I’m not entirely sure how to start this post so I’m just going to roll with it. It is a post about how I am perceiving the local government and its actors. This is something that Peace Corps volunteers are generally not supposed to write about, so I’m going to just try and lay down the day’s events with minimal commentary.
I’m going to skip over the past week for now. I’ve arrived in my home in the capital of one of Guatemala’s 22 departments in the western highlands. I live in a room directly above the office in which I work, which is staffed by the Departmental Delegate and 9 workers, 8 of whom are “monitoring technicians” who travel around to different parts of the department doing things I’ll describe later on. They seem a friendly, lively, and interesting bunch, fit for some kind of offbeat sitcom. But more about all that in a future post.
The first week has been a snooze, at times unbearable. 2 days consisted of sitting in the office, surfing the internet and helping the staff with a large data entry task which they have to do once a month. The following day consisted of sitting in an all-day-long workshop which was quite tedious. Then there was yesterday. Yesterday, the head of the office had some kind of event to attend in a far-off municipality of Totonicapán.
The 1.5 hour drive through the countryside was at once beautiful and, once we got to the more rural parts, very bumpy due to the dirt road conditions. We arrived first at a medium-sized town where there seemed to be some kind of action going on. It turned out that the government was handing out becas, a kind of income supplement that usually gets distributed to women and mothers for things like healthcare, food, education, etc. We stepped briefly into a large auditorium where a massive amount of people, mostly women with their children, were gathered. We were all packed in like sardines and I’m pretty sure I almost stepped on several children. On the stage in front were what appeared to be politicians and community leaders. They were making speeches as the people sat and watched.
I was having a difficult time maintaining my patience. Bear in mind that I had just finished two weeks of Peace Corps orientation and the day prior, I had sat through a day-long workshop. At the end of said workshop, every attendee of relative importance had to take it upon themselves to make a 5 minute speech about how the workshop was important. At this point, I am just sick and tired of being held captive while listening to people make repetitive speeches.
However, after about a half an hour, we made our way out of the auditorium, we walked around a bit, my travel partner shook the hands of familiar people and I shook their hands to be polite and play my role. He motioned towards the car and I was fairly content with the idea of turning around and going home. I was greatly mistaken.
I promised not to use that word.
Note: Since Peace Corps blogs are visible to the whole world, we must be judicious in their content and avoid using vocabulary which could be misinterpreted. Thus, I will use the phrase fun times! to describe the day’s events.
We started off again on the bumpy dirt road and were following a slow-moving train of pickups because there was a truck up front carrying construction materials and huge lengths of tubing. I was a bit annoyed by the delay, but I was happy enough that we were heading back home. However, we were heading in no such direction, and in fact the whole day’s events were centered around the truck with the tubing.
We finally arrived in a very small town/village up in the highlands where there were a lot of pickups parked and people standing around. As we got out and walked towards the schoolhouse, it was apparent that there was some kind of event/activity taking place. There was a small stage setup underneath a canopy made up of many burlap-type sacks stitched together. The small stage was fitted with chairs where some cowboy-looking men were sitting, and around them were community members gathered, again mostly women. I took a spot standing by supervisor/travel partner near the stage to watch. If I were to give you one guess as to what the people on the stage were doing, you could probably guess by now – they were making speeches.
It became apparent as time went on that the event was centered around the fact that the local government had donated to this community the supplies necessary to construct some kind of aqueduct or water delivery system of some kind. The men on the stage mostly consisted of local figures analogous to city council members, mayors, congressional representatives. Even the governor was present for these fun times!
I was standing there for what must have been at least a full hour and probably more, while a procession of different people made speeches. In these speeches, as far as I could glean, the men graciously congratulated each other, spoke about each other’s importance, how much more dedicated they are than other politicians, how much of an impact the donated materials will have to the development of the community members’ quality of life, and about how the community should be thankful to them for the relationship they have with them and for the materials donated. It was, indeed, what could best be described as fun times!
The speeches closely mimicked each other, as far as I could tell. Some of what was spoken was in Spanish, some in K’iche’, and some a combination of the two. For this hour or two that the speeches were being made I was very hungry. Around 12:30, I still hadn’t had lunch. It became harder and harder to maintain my patience. I took a quick adjourn to talk to a friend on the phone while sitting on a hill overlooking the highlands, but then returned to the fun times!
However, as hungry as I was, and as bored and impatient as I found myself, I tried to remind myself of my surroundings, and be conscious of the rest of the people who were gathered to be the recipients of these speeches, pictured below:
When the gauntlet of speeches had concluded, several people from the community also gave speeches, thanking the men for their generosity and friendship to the community, and bringing a procession of “gifts” to them from the community, which were in big cardboard boxes. The men did not seem to have much reaction to the gifts, and instead of opening them had people carry them directly to their trucks for them. Then it was all wrapped up, and the men on stage left in a procession.
And, as the attendees left the community as promptly and nonchalantly as they’d arrived, that was what I saw of the whole celebratory affair. Tell me, have been as judicious in my description as is incumbent of me? I can say that the dynamics were nothing strikingly new, I had seen this kind of thing before in my travels and experiences more than once. For some reason this particular afternoon were highlighted intensely, perhaps because I had taken a break in the US, or because of what I’d read on the history of Guatemala, or for any number of reasons. Very likely because after all the attendees left, I wasn’t around to talk to the community members to hear what they had to say about it. They just vanished from my world like the flash of a photograph. This was not the Peace Corps experience I knew in Panama.
Suffice it to say that what we often use the word “problems” to describe run much deeper than building aqueducts and providing medicine, teaching English or sustainable agriculture. This is one of the main limiting factors of an organization like the Peace Corps.
Cacophonous marimbas and decapitated fowl
But I digress. We were shuttled back into town where we (all of those who had been invited from afar to attend the event) were to be given lunch (at the expense of ???). This took place in a modest structure with picnic tables set up. They had a marimba band playing over an enormous PA system in the room. I’m not sure if I can describe it in any way except to say that you could hear this music from about 5 blocks away, and yet it was confined to a space about the size of my parents’ living room. So we sat there and ate and just kind of looked at each other, because any and all attempts at communication, aside from lipreading and hand-signing, were futile. It ruined even the novelty of seeing a whole bunch of dead rooster heads being served to each person as the appetizer. I was miserable. Sick with a cold, drained from so many hours over the past few days in what felt like captivity, sitting around listening to workshops or loud music or speech after speech. I had felt like I was utterly losing my mind (though not as badly as the rooster, I will admit).
There you have it. A summary of the day’s events, a slight ruminative tangent, and a picture of a dead animal’s head. I think that’s about it for this post. Around 3 PM (we had left at 8:30 in the morning, mind you) we were on the road back home, followed by a pleasantly uneventful weekend of napping my cold away.
Until next time…