Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another hilarious update from my Muni

Apparently, my Muni isn’t above bouncing checks – some of my coworkers were unable to cash their November back wages because of insufficient funds.

I heard an interesting, probably exaggerated story about the timing in which payment was made last week. Apparently there were two checks, one for October wages and another for November, and only the former was issued to employees at 11 AM on Christmas Eve, which gave people only an hour to cash it before the bank closed at noon. Employees were then told to pick up the November check later, by which time the bank had already closed.

Whether or not I’m repeating a rumor is sort of beside the point; today, the banks aren’t closed and people have their checks but there’s no money to back them. It’s shrewd but in reality it’s just another stalling tactic – issue the check and deflect Muni fault by associating non-payment with the bank. Clever.

What really sucks is that necessity is encouraging some people to cash their checks with loan sharks – the local fee is 10%.

So – some people at my Muni are still 3 months behind in wages (November, December and the Christmas Bonus) because there isn’t any more money coming in for a while.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Woot woot! It’s Christmas!

Once again, tamales are the go-to delicacy here in Guatemala, although my host mom made some last night that took the flavor to a new level. Raisins, prunes, olives, peppers, free-range chicken (gallina criolla) and cornmeal, slathered in a molé type sauce and wrapped up in a palm frond – so tasty. Oh, and the guy enjoying a tamale next to me? That’s my host brother, and no, he’s not a vicious gangster. (really, he’s a great guy!)

Last night, we ate two tamales each for Christmas Eve dinner, then another before bed; local tradition includes hugs at midnight, wishings of feliz navidad and then a final stuffing of yourself with however many more tamales you can muster. Me, I can always oblige my hosts, foreign or domestic, on eating games that involve me showing how much I appreciate the local cuisine. Bring it (the food) on. Lol.

I shared some food too, a big gingerbread cake that I decided to bake and share with host family, friends, coworkers and neighbors as my own little North American tradition.

The whole experience, from mixing and baking the cake in a giant oven at the local panaderia, to walking through the streets of my town and sharing it with all my acquaintances, was pretty fun. I was glad to have something to share with people.

Back a few weeks ago, I went to Xela and bought some Betty Crocker pre-mixed magic in a box. Xela, By the way, is everyone’s slang for Quetzaltenango, which is the nearest big city with a Hiper Paiz, Walmart’s unfortunate (but convenient!) excursion into Guatemala – it’s the only place where you can find stuff like gingerbread, crunchy peanut butter, boxer shorts and normal pillows. Anyway, so once I had the ingredients I needed for my “cultural contribution”, my host mom suggested that I go see an old coworker of hers who quit working in the Muni budget office about 5 years ago (I wonder why) and took up baking instead.

Entering the tableau was fascinating ... I’ve always liked bread and baking, so it was awesome to witness Guatemalan baking firsthand. Of course, it was funny watching the family watch me, acting polite at first, definitely a bit wary about this seemingly amicable foreigner who waited patiently for room on the mixing table and space in the oven. But soon enough the kids got curious and then excited, after having tasted both the cake batter and icing, knowing that I was going to share.

Gotta let the cake cool, kids….(so cute).

So yeah! That was my little Christmas offering to my community, and I’m pretty happy with the way everything turned out. Everyone thought it was muy sabroso, and those who missed out demanded to know why (I ran out plain and simple; I must have cut that cake in over 50 pieces). I hope everyone else out there is having a good time!

P.S. My Muni FINALLY paid its employees yesterday, at the 11th hour. With checks coming out on Christmas Eve, there was barely enough time for people to cash their checks and buy tamale ingredients. Yet the score isn’t settled; my coworkers are still owed two MORE months of salary, given December and the aguinaldo (holiday bonus) of a month’s wages that is customary here.

People were getting pretty worked up earlier this week – apparently there were demonstrations with bullhorns and declarations of public hunger, but I was at a conference in a nearby town and missed it. I called my security advisor at the Peace Corps and asked him if I should be worried; he said this happens every year. “Mayors here in Guatemala”, he said, “often don’t have the education necessary to follow a budget, so they blow their finances in the first 10 months and everyone gets mad at the end of the year when there’s no money to pay employees. But it hardly ever gets violent.”

Uhh, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

State of siege

Here's another news link to the ongoing "turf war" between the Zetas and the Guatemalan government - some volunteers I know were getting evacuated today:

Christmas in the Boca Costa!

It’s December 21st and I barely recognize that Christmas is right around the corner, this Saturday. I have plans to make tamales with my host mom for Christmas Eve, special sweet tamales that have meat and raisins and all sorts of special goodies. She likes to brag about them, and given the food she’s cooked for me thus far (fiambre on the Day of the Dead, plus assorted stews and meals when her children come to visit) I suspect that she’s probably not exaggerating.

