Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More on Field Based Training

So....the last few blog posts have been sporadic and a bit random. Thinking back, I’m noticing that I managed to evoke guns, cowboys and Field Based Training in some brief outbursts that, truthfully, are the result of not having my computer with me - I didn’t bring it with me to Chiquimula, a town of +/- 50,000 people in Eastern Guatemala where I spent last week.

It seemed like a good idea to leave my laptop locked up back at home with my host family. The other option was to lug it around or leave it in a strange hotel room, which, I should mention, seemed to overlook a daily street circus. Seriously, Chiquimula was a big change from the sleepy little town of 10,000 where I’m living right now. Maybe it was just the city size, or our hotel’s proximity to a huge open-air market, or the some cultural nuance emerging from the heat, dust, scantily clad women and the belt buckle/cowboy hat/gun combo, but it was vivid. The noise began at 4 AM with a construction worker and his sledgehammer, continuing until well after midnight with blaring ranchera music coming from shady customers at a nearby bodega. Exciting!

Furthermore, people in Eastern Guatemala primarily identify themselves as Ladino, and there is almost no visible Indigenous population (i.e. women don’t wear traditional dress, the bright, woven shirts and skirts called traje that you see everywhere here in the West). You can sense the differences immediately – men are more macho, women are more vocal, and people are more open. It’s a completely different Guatemala.

All in all, it was a great week, as our whole Municipal Development training group made the trek out East and the 16 of us pretty much took over our hotel. We got a per diem (I ate calzones, chicken parmesean sandwiches and pizza rolls every night), caught up on each other’s chisme (gossip), and spoke lots of English (to our Spanish teachers’ dismay). Of course, there was plenty of work – each day we visited a current Muni volunteer working in the region. We saw their offices (both big and small), met their Guatemalan counterparts (some didn’t exist), sat through interminable meetings (one was 5 hours no lie), saw their successes (one girl fundraised over 75,000 Qs for a library!), heard about their challenges (loneliness, frustration, pace of life) toured their apartments (some really nice digs!), helped with their projects (painted a jungle gym) asked questions (“how do I get my OWN place with an avocado tree?”) and basically learned about the realities of Peace Corps life.

It was a pretty interesting week, but now I’m just anxious to get my own site. October 14th is the official announcement date, when they’ll reveal exactly where I’ll be living for the next two years, but the exciting news is that my project coordinator gave me a general idea during a formal interview last week. He suggested that I’d be living somewhere in the far West, among the mountains below Xela (Quetzaltenango) and San Marcos.

We’ll see.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hurricanes and Hot Dogs

I just got back from Field Based Training and had my first Shuco (delectable street food: hit the link for a tasty looking photo + description)


In other news, a tropical storm is about to hit Central America and it is raining like the dickens right now....hopefully there won't be too many more road washouts and landslides. Peace Corps put us in Standfast again, which basically means that I can't leave my community until I get the all-clear text message from the office....oh well

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Ok, so you remember Romeo and Juliet? The movie version done by the Strictly Ballroom guy, with Leo and whatshername, set in Miami and full of color? Try and remember the one scene where a Montague (I can't remember which) goes off to confront a Capulet and Shakespeare's line has him referring to his sword, but the movie has him pull out an ornately designed handgun?

People rock guns like that here in Eastern Guatemala.

No joke - two nights ago, me and the guy I'm rooming with here during Field Based Training, we hit this pizza joint to get some tasty American food with our per diem. Walking out the door, and we see a guy with not one, not two, but THREE handguns. These are beautiful weapons, embossed with striking designs, backed up with 4 full clips on his belt. Shoulder holsters on both sides, so if necessary, he could do it Punisher style, guns blazing like Tarantino, ready to....do whatever it is that guys packing 3 handguns need to do.

Apparently, it's a cultural thing here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cactus mania and 90 degrees

I'm out in Eastern Guatemala for field based training - pictures and stories soon!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fiesta, pues

I’m really tired (I ran a 15 km race today), I’ve been doing Spanish homework for the past couple hours (subjunctive, indirect/direct objects) and it’s late (10:24 pm as I write this). But here’s what today was like:

First of all, it was clear this morning, overcast in the afternoon, maybe around 70 degrees for most of the day? It was definitely a little hotter at times – I did have to bust out the sunglasses and sunblock at one point - but pretty comfortable weather for a tucked-in dress shirt with no underlayer + nice jeans, topped off with my dress shoes. I woke up, washed up, put some pomade in my hair and had my regular breakfast of instant coffee and sweet rolls. Then I went down to the central plaza to watch the parade begin and take in the day’s festivities.

