Feliz Cumpleaños

Last Friday we had the inaugural session of the Healthy Schools Diplomado 2018. It’s a collaboration between the Health Center, Hospital and Office of Education. I am a Technical Volunteer for the Healthy Schools Program (Escuelas Saludables). The program was created in 1993 through an agreement between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. The Peace Corps has been working with the Healthy Schools Program since 1993. What is a Healthy School?

“A Healthy School is an educational center that contributes to the development of basic life skills, favoring the biological, intellectual, emotional and social well-being of schoolchildren, through integral actions of health promotion with the educational community and its environment, promoting the development human and sustainable.”

Through the Diplomado, we will present monthly in-service training for teachers on topics such as nutrition, physical activity, emotional/mental well-being, anti-bullying, environmental health, etc. We had such a large enrollment that we created two groups and there were still teachers who had to be turned away.

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Photo below:  Our first guest speaker gave a great talk on nutrition.

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Photo below:  The coordinators

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When the weekend arrived, I celebrated a significant birthday. When asked my age I answered, “Bastante,” which can mean either enough or a lot. I’ve always enjoyed saying my age but now I’ve decided to count it backward. 😌 Actually, I don’t usually celebrate my birthday but this year I made it clear to my friends, It’s Happening. I’m learning how to be good to myself. Photo below: I took a photo of my friends and English class students at the birthday party.

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We celebrated at our English class and a few close friends joined us. Our host, Griselda, lit a candle that shot upwards like fireworks. Before cutting the cake, the celebrant is supposed to take a bite directly from the cake. But as soon as I leaned over to gingerly bite into the cake, dear sweet, petite Micaela, shoved my head as hard as she could! Everyone burst into laughter and I laughed too, even though I was shocked by the horror of having my face imprinted on the cake. Yuck!

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One of my friends said, “Let’s go around the circle and say what we like about Eloisa.” I could’ve kicked her, I was so embarrassed. But instead, I decided to stay calm and allow the compliments to flow. What ensued was a very tender sharing that surprised me. How each person expressed themselves helped us all get to know each other on a deeper level. After each testimony I asked the speaker to choose one word they had spoken, to add to our weekly English vocabulary list and we cracked jokes about what word to suggest. Miho, the JICA Volunteer, spoke in Japanese and Evelyn spoke in K’iche. It was quite moving.

The next night we had dinner hosted by our friend, Sonia, at her home. We sang and danced to music videos.

One of my Peace Corps friends came to visit and joined in the birthday fun. Sabrina and I are always saying how lucky we are to live here so it was nice that our friend, also fell in love with this town and its beautiful people. We introduced her to our friend, Petro, who mesmerized us with her stories.

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Petro gave us each crystals that she’d found in a river long ago. I was also able to be fitted for a new huipile which I ordered from her.

Before my friend returned to her site in northern Quiché, we took time for a walk in the hills above town. Photo below:  The winding road in the distance leads to my neighborhood. As I look at the photo, I am reminded of the hills and canyons of San Diego. #ilovemytown

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Family Vacation

It’s the last day of school break for me so I want to post one last time while I still have the chance. Since several friends have asked about my recent vacation with my daughter’s family, I thought I’d share the vacation photos here. It was their first time in Guatemala!

I will admit that for over a year, I would wake up each morning here with sadness to have left my grandchildren in the states. You can imagine how overjoyed I was to see them again! I had worried that they might look different because young children can change a lot in a year and a half. Instead, it was as if we had never been apart. I melted in our hugs, relieved to see them again.

Ariel and Tom graciously took care of the hotel, meal, and transportation costs so I was able to completely relax. At Lake Panajachel, we stayed several days at La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna. The good thing about it was that it offered the children a lot of freedom within it’s gates, a pool table, friendly dogs, hammocks and bunkbeds.

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Photos: above is beautiful Ariel; below is the view from CECAP restaurant. The kids loved riding on boats and tuk tuks!

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We visited San Marcos to visit my friend, Nikolina, and also San Juan, where our first stop was a tiny cafe with Turkish coffee, tacos, and a view of the lake. Boom.

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We also visited one of the many stores that offer demonstrations on weaving and dyeing yarn. We were all fascinated and had a greater appreciation of the many woven clothes and bags for sale.

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We had a full day of walking and enjoying the beauty of this small town. One of the most unusual sights there is the front of this old church with it’s oddly laid stones. A second church was built next to it, leaving only the façade of the older church in place.

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We did other things while at the lake, such as to visit the Butterfly reserve outside of Panajachel (wonderful!) and Luisa bought little beaded souvenirs while Seamus searched and searched for a toy—he’s five years old, after all. Soon it was time to head for Antigua where we stayed at Ramelle’s airbnb. I really think that her home could be a vacation destination all it’s own. I hope to return there for a few days, just to enjoy the peace and quiet and the many books in her library.

