Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A conversation and the return

The taxi cab driver who took me to the Cancun airport yesterday spoke to me the whole way--in Spanish--and I understood most of what he said. He worked pouring concrete in Oregon and wishes he could return. Now he works seven days a week driving a taxi in a town with cheap and convenient bus service. He bemoans the drugs and alcohol problems that he feels are impacting the young people of his country. He feels there is little justice in this world for a hardworking man like him.

So I tipped him an extra $5. Perhaps that was his ploy, the whole purpose of his speech. But I enjoyed listening to him. I wished afterward that I had remembered the right form of the past tense of "venir (to come)" and instead of saying "I went here from Guatemala" I had said "I came here from Guatemala." But hell, at least I used the past tense. And he seemed to understand. I guess that is progress.

Then I boarded a plane. And when I reached Denver the air was freezing cold, and it finally felt to me like Christmas is coming. And the faces and hugs of friends and family are better than even the most unexpected kindness from strangers. And I am surprised that I find comfort in the material things about America I thought I didn't need--well-insulated homes with warm blankets and high-speed Internet access that is actually fast and a Walgreens on the corner that is brightly lit and has everything you could possibly need on a cold night as you arrive, weary from a long day of traveling.

It feels good to be home.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Burning Devils and Overnight Buses

On the seventh of December there is another Guatemalan tradition that mixes the pagan with the Christian traditions. . . everyone burns devils and trash in the streets in order to cleanse their homes and souls in preparation for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. In Antigua, the location they selected for this ritual is on a street between the town´s only two gas stations. I am hoping it is because of a keen sense of irony and not a desire to blow up the beautiful colonial city.

I was in Guatemala City for the celebration. We bought the devil pinata and burned it outside the bus station in Zone 1 prior to boarding a 10:3o overnight bus to Flores. The overnight bus seems like such a good idea in theory--you save on lodging for a night AND you awake magically transported to your destination, ready for action in the day.

That is just in theory, however. Steve St. John (my New Mexican traveling partner who also happens to be a professional photographer) and I experienced a slightly different version: the man sitting across the isle from us slept so soundly that he snored quite audibly, even through my ear plugs. The seat behind us had two men and a 11-year-old boy who slept partly on their side but with appendages spilling over on to unsuspecting heads. The bus stopped at least three times: bathroom break, police checkpoint, and to put out a fire that was apparently burning somewhere in the vicinity of the engine.

It wasn´t a dull trip, at least. So we arrived today in Flores (in the department of Peten in Northern Guate), bleary-eyed and disoriented. But the beds in the Los Amigos hostel are comfy, the day is ours to do with as we please, and tomorrow we conquer Tikal, the capital of the Mayan ruins of Guatemala. (And possibly the capital of tourism as well. . . )

Friday, November 28, 2008

I´m not sure who is seeking revenge, but he brought an army

So, I emerged from two days during which I only saw my bed and the toilet, and my boss at Camino Seguro said, ¨Yeah, here in Guatemala we say - It´s not if you get sick, but when

I must admit I was getting a little bravado about my iron stomach. When I first arrived, I brushed my teeth with bottled water, always asked if ice cubes were made with agua pura, and knew not to eat any fruit that did not have to be peeled first. But, I grew complacent. The last time I had a Pupusa, I went for the chicharron instead of the basic queso, and while on the coast enjoyed ceviches more than once, which my guide books says is dangerous culinary territory.

But there was no adventure eating on Monday, nothing out of the ordinary--just the regular routine. So I can´t put my finger on what reduced me to a sniveling, shivering, Tylenol PM-popping patient.

I´ll spare everyone the details since you have leftovers to enjoy, but it wasn´t pretty. I think the scariest part is that I actually fainted and fell in the hallway outside my room on Tuesday night, whether from dehydration or fever I am not sure. Luckily no one was there to witness it, and more luckily I did not strike any vital body parts (i.e., my head) on any immovable objects (por ejemplo, the floor).

I´ve been back at work two days and my 4th graders are behind on the Christmas skit and I continue to prefer having un baño within sprinting distance, but I survived.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meet Lefty

He was my baby turtle. I mean, not my baby turtle, but I paid 10 Q to set him free. It was kind of a race on the beach in Monterrico--there was a rumor of a T-shirt prize for the first turtle to the water, which must have been a lie because after about 6 meters you couldn´t really tell whose turtle you were rooting for.
I named him Lefty because it kind of sounded like a fast and crafty kind of turtle. And because in the song ¨Pancho and Lefty,¨ Lefty is the one who survives. In the end, he was neither fast nor particularly crafty but he did tend to swerve to the left.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What´s in a name, really?

