Sunday, February 19, 2012

That's All Folks

Well, as my Peace Corps experience comes to an official end in 3 days, on Feb. 22, this is my final blog. What a ride it is has been. I have had an incredible experience here in Guatemala over the last 2 plus years and I have been incredibly enriched by the experience. However, I am closing at a good time and I am excited for the things to come.

I had my last day in the finca last week and had a fun goodbye party with the ladies in the hotel. I baked a cake on the stove and we enjoyed some coffee, cake, and lots of laughs, remembering all that we did over the last two years. I will miss those ladies and all the fun memories we had together in the hotel kitchen. However, will not miss the cold showers, the remoteness, and the lack of social opportunities in site. So, that being said, yes, it was a good experience and it was very challenging and pushed me farther than I've ever been pushed, however, the time has come to say goodbye and move on to the next phase in life.

We've got our COS Conference starting this week and it will be nice to get together with all the volunteers and say our goodbyes. I have made some great friends and I have to reiterate that volunteers are some of the best people I've met. Also, my Peace Corps bosses have been great. I've been allowed the greatest job freedom ever and with this freedom I was able to accomplish great things at site. So, a huge thanks to my amazing bosses who were always there to support me but never micromanaged me and allowed me the freedom to work to my fullest potential. It was this experience that gave me the confidence to launch into my next great adventure here in Central America.

So, that is the end and now on to new beginnings and new challenges. Thanks for reading and for all the support over the years. Cheers

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Best of List

As COS is quickly approaching I’ve had some fun doing some reflecting in the past few days of my service and all of the incredible experiences I’ve been through here. I thought it would be fun to make a “best of list” of some of the crazy and incredible things that I never thought I would have done if not for Peace Corps Guatemala, in addition to some notable newly acquired skills. Here goes nothing…

*Can successfully cook the traditional dish of pepian and tamalitos for a crowd of 50 over a wood fired stove. (Also can cook a number of other traditional dishes)

*Can make tortillas that have the approval of the Guatemalan women and get put in the basket to serve to everyone (the true test) – when I was first making tortillas, they kept mine back and they didn’t get put in the serving basket – a nice way to say “not quite up to par.”

*Can successfully bathe with about 2 gallons of water

*Have bathed outside under a roof eves trough in the rain when there was no water
*Have killed a chicken

*Have survived countless cold water showers, including cold water showers where the outside/inside (since there is no insulation) air temp is about the same temp as the cold water

*Can successfully survive a packed bus ride, standing for more than 2 hours if necessary, in heels, getting off the bus with 25lb backpack in one hand overhead, managing to not hit anyone in the head on the way out. (You should check out the size of my right bicep after 2 years of this)

*Can identify most tropical fruits, trees, and plants and know how to get said fruit of the trees

*Can survive on a diet of eggs, beans, and tortillas (however the emergency once a month run to the Indian food restaurant in Xela is necessary)

*Can fluently speak Spanish and hold phone conversations in Spanish (this was my biggest obstacle to start – the phone thing)

*Have figured out the “Hora Chapina” (Guatemalan time) and no longer get there 2 hours earlier than everyone else. I now know that when someone says 3 p.m. – they really mean 5 or 6 p.m. And everyone has a slightly different “Hora Chapina” that one has to figure out.

*I can successfully get anywhere I want to go without a vehicle.

* I have the patience to wait for a bus for over 3 hours and it is no longer a big deal
*I eat ceviche (seafood concoction of raw shrimp (“cooked” in lime and salt) with tomato, onion, and a variety of spices – super yummy!)

*I eat chicharron (fried pork skin)

*I can survive without water, without cable, without internet, and without electricity (Survive that is – liking it is a different story)

*I can bake a cake in a tin foil oven (that I made), over a pot of boiling water, over a wood fired stove (with wood that I carried up and chopped)

*Managed to stay in shape with a homemade set of “weights” fashioned out of various sizes and cuttings of cement block.

