Winding Down Work, Leaving Site, & COS

By the end of January, I was antsy to get things going again so I talked to my groups and started to narrow down what work I would try to fit in during the last stretch of my service. I decided to veer away from the Healthy Homes project framework and do more work along the lines of what people in my community were interested in as opposed to what a piece of paper suggested I do. After all, any project framework should serve simply as a guideline; anyone seriously expecting to have a plan set in stone AND thinking they would see perfect results would probably be laughed at anyone who has any experience living in the Land of Eternal Unpredictability. Let me explain…

The entire two years of my Peace Corps service has been a repeating cycle of constant change. The original Healthy Homes project framework I was given left me under the impression that I would be training people to become health promoters in their communities during the first year; these health promoters would then train other people/families in their communities with healthy habits AND they would select the neediest families in the communities to participate in trainings and receive infrastructure projects (cement floors, improved stoves, or latrines) by the end of the second year. First of all, I didn’t even know what a health promoter was or how to train one; secondly, once I had gotten to know the majority of families in Pajquiej, the idea of carrying out infrastructure projects in my tiny village seemed to pose more of a threat to the well-being of the community as a whole than any sort of sustainable solution.

Additional roadblocks to sticking to framework included all the changes that occurred both within Peace Corps Guatemala and the health center in my town, San Andrés Sajcabajá. Starting with the threat that PC Guatemala had of being shut down in January 2012, everything shifted. PCVs were removed from their sites and placed in new ones, our transportation system and volunteer whereabouts policies were tightened, and the PC administration was in an uproar. Not only did PC Guatemala experience the deaths of three staff members (the Healthy Schools director, a Language and Cultural Facilitator, and a PC Medical Officer) all in the first half of the 2012, but my boss, Basilio, the director of the Healthy Homes project, retired in June 2012 after serving a record 37 years with PC Guatemala. A month after that, Pablo, Basilio’s right-hand man and the Healthy Homes program manager, was let go, along with several other staff members, by the PC as they tried to bring in new ideas and restructure the purpose of PCV presence in Guatemala.

On that note, the decision was made to phase out the Healthy Homes program. (This is normal; all programs are restructured and evolve into something a little different every handful of years.) Healthy Homes is being turned into Maternal & Child Health instead, and last summer, a Program Manager and Programming & Training Specialist were selected to head up the new program. In addition to that change, we were notified that SPA (small project assistance) funds had been cut from 70% of infrastructure project costs for floors, stoves, and latrines down to a maximum of 40% coverage—for ONLY improved stoves, removing any assistance for either floors or latrines. Just a few months ago, our new Programming & Training Specialist shared news with us that he abruptly needed to resign from the position and return to the United States to manage a family emergency. To top if off, last December, our Country Director finished her 5-year term in Guatemala and was replaced by George Like, our new CD who is wonderful and very involved with PCVs, in January.

In the face of all the changing positions, programs, and policies, upon his retirement right in the middle of my service, Basilio recommended that we focus on our communities and not worry about the whirlwind around us. Figuring he knew a thing or two, I decided to do exactly that. My site, the women, the kids, my friends, and my work served as my anchor. Being in a relatively isolated rural town made is easy for me to detach quite a bit from the Peace Corps world so when new rules were created and when our project framework was remodeled, I really only paid attention to anything that could be applied in my community or that would improve the functionality of my groups or effectiveness of my workshops. By sticking to my community, working in accordance to their needs and interests, and blocking out the rest of the “noise,” I was able to maintain a steady rhythm throughout my service. Among all cycles of change, there will always be some constant to hang on to.

Hanging out with these little ones and doing dental hygiene activities was one way I stayed connected to my village.

Hanging out with these little ones and doing dental hygiene activities was one way I stayed connected to my village.

My primary project was based on Health Promoters and infrastructure projects. After the Health Promoter graduation ceremony in October, the momentum of that group came to a halt. I felt that I could not provide the group with a sense of direction or purpose beyond demonstrating that they could each effectively teach what they had learned during the course to other community members, thus stepping into a leadership role. They all did that at the graduation. And then we were stuck.

I felt very little support from either the doctor at the health center (who had been fired based on an allegation that he stole a piece of equipment, refused to leave, fought the lawsuit, and ultimately got reinstated 6 months later, but during that entire period hardly said two words to me) or my counterpart, Rosa (who had been in the habit of accompanying my site mate to the village HE had been working in, and when he was medically separated last October, she took on other things), and we weren’t doing infrastructure projects, so I hit a wall. While I was going from house to house of my promoters to administer a one-on-one oral final exam, half of the women in the group told me they didn’t want to continue. On the brink of admitting failure, I kept thinking, “What do I do? What can I do?” I’m pretty sure I cried…

At first I tried to convince the group of seven women who all lived close to each other that they should continue for the health benefits for their families. These women are all indigenous and two or three do not speak or understand much Spanish. Also, it is sometimes difficult to break into the circle of trust with the indigenous population, who generally tend to stick to the family, tradition, and group mentality. It’s all or nothing: if one of the seven didn’t want to participate then NONE of the seven participated. There were one or two progressive-minded women in that group, but it wasn’t enough to sway.

