About npkamat

I am a sophomore at Oxford College of Emory University. I am a true believer in humanitarian work (in case you didn't get that from my blog itself) and otherwise enjoy quirky, nerdy and funny things. I don't know what I want to do with my life but that I want to help people and as of right now, my "life-plan" is vague and includes the Peace Corps. Other than that, I like to read, draw (really, doodle) and whatever else.

June 2, 2015

As of June 19th, I will have been in site for six months! It’s hard to believe that I’m a quarter way done with my service. I know that work in site isn’t gradual, but follows more of an exponential curve and that as I become more integrated into my health center and community, I’ll be able to do more, but I still don’t know what I have to show for six months.

I can say that I have officially started a Training of Trainers program with the San Pablo health educators. We had one session so far and plan to have one every month until the end of the year. The goal of these trainings is to provide the health educators with techniques, strategies or knowledge that they can implement or apply in their own work activities with local community members. I gave them a spiel about how regardless of how hard I try, I will never truly be able to communicate in the local Mayan language, but I can share what I know with them and they can, in turn, share with the community.

Our first session was on the biology and physiology of pregnancy and how family planning methods work in the body. I was lucky enough to have some cool ideas from awesome people to draw on and put together a training that was overall successful and fun (in other words, I borrowed the idea to tape a female reproductive system to the floor and have the participants act out what happens during menstruation, pregnancy and with different family planning methods). I knew that some of the finer points would be hard to comprehend, but even basic anatomy was difficult for some of the health educators to visualize. They are so accustomed to rote memorization that critical thinking is sometimes lacking.

As anyone who frequents an Internet café in town can tell you, the way Guatemalan youth do research for school is to write down the topic on a small piece of paper and then leave it with the person running the café. Between printing and counting change, said person will Google the topic and copy-paste information from Wikipedia and other sites into a Word document. And there ‘ya have it, reputable research. This is why I want to focus on skills training rather than simply going over knowledge and facts. It’s not that the facts aren’t important. It’s that anyone, including myself, can easily forget facts. But it’s not as easy to forget concepts and skills and techniques. Or so I hope.

I’m also a little preoccupied about the elections later this year. Traditionally, people who hold government jobs (including positions at the health center) are hired based on the political party in power. So if/when a new party is in power, a large chunk of the health center staff will be fired and new people hired in their places. It’d be great if I didn’t have a brand new group of health educators next year, but there’s a chance I will. If that does happen, I’d like to be idealistic and hope that any skills learned with me will be applicable and useful in their next job, regardless of whether or not they work in health. Although, I really hope they continue working in the health field.

This may seem very odd – changing careers based on the political party in power, but it’s normal for Guatemala – at least for my little town. I’ve talked to other people about this and what it comes down to is that for a Paulinera (someone from San Pablo), identity s defined by family members, which church you belong to and more. In the States, we ask what we consider normal questions – Where are you from? What do you do? Where did you study? And for recent college grads, what did you major in? In San Pablo, those are all completely not normal. It’s more like this: What’s your name? Are you Evangelical or Catholic? What church do you attend? How many siblings do you have? Are you married? If so, how many kids do you have? If you’re not married, do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? At first, it seems hard to adapt to, but now it’s just normal. Understanding identity here has helped me become less frustrated at work because to them, work is just that, work. It’s less of a livelihood for the average person and more of a temporary means of employment. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not the case for everyone. Teachers, pastors, nurses and doctors possess more permanent positions, so they identify more with their jobs. This is why when I work with health educators, I try to share information with them that makes sense to not only them as health educators, but them as adults in their community. They don’t really need to know the difference between progesterone and estrogen, but they do need to know which family planning methods introduce artificial hormones into the body.

On a completely different note, I had the opportunity to travel back to the US for a couple days – my sister graduated with an MD! It was great to see her and my parents, albeit for a short time, but being back felt like a dream. I mean who really needs to shower everyday (without shower shoes!), control the temperature during said shower, a refrigerator with cold beverages (I still miss milk so much) and more? Although I am incredibly appreciative of such amenities and thoroughly enjoyed them during my time back.

Looking ahead, the month of June is incredibly full (more Training of Trainers, Spanish classes at the Peace Corps office, a three-day leadership/sexual health camp for teens, and more things I can’t remember) and I’m looking forward to being busy!

