Ironically, the name of my first blog post created in late 2009 was entitled “An Early Invitation to Serve.” After being in a country I have grown to love for two years, we are being forced to leave a month early. The current security situation in Guatemala is not good- one employee explained it as “a very dark time for Peace Corps Guatemala.” The entire country will be consolidated to serve in one area of the country. Having served my two years in Alta Verapaz, the hardest part of this news is accepting that the department with the highest average birthrate in the country-11, some of the most severe malnutrition, and greatest need will no longer be receiving support. Losing my last month in site was a tough pill to swallow, but I have come to terms with it. During the 2-month state of siege, fellow volunteers who left had two hours to return to their homes, gather their things, and leave, making this deadline not seem so harsh. The next month will allow me to finish my large project with the school, hold final meetings with my cooperative and the tourism alliance, attend despedidas or “goodbye parties” and spend a last few nights with my original host family.
Having to leave has subconsciously forced me to commence reflecting on my time here. From a work standpoint, I have encountered many successes. These have included promotion with the tourism alliance, Viviente Verpapaz; an alliance catalog, banner, website, tourism fair. Nearly doubling the amount of tourists on the Chirrepec Cooperative in a year of a two-month drug siege, while also implementing better business practices, bilingual tour accommodations, tour feedback, and overseeing new promotional materials- new brochures, posters, etc. Teachers have been trained in environmental education and disaster management. Signage for three small community tours has been carved with the router. TEFL, computer, nutrition, and health lessons have kept minds of local youth thinking and informed. Over 600 students have been capacitated on the importance of proper dental health and proper brushing and flossing techniques. Latrines have been constructed in two rural communities through USAID. I was able to experience over forty families receiving solar panels through great investment, in turn giving them light for the first time in their lives. I have assisted with the construction of two schools made of recycled bottles and translated a handful of medical missions. The list goes on.
A rollercoaster of emotion, in reflection my time seems worthwhile. At the end of the day, or two years I suppose, the human experiences are the most memorable. I now have a godson who I am sure I will be in contact with for years to come. I helped a neighbor escape an abusive husband and start a new life. I have broken stereotypes by making tortillas with the women in the kitchen, but also broken ankles on the basketball court. My crossover isn’t actually that good, I just thought it was funny. I’ve explained how the gay man in the community was not a threat, but just an equal. Irony. I can now have a complete conversation with just local hand signals. The human experiences that have stuck with me have by no means always been feliz. I was able to spend Christmas Eve with a welcoming family, only to find out it was the eldest son’s birthday. Due to financial hardship, they had to ignore the fact, unable to afford a present or cake at the time. In response to translating to a woman at a medical jornada- from English, to Spanish, to Q’eqchi- that she had an extremely severe form of thyroid cancer, she replied “What is cancer?” One of my best local friends told me she wished she had followed her dreams as I had recommended. Instead she was “too scared, got pregnant, and is now stuck.” I have undeniably grown as a person through these and many similar experiences.
It is interesting that the month remaining- a time period that seemed like decades when I first arrived- now seems so short. This week I started my Peace Corps Partnership Project, consisting of two weeks of trainings with the students and the construction of a recycled playground. The day I was told I have to leave early, I was also informed by my bank that my credit card had been cloned and half the project money had been stolen. An official case has been claimed with the bank and the money should be returned in the coming weeks. Despite this fact, I am leaving in the coming weeks and needed to proceed with the project now. In writing this I realize I have learned to better roll with the punches as well. We are cutting corners on the project, but the teachers are still implementing the lesson plans they had previously learned. During my site-mate Kamille’s service, new roofing was put into the same local school. Yesterday morning, while going through some of the old metal, we were able to use a few of the old roof beams to construct the teeter-totters. In the end we are further embracing recycling, being creative, and allowing another project to be partially funded. (Pictures of the project to come)
Just the other day, I came across an old bucket list I had made a few years back. One of the goals was to live in a foreign country for a year. 26 months later I suppose that is a double check. Speak another language- Check. Make a positive impact in the world-Check. Which check is next? Travel Asia or get a tattoo? I am excited to find out.
My adventure started on the 26th of December, right after Christmas at home. I left Cicero and drove down to New Jersey to meet Luis at his house. His mom had the day off and made for us Alcapurrias, a Puerto Rican fritter made from a seasoned dough mixture of grated green bananas. The dough surrounds a meat filling, typically beef or chicken, and it is rolled into a distinctive peg shape and fried for several minutes. Delicious! After a snack and a little repacking, we were on our way to the airport. The flight from Newark to Houston went well and Luis arranged for a shuttle to pick us up from the airport and take us to the hotel. We had cookies waiting for us upon check in and it wasn’t too long until I was passed out in bed.
