Over the Mountain

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Here is a story that I wrote for the Peace Corps’s 50th anniversary. It was published in an anthology of Peace Corps stories, Gather the Fruit One by One

Like so many plans made during Peace Corps service, it sounded like a good idea when it was proposed – “Let’s walk over the mountain from here to Olopa. We can visit Sara during Olopa’s fiesta.” The plan was hatched during one of those late-night beer-drinking sessions that occur when several volunteers happen to be in the same town at the same time. “From here to Olopa” meant going from Quezaltepeque, my service site in the eastern department of Chiquimula, to Olopa, another town in the same department. “Over the mountain” was the part that should have given me pause. Olopa was served by perfectly good chicken buses – so named for the baskets of chickens often found amongst the luggage – that could make the trip in three or four hours hours. Instead, I enthusiastically volunteered to hike over a mountain to get there. It sounded like a great idea . . . during a late-night beer-drinking session.

The year was 1986, and it must have been around mid-May, as Olopa’s fiesta patrona – patron saint’s day – is May 15.  Every town in Guatemala has a patron saint, and every town has a fiesta to celebrate its saint. Olopa honors la Divina Pastora, the Divine Shepherdess, an image of Saint Mary as a shepherdess that is common throughout Latin America.

These fiestas were great fun not only for Guatemalans, but also for the volunteers. Celebrations usually lasted a week and included some type of carnival. They often included a rodeo and always included dances and drinking. The locals would pour in from the surrounding rural areas, and local volunteers would host their own parties side-by-side with the fiestas, pulling in volunteers from all over the country. It was a time for volunteers to “go native” and dress as the locals dressed and try out our nascent Spanish-speaking skills. It always seemed that I spoke much more fluently after several Gallos, Guatemala’s national beer!

Undoubtedly, I was speaking quite fluently the night we decided to hike over the mountain. Our pledge to make the trek was sealed with many bottles of Gallo, and I remember awakening the next morning with a mountain of a hangover. I hoped to beg out of the hike . . . especially after learning that several of my compañeros had already hightailed it back to the departmental capital of Chiquimula to catch the local chicken bus. I, however, had slept through that escape and was trapped by my promise to the two remaining PCVs, both of whom were much more rugged and (apparently) less hung-over than I.

We packed our backpacks. I’m still amazed at how little I traveled with back then – one shirt to change into and a pounded-on-a-rock clean pair of underwear. I could always pound the pair I was wearing on another rock at my destination if the need arose.  Water bottles were filled and maps consulted. My fellow travelers were both “fish-heads” – fisheries volunteers – who were more skilled at map-reading than I, a nursing volunteer.  They were always going off on their own into the wild in search of good locations for building a pond. I usually went accompanied by someone from the local Puesto de Salud, health center. Gringos with vaccines and needles usually needed more of an introduction than gringos looking to dig a pond.

We set out in the morning, hoping to get a good deal of the way to Olopa before the noon-day sun beat down. The department of Chiquimula is in the far southeastern corner of Guatemala, bordering both Honduras and El Salvador. It is located in one of the hottest and most arid parts of the country where local deforestation had taken a great toll. Another Peace Corps program in Guatemala was forestry, which was comprised of PCVs who were also more skilled at map-reading – or getting the lay of the land – than I was.

My Peace Corps program was a WHO-sponsored vaccination program.  WHO – the World Health Organization – had a goal of vaccinating every child in the world by some ridiculous date. Nonetheless, in an effort to accomplish that goal, I would spend three days a week in remote aldeas, rural collections of thatched huts that were within a day’s reach of my site. On the first day, I would set out with someone from the local Puesto de Salud to take a census of the aldea. Had I gone alone, I would have found no one at home. A gringo asking a lot of questions about your kids was seen as something of a threat.

After a day of counting the population, we would return the next day to some agreed upon location with a heavy thermal container of vaccines – polio and the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). Since most of our “patients” didn’t show up at the agreed upon location, we would return a third day with a somewhat smaller thermal container, and go to the homes of every family with kids on our census that didn’t show up the day before. The MMR requires three vaccinations to be effective. Most kids didn’t get all three. It was a frustrating program. But, I did get used to hiking around in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe that’s why I agreed to the over-the-mountain-to-Olopa hike?

The day of our hike started well enough. We got off to a good pace, and the exercise seemed to be burning my hangover away. And, we did see some pretty sites along the way – Alpine-like high meadows and picturesque herds of sheep and cows – but, as with all such endeavors, we hit a few snags along the way. The first was a nasty rainstorm that drove us to seek shelter for some time. Hey – at least it cooled us off, right? After the rain slowed down (notice, I didn’t say “stopped”), we resumed our forced march, arriving at our second snag – something of a cliff that we had to scale to get to Olopa.

We finally made it up the cliff and into Olopa. We even found Sara’s house. It was well after sunset, and we arrived to find that our friends from the night before – the other volunteers who had “promised” to hike with us – were already there and way ahead of us in the Gallo drinking department. As a matter-of-fact, they had been drinking all the way there, while riding on the top of a local bus from Chiquimula – bus surfing we called it back then. Crazy is what I would call it today.

Of course, the clothes I was wearing were soaked and muddy from the rain and the climb. And, the clothes in my bag were . . . soaked and muddy from the rain and climb. Sara loaned me a huipil – a colorful indigenous Guatemalan woman’s blouse – to wear.  It wasn’t exactly the “go native” outfit that I had planned to wear to the fiesta, but, after a few medicinal bottles of Gallo, it didn’t matter to me anymore. I went to the dance – the Gringo loco in a woman’s blouse – and had fun. I went to Sara’s and slept and went home – inside a bus – the next morning, wondering, why did I agree to hike over the mountain?

I realize now that I hiked over the mountain for the sheer joy of it. I hiked over the mountain so that I could tell people that I hiked over the mountain. I hiked over the mountain so that I could see and experience something different. When I think about it, hiking over the mountain is a lot like joining the Peace Corps in the first place.

images imgres

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