Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Circle Game

Six years ago I experienced my first Dia de los Muertos in Queretaro, Mexico and even wrote about it back before I believed in paragraphs. Since then, I’ve been in Latin America for five of the last seven of these holidays and they’ve all proven a bit different, from the binge taco eating in Queretaro to the drunken horses races in Todos Santos, to the kites in Sumpango. In Mexico they celebrate more Dia de los Muertos and in Guatemala they celebrate more Dia de Todos Santos but in essence it’s the same holiday.


As with every holiday in the world, the anticipation precedes the single day by weeks: people start talking about how much fun it will be, making plans, inviting friends and family, stalking up on the necessities. One of my favorite things about meeting new people in new places isn’t so much seeing how we’re different, it’s seeing how we’re the same. I love the look on people’s faces when they talk about their favorite holiday and try to sell you on how much fun it’ll be. Their words often fail the task but their overwhelmed expressions never do. I can picture the same look on my face, with arms flailing unnecessarily, when I tell foreigners about Thanksgiving. It’s universal--everyone has holidays and everyone has a favorite holiday.


This year I was lucky enough to be living in a town that has a strong and lively tradition of celebrating those who have come and gone before us. As the market began to fill with brightly colored flowers, there was that familiar feeling that something was in the air, that something new, different and welcome was on the horizon.


My day started off by getting up before 5am to head up to the cemetery with my host family. Doña Yohanna’s father (unfortunately I can’t remember his name, he doesn’t speak much Spanish so our communication is limited) had a table of marigolds laid out when I arrived at their house and was cutting the stems as the sun was coming up. I bought a few bushels of flowers the day before to contribute and everyone grabbed as many flowers and wreaths as they could carry and we set off. I heard that some people are there as early as 3am so I wasn’t surprised to see a number of others making the pilgrimage with similar loads in their hands or strapped to their backs. On our way up we chatted about the differences between American cemeteries and Guatemalan cemeteries as we walked past a mariba band playing a pleasantly subdued tone in a field a few blocks from our destination.


For those of you that don’t know the differences between an American cemetery and a Guatemalan cemetery, well, I’m not even really sure where to begin. They’re very different. Our cemeteries are designed to induce and reflect our culture’s attitude towards death: sorrow, the daunting sense of inevitability, the uniformity of death in contrast to the individuality of life. Guatemalans, and by extension, Mexicans and other Latin American countries that celebrate this holiday, have a different take on it. People don’t stop being just because they died. They still are themselves, they still like the same food, the same colors, they just aren’t physically present to enjoy it. I think our emphasis on safety and modern medicine has taken our culture into a hubristic battle between death and Western medicine and technology. If someone dies in our culture, all too often it feels like there was some sort of failure in the system: the doctors should have caught it, the seatbelt should have been recalled, if only we’d known sooner.


I don’t mean to suggest that we should be passive in the face of often preventable tragedy but I can’t tell you how many times here I’ve heard people speak of a tragic death in this country by saying, “When God says it’s your time, then you go.” It’s not resignation to life’s tragedies as much as resignation to death itself.


In contrast to ours, Guatemalan cemeteries are garishly colored and so insanely disorganized it’s a challenge to walk from one end to the other while squeezing through the gravestones. (I’m calling them gravestones because I don’t know what the English equivalent would be but take a look at the pictures to see what I mean.) Yet somehow the cemetery is the one place where their complete lack of spacial planning and zoning laws actually makes the place more beautiful. Somehow it’s fitting that their cemeteries are chaotic and thrown together haphazardly yet somehow simultaneously done with the utmost care.  


