December 1997

A not too unusual thing for Peace Corps Volunteers are visits from the relatives. My family decided to come from Japan and the States to share Christmas and New Year with me. It was a great time, but to be realistic, visits to developing countries are hard on families. This is a shared experience with many Peace Corps Volunteers. This is for several reasons. First off these are people you really care about in a country that is unpredictable. While youíre doing your last minute Christmas shopping, so are the robbers except that you are their shopping center. Volunteers worry about their family. Second, the language barrier leaving PCVís a full-time translator. This was less of a problem for me because my family speaks Spanish incredibly well, especially my Mom who has managed to remember it from living in Spain almost 30 years ago. Third, traveling in groups is always an organizational challenge. Yet we still had a great time through Navidad and Anos Nuevo.

Christmas-New Year Highlight film:


Completely missed my family. Oops. I read 8pm, not 8am. Meet my brother Steve, mom & step-dad John in Antigua.


Almost got blown up by the mortars at the front of the church. Itís a tradition to blow up the neighborhood for their fair. The steps of the church are literally on fire. Really. Just ask my mom, she almost walked right into a mortar that was firing of big rockets. Family begins to have second thoughts.

NOTE Fireworks are a very Guatemalan tradition. My APCD once guestimated that over 1 million dollars is spent and lit in fireworks between December 7, the day of the devil and New Years. I think he underestimated by about a million. Day of the devil is a giant Greenpeace headache, where almost every single family takes everything theyíve been looking to burn for the last year and does so. The entire sky over Guatemala City is black.


A couple days passing the time. Ruins, art shops, street food, and catching up in general. Highlight evening at the Santo Domingo monastery, former of course (there are very few monk to be found in Antigua), over an amazing dinner. The best dinner I have had in Guatemala bar none. Historically there was one that was close, but that was more based on starvation. Steve eats bad banana.


Gringoville. (Christmas) Stay at Las Casas with a great indigenous family. After a couple days of recovery we cruise onto a boat with David, a small purposely misunderstanding bright little businessman. "Oh you want to go to Santiago then decide about paying 45Q more to go to San Pedro." Forty-five minutes later we arrive at San Pedro with a shrug of his shoulders. We picked our Santiago guideís brain on the intriguing, and brutal history of Santiago. Throughout the war Santiago was a source of government resistance. Didnít get to see Maximon, the indigenous peoples wooden puppet idol and counter Christian figure. He was sleeping and his encargada (keeper) was drunk. I passed on paying 10Q to see him sleep.

Steve, Joe Brady (fellow PCV) and I waged war on the town of Panajachel for the Navidad. Itís Christmas, blow up thy neighbor! Guatemalans have a funny habit of laughing at pain. Selling quarter sticks of dynamite for about $1 a piece can make for a lot of laughter. Exchanged gifts, I made out like a bandit. Benefits of poverty, (and cool family) I guess.


Reacting to my strong suggestion that we stay in Remate, Mom disparages Flores, only to find out she likes it very much. I came to realize my Spanish had jumped to a new level when I raged at a bus company that had ripped us off the previous day, and received about half of our money back. As a friend suggested, Tikal is indeed a magical place, if you can avoid the tourists, especially the loud ones. Walking off the beaten track paid for itself tenfold with howler and spider monkeys, a cousin of the wild boar, plentitudes of birds and other creatures of the wild which looked at us as if to say "What are you doing here?" John, Mom and I walked to almost every temple over the course of two days and translated almost every stilo (large 5 foot "bragging rights" of each of the kings of Tikal). Steve is sick, no matter how much orange tea we fed him, he didnít get better. But he made friends despite his situation.

El Sauce, Ipala, Chiquimula (New Years):

Cold. Really cold which is very rare for Chiquimula. In Guatemala Chiquimula is synonymous with unbearably hot. We are talking long underwear, ski socks, hat, t-shirt, turtleneck and really deep under the covers or inside the sleeping bag. Pancake breakfast, which for anyone who knows me is an automatic, coffee until our eyes swam. Then up the volcano. Slow. Between Steveís stomach and the 800meter difference between Yokohama (sea level) and here put out my Mom. But we arrived at the top and I introduced them to the cypress forest reforestation project. The wind almost blew us off the top of the mountain.

Had dinner with the Galvezís at midnight. Flour pancakes with honey, fruit "Ponch," and frijoles and tortillas. I unsuccessfully tried to blow off my hand with more fireworks. John, a farmer in his own right, discussed farming with Ernesto. There is nothing that Guatemalans take more serious than farming. Ernestoís face became serious as they compared notes on American practices versus Guatemalanís. This is the same reason why land is an intensely serious issue here. Itís an oversimplification of the 36 year civil war to say it was all about land, but itís pretty close to the mark.