Peace Corps Guilt

There’s a Huffington Post piece that’s making its rounds again. It’s titled “Peace Corps Guilt,” and while I do identify with most of the points made, I still feel the need to clarify some things.

First, I didn’t join the Peace Corps because I felt guilty. I joined the Peace Corps because I felt lucky – lucky to have my parents as my parents, to have been born in the United States, to have the opportunity to earn a Bachelor’s, to dream. I didn’t see myself working an office job from 9 to 5, nor did I want to do so. To me the Peace Corps was this incredible opportunity to learn, to be trained, and to share in another country. I didn’t expect to change the world but I expected to be changed, for the better. The writer herself may have joined Peace Corps because of guilt, but to me, that’s awful. Instead of feeling guilty, feel honored, take advantage of the privileges you have and then share it. Try to make it less about privilege and more about right.

The aspect of the piece with which I do identify is about privilege while in-country. Even though Peace Corps gives us a small stipend (I would definitely not call it a salary) that is comparable to what Guatemalans earn, we are still privileged. We all receive health care and medications apart from our stipend. We don’t have to pay for doctor’s appointments. Heck, I went to see a neurologist in May and Peace Corps foot the bill. Additionally, most of us are young, single individuals; we don’t have to support a family of eight. So although my secretary and nurse friends were all shocked at how little I earn, they don’t truly comprehend that my responsibilities don’t really extend beyond me, myself and I.

Now here is a long-winded explanation of how I do identify with Peace Corps guilt. A problem in my town is nutrition. A lot of children are stunted (too short for their age, signifying chronic malnutrition) and are stick-thin (possibly from acute malnutrition). This stems from not only a lack of food on the table, but also a lack of quality and variety of food. It’s easy for me, the foreigner, to recommend more fruits and vegetables, but fruits and vegetables are more expensive and less filling than beans, eggs and bread (not to mention the copious amounts of fried chicken sold street side). This has got me thinking – I can’t just recommend more fruits and vegetables, but I have to include recommendations about access and utilization. At one meeting, I introduced the idea of making egg and banana pancakes. Most people will buy boxed pancake mix from the store, add water and call ‘em flapjacks. Another PCV gave me the idea to make pancakes from batter solely consisting of eggs, bananas, flax seed, and oats. All available in my town, and overall pretty cheap.

The other issue is that government subsidized foods (like Vitacereal or Incaparina) that are often given away to families are not actually utilized by said families – they’re sold for profit. So although nutrition is a major issue in my town, I can’t just use words to make it better. My first idea (albeit half-baked) was to say that maybe women could use radish and beet greens because most people dispose of the leaves without a second thought, but they can be consumed and can provide other vitamins and minerals. But here, just saying to use such greens isn’t sufficient. How does one prepare them? Who can eat them? Can a baby eat them? Such questions pose a barrier to any sort of implementation.

So now my newest “idea” is to promote tire gardens. Tires are a dime a dozen (especially once you see the state of the highway coming down the mountain to my town) and families can easily get a hold of soil. So, if I were to facilitate trainings on how to make tire gardens, how to harvest the vegetables and how to cook them, the families would hypothetically be able to better their nutrition. Now here is where I make it complicated. It is my personal goal that everything I do is sustainable and not performed by solely me. Right now, I’m trying to maybe make an example tire garden with my host family. Then maybe I can plant the idea to my work partners and have them run with it. I don’t want tire gardens to be this wacky idea from the foreigner, but rather a health center initiative promoted by locals.

Back to the guilt. I do feel guilty that I can afford chard, purple cabbage, spinach, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, mangoes and more. I can afford extra virgin olive oil, ground flax seed and brown sugar. I can afford to buy enough fruits and vegetables where rice, tortillas and pasta aren’t even necessary to fill me up. Sure, I’d love to buy all the chard at Sunday market and distribute it, but there are so many issues with that. (1) Who knows if they’ll use it/eat it? (2) Who knows if they’ll like it enough to continue eating it? (3) What will they do after December 2016 when I leave? So I don’t necessarily feel guilt, but like I said, I feel lucky. And I’ll use that luck I’ve received to learn more and to conceive of creative and efficient ways to promote nutrition in my town.