What I’m leaving out is that today is September 15th, which is Guatemala’s independence day. 189 years ago, the country’s Ladinos (citizens of mixed Indigenous and European heritage), Xinca (an indigenous group linguistically unrelated to the Maya), Garifuna(Afro-Guatemalan communities spread along the Caribbean coast) and Mayaclaimed their independence from Spain. I helped celebrate that independence by heading back home in the afternoon, changing into shorts and sneakers, then running a 15 km race up and down the mountains that surround the community in which I currently live.

Here are things I like about running a race on Independence Day in Guatemala:
- Everyone claps, shouts, points, smiles andlooks at you like you’re crazy (in a good way.)
- Volcanoes make great scenery
- Purified water comes in sealed baggiesthat you’re supposed to bite the corner off to drink.
- Kids throw regular water on you because you look funny.

Here’s what I don’t like:
- Exhaust (from cars, tuk-tuks, camionetas and motorcycles) and
- Smoke (from roadside trash fires)

Here is a tuk-tuk: (ok, two)

Here is a camioneta:

There I am off in the distance with Carolina, another trainee, who actually won the women's division....awesome

fun, right?

Monday, September 13, 2010

And that volcano....is smoking

crazy right? Fast forward to like 45 seconds and you can hear me talking to my host sister - she's saying that some nights you can see LAVA running down the mountainside.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Widening a road in Guatemala

I got my first in-depth look into Guatemalan municipal operations the other day, accompanying a group of engineers, architects and planners that were taking measurements for a road-widening project while conducting an on-site Q & A session with local residents. There were some pretty interesting contrasts to U.S. infrastructure development.

(First, a recap: as a Municipal Development Volunteer(to-be) for Peace Corps Guatemala, it’s likely that I’ll be working in the equivalent of a U.S. county planning office until November 2012. Right now I’m still in training, and have been for about a month. Over the next seven weeks, I’ll continue living and working in my present community, then I’ll receive my official assignment to a new community and municipal office on October 29th, which is where I’ll spend the following two years.)

(Yes I’m excited)

At any rate, the road-widening project piqued my interest because torrential rains of late have flooded local streets (and numerous parts of Guatemala), exposing some pretty serious drainage issues. I asked to accompany my co-workers, and listenedas they ran a roadside meeting with local property owners, discussing project design and procedure.

The big idea is to widen the existing (unpaved) road to 4.5 meters, providing just enough clearance to allow a couple of cars to pass one another. In addition, project managers want to include another meter for sidewalks on each side, ensuring drier pedestrians during the rainy season and providing de facto “parking spaces” for car-owning residents (just drive one side of your car up there). However:

- Road width will be variable.
Because of insufficient planning in the past, existing structures dictate both the current and future shape of the road (it’s a bit of a zig-zag)

- Only some parts of the road will have sidewalks.
Each resident will approve or deny a sidewalk in front of their property, as the convenience will require their own generosity. What I mean by “generosity” is…..

- The Municipality isn’t paying for the land it needs in this project.
Instead, they are bartering for it. In exchange for the 4.5 meters necessary for the project, the Municipality is going to provide property owners with service hookups to the existing wastewater and potable water pipes at cost. Hence……

- Neighbors will essentially determine their own road design.
When a particular stretch of road between two properties doesn’t measure up to 4.5 meters, one or both property owners will have to yield some of their property. That is the bottom line necessitated by the project. However, with structures like paved driveways and concrete walls, only one neighbor can actually yield their property, which might contain coffee bushes, maize plantings, or just an overgrown stretch of jungle. Regardless, it wouldn’t seem fair if only certain property owners had to give up land. So in the interest of fairness, the non-yielding property owner must pay (or compensate) his neighbor for exactly one half of the property contributed. Therein, it is up to each set of neighbors to decide whether they want to provide (or pay for) the land necessary to give themselves with a stretch of sidewalk….

I hope that makes sense – it took me a few hours of listening and numerous questions before I figured it out.

At any rate, I think construction is about to start any day now – apparently, the funding comes from a national source requiring work to commence within 8 days of receipt…. which will be pretty soon. My hope is that theroad design will improve stormwater drainage for my community, as the runoff from numerous mountainsides flows over impermeable streets w/o stormdrains, which results in some ankle-deep rivers in the middle of town...

