as well, however, a very small percentage of indigenous men actually wear it. It consists of white woven pants that fit loosely and are held up with a red sash/belt and usually a button-up long sleeve shirt. Actually, the most common type of shirt I have seen on men wearing traje is the classic men’s western-themed button-up collared shirt—the one that is a solid bold color but has a strip of images of cowboys riding their horses with lassos waving in the air across chest and upper back of the shirt. It makes me laugh every time. Some accessories that may be included in the menswear are a hat, a machete, or a “manbag” that goes across the chest and rests at the man’s side or behind his back. The majority of men in Guatemala, whether indigenous or ladino (European blood), wear jeans and t-shirts or button-down collared shirts.

Rosa modeling San Andrés traje with the lacy-backed huipil and typically striped corte.

A detailed shot of Magdalena's belt that holds up her Quiche corte.

You see, jeans and t-shirts are actually pretty cheap and available here; they come in piles of used American clothes or ropa americana. Small stores where organized collections of ropa americana are sold are referred to as “PACA,” and the more one buys, the bigger the discount he can get. PCVs absolutely love shopping at the PACAs because it is suitable for our budgets, plus, who doesn’t like wearing American clothes? PACAs are the best for Halloween shopping or for collecting outlandish items to throw together for a PC costume party or 4th of July! You can even find some decent stuff every now and then. Before I moved to site in July, I made a trip to a MEGAPACA to supplement my wardrobe. There I picked through all sorts of hand-me-downs with brand names including Ed Hardy, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Columbia and walked away with two pairs of pants and five t-shirts for 69 Quetzales—that’s equivalent to about nine American dollars. It’s no wonder Guatemalans have a hard time resisting American clothing—it’s so cheap! Not only is American clothing sold in the PACAs, but vendors come with piles and piles of clothing in the backs of pickup trucks and scattered all across a mat on the street on market days as well. Not all non-traje clothing in Guatemala is second-hand; there are many clothing stores that run a handful of clothing lines—lots in the shopping malls in Guatemala City and Xela. Ropa americana is just seen more often in the rural towns and markets (where I spend the majority of my time) than in the cities.

It’s comical to see so many Guatemalans walking around advertising places and colleges in the United States like USC, Duke University, or New York (I Love NY!) on their shirts and sweatshirts because when we see this kind of stuff on someone’s clothing in the States, we assume affiliation with what is being advertised, but here, all it is is something to wear or keep warm. It’s even funnier though when I see a random phrase in English on a person’s t-shirt and know that the person has NO clue what it means. This occurs often, and I have seen phrases like “Little Princess” and “I didn’t come here to play. I came here to win!” If I know someone well enough and he or she requests a translation, I will say what it means. Tayra asked me about one of her t-shirts once; when I told her it says “I may be cute, but I still bite,” she was so shocked and couldn’t believe she’d been wearing that all around town! It doesn’t really matter what a t-shirt says, though, if no one around can understand it. There is a lot of American influence interlaced into the culture here—the clothing just happens to be an obvious example, especially when it comes to American brand names. Everywhere I look, people are sporting Hollister, Aeropostale, and Abercrombie and Fitch. Even the women in traje sometimes wear brand-name zip-up sweaters to keep warm. Some of these are the real brand, but a couple times I’ve taken a closer look at people’s clothing as they walk by and I spy an “Hecho en Guatemala” tag right below the beautifully inscribed “Abercrombie” on the back pocket. Although much of the American clothing purchased and worn is done so out of practicality, it is considered “cool” to have any affiliation with the United States here…

Ever wonder what happens to all the clothes in your give-away pile? Well, here is one possibility... I bought an old dress to use as a mop from this guy.

