April 2010, minutes before I left my village for the last time.

Today I’m one year back from Guatemala. I haven’t written much since leaving. As a matter of fact, I haven’t written much since 2008.

Because as the new normal of life in the village approached and overtook the old normal of life in the states, describing it became less straightforward. With proper context and sufficient time, the exotic experiences of life in the village became ordinary.

I’m in Philadelphia these days. I’m reintegrated and subscribing to the new old normal. It’s far from the old new normal of Guatemala, but I still think about it. I’ll try to put down some stories from that time. Maybe now they will be easier to write.

the Hawaii adventure

I’ve had the good fortune to spend the last month on a fact-finding mission with my friend Dave, a fellow volunteer from Guatemala. Wild pigs are terrible neighbors, but Dave is an ideal housemate. And he teaches me Taoism.

wiib’ chihab’ sak’al

Two Years Complete

My errands finished, I went outside to find a taxi. After waiting too long, I went around the corner for some chips. It was late afternoon and the day was coming to a close. People would be getting off work soon.
I found the chips I wanted, but I had to hesitate. In some stores they say Lay’s or chips (cheeps), and some stores say nachos or papas. When in doubt, I use the Spanish (a strategy that once failed me when I wanted a “siete up,” which turns out to be called “seven oop”).
So as I thought it over, filling the quiet by pointing at what I wanted, the guy behind me said in English, “Chips, dude. You can just say chips.”

Once I had my cheeps, we talked a little about where we were from and what we were doing here. He didn’t need to explain that he was a Guatemalan-born Los Angeles resident in town to visit family, because I had already figured it out. The Guatemalan-born Los Angeles resident or GbLAr is a sparse but recognizable character type in the city (look for visible tattoo and/or piercing, a manicured goatee, and a slight 90′s sag. Sunglasses vary. LA accent is diagnostic).
I told him I was a volunteer working in villages outside of Cobán.
“Oh, so did you just get here?” he asked, inferring from my difficulty acquiring snacks. I hastily explained that I was close to finishing my second year in the country -and that it’s the inconsistent admixture of English in Guatemalan Spanish that trips me up.

I went outside for a taxi. I forgot the cross streets of my destination, and I tried to work out a description of my stop for the taxista when I found one. Oncoming traffic was hard to see through the orange of the low sun. I
thought about the GbLAr mistaking me for a new arrival at the end of my service. Did it bother me?
A taxi pulled up before I was done thinking.
It was my friend Victor.
“Where are you going my friend?” he asked in Q’eqchi’.
“Victor, you know that comedor where we like to eat?” I asked as I climbed in, “Drop me there.”

junpaat neke’xik eb’ li chihab’

The years go fast.

xwotzb’al yehom b’aanuhom

Cultural Exchange

Last week Sanimtacá hosted 30 students and teachers from Shalom Christian Academy of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The visit was a mission trip for the senior class organized through Proeval Raxmu.
I joined the small envoy from Sanimtacá to meet the group in Cobán. After introductions, there was a small soccer match to break the ice. The cultural differences were apparent from the start. When the boys played, the Pennsylvanians used passing and teamwork while the Q’eqchi boys made up for their disorganized drives to the goal with superior ball control. The Sanimtacans were stunned every time the white goalie stopped a play by catching the ball in his hands instead of slapping it away.
The differences between the girls were even more pronounced. The Mayan girls stood in place with their hands at their sides, striking at the ball only if it came near, while the North American girls stormed aggressively around the pitch.

