What Goes Up Must Come Down: My Guatexit

Molten rocks are hurled out of the Fuego Volcano’s crater, spewing a column of fiery ash into the stratosphere miles above the ground. As the lava flows down the side of the mountain, it oozes at a much slower pace—several meters per hour and begins to cool, forming igneous rock in the volcano’s lava fields.

The process of a volcanic eruption is highly analogous to my time in Guatemala stemming from an intensely hot, high-pressure drive inside me and manifesting itself through my deeds and actions on behalf of the Peace Corps mission. As with the ash and rock ejected from a volcano, I too was sent at high-speed, barreling towards adventure 757 days ago.

Saying goodbye to my friends and family, I left the United States to embark upon what has been a life-changing journey full of adventure, self-discovery, and the surmounting of the most difficult personal challenges I have experienced in my life to-date.


While my experience has provoked immeasurable personal growth, I will be closing my service with the United States Peace Corps this Friday, July 17—three weeks ahead of schedule. My reasoning for this decision stems from the worsening security situation in Guatemala and the risk that Peace Corps Volunteers run of being victims of serious crime. Recently in Antigua, one of my favorite places in Guatemala, there have been at least three incidents of aggravated robbery—the most recent one resulting in one of my colleagues being stabbed multiple times in the chest.

While most have come to Peace Corps to do a job and perform a service for Guatemala on behalf of the American people, some PCVs continue to engage in high-risk, and frankly, immature behavior that places them at increased risk for these types of serious crime incidents. As a result of these recent events, orders from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. have imposed highly-restrictive policies upon currently-serving PCVs which impede many aspects of the individual liberty of qualified, professional adults (like me).

Rather than live my last few weeks in Guatemala unable to travel, visit my favorite places, and say goodbye to my Guatemalan and ex-pat friends, I have decided to take a one-time offer from Peace Corps/ Guatemala’s administration to close my service early with the full benefits of RPCV status such as education credit and Noncompetitive Eligibility for employment in the Federal Competitive Service.

While my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer is drawing to a close, Guatemala will always have a special place in my heart. In the meantime my plans for the immediate future involve returning to San Juan Comalapa for one week in order to pack up my things, say proper goodbyes to my host family and dearest friends. Thereafter I will travel to Honduras’ Bay Islands via the ruins at Copan. I intend to complete the coursework to become a certified rescue scuba diver and return to Guatemala at the beginning of August. I will then pick up my friend and colleague, Ryan Koch from the airport in Guatemala City and he will have the pleasure of coming to the Peace Corps office to watch my official Close of Service Ceremony (I’m only signing the papers on Friday). Immediately afterwards we will make our way into Mexico and road trip back into the United States of America!

Keep checking the blog, or even better subscribe, as I will have updates and insights from my travels along the way. Thank you, loyal readers, for two years of love, support, and encouragement. Your page views, comments, and subscriptions have motivated me to keep this blog alive and updated with fresh, informative, and engaging content. See you Stateside!

Cerro de la Cruz (#34)

The Cerro de la Cruz or “Hill of the Cross” is a historical landmark and park in Antigua, Guatemala. Providing visitors who can arrive by foot or vehicle the opportunity to see magnificent views of the city in its entirety and the Volcán de Agua, the Cerro de la Cruz is also adorned with a cross monument installed by Antigua’s municipal government in 1930.

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Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Guatemala’s Star Wars Fans (#35)

Guatemalans, like people with good taste all over the world, have their own loyal following of Star Wars or La guerra de las galaxias as it’s known in Spanish. Annually in November, the group known as Star Fans Guatemala puts on a large convention in the beautiful Hotel Santo Domingo in La Antigua, Guatemala.

A handsome rascal posing in front of a sawdust STAR FANS alfombra.

A handsome rascal posing in front of a sawdust STAR FANS alfombra.

Invited to participate last year an an exhibitor, I took the opportunity to recieve free admission and the chance to get to know Guatemala’s loyal and dedicated fanbase for the greatest science-fiction franchise ever created.

The founder of Star Fans proudly stands by his recreation of the Battle of Geonosis.