As we boarded the plane the next day, we met two Peace Corps Volunteers returning from the holidays, Betty and Barrett. I admit I was very nervous and experiencing some anxiety about my trip, but so excited to see Evan and meet all the people who have influenced his life these past two years. We landed in Guatemala City just before noon and ventured out to find a taxi to the bus station for our 5 hour bus trip to Coban. The ride up was a little unnerving – the driver zoomed through narrow streets and windy roads. At one point we were so close to a bus I could have poked my finger out the window and touched it! Evan met us in Coban and we took a taxi to Chirrepec where his home is. It is located atop a hill and has a beautiful view. There’s even a leather leaf farm just across the street. Evan made pasta with homemade tomato sauce for dinner that night and we celebrated our safe arrival in Guatemala.
On Wednesday we traveled to San Juan Chamelco to La Siguamonta, an orchid and organically grown produce farm at the foot of the Sierra de Santa Cruz mountain range. It was truly a beautiful tour and I think we all learned something interesting during the tour. They also have many species of bees and we tasted a wonderful assortment of exotic honeys. We then traveled into the town of Chamelco and saw the house Evan had previously lived in. We saw the family that lived next door to him and I got to meet his two godsons, Selvin and Edgar Ivan. Edgar let me hold him and Selvin was just that much older and cried every time he saw me. We brought small gifts for all the children and met a sweet little girl named Dulce who made sure I met everyone and saw all the homes that were connected for all the extended family.
We traveled into Coban by microbus (similar to an Astro van) to have lunch at Casa D’Acuña. This restaurant is owned by the same people who own the orchid and organically-gown produce farm. One of the servers knew how to do latte art and made coffees for us decorated with a bear on the top. We enjoyed a delicious meal and relaxed for a bit. After resting, we then went to the market, the post office and the park in town center, meeting many people who are a part of Evan’s life in Guatemala. We even saw Winfrey, the Peace Corps volunteer who works at the coffee cooperative at the other side of Coban. Evan and Luis were able to deliver scholarship money he had reeived to a young boy on his Cooperative, affording him the ability to attend school for the 2012 year. Luis then made a parmesan crusted chicken on a bed of spinach and roasted up some tortillas given to them by the grateful family. The boys took very good care of me!
On Thursday we visited the tea cooperative Té Chirrepeco and met many of the people Evan works with every day. We walked through some of the roads through the cooperative and saw the modest homes many of the families live in. Banana and avocado trees are planted amongst the tea plants to provide shade for the crops. We also toured the area where the tea is processed and met with the president of the coop. After toasting with some tea, we traveled to Coban to Café El Merendero for pupusas Salvadoreñas. Patty owns this restaurant and included Evan and Winfrey in their family Christmas celebration. After lunch, we traveled by taxi to Chicoj to the coffee cooperative and met Gloria, the head of the tours. We enjoyed a cup of coffee, a walk through the area and bought some wonderful coffee to bring home. Gloria took us back to her family’s home and showed us the beautiful stoves that were built as a part of Winfrey’s improved stoves USAID project. These new stoves vent properly and help prevent many ailments that come as a result of inhaling smoke. It was so wonderful to have met in these few short days so many families that have welcomed me into their home, as they have Evan over these past two years. That night I stayed in Coban at El Portal hoping for a hot shower, but settled for just a cold shower.
Friday morning we had breakfast at Casa D’Acuña and waited for our microbus to take us to Antigua, about a 4 ½ hour ride. We stayed at a beautiful hotel called Casa Florencia run by a very nice woman named Patricia. She made us all feel very comfortable. We walked the beautiful cobblestone streets, saw many vendors selling fabrics and gifts and took in incredible views of the beautiful city. We had dinner at Sabe Rico, a dinner for 3 that total 297 quetzales or 35 US dollars.
Saturday was New Year’s Eve and we had breakfast at the hotel. I loved the way it was decorated – lots of wrought iron, clay pots and my favorite warm colors on the walls. After finishing, we walked through the market in Antigua to where the “chicken buses” depart. These pimped out buses are at least 3 to a seat with people standing in the aisle and hanging outside of the door. People would jump in and out of the emergency exit and yell “BAJA” or GETTING OFF if they needed to get off. We rode on the bus about 25 minutes to Alotenango to visit Evan’s first host family.
