Saturday, February 25, 2012

Life as a "Returned" Peace Corps Volunteer

So it happened. Today I closed my service as Peace Corps Volunteer.

One year and 11 months ago, it was hard to believe that the day would come.

The funny thing about it is that I'm still here. In my site. Eating beans and tortillas and getting annoyed every time someone asks me to get them a visa. Thank goodness for beans and tortillas and people who ask for visas.

They make it totally worth it. And I'm being replaced by another volunteer, a biologist, refugee from a now off-limits department, so I'm not out in the middle of somewhere that Peace Corps considers really insecure. We'll have a month to work together.

Last week, we all turned in our piles of paperwork and had a late COS conference with my training group. It was nice to celebrate and eat good food and see everyone. It all gave closure, but it's still an odd feeling. What's really changed between yesterday and Monday? I guess a number somewhere on a computer screen in Washington, DC.

Less than imagining I'd never finish Peace Corps, I never would have imagined that I would not want to go when given the free pass to finish a month early. Yet something cool about Peace Corps is that it takes time to make friends in community and get ideas rolling, but when you do, it's great. You get infected with the idea of making things happen. I would guess there are very few volunteers out there who stop involving themselves in their communities - wherever they are - in some way after they finish Peace Corps.

I like to look at it like I'm just getting a head-start on the life-long volunteering thing, by seamlessly passing from my Peace Corps service to a true volunteer experience... I just happen to be finishing projects started under Peace Corps.

Among other things, what we started and will be finishing in this case are some signs. True story. I'll tell you all about it on March 30, after we inaugurate the project!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Valentine's Day Hugs

Hugs are awesome.

Sadly, I sometimes go weeks without them here.

Adults in my town tend to reserve hugs for a few special occasions: birthdays, Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day. When I get a real hug from an adult, it's amazing. But these are rare occasions.

It's the kids that keep me breathing. I'm always amazed by them. How creative and energetic they are. How willing they are to let go of differences and care about a slightly awkward pants-wearing giantess with glasses, light hair, light skin, and light eyes. Their minds are so open.

I'm thinking of this because on Tuesday we celebrated "Day of Affection and Friendship," the Guatemalan version of Valentine's Day. To the extent that it's celebrated in my town, people might eat a special snack or cake, exchange hand-made cards, or simply exchange hugs. It's a low-key affair.

I happened to fall into a celebration at a school, which required me to teach an impromptu and very short-lived lesson on Valentine's Day English vocabulary, eat double snack, and accept endless hugs from a bunch of adorable kids. Life is hard ;-)

I was mobbed by at least four different groups of students looking for hugs. And two students I had never met before made me a Valentine's Day card, which totally made my day. I doubt I will ever achieve this level of rock-star fame again.

There is a LOT going on right now, as I approach a week left until my official close-of-service date. So much more to do before that date, and before I leave for real later on.

Better to get as many hugs as possible while I still can!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Found in Translation

The local park guards are the sincerest guys I know here. After awhile I came to realize that we have a mutual appreciation, and a similar viewpoint about the work we're all doing. People like them have kept me going when things seem pointless.

A few months ago I got a formal request from them, typed, printed, and addressed in an envelope, which was hand delivered to me. These are not guys who are exactly computer saavy or into writing things down, so it was pretty touching that they took me so seriously, even if it was a request for money (basically).

I'll share it just to give you a taste of the culture here, and the formality used in written communications:

[my name here]
Peace Corps Volunteer
Municipality of [my site here]

By means of the present receive the warmest greetings on the part of the park guards of [my site here], at the same time we wish to desire you every type of success in your daily labor.

WE THE BELOW SIGNED all majority of age, Guatemalans, holding the title of Municipal Park Guards of the municipality of [my site here] of the department of [my department here], BEFORE YOU RESPECTFULLY direct ourselves in order to expound the following: FIRST: That it is of your knowledge that our work is practiced in the communal forest of the municipality in order to maintain and watch over the forests of our municipality, for which it is necessary to carry mountain backpacks in order to carry medicines for first aid and others. SECOND: For the reasons written above, and with all the respect that you deserve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the municipality of [my site, department], at the same time we solicit to your good person and willingness that you would help us by donating three mountain backpacks.

Without anything else to add for you, we thank your fine attention and understanding.


