Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cave Adventures

Okay, so this weekend I took a trip to Semuc Champey, and it was amazing. Part of the tour was a cave tour into which I couldn't take my camera because we had to swim around, so for right now I'm just going to write about that so that I don't forget about it.  Before I start I want to mention that I went on this trip with another volunteer and three of her Guatemalan friends.  This is important to note because most Guatemalans don't have the privilege of learning how to swim as kids, and so some of their activities on the cave adventure were all the more impressive if you keep that in mind.

So after a 30 minute ride in the back of a pickup standing up (which required me to be very attentive of where we were going so that I wasn't flayed by branches) we got to a bridge and our guide had us get out of the truck.  We didn't cross the bridge, but instead walked about 100 meters (yes I'm going to use meters, we ought to learn to use them anyway since the Metric System is so much more logical than the English System) to a little office-shack where we took off all our non-swimming clothes and put all our stuff into a big lock-box.  The guide gave out life-jackets to all the people who weren't comfortable swimming, and we climbed the 30 meters to the entrance to the cave.  At that point our guide gave us each a candle and lit them all and we started in.

Now as a rather tall person, I found myself oscillating between having a major advantage over everyone else to having a major disadvantage, depending on the situation.  I started out at a marked disadvantage as we passed under low hanging stalactites and I had to crouch down where some of our Guatemalan friends could walk without stooping at all.  Pretty soon, though, it turned out to be quite fortunate that I am a giant as we got to the swimming section.  Two of the Guatemalan girls were kind of okay paddling along in their life jackets, but one of them was a little more reluctant, so I decided to help her a little.  First I tried to just give her instruction on how to position her body and kick her legs, and I thought it was going to work out until she started to get nervous and unexpectedly grabbed onto me.  Now this wouldn't have been as much of an issue if I wasn't holding my candle in one hand, making it much harder for me to tread water, but as it turned out, I was mostly able to touch the ground and stretch my neck out to get my mouth out of the water to breathe.  There did come fun moments when that wasn't the case and she put a bunch of weight on me and dunked me completely under the water, but I knew that I could get a breath if I needed it, so it didn't freak me out much.  As it was, it was kind of a fun for me, but I was really impressed with these girls, going into caves like that when they can't swim and keeping it together so well.  A lot of people would have just freaked out and left.

At one point we got to a place where there was the option to climb up a ladder or to climb a rope up a waterfall.  Impressively, one of our friends took the challenge and went straight up that waterfall.  Unfortunately I don't know how to say, badass, or courageous, or hardcore in Spanish, so I had some trouble expressing how I felt about seeing her do that.  I just think it's always interesting to see people step outside of their comfort zones and have a new experience like that.

The craziest part of the cave tour was close to the end.  The guide led us to a place where the water was rushing down through a hole, and he basically helped us to slide ourselves down through it as well.  There is something about being in a dark cave and pushing yourself through a hole that isn't much bigger than your body that evokes a bit of an adrenaline rush, but it wasn't actually very risky, once I was out the other side and understood what had just happened.

All in all it was a very fun part of the trip, but the crazy-beautifulness was yet to come. Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Awake - Wasting Days

It is 3:13am and I am awake.  I did not just wake up, I have not yet gone to sleep.  Why, you might wonder, would someone stay up until 3:13 in the morning and then suddenly decide to write a blog post?  Well, I'll tell you.  It's because of a big bug.  Now I have to go back a little bit to really explain this fully.

On Sunday I got back from a vacation to the U.S.  My vacation was wonderful, restful, fun, and full of people that I love.  Over the last couple days of the vacation, it was perhaps overfull, but that was just because I was so enjoying spending time with my friends.  The result of this was several days of little sleep in a row, followed directly by my redeye (which I only recently learned means that it was an overnight flight, I never had reason to know that before Peace Corps) back here.  Now those of you who know me, are probably aware that I am relatively taller than the average person, and one of the downsides of that is that I have trouble sleeping on planes, in cars, etc. because the top of the seats usually only come up to the base of my neck.  It is quite difficult to fall asleep when your head is bent at a 90ยบ angle backward.  Sure I've tried slouching down, but my knees press up against the seat in front of me without much slouching (even in First Class, I discovered on this trip).  I tried sort of turning on one side, but my shoulders are too broad and my head kept lolling around and waking me up.  Anyway, the point is,  that I was on the plane and could not sleep much (maybe an hour total with all the nodding off and waking myself up with my falling head).