I’m not really cognizant of the season because all my normal indicators are missing – darkness, Christmas carols, snow, storefront displays and a vague feeling of common identity with the people around me. It might as well be March, April, July or September, if you ask me – the weather is warm, people don’t behave like Americans, there are banana trees on the hillsides and the tinny drone of cheap Christmas lights playing casiotone melodies wafts up from the marketplace and doesn’t stop, repeating and repeating all day long – these things don’t make me think of Christmas.

Some factors seem even less obvious – the simple houses of my neighborhood don’t really evoke an American Christmas, for example, with their wooden boards, tin roofs and bright paint. The trinkets available in the crowded market stalls aren’t recognizable either, and neither are the culinary treats for sale. The holiday hustle and bustle seems neutral through a lens of different skin colors, languages, clothing, body language and eye contact . . . maybe it’s just another national celebration that I don’t understand yet. I also realized that I won’t be wandering around a mall this year, absently looking for gift inspiration – I had to plan all my presents three weeks ago, via internet mail order and the plodding Guatemalan postal system.

Some volunteers feel the same way I do, like we’re not really missing Christmas. We tell ourselves that with all the regular holiday stimuli absent, it’s easy to miss. At the same time, it’s likely that we’re still starstruck with the novelty of new surroundings, which I’m fine with. From trash piles in the street to jungle plants hanging above the road as it winds into the valley, a bright red sun through the afternoon clouds and a million little salutations to townsfolk who stare when I walk by, I’m still excited to be here.

To be honest, thanksgiving felt a little more urgent, actually – I really knew that I wanted to be with Americans last month, sharing food and feeling lavish, relaxing in familiar surroundings. Meanwhile, I’m perfectly content that I’ll spend this Christmas in a way that will probably be quite uneventful (although I’m sure the tamales will be incredible.)

p.s. here’s a picture of me with a baby goat:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


A state of martial law has been declared in north central Guatemala, in the department of Alta Verapaz:

Thankfully, I live nowhere near this area. However, Peace Corps volunteers are getting evacuated right now, and will be relocated for at least the next two weeks....crazy, right?

Monday, December 13, 2010


Last week was an especially good week, although I forgot to mention why. On Wednesday I completed my first self-initiated project for my office, the FODA (also known as a SWOT analysis in English). I didn’t consider writing about the exercise until today, when we were riding through sunshine and over a bumpy dirt road, with lush tropical plants and Tajamulco off in the distance (it’s the tallest volcano in Central America). Frequently, I have to remind myself what I’m doing and where I live; here it’s almost Christmas and daytime temperatures are in the 80’s.

Anyway, so the FODA is an acronym that stands for Fortalezas, Oportunidades, Debilidades and Amenazas. Translated, that’s Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses and Threats, which is why the English version is known as a SWOT. It’s a pretty straightforward exercise, meant to be a reflection of an organization’s weak and strong points, self-identified through a facilitation session that allows all responsible parties to not only acknowledge the group’s organizational state but also identify avenues for improvement. The operational phrase is, “how can we take advantage of our strengths and opportunities, while using them to counter our weaknesses and avoid our threats?”

It’s a cool exercise. As facilitator you provide a series of pointed questions for each category, asking your group to consider their own situation and identify the character of their organization. Meanwhile, you record their responses on a piece of butcher paper. Once all 4 categories have been explored, you review the brainstorm and solicit ideas on how group members think they can optimize their current situation with available resources. Really, it’s just a way to get people to reconsider their own environment, putting old problems in a new light and eliciting discussion. In addition, it helped that my outsider perspective made my question asking and facilitation seem natural, as I don’t really know what’s going on in my office, not yet.

Bottom line is, no matter how operationally flawed my Muni might be (internet is still out, employees are still two months behind on wages), I can still facilitate trainings like these and get people thinking. That’s the hope anyway.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Today I feel like talking about drunks.

Yes, Guatemala has drunks – I think we can acknowledge that alcoholism is a universal disease, and that just like any country in the world, my little hilltop town in Western Guatemala has its share of alcoholics. That part, about drunks existing in Guatemala like they do in the United States, that part shouldn’t surprise me. What is it then, that is so striking to me when I see people passed out in the street?

I guess it’s the degree to which people seem to get drunk here, barefoot and staggering with a look that can’t tell whether the sun is rising or setting. Or maybe it’s their public presence, which seems strikingly large for a town of 6,000. On that note, the police definitely have bigger fish to fry here, as the average inebriate begging for a tortilla or a quetzal (12 cents) is far less of a problem than the drug violence in this region – in the nearby town of Malacatan, about 1.5 hours away, a famous soccer player was found cut up in 6 pieces about two weeks ago. So unless the drunks are wielding machetes in a rage, most seem to get a stumbling pass.

Other times I wonder if it has to do with despair, given that the daily wage for a migrant laborer picking coffee is around $7.

