20 January, 2012

Neanderthal lost in D.C.

I have seen the extent to which the world has moved ahead without me. A colleague leads me, bewildered behind her, down endless streets of enormous, stately buildings and down the direction-defying lefts, rights, ups, downs of the city metro system – just deciding which way to walk is a challenge. I learned, at least well enough to do it all by myself later, but of course feigning to everyone around me that I knew exactly what I was doing.
All the cell phones, all the apps, the ability to look at a map, check an email, find a restaurant’s address and ratings, look up a book to find it in the bookstore you’re in, even use your phone in place of a boarding pass for a flight… it’s all so convenient but makes me feel so uneasy! It feels as though the world has moved on and left me behind it, lost in the bustle and buzz of a city at work.
I see store window after store window of sleek, well-crafted clothes the likes of which I haven’t seen in a few years, sturdy-looking and chic shoes that probably wouldn’t fall apart on me in a few months, oodles of “Food Court” setups (with not a single restaurant chain name I recognize) in what seems like every office or state building complex I pass, and I wonder if I will ever be the kind of city person who patronizes those kinds of places and is that kind of consumer… do I want to be?
And everything can painlessly be paid for with a quick swipe of a credit card, and nothing more, no need to bother tallying up your totals if you don’t wish to – that’s what the bank statements are for. And this is only if one bothers with a card; many use their phones for that too. As for me, I haven’t used my credit card for anything but buying plane tickets online in the last three years; the ease with which people at the cash register swipe, hand it back, and smile at the next person with a “Can I help you?” makes me uneasy, like Aren’t we missing something still? Aren’t transactions usually more than that? Perhaps I’m too accustomed to barter systems.
I am left feeling like a child, naïve to these sophisticated, “first-world” city ways. I am awkward, get easily confused, concentrate hard on learning, and make mistakes often.
But I would like to see one of those who would scoff at my ignorance, in an attempt to navigate the Guatemala bus system. In that arena, I am expertly aware of where I must go to get on and what I must do when, to get off; the kind of complicated and emotional transaction I can anticipate; strategies to employ to ensure paying a fair price; and especially on the alert for anomalies that could lead to unforeseen security situations to handle. Your iPhone and credit card can make purchases black-and-white for you, but I’ve seen the amazement in other people’s faces as I employ all the tactics to negotiate shades of gray, to for example talk down a market vender to a price we can both agree on, which would have seemed impossible given her original price quote. Your earbuds plugging your auditory canals have precluded any need to socialize more than necessary with anyone you’d rather not talk to, but you wouldn’t know the first thing to say to get your neighbors (or potential renters) to trust you, like you, welcome you, and have reason to always treat you fairly. I’m always itching to show people my world. I’m sort of proud of how skillfully I navigate it, no matter how stone-age it may seem.
Are these skills useful? Arguably, outside of this developing-world informal rural economy, no. But neither do the skills employed by every technobot (oops, I mean person…) walking down a D.C. street, seem difficult to acquire. That kind of complexity is accessible – if you wanted, you could read or download a manual for most of that, or buy a “(Fill in the blank) for Dummies” book on it. The rural kind of complexity is more about layers of understanding, hierarchy, and trust gained through experience and a keen memory, or good mental note-taking. Even if it's not terribly useful beyond this context, surely this learning curve adaptability could be applicable to other contexts.
So it is that I come to realize, we all live in our own jungles – seemingly inexplicable messes that, upon examination, have an order and a rhythm. There are always, always layers of nuance and complexity that outsiders aren’t going to understand at first; we humans create that complexity through varying degrees of hierarchy and social mobility, I suppose whether it be Wall Street or a prison or an aboriginal tribe. I think this is what we call culture, never easy to adapt from one to another.
Today my taxi-driver caused me to reflect on this idea. His English was an African English, not an African-American English, and I so wanted to ask him where he was from (like, what country). But, thinking back to how much that question bothers me as a non-native to Guatemala (and how yes, it’s probably an accent that provokes the question), and not wishing to sound like a xenophobic upper-class yuppy by asking him and implying that he must not belong here, I held my tongue. I couldn’t think then of a decent way of asking, but now I wish I had said something like, Your accent is that of an educated African… Where are you from, what compelled you to leave, and why in the world are you just driving a taxi??   It seems he must have left his culture and his social landscape, where he knew all the ins and outs, and come here and had to learn a whole new set – worse, with the odds stacked against him as a black man and as an immigrant. I reflect on all the things he could probably show someone about both of those worlds in which he’s learned to operate.
With time and the right proactive attitude, we can probably all learn to deal with and to function in any unfamiliar environment. But I’m beginning to reflect on whether or not it’s really beneficial to keep requiring that of ourselves. How many adjustments to new “jungles” will the average human being make in a lifetime in today’s world? And to what degree? Surely the adaptation from a high school experience to moving to college, is not the same magnitude of change as a move from an African village to Washington D.C.
But what concerns me most is the feeling that this requirement to adapt to “culture shock” if we can call it that, is no longer implied only by a geographic move; I get the sense that the modernized world is moving toward a constant state of adaptation to our own constantly-changing culture. There is always far too much for me to catch up on every time I visit the U.S., that at this point it’s simply overwhelming, and I no longer even really try. Will I always feel like a Neanderthal, even in my own country, even with the latest gizmos, even with the latest apps, even with the most recent 12.0 version of street-smarts? This is why I come away from a lovely little visit to the big city feeling more intimidated already about the next time I’ll have to go back.  How long did you say my Visa is good for??

