Guatemala I: Peace Corps Training in the Land of Eternal Spring

Saludos desde la tierra de la eterna primavera.
To my friends and family: I haven’t had time to miss you or really think at all. But when I do, it means that I have found time to unpack my memories into my new shelf spaces. I am once again learning how to chill out, which, contrary to how it sounds, is difficult as well as painful for somebody accustomed to speed and over-stimulation of the senses. Peace Corps program training is like YMCA camp, if instead of a high ropes course and dining hall, you have volcanoes and a permaculture center and security guards. But, yes, ice breakers and songs with moral objectives and team building activities and so so so many rules. Predictably, the most challenging thing for me so far has been the compromise of independence to both integrate and keep this job, which means turning in by nightfall, alerting staff of your every movement, no street food, 12 vaccinations + anti malarial pills, and no internet access, lending limited communication. And because of this, I unfortunately missed a meeting with a handsome French man who I met in Mexico as well as with some other southward bound backpackers I met last month, and in this I feel the heaviness of my first commitment in a long time. Also, I am not allowed to publish names of locations in my blog because of governmental security concerns.

The other volunteers are, for the most part, people I would have befriended outside. I have found the explorers! The gender ratio is 31:4 in favor of women for my training group, presumably because of its lean towards public health. The project I have been assigned is the Healthy Schools component in which we will be primarily doing teacher training, curriculum development, and HIV/sex ed. I am looking forward to learning about midwifery and permaculture design on the side. The training facility is also stacked, with an enormous library and medical center and hot showers (good when you are having a bad day with your bucket bath).

I just moved into a primarily Mayan community in Sacatepequez, an easy camioneta ride outside of Antigua. I am the 13th volunteer to enter the home of Doña Cristina, which she says is lucky because it is a sacred Mayan number, the number of full moons in a year. She is full of stories about past volunteers and their idealism as well as their strange habits. Also, here I go by the name Lena because it is less of a mouthful, and because I learned that Lola means a tit in Mexican Spanish. That is a shame. The community is known for its mountain water sources and textiles and wood artesanía, and it lies in the shadow of four volcanoes that occasionally spit smoke. There are five other volunteers here in surrounding streets. We started running together to train for a 5K and then half marathon in Antigua, and the altitude (and pollution) leaves me dizzy most days. All volunteer homes are gated and have a central patio, an open space which is usually a garden enclosing the animals that could include anything from turtles to chickens to dogs to rabbits. Another group spent part of the afternoon chasing and trapping a chicken that escaped a host family’s enclosure. Many of the homes also include enough space to accommodate the extended family, and so many of us live with multiple generations. It slowly became apparent that many widows lead these inclusive homes, and we learned that many women have stories of the genocide of the indigenous people in the 1980’s. These families earn a living through weaving or carpentry, while a few have doctors and lawyers among them. I am staying in a home built by Doña Cristina’s weaving; some of the elaborate woven blouses made in this community can take up to two months worth of stitching and can fetch close to $600 American dollars. My heart aches for the awesome perseverance of the women in this community.

My room situation is independent enough that it makes me feel as though I am living in a pool house (without the pool), separate and tranquil. And while I spent time seeking expensive cover up and even resorted to harboring a pair of Crocs, my foot tattoo has not actually been a point of contention yet. Here, many older women maintain traditional ankle length woven skirts, but because of PACAs, the actual recipients of your Goodwill donations, younger people are abandoning the traditional style in favor of good old denim blue jeans. The veins of globalization are far reaching. Also, I am glad for my zombie-like sleeping habits because there are lot of fireworks and noisemakers and cat fights and volcanic grumblings and rooster calls throughout the night. This is not to mention the nocturnal 2 year old grandson who each night launches a new attempt to enter my room to chew on my fingers. Because of perceived security concerns, Peace Corps volunteers here are required to live with host families for the entire length of service, and so I will be here with the doña for the three month training process. I have the enormous luck to be living in a vegetarian and lactose free home! From this, you can see the accidental impact of hosting Peace Corps volunteers… I feel very spoiled because the typical Guatemalan staple meal is generally something like: eggs, beans, tortillas, and bread, and maybe even some rice too. My host instead loads me up with papayas and mangoes, local squash, cucumbers, radishes, not to mention the mountains of rice and beans. On that note, I ate breakfast in the dark of a power outage this morning with the doña and reaching to pick up what I thought was some sort of cookie, I found that had I put my hand into some black beans while she watched me. Too tired to explain myself, I looked back at her and said “Ahh, si! Es caliente”. Which only makes it weirder… Religion has proved to be a central component to daily life here, and so it is an interesting but more so challenging experience for any volunteers who instead consider themselves spiritual, non-practicing, or atheist. I feel as though it would be a destructive representation of my background and of a diverse world to stretch the truth about my beliefs, but those who do not claim Christianity lose the confidence of many community members automatically. And so, I have told the truth, that I am of a mixed religious upbringing, am non-practicing, but am willing to learn. Her family is a part of the evangelist church here, and so for my first Sunday as a part of her house, I joined the Doña for services, called “cultos”. Apart from a lot of singing, the two hour service included a sermon on the dangers of inviting western medicine into the community using biblical passages as justification, most significantly concerning sexual education in schools. It would seem that my presence here has been duly noted by the more conservative branch, but luckily, my conversations on the streets have instead stressed the need for the job I have come for.

Also, I was placed into the advanced level of Spanish, which is why I moved into a primarily Mayan community with five other volunteers, and will start to learn Kaq’chikel soon after some practice with colloquial phrases. Here, in the campo outside of Antigua, many speak with an accent; I have to remember that it is because Spanish is the second language of a primarily Mayan community. I still have a lot to learn though, mostly because many of the words and phrases I learned in Spain take on different meanings, accidental vulgarity abound. Or it can just be different–ie: the word I had learned for hole golf course or leak instead means the kind in your body that gives you trouble when your diet suddenly becomes 70% frijoles. And you wouldn’t drive a coche here, because a coche isn’t a car, it is a pig. Luckily, my mistakes instead make my family laugh. I feel very privileged, because training will offer 200+hours of language training and 200+hours of practical skills training, I have some of the best medical coverage available, and Guatemala is really beautiful. My lessons include visits to local schools, surrounding towns, and how to’s of all varieties, from chicken bus self defense to tortilla making. If anything, this experience offers the opportunity to seriously develop my language learning capacity and an understanding of indigenous Mayan culture and Guatemalan infrastructure. And I get to practice diplomacy skills in attempting to develop healthy relationships with communities without being an imperialistic force. With the Peace Corps, one of the buzz words is sustainability, so the goal is to not give, but to observe and teach. Call me more of a cheerleader.

I am afraid of the wild dogs, some of which carry rabies. I am afraid of the worms/parasites that I am pretty much definitely going to have in my intestinal tract at some point. And I am afraid of Kaq’chikel. But it is all also very exciting at the same time.

One request: I have no way of reading news outside of Prensa Libre, so please send me interesting news articles! Also, book recommendations. I finally finished Game of Thrones, which has left me in a disturbing void for reading material.

Un abrazo!





2 thoughts on “Guatemala I: Peace Corps Training in the Land of Eternal Spring

  1. Glad to see you’re doing good Arlene. Always in my thoughts. I’ll try to drop you a line now and then. Uncle jeff

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