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Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with extraordinary beauty and a fascinating history. Having only a few days together, our focus was on child-friendly fun so we headed for the Valhalla Experimental Station which is a macadamia nut farm outside of Antigua. The farm offers a relaxed atmosphere with beautiful outdoor tables in the middle of a grove where you can order breakfast or lunch. Their meals are fabulous! While we were waiting for our food, the kids started to look bored. Oh, oh. Suddenly the farm owner appeared with two bags and asked the kids if they would like to pick up fallen macadamia nuts that were everywhere, in exchange for chocolates. Deal!

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When we finished our meals, we took a tour of the farm. There’s not much to see but it was so much fun, especially for the kids. There was even an old swing that the kids enjoyed for a long, long time.

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Ariel and Tom enjoyed the macadamia farm as much as the kids did. We all left a little enchanted by the experience. Over the next few days we visited cafes, ruins and a museum. I was sorry that we could only visit one of the ruins but glad that they were visibly impressed by it’s grandeur and beauty. Actually, one day, my grandson, daughter and I visited the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo on our own. We went down into the burial chambers, visited the museum of silver artifacts, and shopped in the decadently chocolate, chocolate shop.

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On the last night of our vacation, Tom and Ariel wanted us to have dinner at Santo Domingo Del Cerro, which had been recommended by Ramelle. I would never have imagined going to such a fancy place on my own or with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. But in fact, the menu is affordable if you choose right, and there’s a free shuttle from town to the restaurant which is high on a hill overlooking the city. We arrived when it was still light and we sat next to large windows that offered a view of the hillside, city, and volcanos. At night, the lights of the city twinkled brightly.

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Our time together was beautiful. I was not sad this time, when we said goodbye knowing that I will complete my Peace Corps service in a few short months. Now the children are not confused about where I am or why I left or when I will return. I think we are all better off after the vacation. When they left, I headed for my favorite place, La Boheme Cafe in Antigua. I sat and mused over our time together and while sipping my Chai Tea, I gave prayerful thanks for both of my children, Ariel and Adrian, and their families.

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Family members and friends have visited many Peace Corps Volunteers in their sites around the world, learning more about our work and about the beauty of the countries that we are lucky enough to call home for two years. I feel especially lucky to be here. I have a friend, Sandy, who is psychic. She recently talked to me about the photos and writings that I am focused on while I’m here:

“These pictures, these places—this is healing your soul. These are things that you have not been able to heal in previous lifetimes that you’re getting the opportunity to do and see and realize why you longed so hard to be there. You may not know specifically, oh I died here in 1580 A.D., you don’t know that, but your soul knows. You needed to be back here to experience the feeling of the mountains, of the water, of the forest. You needed to be here. This is healing you on levels that you didn’t realize.”

I appreciated her words so much because it was exactly what I had felt for so long and knew to be true. If it weren’t for my family scattered around the U.S., I would settle here.

Or maybe I will one day.

 

Learning Spanish, Pt. 2

In 1989 I fell in love with the video camera. Through it, I could speak my voice and be empowered. With it, I explored my community and myself. One day I turned the camera on myself to better understand my difficulty with learning Spanish. Coming from a Mexican family, I figured it was either a cognitive impairment (which would explain a lot of things) or there was some internal block. I sat down for a Re-evaluation Co-Counseling (RC) session to talk about the issue in the dark coolness of the Centro Cultural de la Raza after business hours. Dan Martin filmed the session so that I could share whatever I learned with others.

During the session, the counselor listened deeply and asked me questions about my family history. I remembered my paternal grandparents with great love but I was so young that I never really knew them as people in their own right. They spoke only Spanish and I spoke only English. [Photo below:  Paternal grandfather, Atenojenes De Leon]

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I remember vividly how my grandfather would ask me questions in Spanish and since I didn’t understand him, I would guess a yes or a no which would cause the adults to laugh. My parents spoke Spanish every day at home but it was their private language which they did not share with the children. Having been punished for speaking Spanish in school, they chose to save us from that fate by only speaking to us in English. When you are young, you are an extension of your family. It’s only when you get a little older that you begin to forge your own identity. My identity felt broken with missing parts. But once I could cobble something together, I could eventually look at my elders with new, inquisitive eyes and ask, “And who are you?” For it wasn’t until I was an adult with children of my own and a video camera in my hand, that it occurred to me to ask about my family history. There were few answers. My mother’s father had died when she was little so she knew nothing of his family which represented our Navajo heritage. She wished that she had asked her mother and others about her maternal history, but she was always too busy raising seven children on her own after my father died. My siblings and cousins asked each other for any family information we could find. But the past seemed like one giant door that we could not open, the door to our ancestry and none of us had learned Spanish.