07 August, 2011

Anniversary of birth, not necessarily just one day

My what a wonderful week that was! I was certainly celebrating my own aging quite a lot the days before and weeks after, my birthday. Six or seven cakes, big candles, fireworks and mountain hikes here we come!It all started Saturday the 9th, though that is not my birthday and it was not my birthday party; it was a self-thrown birthday party for Jesse, a volunteer in the next town over who had invited pretty much all PCVs in the area for a whole day of activities: Mayan ceremony on the roof between rainstorms, followed by street-food dinner, followed by cake, followed by a themed dance-party in his house, with a hired DJ. He maintains he was sharing the birthday party with me, which I appreciated.The next morning I took two new volunteers (site-mates) on a hike with my ex-host brothers (16 and 8, such fun company) up to the highest peak around, back in the communal forest. We got soaked in the cats-n-dogs downpour on the way back down, stopped in at my old house for a breather (which, you’ll recall, is halfway down the mountain) where we dried out a bit and were fed Toto’s version of apple pie: seasonal peaches and cherries “en dulce” meaning cooked in sweet sauce, like peach syrup. Yum. We then hiked the rest of the way down back into town (thanks to a lack of cars to hitch-hike on a Sunday) to another site-mate’s house, where they were waiting for us to all make lunch together, have a few drinks, eat the cake they made, etc. Nice day. A friend and I went walking around town that afternoon, since for some reason a small contingent of Feria-type stands were clustered in the streets (do the Catholics here celebrate the Feast of Saint Benedict, for some reason?). We ate some churros, and then I was invited to a piece of cake at a local cafe since I wasn’t going to be around the actual day of my birthday. It’s apparently a bigger deal here to celebrate it on the actual day; rescheduling and rain checks just make people feel cheated out of the fun!The next morning – the big day! a quarter-century! – I was up early in my room packing for my trip, and Doña Emiliana, my landlady/housemate/hostmom knocks and wonders if I have a minute, and a lighter. Um… yes, I guess, on both counts. This being about 6:15 am on a Monday. She has a big candle. Like, the size of a chair leg. She lights it, and invites me to kneel with her on a rug in the middle of the expansive main room as she prays that the Lord bless me, protect me, and that he receive her thanks and the thanks of many others for having put me in their lives, that I continue to be successful in my endeavors, that I not feel sad for not having my real family with me because I have so many family members now here, etc etc. I tried not to cry, but failed a little. It was such a beautiful expression of her friendship and love for me.I then received a phone call in the early morn: Las Mañanitas, the typical birthday morning song! “Estas son las mañanitas que cantaba el Rey David… a las muchachas bonitas, te las cantamos aquí!” I’m just surprised it wasn’t at 5a.m. which is the normal time to wake someone up with this birthday ditty!Shortly thereafter my friend Andrea came by, a little early for when we were supposed to meet on the corner to go running together, because she had a big birthday card in her hands she had made the night before, and a big smile on her face too. We went running, the first time she had been on a run in 6 months, and the first time in Toto, so I was showing her one of my favorite routes through a quiet little outlying suburb of town (although quiet little suburb does NOT mean the same thing here as it would in the states…). When we arrived back, Doña Emiliana invited us into the kitchen for a quick breakfast together, and wouldn’t you know there was cake!! I think that brings the total to three now…But I had to leave, get on a bus for four hours and go to the Peace Corps Center, but upon arriving in the town I bought a big cake myself at a store, and then arriving at the Center, quickly went to everybody’s offices, the lunch lounge, the local restaurant etc. where all the staff were to share cake with them. I then hustled on a bus to Antigua to meet up with the Common Hope social worker, and we were off out to the town where my folks’ new “godchild” lives, whom we met in December for the first time, when they all came to visit. She and I share a birthday; she turned 15 and I, 25, so we had planned for me to go visit, bring her books as a birthday present, and translate a letter for her from my parents. It’s usually a little awkward with a family who’s Spanish isn’t great, and the girl is so shy she’s not one for conversation, but I’m so used to that docility and having to make conversation at this point, that I didn’t find it awkward at all; rather, we discussed things like differences in words in Kaqchikel (their language) vs. K’iche’ (Toto and other neighboring province’s language, which I know some of). She liked the books quite a bit, even if her mom saw little practicality in them.I then went back through Antigua to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, my old training town, to Patty’s house, my best (Guatemalan) friend. She, her family and I made a mile-high veggie pizza for dinner, and they set off fireworks unexpectedly in the patio, which almost gave me a heart attack, and then we ate one of the two cakes that had mistakenly been bought for the occasion! So, you keeping track of how many cakes that makes?I left super-early the Tuesday morning that followed, to get all the way back out to the highlands to one of the towns near the Lago de Atitlán, where my Peace Corps program director (APCD Flavio) and a couple of us volunteers were to give a teacher training on environmental education. It went till midday, then we all went out for lunch with our APCD afterwards (followed by a desert that, thankfully, wasn’t cake!), and he gave me a ride all the way back to my house, which is in itself enough of a gift, considering the two hours on 3 buses it would’ve otherwise implied!Whereupon I found flowers in my room and a big “Feliz Cumpleaños” on the wall of my room; and the preparations for a big dinner ensued, which I was totally unaware of. The guest list? Doña Emiliana, her sister and their family, Doña Emiliana’s daughter and her family, and some of my close friends that Doña Emiliana knows well enough to have invited. The agenda? A small speech or “Palabras” (“words”) given by almost everyone, about me. The menu? Steak and mashed potatoes, followed by peaches and cherries en dulce, followed by… one of the two identical cakes that had accidentally been bought by two people who failed to coordinate for the occasion. The 20-month-old baby asked where the piñata was :) I think I’m too old, that must be why no one got one for me… that was the only thing missing, after all.So this was Tuesday… and Thursday of the same week is my former host-brother’s birthday, the one who escorted us up the mountain the previous Sunday. So what did I do? Took a cake up the mountain for birthday dinner at my old host family’s house. Duh! But wouldn´t you know, they wouldn’t let me offer to contribute anything else to the meal, which they normally do, so I suspected that this birthday dinner was not going to be entirely and singularly for José Arnulfo. Sure enough, they insisted on singing Happy Birthday to me too! And there was another cake… oh dear. But I must say, I do love staying the night there every once in a while. It still feels like home though I haven’t lived there in a year, and it always makes for quite lovely running the next morning of my familiar haunts on the trails in the communal forest.Perhaps a week later, I was down in one of the “suburbs” of Toto for lunch visiting some new friends I was getting to know. They had found out through some offhand comment of mine (probably about how my schedule had been busy due to so many engagements, and how running more was becoming a necessity due to so much cake intake) that I had recently had a birthday… so what was there after lunch? You guessed it – my 11th birthday cake. Appropriate, don’t you think, for a birthday on the 11th of the month!So how’s that for a birthday odyssey? Whew!! I’ll be lucky if any of my pants fit me next week! Which is hardly the point, since in my opinion birthdays were made for cavalier cake and ice cream consumption. Seems I REALLY got my birthday wish this year!

