Thursday, November 1, 2012

Community is a Verb

A good friend and adviser of mine, Dr. Filberto Penados, told me recently that “community is a verb.”  In the time that I have spent in Peace Corps living in a Maya community, I have found this to be such a true statement.  While moving into a new culture or making new friends with people who have a different cultural identity takes real effort on behalf of yourself and your new community, it is extremely important to take that lesson to heart.

While in our rural community in southern Belize, I have discovered just how important it is to make “community” an action rather than just a sentimental idea.  It takes concerted, reciprocal commitment to help people understand you, your intentions, and your background.  Conversation comes slowly in Maya communities, but flows like a river from a cave once it begins.  I have grown so close to people in our community by making this effort with them, and I am so grateful to have had the experience of living in another culture for so long and truly developing these friendships.  I have shared recipes, American cultural customs from back home, taught local children guitar chords, eaten stewed chicken hot off the fire hearth and pressed endless piles of tortillas onto the comal.  While working hard to accomplish these things, I have had the opportunity to discuss my own cultural customs, shedding light on special days like Halloween and Thanksgiving, the music that has lit up so much of my life, treatment of people and animals, and honoring commitments when you make them.  The people here, who seemed so stoic and unfeeling when I first arrived, have melted away into some of my dearest friends, people who will remain in my heart always when our paths part and we return home.  

It is especially important to take this lesson to heart when we return to our home and families in the northwest.  No longer will we allow our community to be simply a concept rather than an action, and I cannot encourage you enough to do the same.  Volunteer, go to community meetings, talk to strangers, ask questions, and share silly stories.  You don’t need to move to a remote village in a faraway country to understand how important it is to appreciate the people and things around you.  As my wife’s friend said to her the other day, “it is important to make friends with your reality,” meaning that instead of worrying about the future and the past so much, truly absorb and reflect upon the gifts you have received in the present.  That next job, next shopping trip and next vacation or weekend off will come when their time is here.  Enjoy what you have now, and appreciate who you share it with.  Community is an action that you can take today, and it is the most important commitment you can ever make in your life.

Danny O’Neill
November 2013

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Stilt Dance: My surprisingly large role in restoring an ancient Mayan tradition to the heart of Toledo.

As a Peace Corps volunteer I often leave the house without much of a plan other than to come back when it’s dark or I’m hungry. On one fateful day my work partner approached me with the idea of taking a group of 9 youth to a campsite in the middle of the woods to learn how to walk on stilts. “That sounds amazing!” I said without any idea of the deep historical meaning of the Chitick Dance. It wasn’t until days later that I even learned it was an ancient Mayan tradition.

Believe it or not, walking on stilts is an ancient Maya tradition! Lost to Belize for generations, this beautiful art form has been resurrected thanks to the determination of a humble Peace Corps volunteer, a team of instructors from Belize/Guatemala, and a troupe of courageous kids.

The Stilt Dance, known locally as the Chitick Dance, originated in the Mayan creation book called the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh is the oldest Maya myth to have been preserved in its entirety. The Stilt Dance was performed by the hero twins of the Popol Vuh called Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a plot to defeat the Lords of the Underworld or Xibalba (the x is pronounced “sh”) The Lords of  Xibalba planned to destroy the twins by tricking them into an oven to burn to their deaths. The twins discovered the plot and surprisingly allowed themselves to be killed. Their bones were ground into dust and thrown into a river where they miraculously regenerated into back into a pair of young boys again.

Unrecognizable by the people of the Underworld; the twins performed a number of miracles and performances, including the stilt dance. When the Lords of Xibalba heard of these miracles they demanded to see such marvels in person.  The hero twins took the offer as a part of their plot to ruin the Underworld. They pretended to be orphans and the Lords were none the wiser. In a climactic performance, Xbalanque cut Hunahpu apart and offered him as a sacrifice, only to have the older brother rise once again from the dead. The Lords demanded that the miracle be performed on them. The twins obliged by killing and offering the Lords as a sacrifice, but predictably did not bring them back from the dead. All of Xibalba was then defeated.

To reenact such a dramatic piece of cultural heritage is a great honor. At Tumul K’in students take pride and ownership of a culture, language, and spirituality that is at risk of being lost to an increasingly globalized world. To bring the Chitick Dance back to Toledo is symbolic of the cultural restoration and preservation that is central to Tumul K’in’s mission.

