Guatemala XI: Against the Heavy Currents

As a rule, I do not blog during times of extreme duress because responsible writers are careful to avoid reactionary responses. This week, however, calls for some explanation. I found myself in the most difficult week of my service and am enormously grateful for all of the support I received over the past week while I all but crumbled.

It included a reassessment of why I am here and of my security and wellbeing in doing my job and living in a rural community. In this blog, I tend to skip around the darker days and only hint or poke fun at the situations that incite fear or panic. This is because the overall takeaway of each day in these completely uncharted territories for me has been so much greater than the fear and because, despite some days that make us deeply question ourselves, our lives consist of so much more here than those feelings. Peace Corps volunteers experience enormous personal growth and development in an extremely narrow slice of a lifetime. We learn that this change and the ideas that incite change must first rattle or even shatter our cores, our fundamental belief systems, our predispositions, and our notions of balance and order. Change is painful, and change is both the greatest obstacle and worthy end goal.

We learn to seek support by new means. In the past, I had it all around me, to the point that I almost never noticed its presence. I as an extrovert thrive on my social experiences and person to person contact; and before, I could walk to a friend’s apartment and find the connections I had learned to give and expect. Here, we experience more doubt because our jobs are more challenging in almost every way and also we must attempt to find camaraderie in messages or phone conversations. Isolation is an enormous adjustment and one that also inspires us to be self-reliant and independent while finding alternate means to feel less alone. We show appreciation in different ways.

On many days, I find myself bored. On many others, I am overwhelmed. On others still, I am anxious and may not leave. And then there are the days that I am afraid. Most of these kinds of days become normalized and level off with time. Among these darker days that become generally more palatable, there are disguised and even muted victories that spark our happiness here. I will admit that it is difficult to relay the enormity of such events to people at home who ask what is the best part about being here–eating dinner with a new family or getting a gift from your host family or hearing someone tell you that they are happy you made the decision to come to Guatemala—they are the joie de vivre. They are minor, but to us, in that instant, it is our everything.

I have before mentioned being afraid of dogs in Guatemala. This fear has become warranted because I have now been attacked three times, and this last week, in probably the most terrifying instant of my life, it was a pack of 25 of them and nobody came to help me. Wild dogs are a part of life in Guatemala. People hit them randomly and so they bite back randomly.

The greater issue and realization stemming from this incident is that I am not safe in my site. I allowed myself to be in danger for about six months because I was afraid of having to move away and start over. For a half of a year, I had problems with some men in my site who seemed intent to either date me, demean me, and/or chase me away (is this not confusing behavior?). One in particular got to the level that I can safely say is stalking. Unfortunately, I learned how to navigate him away from my house when he followed me, by instead visiting friends in other neighborhoods. Unfortunately, I learned how to ask my more intimidating and male friends to answer my phone because my “I am not interested” is not enough. Unfortunately, I learned how to ask for help from local authorities only to learn that gangs have more power here than the government. And I am not angry at other women of my community, but instead of the solidarity I sought, a common response to him screaming something about taking me home with him was for whichever woman I am walking with to giggle and tell me, “he likes you”. Women in this region are raised to see that behavior as a sign of interest just as I was raised to see it as a sign of danger. There is just a disconnect. So, his job on the bus that is my exit out of my site meant that he always knew where I was, and furthermore, his gang affiliation meant that no one was stopping him from following me.  Despite my attempts to integrate, families in my area tend to stick together as units, and as I myself do not have one of those in Momostenango, no one helped me to scare away the hurt and hungry dogs despite my screams, and I recognize that this translates to stalkers as well. My host mom explained to me that people will unite to retaliate against threats that have already passed (ie: mayan justice style and lighting a man on fire in the central park after he sexually assaulted a child), but that it is up to families to protect one another. So, no, I do not feel safe when there are no potential preventive measures when it comes to my safety.

One thing that I have learned is that emergency response by my office is nothing if not prompt. I live in a country with one of the highest rates of femicide in the world; by cultural norms, a woman’s life here is not as valuable as a man’s, despite the laws that were recently passed in attempt to force people to believe it is. I have found here the surviving need to raise our sons to love and respect themselves and to love and respect the world around them, and to support them through their difficult first encounters with machismo so that they do not find strength in it. This is something that I work with here that inspires the enormous personal development that I mentioned before. With a great heaviness on my tongue, I am saying goodbye to Momostenango, a community that I grew to truly appreciate. There are many goodbyes that I will not get a chance to say, which is so difficult after spending a year in a community in which my daily social encounters sustained me. It feels like an unlucky roll of the dice, but at the same time, new opportunities have already arisen.

After spending a week deciding between going home or moving to a new site, thinking that I could surely not take on this new obstacle, that my heart will surely shatter, I am instead moving to another region in Guatemala and find myself the new addition to the team in Santa Maria Nebaj.

I do not feel that my fears of the past few months here are not legitimate. Something bad could happen. But my intuitive brain is being asked to instead see it as a matter of statistics and logic: in this scenario, there is a 100% chance that I will wonder what it would have been like to finish my service, or, staying here, something could happen (50%) or something could not happen (50%). So here I am, sticking around.

I truly hope that this blog post instead serves as a reference for any other volunteers who have a similar situation and for people at home who received a lot of calls this week. I have a lot of work to do over the next month. I will move all of my things and lay down some roots. I will try to make new friends. I will try to put together a new life.

Now Listening:
Hooked on a Feeling: Blue Suede
Blockbuster Night Part 1: Run the Jewels

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