Sunday, March 27, 2011


Up front, I’ll say that I didn’t even see this woman I’m writing about or her sick baby, it’s just …. last week I heard a vivid story and I wanted to comment on Guatemalan acceptance, desperation, folk belief and the just plain lamentability of living in a country where the absence of public health resources can kill a child suddenly.

There was a warning though. A mother here in the community took her 7-month old child to the health center and was told that it had a high fever and needed medication urgently. Returning the next day, the mother was told that the situation was dire and her child should be rushed to the emergency room immediately.

There was no money.

The mother, with likely very few options, came to the Municipality to ask or beg or plead with the Mayor for the means necessary for a hospital visit, but the mayor couldn’t be found. So the woman brought her dying child to the OMM (Oficina Municipal de la Mujer), and she asked for help.

I have to interject for a second – this baby is going to die. It was incredibly sick, apparently white as a sheet, diagnosed in critical condition and yet the mother didn’t have the means to save her child. Probably desperately, she opened up to any suggestion that emerged.

The coordinator of the OMM is a midwife, and she determined that the baby might be stricken with Ojo, The Eye, something I don’t know about. I get the sense that it’s like a curse.

The coordinator went to the market to buy pepper and a plant called rue or the Herb of Grace and chewed them up, taking a mouthful of aguardiente (cane liquor) and spraying the whole mixture into the face of the child.

Then the child went into convulsions, and the coordinator went on to turn the child upside down, hanging while she began to pound on the soles of its feet, meant as a cure for the soft spot on the baby’s head.

The baby died. And it’s not to say that the coordinator was responsible – by all accounts the baby was already incredibly sick. As for the methodology or its aim, I don’t know.

I feel like one lesson here is that you can’t discount folk belief - people will still do what seems right no matter the circumstances. And regardless of whether you disagree with me, consider the panicked mother: if you were poor like her and had no other option, wouldn’t you consent to just about anything with the hope that it might save your child?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Election misconduct

Here's an interesting article that deals with the environment surrounding the upcoming elections in Guatemala.

The article is a little flimsy, making a number of vague accusations about the various political parties without examples, but she's right about the illegal political advertisements because they're everywhere in my town. Also, her suspicions on the influence of drug money are probably accurate.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Getting away

I’m in Antigua this week, which is the de facto nexus of all Peace Corps life. It’s a beautiful city (I know I’ve been skeptical about its origins before, all colonial and ironic and mute about all the historically reprehensible stuff that you can turn your nose up at from the past, but I do love it here.)

For one, the Peace Corps office is nearby, so we inevitably stay in Antigua whenever we have to visit for official matters. It’s also where the hotels are, the hostels, the bars, the delicious restaurants, the glimpse of the western stuff we miss or long for. Some things I’ve mostly forgotten but will suddenly recall (like juicy bacon and a stack of fluffy pancakes). You come to Antigua, it’s where you can find what you’re craving.

It’s like a mini-vacation when you come here, and I’m sure that Peace Corps posts all over the world have some city center or locale to which volunteers can slip away, zero the balance and go back to their sites feeling recharged. Here in Guatemala, it’s cobblestone streets and Spanish architecture (plus the volcanoes).

The funny thing is that yesterday I realized that I’ll probably be coming back here the rest of my life, like my relationship with this country and this city is already forming or has formed to a degree that I’ll never forget it here, like I’ll leave but it’ll be too beautiful in my memories to not think about. I’ll come back, and I seem to sense it every time I hike back into town. From the teeming bus station, towards some modest hostel with a knapsack stuffed with clothing I stream past tourists and townspeople,the brilliant colors in the market stalls, down bumpy streets and alongside the beggars, the fashionistas, the teenage school uniforms, the Europeans and the business suits, the mopeds, tuk-tuks and the Beamers, the indigenous traje and the working poor, the Burger King and the hawkers and hustlers and everyone else.

Into the central square, the trees are shedding purple blossoms and someone put two bursting bouquets of flowers in the fountain, waters streaming over the basin lip and people stroll around, below the gleaming white stone church which lingers while an even larger, slightly foreboding volcano looks out over everything.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

things not working out for the OMM

First of all – sorry I haven’t been posting lately, but there’s been a whole mess of preoccupations – mom came to visit, then things get busy, and plus there’s the inevitable Guatemalia that keeps me occupied; maybe I’ll be in a community meeting until 9:00 at night, maybe I get exhausted from debating with my counterparts about bottle school construction and all I want to do is lie on the couch and stare at the wall when I get home. Regardless…..I’m gonna keep trying to post regular on this here blog….