There were screams of excitement from Christian and Andrea as Evan approached and they all welcomed us to a wonderful lunch. In those first 3 months in Guatemala, I was always relieved to know Evan had been placed with such a lovely family. While we were there we saw that many people were coming in and out to use the family’s pilla to fill their water containers. It seemed the town was experiencing a water shortage and many families had been without water for several days. Evan’s host family had a large reserve and openly shared it with the other families in their community. It really did speak to their kind-hearted nature. After lunch, we were offered a ride back to Antigua in the back of a pick-up truck. We stopped at Café Holistico, a hostal where many of the other Peace Corps volunteers were staying for New Years and chatted a while with his fellow volunteers. We later met them at La Canoa on a rooftop bar where celebrated New Years with incredible fireworks and wonderful company.
Sunday, New Year’s Day, was very relaxing. We lunched in the courtyard of a small restaurant called Culinaria. It was such a beautiful day. We then wandered the streets and walked through the markets, stopping to have drinks and appetizers at another rooftop establishment called Lava. We had exotic ice creams on our way back to the hotel – passion fruit with jalapeño, pistachio cardamom and a secret recipe made with fruits.
Monday we started the day with our microbus arriving bright and early at 7:30 AM to take us to the beach. We went from a chilly morning temperature of 50 degrees in Antigua to a temperature of 88 degrees in Monterrico. We stayed at a motel called Brisas del Mar just across from the beach. It had a small pool and we were one of the only ones staying there. The waves at the beach were strong and the sand was a dark brown similar to soil. We went to a restaurant called Johnny’s Place for lunch and afterward then I sat in an Adirondack chair overlooking the beach while Evan and Luis enjoyed swimming in the ocean. That evening we walked to a rooftop restaurant and watched the sunset.
Tuesday and Luis’ birthday! We went to breakfast at Johnny’s Place and had coffee frappes while lying in the sun. It was so hot. We enjoyed the beach some more and took an afternoon bus back to Antigua, about 2 ½ hours to my first stay at a hostal, Burkhart. We went to a great restaurant called Epicure across the street from ruins and celebrated Luis’ 26th birthday with great food and wonderful conversation.
Now for our next adventure – Lake Atitlan! We took another microbus 2 ½ hours to a town called Panajachel. It was quite a long descent down the winding road to reach this lakeside village. We had lunch at a local restaurant and brought some beautiful scarves from a local girl peddling them to our table. We had all our luggage and so we took a tuk tuk to the boat dock as I prepared for my next mode of transportation, boat. Our hotel, called Casa del Mundo, was located across the lake in a town called El Jaibalito. It was beautiful, built on the volcanic cliffs of Lake Atitlan. When we arrived, we had a long ascent up the stone steps to the hotel from the dock. The hotel had an amazing view of the volcanoes and was surrounded by beautiful gardens.
Thursday we had a nice relaxing day with breakfast overlooking the volcanoes, fruit smoothies, reading, swimming and a candlelight dinner. We met some beautiful people from England at the hotel – Tricia, Carolyn and Tim and Luis exchanged emails with them. Tricia and Carolyn were celebrating their 60th birthday with a month long trip to Guatemala and Belize. We met several other people but our new friends from England were our most memorable.
On Friday, we took a private boat back to Panajachel to catch our microbus back to Antigua. We dropped our bags off at D’Leyenda Hotel located near the park and ventured off to lunch at Tartines – boasting the nicest terrace in Antigua. We met the chef from France who proudly told us all of the day’s specials. Luis and him spoke a little French and immediately became good friends. One of specials was Snook, one of my favorite kinds of fish I would always get when visiting my sister in Florida. It is no longer available and I was delighted to see it. We went up the spiral staircase to the rooftop terrace overlooking ruins. After lunch we spent a lot of time shopping the different markets in Antigua for special gifts for special people Evan wanted to remember at home. A little time relaxing at the hotel and then dinner around the corner at Sobremesa, our most expensive dinner at 669Q, but definitely one of the best. We had 3 different steak entrees which were incredible, but also a menu including giraffe and unicorn.
And then the bittersweet day when we need to leave this beautiful country and my wonderful son Evan, who planned this incredible tour of Guatemala for Luis and I. We saw so much and met so many people. We had a rooftop breakfast at our hotel with another Peace Corps volunteer Laura, who I am so grateful that she took the time to travel to share the morning with us.
**A special thanks to my husband Gary for the extra time he spent working clinics to help fund this trip and to my friends and family who encouraged me to take this wonderful adventure. And to Luis for being a fabulous travel partner.