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:

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.

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!

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.

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.

Making Friends Along the Way (#40)

“Come join our conversation,” said the beautiful Colombian girl. Her dark flowing locks curled invitingly, beckoning to me as fervently as her outstretched hand.

Guatemala is a country full of travelers. It’s favorable currency, beautiful views, and rich culture are enticing aspects of this humble Central American nation. While not all the people I’ve encountered on busses and in hostels have been as enticing as the lovely Colombian lady, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many different people from all over the world on my travels through Guatemala.

When I return to the USA, I’m going to continue seeking out cross-cultural experiences. Aside from speaking different languages, getting to know diverse people exposes me to different perspectives and ways of seeing the world.

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.