*I can machete chop a huge ream of bananas off a tree

*I can mix cement and build a stove from scratch (and coordinate the arrival of said materials to places far off the beaten trail)

*I can fix plumbing, tubing, showers, and just about any toilet problem (again can do it – but not an enjoyable experience)

Okay that’s about all I can think of for now but all I can say is that it’s been quite the ride. Peace Corps is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve done some challenging things in life, however, it has been a very empowering experience that I am grateful to have had and now that I’m getting close to closing it out, I feel like I can do more than I’ve ever dreamed. So – as they say here - Siga adelante! (Keep moving forward!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Packing Ideas for new arrivals

I think the blog de moda (popular) right now is writing recommendations to the new trainees who will be coming to Guatemala in less than a month now. So, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and give my two cents worth to the whole “what should I bring” dilemma.

The best thing about Guatemala is that you can get most of everything you need here, so don’t really worry about not being able to buy notebooks or pens or clothes – they have just about everything you will need here, including McDonalds. A note on that too – you might not believe me – but pretty much everyone sooner or later is craving McDonalds. I’ve eaten more McDonald’s here in Guate than I ever did in the US.

So back to the essential stuff to pack – stuff that is either hard to find or expensive to get here and vale la pena (is worth it) to bring…

1. Computer AND a big external hard drive – The computer has been my life saver here. There are some sites with access to internet cafes, however, if you are like me, my nearest internet cafĂ© is 1.5 hours away and my life improved dramatically when I finally got my computer down here. You’ll have access to internet and there is signal even deep into the jungle. You’ll be able to buy a modem and have regular internet service in just about every site. It might not be as fast as the US or quite as reliable but it will be pretty good. Even though we don’t have public electricity where I live – we have internet and cell phones.

2. Makeup and contacts – Contacts are allowed here in Guatemala so bring em. You can buy the cleaning solution here at the pharmacy. It just has to get paid for out of your own pocket and isn’t offered by the medical office. Also, any good makeup that you like – bring it. You can get it at Wal Mart in Xela or another store in Antigua – however – it is about double the price that you would pay in the US. Also, you’ll be expected to dress up more often than you might think and you’ll be glad you brought it.

3. Dressy clothes for training and workshops and swearing in – Ladies – bring heels and men – nice shoes. Almost all Guatemalan women wear heels all the time and you’ll definitely fit in more with heels. If heels are absolutely not your thing – than closed toe flats will work too. Flip flops and Chacos and tennis shoes are not allowed in the Peace Corps office – so be sure you have some nice shoes to wear to the office. I brought 2 nice pair of dress slacks and I am glad that I had them – as well as some nice blouses and cute tops. Think business casual.

4. Rechargeable batteries and battery charger – These are available here, but more expensive. Bring a few to get you started for stuff that you’ll need batteries. Esp. since there aren’t safe places to deposit batteries here – better to recharge than to buy and just throw away.

5. Some warm clothes for training – Training will be in Jan-March at the office, which is located at a higher elevation – so the training rooms can be cold. I recommend a fleece, gloves, hat, and a wrap or a scarf. I tend to run on the cold side, so it might be a bit much for some – but better to be a little warm than cold! Also, it warms up during the day but the mornings and evenings can be chilly. Once you get your site – you can make additional purchases based on your climate. However, in Guatemala there seem to be more cold sites than warm sites. And by cold I am talking about freezing temperatures – like frost and ice!

6. Ipod with portable speakers

The following is stuff that you can all buy here…

*Sheets (unless you like a high thread count – then bring them for your own bit of luxury. I did this and I am personally glad I did – however – if you don’t have a preference – you can buy them here)

*Radios/CD players

*Clothes/jewelry (note here on jewelry: don’t bring anything you would hate to lose – even small rings or a small necklace. This is the first stuff that gets stolen here from volunteers. Thieves will even go as far as removing jewelry from your neck as you sleep on a bus. Don’t bring anything that even resembles real gold or silver.

*Sunglasses – you can buy the cheap ones here – and you’ll go through a lot – I’ve been through probably 6 pair – not worth it to bring the expensive nice ones.

