Family Matters

The phenomenon of natural selection of organisms on this planet is based on the idea that overpopulation leads to competition for limited resources, and, ultimately, there is a race for survival of the fittest. Evolutionary fitness is achieved when an organism’s offspring survive to reproduce. It is usually an “every man for himself” kind of race with the focus on the individual and its immediate offspring, which are carrying on the individual’s genetic code.

There are several species of ground squirrel, however, that practice kin selection via altruistic behavior in order to protect the genetic code of all of its relatives (which apparently have a very similar genetic blueprint), not just itself and its own offspring. These ground squirrels live together in groups and, one at a time, each grown squirrel will take a turn standing watch for danger while the others forage for food or play in the fields. Altruism is the behavior in which an animal is willing to sacrifice its own life for the safety and well being of another—in this case, its relatives. When a predator approaches, the squirrel standing watch will start making high-pitched calls not only to alert the other squirrels of the nearing danger but also to draw attention to itself while its relatives scurry to safety. Instead of trying to escape for its own survival at the first sign of danger, the squirrel makes itself a target, thus ensuring at least a good portion of its genes are preserved through its relatives.

Humans exhibit a similar type of behavior when it comes to their relatives as well, although I’m sure it doesn’t usually get to such extreme conditions like for the ground squirrel. (Last time I checked, humans don’t come into contact with predators on a regular basis.) This tight-knit family bond is obvious in Latin American societies, and it is something that I have had endless opportunity to observe while living in Guatemala. There is that saying “blood is thicker than water,” and it’s all about survival of the bloodline here. I have learned a lot about loyalty since I do not have my family here, I am not blood-related to anyone out here, and I do not have a child who is half blood-related to any of the population. I’m starting to believe that some of the people I spend time with care about me and might watch out for me, but I have been flaked on enough times for “family reasons” that I know, if it ever gets down to the wire, no person here really has my back.

My mom always used to tell us, “Family first.” She encouraged us to spend time together and look out for each other, and she even forced my two older sisters and I to give each other hugs and apologize or say, “I love you,” every time we would fight when we were little. (She wouldn’t let us leave her presence until we did it!) I get it now. Since being in Guatemala, I have developed a deeper appreciation for my own family than I have ever had before. It’s about time that I got some of my priorities straightened out…

In Guatemala, families can be big. My experience is mainly with the rural population in which it is not uncommon for a girl to get pregnant while she is still in her teens, or even pre-teens. Since there is a huge focus on family and less on education and/or careers, the girls are raised in their homes to learn how to care for a family. Most of the women in these villages consider their occupation “ama de casa” which means homemaker. And trust me, what the role of homemaker entails is not as easy as it sounds. Cooking on open fires that need to be kept up, washing each dish and every bit of laundry by hand on a cement washboard, and attempting to keep everything (and every kid) in the house clean where dust, dirt, and mud are the strongest forces invading any house that is open to the outside air can be exhausting tasks. If a woman in a household happens to have a job, she will usually use a fraction of her income to hire a helper to assist in the upkeep of the home for several hours each day.

The way marriages work out here is also worth mentioning. Couples who live together or have children together may refer to themselves as “esposos,” or spouses, which means that their marriage is official and there are documents and responsibilities that come along with it. Also, upon marriage, the woman does not take the last name of her husband. Many Guatemalans use two last names: the primary one the father’s first last name, and the second one is the mother’s first last name. The names one has at birth stay the same for life.

The next, most common form of partnership is referred to as “unidos,” which means “united;” it is not official, but at least some sort of commitment is recognized. In some instances, couples have to pay to get married (to have the appropriate forms and documentation) which could be a reason that many rural-living, poor couples do not take that step. In some cases, men will refer to their partner as “mujer,” basically claiming her as his “woman,” whether he is married to her or not. (It is not usually used in a derogatory manner.) It is also not unheard of for men to have more than one family, especially when they are not “tied down,” per se, to one woman by marriage. (In fact, the practice of men having more than one partner seems to be acceptable throughout the culture.) In contrast, once a woman pops out a baby, she is kind of stuck for life.