The bottom line is that I’m in a different culture (and witnessing a different community response to alcoholism). I deal with drunks the way my counterparts do, evenly and patiently, waiting for the inevitable request (“Profe, regaleme un quetzalcitoporfa….”) and then I’ll demur. Meanwhile, it blows my mind to see these people later on,dead to the world, wet-their-pants passed out with a smile on theirface. All people do is walk by, and that’s what I’m supposed to do – which is crazy because I can’t remember the last time I saw someone that drunk in public.

Today – I swear to you – I saw a man passed out with his cheek flattened against the pavement. Most of his body was crumpled up on the sidewalk, but his upper torso spilled over the curb and pushed his face against the street. He actually looked dead. People just walked by like it was natural, playing their roles as Upright Citizens while he played his of the Town Drunk, like they’d all wake up tomorrow and repeat the show for foreigners who gape on their way home.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Political Manuevering

Today, pushing through a surging throng and probably due to the fact that I’m obviously foreign, I got my picture taken with the First Lady of Guatemala, Sandra Colom:

It was blatant, but why not? I might as well get myself some souvenirs while I’m here.

At any rate, Mrs. Colom visited my town this afternoon to promote the benefits offered by Mi Familia Progresa, a social program she administers. At this stage, the initiative provides a simple handout of either 150 or 300 quetzales (+/- $20 and $40) to needy families, depending on the age of their children. It seemed like a pretty straightforward political maneuver, providing support for her husband’s left leaning political party GANA (“win” in Spanish), which is obviously looking to promote its candidates for both local and federal elections next year. Meanwhile, I was pretty interested in the circumstances resulting from the day’s activities.

For one, citizens took it upon themselves to decorate the streets of my town, (even though she arrived by helicopter). I walked out of my house and found my front gate covered in streamers and balloons, along with most of the rest of the street below me.

After speaking with some women on my street, I learned that people from nearby villages did it all themselves, forming committees, contributing funds from their meager wages and arriving at 6 AM to make everything festive. What’s more, they did it without the help of my Muni - given that my mayor is of the opposing political party Partido Patriota, she didn’t even bother to show up at today’s speech. Of course, that didn’t stop her from submitting three separate requests for project funding to the First Lady, but that’s politics … which … I’m learning can be pretty fierce here. Take a look at the following picture:

Yeah, there are lots of balloons, and yes, that’s my counterpart, but look at his shirt – the orange accents are the color of Partido Patriota, which my mayor decided to integrate into the municipal uniform, which is what he’s wearing. He and I walked into the schoolyard together, waited with the masses for about an hour and then I was amazed to witness him getting kicked out because of his shirt – the security guard had no problem telling him that it “might give people the wrong idea” and he’d need to leave or change his clothing. Needless to say I was kinda flabbergasted, as I’ve never seen political oppression like that before. We left without a fuss but I returned about a half hour later, seeing that my shirt was a non-threatening color. Then I proceeded to get my little photo memoir.

All things considered, I can now say that I appreciate nice free speech a little bit more than before.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I guess I'm not surprised....

Watching an unforeseen evangelical service unfold in front of my office today, on International AIDS day, I smirked at myself for having been so confident. Obviously I still have no idea what’s going on in my community, let alone what people think or whether they’re just humoring me. The AIDS/HIV workshop I’d been planning definitely wasn’t going to happen, and for more reasons than the Christian rock, dancing children and sing-alongs blaring through my window.

First off, let me clarify that I’m not disappointed. I actually saw this coming two weeks ago, back during the planning processes. Once I verbalized it, describing the possibility during a phone conversation, I realized that a failure to launch was A: probably inevitable and therefore B: definitely not worth fighting. So I shrugged my shoulders, planned the workshop, wrote the budget, requested the funds and waited for a response. Which never came, not directly anyway.

I started back at the beginning of November, working with a set of pre-elaborated activities provided by the Peace Corps. I patiently introduced the exercises to the ladies of the Municipal Women’s Office (OMM), intending to facilitate their proper ownership of the workshop. We took our time, read everything over, picked out an agenda they liked, and had everything ready – all we needed, theoretically, was about $6 to buy butcher paper, markers, tape and make some copies. It seemed fail-safe; how hard would it be to get 51Q approved for a politically savvy event on an international day of recognition? Why wouldn’t my mayor approve this?

Well, she wasn’t around to approve it – that was problem #1. She’s sort of chronically non-present at times, which makes it hard to get a straight answer (The Muni is also destitute, as I’ve noted previously) However, a local Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called Vision Mundial had suggested that we put on a lavish AIDS-prevention event for Dec. 2nd, which would be a day late but still meaningful. Politically speaking, it makes perfect sense to throw your weight behind one activity rather than two, especially if an international organization with deep pockets is putting on a big show with clowns, condoms, t-shirts and refreshments for 200. So I understand why my little baby workshop didn’t materialize, I just think it’s both funny and instructive how plans can mutate and how that reflects on my “capacity for change” (as a Peace Corps volunteer) . I’m still helping out with tomorrow’s event, anyway…

Yet the crowning moment came when I arrived at work today and saw a sign praising Jesus next to some plastic chairs and a stage made of rough-hewn boards and cinder blocks. Someone at the Muni had authorized a big celebration. I was, of course, clueless, so I strolled into the comedor where I eat breakfast and asked my counterpart what was going on. He snorted in surprise, and replied indignantly that we obviously weren’t going to get any work done today (Ha! Even HE didn’t know what was going on!)

