Thursday, January 21, 2010

Guatemala Beginnings

Hola Todos! 20.1.10

Here goes for report numero uno from the belleza paiz de Guatemala! From the very beginning I had the tips of my fingers hanging dead tight..and luckily enough, because no one told how tight I would need to hold on for the ride that would begin the moment I set foot on that plane! It's been a whirlwind and time both flies and sparkles in front of my wide open eyes. There's so much to take in and I'm doing my very best. I can proudly say that so far I have (as is my custom) written down just about every experience that I have undergone since my parents and brother let go from those lingering embraces that now seem a lifetime away. From the window of the plane as we descended toward the land of Guate, I watched the conical tips of a line of volcanos press out of the thick grayness that blanketed the country. We dropped beneath and revealed was a lush landscape dotted with pueblos and cities filling the valleys. Deep scars opened sections of earth in the form of gorges and even along their steep walls houses or shacks rather, held on with nothing other than a prayer. From there the sweeping began. First we were swept to the training center, looking out the windows of the bus we drank sweet frescas and bleary eyes attempted to focus on the scene as it flew past. Guate City is just as you've always heard, the charm of it may or may not be revealed through much time spent searching. Cars and motorcycles and buses zoomed by and every curve was taken with abandon. Shops, people and trash lined the busy streets. We focused in on the Burger King with armed guards in the parkinglots and more Chuckie Cheeses than you care to keep track of. We got out of the city and passed through smaller towns and a valley or two, cooing over the sight of the volcanos. The training center was another world, far removed from the dingy city. We pulled in to a lush, beautifully landscaped eden that looked out toward Volcan de Agua, one of the more breathtaking volcanoes, right out of a child's imagination. A perfect cone. Nevermind the cell phone towers and whatnot on the top, to set eyes upon this landform invokes unabashed amazement and awe. Only minutes later do you look a little westward to the two, Fuego and Atetenango (I may be way off on that name). Fuego is the one you want to definitely take note of..this is the active one, puffing mushrooms of humo when it so chooses..somehow these three always seem to be in view no matter where I've been yet and Fuego has become my friend, endlessly entertaining and a rollercoaster of emotion. You only have to look west to know how Fuego is feeling any time of the day. So our first three days of training were basically an introduction to Peace Corps: welcome, we want you to truly evaluate throughout the next three months whether this is truly how you want to spend the next two years of your life, we're going to give you more vaccinations than you ever though possible and try to scare you about every last living thing that will surely infest you through oral fecal contamination many times over throughout your stay, spanish level assesment, separation into groups of 5 based on your level and whether you're lucky enough to be in Sustainable Community Tourism (the admitted, best by far, program to be in in PC Guate) or Healthy Schools. There seriously were two poster boards, one for each program and Tourism was all “You could be lucky enough to be in THIS park helping a whitewater rafting company or a zip line adventure tourism setup or a forest with the best birdwatching ever...!!” and Escuelas Saludables: “You're gonna be in a classroom teaching kids to wash their hands, not eat dirt, wash their hands, wash their hands, and wash their hands”). After 3 days of that and living with nearby host families in the town of Santa Lucia Milpas Altas (I was placed with my friend Hilary who ended up being in my Training Group as well) we were all shipped off to our various pueblos where we'd be spending the next 11 weeks in training, each in our own host family home. I was placed with Christina Giron in the pueblo of San Antonio, Aguas Callientes. The moment I walked in she welcomed me warmly and I knew right away we'd easily become close friends. She immediately told me that everyone called her Mama Tina and that I should as well. She is a beautiful, round faced, 60 year old abuela with high cheek bones and wavy dark hair. She wears the traditional huipile, a brightly colored, richly designed shirt that was weaved in the traditional way especially unique to San Antonio: “de dos lados” they call it, of both sides. It means that even when you turn it over to the opposide side, you'll find that both carry the intricate designs and there's not a stitch to be seen. It can take months to complete, and that is only if you spend all your days doing nothing other than weaving. So realistically, a single huipile may take up to a year to finish. And my Mama Tina makes all the huipiles and traditional belts and skirts that she wears. They are phenomenal, just breathtaking. There is no question, in looking at one, how much effort is put into such a masterpiece. And the women who weave in San Antonio are also known for dying their own thread, using rich colors that don't fade over the years. I'm sure every town has it's own unique wonders but, well, the bee's knees is what comes to mind. So my home is up a small hill on one of the many winding, enclosed, busy streets of San Antonio. The pueblo is larger than I anticipated as you can see from the mirador when you come to the city entrance at the peak before the valley. There is another city that ours melds into, Santa Catarina, where another tourism group is based and the two fill the valley and seep up into the foothills where a patchwork of various crops reach upward not completely overtaking the forests that cover the ridges that span out, emcompassing both towns in a wide embrace. Ever towards the west are our three faithful senturies, Agua, Fuego and Atetenango. The streets of the pueblo are dirt and cobblestone. Motorcycles, pickup trucks, camionetas (refurbished school buses from the U.S.) and tuktuks (little three-wheeled enclosed taxis) race entirely too quickly up and down the streets that are always alive with townspeople, selling tortillas, hanging out doors and windows, washing laundry at the public pilas, playing futbol, chatting, fixing their homes, pushing carts, leading a horse or a donkey, carrying firewood, walking with huge baskets upon their heads, there's no end to the activity! Every walk down the street as I make my way to clase de espanol is a new sight, a different face, another “buenas dias” with a wide smile. Some of the different things I've come across as I toddle along include a stray colt trotting along the cobblestone, neighing for it's mother; a drunk man out cold, laying on a stoop; a woman that strolls along every morning at 6:30 yelling at the top of her lungs “leche!”, the multitudes of stray dogs who hardly give you a second glance, the many street vendors that manifest out of nowhere at different times of the day selling food that we've been strictly told by our nurses NOT to even think about eating...Now we'll move from the streets