Birth control is not widely practiced in the rural areas (although various methods are available from the health center). Unfortunately, many women do not have much of a say in family planning. One roadblock to using birth control in rural households is that some men believe that if a woman is trying to encourage birth control, it is because she is being unfaithful. For instances like these, we could promote natural family planning for which many resources are also available, but those methods takes extreme discipline, love for one another, and most likely habit change. It is a lot of work, and behavior change does NOT come easily in a place where the people are so accustomed to what has always seemed to work for them. Pregnant women and babies are such a common part of life here that an announcement of a baby on the way doesn’t seem as special as it might in the United States. I have my own theory about why people start having babies at such a young age in rural areas: it has a lot to do with lack of education, lack of available opportunity to do anything else, the familiarity with such a family-oriented lifestyle, and, most of all, boredom.

There seems to be no requirement for anyone in this country to go to school. In most of the rural villages, the only school is a primaria, which is equivalent to 1st through 6th in grade school. For the majority of rural-living students, this is where education stops—if they haven’t dropped out before then. Básico, or middle school (3 years), is the next step, but it costs money for books, supplies, uniforms, etc. and can involve a long walk (up to several hours) from a village thus deterring rural families from pursuing further education. After grade school, most children just help out around the house with their mothers or learn how to keep the fields with their fathers until they start families of their own in the same community or one nearby. It takes money to progress beyond provision of the necessities for survival, including clean water, food on the table, clothing, and shelter. If there is no extra money available to get families out of this cycle, then it will repeat itself. The people who are able to break the cycle usually have some money coming in from a relative who is working in the States or has some other lucrative job.

The case of migrant workers adds a lot to the family dynamic in Guatemalan society besides money. In some families, husbands, fathers, brothers, and cousins may be absent from the home for months to years at a time while they are in another part of Guatemala or even a different country trying to find work. I can only imagine how difficult it is for those left at home with no clue as to what their significant other is doing or when he or she is coming home again, but having to trust that the extra income will come and will be enough to support the family.

Since I worked in restaurant business for a good seven years alongside Latino coworkers (mostly as cooks and bussers), I have seen one side of the coin: the men, with or without papers, who work their butts off to make as much money as possible to send home. Many of them have wives back in their country of citizenship and are proud to talk about their children. I have also, on occasion, seen the scandalous aspects of the migrant worker lifestyle—that which comes with very little accountability. Now I am in Guatemala making house visits and interviewing women whose husbands, parents, or maybe even children are in the States somewhere. It is interesting to see the backside of a coin whose front side I am so familiar with.

In Guatemala, family units exist in close quarters whether it is that most of the siblings or relatives live in the same town, on the same road, or in the same house. It is unreal how everyone seems to be related to everyone else in town through some marriage or other type of genetic link. There is always a primo (cousin) around every corner! The network of family support definitely compensates for the loneliness that could be experienced with the long-term absence of a spouse or other family member. It could also be useful for childcare—I see a lot of families play “musical houses” with the kids. Usually children live in the same home as the parents until they are married and sometimes even after that. In the United States, it is often the case that once a child turns 18, he either can’t wait to have independence from his parents, to move out, and to live on his own or he gets kicked out of the house by the parents!

Families with Latin American roots stay close together. In some instances, I have noticed that women can be very protective of their boys and men and will go out of their way to cater to the needs of their husbands, brothers, and especially sons. Interestingly enough, in a supposed machismo society where men make most of the decisions, when it comes to the household, the matriarch is in charge. (That may very well be true everywhere.) If you are a girlfriend or wife who isn’t keeping your partner happy or who is influencing him in an undesirable way, you better watch out because before you know it, you’re going to be in his mama’s doghouse! And once you’re out, the circle closes. Loyalty runs through the veins.

I am lucky that I have a Guatemalan family here who has treated me as if I were a daughter/sister since the day I stepped foot into their home at the end of April. I am referring to my training town family in Alotenango. Granted, I do not live with them anymore, but whenever I visit them, I feel at home. It is nice to have that. I stopped by during the holiday season to spend some time with them and brought back a pound of See’s chocolates from the States for them to share. Just as my dad always sends Great Aunt Betty a pound of See’s every Christmas, I might have to make it a tradition for my Guatemalan family. They loved discovering what was inside and were even splitting some of the candies 4-way so everyone present could get a taste!  I am glad I had the opportunity to share some Christmas tradition with my Guatemalan family here, but really, there is no place like home for the holidays.

