“The Mayans are Dead”


“Who cares about the Mayans. They died like 2000 years ago!”

I glanced behind me to see where this tiny voice came from.  A flippant Guatemalan 10-year-old, bored of walking around the Mayan ruins of Takalik Abaj whined to her parents.  This was clearly not her idea of vacation. Her comment hit me like a 100-ton brick, however.

You see, it’s a mistake that most of us, myself included, might have made at a certain point in time – particularly before getting to know the diverse country that is Guatemala. Perhaps this feeling of guilt – that I too may have thought this for much of my life – is what really made this comment hit home for me. Amplifying it, of course, was the fact that this girl was Guatemalan, and she also made the same mistake.

We all learn in history about the brilliant things created by Mayan civilization. We learn about the pyramids, mathematics, solar and lunar calendars and their precision, shamanic healing… the battles between the Mayans and the Spanish.  However, what we don’t hear about is this: The Mayans are actually quite alive and well.  They are not some majestic civilization that built pyramids and then disappeared off the face of the planet with only their ruins to be remembered. What is more, the second mistake many of us make is to loop all Mayans together into one grand civilization.

Here’s the truth: Just in Guatemala, there are 21 Mayan civilizations – all alive and well.  Each of these 21 Mayan populations has their own language (most of which are linguistically different from one another).  These, of course, excludes additional Mayan populations that extend up into Mexico or over into Belize, for example. For many Guatemalans, their first language (and sometimes only language) is a Mayan language. Spanish, while creeping into the vernacular and encroaching on indigenous towns, is often the second language. In the department where my project is based (Totonicapan), 97% of the population is Mayan K’iche’ ethnically with roughly 70% using K’iche’ as mother tongue. Some of the largest Mayan populations in Guatemala include Mam, Kaqchiquel, Q’ueqchi’, and Ixil. Check out this cool map to see where Mayan populations are located across Guatemala today (and their respective languages, of course).


Of course, the differences don’t stop with language.  Many Mayans, particularly women, still use traditional “trajes” (dress).  They consist of brightly colored woven fabric called “huipil” (woven blouse) and “cortes” (woven wraparound skirt that reaches to the ankles, and is held together by sash at the waist. Women also wear some form of headdress or add brightly colored ribbons into braided hair. The “huipil” is a distinct work of art, often hand woven or embroidered, that may take months to complete. It is distinguished by its design, style, pattern and concept. Even today, knowledgeable individuals can identify what Mayan population (and sometimes even what village) someone is from according to patterns and colors of the dress. Traditionally, could even identify the age range and whether a woman was married or single depending on what was woven into her huipil and how it was worn. While today some of the traditions around dress have changed, their pride in their cultures and identities have not.

What has not changed, in many parts of the country, however, are attitudes towards the Mayans. In much of southern Guatemala, including much of the capital, Guatemala City, many people have never been closely exposed to Mayan populations. Spanish reigns, and even many schools teach only about the “ancient” Mayan civilizations – leaving out completely the fact that the Mayans are, in fact, alive and well. For many who do understand just how multicultural Guatemala is, there is a lack of appreciation for those languages and cultures. There are still those whose prevailing attitudes towards indigenous Mayan populations who wonder why they speak “those dialects” and why they are “so backwards.” Yes, those pejorative words are in quotes because I have actually heard them spoken out loud.  Ever since “colonization”  of Guatemala, the Mayans have been discriminated against, repressed, and even suffered attempts at their extinguishment throughout history, though this was particularly fierce during the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).

There are some signs of hope, however. The Guatemala Peace Accords of 1996 specify that children should have a right to learn in their mother-tongue.  While this still doesn’t always translate into practice, it’s a political step in the right direction. There are Ministry of Education-supported programs (including the one I manage) that support bilingual early grade reading and primary education. However, as one of my (non-Mayan) colleagues pointed out, “Sometimes as a Guatemalan, we’ve needed to leave the country to learn our own history.”

I think what is lacking still, is a curriculum that teaches all Guatemalan students about the rich culture and history of their country- ancient and modern; maybe even school trips to not only Mayan ruins dotting Guatemala’s countryside, but also trips to indigenous communities to see how others live.  And for those of us who have not grown up in Guatemala, here’s a blog post to let you know that the Mayans are not just a great ancient civilization “that died like 2000 years ago,” nor were they one homogenous group. The Mayans consist of many sub-cultures, languages, and traditions. Oh- and they are very much alive and well.

Humanity and culture: the Pleasant and the Unpleasant

Feria de Lectura.JPG

K’iche’-speaking Mayan students in traditional dress

Nearly 4 months living in Guatemala and I’m beginning to realize how absolutely little I know about this small Central American country.  In this time, I’ve also come to realize how little many Guatemalans know about the people and vast cultural differences within their borders.

Guatemala is described by some as having four main “pueblos,” or ethnic populations.  These four groups include the Maya, Xinca, Garifuna, and Ladino populations. Within these four groups, however, there is an abundance of languages and cultures.

The Xinca are probably the easiest to describe, although for unfortunate reasons. While there are many Xinca descendents, the spoken language has nearly died, except for a handful of octogenarian.  It is actually just now being put into writing and revived through a formal systematization and schooling process during the last 16 years. Within the past year, this population has revived their first group of youth who now learn to speak, read, and write the Xinca language.  Unfortunately, it’s as a second language.

