Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Project Status: Completed; Peace Corps Status: Goodbye

The following is a final report letter that I just submitted to Water Charity. Normally, I believe these reports are a bit more concise and I probably should have apologized for my long winds, but as my blog readers should very well know, it's only my style, hence only appropriate to post here too. Besides, if I told the story here in fresh words it would sound virtually identical anyways. Without further adieu, I present my project story.

The appropoate techologies project for the Calvario Dos School in
Guatemala is completed! The process of how it came to pass is quite a
story as well, one that taught me a multitude about develoment work and project management.

In the beginning, my host country counterpart had recieved a
solicitation from this particular school to build a water deposit. I
talked with my director and informed her that it would be possible to
receive funding for a project through Water Charity. After a couple of
months of discussing logistics, I took action and applied for the
project. The next day it was decided we would change the design, which
originally would have fallen within the Water Charity budget, to
another design that the Foundation had built before, which was a
little more expensive, but the Foundation was willing to supply the
extra materials for.

I believed it to be a 10,000 square tank, but what was built in the past were larger ferro cement tanks. Because of my impending Closure of Service Conference, we decided to wait until the end of August to proceed, at which point we had an all staff meeting to discuss the project design. In this meeting, I learned that the blueprints had been lost. All we had for the tank design were several pictures that skipped series of steps in the construction. Roberto, my working counterpart who was to build the tank with myself and the community, also did not have the experience in building such a tank. I panicked for a few hours and then took some deep breaths. I began contacting fellow volunteers for advice and instruction and that led me to contacting another Non-Governmental Organization, Agua para la Salud.

Agua para la Salud works with Peace Corps' Healthy Schools Program here in Guatemala to build appropriate technologies projects. They have a plethora of different designs for whatever need a particular school or community may have, so I solicited the organization for a tank design that we could build. After corresponding back and forth through e-mail, they offered to send the Foundation an experienced mason at no charge to facilitate the project and train my counterpart, Roberto, and members from the community in the construction of such a tank, from which they may continue to build these tanks in the future.
Agua para la Salud works with Peace Corps' Healthy Schools Program here in Guatemala to build appropriate technologies projects. They have a plethora of different designs for whatever need a particular school or community may have, so I solicited the organization for a tank design that we could build. After corresponding back and forth through e-mail, they offered to send the Foundation an experienced mason at no charge to facilitate the project and train my counterpart, Roberto, and members from the community in the construction of such a tank, from which they may continue to build these tanks in the future.

What we ended up deciding on was a 5,500 liter ferro cement water tank and rain catchment system. We waited until the local festival, national elections, and Independence Day were all over, in total three weeks of further delays due to these events' consecutive nature. With only a slight hiccup due to funding, we were able to significantly decrease the project budget so that it was within the Foundations range and purchase the materials. At this point, it had been more than a month since the project had been approved, and the roller coaster of obstacles and triumphs in getting the ball rolling was beginning to take a toll. We got all the materials delivered and I was still crossing my fingers that this would actually work out.
Then the mason, Diego, and Lynn, the director of Agua para la Salud, met with me the Tuesday morning we began construction. After a breakfast, we visited the school, surveyed the materials, and decided the best methods for proceeding. Within no time, we were all
inaccordance, and Lynn left us to our work.

Originally it was thought the construction would take about two weeks. Many members from the community came to help, and with their hard work, combined with the instruction from our experienced mason, at the end of the first day we were already three days ahead of schedule. The mason pulled me aside and suggested that if he stay and work through the weekend, that the project would be completed by Monday. So we did just that. Everyone showed up, even on Saturday and Sunday, despite the construction falling in the middle of a harvest, to complete the project.

Whatwe ended up building was a 5,000 liter tank, with a rain water catchment system. The school had absolutely no water, so members of the community were bringing it from far and wide to mix with the concrete. Originally, I had intended on building a hand washing station, but for now, just for the school to have a water source is a significant step forward for the entire community. A hand washing station will likely be built in the month following my departure by Roberto and my volunteer replacement, utilizing extra materials purchased for the tank.