I have one last note on clothing. I really don’t have much clothing here at all, and what I do have is being worn through. I have a small hole in at least half of the t-shirts that I wear regularly, but they are still functional so I don’t do anything about it. Holes and tears are simply byproducts of a rural lifestyle (as well as scrubbing laundry against a cement washboard) and are simply inevitable. I keep telling myself that every time I wash my dark blue skinny jeans in my pila and watch excessive amounts of blue dye slosh down the drain with the rinsing water; I keep wondering just how much more dye there could possibly be left in my jeans to wash away the next time… Clothing wears down so much faster here than in the Unites States that it would be a waste of money to keep replacing items that get marked or worn down in one way or another. My plan is to just keep wearing my stuff until it is basically destroyed (and I probably won’t end up bringing much of it home when I am done). This place is a perfectionist’s nightmare! A silver decorative button fell off of one of the shoes from a pair of black flats I bought here. I tried to take the button off the other one, but it is fastened on there pretty tightly. Instead of fighting with it, I decided to accept the idea that not everything in my life has to be completely symmetrical anymore. After all, the law of entropy—the second law of thermodynamics—states that “in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state,” which means (in non-chemistry terms) that the natural tendency of the universe is to move toward chaos and disorder. Humans are fighting a force that will always be stronger than they are. Here we think we have control over every tiny detail in our lives and that if we plan everything out as carefully as possible, it should darn well go exactly as we imagined. But how much of nature can we really tame? As soon as humans disappear from a place that has been cultivated and constructed, the wild of the natural world will creep in and devour the remnants—that is the law of the land. With that in mind, I’ll mention that I’m getting used to living with spiders. Every time I sweep them away or out a little crevice, another one moves in within a day or two. So I give up. They don’t bother me too much anymore.

There are lots of animals running wild out here. Living in a rural town, the kind of animals one may encounter on a daily basis basically include anything you might find on Old MacDonald’s farm: chickens, roosters, ducks, sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, donkeys, turkeys, cats, dogs, and mice—plus some frogs, weird creepy-crawlers, and fireflies. I am accustomed to any of the aforementioned animals freely wandering the streets and roaming the land—the funniest animals for sure are the pigs that scamper and squeal all through town. Guatemala has some “exotic” creatures as well such as monkeys and toucans, but those animals are found more often in the north eastern parts of the country where the rainforest lies, the altitude is lower, and the vegetation is denser than where I am living. As far as the general attitude toward animals goes, people here actually treat them like animals and dominate them as opposed to treating them like humans and giving them “equal rights,” per se. Whereas in the United States, people talk to their animals and treat them as if they were part of the family, having a cat or dog in Guatemala is usually motivated by practical purposes such as guarding the house or eliminating rodents. Here, there are not little frilly costumes and fancy dog apartments or kitty-carriers like in the States—no special comforts or privileges for the animals. If people do have pets (cats, dogs, and birds) and go as far as naming their pets, they often give them random names for things such as “Fuscia,” which is a color—(and the animal really isn’t even that color). One of the cats in my house was named “Cosita,” which literally means “little thing.” Right in line with my all-American training, I have given the three newest feline additions to my household “people names,” and I have picked up on the notion that several Guatemalans who enter my house regularly think I am slightly strange not only for the naming but also for the affectionate way I handle the animals.

The update on my kittens is that they are now about two and a half months old and playful as ever! Their little personalities have developed; Bella is my favorite, the one who looks just like her momma, as she is the most curious, independent, and fearless of the three. She is my little project. I am trying to socialize her, and she even hops up on my lap every morning and curls up there as I am eating my breakfast. Nacho, the orange one, killed and ate a small mouse the other day so, although he is a little schizophrenic and whiny, I decided that he can stick around (as if I had a choice in the matter!). Just a few days after I made that “decision,” Doña Gloria showed up with some people who came to collect Nacho to use as a mouse-hunter in their own home. It was just another reminder of how I cannot rely on anything to stay permanent in this country. I did, however, request to Doña Gloria that she not sell Bella while I am away. The others could go and I wouldn’t care—Cosita is really annoying anyway, but not my pretty little Bella! As far as mama cat goes, well, guess what? I think she’s pregnant again! I told Don Asisclo (Doña Gloria’s husband and the father to the owner of the house I’m living in) that I need to teach this cat a thing or two about family planning, and he laughed and said, “Well, she sure is Guatemalan, isn’t she?” Coming from a 75-year-old man who has 10 kids and has never had a wife (he and Doña Gloria are “unidos,” which is unofficial and like a step below marriage and being “spouses”), that comment was priceless. He of all people would know just how Guatemalan that cat is…

The kittens, Nacho, Serena, & Bella, cuddled up next to mama cat on my kitchen table.

