Thursday, March 15, 2012

International Women's Day

As many of you know, last Thursday, March 8, was International Women's Day. A day where all over the world communities commemorated women's rights, equality, the fight it took to get there, and respect and appreciation for women. I guess I never really did much for this day back when I was at home in the States either because I wasn't always aware of it or there wasn't anything going on that was presented to me. 

Well, that has changed for me being in Guatemala. Last year, I didn't have the opportunity to really do anything because I was in training and was on a tight schedule and, someone would even say, a tight leash. Yet this year I was in my community where I have worked now for a year and have specifically worked with women. About a week before Women's Day I visited the Municipal Office for Women (OMM) in town to see what they were planning for the day and if I could assist in any way. Of course, they were just starting to plan and figure out what they wanted to do in a week's time. TIG. But we discussed the idea of having a march through town the morning of with the indigenous women from all the different villages and hosting a fun activity afterwards with lunch being provided as the concluding event. 

So on March 8th, I put on some purple and gathered with a bunch of women from my community to do about a 45 minute march through my town. (No, my town's center is not that big we just walked really slow.) Many of the women had made different posters they held up through the march about women's equality, women's rights, gender-based violence, women's education, etc. It was such a great and joyous event for me to be able to participate with this group of women that are still faced with so many injustices in this country and who were marching so proudly to represent themselves. I also enjoyed seeing the faces of male on-lookers being faced with a large group of women that not only respect and value themselves but are expecting it from others as well. Machismo is still a large part of the indigenous culture in Guatemala (and non-indigenous at times) and so seeing indigenous women be proactive about their role in society was really inspirational for me.

Women's march
After the march, we headed to an area outside in front of the municipality building where a stage was set up. The OMM and Comisión de Mujer organized a line of activities for the women to enjoy themselves, such as dance contests, tongue twisters, raffles, and a contest to pick the best posters that were made by the women. I had the honor of being one of the judges for the posters' judging and presenting the winners. There also were some guest speakers that addressed the women about a variety of different issues revolving around women. One speaker in particular was a Peruvian women's rights activist that recently started working for an NGO in the area regarding women's rights. Since all of the women's first language that were participating was Q'eqchi' and not Spanish, she insisted in a translator so that they could be addressed in their mother tongue. This woman was the definition of empowerment and spoke true to the reality of a lot of these women. She dared them to stand up for their rights and equality and to demand respect from all. She even got all these lovely little Q'eqchi' ladies to raise the fists in the air and yell "Viva!" which for Q'eqchi' women who are usually shy and don't tend to speak loudly in crowds, was pretty awesome and I wish I could have captured the moment on my camera to share. 

The lunch that was held afterwards was fun with the local marimba band playing live in the background. After everyone was done eating, some women got up and grabbed a partner and started dancing with each other. It was all smiles and fun, and it was really just such a pleasure to be able to share this day with these women and see them for a day enjoy themselves, forget their worries and problems, and celebrate their existence, their love for themselves, and their mere existence. 
Dance contest
Working for a year in the Peace Corps out here in Guatemala has helped me discover a new passion I have for women everywhere and their right to health, to an education, and to an equal opportunity. There can be so much inequality for women here in Guatemala and it breaks my heart when I do see it or hear about it. It is exciting, though, when you see women gather like they did on this day and celebrate themselves and speak about their will to never give up. 

A few days later, I went to the community of my women's group for our last meeting together and despedida (goodbye). Since Women's Day had just passed I decided to do our last workshop on self-esteem and its importance for women. We did an activity in which we first went around the circle and each talked about something that made us sad or our heart heavy. We then went around and each said a blessing we have in our lives. The activity turned out differently than I expected. First of all, the women could not think of something that made them sad and they just giggled like little schoolgirls when it was their turn. They would answer, "Seño, I'm happy all the time." Or, "I don't get sad." Which, obviously, is not true. I was so confused by this. I even gave an example saying, "I feel sad when I see little children sick." Nope. A couple said I feel sad when my child is sick but that's it. Maybe it's a way for them to stay strong, to try to block out the things that upsets them. Perhaps they thought it was just a weird question to ask. I don't really know the answer but I do know that when it was time to say a blessing the giggles resided and a more serious tone was taken. They each talked about how God gives them many blessings and gave various examples. Their faith was so evident and strongly relayed. "God gives me the blessing of always having my tortillas and my food on my plate," was one of my favorites because no matter what they always have their tortillas! Although I already knew it, it became so clear to me how much God plays a role in helping them get through their struggles. I think the activity ended up having more of an impact on me than on them, ha! 

Myself with the President (right) and Secretary (left) of my women's group
At the end of our workshop I had brought a cake to share with them and give them my thanks for welcoming me into their community. They also shared their words of gratitude and appreciation with me and, all in all, it was a good final meeting. Although, I definitely felt a pang of sadness saying goodbye and hugging some of these women knowing that I might never see some of them again. But, weirdly enough, I didn't feel as overwhelmingly sad as I thought I was going to. Instead I largely felt a wave of gratitude and appreciation for having the opportunity and honor to have gotten to know these women, to have exchanged dialogue with them, and to experience and learn about their culture and way of living. I don't think I will ever forget them for I learned as much from them as they did from me.
Women's group I got to work with from Monjas Panimaquito

Friday, March 2, 2012

February Happenings: goodbyes, the beginning of the end, and a Valentine's Day surprise

Happy March everyone! Already a month has gone by since my last post and I hardly even felt it. But looking back now, a whole lot has happened in that month and I can hardly believe it. So let's catch you all up. 