17 June, 2011

Se fue de vacaciones

That means, "She left on vacation"... a common phrase here, it seems, to explain the inexplicable absence of that person you really needed to be there for a project, a meeting, a workshop, or to approve something. It generally is the expression of choice to imply ambiguity of start date and end date of this extended vacation the person in question is on, intended to frustrate you to high hell in the face of sublime inability to DO anything about her being gone. And that's what people have been saying about ME for the last month. Can't tell you how wonderful it felt to be the one on vacation for once!!
Yes indeed, it was a good month to be home in Minnesota. In time to see the tulips in their splendor, the lilacs come and go, and the apple trees blossom, leaving their perfume on every breeze that blows by. In time for that crazy string of weather (record tornados? 101 degrees one day, and 67 the next?), but there were enough beautiful, sunny days to get in lots of biking, running, paddling and even sailing! I remember that when the plane finally lowered enough to burst through the last bit of dreary Minnesotan cloud, and a dark and rainy cityscape became visible, the first thing I noticed was that lovely spring green…! That green newness doesn’t happen in Guatemala, and there’s nothing like watching that big oak out back of the cabin – that large, commanding, tough old edifice! – bud out with teensy new leaves like babies’ hands, as if it were time to show the world the tenderness lying within.
And there was business to attend to…there were three graduations to partake in, three birthday parties to bake cakes for, a grad party or two, a 60th anniversary party (for two people whose marriage means I exist, so it was important to be there!), and then there were the extra-curriculars. The Roske Family Sauk River Trip was once again organized on a beautiful Saturday to see all the sights there are to see on that stretch of gentle current from Rockville, Minnesota to Waite Park. You know, trees newly-fallen in the water to make the obstacle course more interesting. New lawn ornaments or docks which the riparian property-owners have put out. Barns. Silos. Bridges. New models of farm machinery working in the fields adjacent to the stream’s course. Fun stuff!
But you Nebraskans out there, I have to say those canoe-trip sights were a fair bit more interesting than the stretch of highway between Dakota/Iowa and our destination state of Colorado on the 2011 Roske Family Go-West Trip. (Lots of random traditions, you’ll catch on one of these days.) I mean I guess you Nebraskans try to mix it up, as I recall, via the bizarre statues that have been erected along the freeway just to make people wake up from their driving stupor, swing their head around and think, “Did I really just see a huge bull’s-head statue back there?” causing all kinds of lane-crossing mayhem, maybe some accidents. It’s a start, Nebraska.
Colorado kept the mountains out of view for a tantalizingly long time, and we only had a good view of them on our second or third day there! Denver is, as most of you have already known for quite some time, a quite agreeable city. I wish my freshly-graduated brother and his sweetheart lots of luck with their move out there, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going too poorly. They’ll be fine, in as fine a city as Denver.
We were invited out to my good friend Oliver’s house for dinner one evening – yes, WE, all six participants of the Roske Family Go-West Trip – and met his very gracious parents, an aunt, and some other friends. It was just generally a feast and catch-up time, and I suppose also a way for the recently immigrated residents (brother and sweetheart) to get a read on housing options in the area. Karli, Oliver’s mom, casually comments,
“So, you guys are looking for a place to live out here too, huh?”
“Well, that’s the idea,” says my brother. “We’re still sort of looking around, checking out the options.”
“Huh. Well, yeah, you should be able to find something nice,” she finishes absently.
“Yeah, that’s the hope…”
… a long pause, other side-conversations carry on, and then Karli bursts in, to her son Oliver:
“Hey, wait, don’t Billie and her husband need somebody to house-sit for them? I mean, they go to Aspen every summer and leave the house in Denver for a few months… [to my brother:] Want their number?”
“Um… well yeah, that’d be great!”
So you see it never hurts to mooch off your sister for people to talk to about jobs, housing, etc. But it seems restaurant options are just no longer something you consult with locals you know. Smartphones, being far smarter than me, apparently have a corner on the restaurant rating and location market. I was made to feel stupid and useless more than once by those things! But yes, my brother’s smartphone led us to a few delectable little places, so there’s no reason to complain about the human brain being technologically obsolete, I suppose. Except in the wilderness. Thwarted by lack of cell signal in Rocky Mountain National Park, I think we all regained our sense of worth in that snub little victory over the smartphone! Haha, I had also spent three of my days in Denver renewing my Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, but with the advent of these smartphones, the ubiquity of personal GPS car units, and the possible power a satellite-based hybrid of the two could have if it’s invented and marketed on a commercial level by the time I move back to Minnesota next March, of what good will my high level of wilderness first aid training be if all that info is accessible online even in the wilderness? Hm. The plus side of renewing my WFR is that I met about 30 interesting outdoorsy-type folks from all over Colorado. Ski guides, kayakers, hikers, bikers, rafting guides, canoeists, horseback-riders, sailing guides, outdoor educators, mountain climbers, National Park Service employees, you name it! My kind of crowd. But I don’t know anything about skiing, kayaking, and rafting which seemed to be the top interests of everybody there! Yeah well – let’s see them portage a canoe :) One thing I couldn’t help but take away from that course, was a sense of awakening the part of myself that used to thrive on guiding wilderness activities, that hasn’t been around since… well, since I moved to Guatemala. The part of my character that pushed me to go work in Alaska, to be a Voyageurs guide, and any number of other activities in which I used to excel and through which my heart used to feel set free. I realized I miss it all so much. Everything around me in Colorado reminded me of a more populated (and tamer?) version of Denali, and I began to think back on and miss the wonderful people who were my life there. I began to crave an intimacy with every mountain and moraine I saw too, like I had felt in Denali and not since.
