Sunday, August 10, 2008

Coban 1/2 Marathon

I know, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a blog. Mia Culpa. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything. Really it’s that I’ve been doing a lot of things. So how do I get you all caught up? I think I’ll stick with one topic at a time. As my faithful readers know I am somewhere between an “avid runner” and a “retired competitive 1500m runner”. This spring I came out of retirement to run a ½ marathon in Coban. Coban is a city in the center of the country, a bit more tropical than Tejutla and a ½ marathon is a bit over 13 miles. I had been invited to run in the ½ marathon by Fito, the brother of the mom of my host family (my host uncle). He’s a doctor in Guatemala City. His wife is from Coban and they have family and a house up there. Another brother, Rolando, was also going to run. Having 13-miles hanging over my head was good motivation to get out of bed and run in the morning or to get a quick run in after work over the past few months. I ended up going up there with my friend Amy. We got in Saturday and the race was Sunday. After getting my number and t-shirt we went over the family’s house. The brothers were going to go out and get Churasco (BBQ Beef) for dinner. Coach Stanforth would never have allowed us to have Churasco the night before a race so Amy and I headed off looking for Pasta. After about an hour of wandering around town we ended up at nice little Churasco place. O’well. There were huge crowds and lots of festivities associated with the race. Even fireworks. A few gringos, but mostly Guatemalans. The race had about 3000 registered competitors and another 1000 or so who just ran. There were also a dozen runners from Kenya. It was pretty crowded at the beginning, but after the first couple of miles it cleared up a bit. The course was out and back so our cheering section was able to root us on at a couple of points (in Spanish of course). I ran 1:40:10 which is about 7:37 per mile. All things considered I was happy with that time. Not sure if I’ll be running it next year, but it’s always fun to get back in some semblance of “shape”. If I’m doing my math right, this marks the 10th country that I’ve raced in and the first in Latin America.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Work

I have written about a wide variety or cultural experiences and social activities in my blog. An old friend of the family, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in India, pointed out to me recently that I had yet to write about what I’m actually doing…the work.

The Peace Corps tries to find, with varying degrees of success, qualified Americans to volunteer in specific, well defined, projects working directly with host country nationals. Peace Corps Guatemala has six program areas: Agriculture (Improved Techniques and Marketing), Health in Schools, Appropriate Technology, Eco-Tourism, Youth Development, and Municipal Development. I’m in the Municipal Development Program.

The Municipal Development Program (Muni for short) places volunteers in Planning Offices at the Municipality level of government (a cross between a city and county government in the United States). With 10+ years of experience as an Air Force Officer the Peace Corps seemed to think that I could impart some management and planning knowledge on the office and municipality.

The program goals are two-fold. 1) To improve the functioning of the Municipality 2) To increase citizen participation. Under Goal #1 I have facilitated the creation of Annual Goals for each of the workers in the office and based on the Goals we created an Annual Plan. I’ve worked on creating databases of information on the different communities in the municipality. I’m also working on a Community Diagnostic which should provide us some valuable information on the needs in the different communities. The list goes on. Goal #2 is more at the grass-roots level and it involves me working with community groups. Guatemalan law allows for the creation of legalized citizen participation groups at the community level known as Consejos de Desarrollo Comunitario (Community Development Councils). In Tejutla we have 62 of these groups. To better manage them I worked with my counterpart and the City Council to create 8 micro-regions. We were able to implement the regions during March of this year. Together with the NGO CARE International, I’m embarking on a training program on different aspects of citizen participation such as: The Law of the System of Development Councils, Project Design and Implementation, etc. I’ve also chosen a number of community groups to work more directly with. I meet with a women’s group every two weeks and I’m advising the Volunteer Forrest Fire Fighters of which I’m also a member (the Forest Fire Fighters, not the women’s group). On the more macro level I’m advising a network of women’s groups and I worked with them and the City Council to get two seats on the Municipal Level Development Council.

If it all sounds a bit nebulous it’s because it is. I sometimes wish I was building something or helping plant something where I could see tangible results from my actions. At the same time I understand the importance of good governance and am excited to be able to play a small role in the bettering of the local government in Tejutla.