[names and signatures of 3 park guards] me it sounds pretty funny translated nearly literally into English! I've realized that my spoken Spanish is also quite a bit more formal than I speak in English, basically it´s natural to be a sponge and repeat whatever style of language you hear.

We could speculate on why written language, and even public spoken discourse, are so formal here ... vestiges of Spanish colonialism? acquisition of Spanish as a second language used mostly to speak with strangers and write formal documents? influence on Spanish from the local Mayan language? It's so interesting to reflect on the way that culture influences language -- and hey, vice versa, right?!

(And if you're wondering, I found a local outfitter: one backpack will cost $65, approximately 1/4 of their monthly salaries. I´m trying to convince them to solicit the bags from the new mayor, because I think it´s important people rely on their local systems when possible - and our town hall is in pretty good shape. But if they decide not to, it´s going to be hard to say no to such an earnest request!)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rekindling a Sense of Wonder

Today we went to the woods with a group of young people interested in tourism, to evaluate a new hike, and see what we would see.

And we were surprised.

None of the young folks had ever seen snow in the forest before, although they live just kilometers away. Up until today, some never thought it was possible.

They were pretty amazed.

Actually I was pretty amazed, too. It was like hail, in perfectly round balls, but covered the ground, emanating cold like a late summer snow-pack in the Cascades. But it wasn't in crunchy sheets begging you to post-hole - more like slippery sand.

So uphill wasn't bad. We slipped and slid up to the summit, where another wow-moment awaited us.

It's possible that more pictures of snow and ice have never been taken in such a short amount of time.

So many times we try to encapsulate in words or pictures or textbooks what simply can't be communicated effectively in such a way. Today was a reminder that we are often impacted most when the world teaches us through our own sense of wonder; even more so when that sense of wonder is shared.

Thanks to the woods for a great day. I'd like to spend every Sunday of my life in the same way.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pre-Service Training: The Good Life

I’ve realized it’s time to start reflecting on my time here. I’ll break it down by natural phases in the “PCV cycle”. Today’s reflection will be training...

January to March, 2010

I arrived in Guatemala just over two years ago, with a backpack full of irrelevant clothing items and a flamboyant mixture of excitement and tension about what the future would hold. As the friend of many Guatemala RPCVs, and girlfriend of a Guatemalan I'd met at graduate school, I carried no small load of expectations.

My old room: is this heaven or is it hell...?

I remember our training director picking us up at the airport. We rode to the training center on a chartered school bus and I sat next to a guy with whom I would soon share a training community, chatting about my plans to build a solar shower and keep a garden wherever I lived. (Riiiiight.)

I like structure. I have to admit that I enjoyed training, from day one, perhaps a little more than the average trainee. My host mother was a good cook. She sort of understood the concept of vegetarianism. Each week we had four days of Spanish, one day at the training center, and a weekly tech training session. I loved Spanish lessons. I hadn’t brought a computer, so each night meant studying, reading for pleasure, and chatting with my boyfriend long-distance. It felt like summer camp.

There was always the looming doubt: would I stay? Could I deal two years without my boyfriend? I had some retrospectively pretty funny issues with cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. Yet... I was pretty content on a daily basis. The most uncomfortable parts of training for me were adapting my intestinal flora, living with a flea-infestation in my bed, and trying to connect with my semi-apathetic host family.

(They had had between fifteen and twenty volunteers before me - I guess you lose track around ten? - and there were no small children in the house, as I had hoped, so it was pretty much like living in a boarding house at first.)

I loved many parts of training, though. I loved Spanish lessons. I loved Field-Based Training. I loved giving my first hands-on lesson in the community. My boyfriend, coincidentally, was doing fieldwork in Guatemala, and I got to see him every two weeks. I loved that. I less than loved the absurdity of our training project with the local mayor, but we could all deal. And my host parents and I reached some sort of mutual admiration -- after two baby showers and countless Sunday mornings of hellfire and brimstone in church together.

Then came the day of our site assignment. I got a medium-sized town of 6,000 whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I had wanted a tiny community in the middle of nowhere. It was my fault, as I hadn’t spoken up to my program director. I was bummed, for the first time in country. After my site visit, though, I kind of got over it - the first hint of the crazy rollercoaster that would be Peace Corps service.

My town seemed to have a lot of potential. Lots of forest, female office-mates, a non-creepy counterpart. It didn’t hurt my optimism that I was about to have the first long weekend with my boyfriend in three months. It was an exciting time! But how would things be when the excitement passed...?