Wednesday, June 3, 2009

After Holy Week, things started to settle back to normal in Chocola. Soon after, I attended a meeting of the Presbytery way up in the mountains in San Miguelito. I had been to a similar meeting back in November, but this time it was a little less painful. The Presbytery meetings last for two days, with members of the executive commitee, pastors from the Presbytery, and representatives from the local churches discussing various issues for hours on end. A lot of it is just administrative and budget stuff (very thrilling), and more than half of the discussion is in the local Quiche language. So you can imagine my frustration and boredom back in November, sitting in a two-day long meeting, half of which was in Quiche and the other half in Spanish (which I still didn't know very well), and having no idea how the churches here operate. This time the meeting was slightly less boring, although I still nodded off at intervals (especially when they started talking in Quiche and I couldn't follow). You start going a little crazy, sitting in one position, in a hot stuffy church, for hours on end, with breaks only for refacciones and meals (the best part of the experience). However, at the meeting I realized just how far I've come since November. For one thing, I actually understood most of what was going on, and I felt more engaged in the discussion because I have more knowledge of how the presbytery operates and have been participating in the lives of these churches for the past months. The people there were no longer unfamiliar faces but people I have relationships with, or at least have talked with at some point during my journeys. My old friends Eligio and Cesar were there, along with the pastor from our church, my host dad, Jose de la Cruz, and various others I have gotten to know over the past months. During the meeting, I was given a few minutes to talk about the work I have been doing with different church groups in the presbytery, and everyone seemed very grateful that I was there.

The best part of the two days was certainly eating meals together. The women from the church in San Miguelito lovingly prepared all the snacks and meals for us those two days, and everything was delicious. We had a lot of caldo (broth soups), tortillas, and chile (everyone is always surprised that I like hot chile sauce). I love just sitting and eating with people - that has been one of my favorite ways of getting to know people in Guatemala. Sometimes you chat and joke, and sometimes you just sit quietly and enjoy the meal together, but either way there is a sense of solidarity and of sharing life together. Plus, the food is delicious. :)

The first night, after the session meetings, there was a special worship service, and people from all the churches in the Presbytery arrived. During our meetings, my host dad was elected the new president of the prebytery executive commitee, and he received his nomination that night during the service. By the time the service ended, it was already late, so I decided to stay in San Miguelito for the night, rather than traveling all the way back to Chocola and having to wake up super early the next morning to travel back for the rest of the meeting. So I stayed with another woman named Angela, in the house of one of the hermanos of the church in San Miguelito. He led us there in the pitch dark and tried to screw tight a light bulb near the door so we could see. I was feeling a bit sick in the stomach and hoping I wouldn't have a bathroom emergency in the middle of the night, and have to stumble to the stone latrine in the pitch black. I was exhausted (why is it that so much sitting makes you tired?) and ready to pass out on the rock hard bed. But the guy who had offered us the space to stay came in to put on a cd of obnoxious worship music, at blasting volume, and he plugged in a wall hanging of the crucifixion, which had rays of neon lights radiating from Jesus' head. It was absurd. And then he proceeded to talk with Angela about the session meetings for another hour or more. I tried to sleep through it, and was tired enough that I was almost able to. Finally the buya (commotion) ceased, and we were able to sleep for a few hours before waking up for a morning devotion at 5:30 am. (I'm convinced that Guatemalans living in this region are perpetually sleep deprived - at least, I know I am.)

After the session meetings ended in the afternoon, I traveled back by pickup truck to Chocola with my host dad, just beating out the aftnoon rains. Yes, the rainy season has begun once again, and the choking dust of the dry season has been replaced by mud and rivers of water down the streets. It is usually clear in the mornings and the downpour begins sometime in the afternoon. One day it rained so hard that the water came pouring in the front door and flowing through the house. Sometimes, when it rains really hard and the wind is blowing toward the house, water leaks through the cracks around the wooden shutter in my room, flows down the wall and under my bed, and forms puddles on the floor. There was one day I was standing in the kitchen with my host sisters, and the rain started pouring in through the cracks in the sheet-metal roof. My host dad had recently replaced a piece of sheet metal in the roof and rearranged the remaining pieces, and I guess he didn't finish the job very well, because the water was pouring in by the buckets. My host sisters and I were scurrying to put big pots and pans under the leaks, and I was emptying the pots every minute or so into the pila. Meanwhile Franci was standing with a huge bamboo stalk and another metal pole, trying to jam them into the roof to stop the leak. I was joking that I was going to go get my soap and shampoo to take a shower in the kitchen, under the "faucets" of rainwater. We finally managed to get the water under control, and needless to say, my host dad had some repair work to do on the roof when he got home.

