Conference Calls
category: Emilys Guatemala
Things have been busy, as you might have noticed from Fletch’s post. It feels like we were living on the road in Guatemala these past few weeks. Let’s recap and look at our calendar:

Sunday (May 16): baptism and first communion in Aguacatan

Mon/Tue: latrine buildng in San Sebastian, bus to Antigua

Wed/Thur/Fri: COS conference, COS meds began, program dinner

Sat/Sun: escape to Earthlodge treehouse

Monday: COS med exams in Antigua

Tuesday: Vital Voices Conference in Guate

Wednesday: catching up with you all by starting blog posts

Thursday: final meeting with the Ministry of Health, Huehuetenango

Friday: climbing back into the mountains to finish up our service.

Saturday (May 29): meetings all afternoon with community leaders

COS conference was a bit of a doozy. I didn’t quite expect it to be like that. I think I went in without fully realizing that this is it. It was the last time we saw some of our good friends who’ve supported us through the hard times and the good. I’ve been so mentally and physically occupied with the SPA project and with health fairs I set up at the school here (more on that later), and we rushed out of site so early in the morning and so far in advance of COS conference for the baptism and latrine building, my head just wasn’t in the game for reflecting on all the things we’ve done. There were more tears than I expected, but everyone had lots of fantastic stories to share.

When we came in as trainees we were required to read a book called Culture Matters. In general, most of us found the book too basic and kind of annoying, but it did have some great little story excerpts from Peace Corps volunteers around the world. I remember walking into the training center one day and asking my friend Katy, “Did you read that one from the volunteer in Nepal?” She responded, “Are you kidding me, I was tearing up.” Even so, this required reading has been the butt of many a joke in the last two years, as one of us counters another volunteer’s story or newest frustration with a twisted smile saying “Hey, Culture Matters.” Our friend Tim shared a story about his first day of being really really sad in site, one of those days where it feels like everything you try fails. At the end of the story, a little neighbor girl’s simple “Thank you” made me start bawling unexpectedly, and I thought, we are Culture Matters. We could all write these anecdotes now.

Peace Corps is a really unique job. I know it’s true, because I don’t ever expect to work at another place where, just before a big conference, nearly all the attendees have seen a picture of my morning poo with a giant worm in it. Nor do I ever, in the United States, expect my bosses to prod me about having children. The staff here seems pleased that all six of us “marrieds”, as we were termed, have come in and are going out together–they’ve witnessed Peace Corps divorces in the past. And now, in typical Guatemalan fashion, they expect some procreation. As our trainer David said to Jaime, “I don’t mean to get all Guatemalan on you, but you two really need to start thinking about this when you get home.” Thank you for your input, David.

The COS conference made me something I have never been before while thinking about our return home: sad to leave. Things have been exhausting, frustrating, mentally and physically challenging. It wasn’t me, but again my friend Katy who introduced me to the Mark Twain quote, “You forgive a place once you leave it.” I think Katy usually puts an exclamation on the end when she says it, a sign of desperate hope that this be true. In all honesty, there are things I have loved tremendously about being here, people from both sides of the border I’ve connected with and will remember always. Even so, I’m ready to go home. I feel worn down. I am so tired of being sick so frequently. My stomach has been as freaky as the natural phenomena of Guatemala this past week and half, and that’s minus the worms that should now be dead and gone. I also feel a little lost, disconnected from friends and family in the states and I can’t wait to reconnect with them all again. But I will leave with a heavy heart on many accounts. Guatemala is a staggeringly beautiful place, but with mountians of internal difficulty and challenges to overcome, if their citizens are to have a chance at a life of dignity. I suppose we could say the same for the United States in some ways, but the scale is so different.

I’m currently reading Dorothy Day’s biography (prolific writer and one of the founders of the Catholic Worker’s Movement), The Long Loneliness, and it makes me wonder what my place will be in the scheme of things, social works and improvement, when I get back to the states. There’s only one way to find out. But for the next six weeks I will try to mostly leave these things in the back of my mind and finish up here.


Due to suerte and coincidental connections, I was able to attend a conference on women and development in Latin America following COS. My friend and former professor, Robin, emailed me to let me know about the conference and that another Knox alumna who works for Vital Voices in Washington DC was going to be there. Long story short, Becca, my fellow Knoxian, got my friend Anne and me entradas gratis for the conference held in the nicest hotel in Guate, the Westin Camino Real.

