May 1999

May 7, 1999


Five months to go, I've almost made it. While the second year goes much faster, these days can be as tough as they were when I started. One indicator was that this last month I sat down and counted the days till my COS date of September 23. I have only done this once, while I have some fellow PCVs who have had the days numbered since swearing in.

This month our group moves from the on-deck circle to the next to go. We will have our Close of Service conference in June, when we will sit around a table and confront the harsh reality of "what's next?"


April was difficult and rewarding. I began the month with a purchase of a computer for the Public Library of El Sauce. This was a donation by my mom, based on her love for El Sauce and of libraries. This may seem unsustainable, but the reality is that this community never would have been able to raise the money for a computer. However, they had the responsibility to help me pick it up, make arrangements for the payment of an English/Spanish language program and for making electrical connections in the library. A week later I began computer classes for about 20 students, roughly 18 hours of classes a week. All the kids approached the computer with apprehension, but we started super basic, turning on the computer, moving the mouse, playing games, writing letters, post cards... and they have learned "poco a poco." They beg to play math games or trivial pursuit with the encyclopedia.

These kids are learning Venn diagrams and French impressionism, much more that their teachers could ever provide. The teachers are getting into it too, assigning research for their students at the computer or in the library.

(*** A side note: If there are any gung-ho readers who want to support the library, we are definitely in need. More than anything we lack Office97, Encyclopedia Encarta (in Spanish) and a typing tutor program-in CD form is fine. But ANY computer programs, in Spanish, would be really beneficial. Send me E-mail and send things via diplomatic pouch to PCV Allan Oliver c/o US Peace Corps 1990 K Street NW, Room 7315 Guatemala Desk, Washington, D.C. 20526. THANKS!)


The Volcano also remains as difficult as ever. The 10 park rangers who began in February continue to receive threats from the communities around the volcano. They are all locals from the villages around the volcano and usually the leaders of those communities. And while they are well respected and intelligent, the rumors they fight have more force than truth. Thus, it is said, that the park rangers sold the volcano to the government, or worse, to the US government. The lies that the owners will lose their rights to the land are even harder to stop. A good part of the civil war was fought over land rights, thus making it a particularly tough issue.

But it is all-little by little. Some of the most important discussions with the communities have begun to take place with the park rangers going to talk to each village. The discussions are often very difficult, especially with the older folks who continue to fight for their right to maintain practices that have deforested the volcano and dropped the level of the lagoon by 20 meters in 15 years. They believe that they have the right to drain the lagoon until the last drop.

Recently the park rangers meet with communities to show people the safe way to set fires to prepare their lands for planting. This is called the "rosas" and means long nights and days of flavorful or gagging smoke scented of spiny scrub and brush. Last year one fire went out of control and burned a large section of the pasture on the volcano. Burning their land is not the best answer, but until we can teach them better practices, the most important thing is to show them safe means of traditional practices.

Work with the Park Rangers kept me from traveling for Semana Santa. Instead I hiked up to help the park ranger with tending to the two thousand visitors which hiked the volcano. Many said that it was the most peaceful and beautiful they have ever seen the volcano during Semana Santa. Normally the area is full of drunks with guns, others cutting forest to make fires and generally trashing the place. This year park rangers informed visitors of the new rules-including no drinking and no guns. It didn't hurt that backing up the park rangers were eight men with Uzi and M-16s (the national police and the army).

This did indirectly cause one accident, as one gentleman who had smuggled in some "guano" and had quite a buzz, tried to avoid the police by jumping a 12-foot ditch. He jumped, badly. I learned how badly Guatemalans and perhaps people in general, react to an emergency. People sat and stared at him, watching his head bleed. Only a park ranger helped him out of the ditch while I ran to get the medical kit that we had prepared for such an emergency. I almost lost it when the local store charged me 3Q for water to clean his head wound. But we did get him safely to the hospital.


Of the more unfortunate and unusual incidents happened to a friend Tadeo Gomez, the shortest park ranger in the photo. He has an amazing streak of bad luck-including being knocked unconscious during a "friendly" soccer match in Rio Dulce in February. But the first week in April, his unusual luck would return. On one side of the crater lies the Cave of the Lioness where most tourists like to climb up and peek in. The lagoon is the only water source at present for cows, and their owners tend to bring them up and then leave them to graze. They contaminate the water, scare the tourists, and sometimes worse. On this occasion one small calf had grazed its way up the side of the crater, above the cave, lost its footing and fell.

Tadeo was there attending to tourists and saw this flying cow-shoved a young tourist out of the way and jumped himself. He was unsuccessful as the calf landed on his leg and hers. The calf promptly died. Tadeo was treated and brought down the mountain. All the other park rangers ate beef and joked about how it was raining cows.


The project that has brought me the most frustration, and prompted me to count the days till COS was the design of a trail from the village of Chaguitton to the top of the Volcano. In mid-April, my APCD informed me that a Crisis Corps Civil Engineer, David Inlow (RCPV Malawi) was headin to my site to help me design a multi-use trail. This trail needs to work for horses, cattle, tourists and others.

I began by meeting with the owners to discuss what agreement we could make on the size of the trail. Some agreed to a width of 2 meters, others to 4 meters. All visitors want this trial, people in the village on top of the Volcano are begging for this trail, and the owners are grudgingly admitting the need for such a trail. Right now about 15,000 tourists climb the volcano each year. They leave doors that separate cows from cornfields open. They brazenly steal corncobs from these poor farmers and they cut new trails anytime they want to. Thus, they leave the owners with poorly managed terrain and an unfriendly view toward tourists.

The challenge came in that a well-designed requires about a 17% grade, thus a number of switchbacks. This is to prevent erosion control, promote soil conservation and follow the maximum grade without stairs. For if one has stairs and cattle on the same trial, the stairs won't last. But a high quantity of switchbacks ruins a terrain for an owner. Thus, it's a tough compromise and an interesting negotiation.

