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.


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


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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Alphabet Soup

As Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) we are forced to learn a slew of acronyms that make conversations sound like we’re speaking in some sort of secret code. A PCV is a Peace Corps Volunteer and a RPCV is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. The dysphemism for not finishing your service is ET, Early Termination, which always reminds of that scene in the 1976 sci-fi flick “Logan’s Run” where they all float up into the giant fly trap looking thing to kill themselves when they turn 30 because the world is overpopulated. (If anyone gets that reference I’d be shocked.) ET can also be used as a verb i.e. “We knew Jared was ETing when he lost it in Nicaragua” as can COS which stands for Close of Service but holds an important distinction from ET. I know exactly what an APCD and a PTO are (or rather, who they are) but I have no idea what they stand for. If I get sick I have to call the PCMO and if I get robbed I have to call the SSC. Already I have been through PST, IST, PDM, MSC, and one AVC. I had to turn on some MGMT just to write this.

Despite all of these, in the world of the Peace Corps alphabet soup three letters stand out as the most dreaded of all: VRF. I’m pretty sure that stands for Volunteer Reporting File (or something like that) but it really doesn’t matter. It is, as far as I can tell, the root of all evil in the world. The VRF is a tool Peace Corps uses worldwide for getting volunteers to electronically report what they have been doing every six months. If you couldn’t guess, mine is due this Thursday and if you couldn’t guess, it hasn’t been going so smoothly. I didn’t have to go to a community today so I’ve been working on it intermediately between rewatching episodes of the first season of “The Wire” and getting up to wander around to stare at the wall or do anything more interesting than my VRF.

If I sound bitter you have to understand that technology and I have never really gotten along. There is this stereotype that every male in my age range knows everything there is to know about computers and electronics and all that crap. Not true; I know nothing about them. My iPod is really the only electronic device that I've ever fully mastered and the only one I’ve ever had a real propensity towards but mostly just because it allows me drown out horrible chicken bus music for long bus rides.

So it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that it took me about a week to actually get the file to open on my computer. And it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that I when I went back to finish up the last 5% of my VRF a couple minutes ago to find that it hadn’t saved even though I obsessively saved it after everything I entered and it even told me every time, “Changes Successfully Saved to E:\\ 1_2011¬_StephenOliver (1).vrf.” Like I said, the root of all evil in the world.

So now here I sit with a much needed cup of “Mellow Moments Herbal Tea” thinking about calling my APCD to tell him that not only will I ET if he or the CD and PTO don’t call DC about the VRF but that before I COS and am a RPCV I’m going to talk to VAC about bringing it up at the next AVC as long as I don’t get FOC and have to see the PCMO.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


This last week I got back from my one and only trip to America during these two+ years for my sister Maureen’s wedding. Even though I had been building it up in my head for months, it still managed to surpass my expectations. The wedding was wonderful and the reception was indescribably fun. I couldn’t have had a better time and I imagine everyone who was there would say the same. So one final time, congratulations to Maureen and Tony and remember, keep that guest room available.

Here are two things I have written somewhat recently but never posted for a couple reasons. First, they don’t exactly flow with the joviality that I aim for in this space and might seem a little serious or depressing in contrast to the blog that just recently referenced a “tranny” in Costa Rica. Also, they are pretty much the same thing except that one was written before I went home and the other was written after. However, I decided to post them because I thought some people might be interested in the other side of my Peace Corps experience that doesn’t involve trite lists of Costa Rican debauchery and Norm McDonald videos. So here they are, read the top one first…