Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Adios, Guatemala


As I prepare to leave Guatemala I want to record a few thoughts in what will probably be my last blog entry before I get on that plane for the United States in a few short weeks.

First, thanks to those of you who have followed this blog. It was originally suggested to me to start a blog by my friend Gayle. Although she never became a "follower" I nevertheless took her advice and I hope that some of you feel you have benefited from the entries and photos. With this blog I attempted to provide a medium in which friends and family could get a glimpse into my life and mindset as a Peace Corps volunteer here in this small Central American country. I enjoyed the little blogging I did and again thanks for reading and for your comments.


I'm going to miss certain people here in my little corner of the country. I've made a few good friends who are a beautiful representation of Guatemalan culture and her people. I already know that once I'm in the U.S. I'll long for simple dinners followed by a half hour in the adobe temazcal (mayan steam bath) where the weekly stresses drift away with the eucalyptus scented vapor. I'll miss the relatively quiet weekends dedicated to reading, sipping good coffee and smoking my briarwood Italian pipe. I'll miss conversations with my site mate RJ. I'll miss working alongside Guatemalans in the office, in the ditches, in the jungle. These are some of the hardest (and smallest!) workers and toughest people in the world; not to mention how nice and respectful many of them can be. The ones that make it out of here do not deserve to be treated like shit by xenophobic idiots in the U.S. who have a habit of blaming outsiders for our political follies and social misfortunes (Mao Zedong). Because of my new Guatemalan friends, my departure will be partly melancholic.

But certainly there is part of me ready to go. This is one of the most violent countries I've ever lived in and/or visited. With a 99% impunity rate, less than 1% of all crimes are ever solved and result in someone seeing a day in jail. In other words, if you have a problem and a gun you have a 99% chance of getting away with eliminating your problem. Thankfully I have not been the target of anyone's rage or random attacks on public transportation. I'm fortunately far from the epicenter of Guatemala's violence which is the capital, Guatemala City. But the towns where you'll likely bump into a Peace Corps volunteer can't be described as havens in this otherwise hotbed of violence and lawlessness.

The word to describe the local situation is tense. Grudges left over from the internal armed conflict, land disputes, lack of security, extreme poverty, guns (from the U.S.!!) and ignorance have created a dangerous situation and the tension can be felt in almost any small community you will find us. People here are not innocent until proven guilty. Rather if you are believed to have wronged someone or a group of people, despite the lack of reason and/or evidence against you, you might be the next person the news reports was thrown in a stack of old tires and lit on fire. I felt like I was walking on eggshells in almost any community where I had a project.

With virtually no trustworthy police there is no resolution to be found working with local authorities; in other words those responsible for dealing with crime and punishment. In fact many of them are involved in the very delinquency that plagues this country. This area has become a boiling pot of aggression where locals take the law into their own hands and it has been hard to live amongst such tension for 2 years. Although we, as Peace Corps volunteers, don't often see the violence since we are trained to avoid it, I imagine most of my colleagues would agree the tension can be felt. I have no other way of explaining the phenomenon of being able to feel something that is often not seen. Maybe it's the same phenomenon that has given birth to thousands of religions; past, present and future.

These people, and everyone in the world, deserve a country of laws, not of men. I believe John Adams said that. And it's sad that politicians on both the national and municipal level are ill equipped and reluctant to do something about it. The victims remain the poorest Guatemalans like villagers where I live. They are the victims of racism, classism, sexism, and many other human chauvinisms that prevent us from developing individually and as a community. This must stop. And that means the Guatemalan oligarchy must be dismantled. Human greed and political cowardice are the roots of the problem here and all over the world. One look at the wealth gap here in Guatemala will tell you same. In a country where up to 50% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished, Guatemala has at the same time some of the highest rates of obesity. It's very clear. If you're not rich then you're extremely poor. There's virtually no middle class or way of escaping poverty. The quality of education must be improved in the rural areas or these people will remain blind to what the wealthy 2% are doing to this nation of 14 million people.

Guatemala is a lawless country packed full of violent men and mountebanks bringing it treacherously close to the precipice of a truly failed state. I could go on and on about the environmental destruction, deforestation, and political cowardice but I choose not to go into that right now. With the slight apprehension of feeling guilty for being able to leave, I'm anxiously looking forward to my awaited departure for all the above reasons.