And it’s funny the way we can feel a connection with places on this earth, for entirely different reasons. I thought the familiar mountains, valleys, ridgelines and volcano peaks of the Guatemalan highlands held that kind of special chest-swelling significance for me, but neither these nor the breathtaking scenery of the Colorado Rockies will ever compare in my eyes to the woods and lakes of Minnesota. There is nothing in the world that could ever compare, in my ears’ opinion, to the call of a loon. No small pleasure like catching sight of a red fox or sandhill crane in the woods, watch a beaver diligently go about his business – even better if the catching-sight-of was the work of not one but two people, out for a walk or a paddle or a bike ride. There is something admirable in going fishing on a rainy day and catching nothing, but coming back to the cabin a few days later for the fish fry anyway, with aunts and uncles, cousins, and a night bonfire and s’mores to boot. And there is something so heart-warming in having a delicious rhubarb-based desert for the 8th time this week! (WHY is rhubarb so tasty??)
But when one can’t go take a loved one out to enjoy the Minnesotan outdoors, what then? Every time I visit home I am reminded of the tragedy of aging, a seemingly non-applicable specter in my life in the subtropical highlands, because everyone I know here has only aged two years, so they’re mostly the same as when I met them. And everyone I know back home gets older without me realizing it. In some sense, my heart breaks after an entire month at home, because a major part of what I did is become appraised of just how different (and in many cases how much more difficult) everyone’s lives have become as compared to when I left. Grampa and I ended up not being able to go fishing because his general fragility interfered with his self-reliance. Will I ever get the chance to share an experience like that with him again, or will he not be around anymore? Living far from family is like being medicated by the drug of complacency into assuming the well-being of the loved ones back home continues as normal. It doesn’t always.
So I sit long hours with him, just chatting. Sometimes we go driving. There was a time when he could write me a 25-page letter in spite of his arthritis, to arrive like the best Christmas present EVER in my PO box in Guatemala, but years have passed and he can’t anymore. I long to go for a walk with him through the woods, where I ask anyone I love to come walk with me and just talk for a while about the world as they perceive it. But he can’t make the walk anymore either. He could tell me so much, but instead of the woods to draw the memories and the poetry out of him, it’s just me in the chair across the table from him to entice them out. I feel I am a poor substitute, but he seems to appreciate it nonetheless. I like to think there will be somebody in the chair across the table from me when I am old, to entice the memories and poetry out of me too, when I’m no longer able to go seek refuge in the woods.
I felt so emotionally useful back home, as though people really needed me. It is this that makes taking up the yoke once more here in Totonicapán all the more difficult, because I’ve never felt as needed here. I’m not, to be frank. The work I was so excited to get started on with Rainforest Alliance to the benefit of the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán Communal Mayors’ Association, has only been confusion and poor communication, and I feel like the one-person-too-many in the assembly line. Some people in my town are surprised to see me now that I’m back, so I sense I wasn’t missed nor did people maintain hope in the gringa fulfilling what she said about returning to finish the job. They don’t need me.
But in my last post I wrote about what Peace Corps means, and Peace Corps does not have to mean making oneself irreplaceable and necessary to the people with whom one lives. That would undermine the whole point of a two-year commitment… they’re not supposed to need me forever! And as far as being emotionally useful goes, I think I am still that. There were enough people who called me the night I got back, or whom I called and whose reactions to the call were of such joy, that I did actually feel pretty loved. I've already had two welcome-back dinners, was invited on a hike today, to a birthday party and two meetings this weekend, to go stay the night at two different homes, and to a parade next week. And I’ve only been home for two days! Just goes to show, we can cultivate loving relationships no matter where we are in the world. Even if it’s not Minnesota.
And I wonder how many of my Guatemalan loved ones were saying, “se fue de vacaciones” when asked about me, and whether they felt any of the uncertainty that normally accompanies the phrase, regarding my eventual return. Did anyone worry I wouldn’t come back? I wonder if any of my colleagues missed me…Did anyone need me for a work-related question, to weigh in on an issue, to provide my input, to write up a quick report of some kind, but instead met that frustratingly ambiguous and unchangeable response? It sure is nice to go on vacation, but it’s funny how we as human beings want to be missed too – we feel as though we have some right to be missed if we’ve worked hard at something. But in the end, let’s throw in a dash of humility and reality: who cares if Rainforest Alliance and 48 Cantones don’t miss me, if host families and Guatemalan friends don’t end up missing me much? Actually, I should hope they’re just fine without me. I like the people back home in Minnesota best anyway, so if there’s anyone I hope misses me a little bit… I think they already know. Yeah, you. Miss you, too. Can we go for a walk in the woods next time we see each other?

