The Gringo Groove: Worlds 1 & 2

What exactly is a gringo, you wonder? Well, in Guatemala as well as in many neighboring countries (although in Mexico, “guerro” is more common), the word “gringo” is used as a descriptive term when referring to a light-skinned foreigner (unless the light-skinned foreigner looks Asian, in which case he or she will forever be known as “chino;” oh, and a dark-skinned person will always be a “negro,” whether he or she comes from Guatemala, Africa, Europe, or the United States). In my experience here, the term “gringo” is not used in a derogatory manner or meant to offend. It is simply a widely used slang term for—if you want to be politically correct—white North Americans, as well as light-skinned Australians, Europeans, etc., denoting physical appearance only. Guatemalans love nicknames, and they have a habit of calling it exactly as they SEE it!

Well, since I have just passed the halfway point of living in Guatemala and serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer alongside 44 other PCVs who started service at the same time as I did, I think the time is appropriate to explain just exactly how we PCVs have adapted to living and working here. It has been an exciting, challenging, and eye-opening experience thus far, and we each still struggle daily to figure out how we fit into the various worlds in which we play a part. At this point, we seem to exist at an in-between phase of each world—we really aren’t fully a part of any of them as we try to decide into which worlds we would like to integrate and from which ones we are okay drifting away for a little while.

There are four worlds in which a PCV exists and that I will spend the rest of this chapter exploring: 1) Life in our sites and how we are fitting into our communities with our work, social life, living in isolation, etc.; 2) The world of gringos living abroad including what Guatemalans are used to associating with gringos and how we PCVs relate to other gringos out here; 3) The PCV population and how we relate to each other and socialize together; 4) Our families and lives in the USA, back “home.” (Actually, I am only going to elaborate on the first two worlds this chapter and save the other two for the next chapter.)

It might be helpful to review the “three goals” that constitute the Peace Corps’ mission to promote world peace and friendship as these three goals underlie the majority of a PCVs chosen lifestyle, purpose, and daily interactions. They are the following:

1)     To help people of interested countries in meeting their need for professionally trained men and women.

2)     To promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served.

3)     To promote a better understanding of other peoples (and cultures) on the part of Americans.

With those in mind, I will venture into the PCV/Gringo Groove within our Four Worlds…

1) Life in site

First, I will start with an update on my living situation. I finally feel like I am settled into my own place. My kitchen and room are completely set up so I don’t really have a lot of hefty outgoing costs anymore. I have a very peaceful environment and living space, which makes it easy for me to focus and relax. I can work on my own schedule and cook, eat, bathe, workout, study, visit friends, prepare my work materials, and sleep whenever I want. One of the best aspects of serving in the Peace Corps is that most of us get to make our own schedules; this might make the transition back to working for someone else difficult! I do realize that this may be the only time in my life where I have so much freedom—of schedule, work, time, projects, responsibility, etc., so I am doing my best to appreciate this time.

Last November, Tayra, Ozman, and their daughter, Sarahy, moved out of the house into their own home—four whole blocks away. A different couple, Katy and Marco, started renting one of the rooms where I live in December. I am not very close with them, but they are easy to live with—pleasant, quiet, and respectful of space. Although Tayra and Ozman don’t live here anymore, I still regard them as the closest thing to a “host family” that I have in site. Tayra is more like my best girl friend and sister here than anything else, though. We still get together a couple times a week to cook and share meals and recipes or just hang out. I also have a nice little “auntie” relationship with their daughter, Sarahy, who is 4 now, and Tayra just found out that she is pregnant again so I get to be around for the next baby, too!

Perry, me, Tayra, and Ozman enjoying a spaghetti dinner that Tayra and I prepared at her house.

In regards to our counterparts, Rosa is really the only one of our original four who we actually interact with. (Two of the other ones don’t work In San Andrés anymore, and the other one is in charge of a Health Post now instead.) In the middle of February, three new educators/nurses came on board at the Health Center so we unofficially work with them as well although Rosa is our “primary” counterpart. I hardly ever spend any time in the Health Center anymore as there is not much for me to do there. My focus is on my aldea (small community/village), as well as a women’s group I meet with in San Andrés just a few blocks away from my house.

