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: