Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 02/13/2013

Feliz Día De Cariño y Amistad!!!

13 febrero 2013 miércoles Feliz Día De Cariño y Amistad

Fantasy costumes!

Fantasy costumes!

What fun in Chotzague yesterday!!! The schoolchildren celebrated Carnival with elaborate costumes and a dancing contest. Fantasies realized in the form of toros to butterflies to clowns.

Everyone had to be on their guard because little sneaks came upon you quickly to crack confetti-filled eggs (and occasionally real eggs followed by a dusting of flour!) on your head. I got pegged several times with “pica pica” or confetti…laughing it off as I shook it out of my hair. I took refuge in the kitchen along with my compañera, Yoanna, who came along to help me with our baking activity.

Baking Buddies!!

Baking Buddies!!

During the festivities, I also taught the 3rd graders how to make carrot cake, a favorite!! The other classes looked on longingly but this time it was a special treat for the 22 third graders who brought in their money and firewood as asked. Yohanna and I divided them into 2 groups and gave tasks of grating carrots, mixing, measuring… they each begged to help, however, there were more kids than tasks, but each received a recipe so perhaps they will surprise their parents with their skills and a treat!!

Finally, the cakes were pronounced baked to a golden perfection and each child got to enjoy their sweet treat to celebrate Carnival.

Here is a healthy pancake recipe to make for your loved one on Valentine’s Day:

Panqueques con banano y zanahoria (Carrot and Banana Pancakes)
2 c. flour
3 T white sugar
1 t baking soda
½ t cinnamon
A pinch of salt
1 c. milk
2 T vegetable oil
2 eggs
½ c. mashed bananas
½ c. grated carrots

Mash bananas in a small bowl and mix in eggs. Place dry ingredients in bowl, and then add milk, oil, egg-banana mixture, and grated carrots. Stir only until moistened. Add a little more milk as needed for a good consistency.

*Even more healthy: Substitute ½ whole wheat flour for ½ c. white flour; but you may need to add bit more milk
*Vegan recipe: Instead of the 2 eggs make a mixture of 2T ground flax seed + 6 T water, let this mixture sit for 10 minutes and then add to the recipe instead of the eggs…it adds a nice nutty taste.

Beautiful butterflies

Beautiful butterflies

Enjoy!!

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Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 02/07/2013

Stateside Luxuries and Re-entry to Guatemala

5 febrero 2013 martes 

Touching Seattle

Touching Seattle

A very sweet reward for extending one more year of Peace Corps service was being granted a four week vacation in the USA for the holidays. Hooray! Precious time to spend with my children and friends. Despite two previous trips to the US, the duration of this trip gave it a decidedly different character…I found myself at Week 3 grappling with a bit of an identity crisis and wondering “Where is home? Seattle is certainly feeling like home…” then reasserting in my mind, “But, but, I really live in Guatemala!” It was a telling preview for my re-entry to American life and re-establishing what is home when I return in January 2014. I have learned that the concept of “home” is very personal; each of us defines it as best meets our emotional and social well-being….and perhaps we really can simultaneously juggle and accept more than one place in our hearts that serves as “home”.

A salsa dancing family

A salsa dancing family

The mobile nature of American families became very clear to me as I attempted to reunite with my two adult children for the holidays…First, Alex had to jet from Denver to Seattle (thankfully a direct flight), then a few days later we drove 5 hrs from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon to spend five days with Michelle. Hmmm, and why do we accept being so far-flung from each other? Not unlike many American families, my children spread their wings and went off to universities in other states. They then fell in love with their new communities and began setting down new roots far from the mother tree.  Yes, I accept blame, too, because this maternal tree got on a plane to Guatemala after they flew the nest and now I am the farthest flung family member, however, I will pack up my new roots in a year and plant them again in the Northwest.  The next chapter in my scattered family is yet to be determined.

Baking buddies...our treats to share!

Baking buddies…our treats to share!

In stark contrast, Guatemalan kids don’t just live in the same town as their parents, but in the same house until they are young adults. Yikes we might think…dirty clothes strewn about, conflict, privacy issues, economic and emotional dependencies, etc….yet, with this current economic downturn, many American families have welcomed their young back into the nest for some needed protection and assistance.  Perhaps these families have reaped the benefits of these closer ties because everyday activities can truly help build relationships and a shared family history. I see it everyday in San Bartolo.

Stepping back into the USA...a fantastic mural!

Stepping back into the USA…a fantastic mural!

Enough on that musing…so an imaginary reporter thrusts a microphone in my face, and asks the following: Señorita, how does the USA appear to you after living more than 2 years in Guatemala, that little country with big dreams? Well, I answer, Technology certainly continues charges forward, and my new laptop purchased in December 2012 features the wham wow Windows 8. Shaking my head, I add, Alas, this is a bit too new for Guatemala because my modem does not recognize this new operating system…so I must wait for the technology here to catch up.

Mother and son with Kindle tech toys...

Mother and son with Kindle tech toys…

Yet there is hope that the TIGO phone and internet company will adapt because Walmart in Xela now sells computers with Windows 8, and these new purchasers with disposable income will expect internet service pronto…until then, I scrounge around for internet service.