*Cell phones – buy a cheap one here – for as often as they are lost and stolen – don’t bring a nice one from home. Peace Corps will also provide you with a cell phone.

*Sunscreen/shampoo/lotion/razors/soap – it’s all available here so just bring enough to get you through your first few weeks.

So, basically don’t stress about packing. Anything you really need in Guatemala can be found here. You may end up paying more for something but ultimately it can be found here. Just BRING YOUR COMPUTER (but not your new Mac - like a $200 laptop or an older computer will do) and have some warm clothes on hand. You have those two things and you’ll be a happy camper.

Enjoy your last few weeks in the US and eat all your favorite foods!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving in the Caribbean

Oh what a wonderful Thanksgiving I had! I had a whirlwind of an awesome trip with my friend Amber on the Caribbean side of Guatemala. I had such a blast and it is hard to believe it is already over. We headed out to Livingston on Wednesday and arrived safely, surviving a 13 hour marathon travel day. Luckily Amber knew a great local rice and beans diner and we grabbed a cheap but tasty meal before falling exhausted into bed.

We stayed at the beautiful oceanside hotel called Casa Rosada. They have a wonderful little dock with hammocks lined up to enjoy a morning cup of coffee and watch the sun come up. Thanksgiving Day started off with a walk into `town `to hunt down the famous Pan de Coco (coconut bread) and return to the hammocks to discuss plans for the day. We decided to head out to the famous cascading pools called Seven Altars. We enjoyed a nice hike out along the beach and lucked out to have the whole spot to ourselves. The turquoise fresh water was so refreshing after our little hike. We spent a fair amount of time just swimming around and enjoying this little paradise in the jungle. On the hike back we stopped off at a little rancho and enjoyed a Cube Libre (rum and Coke – hey it’s not the Caribbean without rum J ). That night we headed over to Casa de la Iguana for a proper Thanksgiving feast. The friendly owner, Rusty, slaved away preparing 3 turkeys for the feast and even managed to round up a few cans of real Ocean Spray cranberries. It was pretty surreal eating such a traditional American meal surrounded by jungle – but it was awesome to celebrate with my Peace Corps friends. They even made a big chocolate cake for dessert and I am happy to say that yes I ate it all!

The next day we headed out to a little piece of paradise called Finca Tatin on the Rio Dulce. The boat came by the hotel in the morning to take us on the half hour ride down river. The finca is situated right on a little tributary of the river, with plenty of dock space to sun and relax in the hammocks. Plus, the water was clean and we were able to waste away the day, alternating between sunning, swimming, and ordering banana licuados. The food at the finca is amazing as well. We were treated to fresh fish, awesome flour tortillas that were kind of like an Indian naan bread, and broccoli soup. The lights were out by 10 p.m. since the finca runs on its own generator, which reminded me of my life here on the finca.

The next day Amber and I took out the kayaks for a few hours to look for iguanas and other wildlife along the river banks. We spotted 3 between us but as Amber says, you can tell they get hunted because as soon as we even got a little near they ran right up the trees as high as they could go. After some kayaking we returned to our tough life of sunning and swimming off the docks of the finca.
In the late afternoon we took a boat back to Livingston to enjoy the festivities of the Garifuna Fair. Everyone was out having a great time, playing drums and dancing in the streets. We had fun cruising around, trying out some of the local food. I loved the big flour tortillas that they had on the grill and then filled with grilled meat and onions – ohhhh soooo good! We also found a good pupusa stand, although far from El Salvador – still really good. For those that don’t know pupusas, it is made with a tortilla on the bottom level, filled with either pork, beans, or cheese, and then another tortilla is placed on top and the ends are sealed together. Then it is grilled to perfection! Anyway – super good and famous in El Salvdor – but they are common in Guatemala as well.

The next day began at sunrise for a marathon travel day back to site but it was well worth it!