For me this was an invaluable experience. It taught me so much about
managing a project and coordinating with others. When all was said and
done, 6 distinct factions came together for the project to come to
fruition: Peace Corps, Water Charity, Seeds of Help Foundation, Agua
para la Salud, Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Calvario Dos, and the
Comite de Padres (parents and leaders from the community). If any one
of these collaborators would have been excluded from the equation,
this entire project would not have been possible. I am extremely
gracious to have been given the opportunity to help this often
neglected yet spirited community, and can pass on the gratitude of the
people there only as good as words on a page can do. I'll say that the
majority of people back home cannot even imagine what this means to
them by saying the following; while I have an idea of it's
significance myself, even I, who have been living in the Cumbre for
two years, working, eating, and sleeping next door, can not fully look
into the encompassing hearts of the people. I receive their thanks,
their handshakes, their laughs and smiles, their hugs, more thanks,
and their tears, however, in the end, what they have given me far
exceeds anything I could possibly give to them. They have changed my
life, and will go with me everywhere.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

40 Days & 40 Nights

If I were Noah, and my Peace Corps service the Ark, I would be gathering up the last of the paired animals. The storm is coming. The time I've been preparing for has arrived. I'm down to 40 days left in my service.

When the storm is over, and the post return to the States flood subsides, perhaps a bird will bring back to me a leaf (news of a job) and I will be able to move on the next step smoothly. Until the flood subsides, I probably also wont be able to process this experience as a whole also.

I had a plan to make a list of "Things I Won't Miss" in Guatemala and post it here. That could still happen in the coming 40 days, but I want to say this first. The things that I will miss are going to be the things that deeply impact my life from here on out. Of course, I'm not going to write "Things I Am Missing" until I realize what they are after I've been away for a bit. I want to include the unexpected.

Anyways, I have been a busy bee here lately and wanted to post my project website once again for you all to see - - I wanted to post my project website so that I could also solicit funding from all of you wonderful people. Please, if you can, make a small donation. It would be greatly appreciated (by an entire community) and I promise it will be put towards the completion of this project or others. Help a friend weather the storm.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who's Bored Now?

It's been a little hectic lately. Closing your Peace Corps service isn't something you can just do in a couple of days. My group had our Close of Service (COS) Conference last month. It's a three day event where PC puts us up in a posh villa to talk about our experiences, feelings, and mainly to tell us all the things we have to do before we can leave. There's the medical checkout, three days of getting pricked and prodded, physicals, stool samples (officially a pro at leaving these), and dental checkup (Just finished up last week, no tuberculosis, no cavities, and parasite free). I have a Language Proficiency Interview that will tell just how awful my Spanish still is after two years (it really isn't that bad I guess). Then the plethora of paperwork: COS Report (10-15 pages, single-spaced, English and Spanish), Description of Service (DOS) Report, the bi-annual VRF Report, updating resumes and job applications, reference letters, press releases, closing bank accounts, turning in supplies and equipment, and getting the signature of virtually everyone on the Peace Corps Staff. That all happens on top of despedidas (going away parties) in site, with host families, women's groups, and schools, and with other volunteers, who are all leaving at different times. My site mate and I will likely be replaced, so we also have to prepare a smoothish transition for the new volunteers and plan their site visit. Guatemala also just had their first round of countrywide elections for the year (President, Representatives, Mayors, etc.) which brought everything to a halt for a few days, followed by tomorrow being Independence Day (one of the biggest celebrations of the year). Chiantla, my municipality, just finished their week-plus long festival last week as well.

Throughout it all, I've been coordinating an appropriate technologies project for a local school. I solicited funding from Water Charity, and in collaboration with my Counterpart NGO (Seeds of Help Foundation), Agua para la Salud (who gave us the design and is sending a skilled mason), and the Committee of Parents (basically a PTA), the project is finally coming to fruition. Materials were purchased yesterday and construction is scheduled to begin this coming Tuesday. We will be building a cement above ground water deposit that will hold 5,500 liters of water, which will be used for washing hands, dishes, cleaning floors, and, with the use of a water filter that was donated to all of our schools through my site mate, clean drinking water. Water Charity provides funding to projects instantly, and receives donations later, which it filters to its various ongoing projects across the world. The maximum amount of money they can contribute to a single project is $555. My project budget was actually more than this allotment, but Seeds is helping cover the rest. Please visit my project page - - to make a donation. Even $5 would be a huge help. I can say that I would greatly appreciate it, but in speaking for the community, I couldn't begin to describe their gratitude and appreciation for your help.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Guest Bloggers!!!