After a few attempts to convince them all to stick with the big group, I learned that some of them thought that by attending the health promoter trainings, they were earning themselves a new stove. We had talked about the possibility of doing stove projects sometime along the way, but I had never promised anything, and I always reminded them that the purpose of the trainings was ultimately for education. (Another rumor was created that I was going to give everyone irons, like to iron clothing!) Once I figured out that many of those ladies would only participate if there were some FREE item for them at the end, I stopped trying to coerce them. I always informed them of activities, making it clear that it didn’t bother me if they came or not because I was only interested in working with people who were interested in learning. And that is how I conducted the remainder of my service: when I didn’t know what to do, I went to where there was interest.

These are some of the people who stuck with me and kept coming. High participation and enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. I grew very close to these families.

These are some of the people who stuck with me and kept coming. High participation and enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. I grew very close to these families.

Because many people at home were also under the impression that I was going to be building things (because that is what my volunteer project assignment pamphlet described), I will comment on why I decided not to do infrastructure projects in Pajquiej. In addition to the minor problem of project funding getting cut, I was facing a couple major problems in regards to creating sustainability, working in a tiny village (only 150 people!), and combatting the expectation that Americans only come to developing nations to give free hand-outs to “poor” people. The issue of money became so miniscule compared to the challenge of breaking through stereotypes, dealing with some people who felt entitled to anything I owned, and trying to teach people the value of education and self-sufficiency all while trying to create relationships that “promoted peace and friendship between Guatemala and the USA,” the ultimate purpose of a Peace Corps service.

The idea of implementing projects in such a small town ended up posing more threats to the well being of community than promises of improved health for families. When we started talking about who NEEDED the assistance the most, a couple names came up and the response was, “Why should she get a stove when she hasn’t come to a single health promoter training?” Some health promoters were associating stoves as a reward for attendance as opposed to the filling of a need. Also, I discovered upon gaining confianza, or trust, with many families in the community that they had kept information from me during my initial house visits (for example, one family who supposedly cooked on an open fire actually has a gas stove and propane tank hidden in the kitchen that they left locked the first time I was there). The amount of bickering over entitlement to stove projects that came from just the idea of the possibility of doing them showed me that it would cause more harm than good and ultimately deterred me from going down that road.

The challenges of development work have turned me into an even stronger advocate for education than I was before. Contrary to the outcomes of American patronizing citizens of underdeveloped nations in the form of gift-giving, which creates a system of dependency and expectation on countries that have access to a wider variety of resources, education gives the gifts of “think for yourself,” “do it yourself,” and “respect yourself and value your voice.” In turn, people begin to solve their own problems or learn how to avoid greater, more society-paralyzing issues.

In my opinion, this is the key to sustainability. Development will never happen if other people keep coming in and doing the work. When you give people responsibilities and the tools to see them through, I believe most will rise to the challenge, figure out a way to complete the task at hand, and then take pride in what they have accomplished. It’s like when a kid is learning how to ride a bicycle: you can give him the training wheels and show him how it is done, even hang onto the bike, but it is not until he believes that he really can do it on his own, you let go of the bike, and let him try on his own that he gains the pride in his accomplishment and the confidence to keep going and even try something new.

Despite the repeated failures I now have tucked nicely under my belt, I feel satisfied with the handful of successes I have experienced in my time here. My pattern seemed to go a lot like this: failure…failure…failure…SUCCESS!!!! And repeat. And that is the nature of development work and what each PCV experiences during our service abroad. Failing over and over again has actually seemed to demolish the fears we all had of failing before and it conditions us to thinking outside the box, coming up with new, creative solutions to overcome whatever obstacle is placed in our paths. Giving up and backing down are two concepts that the majority of PCVs tend not to embody. We learn patience, flexibility, and enthusiasm, in addition to a whole lot more. PCVs are their own breed (but I will dedicate more time to that topic later…).

In regards to health promoter work, I didn’t do much more with my health promoters in Pajquiej. We were planning a few more follow-up activities, and successfully had a basic CPR course administered to the health promoters by the town firefighters. The health promoters in Pajquiej also each received a special Ministry of Health identification card, which serves as proof that they each completed the trainings and passed the course. This spring, two of my women from the Mujeres de Vida Saludable group in town requested that I put them through the health promoter trainings as well so I led that course making it clear that the benefits were completely educationally based. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete that course and have a graduation ceremony with them because I permanently left my site with the last training, the final exam, and the fiesta still to go. (More on that later.)

Sandra practicing CPR on me, with the guidance of the head firefighter.

Sandra practicing CPR on me, with the guidance of the head firefighter.

