Things Fall Apart
category: Emilys Guatemala

Where do I even begin? I think I’ve been distracted, constantly, February through March. It feels like my parents were just visiting, but that was the first week in February. It feels like I’m supposed to be planning for my friend Alice’s visit, but I just made sure she got safely back to the airport last week. It feels at once like there is a lot and nothing at all going on. I admit I’m doing a pretty terrible job of living in the moment. My motivation for things in general feels pretty low. I wrote last night in my journal that it feels like my brain has gone into hybernation, like it’s hiding from something. I think it’s hiding from more disappointments and things beyond my control. I was honestly going to attempt a number of small posts, in the style of Jaime, but my brain just doesn’t work that way. Also, with all the malfunctions to the blog lately, a few posts that I did write in that format were erased, so I’m just going to try and lay it all out for you.

Hemingway was of the opinion that to get into a story, you need to know the surroundings; specifically, the weather. It’s changed dramatically in the last two months, from the cold and mist and rain making thick clods of mud, to hot, dry days. All day sun that hurts the eyes, gives us headaches, and burns skin in the matter of a few minutes. The mud has turned to dust, dust the wind picks up and carries everywhere. A book left on the table for a day will look like it was abandoned there weeks ago for the film of grime on its cover. Chicken bus travel is less dangerous (no landslides or slippery spots on the roads) but a lot dirtier. Passengers are reduced to dust rags. It sticks to skin, works its way into hair, forms a film on teeth and inside the nostrils and gums up the eyes. The dust literally darkens the pages of books as I read them on the bus. I turn the page, and it turns progressively brown, turn the page, and it turns brown. Honestly, I think I prefer the rain and mud, though seeing the sun more frequently is nice, and our laundry dries in a matter of hours rather than days now. Also the nights are mild rather than bitterly cold. But the fields are brown and crunch beneath your feet. Green fields are much cheerier. The only green in the field is the blossoming crab apple tree outside our house and our little patch of garden which is finally doing quite well. Those do cheer us up. We’ve also had occasional tremors here since the last week in February. They’re so eerie as you hear the earth rumbling. These happened a lot during training near Antigua, where they’ve got lots of volcanic activity all the time. Just as I did then, I now imagine tremors all the time. I’ll be lying on the bed and feel like it’s begun to shake, or falling asleep and start imagining. Now if a particularly loud, rumbling truck makes its way up the valley I’m put a little on edge. It’s not a huge stress in my life, it’s just so strange. The tremors are pretty harmless, but part of my brain realizes that this harmless natural phenomena could turn into something crazy, especially with news of places like Haiti and now Chile in the news.

Along with the sunny weather and tremors there are many ups and downs these days. When the nurses committed to working with me and the women’s group, I was so excited. We started the process of telling the women there would be no SPA project, but we never got the message through to all the women. The problem is that the nurses have incredibly erratic schedules. When we first planned to give a little summary to the women on the issues with SPA and the fact that they’d have another chance with the incoming volunteers, the three of us planned to do it four days in a row. As I previously mentioned, the nurses have split the women into 4 groups so that the health post isn’t overwhelmed with 150-200 women who wait all day to get vaccines and check-ups, and the last 15 or 20 have to come in the following day anyway because the nurses ran out of time. We made it two days, and then the nurse’s schedule changed. Their schedule can change at 5 or 6 in the evening it seems, well after work is supposed to be done. Instead of coming out to our village, they’re told they need to stay in town to help cover the health post there, or go out with other nurses to vaccinate kids. It makes it very difficult for us to get anything done.

I had hopes of organizing a little parade for International Women’s Day on March 8, but the nurses were gone almost all of the week before, and on that particular Monday didn’t even make it out to the village. Lucia came by to visit with us on the 10th or so. She apologized, as she’d also wanted to plan a small activity, but time hadn’t permitted and on Sunday she was told she wouldn’t be out here at all.

The only thing i did manage to do on International Women’s Day was tell off an overly demanding community leader. This man, Diego (not the same Diego from Yulais where we might do a construction project), helped us organize the chicken vaccine campaign in his community, but he drives me bonkers. This is the kind of thing he does: he sets up a time and place, but doesn’t tell us the place. I called him to see where we were supposed to be, and he told me, then proceeded to tell me I was late and needed to hurry up because people were waiting for us. We arrived to an empty room. I mean, not a single person was there. That just irked me. At the end of the talk on why chicken vaccines are important and why they should set up a committee to vaccinate chickens every 3 months, we also set up a time and place to bring vaccines to help them get started. Diego agreed to the date and time. We took a list of names and how many chickens each woman was bringing, to be sure to have enough vaccines, and the women filtered out as they were added to the list. Then Diego informed us that he simply couldn’t come this day, so he wanted to know when we were going to show up at his house to vaccinate his chickens. I told him we don’t make home visits unless they have more than 50 chickens (otherwise everyone would make us come to their house, and we’d also waste a lot of vaccine, since they come in 100-dose bottles). He said he had about 60 birds, so we told him we could come on Monday morning, but he’d need to call and confirm or stop by the house and confirm sometime on Sunday. We made this rule because he’s set up several activities and demanded that we show up, then no one comes. He never confirmed.