While the laptop was a necessity after the last one died a sudden death last September, the technological goodie during my vacation was buying a Kindle Fire. Wow! Bounding a light year ahead with a cool gadget! Sweet! I stashed tons of free books on my device to support my growing reading habit.

Guatemala coffee!

Guatemala coffee!

Other luxuries I observed…the pedigreed coffees sold everywhere which Americans can enjoy and afford with their $, although sadly Guatemalans don´t drink their own quality coffee and instead drink rather lousy cafe.  For fun I dove into the massage chair in the Northgate mall, although human hands are still a friendlier touch.

At the Seattle Center I observed a family scooting about on Segways, a novelty even by American standards. Yet my awareness extended beyond these rather obvious luxuries.

Walking? Bah humbug...ride a Segway instead!

Walking? Bah humbug…ride a Segway instead!

My eye wandered to the rain gardens sprinkled about the parking lot of Northgate Mall to cleanse the runoff from the parking areas. Excitedly I ran around photographing those, with the intent to share these with emerging green professionals in Guatemala.  In the United States we have the interest and yes, the luxury, to attend to our environment with laws, programs, and projects. In Guatemala, malnutrition and crime are the headline grabbers because the impact is more troubling to the citizenry, however, Climate Change is ushering in more erosion and landslides, flooding and contaminated runoff during their 6 month rainy season.

Rain gardens at Northgate mall

Rain gardens at Northgate mall

I take hope when I meet Guatemalan professionals interested in the environment and sustainable development, but it is an uphill climb because it will take public awareness, money and political will to tackle the environmental challenges here…all in short supply. So friends, be thankful for the environmental progress we Americans have made that is yet to be emulated in poorer countries.

My daughter, Michelle, rolled her eyes when Alex and I ran around Portland, OR taking photos of solar trash compactors, covered bike parking, solar arrays, trolleys and more to share with our respective colleagues…yes, mother and son share the same urban design and sustainability interest.

Rainbow colors from Guatemala

Rainbow colors from Guatemala

Lastly, I wanted to bring some of the best from Guatemala, thus, many of my family members and friends benefitted from the beautiful weavings that I carried with me from Guatemala. These handwoven treasures now brighten their homes…a testament to the patience of Guatemalan women sitting on straw mats, laboring hours and weeks to create this renowned artesania from their country.

Gracias for tuning into my blog…and just in case, next week comes quickly, I wish a todos de ustedes a Feliz Día de Cariño y Amistad for February 14th! The last word is key…it is not a day reserved only for lovers , but also to appreciate lasting and deep friendships.

Enjoy a luxurious Valentines Day!

Enjoy a luxurious Valentines Day!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 01/22/2013

Milestones, Mountains and Mayan Majesty

21 enero 2013 lunes

Majestic views near Todos Santos

Majestic views near Todos Santos

Today we celebrate American democracy in action as President Obama took the oath of office for a second term. I am filled with such great pride that our country, so torn apart by the past of slavery and still struggling to come to terms with our attitudes about race, not only elected our first African American President, but also re-elected him to serve our country another 4 years!! May this action strengthen our self-awareness and healing.  Not only in terms of learning to treat ALL Americans with dignity and fairness as so eloquently voiced by Martin Luther King Jr, but also in how we treat citizens of other countries and the physical world that we all share….this fragile planet Earth.  If we Americans and our elected politicians can learn that none of us are superior to others, then there is greater hope for our powerful country to enact legislation and act in ways to promote peace and justice in the world. May it be so for 2013 and beyond!!

Mayan Spiritual Ceremony

Mayan Spiritual Ceremony

Speaking of new eras and beginnings.  We obviously all survived this past December 21, 2012 which celebrated the end of a Mayan era of approximately 5,200 years, culminating in what was called 13 Baktun.  A Baktun is a period of roughly 400 years, so we just completed thirteen such eras, and now we commence with a new Baktun. Thus,  the Mayans did NOT predict the end of the world for 12/21/12 but merely the end of an era. Their belief is that  this new era forecasts humans living in better harmony with their environment. …so timely and crucial for our survival!

A Mayan Past

A Mayan Past

I truly wish that I had been present in Guatemala to attend the festivities because there were to be celebrations at 13 sacred sites. One such site was to be Zaculeu  which I visited on my return to San Bartolo from the colorful town of Todos Santos.  This is a pre-Columbian archeological site from the period AD 250-600. Standing amongst the ruins of pyramids, I tried to imagine the community life from so many centuries ago. This was the capital of the Mam Kingdom (Mam is a Mayan language still spoken in the area), which was then taken over by the K´iche´Kingdom of Qúmarka. Kíche´ is now one of several of the more widely spoken Mayan languages in Guatemala (there are a total of 22 Mayan languages) so clearly the K´iche´peoples rose in power in the past and spread their language and culture.

Stairway to the Gods

Stairway to the Gods

My town of San Bartolo, a one hour drive south of this site, is a K´iche´speaking community. And as so often happened in the world, a colonizing force arrived in the form of Spaniards and invaded Zaculeu around 1525…hence the ruins today.

On my last day in Todos Santos, Laura and I climbed what is popularly called ¨La Torre¨, due to the presence of a cell phone tower! It is reported to be the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America, standing at 3,837 meters or 12,589ft. It was a cold start to the day as we loaded into a van with hikers bound elsewhere, and then we hopped out at a small path near some homes with our guide. The trail was actually relatively easy, but the altitude had me stopping frequently to catch my breath and enjoy the view.

