Saturday, May 20, 2006

La historia de 'Chaco'

Don Ramone is the guard at the office where I work. His job, fill the cars and motorcycles with gas, watch the gate for visitors, and other benign tasks. When he is not at work his form changes dramatically: from a baseball cap, dirty jeans t-shirt kind of guy into a cowboy hat, community politician with a gleam of authority in his eye. The community of 2000 respects him and his family loves him; at the office they ask him to fill up the tank from the barrel of gas and to bring water from the storage closet. Every day I arrive to work, a short 5 minute walk or 2 minute bike down the one dirt-path-excuse-for-a-road, Don Ramone beckons with his hand in front of his mouth, palm inward, open and close “¿Y el pan, Chaco?”, referring to an innate desire we both have to drop the bullshit, work at meaningful tasks, but always, ALWAYS leave room for the sweet sugar-butter-couldn’t be anything less nutritious-delicious bread rolls typical to Guatemala. I sometimes humor him and bring some ‘pan’, and during one of these ‘lets eat bread together rarities’, I asked “¿Y qué o quien es ‘Chaco’?”. He told me it was a nickname for the Quek´chi version of the name ‘Zacarias’, and besides that, nothing else. Needless to say, I liked it. In my time in Guatemala I had been everything from ‘Gringo’ to ‘Zach’ to ‘Sacarías mi pisto’. Now I was ‘Chaco’, and as is Don Ramone a respected man outside the ‘office’ where he works to supplement a near non-existent income to support his family, I was something I couldn’t explain yet carried the all-important element of respect. These are the memoirs of Chaco, the Peace Corps volunteer in rural Guatemala re-defining beliefs, value-systems and nicknames over a damn good piece of sweet-bread. Let the entries serve as reminders to a ‘Zach’ that in the future may not remember what ‘Chaco’ was (except for an expensive sandal that is now tide-tossed on the southern Pacific shores of Guatemala), and to others who care to journey down a road through cultural boundaries, spiritual blockades, and emotional bridges. …oh, Chaco says use the ‘Comments’ section (that’s what it’s for).

Friday, May 19, 2006

The road less-travelled...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Welcome Home

Community Library- Finished Posted by Picasa

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The Good

  • Tortillas
  • Great weather (in certain areas)
  • Productivity in work
  • Siestas
  • Gallo Beer
  • The music
  • The dancing
  • The children
  • The women
  • The people
  • The culture(s)
  • The textiles
  • The food
  • The ability to see oceans, lakes, volcanoes, cloud forest, desert and jungle in one day
  • The “hora chapina”
  • Beans
  • The indigenous dress
  • Paca or used N- American clothes for 1Q
  • The Mayan ceremony
  • Children in school
  • Peace Accords
  • Development efforts
  • The language(s)
  • Fruit from trees
  • Coffee
  • Sugar
  • Biodiversity
  • Nature
  • Wildlife
  • Adventure
  • Life

The Bad

  • Diesel fumes
  • The weather (hot as hell and cold as ice in some places)
  • Un-productivity in work
  • Rooster calls at 3 in the morning
  • Bus horns at 4 in the morning
  • Transportation via old buses with crazy drivers
  • Transportation via rocky roads
  • Five hours seated in a microbus with 25 people
  • Five hours waiting for the microbus
  • The food
  • The men (lazy, machista)
  • The music
  • Deforestation
  • Animals robbed from the jungle for pets
  • Garbage
  • Protests
  • Children working on the streets
  • Robbers
  • Political Corruption
  • Boredom

The Ugly

  • Gang members
  • Animals killed for the sake of killing
  • Head on collision with two buses full of people
  • Women raped and killed
  • Girls working for sex
  • Political Scandal
  • Civil War
  • Contamination of water and air
  • Natural disasters
  • Poverty
  • Death

