Cultural Fair, Tortillas, and Bees

Today my group members, Spanish instructor, and technical trainer all met with three people from our town that will be helping us during the next few months. We (all five of us Peace Corps Trainees) are living together in a small town, and part of our training is to do some type of project. All the groups in different towns have different projects to accomplish based on the need(s) of their town. Our project is to organize a cultural fair to attract tourists, promote the Mayan heritage and culture of the town, and to help the local women artisan groups to sell their hand-woven goods. I feel very unqualified to perform such a task, but it will be very interesting learning how the business side of things works, and also to interact with women’s groups in a machismo culture.

The people in my group are really fun and interesting people, and we all have varied backgrounds, though it is easy to see where each person’s experience will come in handy for this project. Hillary has a Master’s degree in something having to do with business and finance, and a few years of work experience as well. Stacey has a Bachelor’s in forestry and environmental studies, and has experience with birds. Alex has a degree in environmental studies and has experience in conservation and has also done volunteer work overseas. Chad has a degree in business and has experience in outdoor and environmental education. Finally there’s me, with a degree in ecology and experience in environmental education and management of natural lands. None of us really have much experience in cultural matters or the like, but we’re all pretty jazzed about having this opportunity to learn something completely new.

The majority of our project, though I still know little about it, centers around organizing a fair to include: selling hand-made goods, dancing, singing, selling of food, Mayan games, music lessons, and anything else we can think of. The idea is to get tourists involved in the culture rather than just buying something tangible. For example, instead of selling fresh tortillas on the corner, we could sell the raw dough (masa) along with a tortilla-clapping lesson, then let the tourists clap and bake their own tortillas to eat. This would bring in more money to the locals for the ingredients and time they put out, and would hopefully engage the tourist more, make their memory of the town stronger, and make them appreciate all the hard work these women put into their lives every day.

On that note, I received my first tortilla-clapping lesson today. I tried (badly) to make a couple last week while I was making tamales and chuchitas, but I was so terrible they decided it would be better to put me to work on something else. Today was better. The first few came out in odd squarish or other weird shapes, with holes in them and uneven edges. I made about 8 of them, and the last two came out okay, in an oval sort of shape, but without holes in the middle. Then we ate them for dinner because they were not fit to sell (my words, not my host mother’s!). We were both having a good laugh throughout the process. I think, even though I’m not that great at cooking anything, she likes having someone around that wants to learn and is willing to try. She said that the last volunteer she had was a little anti-social and didn’t put much effort into assimilating, getting to know the town, getting to know her group members, and just participating in whole. I’ve had a lot to do this past week but I spend as much time as I can around the house with her and her daughter, because no matter what they’re doing, they’re always talking and talking with them (which is much easier than talking with the menfolk and the children) is the best thing I can do to improve my Spanish.

One of the first days of class when I arrived we were asked to write down what our biggest fears were about joining the Peace Corps. Aside from major bodily injury, I wrote down that my Spanish speaking level was my biggest fear, and that I though it would be beyond impossible to ever really understand what was going on. I was really wrong. I do make a ton of mistakes in my speech, but everybody seems to understand how hard I’m trying to learn and learn correctly, and they always take time to help me or correct me or answer whatever question I might have. I can’t even imagine what interesting conversations I’ll be able to have in one more month when our levels of understanding each other are that much higher. Today, I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but my host mother Esperanza and I started talking about bees. I started telling her about the honey bee dance and how they are so intelligent about using that form of communication to convey the location of food and water to each other. She seemed so enthralled, and not at all confused at me telling her that another animal besides humans had intelligence and communication. She agrees with me that it’s important to take care of other animals simply because they have life, just like us, and she also added in that flowers have feelings too. I said I agreed even though I don’t, but it’s close enough. She accredits it to God, that God gave all animals and plants life and that’s why they’re all important. Even though we have totally different reasons, we still believe exactly the same things. It’s pretty cool. I feel better knowing that I’ll be able to relate to a lot of people here on the things that are most important to me.

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