Recipe for heartburn: Throw 500 drivers on the autobahn driving at rates between rates of 10mph and 100mph, none of which have ever passed a driving test, add windy curving roads which rise and fall 500 meters at a time and sun in your eyes, have only a map which shows important transitions as overlapping red dots, have important family as passengers, make sure itís your first experience driving in a third world country...Stir

Driving was fun, but stressful. Traveling, being responsible, directly or indirectly for the welfare of your family is stress. Compile that with several weeks of work right before (toughest job youíll ever love remember) and basically Montericco became a haven more than it already is. Black volcanic sand beaches, sun, huge ripping pacific surf, seafood, cheap beer, few mosquitoes, explosive sunsets, and sparkling night skies. The best way to end the trip.


The last night we stayed with my counterpartís brotherís family. A kind family that gave my family another last minute cross-cultural experience. My family took them to dinner which was a rare event, being in Peace Corps I have become somewhat of a grub, always being invited and never paying. An exchange of e-mails and a friend. The Guatemalan Ambassador to Japan is an Ipalteco, so my mom and John are going to deliver a package to him on their behalf.

Put them on the plane. Didnít miss it the airport this time. I wonít see them for a while, but I will miss them.

Chicken buses

An odd thing happened during my families tourist "pope-mobile" bussing from point-to-point with Germans and French arguing about how stupid each other were with wild abandon and broken English. Donít let the secret get out but, I actually like Chicken buses. This thought occurred to me at 5am when I was leaving Panajachel to go into Guate and have my nose re-straightened for the last time. Chicken buses are hot and sweaty, with human steam fogging the windows and obscuring spectacular views of Volcanoes rising above the dark lake of Panajachel. My fellow passengers and I nod in and out of consciousness, falling asleep on each others shoulders. Chicken buses are real...the dirt, the smells, the wheel well which pushes your knees up around your ears. People crowd as many as 6 to a seat, 3 adults and a child on every lap. Thereís a sense of community, because if you are here you are not in the elite, youíre a plebe. You watch the little 4WD Suzukis zip by just like everyone else.

New Years Resolutions

Itís odd, but I sat down to steadfastly write my new year resolutions and I came to the conclusion, that Iím not too sure what Iíd change. I like the daily challenge, a job where the priority is on making friends, and just constant learning. A weird feeling. PC life does allow for a lot of reflection. Iím at least right now, before I return to the my negative polarity of loneliness which this job also entails, content.

Bright Lights & Do Nothings

I found myself the other day having one of those discussions which sort of haunts you later in the day, week, month. I happened upon three guys who I wanted to attend a meeting for the forming of an eco-tourism committee. A no-hazard deal, just attend, see what you think. Well Manuel Gonzalez, one of the brighter lights in the ignoble village of Chapparoncito, says he canít, wonít, so on, so forth. I made the argument that if he doesnít participate he will not be able to change the Lagoon the way he wants to. I see my role as facilitator, not as dictator. Thus these villagers, with a cash infusion from USAID, can make the lagoon exactly the way they want it. He didnít want any part of it. To be clear, he was interested and in agreement, he just was letting others in his village who donít much like the project (or anything for that matter) dictate his own actions. I think in life if we just continue to participate, keep trying our way, weíll do fine. My opposition here is not from over-acheivers, itís from the naysayers or the do-nothings.


These days El Sauce is both hot and cold. The wind will pick up, blowing between the mud walls and the aluminum roof. Sometimes I feel as if the whole roof will lift off. Other days, such as yesterday, I end up leaning forward for most of the evening as the sun has pelted my back and neck with itís burning rays. El Sauce is the way I imagine Arizona dry, dusty, hot days, cool nights with vegetation which borders a desert. There is no desert of course, but the deforestation in the area makes it seem close sometimes. The rectangular outlines of corn and bean crops are what you think of the dried stalks of after the crop, but this is high time. With dried full stalks that resemble October in New England. Water is the key, they have no system of irrigation. Amatillo on the other side of the volcano does, and the difference is striking. Vegetables of every type are grown and verdant fields are completely contrary to the brown and yellow dryness of El Sauce, only fifteen minutes away.

Insects are huge here. A giant scarab beetle who has jumped over the wall of my house is doing his impression of an upside down turtle. The mosquito net above my bed really is for the stopping the big things that want to crawl across my face in the night, not the mosquitoes which are few. My boss, a native to this area, is an entomologist and enjoyed freaking me out by grabbing bugs and pointing out their gross hairy antenna buggy differences to me. Cockroaches (I am not making this up) grow to be 8 inches long...theoretically more. Iíve seen them at that size and felt queasy. Iíve actually gotten used to spiders, just enough to let them go if they are small, smash Ďem if they are big.

Committees & Fishing

After one other try we finally got enough people to enter to form an eco-tourism committee. We only had to wait about 2 hours for everyone to show up. My other counterpart Israel Galvez and I pushed and molded to get as close as we could to the committee structure we wanted. One person we didnít want as president was Manuel Hernandaz. He is an interesting trick. He is the owner of much of the land around the Volcano, but we trust him very little. He is not a bad person, just desensitized to all but his own wants and needs, which are entirely fiscal. I realized that several weeks ago when I saw him cutting down a section of his forest, a former Peace Corps reforestation project, so that he can pursue a national government organization for funding for reforestation. I was so upset my Spanish shut off almost entirely.