Vital Voices is an organization co-founded by Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright in 1997 to promote women in leadership. Much like Peace Corps, it is non-partisan and its goal is capacity building, specifically training women from all over the world to be affective leaders and businesswomen, the movers and shakers of public policy in their respective countries. As a result, chapters of Vital Voices have been forming all over the world. Guatemala’s chapter began in 2008 (which means I was already here at that time; a lot can happen in two years) and this was kind of like a debut party for the chapter with their Latin Amercian counterparts from Argentina, Costa Rica, Columbia, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and perhaps a few other places. It was an exciting day. The invitee list (in addition to my very busy and important self) included 1992 Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala’s first lady Sandra Torres de Colom, U.S. ambassador Stephen McFarland, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately Madame Secretary is even busier and more important than I am, and couldn’t make it. She did send a recorded message to the conference, though.

Anne and I spent the night in an inexpensive Antigua hostal, got up early, and took a chicken bus into the city. As we sat six to a row in the seats, cramped, sweating, and holding on for dear life to the bars in front of us as we speedily wound our way up and then back down the mountains between Antigua and Guate, Anne asked, “With a 400q entry fee ($50) I wonder how many other women are getting to the conference this way?” We were relieved to get off at the mall and grab a taxi into Zona 10 where the hotel is located (Peace Corps rules forbid us from using Guate City public buses). “I heard that once you get into Zona 10 it’s just like being in the states,” Anne said. I shrugged my shoulders. The hotel came into view, “Where are the marble streets? Where are the golden lamp posts?” Ah, we were cracking ourselves up. But then we stepped into the hotel that really was full of marble, fancy upholstered furniture, and crystal chandeliers. Whoa.

“It’s a good thing I managed to find heels yesterday,” I said. I felt slightly less out of place wearing the nicest clothes I own down here (should’ve ordered that business suit sooner!). My only other option for footwear was a pair of worn out, dirty Keens, so the day before the conference we delved into the used American clothes resale market, the paca, with a little hope that they might have a decent pair of shoes in my size. With size 10 1/2 narrow or 41 in European numbers, this was my only hope of finding shoes for me in this country. Just when it looked as though I would have no luck and we were headed out of the maze of stalls to lunch, I spotted a great looking pair of brown heels. “They’re only 20q!” Anne whispered. I flipped them over, size 8 1/2 american but 40 1/2 Eur. Like a hopeful Cinderella I tried them on, and it felt like a minor miracle. They fit. I think I might have heard angels singing softly in the distance… Honestly, living here and being dirty all the time has made me so much more self-conscious about my appearance and dress. As in, I’d love to go home and fill my closet full of clothes from Anthropologie and look wonderful every single day. But I won’t, because it would easily cost an entire readjustment allowance to do so. It’s just strange, because the only times I’ve ever bothered to wear make-up or high heels prior to this venture were usually for acting or speech and debate. I feel like I understand now why everyone in the village makes such an effort to dress up on special occassions. It’s kind of a nice break from the norm. Leave it to Peace Corps to make you feel like a champion just because you’ve found a pair of cute, affordable heels. As Fletch said upon my victorios return from the market, “If 20q (about $3) is the price of your happiness, I’m happy too.”

So there we were in Camino Real looking for Becca, our “in” quite literally, since we had no tickets. Though we’d exchanged emails, I was fairly certain I’d never seen her in person in spite of a small overlap at Knox. Suddenly she appeared, giving us our entrance bracelets and a digital recorder for us to do interviews, before she rushed off to a breakfast meeting. So Anne and I wondered into the mostly empty convention center and found seats just behind the assigned seat section (read: the important people at the conference). In walked Rigoberta Menchu and the press corps jumped all over her. Then there was the ambassador with Rigoberta, then the First Lady with the ambassador and Rigoberta.

We had this digital recorder and were supposed to be interviewing people, and this seemed like the perfect time. Except Becca had handed us the recorder and said, “This thing came with a three inch thick instruction book. I don’t know how it works, so just try and figure it out.” We spent the frantic press shoot time trying to figure out how to make the recorder record, but we couldn’t get it to work.


