Archive 3



may

In May we plant the corn.
Before planting, plots are stripped and burned. They call this “cleaning the mountains.” (I don’t detect any irony.)
Playing my part (the encyclopedic yet pathetically ignorant North American), I ask if this is really the best way to prepare the land for planting.
If we trust my sources, not only is it the best method, it’s the only one.
(I consulted an agricultural engineer who told me that if they cleared the land with machetes in February, it would be in good shape for planting by May, but burning is customary)
Even though I know this is going on, it’s alarming to see, especially at night when the mountains (dotted with wooden houses) blaze unattended.

As part of an agricultural aid program, MAGA (Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Alimentación) donated tomato and chili seedlings to Cooperativa Samac. This was an opportunity to demonstrate burn-free agriculture to the kids. So we invited the kids to clear a little plot themselves before planting.
In theory, this was ideal. But when thirty children showed up with machetes, a flaw appeared in the plan.
Thirty blades in fifth-grade hands were flying in all directions. And seeing the wild backswings, I wondered if my pocket sewing kit would be called for by the afternoon. But not only were none of the adults concerned (try pitching this project to an elementary school in the states), but the kids handled the work like professionals. No reattachments needed and they cleared the plot in about an hour.

sanimtacá

The origin of the name Sanimtacá (sometimes pronounced Sanimta’a) is not disputed. Sa’ is ‘In,’ Nim means ‘Big,’ and Tak’a means ‘Hole.’ In a big hole. It stirs the imagination.
(Incidentally, Watemaal is derived from an ancient Toltec-Mayan name meaning Place of Many Trees, which is where we get the modern name Guatemala).
But what Sanimtacá’s name lacks in inspiration, it makes up for in literal accuracy.

There is only one road to Sanimtacá, the same road that passes through Samac. But beyond Samac, the road degrades into a winding course of muddy ruts and rock. A traveler can make the rough trip with a four-wheel drive vehicle or a sturdy motorcycle, but few do. No one in Sanimtacá owns a motor vehicle of any kind.
Instead, we walk. It’s about an hour on foot from Samac to the edge of Sanimtacá. The road ahead is always winding out of sight and one has to look across the valleys at the distant emerging curves to get an idea of where they’re going.
At the outskirts of Samac, tomato farmers whistle ‘wank chik helloes from their steep plots, but beyond Samac, the only people to be seen are the occasional road travelers.
Women balance wide baskets of produce and bags of supplies on their heads. Men wear huge loads of cargo on broad leather straps over their heads. They can support more than 100 pounds with their necks and backs for the hour-long hike over the broken road.
There’s a fork in the road just after Samac that leads to Chituj, a neighboring community. In Chituj they don’t speak Q’ekchi’, they speak Pokomchí. My capacity for confusion has been exceeded. So when I meet anyone on the road, I say hello in Q’ekchi’ (actually goodbye) and let them sort it out themselves.
But during the hour, passing travelers are few. Usually the only signs of other people are the tracks in the mud; rubber boot soles, small sandals, and occasional bare footprints.
Independence and solitude don’t have much value in Guatemalan society. So when I have somewhere to go, there are always offers for company (someone needs to be around to keep the gringo from crying). But I did eventually convince Samac that I don’t need help getting to Sanimtacá.

So here I am, ascending the bends alone, stopping for water, checking the time. I pause in the curves to scan with binoculars and take advantage of the last splash of shade before continuing. The quiet is welcome; I’m finally free to slip on loose rocks without safety reminders.
On one side, sheer rock faces are painted orange and green with lichen and maidenhair. On the other side, the earth drops away into grassy slopes, pine groves, and low shrubby thickets before rising again across the valley. On either side of the road, pink-flanked Sceloporus lizards scramble noisily for cover. Buff-throated saltators and purplish-backed jays bicker in the stands of secondary-growth pine. In the morning the intricate metallic notes of the brown-backed solitaire weave through the valleys while huge banded millipedes pull smoothly across the path like tardy commuter trains.

Approaching town, the road widens and reveals the remarkable valley that is Sanimtacá. On a relief map, the valley appears as a distinct rounded triangular pock in the middle of rippled but otherwise ordinary terrain. The valley is probably the product of an oblique meteor strike. Laguna Lachuá, the perfectly round lake 45 kilometers to the northwest was likely formed from a fragment of the Nim Tak’a meteorite.
Sanimtacá would itself be a lake if not for a cave system that opens at the very bottom of the valley, a geological drain. It’s not known where the water goes, but there’s probably a village somewhere in Alta Verapaz that owes its mysterious freshwater spring to Sanimtacá’s unique geology.
From the edge of Sanimtacá, it’s a three kilometer descent to the center of town. Despite its beauty, this descent makes me question the wisdom of locating a village in the center of a crater.

Like Samac, Sanimtacá was part of Gustavo Helmerich’s coffee and cardamom-producing property. The isolation of the village was probably an obstacle to the planter’s ability to develop the area. Sanimtacá doesn’t have the original architecture or historical artifacts that Samac retains.
In fact, except in natural magnificence, Sanimtacá is the poorer of the two communities in every way. While Samac has more than 700 inhabitants, Sanimtacá has only slightly more than 200. Samac has electricity and occasional cell phone signal. Sanimtacá has no electricity and no signal inside the valley. Sanimtacá has a lower standard of living and less assistance from government and volunteer agencies.
But while the people of Samac can be a bit eager with their courtesies, Sanimtacá is more reserved. They are interested in working with me; they solicited Peace Corps for a volunteer, but they don’t readily trust outsiders.
When I first arrived, they took me to the coffee patio at the bottom of the village. The president blew a few notes with a conch shell that reverberated through the valley. Within an hour and a half the entire population had congregated in the main hall. They introduced me, I introduced myself, and they discussed (me?) in Q’ekchi’ for a few hours.