On a completely unrelated note, the Muni stopped paying its bills because the internet got shut off about a week ago. Some people that it might get turned back on this month, maybe not…

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Turkey and friends

This year’s Thanksgiving was awesome.

Being here, in Guatemala and away from family, friends, English, a familiar culture and things like pumpkin pie filling (it’s hard to find here), spending the holiday with 15 other Peace Corps volunteers in a tiny little town up in the Guatemalan highlands felt really good. We really did it up, two nights and days with three turkeys, 20 more guests at dinner, plus mountain of side dishes including all the classics – mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, roasted carrots, homemade stuffing, cornbread, buttermilk rolls, pecan pie, brussels sprouts, etc. It almost felt decadent.

At this point, I have to laugh and figure that anyone reading this blog is reassessing their preconceptions about Peace Corps hardship – yes, this isn’t rural Africa, and yeah, we definitely have stuff to be thankful for. We don’t eat sorghum three meals a day, live in mud huts or do our own lab tests**. MOST people have running water here, and there are microwaves. I’m writing on a laptop right now. My cellphone works great, the mail is only kind of slow. Sure, Guatemala is a developing country with appalling malnutrition rates, ever-present violence and some really sad poverty and structural oppression, but most volunteers are safe and live comfortably. I’m convinced that everyone sleeps in a bed or otherwise by choice, and we have incredible health care. The stipend, while amounting to around $300 a month, is….enough. Most of the time. Regardless, the truth is we’ve got it pretty good; these facts evoke a twinge of guilt or maybe some redoubled thankfulness in light of a huge Thanksgiving feast.

It also felt good just to remember that we give thanks as a country; so often, here buried in a foreign context, I feel like I’m forgetting the nuances of my own culture. I don’t think about Thanksgiving much during the year, except when it’s November and tradition reminds me to be with family and friends. So often, I can’t remember all the stimuli and social currents and history that makes me cringe or laugh or behave the way I do, whether I’m in the States or elsewhere.

But yesterday, sitting at a long table and watching Guatemalans welcoming us into their home, embracing our culture and giving heartfelt speeches about thankfulness, I remembered why we eat turkey and fall asleep watching football together and it felt like home.

Here’s some highlight photos:

** If you serve as a volunteer in up-country Togo, you’re trained to call in the lab results on your own sample…..just provide it, administer the pH strip and read the results off to your nurse via telephone and he/she’ll conjecture what’s ailing your digestive tract. Yeah. Now that’s a tough place to do Peace Corps.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Making Things Happen

I went for a ride in the countryside today, which was really pretty.

I also got a chance to learn about the way my municipality handles infrastructure projects out in the rural parts of San Marcos (that’s the department I live in; consider it Guatemala’s equivalent of a U.S. state).

A update about my municipality – I previously mentioned that its employees are due some significant back pay. This could be due to a number of factors that I won’t elaborate on, but I want to note that our treasury cut checks for a month’s pay last Thursday. However, it’s incredible to note that the recent payments have brought the municipality up to just two months of back wages due to its employees, not three. Staff dissatisfaction has quieted down a bit, although many had to use their entire check to repay debts that have been accruing since August.

At any rate, this brings me to the municipality’s self-proclaimed lack of funding, which clashes with the very real need for infrastructure projects within its associated villages and remote settlements. For many citizens, the most visible problem is road conditions. There are some really poor roads here – this is probably the best picture/worst road combination I got from today:

This picture doesn’t do justice; be assured that you wouldn’t want to go much more than 5 mph on most country roads here.

Good news is, the men in the picture are busy with repairs. The guy with the baseball cap, who I’d never met, is a local villager who’s been resurfacing the road during the past few months, contracted by the Municipality to repair particular spots at $1.50 a square meter. Materials are provided by the Muni and delivered by truck; the villager does the dirt work manually and positions each stone by hand.

Meanwhile, the two guys on the right are my counterparts at the Municipality, and they’re evaluating his work, calculating the area of his repair patches and tallying up the measurements. Here’s another picture:

That’s me, walking over what the villager claimed to be a new patch; unfortunately, the whole inspection turned mildly ridiculous when it became clear that no one could prove what had actually been repaired. Neither party had thought to take pictures or mark the spots needing work beforehand. Now, after the job was finished, billing evolved into a confrontation between the villager’s word and municipal skepticism. The three of them bickered while I took pictures and listened to a monkey screeching in the trees above us. We spent an hour in an walking dispute about the quality, length, width and actual existence of the villager’s work. Overheard:

“Here’s another new spot I worked on”
“That spot’s not new. There’s grass growing there.”
“That grass just grew in the last three months!”

