Sunday, March 06, 2005

Maybe It's Because Spring Is In The Air/When I Was In The Peace Corps

It truly is a beautiful day here in Madison. The first crocuses are blooming, birds are chirping, I just cleaned the gutters. Good day. Maybe it is because spring is in the air that I am reminiscing about Guatemala - "the land of eternal spring." Or maybe it is because when I was walking my dog back from the law school (my wife likes to study there better than she does at her med school - yes we are going to be the Huxtables in reverse), we encountered a loose dog who had knocked down every trash can in our alley and was clearly enjoying himself as he was consuming his own buffet brunch. The funniest part to me was that our dog, a true Guatemalan chucha (street dog), who we brought back from our Peace Corps stint with us, has forgotten her roots. Instead of joining in the dumpster dive, our chucha decided to protect our alley by barking at the trash connoisseur. He merely looked up from the remnants of pizza he was enjoying, gave us two sniffs and dejectedly sauntered off. I would have tried to take him to his home, but my chucha was having none of that.

Anyways, for whatever reason Guatemala is on my brain today, and I miss it. Five years ago (jeez has it really been that long?), I joined my wife on our adventure to Guatemala. Peace Corps was something she had always wanted to do, and since the UW law school deferred my admission, I had no problems delaying "true adulthood" a couple of more years by going along for the ride. I ended up loving it. Now when Peace Corps comes up, people will ask how did you like it? My answer is always: "it was great." But that really doesn't do it justice. What follows is my meager attempt to explain (just some of the reasons) why it was great.

When I was in the Peace Corps...
1) I got to delay "true adulthood" for 2 more years. My wife had always wanted to do the Peace Corps and when the UW law school deferred my admission, I had no problem for what I thought would be "just going along for the ride."
2) I got to meet my wife's family. She was born in Guatemala and many of her Dad's siblings still live there, giving us a familial safety net in the capital whenever we needed it.
3) I got to learn Spanish (although not perfectly). Both my wife and I grew up in households where both of parents spoke fluent Spanish but did not teach it to us - so learning Spanish was a big deal for both of us.
4) I lost my spleen. Huh? How is that great? Well, I survived, and the story will forever be a good one to tell. I'll probably save it for another post, but it involved me flying off a cliff on my bike and a little old lady yelling/praying "el gringo va a morir" (the gringo, me, is going to die).
5) I only got to e-mail maybe once or twice a month, but every single e-mail had new and exciting stories to tell. 3 years post Peace Corps and my fellow volunteers write to each other about once or twice a year, all of us basically saying life is fine - but no longer are there stories of crazy rides on decommissioned BlueBird school buses that are used as daily transport (no at 6'4" I did not fit into the seats very well), new foods eaten, frustrations over learning a new language or trying to find "meaningful" work, families who have adopted you as one of their own, or even details of illnesses or what your poop looks like which for whatever reason becomes such a normal and interesting topic when you are in the Peace Corps but not so riveting when back in the States.
6) I made $2,000 a year and felt (and as a married couple we really were) rich.
7) I got a dog. Her name is chula (means cute). And I get to fool people in to believing she is a "Guatemalan Highland Terrier" - perhaps it is not a registered breed with the American Kennel Club yet, but I think she would win a dog show.
8) Time had no meaning.
9) I climbed the highest point in Central America and swam in a lake surrounded by volcanoes.
10) I walked everyday for hours a day and was not considered to be crazy. I will now walk from my house (close to Camp Randall) to say the square (maybe a couple of miles) and people will think I am wacko.
11) My dog was a celebrity - she was allowed on the buses with us (gringoes do have some privileges), and people there did not believe that a chucha could be trained so would always be amazed when she would sit, lie down and shake (especially since we trained her in Spanish).
12) I helped build a greenhouse.
13) I brought a truckload of pregnant goats from the coast to one of our neighboring communities in the highlands and felt like I was the king of the world.
14) We had a plancha, a wood burning stove, that was connected to the water pipes so that on special days when we actually had time to be at home and fire that sucker up we would have hot showers.
15) I learned how to bake using a propane stove (three burners connected to a propane tank) and a tinfoil dutch oven.
16) I killed, plucked, cooked, and ate a chicken.
17) I hitchhiked without fear. I could wave down and ride in the back of pick-up trucks with 15 other people (and our dog) for 1 quetzal (maybe 15 cents).
18) We used our kitchen cabinets as a fridge. Meat left in the cabinet for a day meant fresh meat. Now if I leave chicken out of the fridge for an hour I start to squirm about salmonella.
19) I learned how to castrate pigs (and rams), inject vitamins into any animal you could think of, trim hooves, cut horns, plant a corn field with just a hoe, graft trees, wash my clothes in a cement sink, and bargain for everything.
And 20) We didn't own a tv. I am a couch potato, so you would think this would be on my list of why Peace Corps sucked, but we didn't need a tv - we read books, played scrabble or cards, listened to music, spent two hours making meals, or we just talked. The time I spent with my wife is probably the thing I miss the most - for some couples the fact that we were together almost every hour of the day would have destroyed them. But we thrived. Sure we had some spats, but god I miss that time together. So if you have made it this far in my ramblings, those are some of the reasons why I miss Guatemala. And on that note, I am off to do some shopping, so maybe I can make some dinner for my constantly studying wife and I'll turn off my beloved tv and maybe for 15 minutes tonight we can talk and remember why we both say "Peace Corps was great."

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