Closing Remarks of Figaro the Fish

So this is it – my last night in Guatemala.  Writing this brings me back to writing my first blog post in the Atlanta hotel the night of staging just before embarking for Guatemala.  That night seems a lifetime ago – the most striking part being how everyone in that hotel was a stranger to me and now many of them are friends I will have forever.  In some ways it seems strange ending now, earlier than expected, but they always told us “expect the unexpected” and really even if given four months more I cannot deceive myself into believing a great deal more would have been accomplished.  Being forced to COS early in some ways is a special gift of time for me, for doing things I didn’t realize I’d miss, but am now glad I’m not going to miss.  I plan to be home for both my parents’ birthdays, attend my 5 year college reunion, backpack through Asia for a month, complete an economics class, be present for the birth of a close friend’s first child, and seriously begin my job search – all by the end of June. 

Peace Corps continues to be in a whirlwind of transformation, making me grateful to be leaving and crave even a mild sense of stability which has been lacking here since the beginning of this year.  Peace Corps is downsizing from six to three programs so that the only ones to remain will be the Healthy Homes, Healthy Schools, and Youth Development projects, and even those are set to undergo major adjustments.  The sad and troubling aspect of all this is how many PC staff will be losing their jobs in the coming year.  Volunteers have already been consolidated to the Xela, Toto, Quiche, Sololá, and Chimal region, and more than 100 volunteers have left, both willingly and unwillingly, since January, leaving just over 100 volunteers currently in country.

One thing I feel good about is that another Youth Development volunteer replaced me, so my work will continue.  Riley, a YD volunteer who arrived last year, was displaced from his site in San Marcos due to the various Peace Corps changes, moved to Toto at the end of February, and took over two of Christina’s and two of my schools.  So not all the schools are being replaced, but at least those who proved to have the most promise.

I’m glad to have arrived when I arrived and to be leaving when I am leaving.  Timing wise Peace Corps happened at the perfect time in my life.  It was just what I wanted and what I needed during this part in my life, and had I waited a year or two longer, I know I would never have done it.  Nor would I probably have wanted to do it.  Or maybe just knowing what I know now, I know I could never want to do this again. I’m grateful to myself for having done Peace Corps and feel like a giant itch has been scratched. 

My most recent hold up has cast a dark shadow over my existence here.  After a few weeks living in a constant state of panic, a sense of normalcy has returned, but not completely.   Motorcyclists terrify me, making waiting for the bus or going on a run unnecessarily difficult.  I keep waiting for someone to appear out of nowhere with a gun at any point and rob me of all I own.  I keep thinking that I’ll be able to let out a deep breath as soon as I get to the airport tomorrow morning, make it through security, get on a plane and take off, but now that the moment is so near I’m not a hundred percent sure that it will be as simple as that.

If I can say anything about living here and my transformation it’s that I have been truly humbled. 

I lived on $2.59 a day and felt like a piece of cattle on a daily basis herded like an animal into buses and other varied modes of transportation to get to work each day.  These were the only moments when I felt almost hateful frustration.

I’ve realized how truly privileged I am that this lifestyle was a choice and one that I can and will choose to never live again.

A perceived negative change in myself that seems to vary from standard Peace Corps volunteer mentality at the end of service is that I care less and have less patience.  This country has truly tried my patience in ways I never imagined and I have little desire to care for people without a reason to care for them.  Good or bad, temporary or permanent, time will tell.

Before closing, I think I should give a little background on who Figaro the fish is or was.  Figaro is a fish who lived many lives.  Figaro was my goldfish when I was a little girl and he lived a very long life for a goldfish.  Once or twice he died, and each time I would replace him with another fish named Figaro.  Not until I was much older did I discover that my dad would sneak out many mornings to replace the dead fish before I woke up and that Figaro was not two or three, but indeed a countless number of different fish.  This blog was named after Figaro as a reminder that that life will continue whether you are cognizant of it or not and that there are many ways to live within a single lifetime. 

