August 1997

September 8, 1997

August was a different turn for Peace Corps. This is the first time that groups have gone out to train "in the field" for two of the three months out of training. For groups like Conservation of Natural Resources and Animal Husbandry the field is pretty clear - the forest or the farm. For environmental management which encompasses ecotourism, wast management and environmental education that's a bit more difficult to pin down. But so far its resembled a tourist trip with one exception: Chicabnab.

I thought the most appropriate description is from my journal... please forgive the broken English. Somehow my mind can only operate on one language at a time.

click pictures for larger images

one of my hundreds of Spanish lessons with Yoli (my hero) in El Aston, Izabel in the Defensores Naturaleza Biological Station

bats (murizelagos) at Zanguin Caves

at the top of Chicabnale, before beers (about $.75 each) with the whoel Environ Group-Plus (l to r) Katie, Ketchi Guide, Mateo, Jason, Francesca, Christina*, Carol*, Juanita, Andrew, Ketchi Guide, Carolina*
*of Projecto Quetzal

the house of Don Mereque, note the milpa and burned out husks of trees

Environmental Education at Popoo 100% Ketchi school

the lagoons of Sennc Champay

the family of Don Oscar


Tonight I am sitting inside my sleeping bag. My back is sore, my shoulders are pulverized and I have a return of the evil rash of fungi. My bed is a set of planks covered by a white sheet and the wall next to my bed has a brassy photo of the tawny Samatha Fox just above a pensive picture of Jesus Christ. I couldn't be more content.

I am staying with the Ketchi family of Don Oscar Can Caz, with his wife Matilde Pop Xol, and his four children Alfonso, Ana Floreselda, Efrain Raymundo, and Alma Susenna. At two this afternoon, nine year old Alfonso met us with his knee high mud boods, impaired gait and bright smile at the center of the aldea (a very small town). Of course this town is neatly divided in half by a steep ridge and a bobsled run hiking trail. This is a young or old family (Oscar is 28, Matilda 26) depending on whether you look at it from an North American perspective or a Guatemalan perspective. Nevertheless they have done everything in their power to make us feel welcome-- always offering us the two adult sized chairs and making due with kid chairs and benches themselves. They fussed to set up a special table in their smoke filled cocinera (or kitchen) Their houses consist of a thatched roof, with a second story only for grain, and a low ceiling over the kitchen with is blackened by years of soot and smoke. The children were overjoyed to show us their school books in Ketchi and Spanish - showing and demonstrating words for turkey and chickens. But my favorite workds appeared later with a striking full moon, or Toroc Li Po" which cast white shadows over the cloud forest. You could see every crater and crevice, not to mention the winking stars or "Chahim." As I struggled to capture the photo of the moon encircled with a halo of clouds from the clouds which skim across the 2400 meter peaks, Don Oscar quietly pointed to an owl perched on the shadowed hulk of a 70 foot burned tree. The night owl paused, leaned forward, expanded its wings and without a sound dropped from the tree to initate its silent flight over the milpa.

The hike this morning was rigorous. Guided by the Ketchi family and two Peace Corps Volunteers Carol and Linda from Proyecto Quetzal, we hiked about 1500 meters in about four and a half hours of mud and narrow trail. The trail wound its way through the cloud forest as we climbed from Chamoille to Chicabnab. By the end I was ensconced in mud, with a liquid back and a pack that far outweighed the reasonable.

The landscape can be heartbreaking, especially when you emerge from a thick verdant forest with a cloud forest canopy of Spanish moss, colorful flora, and the buzz of animals to see a quiet oddly sterile zig zagged rows of corn (milpa). Corn not only is the cornerstone of their diet, but for Ketchi it is literally a God. This year they expect that the crop will fail.

Before becoming a member of the project each family must have their own private bosque (forest). Families are chosen based on a rotation so that no family can horde all the tourists. No rules are imposed on the families as to whether they can cut down their forest, but it is an obvious disincentive for them to do so considering that is the reason why visitors come. They recognize the need to preserve the forest, but feeding the family comes first.

At this point it is also important to get a view of how the Ketchi view work. One Ketchi man worked for several months and came out with a bumper crop, far above his need. He promptly harvested exactly what he need to get by one for the remainder of the year and let the remainder go unharvested. Saving is a new concept.


It's morning now, the nights laughter of children playing with their father was drowned out by the silence of the night forest. This morning start was initiated by the unpluggin of the water hose next to our sleeping quarters. Our sleeping quarters are different from others in our group because the central fireplace is not here. The cocinar which is marked by a black soot ceiling and a basket with their favorite dead animal-- which neither Francesca or I could understand.

Franco is now sitting next to me with his short stubbly jet black hair, dark complextion and pink jacket. At the age of 6 he's having a tough time keeping his thumb out of his mouth and shoes on his feet. That's not unusual Ketchi families are know for breast feeding their children until the age of four. He's a lively guy, which in his case has translated to a busted zipper on his pants.


My head hurst probably from the lack of water. I've also taken the nap to end all naps. It's a bit difficult in this bed which is made for a 4' 5" Ketch man, not a 5' 8" North American. We spent the morning hiking through Don Oscar's forest bumping along looking at medicinal plants, monkey tails (a ten foot high fern which is used for making houses).

