Monday, July 6, 2009

Cat depression...

So I came back from the 4th of July party in Antigua to not good news. The party was fun. I got that party-ed out feeling about halfway through (170 Peace Corps volunteers, 80% I had never met before + loud music + dancing + general craziness). The ambassador and his sons came and played in the staff vs. volunteer soccer game and beat us.

The bad news, I came home and the remaining mean kitten, Willie, has run away. I don't know if he got out and couldn't find his way back or just got sick of me. There is still faint hope he will come back, but he has been gone more than the 24 hours they make you wait to file a police report for missing persons by now...

Aslan has been wandering listlessly around the house, calling out for Willie, looking for her, and won't leave my side. It is SO sad. He is obviously really missing his friend and I don't know what to do. The online help I found wasn't so helpful.

Treating Cat Depression ( My comments in RED

Step 1
Cats are creatures of habit. Search your home for any recent changes, such as a new brand of kitty litter of cat food (or maybe disappeared companions?) . Temporarily revert to the old brands and gauge the changes in your pet.
Step 2
Monitor how you are presenting yourself to your cat. Pets pick up on the emotions of their owners. Try to be as cheerful as possible when around them. (Uh-oh...I am usually tired, lazy, or stressed out...)
Step 3
Play with your cat! Set aside at least 15-30 minutes a day to interact with your pet. An easy game: attach a feather to a stick using string. Pretend it’s a fishing pole, and dangle the feather over your cat’s head. Make him leap for it. Let him catch and play with it from time to time so he doesn’t get bored. ( from a chicken....?)
Step 4
Make an effort to pet, hold and groom your cat as often as you can. This will give him the security he needs to feel content. (ok, I think I could have thought of that...)
Step 5
Contact with the outdoors can work wonders. Clear a comfortable perch for your cat by a window, preferably in view of outdoor critters such as squirrels and birds. If you have a backyard, take your pet out for supervised visits. (what happens if your cat lives outside all the time...import some more interesting birds? The slingshot squirrel massacres here eliminate that possiblity...)
Step 6
Consider getting a second cat if the reason seems to be loneliness. An extra buddy to play with can make all the difference! (A second cat so it can run away too? Besides, I think he will know the you think the mangy cat he lets steal his food counts...?)
Step 7
Take your pet for an examination and blood test. If physical causes are ruled out, it could be the result of a chemical imbalance. You vet may prescribe anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications to treat it. (Guatemalans laugh at me for giving my cat real cat food instead of table scraps and for taking it for its shots...I think anti-depressants for my cat just might tip the crazy-gringa scale against me...that also sounds like something my PCV budget wouldn't quite allow for)

Too much FOOD....

A lot of the cultural adjustments for us in Guatemala center around food. Vegetarians are misunderstood and often ridiculed...vegans have it worse. The food make people sick, gives them worms, and there are times when we just don't want to see another tortilla ever again.

The worst part, though, is that everyone is always offering you food. They invite you to coffee, to lunch, to snack, to dinner. Every time you stop by to say hello the food get's brought out to make you feel welcome. Bread, coffee, tortillas, beans,'s all an option. The custom in probably amplified but the fact that I am obviously not from around here and people go out of their way to make sure I feel welcome. At Christmas, Keri and I were given more tamales than I could stand to eat in a year.

Ok, so I know, right? I too thought that a culture in which you were always offered food (and usually good tasting food) was HEAVEN! Who wouldn't want to have the option of always eating, not to mention never having to cook for yourself or wash the dishes because you are invited to eat in other people's houses?

Well folks, there is another cultural aspect that complicates things. In Guatemala, it is also rude and offensive to refuse an invitation. That's just ate dinner? It doesn't matter, you should eat again. "No thank you" translates to "I don't like your food or your house or you" when you turn down food. Also, if you don't clear your plate, it means you didn't like it! Example: I am in the middle of eating second snack at school (first snack was a huge cup of atol I was given before I went to the store to get the snack I really wanted) when the teachers invited me to go eat snack with them (which by the way is more of a meal...chicken and tortillas and rice..) So, I barely choke that down and have about an hour leeway before someone is offering me lunch. AH!

Who would have thought I, lover of food, daughter of Kathy "are you hungry?" Stanaway would dread the thought of free food...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mean Kittens

Left to right: Willie, Eto'o, and Yoda

So, when I decided that I would babysit 3 wild kittens with the goal of making them tame, I confess I really didn't have any idea of what I was getting myself into. I was thinking that they might adapt pretty quickly to me giving them food, recognize that I wasn't dangerous, let me pet them a little, and my job would be done.

