Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tis the season

The Christmas season in Uspantan basically consists of church services

Tons of fireworks and firecrackers

And Christmas lights that play music non-stop

It's a mix of fun, solidarity and utter horror.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Butterfly Effect

Whether you learned about the butterfly effect in Literary History 101 or from the great Ashton Kutcher film, we are experiencing our own butterfly effect here in Uspantan.

Cardamom is a spice used in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking and drinks. Often considered a delicacy when infused in teas. Guatemala is one of the worlds largest exporters of this plant, most of which goes to the ME. The majority of cardamom plantations in Guatemala are located in the northern region of Uspantan, the Zona Reina. From October to January, the men of this region work 7-day weeks harvesting the cardamom and selling to exporters who dry, package and ship the spice. Speaking with the health promoters that I work with in this region, I have found that the majority of a family's yearly income is made during these 4 months of harvesting.

Last year a pound of freshly cut cardamom was sold for 15 ($2)Quetzales to companies that would then dry and export. This year the price has dropped to 3 Questzales (.40 cents). Thus leaving the families of the Zona Reina essentially 4/5th poorer than they were last year.

This sudden and devastating drop is due to various factors affecting the market. First, because cardamom has been so profitable over the past years, production, especially in India, has consistently risen to meet demand. Thus Guatemalan cardamom is competing with a much closer producer of the spice. Secondly, and most importantly, the unforseen uprisings in the Middle East have disrupted the market and demand for cardamom. The Middle Eastern market has been flooded with an abundance of the spice but there are few interested in buying.

And there we have our butterfly effect. Egypt's Facebook revolution set a series of events into play that have landed an entire community here in Uspantan struggling to make ends meet this year.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stop light

Walking to work the other day I noticed that the first stop light has been put up in town!

A couple problems: red, yellow and green are all on all the time and it is made of cardboard. I'm not really sure what its purpose is but it's a start.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The most appropriate word to describe life over the past month. It also happens to be the 'state' in which Guatemala finds itself at present. The government of Guatemala declared a 'State of Calamity' on Monday due to the devastation of the roads post- tropical storm 12E. I cannot think of a more unorganized word to describe one's country than 'calamity'. Love it. So appropriate.

On September 11th, Guatemala held national elections. The Presidential race was narrowed down to 2 for the runoff in November, house representatives were elected as well as mayors. In general, mayoral elections tend to cause the most violence and tension. This was certainly the case in Uspantan. The current mayor was reelected to the dismay of many. He did not win with a majority but had the highest percentage of all candidates... as is typical procedure for democratic elections. However, this did not sit well with supporters of the losing parties.

Here comes the fun part! Elections were the 11th and Independence Day was the 15th. Since everyone has the day off work and school for Independence Day (which includes a day or two before Independence Day as well to 'prepare' for the grand celebration)protests against the election outcomes were conveniently postponed until the following Monday, when everyone was sure that Independence Day had been properly celebrated and should have been returning to work. How nifty!

Independence Day parade ending at the soccer field.

Some of my English students:

Girl in traditional Uspantan traje (on the right with the fun head gear)

Fun Independence Day tradition- grease up a pig and whoever can catch it can keep it. This kid won and walks away with his prize.

Other grease event: teams of men try to climb a pole covered in pig fat. There is an envelope at the top with money and whoever reaches the top keeps the money. No one won.

But it was fun to watch...

So basically, 8 days after the elections and after all the Independence Day celebrations were done a group of angry Uspantekos gathered in front of the municipal building and declared that the mayor had not won the majority of the vote (true) and therefore was illegally and deceptively accepting his reelection (completely false and not how elections work). The crowd was angry and tense but disbanded around lunch time leaving the threat of another such showing on inauguration day.

Moral of the story, I got the heck out of Uspantan and went to the United States of America. Best country ever. I met my family in Florida for my cousin's beautiful wedding to his stunning bride and basically laid out in the sun for 4 days and relished in the fact that I was not the tallest person in the vicinity and babies did not cry when they looked at me. In fact, there were very few babies. Which was awesome.

I then popped up to New York for 9 days to annoy all my friends with real-people jobs and force everyone to hang out with me. I could go on and on about the luxuries and conveniences of America but will limit the list to a few: drinking water from the faucet, trash pick-up (that doesn't then take the trash to the side of a mountain), grocery stores with everything you could possibly want, food, ohmygod the food, public transportation that involves few children, is reliable and everyone respects your personal space. Incredible.