In my pre-service imagination I had considered the prospect of living without electricity for two years. Pan comido, piece of cake. Electricity’s a luxury, not a necessity; if they can live without it, so can I.
When I received my site assignment and the dossier explained that Sanimtacá has no power (and omitted the fact that Samac does), I suddenly discovered that I wasn’t as hardcore as I had imagined.
Even though I prefer Sanimtacá, I live in Samac for the electricity (something I won’t admit to either cooperative). But I regularly spend the night in Sanimtacá.

The Sanimtacá day ends at dinner. As soon as the natural light is gone, the productivity of the day plummets. The opportunity to write or read wanes at 6 pm unless by candlelight.
And as a result of its geography, Sanimtacá has incredibly short days. Since the town is at the bottom of a big hole, the sun appears late and disappears early. After four pm, a shadow falls across the center of town and the sun starts to vanish. A few hours after dark the air starts to cool and clouds begin to roll into the valley. For the rest of the night and into the morning, the village is entirely hidden under a blanket of clouds. Sanimtacá remains hidden until late morning when the sun finally burns the mist away. In total, Sanimtacá only receives about six or seven hours of full sunlight on a clear day.

When I descend the road early in the morning I like to watch the sun rise as many times as I can. I wait for the sun to come up from behind the ridge and then walk a little further down and watch it again. The mist thickens in the descent and rich oil colors give way to bleeding watercolors until the sun rises as a soft circular moon. Still further and by degrees, the morning light is completely blotted out by blankets of vapor.

With the fleeting sun, heavy mist, and lack of electricity, one could assume that Sanimtacá ought to be the most well-rested society in the whole world. And if the villagers ever decide to put down the coffee, they just might get some rest.
But even without day-long caffeine benders, the people have no time to lounge in the gloom. The work day starts early, whether they can see or not. So when I wake up and the air is still soup, I’m met by the morning sound of machete bites in the vegetation and the angry early mutterings of chainsaws across the crater.

The slopes are planted and populated, but the valley top is an unbroken crown of protected forest. The forests are a part of the Sierra Sacranix system. The Sierra Sacranix contains a variety of habitat types, from pine woods to cloud forest. With the intermingling of different habitats, there’s a convergence of animal species that are not usually associated with one another. Counting native and migratory species across the seasons, The forests of Sanimtacá are projected to accomodate 350 species of birds. Sanimtacá is a promising destination for bird-watchers, and cultivating this potential will be my focus in this community.

They took me to the forest to show me around. The ascent is steep and dry. Guatemalans are mountain goats; sure-footed and tireless. Suitable footwear is the only advantage I have over them. The steep trails are muddy then grassy as we pass from cardamom plots to maize fields to montane woods. But entering the high forest, the heat shuts off.
Cicadas switch on, like tiny electric power tools in the jungle. Heavy boulders seem to defy gravity as they protrude along the muddy trail with broad vertical sides and narrow bases. The vegetation is thick and pendulous, bursting and hanging on all sides, making a tunnel out of the path. The air is cool and clean.
“How rich the air is,” they say (because clean air deserves recognition in Guatemala).
They name the jungle for my education. This is the k’iiche’, there’s a cojoj, that’s a tz’unun, watch for the k’anti. I’m able to nod at the nonsense, even repeat it. But I can’t retain their abstract syllables without paper. They tell me what they know about the forest and I tell them what I know.
When we find a column of leafcutter ants I explain that the ants (eb’li teken) don’t actually eat their scraps of leaves, but instead use leaf litter to grow the fungus that they eat. Like little farmers.
My guides don’t seem impressed.
But when we find a bright green pitviper, nearly invisible against the other swarming forest greens, I tell them it’s deaf. They politely inform me that I’m wrong because when they approach, the snake hears them and retreats. So I explain that it can feel vibration through the ground, but it can’t actually hear. As the snake lifts up to a branch, I clap and whistle. No change. This was a revelation.
Maak’a eb’li xik!, no ears!
And to find a formidable reptile on my first trip to the forest was more than I realistically expected. How long was it waiting here in the leaves? Was its existence inspired by my approaching imagination? Or is the forest’s chance combination of mystery, virulence, and color coincidentally faithful to what my eyes are always looking for? We stare at the incandescent green of its solid length. Paired black stripes run sharp from glass eyes through wide venom glands like details on a dangerous racing machine.
To the natives, my enthusiasm was strange and entertaining. Their nervous tension slid easily into laughter and discussion beside my wide-eyed, professional excitement.
She moved away without the haste of vulnerability. While she assumed a position of indifference in a low tree, a small group of humans clapped silently and cursed themselves in the same silence for leaving their cameras in the valley.

Dinner was lit by the cooking fire. While shadows stretched and wavered across the dirt-floor kitchen, the family conversed in Q’ekchi’. They asked me if I was going to watch the procession as if I knew about it, as if it weren’t my first night in town.
The descent to the center of town was easier in the cool of the night. The black valley flickered with fireflies like an immense stadium lit with camera flash. At the bottom, we found a wooden building thick with incense and people. They were reciting prayers at candlelit altars draped with flowers.
Sanimtacá, like Samac, is a Catholic community. To me, this discovery was a disappointment. When I set out for indigenous Mayan country, I had visions of feathered serpents, cave portals to nine winding levels of underworld, and black jaguar princes. But instead, the people worship the less relevant Christian saints.

During the Spanish conquest in the 1500′s, the conquistadors entering this region (Alta and Baja Verapaz) encountered the Rabinals, exceptionally ferocious and warlike Mayans. The Spanish were unable to defeat the Rabinals in combat. Instead, the natives were pacified and converted by Fray Bartolomé and his clergy. This bloodless conquest is what gives the region its name: Verapaz, True Peace.