I was also old "slippery foot" a name I earned at Lanquin caves where I made a reverse swan dive onto the very slick mud caked floor, traveling most of the way on one foot, with the other near my ear. Don Oscar asked me if I wanted a walking stick. I shrugged a sure and with two flicks of his machete I had a new walking stick and a slight guilt complex.

At about 9:30am, we arrived at the bosque of Don Oscar's uncle. His uncle Don Mereqe is know asthe man who likes to "collect" wild animals, including one jaguar which is proudly displayed to our group complete with a partly decayed claw. Within a few minutes Don Oscar stopped and pointed high into the 70 foot canopy and said "Quetzal." Perplexed Francesca and I look at each other with a look of "really?" We weren't expecting it- two reasons: Quetzals are really rare and their mating season is 8 months away which is when they typically appear. I stopped and squinted to follow his finder. After about three minutes I picked out the flourescent green of her back and tail from the green canopy of light and shadows.

She was a much sharper green than her surroundings. Her big chest belies an arrogance of size, being much bigger than any other bird in the cloud forest. Once she hears the whirr of my camera she drops awy - literally falling of the branch to take flight and soar to her next perch. I am only disappointed at my lost photo-op for a moment because Don Oscar has silently moved up the trail where he shines me a very tooth grin from under his Mariners batting helmet and says "Macho Quetzal." Theyr'e out of mating season so his tail is not its usual 3-4 feet in length. I snap my photo of his silouhette and watch his beautiful red breast flash past me as he dives from his high perch.

The next half hour is a Quetzal bonanza with more than 15 Q encircling us with a Ke-Ko, Ke-Ko as they chat or stop to eat the fruit from high up in the canopy. Both these magnificent birds and the cloud forest itself are amazing. The forest can be clear with rays of sunshine and within a moment an assembly of clouds pass through like ghosts. The next moment they are gone.

That evening after supper of chicken calda, which translates to shiny lips and was much better than our cow ankle breakfast, we retire. Before we do, I peel out the harmonica and begin to make noise (I'm not good yet). Within a heartbeat I have a semicircle of the entire family surrounding me with smiles and curiousity. I entertain with what little I know.


This morning we packed up and headed for home. We ended with a glorious ride in the back of a Toyota 4WD "Pik-Up" holding on for dear life as we bumped up and down the road watching the mountains rise and valleys fall, and the cloudforest disappear into the horizon.

The people in my group have begun to take on their own personalities. Being surrounded by scientists, I find myself continously challenged to remember exact details of situations and the environment. They each have an expertise which makes me sometimes feel woefully ignorant of my environment. We are all independent spirits, as only the Norte Americano can be. When it was suggested that we life with families at our sites, we rejected it outright. We view our privacy with a zealotry bordering on obsession. That's not to say that we haven't worked to integrage into the community. We always bump into each other at Catholic services for first communions and confirmations- being the only canchas ( non-black hair) we sort of stand out.

August though has been punctuated by road trips. Before Chicabnab, we went up to the Lanquin caves and Semuc Champay. At Lanquin four of us sat out at dusk and watched the bats pour out of the caves--thousands per minute. We took turns stanking in the cave mouth the feel the wind from their wings completely surround our bodies.

The point of these tourism trips, however, was not just to frolic in the water and caves. We interviewed local businesses and individuals and tried to ascertain how the sites were maintained, were the local communities gaining a benefit, and are the sites working to protect their environment. So far, only Chicabnab is having a measurable positive broad impact. Because other than hotel owner, there were few favorable responses.

Spanish continues to elude me and the Spanish teachers are not loathe to point out my present weakness. I speak English. When other aspirantes get together - English is the modus operandi. It's our safety valve, because I find myself continously wondering if people are understanding what I have to say. Only other PCVs truly understand the incredible changes and strains we are going through. It's also usually them who have the most appropriat solutions and the inside scoop of how others have done it. This also makes for good friends.

Our biggest stress this month was over sites. Unlike any other group in Peace Corps we were told where our sites were as a whole and what each of the projects were. This make for some of the most intense "lobbying" I've encountered in this relatively non-competative atmosphere. Some sites were more attractive than others. Also some sites we considered unsafe for women, this limited to pool of most wanted sites considerably. But after a long discussion and a thougthful site survey (another PC innovation) we were each cast to the four (or five) corners of Guatemala. Francesca to El Quiche, Katie to Peten, Andrew, Mateo (Cory) and Juanita to Izabel, Jason to Lake Amatitlan and I to Ipala, Chiquimula.

In two weeks we will leave the "muy tranquilo" town of San Juan Chemelco. Ironically it is also the home of an infamous president of Guatemala. I've forgotten his name, but his is responsible for setting the civil patrol on his own people, especially the indigenous people. It's ironic because the Ketchi and Ladinos here seem to live in harmony. Signs are everywhere, not the least of which is a Ketchi priest at the local Catholic church giving sermons in both Ketchi and Spanish. I will miss the town and my family here-- especially the tens of kids who bark my name upon their first early morning siting of their familiar friendly gringo.

Que le vaya bien


PS: All written mail is especially welcome and will be returned promptly. E-mail, ironically, less promptly.