Sunday, September 12, 2010

Laughter Sounds the Same in Every Language: Friendship in Guatemala

View of my friend's Santos y Rafael's "finca" (farm)
Group of Food Security and Agricultural Marketing in front of our freshly planted "huerto" or garden, with my host-mamacita and tia, Victoria y Gloria.
My tia, Amalia, making tortialls, or "torteando."
My adorable, sweet, endearing, energetic, fabulously smile-y, sneaky, squeezable host-sister, Madeline.
Group of PCTs visiting ruins in Antigua Guatemala (from left to right, Frank from Philly, Thomas from Kansas, Nicholi from Florida/Jamaica, Britini from Washington State, Me, and Carolyn from Illinois).

It has now been officially one month in country! I really feel like I could write a long blog post every day, and trying to summarize two weeks here is nearly impossible; it would probably end up like in words what Lord of the Rings is like in repetitive, but beautiful shots of scenery. So, I’ll try to make it short and sweet, like my host sister, Madeline.

So, for starters, I’ll address what some of you might have overheard on the news: the crazy weather, landslides, and massive amounts of rain. As of the moment, all the Peace Corps volunteers are on “Standfast,” which basically means we can’t go anywhere due to the closure and danger of using the roads. Last week, there were dozens of people killed in a landslide which hit a camioneta (the Guatemalan Spanish word for “bus,” also called a “chicken bus” sometimes), and then subsequently another landslide hit the rescue crew attempting to save them, killing the work crew.

Officials are predicting a steep increase in the price of food, particularly fruits and vegetables, within a couple of weeks as crop losses have been pretty significant. Also, one of the largest trash dumps in Guatemala is in the middle of Guatemala city in Zone 3, and is poorly managed; when there is massive amounts of rain, the trash floods the city and creates a pretty significant public health issue. As a consequence, Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom declared an official state of emergency last week.

All of this has been pretty crazy, and no one can stop talking about the rain. I have never in my life heard a sound like the deafening noise of buckets of rain pelting thousands of tin roofs in my city. In one of the costal Departments, Esquintla, there are several towns that have literally become consumed in rivers. When tropical storm Agatha hit Guatemala several months ago, houses were inundated with mud and whole cities destroyed due to mud slides. People are still recovering. Actually, I came across an article which quoted Colom saying that there have been more people killed in the past 2 weeks than during the entire Agatha storm last Spring. However, things seem to be getting better, as the rain has let up a little in the last week.

On a personal note, the past few weeks have been amazing. I’ve really never felt more alive in my life. I wake up each day excited to learn a new language, new skills (some skills are pretty funny, like how to evade a pack of wild dogs while exercising...seriously it happens!) and new faces. Each day brings new joys I didn’t expect. I was invited last minute to a baby shower for Dona Rosa’s neighboor on Sunday, and can’t even enumerate how incredible these women are that attended - they’re hilariously funny (they made me strut around the room wearing an adult diaper for one of the games, and we had to feed each other baby food blindfolded...priceless!), warm, and so alarmingly sincere at the same time. Its tradition to give the woman about to have a baby some “consejos,” or advice when you give her a gift at the shower. While most of the shower consisted of funny games and non-stop laughing, these moments made me tear up as each of her aunts, friends and other family members came up one by one and told her in the most heartfelt way how much they loved her, that they will be there for her, and what a wonderful mother she will be. There was absolutely no social pressure to say a given thing a certain way, just honesty and support about this new, wonderful phase in her life.

Even more, every day is another chance for me to discover how another culture treats friendship. I read the most amazing New York Times article the other day entitled “Friendship in the Time of Economics,” by Todd May, that speaks to how friendships have devolved in the past decades, especially in the developed world. He writes, “Our age, what we might call the age of economics, is in thrall to two types of relationships which reflect the lives we are encouraged to lead. There are consumer relationships, those that we participate in for the pleasure they bring us. And there are entrepreneurial relationships, those that we invest in hoping they will bring us some return. In a time in which the discourse of economics seeks to hold us in its grip, this should come as no surprise.” Often times, I feel like we resort to collecting friends on Facebook, or having superficial relationships because we are too busy to really get to know people. Because we are busy, we start to calculate the “worth,” of a given person. In closing, May notes that “We might say of friendships that they are a matter not of diversion or of return but of meaning. They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being. Friendship is threatened when we are encouraged to look upon those around us as the stuff of our current enjoyment or our future advantage. It is threatened when we are led to believe that friendships without a recognizable gain are, in the economic sense, irrational. In turn, however, it is friendship that allows us to see that there is more than what the prevalent neoliberal discourse places before us as our possibilities. In a world often ruled by the dollar and what it can buy, friendship, like love, opens other vistas. The critic John Berger once said of one of his friendships, “We were not somewhere between success and failure; we were elsewhere.” To be able to sit by the bed of another, watching him sleep, waiting for nothing else, is to understand where else we might be.” These people, both the Guatemalan’s I am loving more and more each day, to the Peace Corps volunteers who are equally amazing, I am altogether somewhere else than just one month ago.

