Make Big Waves in Indigenous Guatemala

TL;DR

The Alpha & Omega English Academy was a cornerstone of my Peace Corps service.

Alpha y Omega in Spanish, strives everyday to make great things possible in rural Guatemala for children (and adults) of all ages. With a focus on experience-based language acquisition, Alpha & Omega is directly breaking a cycle of poverty by bringing the opportunity to learn English, participate in language and culture exchanges with Anglophone visitors from outside of Guatemala, and provide valuable experience to youth in a town that was heavily impacted by the Guatemalan Civil War.

In Guatemala, the ability to speak English is highly prized.

Inglés enables its speakers to work in call centers, for international development organizations (which are numerous in the beautiful Guatemalan countryside and bring much-needed foreign money to cash-strapped villages). Furthermore, English speakers can take the TOEFL, a standardized test which measures understanding and comprehension of the English language. This exam is a requirement for most international applicants to American universities at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

Alpha & Omega has built itself up by its bootstraps and I am incredibly proud to have had the opportunity to be involved with its creation since inception.

I have loved everything that AyO has been working on from the early days: cobbling together free classes for community members, setting up meetings with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education to get approval for the school’s charter, striving to find stable space, recruiting students, running marketing and publicity campaigns, and everything in between.

Now, more than ever, the school needs your support to expand its services to a larger area.

Never before has this school solicited donations from Guatemalans, NGOs, or the general public. And never before has your support been more critical. Alpha & Omega is a self-sustaining entity, but your support is necessary to continue building for Guatemala’s future.

In a country where homicide, violence against women, impunity chronic malnutrition, and structural inequality are some of the highest in the world– it is imperative that we invest in the noble and necessary work of Alpha & Omega.

Please join me in supporting Alpha & Omega English Academy’s push to expand services in rural Guatemala!

https://www.gofundme.com/2r0viuk

Check out AyO on Facebook or visit their website.


TL;DR — GIVE MONEY IT’S WORTH IT.

Peace Corps: One Year Later

July 17, 2016 marks one year since I closed my service with the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Since I was a child, I dreamed of traveling to a remote pocket of the world with nothing more than I could carry. Living off the land, the people around me, and striving for something larger than myself, I forwent the trappings of modern life and headed south to the Land of the Eternal Spring.

I left the US naïve, full of idealism, and ready to play savior in the developing world. Little did I know, my two years in poverty would teach me more about myself and humble me before the kindness, compassion, and solidarity I felt from and with the people of my community.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of closing one of the most challenging, revealing, enlightening chapters of my life. Since leaving Guatemala, I have become a stronger, better, more self-aware version of myself.

In celebration of the two years I spent in the Heart of the Mayan World, I would like to share with you the most popular blog posts of my service—thanks to you my friends, family, and supportive readers across the globe!

Top visited posts during service:

  1. [food] Sweet Bread of Guatemala
  2. [food] Tamales vs. Chuchitos
  3. [culture] Who Let the Dogs Out? Guatemalan Style
  4. [food] Gringo in Guate: Paternas
  5. [culture] Mayan Superstitions

Celebrating Peace Corps Week:

Snapshots of Guatemala:

CHIditarod XI

Friends, family! I am happy to announce that I will be participating in the 11th annual CHIditarod.

CHIditarod is Chicago’s 100% volunteer-driven epic urban shopping cart race, charity food drive, costumed beauty pageant, talent show and chaos generator, all in one. It’s a micro-grant fundraiser for the CHIditarod Foundation, and probably the world’s largest mobile food drive, benefiting the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

I will be braving the ice and snow of Chicago’s winter to dress as Scooby-Doo with 4 other valiant RPCVs. As the Mystery Team, we gallivant about the world attempting to solve various social issues each member holds dear to their heart. Community gardening, women’s empowerment, marine conservation, and animal rights count among these causes. Together we unveil that behind each of these seeming intractable ails of the modern world- just like the other ghouls, goblins, and ghostly apparitions our town fears- there is a reasonable solution.

Mystery, Inc. is about to embark on its latest adventure, the quest to vanquish an alarmingly large villain in our own backyard: Hunger. Through their participation in the 2016 CHIditarod, we hope to raise as much non-perishable food for the Greater Chicago Food Depository as possible. To date, this event has raised over 100,000 pounds of food for our Chicago neighbors.

Chiditarod 2014 & 2015

Please support us by making a donation to the cause via our team’s page on Razoo.

Your generous donation supports grassroots, hunger-fighting initiatives. CHIditarod parters with food banks, urban farms, educational programs for children in Chicago Public Schools, mobile farmers markets, and more!  Thank you so much for your generous contribution, it makes a world of difference.

