Feliz Dos Mil Trece

Last year, after a crazy New Year’s Eve in Antigua, Guatemala I did a review of 2011 and put together some 2012 goals.  I spent this past New Year’s Even in Reno, under the famous arch watching fireworks and dancing to Whitney Houston and made a mental note to check to see how I did in 2012 and maybe consider some 2013 goals. 
Here we go.

Put together an awesome Degree Project that will not only wow the professors back at Evans, but also truly help my municipality.

When I was told in late January that I would have to move by late March I shifted things into high gear knowing that it would be highly unlikely I’d be able to put together a viable Degree Project in my new site. So we surveyed over 800 women and I started writing. And then I moved and and kept writing. In spanish. Until June. I ended up with a three part, 75 page document which I gave to the Santa Cruz MWO and then translated into English for the Evans School. I’m not sure if it actually helped the MWO or if anyone at Evans actually cares about my project, but I’m pretty proud of it.

Finish one largescale project – either bottle school, library or capacitation center.

I was on track to maybe build that bottle school. Hug It Forward had been dragging their feet, but I was prepared to apply for SPA funding through USAID and had municipal and community support IN WRITING. I also had many bottles. But then I moved. Sad trombone.

Don’t strangle the kids in my youth groups…

All students in my youth groups were alive and well at the end of our time together!

Test out at Avanzado Alto Spanish level.

Not quite, Avanzado Medio.

Truly take advantage of the free time I have here that I won’t have post Peace Corps.

I read a lot of books, you guys. I’m not sure how many just in 2012, but 104 total over a 24 month period. I also did a good deal of traveling and, less impressively, watched many seasons of How I Met Your Mother.

Appreciate the new friends that I have made, remind the ones that have made the effort to keep me part of their lives how much they mean to me and accept the fact that people change and grow and grow apart.

This is just an ongoing work in progress. Facebook helps. Also, the roadtrip and coming back to Nevada for the holidays has been an excellent way to make up for lost time.

And, why not, I’m going to attempt to appreciate each day, each challenge, each opportunity and each experience that I am lucky enough to have come my way. 

Again, work in progress. I had many wasted days where I lay in bed, staring at the tarp on my ceiling (wondering if there were spiders in there) doing nothing, often feeling sorry for myself. But every day is an opportunity to do better.

As for 2013… it’s a scary year.

I have always known what the next step is. College, Graduate School, Peace Corps… Every time I looked forward I was able to see, more or less, what was going to happen and where I was going to be. I know that right now I’m in Reno with friends, biding my time until my trip to the Philippines. I’ll spend six weeks with my parents on beaches and visiting extended family and then come back early March and then… I have no idea. Everything past March 5th is a complete mystery.

I tried to avoid this uncertainty, too. I applied for the Foreign Service but didn’t make it through the Oral Assessment. I applied for the UNYPP but didn’t make it to the test. I applied for the PMF but didn’t make it to the interview. So now, not only was a clear path not presented to me, my confidence in my ability to find eventual employment has been severely shaken.

So I look forward to mid-March and it’s a blank. Back to Seattle? Stay in Nevada? DC? NY? Overseas? NGO? Government? Private sector? Fundraising? Programming? Policy analysis? M&E? Women’s rights? Youth? International development? CSR?

It’s a little exciting. But mostly terrifying.

I suppose my 2013 goal is to simply do my best and remain open-minded.

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Life as an RPCV

This is far after the fact but I have seen a few friends during the holidays who have commented on the fact that I left my blog unfinished. I admit, I had been ignoring this particular task. I could blame it on the classic excuse of being busy, but I’ve watched too many episodes of Say Yes to the Dress since coming back to the states to have that be a legitimate excuse…

I have had a great time since coming home though. Lexi and I really did drive across the country, stopping to see old friends and even some fellow RPCVs along the way. I went back to school and managed to graduate as planned. I’ve been able to take weekend trips to San Francisco and Portland, go to music festivals and sporting events, eat sushi, play in the snow, win a few games of Just Dance on the Wii… I even have a smartphone. I have definitely re-integrated easily.