Florida Keys

Hung out with the pops

Hung out with my mom

My dad's idea of vacation: a view and a cigar:

Beach time with the cousins

My ma breaking it down at the wedding with her sisters

Last night in FL. Dinner with the whole fam as we send off Jason and Suzanne on their honeymoon. The restaurant brought them a congratulatory fish cake. It was weird.


So I took the majority of my NY pictures on disposable cameras because the outcome is more fun that way... but is less sharing-friendly. Sorry, guys.

But I have made my way back to Guatemala, possibly at the worst time climate-wise. I landed on October 12th on the 2nd plane that was allowed to land in Guatemala City that day due to weather (yeah, it was a great flight). Guatemala was hit heavily by rain due to the tropical storm 12E. Roads have been washed out, there are countless landslides, many cases of flooding and blackouts. Thankfully I missed the brunt of the storm but was stuck at the Peace Corps center for 3 days after arriving before being cleared to travel back to site. It is my personal belief that tropical storm 12E served the sole purpose of eroding away all the political party posters covering the rocks and mountain sides of Guatemala. Did I mention billboards aren't a thing here? Candidates just paint their names and party emblems on rocks, houses, mountains or anything else.

Now I return to this 'State of Calamity'. We are not allowed to travel until further notice while this country figures the road situation out, I suppose. Which is fine because I need some down time after the ruckus that was the past 4 weeks.

Please note that since I made the above statement that America is the "best country ever", I found out that this song is #1 on Itunes:

It's October.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Terrible Blogger

I have been a terrible blogger, but I look to redeem myself.

Since my last entry I have been to 3 new countries, had my dog escape/stolen, welcomed 6 new healthy homes volunteers to the villages of Uspantan, witnessed the army helicoptered into my town, saw the police get kicked out of town, saw the police come back, have been woken up to blasting campaign music countless times, celebrated over a year of being in site and have started my countDOWN of service.

In May Sheila and Jenny came to visit. Wonderful! We went around Guatemala and Honduras, down to the bay island, Roatan, and then through Copan to see the Mayan ruins on our way back to Guatemala.

June and July were hectic with the arrival of the 2011 Healthy Homes group of volunteers. As I was to receive quite a few in my municipality, admin had me help out during their training: hosting field based training and the visit of 2 trainees for IDA (Individually Directed Activity), a week of HIV workshops at the office near Antigua and finally site visits. I am happy to report that all 6 are doing well and I am super happy to have their support in 3 of the villages in which I have been working!

My reward after all the stress and travelling of June and July was a visit from Jackie. We stuck to Guatemala and mainly hung out in my town. She got to see me in English-teching action, we translated for US doctors who were doing a surgery drive at the hospital, and she was actually here in Uspantan when the army was helicoptered in to arrest 2 drug lords who were travelling through. Not something you get to see on just any vacation!

Last month I had in-service training and a project design workshop with Peace Corps and my counterparts. Now in my second year, I am looking to do infrastructure projects in 2 of the villages where I have my health promoter groups. In the coming weeks and months, my health promoter groups will be graduating the year-long program of health trainings and will begin to give their own workshops in their communities. As a reward for all their hard work and initiative I want to do latrine and cement floor projects in these villages and so am begining to look into all means of funding for this. The idea is that as these health promoters have been receiving trainings this year on improving health and well-being they would now be able to lead as examples of healthy habits and home infrastructure!...we shall see.

After the workshops I went to visit Charlotte in Nicaragua! Charlotte spent the summer doing a fellowship with FINCA, accumulating data on the success of micro-loans that had been given out last year throughout the country. It was amazing to see her and have her show me around Nicaragua! We then spent a night in San Salvador and then she came back to Guatemala with me. It was so nice to have her in Uspantan and to be able to show her my program, my health promoter groups and, of course, take her to some English classes.

Now I find my self in September, getting ready to graduate my first group of health promoters, counting down the days until the end of the school year, and hoping that the elections pass without any violence or tension. Elections are this coming Sunday the 11th and so far it seems like everything should be fine but we have been getting mixed speculations from people here in town. Our mayor is a somewhat divisive figure and if re-elected will spurr quite a bit of discontent. The plan: Hilary, Stephen and I are going to stock up on food, water and rum and wait it out in one of our houses.