My parents came for a visit a while back and I asked if they would like to write a post about their trip. Complete with pictures, which I've never really figured out how to do (but may retrospectively add some if I can), here is another perspective from my favorite (and only) visitors (would have been my favorites even if I would have had others).

Guatemala Rubbed Off On Us!

We went on a trip over “spring break,” to visit Barrett, our son who is a Peace Corp Volunteer. Well, I guess Guate got into our blood… to prove that, this blog is a little late in the coming! Barrett planned the trip from beginning to end. All we had to do was get on a plane. I did an extreme amount of talking to myself before getting on that plane. I said things like, “Don’t scream if you see
a spider, bug, etc.," and “Eat whatever is put before you, or least smile as you move the food around on the plate.” Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised that none of my concerns ever really came to fruition. We were amazed with the beauty of the country, even though we were taken back by all the trash on the countryside and the political paintings on rocks and boulders.

The first morning we awoke to the most beautiful scenery on the lake looking out at a couple of volcanoes. It was just breathtaking. One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Barrett’s friends. After almost two years of keeping up with blogs and facebook posts, and listening to stories from Barrett, we felt as though we already knew them. We really appreciate all the kindness they showed us and how they made us feel so welcome. Meeting Betty was a special treat and we really enjoyed kicking around with Barrett and his “LOVE!” (I had to embarrass you a little!) We will cherish the memories of this trip forever: the stays at the lake, shopping in the markets, traveling (with Bryan driving) through the treacherous roads, seeing a couple of ruins, catapulting out of the underground parking lot at a 45 degree angle onto the street in Huehue, the visits to the women’s meetings and schools with which Barrett works, walking to the “store” (a hole in the side of a house,) the visit to the Peace Corps Headquarters, the “chicken bus” ride, a dinner party at Barrett’s co-worker’s house, and all the other sights too numerous to even mention. Meeting Amy, Barrett’s site-mate, warmed our hearts, as she has literally spent two years in a close relationship with our son. Roberto, Barrett’s closest co-worker, was just as Barrett had described him and a very friendly guy who showered us with gifts he’d made.

Barrett’s host family, the family he rents from, pulled at our heartstrings by cleaning the compound dirt with brush, making boiled potatoes for our breakfast, and genuinely loving our son during his stay in Guatemala. Visiting the place Barrett has called home for the last couple of years was one of the best parts of the trip and allowed us to get a real taste of what life has been like for him. Even so, I can’t imagine living without running water for two whole years or having to climb that wall to get to the latrine in pouring rain, especially if you have an upset stomach. And, I’m thankful Barrett didn’t expect us to hike to all the places he goes!

Visiting Guatemala was not on our list of places to visit, but will most likely remain the greatest adventure we’ve ever experienced. This trip will forever be in our hearts, as we are extremely proud of our son and the man he has become.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Can't Make This Up...

This is a must read article that was recently published in The New Yorker about the murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg. Living in Guatemala for the past 2o months has led me to a point where it is almost impossible to shock or surprise me. This story began shortly before my arrival and unfolded gradually during the course of my service, but never really came to life until I read this article, which puts it all together so perfectly. This kind of stuff just can't be made up... I give you, Rodrigo Rosenberg at his finest...