Because there is so little space left for new occupants, rebar, one of the most ubiquitous sights in much of the developing world takes on new meaning in the cemetery. Cinderblock is the material of choice for anyone with enough money to afford something other than adobe and since many people cannot afford the entire cost of a house at once, they often build it in phases as the money comes in. Cinderblock houses don’t need slanted roofs for rain runoff like adobe houses so you can always leave the rebar sticking out of the top for when you get enough money to build a second story or if your family grows and you need more space. (I’ve also been told it’s for tax reasons, if you’re house still has the rebar sticking out of it, it means it is still in construction and can’t be taxed. Seems like an easy loophole to close but that’s what people tell me.) Sure enough, the cemetery holds to the same pattern as Manhattan Island, if you can’t grow outwards you must grow upwards. Thus, many of the graves are built with level tops and rebar shooting out of the top. A different kind of growth in the family, but growth nonetheless.


I continued walking around to about 15-20 gravestone with Dona Yohanna’s family decorating each one with flowers and leaving candles burning in the small, candle-sized catacombs built into each gravestone. Very few of them have names or any sort of indication whatsoever of whose final resting place is being commemorated yet everyone seemed to know exactly where each of their family members were despite being scattered all over the place.  I didn’t see anyone crying or really see anyone sad at all. Sure, people kneeled and prayed silently as they prepared to venerate the graves but it wasn’t somber. It was a day that combined elements that were distinctly Guatemalan--Mayan beliefs and ceremonies intricately interwoven with Catholicism, K’iche’, mariba--with elements that were distinctly Latin American--Dia de los Muertos/Todos Santos, marigolds, brightly colored cemeteries--with elements that are universal--family, community, death.


It seemed inevitable that during all of this I would think of Anne. November will always be a difficult month for those of us who owe so much of who we are to the simple fact that we were loved immensely by Anne Lebwohl. I tried my hardest to steer my thoughts from this since I knew very well that my reflections on life and death would conjure up contrasting emotions than those of my Guatemalan counterparts, but like I said, it was inevitable. I thought about the Guatemalan funeral I went to years ago around the same time Nanny passed away and how I never would have imagined that I’d be here a few short years later walking around another Guatemalan cemetery thinking of another Masterson/Lebwohl who made my life immeasurably better by being a part of it. Yet there I was, feeling as powerless to the forces that dictate the most important distinction in human existence as I was to the forces that placed me in that cemetery that morning.


Not knowing what else to do I decided to take a page from those around me. The Mayans will proudly tell you that they’re corn people. Their entire civilization and livelihood was made possible and sustained due to a single plant. Every year the previous crop dries up and dies, but not until it has allowed those who depend on it to thrive.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Back in ████████

[Editor's note: I wrote this post a few weeks ago and upon realizing that it might not pass the Peace Corps inspection (keep reading), I decided I'd put a password on my blog which they suggested if you feel that some of the things you post may be potentially sensitive or revealing. Turns out, it's not very easy to put a password on here and I'd have to invite everyone I wanted to have access (preferably through their Gmail accounts!) which seemed much more daunting than just editing out a number of jokes and self-censoring. I didn't want to lose this entire post so here it is with the edits, sorry that it doesn't flow as well as the original and isn't nearly as hilarious or sarcastic. Email me if you want the unedited version and I'd be happy to send it. Enjoy!]

Welcome back my aimless ramblings. I'm sure you're thrilled. First off, I want to apologize for the password, it's certainly not my preference but I just sat through two weeks of orientation on all of the old and new Peace Corps rules, regulations, and policies covering everything from which buses we're allowed to take to which areas of the country are in the green zone, which are in the yellow zone and which are in the red zone and whatever that's all supposed to mean. It turns out, Peace Corps Guatemala has gotten even stricter in the past five years to the point that if you have a blog, you're not even supposed to mention where it is that you're living for security reasons.

At first I thought this meant that they didn't want you to give specific details about where exactly you live (like don't draw a map to your house) but apparently it means not even mentioning the name of the town in which you live. I'm not really sure how I could possibly write anything of any substance if I'm writing from “Anywhere, Guatemala.” The whole point of this is to share a little slice of my experience with those of you who are interested in following along from afar. My experience is specific to the town of ██████ in the department of ████████. That might not mean much to those that don't know the country well but regardless, that's where I am; it feels like a bit of a disservice to pretend otherwise.