Above the Clouds

Above the Clouds

As we climbed, a carpet of clouds formed in the distance with Tajumulco poking its head out. Yes, I felt a pride to realize that I had stood atop that highest point with my kids in December 2011.

A few hours later, we reached the top. There were signs of a more active tourist time, with the abandoned remains of a coffee stop. Apparently when the global economic downfall hit 5yrs ago, so also tailed off the visitors to this mountainous place. The three of us enjoyed the solitude and the view, taking our time to descend back to the small hamlet of homes. No such luxury of a van ride back to town…instead we clung to the sides in the bed of a pickup truck, with cold wind whipping our faces, and both of us trying to dodge the growing puddle of sheep urine. The male ram was also tied in the back of the truck and his owner tried to comfort the scared animal who was trying  to keep his footing as we rounded the mountain curves. We arrived safely in Todos Santos after our adventure of hike and travel. After all, I need such adrenaline rushes to stay young at heart and in body!!

Better times in the past, but the Future looks bright!

Better times in the past, but the Future looks bright!

So a very happy 2013 to all as we go forward in a new Baktun and new Presidential term!!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 11/26/2012

Todos Santos…Galloping Horses and Dancing with the Dead, Part II

25 noviembre 2012 domingo

Still resting in the prone position from all that feasting? I, too, celebrated Thanksgiving here in San Bartolo with 17 Guatemalan friends, 8 kids and 10 adults. Unlike what many of you experienced, our weather was a moderate 70F so we sat outside on my covered patio feasting on roast chicken and stuffing, mashed potatoes, beet greens, spinach and fruit salads, cornbread, banana bread and pumpkin bars….my friends were very thankful for the multi course feasting!

Ready to race

So back to the actividades locas in Todos Santos…the colorful horse races begin in the morning, a linear race course of 500 meters about 30 feet wide. Todos Santeros line the race course, forming a sea of white straw hats and red striped pants, scattered with the majesty of deep purple huipiles or blouses. There were foreigners sprinkled throughout the crowd, but many less than I expected….perhaps 50 to 60 total. We struck up conversation with an American who has journeyed to Todos Santos at least three times to photograph this event. Such dedication!

Galloping Todos Santeros

Decked out in stripes, the riders also wear some colorful headdresses which give them a slight resemblance to our Native American horseback riders.  They all shout excitedly as they urge their steed to fly faster than others. Up and back, up and back on the dirt race course, about 8 to 10 riders race each time…surprisingly the crowd is remarkably quiet so it is hard to discern any favorites.  The morning riders seemed relatively sober, however, rumor has it that accidents are more likely in the afternoon after hours of drinking. Fortunately, we did not witness any falls from their steeds, but we heard of 3 injuries happening that day, the worst being a broken leg….which is quite mild because there can be deaths, and just 2 years ago a rider died.  Although whipping the horse with a live chicken is now prohibited, we did see afternoon riders brandishing chickens or roosters in hand…more like a trophy, and some feathered trophies had sadly passed on.

A sea of straw hats and stripes!

Yes, colorful is what I told the TV newsman who interviewed me as we departed from the races in the morning. I added that I was impressed with the traditional clothing of the men. My friend Laura got to share her impressions of Todos Santos as well. When I returned to San Bartolo a few days later, some friends remarked that they had seen me on TV on Guatevision. Famosa! Actually the best was my friend complimenting me on my Spanish!!  Caught off guard for the interview, I had my doubts re how the interview had turned out.

Sweet music to soothe the Dead

The next day, November 2nd, is for cemetery celebrations….so after a morning hike, we followed the crowd down the winding street to the resting place of the deceased. Marimba bands and more. I counted about 5 to 6 marimba bands playing in the cemetery.  The family of the deceased would be gathered, dancing and enjoying the music and then 15 minutes later the band would pick up the marimba and head off to another grave…what the? it seemed that a family paid for a few favorite songs for their departed loved one and then it was on to the play for the next gravesite.

Families were picnicking in the cemetery and this happens throughout Guatemala, not just in Todos Santos. Often families enjoy serving up the favorite dish of their relative, offering a plate full of food for the departed as well.  My eyebrows raised a bit to see the public drinking in the cemetery as well, but it seemed that the alcohol not only lessened inhibition to dancing but also freed up expressions of grief. One woman was particularly vocal in her cries of grief, then would begin dancing to the marimba.

United with the USA in death…

Curiously, we saw some tombs painted with American flags and USA. It was uncertain if the loved one had died in the States and then had been returned to Guatemala, but it just confirmed the strong ties between our two countries.  As the sun began to dip in the horizon, the chill of mountain air descended upon us…time to head to warmer quarters.

