Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Way of Life

Since returning home, I've spent most of my time frantically trying to "make adult life work" in America. Everyone said the transition from Peace Corps to America would be difficult. I think it's like adding apples to oranges: it doesn't work.

I told a woman recently of my evacuation from Guatemala,

"It's a long story," not wanting to indulge yet another person who wants to talk about violence in those "hispanic" countries.

"Oh! I bet it is violent. But, you know, it's just a different way of life down there." She said, nodding, clearly well-versed in the complex issues of Central American economies, illicit trade, historical trajectories of political and gang violence, deep-seeded cultural and religious beliefs, utterly failed transportation systems, public health nightmares, and the egoism of NGO and international aid interventions.

I couldn't hold back this time.

"A different way of life? What do you mean exactly? That these people choose to live in poverty and violence? This isn't a "way" any human being should have to live. Period." I replied, flatly.

Her lips pursed, eyes narrowed, and a short breath was drawn as she recalculated,

"Well, no it certainly isn't. So tell me, now that you've had all this experience and time off, what's your next step?"

I don't address this. I move forward and talk about other, less troubelsome things.

However flustered by this woman's deep self-centeredness I was, I later-on reflected on my ability to put her lack of perspective, well, into perspective. This is the reason, I thought to myself later that evening, why I took the leap to join the Peace Corps: I was tired of re-acting to my environment and I wanted to learn how to be in my environment, to see it for what it really is, to look at things from another perspective. And yes, I also wanted to be part of changing the world. I wanted to understand the world more fully as it actually is. I sought to question myself, fellow volunteers, and my host-countriy. I sought to make different choices.

Something I realized recently while stewing about this woman's comments, was that in all my blog posts, I have never conveyed the true reason I joined the Peace Corps to begin with. What I mean to say is: the real story. The day I decided to join.

I told this story just about a week ago, to my new employer. He, of course, asked why I joined. There is the stock response that I give to people that I don't know very well, and it involves a mix of overstated idealism, career-development, and foreign-language acquisition. He smiled when I gave a sigh that conveyed a sense of hopelessness: a sigh that said, "there is so much more to this story."

So he asked, "and the long version? I want to hear that story."

It is one of the most intimate stories I can think to tell, because it became a defining moment in my life. The day I decided to join was the day started becoming myself.

I hosted an RPCV in my house Junior year of college who was interviewing for medical and dental schools. He wore the look of a person so completely at peace, engaged in the world around him, passionate about his dreams, and inspiring beyond all belief. We spoke of his time in Africa. His voicemail message was in two languages; English, and a native African language. He spoke of his days in Africa as "defining," and "without rival." He wore a lot of flannel, I seem to remember. He grew up in Montana.

I had just moved into the house not two weeks ago before he arrived. I was still installing odds and ends, like a cheap wine rack I had acquired. I fiddled with the screw driver and became exasperated quickly. Without a second thought, I tossed the rack and mounting materials to the side and muttered to myself, "well, guess the wine is going in the pantry."

He looked up from whatever he was doing, puzzled, and told me, "Oh! Why don't we go next door and ask the neighboor for a drill. I can see what you're missing there, you need a drill."

The neighboor? I didn't know him. I wasn't planning on introducing myself. I expressed some hesitation before he stopped me.

"Come on. Lets go."

Two hours later, 3 friends made, multiple glasses of lemonade shared, and a 2nd-hand wine rack hanging proudly from my kitchen cabinet, we sat on the couch discussing Ayn Rand.


I laugh, now an RPCV myself, just how common this conversation would become. Everyone brings Atlas Shrugged or DFW or Bertrand Russel or something else equally ambitious to post with them. And we read them, and formulate many ideas about these works. Whatever good that's for.

It was the day my friend left that "it hit me" like a ton of bricks. Maybe I didn't necessarily want to go to Africa, or go to medical school, or read Atlas Shrugged, but I wanted to be like him. I wanted to face every situation in life as a beautiful question that had an answer so long as I was willing to seek it. I wanted to approach life as a continually evolving set of experiences, challenges and insights. No task or event in life is trivial, not even the installation of a wine-rack; you could make friends, share lemonade, change the direction of your life. I wanted to discover what I could be capable of doing.

