17 agosto 2012 viernes
On August 11th last week or exactly 2 yrs (730 days) from when we first set foot in Guatemala, my group of lucky thirteen volunteers gathered at a lush hotel in Antigua. The noteworthy event? Our COS (Close of Service) Conference which is a time to reflect on our service and make future plans. This conference is always held several months before the actual COS date which for us is October 27, 2012.
Looking around the room, we seemed such a small group given that 32 of us aspiring volunteers had disembarked that plane for our Central American service and adventure. Within a few months of our arrival, four had chosen to leave, and then the major changes of mandatory relocations to new sites in February and March 2012 led to the departure of fifteen more…. Now the spirit of our comrades sat at our shoulders; all with valid reasons for not being with us, but we thirteen had reached this milestone, thus embodying our motto during training: “Too legit to quit”. When Craig, our Training Director, asked “Who is leaving soon?” Three stood up. Then the question, “Who is seeking to extend their service?” Eight of us stood up, the majority. Wow! Each of us has hopes to accomplish more….one friend voiced, “I think my best work is still yet ahead of me.”
Which had changed more? The world or us? It depends….A presidential election in Guatemala had swept in a new party last September, and now our own American election season is underway ( a brief public service announcement: I implore all of my readers to exercise their civic duty and VOTE in November). My fellow volunteers and I have watched 2 seasons of maiz (corn) grow from little green shoots to towering stalks laden with fruit. This crop is the signature of Guatemala, with rows upon rows undulating along the contours of the land…the food of the people. The kernels after being plucked from the cobs and soaked are then ground into masa at a neighborhood mill, to be patted into tortillas eaten at every meal. I have graduated to a ‘B+’ for quality and shape of tortillas or the action of tortillar, but I still merit only a ‘C’ for speed. There’s still hope for me.
Thankfully my group arrived a few months after Tropical Storm Agatha ravaged Guatemala, yet we lived through a year or more of Interamerican Highway cleanup and repairs from the resulting landslides. The earth has trembled greatly in other places around the world, spawning tsunamis and destruction, and sadly bringing death. Thankfully, the earthquakes I have experienced here have been mild, yet this country is just at risk of large earthquakes as my home state of Washington. Access to the internet has allowed me to keep in touch with the world, but I often feel protectively insulated in my little town of San Bartolo… and there is a real tranquility to slowing down the pace of life. The world keeps marching forward with newer I-Phones and more. Sure, I’ll join the whole technology use and worship when I return, but a regular cell phone serves me fine for now.
All of my group have ridden dirt roads in the back of pickups or hiked for an hour or more to reach our communities…yet we have no right to complain because we will someday return to the luxury of personal cars, yet the residents of our communities will continue to trek on foot carrying heavy loads on their backs, or cram into pickups. Camioneta rides have always been a source of diversion and conversation. Our American schoolchildren have no idea that their school bus will someday be driven or shipped to Guatemala to undergo a metamorphosis of paint and chrome…and that a future Peace Corps volunteer will cram onto those benches. Not to forget the street dogs who have unfortunately shared their pulgas (fleas) with many of us, and occasionally their teeth. A rock in one hand and stick in the other has kept me safe from them.
The landscape here is breathtaking, however, the prevalence of trash detracts greatly…the people are yet to implement better trash management and education. Many in my volunteer group have labored on this issue, enlisting children and adults to fill plastic bottles with trash to construct garden walls, schools, and a cultural center. We have provided charlas or talks about recycling and composting, using a “time machine” drama to reflect what trash will still exist in the future. Poco a poco. Little by little. Change doesn’t come quickly and once upon a time, our American highways and streets were quite littered with trash (and still can be.)
I was privileged to attend the first conference for the Guatemala Green Building Council in April 2012; excited to bear witness to this country’s early steps towards sustainable buildings. One building has been certified LEED and at least four others are underway. LEED professionals are still very few, but interest is growing. Last month I gave a guest lecture for 17 architect students in the class of a Guatemalan friend who is an architect and LEED Green Associate. These university students will help shape the urban development in Guatemala. I was honored to share with them information on how the practices and technology of Low Impact Development to help manage rainwater and storm runoff can be useful to include in their building and site design. According to the United Nations, Guatemala is one of 10 countries in the world to be most affected by Climate Change and 4th most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters….so adaptation to these challenges will serve them well. I sought to inspire these students with the Living Building Challenge with goals for nonpolluting, inspiring buildings that are even restorative to the environment. (https://ilbi.org/lbc)
Back to our COS conference, we talked about how to share our stories…with friends, family and future employers. No, we can’t expect everyone to sit in rapture on the edge of their seats. This is a very personal journey each of us has had. Yet we can share the funny, the poignant, the inspiring and more. That is the 3rd goal of Peace Corps, to educate Americans about our host countries…hopefully, my blog has brought all of you that much closer to the people of Guatemala. As I await word on whether I will be staying another year or not, I do cherish each day of my time here (even today when I am lying in bed sick with a cold). Note to self: Don’t stay up until 12:30am to attend the election of the Queen of our town’s fair when already a bit sick!
At the end of training, we all wrote letters to ourselves to be unveiled at our COS. Here are some snippets from mine:
“Querida Teresa, By now you have lived in country for more than 2yrs. I’m assuming that you feel pretty well adapted, and although you may be annoyed/concerned by some of the problems inherent here, e.g., poor road system and infrastructure, as I am now, I’m sure that you have a much deeper appreciation of the positive aspects of Guatemala…I wonder if you’re contemplating or have already signed up for an extension, but maybe you are really quite ready to be back on U.S. soil…Are your counterparts sad to see you go and you likewise? …Who knows? Maybe someday you will come back to this land of quetzales and volcanoes….so I look forward to becoming you…a wiser, compassionate person.”
My words back then definitely resonate with me now.