Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Semana Santa






With the beginning of April and Semana Santa, or Easter week, there came the proper vacation time. I decided to take a few days off to get up to visit Coban, in Alta Verapaz. A friend came with, and we were fortunate enough to have a free place to stay with another volunteer. We spent a whole day just getting up there, as well as an entire day getting home of course, but it was well worth the effort. We got to check out swimming hole with a nice waterfall, as well as the highly acclaimed national park, Semuc Champey. With seven pools and several waterfalls this gorgeous place is exactly as it looks in the pictures. We spent the day swimming and hiking around.





The Thursday before Easter is a big day for Guatemalans to eat. I had the privilege of joining my Kiche teacher’s family for lunch of rice, vegetables, chicken, fish, and tomalitos. Although we didn’t eat until around 2, I arrived around 8 with my cutting board and knife to help chop. We also ate sweet bread in the morning and drank dank hot chocolate, made from coco from the coast. Sweet bread is huge during Semana Santa, both in size and quantity. (The family next door that owns the panaderia worked long and hard hours all week). The following day there was some awesome cultural festivities in town that a few friends came to check out. In the morning the streets were beautifully decorated with alfombras, or carpets made of dyed saw dust placed in different designs and colors, flower petals, pine needles, and even some fruit. This is a Catholic tradition, and the people begin working on them the in the early hours of the morning and then later they were walked over by a procession following service. The slow procession went through the main streets in town, and as soon as one carpet was trampled over and “ruined” it was swept up by the women, shoveled into bags by the men, and taken to some bank to be tossed.



Following the procession was a reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion, which was quite painful to watch due to horrible sound, stage direction, and the fact that it lasted 3 hours. By far the most exciting event was saved for last, the grapefruit fight. Two teams of 24 men, (mostly young although there were a few older ones who clearly could not let go of the past) facing and standing about 20 meters from each other in center of town, threw grapefruits, oranges, and lemons, at each other for about an hour! This is supposed to represent Jesus’ suffering, and I found it to be quite absurd although highly entertaining. Many of the players were drunk, so much so that they couldn’t very well walk, let alone throw, which made it all the more interesting. I was however impressed with many of the young guys, who continued throwing as hard as they could until the giant pile of fruit was all scattered about and exhausted men were ducking out off the court. The grand finale did not disappoint but did scare as people in the audience started picking up the fruit and chucking it hastily in every which direction!

My work plans for the month of course had to be put off until after Semana Santa, which lasted the first week of April, and the following week was cut short due to annual check-ups followed by a day at the Peace Corps center for mid-service conference, which was basically just a chance for all of the volunteers from my training group to come together with our program directors for some sharing and planning. I find that it is always nice to get back to the center for these conferences to catch up with the staff, pick-up more vitamins and free Gatorade from the medical office, and see fellow volunteers who are stationed far from me.


I have been planning to take all of the sixth graders from the three schools that I have been working with up to the eco-park just 45 minutes outside of town called Chuiraxamolo, which in Kiche means ‘the place where the green fly rests.’ The idea was to get the kids out of the classroom, do some fun hands on activities, and por fin, to give them the chance to try the legendary zip-line. Plans were postponed because the park has been preoccupied with the installations of signs for the new interpretation trail, a project put together by a handful of artists and volunteers. But I have been able to take a couple of groups, and I have really enjoyed seeing the kids test their nerves on the zip-line!

Monday, April 13, 2009

march madness


March brought a little dose of déjà vu. Another volcano. Another workshop. More classes. I was delighted to have the company of a visitor from back home, and enjoyed sharing Santa Clara with him as well as checking out a few new spots. We hiked up volcano Pacaya together beginning a bit late in the afternoon after having quite an adventure getting there. To climb only takes about an hour or so, but we didn’t get moving until about 5 o’clock, so on the last leg, in the back of a pick-up, I decided to rummage through my bag for my flashy flashlight that surprisingly I have only used a handful of times down here. Now I am notorious for losing things and really there is never a good time, but I was quite shocked that it was nowhere to be found. This put a little spring in my step, as I was nervous that we wouldn’t make it up there in time to get the tent up before the sun set. In the end everything worked out great. We even made friends with one of the guards up there, David, a sixteen-year-old with a shotgun. He let us set up near his cabin so we could have a little light. He even served us some warm coffee. Pacaya was impressive, especially at night. We sat and watched the glowing red lava flow down in awe from a safe distance, and the following morning we hiked a bit closer and roasted some mallows on the rocks for breakfast.

