Holey, Faded, Moldy, & Speckled

Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? In a nutshell, this is how one can describe the Peace Corps Volunteer clothing line. Although this specialty wardrobe is not available to the general public and will not be for sale, it is worn and advertised proudly by PCVs in every country during their service. In fact, when we see each other, we generously compliment the wear and tear of each other’s attire and even swap stories as if the markings, abnormalities, and peculiarities on our clothing from our Peace Corps adventures were battle wounds.

The other day a Guatemalan acquaintance of mine asked me what it is that I miss most from home/the United States. I didn’t hesitate to respond to him that, besides family and friends, I miss the general cleanliness of the United States as well as having options. (I will save the concept of “options” for another discussion.) Trash cans, smog checks, organized recycling, paved roads, my own car, sidewalks, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and dryers are just a few factors that contribute to cleanliness—not to mention the habits Americans have all developed to meet cleanliness standards due to enforced regulation such as getting fined for littering, not being able to register a car if it hasn’t passed the smog check, and being sent home from work or school if you show up looking like a rag-a-muffin.

In Guatemala, it isn’t so easy to stay clean and look presentable all the time (which is probably why it isn’t expected as a general standard), especially for those who are living the small-town rural lifestyle—which happens to be the majority of the population. As strange as this sounds, when I think about my wardrobe at my mom’s house in the States, I breathe a sigh of relief that it is tucked safely away in a dresser and a closet and not being exposed to the raw elements and harsh treatment of Guatemala. The following are some examples of what happens to our clothing upon exposure to this untamed lifestyle:

HOLEY

Initially, I was horrified when I discovered the first holes in some of my clothing just over a year ago; now it shocks me to find a piece of clothing in my stack that doesn’t have some sort of hole somewhere on it. (And if it doesn’t have a hole, then it is surely affected in another of the following forms.) When I take a minute to observe the attire of everyone else around me, I am relieved to know that I do not suffer the holey predicament alone: for everyone, it seems to be an inevitable byproduct of living in Guatemala.

First of all, the majority of people in Guatemala hand-wash their laundry in pilas on cement washboards, and those who live way out in the boonies and do not have a pila will use rocks in a riverbed to get the job done. In addition, anyone who tromps about the countryside will likely encounter barbed wire fences marking boundaries for communities, cow pastures, properties, etc. I have personally battled many a barbed wire having to pass over, under, and through while hiking out to and around aldeas, or villages, and can’t say that I have conquered every single fence-crossing completely unscathed. One’s clothing also suffers from catching rides and bouncing along in the beds of pick-up trucks with whatever random accompanying cargo, be it planks of wood, chicken wire, baskets of corn, beans, or fruit, or some sort of farm animal.

A barbed-wire fence I often have to get across when I hike out to Pajquiej.

Speaking of animals, the cat I have claimed is another culprit for putting holes in my clothing. She likes to use her claws to pull herself up my pants to climb on my lap when she is being too lazy to jump, and she also refuses to knead without digging her claws into everything soft that I own, including my blanket, sweaters, and yoga pants. I suppose this one is actually MY fault because I give her permission to sit on my lap and my bed (away from my pillows!).

Some holes are just from constant wear. For example, my favorite pair of jean capri pants finally wore down in the typical upper inner thigh spot where every girl’s favorite over-worn pair of jeans is bound to rip. (It is not just ripped, but shredded.) I saw this coming and put in a shopping request with my friend Elease back home who sent me a new pair of khaki capris just in time. Unfortunately, that “new” pair already has two small holes, and I’ve only had those capri pants for a little over a month now! I just keep discovering new holes. One of my shirts has a hole in the sleeve that I got while running through the market trying to catch a bus on time; it got snagged on a vendor’s stand, and I have had a safety pin in that shirt ever since—for about a year now. Too bad all my holey clothes can’t be classified as the holy kind because, man, I would surely consider myself EXTRA blessed!

My cat, Serena, snoozing on my bed in the middle of the day.

FADED

Most of the faded effect on PCV clothing is the result of over-washing or direct exposure to sunlight and other powerful elements. Many of us spend hours walking outdoors under the sun to get to our communities for work or just through town to run errands or grab some fresh produce at the market. In addition to sunlight, just by being outside, we are vulnerable to all sorts of dust, dirt, and nasty smoggy exhaust from all passing vehicles; not only are we inhaling all this unpleasant stuff in the air, but our clothes are soaking it all up as well. It can be such a hassle to do laundry that many of us now wear our clothing until it is unbearable and desperately needs a wash. Plus, all the sweat, dirt, and dust that we are constantly exposed to act as a deterrent for washing—we all know our clean clothes are going to get soiled again probably within an hour of putting them on so why bother worrying about keeping them immaculate?