Speaking of David Foster Wallace, I am now reminded of a blindingly beautiful analog in his Kenyon College commencment speech which went like this, "If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is how that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it."

And I began that journey with the Peace Corps. No, I did not live up to my expectations all of the time. No, I did not save Guatemala, or master Spanish, or solve world hunger. But I tried. I tried, I tried, I tried. I thought and thought and thought. I questioned myself, other volunteers, many Guatemalans, and a new way of life that was never my own. I learned to be like a Buddhist monk in the midst of chicken-bus madness and community-organizing fiascos. I learned to trust in failure, because in it lie the keys to better thoughts and actions. I discovered that truly being means being full of grace, and that which is beautiful is everywhere. 

If you've read my blog, you know that I've come to concieve of an unwillingness to change as the biggest obstacle to "development" (a term I put in quotes because I dislike how often I feel it is abused, used to qualify false statements, or justify certain unsavory people and organizations).  Any academic or philosophical debate about improving health care, or sustainability or corruption ultimately boils down to: how willing are the individuals or groups to change their behaviors and actions? Do they see change is something "good" or "bad?" Which actors best catalyze change? If change does happen, is it always for everyone's benefit? Who can make decisions that affect change for a given outcome? I don't have the answers yet, but I have learned that the most powerful thing in life one has to affect change, something that can never be taken away no matter how poor, desolate, or weak, is the ability to choose your thoughts. Choose to put yourself in another's shoes. Choose to be kind. Choose to challenge the constant, drowning monologue inside your own head that puts you at the center of the universe. Choose to see life in everything.

I know that we all disappoint ourselves far too often. We dwell in the past, seek explanations from other people and places that aren't able to gift meaning to our struggles, and we justify our actions in the hopes of justifying ourselves. What I thank my friend, my Peace Corps experience, and the multitude of people along the way who have helped to shape me for, is for sharing with me the gift of a life made by choice. To choose is to be free.

Tomorrow, I will choose to call my loved ones; reconnect with the life I left in Guatemala and perhaps seek more ways in which I can integrate (note: word of deep resentment to all PCV's and calculus students alike) my two worlds. In the end, I thank Peace Corps for teaching me that it is how we choose to foster resilience in times adversity and choose actions which fill us and those around us with inspiration that make for a life well lived. Mil gracias por todo, mis queridos chapines y voluntarias de Cuerpo de Paz, llenas de gracia. Los quiero mucho con mi corazon completo.

Some of my favorite memories...

The bottle school's community mayor, who pulled over our truck to pick up trash. His idea, not mine. A beautiful thing.

 Learning Spanish. Teaching in Spanish. Getting laughed at in Spanish. Making jokes in Spanish. Attempting to inspire in Spanish. Loving Spanish.
 Being forced to wear an adult diaper over my clothes for a baby shower.
 Walks through fields. Hugs in fields. Love in fields.
                                                                 Mayan ceremonies
                                                                  Tortillas. Especially hers.
                                                  This beautiful and enchanting country...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Vida Nueva

Maricela, the representative for the HIV office at the Ministry of Health in San Marcos called me in her excited, rolling voice this Tuesday to tell me that I had to come to a meeting on Thursday.

"Oooo Elizabeth, its just, this is what we've been waiting for!"

It was to be between the Ministry, myself on behalf of Peace Corps, and a group called "Vida Nueva." Over the last year, Maricela has been making contacts with all of the individuals who are registered as HIV-positive in San Marcos. Little did we know, they had been contacting each other to form a group, which they have named "Vida Nueva," or "New Life."

I had no idea what to expect. Actually, I've been working in HIV education for a year and a half, and I had only ever met one person who has the virus. He is a truly astounding educational speaker who we hosted at an HIV event this time last year. Yet, I knew going into the meeting that most individuals are not as self-aware nor have the support networks they need to be living "positively." I braced myself.

Smiles on, Maricela, her assistant, and myself made our way for the central park to meet them. They didn't want to meet us in the hospital for fear of the hospital staff; as I later learned, they are often ignored, or blatantly asked to leave from district hospitals. We offered to meet in a cafe - no thanks, they said, we prefer a place where we can't be overheard easily. I'm feeling more nervous.