The Garifuna population mainly runs down the Atlantic coast from Belize and Guatemala down through Nicaragua. This population is generally a mix of Afro-descendent and early indigenous populations (Arawak), many of whom are descendants from those brought to the Americas in the slave trade. In Guatemala, they tend to learn Garifuna and Spanish simultaneously. In Nicaragua, they often learn Creole English, Garifuna, and Spanish simultaneously.

The “ladinos” are a population referred to as “mestizos,” or Spanish descendants. Historically, they have been the landowners, the plantation owners (Guate was, after all, a coffee and banana republic), slave owners (of the indigenous populations), the business owners, the most educated. With the ladinos, there has been a concentration of wealth and resources. Today many ladinos live in the big cities. I have a majority of ladino colleagues, which represents today, the majority of the university-educated work force in Guatemala.  My organization works in underserved, mainly Mayan communities in Guatemala.  Many of my ladino Guatemalan colleagues have confessed to me that they are, embarrassingly (their words, not mine), finally learning about the rich diversity of their country.  They are finally seeing firsthand many of the inequalities between the “indigenous”and the “ladino.” These things were never taught in school or in history books.

Of course I have to also talk about the Mayans!  The Mayans…  World renowned for their precise calendars, their mathematics, their stunning pyramids… I am now finally unearthing the rich Mayan culture and going past these well-known points.  About those Mayans… Just in Guatemala, there are 21 officially recognized Mayan languages and cultures, most very different from one another.  TWENTY-ONE!  While a handful of the languages resemble one another and theoretically derive from the same original source, today most of the languages are really different from each other. For many Guatemalans, one of these 21 languages is their mother tongue and children often don’t learn Spanish until they enter school.

In Guatemala, I’m managing an Education project in one department (think “state” all you U.S. folk) with a component that focuses largely on bilingual primary education in K’iche’ (one of those 21 Mayan languages I mentioned) and Spanish. It is incredible to go to communities, walk around town, or go to a classroom and hear children whose first language is K’iche’.  While I won’t go into the challenges in this blog post of the public education system (underfunded, multi-grade classrooms, lack of access, poor facilities to name a few), I can say that many Guatemalan children have a hard time the first few years of school when they’re suddenly forced to learn every subject in Spanish.

Besides hearing daily Mayan street chatter, one of the beautiful things about Guatemala is that many Mayans still proudly wear their traditional, colorful dress every single day – particularly the women. And each of the 21 cultures has their own styles and patterns within the colorful dress. While I still cannot distinguish what sub-ethnic group people belong to by their dress, how cool to know that other Mayans can distinguish. How beautiful to see such pride for their culture. How wonderful to know that the 21 Mayan languages (and Garifuna for some) are still mother tongues for new generations.

Mayans also have a unique cosmovision of divinity, the world, the earth, and our interrelation with each.  The interesting point here is that all of the Mayan populations, despite language, geographical, dress, and cultural differences, all 21 groups share the same cosmovision, with only minor details changing from group to group. For example, my Mayan colleagues have explained to me the importance of your “Nawal,” or what day you were born on according to the Mayan calendar.  Your Nawal basically tells you what abilities you are born with, what your eventual mission in life is (regardless of when you come to it), when you should make offerings to your ancestors to thank them for your gifts, when to cleanse yourself, how to work with people of different nawals and much more.  The Mayan cosmovision blends traditional healing and medicine with modern. Studying the cosmovision properly can show you how to balance your energy and the energies around you. It is deep and rich, and would take years to understand it all.

While there are so many wonderful things to point out about Mayan culture, I can also recognize that there are many challenges still to overcome.  My non-expert guess would be that many of the things I’m about to mention come from the large inequalities between ethnic groups, including education and resource concentration.  For example, there are high levels of alcoholism, unemployment, violence against women, gender inequalities, teenage pregnancies, and female student drop-outs among Mayans.

Perhaps more disturbing, however, is how deeply entrenched some of the racism and classism can be in among Guatemalans. In 1996, the government actually wrote the right to education in one’s mother tongue into the peace accords after the brutal 36 year civil war (much of which also fueled racial divides).  However, in practice, many teachers who speak the language of a geographical area don’t get placed in those areas, sometimes for political reasons. Nearly all government meetings are done in Spanish, never in one of the other 23 languages.   I’ve heard wealthy business men question the work of our education project, asking why we’re teaching, “Those dialects” (cue offensive tone of voice).  I’ve heard people use the term “indio” (Indian) very derogatorily. Perhaps worst of all, I’ve noticed that a lot of ‘ladino’ Guatemalans don’t have a clue about or even a desire to get to know their fellow country women and men.

I know it’s easy to criticize this as an outsider, and I know there are plenty of race and class problems in my own country. My learning about Guatemala may only have scratched slightly below the surface so far. However, I’m happy to have colleagues who are actively trying to learn about how other Guatemalans live. I am also thankful for the opportunity to learn and reinforce once again that there are so many ways to live and be. That is humanity and understanding.

Learning Chapin Spanish, 101

Xela from El Baul

Photo of our new home, which I did take a really nice shot of, but no longer have in my possession due to extraneous circumstances. This photo is unfortunately unoriginal and pulled from the interweb of things. End caption tangent. 

