January 7th, 2010 marked exactly one year since I set foot on Guatemalan soil for the first time and started my adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  This past year has been the most challenging and rewarding year of my life.  I have grown tremendously and in ways that I never expected, and I thought that I would share a few of the lessons I have learned in the past 365 days.

1. Learning a language is a long and difficult process, but it is well worth every mistake, and you will make lots of mistakes.  My Spanish has understandably improved in leaps and bounds in the year that I have been using it almost 24/7.  I still manage to embarrass myself now and then, but laughing with people about my mistakes is another way to make friends.  A language represents another way of approaching the world, and people's perspective of me changes when they realize that I can express myself and understand them in their language (or, many times, their second language since many Guatemalans where I work speak Kaqchikel as their first language).  As a child, learning English opened doors to a universe of relationships and knowledge.  Learning a second language is equally rewarding.

2. Where you are is never as important as who you are with.  I know that this expression is common -place, but it has been a poignant phrase for me this past year.  There are two sides to this.  First, there is nothing that I miss as much as my family. While it is more fun to complain about the lack of hot showers or cheese, when I have a hard day water temperature and dairy don't matter.  I am very blessed with a diverse, growing and nurturing family and there is no replacement or filler.  On the other side are all of the wonderful people that I have met here.  Everywhere I have gone I have met caring and inspired people.  Sometimes it has taken searching and humility on my part, but I know that anywhere I may go there will be someone who has a lesson to teach me.

3. Planning is important, haste makes waste, and sometimes you just have to keep pushing forward.  There is no doubt about it, I am a planner.  Anyone who was in speech with me knows how important I think highlighters are.  There is no replacement for a solid action plan, especially when working on community projects.  It can also be a useful personal tool.  A mission statement is a solid reminder of direction for individuals and groups.  A well thought-out and elaborated plan makes sure that things get done on time, and that a group is working towards a common goal.  However, on days when the members of the planning committee have gone to their corners or are nowhere to be found, on days when the materials don't show up or didn't get ordered, on the days when all that planning temporarily falls apart, it can sometimes be just as important to keep moving.  Brainstorming a list of supplementary projects, entering data, filing papers, stuffing garbage in bottles, cutting up old tires to make gardens and washing your laundry by hand may not change the world, but it sure feels good!

4. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it also would have made him or her a darn good traveler.  My pride often gets the best of me here.  I am reluctant to look like an ignorant gringa, so I often nod my head and go along.  It took a visit from my aunt over the holidays to help me realize how much I am missing when I do this.  There are plenty of foods (mainly fruits) here I had no idea how to eat, and traditions I couldn't explain.  Speaking one of the languages spoken here opens up plenty of doors, but not nearly as many if I don't use it.  I am never going to look like anything but a gringa, but  appearing ignorant and being ignorant are two very different things.

5. Some manners matter.  In classes throughout high school and college I was taught which fork to use for my salad, how to pass salt and pepper properly (always as a pair), and to put my napkin on my lap.  I won't say here that those manners aren't important, and you won't find me drinking soup directly from the bowl at a business lunch.  However, I will say that there is something missing there.  The manners that matter are the gestures that we make to other people as a show of respect.  Saying good morning to coworkers on your way to your desk, asking permission to enter a room or a home, always saying please and thank you, much more than table manners, can form images and relationships.

6. Dance... in public if possible.  I don't mean in clubs.  They have their place, but the light is too dim and sporadic to really see people's faces and the music is far too loud to hear what they are saying.  I mean dance.  Dance swing, waltzes, salsa, jazz, tango, foxtrot or chachacha.  I have not yet been to a wedding here where I didn't spend hours dancing to marimba music with a partner.  As a result, I have learned a lot about people and my community at weddings (something that never happened in a club).  I have also squeezed in a salsa lesson or two during vacations, and it is challenging both mentally and physically.  Practicing new salsa steps in my room in the evening is also pretty fun and therapeutic.  Bring back ballroom dancing!