That Sunday, pastor Abraham gave a report to the congregation about the session meetings of the Presbytery. And he talked about how I was there with them, eating with them, sleeping over in San Miguelito, and participating in the entire meeting. I realized then that it's not so important what I'm doing or accomplishing - it just matters that I'm here, sharing life with people. They are grateful just for that - that I spend time with them and walk side by side with them in their everyday activities. And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do that and to learn from the beautiful examples of love and generosity that I have seen in the people here.

So things were back to "normal" in Chocola...that is, until the swine flu hit. My director Marcia called me that weekend to tell me that an unusually strong outbreak of the flu had hit in Mexico, and that she was coming up with a contigency plan in conjunction with the PCUSA. This was the first I had heard about the swine flu, and at the time I didn't think too much of it. She told me she wanted all the volunteers to get flu vaccines by that Monday and to buy surgical masks as precautions. I didn't really think that the issue was too pressing, until I talked to Marcia again a few days later and she was a lot more firm about going to get a flu vaccine. So I went to all the local health clinics, but none of them had the vaccine. Finally Marcia decided that I needed to go to Antigua to get the vaccine, and I went with her husband to get vaccinated at a private clinic. News of the swine flu was all over the radio and newspapers here, but it was hard to figure out what exactly was going on, since no one seemed to know how serious the outbreak was or if it had reached Guatemala yet (according to the news, there had been no confirmed cases of swine flu in Guatemala, but Marcia seemed to think that that was highly unlikely, since there is so much contact between Guatemala and Mexico, and that there had probably already been thousands of unreported or uncomfirmed cases in Guatemala). My host family found the whole flu panic (which now seems to be under control) hilarious. Their theory was that God would protect them if they trusted in him. And if it was their time to die, then so be it - besides, there was very little they could do to keep from getting the flu anyway. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala, however, sent out multiple emails with scary warnings. There was talk about all the YAVs leaving our communities to live in seclusion in Marcia's apartment until the outbreak passed, other talk of just not taking public transportation for a while...and Marcia even gave us the option of going home, if the outbreak were to get really serious here. All of this was very upseting and confusing to me, and it didn't help that my host family thought I was crazy going to every public health clinic in the area in search of a flu vaccine. It all seemed very unreal and like something out of a science fiction movie. Fortunately, after about a week, the flu panic seemed to die down and the situation seemed to be not as serious as we thought it could have been. Whew.


The following weekend, we celebrated the 24th anniversary of the church, and I dressed in my corte again for the occasion. There was a special marachi-style band consisting of a bass player and several guitarists, and I accompanied the hymns on the keyboard as usual. It was a joyful celebration, and it was wonderful to have the whole church together for the occasion.

Besides that, my activities have been continuing as usual. I love hanging out with Guatemalan women, and I've been continuing my bible study groups weekly. I've been learning so much from these women, who have given me a new perspective on many of the stories we've read together. I hope that I have offered something to them as well. One day when I was holding a bible study with the women in Ladrillera, we were reading a story about a woman who was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus by the Pharisees and Scribes to be stoned. Jesus replies to them, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," and everyone disperses until only Jesus is left with the woman, and he sets her free to start over again. I asked the women why the Pharisees had brought only the woman before Jesus, and not the man who also was guilty of the same sin (I was trying to get them to ask questions about how the law was often wrongly used to justify prejudices against women). One of the women, Ana, was discussing in her group, and commenting that no one had ever raised that question before - it was a bit of a revelation for her I think. I love seeing the women's faces when they realize something new about a story, or think about something they had never before considered. It is certainly a process of sharing and learning together - I find I am learning as much (if not more) from these women as they are from me. I expressed this feeling to one of my groups one day. After splitting up into groups to discuss some questions, the women returned to present their ideas. One of the women, Juana, asked me what I thought of the answers they had come up with, implying that I was looking for one correct answer to the question. I replied that I had given the same bible study to two other groups, and each group gave a different and beautiful response. I told them that I have been learning so much from them, because every person brings a different perspective to the group. Juana seemed surprised at the the notion that I was learning from them. I think it is important and empowering for these women to realize that - to realize that they have something to offer, that they have ideas and thoughts and perspectives that no one else in the world has, and that they can teach other people by sharing their experiences. I love being a part of that process, and I am learning right alongside them.