As secondary projects in my site, I found/created work in accordance to what people around town asked from me. One particular example is a kids’ group I help at my house once a week. Originally, the mom of these two girls came to me and requested that I teach her daughters English because they were both born in the United States and had dual citizenship; she hoped one day they could return. I agreed and we started with basics—colors, numbers, introductions, greetings, etc. However, since one of the girls did not focus at all and turned into a little Tasmanian devil roaring through house every time she walked in, I decided to veer away from formal English lessons, invite more kids, and design some hands-on, kid-friendly activities with short lessons related to science, culture, hygiene, etc. Some of the activities we did included coloring Easter eggs, learning about plants and then planting seeds, and learning about worms and composting followed by preparing a “worms-in-dirt” snack.

My kids group, right after going on an Easter Egg hunt to find their colored and decorated eggs.

My kids group, right after going on an Easter Egg hunt to find their colored and decorated eggs.

Another project I tackled was the implementation of two 11-week nutrition courses with cooking classes designed in order to combat the high rate of chronic malnutrition in Guatemala. In addition to covering the importance of a balanced diet, the purpose of different foods, and in which foods different nutrients can be found, the course offered hands-on practice with new recipes that can be made out of inexpensive, but nutrient-dense foods. I ran one of the courses in Pajquiej with a group of 7 women and 1 man. Each week a different person “lent” their home and kitchen for the lesson and cooking class. I brought the recipes, taught the lessons, created participatory activities in order for them to review the information at the end of each lesson, and then divided up ingredients that each person signed up to bring the following week. The group collaboration was impressive and our once-a-week class was a fun was for the women in my village to get together, learn something new, and socialize. On the days I went out to Pajquiej, I often wouldn’t get back home until the sun was down.

My ladies in Pajquiej, working together to prepare one of our cooking class recipes.

My ladies in Pajquiej, working together to prepare one of our cooking class recipes.

My ladies in Pajquiej learning how to bake banana bread. The recipe I shared is from my step mom.

My ladies in Pajquiej learning how to bake banana bread. The recipe I shared is from my step mom.

As a follow-up activity once the nutrition course came to a close, I solicited the help of a fellow PCV, Eric, who works in Agriculture and whose site was just half an hour away, to carry out a community tire garden demonstration. We did the activity at the primary school so all the kids could participate as well as several women and the village president from the community. It turned out great! I had the used tires stored for over a year in the school in Pajquiej so it was nice to finally use them. At the end of the workshop, I passed out seeds to all the participating families that included cilantro, celery, onions, spinach, radishes, beets, leeks, squash, and tomatoes; they were all very excited about starting their own gardens at home in tires. That was the last activity I ended up doing with the Pajquiej community.

Eric and I with the school kids in Pajquiej, standing around our completed tire garden.

Eric and I with the school kids in Pajquiej, standing around our completed tire garden.

Sandra, cutting out the middle of a tire, getting ready to flip the tire inside out to create more space.

Sandra, cutting out the middle of a tire, getting ready to flip the tire inside out to create more space.

The second nutrition course was in my town (not village), and I held classes at my own house. The group consisted of 5-8 girls between the ages of 18 and 21; most of these girls don’t have their own house or kitchen yet so we used mine, but they all split ingredients just like the other group. The majority of these girls attend Magisterio, where they are being trained to become teachers so it was a fantastic group to work with because they were engaged, participated, and had lots of questions. Also, two of the 18-year-olds, who happen to be cousins and whose families are from Pajquiej, my village, each have a child already. I was happy that I could be a resource for them to learn how to properly nourish their baby girls while they are still young. I got really close with this group. They look to me as if I were their big sister. We talked about boys, love, popular music, careers, the importance of studying, and even more, the importance of protecting their hearts and their bodies because they have rights to do so. I really love my girls from that group, and I am thankful that I had the chance to get to know them so well. They are the hope for the future of San Andrés.

Manuela, Angela, Angee, and Juanita cooking banana Incaparina pancakes in my kitchen. Beautiful girls!!!

Manuela, Angela, Angee, and Juanita cooking banana Incaparina pancakes in my kitchen. Beautiful girls!!!

Maria Jose, Angee with her baby girl, Alexandra, Cherle, and Juanita. Majo, Angee, and Juanita were the go-getters in the group and encouraged me to get into Magisterio to teach workshops.

Maria Jose, Angee with her baby girl, Alexandra, Cherle, and Juanita. Majo, Angee, and Juanita were the go-getters in the group and encouraged me to get into Magisterio to teach workshops.

That brings me to the work that I was the most passionate about: Magisterio workshops. From the work I did last year, and the pleading from the girls in my nutrition course to teach the boys the proper way to treat women, I had the motivation and access to run more workshops this year. A lot of my motivation came from witnessing machismo on a daily basis. It is interesting: in this country, women are not given any power, but they are expected to take on almost every other responsibility and they ALWAYS get the blame. A man hits his wife? Well, it is her fault she made him mad. A married man sleeps with another woman? Well, it’s either the wife’s fault for not pleasing her husband or the other woman’s fault for seducing the married man. A man has a psychological problem and is unsuitable for society? Well, he must have gotten that from his mother. The list goes on in every aspect. Men get away with whatever they want, and the women get tagged with the bad reputations and the negative, often lifelong, consequences.

