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.