When I go to Ladrillera on Fridays with the women there, sometimes we have worship services and sometimes I'll give a bible study. We meet in a different woman's home each week, and afterward we share a refaccion together, usually a cup of coffee or atol - my favorite is arroz con chocolate (a warm chocolate and rice drink). There was one week when we were gathered in the home of Julia and Moises, and it was pouring so hard that we couldn't hear anything over the din of the rain on the metal roof. They had asked me to give a brief sermon during the worship service, and when I went up to speak, it was clear that no one was going to hear anything I was saying. I was practically shouting the bible reading. So I decided what I was going to do was sing some songs with them instead, and I taught them a few choruses that I usually sing with my Sunday school class (they are kids' songs, but I think they are fun for adults too). So we sang over the rain, and the women laughed at the silly songs, and it was quite fun. We were forced to stay there a little bit later, since we couldn't leave because of the downpour. That's one of the benefits of the rainy season - sometimes you are stuck somewhere with someone because of the rain, and you have an excuse to just sit and talk.

Keyboard lessons have been a bit frustrating lately, since a lot of times my students just don't show up. Many of them have to work or have repsonsibilities in the household, taking care of younger siblings or helping cook meals. So it is difficult sometimes for them to be able to come to their lessons. I think some of them have also been discouraged lately, because learning the keyboard takes a lot more time and practice than they had thought. Out of my ten students, only a few show up regularly, and it is slow because most of them can't practice during the week. Plus, the rain often prevents people from coming (especially those who live farther away) because it is hard for them to navigate through the rivers of mud and driving rain on foot. Sometimes if no one shows up for their lessons, I'll help some women who are there sweeping and mopping the floors of the church. As long as I can spend time with someone, it is worthwhile. Or if someone is in the church kitchen cooking, I'll go in to talk to them. One day, I sat in the kitchen with my friends Paula, Celia, and Dina, laughing and eating a pico de gallo of green mangos. (Guatemalans like to eat unripe, green mangos from the trees, with salt and lime - sounds weird, but it's actually delicious, if it doesn't make you sick). Another day I went with Paula and Glatis to deliver a letter to someone in Camache. We wove through the forest groves and coffee fields, with Paula joking that her skirt was going to fall because she had forgotten to wear a belt. After delivering the letter, we sat with hermana Candelaria in Camache for a bit and chatted, and then returned, winding our way over the rocky paths.

I'm also enjoying my Sunday school class with the kids in Santo Tomas - we usually read a story, sing songs (with the percussion instruments that were donated), play games, or draw pictures together. I like just hanging out with the kids and being silly. One day, when we were up on the second floor of the newly-renovated church, there was a big earthquake. We've been having lots of small tremors lately (it is really weird to feel the earth moving under your feet), but this was the biggest one I've felt. It lasted for a good ten seconds, and you could feel the building swaying and the windows shaking. We all ran out of the room to the patio area, and everyone was a bit shaken. I think I was probably more scared than the kids were. :)

Another perk of going to Santo Tomas on Sunday mornings is that I get to weave through the huge market and delight in all the colors, sounds, and smells. Sunday is the big market day, and people from Solola and regions farther away come to sell their produce, fabrics, crafts, and goods. I love looking at all the different cortes that the women wear, and the brightly colored, striped tops and checkered blankets that the men wear, wrapped around the waist almost like a kilt. Sometimes I'll treat myself to a coconut or ripe mango, complete with pepita (crushed pumpkin seeds) and lime. I'm trying to appreciate mango season while it lasts. :) Lately, the season of ciruelas (tiny, tart plums) and lychee has begun, plus all kinds of other new tropical fruits that I had never tried before. Walking through the market is an overwhelming experience - so many beautiful colored threads and fabrics, foods, fruits, pots and pans, hygeine products, boot-leg DVDs, you name it. I usually take a swing through the market on the way back from my Sunday school class, to marvel at all the commotion.

I have realized lately that I don't have very much time left here, and so I have been trying to soak in every moment and appreciate spending time with my host family and the people I have come to know in the community here. It is going to be a big change coming back home, and very difficult to say goodbye to my host family and the people here. But I am also looking forward to being able to share my experiences with you all, more than just through a blog. There is so much that goes on in my heart, so many emotions I experience, ways that I am growing and changing, that are hard to express via computer. I hope I find the perpective, wisdom, and words to be able to express these things when I return home. Until then, ¡que les vaya bien y se cuiden!

1 comment:

Megan said...

Allie! I feel like I remember hearing that you were going to Guatemala, but I didn't realize it was going to be for so long. I assume it's a year long thing, and you'll be coming back in the next month or two? My parents were up in Jersey not too long ago and managed to get to church. They were thrilled to be able to see your parents. Your mom emailed us the link for your blog and I actually had some free time to sit and read some of it today. You sound like you are having an amazing time and I'm totally jealous of your adventures. I would love to get together when you get back and hear about your incredible time. I know that blog contact can be difficult, but you are a great writer and I can only imagine how much more vivid the stories will be to hear them and see your expressions as you talk about them. I certainly miss you and would love to see you. Let me know when you're coming home and what you will be up to once you get back. Hope to hear from you soon. Big hugs!