The couple who rented a room in the same house where I rented were a prime example of how machismo still infiltrates every crack and crevice of Guatemalan society, so I studied it every single day for a year and a half. The ONE time, last March, we butted heads when he tried to tell me how to live so that my social life wouldn’t interfere with his daily routine, I stood my ground and told him I have every right to 1) have my nutrition course and kids group over once a week (usually while the couple was working), because I had gotten permission from the landlord prior to starting my activities; 2) talk on the phone; 3) talk on the phone in ENGLISH, and 4) laugh when I wanted to, because I am human (these were all the things he complained about). I don’t think he was used to woman not obeying him. Unfortunately the situation escalated before it calmed down, but I quickly realized that HE was never going to change his macho ways.

In addition to that big personal run-in with machismo, I saw other examples regularly and was affected by it. Some women in Pajquiej were not allowed to attend my nutrition course because their husbands didn’t want them to leave the house, even I was the one walking an hour to their village and each lady was only 5 or 10 minutes from her house at any given time. Instead of fighting with these men, I decided the only thing I could do was to combat it with education, and I had the perfect age group and audience waiting for me at the institute for teachers in training. I also had the director of the school on my side, begging me to get in with the students who were separated into 10 sections that totaled about 300.

So I designed a 3-workshop series that I was going to give to each section. The first one was all about sexual stereotypes, gender roles, and equality between the sexes. I facilitated group activities in which the students shared their ideas of their own gender and of the opposite gender; the stereotypes revealed themselves so we talked about how to overcome those misconceptions. Without explaining the entire activity here, the wrapping up point was that by saying “Women: YOU can DO it!!!” is not enough to overcome machismo in this country. Without the support of men in this country, women don’t stand a chance. We concluded the workshop by encouraging both the boys and girls to recognize the differences between the genders, but appreciate the talents or unique way of thinking that every individual has—both male and female—and find a way to put those differences and strengths together, working as a team, to create something much greater than either gender could achieve on its own. They seemed to appreciate that perspective, and although I may not  ever personally see the result, at least I can hope that a healthy seed was planted there and that with time, it will grow.

Girls in Magisterio presenting their group work on their ideas of what a man is.

Girls in Magisterio presenting their group work on their ideas of what a man is.

The second round of workshops that I facilitated with Magisterio students was about the changes that occur from childhood to adolescence, sexual development and human sexuality, and sexual decision-making and the responsibilities that come along with those decisions. These students were so engaged in this topic, which is usually taboo in this society. I asked them if they learned anything at home from their parents and the general response was that parents don’t want to talk about sex with their kids because they believe that if their kids don’t know about it, then they won’t engage in it. My position is that if you don’t give young people the awareness, knowledge, and tools necessary to protect themselves, then you will end up with teenage pregnancies and rampant spread of STIs. Oh, have I mentioned that there are four active cases of HIV in San Andrés?

It was interesting teaching sexual education to big groups of teenagers and young adults in my isolated, rural town because probably at least 20% of the students in each section were already married with children. I had to choose my words carefully and take both married and unmarried students into consideration. You can’t advise married people to practice abstinence, that’s for sure. But for all of the classes, I took a very objective approach. Together, we created a pros and cons list of sex, stressing that any thing that produces a great reward usually is associated with great risks. We discussed that sexuality is a natural thing, but that everyone develops at his or her own pace. Also, we talked about all the responsibilities that are associated with a sexual lifestyle and why it is important to wait until you are ready to manage those responsibilities (i.e. children), usually after you finish studying, get married, etc.

Boys in Magisterio presenting their group work on what it means to be a woman.

Boys in Magisterio presenting their group work on what it means to be a woman.

I found that when I treated these kids like adults and showed them that I expected them to be mature enough to behave, they usually were very respectful. I did walk out of one class where one boy was intoxicated and distracting everyone, 3 others were asking me for my phone number every 2 minutes, and the girls asked me if we were done yet. So I packed up and left, telling them that if they weren’t interested in the information I had to share, then I wasn’t going to waste my time. They felt really bad, apologizing to the director and asking for him to invite me back to their section. Each classroom dynamic was different, creating a challenge for me in regards to how each workshop played out, but I loved every second of being with those students. They were the ones watching me the most, and I hope that in some small way I was able to empower them, men and women alike.

