One Year in Guatemala!

Photo: Our group of Sustainable Community Tourism Volunteers who came in last January, plus one extra we adopted from Paraguay (serving her third year here in Guatemala)

One year ago at this time exactly I was sitting in the Miami airport waiting to board a plane for Guatemala. I remember not being nervous, as I thought I would have been. I spent the previous day in Washington DC in a crash prep-course to my next 27 months which covered almost nothing that I now find useful. I have, however, learned since then a whole lot of new useful things that I feel I could never have gained doing any other work in most other places. I have many days that I feel unproductive and like I’m not doing much, but even the majority of those days I learn something interesting.

One day I was waiting in the office for a meeting to finish with a fellow teacher, Cristobal, and the conversation turned to the normal, “it’s quite cold here, isn’t it?” Followed by “so, Katy, what exactly do you do here?” Into the inevitable “so, Katy, what religion exactly are you?” Cris started explaining to me the three theories of how the world came to be: one, the biblical, genesis view that we came from Adam and Eve, two, the scientific view that we came from monkeys, and three, the Mayan view that we came from corn. “So, Katy, which one do you believe?” I started talking about a few things I believe, tried to explain what a phylogenetic tree is and that we didn’t really come from monkeys, then turned the question on him. He said he didn’t really know, and he had some problems with the genesis story. “So, we were taught that if a brother and sister have children it’s a sin, but, if God just created Adam and Eve, how did they have grandchildren without it being a sin?”

Another afternoon I was watching a soccer game with a friend who had an injured knee. He wanted to play so badly, and I emphasized greatly with that and we had a very long comparison about all our different sports injuries and good ways to stretch out and warm up/cool down. Then he started explaining the strategy of the game to me which was fascinating. I explained to him how in volleyball there are just some people who play well together and some who don’t; they may all be great players but some just click better than others. He said it’s exactly the same with soccer, and showed me they people he plays well with. He told me about different playing styles (like “con cuerpo”, with body or with force) and how to offend/defend against those different styles. I think he would make a good coach because he explains so clearly and has a lot of patience.

Many days I have children wandering in and out of my office and now, since it’s January and mothers are coming to sign their children up for the coming school year, there’s tons in here every day. Yesterday I spent an hour showing the kids different photos on my computer of my life in the US, the different sports I played, friends, family, my house, animals, etc… They kept shouting “sos vos!”, that’s you! In each picture where they spotted me. It was much more difficult for them to pick me out of a group shot where there was more than one white blonde girl. Many of these younger children don’t speak much Spanish, but usually an older sibling will be present who speaks enough to talk with me and answer questions. They all love teaching me words in k’iche’, but I think they like even more laughing at how I pronounce them. Yesterday when they came into my office I had a couple water bottles filled with plastic trash and we talked for a good long time about how it hurts a lot of plants and animals throwing the trash in the street and how it’s better to dispose of it properly, by burning or storing it in these bottles which could eventually be used to build a school, library, latrine, or other building.

On to some more general lessons I’ve learned:

The biggest thing I have learned and developed is patience. If you know me well, you know that I can be pretty flexible with a lot of things, a lot of things I don’t care strongly about. What do you want to eat for dinner? What movie do you want to watch? Playing right side or left side? What are we going to do this weekend? If I don’t care, I’ll say I don’t care. If I care 73%/27%, I’ll say that. If I want something strongly enough, I’ll do what I can to get it. I have learned to loosen up a lot on that last one this past year. One example is my housing situation. During my first month here I wanted to move out sooooooooooo badly. That desire built and built and built, and finally burst when I realized that would not be an option. There are just no options for having my own house here. Having realized that there is really nothing I can do about it, I just stopped thinking about it. It’s like leaving a classroom after taking an exam and thinking, gee, I really really should have marked C instead of B on question #4. There’s nothing you can do about it now so don’t go crazy over it. I still get annoyed by a lot of things, but, I deal with it.

One other big lesson also having to do with patience is learning when to keep your mouth shut. I like being right. I mean, I really, really like winning arguments and having other people agree with me. But more often than not trying to get other people to change their minds is more energy than it’s worth, and I’ve learned how to just deal with this. I still put my opinion in when somebody is complaining of having a headache and pouring themselves a cup of sugary coffee saying, umm, don’t really think this is the best idea for a headache. And when they say, “really, you don’t say…” and continue drinking their coffee, I just shut my mouth. In the past, whenever anybody has asked me about my religious beliefs and I say I don’t believe in a god, I compare myself with being vegetarian but not being a crazed PETA vegetarian. Vegetarians are usually normal, rather friendly people who just want to live their life like they do and not push their views on other people. PETA vegetarians (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are much more obnoxious, outspoken, often ill-informed, and propagandists. I am trying to not be a crazed PETA person in other areas of my life now, too.

