Chola – Bottles and Trees

March 5, 2012

After my parents left, I headed back to site to organize things for putting the bottles in the walls in Chola that Saturday.  We decided put in all of the bottles in one day and to have the scholarship students who live in Chola help, as well as the tourism committee and the community leaders from Chola.
Saturday morning I got up early and headed out to the office to meet up with the committee.  As usual it took a while for everyone to show up, but we headed out to Chola only about an hour after we had planned to leave.
When we got there, the COCODE (community leaders) had just arrived with the bottles.  The Scholarship students were already there so everyone helped unload.  I felt a great sense of teamwork, everyone wanted to help.  We quickly unloaded the bottles and then began sorting them by sizes.
After most of the bottles were sorted, I did a small workshop on how to place the bottles in the wall and how to tie them to make sure that they stay in place.  People came up to practice one by one and once it seemed like everyone knew what they were doing, we divided in teams and got to work.
Everyone worked well together forming groups on their own and delegating tasks so that everyone was involved.   I roamed around working with different groups and supervising.  Then around 11am, we stopped for a snack.  It is pretty hard to have an event in Guatemala without having a snack break (because no one would go), but it was nice to have a chance to rest for a minute and talk.  The tourism committee took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate my birthday with my 6th birthday cake of the year!  (I may try to spend all of my birthdays in Guatemala just so that I can enjoy all of the cakesJ)  They made me stand up in front of everyone and then Greis smeared the top of the cake platter on my face.  It was a really sticky chocolate frosting, which made it tough to clean but it was absolutely delicious!
After the snack most of the students left and the committee members finished putting in the bottles.  It is amazing how the bottles transform a skeletal structure into something that really looks like a building.  We took a few pictures and then walked back together.
The following week we decided to do the reforesting part of the project.  The idea was to plant the trees at least a month before the inauguration to give them some time to set.  The hard part was coordinating everyone.  I got 200 trees donated from PROMASA, which is actually what they call Save the Children here in Guatemala.   However that guy that signed my grant was out of town, so I had to coordinate it myself with the nursery which involved two trips before I could even find anyone there.  The good part was that he did give me the trees.
We planted two types of trees; pino and liso.  Pino is a type of pine tree and grows well in the area.  Aliso is an alder tree in English, in the birch family.  It is deciduous and known for helping to increase the nitrogen levels in soil.  The leaves are used for food by butterflies so hopefully this will help attract even more butterflies to the area.  The wood is resistant to water.  The bark has medicinal qualities to reduce cholesterol and help with tonsillitis and lymphatic diseases when boiled into a tea.  It is also used to treat poison oak, skin irritation, and insect bites.
I decided to ask the 6th grade students from the school in Chola to come and help us with the actual planting.  This sounds simple enough, but I went out there Tuesday of that week, which was Valentine’s Day (a big deal here) and the school was closed that day and the following day to celebrate!  This left me short on time, but luckily the teachers and directors of the school are know me.
I went out to the school again on Thursday morning, which is a 45 minute walk.  When I got there, the director told me that the teachers were in Uspantán signing papers but would be back soon.  I was frustrated because I had a lot to do that day, but I had to give in and just wait.  As we waited the Director decided to give me a mini Kiche lesson and taught me how to say and write the Mayan numbers from 1 to 10.  By then the teachers were back and they agreed to have their classes help and tell the children to bring tools for planting.
I also had to coordinate the transportation through the local government.  This took getting a letter signed by the mayor (a feat in and of itself), then taking the letter out to the transportation yard at the edge of town.  Luckily by going out there I realized that they also had a stack of used tires that they could also donate to the playground.
I also organized to have the guys from the forestry department help with the event, since it was my first time planting trees and I didn’t want to mess up with 200!  Luckily they were more than happy to help and actually agreed to give a small workshop about reforestation to the children.
By Friday morning everything was set up, so I crossed my fingers hoping that it would all work out.  I met the guys from the municipality at the tree nursery at 7:30am.  Right away I had two things going for me; they showed up on time and they had already loaded the tires.  However the guy that works the nursery was late.  This turned out to be lucky, because it gave us time to figure out how to transport the trees, since I didn’t have boxes or baskets to carry them in.
Luckily Guatemalans are ingenious and very creative!  The driver had the idea that we could separate the tires and put the trees inside the tires, which would protect them on the way.  It was perfect because we estimated that 50 trees would fit in each tire and we were right.  When the guy in charge of the nursery arrived he counted out the trees to give us, and we loaded them into a wheelbarrow.  Then we wheeled them to the truck and loaded them into the tires.
When the truck was loaded we headed out to Chola.  While the driver was generous in creating a way to carry the trees, he was less generous in his method for tying down the tires.  As we went around the first sharp bend two tires fell off of the truck and down a cliff.  It was really less about the fact that we actually needed the tires than it was about the fact that I could not let us liter them on the side of the road.  So we had to stop and one of the guys climbed down the cliff to the tires.  The other guy threw a rope down to him, which they tied around the tires, one by one, and pulled them up.
Unfortunately they still didn’t learn how to tie the tires on right, and they fell off three more times.  It took us an hour to go a distance that usually takes about 20 minutes, but we finally arrived and everyone was there waiting.
I organized the students and had them help us unload the trees.  Then we headed up to the new event center (which we built as a part of the project) and I gave a small introduction and explanation of the importance of planting trees, and then the guys from the forestry department did a workshop on how to properly plant trees.
Then we divided into groups and went straight to work.  We worked in two large groups and one of the guys from the forestry department went with each group.   They started by setting up one team of students and then measured two meters from there and set up the next group.  It was surprisingly organized and in three to five years it should be beautiful!
With 60 students working hard we finished relatively fast.  When we finished plating the trees, the students ran around and had a HUGE water fight.  It was nice to see them really enjoying the area.  While they played, we planted flowers.  Then I had a meeting with the community leaders and care taker of the area to explain to them how to take care of the trees.
It is really excited.  This project is finally coming together after months of planning, finding the land, writing the grant, getting the money, and more.  We set the inauguration for March 17th!

Alta Verapaz and stoves

March 5, 2012

My parents’ trip was AMAZING!  They stayed for three weeks which gave us time to do lots of different things.  When they first got here, I put them to work right away helping with the event.  As soon as the event was over, we headed out to Coban, Alta Verapaz.  I took vacation from Peace Corps and we went in style; renting a car (and I got to drive).
That night we walked around town and had a nice dinner at Casa de Acuña.  The next day we went to Vivero Verapaz, a large orchid nursery.  They had over 100 different varieties of orchids and this cute old man took us on a tour.  Some of the orchids were so small that we needed a magnifying glass to see them!
Then we drove out to Semuc Champey.  We decided to stay at one of the hotels near the park, which was rustic, but fine.  We relaxed a bit in the afternoon and then went to the Lanquin Caves.  Their generator had burnt out the day before, so we did the tour old fashion style – with headlamps.  Then we sat at the mouth of the cave waiting for sunset.  As the sun went down the bats came out!  It was amazing to watch them flying out by the flocks right over our heads!
Then we drove back up to our hotel for dinner.  They had bottles of wine on the menu, and since we were on vacation we decided to indulge.  The waitress brought us the bottle of wine (with the cork still on) and three glasses.  We patiently waited for her to come back and open the bottle, but after about 10 minutes we realized that opening the bottle was not on her agenda.  So my dad went up to the bar to ask them to open it.  He came back and sat down and we continued talking.
Next thing you know we look over and she was trying to open the bottle with a small machete!  Now don’t get me wrong, some Guatemalans are talented enough with their machetes that they can do anything – but she was not one of those people.  Luckily, another guest at the hotel saw our predicament and gave us his swiss army – which solved the problem.  If I ever go back to that hotel I think that I will bring them a wine opener as a present – it really is an essential tool for serving wine.
The next morning we got up early and headed in to the park.  Semuc Champey is magical!  We were the first people to enter the park, so we had to ourselves for a bit.  We hiked up to the mirador (overlook) and relaxed and took pictures and then went down and to the mouth of the river, where it first goes underground.  We sat there for a while feeling the power of the current.  Then we spent the rest of the morning swimming the crystal blue pools.
We went back to Coban that night for dinner with my friend Fife.  The next day was my birthday!  So we had a nice relaxing brunch at Casa de Acuña, sitting outside amongst the orchids.  Then we drove back to Antigua.  As we were pacing through the Refugio de Quetzal, a male quetzal flew right in front of the car!  It was amazing luck, although the good luck did not keep us from being stopped in a line of traffic for over an hour about 60kms outside of the capital.
We found out that the traffic was due to road construction and that we would be there for at least an hour so we decided to kick back and catch up on our reading.  When the traffic started moving again I looked out my window to see that a tarantula was perched on my side view mirror!  Luckily I had the window up and as we picked up speed it fell off.
We got in to the 3 Gracias house around 5pm and they were busy preparing for my birthday party.  It was really sweet.  They invited about 30 of our mutual friends and we had a BBQ and two delicious cakes.  It was a great way to spend my birthday surrounded by family and friends.
Then next day my parents and I went back to San Antonio so that Gloria could do a Mayan ceremony for us.  It was very special and personal.  Juan Jose set up the fire outside in the yard using candles, incense, sugar and cigars.  We each had to light a candle and then after saying our desires for the next year throw it into the fire.  Then we each smoked a cigar so that Gloria could read the messages in the ashes.  Let’s hope that all of our wishes come true!
After that we went out to Uspantán for a week of building stoves with an NGO from Canada called Hearts & Hands.  My parents and I were our own group, with two Guatemalan workers, Rony and César.  Unfortunately it was a super cold week, so we could not wait to build each stove just so that we could light the fire!  We built about four stoves a day in and around Uspantán.  It was a fun week and almost every family gave us a snack or lunch after we built their stove to thank us, but it was hard work and long days.
It was a great opportunity for my parents to spend more time in Uspantán and contribute productively to the town.  The bad part however, was that we did not have much time to visit with my friends and families in Uspantán.  We did escape one night for dinner with Juanita and the kids, which was nice.  Juanita took the opportunity to make me another birthday cake and the kids smashed my face in it!  My parents loved seeing that, as they have always heard about the tradition.
That Sunday after building stoves for a week we went to Lake Atitlan.  On the way there we stopped at Colegio Maya where the NGO has a scholarship program.  The students and their families put on a program for us with traditional dances and speeches.  The program was beautiful and extra special because the men in that region still wear their traditional colorful traje.
Then we escaped for a night of luxury and relaxation at Casa del Mundo on the lake.  It was nice to have a chance to relax and spend quality time together, as we had been running around since my parents got here.  It was awesome because the hotel heated up their hot tub that night.  It is an old fashioned hot tub heated by a wood burning stove in the middle.  We enjoyed a nice soak on the edge of the lake looking out at the full moon.  It was a great way to end a wonderful trip, and that I am staying another year it probably won’t be their last!

