Guatemala III: From the Window Seat

Each stop in Antigua is likened to a layover–it is my bus terminal. I wander through it, dragging my fingers across the single story colonial Spanish architecture, gape at the ice cream sundaes, stand in the threshold of the supermarket in consumerist glee, and stop in its parks to revel at the large ex-pat and tourist population in this city. My Peace Corps placement and experience is not the norm for having an international tourist destination within reach. For this, we are known as a Posh Corps country. Of the two designated nights out, I have used one, and relished the site of the moon overhead. For stays, the Terrace Hostel is a shared group favorite in the city with a rooftop bar that overlooks Volcan de Agua. I also make a point to visit Roberto in Y Tu Piña Tambien for his juice concoctions when I am in town, and the owner of the Korean spot Miso for mini jars of kimchi. And then, just like that, the bus pulls in and it is time to go. Also, the Doña is far too excited for me to finish the latest jar of kimchi, so she has been coupling it with tamales and beans and eggs to get it out of her fridge. “Tu ajo, tu comida” she calls it. She wrinkles her nose and in the Guatemalan way asks how long a jar lasts (se va por las ramas), her roundabout way of telling me that something is actually offensively bad. I think that her hustler instincts might be failing her in this moment, because all I see is stellar opportunities for Guatemalan-Korean fusion. It could be big.

She smiles at me with a wizened old grin, complete with a set of teeth she just bought to cover the gold glinting below, and ambles towards her sewing machine in traditional traje. She sits by the window to weave and sew, so that if and when any of her drones stop by, drop their baskets by the door, and in hurried coy voices slip her the day’s wrought secrets, she can respond with the appropriate amount of shock, horror, or joy. My hustler mama and queen bee, she builds her fortress with her knowledge. In between these visits, I hear stories of the 1980’s genocide and civil conflict, and of work as a traveling weaver. She summarizes her years spent in Chiapas, Flores, and Honduras succinctly: the beans here are better, she says. If I could, I would stay with her for the two years. I would be on her team.

This week the evangelical congregation my family attends had a mini market to fund their private school’s scholarship students, a market where we found hot pupusas, livestock, and framed portraits of biblical figures (with a Justin Beiber thrown in for good measure). At one point I heard the pastor announce the presence of a foreigner among us, and in a slightly spacey moment, I spun absentmindedly in search of this invader, only to see the faces sending vague welcoming gestures in my direction. Oh yeah, I go to church now. At 5’6″, I also absolutely tower over the masses, but the doña insists on taking seats in the first row–she laughs and says that her god can hear us singing better from there. She makes me laugh very often, but on this day I do not laugh, in case she is serious, and sing all the louder.

We visit schools to learn about the national system of education during the week. The obstacles to universal and obligatory education levels are innumerable and so we must consider: what to do when they can’t seem to focus because they are hungry, what to do when their parents speak Kachikel and are illiterate, what to do when the pressure at home comes in the form of deciding which child to send to school and which to send to work, and what to do for the in between cases that only show up to class every other day, and the list goes on and on. The basis of the divide between the schools we have known and the schools we see is more so class derived than a cultural attribute, which is something to note before making hasty generalizations–and it must be stated, with added emphasis to the many people who pack a tour bus to visit rural schools for a week to volunteer, that poverty is not culture.

During a particularly memorable visit to a fifth grade classroom, the overwhelmed maestro coyly slipped out the door behind me, seeing my entry as an opportunity to exit. My first mistake. With this, the room dissolved into fresh chaos. I shouted directions for the introduction activity, to which maybe three students responded by looking at me blankly. When one showed interest and asked to be able to do the activity outside, I was so shocked by the initiative that I responded with a quick yes. From there, the series of unfortunate events escalated, every scene containing a new calamity. The 15 year old boy in his third round of the 5th grade is the architect of the mayhem; I watched stone faced–hair being dipped into paint and another, dragged by his leg past the doorframe. He presents himself as “Jose, like Joe”. “Jose, like Joe” sits atop his desk throne while the rest of the 10 year old crowd enjoys the fruits of lawlessness. I learned that day that when hygiene and community mapping activities fail, English lessons can win some allies. When I offered some quick lessons to “Jose, like Joe”, he shouted for quiet and found it. So while they may still be a ways away from understanding germ theory and why you wash your hands, the class learned some health related vocabulary words in English. And so I prepare for the next round with new tactics.

There is an American on site. He wears a t-shirt that pointedly says “Guatemala” in Joker, for all you font elitists. With an accent hailing from the deep American south, he teaches his parrots some useful phrases, like “hasta (with a hard h) la vista”. The girl on the bus smiles when she hears it. Her smile is metal. Her teeth have all fallen out. Somewhere, the Coca Cola company must be building a throne of the molars it claims. But yeah, he is a weirdo.

I feel that I must also highlight that we were gifted Kindles at the same time as our medical guides, and that so far the medical guides have somehow offered many more hours of entertainment. Published in the 1970’s with the decade appropriate title “Where There Are No Doctors”, it includes advice for drinking each other’s pee and comparing tastes to test for diabetes, giving children food instead of anabolic steroids to help them grow, and how to wrangle birth control in the form of vinegar douches. I then looked up my current symptoms, ravenous and insatiable hunger coupled with weight loss, and found hand drawn pictures of tapeworms. So, it is like the rural peoples’ Web MD, except hilarious instead of terrifying.

I am tired in the way you naturally become tired from doing everything in groups of thirty. Beneath the layers of social exhaustion, I have located what for me has lingered like a migraine. Despite fluency in feminist and LGBTQ issues and conversation moderation and comfort with using keywords like allies and safe spaces, the volunteers seem to struggle with the application of these same skills to conversations involving race. One thing that must be said, is that in order to complete this application process with a degree in hand, in order to be able to afford to leave behind your life and leave it secure, and do volunteer work in a developing country, you must come from a certain level of privilege. Some volunteers just do not have exposure to racially diverse communities or have been told growing up that it is better to not talk about it. And so that safe space bubble does not yet extend to those here having their identities challenged on a daily basis. This is a problematic attitude for work involving entering indigenous communities with the goal of integration, aside from potential alienation issues within our teams. The surprise appearance of the trickle down theory and picking oneself up by one’s hypothetical bootstraps, as well as the various rewordings of “I don’t see color”s have warranted a shift in training discussion. And so, after some grimace inducing social commentary, I am excited to say that we are receiving support from Peace Corps staff for the formation of a diversity committee and other forms of mediation in hopes of normalizing conversation about racial issues.

I have a phone that is called a frijole, probably because it costs about the same and is the same color. It uses T9 and holds one photo at a time, so I must choose wisely. I instead only imagine the snapchats I could send you from out here. If you receive a call from a number with far too many digits, it may just be me. Ciao!

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