A lot of emotions and insights came out of the counseling session. I edited the film and titled the film, Reaching In and soon after, screened it at a women’s film conference in Tijuana, Mexico in 1990. There were about 90 Latin American women filmmakers at the conference. It was an astounding to be part of such a historic gathering. The proceedings were in Spanish so I sat with an interpreter, Miriam Soto, and a handful of other non-Spanish speakers. On one of the conference days, there was a heated discussion spurred by a film that had been screened the night before–my film! Some of the Mexican filmmakers said that Chicanas were overly melancholy, searching for their cultural roots and seeking to identify as Mexicans. “But you are not Mexican!” they told us. The Mexican filmmakers advised us to stop trying to be Mexican and instead, make films about ourselves as North Americans. Their remarks were met with pushback from Chicanas, who rejected being rejected!

Maria Novaro, a well-known, accomplished filmmaker from Mexico City, was in attendance at the film conference. Fascinated by the discussion, she went home and for a few years, continued to think about the phenomenon of identity. A few years later she came to the Centro Cultural de la Raza where I was working as a performance curator. She told me that she had thought a lot about my film and that it had inspired her to write a new screenplay with her sister, Beatriz Novaro. They had developed a character in the film, based on me–the melancholy Chicana who could not speak Spanish! The character, Elizabeth, accepts a job in a Tijuana gallery in an attempt to search for her Mexican roots. Oddly enough, that is exactly what I had done when I accepted the job at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. Maria Novaro had returned to Tijuana/San Diego to direct the film which was eventually released as, El Jardin del Eden. Elizabeth is a minor character in the film but through her, the viewer is able to see some of the remarkable border dynamics of that time.  [Photo below:  Mexico-U.S. border fence. Tijuana is the city.]

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A friend told me that she saw a screening of the movie in Chicago and during the post discussion, someone criticized the Elizabeth character for not speaking Spanish. She said it was not realistic. I grimmace to think of how many of us Latinx have been hidden, too shamefaced to speak. I understand that Spanish is a colonized language but in fact, it is the language of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents…. More importantly it is the language that is spoken in all Latin American countries. I should know it.

When I found out that I would serve in the Peace Corps and live in Guatemala, I was overjoyed because I could finally learn Spanish. And now, after a year and a half, something finally happened–something big and wonderful. I used the Emotional Freedom Technique to process my feelings about Spanish and I experienced a profound breakthrough with speaking Spanish. I still make tons of mistakes and have to ask people to repeat what they are saying, or say it with other words, or speak more slowly. But I relaxed and stopped feeling afraid of looking stupid. That has led me to release shyness and hiding and instead, to speak up more. More frequent conversations in Spanish is the only way I will improve my Spanish.

I used to frequent Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, just outside of San Diego. I loved taking mindfulness walks led by Thich Nhat Hanh. We would walk s-l-o-w-l-y step by step up a hill, stopping every once in a while to simply stand in awareness. In mindfulness practice, you can allow for thoughts but you don’t pay attention to them. You are aware of the present moment as you breathe slowly. In Spanish it is called Conciencia Plena (full awareness). Here in Guatemala, I continue my mindfulness practice, and as I walk along mountain roads, or along the streets of my town, I am no longer searching for who I am. I am curious and joyfully interested in my heritage, but it no longer implies loss. The door opened. My ancestors speak to me and guide me. They are part of me and I am always home.

So for any Xicanx and Latinx folks who have struggled to learn Spanish, I suggest two things:  study Spanish but also use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to process your feelings along the way. EFT is free to learn and use and if you contact me, I will teach you the technique, and 2) volunteer in an environment where Spanish is spoken to help you practice and serve your community at the same time. Relax and don’t wait as long as I did. Claim your heritage.

p.s. Check out the Youtube video:  Pocha Concha Goes To Mexico

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Mother…Semana Santa

I decided to write this blog post as a letter to make it more personable. It’s a letter to you, Mother, so I hope you don’t mind that friends and strangers will be reading it.

Guatemalans commemorate Semana Santa (Holy Week) during the week that leads up to Easter. These days, as you well know, mark the last days of Jesus Christ on earth in His human form. Although there are Protestant, Evangelical, Mayan, and other religions here, the Catholic church continues to dominate Guatemalan cultural traditions as it has for centuries since the conquest of the Americas.

I have thought about my Catholic upbringing over and over throughout my years. I remember our meatless meal Fridays and the three hours of silence that we were supposed to observe on Good Friday. That seemed so hard to do as a child but now, as an adult, I can easily spend a whole day in silence although it would be hard not to check my phone texts. You left the Catholic church for a better fit for you, but I feel this unrelenting connection to the Catholic church for good or for bad. And it’s definitely been bad—the church, that is. I deplore the criminal actions and patriarchy of the Catholic Church. But I have never faltered in my love for the sacred figures I have come to know through the church.