Pasta FunDay and feria in San Antonio

March 4, 2012

My parents arrived that Wednesday January 18 late at night and I picked them up from the airport.  We spent the first night in the lap of luxury in Guatemala City at the Holiday Inn (where I wrote my last blog).  The next morning Sherry picked us up and we went to PriceMart to buy things for the fundraising event.
We spent the next few days walking around Antigua asking businesses for donations of wine to help cut the costs of the event.  It was a frustrating process because I often had to go back to places two or three times before I finally got the donations.  However I met several hotel and restaurant owners and ended up getting 11 bottles of wine donated!
On Thursday afternoon the printer called me and said that the book was ready!  So we drove out to the Chimaltenango in terrible traffic to pick it up.  It looks great!  It felt amazing to hold a copy in my hands and see all of my hard work realized into a tangible product.  I asked the designer that worked on the book to come out to the reception area and gave him a copy for all of his help.  He asked me to autograph it!  We drove back to the Gracias feeling accomplished and excited!
Saturday, we took a break from preparing for the event and went out to Gloria’s house for lunch.  They had a nice lunch ready for us of Guisado.  We played with the kids and I held Diego, who is growing rapidly and starting to look like a real human.  It was feria in San Antonio and Juan Jose and Kennedy were in the parade.  So we headed out to the streets to watch the parade.  We found their float and took some pictures and then posted up to watch the parade.
I was really glad that my parents had a chance to experience it.  There were cartoon characters dancing to marimba music and various floats and groups depicting Mayan stories and honoring the patron saint of San Antonio.  When the parade finished we headed back to the Gracias to finish baking cookies and preparing for the event.
We got up early on the 22nd to set up the store, Casa de los Gigantes, for the event and pick up some last minute donations.  I also printed out pictures of selected students along with their biographies in English and Spanish, which I used to decorate the store.  It was a lot of work to set up the bar, and the three different pasta stations but we finished just in time.  My dad and my friend Chris were the bartenders and my mom was in charge of the cookies.
Not knowing how the traffic would be, some of the people from the capital ended up arriving a bit early.  It was actually nice because at least that way I knew that people were going to show up!  People trickled in slowly and by the end over 50 people came.  It was a nice chance to socialize with some the Peace Corps staff (including my boss) and well as a great chance to introduce them to my parents.  Halfway through I gave a speech in English and then Spanish about the program.  (I love how intercultural Antigua is) to help raise awareness.  We raised over Q10,000 and sold about 25 books, so overall the event was a great success and lots of fun.

