Thursday, April 30, 2009

El ultimo dia

What do you do for your last day in Guatemala after you've been here for almost seven months?

Hopefully eat freshly-made, piping hot tortillas and black refried beans, and maybe fried platanos and ripe sweet mango served peeled and sliced and bagged for you on the street. Or ride a chicken bus just for fun. And sing along to "Te Amo" by Makano, loud and heart-felt and slightly out-of-tune. Smile at one of the curious children that approach you because you are a gringo and look and sound different from them. And probably buy some sort of woven handicraft.

I remember when I circled March 17th on the little calendar I have in my Spanish notebook, and counted the weeks until it came. It felt like an eternity at times. But then it came and went. And I didn't leave that day; my ticket was extended. I was not ready for the adventure to be over.

But now I leave May 1st. Tomorrow. And there will be no more extensions.

So it's my last day in Guatemala and all I've done so far today is have a job interview via Skype for a job back home. My future is there now, and part of me is ready, anxious for it to start, wanting to know what happens next in the story. And the other part of me is a little heart-broken to be leaving.

As I have been traveling I have met and encountered people along the way, some of whom with I exchanged email addresses, some of whom became my facebook friends. Part of traveling is forming relationships that exist for the moment, and you are thankful for them for that moment, and the experienced shared is valuable, but there doesn't necessarily have to be a future.

But my home-base since last September has been here in Guatemala City, with "Team Oxford" (Oxford Language Center) and the house of Bryant, Joe and Maria. It has been my refuge between long bus rides. It is where I have shared meals and computers and jokes and morning yoga sessions and lazy Sunday afternoons watching movies. . . I was at the Christmas party, the bowling party, the poker party, the dance party, and the baptism of the first Oxford baby, Nicholas. Maria and I were the consistent fans at the Monday night soccer matches. I threw Remy's stick for him to fetch more times than I can count.

So last night, as we finished dinner (a scruptious dinner which I prepared, by the way), Hergil looked at me and said, "Have we really only known you since last September?"

It feels a lot longer to me, too. But now their lives will go on without me, and mine without them. So I am trying to define what these friendships mean to me as I pack my bags and prepare to go.

Because I can say I'll be back, but by then their lives will have changed and so will mine.

I guess that is what is so sad about good-byes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tres dias a pie (and the mother of long posts!)

So, the last thing that I really wanted to do here in Guatemala, (and one of the first things I had put on my to-do list last Sept.) was to hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos, a three-day trek through the Cuchumantes mountains in Northwestern Guatemala. I tried to book the trip in early February but no groups were going, and then I tried to go it in early March but was disuaded when I heard that the road to Nebaj was dangerous due to a major landslide that took out the road between Coban and Nebaj on January 4th. (We eventually came over that way and it was a pretty massive landslide, as you can see!)

Finally Tracy, whom I met last September the day we de-boarded the plane in Guate City, agreed to be my companera de caminata. When we arrived in Nebaj we found out that a different group had departed the day before, so there was no guide available for us. Our hopes were crushed a bit (well, except that the hotel in Nebaj had THE BEST, CLEANEST, most comfortable beds in Guatemala and cable TV to boot, for $8 each/night and I kind of wanted to stay there forever), so we started working on plan B. Just when we thought we might try a different hike, the guide company called back and said they found someone to take us.

The man they found was Juan, 58-years old and father to 12 children, and a native of Palop, the town where we stayed the first night. I asked the woman in the office if Juan knew the route well, and she assured me that he did, as he is a local of the area, and he and his wife run a camping hut of sorts in Palop, where people traveling through can stay in a comfortable dorm (no electricity but a nice building and good beds).

So we set out one Tuesday morning with Juan and a backpack each, and over the next three days we covered over 24 miles of dusty trail, beautiful scenery, and some considerable sweat (no tears, though!).
Day one went well--we took a bus about two hours and then hiked in mid-day dust and heat for a few hours. We stopped for lunch in a town called Salquil Grande, where, convieniently one of Juan's daughters lives. She and her kids made us Box-bol (pronounced bocksh-bol), which is the traditional food of the Ixil area--leaves of a squash plant wrapped around corn masa and cooked in a sort of stew. It kind of feels like eating a big fat cigar filled with mushy corn goo. Sounds delicious, huh? (see pics!)