Note: It's a bit long, but you will not regret it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tick-Tock, Tip-Top, Please Don't Let the Good Times Stop

I'm down to seven months left. There was a point around the end of last year when I was looking towards the end of my service thinking it wouldn't come fast enough, completely bored with what I was doing, day dreaming about my uncertain future, and wishing I could just fast-forward one year. Be careful what you wish for. Time is flying by, and the clock is resting on my shoulders, ticking in my ears. A lot of volunteers will tell you how time is a weird thing in Peace Corps, where the days crawl, but the months pass you by as you blink. Right now, my days are even racing. I can't believe it's almost April. I keep thinking, surely everything will slow down, but it's not happening. I know that one day I will wake up and it will be time to say goodbye, and suddenly it feels like that will be the day I won't want to roll out of bed instead of all those other mornings a few months back. For some reason when I walk out of my door with the same old hikes ahead of me to the same old schools, something is different. I don't dread personifying a jungle gym to forty kids. I don't wonder, "What else can I possibly do with the women's groups?" I still look forward to the weekend, but it's not because the weekdays are miserable.

A friend recently gave me some sound advice. He too was a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the cumbre some years ago. He told me when he first got up here he didn't know how he would last a month. Things went on like that for a little while, but during his second year his experience changed too. He told himself, "At least I get to go home... They don't. This is as good as it gets for them unless I help." That was exactly what I needed to hear. It was a thought that was meandering through my head, but suddenly came front and center. No longer am I just going through the motions, luke warm and burned out. I have a new sense of urgency, enthusiasm, and actually believe that I can contribute something instead of just telling myself that this is how I'm supposed to feel. This has led me to some of the most fulfilling work I have done thus far.
I've been taking my computer to the local schools and showing the kids Planet Earth episodes.
The response has been amazing. They sit attentively for my pre-show lectures and hour long awful translation, and when it is finished they actually beg for more. I've never seen anything like it. Even some of the teachers are learning new things. I asked for ones help while I was trying to explain tectonic plates, and, to my surprise, he had no idea they existed. The kids are so into watching the videos, especially the ones who live in communities with no electricity or televisions, that I am even able to use it as a motivating tool for our work in the gardens.
"If you don't start paying attention during my soil prep talk, we will not watch the video today." Works every time. With my women's groups, I don't even need the videos to keep their attention anymore. I've worked with them for a year already, so maybe they are more
accustomed to me, maybe I'm better prepared than I used to be, or maybe my Spanish is just that much more intelligible (probably all three), but I am definitely getting more of a response from the women as well. I've started a worm box that I intend to pass on to my host family as a possible source of extra income after I have to go, along with my rabbits (which are giving me problems, but are hopefully soon to be resolved when I find a new male and stew up the old one with the family), and we have never been closer. My parents just visited me from the States, and couldn't have come at a better time (we should have a guest blog coming from them soon, no pressure guys). We had a blast, and I'm so glad they were able to see not only a couple of the amazing tourist attractions here in Guatemala, but a little bit of what the day to day reality is like here in my site. What else can I say besides, things are going great and I am certainly having the time of my life.

I should point out here that it is not my intention to be annoyingly satisfied and happy with everything that is going on at the moment. I do still have my "ugh" moments (although I am mostly satisfied and happy with everything that is going on at the moment). That's not why I am writing this post. I hope that any words of encouragement that I may have can be passed on to another in their moment of need, just like they have been passed on to me, and will close with another memorable piece of advice, from the volunteer I replaced, that I will heed myself right now: "Ride the wave." It will almost always return you to the beach; burned, bruised, and beaten, and will leave you with sand torturing every crevice, but, while it lasts, make it one that you will always remember, and always be there to catch the next one when it comes (I think the waves usually come in sets of seven). I hope this one will take me all the way in to the end.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Going on Life

I've said it before, Peace Corps can be quite the ride, and I thought that I had just about seen the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. I am realizing now, having seen a few higher highs and lower lows in the past month, that the roller coaster ride (which is different for every volunteer) can always throw you into an unforeseen loop. This is a good time to remind myself that I am lucky, and admit that the lows can get much, much lower (and do for many people). I would also like to share my empathy for those volunteers who do go through the worst of the worst. I can not imagine how terrible that must feel. I know that 20/20 just had a program about Peace Corps this last week, and have heard that it paints a bad picture. I haven't seen it of course, but have heard parts of the story (a PCV was raped and killed in Benin a year or two back), and that's the type of experience that would be the worst of the worst. In comparison, what has happened to me is nothing, but it is a definite low point for my service. My host mother, who was weeks overdue when I left my site for a Christmas/New Years vacation, had her baby on Christmas Day, and lost her baby four days later. When I finally arrived home from a trip that also had many ups and downs, it was the last thing I expected to hear. I showed up late in the afternoon, beating the sunset by half an hour. One of my older host brothers was standing outside.