Here's a few girls that asked me to take their picture during a recent storm...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tamale time!

this is Carmen and Janet, two of the other trainees in my site....Carmen is the happy one

this is my host mom Esperanza, cuttin' up meat bits to put in the tamales...

and here's how the magic starts...

this is a mix of masa (corn meal) and a spicy tomato sauce)

I think that's pork

After you roll up the mixture inside the first hoja (leaf) you wrap it again in another leaf to make sure it doesn't leak

then you have to tie it off - here's Carmen showing off her skillz

ta-da....the little piece of black plastic marks the type (chicken, pork, or Spicy)

here's my host mom pretending like she's pissed off because I'm taking so many pictures

this is what she looks like 99% of the time (she's awesome)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Saturday afternoon at the homestead

Lots of crazy stuff happened today – we had to chase a chicken over a few rooftops AND I got to help with tamales (it’s actually an every-Saturday thing)

Why the chicken was even out of its pen, I don’t know – fault might just lie with the rickety cage in which some of them live – think jagged boards propped against an assemblage of random materials, with black plastic to keep the rain out.

At any rate, this one scrawny chicken escaped, vaulted the wall, and fluttered down to the corrugated metal roof of our immediate neighbor Abuelo (who happens to be my host dad’s dad). As Abuelo was out on an errand this morning, we let the chicken wander around aimlessly, figuring we’d deal with it later. Eventually, we realized it had traversed several houses and reappeared on a roof like 100 feet away. We went to track the chicken down, my host mom, brother and nephew and I, only to be casually told by our barefoot neighbor that he’d “let us know if it came off the roof.” He rubbed his shirtless belly while listening to our explanation. It was sort of an annoying response, as we just wanted a chance to make some noise and scare it into the garden, but the chicken had already meandered back to Abuelo’s roof.

Walking briskly back around the corner, we spent the next half hour in Abuelo’s yard, making a huge racket while the kids pointed and yelled out the chicken’s position from their vantage point on the terrace next door. My mom and I took turns with a twenty-foot bamboo pole, banging and swiping at the rooftop, chicken running back and forth, evading our best efforts without even trying (or understanding why). It was ridiculous, yet pretty funny – I couldn’t stop smiling, although I was pretty determined to get my hands on that chicken. Eventually it jumped down onto the next-next-door-neighbor’s roof, who happens to be my host dad’s uncle (Tio).

In Tio’s yard, the chicken had a lot less room to maneuver. I grabbed a stick, whacked the chicken down off the roof (it was supposed to be a swipe) and cornered it against a woodpile, ending the chase ended with a quick grab and a squawk.

Pretty exciting.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

some recent craziness

First I’ll talk about the bus crash, then I’ll talk about cold water and the condition of my shower.

This morning, in what seems quite eerie - retrospectively -one of my companeras mentioned that two Americans had been injured in a bus crash yesterday, heading from Huehuetenango in Western Guatemala to take a short vacation in the south. “I hope they weren’t Peace Corps volunteers,” she said.

This afternoon, I come home and my host mother tells me that the crash had involved two volunteers, one with multiple broken bones – he’s probably already back in the States, thanks to a Peace Corps medevac. The other one “doesn’t know how she is alive.” The crash killed four Guatemalans, who, tragically, were coworkers of the volunteers. Apparently the driver lost control going around a curve, went down the embankment, and if the microbus hadn’t slammed into a tree and come to a stop upside-down, it would have fallen off a cliff.

Here’s the link to the article in El Diario, the sensationalist rag where my host sister, coincidentally, figured out what happened:

(it's on page 3 of the September 2nd issue)

So - the subsequent arithmetic is this:
- I’m also a Peace Corps volunteer.
- I ride in vehicles like this all the time.
- Generally speaking, Guatemalan drivers go as fast as mechanically possible. Taking turns while hurtling up or down a mountain highway involves centrifugal force that will flatten you against a neighbor.

There’s not much I can do, given the necessity of public transportation over the next 26 months, and to tell you the truth, this tragedy hasn’t really even hit home yet. Yes it could happen to me, but I almost feel like if it’ll be inevitable if it does happen . . . yes I will try to not let it happen.

In other news, my shower is freezing cold and it looks like this:

While we’re on the subject, my bathroom looks like this:

I will leave all adjectives/impressions/value judgements to your discretion.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


it feels a bit strange, but Peace Corps has been giving us what seems like lots of homework. I just spent the last two hours with a some compañeras (fellow trainees), making pie charts and planning an hour long presentation for tomorrow.....at least it doesn't have to be in Spanish (not yet, anyway). So far, training hasn't been the cakewalk one might imagine Peace Corps to be...