Upon commencing a sabbatical from Mystery Inc., the five members traveled across the world in pursuit of fulfilling work and the promotion of world peace. Their colorful history as a crime-solving team had oddly prepared them well to tackle social issues far and wide. Join the Mystery Team in their latest adventure against an alarmingly large villain: Hunger. ZOINKS!

As Peace Corps volunteers we engaged in the search for creative, fun solutions to difficult problems. After service, we remain committed to confronting hunger, a major issue in our new home of Chicago.

Fred Jones, worn out from the stress of Mystery Inc. and overwhelmed by the tightness of his ascot, set out for Senegal, West Africa, in search of a new experience. Upon the return to his motherland, Fred has enjoyed bicycling to breweries and pursuing the search for the perfect new ascot.

Miles Conant as Fred Jones

Danger-Prone Daphne, after being evacuated from Ukraine, has set roots in Chicago. Despite being back in the US, her love for vodka and adventure continues! Daphne can now be found marathon training with Scooby. By the way, after Daphne was evacuated from Ukraine, she returned to an active war zone to pick up her dog who now lives safely in Illinois.

Rachel Story as Daphne Blake

Velma jetted off to Morocco to solve a mystery when she lost her glasses back in the US! Luckily she solved the mystery of Moroccan Arabic and got a new pair. When she isn’t solving mysteries Velma likes sing with her choir, work on her cooking skills, and day dream about her next adventure.

Lexy Huber as Velma Dinkley

Shaggy, having been surrounded by a perpetual haze all of his life, awoke one day to find his aspirations dissipated into smoke. Realizing nothing of merit had been accomplished in his life thus far (beyond training a dog to giggle); he joined the Peace Corps and took off to the other side of the world. He’s recently moved back to Chicago. Shaggy has since donned a tie, got a haircut, and found a real job while still attempting to maintain that hippie spirit.

Mike DeLadesmo as Shaggy Rogers

Scooby Doo recently arrived in Chicago after pursuing good food and cheap beer in Guatemala. Between snacks, he can be found pursuing his passions for scuba diving and marine conservation.

Yours truly as Scooby-Doo!

For those of you in the Chicago-area, the CHIditarod will take place on March 5. You can come out and support Mystery, Inc. in the battle against hunger!

Please support us by making a donation to the cause via our team’s page on Razoo.

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On Fleek, Swipe Right

Sitting on the subway and minding my own business was suddenly made incalculably more difficult when she got on the train. As her feet crossed the threshold of the platform, the warm fall day seemed to permeate the metal sides of the train raising the temperature several degrees. Tossing her reddish-brown hair over the left shoulder, she glanced around the sparsely populated car. I couldn’t help but notice her perfect fitting black baby doll t-shirt tucked seamlessly into a pair of waist-high skinny jeans which tapered at the ankle. Her red canvass flats matched the lush red of her lipstick which was the only makeup she was wearing. Two small pewter lighthouses dangled mysteriously from her earlobes, guiding my thoughts through the tempestuous churning beginning just below my navel.

My stomach did a somersault as she took the seat across from me. There were maybe three other people in this particular car. We made eye contact briefly and I looked away, hurriedly feigning a profound interest in the misspelled National Guard recruiting poster above. Moments later the girl took out a brown hardcover book with black binding on the spine. There was no dust cover and the tome was sans title. Naturally, I was intrigued. Her eyes flicked up at me again and then back down at the leaves of her book.

“What are you reading?” No. “I like your red Toms.” Even worse. “Hi, my name is Cyrus.”

No way, none of those are acceptable ways of initiating conversation. If I’ve learned anything from my time back in America, it certainly isn’t acceptable to strike up a random conversation with strangers. It immediately brands you as a “creep” or a “weirdo.” I certainly wouldn’t want this young lady to deem me basic, as if her stunning outward appearance were the only thing I was interested in getting to know.

Before I could arrive at the most appropriate way to parlay my doubt into a decent conversation, a scruffy looking fellow stumbled over. Pungently perfumed with the scent of stale malt liquor, he took the initiative that I had been lacking.

“Hey girl, where you goin’?”

Bracing myself to feel an onslaught of discomfort and secondhand embarrassment, the lady gracefully disengaged without the slightest bit of awkwardness or demeaning the enterprising gentleman in the slightest. Great. If it was unacceptable to strike up a conversation before, that guy just totally torpedoed any possibility.swiperight

As I continued to admire the ads posted above the opposite row of windows, I noted another gentleman step onto the train. Completely immersed in his smartphone, he glanced around the car and took a seat a few spaces to my right. Furiously swiping left and right on his phone, this man was on a mission. Now he’s typing something, furtively glancing around between words. I watch his dancing fingers, looking to avoid the temptation to stare at the pretty girl. After a few minutes of this, I return to watching Chicago’s majestic skyline from the window, counting stops.

The girl, balancing the book, spine up, on her knee, has taken out her phone. A smile flickers across her face as she looks around the train.

