Aves de Paradiso
As a part of the final week of training, we each prepared short ‘commitment to serve’ presentations. I was interested in what some of the volunteers would come up with because we have some very creative and artistic people in our group. I think that most of us cried throughout the majority of our presentations. Emotions were running rampant that week and I think the presentations were a much needed, cathartic release of energy.
Here is a written version of my ‘commitment to serve’ presentation. This is hopefully a bit more eloquent and understandable than the version I spoke in my presentation considering that I began to cry the moment I stood up.
The eloquent version of my story:
I believe everything on this earth happens for a reason. I don’t believe in coincidences. This is a bird of paradise flower, an ave de paradiso. I remember immediately falling in love with the flower the first time I saw it. The intense orange and blue petals provide a sharp contrast against the broad leaves of the shrubby plant. It’s asymmetrical and sharp frame make it both beautiful and somehow masculine at the same time; I find the contrast fascinating. The flower is generally used as a symbol for joy. It is tattooed on the top of my foot to remind me to find joy in the everyday happenings of life.
I have only seen birds of paradise in three places. I know they exist in other places, but I have only seen them in three. The first time I saw a bird of paradise flower was during my study abroad in South Africa. Some of my favorite memories of South Africa include our service project in the Townships and our intense discussions of health issues among the country’s poorest populations. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these ethical debates were laying the foundation for my passion for public health.
The second time I saw bird of paradise flowers was during my two years at USF for grad school. Yes, they were scattered across the Tampa Bay region, but most significantly, they were planted in abundance in front of the main entrance to the College of Public Health.
Guatemala is the third place in my life that I have seen bird of paradise flowers, and they are everywhere here. My host mom in training had a bird of paradise plant on her roof.
Again, I don’t believe in coincidences.
|Aves de Paradiso en Guatemala|
I should add that the day after I told my host mom this story, I walked into my room to find a bouquet of bird of paradise flowers on my desk.
Is this real life?
Well, I’ve been at site for about a week now. Yup. I really don’t have any complaints, other than the fact that this is probably the most stressed I have been in a VERY long time. However, I don’t want to use this space as an area to vent that stress, so I am going to focus on the good!
I’m located in northern Totonicapán, about two hours from the capital of Quetzaltenango/Xela (One hour if you are traveling by car instead of bus). I’m located in a fairly medium sized site. My city itself has about 3,000 people and the population of the municipality (the city plus the surrounding aldeas) is about 18,600 people. The municipality has 13 aldeas or villages. These aldeas are VERY poor with high rates of maternal and child death. 66% of the children in the municipality are malnourished. Most of the population in the town center speak Spanish as their primary language. The populations in the aldeas are Maya K’iche’ and speak primarily in K’iche’, although many speak Spanish as well.
|Helped measure and weigh babies in an aldea my first day at site!!|
The road to my site was paved within the last year and streets within the town center are either paved or cobblestone. The roads to and within the aldeas are dirt and are often inaccessible for short periods of time due to landslides and deep mud.
My elevation is about 2,370 meters or 1.47 miles. At this elevation, I’m actually down in a valley, so fortunately I’m blocked from the worst of the cold weather. Right now, during Guatemala’s winter, I don’t think it gets too far above 60 during the day time—and that’s when it’s sunny. During Guatemala’s summer (from Novermber-ish through April-ish) it gets down to near freezing at night. I’m looking forward to my next Xela trip so I can buy a coat! Hahaha!
I will be working at a CAP or a Centro de Atención Permanente. The centro is a 24-hour health center that is the head of the entire municipality (I think). My counterpart is the TSR for this municipality and she is AWESOME! The TSR or tecnico en salud rural basically does anything and everything public health for the municipality, including environmental health, maternal and child health and even pet vaccinations. She is extremely busy but I think that once the ball gets moving (and I get over my shell shock) we can accomplish a lot together.
¡Qué rico son los baños!