The faith-based invasion was a complete success. Today there are the same distant, bearded expressions of holy virtue in every dining room shrine. But it’s puzzling. Their icons and saints look more like me; fair-skinned and fed, unbent, unbruised, and untouched by the smoke and strain of life in Guatemala.
Is it fair for me to feel personally cheated out of a fascinating cultural dimension? I’ll admit that I’m grateful that human sacrifice and ceremonial bloodletting are a thing of the past, but the replacement of the colorful ancient Mayan religion with a staid European faith seems unfortunate. My consolation is in the indisputable Guatemalan flavor they give their Catholic ceremonies.

Once the prayers concluded, the people gathered up two great wooden images. Eight women carried Mary and eight men supported a cross-bearing Jesus. The rest of us trailed the procession with candles. They pressed the images with difficulty through the dark overgrowth on the way to the road. A generator-powered stereo played a cassette of old-fashioned symphony music. The tape was repeated many times during the procession. A man with a guitar filled in every time the tape had to be rewound.
Even in the dark, the people continued to stare at me. Two little girls, paying more attention to the gringo than to the road, rolled past me in a giggling tangle of huipiles.

This has been my reception in both communities. The people, especially the young people, are completely fascinated with every ordinary thing I do. The boys are eager to be my friends and they call my name on the road or whisper it through the walls when I’m indoors. When my window’s open, they come up to stare silently for as long as I will let them.
The girls have a more discreet style. Sometimes when I’m a dinner guest, I can feel the eyes on me. When I look up, I usually catch them ducking behind a door or squeaking and skittering out of sight. On the road, they try to play it cool. They usually cover their smiles with one hand and steady their baskets with the other. We exchange customary greetings as we pass, but as soon as I’m five paces away, I hear their overflowing squeals and laughter.

For some that night, the foreigner was making the procession difficult to focus on. For me, the steep road of loose rock was a renewed challenge. By scant candlelight, just staying upright required intense concentration. The idea of carrying heavy wooden icons up the valley in the dark seemed prohibitively difficult. But this emphasized the power of symbol and tradition in the community. It’s a physically difficult ceremony, but it’s too important to skip or change.

Without electric lights, the sky was clear and complete. Instead of darkness, the night was a glistening jelly teeming with stars I’d never seen before. As I watched, a passenger plane blinked across the exposed circle of air.
I imagined that the plane was headed to Rio from Los Angeles, passing above Guatemala in the dark. I knew there were laptops blazing up there. People had earbuds in. Someone was messing up a Sudoku. Someone was watching Transformers with director’s commentary on a portable DVD player. Someone was browsing remote-controlled mini-blimps in the Skymall catalog. I knew all of these things. But no one up there could have any idea that there was a Catholic Mayan candle procession picking its way up a black mountain road in a pre-electric crater valley below.
The plane was a stray fleck of pond water, alive with foreign life, dripping between metropolises. Down here, I knew and recognized that life. Surrounded by villagers that had never even been to an airport, I was suddenly aware of how alien I really was. Piebald concerts, LOLCats, Star Wars movies, Calvin and Hobbes comics and a sea of now-culturally-irrelevant material filled my head. I found myself straddling worlds; a mental citizen of one, and a physical resident of the other.
Ernesto was standing next to me, also looking up.
“What a big world it is,” he said.
“It’s certain,” I replied.
And I brought my attention back to the slipping rocks on the candle-lit slope and tried not to fall into the flickering crater below.
And the clouds seeped in like phantom cushions just in case.

Andrew:  Pedro?
Pedro:    Yeah
Andrew:  What are we doing?
Pedro:    What do you mean?
Andrew:  I mean...  Like, what's our plan?
Pedro:    Our plan?
Andrew:  Yeah
Pedro:    Well I don't know what you had in mind
Andrew:  Just-
Pedro:    As it stands, we're taking provisional root 
               in a remote, rural area of Central America
Andrew:  I know...
Pedro:    -where we'll integrate and take up a dying
               language,
Andrew:  (Inspecting a tire depression of muddy 
               water for movement)  Right.
Pedro:    try to learn something and if we're 
               lucky, make ourselves useful.
Andrew:  (silent)
Pedro:    Did you have a better idea?  
Andrew:  oh.
Pedro:    Maybe hang around Virginia?  Teach a class, 
               draw some pictures, cohabitate with a young 
               woman of promise?  Write an editorial for 
               the paper?  Eat chinese food?  (condescending)  
               Drive a car to a mooovie?  
               (Sips water from a tube running to his water pack and
               ignores the allure of his own sarcastic suggestions)
Andrew:  (Scanning the trees for the source of the chipping 
               notes in the air)
Pedro:     It's not all great, but (wringing sweat from an eyebrow) 
               this is what we're doing, so let's just do it.
Andrew:  (Stopping at a rustle in the grass.  Parts the vegetation
               and searches briefly before running to catch up.)
               Pedro?
Pedro:    What.
Andrew:  I mean what are we doing?  Today, I mean.
Pedro:    Today?
Andrew:  Today.
Pedro:    Oh.  Today.
               ...well today I think we'll find out what needs to be done, 
               and then we'll do it.
Andrew:
Pedro:    To assist in community development
Andrew:
Pedro:    And if there's time, we'll look for snakes.
Andrew:  Daylight's burning!

samac

Samac is a Q’ekchi’ name.
Sa’ is like the preposition in or inside. Some say Mac is short for Macodio, some ancient resident of distinction. But the idea that Samac’s name means In (the place of) Macodio strikes me as apocryphal.
Mot k’ek means dream. So Sa’ mot k’ek means Inside a dream. This is one offered explanation. But Sa also means tasty. So maybe Samac refers to a delicious dream. Then again, Sa’ also means stomach, so maybe Samac is some sort of dream stomach.
Maak means sin, so Sa’ maak means In sin (or stomach sin, delicious sin, etc.). Unlikely.
The most reasonable theory is that Samac is a corruption of Zamat, a serrated, leafy plant that grows here. Zamat has a flavor similar to cilantro and is used in stew, which is the most common meal in the village.