When I returned to my town at the end of November, San Andrés was celebrating féria. Every town celebrates féria once a year in commemoration of the saint for whom the town is named. Officially it is a religious (Catholic) celebration, but really it is just a reason to have a big party! The best way to describe féria is like a county fair or a mini-carnival. Each town designates about eight days to its féria, but the pre-party starts about a month in advance. The vendors arrive, set up their stands, and trigger the merrymaking mode all through the town. There are all sorts of special féria foods including taco stands, pizza, garnachas (small fried tortilla topped with a special meat/onion/cheese mixture), chocolate covered fruit and marshmallows, warm drinks, and roscas (a round sweet biscuit kind of thing that is great for dipping in coffee or tea). They even set-up popcorn and cotton candy stands! There are a variety of carnival games and small rides for kids, usually including a ferris wheel. There is also a schedule of activities that include parades or processions, performances of masked and costumed dancers, live music, a presentation of the “chosen” female representatives of the town, and big dances in the town hall that start in the late evening and last into the wee hours of the morning. Basically, everyone in town and any work they have to do halts so everyone has the opportunity to join in on the fun during féria. This is the rule of thumb for all holidays in Guatemala (and there seems to be a holiday for everything!), it is just that a town’s féria is the most exciting and lasts the longest.

Speaking of holidays, Christmas is just a few days away. I know it has been coming all during the month of December, but it really hasn’t felt like it at all. I know it all has to do with the weather. There is no rain (that stopped in October with the exception of an occasional sprinkle), and obviously no snow in 99% of the country, so my brain is getting confused trying to put winter and holiday season together when it’s still hot outside. I was expecting it to get colder in my site, but the average temperature has been between 68 and 75 daily (only slightly chillier than that during the night), and some people still walk around in shorts and a t-shirt. Once the temperature drops to 67, no one in town can stop talking about how cold it is! Lucky for me, I guess, since I don’t do the cold very well…  And since the only gauge I have on December is the calendar hanging on my wall, for the first time in my life since I ever took any responsibility for Christmas (decorating, gift-buying, etc.), I don’t feel that pressure of the holiday countdown. It is kind of nice to not have that applied stress coming from every direction—media, grocery stores, family, friends, work, etc—that becomes inescapable starting right around Thanksgiving, but I do miss the “holiday spirit” that I am accustomed to at home.

Granted, Guatemalans do celebrate Christmas, too, so everyone here is doing their holiday preparations and a lot of what they do here is similar to how Americans prepare and celebrate, but I still can’t bring myself to believe that Christmas is coming. There are [mostly fake] Christmas trees put up, blinking lights strung across houses, stores, and trees, and Christmas music playing randomly here and there. It’s mostly American Christmas music (in English) which I think is pretty funny because, once again, most of the people here have no clue what the lyrics are, but they play it and listen to it because it has been dubbed “Christmas” music. It is the same for mainstream popular music as well—it’s mostly in English. I enjoy it because I am singing right along with Phil Collins, Roxette, Michael Jackson, and the like, but I am the only one singing along and it always makes me laugh to myself. The amount of American influence seen in this culture is unbelievable. Even during the holiday parade in the capital that aired live on TV in the middle of November, the dancers in the parade had choreographed their performances to English holiday songs, for example Jessica Simpson’s “Let It Snow.” They also had parts of the parade where snowmen and fake snow had their own set. I don’t think a single person in Guatemala has ever played in the snow or built a snowman in Guatemala, thus I think it is interesting and slightly odd that they would include those things in their holiday festivities. It goes to show how much cultural cross-over exists and how impressionable Guatemala is when the United States is “talking.” I appreciate the culture exchange as that is what I am doing here each day, it just bothers me a little bit that Guatemalans place the United States in such a superior position. I have more thoughts on this topic, but I’ll save them for later. It is just that when someone is always trying so hard to be so much like someone else, it is easy to lose track of his or her own identity. There is a Christmas tradition that is practiced in many parts of Guatemala (and other Latin American countries, I’m sure) call the Posada. It is a Catholic tradition where every night for about a week and a half before Christmas, groups of people go around their hometown carrying lanterns, knocking on doors, and singing back and forth to the people at the doors. It is a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey looking for an inn or somewhere to stay in the days just before Jesus’ birth. The reenactment is pre-planned with who will participate and whose houses will be involved. The “singing battle” at the doors represents each time Mary and Joseph were turned away. Every night at the end of the procession, all involved share a meal and time together at one of the houses. The journey continues until Jesus is born. It is a beautiful tradition.