When I started at Camino Seguro, I introduced myself to a couple of people at the bus stop the first morning. I said, ¨Hi, I´m Anna.¨ The response I received was, ¨oh, you´re the 5th or 6th Anna we have working here.¨ And so, just like that, I was magically transformed into Adrianna.

Adrianna is my real name, after my paternal grandfather, Adrian, but I have never gone by it--I have always been Anna. The summer between my junior and senior years of college I tried Adrianna on for size, but found that my co-workers at the restaurant where I was working (The Blue Corn Cafe) more often called me Audrey, Andrea, or Abigail--it just did not seem to slide off the American tongue with much ease. (It´s also a challenging one for telemarketers--they almost always come up with a pronunciation I never fathomed.)

But Adriana is a common name in Spanish, so I have enjoyed telling the kids my name and seeing the immediate recognition on their faces. It is a name they know, and I feel like maybe it makes me more familiar to them, more approachable.

This rebirth of my real name made me start thinking about names, and how they determine who we are, if they do. I am wondering, is the Adrianna I am here different from the Anna I was at home? Is she quieter, a bit more reserved, less likely to be at the center of things and more likely to be on the sidelines? Have I changed because of my new name or was this change coming anyway, a result of three months without a home-base, without a direction, without a sense of what comes next?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Children of Camino Seguro

This Monday actually felt like a Monday. It´s because I´m working. Volunteering, yes, but working all the same.

I started at Safe Passage (Camino Seguro) on November 3rd, but I haven´t had time to write about it since then because we work long days (on the bus at 7 am and off it again at 6 pm). Also, because I am trying to formulate exactly what I want to say about the experience.

Camino Seguro is a place for some of Guatemala City´s poorest children to come for food and love. While they´re there, they also get help with school, the chance to play lacrosse and go swimming, and do other things that kids like to do, like create art projects, science experiments, watch movies, and play games on the computers.

When I first started, it seemed like the kids were normal kids--they hang out with their friends, laugh, joke, sometimes misbehave, etc. But these kids are a little bit different. They live adjacent to the city dump--the largest in Central America--and that is where their parents and neighbors work every day, jumping on the piles of freshly collected garbage in search of treasures to recycle or resell. The kids used to work there, too, and some of them probably still spend some of their weekends there, collecting cardboard or aluminum cans.

One mother of some of our kids told a coworker recently that she worked for 11 hours in the dump a couple of weeks ago. When she went to sell the items she had collected, she ended up with a net of 7 Quetzales, not quite $1 US, for a whole day´s work.

So, at Camino Seguro we are trying to break the cycle of poverty that surrounds life near the dump. The project has three arms--a Guarderia for pre-school aged children, the main school reinforcement site for elementary-high school aged kids, and an Adult Literacy Program where some of the mothers of the children learn to read and write, up to a 6th grade level. I help teach English at the main school, and I am working with the coordinator there to re-organize the office and teaching resources before the new year begins. Check out this great YouTube video of some of our students! It´s about 8.5 minutes long, but they say everything a lot better than I can in writing this! (And the whole video was made by one of the school´s volunteers, too.)

In addition to the extracurricular activities and tutoring help, Camino Seguro provides scholarships for all of the items the kids need to attend school--uniforms, school supplies, etc. And the families of the kids enrolled at Camino Seguro receive food and clothing supplies to compensate for the income lost because the kids are not working to help support their families.

I did visit the dump. It is hard to describe--immense, gaping, hot, and swarming with vultures. A couple of months before I was there, a huge landslide of trash collapsed because of a methane gas build-up beneath it. No one knows exactly how many people were buried.

So, some days I have to remind myself when I am filing papers and coaxing 14-year-olds to say, ¨She is studying,¨ that it is important work.

I would say more but it´s about bedtime.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Being lost

I am probably lost in more than one way. . . but during the past week of living in Antigua I have been lost about 12 times. The city seems simple--it is a grid, with Avenidas running north and south and Calles running east to west. But then in certain sections of the city they don´t call them by their numbered names--they call them by their street names, so suddenly Primero Avenida becomes Calle de San Marcos or something, and my whole navigation system is shot to hell.