The town has no library and very little in the way of historical documents, but from what I’ve gathered, the area now known as Samac used to be the plantation and property of Gustavo Helmerich, a German planter. Helmerich was captivated by Samac’s landscape and people. He lived his entire life in Samac, somehow avoiding expulsion, and died here fifty years ago, in May of 1958. His wife, Anna Roth followed in September of 1963.
The two of them are buried in a cemetery on a hill to the east of the cooperative.
The plantation property went to the state (perhaps explaining how the couple dodged expulsion). The people say that the Helmerichs died poor and their estate only consisted of property. I suspect there’s more to the story. Their productive land holdings were considerable, spanning a handful of the area’s current cooperatives. The on-site equipment was extensive (including a water-driven electric generator), and local labor costs were undoubtedly low. But the fact that they’re buried here is evidence that they couldn’t afford to return home to Germany in their old age.
The people of Samac formed a cooperative and successfully solicited the rights to the land and infrastructure in 1971.
The whole region fell on hard times during the 36-year armed conflict, especially during the early eighties. La casa patronal, the main management building, had to be completely rebuilt. Construction was completed in 1998.
The people grow maiz, sugarcane, and beans. But the cooperative has been economically reliant on coffee and cardamom since it’s inception. Around 2001, the international price of coffee dropped, upsetting the financial stability of the whole village. The cooperative decided to diversify its production. In addition to growing tomatoes, peas, and tilapia, the cooperative has plans to develop an ecotourism program to take advantage of Guatemala’s relatively recent emergence as a destination for international visitors. To this end, Samac has sought help in the form of a Peace Corps volunteer.

Don Pedro makes his appearance on this cue.
They wouldn’t let me carry my luggage. Instead, they wore my heavy suitcases up around their necks and shoulders. I arrived as an old-fashioned British explorer led by native porters. It wasn’t long before I realized their intention to treat me like a savior prince.
This was fun for the first ten minutes. Then it was time to evaluate how much impact I could have compared to their implied expectations. And how many times do I need to hear, “Don Pedro cuidado. Don Pedro, cuidado su cabeza.”
They called a meeting of the directivas. After a brief introduction, everyone in turn made a welcome speech. Next, they invited me to speak. Knowing no one in the assembly and having nothing prepared, I looked around quickly for an out. Seeing none, I launched into a speech about the two years ahead of us and thanked everyone, emphasizing how impresionante the town was. They clapped when I finished. But in my head, the applause was because I made words come out.

Next, they took me to the school. They interrupted lessons and gathered all the students in the yard. Again, I was asked to speak, and again I said (something). For some reason, they thought it was an opportunity to read my resumé. A member of the directiva read my resumé from blue iguanas to this boy’s trouble to the crowd of schoolchildren. As soon as he finished, the whole school clapped and cheered.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a crowd go wild at a recitation of your resumé. But you should try it. It’s great.
Afterwards, I started to hear “Pedro!” wherever I went.
Whenever the kids see me, they are compelled to call me. Sometimes they yell across a valley at me and I have to wave blindly at the bank of trees where I assume they must be. This is unconditional popularity. But it’s clear that I’m a strange fish and they can’t resist tapping the glass to see what I do.

Don Giraldo hosted dinner. We had chicken stew (with zamat) in his dining hall. Almost every family has a long dining building made of wood with a dirt floor. A Catholic shrine occupies one end of the room in every case. Because of this, the room is considered sacred, and beds are not usually found in these dining rooms.
After dinner, it started to cool down. I asked Don Francisco if it got any colder. The answer was no, but the truth, as I would discover hours later, was different.
I suspect that cold air drifts down from higher elevations during the night. The change is dramatic. It drops into the sixties. This doesn’t sound very cold until you consider that the distinction between indoors and out is purely symbolic.
At one AM, I realized I wasn’t going to sleep very well.
The next night I went to my little cot dressed for winter.
Still insufficient.
So on day three I took a bus to Cobán, spent a thousand quetzales on a new bed plus sheets and a comforter, and took it all home on the top of a bus (exactly as relaxing as it sounds). And I finally slept through the night.
My second-smartest purchase was a soccer ball from the supermarket. Pretty soon I had the kids knocking down the door to play.
“Lu’! Prestame su pelota.” (Loan me your ball (rude!)).
So I include myself in all the best soccer games. We play on a small concrete court in the center of town, a playing surface that makes me peculiarly aware of my teeth. The ball goes everywhere. By the time it’s dark, we have sloppy brown circles on our knees and chests and sheep feces in our hair.