New Year’s, Artisan Trip, and Peace Corps

January 19, 2012

To celebrate New Year’s a group of us decided to go to the beach at Monterrico.  It is a black sand beach (from the volcanic ash) on the south Pacific coast of Guatemala.  I can’t believe that this was my first time there.  It is beautiful, but far from Uspantán.  The journey took almost 10 hours!
I thought that the idea of a black sand beach sounded romantic and exotic.  While it is beautiful, the black sand gets really hot, especially in the afternoon.  In fact, one of my friend’s rubber sandals actually melted from the heat!
We spent most of the day on New Year’s Eve hanging out by the water, taking walks on the beach and swimming.  There is a really strong shore break, so getting out into the ocean was tricky.  But once you got out there the water was amazing; crystal clear blue and the perfect refreshing temperature.
Around sunset, we met the guys from the turtle hatchery on the beach.  The leather back turtles come to Monterrico to lay their eggs.  In order to protect the endangered species from natural predators and humans (because people like to eat the turtle eggs), the people collect the eggs and bring them to the turtle hatchery.  Once they hatch, they invite people to help let them go into the ocean.
The tiny turtles were so cute.  The guys had them in a big bucket and handed them out.  Then as the sun was setting we headed them towards the ocean and watched them make their first journey to the sea.  They need to walk on the sand, so that they feel the beach and know where to return to lay their own eggs; if they survive (only about 10% actually survive to become full grown adults).
After the turtles made it safely to the water, we stayed on the beach to watch the sunset.  It was great.  Sunsets over the beach are one of my favorite things and it has been over two years since I have seen one.
We had a nice fresh fish dinner and then a few drinks while we prepared for the New Year.  Right at midnight people lit up the sky with tons of fireworks (real fireworks with colors and all).  It was beautiful to see all of the colors in the sky which also reflected in the water.  When the fireworks were done we went in to a nearby club and danced the night away.
We spent the day New Year’s day relaxing and swimming on the beach.  It was perfect.  The only thing that was missing was a chance to watch the 49ers game, but we managed to get some highlights and the final score.
I went back to Antigua on January 2 and worked non-stop for the next two days to finish the cookbook I wrote.  It is a bi-lingual cookbook of typical Guatemalan dishes.  We will be selling it to raise money for our scholarship program, Becas Especiales Uspantán.  When I first had the idea to write the cookbook, I thought that it would be easy.  However it was not.  It took way longer than I expected but hopefully it will come out amazing, once I pick it up from the printers, and it was a wonderful learning experience.
When I finished the book, I headed home for a few days.  It felt nice to be back in Uspantán.  The closer that I get to finishing my service there, the more precious my days there seem.  Only things are a little crazy in terms of my work.  The local government is in the process of starting a new period and took the opportunity to clean house.  This included firing my counterpart Marlin.  She took it alright, but I feel a little lost without her.  I still have yet to meet the lady that they hired to replace her.
Last week on Thursday I went with Siggy to check out the artisan groups that we are planning to work with for our project (the reason that I am planning to stay in Guatemala).  We left Antigua at 5am and saw a beautiful sunrise over a sea of fog.  The volcanoes were peaking out of the fog and Fuego was puffing away.  These magical moments make me constantly fall in love with Guatemala.
Our first stop was in Totonicapan with Jesus and his group, who make small painted wooden boxes.  We reviewed his work and tried to find things to buy for Siggy’s store to get the relationship going.  We found some cute heart boxes that may sell for Valentine’s Day.  We also got a good idea of what he can do and how we may be able to use a designer to help make his products more marketable.
Then we went to San Francisco El Alto to meet Sara, the leader of our next group.  She hopped into the pickup with us and led us to her tiny town called Tierra Colorado.  It was a poor little town in the mountains of Totonicapan.  She talked the whole way telling us about herself, her family, and the group.  She pulled on my heart strings by telling me that all she wants in life is to be able to study, but she only has a 6th grade education.  There are ten children in her family and her father will only pay for the boys to go to school (people have to start paying for school after 6th grade in Guatemala).  I was ready to find a way to pay for her education out of my own pocket, but SIggy (who has a lot of experience in this area) brought me back to earth.  She explained how people often know exactly what to say to foreigners and that I should slow down and really get to know the situation first.  If the work with her group succeeds she will have enough money to pay for her own education.
We parked the car on the dirt road and had to walk down a steep dusty path to arrive at her house.  The entire family of 12 was there to greet us.  Her house was humble; made of adobe with mostly dirt floors and tiny outhouse for a bathroom.  I took pictures with Sara’s twin sisters and chatted with the rest of the family as Sara and Magdalena finished preparing lunch.  They had a killed one of their chickens in honor of our visit and made us a chicken caldo.  It was a good lunch and we took the opportunity to learn more about the group.
As we ate the other members of the group arrived and Sara’s family left for an event at their church.  The group makes baskets out of plastic.  At first the idea did not really appeal to me, but after seeing their products and getting to know the women, I am committed to trying to help them.  First of all we need to change the colors that they use, because right now almost everything is florescent pink and green (I can’t see that selling the US).  We found some baskets to buy and talked to them about design and then headed out to Huehuetenango for the night.
In the car we brainstormed about ideas.  The project dictates that we have to work with these specific groups, but we also need to have products that people will buy.  An artisan group without customers will not last long.  We came up with the idea of creating a bathroom and garden line for the plastic baskets.  Many people want baskets in these areas, but they are not durable enough to withstand the conditions, and plastic is the perfect material for this.
We got in to Huehue as it was getting dark and found our hotel.  We walked around the beautiful central park for a bit and got a salad for dinner.  Then we went to bed early because we were exhausted from the day.  Although I was very thankful to be in a car for the journey as I would have been 10 times more exhausted if I had to do it all on chicken buses.
The next day we got up early again and had a quick breakfast and drove to Aguacatan.  There we met Toribia, the group leader who directed us to the aldea San Juan.  Again all of the women were gathered in a small adobe house with a dirt floor.  The group is called Flor de San Juan and they do amazing weavings that they sew into bags and pillow covers.  Then they add embroidered flowers to decorate their products in the style of their hupils (women’s blouses).   We explained the project to them and they seemed excited.  Then we bought products and just as we were leaving we asked to see anything else that they had, including their hupils.  Here we came up with a great idea for a line of jackets that we think people in the US may wear.  It is fun to be able to be so creative.
Then Toribia took us to the birth place of the San Juan River.  It was a beautiful green area with a strong river bubbling from the spring.  They had a picnic area and place for Mayan ceremonies.  She explained to us the significance of the river to the town and told us about the one day when the entire river dried up – for one day.
Then we headed out again to visit our last group, COIPALMA in Quiche.  This group was much more organized than the rest and even had a tiny store in the capital town of Santa Cruz Quiche.  They make products out of palm and have wonderful bags, baskets, and hats.  We tried on some of their products and bought some things for Siggy’s store and then we stopped for a quick lunch before we each headed in separate directions, home.
The trip was amazing and really sparked my interest in the project.  I am more excited than ever about the possibilities of a third year in Guatemala and this project.  It is real grass roots development working to empower women from small communities.  We will be the middle men who work with the groups but also work with different customers to ensure that there are people to buy their products.
The darker side of things is that life is a bit shaky in Peace Corps Guatemala.  Peace Corps Washington made a decision not to send any new volunteers to the country because of the violence in the region (which includes Honduras and El Salvador).  I feel perfectly safe, but there have been a high level of incidents such as robberies and apparently Guatemala has a homicide rate that 8 times the homicide rate in the US!  We have not been given much information about the situation.  We do know that administrative changes are being made to try to make things safer for volunteers, but it leaves all of us in a position of uncertainty as to the future of our jobs.
On top of deciding not to send a new group of volunteers to Guatemala, they have decided that in an effort to lower the number of volunteers here, they are sending my group home a month early.  This news came as a shock to all of us, and some people are really upset about the decision.  This only leaves them five weeks in Guatemala to finish projects, move out, and say goodbyes.  I feel like I am less affected by all of this because I want to stay for a third year, and I am supported in that decision by the administration.  However, I am wavering a bit because I am not sure how all of these changes are going to shake out.  On one hand I am more excited than ever about my next year in Guatemala; on the other hand I am afraid of being forced to leave just as I really get things going.
I, personally, am optimistic.  I just wish that we had more information.  I hope for the best for me, the other volunteers, and the beautiful people of Guatemala who have touched my life.  We are all hoping that 2012 is a year of peace and prosperity here in Guatemala and that Peace Corps can survive until its 50th birthday here, which we will celebrate in 2013!

Christmas 2011 in Uspantan

December 26, 2011

Christmas in Uspantán is filled with traditions and everyone wants to celebrate.  The first event is December 12 in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  The people decorate the virgin in the church and place candles at her feet to honor her.  Then after mass, they take her out for a procession around town.  She is accompanied by fireworks and a crowd of around 50 people.  Mary and I came out to walk with the procession, but it was really cold so we did not last the whole time.
My first party was on December 22 with the tourism committee.  We rented out a room in a local restaurant and had a great dinner together.  Then we had a secret Santa gift exchange and I got a tacky flower vase.  Then we destroyed a Santa piñata.  It felt a little wrong to beat up Santa, but it was one of the first times that Azul (Marlin’s daughter) actually hung out with me for more than five minutes without wanting her mom.  Plus I got a nice little stash of candy.
The next night was the municipal Christmas party.  There are almost 200 people that work for the muni and everyone was invited.  I went with Marlin.  The salon was festively decorated and there was a big square of tables filling the entire room.  Each table had a fruit center piece, which people started eating as soon as they got there, and a big bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey.  The party started with the mayor giving a little speech about the year and Christmas and then telling everyone not to be shy and to open their whiskey bottles and start drinking.  That was all the prodding anyone needed.  Soon every table was passing around small plastic glasses with whiskey and coke and toasting with co-workers.
Then they brought in a live singer from Guatemala City.  He was a Boukiey impressionist.  I guess that Boukie is one of Guatemala’s most famous singers and being one of his impersonators is a good job.   The guy sang all of the famous songs, as people got up one table at a time and got their dinner.  Since I was the only white person there, he serenaded me twice.  People started to get pretty drunk and lively and began to sing along to the songs.  After dinner came the handing out of the Christmas baskets.  They were huge plastic baskets filled with food, mostly junk food like chips, cookies and soda.  Once I got my basket it was already 11:30pm so the mayor’s brother gave me and ride home.
Christmas Eve morning I went over to Juanita’s house early and we made 80 tamales.  She had already been to the molino and ground the masa, and prepared the sauce.  So Karla, Juanita and I sat out on their back porch and wrapped tamales, using corn stack, and banana leaves while we planned for the evening, and reminisced about the night before when we did a temascal (mayan sauna) and Karla fainted from the heat.
Then in the afternoon Karla came over to bake.  My new thing is making carrot cake from scratch.  So we stared with cake, which came out amazing.  We didn’t have powdered sugar for the frosting as that is a luxury that you can’t find here.  So we blended the regular sugar and it came out almost exactly like powder sugar.  It is amazing how resourceful one can be when you need to.  Karla also wanted to bake oatmeal cookies, because she had never baked cookies before.  So we also baked cookies, and thank goodness for my mom’s wonderful baking skills, they also turned out great.
Then we went back to Juanita’s house for a tamale dinner.  Uspantán was really lively, with people lighting off small fireworks everyone and out enjoying the town.  After dinner we heard Santa coming by, so I went out with the kids to see his sleigh.  They built a huge float that takes Santa and his reindeer around town handing out plastic balls, and ice cream to all of the kids.  I guess that the guy on the microphone was someone I knew because he gave me a special shot out from Santa.
Then we walked out to the park and enjoyed the beautiful Christmas lights (although the town decided not to put up a Christmas tree this year) and a live marimba band in the park.  Then we went over to Manuel’s sister’s house and had more ponche (a hot fruit drink that is a typical Guatemalan Christmas drink).  The kids that used to be scared of me when I first arrived now ran up to me when I entered the party so excited to see me.  We lit off fireworks and sparklers with all of the cousins and even the 3 year olds were lighting fireworks and burning sparklers.  All of the uncles kept giving kids money to run up to the central park and buy more fireworks!   I guess in Guatemala fireworks are the tradition rather than giving presents.
We visited a few more houses drinking more ponche and eating grapes (another Guatemalan Christmas tradition) and lit off fireworks everywhere we went.  Everyone was dressed in their new outfits and in high spirits.  The tradition is that everyone gets a new outfit or at least new shoes to wear on Christmas Eve.  So in between fireworks everyone was showing off their new shoes.  Also all of the families light bonfires outside of their houses and hang out on the porch chatting with neighbors and trying to make sure that their kids don’t blow anything up.  Around 11 we went back to Juanita’s and she started cooking the midnight dinner (yet another tradition), and we hung out in front of the house with the neighbors lighting even more fireworks, including a min-torrito that Luicho made.
A little bit before midnight the real fireworks started, the kind that we think of as fireworks that explode in the air into beautiful colors and designs.  It was truly AMAZING.  There were incredible explosions of colors and design coming from every direction.  The entire sky lit up, and everyone met out in the street to give Christmas hugs to their neighbors.  The bad after effect was that when the main displays finally finished, the entire town was smothered in a layer of thick grey smoke and the streets were filled with trash.
We went inside and had a huge Christmas dinner and watched a Christmas movie on tv.  I finally got home around 2am and crashed, although my neighbors were having a party with loud music and people continued to light off fireworks.  It was a beautiful experience and I feel lucky to have been a part of it, although I am not planning on trading it in for the wonderful Christmases in Santa Fe.