A big change is that my site mate, Perry, and I decided to split up in February and divide our communities so that he is working by himself in Limón and I am working by myself in Pajquiej. This was probably the best decision that we could have made as it means that we can each devote more time and energy to each community as well as work at our own paces and not have to run all scheduling and other work details by each other. We are two extremely different people with unique personalities, work styles, interests, tastes, talents, social needs, and coping mechanisms, and thus hardly spend much time together anymore; however, we are still available to each other as a resource and support. We just now both have the opportunity to have an individual experience and learn and grow from facing and overcoming challenges on our own, instead of being overshadowed by or dependent on the other. It has been good for both of us.

This is a little snapshot of what I do. I am giving a charla about different types of parasites that can cause stomach sickness to my womens’ group.

The only drawback I have experienced from separating from Perry is that now everyone is finally convinced that he and I are not married—even though we were telling them from the beginning that we were never a couple—and there has been an influx of men trying to get me to be their novia, or girlfriend. I do not give my phone number out, but I have dealt with calls and text messages from several different guys in town—some of whom I know, others who are complete strangers—who magically obtained my number and then refused to tell me who gave it to them because they “didn’t want me to be angry.” I declined offers, stopped answering my phone for unknown numbers for a while, and nicely informed those who I actually knew that if they continued to send me mensajes de amor, or love messages, that I would not want to talk to them at all anymore because it made me uncomfortable and that I was just not interested in being their novia. So the pursuits have dwindled (word must have gotten around about all the unsuccessful attempts), and I am managing quite nicely at keeping a low profile in town.

Of course, I am still teased about finding a suitor quite often by people who know me better. A couple of my lady friends in town and in Pajquiej like to joke about me learning how to make tortillas so I can feed my “husband” while he works and I stay home and take care of the kids all day, and then they imagine, “If you marry my brother/son/uncle/cousin…then you’ll be my sister/daughter/aunt/cousin…and so-and-so will be your mother-in-law/sister-in-law/niece/etc.!” The women, especially Tayra, like to let their imaginations run wild about the prospects of my love life and the possibility of me living in San Andrés or Guatemala forever. In contrast, the handful of men I know that have poked fun at the topic usually says things like, “If you were dating my nephew, you could take him back to the States with you!” Since the banter is harmless and mostly in good fun, I’ll jokingly join in on some of their crazy ideas, then we’ll all laugh about it. But I have never in my life experienced so many people scheming about how I could end up as a part of their family…

Tayra and Sarahy getting ready for the preschool parade around town.

Moving on to the topic of my work, I would like to bring back to mind the First Goal of the Peace Corps Mission (above) which is “to help people of interested countries in meeting their need for professionally trained men and women.” The translation is that Peace Corps’ primary focus is development work. I’m just going to come right out and say that development work is a pain in the butt. I have never been one to prance around dictating people’s lives, so it is extremely difficult to enter a community as a complete stranger and implement a plan on how to better the lives of the people in that community. What right do I have to come in and tell these people how to live? Who are we to say that how they are living isn’t “good enough”? And why should these people trust us?

It is so frustrating to all of us working here, especially in communities (like Pajquiej) that have not had experience with Peace Corps before, because our “bosses” and PC Headquarters want to see numbers. They need quantitative data as proof that our programs are actually making a difference within the countries we serve. They want to know how many people we have trained on which topics, how many workshops we have given, how many students we have educated on HIV/AIDS, how many households within a particular community have received the training on the benefits and maintenance of a chosen infrastructure project and then eventually received the project itself, etc. We have to justify our program in order to keep it running (a.k.a. funded) in this country. But we can’t force people to change—let alone attend our meetings and listen to us. These Guatemalans are now our co-workers, friends, and even families. In the communities, they are people, not lab rats, and we must always take that into consideration when approaching our work.

I understand that many people—supporters of us PCVs—back home are curious about what exactly it is that we do out here. People want to see progress and results—they want to believe that our time spent away from them is being used in some sort of productive way. That’s fair. We PCVs, as well, wish to have some sort of validation every now and then. We want to know that the frustrations and tears, bug bites (and chucho, or street dog, bites) and diarrhea, adherence to cultural norms that we do not personally believe in, tolerance for public transportation, and changes in diet that we all put up with will ultimately be “worth it” in order for us to see some small positive change in the world. We all came here to “serve” and to give back to society a part of what has been bestowed upon us as far as education and experience in life goes. There is a desire that lies deep within many of us to practice NOT being selfish. However, when we get to a point where we have been here for about a year and have very little to show for ourselves, we all start to question exactly what degree of selflessness we think we are demonstrating.

