Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bottle Schools

I started a pretty big project today; if all goes well, at some point in the course of my remaining 21 months in the Peace Corps, I hope to successfully organize the building of a school made from plastic bottles.

If that sounds crazy in English, be assured that it makes even less sense when I try to explain it in Spanish.

Here’s a completed example of what I’m aspiring to:

Sorry I had to blur out the name (PC blog rules) – anyway, can you make out the little black box next to the doorway? It’s directly to the left of that beige post…..this is a close up:

Plastic bottles filled with inorganic trash make up the walls of this building. Surrounded by opposing layers of chicken wire, then covered and smoothed over with a few layers of concrete; voila! you can’t tell it’s just garbage. Meanwhile, the concrete beams and columns you can see outlined in the wall are what hold up the roof and make everything structurally solid.:

Here are a few web resources. This is Hug It Forward, the NGO with whom I hope to partner. Their on-the-ground operations here in Guatemala are managed by an ex-Peace Corps volunteer – the deal, as I understand it, is if the community contributes the mano de obra (physical labor) Hug It Forward will provide most (or all) of the $$ for materials.

Hug It Forward also has a number of videos on YouTube; this one might seem sort of silly, but you get the idea...

I feel like I’ve got Bottle School coming out my ears these days – tons of volunteers are excited about starting their own projects, and here’s a link to an article in a recent Peace Corps newsletter:

Heck, today they even put Bottle School stuff in the local sensationalist rag-of-a-newspaper, El Diario (January 25th 2011, page 13)

It’s pretty exciting stuff…..

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Guatemala is a seriously religious country, way more so than I initially realized. It’s been over 5 months since I’ve attended church, which I believe to be a pretty unique situation in the Peace Corps. I think that most volunteers get asked, insinuated, pressured or simply bored into attending a church service, but I happen to have missed getting a direct invitation since first arriving in-country (when my first host family brought me to the Evangelical church two nights in a row.) Those times, I was just being culturally tolerant.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a religious person; I would say that I’m a more spiritual person, which sounds totally stupid. Basically, I don’t see myself going to church except in an abstract way, kind of like I’ve decided that I sort of enjoy bible stories in Spanish because it’s novel getting proselytized in a different language. I like good people and I like the good things they do. I understand why people say that God is love.

Why I’m writing about religion is that it pervades almost every part of society here. God, His Divine Will and His Guidance run most Guatemalan lives, which you notice in conversation (“if God allows me to live that long!”)or people simply giving eachother advice: (“Will I be safe on the bus to Guatemala City?” “Just … pray to God.”) It’s also not unusual to hear sermons blaring overloudspeakers throughout the streets of town for a couple hours a couple nights a week.

Today I went to a ribbon cutting for a new school in one of our aldeas (villages) – every single individual addressing the crowd, from the naturalized American philanthropist of Guatemalan origin to the mayor, from the head schoolteacher to the community group president – every single last person made it painfully clear how responsible God was for this new school. Everyone, including the crowd, seemed to believe so fervently in their religionthat I felt like I wasn’t witnessing a collection of individual believers but an entire community expressing its collective vision of reality, where acceptance of the status quo was simply a given. It made me wonder about life in a religious state,and what Afghanistan or Indonesia might be like.

Obviously I’m coming from a church-state separation perspective, so watching public officials exalt God makes me flinch a little bit. At the same time, organized religion is growing on me here – in a country with as much social, historical and physical turmoil as Guatemala, you can understand why people would identify with the Catholic preacher I heard riding the bus yesterday, who declared that one encounters wisdom the minute he or she admits that they know very little, the minute they admit they are not in control.

There are so many social problems here, so many physical threats and so much uncertainty that I can see why it’selevating to acknowledge that you’re a merely a pawn. That way you don’t go crazy – the status quo is beyond your comprehension.

What I found funny was today, while a second evangelical preacher thundered at the community on the radiance of god and his boundless compassion, I realized that I might as well BE in church….it didn’t matter that I was at a “public” event; everything seems to intimate God here in Guatemala.

Here’s some people collecting maize in the fields

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Getting attention

I had a realization last weekend how important whistling is here.