Time travel happening here! Posted on March 25, 2015

Since I haven’t been keeping up with this (but I have been writing in a journal and maintaining a calendar full of notes and happenings and memories), I thought I’d post what I’ve been sending out in my TinyLetter.

This was sent out on March 25, 2015.

In my first two months in site, I identified three possible projects that would benefit my health center and community (the health district diagnostic I completed helped immensely).

  1. Training of Trainers (ToT)

Peace Corps is all about ToT because the trainers are community members who will be around a lot longer than two years and can therefore continue any projects or activities (in short, it’s more sustainable). I’d want to co-facilitate sessions on adult learning principles, the experiential learning cycle, SMART objectives, dynamic lesson planning and more. That is a bunch of PC-jargon, I know, but what it comes down to is that adults learn differently than kids. If you try to lecture adults about health behaviors, everything said will go in one ear and out the other. Taking that into account, health education should be more fun, engaging and consider the experiences and skills adults already have. Currently, whenever the health educators have a “club de embarazadas” (pregnant women’s club), the women take naps (not literally) while someone talks at them for about an hour. Minimal visuals are used and there isn’t much interaction between educator and participants. While this project is logical, much needed and sustainable, I’m still struggling with how to approach it. As the first volunteer in my town, I want to make sure I don’t just push something down their throats.

  1. “Club de Comadronas” (Midwives’ Club)

After interviewing some of the health center doctors, it’s pretty evident that there is tension between them and traditional midwives. Generations of Mayan women have given birth with midwives, so it seems only natural to continue the tradition. While I’m a full proponent of home birth and personal birth plans, I think that the women will most benefit when health professionals and midwives can cooperate on how to best provide women with high quality care. Face it, a midwife can spend more time with her patients/clients and can get to know them better, but they are not trained or prepared to provide care in certain situations. Ideally, I’d want this “club de comadronas” to (1) train midwives on basic prevention (healthy eating, exercise), (2) how to detect possible risks during pregnancy and (3) open the door and welcome them to the health center for the birth. I know the Guatemalan Ministry of Health strongly recommends institutional births, but sometimes that’s not the best option. In my local health center, the delivery room also doubles as the health educators’ room. When a woman in labor comes in, the health educators leave and gossip outside. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to have people walking in and out to retrieve materials, but the health center is safer in terms of hygiene for a birth. My personal hope is to make the delivery room more comfortable and more welcoming for local women and promote midwives coming with women. This sounds ambitious, but I have two years, right?

  1. “Espacios Amigables” (literally, Friendly Spaces, but more like a teens’ support group)

The majority of my project framework involves working with mothers, but I feel that my town would benefit from a reproductive/sexual health program just for teenagers. There are health center staff members who probably don’t know how to correctly use condoms, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the same applies to youth. The way the system is currently structured, unless a young woman already has a child or is somehow incredibly informed, she doesn’t really have a reason to come to the health center and learn about family planning or even the basics of puberty. In the future, I’d like to have classes for youth on reproductive health topics (basic anatomy and physiology, biology of puberty and sex, transmission and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy prevention and more) but since I’m the first volunteer and don’t personally know any youth (yet), I think I want to start with self-esteem, leadership and other more accessible topics. Slowly, I’d work my way up to the health topics.

These are all ideas so far and after speaking with the health district coordinator, I think that the ToT program will be really beneficial. He was really supportive and understanding of the great potential of effective health education. This Friday, we’re going to have a meeting with all the health educators and nursing staff to plan for these monthly trainings and to brainstorm more topics to cover. Then, the coordinator wants to use the already in-effect midwives’ club (apparently the health center already has one and no one told me/they haven’t had a meeting since October of last year…) to evaluate the health educators, to see if they’re applying what they learned from the trainings.

Overall, this week is going incredibly well and I’m excited to start “real” Peace Corps work!