Weddings

December 26, 2011

I have been to two weddings in the past month, and let me just start by saying, that Catholic weddings are way more fun.  The first wedding was the weekend after the scholarship event and it was for one of the members of the tourism committee here in Uspantan, Greis and her husband Luis.  She is evangelical and the ceremony was held at the largest evangelical church in town.  Her family also comes from some money so they spared no expense on her wedding.  The church was beautifully decorated with a red and white theme.  I went with Mary, Sherry, and SIggy.
One of the things about Greis is that she is always late, and her wedding day was no exception.  The ceremony started an hour and half late.  To her credit however, we did not have water or electricity in the whole town all day until about an hour before the ceremony was supposed to start.  She wore a typical American white wedding dress and was absolutely stunning. The ceremony was very showy including a live evangelical band, called the Sound of Jesus, and three pastors.  She had kids from her family dressed up as the bearers of the stuff.  Here there are not just rings to carry, but also the bible, the pillows (for the blessing), and the cord (to tie them together in matrimony).
It was interesting to see a traditional wedding and that part of the ceremony was fairly short and enjoyable.  After the ceremony of vows and the rings, the couple knelt on the pillows and was blessed by the church.  Then the godparents of the couple came and tied a beautifully decorated cord loosely around the couple solidifying the union.  Then another pastor came out and gave an hour sermon that had nothing to do with the wedding.  This part was a little painful, especially considering we had been at the church for an hour and a half before the ceremony even started, but we survived.
She had her reception in the municipal salon and the place was transformed from a dirty gym into an amazing wonderland.  As we entered the salon we stood in line to congratulate the couple and give them their present.  Then we found our seats.  Everyone sat at large round tables as they served different courses.  The appetizers were little cheese sandwiches on white bread and grapes.  Although we would look at this course as tacky, the people here think of sandwiches as a very classy food item.   They had a blessing and then served the main dinner.  While it was fun it was awkward because no mingled.  We all just sat at our separate tables eating.
They did the bouquet toss and the groom tossed his corsage.  Then the couple went around to visit each table, while we had ice cream and a peach.  Then they cut the cake in a similar ceremony to the ones I have seen in the US but there was no smashing of the cake into each other’s faces.   They served the cake and then people started leaving.
The second wedding was the following weekend in San Antonio for Gloria’s nephew, Herber and his wife Maylin.  I got to San Antonio in the afternoon and Gloria and her sisters were at Mama Lola’s busy making all of the food for the 500 person reception.   I went with Esau back to Gloria’s house to shower and get ready.  Gloria had a special traje all ready for me.  Once they got me dressed we went down to the ceremony at the Catholic Church.
The church was beautiful, simple, and elegant.  The bride and all of the females in the party wore the intricate traditional hupils of San Antonio, Stefanie was a pillow bearer.  The bride also wore a attractive white veil.  The traditions were the same as the one in Uspantan, the rings, the blessing, and the cord; however the mood was more somber.  There was no band and the ceremony was a lot shorter than Greis’.  When the ceremony ended we all headed to the municipal salon which was also ornately decorated.  They had a huge table for the cake waterfall with 10 cakes and a small fountain the middle.  They had a live marimba band and a large area set up for dancing.
There was only one course of food, but numerous courses of drinks.  Gloria and her sisters served all of the food.  They also started the ceremony with a prayer and then served the food and the champagne toast.   Then the band started playing and the couple did the ceremonial dances; couples first dance, father daughter, mother son, ect…  Meanwhile the waiters kept going around the room with trays of little plastic cups filled with various types of small drinks.  The bad part was that they thought it was fancier to have lots of different types of alcohol, so every drink was a new kind; not a good recipe for a good morning the next day.
Everyone was up milling about dancing and visiting with the other guests and the mood was lively.  I danced with various uncles and cousins and spent the time I wasn’t dancing watching little Diego who is growing fast.  A group of homeless children from off of the street snuck into the wedding, and to my surprise no one kicked them out.  On the contrary they gave the poor kids a plate of food and let them stay and enjoy the festivities.
There was no bouquet throwing, however they did the ceremony to cut the cake and again there was no cake smashing.  I find this to be interesting considering that every birthday one of the biggest traditions is smashing the birthday person’s face in their cake.  Obviously weddings are a much more civilized event.  We danced the night away until midnight, when Gloria’s brother gave us a ride home.
Both weddings were interesting cultural experiences and fun in their own way, however the one in San Antonio was definitely more fun.  I think it had a lot to do with the fact that evangelicals are not allowed to drink or dance, and those were some of the best parts of the catholic wedding.  Also a short ceremony that starts on time seems to be a key to ensuring that the guests enjoy the event.

Becas Especiales Uspantan

December 26, 2011

On December 8 we had the annual event for our scholarship program, Becas Especiales.  It started with the signing of the 2012 contracts in the municipal salon.  Marlin and I were the first ones from the committee to arrive, but several excited parents and students were already there waiting.  Everyone pitched in to help us set up the salon and around 8:30 we started the event by calling each student by name to come up and tell us where they will be studying next year, Marlin did the middle school students I did the ones for high school.
Then Marlin read the contract out loud, stressing the points that if they don’t maintain good grades and participate in the community service events they will lose their scholarship.  This was important because it reminds the students that they have responsibilities and will be held accountable.  We are not just giving out free money; they need to hold up to their end of the bargain.  She asked if there were any questions and clarified a few points.  Then everyone who agreed to the contract had to raise their hands to prove it.
By that point Miguel, Cosme, and Tita had arrived and we began the process of actually signing the contracts.  Cosme and I did the high school students while Tita and Miguel did the ones for middle school.  This is really one of my favorite parts.  Each student came up to the table with their parent or guardian and filled out the contract.  Many times the students had to explain things to their parents in Kiche, Quequchi, or Uspanteko (because they never learned Spanish) and then the parents had to sign the contract with their finger print, because they never learned to read or write!  It makes me feel so lucky, I mean could you imagine your life if you were illiterate?  I love seeing these parents or grandparents fight for their children’s education realizing that it is the key to guiding them to a better future.
Sherry and Siggy came in for the afternoon event and we met in the office.  Our newest scholarship recipient is a 6 year old boy named Feliciano.  Normally we don’t give scholarships for elementary school, but he is a special case.  Feliciano was hit by a stray bullet in February 2010, when one of the kids in town got a hold of his father’s gun.  The bullet went through his head severing his optic nerve.  No one in Uspantán knows brail and he and his parents want him to be able to learn to read and write and make the most of his life.  So last year we bought him a brail kit and now he travels to Xela once a month for classes at a special school for blind children.
Feliciano’s family is poor and they do not have the money for him to continue his therapy, so we decided to help them out with a scholarship to cover the majority of the expenses.  His family came into the office to sign their special contract before we started the afternoon event.  The family has another baby, who came with them being carried by her mother wrapped in the typical carrying cloth.  As we were talking the little girl peed, and it went all over the floor.  It made me think that maybe diapers are one of the things that they have to give up because they are too poor, and I was really happy that we are going to be able to help them.
The other parents and students started to arrive as we were signing the contract and everyone worked together to quickly set up the central park for our event.  Each student had to bring four balloons and they blew them up and we tied them to string and then hung them around the stage and in the park.  It was a great easy way to decorate the park.  We got one of the main phone companies to sponsor the event by providing the sound free of charge.  So they played music while we set up, making for lively environment.  Finally around 3pm we started the event.
Sherry, Siggy, and I had to give speeches about the program.  I had written out a speech to make sure that I used correct Spanish, but when it came to my turn; I just spoke from the heart.  It was easy because this program means so much to me.  After the speeches, Feliciano came on stage.  Orfelia told his story to the crowd and he gave us a beautiful Thank you card he had made.  It melted the hearts of everyone in the park and the crowd erupted in applause.
We sent four of our scholarship students to a leadership conference in Antigua in early December.  They learned about climate change and how to become leaders in their communities.  Part of their commitment for attending the workshop was to share the knowledge with others in their area.  So they did a presentation on what they learned at the conference for the crowd.  Then we called the students up one by one to receive their t-shirts.
After we handed out the shirts we took pictures of the groups.  Then one student and one parent came up to give speeches about the program.  Lucas, the shoe shine boy who now has the highest GPA in his middle school, was the student representative.  He got nervous to speak in front of the crowd and grabbed me to accompany him on stage.  He is an orphan and so thankful for this opportunity to improve his lot in life.  He almost started to cry on stage as he hung onto me while he was expressing his gratitude for this opportunity.  All and all it was a beautiful day and reminded me of why I am here working hard every day to try to make a small difference in people’s lives.
If you want to make a tax deductable donation to the scholarship program you can do so here http://www.becasuspantan.com/donate.html