So that’s what I’m doing and what I’ll be doing for the next 18-months or so. Am I busy? At times. Am I challenged? In different ways than I have been previously in my life. Am I happy to be here? Absolutely.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Traditional Easter Carpets

Easter is a big deal here. It’s not just Easter Sunday, it’s the entire week of Semana Santa (Holy Week). Beginning with Palm Sunday there are many processions and celebrations. In the processions you find different groups carrying statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or other random Saints through the towns. In more touristy locations such as Antigua these are hugely popular with foreigners and quite the show, although there are celebrations throughout the entire country. Even though I had the majority of the week off of work, I decided to stay in Tejutla for Semana Santa. The biggest procession is on Viernes Santa (Holy Friday) and it involves the construction of Alfombras (carpets) along the route of the procession. These are not carpets in the traditional sense of the word, rather they are intricate designs on the street constructed of colored wood chips, straw, flowers, or other assorted , mostly organic, items. The host family I had stayed with invited me to help with the construction of theirs. I think the invitation was in part based on the assumption that I would make a large pot of Starbucks Coffee to start the day (which I did). The work started Thursday when the family used different dies to color the wood chips and also cut out various molds. Friday started around 6am with the infusion of coffee and then we were off to the races. Over the course of the next 3 ½ hours 5 of use were engaged in the laying out of the Alfombra (17.5 manhours if you are one of those guys). The molds were used to make the forms of the crosses, the diamond borders, and other fine details. There were about 40 other families doing the same thing throughout the town. The procession started at the cemetery and made its way to the Catholic Church. The priest, the alter servers, and the groups carrying the statues walked directly over the alformbras stopping periodically to read scripture, pray, and sing hymns. I’m sure the tradition started with the Spanish in some form or another and it’s beautifully carried on today. I went to Easter Vigil which of course was followed by another procession. This time we were not walking across alfombras, but a lot of firecrackers were set-off as we made our way through the town. It was an Easter to remember and great to be part of the celebration.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Volcan de Tajumulco - What a View!

At 13,486 feet above Sea Level, the Volcano Tajumulco is the highest peak in Central America. It’s also visible from the village of Tejutla, not unlike Mount Rainer hovering over the Puget Sound Area. There are of course many differences the most significant being the climatology. Mount Rainer has glaciers and is covered in snow and ice year-round while Tajumulco may get a dusting of snow in January or February. I think I can safely say that I “climbed” Tajumulco but a more accurate description may be to say that I “hiked” Tajumulco. My sitemate Matt and his friend Brenda headed in the afternoon for the trailhead. Matt had “climbed” Tajumulco once before in November. We ended up in the back of a pick-up and then on top of a load of bricks on our way to the trailhead which is less than an hour from Tajumulco. We made the ascent to the campsite and pitched our tents. There was a German couple with a Guatemalan guide who were already up there and gracious enough to share their fire. Early to bed as usual when you’re camping. The alarms were set for 4:30 am to finish up the ascent in time to see the sunrise. It’s is supposed to be a phenomenal view of the Pacific Ocean, Mexico and countless peaks throughout Guatemala. Unfortuantely for us we were in the middle of clouds with 0/0 visibility we had to settle for the good exercise that goes along with “climbing” mountains and the knowledge that the Volconoe isn’t going anywhere for the next 20-months and we’ll have the opportunity to summit again. Next time I think I’ll check the weather report.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Welcome Home

I moved into a house on my own this past week. I spent the first 3 ½ months in my site living with a wonderful family, but it was time to be out on my own again. Based on some life decisions, like quitting my job to travel and then join the Peace Corps, I haven’t really been on my own since the December of 2006 (thanks K.C., Mom & Dad, the host families, and people who put me up on “Paul’s Imposition Tour 2007”). Kind of crazy. It’s a fun little house with plenty of room for just me. My favorite part is an odd room which is more or less built on top of the house. It has windows on three sides and is very airy (and quite dusty too). Kind of reminds me of a tree house or a fort you would have had as a kid. I’ve taken to drinking my coffee up there in the morning. This is my house for the next two years. It brings a question to mind…what’s home or perhaps where’s home? Certainly my youth was spent in Seattle (okay, Federal Way if you want to be exacting). Then the Air Force settled me in 3 States and 3 Countries over the course of the next 14 years (and countless more for shorter durations). There were the 8-months spent vagabonding around the U.S. and now Peace Corps Guatemala. The question of home may pertain to the building, but there is so much more to it than that. People have come into and out of my life with varying degrees of impact. Some have been there throughout. Life in the moment has always been a confluence of people, events, and locations. Sometimes for the very good and sometimes for the very bad. Sometimes for the very fun and sometimes I’ve had to “embrace the suck”. The “houses”. There was the spilt level on 305th Street (aka the “Family Home”), the dorm room, the thatched roof cottage vintage 1600, the apartment with the view of the Pacific Ocean, the dorm room part II, the house with the apple orchard and far too much land to maintain, the bachelor pad, and the “Family Home” once again. All were the canvas for my memories. It will be interesting to see what new ones I will create in this quirky little house. There was a saying we had in the Air Force: Home is where the Air Force takes you. I suppose even since I’ve hung up my flight cap, the sentiment holds true.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Quick Facts