Apparently there are people in the Peace Corps office in DC who read volunteers' blogs and email the country offices if anything in there is questionable or potentially offensive. I rather enjoy being offensive and really don't need some ████████████ to ruin that for me so I've put a password on here for that reason and that reason only. The truth is that I'm pretty much always joking around on here just trying to have a little fun. People that know me understand that I'm just trying to get a cheap laugh and it's not my intent to patronize the people who are working hard to keep us all safe here, but it's not the people who know me that I'm worried about.

So anyways, here I am in █████. It's my first night here and it feels like 2009 all over again. At times it's hard to believe I ever came back to this place. I could have sworn that I swore this place off after coming home one too many times to a moldy house from one too many meetings that resulted in absolutely nothing getting done with an omnipresent Evangelical preacher screaming through a blaring radio at an absurd volume. Yet here I am, back for more in the land of eterna primavera. Of course this depiction is grossly ignoring all of the incredibly positive experiences I have had here in my life; I guess I'm optimistic that this time I'll be even better at tipping that balance in my favor.

I'm not actually in the house in which I'll be living for the next nine months (I'm doing a nine month stint, not two years for those of you that didn't know). Doña Yohanna, the owner of the house I'll be renting, promised me last week that the guy who was living in the house would be gone by the time I showed up. Once upon a time, I probably would have believed that and maybe even been upset when it ended up not being true but it came as absolutely no surprise to me when I showed up a few hours ago to learn that he's still there and that she has a room across the patio from that house that she'll rent to me until he leaves at the end of the month. Whatever, I'm not really worried about it. I have a place to sleep and a door that locks, that's enough to hold me over for a few weeks. Eighteen days. Doña Yohanna kept repeating that over and over again. It'll be ready in 18 days. [Editor's note: It's ready, I've moved in and I'm quite happy with it.]

The room I'm in is a pretty standard Central American abode: cement block walls, one black metal door facing an outdoor patio, one opaque glass window with bars on the outside, cement floor painted with a once glossy maroon paint and one overhead light with an energy saving LED bulb. The walls are painted light blue expect for one wall which is inexplicably one-third light blue and two-thirds beige. I've opted out of the overhead light for a few candles I picked up at the tienda and one that Jessica gave me for my birthday that she made me out of beeswax from her host family's hives in Jamaica. Louis Armstrong and the caterpillar crawling slowly across the ceiling will be my writing companions tonight.

When I showed up, there were only two wooden bookshelves in the ~15' x 20' room and an empty water jug. We since moved in a spare bed from the other room which is just some wood slats with a thin pad on top and all of my belongings are now spilling out of my bags onto the dusty floor in the corner. I'm sitting here on the hard bed staring at the two-toned wall in the Guatemalan mountains pondering everything that led me back to this place and wondering what the next nine months will bring. I have a hell of a lot better idea of what I'll be doing this time around than I did last time but there's really no telling for sure. It'd be a great comfort to know exactly how it's going to play out but alas, no such comfort exists. I have an idea, but I don't really know.

But then again, comfort is a big part of what drove me back here in the first place. I had comfort back home. More comfort than I knew what to do with. So here I am in █████, sitting in the dark hoping there is more happiness outside of the comfort zone than within.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dear Friends and Family,

I have a request that I would like to share with all of you who have followed me here over the past couple of years. I wrote a couple of times about my attempts to learn the local dialect of K’iche’ and my patient teacher, Rafael. Throughout the two years of classes I often wondered if someday I would be able to repay the patience and kindness of Rafael and his family. Now, under unfortunate circumstances, it appears that I have my chance.

In the months leading up to my departure, Rafael’s wife, Paola, was due to have their second child. The first sonograms showed some problems and the doctors originally thought that the baby would be stillborn and told them to prepare themselves as such. Thankfully the doctors were wrong and their second child, a boy named Del Angel, was born on September 28th.