San Cristobal de las Casas Mexico

December 26, 2011

At the beginning of December I went to Chiapas Mexico with two of my friends Hannah and Carrie.  We were joking before we got there that Mexico was the land of milk and honey because we had heard that it was so much more developed than Guatemala, and it wasn’t far from the truth.
It was a long trip there on the bus.  We got to the border town La Masilla and had to walk a mile from the bus stop to the boarder.  We checked in at the Guatemalan border and got a cab the for the two and a half mile journey to the Mexican border.   We finally got there, checked in at the Mexican border office and got a bus to Comitan, Mexico.
On the way Comitan the border patrol stopped our bus to check for illegal immigrants.  They asked the guy next to me for his id.  He tried to play it off saying that he didn’t bring it with him.  Then they interrogated him further about where he lived in Mexico and the poor guy cracked under the pressure.   He turned white and he looked like a deer in headlights.  He didn’t know the answers, because he was from Guatemala.  The police took him off the bus to deport him back to Guatemala.  Immigration is a touchy issue, but I felt so sad for the poor guy.  Who knows what he gave up to try to make the journey and sometimes people’s only hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty is to go to the US and make enough money to send home to their families to help support them.
We had only changed a little bit of money at the border and so we had to take the cheaper bus option from Comitan to San Cristobal de las Casas which meant a longer journey, but we made it fun.   The rumors were true!  Mexico seemed so much more organized than Guatemala.  The roads are straight and have lines on them; there were rules and people to enforce them that had authority.  Plus when we finally got to San Cristobal it seemed like everything was so modern!
We checked in to our hostel, which left something to be desired, but it was cheap.  Then we walked the beautiful colonial streets lined with sidewalk cafes and bars and filled with people.  If felt nice to be somewhere with options and a nightlife.  We got real Mexican tacos for dinner and then wandered the streets stopping in a few sidewalk cafes to have a drink and listen to live music.
The next day we went up to the San Andres church on a hill overlooking the town.  They were getting ready for their feria on December 12, so there were booths lining the streets.  We stopped on the way to try on Mexican wrestling masks and check out the intricate Mexican desserts.  The church was beautiful and they had a strikingly decorated Virgin de Guadalupe.  There were also amazing views of the town from the tops of the stairs leading to the church.  We headed back to town and spent the afternoon wondering about town, shopping and enjoying the sidewalk cafes.
We had dinner at a semi-nice restaurant with a live acoustic guitar player.  I really miss live music.  After dinner we were invited to a glass of wine at another restaurant by some local guys, and it turned into us going to a salsa club and dancing the night away.
The next day we took the crazy one day tour of the northern part of Chiapas and the ruins of Palenque that left at 6am.  After a four hour ride we got to the first stop, Aguas Azules.   It was beautiful blue pools caused by an over ground river that looks a bit like Semuc Champey.  We explored the area and swam in the beautiful clear turquoise water and then basked in the sun on the rocks.  Then we got back in the bus and traveled to a gorgeous waterfall called Mirasol-ha.  Where we again lay in the sun enjoying the view and then took the trail behind the powerful waterfall.  Then back to the bus to Palenque.
The Palenque ruins were amazing, not as big as Tikal but amazing all the same!  We climbed pyramids and explored palaces.  It was incredible because you were allowed to walk everywhere.  The ruins were filled with large blue butterflies and the sounds of howler monkeys which added to the atmosphere.  We followed the trails through the pyramids and thought that we got out just in time to catch the bus.  However, somehow we went out a different exit and were a mile away from the bus.  We flagged down a micro and got a ride to the bus and then began our journey back to San Cristobal.  We got back around 9 and went for glass of wine and wood oven pizza a cute little spot and called it a night.
We spent our last day wandering the picturesque streets of the colonial town.  We toured the Na-Bloom museum where we learned about the Mayan culture of the jungles of Chiapas and enjoyed their garden.  Then we spent some time at the Zapatista cooperative learning about the movement and buying souvenirs.  Then we went to the artisan market and I got a real amber pendant for $2.  Most amber comes from this region in Chiapas so it was really cheap.
We went out to nice dinner and then bounced around to a few little bars with live music before ending up a Club Revolucion.  They had a live salsa band and we danced the night away, trying to our fill before heading back to our sites in Guatemala.
It was a wonderful trip to Mexico and a nice little escape.  Chiapas is a beautiful and well preserved area of Mexico and I would highly recommend a visit.

