Monday, August 30, 2010

El Norte

I just saw a really great movie about Guatemala called “El Norte” – I sort of wish there was some sort of neutral Facebook application that you could use to flag books or movies, something providing an even-handed yet brief synopsis….. I guess I’m just going to try linking to the Wikipedia page…

anyway, it was a great movie, referencing the following themes:

- The Guatemalan civil war (which ended in 1996 after lasting more than 30 years, army-guerilla skirmishes and the atrocity of “desaparecidos”, people disappeared by the government…
- The dreams and perils of crossing the “frontera” (border) to “el norte”
- Appearance, reality and disillusionment re: working in the U.S.

It was pretty interesting. The Guatemalan scenes echoed my surroundings, indigenous languages punctuating the Spanish around us, strong religious imagery, mist and mountains, rural towns – the details seemed pretty realistic (although men don’t wear traditional clothing anymore, just the women)…..

I should note that the movie was especially striking because we finished it and walked out into the streets of Antigua, which is a remarkable juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Antigua is a gorgeous example of well-preserved colonial architecture that happens to be surrounded by three volcanoes (one is still active).

Yes, it makes for great pictures.

Yet because so many tourists visit, the place oozes money, and hordes of people try to get involved in the local economy. So you end up with street scenes of Guatemalans hawkingpolished magnets (“they’re volcanic rocks!”, he assured me) guides chasing after gringos to offer tours, children bellowing out prices for cheap clothing in the market…. Basically, our post-movie walk towards the bus station was a sobering reminder that the difficulties we’d seen onscreen weren’t so far from reality, wherein most Guatemalans eek out a living in their own country. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to think of the tourists that stroll about Antigua, casually deciding if and where and in what manner they’ll spend their wealth, admiring the picturesque plazas, buildings and cobblestones of a pretty little town that – don’t forget – is subtle (or not-so-subtle) evidence of how Spain came tocolonize the country and marginalize its citizens a few centuries back. Ahh, irony.

Anyway, the movie was worth watching – feel free to check it out if you can get your hands on a copy – the director is Gregory Nava.

Friday, August 27, 2010


sunshine on the not-presently-demonstrating-activity volcano

Misty mountain(hop)

that is an active volcano

view from my host family's rooftop (there are both orange and lime plants growing back there)

una chamusca en la cancha (a scrimmage on the field)

unripe coffee beans, preroast!

this is in my town

professional development training wheels

Today my group and I went to visit a Municipal Development volunteer at her site, in order to get prepared for our own impending site assignments – yes, I am also a “Muni”….

While I’ll be probably be working in an OMP (Office of Municipal Planning) for an as-yet-unknown “county” of Guatemala, this girl who we spent the day with, Ana, she works in an analogous office, the OMM (Municipal Office of the “mujer” or woman). Both the OMP and the OMM work on a variety of topics within the municipality, everything from infrastructure projects and community initiatives (more the former) to domestic violence claims and reproductive health classes (more the latter). How these work possibilities will pertain to me, I’m not sure – maybe I’ll work with both offices within my community. Really, it depends on where I’ll be living and what the work environment is like (are my coworkers motivated or unmotivated? Well supported financially and politically, or devoid of resources and marginalized? I’ll have no idea until I arrive).

Herein lies the beauty (and terror) of a Peace Corps assignment – it’ll really be up to me, as I understand, to navigate my way through the ambivalence that is inherent in volunteer service. Once training is finished (I’m currently 2 ½ weeks in), I’ll be assigned to a community and an office, then pretty much on my own. The resulting experience could be smooth sailing or completely dysfunctional, or anywhere in between. It all depends.