The students and I raised money to take a bus to Succotz for a 4 day stilt walking and cultural exchange gathering with the Caracol Youth Group from Arenal village. Fascinatingly, Arenal is a small village located exactly half in Belize and half in Guatemala. In four quick days we learned everything from stilt construction to costume design and makeup. What surprised me most was the courage of the youth as they stood on the stilts for the first time. Girls, who are traditionally shy and reluctant, were standing as tall and as proud as the boys.

Arriving back at Tumul K’in, we only had a few short weeks to construct 6 pairs of stilts, design and sew 6 costumes, and choreograph a full dance to present at Maya Day. Miraculously we pulled it all together in time to present a show stopping finale at Maya Day in Blue Creek Village, home of the Stilt Walkers. As I watched the kids perform the story of the Popul Vuh, in full body makeup and costume, on stilts, to a crowd of over a thousand people, my heart beamed with joy. Since that first performance the Tumul K’in Stilt Walkers have gone on to win a first place trophy at The Festival of Arts and are now headed to Belize City for the final round of the competition.

As we walked back to the staging area after a show I asked one of the female performers how she felt. With a radiating smile she declared “PROUD!” with more confidence and poise than I ever thought was possible. To these kids, stilt walking is more than just a fun thing to do once in a while. It’s about reclaiming a piece of their cultural heritage, men and women walking on the same level, confidence, grace, and responsibility. It’s about teamwork and confronting fears.

I’m so honored to be a part of this extraordinary time in history. Organizing fundraisers, staying up late to sew ornate headdresses, and corralling a bunch of hyper teenagers into a choreographed representation of the Popol Vuh are all things I’ve come to accept as a part of my ordinary life in the village. However, I know that I am a part of a piece of Mayan history and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Appreciating the Changes

“Without the bitter, baby, the sweet ain’t as sweet” ~ Vanilla Sky
Never has the pace of Peace Corps felt more apparent to me than when I returned home from a vacation in the states.  I can’t believe as I look at my calendar and see that I have ten months and change left in my service, and true to what many PCVs and RPCVs have sagely advised me, I feel like I am just now starting to pick up steam.  While I am very proud of the accomplishments my community has achieved with my support (increased financial sustainability, true profitability, a new bridge and a better understanding of project management), I feel like I spent the past 16-ish months learning how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I feel now that I have the capabilities, knowledge and temperament to handle life in my village, which, while beautiful and as accommodating as necessary, is certainly different and more challenging to live in than my wonderful home in Washington. 
It was a great experience to travel home and see family and friends (including my dear friends at Starbucks and The Fishbowl), and to pace around my alma mater with a dear colleague for hours before heading back to stay at my parents’ wonderfully maintained, washing-machine owning house (I did laundry every night I was there, just to watch it work).  It was especially wonderful to see some of the immediate impact that my Peace Corps experience has instilled in me.  Between helping the older Mexican woman I sat next to on the plane order her coffee because the flight attendant didn’t speak Spanish, to waiting patiently in Houston (all three times) to herd us through customs after waiting in line for an hour and a half, I noticed my patience and desire to help people having a difficult time increase manyfold.  