05 September 2006

Host Family First Impressions

Here in Guatemala, we are a little spoiled, because (probably like most center-based training areas) our families have had volunteers in the past. Sometimes it's a regular part of the family's income. It's worth noting that generally peace corps volunteers enter each country three times in the year: August, May, and February(?). That means that each family goes through three trainees a year. My family has a room in the house that is always used for a trainee. My family is incredibly well seasoned, as I am their 45th volunteer (therefore 15 years of 3 volunteers each). In some ways, they know what I'm doing in these 12 weeks better than I do. They know that my second week I'm going to be bored with watching telenovelas & want to go out more. They know that I'm going to play soccer once with them and then realize that I play as well as the family dog. I also suspect that it's less interesting for me to talk about my life because there's nothing exotic about an American to them. It's sort of like being a stepbrother. I know a lot of this is my insecurities.The Peace Corps screens every house and makes sure that they're hard to get into, each person has some level of personal space (usually we get the biggest bedroom in the house to ourselves, and I'm no exception). They give the families oodles of 5-gallon jugs of purified water and we always have some. I've got a big old jug in my room at all times. The biggest thing is the women have to be trained how to cook in a way that won't make us require our own toilets. All fresh veggies have to be soaked in chlorine water, all water has to be boiled or purified, dishes washed in boiled water, stay away from certain local recipies. In addition, I'm given a lock on my door and a bathroom that rarely anyone else uses. Additional amenities at my house include:Indoor toilets. the way most toilets work in Guatemala is that, instead of pulling the handle, you do just like when there's a power outage in the States. You take a bucket of water pour it into the toilet. the force of the water takes it past the elbow joint thing in the back of the toilet and it flushes. You can also just empty the bucket into the back of the toilet and pull the handle, but why bother?Refrigerator. I have yet to open this, because I was told a frightening story by a girl volunteer of the bloody animals inside. Also, it's hard as a guy to know when you're stepping past your boundaries by, you know, being a useful human being.Regular Electricity. It goes out when it rains really hard, and you have to remember it rains every day six months of the year. All our lights are fluorescent and all in all we likely use less electricity than most coffee makers in a day. I have an outlet in my room even.Tile Roofs. This means that you don't get the leaks that tin roofs are prone to.A big pila. Okay, pilas really need to be explained. The general gist of water here is that you get it at rare times. Either you only turn on your well pump at times or you wait until a good rain and then collect gobs of water. The primary way you collect the water is in a pila. Imagine a big rectangular tub that can hold somewhere between 20 and fifty gallons of water. Now imagine that you build two sinks into two of the corners above the water level maximum. The drains of the sink, however, do not empty into the pilas, but go to pipes that empty into the sewage system (read ground). You have one sink that you put dishes in and one you put clothes in. You take little bowls and dip them into the big tub part of the pila, which is full of clean water (not gringo-drinkable clean, but clean) and then empty the water into the sink or onto the dishes or the clothes, etc. The part that was the first mystery to me about pilas is where do you spit your toothpaste? The answer is you move the clothes out of the sink and then put it in. Unfortunately, I didn't have this question until my mouth was full of toothpaste, which, believe it or not, didn't help my Spanish. They don't teach you the word spit in college Spanish classes. The advantage of two pilas for my family is that they can keep more water in the dry season. The nice thing about two pilas for me is that I don't have to feel guilty about spitting in the same sink that my host mama washes her favorite dress.Religion:In Guatemala, almost everybody is either an Evangelical Christian or a Catholic. While Catholics considered the least fun sect of Christianity in the United States, Evangelicals here (and many in the States, though less known), beat Catholics at their own game. Catholics here come to Mass in nice jeans or real pants & other normal attire, spend an hour, and go home. Catholics have parties because you've got sacraments and 365 saint's days in a year, you're in the religion that reminds us that Jesus' first miracle was at a party.While in English Evangelist is a word used to describe zealous proselytizers in the United States, Evangelistas (pronounced ee-van-hel-eestas), is used only because it's impossible for anyone to say. Try it. Out loud. Quickly. If you're not saying something that resembles van halen-istas, you should be down here in my place. Though Catholicism has a much larger history in Guatemala, its entrenchment in the government during the most atrocious times in the Country's history and the surge of evangelist missionaries worldwide of the past thirty years has contributed significantly to diminishing it to just under 50% of the population.Evangelists have a lot more churches around here, but they're all a lot smaller. I saw one that was just a tin roof. You spend the bulk of Sunday in church, and, depending on how conservative you are, avoid drink, dance, music and television. I suspect that, given the un-Christian reputation of much of America, most host families are Catholic.Though I don't know any Mayan families, from what I've read most Maya are christian but maintain many of their traditional Mayan beliefs. Though this may not make sense if you don't know much about Christian mission work in the world, it's the norm for indigenous communities. While it may never be easy to convert someone over to the idea that God lived on earth 2000 years ago and had never heard of where you lived, it's infinitely harder to convince them that the supernatural forces that guided their lives and the lives of their families for millenia were actually were misguided ideas or worse, distractions given by the devil. Usually indigenous groups end up (sometimes fervently, sometimes begrudgingly) going to weekly church and believing that there is at least some good in the religion, but doesn't necessarily explain the everyday good and bad fortune and often inextricably linked systems of medicine, science, art, luck, and family.

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