by Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000–02)
How to Make Recycled Paper
shredded paper snowflakes into a bucket of water: Guatemalan
newspapers, Peace Corps newsletters, embassy safety bulletins and the
Catholic magazines that my mother mailed me each month in care
packages. Then I stuck a bean grinder into the word-soup, twisting the
plastic knob until the bucket filled up with purplish pulp. I was all
alone outside a church in Guatemala.
It was May 2001, midway
through my first year in Peace Corps. I had walked two hours to get to
a wood-shack village called Buena Vista, planning to teach a youth
group how to make recycled paper. The project looked so sensible in the
“Youth Training Manual” they gave me, just memorize the script in
Spanish and follow directions.
I sketched out my future the
same way: follow the steps for two years, amaze the villagers and bring
my life-affirming experiences back home. Writing this story a couple
years later, I still can’t tie up the story in admirable platitudes.
Peace Corps assigned me to a cluster of villages that sprawled
between mountains in eastern Guatemala. Buena Vista rested at the very
end of my area. Each trip I crisscrossed two valleys and inclines, land
so steep that I had to claw my way up. The village sat so far from the
world that they didn’t have electricity, so I used a bean grinder
instead of a blender to pulp the paper.
I had planned to
teach the youth group how to make recycled paper and invite them to a
big, inter-village talent show in the summer. But nobody ever came. I
watched rainy season storm clouds creep along the sky, casting shadows
the size of movie spaceships across the valley. Down there, a patchwork
quilt of farm-plots shimmered between Emerald City green and space blue.
After a few hours, I crammed the crayons, markers, plastic
sheets, homemade paper press, posters, and scripts back into my
backpack. I walked home.
The Rainy Season
That night, the sky rumbled and
crackled like tornado season in the Midwest, and the rainy season broke
open with a whoosh of high-pressure rain. The thunderclouds and noise
dissolved into a foggy gray roar outside. After an hour, the dirt
chicken yard outside my room flooded and spilled muddy paste across my
I used my bucket from the recycling project
to catch rain leaking through my flimsy roof. The rain pounded my roof
all night, and I buried myself underneath four blankets to stay warm
inside that blanket cocoon, the rain sounded like an ocean splashing at
the bottom of my mountain.
I stared at my bookshelf,
listening to rain on top of rain, and I thought of Amy back home. Amy
had sandy hair that she dyed blazing red most of the time, she stood
tall enough to wrap up my whole skinny body when she hugged me. We met
as editors at a college newspaper, both of us carrying around the same
robin-egg blue copy of T.S. Elliot poems. We matched each other, both
of us disheveled and anxious from being stuck in books for too many
I knew her five years, but we spent what amounted to
months of time in smoky coffee shops telling stories and trading books.
Years before, we had promised each other that we would read James
Joyce’s book, Finnegans Wake. That book stood between us, the ultimate
literature-major’s dream that we could unravel like compulsive kids.
The last time we spoke on the phone, Amy had been sick for
months. Her doctor diagnosed pneumonia, but never noticed the two blood
clots stuck in her lungs like sputtering firecrackers. She lay in bed
with her mysterious illness while we talked long distance. “Oh, by the
way,” she said, “I had some free time, so I read the Wake.”
“You heartless bitch!” I yelled, and she giggled back.
“Read it yourself,” she said.
Tower of Babel
And so I did. The first week of
the rainy season, huge chunks of eroded fields washed out and my usual
paths slicked with mud. I didn’t see the sun for a week, so I hid out
in my bedroom like a monk and read Finnegans Wake in heroic sessions. I
went a whole week without speaking English, while reading the craziest
book ever written in English.
Midway through that reading
marathon, my neighbor Manuel stopped by. The 16-year-old from my youth
group was just bored after hours of rain. “Is that the Bible?” he asked
me, scrutinizing the 900-pages of English gibberish. I tried to
explain, but he wasn’t very interested.
“People used to
speak the same language, you know,” Manuel said. “Man decided to build
the Tower of Babel, a tower tall enough to go to heaven. Then God
smashed the tower and made all men speak different languages. That’s
why you speak English and I speak Spanish.”
sermon shocked me. Joyce kept talking about that same Bible story in
Wake, he wanted to stir all the languages together in a word soup, a
dreamy story built from echoes of different tongues. Manuel had
stumbled on the secret of the book. “You should read more,” I said, “I
think you could be a teacher, maybe.”
