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:

Friday, October 22, 2010

music wafting in through the walls of my wood house

I live next to a marimba school! (this is what I'm talking about)

I got into my new site a couple days ago, been checking it out since Tuesday night. It's pretty awesome! Mostly junglish, coffee farms on all side, the geography is steep, short hills and deep ravines, everything covered in wet greenery. I like it. Not too hot, not too cold. People seem nice too.....

Anyway, so going to sleep last night, I got to hear the plunk plunk plunking of some student learning the marimba....very cool

Monday, October 18, 2010


I almost forgot - I got nominated to give the speech for our graduation ceremony on Oct. 29th! I'm pretty now I have to come up with a good topic; I figure that something funny would probably be the best bet.....any ideas?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

From Houses to Homes

This past week, my training group and I met the founder of an American house building charity that operates in the outskirts of Antigua. Known locally as De Casas a Hogares, From Houses to Homes was started by an affable man named Joe Collins, a private investigator from New Jersey who arrived in Guatemala to build houses for poor families about nine years ago. The experience impacted him to such a degree that he returned thirteen times over the next three years, then deciding to start his own 501c3 in 2005. Six years later, his organization staffs twelve Guatemalans and hosts hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. To date this year, Joe and his team have built 105 cinderblock-and-tin-roof houses measuring 13’ x 9’, each one valued at about $1750. His yearly budget is approximately $400,000.

It was pretty extraordinary to speak with Joe about his work and the growth of From Houses to Homes, which he refers to as a “miracle.” The Guatemalan government thinks he’s pretty swell, as Joe recently received the Ambassador of Peace award and is scheduled to meet vice-president Jose Rafael Espada in the near future. Personally, I’m amazed at the rapid success of his social entrepreneurship (read: business) model, especially because it runs almost entirely on volunteer effort, goodwill and fundraising. According to Joe, maybe 4% of his yearly budget comes from grants – enthusiasmprovides the rest.

It works like this: potential volunteers must first agree to raise $500 for project costs, and then provide their own food, lodging and airfare to Guatemala. It’s pretty straightforward, and while the volunteer-work-vacation scenario isn’t new, Joe’s stories about their fundraising initiatives were what really caught my attention. $35,000 walkathons in Manhattan.$10,000 house parties.An English guy bought From Houses to Homes a truck with the $18,000 donated by friends and co-workers. People have already volunteered to start branches of From Houses to Homes in Germany and Scotlan, doing their own fundraising and sending the proceeds to the central office in Antigua. It’s remarkable how motivated people can get about philanthropy.

Even more striking is that Joe has no professional development staff. A $400,000 budget and no one is busy courting large foundations for grants or seeking endowments from wealthy donors. The mission is enough; the experience of building these modest houses and witnessing the poverty firsthand is enough to make visiting foreigners pour their hearts and minds into supporting this organization. And Joe doesn’t even outline the fundraising process formally – he makes a few anecdotal suggestions, and volunteers respond with creativity and passionate support.

The bottom line is that From Houses to Homes provides extensive infrastructure to improve the living situations of thousands of poor Guatemalans. While its approach to International Development may have plenty of pros and cons, From Houses to Homes’ funding successes and volunteer inspiration are truly admirable.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Site assignment!!

I got my new site! I’m going to the department of San Marcos!

Unfortunately, due to Peace Corps Blog Guidelines, I can’t reveal the name of my community. It’s a security concern…….so…’ll have to email me if you want to google map the actual location.

It’s still exciting though! It’s a 6000 person town in the mountains, at 1000 meters above sea level (so it’s actually supposed to be warm!) and I’ve heard rumors that you can see quetzals in the surrounding areas (!!!!)

Here is a picture of a quetzal. This is the national bird and the national currency, i.e. what I get a stack of on payday (not the actual bird, silly):

Also, here’s some picture of the Municipal Development director Carlos Julajuj showing my training group our sites. (it was sort of a crazy day, and I got very little sleep last night because I couldn’t stop wondering)

This is it! I’m going to be living in the far west, about 50 km from the Mexican border for the next two years! My town has two internet cafes and I’m probably going to spend the next 3 months in a boarding house with hot water. Which is awesome.

Oh, and here’s some pictures from celebrating in Antigua yesterday:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Waking up part I

Today, I decided to write a description of an average morning at my host family’s house. I figured I needed to update my blog, and I didn’t want to bore you with my anxiety surrounding the impending site assignment (It comes down this Thursday! October 14th! In the A.M.! I find out where I’ll be living for the next two years!)

Anyway, so I usually get up anywhere between 5 am and 8:30, although I rarely sleep past these times.