Today is Good Friday and the streets are full of vibrant alfombras—carpets of colored sawdust, pine needles, flowers, and sometimes fruit. Folks prepared the carpets late last night, right after a heavy rainstorm. I was able to sit with six indigenous women and help them prepare bundles of pine needles. They welcomed me into their circle with big smiles. I am usually quiet with new people but they thought I was a comedian—they laughed every time I tried to speak Spanish or K’iche.

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A little later I walked over to the main cathedral in the town plaza to sit for a while during their overnight velación. I was reminded of my friends, Endy Bernal, Marylou Valencia, Eva Sandoval, and Maria Figueroa who would lead overnight ceremonies as Danzantes Aztecas. Their level of discipline helped them dance under the hot sun on grass or cement for hours and hours. [photo below: a special altar scene for Good Friday]

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This morning I woke up early to photograph the alfombras and procession. Here are a few photographs that need no commentary.

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After photographing a few of the alfombras, I went to the church but the plaza was packed with people waiting for the large pasos to start the procession. The pasos are huge altars, like parade floats. They must weigh over a ton and require rows of costeleros, men and women that carry them on their shoulders. It’s dramatic to see the paso when it first appears and descends the steps of the church.

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And because I like black and white so much…

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The procession wound it’s way through the streets walking over the alfombras which were quickly swept up into garbage bags after the procession had passed. I stepped out of the procession to walk home and write this blog post for you. I thank you and Michael for this new camera. I’m so happy that I can get these long and close-up shots now. I hope that you enjoy them.

I know that your every day is filled with prayers. You are the holiest person I know, Mother. I too, pray for your well being and send you love, love, love.

Eloisa

Miercoles Santos

Last week when my friend, Brenda, invited me to have bread for Miercoles Santos at her mother’s house outside of town. I figured, bread and coffee—cool. But what we had was so much more.

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[Photo:  Brenda’s daughter and puppy.] I arrived at Brenda’s house bright and early. From there we had to take a tuk tuk and a pickup truck to get to her mom’s house. When we arrived there, we were greeted by her grandfather and uncle while we waited for her mother to arrive. [Photo below:  Brenda and her grandfather. Yes, she is stunning and he looks like a movie star.]

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In no time, Brenda’s mom, Chave, arrived with supplies for us carry to her adobe home ten minutes away by foot. I loved Chave’s rustic adobe house with it’s twigs sticking out from between mud bricks. I asked if she thought it would keep her safe from intruders. “Yes,” she answered, “But not from earthquakes.” Coincidentally, there was a 4.5 earthquake in Guatemala today.

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Chave has not yet officially moved into her house. Though It has a refrigerator, stove and table, Chave had to carry in the kitchen supplies and food for the day. As soon as everything was unloaded, she proceeded to cook us breakfast. She used fresh eggs from her chickens and fresh cream and cheese from her cows. She made us the best eggs, beans, corn tortillas with steaming cups of coffee. It might have been the best meal I’ve ever had; I was overwhelmed by how delicious everything was.

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Once we’d eaten, Chave proceeded to prepare a lunch for us of chicken, rice, tortillas, and drinks. But because it was a special day, Chave was going to kill a beautiful orange-feathered chicken that she’d raised for eight months. Preparing the chicken was no small feat but like many rural Guatemalans, she managed every step of the process quickly and efficiently. [Photo below:  Brenda and Chave trying to catch the chicken.]

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Once the chicken was killed, de-feathered, cleaned and cooked, we sat down for lunch. We were still full from breakfast and now I regret that I couldn’t eat more because it was so good.

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Suddenly it was time to make the special bread for the day. Chave, Brenda and Chave’s daughter-in-law knew exactly how to work together and they insisted that I relax. I took photos which Chave encouraged (thank you, Chave!), wrote, and played with the kids and puppy.

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When the batter was prepared it was poured into different sizes of tins and Chave placed them into her outdoor oven.

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She’d made enough for everyone to carry loaves home. When they were ready, she made more cafe con leche for us to drink with the pan (bread). Oh, that was good!

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Armed with loaves of bread, we made our way back to Brenda’s grandfather’s house and Chave invited me to see her eight cows. A few relatives were relaxing and having a conversation near the cow stalls. I sat with them while Chave proceeded to work, mixing food for the cows and feeding them. She works so hard!

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By 4pm, it was time to go and I needed to catch the bus on the road since Brenda was going to ride her motorcycle home. At the appointed time, the large bus came careening around a curve. Two of us ran into the road to flag it down. I sat down in the bus feeling so grateful for the experience of having been with such wonderful people and enjoying delicious food.