Graduations and adventures

November 30, 2011

Once I did the presentation for the community in Chola our project really got under way.  We went out there that Monday morning and we people were busy cutting down the trees and cutting them into the shapes that we needed for construction.  The area is so beautiful that is shocks me every time that I go out there.  It was a great feeling to know that the project was finally underway, except after they started cutting the wood they realized that it was going to take longer than they had expected.  Hopefully the project will be finished by the time that I am ready to leave!
That Wednesday I taught my gymnastics classes in the afternoon, and the enrollment has finally leveled off so that I can really teach something, at least forward rolls and cartwheels.  Then I had to go to IMMBI (the “high school” for people studying to become teachers) to give out their diplomas for completing my course on “How to teach Environmental Education to Elementary Schools”.  After a series of workshops, they each had to teach five environmental education lessons during their stint as student teachers in order to receive the diploma.
Each student who successfully completed the course also received a book with environmental education lesson ideas, so that they can continue teaching these classes when they become teachers.  The students were excited and energetic, as they were getting ready to graduate high school.  Every time I gave a diploma to one of the male students they all screamed out “Beso, beso”.  It was a little awkward, but they seemed very appreciative.  Then the director gave a speech saying how much they appreciated my project and the fact that I took the time to work with them.
The next day was Stephen’s birthday.  We had a celebration for him (and Cara) at Juanita’s house for lunch.  She killed two ducks and I made a carrot cake from scratch.  It was fun and festive and Karla and Luicho helped me make sure that we got his face covered in cake.
That night Steve’s work was having a big end of the year party and invited Mary and I to come along.  They killed a goat and decided to BBQ it, inside (because of course BBQing inside is always a good idea).  It was fun to meet his co-workers, but goat is definitely not my favorite animal.  It is really tough, and was a little raw.  His coworkers bought a bottle of tequila and were getting a little crazy so Mary and I called it a night around 10pm before things got to weird.
The next day I was invited to the 6th grade graduation in Chola, because I had worked with the students there.  It was quite a big deal.  For many of the students, their parents never went to school or learned to read and write, so graduating from elementary school was an educational first in their family.  There were 52 people graduating and each family was required to bring a chicken for the feast.  Then the ladies of the community killed all of the chickens and made a HUGE chicken caldo to feed the group of graduates, their families, and the teachers.  The teacher’s sat at special tables in the front of the room and they had a big bottle of Quetzalteca (the local rum) on every table.  I had two drinks during the toasts, eat, and then left quickly before the chaos began, as some of the teachers were getting pretty drunk.
The following day was the graduation for INEB, the middle school in town where I taught English.  It was a formal ceremony held in the municipal salon.  Mary and I went together and sat through the three hours of speeches and reading each person’s name several times.  Then we were invited on stage to receive a diploma for our work as English teachers during the school year.  It was a nice gesture.  We were invited to a lunch following the ceremony, but we both needed to leave town, so we snuck out and headed to the bus.
I got to Antigua just in time to go to Chris (from Hug It Forward’s) Halloween party.  Sherry picked me up and she, Mykell, and Siggy were dressed as magical witches.  I quickly changed into my costume, as one of the ladies that sells snacks on the buses (they wear a big apron and balance a basket full of goodies on their head), and then we went over to Chris’s house.  It was a fun party.  I got to see lots of people from around the country that I hadn’t seen in a long time, plus I got to celebrate one of favorite holidays, Halloween!
That Tuesday was Dia de Todos Santos, or All Saints Day and I went with Siggy, Ruth, and Lianne to see the kites.  There are two main towns in Guatemala that build the big kites for this day, Sumpango and Santiago.  Sumpango is bigger and has the best kites, but they hold the event in a stadium.  On the other hand, the event is smaller and more traditional in Santiago and held in the cemetery.  We went to Santiago, and it was amazing.  There were tons of people, but Siggy knew just where to go.
The people build kites that are larger than three story buildings, however these ones don’t fly.  The kites are made out of tissue paper (it is illegal to paint on the kites) and they make very intricate designs.  The ones that do fly are six to seven feet tall.  We were some of the only tourists in Santiago.  The cemetery was full of people paying respects to their dead ancestors.  They decorate the graves and then eat lunch around their family’s grave.  The kites are used to send messages to the dead, as they fly up in the sky where the spirits live.
Everyone was so nice.  Lianne is a photographer and everyone let her take pictures.  As we were watching one team fly their kite, they asked me if I wanted to try.  Of course I did!  It was surprisingly heavy and the ropes burned my hands, but it was also very powerful to fly a kite larger than me as it soared over 50 feet in the sky.  We continued walking around and another group let me run with their kite to try to get it up in the air.  It took three tries but we finally got it flying!  It was a truly amazing experience.
The next day I rushed back to Uspantan to teach my gymnastics classes.  I got back just in time.  The next day I went with a few Spanish biologists to Laj Chimel to do an environmental education workshop.   They led the workshop and it was well designed.  I just helped out and then went up to Dona Maria’s house to hang out with her a little bit.  She gave me a quick lesson in how to weave with pine needles and hopefully I will have time to go back and really learn.  It was pretty easy and fun!
The following day I headed up to La Gloria for the graduation at the school we built.  It had been raining soo much that the road was washed out just before San Antonio and we had to walk through a huge mudslide.  Even though I walked on the rocks, the mud went all the way up to the top of my boots!  I finally got in to La Gloria around 4pm and stopped at the school to visit with the teachers.  For some reason when I arrived this time I felt an overwhelming sense of pride.  It just seemed so amazing that we actually built this entire school and the community is so proud of it.
Then I went to Ovidio’s house.  He was out of town, but I relaxed and had dinner with his family.  Then it was time to get ready to go to the graduation.  I put on a skirt and shirt and then Maria, Ovidio’s wife, told me that I was not going to wear that to the graduation.  She had a traje from Coban for me.  The only thing is that when I put it on the skirt was too short.  So she and all of her kids took out the seam for me, using my headlamp to light the way.  I felt so special.  Everyone was collaborating to help me get dressed for the big event.
The graduation was intimate and very special.  There were only 17 people, from five different communities graduating.  They had grown close over the years and (as people told me) especially over the last year as they worked so hard to build the new school.  They called me up near the beginning of the service to give a speech.  I should have known that would happen and prepared something, but I had been running around so much that I didn’t.  I did an alright job just winging it.  They also gave me a diploma that thanked me not only for giving something that will benefit all of the kids of the region but that also benefited the environment.  It was really sweet.
When the ceremony ended, the dance began.  It was a little awkward as some of the local men had been drinking and most of the students were too shy to be the first on the dance floor, but it was fun.  I had to dance to every song with a different partner for almost three hours straight.  Finally around midnight, we headed back to Maria’s and I changed and then the catholic priest and I headed out past the mudslide to catch the bus.  I would have liked to stay the night, but Peace Corps put us on standfast for the weekend because the second round of elections was to be held that Sunday, so I had to hurry home.
The elections went by without a hitch.  People were much less interested in this round of elections and I am not sure if it was because they felt like there were no good options or because it was only for the president which is very removed from their daily lives.  Either way not many people voted.
My friend Lorena took me out to dinner that night, and as we were eating we heard fireworks going off in the street, which signified that the winner had been decided.  We went outside and watched the caravan of Patriota supporters drive by chanting their party’s name.  The winner was Otto Perez Molina, an ex army general from the Civil War era.  Many of the extremely indigenous towns are worried that he is going to bring back martial law and destroy their land, but the majority of people say that is impossible in this day and age.  The cool thing about that party is that the Vice President is a woman, Roxanna Baldetti.
Thursday that week we had a regional Peace Corps meeting in Chichicastenango.  Since the meeting started at 8am and Chichi is about four hours from where I live, we left on Wednesday and stayed with Samantha in her site called Chiché, only about an hour from Chichi.  It was fun to see her site and learn about her town, and it really made me glad that I was placed in Uspantán!
After the meeting I met up with Emilana, the head of the tourism committee in Chichi and we traveled together to Sacapulas to meet up with the committee for our annual trip.  Everyone is allowed to invite members of their families and this year there were 19 of us!  It seemed like the main attraction where ever we went was eating.  Last year I thought that this was strange, but after living in Uspantán for a year and a half I kind of understand.  I mean there is just so much variety in terms of different types of foods, which just don’t exist here.
We spent the first night in Huehuetenango.  We arrived late, because they left an hour late and we got lost finding the hotel.  We had dinner and went to bed.  The next day we slept in a bit and then headed out for the beach!  For some reason they picked a beach that was far away, hard to get to, and isolated, but it was gorgeous!  We had to take a boat from where we parked the car to the hotel and some of the people that we were with had never been on a boat!  They were scared, even though it was only a three minute ride.  We made it and got out on the beach just in time to enjoy dusk and a beautiful sunset.
The next day we went to the amusement parks Xocomill and Xetululu in a department called Reuhue.  Xocomill is a water park and it was awesome!  There were hardly any lines, even though it was Saturday and the rides were fun.  Surprisingly Greis, Tita, and Cindy went with me on all of the rides, even though they don’t know how to swim!  We spent the better part of the day there and then headed over to Xetululu around 3pm.  Xetululu is like a Guatemalan Disney land.  I was impressed!  The rides were fun, but I freaked myself out on the rollercoaster as we were going up the hill I thought, “Oh shit this is made in Guatemala, and I have seen how well their Ferris wheels work!”
That night we stayed at an Eco-lodge just outside of Xela.  We got there late, but we had a huge jacuzzi in our room.  So Greis, Karla, Diana, and I lit a fire and put our on swimsuits to enjoy a romantic night in the hot tub!  The next day everyone wanted to go to the mall (that is another thing that it took living in Uspantán for a year and half to really understand), but Greis and I stayed behind and enjoying the hotel and its beautiful grounds.
They left that afternoon to return to Uspantán, and I met up with the group of volunteers a year behind me at the Peace Corps hotel.  They were having a training the next day and I was asked to give a presentation on how to realize a project with bottle construction, from A to Z.  We stayed up late chatting and catching up.
Then next day I got up early and finished my presentation and then headed over to the office.  The guys from Hug It Forward (the NGO that sponsored the bottle school in La Gloria) found out that I was doing the presentation and randomly had a documentary film crew in Guatemala, so they decided that they wanted to interview me and film the presentation.  It was kind-of embarrassing because they came in lugging all of this heavy equipment and I felt like the paparazzi were following me.
They interviewed me and then I had to rush right in to my presentation, and I left my bag in the room with all of their equipment.  The presentation went well, and hopefully I helped some people figure out the steps that the need to take in order to realize a project of this type.  When I finished I went to get my bag and it was gone.  It had everything in it; mostly importantly my wallet and cell phone!
I kind-of freaked out, but luckily Patty suggested that the film crew may have taken it by mistake.  She let me use her phone and I called them.  The good news was that they had my bag.  The bad news was that they were almost in Antigua!  Again Patty saved the day, but telling me that a driver from Peace Corps was headed to Xela that night and maybe he could bring me my bag.  In the end it all worked out, but I had to stay in Xela an extra night, and luckily Peace Corps covered the bill (as I was there for work), because I didn’t have any money.
I spent the rest of the week in site teaching my gymnastics classes and working in the office going through applications for our scholarship program.  We received 97 applications and only have 20 openings.  On Friday we went out to Chola to check on the progress of the project.  The community had cut the wood and the machine had come to leveled part of the land, so we were ready to start construction the following Monday.  Exciting!
That night the tourism committee had the Despedida de Soltera or Bachelorette party for Greis.  It was a surprise party and when she arrived she almost started to cry.  It was a little awkward because her dad was there and we played games like pass the cucumber using only your legs.  Then we each had to give her advice on her marriage.  Her dad’s advice was, “Don’t get married, just kidding!”  I guess that every father thinks that, but I couldn’t believe that he said it out loud.
Saturday I went over to the vice mayor’s house and baked a carrot cake with his wife, her sister, niece and grandson.  Then they invited me up to their cabin the next day.  The cabin is beautiful.  It is near Laj Chimel, so in the middle of the cloud forest.  They have a huge piece of land with a live-in caretaker, so it is well manicured.  We spent the day going on little hikes, eating, and sipping whisky and soda water on the front porch, while the kids caught lizards and played Uno.
I spent Thanksgiving at the Tres Gracias and we had an amazing American style feast.  They had 30 people over and we cooked all morning.  Then we hung out in the garden until we ate around 2pm.  After the feast we played games and snacked on leftovers until almost midnight.  It was a great day and nice break from being a broke Peace Corps Volunteer.
The next day I went out to San Antonio to see Gloria, her family, and their new baby.  The family is doing well and the baby, Diego, is really cute.  He was born six weeks early and only weighs five pounds.  I have never seen a human being so tiny before.  But he is healthy and joy to hold.  As soon as I got there Gloria went to fix lunch and left me to watch the baby, who they keep calling my god son.  We’ll see what happens.
And the adventure continues…

