Guatemala VII: Out Here, Way Out Here

I now return to site after two weeks of twelve-hour days during in-service training, still confused about exactly what it is I will be doing here for the next two years. I enjoyed weekends of extended day drinking on Antigua rooftops, meeting other people, and enough feel good conversation to fill up my dwindling social meter.  I have also never been more patriotic, which became clear when I felt my heartbeat during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, surrounded by sparklers and Tim Howard jerseys during our all-volunteers Independence Day party.

Weird things are happening to me..

A chicken bus creaks by on the road just ahead, and I sprint with the soaring adrenaline that comes with a sporadic bus schedule and a potential hour and a half walk ahead should it pass me by. It disappears around the corner and so I kick a few rocks aside and set off, a trail of forty schoolchildren in my wake. My nose crisps just enough before the sky is split by lightning and the road washes away around my feet.

On the other occasions when I do catch it, long distance travel time no longer fazes. What’s more, there is an eerie emptiness to the machine when it is not crushed full of people, a toddler crawling across your legs and shoulders, the bolo behind mouth breathing heavily into the fabric of your backpack, bags of fertilizer heaped onto the seats.

Adjustment feels good.

I am learning what it is like to be jolted awake by the bumping and grinding of tectonic plates, and each earthquake reminds me to be mindful of the life around me as I lay still and unmoving (and hastily lose all security session preparation for this moment to the haze). This morning, a 6.9 magnitude behemoth from the heart of Mexico rocked the books from my shelves and set all the wild birds to flight. I shut my eyes and imagined that I was in the hull of some great sea-faring vessel, instead of a poorly constructed second story cement trap, while the ground around me rolled in waves. I found myself reciting a mantra with soothing and clarifying power, one that really reveals my personality under pressure: “what the fuck is this. What the fuck is this. What the fuck is this”. I come from the Appalachian side of Pennsylvania, the more-or-less Promised Land that does not see nature’s destructive tendencies, and so I feel that I am looking at the Earth naked for the first time.

Adjustment feels good.

I groan and roll over, my guts building up a bubbling and toxic symphony. I have learned how to be sick without all of the old comforts. Sickness has been conquered. Life carries on in town, even when my intestinal tract becomes my worst enemy, useless and miserable with amoebas. The little things, like the water shutting off, like not having a refrigerator, and like not being able to eat, feel somewhat worse when you’re already sick.  And then one day the feeling is gone, and the misery of it a distant memory. A choir of Disney trained songbirds lands on your shoulders as you throw open the curtains and strap on your trekking boots. The next time someone mentions gastrointestinal illness you laugh along and swap stories and it is never quite as bad again.

Adjustment feels good.

A part of living in a relatively urban site is being able to take advantage of the community’s social resources. I find myself in K’iche classes twice a week in the home of a fourth grade painter and teacher, who laughs heartily at my sad attempts to use glotal. He insists on calling me by my real name. He also cancels in the event of glorious bursts of sunshine, which he says we ought to enjoy, and during afternoon storms; class is reserved for the rare reasonably overcast days and has never begun less than forty-five minutes after our scheduled time, because as I am learning, a schedule is just a suggestion here. Other nights, I visit a basement gym to take dance classes that cost about $0.60 an hour. This is a safe space for the pants wearing ladies of Momostenango to listen to club music, which makes the transition to campo life slightly easier for someone used to going out four nights a week. Many Evangelicals here in country think that the act of dancing is reserved for the damned, which I have been hilariously reminded of repeatedly because of the occasion when another volunteer stood up and danced at an Evangelical birthday party a few months ago. The community still pecks at that story in hushed and hurried tones because to them, it is more fun to talk about the foreign presence than about the neighbor’s kid huffing cleaning products in the town square and accidentally lighting it on fire or the adulterous public servant who maybe just sponsored his twelfth illegitimate child. “Does she still dance?” they called me to ask. “Oh, yes”, I say. “Even better than before!” I may yet learn to salsa and bachata and cumbia and punto.

Adjustment feels good.

Here there is silence. There is a French Press and attempts to fill this silence with music and the mournful howl of rabid dogs and neighbors maybe screaming as wretchedly as they can in single syllables at dawn. I start by drinking way too much coffee and then need to walk it off else my mind runs haphazardly towards all the familiar high cliffs. In site, it is difficult to find friends who laugh at the same things I do. Many people from Momostenango my age are shaped by certain socioeconomic characteristics and cultural values: they have children, live with their parents, often grew up in a state of chronic malnutrition (80%), did not surpass the 6th grade in the Guatemalan education system (90%), and have never left the 2-hour public transportation radius. And the slapstick humor that I find (a la America’s Funniest Home videos) has never been my cup of tea and I am uncomfortable even forcing myself to laugh at it for the sake of social politeness. What I find in a very general sense is a humor that I can only describe as basic. Yes, sometimes I am lonely, at face value I am different. To create a strong social network in site has required me to abandon what I had believed to be my static personality, which won’t feel okay until it just does. But with each fresh panic or stabbing of loneliness, I learn that these phantoms cannot endure unless each fear is fed and that what is left behind is more me than anything I had believed before.

