Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

La Cosecha

November 19, 2008

The harvest has begun. For the second time since I have arrived in Guatemala, cornfields are being flattened left and right. I can no longer walk from my bathroom into my house in a towel, the barrier of corn that shielded me from prying eyes has been razed. Entire families spend the day out in the fields gathering corn, machete-ing cornstalks and lugging ayotes (giant squash that look like watermelon). Soon all the left over dried-out foliage will be burned in giant bonfires sending smoke billowing into the air with the dust that is already rising. Children and adults alike spend the day shucking corn, saving corn husks to make tamales and chuchitos, separating the good from the bad and selecting those which will be used for seeds next year.

The rain has stopped and the cold has set in. I am back in the habit of drinking tea, using four wool blankets and shivering in my two sweatshirts, long-underwear, scarf and wool cap. It is more than a struggle to get out of my warm bed in the morning. Camionetas and trucks that pass on the road send clouds of dust into the air drying out eyes and lungs. The wind is picking up, and electricity is the victim. It is fall in Guatemala.

Rapid Reduction

November 11, 2008

Our forces are rapidly decreasing.

Andrea (Art Corps) finished up her service this October, and returned to Ecuador to spend some time with her family.

Our semi-site mate in the town over resigned last week.

Katy and Joe are moving sites, to a town on the south side of Xela, due to lack of work here.

… and then there were just two. It’s quite a drastic reduction. Granted, we were overloaded before. There was never any need to have four Peace Corps volunteers in one site. If you count the JICA volunteer (Japanese equivalent to Peace Corps) we had as many as 7 foreign volunteers. Nevertheless, you get used to having people around.

I am happy for Katy and Joe, because it seems their new town is very invested in working with them and the development of their program. This will be a step up since the interest was so low here. It will make them happier, busier and their service more rewarding. I am sad that they are leaving, because they have become such great friends of mine, but they never should have been placed here in the first place.

It seems that I will have to get used to entertaining myself at night again, but this is not the end of the world. If nothing else, it gives me lots of time to study for the GRE, and ponder my future.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Todos Santos

November 3, 2008

This weekend I made the trip out to Todos Santos, Huehuetenango for the celebration of All Saints Day.

Todos Santos is one of the few places in Guatemala where the men as well as the women still wear the traditional dress, at least in theory. Men wear red and white striped pants along with colorful collared shirts, and while the younger generation has kept this tradition, it has altered it to modern styles. Young boys and teenagers wear pants in a style copied straight from the states, wearing them low and baggy. They could pass for a pair of jeans if it weren’t for the stripes. And while they still wear the collared shirts, they leave them open and wear shirts bearing the insignia of heavy metal rock bands, WWF wrestlers or rap artists. I was struck by the fusion of tradition with modernity in this small isolated town.

On another note, Todos Santos is also famous for its celebration of All Saints Day. First, because the town’s feria also falls on this date (todos santos means all saints in Spanish). All towns in Guatemala have a patron saint (or saints in this case) for which they throw a celebration every year on that saint’s day. Secondly, Todos Santos has gained notoriety for the horse races they stage on this date. The races are not so much races, as drunk men riding their horses up and down a road at full speed. Upon reaching the end, they wait until one man decides to turn around and race back to the other end and the others follow. There is no winner and not much of a point. Predictably, several men fall off their horses in their drunken stupor and more than one are usually trampled. It is said if a man dies, his team will have good crops the following year. I watched the races the morning of the first, and saw several men fall and one get trampled.

Unsurprisingly, Alcoholism is an even bigger problem in Todos Santos than in most places in Guatemala. Last year the town voted to outlaw the sale of alcohol. While this prohibits the sale it does not prohibit the consumption, and the bolos were out in full force for feria. Men were passed out like flies all along the roads. I wonder if there is much hope for this problem, in a town were the act of drunkenness is a traditional celebration.

Different Perspective

October 12, 2008

Some of Katy and Joe’s friends from training came and visited this weekend and put a different perspective on Peace Corps Guatemala for me.

I have become accustomed to urban sites and placements. Almost everyone in my group lives in the main town of their municipality. This generally entails a market (at least once a week), paved roads, Spanish speakers, relative proximity to a major urban setting (under 3 hours), etc. which is to say, convenience. There is no doubt in my mind that Guatemala is one of the easiest placements to get. I often forget that I am living in a third world country, although a few things bring me back to reality (having to wash my clothes in the pila, bad roads, low levels of education and dental hygiene, to name a few).

Katy and Joe’s friends live in a small isolated aldea (an outlying town from the muni’s center) in the department of Huehuetenango (nicknamed way way far away). It took them 12 hours to travel to our site. Their town is so far out of the way, it has barely been reached by Guatemalan or foreign aid (which makes me realize, I am not as isolated here as I think). Many people have never been to school and most do not speak Spanish. For this reason, people in town are very responsive and appreciative of their efforts. The local health center told them that rates of diarrhea have dropped by as much as 30 percent since they began giving health charlas to the community two months ago. The local population does not become offended and uninterested when they explain they are there to educate and not give out money. They have been placed in a town that desperately needs their help and is eager to receive it.

I believe part of the problem with placements is bureaucratic restrictions. People are so scared of the repercussions of a volunteer getting hurt or threatened that we are being piled on top of each other in more urban settings where the towns are larger, more developed and in less need of aid. All of us have become frustrated here in Cabricán, because when we offer up help, people expect that we will give them things or money. They become indifferent when we explain we have no money to disperse and that we are here to educate. International organizations have thrown so much money at them that this is what they anticipate. In addition, it is harder to integrate and to reach those outlying communities that really do need, and would appreciate, our efforts. I would love to work in some of the outlying caserios of Cabricán, but a 2 hour hike one-way is both impractical and discouraged.

Katy and Joe’s friends don’t fit the typical mold in that they are in one of the outlying communities. They don’t need to worry about the logistics of hiking in and out because they live there. In this small town, it is easier for them to integrate and the people are grateful and enthusiastic of their efforts. It is difficult for them to be so isolated, but they really seem to be enjoying their service despite this fact. I believe Peace Corps efforts in Guatemala would be a lot more effective if they would place people in more of these outlying and isolated communities. Sure, there is greater risk involved, and it would be a harder and more challenging service, perhaps more people wouldn’t be able to cut it, but isn’t that what Peace Corps is all about? Challenging yourself to help those in need?