Except, if I am being honest, the first day back was terrible. There’s a long version but I’ll just boil it down to the main points: Debit card frozen, credit card expired, new card with sister. 12 hour layover in freezing airport with no internet. Unfreeze debit card in Miami Airport for it to be completely cancelled four hours later upon arrival in Las Vegas. Sleep deprived. Can’t uncancel card. Can’t get rental car. Can’t escape airport. Cry at the Budget Rental desk. Call friend, make her leave work and rent car for me. Argue with bank about getting new card in time for road trip three days later.

You know, it doesn’t sound all that bad now, but at the time it was a terrible homecoming. I was overwhelmed by all these ways in which living in the states is complicated and frustrating and was left thinking, “I don’t want to be in Guatemala, I don’t want to be here. Now what?” Melodramatic, I know, but the truth. Thankfully, things got better after that. I didn’t even have any grocery store freakouts.

Really, the hardest part of coming back has been something completely unexpected: learning how to talk about my time as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I have spent the last four months processing my experience and trying to figure out if I think it was worth it, if I’m happy with it. Yes, I finished, but I felt (and still do feel) I did not accomplish what I had set out to do. I let people down and felt that the Peace Corps administration let me down. I came back angry and disappointed and I was ashamed of those feelings. I wanted to be able to gush about my time in Guatemala and encourage others to sign up for “the toughest job you’ll ever love” but I wasn’t convinced I had loved it. In fact, I wasn’t sure I didn’t hate it.

The real reason I left this blog unfinished is that I simply wasn’t willing to spend anymore time thinking about my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. I kept trying to write my last post, but I just wanted to walk away from it. I needed space and perspective.  I was excited to focus on other things and I did… for four months.

I still don’t think I’ve really come to terms with everything or fully processed my experience, but I am pretty sure of a few things:

I would do it again. I’m glad I don’t have to, but I would.

I miss many people who I met through my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. I miss my fellow volunteers and I miss some incredible Guatemalans who made my experience worthwhile. It’s been particularly hard watching my training class scatter, seeing remaining volunteers continue adventures I can’t be a part of and missing important milestones and moments in my Guatemalan friends lives.

And I didn’t hate it.


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I realize this is very late but consider this Part 1 of my COS/Coming Home Story

August 16th – 4 days to COS:

I found my last days in site incredibly frustrating (minus the night my sitemate made me an amazing going away dinner) since the trickle of work that had once existed had dwindled to absolutely nothing after the town feria in early July. I was bored, annoyed at having to cook all my food in a toaster oven since my gas had run out and tired of being confined to half my house after dark since the electricity had just decided to stop working. I was ready to get out of Santa Maria. I had tried the site change and it just never really worked out and 16th couldn’t come fast enough. So, when Doris got to town and sat down with the mayor and profusely thanked him for all that he had done for me (something Peace Corps didn’t bother to do in Santa Cruz where the mayor really did deserve some recognition) and they started talking about what they could do to get yet another volunteer out there… well, I was less than pleased. Eventually they concluded their meeting though and, after a quick trip to pick up my bags, we were on our way. Finally. Adios, Santa Maria.

August 17th – 3 Days to COS:

I ran around the office that Friday morning knowing I would have very little time Monday morning before my flight out of the country. COSing requires, what seems like, the signatures of everyone working at the office. Medical, Administrative, Program and even Facilities staff all have to sign off on your paperwork. I did as much as I could and then rushed to the capital to try to catch a bus to Santa Cruz.

I had been getting a lot of grief my final week from people in Santa Cruz complaining I would leave without saying goodbye. I had been planning on making one last trip, but hadn’t wanted to make any promises in case things didn’t work out. The trip required an hour wait in the sketchy bus terminal in the capital, but was well worth the trouble. Within five minutes of being back I was joking around with the mayor and watching my former coworkers lead a giant doll making class in their new training center. I was invited to watch a pageant happening that night and was fed free paches. When I finally made it to my host family’s house I was fed again and caught up on all the latest gossip. Santa Cruz will always be my real site and the place closest to my heart in Guatemala and, when people ask me if I’ll ever go back, I’m thinking of that town when I say yes.

