Thursday, November 5, 2009


A selection of my final Peace Corps Termination Report...


Santa Cruz El Chol is a small town in the department of Baja Verapaz located 90 kilometers from the capital of Guatemala City. The town has a hot climate and is in a valley surrounded by mountains at about 1,000 meters above sea level. El Chol is mostly non-indigenous and Spanish speaking, with a population of almost 9,000 people in the municipality. The community is very welcoming and excited to share with Peace Corps volunteers and other outsiders. It is a very safe town with almost no violence or delinquency.

As a Municipal Development volunteer, my primary responsibilities were to improve the quality and efficiency of the services provided by the Municipal Planning Office (OMP) and to increase citizen participation in the needs assessment and development process of the communities the OMP serves. Working in the OMP I facilitated monthly inter-institutional meetings with governmental and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate activities, published a Municipal Newsletter to increase communication between citizens and their local government, and strengthened the Municipal Development Council (COMUDE). I also initiated the Municipal Women’s and Youth Office (OMMJ) and assisted in the planning and execution of its activities. Key accomplishments in the OMMJ were the execution of gender-focused participatory community diagnostics, a series of Municipal Women Leaders Workshops, and trainings for rural women’s groups on various topics including self-esteem, leadership, the importance of women in development, the Guatemalan system of Development Councils, small home income generation, and HIV/AIDS.

The municipal workers and community members enjoyed working with and learning from a Peace Corps volunteer. There are several key players in the community that are especially supportive and collaborative, that are essential to know as a volunteer.

In addition to my work in the municipality, I taught community English classes, taught a citizen participation course in the local high school, coordinated a World Map project, and coached an elementary school girls’ soccer team. I acted as the Municipal Development Program representative on the Peace Corps Guatemala Gender and Development Committee. I was responsible for encouraging the inclusion of gender sensitivity in their projects and as Alta/Baja Verapaz Regional representative on the Peace Corps Guatemala HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education Committee.

The volunteer experience working in El Chol had many challenges due to the political situation in the Municipality, lack of resources, and the machismo present in the culture. However, it was a fulfilling experience both personally and professionally. I hope that the Municipal Women’s and Youth Office that I started will continue to function well with the support of the next volunteer and contribute to the development of vulnerable populations for future generations.

A. Site Description:

The town of Santa Cruz El Chol, Baja Verapaz is situated at 1008 meters above sea level about 90 kilometers northeast of Guatemala City in a small valley surrounded by mountains. The town is located about 2 1/2 hours down a dirt road coming from San Juan Sacatepéquez (the more traveled route) or 1 hour from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. The town center is made up of about 5 intersecting cobblestone streets that are mildly busy with mostly motorcycle traffic. The climate is usually hot and dry with some humidity during the rainy season. During the rainy season it is hot and sunny during the day, but rains most afternoons. The town center has three main bridges, which pass over the two small rivers that run through town. There are some popular swimming holes that the townspeople swim in during the hotter months.

El Chol has a population of 8,769 people, with over 2,000 people living in the town center. The majority of the population is ladino, making Spanish the prominent language spoken. The few indigenous communities that are native to the area speak A’chi and there are several representatives of other indigenous cultures that have relocated to El Chol, many of them during the 36 year armed conflict. Most speak Spanish fluently.

There are 9 aldeas (villages with approximately 50-250 families) and 53 caseríos (settlements with 10-50 families) in the municipality of Santa Cruz El Chol. Most have access via dirt roads that are passable most of the year. A limited number have only foot paths or no access during the rainy season. El Chol is the municipal seat with several barrios (neighborhoods) including El Centro, El Calvario, Tamarindo, El Campamento.

Santa Cruz El Chol is known for its production of corn, black beans, hibiscus flower, and other crops. Socially, it is an extremely tranquil town, with a municipal market and hotel, basic small convenience stores, a bank, a post office, a health center, a justice of the peace, many small elementary schools, several middle schools, two high schools, one university extension, two dirt soccer fields, a gym, and a few small cantinas.

The municipality is located in the town center next to BanRural and across from the park (built about 4 years ago). The mayor, Aníbal Sarmiento Reyes is in his fourth term in office and currently represents the Union Nacional de Esperanza (UNE) Party. He is popular among many people in the surrounding villages and has loyal supporters in the town proper. He is very collaborative with projects and highly esteems Peace Corps volunteers. It is important to get to know the mayor and his wife, who is also a very successful and well-respected leader in the community.

The community is fairly well developed in comparison to other small towns and has a good amount of commerce. The community is well organized and is committed to improving infrastructure. There are several projects that are underway or soon-to-be underway, including rebuilding the elementary schools in the Caserío Trapiche Viejo and in the urban center. The municipality finished improving the soccer field and has plans to build a stadium. The government is also involved in a 5-year project to pave the road from San Juan Sacatepéquez to Rabinal, Baja Verapaz.

There are 28 registered COCODEs (Community Development Council) in Santa Cruz El Chol. Each aldea has a registered COCODE, the barrios of the town center and many caseríos or pairs of caseríos have a registered COCODE as well. There is a functioning COMUDE (Municipal Development Council) that meets the third Thursday of each month. The CODEDE (Departmental Development Council) of Baja Verapaz meets the first Monday of each month, rotating the meeting location among the eight municipalities of the Department.

D. Projects:

My two years working in the Municipality were very different. In my first year I worked only in the OMP and my activities focused on increasing office communication, coordination, planning, and transparency. Specifically, I:
• Facilitated monthly inter-institutional meetings with governmental and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate activities and share experiences of challenges in development work and look for solutions.
• Coordinated the publication of a bi-monthly (every two months) Municipal Newsletter to increase transparency and communication between the Municipal Government and local citizens.
• Assisted with socioeconomic data collection and organization and presentation with spatial analysis using ArcView GIS.
• Conducted SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of the OMP and Annual Operating Plan for 2008.
• Assisted self-diagnostic of the Municipal Development Council (COMUDE) to assess strengths and weaknesses and find solutions to strengthen the Council.
• Accompanied the Municipal Women’s and Youth Commission as part of the COMUDE to research and write a Public Policy for a long term Municipal Development Plan for Children and Youth.

My main project was to start and help run a Municipal Women’s and Youth Office, which I focused on almost entirely my second year. I began writing the project profile as soon as I got to site in November, 2007. The Mayor and town council approved the project in May, 2008. In November, 2008 we received permission to start to hiring process. January 15th, 2009 was the new coordinator´s first day of work. In order to start the OMMJ, specifically, I:
• Researched socioeconomic data to assess the need for the office.
• Wrote Project Profile with justifications based on international agreements, Guatemalan national laws and Constitution, and municipal specific needs, regulations and development plans. I also included a chronology budget proposal, goals, objectives, and expected outcomes for the project.
• Presented the project to the Mayor and City Council to get political approval and permission execute the project.
• Was in charge of selection process for the Coordinator of the office. I advertised for the open position, accepted resumes and paperwork, selected viable candidates for interviews, conducted interviews, made final recommendation of selected candidate for Mayor’s approval to hire.

To run the OMMJ, together with the coordinator I:
• Planned annual activities for the Office including month-by-month chronology.
• Wrote vision and mission statements.
• Solicited office equipment from governmental and nongovernmental institutions.
• Planned, coordinated, and executed gender-focused rural community diagnostics in order to assess and prioritize women’s specific community needs.
• Planned, coordinated, and executed a series of Women’s Leadership Workshops for women community leaders where I co-taught trainings on topics of self-esteem, leadership, the importance of women in development, and the Guatemalan system of Development Councils.
• Gave charlas (“chats”) to rural women on various topics related to self-esteem, leadership, the importance of women in development, the Guatemalan system of Development Councils, and small home income generation.
• Gave workshops on HIV/AIDS to rural women´s groups.
• Developed promotional materials related to the office and our work.
• Coordinated governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
• Responded to the public daily.

There is still much that needs to be done to strengthen and continue the work of the OMMJ. There are no organized women´s groups in El Chol, which is one of the reasons why the work of OMMJ is so important. In order to gather women together for a meeting, we would inform the Community Mayor and the teachers of the local school to tell their students to tell their mothers. We were only able to complete the gender-focused rural community diagnostics in communities that were close enough to walk, since we have no other means of transportation. This diagnostic should be completed in the rest of the communities in order to have a complete picture of the situation that women live in and their needs. I would recommend continued visits and charlas to women’s groups on topics of their interest that they suggest, in addition to more work in HIV/AIDS education. We started the series of Women’s Leadership Workshops with the idea of electing a representative for women´s needs for the COMUDE, as allowed by the Development Councils Law. We felt that the women needed more preparation on the topic before having the election, so I would recommend continuing with the workshops and strengthening the organization and confidence of the women, and then proceeding with the election.

As secondary projects I:
• Taught basic and advanced English classes to two community groups.
• Taught a series of classes in the high school related to citizen participation.
• Coached and trained elementary school girls’ soccer team and took them to Departmental and National Tournaments.
• Painted large world map on the basketball court of the local elementary school with my site mate. We solicited local donations for materials from local hardware stores, coordinated with high school students to execute the project, and trained teachers on activities to use with the map for educational purposes.
• Acted as Municipal Development Program representative on the Peace Corps Guatemala Gender and Development Committee. I was responsible for material and resource organization and distribution to fellow Municipal Development Volunteers and trained the participants to encourage the inclusion of gender sensitivity in their projects.
• Acted as Alta/Baja Verapaz Regional representative on the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education Committee. I was responsible for production of HIV/AIDS educational materials and facilitated large (60-100 participants) regional and national “Training of Trainers” workshops. I taught participatory learning techniques and HIV/AIDS education and prevention to Guatemalan educators and professionals.