Well that is all for now, though there will be more thoughts and revelations, perceptions and memories in the next few weeks, months, and surely years.  I am so truly fortunate and grateful for this experience and more excited than ever for where this will catapult me to next.

To my many readers, thank you following and supporting me on my Peace Corps adventure.  Hasta pronto.


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Last day with all the teachers from Xenajtajuyup

Chuculjuyup Despedida


The end of February and first week of March were filled with despedidas (farewell gatherings).  I visited all 4 basico schools, plus my English school, and my girls group.  The despedida in Xenajtajuyup was filled with poems, folk dances, and Guatemalan songs.  In Xesacmalja, at the elementary school where I taught English, one little girl gave a little speech in English.  She said, “I will miss you today, tomorrow, and forever.”  It was adorable.  In the middle schools where I taught, saying good bye was sad, but understood – the students had a volunteer before me and they understand the protocol.  With the little girls in Xesacmalja in the girls group I visited with every Monday, they were so sad and I had to explain myself a little more.  I told them that I had to leave, that I wasn’t leaving them because I wanted to, but that I have a family that I need to go back to, and that saying good bye is part of life, but that we will be friends forever.

Girls Group - Xesacmalja

I headed to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas on the 7th to wrap up everything necessary to COS.  I turned in my reports, med kit, and phone; did my final med check-out, closed my bank account, and got my plane ticket home.  On Friday, March 9, my official COS date, my friends and I rang the bell – a new Peace Corps Guatemala tradition to mark the end of service.  Everyone in the office came out to watch us and hear us say our good-byes. 

Me & Madelyn on my last visit to San Bartolo to say good by to my first host family

Last night with friends at Epicure


These past two weeks since I finished service have been very relaxing and just what I needed after all the chaos that was occurring during my last few weeks and months as a volunteer. I would like to offer a little more of a conclusion to my Peace Corps service, so stay tuned!  I just need a little time to collect my thoughts.  Thank you to all my loyal followers. 


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COS Conference

COS Conference, February 22, 2012

Last week was my COS Conference.  Months earlier than initially planned and with volunteers from nearly every training class, it seemed anticlimactic and strange going into it.  Two COS conferences were offered – one for February and one for the end of March.  The majority of participants were from the group forced to COS in February (originally slated for March).  Of the remaining 14 YD volunteers in my group, there were 6 of us who opted to attend this recent one.  COS conferences normally occur two months before volunteers actually finish their service in order to give them the materials and time necessary to prepare for a successful close of service.

Youth Development Group with our APCD Gonzalo

I’ve been rather stressed lately with all the packing, organizing, report writing, and logistical errands I’ve been up to, along with visiting schools for the final time and wrapping up work.  Entering the hotel, was like a breath of fresh air and felt a little like vacation.  The conference was at Villa Colonial, a hotel set a little ways from the center of Antigua down a wide, cobblestoned, tree-lined street.  The first evening I went on a really relaxing beautiful run.  The hotel was beautiful, quite the contrast to our All-Volunteer conference last month when we stayed in bungalows with windows that didn’t close in 50 degree weather with only ice cold water to shower with.

During one session, they passed out our aspiration statements that we submitted to PC Guatemala before arriving in country.  My expectations were pretty spot on.  We also wrote letters to ourselves just before swear-in (I’d completely forgotten doing it) which they also distributed.  In my letter I sounded pretty confused and I think I am even more confused now. The COS conference had a somewhat calming effect on me and made me reflect, especially about failure.  A volunteer started the conference off with a speech in which he included a quote by Mark Twain that I can’t help but feel summarizes my feelings too well: “I’m glad I did it, partly because it was worth it, but mostly so that I shall never have to do it again.”  I don’t mean to convey a negative feeling, just that I am glad things are winding down.  I’ve been feeling a little dissatisfied with my work here.  I think everyone has a little bit of dissatisfaction, frustration or anger right now.  Many volunteers feel enormous anger and frustration at Peace Corps the institution, particularly here in Guatemala. I honestly feel the opposite, feel that I received the best support and resources on the part of PC and PC staff, I just feel somewhat of a disconnect from Guatemala and my site, and that nothing really big was accomplished. The sessions on resume building, interviewing, career resources, networking and informational interviewing, and Peace Corps jobs were all really helpful and more than anything it was nice to have a bit of closure and spend time with friends.  The conference ended with a little swearing out ceremony where they called us up to receive diplomas, similar to when we swore in.