I want to use this space here at the end of my last blog entry to say, with all the ups and down, my time as a Peace Corps volunteer has been worth the last 27 months of my life. Christopher Hitchens in his impressive book Letters to a Young Contrarian said that living abroad was as important to one's education as a radical as the reading of any book. Had Peace Corps not existed it would have been difficult, but not impossible, to live in Guatemala for over two years and have had the type of international experience that many of us can only dream of -- an experience both of character building and humiliation. I've had some of the best organizational and medical support you can imagine. I warmly thank you for your tax dollars. Whereas some tax dollars go to starting despicable conflicts that only exist for the economic benefit of CEOs and shareholders of large U.S. companies, others go to supporting U.S. citizens who want to work hand in hand with our brothers and sisters in the developing world. I think we should be proud of the fact that we, with all of its faults as an organization, have a program like the Peace Corps. I hope you are as happy as I am that I'm returning to the United States a much more informed citizen with new passion and energy to be part of worthy struggles no matter where I find myself. After all, you're to thank.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Imaginary Friend Puts Ends to Geologic Study

Last week a well-known French geologist and professor at the University of Lausanne, Dr. Brochard, his two assistants from the University of San Carlos, and I were thrown out of a community just south of where I live. There is a major geologic fault called Polochic which passes through this area and has caused many destructive earthquakes. Dr. Brochard has been coming to this area of Guatemala every year for the past 4 years to study the Polochic Fault, culminating in our recent attempt to open up a trench where it was likely he could have recorded the recent history of the fault's activity. Recent for geologic time that is! Earthquakes leave their mark in various ways. In this area passes a river and in the sediment near the river he would have been able to determine what has happened here. His past research has provided the municipality where I live with valuable information resulting in new school designs and locations appropriate for construction which would be less affected when this area experiences another destructive quake. He is also taking water samples to determine if there is an underground water source near the fault that could potentially solve the communities every growing water problems.

We had been working in this community and surrounding areas surveying ideal trench sites. We had multiple meetings with community members. The mayor attended meetings with us in order to build trust in the communities. In short, we did just about all we could and eventually received permission from one land owner to open a trench on his site. His neighbor, however, did not want us around and when the municipal machinery showed to dig a trench the driver was met by a shower of rocks coming from the neighbor and his sons.

At this time I went to the municipality to speak with the authorities about this small obstacle. They sent a few police officers down and asked some local village leaders to get to the trench site immediately and diffuse the situation. By the time everyone arrived the machinery was in place to open the trench, the neighbor had stopped chucking stones, and the driver was ready to break for lunch. This gave certain members of the community time to gather supporters. So when we returned in the afternoon there was a much larger crowd, mainly angry women, ready to kick us out of their community. And that's exactly what they did.

After two years of living here in rural Guatemala and as I enter my last 3 months of service I've come to understand certain things. I understand that when I'm hungry, I'm a bit frustrated and I'm sure you feel the same way. Now apply that to a community where about 100% of the population is in a constant struggle to put food on the table. They anger easily. This being a region torn apart by a recent 36 year long armed conflict, there are certainly those factors working in tandem.

Living in extreme poverty, having been a victim violence, still trying to recover from that trauma, not being able to read and write; all these things and more would have you feel as if you're living in a constant state of shock. The mind, not being able to endure such conditions for long periods of time, needs some type of solace, some type of warm, safe shelter to seek refuge from the past horrors and present problems stemming from food insecurity, incest, etc. For the vast majority, if not literally everyone around where I live, this solace is found inside churches. It's found in the seemingly peaceful biblical messages. If this were all it were, nice passages from the bible and a cup of hot tea shared with fellow church members, I probably wouldn't have much of a problem with it. But this is not where it stops. The church leaders demand a complete and utter personal surrender to an omnipotent supernatural entity that can not and should not ever be challenged.