December is a difficult month to make much progress with work in this country because of all the festivities and vacationing going on for the holidays. Perry and I did spend the first two weeks in December with our noses to the grind to get as much done as possible before everything “stopped.” We have shifted the focus of our work to house visits as we are trying to make assessments and diagnostics of our two communities, Limón and Pajquiej. We only visited about half of the houses in each community, so we will continue with that in January. We are also gearing up toward starting a health promoter group in Pajquiej. Individually, I am planning to set up work for myself in three different grade schools, and I am going to start inviting ladies over to my house for an hour once a week on “Workout Wednesdays” where I plan to lead some basic cardio, yoga, toning, and stretching as well as share some information weekly about women’s health. Rosa’s mom also requested that I do charlas for her and the families who live around her. So I may start up a little group in San Andrés, and I am thinking that I will gear it toward nutrition and even start doing cooking classes if there is enough interest. I am feeling very settled in my home and my town, and I am prepared to jump in with both feet in January. I definitely have my work cut out for me, and I couldn’t be more excited about it!

Here are a couple "California Girls" representing Peace Corps: Kathy, Anna, me, Ale, and Kate. Just another wonderful memory of my time out here so far!

During Christmastime, most PCVs take vacation since there is not much work for us to do in our towns. A handful of people travel to neighboring countries such as Mexico, Belize, and Nicaragua, but many PCVs go back home for the holidays. I am excited to say that I am one of those flying home! Goin’ to California!!! Originally, I didn’t plan on visiting home during my entire first year away, but two of my wonderful college friends, Russell and Maricela, are tying the knot just a few days after Christmas, and I promised them (before I joined the Peace Corps) that I wouldn’t miss their wedding. It’s perfect timing actually because I am attending the wedding and I also get to spend the holidays with my family. And, boy, am I ready to see my family!!! I cannot wait! I am looking forward to some good quality time with my loved ones, and I know it will be just the right amount of “refresh” to get me geared up for the new year. I wish you all a Merry Christmas filled with many blessings and lots of love shared! And I hope that your holiday season is as wonderful as mine is going to be!

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Thank you, Teri, for the fantastic care package with letters from the fam (and the photo)! It was very thoughtful and I enjoyed each little thing.

Thanks to all of YOU who continue to read my story; it is the best way for me to share my experiences with you without you actually being physically present in Guatemala.

Congratulations to Mari and Russell on your upcoming marriage!

Congratulations to my best friend, Linda, and her husband, Robert, who just found out that they are expecting their second child. (And thank you for calling to tell me about it!)

Heads up! For anyone who has been making plans to come visit me, as the New Year approaches, I encourage you to start looking at your calendar and setting dates. The years go by faster than we expect sometimes, and it is nice to have some time to prepare for a big (or small) trip—on both your end and mine. The months with the best weather for traveling are February through June, November, and December. (September and October are really bad so I advise against planning a trip for those months.) Get in contact with me if you are serious! Friends and family are always welcome. 🙂

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim McFadden
    Dec 23, 2011 @ 20:07:55

    Alex, I was really taken by your 2:16 half-marathon time at altitude, which was
    hilly (that makes for slower times). I’m guessing that you may have trained
    20-40 miles/week for three months to prepare. Any less than that would be truly remarkable, which would probably speak to your overall fitness.

    Your attention to detail is so engaging. I feel as though I’m seeing Guatemala through your lenses. Talking about Guatemala is one thing, but conveying the lived experience is another and the latter you do so well.