The founder of Star Fans proudly stands by his recreation of the Battle of Geonosis.

I met myriad interesting people who come mostly from Guatemala City. There were no surprises that the demographic of people able to afford such luxuries as cosplay and collecting licensed props and toys come from the country’s more affluent, yet small middle and upper classes.

A proud group of female fans that dresses up for social benefit and charity events.

A proud group of female fans that dresses up for social benefit and charity events.

Yet those participating in the event were down-to-earth, rather than spacey, people. The above womens group, Femme Stars, meets monthly to visit children in Guatemala’s hospitals and motivate groups of women to make positive change within themselves.

An impressive army of 6" troopers.

An impressive army of 6″ troopers.

I also got to see lots of cool action figures and things that I would have bought when I was a kid if I had adult income. Good thing I still don’t have that kind of disposable financial ingress.

Star Wars cosplay unites fans of all ages.

Star Wars cosplay unites fans of all ages.

But in a country so often divided by ethnicity, language, culture, politics, and social class it was refreshing to see children, young and old, come together about something so quintessentially human as Star Wars.

Guatemala's General Grevious

Guatemala’s General Grevious

Many participants, rather than buy costumes that would cost thousands of dollars from licensed retailers, opt to creatively make their own out of locally-available materials. The Grevious above is made out of repurposed cloth, cardboard, and styrofoam.

The President of the Lego Club of Guatemala and his son.

The President of the Lego Club of Guatemala and his son.

My first memories with Star Wars are curled up on the sofa in my family house with my Dad. He carefully awakened a wonder within me of that galaxy far, far away. The annual event is an opportunity for families to come together around something that inspires curiosity in their children.

A happy family from a galaxy not so far away.

A happy family from a galaxy not so far away.

 

Star Fans Guatemala puts on a wonderful event. I felt welcome as a foreigner and was immediately drawn in to a warm and communal atmosphere. As I left, I knew the Force was with me.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Family Detention Shames American Values

The phenomenon of family detention, taking place in facilities in southern Texas, indefinitely imprisons women and children, defying fundamental principles of our great nation which we celebrated this past 4th of July weekend.

Source: ABC News

Ordered by the Obama administration in response to the 2014 spike in undocumented migration from Central America, women and children are often denied timely access to medical attention, legal counsel, and basic nutrition. Idyllically named “family residential centers,” these facilities are not to be confused for what they really are: internment camps for victimized people fleeing out-of-control gang violence, violence against women, dysfunctional civil societies, and outrageously corrupt governments.

Source: Wall Street Journal

As a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Guatemala I can definitively affirm systematic corruption, convoluted bureaucracy, and wanton incompetence at every level of government. With impunity in the 90th percentile, Guatemalan people—especially women and children—have few legal rights or recourse in their home country. The Guatemalan government is unable, and even unwilling, to address crime. Flouting an oligarchic power structure, maintained by the top 20% of Guatemala’s wealthy ruling class, Guatemalan leaders make a mockery out of good governance.

The United States plays a historically significant role in destabilizing democracy in—from the bloody staged civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador to the Banana Republics and Sandinistas, through Panama which was broken off from Colombia by the CIA in order to facilitate a 99-year deal for the construction of the Panama Canal. Detaining women and children who are fleeing the consequences of past US actions is not the answer to these contemporary issues.

Having just celebrated yet another anniversary of the longest-standing democracy in the modern world, family detention goes beyond unconstitutionality. It violates every fiber of what is America and what we stand for: liberty and justice for all. Rather than address the problem of massive northward migration at the source, the Obama administration has taken the easy route over the moral high ground upon which the President won two terms in office.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

Inscribed on our Statue of Liberty, the President seems to have forgotten his own roots and immigrant past. The man who now jails helpless children, forcing them to wait upwards of 8 hours for necessary medical care, seems so different from the freshman Senator Obama who traveled to sub-Saharan Africa and publically took an HIV test with his wife. Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative through the US Peace Corps is overshadowed by the Obamas’ hypocrisy where the downtrodden, abused, and dejected women of Central America are denied interpreters and education for themselves and their children.