On Monday morning I was washing clothes at the pila and Fletch had gone into to town to monitor the school construction. I looked up from my washing and there’s Diego, hands in the air. “Why didn’t you show up at my house this morning?” he said, very huffy as though he was trying not to be angry with me. I told him we’d waited for him to confirm, and since he didn’t, Fletch went into town to check on the school, and I was working around the house. “I told you I’d be there Monday morning,” he insisted.

“And I told you that you needed to call or stop by on Sunday to confirm, but you didn’t,” I replied. He relented a little, but wanted me to drop everything that second and go vaccinate his chickens. He lives about a 30 minute walk from our village (on Sundays he passes right by our house both going to and returning from the market), but because I feel like my job here is to help people out, I said I’d go. I asked him to wait for me by the health post. I finished wringing out the wet jeans I was washing, and walked to the post, which was deserted. He’d left me and expected me to find his house on my own! I only know roughly in what direction it is, as I’d never been there before. I called to ask him where he was, and he said he was walking home. I told him I didn’t have the keys to get the vaccines, as I’d just remembered that they were with Fletch. He got very angry at me and started complaining about how I should’ve showed up on time and how this was all my fault.

I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was walking through the cornfield and stopped dead, like it was too much effort to walk and talk at the same time. “Listen, I am trying to do YOU a favor. You have wasted our time before, demanding that we show up to give health talks and then no one comes. Four different times you did that to us! You set up the chicken vaccinations for Saturday, and then you told us you couldn’t come. You expect us to make a separate trip to your community just for your chickens. All we asked is that you confirm that you were going to be there. I want to help your community, I’d even like to help you, but I do not appreciate you coming over to my house and getting angry with me when you were the one who didn’t follow through. I brought these vaccines all the way from Huehue, the least you could do is follow through with us when we ask you to. I want to help, but I do not appreciate you disrespecting me in this way. Please call me back when you have time to get the vaccines and we’ll coordinate this again.” All he could say was, “That’s true, that’s true, that’s true.” We said good-bye and hung up.

I don’t know if he would’ve acted the same way with Fletch or not, but he was literally ordering me around. I feel like I cowtow a lot more than I would ever dream of doing in a job in the US. In an effort to maintain working relationships, I let a lot of things slide. The only problem with this is that I was starting to feel beat down. It’s one thing if people are demanding–I don’t have a problem with that if they hold themselves to the same standard. But since we’re volunteers who have stated over and over again that we’re here to work for the people, in some instances the people have started to take this for granted, and put unnecessary demands on our time. At the same time they forget that we’re people who are working to help them, and therefore we deserve some common respect. I don’t need or want standing ovations; I just want to be treated decently. And after I told him off I thought grimly, “Happy International Women’s Day to me,” and went back to my washing.

The next day, I made myself go talk to the school director, but he wasn’t there. The assistant director was there and had me give him the full message. I just wanted to let them know I really wanted to make more of an effort to collaborate with the teachers in the ways we’d discussed and never managed to do last year. The assistant director is also the teacher in charge of the newly-added middle school grades that meet in the afternoons. He told me he’s been required to collaborate with a non-school organization to carry out some sort of HIV/AIDS education program. It just so happens we have loads of materials for HIV/AIDS education. I returned later in the afternoon to lend him the HIV/AIDS teaching manual that Peace Corps provides for all of its volunteers. He said he would talk to the director and get back to me on coordinating a little seminar.

That was almost two weeks ago. I should be persistant and go to the school yet again today once classes are out (I have about an hour). It’s as though my shoes turn to lead when I think of going. With the women’s groups, I finally got them to the point that they would participate and answer questions at the end of the talk. It’s still not the easiest thing in the world, but it works much better than in the beginning. I think my biggest fear is standing in front of these young kids, who during recess are plenty willing to run up to our house and talk our ears off (even when they can only speak Q’anjob’al and we miss over half of what they’re saying) but who, once in the classroom, are back to being little automatons who only write exactly what you say without ever thinking about it, without understanding how to ask questions or even answer the questions asked of them. It doesn’t just break my heart, it really feels like it breaks my spirit. BUT I do believe teaching kids is probably the most important thing we can do here, and since there’s very little work otherwise these days, I feel like it’s irresponsible of me not to make an attempt again.