E. Women in Development and Community Development

The situation for the development of women in El Chol is not distinct from the rest of Guatemala. In El Chol, the Mayor is male with only one woman actively on the town council. There is some female participation in the COCODEs with 26% of members being women, but only 16% of the leadership positions (President, secretary, treasurer) are women. Women have historically had fewer opportunities for education and have higher illiteracy rates because with limited resources for education in a family, priority has often been given to sons while daughters were expected to help out around the house, care for younger siblings, and look for a husband to take care of her. This situation is improving with current generations, but much discrimination still exists. The machismo culture that places family/home responsibilities heavier on women, and having to ask permission from their husbands to leave the house makes citizen participation more challenging for women. Domestic violence is an acknowledged problem resulting in women having very low self esteem and fearful of speaking out or participating in public decision making processes.

Due to these conditions, the work of the OMMJ is very important. In order to address these challenges, more work needs to be done in with the following:
• Education on laws, rights, decentralization, COCODEs, COMUDE, via community trainings, newsletters, radio, etc.
• General support for women’s groups
• Political and financial support for the OMMJ
• Literacy campaigns
• Involvement in community activities that support girls/women’s development, such as sports teams or other social/cultural activities.
• Seek NGO support
• Family planning/reproduction health/HIV education

F. Personal Thoughts

In the technical work of the volunteer, there are common problems that I faced such as the lack of transportation to the communities, the lack of financial resources in the Municipality and in the communities, the political agenda that dictates municipal development, the difficulty of communication with women in rural communities, the lack of support from male community mayors for women’s activities, and the limited coordination among various NGOs and the Municipality.

These problems will probably always exist in some form, so the volunteer must have much patience and understanding. In order to work around these challenges, a future volunteer might:
• Be creative with transportation out to the rural communities and solicit the use of the Municipal car when possible.
• Make sure that the OMMJ is included in the Municipal Budget with personnel and materials for activities.
• Continue to strongly solicit resources needed to run the OMMJ from the Municipality and other NGOs or governmental organizations with presence in the Municipality.
• Continue to improve communication between the Municipal Council and the municipal employees with meetings and reports.
• Send written invitations for meetings and workshops through community mayors, teachers, or other known persons.
• Sensitize men about the importance of participation of women in all levels of development and the system of development councils.
• Continue monthly inter-institutional meetings, letting participants know the date and time in advance and with reminders.

Since El Chol is a very small town, it is easy to get to know people and form solid friendships. People are eager to get to know you and eager to help you in any situation. However, male/female friendships are limited due to cultural norms. As a 25-year-old woman, it has been a little hard to make girl friends my age, since most are already married with kids and don’t necessarily have the freedom to leave the house to go to the park or come over for dinner, etc. Thus, my friendships here are different than those I had in the US, but no less meaningful or rewarding.

It can be very frustrating working in the Municipality. Guatemalan politics both on the national and local levels are very complicated. Guatemala is not a meritocracy; jobs and benefits are usually given based on who you know and favors owed rather than merit. There is much turn over with municipal employees due to these conditions and also the fact that the pay is low and never on time. (Salaries should be paid monthly, but often 2-4 months pass without payment). It is difficult to create sustainable projects and sad to see lost human resources with such turn over. Politics dictate everything. Despite efforts for transparency and following the spirit or intention of the system of development councils, politics determine which communities are benefited for any project or program. It is important as a Peace Corps volunteer to seek means to increase transparency and more fair distribution of benefits, and when not possible, to distance oneself as much as possible from this drama.

Working directly with rural women has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my work as a volunteer. Due to the situation of the culture of machismo which brings discrimination and even abuse against women, Guatemalan females, especially in the rural areas, have limited opportunities and low self esteem. In certain situations, just asking a woman to say her name in public causes her to giggle, hide her face, become extremely embarrassed and incapable of responding. It is very rewarding to see women build confidence in themselves and be able to speak in public.

Religious beliefs, both Catholic and Evangelical, are very strong here and a fatalistic outlook on life on common. For example, when asking a group of women what they wanted their community to be like in ten years, one woman responded that only God knows if we will be alive in ten years so there is no point in bothering to think about it. But for every woman with her attitude, there is perhaps another optimistic woman working hard to bring up her family and her community from their current conditions, taking an active, rather than passive role in what happens in her life. It is important to encourage women and motivate them to see the positive side of life and their role in improving it. I also have learned so much from the women here and they are truly an inspiration for me.

In the end, the volunteer experience is truly rewarding. Oftentimes we may not even know that effect we have had on individuals’ lives. It is important to keep positive and look for the small changes, and focus on relationships with people.

G. Views on Peace Corps’ role

El Chol is surprisingly developed for such a small town that is so secluded from any big city. There is a lot of commerce and building going on, with many family members sending money home from the US. At times, the volunteer can feel like people here do not need as much help as in other places – that although they are still behind in many areas, there are other towns that could use a volunteer much more. However, even though El Chol is more developed than some other places, there are still many poor or disempowered families in town and in the aldeas, and all are in need.

It is important to keep in mind the history of paternalism with development work in Guatemala. In some cases people in the communities do not value knowledge-based development with adult education, but prefer infrastructure projects or programs that give material goods. The volunteer should maintain an awareness of this situation and not continue the paternalism that has been taking place in this country for decades. For this reason, I think that Peace Corps is one of the few organizations that genuinely gets development work right. While no organization is perfect, Peace Corps allows people the time and opportunity to really get to know a community and its people before attempting development projects with them, not for them. As volunteers we serve as a human resource rather than a checkbook, teaching, training, and sharing rather than giving, giving, giving. We have the tools and the support, and it is up to each one of us to do what we can to help the people of Guatemala to the best of our ability.

I believe the role of a Peace Corps volunteer exchange knowledge, experiences, and ideas, learning and teaching simultaneously. It is very difficult to teach people from a culture and community that you know nothing about so it is important to learn the customs, the language, the worldview, and the sensitivities of the people before you begin to teach. I also believe a volunteer should be open to trying new things, making new friendships and slow to judge. A volunteer goes through many different stages of emotion and it is often hard to adapt to a new culture, but it is important to remember that we are guests in this country, in each community, and in each home.

In terms of Peace Corps’ mission, we are supposed to be bridging the gap between the two cultures while doing development work. I have found it very rewarding to tell people here was it is “really” like in the US, since most of their concept of it comes from the media. It has also been special sharing Guatemalan culture with friends and family through pictures, stories, a blog, and their visits there.

Lessons learned:
• It is important to maintain good communication with the Municipal Mayor and Municipal Council through written reports, formal meetings, and informal advisories.
• Annual, monthly, weekly, and daily planning is very important with coworkers.
• Take advantage of the knowledge, resources, advice, contacts, and community organization of the NGOs present.
• Talk a lot with everyone; make professional relationships and many friendships.
• Look for people who want to work with you such as teachers, youth, community leaders, neighbors, etc.
• Always be a good example of an independent professional woman without tolerance for machismo, abuse, discrimination, or disrespect.
• Have patience with everything, but keep fighting the good fight with perseverance and a positive and optimistic attitude!

Good byes and the end.

I went to the preschool and sixth grade graduation ceremony of the Trapiche Viejo school with one of my friends whose daughter was graduating from sixth grade and whose niece and nephew from preschool. She doesn´t have a camera, so really wanted me to take pictures of the event. Many kids don´t continue studying passed sixth grade (and some don´t even make it that far), so it´s a big deal. It was a really cute ceremony, except that the Mayor was the sponsor of the event and was supposed to give the welcome speech, so they waited two hours to start (one hour is normal waiting time here) and he never showed up. It was really cute watching each kids parents or family member pass to the front to congratulate their kid and take pictures with the teachers and the director. There was one father who went up alone and shook his kid’s hand, (what parent shakes hands with their kid for their graduation?) then paused, then gave him a rough hug pulling the kid’s head to his chest and went he went back to his seat, you could see the dad was crying and the kid was rubbing his eyes and shaking his head like he was crying too. I think the public witnesses the first hug that dad ever gave to his son.

At a woman´s solicitation, we went and did a charla (“chat”) in the very far out aldea of Pacoc. It is technically part of El Chol, but it´s on the other side of the mountains closer to Rabinal and more culturally similar to there, so it is a very forgotten little settlement. A lady that lives there has been participating in our Municipal Womens Leaders conferences and she invited us out there since there´s not much support that goes there. Doña Mari is a super spunky lady that is chatty, smiley, and gets excited about everything while her neighbors that came that were the shyest group of women I have even met here who were too shy to even tell you their name. They also speak shaky Spanish since their mother tongue is A’chí. We had a great time though. Her house is in the middle of nowhere on a precipice, looking out on a gorgeous green valley with view almost all the way around. She has all kinds of plants growing and chicken, dogs, pigs, and little kids under foot. When we showed up, she gave us lemonade (never mind the source of the water) and homemade bread. We did an activity on self-esteem and women’s rights that they accepted very well. By the end they were laughing and enjoying themselves and had gotten over their shyness, slightly. At the end of the activity, Doña Mari served us arroz con leche (rice with milk), a sweetened hot drink made with cinnamon. Her three daughters were adorable taking a hundred photos of me on their cell phone. She also sent us home with cooked guisquil, a green spiny squash. It was such a nice experience it made me wish that we had started going there early on.