Just to go out with a bang, one last story and memory I shall carry with me always:

Thursday I stayed in Santa Lucia for a GAD meeting.  In the evening I went out for dinner with my friends Christina in Lindsey.  We planned on an early night since we were going to head back to site at 5 AM the next morning.  At 7:30 PM as we were waiting for a bus from Antigua that would take us back to the hotel in Santa Lucia, a motorcycle with two men pulled up beside us, the one on the back jumped off and pointed a gun at us.  I didn’t hear anything I just ran. I sprinted as fast as I could, I heard unintelligible screaming behind me, I threw my bag into the street in the direction of the men who were now speeding after me, as they passed I threw my hands up, and as they neared even closer with the gun pointed at me threw myself on to the ground.  They didn’t stop, they sped away, as cars were coming down the street.  I picked myself up, ran back in the direction of my friends from where I’d come, grabbed by bag, and we ran as fast as we could two blocks up to the well lit, highly populated area of bars and clubs.  Christina was yelling and people came running to see what was the matter.  They were all alarmed by me, and I realized my hand was cut and blood was streaming down my arm.  A really nice Guatemalan girl took me into the nearest bar, demanding security to let me through without searching me, to help me clean out my wound, and she had the bartender give us a shot of alcohol to clean it out.  I could feel a rock imbedded into it, but couldn’t seem to get it out.  Out on the street, this girl and her two male friends escorted us back to the scene of the incident to find my phone that had fallen out of my pocket as I’d run.  It was still there on the side of the street by the curb.  Christina had her entire purse stolen (passport included), Lindsey didn’t have a purse in the first place, and my iPod touch somewhat miraculously survived a second armed robbery (as did I).  It should be noted that my companions for this event were two of the same as the last bus incident.  As we were returning once again to central Antigua by the park we ran into Nick, a former volunteer and current PC staff who’d been leading several of our COS conference sessions the previous day.  Upon hearing what happened, he got his car and took us back to the hotel.

Back in the hotel I soaked my hand, which continued to spew blood for a while, in hot water while Lindsey and another volunteer went to work with tweezers trying to pry out the rock.  We could feel it with the tweezers, could even hear the scraping sound of metal against it, but could not dislodge it.  I had to go to bed with it in my hand and in the morning go to the office where the doctor removed a small cube of clear glass, which explains why even with my headlamp we were unable to get a clear view of it.

YD 2010-12 at All-Volunteer Conference, Xela, Jan. 2012


Last Teacher Training in Toto, February 16, 2012


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After a most incredible, fun, and tranquilo two-week vacation in Panama with my family for Christmas and New Years, I returned to Guatemala on January 3 where I encountered a whirlwind of information, gossip, confusion, and general panic.  While on vacation I was informed that Honduras PCVs were all evacuated after a volunteer was shot in the leg during a bus robbery and that El Salvador and Guatemala were suspending future training groups from arriving in January.  When I arrived back there were rumors that we would also be shut down.  Thursday of that week I learned through the grapevine (quickest, most reliable, and often only source of Peace Corps information) that Aaron Williams, director of Peace Corps worldwide would be arriving the following week to meet with Peace Corps Guatemala.  Also through the reliable rumor mill, a source in Washington said we should expect “big news” following this meeting.  The following day, Jan 6, we received an email from the regional director offering all volunteers in Guatemala Interrupted Service.  Neither thorough explanation nor details were offered, but basically they said anyone concerned for their safety could leave their service and it would count as Interrupted Service (beyond volunteer’s control to finish), instead of Early Termination (quitting).  Many volunteers were distressed by this letter because it basically admitted Guatemala to be a dangerous country to serve in, but leaving the decision to volunteers to quit or to stay.  The vast majority chose not to leave, but were unsettled knowing that general consensus is we should probably not be here.