And so. I looked for the gym this morning for 45 minutes (didn´t need to work out by the time I found it because I was power walking around town for so long beforehand). It would be understandable if I had never been there before, but I was there. Yesterday afternoon. My roomate, Julie, showed me where it is and I thought, ¨OK I´ll come back tomorrow morning and sign up.¨ And then I walked in circles for 45 minutes.

Anyway, I passed a Guatemalteca on the street and asked her in my much improving spanish if there was a gym on this street. She said that she didn´t think so and went on her way. So I circled round again and started to get really frustrated. And then I saw her again. Picture me in my soccer shorts and headband, sweating in the early morning sunshine. And she smiled. And I smiled.

Another lap. I am near tears with frustration. And then I see her coming my way, and we both bust out laughing.

And I finally found it. And she made my day.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Back up to November 1st

November 1st was Dia de los Santos here, and I spent the majority of the day in a cemetary. It wasn´t like Memorial Day, though--I did not witness much mourning or sadness. In fact, there were ice cream trolleys and pizza deliverymen and kids of all shapes and sizes running over and around the graves. Families picnicked next on top of concrete tombs and the gringos present shot photo after photo of the hundreds of homemade kites, some of them 6-8 feet in diameter, flying above the buried bodies of their family members, neighbors, and friends.

In the little town of Santiago, about 40 minutes from Antigua, the local residents create and fly their kites in order to send messages to their loved ones in the cielo. Although I am not usually fond of crowds and being herded from place to place, this festival was worth every minute of the crowded tourist bus packed with gringos. We (two good friends from my Spanish school and I) were there for 4 hours, and I ate street food with abandon, took photos like the turista that I am, and sat atop a tomb watching the experts fly their kites with much passion and effort. It truly felt like a celebration. (Photos coming soon, I promise!)

There is, however, a darker side to Dia de los Santos. That evening, just after dark, we arrived (via the back of a pick-up truck) in the village of El Hato to stay the night at the Earth Lodge. The church bells started to toll as we arrived and all of the townspeople were gathered in the central part of the village just outside of the school. Adults, the elderly, and the children were all there, standing in lines. My friend Betsy, from my Spanish school, told us (although she didn´t remember her source) that All Saint´s Day is the day that the children who died in the past year come and select the children who will die in the coming year.

Kind of gives, you chills, huh?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Travel and Scuba and more Travel

Ferry-colectivo-taxi-bus-microbus-chicken bus-colectivo-ferry. That pretty much sums up the past two days of traveling from the Roatan, Honduras to Livingston, Guatemala, which is a town accessible only by boat on the carribbean coast. Yesterday was a 12-hour travel day. But it went relatively smoothly considering the first bus we took was, according to my schedule, supposed to arrive in San Pedro Sula Honduras at 10 am and we arrived a little after 11. And one of the microbuses had about seven guys who had been working at the banana plantation pile up on the roof--I thought it was going to collapse on us. It was like watching a clown car fill up--they kept climbing up one after the other and I was thinking ¨where are they all sitting?¨

The coastal areas North of San Pedro Sula all the way over the border were hard hit by the recent rains so as we moved up the coast yesterday we saw shanty towns of tarp tents where people who have been displaced are living. We saw a boy of about 12 carrying a television on his shoulder as he waded through chest-deep water. In Guatemala they have semi-truck trailers parked by the side of the road with kids sleeping on mats beneath them. It was hard to see but apparently the government is providing some food and other assistance.

So I was a gringa in Honduras for the past week or so. I went early to Roatan and learned how to scuba dive with Daniel, a British guy working for an outfit called Reef Gliders. We did everything in the ocean--confined dives requiring skills like swimming without a mask, sharing a regulator, learning to hover, etc. It was challenging because the usually calm sea was a bit rough, so sometimes while we were underwater there was current and waves pushing you around. My dive partners were Tao and Bativa, a honeymooning couple from Israel whose names I am sure I did not spell right.

Once Jon arrived we did three fun dives to sites called Spooky Channel (it was a little bit dark down there and Jon spotted a green moray eel--his hunter instincts make him a good dive partner), Texas, and Herbie´s Fantasy. Apparently the fish life here is amazing (second only to Australia´s Great Barrier Reef) but I have no comparison so I guess I´ll just have to be content that I was spoiled on my first dives.