Since clothes dryers aren’t existent in my town (or in most of the country), right after the clothes get washed on the cement washboard, they go directly out in the sun to dry on clotheslines, many of which happen to be on people’s roofs or out in their yards. Just as over-exposure to the sun damages people’s skin and can lead to skin cancer, it also destroys the vibrant life in our clothing. Recently, my friend, Mari, commented that she remembered when my long-sleeve red shirt used to be red… Sad but true—it has lost a bit of its spunk after being tortured by the sun. Another thing I have learned and gotten used to is that “sun-dried” goes hand in hand with “stretched out.” One time I thought I had lost weight since my jeans weren’t really staying up very well, but I was fooled—it was really that they were just stretched out after a good sun-dry.

My laundry, sun-drying on the roof of my house.

On a positive note, I have learned to embrace the “faded effect” for the sake of integration. I am proud to say that I can wash and dry my own laundry using the same methods, soaps, and clotheslines that Guatemalans living in my town use. When it comes to laundry, I have absolutely no shame in publicly displaying my clothing and the majority of my undergarments on the clotheslines on the roof. By now, I wouldn’t doubt that half the town is well aware of my collection of rainbow-colored cotton granny-panties—and if not half the town, then at least the guys building the house directly across the street.

One last thing that comes along with laundry hangin’ on the line are all the surprise bugs and insects one can find tucked away in the folds of the damp garments. There is one funny looking type of pincer bug that especially loves to climb inside my socks and hide in my sheets while they are drying on the roof. Just like one would check the pockets of a pair of pants for gum, crayons, or money before tossing the pants in the washing machine, here, you’ve got to check your clothes, socks, panties, and sheets for critters before you fold them or, more importantly, wear them—unless you want to be pinched, bitten, or poked unexpectedly.

Different bugs come and go here with the ever-slightly changing climate. They usually arrive in “shifts” that change every two to three weeks or so. Luckily, in this part of Guatemala, the bugs aren’t unbelievably gargantuan or frightening. The biggest bugs are probably the moths, the cicadas, and the cucarachas (cockroaches), which are all harmless. Oh, and there are those hardy, slow-as-molasses rhinoceros beetle guys. A couple months ago, we had an invasion of this really weird type of flying ant-worm thing that arrived in swarms and had no consideration whatsoever for personal space—thank goodness they’re gone now. With rainy season come the mosquitoes, miniature ants, creepy jumping spiders, and pincer bugs, but since rainy season this year has been extremely mild, the bugs are not out of control…

MOLDY

Musty and dank would also be good adjectives to fall under this category. This is usually only a problem during rainy season (May through October), but it sure makes one appreciate both insulation and ventilation—two things that are far from common in Guatemalan households. When I faced the first mold growing on my stuff last year and, frustrated, vented to one of the PCV Leaders, she was so matter-of-fact while giving me tips to combat the situation that I realized mold is a reality for ALL PCVs out here during their service. I have been significantly more prepared for the second time around this rainy season and mold is no big deal anymore, although still annoying.

One can even make mold on clothing a science experiment in regards to how much bacteria and germs linger on exposed clothing. One time after a run, I tossed my sweaty sports bra in my laundry basket and by the time I got around to doing laundry maybe a week later, it was polka-dotted with fuzzy green growths! Gross, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. I have even found mold growing on the threads of my belt and my high-heeled shoes. Now, I have to put preventive measures in place and make regular mold checks. All of us PCVs have definitely learned the importance of the upkeep of housecleaning—if we let anything slide, our stuff will be destroyed. Period.

This is my complete PC wardrobe, folded and stored nicely on my bookshelf up against the brick wall. (I keep my small articles of clothing in the basket to the right.)

Luckily, as mentioned before, rainy season is light this year (it is La Niña). The good part about that is that our unpaved roads don’t get utterly destroyed, we are not tromping around in mud every single day, and maintaining cleanliness is a little bit easier. Usually, when there is a lot of rain, everything we own soaks up the moisture in the air, from our blankets and clothing to our books, work materials (posters, pamphlets, etc.), and even bookshelves. It can be more than a little frustrating. Things like crawling into bed and trying to sleep between layers of damp sheets and putting on my t-shirts that have been infiltrated by the smell of musty brick and cement instead of Bounce dryer sheets will not be missed when I get back to the USA.