Samac and I haven’t reached an understanding quite yet. If I open my window to let in some light, people poke their heads into my room. This is unwelcome.
If I’m caught reading a book or looking out the bus window, I have to hear questions about my sadness.
How do I explain the value of occasional solitude?
Don Francisco told me to get a radio for company.
“You can listen to music as long as you don’t cry.” Then he laughed so hard that I wondered if he was funny.
But when I want to get away, there’s the road to Sanimtacá…

Lu´

As soon as I got to site, I changed my name.
There are a few reasons. First of all, no one seems able to pronounce “Andrew.” The middle combination of consonants is just too much. It takes me back to my summer delivering Chinese food in Fredericksburg when I came to respond to “Ang Yoo.”
I won’t put myself, these people, or my poor name through that for two years.
The closest Spanish approximate to my name is “Andrés.” That’s fine. I went by “Andrés” with my host family during training. But it doesn’t sound right to me. The emphasis is on the “Drés” syllable, which isn’t even a syllable that occurs in my English name.
So I go by Pedro.
The cadence is correct, and to me, it sounds much closer to “Andrew” than “Andrés” ever did.
But a central reason behind the change is that Andrew has shortcomings. Andrew is distracted by passing insects and singing birds. Andrew disrupts class with his comments. Andrew has days when he wants to stay inside drawing pictures. Andrew is ready for a meal and a nap.
But a community can count on Pedro. Pedro is a patient and responsible bicultural professional.

But my brilliant change didn’t exactly reduce confusion.
First of all, everyone I meet wants to know what my name is in English. So I explain that my name is “Andrew” which should be “Andrés,” but I go by “Pedro,” which is “Peter” in English.
To which they respond, “Andrés? Ah, Lix (prounounced leash).”
Because the added element I hadn’t counted on was that every Spanish name has a Q’ekchí version as well. Luckily I dodged the name Lix.
However, I did not dodge the name Lu’ which is the Q’ekchí version of Pedro.

I asked my friend Don Francisco how they get “Lu’” out of “Pedro.”
“What do you mean? ‘Pedro’ is ‘Lu’.'”
“Okay, look. My name is Andrew. In Spanish, it’s ‘Andrés.’ Your Spanish name is Francisco. In English, it would be ‘Francis.’ Do you see how they sound similar even though they are in different languages? But ‘Lu” doesn’t sound anything like ‘Pedro’ and ‘Lish’ doesn’t sound anything like ‘Andrés.’”
“Yes but ‘Pedro’ is ‘Lu’.'”

So the kids call me Lu’ and laugh about it because there’s something secretly hilarious about calling me Lu’. The adults call me Lu’ when they are speaking Q’ekchí and they don’t want me to know that they’re talking about me.
And sometimes a visitor to the cooperative will say, “Ah, Pedro. Peter.”
So by changing my name for the sake of simplicity, I have acquired half a dozen different names.
But for the most part they call me Don Pedro. Which suits me just fine.

samac and sanimtacá

The trip from San Bartolomé lasted from six-thirty in the morning to about four in the afternoon. With a loaded backpack on my back, a loaded backpack on my front, and an overflowing costal with dangling shoes, I took two crammed camionetas to Antigua. Every few steps I could hear the tiny sound of backpack stitches breaking; the pack I so proudly haggled down to half price in the market was giving me my money’s worth.
In Antigua I caught a three-wheeled taxi (called a tuk-tuk, after the sputtering go-kart noise they make) to the central square. The door on my side popped open en route and the backpack with my computer tipped over and threatened to roll across the cobblestones at speed.
But I arrived with my pieces and I caught a microbus with 5 other volunteers and a few European and North American tourists bound for Cobán. We spent a little extra for this mode of transport, but it was worth it. Not only did we get a twenty minute stop at the Monja Blanca truck stop (instead of the typical ten offered by the larger line), but we enjoyed modest spheres of personal space that are virtually nonexistent on any form of conveyance in Guatemala.
We all parted ways in Cobán. My friends from Cooperativa Samac met me in the municipal square, relieved me of my various burdens and ushered me to the waiting microbus. It’s only a thirty-minute ride from the center of Cobán to the Samac cooperative. But the changes out the window are dramatic.

In my three months of training, I hoped that I’d be sent somewhere distant and dissimilar from San Bartolomé. Peace Corps granted my wish. But travel to the cooperatives of Samac and Sanimtacá is not so much a great span of distance, as much as a passage through time.
The cellular phones and snack wrappers give away the era- or maybe just confuse it. I see a girl in traditional huipil and corte hauling water in a plastic two liter soda bottle and I can’t decide which part is anachronistic. The fact that this indigenous girl needs to haul water at all confirms my suspicion that the plastic bottle and I are intruding before our times.
The road is rocky and unpaved. Fields of coffee, cardamom, sugar cane, and bananas open on either side, punctuated by rugged outcrops and little houses of wood. The few other villages on the way to our destination are cooperatives as well.

Many of the communities surrounding Cobán were German plantations at the turn of the century-before-last. The Germans grew and processed coffee, cardamom, and tea, employing Guatemalans in their fincas and factories. During World War II, the Guatemalan government evicted the region’s Germans under pressure from the U.S. government.
The infrastructure of the original plantations and communities was mostly abandoned and forgotten, but the fertile fields and crops were absorbed and divided among the local people. Independent agricultural communities of native Guatemalans took (or more accurately, resumed) root in the lands around Cobán.
Samac and Sanimtacá are among the local communities that now benefit from the German introduction of coffee and cardamom.

But despite the considerable European influence in the region and in the country as a whole, this area has retained an impressive hold on its indigenous roots. The most obvious manifestation is my first great challenge.
Because I spent three months in Spanish classes and immersion. I attained a level somewhere between conversational and survival sufficiency. I can request a meal, but I probably can’t debate the ethics of eating it.
Now I arrive in Samac and Sanimtacá where the Spanish is not much better than mine. Most of the men speak some Spanish, but everyone speaks Q’ekchí; one of more than twenty Mayan languages still living in Guatemala.
I don’t speak Q’ekchí. In fact, it took me a pretty long time to prounounce “Q’ekchí” (the ‘Q” is a throat click).
So when they say, “¿Ma na kana’u Q’ekchí?”
(Do you know Q’ekchí?)
I say, “Ink’a.”
(Nope.)
To which they assure me, “Laa’at tat-aatinaq ch’ina’us Q’ekchí.”
(No idea. But they smile when they say it, so I think it’s good.)