♥♥♥  early evening  ♥♥♥

At 5:30pm I walked to my town’s central plaza to see roving bands of boys carrying effigies of Judas Iscariot. The various groups of males run wildly down streets with noisemakers stopping at small stores houses to ask for pan (bread) for Judas. Sometimes they are given a little bread or cupcakes. The effigies look more like devils which is the intended effect because on Sunday, the effigies will be burned in the town plaza in front of the cathedral. The roots of this cultural/religious tradition are Catholic.

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Since I was in the plaza, I entered the church in time to attend 6:00 mass. Ordinarily, I do not attend mass but today I felt so utterly grateful for my friends and their hospitality that I had to give thanks. And importantly, the history of Christ’s crucifixion continues to lay heavily in my heart. It is an annual mourning and so sharing that collective sadness (which would turn into joy in a few days) felt necessary.

Tomorrow night, the streets will be decorated in preparation for the Good Friday procession the next morning. Join me in my next blog post to see the photos. Peace be with you.

 

Healthy Schools

By now you might wonder what my work in the Peace Corps’ Healthy Schools Project  involves. I began this discussion in my earlier post “First School Visits.” My work has been evolving along with my Spanish. At first I noticed dread in the faces of the teachers when they listened to my poor Spanish. It must have sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. But now I can rattle along comfortably even though my Spanish skill level is only intermediate.

The other day, one of my assigned schools celebrated Día Internacional de la Lengua Materna which was a celebration on one’s first language. The celebration focused on K’iche which is what is spoken in my town. I have lots of photos of students at school but I cannot publish them without parent consent. So just imagine adorable, clever, funny kids!

My latest project is a Healthy Schools Diplomado which will begin in April. It will be a monthly class for educators. I’m coordinating the series with a JICA volunteer and a nurse from the local health center. We’ve had a great response from teachers and I’m excited to see it all unfold. The purpose of the series is to provide teachers with healthy schools information that they can teach in their classrooms.

I’m also writing a grant proposal to build a new classroom at one of my assigned schools. It’s a project that involves a lot of community team players. I have to walk a fine line between learning and sharing vital information while simultaneously, following the lead of the community key players. It’s a learning curve for me to work on a construction project. It makes me think of my dad who worked in construction for many years before his untimely death when I was still a teen. Lately, I’ve been asking lots of questions from engineers and a good friend who studied architecture.

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Photo:  A member of Engineers Without Borders, measured the ground for the classroom that we hope to build. We will plan and write it up into a grant proposal and keep our fingers crossed. Wish us luck!

I could say a lot more about my work and the schools and the wonderful teachers and beautiful children, but I’m just home from a four hour bus trip. This weekend I coordinated a workshop for 30 Peace Corps Volunteers at the lake. It was facilitated by Gail Basham, CEO of an NGO called More Than Self. She taught us how to sew reusable feminine hygiene pads which we will then teach to indigenous women in our communities. Gail carried two huge duffel bags of materials from the U.S. to us! Her dedication is inspiring. The workshop was fabulous and now, after my bumpy bus ride home, it’s time to rest and watch a movie.

By the way, I want to say THANK YOU to my mother, Eva, and my brother, Michael, for sending me a camera! Now take close-up photos again!

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Above is a photo of the pad closed, ready to tuck into one’s purse. To the right is the pad opened, and next to it, a cloth that is folded and tucked into the open pad.

Cheers to all of you that visit this blog!

 

Christmas 2017

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First three photos: Dock in Pana and boat ride pictures, on the way to Santa Cruz la Laguna.

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This year I was able to spend Christmas at Lake Atitlán with a friend in the Peace Corps. I usually go to Panajachel for overnight stays. It’s a bustling city and I have friends and fun there. But this time I stayed at La Iguana Perdida (IP), a lovely place on the waterfront in Santa Cruz La Laguna. We opted for the “cheap seats” as my friend calls the dorms which is what made it affordable for us as Peace Corps Volunteers.

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Photos above/below: La Iguana Perdida

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La Iguana Perdida has a gorgeous view of the volcanos. They have seating areas with wicker and wooden chairs, couches and hammocks and there are opportunities nearby for diving, weaving, and kayaking. There’s no wifi but there’s a computer room and a cafe close by with internet. They also have a beautiful reading room with a large screen tv if you are an introvert. It’s possible (though not necessarily easy for non-hikers) to hike along the mountain ridge and visit other hostels and cafes. But if I did it, so can you. Boats are always at the dock for trips to nearby towns around the lake, until around 5pm. Best of all is their friendly staff!