While we were away, I realized I had passed my 23rd month of being in Guatemala – which means under 4 months to go at this point! It is getting bittersweet at this point. I am excited to start thinking about my future plans but it will be sad but also very gratifying to finish up with Peace Corps. We have our Close of Service Conference already planned in January and here it is almost December! I feel so thankful to have been able to spend the last two years with some great people. It is true when they say that volunteers represent some of the best America has to offer. It has been a rollercoaster ride, but to be able to live and work in the beautiful country of Guatemala truly has been a special privilege. Thank you!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Completion of the Stove Project and other news

Wow, how time flies! Five months from today and I will be saying goodbye to the community. I can’t believe that 22 months have already gone by. I am writing happy to say that we successfully finished the stove project. We had the inauguration on October 15, complete with a snack (every good event here includes a refaccion (snack)). We made over 400 enchiladas and used up 5 pounds of coffee! I had some great local women who volunteered their time to help me in the kitchen. We had a small ceremony to recognize the good hard work put forth by everyone to build the stoves and finished the event with a fun dance, held here on the patio. It was a great night and a fun way to draw to a close a project that started as an idea way back in January.

In regards to other news, we are full on in coffee harvest time here. We survived Tropical Depression E12 and thankfully we didn’t suffer many damages here in comparison to other parts of Guatemala where roads washed out, bridges collapsed, and entire routes to destinations such as the lake were closed out due to huge landslides. Luckily we have seen the sun lately and things are drying out and everyone is cleaning up around the country. I won’t be sad to see the end of this rainy season. It started out pretty tamely with the usual rainy afternoons and sunny mornings, however, is closing out with a bang. November is supposed to be the end of the rainy season – fingers crossed. I know I need the sun to feel good and get motivated to work. The lack thereof really takes its toll mentally and physically. Not to mention the mold and all the fun that goes with dealing with that.

I have had 2 small miracles happen in the past month or so. The first is the purchase of a small refrigerator for the hotel now that our mini hydroelectric system can support the wattage. Also, we now have a vegetable vendor from up north come to the community every Friday selling fresh veggies. This is a God-send as until now, fresh vegetables were not available in the village, only a 3 hour round trip to the market could bring such goodness. And now the vegetables even last longer than 3 days due to the frig! Oh what luxuries! So, due to this happy turn of events, I am able to expand my cooking. Last night I made these yummy beet burgers, topped with avocado and mustard. Today I was able to make a banana, soy milk, honey, and coffee smoothie = oh life is sooooo good!

So, that’s the haps down here in Guatemala. Hope everyone is enjoying the Fall back home. I miss the caramel apples, hand-picked apples, and carving pumpkins. Happy Halloween!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Stove Project Photo Update

The stove project has successfully begun! We officially started construction on June 25, with the help of 2 awesome Peace Corps volunteers who came out to help with the first few stoves. These guys are experts and were so awesome to have here for the construction of the first few stoves. The construction process isn't too difficult, however, there are some key pieces that one needs to have correct in order for the stoves to function well and having these experienced volunteers here really helped get the project off the ground with the right start. Plus, it was great to have them here over my birthday. We celebrated with a bottle of red wine and I made a chocolate cake in the artisanal oven. So that was our dinner - red wine and a BIG piece of chocolate cake - my type of dinner! Plus we invited my two good friends, Sara and Eluvia, over to celebrate. They sang the birthday song and ended it in the typical Guatemalan way by mashing my face in the cake - I'll be posting that pic too!

So, we started the stove project the next morning early. I have the help of a great mason here in the community too, so he worked closely with the two volunteers to learn the construction techniques with this stove design and we were off and building. We had an intense 3 days of construction - long hours - but well worth it as we got 3 stoves nearly done. The stoves need to dry completely before we put the final stovetop and chimney tubes on them - so that will be in about 3 weeks since it is the rainy season. However, the construction is going well and I am so happy with how the project is progressing.

