Friday, May 28, 2010

What the Peace Corps experience is like....

I laugh when I think back to the days and weeks preceding my departure from California to come here to Guatemala and work for the Peace Corps. It seemed that everyone I would talk to back then; friends, relatives, or newly met acquaintences, seemed to have an opinion of what the Peace Corps was. My favorite was the person who would say something like, "oh, I have a friend whose in the Peace Corps in Yugoslavia, I'll give her your email and she can tell you all about what the Peace Corps is like. The reality is that the Peace Corps is so different country to country that it practically seems like a different organization. The difference is huge within the country as well. I find that within Guatemala there are an especially wide range of experiences depending on the region in which one is placed. And even then, I often talk with my two site mates who live in the community of San Cristobal about our experiences, and we each have very different stories to tell, though we may have gone through some of the same expereinces together. So really, the wide variation of the Peace Corps experience that one has varies from person to person, depending on ones job, their personality, how they communicate with and responds to others and how they deal with pressure.
My experience here in San Cristobal has been one of full of surprises. While I expected that coming to Guatemala with the Peace Corps would be a grounding experience for me; living in one community for 2 years and having a steady job which would be both challenging and a test of character, what I find is that my life now is almost more spontaneous now than it was when I was a lifestyle traveler. What has come to capitalize my experience here so far is waking up in the morning, having a plan for what I would be doing that day, but preparing myself to be willing for that plan to change completely, for at any moment someone, like the mayor for example, could come into the office and say, "fijese que' (a purely Guatemalan expression that literally means, 'take note' but more precisely means 'I have a problem that soon is going to be your problem') I need such and such a thing done today." and off we go on an adventure that was unplanned and spontaneous. But such is the life in Guatemala, one has to expect the unexpect, e.g. a volcano eruption delays travel plans, a torrential rainfall cancels an anticipated meeting, protests in the highway delay activities a whole day...etc. But the best personal example I have thus far just happened to me this month, on the 18th of May. What happened was that we were given invitations a few weeks prior to attend the monthly municipal counsel meeting to be held in the Municipal Theatre. Upon receiving the invitation, I promptly read it and then tucked it away with the rest of my papers which I was holding onto. Unfortunately I read the invitation incorrectly and what I read to be the 28th of May was actually the 18th. So on the date of Tuesday May 18th I was met with yet another surprise when my counterpart asked me if I was ready to go...I immediately asked him "para donde?" On my way there another co-worker told me that the mayor would like me to give a 10 minute speech about the Peace Corps. Of course, none of this information was shared with me ahead of time, but when we walked into the theater there were more than 50 mayors and authorities from the town counsel of the different Aldeas throughout the municipality. Being invited to sit up front with all of the other speakers and representatives I furiously began writing a speech which I was to deliver in a matter of minutes. Yet, all went with success as, toward the end of the meeting I was introduced to the audience and asked to give a brief discourse about the Peace Corps and the work that I am doing in the Muni. And the 7 minute speech which I gave was well received by all. I can give much thanks to my language training in the Peace Corps training period for the great help that it provided in my ability to speak coherently and confidently in Spanish in front of authorities. But the kind of spontaneity that I wasn't expecting was how intense these first few months of integration would be. As the muni was asking me to prepare a project profile and grant proposal within my second month in site to be delivered to the sponsoring organization, I hardly had time to take care of personal matters. In the consultation with my Associate Peace Corps Director Flavio, he suggested that I come into the office to sit down with him and write my proposal with his help. This was on the 10th, and I ended up staying the night in Antigua in order that I would be able to continue working with him the next day. He suggested that I go to Guatemala city to meet with the engineer for zip lines at the university of Rafael Landivar. So, after finishing the meeting with Don Rosito in Guate, I hopped on a bus to head back to Cuatro Caminos, finally arriving home at 9 pm on Tuesday night. Arriving into the house, I brewed up a pot of coffee and sat down at my desk to type out the profile of the project. Awake until 3:30 am, I finally threw in the towel and fell asleep. Awake only a few hours later, I prepared myself for the meeting that I had with the mayor. In the meeting the mayor looked at the plans that I had spent the past 3 days working on, and he told me his plans for the ecological park that I had written up. What he told me was a change in plans completely and the work that I had done was for naught. But, having more direction at that point, as well as a crew of people from the muni who were there working on the same team within the same project, I felt a sense of gratitude, no longer feeling like the mayor was throwing me out there by myself to swim with the sharks.
I had another meeetings with my APCD Flavio the following week when he came out to my site and we had a meeting together with my counterpart, the representative from IRI (International Republican Institute), and the mayor. What this meeting did was help everyone be a little more clear about what my job was there, including myself. What the meeting did not do was make my job any easier...with the deadline of the project proposal looming I still had to make a big push to get it done. With the countdown of the days putting on the pressure in my reality, I spent several sleepless nights getting done what I thought the mayor wanted. Even then, when I would bring in my profile to work, it would be critiqued and changed, or tweaked, a little bit. Even yesterday when I turned in the finished product to the municipal counsel, I sat down with my counterpart for hours to reread, revise and rewrite the profile. Though now, I am delighted to say that the project profile is in, written, signed sealed and delivered. Gracias a Dios!
But not all experiences are intense like that one. Especially in the sector in which I am working, ecotourism, much of the work is out of the office and exploring the natural environment around the waterfalls. Last Monday was one of those experiences as we (7 of us from the muni) went out to hike the trails with a GPS in order that we could map the area. After the heavy rainfalls especially in the month of May the area is flowering with mushrooms...many of which are edibles. With having a few knowledgeable micologists amongst us, we went on a mushroom gathering expedition at the same time....beautiful mushroom some with colors that I have only seen in pictures.
As we continued down the trail, we passed over the first waterfall, past the second waterfall, and finally arrived at the third waterfall. The reason for the hurry was that, especially in May, the climate is such that rain is expected every day, and particularly in the afternoon. With that in mind, we arrived casually at the third waterfall awaiting our friends to bring our lunch. The third waterfall is particularly impressive as the trail abruptly stops at a 30 ft. cliff from which stretches a water pipe channeling the water from the water spring up top of the waterfall to the barrio of Paxquaq'anil beneath. Having had much experience leading ropes courses in the states I felt inclined to cross the pipe, even though there was no rope and harness to catch you if you were to fall, but there was a guide wire above the pipe which was holding the pipe. Even with that desire, I probably wouldn't have done it had the fontanero (the guy who controls the water flow from the spring to the pueblo every day), Daniel, not crossed it without hesitation. That was all I needed to give me the motivation to cross on my own. When I arrived back on the other side where my companeros were patiently awaiting lunch, the others arrived with the food and we proceeded to eat. No sooner did we all sit down to eat than we felt the rain begin to fall. Knowing how far we were from the Muni, our only shelter, we put on our rain jackets, sweaters, trash bags, whatever we could find to keep us dry. Even so, the rain began to pummel us and I found the only proper response was to run to prevent from being stuck in an inundation of water. While running through the muddy river which was once the trail that we passed through to get there, I thought to myself, "hey wait a minute, this is my job...I need to create proper drainage on this trail to prevent water from collecting like this." So I took out my camera a started shooting video which felt something like a combination between Armageddon and the Blair Witch Project or some movie like that shot in real time where the subject is fleeing from an ambush of some sort. I was the first to arrive back to the pueblo, rain soaked from head to toe, and immediately went back to the casa rosada loca to change into dry clothes. The others arrived an hour behind me, after being stuck out in the rain even more soaked than myself.
So the Peace Corps experience is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. As corny as the phrase is, it is true in regards to the Peace Corps experience. But the thing is that everyday is another piece of chocolate; and what to some may be considered an unliked flavor, to others may be the best of all. But regardless, the process of eating the chocolate, no matter what flavor you get is one that is to be enjoyed, not detested, for it is a blessing to be eating chocolate to begin with.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My work at the muni....