So, I managed to get to Iguana Perdida in the afternoon and happily sank into relaxation mode. I met up with my friend and we sat and watched the sunset and enjoyed the breezy night air. It was Saturday night and the IP makes a big dinner for its guests every Saturday (for Q70). I was deliriously happy to eat such healthy food. No photos because I was too busy eating!

Just before I retired for bed, my friend mentioned that the dorms are coed. I said, “What the fork!? What the fork did you say?!” [I said the real word, but if you haven’t watched it, see “The Good Place” which uses “fork” often. It’s hilarious!] My friend laughed at my shock and left for her own dorm while I scrambled to mine in the dark. The dorm was actually fine. Whew! My bed was set against an open window with a screen so I could feel the night’s breeze and see the stars and tree tops. There was no electricity, door, or bathroom in the dorm. A shared bathroom was a few steps away, outside. Thankfully, everyone was politely quiet.

On Christmas Eve morning we took a boat to the nearby town of San Pedro to meet another PC Volunteer who lives on the lake. It was my first time at San Pedro, which has only recently been made accessible to Volunteers. We strolled the hilly streets, had coffee then breakfast, then found a great health food store so I could buy things unavailable in my region. Our friend took us for a short walk over rocks on a hillside to see “a better view.” The “view” however, is everywhere. The dazzling blue lake with its sparkling diamonds is everywhere you look. Photos: San Pedro & friends

At night we dined at a large table and met travelers from around the world. I’m more of a listener than a talker, except with close friends. So I listened and gave a Reiki session to a young couple’s dog that had some sort of ailment. But the conversations were fascinating. One young woman had read and watched documentaries about health care and the prison system in the U.S. (and other gloomy topics). She kept bringing up things that made me sink lower and lower in my seat. I finally said, “You’re talking about all the things I’d like to forget right now.” Then I motioned to a very intelligent English woman at the table and said, “Shall we talk about Brexit?”. Her face fell and she said, “Oh, nooo!” And that’s what led the conversation to diving, a much more interesting topic for our holiday evening.

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On Christmas morning the atmosphere was buzzing with holiday cheer. Pine needles were laid on the floors and a few Christmas lights and decorations rounded out the Christmas atmosphere.

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My friend and I headed out for a hike along the mountain ledge that led to a few other hostels and hotels and finally to the next village, Jaibalito. There, we sought the Posada Jaibalito, owned by an Austrian man by the name of Hans. Hans specializes in German food, excellent homemade breads, his own coffee farm, and affordable prices. As a result, he enjoys a steady stream of travelers to his inn and cafe and apparently does a lot of good for the community. He has a great reputation.

On the way back, we explored the fancy hotel, Casa Del Mundo, which friends had recommended for special occasions. But my favorite place along the path was Hotel Isla Verde (see photo below). They have a lovely deck for meals but the thing that I really liked was their lounge and 60s & 70s music selection! I would’ve stayed longer if I had the time.

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We returned from our hike just in time for Christmas dinner which was glazed snow peas with orange & blanched almonds, baked carrots in spiced red wine, turkey, ham or vegan choices, stuffing, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, and stellar Christmas cookies. They also have a full bar in the dining area every night. Many guests came just for Christmas dinner which apparently is a tradition for a lot of folks on the lake.

I was happy to make the acquaintances of some people with whom I would have liked to have continued our conversations. I was delighted to meet a woman that served in the Peace Corps for three years in Benin, in West Africa. I also enjoyed meeting a photographer/teacher with a big smile and artistic flair to her dress. And I was so happy to see one of my Reiki students and her husband there, and to hear a little bit about her work as a teacher; she was very impressive. Mostly, though, I was glad to get to know my friend better. We shared some stories about our lives and now I feel blessed to know her and to know that someone so good is alive in the world. I do recommend la Iguana Perdida but if you go, go with a friend unless it’s easy for you to meet new people. I’m more of an introvert which is why it was good for me to be there with a friend.

On the morning after Christmas my friend went kayaking and I went up the hill in Santa Cruz, to my favorite cafe on the lake, Cafe Sabor Cruceño. I ordered a piece of zucchini bread and coffee. It was divine! with a pomegranate-cream icing and flower decoration. And since the IP doesn’t have WIFI, I indulged at the cafe while looking up frequently to see the magnificent view. (see photos below)

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Upon leaving la Iguana Perdida, my friend continued her vacation week elsewhere on the lake. I can’t wait to see her pictures! I have returned to my home and must get ready to teach my first English class tomorrow. And I’m getting ready for 2018 with new intentions & ceremony. Happy New Year everyone!

Dia de Todos Santos

On November 1st, about 20 Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) traveled to the town of Sumpango for their annual Festival de Barriletes (Kite Festival). Because on November 1st, Guatemalans celebrate Todos Santos, (All Saints), a day on which families remember their deceased loved ones. Families adorn grave sites and fly kites to symbolize a connection to the spirit world.

