Peace Corps Blog, Pictures, and FAQ

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THANKS!Giving...

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Last week I went to the aptly named town of Gracias on the other side of the country to celebrate Thanksgiving with about 30 other volunteers at the house of a great married couple of volunteers. It goes without saying that it was great to share the holiday with good friends. Everybody contributed some dish, and it was all fantastic. Among the last things I was expecting at a Honduran Thanksgiving were homemade mac and cheese and green-bean casserole! Eben (his site is Gracias) found two 10lb turkeys. We baked one pretty traditionally with stuffing and the works. But then what we did with the other was truly exceptional for Honduras... We were able to get a hold of an enormous cauldron, fill it with six gallons of oil, set up a fire pit in the backyard, and successfully deep-fry an entire turkey over an open flame. I have to say, I don’t think I’ll ever bake a turkey again. If you had any doubt in your mind, frying is the only way to go...

One of my best friends in the world, Alex White, has been serving in Peace Corps Kazakhstan for the last few months (his blog is way better than mine and can be found at kaz.alexmwhite.com). His Thanksgiving blog-entry inspired me to think about some things I’m thankful for here, and I’m shamelessly copying the idea....

Of course there’s my friends and family. Mom, Dad, Britt, Jim, Grandma and Grandpa, Brien, Alex, Owen, Dan, Casey, Dan, Preston, Tyler, Kyle, Maggie and the countless others I should be obliged to name, not only would I not have been here if it weren’t for all your love and support, I don’t know if it would be something I could stick out. Being able to talk to all of you, and knowing that you’re there supporting me, has been the best thing I could ask for while living here. I know I put up a confident edge, but the reason I’m so well adjusted here is because of the encouragement (direct or indirect) I regularly receive from all of you. The most important thing I’ve learned while living here is that nothing else matters if you don’t have a family that loves you and friends that have your back no matter what. I love you all. This all will have been worth it if only I can look back at my service a year and half from now and have made you proud.

And now, in no particular order...

People who write, call, or comment. I know I’m TERRIBLE at responding in any kind of acceptable time-frame, but nonetheless I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea how a simple postcard, email, or facebook message can turn a bad day into a good one (Mrs. D, you know who you are!). It’s hard to explain, but there are dozens of you who have no idea that I’ve read your messages ten or eleven times.

My friends in Peace Corps. Just like in every other chapter of my life I’m sure there’s those that love and those that hate me, but I think I have met some pretty amazing people here. They say in training that other volunteers are your lifeline. Not only is that statement 100% true, but it only gets truer and truer. You guys are what keeps me sane! I know I’m sometimes not the most lovable person, but you all are some of the best people I’ve ever know.

My community. Honduras, and particularly the people of Santa María del Real have been exceptionally kind, patient, and open with me. Every day this place feels more and more like home, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. The fact that people would not only befriend some clueless young American with an elementary grasp of the Spanish language, but invite him into their homes, their lives, their businesses, and their culture is truly overwhelming. Often I feel like I’m not doing enough to repay the kindness and the help that I’ve received, but no one here would ever let me say that. Hear, say, or think what you will, but at their core, Hondurans are an extraordinary people, and every day something new makes me aware of how lucky I am to live here.

Peace Corps. Is it perfect? Of course not! It’s a bureaucracy of the U.S. government! But here’s an organization that has given me and countless others the chance to live our dreams, and has contributed an unmeasurable amount to the development of the countries it serves. Of course there are things to improve, but that being said, Peace Corps has got to be one of the few organizations of its size willing to listen to the lowest rungs of the ladder (us) about what we think and our experiences and act on them. I’m also thankful for the best support and training staff that likely exists in all of the world. To all those worried parents out there: Peace Corps has not only prepared us for what we do, but continues to be 100% open and helpful during our service.

Being an American. I don’t know if there’s any other experience that would make someone more proud or grateful to be from The United States of America. I know it seems contrarian, but every day I’m reminded how lucky we are to live in such a great country. I think it’s important to emphasize that we were lucky enough to be born there... We’re not entitled to anything. Whatever problems or differences we have, what I’ve come to realize is that the greatest mistake any of us on any side of the political aisle can make would be to ever forget the opportunities, liberties, and standard of living that we’ve been blessed with.  I don’t feel bad saying it: We live in an amazing place.