In the case that you haven’t followed our trajectory via a personal conversation or social media, we have recently (ok, nearly a month ago now…) moved to Guatemala.  In general, it’s been a really nice transition.  In so many senses, it feels familiar… yet different.  Having spent 5 ½ years living and working in Nicaragua, our lovely neighbor to the south, and many more months across the Central and Southern portions of this great continent known to almost everyone else in our hemisphere except the US and Canada as “America” (yes – just one American continent – mind-blowing!), it feels a bit like going “home.”  In another sense, however, there’s so many new things to learn about my new “home.” For example, there is a whole new multi-cultural dimension to our lives. In addition to Spanish, roughly 22 Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala, as well as Xinca and Garífuna. The department (think state or province) we are living and working in is about 90% Mayan. There will surely be a forthcoming blog post on the nuances that this additional cultural dimension adds.

But I digress… I will start by recognizing how nice it is to be back in a familiar context where everything from the social cues, norms, and language are second nature… well… almost second nature with some readjusting to contact and communication with the male species after two years in Afghanistan (another blog post, I’m sure).  However, for the focus of this blog post, I’ll let you in on a few of my Chapin (Guatemalan) Spanish snafus during my first month and a phrase that was and is… all too familiar…

Example one:

My first two weeks in Guatemala I swore up and down that I was being addressed as “Sir” in Spanish!  Time and time again, I would hear, “Buenos dias señor!”  “Adios señor!” “Como le va señor!” It was all I could do not to run into the bathrooms to check and ensure that I 1). Hadn’t had a sex change, and 2). Didn’t look like a dude. I mean, as a married woman, I should be most commonly referred to as señora, although heck, even señorita (younger, unmarried woman) would pass, but he was definitely not saying either of those two things.   I explained this terrifying personal dilemma to a colleague about whether I was inadvertently being perceived as a man, and pointed it out one day to this person after a 3rd party kindly exemplified by yelling out, “Buen provecho señor!” (Have a good meal sir!).

“See!?”  I hissed to my friend.  “I swear he must think I’m a man!”

My friend bust out laughing.  “He’s not calling you señor,” she said.  He’s calling you sèño! We [Guatemalans]  use sèño all the time. Don’t worry, it’s a polite way of referring to a woman when you’re not sure if she’s a señora or a señorita!

Whew.  Gender and sexuality crisis averted.  But really… sèño and señor sound all too similar when spoken quickly!

Example two: 

La cañonera. My third week in country I was helping to plan a workshop. One of my colleagues had put together a list of workshop materials which included “una cañonera.”  Not having anyone around at the moment to ask what the heck a cañonera was, I quickly took to the ever useful Google Translate.

Results: Antique gunship.

Hmm… This complicated things… What the heck were we going to need a giant, antique gunship for during a design workshop on education?  New ice breaker…?  Threat to those who aren’t participating…? Pirates on the horizon?  I began to assume either my colleague was crazy or this was some sort of Chapin slang. I rummaged a bit in our supply closets to see if maybe I’m missing out on a key workshop toy or tool that resembles an ancient gunboat… or even a modern day warship. I quickly Skyped a trusted friend and presented my Google Translate dilemma.

“Do you know why we would need a giant, antique gunboat for an education design workshop?”  I asked.  “Any clues?”

“Siiiii!” was the answer I got, along with a lot of laughs. “It’s a projector!”

“Ooooooh…” I replied. “Why didn’t they just use the normal Spanish, proyector?! That would have avoided a lot of confusion!”

And of course… the similarities

This one is familiar to anyone who has lived in Central America and it all came flooding back to me with a simple “Fíjese que…”  “Fíjese que” was almost the death of me when I lived in Nicaragua.  Nothing good ever, EVER comes after “Fíjese que …”  Fíjese que is the polite equivalent of “Well, you see…”

Fíjese que there is/are no… [insert milk, eggs, avocado, tortillas, electricity, water… anything you’re looking for or were hoping to get.]”  “Fíjese que … I can’t sell you a hamburger without the mayonnaise because it’s not listed that way on the menu” (really!?). “Fíjese que … I might have accidentally backed my car into yours and caused a huge dent.”

All the… milk, eggs, avocado, tortillas, electricity, water, hamburger without mayonnaise – you name it… that I was never able to get for X or Y reason while in Nicaragua came flooding back with that short phrase. Relearned lesson: NOTHING GOOD EVER FOLLOWS FIJESE QUE.


Goodbye Afghanistan

“I’ve got you under my skin…” The words of Frank Sinatra have been echoing in my head the past few weeks as I’ve said goodbye after goodbye. It’s hard to believe two years have passed since we first came to Afghanistan. Like the red dust here that gets into every pore and underneath each and every fingernail, Afghanistan has gotten under my skin. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse, it’s a country that has left its mark on me.  It has heightened my feminism (or maybe that’s also a factor of growing older and- hopefully- wiser as to how far the world still has to go to obtain equality?). Afghanistan has showed me a corner of the world that few outsiders ever get to see, and taught me a lot about both my boundaries of what I can live with (and without) and where those boundaries end.  Every time I move countries, I’m again amazed at how much we, as human beings, flexibly adapt to the circumstances around us and learn to live both with and without everything that has most recently been familiar to us.  Afghanistan is a place that has taken me (more than once) to my breaking point, but has also shown me how some of the simplest things can make me feel the happiest and most fulfilled that I’ve ever felt.  So that said… to depart, I’ve prepared my top lists of things I will NOT miss, and of course – the list that far outweighs these “boundary testers” – the things I will miss dearly.