My site is about 1km from thermal baths. I went for the first time with another volunteer in site and then I went again the next day with my host family. The walk down to the baños is beautiful. It’s a completely different side to Guate that I had yet to see. The road dips and curves through lush pine forests, and the air at this time of year is thick and humid despite the cold. You can watch the dense misty clouds roll across the tree tops and down below further in the valley. The only way I can think to describe the atmosphere around my site is to ask you imagine the classic tropical rainforest that you would see in movies, with air so humid and thick that you can see the condensation in the air. Now drop the temperature by about 50 degrees and replace the tropical vines and palm trees with a gigantic pine forest and you have my city in Toto.
The 12km road to my site was paved with the last year and the 1km road to the baños was finished within the last six months. Small landsides are very common on the road in and out of both my site and the baños. When making the short trek, the other volunteer and I had to skirt around an area that was covered in mud from a recent landslide. I get the impression that the landslides were much worse before the road was paved.
As you get closer and closer the baños, the sound of rushing water drifts up from ravine below. You can’t see the rushing river until you make the final turn into the baños. (The river, at the moment, is very muddy because of all of the rain.) There is a fairly large paved parking lot in front of the baños entrance. This lot is filled with tuk-tuks, micros and fletes either dropping people off or picking them up. A small gate blocks the entrance and there is a middle-aged woman there collecting donations. Normally, entrance is Q1 for residents, Q2 for visitors and Q10 for a private baño. As of right now, there is no entrance charge because of muni issues (more about that later) so people are collecting donations—I’m not sure what the donations are for…
Inside the gate are several vendors selling fried food, snacks, guacals (small plastic bowls), soap, shampoo and body sponges. There are changing rooms with green wooden-slatted doors and cement benches to rest your clothes on while you bathe. I think there are four cement baños which are about 15ft x 15ft x 3ft, one larger baño about a third of the size of a lap pool and then a pool which is about 2/3 the size of a lap pool. The two larger baños look just like cement in-ground pools. The largest pool is emptied on Mondays and Saturdays to refill it with the hot water. The smaller baños are constantly refilled with steaming water, and for as much as you would like to climb into the baño as it is being filled, I would recommend against it unless you want to be caldo (a type of soup). There are also maybe 10 private baños the size of a hot tub. We used one of these when I returned with my host family.
Generally women wear either a very large bathing gown or shorts and a tank top to bath while the men wear either loose shorts or underwear. Everyone sits on the raised cement ledge of the baño about a foot of the ground and you use a guacal to ladle bowlfuls of water onto yourself. It takes a bit of technique to learn not to splash soapy water back into the baño. Women fold their tops down to bathe and you try not to look your neighbor in the eye as he/she is soaping and rinsing his/her privates. After you are clean, you turn around and slide into the steamy water for a soak. The entire experience is very intimate yet very social at the same time. I’ve learned that this is where the town gossip spreads.
The other volunteer introduced me to several people as we made our way around. Every time that we explained that it was my first time to the baños we got the same response: ¡Qué rico son los baños! (How rich/good are the baths!!)
A change in perspective
I tried to come into Peace Corps with no expectations; I didn’t want to be disappointed by anything and I knew that everyone has a different PC experience. Most of the advertisements you see of PCV’s and their homes feature adobe houses with thatched roofs, latrines or pit toilets and a hammock for a bed. Our Safety and Security Coordinator’s response to those pictures was literally “Haha! Not in Guatemala.” Due to the frequent number of earthquakes, we are not allowed to live in adobe houses, we have to live with a host family and we have to have doors that lock. If we live on the first floor, there must be bars on our windows. Guatemala has the highest theft rate against volunteers of any PC country. (We were only recently surpassed in this achievement by Samoa? (I think) but they only have something like 17 volunteers, so percentage wise, that’s not saying much… In my home, I have electricity (most of the time) and running water (most of the time). When the electricity goes out, the pump that runs water to the second floor also goes out.
I also REALLY got lucky with my host family assignment; I already had a bed/sheets/comforter in my room along with a dresser/closet. My host family is also letting me pay a bit extra to share meals with them and eventually, when I want to start cooking for myself, I have permission to use their kitchen and kitchen utensils. Other volunteers in Guate have arrived in their families with nothing but four walls.