back to my home, where I live with Mama Tina. It's not a huge place, two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a small, attached tienda where she sells a handfull of goods (toilet paper, matches, flavored icies, aciete de maiz, random things and people ring a bell at the door there that has bars they pass the goods and quetzales across), all of these lead to a wider open room between it all where there's a wood stove that she uses for cooking (to supplement her own small oven/stove in the kitchen) and the pila. The pila is a cement 3-basin set up where the middle, deepest one, has a tap and we are lucky enough to be in a town where water is available at all hours of the day. A small bowl is left floating in the water basin and you use it to scoop the water to the left basin where there's a drain and you pour the cold water over your hands or splash it on your face or wash the dishes that, dirty, are left in the shallow right basin with the soap and the scrubbie blue plastic tangle. There's also a bathroom with a shower that you reach from this room on the opposite side from my door. There is a light shower curtain for a door that dances in the breeze a toilet that luckily flushes on it's own (without chucking in a gallon of water) and a shower that runs only cold and therefore is my bucket bath haven. Oh and Mama Tina takes such care of me, sure she's paid a hefty stipend, but she seems to take great pleasure out of my 3000 “muchas gracias”es a day for all that she does for me: cooking all my meals, handwashing my clothing, boiling hot water and then adding enough cold so as to not scald myself during my bucket baths, bringing steaming cafe con leche in to my room for me as I get ready for the especially early days of training...and I'm really under the assumption that she likes me! I absolutely adore her, she's just too cute and very light hearted, laughs easily, and listens to me with great interest as I excitedly tell her about my day, babbling along with my mediocre spanish. We do talk for great lengths of time, she's lately really been opening up to me about her family and the amazing, eventful, sometimes tragic, life she has led. We've shared pictures of our families and she always sits with me as I eat, even when she's not (Peace Corps eating schedule and that of the Guatemaltecos are about an hour or more different). She's taught me “a tortear” (how to form tortillas by hand) and helps me with my spanish, speaking slower with me than she does with her family and correcting my grammar or describing words I don't understand. We have a very warm, friendly relationship..there have been times when I've resisted reaching out to hug her but I have a feeling it would be a welcomed gesture. She lives alone but her house opens and connects to a second section with all it's own amenities where her grown daughter Evelia and 15 year old son Hemery live. She also has 2 other sons with families, Walter lives next door with his wife Elsa and 4 children and Alex lives in the next pueblo over with his wife Cheny and 9 year old Steven and 9 month old Moices. Steven is around a lot, the first few days he spent here during his “summer vacation” to see the gringa. He's a little goofball spitfire who likes to tell me every word of every movie he's seen (“y dispues...y dispues..and then..and then..!”). Tina is the only one who really talks with me, I've only had small talk with the rest. They all don't tend to speak slowly and I'm just not at the level to understand when they're speaking so fast and so softly. It's a little bit tough, because I'd like to become closer with them, especially Evelia but they have their lives and aren't responsible for my spanish lessons. I hang with them occasionally and try to keep up and they are nice, just not as welcoming. I'm taking it in stride and am thankful to have the majority of my time around the house alone with Tina. The others are around after dark and I have had more homework than you might want to shake a stick at and so that causes the need to retreat to my lovely cave of a room. Ah my room, I sit here now and hear the dogs barking, the occasional rooster, kids laughing, church music, adults chatting, bombas exploding (Guatemala really translates to We Love Fireworks, all the time, any time, the louder the better). Back to my room: .only one fuzzy plastic window faces out to the pila room but it's very spacy, my bed is quite comfortable (no unidentified lumps), a great big dresser with doors, a mirror and shelves to put my clothes, books, toiletries and such. There's a long table I have my little suitcase on and put my “school work”, there's a tall, wooden, for lack of a better term, “hanging unit” that leans against the corner where I drape my towel, and shower stuff, a dirty laundry bag and drying clothes. All in all it's quite a nice set up and I've got everything organized and so happy. The only time I don't so much like it is when she's making tortillas and the woodstove smoke drifts into my room. One definite difficulty with Guatemala, I've found, is all the thick air you tend to have no choice but to inhale: woodsmoke, car fumes, volcano ash..if you were a smoker, you'd probably kick it in a month. But all in all, I'm quite happy here in the little town of San Antonio. It's a clean town with a pretty central park and is about 45 minutes outside of Antigua which is the touristy hip town that we've been to a handful of times. There you can find lots and lots of gringos, wireless internet (if you're brave enough to tote your laptop on the camionets and through the busy mercados), and coffee that isn't instant (all the good stuff that comes out of Guate tierra is exported, so the locals are left with the fake crap). While the mercado is demasiado interasante with more fruits than you ever thought existed, and all the blazing colors of the woven wonders sold by the Guate mujeres that just about literally blow your mind, and the true coffee that really is to die for, I can't say I'm much of a fan of Antigua. I watched a beautiful, old woman sitting on the sidewalk with her wares for sale set about her knees looking uncomfortably away as a fat man leaned over her holding a big camera, shoving it mercilessly into her face and clicking away, stopping to look at what he'd taken, and clicking some more before completely turning around and walking away. Not a word, not a cent, just some good ol' American ignorance. My blood curdled a bit as I watched her gaze at his receding hind end. But, that's what I'm here for, to turn tourism into something that I feel good about: something that benefits not the richest high-ups on the Guatemalan ladder that is overbearingly bottom-heavy, but rather all those who are putting all their straining efforts just to hang on to that crowded lowest rung. And, while I don't know just how I'm going to do it, the Peace Corps is fully (more than I could ever, ever have imagined) invested in making sure that I am prepared in every way possible and provided all the knowledge, information, resources, training and confidence that I can ingest in these preceding weeks. Like I said, just hanging on for this wild ride, and, to be sure, it already has completely become “The Ride of My Life”. Much love y buenas noches.


