August 1998


1/99 My apologies for not writing sooner, but the awful truth is that about August a small animal heard the kind whirrings of my floppy drive and the emanating warmth. Finding it intriguing it crawled inside.. and died. Thus, my floppy drive, delicate as it is, began hacking up and sputtering unable to function. Which made these wonderfully typed entries, impossible to transfer by disk and thus, twice the work [webmaster note: make that four times the work -- guess who scanned this in?]. I'm also happy to say I was pretty darn busy.



Brynn Johnson modelling
her PC pissed off look

the "did you really just say that?"
look. A Joey Classic!

Joel "what the hell you looking at?" look
Yesterday I was getting furious as the teachers in my environmental education class. While I gave my carefully planned presentation, they wandered in and out of class like lost ducklings. I didn't yell, but I sure called on these wanderers a lot. They smiled and shrugged.

It is a false premise to think that all Peace Corps Volunteers are patient and don't on occasion get angry. This was a surprise for me. Talking to Bill Riley, three time volunteer and the most dedicated volunteer of our group, he told me about cursing out his counterpart. There went my sanctimonious image of us as faithful saints-in-training. Development isn't always wonderful heart warming Hallmark moments. Although, 'it was nice to know I wasn't alone in my frustrations.



Me, Cousin Emilio, Mario [my counterpart], D.C.M. Bill Brencick, Roger Carnignan, Mayor Alberado, Elizabeth Brecnick & Jorge
Actually, it was the Deputy Chief of Mission Bill Brencick and technically'since the Ambassador was in Puerto Rico at the time, he was "Charge DAffaires" But trying to explain this to the mayor was like explaining yellow to a blind man. Very difficult.

But I met Bill, his wife Elizabeth and the Embassy' s Economist Roger Carnignan at the Chaguifton entrance to the Volcano lpala. However. Bill's "puro Agua Blanquense" bodyguard, was not having his boss climbing up the rival lpala side of the Volcano. So we turned tail, with two spanking clean green Jeep Cherokees and headed for Agua Blanca. I wasn't about to argue, the man had an uzi.

Arriving at Monte Rico we made our way up the unmaintained trail. After two robberies on this stretch of trail, the owner Manual Hernandez has let the "monte" (brush) run wild. By clearing it, he felt he would have been helping the robbers. It was a tougher hike than normal for that reason and also because we started with the Chiquimula burning sun high overhead.

Despite the heat, for me it was a joy to finally get to talk foreign affairs (other than immigration) with informed people. It made me miss the World Affairs Council, my Seattle friends and the magazine, the Economist. Between the three of them they had lived in India, Argentina, Jamaica et. al..

We had lunch with Carmela, Don Roberto's wife. A spiced beef caldo whose ingredients I had sent up the day before. I bought too much thinking that Don Roberto and Cannela would get a good meal or two afterwards. Considering how many times they have fed me, this was a small recompense.

We went to the coffee plant nursery where I presented Bill to Mynor Romero- leaving Mynor for the first time I have ever seen, speechless. Mvnor is the Agroforestry engineer who works the project, and while funny and gregarious, occasionally self-important. I smiled a bit cruelly as he stumbled for words.

Strangely, going down was the toughest part. The climb 1.5 hours, down 2.5. What we didn't know, but Bill quickly picked up, is that we were not being led to the car. Instead, Bill's bodyguard (Armando is his name, I believe) borrowing my machete, liter ally cut a trail that "De Repente" (out of the blue) took us within 100 yards of his home. He invited us into the cleanest dirt floor house I have ever seen. His wife and kids could have been cut from glass they were so clean. But I was glad I was not the diplomats, Bill and Elizabeth, despite their exhaustion politely commented on everything, asked all the right questions and made Armando feel prettv damn good.

