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!)