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