Last I wrote, I had mentioned that PC was giving my women's group and myself the chance to finish our grant application for the stoves project. This was a huge deal because even though there was no guarantee of receiving the grant we were having the chance to apply, giving us hope. Unfortunately, that hope was crushed a week after I wrote my last blog post. I had been planning on submitting the application on Friday, February 3, to the grant committee. Last minute, though, the budget wasn't balanced and we needed to make some changes so I decided to wait until Monday to send it. I did, however, email my Project Specialist the majority of the application on that Friday to review it and give me any suggestions. It wasn't until I got a phone call on Monday from my Project Specialist that I found out that the grant committee, which meets once a month and decides if the applications get approved or not, had met that previous Friday. This meant that our application missed the committee meeting and could no longer be taken into consideration because there wasn't going to be another meeting until April. I had been in communication with the guy whose sole job is to be liaison between the grant committee/fund and PC volunteers. He never once informed that the committee was meeting that Friday. If I had known I obviously would have gotten my application in on time. I had even emailed him earlier that week saying that I was going to try to send in the application by Friday and what the outlook would be. My response: "I think it’s great if you can get the application in. In terms of your chances there is as good a chance as any of being approved." No mention of that Friday being the committee meeting. He later called me explaining that he had assumed I knew and that my Project Specialist had informed me. Neither of which were accurate. I can sit here and get angry all over again at how once again PC-Guatemala's lack of communication has let me down and hurt me, but I won't. I was angry, hurt, and upset for good enough time after that incident and looking back now maybe it was a blessing in disguise. I definitely would have been super busy my last month in site and would have been rushing to get things done. Then I would have left and no monitoring would have occurred from a third party. I believe in projects that not only incorporate and empower the local community but that are also sustainable. It felt like I had failed after fighting for so long for this project, but in reality I trained some of these women in the process in how to even apply for a grant and all the things that need to be taken into account. I also helped them find hope in themselves to do the project in the first place. It may have been a defeat but at least something valuable came out of it. And as Maya Angelou said, "You will face many defeats in your life, but never let yourself be defeated."

Doña Paulina (women's group President) in her kitchen where she makes her fire to cook
The community school's "stove"
Moving on to happier news. I was invited to a meeting about 2 weeks ago that the new mayor of my town hosted in which he invited all of the NGOs and non-profits doing development or aid work in the municipality. As mayor, he wants to know what kind of work is happening and how he can support each organization and wants to make sure that each organization knows what the others are doing so no two things are duplicated. These meetings are going to be held monthly and if they actually live up to their purpose (so far they seem to) it would be a great tool and resource for the community so that all work done is sustainable and effective. I happened to meet some aid workers there from a development organization called Plan International. Plan International used to have a program also called Healthy Schools, similar to the one I work in, in some of the schools in my municipality. They discontinued it, from what I've gathered, because it wasn't sustainable and wasn't displaying good results. It consisted of handouts and isolated activities instead of doing follow-ups and holding the schools accountable for change. It turns out they have hired some other people, one of which I met that day, to restart the program here in Purulhá but to make it better and more sustainable. After I gave my presentation on the PC Healthy Schools, I was approached by the man from Plan and asked more about how we worked exactly. After a short conversation, he told me he was interested in talking more in depth about our program and to collaborate with me so that they could take over where my sitemate Lohmo and I are leaving off. That way, the program won't end and keep going in the schools. One of the biggest things that made me sad about leaving my site was abandoning these schools that had just barely gotten to know the program. Then here comes Plan to save the day and is going to try to do the best they can to continue the program! Needless to say, I am so happy over this. I actually met with this man and another Plan worker today to further discuss how the overlap and continuation can take place. I think they also informally offered me a job. Ha! He asked me if I would be interested to pretty much do the same job I was doing but this time with three towns instead of one but for four years! Honestly, I can't commit my life to something for four years right now unless that something is medical school, so that immediately made it a no-go for me. The prospect was nice though. We're going to be having more meetings in the next few weeks to further make a plan so I'll be updating sooner rather than later. Yay!

Other than all that, the next thing I have planned is a contest of rincones de salud with all of the schools in the Healthy Schools program here. "Rincones de salud" are a vital part of our program and translate to "health corners" or "health nooks". They are spaces created in classrooms where the students keep their toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, towels, etc. It promotes healthy habits and hygiene in the classroom and at school. I don't know if I've ever mentioned this but Guatemalans are pretty creative when it comes to making stuff and are especially good drawers, at least the teachers seem to be. They are so meticulous! So these rincones usually come out looking pretty damn good. Anyways, since I'm leaving so soon I want to at least motivate the schools to make their rincones now that the school year just began. Then, they can at least have the materials there and hopefully by seeing them in the classroom the teachers will have more motivation to make the students wash their hands and brush their teeth. It should be a fun activity and I'll definitely post pictures later. 

For the past week and a half I have actually been out of my site and instead have been down by Antigua and the PC office. I had my COS (close of service) conference and then had to stay to do my COS meds (a bunch of medical appointments to make sure Guatemala didn't totally destroy your health). I finished my meds though and accomplished pooping in a cup three times and getting a negative TB test. Woo! It was a stressful and overwhelming week though with so much going on. Two of my good friends in PC that lived up here by me in the Cobán area were finishing up their service and going home. Shout out to Evan and Winfrey who are now Stateside and living the life with good food, smartphones (I know, Win, you don't have one), and hot showers. Hopefully I'll see them again soon. But seeing so many volunteers leave that week was weird and depressing. It makes it feel all the more real that all this is happening so fast and we all move on at one point or another. I'll miss our little Verapaz crew!

Verapaz love
Being back in site after being gone for so long feels weird but so nice. It's even weirder since Lohmo has moved to his new site already so I am here in Purulhá solo. I have less than three weeks left here in my home and then another week of getting things wrapped up in the office and checkin' out the Mayan ruins in Tikal. I suppose this is the beginning of the end of my PC service. I'm trying to really just savor every last moment Guatemala has to offer me because I know I will miss it all in some shape or form. It's crazy how fast everything is happening and I can hardly even believe it. Oh man! I just remembered something I forgot to write about that is so crazy you just have to laugh at it. The day before Valentine's Day, my landlady washed my clothes for me because the sun had finally come out and I had three weeks worth of dirty clothes. Well, it hadn't all dried that afternoon so she left it out on the patio on a clothesline overnight to spread back out in the morning. I was awoken the next morning by a knock on my door from my landlady asking me if I had brought my clothes in that night. I hadn't. All of my clothes were gone. Stolen. I would say it was 65-70% of my clothes. I was obviously mad that day at whoever decided to steal all my clothes and quite frankly just confused. But once I got thinking, I was thankful it was my clothes and not something more valuable or irreplaceable. I was probably going to leave half of it here anyway since Guatemala seems to destroy clothing like no other. And now I have less clothes to pack and space for other goodies to bring back! There's a bright side to everything if you look hard enough. That's what I love about life. Hasta la próxima!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Where to go from here?