I took two weeks of vacation time to fly home to spend the holiday season with my family. Eight months is the longest amount of time that I have ever been away from family, and I know we all felt it. I couldn’t get enough physical contact and time spent with them! I thought I would want to go to nice restaurants and eat a whole bunch of American food while I was home, but all I really wanted was to be with the people I love and talk to them. I hardly slept because I didn’t want to miss a single second; I wanted to be overloaded with love and company so I would be sort of recharged when I came back to Guatemala. The majority of my time home was family, family, and more family, but I was able to get in a handful of friend visits as well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see everyone, but I did what I could. I had the opportunity to spend time with both my mom and dad’s families as well as two or three other families who have all treated me as if I were one of their own at some point or another.

A Christmas tree (this one is at my mom's house), with sparkling lights and a glowing angel, is an essential part of the Christmas spirit and ambiance in any home.

I love studying people and personality dynamics, and I know that families are the best specimens for that type of observation. Holidays, weddings, and funerals are all notorious for bringing out the best and worst in family members since all three events can be somewhat stressful and extremely emotionally charged. Lucky me. I got to experience Christmas separately with both sides of own family and a wedding with another family! Not to make everyone I saw sound like a bunch of lab rats or anything, but those events did provide a wealth of information for my investigation of family matters. So, thank you… 😛

There is no such thing as a perfect family or even a normal one at that—at least not in the sense that the way a family functions fits into any sort of cookie-cutter world. Families come in all shapes and sizes. We cannot choose whose family we are born into, and we can’t really ever change our family members, even if we don’t like some of them sometimes. We are stuck with what we’ve got! And as much as an older sibling may threaten a younger sibling to put him up for adoption or pack him up in a box and send him on a plane to Timbuktu, there are no trade-ins. Sometimes a person may feel unloved by his family or feel as if he doesn’t belong. That person may pull away, claim to disown his family, or even seek another family to be a part of, but he will never be able to get rid of his own. They are always going to be there. Families are forever.

One of my favorite parts of being home was experiencing the presence of “family dynamic.” While at my mom’s house just before Christmas, we were all coming and going and staying awhile to cook, clean, decorate, or just visit. There are five of us plus Mom, and now that my siblings and I are adults (or inching toward that direction), there are boyfriends, a girlfriend, and my niece and nephew to add to the mix. I noticed how the dynamic in the house constantly changed with the presence or absence of each family member. It is amazing how much each person in a family can enrich, liven up, or depress the mood in the room! I observed this in a couple other families as well and thought it was so interesting how each person slightly adjusts his or her social behavior to accommodate any additions or withdrawals of company in a room or house.

My niece, Riann, and I. She adds a bundle of sweetness to any room she enters!

Families have this unspoken line of communication that can be understood just by looking at each other and reading each other’s eyes or body language. If there is something that is causing worry, stress, or excitement, everyone in the family feels it without even needing to speak about it. On the other hand, someone who is not connected to the family would be clueless as to what exactly is going on! I found myself in awe of one particular family while I was home when they exemplified how connected their family network is. At one point, I had a short conversation with one family member, and a day and half later, when I was in the presence of the rest of the family, I quickly figured out that they all knew about that conversation and practically everything else that was going on regarding the family dynamic and how I fit into it! I wasn’t really expecting that, but how could I be surprised? They are a very close-knit family, after all. Communication among unrelated people will never be as keen as that which a family shares.

In order for any system of communication to be efficient, all functioning parts must have an assigned job or special role to play. In family systems, each member seems to develop his or her own specialty as time goes by. Some roles, such as those destined by the birth order effect, are somewhat predictable. For example (and this is a generalization), oldest children like to be in charge and tell everyone what to do, middle children are always fighting for attention, and the youngest ones are lost in their own little worlds—they may either be the hams of the family or they may slide under the radar and perhaps even go unnoticed as they create their own sorts of mischief. Then there are the providers, the nurturers, the grouches, and the troublemakers, the thinkers, the forgetful ones, the “black sheep,” and the ones who never answer their phones. Every family has ‘em.

Each member creates a little niche for himself, and the others learn to play into that. In fact, we grow accustomed the personalities, strengths, and weaknesses of every relative and begin to depend on the roles they play. In my family, I know who to go to when I need something fixed or when I need a good recipe. I know who to go to when I want to vent my frustrations, elaborate on my big ideas, or when I just want to cry. (And I know who NOT to go to!) I know who is going to call me out for being ridiculous when I make silly decisions, and I know with whom I can have a philosophical conversation. I know which of my siblings I can depend on to help me get things done, and I know who to hang out with when I just want to be quiet and do nothing, but still have company. There are some in the family with photographic memories and others who can never seem to get all the details straight. Some of us can’t tell a joke to save our lives while a couple others can have the entire room cracking up from the moment they walk in the door until an hour after they leave! The point is that every family has its own collection of characters, and no matter how good, bad, or confused any family member is at a particular time, he or she will always have a role that contributes to the family dynamic.