Anyway, so it’s unclear how much the villager will get paid or whether he should get paid at all. I just wish that roads out here looked like this:

Unfortunately, mudslides, a lack of road construction equipment (plate compactors, backhoes, etc.) torrential rains, and an absence of expertise make sturdy roads in the countryside somewhat rare (many roads out here are “planned” by people who have no formal training).

But yeah, it’s gorgeous, obviously. Here’s a waterfall we saw today; these kids were fishing in the pool below.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A perfect example

Ha! I couldn’t resist writing a follow up to yesterday’s post….

So – one of the main reason why I realized that people were getting paid to do nothing is that I’m doing an organigrama for my municipality – an organizational chart. Peace Corps suggests the project for Muni volunteers during their first 3 months, as it’s simple and helps conceptualize work flow/responsibility, while giving us an opportunity to learn everyone’s name, face and position. It’s pretty straightforward.

Anyway, I liked the project and decided to start it last week. I printed up some respectable-looking slips of paper, gave them to anyone claiming to be an employee and asked them three simple questions: Name, Position and What Do You Do For The Municipality? You can see an example below:

For those of you who can’t read Spanish, the reason I’m including Rafael’s response is because his position is “without a name since the Neighborhood Registry disappeared (sic)” and he is “waiting for a new title to help the institution continue forward.” Dude is on the payroll but does nothing - this is exactly the sort of bizarre employment limbo I was trying to describe yesterday. So when he returned my little questionnaire this morning, all nicely typewritten and without the slightest bit of irony, I figured I had to share.

Where am I supposed to put this guy on the organigrama? Lol.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

misbehavior at the Muni

Today I want to talk a little bit about the convoluted employment structure here at my Municipality. Apparently, there are a number of people on our payroll who do absolutely no work. Literally. They simply stand around the front steps, jabbering and shaking hands with each other, asking me for English lessons or confirmations of stories they’ve heard about the United States (I always oblige). The thing is, I just thought they had nothing better to do. I never questioned their earnest presence, wacky clothing or friendly manner – I’ve only been here two weeks and I just thought they just wanted to hang out. It really didn’t occur to me why they showed up everyday. Then someone explained it to me: they’re paid to be here. At the same time, whether they or anyone here actually does any work isn’t really an issue, given that my Municipality is apparently two months behind schedule in wages. But I’ll get to that later.

Basically, there are non-working people on our payroll because a bunch were fired without due process, but in an interesting twist, are still required to show up for work. The way I hear it, one guy was a horrendous drunk, coming into the office inebriated and missing at least 15 days of work, but he was simply dismissed and noone had thought to document his actions, to construct a written record that would validate his firing. So now he hangs around our office, a bloodshot eye and a bellicose voice, making asinine comments and smiling frequently.

Another employee, only recently returned to the office, supposedly slept with a town council member. Her husband eventually burst into the Muni to confront the Lothario and it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Of course, she was savvy enough to realize that the circumstances definitely didn’t merit her being fired, and that a trip to the Ministry of Labor and a few complaints would get her what turned out to be two months vacation at full pay. Now she’s back at her old desk with a sheepish look, readjusting to work while just sitting around or surfing the web.

A third guy apparently didn’t do anything wrong, but was victimized by some “corporate reorganization.” Two administrations ago, which would be sometime in the early 2000’s, our buddy had a job running the municipal warehouse. Everything was working out fine – he showed up for work on time, did his job and made everyone happy. One day, however, someone decided to close the warehouse down, which posed a problem seeing that our buddy’s title stipulated, unequivocally, that he was the municipal warehouse manager. Hence, he’s on the payroll (and will remain there) until there’s a warehouse to run.

Ok, that last story sounds completely nuts, but I swear I asked my co-worker for clarification a couple of times just to make sure it wasn’t my Spanish.)

Anyway, so people are getting paid to stand around. I don’t get it. As for the unpaid wages, I guess my mayor is neck deep in a bunch of different projects and owes money all over the place; my sense is that she didn’t take a very organized approach to budgeting.