The group arrived in the community the next day. I was nervous about cultural appropriateness. I worried that one of the students might, not knowing the local customs, do something inflammatory like toss some food to a friend, wear a hat to dinner, or enter a building without asking permission.
So I was slightly anxious when the groups came together. Both the Mayans and the Americans made gaffs. The Q’eqchi’s were fascinated by the exchange student from Indonesia and as they asked me where she was from, they pulled the corners of their eyes back to eliminate confusion. When the American girls were paired with their host families, naturally, they hugged their new host parents. I smiled at the confused acceptance on the Mayans’ faces and realized that both sides were so concerned about not offending the other that all the rules had been relaxed. A detailed primer on protocol might have only increased the salient self-consciousness.
The primary cultural obstacle was the language. There was a little bit of Spanish understanding in the group, but the amount of Spanish actually used in Sanimtacá is so small that a student with a few years of high school Spanish is nearly as lost as a student of German or French.
Rob Cahill from Proeval Raxmu was on hand organizing everything and translating Q’eqchi’ to English and vice-versa. The students went off in pairs with their host families for the night. After dinner, everyone met back for an evening activity at either one house high in the valley or a lower one.
While Rob translated the activities at the high house, I was in charge of translation in the lower one. Three women demonstrated backstrap Picb’il weaving in the center of the candle-lit room while the students played games with their new host siblings. I was busy as the sole intermediary. The families wanted to know if their guests were satisfied with their accommodations and What were their names again? The visitors wanted to communicate their schedules for eating and bathing and to assure their families that everything was fine.

I went to bed around nine but woke up to a knock at my door at midnight. When I came outside, there were three people waiting in the dark. Qawa’ Avilardo explained that there was something wrong with his white people. The kids started to tell me what was wrong and I couldn’t understand a word. I had to realize that they were speaking plain English. I explained to Avilardo that one of the students was feeling sick and we led them up the valley to wake up the nurse.

The next day everyone split into three groups for community service projects. While one group planted fruit trees near the village school, another planted wild avocado trees before the treeline near the top of the valley. I led the third group on trail maintenance in the cloud forest.
Qawa’ Ernesto and I shared the history and folklore of the area during the ascent to the forest. On the trail we pointed out the animals and Ernesto found orchids for the group to see. Trees had fallen across the trail in two places and we removed them easily. The rest of the trail was in good shape.

We met the other groups for lunch at the bottom of the valley. The kitchen at the center of town is a high-ceilinged wooden building with long tables for dining on one side and open fires over earthen tables on the other. A score of the local women were cooking cauldrons of stew and clapping out tortillas.
We were served and the students sang a song before eating. The women working over the fire stopped cooking to listen. Conversations at the tables revolved around the adventures of the night before and the labors of the day.
After lunch we went down to the school for arts and crafts with the kids. The villagers wanted to know if I knew our visitors before they came. They wanted to know where Pennsylvania was. They wanted to know which one I was thinking about marrying.
In the evening I went around to a few of the houses to help the families and visitors get to know each other a little better. There were a lot more questions and jokes than there had been the night before. I ate dinner with Qawa’ Roberto and his family and encouraged the visiting girls to learn how to make tortillas. The family talked me into making tortillas too. Our tortillas weren’t round or particularly attractive, but the family loved that we were doing it. I told them that after learning how to make tortillas, I should be able to find myself a good husband, which made them fall out (that joke only really works in a pre gender-equality society). The family couldn’t pronounce the girls’ names so Clarissa and Briana became Cabeza and Playera (Head and Shirt). The evening activity was Qawa’ Roberto’s demonstration of making and bottling local-plant shampoo. I caught the neighbors retelling the story about Pedro’s plan to snag a man. With all of the action in the community, demand for candles had spiked and we had to end our workshop early when we ran out of candlelight.

The next day was similar to the one before. I led a different group into the forest and we gave them the tour we have been working on for the past year and a half. At lunch the women cooking surprised us by singing a song in Q’eqchi’. The students answered back with a song in English.
The Pennsylvanians were telling me about how difficult it was to communicate with their host families; about pointing at things and about the mutual smiles of incomprehension. I suppose it appeared to them as if I had sprouted, like some Greek Titan, fully formed and fluent into this world. But there were months that they didn’t see, months of not understanding.