Source: Texas Tribune

The Department of Homeland Security will argue that medical services are available. Overcrowded medical trailers cannot accommodate the high volume of need in these brimming internment camps. Do detainees have access to lawyers? The attorney trailer, occupied mostly by pro-bono lawyers, can only fit 60 persons at any given time. And what about education? Schooling is available to Spanish-speaking children—but living in prison with limited access to medical care, crying and broken mothers fleeing abuse, and a diet of chicken nuggets, beans, and tortillas are not conducive to positive youth development. And what of non-Spanish speakers? Latin America is home to 37 language families and 448 distinct indigenous languages. With violence, impunity, and extreme poverty (often resulting from the aforementioned oligarchical power structure) arriving in rural communities, more monolingual indigenous people are making the trip north.

Family residential centers are simply under equipped and unqualified for the task they have been charged with. Gang violence and political instability are directly correlated to America’s drug habit and lopsided foreign policy in Latin America dating back to the Cold War. It is time to demand the President end this un-American and unjust practice. The real way towards curbing undocumented migration is to address the paradigm of failed governance that exists in Central America’s Northern Triangle. Family internment is a poorly-applied bandaid atop a festering wound.

Source: The New York Times

For more information about the week stint I’ll be doing in Dilley, TX at the Dilley Family Residential Center following my Peace Corps service: http://specialprojects.myajc.com/family-detention-immigration/.

Correction: The CIA did not exist until almost 50 years after the coup in Panama. The US Navy supported the Panamanian rebellion. Thanks to reader, friend, and RPCV Sammy B. for bringing this to my attention.

Making Wine (#36)

Currently I’m fermenting my third batch of blackberry wine. Blackberries, a local agricultural stable abound on the local market and are easy to prepare as they don’t have a skin or tiny seeds that have to be carefully strained out. In lieu of a glass carboy I use a five-gallon jug that we would recognize atop a water cooler in the States. Capped with a bung and airlock my parents sent me for Christmas a couple of years ago, a batch takes about 4-6 weeks to fully ferment using locally-available baker’s yeast. While not ideal for wine production, it does the trick and I’ve learned to compensate for the strange aftertaste by using less yeast and increasing the sugar content.

This latest batch has been happily bubbling away for about five weeks and I look forward to cracking it open before leaving Guatemala!

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Happy 4th of July Peace Corps/ Guatemala!

Happy Independence Day to my friends and colleagues of Peace Corps/ Guatemala. I salute you and the work that you do for Guatemala on behalf of the People of the United States of America. It is an honor to serve with you!

Empowerment through Belly Dancing

First published in the July issue of Qué Pasa magazine, translated from original Spanish.


In Quetzaltenango, there’s an emerging art in which women use their bodies to express themselves and through which they’re challenging gender norms and machismo. Kiri Glinz, Claudia Santiago, and Gabriela Figueroa teach belly dancing and Spanish flamenco dancing; these three artists are strong women who are motivated to inspire a change in society’s ideas through dance. They give dance workshops in collaboration with nonprofit organizations like Asociación Hogar Nuevos Horizontes (which supports female victims of domestic violence).

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Glinz and Santiago are practitioners of belly dancing. It’s a form of Arabic art where women in loose clothing adorned with bells express themselves through sensual and – according to some – provocative bodily movements. “Even more so in a sexist country, there are people who have no knowledge about this style of dance and get carried away by the costumes, fueling the belief that every woman who practices this art is an exhibitionist,” explains Santiago.

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Fighting against stereotypes, Glinz and Santiago dance what they call tribal fusion, which combines elements of traditional belly dance with colors and biomechanics which represent individual creativity. When asked about the impact of belly dancing on women and girls in relation to gender equality, Glinz says, “Through my art, I want to open the minds of men and women to various forms of artistic expression while also giving confidence to girls.” Figueroa speaks proudly of her flamenco school called Porsolea. “[The school] teaches girls to be strong, brave, disciplined, and consistent.