So buenas noches Todos Santos, with your colorful races and celebration of the Dead!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 11/19/2012

Todo LOCO in Todos Santos! Part One – La Llegada…The Arrival

18 noviembre 2012 domingo 

Family portrait in Todos Santos

Glancing at a guide book on Guatemala will reveal that there is not ONE, but TWO special events in country for celebrating Día de Todos Los Santos (All Saints Day) on November 1st. Now I know that Halloween has become ever more popular in the USA, especially for adults.  However, November 1st is the big day here to celebrate deceased loved ones …with Americans having such an aversion to speaking about and dealing with death, this would be a great holiday for us to adopt instead of imposing our Halloween celebration on unsuspecting Guatemalans. Believe me, the Walmart store in Xela tried its best to jumpstart Halloween here with employees running around in ridiculous costumes, but it rang both false and strange. So back to Día de Todos Los Santos ….last year I enjoyed the enormous paper kites in Sumpango flown to commemorate the dead….spectacular colors and designs. Check last year´s blog posting for that panorama of photos.

Beautiful Todas Santeras…the women!

This year the strains of marimba music lured me to the fiesta in Todos Santos where inebriated cowboys ride horses…Who could miss THAT show? Heading north to Huehuetenango on October 31st with fellow PCV, Laura, we bumped along in our camioneta, hanging on for the winding curves until a very loud kerplunk! Try as he might, the driver´s CPR was unsuccessful and the bus had breathed its last breath for awhile. Drats! We were just on the outskirts of Huehue. Everyone looked around, trying to decide if there was any hope, but Laura and I headed off the bus. No use waiting until the crowd was too big to fit on the next transport vehicle. Thankfully a micro (van) arrived very shortly and we forked over a bit more money to finally arrive to Huehue. I joked, ¨Let´s  hope that this was only the ´trick´for the day and that we will get the ´treat´of arriving at our destination!!

Seeing double…triple and more!

At the bustling bus terminal, we purchased our ticket in advance, which is usually only required for fancy tour buses. Por suerte I had asked a friend yesterday how much was the fare and was told Q20. When the ticket man asked for Q25, I shot back I thought the price was Q20 and he agreed that it was. Nice try señor, but we are seasoned Peace Corps volunteers!

After half an hour we boarded and then began a more-than-usual barrage of food venders…cut mango in baggies, peanuts both sweet and salty, soft drinks, chuchitos (tamale dough with chicken and sauce), etc…it made me wonder, exactly HOW long was the journey? Obviously the venders expected us to be starving until the next meal! No, we didn´t have to travel to the end of earth, but it was a very windy 2hr ride, first uphill to quite an altitude…the man in front of us even suffered a nosebleed! And then descending down into a steep valley with a town nestled in its arms.

Puros gemelos los hombres…male twins!

As we disembarked, we witnessed one of the few towns in Guatemala where men wear traditional clothes. I am not talking about a few here and there, I mean ALL men, from tots to grandpa. It is like seeing double, triple and more! I joked that we had entered the Land of Clone. Rumor had it that the young boys were decked out because of the town´s feria, but we confirmed  that the men really do wear this clothing everyday.  It is very striking apparel with bright pants of red and white stripes, a cowboy style shirt with a woven collar, and a brimmed hat with ribbon. As I looked closer, men could express some individuality in their traje…the stripes could be maroon (corinto) and not bright red. The embroidery on the shirt could vary and the woven collars were different. Teenaged boys sported monograms on their pants….gotta allow some rebellion even within the conformity.

Todos Santeros..nosotros!

Fellow volunteers decided to also be adorned in stripes. Riley treated himself to both shirt and pants, looking very authentic except for his light complexion. Three girls found a tailor who promised them a skirt made from the striped fabric…but curiously he measured each around their thighs. Despite receiving numerous assurances that he was indeed making a falda or skirt, the girls discovered the following day that their $20 or Q150 had bought each of them some Bermuda shorts in stripes!! They took it all in stride…wearing their new apparel which drew some very curious and bemused looks from the townspeople. I doubted that the tailor had EVER made a skirt in his life and besides, the stripes belong on pants!!

Dinner was a well-priced and delicious barbecued beef, salad, rice, tortillas and hot cocoa…can´t beat Q15 or $2! I had hoped to track down Fiambre which is a special dish of vegetables and various meats for All Saints Day, however, Todos Santeros do not eat this dish.  Barbequed meat was the specialty. OK by me.

Youth in traditional traje

Realizing that the main event was the next day, we wanted to track down some evening entertainment. Band music resonated loudly from a concrete building, the municipal salon. Lots of male stripes hanging around outside. What? They wanted Q40 entrance, no gracias. So we window shopped at a women´s cooperative, where I asked the shopkeeper why the city was charging so much for the dance…she said in past years it was free or lower cost. She lamented that this year featured many less activities for youth, but at a loss for why. ¨Let´s go check the dance again¨ I suggested.  Laura wanted a hot fruit punch from the venders at the entrance. This time they said ladies got in for free…so we pushed past the men in stripes and entered a cavernous room with a band blasting music from enormous speakers (Guatemalans LOVE loud!) and some female band members dancing in mini skirts. Only about 20-25 people present were rimmed around the room, with about 8 police. I suspected that the latter were seeking refuge from the cold rain because there certainly wasn´t much risk present at the dance. Finally some couples headed to the concrete dance floor, and only then did Laura and I join them…marimba, cumbia, meringue. I gave Laura a few spins and after awhile the travel fatigue and loud music sent us on our way.

Alley of our hotel…colorful jovenes

Definitely much colder than our sites of San Bartolo and San Cristobal, we put on layers and Laura peeped out from her hoodie as she dove under covers. No, there is no indoor heating in pretty much all of Guatemala, so you learn to layer clothing…a lot!! Buenas  noches we called out to each other.