The Balance


The term re-emplacement has mixed meanings for me: it assumes a change is at hand, yet doesn’t imply a good or bad change. Re-emplacement means a job is over yet it is not. Re-emplacement encompasses the idea of being tired or worn out and therefore in need of a “substitute”. I am being replaced. Two weeks have passed since the nice couple that will “replace” me visited Salacuim, and I still don’t know what to think about it. Their look of surprise and dismay at witnessing my basic living conditions (wood house full of spiders, bath with rainwater and bucket, compost toilet to name a few of the amenities) made me ask myself “Who is crazy- They or I?” As I took them on a tour of the area, I realized the answer was “A little of both”: they being North-Americans accustomed to the “standards” (as defined by culture) in life; they as volunteers who saw how OTHER volunteers lived (big-screen TV; houses of two floors; houses with lights and toilets) and expected that, and myself as a somewhat adaptable person who doesn’t care that the water I bath in comes from a well or clouds, or that sometimes the smell of shit from the nearby toilet (not my own) wafts into my bedroom. As the saying (and song by Metallica incidentally) goes, “In the eye of the beholder”: we are both, in our own ways “crazy”. Now that my time as a “volunteer” is almost over, I realize that what makes us unique as human beings is the fact we are ADAPTABLE: we can move from place to place without the burden of having to shed fur or change color. Part of this reality makes us so successful; part of it makes us destructive. As I see the fruit of my work in counter of this “destruction” (although this is a relative term defined by context), I realize that the ONLY way my job can be completed is via replacements: via more volunteers that will continue the legacy (if only that were the case) started by myself and volunteers before me. I may be able to stay working as a volunteer another year, yet will this bring the long-term goal closer? The answer is no. Only through a network of re-emplacement and continuation will my project; educating the youth of the eco region Lachua in order that they conserve their resources now and in the future; be viable. In the meantime, my work is to figure out the next step in MY life- who will I replace?


Diana is a dog; a female dog or bitch to use the term correctly. Diana´s life, in many ways, mirrors the state of gender in Guatemala and the rest of the world: when Diana arrived at the house, she was pregnant, and we adored her with food, petting and the attention that a pet deserves. At the moment five cute puppies shot out of her, she became a rag tossed into the corner and forgotten: “¡Diana, afuera!” being one of the choice phrases thrown at the poor mother like a half-eaten and rejected bone. Her life changed from a bearer of life to “chucho” or street-dog, and now she is chained to posts so the puppies don’t leave, she is given food last or not at all, and she has basically been…forgotten. What is it about us that adores a pregnant being, and at the moment when the work REALLY begins (you try having five hungry animals with sharp teeth go after your nipples) we forget that the cute little animals came from a mother, and may eventually be a mother themselves in the future (in Guatemala sooner rather than later)? And just as Diana is left to scavenge for scraps as puppies pounce on thrown bits of food, the mothers of Guatemala are treated the same: if the baby is trouble, it is your fault; if the baby doesn’t have a father because the irresponsible bastard went to live with another women and have more bastard babies, it is YOUR fault. “That whore has two kids and they will never see their father….too bad” is spoken as down the street the father of the two kids is with another woman. Maybe these acts of cruelty to mothers are caused by the knowledge that life comes and goes, and once an animal (humans included) have had their babies the focus switches to the little lives: to the needs of the little mouths that will speak (or bark) for the future. Or maybe it is because we as humans are insensitive. As the Fleetwood Mac song goes- “Diana rings like a bell in the night…wouldn’t you love to love her?” Sometimes the answer to that question is no.

Friday, March 03, 2006


little girl
complacent, obedient
taking her place reside her mother
taking her place beside the fire
for the tortillas to be turned
for her father to return
for her suitor to whisk her away
to stand next to another fire
waiting, obedient
all her life
until her husband leaves for another
and the now woman/mother
is left standing
next to the fire
next to the almost turned tortillas
next to her own

little girl

San Marcos (revisited)