It is amazing how quickly things can change in one instant, one second, one moment. Looking back at the beginning of this month, I was so hopeful and excited for 2012. Despite feeling a bit lost in terms of where PC stood in Guatemala, I was ready for 2012 and excited for my second year of service. That all changed too fast. About two weeks ago I was across the country in Xela for In-Service Training (IST) with the people from my project and training group. It was supposed to be a two day meeting and so I was staying at the hotel PC was hosting the meeting in. The point of the meeting was to help plan for the new school year and to give us ideas of what sort of projects, workshops, and activities to do in our sites. It definitely helped to motivate me and gave me some ideas I wanted to develop in my site. The evening of the first day I was out with a few friends just grabbing a beer before dinner and catching up since some of us hadn't seen each other in awhile. In the midst of chatting and hanging out, we get a text from PC on our cells alerting us to check our emails for an important announcement from PC-Guatemala. None of us were obviously by computers so I called a friend that I knew was home and could tell me what this was all about. He read me a few of the important lines. 

It began with: "I would like to take this opportunity to explain our immediate plans to enhance safety and security for Volunteers serving in Guatemala." It then went on to dispel rumors of PC-G shutting down. "Peace Corps is committed to continuing the longstanding excellent relation we have shared with the people and counterpart organizations in Guatemala for nearly 50 years." We were then informed about an All-Volunteer Conference taking place the following week, in the same location I currently was in for my meeting, to discuss these "immediate plans" in detail. And then they gave us some brief, ambiguous details as to the new "immediate plans". 1. All incoming training groups for 2012 are cancelled and they expect to have the next group of trainees arrive in 2013. 2. The volunteers set to COS (Close-Of-Service aka finish their 27 months) in March and July 2012, now have to COS February and March, respectively. 3. PC-G will refocus its geographic area and consolidate operations in the "Central Western Highlands". Volunteers working outside of that area "may be relocated to existing sites in the Central Western Highlands to the extent that they are available, or they may also be granted early COS." 4. Early COS will be granted to any volunteer that wants it, regardless of time spent in Guatemala. 

So, I received the gist of this over the phone. Didn't really process it at first, went back inside to the table my friends were sitting at, and told them what I was told. As the words rolled off my tongue, it sunk in..."relocated to existing sites in the Central Western Highlands." Tears swelled in my eyes and I had to excuse myself and step outside. Did this mean me? Did I have to leave my site, the place where I finally felt like I belonged, like I was part of the community? Maybe not...Central Western Highlands, what did that mean? Technically, Baja Verapaz is in the center of the country, and has some high lands. And if it did mean me when did I have until to leave? So many questions, no answers. I called the Safety and Security Coordinator and asked him if he could tell me if my site counted as a site in or out of the new refocused region. "Sorry, Natalie, but I'm not allowed to disclose that information yet." What?! What does that even mean? I took it as a no, no I'm not in the region that gets to stay. I cried for a bit, talked to my site mate while we continued to digest this bit of information and then went back in and spent the rest of my night wondering what was going to happen and if we really did have to leave. 

The next day was supposed to be the second day of our IST. I think you can imagine that with news like that dropped the night before, no one was focused or the slightest bit interested in IST anymore. The director of our program cut the crap and told us what departments of the country had to relocate. I had to move. (If I had not happened to be at this meeting I would have had to wait to find this out either through the PC rumor mill or until the All-Volunteer-Conference the following week.) I had such a wide range of emotions that I couldn't even process them all. I was upset. Upset that I had to leave a place I grew to call home and had community ties too. Upset that the women I had just begun to start a grant application with for a stoves project were now going to be let down. I was angry. Angry at the lack of communication from PC administration. How long have they known? A mere two weeks before I had spoken with my Project Specialist to ask her if it was a good idea to start this grant application given the current circumstances of PC and the feeling of uncertainty that loomed. I told her the last thing I wanted was to start the process and get the women motivated and excited just to have to let them down if PC decided to pull out. No, she assured me, PC is running normally. Go ahead with application. So you can see how anger resulted when two weeks later that exact thing occurred. I felt betrayed by PC administration and their lack transparency. I felt like all I had worked on until now did not matter to them. I felt frustrated at the lack of control I had on the situation. I felt disappointed with PC as an organization for the manner in which they had handled the situation and the way they were treating me. I felt deceived into thinking I would get the normal 27 month service I was promised. It was a lot to handle. 

Since the All-Volunteer Conference (AVC) was going to be held in the same place I was currently already at in a couple days, it didn't make much sense for me to go on a 9-10 hour ride back home, to be home for one day, and to then have to go all the way back again. Since I couldn't go home then, I went to Lake Atitlan for the weekend to relax, sift through my thoughts, and figure out what I was going to do. At this point, I was going through waves of emotions. For some periods of time I would feel fine as though I had finally accepted the situation. Other times I would just get sad all over again and cry. Other moments I would get waves of anger again and curse PC. It was exhausting and it was about to get worse. 