August 18th/19th – 2/1 Day(s) to COS:

I left Santa Cruz and made my way to Antigua to meet friends and do some souvenir shopping. I argued with the people in the market and enjoyed a lovely breakfast at Doña Luisa’s with fellow volunteers and tried to wrap my my around my imminent departure.

August 20th – COS:

I made my way to the Peace Corps office to collect the rest of my signatures, print some documents and say goodbye. All of my last minute tasks were completely fairly painlessly and before I knew it I was waiting for the Peace Corps driver Pascual to bring the car around so I could load my suitcases and leave for the airport.

There is a bell in the lobby of the office that you are supposed to ring when you COS and planned to ring it and walk out. Little did I know that there is a whole ceremony attached to the ringing of the bell and that Edelveis, the receptionist, was not going to allow me to ring and run. Shocked that I would be so sneaky, she immediately got on the office intercom (which I didn’t even know existed until that morning) to summon everyone. There were palabras (words) and hugs and the reading of a special poem and many, many “Thank you for your service”s and I got a little misty eyed. This was really the end. I rang the bell and it was official. RPCV.

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Obviously I am going to be writing a longer post about my last days in Guatemala, but I’m headed to the airport right now and just wanted to post it officially – I am an RPCV.

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Hasta Pronto, I Hope

Leading up to this point the main emotion I’ve felt has been excitement. Excitement to get home, to see my sister, to go back to school, to eat pad thai and take baths… People would ask how it feels to be so close to being done and my immediate response was, “AWESOME.” And I had been under the impression that this was the only way I would feel, that this excitement would take me from Santa Maria all the way home. I was wrong.

I spent Wednesday through Friday with my training class as we were bombarded with the Close of Service presentations about how to complete your paperwork and what FECA is and how to not bore all your friends back home with your Peace Corps stories. I took the best shower I’ve had in Guatemala in the fancy hotel and allowed myself to eat as many rolls at mealtime as they would give me. I received my certificate for finishing and the staff, including the country director, all said some very complimentary things about me and my service. All of this was nice and only mildly overwhelming and I was still feeling excited until I started to realize: I have to say goodbye to all these people.

As we watched a slideshow of some choice images from the last 24 months I was blown away, all over again, by the incredible individuals that I started this journey with. (As a further testament to their awesomeness, 8 of the 13 people remaining in our group are actually seeking to extend their service.) I have climbed volcanoes, ridden long hours in camionetas, suffered through boring meetings, ziplined through forests, killed chickens, participated in donut eating contests, gotten lost, gone skinny dipping, enjoyed countless happy hours, shared chisme and secrets, faced bolos and angry chuchos, laid on the beach, been stranded, attempted to learn how to juggle, hated life and loved it – and all with these people. When you get to staging in Washington D.C. the facilitators tell you to look around because these strangers will end up being some of the most important people in your life. And you smile and nod, but really I did not comprehend the depth to which I would grow to love and value the people in my training class.

As if that weren’t enough, we (people in our training class along with some other volunteer friends from other programs) then spent the weekend eating delicious pizza and yelling throughout spirited games of spoons, cornhole and taboo. I realized that if I hadn’t stayed and moved out to the Occidente I probably wouldn’t have met half of the people sitting around laughing with me. For the first time I felt truly at peace with my decision to stick it out until August, but also incredibly sad that here were simply more people I’m leaving.

We woke up today and sat around chatting before heading to the shuttle that would take everyone back towards their sites. The conversation quickly turned to future plans and outings. A group wants to go to the beach in September. Another person wants to organize a ziplining trip. All of a sudden I felt crushed. These were plans I would not and could not be a part of. This happy, wonderful group of people surrounding me would go on to do awesome things and create more memories and I am not going to be a part of that. Excitement, all of a sudden, wasn’t what I was feeling about COS. Excitement had turned into sadness.