Greetings all, thank you for the comments. I'm glad to know that these blogs are being read and enjoyed. I sure enjoy writing them, as it provides an outlet for the craziness of the situation that I find myself living in integrating within the community and work. While I was looking forward to easing into the work here, there is not an opportunity for "easing". The work is rapidly manifesting itself, as I am quickly trying to adjust to this new rhythm.
Guatemalans have an interesting outlook on time. Here in Guatemala time is relative. There exists a phrase which is commonly known and used here which is called the "hora chapina." This time schedule is very common here in Guatemala, where one is not just fashionably late, but one is incredibly late. It has been common place here to be waiting for a meeting to begin for over an hour and a half when finally the alcalde (mayor) walks in the door after an extended meeting in his office. As one who has a lot of patience in general, I find the hora chapina to be a comfortable, stress-free way of being. And this was what I was looking forward to becoming used to in living here in Guatemala. However, reality has proved the contrary to be the case. With my work in the muni, one has to be on time and punctual or is subject to ridicule. In all of my adjusting process, I admit to have been behind schedule on the occassion. This has been met with scorn by my counterpart Victor, who is one who always seems to be working and is very "pilas," as the expression goes. He has repeatedly told me that I need to be more pilas. Though I agree with him that it is a huge benefit to be pilas and I am working on being more organized and productive with my time at work, it proves to be a huge obstacle to adjust to living here speaking spanish 90% or more of the day, and trying to fit in with the way things work around here. It proves to be a huge task to fit in and the work component is challenging. I would say that my language skills are greatly improving, however, put in relation to my co-workers who are all native speakers and professionals, my language proficiency is sub-par, at best. Oh well, poco a poco, I'll get there.
Alright friends, that's it for now.
Stay tuned,