It was time for the AVC and having about 200 angry/upset volunteers, PC-G staff and administration, Regional Security Coordinator for Latin America, and a few folks from Headquarters in Washington, DC, in one room was going to prove to be overwhelming and mentally and emotionally exhausting. Thankfully, they began with the heart of the matter: why was this happening and why now? Carlos Torres, the Regional Safety and Security Coordinator, gave a presentation on how this came about. He gave us a timeline of events. Guatemala, along with Honduras and El Salvador, had been coming in the spotlight recently for alarming statistics on violence and crime. July 2010: An analysis report on the region to investigate what's going on. December 2010: Report completed and received by Carlos Torres. March 2011: Teams are sent to the region for "fact finding". April 2011: The World Bank releases a study on violence and crime in Central America stating: "...the entire population of Central America is approximately the same as that of Spain, but while Spain registered 336 murders, Central America recorded 14,257 murders in the same year." More attention on Central America. May 2011: Sub-Regional Safety and Security Conference in El Salvador for PC Country Directors and security staff in Central American posts. November 2011: New rules and policies implemented in PC-G due to concerns brought up at the May conference. New statistics on crime and violence on volunteers in Guatemala: 1 in 10, or 10%, of volunteers in PC-G have been involved in a serious crime from the last three COS groups, compared to the 3.1% global rate for PC. Only 15% of current volunteers felt safe traveling in country from a survey conducted in 2011. December 2011: PC in Central America reconvenes to discuss next steps in reducing crime statistics. January 11, 2012: Final decision memo signed for the immediate plans of PC-G. January 19, 2012: We got the email. 

It felt good to finally have PC be open and straightforward with us, despite the tardiness of it all. The presentation, however, made me sad to hear the reality of PC-G, and Honduras and El Salvador for that matter. It made me sad to hear how unsafe people felt and how this was the service we were having. But it also made me question if PC was trying too hard to stay committed to 50 years of service in a country that on paper appears to be quite dangerous and has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Carlos Torres seemed appalled by the fact that volunteers in this region are trained during our initial training period where best to sit on a bus in case of a shoot out and what steps to take to avoid being shot. I began to realize that these things become our norm. Granted, I feel relatively safe in my site and I feel safe traveling around my site and the nearby areas, but there are parts of the country I don't and no matter what you are always on guard. Living in Guatemala you get used to the fear associated with transport. As Carlos said, you're trained in it, you expect it. It's not the kind of fear though where you think someone is going to assault you at any moment. It's just an underlying thought you don't even realize is there. 

And, yet, even though we finally were receiving this information on what had been going on all along, I wish they would have been more open about it sooner and told us along the process what was going on. PC administration talked about how the next group of trainees that get here in January 2013 are going to be recruited differently and made aware of the risks and dangers associated with serving here in Guatemala. Well, ya know, I woulda loved if someone had seriously told me the risks and dangers of Guatemala before coming. I didn't know how dangerous it actually was until I got here and went into training. Partially my fault for not researching enough before arriving? Maybe. But I guess I just assumed if it were that serious I would have been warned beforehand. 

So after a lot of tears, anger, resentment, and backlash thrown out at the administration, the three day conference ended. It was filled with other things I didn't mention, such as counselors, resume building sessions, support sessions, etc. that were indeed helpful, but still overload. I was drained and exhausted from it all.  And on top of that, it was my birthday on the last day of the conference. I think it was the first time in my life I didn't feel excited for my birthday really. Is that part of getting old? I don't think so, I love birthdays. Just too much going on.

Now I find myself in a confusing and uncertain place. After much consideration, I decided to opt out of taking a site change. I have worked hard in my site here to get to where I am today with the Healthy Schools program and getting to know people in my community. I finally feel like I am in a good place and now I'm being forced to leave. So if I move sites now, I'm going to have the exact allotment of time in that site as I have just had. How is that going to be satisfying, to go through all that introductory crap all over again to finish in the same place I am now? I love my community and town here. I just don't think I can emotionally and mentally go through starting over. I signed up for two years in one place. That's the whole point of PC is. Everyone says you get the most work done in your second year because you've gone through hell and back the first year and finally know how things work in your site and in Guatemala. I got the perfect quote from one of my Yogi teas during all this that enlightened me on the situation. "Wherever you go, go with all of your heart." I knew that wouldn't be the case if I decided to stay and go to a different site. I can't help but feel jealousy towards all the other volunteers that get to stay in their sites and continue working. It feels so unfair that I don't have that option but that's just the way things are. Everything happens for a reason and this is giving me the opportunity for new beginnings. It is difficult, though, because I have no idea what to do next. I've been considering possibly staying in Guatemala and finding a job for just a couple of months with an NGO or non-profit. But then I change my mind and decide to travel for a month and then go home. Then I change my mind and decide to apply to medical school. And then other times I have no idea at all. The semi-good news is that PC is letting my women's group and I finish our grant application for the stove project. If we can prove it can get done in the time I have left in site (which I forgot to mention is until March 24), then they will give us the funds and we can carry out the project. Even if we don't get the funds approved, I like that they are giving us a chance, some hope. The women still gain valuable experience in carrying out the application and, if denied, at least they feel like they had a chance instead of being let down in the prospect of applying. 

I can't believe I have two month left in site, less than that actually. Reading my last blog post made me sad seeing how hopeful and excited I was a few weeks ago about my year ahead with PC. I've experienced a lot of hurt since then and it is for that reason it has taken me so long to write a post about it. I guess ever since I've been back in site I have been alright and haven't gotten upset or angry about it because I was tired of thinking about it and being upset and angry. I've moved into acceptance somewhat and writing this post meant tapping back into all of those emotions again. But, in the end, sharing my thoughts and feelings on this is probably better for me. And in the future I will look back and read this and see how much has changed since then. I like to think it's moments like these that give us growth. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On the road, one year later...