“Hi, Greg?” she asks with only a hint of apprehension in her voice.

“Hey nice to meet you. Carey, right?” he replies without hesitation.

“What? How was this happening?” I marveled to myself, and continued to listen.

“Yeah that’s right, crazy that we’re both right here and we matched.”

“I know, right?”

They begin to chat animatedly and over the course of the next four stops the newly matched pair covered Carey’s book, Greg gave appropriate comments about her lighthouse earrings, and they covered topics ranging from the Cubs to their daily occupations. Are you kidding me? I was struck dumb by my apparent lack of dating app prowess.

By the time I stood up to get off, Greg and Carey had already made plans to hang out the following weekend and exchanged numbers. While stigmatized behavior to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the train or in a coffee shop, the use of a dating app to do the same thing was completely acceptable. Though I have no concept of the smooth first text message game of Greg, Surely the same approach, as demonstrated by the malt liquor man, would not have been effective in a random, first-time, face-to-face encounter.

“On Fleek, Swipe Right” is my first attempt at fiction in over a decade. I welcome any feedback you may have!

Puebla: Birthplace of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de mayo, or “cinco de drinko,” as more commonly observed in the United States, is not the Mexican independence day. Like many other countries in the region, Mexico formally became independent from Spain on September 15, 1821 along with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

BattleofPuebla2

Source: wikipedia

Cinco de mayo, observed on the 5th of May, commemorates the Battle of Puebla. This historic battle ended in a victory for the Mexican Army against the French during the French Intervention in Mexico. While French forces eventually overran Mexican forces over the length of the campaign, the victory at Puebla demonstrated a resilience and strong spirit of the Mexican people which endures to this day.

On the long road from Oaxaca to Mexico City, Puebla breaks up the journey. Yet again, my senses were availed by a historic beauty. This time, the colonial elements of Puebla were subtly accented with a touch of modernity. The central park is adorned with colorful, modern helvetica script proudly proclaiming PUEBLA in front of the state government palace. Pueblans gather to chat, read the paper, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. A forward-thinking outdoor library has been installed along with a giant sandbox which brings a taste of the coast to the warm town.

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To my luck, the chile en nogada was in season. This traditional Mexican dish, native to Puebla is a giant green chile stuffed with savory chicken and doused in a white coconut salsa. On top, the chile is garnished with cinnamon, cilantro, and cardamom. Not coincidentally, the recipe exudes the colors of the Mexican tricolor, a patriotic homage to the great history of Puebla and the enduring pride Mexican’s have for their identity and history.

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Southern Mexico: Oaxaca City

The South

Oaxaca, Mexico

Home to a US Consulate, Oaxaca is not a big city. However what it lacks in size it quickly makes up in flavor. Oaxaca is Mexico’s largest Mezcal producing region. Mezcal is a unique spirit distilled from the agave plant. Unlike other agave liquors such as tequila and pulque, mezcal is made from a variety and often blend of agave strains native to different regions, climates, and topography of Mexico. This lends the taster opportunities to experience the variety of sensations that can be found in whiskey or other more european-influenced beverages.

Aside from the mezcal, which is spectacular, Oaxaca is home to beautiful colonial-era architecture and massive cathedrals. The two days spent there were enough to cover the entire urban area but I felt the charm and warmth of the place pulling at the hem of my sleeve, urging me to stay and soak up more of what this delightfully slow, mezcal seeped place offers the world.

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Southern Mexico: Tuxtla Gutierrez

The South

Tuxtla

Tuxtla Gutierrez or “Tuxtla” as the bus drivers shout, is the largest city and capital of Mexico’s southernmost state: Chiapas. Unlike it’s charming, colonial neighbor 45 minutes to the southeast, San Cristobal, Tuxtla is a sprawling modern city where Chiapas goes to work. My first impressions were also my last as I did not feel the city had much to offer in terms of culture or sights.

Glossed over in all the guidebooks, Tuxtla Gutierrez is not a tourist destination. Home to a large international airport, most travelers cross paths with the city on the way to other, more scenic destinations in Mexico’s south. And understandably so. While remarkably more clean and developed than most Guatemalan cities, the only spot of particular note to me was the Parque de la marimba where locals gather at night to enjoy street food and outdoor performances. Musicians, artisans, tradespeople, and street performers gather to hawk their trades and the poorly lit streets had me quickly hurrying between the park and the hotel.

A comedian entertains the crowd.

A comedian entertains the crowd.

 

 

The marimba...

The marimba…

As I soon learned would be characteristic of our journey, we made friends with two lovely locals who took the time to show us their favorite spot: the shopping mall. A throwback to my younger days, having never really hung out at the mall, Tuxtla Gutierrez is Chiapan town that one may pass through. It’s not, by any means, a terrible place. Nor is it one that merits a great deal of time spent in a country so otherwise full of excitement and wonder.

