OUT OF THE PAN AND INTO ...
Iíve sat down to write this entry several times, all of which produce
very white pages. September and early October has been anything but the
quiet and tranquil life many have coveted in the Peace Corps.
AL GOES TO SAUCE (a type of tree, not ketchup)
September brought our site visit, when a trainee or aspirante (you pick
the term) goes to check out the locale, and meet the people theyíll be
working with for the next two years. That is not an absolute, because
site changes within Guatemala are relatively common and have to do with
security risks or a lack of work. The most important goal of the site
visit for trainees is to find a home. This feeds off an energy similiar
to the nineteen year old fleeing the home for college or WHEREVER.
After three months of children staring at me as I eat my dinner,
calculating when my family will not enter my room so I can put on my
underwear, breakfast and dinners of tortillas with refried, boiled, or
burned beans, and the usual barrage of Americana questions "Why donít
Americans like immigrants?" we were looking forward to being private
LUCKY HEíS RIGHT HANDED
I met my counterpart Mario Flores in the morning of September 9. Mario
is an advisor to the Mayor of Ipala. At fiftysomething heís a high
energy tatoo sized Robert Deniro. The following day, I bussed down to
Ipala. I felt a little like Godzilla as the children covered their
wide open mouths and ran in terror as I walked down the street. After
meeting Jorge, a local teacher who works with the Municipality, and
Rafael the one-armed driver for the mayor, we hopped into their old Jeep
CJ-7 with a roll bar designed with a Guatemalan height in mind. As we
approached the Volcano and I nervously watched Rafael shift gears,
noticing the steering wheel realign the jeep toward the 30 foot dropoff
on the side of the road. Lucky heís right handed I guess. I began to
feel a really strong breeze and inquired why.
"Itís because Rafael had an accident last month and put his head through
the windshield." To demonstrate Jorge pushes his hand through the glass
that is not there.
"Oh, what do you do when it rains?" I asked.
No sooner said than we are all being pelted with rain. The wind also
tugs Jorgeís hat to reveal a balding head. We slowed from 30 mph to an
even 10. Jorge gave me a toothy grin and just shrugged.
We arrived late to the aldea or village of El Sauce to the house for my
host for the weekend was Don Ernesto Galvez. Heís almost 6 foot which
is unusual in Guatemala. His strong thick calloused hands shook my hand
with a gentle grip, barely closing his hand over mine. Chiquimula is
like that. The men wear broad rimmed white or black cowboy hats, tote
guns in the front of their jeans and stride like they just fell off a
horse (usually they have). But, after a slight frown, Ernestoís facade
dropped and he began to crack small jokes to make me feel more welcome
and for the rest of the weekend I was treated as a king.
He opened his house to me based on one visit by my director Flavio
Linares and a small note from my counterpart. My own bed, every meal,
help with finding a house and a constant system of support. Yet Ernesto
has every right to shut off his house to me. Two years ago he went to
the US as an illegal alien. Specifically San Francisco via San Diego.
While there he borrowed a room from a cousin with a tiny cot and low
ceiling and traveled around from job to job on greyhounds or in the
backs of 18 wheelers. He received about $10 per hour while the American
carpenters got $25 per hour for the same work.
Chiqui men call themselves men of the corn because all meals contain
corn. They also take pride in their cornfields, but if only they could
see Iowa. They also pride themselves on not using utensils. Americans
are considered funny because they like to have a diversity of meals.
Beans, tortillas and perhaps an occasional chicken are considered
ITíS HOT -LETíS DRINK
The department of Chiquimula usually elicits two responses from
Guatemalans --"Itís hot" from Americans "machismo." Both are true.
While Ipala and El Sauce are at a higher altitude, I have been advised
that between February and May is the "dry season" and itís best to
arrange all work for the morning time as temperatures will often rise to
100 F by midday. Machismo is strong sort of a culture of construction
workers, gringas can anticipate a outpouring of "chíchus," which is
meant to draw your attention but usually only gets your irritation.
Also every English word they know will also follow. This is not true
for all Guatemalan men, but feminists are about as common as
Machismo, I believe, also feeds into the prodigious number of bolos
(drunks). Men pride themselves on being able to drink 40 beers in one
sitting. After which they will stagger around for sometimes weeks at a
time. My neighbor Tonio prefers 10 day stints during which heíll wander
from house to house taking shots of straight vodka he has neatly tucked
where he usually carries his gun. Neighbors consider the whole
enterprise very funny. Youngsters like to make the drunks perform
tricks, especially those which leave the drunk face down in the dirt.