Happy new year folks! I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season with friends and family, if possible. For me, it was a little tough but still great nonetheless, this being my first holiday season (Christmas/NYE) away from my family. Spending big holidays in another country really gives you a deeper perspective into the culture and values of that country. I spent my Christmas with my host family I lived with during training in Pastores. It was great to see all of them, and there are good amount of people in that family! They were so happy I came to spend Christmas with them and really made me feel a part of their family. I hadn't seen any of them since July and it was crazy how much the little kids had grown already! During the few days I spent with them, we went to a couple posadas, which is a traditional custom they do for the 12 nights (I think it's 12, I forget) before Christmas. Every night, people march through town singing and go to a person's house where they pray and then drink this delicious punch and eat sweet bread. On Christmas Eve, the tradition is to eat tamales, which is a corn based food with a yummy sauce they put in it. I ate plenty of those that weekend. The night of Christmas Eve, the family got together and had a big dinner. At midnight, every single person in Guatemala shoots off fireworks. I've seen my share of fireworks here in Guatemala, but this felt different. It was really cool to see and everyone was so happy, hugging and kissing each other. On Christmas day, I went back to Antigua and went to a nice, fancy dinner with my friend Allison so as to treat ourselves with our own Christmas presents: good food! It was delicious. 

Shortly after, I hit the road with four other volunteers to go to El Salvador for a week. El Salvador is a beautiful country and much smaller than Guatemala. It has amazing pupusas and delectable seafood. I was pleasantly surprised as to how easy it was to get around the country as well. We first visited a town called Tacuba that borders the Parque Nacional El Imposible. We went on a 4 hour hike that consisted of jumping off of seven waterfalls. I jumped about half of them. Some of them were really high. Others you had to jump out really far or else you'd land on a rock and die. Let's just say those are the ones I chose to avoid. It was incredible though. I have never seen anything like it. It was so pristine and the waterfalls were just beautiful. The last one was the highest and scariest, 60 meters (that's almost 200 feet). Obviously you can't jump off that high so we literally had to climb our way down (which was pretty frightening when you looked down) and make our way to a lower point to jump from. A day filled of adrenaline and awe, and a couple of days following full of sore muscles and bug bites. Well worth it. 
60 m waterfall
Following the waterfalls, we spent a night at Lago Coatepeque, a volcanic crater lake. It was also gorgeous and very tranquil. A good place to lounge after an intense day of hiking. I got to do some swimming and drive a jet ski, which was quite fun. We then spent some time in San Salvador, or San Sal as I like to call it. We explored the city, checked out some cool museums, and rung in the new year here. It is traditional for Central American countries, or at least Guatemala and El Salvador, for people to celebrate the new year with their families at home. As a result, all the clubs/bars didn't open until 12:30 am, after everyone had spent important family time together. We ended up at the fancy bar of the Sheraton, where we got to watch the ball drop and NY ring in the new year. We ended up making it out to a club after midnight to spend the rest of night (or morning?) dancing. It was insane how packed all the clubs were with people at that time and they had no intention of closing until the last person left. 
Lago Coatepeque
Our last stopping point in El Salvador was the beach; the part I had been anxiously awaiting the most! We headed to Playa El Tunco, a popular surfing beach for locals and international tourists alike. It was heavenly. The vibe of the place itself was just so chill and laid back, and the ocean was just beautiful. I missed it madly! I got to swim in the ocean, play in the waves, get a tan, watch beautiful surfers ride waves, and eat really good food. Let's just say I really enjoyed myself and when it was time to leave a deep depression began to sprout. It made me miss summers at home at the beach and I wasn't ready to leave. But, unfortunately, I had to. Although, I will be visiting again as soon as I can...
Playa El Tunco
It was interesting comparing El Salvador to Guatemala after traveling there and getting a sense of what Peace Corps can be like there. I honestly felt safer traveling through El Salvador then I do through Guatemala. The buses there don't drive so crazily and fast, which I must say we were annoyed with at first. But there were also little things that El Salvador implemented that Guatemala could use to make it better. For instance, all of the buses had route numbers and each bus was marked with its route number which I felt made it easier to travel. Also, the buses often printed the price of the trip at the front of the bus and then gave you a ticket after you paid that had the bus fare printed on it. This made it so much nicer because you knew you weren't getting ripped off or over charged at all. From my experiences there, the bus drivers and ayudantes were just so much more helpful and honest than in Guatemala. They actually weren't trying to make an extra buck off of you. The buses also weren't as jam packed as they are in Guatemala. I think the biggest thing though that we noticed was just how good the roads were. All the main roads were paved and weren't falling apart. Granted, though, Guatemala does seem much more mountainous than El Salvador so I think that obviously affects its roads a lot. We actually ran into some El Salvador PCVs on our trip and one girl mentioned how she lived far, close to the Honduras border, a whole four hours away. That just seemed crazy to think four hours of traveling is far. I live about 10 hours away from the majority of volunteers and four hours from the PC office. So different. Yet there are countries where PCVs have to fly to get to the PC office so it's all relative. In the end, we might have felt safe but El Salvador does still have high crime rates with PCVs so it could just be we traveled in safer regions of the country. All I do know is that it did feel good to be able to visit the capital city and walk around since we are technically not allowed to do that in Guatemala. 

I am now back in site after my nice little vacation and in a bit of a slump since it's much cooler here and, well, not the beach. But it is the beginning of not only a new year but a new school year. Today marks a year that I have been in country. Unbelievable really. A year ago today I was excited, nervous, uncertain of my future, but ready to go. It has been a long yet short year with so many ups and downs, so many lessons learned, so many frustrations encountered and, yet, I just finally feel like I know Guatemala. I finally feel a sense of belonging and a sense of where I am going with this year. Starting off the first month in site was scary and a feeling of uncertainty loomed about the future and how I would encounter it. I now know what I want to accomplish this upcoming year and it feels so much more tangible. Looking back, so much has happened in the past year that it makes me wonder what this year is going to bring. Right now the future of Peace Corps Guatemala is on the fence and it's peculiar how a feeling of uncertainty looms a year later. PC Honduras has temporarily evacuated all volunteers for a month while they decide to either close the post or enforce stricter rules to improve volunteer safety. PC Guatemala and El Salvador are under evaluation due to crime statistics and security incidents with volunteers as well. Our incoming training group for January (one of two for the year) was cancelled unexpectedly due to security concerns. A new president comes in this month and things can either stay the same, get better, or get worse. I would like to think things would get better but I don't think that will realistically happen over night. With the cancellation of this training group, all of us volunteers down here feel very much in limbo as to what is going to happen. Will we be able to stay and finish our service? Are they going to phase out with us meaning no one will replace us? Or will they all of a sudden spring an evacuation on us as Honduras has recently experienced? No one knows and we just have to hope for the best and keep doing our work. It does, however, make me start thinking about a backup plan, that way if things do go the other way I have something else to fall back on. It's kinda shitty that this is the climate right now for PCVs in Guatemala, especially while celebrating our 1 year anniversary in country, but it just makes for a more interesting experience, right? In this one year I've had in country, I have had moments of almost hating Guatemala but I now can say that I do love Guatemala for what it is. After all, it is my home and a part of it will always be with me no matter what. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Who run the world? GIRLS