Visitor Amanda and I watched the cloud shadows dance on cliffs as the boat sped on choppy waves to the dock of the lake-side community San Marcos. This was the second time visiting the Lake Atitlán gem; a tourist spot hidden beneath trees near the shore only to open into a thriving Kac´chi´quel community above the tree line where towering cliffs loomed above. And loomed they did. With the advent of hurricane Stan (the hurricane you didn’t hear about as Katrina flops and Pakistani death-counts reached the news), the once tranquil, peaceful community was, quite literally, rocked off its foundation with a mudslide that came down from the cliff-heavens at one in the morning bearing tons of sludge-filled wrath. Amanda and I were to stay in the Spanish school, where our money would go to help education, until the confrontation of workers fixing the now non-existent bridge blocked our path. We backtracked into tourist-ville, and returned to the town-center later to take in the damage. Where friend Ben and I once played with local kids on the monkey bars and swings now lay a swath of rock as if the hurricane decided to rain boulders instead of water; the kids, however, dressed as always in their indigenous traje or classic American second-hand, were still playing, albeit in monkey bars much easier to reach and much harder on the fall. As we swung on the bars and broken swings we noticed the scars on the cliffs above- each a small streak in the massive flow that met in the central valley and flooded the town. As we left to investigate the damage elsewhere, we noticed the merry-go-round: the bars left standing as if isolated perpetually from the turning-base buried in two feet of rubble. Our hike brought us to the main flow, where a once tranquil stream had turned into a gouge into the earth twenty feet deep and twice as wide- the ladies in dress crossed the barren rock-land with buckets of clothes on their heads, impervious to the change they had grown accustomed to and that now was slapping me in the face. The real shock came as we walked to the soccer field, and where once I watched kids play (albeit a bit unorganized) now the path of destruction crossed through the center of the field; a free kick towards the goal would have to cross thirty feet of a gorge before reaching the net. I could here a distant cry of “goal!” as if from memory in a place soccer would not be played for a long time. As we left the next day, my views of the lake on all sides confirmed the damage elsewhere: scars left on mountainsides as soil once held by root structure was washed down the tree-less grade. Across the lake towered volcano Atitlán, on the slopes of which a mudslide had come down and buried a town of more than a thousand people as they were sleeping in their beds. Thoughts of the natural disasters crept into my brain slowly, and I realized, as if understanding, that to see the before and after is to feel a mere piece of what had happened: seeing the news on TV gives hardly a clue to the damage, seeing the place as it is after opens a glimpse, the before and after provides context. I thought of what feelings must be intertwined with people who lived through the destruction; actually experiencing the roar of earth as the heavens came crashing down in the form of rock and sludge, and how my curiosity was finally quenched as I had talked to a man of about 50 that morning. José explained his father and grandfather had passed down to him the information that 55 years earlier the same thing had happened: rains, mudslides, destruction. Now, according to José, the people KNEW about the mudslides because, within two generations, they had two incidents to pass down through oral history. José, hands and clothes dusty from shovelling rock and dirt all day, explained how now the people of San Marcos and around knew that all houses, bridges, all…plans, were based on this knowledge: you have 55 years until the next one. My thoughts returned to the moment as the boat arrived at Panajachel, and the countless men in used American t-shirts asked me “Where you going…Taxi?” I looked at them, back at the scars along the lake, and started slowly walking along the now washed away beach, trying to see 55 years into the future

Friday, February 17, 2006

Immortal mindful moment (Immimo)