We did our last HIV/AIDS workshop together from the Women’s Office in El Amatillo. This is a mostly indigenous rural community with very shy women, mostly illiterate, who are not used to talking about such topics. We started off with about 25 women there, part way through it started to drizzle so a bunch of them left before they thought it might rain harder as the excuse, but really because they didn’t really want to be there learning about HIV. There were about 8 that stayed through the whole thing, and most of them weren’t really paying attention. So naturally I was pretty bummed about the whole thing. However, there were two women who were paying particularly close attention and asking questions. That’s pretty much development work in a nutshell. It’s slow, poco a poco, (little by little), and you have to be satisfied with small results like 2 out of 25 women really grasping an HIV workshop. You have to find the success in that those two people, even though only two, were two people who weren’t informed before, but maybe are more empowered now. That about sums it up. Frustrating as hell, but worth it for the little successes.

I went and saw a fellow volunteer’s project in Granados when she coordinated the construction of additional classrooms for the elementary school out of plastic bottles filled with trash. Really cool way to involve the community, reuse trash, and raise environmental awareness. It was an amazing project and I am so proud of her.

Leaving here is a BIG process of good bye activities with every sector. I had an awesome good bye excursion to a swimming pool in Granados with my little soccer girls and their families and my family that a few soccer moms helped me plan. We all piled into a big truck used for carrying construction supplies, standing up holding onto the iron bars and bouncing our way along the dirt road. I organized all the food, getting tortillas, meat to grill, refried beans, salad, and sodas for almost 50 people. I was greatly pleased when there was plenty of food and everyone said it was delicious. We were there all day long from 10 am til 4:30 there girls ridiculously happy playing in the water and the parents and families enjoying themselves too. It’s not every day they go doing something fun and different like that. I printed out pictures from the Departmental Games tournament and gave each girl a copy. It was a great day and great memories.

I had a good bye lunch in La Ciénega where the ladies killed a chicken in my honor and made a delicious stew. I made them recipe books with a collection of all the recipes we had made together with photos of them and cute graphics of smiling carrots and what not. They were quite pleased. The trek out there was rather exciting since we ran into many cows which we were warned were quite ferocious. We ended up shooing them quite a long ways before we found an escape path to get around them. Since I´m not accustomed to herding cattle, I yelled at them what seemed natural in Spanish, which was “Échense chuchos!” which translates as “get out of here street dogs!” My compañeras just about peed their pants laughing at me yelling that.

There was a good bye/Halloween party with Peace Corps volunteers from the Verapaces region at the cabin in Tactic, the usual site of our regional gatherings. The theme was superheroes and people went all out. I wore a beautiful apron the indigenous women wear as a cape.

I did a ceremony of the giving of diplomas/good bye party for my English students, one for each class. I baked a congratulations cake and we celebrated in my house and they were all very appreciative of the classes and the gesture.
My closest muni girls, being the coordinators of the Womens Office and the Planning Office and the secretary all came over to my house for an intimate little good bye parties with just us. They brought the traditional Guatemalan snack food of sandwiches made with white bread, processed ham, ketchup, and mayo and orange soda to drink. It was quite precious.

The next day we did one with the whole muni in the afternoon after work on my last day. We ate hamburgers and drank hot chocolate and every single person that works in the muni gave words, meaning a little speech about me. And then of course I had to give words. It was a cute formal affair and made me feel all special and fuzzy inside. They gave me a lovely stuffed animal of a pink dog on a red velvet heart and a banner than they all signed.

My host family did a really sweet good bye dinner for me with the whole family. They made their specialty of “Pollo en Pepsi”, chicken in Pepsi, as in the soda. The sauce is actually made with Pepsi soda. Dona Hilda gave a very tearful speech before the meal, telling me that I will always be part of the family, that they love me very much, and that the meal was very simple, but the least she could do. It made me cry too and I had to give a speech, of course, thanking them and giving my most heartfelt sentiments.

My old site mate came back and surprised me! I was so excited and had no idea she was coming, so we got to catch up and she helped me so much in every way in my moving out process.

My last day in El Chol was All Saints Day. I went to the cemetery and saw families there fixing up the graves of their loved ones, laying flowers, pine branches, candles, soda, oranges, and sharing a meal together. There was live marimba music and tons of kids flying kites in the soccer field. It was cool since there were lots of people there I could go around and say good byes, having the same conversation with each one. My last few days were kind of a constant flow of people stopping by my house with good words and gifts. It was very intense and very emotional, but what it needed to be. My feelings about leaving are so mixed up and complex; it’s so complicated.

So now I have left El Chol, sad and happy, I am. Did all the Peace Corps paperwork, signatures, reports, and bureaucratic stuff. Sadly saying good bye to all my closest Peace Corps friends. Heading out on a bus to Honduras, traveling through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, taking a sailboat to Colombia, and traveling through Ecuador and Peru. Flying back to the states from Lima in time for Christmas.
Thank you to everyone for all your support in this crazy adventure I’ve been on. Can’t wait to see you all soon!!!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Independence Day, COS, Dueñas feria, 25th birthday, library, bad bananas, home stretch…

Independence day on September 15th was well celebrated. The thing is, as most celebrations in Guatemala, it´s not just the day, but the entire week leading up to it. So every afternoon for the preceding week there were school presentations of traditional dances, complete with the burning of the bull and devil where they set off firecrackers that are strapped to some one while they dance around. Pure craziness. Following the presentations is the sale of all the traditional foods from the region that each kid brings. But there isn´t that much quantity, so everyone pushes to get at the good food stands before everything runs out. I enjoyed delicious pinol, atol, ceviche, tostadas, torejas, manjar, etc.

To celebrate our completion of service, almost our entire group, or what´s left of us (we have lost five for various reasons along the way), went to the beach on the Pacific Coast at Monterrico where we have celebrated occasions in the past. It was a delightful time hanging out all together celebrating our service and discussing what comes next for us. The general drift is go back to the states, live with family, look for a job, and for some apply to grad school. It´s tough times for job hunting, despite this awesome experience we now all have. We all cooked meals together, splashed in the ocean, lounged in the pool, played beach volleyball, and danced into the night, soaking in our last time together as a group.

Our beach extravaganza was followed by our official Peace Corps Close of Service Conference. This three day conference in a nice colonial hotel in Antigua with delicious food was super helpful in terms of processing our service, preparing to leave, and looking at next steps. We covered all the PC paperwork and drama of closing bank accounts and getting flights, medical stuff, review of aspiration statements and letters to ourselves that we wrote before service, accomplishments during service, grad school options, job searches and interviews, evaluation of PC Guatemala and our respective programs. It was all rather emotional too with tears because the good byes started, we showed a slideshow of a selection of our photos with each other, and our muni program supervisor is retiring after 27 years working for Peace Corps and we are his final group. Our final night we got all dressed up fancy for dinner and did an activity where we guessed each others´ five year plans that we had each prepared anonymously.

The women´s soccer tournament continues with games every Sunday. Our team is doing well and it´s lots of fun. The only thing is it is ridiculously hot under the heat of the midday sun playing in the dusty dirt field. And we don´t have uniforms so the colors always get confusing. And everyone always arrives late and both teams start playing without full teams, and slowly the teams fill out. Every week. It´s kind of ridiculous, but really fun.

I had to go to the Peace Corps Office to give a training to the new trainees on Gender and Development as part of my committee work. It was good to spend some more time with the trainees who are going to replace us and the training went well. I stayed with a volunteer friend in San Miguel Dueñas, near Antigua, which was celebrating their town fair. That´s sure a town that knows how to celebrate! It was intense. There were firecrackers and bombs going off all night. There was awesome live music, rides, games, and tons of food. We hit up the taco and churro stands multiple times and rode the giant ferris wheel forever since they don´t let you get off until there are more people to get on. We probably spent over 30 minutes up on that rickety, rusty machine, but had a great view of the awesome fireworks shows. The bands played well past 6 am and in the morning there were drunks passed out all over the streets.

I celebrated my 25th birthday here is El Chol with lots of good celebrations. My third birthday in Guatemala! The week before I celebrated with some girlfriends during the feria in Dueñas and they made me a cake. I did a piñata party with my host family on Sunday Oct. 4th where Doña Hilda made chuchitos and I made a funfetti cake and the kids thoroughly enjoyed whacking at the piñata and getting at all the goodies. A couple of the sisters from the house gave me framed photos of their family that were really cute. Then on my birthday I received many hugs and good wishes and many “may that God bless you and that He give you many more years of life.” After work my coworkers from the muni threw me a little party at one of their houses with a little duck/chicken piñata and food a cake and jacks tournament. After that I had my English students over and I baked a pizza, their favorite, and we drank micheladas. All in all, a great day well celebrated.

A little while ago we organized a library improvement committee here in El Chol since the library here, well, sucks. And we´ve been super lucky and got various institutions, both private and public to donate books. We´ve gotten donations of a few hundred books of various types, the most importante being some children´s books that were seriously lacking. Hopefully these efforts continue since we have visions of creating a children´s corner, story hour with activities, study groups for older kids, etc.

With all the problems with malnutrition and no rain and all that, there have been way more food donations and distribution from institutions and the government here. Of course that causes all sorts of problems of how to distribute the goods. Really, there is no good way to do it. They had each community mayor make a list of all the people in their communities, and then separated out all the corn, beans, oil, sugar, etc. that they are giving away into bags and had all the people come to town. But of course there are always problems with people who didn’t make it onto the list, and communities that weren´t accounted for at all due to political reasons. Drama. Also, there was a huge donation of Chiquita bananas, which were intended for the schools. Well, they didn´t get distributed so when they started to rot, they started just giving them away to the municipal employees and people and the street and just whoever in general. The garbage cans in the muni were full of banana peels. Quite disheartening.

