The End of Quixabaj
category: Jims Guatemala

I’ve spoken about Quixabaj several times; it’s the other site we work in that is WAY OUT on the other side of our municipality. We’ve been fighting for about half a year to try to get them their own Peace Corps volunteer, because we really can’t give them the same kind of support we give the village we live in if we have to drive 5 hours to get there. And man, do they need the help.

nikolSM.jpgLast week we saw the fruition of all our labors. The Rural Home Preventive Health class of 2009 is about to graduate, and the two volunteers that we helped our boss hand-pick for Quixabaj came out to our municipality to see a preview of their new home, much like we did a year before. The difference for them is that we’re already “in the neighborhood”, so we get a chance to offer some hospitality to Nick and Katherine, the two new volunteers. (Our village gave them Q’anjob’al names within hours of arriving: “Nikol” and “Katal.” Man, I’m jealous.) Here they are in our loft.

The plan was that we’d put them up for the week, have a few nice meals with them, introduce them to our Guatemalan counterpart in the Ministry of Health (Aurelio), and go with them to Quixabaj to sort of “pass the baton.” While we were giving a health lecture to the women’s group in our own village, they called us from about an hour out to tell us they would be soon arriving.

Excitement grew, and we ran back to the house to finish the tidying up. Seconds after we finished, Manuel came up the hill looking happy as a clam, leading Aurelio and Nikol and Katal. He presented them with a grand flourish; apparently he’d met them on the road.

“Podemos hablar afuera?” Aurelio asked as the throng packed into our tiny house. (Can we talk outside?) He looked a bit concerned, so Emily and I shrugged and stepped out the door as people started unloading their packs and chatting inside.

“Um, over here,” he gestured, moving a few dozen feet into the cornfield. Hmm, must be serious. We followed him, and he told us a story in conspiratorial tones.

Apparently, a few days after Makali and I went to Quixabaj to seal the deal, three guys from Quixabaj stopped a car just outside of their town, pulled out the two young ladies inside of it, and raped them. The town found out, so they did what most rural towns do in situations like this: they put together a lynch mob, captured the three men, tortured them, then killed them.

Wait, WHAT? I have heard of this sort of thing before (2% of major crimes in Guatemala ever go to court, so the people think that vigilante justice is the only way to see results). But in Quixabaj? QUIXABAJ? Arrg! But believe it or not, something like this doesn’t necessarily preclude Peace Corps from putting a volunteer in a site. But Aurelio wasn’t done:

“Sadly, the head of the Health Committee and the COCODE (head of the local development committee) each have family ties to people on opposite sides of the conflict. They are fighting, and whenever one person wants to do one thing, the other blocks it. I can’t even get them to return my calls to set up a meeting with the new volunteers. Don Virves even hung up on me- twice!”

Well, THAT is a deal breaker. Looks like Quixabaj is out. And these two new volunteers now have no place to live and work for the next two years. Aurelio looked truly pained; he has worked more than anyone to make this happen. He grinned sheepishly. “Can you keep this under wraps until tomorrow, when we can have a meeting about it?”

Um, right. We told him to go home and get some rest, said goodbye for the evening, and then we went back towards the house. “So, we’re going to tell them, right?” said Emily.

“Yeah, I was about to say the same thing. Let’s get some wine into them first.”

So, we fixed them a nice home cooked meal and did just that. Once everyone was well into their meal, Emily said, “Um, so you probably want to know what that was all about with Aurelio.”

“Yeah, that was a pretty long discussion,” they said. “What’s going on?”

“You’re not going to Quixabaj,” I said tactlessly.

They both stopped chewing, and their their eyes popped out of their heads and landed in their spaghetti.

Thus, what could have been a friendly week of meeting new coworkers and introducing them to people and places we love turned into a hectic week of running around, stress, and them worrying about what to do with the next two years of their lives. “I think I’m going to be sick,” Katal mumbled.