We also got to take a day trip to some hot springs called Fuentes Gorginas just outside of Xela, a nearby city. While we didn’t spend more than a few hours up there, but I am certainly glad that we made the trip because they were pretty darn neat. There were several small pools, with steaming hot water, but being at a high altitude, the air was cool and foggy. After wrinkling up and mellowing out, there wasn’t too much else to do, or much else we wanted to do.

While in Santa Clara it was fun to share my friend, or my “primo” as I introduced him, with a few of my friends in town. He tagged along to a Kiche class, which turned into a weird mix of English, Chinese (he has studied over in China), Spanish, and Kiche. We also got to make pizza with my neighbors who own the best panaderia in town. It was fun to teach them and to learn how to use their giant brick oven.





Not too long after saying goodbye to my primo, I invited two more volunteers out once again to help out with my second workshop for the teachers. With the theme of experiments we made ice cream, oobleck, gravity experiments using a bottle, hardboiled egg and matches, and also experiments demonstrating chemical (the baking soda and vinegar explosion was a hit of course, as fireworks are a favorite pastime around here) and physical reactions. Over all I think that it went really well, and I am pretty sure that the teachers will be using some of these ideas in their classrooms.

Oh, and the highly anticipated Vicente Fernandez concert in Xela was a blast. Unfortunately our seats were so horrible that all we could really see was his giant sombrero. Still, we got our dance on as usual, and had a good ol’ time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

february flew

Looking back at my calendar, it’s marked up almost straight through with trips to the schools, kiché classes, a birthday party, a special lunch for my kiché teachers family making pizza over at my house, a couple of HIV workshops, a recycled art workshop with the teachers from all three of the schools that I have been working with, and finally a hike up volcano Santa Maria.






The recycled art workshop went well thanks to the help of two other volunteers who came to teach a section, one on felting using local wool, and the other making woven mats using old newspapers. I demonstrated how to make recycled paper from old paper and piggy banks using two liter bottles. Since all of the activities were participatory, the teachers each learned and hopefully will remember and ideally use some of these ideas in their classrooms with the kids. Working directly with the teachers in this first workshop was for me an important opportunity to build relationships and to have fun with them. I look forward to the next one at the end of March on the topic of experiments using natural/cheap materials. If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them.



I helped give two HIV/AIDS workshops, one with a volunteer in Sololá to high school students, and the other in Xela to teachers. Both were a lot of fun because the materials we used include lots of icebreakers and participatory elements that help to keep the information interesting and allow for lots of laughs to help keep a positive mood. One of my favorite parts of the workshop is an activity that comes in the beginning called ‘palabras callejeras’ or street words. We ask all participants to think of slang used to describe words like homosexual, people living with HIV/AIDS, penis, vagina, ect. There is always plenty of snickering during this activity, and I always learn something new for sure. The objective of the activity in part is just to get people to have fun and be silly and then to recognize how many names we have for certain parts of our body and for certain people, consider why, and to acknowledge how some of the words may be offensive, especially the words that signify a homosexual or a person living with HIV/AIDS, and finally to discourage their use.

I have enjoyed these workshops because the information is so important and lacking especially in this country, and it feels great teaching something that you know will have an impact and hopefully will result in a change, no matter how small. I have especially enjoyed the change of pace from teaching small children to working with teenagers and adults. It has been a pleasure to have people raising their hands with intelligent questions, giving eye contact and encouraging smiles, provoking solid classroom discussion through a simple question, and expressing their gratitude at the end of the day.