 

Obviously that’s not everything I’m thankful for, but I think it’s a good representation. I guess lastly what I’m thankful for is all of you that read this blog. Knowing that I’m talking to someone, anyone, has been an extremely cathartic experience for me, and I feel lucky to be able to share some my thoughts and experiences here with you all. Please keep reading and commenting! You have no idea how much those simple actions do for me. It’s been a pleasure so far to share this wild ride with you.

Love,

Julian

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 December 2010 16:26
 

Halloween and Human Sacrifice

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This past week I, along with maybe 100 Peace Corps Honduras and (a handful of) Guatemala Volunteers made the trek to the beautiful city of Copan Ruinas for the annual Halloween Party made famous by Peace Corps Honduras. Apparently over the years, Halloween has been a time in Honduras for many of the volunteers in the far flung parts of the country (like me) to get together and see each other for what may be the first and last time in an entire year in some cases. For this reason, from what I can tell (I haven’t been here for every holiday) in the Peace Corps Honduras World Halloween is the biggest holiday, and has got to be probably the biggest - official or unofficial - gathering of Peace Corps Volunteers in Honduras. Of course not every one can or wants to attend, but I would say there were easily between 80 and 100 of us there. Basically it’s a good excuse to go to one of the few real tourist towns in Honduras and enjoy some good company, good food, and the occasional* beer or cocktail from a real bar - all while forgetting your Spanish, spending enough of your living allowance to to cut meat entirely out of your diet for a week or two upon your return, and getting a chance to be to be those loud, arrogant Americans you hear about on TV.

On Saturday, the 30th, there was actually a Halloween Party between three of the more popular bars in town, and we showed up in force with some great costumes. My favorites (that weren’t me) were a buddy who dressed up as Mario in Mario Cart, complete with everything - hat, mustache, gloves, suspenders, and RACE CAR - very well done, then there were the girls from my department of Olancho who all went as a different version of Lady Gaga, and they got their costumes down to a tee. On my end, myself along with two of the other guys from Olancho - Matt and Josh - and my buddy Eben from out west, were each one of the four national beers of Honduras - Imperial, Port Royal (me), Salva Vida, and Barena. We won the “Best Costume” prize, while the beautiful ladies of Olancho swept the “Sexiest” category - So I guess you could say Olancho took it home. Our costumes next year may include something to do with the words “better than you.”

 


We had this idea pretty randomly just a few weeks before Halloween, and there is still debate about who’s it was exactly. Anyway, we found a woman in Catacamas who makes beautiful piñatas, and asked her if she could make us beer bottle piñatas - that we could wear. To our surprise she didn’t even blink, and answered yes, of course. She measured us and sent us out to bring her back empty** bottles of each brand to use as a guide, and then got to work. A mere five days later she had made four enormous, beautifully detailed, paper machete, wearable beer bottles - and here’s the wild part: She only charged us L.200 for each one! That is $10.00... We had to negotiate with her to let us give her another L.200 for all her work!

However, as you can see, these things were quite large. Even getting them from this woman’s house back to where we were staying in Catacamas included a feat so strange and harrowing I can’t even write about it for fear of what Peace Corps might say if they saw it. And what’s more is that Matt was due for most of the week in Tegucigalpa for an appointment, and Eben lives 14 hours away, so it was just Josh and I handling these costumes from the point of pickup all the was to Copan Ruinas. You have to understand, not only are these things each about four feet tall with a circumference of three and a half feet, but they are also extremely fragile, and would melt if ever exposed to water (we live in a rainforest, during the rainy season). Getting to Copan Ruinas was definitely the best part. Josh and I woke up at 3:45am to walk (because these costumes would not even come close to fitting in a taxi) about a mile to the bus terminal with our luggage and two stupidly big piñatas, wrapped in garbage bags with jerry-rigged duct-tape handles, apiece in order to make the 5:00am bus to Tegucigalpa. We barely made the bus, but the piñatas fit underneath without problem and we could at least sleep soundly for the four hours it takes to get to Teguz. Once in Teguz, we had to switch busses, and once again, to get the piñatas where they needed to go, we had to do something else so stupid that I have to censor it for fear of Peace Corps, but we’ll just say that they, and us, none too easily, made it in one piece to the next bus terminal. Form there we waited about two hours for the bus we needed while we took advantage of the time and cajoled management to let us put the piñatas underneath in the storage compartment in a place where they couldn’t be crushed. Finally they acquiesced and we were on our way. Six hours later to San Pedro Sula, and seven more to Copan Ruinas, and we miraculously made it - literally cross-country - with these fragile, man-sized, paper-machete piñatas, each one defiantly continuing to be its own different kind of beer-bottle-shaped awesomeness.