Unfortunately, the shortage of rain this year has visibly affected crops, raising the price of corn (Guatemala’s staple food) as well as other grains, meat, and produce, thus putting a damper on the financial well-being of the majority of the inhabitants of this country whose lifestyles are based on the agriculture industry. In addition, there is speculation of water shortage in the upcoming months. For me, I suspect that will mean going several days without having the water turned on, but for many others in the country, it will be much worse.

SPECKLED

Well, this is a fun characteristic of the wardrobe that takes many forms. The biggest source of obvious discoloration on my clothes is bleach—and not on purpose. You see, one day while I was treating my bookshelf for mold, I knocked the bottle of bleach over and some of it splashed up onto my clothing as it hit the floor. I had no idea that when black clothing gets bleached, it turns orange! Well, you learn something new every day, right? In my old life, accidental bleach marks probably would have rendered my clothing “destroyed” or “unacceptable for public appearance,” but standards are slightly more relaxed here so one must learn to improvise: I never thought I would use a black permanent marker to fill in rust-colored speckles on my black sweaters and T-shirts before wearing them out of the house (not that it would matter here one way or another).

Some other sources of speckling include brightly- or deeply-colored clothing or towels bleeding their dyes onto vulnerable material while soaking in the laundry bucket as well as slipping on rocks or in fields (which tends to leave grass stains or dirt streaks) and even hanging out with 4-year-olds. Last time I was in close quarters with Sarahy and playing with her, I discovered small chunks of the yellow, orange, and green pure-sugar candy she was eating smooshed into random areas on both my jeans and t-shirt—two days later. At least we PCVs can accurately declare that our personal clothing lines are one-of-a-kind!

Here I am standing by the pila in my house; the left side “sink” has a built-in cement washboard specifically for laundry!

During our Mid-Service Conference a few weeks ago, we had a session on perspectives during which we discussed the things we cannot change and how instead of getting frustrated with everything, we have learned to accept certain things. I’d say the clothing line is one of those things. There are days when I really do miss my clothes from home and even dream up new ideas for my future wardrobe, but I think it is more the idea of having options of what to wear that I fantasize about rather than having SO MUCH clothing since being a PCV has definitely proved to all of us how little we actually NEED to survive.

To finish up regarding the topic of dress, I will tap into the psychological perspective that many of us PCVs share (the females, at least). First, let me rattle off a statistic from the PC Medical Office: approximately 80% of female PCVs gain at least 20 pounds during their service in Guatemala. From what I mentioned in my previous post about the social activities of women in Guatemalan communities revolving around food to the typical Guatemalan diet that includes an overabundance of carbs and refined sugars, it is easy to understand the weight gain predicament, I suppose, but it is definitely not something that is easy to adjust to.

I hadn’t really been paying attention to it until some Guatemalans—true to their “call it as they SEE it” habits—told me that I was engordandome, or “getting fat,” a couple months ago. One guy even told me that I had better not gain any more weight. That was really nice of him. (Not!) I’ve talked to at least 10 other PCV girls who have been dealing with similar situations. I’m lucky that I actually cook for myself and have some control over what I eat unlike some other PCVs, and, sure, I was not being very health conscious for a while there, but I am only 5 or 6 pounds over my “normal” weight so I don’t see much of a problem. When put into situations like this, it is very hard not to get frustrated and go off on people explaining that if there were actually more options for exercise here or if they wouldn’t push so much bread, tortillas, rice, and fried chicken on us (often at the same meal!) or if we didn’t have to deal with stupid digestive system issues, then maybe we would be more successful at managing our weight. But it wouldn’t make much of a difference so the response is often, “Yes, I suppose I have gotten a little curvier lately.” If it’s any consolation for us, Guatemalans also comment when we LOSE weight…

In Guatemala, size doesn’t seem to matter all that much. No one really cares about fashion or clothing size. (The tags on my clothing right now range from size 4 to 9 and XS to XL—and I couldn’t possibly be all those sizes at once!) As mentioned before, the important thing in this society is functionality so I do not often go out of my way to try to look nice. While discussing this topic with Kathy and talking about how we miss getting “dressed up” and feeling ladylike, she claimed, “Guatemala has the least sexy culture in the world!” We decided that this factor has a huge effect on our own attitudes toward attire. On one hand, there is no pressure to dress to a tee; on the other hand, there is no motivation to be stylish.