Last but not least, I am going back to the United States of America for this first time at the end of the month! I have been so busy and have been fortunate enough to have so many visitors that I almost thought I wouldn't feel the need to go back but the second I bought my ticket I realized how much I am looking forward to this. If for nothing else, to take a breather and regain some perspective before launching into grant writing and infrastructure building. I will be spending a few days in Florida with the family as my cousin is getting married and then up to New York for 9 days! I am beyond excited and cannot wait to see all your beautiful faces!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cute, Funny, Creepy

I had 3 interesting conversations on the street this week- one cute, one funny, one creepy. Monday evening when I was walking Mojito a little girl stopped me and asked if my fingers hurt. I asked her why and she said 'Because you walk the dog on a leash.' Adorable. She thought holding the leash was straining my delicate fingers.

The second wasn't so cute but much more entertaining. On Wednesday I left the hospital to go to lunch and as I was walking out the front gate a man stopped me. This man proceeded to tell me that he had had a horse that kicked him in the chest so he killed the horse. Confused about where this conversation was going and somewhat assuming he was seeking medical attention, I continued to listen. He then asked me, 'Would you like to buy the carcas?' Completely unsure of how I should answer this question I asked him why he thought I would want to buy his dead horse. He explained that he heard that Cubans like to eat horse meat and since it is well-known that Cuban doctors work at the hospital he thought he would swing by and check if anyone was interested. This man was not only misinformed about Cuban delicacies but also thought I was Cuban. Points for my Spanish?

Finally the creepy conversation. Today I was walked back to the hospital from lunch and ran into one of the ambulance drivers. This particular driver likes to get completely wasted and wander around town. When he is not on shift he is always in state of utter inebriation. It is quite impressive. Anyhow, he walked right up to me and in his slurred Spanish he said 'I think I'd like to steal me a white girl!' More amused than offended I responded 'Oh yeah?' He said 'Yeah, I could put her in my backpack and carry her around!' and then pointed to the small knapsack on his back, laughed, said (in English) 'I just kiiiiidding' and walked away. He is completely harmless and I doubt will even remember the conversation tomorrow.

Basically, it was a fun week.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Semana Santa and Feria

I think holiday season has finally come to an end here in Uspantan. First was Semana Santa- holy week- which is the week leading up to Easter. In Guatemala there are celebrations and processions nearly every day of holy week except Saturday and Sunday. It is customary to have a field day on Saturday when families spend time outdoors together eating food and playing games. And absolutely nothing is done on Sunday. Exact opposite of the states!

The processions are beautiful. In the days leading up to Good Friday the statue of Jesus is carried around town and on Good Friday, the Catholics pull out the big guns. In the morning the route that the procession takes is covered in alfombras- carpets- which are made of dyed saw dust, pine needles and flowers. Families that live along the route take responsibility for the section in front of their houses. The alfombras are incredibly intricate and beautiful. The procession then walks over the alfombras as it carried the statue of Jesus and the cross from the Church to the Calvario- the station of the cross. Jesus is then mounted on the cross and remains there through the afternoon.

In the evening the statue is then taken down and a second procession, following a different route, carries Jesus back to the Church. Once again, the route is covered with the alfombras. It is a beautiful tradition that families take so much time and effort into creating though they only last a few hours.

The best part of being in Guatemala for holy week and Easter was explaining to my English students what the heck Easter is. I never really thought about it but saying, out loud, that once a year an over-grown, egg-laying, bunny rabbit comes into our homes and hides eggs, candy and Easter baskets sounds completely derranged!

The procession making it's way from the church.

The street from the church to the calvario.

The cross.

The procession entering the calvario.

Hilary and me helping make an alfombra.

How the alfombras are made. Dyed saw dust.

Reenactment of the capture of Jesus.

The alfombras after the procession passes over.

I spent the week after holy week and before Uspantan's feria doing HIV workshops. There are now 250 teacher-track students who are hopefully completely afraid of contracting HIV!