Getting kicked out of a community for reasons I've mentioned, reasons stemming from the aftermath of the armed conflict and food security, are things I can understand and sympathize with. But it really salted the wound when people kept saying things like "God only knows when earthquakes happen and he will protect us." Well, last I've heard God isn't conducting geologic studies in the area nor advising people before he decides to move the earth around. Preventing geologists from doing their work which would have put in the hands of authorities the information they need in order to plan for future disasters is an almost direct result of religious mind manipulation. It's ignorant and it's dangerous. Instead of jumping around hollering all day about personal surrender I suggest that local church leaders dedicate more time (and their enlarged coffer!) to teaching people how to read and write and think critically. But then again this would be working them out of a job.

This is not a well thought out blog rather a ramble from a recently frustrated development "professional" dedicated to the advancement of rural communities. I encourage your comments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup

The biggest sporting event in the world is currently taking place in South Africa. Boasting over one billion television viewers, The World Cup remains the most watched event on television. And Guatemala is no exception. Football (I prefer to use the international terminology) is on everyone's minds and lips here. It's most excited to see your team play but even when other countries are playing it's likely the outcome will affect the team you're rooting for. This makes almost every game a reason to park yourself in front of the TV with your friends for 90 minutes of uninterrupted action. As some of you may already know, the USA team qualified for the round of 8 today. They will play on Saturday against Ghana. I hope you all tune in for what will surely be a nail-biter.

Apart from all the football action on TV, communities all around the world coordinate local football tournaments to honor the spirit of the World Cup. I can't begin to tell you how many different matches are going on here in my look corner of the world on any given day. I get invited to play every now and again but football has never really been my sport despite the fact that I love watching it. In the United States it's really just taking off quite honestly. Maybe it's unfair to say it's taking off since we already have "Major League Soccer" and most every town big and small has some sort of soccer league or school team. But it most certainly is in it's infancy if we were to compare it to the football culture of England per say. And we've got a LOOONG way to go if we are ever to catch up to the football culture and prowess of the likes of Brazil, Argentina, or Italy.

All in all I want to say that it's wonderful to be in Latin America during World Cup. Sports do, and always should, bring people together in the spirit of competition. And there is no finer nor more exciting tournament (all sports included) than the World Cup. I encourage you all to watch a few games and help build our own strong football culture in the U.S. You might even recognize someone wearing a jersey from Brazil and it's a great way to start a conversation and make a new friend from some far off football crazy part of the world.



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Volcan Tajumulco

A Peace Corps buddy of mine, RJ, and I stood on the summit of the tallest point in Central America. At 4,200 meters, Volcan Tajumulco is situated in the western part of Guatemala. From the top (felt great to be at about 14,000 feet again) we could see at least three of Guatemala's more than 30 majestic volcanoes. We could also see the country north of us, Mexico, where Volcan Tacana lies directly on the Guatemalan Mexican boarder. We were in cloud cover most of the day but I was able to snap a few photos when it would temporarily clear. Unfortunately we never got a break from the clouds while we were on the summit. All in all it was a magical and meaningful day in the hiking boots.

As we enter nice hiking weather, I hope all of you make free time to get out and enjoy the wonders of nature. I recommend Richard Dawkin's new book The Greatest Show on Earth as reading material that will have you appreciating all of the biological diversity and will educate you on why it's here. After reading this book it is impossible for me to look at the world in the same way. The works of E.O. Wilson and Carl Sagan affected me in a similar way.

Happy trails and remember... UNGOWA!!

Friday, April 30, 2010

An Overdue Entry -- Our Ambassador and Building Bridges

Hello all my faithful followers. This is a long overdue blog entry, I know. I have either been very busy or very lazy. The truth is I've been both. I've been lazy about blogging and busy experiencing a few things I will now describe.

First, the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Stephen McFarland, was in my town taking part in an activity not far outside the pueblo. Afterward he dedicated about an hour to visit with us Peace Corps volunteers (PCV). We had coffee, cake and a good conversation about what we PCVs are doing up here in the Guatemalan highlands. Overall I must say that Ambassador McFarland is very dedicated to his job and is a big supporter of Peace Corps.

Now on to building bridges. I have dedicated much of my time recently to an NGO called Bridges to Prosperity (www.bridgestoprosperity.org). They specialize in foot bridges and have projects in Africa, the Americas, and other places on this planet of ours. They have three foot bridge projects in the area where I live. Before becoming involved with them I had no idea how big of an impact a bridge can have on a small community.