Sure, I’ll have to report to the Peace Corps main office periodically, submit proposals and reports every once in a while. Sure, I’ll have a counterpart with whom I’ll be working, a Guatemalan national who can help me identify, design and execute various projects. Sure, I’ll have completed 11 weeks of language and professional training (with which I’m pretty satisfied, I must say), formed significant personal/professional relationships with other Municipal Development volunteers in my class (with whom I can collaborate or consult), identified significant resources (including potential funding possibilities available through USAID) and understood the remarkable medical support provided by staff nurses …. but it’s just gonna be me out there. It’ll be just me and a desk, inside in a concrete box (an office?) surrounded by a lot of people that don’t speak my first language and behave with a completely different set of cultural norms. The Peace Corps office, the support, other volunteers….they could easily be hours distant, a chicken bus ride (or two) away.

(yes I have a cellphone and yes the coverage is good here and yes the Peace Corps has emergency/contingency plans)

It’s crazy, sure! But I’ve been excited about this for a while, and I’m still excited. I’m looking forward to how my experience develops. I think the next 26 ½ months will bring lots of surprises, as well as some incredible personal and professional opportunities, so I’m happy to be here.

la pereza (laziness)

I have to admit, I haven’t been that pilas (Guatemalan for “motivated”, “excited”, “inclined”, etc) to do any blogging lately. Sorry about that. One of my companeras got like 37 hits on her blog today and I was like man, if I put some time and energy into writing entries and uploading pictures (although it takes her like 45 minutes for around 10) maybe I’d beam like her.

Oh well.

Anyway, I just saw a slug on the wall of my bathroom (this is my last digression, then I’ll write about an actual topic of interest – it’s not that the slug was all that big, it’s just that … you just don’t see stuff like that too often)

My life as a Peace Corps trainee, just like my blogging, feels fairly disorienting. It’s like one half my mind is occupied with my 31 American colleagues and our training sessions, the gleeful joking and quick bonding, socializing punctuated by our earnest attention to the various classes we attend everyday. The rest of the time, I’m feel soaked in Guatemala, ogled by everyone in the street but comfortable with my family (already, thankfully, although maybe deceptively so….) – learning how to eat, drink, catch buses, tell jokes, sleep, play soccer, exclaim about things and watch telenovelas. So I feel like I’ve been getting settled in…..

what it is - cellphones in the Guate

We went to Antigua today to buy phones – what a mess of PC volunteers it was! There were like 8 of us pestering this clerk in the corner of the grocery store, clarifying and re-clarifying a phone system that’s still trickier with halting Spanish. A basic outline:

- The phone cost 200 Quetzals (20$), but it doesn’t come with minutes, so you have to buy a “recharge” card that puts minutes on your phone (I got one for 50 Qs)
- HOWEVER, since I was buying a new phone, a promotion got me 100 free Quetzals in addition to whatever my recharge card cost of 50 Qs. So I’m sitting pretty with 150 Qs of phone call time (1 minute call to the States= like 2.5 Qs?)
- My purchased minutes are gonna expire in two weeks, according to the following setup:
o 10 Q card expires in 3 days (!!)
o 25 quetzals – 7 days,
o 50 in 15 days, 100 in 30 days, blah blah
- so that’s weird HOWEVER
o I can still get calls even if my Qs run out and it won’t cost me anything(just the person calling)
o Phone calls from the US to my phone are like a dollar a minute.

So that has to be confusing enough for a layman, right? Ok, so listen to this:

Buying these recharge minutes is better on some days than others! Sometimes stores will advertise promociones where you buy a recharge card at any little tienda and you’ll get TRIPLE the Qs you spend (i.e. 75 Qs on yer phone in exchange for the 25 Qs you paid)…… HOWEVER if you make calls THE DAY YOU BOUGHT THE CARD it’ll cost you triple minutes (very tricky)

Here are some other things that are curious:

- apparentlyI can’t get phone calls from the States for three weeks because my company’s bandwith is ancient (?!?!) and it’ll take that long for U.S. companies to recognize the signal (don’t even ask)
- I might be getting gouged on phone calls home, since Alaska is occasionally considered an “exception” to the United States. Crazy yes but it has happened to me before.

This is all very exciting and yes I am now connected, but whatevs. Supposedly I’ll be doing a lot of texting because it’s the PC way, cheaper/more affordable for our pretty modest living allowance.