Last Monday stories (which like most Peace Corps gossip was revealed to be true) spread like wildfire of several volunteers getting administratively separated (i.e. kicked out) for breaking rules and there was panic that Peace Corps was looking for reasons to get rid of people.  Very likely untrue, but a general feeling nonetheless.  Not until that day also did we hear from Peace Corps about Aaron Williams visiting, once again proving the need to rely on gossip for official information.  The letter said that his true purpose for visiting was to attend the inaguration of Otto Perez Molina, the new Guatemalan president.

Last Wednesday, January 11, I received a call at 1 PM from Peace Corps staff requesting to visit me.  I said sure and asked when.  They said in 1 hour.  I really did feel like it was a result of Peace Corps mistrusting volunteers and they were checking up on me to see that I was where I’m supposed to be and living where I’m supposed to be (which I am).   A tech trainer and two language teachers came to visit me in my house.  They asked how I feel in Toto and traveling, about my project, activities, etc.  They asked if I needed support or help with anything.  I told them I feel incredibly supported (I mentioned my bus robbery and how great they were after), just that there is an enormous lack of communication from Peace Corps, that I have to rely on chisme (gossip) for all my information, which I don’t like and should not be the case.  They said they are hoping for some big improvements in security with the new administration and that basically they are doing these visits because they have nothing to do since the new group of trainees was cancelled and they would normally be teaching them this month.  Peace Corps later sent out an email apologizing that these visits may have caught some people off guard and that they were meant to be supportive and not with malicious intent.

Anyways, there were big meetings last week with Aaron Williams to which VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) representatives were invited, as well as PCVL (leaders) and volunteers who live close to the Santa Lucia Milpas Altas office (I don’t fall into any of those categories so I was not at the meeting).  Then last weekend we were all standfasted (forced to remain in site) for the presidential inauguration which took place on Saturday, Jan 14.

This week Peace Corps announced their new transportation plan which was presented during the meetings last week.  They are now running private shuttles for volunteers between the Santa Lucia and Xela offices, as well as to some of the more distant regions in the west.  This means that when I travel I just have to catch a camioneta (chicken bus/public bus) from my site to Cuatro Caminos about 20 minutes away and hop on a shuttle. They pass through 4 Caminos about twice daily so I have to plan my travel accordingly. Overall a very good idea, although there are so many volunteers and with any new plan there are sure to be glitches.

Seeing Peace Corps moving forward in such a positive light with this new plan made me feel much more confident this week.  Schools started on Monday and I have been visiting schools all week and attempting to plan for the next 6 months.  I’ll be honest and say my motivation has really dwindled to do the YD Program in the schools.  None of my schools have taken any initiative and at this point I feel like it’s almost a lost cause to hope that the schools will be sustainable and teach the life skills curriculum when I’m gone.

But I guess you can never get too comfortable as bomb after bomb just seems to be dropping.  Last night we received a letter from our country director informing us that our group that was scheduled to COS (Close of Service) in July would be forced to leave March 24.  Newer volunteers living in regions such as the Verapaces or east, places outside the western highlands (Totonicapán, Sololá, Xela, Quiche) would most likely be forced to relocate to sites in these areas or could opt to COS.  For volunteers slated to COS in October, changing sites for the last six months of service is highly unappealing and will most likely result in early COS for them too.  Future groups of new volunteers coming to Guatemala have been cancelled for the rest of the year.