Tomorrow the horse races! Peace Corps Guatemala had sent out an advisory to us that it was strictly forbidden to get on a horse at Todos Santos…no worries, I had no such plan. Part II- the horse race and TV interview. Stay tuned!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 10/31/2012

The Power of One to Change the World…Vote!!!

30 octubre 2012-martes  

Dearest readers, one week from today will be a deciding moment!!…not only for Americans, but the entire world as we elect the next president of the most powerful country.

Learning how to make healthy tamalitos

Democracy is something I feel very passionate about. So I wish to encourage everyone to vote next week…. As I go about my daily activities in this beautiful mountainous country surrounded by a rainbow of women wearing colorful textiles, I am reminded constantly by how blessed we are in the USA. On highways and rural streets in Guatemala I see children as young as six, along with their mothers, fathers, and grandparents struggling under heavy loads of firewood on their backs…most of the women in my groups do not know how to read or even sign their name….children are tiny due to generations of malnutrition..and everyone, YES, everyone dreams of getting to the promised land of America, often begging me to take them with me. Guatemalans do love their country, but it is a very tough life here for so many people.

As we wrap up this election cycle, I want everyone to reassess what it means to be a voting citizen of the USA. We do not elect leaders just for domestic policy, but we elect a leadership that will affect the WORLD. My Guatemalan friends have enough to think about, so they are not closely following the American election, yet I know that the outcome on November 6th will not only greatly affect my life in the future but their lives as well …in addition to all of the world’s other citizens.

Finishing touches on the Chotzague School Garden

PLEASE honor my friendship with you and my service abroad by registering and VOTING in this election. Do not sit on the sidelines because there is so much at stake…just consider that the next president will help determine the selection of Supreme Court justices and the resulting decisions that will affect our lives for 20-30 years!

I have already voted by email…thank you King County elections for that right! Now it is YOUR turn!! Make me proud to be an American with friends and family who truly participate in our democratic process!! This is the time to practice what we preach to other countries…by exercising our constitutional right to vote.

Let America show the world how we citizens vote to peacefully express our views …and we will thus shine as a beacon of hope for others!  And I promise that my next blog posting will be light-hearted!

Flying high…my little friend and her kite

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 10/22/2012

The Road Less Traveled Beckons On and On…

21 octubre 2012-domingo  

Por favor, roll the drums…pa pum, PA PUM, PUM, PUM, PUM!!  One day recently my Gmail inbox finally revealed that anticipated email from the Peace Corps office following months of waiting:  my request to extend my service for a 3rd year in Guatemala HAS indeed been GRANTED!!  Sweet news! I have wrapped myself in the warm reactions of others to my news…Sonia, my counterpart, treated me to a high five and sweet treat. Children have hugged me. The alcalde  (mayor) and city councilmen offered their congrats between bites of carrot cake that I shared to celebrate. So residents of San Bartolo Aguas Calientes will see me working (and baking) in their midst for awhile longer.

Hot tamalitos!! Giving a cooking demonstration for healthy foods!!

You might wonder has that intense sun at 7,000 ft gotten to her finally? Why in heaven’s name does she want to stay when 27 months is already a lifetime away from home. Most Peace Corps volunteers give a wistful glance back at their successful projects and new friends in Guatemala after their 2 years away, ready to embark on new paths in the USA.  Well, there are a myriad of reasons for why I am staying…

First and foremost, I feel a personal and professional obligation to continue my support of the Municipal Women’s Office in San Bartolo, compounded by the knowledge that no Peace Corps volunteer will be assigned to replace me once I leave due to the cancellation of my program. Sonia and I have accomplished so much since January 2012 when she assumed her position as Coordinator of the Municipal Women’s Office. There are now 18 women’s groups in our different and far-flung communities with a total of 803 women.  This is a landslide of female participation in community development and political process!!  Only 3 groups existed in 2011. Next goals are to teach groups how to run their own meetings and affairs, weaning them from our constant presence. It has been truly heartening to see rural women rise to the challenge of becoming community leaders, when so many obstacles are placed in their path…family chores and obligations, meager family budgets, lack of easy transport, and little or no formal education. And yet, rise up they do.  Their group members willingly sacrifice a few pesos so that their leaders can afford transportation costs to attend crucial meetings. What a buen ejemplo for Americans!

Two beautiful ladies in Mayan traje, Sonia y yo

Peace Corps service has also given me the opportunity of a lifetime to creatively address my community’s needs…I both relish and lament this need to self-direct.  My path during these past two years has led me to build a school garden out of trash-filled bottles to teach elementary children the benefits of growing their own vegetables, as well as, trash management.  Slowly, slowly, our municipal library is getting equipped and offering more services which will improve the educational opportunities for youth and adults. Yes, Patience (with a capital ‘P’) is a virtue I must practice in every endeavor as I navigate a different culture, language, and way of doing things.  There was bit of a showdown last week as I had to threaten to return funds from USAID if the mayor did not come through with his promised contribution for the library project.  So yes, sometimes, I have to be ¨fuerte¨ (strong-willed) to bring about change.