At one of the three bridge sites here, the bridge connects two small communities with an aggregate population of about 1,500. There is only one school and one health clinic located in the larger of the two communities. During the rainy season (May - Nov in Guatemala)the kids from the smaller community can't go to school and nobody can get to the health clinic because they are unable to cross the swollen river dividing the two communities. During times of emergency, a complicated labor for example, this bridge makes it possible for the villagers from the smaller town to get the medical attention they desperately need. And it very well can be a matter of life and death.

Bridges to Prosperity is one of the few non profit organizations specializing in foot bridge construction. They've recently been featured in Parade Magazine and you can find the article on their website. It's been informative and fun working with this organization and in the next two months I will help with the construction of two more bridges here in our special little spot in the highlands. Downloading pictures takes a lot of time here where the internet speed is slower than a heard of drunk turtles stampeding through peanut butter. But you can get a good idea what I'm talking about by visiting their website.

I'm only about 6 months away from completing my 2 year Peace Corps service. Whao!!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hey, Gringo!

I recently wrote this to be featured in a local publication assembled by Peace Corps volunteers here in Guatemala. I don't know if they will publish it but it sure makes for a good blog entry. One thing you should know to understand this in its entirety. "Chapin or Chapina" is the local word for Guatemalan. Oh, and "miercoles" is Wednesday but it's a nice way of saying shit. Enjoy!

Hey, Gringo!

Ah the infamous, gringo. Maybe it’s whispered from the lips of an indigenous woman and followed by a few giggles from her and her friends, or you’re greeted in the office with a hand shake and an exuberant “¿Qué dice, pinche gringo?” How do you normally react? Many times I’ve heard friends respond with a “hola, chapin(a),” as if this were the equivalent. Well, today it is but the word has evolved from an entirely different meaning.

We feel and respond to things based on previous experiences. If the majority of your experiences with gringo have been instances in which it was being used as a pejorative directed to U.S. Americans, mainly Anglos, then you’ll probably really get tired of this word by month six. Even though I believe the vast majority of times its use is innocuous and simply acts as a colloquial demonym, it can effectively separates us from the rest of the group and causes an invisible divide that leaves us feeling alienated from our new peers. And when inclusiveness and integration is our goal, these adverse effects can certainly cause frustration. For these and many other reasons, I decided to research the etymology of gringo.

I think we’ve all heard the tired answer (the importance of research having been disregarded by whoever mentions it and then foolishly passed off as truth) that the Mexicans would yell to the soldiers fighting in the Texas frontier “Green, go!” meaning “Hey you in the green uniform, leave our country.” Although that would have been no defense against manifest destiny, I’m sure that’s exactly how the Mexicans felt. And eventually "Green, go!" evolved into the word in question. Simply not true.

Something a little more intriguing dates back to a similar period during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Hundreds of Irish-Americans were sent by the U.S. government to fight against Mexico. Tired of maltreatment from their Anglo-Protestant officers and doubting why they were fighting against a Catholic country in the first place, many of the Irish and others dissented and joined ranks with the Mexican forces. They called themselves San Patricios (San Patrick’s Battalion). Green being the color of the Irish, they sang “Green Grow the Rushes O!” (based on a Robert Burns poem) or a version of a Scottish song “Green Grows the Laurel” which the Irish called “Green Grow the Lilacs.” The songs eventually became popular with American cowboys and those listening from the other side of the border couldn’t hear the words clearly and “Green grow…” became gringo and later evolved to mean people from the United States. (Wikipedia) I rather wish this story were true but, alas, it’s a crock of miercoles and not supported by any real evidence. And these explanations have chronology working against them.

In his diccionario, compiled prior to 1750, Terreros y Pando, a Spanish historian notes that gringo was a nickname given to foreigners in Malaga and Madrid who spoke Spanish with an unintelligible accent. In this same region of Spain it was a word applied to the Irish. Maybe it sounded like they were speaking gibberish. Have you met any Irish? Moving right along…

Jumping into the 1830’s the German Johan Jakob von Tschudi and the Frenchman Arseve Isabelle, both mention the use of the word. In his travels in Peru during the years 1838-1842, Tschudi recounts how Peruvian women "prefer marrying a gringo to a paisanito." (Van Ostrand, Maggie: Where Did the Word Gringo Come From Anyway? 2003)

¿Qué es eso? ¿Contais en gringo? (What is this? / Are you using gringo language?) These lines from the play “Elena” by Manuel Breton de los Herreros in 1834 is yet further evidence of its Spanish roots. It eventually became incorporated into the Diccionario de la Real Academia in 1869.