Then goodbyes started. Some of these friends have up to a year left in Guatemala and even when they finish we’ll still be scattered all over the U.S., maybe even all over the world depending on where their lives take them. Yes, I’ve dealt with endings before and, yes, it’s been sad. But this feels different. I’m sure there are a lot of ways to describe it, but basically: we’ll never be in Peace Corps together again. And that’s an incredibly sad realization for me.

I want to thank each and every one of them though. My fellow PCVs helped me get through the rough days and were there for most of my best memories in Guatemala. I wish them all the best as they continue their journeys, plan on cheering them on in the future and hope this isn’t the end of our adventures together. Really, they’ve been the best part of my service and I couldn’t have done it without them.

We Made It!

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Getting Ready

They say that many volunteers suffer more from reverse culture shock upon returning home than they did from the culture shock of arriving in country. This makes some sense, I suppose. You expect going somewhere new to be hard, you mentally prepare for it. But going home is supposed to be easy, a relief even, since you are simply going back to what you already know.

The problem, I guess, is that two years is a sizable chunk of time and things change, people change, and, more importantly, the volunteer changes. What once was a perfect fit might not be anymore and I’m guessing it’s harder because the idea of home that a volunteer carried with them throughout their service now doesn’t exist. They feel lost right when things are supposed to make the most sense.

I’m trying to do the smart thing and mentally prepare for these possible issues now. Most of this involves coming to terms with the fact that many of my friends have real jobs now, and some even have spouses and children, and that their priorities and lifestyles – along with the way I fit into their new lives- are significantly altered from how they were two years ago. I also have to accept the fact that I am not going to understand certain aspects of pop culture and probably won’t fully understand how all the apps on my phone work (or why they’re necessary). I’m going to need to re-adjust to US prices, particularly on produce (I’ll miss you, 12¢ mangoes and avocados!). I’ll likely miss the friendly nature of Guatemalans and wonder why my fellow countrymen don’t want to greet me. I’ll also probably have to readjust to the pace of life and probably won’t enjoy having the upcoming election shoved in my face.

However, I also think my time here has conditioned me in ways that will make certain challenges not so challenging and make commonplace aspects of life feel absolutely luxurious. My future hour commute to campus? EASY compared to the hours long journeys on camionetas. Dealing with bureaucracy? A breeze compared to the often  dysfunctional processes here. Awkward silences? I doubt they’ll even phase me. And I can’t wait for the beautiful, beautiful bathrooms of the states with their constant supplies of water and toilets with seats and showers I’m not of afraid of.

I think I’m ready.

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Ode to My Water Heater and Tigo Modem

It’s no secret that Peace Corps Guatemala is kind of a Posh Corps country. Most of us have regular electricity, water and even internet (I have even heard stories of volunteers with Netflix…). Yes, there are a few people who deal with less than luxurious living situations (I remember being horrified by the thought of using Libby’s latrine after dark), but, all in all, I’ve been pretty spoiled. Case in point: I am updating this blog right now.

So, when people start talking about how impressed they are by my sacrifice or how they can’t imagine doing Peace Corps because it’d be too hard, I start to feel awkward. I look at the diet coke I’m sipping on (the one I just took out of my little refrigerator) and think about all the hot showers I’ve taken and the fact that I get to gchat with my sister almost every day and it feels kind of like I cheated. Yeah, it was hard, but not because I had to walk a mile to a well or anything.

Like most volunteers I envisioned being in some lonely hut with a dirt floor (you know in Peace Corps Guatemala you aren’t even allowed to live in a house with a dirt floor?) writing letters home by candlelight. It’s the classic visual. And I didn’t live it. I’m convinced the RPCVs from rural Africa would scoff at me in my cement block house and my many trips to touristy Antigua. Will they (along with past volunteers who served before the advent of internet modem sticks) think my RPCV title is a lie?