"Hey, Pedro," I said, "How are you doing?"

"Good, Don David. You're back."

"Yeah, is your mom around?"

"Yes, but she is busy."

"Busy? Did she have her baby?"

"Have you not heard?"

He went back into the house for a couple of seconds and stepped back out. I already knew the worst, but hoped I was wrong.

"She says you may come in."

I walked in the house and saw a couple of the other kids sitting around and my host mom lying on the bed, wrapped up in the covers and a scarf around her head. She beamed when she saw me and greeted my with her usual enthusiastic, "Don David, you're back!" I had forgotten to pay the rent before I left and it was a few days late, so I immediately apologized for my tardiness and told her that I would graciously accept any penalty. She, of course, declined, and I felt terrible for both, getting it to the family late, and bringing up a subject like money when I knew what was coming next. There was no baby in the room and I had noticed that the second I walked in. She pointed to a chair as asked me to sit down. I pulled it up next to her bed, sat down, and before she could even begin talking, she lost it. To see one of the brightest. happiest, and most loving people I have ever met, in such a deep mourning, crying so hard, at the absolute bottom of her roller coaster, was indescribably heart breaking. I listened to her recant the story (that I knew was not only recanted several times, but also just as painful for her every time) and it felt like I had walked into a nightmare. The boy was born, 8 lbs., on Christmas Day. She said he was the sweetest gift from God. He seemed content to sleep and sleep, and he hardly made a sound. It was one of the happiest days of her life. The next day, he began to cry. As the crying got louder and stronger, she noticed his temperature rising. Then, he began to have trouble breathing. She did the only thing she could do, and took him to a local medicine man (don't picture a witch doctor, but that is essentially what he was). For the next two days, things continued to worsen. The fever wouldn't break, the breathing declined, and finally the heart stopped beating. Dona Cecilia didn't leave her bed for the next four days. She told me the kids pleaded with her to stop crying and get out of bed, but she just couldn't. She told me she understood it was God's will, and that it was beyond her understanding why he would take such an angel, but knew that she would have to accept it. She told me how worried she was about me during my travels and how the kids would ask her everyday where I was or when I was coming back. The youngest daughter, who can now form complete sentences, would stand outside of my door knocking and yelling my name, she said.

While all this was going on, I was on some beach in Costa Rica, or sledding down a volcano in Nicaragua, or watching a postcard sunset with a cold beer, having the time of my life, forgetting about life in the cumbre for a few days, and throwing money away on tourist traps and worthless enterprises. I was away from the family that took me in and treated me like I belonged in such a foreign place at a time when they probably needed their weird gringo the most. I came back to something I felt I never should have left, but there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to say so many things to her, but for my lack of perfect Spanish, had to summarize my condolences. I think she understood that too. It was getting late, so I hugged her and said we could talk more the next day. I told the kids that we were going to play tomorrow, and said goodnight. I went into my room and tried to process everything.

Guilt crept in.