Unfortunately, Del Angel was born with a congenital cyst in his brain that needs surgery. In America and other developed countries this is a relatively easy and common surgery in which most of the children go on to lead normal lives. In Guatemala, however, this is not as easy. When I left Santa Maria and said my goodbyes I promised Rafael I would do what I can to help out him and his family. I emailed the MRI images to some family friends who confirmed the diagnosis that was given by the Guatemalan doctors and stressed the need to operate in order for Del Angel to live a normal life. Almost four months later they still have been unable to get the surgery due to a bureaucratic mess with the poorly run insurance and hospitals in Guatemala.

I offered to help Rafael raise some money from friends and family in order to help out and although I can tell that he is embarrassed to have to ask, they are now in serious need of some financial assistance. After talking with him it seems that they will be needing roughly $1,000 dollars for doctor’s appointments both before and after the surgery, travel expenses to and from the appointments (Guatemala City is about a five hours bus ride), paying for a work replacement (Rafael is a teacher and in his absence will have to find and pay another person to fill in for him), and most importantly the supplies for the surgery (the insurance, in theory, pays for the surgery but since the hospitals are usually empty of supplies he will need to provide the supplies which will likely include everything up to the gauze).

I know that this might not be an opportune time to ask for money and for that I completely understand if you cannot contribute. For those of you that can, even the smallest amount will go a long ways towards the relatively modest goal of $1,000 and will be much appreciated by Rafael, Paola and the entire Osorio family. Click on the link here to donate. Thank you all so much.

Stephen

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Looking Back On Guatemala

When I find myself looking up during my two years in Guatemala, I see a stunningly beautiful place. In my time here I have climbed the region’s highest volcanoes and taken in views that I will never forget. I’ve jumped off of a warm springs waterfall into a jungle river. I’ve roasted marshmallows over flowing lava. I’ve seen the sunrise while sitting atop ancient Mayan ruins with the screams of howler monkeys greeting the bourgeoning day.

Looking down is a much different story. Then you see trash covered streets with emaciated dogs digging for their dinner. On most days I see a bolo (a drunk) passed out in the street as adults and children step around and over them as if they don’t even exist. Worse, I see countless, unsupervised children with swollen bellies going in and out of small houses with billowing smoke that eats away at their lungs and their lives. When I look down I not only see the burning garbage or the urine-drenched drunk, I smell them.

This dichotomy has troubled me every day of the two years that I have lived among Guatemala’s beauty and its squalor. I’ve learned that few things in Guatemala can be easily defined or understood and Guatemala itself is the paramount example of that. The factors that lead to this polarity are myriad and complex. Centuries of racism and discrimination, a genocidal civil war spanning over three decades, and foreign manipulation are only a few of the seemingly innumerable dynamics that have contributed mightily to Guatemala’s complications.

I constantly find myself asking questions about how Guatemala arrived at its current state. How can this place be two opposite things at the same time? How can a place with such a vibrant cultural history have such a bitterly depressing present? How is it the 99 percent of the Guatemalans I know are good- natured, respectable people or that its inhabitants all unanimously believe in the same loving, peaceful God yet the country is one of the most ruthlessly violent places on Earth? How can a place with such plentiful fertile coastal plains be one of the world’s most malnourished countries?

In searching for answers, I often recalled reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in a European History course in college. A passage in Orwell’s account of living and writing about the poor coal miners in Northern England in 1937 has stuck with me to this day and I often found myself thinking about it here in Guatemala:

For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us. Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led to - to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long.


It has proved horribly difficult for me to look up at the natural beauty around me, at “civilization,” at thousands of years of proud history only to look down at this: swollen bellied children guiding their drunk, stumbling fathers home; a poverty so complex, so ubiquitous, and so seemingly insurmountable; to a culture so depressed, so confused. I’ve thought many times that if Guatemala were a Greek play, it would unequivocally be a tragedy.

But we cannot disregard this place if we accept the civilization that created it.

If that is one of the hardest things about Guatemala then the absolute hardest thing—to me at least—is deciding where I fit into all of this, or rather, where my service fits into my understanding of looking up and looking down.