In the last couple of months, my social life skyrocketed in site. I was hardly ever alone and had to fight to keep my eyes open at night. I finally felt a level of community integration that I did not feel before. I had to turn down hanging out with people because I already had prior commitments. Of course, this is how it always is toward the end of service: just when you get really close to people and find your niche in the community, it’s time to leave…

On that note, I believe that it is time to mention an unfortunate circumstance regarding how I left my site. At the beginning of May, a friend of mine, a married man who was like a brother to me and whose wife was one of my closest girlfriends, made an aggressive move toward me at a point when I had my guard down. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation but with the guidance of two wonderful friends, I decided to report the incident to the Peace Corps. Before I left site to go to the office, the guy made another move that clearly indicated he had intentions to continue to target me: he moved a bunch of his things out of the house where his wife and kids were living and moved them into one of the unoccupied rooms in the house where I was living. Kathy, my best friend in PC, was at my house at the time; she detected the danger and encouraged me to get out of there as soon as possible.

Once I reported the incident to one of the PC Medical Officers, Johanna, she told me that she would have to tell the Safety & Security Coordinator, Miguel, and our Country Director, George Like. She also warned me that there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to go back to my site. This all happened during my group’s COS (close of service) Conference in mid-May. Everything was chaotic at the time, but those three staff members worked closely with me to make a plan. I was offered a medical evacuation, a medical separation, or the option to take an “interrupted service” so I could just finish up my service immediately and go home. But I was adamant about two things only: I needed to finish my work IN SITE since I was so close to wrapping everything up and I really wanted to COS with my best friend, Kathy, because that is what we have been planning for months now so we could travel together for a couple weeks after service.

Peace Corps worked with me. Johanna, Miguel, George, and I sat down together and hatched out a plan for me to go back to site. I knew exactly what I needed to get done, and they asked me to do it in a much shorter time frame, requesting that I make my last day in site June 14th. Instead of making me leave immediately after that, they gave me permission to move in with Kathy at her site for the remaining few weeks of service. Kathy and I were originally planning to set our COS date for July 8th; however, I also had to compromise on that so that I wasn’t “lingering around” out of site for so long. The COS date the Country Director and I agreed upon was July 2nd. (That’s today!)

Kathy and I at Siete Altares, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, in January.

Kathy and I at Siete Altares, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, in January.

Then, with my safety being regarded as top priority, we created an 11-day work plan. The conditions set for this plan were that I would have to be accompanied at all times by one to two PC staff members and that I would not be allowed to stay overnight at my house anymore. If I reported the incident or told anyone in my site what happened, I could essentially kiss goodbye to the rest of my time and activities there because PC would have to pull me out, and lastly, if the guy directly contacted me in any form, I was required to inform Security, which would result in a reassessment of the situation.

With that, my PC team and I geared up for the first round, four very full days of nutrition courses, activities in Pajquiej, and workshops in Magisterio. Ariel (from Security) and Doris (Programming and Volunteer Support) were the two staff members who accompanied me that week; all PC employees are trained not to ask questions/dig for information, but simply to support/protect the Volunteer. That was probably the hardest overall week that I had during my service. The people who knew what was going on with me were shocked that I wanted to go back to my site, but I refused to be pushed out; I hadn’t finished my work. And amidst all the crazy emotions I was experiencing, my work ended up being the only thing that was keeping me together. I jam-packed every day from 8 in the morning until after dark with activities, trying to get as much done as possible; Ariel and Doris kept up with me at every step. When I was with my people, I was on. I am a performer—that is what I do. But when each day/show was over, I fell apart and collapsed into the arms of Mama Doris, who just held me and let me cry.

People in my town saw my PC “chaperones” and the PC vehicle, noted how unusual it was, and started raising a lot of questions and speculation. During that first week, I accomplished a ton and even began to sell some of my stuff to people who had laid claim to it awhile back. (The inheritance requests actually started about a year and a half ago…) Everything was going as planned. I spent the weekend at Kathy’s house in Cajolá, about four to five hours from my site, then prepared for the upcoming week, during which we were going to knock out two more work days in our 11-day plan.

On Monday, May 27th, Ariel drove me into my site and I had a quick meeting with some of my Health Promoters. Doris was an hour or two behind us and was going to meet up with us to help me out with a “Responsible Sexuality” workshop I was doing in Magisterio that afternoon. Just as I finished my meeting, the guy who wasn’t supposed to contact me called me. I didn’t answer so he texted me a few minutes later. The tone of his text message to me was a warning for me to shut up and stay away from his family. I believe that he got scared because of how PC was protecting me and how his name was floating around as the cause of all of it so he contacted me trying to manipulate the situation in order to avoid accountability for his actions. I showed Ariel the message and he told me, “Cancel your plans for the afternoon. Let’s go to your house and get as much out as possible, then we’ll go back to Santa Cruz del Quiché (the department capital) for the night and reassess the situation.”