I woke up today to the bright sun shining on me through my window. Blue skies and the promise of high 70's weather making me feel happy and content with Guatemala at this time of year. If I were home, it'd definitely be a different story with the weather; highs in the 20's with snow around the corner. Although, it is a very strange feeling being in warm weather during Christmas time. It confuses me but I guess if I'm going to be away from home for Christmas I want it to feel different so I don't get too many nostalgic reminders of Christmas at home. 

Before I get more into Christmas stuff, let's discuss recent events. About a week and a half ago I went to this annual event that takes place close to my town called Bolas de Gas, which translates to Balls of Gas. This event has allegedly been going on for hundreds of years. I was told it consisted of people running through the center of town kicking a bunch of balls made of cloth soaked in gas and aluminum that were lit on fire. Sounded interesting enough and the sight of this intrigued me. Well, it was definitely a sight to see indeed! When I was there and the balls came rolling down the streets from every corner, I thought I was in a some action movie where I was stuck in the middle of some Spartan war with men throwing fire balls everywhere. It was pretty unreal. As I stood inside a tienda with a bunch of other spectators watching outside of the line of fire, a ball flew into the store and landed under a foosball table they had. I guess we weren't exactly outside the line of fire. In the end, I thought it was crazy that something like this could go on but, then again, it was Guatemala. I ended up leaving before it ended because it started to get a little out of control with people throwing fire balls everywhere. Anarchy much?

Lighting up the streets

Following that, I had a pretty busy week with my GLOW camp (Girls Leading Our World). I had been planning it for some time now and the week was finally here. My friend Allison came over from Xela (a 9+ hour ride) to help me with it. It was 3 days of fun-filled activities that focused on self-esteem, leadership, career-building, environmental awareness, and a state of well-being. It was amazing to see how excited these girls got at such simple activities and things that kids in the US just expect. One of our first activities was making collages about who they are and what they wanna be when they grow up. I brought the girls markers to use and they just lit up when they saw them. They were so excited to have so many different materials to use. It was also great to see them open up a little and just be themselves. We played different games with them that made them do silly things that they were at first shy to do but then they just embraced it.

Collage making

I had the opportunity to work with the older girls and talk to them about stress and ways to release it in a positive form. I introduced them to journaling and meditation which I think they both enjoyed very much. (They especially enjoyed decorating the journals because I brought them stickers to use.) We also did a yoga introduction workshop. They had never heard of yoga before and it was fun showing them these poses for the first time. Of course they giggled and stared around at each other but it was fun and they really enjoyed it. I gave them some sheets with simple poses on them so hopefully they try to do it sometime on their own. Other than that, we had some guest speakers that came to talk about the importance of continuing education. Finishing school is such an important issue here for girls. The school we did the camp at goes up to 6th grade (as all primary schools do here). I had one girl in the whole camp that was from the incoming 6th grade class. I asked her where all the other girls from her class were and she said she was the only one left. Giving these girls a chance to be inspired and dream big is not something they are used to and so hearing them open up about what they wanted to be when they grow up was so great. In the end, they all loved the camp. They were so excited about it every day and loved getting lots of prizes. There was one little girl who was Allison and mine's favorite. Her name was Reina and she was the cutest little girl ever! She said she was 6 but I'm not sure about that. She hardly spoke Spanish because she was in the Kindergarten class and at that level they speak mostly their indigenous language still, Q'eqchi'. Regardless, there was never a day she wasn't excited to be there with a huge smile on her face even though she didn't really know what was going on half the time.

Warrior 1!
Reina with her camp t-shirt <3

The camp was definitely a highlight of my service so far. Planning something so far in advance, executing it successfully, and seeing the girls' reactions to it was awesome. Now I'm in my final days of the year. On Friday I am going down to stay with my host family from training in Pastores for Christmas. I haven't seen them in a couple months so it will be nice to reunite and see them. I definitely have been feeling nostalgic and missing home around the holidays. Christmas is my favorite holiday and I do miss my family and our traditions. But, at least I have the chance to spend Christmas with a family and it will be a new and different experience I will take forever with me. Shortly after, I will be traveling over to El Salvador to do some end of the year/beginning of the year vacationing. I hope to spend the new year in San Salvador and am excited to visit a new country and, of course, go to the beach! I can hardly believe that my first year in the Peace Corps is already coming to a close. I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas and wonderful New Year filled with so many blessings, love, peace, and joy. See ya next year!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Catching up

It's been almost exactly 2 months since I last wrote. After skimming my last blog post, though, it feels like that was more than 2 months ago. So much has happened since then! Everyone talked about how school vacation is boring and long but mine has surprisingly been busy and is going by super fast (it's pretty much over after this month). So, I finally went home and experienced the luxuries and fast-paced lifestyle of America for a few weeks. I don't want to dwell on my trip home but I'll sum it up in a few words: family, new nephew, friends, delicious food, yoga, meditation, beach runs, parties, Halloween, reunions, shopping, Autumn. It was a good recharge and I definitely ate too much, but it was also terribly sad and difficult to leave behind my adorable little nephew. I miss him tons.

