Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Finishing 27 months of Peace Corps

My whole last year in Peace Corps... some days went by veeeeery slowly but the months flew by.  It is hard to describe or sum up the experience.  Well, to say the least Peace Corps was nothing like what I expected first coming in.  I have too many memories to list here but will post some pictures and snippets of my life.

I've learned, from different cultural norms, how I can benefit from approaching life in different ways.   Guatemalans cherish above all else their family ties.  Like in many culture s in the world it is not weird to live with your parents and even your grandparents.  There isn´t a child or teenager that doesn´t know how to take care of a baby. Guatemalans are always smiling and cracking jokes.  Guatemalans are always reminding their friends how much they mean to them  (There are also countless things I could list that I now appreciate even more about Americans and the US) .  Guatemalans form close knit communities.  Guatemalans walk A LOT slower and can spend hours on the walk home stopping to talk with family and friends.  Guatemalan families with nothing will always offer food/drink to guests.  Guatemalans are very resourceful.  Guatemalans treasure moments (nobody knows what tomorrow brings) and face-to-face time.  Guatemalans will climb up a mountain (thinking of specifically this mountain pictured below), balancing a huge stack of firewood on their head or back, have a baby tied on their back, while holding the hand of a toddler.  Guatemalans are quick to share something nice to say and very hesitant to ever say something out of anger to you. 

San Andres Xecul, Volcano Santa Maria

While two years of riding in the back of pickups or squished into old American schoolbuses with loud reggaetone music could get old... I will miss it.  The pictures below show how crowded the pickups into the center were.  If I were standing there my head would tower above everyone.  The weighed down tail of the pickup scrapes over every one of the 20 some gigantic speedbumps into town.

Trying to catch a ride into town before the pickup leaves

And we´re off!
I feel that during my Peace Corps service, I have been taught, guided and directed.  I am taking so much more than I am leaving behind. I eventually found out that the world had not changed but my views and I myself had internally changed to understand the global world a lot better.  I view development work in a completely different way. Education and empowerment are the only things that will leave a positive and sustainable impact.

At the end of our service we give a presentation to the community about what we have accomplished in our two years at site.  A few Peace Corps staff members came from the office to show their support and give thanks.  Below is a picture taken after the presentation outside of the community tourism office.

In front of the tourism office

History of the church with a local guide
 With funding from the NGO Gestor we managed to train local guides for our community tourism project.  Below is the culmination of their final exam.  Ending the tour with  interpretation and explanation of a Mayan Ceremony.  Can you find me or do I blend in too well? :)

Mayan Ceremony

Below is a picture of Al and his daughter Kathleen visiting a family in Xecul that they have been donating to for years.  My sitemate Laura and would join them for dinner some nights and help with translating.
Wedemeyer Family from Kentucky
Many people from San Andres Xecul make the dangerous, illegal trip to the US hoping one day to be able send much needed money back to their family in Guatemala.  Not everyone makes it of course.  Meanwhile heaps of tourists from France, Italy, the US, etc. arrive in their town to get pictures of their famous church and the town stays with nothing in return.  Now the municipality is charging a small entrance fee to each tourist that arrives (hopefully it will be used for development projects for the municipality).  And with our community tours that our office offers various people in town have the opportunity to share their culture and generate an income.  Below are tourists playing Guatemala´s national instrument, the marimba!

I have deep friendships with many other young Americans who went through this with me.  I have no doubt that these experiences will bond us together forever.  We started with 50 something volunteers and at the end of the 27 months the numbers were barely over 20.  Below is a picture of me with 4 of my best girlfriends.  We make up the five girls that were left in the ecotourism program.  From left to right... Rosie the sweet natured, soft-spoken girl from North Carolina.  Me! Mimi the Mississippian with parents from Vietnam, she is a master chef, brutally honest and always loyal to her friends.  Christine the biology master from Pittsburgh, was always there to cheer us up in our lowest times (the group counselor! haha). And with lots of perseverance, our little Korean-American Gracie with her always big smile.

The back of a pickup, of course

After a few days of medical exams and lots of paperwork we finished our Peace Corps service with the tradition of ringing a bell and holding a small ceremony with certificates.  


Below are the intricate Guatemalan alfombra designs that they make for Easter processions out of colored sawdust.