The next couple of hours were awful and I really don’t feel like recalling them here. I was a wreck. What I didn’t know at the time was that that was going to be my very last day in site. I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I basically feel like I was ripped out my site—my home for two years, my safe place. I was not mad at Peace Corps at all; I knew my safety was priority. However, I was furious with this guy. This was the second time he had stripped me of the power I have to make decisions in my own life. That is two times too many. And that time, he won because his actions led to my removal—and distance from his family, just what he wanted. But, I’m telling you, he messed with the wrong woman. He hasn’t seen the last of me.

I missed a lot in the remaining six days I was going to be in San Andrés. I missed the final celebration I was going to have with my girls in my nutrition course—which is when, I found out later, they had planned to throw me a going away party. I didn’t get to graduate the two health promoters I was training. I didn’t get to finish the last round of sexual education workshops I had planned in Magisterio, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to my people in my town, or more importantly, the entire village of Pajquiej, the families of which I had really become a part of. It really sucked. The way I see it, though, is that a lot of other people missed out as well; this guy’s actions didn’t just affect me. He robbed people of education, diplomas, training certifications, time, and goodbyes with me. All of that was taken away from them without explanation.

This was the last time I met with my girls in the nutrition course. We made Sloppy Joes that day. It was the week before our planned final celebration.

This was the last time I met with my girls in the nutrition course. We made Sloppy Joes that day. It was the week before our planned final celebration.

At that point, as Johanna described it to me, my “world had been turned upside down” and I was “trying to learn how to walk on my head.” All I wanted was stability again, but there was so much left up in the air. We took one day at a time, Peace Corps provided counseling to me so I was getting regular calls from Washington, and little by little, we reformed plans. Since the original report, Peace Corps has been with walking by my side, helping me along, every step of the way. I am so grateful for the guidance, patience, and support I have gotten from the Peace Corps from every angle. There is a silver lining to this big, dark cloud where George Like, the CD, and I came to a compromise in regards to how I could have a proper goodbye with some of my loved ones, but I will save the details for the next chapter. The bottom line is that I didn’t want to leave on a bad note, which is why I didn’t go home right away. I refused to have the last taste in my mouth of Guatemala to be negative when there have been so many beautiful and rewarding parts of my service. There are good people here. I will not let my service or even the end of my service be defined by one bad thing.

My kiddos, Yaser, Chabela (that is a nickname for Isabel), and Jonathan, playing inside the cut and flipped tires.

My kiddos, Yaser, Chabela (that is a nickname for Isabel), and Jonathan, playing inside the cut and flipped tires.

Fortunately, I was able to slip back into the USA for four days at the beginning of June. I had requested special permission to take “leave without allowance” several months prior because one of my best friends and “twin,” Bethany, was due to walk down the aisle June 1st. It was such a quick trip that I didn’t even turn on my phone or really tell anyone. In addition to Bethany and Gordon’s beautiful wedding that was worth every penny I paid for the plane ticket, I was able to spend some quality time with a couple family members and loved ones. I had the chance to tell some of them in person what had happened and what I would be dealing with in the near future. That short time was very important because I knew I would be in need of their support in the upcoming months.

Bethany & Gordon, right after officially becoming husband and wife!

Bethany & Gordon, right after officially becoming husband and wife!

Being home and back in the United States just for a few days got me excited to come home for good because women actually have rights to use their voices, and I am so tired of my voice not being heard in a society where women—especially in the rural communities—are often viewed only as possessions, baby makers, and sex objects. I finally found my voice, got comfortable with it, and can’t wait to really use it! But I am not quite done here yet…

Shortly after my trip, Peace Corps changed my phone number (but I kept the same phone so I wouldn’t lose contacts). And then last week, they told me they needed my actual cell phone so my number was changed again. And again. I think I am on my fourth phone number in just a few weeks. It’s a long story, but this afternoon, I might even get a fifth number. That might be a record. It’s funny because in the United States, I still have the same phone number I had when I got my first cell phone at 18. The account is currently suspended, but I will pick it right back up as soon as I get home. It is incredible how easy it can be to have stability in the United States, but in Guatemala, the rate of change and regular occurrence of unpredicted mishaps and tragedies makes stability the one big thing that many people pray for.

During our COS conference in mid-May, Miguel did a security session reporting that the majority of major incidents—robberies, assaults, rapes—that PCVs are victims of usually occur during the last 2 months of a volunteer’s service, and the attacker/aggressor is usually someone who knows the PCV and their schedule or habits well. He said that the aggressors make a move because they assume that since the PCV is so close to the end of service, he or she will be less likely report the incident or might not have the power or urge to deal with the incident, especially considering the risk that any major security incident usually results in removal of the PCV from site as soon as it is reported. Miguel told us to be wary and keep our guards up; unfortunately, the advice came about two weeks too late for me.