Day two was the most challenging hiking--we started at 7 am with a trail called "viente-cinco vueltes" (25 turns), a steep, rocky trail with 25 switch-backs (actually, I can't verify that because I lost track after a certain point.) That afternoon we started to get lost--well, to be fair to Juan, we were never totally lost, but we frequently had to stop and ask for directions, since it had been ten years since Juan had last done the whole trek, start to finish. It was an interesting lesson in cultural differences, as the local people we encountered couldn't fathom why we wanted to walk, and why we wanted to walk on trails instead of roads, and why we wanted to walk if there was some other form of transportation available to us.
Here's how it went:
Juan: "Is there a trail from here to . . .(insert name of town or landmark here)"
Local people: "Oh--you don't have to walk on a trail. You can go down to the road and catch a ride with a pick-up or car."
Juan: "But these women want to walk, and they want to walk on a trail, not a road."
Local people: "OK. Well, there's a trail over there, but it will cut down to the road soon and you can catch a ride on a pick-up or car from there."
Juan: "Thanks, we'll do that."
Then he would ask the next person we saw and the whole conversation would begin again.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a peace-corps worker who laughed at me when I asked him why the people in his village (where there is no electricity) didn't have campfires together in the evenings. He said: "Can you imagine if I told them--yeah, in the U.S. sometimes for FUN we cook over fire."
Here are a few more highlights from the trek, since pictures say more than words:
The view of Palop early morning on day 2:

The youngest daughter in the family of 15 kids where we slept on night 2 (in Capenella, Huehuetenango, convieniently Juan's sister-in-law lives there so we stayed at her house)... this little girl was sucking on the remnants of a bag of sugar when we arrived:
The bed in which we slept on the second night (how I missed my therm-a-rest and a warm sleeping bag!):

Descending into the valley of Todos Santos on day 3 (it all felt worth while at this point!)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Juan, our trusty guia

Juan enjoying a Kashi Bar on the road up to Ventoza, day three of our trek. (Huehuetenango looks like New Mexico, huh?!?)

So, after all this, can I even Speak Spanish?

That's the million dollar question for me these days.

The main reason I came to Guatemala was to learn to speak Spanish. And now I have only two weeks left, and I am wondering what I have learned.

It's been an interesting process, one that I thought would be easier upon arrival. After all, I grew up in Santa Fe, where one of the main roads is Paseo de Peralta and we used to sing "De Colores" in the 2nd grade. I took two years of Spanish in high school and 3 semesters in college. I mean, surely I would have a head-start, right?

But when I got here last September, I couldn't speak enough Spanish to even get around. Just renting a room, ordering and paying for a meal, or finding the right bus was stressful and confusing, because when you don't understand the language, everything is twice as hectic and strange and overwhelming.

Sometimes over the past six months I thought I would never reach a point of easy conversation, much less fluency. But then, as time passed, all of the things my first Spanish teacher in Xela told me started to ring true: the sound of the language started coming back to me, and when I needed to say something the words would come--not always just right, but at least in the right order and with a semblance of meaning.

I reached little milestones along the way--I had my first dream in which I was speaking in Spanish in early February. Then my classmates in Spanish school started asking me for the translations of words because it was faster than looking them up: "Anna, what's the word for. . .?" And I surprised myself and them by actually knowing off the top of my head, three times out of four. Then I got my first joke. And one day on the bus I started to understand what a song on the radio was about. And finally--and this is just recently--I found I could talk on the phone without going into a complete panic.

But for every milestone there has been a frustration--a miscommunication, a time when my vocabulary was incredibly insufficient and I defaulted into English, and instance after instance where I was sure I sounded like a four-year-old or a cave man.

So, when we set off on Tuesday morning for a three-day trek from Nebaj in the Department of Quiche to Todos Santos in Huehuetenango (yes, as in it's way-way out there in the middle of no where) with our guide, Juan, I was curious how well we would communicate.

Juan speaks Ixil as his first language, and Spanish as his second. The expedition consisted of just us three: Juan, Tracy, and me.

And the first afternoon, as we toiled up dusty footpaths that ascended straight up the sides of steep hills, we talked. I tried to explain the phenomenom of on-line dating; he explained what happens in his community if someone is widowed. We discussed U.S. immigration policy and Guatemalan land rights and traditional clothing and the impact of tourism on the local people.

And as I was climbing a hill, out-of-breath from exertion but fired up about whatever it was we were talking about, emphatically trying to make a point, and Tracy looked at me and said, "Man, your Spanish rocks." And then I realized that I was actually speaking in Spanish. I had forgotten. I was just speaking.

I know I am far from fluent. Pero puedo hablar bastante. And that is good enough for me, for now.

Our last day of the trek, Juan told us jokes and riddles to keep us going. Here's one for you:
Puedo correr por la dia y correr por la noche
Y no tengo que comer nada
Pero voy lejos y rapido
Quien soy?


Saturday, April 11, 2009

So much to say, so little time

I have about ten blog entries started in my mind, but have had no time or rapido Internet, so some pictures will have to do for now. Tomorrow I am heading to Nebaj in the Ixil region to start a three-day backpacking trip to Todos Santos. (Jenny B, if you're reading this I am FINALLY going to get there, and I still have the regalitos!)