I was so appreciative of the things I used to take for granted, from having clean clothes to fresh salad vegetables to not sweatingthat I could not help myself from thinking about how everyone should, at some time in their lives for an appreciable amount of time, live in a country besides the United States.  Not because I think people from the U.S. Are “out of touch” or “don’t have any idea how great you have it” (well, not everyone), but just so that they could experience the same unmitigated glee I had the first time I drove a car in a year, or got to have a phone call that didn’t cut out five times in twelve minutes, or to have the opportunity to eat anything you want anytime of day or night.  It was indescribable.  Oh, and the internet worked like, all the time.  
It was sad, yet somewhat serendipitous, to have lost my grandfather during the two-week period that we went home.  My Grandpa Ted taught me many things, including how to fish and appreciate baseball, but also how to add value to every interaction with life that we get.  It was my grandfather that introduced me to writer Norman McAllen's A River Runs Through It, who taught us that it is possible to “love completely, even without complete understanding.”  We shared a love of technology and philosophy, which meant that he taught me many lessons in morality while he witnessed my first Mortal Kombat match at an electronics store in Olympia when I was eight.  My grandfather led a remarkable life, valued compassion, humanity, and knowledge, and touched many lives in his time on the Earth.  He will be missed.
All in all it was a great trip home, and a much needed break from the “toughest job I’ll ever love.”  We got to see so many special people (although not as many as we wanted), ate far too much good food, and regained our energy and focus to finish out the second half of our service.  Emblematic of this attitude was when we had our flight from Houston to Belize cancelled, take many hours and multiple days of bus riding from the airport to our village, only to find that our well pump is broken (again), someone had consumed all of our drinking water (without asking or replacing it), an entire wardrobe with a fresh coat of mold on it, and that termites had destroyed our ceiling.  After we calmly went about securing more water, filling the well tank, and cleaning the unbelievable amounts of termite excrement from our ceiling, I couldn’t help but laugh as I thought to myself that the termites probably regretted eating as much of my ceiling as I did eating all the junk food I had in the states.  This is not the laugh of the person that came to Belize, but the laugh of the Peace Corps Volunteer that will eventually leave it.
Those laughs come a bit more easily than they once did, as does the appreciation I have for the changes that I know I am experiencing in my life.  That is what life is about these days as I live in this beautiful, swampy little village where I do battle with the termites far more frequently than I get to consult people on business matters, where I spend more time waiting for buses and empty pick-up truck beds to get me where I need to go than waiting for football season (ahem, “American” football) to start, and more time trying to speak an unwritten, undocumented Maya language than trying to see what’s showing at the movies.  This won’t be our life for very much longer, but even as we transition to whatever new adventure we find, I will know that forever and always, no matter where we live our lives, a river runs through it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Building Bridges Between Cultures: Peace Corps Partnership Projects in Belize