Right at this moment all hell is breaking loose amongst volunteers and Peace Corps as the new president is considering declaring a state of siege in the departments of San Marcos and Huehuetenango.  This would mean complete military control of these areas, with the military being allowed to stop and arrest any person (U.S. citizens included) walking along the streets.  For obvious reasons, volunteers in these areas are being evacuated effective immediately and newer volunteers will have site changes starting in March which could mean a newer YD volunteer replacing me when I leave in March.

The letter sent last night also informed us of a mandatory 3-day all volunteer conference in Xela next week.  This is huge.  Three days?  ALL volunteers (there are over 200 of us)?  We have never had anything like this.  It is sure to be an interesting hotbed of frustration and emotion and many more surprises to come.  Peace Corps Guatemala as we know it is coming to an end.


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Honduras & Esquipulas

Museum replica of Rosalia (under ground Copán temple)

Last Thursday Julio and I crossed the border to Honduras to visit the Copán ruins, the most southern site of the Mayan empire. We took a guided tour of the site which was founded around 100 A.D. and deserted in 900 A.D. when food, water, and medicine ran out.  While not nearly as large nor quite as impressive as Tikal, Copán has some incredibly well-preserved carvings of Mayan hieroglyphics.  Quite extensive excavating and preserving is currently being done there, which make it necessary to really use your imagination to visualize what it would be like without the scaffolding and protective tents set up to preserve the ruins.  While invaluable the efforts being made, it would be nice to visit sites like this and feel like truly going back in time or feel like the first person discovering it.

The town of Copán is small enough to easily explore in a few hours, and while rather touristy still has a strong local culture.  Julio and I sampled all the (four) national beers, ate good food, and visited a bird park.  There were really spectacular birds that we saw while hiking along a path through the woods along a river.  We wanted to see the butterfly park, but were told there are not many butterflies this time of year.

Our second evening there we watched from the balcony of a restaurant serving up great happy hour specials a children’s Christmas parade complete with a Santa and kids dressed as angels, sheep, and Christmas trees.  The parade ended in the central park where there was a huge, festive gathering all night with fireworks and street venders.

On Saturday, we returned to Guatemala, to the town of Esquipulas, not far from the border.  Esquipulas is in the department of Chiquimula and is the most visited spot in all of Guatemala.  People flock from all over Latin America, especially on January 15.  Esquipulas is famous for its black Jesus, carved of balsa wood in the late 16th century and responsible for many miracles.  We stayed at Hotel Payaquí, a really nice hotel right next to the beautiful Basilica that houses the black Christ.  We had to queue around the church for over an hour with the masses of people who pilgrimage there.  A well-packed mass began while we were passing the glass encased Jesus at the front of the church.  When we left I got a good view of the church alter and walls and ceiling enshrined in gold.  High above and center is a large golden triangle with an eye inside.  Perhaps this should be the location for Dan Brown’s next novel!


We took a ride to the Piedras Compadres on the outskirts of town, a place of Mayan rituals.  There is a huge stone balancing atop another stone, below which many candles and offerings are burned.




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Toto End of Year Activities

Monday in celebration of the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the Casa de la Cultura had a big cultural celebration with marimba music and cultural dancing.  They dressed me traje tipico from Santa Maria Chiquimula, a municipio of Toto, and had me act as one of the judges for the dances.  There were the most adorable little children, some as young as 2, dressed in typical dress from various regions in Guatemala. Most of my kids from camp were there as well to watch.

My cooking club and I met for the last time yesterday in my house and baked brownies and today we had our end of theater camp party.

This past weekend Christina hosted the best Christmas party I have ever been to – an ugly Christmas sweater party.  More than 16 of our friends were there, we had a great three team game of charades, tacos, too much booze, and a white elephant gift exchange where everyone gets a number and you have a choice of picking from the pile of unwrapped presents or stealing someone else’s gift.  I ended up with a motorized toy helicopter.


