Learning to Count Up

Have you ever had a countdown for something in your life? As a child, would you count down the remaining hours during a long drive to get to an exciting destination? Or count down the days until high school graduation? Or the assignments left for you to complete in order to finish the coursework for your college diploma? Perhaps you would count down the passing weeks as you waited either for a special visit from a beloved friend or relative or to take a family vacation during summertime?

We have countdowns all over the place that we normally put into play when there is great anticipation for an event that is going to happen in our lives. Some popular countdowns include the New Year’s Eve countdown for the ball to drop as we ring in a new year, counting down the weeks left until the due date of the arrival of a new baby, and counting down the hours/minutes/seconds that get us closer to witnessing the launch of a rocket into outer space. Oh, and I can’t forget about the well-loved chocolate calendar countdown that kids (and adults!) look forward to every December–there is so much joy and discipline in peeling back a cardboard panel to retrieve a holiday-themed piece of chocolate, one day at a time!

Countdowns can be both useful and comforting. By keeping track of the time and acknowledging that it is passing, people are better able to focus in order to get things finished by a particular deadline. Countdowns keep people moving by applying an invisible pressure to take action. I used to place sticky notes all over my wall with numbers on them representing my countdowns, then I would match different personal goals with various “benchmark” numbers in that countdown to make sure I had projects completed and other preparations in place for the approaching deadline, graduation, trip, end-of-year, etc.

Countdowns are comforting in that as each day passes by, we understand that we are one step closer to attaining the reward for all the patient (or impatient) waiting we have been doing. Waiting, waiting, waiting. And the thing about countdowns is that they are pretty much a guarantee. There is a stopping point. Countdowns do not go on forever. Implicit in the word structure of “countdown” is the idea that a starting point is selected and there is movement toward “zero” or “nothing” until whatever it is that is being counted down simply runs out. We could all sit around doing nothing during a countdown, and yet the end of it would still arrive. We wouldn’t even have to lift a finger if we didn’t want to.

A downside of countdowns is that the time seems to pass quickly when we are so focused on the end goal toward which we are counting down. Putting our attention on things that will come to pass in the future can distract us from living in the present moment and connecting with the people and moments that fill our space right NOW. This is something that is becoming much more common in our everyday lives, especially as advanced technologies become integrated into our way of life; with every attempt to develop a “time saver” methodology or application, the pace of life ironically moves even faster than before.

Toward the end of my Peace Corps service in Guatemala, I was on a Skype call with one of my college friends who commented, “I bet you can’t wait to come home.” I was still several months away from completing my service, but my initial thought response was that yes, actually, I could wait to go back to California. Guatemala had become my home and I wanted to stretch out as much time as possible with the people in my community there because I knew my days were running out. That is when I decided that I didn’t want to count down because I didn’t want that time to escape me. Plus, initially for PCVs, we were all counting down: “Yes! I completed 2 months of service–only 25 more to go!” But as we integrated into and learned the ways of the “Land of the Eternal Unpredictability,” we realized that anything could happen at any given time so simply surviving each month–and being able to count UP–became both an accomplishment and a blessing.

As societies are moving faster and faster especially in the developed world, the theme tends to be that “money is life.” One of the biggest takeaways that a person can get from being immersed in “underdeveloped” cultures such as that of Guatemala is that “time is life.” Relationships matter more than anything. Spending time together is a priority–it doesn’t matter what activity is going on, just that people are together.

There are a handful of people with whom I spent the majority of my time in Guatemala who taught me valuable lessons about time and life. There are so many special people I met in Guatemala that it is difficult to select only a few. These are amazing and inspiring human beings and I am so blessed to have shared time and connection with them. I wish everyone I know could meet these people which is why I have reserved this space where I can introduce them, honor them, and give a tribute to them as some of Guatemala’s finest (in my eyes).

Doña Carmen – Doña Carmen lives in the village of Pajquiej, where she used to run the village bakery out of her home. She has a son and a daughter, and would have had two more children, twins, if she had not suffered from pre-eclampsia during her pregnancy which resulted in her losing both babies when she was seven months pregnant. Several years ago, her husband contracted appendicitis; his appendix burst, sending him to the hospital. From complications having to do with the infection, he required extra care so Carmen stopped running the bakery in order to tend to him; he died one year later. I met Doña Carmen when she was fresh into widowhood in her late thirties, but I never would have guessed it as she was outgoing, warm, and bubbly. She is one of the fastest-speaking Guatemalans I know so it took me a while to actually be able to understand anything she was saying! But I understood her warmth and constant smile and watched how she actively participated with her church group, family, community, and in our health promoter group in Pajquiej. She is a fabulous cook and shared a ton of recipes (including horchata, tamales, chicken tacos, and a yummy beef dish — complete with cooking lessons!) with me as well as some friends of mine. Anyone is welcome in her home at anytime. Doña Carmen is a fearless social butterfly who doesn’t stay down for long and loves to create fun everywhere she goes!