So. . . now we are staying in a bungalow at a hostel called the casa de la iguana with a bunch of young Americans working there. So much for practicing my Spanish! Next we plan to head inland by boat up the Rio Dulce and then to Semuc Champay. Last little tidbit--my new favorite snack is the lychee fruit--they sell them as you board the buses in Honduras and they are delicious!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This one is just really for mom and dad

Because I don't have a new email address for you, mom and dad, so I can't tell you that I am OK.  I was stuck in La Ceiba, Honduras overnight (not the best place to be stuck but it worked out) but I made it to Roatan on a flight this morning.  I haven't been able to figure out the phones here yet but hopefully tomorrow. I have a room and started my dive course today (I absoultely love, love, love scuba diving) and I don't have malaria yet but have been eaten by bugs a lot and I am taking my malaria medication  I will hopefully be able to call you tomorrow, but in case I can't, I am doing well.  Except I miss everyone and my spanish is regressing already.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

On the road again

Well, during three weeks of Spanish school I learned six verb tenses, and now my head is more muddled when I try to use them than when I arrived. But yesterday I rode the "chicken bus" (the local buses which are 5x cheaper than the tourist shuttles but 3x more crowded and slightly more dangerous) without too much difficulty. I would like to say I "conquered" the chicken buses, but that would be a bit presumida since it was only a 3-hour journey and I felt victourious simply because I came out of it with all of my belongings and no major mishaps. (However, I did have to change buses twice and I learned how to ask them to put my mochila--backpack-- in a safe place.)

Now I have sprayed half my clothes with Permethrin, a killer bug-spray for clothes, in preparation for a week on Roatan off the coast of Honduras. Tomorrow morning I leave quite early (need to be at the bus station by 5 am) to travel over land to La Ceiba, where I will fly 15 minutes to the island. I am going now so I can start my open water scuba course, a 4-day mix of book/video learning and dive practice.

Once again the New Mexican connection came through for me; tonight I am back in Guatemala City but safe in the home of Bryant, director of the Oxford Language School here in the capital. We spent the afternoon in a nice American fashion--watching American football and drinking beer with his dad, who is also visiting.

When I return from three weeks traveling in Honduras and east/central Guatemala with mi novio, Jon, I will be volunteering for Bryant and some colleagues at Camino Seguro school here in the capital (but living in Antigua with a Guatemalan family.) I am excited to get started doing some work that hopefully will allow me to practice my spanish as well as use my library experience in a productive way.

I don't know how much I will be writing while Jon and I are on the road, but I am sure I will post some fresh photos at some point!

Until then, take care mis amigos and thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The pickpocket attempt and mi familia muy amable

Nothing was stolen and I wasn´t ever in any real danger. But I had a little reminder last weekend that being an extranjero also makes you a target. It was a good lesson to learn.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the zoo with my family. They planned a nice picnic lunch (we brought the grill to make carne asada), and since we had a lot to carry we took the bus. (Did I mention that my family doesn´t have a car?) Anyway, the bus was very crowded so we piled in and I was standing, pushed up against an occupied seat. All of a sudden, I felt fingers on the side of my leg, trying to open a velcro pants pocket (which only had my cell phone and 3 quetzales inside.) I looked down and saw an older man pull his hand away. I shifted positions so that my pocket and my backpack were out of his reach.

Everything would have been just peachy except that this man was apparently not pleased that I didn´t let him rob me. He started pushing me with his knee, effectively shoving me into the isle and the other people crammed on the bus. Then he stood up and started calling me names, like ¨basura¨(trash) and other things I won´t mention since this blog is rated PG-13. I could smell the sour alcohol on his breath.

At this point I was pretty scared and was wondering if anyone else on the bus had noticed him trying to pick my pocket. Finally he got right behind me and was pushing me, so I pushed him back and said, ¨Qué es tú problema?!¨ Maya, the mom in my family, then noticed there was a problem and moved between me and the man. The man continued to call me names and then the papá in my family started protecting me by telling the bus driver to kick the guy off and yelling at the pickpocket directly.

Thankfully, we arrived at the zoo and it was time to get off the bus. I kept saying, ¨estoy bien, estoy bien¨ to my family. They were really concerned and said that the man was a real rude guy who is not representative of a typical Guatemalteco.

Anyway, for every bad experience there is a good experience that balances it out. At the zoo, everyone had smiles for me, the guy running the bumper cars kept trying to speak to me in English, I rode the slide and the played on the jungle gym with the girls, and then taught them how to play ¨500,¨an old game I remember from the playground.

