So, for the most part the first two weeks in country consisted of being at the office every day in boring orientation sessions with information we either 1) already knew, or 2) had in writing. However, there were a few fun distractions from those doldrums which took the form of field trips and excursions. One was a walking tour of Antigua with a trip to an archaeological museum, of which I already posted pictures. The other two excursions were a 3-day visit to a Peace Corps volunteer already in the field, and a traditional mayan blessing ceremony and tour of the Iximche archaeological site, which I’ll describe briefly here.
A seminal experience for any Peace Corps Trainee during their 3 month training cycle is when they leave the comfort and safety of the training site and venture out into the country to spend a few days with a volunteer who is already midway through their service. When I was a trainee in Panama this took the form of an epic 20-hour journey to a tiny village near the coast of Costa Rica. It was an eye-opening experience to what the next two years of my life might be like. When we came back to training and had a session in which we debriefed on the experience, one of the girls in my training group broke down in tears. Another made the decision to quit Peace Corps and go back to the states. It was real.
So, not so much this time. It was just a nice trip, no surprises or world-shattering experiences. Along with a fellow Response volunteer I went out to the town of Patzún, a fairly large town a few hours outside of the capital and geographically close to lake Atitlan (though not logistically). I visited Mark, a volunteer from Texas who is working with Peace Corps Healthy Schools program. His work area encompasses approx. 25 schools in the rural villages and towns on the outskirts of Patzun, organizing activities and lessons for the students and other Peace Corps type things that I don’t really know much about. Mark the Texan loves his community and they seem to love him back. He lives in a nice basement room with a middle-class family who are very inviting and welcoming.
My visit had serendipitous timing in that the daughter of his host parents had given birth to a newborn baby girl literally that day. We spent the morning travelling out to one of the schools which is part of his work area and caused a major disruption with our presence. I’m fairly certain there should be a rule against having gringos in the schoolhouse during exams. This was out in a really rural area, high up in the hills where we were treated to a view of foggy Lake Atitlan in the distance. We got a lift in a pickup truck the entire way back to town. As mornings go, it was a good one.
To prepare for the arrival of said baby girl, they smoked out the room with incense and began preparing a traditional soup made from three roosters. Three – no more, no less. We arrived just after the roosters had been killed (this disappointed Mark, who wanted to be involved in the killing), but right before the roosters were to be plucked (this pleased Mark, who was happy to be involved in the plucking).
I also helped pluck the birds, and then we watched as they gutted them and remove all the innards. This was a good time, mostly because Reina, the woman on the right, is particularly hilarious. After finishing our plucking work, Mark the Texan cooked two giant steaks which we wolfed down and immediately fell asleep. If you haven’t picked up on this point yet, Peace Corps is the life. Upon waking up from our nap, things were gearing up for the arrival of the nena. We went to sit in the bedroom with the family members to await her arrival. We spent at least an hour just sitting around. Eventually she arrived home, and eventually the soup was served. I refer to the photos below.
So, it was a nice little trip. Mark shares Patzún with another volunteer, so the four of us hung out a lot as a small group while I was there. We had guacamole and omelettes and played a rousing game of Spades while killing 25-cent cans of Guatemala’s answer to Coor’s Light.
Once training was officially over and we were sworn-in, our boss drove us on Saturday morning the the archaeological sit of Iximche. Iximche was the capital city of the Kaqchikel people during its time. It was founded in 1470 AD, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish, which prompted its abandonment just 50 years later. Some of the buildings are still intact, including a small plaza where human sacrifices are known to have taken place. Below is a photo of my acknowledging the solemn importance of this sacred place as a world heritage site of great value to human history.
Included in this excursion was a traditional Mayan ceremony of blessing performed for us by a respected priest to wish us well in our work for the year to come. This centered around a ceremonial fire which was based around a mayan cross oriented in the direction of the sunrise. The Mayans are said to have already been using the symbolism of the cross before the arrival of the Spanish and it is not to be confused with the Christian symbol, as the two are separate. Just setting up the fire took a decent chunk of the time, and he explained the significance and symbolism of each element as he placed them down. He then lit the center of it and proceeded to pray in Kaqchikel for about a half hour or longer.
During the later part of the ceremony we were all given handfuls of things to toss into the fire, such as sesame seeds, incense, and pine bark. He mentioned each of us by name in a request for each of us to be blessed. All the while there were people who had come there to pray and do their own small ceremonies. It was a beautiful morning and the ceremony left most of us feeling tranquil and peaceful. We spent the rest of the time strolling around the ruins listening to the history of the place and seeing the mini-stadium where traditional ball games used to be held.
And, that was it. The two weeks of orientation were at an end. All that was left was to meet my work counterpart, get on the road to Toto, and get to know my office and coworkers. More on all that in future posts.