Things that tested my boundaries:

1).Wearing all of my clothes at once – like really, truly, all at once. Just picture wearing a sack-like dress or long skirt over pants (yes, over pants – not leggings – pants), with a sweater, socks, a head scarf and – if I’m in one of the more conservative parts of the country, the bedsheet-like attire otherwise known as a chador namaz that basically makes you overheat, trip, lose all peripheral vision and look like a black Halloween ghost roaming the streets without actually trick-or-treating. Yes, I will not miss that.

2). Not being able to hug males – There were times in saying goodbye over the last two weeks that I really would have liked to hug my male Afghan colleagues as I told them how awesome they are and how much I was going to miss them.  I was lucky if I got handshakes, which was already pretty risqué.

3). Having questions for me directed at my husband – Yes, this was done over and over again out of respect for both myself and Rafael (it may sound strange, but it can be culturally inappropriate to talk to a man’s wife directly)… but it’s infuriating to have questions for you – when you’re standing there as part of the conversation – directed at your husband.

4). A lack of freedom – This is a multi-faceted one… In a few places we worked in Afghanistan, we were confined to the office and guesthouse compounds, with no way to see outside the mud walls for 2-3 weeks at a time.  I also won’t miss having to be accompanied every time I want to go for a walk/ hike/trip to the bazaar. Oh, and I also won’t miss watching the men get to go out and do all the fun sporty stuff like play soccer, volleyball, going for outdoor runs, etc. Freedom is a precious thing and I foresee many solo runs/grocery store trips/hikes in my near future…

5). Jokes about 2nd (or 3rd) wives – Yes, yes… these were all told by male colleagues and meant in good fun because they knew the jokes would rile me up. Unfortunately… They’re still not funny to me. Guess they did manage to get a rise out of me after all. J

6). The dust… THE DUST!!! – Whether trips to the field, dust storms (yes, those are actually a thing where you can’t see more than 5 feet in front of you), Kabul soot, or dirt-road trips between sub-offices, I will not miss dust in my mouth, my hair, or my clothes which wash brown for a week after.  Oh, and did I mention that Afghanistan has one of the highest percentages of airborne fecal matter in the WORLD?

7). The smell of winter – A weird one, yes, but let me explain. With bukharis (stoves) being lit all winter, you don’t realize that you smell like you’ve been on a year-long camping trip until you leave the country. Not until then do you realize that you are the outlier in sea of fresh laundry and soap-scented people. And I won’t mention that sometimes those bukharis are lit with chalma – a lovely concoction of sheep dung…

8). The Kabul guesthouse fridge – This really, truly, could have been a whole separate blog post about the joys of shared living. Let’s just summarize this to say that many international staff pass through the Kabul guesthouse in route to other offices around the country but no one really lives there.  God forbid someone clean the damn fridge, or heck, think to throw their leftovers out or put a sticky note on it saying, “Please eat me by XX date!!!”  I think I’ve hit my quota of moldy spaghetti, goopy spinach that leaks all over the inside of the fridge, month-old eggs, rotten potatoes (seriously, has there ever been a worse smell!?), and forgotten jars of whatever. Seriously, it sometimes feels like walking into a frat house minus the alcohol, the parties, and the people. But now, I can let it all go…      **Cue the song “Let it Go” from Frozen (which ironically enough was the first song I heard as I walked into the Kabul guesthouse 2 years ago – you know who you are…). “Let it go, let it go…” **

And this leads me to the things that I will really, truly, and deeply miss about Afghanistan:

1). Mantu, kebabs, and naan – Mantu are divine-tasting homemade dumplings filled with ground meat, chickpeas, and tomato sauce, topped with a mint-yoghurt sauce. If you ever find yourself at an Afghan restaurant, please get the mantu!!! Kebabs are self-explanatory, but I’ve never had such tasty chicken/beef/goat kebobs cooked to perfection with bits of fat (sorry vegetarian friends!) skewered in between the meat.  Naan are the giant flat breads, often cooked in a tandoor oven in a round shape or oblong shape the length of your arm.  If you are a guest, you will also ALWAYS get your own giant naan. There is nothing better than naan fresh out of the tandoor, made with locally harvested wheat from the Afghan central highlands.  Our cat agrees. He is the world’s best naan thief.

2). The humor of spewing greetings at each other at the same time – I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where the respectful way to greet someone is to ask a string of 8 or so greetings in Dari (Hello!, how are you?, you are fine?, how is your family?, how is your health?, how is your family’s health?, may you not be tired!, may you be well!) while the person you are greeting simultaneously asks the same 8 greetings, with neither person actually waiting to hear the other’s answer to any of the questions. This form of simultaneous greeting is rendered extra humorous when done in English (repeat the above string of phrases and see who can get them out first!!).

3). No mosquitos, cockroaches, or other such creatures – Sure we had the occasional mouse (much to the delight of our cat) but it has been SO refreshing to live in a place where you don’t really need to worry about mosquitos (so long malaria/dengue/Zika/Chikungunya!) or cucarachas.

4). The stunning and stark beauty of the mountains – I’m sure my photos have spoken volumes about this point. Everyone assumes Afghanistan is a hot desert, filled only with sand and dust (ok, yes, there is a lot of dust…). I’ve loved showing the world the beautiful side of Afghanistan. For all the years of conflict and war, this country certainly makes up for things in raw beauty any time of the year. Winter snows on the mountain slopes, rain fed wheat making the slopes green and snow melt flooding the valleys in silver rivulets in spring, the tawny shade of summer that makes the rainbow bands of rock stand out on the mountains, and the brilliant shades of yellow and orange on the poplar trees in fall.

