Saturday, March 27, 2010

...and so it begins!

So our last week back in the comfort of familiarity was short and packed. Monday we didn’t get to the headquarters because of a bus strike happening in Guate, the city. This was great for us, San Antonio and Santa Caterina hung out for the day: we played bananagrams at Leo’s house, hit the internet cafĂ© and hung in our central park, reading and catching up on journal entries. Tuesday was a bunch of wrap up in the office, last words, tips, safety advice, rules. I bought “Que Rico” which is the Peace Corps Guatemala Volunteer cook book. I can’t wait til I have my own kitchen and can cook all ‘dem recipes for myself. Wednesday we jumped around to our various towns to get a last look at everyone’s project. We had a nice little temblador, a bitty-earthquake, in the middle of the day that Fife’s family had been predicting for several days and he’d been warning us all morning there was an earthquake going to happen today and whaddyaknow, they were right! We were all mightily impressed. Then we move on to Thursday, which was the icing on the cake: Swearing In! Fourty-four Peace Corps Trainees camioneta-ed, tuk-tuked, microbused and drove with our familes to Hotel Antigua where we all sat on a gorgeous day, dressed up to the nines and were officially inducted into the glorious world of Peace Corps Volunteerdom! And we have diplomas to show for it! Mama Tina came with me and her daughter-in-law Elsa to see my graduation. Afterwards we took our families out for lunch at a pizza joint, Jordan, Chad, Kate and I and our family members. For the afternoon, we took last pictures around the fountain, all the women in their beautiful huipiles, and parted ways..Peace Corps volunteers, finally on our very own! From here on out we are no longer going to be babied, to have every hour of our day scheduled out for us, no more private P.C. microbuses ferrying us around, nope. We aren’t trainees anymore, they’ve open their cupped hands and are letting us jump off into oblivion, hoping they’ve taught us enough that these stubby lil' wings of ours will carry us aloft, on to our new lives.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Checkin' out the New Digs


Met my counterpart! Actually, I had two guests on counterpart day, not just Claudio but Rosa as well, the president of the sustainable development association that I will be working with. We had a day and a half of getting to know each other at the training center and on Tuesday the 16th we each headed off to our own future sites to spend a week introducing ourselves and getting to know our new community. It was a jam packed week, and then some. Rosa is my new host mother and I immediately grew to like her..she’s very friendly and has a fantastic sense of humor, is easy to talk to and helpful with my Spanish, not to mention wonderfully welcoming. Getting to know her and all her great qualities put me at ease, knowing I’ll be living with her for the first three months (Peace Corps requires we spend this introductory time with a family for safety and to better integrate into the community). We rode with Tara, another volunteer, whose counterpart had his own wheels and offered us a ride (score!). Tara will be living about an hour away from me which is fantastic, we can go to the market together and be a support system or even getaway for those times of need! Our travels took us south of the volcano range and westward. The landscape got more tropical and we stopped for mangoes and coconuts (had a truly juicy mango experience, fyi). We parted ways about an hour outside of our aldea where Rosa, Claudio and I hopped on to a camioneta for the last, breathtakingly beautiful stretch. The bus labored up the bouncy dirt roads, winding up and up through the lush foothills of the mountain range. Soon the edge of the road dropped off into oblivion and the facing ridges were covered in thick green vegetation. Flashes of color darted everywhere and I wanted to hang out the window with binox and bird book in hand but I think that might be seen as a little culturally unacceptable. We rounded a bend and, across a span of nothingness, another ridge drew sharply skyward and Rosa pointed out where I would be living for the next two years. It was dreamlike. I think my eyes must have been large as those mangos and I couldn’t wipe the inadvertent grin off my face. Gringas! Weird creatures, those. It was late afternoon and the bus crawled up the last bend onto the cobblestone stretch of my new home, the school on the low end and the church up at the top with houses lining either side. I got out and Pascual, smiling