Well, I´m coming down the homestretch here! Less than one month to go being in the Peace Corps. I´m trying to get prepared for my departure since there is so much to do between preparing my replacement, organizing materials and documents, cleaning out my house and giving stuff away, getting Peace Corps paperwork in order, assembling thank you cards and parting gifts, and packing. It´s a very complex process on the one hand being so excited to come home and see everyone, and on the other it being so hard to say good bye to everyone here not knowing if/when I´ll see them again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Brother and Sister visit, muni work, God willing, Departmental Games, drought, new volunteers, Paris Hilton, Lake house, sad news, Esquipulas

My brother and sister came to visit! We spent Friday in Antigua checking out the market and the sites and visiting my host family in Alotenango. Then Saturday I took them on the long dusty chicken bus ride to El Chol. We spent all day Sunday at the soccer field where they got to see the finals of the soccer tournament that my girls´ team played in and also my women’s team that I play with when we won first place. Monday they visited my work and participated in my English class where they ate pinol, the traditional tomato and corn based soup from this area and they showed pictures from home and talked about themselves when my students had the opportunity to ask them questions in English. We impromptively spent an entire afternoon at Norma’s who is an incredibly nice woman with a very kind family and they fed us lunch and my brother enjoyed the homebrewed liquor she insisted we try. We took photos with their adorable family and they gave us souvenirs of typical shirts and a nice woven man-purse bag for my brother. During the time in El Chol we also spent time with my host family and enjoyed paches (potato tamales with pork and a spicy chili) and drank homemade coffee. We spent one more day shopping in Antigua and stayed our final night in a nice hotel in Guatemala City. My brother and I then traveled to Belize! It was absolutely stunningly beautiful, exactly as one sees a quintessential postcard of the Caribbean...white sand beaches, tropical fish, palm trees, locals on bicycles, etc. We spent a day out on a sail boat where we got a couple incredible snorkeling stops and swam with sharks, sting rays, and amazing fish among coral reefs. We visited Caye Caulker, another island, and had a yummy lunch there of stewed jerk chicken with rice and beans, and a lobster burrito. The food in general was incredibly delicious and we ate our fill of fresh seafood with shrimp, lobster, scallops, fish, etc. We spent the next day exploring Ambergris Caye, the island we stayed on, by bicycle and taking in the beaches, the shops, and the best ice cream I’ve ever had. It was super hot and humid but we had a fabulous time relaxing and taking it all in. It was so nice to have my brother and sister come to see me and so special the time that we spend together and that they now know El Chol and my people there.

My two years in the muni in El Chol have been vastly different. My first year I spent being the only woman in a male dominated office and this year I am a woman among women in the two offices that I work in. A nice little tradition that we have amongst ourselves is the 10:00 am coffee hour where we take a break to drink coffee and sometimes buy snacks like sweet bread or tamales or little sandwiches. It’s a nice little moment in the day where we all sit and chat and sometimes buy a newspaper to peruse if the guy shows up to sell them. We were using Styrofoam cups that we would wash out everyday, but then the coordinator of the Planning Office bought us all cute mugs and then wrote all our names on them so we eat have our own mug to use that we store in the office. Very cute.

We’ve been plugging away at our community diagnostic with the Women’s Office. In one of the communities we went to, one lady was upset and said that we were wasting her time with the workshop since we didn’t have anything to give away that day (as most institutions do when the visit communities). We told her that the benefits to the community are not always immediate but that she was free to leave at any time. Well she stayed, but when I posed the question to the women of “what do you want your community to be like in 10 years?” she responded that “there is no point in thinking 10 years in the future since only God knows if we will be alive then.” To which I replied, “yes, only God knows, but God willing we will be so let’s think of the future.” The same type of response follows in many communities to the question “what type of woman do you want to be in the future?” when they respond with “viejitas, si Dios nos presta la vida” (little old ladies, if God allows us life). For people that live their lives according to daily immediate needs with fatalistic beliefs, it’s difficult to get across the concept of futuristic thinking long term planning.

Due to our participation in the National Games, my elementary school girls´ soccer team got invited to the Departmental (State) Games on August 27th. It was great for them to participate again in a big one day tournament against other girls from the area. We got the muni to donate transportation and all piled into the microbus one on top of the other all squished in nice and tight. They played two games and lost but they enjoyed themselves immensely. Besides the fact that there were more girls that wanted to go than space, it all turned out very well. They won a trophy for third place and decided to give it to me for all the support I’ve given them. (Plus this solved the problem that the municipal tournament that they played in and also won a trophy, that one girl took it even though the rest of the girls had voted to give it to me and girls and parents showed up to my house crying about the problem. The appearance of another trophy solved all this.)

With my counterparts we´ve been continuing to conduct HIV workshops in El Chol with largely illiterate women’s groups. They have gone really well and I really enjoy this work. Presenting a topic such as HIV/AIDS to a group of women many of whom never went to school has its challenges. I have to look for alternative strategies to get the information across. Due to this experience as part of my work with the PC HIV Committee I volunteered to make a document about how to adapt the basic four hour participatory workshop into a two hour one for illiterate groups so that’s been keeping me busy.

Our Peace Corps HIV Prevention and Education Committee continues our work to train volunteers, counterparts, and make available materials. We had another productive meeting with PC admin keep them in the loop of our activities and to do some long term strategy planning. We also had our Gender and Development Committee (GAD) meeting and got a lot accomplished. I have now found replacements for my position on both of these committees so now I have to organize all my binders of materials to be able to pass along all the info.

Peace Corps holds periodic Project Design Management (PDM) workshops for volunteer counterparts so I took my Women’s Office Coordinator with me to the Peace Corps Office to participate in the training. It was fun to travel with her from El Chol and to take her and other counterparts around Antigua since they don’t know it very well. She felt cool getting to go spend the night in Antigua and be in the Peace Corps Office and all that. The workshop was really valuable for her and she has already implemented some of the techniques that they learned there.

The new Peace Corps trainees came to visit El Chol! This is the new group of Municipal Development volunteers who will be replacing us. Crazy. It was really cool to meet them and to be able to show them my town and explain all about our work with my coworkers. I think they really enjoyed the visit since they told me so and told me I was a “superstar” volunteer which was really sweet. They seem like a great group and I’m excited to get to know who my replacement will be and get her on board with everything. It makes it real that I’m leaving knowing that the person that will continue in my place is already here. Crazy!

The rainy season this year is conspicuously lacking rain. Everyone is very worried about drought, crop loss, elevated food prices, and hunger. I remember last year it rained hard all the time, like every afternoon and this year it goes weeks at a time without raining during the rainy season. The corn crops that started out green ended up all brown with huge losses for subsistence farmers. The real big worry is that there will be massive water shortages during the dry summer months when the crisis will really hit. There have been various articles in the newspaper and on T.V. about the problem and the American ambassador went to the department of Jalapa to observe the situation where he met with some of my fellow volunteer friends who work there.

Big news…Paris Hilton came to Guatemala! She was actually in Antigua one weekend when I was there but I didn’t see her and didn’t find out til afterwards. Then she went to Lake Atitlan to see some project or something or other, but all the photos were in the newspaper, even though a lot of people here have no idea who she is.
I spent a few days in Antigua to do my Close Of Service (COS) medical appointments where Peace Corps pokes and prods you to make sure you are healthy finishing your service to go home. Thankfully everything turned out well and the biggest relief is that I don’t have TB which some volunteers get (the inactive kind) and have to take medication for almost a year.

To celebrate our two year anniversary of being in country and a couple birthdays, our group rented out a beautiful house on Lake Atitlan for the weekend. It is owned by some former Peace Corps volunteers and they gave a great deal on such a fantastic home. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a house with such a stunning view of a crystal lake surrounded by volcanoes from the toilet. We spent the weekend relaxing, swimming off the private dock, and visiting lake towns to do last chance souvenir shopping. We cooked big family style meals with spaghetti and meatballs made by the Italian in our group and chicken masala from the Indian in our group. It was my last chance at the lake and when the moment came to leave, hard to tear myself away from the clear water and volcano views.

Last week there was some sad news. A woman (my age) who had worked in the Women’s Office in another municipality in our department and we had been to several trainings, workshops, and meetings with her, committed suicide. Apparently she got pregnant by a married man and he rejected her as did her family and so she drank agricultural pesticides and killed herself and her baby. This is incredibly sad and it is not altogether that uncommon. Societal pressures here on women are so strong and resources so few for women that find themselves in difficult situations with no one to turn to. In other sad news, the brother of one of my coworkers was killed in Guatemala City the same week. He was a just graduated policeman (21 years old) who was killed in a shootout with one of the gangs there. The violence in this country is shocking. There was an article in the paper awhile back about how Guatemala signed the Peace Accords to end their 36 year civil war in 1996, but more people die each year from violence than people that were killed in the massacres in the civil war and so Guatemala is living in a violent “Time of Peace” without peace. Government corruption, poverty, drug cartels, extortions, and gangs continue to feed the violence.