The meeting went well. We had representatives like our local evangelical priest, the owners of the land, representatives from the Municipalidad of Ipala and Agua Blanca, and the most important, the campesinos. We demonstrated most of the projects activities with pictures because many of the farmers donít read. This was also apparent when several members signing onto the official minutes of the meeting scribbled words that didnít resemble their names. Here it is common for groups to bring stamps so members can leave their thumbprint to mark their signature.

None of them are really familiar with the issues around the environment and sometimes I worry if we are just making this through the force of will of Israel and myself. Sure the benefits are very directly for them. Mainly water. Most of the communities are drawing water from off the lagoon, thus water not polluted by trash and solid waste in the water is far healthier.

Right after the meeting we went fishing. Now this type of fishing is not your normal get in the boat, make sure the cooler is stocked full of beer and then lazily toss a lure out into some lily pads until you get a bite. Very different. By the way, I took off my Environmental Management hat for a moment- all for the sake of international relations of course. Fishing in Guatemala involves stripping down to your skivvies, hiking into muck of lechuga (lettuce), water lilies really, and dropping nets in half-moon shapes, linked to cross the entire width of this slow moving river, forming an impenetrable barrier - except for the smallest of fish. We then walked down the river about 50 feet and formed a line across the water. Then (and Iím not making this up) we began whacking the top of the water with long poles - walking in a line to drive the fish into the net. Once at the net, we rapidly dropped the sticks which were holding the nets perpendicular to the river bottom. Moments later Ernesto and Israel and I are wandering around the nets edge feeling the nets rise, because that is were the large fish are fighting to get out. We each would submerge for minutes at a time, OK seconds for me, swimming and pawing at the nets for struggling fish. Once found, and we caught over 20 pounds of fish, we would slowly finger the fish to the nets edge. Then we quickly stuffed it into a small rope bag around our waist. I goofed by stepping on the center of the nets, thus releasing probably tens of fish in a single step. I was patiently chided by my lechuga draped friends.

Caldo de Pescado - Fish Soup.

Fish soup is considered ®muy rico® (very rich) and it is. The meat falls off the bone and luckily theyíve removed the guts of the fish. But the fish head and boiled white eyes, still gives my stomach a turn. Of course, this considered the best part and they are all the more pleased that I donít want my fishead.

Guatemalan Food- A Tough Food to Love

For the first few months of Peace Corps eating is full time challenge. As a new volunteer you want to make new friends and want to avoid hurting Guatemalans feelings. Because if farming is the most important work, it follows that food is also key to their culture. This is especially true in my aldea where the only gift they can offer is food. Thus as a volunteer I have trudged my way through some of the bitterest, blandest, spiciest and unappetizing food with a smile and a "muy rico." (There are MANY great guatemalan dishes btw). At the same time I have grown to love certain foods, such as beans and tortillas. A source of pride for me is that I now do not need utensils, I can do it all with the tortilla. Iíve only refused food once, when they had just killed an armadillo and I was unsure if it was an endangered species. Going with your principles, such as the many vegetarians who join Peace Corps is tough. Many adjust really well and even introduce their neighbors to healthier food. But customs are really hard to break. Itís a tough balancing act between principle and hospitality.

PC Reconnect

This is when all the volunteers from past groups get together for just short of a week to share tough times and successes. Led by two awesome volunteers, Kevin and Venisha we went through all sort of discussions : from learning to listen to practicing ice-breakers. We of course were really looking forward to another game of volleyball. The biggest project was working with our counterpart on structuring work plans based on the needs of each community. But getting everyone back together and sharing the good and the bad, helped remove the occasional sense of solitude.

Ipala Feria

The only bad thing about the Ipala reconnect is that it overlapped Ipalaīs Feria. Thus I lost my only opportunity to play against a professional Guatemalan team, Sacachispas. But I did hop out to the dance which merged the most advanced of Mexican technopop and local Guatemalan ranchero music. Every two hours the music would swap and those that were sitting, began to dance while those that were dancing found a chair.

A small complaint

I heard the Presidentís state of the union address and was enthralled and disappointed. Sitting in my small adobe house, the wind was raging through the rafters, and I had a big bowl of chicken soup and the Voice of America was on. I was in a good mood. Hearing all the accomplishments of the past year, politicians working across the ideological divide to accomplish things. Priorities given to education, strong international affairs, tax breaks for student loan interest (a personal favorite) and a strong economy. It was nice to hear some good news. I was proud of the presidentís initiatives until the State of the Union, not the least of which was the expansion of Peace Corps. As an avid news reader, I read EVERYTHING I can get my hands on, Newsweeks, New York Times, Prensa Libres. Itís a struggle to keep informed, but Iím not sure why I had to wait until January of the following year to hear about almost all of the presidentís initiatives and perhaps a little good news.

The icing of course was to hear the commentary "Gee he didnīt even mention Monica Lewinsky." The American press seems to have a real funny idea of whatís news.

Overall, I am doing well and encourage all letters big or small. I donít discriminate and I do answer everything, although with some delay.

Please write to :

Allan Oliver
a/c Municipalidad de Ipala
Ipala, Chiquimula
Guatemala, Central America