We pass the houses in the countryside with dirt floors and a wood burning stove opposite the wall with the flat screen television where the family is watching together. The children lead me through a shortcut in a cornfield that opens up briefly into a sprawling marijuana harvest; innocent and unsuspecting, they stomp some of the plants into an early and earthy grave and whisper to me that I should never walk this way by myself. Narco-trafficking, duly noted. They lead me past the wall-less dwelling on the next plot shaded by a tin roof but otherwise exposing its family of five to all elements. And then, on what feels like another planet, the mansions that rise spectacularly out of the corn, aptly called remittance housing. Remittances make up 10% of Guatemala’s GDP and reached nearly $5 billion in 2013. Though it is a point of controversy in the states, families receiving remittances in Central America spend more, and increasingly spend more on education and healthcare. In communities like Momostenango, everybody knows someone who has made the grueling journey north by land, and as often, someone who received a scholarship to study at an American university and out of nowhere blows your mind with a conversation in English.
There are many aspects of rural life that we intend to ready ourselves for before arriving. If not for the cat calls and wet kiss sounds that break the air and sometimes threats that echo out of various darkened doorways, malnourished infants (that become malnourished children who drop out of school before the 6th grade and then malnourished adults who work long laborious days and raise their children the same) would decidedly be the most discouraging aspect of working in this environment. Daily work challenges in the Peace Corps are nothing if not real. What I find myself with now is not necessarily writer’s block, but a completely constipated emotional reflex system–days and days pass before I write a word because even re-feeling in reflection is exhausting. So I find myself practicing my own forms of meditation daily. Guatemalans work to the best of their abilities to improve their country, but change is slow as the nature of change is to be slow. Another skill: learning when to care too much and when to let it go.
The school year ends with October, and so begins the vacation period. In the next few months I will visit Los Angeles and Austin, and then on the return, the north and east of Guatemala. Hey USA, I’ve been dreaming of you lately. Until then, I have suddenly found myself with even more leisure time to mess around with Duolingo, make better friends in site, chill with new sitemates, and read in public with children looking over my shoulder and giggling.
But what is this, if not a collection of memories:
The student who doesn’t want to wash his hands or use his words and instead crows at me like a rooster…
Long walks home under a solid sheet of rain…
The neighbors hold a string across the dirt path ahead, and behind and to my side, chase me down waving sticks on my regular loop. I think they are kidding, but the dubiousness makes me run faster….
Smells so rank you can taste them when you open your mouth…
A finger laceration while cooking dinner with my new sitemates, and when there is neither clean water nor Bandaids in sight, cleaned with salt and rum before wrapping it with duct tape…
We were told in training that Peace Corps volunteers find strength in resourcefulness and I think this is more or less what they meant, right? See also: take the wrong bus home and find personal escort in the woods. See also: on-site fermentation projects using only what you can find in your town market.
So, what is my job? Raconteur. Health education cheerleader. Devourer of mangoes. Anxiety-inducing foreign presence and attempted instigator of critical thought. And in the Sisyphean sense, mover of mountains.
I made a promise to myself to step out into the vast expanse of unknown that awaits us and not cower from all that is life and to experience everything that can be experienced with fresh eyes. To not be jaded. To say yes.
So, I am pretty much constantly grateful for other Peace Corps volunteers for helping me be my best self in an extremely challenging environment. These are the people who counter-intuitively stepped out of corporate arena and prearranged lives to do something unpredictable. People who value people. These are the restless idealists are with me taking chances and getting irretrievably lost, climbing mountains, and collecting indescribable moments. These are people who will better understand and have a unique relationship with failure and perseverance, cross cultural communication, social justice, and resourcefulness.
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.” –Bukowski
YOLO or whatever.
Thanks for the postcards.