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Kelin – Kelin is Doña Carmen’s daughter. I met her when she was 16, right after she had given birth to a baby girl, Dulce Marleysi. I found out much later on that this was actually her second pregnancy; she had a miscarriage when she got pregnant for the first time at 14. While she lived with her partner, the baby’s father, in another village, she would visit her mom in Pajquiej on the weekends (the two villages were a little lees than two hours apart, walking distance.) Kelin also came into town to participate in the nutrition course I held for a group of young women (mostly from the school). She was like a little sister to me and would stop by my house randomly just to visit every now and then. This young woman is mature way beyond her age and has had to take on quite a bit of responsibility. She is spunky and has big dreams for herself and her family. Unfortunately, her baby’s father is an alcoholic and has put her in multiple situations as the victim of domestic violence, nearly killing her when he beat her up one of the nights he came home drunk a year and a half ago. She shared photos with me of the cuts, the black eye, and the bruises around her neck. She left him after that, moved back in with her mom, and returned to school to finish her education. She is a smart, talented woman with a big heart that deserves just as much or more love than she pours out from it.

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Three generations of special ladies right here: Doña Carmen, Kelin, and Dulce Marleysi.

Doña Isabel – Doña Isabel also lives in Pajquiej and, in her early sixties, was the oldest woman in my health promoter group in the village. I don’t think I’ve ever met another woman with a sense of humor like hers. She is vocal, opinionated, and sarcastic, loving to push buttons, but always putting the needs of the group and the community above her own. She is a true matriarch. She was happily married to a wonderful man with whom she had nine children. She used to live closer to the coast where she and her husband ran a store in town, but one time, there was a conflict over someone playing music too loudly nearby; her husband had requested that they turn the volume down. I guess they didn’t like that request because whoever it was ended up murdering Doña Isabel’s husband. She took legal action with her eldest son leading the charge, but the night before the trial, her son was murdered as well. It has been a long, hard road for Doña Isabel who now travels with a bodyguard and moved in with another of her son’s, Don Lalo, and his family in Pajquiej. Her youngest daughter, Magaly, also lives in Pajquiej so some reprieve for Doña Isabel is that she gets to be around her adorable and high-energy grandkids. Doña Isabel is probably one of the toughest women I have ever known.

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Sandra – I swear this woman could run the entire country of Guatemala if they would let her. Married to Doña Isabel’s son, Lalo, she was my lead health promoter in Pajquiej. At just two years younger than me, she was another sort of sister figure to me, but this woman was a serious shaker and mover who wasn’t afraid to call me out for dilly-dallying when it came to taking actions with the group. Sandra is a mom of three who runs her household with loads of energy and a knack for good-hearted mischief. She is responsible for feeding me cow tongue, cow intestines, and cow kidney–on three separate occasions–without letting me know what I was eating beforehand. She said that since the women had all been so brave in sampling the various recipes that I saved with them in the nutrition course/cooking classes that I could match their courage and sample the foods that they ate on a regular basis! This woman has a keen sense of what is fair and just and knows how to stand her ground well. During the health promoter course, she was the one who got the entire group to set a date and commit to making a trip to the health center as a group to go get PAP smears done for the first time. Hardworking and humble, she knows how to get things done. I would not have been able to work within that community so effectively if it had not been for her leadership.

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Sandra, with her brood, Yessenia (oldest, on right), Yaser (middle, on left), and Isabella (youngest, in center). 

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Doña Gloria – Another matriarch and mother of six children (although her husband has 10 kids total), Doña Gloria lives in the small town of San Andrés Sajcabajá, where I lived during my service. She was actually my landlord and lived right across the street from me. While Doña Gloria kept to herself and could come across as somewhat distant, she is a pillar of strength and has a heart of gold. Because of what she has been through in her life, it is understandable why she keeps her walls up, but if anyone she truly cares about ever needs anything, she is always the first person to show up. She was somewhat of a mother figure to me as she protected, supported, and defended me in two very stressful incidents that I experienced while I was in that community. She loved that I held classes at the house and encouraged her granddaughters to participate in my kids’ group activities. Doña Gloria is a woman who naturally takes the weight of the world upon her shoulders as she cleans up all of the figurative messes within the family, raises some of her grandchildren as if they were her own, stays steady in her marriage even when her husband was living in the USA for 15 years and when he does whatever he does, and emotionally supports her children both in Guatemala as well as the ones who are living in the States–no matter what, all while running the bookstore in town and managing their properties. This is one mama bear you would NOT want to mess with. Everyone in town will tell you that Doña Gloria is one of the best women they know. Her strength and compassion are incomparable, but if anything could beat those two things, it would be her faith and humility.