On a completely different note, I had my first In-Service Training (IST) in early March. The first part was a three-day nutrition workshop to which I invited two work partners (the rural health technician and one of the health educators). We learned about malnutrition and how it becomes cyclical in a family, different initiatives to prevent malnutrition and how to best provide health education to the community. Although the workshop was informative and entertaining, my favorite aspect was having my two work partners meet PC staff and other PCVs. I felt like my worlds had meshed and now both sides understand the other better. The rural health technician is now more cognizant of my technical project and better understands the life of PCV (she actually repeatedly mentioned how incredible it was that we were so close after only knowing each other for five months – I still can’t believe that). At the same time, my project manager and fellow PCVs now get what I mean when I say my rural health technician is incredibly motivated but also easily distracted. After the workshop, the PCVs continued to a two-week technical training in the Peace Corps offices. I came back to site in San Pablo feeling refreshed and motivated to work, albeit a little lonely (after spending two jam-packed weeks with other PCVs, it was hard to come back to my little town where I’m by myself).

Sorry this post/letter was so verbose, but I want to add some quick highlights:

During the three-day nutrition workshop, some PCVs, my work partners and I did an Insanity video. It was hard, but so much fun to do together. Although most of the Guatemalans present were laughing at the funny movements.

I absolutely loved going back to see my training host family near the PC office. They are so welcoming and it felt just like going home. I’m excited to see them again for “Semana Santa” or “Holy Week!”

One of my favorite Guatemalan products is a “chocobanano,” or a frozen banana that is dipped into melted chocolate. It costs about 50 cents to 1 quetzal, so it’s not only cheap, but also somewhat nutritious and always hits the spot.

Second Lady of the United States Jill Biden and First Lady of Guatemala Rosa Leal de Pérez came to visit the PC office during my IST. Unfortunately, their schedules were packed so there was no time for conversation, just a quick photo opp.

Some members of my health center staff are big fans of a new pancake recipe that only includes eggs, bananas and raw oatmeal. It’s cheap, nutritious and easy to make. Hopefully this catches on in San Pablo.

I now have a lunch group – I eat with the secretary and some nurses at the health center. We joke around, tell stories and share food. They have singlehandedly made me feel included and more a part of the community. Although I struggle waking up early in the morning to pack my lunch, it’s so worth it.

I think that’s it. If any of you are interested in reading my health district diagnostic, I’d be happy to send it to you – although I should warn you it’s entirely in Spanish. As usual, I’d love to respond to any questions you may have, and am always accepting advice/suggestions/recommendations and easy recipes.

And this was most definitely posted on February 24, 2015

Since I haven’t been keeping up with this (but I have been writing in a journal and maintaining a calendar full of notes and happenings and memories), I thought I’d post what I’ve been sending out in my TinyLetter.

This was sent out on February 24, 2015.

I’m sending this to you in the middle of week ten (!) in site. That makes about 19 weeks in country, in total. It definitely feels like time has passed, but not enough to be measurable, if that makes any sense.

First, I’d like to share some pictures of my town and my home, just so you have a better idea as to what I’m talking about.
1. Yes, my town has a breathtaking view of Lake Atitlan and Volcán San Pedro (yes, that’s volcano in Spanish, but this one is mostly inactive).
2. Yes, my fellow PCVs are incredibly jealous and are already planning their lakeside getaways.
3. No, I’m not living in a hut (although that is the PC stereotype) and I’m very grateful to have electricity, running water (sometimes hot water in the shower!) and Internet on the good days!

Now I know why I started this Tiny Letter email subscription thing, whatever it’s called – to try to keep my friends, family and other super cool individuals up to date on my Guatemalan life, but that’s the thing. It’s my life now, so sometimes it’s a bit difficult to write about what I’m doing when it’s just normal life. There are some things that are noteworthy like finally buying a bed, my first bout with a GI illness in-country (that’s right, I lasted 17 weeks!), and going ziplining with some health center staff as part of a celebration for Valentine’s Day or Día del Cariño. That said, here are some entertaining and somewhat informative anecdotes from the last couple weeks:

The Guatemalan government gives out “Vitacereal” to pregnant women, lactating mothers and malnourished children. It’s this bag of mix that is chock-full of carbohydrates and proteins and more. Women are supposed to add it to food for either them or the growing rugrats. Since my health center is the head of the health district, all of the district’s vitacereal gets delivered here. Now I don’t know if it was the vitacereal or if the health center already had a problem, but one day, all the female staff members were shrilly screaming – because of a little rat. Some women refrained from going to the bathroom and others just locked themselves in their offices (because a rat can definitely unlock the door, forget about just squeezing underneath). After two days of this, the male staff members took control. Armed with brooms and mops, they cornered the rat. They closed off the exits with surprise, surprise, huge bags of vitacereal. Ultimately, the little guy was caught and apparently the health educators believe in capital punishment for the rodent variety. Now we can all breathe a bit easier and of course, go to the bathroom whenever we please with no fear.