The road from Coban to Nebaj is questionable due to a landslide and some ladrones, so wish me luck!

Unas fotos

Al lado de Rio Chahabon en Lanquin (El Retiro Lodge)

Semuc Champay -- my favorite place in Guate

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mexican Spanish verses Guatemalan Spanish

There are a lot of things about Mexico that remind me of home. Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas (in Chiapas, where I am now) both feel like Santa Fe--mountain desert air, streets full of tourists, great restaurants and galleries of art around every corner. It makes me realize that the name "New Mexico" is oh-so-appropriate, and that Santa Fe being part of the USA is truly a political fluke of sorts. Santa Fe has way more in common with Oaxaca than it does with Indianapolis, for example.

I guess the other thing was being there with Kate and the Aters. Kate speaks SUCH good Spanish she is truly a local, practically the mayor of Oaxaca she knows so many people. So I learned a bit of Mexican slang, much more than I have learned of Guatemalan slang in eight weeks of Spanish school.

And Kate and I discovered some funny differences in our two Spanishes. It was a case of I say tomato, you say tomah-toe, but with totally different words. But it caused us great amusement (it may not do so for you--if that is the case, you can skip the rest of this post!)

So, here is our guide to communicating across cultures: (English in black, Mexican Spanish in Green, Guatemalan Spanish in Blue)
peanut = cacahuate = maní
grass = pasto = grama (the kind you walk on, not the kind you smoke--remember this is a PG-13 blog.)
speed bump = tope = tumulo
turkey = guajolote = chompipie (also called a pavo in both countries)

The last thing I did before I left Oaxaca was eat the famous chapulines (grasshoppers cooked in oil, chile, and lime). They make that place in the back of your cheek cringe because they are sour and salty and spicy all at once. The folklore in Oaxaca is that those who eat them are destined to return. I am down with that. Que chido.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My inner "Walden Pond"

I haven't seen a cloud in the sky since I arrived in Oaxaca early Monday morning, bleary-eyed from the overnight bus. (There is always a moment on the overnight bus, at say, 3:15 a.m, when I think-"I will never do this again," but then, like all really painful things, the horror of it fades in my mind and the next thing I know, there I am, about to get on an overnight bus.)

Yes, I made it to Mexico. Green, white and red. Tacos on every corner. Jugs of horchata and rose de jamaica. Live music and dancing on the zocalo in the evenings. Murals and graffiti and skeletons up to all sorts of antics. Cathedrals and plazas and colonial buildings with big, airy courtyards.

So--What have I been doing since I arrived here, you may ask?

The answer is nothing. Yes, I am quite serious--nothing. There is no to-do list. Kate lived here for three years so I just follow her about, not caring where we end up, not intent on an agenda. It feels nice to have someone else in charge for a while.

Nice, yes. But something in my nature is uncomfortable with the blanket of unscheduled time laid out before me each day. Something in my head whispers--what do you intend to accomplish today? What will you have to show for your time in Mexico? I chalk it up to American culture--that the desire to do, do, do is inherent in me and I am not able to squelch it, even when I really try. (And I am REALLY trying: siesta every afternoon, sitting by the pool before lunch, leisurely breakfasts and almost two books under my belt.)

Kate tells me that the lack of pressure to do anything is what she loves most about Mexican culture. When she lived here she was thrilled to discover that when her Mexican friends asked her, "Què hiciste hoy?," their response was the same whether she said: "I studied Spanish for two hours, went to Yoga, cleaned the house, bought groceries, etc." or if she said: "I went to the bank." It didn't matter to them if she spent her spare time making bamboo furniture and perfecting her mole sauce, or if she sat around and played with her dogs all day; there was no judgement on how she spent her time, and she loved that about living here. She feels that the U.S. puts pressure on her not to "waste" her time, pressure that is constant and unyielding.

I wrote to Brendan, (my Aussie nomad friend who talked me into this whole "quit-your-job-and-travel-about" thing) about my guilty unease with having so much free time, so little responsibility, so much "unproductivity" in my life.

And he responded: "Sounds like you need to read Thoreau's Walden Pond - for a truly great American perspective on life."

So I am trying to cultivate my inner Walden Pond. I am searching for a way to be more comfortable with the nothing that fills my days. I have a feeling that, by the time I have mastered it, I will be back at home, applying for jobs, finding a place to live, watching my to-do list grow exponentially.

I guess I should just enjoy nothing while it lasts.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Decisions, decisions

North or south? Chicken bus or first-class? Road made dangerous by landslide or the long way around? These are some of the thoughts that woke me up way too early this morning.

