Saturday, June 22, 2013

Intro to Guatemala

I wrote the post below on the bus from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango (henceforth known as Xela).
It was a bit difficult for me to reconcile what I knew Guatemala to be like intellectually (high, cool, rainy, mountains) with what my previous experiences in Latin America caused me to want to expect (heat, sun, humidity, dust). But here are some first impressions:

So far, this region is cold! You can tell how high we are because the trees are mostly pine. Huge tracts of land all over are being used to grow corn. There are also squashes and other fibrous veggies in stands by the side of the highway (which is in good shape!) however, there was a landslide from all the rain that they were fixing.

Even the really nice, most expensive tourist buses are far below DR quality. They are pullman buses, old greyhounds, like the tour bus in "A League of their Own." And they are quiet. In the DR, and more recently, in Nicaragua, there was some kind of music, from Bachata to the Backstreet Boys, playing at all times. The lack of constant music feels off. But other things are familiar: the people who board the bus at each stop, selling cookies, gum, cell phone chargers, and more distinctly Guatemalan:tortillas, tamales, corn husks and banana leaves.

At Los Encuentros, a crossroads where the bus stopped to let on more passengers, a man who works at the ministerio de Salud in Panajachel boarded and sat next to me. We talked about malnutrition a bit; apparently the ministerio is promoting this drink called Vita Cereal for pregnant women and children, but it isn't as successful as hoped because the women don't have leña to cook it, time to prepare it, or they feed it to their whole family, not just themselves and their children. The guy also told me how much different buses and taxis should cost me while I'm up on the Altiplano, which I eagerly wrote down.

Nicaragua was somewhat surprising in that the transportation people didn't try to deceive white tourists too badly on prices, at least according to our host. Guate is more familiar, in that everyone tries to overcharge tourists for everything, just like the DR. Both taxis I've taken today have tried to charge me way more than I was told. The capital taxi told me 60 when the hotel desk told me 45. I ended up giving him 50. The guy here in Xela told me 40! When they guy on the bus told me 20-25. When I gave him 22 and told him why, he said, then you have to give me  25. While it's familiar, it's still frustrating.

Below is a picture of much of the landscape between Guatemala City and Xela.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My First Hurricane

So Hurricane Gustav has been in the news lately as it heads towards the US. En route, it passed over the Dominican Republic, raining lots and causing flooding in many places. It has now passed over and the capital seems to be rapidly recovering, but I have not seen the damage done in my community yet.

Sunday, when I left for Santo Domingo, I was expecting to stay for the day, maybe head back Monday morning. Sunday was gray and humid, both in my site, and in the capital. It rained, off and on all afternoon, each downpour getting stronger. Monday morning, I was swimming at the pool, and when I got out there was a message to "Standfast"due to an impending storm. That means "stay where you are," so my fellow stranded volunteers and I bunked down for a few days of rain, some wind, and time in the capital while Gustav wreaked havoc in most of our sites and in most of the country.

Considering the flooding that tropical storm Faye caused in my community and house just ten days before, I am sure that the more rural and vulnerable areas of the country are still recovering.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

It's been a long time, I know. The PCs at the internet cafe in the closest town don't deal with the MAC to PC conversion, or maybe don't read Microsoft Word very well, or some other problem I don't understand prevents me from updating with pre-written entries. So updates will only be forthcoming from the capital. But here is a basic overview of what I have been doing lately.

My Site:

So my site, or the community in which I will be living for the next 2 years, is a municipality of 3 communities at the end of a carretera, or major dirt road. It is in the foothills above a pretty nice small city, though rather hot, humid and mosquito-y. It is gorgeous, as the mountains rise up on 3 sides of the community. Half of those mountains are very green and lush; that is where most of the agriculture in my community is located. The mountains on the other two sides are very arid, dry and almost desert-like. There are cacti in the hills leading up to those mountains. So these two very contrasting landscapes surrounding my primarily agricultural community will make for a very interesting environmental service. The entire DR, but my region specifically, grows lots of mangoes, which are in season right now, and avocadoes, which are not. However, in addition to the abundance of tropical fruit I consume, these 2 specialty products only increase my enjoyment of my location. I was initially very excited to discover that the raising of goats is also big in my region, until I realized that dairy is really not done here. Part of this could be due to the lack of reliable energy to keep it refrigerated, but either way, cows and goats are mainly raised for meat, rather than milk, cheese or yogurt, and the most common way to get milk is powdered in cans, or sweetened and condensed, courtesy of carnation. I usually get electricity for a couple of hours per day in my site, as well as running water for about an hour each morning. I have to say that I never really adapted well to bucket baths, so I arrange my entire daily schedule around running, and then showering with running water. This is also the best way to avoid mosquito bites while bathing.

After spending almost two months here, and really getting into my community diagnostic, I am excited to start working on some of the projects for which I was solicited: coffee production; soil conservation, composting, stoves, latrines, and public health. Meanwhile, getting to know my community has been a great experience so far. I realized that I haven’t actually lived in one place for 2 full years since high school, so this is a rather welcome change, although being the only gringa, or outsider of any kind, in a small town, always comes with challenges.

El Palo:

The people in my community love to dance. They will dance at least once a week at the local colmado (convenience store/social gathering place, which blares music for everyone in the neighborhood to hear whenever there is electricity. They also dance while doing chores in their houses, while socializing in the street, and at any other convenient time that strikes their fancy. This is mainly bachata and merengue, of the classico, tipico, and calle (street) varieties. Merengue de calle is also called mambo. A smattering of salsa adds variety. Since I arrived in my community during their patronales festivities, or patron saint celebration, I was thrown into the enthusiastic dancing culture of my community immediately. I can’t say that it was a huge problem. I enjoy dancing in my site, and they really like that I can dance their dances and sing along with their songs. It’s a great way to build that confianza that is so important. If you would like to feel closer to me by listening to the music I am inundated with for several hours a day and dance to a few times per week, look up the bachateros Antony Santos, Frank Reyes, Juan Luis Guerra, and Aventura. If Merengue is more up your alley, try El Lapiz, Omega, Marco Antonio Solin, and Don Miguelo.

Pretty soon after my arrival, I was introduced to the Palo. The palo is a religious song and dance, probably an amalgamation of African, Indigenous, and Spanish celebrations. It is done for Saints’ festivals and such, inside open-air chapels, usually private ones. However, it is general knowledge that the entire community, or whoever wants to, shows up, socializes, and some of the men play these large wooden drums called tambores. Often there is a tamborine, and I have yet to attend a palo without a Guira, which looks like a cheese grater. Only the men play (calluses on women would be unseemly), and the women usually sing and chant (though some men do as well). Both genders dance. It is a pretty simple dance, very rhythmic, that can be done solo or with a partner. It consists mainly of stomping, stepping, and various turns. But the rhythm of the music changes, and the dancers have to adapt to players. It’s a lot of fun, but also tiring in the hot sun. In a novena, this type of celebration goes on for 9 evenings, and then on the 10th day, culminates in a day-long celebration, where sancocho (Dominican stew) is served. I do enjoy the Palo, from a social as well as anthropological point of view. I am learning to dance it, and there are plenty of people who are excited that I want to learn and happy to teach me.

Dengue Fever:

Dengue Fever is a non-contagious sickness transmitted by mosquitoes and eondemic to the Caribbean. The natives call it “Breakbone Fever” because every bone in the body hurts the unfortunate person infected with it. It is characterized by a very high fever; pain all over the body; pain behind the eyes, and a splitting headache. Not long ago, I was the victim of this completely incapacitating illness. Dengue’s onset is sudden, so one Friday night, I was dancing away at a neighboring town’s patronales, and the next morning I had a 104 degree fever, pain all over my body, and was unable to get out of bed. Considering that there are many, many mosquitoes in my site, and I get several bites per day (if not more), I immediately suspected Dengue. Since my handy-dandy medical handbook said that treatment mainly involves control of the fever and rehydration (a fever in a tropical summer involves a lot of sweating), I took Tylenol and Ibuprofen, and drank copious amounts of freshly prepared juice. I was practically unable to eat, so finally, on Wednesday morning, my Doña insisted that I call the Peace Corps Medical Office, which I obediently did. They told me to present myself at their office in the capital that afternoon, so I managed to get out of bed, get dressed and pack a bag, then leave the house for the first time in almost 5 days. After blood tests and a stern talking-to by the lovely doctor, it was determined that I indeed had Dengue Fever. As consolation, I was put up in the luxury room of the pension that volunteers stay at, with air conditioning and a TV, courtesy of the Medical Office. And there I stayed for another 4 days, until I was deemed out of danger of fainting or bleeding to death (Dengue reduces the white blood cell count and platelets, which assist in blood clotting). At least I was able to sweat out my fevers in an air-conditioned room, and breaking the news of my affliction (and reason to be in the capital) brought lots of sympathy from fellow volunteers. When the telltale rash that signals the end of Dengue appeared, I was sent home, where my Doña and other people in my site were in denial that I could have gotten Dengue in their community. However, they tried to accommodate my last symptom, lack of appetite and sensitive stomach. I think they were happy that I could eat something again, even if it was just white rice.

In conclusion, Dengue Fever is a horrible, painful illness that lasts about a week. I do not wish it on anyone. Take your complex-B vitamins, and stock up on Deet mosquito repellent if you are coming to the Caribbean. Of course, now that I have recovered, I am happily working on my first project with the coffee growers.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

La Cocina

One of my favorite things about cultural integration is experiencing the culinary tradition of various regions of the world. In the Dominican Republic, this is based on white rice with habichuelas (red beans) or guandules (smaller, rounder, greenish beans), and some type of meat. Since I like beans and rice, I am más o menos thrilled with most of the variations on this meal that I am given. One of my new favorite everyday foods is con con, or the browned, semi-crispy strips of rice at the bottom of the pot. When soaked in habichuela gravy, it is immensely satisfying. Why don’t we do that in the states? I highly recommend that se lo prueba. (try it).

Another delicious and common food here is “tostones”. These are basically double-fried green plantains: golden, crispy, slightly salted, and so much better than their northern counterpart, french fries. I happened to ask some of our Dominican professors if I could help them prepare a snack in the kitchen one weekend, and came away with knowledge on the preparation of tostones. The directions are below, if anyone wishes to compartir (share) my Dominican culinary experience. And if you want to get really authentic, you can do as I do and wash the dishes without warm or running water. It took some getting used to, and I’m still rather slow at it.


Buy 1 green plantain per person (rough estimate). (They are available at asian markets in the Northwest, at least).

Heat 2-3 inches of vegetable oil in a pan or pot.

While oil is heating, Peel plantains and slice medium thinly, cross-wise.

When oil is hot, drop 1st batch of sliced plantains into the oil, making sure they are all covered. Leave them there until they are golden yellow in color. (about 5 min)

Remove from oil; drain, add new batch of raw plantains.

While batch 2 is cooking, smash the cooked plantain thin with the bottom of a cup or glass. Repeat with the subsequent batches of cooked plantains.

Once all the plantain slices have been fried the 1st time, drop the smashed slices into the oil. Fry them 1-2 minutes on each side, until the slices are a deep golden color.

Remove from oil, drain, repeat. Sprinkle with salt to taste while hot, serve ASAP, with ketchup optional
Community Based Training

The First 3 weeks of training, in the capital, were general language, cultural assimilation, and development theory. However, soon after the last time I wrote, our large trainee group split into 2 large groups and one small group based on the sector in which we are to work. So I and 18 other environment volunteers bid farewell to our compañeros in the IT and Education sectors and headed off into the mountains to begin our technical training.