eyed and with a warm friendly grin, introduced himself as the husband of Rosa. They showed me my room, large and spacey with a window to outside (yaay!) and a huge comfy bed. Pascual and Rosa have three kids still in the house; the oldest is their only boy, Jonathan who is 15, Josaline is 11, and Marbet is 6. They have two girls in their 20s who live and go to school in Xela (the city of Quetzaltenango). The kids are shy and very polite and the parents are outgoing, love to talk, are very curious and thoughtful and intelligent, we immediately got on. Pascual is the director of the secondary school (Instituto Secondario) but also invests a lot of time and energy in the Asociation (looking for funding and training workshop opportunities, for example) and Rosa also runs a good sized store out of her home. They are very busy people, but so energetic and I feel lucky to be settling in with them. For the week, I was able to introduce myself to droves of people, starting with every grade in the primary school (what a way to begin!), and I met the main members of the Association. I also met with the representatives from every organization within the community (head of schools, members of the association, head of the coffee industry, organic and inorganic, the COCODE (basically a group of town representatives that are organized and able to petition to the government), and the auxiliary (church related). We talked about town priorities and needs. I got to sit in on a workshop led by an NGO community development group that has assisted the community greatly in their efforts to start up an ecotourism sector. This is a great organization that has done a great deal but that runs off of very little money and has lots of other towns they’re assisting so they were glad to see that I was coming in and I was glad to learn that I’d have their contact and support. I got to know the town, saw the coffee factory (harvest just ended for the year), their lombricompost (worm compost) production, weeded in the beginnings of a trial community vegetable garden (completely organic!), and saw the new guest quarters-a small 3 room lodge for visiting tourists that volunteer for the association, helping in the coffee, garden, or trails. This lodge is brand new and still needs a bit of work, along with the volunteer and ecotourism program in general. These people are so passionate, though, ready to make it really roll. They’re so excited to have me here to help in their mission and they are all just so friendly and welcoming. I got a huge tour of some of their trails with their 3 tour guides, Eduardo, Claudio and Keller. We birded for a whole half day (starting at 5am) and saw all KINDS of birds(!!!) They have great potential in the aviturismo department, but the guides have a lot to learn yet. They do know a lot of the common birds, even by ear, but many of their names are local names, and in Spanish. A serious birder coming here would be disappointed if they expected to know every last little bird they saw. I’m definitely excited to work on improving our bird tour option, any excuse to get back into those woods and learn the birds with a bunch of gung-ho Guatemaltecos! We saw some cool birds, too..squirrel cuckoo (I was psyched, I love these long tailed characters), several kinds of strikingly colored jays, tanagers, emerald toucanet (!),a hook billed kite, lots of migrant warblers still here before they head back north in the spring, and we heard quetzals!! This is fantastic, Resplendent Quetzals are very true to their name, absolutely magnificent birds and a huge attraction for basically gold to us. What we need to do is find out how we can guarantee a sighting, find the specific trees they feed upon and determine their daily and seasonal habits. Gold. This is what we need, to get tourists in to the town, bringing in money because there is NOT much work for citizens of this community and they really have to struggle to make ends meet. The land they produce off of is pretty measly, very steep and not easy to work and, as the town grows, there is less available to support all of the people. But they have a rich bounty which is the hugely diverse forest beyond the coffee; they own 35 hectares of natural bosques further up the mountain. The community is slowly coming to understand that that is their goldmine. They don’t have to use up their resources; they can share them with the public! We just need to tell the world, get them to come, have them fall in love, tell others, come back, and bring friends! So here we are now. This, ladies and gentlemen, is where my true journey and challenge begins.