What if's had me pacing through my room. Could I have helped? Gotten the baby to a hospital? Been able to break the fever somehow? If not, I would have been a nice distraction for the kids, and for the rest of the family. I don't blame myself at all for any of it. I won't lie, in the weeks leading up to my Central American voyage, I was on edge and needed (and even believed I deserved) a little break. However, coming back to that made all of those needs and wants seem ridiculous. My life is so different from their's, but nonetheless, it is also just a life, and we all live one. To think that I deserved that trip, or that I needed a break from their life is very hard to swallow. The best part of me knows that I need or deserve nothing more than a roof over my head at night, and enough sustenance in my belly to get by, but the truth is, I'm not that person. To some people back home, I may appear to be making a huge sacrifice, and I won't say that the changes were easy, or adaptations haven't been made, but I could be sacrificing so much more. I feel like many other volunteers do sacrifice more, and in many ways, that probably gives them a much more gratifying experience. Eventually, my two years here will be over, just like everyone else's. Peace Corps wants every volunteer to integrate fully into their respective communities. I justified keeping a little privacy and distance from the community I live in by several means, and believe that I don't have much more room to integrate. One reason is out of respect. I feel like, even though I am a member of the community, I will always be an outsider looking in, and for me to really feel like I am integrated would mean that I am no longer an outsider. This could probably be hotly debated, but I still feel like there are some things I should definitely not participate in, and I should never put myself into a position to be viewed as an unwelcome guest (which I am certain would never be said to my face, but very possibly felt). I also don't want to pretend to live the same life, because the truth is, I never could. If I indeed sacrificed everything, what would I do when my two years are suddenly over. I couldn't just go back home and say, "I'll come back to visit! Good luck!" This experience has impacted and changed me in so many ways, but making the complete sacrifice is drastic. It is something that many Peace Corps volunteers come close to doing. I respect that, because that kind of sacrifice is exponentially more difficult with each tiny step. Like summiting Everest, only few even dare, and handfuls succeed... I realize I have been rambling, didn't intend this post to turn into this direction, and do have a point to make. Here it is. Through all of this, I have realized that my best is only better, and that's not so great to realize. I do have a threshold. I won't go down that road, and I know that it very well could be the right path. I am not willing to sacrifice everything, although many things I will. I accept it as the life I am seeking and hoping to always be a giver of much but not all. When I say, "The best I can do," it will always have a silent "almost" included. I am fine with that, but there is a small part of me that is not fine that I am fine with that, and that small part will probably never grow or go away. This is something that has been on the tip of my tongue for sometime now, and took a tragedy for me to fully understand.

The next day, I was still completely exhausted from my trip, and a usually noisy house next door was completely silent. I rested well to say the least. When I came outside the first few times, there was nobody to greet. It seemed so strange and awkward. I had only seen the house like this when the whole family would leave for an afternoon, and somehow I knew they were all there. I dared not enter their house. Finally, after lunch, I was spotted going from my kitchen to my room. I said hello, stopped and waved, and asked how are you, before going back into my room. When I emerged minutes later to feed my rabbits, eight kids were starring at me and smiling.
I greeted them all, shook all of there hands, and attempted to excuse myself to the rabbit cages. They all followed, the little ones tugging at my jeans, and the older ones watching from a distance. I went to fetch water from my pila, and they all came. I began to lift the younger ones up and throw them in the air, they all laughed. I spun them around in circles by their arms, and put the three sisters in a 55 gallon drum (a little game we like to play where I pretend to forget I put them in there and walk away around a corner). I got out my hacky sacks and let them throw them in the air and then at me. I got out my guitar and played "La Bamba" three times until I broke a string, and then showed them how I replace my strings. I lifted them up to my pull-up bar and counted off their fake pull-ups until the next one would beg for their turn. We played for almost three hours. When they seemed to begin losing interest in my guitar, I put it away and went to say hi to their mother. She greeted me warmly. I sat right where I had the day before, and it almost felt like I was returning to the scene of a crime. We talked for almost an hour, and she barely mentioned her lost child. We talked about Nic Bardo, who lived here before me. She talked about how much she missed him, and how she would miss me too when I left, and then she told me stories about how he loved to walk to the market in San Nicolas, and how he loved to play soccer with the boys (something I rarely do, but might start doing more often). She said his parents had came and told me a story about her terrible ear infection and how they had helped. Then she started talking about all the other volunteers that she had seen before him, and how special they all were to her, each in their separate ways. We talked about her family, sisters and brothers, in-laws and cousins, her other children and her husband. She talked sometimes until the animation would lift her to an upright position, and she would seemingly forget why she was lying in bed in the first place. After I felt I had stayed my welcome, I wished her a pleasant evening and returned to my house.

I feel for her and her family so much, and I know that when my time comes to leave, the absolute hardest part will be saying goodbye to them. I will never forget the sort of lives they lead as I return to mine back home. I have learned many lessons here, but I know I cannot stay, this isn't my place, it's not the life for me, and I will have sacrificed no more than I could, and certainly less. Most of me is fine with that.