When I got my assignment to Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteers part of me was wondering what Peace Corps is doing there. Guatemala seemed to me to be more of a tourist destination than a place that needs Peace Corps Volunteers (granted I have a tendency to vacation in some austere locations). And besides, the Peace Corps has been in Guatemala for over there really stuff left to do? During a conversation early in my training, I asked one of the staff members “when will the Peace Corp’s work be done”. His was response was “when there were no longer children starving in the countryside”. Fair enough. I thought I would take a few minutes to share with you, my three faithful readers, some facts about Guatemala I have come across in my time here which have helped me understand and contextualize my service. I tried to stick to the facts which are more or less not disputed or colored by political debate.
- Over 2 million people lack access to basic needs such as healthcare and education (of 11 million) - 1 of 4 rural children graduate from elementary school
- Half of all children suffer from chronic malnutrition
- As of 2003 57% of the population lived in poverty and 21.5% in extreme poverty
- In my municipality of 30,000 plus people, 90% of the houses are made of Adobe, 2% are made of wood, and 8% are made of block
- My municipality ranks #21/332 in the nation for Poverty and #12/332 for extreme poverty
- The 1996 Peace Accords ended a 36-year civil war, the longest and bloodiest of Latin America’s cold war era civil wars
- The civil war left an estimated 200,000 dead or “disappeared”.
- The Earth’s axis tilts 23 degrees off vertical causing seasonal variation
- For the period of 2000-2004, only 7 percent of congressional representatives in Guatemala were women, and only 11 percent were indigenous.
- The United Nations recently listed Guatemala as the fifth most dangerous country in Latin America, with 44 homicides for every 100,000 people.
- Of every 100 homicides, 93 are left unsolved
- Guatemala received a score of only 2.5 of 10 on Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perception Index, ranking alongside Libya, Afghanistan (been there), and Philippines, slightly worse than Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Vietnam, and slightly better than Russia, Republic of the Congo, and Venezuela (they all sound like great places to visit).
- Of the denunciations of public servants presented to the Public Ministry, only three percent are investigated and concluded
- Many existing Municipal Planning Offices lack qualified personnel for technical analysis and advanced planning (I’m working in a Municipal Planning Office)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sweet 15

For the ladies in Latin America, it’s the 15th birthday that is celebrated in style. It’s a coming of age, not in any sort of scandalous way. I was fortunate to be able to celebrate the 15th birthday (quinceanos) of the daughter of my host family Faviola this past weekend. What was probably the best part about it for me was that I wasn’t just a guest. I helped the family set-up the decorations for the celebration, I was one of the last to leave at 4 in the morning after we cleaned up the majority of the decorations, and I was the only non-family member to dance with Favi during the formal part of the evening (at the urging of the fam). All the aunts, uncles, and cousins came for the event; needless to say it was a full house. The festivities began with mass on Saturday night. Favi had her own chair and kneeler in front of the alter and there were special blessings just for her. She wore something that was a cross between a prom dress and a wedding dress (not actually tacky in any way). The party was in the municipal salon. She made a grand entrance and there were speeches made by her father and godparents. She gave a lovely speech thanking the right people. One rather fun tradition is called “El ultimo baile con un muneca” (“The last dance with a doll”). She danced with a doll and then at the end handed it over to her next youngest female relative, supposedly signifying her transition from childhood to adulthood. Good food. Good dancing. Good cake. Good fun. I think this experience and others like it, more than working in the office during the day, is what I’m going to cherish from my time here in Guatemala.