Changing gears, some cool things I learned this week: I learned how to make a quick stove out of a half of a tin can, water, and a stove top! It actually works really well, and we made carrot cake. All you do is cut the can in half, fill with water, put your mold with whatever you're baking on top of the can (which is on top of a stove), and cover with a large "olla" or bowl. The water ensures that heat is distributed more evenly and the bread doesn't dry out. Cooking time will take a bit longer, but it works in a pinch! We also substituted brown sugar with this sugar they call "panela," which is incredibly cheap, comes in a huge block, and you grate it off to use. It is made out of the substance that is made from the first heating of sugar in a factory, and is usually thrown away to create refined sugar.

I also was invited up to my Tia's house to learn how to "Tortear," or make tortillas! Its way harder than it looks, and mine were all sad and mishapen. They got a good laugh out of me :) On a nutritional point, Guatemalan's use "cal" or lime when making tortillas, which has a lot of calcium and is a great antibacterial agent.

We are done planting our organic garden right up the hill from my house - it has carrots, tomatoes, celery, spinach, cabbage, cilantro, basil, and raddishes. We're also done making organic pesticides, and I will put the recipe for two organic pesticides in an email soon! We also learned how to identify "enfermedades," or sicknesses in chickens and we will be organizing a vaccination campaign in October. We also learned proper care and health for chickens (turns out their not as self-reliant as I thought! Harder than keeping a dog for sure, but absoloutely worth it if you take care of a few good egg prodcing hens).

I got to participate and witness a Quiche Mayan ceremony, which was an incredible experience and really enlightening. I will make a special post about Mayan beliefs when I get the time, its super fascinating. Alright, that is all for now! Next post will be after I return from FBT (field based training) in the Oriente, in the Department of Jalapa, close to the Honduras/El Salvador border. Besos de Guatemala :)


  1. Jaron, what incredible skills you are learning! Most I'm sure you'll use later in life, especially if you want to have a farm or raise chickens at home. I'm happy you're safe and feel welcome in Guatemala.
    If I were to visit you where could I stay and for how long? How much would it cost? Could I work with you in the community? I'm seriously curious. I've met a lot of backpackers and travelers and it's been nice, but they all move from place to place so quickly and never get a true sense of the people or culture. I want to find places I can stay and volunteer or work for at least a few weeks, but not 2 years like through Peace Corps. But what I find is that a lot of volunteer orgs ask for a lot of money to organize the whole exchange. Anyway, can you find out for me if it would be possible to come, stay and work for a few weeks? I love you chica and admire you so much for giving your time and love to this community.

  2. Hi you!! So good to hear from you :) ABSOLUTELY you can come visit and work with me in my site :) Peace Corps loves when family/friends come and get integrated into the community - they especially love when Americans who don't fit the typical "blonde-haired, blue-eyed" stereotype come. I don't get to my site until November 1st, but after then you can totally come visit and stay with me. I find out my site October 14th, and then I'll have a better idea of what organazations I'll be assigned to (most likely women's groups or an NGO where I'll be doing a variety of things from nutrition classes to chicken vaccination campaigns, ect). Lets keep in touch about it, I'd love for you to come. (p.s. I dont know how much travelling will cost to get to Guate, but once you do, its dirt cheap to take the camionetas out to my site, and even cheaper to live with me - you can live really nicely on 30-40 Quetzales per day, which is less than 5 US dollars.)

  3. Oh also, you can stay up to one month with me if you like :) I could even probably work it out for you to live with another host family in my community if you really want :)