Sundays, the one day of rest, are the big drink day. Monday mornings
will usually find a handful of men dozing on the sidewalks. Their
friends and family will then gather them up and drag them home to bed.
All drunks love gringos. This is a universal law. If you are visible
to a drunk, you are a sitting duck. At least five times I have sat down
for a long bus ride anticipating amazing vistas or a good book, only to
find a drunk trapping me in the middle of a three "little person" seat.
Itís at this time that I hear everything they know, hate, like, love
about the US, how many relatives they have they, whatís wrong with
Americans. After which I usually say Iím Canadian and donít like
GOODBYE SAN JUAN CHEMELCO
After the site visit training became a finite proposition...we had seen
the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure I banged my head on my Spanish
books, our group cranked out a great paper that should lay the
groundwork for the next environmental management group.
But the hard part was saying goodbye to my family in San Juan Chemelco.
Irma Botoc Chavez and her daughter Bianca are rare in Guatemala. Irma
is a single divorced mom, her father was Queíchi, her mother Ladino.
She is a self-educated midwife who has worked for CARE all around
Guatemala. She is also a helluva host mom. Her clear Spanish and
unbelievable patience kept me from going bonkers during training, of
course her cooking was damn good too.
San Juan Chemelco, in Alta Vera Paz is a sleepy town that never got the
opportunity to sleep during the war. The surrounding aldeas were hit
the hardest with young Queíchi men being impressed into war. The pueblo
suffered during the Civil Patrols which sound frighteningly like the
Salem witch trials- if someone didnít like you, they informed the Civil
Patrol of your contacts with the guerilllas. For a training site, the
surrounding hills, cool climate and friendly people made for a great
place to learn.
I remember as a kid wearing a bright blue suit with matching plaid shirt
and dark blue tie. I never hated anything so much in my life as that
tie. It wasnít one of those easy clip-on rip off ties, it was a full
neck strangler. I was happy to say that on the day of the swearing
in, I had forgotten how to tie the strangler. So did everyone else.
At the swearing in Carl Schwartz the director of Peace Corps Guatemala
said a few words as did the the US Ambassador to Guatemala.
Unfortunately Carl will be leaving soon for the US. I had little
opportunity to know him, but he was/is a very impressive guy.
Sensitive, thoughtful and decisive-- a pretty rare combination. But
neither of them could top Brynn Johnsonís speech. All I ever needed to
know I learned in kindergarten- from John Fulgumís book. Itís been
said that volunteers speeches are always better- and itís true.
For an audience, picture twenty four mainly young adults who look
incredibly uncomfortable in suits and dresses and each who would want
nothing more than to go outside and play in the mud. After the speeches
are said we stood, raised our right hand and repeated "I state you name"
until Uncle Sam was convinced that we thought the Constitution was an OK
thing. Then we got our checkbooks and things got really interesting.
For the first month, I was not environmental management, but approp
technology guy. I had my house, a shotgun shack in the casarole
(smaller than an aldea) of llano, sort of a suburb of El Sauce. Itís
30 feet by 30 feet with dirt floors, lamina roof, adobe walls (dirt
again), bats, rats, spiders, centipedes and a yard strewn with garbage
and large hungry pigs, turkeys and chickens. It did not have water,
working lights or a latrine.
Despite the toughest job youíll ever love motto, I did not feel it
necessary to sleep in a house such as this. Thus I reaquainted with the
This is from my journal because I canít say it better right now.......
It seems like madness. In the damp night as the pure darkness settles
over El Sauce and the cricket begin their chat over the howling of the
small dogs, all I hear is the slow weep of my friend Rosemary. Tears
make things ugly, because they are for ugly things.
Today Ernesto's 20 year old daughter, Suzely ate "Bene" a pesticide he
places on his corn, frijoles and ochre. When I came back from work the
house was empty but for Rosemary and Sheni, two of his twelve
daughters. I didnít expect the severity of it all. Rosemary explained
and laughed. Suzely had drank the pesticide that afternoon. I hadnít
realized that this was how she was handling it.
An hour later Ernesto tromped in with his serious face- the same one
which is usually covering a joke. "She could die tonight or tomorrow, "
he said. The red rims of his eyes showed he had been crying. Then
Rosemaryís brave smile melted into tears.