    The “N.Y. Times” ran a piece recently where the PC is removing volunteers from Honduras and not admitting new ones into Guatemala because of the tensions and danger posed by the drug trafficking. Such an omission from your missives leads me to think that you’re not in the “danger zone” where you work or it’s best not to talk about such things. In any case, I admire how you and your volunteer
    compatriots are doing such incredible work for the Guatemalan people on behalf of the U.S.

    During Finals week at S.F., I had the opportunity to meet your sister, who looks very much like you. As she was getting ready to take her exam, she gave me a hurried, but enthusiastic update on your work–especially, the opportunity to meet
    guy-friends of enduring possibilities!

    Merry Christmas and blessings for the New Year as you continue your PC
    adventure.

    Peace and good will,
    Deacon Jim

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Dec 30, 2011 @ 12:50:26

      Mr. McFadden,

      It is always nice to hear from you! I didn’t really know how to “train” for a half-marathon, so I was running between 30-60 minutes 2-3 times a week for a couple months beforehand (although I slacked off big time in October). During the race, my body was in good shape for the first hour, but after that, I was hurtin’ for certain!

      The current situation with PC in Central America is definitely worth talking about. We were informed only several days before I posted and I was traveling around and packing up for my vacation home so I didn’t feel like I had enough information regarding the situation to write about it. There have been incidents in Guatemala, but I do not feel threatened. I am planning to continue my service as if nothing is happening, but I have learned to always have a Plan B stashed somewhere in my back pocket. I will probably address the situation further in my next chapter.

      You met Katarina! She mentioned that when I was with her at Christmastime. And, yes, she and I look very similar. She has a great personality and she’s pretty funny, too! I don’t know who she was talking about when she brought up the guy-friends. Could be the “eye candy” I might have mentioned to her or she is just hoping and praying that her sister finally gets a boyfriend! Haha! But as of right now, I am really enjoying the time I have to focus on developing myself and my work. If I meet the man of my dreams and get swept off my feet, I’ll keep you posted. Lol!

      Hope you enjoying the Christmas season!

      Always,
      Alex

      Reply

  2. Elease
    Dec 31, 2011 @ 14:46:56

    Responding to Odds & Ends of Cultural Trends:

    Ally!

    You ran a half marathon!!!! Wow!
    Good for you! I’d love to do that one of these years soon! I bet it was beautiful too! What an accomplishment you’ll always remember!! And in Guatemala!!

    ReConnect sounds really neat to observe how others have grown & what they have learned in a similar experience but very different I’m sure at the same time. So Pedro left to Oregon & then came back to Guatemala? So he’s left the PC but wanted to come back to Guatemala to pursue nursing? Wow! Will you still get to see him then!? Sounds like he was a huge support for you & he sounds like he had a lot of energy & optimism!

    I’m sorry to hear you feel so alone there. I can imagine you would feel that way for so long without anyone or anything you’ve had by your side for so long. You will gain so much personal strength from fighting emotionally on your own. This is probably one of the most difficult things to do or learn to do. Wow. You’ve been there for a year in April? I can imagine how each month probably feels like more & more distance from those you were close to. Remember that I am here thinking of you and hoping for the best growing experience you can possibly have for yourself in Guatemala!

    What a treat to see 2 boats full of Army men! I bet that was a moment of pride for both of you groups to be serving your country and being so far away from your family on Thanksgiving morning. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice to say the least!! And even better doing Yoga! All those endorphins and over a beautiful river. I should get back into Yoga! I haven’t done it for years! 

    The Lampara waterfalls look so pretty and how special to get away kayaking two hours away into a private jungle on Thanksgiving! Was it cold? It looks like a summer day for you guys! I’ve only kayaked once in Florida this recent April in the Atlantic Ocean. It was really pretty 🙂 

    Livingston looks beautiful!! You are so adventurous! You are definitely taking every opportunity to see a new town, a new beach or explore a new trail ! I knew you would and I knew you would make the most fulfilling experience you could. Are there some PCs that don’t try to navigate around & keep to themselves or are you surprised that most adventure out when the opportunity arises. 

