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…

Erica and Diego

One of the five aldeas (communities or outlying areas of a municipality) that we work in is a place called Xecococh. It is one of the furthest aldeas from Santa Maria Chiquimula and it takes us about an hour in the back of a pick up across unpaved roads to get there. Xecococh is one of the five aldeas that we work in because it is one of the five most chronically malnourished aldeas in the most chronically malnourished municipality in Totonicap├ín, which is the most chronically malnourished department in Guatemala, which is the most chronically malnourished country in the hemisphere and fourth in the world. Without going into details or being overdramatic about it, I’ll just say that it doesn’t take long to notice.

Usually when I go anywhere outside of town to a place such as Xecococh the kids are frightened of me, especially the girls. Occasionally one of them will come up to me and ask me a question and then run off to her friends laughing hysterically before I can even answer the question but even harmless interactions such as these are rare. Most of the little girls stare at me from around a corner or from behind their mother’s legs as they cling tightly to her corte (traditional skirt-type thing that indigenous Guatemalan women wear) or run off to find a safer place to stare from a distance. (Actually, this is a problem I seemingly have with women of every age and ethnicity so maybe I’m not really touching on anything new here.)

I know that part of why I put the fear of God into Santa Maria’s finest is that in the aldeas the children and adults alike, although especially the women and girls, often don’t speak Spanish or speak very little Spanish. Also, I know that in many cases I am the first white person some of these kids have ever seen. Even the adults sometimes tell me that either I or another of my Peace Corps friends are the first Americans or non-Guatemalans they’ve met. So while it is still weird to walk into a crowded place and see half of the people there take off running as if I’m Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin (just watched that movie again last night) and the other half giggle as if I passed out next to a sharpie at a frat house the night before, I guess I sort of understand.

There are, albeit very rarely, some kids who seem to understand that I mean no harm and who almost immediately take a liking to me. Seeing as it is very difficult to make and maintain good friendships here in Guatemala because of any number of the cultural differences that I won’t go into right now, I would say that some of my most valued friendships here have been with children. A couple days ago I read a friend’s blog and I thought she hit this dead on, “It makes me wonder what I did to deserve such adoration. To be honest, I did nothing. I don't want to believe that they run to me in the street just because I have light skin and blond hair but, I know that is at least part of the reason. The least I can do is try to rightfully earn their fondness. I'm still working on it.”

About a month ago I met someone in Xecococh whose fondness I hope to somehow earn. We had all finished our presentation for the day and my fellow co-workers were getting thumb prints from the women (very few of them know how to write) on some paperwork so I decided to get out of their way and take in the beautiful view that Xecococh has to offer. As I was staring off to the north towards the Cuchumatanes Mountains I heard the unfamiliar voice of a young girl begin to ask me questions in perfect Spanish. I explained that I was enjoying the view and asked if she knew what those mountains were called. I was almost certain that she didn’t since very few people around here seem to look much beyond their own communities and when she told me that she didn’t, I taught her their name and what department they were in. Then I showed her the mountains of El Quiche, another department visible from Xecococh’s only school, and I could tell that the words Huehuetenango, Chuchumantanes, and Quiche were as new to her as they are to almost everyone reading this right now.

Her name was Erica, she told me, and when I asked if she went to school she proudly smiled and said yes. I asked her if she was going to go to the Guatemalan equivalent of middle school when she finished the Guatemalan equivalent of grade school and when she again answered yes, I asked about what she wanted to do after that. “A nurse,” she said, still wearing the same smile.

We continued our conversation for a few minutes until her mother came up and it looked like they were going to leave. Erica introduced me and I immediately noticed that something wasn’t right with her; she just kept giving me a really big smile and shaking my hand or patting me on my shoulder. I thought at first that she was mentally ill but then Erica explained to me that her mother is deaf so she has to communicate with her through basic hand gestures and mouthing things out for her. I remember thinking that day when we were leaving that despite spending two years with people like those of Xecococh, I will never, ever be able to fully understand the difficulty of their lives. I remember thinking about how later that evening I was going to be in a touristy bar in Xela (Guatemala’s second biggest city) watching the Ducks play in the national championship game and Erica and her mother would still be in Xecococh. I remember thinking that despite how depressing it is for me to see kids here with no motivation to learn, it is almost just as depressing for me to meet a girl like Erica knowing very well the odds that are stacked against her ever becoming a nurse: when she graduates grade school she will have to find a way to pay for her transportation to another community for middle school since Xecococh doesn’t have one and if that happens she will have to do the same for many more years of studying plus tuition in Xela or the department capital of Totonicap├ín, the whole time hoping her parents don’t make her quit to get a job to help out the family. I remember thinking that it was depressing that I would be depressed from meeting someone as bright and uplifting as her. I remember thinking that this isn’t what I wanted to be thinking about.