23 February, 2011

New Endeavors

18 april 2011

Peace Corps is not always what you think it is.
In fact, I’ve decided it’s NEVER what you think it is. What a paradox! I thought I was coming to a developing country for 2 long years to live in a village, train some people in a probably behind-the-curve host agency, inspire some community empowerment, develop my own technical skills, and make some positive impressions and some friendships, hopefully ones that last a while. You know, like, a lifetime.
And I find myself after two incredibly short years, still here! Having lived for a while in a village, then an “urban center” (Toto is its provincial capitol, but seems smaller than the small town I went to grade-school in), having trained in some coworkers, some teachers, and lots and lots of kids, having made many friendships so profound I find it hard to imagine life without them, and having worked in an actually very professional host association and now working for a global U.S.-based one, I am STILL learning that Peace Corps has never really been what I thought it would turn out to be.
So I’m staying, in part, to find out what it actually is – to fully discover what it can mean to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. As one fellow Guatemala PCV put it, we are fully subsidized do-gooders! Are we effective as such? A common perception is that Peace Corps volunteers go out to save the world. Debatable. Unlike USAID, and a host of other development agencies, try as it might Peace Corps does not have benchmarks, does not have clear black-and-white indicators, cannot easily chart its progress, impact, and dollar amounts thrown at development over its 48 years here in Guatemala. Does that mean I won’t be able to prove my success or impact upon Completion of Service? Probably. At least I won’t be able to point to very many tangible development benchmarks.
Another common perception of what Peace Corps implies, does serving for Peace Corps mean I live in poverty? Close… but not compared to my neighbors, really. It has been a means to convince people I’m in for the long haul, because I committed to live at their standard of living (and didn’t move to Xela, the big touristy city, despite being given the green light to!). I think I’ve gained trust and local confidence, and the idea is to find grassroots ways to empower people and open their minds and opportunities toward our communities’ development.
Does being a Peace Corps Volunteer mean I train people? I have a lot to add, but I’m still learning from the people I meet here, far more than I feel like I’ve been able to teach anyone.
For instance, last week I worked as a translator for a Kenyan man who works for CARE, another international development agency. He globetrots to wherever CARE is working to do diagnostics and implementation plans of potential community forest-conservation projects, the idea being to set up a carbon credits sale or other form of Payment for Environmental Services (PES). (For those unfamiliar with the idea, it’s like setting up a financial incentive based on a forest’s environmental services like soil conservation, oxygen production, water conservation, biodiversity protection, etc. Somebody somewhere else pays the locals for these things to be conserved, to offset the immediate payoff for the timber, the firewood, and the land to cultivate.) This Kenyan has helped diagnose carbon capture and storage of forests of all sizes all over the world, and has designed and implemented many pioneer projects finally involving communities (instead of only privately owned land) in the carbon and PES markets. So what did I learn from him? We went tromping around in the forests with the local forestry technicians, and I learned how he does his diagnostics – how many trees in how many meters radius around point n, how many centimeters diameter-at-breast-height, how tall the tree, what kind of undergrowth and forest litter, what slope of the ground, and how to integrate all that into the calculations of carbon sequestration – and how he does NOT want it done (thanks to the young Guatemalan high-school grads who were our technicians whose measurement techniques were bad according to the Kenyan, and whose GPS points were wrong and led us wandering out of the municipal forest we should have been in, and caused us to walk around lost the rest of the afternoon before finally finding a road at 6pm). He told me about his environmental consultancy work and how he considers it to be the most exciting work out there. I learned from him what being a forestry consultant means, especially these days with carbon capture and climate change being such pressing issues. I learned through careful question-by-question scrutiny (and translation…my job!) how he designs surveys to carefully measure communities’ use of forest resources, and establishes baseline indicators of standard of living, income sources, sanitation, and education. I picked his brain about how community trust funds can be established in communities without on-paper ownerships of forests but de facto ownership and administration of them, as is the case in Totonicapán. And he gave me hope that communities in his experience are willing participants in economic-environmental systems that benefit them if they can trust it and have power to make decisions about it.
And as I write this, my new host agency Rainforest Alliance is sending me to the tropical jungles of the Petén province to see their community projects there and, most importantly, to discuss with their Petén personnel what processes and materials we can also apply to climate change education/environmental education with community groups in Totonicapán (and which ones we simply can’t, for cultural and environmental reasons!). I expect to mostly learn on this trip, but I can’t help but feel like the pressure is high. This is the first time I’m being employed because somebody thinks I’m valuable. With this privilege comes responsibility, and we haven’t really defined yet what they’re going to be expecting from me based on the information I’m going to see and report on and/or give my feedback on. But what could be better than be sent to learn, about how people learn, and then go implement that by teaching people, and end up learning more oneself?
So I go, not knowing exactly how all these different experiences will weave together into something coherent and well-thought-out, but I’ve decided that the point for now is to be a sponge – soak up as much information as possible, somewhat indiscriminately because one never knows when some detail may become of supreme importance. So many times in my life I’ve played the role of “sponge,” it seems! Because for now, I don’t have benchmarks, I don’t have to chart my progress, and I don’t have to prove my completion of indicators. All that will come as, I hope, the project objectives, timeline, budget, and all other details become clear. I sense that this project for which I am staying an extra year in Guatemala may actually have the tangible impacts in the end that I maybe regretted not seeing in my work in El Aprisco for the past two years. But then again, I’m still learning what Peace Corps means, what my service has meant to me and to others, and what another year might mean to my community members. Another year in poverty, here I come!!! I imagine some of you reading this were once Peace Corps volunteers yourselves… One day, I want you to tell me what Peace Corps means. I probably still won’t have it figured out by then. :)