Right around the one-year mark in the typical PCV cycle of service, many volunteers experience what is referred to as the “Mid-Service Crisis.” Our minds are filled with doubt as we try to identify what we have done and can’t seem to come up with much of anything. Depressed, lonely, and lacking motivation, we wonder, “Why am I here?” yet we aren’t ready to quit because we are determined to do something during our service. The Mid-Service Crisis normally occurs right before [and ends with] a major breakthrough in one’s community. I believe I went through my “crisis” in February, and I have recently spoken to some other PCVs who are currently struggling with finding their niche here and are now taking a step back to re-evaluate their purpose and motivation for being here. Everyone experiences it at a different time—and we all imagine how life could be back in the States “if we left right now”—but that is all part of the process which most often proceeds with a renewed commitment.

Amidst all the pressure, guilt, and questioning, a huge enlightenment came over me that helped curb my feelings and refocus my energy. It was that this country is not driven by productivity, schedules, and the expectation to attend every single prior engagement to which one has committed; on the contrary, it is a very forgiving society. I never thought that I would place productivity and forgiveness on opposite ends of a scale—let alone the same scale! Very different from the American culture that revolves around hitting numbers, producing results, and maybe even gaining noticeable profit, this culture is based on “showing face,” spending time, and gaining trust before any moves will be made or changes will occur. It makes sense now how anyone who is familiar with the PC experience will claim that the entire first year is about integration, while the second year is focused on work and carrying out projects.

I invited Carmen, her daughter, Queylan, and Queylan’s baby, Marleysi, over to my house from lunch one Sunday. We had egg salad sandwiches and carrot/potato/onion cream soup!

With that in mind, I changed my approach to work in Pajquiej. In March, just after Perry and I split, I decided that I was going to focus on simply spending time in my community so I picked a day once a week to just stop by and hang out with people in Pajquiej. By that point, Perry and I had already given some charlas, or health talks, to interested community members and completed house visits in December and January as part of a community diagnostic. Our next move was to form a health promoter group in the community and train the members on specific health topics. Health promoter groups are a major focus of the PC Healthy Homes program (my program) in regards to sustainability within a community. The idea is that we train motivated, interested community members to serve as leaders and health resources in their community who will basically be capable of doing our job when we are no longer here.

At first, getting people interested in forming this group was like pulling teeth—in these areas, it is difficult to get anyone to COMMIT to anything. One big problem is that these people are accustomed to a culture in which there is a whole lot of talk with a very small percentage of follow through. When I first started telling some community members that I was going to visit them, and then I arrived at their houses on the day I told them I would, they were surprised and told me that they didn’t believe that I was actually going to show up. It turns out that almost nothing happens in these communities unless you are physically present to facilitate a start or see it through. I believe that all my little house visits and time spent participating in my community have paid off in that they have led to many community members gaining confianza, or trust, in me and what I say. Confianza is the magic word here, and it is the thing that every PCV seeks to attain within their communities, as it is a sign of integration.

Before integration occurs, the idea of moving mountains is daunting to a PCV; once confianza exists, however, it is not just the PCV out by himself picking up one small stone at a time and changing its location—it is the single PCV (who started by example and sparked interest, acting as a sort of catalyst) plus a bunch of members in a community all working together to move several stones at a time or teaming up to transport the big rocks. Much patience is required to commence the implementation of an idea, but once a community is engaged and has identified all the tools and resources they need (which are usually right in front of them and just need to be pointed out), a PCV can pull back and the community will still be able to complete the job on its own. And THAT is how mountains get moved.

In Pajquiej, things are starting to get fired up. In March, we had health promoter sign-ups, and in April, we started a 7-month program of trainings during which we meet twice a month. I have fifteen women, ranging from age 14 to 61, who show up regularly to the 2-hour training sessions that are usually held either at the school or at one of the lady’s homes.  We are focusing on three major topics—diarrhea & the cycle of contamination, nutrition & the immune system, and reproductive health & family planning, and we have completed five training sessions so far. About half of my health promoters cannot read or write (and one of them hardly speaks any Spanish, but understands it) so each session involves explanations through drawings on big posters as well as hands-on activities. By the time my health promoters graduate in October, they will be responsible for the important points of the information covered (I create handouts with drawings and diagrams for each session with the information they will need to know), and they will also have prepared and given a small charla in front of a group of people. I really enjoy working with these women, and because many of them bring some of their kids to our meetings, I have plenty of opportunity to interact with [and include] the kids during the sessions as well.