I had the privilege of going on a trip to Esquipulus with my family and about 60 people from El Chol. Esquipulas is the site of the most important Catholic shrine and largest pilgrimage in Central America, a town in the Eastern part of Guatemala in the department of Chiquimula that has a beautiful church that turns 250 years old this year. The motive for Catholics making a pilgrimage there is the famous crucifix of a carving of the Black Christ, The Lord of Esquipulas which is inside the church. So our town rented out one of the buses that goes to El Chol, a bright red and green old school bus from the states, and we made the seven hour road trip pilgrimage. It was the epitome of cultural experiences, to say the least.
We gathered at 3 am, the appointed leaving time, and finally pulled out of El Chol at 4am which for Guatemala is very on time. In the big bus it took 2 and a half hours to go 14 miles to get to Rabinal. The road up the mountain there is pretty bad right now. A few minutes of that time included a “bathroom stop” where the stopped and everyone piled off, peed on the side of the road wherever they found convenient. The kid in front of me got sick and was throwing up out the window and droplets of it flew back into the bus and landed of me. Gross. After much bouncing along the bad roads, hours of bouncy music, and a stop in El Rancho for a bit to eat breakfast food we had brought along, we made it to Esquipulas by 11 am. The last half hour of the journey everyone on the bus was chanting and singing hymns. We found a hotel amongst the plethora of cheap options there and got everyone settled in. The family had brought food with them to eat during the trip so we heated up tortillas and beans in the parking area of the hotel in a barrel cut in half long ways with firewood inside. For some reason it didn’t matter that we brought meat, cheese, beans, etc. and didn’t have a fridge and it was sweltering hot. And that was how we ate for two days.

First on the agenda was to stand in line to go see the dark wood carved statue of Christ. We were lucky and came on a rather slow day, but the next day we saw the line wind all the way around the park and people often wait several hours for their moment to see it. I watched the members of my family cry, pray, and kiss the glass when they saw it. Some people make their way on their knees and then everyone has to walk backwards out of the viewing area. Outside the blinding white church I watched people approach on their knees in sacrifice. Outside you are swarmed with souvenir and religious relic hawkers. For several blocks around the church are stalls with very aggressive vendors selling candles, framed images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, statues, clay incense burners, keychains, goofy hats, rosaries, typical sweets and candies, and everything else you can imagine. We spent a couple hours going around buying all kinds of the stuff. That evening we relaxed at the hotel and I played soccer, cards, and an improvised Catch Phrase in Spanish with the kids.
We went to mass twice the following day, once at 6 am, and then at 11 am after the rest of the hundreds of pilgrims from Baja Verapaz showed up and entered the church singing hymns. The church was packed with I couldn’t even estimate how many thousands of people all packed in the center aisle and along the sides and sitting on the wooden part of the pews where you kneel. Despite the sweltering heat and pack of sweaty bodies, it was pretty powerful to listen to all those people chanting and singing together with the echo of the old church. All of the people from the eight municipalities of Baja Verapaz had on matching t-shirts (including me) with a giant image of Jesus on the front and on the back the words “Baja Verapaz” and “for me Christ is life.” It was really cool to see such an array of Guatemalans from rich people from the Capital to the very, very poor. On colorful display were the traditional woven clothes from the indigenous people all over the country. Women used any kind of cloth to cover their heads including bandanas, handkerchiefs, and beach towels with any silly print on them like an American 100 dollar bill or an American flag. After the mass people lines up outside on painted lines to have the priests come by and sprinkle holy water on their heads and on all the souvenirs they bought to have it blessed. We also passed through the candle burning area where people go in and light candles of certain colors for certain prayers. I watched Dona Hilda pass the candle over various members of the family and herself while chanting before going in to light them.

On the way home, the same kid was throwing up in front of me, except this time onto the floor since someone told him to not throw up out the window, and instead into a bag. So I had to gingerly keep my flip flops in one place to avoid getting my bare feet in the vomit, even though the bottom of my flip flops got stuck in it. Despite all the physical discomforts and frustrations of the trip, it was amazing to see the customs and traditions in action. I know how important it is to them, especially to Dona Hilda who never leaves the house in El Chol and I could count the number of times she has ever left. She even brought her 89 year old mother who is now practically blind, deaf, in diapers, and can hardly walk. That’s dedication. These are good memories to have with my family.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Eight clowns and a gringa go to El Chol

As they do from time to time, the communities in San Juan Sacatepéquez en route to El Chol were protesting, this time against a cement factory that one of the biggest companies in Guatemala wants to put in their town. The company says it will bring jobs, the community says it will only bring pollution. So they blocked the roads and protested several days in the town and in the capital. Consequently, there was no transportation to El Chol for several days. I was coming back from Antigua and was trying to figure out what I would do to get back. My site mate called me and informed me that a group of clowns were coming to El Chol to do an educational act about HIV/AIDS and since they didn’t know how to get here, it worked out perfectly that I would show them the way and they would give me a ride. But as it goes, they left late and then there was a landslide on the route they were taking and they ended up super late so I was waiting in the town of San Lucas for six hours for these clowns. There is only so much coffee you can drink at one café and I think the security guards in the commercial center I was waiting at were a bit sketched out by me wandering around so much for so many hours. I guess it was worth it though since I got a ride and was well entertained the whole time. That is how the amusing thought occurred to me that I, the gringa, was in a van with eight clowns. They clowns were all university students and lots of fun. In El Chol they gave their presentation complete with one of the clowns in a giant condom suit and we played some great pickup basketball and soccer games in the park the two nights they were there.

As part of our work in the Women’s Office we go out to the communities where we are invited to various types of workshops with them. We went to the community of San Francisco to do a self-esteem workshop with the women there. It was a small group but went really nicely. We all sat in a circle and did various types of activities to get conversation going about self-esteem. For example, having them write their name (or draw a picture) on a piece of paper and tear off pieces for situations that they share of things that have happened to them to hurt their self-esteem…then do the reverse and have them put the puzzle back together with examples of situations that have helped their self-esteem not only to increase awareness of the effects on their self worth, but also to recognize the effects of their own actions on the self esteem of others (like the huge problem of gossip in small communities). For these women, to some no one has even mentioned self-esteem to them before and with so many factors going against their feelings of self worth, including poverty and the machismo society they live in, it is an essential topic that forms the base of citizen participation and community development.

Recently I also conducted a training for a group of women in the Trapiche Viejo community on HIV/AIDS. It went really well, considering the challenge of adapting the activities to a group of mostly illiterate women. I used lots of props like to show the three methods of transmission, (blood, mother to baby, and sexual) I constantly referred to a syringe, a baby doll, and a pair of panties that I would hold up and wave around. This elicited lots of laughter, but I hope it was effective to get the ideas across. We also did skits of applicable situations to make the topic seems more real to them. This was actually the second time we had attempted to do the workshop (which had been asked for when we conducted our community diagnostic) but the first time it started raining so hard that you couldn’t hear a word I was saying over the noise the raindrops made on the tin roof of the school. This time it didn’t start raining til near the end, so I almost finished the workshop with them being able to hear me. I think that working with women’s groups on this topic is almost the most challenging because in this society they are the ones with the least amount of control or perceived control over their lives, especially their sexuality. Sexual promiscuity among men is culturally accepted and even promoted, but a wife telling her husband to use a condom may cause many problems in the relationship where women have mentioned that their husbands become very suspicious. It is difficult to answer the questions that arise that have to do with these types of cultural barriers because so much of it has to do with much more basic issues of machismo, self-esteem, trust, and communication skills. It is good to start getting these topics out into the open, especially in the rural areas where women have never received any kind of orientation of any topic relating to sexuality or HIV/AIDS and as we also emphasis, values begin at home so it is up to them as mothers to educate their children on these topics.

The Women’s Office hosted our Second Conference of Women Leaders on June 25th which was another big success. We covered the topic of community development and the System of Development Councils and an invited psychologist talked about women’s rights, and a representative from the Ministry of the Economy gave a motivational presentation on recognizing themselves as businesswomen and promoting small income generation economic activities. The women got into groups and came up with ideas for simple businesses that don’t exist here but could do well, such as a floral shop or a cake shop. The event was a big success and ended with a nice lunch provided by the muni.

In following with our goals of training women in various topics and promoting small income generation projects, we were planning a course to train a group on how to make cheese, given by the national vocational training academy (INTECAP). There are many families that have cows, and in the rainy season there is grass for them to eat, so they give milk, and various women know how to make one kind of fresh cheese. But they only know how to make one kind so the idea was to train women who didn’t know how to make to learn, and for those that already know, to perfect their skills and learn how to make other varieties to sell here. We tried to tell everyone about it, both in the urban and rural areas and we posted signs and information everywhere. The Women’s Office Coordinator and I both had high interest in learning as well, but unfortunately we didn’t get enough people signed up to bring the instructor in from the capital.

We received the opportunity to participate in a project to build houses for single mothers at very low costs, essentially with all the materials provided and they would just have to pay for the labor. So we got 25 women listed as beneficiaries for the project and they had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get all the paperwork done and everything. It has been very difficult to coordinate since the project came from the Women’s Commission from the Departmental Development Council which we as the Women’s Office participate in, but there are many different government institutions involved and various other political players that have made executing the project a mess of politics and red tape.

We continue to work with the Municipal Council of Children and Adolescents (COMUNA), except now on our own without the help of the NGO that had been promoting the project. We got the group together and I helped plan the agenda, did some team building activities, and did a training on the System of Development Councils for the kids. We then created an action plan which they rehearsed, and then presented at the following COMUDE meeting.

In the Municipal Development Council (COMUDE) we reorganized the commissions for the second time with the hope of them sticking. The idea is that the City Council is organized into the same commissions so that each member is responsible for a certain one, and then leads the same one as part of the COMUDE where other NGOs and civil society participate. We did a training with one of the NGOs to orient everyone again on the work of the commissions and elaborate their yearly work plans (June isn’t too late to start, right?)

Municipal newsletter was done for the first time done without me when I was away for Peace Corps activities. I was thrilled to come back and see it actually printed and photocopied and being distributed while I hadn’t been there. It was nice because I have been very involved in the production of every issue since I got here so it’s nice to see that the people I have helped train now do it themselves. There is some hope for sustainability in the muni!