Three of the members - a 27 year old woman, the president; 55 year old mother of 8 in traditional Mayan dress, the secretary; and a man in his late 50s approached us. Laughing as they made their way over to us, they greeted us with open arms, ready to talk.

For the next half hour, Maricela and I discussed how we could help them with materials and trainings. Their main goal is to educate teenagers on safe-sex practices, stigma and discrimination and self-esteem, as well as provide a support network for their members.

Then, it was their turn to speak. I learned that these individuals have to travel 3-7 hours each week for treatment. Treatment is not available in San Marcos, and it costs roughly 2,000 Quetzales ($250) dollars per month. No one can afford this. Discrimination in the hospitals and health centers in San Marcos is rampant. Many of the members feel they cannot tell their own family about their condition for fear of being killed or injured. They make up for excuses as to why they are vomiting or passing-out at work; secondary affects from their anti-retrovirals.

While all of this information grounded me into a reality I had only ever read about or received trainings on, what really impacted me was the smiling, laughing, and embracing. These were a group of people unafraid of their future. Passionate. In control of their lives. Warm. Loving.

That is exactly it - loving. That is what they embody, most of all. Yet, they are afflicted by a virus that is usually passed by sexual contact; an act that should embody the physicality of love, but now threatens to take their lives away. I couldn't help but be affected by their enormous capacity for positivity.

I am torn by sadness because I will only get to work with their group a handful of times before I have to leave. I will be forever grateful, however, to have met them. We are holding a workshop soon, and I will write a post about that event, so stay tuned!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Pregnant Lady Search

Last night I fell asleep with the feeling of complete peace after visiting Doña Silvia and her children for late-night coffee and bread. The following morning, I awoke to feelings of discontent, again. I will have to leave this beautiful town for reasons outside my control. Too soon.
I read the Doctor Seuss book my parents gave to me after high school graduation, "Oh! The Places You'll Go." In the front right page, my wonderful step-father had written:

"Look to this day, for in its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence...the bliss of growth, the story of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is already a dream and ...tomorrow only a vision. But every day well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope."

With new conviction, I decided that, while it was not my choice to leave my post early, instead of becoming bitter or resentful,  I will fill my remaining days in Guatemala with "all the verities and realities" of the life I've grown to love here.

Which brings us to today. I spent the day preforming check-ups on 6 pregnant women with Sonia.

Our schedule:

Meet at 5:45am

Wait for a bus

Hour to two-hour journey to the village we are visiting

Begin The Pregnant Lady Search, as I like to call it. OK, we're really doing a Census for expecting mothers and to get their vitals, hand them vitamins, and make sure they know when to come to the "Casa Materna" to have their babies. Talk with them. Calm their fears.

Today, in a period of 5 hours, I saw the worst and best of this country I've come to love.

We visited a 15 year old whose pregnancy is unknown to everyone except myself, Sonia, and her mother for fear of discrimination; the supposed father is a man in his 60s who lives in the adjacent house. She is in middle school.

On our way to visit another mother, we encountered a tremendously happy and bright 3 year old girl who insisted that we take pictures of everything so she could scream in excitement as I showed them to her (many children, due to malnutrition, basically look like zombies with minimal facial recognition or interaction with the world, same as the adults. It is an extreme pleasure to witness a child that has interest in her world). We listened to "Goin' to the Chapel" on my iPod. She was delighted.

We visited a mother whose previous daughter had died at 2 months old for unknown reasons while her husband had abandoned her. She just gave birth last week, prematurely, to a baby girl. They are doing well.

I talked with a girl my age about her baby who is due tomorrow - she wants it to be a boy. In appreciation of our visit, her mother gifted Sonia and I some beautiful cactus that is widely used in this part of Guatemala and Southern Mexico to soothe inflammation - "Toni" it is called.

As we made our way home, we had to cross a river where local men were removing sand and rocks for construction. Looks like those materials didn't get used to build the bridge we had to cross:

I came home dirty, tired, and mildly sun burnt; the usual. I had experienced the heartbreaking, the heartwarming, and the frightening. But I was home.

Walking through the forest with one of the teachers I work with a few weeks ago, he remarked to me as I kept falling over all of the branches and roots on the ground, "You know Elizabeth, this isn't life, it's just walking - it doesn't have to be so hard." I laughed at his casual wisdom.