Below is a picture of me with Jose, Laura, and Elana.  Jose is our close Guatemalan friend who was nice enough to host us and take Elana and I to the airport the next day.  It was really weird to be at his fancy house with some of his family members speaking to us in English.  Another side of Guatemala.  Most families live in poverty but those who don´t usually are very well off.  Laura is my sitemate from Hawaii who stil has some months to finish in San Andres Xecul.  Hoping to visit her in the future!  And on the far right is my sitemate Elana who worked in the healthy schools program and started with my training group and finished at the same time.  I have grown very close to both of these women.   Many volunteers after finishing service celebrate by traveling together in Latin America or other parts of the world together.  Elana and I are doing a three week trip in Peru and a three week trip in Colombia together.  On the way back to the states her family has invited me to visit their home in San Luis Obispo for a couple weeks before finally heading back to the Northwest.  I hope to do a roadtrip with Elana down to San Diego where she will be starting grad school so that I can visit my aunt and uncle who are living there.   Right now we are already through the Peru portion and soon here I will update another blog with our travels.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Experience the Living Mayan Heritage in San Andrés Xecul

Hello everybody! Looks like I forgot I had a blog.... :)
Well I will try to start updating on a more regular basis now.  There's a lot to catch up on, but for this one I will talk about my cultural walking tour.

The central part of San Andrés Xecul lies at the base of a wall of steep mountain.  There are four aldeas (or hamlets) that are part of San Andrés Xecul.  Each have their own schools, churches, auxilary municipal staff, culture, flavor, and even style of k'iche. K'iche is the principal language that people in my town speak.  It is an indigenous Mayan language that has no similar roots to English or Spanish. 

Three of our four aldeas are about an hour hike up in the mountains.  The one that I work in most often is the poorest aldea, Nimasac.  Many people there don't even speak any Spanish so I rely a lot on working with counterparts that help me navigate the language and culture of Nimasac.  One day I explored some forest trails with a friend and found this great lookout point:
View from Nimasac onto the center of San Andrés Xecul where I live

Starting a cultural walking tour there has been a long process.  But has resulted in a well organized, interactive, and unforgettable tour.  I am still surprised that all of the logistics worked out so well.  In the San Andrés Xecul culture there is NEVER a rush and it is normal to show up 1 or 2 hours late for an event.  But I reinforced the idea that with 'gringos' (foreigners) you have to be on time and ready before the selected time.  The point of a community tourism project is to involve various actors to benefit the most people.  But this also means that orchestrating and putting everyone on sync is lots of work.   I'm so proud of everyone!

This is a full day tour that will begin the microbus driver and local guide meeting with the group of tourists in the central park of Quetzaltenango (a large city close to San Andrés Xecul).  After an introduction of what we will be doing for the day we drive up a bumpy and scenic road to the aldea of Nimasac.  First we visit the house of a local family that runs a candle making workshop.  For many in Nimasac, this is the way that they make their living.  Usually the whole family helps out in some way from the toddlers to the grandparents.  Sometimes they are even working 14 hour  days and earning very little.  This provides an alternative source of income while keeping their traditions alive.
Learning how to twist and cut the wicks
The tourists get to participate in the whole candle making process beside the the family members.  Usually the family members and tourists have lots of questions about each other which starts interesting and fun conversations. 
Hanging the wicks on a large wooden hoop
The tourists are not just learning about how to make candles.  They get to really see inside the home of an indigenous Mayan family of the highlands.  A truly rare and special experience.  With reason, the indigenous people of Guatemala are very cautious of outsiders.  It was only in the late 90s that a brutal and bloody 30 year civil war ended.  Military rulers sent out death squads to eliminate 'left wingers' where they massacred hundreds of thousands of indigenous and tens of thousands went missing.  While it is not talked about, many still remember or have family that was affected. 
The hoop swings around as dip the wicks in hot wax
Next we visit a workshop where they make the traditional corte fabric that the women wear as skirts.  First everyone takes a rest in the open courtyard alongside the adobe houses of the family.  Snacks and drink are passed out on top of a beautiful tablecloth of traditional fabric.
Snack and break time!

Machine made of recycled bicycle parts to wind the string

Helping with the final process of weaving
None of the 16 step weaving process uses any electricity.  For all of the intricate designs first they tie hundreds of little knots around along the length of the string.  Then they begin to boil water with firewood to make the dye and dip the knotted string into the mixture.  After it dries they pull out the string and remove the knots.  It is a very time consuming process that results in beautiful hand made intricate knot tie-dye designs.