Since my two host parents are pastors, I try to attend church with them on Sunday. Now Guatemalan services are incredibly different from any service to which I have ever been, just as beautiful, but still very different. From the volume and the parts in the local Mayan language (Tz’utujil – I dare you to look it up on YouTube!) to the children happily playing or fiercely crying, it’s definitely ad adjustment. Hands down, my favorite part of the service is “maraca-man.” I don’t know his name (yet), but I look forward to his presence every week. So towards the end, there are three groups who sing (women, men and youth) “alabanzas.” Sometimes, an elderly gentleman who plays the maracas accompanies the men – the “maraca man.” With his brow furrowed in concentration and eyes squeezed closed, his deliberate arm movements make me not only giggle (on the inside, of course), but also appreciate the joy and passion he brings to the otherwise stoic men.

Recently, I had the pleasure of getting to know one of the “quartermaster” staff (that’s literally what it translates to in English, he’s essentially a jack-of-all-trades. He sweeps, mops, runs errands, makes phone calls, and more) and after our 20-minute “platica,” I felt like I had found the perfect work partner for an “Espacios Amigables.” It all started because he was studying algebra (ick, I know) and geometry (what piqued my interest). I asked, “What are you studying?” and from there he expressed his dream to get a bachelor’s degree in mathematics abroad and become a math teacher in Guatemala. He explained that he had actually spent two years out of school and was now trying to finish what’s equivalent of a high school degree (how he does this is beyond me because he’s at the health center Monday through Friday and I’m pretty sure there aren’t high school classes on weekends). The part that’ll tug at your heartstrings is how he described his youth – his parents were strict about a curfew and did emphasize the importance of an education, but since he came home with the best grades out of his nine siblings, he essentially got away with anything, including but not limited to drinking and smoking marijuana. Long story not so short, his story epitomized the turnaround that’s possible for youth and made me even more motivated to start an “Espacios Amigables” or “Friendly Space” (think along the lines of “Safe Spaces” in the US) where youth can meet together and share/discuss/learn and more.

After about two months at the local health center, I have noticed one major difference between Guatemala and the US. Regardless of time of day, sex of the staff member or anything else, every small child that is brought in to have his/her height and weight measured is beyond terrified of the scale and the measuring stick. It doesn’t matter if the kid came in with a happy disposition, smiling and fully immersed in the intricacies of his or her fingers. The second the kid sees or becomes in contact with the scale, its waterworks. They grasp for their moms, pulling hair, outright refusing the hard metal surface, sometimes defying gravity and maintaining grip on mom’s huipil. After multiple attempts (normally involving mom and at least two health educators) to weigh the child, the ordeal (or part of it) is finally over and the tears immediately disappear once the baby is back in mom’s arms. Then comes the worst part – having one’s height measured. Since all kids under the age of five have their height and weight monitored, the “measuring stick” is more like a wooden plank on which the children are laid. Their heads are pushed (gently, don’t worry) to the end and then their legs stretched out (again, gently) to get their full height. This seems like complete torture if you went by the screams. And this is all before vaccines, if any, are administered (that comes later in the consult). At first, I was mortified at the kids’ reactions and I thought my participation would just make it worse, mainly as my tall, scary foreigner status. So I just witness the ordeal from the corner, writing down numbers and such. Now, we have developed a new method for the really finicky children. We have mom hold said kid and have her step on to the “big kid scale” and then weigh her again, this time by herself. A simple idea, but still separating a child from mom is hard and makes you feel terrible about your job. This is also why I didn’t accompany the health educators and nurses when they vaccinated kids. If all these tears were just from weighing, imagine what an actual injection would incite. It’s not part of my project, but I’m determined to find out if there’s some sort of fear epidemic plaguing the under five population in Guatemala. So far, other volunteers in other towns have confirmed that the same signs are symptoms are evident among their kids, too. I wonder how far it goes…

One of the other things I’m proud about is how I’ve started to get to know more people at the health center. I may sound like a middle school girl, but I was invited to eat lunch with the nurses and secretary. At first, I feel a bit out of place but eating with them is infinitely superior to eating by myself in my kitchen. Thanks to the three of them, I have now tried sapote (kind of similar to a papaya but not), been introduced to all types of corn products (tamelitos, tamales, and yellow, white and black tortillas), and learned some Guatemalan slang. Most of all, with them, I feel a part of something. The other day, we had a health district meeting in the next town and during the mandatory refacción (snack), one of the women called me to make sure that I knew where I could buy snack (because it’s a new town and I may not know). It really is the small things.