I think I’m more down than Jaime. He’s got the school construction and he’s been working like crazy to get the SPA project papers approved. We’re both hopeful it gets approved because we’ll be so much more happily occupied building stoves and putting in floors. Though if I had to pick one of us to be busy, I’d pick him, as I think he gets restless and annoyed about idleness much more quickly than I do. Here I’m the one issuing complaints, which says levels of idleness at home have been pretty high. I’d like to be ok with reading books and knitting socks, but I’m really not. That’s not why I came. Hah, though I guess sometimes reading books is ok.

A couple of weeks ago we were both working around the house, when the kids started migrating over for a visit. At one point I turned around and there were something like 8 kids in our tiny little house. For a split second it stressed me out, making me a bit clausterphobic and I wanted to holler, “OK, everybody out!” Then I asked myself in WWJD fashion, “What would a better volunteer do?” Instead of ushering them out, I asked, “Who wants to read a book?” Smiles all around, “Ayin, ayin, ayin!” Me, me, me! So I had them all sit on the floor. My mother-in-law has taken to including a new children’s book in each care package sent, and I hadn’t yet read The Little Engine That Could. Here was my chance. They were enthralled with the pictures, dancing toys and smiling oranges and apples, candy! I had to explain to them what a train was and how it worked before we started the story. They were all pretty content to be ushered out of the house afterwards, and I think I escaped being dubbed “grumpy gringa” in Q’anjob’al.

Later in the evening as Fletch was watering the garden and I was hauling water to boil for the bath and the next day’s drinking water, we saw the kids galloping in lines like a train, up and down the fields shouting, “Taca, taca, taca, taca, taca, taca, taca, pienso que SI puedo, pienso que SI puedo, pienso que SI puedo!” That’s the Spanish for ” I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” It was honestly precious. I stuck my head out our window laughing to myself, and saw Fletch doing the same.

The kids seem to hold us together when everything else make us feel like things are falling apart. The “falling apart” feeling extends to many aspects of our lives: all of our clothes are falling apart, thread bare and full of holes. Our pots and dishes seem to be falling apart, chipped and warped. Our projects have largely fallen apart, except for the SPA project we’re still holding out for. A week ago we were once-and-for-all shut down on our midwife project.

Last fall, my friend’s medical school in Chicago said they’d like to take up the cause and fundraise for the midwife kits. We were elated because this project sounded like it would be simple, not too expensive, and a great idea. We wanted to raise about $3000 to purchase stainless steel medical tools to make birthing kits for all the local midwives. This would keep them from depending on unreliable stocks of disposable tools the Ministry of Health and outside/international donors sporadically provide. Additionally, disposable isn’t a good idea in Guatemala because of the lack of proper trash disposal. The stainless tools can be sterilized between each use. We wanted to buy the supplies in Guatemala, so as not to spend a ludicrous amounts of money and time shipping things from the US. The idea was that each midwife, depending on where she works (which determines how much money she earns per birth) would pay a small fee for the kit after attending a 2-3 day seminar. The money would be managed by the midwife group and reinvested in their future trainings and seminars. In the seminar they were to be instructed on the use of each tool, and get to practice using them, as well as on how to properly sterilize the tools. We’d also found an organization in Guatemala that does midwife trainings, including very useful training on massages to stop post-birth hemorraging, which we wanted to include in the seminar. The two major causes for maternal mortality here are hemorraging and infection due to nonsterile conditions, in that order, so we’d be tackling both those issues.

Once the med school offered their support, we pretty much stopped seeking funds. They said the fundraising would take a while, coming in sometime in February of 2010. We knew this would make it one of the last activities we did as volunteers, but we were ok with that. At the end of February we sent him an email to see how things were going, and a week and half ago he responded with an apology and a follow up email came from the student who had since been put in charge of the school’s philanthropic group:

Sorry, there was a giant miscommunication here. No one told us about this project, and we don’t usually raise that much money anyway. We had raised $500 dollars by the beginning of the year and we sent it to Partners in Health for their Haiti relief fund.

Fletch said he’d expected this (I call this strategy “defensive pessimism” -f); I was pretty crushed. And I found the situation ironic since I had just sent in my article “A Lesson from Haiti” a few weeks before that. I’ve talked to the other two volunteers in our municipality to see if they want to take up the project since they have over a year left here. They are interested. We have a list of materials requested by the local doctor, and I already talked to the med supply companies in Guate to get the price quotes and bulk discount prices for the materials. We have a lot of the research end of the project taken care of, we just don’t have the funding. So another one bites the dust.