Once I got into Guatemala I got a cab to the bus stop where I wait for the chicken buses from my town, and from there I was fortunately able to go straight home.  Of course anytime you're on one of those buses you need to be semi-vigilant of your stuff to make sure that no one ends up taking any of it, so I spent my time trying to watch the front door to make sure that no one tried to make off with my suitcase (the ayudante [driver's helper] had put it up by the driver, right next to the door), although there is much less risk of that on my buses because the drivers and ayudantes generally recognize me and know a little about who I am, and thus help take care of me, which is nice.  The point of this paragraph is that I was trying to stay vigilant, but was also quite tired, and through some sort of crazy fortune I had my own seat for my entire trip, which meant that I could get semi-comfortable enough to doze off some more.

About two hours after I left the capital I got into my house, and despite my body's insistence that I belly-flop onto my bed and not move for a couple days, I felt the need to check the status of my room first.  I think this is how you know you've been in the Peace Corps for a while: you get home from a trip and go check the spot in your room that bugs love to hang out to make sure that there isn't anything in there that you can't stand.  As per usual, behind this foam in my room had congregated a bunch of these little roly-poly bugs, the ones that tend to just casually walk under the one-inch gap under either of my doors and waltz their way into my room. Of course I had been gone for long enough that a predator had discovered the little colony, which is exactly what I was expecting, and planning to kill.  This time the spider wasn't sooo big, but it wasn't a tiny little guy either. And it was black, which I think makes spiders look much more menacing.  So I killed the spider and cleaned out all the other bugs and then swept and disinfected that area in an attempt to eliminate my infestation for another few days.  Then I sat on my bed to do something, and an hour later I woke up groggy and confused.

You would think that I would have crashed right then, but I actually had a friend visit me that night, so I couldn't do that.  This time I didn't stay up late, but we got up early (6:25 CST, remember that I have just changed time zones, so it's 4:25am my time at this point) to go on a trip. Now I can't complain about this because it was something that I needed to do, and leaving that early was actually much nicer than leaving later on for various reasons, but it added to my tiredness instead of taking away from it, which is kind of the point of this story.  I had to take this trip because a pickpocket stole my Guatemalan debit card and my Peace Corps ID just two days before I left for the states, and I didn't have much money left, so I went to get a new card from the office.  I got back to my house that afternoon (yesterday) around two, and then hung out with a friend before taking another accidental nap on top of my bed for an hour or so. Just long enough to give me some energy for the evening I guess, because I ended up staying up until after midnight for some reason.

Then this morning I woke up after some tossing and turning that was somewhat inspired by the buses and trucks that seem to enjoy driving past my house at 50mph even though the road is essentially cobblestone and thus makes it sound like the trucks are either driving directly into my room, or about to explode, depending on what gear they are in.  I woke up with the intention of getting up and doing things, but as a result of my general exhaustion and lack of having anything concrete planned in my day I did not.  In fact, I never got up.  I got out of bed to use the bathroom when I needed it, but that was it.  I keep some snacks in my room, so I ate all of those, and I just lay around all day and all evening.  I never feel good after these kinds of days, but there is something about this time of the year and having no plans that means sometimes I just stay in bed all day.  So today was like that. I didn't nap, but I didn't expend much energy either.  I was planning on going to bed early, and getting up early tomorrow to try to start back into life here.  Unfortunately that didn't work out.

At about 1:15am I finally felt tired and decided to try to go to sleep, only to discover that the snacks I had eaten throughout the day were not sufficient for my stomach, and that it would not be denied.  I got up, heated up some water and had some hot granola with extra oats and some cereal (I know all those things were cereal, but you know what I mean).  By the time I finished eating it it was a little after 2:30, and since I had just eaten I wasn't feeling terribly sleepy so I put on a TV show to help myself unwind a bit.  The show ended at 3am, and I turned off my computer screen, finally ready to go to sleep.  I switched off the light, rolled myself over, situated my pillows and had relaxed for quite literally two seconds when BOOM, I felt a quite large bug land on my bare shoulder.

I reacted quickly, rolling onto that shoulder to push the bug onto the bed, and popping up and turning on the light.  My first reaction had been that it was going to be a big spider like the one I had killed two days before, but I was wrong.  It turned out to be an ENORMOUS grasshopper-looking thing. I am talking the size of my palm (and remember that I have pretty big hands).  I snapped this photo and then grabbed it with a plastic bag, went outside and just left it out there in the open.  At that point I came in and started writing this post.