Immimo’s are part of those tasks we must partake in every day; tasks which when taken together as one task, on their various days of execution, actually become more than tasks but rather perpetual motions in time. For example: I wash my face every day, at least two or three times. This signifies that taken by itself, a face-wash is approximately 1-2 minutes of spent time. Taken as a daily activity, it takes up 3-6 minutes. Doesn’t seem like a lot? (We’ve all heard these types of stats before)- 38 days of my life are spent washing my face (this is based on the 1 minute “super-scrub”). The point here isn’t to wash my face less or make a wash-facing (catch that?) schedule, but to realize that in EVERY activity done routinely there lies the potential for Immimo- or stated implicitly, moments that are inevitable as part of the day and therefore become part of a perpetual process of functional consciousness as a human being. By “functional consciousness”, I mean an automated response system imbedded in mindful conscious and sub-conscious thought and therefore action. Do I think about washing my face when I do? Not really. Mostly I wash and think about what I will do AFTER I wash, or I am thinking about still sleeping. What I ask of myself and no less of others, is to no longer JUST wash-face, but rather to wash-face and THINK about facing wash; as in a mindful-moment of face washing splendour, washing face for the art of face washing. This is Immimo: the art of being in the moment during that routine moment we usually are elsewhere. If we can do this, we will have more Immimo time for each of the following activities:
Mowing teeth
Brushing lawn (wait...)
Wall staring
Waiting for water to boil
Peeing in flower garden while looking at stars
Vacuuming/Sweeping* (*depending on level of developed country you are in)
Doing laundry
Walking dog
Walking/Driving to work*
Working in general
Living in general
Washing dishes
And many more…
I don’t know, but sometimes I REALLY love to just wash the crap out of dishes- like wash them with a Karate Kid wax-on wax-off that leaves them spotless. And when I DO focus on just the washing, my technique improves ten-fold; as if I and the washing are one, the damn silver-ware are clean before I know it, and the rinsing basically does itself. Basically, my point here is if I assigned arbitrary numerical values to each activity listed above that represented time spent in lifetime (using the same formula as face-washing), it could be a bunch more time spent in the moment rather than with our heads up our asses…I have to go wash my face.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Land of Little Houses

West of Salcuim; across the Chixoy river and into the department of Quiche, there is a large humid plain of relatively undeveloped land named Ixcan, where during the civil war families had gone to escape from the terrors of war only to be tracked down by the same army from which they fled to be massacred. Across this plan is the Ixcan river, which when crossed changes departments again (Huehuetenango), and the dirt road begins to climb straight up into one of the meanest and rockiest routes in Guatemala (the only people who can drive there have Toyota Land Cruisers from the seventies- these trucks, loaded with people, are the only system of transport). It was along this path that I went one Saturday morning in order to arrive, 14 hours after we had left, to Jacaltenengo, or literally the “Land of Little Houses”. We left at seven in the morning in one of the Projects 4WD and 4-door Toyota Helix Turbo Diesel pickups (I love these trucks). From Salacuim the road continued along before-mentioned route, until after climbing the mean steep incline for two hours; composition of vegetation changing and view off into Mexico fading into the clouds, we arrived at the town of Barrias, set in a wide valley of the giant Cuchumatanes Mountains in Huehuetenango. We ate lunch, then continued driving upwards again (two more hours), until the chill in the air and lack of deciduous trees clued me into the fact that I was in a different world- single-lane dirt road traversing a ridgeline that continued upward into the rain-choked clouds and fell steeply downward into fog. The towns that we passed through were indeed filled with small houses: small huts made of adobe with wood-shingled roofs and even smaller, elaborately painted doors. The people, accordingly, matched the size of their doors. As we drove awestruck at this change of climate/culture combo, we were cut off by a pack of sheep (small), and the herdsman- a small women and smaller child. We tried to take a picture, but she did not understand our Spanish (nor Q´ekchi´), and did not like the fact that a pack of people in a car were pointing a shining box at her. We continued on; more small towns with smaller houses and even smaller doors and people, until the road finally began to fall…and fall it did. Down, down, down- we could finally see the bottom of the valley, yet distance made it look incomprehensible (which it was). As we dropped out of fog-land, the view was amazing- foothills fading away to plain that continued to the horizon where setting sun was reflecting off of man-made lake…in Mexico. Down-down some more; Vicente Fernandez and Enrique Iglesias providing entertainment as the journey continued, and finally we arrived at the bottom: a route that, from valley to valley was an astonishingly small sum of 160 kilometers, yet took us eight hours. The road continued along the plain, through small towns near a big sink hole that is said be 500 meters across and 2 kilometers deep (when we arrived in the town nearest to the hole, we asked “Where is the big hole?”. The man we asked replied that we were in it, which was in fact true- the town being located in a larger sunken area surrounded by cliffs…we didn’t ask again), until finally we, after a tease of asphalt for the only five minutes of the day, took a left and started up, up and up another dirt road in large valley of the famed Cuchumatanes (this valley on the other side of said mountains). Three hours later during nightfall, we arrived at Jacaltenengo. The next day brought light to see the town, and I was a bit disappointed; no small houses here. Rather, “Jacal” for short is a thriving town known for local music, one of the smallest remaining groups of Mayans, and is located on a huge shoulder of the huger mountain range on the edge of a steep cliff dropping down a thousand feet into a valley formed from the raging Blue River (the water really is aqua-marine blue formed from minerals of the mountain). Across the massive valley is the neighbouring town San Mateo, a village reachable in two minutes by bird but two hours by car (down the valley, cross river, then up again). In this place where time and distance clash another view was had to the north-west, back down the valley we had climbed the previous night, where probably 100 kilometers away we could still see the lake formed by Mexican dam. As I took the time to walk around and enjoy the scenery (many, many beautiful girls of mixed Guatemalan/Mayan descent), I realized I needn’t see more little houses- here in Jacaltenango, land of music, college students, mountains and majestic views, the “little” houses were all gone.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