My life here is as different from life in San Bartolomé as life in San Bartolomé was from life in Virginia. I’m back in language square one; pointing at things and nodding. I find myself as relieved to hear Spanish as I was relieved to hear English when I was in training.
My quarter-century of advantages has me at a slight disadvantage as I adjust to living in this remote, rural community. For example, my lifelong reliance on dining utensils is an undisputed handicap at many of these tables. In all memory, potable water at a variety of temperatures was available at the turn of a handle. Here, the water runs inconsistently, sometimes a trickle, sometimes not at all, but when it runs, it’s always at one temperature. I started to think that a hot shower was a luxury out of reach. But Don Galindo told me that he’s had a hot shower before and he didn’t like it. So it’s actually just a matter of preference- getting a hot shower is harder than coming to appreciate and enjoy a cold one.
And suddenly I’m washing my laundry by hand in a pila (a concrete sink) and hanging it in the sun. The latrine has a view of full sky and the side of a building two meters away. When it rains, sheep take shelter under the eaves and complain through the gaps in my walls. One morning the joints of my left hand were swollen and itchy. I asked my friend Ernesto if it was due to mosquitos.
“Yeah,” he said. “But it will go away in a few days.”

I almost never walked around San Bartolomé after dark. I don’t think San Bartolomé was unsafe (there were only two or three homicides that I know of during the time I was there, and although not justified, they were all related to retribution or street justice), but there was an implicit atmosphere of suspicion and an abundance of security measures.
But things are simpler here. Everyone is more open. There’s not a strand of barbed wire in either cooperative. The generosity of the people is incredible and they have welcomed me without reservation.

A few rules for your visit:
1. Never drink the water
2. It’s rude not to accept whatever you’re offered, including water.
3. Cover your knees. Long pants and skirts only. Gender appriopriate, obviously.
4. Never speak to anyone while wearing sunglasses. They want to see your eyes.
5. On the road, you stop to speak with anyone you know, even just to say what a pretty day it is.
6. Anyone you don’t know gets a greeting, even a simple, “Jo’ wank chik.”
7. All visitors get at least a hot drink, food if you have it.
8. “B’aanu” or “Con permiso” before entering a building or room
9. When entering a room or joining a gathering, you must acknowledge everyone individually, even if there are 15 people present.
10. Everything you’re served is “Sa us us” (Tasty double-good), even if it’s pacaya, a bitter, fingery tree part.
11. Handshakes between men, women get an arm touch.
12. “B’anyox” is thank you (pronounced ‘Bantiosh’). Wear it out.

These are the rules I adhere to. I hope that I’m acting appropriately at all times, but I’m just a baby here, there’s no way for me to know when I’ve made a small mistake. But as far as cultural exchange, we don’t meet in the middle; it’s my job to reach across the aisle.
In fact, sometimes the people here can be (from my cultural perspective) unconsciously rude. They often ask my age and whether I “have a woman” as opening conversation. If I have any item in my possession, invariably they ask what it cost. All of my polite requests for a latrine door have gone unaddressed.
Even though they know that I don’t speak Q’ekchí, they will often have long excluding conversations in front of me, or worse, they invite me to a work meeting and discuss matters in Q’ekchí for two hours while I wait for someone to remember I’m there and lean in with a summary.
Their flexibility with time can be especially frustrating. Nothing ever begins or ends on time, so I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying a book around with me whenever there’s something we’re supposed to do. But when I have something to do on my own, their time flexibility leaks into my schedule.
The other day I was planning a trip to Cobán for supplies. I had my backpack on, the bus was waiting. Just as I was about to board, my friend Alfredo appeared to invite me to his house.
“Oh, but Alfredo, I was just about to get on this bus, I’m going to Cobán.”
Alfredo thought for a moment before saying, “Ah, but come to my house, let’s go.”
I could see my day’s plans taking on water. “I was just about to leave though.”
“There will be a bus later.” He assured me, as if I truly didn’t know it.
So I went to have coffee at Alfredo’s house and caught a bus to Cobán two hours later. Alfredo was right, of course. There were other buses. My North American impulse to ‘get things done while in a position to do them’ would have been as impolite to him as his ‘interruption of laid plans’ was to me. It’s my responsibility to respect the local norms.
But none of these minor frustrations are a surprise. As a matter of fact, they come right out of the culture textbook. Adjusting my patience will be faster and easier than trying to adjust local mentalities to suit myself.
I’m not prepared to complain anyhow. It’s only been two weeks, and there’s no one to bail me out. I have to work through whatever I come up against.
Social inconveniences are trivial. I have work to do. My assignment is to help develop sustainable income-generation projects in both Samac and Sanimtacá using the natural resources and attractions that they already have.
Although much of their land is devoted to coffee and cardamom, both communities had the foresight to set aside significant amounts of forest as untouched reserve. This is remarkable considering that forest generates no immediate income to anyone, and converting all available land into coffee fields would have been extremely lucrative in a very short time.
But the people are organized and concerned about the future. For this, I’m filled with respect for them. So I’ll do my best to support and assist them with their ideas as the most I can do to encourage and reward their wise management.
But when I wake up in the morning and swing the wooden window open, I can see the mountains through the mist. The cows are flicking the wet from their ears, and in the distance, tiny figures in traditional Maya dress are shuffling down the paths through the long grass. Baskets of cloth-wrapped vegetables ride above their heads, as they have for centuries. And it’s clear that I will never quite fit in here. That’s good. In fact, what if I’m nervous to start work? What if I’m scared I might change something?

site assignment

I envisioned myself passing two years in the heart of a South American jungle.
When I received my invitation to Guatemala in Central America, I started my research.
Since Guatemala is mountainous, a third of the country is high elevation. How do I get myself into the hot lowland jungle? There’s a two in three chance, right? Here’s the map. I know that the whole north panhandle region is the expansive Petén forest. I can assume that both coasts are low. The Pacific side is volcanic slope, probably extremely fertile. The north coast is on the Caribbean so it’s likely biodiverse, with centuries of island-hopping migration. And according to the relief map, there’s a lowland valley that stretches from the Caribbean coast through Lake Izabal in the northeast and another region of low elevation between Quiché and Alta Verapaz. So in my mind, I formed a generalized map similar to this one, marking potential lowland forest where I’d like to serve (green).