My grandma and little sister, Lyndsie, have filled the piano-playing niche in the family. Here they are playing together on Christmas.

My cousin, Will, and sisters, Christie and Lyndsie. Like I said, ever family has its characters. Must I say more?

Spending Christmas day at my dad’s house was wonderful! There were about 18 of us, including siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It was fun having my cousins and siblings together—the youngest of whom are just making it out of the awkward teenager phase. Of my 9 cousins, 8 are boys, and I got to visit with 5 of them at Christmas. I couldn’t believe what intelligent, handsome men they are becoming (my 2 brothers included), each with his unique personality and a lot to say. I enjoyed listening to them and watching them interact with the rest of the family. Each of these young men contributed so much to the positive atmosphere; it is nice to see how comfortable they have each become in their own skins. Having a house full of love and happiness at Christmastime is one of the best things ever!

Here I am surrounded by my brother, Zack (to the left of me), and my cousins, Robert and Christian (who is in the process of making a goofy face) on Christmas.

When I think about my family and try to imagine how life would be if one of them weren’t around anymore, I can’t really do it. I know we can’t control the way life happens all the time and that sometimes God’s plans for us are different from what we think they should be, but the thought of losing a family member is one place I don’t like to go. Last week, we had a little scare when my brother, Jeffrey, became dangerously ill and ended up in the hospital, where he spent his 19th birthday getting pumped with antibiotics and IVs. The doctors even performed a spinal tap on him to test for meningitis. No one is really sure what the illness was, but after two days, he was released and he is back to normal now. He was scared for his life. (I would be, too, if the docs were throwing out mortality rates to a list if illnesses I might possibly have like they were with him!) We were all worried. The idea that our almost 6’4”, strong, healthy brother could get knocked off his feet like that was unthinkable. I couldn’t be with him since I am here, but the thought of him suffering made me feel so sad and helpless. All I could do was pray and send some guardian angels his way. Thank God he is all right.

I am so grateful for my brothers and sisters. A person’s family is a part of who that person is and will be for the rest of his life, but siblings are like memory banks: if you get lost or forget something or lose track of who you are, just turn to them—they will always help you find yourself or recall a detail from a childhood story that just isn’t coming to you. Your siblings know you better than anyone in the world. You grow up [usually] in the same house together, so your siblings know your biggest fears and your deepest, darkest secrets—whether you told them or they read about them in the diary they found in your room! I wouldn’t trade in any of my siblings, not even for a million dollars—they know too much. If I am blessed with a family and children of my own someday, I hope I can pop out enough babies for my kids to experience what is it like to have siblings. It makes growing up so much fun and looking back as an adult at the silly things you used to do together very entertaining!

In our home, the best time spent with siblings and parents is usually at family dinner (this one is at my dad’s house). Besides great food, it always includes loads of laughter!

It is difficult to be so far away from my siblings, but I honestly believe that this experience is drawing us all closer than we have been. I want to make a special note about my sisters (I have four of them), who have given me a special kind of strength that I think can only come from sisters. Their words of encouragement and their laughter have moved mountains, and just thinking about what beautiful people they are makes me smile. My sister, Lyndsie, got me a 2012 sister-quote calendar for Christmas, and one of my favorite quotes so far is the following: “There’s a special kind of freedom sisters enjoy. Freedom to share innermost thoughts, to ask a favor, to show their true feelings. The freedom to simply be themselves.”—Anonymous. In Baz Luhrmann’s song from 1999, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” he dispenses the following piece of advice: “Be nice to your siblings; they’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick to you in the future.” I think he makes a good point.

People say that we always hurt the ones who are closest to us, and often those people are our family members. I think deep down we believe that the people who care about us, especially family members, will love us unconditionally so in a sense we know we can get away with treating them poorly or taking out all of our anger or frustrations on them. We know they will not abandon us. They couldn’t if they tried! They are stuck with us, remember? Sometimes a loved one who has been mistreated will walk away and spend some time at a distance, but when you know that all that person has ever done is loved you, cared about you, and respected you and no matter what happens, he or she always will, there is a sense of security in knowing that he or she will come back around at some point or another and that the absence is not permanent. (That is true for family, at least.) But whether it is a family member or someone you love who may be close like family, and no matter how strong or resilient that person seems—leaving one under the impression that he or she can handle just about anything, it is important to keep in mind that that person is human and thus has limits and feelings; sometimes those limits can be exceeded and those feelings hurt. So, even though it is so easy to do, be careful not to take the people who love you for granted too often; if they really matter to you, show them that every once in a while.