What I didn't count on was the power of motherly anti-human propoganda, lack of human contact in their early moments of life, and well...fear.

I'm used to Aslan, who likes to cuddle and crawl under my covers for a nap. He even falls asleep in matching positions with Donald.

So, the experiment was not a great success. After a month of chasing them around trying to get them to come inside I was left with 2 1/2 wild kittens. We ended up giving away the two wildest to Donald's sister-in-law and I kept the least mean for further observation because there was hope. I thought you might want to meet them.

Eto'o (meanest)

Yoda (right I know, the ears. So cute but not happy with humans)

Ballena = Whale (Willie) He's the keeper...for now...

The good news is that Aslan had someone to play with although I was never quite sure is he was giving them a warm embrace or trying to suffocate them...I think it might be the end of my kitten raising career.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

This little piggy stayed home...

Ok, so the swine flu...oh, sorry...H1N1 or something more scientific sounding like that...has reached Guatemala. A lot of Guatemalans sounded kind of surprised, but with all the people/stuff traffic between here and out nothern neighbor, I would have been surprised if it didn't get here.

Although the nurses warned us of possible future outbreaks of bird flu and gave us an emergency dose of something in case of virul emergency (kind of feels like the bat-phone) swine flu was not in the PC medical (or anybody's) plans.

So, the Peace Corps has advised us to stockpile food in case of the worst case which would mean an in-house quarantine. I have decided to replicate my family's earthquake kit from days of old. My mom bought things like granola bars and spaghetti O's and other things that we normally weren't allowed to eat...C'MON EARTHQAUKE!! The good news was that when the earthquake didn't come in the following 3 years, we got to eat the chewy chocolate chip granola bars to avoid expiration....Mmmm...So the Guatemalan kit will include things like Chikys (chocolate enrobed cookies) and orange soda and pineapple pie and all the other things I shouldn't eat in Guatemala but would make me feel good about staying in my house 24/7.
I will also continue my ever popular Healthy Schools Guatemala mantra...lavate las manos lavate las manos lavate las manos...wash your hands wash your hands wash your hands...Nothing new in that department.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Don't be scared...

I have been hearing a lot about violence in Guatemala. The funny thing is, I have heard about it not from Guatemalans, not from the News, not even from fellow Peace Corps colleagues. I have been hearing about the increase in violent crime that is apparently happening in the country I am living in from...well...people who don't live in it.

Between Google Alerts, my Mom, and Google Alerts forwarded to me by my Mom, I have heard about quite a few instances in the recent past where foreigners have been targets of violent crime in Guatemalan. One involved a bus of people including a Canadian aid worker who were tied up and robbed on their way to Mexico. Another involved a pastor who was killed. There was also a group of University of Michigan students who were robbed on their spring break trip to Guate.
Ok, so I know I have probably scared you by now.

I am here to tell you: DON'T BE SCARED. Cancel the plane ticket you are buying in order to come here and drag me home to safety. I'm not going.

The truth is, there is crime in Guatemala. There is violent crime and often foreigners can be targeted. The truth is, thieves think that we have money and a lot of times they are right.

Most violent crime as far as statistics you might hear is concentrated in the capital city, which Peace Corps volunteers have almost no occasion to visit. As far as these stories you hear about buses of tourists getting robbed, there are things you can do to easily avoid these kind of situations:

1. Leave your laptop at home. In an article I read about the University of Michigan students that were robbed, they listed among the items taken were iPods, cameras, and phones. Thieves know we (foreigners) carry that kind of stuff. They see the luggage rack full and the girl in front roaming for a wireless signal on her laptop and they know we are a good target.

2. Stay on the highway. There are certain routes that are common targets of burglary. They are usually shortcuts that are more isolated ways to get to where you are going. The Peace Corps has a list of roads we aren't supposed to take. I know it seems like it gets you there quicker, but a robbery slows you down a lot.

3. Give it up. Most robbers don't want to hurt you. If they ask for your diamond earrings or your wallet, give it up. Totally not worth your life.

4. Don't worry about it. Ok, I know you see it on the news and it seems like it is happening all the time, but it's not. Lot's of people come to Guatemala and have a good time without ever being a victim of any crime. The crime most likely to hit you is pickpocketing. Big deal.

It makes me sad that a lot of people might not want to come here because of what is happening. It is a beautiful country with lots of great things to see. Crime happens a lot in New York and there are neighborhoods you should definitely avoid, but there are also a lot of cool things you should go there and see.