During the second day of staging in Washington D.C., the day before we flew out, I discovered that there are areas in Guatemala where Peace Corps doesn’t go.
Drug smugglers heading north from South America often transfer from sea or air to overland routes in Guatemala. Both coasts are obvious import/export hotspots. Both coasts are off limits. Since the Petén contains a lot of dense and unexplored forest, it’s a good place for smuggling routes and clandestine airstrips. The entire Petén region is closed to volunteer service. Oh, also, no volunteers around Lake Izabal due to crime.
So.
My mental map was a mess. If Petén’s not available, what’s left? There’s a little bit of jungle south of Petén, and between Alta Verapaz and El Quiché.
So I decided my best bet was Laguna Lachuá national park in Alta Verapaz. It’s hot and they have crocodiles.
But my site is an assignment, not a choice.

We trained for more than two months not knowing where in Guatemala we would be working. I worried out loud to Kate when I was visiting her site in Toto.
“You sound just like we did when we were training. Everyone wants to go somewhere beautiful. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. You could go to the most beautiful place in the world, but if the people aren’t good, or don’t want to work with you, it will make your two years hell.”
The maturity of that perspective was sufficient to embarrass me.
So even though I continued to dread a two-year stint in the Western Highlands fighting cold weather, I was more ready to accept whatever assignment I received.

In the end, I didn’t get Lachuá, it went to my friend Ted. Instead, Peace Corps threw a curve ball, assigning me to two neighboring sites west and northwest of Cobán, Alta Verapaz (center). That puts me outside of my imaginary boundary, at an elevation of about 1,300 meters.
I will be working for Samac and Sanimtaca, two indigenous agricultural cooperatives in the region.
I met with representatives from both communities at Peace Corps headquarters in Santa Lucía. We talked about the work ahead of us and I was satisfied that everyone at the table was looking forward to getting started. As they described their aldeas, I took them over to the huge relief map to point out where they are.
After I found Cobán, I traced my finger west and north and stopped when I found a mistake in the map. There was a deep cavity where Sanimtaca was supposed to be. It looked like someone stuck a finger into the map before it was dry. I showed my new friends, but they didn’t look surprised at all.
“Yeah,” said Ernesto, “that’s Sanimtaca.”

Next: Samac and Sanimtaca

my favorite spider

I got a call from John the night before swearing in as a volunteer. The vet found a large tumor in Addie’s spleen. The options were limited.

I had been holding out hope that I might see her again. I thought I might make a holiday visit in the fall or winter.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there. I’m sorry that I left John with the hardest part.
But I’m grateful for what he did. I’m glad life didn’t get any harder for her.

She will probably be best known for the crotchety-old-lady personality she adopted in the last few years; a creakey-clackety horse who hated cats and slept with her legs folded in the air.
But did you know she used to climb trees? Or that there was a time in her life when she liked to jump from the creek bank into my little boat, threatening to tip over the whole organization? In her agile years, she would climb and jump fences just to come around to the front of the house looking for people to play with.
When I realized that she wasn’t interested in running away, she and I went for walks in the swamp without a leash. When I crossed the creeks on fallen trees, she came right behind me. Sometimes she would take off after deer or a pair of ducks. But when I whistled, she always came back.
I didn’t train her to respond to a whistle, it was understood. But when I taught her not to bark, she thought she could outsmart my rules by clacking her jaws when she had something to say. And she did.
After college, when her joints had gone bad, I took her back to Fredericksburg with me. It was her retirement. I wanted her life to be easier.
We both lucked out when I landed a job and later an apartment at the animal hospital. They took great care of her. Despite her age, those were probably the best years of her life.
Sometimes she drove me crazy. That’s true. But she was great company. And she had ridiculous ideas that made me laugh out loud.
If she ever heard a high-pitched sound that was similar to a meow, she automatically assumed that there was a delicious cat hiding somewhere in the apartment. Sometimes when she was sleeping in the other room and the TV was on, she would appear, ears up and mouth ready, because some cat food commercial had fooled her geriatric wolf brain.
Or sometimes in the summer when the windows were open, she would convince me that she needed to go out for a walk. Once outside, she would lead me right to a patch of tall grass where a stray cat was hiding. Because even though her joints were poor and her eyesight wasn’t great, there was nothing wrong with her sniffer.
Once the cat was flushed from cover, she would run after it. Run.