While we were eating our picnic lunch, a young man (probably 12 or 13) came by with his shoe-shine kit and asked if we needed his services. We said no, so he ambled away and sat down not too far from us. The papá in my family (I know it´s terrible that I don´t know how to spell his name) grabbed a spare plate and started spooning beans and tortillas on it. Then he added freshly grilled meat and some pico de gallo and took the plate and a cup of hot tea over to the boy so he could have lunch, too.

There is a lot of injustice in this country that obviously makes some people angry and some people resentful of gringos or of the ¨ricos.¨ But there is also some kindness and compassion. Ultimately, there are too many have-nots, too many people working three jobs and barely surviving, too many children who don´t have enough to eat, and too many elderly people living barefoot on the street. But you can´t try to fix it all at once. It´s just paso a paso.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

¨Lassie¨ saves the day (i.e., my second mishap)

It´s hard to believe how much has transpired in the last few days. I find that, as much as I thought I would have plenty of leisure time to sit in sidewalk cafes and browse books, review spanish vocabulary, and watch the people pass by, my life here is full and busy much like my life in Winter Park was. Perhaps I somehow prefer it to be that way . . .

Yesterday I hiked to Laguna Chicabal with one of the teachers at our school and three other students. We took a public bus about 45 minutes outside of Xela to San Martin, a small agricultural village where they primarily grow corn and potates, but I was also psyched to see remolachas (beets! my favorite) and lots of other fresh vegetables. As soon as we got out of the microbus and started climbing, I felt two things: the altitude (we were over 8,000 feet) and a strong desire to get out of the city on a more permanent basis.

Then last night I attended a free concert at the Teatro Municipal with my familia. (Hint--this is where mishap #2 begins.) I went to the concert with my friend Rachel (from Philly) and my family, and after about an hour Rachel and I left to meet some other students. We had a beer but we were pretty tired so we headed home. I got home and let myself in with my key as on many other nights, and dead-bolted and chained the door from the inside, and went to bed.

In the midst of deep sleep, I heard the dog, Pongie, barking rather enthusiastically considering it was the middle of the night. He continued on for quite some time and I began to wonder what was causing him such consternation. Then I began wondering why no one else in the family had been woken up by the racket. Which led me to wonder--was anyone else home?

It was a this point that the horrific truth hit me: I had locked my Guatemalan family out of their own home. I sprang out of bed, noticing that it was 12:23 am, and went for the door. Huddled on the step was the five of them (it was cold!) and immediately of course Maya, the mom, started telling me how nice I was to open the door for them. I felt horrible. I kept telling them that I thought everyone was home already or else I would never have locked the door. I asked how long they had been waiting, and the mom said, ¨only about half-an-hour¨ to which one of the daughters replied, ¨more like an hour.¨ Today, the oldest daugher, Dulce, told me that they thought they were going to have to sleep on the street.

So we´re going out for dinner tonight. I am treating. And they are letting me stick around for another week, but they made sure to get my phone number in case of emergencies.

Stay tuned for my first encounter with a pick-pocket soon! You´ve all read enough for now!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The difference between being on vacation and living somewhere

As I settle in to life in Xela, I am reminded of the differences between living somewhere and just passing through as a traveler. Differences like dirty laundry that can´t just sit in the bottom of your bag until you get home. Small things like needing a place to excercise but not knowing exactly where to go, and knowing that I am going to run out of soap and toothpaste before I get home.

It´s also about getting to know a city better than just snapping a couple of photos on the central plaza, visting the main tourist attraction, and a eating at restaurant or a bar.

I am getting to know Xela now. I am seeing the bad with the good, because it´s not just quaint, new, and different anymore. I feel the pollution thick and black in my lungs when I arise to go running at 6:15 am. I recognize the 7-year-old boy who awaits his first customer at his shoe-shine stand in the central park each morning. I jog by and wonder what led to his labor at such a young age and wish that my running shoes needed to be shined. This morning I saw a man sleeping on a sidewalk; he was using a stone for his pillow. As I run, the streets become crowded with students in uniforms going to school for the morning--the younger ones escorted by their parents or other siblings and the older ones walking hand-in-hand with their novios. I run for excercise past men pushing heavy wheelbarrows through narrow streets because it is their work. They look at me with a mix of curiosity, disdain, and interest and I am not sure how I should look back.