The intense hike at the end of the month was super challenging not only during the steep 4 hours and 47 minute trek up the volcano but also throughout the night and into the next morning because of the cold temperatures due to the high altitude, something like 3,700 meters or so. A few friends and I endured the rough circumstances with the high hopes of witnessing a beautiful sunrise in the morning, a great view of the neighboring and very active volcano Santiagito, as well as a the feeling of accomplishment. We were tested throughout the night with the strong wind and bitter cold so much that both tents used were blown over with snapped polls by the early morning. Unfortunately clouds came in with the sun and the view was not so great, but I was able to snap a few nice shots. We hiked back down as fast as we could and returned home covered in dust in just about every imaginable crevice of our bodies.






March is already here, and this month looks to be much the same as February, filled with kiché classes, planning the next workshop for the teachers, and starting the bottle bodega planning for school no. 1. I look forward to maintaining the work hard, play hard philosophy and hoping to hike up volcano Pacáya, which has some active lava flow (good for roasting marshmallows I’ve heard) as well as checking out a Vicente Fernández concert out in the stadium in Xela at the end of the month!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Building a Biblioteca

Many thanks to all those who contributed to the children's library- OVER 500 BOOKS HAVE BEEN COLLECTED!!!


Unfortunately, I am currently unable to receive packages without paying unaffordable taxes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

new year






Feels pretty good having a year under my belt down here in Guatemala. I imagine that this next one is going to fly by faster than the last. Just making plans for the upcoming months with the directors of the schools and actually looking at and marking up the calendar helped to put me into that productive mode that I have been checked out of for some time now. The change is feeling great so far.

November, school was out and I was free to find work of my own, which basically just led to lots of quality time with a few special families that have welcomed me into their homes and kitchens. This free time to build relationships has been the best thing that has happened to me down here. Coming back to Guatemala after spending a few weeks at home over the holidays was easier than I had imagined because of the people who were back here waiting for me. I look forward to sharing more with them.

I am definitely on a high right now with a fresh start on the new school year and lots of changes with the way I am working. I knew ever since the end of last school year, around August/September, that I did not want to give classes five times a day everyday as I had been doing. I was burnt out. This year I have made plans to give workshops to the teachers, English classes to the teachers, and take the kids on field trips up to the ecological park here in Santa Clara. In this way I will be working with the schools but with a bit more variety for my own sanity, and hopefully the workshops and English classes with the teachers will be helpful and enjoyable for them and ideally will be things that they can carry on into their classrooms.

Outside of these goals, I hope to work on more hands on projects with each of the schools. We are still in the beginning stages, just brainstorming, but some ideas have been playgrounds, constructing a bodega out of recycled bottles (check out this website http://www.puravidaatitlan.org/), painting a cultural mural on the school wall, and building a small library of children’s books. I will be working on getting grant money to help make some of these projects become a reality, but the library I am going to try to build with the help of folks back home. I will be posting info on this blog and sending it around through e-mail of how interested people can help be a part of my efforts.

Outside of work I am looking forward to taking advantage of exploring more of the great mountains and volcanoes that surround me here. I am crossing my fingers that a few of you all back home are going to be able to make the trip down here before my time here is up. I would love to share more of the things that really can’t be translated into a blog or a photo.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Trash Talk

With no funding and little space, trash is finding its way into every crack and sidestep of Guatemala. Working in environmental education in a rural indigenous community seems to be a noble and necessary project; however, without a solution, or money in this case, the problem will only continue to grow as the barrancos and rivers are filled with plastic candy and chips wrappers, plastic bottles, Styrofoam plates and cups and a montón of other everlasting garbage.

Now in the beginning, there was idealism, enthusiasm, and hope. I had it in me that yes, teaching kids the importance of everyone playing our own parts to help keep our environments fresh and healthy is in fact a worthy cause because, well, we live in and depend on them, even if just for a short time. But recreo and refracciónes followed limpieza songs and “games” and once again the ground was littered with plastic chip bags and candy wrappers.