This has not been the easiest of paths, Peace Corps, but it has indeed been the most rewarding yet. I am leaving one home to go back to another, be it by walking, stumbling, broken-down bus, plane, or make-shift wooden plank bridge. I have lived every minute of it - and lived it well.

The Most Difficult Decision

I logged in to write this post today and briefly scanned the top of my blog where I wrote, almost 2 years ago, "I am completing a life long dream to live, work and serve abroad." I still remember the tangible feeling of, for the fist time in my young life upon arriving in Guatemala, truly living my dream. I was fresh out of college. I was terrified. I had never held a real job or any major responsibility. I had simply allowed my heart and most earnest passions guide me here.

Last Thursday, that dream rather abruptly changed course. Peace Corps announced that I would be evacuated from my site due to two groups fighting over a water source (it's the peak of dry season here), fighting in between two rings of smugglers selling illegal gasoline from Mexico, and that, due to an impending declaration of a "state of siege" to combat drug trafficking, I will be permanently re-located to a safer location.

I am not alone. Almost half of my fellow PCVs from my training group will be re-located or given the option to early "COS" or "Close of Service," due to the purported security concerns. An early COS is akin to a "honorable discharge" from the military - honorable status for your service and full benefits in recognition of the fact that forces outside of your control forced you to leave. Most of us will choose to leave early; we have only about 7 months left in our service, so the 'point' to staying and attempting to make any real difference in this little time would most likely be futile. I haven't made my decision yet, but regardless of that decision, I will have to leave my home in Tejutla, San Marcos.

I wasn't done. My community and I are trying to build a school. I had plans for HIV education with the Ministry of Health in my department this fiscal year with
PEPFAR. My counterpart in the health center, Sonia, and I were working on building a nutrition program through the local government office. I was helping a local cooperative to gain a professional nutritional analysis for a healthy product that would be sold to all of the schools in my municipality for their snack.

I had resolved to spend more time with my host family. Myself and the group of children that live by my apartment have art projects planned, and Sundays to spend together watching Sesame Street in Spanish and baking bread. I will have to say goodbye to all of my courageous and beautiful fellow Peace Corps volunteers and site-mates that I have grown to call family.

I should feel angry. Angry for the loss. The sense of regret, failure, displacement, and chaos. Truthfully, I feel swept up in the tide of the forces that be - Peace Corps Washington, statistical reports, press releases and media announcements indicating Central America, or more specifically the "Northern Triangle," (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) as "the most dangerous place in the world outside of an active war zone," Congress' new law protecting PCVs, and the new wave of politics in Guatemala. And I feel in awe of being but a tiny, seemingly inconsequential part of this giant process.

As the
New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, CNN and Peace Corps press-releases have announced, Central America is getting more dangerous. More drug-related violence. More armed robberies on buses. More this, more that. And they aren't lying or distorting the facts - Central America really has never been a "safe" destination, particularly the border regions where high levels of drug trafficking take place; places where PCVs often work in rather close proximity to. This isn't to say Peace Corps is throwing volunteers into perilous regions - in fact, they do all they can, much to our bereavement, to make sure we do not place ourselves in potentially dangerous situations or locations.

I, for example, work in HIV/AIDS education. I live in a border department where the high-risk populations for HIV/AIDS live and travel through - yet, I cannot directly travel to the border to work. Okay. I swallow this. I would love to go there, but I abide by Peace Corps standards and their religious-like attention to my whereabouts and safety. I do not go.

The fact remains, as Carlos Torres, the Peace Corps Regional Director for the Inter-American and Pacific Region (IAP), revealed to volunteers this past Wednesday: that apart from the region being dangerous all-around, it's violence is directly affecting volunteers - 1 out of 10 volunteers experiences a "serious crime incident" (SCI) every year in Guatemala. SCIs are different from "general crime," (petty theft, etc), and include incidents such as rape or armed robbery, etc. However, Peace Corps volunteers serve for over 2 years. This is not good news.

Director Torres shared a story with us in his tempered and blessedly informative talk, about a discussion he had with the female PCV who was shot in the leg during a bus assault in Honduras recently. As they were speaking about the incident, she told him that she had done everything her Safety and Security Officer had trained her to do when gunshots are fired on a bus - sit close to the window, duck under the seat and do not try to protect anyone. This gave Director Torres pause - wait, wait, wait, he responded, "they're training you how to avoid bullets?" At what point, he asked rhetorically, do we say to ourselves "what are we doing here?"