La Casa Rosada Loca

So I've decided to write an entry about the crazy pink house that I live in. The picture to the right was taken in my hallway with dual mirrors on either side of the hallWhat used to be a beauty salon, the owner Gregoria decided it was appropriate to paint the house a barbie pink color, with those pink swirls, barbie dolls in the bathroom, and a big patio. Along side the house is another big room, which is being used as a Pasteleria, a bakery. The ladies working in the bakery share the bathroom in the house with me. The house was vacated by the family of Gregoria, an elementary school teacher in Xela (the closest city), who decided to move closer to her work to provide her family with better opportunities for work and school, while still keeping the house here in Totonicapan.
The Peace Corps puts lots of rules and regulations on us as volunteer as to the context where we live for the first three months in our site. The rules, established to insure our safety and that the integration into our community is as smooth as it can be. The main rule for the first 3 months is that we live with, or have close contact with a family. Though I am the sole caretaker of this house, watching over the cat, Gota (who is sitting on my lap as I write this entry), the Peace Corps approves this house because it is connected with the pasteleria and I have regular contact with the ladies next door.
Not sure how long I'm going to live here, as this place is dirty and falling apart. But so long as it fulfills Peace Corps requirements, I'm good here. It provides a good refuge and work station with the privacy needed while my work is coming to crunch time...
Stay posted, I'll be updating this blog more frequently now.
Happy journeys,

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Landscape around San Cris, Totonicapan with the Rio Samala

Getting a late start...