  1. I feel as if we were right there with you. Man, girl, what a writer you are! I read this aloud to Robert and we both loved hearing all about your dizzying ride. Much love from us both, and thank you for helping make us a part of your experience.We really look forward to the next installment.
    Anne and Robert

  2. muchas gracias for giving us such a detailed peek at your pueblo y casa y sala (?) y tu mama all sounds so vivid and exciting...i cannot wait until we can visit you once you are all settled in your very own pueblo...i can't remember how to say i love you (te amo?) in spanish but i do, mucho!

  3. I randomly thought to check this and you had a new post, score! I was so engrossed in all the details and Mama Tina sounds lovely, I'm so happy you were placed with such a friendly se~ora. Cuidate mucho y estare esperando con ansias poder leer la proxima etapa de tu increible aventura!

  4. What a great job of story telling you do! I'm very impressed. Hello, my name is Lee and if I'm understanding your story correctly you are part of the same group as my son Clifford. He's in Parramos with the Healthy Schools program. He hasn't started a blog yet. Perhaps you could do us a favor. I keep bugging him to start a blog maybe when you meet up on Tuesdays you can school him on how to get started. Thanks for keeping all of us back home in the know, we appreciate the time and effort. If you do see Clifford perhaps you can give him a hug from all of us here we miss him so much. Take care and have fun.
    Your new reader,
    Lee, Clifford's Mom

  5. Stacey, I really think you should write a book. I am so entralled when reading your stories.Can't hardly wait for your next blog.Mama Tina sounds nice and seems like you are having a good time, it will only get better.Sounds like an awesome place to learn about and seems like i am sharing this journey with you thru your stories.Thankyou for sharing. Miss you much,think of you often, especially when i'm sitting on my porch having my coffee.Take care, and stay safe. Love you, Your West Coast Mama, DEB

  6. Hi Stacey,

    I'm an RPCV (Guatemala, 2004-2006) and stumbled across your blog. Wow! Your writing is really vivid and you manage to capture so much of the feeling that I remember from those first few months in country.

    Saludos y te deseo lo mejor en tus aventuras en la bella Guate,

    Lisa Munro

  7. Hi. Great Journal. This is kinda strange but I am not sure how to get in contact with you otherwise. I am a RPCV from Mali looking to come do a little research (agriculture and micro-lending related) in Guatemala for a week. Do you know the best way to get in contact with PCV's that may host me along my visit?? Cheers and good luck!


  8. Thanks for your comments everyone! For anyone who has questions, just send me your email and I´ll be happy to get back to you. **Lee** Your hug was delivered to a happy son :) I hope to find some time to give him an intro to blogging! Gracias todos for reading my blog!


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