When we met for the evening activity (weaving baskets from pine needles), the atmosphere was completely different. It was already the third night and everyone had settled into a comfortable attitude. The early worries about causing offense were gone. The visitors had written up little visual dictionaries to learn Q’eqchi’ words for common things, and to teach the English. A few women were hard at work weaving baskets, but no one seemed to care, the house was full of conversation. Kids were blurting out “How are you!” Someone was teaching villagers how to snap their fingers. The science teacher’s husband was rolling his Rs loudly and making everyone laugh. The locals had loosened up completely and were joking loudly with the confidence that nothing inappropriate would make it over the language barrier. Everyone was fed and relaxed and the candles had been restocked. When Ernesto suggested that we call it a night, it didn’t take. No one really wanted to leave.
But there was something else I noticed. In three short days the community and I had grown a lot closer. It wasn’t just that the people were depending on me for communication with their foreigners. Having all of these visitors fresh from the United States reminded everyone in the village, myself included, how difficult it used to be for us. The innocent incomprehension of our tourists became the measuring stick that showed how far I’ve come.
And while the Americans struggled with the steep roads and worried about the spiders at night and left some of the weird food untouched, Pedro told them there was nothing to fear, that it was all normal.
So we (the village and I) remembered how I strapped the corn over my head last month to help bring in the harvest, and how I took the muddy slopes right behind the men when it was time to plant, and how I knock back the campo coffees and pound p’och and ch’och’ with the rest of them. And remember the old days when Pedro used to speak Spanish?
And I realized we were looking at each other differently. I wasn’t the weirdo anymore. And neither were they.
Because integration isn’t a one-way street. I’m not an actor in a play called Sanimtacá where I pretend to be a part of the community. As I worked for acceptance into the community, I was also learning to accept the community as mine. I didn’t notice that it was happening. But now that the village was suddenly full of white people who speak my first language, I could see that I felt more comfortable with the Q’eqchi’s. Going over to speak English with the North Americans was harder work than speaking Q’eqchi’ with the villagers I had common experience with.

That was the humbling realization I took with me to church the next day. It was November 1st, Q’e Sant, “Time of Saints” or All Saints’ Day. During Q’e Sant, the Q’eqchi’s remember their dead. All of the North Americans were there in the church, but most of the villagers were observing in their homes. Those that came offered prayers and sang a Q’eqchi’ hymn.
Robert talked about the observation of Q’e Sant and the violence that Sanimtacá lived through in the eighties during the Guatemalan civil conflict. He explained to the students that when the people of Sanimtacá remember their dead, many of them are remembering murdered loved ones. He reminded them that the violence in this country was launched and financed by the United States government.
“I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty or to say that America is bad. But I want you to keep it in mind when you look at the world today and the part that we -our country, plays in current events.”
After the service, someone came over to ask me more about the violence in Sanimtacá. And I tried to tell a story that had been told to me. But I couldn’t.

Before lunch there was a marimba and dance demonstration. While three men played the marimba, four barefoot girls in traditional dress danced their humble dance with heads down. They passed out b’oj (sugarcane moonshine) for the visitors to sample.

In the afternoon the village gathered for a farewell party. People made speeches and gifts were exchanged. Tears were shed by hosts and guests.
After the farewell some of the young guys from the village invited me back to finish the b’oj with them. So we went behind the pig stall and killed the rest of the moonshine while the guys talked about marrying Americans and dared each other to take more than one drink.
There was a time not too long ago when they would ask me questions in Q’eqchi’ and try to get me to agree to ridiculous things for a laugh. But that time is mostly over.
“Pedro we heard you make tortillas which is great because Francisco is still single. What do you think?”
I make a serious face like it’s a serious question and I need to think about it. Then I ask if they’re all crazy and they whoop.

The Shalom Christian Academy seniors left the next morning. There were more gifts and a few more tears. Even so, I could tell that the kids were ready to go home. They packed up, took a few final photographs, and left to hike up the valley where the trucks were waiting.
Jim and Sharon, two of the adults with the group posed with Qawa’ Javier and Qana’ Kristina before leaving.
“This place is really great.” said Jim. “It’s hard to leave. But I guess it’s going to be even harder for you.”
Actually, I haven’t really thought about it.