I have grown accustomed to insects these days, and they don't usually bother me, but there is something different about being attacked by an extra-large one RIGHT as I turned off the light that has me a little twitchy.  I find myself slapping at the shoulder where it pounced, and feeling sort of itchy all over, and that makes it hard to settle myself down to sleep, which is why I wrote this post.  It turned out to be much longer than I had planned, in large part because I AM still quite tired and so my filter for what is interesting seems to be not functioning terribly well, but perhaps that's okay.  If nothing else this whole experience describes a part of my life here that I don't talk too much about because I wish it didn't happen.  I really wish that there weren't days in which I didn't leave the house, because it would be better for me and better for my community, but some days it just seems like an awful lot of work.  When I have work I love my job, but when I don't, well, I love my bed...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Culture Shock and Events Happening

Okay. So I am currently sitting in an airport in Houston, Texas. I have maybe 30 minutes before I should consider leaving the safety of this place I'm in and going down to the gate, so I thought I'd write a bit. I find myself in the First Class (thanks to mom and dad) United Lounge (otherwise known as United Club) which has such a fancy door that I was kind of scared to go through it for fear that I would be mocked as a usurper and dragged out by very well dressed security guards who would do it all without breaking a sweat because sweating would be inappropriate in such a place. Seriously, though, the door was like a giant wooden wall, and when I got close it just opened for me automatically and there was a line of people in suits who looked back at me in my bright green t-shirt as if I was an alien. I had an urge to ask if this was the line for the bathroom, but I thought better of it. I am being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I really did consider leaving the moment I walked through the door, thinking to myself that I couldn't possibly be in the right place. Fortunately I decided that I should at least check in with the woman (who seemed to be checking people's ID's with more scrutiny than you see in the actual airport security) before running out with my tail between my legs, because as it turns out, I WAS allowed in. She was doubtful though, making sure that I was involved in some sort of International travel before allowing me up the escalator to the wonders above (OH God I just remembered that there's a third floor that I haven't explored, this is going to have to get cut off sooner rather than later).

Once given license to enter, I decided that it would be fruitless to try to pretend like I belonged there, had any idea what I was doing, or had any sense of propriety that would keep me from asking the question, "So what stuff is free?" I was slightly ridiculed by one of the bartenders when I told him that I had never been in a place like this before, but it was worth it to discover that there was a wide selection of free alcohol, of which I could have as much as I wanted. As I write this I am sipping from a glass of free red wine, and it tastes so much better because it was free.

Ah, so the point of this was supposed to be that I was not really mentally prepared for this kind of luxury, because well, never in my life have I experienced it before, and I'm coming out of living in a room in Guatemala in which I grab bugs off of my wall multiple times a day because if I smashed them all my wall would be mostly brown by now (I smash the spiders unless they're above a certain size which will mean that they will leave a mess bigger than a silver dollar, at which point I spray them with Raid). One of the weird thoughts I had that I wouldn't have had before I started in the Peace Corps is how wasteful it is that each of the snacks that they offer in here is individually wrapped in plastic. I mean, everyone knows that plastic takes between 50 and infinity years to decompose, right? Anyway, it's been interesting. I did sit down with a lovely older woman who works in international training in all sorts of places, and she seemed to be living a quite interesting life, but then she had to leave, so I didn't get to learn as much as I wanted. One other thing that I noted was that the place was probably at least 80% men, which I'm not used to these days (Peace Corps is about 40% men, and much less where I live), and which reminded me that we haven't quite reached equality still.

On to past events in a quite abrupt segue. Last week we hosted an accreditation ceremony for seven of our schools who were able to achieve all the goals necessary to reach Health Schools Level One. If they were video game geeks they would be pumped to level up again, but I'm not sure they would get that reference. Anyway, we had a good showing, with some important people showing up and some other people as well. Overall it was a rousing (is this the word that comes before success?) success and got us a bit pumped for next year.

Okay, I now need to investigate the third floor of this establishment before I catch the plane that will take me back to the lovely PNW for the next couple weeks. Sorry for the lack of transitions in this post, I just didn't have time...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Feria Rains

So, it's that time of the year again: Feria. Feria is basically town fair. Every town has a specific day once a year that is their fair, and for about a week and a half the town has a bunch of random events relating to the feria, all of which require the heavy use of bombas, those lovely explosive devices that are shot up into the air and explode without any fireworks, just a poof of smoke and a really loud noise that often shakes my house.