I feel like this is when my experience with the Peace Corps really started. The town we were in received running water once every 3 days (courtesy of a Peace Corps built aqueduct). The electricity schedule was erratic. The house I lived in had a zinc roof, so when it rained (which was frequently) the pounding resonated throughout the building—sometimes at a deafening volume. But for me, it was also much more comfortable than the capital. My family had a conuco, or a small farm to grow food for their own use. There were 4 houses of different family members on the property, so there were always people to talk to, ranging in age from over 50 to 3 years old. In addition to my don and doña, I had 3 older brothers, a sister in law, 2 little nephews, 3 younger cousins and an aunt to keep me company. We would sit and talk in the living room, watch novelas on TV (when the reception was clear enough), cook, eat, and walk around the town together. It is largely thanks to them that my Spanish improved in the month I spent with them, and I think that I managed to provide them with some entertainment as well.

My family was disappointed in how little time I was able to spend with them, due to the large amount of time I spent in technical and language training. That was some of the most intense learning I’ve ever had, on par with intensive lifeguard classes and such. In small groups, we did community diagnostics like the ones we are required to do individually in our permanent sites, we facilitated activities at a environmental youth conference, and gave Earth Day presentations in the schools, complete with an environmentally friendly activity. We learned about, then built a compost pile to efficiently create organic fertilizer (the Spanish word for fertilizer is abono, in case you were wondering, and compost pile is abonera); we prepared and planted a garden, including seed transplanting and rooting cuttings of oregano and rosemary; and we learned how to measure the contour of the land with an A-frame and built live and dead barriers to prevent soil erosion. We also built healthier and more fuel-efficient stoves, learned about organic pesticides, and proper trail building and maintenance. Now, incredibly, I feel far more prepared than I did a month ago to go into a community and start working on the environmental challenges there.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Un Viaje al Este

This weekend I went to visit another volunteer in the East Region of the Country. After all the training descriptions of how volunteer service will be, it was very useful to see and experience the way it actually is. Over the course of the weekend, I met 5 volunteers who live and work in 3 communities: 2 pueblos and 1 campo. They work on projects in Economic Development, Environmental Ed, and Special Education. I went to a meeting of a Brigada Verde group (environmental youth group) to see how things are run. I met some members of a Guiding Association for one of the National Parks. I listened to people talk about their primary projects and secondary projects. It was amazing how each person had a totally unique situation, despite similar project descriptions and similar location. I talked to a couple of project partners. That was exciting, since the project partner is the person who works the most closely with a volunteer, at least initially. The men I met seemed supportive and enthusiastic, which was reassuring. Best of all, I successfully communicated with various Dominicans of different ages and backgrounds. There is hope for me, even if my Doña still doesn't understand that I don't like sugar in my coffee. Additionally, I successfully got myself to the campo and back. By myself the first time, and with a fellow Aspirante the second. Since transportation in the DR is not the easiest for a notably white foreigner to navigate, this is a point of pride. I will not fail while on my own in this country.

The East is a well connected region, everyone who I visited had electricity and water most of the time. This made it one of the better places to get sick the first time, or at least one of the more comfortable. However, I recovered from my 12 hour illness in time to participate in a PC visit to a beautiful beach. The sand was white, soft and clean, the water was clear, tuquoise and warm, and there was even a reef farther out for the more adventurous among us. One of the volunteers also pointed out the cacao tree, heavy with yellow pods that are currently ripening. Inside is a sweet, fruity pulp, and the true commodity, the beans. However, they have to be dried, or even better, fermented, before they are ready for processing.

Now I am back at the home base for one more week before we go off into the mountains for technical training. However, it's Semana Santa, or Easter week, and I look forward to experiencing the Dominican traditions for this holiday.