I have a friend that had a trip planned to come here to Guatemala and cancelled at the last minute because he was worried about safety. I don't think anyone should do something they aren't comfortable with. However, there are a lot of things you can do here to avoid unsafe situations and these kind of instances aren't that common.

Guatemala relies a lot on tourism to boost its economy. So don't be afraid. Leave your iPhone at home and get down here!

Monday, February 16, 2009

NASCAR has nothing on the Guatemalan "Chicken Buses"

Here is another submission by my guest writer, describing life in Guatemala better than I ever could.

To properly transmit an understanding of this experience I must first define the elements so as you are reading, you can fully appreciate the story:

To and from anywhere is the country of Guatemala, you have the following transportation options:

Walking - Over two weeks of travel in this beautiful country, we saw lots of people walking in the middle of nowhere, many times with a substantial load on their back to an apparent destination.

Bicycle - Pavement, gravel road or path, the bicycle is alive and well.

Car or Pickup - *** Note to US Automakers, you lost the battle in Central America! 90% of the vehicles I saw were Toyota, the other 10% are mostly Asian between Nissan & Mitsubishi. (A brief moment of silence please, I saw less than 5 Volkswagens during our visit). Lastly, of the 90% Toyota figure, 80% of that total were pickups for hauling things or people, or things & people at the same time).

Private Coach - Can you say "TURISTA".

Chicken Bus - Primary means of travel for any distance for 98% of Guatemalans (including cool travelers with personal bi-Iingual guides). I'm sure there was a time when someone first called buses by this name but here is a picture of the chickens ready to go on the top of the "Chicken Bus":

People ride these buses for school, work or traveling to the next city for "market day", selling their goods in an all cash or barter system:

Where do American used Toyotas and School Buses go ? Guatemala

Now add the free market of these travelers to a bus driver (owner) and helper (a sometimes amazing gymnast climbing with heavy loads up on the roof and back into the moving bus), all the while calling out for travelers to ride their bus along the route. When not busy with these tasks the young man is collecting money and tracking new riders so he can collect their money.

Two more things, then we'll be ready for the story. Very few buses are left with their dark yellow exterior. Most are repainted and then given a "name", possibly a pretty girl or girlfriend:

Or if they really go all out, look at the chrome and fancy paint of this unit:

Getting to/from anywhere in Guatemala including the major cities and also the most off track gravel road you will have an option to catch a "Chicken Bus". (I will call it a bus from now on so I don't annoy my readers). Your first order of business is to identify the direction you want to go (which could include a city beyond your planned destination) and then find a group of people waiting on the side of the road or a regular bus stop. Then you watch and listen for approaching buses by the loud diesel engine and/or air horn. As you hear them approach then you look to see the young helper leaning out the folding door shouting their intended destination "XELA, XELA, XELA..." pronounced Shayla, Shayla, Shayla. (Again, think carnival barker). You either move toward the bus or waive your hand as it approaches at high speed to signal your intention to ride their bus. Now each bus is independently owned but there seems to be some understood cost of a bus ride because people get on the bus and sometimes travel many miles until actually transacting their payment.

Now to my NASCAR reference. I will start by stating what I feel is the generally understood philosphy of every bus driver we encountered:

"No bus, coach, commercial truck, private van, pickup, car or any other moving thing shall remain UNPASSED !!"

Every highway, secondary road, construction zone or gravel backroad is also open game for them to pass traffic whether it's an open straight away or approaching blind corner.

Were your scared ? No, not really. Maybe it was the loud music they play from a 4 speaker stereo or the typical religious references scattered throughout the interior or the non-chalant attitude of the other riders which seemed to say "this is normal, no big deal". Again, couple this speed driving with the drivers constant use of the airhorn and their eagle eye for potential clients waiting beside the road. What an experience !

Next theory: (Actually stated by my wife Kathy). Guatemalan bus riders must have velcro in the seat of their pants. We were sliding side to side while holding on to the seat (classic school bus seats by the way) in front of us while our local friends sat quietly, often with a child in their lap with no apparent need to HOLD ON ! We're talking sore forearms and tention headaches from each leg of the trip...