5). Being able to leave my doors unlocked at night – Sure, I didn’t tell many people about this one during our stay in the ‘Stan, but you read this one correctly. In the central highlands where we lived, Afghanistan was so safe that we never had to worry about locking our doors at night. Now that we’re gone, I can let this secret out and you’ll all still sleep peacefully at night. Yes, Afghanistan of all places, was so safe (in terms of break-ins and petty theft), that we often slept with our doors unlocked. Where else in the world can you do that – and more specifically – what other country in the world with such a “reputation,” can you do that?  I love being able to break down stereotypes!

6). The stars on crystal clear night – The remote, crystal clear nights in rural Afghanistan provided stargazing like nowhere else.  I suppose that’s what happens when there the concept of “city power” does not exist (although in a town of a few thousand, maybe “city” is a stretch). There were plenty of nights I’d wished I’d had a telescope to sit on the roof and watch the stars. There were also plenty of nights where the moon was so bright, we could have easily gone on a nighttime hike with our way fully lit. Don’t worry. We didn’t do that. Again, sleep peacefully my trusty reader.

7). Blindingly sunny skies during the depths of winter – As someone who hails from Wisconsin, land of dreary Midwestern winters, this really brought a newfound pleasantness to winter. While there was plenty of snow (and I mean lots! Again, breaking stereotypes of Afghanistan!), even winter days were nearly always blindingly sunny. With the reflection off the snow and sunshine at 3000 meters, it was also a good way to catch a winter sunburn. Yes, fellow Midwesterners, that’s right. A snowy winter sunburn that does not stem from your holiday trip to Cozumel.

8). Sharing iftar dinners – Seeing colleagues take on the holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan) during the long, drawn-out days of summer gives you mad respect for people who can fast for 19 hours. Getting up to eat breakfast at 2:30 in the morning is no joke either. While I can’t say that I fasted for all 19 hours, being able to share with colleagues the joy of drinking water and eating for the first time in 19 hours is pretty special, as are many of the foods that are prepared specifically for breaking the fast at iftar time. I think Ramazan and iftar also hold a special place in our hearts as we first arrived to Afghanistan just as Ramazan began in 2014.

9). Hikes in the mountains – Replete with skipping down the mountain to the tunes of Taylor Swift or singing the Sound of Music from the mountaintops while pretending to be in Austria, the hiking in Afghanistan was always beautiful and I will miss simply walking out of my house (accompanied, of course) up into the mountains.

10). My job – It’s been amazingly fulfilling to be able to support little boys and girls and young women attend school in or near to their communities. It’s also been great to see my team grow and become stronger at working with communities and the Ministry of Education to provide educational services to remote, under-served communities.

11). Our colleagues – while of course this one sounds cliché, Afghans are amazing people. They are resilient, funny, thoughtful, caring, and hardworking people.  I will miss our colleagues dearly and hope to go back one day under more peaceful circumstances and visit many of their families’ villages. Our colleagues and Afghanistan have gotten under my skin in a way I suspect will always stay.

Afghanistan, You Deserve Better.

Afghanistan has had a rough week.  Well, quite frankly, perhaps it’s always had it rough. Lately, morale seems to be particularly low among our staff and more generally across the Afghan population.  Perhaps I’ve felt this sadness, this exasperation, more closely this week because I’ve been physically closer to the “hot” zones, not in my safely insulated areas of the central highlands.

As winter snows began to melt, and nawrooz celebrations marked the Zoroastrian start of spring on March 20th, many parts of the country were pelted with heavy rains. At first the rains were celebrated. Winter had been mild and snow had not fallen as copiously as in previous years. Usually a semi-arid country, snow melt and rain is a precious commodity. “Rain is good for the farmers!,” people exclaimed.  Then the rains kept coming… and coming… Afghans began joking that their country had turned into a tropical country, on par with the monsoons that affect much of India.

Kabul flooded. People’s mud-walled houses, even in the big cities, began to show major signs of damage.  The house of a colleague’s relative collapsed and the owner needed to be dug out by neighbors. He was sent to the hospital immediately for an MRI, and was luckily fine, though very bruised. Rivers across the country broke past their banks and carried away bridges, taking out vital routes for transportation. Landslides have swept away some of the most vulnerable households, whose economic situations often force them to take the least-prized parcels of land – perched precariously on Afghanistan’s mountainsides.  The national agency charged with disaster relief efforts is under-funded and weak-structured – barely functioning. By default, it becomes the police’s mandate to dig people out of collapsed mud homes and respond to natural disasters. While the police are not only ill-trained in natural disaster relief efforts, they’ve also had a busy few weeks focused on even bigger threats to society – security.

Last week the start of the Spring Offensive was announced.  This call to arms is the formal declaration for opposition groups to resume the “fighting season” against government, police, and army forces. You see, fighting usually slows dramatically during the long, harsh winters. I suppose it’s hard to justify sitting in a few feet of snow on the roadside waiting to ambush a police convoy, or clinging to mountain hideouts as icy winds threaten to trigger fingers frostbite.  I like to imagine all of the men with their Kalashnikovs and AK-47s huddled around calmly drinking chai sabz (green tea) on a plush Afghan rug and velvety pillows during the winter time, talking about how nice it is to just take a vacation from the fighting.  Unfortunately, however, this winter did not actually bring a slow-down in fighting. The announcement of the Spring Offensive seemed more a formality than anything else – something to declare out of tradition.