The beginning of July started with the All Volunteer conference which is the only time all year when all Peace Corps Guatemala folks get together first for a professional development conference of networking with NGOs to work more effectively in our sites, and then focusing on life after PC with resume writing, grad school grants, etc. Kelly and I took advantage of the opportunity to pay our host families in Alotenango a visit. It had been awhile, but we were welcomed warmly with open arms as always and made me sad to think that I’ll only have a few more opportunities to visit them before I go. Just great families.

My best friend Jesse came to visit again!!! We had an awesome time hanging out and doing cool stuff. She was there for the annual Peace Corps 4th of July party complete with an American style BBQ and lots of American hip hop played, resulting in a great dance party as we all celebrated our American-ness. Go America.
Then we made the trek out to El Chol again and she accompanied me to the CODEDE meeting, the Departmental Development Council meeting in which all the municipal mayors from the eight municipalities of the department of Baja Verapaz were present in El Chol hosting the event. In sum it was a long boring meeting, but important to be there as our housing project for single mothers was discussed and people put in their two cents about how it shouldn’t be politicized and the governor responded how it wasn’t being. Hmm. They also discussed all the projects that are being executed with funds approved by the Council and how all the 2008 projects are behind schedule and requested more time to finish them, and the 2009 projects haven’t even been started yet. No surprises there. Anyway, it was a rather amusing meeting because there was a scheduled protest by all the people in El Chol with motorcycles who were upset about the new law requiring them to wear a helmet and vest with reflective symbols with the license plate registration. It is a law attempting to reduce the amount of crime that takes place with assaults from motorcycles (mainly in the capital), to allow the police to easily identify people, but many people are against it (especially in the rural areas). So they were expecting a big thing and brought the army in, I’m not exactly sure if it was for that purpose or to keep general calm since it was a meeting of lots of important people, but either way the soldiers were patrolling the perimeter and keeping a good eye on things. It was a generally jovial affair with music playing, tamales given out upon arriving for breakfast, chicken salad sandwiches for a snack time, and seafood stew complete with a whole crab for each person for lunch and beers for the men that wanted to partake. The municipal employees, who haven’t been paid in four months, woefully ate their missing salaries.
Our time in El Chol continued well, Jesse came with me to my English classes and my soccer practice. All the girls remembered her from the previous year and were excited to see her again. In general people (me included) thought that it was pretty cool that she liked El Chol so much that she wanted to come back. People are pretty proud of their town and like that foreigners like it. We participated in a reforestation project that my site mate had organized where students from various schools planted around 2000 trees on lands surrounding town. There is so much deforestation that happens here in consequence of firewood being the main source of cooking fuel, that projects like this are so needed. It was cute cause they did a march through the town before the planting with each kid holding their sapling tree so it was a powerful image with a couple thousand kids parading through the streets holding up banners and carrying the saplings. The day of environment continued with a cultural night in the market with the usual fanfare of loud music and the whole town coming out to see what the excitement was about. The kids did some really clever skits relating to the environment and there was a magician too from Guate who entertained to their delight.
The next day we made the long journey to the town of Lanquin, Alta Verapaz where if you look at a map, it doesn’t look like it´s that far from El Chol, but it took us almost 10 hours to get there from the time we left my house at 5:00 am, including time we stopped to get coffee in Salamá and eat in Cobán and such, but still, a long trip. We went to see the famous bat-filled Caves of Lanquin where the river is born inside the caves. It was a rather physically challenging excursion as we had to shimmy our way up and down through the caves and not fall on the slippery surfaces, including one move where we had to cross this cavern with a full body reach to the slippery rocks on the other side. The caves are used by the Keqchí people for ceremonies and such and there are altars with candles inside. Thankfully I felt my claustrophobia under control and Jesse kept her fear of heights at bay as well. The really cool part was that right at dusk, the millions and millions of bats make their exodus into the night to hunt for food so as we stood in the pitch darkness, there were all these bats flying all around us. Pretty crazy. The next we did the tour of Semuc Champey. We started the day by swinging off a high embankment into the river off a rope swing where we had to swim out quickly to avoid being carried off by the current. We then got inner tubes and went tubing down the river a ways. Then we went in some other caves where we had to wade through water up to our waists and swim in some parts holding candles for light. At some parts we had to climb rope ladders and pass under a waterfall that was there inside. Finally we spent the afternoon swimming and lounging in the teal blue series of pools that are Semuc Champey where a surging river splits and part goes underground, and the rest tranquilly passes over the series of clear pools perfect for wading and swimming. It is a stunning natural beauty. Dinner at the hostel was delicious with good chats with other travelers from all over the world.
The next day we went back to Antigua and stayed at this awesome refuge in a little village above Antigua where our room was in a tree house. That´s right, the structure was built around the bed up in a tree. It was very rustic, but comfortable with the most stunning view of the villages surrounding Antigua in a green valley and the three volcanoes surrounding it all. At night there was a lightning storm between the volcanoes that lit up the sky. All in all it was a great trip with the BFF.

One of our friends, the woman that does the cleaning in the muni, invited my site mate and I over for dinner at her house as a goodbye for her. She is a woman that I admire very much. She is a single mom and works so hard to pay off her Habitat for Humanity house and bring up her three kids who are so well behaved, smart, fun, respectful, and insightful. I love going to her house cause we always have a good time and I love watching their family interactions. That night we played the card game Uno which got quite exciting.

This year I am so much more aware of the seasons and corresponding agricultural activities. The corn is getting tall, everything super green and pretty and looks all tropical-like because of the rains.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making chili in the campo, getting stuck in a barbed wire fence, medicinal plants, municipal soccer tournament, pork flu…

Since in the Women’s Office we don’t really have our own funds to do projects, we try to get on board and complement the work that other institutions that do have funding are doing. (The muni just paid its employees their salaries only the month of March in the second half of June, still owes April, May, and June). SHARE is an NGO that just came to El Chol this year that is doing programs in the schools. Their first project was “scholarships” for every kid in the municipality in 4th, 5th, or 6th grade where they give them food staples to help the family out to encourage families in poverty to keep their kids in school rather than send them off to work. So every month every family with kids in those grades receives sacks of beans, rice, flour, oil, etc. This is an interesting method because the help is going to the families of every kid in those grades, whether they need it or not. In other municipalities there have been problems with people selling the product. Anyway, since they are receiving quite a bit, people get bored of eating the same thing over and over and the women don’t know very many recipes to vary it up. The beans that they are being given are large red kidney beans, while people here are more accustomed to eating small black beans. I was over at the house of a friend drinking lemonade after a meeting in her community and she gave me some of the dried beans to try and I made Mom’s famous chili with them, with corn and cinnamon and cloves, and it turned out yummy. I brought some for the friend and some for Irma to try, and they both loved it.
So Irma and I are starting to do some food preparation/nutritional workshops to help people take advantage of the “scholarships”. We went and made the chili from the SHARE beans and a soy meat substitute product called Protemás in La Ciénega. The women loved it! They were super excited to try something new, using all ingredients that they are familiar with and can get, and brought home lunch already made for their families.
On our way walking there, on the path in front of a gate we had to go through, there was a whole family of cows with the complete with the mom, two calves, a bull, and the “uncle”, a horse. We are both a little nervous around unknown animals, and didn’t know what to do. We had to go through the gate, but all the animals were blocking it and every time we got closer, they all turned their heads to stare at us in a very threatening way. It was really rather silly, but the last thing we wanted was to get chased by an angry bull or an aggressive cow protecting her young. So we had to climb an embankment and go trudging through the thick underbrush. We came across a barbed wire fence which Irma squeezed through no problem. Irma is also not quite five feet tall and barely 100 pounds. So then she was like, “go on Katty, cross the fence.” But for my size, that was a bit more challenging than it was for her. I got one leg through and was bent in half when my shirt got caught in the wire. So then Irma was telling me to duck more, which I couldn’t. So then we both started laughing hysterically that I was stuck and then my pants got caught. I was hooked on the wire from above, hooked on the wire above and could not stop laughing and she couldn’t do anything to help cause the wire couldn’t be stretched any more. I finally wiggled my way out with only a small tear in my pants but with my stomach muscles hurting from laughing so hard. I made a jumped off a fairly steep part of the embankment to get back to the road, but Irma is so much smaller than me she was afraid to jump so had to keep trekking along to find a more sloping way down. She fell on her bum in the process which sent us into more peals of laughter. All to avoid some cows.

Sometimes we get lucky on the way back from a community and can hitch a ride in a pick up or a tuk tuk that is heading into town. One day we were bumping down the hillsides in the back of a truck with like 6 other women. One of them made a comment about my strange ear piercing and all the rest leaned over to ogle at it. Then an older woman clicked her tongue, shook her head, and announced “that’s just not right…” It made me chuckle. What can you say to that?

The governmental institution for the Protection of Indigenous Women invited us as the Women’s Office with several community leaders to participate in a health forum in Salama, the departmental capital. Even though El Chol is mainly mestizo, it’s nice that the institution takes us into account for their activities. We went to the event and it was really interesting feeling out of place with everyone else in the indigenous clothing, speaking the indigenous language Achi. To commence the event, they did a traditional Mayan religious ceremony with candles, flowers arranged in the four cardinal points, and prayers. It’s really interesting to see the blend of the traditional Mayan and the traditional Catholic practices because their religion is a definite hybrid. They cross themselves and say in the midst of the prayers in Achi, “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” We were the only of only two group of non indigenous women there and afterwards the women from my town commented that they have lived all their lives in Guatemala and had never seen a Mayan ceremony like that. The majority of the workshop was in Achi, but they translated summaries into Spanish. The focus was on the practice of traditional healing use of medicinal plants and several mid-wives were invited to speak. They express themselves better in their mother tongue and the majority of the participants understood better in Achi. I was totally lost since I don’t even know they names of all the local medicinal plants in Spanish, but it was a cool experience to observe anyway. One of the women from El Chol that went with us is a midwife as well and she loved all the information. Despite feeling a bit out of place, the women from El Chol liked the event and were busy scribbling down the information on the plants about which one makes women lactate after giving birth (to be mixed with chocolate and cinnamon and drank), and how to make a bath of avocado leaves to soak before giving birth to make to make the baby come out easier. The Ministry of Health representative was there too, and people took the opportunity to make public their complaints about discriminatory treatment in the public healthcare system that caused tears in various accounts of very inappropriate treatment. The institution provided a delicious lunch of a great piece of chicken in sautéed onion sauce (nice pieces of breast meat are rare here) which we had to take to go and eat on the fly to not miss our microbus back to El Chol.