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The kids pose for a goofy selfie at the mall.

Southern Mexico: San Cristóbal de las Casas

The South

San Cristóbal

Chiapas, largely indigenous, is economically distressed. Though rich in land, people continue to live as they have for centuries with limited access to financial institutions, higher education, and modern amenities I take for granted in the States. San Cristóbal de las Casas, or “San Cris” as it’s known by locals, is a pastoral colonial town reminiscent of Antigua, Guatemala. Cobblestone streets and artisan handicrafts characteristic of the Maya can be easily found, though there is a greater sense of order to the disorder than in places like the Mercado del Carmen in Antigua. While vendors still congregate in designated areas, many of the markets are pop-up style and open air with craftspeople bringing their own tents, tables, and signs similar to what you’d expect to see at a farmer’s market in the US.

The city is book ended by two large hills. The Cerro de Guadalupe offers precious views of the city and leads to a cathedral and shrine to the virgin.

Beginning the short climb.

Beginning the short climb.

The view of San Cris from the Guadalupe hill.

The view of San Cris from the Guadalupe hill.

The temple

The temple

I enjoyed how the walk around town to the other side to the Templo del Cerrito afforded us the chance to see beautiful street art and even be greeted by our favorite bartenders from the previous night.

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Chiapas pride

The Templo del Cerrito or “Temple of the little hill” is actually atop a relatively large hill by Midwestern standards. The winding stone staircase which scales the hillside is the only way to access the temple but is an attractive climb punctuated by street art and precious views of the entire town and surrounding countryside.

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Up there we made some new friends. In traveling through Central America and Mexico, I’ve found that it’s totally acceptable to strike up a conversation with someone you’d like to get to know better. This is different from many circumstances in the US where it’s only acceptable to initiate conversation with strangers via Tinder. [link to Tinder story]

The two nights spend in San Cris also exposed me to different varieties of mezcal distilled from distinct varieties of agave native to Mexico’s diverse regions. La Surreal, aside from doting upon me lots of postcards which I gladly sent to the first friends I could think of in the haze being conjured up by beautifully tattooed Mexican bartenders schooling me over flight after flight of artisan, agave spirit.

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My first two days in Mexico left me thirsting for more. And for the first time of many on this trip I found myself not wanting to leave.

Traveling Mexico: An Unforgettable South-North Road Trip

After closing my service in Guatemala, my fearless partner in crime Ryan Koch agreed to meet me in Guatemala City and begin a two-week journey through Mexico by car. We would travel from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state, to Monterrey in the country’s industrialized north.

Screenshot 2015-10-28 at 3.00.36 PMMexico is a beautiful country and this trip afforded the opportunity to see a great deal of it. Skipping the Yucatan Peninsula, its Mayan ruins, and the tourist destinations of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, I feel like I got to see a more authentic, “real,” Mexico.

Stay tuned for updates as they come!

The South

Central Mexico – Mexico City & Puebla

The North

  • Guadalajara, Jalisco
  • Monterrey, Nuevo Leon
  • Crossing the Border

 

Honduras: Ruins of Copán

After deciding to take the Peace Corps’ offer to end my service early due to escalating violence in Guatemala, I traveled Honduras via the ruins in Copán, San Pedro Sula (vying for the title of “world’s most dangerous city) and La Ceiba on my way to Utila in the Bay Islands.

For travel from Antigua, Guatemala to anywhere in Honduras I would recommend the Hedman Alas bus line. Their vehicles are in excellent condition (albeit with questionable reading lights, television, and audio) but come equipped with AC and bathrooms for the long journeys.

The first leg of my trip took me to Copán. Home to some of the arguably best-preserved Maya ruins in Central America, the town, called Copán Ruinas a sleepy and small place. Aside from the Hedman Alas bus terminal, shops and hotels abound but the activity of the town doesn’t compare to the hotbed of tourist activity found in Antigua. Lodging is cheap, comfy, and plentiful and in the evening there are lots of street vendors who will sell you a baleada which is a typical Honduran dish consisting of a giant flour tortilla, beans, and sour cream. I tend to like baleadas that trade cream for cheese and add avocado and sausage (preferably chorizo).

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The ruins themselves are about 1km away from the town center. I walked there and back but would recommend taking a wide-brimmed hat for the oppressive sun and plenty of water to stay hydrated. Scarlet macaws can be seen perched in the trees around the ruins of the ancient city and frequently swoop around tourists with shiny cameras.

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Copán is one of the southern-most Mayan cities and was once a great seat of power.

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Nightlife in Copán was fun. I popped into a bar where I quickly made friends with the locals who were very curious about my journey and two years in Guatemala. Copán’s ruins are breathtaking and the Copanecos, or people from the area, are friendly, welcoming and nice.