“Primero Dios,” he said, “I want to be a minister someday.”
That Guatemalan cliche means “God first” or “God willing,” and it stuck
in my head after he left. The country’s long civil war and bad
leadership had left public education in shambles. Manuel might have
been the smartest kid for miles around, but school ended at sixth grade
in the village. The richest kids moved to private schools in the city,
but most villagers never made it that far. Too often Primero Dios
glossed over sad realities that no Peace Corps Volunteers could ever
I finished the Wake, and wrote Amy a huge letter about
the rain, Manuel, and the book. We both loved writing stories within
stories like that. Stories within stories make a magical circuit, an
echo chamber with a little life bouncing around inside forever.
Somewhere in this story, Amy is still waiting for my letter and I’m
still buried under blankets in Miramundo.
My Bicycle Crash
June 14, 2001, the blood clots burst and Amy died on an operating
table. Before anybody could tell me that she was in the hospital, I
rode my bicycle down my mountain. I left my emergency beeper at home,
thinking I’d ride the bus back up later that afternoon.
Halfway to the city, I ran over a scrawny puppy. He dashed off
screaming into the bushes and I wobbled around a steep curve. The dirt
road was a minefield of rainy-season potholes. My tire caught a rut,
and I flipped over the handlebars and skidded across the gravel. The
crash tore a hole ten-stitches wide in my face.
into the first house I saw, trailing gobs of blood behind me. An old
lady was working in the yard, and she helped me tape a bloody rag on my
face. I rode the rest of the way down the mountain in a shaky daze. At
the hospital, a doctor sewed up my face. Doped up on painkillers, I
drooled all over his rubber gloves. I spent the rest of the weekend in
a hotel, swallowing pain pills.
On Monday, I found out that
Amy died and that I had missed her funeral. By nighttime, I was drunk
and spending a fortune on phone calls home at a tourist cafe. I called
Amy’s mother, and rambled into the telephone. “I sent her a letter two
weeks ago. Did she read my letter?” I begged her to answer me.
A Picture of Me Dancing
“Ven, ven al gran show de talentos,”
I shouted, a full month later, into a rusty P.A. system. There’s
something tremendous about hearing your words beamed through a scratchy
microphone and booming over a mountain; your voice lingers and feels
We had built a plywood-plank and cinderblock stage
in my neighbor’s lofty garage. We pumped recorded mariachi music
through the amplifier to attract more people to the party. The rainy
season rain held off for the whole night. Just before I opened the
show, a red and white striped chicken bus rumbled outside.
In one of the happiest moments of my life, I watched more than 50
parents, grandparents, kids and a whole mariachi band spill out of the
bus like circus clowns — the youth group from Buena Vista had come
back. They knocked off the recorded music and pounded out the real
thing on their tubby instruments. People danced and sang along, and the
crowd swelled to 300 by the time I opened the show.
youth group did the rest, performing all the skits they had planned.
Veronica sang a country duet with her husband, the 17-year-old girl
wailed out the love song. By the time I left, she would have her first
baby. Marcella dressed up like a ditzy farm-girl, skipping around the
stage. She left for high school on a scholarship that Christmas.
Towards the end, the Buena Vista leader stuck a cowboy hat on my
head and dragged me onstage. “Dance,” he ordered, “Dance and we’ll
dance with you.”
The band struck up that lilting mariachi
beat, and I hopped from one foot to the other, following the beats in
my invented gringo dance. Each time I landed, the wood planks banged
out the beat beneath me; Freddy and his friends laughed and bobbed
beside me, our footsteps booming even louder. I laughed and laughed, I
was dancing fast enough to fly.
Somebody took a picture of
me dancing, and I still keep it on my wall. I see a younger me: I’m
high-stepping like a Vegas showgirl in dirty jeans and a cowboy hat;
for one pristine moment I’m lost in my crazy march-step, I danced so
fast that both my feet hovered in mid-air; for one moment, I left the
ground and I floated, close to Amy as I’ll ever be . . .
Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000–02) joined Peace Corps after
graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature.
He recently graduated from the journalism program at New York
University, and hopes to return to Central America as a journalist. His
work has appeared in The Revealer, Newsday, and Street Level.
This essay received the Peace Corps Writers 2006 Moritz Thompsen Experience Award.