I instinctually agree. Peace Corps Guatemala recently rolled out a new transportation policy to protect volunteers. We already lack a great deal of freedom to leave our sites and experience other parts of the country; a third of the country is currently off-limits to volunteers for travel. What kind of quality of life is this? None of us expected this, to be sure.
More importantly, returning to my example of HIV/AIDS education, what am I doing here if the most at-risk populations that I have the potential to affect are completely off-limits to me for my security? Or the poorest of the poor locales in Guatemala are deemed unsafe to work in for my main project, food security?

Over a year ago, Peace Corps sent up a red flag about our region when their 2010 yearly portfolio (a report that takes into account not only safety and security issues, but achievements for Goal 1 and 2, host country commitment, strategic goals of the United States, the Human Development Index (of which PC tries to only operate in countries that preform below half) and other critical indicators), contained alarming information about the safety of volunteers.

Thus, in March 2011, Peace Corps sent a team down to our region on a fact-finding mission to discover what was going on with the reported increase in crime. Almost concurrently, the World Bank and the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime released statistical reports about Central America. The World Bank study said that the population of Spain and Central America are roughly equal, and that in 2010, Spain experienced 336 murders, while Central America experienced 14,257. That is an increase in the homicide rate by a factor of 40.

Homicide rates are universally used to conduct studies of crime because they are reliable - almost always, there is a body. There is no gray area with murders - a body is a body. Usually speaking, high homicide rates go hand in hand with general lawlessness, so this statistic is used to judge the safety of a given country or region. In our case, it can also be used to judge how safely volunteers can serve in a given country.

After the tragic murder of a PCV in Benin a few years ago, Congress recently passed the
Kate Puzey Protection Act, which has sensitized media to PCV safety. From my discussions with Peace Corps staff, the general consensus at this juncture in time is to protect us, even if that means disrupting our service - no one can afford the bad press.

And I sit in awe. I can't help but feel a veil of safety - whether real or imagined - in my site. I have close relationships with my counterparts. I am generally happy and only feel uncomfortable when traveling, and okay, when I see a burned-out car from a drug-related car chase down the road from my house. Or when the local police are evacuated due to threats from locals to kill or capture them.

Sonia and I passed the burned-out car surrounded by hundreds of people several months ago, and I remember looking to her with wide-eyes and confusion; she responded with a huff and a deep eye-roll that said "this is just the way it is, it will pass."

Is she the frog in the pot of water that slowly comes to boil, killing her slowly? Is this how Guatemalans respond to violence, while Americans working here are the frogs that hop in to the already boiling pot and instantly realize the danger of staying? When is enough enough for anyone?

Part of me recognizes the dangers - I am putting my life at risk by serving in Guatemala in the border region. Yet part of me instantly feels indignant as this thought passes. I am a college graduate who willingly accepted these risks to serve my country, my fellow humans and to learn about the realities of the world I live in.

What is more tragic, then: a premature death that befalls a Peace Corps volunteer who willingly serves and has carte blanche to leave at any time, or an 18-year old kid who joined the Army because he couldn't pay for college, cannot leave his service honorably if he chooses, and gets killed in Afghanistan? One is justified because our country willingly accepts the sacrifice of a life dedicated towards the paradoxical killing of others in the name of safety and peace, and not the other for dedicating their life to peacefully improving the lives of others in the name of creating a world without conflict to begin with? This reasoning is fucking broken, America.

I'll take the training to avoid bullets, thank you.

Our military, for one, has already made tremendous steps, for better or for worse, to involving themselves in sustainable development. They are building schools and infrastructure in the Middle East. I am building a school in Guatemala. We both have the same goal, our rules are different.

My opinion is clearly jaded and aggrieved - I have to personally tell 77 middle school children and their parents that I cannot be present to guide them through the rest of the construction process. And yes, I do agree with Director Torres - what are we doing here if we cannot work in high-impact areas?