Rain, rain, rain…

November 9, 2011

The first Sunday in October I got up early and made the trip up to the La Gloria.  I had promised the school that I would do a climate change workshop before school ended and we were running out of time.  Due to the rains, the roads were in really bad shape and it took me seven hours (on a very crowded micro) to get there.  The micro stopped in San Antonio and I went by Marika’s house to drop off my stuff and then went straight to her school to watch the finals of their soccer tournament.  It was fun.  The whole town was there and the teams played well.  They had music and snacks and it was nice to see everyone.
When the games finished we headed back to her house and she made a delicious homemade chicken and vegetable soup.   We hung out late chatting, catching up, and listening to the rain.  The next day I got up early and it was still raining, but I walked up to La Gloria in the rain.  Luckily I had my umbrella and rain boots.  I did an hour long workshop about the carbon cycle and how humans affect it with each grade of the school.  They loved the workshop because we did some different activities, plus they were excited to see me and show me how much they are enjoying their school.  It felt good to know that they appreciate it.
Unfortunately when we painted the school we used a lime based paint that did not stand a chance in the humid environment, and it was already peeling off of the walls on the outside of the building.  They really want to repaint the school and I also want to leave it looking good.  I knew that the NGO was not likely to give me any more money, but I was determined to help them, so we agreed to split the costs of the paint.  They were going to raise half of the money in town and I had to find the other half.
I had lunch at Julio’s house with the teachers from the school and then spent the afternoon at Ovidio’s house hanging out with him and his family.  I had dice with me from one of the activities for the workshop, so we invented a game with the dice and the kids loved it.  Pretty soon we had half of the neighborhood playing with us.  It was nice to be back in the community.
I had to leave to head back to San Antonio around 5pm and it was still raining.  I walked back and met up with Marika at her house.  We ate left over soup and hung out for bit.  Then I tried to get a few hours of sleep before waking up at 1am to catch the micro back to Uspantán.  The micro always leaves from the comedor (small restaurant) so I hiked up there in the rain and there was no micro.  I was a little panic stricken, but I just walked around the town in the rain looking for the headlights.  Finally I found the micro near the market, but unfortunately I did not get there early enough to get a good seat.  When I asked why they were there today, the guy looked at me like I was crazy and said “We moved”.  Super helpful, but at least I made it.
I went straight home when I got in at 7am and took a nap.  I got ready and went in to the office for a bit to catch up and then gave my final English classes at the middle school in town, INEB.  During the recess the teachers had little meeting and a snack.  It was fun to hang out with the teachers and hear their opinions on the political campaign and other current issues in the town.  The recess was supposed to end at 4:15pm, but the teachers stayed hanging out and talking until 5:30pm while the students terrorized the school.  Finally I said that I needed to see my classes because it was their last class.  I felt like I broke up the party.  I am really trying to live by their more relaxed culture but sometimes, when I have things to do, it is hard.
The next day I got up early to go to Desengaño for the last classes there.  I took the pickup to Macalajau and then walked with Francisco (one of the other teachers) down to Desengaño.  The classes went well and I gave each student a picture of me with their class that my dad took when he was out here.  The students loved it as most of them do not have any pictures.
When I got back I had to rush to have a quick lunch and then go to the gym to start my gymnastics classes for kids.  The owner was not there, who had the list of the students, and the worker got there late to open the gym, so it was pretty disorganized.  I only ended up with two people for the first class, but they loved it.  They had never done anything like it and they smiled and laughed the whole time.  I had four students in my second class, of older girls, and they also loved it.  It was fun to be teaching gymnastics again.
Thursday I got up early and went in to the office to make my English tests for INEB and Desengaño.  Then I went out to Chola to collect bottles.  The students and teachers there are very involved and they had 600 bottles, which brought the total up to 1,000.  This is still only one third of what we need to build the bathrooms, but they are definitely working hard.  The bad thing is that I am now kind of known as the trash lady.  Sometimes I will see kids in the street picking up trash and I will ask them what they are doing.  They always say, “Collecting trash for you Seña!”  Hopefully some of these practices stick once I am gone, and people will stop littering or at least others will pick it up.
In afternoon, I went to IMMBI to pick up their worksheets providing proof that they had done the environmental education lessons during their time as student teachers.  Then Kate, a volunteer from Xix, came into town with the founder of their scholarship program so that we could exchange ideas and help them with ways to improve their program.  We had a good meeting with Marlin and Tita and I think that they got some good ideas.  I dropped my English tests off to be photocopied and then we made dinner at my house.
The next morning I caught the bus at 7am to head to the Peace Corps office.  As I was walking to the bus watching the sunrise I ran into a few little boys on their way to school.  We started talking and enjoying the walk when suddenly the street dog running alongside of us collapsed.  Then it started going in to convulsions.  I was shocked and freaked out.  The little boys just looked at me and nonchalantly said “Poison”.
It was so normal for them, but yet I have never seen this.  First of all there are not really any street dogs in the States, and second of all if there were it would not be legal to kill them if they were bothering you.  The boys stayed to watch it die, I couldn’t do it.  People here poison the street dogs all of the time, so for the boys it was nothing new.  This made me realize that there is something so raw about life here.  People are so connected with nature, life and death, one thing eating another, ect…  It is amazing and beautiful and so natural, yet to me so foreign.
It was a long but uneventful journey to Santa Lucia and I got to the office in time for lunch.  Then I met with my boss and he signed the diplomas for the IMMBI students, and we talked about possibilities for the future.  I spent the rest of the weekend relaxing and hanging out with Siggy and Mykel at the Tres Gracias.  I traveled back to Uspantán on Sunday in one of my scariest rides yet.  The micro was extremely crowded and I am pretty sure that the brakes went out because the driver was using the emergency brake to stop and the brakes were smoking.  We also got a flat tire, but I finally made it home just before the rain.
That Monday I went up to Desengaño for my last time.  The pickup ride was cold, but at least it was not raining.  I enjoyed the walk down to the school taking in the beauty of the mountains.  When I got there we got the students ready for their exam.  They all had to bring their desks outside and arrange them so no one was too close to anyone else.  When they finished their exams I went into the office and graded them while I waited for my ride.  Around noon I said goodbye to the students and headed back to Uspantán.  It was bitter sweet.  I am happy that I will not have to go up there twice a month anymore or grade anymore papers, but I will miss them.
Tuesday I woke to rain, heavy rain, and it lasted all day!  I gave the exam for the students at INEB, the middle school in town, in the afternoon.  During the exam the electricity went out.  This is pretty normal here so we just kept on like nothing had happened, but then it did not come back on.  We had a meeting for the tourism committee that night and all of us showed up hoping that the electricity would come back.  Finally around 6pm we found out that a mudslide nearby had taken out the power lines and no one knew when the electricity would be back!  Too bad I was not prepared and my phone and computer barely had any battery power left.
We held our meeting by candle light, which was actually kind of fun.  We also had a quick candle light meeting with mayor in his office to talk about the details of our playground project. I was glad that everyone had the will to push on and continue the meeting in the dark.  The nice thing about the electricity being out was that it was quiet, no evangelical music or other sounds.  The bad thing was that I had to grade my tests by candle light using my headlamp for extra light when I finally got home that night.
Wednesday it was still raining when I woke up and the power was still out.  I went into the office a bit late and Marlin and I took advantage of the electricity being out to rearrange the office.  That afternoon I had my second gymnastics classes.  This time we were much more organized and lots of people came, in fact I had 13 little girls in my first class and 7 in the second.  It is a little rough to teach gymnastics without any equipment, but at least we have a room and carpets and they are just learning the basics.