So, my latest foot-loose and fancy-free travel plan was this: Come north to Alta Verapaz for a long weekend and hang out at Semuc Champey (done), then head back (south 10-12 hours by bus) to El Salvador to help Manolo with his tour company in Tabuca for a week, and then head back north to Mexico (2 days at least, or a day and an overnight bus--travel warnings be damned!) to meet Kater in Oaxaca for a week, then come back south to Alta Verapaz (home!) to meet Tracy for another week of Spanish school before holy week.

Reading it now it seems obvious that the plan is a little bit flawed. Because traveling by bus on your own, while sometimes an adventure, is also tiring, long, hot and slow, and the movies they show have bad sound quality and are usually crap.

So this morning I woke up at 6, packed, bought a ticket for Guatemala City, boarded the bus, got five blocks out of Coban and--asked the driver to stop so I could get off. Walked back into town. I just wasn't ready to set out on that journey by myself, tired and unsettled, and feeling ill-at-ease about the distances I was about to try and cover and about the destinations I was trying to squeeze in.

I remember the excitement I felt when I was still a relatively new manager at the Fraser Valley Library and a staff member came to me with a question and I made a decision, told the person what to do, and--they went and did it. And amazingly, it worked. I remember feeling so empowered, but also surprised that I was capable of such rapid decision-making and communicating of said made decision.

So here I am, supposedly older and wiser and traveling the world, and even though I have no where important to go and nothing to in particular that I need to do, I find the decisions I have to make at times overwhelming and even immobilizing. Every day is filled with small but demanding decisions that I took for granted at home--what to eat and where to buy it and how to prepare it, how to get from one place to another, where to sleep for the night, how to best pack wet clothing without soaking everything else in my bag, and how to make myself understood when I am trying to explain why I want a refund for a perfectly good bus ticket that I decided not to use.

I think the hardest thing about decisions is that, once one is made, it closes the doors of possibilities that the other options offered. I've never been especially good at letting go of those missed opportunities, those alternate realities and what they may have meant if I had just made a different decision.

So I am trying to keep my mind off of where I would be now if I had stayed on that bus this morning. I am trying to be OK with just laying low for now, seeing what happens, and not trying to travel 1500 miles by bus across three different countries in the next seven days.

But who knows what questions will wake me up tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Megan, BJ, and Tim roadside in El Salvador

Traveling solo

So, I always wondered how those crazy Australians manage to travel for years at a time and never get homesick or suicidal.

I think I may have discovered their secret: latching on to other people and then not letting them ditch you, no matter how hard they may try.

Enter Megan, BJ, and Tim into my life. After a couple of days of hanging out on the beach in El Zonte, I was fortunate enough to be taken under their Canadian wings. We rented a car last weekend and went northeast away from the crowded beach into the cooler mountain air and the town of Tacuba. From there we rode in the back of a pick-up truck (of course!) into the Imposible National Park (named so because apparently the impossibly narrow windy road is much improved over it´s original condition).

The hike we embarked upon was guided by Jordy (also Canadian, but the French kind), Ismael and Mario (local fellas) and consisted of hiking down into a river bed and then following the river through the canyon and a series of waterfalls. When you reach the waterfalls, you have the option of jumping off of the rock into the water below, or if your legs shake a bit, being lowered down by rope and harness.

Since then, I have become a permanent fixture in their lives: we went to the feria gastronomica (food fair) in Juayúa (chicken fajitas, salad, and all the fixings for $3), to explore la Laguna Verde and Concepción de Ataco. They fill me in on the politics of El Salvador (election day is March 15th and it´s Obama vs McCain all over again!) and now Megan is my surfing buddy, so at least when I am swept away by a fierce undertow there will be a witness, or when my nose starts bleeding from a particularly violent collision with my board there is someone there to offer kleenex and sympathy.

They may breathe a small sigh of relief when I head back to Guatemala, but they have been good sports about my intrusion. There are certainly awkward moments--"Hey, you don't really know me, but I want to come to the mountains with you for the weekend" doesn´t always sound so smooth, but overall it beats the heck out of being alone for days on end.

Because when you travel solo, you have moments of wonderful and unexpected companionship, moments of fierce-some independence, and moments of such great loneliness it's all you can do to keep from howling like a freakin' wolf.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Despedidas and more salt water than one person should ingest at one time

I left Alta Verapaz with some reservations. It was the first place I felt really "at home" in Guate, it was safe and comfortable--I could ride my bike to and from the farm, I knew the buses, I knew the bus drivers.

When I left I had three farewell parties, one with the librarians, one with my fellow students at Spanish school (marshmellows roasted over the fire and bottles of Gallo), and lunch with my friend Callie. It was funny how well I fit in there, how comfortable I became in such a short time, and how unsure I felt about leaving.