Just a few days after the Spring Offensive announcement, however, armed groups made good on their promise and demonstrated that perhaps they had been using winter to plot elaborate fighting schemes. This week, I happened to be passing through Kabul for the event that made international headlines. On April 19th, a loud explosion shook the windows and the ground.  It felt like every door around me had been slammed so hard that the floor shook. Luckily, I was far enough away that no windows broke.  In fact, a few Afghans around me thought that we had just experienced another earthquake. It turns out, that the explosion I felt from many kilometers away killed 64 people (so far), wounding 347.  It was targeting the National Security Directorate, the Afghan equivalent of the FBI combined with the CIA. One of our staff member’s cousins was killed.  Another staff member was wounded in the event, having been nearby on his off day. If you tally up all of the other people whose relatives were affected, the number grows. If you add in all of the other civilians who needed an ambulance that day for a medical emergency and couldn’t get one, the effect is exponential. It breaks my heart.

This week staff have been telling me of life as some of their relatives in rural areas, or “the districts,” are living.  The city of Kunduz, brought to headlines by the U.S.’s bombing of an MSF hospital there during airstrikes against the Taliban, was again under threat of being taken over by Taliban forces this week. On the other end of the country, a close colleague confessed to me that his parents just fled their tiny, rural village this week to the safer district center, because of fighting – leaving behind flocks of sheep, apple trees, and fields.  An independently contracted truck full of my project’s textbooks and school supplies got hijacked this week by an armed opposition group. While, very fortunately, no one was harmed, the school supplies and textbooks were confiscated, leaving school children without resources. It’s quite obvious that the police who are so tied-up with trying to protect their forces and civilians can’t dedicate much time to emergency relief efforts for “mundane” things like “flooding and landslides.” That would require better systems, more forces, more training, more budget, better infrastructure, less corruption. Colleagues who had once been hopeful that the 2014 presidential elections would bring change are expressing dismay that things aren’t getting better. At least not yet.

Afghan news show that Afghans are applying for passports at record rates.  In some cases, this is surely because Afghanistan finally has a new, electronic passport system. For many, however, this might be their ticket out to Pakistan, Iran, or Tajikistan if things get bad.

I realize that this post comes off as a bit of a downer, but it’s a reflection of what I’m feeling – perhaps in solidarity with my Afghan colleagues and what they’ve gone through this week and the past few weeks. While this week my colleagues are outraged and subdued at the same time, they express solemnly that this is life. I cannot fathom how a society can be so emotionally resilient in the face of dealing with these issues over the span of decades.  The cards seem so stacked against this fledgling (flailing?) democracy.

As I’m preparing for my last few months in country before moving on, I can’t help think about how fortunate I am to have been born somewhere peaceful and prosperous. Somewhere where that I have rights. Somewhere that I don’t have to worry about my family’s safety. I am plagued by a nagging sense of guilt that I am fortunate enough to have the option pick up and leave at any point, when many do not and might not ever have that luxury. I think overall, after experiencing such resilience, hospitality, warmth, and strength from the Afghans I’ve met, the only thing I can think is, Afghanistan, you deserve better.



**A note to the reader that while this post sounds very doomsday-esque, there are many wonderful, funny, and hopeful things happening each and every day around Afghanistan that I’ll be sure to highlight in future posts. However, not everything is funny, and shiny, and beautiful all the time and there’s a time and a place to underscore that. It should also be noted that I am safe and well taken care of, so– family and friend readers – please don’t let the tone of this post worry you!**

Flexible Boundaries – or the times I’ve been embarrassed about crossing cultural and professional boundaries.

1-cartoon undies.jpgMaybe it goes without saying that living and working in Afghanistan is completely different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived or worked.  It’s a whole new can of worms on so many levels – some imaginable, and others that I don’t think would have even crossed my mind before living here.

One of the unique (maybe that word is too forgiving?) things about living in Afghanistan is that for security purposes, we share housing with other international staff in our geographic areas. Our offices are often also connected to our shared guesthouses. Professional and personal boundaries mix. Flexible boundaries, particularly as they relate to working and living close to your work colleagues (Afghan and international) can lend themselves to some truly interesting situations, which (lucky you!) will be the subject of my semi-(and-very-unprofessionally)-anthropologically-focused blog this week!

Scenario 1: You’re a fellow development worker which basically means you could (in my mind) pass for a medical professional. Will you take my stitches out?

When I was on home leave over the holidays, I had some stitches shortly before heading back to Afghanistan.  The doctor gave me the 411 on how long the stitches needed to stay in and also let me know that there was (and I quote), “No great science to taking stitches out.”  Since the stitches were on my back and I couldn’t reach them (or really see them), I figured, Great! I’ll just have my husband take them out! There’s no great science to it!