    Yummy! Italian food! How does it compare to home? Or to Italy? Lol

    Wow!! That picture of the Sunrise in Livingston is unreal!
    I’m gonna try to print that out and hang it up in my guest bedroom maybe 8×12. I love it!!

    No TP anywhere! Wow! Sounds gross! But even worse is spiders & dirty bathrooms!! Well I’ll have three clean bathrooms for you to choose from when you come to my house with three extra TP rolls in each bathroom!

    That’s interesting that women wear different clothing colors & patterns from different areas. Bobby would find that interesting. I also liked to hear you are getting good use out of your clothes. It sounds like the culture in general isn’t wasteful like we are in America.

    That’s really funny about Guatemalans wearing American sayings on their sweatshirts & T-shirt. That made me laugh. 

    I liked your comment on how we just can’t plan exactly how we want things to happened. We can plan as much as possible but always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Like my wedding! I can’t stress on the details because it’s out of my control. 

    And wow, you’re getting use to spiders!! I haven’t seen one in my house yet! Shockingly. Diesel, our dog seems to bring in every piece of dirt or rock through his enormous feet! A spider should be in every room by now! What are the spiders like in Guatamala? Thick and small or thin and long? And you’ve seen 
    tarantulas? Ahhhhhh!!! That’s pretty much the scariest thing in the world to me right next to a lion. Lol

    That’s interesting that pets aren’t a big deal like they are here. You can’t believe the dog park near our house! That’s funny they think you’re strange for naming your kitten. That’s funny they name their animals colors of which they are not. I laughed out loud on that one. 

    Your cats are so cute 🙂 what kind are they? They’re precious:) I thought about a cat but I already know Diesel would get far beyond jealous. Maybe it’d calm him down a bit. You’ll have to meet Diesel when I see you on the 3rd! He’s a Golden Retriever, German Shepherd and Bassett Hound mix! 

    I can totally relate to how relieving and relaxing Christmas is without gifts! This was my first Christmas as well as my family’s first Christmas without doing gifts. It sure lifted a huge burden off of all of us. We had more time for family time this season and weren’t out in the hussle & bussle of traffic & overcrowded malls. We comfortably paid our bills without it being so tight as it usually is with the holidays. 

    I’ll see if a traveling trip could be realistic to Guatamala. Having a mortgage is still very new for me and very hard to save money. Unfortunately our wedding is all going on a credit card. But after Miguel starts working more in March it should be a lot better!
    He tells me how beautiful Guatemala is!! It would be so special to see you. My mom has made me over-worry with her traveling stories to other countries she reads in the newspaper but I should be fine with a man & a Spanish speaking man at that!!

    Well, I think I have your blog before this one to read! So here I go!! 

    Can’t wait to see you January 3rd!!! I’m counting down the days!! I love you and I love reading about your experiences in Guatemala!!! 

    Reply

  3. Christina
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 08:26:03

    Alex!!

    I’m all caught up now! I’ve been immensely enjoying reading your blog and I take every opportunity to tell my coworkers, family, and friends about you! About your adventures and about how amazing it is to be reading these stories written first hand by someone who is my friend, rather than someone I’ve never met.

    I was surprised to hear that you came back to California for Christmas, but I’m very happy that you had the chance to do so. What are your plans for next Christmas? Aundrea and I are absolutely serious about visiting, but we probably won’t be able to until December or January–got to pay off some bills first! I’ll email you this week with some updates about what we’ve been up to and maybe we can set up tentative dates for a visit.

    I’m sitting in the edge of my seat waiting for your next installment, and I wish you the best every single day! Keep up the good work!

    Love,
    Christina

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Feb 06, 2012 @ 12:32:55

      December or January is PERFECT! I most likely will not be going home again, but that is the best time for me to take vacation here since work is so slow during the holiday season and political changes in January. Can’t wait to hear your updates! I’m so happy we have been able to stay in touch, and I am glad you like reading my chapters. Never thought it could happen after all the time I struggled with writing in college, huh? Lol. Yes, let’s set tentative dates!!! Ttys!

      Love,
      Alex

      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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