Then back to the car. Within a kilometer, a blown out tire. Armando and I wrestled with the jack for a moment before getting the tire up and changed. By all rights I was too dirty to get back inside this clean car. Moments later we are on the road, and it starts raining hard. My only disappointment is that this leaves no time to visit my house.

Our plans had included a brief meeting with the mayor. Nothing formal that would have required Charlie the PC Director to come out and chaperone. So we agree to dinner in Chiquimula at the El Toro. We buzz over to Chiquimula, find the "Pearl of the Orient" Hotel for them, and Hotel Hernandez for me and the guard. The price difference is about 100Q. Although apparently I had a hotter shower.

Well the Muni boys (aka Keystone cops) meet us at the El Toro, they even got there early. I was pretty worried about the whole thing, but after my second beer I came to realize that dealing with pretty hyper Guatemalans probably wasn't anything that Bill hadn't dealt with before. Bill with his beer and Alverado with his whiskey talked politics. Jorge borrowed my camera and went off to flirt with our waitress. Mario chatted up Elizabeth. While Roger and I tried to figure out what the Mayor's cousin was trying to say.

The next morning we headed to Guate where I reentered "civilization," with a couple of cups of coffee at the Brencick's gorgeous house that would stay in my dreams (yes, I had dreams about coffee).



Suddenly I find mvself a political entity. The supervisor forbid teachers from attending my class today. Ironic. But Professor Tito is notorious for picking fights. It's a family tradition, which I found out when I got stuck in a very heated (one-side heated, other side confused and peeved) discussion with his brother Tulio. Tullo- the 6" horn rimmed cokebottle glasses American football player sized supervisor introduced himself through the topic of the need to beat students with a stick. What?! I disagreed with as much contempt as I & my campo Spanish could hold.

Undeterred, he continued on how I should not be working with the Laguna de lpala, but rather with the lpala oxidation lake. Apparently the Japanese government gave 6,000,000 quetzales (about $1 million) to create a lake to process solid waste. Well like many things, the money was robbed by the previous municipality. But now he was demanding that I go out and ask for more international help. Was he crazy?

After watching the Japanese dump $1 million down the hole, what other international organization in their right mind is going to come in and save the day?

Every once in a while I want to scream at the people who continuously put their hand out, begging. Have you no self-respect? By virtue of being the American I am the money man. Horse turds. What gain does some international aid organization have to benefit by improving the waste management system? (I realize I may be dejustifying myself out of a job) There are alwavs global benefits for protecting the environment, but environmental health is their business: their kids, their family, their health, their life, or not.

Perhaps this was not the correct answer and why his brother told the teachers to skip class.


Luckily for every Tulio there is a Doctor Chang. I bet something has already tipped you off that he is not really Latino.

I met the Doctor one day when I stuck my finger out at the side of the road (that's the equivalent to sticking out your thumb) and gave the long swinging loop to gesture I was looking for the long jalon (ride) and this passing careacha (bucket of bolts) g rey Subaru huffed to a halt. I hopped in and met a brightly smiling silver haired Chinese Guatemalan.

Every once in a while I get lucky enough to get into a mind-bending conversation (yes, you could say paradigm shifting). Well that's what happened in this case more from listening than from talking in this case. Dr. Jorge Chang was born in China before t he revolution. During which he and his brother fled the country in fear of the persecution. He arrived in San Francisco and slowly began working his way down the continent. Arriving in Guatemalan in the late 1950s at the ripe age of 17. He got himself through medical school, and his brother through dental school. In school he was offered and accepted a scholarship to study in Madrid. In Madrid he studies and began his "extracurricular," the Flamenco guitar. Against his sponsors wishes he traveled the continent, France, Italy, and Germany. He still dreams of returning to Spain to see it without fascism. Eventually he returned to Guatemala only to turn South and travelling from Panama to Brazil.

A founding father of lpala, he is called with affection "el Chino." He reeled off the history of lpala, replete with past Peace Corps Volunteers: Nurses, agforesters, animal husbanders (that sounds funny to me) and many others. He wound stories of Volunteers affairs, marriages, evacuates but overall "buena gente" (good people) that had preceded me.