For guys in the Guatemalan street, whistling is the easiest, most convenient to get one someone’s attention. Flag down a bus, get a companero’s attention in a busy market, say hey to yer buddy – just fweeeeeeeet and you’re there.

It’s loud, definitely. This is no casual whistle; we’re talking about the piercing sound you hear at baseball games, that guy behind you who’s had four too many beers and showing everyone he can make way more noise than you thought possible. It’s the piercing whistle, the one that makes you wince a little bit if you’re sitting nearby. In Guatemala, I feel like I hear it everywhere.

It’s getting to be part of the way I interact with people. Last weekend I strolled into a plaza and saw the microbus I was looking for, pulling up curbside about 100 feet away – I immediately whistled and the ayudante (bus helper) turned. He came back with a questioning hand flip that looks like “what the f***?” for Americans (but really just means “what’s up?” here in Guate), and I shouted back that I was headed to the bus terminal. He nodded. Bingo - I understood, he understood and next thing I was climbing on the bus.

The best part about that interaction, I realized, was that I understood exactly how to communicate. Cultural context, (or in my case, living in Guatemala) requires that I use a specific language to get on with the people around me. I’ve been here five months and I’m starting to pick up the clues, which is pretty satisfying because people seem to look at you with a lot less curiosity when you can show some local knowledge.

One other thing - the whistle isn’t straight; there’s a pitch jump you have to master. It’s ….. fweeeeeEEEEET!!

Comida Chapina

For lack of ganas (urge, desire, aspiration) and a sense of obligation (it’s a personal goal of mine to post on a regular basis), I figured I’d fall back on a reliable topic: food. Here’s what I ate for breakfast today.

You’re looking at a plate of black beans, rice, tomato-puree sauce and flank beefsteak, which comes with a stack of freshly toasted tortillas, instant coffee and homemade picante (salsa). There are plenty of napkins and the tablecloth is cheery.

First off – I really like this food. Second – I eat it quite often.

I go to the same comedor (diner) for all my meals, usually breakfast, lunch and dinner but not always. Sometimes I’m just not hungry – Doña (Mrs.) Terry and her employees give me lots of food, and sometimes I’ll leave lunch feeling stuffed and won’t need to eat a solid meal until 8:00 the next morning.

Other times, random people will invite me to eat with them – fried chicken and macaroni salad at their dinner table, ramen noodles and tortillas in the back of their grocery store or a mug of instant coffee and pan dulce (sweetbread) right out in the street. Other times I’ll leave town for a couple of days, get some R&R with Peace Corps friends in the bigger cities and eat stuff like Indian food, bagels, real coffee and falafel.

When I’m in my site, however, it’s usually what you see above or a slight variation. It would be safe for me to say that every day, I eat two of the following three dishes:

Fried chicken/beans/rice/tortillas/instant coffee (or kool-aid)
Steak/beans/rice/tortillas/instant coffee (or kool-aid)
Fried eggs/beans/rice/tortillas/instant coffee (or kool-aid)

There are a few nuances within these options….

Fried chicken or steak, for example, could be for any meal. Eggs, however, are usually only found in the morning (or at night, if you show up at the comedor after 7:30 and the food has run out and they throw a plate together for you, usually with little hot dogs sliced in half lengthwise and fried)

You’re pretty much guaranteed to get an animal protein every meal. However, sometimes it’ll come with beans and no rice. Other times it’s rice and no beans. Personally I like getting both and I’ll ask for it sometimes– what’s cool is that there’s no charge for a spoonful of extra beans if you happen to be especially hungry)

Some other things to think about:

The fried chicken is breaded with a mixture of instant soup bouillon and salt. Whoa.

Don’t ask for coffee at lunch – that’s crazy (it’s too hot to drink coffee at 1:00)

You can always ask for more tortillas – just make the noise that sounds like you’re shooing a cat outside to get your Seño(ra)’s attention, and she’ll bring you a new stack hot off the woodstove top.

If you’re Guatemalan, roll your tortillas up and alternate bites of food with bites of tortilla. Eat the meat with your hands, at the end, mouthful by mouthful. Meanwhile, I get funny looks for requesting a knife, cutting my steak into pieces, mixing everything together and loading the tortillas up like a taco.