Monday, September 29, 2008

El Fin De Semana Pasada

Over the weekend, I visited a community called Nueva Alianza about two hours southeast of here where a group of 40 Guatemalan families own a coffee growing farm and cooperative. Their history is very interesting, and as part of this tour the guests actually harvest coffee berries, see how they are processed, and go hiking in the rainforest and learn about the native plants, including those that are edible and some that will sting you or make you sick just from contact. (We also ate cardamon seeds right out of the pod!)

The group that went consisted of 4 students from my school including me, a couple from Denver, a guy from Australia, a young woman from Albuquerque (her parents are my parents´neighbors, it turns out), and a Canadian. The whole weekend cost $40 US, (is the US dollar still worth anything? I am not sure at this point. . . ) for transportation to and from, meals, tours, an overnight stay, and all the coffee you can drink. (And it was the best coffee I have had since I have been here.)

Anyway, we took a minivan to the entrance of the plantation and then transferred to the back of a small pickup truck. It brought back fond memories of my childhood in New Mexico as we bumped along the road that climbed into the hills close to the volcano Santa Maria.

Of all the activities, I enjoyed picking coffee berries the most. So, the next time you go to the Roastery and enjoy a fresh cup of Guatemalan coffee, know that it was by the sweat of my brow (and watch out for the Deet in there, since I was coated in it when I was picking.)

We harvested for about a half and hour by a small stream and you could hear it trickling along as you searched the bushes for the red berries. We were instructed by our guide not to pick the green or yellow ones--only red. You can also chew on the ripe berries and get the sweet miel (honey) out of the berry that surrounds the bean. (See the slide show to your right.)

The interesting thing about this particular farm is that they were privately owned up until about 8 years ago. The owner of the farm was in financial trouble and had not paid the workers for 18 months worth of wages. To make a long story short, the workers finally reclaimed the farm by force and, after many attempts, received support from some unions and a government funding agency to buy the farm and run it as a cooperative. Even so, they work very hard doing a variety of things: coffee harvesting, macademia nut harvesting, water purification and sales, biodisel fuel, and hydro-electric power. They are trying to diversify their ability to support themselves, because even at fair-trade prices, the average person working to harvest coffee for 4-5 hours a day makes about 40 Quetzales, which is equivalent to about $6. A father and son team gave us the tours with a young Michigan woman named Allison who volunteers as a translator. They are obviously very proud of all that they are trying to do.

I was impressed with all that they are trying to do as well. And although they are much better off as a cooperative, the people are obviously still working very hard to make a living. I may go back and stay there and harvest coffee for them (the busiest part of the harvest is now-December) and practice my Spanish for a couple of weeks if time allows. Something about harvesting berries for several hours a day really appeals to me. Must be some agricultural blood running somewhere in my veins.

Now it´s back to conjugating verbs, stumbling to use the preterite, and more rain in Xela. More on life with my family later this week!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

La gente me ha encontrado en Guatemala

(Translation: the people I have met in Guatemala)
Tracy, the NYU Librarian -- see her blog at http://www.theachefordistance.blogspot.com/

Sam, the Mt. Baker ski patroller

Bryant, the New Mexican (from Las Cruces) who is also the director of the Oxford Language Center in Guatemala City

Bryant´s dog, Remy (he looks sad but he is really quite a sweetheart!)

Flor, Juan, y Jose--los niños at The Earth Lodge with whom I played soccer (chicas verses chicos, y las chicas won 5-4, which made Jose cry, unfortunately)

Mi madre y mi hermana mas menor en la familia Alvilar en Xela (Maya y Paoula)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life in Xela

Following my strict ¨no plan¨plan, after a night in Panajachel I decided that it was not my kind of place, despite the beauty of Lake Atitlan. It was much too busy and touristy and focused on commerce for me, (los niños are relentless in trying to sell you small dolls, magnets, stuffed horses, etc.) so off I went on Sunday afternoon to Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela--pronounced Shey-lah.)

Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala, and it has a European feel to it, with narrow streets and small shops & restaurants, at least near the city center.

After an intensive application process that consisted of a phone call, I was accepted to the Pop Vuh school of español and moved in with la familia Alivar, who live only about 12 doors down from the school. I now have tres hermanas menor, y una perro se llamamos ¨Pongi.¨ (Three younger sisters and a dog we call Pongi.) The family is very nice to me although I don´t understand a lot of what they are saying, especially to one another. There are six of us living in the house, which is long and narrow and has one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a store out front that sells used clothing.