It started about a week ago with some random parades involving school bands. The strange thing about the parades is that there were probably eight different schools represented, and each one had their own band, but between the bands there were cars driving with speakers attached to their roofs, and they were playing really loud music out of them that was completely unrelated to what the bands were doing. I, of course, hid in my house, but since I live on a corner with a "capilla" (which is the thing in the photo with the yellow posts under which a motorcyclist is seeking shelter from the rain) that means that all parades pass right outside my bedroom door. So I got the strange experience of 10-15 seconds of elementary school marching band music followed by really loud "Ranchera" music (you know, the mmm-pa, mmm-pa music with high pitched cowboy yelling on occasion, usually involving an accordion and a tuba) for 10-15 seconds followed by another marching band. This is a pretty normal thing for me these days, so I almost forgot to mention it in my blog, but then I realized that I may never have mentioned it, and it's common enough that if you want to understand life here you should probably know about it.

So that was the opening parade of the feria, but from what I can tell they have some sort of parade or procession almost every day. I couldn't tell you what they all were, but one of them was a horse parade in which all the participants rode horses and some of them had the horses do tricks and things as they went along. Since I live in a cowboy town, that's probably most people's favorite parade, and normally it is accompanied with a rodeo, but there was no rodeo this year, and no one seems completely sure why.

The actual day of feria was Wednesday, so Tuesday night was the big party night (because no one has to work on feria, in fact they use the word feriado to mean a day off of work regardless of whether or not it's actually feria). That meant that normally tons of people go out to the park and ride all the rides (yes, we have rides like ferris wheels and things brought into the middle of town for the feria, they just put them in the middle of the street because there's not really enough space for them anywhere else) and eat all the feria food like churros (deep fried batter of some sort with some sugar often served with chocolate sauce, which sounds way better than it actually is), tacos, sweets, crazy corn-on-the-cob (covered in mayonnaise and ketchup, yech), etc. This year, though, we have a tropical depression hanging out over the country, so it rained like crazy all night. Thus, the only celebration that I was aware of came in the form of bombas and fireworks. They started shooting off bombas around, well, it's hard to say because I think they were doing it the whole day, but they started like crazy around 9pm. Then they had fireworks with actual colors and stuff, but it was pouring so I didn't go out to see them. Then when they finished those they went back to bombas until about 11pm. Now, an important fact for this story is that Peace Corps asked us to go to a meeting on Wednesday at 8:30 in Antigua, which meant getting up around 6 to get there on time. So I was a little frustrated when the bombas started back up again at 3am, along with cohetes, which are like firecrackers that sound like gunfire for about a minute at a time. They lit off these two different types of noisemakers for about an hour and a half, and then stopped long enough for me to get one more hour of sleep before I had to leave.

Now unfortunately (depending on how you look at it) I missed the events of the actual feria because once we got to Antigua we were informed that we wouldn't be able to leave because the rain was making the roads dangerous, so we stayed a night in a hotel, but from what I understand nothing happened in the feria because it was raining too hard. I got back to site the next day (yesterday) and got back to participating.

Now let me get into the events from last night, which is the real reason that I was inspired to write a blog post at all. Last night was the "burning of the castle" which I will explain. As with any feria event, it was prefaced with hours of bombas, which did a good job of shaking my house and making me wish that I hadn't lost my earplugs. Then one of my Guatemalan friends called me and invited me to go out to watch the burning of the castle, which excited me mostly because I don't get invited to things very often these days. It hadn't been raining much yesterday, so I went out without a rain jacket or umbrella, which was probably not the smartest thing, but didn't actually backfire on me at all. It was around 7pm, so it was fully dark outside and it was slightly drizzling, but mostly fine. In front of the Catholic church that's next to the park a block from my house there was a large gathering of people forming. I found two girls that I know and they took me into the street to watch as some people pulled the "castle" into an upright position in the middle of the street. The castle was a 15 x 15 foot square metal frame with various fireworks attached to it from top to bottom. It was held in place by ropes attached to the top that were held by people on either side of the street. I am pretty sure that it was supposed to be a big chain-reaction type thing where they light the bottom and the fire works its way up to the top, but it was starting to rain a little more, so that didn't quite work out. The guy in charge of lighting the thing seemed to have prepared for this contingency because he had various objects to use to light the fuses that were higher up. At the end he climbed up a ladder that was leaned against the side of the frame and then used a five-foot stick thing with a flame on the end of it to light the last fireworks. Also, many of them didn't really light very well, or didn't fulfill their functions do to being somewhat damp, so I think the general majesty of the burning of the castle was somewhat reduced. Then there was the issue of umbrellas. It was raining a good bit by the time that they actually started lighting the castle, so people had started opening their umbrellas. The problem with this, as some of you may have experienced, is that umbrellas are excellent for blocking the view of the people behind you. So basically we would all have found a good window to see the castle burn, and then some oblivious person would walk in front of us and then open their umbrella, completely blocking the view of dozens of people, who would then proceed to yell random things in the direction of the umbrella, which were usually firmly ignored. It was at this point that I decided that I should mention the events of the night, because I was kind of cracking up the whole time at all the things that were happening around me, and it felt very symptomatic of my experience here at times. So when the castle was done burning some guys dressed in these small metallic frames in the shape of bulls that were covered in fireworks came out, and I remembered that this is when they run around scaring the crowd with fireworks shooting off of them in all directions, so I left to eat tacos.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Representing American Culture to Guatemalans

