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:
Airport: Completely missed my family. Oops. I read 8pm, not 8am. Meet
my brother Steve, mom & step-dad John in Antigua.
Chichicastenango: 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.
Antigua: 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.
Panajachel: 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)
Tikal/Flores: 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
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.
Guate: 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.
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
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
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.
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
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 :
a/c Municipalidad de Ipala
Guatemala, Central America