Just then we noticed that all the press had gone, and the ambassador and Nobel Prize winner were sitting calmly at their tables. It would’ve been the perfect time to have a functioning recorder, right? We decided to just go say hi to the ambassador anyway, as he’s always a big supporter of Peace Corps. The press jumped the Busy and Important People table again as we wound our way up there, but things calmed down again. We said good morning to ambassador McFarland and he asked us to remind him where each of us worked. From this information he continued, “Oh, so I’ve been reading your blog, even though I don’t comment. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve had some meetings with the Ministry of Health and Aprofam. I think this upcoming week they’re going to sign an agreement between them to allow APROFAM to use Ministry of Health facilities.” The APROFAM struggles all came to a head for me at the end of January, but after writing about it on the blog I mostly forgot about it since I’d come to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything to fix the situation. Ironically, I’d just been thinking about this issue the day before and considering writing letters to a few local and international NGO’s, to support APROFAM with some sort of mobile medical unit to avoid the problem we had here in Santa. But getting APROFAM and the Ministry of Health to sign and agreement is a MUCH better solution in that it’s more sustainable, less costly, and farther reaching than one little mobile medical unit. This was the best news I got all day, and somewhat appropriate to the themes of the conference as well.

As a little recap, APROFAM is an NGO that specializes in women’s health and reproductive services. They help fill the gaps where the Ministry of Health thus far hasn’t been able to provide more sophisticated family planning services such as tubal ligations, 5 year jadelle implants, or IUD’s. Because of beauracratic issues, APROFAM couldn’t work in my municipality, which put the women here at a serious disadvantage–and I’m certain we weren’t the only municipality in the country with this problem. Guatemala’s population is set to double in the next 13 years if the birth rate stays the same as it was last year. Their employment opportunities are forecasted to grow by only 10% in that same time, and the national educational and health programs are already strained with the current population. So an agreement for APROFAM to work with the Ministry of Health, using their facilities for one- and two-day medical campaigns throughout the country, gives women a much better chance to plan their families, lower the current birth rate statistics, and hopefully avoid catastrophe/crisis mode in the next two decades. It’s a big, small thing.

This also highlighted what is one of my favorite things about Peace Corps. I’ve felt like my job here is to be a bridge, and that in many ways is a great job. I think it’s fantastic that Peace Corps has no money to give, just volunteers. They give us to communities and we’re supposed to connect the communities to things and people that can offer them additional assistance. It brings home the fact that every player in this game is necessary. While I’ve often felt a lot of pressure as The Volunteer to make things happen, because I’m supposed to be connecting people and organization the pressure isn’t all mine. The responsibility isn’t all mine. Success or failure aren’t all mine either. I dealt with a lot of frustration trying to bring in APROFAM services to our region, and through no fault of my own I failed. But it wasn’t in vain, because other people who are better connected than me were paying attention and took up the cause. Now we’ve experienced change, a small but positive step forward.

This news went so well with the ideas of the day. The Vital Voices conferences is all about realizing positive change. We had the opportunity to meet, listen to, and speak with women of influence throughout Latin America, such as the Secretary of Education from El Salvador, the Secretary of Public Works in Costa Rica, and one of the higher ups in the Justice Department of Columbia. After the initial introductions, the conference split into discussion groups in five different categories: Public Administration, Violence and Crime, Education and Health, Economic Development, and Employment and Social Security. In these discussion groups we identified our common goals for improvement, outlined obstacles that stood in the way of reaching them, and proposed solutions to reach those goals. The conference is to be a basis for developing public policy and designing programs to reach goals in the aforementioned areas. It’s a way to teach people to identify their common goals and give them steps to achieve these goals.

Remember the bit about the 400q entry fee and wondering how many other attendees would arrive via chicken bus? We were worried about the diversity among the attendees, but were pleasantly surprised to find a number of women dressed in traje. I would say somewhere around 1/3 of the participants identified as indigenous women. Many of them were young women and girls. Had this not been the case, I would have deemed the day less successful. The morning opened with a Mayan ceremony. It was so short, in fact, that I think it was probably only part of a Mayan ceremony: we’ve been to the real deal, and they never go quickly. Anyhow, I was impressed with the turnout and assume that there were some sort of scholarship entries to complement the entries amongst some of the businesswomen, which were won in work contests. The women represented all sectors in their age, economic bracket, and cultural identity–and therefore the conference information was well dispersed. I even met a woman from our municipio who speaks Q’anjob’al but currently lives in San Marcos.