And on a completely separate note, I saw a cockroach crawling on the inner lip of a hot water thermos in my house today. First I was shocked, then amused – I’ve drunk significant amounts of instant coffee made from that thermos.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

not what's on the birth certificate

Here’s a photo of me from this morning’s meeting, where I’m introducing myself (and looking ridiculous) to representatives from community organizations around my municipality. Also, if you zoom in like 100x you can tell that I have officially changed the spelling of my name (Gretj, this one’s for you):

The nametag I wore to today’s community meeting read:

Lic. Yastin Hargesheimer

(Lic = Licensiado, which is Guatemalan for Bachelor’s degree… formally refer to people and their university degree here, like it’s part of your official title – a number of people stood up and talked about “gracias al licensiado Yastin por venir a nuestro comunidad…..” )

I switched from “Justin” to “Yastin” because most Guatemalans can’t pronounce my name and this new version sounds kinda similar: YAH-steen. (ok, so it doesn’t sound similar at all). It’s fine. Meanwhile, some volunteers have changed up completely as they’d gotten tired of listening to Chapines (Guatemalans) butcher their names, but I’d rather have an weird name than have to remember that I’m “Oscar” for the next two years.

Also - today I realized that my name has been different at each point I’ve spent significant time in a foreign country.

Age 6-8, Central America – Justin (pronounced like it reads in Spanish: who-STEEN …. It’s a solid name, and I guess I could have used it again but it sounds too young or something)

Age 22, living in Italy – Giustino (Italianicized and diminutived by my host family, the Antoniuccis: pronounced joo-STEEN-oh)

Age 24, traveling in South America – Justo (new Spanish update, frequently paired with “Profe” since I was teaching English most of the time. Funny cuz my name literally means “just”. Pronounced: WHO-stoh)

Age 31, Peace Corps’in it up in Guate – Yastin (latest Spanish update; whatever, it sounds fine: YAH-steen)

The name changes have gotta be an age specific thing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Settling in

I’ve been in my site for about a week now, and as could be expected, the realization that I’ll be here for the next two years feels surreal. Don’t get me wrong - I’m enjoying myself so far. It’s nice here and I feel comfortable. However, there are times when I have to simply stop and take a second to slow everything down. Some moments I’ll settle into a chair and become quiet, gazing at the yellow paint on my wooden walls and thinking about nothing, just absorbing my surroundings. When I’m sitting still like this, I think it’s my brain trying to bring my new life into perspective. I’ll lie on the couch and stare out the glass slats and metal bars encasing the side window of my house, through the spiny foliage and the garden, up at the sky. Maybe I’ll fall asleep, or maybe I’ll just lie there, but I’m taking something in, whether consciously or subconsciously. It’s probably about the two years, obviously. It’s going to take me a while to understand what two years really means.

Also, I have this profound feeling about Guatemalans I meet here, in the tiny shop where I buy my 5 gallon jug of purified water or the humble diner where I eat my three meals, at the municipal office where I work or on bus rides to the provincial capital of San Marcos. I can’t help but recognize, probably much more than they do, that we’re – well, that we’re going to be close. It’s inevitable. In a town of 2,000 (not the 6,000 I was originally told) I’m going to know everyone. Everyone, of course, is also going to know me, but I doubt that they really realize or believe that I’ll actually be here for two whole years. This is the concept I’ve been reeling with lately, in a mild-yet-pleasantly-awestruck sort of way.

I feel similar to when I met the rest of my Peace Corps training class back in early August. Before leaving for Guatemala, we left our respective corners of the United States and converged on Washington D.C. for a brief pre-departure orientation. Then it would be off to Guatemala. That morning, as I walked through the hotel lobby to our scheduled meeting place, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I remember this electrified feeling, knowing that without exaggeration, I might, at any moment, see someone or walk next to someone who very well could be part of the rest of my life. I had heard that Peace Corps friendships were for life, and that seemed pretty straightforward; people sharing two years together in a complicated, vivid experience would depart with some pretty meaningful bonds. And now, just like then, I know that the people I’m surrounding myself with, whether Peace Corps volunteers or Guatemalans, will be an unforgettable part of the rest of my life. And that’s a crazy feeling! Hardly ever do you meet someone and know how important they’re going to be. But just like walking into that nondescript conference hall back in D.C. where I met my training class for the first time, I walk through the steep, cobblestone streets of my site with a premonition. And not surprisingly, I smile a lot and try to make a good impression with my new neighbors, knowing that we’re going to be spending a prettttttty good deal of time together.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Clarification ("what is it you're doing there, exactly?")

Ok! So I graduated last week and now I’m living near the Mexican border with a bunch of quetzals in a dirty little jungle town next to a marimba school. I’m now an official volunteer in the “Municipal Development” program and I gave some speech to the US ambassador and ate a crazy salad last Monday while flying a kite in the graveyard. A lot has been happening lately. There have been plenty of changes. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever is reading this has no idea what’s going on, so allow me to eloooocidate.