On Monday night I went to a fiesta with my family--it was the mother´s brother´s birthday party. We walked about 8 blocks to the grandparents´house, and we played a game like "hot potato" where we would pass a toy while music played and then when the music stopped, whomever was holding the toy had to tell a joke, riddle, tongue-twister, or sing a song. Of course I couldn´t understand much of what was happening, but it was fun nonetheless and I got to sing a couple of old camp songs (in English, of course). Then we had dinner and hit a spiderman piñata (I played too, but did not get any candy to fall out of the stubborn spider.) Everyone is extremely nice and accomodating and the food is OK. So far we´ve had things like chicken tamales (but the sauce is not spicy), rice with vegetables and fried cauliflower, and a dish with cabbage, red peppers, and chicken in a creamy sauce. It´s nice to not have to worry about cooking or washing dishes, so I can´t complain.

Luckily, I was also invited to play in a soccer tournament fundraiser benefiting a local rural health organization. So on Monday and Tuesday afternoons I played at Futeca, an indoor soccer complex with small fields (we played 5 on 5 with two women on each team) made of the same rubber stuff that the new indoor fields in Granby have. I played OK, except that I had to be la portera (the goalie) some of the time, and I think in total had about 7 or 8 goals scored against me. Our team was mostly extranjeros, or foreigners, and we spoke English more than Spanish, although I am becoming familar with las palabras de futbol--la esquina, afuera, pasame, etc.

Things about this area that I find interesting include:
  • Many of the buildings have re-bar sticking out of the tops, I was told because if they decide to add on, it will be ready for the concrete blocks.
  • There are tons of shops that sell photo copies. My teacher told me that it´s because text books are very expensive and so students make photo copies of all the books rather than purchasing them.
  • Everyone is very emphatic about "agua caliente" in the showers, but the water is, at best luke warm, which makes showering similar to walking in the rain, which I have been doing a lot of.
Overall, it´s a lot colder here than I thought it would be--I haven`t worn my sundresses or shorts much, and I will probably need another sweater to get through the winter. Xela is at about 7,000 feet, and if I go next to Todos Santos or Coban, they are also mountainous and will be cold through the winter months, althought the rain is supposed to let up in a month or so (keep your fingers crossed! It feels a bit like Ireland here!)

I have more photos to post and will try to get them up later today. I think of you all frequently and miss my friends from home, although I am meeting lots of nice people here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My first mishap and mucho lluvia

Yesterday I walked from the village of El Hato (where the hostel is located) down to La Antigua, one of the most beautiful and frequently visited towns in Guatemala. It was a nice walk; I practiced my spanish in my head as I trekked down the 5 km paved road, flanked mostly by expensive homes and gardens.

I met with my spanish teacher, Luis, at a touristy restaurant called Cafe Condeza on the plaza of Antigua. Rain threatened, but it stayed dry until about 1/2 way through our lesson.
We finished and Luis said "Adios," but by then it was a steady downpour so I stayed on to write some postcards to people at home.

When I finally ventured into the town, the cobblestone streets had 6-8 inches of standing water in the middle of them, and I had my raincoat but no umbrella. I was soaked within minutes, searching for the post office (which I never did find). After some time at an Internet Cafe, I headed up to the edge of town where I was going to catch my first "chicken bus" (the public buses) up the hill to El Hato. I was a little bit late (if you can believe it!) so I was hurrying down the street. I was almost to the bus stop when a bus came around the corner. I waved it down and jumped on, and it promptly turned the corner--directly away from the road to El Hato. It was packed, so I was standing up front, practically in the driver's lap, and telling the Ayudante (the guy who calls out stops and collects the fares) "El bus no es correcto!" with most likely significant panic on my face. He seemed unconcerned.

Finally, a young Gutemalteca (Gutemalan woman) got on board and told me that she would help me. So I stayed on the bus as it wound through the streets of Antigua, getting farther and farther (not that I knew where I was, but I had a general sense of direction) from the road to El Hato.

Finally, we got to the main market where there are tons of buses going to all sorts of destinations, but I knew that there are only three buses to El Hato per day, and I had just missed the last one. But the young woman took me to the taxi stand and I had a nice taxi driver (who had lived in New Jersey for a year) shuttle me back up the hill.