The muni has reinitiated a soccer tournament for boys, girls, and women which is cool since the men’s tournament is the biggest excitement that happens in town. Naturally my girls are playing, but they are divided into two teams since there’s a bunch of them. I’m also playing on a women’s team. So now my Sundays are spent all day at the soccer field helping out with the girls in the morning and playing myself in the afternoon. In the first game my team played in, I scored two goals to win the game 3-1, one on a free kick on the other I knocked in from a lovely arcing cross from my teammate.

Last weekend was the finals of the men’s tournament and my site mate and her friend and our fellow volunteers from nearby came to watch the game, which the whole town comes out to see. They have to bring in professional referees from elsewhere so that they are unbiased and not too many fights break out. The police were there, more out of a lack of anything else to do than from any risk. But there were like 6 of them there with their giant guns, as is customary, watching over everything. We celebrated birthdays with a BBQ with carne asada and a Funfetti cake that I made for the occasion from the mix and frosting I scored in Antigua.

I continue my work with the HIV/AIDS prevention committee with Peace Corps and the other weekend we had a meeting in Antigua. It was refreshing to have a “gringo” meeting where everyone is there on time, a tight agenda is adhered to, topics are presented with discussion and resolution following, and in two hours sharp the meeting finishes up with lots accomplished and action points to follow. Imagine a Guatemalan meeting the polar opposite of that. As part of my work in the muni, my life here sometimes feels like a Guatemalan meeting. Some of my fellow volunteer friends were also in Antigua for various reason and we took advantage to celebrate some June birthdays with a night out splurged on Sushi dinner!

The infamous influenza A H1N1 has made its way to this tiny corner of the world. Everyone is talking about it and there’s lots of “May God protect us…” There are also lots of puns and jokes made regarding the “pork flu” such as you know you have it when chicharrones (fried pork skins) come out when you sneeze. I think we are going to suspend some of our meetings with women in the communities for a bit til this dies down since the most recent one we went to, not a single woman showed up and we suspect it was because that was the day they announced there was a case in that very community. Lots of NGOs have cancelled activities that gather lots of people and the Ministry of Health has been putting up posters in lots of places with prevention and symptoms of the infection.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Reaching “that” point, Todos Santos – Nebaj hike, Women’s Office diagnostic, friends visit

At the beginning of May with a great group of volunteers we did one of the coolest hikes in the country from Todos Santos, Huehuetenango to Nebaj, Quiche. I don’t know the correct distance, but I think we did in the vicinity of 15 miles the first day and 10 miles the second day up and across the high Cuchamatans mountain range. The adventures started at 4:00 am when I left my site and arrived at my friend’s site in Todos Santos (the land of the red pants with the crazy horse race for All Saints Day) at 4:30 pm, picking up other friends along the way. We bought supplies and cooked a delicious dinner and headed out at 5:00 am in the dark and the cold the next morning. We took a bus to where we started hiking, with a quick stop along the way for a visit to some latrines with freezing cold cement seats and to buy hot tortillas with melted fresh cheese.
We had a fabulous guide, a Swiss man who came to Guatemala with Doctors without Borders and married an indigenous woman and stayed in Todos Santos 15 years ago. We hiked from 6:30 am to 4:30 pm almost constantly through a few sparsely populated areas of all indigenous Mam’ people that shyly peer out from their huts. It was lots of up and down, looking across a steep valley knowing that first you had to go down, and then all the way back up. We stopped for a respite at the bottom of the valley where a freezing pristine river ran through it and soaked our tired feet and watched two adolescent girls beating piles of clothes against rocks to get them clean. We breakfasted, lunched, and snacked on the food we had brought with us mostly consisting of tortillas, refried black beans out of a bag, hardboiled eggs, avocados, and mangos. The types of terrains we moved through were quite varied from the hot loose sandy inclines, cool pine forests, and the cold mountain ridge that had lots of rocks and very little vegetation and looked like some sort of disaster fallout (kind of reminded me of Mt. St. Helens).
The rain held off all day long until about the last ten minutes when we could already see our shelter for the night and it started to pour down rain so hard that we got as soaked as if it had been steadily raining all day long. We stayed the night in a small cold village settlement on the ridge in a wood house structure that had beds and wools blankets that some NGO had set up to promote ecotourism in the area. Our guide asked around for a family that would give us dinner and hungry and cold as we were, speculating about what they would give us, looking forward to the usual Guatemalan dinner fare of eggs, beans, and tortillas. As this is area lives in extreme poverty, we were given cabbage in water, corn dough wrapped in leaves, and hot sugar water to drink. It was a very humbling experience sitting in the “kitchen” of the house, a dark room with a dirt floor with an open fire built in the middle on the ground and thick smoke filling the air. The girl who served us, maybe about 17 years old, couldn’t speak a word of Spanish and only spoke Quiche and most likely had never been to a day of school in her life. We knew no more than two words in Quiche, matiox (thank you) and utz (good), which can barely get a smile but not much communication, so our group of eight just ate in silence as she reached her hand into the fire to pull out more corn dough wraps. That night we pushed the wood bed frames together and us five girls slept all scrunched together for warmth. Every single person had terrible gas and we all poisoned the air with our rank, all snuggled up together.
The second day we arose and started hiking early, having gone to sleep exhausted around 7:30pm. We arrived at our destination of the aldea of Acul, Nebaj, Quiche where we had to jump a fence where I ripped beyond repair my favorite hiking pants that I had had since freshman year of high school (1999?) In Acul there is a cheese making hacienda that we lunched on hot tortillas with this artisan cheese and cantaloupe juice and bought whole wheels of cheese, as it is only sold by the wheel, to divide amongst us. We caught a microbus into the actual town of Nebaj, where we transferred buses to make our way to Cunen where the married couple in group lives and had graciously agreed to house and feed us for the night. We had to wait at the crossroads for a microbus into their town when a giant thunderstorm moved in but we finally made it to their house where they spoiled us with homemade Mexican style chicken enchiladas and cold showers since the electricity was out the whole time we were there. It was very merry and jovial all of glad to have survived and to be hanging out together. Very cool hike, all in all one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Guatemala. After being here for so long, I thought I had seen pretty much everything, but this was definitely new and pretty mind blowing.

I had the realization the other day that I am now doing what I had imagined I would be doing in the Peace Corps after coming out of training. As I have said several times, there is a really good reason that Peace Corps is for two years. I’ve hit “that” point…where Spanish comes without thinking and often easier than English; where I feel genuine community acceptance; I feel needed and valued at work, People seek me out for various types of consultations; I crave tamales, beans and tortillas; a 12 hour chicken bus ride or a giant cockroach in my bed doesn’t even faze me; I’m doing what I’d envisioned doing; and I’m starting to panic about leaving.

My relationship with my counterpart, Irma, the Women’s Office coordinator, is what I feel like the counterpart/volunteer relationship strives to be. We balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well and have both a professional and friendly relationship. She is great with the women out in the rural communities and runs all the activities that I helped her plan. I help her a lot with planning, organization, motivation, institutional strengthening and computer skills and I follow her examples of culturally appropriate ways to do all our work.