Long story short, my husband ended up needing to travel before the stitches had to come out. On the day they were supposed to come out, I realized I had basically two options: 1). Try to get to a clinic, despite the very short window of time before I, myself, was travelling. Or 2). Ask my Country Representative (the big boss) to take out my stitches. I mean, she grew up on a farm, has worked in developing countries for the last 15 years, so that basically makes her a qualified medical professional who could take out my stitches, right?  I mean, the doctor said – as she drew an illustration of how to do it– You pull up, cut a side, and then pull them out. No great science to it! Choice number two was clearly the most obvious one. And even more surprising, my big boss was flippantly fine with the idea of taking out my stitches… And so begins the story.

At the moment of truth, I lift my shirt up. Lady to lady, my Country Rep. begins to snip.

Stitch one: Success!            Stitch two: Success!           Stitch three: Success!

She snips the fourth and final stitch… and… Success!  As I stand half naked in front of my big boss, she begins to clean the wound and prepare to dress it.  As she swipes the cold, wet cotton over it, I felt my skin pop – like it was crying out, FREEDOM!!, from the confinement of the stitches. The room goes quiet. And then all I hear is, “Oh SHIT!

As the pain begins to creep in, I see a pale hand flurry by me, searching for gauze. And then I realize… my stitches had opened. Oh Shit indeed. No great science to it…

The big boss presses my back hard to stop the bleeding, and begins to freak out. “We should get you to a clinic!”

“Is it bleeding badly?” I ask. “I mean, it’s 9 pm. I’m pretty sure we won’t be able to get to a clinic. Let’s just clean it, put some gauze on it, tape it, and try to figure it out tomorrow. I’m fine, really.”

“Let me call around to see if there’s a clinic open!” she exclaims.  She begins calling one of our Afghan staff members. Staff person one:  no answer.

“Here, let me take a picture of it and send it to our staff doctor for his opinion,” she says. She snaps a picture of my naked back and calls our (male and Afghan) staff doctor. At this point, I’m beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. I never even show my elbows or ankles in public, much less basically snapchat a picture of my naked back to a male Afghan work colleague.

“You know, I think we can just clean it and cover it…” I mumble. “I’m fine, really.” I’m regretting not finding a way to make option 1 work.

The (male) doctor recommends trying to tape it together as closely as possible but remarks, “There’s no need for stitches. Besides, the clinics will not be open now.” Mission number two: find a butterfly bandage to “tape it together.”

Staff person number one (who had not answered originally) calls back frantically, thinking that the 9 pm phone call means something horrific had happened. We explain the situation. “No, there’s definitely not any clinics open at this time of night,” he confirms. We hang up.

Back to mission number two. The big boss says, “Let’s call staff [person number three]! He used to work as nurse, so he’ll know where we can get a butterfly bandage to pull it together!” She sends on the picture of my naked back to another male, Afghan colleague. I feel like I have crossed a red line of workplace confidentiality…

“No really, I’m fine!” I repeat for the third time.

Staff person number 3 answers. “I don’t think you can find any butterfly bandages in Kabul. I’ve never seen them. You can try sending out one of the guards to a nearby pharmacy?” he suggests. We hang up.

We call the guards.  Two guards go out into the night to search for a likely non-existent butterfly bandage. They knock on the door around 10pm. They hand the big boss a bag. I hide in the corner because I’m (still) half naked and lord knows that despite the medical circumstances, I don’t need any other male Afghan staff seeing my flesh. We open the bag. They had bought us (more) gauze and iodine.  No butterfly bandages.

We give up. The big boss and cleans the wound again, presses the sides together, places gauze over it, and tapes it shut. Now that a bunch of my male, Afghan, work colleagues (and the big boss) have seen my naked back and the gaping hole that was the failed attempt at taking out stitches, we decide to call it a night. As I crawled into bed, the phrase, no great science to it, echoed in my head… Next time, maybe it’s better just to go see a doctor… On the upside, I’ll probably be able to make up a cool story about a war wound on my back from that time I lived in Afghanistan.

Scenario 2: Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has seen my unmentionables hanging out to dry.  

I start the story with a side note. I am extremely lucky to have someone who will wash my clothing multiple times per week. Yes, this is a luxury. No, I am not complaining about the wonders of having clothes that often just magically reappear clean and folded in my closet. However, let me be clear that the power of the sun at 3000 meters is the only clothes drier we have. And so begins my excerpt.

As I might have eluded to in this blog post and much more explicitly in earlier blog posts, private lives are a big deal in Afghanistan, at least within families.  Every house or property has a high mud wall around it.  When I brought an Afghan colleague to the U.S. last year for a conference, he was amazed that Americans live so “openly” and that most houses have no walls around it to protect the family from the public eye. Family business stays within the family. Walls provide space for the women to walk about their property more or less freely, liberated from the eyes of nosy neighbors.  Women will often use their domain to let down their guard, roll up their sleeves (literally and figuratively) to show a little forearm. Hijabs slip back.

Our guesthouses are often connected to our offices doors in a mud wall – connecting compounds, if you will. Using the force of the sun at 3000 meters, my magically washed clothes are hung up on clotheslines across the yard. Some days, my clothes are hung discretely in my backyard were few people but myself, my husband, and my immediate boss (go figure, also male – hello flexible boundaries!) pass. Other days, for some unknown reason (maybe days when the wind blows from a different direction? The sun is hotter?), my laundry gets hung up to dry in the main courtyard where most Afghan male staff walk past on their way to and from lunch.  So much for privacy.  I think all of my male colleagues have now seen multiple sets of my undies hanging out to dry, which makes me rather embarrassed – as if I crossed a shameful line of showing too much skin.