After getting back from the States I got to spend a little time with my friend Allison (another PCV) and her family that was down visiting Guatemala. It was a nice way to ease back into Guatemala's lifestyle and pace, since I had been gone for 3 weeks after all and it is surprising how fast one can fall back into a routine. Her family rented an amazing house in Antigua with a pool and a hot tub. So even though I had recently returned to Guatemala I didn't quite feel like I was totally in Guatemala yet. I had the opportunity to hike the Pacaya volcano with them which was surprisingly really amazing. It's one of the easier hikes so I guess I didn't anticipate it being as good but I was proven wrong. Once you get about 300 m from the top (total height is about 2,600 m) there are no more trees and just all black volcanic rock everywhere. I honestly felt like I was taken back into the movie The Land Before Time (awesome childhood movie!). There were areas where geothermal vents formed and you could just see the steam coming out (it's an active volcano). There was one hole that you could drop down and stand in. The steam and heat form a natural sauna that feels good but also pretty hot. We also went down into a nearby cave by the top that was big and was like a giant sauna. Our guide even brought tortillas and chile rellenos to cook in one of the thermal vents. We also had marshmallows that we roasted in the vent. Delicious and fun. Also, the view up there was incredible! You could see so far out that you could even spot Guatemala City in the distance. 

The Land Before Time
Allison cooking tortillas and roasting marshmallows 
So after that fun-filled weekend I went back to site where I had to resettle, finish unpacking, and get my life back in order. First of all, I was greeted by some dear little mice hiding out in my bedroom and kitchen. UGH. They are super cute for sure but that doesn't mean I want to share my space with them. So I had to deal with that and get rid of them. I guess the bright side of that problem is that i have decided to get a kitten but am going to wait until January. So I was home for about a week and then I was off again to leave for a Thanksgiving vacation.  I went to the town of Rio Dulce and then Livingston for some Thanksgiving relaxation and fun. Rio Dulce was a cute little town on the river. It's a pretty chill and low-key place. The highlight was definitely a waterfall we went to called Finca Paraiso. Supposedly, it is the only waterfall in the world in which the river it falls into is cold but the waterfall itself is hot, hot water. I've never been to anything like it and it was not only beautiful but so nice to swim in. We walked up to the hot spring where the waterfall originates from and, once there, a local guide showed us an area of where natural clay forms under the hot spring. He told us the clay is used for medicinal purposes on the skin. We then took some of the clay and rubbed it all over our bodies and looked like awesome jungle women. Once you washed it off, your skin was oh so smooth. From Rio Dulce we took a boat down the river to a little town called Livingston on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. It is a different world from the rest of Guatemala. It has a very chill, laid back, Caribbean vibe where the locals speak Garifuna and are of African and Carib descent. We were there precisely for the weekend that celebrates Garifuna culture and so it involved lots of dancing and street festivities. We also had great seafood. The typical dish there is called tapado, which is a seafood stew comprised of fish, shrimp, and crab cooked in coconut milk with curry. So delicious! A different Thanksgiving from what I was used to for sure, but regardless a great one.

The hot waterfall into the cold river
The thing that amazes me the most after visiting other places like this in Guatemala is how unique and different each department here can be. I have been in such totally different and opposing climates and landscapes here in Guatemala that it sometimes is hard to believe you are still in the same country! You go from a tropical beach town with a Caribbean feel to a high altitude-residing town that is cold and mountainous but both equally as beautiful. I've heard that Guatemala has 40 different micro-climates. It is amazing that one little country could have so much diversity and beauty in so many different shapes and forms. 

After much traveling, I have finally settled back home for at least a few more weeks. This past week I had the opportunity to help out with a medical mission from the US as a translator. The organization is called Partners for Surgery. They are doing a week long mission in which they stop at a bunch of different towns in the Verapaz departments and host medical clinics and do screenings for patients that will need surgery. It was an amazing and unique experience. I was paired with a female doctor that coincidentally is from my hometown - I could not believe that! So I translated for her with the patients for an entire day. Seeing these patients and hearing their problems made me feel sad and grateful at the same time. So many of these patients had been suffering with their ailments for years and years with no resource or outlet to get help from. It made me realize even more than I already have that Guatemalans are such strong people that persevere through the toughest conditions because there is no other choice at times. It also made me realize how fortunate I have been to have grown up in a country where I am offered top of the line medical services with specialists of every kind. Yet, that also made me sad because these patients don't have those same services offered to them and it's unfair that they don't. However, when a patient did get approved for surgery it made me happy to know that someone was doing something for them to get medical attention and help. I left feeling inspired and excited to pursue my own career in helping and healing others. To be able to offer someone something that no one else can or will give, is a gift and an honor. I know that's still some time away for me but it definitely is a feeling of excitement to imagine it all one day. I'd like to think that my job here in Peace Corps is a small step towards doing that though. With the days and weeks to come I'll be preparing more workshops with my women's group and will be putting the finishing touches on my girls' camp plans, which should be happening next week! Phew, now I feel caught up on everthing that's been going on. Oh, and happy December :)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Picking up the pieces...

Happy October everyone! Incredible, isn't it, how the months just seem to fly by.  I am definitely missing the autumn weather as it is one of my favorite seasons. But I will be home in exactly 13 days (unbelievable!) to visit family and friends, and my new nephew (!), for 2 weeks. Hopefully I can still do some Fall things like pumpkin and apple picking. 