 


When the night actually came to don the costumes we soon discovered we were celebrities. We found this out while just walking the few blocks form our hotel to the bar where the party was at. I understand that this is going to sound made-up, but it absolutely happened as I describe it. As we made our way down the street locals and tourists alike began lining the sidewalks cheering and taking pictures. It took us a half hour to walk four blocks, as every twelve steps someone would stop us to take a picture. Once at the threshold to the bar, we walked in to a spontaneous round of applause, and the back of the bar was - unintentionally - converted into a photo-studio where people waited to get their pictures with the beers and Lady Gagas... How could we not have won? But I have to say, by the second bar the costumes came off, and it was nice to be able to dance, buy drinks, and, well, sit down...

The party itself was a ton of fun. It was great to get to see so many new faces and old friends. It’s a strange feeling, since I had only known some of these people a few weeks during training or a few days from conferences, but once united it was like seeing old friends from your home town or college. One of the best parts of Peace Corps is that once you go into this with these people, it’s like you’re bonded by something greater than the common interests or forced company that forge so many friendships from back home, but rather some uniting goal (even if we don’t always see eye to eye about it) and the fact that we’re all in the same fight. I know this is nothing like it, but I think I have a better understanding now of how people become best friends in fox-holes.

While I was there I also had the incredible opportunity to visit the Mayan Ruins of Copan. I believe there are few things in the world that upon merely seeing them change your life in some small way, but the Copan Ruins are one of them. During its heyday between 300 and 900 A.D. Copan was the second biggest Mayan city behind Tikal, and with a population of over 1,000,000 was bigger than any city in Europe or the U.S. would be for more than several hundred years after the Mayans had disappeared. Copan is considered the best artistically preserved Mayan city, as it was never demolished or “cleaned up” by missionaries or “improved” by the wild-cat amateur archaeologists that discovered many other Mayan sites.

The Copan Ruins are truly one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen. If anyone’s interested I would highly recommend a visit. In my opinion, the monuments of London, Paris, and maybe even Rome pale in comparison to what these ancient people who didn’t even have the wheel or iron were able to leave behind. Check out the full sized versions along with the rest of the Copan photos here.

 

I’ll leave you with an interesting thing about the Mayas that I think we should remember when thinking of our own national problems: While many people believe that the Mayans - like the Aztecs - were wiped out by the western conquistadors, that is not in fact the case. While Mayan indigenous groups existed - as they do now - upon the arrival of Cortes, their culture, knowledge, technology, traditions, and language had all but disappeared more than 200 years before the first blond-haired, green-eyed European stepped foot on the new world. This happened because the Mayans were not an empire, but rather, like ancient Greece, a collection of fickle, warring city-states. As they grew bigger they began to clash over resources like jade (their equivalent to gold) and food resources. The Mayans cultivated hill sides and otherwise unnamable land by practicing a type of sustainable slash-and-burn agriculture that included ingenuous crop rotations and fallow cycles that Europeans wouldn’t stumble upon for another 200 years. However, as they grew bigger and bigger it became imperative to grow more food, use more land, and clear more forest. Eventually city states like Copan and Tikal began to reach the capacity of what they could comfortably produce. Now for over 100 years historians and scientists have said that the world has hit its “carrying capacity” but we’ve always innovated and progressed to a point where each time those doomsayers are proved wrong. However, to the Mayas, the problem was a zero sum game and the prime answer was to physically take more land, and - more gruesomely - make more sacrifices, as they viewed blood as the literal link between this world and the divine fertility of the land. Therefore by the end of their apex, Mayan city-states were not only starving to death, but fighting wars where the sole point was to take prisoners to sacrifice, while leaving entire cities abandoned. This was the end of the great Maya Civilization. One of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known was not  demolished and assimilated by the conquistadors, but instead imploded through a slow, anticlimactic process of endemic, resource-centric warfare.

 


* yeah...

** This definitely turned into a two hour trip...

 

Last Updated on Monday, 06 December 2010 05:59
 

New Stuff...


Hey Everyone! Be sure to check out the new pictures from my trip to Copan, and two new blog entries about Thanksgiving and Halloween!