Guatemala IV: Purple Mountain Crowns

We broke up into twos and threes, scattered through the departments for field based training–and so I packed up my things, ready to spend a long weekend in what my convoluted imagination depicted as something close to a rugged camping site, strapping on some boots for the us chartered wilderness. In this wild place my mind had drawn to scale and sculpted, we would be cooking beans over a fire outside a tin shack and showering in natural springs by moonlight. San Cristobal, Totonicapan. I let myself continue to fill in the narrative’s cracks, with water purification pills, shovels, and subsistence farming, without doing any actual research. I then, in stunned silent glee, dropped my bag on the floor of one of the volunteers’s four bedrooms, a bonafide Peace Corps palace in an urban area of Totonicapan that levels off near 8,500 feet. Luisa started with the healthy schools project last year and seems to have a preternatural instinct for feeling out social situations as well as the soothing ambience the likes of which I can only imagine the Dalai Lama could equally command. What is that overpowering warm gushy feeling? Why, it must be the onset of a friend crush. She took us along on her routine, on routes impossible to mentally map, by truckbed by camioneta by winding mountain paths. So we, her shadowing cargo, followed to schools for hygiene and nutrition workshops, parent meetings, a school garden project, and an introductory meeting with her supervisor. There we found the teacher who compared his job to a farmer’s, the students to little radishes, his eyes crinkling deep into the folds as he laughed at his own metaphor. The kid who squared up to me, looked me in the eyes, and began singing the Guatemalan national anthem while pounding his heart with a tight fist. Her avocado guy, who proudly halved one for her before shoving the whole lot into her arms so that he could make his way home without its weight. Also, her Colombian accent is lovely and not that I need any more convincing, but my vacation days are already covered with scribbles of Medellin and Cartagena.

Like I said, it peaks at 8,500 feet. Nothing says “adjustment curve” quite like sleeping on a stranger’s bathroom floor, face pressed against the cool concrete walls, contemplating which between altitude sickness or worms is the more pressing issue, and then being able to wake up the next day thankful for medical insurance and ready to work. Also, these first months have taught me that nothing says friendship like being able to talk someone through their inevitable rotation of moaning, retching, and spilling. I can count on other Peace Corps volunteers to be able to talk dirty.

The last day, we arrived at a rural health center to assist a charla as part of a series put together by a maternal health volunteer. Each week she had been gathering women to talk about different aspects of home building, child care, and physical and emotional health. This time, they entered the room slowly, anxiously and after signing their names, or in some cases, marking their space with an inky fingerprint, the facilitator of the charla rose to face them with the opening remarks. The introduction of the phrase “planificación familiar” stirred the heavy and humid summer air. Women shuffled uncomfortably and exchanged glances and giggles in the aisles. One girl in the last row, who couldn’t have even brushed 17, adjusted the sling that carried her newborn and stepped out, only to be followed and convinced to remain. We have come to understand this session to mean birth control. Many of the women coughed and passed the sample condom on without making eye contact with it or with their neighbors, not wanting to betray recognition, let alone watch it roll over the wooden dildo I held in demonstration. Also, when it comes to condom use, it is often the men who refuse to use them, angered by conversation that would encourage their wives’ to take advantage of the free birth control options offered at each health post. This means that many women seek options that leave no evidence–no wrappers, no pills, and no marks on their bodies. 55% of the women in this area utilize the injection, an option that is administered every three months; unfortunately the body adjusts to the change in hormone levels after two years, and it is rendered useless. Here, unspayed wild dogs give birth every four months for a majority of their lives, and very few of their litters leave survivors. One day, I mentioned how sad it made me to think of these dogs in the streets. My host looked at me sternly to tell me that it is possible that I will move to a site where it is also a reality for the women. In Totonicapan, it is not so much of a stretch to apply this powerlessness to the understanding that 80% of the children this region suffer from chronic malnutrition, stunted and wasted, and many others will die due to a lack of family planning skills.

Back in my training site, I went in for a meeting with my teacher co-facilitator. Due to a lack of staffing, he doubles and triples as the busy teacher of the 5th grade and then of music, computer technology, and Kaqchikel for over 170 students. After noticing that the school did not have soap and that the students’ unwashed hands seemed to be constantly coated with what appeared to be a layer of Cheetos dust, I had suggested a presentation on the government promoted Mi Plato nutrition model. He, on the other hand, looked to me with eyes betraying doubt. This is a common workshop done with the students, he said, and he offered in an assured tone that what they instead could benefit from is an introduction to media literacy and corporate propaganda. At this, I lit up, happy to have found another interested in the politics of these industries. So we worked on a charla targeting his 5th grade classroom on the topics of the junk food industry and its media influence. Dissecting promotion of foods, students created advertisements for healthy cost effective options using these techniques. I am finally feeling like a Peace Corps volunteer.

I then arrive at the topic of security concerns, because receiving text alerts about incidents in the middle of the night sparks a nostalgia for living a few blocks from the Temple University campus. Within a few weeks, a bus driver was shot dead on our route, another camioneta was held up at gunpoint, and a shuttle carrying a group of volunteers’ overnight bags was broken into and robbed in broad daylight at a health center on a busy road on Chimaltenango. Cameras go missing. Money goes missing. Phones go missing. As I write this, I can hear Cole calling his parents as an act of precautionary interception, to let them know that he has not actually been abducted. He jokes with his parents, saying that he would be more trouble than it is worth. When our phones are stolen, they can be used for extortion purposes. If you are reading this Dad, trust that I would also be more trouble than it is worth to keep me kidnapped. But really, it probably means that someone cut my bag as I walked through a shoving crowd gathered around the alformbras in Antigua during Semana Santa. Another background sound: a wooden flute. A street vendor persistently wants to sell me this wooden flute. I don’t know when I will ever actually want to be the proud owner of a wooden flute, but I will remember the woodwinds issuing out of the Parque Central always as one of the identifying sounds of Guatemala.

The ayudante reminds me that my stop approaches, and I leap over a startled sleeping señora to step off the camioneta just as dusk settles. That one cumbia rhythm that haunts every camioneta ride is absorbed by dust as the machine passes from view. I think fondly of the fact that I am now recognized, lost in it, and turn the corner towards my house. I round it quickly, only to hit a wall of people in hooded purple robes holding aloft an artful and antiquated wooden model of the death of Jesus Christ, worn down by the thousand hands from the old families that have been there since some of the earliest captured memories. The many loudspeakers boom with increasing volume, the carriers competing for most pious. I cannot help but feel uneasy as the streets are flush with garb that recalls images of a certain extremist group of the Deep American South, and so I eye the situation warily and sink into the walls. But the crowd instead calls for acts of joy and serenity and words of appreciation, candles floating above pointed hoods. I sidestep to avoid a fruit and flower display near my left foot. Forty minutes later, the crowd is thin enough for me to cross the last 50 meters to the threshold of my home. “The Catholics and their dead god!”/”Bah humbug”, I hear from my Evangelical family when I cross and turn to shut the door. But during Semana Santa, it is the Catholics who seem to be having the most fun.

How do we measure days in Guatemala? In raindrops on a tin roof. In rounds of pepian and facefuls of cake. In doses of anti-malarial prophylaxis. In little victories with the subjunctive tense. We measure, and yet here we also learn to forget to measure. I find myself once again floating in the aesthetic of lostness and learning how to be lost, how to be unanchored, and to find comfort in time spent disconnected.

Watch this video to see what it is like to be a volunteer :
basic needs and extreme happiness





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