Next we take a small ten minute hike up into the forest to a communal Mayan alter where we are greeted by a Mayan priest.  Everyone gets to participate in a Mayan fire ceremony using the candles from the workshop we went to in the morning.  We use the Mayan 'Book of Destiny' to figure out everyone's Mayan Nahuatl (horoscope).  I designed bookmarks that we then pass out to the tourists with their according signs with information.  A cheap to make special souvenir that the tourists really enjoy. 
Mayan Ceremony in the Forest
Traditional Lunch with a Local Family

After lunch we drive down the the center of town.  We visit a lookout point of the town, a Mayan altar, the house of a wooden idol, and learn about the history of the famous church.  Afterwards we sit on the balcony of the second floor of the municipal building for coffee and bread (a Guatemalan staple) with a view of the church.
The Dark Wooden Idol San Simon
Our Famous Church :)
Phew! There are a lot more pictures I could add but it takes a long time with such slow internet connection.  But I hope that you guys got a gist of some of the work I'm doing here and enjoyed a virtual tour of San Andrés Xecul's first tourism route!!  There are still a lot of kinks to work out and drama with the group dynamics but it's a start.  One of my technical trainers from Peace Corps came on a practice tour said that it was one of the best and most authentic tours he had been on. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Elections & Traje

September 12th, 2011

I am very tired.  And my neighbors have been blasting beloved eighties hits since eight in the morning so I might as well write.

Last night was a very big day in Guatemala. Elections day.  Since I arrived in country the political propaganda has been growing and growing.  Even rocks and trees are painted with political markings.  And with 20+ parties it is a very colorful scene.  And also very noisy.  Candidates love to slowly drive throughout town with loudspeakers blasting their campaign music.  Not going to miss that.  For safety Peace Corps has required that we don’t leave our sites at all for a few days until all the elections madness cools down.

View from the second floor, right over my front door. 

Yesterday San Andrés Xecul was packed with food vendors and lots of people standing around. Waiting with anticipation to see who the new mayor would be.  Normally no one is on the street past 9 pm.  At night I walked out with my new neighbor and site mate Elana (from California & in the healthy schools program) to go grab some snacks from one of our favorite tiendas.  I couldn’t help laughing as I noticed for the first time boys hitting on us in k’iche.  “Jas abi ali?!” “What’s your name girl?!”.  All the boys learn from a young age that they should always hit on every female possible in the street (even if they are a quarter my age). The sun had set but the streets were livelier than ever.  To stay out of any possible trouble we went home and stayed in for the night.  Our friends told us they didn’t know what was going to happen.  Often in Guatemala there are political assassinations, etc. when the news is announced.  The candidates spend a lot of money on propaganda, handouts, and shameless bribes and can get murderously mad when they don’t win.

At around eleven the alcalde was announced and people went crazy! Huge bombas and fireworks started going off until who knows when.  I think past 2 am I was so sleepy I started sleeping through them.  These are much louder than American fireworks.  Fireworks that sound like a war has started.  Bombs that shake your heart.  On top of that, sound carries very well in our little pueblo nestled in the base of the mountains.  I could hear lots of whistling, hooting, hollering, and victory screams.

The view from my office with my counterpart Diego Hic

Turns out a school director won.  I hope that he cares about education and environmental issues half as much as he claims because that would make my job easier.  Today has been pretty tranquilo with the occasional school marching band.  Drizzling all day. 

When the mayor changes usually they hire their own crew to run the municipality.  I have grown close to  my friends at the muni so I am praying that some of them stay on.  Diego works at the office of the environment with me.  He always cheers me up if I'm having a bad day.  One of my only close friends in San Andrés Xecul.

This week the huge Independence Day celebrations are coming up so the semi-quietness won’t last long. 

A few Guatemalan girlfriends of mine gave me traje tipica.   The traditional outfit that the women wear in the indigenous villages.  I was very touched by such a beautiful and time consuming gift.  They weaved and sewed everything themselves.  If I were to buy it from the market it would have probably been about 1000Q or about $125.  Coming from a poor family that is a huge gift.  Occasionally in San Andrés Xecul I will see women with pants, but they definitely stand out.  Because they have taken me shopping for traje tipica and gifted me a whole other outfit I am taking it as a hint that I should wear it more often.  Right now I am trying for 2 days every week.  People are much more friendly and give lots of compliments when I wear traje tipica.  But now when I wear pants people ask “Why the pants?!”. 

My güipil, traditional to Totonicapán

My corte. The design is called King's Cape. Hand died and weaved.

My embroidered flower güipil

Traje tipica consists of four pieces. The top, güipil in Spanish, po’t in K’iche. The belt, faja in Spanish, pas in K’iche.  And the skirt, corte in Spanish, uq’ in K’iche.  And the apron, delantal in Spanish.  I don’t have an apron yet.