I didn’t even realize how much cultural standards and social media impact the ideals and identity of a society until I was watching some American movies on DVDs that I brought down here with me and noticed how skinny and fashionable practically every leading actress was. More than once, I caught myself thinking, “What a cute outfit/hairstyle! I want to dress like that/look like that/fix my hair up like that/etc.” People are highly influenced by what they see and the things that surround them on a regular basis, and I believe this may be the principal cause as to why we PCVs are complacent with our clothing line while we live in Guatemala. I can appreciate that the focus in Guatemalan culture is more so on people, family, and spending time together as opposed to having an unrealistic “perfect body” or being aesthetically pleasing. There are different priorities, for sure, however, in the sense that body size is linked to proper health and nutrition habits, there may be a need for a shift in attention in this society.

We focus on Nutrition (with cooking classes!) in one of the women’s groups I work with. Here, Rosa is describing the suggested diet for children under 2 years old as well as the benefits of breastfeeding.

With all said factors in mind, I am attempting to redirect my correlation with body size and image to nutrition and physical activity and implement healthy lifestyle habits as well as encourage the healthy habits of those around me (part of my job!). There is really no escaping the PCV clothing line, but I find solace knowing that ninety percent of my current PC wardrobe will NOT go back to the States with me when I leave Guatemala; in fact, I might even leave up to 95% behind! My clothing serves its purpose here well (even though it makes me feel frumpy some days), but I look forward to the day I can start fresh again. This post, although sort of a rant, is not a complaint of my current chosen lifestyle conditions; it is meant merely to put a humorous spin on our situation and also to express my appreciation of the cleaner conditions, easier methods of clothes washing and drying, common insulation and ventilation, convenience of wardrobe storage, and progressive fashion statements that are prevalent in the United States.

A NOTE ON THE OLYMPICS

Even though I do not have a television here, I was really looking forward to catching the Olympics on some of my friends’ TVs. It turned out to be much more of a challenge than I expected. Even when I was near the Peace Corps office for Mid-Service Conference and being put up in a hotel with TVs in every room, viewing the Olympics was practically impossible. It went something like this: flip through about 100 channels, passing four or five channels dedicated purely to soccer, to find ONE channel with the Olympic games. And it wasn’t even full coverage. It was about an hour of a quick “visit” to each event that was going on, and then on the same channel when the next hour started, the opening episode of Survivor: China started in Spanish—that was from like over 10 seasons ago!

I didn’t realize how much I would be affected by “missing out” on the Olympics, and I was actually a little bit depressed about it. I think my experience was indicative of a huge cultural difference. At home, in the USA, watching the Olympics together has always been a family tradition for me. But not just that—it is such a part of the American culture. I suppose when a nation has a track record of dominating the Olympic medal platforms, taking home nearly 100 medals in ONE season of Olympic games, and boasting talented, record-breaking athletes in almost every sport then that nation’s people would be engrossed with watching history in the making. In contrast, Guatemala loves soccer. Also, I believe Guatemalans do not have an obsession with tight, athletic bodies outlined by chiseled abs that ways Americans do. That is just not something that many Guatemalans aspire to achieve while existing in a rural lifestyle; it just isn’t realistic here.

On a positive note, London’s Olympic games did have an impact on Guatemala’s history. After sixty years of participation in the Olympics, Guatemala claimed its very FIRST Olympic medal EVER this year. It was a silver medal won by Erick Barrondo in the event “Speed Walking.” (Just like when I was introduced to “Curling” for the first time in the 2010 Winter Olympics, to discover “Speed Walking” was not just a sport but also an Olympic event was a little confounding, but in a neat way.) Woo-hoo! Go, Guate!!! Anyway, after that win, Guatemala upped its Olympic coverage understandably, but I still got most of my Olympic highlights from Yahoo! News when I had internet access.

Erick Barrondo, the silver medalist from Guatemala in this year’s 20K Speed Walking event in the London Olympics.

I realize I have been MIA for a while, but that is the nature of rolling into the second year of Peace Corps service. I felt like I was traveling non-stop from April through July for PC trainings, conferences, mid-service medical appointments, and visitors. When I finally got back to my site for an extended period of time starting early August, I felt like I needed to get back into work mode so I have been spending a significant amount of time in my community and with my Guatemalan friends (and choosing NOT to purchase very much internet credit). Also, a fellow PCV friend, Lauren, transferred a bunch of television shows to my computer from her hard drive, including 3 seasons of Glee, which, I admit, is more than somewhat addicting. I have many more topics to write about including finishing up “The Gringo Groove” series as well as delving into Nutrition and diet in Guatemala plus some comments on pregnancy to start, but I am not stressing too much over writing at this point because these next couple months are going to be crucial for work progress in my community.

