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Aves de Paraíso: Christine Meister reports on Peace Corps Service in Guatemala

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The following is the latest in a series of pieces on the lives and times of USF College of Public Health graduate students who are participating in the Peace Corps Master’s International (PCMI) Program. Currently, Public Health’s PCMI students are posted in Botswana, Guatemala, Mongolia, Uganda, and Zambia.

This excerpt comes from Christine Meister’s blog ( Christine is combining Peace Corps service with graduate work for her MSPH degree in health education. In September, Christine finished her pre-service training and moved to her site in the western highlands of Guatemala where she will be serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the next two years.

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Aves de Paraíso

As a part of the final week of training, we each prepared short ‘commitment to serve’ presentations.  I was interested in what some of the volunteers would come up with because we have some very creative and artistic people in our group.  I think that most of us cried throughout the majority of our presentations.  Emotions were running rampant that week and I think the presentations were a much needed, cathartic release of energy. 

Here is a written version of my ‘commitment to serve’ presentation. This is hopefully a bit more eloquent and understandable than the version I spoke in my presentation considering that I began to cry the moment I stood up.  

The eloquent version of my story:

Birds of Paradise


I believe everything on this earth happens for a reason.  I don’t believe in coincidences.  This is a bird of paradise flower, an ave de paraíso.  I remember immediately falling in love with the flower the first time I saw it.  The intense orange and blue petals provide a sharp contrast against the broad leaves of the shrubby plant.  Its asymmetrical and sharp frame makes it both beautiful and somehow masculine at the same time; I find the contrast fascinating.  The flower is generally used as a symbol for joy.  It is tattooed on the top of my foot to remind me to find joy in the everyday happenings of life.

I have only seen birds of paradise in three places.  I know they exist in other places, but I have only seen them in three.  The first time I saw a bird of paradise flower was during my study abroad in South Africa. Some of my favorite memories of South Africa include our service project in the Townships and our intense discussions of health issues among the country’s poorest populations.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but these ethical debates were laying the foundation for my passion for public health.

The second time I saw bird of paradise flowers was during my two years at USF for grad school.  Yes, they were scattered across the Tampa Bay region, but most significantly, they were planted in abundance in front of the main entrance to the College of Public Health.

Guatemala is the third place in my life that I have seen bird of paradise flowers, and they are everywhere here.  My host mom in training had a bird of paradise plant on her roof.

I should add that the day after I told my host mom this story, I walked into my room to find a bouquet of bird of paradise flowers on my desk.  

Mi Sitio

Lake Atitlan



I’m located in northern Totonicapán, about two hours from the capital of Quetzaltenango/Xela (One hour if you are traveling by car instead of bus).  I’m located in a fairly medium sized site.  My city itself has about 3,000 people and the population of the municipality (the city plus the surrounding aldeas) is about 18,600 people. The municipality has 13 aldeas or villages.  These aldeas are VERY poor with high rates of maternal and child death.  66% of the children in the municipality are malnourished.  Most of the population in the town center speak Spanish as their primary language.  The populations in the aldeas are Maya K’iche’ and speak primarily in K’iche’, although many speak Spanish as well. 

The road to my site was paved within the last year and streets within the town center are either paved or cobblestone.  The roads to and within the aldeas are dirt and are often inaccessible for short periods of time due to landslides and deep mud. 

My elevation is about 2,370 meters or 1.47 miles.  At this elevation, I’m actually down in a valley, so fortunately I’m blocked from the worst of the cold weather.  Right now, during Guatemala’s winter, I don’t think it gets too far above 60 during the day time – and that’s when it’s sunny. During Guatemala’s summer (from November-ish through April-ish) it gets down to near freezing at night.  I’m looking forward to my next Xela trip so I can buy a coat! Hahaha! 

I will be working at a CAP or a Centro de Atención Permanente.  The centro is a 24-hour health center that is the head of the entire municipality (I think).  My counterpart is the TSR for this municipality and she is AWESOME! The TSR or técnico en salud rural basically does anything and everything public health for the municipality, including environmental health, maternal and child health and even pet vaccinations.  She is extremely busy, but I think that once the ball gets moving (and I get over my shell shock), we can accomplish a lot together. 

The view out Christine Meister's window



My host family is in the upper percentile of wealth in this community. They own one of the three bus lines that run in and out of the community, several micros and tuk-tuks, a corner store, several apartments above the corner store, and a hair salon.  They invited me to move into the apartments above the corner store whenever I feel like it…I’m thinking in the future I may like to do so, but I have to see how that will float over with PC security.  My host mom is 31 and my host dad is 42.  They have three sons who are twelve, nine and eight.  The twelve year-old is only home on the weekends as he attends school in Xela. Their home has four bedrooms, one bathroom with a shower, and the family has a maid, which they call a muchacha.  I’m still not sure how to field some of these expectations.  I don’t feel comfortable treating her as the family does and I’m not sure how the family expects me to treat her.  I don’t expect her to do my laundry or clean up after me, but I don’t want to insult her, and I don’t want to insult my family by doing these things for myself.  I’m still working on this one……

Christine Meister’s earning a master of science in public health degree from the USF College of Public Health.  The Department of Community and Family Health serves as her academic home and includes more than 10 concentrations that lead to MPH, MSPH, DrPH, and PhD degrees.  Additionally, the department offers several dual degrees, graduate certificates, and special programs.

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