These are some of my favorite little ones from Pajquiej: Yessenia, Yaser, and Kimberly Johanna. They always help me out during the the health promoter trainings.

In addition to training a group of health promoters who will be the driving force for creating behavior change and healthy habits within their homes primarily, and then extending to the rest of the community, I have put out feelers for interest from the community regarding other small projects such as learning how to compost (with worms) and then creating tire gardens and growing veggies in their own homes. We are working toward these things in Pajquiej, but it is a slow process. It is definitely something that I would like to facilitate, though, because it would be so useful to them, and the community pretty much has all the basic materials necessary to do these projects—they only lack the “how-to.” I will be responsible for teaching that part, but first I think I have to figure it out for myself because I have never done this stuff before either…

One last aspect of future work in Pajquiej that is related to the PC Healthy Homes program is the possibility of carrying out small infrastructure projects (such as cement floors, improved stoves, or latrines) based on need within the community. If the people in Pajquiej decide to participate in this process, my health promoters would then help me to educate and monitor the habits of the participating families in order to make sure “behavior change” is occurring before a project will be installed. In April, we Healthy Homes PCVs all attended a 3-day IST (In-Service Training) during which we all witnessed and participated in the construction of each project. Since most of us are panning to move in this direction with our communities, IST was a great experience for us because we all finally felt like we were getting our hands dirty and doing something tangible for once.

This is the improved stove that we constructed for a Guatemalan family during IST.

In May, we then attended another 3-day training (called PDM, but I forget what that stands for), with either our counterpart of a member from our community, during which we learned about the paperwork process involved with creating a budget and soliciting funding for the projects. A couple months ago, I asked the doctor (who is in charge of what communities we work in) about possibly working in another community as well, but he recommended that I stick to only one community because he said I am going to have to be in the community a whole lot more once we get projects going. I figured he knew best since he has already worked with Healthy Homes PCVs in the past, so I agreed with him. IST and PDM confirmed the doctor’s predictions as attending these very informative and rewarding training sessions made me realize how much work planning and implementing projects is going to be. Things are going to start getting busy here in the next couple of months, but I feel stable enough in Pajquiej to proceed forward, and I think they are going to be willing to work in that direction with me.

Since I only go to Pajquiej on average twice a week, I am left with quite a bit of free time in San Andrés to fill when I am not preparing my work materials. I really love being in site. Living in my house is like being on vacation so I don’t really try to get away too often. I am accustomed to alone time now and have come up with many ways to fill my days including reading, studying more Spanish through a Spanish Grammar workbook, rereading my Nutrition textbook from college, keeping a journal, and writing the occasional letter or e-mail or watching a movie. I can always do yoga, go for a run, or do a dance workout video. Plus, there are all the household chores to keep my attention such as sweeping, disinfecting and cutting fruits and veggies, scrubbing the floor, hand-washing all my clothes and putting them on the line to dry, and cooking. There is quite a lot to do so I rarely find myself bored. And when I desire more social activity, all I have to do is step outside my house and take a stroll down the street—it’s a guarantee that I will find someone to talk to.

Rosa sharing a tostada with her “nene” (baby boy), Isaac, after a charla.

It got around that I enjoying working out and some of the ladies in the Health Center and around town started asking me when we were going to workout or go running together. Based on the interest, I got excited and decided to plan “Workout Wednesdays” at my house every week during which we would do one hour of guided exercise/yoga/cardio classes together with some fun facts about women’s health at the end of every class. My idea was that this would also serve as social time for the ladies. So I planned the first workout class and no one showed up. The next time I saw all the ladies who had told me they were going to come, they all asked me excitedly how the class went. I told them no one showed up. They felt a little bad and every one of them had an excuse, but two weeks later started asking about it again. So I planned another class. This time three people came! I was pretty excited about that, and they had a great time, they told me, and couldn’t wait till the next week. A week later, one lady came back—and I gave her a personalized session. The week after that, no one showed up. I sat around my house for the entire hour waiting, laughing to myself, knowing that no one was going to come. And now I don’t plan workout classes anymore. I tell them, “If you want to workout or go running, you pick the day and time, get ready, and then come get me and I’ll go with you.” That seems to be a better system because the ones who are serious WILL come find me.