The cool part about families is that they can include whomever they feel like it whenever they want; families are very adaptable and always changing. Whether it is someone passing on, a new baby born, or a marriage that has taken place, with each event comes the opportunity for a family to reshape itself and create a niche for each member. When we were growing up, my mom opened her home to our friends to join us for holidays and meals, always treating them as if they were a part of the family. We used to joke around with her about “taking in all the strays” for the holidays. (She still does that.) It made me realize that there are many instances in life when people grow to care about their friends enough to include them at their table or refer to them as a brother, sister, etc. Families can consist of 2, 47, or 150 people, blood-related, extended, or friend-inclusive; there may be marriage, separation or divorce, stepparents and half-siblings, but no matter how you look at it and no matter how it changes, it will always stand as one of the most special and dependable support systems in a person’s life.

The night I flew in from Guatemala, we all went out to delicious dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in San Francisco (Dad’s treat!). I was together with BOTH families including my mom, dad, step mom and all but one sibling. We also included my brother’s friend in our family dinner!

On that note, I should talk about marriage a little bit because when people say, “I do” to the person they have chosen to be their life partner, they are saying, “I do” to their partner’s whole fam-damily as well! It’s always a package deal with a family bonus. Isn’t that nice? Lol. Well, while I was home, I attended the wedding of two of my close friends from college, Russell and Maricela, and what a grand affair it was! They included every family member possible as well as a handful of friends for participation in the wedding, whether it was having a part in the Mass, being part of the wedding party, or gliding across the floor during the special ballroom dance performances at the reception. I was happy to share in the joy and festivities of their special day but, more importantly, to be a part of the congregation supporting them and witnessing the commitment they made to each other and to God in the Sacrament of Marriage. To join in union with another person and become one before God, committing to spend the rest of your lives together and devoting yourselves entirely to the possibility of raising a family together is kind of a big deal. I believe that in order to take that step toward marriage, thus agreeing to work toward a functional, healthy partnership, putting the needs of someone else ahead of one’s own, and being ready to welcome new life into the world and love it, one has to be rather selfless. I admire all those who act on their commitment to marriage.

Russell & Maricela, saying their vows, at St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix, AZ.

As I have watched many of my friends and some family members take steps toward marriage (and raising families of their own) and observed other married couples in families with whom I like to spend time, my perspective has changed regarding what marriage entails. When I was little, I would see a wedding and get the idea in my head that it is a magical event and that couples who find “the one” and get hitched will live on Cloud 9 and be happy every single day for the rest of their lives! Maybe we have all (especially the ladies) fantasized about something like that at one point or another? Well, I see now that married couples don’t exactly get transported to a whole new world, and it is not just butterflies and roses all the time. While I could argue that couples do enter another realm (the realm of two acting as one) upon saying their vows, I have now accepted how real that action is.

The bride and groom, making their rounds at the wedding reception. Married or not, they are always going to be the same “Mari” and “Russell” I have known for years.

Neither person is going to change who they are so one either has to accept his or her partner as is before the wedding or forget it! Weddings don’t change people. Life is made up of a bunch of small, day-to-day moments. There will always be hardship, just as there will be overwhelming bliss—and we can’t pick and choose what days those occurrences will happen for us. The adventure of facing every brand new day comes with being willing to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances that life throws at us. The possibility of trusting that one will always have a companion with whom to share those joyous moments, work through the messy situations, and create a fulfilling life—together—is something that I believe we all look forward to or can appreciate if that companionship already exists in our lives. Marriage is hardly different from any other day except for the HUGE commitment (discussed above) to move forward and face the unknown together with a person whom you trust, respect, know, admire, and really really love. But, being that I have not been engaged in a steady relationship for more than a handful of months, I might not know what I am talking about. It’s just a theory so take it with a grain of salt.

At the wedding, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Patrick, another good friend from college. Patrick and I have rights to claim that “we were there at the beginning” of Mari and Russell. We all met each other for the first time during a January Term trip to Ecuador in 2007 while attending St. Mary’s College.