(I have this suspicion that they think I’m Mexican when I do this.)

You can also ask for water instead of kool-aid or coffee, but the word agua translates roughly to “drinks” and refers to soda, so say agua pura.

Caldo de Mano (translation: hand soup?) is a tripe and fatback soup that Doña Terry likes to prepare, seeing that most Guatemalans are big fans. Meanwhile, I don’t recommend this dish.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Don’t worry – this isn’t a video of roosters getting killed

The red rooster, the one held by the handler with the multicolored vest, was killed a couple minutes after I shot this video. What you can see wasn’t part of the actual fight but a pre-match agitation, a handler strategy to make the roosters more aggressive. The guy with the striped blue shirt repeated the confrontation with the other rooster (not shown), feinting and pecking and advancing and retreating.

Last Thursday was my first palenque (cockfight)

I was pretty excited about the experience, not for the thrill of watching animals slash each other’s throats, but for the cultural weight of a tradition I’d never witnessed and the fact that it’s illegal in the States.

The experience definitely left me with conflicting feelings. Yes, it was interesting and kind of exciting. On the other hand, it’s kind of deplorable to set animals upon each other, gladiator style, justifying the practice because they’re animals. Bullfights are kind of in the same category – dress it up as valiant or exciting or glamorous or traditional, but when it’s over there are pools of blood in the dirt and something died a nasty, unnatural death. Look at the knives (nebajas) they strap on the roosters’ feet.

I doubt I’d voluntarily attend another palenque – I mean, I’m glad I’ve seen one, crossed it off the list, and now know what they’re all about, but it’s sort of gratuitous. Like, “do we really need to keep killing these roosters guys? If it’s about the gambling, can’t we just play bingo?”

(note – bingo (loteria) is actually really popular here)

This picture sums it up for me – one man is covered in rooster blood, and the other man is figuring out how much he’s gonna bet.

I saw one guy win 600 quetzales in a single match, which points to another less-than-admirable aspect of cockfighting – it’s a rich man’s game. At the same time, I can’t be totally condescending and pretend like I didn’t gamble at least once (I won a couple of sodas)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


The country fair came to town this week; here in Guatemala, the phenomenon of fried food, excessive drinking, carnival rides, loud music, beauty contests, parades, carnies, tacky souvenirs and sweets is known as Feria.

Feria is usually a week-long celebration and most towns have one at some point throughout the year, depending on the patron saint or celebrated figure. Here it’s Los Tres Reyes Magos, or the Three Wise Men. If you’re an average citizen or Muni employee, you get pretty much the entire week off work.

We got the Feria started yesterday with a big show in the Municipal Stadium, a triple bill with the Feria Queen competition (4 contestants with their bathing suits, fantasy costumes, speeches and so on), a famed impersonator (I don’t know, nor do I remember who he was impersonating) and a concert from Fabiola Rodas, a Mexican who won Latin America’s version of American Idol a couple years back. I worked a booth so I didn’t have to pay the 50Q ($7) entry fee. Scheduled to start at 7, getting going at 9:30 and finishing at 2 AM was pretty much par for the course, so I was pretty tired today.

I dragged myself out of the house this morning to watch a big parade, then walked back to the Municipal Stadium to catch the horse show and see a dance troupe with some bizarre Lord Of The Rings costumes. There was a women’s soccer game afterwards, but I was hungry and left to go get lunch.

Tonight I checked out the Midway, or games section of the carnival. It’s pretty much just like the United States – games of chance that probably involve you being separated from your money:

Toss a coin!

Get it inside a ring without touching and you win. (even the kid thinks this is boring)

Throw a dart!

Hit the right picture and win (less than what you paid for the darts)

Roll the marbles!

Each slot has a number and with the right combination you win (guy gave me a practice throw and when I added up the numbers wrong he told me I didn’t know how to count lol)

By the way - this is where pork tacos come from:

People are all into pork tacos around here, but I think things like “trichinosis” and keep my street-fried-pig intake to a minimum.