Sorry this post was incredibly long, but I can say that it’ll be awhile before my next one – tomorrow I leave for Early In-Service Training, which is more project-focused. For the first three days, I’ll be participating in a PC nutrition education workshop with two work partners from my health center and then about two weeks back in Santa Lucia at the PC office learning more about MCH! I’m excited to see some other volunteers and to start planning projects for my first year of service!

I totally posted this on January 29th, 2015…

Since I haven’t been keeping up with this (but I have been writing in a journal and maintaining a calendar full of notes and happenings and memories), I thought I’d post what I’ve been sending out in my TinyLetter.

This was sent out on January 29, 2015.

Welcome!
This is my version of a blog – instead of being public and forever available on the world wide web, I’ve opted to use TinyLetter which if I understand correctly is more of an email thing to which people are invited and can subscribe. So feel free to subscribe (or not), I just wanted to invite you to be updated on my life in Peace Corps Guatemala (PC-G)!

Since I have procrastinated starting this since about mid-October, I have a LOT to summarize. Mostly just about where I’ve been, what I’ve been doing – which is a lot.

First off, Peace Corps (PC) is an American governmental organization where volunteers are sent around the world to work in different fields (including but not limited to health, education, youth in development, environment, food security…). Normally, volunteers arrive in country in training groups (in my case of about 30 people) and undergo an intense 2-3 month training (mine was thankfully only nine weeks) near the PC country office.

During training, I lived with a host family in Santo Tomas Milpas Altas in the department of Sacatepéquez (departments are like states in the US). Six days a week, I would be busy doing anything and everything from attending language classes, working in a local health post weighing babies and doing pre-consults, interviewing municipal officials, developing health talk lesson plans, sitting through informative albeit boring administrative and security sessions and more.

Then, after nine long and busy weeks, we were sworn in as true Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs!). Fun fact: we took the same oath as the Vice President of the United States. Each volunteer is assigned to a site – a specific town in which he or she will work for two years – my site is San Pablo La Laguna in the department of Sololá. It is on the very well known and extremely beautiful Lake Atitlan (I recommend that you Google it, seriously).

Work! I am a Maternal and Child Health (MCH) volunteer, which means I work in the local health center. Overall, the MCH project’s broad goals are to improve health outcomes of mothers and babies, which is through education, training and community support. I have yet to actually figure out what I’m doing because I’m still learning about my community, my health center and my health district. I’ve successfully completed almost six weeks of work and have thus far done little. In the beginning, I assisted in interesting and carpal-tunnel-inducing data entry and accompanied health educators on house visits (Sidenote: Although I’m pretty capable of managing Spanish communication, everyone here speaks a Mayan language called Tz’utujil. PC does provide us the opportunity to learn the local Mayan language and so far, I’ve had two classes!). I’ve also started to make progress on my health diagnostic that will help uncover community needs and strengths. Hopefully I’ll be done by late February when I have a technical training!

Living in Guatemala. PC-G requires all volunteers to live with host families for security and cultural integration reasons. I live with the local Evangelical pastor, his wife (also a pastor), and their two kids. I rent two rooms (one as a bedroom and the other as a kitchen) and share a bathroom and pila (a whole other explanation, but basically a Guatemalan water source and form of storage and where you wash anything and everything). I’ve started to cook my own meals and I get immense pleasure from going to the market and bargaining (poorly) for vegetables and fruit and then cooking them in the most basic way possible. It’s the little things. I’ve also learned of the sheer potential of oatmeal when you make it savory with butter, salt and pepper. In other words, I’m too lazy to cook rice. I blame it on the altitude – around 1600 meters or 5200ish feet (I can’t find an exact measurement for my town, but there are some for the towns nearby).