Last thought: The bragging rights for Cummins, Detriot and Catapillar Diesel engines is alive and well in Guatemala. The last bus we road from Xela back to Guatemala City (or Guate if you're a cool traveler or local) was sitting in the line que of the bus terminal. I noticed the driver had a "CAT" logo cap on and assumed he wore it for no apparent reason. Was I surprised when he fired up the bus engine and typical "CAT" sound roared to life "Blap,blap,blap,blap..." Now if you know your commercial diesel engines very well, the CAT diesel is known for one thing and that is pulling power on the hills. Our new friend drove real slow and cool out of town and then once we hit the open road (i.e. two lane road with traffic out of town he started what would be normal for the next 5 1/2 hours: Pass, pass, pass, pass, airhorn, stop for people, pass, pass, pass, airhorn, stop, let some off etc. Then you could see the faint smile of satisfaction on his face as we approached the hills where the CAT would really shine again with the idea, anything ahead of him needed to be passed.

We made record time to Guate according to Andrea and I was all ready with my practiced spanish "Bueno Chofer" when we encountered traffic as we entered the city. Way up ahead we could see a minor accident in our lane and the CAT driver crawled along clear up to the accident over 20 minutes with no attempt to move over a lane. Guatemalans are infected by our same disease called "Rubber Necking" which is slowing down to look at an accident or distraction for no logical reason.

I may not have done this experience justice but I will leave you with one last thought and a picture. I stand 6'0 feet tall and on average was a head taller that our new friends. When a big gringo rides the bus, the space next to him will be the last to fill including everyone else sitting 3 to a seat. I wanted to show the bathrooms we used in Xela before boarding for our long ride. You pay to use them and are handed a handful of tissue or a section of the local newspaper ad's for wiping... The last two elements are the toilet walls were about 4'0 high with no seat attached to the comode and the common Guatemalan practice was employed that you don't flush the paper, you put it in a bin or throw it on the floor in this case.

It's a different country with amazing, spectacular scenary and geniune, friendly people wherever we traveled. They have one really cool thing going for them that the rest of the world could learn from: Everywhere we went, no matter who we encountered, a pleasant greeting was exchanged: Buenos Dias, Buenos tardes or Buenos noches, Good morning, Good afternoon or Good evening. Wouldn't that make your world a better (and more friendly) place ?

Regards, Jim

Special guests

Hey everyone! Last month I had the GREAT opportunity to have my parents come and visit me! It was indescribable and I wish I could find the words to tell you all about it, but I will leave it to my special guest writer to try and put the experience into words. Enjoy!

Imagine if you will, flying to a non-English speaking country, clearing customs and walking out of the unfamiliar airport. Then imagine being met by your bi-lingual tour guide, accompanied by a hotel shuttle with all arrangements made for the next 4 days to tour the country including some of the most popular and picturesque tourist sites.

Then imagine traveling to their hometown to spending a week as their guest, learning about their life, meeting their friends and walking the streets of their town as a special visitor.

Dinner with their family friends:

And enjoying their pets:

Without the creature comforts like heat and hot running water:

Doing the laundry was a whole new process:

And transportation was a real adventure: (more on that later)

And then imagine in the reality of these special two weeks, that your special guide was our daughter Andrea, personally showing us her life in Guatemala working for the Peace Corps. Teaching health education in 3 schools, living in a small town at 9000 feet, completely fluent in Spanish, caring and loving people as an extension of our family and community. Kathy and I were blown away and amazed at her life there.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Where are you Miss Keri?

Christmas in Guatemala = Tamales + More Tamales + Unsafe Firecrackers + Fruit Punch

Also equals a visit from Keri which despite several fiascos and illnesses was really fun. Here are some highlights of what we did!

Here are the firecrackers we lit at Christmas. I know they don't look like much, but they cause sparks and noises that send you running for your life. Unfortunately Donald didn't tell us that we would have to run AND take over so there was a pretty close call but we escaped with all our limbs.

A day or two after...or was it before...Christmas we went on a hike down to the wooden bridge at the river. Donald made us run across it and I think maybe the expression speaks for how scared I was and how stable that wooden bridge they installed in the 70's feels today.

After Christmas we went to Panajachel where Keri and I got a zipline in before we got ragingly ill (probably from the raw vegetables I forgot to warn her about...) and went home early.

It was ok though beacause we were well in time for Donald and Abner to take us to the ruins in Zaculeu and to the Hot Springs. The ruins were fun, although the plaster-job that the United Fruit Company did in the 40's ruins all illusion of authenticity that might have remained. All the same, they were fun to climb and we had a nice picnic lunch.
All in all, it was a memorable visit and a memorable Christmas for both of us. She was a good sport about everything, even though she was sick almost the whole time. In a time when I should have been REALLY depressed missing friends and family, she came and saved me!