Happy Guatemalan Independence


Libertad 15 de Septiembre 1821

so close…

“Do you want to marry our little sister?”
I don’t know. How old is she?
Can she cook?
Then no.

eb’ li ch’ina ixqa’al

The girls.

What does a volunteer in a village have in common with a student in middle school? Social acceptance is top priority. But instead of waiting around to deliver sarcastic one-liners, a volunteer has to invest time and energy into becoming a part of the community.
But communities are stratified, and you can’t get to know everyone with the same approach. Based on age and gender I’ve identified five interaction groups: Men, married women, unmarried women, boys, and girls.

Getting to know the men is simple and straightforward. We can go out in the morning, pick coffee or plant corn in the mountains all day and by dinner we know each other.

The boys are also easy. They want to play soccer, they want to learn English words, they want to know what I’m doing, they want to hang out.
I’m great at soccer, so we play soccer. I’m not great at basketball, but I’m Meadowlark Lemon next to these kids.
Or we play a game called Hit Me where they ask how to say ‘hit me’ in English and I say, “Hit me.”
And then they say, “Hit me.” And then I hit them.
We would play this game a lot less if they could just remember the words, but they honestly can’t remember them from day to day and the curiosity eats them up.

Married women don’t work in the fields and they don’t play sports. So I have to go to the kitchens and have them teach me how to do something. This is pretty funny to them because they never see men chopping chicken or keeping the fire.
The married women are still impressed with my progress in Q’eqchi’ which is lucky for me because I don’t have any other tricks.

Unmarried women are sort of similar to married women but they have a habit of totally losing their minds at the sight of me. If I turn a corner and see them on the road I can watch them trying to decide if they should keep going or turn around or disappear down a side path. If there’s a group of them they can at least turn to each other and whisper until I’m gone.
There are a few that will talk to me. Sometimes they make romantic jokes that I need a day or two to decipher. This is a tough group to reach.

But the girls are the best. They’re shy like the young women, but they’re enthusiastic and playful like the boys. So they’re always trying to balance how to act around me. If there are one or two, they might say hello and keep it together until I pass and then yell as much of the English alphabet as they can remember while they run away.
Individually, they hover and disappear like butterflies. But sometimes they travel in packs. When they do, they’re brave enough to ask for photographs. And suddenly they’re borrowing art supplies and singing songs and showing me the dances they know.

The men have jokes, the women have gossip, the boys play games, but only the girls give dance recitals and draw pictures and wear costumes. So when a pack of girls shows up, I drop what I’m doing and go see what they want to show me.

the weekend

Well since I’ve been in site for almost a year, I decided it was time to give the bathroom a door. The cooperative donated some second rate lumber and I got to work. Little Jose got a stick of gum for helping. He found a hole and squirreled away the wrapper. So I showed him how I put trash in my pocket until I can find a wastebasket (use those teachable moments).
I was sawing until my arms were worn out. But from time to time a friendly passerby would arrive and (out of curiosity) take a turn sawing. I hung the door on its hinges and evened things out with a machete. A successful project.
I’m trying to think if anything else interesting happened over the weekend…
Oh yeah, there was this:

typical day

I went home for the holidays. Before I did, I made a list of the things I wanted to do and the things I wanted to eat in the USA. Partial results below:

1. Christmas with the family √
2. Pick up supplies for the coming year √
3. Speak English √
4. Pecan pie √

As you can see, the visit was a success.
My friend J Dilla is serving in Mali with Peace Corps. She wrote about a typical day in her site. It was a nice window into her life in West Africa.
When I was home, several people asked me about my typical day. But every day is different; there is no typical day. This is an unsatisfying answer.
So here I’ve decided to document one day for me in my site. The day, January 9, 2009, also happens to be one year after my first full day in-country.

. . .

7:00 AM In my dream, Barack Obama is giving an address in elementary Q’eqchi’. He’s saying things like, “How are you?” and “What is your name?” which aren’t things you say in an address. Also, who is your demographic adviser?