Porqué será? Well turns out it’s hard to kick old habits, habits that just one generation back would not even be considered bad. Before the chaos, native fruits, atols, and chuchitos, or maize based “hot pockets” wrapped in banana leaves were the word on the street, which they very much still are. Tossing the skin or leaf of a plant on the ground was more helpful than anything else (unless that skin happened to once belong a banana and then found its way under a foot, which I now know first hand does actually happen outside of cartoons, only without the alerted sound effect). The snack scene has since gone global.

Plastic is not the one at fault. For sure, it has revolutionized science and medicine and helps to keep out unwanted bacteria while securing in the artfully processed artificial colors and sweeteners inside our favorite childhood cavity-provoking candies. Mmm, JellyBelly! As if this weren’t enough, its cheap, light, and handily cuts out cleaning, at least where serving food is involved. In the case of the ever so popular Coca-Cola, switching from glass to plastic may even work out to be more energy smart as the pick up/transfer/cleaning/blahhumbug work that goes into reusing a heavier glass bottle equates to more trouble than say just delivering a product dressed in plastic, and vambam. Unfortunately, the vambam will hang around for at least a hundred years, depending no doubt on various factors, and in a special place as Guatemala where land is precious and fleeting, trash is becoming more and more abundant, lining everything from the streets to the campo.

To burn or to toss is a question I deal with at least once a week and I nefariously consider the former. A hungry, hungry hypocrite, I feel like an idiot trying to educate these little angel-faced innocent kids of the problems of the modern world, when problems around these highlands are still pretty limited to basic needs like food and water. So I wondered, is awareness, the creation of guilty conscious, or pointing a finger the answer? No sirree. Is ignorance bliss? Nah, probably not either, especially when you are living in poverty. Is a house made of trash or making recycled art the solution? Maybe if the house is actually slept in as opposed to just a nice photo-opt for tourists. And how could magically transforming plastic bottles into forever-in-bloom flowers be anything but interestingly time-consuming and fun. But at the end of the day it is still or inevitably going to return to what it once was. Or something like that anyways.

To wrap things up, without plastic this time, I’d like to give a shout out to The United States of America, the land of the landfills. Remember not to take your abundance of trashcans for granted.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Time keeps flying by




Time keeps flying by. November has felt especially fast, which is due much to my great fortune of having plenty to do despite school being out for the summer. Aside from counting the days down until Christmas time, when I will be coming home for a hearty visit, I have been enjoying the fine company of a handful of kids around the block. I had it in my mind to organize a youth group, ideally made up of no more than ten jovenes to join me once a week to venture out on excursions up to the ecological park, play games on the field in town (I have yet to introduce kickball and tug-of-war, my two favorite childhood games), and to come into my home to make crafts, cook, and have informal classes with. Unfortunately, it is quite near impossible to get a regular schedule with the same group, because A, this is Guatemala and nothing seems to be regular, and B, although kids are on break from school many still have other responsibilities around the house, out in the campo (it’s coffee pickin’ season), or they just have their own kid things to do (it’s also kite flyin’ season!) I am totally not offended, and just happy to have little friends come around whenever they please.

There was one successful excursion up to the park at the beginning of the month. Six brave sixth graders joined me for the two hour hike to the park center where we first collected leaves and made rubbings with crayons, and then we did the zip line (had to be in this order for obvious reasons), which on a clear day (as just about every days seems to be now with the end of the rainy season having just passed in October. And for that I will say, GRACIAS A DIOS!) gives a magnificent view of the lake and surrounding volcanoes. It’s about 40 meters from one mountaintop to the other, so three of the kids were content just watching. This was my second time pretending to be a bird, or Tinker bell if you will, the first time being back a few months when the news channel came to film a piece on Santa Clara and highlighted the park as a tourist attraction, for which I posed as a happy tourist and aired on the nightly 11 o’clock news..in the air!