Cost of the bus to El Hato: 4 Quetzales (about 65 cents). Cost of the taxi to El Hato: 25 Q (about $3.50). Lesson learned: Look at the destination written on the front of the bus prior to boarding (priceless).

Today skies are clearer and I am on to Panajachel (on the lake) where I will start more intensive Spanish school. I can't wait until I can communicate more effectively!

My best to you all! Thanks for reading my ramblings!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

First Impressions

If first impressions are any indication, I am going to love this country and this experience. La Aurora airport was newly remodeled with nice banos, immigration and customs were a breeze, my luggage arrived immediately and in tact, and Victor the driver was awaiting me as promised to whisk me away to the Dos Lunes Guesthouse in Guatemala City. After a night in good company (Tracy, a New Yorker Librarian/Massage Therapist and Sam, ski patroller at Mt. Baker in Washington) with a couple of Gallo cervezas (thanks, Sam), I explored Guatemala City on foot.

It surprised me that the city is not especially pedestrian-friendly. Starting from Zona Viva, (the touristy section), I walked about 15 blocks to the University grounds, where I visited two museums. There are sections with sidewalks, and the in the residential areas there is minimal traffic, but I did not see a lot of people walking--most people are in cars or on motor bikes.

Last night I connected with a New Mexican named Bryant who started the Oxford Language Center in the City, with a branch in Coban. Even though I didn't bring him any green chile, we had dinner together at Tacontento (Happy Taco) and he drove me to fetch my 42 lb backpack at the guesthouse. He also gave me a lot of background on Guatemala, the politics, the gap in the distribution of wealth, etc. And he provided me a futon to sleep on, good conversation with his roomate, Tom, and a delicious breakfast. Bryant is also very much involved with a non-profit organization called Camino Seguro, that seeks to provide education and nutrition for children who live in the Guatemala City's dump (the largest in Central America). Their parents work in the dump, separating and selling recyclables and other items they can reuse from the dump. It is amazing, actually--they reduce the amount of trash going into the dump by over a million tons a year. But Camino Seguro is trying to break the cycle, since there are now generations of families, (grandparent to grandchild) all working and living in the dump.

Although living in Guatemala City was not on my agenda, Bryant told me that they need help organizing the library there. Apparently they get tons of book donations, but have no way to get them into a useful organizational system. So I hope to return to the city in November and work on that for a few weeks.

Now I am in the mountains outside Antigua, at a hostel run by a Canadian-American couple. It's called Earth Lodge and they have great vegetarian fare, avocado groves, and hiking trails into the mountains behind the lodge. I am going to try to post some photos if I can get them to upload. The Internet connection decent, but drops now and then and you have to start over.

Miss everyone!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Early Retirement

I keep joking about being retired. It's a nice feeling in a way, knowing that when Monday comes there's no need to wake up early, decide what to wear, and feel the weight an impending work weeks brings. But there's also the slightly panicky feeling of checking my bank balance and seeing funds being withdrawn--but nothing coming in.

The most amazing thing about being retired is that my whole day can be spent doing things I used to do before or after work. For example: going for a bike ride and a swim used to be a before or after work activity, and when I was home it became my whole day. Running errands? It used to be something I did quick at lunch or after work. Now it takes up the whole day. It's amazing what you can find to do when there's nothing you have to do.

I also have thought a lot about the fact that you're supposed to wait until a certain age and then retire. My friend Lily and I were talking about it yesterday, and we agree: for every 6-8 years you work, you should get to take 2 years off, dip into your retirement funds, and experience something new and different.

I guess that's what I am trying to do. Tomorrow I board the plane at 8:38 a.m. When I get off I will be in Guatemala!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Being a big fish in a small pond

After 9 years in Winter Park, Colorado I'm not considered a "true" local (as I have been told the bar is 10 years, and I didn't quite make it.) And it looks like I may never make it, despite time spent at town council meetings, Rotary Club lunches, years of Art Affair book sales, soccer fields, and on chair lifts and snow-covered slopes. Despite the fact that I know all the trail systems from Idlewild to Silvercreek, and that I hike to Devil's Thumb every summer. Despite the fact that I read stories and sang the "Ants Go Marching" song to pre-schoolers who are now teens, and that I can't go into a restaurant, grocery store, or the bank without seeing someone I know.

Is it a good thing to be comfortable in a place, so much so that everything is easy and everyone is a friend or acquaintance? Is it good to be a big fish in a small pond for so long?