7:30 Awake. It’s cold in the house, probably sixty degrees. It’s not the Virginia January I just left, but it’s also not the indoor weather I want to wake up to.
It’s misty and gray outside and I consider going back to bed. But someone is setting off bombs left over from (something we were celebrating) yesterday.
I put on the water and some clothes.
Oatmeal and pressed coffee. I’m listening to some Kojo Nnamdi that I downloaded in Cobán last Sunday. Something about a greenhouse gas initiative in Maryland.
There’s some desultory preparation for the hike ahead.

I leave the house in the late morning. The sun’s out and everyone in the village has been awake and active for hours. I’m on my way to Sanimtacá.
While I was in the United States I printed some photos for some of my friends in the village. I’m handing out photos as I run into people on the road.
When someone gets a photo, they ask what it cost so they can reimburse me for it. I don’t want money so I’ve been telling them not to worry about it or, time permitting, “Sa il ch’oolejil ch’oq awe sa’ ralankil,” which means Merry Christmas.
But I’m starting to hatch a plan. Perhaps in exchange for printed photos (something they can’t make), I could get a home-cooked Q’eqchi’ meal (something I can’t make).

As I pass, some boys I know call for my attention. They’re working on a high shoulder above the road and they’re obscured by brush so I can’t really see them, and I have no idea what kind of work they’re doing.
To reduce (your) confusion, the ensuing dialogue will follow this format:


Boys: [Don Pedro! Good morning!] {How are you?}
Pedro: [Well, good morning.] {I’m well, how are you all?}
Boys: {Also good. Where are you going?}
Pedro: {I go to Sanimtacá. What are you all doing? Working?}
Boys: {We’re working,} [well, yes.] {Will you be around later?}
(That last part is a dirty joke.)
A young woman named Cristina arrives on the road with her sister.
Girls: {Until later.}
(This is a typical greeting)
Pedro: {Wait. I have your} [photo.]
Boys: {[Whoop!]}
Cristina: {Nice photo. What size?}
(I think she means what size is the price of the photo, but I’m implementing my food-for-photo plan.)
Pedro: {Tortilla.}
Girls: [Four?]
(The Q’eqchi’ word for “tortilla” is the same as the first syllable in the Spanish word for “four” and since my answer didn’t compute, they assumed I had switched languages.)
Boys: Laughter from behind the foliage.
Pedro: [Four?] {No. Tortilla. To eat.} Hand motion meaning “eat.”
Cristina: {What size?}
(Okay, I can’t tell if she’s restating her original question or asking how many tortillas I want. Or asking what size tortillas I want.)
Boys: {Maybe you guys should try English!}
Pedro: {To eat?}
Cristina: Staring at photo, trying to understand.
Pedro: {It pleases me to eat.}
Boys: Uproar
Girls: (unknown Q’eqchi’)
Pedro: Silent and hopeless attempt at translation {Good?}
Girls: {Good. Until later.}
The girls continue down the road
Boys: {Don Pedro, all good?}
Pedro: {Yes. All is goo-} I realize that they’re making fun of me. {Until later!} [Goodbye!]
Boys: Laughter. {[Whoop!]}

Li xCristina (Cristina)

The next hour is a hike through the mountain pass to Sanimtacá. I catch and photograph the lizards and gnarly spiders I find along the way.

I visit Ernesto’s house to drop off the radio and flashlights I bought for him in the States. He’s not home, but his four kids are. They bring me hot juice and five bananas. I head back up the trail to meet my students.

