san juan chemelco
San Juan Chemelco
Catholic Church

shackles of spain
Cobay: this guy is breaking the Shackles of Spain, Independence Day September 15th

[me and the ambassador]
Me and the Ambassador
(Don Planty)
He looks surprised, don't you think? A good hand buzzer does it every time.

Dona Irma Botzac Chavez, her daughter & me
Dona Irma Botzac Chavez, her daughter & me

photo of the environmental management group
photo of the environmental management group

[the lagoon]
the lagoon: Laguna de Volcan de Ipala in the crater of the volcano. The only one in Guatemala and one of a handful in the world.

September/October 1997


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.


(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 individuals again.


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 "bastante" (enough!).


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 conservationists.

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 Americans either.


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 Galvez family.


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 neighbors.

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 at.

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 cement.


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.

Remember letters are welcomed and readily returned. E-mails as well, but with less speed. I miss all my friends and family. Hope to hear from you soon.