The work we are doing together is now fitting into that image that I had coming out from training. I had imagined trekking through picturesque countryside stepping over pigs and chickens to get to women’s groups to do lots of participatory activities. It’s pretty much coming true. As part of our annual operating plan Irma and I are walking an hour each way up and down the mountains surrounding El Chol to complete a community diagnostic in each of the 28 communities that have community development councils (COCODEs) organized. We always meet in the afternoon in the community school. We set the meeting for 2:00 pm, as the women might have a moment of free time in the packed days of domestic responsibilities, but as the concept of time is loose here, we don’t start til well after 3:00 sometimes. We always start by introducing ourselves and explaining the existence of the women’s office. We ask them to go around and say their names, which are pulled out of them after much giggling, feet shuffling, hand wringing, and face hiding.
The diagnostic activity consists of the women completing an individual questionnaire that we read out loud to them as a group with questions both factual and opinionated related to demography, economic activities, health, education, domestic violence, and migration. We will be using the information from the diagnostic to have a better idea of the situation that women are living in the rural areas to assess their needs and then to prioritize the communities and projects we will work with. For example, if lots of women have an interest in learning about reproductive health issues, we can plan an informative discussion about the topic or coordinate with the health center in town to do an activity. The sheet that they have to fill out just has the question number and the letter options that they can choose, so they only need to be able to distinguish their letters a – e. But since most of the women can’t read and write, or can do so at such a basic level, it is a very trying task. When you had the women the sheet of paper they panic and tell you they can’t read and write, even if they can a little bit. I tell them not to worry, that we will help them or to sit next to someone who knows. They are even so afraid to hold a pen or pencil, since they have done it so few times in their lives or feels like they aren’t capable of managing the foreign object. The first few questions always take forever as you explain the concept of drawing a circle around a letter to make a selection. With some women the problem is they don’t understand the concept, others can’t see the letters well, some weren’t listening to the options mentioned, others can’t hold a pen properly, others are too timid to make the bold move of marking a piece of paper. After the first few questions, things start to go smoother as they get the hang of it and start smiling, confidently encircling letters, and responding with their opinions in regard to the questions. Sometimes they just wrinkle their noses at a question, and it generates good discussion. Such as when we ask what topics in health they would like to learn about and HIV/AIDS is one of the options and they say to you, “whatever that is…” and then we mention that there are several confirmed cases of this fatal yet preventative disease and then they perk up and listen. Or a question about participation when we ask them what prevents women from participating in community activities or meetings and one of the answer options is that their husbands don’t give them permission to participate and they all nod their heads vigorously in agreement and chime in with their anecdotes from the experiences in their lives to corroborate the evidence that it is hard to get their husbands to let them leave the house, especially when there are always a bunch of kids to take care of and housework that needs to get done. A woman in her early 20’s who is not married yet because her boyfriend went to the states (and even though he now has a new Honduran girlfriend there) she is waiting for him to get back, was telling me how she is super active in all kinds of groups, involved heavily in her church, is a community health promoter, and always attends any workshop or community meeting…but once her boyfriend supposedly comes back to marry her she will have to stop being involved in all these activities because he will tell her she needs to be in the house. It’s sad because she’s obviously a smart girl, had the luck of finished 9th grade, has lots of potential to be a great community leader and help her small community develop, but once she gets married it’s like that’s just it.
After the questionnaire activity we do a community mapping exercise where we give the women the chance to draw on big paper their community. In color blue the things that are already present and services that they have, and in color red the way they want to see their community and themselves within ten years. After a few giggles about how they will all be “viejitas” (little old ladies) in ten years they get into the activity. It’s cool cause they have so few opportunities to get out of their usual routine of doing work in the house and relax for a bit, see their neighbors, and do something novel like drawing. At first it seems weird to them to be talking about so far in the future, since they live subsistence day-to-day lives. But as I try to explain to them, drawing what they want doesn’t mean that we have a magic wand to make it so, but that we have to be futuristic thinking if we ever want to develop and improve the quality of our lives. If we only think of today, today, and maybe tomorrow, then things will always stay the same. It sounds cheesy, but you have to dream it first to make it reality, so we try to get them to think in that mode.
Visiting all the communities in the municipality has been really interesting because they vary a lot from each other. Some are highly indigenously, some are more timid than others, some propose things, others take it all in silently and hardly participate. It’s given me a good chance to really get to know all the rural roads and pathways since the muni doesn’t have any money right now to give us transportation, and even if they did it is extremely difficult and complicated to make that happen; so we walk. We sweat. A lot. But it also gives you a new appreciation for your surroundings noticing with greater detail this year’s corn sprouts which are just coming up, the gecko scurrying across your path, and the pungent smell of fermenting mangos which have fallen from the huge mango trees which shade the road at some parts. It gives you the opportunity to properly greet people that you pass with the appropriate literal “Good afternoon. May that you go well.” It gives Irma and I lots of time to discuss what went well in the meeting, what we could change, life, and the differences and similarities in the realities in our lives.

Rainy season is back in full force. It started early this year and it’s looking like it will be a rough one. Walking back from the rural communities in the afternoons, we get soaked and muddy. But it’s still suffocating hot and muggy at mid-day when we have to walk up the mountains to get there, and then it pours in the afternoons as we slide our way down on the slippery “roads”.

At my urging from awhile back to some of the NGO’s, there has been organized a coordination among the women’s offices in the department of Baja Verapaz. We’ve had a couple opportunities to all get together and have a sharing of experiences, since most of the offices are quite new. Irma and I were invited to give the feature presentation at one of these workshops, where we focused on writing of a vision and mission statement, creating an annual operating plan, and shared our experience of organizing the Municipal Forum of Women Leaders. It went really well and felt good to be an example to the other offices in the department because we all face many of the same challenges in the work that we do. We had gotten a ride from the mayor that morning and our activity finished at 1:00 and we called him to which he said he would be ready to go at 2:00. He came and picked us up, and then we waited in the car and in the street for the next six hours for him to finish a meeting with one of the departmental representatives to Congress. Got home late, really annoying, but totally normal for here. This is why I now have more patience than I know what to do with.

There are continuing perpetual financial problems in the muni, employees haven’t been paid in three months, still no money to buy us a computer or to give us reliable transportation to meetings, workshops, and community activities. On a positive note, Guatemala passed a national law guaranteeing access to public information that requires any institution receiving public funds to make public all their documents and records by means of an information office, and gives jail time and stiff financial penalties for noncompliance. They are working hard to increase transparency and reduce corruption in this country. They have a long way to go still.

I have lots of coworkers in the muni and no one really tells other people when it’s their birthday, til it comes up later since they don’t really make a very big deal of birthdays for adults here. Since Irma’s birthday passed and she didn’t tell me til a month later and she is the person that I spend the most hours of my day with, I decided to make a nice cake for her and all my other coworkers and celebrate everyone all at once. (Plus it’s expensive to be baking a cake for someone every couple weeks). So I make a yummy chocolate cake out of a box with rich chocolate butter cream frosting from scratch to celebrate. My mom had sent me some seasonal cake decorating supplies so I put those to good use and make it really pretty. I brought it to the muni and surprised everyone and made them all sing to each other. It was a festive occasion and we took pictures to remember it by.

Working in a country with such ties to the US through all the immigration that takes place adds a strange facet to the Peace Corps experience. I get constant inquiries from people if I can help them get a visa or people asking me I know so-and-so who lives in New Jersey. I hear lots of stories about the dangerous crossing from people who have come back. I feel sick to my stomach when I hear of people that I know getting ready to the attempt. This week a woman I am close with from a very poor family from one of the rural communities informed me that her son who just turned 19 is leaving in a few days. As is customary for people who don’t have the money to pay the huge coyote fees, the family had to turn over the titles to their land and house as a guarantee that the debt gets paid back. But who knows if he will actually make it? If he makes it, it will be a huge help to the family to help his siblings go to school and to pay for other important things. And if not, that leaves his parents and all his little brothers and sisters homeless without land to even plant the corn that sustains them. It’s a big gamble. I imagine this kid, who speaks not a word of English and has lived a very limited experience thus far in his life consisting of working the little patch of land that his family has, first making the dangerous desert crossing lasting days without food, water, or sleep, being beat up by the gangs that control the territory, and then walking the wide paved streets with traffic lights in the States. And the anxiety of his mother going weeks without hearing word from him. There’s really nothing you can even say to her other than “May that he go well with God.”

Another visit with good friends from college! We had a fabulous time hanging out, catching up, and getting to show off this beautiful country that I have the opportunity to live in. Seeing their reactions to everything makes me realize how accustomed to things I have become and how it all seems so normal to me now. They kept saying to me, “Caitlin, you’ve been here too long. You’ve got your Guatemala goggles on.” We went to Antigua first and explored around churches and ruins and walked up to the hill with a giant cross that overlooks the whole town with a direct view of Volcan de Agua (Water Volcano). We climbed the Pacaya Volcano (for my third time) but every time it’s different and this might have been the best lava flows I had seen. We went out dancing and I felt like a “real person” as we say in the Peace Corps when we do things that are familiar from home. Then we made the crazy trek up to El Chol and I think they barely made it on the long, hot, bumpy bus ride and they asked me “How do you live like this?” I guess you just get used to it. The time in my site was super fun and relaxed. They came with me to my English classes and my soccer practice and loved the group of little girls that I have. We went to the river in a tuk tuk (motorized three wheeled rickshaw) but evidently we were a lot of weight for the smaller motor and I had to get out on the inclines otherwise it wouldn’t make it up the hills. We got the priest in town to take us into the underpart of the church where bats live and supposedly people were buried before El Chol had a cemetery. My friends were super helpful in my office too because they helped me set up the Excel spreadsheet and formulas to tabulate the results from the Community Diagnostic for the Women’s Office. Since they got here right at the start of rainy season, supposedly the chequenes (big flying edible ants) were supposed to come out. My coworker called me at 4:00 am to go out and hunt for them, so we all got up and waited patiently in the soccer field for awhile, but alas, sadly they never showed up so they never got to try them fried up with lime and salt. I don’t know if they actually would have tried them though, since the whole time they freaked out about my bug-infested house, which really isn’t that bad, it’s just that when you live in the countryside in an unsealed house, you are a part of the living environment and living things get in. Either way, there was lots of concern over spiders which I guess I’ve just learned to live with. After my site we took another chicken bus adventure to Lake Atitlan and stayed at the beautiful Casa del Mundo hotel that is built into the hillside and it feels like you’re floating over the volcano surrounded lake. Cool. We relaxed in the hotel and they got all their souvenir shopping done in Panajachel. Since my friends knew I had been to the lake a bunch of time, they told me to pick something for us to do that I had never done. So, we went and did these awesome zip lines in the lake town of Santa Clara which were sweet! There were two actually, the first one was short and you held on to a pulley as you swept across the lush green valley. Then you walk up for a bit and then do a longer one when we got strapped on from our backs so you soar like an eagle across the valley. On that we were up higher and the clouds had rolled in so we flew through a cloud without being able to see the other side which was disorienting and exhilarating. One of the coolest things ever. I want to go back and do it again on a clear day since supposedly there are great views of the lake as you soar across, but I kind of liked the cloud effect. I have been missing my friends from home the whole time I’ve been here, but seeing them again made me really realize how much I missed them and it got me getting excited to come home.