My host family is in the upper percentile of wealth in this community. They own one of the three bus lines that run in and out of the community, several micros and tuk-tuks, a corner store, several apartments above the corner store, and a hair salon. They invited me to move into the apartments above the corner store whenever I feel like it…I’m thinking in the future I may like to do so, but I have to see how that will float over with PC security. My host mom is 31 and my host dad is 42. They have three sons who are twelve, nine and eight. The twelve year-old is only home on the weekends as he attends school in Xela. Their home has four bedrooms, one bathroom with a shower, and the family has a maid, which they call a muchacha. I’m still not sure how to field some of these expectations. I don’t feel comfortable treating her as the family does and I’m not sure how the family expects me to treat her. I don’t expect her to do my laundry or clean up after me, but I don’t want to insult her and I don’t want to insult my family by doing these things for myself. I’m still working on this one……
|Another view of my site from my window!|
|View out the front window of my host family's buses (and some wicked cool clouds!)|
The muni and some political issues in my site
OK. Maybe a bit about the Guatemalan governmental structure first…Sorry if this is boring, but it may be helpful in the explanation of what’s going on in my site. From the top, you have the country of Guatemala. The country is divided into 22 departments, somewhat like states in the US. Each department is then broken up into municipalities; Totonicapán has eight. Each municipality has its own mayor. Each municipality has a ‘town center’ and then surrounding aldeas or villages. The aldeas are not suburbs of the town center. Some of the aldeas are clumped together and others are kilometers apart. It’s actually fairly arbitrary where the lines of the municipality are drawn and there is a lot of internal conflict about which aldeas fall under which municipality. There are also two groups of people, the COMUDE (at the municipality level) and the COCODE (an elected group at the community level). Every community project and law within the muni needs the stamp of approval from the mayor, the COMUDE and the COCODE.
Okie dokie, now that that’s done, here’s what’s happening in my muni. There is some sort of disagreement between the mayor and the COCODE. I have no idea what the disagreement is/was but now the mayor is being audited. About three weeks ago, the people started protesting against the muni and basically took over the mayor’s office. The muni has been shut down ever since. Every person who works for the muni has not been working for the past three weeks or so. This also means that every service provided by the muni (including garbage collection) has not happened for three weeks.
At this moment, this conflict doesn’t really affect me or my work because the Centro de Salud is not governed directly be the muni. The issue lies in how this conflict will be resolved. So far, the people in my municipality have been adamant that everything be resolved peacefully, otherwise, I would not have been sent to my site last week and the other two volunteers currently here would have been pulled out. The municipal building is immediately next to the health center. I have not seen any demonstrators yet, but I have to be extremely cognizant of whether or not I’m walking into a protest as I walk to the centro. I have to be ready to leave at the drop of a hat just in case something does happen at the muni.
Planes, trains and automobiles.
I’m not sure what percentage of people in the western highlands own some sort of transportation, but I’m pretty sure it’s a very low percentage. One of the top questions I get asked by nationals is whether or not I know how to drive. My answer is always the same, “yes, but only automatics and I’m not allowed to drive in Guatemala”. I don’t think many women here know how to drive.
The main forms of transportation for Guatemalans, (and PCVs) are camionettas, microbuses, tuk-tuks, fletes and good old-fashioned feet. Tuk-tuks are little three-wheeled golf carts, usually with curtains on the sides to protect its passengers from rain. The tuk-tuks gain a lot of speed whipping down the mountain roads and they look like they’re flying as the black curtains flare out the sides! Fletes are pick-up trucks; pile as many people as you can in the back and take off! (Look in my older posts for a description of camionettas and micros!)
PC-Guatemala is one of only PC countries that has a shuttle system for its volunteers. We are not permitted to travel on the interamerican highway, the main highway that stretches from east to west across the country, in any form of transportation except for private vehicles/shuttles and the PC shuttle. There is a shuttle that travels back and forth between Xela and Antigua twice a day to help PCVs get around.
There are several areas of the country that we not allowed to travel in as volunteers because of security issues. Most of these restrictions have to do with trafficking. As volunteers, when we travel to other countries for vacations, we must abide by the travel and security rules in that country. In Guate, we have such a complicated transportation policy that other volunteers are prohibited from traveling here. CRAZY! But it makes me feel safer!