On Wednesday we went back to Xecococh and I was happy to see Erica with her slightly crocked smile run and pull on her mother’s corte and point at me when we pulled up. As I got out of the car and greeted the women standing around waiting for us, I went to put something in my backpack and saw that one of the oranges I brought with me got smashed and leaked sticky juice all over my bag and onto my papers and book. I took everything out to clean it when Erica came up to say hello she immediately got bright eyed when she saw my book sitting in the road. “Can I see that?” she asked somewhat astonished by something most of us wouldn’t think twice about. “Of course,” I said, “but it’s in English.” She didn’t seem to care and flipped through the pages trying to decipher the foreign words. “Do you like to read?” I asked, “Books or newspapers or magazines or anything?” “Yeah! I like to read to books!” Considering those words are about as rare here as “I don’t like tortillas,” I felt like I could have bent down and hugged her just for saying it. When I asked her if she had any books in her house she said that she has one and it’s about chickens and farming. It sounds like one of the manuals that are given out by some government programs about how to maintain healthy poultry from who knows how many years ago. “So you’ve read it then?” I asked. “Yeah, ten times!”


Today we went to another of the five aldeas that took about three weeks for me to correctly pronounce: Tasabalquiej. We got there a little early from another community and those of us who brought lunches went off to find a shady place to eat that wasn’t in front of the women or children since it would be pretty rude of us to do so in one of the most malnourished places on earth. Just as we were finishing a boy who seemingly wasn’t all there in the head came up and sat with us with no reservations. He had cold sores covering his lips, an all too obvious home done haircut, small, torn jeans and shoes that were just a glorified second pair of socks. He had strikingly skinny legs and arms with scabbed elbows; an overbite; an all too familiar high, swollen belly stuck out through his torn and dirty white T-shirt and he walked more like a stiff old man than a 14 year old boy. His name was Diego, he said, and he asked me where were Andrea and Zane, two of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers that have also worked in Tasabalquiej.

Sensing that Diego was an unfortunate exception to the already staggering poverty that surrounded us, one of the women I work with, Angelica, started asking him some questions about his house, family, school. The answers were like something out of the first half of some sick, twisted fairy tale. His mother died a number of years back when she was only 21 as well did his only sibling, a younger sister, when she was still a baby. He doesn’t know what either of them died of. His father remarried and has a kid with his new wife but she refuses to take care of Diego, wash his clothes or cook for him. What little money they have is spent by his father who drinks about once a week and sometimes gets so abusive that Diego has to call his uncle over to help him tie him down to something. He finished grade school last year and since Tasabalquiej doesn’t have a middle school, he’s reached the end of the line in the disgrace that is Guatemala’s education system. Now to earn what little money they can, he goes off with his dad during the days to cut firewood, making trips back and forth from the forest to their house with loads of firewood strapped to their backs.

Throughout our meeting today I kept an eye on Diego. I watched him walk around the meeting and play one by one with the babies attached to the women’s backs, pretending to shake their hands or making funny faces at them. I watched when he tried to show a group of younger kids the correct technique for shooting marbles and I watched when he got shoved around a little bit by a group of older teenagers. I saw him kick an emaciated dog for no reason and I saw him try to teach one of the women with us some words in K’iche.’

When we were leaving the meeting and our group was heading to the car he walked next to us proudly, with a little swagger in his step as he pretended to be going with us to what he was seemingly imagining to be some far off, strange land and said in K’iche’ to everyone watching, “Bye everyone, I’m going with them!” He opened the car door for the women who sat in the cab of the truck and waved to us guys sitting in the bed as we took off and left behind us a cloud of white dust.


I asked Erica if I brought her a book in Spanish the next time I came, would she read it. She said of course and so I promised that I would. A couple hours later when we were all getting ready to go, I felt someone tug on my leg as I climbed into the truck. “March 7th, you guys are coming back on March 7th, right?” I looked at someone already in the truck for confirmation then turned back to Erica, “Yeah, we’ll be back on March 7th.” “And you’ll bring me a book, right?”