It is such a bummer how everything happened in regards to my last days in site. I was talking with another former PCV, Anna, who is still living and working in Guatemala post-service about my situation and how it roots from machismo because she was going through a machismo-driven situation of her own. I told her that I had been so proud that I had survived 25 whole months as a single woman alone in my rural town in Guatemala without having anything bad happen to me. I had a clean record and a reputation around town for being upright and not causing problems so maybe I got a little ahead of myself thinking that I would get out of this country completely unscathed because I had already made it so far. She told me that it is sad that I was so excited about successfully maintaining my rights and not being messed with—against all odds—because that goes to show how behind this country is: rights, dignity, and decision-making should be a given.

Last week, we got a new group of trainees starting their PST and two year service here. I met a couple of them. They’re great. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Just like we all were a couple years ago. I couldn’t help feeling sad for the loss of innocence that occurred in all of us and will happen to all of them, too. I pessimistically thought, “I wonder what terrible things will change those people’s lives and perspectives.” No one will leave untouched. Guatemala can really screw people up. It’s like a true survivor game. Anyone who can survive Peace Corps Guatemala can take on anything…and they will be fearless. I have said over and over again, “I would never do it again, but it is the best decision I have ever made in my life.” And I wouldn’t trade any of it in because I have learned my hardest lessons, far from the safety and cushioned landing pad of the relatively sheltered and comfortable lifestyle I was living before I came to Guatemala. My eyes are wide open for real now.

So for the last week or so, I have been preparing for my COS. I moved out of Kathy’s place and had the opportunity to sell a lot of the useful stuff I had to some of the newer PCVs (who just moved to their site in April) at very affordable prices, around half or less of what I had paid. I made a little fortune, nonetheless. At the office, I finished up my COS meds and got medically cleared: no tuberculosis, no unfriendly parasites taking up room and board in my intestines, and I only gained a total of 4 lbs. in two years; everything is good to go. I closed my bank account and received cash in lieu of my plane ticket home (because I am not flying home right away). I had my Spanish Language Proficiency Interview and am finishing service at the level of “Advanced High.” Satisfaction.

The only thing I really have left to do is turn in three reports. It feels like finals week in college, and true to form, I got all the little details out of the way and I am saving the big writing projects for last. Even worse: I am writing and posting a blog chapter before my reports are finished!! At least I already finished my DOS (description of service) Report—that is the important one. I just have the COS Termination Report, which is about my site, and then a short report in Spanish.

Kathy and I will spend today finishing those up, then at 2:30 this afternoon, we will give short presentations about our service to PC staff members at the office, then “ring the bell,” which will officially mark the completion and closure of our Peace Corps service. Kathy and I came in together (not knowing each other at all), circumstance led to a natural friendship and one of the best relationships I have ever been a part of, now we consider each other partners-in-crime and have experienced and grown so much with the other at our side, and so we will go out together.

Kathy and I in Santiago Atitlán, a lakeside town on Lago de Atitlán, during Holy Week in March.

Kathy and I in Santiago Atitlán, a lakeside town on Lago de Atitlán, during Holy Week in March.

Fulfilling our big ideas to travel together after service, Kathy and I are leaving for Mexico on Thursday and will be there for exactly one week. Upon our return to Guatemala, Kathy’s friend, Joeanna, is flying in and will meet up with us to go see the famous Maya ruins in Guatemala at Tikal. A few days later, another PCV from our group who is COSing, Jenny, is going to meet up with us. Those 3 girls will head to El Salvador for a couple days while I am taking care of some stuff at the PC Office, then I will meet up with them at Copán, Honduras (another famous Maya ruins site). From there, we are going out to the Caribbean coast of Honduras to get scuba certified. One by one, Joeanna, Jenny, and Kathy will each peel off and return to Guatemala either to fly home or, in Kathy’s case, to start a new job. (She picked up a job at an international NGO in Xela that starts August 1st.) Before Kathy heads back up, we might have the chance to spend a couple days in Nicaragua.

I decided that just because everyone else has a deadline to tend to, it doesn’t mean that I have to stop traveling. The original plan was to take advantage of being down here speaking the language to see all of Central America. So that is what I am going to do. I haven’t quite figured out the route I will take, but the most recent idea is to take a hopper flight from Honduras (or Nicaragua) down to Panama and work my way back up to Guatemala, passing through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador along the way. It will be tricky because Peace Corps will need me back in the office probably sometime in August, but that date is still pending and we probably won’t know until the middle to end of July.

Even though I am serving my final day as a Peace Corps Volunteer today, my story has not yet concluded. I still have some very important blog chapters to post that are already in the works, and I recently decided that I am not going to come home until I am done writing. My big priority upon starting my PC service was my writing. I wanted to document this time, and between my blog chapters and personal journals, I have succeeded. But if I go home before I am done, I know I will never finish this writing project because I will get sucked backed into the fast-paced American lifestyle. I am looking forward to feeling productive again, but not until I complete my project.