A couple cultural observations jumped out at me while I was in the United States. First of all, there is so much food! Of course, it was Christmastime, but I was overwhelmed with snacks and sweets, full refrigerators and feasts. All I saw were options, excess, a consumer society, and wastefulness. (Good thing the USA has a reliable system for trash management.) When I was in Walnut Creek with my friend Elease on a weekday after New Years, I was taken aback when we walked by the Apple store and saw the place buzzing as if it were Christmas Eve. There were at least 30 customers inside—at 2 PM on a Tuesday afternoon! I never would have given it a second thought a year ago, but now, it seems so strange: this society driven by the desire to buy more stuff and acquire things—not to mention the obsession with the virtual world.

I noticed how much Americans depend on their cell phones for practically all information acquisition whether it be checking their e-mail, using the GPS, taking a quick look at Facebook, comparing prices for online shopping, sharing pictures, or texting everyone and their grandmother. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the technology we have today is way cool, and I appreciate how it has allowed me to maintain steady communication with y’all, but where do we draw the line? There is such a rich quality in face-to-face interaction. Humans are social beings that require contact and thrive on the physical presence of other people. I just hope that our society doesn’t “naturally select” against the ability to non-virtually socialize…

Everything is so convenient in the States. I really enjoyed that aspect of being home. I especially liked the carpet in houses, insulation, and controlled heating, as well as hot showers with water pressure. And I washed some clothes in a washing machine and dried them in a dryer! Yippee!!! It felt so nice to drive my own car and use a trunk instead of having to worry about where I was going to fit two backpacks, a bag of groceries, and myself on a chicken bus. The stoplights, highways, and marked lanes create such excellent organization while driving in the States. In addition, I got to spend a couple nights in cushy beds with big, fluffy pillows and thick comforters. I felt like I was sleeping in the clouds! Instead of having to barter my way through the market and pick through vegetables until I found something that I could possibly make into a meal, I conquered Safeway in just a few minutes and spoke to only one other person besides the cashier. It was all so easy. But it was also kind of bland.

I will surely miss the convenience, but coming back to Guatemala after a two-week practically sleepless vacation felt very natural. The constant challenge of having to maneuver through any unpredictable situation at hand can give a person a sense of being alive. It reminds you that you are not a robot, but an adaptable, thinking human being. Even speaking Spanish again was exciting for me. I still don’t understand some of the stuff people say to me, and I have to push myself to figure it out.

Two very important things I learned from my trip home are the following: 1) Sixty-pound rolling luggage may be convenient for nice hotels and paved roads in the USA, but it doesn’t mix well with rural Guatemala; my suitcase will be lucky to see the light of the United States ever again. 2) Just because I’m having an adventure of a lifetime over here in Guatemala doesn’t mean that I should be the center of everyone’s worlds. People have their own lives and their own exciting things going on. I was very pleased to find myself in a stable and healthy enough position (for the most part) while I was home to be able to give support to the people I really care about, to lend an ear, and to really connect with them.

My mom and I were able to spend some quality momma/daughter time while I was home.

I can tell I have changed and grown immensely. Going home reassured me that I am not missing out on too much because pretty much everything was just how I had left it. I was both relieved and freaked out by that. It was so easy to just pick up right where I had left off, as if I had never been gone. I visited some of the places I used to go and saw some of the people I used to see, but something felt off. It scared me how easily I could fall back into my old patterns and lifestyle habits; I was running around like crazy with a loaded schedule and practically no time for sleep. It made me think that I haven’t been away for long enough to keep a tight grasp on the new healthy habits I have been forming in the last several months. I feel like I need more time away. I am okay with how my trip home went because I knew I needed to make the most of the two short weeks I had. It was a whirlwind of events to take in, and I finished up my visit both physically and emotionally drained, but it was well worth it considering that I might not make it home again before the end of my service.

As I sat on the bus that travels the dirt road back to San Andrés, the dust floated in through the windows and left a nice layer on everything it touched; all I could think was how happy I was that my nice clothes are all safe in a closet at home. I said to myself, “Well, here we go again.” Sadly, upon returning to my house in San Andrés, I learned that my favorite kitten, Bella (the one I was socializing), was given away against my prior request. This was quite a disappointment to me since I had brought back flea medicine, cat toys, and ping-pong balls for her to play with from the States, but I guess I’ll take it as another lesson in the dangers of becoming attached to anything in this country. Coincidentally, she was given to another family member.