20 February, 2011

Integration... the long haul

Five months have passed since my last blog post, and of course the temptation to use a blog as a journal is powerful...
But the description of changes in temperature and weather, the litany of events this entire fall and winter season, and in particular the itinerary of the Roske family Christmas visit, would simply bore and drive off anyone actually reading this :)

So instead I want to focus on the fact that technically my time here in Guatemala should be ending with the month of March of this year. My training group of January 2009 has its Close of Service date set for March 26th, 2011. This doesn't mean everybody is forced to go home that day; Peace Corps, if you haven't noticed, is kinda into the whole lack of definition on certain points, so some people have already gone home, some people will leave between now and that day of such significance at the end of March, and some will find themselves hanging onto life here and in their hesitation taking a few more days or weeks to really finish everything up and head home.

And then there are those of us thinking about taking a few extra months to feel "finished up" with Guatemala - twelve months, to be precise. I didn't think it would happen this way. To be honest, I took from my last visit home in July a strong need to be home and partake in life in Minnesota for a while, 8 months or so from then. And here we are, seven of those months down, and I frankly feel some days like I make a better guatemalteca than I do American. Where did that resolve to go home to Minnesota, go?
Well it's not that i just got scared of readjustment, because frankly the call home is still quite hard to ignore, and I’d happily go home to family and friends in a heartbeat. The problem is, a pretty exciting work prospect came up, and seemed like it might make more sense than going home to a lackluster work economy... go home to start looking for a job like this, or stay here for it and save everyone a few plane tickets?

If all goes well, I could be working with a non-governmental organization that works towards environmental sustainability and fair trade practices in countries all over the world. I’d be working for forest conservation, and my daily activities could pertain to some or all of the following: environmental education (with school groups, with community groups, maybe with other industry players like carpenters, etc.), corporate environmental responsibility (marketing and promotion to businesses to reduce their carbon footprint through carbon credits), reforestation (tree nurseries, trainings on proper tree planting, seed collection, etc.), and probably a range of other activities. This environmental NGO is becoming somewhat well-known (ahem, for an environmental NGO…) around the world… maybe you’ve heard of Rainforest Alliance?

If that name’s not ringing a bell, start looking for the little green frog symbol on coffee, on chocolates, etc. That symbol means the production of that good met rather strict organic and fair-trade standards, and its rising popularity and demand is the only way those standards can have a real impact on the global market for those goods that are historically exploitative both in terms of ecology and in terms of labor. What happens when businesses ask for Rainforest Alliance certified products? In the global market, they begin to outcompete products that didn’t take environmental and human rights concerns into account. This is good, right?

But no one can touch topics like this in Totonicapán if they’re seen as a foreign, external influence on a proud, historic, and effectual indigenous community structure. This is the one thing I have… people here know me! They know I came to work in El Aprisco teaching their kids, or they’ve seen me around the 48 Cantones (Indigenous Mayors’ Assembly) events or meetings and know I have good intentions. I love this town… I hope that a regional stint with Rainforest Alliance doesn’t keep me from this pueblo and all the wonderful people in it… Mom, Dad, and siblings know, they met an inordinate amount of those individuals who have made life great for me here.

So I guess I'm one of those crazy ones that has integrated too much. "Integration"... a classic Peace Corps word that has come to take on whole new meanings to me in my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Integration is I guess what happens when a volunteer develops such an identity and a sense of community in their town (or "site", in Peace Corps terminology) that they don't want to leave when their two years of service are up. Integration is I guess donning
traje for special occasions (first, letting the women dress you... then, real integration is knowing how to put it on yourself, and what it means to put it on wrong, haha). Integration is people inviting you to birthday parties, weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, etc. Integration is not complaining when you have pan dulce with café (monotonous sweet bread rolls with sugared-down instant coffee-water) for the seventh night this week. Integration is the ambulatory cheese seller seeking you out, signifying of course that you have now become another steady buyer in his market. Integration is greeting young boys in town you know with their nickname and the secret handshake. Integration is the pick-up drivers who head out of town towards your work knowing you well enough to ask you if you want a ride when they drive by, instead of vice versa. Integration is not really knowing the nearby big city full of gringos very well, because that's not where nor with whom you spend your free time. In short, integration is having gotten so used to a lifestyle...