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“When they take the stage, their self-esteem goes up because they look prettier and because they feel more confident,” says Santiago. These three artists and teachers are managing to raise awareness of little-known art forms with respect for their own Guatemalan identity.

Garifuna People and Guifiti (#37)

As the brown spirit trickles from the mouth of the glass tumbler, I purse my lips in anticipation of intense bitterness. The harsh burn of alcohol torches my throat and I feel chills that tickle my brainstem. The drummers hammer out a hypnotic rhythm on their drums, palms rising and falling, feeding off the energy of the impassioned dancers around the fire. Different regions and ethnic groups in Guatemala have their own local homebrewed liquors which are made out of the reach of regulatory authorities and without the need for permits or licenses. This is Guifiti, the clandestine intoxicant distilled by Guatemala’s Caribbean people, the Garifuna.

The Garifuna people of Guatemala live in the Caribbean department of Izabal where their own distinct culture thrives. A mixture of African and Caribbean cuisine, music, and dance, the Garifuna people speak their own language-a fascinating Carib tongue considered by linguists to be a member of the Arawakan language family. The particularly interesting bit about Garifuna (known as “Karif” to native speakers) is its atypical use outside of the Arawakan language area of northern South America.

The Garifuna language was once confined to the Antillean islands of St. Vincent and Dominica but due to the Garifuna people’s history involving warfare, colonization, and migration, the ethnic group has spread to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Perhaps part of a larger pattern of northward migration, many Garifina communities have now begun to spring up in US cities as noted by the organization Garifuna Coalition USA, based in New York City.

Guifiti an overwhelmingly bitter beverage with a dangerously high and unmeasured alcohol content is not for the faint of heart. Containing licorice, nuts, cloves, and a variety of other strong and odiferous spices, Guifiti will hit you with the force of a horse’s kick and knock you to the ground for the rest of the evening.

#Guatemala #homebrew Guifiti

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Jaibalito (#38)

Stumbling over a rocky, narrow path, I grip the ground with my toes. The sharp cliff on my left-hand side bodes unforgivingness to the flat-footed traveler. The hike from Santa Cruz la Laguna to Jaibalito takes about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace. On the way the walk offers unparalleled views of Lake Atitlán’s southern banks, adorned with three majestic volcanoes and four distinct peaks: San Lucan Tolimán, a dual-crested complex volcano; San Pedro, and Santiago Atitlan—both stratovolcanoes, the latter is considered active by geologists, though the last eruption occurred in May 1853.

The view is precious, as described by none other than Aldous Huxley himself:

Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.

The walk to Jaibalito takes one past the Isla Verde boutique eco hotel where one can arrange for a Maya spa treatment complete with a hot stone massage and time in the temezcal, a wood-fired sauna built out of adobe. Climbing up into the hills beyond Isla Verde brings the hiker to stunning views of Lake Atitlán from atop the sharp escarpments of the Sierra Madre mountain range.

Arriving in Jaibalito, the trail winds through what resembles a naturally-formed Japanese rock garden where massive boulders flank either side of the path. Crossing a metal bridge that appears to be a remnant of the 30-year armed conflict in Guatemala, travelers enter the town, passing by the official school and its expansive soccer field.

Rest stops are possible at a number of places including the upscale private club Ven Acá and the budget backpacker paradise of Posada Jaibalito which offers fully-furnished houses for a monthly rent of Q300 (about $38). As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you can guess which of the two venues I recommend.

On the way to Jaibalito #Lake #Atitlan #Guatemala #peacecorps #HowISeePC

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Pizza Maya (#39)

Sinking my teeth into a toasted tortilla, beans and cheese ooze out from between the unleavened corn loaves. My host mom cackles gleefully, handing me a napkin, as piping hot globs drip onto my plate.


“Pizza Maya” is an invention by my beloved Señora Juana, Guatemalan chef extraordinaire and my darling host mother in the land of the eternal spring. A delicious snack, tortillas are only about the size of your palm. The pizza Maya is a creative Guatemalan take on a foreign, outlandish culinary concept which involves the incorporation of locally-available dietary staples.

¡Buen provecho!

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.