Last Friday I completed the official Peace Corps training program. When I arrived in Guatemala on August 11th back almost 3 months ago, I wasn’t a volunteer quite yet. Strictly speaking, I was only a “trainee”, which is exactly what it sounds like. I had to learn what the Peace Corps was all about. And after 11 weeks of classes, trainings, practicum, field trips, language lessons and orientations, I am now an actual, bona fide and official Peace Corps volunteer in the tradition that began 49 years ago with the administration of John F. Kennedy. (Note: you can bet that for the 50th anniversary next year, we’ll have a big ol’ celebration)

Now – here’s what being a volunteer, or more specifically, a Municipal Development volunteer, is all about:

First off, I’ve been assigned to a town where I’m going to live for the next two years. Like I said, it’s in far Western Guatemala. Now, while living in this town, I will have two main goals. The first one is to work with the Municipal Planning Office, or “DMP”, which roughly equates to a planning office for a United States county. The second is to work with community groups throughout the county called COCODES, which translate as “Community Development Councils.”

Now, while working in this county planning office, which is responsible for all sorts of public infrastructure (potable water, street paving, drainage systems, the building of schoolhouses and community halls) I will be working to improve operational and organizational processes. What does that mean, exactly?

It means that I’ll be sharing my work experience as a professional in the United States. That would include things like: showing up for work on time, staying on task, creating a planning calendar, establishing work priorities or taking advantage of existing software. For example, I taught my co-workers how to do a mail merge on Tuesday. Before then they’d do mailings by inputting every name manually, but now they can link Excel files with Word documents and save themselves hours of work. It’s not all like that though; I’ll eventually be doing more advanced stuff later on, like analyzing the Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats of the office (this is called a S.W.O.T.), assisting with the annual operating plan and encouraging transparency and communication with the public, but there are plenty of ways in which my help can be really straightforward.

As for the “Community Development Councils,” (COCODES) I’m just going to try and make sure that they’re organized. What I mean is that people out in the Guatemalan countryside often lack a good deal of formal education, with maybe just a few years of elementary school. Many reside in tiny, remote villages but still need all the “accouterments” of civilization that everyone does– clean water, electricity, medical services, schools, sanitation facilities, navigable roads and so on. These people recognize their needs and form subsequent community groups, with the intent to bring public infrastructure improvements to their town through petitions and solicitations to the Municipal Planning Office. However, their efforts aren’t always as organized as they could be, and that’s where I come in. Over the next couple months I’ll do some meet and greets with COCODE leaders in the area, and at some point I’ll probably start visiting certain communities to give a series of workshops on self-organization. On each visit I’ll highlight a subsequent step of the process, starting with the identification of community needs (this is also known as a Community Diagnostic), then do a needs prioritization, followed by assistance with the formulation of a work plan and budget, and finally, help with the filing of an official appeal for assistance with the Municipal Planning Office or another funding source.

Basically, I hope to get these people a little more clout with their elected and appointed officials, or help them find people or $$ to improve their community. And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to help them execute some of these projects.

Does that make sense? Let me know if I didn’t explain it well enough.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dia De Los Muertos…..

I’m not going to write a comprehensive entry trying to explain the Guatemalan Day of the Dead, because I know I’d leave out plenty of important details. Hence, I’m mostly just going to talk a little bit about fiambre:

This is what some Guatemalans eat on Dia De Los Muertos. It’s a salad. Yes, the picture is slightly out of focus. Anyway, to borrow the words of my friend Carmen, most Guatemalans do three things on Dia De Los Muertos:

1. Eat salad
2. Go to the cemetery
3. Fly kites

I only got to do parts 1 & 2, but I’m thrilled to have tried the salad (fiambre), which is a Conquistador throwback that comes out really expensive; it’s a “kitchen sink” of various ingredients. Mine had…artichoke hearts, radishes, lettuce, regular corn, baby corn, chicken, olives, three types of sausage, two types of cheese, pacaya (a local flower), hard boiled egg, beets, and I’m sure there was other stuff I’m forgetting. My new host mom hinted not-so-subtly that the ingredients cost 600 quetzals, or $70, which is pretty much an astronomical figure to spend on one meal in this country (so I bought 6 liters of soda to share)

Fiambre is tasty! The whole thing is seasoned with vinegar and stained purple due to the beets. I would definitely eat it again.

We also went to the cemetery to lay flowers at the mausoleum of my absent host father, who passed away around 10 years ago.

My host momma is already talking about how there’s a spot all ready for her; there seems to be a lot less anxiety about death in this culture. The whole community hangs out at the cemetery during the Dia De Los Muertos, it’s like a country fair down at the graveyard. Good times!

And here’s an awesome sunset from my backyard:

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I’m a Peace Corps volunteer now! Officially!

This is awesome, of course, given the amount of time and effort it’s required thus far. Friday began with a ceremony at the ambassador’s house, and we went out for the obligatory celebration in Antigua that night (I’ve attached pictures). The following is the speech that I gave:

(adlibbed joke) Some people asked me if I’d forgotten my speech this morning, and I told them that I’d remembered it, thankfully. Of course, I could have given the speech in the grand Alaskan tradition of simply writing the notes on my hand, but that wasn’t necessary.