To begin our field trip we gathered in Antigua for coffee and snacks before driving to the festival about 30 minutes away. I always love getting together with other PCVs, to share stories and catch up on each other’s lives.

Photos: (above) at the coffee shop; (below) at the Festival de Barriletes!

My phone camera’s limitations do not give the festival due awe! The crowd was massive and constantly in motion. To the right in the above photo, are bleachers which you have to pay to sit in. On the field below, people wandered in all directions with some people flying kites.

The largest kites are not meant to fly and the medium sized ones (still huge) were only rarely lifted into the air. They are there to be beautiful and to convey the messages of their artistic creators.

Below:  In the distance were the huge kites set on poles.

I couldn’t get a whole photo of the above kite so I took two, above & below. The crowds prevented me from having distance & a clear shot. Unbelievably crowded at times. Early morning and later in the afternoon is less crowded.

Above: These two men are the creators of the kite, pictured above.

While walking through the crowds, I stumbled across the three young women in the photo below. They walked regally through the festival, preceded by a drummer.

I’m not great in groups, I admit. As soon as we arrived, I raced off with my camera (phone) and eventually, I left the main field to explore the town below the festival field. The town was full of festival visitors, vendors and places to eat. Suddenly I turned a corner and caught sight of the cemetery. I gasped, overwhelmed by the beauty of the people, flowers, colors and sounds. There was a mariachi band playing at one grave site. People everywhere were sitting at the grave sites and kites were flying. Children ran up and down in-between grave plots.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Festival de Barriletes in Sumpango, Sacatepequez, Guatemala! If you consider attending the kite festival, I suggest the following:

  • wear sunscreen & a hat & sunglasses (the sun!)
  • pack a picnic lunch and extra snacks
  • pay to sit in the bleachers so you can take photos at a distance
  • expect to be jostled by the crowds and to get tired (it’s still worth it)
  • visit the town below and see the cemetery
  • buy tourist items (it’s good for the vendors and they make good gifts)
  • take a good camera!

For more information about the festival, read this article in the online magazine, Cultural Survival.

1 Year Anniversary

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary for my group, Bak’tun 8, to be here in Guatemala. Woot! I feel lucky, I feel amazed, and I feel like I’ve just begun. I’m so glad that Bak’tun 8 will enjoy a one-year retreat in a couple of weeks.

But I’ve been here one year and my Spanish is still embarrassingly bad. At some point I gave up. I stopped trying to study advanced Spanish grammar and listening to intermediate Coffee Break audios. What the hey-ho, I thought? But that stop in the ditch didn’t last long.

Instead I sought guidance for how to overcome this inner obstacle to learning Spanish. I spoke to my higher self and to my inner child. I spoke to Creator. I did some tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique). A day later, I had a sudden thought that I should write down Mexican song lyrics and learn the songs that my mother always loved. When I was little, she taught me how to sing El Rancho Grande. I probably didn’t learn more than one chorus and I’m pretty sure that I had the words wrong. But it was fun!

After I wrote down the lyrics to Cielito Lindo; Bésame Mucho; and Volver, Volver, another thought struck me:  there were too many building blocks that I had bypassed in Spanish. I needed to start over at the beginning level.

The day after that revelation, I traveled five hours to get to the Peace Corps office which is fifteen minutes from Antigua. Arriving there, Italia, one of my program managers, asked to speak with me about upcoming trainings. She was alone in her office and it seemed dimly lit because it was the end of the day and the office lights had not yet been turned on. She talked to me about upcoming trainings and asked if I could assist in some way. I could feel myself getting tense, worried that she wanted me to speak in Spanish at one of them. She said that I would not need to speak Spanish. I agreed to assist and then, maybe because I was road weary and maybe because she has a comforting presence, I decided to reveal my problema to her right there in that moment.

I told her, “I can understand a lot of Spanish but talking, responding, is nearly impossible. I grew up hearing Spanish spoken daily. But it was a private language for my parents to use. I thought of it as an adult language. They didn’t speak to their children, to us, in Spanish. I just learned phrases that were directed at me:  sit dow, be quiet, come and eat. But I heard Spanish every day! When I was older and wanted to learn Spanish, I would be criticized by people for not already knowing Spanish or for making mistakes when I tried. When I entered the Peace Corps, I thought I was really ready to learn Spanish. I thought that once I got here, I’d be immersed in Spanish and become fluent in two weeks!

But all year it’s been a struggle. I feel bad not being able to speak adequately with my co-workers. I have to script out what I want to say before I meet with teachers. I use google translate which isn’t always accurate and then when they speak to me, I don’t understand them and I can’t have a conversation. I feel guilty that I have to rely on my new site mate who helps translate for me whenever we’re together.