For the past two days the Galvez family has struggled hard to understand
and to put on a brave face in light of Suzelyís attempt at suicide.
Rosemary wandered through the house with red eyes while relatives and
neighbors waited in the corridor for news and to lend support to their
At the age of 20, Suzely was a beautiful woman. She had an effecious
smile, strong laugh and an intensity of humor or rage. Her energy
would have lit a thousand lights. She loved soccer and we used to agree
on all the teams. We didnít like Mexico, but preferred them to El
Salvador. We thought the US has a good team, but Brazil is "kiss the
air" perfect. She was the center of attention, both with the family
which surrounded her, or the boys who watched her with solicious eyes
and tentative smiles. She was not a typical Ladino woman. Athletic,
creative, and anything but submissive. But this family is not mean,
argumentative or angry. Ernesto has a great sense of humor, and never
pushes too hard.
I am sure Suzelyís suicide attempt was to grab attention, but I donít
think her sadness was profound. Her laugh was a deep laugh not
controlled or contrived, but a genuine laugh. Her youth was so vigorous
with incredible highs and lows. She was 20, unmarried and had finished
schooling. Beyond small work with the Committee for installing potable
water, she had no where to go.
I have never felt so much the stranger. Coming from a culture where
people suffer in private, this is a shock. The sobbing from the house:
the mom, neighbors, relatives and anyone else imaginable all crying in
fits of rage, fear and sorrow. The mother, Dona Gumersinda breaks down
a lot. She is wearing a towel over her head and wandering around the
house. Yesterday she went to the Jutiapa hospital to stay with Suzely
overnight. She returned to be overwhelmed by visitors who had the usual
bad Guatemalan advice. "She should eat lemons" thatíll solve
everything. I think that the one thing education may teach is
sensitivity. But everyone here wants to be the strong Lorne Green of
the wild west. And no one is.
The oldest daughter broke the news like a tidal wave oer the front
porch. Her matter of fact "Se murio" took us all by surprise -and the
eruption of tears confirmed what I hoped I had heard wrong. Ernesto
returned moments later saying simply "Allan, I lost my daughter and I
donít know why."
What could I say?
The tradition for a funeral is that the entire community comes together,
the entire family- extended and nuclear. Over two hundred people
arrived from the capital, Ipala, Agua Blanca and El Sauce. They
transformed what had been my living quarters into a shrine with candles
and flowers. The coffin was white with a crushed velvet cover. Benches
surrounded the coffin which was kept closed all night. Dona Gumbersinda
stayed with the coffin all night crying and saying "Dios Mios." (my god)
For me I spent the majority of the evening trying to put Rosemary back
together. Like her mother, she has refused to eat for the past four
days. She shook her head and tried to find an answer that wasnít
there. I did manage to get her to laugh once or twice, although the
family will be in mourning for the next 9 days.
In the morning Ernesto and Rosemary quietly opened the coffin and placed
all of her clothes within the coffin and Ernesto kissed several coins
that he also placed inside. Then she was carried out of the room and in
an instant, the quiet sobbing from the inner chamber became outright
wailing. Man-woman, woman-woman, and man-man walked arm in arm or hand
in hand to the cemetary. The slow procession began singing "Adios."
The vicar and Ernestoís oldest brother each said a few words. They then
placed all the flowers from the wake inside the mausoleaum.
Ernesto then said his last words to her.
As for me I said my goodbyes. I will miss her. Simply put, I think she
made the wrong decision.
Suzelyís suicide was an awful start to my work here. But my needs for
building a house became a focus for Ernesto and allowed him to him take
his mind off things for a while. Likewise, I think Dona Gumbersinda
liked having a hapless gringo to take care of, and occasionally laugh
So with all due speed, we hired, fired, fixed, hauled, nailed, cemented,
painted, sawed and cleaned. Two and a half weeks later, I have a house,
with light, latrine and access to potable water--when they turn it on.
I made a bed, a shower and bookshelf/closet - losing only one
thumbnail. And most important, I know how to mix a mean batch of
BEFORE I GO...
Just one note before I go. Iím really enjoying this. Much of this
sounds really tough, and it is. But everyday is a new reto or
challenge. Learning new words, forcing myself out the door to meet new
folks, understand the environment that they want to protect and feeling
myself grow...every day.