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Doña Gloria is the woman on the far right. This is the only photo I have with her in it which makes me sad because she is such an amazing, strong, humble woman. With a heart of gold, she is a role model for her entire community.

Acisclo – Of Doña Gloria’s six children, Acisclo is her #4, and, as the third youngest in the family, he is a little over a year older than I am. Acisclo and I were not more than really great friends, but because we used to talk so much with each other, everyone who knew us always joked about us becoming a couple–we even made the anonymous Holy Week “tabloid” newsletter in town one year when it reported that “Acisclo Urizar has an American girlfriend.” We still laugh about that one… Acisclo is a brilliant man and was studying at the university in Guatemala City during much of the time I was in Guatemala. He was one of the few college-educated people in San Andrés and he was often criticized for not having a woman or a family of his own–even both of his younger brothers were already married with children. But this progressive-minded man believed that he should first finish college in order to get a decent job which would make him capable of supporting a wife and kids someday. Under the negative pressure, he constantly struggled with anxiety and depression, but his stubborn willfulness kept him focused and moving forward. Because of how respectful he was toward all women, especially his mother and his nieces, I always felt safe in his presence and looked forward to our conversations and our Spanish/English lesson exchanges. He is extremely loyal to his family and deeply passionate about shedding light on the corruption within the Guatemalan government and creating positive change for the people of Guatemala. I have watched him step up to lead his family and fight to protect their values. Guatemala is lucky to have a man like Acisclo because he is far from the typical stereotype of macho men that people often associate with Latin America. From the last time I saw him, he has since completed his college education and is working as a journalist in Guatemala City while pursuing his hobby as a photographer in his spare time.

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Despite all the time I spent with Acisclo, I unfortunately do not have a single photo with him. In place of that, here is a photo of two of his favorite people, his nieces Arli and Sarahy, for whom his love and patience is endless.

Tayra – Tayra is another woman whom I could regard like a sister in Guatemala. She was my first friend. When I moved into the house where she (and her husband and daughter) were also living, Tayra reached out to me to make suggestions on how we could share the kitchen space and take turns buying the propane tank for the stove, which she also offered to share with me. I could tell she was very intelligent from the start and we grew to share almost everything with each other–successes, failures, frustrations, funny stories, laughter, and tears. She was so patient with me as I struggled to communicate everything in Spanish at first. Her family lived an hour and a half away so although she was part of her husband’s family in town, she felt a little isolated sometimes which is partially why we grew so close so fast. We collaborated on her daughter, Sarahy’s (to whom I played an auntie role) birthday party, we cooked together, I was there encouraging her through the interview process for a great job she got, and she was there for me congratulating me whenever I finished a project with my groups. She would also tease me about Acisclo because she said if I married him, I could be her sister-in-law which was really the important thing to her! Tayra has also been subject to domestic violence and a relationship ridden with emotional manipulation. At one point, she left with her two children (her son was just a few months old when I finished service), quit her job in the process, and moved back in with her father. She was determined to make it on her own, but she had trouble finding work, and after several months, her father told her she needed to move out because he was about to get married again. (Tayra’s mom passed away when she was young.) Tayra went back to her husband for the sake of her children because she couldn’t find work and had no other option for supporting them. She would do anything for her kids–they are her world. Tayra is a fierce woman and a survivor. For this woman who has sacrificed her pride, independence, and emotional freedom for the sake of her children, I have the utmost respect.

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Sergio – If ever I had any doubt about the existence of angels, once Sergio came into my life, I knew God had sent me an angel so I never questioned it again. Sergio is the epitome of a typical Guatemalan man (not the bad stereotype!): his priorities include family, work, soccer, and God. Sergio is from a town just outside of the tourist city of Antigua and has worked at the same restaurant in Antigua for more than a decade now. He practically runs the place at this point as he is the head manager there. He works six days a week so I used to joke with him that he was married to Frida’s because he was so committed to that restaurant. Sergio is easygoing, gentle, hard-working, and steady. There is absolutely no drama in his life, and he has the biggest smile ever! After we first met, we took our time getting to know each other for a couple months before we started dating. To enter into a relationship when we were both in such healthy, stable positions meant that we had a solid base so partnership and communication was easy from there. I learned so much from him about how to let a man lead–it was not about power or control, but from a place of caring and generosity. Shortly after we became a couple, I went through an experience that had the potential to turn me against men and lose all faith and trust in them; had it not been for Sergio, maybe I would have gone off the deep end, but he kept me sane and walked the journey with me. I absolutely adore this man, trust him with my life, and am so grateful for the time we shared together (which was about six months). Sergio takes care of the things that matter to him–he is fair, trustworthy, devoted, honest, and like-able. Whomever he decides to marry someday is going to be a lucky gal and I hope she appreciates him! He will brighten any person’s day who crosses his path.