Luckily, none of my Afghan male colleagues has ever mentioned my unmentionables. I think they’d be too ashamed that they might have seen something inappropriate… I mean heck, I feel inappropriate!  My office dress is always modest, locally appropriate, full coverage attire! But then, I also have hope that they might not even realize what they’re seeing… My husbands’ freshly washed boxers (and also my male boss’s boxers) often show up in my underwear drawer with all of the remaining clothes magically sorted correctly.  So maybe… just maybe… that’s a line I’ve only crossed in my consciousness. Probably wishful thinking.

Flexible boundaries indeed.

On Becoming Numb

1-Chaghcharan airport runway

Throughout my life, especially when reading the news, I’ve often asked myself why people in countries that are so routinely barraged by security or economic concerns continue to stay. Why do they refuse to migrate to a safer part of their country or, even better, to a safer country that will grant them the freedom and protection they deserve? As with most things in life, I suppose the answer is, “it’s complicated,” and it’s easier to pose that question from a place of economic, physical, and emotional security, than to answer it while enduring a complex situation.

I think it’s also easier to answer the question of why people leave, than why people stay. The current refugee crisis identifies a million reasons for why people are leaving their homes. But it speaks much less to why people choose to stay… I suppose there are some obvious answers to why people stay. Migration is expensive – especially for whole families. Migration can be dangerous and uncertain – a gamble in which many are unwilling to partake. But quite often, I think many people stay because they become numb to their situations. They are frogs in the pot of water that’s slowly heating to the point of boiling…

Assessing and recognizing what has become “routine” and what is the critical boiling point is difficult in protracted conflicts. Violence and economic insecurity has a way of numbing people. I recognize this in most of my colleagues who have known nothing but violence and instability for their families and fellow countrymen. Each time I leave Afghanistan, I also realize how numb and accustomed I’ve become to certain, unfortunate parts of daily life here.

But here’s the thing… the initial shocks wear off quickly. Violence, economic insecurity and their looming presence incorporate themselves into daily life. That daily life becomes routine. Sometimes things get a little better. Sometimes things get worse. Sometimes things are just far enough away that you can say, “It won’t happen to me.”

What do I mean by this? In some senses, though I’ve certainly experienced far less violence or insecurity in my time in Afghanistan than most of my colleagues, I have “fresher” eyes. On a daily basis, at least one of my Afghan colleagues says something along the lines of, “You know, Afghanistan, it’s not a safe place. Inshallah, one day, it will be safe again.” Staff are frequently asked not to travel in certain directions on given days because of tribal or anti-opposition group fighting. Sometimes they can’t visit their families for months on end because fighting prohibits them from visiting. Most people have had at least one family member die because of war, land mine accidents, vehicle accidents, or lack of quality health care in forgotten areas of the country. Afghans are resilient. They are even optimistic at times, that inshallah, things will get better. They are matter of fact about life and death. They seem to be so accustomed to living precariously that the threat of violence and instability has woven itself into the fabric of their lives.

This is not to say that Afghans are numb to feeling emotion. They are encouraged by protests for better human rights. In fact, over the past 3 days, thousands of Afghans have united in protest across the country (including in our town of 5,000) to demand better security after the beheading of 7 civilians (including a young girl) by an ISIS cell. They are saddened when a member of their family is harmed by the ongoing conflict. They are frightened sometimes for their children’s futures. But yet, they stay because, in a sense, this is life as they’ve known it.

I recognize this numbness in myself as well. Initially, the sight of military convoys armed to the teeth with stone-faced men wielding Kalashnikovs was shocking. Seeing tanks in the streets or soviet era plane wreckage at airport landing strips throughout the country was very disconcerting. Getting stopped at police checkpoints in Kabul was unnerving. Going through 7 airport security checkpoints and having my luggage continuously sniffed by bomb dogs was rattling. Seeing walls riddled with bullet holes was unsettling. Watching the opium addicts wander dazedly in and out of high speed Kabul traffic was terrifying. Seeing women in blue burkas carrying their babies and beg for money was heartbreaking. Hearing my first explosion in Kabul was more than alarming.

But now, these (overt?) hints of insecurity don’t faze me in the least. I gaze past the Kalashnikovs, AK-47s, tanks, and airport wreckage. I smile at policemen if the car gets stopped at a checkpoint and even daydream about bringing them tea and snacks one day, since they must hate being in the cold, smoggy streets all day. I breeze through airport security which I go through at least twice a month and chat with the ladies who dutifully pat me down. I now wholeheartedly trust that our drivers will dutifully dodge the opium addicts wandering through Kabul traffic. I’m still a bit heartbroken and haunted by the women in blue burkas, but I’m certainly not shocked. Now, on the occasion I hear an explosion while in Kabul, I usually ask, “Oh, hey, did you just hear that? I think it was an explosion.” I might also check Twitter for the emerging details. But truly, each time I leave the country, I recognize that perhaps my reactions are not normal anymore. Perhaps I’ve become numb to the routine signs of violence and economic instability that surround me on a daily basis. And perhaps developing this numbness is just one of the reasons why people choose to stay instead of migrate- it’s a coping strategy.

**When reading this blog post, it should be noted that most of the time, I’m stationed in very safe parts of the country, and even if I’m reflecting on personal observations, we’re very risk averse and take precautions to ensure our security. We also, of course, thoroughly enjoy our jobs!**