Hey everyone...gosh, it's hard to believe that 4 months have gone by already and I am just now starting up with this blog. Well, things have been happening pretty quickly on this end, and I guess I just haven't had the time to keep up with a blog while going through training and getting adjusted to my site. But now, here in the thick of it, I find blogging a necessity, even if I'm the only one that reads it.
Let's see, how to encapsulate a full trimester of work in one blog...It's been a really interesting journey, looking back on the adventure of coming back to Guatemala with the Peace Corps. The journey could be described as a practice of active surrender, not knowing where you're going to be place, nor what exactly you will be doing with the Peace Corps. The funny thing is, now that I have been placed in my site and have an office in the municipal building (with my desk and computer) working in ecotourism, I still find that these questions are still lingering, somewhat unresolved, as things change on a daily basis here. But true to the Peace Corp values, a volunteer must embody the characteristics of patience and flexibility in order to succeed. I find that this could not be more true in my experience.
Peace Corps training is one in which ones character is truly tested. With a rigid structure and a task list the size of the average american child's christmas wish list, one soon realizes that their life has become dedicated to their work (or training in this case), and in turn their work has become their life. What is seen as a loss of personal freedom at first, eventually changes into a sense of responsibility and dedication to one work. Such is the life of a Peace Corps trainee, which extends into the realm of the Peace Corps volunteer as well--making a constant supply of fresh squeezed lemonade out of all of the ripe lemons that life has to offer.
After the 3 month training, when our training group swore in as volunteers there was a sense of this bitter sweet achievement...whereby we were now free to recreate ourselves and our lives within the community in which we would spend the next 2 years of our live, while once again leaving behind all of that which we have become familiar with and the friendships we have formed within the three months of training. But we were all ready and waiting for that date of March 25th when we would swear-in to the Peace Corps volunteer life, and officially be moving on the the next phase of life.
But I must say that, out of all the places that I could have imagined being sent to, the pueblo in which I am now living is a perfect the department of Totonicapan, Pahula (as the pueblo is known in its native K'iche tongue, meaning surrounded by waterfalls) is a beautiful town with Rio Samala running through the middle of the town. Located in a valley, with neighboring towns and villages looming on the surrounding hillsides, from which fall several different waterfalls. Also amongst the waterfalls are many fuentes de agua, or water springs, as well as aguas tibias (or, "warm springs"). On top of that, besides the amount of physical beauty which exists within this town, the culture is one of incredible measures. Though the pre-columbian Mayan traditions have been largely converted to Catholic and Evangelical traditions here in modern times, the spirit and strength of community traditions here is strong. While we just past through Semana Santa recently, there were tons of events happening, almost every day of the week preceeding Easter, including Catholic processions with alfombra making (a process of dying sawdust and laying down the sawdust with stencils to make patterns which resemble rugs, and upon which the procession marches carrying an engraven image of Jesus or the Virgen Mary accross), dramatizations of plays and musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, and an extra special tradition of the dramatization of a play called El Martir del Gologota (the story of the passion of Christ, a play which marked its 100th year anniversary in the town this year). But beyond Semana Santa there are many other rituals and traditions which are observed in this town, most of them being Catholic traditions. One of these traditions, which happens every December, is the running of the diablos, a ritual in which many of the young men in the town paint their bodies black, and run around the town in their underwear (usually drunk) attacking people and trying to smear their body paint all over them. But a little less weird are the traditions in September for the day of independance--September 15--in which huge kites are flown above a huge procession of the children in the town, or the tradition of the feria in July, which is actually the biggest of all traditions they say...where the whole town turns into a big fair, with farris wheels, live music, and a HUGE market. Also, another notable event which occurs regularly here is the market...a huge market covering blocks and blocks of the center of town, which occurs 2 times a week on Wednesdays and on Fridays. On special occasions though, the whole center of the town turns into a market.
So my job here is to create a Park by which tourists would be inspired to come visit and contribute to the economy of the local community. At the same time, my co-worker and office mate-Victor Elias--is working on the economic development aspect of the office by creating a cooperative of artisans of the area. In accompanying him in his interviews with the local artisans we have gotten a glimpse into the inside life of the artistic community of the area including tejidores (the makers of traditional fabrices), alfereros and oyeros (pottery makers), amongst many others. In this coming week, the first week of May, we will have the opportunity to host a gathering of all of these artisans to discuss the formation of a focus group, or organization by which all of the artistry of the area can be presented in an exhibition to augment the tourism of the area.
While this job is really a dream come true for me, there is a lot to live up to here, and I have often found myself overwhelmed within the first month of service with the amount of work they want me to do here in relation to my level of proficiency in Spanish. But poco a poco, little by little, we will get the job done. And what I have found to be most important of all is to be open to others coming in to take part in help in making this project a reality and not trying to do it all by myself, a feat that is impossible. So I am grateful that this project has been premeditated in the community by certain key members, and I am now working with an architect who has been dreaming up this project for the last 2 years. Though his vision is big, it is far from complete, and I find my role becoming one of connecting the dots and building bridges between people to bring these ideas to life. This may include the establishment of a hydro electric dam at the base of one of the waterfalls, creating a pool of water in which people can swim, and perhaps even a zip line.
All will come clear in time....
Until next time,
Jesse Barber