But then I got to the beach in El Salvador, and I saw how much I was missing. El Zonte is on the pacific coast, about 30 minutes north by public bus from La Libertad, the largest costal town with more waves for the more serious surfer. I rented a board on Thursday afternoon and fought my way out past the break. I was blinded by salt water, drank brine like fine wine, and now feel like someone beat me with the board rather than that I actually rode on it. But ride it I did, not with much finesse but at least upright and standing, if only for moments at a time.

I believe that surfing is a good metaphor for my love life recently (as well as my golf game, actually!)--every time I think I have had enough, that I don´t want to do it anymore, and that I should just give it up, cash in, kiss it all good-bye, I get that one moment of exhiliration, that thrill of feeling the wave catch hold of the board and send it forward without any effort, and I am hooked, I am on top of the world, I am invincible. Before I know it, it all comes crashing down around me again, but then I remember that moment of giddy glory, and I get back on the board and paddle out again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Oh, the things people carry! --My first poem about Guate

Here in Guate you have lots of luck
if you have access
to a car or pick-up

So when people don´t
(which is most of the time)
Oh, the things they can carry
the hills they can climb!

Baskets of things both live and dead
Bundles of wood carried just with your head
Babies on backs and snacks pushed in carts
Good balance is one of the finest of arts

I´ve seen
Cinder blocks
Live chickens boxed
Tortilla masa
Lumber for casa
Baskets of every shape and size
Peanuts and bread and all sorts of pies

I´ve seen furniture
And front and back doors
I saw one man carry a whole chest of drawers!
I´ve seen
Bikes atop buses with six to a seat
Parts and pieces of uncooked meat
Deliveries for those who live far away
Choco-bananos and flowers in bouquet

Heaps of comida to sell at the mercado
Half-a-tree´s worth of ripe avocado
Stacks of leaves for making tamal
Machetes in case you get into a brawl
I´ve seen
Farmers with hoes
Kids with bare toes
Necks strong as steel
Food for ten meals
Women with posture staighter than straight
Men who can carry two-times their weight

I´ve seen so many things!
It´s hard to descibe
I couldn´t carry them if you gave me a bribe!
No matter the weather
or time of day
No matter the distance
Or how poor the pay

I´ve seen so many things about which to rhyme
But it´s the things people carry
The hills they can climb!
(Inspired, of course, by Dr. Seuss, and the hard-working people of Alta Verapaz)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

If only this had happened to me when I was in the 7th grade. . .

I woke up on Monday morning in a one-room hut with a dirt floor. In the room with me were 7 other people--my friend Callie (co-library volunteer from Portland) and the family Tení Wue. We shared three beds, two twin beds and a double, between the eight of us. We awoke to tortillas made with fresh-ground maize and salsa, instant coffee with lots of sugar, and entertainment provided by the youngest daughter, Martita, age 3. Martita sat on my lap all the way through breakfast and spoke to me with much sincerity in Q éch-chi, and in turn I would look earnestly at her and reply in English, which made all of the other kids laugh as if I was Eddie Murphy.

How I ended up having a slumber party in a Mayan village is a sort of long and convoluted story, but it comes down to being friends with Callie and having been a summer camp counselor. Callie brought me to Semac for the first time about a month ago, (she is doing work there for a documentary film about the style of weaving the woman make) and I fell in love with the kids (5 of them--2 boys and 3 girls: Delia, Hilado, Nilsa, Jesus, and Martita) of the family Tení Wue.

This was our third trip to Semac, and we came armed with backpacks for the overnight stay, fruit to give as a gift to the family for hosting us, and cameras to take pictures of the weekend-long community festival, a mix of pagan and Catholic ritual--a room full of saints and offerings and candles, food offerings, and a masked dance. The dance is called the Katrina, after the name of the dueño´s wife. The dancers interact with the crowd in a circus-clown manner, and the crowd apparently does not tire of the game for the three days and nights. (All of this info is according to the Peace Corps volunteer there, Andrew.)

The family met us near the bus stop, all of the girls in their nicest traditional dress, hair freshly washed and combed, the boys with fresh hair cuts and straw cowboy hats.

There is no charge for any of the activity as far as I can tell, and the community offers you food (hunks of beef with a salty gravy made out of rice, and of course tortillas de maize and tamelitos), hot chocolate made with crushed cacao, coffee sweetened beyond recognition, and a liquor of some kind, also mixed with a sugar cane juice.

The interesting part came with the dancing. After most people had eaten, there was a men´s dance, a women´s dance, and then the partner dancing began. Only the adults partake in the dancing, and it seemed to me that more of the older people were dancing, so at first Callie and I watched and took some photos.

Eventually, a nice pharmacist from Coban asked me to dance. The music is marimba and the dance is very basic--not really salsa at all, just sort of hopping back-and-forth from foot-to-foot.