With all of these challenges, we’ve just been hanging on, trying to enjoy our host family, the kids, activities around these parts. A few weeks ago as we rode back from town, we noticed the road was lined with small altars. I’d never seen this before, then I saw that the pictures in the center of the altars were the stations of the cross. It was Friday. Once the micro stopped to let us out, we saw the first altar and a crowd of about 50 people from town all waiting to start the procession. I dropped my things inside the house and went back out with my camera after the procession had already started. Delmi grabbed my hand and came along with me.

altarSM.jpg<crowdSM.jpgI went to the first station, where the picture had already been removed. They deconstruct the altars as they go, so that no one has a chance to the damage the pictures. I managed to sneak my way ahead of the procession and get some photos. Each of the altars waiting to be visited had family members guarding them from destruction by children, dogs, donkeys, pigs, or whatever might come along. I asked a neighbor man if they’d done this before, as I didn’t remember it from last year; he confirmed that it was something new they were trying this year. I tried to take pictures in the harsh four o’clock light as the sun across the valley made its way down to the horizon. The views here are so beautiful and airy, quite the contrast from my Catholic school days. We spent lenten Fridays in what always felt like a very stuffy church, following the ways of the gross and singing with Sister Elva. Maybe it was stuffy because it was Friday, because we just itched to be free, because I was looking forward to the Friday night lenten dinner, my mother’s tuna casserole that our family referred to as fish wiggles. At any rate, the way of the cross out here, accompanied by music and incense, on our dirt road overlooking the valley, was an oddly nostalgic trip on a very pretty afternoon.

boilingSM2.jpg<dyingSM2.jpgLent always leads to Easter, and since we received an egg dying kit in the last carepackage as well, two days ago we showed the kids how to dye eggs. They were pretty interested and excited about the whole process, and we were bored and in need of entertainment. Since we aren’t going to be in town for Easter, we decided celebrating early would be better than not at all. Chali, Alberto and Yohanna were the most excited. The others are still pretty tiny, but I did help each of them draw an invisible crayon design on their eggs and they picked the dye color to reveal their little drawings. We have 29 colored eggs hidden in the yard right now. We told them about the egg hunt yesterday, declaring we’d do it once class was out today. Chali came over during recess to check and see if we were really going to do this thing. He’s a pretty funny kid. Though I tried to explain to them the idea behind eggs and bright colors for spring, I wasn’t sure they really understood what was going on. They were just having fun. The same night we dyed eggs, we’d also fixed dinner for the Palas family, because it’d been a while and we wanted to share something and hang out with them. They’ve recently installed a television in their rustic kitchen, so we can watch programs around the open fire, hah. Anyway, the television was turned onto a rerun of Winnie the Pooh, and what were they doing but dying and decorating Easter eggs, hah. Perfect timing, the kids were pretty excited about that. Below are the pictures of this afternoon’s hunt, and happy kids with their eggs. I boiled 30, and 1 exploded. We decorated and hid 29, but just before the kids got here I saw the neighbor’s dog sniffing around and noticed a few eggs had gone missing. We counted the kids eggs and they had 27 between by the end of the hunt, so just two were missing, hah. Ah, Guatemalan chuchos, they’ll eat anything.

running_sm2.jpg many_eggs_sm2.jpg

And now I think it’s almost time to let you all go back to your regularly schedule routines. Just a little update: In the time it’s taken me to type this monstrous post, the nurse Lucia stopped by our house and informed me that the Ministry of Health is sending all of our nurse practitioners to work in other muncipalities, which means we’ll be left woefully understaffed. We’ve been without a doctor in the municipality (pop. approximately 47,000) for a few months. Now things will be run entirely by nurse’s assistants with just one year of training. Lucia looked pretty sad and overwhelmed. Additionally, all the nurses are now required to go from house to house to check for malnourished children, and she has no one to help her. This means she will have no time whatsoever to work with me and the women’s group. She also wanted to let me know she won’t be out here at all next week. I told her when she comes back to let me know if she wants someone to accompany her on the house visits.

The school director says they would like me to start working with them, as well. I just have to give them a schedule of what days and times I want to come work, starting of course after Semana Santa, Holy Week. For those of you who don’t know, that’s next week. It’s like spring break, but for the whole country. There will be no working; it’s against the rules. Apparently our SPA project has also been approved, and we should expect the money mid-April.

Some things do fall apart, and when they do, we’re here to figure out what we can salvage and how, at least for a little while longer. Our replacements arrive in Guatemala the end of next month.

Posted by: emily