So a part of being in the Peace Corps is sharing American (U.S.) culture with people from your host country. Some people take this idea and do fun events with it - diversity fairs and American-style celebrations of holidays and things. From what I understand those things are usually pretty fun and well received, and I have tried (and failed) to host one of those types of events, but I like to think that I do the majority of my culture sharing through conversation and showing what I am like. This becomes easier and easier the more time I spend here, because I speak the language better and know more people.

Lately, though, I've started to wonder if I do accurately represent the culture of the U.S. I mean I am obviously American, and I share viewpoints with some people back there, but at the same time, I am often considered quite different from others back there too. For the most basic example, I have spent quite a lot of time explaining to people that no, the average U.S. male is not 2 meters tall. I also have conversations about how I think women should be treated, respecting homosexuality, and a few other topics about which I feel like I have different views than many people in the U.S. I walk around humming non-stop, and find myself sometimes singing out-loud when I'm not paying attention. I'm not obese (I keep getting these crazy news stories about U.S. obesity, it's kind of getting out of control, huh?) and my voice is way lower than most people's, and I am a bleeding-heart liberal (at least I think I am, I could be wrong about what that entails these days).

Now obviously no one person can be a good representative of the entire U.S. population because we are so crazy-diverse (meaning diverse in our levels of crazy as well as very diverse). Bearing that in mind I guess I shouldn't have any concerns about my misrepresenting the average American (especially because I've been trying to throw in disclaimers as often as I can these days that say that I am not a normal American). I think one of the things we can't account for is that the typical Peace Corps volunteer is not an accurate sampling of the typical American citizen (at least not in my experience). Does the average American choose to leave their family and friends for two years to go live in a poor country doing whatever job the government assigns them? No. So then it's not my fault that I'm weird and supposed to represent the U.S., it's just part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Still, though, I'll continue with my disclaimers to people I get to know letting them know that if they ever get the chance to go the U.S. (hopefully legally) they will probably find a good number of people who are nothing like me there. That's good, though, I wouldn't want to freak them out with a country of skinny blonde giants.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Like always, it's been too long

Alright, jumping into it. Things have been kind of stable and routine around here lately, or at least they had been until my teachers went on strike this last week. Really it's not their fault that the government didn't give them the pay raise they were promised, and also hasn't paid some of them at all, but it's hard for those of us who are only here for a limited time, because there really isn't much we can do when there's no school. Of course I mean there are things we can do that relate to Peace Corps goals 2 and 3 (look them up here), but our actual main job is sort of turned off until someone pays the teachers.

Until the strike things had been going pretty well. An organization called Agua Para la Salud worked with us and our mayor to build water projects in three of our schools. Here are some pictures.

You can see that the kids at the Kindergarten school (all kids at this school are ages 4-6) really enjoyed the materials that the builders were using.

This is a water tank that holds about 2000L of water and then there are 8 faucets around the sides for the kids to use to wash their hands and brush their teeth. This school only gets water for a few hours each day, so now the tank fills up automatically and there should always be running water.

This school always has water, but they only had one faucet, so here they built a series of 8 faucets against this wall.

So these projects are a big success for our program for the last couple months because it makes it a lot easier for the teachers to have their students practicing healthy habits. I'm in the process of preparing another one for another school, and if everything goes to plan I'm hoping to do it next week, which would be crazy.

In other news I've been working out 6 days a week with a Guatemalan friend to the videos from the workout Insanity, and it feels great (not so much during the videos when I just want to swear at the guy, but afterward). It's also been fun getting to show that aspect of our culture to my friend.

I'm getting ready for a trip home in September for a friend's wedding, and I'm really excited about it. I won't get to see my family, which is too bad, but being back for a bit and celebrating with my friends should be really nice.

I think that's about it for now. Short update, but at least it's something...