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 horse 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 marimba 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.