I teach a guide class in Sanimtacá focusing on birdwatching. Up until now, all of our classes have been indoor affairs with copious illustrations on the whiteboard to bridge the language gaps.
Basic education is lacking in the village. The city has assigned one teacher to Sanimtacá and he has to manage grades one through six in a single classroom. He arrives around seven in the morning and motors out on his dirt bike at lunchtime.
In my guide class, have a dozen or so students in their late teens.
I quickly discovered that understanding of fundamental science concepts was lacking. So up until now, we have been learning basic science principles to pave the way for bird study.
We’ve been over earth science, basic biology, and a few giggly weeks of sexual reproduction leading us to evolution. I had some concerns about teaching sex and evolution in a traditional Mayan-Catholic society. So I kept it light. But there were no torch-bearing villagers, no Scopes trial, no hook-faced birds to pick at my Promethean liver. Nothing.
Religion is not self-conscious here, the people aren’t sensitive to ideological conflict. As far as they can tell, there are two religions: Catholic and Evangelical, and they come from the same book.

Before I left for vacation, we specified a time and place to meet for the next class. As I arrive at the designated place, I wonder if planning so far in advance might have been a mistake. There are no students waiting for me.
So I find a seat on the side of the road and pull out a book. This is incidental free time and my days are littered with it.
After fifteen minutes, four of my girls come around the bend. But instead of starting class, they stop in the road. I motion for them to come over, which makes them laugh. Instead, they take a seat in the grass next to the road.
I’m about fifty feet away. There is a book in my hand, but I’m clearly not occupied, I’m ready to start class.
I sit where I am while the girls chat in Q’eqchi’. From time to time I catch “Qaw Ped,” which is my name (sort of), and I look up. Every time I look, the girls laugh.
It may seem strange that I would let my students waste my time like this, but I’ve learned that I get better results from going with the flow than from imposing my own schedule. After an hour, the girls get up and come over.
We head up the trail and start looking for birds. I had some suspicion that bird class attracted students (especially the girls) because it’s a novel activity that takes place outside of the house. But once on the trail, the giggling dies down and the girls walk quietly with their eyes on the trees. I let them pass my binoculars around and I have them use the field guide to identify species.
Once we have a species identified, they surprise me by jotting down the name. They turn out to be more interested in learning than I gave them credit for.
We ascend the valley towards the cloud forest. We see bushy-crested jays, slate-throated redstarts, and assorted migratory warblers. But after a few hours, it’s getting late. We end up turning around before reaching the forest.
We set a time for the next class (earlier, in case the girls need an hour to chat) and part ways at a fork in the trail. I hike out of the valley alone and head back down the road towards Samac.

I walk for an hour as a full moon crests the hill. As I reach the village I stop at a family store. Margarita is at the window. She covers her smile as she sees me coming. I ask for two cans of beans and four eggs. Margarita’s front teeth fell out last month and she hides her mouth behind the cans as she tells me the price.

I get home and drop my pack off at the house. Then I head to my nearest neighbor’s house to buy tortillas. When I get there they tell me they don’t have any. I think they must be joking, but they send me next door to Don Felipe’s house.
Felipe has twelve children. While I wait in the dining room for my tortillas, the kids swarm me and give me an impromptu Q’eqchi’ lesson by naming everything they see.
But they don’t realize that some of the words they use are derived from the Spanish.
A truck rumbles by on the road and Freddy yells “Camionet!”
“B’eeleb’aal ch’iich,” I correct him.
Little Felipe Baudilio points at my hat and tells me it’s called “Gorr.”
“Kaxlan punit?”
“Oh yeah, kaxlan punit.” he amends.
Don Felipe arrives with a stack of tortillas and a scrap of chicken. I ask what size the price is. He tells me that there’s no price. Many thanks around and I go home to make dinner.
I cook up the eggs and beans and roll them up in the tortillas with lettuce and chili. I put on some music and eat at my desk. Now that it’s dark, the village has retired and there’s no one out on the street.
I enjoy the night time because it’s quiet and I can read or write without interruption. I boil some water for tea and use the rest of the hot water to wash my hair in the pila outside my window. By now it’s cool enough to see my breath against the dark and the fog is rolling in.
My house has two rooms. I live in one and sleep in the other. Now it’s time for bed so I go to the other room. I consider setting my alarm, but with nothing special scheduled, I’m confident that the combination of roosters, honking, and leftover rockets will be sufficient to get me up in time for tomorrow.