David was a charm. Not particularly brilliant Spanish, as he had only stared about two months before, but his sense of humor and Southern charm crossed the language barrier and won over locals. During the measurements we brought the owners along to explain and show them what we were up to-so that the process was based on understanding and not "a crazy gringo idea." By the time we were at the top the younger helpers were repeating David's "demasiado inclinado" too inclined like it was a song. Our problem came on the last day when the owners who were going to hike with me didn't show until the end of the day. They greeted me by saying "the measurements you made today won't work" (read: your full day of work today was useless). I had a very hard time keeping my temper in check. They could tell I was pissed, and I made no claims of hiding it. I felt it was necessary to honestly show them that they were being both uncooperative and unfair. But we did settle on a day to remeasure the trail through their terrain. But I had enough information to create a proposal and ship it off.


After several weeks without break I decided on visiting another Peace Corps Volunteer, Heidi Kloeppel in the Sierra de las Minas. She lives in the village of Los Albores within the protected area of Siearra Las Minas, the second largest protected area in Guatemala. On the map we are separated by about 100 kilometers, on the road without stops-ideally about 7 hours, thus in real time 12 hours. At 2500 meters, Heidi lives about as out there as PC Guatemala gets. After 8 hours of travel I arrived at the last crossroads, about a 2 hour hike before her house.

The night hike reminded me of the Cascade mountains of Washington State. A breeze riding the mountain stream carrying that thick lung-filling air. The moisture and chill of the night was a welcome change from the 98 degree days of Chiquimula. For 50 yards on each side of these rivers was wasteland. Here the rains of Hurricane Mitch had swollen the rivers completely clearing vegetation and house from the riverside. You could see a huge swath of land wiped out as far as the horizon. These same rivers dislodged 60 ton boulders and set rolling through the village of Johones, decimating bridges, houses and cornfields. Villages said that sparks as boulder met rocky riverbed turned the rivers waters blue. At 9:30pm Heidi was surprised to find me on her doorstep. The next morning we hiked up to the research station/cabanas for Defensores de la Naturaleza, another two hours. Encountering just a mountain of birds, from the Mountain Guan to startling doves which launched into flight within inches of your body. We spent the next two days hiking through the high mountain tropical forest-a mix of 100 foot oaks and stands of bamboo. There were also burn areas, huge swaths of without underbrush standing like cemetary stones of burned black and gray. Last year, a neighbor of the protected area had set the fire out of spite for Defensores.

We saw seven quetzals, the national bird of Guatemala that is bordering on extinction for lack of habitat and hunters. They have two calls, one for flying the other while perched. It's a haunting call that carries over the cluttered chirping of lesser birds. I had been to Proyecto Eco-Quetzal and mistook their "brother" the Mountain trogan with the actual Quetzal. The male quetzal with his three foot tail feathers is distinctive. Watching him fly across the sky is to see a bird swooping with a swath of feathers trailing almost like seaside plane with banner.

That's not to say we only encountered birds, we managed to see but not step on five poisonous "hand of stone" snakes. We also saw the first deer of the season, a very rare site. Deer, as a tasty delicacy, are not in abundance. It is of course against the law, but law is all about enforcement. The Sierra de Las Minas is an area of about 20,000 hectares with 6 park rangers to prevent forest fires, protection of wildlife, creation and maintenance of trails, and support of biological investigation. The Volcan Ipala has 10 park rangers for an area of 2,000 hectares-with the same goals. For the volcano that's enough, for the Sierra de Las Minas the most important watershed in Guatemala it's not even close to sufficient.

Heidi was the longest out in the field during Hurricane Mitch. Most volunteers were pulled into the capital early. But as all the roads were wiped out to her site, and her neighbors were in need of help, she chose to stay. It's important to note that not all of her neighbors are the poorest of folks. Most have their shade plantation and as aresult a nice car and two story home. But that's irrelevant during an emergency. Heidi's experience was to watch the ugliest of human nature show itself. An example: during Hurricane Mitch an emergency flight dropped a box of medical supplies to the house of Don Carlos Menez, the Chief Park Ranger. He interpreted this to mean that it was for his personal use. Thus when Heidi tried to use some of the supplies to help a woman with a fractured and infected leg (during Mitch her bed had crashed ontop of her leg), Carlos stopped her. Then he demanded a list of medical needs (an hour and half hike down, three-hour hike up) which Heidi got and Carlos rejected. Thus leaving Heidi to walk down with her own personal medical kit and treat the woman the best she could. But to get the woman to the hospital, none of the neighbors were willing to drive her without money up front. Only Heidi was willing to front the gas money to get the woman to the hospital. Carlos would later claim to have played a crucial role in the saving of this woman. Heidi would only get the frustration


One of the most famous commercials in Guatemala is the Rubio's cigarette ad in the Sierraws Las Minas. In the ad a handsome grizzled Argentinian smoker saves a baby quetzal which had fallen to the ground- logger style spike climbing his way up the tree to return the quetzal to its nest.

The film was shot at Heidi's site and we came to discover some interesting artifacts - first a perfectly circular hole cut out of a fallen log (not typical or smart location for a quetzal which has many predators), a bottle of hair spray (also not endemic to the area). Later we were told by a park ranger that they had painted a chicken green and red to resemble a baby quetzal.


I've included some photos from the presentations by students on the "Importance of Trees." About 150 students hike the volcano. We also had a report and drwaing contest on the same them with winners receiving a new notebook and school supplies.


I remain your humble faithful reporter of my own Peace Corps experience. Please keep sending letters and notes, especially this month as I turn the BIG 30 on the 29th and would love to hear what's up on your end of the world. Best to all,