Enjoying the company of my friends in Pajquiej! I stayed overnight at Carmen’s house with her daughter, Queylan, and Queylan’s baby, Marleysi, then taught them how to make French Toast in the morning–which we ate for breakfast accompanied by Guatemalan rice tamales, of course.

Hope this was a fun post for you!

Love,

Alexandra

EXTRA! EXTRA!

Congratulations to my sister, Ariana, and Christopher on the birth of their baby girl, Hayden Skylar Leedham, on August 11th, weighing 5 lbs., 10 oz, AND to my best friend, Linda, and Robert on the birth of their second baby boy, Henry Dean Usher, on August 23nd, weighing 8 lbs., 12 oz. Both babies are healthy, breastfeeding, and wrapped in loving arms!!! 🙂

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. AaronAdelman
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 08:19:22

    Hello Alexandra,

    Anyone that can write so wonderfully about their wardrobe experiences in Guatemala deserves to have a career as a writer! I am glad to hear that you are doing well. Please know that I am continuing to pray for your safety.

    Aaron Adelman

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Aug 29, 2012 @ 10:23:13

      Thank you, Aaron! I had a lot of fun writing this post so I am glad you enjoyed it, too. Thank you for the prayers, and say hello to the family for me. When I get back, we’re all going to have to get together for a family BBQ or something. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you guys, and I’m sure your munchkins are growing up so fast. Take care!

      Reply

  2. Karl
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 08:50:55

    Wow. The titles are so funny. Moldy. Bleach. Holes. You brought back memories of my own life in South America. The smell of clothes drying in the sun. The hiss of a steam iron on happily worn clothes. A smile for the small, unexpected crinkles in the universe that you never get to see in the US. Love the blog! Thank you –Karl

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Aug 29, 2012 @ 22:45:36

      “Unexpected crinkles in the universe” — I like that phrase! Yes, it is funny how the smallest things can be a source of happiness and bonding to such a great extent. Karl, I hope I have the opportunity to hear more of your stories. I appreciate you taking the time to read mine. 🙂

      Reply

  3. Cynthia Peterson
    Sep 02, 2012 @ 19:56:21

    Hey Alexandra! — You’ve provided another fun read! I have to admit that with my compulsive personality I’ve had the mental challenge of not itching after reading about the mold and bugs! I thought about sending you some plastic containers with air tight lids, some of that “Moisture Absorb” (calicum chloride), and RAID but I’m not too confident that with what you’re up against they’d do you much good. And, I’m not so sure that that stuff is legal to send through the US postal service anyway. ;0) I love the pictures that you include in your writings — very nice. It’s good to see you! Please continue to take care, know that you’re often thought of and prayed for, and I’m looking forward to giving you a hug upon your return home. God bless and love ya bunches! Cynthia ;0)

    Reply

  4. Elease Ayala
    Sep 02, 2012 @ 20:21:00

    Ally! This was a fun read! It made me feel really grateful for my fancy washer and dryer that I’m so used to! It alarms a friendly tune when it’s finished! And the mold! So grateful for sturdy walls and foundations we have here. I’m sure there’s numerous other things I will continue to be grateful for after reading your blogs. We have so much here it’s disgusting sometimes! Remind me size 7? I don’t mind shipping off another pair of jeans or capris in the mail. Half way through huh? Remind me when your service is complete? June 2013? 26 months right? So many babies being born! Congrats to Ariana and Linda!! There’s about 10 nurses pregnant at work right now and it’s making Miguel quite jealous. Im still pushing for 28-29, but we’ll see!! I miss u tons and I await your arrival to the states! I missed you this past Saturday in napa did a limo day with 15 people to celebrate my bday a little early. We visited Inglenook, silverado, v sattui and Castello di armorosa.
    How are you doing? Send me another list if youd like i enjoy sending you packages. Looking forward to your next blogs!
    Love you lots! -Elease

    Reply

  5. Momma
    Oct 12, 2012 @ 22:45:41

    Always thinking of you and missing you ! Love you bunches and bunches ! 🙂

    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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