Each area of Guatemala has its own traditional clothing.  Women love to mix and match with traje from different places.  I am obsessed with all the different patterns, colors, and types of weaving.  The traditional güipil from San Andrés Xecul is a gorgeous pattern of animals.  Similar to what you would see on our famous church.  It takes about 6 months to a year to embroider the entire güipil
Traditional top from San Andrés Xecul

Here are some typical güipil patterns that you can find around here:  

Flowers in Beadwork

Woven Deers, Embroidered Flowers
Cross-stitched Basket & Flowers
There are still some places where the men wear traje as well.  I have seen a few men wearing this outfit with the very thick woven shirt and the wrap around wool skirt (minus the pants) in my town:

I have been embroidering my own güipil with my K’iche teacher for months now.  I can’t believe my sister Sara sent me lots of embroidering string! J  Along with really, really cute panda slippers which are great for the freezing nights.  All the letters, cards, and packages really cheer me up.  Thank you mom for all the mouth watering cookies, springroll wrappers, seaweed, and sweet cards! Thank you grandpa and Jackie for the birthday wishes and awesome article (I really want to go explore El Mirador now).  Thank you Auntie Evelyn for all the thoughtful letters.   And thank you Laura for the Greenland postcard.
After my first half marathon in Antigua with my host parents
I ran a bit more than I should of and now I am afraid I might have tendonitis so I have been taking a complete break from running. Next time I am at the peace corps office I am going to have them check out my leg. But the half marathon was fun.  Lots of Guatemalans cheering us on, bags of recovery honey, music, scenic views of Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes.

mayan fire ceremony on the shores of the sacred lagoon of volcan chicibal
Every year at the beginning of the rainy season they have a huge gathering at Laguna Chicibal.  Hundreds make the steep climb up the volcano to do mayan fire ceremonies all around the sacred lagoon to pray for rain.  No one is even allowed to swim in the waters. Notice the four women standing on the shore?  It is very stylish in Guatemala to make sure every article of clothing and accessory is the same color.  It feels weird to weird wear blue shoes, jeans, a blue top, and blue earrings and walk out the door feeling stylish.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Sites: SAX & PAX

Well it’s probably about time I updated everyone about my first 2 1/12 months at site.  I will also talk about what happened during the big Semana Santa celebrations.

In Peace Corps, the first months at site are for integration into the community, strengthening communication skills, and getting accustomed to the way your work/life will function for the next two years.  Volunteers have told me that the first months at site are definitely the most trying.  The best way I can describe it is as a rollercoaster.  You don’t know when your ups and downs will come or how long they will last.  It isn’t uncommon for volunteers to be depressed then be incandescently happy, all in one day.  

I am the first volunteer from the ecotourism program at both of my sites.  I have never met another volunteer that had two sites… (--more work, traveling back and forth between sites) (++I can choose which site I feel like working at).  I just had my first site visit from my program director and it really helped my counterparts with organization and what direction we should take our work in.



I am working with Association nicknamed “AQX”.  Their whole name is k’iche—“ Q’ Aq’ Al Xikin”.  My program director calls them the asociación de jovenes (association of young people).  They want to make Paxtoca into a model for other towns as an environmentally responsible community while preserving and salvaging what is left of the Maya k’iche culture. 
Association Q' Aq' Al Xikin

All the way on the right is the president Dionisio.  He is also a director at a nearby school and rarely shows up for meetings.  The man standing up all the way on the left with the baseball cap is Damaso.  He is the vice president and is the one that always works with me every time I visit Paxtoca. To the right of him are the three people who I am closest to and see the most often.  The women are his sisters and every two weeks they have a women’s cooking/nutrition class that meets up.  Usually I meet up with them and cook or do a workshop with them.

Easy to get good shots when you are comparatively a GIANT

One of the main projects Paxtoca wants help with is making the mountain behind the town into an ecological preserve where tourists could come and pay to go on guided hikes to the mayan alters and waterfall.  

Hike to the vista, waterfall is in the background

The only problem is that many different people in the community currently own it.  We are planning to have a meeting with the property owners to discuss signing a possible agreement for land use and also a sanitation plan for their bark beetle problem.  They did not seem happy when I told them we have to cut down all infected trees and the surrounding trees, and then reforest the area with white pine.  If we cannot get the owners to agree to the park then we will just have to give up and focus on my secondary projects with trash management and environmental education.

San Andrés Xecul

This is where I live!  It is on the other side of the valley from Paxtoca and also nestled at the base of mountains.  But it is much larger than Paxtoca and the town even has a municipality.  I work there in the office of the environment. 