They say that living in Northern California can make a person “soft.” Well, I was born and raised in Nor Cal and thus must qualify for the “soft” category. But let me tell you, living in Guatemala—being away from my entire family, having to fend for myself, being taken advantage of simply for the color of my skin, and not really knowing who I can trust—is sure as heck hardening me. Sometimes I think I can trust someone or I start to believe that certain people are looking out for me, but the next thing I know, I’m left in the dust. Dealing with people and situations out here as an outsider is good practice for both recognizing my intuition and learning to toughen up. If I don’t finish my service completely hardened, at least I might be able to consider myself “sharpened.” 🙂

When I returned to site, I did pretty much nothing (except sleep!) for about a week and a half, just trying to process everything that had happened during my trip home. It was a lot. I went through some serious family withdrawals, but I managed all right with a couple lengthy phone calls to both my mom and step mom. I am excited to jump back into work again, but January was ridiculously slow since there are so many political changes going on right now. Two of our counterparts are gone for sure, and the other two still don’t know if they have a job for this year yet. We are pretty sure Rosa is going to stick around, but right now she can’t go out to our aldeas with us because she is the only one in the health center to weigh babies and hold the fort down. Perry and I sat down and made a rough schedule and timeline for the year so we could visualize our direction and start working on projects. Finally, we decided to continue our house visits in Pajquiej without Rosa (we can get away without a translator in that village). I am hoping things will pick up and I can get some structure going, but I am in Guatemala, so you never really know what’s going to happen!

I turned 25 two Saturdays ago (the 21st) and spent the weekend with a couple of my PCV friends. My friend Kathy and I did some awesome last minute planning and decided to head to Xela for the weekend. We rounded up a couple other friends to join us for our adventures. Friday night we all went out to dinner at a burger joint in the city (Xela is industrialized and urban with lots to do). Then we headed to bed early so we could all rest up for the big Saturday event: hiking up a volcano. Volcano Santa María lies about 20 minutes outside of Xela and reaches 3,772 meters (~12,400 feet). As a perfect cone, it is the steepest and most technical climb of all the volcanoes in Guatemala. Although it has been dormant since its last major eruption in 1902 (which was extremely destructive!), it overlooks the most active volcano in Guatemala (which goes off about once an hour) on its western side.

Just before the hike, the four girls, Chelsea, Kathy, Lucy, and I, posed with Volcano Santa Maria in the background.

From the top of Volcano Santa Maria, this is what we could see of the erupting volcano through the clouds below. (The ash and smoke has a brownish tint to it compared to the clouds surrounding it.)

We had lots of fun taking pictures at the top—this was right before we attempted the human pyramid. Top row: Kathy, Chelsea, Lucy. Middle: me! Bottom: Nic, Justin, Thomas.

Our group of 8 set out in the morning with packed lunches and made it to the top after a little over 3 hours. We weren’t sure what we would find at the top and were a little astonished to stumble upon several groups performing Maya rituals. Apparently, they have monthly ceremonies on the volcano to ask for blessings from above. One of the rituals we witnessed involved cutting off live chickens’ heads, draining the blood into the ritual fire, and then manually ripping the chicken in half before throwing the rest of its body parts onto the fire. In addition to that surprise, while we were goofing off and taking fun pictures together, the entire volcano started shaking and didn’t stop for about 30 seconds! There was an earthquake in southern Mexico with a magnitude of 6.1 on the Richter scale, and we all got to experience it from the top of a volcano—and then we watched the other volcano spew ash up through the clouds high into the air. Happy birthday to me!!!

Group pic at the top with the clouds merging into the landscape of Xela (to the right). This is where we were when the earthquake happened.

Headless chicken over the ritual fire at the Maya ceremony.

The girls, Kathy, Lucy, Chelsea, and I, jumping over the clouds!

The guys, Thomas, Frank, Justin, and Nic, posing on a big rock.

When we got back to Xela, we freshened up before heading out for well-earned pizza and beer. We spent the rest of the night on the town dancing and socializing with other PCVs. There were a bunch of us in Xela that weekend because there were two other PC birthdays being celebrated! It was a fun night, and Kathy and I rolled in to our hostel at around 3:30 in the morning. We were back up at 7:30 for our Sunday morning plans. The four of us girls who hiked the volcano, Kathy, Chelsea, Lucy, and I, decided to get massages at a hotel/spa that was built on geothermal vents. I had a bamboo massage that provided some deep tissue work and felt amazing! Our only complaint was that our calves and quads were so sore from the hike that it really hurt to get those parts worked on. Another fantastic weekend with good food, great company, fun adventures, and girl time!