Then last week I was invited to go to El Salvador with one of the volunteer leaders and our Project Specialist for a stove workshop. They are building 3 different stove designs over there and it was fun to learn how to build them and see what they are doing in Peace Corps El Salvador. El Salvador is beautiful - the climate is very tropical, similar to here on the coast. We ate the typical El Salvadorean food called pupusas - so yummy! Basically they are like 2 tortillas stacked on top of each other with something good in the center - chicharron (pork) or frijol or cheese. They are then grilled on the stovetop and topped with cabbage. We had a great trip overall - got to travel in my first double decker bus - that was awesome. I hope to be able to take some vacation time later to go back and visit and hit up the beaches and surf they are so famous for!

After El Salvador, I returned to Antigua for a fun 4th of July party with the rest of the volunteers. We all celebrated big, complete with hamburgers, hot dogs, talent show, raffle, and dancing. It is always so great to get together to see how the other volunteers are doing. The country is relatively small however, it is difficult to get out to see everyone so this is the one event where we are all together and it was a blast!

Now I am back in site trying to get caught up after being gone and continuing with the stove project and a few other things. We had a group of 30 basico students over for lunch today so I got to enjoy a nice churrasco (grilled meat), grilled onions, salsa, refried beans, and rice. This is one of my favorite meals - however - now I'm super full! However, hay que aprovechar (you need to take advantage) when there is good food since I don't always get meat out here due to the lack of refrigeration. So today is definitely a good day!

Thanks for the support everyone!



Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The big theme as of late is the famous stove project. I've spent the last month here really pushing hard to get everything coordinated, materials bought, coordinating experienced volunteers to come to help with the first few, and get all the moving parts in place. Let me tell you - not easy tasks - however, fingers crossed, this Saturday should be the day that the first stove gets built. I have to say thanks to everyone for all their support, your donations to the cause, and the energy you've given me to keep moving ahead with the project. I will post some pictures later to show the construction and how everything turns out.

Other than the stoves life has been extremely busy and hence time is flying as always here. Here are a few updates from the last month or so of the goings on here in Guatemala:

1. I was invited up to Alta Verapaz during the end of May to help give a workshop on business plans. I did 3 presentations on products/services, promotion and marketing, and finally personality differences and working effectively as a team. The workshop went well overall. We were working with a tourism alliance called Viviente Verapaz, which has 11 tourist sites involved. The goal is to get more people up to this beautiful region and promote different tours and routes to help people see more of the area and stay longer.

2. Right after the business plan workshop I returned to site and the next day a group of 22 students and 2 professors came to visit from the University of British Columbia Vancouver. The group was here for 3 weeks, taking 2 courses, one in sociology and another in philosophy. It was great to have them here in the community and get to interact and learn all the updates of what is happening back in the US and Canada. I worked with the students, coordinating some volunteer projects, including painting the hotel, working with the families to collect macadamia nuts, and going out to haul sand out of the river to use for the stoves, along with some trail and bridge work. Plus, I helped out in the kitchen, supervising hygiene standards, and making up menus and doing some sous chef duties. The kitchen staff here is great - they work so hard and it all came off as a huge success. We pulled off 3 meals a day for 3 weeks for 22-26 people - crazy!

3. Other things going on while the group was here and while I was working on the stove project include...working on a work plan for Reu al Natural, a tourism alliance we have started here on the Pacific Coast to promote the area, completing a section of the Sustainable Community Tourism manual on personalities and effective teamwork, coordinating the arrival of 2 more groups (one this weekend and one the following), and getting invited to a stove workshop/conference down in El Salvador next week. As you can see, life has been busy!

However, after the group left last week, I decided it was time for a little R&R in order to gear up to the big stove project this week and the trip to El Salvador next week. I headed down to my little beach paradise and enjoyed a couple of days of surfing, hanging out with some local friends, playing some soccer, watching some soccer (Guatemala/Mexico during the Gold Cup, so sad to lose!!), and going to the community dance for Father's Day. All in all it was a great weekend of fun and relaxation - much needed. I came back to site feeling like a million dollars - as some time by the ocean always makes me feel.

I've got my birthday coming up on Friday. I plan to head down to meet the volunteers who are coming, buy some stuff to make a cake with my little oven and celebrate that night with the volunteers and my other friends here in the community.