Second – I have to give a shout out to International Woman’s Day, which coincided with Fat Tuesday this last Tuesday, but unfortunately, for various reasons I didn’t get to celebrate either one.

Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras revelry? I could have told you three weeks ago that nothing was gonna happen for me in that respect; I’m a teetotaler here in site. I’ve been on super good behavior, first to leave a good impression on the community but then I realized that there aren’t too many people here that I’d wanna drink with anyway so I don’t bother.

As for International Women’s Day … that’s a little more unfortunate story. Back two weeks ago, I went upstairs to the Municipal Women’s Office (OMM) and sat down with the office secretary, coordinator and president. I said to them, “Hey guys! March 8th is a big deal! Do you wanna do something to celebrate, or raise the profile of women here in the community?” Of course, they get excited and we decided on a march, complete with banners and a show, a stage and music plus snacks for all the women participating.

So I sat down with the secretary and we wrote out a proposal and a simple budget – we signed both and left them with the mayor. Unfortunately, I found out later that the mayor (who’s a woman, mind you) couldn’t be bothered to provide the requested 400 quetzales, or $50 US.

Don’t bother asking why a female administrator in a misogynistic country like Guatemala would dog the celebration that’s meant to empower her own oppressed gender because ….. I can’t figure it out either.

Anyway, so I say to the ladies in the OMM, “Well guys, it looks like the march isn’t going to work out. How about we try putting on that workshop on HIV/AIDS that we planned back in December?” They liked that idea, so we spent the next couple days getting the presentation ready until Tuesday afternoon, when the community called us back to cancel.

Apparently, the women’s group to whom we wanted to speak to were convinced that if representatives from the Municipality (read: us) rolled up and gave a talk, then they would lose eligibility for the 300 quetzales of government assistance publicly available through a program called Mi Familia Progresa (My Family Progresses), an account that is completely untrue.

Basically, someone decided to make political hay by taking advantage of campesino (peasant) ignorance, suggesting that if these women attended a simple workshop that it would equate to their joining up with the political party that controls the municipality (which is different than the political party controlling the federal government). Losing the 300 quetzales would be the subsequential punishment.

What’s telling, however, is that people here believed that the federal government could exclude citizens from public programs based on personal politics. That’s an outrageous prospect if you’re an American, but hey, I’ve got a lot to learn about Guatemala.

Anyway, so the workshop never happened.

What I haven’t told you is that both local and national elections are slated for September, and campaigns are ramping up like mad. Political logos and colors cover most of the houses in my town, and public figures here take any opportunity to make speeches infused with la politica. Chisme (gossip) is everywhere.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Potential ATM fraud? Or absentmindedness?

So my mom and I went to the ATM the other day and wouldn’t you know it, somebody left the door open.

We had direct access into this ATM, but sadly, I couldn’t see any money :) Har har - I thought about a closer look but the alarm went off and I settled for an amused commentary to the nearby security guard. I should note that this ATM was right next to its host bank.

For those of you that haven’t heard of THIS scam (this is two entries in a row about scams, I realize) apparently thieves can intercept your bank account information via machinery surreptitiously installed in an ATM. Unbeknownst to you, the card information and PIN number you’re entering gets transmitted electronically to a third party who then goes on a Pina Colada and Marc Jacobs binge with your life savings. This would be mildly funny IF it hadn’t recently happened to a Peace Corps volunteer here in Guatemala. Apparently, girl hit a popular yet compromised ATM in Antigua (tourist central) and found her US bank account totally drained a few days later :( I’m sure she was much-less-than-thrilled.

It’s been happening a lot recently; here’s an editor’s warning from a tourist magazine in Antigua that amounts to a big fat caveat emptor, as the corresponding banks are taking zero responsibility for fraud committed on their machines.

Anyway, so we Peace Corps volunteers got a warning from the security office that we should be on the alert when choosing an ATM – pick an at least semi-guarded area where thugs wouldn’t be able to install their contraption, and at least examine the machine before you use it. Maybe shake it a few times, see if it’s been tampered with.

Recalling the advice, and convinced that if my mom got ripped off it would ruin her whole vacation, I gave her machine a little shake and wouldn’t you know the entire front end slid out:

(obviously I staged this video a bit, as you can already hear the alarm wailing in the background, but you get the picture; walk up, grab hold of the machine, and boom, you’re in.)

So – not too sure of what to make of this whole situation – disaster narrowly averted, or some ATM technician too bored to finish the job?