Here is my new host family, and yes, they are as sweet as they look.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Headed to Quetzaltenango-Where there be Quetzals!

This will be my new home, where I will be settling in to a brand new life, a whole new adventure. All I really know about it, though, is the name! And that it’s located in the department of Quetzaltenango which literally translates to “there are quetzals here” in Guatemalese. We went to the Peace Corps office in Santa Lucia on Site Assignment Day, March 12th 2010. David, our program technical trainer drove excruciatingly slowly along the curvy highway, and we yelled at him in excited frustration to hurry the heck up! This was our lives and we were about to find out where they were going to lead! They blindfolded us and we stood in front of a map of Guatemala, outlined in the grass with sticks, leaves and twigs. In the grass were masking tape X’s Flavio, the man who made the decisions, led us each to one of the points and we stood, blind, listening to the rustling of whoever was close by. We were handed a folder and knew that on the front of it was written the name of the town that right that moment was eagerly awaiting their perky new volunteer. I clutched mine like my life depended on it. We reached out and could feel other hands feeling around and were told to take off our blindfolds. Looking down at the folder, I saw “Stacey Hollis, Quetzaltenango”. On the map I was the person standing furthest to the west and nearby I saw Tara and Amber. We all laughed and ripped into our information packets, flurrying through the overload of information, deciphering the Spanish into some idea of what we were about to dive in to. So here it is. This is an Aldea, which I loved the sound means a small community, 1,200 habitantes strong. Next I saw the climate: “calido lluvioso” rainy, con temperaturas entre 23-26 degrees Celcius”.. umm had to look that one up (73-78 in Fahrenheit). Okay, warmer and rainy is actually good, that means tropical..well when I read on and saw it mentioning “abundante vegetacion tropical” I felt a rush of excitement!! The altitude was 1250m which translates to about 4000ft, and I’m basically on the slope that leads off the volcano chain toward the Pacific Ocean. My town is small, “hay 5 tiendas pequenas, un hospedaje o albergue (small visitor’s lodge), y la iglesia catolica”. So there’s not much to it! Definitely a soccer field and basketball court, though. This will be a good icebreaker, and “sin duda”, is recommended as a great way to introduce yourself into the community..hop on in to those pickup games!
So now the nitty gritty good stuff: When Flavio set me on my spot on the map, he said, “you are the first volunteer to be sent here”, my mind raced and I grinned and squirmed under my blindfold..I felt proud that they believed in me to kick start a whole new place, all on my own. They decided that little Stacey Hollis would be the first to place the mark of Peace Corps on this little aldea in the southwestern foothills of Guatemala. What I leave will be a manifestation of my own ambition, my own initiative. I will come in and be the first Gringa to spend two years lending my hands to that which the community desires and I won’t have a volunteer to give me their take on the town, no structure to follow, no (darn!) house to inherit. I am thrilled!
Next: The town has a reserve comunitaria de bosque nuboso…yipppeeee!! I got me a cloud forest!! And oh man, I was jumping when I read on “35 hectares (86 acres), senderismo y el aviturismo (!!!) con la presencia de mas de 180 especies de aves” including a strong presence of “el ave nacional, El Quetzal”!!! Flavio got me a bird site! Woohoo!! It said “existen abundantes quetzals (which totally means good quality healthy forest to support this bird that relies on mature aguatillo trees), aves, mamiferos silvestres como pizotes, andasolos, micoleon, tigrillos (little lions and tigers?!)”. And furthermore, “cercano a la comunidad puede apreciarse el Volcan Santiaguito (activo) y el Volcan Santa Maria..I got volcanoes! That really did make me happy because I get a lot of pleasure out of looking at my three volcanoes here in San Antonio and the occasional rumble and blast of silt and ash is exciting. Steph, one of the masters students who is here to study volcanology totally told me she knew where I was going and that supposedly there’s some big valley that’ll protect me if it ever does give a really good blow. Hey, sounds good to me.
So my town already has a Sustainable Development Association that they started in 2008 and they have been working on the development of interpretive trails in the Reserva Forestal Comunitaria and “ruta a Catarata El Chilamate” (a waterfall trail!). They have been actively inviting in international volunteers to live with host families and work on local coffee and flower farms as well as to help with the trail work. So it sounds like there is something established, but it’s new and they want training for the hosts families and guides. Also there’s talk about training teachers in environmental education and involving the school kids in environmental projects in the reserve, oh it all sounds good to me. It’s nice that there is something set up already that I have at least some structure to work off of!
So yea, this girl isdefinitely not complaining! I am ecstatic. Course I have yet to see the place en vida real. But sheesh, it sure sounds good! So now I have the weekend to scour the internet about my soon-to-be-home and get ready to meet my counterpart, my partner in crime for the next two years. His name is Claudio and he’s the secretary of the association. We will spend Monday getting to know each other at the training center and then together will travel to the aldea on Tuesday where I will spend the next 5 days getting to know my new community. We come back for 3 days of paperwork in Santa Lucia, swearing in (graduation!) is on the 25th and that weekend I will set off, my bags all packed, for a lone ride on the camioneta to my new home. Warp speed, I’m telling you.

My pictures include a group shot of the women artesans that my group worked with, here they're holding their diplomas that we awarded them for successfully attending our charlas on hosting tourists in their homes. The kittyshot is Pancho "Panchito" Lopez, sitting next to the wood stove. This is why his lil' whiskers are singed.

Saturday, March 6, 2010



Our 11 weeks of training that, eight weeks ago seemed to be a lifetime, are now entering warp speed. It is unbelievable how fast the Peace Corps experience seems to be whizzing by and it scares me that I'll blink my eyes and suddenly it'll be March 2012 and I'll be headed back to the states. When I look back through the pages of my daily journal, even just a few weeks ago seem like ages past. Time is such a malleable, bending, blurry entity. I'm just riding the waves of it, slow and steady and then crashing and spinning. Oh, I love it.

Yesterday we presented our third charla, I worked with Hilary and we presented to the women's artisan group on how to be good hostesses because we're preparing them to give weaving classes to tourists in their homes. It is made to be a pure cultural experience, these women in their beautiful hand-woven ropa tradicional. They'll invite you into their homes where chickens will roam about the cement floors, you'll duck under branches of fruit trees laden with oranges and mandarines, they'll have their weaving looms set out with a rainbow of threads spilling out, you'll smell the rich combination of spices that were bought fresh from the street vendors and mixed with tomatoes and ground chiles to make "pepian", a traditional Mayan dish, they'll guide you in the woven style of making petates with long thick strands of the dried marsh grass, you'll sit and watch a traditional baile, one of the ceremonial dances that celebrated weddings and birthdays. This is what we are aiming for, to teach these women not how to do their job, but how to be prepared for having strangers who don't speak their language, who can't drink their tapwater, who are new to this culture, into their homes. So the charlas went great, we played games and were all laughing and by the end, they were piping up with ideas and answers and were entirely different women from those we met seven weeks ago, quiet and timid. We'd gained their confianza, their confidence, and have grown close. At the end of the session, they were saying how sad they were that we were leaving, urging us to be sure and visit as soon as we could.

Man, it's going to be hard to leave Guatemala when the time does come.