I couldn't help but ask about the health of lpala- lpala has the lowest sickness and baby death rate of anywhere in Guatemala. Later I would see his clean, organized hospital, complete with baby birthing center, and come to believe this stat. They even had a computer system for tracking it - complete with an assistant playing Solitare.

A few weeks after our road trip to Guatemala city, Mario's red toyota pickup came loudly honking down the dirt road into the village. It's 8PM which means they are waking the neighbors. Out of this circus car pops Mario, Beto (Mario's poet-cousin), and Dr. Chang. They bring in their 4-16 ounce Gallo beers. I retrieved my guitar, some grilled cheese sandwiches (which they lied and said they liked) and some Mexican high-grade tequila. The auspicious reason they came was to "get out of lpala." But the real reason was because Dr. Chang's brother had died the previous day, and it was too much even for the good doctor.

So we all holed up on my porch, ranted and raved about politics, philosophy, poetry and (as in all lpala male conversations) women. And we sat and listened to a mixture of brilliant Flamenco guitar, sad songs written by the doctor, and particularly bawdy songs also by the good doctor.

The next day, my neighbors were all curious about what exactly had happened on my front porch. And would it be happening again soon? And at that hour?

AUGUST 31,1998



Today was a reminder of exactly how cut throat politics is. I watched the Presidential entourage get out of their fancy vehicles with video cameras and wide-body bodyguards and grunts, aka fellow PAN mayors. PAN is the National Advancement Party, the party of President Arzu a moderate conservative. Alverado Pinto, the mayor of lpala and thus the supposed host for the event sat desnuded in a little metal chair on one side, while the president and his entourage each sat in a high throne like wooden chair. The mayor is the Christian Democrats, not PAN thus he was relegated to a very minor role.

He has a striking resemblance to Inspector Clusoe both in looks and voice. His moustache, nasal voice, fading hairline except he's not French and wears a cowboy hat. His rival the former mayor Roel Perez upstaged him with a rousing speech including a couple of less than subtle bashes on Don Alverado.

Earlier in the day, I had met Roel. I felt like he was trying to sell me something. I usually feel the same way around the mayor. Roel's hands are in constant motion, on my shoulder. scratching his chin, waving to a close personal friend, shaking my hand , shoulder again, arm wrapped in a tight squeeze around my back --always nodding thoughtfully, with a deep compassionate voice. I felt caught by the snakecharmer. Many lpaltecos consider him the next great Savior of lpala (forget the fact they have already had him twice.)

I often get caught in the middle of local politics, simply by working with the Municipality. My reaction is simple. "I don't give a damn about politics here. The politics in the US, yes. But I only want what's best for the Volcano." Today I couldn't tell whether the masses were more overwhelmed by the speakers bravado and charisma, or the free chicken. In either case, as a development worker I felt like I was looking at my job security.

It's not for me to criticize the government, but should this government invest that what it invests in infrastructure and roads, and instead invest in schools. Not the school buildings. but the curriculum, increased teacher hours, teachers salary and discipline the world might be looking at the next South Korea. Instead there are steadily improving roads maintained by a government works program designed solely to keep people employed and voting PAN.

The President's speech I enjoyed, largely because as he simplified his message for the poor unwashed masses, Including me, who could've used a shower. But mainly he Spanish was easy to follow. What raised my hackles was the custom of "community development bingo" where community committee's funding requests for light, water, school, road development are met by Bob Barkerlike hand out of checks. He'd call out the project committee chair, they would wander up to the podium quiet and respectful, having just had their vote bought for the next four years, and shake the president's hand and pose for a photo. I kept thinking he was going to say "Here Ramiro you can take the check for the water project OR you can see what lovely prize we have for you behind door number 2."


The House of the Spirits
A Civil Action