So, yeah, I feel weird about the whole thing because even though it felt like cheating, I wasn’t about to give up my water heater or tigo stick. I loved being able to watch Pat get married via livestream last year and I was stoked to be able to watch a recording of the Olympic Opening Ceremony the other night. And every drop of warm water was like a little present. Technology can be a wonderful thing.

And maybe someday soon my experience will be considered the norm as far as Peace Corps lifestyles go. But, until then, I’ll readily admit that there are way more hardcore volunteers out there (who won’t ever read this because they don’t have internet) and acknowledge the fact that all the little luxuries made my two years much easier to survive.

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I still don’t understand the bus schedule in my site. Every time I have to leave I do a quick survey and everyone gives me different times. So I average them and hope for the best. Sometimes it works. Other times I end up waiting an hour at the corner where busses pass looking awkward. This is one of those days. I sheepishly wave at the guys from the muni who keep walking back and forth past me, the ones I just said goodbye to in the office in a rush thinking I was going to miss this bus.

I finally get on a bus and get that rush of relief that I’m sure all volunteers get upon seeing empty seats. Nobody likes standing in the aisle with your butt in people’s faces and the ayudante yelling at you to move back so they can squeeze in more people behind you. Even worse is being the third person on the seat, with a fraction of your butt kind of perched on the end, trying not to tip over into the aisle, sometimes with someone else’s butt in your face. Anyway, I do my own little private “hallelujah!” and settle in.

I start to make a mental to-do list for the next few weeks. Forms, appointments, packing. I think about my foreign service personal narrative responses. I ponder who I’m going to approach for letters of recommendation for the fellowships I’m applying for. I tell myself I still need to make a reservation for our going away weekend and need to talk to my landlord about my move out date. I feel a little bit overwhelmed.

Then one of my favorite songs from my time here comes on the radio. And I stop.

It’s a lovely song, yes. But I think it’s more the video I’m in love with, showcasing the beauty of Guatemala that most people don’t even know exists. I know I didn’t before I ended up here.

I look out the window and marvel at the uncharacteristically blue skies on this rainy season afternoon. I am taken aback once again at how lush and verdant the hills along either side of the road are. For the first time all day I feel truly present in the moment. And thankful for the opportunity to have experienced this place and a mind-boggling number of treasures it houses in an area roughly the size of Tennessee. Of course, there are many things I didn’t get around to, but I just tell myself that those will help me come back. I have unfinished business, I guess.

There are things that I am realizing more and more that I will miss. Little things. The heart-melting cuteness of little girls in traje. The smell of tortillas on the comal. Little boys playing soccer on every street. The way you can identify where a woman is from based on the design of her guipil. Tuc-tucs, 12 cent mangoes, constant refacciones. Even the simple joy of having a real seat on the bus.

The song ends. I take a deep breath and resume reviewing my mental to do list, but this time a little less overwhelmed.

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Wrapping Things Up

Not that I’m counting down (you know I am), but we’re 37 days from COS. It’s going to fly by. Next week I’m off to the office for the Close of Service medical gauntlet (I get to poop in a cup three times!) and at the start of August will be reunited with the hold-outs from our training class for our COS conference. There will likely be lots of hugging and “I can’t believe it’s been two years already” type statements. At some point I’ll also try to get back to Santa Cruz to despedir my friends there. Throughout these weeks I will also be trying to get rid of all the stuff I’ve accumulated throughout service while simultaneously stuffing my bags to bursting with souvenirs I just can’t leave Guatemala without. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that apparently Mayan textiles are trendy because of all the 2012 excitement. I mean, have you see this?! I, of course, am going to buy things that look like this here for much less money and try to convince people that Peace Corps makes you stylish.

Somehow after all this I will be getting myself, and all my fancy new mayan goodies, to Vegas (anybody have any American Airlines miles they aren’t using?) where I will promptly buy myself a smartphone and then lunch at the nearest all you can eat buffet. I will likely instagram my meal in an attempt to join all the cool kids in 2012.

Soon after I’ll head out east to distract Sami when she should be focusing on starting her grad program and then begin a road trip of epic proportions with Lexi:

Are you along this route? Would you like to get a drink together?