Callie also started dancing, and after the lengthy song came to an end, my partner just held on to me, as did hers, and suddenly we were in for another 6-8 minute song. All of the men in the room thought it was hilarious, especially a few of the older men who had been enjoying their fair share of the sugar cane liquor. Before we knew it, we were both dancing with new partners. Things started to feel a bit tense when my original pharmacist tried to re-claim me, so I decided to sit down with the girls from our host family before things got out of hand. But my partner at this point wouldn´t let go of me.

Andrew saw this all from across the room, and intervened, telling us that we didn´t have to dance with anyone if we didn´t want to. So we both extracted ourselves from our partners and sat down. But we couldn´t be in the room without a constant stream of invitations to dance. I felt like the luckiest girl at a 7th grade dance, but it quickly became clear that we were more of a disruption than anything, and Andrew and our host dad, Carlos Enrique, kept having to help us when certain men wouldn´t take no for an answer.

At this point we decided to leave, so Martita grabbed my hand and led the way out. We smiled and waved our good-byes, and followed our family back to our home for the night.

I know it sounds cliché but the hospitality of these people who have so little is overwhelming. They are so glad to welcome you into their world--I hope to someday return the favor, and to not forget their kindness and generosity when I return to the states and my old life takes over.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Laguna Lachuá National Park -- and la gringa tonta

Last week I ventured northwest 4 hours to an out-of-the-way tourist destination called Laguna Lachua National Park. It is named after the Qéqchi words meaning "smelly water" because it has a sulphurous smell. Before going, I checked with the local tourist offices to see if there was a group going, but there wasn´t, so I went by myself via public transportation. I was a little nervous about it, but by Friday night I knew which bus to take, where to catch it, and how much it would cost to get there.

I left at 6 am Saturday morning. The bus ride was interesting--I got to ride up front with the driver and take advantage of all the amazing Alta Verapaz scenery--rolling mountains covered with mist and evergreen trees. The bus conductor was really nice and, when it started to rain, stopped and covered my backpack with a piece of plastic since I had forgotten my rain cover.

The bus, however, was not so nice. Once we hit open road, the driver was really punching it, and the bus was wobbling like a washing machine with an uneven load. Every 45 minutes or so we would pull into a gas station or bicycle repair shop and add air to the front left tire. Then, the sliding door in back stopped working and no one could get out of the bus; some of the passengers climbed out of the windows at a couple of stops. The bus driver finally stopped and borrowed some tools, dismantled the entire door, and then put it back together so it would function properly.

Upon arrival at the park, I paid for my entrance (Guatemalans, 15 Q, Extranjeros, 40 Q) and my overnight stay. You have to pack in your food and water--it´s kind of like a ski hut trip but in a rainforest. I received a receipt for my payment and the friendly park guy, Ramiro, told me that I would have to show it to the other friendly park guy when I got to the lodge. "So don´t lose it," he told me.

I hiked the 4 kilometers (photos coming soon!) by myself--it was lovely and secluded and I felt a little bit like Indiana Jones or something, except that the trail was immacutlately maintained and there are signs along the way identifying trees and other wildlife.

Upon arrival, I met Carlos, (the other friendly park guy) a sort of John Wayne of Alta Verapaz--old, weathered, full of stories and jokes, tough in appearance but a bit of a softie. As I had been warned, he asked me for my receipt, which, even after emptying my pockets and several parts of my backpack, I could not locate. (Here is where the gringa tonta part begins.) So, we went to call the front to verify that I had paid. I followed him out to the dock of the incredibly beautiful, pristine lake, and he said, OK, here´s where you have a signal for your phone (in Spanish, of course) and I said, Oh, I don´t have my phone--I left it back at the lodge (or something like that in a much more basic, 6-year-old way of speaking). Carlos looked at me briefly like I was retarded, and then laughed kindly and told me to sit down and rest. So we enjoyed the view for a while and then went back to the lodge.

Eventually he gave me a room, and as soon as I unpacked I found my receipt tucked in with a roll of T.P. --must have somehow stuck it in there when I stopped to use the latrien en route.

I enjoyed a dinner of salad and beans and tortillas that I had brought with me from Carchá, and then before bed I thought that I should put my food in a safe place, but I didn´t want to take it up to my room, which was spotless and pest-free. Once again, I asked my friend Carlos if I should put my food in a particular place. I thought that he told me no, so I stuffed it in the corner of the kitchen and went to bed.

As any good backpacker knows, (and I should have known), that was not the smartest decision. In the morning I found my breakfast spread about--orange half-eaten and a pit and a bit of peel, licked absolutely spotless, from what once was an avocado. Luckily, I had put my yogurt and tortillas in the fridge, so they were spared. Carlos, still kind and patient, questioned my judgement a bit and then explained that a tacuasin had eaten my breakfast. "What´s a tacuasin?" I asked. A giant guatemalan rat, he said, indicating through hand motions that it is about a foot and a half long. "Well, he really loves avocados," I replied. Carlos laughed and offered to share his pan dulce and tomatoes with me for breakfast.