My attempt to make “Workout Wednesdays” a regular, social activity didn’t work out for several reasons. The first reason is that it was mainly MY idea—not something that the women came up with, planned, and were excited about. And the second is that the preferred past times of a single, childless, American woman in her twenties may not be feasible to women who are all married with children and have endless household and familial obligations or who are expected to be at home during certain times of the day. The truth is, taking time out of the day to do yoga and other exercises just isn’t practical here, and the women here do not see the same [long-term] benefits as I do with working out. They seem to get a workout in just by performing all the household tasks on a daily basis. I also think many women were interested in what I was doing at first because I am a gringa and the things I do are thus “different and interesting.” But the failed attempt at workout class was actually a great lesson for me and helped me to look beyond what I do to understand how women socialize in these communities.

My biggest observation is that life—and social time—in small rural communities revolves around food, cooking, and mealtime. (There are no mani/pedi salons, Starbucks, movie theaters, or indoor rock climbing gyms in these parts!) The Sunday market is like the big hang-out spot where everyone assumes they will run into everyone else and catch up on the town gossip, the status of a sick family member’s health, what produce they found cheap that day, etc. It took me awhile to catch on to this and realize that importance of mealtime as well, but once I did, I jumped on the bandwagon and started focusing my social life around food, too! Starting with Tayra, I started inviting people over to my house to share a meal or try out a new recipe. I also now keep enough snacks on hand to be able to invite anyone over on the spot. One evening, I had a total of nine people over (3 co-workers at the Health Center, their kids—5 in total, plus me) for a dinner that we all cooked together! I occasionally go to some of my friends’ houses as well to cook with them, learn their recipes, and share a meal. I willingly recognize FOOD as the biggest factor in my breakthrough to a steady social life.

Pancake dinner night at my house! Victoria (left) and Ana Maria (standing on right) brought their munchkins to help out, play, and enjoy the meal. (Rosa was there, too–just not in this pic.)

Interestingly enough, my reputation for cooking and having cool recipes has spread around to the point where people are requesting that I teach them how to cook. I can’t help but think of how comical this is considering I am that person who burned banana cream pie once, lived off of cereal and frozen foods throughout college, and really never created much of anything too special in the kitchen (besides Chicken Surprise—never the same dish twice!) before moving to Guatemala. It just goes to show how much we are capable of doing in spite of limitations we may have placed on ourselves before. What a transformation! And when I think on this, I wonder, “What else can I do that I used to think I couldn’t?” Along these lines, as I continue studying about health, food, and diet, I have started to create a little niche for myself here that focuses on nutrition, and this is something that I plan on incorporating into my everyday interactions for the duration of my service.

During our “Fats” charla in our nutrition class, one of the ladies is participating in an activity identifying various healthy fats versus bad fats.

Thanks to Rosa, my amazing counterpart, an opportunity opened up for me to start spreading nutrition education. Since she used to always accompany Perry and me to the aldeas when we would give charlas, her family heard about what we did. She told me one day that her mother and aunts asked her, “Why doesn’t Alejandra give us charlas? We aren’t any different from the people in the aldeas…” And that is how my women’s group in San Andrés began. This group has a different dynamic than my health promoter group since I am “sharing information” as opposed to “training” the women in Pajquiej. It is extremely laidback, and we usually have anywhere between eight and fifteen adults in attendance (plus kids). We named the group Mujeres de Vida Saludable (Women of a Healthy Life), but Rosa’s husband and one of her uncles have both started attending our classes regularly as well so it’s Mujeres plus 2 hombres (men).

During the “trash” charla, we did a timeline activity where each person had to identify the amount of years it takes to decompose various items of organic and inorganic waste. (This is the organic end of the scale.)

I love this group! We have so much fun. Everyone who comes lives in Rosa’s “neighborhood” and is related to her somehow so they already have good chemistry, and they are always willing to participate. It is a nutrition-based group (because they wanted cooking classes), so we also have a schedule based on two classes per month, ending with a big party in October. I rotate themes between a health topic with recipe sign-ups for the first meeting every month and a nutrition charla with the cooking class for the second meeting. In the nutrition classes, we have covered the importance of a balanced diet and are now focusing on the functions of each type of food (fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals) individually for separate charlas. Under the health topics, we have covered themes about diarrhea, parasites, and dehydration prevention, as well as reproductive health. That class was hilarious as I explained the anatomy of the reproductive systems (with diagrams), gave a very generalized genetics lesson, and Rosa introduced all the different methods of family planning. The ladies were cracking up and asking so many questions—it was great! We have also had lots of fun in the kitchen making everything from soup to [Incaparina (a special protein-enriched type of mix they use out here)] pancakes to salad (with a special homemade dressing) to Sloppy Joes and Dulce de Leche.