It was one of those crazy-hot Belizean April mornings while I waited patiently to be picked up by the Ministry of Works truck to take me from Blue Creek Village to San Benito Poite.  The dusty, two-hour truck ride on an unpaved back road took me many miles away from my (already) remote village to the beautiful and mighty Machaca river that envelops Poite.  The guys were polite and fun-loving, and I knew that I would enjoy working with these workmen as they helped me build not only a bridge between the north and south banks of the Machaca, but also between a promise made by a recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and to the dangerous reality facing the people of this village.
The Machaca river is feared during the rainy months of the Hurricane Season (roughly June through November) because it massively floods over the fifty-yards-long cement bridge that connects the villagers to the back road I had travelled, which in turn takes them to the local school, health post, and (three and a half hours away by bus) the nearest district town, Punta Gorda, to sell the bounties of their farms at the market.  During the rainy season, this bridge floods frequently, and small children are known to try and cross the flooded bridge to get to school, pregnant women have tried crossing the rushing current to give birth at the health post, and many farmers have tried crossing with bundles of firewood, bags of corn, and their own small children to get to town or to get back to their homes.  Needless to say, this is exceptionally dangerous, and does not always end well.
As a resident of the beautiful but perniciously flooded Blue Creek, I know all too well the pain and frustration caused by an un-passable bridge.  The missed work, the claustrophobia, and the loss of control of your already meager transportation options can leave one feeling helpless, especially when your rainy season routine includes hurricane consolidations, meetings in town, and trips to refill medical supplies, food supplies, and drinking water (and, okay, junk food).  When I was approached by Lilly Berger, the volunteer finishing her service in Poite, to take over the project after she left, I jumped at the chance.  Lilly had utilized the Peace Corps Partnerships Program and fundraised money for a “hammock” bridge, a bridge of board and cables stabilized by cement castings on the north and south banks of a river.  The villagers can cross this walking bridge over the flooded river to the dry bank on the other side.  The cost of the bridge was almost $14,000 BZD ($7,000 USD), and before she left, Lilly had secured almost all of the building supplies and work plans, under budget.  However, a surprisingly long and arduous rainy season prevented construction before Lilly’s departure, and a project management contingency plan was needed to complete the project before the next rainy season began.  This is where I stepped in, with plenty of experience in managing projects in my former life as governmental Liaison Officer in Washington.  I began meeting with officials from the Ministry of Works, planned out our work schedule, and after several delays (contentious elections taking its toll on the public works organization I worked with, equipment failures, and the non-stop rain that apparently followed me down from the Pacific Northwest), we began work in April.
Suffice to say, after so many delays and setbacks, I was grateful to get in the back of that dusty red truck to get to San Benito Poite on that hot April morning.  I had a job to do that day that would set the pace and tone for the rest of our work; I was needed to be a liaison between the Ministry workers and the Village Council of Poite.  I was the only one that spoke enough Q’eqchi to lead the meeting (although I still think they just wanted to hear me speak it because they thought it was funny, and I definitely accidentally blessed a pig and praised the village for their stewed horse meat because of my loose grasp of the language).  The meeting went well, once the council’s roaring laughter died down after I proudly declared “Inka saj wink, La’in aj Q’eqchi” (“I am not a white man, I am a proud Q’eqchi!”).  We were given the council’s blessing to begin construction, and were granted ten men as “Fajina” (community contribution) for each work day to help pour cement, haul gravel, stretch cable and fasten boards).
Construction consisted of seven total workdays, although this was spread over three weeks because of the amount of time that it takes cement to harden.  It was hard, sweaty work on hot day after hot day, but it was satisfying to work with the villagers and see them make friends with the work crew from the city.  We bonded over tortillas and caldo in their homes at lunch time, and drank contraband Guatemalan “Super Cola” (trust me, it is “Super” in name only) as we talked about our homes and families.  They listened intently as I told them of vast grocery stores that are open 24 hours a day and they marveled as I told them about life in the Northwest (and after hearing the facts, agree that the Seahawks were robbed in Superbowl XL).  They even helped me track down Oscar, the toddler who outsmarted me and stole my sunglasses.  They played solar-powered harp and marimba CDs for me so that I could hear local music, and I pulled out my iPod so that they could listen to music from my home (they didn’t like Nirvana but loved The Decemberists).  
As the sun set on the final work day, and I was nursing two painful Doctor Fly bites on my back (look it up), I helped fasten the final board after carving the initials “LB 09-11 and DO 11-13” for the volunteers (Lilly Berger and Daniel O’Neill) that contributed to the project, and I took pictures with the crew and villagers.  As I helped pack up the truck I was approached by several villagers who invited me to stay with them whenever I return to Poite, which despite its distance, I am certain I will.  I am proud to be a part of their village history, and their kindness and warmth will remain with me always.  If you ever make it out to San Benito Poite, you can cross the bridge and see the carving if you look for it hard enough, but seriously, don’t trust Oscar with your sunglasses.  That kid is a thief.  