Traveling solo will give me a great opportunity to focus on my writing, and also to re-center myself and find that place of inner peace again before taking on “readjustment.” (And please don’t fear too much for me because there are always short-term travellers to meet up with along the way, for group safety purposes, especially during summertime; I will find them.) The best part about all of this is that I have no deadline, and I know this will probably be one of the few times in my life when I won’t have a pressing responsibility calling me home. I suspect that I might reappear in California sometime around mid- to late August, but there is nothing set in stone. For now, I am free as a bird, but I will fly home when the timing is right.

So in just a few hours, I will become an RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, having fulfilled my commitment to serve for over two years in Guatemala. I did it. And I’m not going to lie: I’m really proud of myself. And I love the person I have become. I am looking forward to what lies ahead and how I can take what I have learned and use it in positive, productive ways. Despite how obvious it is that the Peace Corps Experience is an individual journey, I really couldn’t have done it without all the support I received along the way. The people I met, got close to, spent time with, or even just had phone call/e-mail/letter exchanges with have all enhanced my journey in some form. No one and none of that will be forgotten. Thank you.

Love,

Alexandra

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lois McClure-Smith
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 14:33:18

    If you get to Boise Idaho, we’d love to have LOTS of time with you. Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 19:16:08

      Thank you, Miss Smith!!! I think a trip out to Idaho to visit one of my former English teacher’s in an absolute MUST. I can’t turn down an invitation like that!! When I get back in the USA and get things in order some, I will be in touch with you to see how we can make it work out. Thank you for all the support!!! (And I’m not quite finished with my writing yet, but I’m working on it…) 🙂

      Reply

  2. Karl
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 15:48:11

    Wow. Machismo is nasty stuff. Thank you for exposing this for the world to see. So frustrating that the negative impact affected others who would have benefited from your outreach. Come home safe!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 19:36:01

      Yeah, I definitely lived with machismo right in my face for the last two years and am SO happy to get away from it. It is sad to think about the women here who can’t just go to another country to escape this way of life. It’s a tough country to live in. But I am going to do all I can for the continuation of women’s development. I am trying to travel very safely and looking for to seeing you when I get back!! 🙂

      Reply

  3. Aaron Adelman
    Jul 02, 2013 @ 22:05:29

    My vote is that you have a future as a writer.

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 19:44:09

      As long as there are no deadlines involved, I’m in!! Lol. 🙂 No, as long as I finish the rest of my chapters in regards to my Guatemala experience, I think I might have a blueprint. I’ll just have an editor look at it, and if they think it has potential and can give it a direction, all I would have to do is fill in the gaps and re-organize it a bit. I’m pretty excited about the idea of a gook, I have to be honest. 🙂 And to hear that you are behind me is even better!!! When I get back to California, we will have to organize a time when we can all get together for a big family outing or meal or something. It will be great to see you!!! Teri is good at the organizing stuff so I’ll just tell her when I get home… 😉

      Reply

  4. rosa
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 18:31:42

    yes, it sounds like you will publish a book, or a manual for future PCV…loved seen guatemala through your eyes ! ❤

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 19:56:50

      Thanks, Rosa. I know you will form your own perspective on Guatemala during your service, as well, and I hope you will see more of the beauty than the bad stuff, but it is definitely a worthwhile, eye-opening journey. I am here for you, and will do my best to keep in touch and support you however I can while you are serving. But I already know: you got this!! 🙂

      Reply

  5. Cynthia Peterson
    Jul 03, 2013 @ 21:15:58

    Dearest Alex!

    Congratulations on a JOB WELL DONE! I’m so happy for you!

    Hey, you say “don’t worry” about you traveling solo. Sorry girlfriend; that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing! I prefer that you take up Lois’s offer and head to Boise to get a “readjustment.” You’ve done good; time to come home. :0)

    Love you and am looking forward to seeing you soon.

    God bless and BIG HUGS!

    Cynthia :0)

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 19:52:23

      I can always count on you to be sittin’ on my shoulder whispering in my ear! 😉 I love it!!! I can’t wait to see you! And guess what? I drink coffee now, so we can really have a coffee date together. Or a seafood dinner date. Or a singing session. Or all of the above!!! Yes, I vote for that. I promise you that I will travel safely and find travel buddies along the way so I am not ever on the road alone. I need to finish writing before I leave this region of the world, or else my book will probably never see the light of day. (You know me and my writing issues…) BIG HUGS for you, too!!! See you SOON!!!

      Reply

  6. Tanya Cook
    Jul 06, 2013 @ 10:29:15

    Wow! Great job Ally!
    I’ve been reading and it’s been great to hear your stories good and bad.
    Have fun traveling and soak it up!

    Can’t wait to see you back home again,

    Love you,
    Tanya

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jul 06, 2013 @ 19:47:00

      Tanya!!! I was just telling Kathy all about you today. So funny! We are really enjoying Mexico, and this is just the first leg of our journey. I saw pics of you and Elease’s trip to the lake and thought that you guys were really having a blast! We’ll have to do something together when I get back, but for now–YES!–I will soak this new travel adventure up. 🙂 Love you, too!

      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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