Continuing on with patience, I also think I have learned to cut other people more slack when they make mistakes. Before, if someone made an error and it affected me, I liked to make it known. I thought it was important to make it known that it was not my error, that I had nothing to do with it, that I wasn’t responsible in any way, and make the wrong-doer suffer for being wrong. I still think it’s important to point out mistakes, because if you don’t the same mistake will get made over, and over, and over again. But I’m learning how to do this much more delicately. For example, the other day I received a call at about 6:15pm from a coworker who needed me to send some photos to him. Only thing is, I didn’t have the photos. He asked me for a selection and said he had to send them off as early as possible the following morning. I said I would do what I could to wake up early, take the photos, and send them out as soon as possible. Now, normally, I would have added in a “too bad you called me at such late notice or I could have gotten better shots” or “if you had only called me a day sooner I would have been able to ask around” or “how long have you known about this report you have to send off, and why are you just asking me now?” But, I said none of those things. I wanted so badly to make him realize how unintelligent he was being but I held myself back. I’ve been holding myself back a lot lately.

On to a couple things I have learned about work

I need a schedule. I need set hours to go to work, set hours where I have free time, and I need scheduled activities to do at work. I need a supervisor, or at least someone to report to with what I have accomplished. I need someone to help me write my work-plan, or at least someone to advise me and help me look over it. I’ve always wanted to believe that I could be a self-starter, someone who sees what needs to get done and just goes and does it, but I’m not so sure about that now. Maybe during the first year it was difficult for me to realize really what needed to be done, and definitely I was trying not to be a bother by constantly asking questions to really really busy people, but I definitely accomplished less than I would have liked to due to my solitary ever-changing schedule and projects. This year I am going to be more fuerte (strong) with my association about what I need. I need more free time. I need to work with people instead of by myself. I need to have a different schedule than other people that will give me time to go running in the morning and some free time in the afternoon while there’s still daylight. I need to be involved in planning and organizational meetings. I need people to communicate with me. I definitely have a lot of responsibilities that I’m going to do a better job at keeping this year, but in my eyes, I’m here because they asked for me. If they don’t want to put in their part, why should I be motivated to put in mine?

I am motivated. That has never wavered. Sometimes I wonder though, by whom? And for whom? Well, I know I want to see something good come out of my time here. I want to leave something useful, important, and something that could not have been provided by anyone else. Something unique. They say the Peace Corps challenges you. I think we challenge ourselves. I think that’s always how it is, though. It sounds cliché perhaps but this really is the kind of work where you get out what you put in. The regulations the Peace Corps puts on us are minimal, in terms of being productive, as are the regulations from my association with which I work. Sometimes this creates a, logically, unproductive environment. I have always been a hard worker when I have a project, I know what I have and need to get it done, and a deadline. It gets done when it has to get done, and I do it right. But when I am the person creating the projects, deadlines, etc… sometimes it’s hard for me to not put it off. It’s easier for me to do better work when I’m doing it for somebody else; if somebody else is depending on me I don’t want to let them down. If I’m working for myself, well, of course I don’t want to let myself down either, but it’s easier to justify excuses to myself than it is to other people. And this is what I want to change.

On to a list of changes/goals for 2011

Seek help when you need it. Don’t worry so much about bothering other people if you need their help; they’re the ones that asked for a volunteer so they have to put out energy too.

Make a plan, give it to somebody responsible, and use them to help keep you on track. Make yourself answer to somebody, as that’s better than answering to yourself.

Get more involved. Be pushy. If people don’t want to invite you to meetings or other activities invite yourself. I know enough people in this town that I can always find a kindred face amongst the crowd.

Read more. In Spanish and in English. I want to leave this country as fluent as possible and for this I need practice with correct grammar and an improved vocabulary. It also gives me more interesting things to talk with people about.

Keep up better communications. There are some family and friends in the US whom I regularly talk with, but with others I’ve sort of fallen out of touch with. That happens, and sometimes there’s nothing I can do about it. But sometimes I do feel a little lonely and it always makes me feel better when I can have a good chat with a good friend.

Last, and certainly not least, write more. And take more pictures. To share with you all.

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