My primary project here is helping with community-based tourism.  Currently many French, Spanish, and American tourists come (sometimes in the bus loads) and take pictures of our famous church and then leave.  San Andrés Xecul has never made any money from tourism.  They already have the tourists, amazing things to offer, and a fair amount of advertising.  Just no structure or motivation!  I really hope to get something started this year because we are on the cover of this year’s edition of lonelyplanet. Amazing.  Icon of the Western highlands of Guatemala.

Cover of the newest edition of lonelyplanet
We have been trying out different possible cultural stops around town.  I will write more about them in detail when we have made concrete decisions, which is proving to be more difficult than I imagined.  The population is all indigenous and are very wary of foreigners.  For example S.A.X. makes a ton of different colored candles for all the Mayan ceremonies that take place so we wanted to make one stop a candeleria but they do not trust us.  They think that we are going to bring people that want to steal their candle making process and put them out of business.

Two sisters playing on the family faucet

So much culture here!  There are so many Mayan alters and almost every afternoon you can find at least one person doing a Mayan fire ceremony either in the mountains or somewhere in the cornfields.   Behind the muni (municipality) is forest with a trail that leads up to a large Mayan alter.  The hike takes about an hour to get up and would be a great for all the young tourists that live in the Spanish schools in Xela.  Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala and about a 40 minute bus ride from my S.A.X. and a 20 minute bus ride from Paxtoca.
Fire ceremony: El Calvario in San Andrés Xecul

My secondary projects here will also include trash management and environmental education.  There is absolutely no system of trash management currently.  Just many sad looking clandestine dump sites.  On the road out of town there is a large dumpsite with a sign 10 feet before urging to take care of your environment and keep it clean.  The largest dumpsite I’ve seen is constantly burning.  During the day there are always women and children rummaging through the garbage breathing in the toxic fumes. 

I have been training for a half marathon that will be in July in Antigua.  But I sure do miss the clean air in Seattle (I would have never said that before). The many small burning piles of trash along the street mixed with all the exhaust fumes are not pleasant.  And I always have a rock in my hand in case on of the many street dogs decides to try and snap at me.

Everyone burns their trash, buries it, throws it into a river, or dumps it at one of these sites because they do not know about other options.  I think one of the most important things would be education about the harmful effects of trash (especially burning all that plastic!), how to separate and organize the trash, and setting up a center where people could bring their recycling in turn for some quetzales($). 

I have also been working a lot with a Swiss NGO, Helvetas.  They are so great.  Because of them my office has computers, desks, disaster preparedness equipment, and two tree nurseries.  All new this year.  They have given environmental education books to all the students and hundreds of teachers as well.  The 24th of this month I will meet with a representative from Helvetas.  We will plan days for workshops with the teachers where I will teach them technical vocabulary/concepts and how to use the material in the classroom.  I also hope that we do some reforestation projects because we have over 2,000 baby trees waiting and it is one of the best months for it.


Semana Santa

Guatemala is famous for their extravagant Easter week celebrations.  The largest in Latin America, people from all around the world come to see the processions.  The largest celebrations take place in Antigua but I decided to stay around my site to see how the locals celebrate.  

During this week there is an overabundance of this traditional Semana Santa sweet bread

A fellow volunteer in San Cristobal (closest town over) invited me to a pre-procession prepping party at his friend’s home.  I was expecting to maybe work for a couple hours.   What I now know is that preparing to make alfombras (carpets) for the processions is an all night process! First we had to sift all the sawdust.  Then we laid out tarps and made piles of fine sawdust that we died and hand mixed for a long time. We had a fire going the whole night to heat the boiling water for the dye. We even got to make smores :)

Making Orange

Other people were also painting, cutting, and drawing patterns for the alfombra design.  By morning we were ready to go out on the street with all our bags of sawdust.

The finished colors
After laying the foundation we started with the patterns
Our slightly rain-damaged, but finished alfombra

Our alfombra was just one of many littered throughout town.  Later in the day the procession marched through town, destroying one alfombra after another.  Below are a couple other alfombras.
Notice all the fruit hanging from the arc
Flower Butterflies

Then I went home and slept for fourteen hours.  I feel like there are random traditions and celebrations every week.  And everyday there is a SOME reason to blow up some fireworks.  Last month there was a big explosion at one the coheterias (place where they make fireworks) in which four children died and several were sent to the hospital.  They usually have the children working for their small fingers.   And accidents like this are not uncommon.  Apparently two years ago there was another explosion in which a 16 year old girl (who was crowned the community's indigenous princess) was killed.

I still don't understand.

Well I have to run, but I also have a lot of other blog topics I want to share.  So look out for another update!