I didn’t come here to be an observer; I’m not a tourist or an anthropologist: I came here to live it, not just look at it. One thing my service has taught me is that living it is different from looking up and looking down. Living it is experiencing it. Living it is knowing that there is so much more to Guatemala than one can read in the papers about crooked politicians, tourism, malnutrition, or violence. Living it is getting past looking up and looking down and seeing something that exists in the middle, something that is right in front of you but overshadowed by the beauty and the squalor at the fringes.

When you experience Guatemala you see in the middle a mass of people, millions of them, encompassed by an ocean, a sea and a few imaginary lines who are given the title “Guatemalans” and whose trials and tribulations don’t make it onto the cover of the newspapers or websites the way that of a murdered Guatemalan millionaire or disgraced ex-president do.

Instead they are the silent majority, underrepresented or repressed in almost every imaginable way: politically, culturally, monetarily, geographically. They are all right there for us to see “so hidden in plain sight all around us” yet despite their prevalence they are completely overshadowed in the idea of Guatemala. They are, in masse, people who will welcome someone from a foreign land into their homes for coffee and a snack, who will stop a stranger on a street with questions to satiate their curiosity and who offer a simple greeting of “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening” not out of habit but kindness.

This majority’s inability to shape the definition of Guatemala adds to the tragedy. Yet with seemingly every imaginable factor stacked against it, Guatemala is full of these gracious and sympathetic people who are its greatest hope.

It is easy to get distracted by the extremes of Guatemala, either by external sensory factors or by some sort of dialogue in your head trying to rationalize Guatemala’s dichotomy as if it is some evil experiment in equilibrium in which one balances out the other. But if you really experience Guatemala, you are likely to realize that neither looking up nor looking down is the true Guatemala and that these extremes, while certainly much more visceral, only make up part of the whole of Guatemala and that if you allow yourself to truly experience Guatemala you will be able to look straight ahead at the nuanced beauty of millions of human faces of the silent majority.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Link 2

Since I'm not really writing anything to put up here I figured I might as well link another article for those that do want to read something. For the last article I linked I said it was nothing like the Guatemala I lived in. Well, this one is a little closer to home. Also, for anyone interested, Guatemala just had its first round of presidential elections and there are a number of interesting articles about what is going on down here for anyone with Google and a little time on their hands.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Checking In

Hey everyone, been a while since I’ve written here. Sorry about that, I guess I just haven’t had too much to say that I thought would be interesting. The other day, however, I started writing a sort of reflection on my service that is currently about six single-spaced pages of rigmarole with little evidence of a connecting theme, random tangents, no end in sight and is about as confusing as the dream I had when I fell asleep after taking my malaria pills and watching “Lost Highway.” If there is a coherent way to express the last two years of my life, I haven’t yet found it but I’ll keep trying my best to spare you from another list.

In the meantime, all is going well down here in Guatemala and it’s hard to believe that my time here is coming to an end. I remember writing here a while back when we had our Mid-Service Conference that it was just a fancy term for the Half Way Done! Conference. Now, in two weeks I’ll have what is called the COS Conference which is just a fancy term for the We Made It! Conference. Of course I’ll still have about another two and a half months left after the We Made It! Conference but I’m really looking forward to the last stretch of my service and finishing up everything I’ve started down here.

Well I just wanted to check in and ease all of your worries that I had gone insane down here and thus not posting anything on this blog; thankfully, that is not the case. (Although I did catch a gecko or lizard or something this weekend and after trying to feed it bugs for about an hour I realized how that would look to someone who lived in the “real world” and thus decided to let it go. Afterwards I realized that I passed the insane test because I never gave it a name or spoke to it, so yeah, I’m doing alright.) I hope all is well with my five readers and that everyone in Oregon right now is enjoying to the fullest the spoils of summer in the Northwest. (Someone freeze some berries for me, please!)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Link

Here is an excellent and fascinating article from the New Yorker about a Guatemala that is nothing like the one in which I live but I thought people would really enjoy. Check it out if you have time whether you know the first thing about Guatemala or not.