After the discussion groups I was thinking about the methodology. I wanted to be skeptical. I mean, sitting around talking about our common dreams, how could that help anything? But we were all asked to identify way to make these dreams a reality. One question asked, “Who would be responsible for enacting and overseeing these changes?” In almost every instance the answer to that question involved more than one group, usually at least two, the government and citizens. I liked how this was reinforced over and over. It seems to me that in Guatemala’s tumultuous history, the government has mostly been a lead-by-command organization. Many people, especially out where we live and work, feel completely detached from their government. It’s a lack of psychological rather than actual enfranchisement. Yes, people here vote, but apart from that they feel they’ve no say in anything that goes on in their country. I think this is often true in the US as well, but it’s more pronounced here, especially combined with their “If God wills it” attitude toward everything. It seems the Vital Voices methodology is introducing people, in particular but not exclusively women, to the tools they need to make changes.

As I was testing my skepticism, I realized -uh- I’m in the Peace Corps. This is all about trying to make real, positive change slowly and steadily. I remembered the short conversation with the ambassador, and then the words of a BBC correspondent in Washington as he wrote his farewell to living in the states. He critiqued, as only the British can, how ridiculous we Americans are (despite staggering obesity rates, we insist on holding donut, hotdog, and pizza eating contests). But then he switched tones and said something to the effect that, “Americans have the audacity to think they can change the world. But you know what? They will, if only because they believe they can.” It’s kind of the truth. We have to start somewhere, and teaching others they can change their lives is not beyond us, if we start little by little.

I participated in the Education and Health group and sat at a really great table. The oldest woman at my table was the mother of the Vital Voices Guatemala president. In the middle of the discussion, she said quite frankly and without bitterness (maybe even with relief), “Let me tell you ladies, to be a woman today is pure luxury. When I was growing up, you never would have come across something like this. Women didn’t speak until spoken to. Women stayed in the house where they belonged. Look at everything that’s possible for us now.” It was so simple it was touching. Maybe because the woman reminded me of grandmother, but also because what she said was definitely correct in my case, but her experiences were the same as many women in Guatemala and all over the world still have today. Their lives aren’t quite as luxurious.

IMG_5277_sm.jpgI had a great day at the conference. During our coffee break I found out that Becca and I are almost related. Hah, we lived with the same host family in Barcelona, Amelia and Manuel on Calle Muntaner. “I was living with them when they got the invitation to your wedding,” she said. Becca and I talked about them for a while, then about Knox, and then about her Fulbright studies in Vietnam that were strikingly similar to a lot of Anne’s and my Peace Corps experiences. Anne, who hasn’t returned to the states once, said talking to Becca was making her feel thrilled to go home. Here the three of us are enjoying the delicious lunch. Just after that Becca and I got a shot with Rigoberta Menchu to send to the Knox Magazine. Coincidentally the first time I ever heard of Rigoberta Menchu was when she came to the University of Barcelona in October of 2004. I went to see her speak, and was sweating trying to understand everything she said–didn’t speak a lot of Spanish then. Thankfully, she’s a very clear speaker. I never imagined then that I would have spent two years here, or that I ever would have seen her again. Life’s funny sometimes.

Due to protests on the Interamerican highway we couldn’t stay until the end of the conference. Graciously, our bosses had agreed to drive us to our respective departmental meetings with the Ministry of Health early Wednesday morning. All day Tuesday, ending in the early evening, the roads were blocked and they were set to be blocked again at 4am on Wednesday, which meant we had to get out while we could. It was a long ride after a long day to reach Xela, where Jaime and I spent the following day catching up on sleep and eating well until it was time for Basilio and Ana Isabel to take us the rest of the way to Huehue. At one point Fletch asked, “How do you feel?”

“Frantic” was my response.

“Yeah, I feel like we don’t really get to relax from here on out.” That’s about the size of it for the next six weeks.

Posted by: emily