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December 14, 2011 · 1:38 pm

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Last week was the busiest of my Peace Corps life.  Every day from morning until late at night, Christina and I were hard at work painting and constructing sets, leading practice every day, and running around for all the thousands of things that putting on a play entails.  On Tuesday I finally was given the money promised by our mayor a month ago.  They kept giving us the run around, telling us a million excuses why our money wasn’t ready.  Finally on Tuesday the check was ready.  There was a stack of official looking papers with a post-it on top that said “Cuerpo de Paz” and under it “(gringas).”  However, the check was not made out to me.  They guy in the treasurer’s office said that he’d cash it later and I could come back the next morning, but that they were closing the office early that day.  I told him to give it to me (our play was in 2 days!) and I’d cash it myself.  He explained to me how to get to the ferreteria (hardware store) that would cash it.  This is all very sketchy.  The check was made out for Q3,360, although we’d been promised only Q3,000.  The guy working at the ferreteria took the check, kept Q360 and gave me my cash.  I asked why the money from the muni/mayor’s office was coming from him and he just casually explained it as the way they “facturar” it; basically, a matter of bookkeeping and how they document where the money they spend goes.  Muy interesante.

Opening Night

Me, Martha Keays, & Christina, Teatro Municipal

Sabrina, Martha, and all the PCVs who attended opening night

Thursday was opening night.  Early Thursday morning we had the older kids in the play come to Christina’s house to help us transfer everything to the Teatro Municipal.  As luck would have it, in the middle of dry season it was raining!  This delayed things a little.  We spent the morning setting everything up and making fake snow out of sheets of styrofoam.  We came back in the afternoon and got all the kids dressed and ready.  Our friend Maggie Kelly, who is a master braider, came from Patzún, Chimaltenango, a few hours away, and did the girls hair, and sold tickets out front along with Molly, our site mate.  Our other site mate Keisha did all the music for the show.

In the hours leading up to the performance and throughout our one and only dress rehearsal the kids were terrible.  They were running around, not paying attention, touching everything, moving props around, asking a million questions, and just being bad.  About 10 minutes before the curtains opened they all of a sudden got very nervous and quiet and sat the stillest and quietest I had ever seen them.

Christina and I gave an opening speech welcoming everyone, thanking all the people who helped us, and explaining our reasoning behind doing this play – our work here with youth and our desire to share a part of our culture with them.  Martha Keays, the Country Director for Peace Corps Guatemala, and Sabrina Villatoro, the Project Specialist for the Youth Development program, both came to Totonicapán for the event, which was a big honor.

With only a few very minor glitches, the show went very smoothly.  Deciding to have it snow on stage (suggested by our students in the morning as we were setting everything up) in the first scene when all the kids come out skipping and dancing to the “wahoo dorus, wahoo forest, welcome Christmas….” song was a really sweet touch.

Feliz Navidad

Friday’s preparations were a little less stressful, and we had more time to enjoy getting ready, putting fun hairstyles, glitter make-up, and peppermint stripe nail polish on the girls.  Friday night was much better and much smoother than opening night and afterwards I think the kids were a little sad that it was all over.

At the end of the show, after the part in the poem where the Grinch’s heart grows and he returns all the gifts to WhoVille (“Villa Ju”), Christina and I joined the kids on stage and the Grinch began singing “Feliz Navidad” and then at the “I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas….” part we and the rest of the kids all joined in.  The show concluded after that with a dance that the kids choreographed themselves.  Of our 19 participants in the camp and show, nine are cousins, most of whom live together, and they choreographed the dance then taught it to the rest of the kids.

It was cool watching certain kids grow and change throughout the camp.  Two of the girls in the show are 13-year-old students of mine from my most rural school.  They were always the most punctual to practices, and while really shy at first, one in particular I really noticed a huge boost in her self-confidence and ability to speak in public.  Two other girls, cousins, 12 and 13, were too cool for everything in the beginning, but after a few weeks became friends with the other kids and were able to get into the spirit of it all.

Tomorrow we will be concluding everything with a final fiesta with our cast in the Casa de la Cultura.

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