There are also some personal perks for sticking around… Polishing up my Spanish, mastering at least a minimal command of the Mayan language K’iche’ spoken in my town.  A 3rd year brings the benefit of a roundtrip airline ticket for a special leave of one month (to rejuvenate oneself for the homestretch). Watch out Seattle, I’ll be landing on your tierra on December 15th! Gracias Peace Corps for funding this trip home!

My Guatemalan home town

Ideas for my 3rd year range from helping our municipality promote our hotsprings to tourists, while  enlisting community participation in the improvement of this important fuente de ingreso (source of municipal income).  Biodigestors have grabbed my imagination as a way to address the need for a more sustainable cooking fuel. Although the idea first sounds repugnant, it makes so much sense to utilize animal waste to create not only useful fertilizer but methane gas for cooking…reducing and even eliminating that ever present need for firewood for cooking. This country cannot afford to lose their forests at this current rate. Environmental education continues to be a great interest of mine, and I look forward to more invitations from my LEED architect friend to teach a guest lecture or two to her university students.  Maybe I will even sponsor a solar contest with youth here… building models with solar panels to teach about renewable energy….and the ideas go on and on.

During my 27 months of service, I reached an impressive milestone of 10,000 hits for my blog!! ….Thanks  to all of you readers!! I hope that you have learned to appreciate this colorful culture and land called Guatemala while reading some and perhaps even all of my 80 blog postings. Lastima that I will not be here in Guatemala on December 21, 2012, but I wish to dispel any notion that Mayans predict the end of the world for that day…Oxlajuj Baktun is the beginning of a new era for the world, with hope for better alignment with the environment. The world can certainly use the beginning of a new era!!

So muchas gracias a ustedes for tuning into my life here in Guatemala! This next chapter will end on November 27, 2013…so stay tuned until then!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 09/11/2012

Putting on the Ritz in San Bartolo!… Feria!

10 septiembre 2012 lunes   

Indigenous Queen 2012

At the end of August every year, San Bartolenses throw themselves with complete abandon into the colorful pageantry of feria ….in honor of our patron saint, San Bartolome. Interesting note: Apparently 15-20 yrs ago the alcalde (mayor) tried to cancel feria due to a cholera scare. The people rose up and DEMANDED feria, so the mayor capitulated and luckily no infections resulted.  You do not mess with celebrations here. They are sacred!

Por supuesto every feria deserves “reinas” (queens or princesses)…so la gente (people) assemble in our municipal salon for the various “veladas” or elections which are extravagant pageants that are held no less than seven nights, often running to midnight…these can be true endurance tests (for the audience and participants). The candidates range from kindergarten age for “la reina infantile” to high school for the “flor de la feria”.  The prize? The adulation of the crowd and riding in a decorated float on parade day.

Fantasy outfit…almost ready for flight!

These events are taken VERY seriously, with parents remarkably finding the money to purchase not one, but THREE outfits worn by each wannabe reina. Some interesting results this year… the “fantasy costume” category for the 5-6yr olds yielded not one, but two girls dressed as Shrek’s girlfriend/wife!  Go figure. The long reach of Dreamworks films to my rural town in Guatemala.  Other costumes included the more culturally relevant indigenous outfits, but of course there is the runway strut in a “vestido de gala” or ballgown.  Seat time on those plastic chairs gets tiring, so musicians, clowns, and kid performances are offered up to the crowd to forget the discomfort.

Another fantasy outfit…made out of snack bags!

My co-workers in the muni were in charge of adornments for the velada of the “flor de la feria”…my Spanish totally failed me as I tried to explain that the helium-filled balloons would not remain aloft for a long time. Hmmm…what is the word for “membrane”? They never did understand that helium could leak through the balloon membrane, but when they saw balloons starting to descend during the decorating stage, they agreed to blow up the remaining balloons closer to the event time. Later in the evening, the balloons floated gently down to the audience which provided endless entertainment to the kids. Just as well. That velada went until midnight!

Our Mayan trajes…a rainbow of woven fabrics

This year I had a cameo appearance. Now that’s true cultural integration! Adornos (decorations) for the coronation of the Flor de la Feria were 20 Mayan trajes (outfits) which our muni borrowed from the Xela Historical Museum. Most of the outfits were hung on the walls, but five of us muni workers jumped at the opportunity to model these trajes….I picked a striking red outfit from the Alta Verapaz area. I particularly liked the full skirt and wished I could have borrowed it for the evening dance.  At event time, the museum curator called us forward from our seats on the stage to explain the history about our trajes. Fascinating stories of abstract patterns representing the complexity of life and more.

Carrot cake anyone? The girls and their mom

Not to forget my little friends from Patulup. For weeks they had peppered me with: What are we going to bake this year to sell? How much will we charge? When will we sell our treats? Basta. (That’s enough) So I set a date and time for baking…the Saturday afternoon before feria.  First up, carrot cake decorated with strawberries. I figured its thickness warranted a good price, so at 4 quetzales ($0.55), a customer could delight in our confection. Last year I was the promotional guru, however, my contract with them this year was more for baking help. I informed them that they needed to do the sales pitch this year. Well, we kind of achieved that with my prompting and encouragement…in a timid voice the girls would state the price when asked. Yep, more work on the PR dept. I usually described to customers that the kids were selling cake to earn money to spend at feria. One man said, “Well, it’s much better that they earn money than rob us.” Yes, but did he really think these cute munchkins were capable of robbing?