...that maybe the one you had before gets a little forgotten.

21 September, 2010

Rain, Rain, go away… but not completely, please…

Well it’s official: it's an excessively wet year. If it's not drought and famine like it was this time last year (the growing i.e. wet season), it's so much rain from so many hurricanes and tropical storms that landslides are everywhere, people lose crops as well as houses (and in some cases their lives) to flooded rivers and sliding mud (and the occasional infernal abyss opening in the middle of the capital city, check the news online someplace for photos!), the Interamerican highway gets completely blocked by landslides or totally washed/caved out at several locations... First it was Agatha, then it was Alex, and then I stopped keeping track of what they’re called. It's ridiculous, and it’s just in time for Totonicapán’s Feria! Haha.

Feria should be good this year, seeing as they finally finished construction “remodeling” the Central Park with a covered stage, etc. etc. for all the bands that are scheduled for, well, every day 2-10 pm since last week till the 30th of September. And now I live in town, so I get to participate in all the fun quite a bit more than I did last year! (I also get the consequences, like constantly hearing said bands from said park till late in the evening, dealing with increased traffic, and increased numbers of drunks walking the streets… but it’s a trade-off that doesn’t bother me much.) So the city center will soon be incapacitated to traffic by hundreds of covered vendors’ shops, half of whom all will be selling roscas (look like circular pretzals but are sweetish and crunchy) and the other half, bricks of coconut candy dyed various colors. I’m not kidding you, this is the kind of marketing genius you find here… if it works for one person, it’s got to work for two hundred more, right? 

The new place is good for me. I live with a middle-aged indigenous Señora, and while there are a surprising number of disadvantages I didn't realize I had so good up in the "provincial" village (like hot water, a shower, a sink in the kitchen and in the bathroom, a flushing toilet), frankly I stress out less over most everything else: food, internet, what time I get done with work in town, skyping my folks, etc. Because it matters less now. If I need something now, I just walk 3 blocks to the market and buy it, or if it's nighttime I find a close-by tienda. Same with internet. None of this having to finish everything and be waiting on the right street corner by 6 pm for a pickup driver to pass who happens to be going past the village. What a spoiled Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve turned out to be! This all comes from the reality I faced when I came here, of working in a park way up in a little village, but needing access to the town where the association's office is, where food and internet and all other personal and work-related amenities are... I had to choose to live in one, and commute to and from the other. I tried it Collegeville-style for my first year and a half, living in the boonies and just trying to take advantage of time in town to do everything that needed to be done. But in the end, the complications of that approach got the better of me. So now I do the opposite: I live in town and commute to the park! Six months prior to my Close of Service date, it seems like an odd move and at an odd time.

But I realize I’m much happier now. I suppose one has to realize when a situation has potential to get better, and when it just won’t – which turns out to have been the case living up in the village. And I like this new little old lady (who, confusingly enough is also named Emiliana, but to differentiate I always refer to her as Doña Emiliana). She's all about sharing - time, food, knowledge, family, conversations - but is good about giving and wanting personal time too. She's particular in a good way, in that she pays attention to details in a respectful manner and will never borrow things without being really good about giving it back in good condition. She likes to give high-fives, which I found amusing when I first came. She has a daughter slightly older than me who comes to stay once a week with the new baby grandson, and we all get along swimmingly; this also means she's used to my age group and we can talk, which I haven't often found with older indigenous women here (the cultural divide and age and language barriers seem to get in the way). She likes to travel, and we've already done some of that together, always planning more. The heart of the matter is that I'm learning so much from her, and hope to continue to, and she gets all excited about learning and trying new things from me. This is so great – this is why I did Peace Corps, I guess.
And my relationship with my old host family is wonderful now. Since I'm not living there anymore, all tension and awkwardness is gone. I've visited to stay overnight a couple times and we've had so much fun! I really, really like that family and think moving was a good way to save a strong friendship.

In August I finally went to visit Jennifer my good friend from college in her Peace Corps site in Honduras, quick before her Close of Service this month of September, and together we did a lot of reflecting on time passing and our experiences or chapters of life coming to a close. What will characterize our memories of being a Peace Corps Volunteer? How will our lives have changed course? A window on her life as a PCV, my visit showed just how entirely different her experience has been from mine, and I found myself wondering if that means I’m doing it wrong, or if there is a better or best way of serving as a PCV. I think probably there isn’t, but the point is to keep analyzing that, and to keep implementing the changes that might be needed to make things better. I’m glad I implemented the change of the move, scary and potentially disastrous as it seemed to my work relationships, personal relationships, and credibility in the village. But nobody’s mad at me for leaving the village! I’m still there almost every day, albeit in the park. I was worried about nothing at all, I guess. Jennifer’s good at making me see that.