So good morning to everyone – on behalf of my training class, I’d like to acknowledge a number of people. First of all, to Mr. Ambassador – an incredible thank you for receiving us in your house – it’s an honor to be here. As for the Peace Corps staff, I’ll begin by thanking Martha for our welcome here in Guatemala, for her patience and advice. To Wendy – your warmth and attention has been really accommodating. It’s inspiring to follow in your footsteps as Peace Corps Guatemala volunteers – I hope we measure up. To Craig – muchas gracias for your good humor and your outrageous stories. Whether it’s about carrying lamina in the rain, curious animals, growing a eucalyptus tree or that guy who lost his luggage when the tide came in, you’ve given us some excellent perspective. Be assured that we’ll be back in a few months with some stories of our own, and we can laugh it up some more.

Thanks to all our technical trainers and APCDs, to Carlos Julajuj, Salvador Morales y Flavio Linares - your support and direction has been indispensable. To our Spanish teachers – thanks a million. Puchica, I’d still be trying to “introducir” people to eachother if it wasn’t for Edoardo’s pity, kindness and direction. To our fantastic medical staff - we really appreciate your patience and attention to our well-being. To everyone else in the office, thanks for all that your contributions. And finally, I’d like to thank our host families in absentia, that they know how important they’ve been in our adaptation here in Guatemala.

I think I’ve covered all my bases at this point, so forgive me if I’m forgetting anyone. I’m going to shift the tone at this point, and take a few minutes to reflect on the remarkable experience that we’re about to begin, shortly. As Peace Corps volunteers, the next two years of our lives are going to be fairly crazy. Every single one of our days will be unpredictable and dramatic, full of secret joys and challenges that we never could have foreseen. It’s gonna be a rollercoaster ride, with plenty of highs and lows, but I’m pretty confident that it will be incredible. Why? Quite simply, there’ve been thousands of volunteers before us, and their enthusiasm and testimony has been nothing short of inspirational. So now, I wanna thank them, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who played an undeniable role in our formation. To my classmates, take a second and think about the RPCVs you’ve met in years past, the ones whose advice and enthusiasm urged you to where you stand today, about to pledge two years of your life in service. Do you remember their stories, their encouragement, their guidance? Maybe they taught you about camaraderie, or the vivid beauty of Peace Corps service. Maybe they helped you recognize the Peace Corps as a professional goal, or assured you that you were on the right track and had nothing to fear. For me, there was one RPCV’s advice in particular that was really meaningful. I met her only briefly, and I don’t even remember her name or country. She smiled while I fretted about leaving the U.S. for two years – I was worried about what I might miss while I was gone. When I trailed off she told me matter-of-factly, “Justin – you’re not going to miss ANYTHING. Two years isn’t that long, and nothing that happens in back in the U.S. while you’re away could ever take the place of this experience.”

And with that I had a great realization; U.S. life was always going to be more or less the same, but an amazing and brilliant experience was waiting for me somewhere else. And now, incredibly, it’s finally here, just about to begin. After years of dreaming and months of training, we are about to swear in and it feels exhilarating. Congratulations – I hope you remember this moment for the rest of your service and the rest of your lives. Be proud, love eachother, and go do good work for the people of Guatemala. Felicidades!

And with that, I’ve got nothing else to say, except thanks to the United States Government for making this possible.


Here's a copy of the oath I took - almost exactly the same as the marines, armed forces, etc.

Entering the gate to the ambassador's house

The ambassador's house is gorgeous; yes, that would be a pool, a tennis court AND a huge garden....

Two of my really good friends - Carmen on the left, Carolyn on the right

That would be Stephen McFarland, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala

Receiving my official volunteer certificate - Mr. Ambassador on my right, Carlos Julajuj (the Associate Peace Corps Director for the Municipal Development program, my immediate supervisor) to my immediate left, and on my far left, Martha Keays, Peace Corps Guatemala Country Director.

our entire training class - Food Security, Ag. Marketing and Municipal Development

Daniel made me make this funny face

We're official!

Going out....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

busy busy busy

Things have been kind of crazy this week – in the office with last minute trainings, reflection activities, wrapping a mountain of things up. Here’s some of my to-do list:

- get a haircut
- get a framed picture for my host family as a going away gift
- finish writing my speech for Friday
- complete my internship form for Georgia State
- take some stuff to the Laundromat
- go out to lunch tomorrow
- fold my clothes and pack my bags
- say goodbye to all my new besties in my training class
- and go have a whopping good time on Friday night.

Saturday morning I’m going to spend the day on chicken buses, riding across half of Guatemala so that I can arrive in site by Todos Santos (All Saint’s Day), which is the primary Halloween derivative here…..I’ll be spending the day with my host family at the cemetery, communing with old relatives….should be fun!

Here's some pictures from a hike we took in the forest near my old site (not where I'm going to be living from here on out) Barbecuin' meat on a stick yeah! Banana leaf plates you better believe it: