Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Evan de Leon

This past fall I spent a week in Florida as a graduation present from my Aunt Michele and Uncle Larry. In between lazy naps on the beach and Coronas with limes, we fit in tidbits of educational material. Somewhere around drinking from the fountain of youth and losing Miss Jessica’s sunglasses, we learned about the history of Florida, in which Ponce de Leon discovered La Florida in 1,513. I’ve always thought Ponce de Leon had a classy ring to it, besides he was the first governor of Puerto Rico. We all know how I secretly wish I was Rican, it would give me an excuse for my sassy tendencies (right?).

Flash-forward to my Guatemalan vida. I just finished eating dinner with my host family, one which I actually cooked myself. Sure it was only eggs with tomatoes and onions, frijoles, and tortillas, but I was able to take and comprehend directions in Spanish fired off quicker than my sprint to the bathroom after a rumble in the tummy. My Spanish is progressing, poco a poco, and will be evaluated again tomorrow. This was supposed to take place today, but there has been a strike with the camionetas, or “chicken bus” drivers and workers, due to the high number of violence and lack of government support in stopping it. If I am not at the upper intermediate level I will have to take three more weeks of intensive classes before officially heading out to my site. This would be a bummer, but if it is the case I’m sure it will help me out down the line in being more productive in site.

As the days dwindle down with my host-family, actually few enough to count on one hand, I am fully aware of how much I will miss them. I’m now accustomed to talking sports and human rights issues with Don Jaime, walking hand in hand with Dona and the kids to Church on Sunday (and of course shushing them or stopping them from doing their classic tap the man in front of them and then look away act), having the kids call me for meals, and even Grandpa’s horse next to the shower, flies and all. I even get a besito from Andrea before bed each night. This sense of community and integration are aspects I aspire to incorporate into my two remaining years at my new site. Nearly fifteen months ago, how time flies, I faced a difficult decision, taking the education route or small business development. I chose to take advantage of my degree and go the sustainable business route, weary of the possibility of struggles in putting time into the areas of relationships, community and children ….beyond the marketing plan and gross income.

Focus back to the Atlantic and the Santa Maria led by the one and only Evan de Leon. The TeaCo-op community was quick to coin me as such, besides the President who calls me “Mr. Leon.” Throughout my four day visit the current volunteer was able to show me the spark-notes version of how things run; the marketing and promotion contacts in Coban, the president and vice… etc. at the Co-op, my counterpart and the other tour guides, the drying and packaging facility, even my office I will be working in. I am fortunate enough to be replacing a volunteer and am inheriting their current apartment where I will live for at least the next three months. The room for tour growth/ guide training, improvement in the joint tourism promotion for Alta Verapaz and potential in the German ruins on the land that date back to the 1800’s are just a few of those I noticed in my short time.

One thing which was encouragingly prevalent was the sense of community and ability to balance business and income strategy with that of relationship building and cultural exchange. In just the four days we ate meals with a handful of families throughout the co-op, typically a soup with a meat and occasionally rice. Some unique interchanges included taking part in a family Mayan blessing of a newly purchased cow, watching a group of eight brothers play the marimba in sync for us following a delicious meal in their home, and visiting the local school. The past volunteer worked a significant amount with the local school, something I hope to continue on after he leaves. Almost every member in the community and workplace knew their name and greeted them as we walked by, or even from down in the field or through their window. This is a testament to their effort in reaching out to the community. Despite the endless goodbyes, the current volunteer never seemed to get chocked up about leaving, just a part of their personality.

On my last day of site visit we were biking through the trail when we stopped to say goodbye to a family that they had become close with throughout their service. The father of the family had been an unofficial counterpart to the volunteer, always lending a helping hand and providing sound advice and input. He had become ill over the past year with what is highly believed to be cancer. In a failed attempt with good intentions, the volunteer had paid about a month’s salary to a proclaimed health professional who had set-up work in town. After fronting the money himself, following an assessment with ‘scheduled’ transport to the capital, the man fled with money in hand. The father has not been able to take down solid food in months and lay emaciated and struggling on his plywood bed when we arrived. Trying to communicate (in Q'eqchí,), but receiving no response the volunteer burst into tears, running to the arms of the group who have become his family. Sitting there on a wooden bench next to the struggling man, a tear subtly trickled down my check and onto the dirt floor. My first cry in Guatemala. Not from homesickness, or the scrape I endured from my bike incident, or from the scary dreams and restless sleep the malaria meds have given me, but from the helplessness engulfed in genuine love.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cooperativa de Tea