In a couple days I’ll be going home to my beloved Portland where I will be received by all of the comforts and luxuries that our society and culture have allowed us to create and accumulate, none of which ever make their way down to Xecococh or Tasabalquiej. And just as I will never fully understand the difficulty of the lives of the people I live with like Erica and Diego, there are likewise many things about me that they will never be able to comprehend. Despite my best efforts to explain, many people still don’t understand why someone would leave a rich country to live in a poor one or how someone who is both white and American is not filthy rich. And Erica and Diego will probably never understand why I want them to succeed so badly, why it would mean so much to me, my life philosophy and theology, for her to become a nurse (or better) and for him to do or become anything more than what he is and does now, or why I was secretly more excited to see Erica on Wednesday than she was to see me, because I need to know that not everyone here’s life is just the first half of some sick, twisted fairy tale; in essence, a fairy tale without the fairy tale ending.

Beautiful Things

“Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are a privilege of the rich.”

Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Gray

Today was my first day back at work here in Chiquimula after my long awaited vacation home to America for my sister’s wedding. Before I left I thought a lot about what it might feel like to be back in Portland for the first time in so long or how it would feel to come back to Chiquimula after going back to my beloved Tenth Avenue. I’ve talked to a couple of my volunteer friends here who have told me that it is weird to go home because when we are here we are always looked at as outsiders and foreigners, then when they went home they once again felt like they were on the outside because they had spent so much time away and so much time trying to integrate into another culture that they had a hard time adjusting to America and its culture. Basically, they feel like they belong in neither Guatemala nor America.

It appears that I am fortunate enough to not have experienced this. It hit me last night as I lay in bed waiting for my eye lids to close that the weirdest part about going home was that it didn’t feel weird to go home. And the weirdest part of coming back to Chiquimula was that it doesn’t at all feel weird to be back. Sure there were times in America that felt a little strange, like going to a Blazer game, but mostly just because I hadn’t done them in such a long time not because it felt foreign to me. Nothing felt out of the ordinary about going out with some old friends or eating out at nice restaurants, even hanging out in one of Portland’s most posh hotels after the wedding, or the wedding itself for that matter were all subconsciously accepted.

Today we went to one of our communities called Chipop. Since I just got back I didn’t know what we’d be doing but it turns out that the organization that funds us wanted us to fill out a questionnaire about the quality of life of the women in our groups: how many people live in their homes, do they have latrines, how much do their husbands make on a daily basis, etc. The answers, as one might expect, were quite disheartening. Out of the 17 women that were there, only two have cement floors in their kitchens, some don’t even have kitchens and cook in the same room in which some of their family members sleep, only a few of them use stoves instead of fires on the floor that fill the room with black smoke, not one of them has a latrine. We then asked them about how far they made it in school: two of them graduated sixth grade, a few made it through second or third grade and for the rest we just filled in the word, “No.” And anyone that knows anything about the Guatemalan education system knows that finishing third grade here is roughly the equivalent of an American kid watching one episode of Sesame Street without the sound.

For some reason when we were going over these questions something popped into my head from when I was back home. A day or two after the wedding, I went with my sister and brother-in-law to return some things with them at Macy’s in downtown Portland. As they were taking care of the exchanges with the clerk I wandered around marveling at all of the things that our culture creates, sells, and buys. I looked at pictures of beautiful people trying to sell beautiful things. I passed up and down rows of kitchen appliances with abstruse purposes. I saw a contrived picture of a smiling Martha Stewart sitting around a contrived table of beautiful dishes and silverware hosting a contrived group of racially spontaneous dinner guests. Finally, I stumbled upon a device that I had to pick up and play with to figure out what it was. It was a battery powered wine bottle opener. I tried not to look at the price but my curiosity got the best of me.

As I sat on my plastic chair next to the dusty road in Chipop I thought about that battery powered wine bottle opener. I thought about all of the people that have no stoves on which to cook their food, the 35 quetzals (less than $4) that these women’s husbands bring home, all of the people with less than a second grade education and I thought about how far away their lives are from the lives of the people that create, sell, and buy battery powered wine bottle openers. I thought about a quote I read recently from one of my favorite billionaires, Warren Buffet, “If I wanted to, I could hire 10,000 people to do nothing but paint my picture every day for the rest of my life. And the GNP would go up. But the utility of the product would be zilch, and I would be keeping those 10,000 people from doing AIDS research, or teaching, or nursing.”

But then I started to think back to my original point of belonging. Being in Guatemala for a year and a half has led me to learn that I am much more “American” than I ever thought I was. I like to arrive to things on time and have others do the same. I like football better than futbol. I don’t like small talk, etc. So while I am unequivocally American in most respects and while I now feel comfortable in both America and Guatemala, I eventually concluded that I probably belong somewhere between the side of the road in Chipop and a battery powered wine bottle opener. Maybe feeling like you don’t belong isn’t always a bad thing.