Hasta Luego.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

El Empiezo Dominicano, A more complete update

On Thursday, at 3:30 am, 36 of the 37 original trainees in my staging group met in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in Washington DC.  After being issued our new Peace Corps Passports, complete with Dominican visas, we boarded a plane to Miami and then another one to Santo Domingo.  Being the star sleeper I am, I dozed through both flights.  The country director and his assistant had special security passes that allowed them to greet each of us as soon as we got out of the gate (even before we got to immigration).  From the airport, the PC staff whisked us through the sun, heat, and humidity to a ìretreatî. There they gave us our first briefing, malaria profilaxis, and the first part of our rabies vaccine. They also presented us with our first challenge as PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees): mosquito nets.  The vile taste of the anti-malarial was nothing compared to the frustration of setting up our mosquito nets on a few hours of airplane sleep.  We were all in bed by 9 pm.



In the morning, we were brought to the PC training center by more tiny (but air conditioned) vans.  This training center and the surrounding neighborhoods have been my (and the other aspirantes’) stomping grounds thus far.   Training is run on a very intensive schedule. A few times a week, we receive briefings regarding what to expect regarding PC policy, medical stuff, and a safety lectures, and Dominican culture, history, politics, etc.  These lectures are combined with 2-4 hours of language class per day, which at my level also involve cultural assimilation activities, such as fieldtrips to the supermarket and guidance on how to take public transportation in Santo Domingo and the rest of the country.  These activities are peppered with classes on Development Theory, dinámicas (icebreakers), and technical information relating to our project (in my case, Environmental Development).   We eat a delicious lunch daily, complete with the juice of chinola (passionfruit), lechoza (papaya) piña, or lemondade.  All of which are just as fantastic as the fruit itself.  For fruit lovers, it should be noted that pineapple and papaya are in season, as is avocado, and we’ve had quite a bit of these normally expensive tropical fruits. 


La Familia:

Dominican Spanish isn’t really like any accent I’m used to, but at least I can communicate with my host family beyond the basics.  My doña lives close to the training center, and I have a 15 year old hermana to spice things up. My host-hermanos are older and live separately- one with his wife and kids.   My host father taught me Dominos (a favorite Dominican game) and I have watched TV of various sorts with most family members.  My doña owns and runs the neighborhood Colmado, or convenience store.   I pass a lot of time sitting on the patio, reading the newspaper, and talking to the people who come to make purchases.  So far, it has been a good way to socialize with my family and meet my neighbors.




Monday, March 10, 2008

I am alive

Hello from La Republica Dominicana, people. I had a couple of posts all typed out but the wifi se fue (went away) before I could post. So I will have to make do with this.

I feel as though I am in a time warp. It is as though I have been here for months rather than just under 2 weeks. I have become acclimated to temperatures in the 80s, medium humidity, and almost guaranteed sunshine. There are frequent afternoon downpours, which keeps things green and the flowers and fruits blooming. There are many huge and beautiful bouganvillas, plants that bear passionfruit, papaya, mango and coconut, and of course many varieties of plantain and banana. My doña, Posada, bought me a large sack of guavas, which I am enjoying immensely, now that I have stopped eating the bitter skin. (My host brother delighted in enlightening me.)

Right now we are mainly training in Language and PC policy, as well as Dominican cultural assimilation. The Dominican accent is both very different and very similar to the Andalucian accent, but I´m communicating sufficiently and learning some slang. The people are all quite friendly, open, and willing to talk to me. Baseball is the national religion, practicially (they even postponed carnival for it) so I can talk to people about something. I´ve also learned to dance the bachata, which is the national dance, and a useful social skill. I hope it helps me in my community.

This Thursday, I am off to the other side of the country to visit another environmental volunteer and see how he works with his community. It should be a good opportunity to a) get out of the capital and see some other stuff and b) test my solo skills and c) see a volunteer in action. I´m excited.

Maybe I´ll be able to post those other entries before I leave, but if not, I´ll definitely write about the trip.

Hasta luego.

Monday, February 25, 2008

We have... blast off

Well, maybe. I'm at PDX, waiting for my flight to board. Due to weather in Chicago, it has been delayed. Since I'm paranoid about checked baggage, this is rather stressful. And since I am now reliant on pay phones this could be a hassle if my luggage doesn't arrive in Washington within a few hours of my person. Cross your fingers for me.