This is the day we made Sloppy Joes for our cooking class after I finished a protein-themed nutrition charla.

I am very happy here in site now that I have developed good relationships and steady working goals with schedules. My “best friends” in site are Tayra, of course, a lady named Carmen who lives in Pajquiej and is like my right-hand-woman there, and Rosa. I see and hang out with each of them once or twice a week and feel like I can just “drop-in” to their houses (or Tayra’s workplace) any time I feel like it. I have had them all over for meals, and they invite me over often as well. Rosa even asked me to help plan her baby’s 1st birthday in April and be in charge of the games at the party as well as help make tamales de arroz with her aunts before the party. (THEY wanted to give ME a cooking lesson! Lol!) Although I have had to change some plans around and abandon ideas I had for my PC experience (such as getting a dog, starting a girls’ choir, etc.), the way it is turning out to be is better than I could have imagined. Even having a cat sort of as a pet has been better than I thought: she pre-washes most of my dishes after I eat AND she is in charge of cockroach control. I’m getting much more than I bargained for!

Can you find the kitty? She’s in there somewhere! This is “my” cat, Serena, resting in the garden at my house.

2) Being A Gringo Abroad

PCVs are definitely not the only gringos prancing around Guatemala. Since the Dollar (and the Euro, etc.) go a long way in developing nations, Central and South America have become ideal destinations for travelers, students of language, and people who just don’t feel like living in their own country at any given time. Here, one can find gringos of all sorts including expatriates, short-term volunteers, long-term volunteers, entrepreneurs opening up small businesses, employees of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), students studying Spanish, retirees, vacationers, backpackers, and general tourists.

This is the beautiful cathedral that stands in Antigua’s central park.

The majority of gringos in Guatemala flock to certain areas, and I daresay they have “taken over” these parts, namely Antigua and Panajachel—the latter of which has even been nicknamed in guidebooks “Gringotenango.” Anyone who comes to visit this Spanish-speaking nation could hang out in these towns the entire time and get by just fine without speaking a lick of Spanish. Guatemalans are also accustomed to dealing with gringos in these parts and so many have learned English to facilitate interaction for business or simply for getting along.

This is Lago de Atitlan, surrounded by 3 different volcanoes. I took this picture from Panajachel (a.k.a. Gringotenango), which sits right on the edge of the lake.

In some parts of the country, gringos are very common and can be prime targets for both crime and vendors. I have yet to be a victim of petty theft or any other sort of crime, but I do get easily fed up with the non-stop hounding from vendors to buy their stuff so I just try to spend as little time as possible in big “selling areas.” The people in the more rural parts of Guatemala generally have less contact with gringos and thus have a different reaction. There tends to be more staring and pointing and even a little bit of shyness. Knowing that you’re being stared and observed by a bunch of pairs of curious eyes can either be awkward or fun. One curious little girl on a chicken bus took a fancy to me and turned around in her seat (in front of me) so she could watch me for about 20 minutes. I kept smiling at her and she finally asked me, “Why are your lips red?” followed by “Why are your eyes blue?” After I told her that it had something to do with my parents and the color of their eyes and lips, she decided she could start talking with me and telling me about her family and friends at school. She was 5 years old and super cute!

Sometimes, like in the example mentioned above, I will proudly exhibit my “gringo behavior” (a.k.a. my normal daily activities and habits) in order to allow for observation and more understanding on the part of Guatemalans (2nd PC goal!), but there are also days when I just want to hide away or say, “Geez, can you make it any more obvious that you are staring at me and could you please stop investigating the contents of my purse/bag so thoroughly every time I open it?!” There are always up days and down days of living as a foreigner in another land—just like everything else that happens during PC service.

The general level of interaction between us PCVs and other tourists/gringos is very low. We are friendly, but this is our home now, and we have a certain lifestyle that is different from any other traveler. We must abide by certain rules and fulfill our obligations to our work and communities. For example, we are only allowed to have two weekends out of site every month which limits our availability to frolic around the country with a cool backpacking gringo we meet who is only spending a month or two in Guatemala. Also, we have experience crossing paths with many young travelers who look at their trip abroad as a big party. Most of us PCVs aren’t living a two-year party, that’s for sure, so again, views on being in Guatemala just don’t match up. I have met a handful of interesting gringos outside of the PC circle while I have been here, and I do admit that it can be very refreshing; however most of the time I go to gringo-congested areas, I like to keep a low profile as I don’t always feel like exchanging travel stories with everyone I meet since I am not “traveling” right now.