Finally Thursday morning the power came back and it wasn’t raining when I woke up!  It was such a relief.  I quickly set everything I owned to charge, just in case it went out again.  I spent the day catching up on email and working on a proposal to get cement donated for our project in Chola, to try to help save the tourism committee some money.  It was rough to write the entire proposal in Spanish, but a good learning experience.
The rain came back by the afternoon and did not stop.  Friday morning when I got up it was pouring!  I was supposed to go out to Chola to collect bottles, but I had a hunch that classes would be canceled.  I did not have anyone’s phone number so I dressed up in my rain gear and headed out.  I caught a tuk-tuk out there, and when I arrived I saw a few people milling around the school and so I figured that they had classes and told the driver that he could leave.  When I actually got inside I found out that I was wrong.  They had canceled classes due to the heavy rain (it was dangerous for many of the students to try to get to class because they would have to walk through makeshift rivers with super strong currents).
Now I had to get back to town.  I started walking and ended up having to walk the whole way because all of the tuk-tuks that passed were completely full.  I had to cross two rivers that were flowing strong and no one knew how deep they were.  I have to thank the beautiful people of Chola that I met up with along the way.  They helped me cross both rivers by testing the waters (with sticks to see how deep it was) and holding hands to make sure that no one floated away in the current.  At some points the water was so deep that it went up to the top of my rain boots in the shallowest places!
By the time I finally got home it was only 8am and I was exhausted and soaked.  So I went home and showered and made some coffee before heading in to the office.  We had a nice productive day until around 6pm when the power went out again!  At least this time I was prepared and my computer and phone were charged.  I spent the night grading by more tests by candle light.
That Saturday it was still raining but the electricity came back on!  I spent the morning grading English tests and in the afternoon I went to a baby shower for Marlin’s sister-in-law, Lorena.  It was interesting.  The girl is only 16 so the guests included her 15 and 16 year old friends and then friends of her parents, no one in the middle but me and Marlin.  We all sat around in circle on plastic chairs waiting for her to arrive (because like every party in Guatemala it was a surprise).  She was only 2 hours late!  When she got there we played a few games, ate, and gave her presents and then everyone left.  We spent more time waiting for her to get there than at the actual party itself.
That Sunday October 16 we had a fundraising event for our scholarship program Becas Especiales Uspantán in the central park taking advantage of the fact that is was market day and the park is usually filled with activity on Sundays. The scholarship students formed groups of 4 and each group made a different traditional Guatemalan dish.  Everyone had to dress in traje and we sold the food in the central park.  It was raining in the morning so we had to buy a tarp to cover the stands, but we couldn’t cancel the event.
They put me in a traje from Nahuala, one of the highest regions in Guatemala.  Everyone stared at me all day (and they are still talking about it).  I guess it was quite a site to see a white woman in traje.  We spent the entire day in the park and did pretty well, considering the rain.  In the end we raised $100 and the students learned a bit about business (as they had to do budgets and help figure out the prices for their dishes).  I am now working to turn these recipes into a bilingual cookbook to help raise additional funds for the program.
That Monday the rain had finally stopped (for a minute) and I headed out to the elementary school in Chola to collect bottles.  They had 600 bottles!  I was impressed.  The following day was their last day of school and I had promised a party to the winning class, so I made plans to come back the next day.  One class was winning the contest by only one bottle, so I said that everyone could bring more bottles the following day and I would count them before I gave out the prize.  It was great to see their enthusiasm.
That afternoon the State Department in Guatemala declared a State of Calamity from all of the rains.  The ground was already super saturated and with all of the new rain there were mudslides and sinkholes everywhere.  The State of Calamity meant that all Peace Corps volunteers were put on standfast meaning that we were not allowed to travel.  This was a bummer because I was supposed to go meet a friend in Chiapas Mexico for the weekend, but as it turns out it is better that I didn’t go.
Tuesday Marlin, Miguel, and I went out to Chola early to do the final bottle collection and give the prize of a little party with cake and candy to the winning class.  I went through all of the classes, the kids were cleaning the classrooms (including sanding their desks) to prepare them for the next year, but almost every class had at least a few bottles.  The class that had been in second place the day before collected and stuffed 104 in one day and ended up winning.
That afternoon we had to go back to Chola to meet with the COCODE, community leaders, about the project.  It was exciting because this was the step we needed to take to really get the project going.  We took the mason with us and made a calendar of activities that we needed to complete in order to finish the project.  The first was for me to give a workshop on tourism, nature, deforestation, and reforestation.  We wanted to do this workshop before we started the project because we have to cut trees to clear the land for the construction.  However, we are going to use all of the trees that we cut to build the ranchon and playground equipment so it will not be wasted.   The people in Chola are very protective of their land, as it is the best resource that they have.  So we didn’t want to just go in and start cutting down trees and have people get upset.  They decided that I should do the workshop that Saturday during their all community meeting (good thing that I didn’t go to Mexico).
I just worked in the office the rest of the week, preparing my workshop and working on fundraising for the scholarship program.  I gave my gymnastics classes again on Wednesday afternoon and even more kids came.  I finally had to make a cut off because it is too hard to teach 15 five year olds gymnastics in Spanish with no equipment in a tiny little room, but I appreciate the interest.
That Friday was a national holiday, Dia de la Revolucion, so my office was closed.  Marlin lent me her internet modem so that I could work on my presentation at home.  I was enjoying the morning, drinking coffee and working in my pajamas when I heard someone knock on my fence, I don’t really have a door.  I thought about ignoring it but they kept knocking so I went out to see who it was.  It was the COCODE from Chola!  Since the office was closed they just came to find me at my house (totally normal right).   I was so embarrassed to be caught in my pajamas.
It turns out that wanted to get started on clearing the land and cutting the trees we needed for the project the next day so they need money to put gas in the chainsaw.  It was a good thing because it showed how interested they are in the project and in starting right away, but I wish that people here used phones more often, rather than just showing up at someone’s house.
That afternoon Mary and I were invited to the church service to bless the graduates from the middle school in Uspantán, INEB.  The school is not religious, but the society is so every special event also requires a church service.  It was actually a beautiful service and several of the students took active roles in the service, reading lectures ect…  Afterwards all of the teachers from the school met at a local restaurant for a snack of tamales and tea and to celebrate finishing the year.  It was fun and a good chance to get to know everyone better (although now that the year is over I won’t see them as much.)  Anyways it was nice to be included.
The next day was Saturday, the day of my big presentation.  I was nervous because the presentation was for between 300 and 400 people, one of my biggest crowds so far.  We met in their community salon and the meeting was already in session when I arrived.  All of the women sat on one side of the salon and the men on the other.  Everyone seemed bored and they were having side conversations while one of the COCODE members talked about a project to fix the road.
When they finished that point, they let me go next.  The community is indigenous K’iche so I did my introduction in K’iche, which caught their attention.  Then I did an example activity of the benefits of tourism with a group of volunteers.  Finally I talked about the costs and benefits of deforestation and reforestation and explained our project.  Every listened attentively the entire time.  I think that they were shocked that I was there and that I was speaking to them in Spanish.  When I finished they gave me a warm round of applause.  It felt great and I believe that all of the community members are supportive of the project.
This doesn’t quite catch me up to today, but it is already so long and so much has been happening that I just wanted to post something.  Hopefully I will get the second installment out soon.


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