Third Goal Down: American Football Gaining Exposure in Belize

As I got to know my Peace Corps work partner, Selvin Roches, during the first months of my project in Blue Creek Village, Belize, I often found myself talking about one of the things I missed most about being back home in Washington: watching football (which feels odd even qualifying with “American” in front of it, but I should anyways) on Sundays.  I am by no means a sports fanatic, but after playing the game for over ten years, I have a certain affinity for the strategy, gamesmanship and efficacy of football.  While the grandstanding, trash-talking and hard hitting playmakers certainly have their place, there is a certain beauty to the art of constructing complex offensive and defensive schemes that I have long admired and find particularly incandescent in the playoffs of the National Football League.  After several months describing the game (particularly about my favorite player, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, and his merciless, power-hitting defensive style and endless charisma), I asked Selvin if he would like to come into town with me for Superbowl Sunday, the world championship of professional “American” (sigh) football between the New York Football Giants and the New England Patriots.  While he was hesitant at first, he was sold when I told him that Madonna would be there to perform the halftime show.
As kickoff approached, I sat next to Selvin after we ordered our chicken and drinks at The Olympic, a thatch bar in Punta Gorda that has its mission statement succinctly stated above their rack of local rum (“Be Good or Be Gone”) and the game projected on the white cement wall of the bar.  After the pomp and circumstance of the pre-game festivities, Selvin asked me which team “we” were rooting for (which endeared him to me even more that he already was), I informed him that while he was free to voice his support for either team, and I wouldn’t try to sway his support either way, I would be rooting for New York because, I explained, their coach isn’t a cheater, their rings aren’t a lie, and their quarterback isn’t a backup from Michigan. 
While of course I can’t detail the events of the game because I have neither the expressed nor written consent of the National Football League, I can tell you that it was a fantastic, nail biting game with many tense moments and wonderfully clutch plays that resulted in a victory for “our” team, the New York Giants.  It was wonderful to explain to Selvin the history of the game, from its post WWII roots into the game that it has become today, to the family football history between the Manning brothers, and how Tom Brady manages to get so many favorable penalty calls.  “It was amazing to see how fast the game was, and how hard the players hit each other,” Selvin said after the game, and was especially impressed with Madonna’s half-time performance, going so far as to claim that it was his “favorite part”.  “I never knew it was so much fun,” Selvin kept saying the week after the game, adding “Man, they hit hard.” He laughed when I yelled to the crowd of New England fans about the Patriots opening the game with a safety as they nursed their beers in a silence colder than a Sam Adams left outside on a January night in Cambridge, and he listened dumbfounded as I explained how expensive it was to have a commercial played during the game (the funniest of which to him was a car commercial that showed a sedan surviving a 2012 Maya Apocalypse).  Even as I kept having to quiet his questions about “when is Ray Lewis going to play in tonight’s game” or “Why aren’t the Seahawks playing in the championship?”, we had a wonderful time together and he is very interested in attending more games next season.
Overall, it was a wonderful chance to get to know each other out of the village, and after spending many months experiencing Selvin’s culture, I was grateful for the opportunity to share a bit more of mine.  I truly love watching the game with friends, and that is exactly what I got to do with Selvin that Sunday. We will absolutely try to see more games next year, and I have even asked my mother to send me an “American” football so that we can toss it around a bit after work.  And despite Patriot receiver Wes Welker being hit so hard on a route that he probably needed a new haircut after the game, you might say that the “biggest hit” of the night was the impact this night had on our friendship.

Monday, February 6, 2012

It's amazing

how much our life revolves around doing laundry.

White Eggs

I had the good fortune of being able to watch an episode of one of my favorite television series while I was with friends in town last week, and the strangest thing happened while I watched the characters making breakfast.  I found myself puzzling over what they were making to eat, when I realized that they were using white eggs, something that I haven’t seen in nearly a year.  In Belize, the eggs are small and brown, and they are never refrigerated in the shops.  This was a big adjustment to make when we first moved into site, because I didn’t trust eggs that hadn’t been refrigerated (assuming, of course, that the American and best way to store eggs was in a cardboard carton in the refrigerator). Even the process of buying eggs seems so normal to me now that it should be pretty funny to go back to a grocery store to pick up eggs when I return home.   “Going to the store” now consists of walking down the dirt road through my village to the muddy path lined with palm trees and thatch houses to the Ack Shop, a small family home that doubles as a store front.  Eggs here are three for a Belizean dollar ($0.50 USD) and literally come from the chickens you step over to get inside the shop.  They are small, sometimes speckled, and always brown.  The family keeps them in a large egg holder on the table at the front of the shop, and gives you a “shilling bag” (a small bag that holds about one shilling’s worth of masa, hence its name) to fill with eggs. 

This shop is incredible because it not only sells eggs, but masa (ground corn for making tortillas on the comal), raw rice and beans, as well as ice-cold glass bottled Mexican Cokes, butter, laundry soap and, on some special occasions, frozen Snickers bars from Guatemala. 

On warm evenings I’ve been known to wander down towards the river and stop by the shop for cold sodas to have down by the water as the crickets and gentle breeze take turns stealing the show in the night air, as the burnt orange sunset sneaks behind the lush green hills of the Maya mountain ranges.  As my young host brothers and sisters greet me excitedly on my walk back to my home in the village, jumping up and down and grabbing my hands to “satul” (a Maya word for “to twirl”) them by taking their arms and swinging them in circles, I realize how easily the time passes in such a beautiful, life affirming place.

If missing the comforts of home means listening to absolute silence interrupted only by the wind in the high grass and the constant conversation of the clear water over the impossibly smooth river rocks by our bridge, then I think I can put up with missing white eggs for a couple of years.