I awake to the slight beeping of my travel alarm clock, which rests on the plastic stool next to my bed. Sunshine filters through two pieces of plate glass in the wall high above me, which were included by my host father Francisco in the house’s original construction. It’s the closest thing I have to an actual window, which is too bad, as it represents pretty much a single square foot of translucence. None of the bedrooms in our house have windows, so I asked why and Francisco explained that neighborly privacy, both yours and theirs, dictates that most rooms are windowless. I guess I can understand why – buildings tend to crowd one another here.

My room is concrete, both the floors and walls, with a pair of latched metal doors that open inward. The room is about 12’ x 12’ and the floor is smooth, covered with a scuffed layer of deep red paint. The walls also have blemishes, accenting an off-white tint that covers a rough finish of coarse sand and plaster. I have a small table, an armoire, a plastic trash can, a 5 gallon bucket where I put dirty laundry that my host mother will wash by hand, and the bedside stool (which doubles as my desk chair). I’m the only person in the house with a room to myself. It smells faintly, damply, so I try to keep the doors open and air it out whenever possible.

I sit up in bed and turn out of the cocoon I form each night before going to sleep. When my host mother ushered me into my room for the first time, she gave me two thin blankets and I hesitated for a second, knowing that I sleep cold. But they appeared sufficient and I’ve haven’t asked for another layer thus far, both out of respect and as a sort of personal challenge. I’ve been fine. On frigid nights I pull on my long underwear and appreciate that my sleeping bag is also available. Most nights, though, the two blankets are fine - I fold them lengthwise, and once under the sheets I roll side to side, tucking the blanket edges under my body and making a little impromptu sleeping nest. It never seems to get below 50 degrees here and I’ve gotten used to the weather. I will, however, buy myself plenty of blankets when I get my own place.

I stretch my feet towards the floor, slip my toes into the wedge of my flip-flops, and then I begin to collect the things I need to brush my teeth……

(I’ll write more about my mornings another day – here’s the best pictures from the trip I took out to the department of San Marcos last week….)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Municipal Development possibilities

Here's an email I recently wrote to a professor at GSU, just another basic update on what my life as a Municipal Development volunteer should look like:

Things are going well for me here in Guatemala – although I’m still in training, I’m pretty excited about the capacity building I’ll be doing in my forthcoming assignment as a Municipal Development volunteer. Working in the equivalent of a county planning office, I’ll be helping to not only share some basic U.S. office culture (punctuality, organization, professionalism) but I’ll also probably be doing some civic participation facilitation with grassroots community groups which are known as COCODES (Community Council of Development). COCODES are basically any group of Guatemalans that organize themselves to pursue a given activity, whether it be civic or recreational.

Guatemala’s government was formally decentralized in 2002, and in pursuit of that goal, I’m supposed to encourage these community groups to form, register themselves with local government, and begin to understand the planning processes associated with identifying their own needs and understand how to share them with the appropriate authorities. Over the next two years, I’ll be working with communities to achieve some pretty interesting processes - community mapping and diagnostics, needs assessment and prioritization, training and preparation, project design, project funding solicitation and hopefully, some project management. I’m pretty excited.

I’m really excited about Peace Corps model of Development – heavy on the capacity building and community-based relationships, light on the financial support. Maybe I’ve already drank the Kool-Aid, but I’m concerned about infrastructure focused Development that relies on the influx of cash and physical results, as I worry about the “money falling from the sky” effect that doesn’t encourage stakeholder buy-in or active participation. At any rate, it’s still early (I haven’t even been here two months), but I’m excited about the possibilities of what I’ve been learning thus far. We’ll see how things progress.

Friday, October 1, 2010


It’s been raining a lot lately – today makes eight days in a row.

Rain, in theory, is fine. God knows I lived with it for three years in Portland. In fact, it’s not that I’m complaining about the rain itself but more its side effects here in Guatemala.

First of all, an abundance of rain will inevitably create landslides, which occur regularly due to unfortunate conditions like deforestation and inadequate drainage systems. Thankfully, recent weather hasn’t inflicted much destruction in the last few days. Secondly, and far less alarming (although somewhat more distressing on a personal level) the presence of rain means that there will be no sunshine. And without sunshine, wet clothes don’t dry (there are no dryers here – come on people)

What I’m trying to say is that my host mom did a load of my laundry on Monday (read: hand washed it at the public water fountains) and it’s still wet right now, Friday night. There’s not much you can do to dry it faster. Up on the top floor, where there is no roof and the laundry flaps in breezes blowing through the valley, afternoon rains would soak and re-soak the family’s laundry. Now clotheslines line our living room, strings of pants and shirts and socks decorating our walls, and we wait for the damp air to gradually, if barely, dry out our clothes.

Let’s just say that my fingers have been crossed for sunny weather since Tuesday.