In other news, Antigua is shockingly full of tourists and I think that’s kind of boring but I know I’ll be wanting a plate of nachos in about 6 weeks so I’ll be back for sure.

from now until Novembah

So - I’m currently living in a small village near Antigua, which is nestled on the hillsides of a couple mountains and at least one volcano (there’s another one I can see from my host family’s rooftop). In the mornings, when the view is clear and mist isn’t wisping over the mountain tops, I can see how full the valley is, gorgeous green, verdant, patchworked with plots of land farmed with corn and vegetables and other crops I have yet to learn about. The edges of my new little town creep upwards on the hillsides as far as possible, and the land seems taken advantage of in a well-settled and ancient way. I like it here, but mostly because of my new host family.

There are 11 of us under this roof, counting me and not counting mi abuelo, who lives next door, or my great aunt and uncle, who live two doors down. This extended family is huge, I understand, something like 40-odd grandkids? It might even be more. Anyway, the centerpiece of this experience, for me anyway, is my host mom: a jolly, friendly, no-nonsense business woman and homemaker who is constantly smiling through her two missing front teeth. She’s awesome. Here’s some of the great stuff I’ve been both witness to and participant in since I got here just a few days ago:

- tamale making (I tied the tamales! also eating ‘em later, which were delicious in both pork and picante versions)
- street food vending (I hauled the ingredients! although I didn’t eat any cause I was already sick from other stuff I’d eaten – my fault)
- tapestry weaving (she finishes both sides, as is customary in this area, not just leaving strings hanging about on the other side – the extra effort makes a piece, as big as a full-sized Atlas, take 9 hour workdays for 2 whole months (!!)

Anyway, so she and her husband have six kids:
boy of seven
teenager of fourteen (another boy)
advanced teenager of….nineteen or twenty? (also male)
fourth male at around twenty four I think, while
the oldest male is late twenties, but he’s a special mention because his wife and son live in the room next to mine (we’re up to 10 people now, which brings us to the
eldest child, a woman of thirty (who’s not married)

So! It’s a full house, but I like it – people are always coming or going. Good Spanish practice, lots of jokes, and good times all around.

It is….pretty rustic. Open fires in the kitchen area, dirt floor in the toilet shack ( it sure looks like dirt) and the shower sure as hell doesn’t have warm water. My room is a concrete box, which is ok, but it seems a little damp thus far, given the current rainy season which will last until November I’m told. But whatevs! The people are nice here, so I’m happy.

They have chickens, which smell sort of bad, and also a pet rabbit! He gets wet when it rains though, poor thing, but they’re going to eat him at some point and that’s life in a cage I suppose more or less.

I need to sign off – it’s late and I have Spanish classes at 8 in the morning (but only until midday, and then I think we’re going to go get cell phones! I guess it only costs like 15 bucks to get a phone here)

Also – I got a haircut yesterday and it cost me less than 2 dollars. Yeah my hair is short again (the longer hair just wasn’t going to work out here in Guatemala)

Settling in

Ok, so I’m feeling a little calmer at this point, a little more at ease with writing journal entries that I’m going to post on the internet. It’s taken me a few days, a week in total I guess, to figure out what I want to say, and how I want to say it.

It’s not that I had anything groundbreaking to share, it’s just that I was worried about:

- professionalism (Peace Corps still has me scared of inadvertently writing stuff I’ll get browbeaten for, whether it’s a security concern, a relationship-jeopardizing rant that my future colleagues (i.e. Guatemalans) will Google, or just something that will land me in hot water with PC bosses, I wanted to make sure I had the content right
- overdoing it (I really can’t pull off a melodramatic tone because it doesn’t lend me, or I don’t lend it, any authority. Also it’s annoying to read.

I figured it’d be better to be as descriptive as possible, then I’d actually look forward to writing entries, and not reach for any type of meaningful commentary that would ultimately be amateurish (I’ll leave conclusions to the grad students – haha I’m a grad student!)