Chels, me, and Kathy the night before our big hike.

The four of us girls goofing off and displaying how strong we think we are. We had so much fun together that day!

I like 25. I told my mom, “I am woman now!” And I meant it. I feel like a woman. And I like it. I have a really good feeling about this year. This past year was a relatively difficult one with a lot of instability, changes, frustration, and transitional growth, but I think that was all meant to prepare me for what is to come this year. I am ready to handle whatever the Land of Eternal Unpredictability has to throw my way, and it has already started dishing out the unknown…

Here I am at the very top of the volcano!

Peace Corps Guatemala is undergoing some HUGE changes right now. Most of the measures being taken are geared toward the safety and security of volunteers here. What happens in other PC countries in Central America directly affects PC Guatemala, and that is what is going on. (Honduras started it all.) The changes taking place may affect the duration of my service in Guatemala. I was planning on mentioning some of the changes in this post, but too much has developed and probably needs to be explained more thoroughly than in just a paragraph or two. I already have half of that chapter written so I will finish it up and hopefully post it within a week or so.

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Congratulations to my oldest sister, Ariana, who announced that she is pregnant with her third baby! I’m going to be an auntie again!!! Woo-hoo!

Congratulations to my little sister, Lyndsie, who was Homecoming Queen at her school this year! I know that was a special night for you. 🙂

Congratulations to Elease & Miguel on your upcoming marriage—next weekend! (I’ll be with you in spirit!!)

Happy Birthday to all my January family members (there are lots of us): my cousins Sheldon and Nathan (who have the same birth date as I do), my brother Jeffrey, and my grandma Carole! Also, happy birthday to my niece, Riann—the only February baby!

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Aaron Adelman
    Feb 04, 2012 @ 19:22:13

    Hello Alexandra,

    I have it figured out. You are going to be a writer when it is all said and done – I don’t know anyone that can fill up a blog as quickly as you!! I think that I am going to give you the nickname of “The Blogmeister” as there is already “The Zachmeister” in your family. 8*)

    I have been praying for your safety and will continue to do so.

    Aaron Adelman
    Chico, CA

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Feb 06, 2012 @ 12:27:26

      Yes! There’s is hope for me!!! Lol. Yeah, I always wonder what I will end up doing when I “grow up.” 🙂 And I’ll take that nickname! Thank you for the prayers. Please tell Julie and the kids I said hi (do they even remember me?). I am not even sure if I have met the girls yet, but I have seen some adorable photos! Thanks for reading!

      Always,
      Alexandra

      Reply

  2. Alexandra
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 19:46:58

    That was QUITE a read! I was wondering how your post-family/holiday/wedding post would go! Nicely put! Just before your birthday I turned to your Dad and said … ALEXANDRA WILL BE 25! He was as shocked as I, how did that happen! You are growing up nicely though, and I remember hitting 25 and thinking the same thing, and wondering why I wasn’t married yet! Gonna call tonight!

    Love You, Be Safe
    Always praying for you,
    Teri

    Reply

  3. Teri Langston
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 19:49:18

    PS That was me, Teri above, didn’t know I had to fill in the boxes below! And btw I LOVE LOVE LOVE the pics from your volcano hike! Nice! Can I have a copy of the one of you at the top emailed? Would like to print for the calendar I make for your Dad every year that sits on his desk at work, there were not enough of you this year!

    Reply

  4. Christina
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 08:15:26

    Hi Alex,

    Even though we are so far apart, I feel like we are experiencing so many of the same things. I’m turning 25 this week and I feel exactly like you do, I love 25! I feel so happy where I’m at now and how far I’ve come in the last few years. I’m so proud of you for the amazing work you’re doing, and I continue to feel uplifted and inspired every time I read your blog.

    I know you posted several months ago the best months to visit you in Guatemala, but I can’t remember now. What do you think about February 2013? I think Aundrea and I will be able to afford a trip by then. We really want to visit you but I feel like time is running out already! Let me know if that works 🙂

    I’ve fallen a little behind on my reading again, but I will start reading your newest post soon!

    Love,
    Christina

    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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