I know that the Volunteers with advanced skills are doing much better work, more complex work that what I’m doing. That’s why I want to write grant proposals for some of the schools, so that I can justify being here. I don’t expect you to fix anything. I’m just telling you so that you know where I’m at and how it’s impacting my work. I do have some new ideas for how to study Spanish.”

I observed Italia as she listened to me. There was a softness in her eyes. Her face seemed open—how can I even describe that—the way her eyes focused on me and her face tilted ever so slightly as she listened. I sensed no rush to speak. With most people, I do feel rushed and that makes me stumble over my words. With her calm presence, I felt better able to find the exact words that I needed.

When I stopped speaking. She said, “I want to respond on a personal level and then on a professional level. On a personal level I would want you to know why there is a block for you in learning Spanish. And you know why! You told me exactly why. You said that when your parents spoke Spanish, you understood it to be an adult language—their private language that you weren’t supposed to know. And you said that when you tried to learn Spanish later, you were criticized and made fun of or shamed for not knowing it already and this made learning Spanish even harder. It just added to your existing block. But I know you have the tools. You know how to work on these things, so I would look at that.”

I assumed that she was referring to the fact that I am a Life Coach and serve as a Peer Coach for other PCVs. I couldn’t remember what else she might know about me.

I would also ask you what new ideas you have for learning Spanish. When I was learning Spanish as a teenager, I used songs.” Wait, what? Her English is perfect. I didn’t realize she didn’t grow up speaking English. Italia said that she began learning English as a teenager, using popular songs on the radio. She would tape them and listen to them over and over, to write down the lyrics as she thought she heard them. She said that it was fun and she could familiarize herself with vocabulary and grammar in that way.

I told her I’d just had the epiphany to use Mexican songs and she offered me some Guatemalan classics as well. I told her about my plan to start over with beginning level Spanish. She nodded slowly, affirmatively.

“Now I want to respond on the professional level. You said that you felt bad for not being able to speak in Spanish to your co-workers and you felt guilty for having to rely on google or on people that could translate for you. Eloisa, don’t be hard on yourself.” She looked at me and paused to let that sink in.

“You’ve probably always been a strong person in your work in the states and now you’re more vulnerable and you have to receive help from others. Maybe it’s good for you to receive help from others? Maybe you didn’t exactly have that experience before. It’s great that you’ve decided to write a grant proposal to help the schools. You said you are doing it to justify being here but your value is greater than that. What you bring here is who you are. You are a strong woman, someone to learn from. You have a positive influence!”

I’m not sure that being a strong woman is what justifies me staying here. But she was trying to bolster my confidence and I accepted it with gratitude. I’m also dedicated to getting that grant writing done to help in a concrete way.

“Eloisa, do you realize how much better your Spanish is since you got here?” “Yes,” I replied. I admit that I have gotten much better. I can understand people if they are patient and speak slowly. Sometimes I can get a lot of my ideas across (as long as I have my dictionary handy). I can read Spanish a little; I can read most of the Peace Corps training material that is in Spanish. She continued to reassure me, “It will come. Maybe not as fast as you expected because you really did have high expectations, but it will come.”

Then she added the following which was the highlight of the conversation for me, “Eloisa, do you ever talk to your inner child?” I nodded slowly, utterly surprised. “You might want to ask your inner child to help you.” She was definitely speaking my language then.

Here’s to one year in Guatemala, to the amazing Italia, my PCV amigos, my Guatemalan friends, the entire Peace Corps staff, and my family and friends at home. Un gran abrazo a todos ustedes. Cheers! Here’s to a new year.

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Photos:  Blurry shot of the welcoming banner we received at the airport; first meal.

nl res first PC mealI am grateful to meet great students, teachers and friends! And I am most astounded by the volcanos and the lake.

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Dia de las Madres/Mother’s Day

The schools in our department (state) and probably throughout Guatemala, celebrate Dia de las Madres (Mother’s Day). I had received an invitation to attend the celebration at school that requires me to take a microbus and then a tuk tuk up a rocky dirt road up a mountain. I especially love going to this school because the land is beautiful, the students are friendly and the three teachers are super friendly. They put up with my unfortunate Spanish, what can I say?

The younger children are funny with me. Sometimes they run up to me and say hello and giggle all the while. Sometimes one child will push another towards me and then run away. The older girls giggle at me from a distance and the older boys don’t notice that I’m around.

But on this special occasion, there was a large audience of mothers to watch their children perform dances and to hear speeches by the teachers. The children that did not perform, attentively watched those who were on stage. Altogether it was a fun event.

Photo above, looking away from the school, towards the open field when the children play futbol.

Photo below is from the walk back to the main road.

That’s it for this post!