This website has been keeping me laughing:

Now to address some myths about the Peace Corps, because I am now realizing that I did not know what to expect when joining:

Myth #1: the Peace Corps is two years of unstructured work that allows for extended periods of travel

I have been told by older volunteers that 20 years ago, Peace Corps volunteers were dropped off in site after a month of language and technical training and told: 1. Lead by example and 2. See you in two years. The training methods and expectations seem to have developed considerably since then (we learn from the mistakes of those who came before us: the volunteer who got involved with drug trafficking in the rainforests of Peten and spent most of service time in prison or the group whose entire training class was administratively separated for becoming raging drunk and scaling the church in Panajachel one night). Peace Corps-Guatemala is an offshoot of the State Department and so there are strict regulations on where you can be, when, and how you get there. The rules of each post vary greatly depending on the security situation of each host country, and as I learned upon arrival, Guatemala is an active post that has seen some of the most security incidents.

We are here under the premise that we will be quite serious in producing results both measurable and reportable and that we will also spend most of our time, including weekends, in site.

Friday nights off have been revoked, and so we now are expected to leave Saturday mornings to enjoy a weekend away from site, with the added expectation that we will return to site before nightfall Sunday. From my site, it becomes a matter of whether I am willing to do 4-10 hours of roundtrip travel within 48 hours in order to socialize, and the answer is yes, always enthusiastically yes. When leaving site, we must call a Whereabouts line in order to report where we will be, where we will sleep, with who, and for how long. This is meant to ensure swift response in case of emergencies like natural disasters or political uprising. And yes, we receive 24 vacation days a year, but these too must be approved, and for my program, they are meant to be taken during school vacation periods.

Myth #2: You will live in a stick hut in the African savannah, adopt lion cubs, and wear the same pair or jean cut offs everyday while having Kumbaya moments with the locals who adopt you around a roaring fire.

Anytime I told people at home that I had joined the Peace Corps, I could almost see these images flash between the neurons behind their eyes. So, each person’s experience is completely different, and this is certainly not mine. Actually, you might even spend half the day in an office in dress pants, though you joined to evade the 9-5 business casual routine you had so dreaded. I live in a relatively modern apartment with running water more times than not, a tile floor, and electrical outlets for my toaster oven and internet modem. Many of my neighbors may have a dirt floor, but have a flat screen television in order to watch the World Cup matches. My camping stove is the closest I get to “roughing it”. I did not have to build my house by hand. I am two hours from a major metropolitan area with a Wal-Mart, a movie theater, and an airport. This is not Eat, Pray, Love, and this is not Into the Wild, and this is not Castaway (though you may find yourselves speaking English with inanimate objects after some time). I am not here to take pictures with brown children in indigenous dress or imagine myself to have saved them in any way. And yes, the locals still think I am really weird.

Truth: I would accept the invitation all over again

A wise woman mentioned during a presentation that among the ideas that a sentient being requires for contentment are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. With these words weighing heavy, I launch a new project, a new something-to-do, “La Gente del Maiz: the Humans of Guatemala”, an answer to Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York.   In conducting interviews with the people around me, I am finding a way to communicate mutual understanding, to integrate with different social groups, and to find some stories beautiful and terrible and enlightening. And with each interview, I am only reassured that I feel a responsibility to learn something from each person I encounter and feel something I have never felt before or think something I had never thought to think. I am feeling increasingly human.

I find myself with enough something-to-love-s to sustain me in learning the love languages and how to support my comrades while we face some of the most difficult challenges we have ever known.

As for the something-to-hope-for, well, I now revert to my old comfort in planning for November time away from site, to a place far far away where I can wake up surrounded by all things, streets, and people new and unfamiliar. This is the most thrilling feeling I know, and old habits die hard.

Dave Eggers reflects on being a foreigner in How We Are Hungry when he writes: “I was a star, a heathen, an enemy, a nothing”. I find myself also lost in defining how I am perceived by my community, my survival in site dependent on the judgment and approval of my neighbors. Either identity-less, or maybe now with too many complicated identities, I, also Elena, also Lola, also Seno, and only sometimes Arlene, do not have my old walls to hide behind.

I too am each day perceived as a star, a heathen, an enemy, and a nothing.

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Bless the Telephone – Kelis

Compass – Jamie Lidell

2 thoughts on “Guatemala VII: Out Here, Way Out Here

  1. Thank you this, Arlene. It evokes startlingly vivid images of what your service experience is like right now, without losing a familiar candor throughout the piece, and I enjoyed reading. I am feeling feelings simply in preparation for being in-country, and after reading this, I’m prepared to abandon any and all expectations of what my first few weeks there will be like. I look forward to being in-country with you!

    • Hey Maureen! Another thing that I should add is that each volunteer is having a completely different experience right now. But hit me up on Facebook if you have any questions! My name is Arlene Reich. See you soon.

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