Getting back to business, these past 2 weeks have been a whirlwind for me. It all started 2 weeks ago. I went to my favorite school, Monjas Panimaquito, to have my first workshop with the women's group I had started there. I was excited to finally get started with them. The workshop was a success with about 30 women showing up. Afterwards I got to hang around the school and play with the kids, whom I love there. When it was time to head home, I left with a teacher in the back of a pick up and prepared myself for a 25 minute ride on a bumpy dirt road. We had been driving for about half the trip's length with big truck behind us that was carrying merchandise for local stores (chips, sodas, etc.). We were about to go up a big hill and so our driver decided to let the truck pass us so as not to slow him down. The truck passed and went around a bend in which we lost sight of it for a minute. All of a sudden, as we are chugging uphill, we hear a loud bang. Now, this is Guatemala folks, you hear loud noises allllll the time from either someone setting off a massive firecracker or shooting off a canon ball (not really but it sure sounds like it at times). So no one really thought twice about the noise. As we round the bend there is a man stumbling in the road with an oversized hoodie on and his face completely obscured by said hood. At this point we driving really slow due to the incline and partly due to this man being in the way. As we got closer I realized the man had a gun in his right hand. Initially, denial hit, "No, that's not a gun." Then shock. Holy shit, he has a gun! We were going so slow it felt as though we had stopped. He started waving the gun, first in the air, then at us. I was terrified. I remember thinking, "Oh my God, please don't let him shoot me." I closed my eyes and put my head down and just prayed because it was all I could think to do. For some reason unknown to me, he put his gun down and waved it on with his hand signaling us to pass. As we drove by, still in fear for my life, I refused to open my eyes, frightened still by the fact that he might shoot from behind. Once we were well far off from him, I opened my eyes and reminded myself to breathe. After a few minutes we ran into that truck that had passed us earlier. The driver was out of the car and wanted to check if we were alright. Apparently, after we had let him pass he went around the bend and was confronted with two armed men in the middle of the road, one of whom shot at the truck. The truck driver swerved to hit them and one man jumped off the mountainside while the other got knocked to the ground. The man we saw stumbling was the man that had just recovered from being hit to the ground. After much discussion everyone assumed that they were probably trying to rob the truck. All I know is that I am so thankful that the truck passed us in the last minute and that it was the truck that faced the men first and rattled them before we did. 

I got home that day and was a complete mess. I was in shock, scared, confused, angry and upset. In shock as to what had just happened, having a gun that close to me and putting me in danger. Scared because of the reality that I was so close to getting hurt and possibly even having my life taken. Confused because I've been to that school so many times and nothing like that had ever happened. Angry at the violence that prevails in Guatemala and makes my living and working here difficult and frustrating. Upset because it happened and because it most likely meant I wouldn't be allowed to go to that school or community for some time. 

Turns out I was right. I had a duty to report what had happened to PC so as to take the proper safety and security precautions and so that they know what is going on. After talking to various people on the phone, I finally talked with my boss from the program. He decided that since the school year was finishing, that it would be best to postpone going to that community until January, when the new school year starts. If this had been any of my other 11 schools, I would have been fine with this. But it wasn't. It was not just my favorite school. It was the school I had made all my work plans for keeping busy during the school vacation. It was where I had just started and established a women's group with whom I had just made a month's worth of plans with. It was where I was planning to host a girls camp in December and had been talking to the director about it. It was where the students knew me and trusted me, so the camp would have been fun and successful. I now felt like everything I was excited for, had been working on, and had been passionate about was just stolen right from under me. It is the biggest blow and setback I have experienced in my whole Peace Corps experience as of yet. I don't think ever in my life I have felt so defeated and so hopeless. The thought of having to tell my women's group I couldn't come back this year would just continually bring tears to my eyes. This was the biggest obstacle yet and the biggest challenge PC had ever given me. 

I cried for days and didn't leave me house. I tried to distract myself from thinking about it and avoided confronting my reality. After a few days I realized I had to get out of the funk. I was happy and thankful to be alive. After all, I didn't get hurt and was still here now to work and help others. I am a true believer that everything happens for a reason and I just knew I didn't understand just yet why this was happening to me. Yoga and meditation got me through that troubling week and cleared my mind and got me re-focused. First of all, I decided to go to the Office for Women at the town's municipal building; a place I had once considered going to but once I had my own women's group decided not to go. I got there precisely when the women in charge of the office was about to have a meeting with the women's board. I briefly talked to her asking about what sort of things they worked on and explained my role as a PC volunteer and that I would like to help and get involved. I ended up introducing myself to the board of women and explaining what services I could provide and support them with. I left with a feeling of excitement because they wanted to work with me on several things. If all works out well, I will be working with about 16 women in a nearby community teaching them how to read and write. Post depression days, I also went to give a workshop at one of my schools that is nearby and that I also really like. I pitched the idea to them of doing a girls camp and they were really interested. I was so excited about the idea of doing a girls camp and so the new prospect of being able to do one again was great news for me. 

Now, don't think that I totally forgot about my other school, Monjas Panimaquito, because I most certainly didn't. I wanted to find a way to still work with them and so I wrote the women's group a letter stating what had happened and that I could no longer make it to their community until January. I also proposed that I would be willing to host the workshops at my house on Thursdays, which are market days, because I knew most of them came into town to sell. Turns out they were very willing to do that because they wanted to keep receiving the workshops. We made a plan to have the women come in two groups. Today was actually my first meeting with the first group. We ended up having the workshop in a municipal salon in town that I got help arranging with the woman in charge of the Office for Women. The workshop was on nutrition, malnutrition, how to disinfect vegetables and fruits, and nutrition for newborn babies. It was a success and the women enjoyed it. Next Thursday group 2 will be coming to receive the same workshop. As for the girls camp with this school, I still haven't figured that out. I am trying to see if we can also somehow host it here in town but it proves to be more complicated. I'll have to keep trying and see what I can get. 

All in all, things turned around for the better. It's crazy to think about how I felt two weeks ago and how I feel now. It was a true test of my determination and will to keep working here when it had felt that everything had broken apart. I somehow managed to see the light through it all and persevere. I picked up the pieces that were left from that mess of a situation and put them together in a new way. I now am thankful that I have another school in which I can bond closer with the students and that I have broader connections with women's groups through the Office for Women. My crisis forced me to reach out more and now I have more doors open then previously before. Man, I knew PC was gonna be hard but it does not cease to amaze me with all of its leaps and turns it sometimes throws at me still.