I hiked out after a nice swim in the lake (heard it has healing properties for the ugly wound on my leg that is still festering a bit). I waited for 2 hours for the bus back--apparently bus service on Sundays is more limited. By the time I left, I had promised to meet Ramiro (the first friendly park service guy) in Coban for English lessons (I keep trying to tell people that just because I can speak it does not mean I can teach it) and I had met a gaggle of local boys who somehow knew I was the silly gringa who lost her receipt and let a tacuasin eat her breakfast. News travels fast in that part of the country, apparently.

I arrived home in Carchá after dark on Sunday, tired from a long ride in a bus packed full. I did not see or speak to one English-speaking person the entire weekend--everyone that I met at the park was Guatemalan (and one guy from Costa Rica). You got it-- now I am boldly going where no gringa has gone before! (Ok, that might be a stretch, but I managed a full expedition without major injury and only minor mishaps, so I think I am making progress!)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The best thing about public transportation

is the people you meet on the bus. In this area of the country, almost all of the buses are little microbuses, (14 passenger vans that sometimes hold up to 30, although I have heard the record is 32 plus a chicken). There is no central bus station here, which I thought was very confusing at first, but now I appreciate it because I never take the wrong bus--all of the buses from my particular station are going to the location I desire. If I want to go somewhere else, I just have to find that bus station (station is a bit too grand word for a dirt parking lot at which the buses wait).

So. Every afternoon after my Spanish classes I take the bus (3 Quetzales each way, about 80 cents altogether) from Carchá where I live to San Juan Chamelco, where I volunteer at the library for a couple of hours each afternoon. (How did I find this library, you may ask? Sonia, of course, who is cousin of Maria, girlfriend of Joe, roomate of Bryant, friend of Kevin, whose mom worked with my mom at an elementary school in Abq.)

Now that I am a regular on the bus, I am getting to know the other folks who ride it. There is a Mayan woman who has a chubby-cheeked son--she always comes to catch the bus first and then he comes running as we pull away, carrying the last few things they needed to buy at the market, and she tells the conductor to please stop for her hijo. She is the most joyous person with whom I have ever had the pleasure of being crammed into a microbus--full of laughter and jokes and funny comments for everyone. Sometimes I ride with her when she heads home with her groceries and then again when she comes back with the finished product--fried chicken tacos with cabbage salad and a splash of red picante sauce, served in a plastic bag for 3 Q each. There are students going to and from the two schools on the road--one for indigenous men and one for students of agriculture. They wear rubber boots and sun-drenched faces and carry notebooks or backpacks.

Today a local woman, mother of 7 children (I later found), questioned me relentlessly about why I am single at my age. Luckily my Spanish is not good enough to know if she was trying to set me up with someone she knows.

My newest friend on the bus is one of the drivers, Juan Carlos. We have a special handshake and he and the local bike mechanic started teaching me a bit of Q´eqchi. (see side bar to learn some with me.) I have discovered that learning Q´eqchi is the way to people´s hearts here. Even when I say the most basic thing I receive gleeful responses (perhaps because my pronunciation is so poor it amuses them?!?)

Apparently, gringas who can speak Spanish are a dime a dozen, but one who can speak a little Q´eqchi--now that is something to write home about!

Altogether my daily commute is about an hour and fifteen minutes, including walking to the bus station and back home. But there is no traffic, no stress, no problems. I could do this every day for a long, long time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A few fotos. . .

Carchá is in a river valley surrounded by hills like this one.

Brrr! We had a few really cold nights and I slept in all my clothes, ski socks, and my wooly hat!
Pero leo La Prensa Libre, because I am a snob!
Mi casa -- I live in the room up on the roof!
Las bibliotecarias en la biblioteca en Chamelco -- Sonia, Gabby, y Doña Gloria

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Un toro en una tienda de platos

"Like a bull in a china shop"is a pretty accurate desciption of how I feel in Guatemala the majority of the time, and so that is what I told my new Spanish teacher, Alex, when we met my first day of lessons. He laughed heartily, since I am almost 8 inches taller than him and have over 20 pounds on him. And because I hit my head on the stairway going up to my room three times (hard) before I remembered to duck sufficiently to miss the low ceiling on the landing.

Such is life here in San Pedro Carchá, near the 3rd largest town (Coban) in the central part of the country known as Alta Verapaz. Gringos are much more sparse here than in Antigua, so I create a little bit of a spectacle every where I go. And Alex, well, he may as well be mayor of Carchá, since he knows everyone in the entire town, as far as I can tell. I like it here--it reminds me of being in the Safeway in Fraser. You have to schedule in about 20 extra minutes for small talk because you´re always sure to see someone you know.