Do I take the early COS option, then, and return on my own to build the school thereby taking a higher personal risk to my safety by not having Peace Corps to assist me if an emergency arrises? Or do I heed my superiors suggestions and leave San Marcos thereby leaving all of my work unfinished and hundreds of people with a questionable impression of not only Peace Corps but the United States, and not to mention, myself? This is not a choice. This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my young life.

Taking a step back from my hot-headed bereavement, I acknowledge that my role as a PCV is small. I have made an impact already in the lives of a few. I am satisfied with this. But I suppose, then, the ultimate question becomes:

Standing at the receiving end of a cascade of events (safety and security concerns on behalf of Peace Corps and international institutions, media attention, Congress), can one persons commitment to the common dream of raising the global standard of living and creating a peaceful world contend with our present world where violence and fear are rising? Is the impact of the work I do worth the risk of my own life? Or perhaps more appropriately put: is the system that creates this violence and impedes development worth approaching on this end at all?

These are the questions that keep me up at night lately. For now, I will return to my site tomorrow. I will attempt to bring closure to my projects in the short term because we will be pulled out at any moment when the state of siege finds financing (currently, the Guatemalan Congress is voting on the 2012 budget, and when the vote passes, Otto Perez Molina has guaranteed a state of siege in San Marcos). My project director is trying to find me a placement with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations if I choose to stay on with Peace Corps for the remainder of my service and not return to Tejutla. How stupid would I be to turn down a job opportunity with the UN at 23 years old? Pretty stupid. How regretful would I feel leaving a school unfinished? Pretty regretful.

Stay tuned...

Monday, August 15, 2011

One Year

I hear a smitten giggle erupt through waves of "Banda" music, smattering rain, and soft chatter. I look over to see this small, portly, effervescent 4 year old girl clinging to her Dad's shoulders on a packed bus. It's Sunday after sun-down, and the tone on the bus is subdued; calm, or as calm as bus rides in Guatemala can be. I instantly become entranced by her and Dad. She's decorating him with kisses. She is in love with her father.

This month, I will celebrate my one-year anniversary of service in Guatemala. Naturally, I reflect on what I've accomplished in a year, how I've changed as a person; I try to identify new hopes and dreams for the year to come...

This past year in the Peace Corps has been the equivalent to my teenage years; a troublesome, fear-induced episode characterized by a mix of self-loathing and insecurities. Now, I'm an adult whose mostly prepared to take whatever comes her way with compassion and heart. Some major things have happened: I have established a Food Security program in my local Health Center, developed a wonderful working relationship with my counterpart, Sonia, am a new member of the HIV/AIDS committee, and I have started the process of building a school.

Yet, while these accomplishments have made my service worthwhile, they at times balk in comparison to the more important lesson I've had this year - the lesson in unconditional love.

One of my biggest teachers in this lesson was my beautiful and courageous former sitemate, Amanda. As we sat at her "despedida" (goodbye party) a few weeks back, both crying and holding on to each other, I realized my surroundings. We were listening to wailing Evangelical Christian music, eating our zillionth plate of Pepian (a traditional Guatemalan stew, delicious, but, really, how much of it can you eat before you explode?), being stared at by a flock of Guatemalan children and adult men, and, let us not forget, being photographed by total strangers. Sarita, Amanda's host mother, had invited nearly 100 people.

A year ago, this would have been enough to make me loose my mind. But sitting there in the afternoon sun, I couldn't have been happier. It wasn't that the music was Evangelical, or that the staring and photographing strangers were intrusive and rude, or even that I wanted to scream "are you SERIOUSLY giving me a 3rd plate of food!?!?"No. I was happy because all of this effort had been done as an act of love and friendship. It didn't matter that our ideologies collided - Amanda and I, not Christian. Amanda and I, trying to loose weight. But Amanda and I know love when we see it, in its multitude of forms.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bondes Have More...Novelty With Small Mayan Children?

Today something cool happened:
4:30am Alarm

4:59am: Sober to the realization of leaving my bed.

5:00am: Kemba is beaming guilt rays across the room – she needs to go outside.

5:03am: Water boiling for coffee.

5:11am: Dressed, brushed (teeth, not hair; hair goes under hat as to avoid unwanted attention/it is cold) and packed for day.

5:27am: Waiting at bakery with Sonia for bus.

7:01am: Arrive at Venecia, the town directly off the paved road, after which we walk, and walk, and walk, and walk.