It was hard leaving her. I hope she didn’t wonder about me. I hope she didn’t worry about me. I wish it made sense to her.
There’s no replacing the jaw-clacking, carpet-necked, cat-hunting, spoon-legged, river-wading, encyclopedia-eating, walk-demanding, sofa-claiming, horse-resembling, sandwich-seeking, gray-jowled black spider who is, and will be, deeply missed.

leaving the nest

There are almost two score brand new Peace Corps Volunteers departing their training communities this week. We’re leaving the department of Sacatepéquez and spreading out across Guatemala, landing in our assigned sites; our new homes for the next two years.
Team Bartolo is one man short since Juan left for the states to heal from a soccer injury (best to him, we hope he comes back soon). But for Suerte and me, it’s time to leave San Bartolomé.
San Bartolo was not what I had in mind when I pictured myself in Guatemala. The concrete streets and houses are fine, but they lack charm. The people are pleasant, so why are our windows barred and locked, why are our fences and walls crowned with barbed wire and broken glass?
My family was extremely kind and I genuinely appreciated their hospitality. However, their habits were often confounding and occasionally frustrating.
They have a mealy parrot in a cage and a skinny dog on the roof. To me, this is extremely offensive. But as a guest, there’s no culturally appropriate way to intervene (but at least when they weren’t home I could sneak the dog some protein).
Sometimes at meals I would wonder what great thing I had done to deserve such food. And of course sometimes I would wonder what unforgivable sin I had committed. Doña Eva sometimes made fried corn pancakes with honey for breakfast. They were incredible. On the other hand, just this week she sent me out into the world with cow stomach in my lunchbox.
Chicharrones are somewhere in the middle. The first time they served them, I was confused. It appeared to be meat, but one side was unbelievably tough and the other side was as soft as wet bread. At first my mouth said, “Wait, Andrew, we don’t eat this. Let’s throw it in reverse. Do you want me to put it into a napkin for you?”
But for the sake of etiquette, I cleaned the plate. As I did, I realized,
1. Chicharrones are cooked pig skin
2. They are kind of delicious

Baby Mario was my favorite dinner theater. Instead of eating his beans normally, he liked to spread them all over his face and hands. So by the end of dinner the brown and black smears made him resemble a tiny, irrational mechanic.
I think he and I shared a perspective. We had communication tribulations in common and we were both relatively new to life in Guatemala. Many nights we shared a look across the table that said, “Wait, what? This doesn’t make sense.”
But sometimes when he shot me a look of exasperation, (perhaps disbelief that beans and eggs had made the menu yet again), I replied with my eyes, “This is your family, you tell me.”

In the end, I’m glad to be leaving San Bartolo. It’s time. But there are people I’ll miss. There are things I’ve grown accustomed to. Against early predictions, life here actually approached normality.
And now it’s time to start all over.

Don Rodrigo was walking the procession in Antigua. So the family and I spent the day in the big city. We went to Pollo Campero for breakfast. I was feeling great because we have eggs and beans with tortillas for breakfast almost every day (and sometimes for dinner too) and I was ready for a break. So I got to have fried chicken and rice for breakfast! I think the family found this strange. But to me the strange thing was that they all ordered the eggs and beans with tortillas. So while I enjoyed my pollo frito, I watched my family eat the same thing they eat every day, but this time in a restaurant.

Antigua was packed. Among the crowd were men in shining purple robes and white gloves. Don Rodrigo parted ways with us to put on his own robe and join his procession. We went to find a seat.
I followed the family to a set of stone steps and took a seat. There were people all around and vendors selling foam lizards and ice cream cones. Way down the street I could see the procession assembling.
As the procession and floats approached the block where we were sitting, they turned down another street.
“Does the procession pass here?” I asked Doña Eva.
“Oh no, they go that way.” She answered matter-of-factly.

So I sat with my family and a crowd of other Guatemalans as the procession didn’t pass. The procession didn’t pass for more than two hours. When it was done not passing, we finally met up with Don Rodrigo and left.
The purpose of our visit was difficult to discern.

By this time I had to use the bathroom. There was a bathroom nearby with a long line and attendants collecting money. Doña Eva pointed me in that direction, but I explained that I don’t pay to pee.
Instead, I walked five blocks to find a quiet restaurant with indifferent staff. But when I returned, Doña Eva asked why I didn’t just use the pay bathroom. The answer is that public facilities are a necessity, not a business opportunity and that by paying to use the bathroom I’m agreeing, “Yes, you should be profiting from our necessary bodily functions.”
“But that’s how things are here.” Doña Eva explained.

And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my family a few weeks after arriving. Don Rodrigo was complaining about a government policy. I asked if people would protest if they organized.
“No, it wouldn’t make a difference.”
“What about writing letters?” I asked.
Flor chimed in, “They would just throw them away.”
“But Flor, if you worked for the government, would you throw letters away?”
“No.”
“That’s right, and you’re a regular person, but so are they. We’re all regular people and we need to work together and look out for each other.”
At this point I launched into a proletarian polemic against ordinary political apathy and unquestioned bureaucracy. I invoked the brotherhood of man and reminded them that we don’t spare the government letters when we know they will throw them out. No! We make them throw them out. We inflict wrist injuries on all of their secretaries from the repetitive motion of tossing our mountains of correspondence in the wastebasket!
When I was done speaking, there was quiet at the table. Everyone, myself included, quietly realized that Andrew has no idea how things work in Guatemala.

It has taken a long time to get my brain around some of these things. It’s easy to be frustrated or assume that Guatemalans just don’t care if things make sense or not. But it’s more complicated than that. The fact that they are so hard to understand is a good measure of how much sense I make in return. My personal logic is far from its birthplace and appropriate context. The question “Why?” is not a reflex here, more often, “That’s how things are.” And that’s how things are.

Baby Mario woke up at dinner tonight. They tried to feed him but all he wanted to do was cry. Flor and Mario senior took him into the next room. As I was clearing my dishes, Mario senior came in with a small bouquet of herbs. He put them down on the range, ignited the gas, and started to burn the leaves.
When I asked what he was doing, Doña Eva explained that it’s an old trick: you can use these herbs when a baby won’t stop crying. You pass the herbs across the baby, then burn them. As I tried to figure out if my translation was faulty, Flor walked in with a certain smiling baby.
I had to let go of the science and appreciate the quiet.