Clearly the word was in use long before any conflict along the Mexican-American border and does not have its roots in this region of the world. According to many opinions, gringo is a corrected form of griego as used in the old Spanish expression – hablar en griego. We have the same expression in English – It’s all Greek to me. In Shakespear’s Julius Caesar (1599), Casca, a conspirator against Caesar proclaims:

Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again; but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

Nowadays gringo certainly refers to a U.S. citizen because being called an “Americano” doesn’t make sense since it refers to anyone from Canada all the way down to Argentina. And “estadounidense” is quite a mouthful.

So, all my friends from Gingolandia, when you hear gringo thoughtlessly escape the mouth of a friend or stranger, I hope you find it an opportunity to discuss the origins of this etymological legend.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Alternative Recycling

One project that I think would interest you working in the area of alternative recycling in order to manage trash. Countries like Guatemala don't have the infrastructure in order to offer recycling collection programs. Furthermore, recycling materials requires a lot of energy to convert these materials into materials which can be used in the production process. Also, it requires a lot of energy to collect and transport these materials.

Here in Guatemala we're faced with basically no recycling programs outside the larger cities, very few sanitary land fills, a whole mess of illegal dumps, a custom of throwing trash on the ground and/or burning it, and little to no education regarding the evils of poor trash management. Poor trash management causes malaria and dengue fever outbreaks, respiratory and intestinal infections, parasites, cholera, y un largo etcétera. Mixed with extreme malnutrition, these complications stemming from poor trash management can end in the death of children. This has created a need for inventive ways to manage trash and one thing I would like to highlight in this blog is the use of eco-bricks for use in construction. An eco-brick, or eco-ladrillo, is a plastic bottle stuffed with inorganic trash like plastic bags and Styrofoam. While these things would otherwise end up in the local water supply, an illegal dump, or burnt inside the kitchen poisoning the land, water, air and lungs of young children and their mothers, some communities are using these things to build schools, bathrooms, benches, houses and walls.

I've become connected with an NGO, Pura Vida, out of San Marcos La Laguna which is a beautiful community located on the shores of Lake Atitlan. They were the first ones to develop the use of eco-ladrillos here in Guatemala. The Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) who served here in my site before me build a two room schoolhouse out of eco-ladrillos and I had the pleasure of helping construct another one in a village about 45 minutes northeast of me. My congratulations to a fellow PCV who put that project together. Now I'm working with Pura Vida to update their construction manual and highlight other projects realized by PCVs around Guatemala.

All of this has really opened my eyes to alternative forms of recycling and reusing trash. Huge need for more schools + a load of trash in the streets = more use of eco-ladrillos. I've presented to schools and hospital staff on the use of eco-ladrillos and I feel as if things are starting to catch on. I'll be giving another presentation in a town about 5 hours away from me where a PCV is working with a group of women who want to build a kitchen to serve schoolchildren in this village.

Regardless of the outcome of any of these projects or ideas, trash management is something we all have to think about. I just read a NYTimes article today on the state of our tap water in the U.S. and how many water sources are polluted and not meeting EPA standards. What we personally choose to put in our bodies or what we breath, air poisoned by thoughtless companies and fellow citizens and ourselves, is the business of all of us no matter where we call home. I have to refer to the wonderful essay "Tragedy of the Commons." There is no technological solution to these problems. We're headed for disaster if we think we can simply solve any problem with the latest gadget or chemical solution. We simply have to stop doing what we know is wrong and what we know is damaging ourselves, our children and future generations by altering our actions and educating young people.

I'm not saying eco-ladrillos are a sustainable part of the solution. It's just an immediate solution to a long-term problem and I hope that one day there are not heaps upon heaps of trash in the streets which we can turn into construction material. I just think it's a creative way to use our waste to avoid a big problem we're currently faced with here in my site and many other pueblos all over Guatemala.

One thing I would like you all to remember is .... UNGOWA!!

Thanks for reading and I welcome your comments and questions.