The feria here in town was a blast. Every town in Guatemala has a patron saint and every town has a 'feria' to celebrate the day of the patron saint. This day of celebration usually extends into a week of activties and not-working. Funny fact about Uspantan: the full name of my town is San Miguel Uspantan which, clearly, means our patron saint is San Miguel. The actually day of celebration for San Miguel is September 29th. But September is one of the rainiest months of the year so Uspantan took it upon itself to change the feria to May, when the weather is much less rainy and more manageable. So smart!

Anyhow the feria kicked off on May 1st with an annual rance which I actually participated in. It was fun! Then the 5th to the 9th was full of dancing, beauty contest, bull ridding, cock fighting, motorcross, horse racing and carnival games and rides. This sounds a bit fancier than it actually was but I got to bet on horses with the vice-mayor and the mayor's brother, watch drunk men get thrown from bulls, I had the opportunity to be appalled by the reality of cock fighting and played fusbol with some of my students. In sum- success.

Dancing in front of the church

The indigenous princess. One of my English students!

Girls in the parade. Wearing traditional Uspanteko traje.

At the Ladino beauty pageant.

Bull ridding.

Soccer game.

Fireworks show in front of the municipal building.

Mojito enjoyed the feria with some carnival corn on the cobb:

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friends come to visit!

Last month I had an amazing visit from Sarah and Meredith! It was much needed and a great time. Hard to believe I lived with those girls for 6 years and hadn't seen them in almost a year(It was exactly 1 year ago I left New York on the 15th of April)!

I was greeted by my estranged roomates at the airport and to my great delight they were donning this season's hottest ponchos- no really, apparently ponchos are 'in' this summer. Only minutes into being in Guatemala and already making such efforts to integrate! We spent their first 2 days in Antigua and I, being a drill seargent of a host, took them to climb Volcan Pacaya on their first full day in Guatemala. It was beautiful...and surprisingly cold for a volcano.

Setting off on the hike.

At the top of Volcan Pacaya with Volcan de Fuego in the background.

We then travelled up to Alta Verapaz to Semuc Champey. Alta Verapaz was the region of Gautemala under a State of Siege for 2 months last December and was lifted in February. The purpose of the State of Siege was to find out drug lords and drug rings in the region but because of the suspention of civil rights, Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from the region and were not allowed back until the siege was lifted. This took quite a toll on the service of many volunteers as well as tourism to the region. So we did our part to support the resurgance of the tourism industry in the region...plus I have been really wanting to go. Semuc Champey is a national park and literally translates to 'Where the water hides under the rocks'. There is a large river that runs through the park and in one area the river flows under caves until surfacing again. The park has hiking and water pools, swimming, tubing, candel-light cave exploring and is gorgeous.

Tubing down the river.

At the top of the Mirador.

We stayed at a great hostel, El Retiro, in Lanquin, about 40 minutes outside of the park. In Lanquin there is an amazing cave tour. The cave is not only huge but home to thousands of bats. Every evening the bats fly out of the caves at the same hour to hunt. We went with our guide and explored the caves, saw some nasty-ass spiders and then as we were leaving at dusk, witnessed the bats leaving the caves. In sum, we were not only trying not to slip and fall into the cave's abyss but also hoping that a bat wouldn't fly into our faces. Our tour guide asured us that this has never happened but we were very skeptical. Meredith probably still believes she has rabies.

Touring the bat caves.

Hoping not to get hit in the face by a bat. Please note the bat flying right next to my head.

I then took the lovely ladies to my site. Sarah and Meredith went with me to my English classes, out to one of my villages for home visits and hygiene talks and we ended the fun with an STD workshop at the local teacher-track school. Magical!

Out in one of my aldeas.

Sarah taking creepy photos of me talking about SERIOUS ISSUES- i.e.genital herpes and gonorrhea

We ended the trip in Antigua. This past March Peace Corps celebrated its 50 year anniversary. The Ambassador of the United States to Guatemala had a beautiful reception at his home in the capital to commemorate this. Needless to say this brought the majority of Volunteers from all over the country to Antigua for the weekend so the city was a bit over-run.

Travelling Guatemalan style.

We ended the trip with a visit to a macadamia plantation and a coffee finca just outside of Antigua. Then Sarah and Meredith were off back to New York leaving me with my NYC visit count-down- 6 months to go!

Obligatory Arch Street poses:


Come back!