Other than that, I’m still settling in (officially have a kitchen table!) and learning more about my town and health center, so I’ll try to write more about that in the next email! I hope you’re all doing well and if you have time, I’d love to hear from you!

Love from Guate,
Neha
 

Commodities

I just finished reading (fine, skimming) “Culture and Public Health,” which is a series of essays on how culture affects development work, specifically in the realm of public health. An easy concept for an Anthropology major to grasp. As I was reading though, I realized that to the individual writers, development was an academic field of inquiry. Although I’ve taken a course on development, it was a mere introduction and this collection of essays took a more “zoomed-out” perspective. Here, I am in Guatemala, supposedly working as a development worker. I know how I am taking culture in account – I consider how I dress, speak, do my hair, when/where I go by myself and more, but I am focused on a much smaller level. If I can manage to improve the health of one person (through behavior change), I will consider myself successful (and since I’m a vegetarian in site, I can say that I’m already on a start – I’ve been introducing the health educators at my health center to eating raw vegetables!). I realized that as a PCV, the “thing” I have to offer, is my time; that is the commodity with which I’m equipped. I don’t have vaccinations or drought-resistant seeds, but two long years of platicas and leading by example. This realization, or perspective, made me appreciate the PC structure and approach.

Then again, this approach terrifies me. Today, I accompanied one of the health educators as he visited some mothers in town and reminded them that their kids should be brought to the health center to receive vaccines – a polio vaccine if I’m not mistaken. As we went from home to home, I saw some different definitions of home. From overflowing pilas and open air showers to roaming roosters and crawling babies on dirt floors, I started to think if my two years here would even make a dent of a difference. In one home, an elderly woman (she looked so cute, I just wanted to give her a hug) was washing her huipil on a rock that was part of the path that led inside her house. The water she poured to rinse soap out just flowed into the sewer pathway on the side of the road. The idea of trying to wash something, of trying to make it clean just didn’t fit with the floor and proximity to te sewer. I’m not trying to force my Western notions of cleanliness (some of which I don’t even abide by – who needs a shower everyday, anyway?), but that just boggled me for a moment.

How can one person change such ingrained behaviors, let alone make a measurable difference? There are already so many aspects of health I’d want to focus on – from teenage self esteem and sexual education to healthy eating and hygienic food preparation. I actually cannot imagine what I will feel like in two years.

The upside is that the health educators tried my raw snow peas and cucumbers. They’re fans.

Traveling. What does it really mean?

Since my generation essentially gets all its information from shortened list-form articles, I thought it’d be important for me to try to stay at least relatively up to date when it came to such things (read: I click on nothing with pop music, newly released movies or anything of the sort because that can’t be used in conversation two years from now when I return to the States). I came across this link, which is to a list of countries to which one can travel cheaply or as they call it, on a college budget. Skimming through it, I realized one thing. According to this writer, traveling is about going to cool and scenic places so you can Instagram a photo and maybe even Tweet about such excursions. The piece (if you can call it that) focuses on spending money on food and booze (albeit somewhat necessary things for a night on the town), but doesn’t come close to touching what I consider to be at the heart of traveling. It’s not about five star hotels and private bathrooms, but rather about a deeper understanding of another part of the world. How do people there live? Travel to work? Buy groceries? Cook dinner? Get married? Don’t even get me started on how the list seems to take advantage of countries in economic distress. Reading that made me feel as if I was some sort of predator, preying on struggling economies and then making sure to party hard and rub my good fortune in the faces of the locals. If I wanted to get a cool new profile picture, I’d screenshot something from Nat Geo and Photoshop my face in. Or if I’m lucky, I’ll find one with someone’s back turned and say it’s me. I’m disappointed in the writer but also in the readers – if this is what traveling means now, I don’t want a part of it.

Maybe I’m being overdramatic. Maybe I’m just taking it the wrong way because I’ve now been in-country for over three months (barely, three months and two days!) and have learned that the best part of this country is not the lake (although it is beyond beautiful) or the textiles or the jade jewelry. It’s watching the little kids run down the street with their makeshift sticks and balls. It’s having a storeowner know you by name and remember your favorite kind of afternoon snack. It’s that moment when you just talk about life over pan con café with some grandpa in town. Maybe I’m just too PC now. Who knows.