7:04am: Hoorah! Have successfully hailed pick-up truck, therefore don’t need to walk (and walk) as much.

7: 34: Arrive at destination community, Julen.

8:17: Am suddenly surrounded by small flock of 5-12 year olds. School is about to begin.

So, listen: I have been stared at continuously since I have set foot in Guatemala. In fact, since getting off the plane almost exactly a year ago, I haven’t not been stared at when in a public place. Period. However, this encounter was something extraordinary, because, unlike most of the unwanted attention I receive, today was pretty neat; as in, I was digging the attention.

I was the first, FIRST, white person these kiddos had EVER seen. I understand this happens on the regular for a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, say, in Africa or remote regions of Central Asia. However, in a country separated from the United States only by Mexico, and much less than that if you care to take into consideration its cultural and diasporic ties with America, this is rare. Most people have SEEN a white person, at least in passing.

So, the first thing the kids did was take interest in Kemba. Then, ever so slowly, about 50 elementary aged Mayan children corralled me into a circle. Total silence. Just staring and pondering; and chewing on their fingers.

I took my hat off. Whispers raced around the circle, giggles erupted, words in Mam were shouted that I didn’t understand. My hair. I instantly felt the need to contact the Colorado Welcoming Committee on Extra-Terrestrial Life to tell them, from the perspective of an alien, how it feels to be consumed by little eyes.

Our conversation ensued:
Me: Well, good morning everyone!

Kids: Silence.

Me: Its really nice to be here in your town. My name is Elizabeth. I’m from the United States. We speak English there. Do you guys want to learn how to say “Buenos Dias,” in English?

Kids: Silence.

Me: OK, well, my dog’s name is Kemba. Can you guys say that? Kemba?

Kids: Silence.

Me: Alright, do you guys have a map in your school? Do you know where Washington State is? That’s where I’m from.

Kids: Silence.

Me: Do you want to play with me?

Kids: Silence.

Me: Do you want to play with my dog?

Kids: Silence.

Me: Um, do you want to touch my hair?

Kids: (all) YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!!!

Julen is one of the poorest places I have seen in Guatemala, as it is one of the most isolated and barren locales I have ever witnessed. I asked one of the women in the group later that morning if other NGOs had ever been to Julen. The answer was basically, no. Years ago, I discovered, a Spanish NGO named “Intervida,” came to build a school for these children, but, apparently, no Spaniards actually accompanied the project. Thus, as I later confirmed with the director of the school, I was indeed the first white person the town had ever laid eyes on.

It is a fascinatingly unique and powerful gift to be “the first,” of this sort. I have them captivated in a way I can’t even understand. I’m looking forward to playing with these kids and getting to know the community better. Lets hope they’ll become more playful and less silent in the months to come.

Liver or Peanuts? Aka...Mom Was Always Right

There is a reason American housewives in the post-depression era made liver and onions for their families. Or, perhaps we should thank the Irish for that practical tradition. In any case, my nutrition charla’s have morphed into what I’ve started calling The Big Liver campaign. It’s simple: eat more liver. Or peanuts.

In an attempt to get more folic acid into the diets of pre-natal women without reliance on vitamins and supplements from the health center (rant to come on this later), I’ve resorted to the most cost-effective, nutrient rich food available to struggling families in Guatemala. You guessed it: everyone’s favorite organ. I’ve come to discover, actually, that a chicken liver, usually weighing in at about 3-5 ounces, (think the size of an egg, how ironic…) contains the exact amount of folic acid that a pregnant or lactating mother needs daily. No vitamins or supplements. One chicken liver. Daily.

The other option is a cup of peanuts daily. These, while abundant in larger towns, are scant in smaller aldeas and communities, thus not a reliable option.

If you think that the distaste for liver is a distinctly American adolescent preoccupation, you are wrong. No one, really, likes liver. Not even Guatemalans. So, when I suggest to my ladies groups that a chicken liver daily will help to prevent birth defects like cleft lip or spina bifoda, I receive just as many winces as I imagine I would standing in any American 3rd grade classroom.

Yet, for the same reasons Americans consumed liver decades ago, my ladies groups have picked up the tradition. They are eating more liver, and enjoying it just as much as I did as a kid. Thanks, Mom; you were always right.