The area around Coban is green and lush, with steep hills and volcanic rock rising out of numerous sinkholes. The trees stick up from the tops of the hills like characters from a Dr. Suess book. When I wake up to go running at 6 am, we are usually socked in with fog, but by 10 am it is warm and sunny.

How did I end up here, since it is a part of the country I only visited briefly during my first trip? Again, it comes down to who you know, and I know Maria, who is girlfriend of Joe, who is roomate of Bryant, who is friend of Kevin, who is son of Linda, who used to work with my mom at an elementary school in Albuquerque. Small world, indeed. I now live with Maria´s aunt and uncle and their daughter Alicia in a little green and pink house on a hill overlooking an outdoor soccer court where boys play soccer with an empty plastic bottle on Sunday afternoons. Makes me wish I had packed a soccer ball.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I witnessed Jehovah--but it was on accident

It looked like a church and smelled like a church and we sang a hymn of sorts when we first arrived. But my host mom, whom is a wonderful, giving, generous woman, had told me before we went that it was kind of like a discussion group, a public speaking group, and a philosophy group all at once, and I figured it would be good for my Spanish.

So I went, on Thursday night, and I didn´t quite get saved all in one night, but they have me in their sights and I am pretty sure I have a good chance!

Monday, January 19, 2009

After two days and five stiches

"Guatemala--take two" has been interesting. This time, there were no tears when I hugged my dad good-bye at the airport, there was little apprehension about flying, and when I arrived everything was familiar. But along with the comfort of knowing a place, there was a little less anticipation and excitement in my stomach as I de-boarded the plane.

In any case, I would have to say that it was easier the second time around. It´s like I´ve been here and done this before.

And now on to my most recent mishap which resulted in my first official Guatemalan medical treatment. On Friday morning, I was playing with Bryant´s dog, Remy, in their back yard. Remy loves to play fetch but doesn´t always find and return the sticks that we throw down into the barranco (canyon) behind the house. So at this point, Remy was stickless and I set out to remedy the problem.

I had never before ventured into the barranco, as it is steep and covered with vegetation. I found a decent sized stick on a downed tree, and was working at detaching it when I lost my footing and fell into the tree. I landed with my shin against the end of a broken branch, which punctured my leg and left a dime-sized hole in my lower left shin.

I was more in shock than in pain, as you could see into my leg and it was kind of fleshy and oozing stuff. I was heading to Camino Seguro for the day to volunteer at the English Office, and Bryant had to go to work, so I tried to put on a brave face and I stuck a piece of T.P. on my leg and we set off. (Never mind that I started feeling slightly ill and faint upon walking to the truck.)

En route to Camino Seguro, Bryant helpfully snapped his fingers in my face and yelled, "Don´t you die on me!" with volume and enthusiasm, which helped keep my mind off the swelling that was turning my lower leg into a kind of ugly, swollen version of its former self.

Luckily, Camino Seguro has a medical office with a wonderful and talented enfermera named Lucy. Lucy cleaned up the wound and agreed with me that it was "muy feo." She tried to close it up with a butterfly bandage, but it continued to gape and so she determined that I needed stitches. I have only had stitches once before in my life, but it is a testament to her that she was able to do such a good job (note the photo) since there was no flap of skin with which to cover and stitch up the wound. Not to mention that I continued to be faint and slightly nauseous during the entire visit. (I guess I won´t be trying to get into Med School)

She had me good as new in about 45 minutes, and I went to work for the day. So much for that expensive travel medical insurance!

Now I am healing quite well (check out that photo!) and have a whole new group of Spanish vocab words at my disposal: branch=rama, wound=herida, stitches=punzadas, y hinchazón=swollen part.

And so, despite my "extensive" travel experience at this juncture, all it took was two days back in Guate and a vicious game of fetch to land me under a nurse´s care.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The people who knew you when

I sat at brunch yesterday at a table across from two of my oldest friends. We have known each other almost as far back as my memory stretches. They were my friends through my awkward years; we played at recess and scratched our initials in wet cement; they knew me when I was afraid of the dark and had to call my dad late in the night to pick me up from sleep-overs. They know what I look like in a girl scout uniform. They were there the first time I kissed a boy, the first time I drank too much, the first time I stood up for myself when I sensed a grown-up was being unfair. They know me almost as well as I know myself. And even though our lives have changed dramatically since then--countless boyfriends and apartments and jobs and years studying and now mortgages and husbands and babies--they still know me. And they love me for who I am now as much as who I was then.

It's funny that I thought I had to travel all this way and meet so many new people in order to discover more about who I am and what I want. When the people who knew me when are here with open arms, ready to see me succeed, and standing like obnoxious fans in the home section of the stadium, cheering loudly for me every step of the way.