To all of you, I wish you a very happy and satisfying new year filled with good lessons, good people, new discoveries and plenty of dancing.
"I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas (or holiday of choice) from the bottom of my heart."  Now that I have left you with that tidbit of musical insanity looping in your head from the rest of the day...

This holiday season has been full of adventure and learning, although that isn't limited to the holiday season here.  However, there were some special treats for me this holiday season.  My aunt Jeanette came down for a visit over Christmas.  Although actually getting her here turned out to be more complicated than I ever imagined, it was worth every minute that I spent at the airport (and traveling to and from the airport).  

Originally, Jeanette would have gotten here on December 22nd around mid-day.  However, the universe had other plans in mind and, after missing her connecting flight in Atlanta and being flown through both Mexico and El Salvador, she arrived on December 23rd around 4:30 in the afternoon.  Fortunately, we'd left things pretty open so it was easy to rearrange schedules, but it made for a very short trip.

Her first night in we stayed in a hostel that I really like in Antigua.  $10 for two people for a quiet room with hot water isn't too bad.  That left us more to spend on other things, namely food.  We ate our way around town during her entire visit, and found some treasures.  Our favorite find of the week was Fernando's Kaffee, which has the best coffee and chocolate I have ever had.  This is coming from someone who adores coffee and usually doesn't care for chocolate.  The food is also amazing, and it will undoubtedly be a stop for anyone who comes to visit.

After a lovely breakfast at Fernando's on the morning of the 24th (a wonderful way to start the day), we headed back to my site to celebrate Christmas with my Guatemalan friends.  The tradition here is to stay up until midnight and set off fireworks.  While we spent some time with Estela's family and ate plenty (yet again) we neither made it to midnight nor set off fireworks.  For my part, I slept so soundly that I didn't even hear them.  

On the 25th we broke out the traditions.  Jeanette brought lots of Christmas lights and decorations with her and Uncle David did an awesome and painstaking job of burning DVDs for me.  So we had lights and movies while we baked cookies with some very precious Ghirardelli chocolate chips (which I have since also used in a pancake or two).

On the 26th we took a trip on the bus (which Jeanette can now tell you is very entertaining) up to the ruins at Iximche.  It was a nice day trip and the first time, shockingly, that I have seen Mayan ruins since I have been in Guatemala.  It was a neat experience, and I got a few pictures out of the deal as well.

On the 27th we headed back to Antigua to see a few more of the sights there and continue our fantastic food frenzy.  We went to the Capuchinas ruins where I translated despite my lack of Catholic vocabulary in both English and Spanish.  It was a very interesting tour, and one that I would recommend.  We browsed Casa de los Gigantes, which is a wonderful store full of creative things made by artisan or womens groups in Guatemala.  We had dinner at Welten (the best gnocci I have ever had), and called it a day.  I looked for some salsa dancing, but with the holidays everything was closed.

On the 28th we had breakfast at Fernando's again, and then it was off to the airport.  It was difficult for me to say goodbye, but it helped to have new friends waiting for me in Antigua and a Salsa lesson scheduled for the afternoon. (I have to take advantage of my vacation days.)

New years was low-key for me.  I got a call from Victor's parents and from Dad's family.  Then, I tucked into bed at just about my normal hour.  Well-rested is a good way to ring in a fresh start.  On the first I had a wonderful lunch with the family of my friend Erika.  I enjoy living alone and having a quiet retreat when I need it, but a family lunch here is always a happy affair, and I love sitting in the kitchen with the women and pitching in when they will let me.  Here, the vast majority of the domestic work is still done by women, and there is a feeling of security and feminine power in the kitchen.  There is also the warmth of the stove to cut the chilly winds that are running around this time of year and, of course, there are many times children giggling or crying or playing.

Overall, it was a holiday of people.  And where there are friends and family there is joy.  May your new year bring you joy as well.