The “Cross on the Hill,” in Antigua, is a popular spot to go for a bird’s-eye view of the city–both for foreigners and locals. (Volcan de Agua is the volcano in the background.)

Travelers are really neat people and usually have pretty fantastic stories, but this is where my life is right now, and the people who are important to me are the ones I interact with on a regular basis and have meaningful relationships with. It is difficult to connect with short-term travelers when they are just grazing past the surface of the land into which I have been fully immersed. I can almost guarantee that most PCVs would agree with the statement that we didn’t join the Peace Corps and move to Guatemala for two years in order to hang out with Americans the entire time. We PCVs take pride in the fact that we have Guatemalan friends and that we include them in our plans—and they include us in theirs.

Creating strong relationships here has a catch, though. Unfortunately, this is temporary for pretty much all of us. We are just passing through (although not as briskly as the majority of gringo travelers), and in another year or so, we will leave Guatemala, disappearing from the lives of our dear friends here. Our Guatemalan friends know and understand that, too, but it’s not something we like to think about.

On that note, in reality, since PC is a volunteer organization, any of us can leave whenever we want to—we each have lives in the States that we can go back to anytime. Many of us experience feelings of guilt associated with those thoughts because the people here do not have a choice. This is their reality. Of course, many of them do not know how different a lifestyle can be besides what they see on television and in movies. Most don’t feel a sense that something is lacking because they have no basis of comparison. People living in rural Guatemala only know one thing. They do not know how bad they have it or how poor they really are until they know something better or easier. But those who have gone to the States understand. They know as well as I do about the luxury that the USA has to offer, simply because it is a developed nation, and I know that I get to back to that eventually. I sure don’t want to live in Guatemala for the rest of my life, and I am grateful for that choice.

Then there is that dream shared by practically everyone in the developing world to move to the United States—the land of the free—and start a life there. With how convenient it all is there, shoot, who wouldn’t want to go there? This brings me back around to this constant internal struggle I have regarding the issue of immigration to the United States. So many Guatemalans believe that if they can just get to the States, their life would be a breeze and they would have money and could easily buy everything they would need as well as things they want. But I wonder if there is a better way for the people here to create a healthy life for themselves without “escaping” to the United States where they think all their problems will be magically solved.

Just as Guatemalans may dream to go to the United States to live, many Americans/Europeans/etc. dream of a life of relaxation in Central America. In Guatemala, foreigners flock to Lago de Atitlan (Volcano San Pedro in the background). The building on the edge of the lake at the right-center of the photo is Casa del Mundo, a prime (and pricey) lodging for visitors boasting the highest comfort level and best view of the lake out of all the hotels/hostels in the surrounding area. On my Peace Corps budget, I have yet to stay there. Haha!

The relationship that these countries have with the US is that the people go up there (legal or not) to work and send money back to their families down here. Any “nice” house in a rural community is usually associated with having a family member in the States supplying the funding for quality construction materials and labor. Did I mention already that if anyone decides to visit the town of Providence, Rhode Island, they would probably run into a relative of at least half of the people living in my town (San Andrés)? Here, the theme of family resurfaces once again: the family is where one’s loyalty lies and thus where one’s money goes. Although immigration has its downsides, wasn’t America founded on immigrants? Don’t we all come from a line of immigration? So although I may not believe that patriotism toward the USA is the top priority of every immigrant who has most of their family living in the country they came from, I don’t know what right I have to judge who is allowed to come in and who is not. (This is as far as I am going to proceed here as this is a sticky topic, and I am not sure exactly where I stand, but I am just pointing out how I witness the system from this standpoint…)

No matter how you look at it though, the United States is regarded as a superior nation by many other countries—as well as US citizens! Consequently, money, gifts, and volunteerism get charitably pumped into the developing nations as “good people” have the desire to share their resources, skills, and/or wealth. Guatemalans (and many other “third-world country” citizens) are now accustomed to this “gringo system” in the sense that white foreigners show up randomly, bear gifts, stay for a short while, take some pictures, then leave. Or they have interaction with tourists who come here and spend money because “everything is so cheap!” Many people here have come to expect things from gringos, playing up the role that gringos have created for them—that of living such a poor, unfortunate life.