Enjoying feria with my little friends

Quickly, all pieces of carrot cake were sold on Sunday morning during market day, with Q80 earned. Flushed with visions of toys, food, and games the kids asked me if we could bake again. Who could say no? So we baked a banana cake that very afternoon. Again every pedazo (piece) on our platter disappeared into the hands and mouths of eager customers.  At one point, someone commented about our sale and I realized that he thought I was selling treats to earn money for MYSELF….and probably thought I was using cute kids to help my cause. Whoa. Now I knew that I needed to clarify the goal of our cake selling enterprise! You would have thought these kids had won the lottery by their delighted faces. The profit from selling two 8”x 13” pans of carrot and banana cake (a total yield of 40 pieces) was Q160 ($23)! More money than they had ever held in their lives. Counting it out, the big decision…How to spend the profits? The oldest girl used her authority to decide that each would have Q10 per day for 4 days of feria. So that’s how it went…threading our way amongst the crowd and the booths to assess what was worthy of their hard-earned money. Let’s see, there was the affinity for sunglasses, with three sporting their new look. Other quetzales got handed over for little cars, dart guns, toy cameras, makeup, ice cream and corn on the cob. A pretty good haul, I’d say. I offered up some advice regarding the durability of their future purchase…rather hard to find that in these cheap toys made in China.

Ricos, ricos, ricos! Rich!

The littlest chose a yo-yo that could flash lights, however, sadly and almost comically he was not tall enough to avoid bashing it into the ground each time it ran out its string…well, that toy lasted mere hours if that. Fortunately, most toys at least made it intact to the end of feria week. For the finale, the last day of feria, I added some quetzales of my own for rides and treats.  So glad I could contribute to happy memories for my little friends!

Por supuesto…a feria MUST offer up parades! Monday, August 20th was a parade of some school bands, but August 22ndwas the real show!  Kids of all grades and schools in San Bartolo filed in formation with dancers, flag-holders, and bands. The sun danced on the bright fabrics of the Mayan outfits, creating a true rainbow procession. Boys banged earnestly on their drums and girls played their xylophones more delicately.

Strutting for the crowds

All of San Bartolo was curbside or in the parade. A benefit of my second year living here is that I KNEW so many more kids and could wave and call out to them. As my Chotzague kids (site of our school garden) filed by, I waved and tried to entice smiles as their tired bodies paraded by. Yes, this was the best show in town!!

Did I party too much? Well, let’s just say that staying up until midnight for a velada didn’t help my already compromised health. My energy was definitely flagging… a quick trip to the doctor in Xela midweek of feria revealed that I had a sinus infection. Drats! Double drats! After a year of longing for an opportunity to dance in my town, I then had to forego the first night of dancing. The magic of antibiotics and fierce determination led me onto the dance floor for the last two nights. No way was I going to pass up this opportunity!

Luckily I found some good dance partners , including a city councilman who did well on the dance floor. As I headed home in the rain after the last dance, I smiled. Who knows if I shall be in San Bartolo next August for feria, but this year I had tasted all of the many flavors of feria, generating enough memories to last a good while. Feliz noche!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 08/18/2012

2 years in Guatemala! A Time for Reflection…

17 agosto 2012 viernes  

Crossing the 2 yr milestone!

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.”

Tortillas anyone?

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.

The last of Municipal Development volunteers…Us Munis with Carlos, our jefe

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.)

Veggies are sprouting in the Chotzague garden

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)

Historic Antigua and Volcan de Agua

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:

Overlooking Antigua…a quiet paradise

“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.

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 07/09/2012

Dipping A Foot in Each of My Two Worlds

8 julio 2012 domingo    

The glory of Mt Rainier

¡Que rápido fue el mes de junio!…zip, whiz,  and June  was gone!  On June 5th I began my multi-stage re-entry into the USA. First was a weary day of travel by land from my town to Antigua (buses, vans, and taxi… you get the picture), then the following day boarding that metal bird for Houston, then Phoenix, with a late arrival at 11pm to Seattle. Those 13 hours spent in airports and planes reminded me that actually Guatemala IS far from Seattle, despite the apparent proximity through Skype and FB contact.

 

Contra dancing at Phinney Neighborhood Center

What an eight wonderful days of bliss in Seattle!!!… The menu included: dancing (all types and dance venues), but I held back from dancing in the streets although that would have been fun, too. Dining with friends (savoring teriyaki chicken and salmon with gusto!) and multiple walks around Green Lake. Last year, after setting foot back in the Emerald City I had suffered some days of angst and confusion as to what and where was home….this year I stepped without hesitation back into my former life.  My identity as a Peace Corps volunteer is more cemented now, so it seemed easier to accept that I had dialed into the Seattle Channel for a brief while, knowing that I would soon be back to the Guatemala program.

My Guatemalan home town

I fully expected to be troubled by the luxurious cars and homes which are a stark contrast to the reality of the majority of San Bartolo residents, but this time I just shrugged at these shows of wealth. Yes, most of my Guatemalan friends and coworkers dream of these material possessions, but they enjoy richness in their family and social networks that Americans should envy. Did I relish some of the luxuries? Por supuesto! Of course! The first few days I shivered in the damp, cold weather that Seattle first offered me, and after whimpering sufficiently my two different hosts turned on their indoor heating for me in pity (which they normally resist to doing in June)….indoor heating is an unknown luxury in my town and in most of Guatemala, so I soaked in that pleasure.  Hot water out of the tap was also a treat, although I now believe that it may not be worth the huge energy price tag….clean tap water is now enough to make me happy.