So looking back at these changes and circumstances, as Feria approaches along with the worst of the rainy season, it’s a mixed bag. There’s lots to be happy about, lots to be worried about, and lots to be excited about. The people pray for blessings this season of celebration and harvest, while in the same breath pray to be kept safe from the damage and danger of the extreme weather. I pray for the same, as well as for inspiration with my work in El Aprisco seeing as I only have 6 months left to get anything done; for the grace to continue strengthening relationships with friends and “loved ones” here; and for guidance in what I will do and where I will be when those 6 months come to a close. (Anyone got any suggestions?? I have an uncle who says Medical school… hm, sounds like a very new direction and a little intimidating… ) Keep well! and hope you’re keeping warmer and dryer than we are here.

Get to know your public servants month (Note: this is from April-May 2010)

Once in a while some unlikely situation presents itself, leading to a string of unlikely and heretofore unimagined opportunities. It’s sometimes called serendipity, and this day in late April was not the first day its whimsical influence.
Having traveled to the Guatemala City area for my Peace Corps Mid-Service Conference (another one of those volunteer reunions of my cohort group, particularly significant for its marking of my halfway point), I was suddenly bombarded that fateful Friday by my Peace Corps superiors asking if I planned to be back in Totonicapán the next day, Saturday. I wasn’t; I was staying near the capital for the weekend because I had scheduled a routine but obligatory medical appointment for Monday in the city, there having been no other openings. But I said, “I can be…?” My PC project director and boss Flavio explained that the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala was traveling to Totonicapán the next day for a big meeting with the Alcaldía Indígena de 48 Cantones, the Indigenous Mayors’ Association with which I sometimes work on forestry, trash management and environmental education projects. I am the only North American who works with them, and if there were anyone who could help orient the Ambassador to the nuanced realities of this powerful form of local grass-roots government it would probably be me… So I jumped at the news! Of course I can be there! Hmm… even if it means forgoing plans to go to the beach with friends on Saturday, haha.
And since it doesn’t hurt to enquire, I asked if the Ambassador was leaving from his home in the capital tomorrow morning, to possibly catch a ride with the convoy/entourage since otherwise I’d just be sharing the highway with them from a chicken bus! Of course, I didn’t know if that sort of thing was allowed, regular folks traveling with the Ambassador… But there I was, responding to my strict orders to arrive at 7:30 am at the “Residence” for a quick breakfast and we were on our way.
A few hours later (and considerably later than the hour at which we were supposed to arrive at the Assembly of the Indigenous Mayors in Toto), the two-SUV convoy stopped in the crowded streets around Toto’s Central Park, it being market day and the place totally crammed with people, and I climbed down from one of those SUVs with the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala. Fancy that. The big cars and the four or five bodyguards sure attracted attention, and as we walked escorted by the President of 48 Cantones and other board members who had arrived to greet us I was soon hearing “Seño! Seño!” from kids I know who recognized me (that’s a shortened “señorita” and is how all young women and female teachers are referred to in this country). I sure felt important, and like I didn’t really deserve it!
That feeling didn’t change when we climbed the stairs and were ushered into the Assembly. I was whisked to the front with the rest of the Ambassador’s party, and reflected that this wouldn’t have happened had I not by coincidence been in Guatemala City and asked for a ride; I would’ve been just another member of support staff present that afternoon when the embassy entourage showed up. Hence, serendipity.
The Ambassadorial visit was for the dignitary to get to know this organization, and also to sound out whether any potential for Embassy financial support existed. The Board of Directors did much speech-making on the history, structure, and function of 48 Cantones, after which the Ambassador gave his address in k’iche’ (wild enthusiasm from the assembly, of course), after which the President of 48 Cantones presented and briefly detailed his grant proposal. Of course, all this to ask for money!
In the car on the way back to Guatemala City (ah yes, when he found out I had to be back in Guate the Ambassador offered me a ride back too! What a good guy) it was just the Ambassador and I, and he reflected quite a bit on the practicality of the proposal with which he had been presented that day. An exorbitant amount of money to build a building! And for what? “I’d never get this through; I’d be laughed out first!” If only there were a way we could help them out with the tree nursery and reforestation efforts they talked about… If only we could encourage the community environmental education stuff they said they do… And I agreed.
In all, it was a car ride of stimulating conversation and some good ideas and reflections; the Ambassador left me his card with emails and everything, and as the SUV convoy drove me up to the front door of where I was staying and dropped me off I remember thinking… What just happened? Did all that really just happen?
And while that day was soon over the issue of the funding grant was not, and my part to play in this was just beginning really. I soon found out from my friends on the Natural Resources Board of 48 Cantones that another grant proposal did in fact exist, one that included aid on tree nursery upkeep and reforestation, as well as on community education campaigns. Just the thing the Ambassador had expressed wanting to see more of! So I emailed him a copy of the alternate proposal that, because of politics between boards and board members of 48 Cantones, wasn’t presented to him that Saturday but had all the elements he expressed wanting to see. Of course he was interested, and these days we are in negotiations on how to make a grant fit this proposal. I sure hope I see something come of this before I go. If anyone deserves USAID money, it’s the Natural Resource Board of the 48 Cantones whose members dedicate themselves every year to preserving the 21,000-hectare coniferous forest surrounding the pueblo; the natural and cultural legacy that has been “passed down” for generations but which nowadays is being slowly degraded, thinned, and shrunken for lack of environmental ethic and awareness. I sense I am already invested in this potential project because my park, El Aprisco, has played a big part in instilling that lost environmental ethic in the newest generation. But just one effort isn’t enough. We’ll see what USAID says on the matter!