This presents a nice little roadblock in the PC line of work. We show up and people are expecting gifts and money from us. We are constantly interrogated with questions like, “What can you give us?” or “Oh, so why are you here exactly?” When people believe that I have something that would give them an advantage somehow, they have no shame in asking favors and, if you don’t say, “no,” people will continue to ask to see just how much they can get out of you.

Within the span of a week, these are the different favors I was asked for by Guatemalans: 1) I heard you have a computer, can you teach me how to use it? 2) Promise me that you’ll take me back to the States when you go. It has always been my dream to move to the USA. Will you get a Visa for me? 3) Can I use your computer to transfer pictures from my camera to my phone? All the other computers in town have viruses. 4) Can I have your stove when you leave? 5) Can I borrow 3,000 Quetzales? (By the way, that is more than I earn in my monthly living allowance.) The final request was from a bolo, or a drunk guy, following me around with an outstretched hand calling me gringa and telling me to give him a Quetzal. Not cool. At least it provides many opportunities to practice saying, “Sorry, but no, I do not have the means to do that.” Breaking through this stereotype that all gringos are rich is probably the motivation Peace Corps has to provide PCVs only with a living allowance sufficient for getting by at the same (or similar) standard of living as the people in our communities.

From this aspect, there is also another feeling associated with short-term gringos who come here for one to two weeks. I have felt both frustration at how they feed into the gift-bearing stereotype and envy toward them at the same time—especially during my first few months in site when things were so slow. I used to think how nice and easy it would be to just come in, tackle a project, and return home a few weeks later with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment regarding the help or the things that were given to these “needy people.” Some days I wish I could just do some quick projects so I could feel a sense of immediate gratification and accomplishment. But that is not what the Peace Corps is about. We aren’t here to give gifts—we are here to form relationships.

Here I am with Carmen and her grand baby, Marleysi. Carmen is my go-to woman in Pajquiej, but we have developed a much closer friendship since we have been spending more time together.

Going back to the three PC goals, the way I understand the Peace Corps Mission is that we are here to promote peace and friendship through cultural interchange as well as provide trained professionals for developmental purposes. I hesitate to just give free handouts to people because there is no behavior change—they wouldn’t have to work for anything so they might never realize how much they are really capable of doing and achieving on their own. Plus, by bestowing gifts, we would only be facilitating the system of dependency on outside support. Our “work” can be so frustrating in this sense since there is a constant battle against the stereotypical views of Americans. (In addition to all PCVs fighting the idea that Americans are rich, the PCVs of different ethnicities also battle, every single day, the stereotype that ALL Americans are white.) When I look at my service in terms of relationships, I feel as though I am making an investment toward humanity—the important thing is that we are all just people who experience the same human emotions and difficulties, and who are all capable of contributing to the betterment of the world, one friendship or new idea at a time.

Maria and Juana are racing to “feed their children” during an activity I planned for our Reproductive Health & Family Planning charla with Mujeres de Vida Saludable. We always have so much fun in this group!

That’s it for this chapter. I will continue this theme in the remaining two worlds—that of the Peace Corps web and also of life and connections back home—in the next installment of this story. I received my first visitors (from home) to Guatemala in May and June and so have been on high adventure mode (with lots of quality time spent with my visitors) for the last month and a half. I will share more details of the fun we all had in my next chapter as well. 🙂

Love,

Alexandra

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carole Fischer
    Jul 01, 2012 @ 12:09:26

    I was transported by your story, Alexandra. I, too, have a single life to live and fill and thanks to you, I can live vicariously through your wonderful written experiences. One thing learned after Bob’s death is: Happiness comes only with an outgoing concern and service to others. CJ

    Reply

  2. Christina
    Jul 31, 2012 @ 12:55:35

    As always, I have so much fun reading your blog! I have been in a highly reflexive mode lately with my youngest sister graduating high school and both of my sisters moving out for the first time to go to college. I had a nice visit with one of my high school basketball coaches and it’s all a reminder of where I’m coming from and where I’m going.

    I’m so proud of you for being so adventurous and following your dreams but I’ve decided that I can’t just live vicariously through you. It’s about time I had my own adventures! I have been thinking a lot lately about living in another country for a while, maybe 6 months to a year. It’s so hard to know is the right time. I almost went to Korea a couple years ago to teach English but I didn’t make it happen. It just didn’t seem like the right time. How did you know it was the right time for you?

    Love always,
    Christina

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Aug 04, 2012 @ 20:57:21

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Christina. I appreciate your candidness, as usual. I’m going to respond in a message to you (while I answer those other questions you had for me). Ttys!

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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