My wait on the mexican side of things was rushed by the sense of urgency at needing to be back in Salacuim at 7- the high school was having its graduation. Without means to coerce the Guatemalan pick-up driver to leave early, I resigned to fill my Nalgene bottle with a liter of beer (called “caguamas” in Mexico) with my last 20 pesos, and I waited. We finally left an hour later, and hopes of getting back to Salacium that afternoon diminished...time cruising by much faster than the speed of the pick-up loaded down with people. The sudden downpour of rain furthered my anguish, and finally I arrived at Playa Grande; wet, tired, a little buzzed, and still an hour or 26 kilometers from Salacuim. I spotted the truck from my office almost immediately, and my spirits soared- I was guaranteed a ride home. In celebration I convinced one of the dudes from work to have another beer with me while the others finished errands. After that, we filled my Nalgene again. Needless to say, when I arrived to Salacuim I was hungry, a bit drunk, and exhausted. “OK,” I thought, “Grab something to eat at the comedor, then make an appearance along the back wall of the ceremony; maybe a couple of pictures to prove I was there, and home to bed”. If only life were that easy. After a rapid meal that left me full on the thick tortillas typical to G-mala and unheard of in Mexico (at least the part I visited), I walked through the still-raining sky and snuck in the church where the ceremony was being held- 8 o-clock was the time, but the crowd was just finishing the Guatemalan national anthem (a combined late start from “la hora chapina” and the lengthiness of their anthem). The ceremony began, and as I took my two alibi-guaranteeing pictures, my plans of warm bed-time were washed away with the sound of rain on the tin-roof, and the announcement “Would the Landscape Architect Zacarías please step forward!” followed by applause. Oh shit. Luckily, the secretary of the office as well as my boss were called up as well, and before I knew it my full, tired, dirty and drunk self was present before half the community next to them. The ceremony continued, and the inevitable happened after ten minutes of speeches- my turn to step to the podium and inspire these kids, some of whom were leaving based on the scholarships we had given them, some of them without a chance in hell (excuse my literalness) in getting out of Salacuim without a miracle. I grabbed the mike, and began some sort of historical account of the things I had done with these kids- basketball and volleyball tournaments, painting the basketball court in town, tree nurseries, and before long realized I needed some spice about the future and not just the past. “So...more than words can say I believe these...(pause to count the number of graduates and laughter from the crowd)...twelve individuals deserve a huge round of applause, and best of luck in the future...congratulations.” Done. With that the nervousness of being a semi-drunk dirty gringo diminished, and the ceremony went well- I even grabbed the mike again to announce the inauguration for the community library, and to tell the graduates not to use their diplomas to write names and numbers of girl/boyfriends....woops- time for bed.