I’ve sort of got my fall schedule at Evans worked out and even roped a professor into being my Degree Project advisor (he’s my newest hero). I’ve got a place to live (as long as Lexi doesn’t kill me during our two week odyssey) and I’ve even begrudgingly started applying for fellowships and jobs.

I’ve got it all planned out, I guess.

I’m excited and, of course, a little sad. Endings are always sad. But this experience has been more than I could have ever predicted. Yes, more frustrating and lonely. But also more meaningful and special and filled with more laughs and moments that have taken my breath away than I thought you could fit into 24 months. I am leaving, but I don’t feel like I’m losing anything. After all this, I’m always going to be a little bit chapina. I couldn’t leave that behind even if I wanted to.

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The Kindness of Strangers

Back in site. I’ve been welcomed back by ongoing feria festivities. I had thought I’d miss the whole thing since I was gone for over a week, but today is the 8th official day of feria (probably the 20th unofficial day) and there’s no sign of the end. Today there was a “marathon”, a competition on horseback, a clown and a very loud band in the park. It was so loud it was shaking the windows of the office. So I came home… and can still hear it. I’m playing the new Justin Bieber album to counter the plonk, plonk, plonk of the marimba but now it just kind of sounds like some kind of Guatemala/Biebs mashup.

Regardless, I am glad to be back. Being out of site is exhausting, particularly when part of the reason you are gone is to help execute a conference and large party. There’s no need to recount a play by play, but I will say that both were a success.

Don’t be alarmed, this is simply the VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council aka Party Planners Extraordinaire) striking our best chapin pose.

After the conference and party I joined a rather large group of people headed to the beach to continue the 4th of July festivities. Basically, I ate a lot of fish and am still finding sand in interesting places.

Photo Credit to Kim!

I suppose I should also mention how the beach seemed to bring things full circle. The last time I was in Monterico was for our Welcome Party in January 2011. I was with my Oriente crew and was overwhelmed by how many months in Guatemala were staring me in the face. Now I’m weeks away from finishing, clearly one of the most veteran volunteers of the group, and not one of the people from the first trip were present this time around (they have almost all since ET’d or COS’d).

Anyway, none of this has anything to do with the title of the post. I’m getting to that.

Not that you don’t already know this, but it doesn’t take much for me to start to feel like everyone is just trying to find a way to take advantage of me or that all efforts (not just mine, but everyone’s) towards making the world a better place are a waste of time. I’m a cynic. I feel like I regularly lose my faith in humanity. It’s a problem.

But then events occur and all of sudden it seems like the universe is tired of my bad attitude and wants to blow. my. mind.

In the conference and party planning process, VAC realized that it was going to be really scraping the bottom of the barrel in financing all of the activities. So we sent out a desperate plea for donations. Responses trickled in and we were happy to hear that we’d be receiving a couple of things here and there. Though, in true Guatemalan fashion, details were scant. We were cautiously optimistic that at least some of the donations would come through and would vaguely resemble the things we had requested.

You guys, receiving the donations was like christmas morning over and over again. We asked for a salad. We got trays of salad, trays of rice and a huge tray of cookies. We asked for pizza for 100. We got enough pizza to feed at least 200 very hungry individuals (at the end we were giving away whole pizzas to volunteers and staff). Cheese, beer, ice, gift certificates… And, the best one: We asked for ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise for a BBQ for roughly 150 people from a condiment manufacturer in the capital. We drove away with all this:

That’s a lot of mayonnaise…

We were overwhelmed at the way these businesses came through for us. How they wanted to help us and how their donations, in a way, recognized the efforts of the volunteers here. Who knew some boxes of jam could mean so much?

And then, if that weren’t enough, we went to the beach and a nice man there bought us countless margaritas, shrugged off our thank yous and simply told us, “You are the best that America has to offer.” I don’t know if I would necessarily go that far, but it was nice to hear. And the margaritas were delicious.

Thanks, Universe.

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