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Sometimes when we imagine what people are like in foreign places, we think they might be very different from us, with alien-like features or strange customs, but the point I’m making here is that people are all just people everywhere around the world. They struggle, they feel things, they love, and they may even hate. Just like us. A difference that may be obvious by these people’s stories is that Guatemala exposes people to hardships and tragedies that are often preventable in the world that we know, the westernized, developed world. When things like this happen in our world, it catches us off-guard, whereas struggle is a way of life in Guatemala. It took a long time for me to uncover the personal stories of these individuals–one would never know any of the difficult stuff they have dealt with just by meeting them. The takeaway here is that these people don’t live by their stories. They just live.

I had to leave my site earlier than I planned to, before my service was fully completed. After reporting an incident that I was involved in that Peace Corps classified as a rape, I was originally told that I would not be allowed to go back to San Andrés, but I insisted that I needed to finish my work and worked out a negotiation with Peace Corps that allowed me to go back to my site, accompanied by volunteer support and security, in order to properly wrap up my work. We scheduled ten more working days, however an ensuing threat from the perpetrator, whom I had known for nearly two years, resulted in me being permanently pulled from my site after only five working days. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to finish my work and give proper goodbyes, however, Peace Corps did its best to maintain my wishes while prioritizing safety and security. I was reassured that the impact I had made on the community came from me actually being there for two years–another five days was not going to make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

Coming off of that departure, I spent nearly two years in “victim mode,” mourning the loss of relationships and trying to recover a sense of myself again. Living under the pressure of constant anxiety, self-doubt, and insecurity, I was not able to be fully present in anything I was doing. For two whole years. Since then, the case has run its course. Toward the end of the legal process, I was faced with an amazing opportunity for forgiveness, and I found peace, healing, and renewed relationships in doing so. By letting go of what “happened” to me, I essentially took back my life. If I can do it and I’m just a normal human being like everyone else, then I believe that any human being has the ability to let go and take back his or her life in order to really live it.

Bad things inevitably happen to all people at some point or another. That is part of life. Every person I mentioned above has experienced extreme hardship, loss, or heartbreak, yet they have kept moving–they have not let those things either stop them or define them. Their examples show that although tough stuff can happen, we don’t have to give up living because these things really aren’t so bad after all if we are still alive and connected to other people. Guatemala represents resiliency and that is what we can learn from its people.

In the wake of terrible things that happen in the world, there are usually two types of survivors: those who did not die and those who came back to life. Someone who “did not die” is prone to become an empty shell of a person, reflecting on the pain or misery from the past while spending the rest of his days counting down until his times runs out, which it inevitably will. But for someone who has come back to life, there are no longer any countdowns as every day is a gift, and he has learned to count up and approach each day as a new opportunity to create endless possibilities in life to live, laugh, love, and just be.

So the challenge I propose is that you step away from the countdowns and leave your story behind you. None of us know when our time will run out and often it is cut short when we least expect it to be. So why are we conditioned to spend so much time ruminating over things that happened to us in the past? That’s a waste of time when there is so much more we can be creating in our lives in place of looking backwards or counting down. Counting up is so much more fun because there is no limit to it; instead, there is endless possibility in it!

Of course, there is one other option which would be to just not count at all. My grandma has had a clock on her wall for years that shows the face of the clock with all the numbers fallen in a pile right around where the “6 o’clock” zone is. The hands of the clock all function properly, but instead of the numbers, the phrase “who cares?” is inscribed across the face. I have contemplated the meaning of that clock ever since I was a child and I still love it’s simple concept. It really doesn’t matter what time it is. Tic toc. Tic toc. Tic toc. Who cares?!? Relationships matter. Cherish the moment. Time is life. Be grateful.

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All my love,
Alexandra

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mschristinanelson
    May 18, 2016 @ 22:54:08

    Dear Alex,

    I haven’t read one of your posts in a long time, but I just finished reading this one and I’m so glad that I did. It’s extremely apparent that you have grown so much as a writer and as an individual. I’m so gladdened to hear that you are doing well and I would love to see you. I’m living in Anaheim now and working in LA, so next time you are down this way please let me know and hopefully we can get together. It’s been so long! I will be in Sacramento and Chico this weekend if you’re living up that way these days. Let me know 🙂

    Love,
    Christina

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      May 20, 2016 @ 11:17:00

      Christina!!! It is SO good to hear from you. Thank you for reading and also for acknowledging the growth in writing. (Trying to get my articles a little shorter–and to the point–these days!) I will send you a message on Facebook regarding my whereabouts this weekend. It would be awesome to see you again!!
      Love, Alex

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

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

Disclaimer

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