            Yesterday all 45 trainees received our sites.  The Healthy School (ES) and Sustainable Community Tourism (TCS) broke off accordingly and met with our APCD, or program director.  Following a speech concerning the next steps, safety, and our training process we were each blindfolded, eagerly awaiting our location for the next 24 months.  After each of our names were called out we were slowly guided to our final destinations on a life size map of Guate.  Thick folder of info in hand  we waited until everyone else had done the same. Possible brief inappropriate touches to recognize a neighbor, 'who coughs that way' thoughts, and attentiveness to every possible blind detail crossed our minds .  Finally, we removed our blindfolds and were able to see our locations, sites and distance from friends we have gotten to know over the past two and a half months.
       My site is in Alta Verapaz.  Located around Coban, I will spend my next two years working at the  Tea Co-op. My site holds 22,000 inhabitants (nearly 95% indigenous Q'eqchí) and a temprano-humid climate with an average temperature around 67-68.  I will be spending next week at my site, working with my counterpart in order to establish an idea of what my life will entail through 2012.  Current expressed needs in site include improving touristic services and the management capacities, establishing a promotion and marketing strategy and increasing environmental awareness and education within the school and local government.  Listed secondary needs include English lessons, VIH- SIDA (HIV- AIDS) awareness and lessons or training in advanced technology, internet/ establishing a website. 
             I will have much more updated information after my visit next week where I will hopefully establish my housing and other basic needs.  Talking to some current volunteers I have been told Alta Verapaz is a 'frat' department, number heavy in male volunteers.  From my group Jordan (Rochester), Winfrey, Fife, Chad and Alex have all been placed in this region.  Although this is the case, Alex and Chad are way up near Mexico, all of our sites vary drastically.  Either way I am excited to begin my two years of service and face the struggles and opportunities that await me.  I wear my AV letters proud (bro?). 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


To all my Jersey readers out there, I am not referring to the fist-pumping frat-fiesta music blaring in the basement next to the beer pong table and plethora of blow-outs and uggs (joking... I think), but to waterfalls. During field based training us eighteen eco-tourism trainees spent a week in Baja and Alta Verapaz. Our first day we visited a current volunteer in Chilasco where we embarked on a few hour long hike down to the highest waterfall in all of Central America. The trek was gorgeous/ equally muddy, despite the extremely foggy day affecting the view at the waterfall itself.

The majority of the rest of the week was spent in Samac visiting a current volunteer nearing his COS (Close of Service). Samac, located in a cloud forest, is a small village holding German history and ruins, a Kek'chi population and apparently a landmine for bird watching. We all stayed in two cabins and spent the week using latrines and taking frigidly cold showers, a possible taste of what volunteering will entail. Throughout the week we participated in various activities from sun-up until dark. A few activities worth noting:

  • We were trained/ worked alongside the community in designing and engraving sixteen signs for the village

  • I learned to make tortillas with the local family who cooked for us for the week(I dropped one on the ground... the equivalent of dropping a baby, but we'll try to keep that on the dl)

  • Patty and I gave a 45 minute charla on Buyer Expectations with a translator to the local womens groups, B'eleb' B'atz and Ixb'alamke. The weaving the community uses is a form called Pikb'il, an ancient style of weaving which takes about two weeks for one blouse.
  • We learned trail development and management at the Cafe Cooperative in Chicojl, where one of us will be spending our next two years. I also had the best coffee I've had in my life!
  • I made friends with a bunch of kids in the village of Samac, including Domingo (translated Sunday). There were plenty of jokes and by the time I left my new name was Lunes- Monday
  • We were able to talk with a handful of current volunteers and hear about all the great work that is currently underway. All of our sites are definitely very diverse and I am anxiously awaiting placement on March 12.
  • After a week of a greater fix of beans than one could ever dream of... nightmare wise (Of course I prefer pinto beans to black beans) we all went out for a DELICIOUS meal at a Cuban restaurant in Coban.
This week we have constructed four swings for the park out of old tires, two horses and two baskets, and are finishing up the promotional items and Business Plan for the local muni. The four of us spent today cutting down fourteen large trees with eight other Alotenangians to construct the juegos in the park. I know what you're thinking, eco-tourism cutting trees, but five are being planted for each that was cut. This was definitely a great way to build confidence with our counterparts and also become the source of a craving for icy-hot.

Lying here now, I am extremely exhausted and pleasantly full. Why you may ask? Yesterday I went to the market in Antigua and bought platanos verdes, which I used to make tostones for my family this evening. I know, past volunteers in my house have prepared pizza and lasagna. How dare I make a Latin dish to contribute, BUT I must say my tostones are kick ass even in Central America. I must give a shout out to Mrs. Pena for making me the well-rounded gringo-tino chef that I am today. (Also a quick nod to Alyssa who met Mrs. P this week). Until next time...

Oh, and if I offended any of my Jersians with my opening statement, just know I've stood up for all of you many-a-times letting people know that the state isn't actually like The Jersey Shore. There's definitely a bad rep across the country, but there also is not one volunteer out of the nearly 50 from NJ. I'm just saying they wear too much hair gel here too, it wouldn't be too bad :-)

I also received my first Guate haircut:
And bad hair do or not, I would like Miss J to know I have been wearing the oso negro cap throughout my adventure.  Here is a picture of a bunch of us out for the Superbowl.