The following week the group of six downsized to just two boys (one being last week’s lucky winner of a Sarita’s ice cream for being the closest guesser of time from Santa Clara to the park, so his motivation is clear). This time we hung out on my back porch, cutting up the Newsweeks I had collected. (Peace Corps was sending us these randomly for whatever reason, but recently stopped in an effort to reduce frivolous spending after recent budget cuts. I found them most useful for art projects and collecting dust and will be sad to see them go.. ). With the colorful and dramatic photos found we made collages. This activity impressed me, or rather the boys did with their creations. One made a Guatemala/American-themed collage with pictures of U.S. flags, the bald eagle, and then drew the Guatemalan flag and bird, the Quetzal..and a snake because, well, snakes are cool. (Actually we had a run in with a very big snake on the trail the week prior and opted for a different return route). The collaging progressed into water-painting, (muchas gracias Ben and Cat!) which, living in Sololá, always means landscapes of Lago Atítlan, complete with volcanoes of course.

Since then, I haven’t seen any of the original six, but I have been spending time with the neighbor kids, mostly doing art projects out on the back porch. I enjoy encouraging the creative juices in these kids and boosting their confidence in their abilities to create anything that is not copied or traced unlike the artwork you will find in many of the classrooms. The informal atmosphere of the back porch, complete with sun, music, snacks (in Guatemala, snack is key, although where is it not?) plus the advantage of having small groups, for which I can provide materials like paper, paints, crayons, etc. for has made a world of difference in boosting morale from both perspectives. It’s great being able to create that fun, interesting, and rewarding atmosphere, and it doesn’t take much.

Aside from coloring, I have finally started studying K’iché, with the help of a teacher and friend in town. I had always planned on finding a teacher, but the challenge was not on finding someone who spoke K’iché (Santa Clara is a 98 percent indigenous, K’iché speaking community; however many of the kids now do not fluently speak K’iché, with more emphasis placed on learning Spanish, which is a confusing shame) but someone who could write it as well, as it is really a spoken language. *(see side story tangent below). I started classes with a teacher from my favorite of the three schools I have been assigned to, and so far it has been a delight not only for the new guttural words, but because going to his house three times a week has given me the chance to get to know his wife and five children, a few of which I have given classes to at school.

Qué mas? Well I went to yet another PC training session, IST, or In Service Training. No more formal trips to the center now until March when I will be receiving mid-service meds! (I’m looking forward/scared to get my teeth cleaned). I’ve been taking advantage of the time off to go on hikes with my buddies as much as possible. I also started “running” with a friend in town, so with all that exercise and sunshine I am literally feeling one hundred times better than I had been not too long ago with the tail end of the rainy season and the exhaustion from having too many classes (learned my lesson the hard way). The new school year will begin after the New Year, and I plan on organizing my time more around projects with the schools based on their suggestions rather than going into every classroom, which while it was a great learning experience in humility, will not be realistic avenue to promoting a sustainable change or sustainable Seño Sara. I’m looking forward to a fresh start.

*I asked one of the original six once how to say “mi casa es su casa” in K’iché. After much debate with his friend they finally told me it was “Ri a’guachóch, guech.” A few minutes after I had painted a nice colorful sign to hang above my door with these very words, (to hang inside. I mean, there are limits..) they still seemed to be debating if that were right and reluctantly informed me that what I wrote actually meant was “su casa es mi casa.” We had a long laugh and hung the sign all the same.

This kind of thing, confusion over how to say certain things in K’iché, happens a lot around Santa Clara for a few reasons. One is that many people don’t use K’iché (mostly kids). They may understand a lot of it, and speak it to their elders, but it is not their first language. Secondly, a lot of things just don’t translate or people don’t know how to translate it correctly because they don’t use those phrases or ideas in K’iché. In Santa Clara, just about everyone can speak Spanish (though often not very well) and it is spoken in the schools and municipal offices; however, in many places this is not the case of course, so many volunteers have a greater need to begin with classes in whatever language (there are twenty-six) earlier. In my case, learning K’iché will serve more of a hobby that will help me score brownie points with the folks in town. Oh, and I’m sure it will look great on a resume, and since no one in the states can speak it, I can just impress the hell out people. I am sure that I will never become fluent because it is incredibly difficult, and with just a little over a year left I plan to focus more on improving my Spanish, which I am still learning, because it may serve me in the future unlike K’iché, with the exception of being a cool party trick..