Mother and daughter reunited!

For one day in Seattle I donned my professional hat for fellow urban planners and gave a presentation about community planning in Guatemala. Yes, there are definite challenges less likely faced by American planners, such as, widespread illiteracy, poverty, and malnutrition, however, this just forces me to be more creative and visual in my approach. When I spot the sparkle in a rural woman’s eye during my talk, I can sense a future community leader. That counts for a lot. With plenty of photos of my work, I outlined five basic principles that planners must keep in mind, no matter who is the group: 1.) Do whatever is necessary to encourage participation; 2.) Reach people at their level; 3.) Be inclusive; 4.) Look for community leaders and ideas; and 5.) Be fair in allocating resources. My audience seemed to appreciate the opportunity for the virtual trip to Guatemala, and gained a bit more understanding through my work. Check out my PPT here: Community Planning in Guatemala

Proud parental moment…Hooray to Michelle!

Graduation time! (My true motive for this trip back to the USA.) Seeing my youngest, Michelle, head across the stage to receive her BA in International Studies from the University of Oregon was the fulfillment of many, many parenting hours…all given freely but nonetheless that much sweeter with this return on my investment. That she graduated Summa Cum Laude in the top 1% of her class just confirmed my motherly intuition that she is a very bright and also compassionate young woman.

 

Reunion of the generations and family branches.

Celebration time with confetti-filled eggs from Guatemala!

Family members streamed in from the corners of the USA and even Central America for this special event!! A few speakers helped graduates dream about possible career paths as they outlined their very own zigzag path to their current passion and work. I especially appreciated the story of a Congressional Aid who shared his pride regarding the importance of his work, which involves researching a variety of issues to keep his boss informed for policy votes…and he worked hard to rise to that job within 5-6 years of graduation.

Michelle, the salsa princess

Before the graduation jitters hit too hard, there was a night of salsa dancing…and I think I actually held my own. Michelle’s performance with her ladies styling group was very riveting and fun. Hmmm…perhaps my daughter might take me on as a student someday.  It is so rewarding that we both share a love of dance and this cements our bond, although I will acknowledge her as the princess of salsa…just leave the waltzing to me.

That calendar date of June 19thcame quickly and signaled that I should pile back into my Prius and head north to Seattle. A rainy 6 hrs later I was back in the Emerald City and ready to switch channels in my real life to the Guatemala program.

Mom and daughter dancers

Again, I faced another dreadful trek…with a night in the Houston airport and their anti-vagrancy seats, so those annoying metal bars between seats made it near impossible for repose.  Seriously, would it be THAT bad to allow passengers to rest comfortably? Well, I should stifle some of these complaints because my roundtrip cost me a whopping $60 on a frequent flyer ticket…so I guess I had to pay the price of some discomfort. Day 2 was a repeat of all the land transport fun. When I stepped slowly off the bus in San Bartolo I headed straight to my house. Travel hair and face and body was not a pretty sight….I would be ready to face the world the following day.

Yes, seamlessly, I switched back into the Guatemala channel…it is indeed a strange feeling to be comfortable and adapted to two such disparate worlds, and to realize that both exist in the same moment on this earth. I briefly experienced some angst upon my return as I reflected upon my decision to request a 3rdyear extension of my Peace Corps service…my alter ego asked, “What? Are you crazy?” but within 24hrs I felt back at home again with my Guatemalan life.

Smiles abound as we finish this garden wall

The next day I asked, Sonia to write a letter formally requesting my extension with a signature from the alcalde  (mayor). My library committee president was in the process of writing another letter of support when the mayor came into my office. He asked, “What? You need two letters?” I replied that it wouldn’t hurt to show that people in San Bartolo wanted me to stay…his response, “Well, then we might as well request an additional 2 years while we’re at it.” I said, “Well, I do miss my family.” “We’ll let you go home one month per year.” I smiled.

 

Stuffing bottles with trash…& cleaning up the environment

Yes, so I am back to my adopted home. I just received word this past week that my library project has been successfully funded with USAID funds (HOORAY!) and the Chotzague elementary ecoladrillo garden wall is coming along. Yesterday I had caldo de pollo (chicken stew) to commemorate the death of my neighbor’s husband, and found myself watching how Guatemalans handle loss and grief….as with all life events, with a closeness of family and friends.  In the evening I attended an evangelical service at the invitation of my co-worker, Sonia, and I was quite pleasantly surprised that the music volume was much less than the typical.  My little 5 yr old friend, Maynor, slept on my lap during much of the service and then awoke to rejoin his parents and also to partake in the after-service snack of paches (similar to tamales) which were handed out.

My heart lives in Seattle and Guatemala…enjoying Green lake

For now, this is indeed my home, my present, and my ongoing challenge to make a difference. Within a few weeks I expect the news on whether my request to extend for a 3rd year is approved….I am sure that whatever the decision, my path will offer interesting challenges. So stay tuned and thanks for tuning into this program called my life in Guatemala!!

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