We finished our meal, then offered them the greenhouse as a place to take a pair of chairs and have some alone time. This makeshift “conference room” saw a lot of use throughout the week, as they made calls to our boss and the security guy and Aurelio. Despite the dramatic turn of events, everyone involved was sympathetic and levelheaded. Basilio, our boss, let them know that they wouldn’t be jobless- he had a few backup sites in Totonicapan, and he trusted the opinions of Aurelio and “los Fanjoy” if they wanted to try to find a new site in the same region. Aurelio, for his part, was ready to do whatever it took to help find another site- this region desperately needs the aid, and it’s pretty competitive for the various municipalities in Guatemala to try to attract Peace Corps aid. Makali the Security Guy called to get a better understanding of what happened, and he reinforced Basilio’s opinion: that if together the five of us could find an equally good site, they would work to get it approved.

Nikol and Katal decided from the beginning that they wanted to stick in this area, and not be sent farther south to more “urbanized” sites. When we met with Aurelio the next day, he already had a backup site in mind, and we piled into a van to go see it: Pett.

Now, Pett is a place familiar to Emily and I; we pass through it to get to our site, and the people are friendly, in need of aid, and the village leaders are interested in working with the Peace Corps. However, there was just one problem: it’s REALLY close to where we live and work. I mean, you can walk there from here in under an hour. A group of schoolkids strolled past on the dirt road as we stood in the front yard of an abandoned house they were proposing to give Nikol and Katal for two years. “At least we’re far enough away that the kids don’t know us,” I said, pondering. Can such a close region support FOUR Peace Corps volunteers? Ugh, tough question. If we all walked different directions and worked different villages, maybe. But there was something just “not right” about it; we all wanted remote locations, a chance to forge our own relationships with the people and culture. Katal and Nikol were having the same thoughts as us… we don’t want to share our experience. We want our own village, our own town. But are we just being too picky? Pett needs help too.

“Jaime, Jaime, Jaime!” some kids sang as they skipped down the road, school backpacks swinging. I waved sheepishly back at them as they solved our dilemma for us. That afternoon, we called Aurelio back and told him he needed to come up with another location.

He presented us with two more options the next morning. Two I’d heard of before; they are small aldeas (villages) north of Santa Eulalia, nowhere near us. Nas Palas had mentioned them to me the night before, saying that they were in the running to get Emily and I at this same time last year. I never realized it before, but several aldeas were bidding to get us, and our village somehow won out. That’s good news; it means that the will and the leadership is there in other places as well. “I also have another site that is a remote possibility; it’s WAY out like Quixabaj, but to the north instead of the west. The people are even poorer (hard for me to imagine) but they too have the leadership and willingness to host you.” Aurelio really knows the villages in the area (it’s his job), and the remoteness lit the fires in the eyes of Katal and Nikol. They called our boss and explained their plan: Friday, they would travel the hard road out there and meet the leaders. Sadly, Emily and I couldn’t go with them, as we had to travel South that same morning. We left them the key to our house, sent our blessings, and told them to call us when they knew something. Hopefully, we would see them again in August, when they move out here for good.

messageSM.jpgSaturday, we got a call that the new site was a raging success! What a relief for all involved. We plan on going out to visit them in the next few weeks after they’re all settled in, and I will post pictures when that happens. They left us this nice note on our message board for us to discover when we returned home=>

The final question for us now is, “What happens with Quixabaj?” I don’t have a good answer. They are so in need of help. But, you can’t help people who don’t want help, and right now, their leadership is caught in a struggle that prevents them from wanting us. It’s a shame, because it’s “everyman” who suffers from the shortsightedness of leaders. I guess every culture is like that, right? Civilizations with good, responsible, community-minded leaders flourish, and those without are doomed to wallow in misery. Will Emily and I go back? It’s hard to say, but I think probably not, and I feel bad admitting that. Sure, the journey is hard and the people unaccustomed to what we have to offer, but the real problem is one of support, and it may be quite a while before they are interested in supporting Peace Corps again.

Posted by: jfanjoy