Guatemala VI: It’s Flood Season

I step off the micro to find Old Testament era flooding in Momostenango, and so I hold my newly purchased packaged toaster oven aloft and leap into a tuk tuk that majestically appears by my side to deliver me to the safety of my second story apartment.  The driver then snickers and ejects me from the backseat saying, “bad luck, you’re not crossing the bridge today”.  I try three roads and every means of arriving home has been blocked by the engorged river.  The river swelled a few meters, especially near the unaccommodatingly narrow stone bridge, and so it spills out into the streets and welcomes the homeward bound with a foot of mud that will open wide to pull legs deep into the earth.  It also swept through the local trash collection field and carries a year’s worth of unburnt plastic bottles, cardboard, and styrofoam with it on its boundless joyride through manmade Momostenango.  And so, after some waiting and then some wading, I find my home, its garden flooded, my clothes that had earlier been drying on the line forsaken and swirling in the dingy abyss.  I reach into a watery grave and extract a pair of pants and then cut the string tying down our anxious drowning hen.  If I had an ark, I would herd in all of Momostenango’s life in twos, its tarantulas and amoebas, goats and pumas, drunkards and infants, colorful birds, water beetles and rabid dogs, Mormon missionaries and schoolteachers. I haven’t had running water in five days, and I am thirsty enough to boil some questionably colored tapwater.  Cheers.

Some days I love drifting through the markets that gather twice a week.  Some days I get a real thrill out of being recognized by the fruit trucks, trying half-heartedly to barter, and walking away with a sack of fruits I never indulged in at home.  And some days, I am tired of getting f’d by vendors.  As a foreigner, I am regularly getting charged double for nearly every basic service, utility, and good available in and around Momos.  It means getting pulled towards mats and entryways and even after introducing myself as a volunteer working in the region’s underserved schools, being told that I can surely afford the extra gringo charge.

Dairy Vendor Whose Products Gave Me Amoebas: You only make 30 Q a day?  That’s nothing!  *spits into dirt near my feet*

Even after my third visit to a school, the only pickup driver on the route still laughs and tries to get me to pay extra because he is saving up to paint flames on his pickup.  An inevitable part of development work is being seen as a big open wallet with connections to the U.S. government.

In other news, now that I have a mirror, I just saw my face for the first time in weeks.  So shocked, I back into a table which wobbled, and I watch horrified as a new bottle of olive oil tumbled to an early grave.  Usually, this would all be copasetic…you mop it up, sure to pick up the tiny slivers of glass, and then drive to the grocery store to pick up more before your next kale chip party or whatever.  And then you are a Peace Corps volunteer and your emotional spectrum becomes misshapen and unfamiliar.  Well, as for cleaning it up, we haven’t had water for five days.  And because of the crash, my host family crowds into my room to watch me skate around collecting glass.  When they realize that it is actually olive oil covering the floor and that it was not on purpose, the cries begin “but it is so expensive!” and “you can’t even fry plantains with that!” and then “you can go get more the next time you have five free hours in a day to go to Xela!”.  And I curl into a puddle of despair with no place to hide, the karmic response for asking the carpentry team that tried to charge me double today to get thee to the devil.

To take on a serious tone, one of my lesser favorite tones, I will attempt to give shape and color to exactly what it is I am doing here and why.

The Peace Corps-Guatemala project Escuelas Saludables is unique on the global scale because it is a project that does not belong to the Peace Corps, having been introduced as a partnership between the Guatemalan Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education in 1993.  Due to a lack of resources, manpower, financial backing, and some other bureaucratic/corrupt nonsense, the national government recruited the Peace Corps as a collaborative presence for its grassroots delivery.  And so, my employer is the U.S. Department of State, though I work in the office of the Guatemalan Ministry of Education.  Guatemala is the country in Central America with the highest rate of chronic malnutrition among infants, now reaching 50% nationwide and somewhere near 70% in indigenous communities, as well as the highest rates of related infant mortality.  The government response, El Plan Pacto Hambre Cero, is a federal plan with objectives related to food security and nutrition: to lower chronic malnutrition rates among infants, reduce the deaths associated with malnutrition often tied to parasites and chronic diarrhea or seasonal harvest yields, and to confront the poverty that concentrates in the rural, indigenous populations, and women.  At their base, many of the conversations that I aim to start are economic in nature.  The return on a long-term investment in education for daughters.  A cost analysis of regularly buying soap versus hospital bills.  Family planning in an age of lower child mortality rates and rising childcare costs.

So what do I do?  Ah, if only it were so simple!

Part of my job is to convince student population that malnutrition and poverty are not the natural conditions of society, and that small changes in daily practices can create measurable improvements in quality of life.  I cannot remember the first time somebody sat me down to explain to me that I need to wash my hands in order to not accidentally consume fecal matter, which has infected 98% of the country’s water supply.  Part of my job is to collaborate with and train educators on how to effectively communicate these lessons.  Not just sometimes, but often, I am presenting a lesson on hand washing as new information to the audience.  That, to me, is what it means to have an oppressive wealth gap.  I watch as some of the mysticism of life evaporates with the ensuing explanation of germ theory…oh wait, that’s not shock or resistance, she only speaks K’iche and can’t understand me.  Obstacle 1: some people who attend my workshops don’t speak Spanish/can’t read.  We then do an activity with glitter to exemplify the spread of bacteria, and approach the sink to practice using soap.  Obstacle 2: The school doesn’t have access to running water.

Part of my job is to convince parents that children need not die due to respiratory illness, gastrointestinal complications, and wasting malnutrition.  To tackle infant malnutrition that wastes and stunts youth, it has been determined that we have a window of the first 1000 days of life, and soon after this, intellectual and physical development is permanently fragmented.  How can we break a cycle of poverty when much of the population lost the opportunity to advance within their first few years of life?  Part of my job is to train parents and parent organizations in health themes like de-worming, head lice, and basic nutrition so that they can act as leaders in their homes and communities.

Some popular and unfounded local science for you all that I might politely address during meetings with parents:

-Coca Cola and coffee give you energy because they are full of vitamins.  Make sure your infant drinks at least a little bit every day to protect it from illness.

-You should not eat fruit when you are sick because fruits are cold and fevers are very hot.

-A woman who has just given birth should not eat foods that are colorful.

-Worms and parasites enter your body through forces of nature like lightning, which is why you should cover your head during thunderstorms and not look into mirrors or touch doorknobs.

Part of my job is to be a cultural ambassador/not an asshole.

Encompassing hygiene practices, food security, women’s empowerment and maternal health, access to water, the experimental learning cycle, HIV awareness, diversity and cross cultural communication, and a variety of complementary projects, the project is flexible enough that we are indeed “the architects of our own experience”.

One of the most underappreciated and overlooked obstacles in my position has been the perception of the external locust of control, and the complete absolution of responsibility to supernatural forces.  I grapple with an inability to reply to “if God wanted us to brush our teeth, it would be in the Bible” or “we will have running water today if Señor Jesús allows it” in a culturally appropriate way; on the fate-versus-free-will spectrum, I find that I fall in a different lot than the majority of the people I work with, a contrast that is not contentious but means that despite verbal communication skill training, much gets lost in translation.  But, I have also learned that packages arriving in country scribbled over with crucifix imagery and Biblical passages are that much more likely to arrive intact, so that is something to think about.

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