Thursday, December 27, 2007

The First Night

Stepping off the plane into the cold wintery night of New York City, I felt the emotion growing inside me. Finally I was home, home for Christmas. Along with the other travelers, I filed off the plane, down the empty no-space corridors, and through customs. We passed a sign that announced, "Welcome to NYC." Thank God! I thought, I am back in New York!

It was amazing to be able to understand everything that went on around me. Without trying I knew how to work the public transportation, how to respond to questions without pondering the motives, and how I felt at home for the first time in six months.

In the dark December night different people helped me with my backpacking pack, steered me towards the correct public transit, and playfully commented, "I'd like to go camping!" when they saw my bag. I turned towards them and said, "Yeah, I'd like to go camping too."

I hopped on the A train and took its clickity clack ride across Brooklyn to Jay Street. Dan had told me to exit by the Polytech university and wait for him in Starbucks. Thoughts of the golden light of the coffee shop warmed me as I watched the subway zombie people. Finally the train approached the stop with a squeal of breaks and I hopped off the train and onto the platform.

I emerged into the night to be greeted by a Plaza full of white Christmas lights decorating the deciduous trees and a large Christmas tree. There was the Starbucks where I awaited, contentedly sipping Oregon Chai as I waited for Dan to find me in the Christmasy night.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Street Venders

An important sector of Guatemala’s economy falls in the informal sector. This includes food sellers, fruit venders, shoe shiners, scavengers, and street venders. As Ana described it to me, “Everyone in Guatemala sells something. I sell clothes and cleaning products from a catalogue. Other people sell silver and gold jewelry. You should try to sell something, pues, Nancy.” In a developing country, it makes sense that most people try to make it by any means possible.

Street venders seem to be the largest faction of this informal sector of the economy. In any touristy town women dressed in traditional indigenous clothes comb the streets for gullible foreigners to by their myriad items. As a very white, red headed woman, I have the recipe for instant attraction of all the street vendor flies. They swarm around me whenever I appear in an area shoving their metallic necklaces, florescent fabrics, and rainbow hair bands in my face. The typical strategy of these street vendors is to first offer the good, then become indignant about it if you say you don’t want it, continue to thrust the item at you, lower the price repeatedly, and eventually, to refuse to take no for an answer. They are all about the hard sale.

I’d like to provide some examples:

1. Nut Sellers

Standing outside the US embassy waiting to meet one of Hanne’s friends, an elderly man walking on the shady street honed in on the fact that not one but three Americans were standing complacently by the embassy entrance. He stopped and began to proclaim, “Cashews! Cashews!” When we said we didn’t want any, his eyes widened and thrusting his plastic nut sacks towards us exclaimed, “CASHEWS! They are cheap and good!” We continued to express our disinterest even as the man continued his exclamations at the benefits of eating his cheap and good cashews.

2. Pirated DVD/CD Sellers

As if on clockwork whenever I leave Super Center Pais with my groceries, hoards of young men with hand-me-down L.L. Bean backpacks and hands clutching stacks of burned movies and CD’s latch on to me yelling, “Películas, CD’s, música!” It’s as if, since I’m a gringa, I will obviously want to buy their pirated material (although they often insist that their DVD’s are originals, which means they were filmed in the theater). Sadly, for these desperate chaps, I have neither a DVD player nor a CD player and am decidedly disinterested in collecting crap anyway. I always shake my head and continue on with their shouts of the greatness of their movie collection echoing in my ears.

3. Food Venders

Perhaps the least pushy group of the street vender crowd is the food venders. They generally seem to think, “If you’re hungry, you’ll come to me.” That’s probably a good assumption. When I’m in Xela or Antigua, I love walking through the market inhaling the odors of grilled chicken, burning wood, hot atol, heated tortillas, and hot chocolate. Que le damos? What can we give you?” the señoras ask, but they don’t push their luck. If it’s obvious I’m not that interested, they stop pestering me. The same happens with the fruit and vegetable venders who yell, “Hay mandarinas, naranjas, fresas, sandia, melon…. There are mandarins, oranges, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe.” But, whenever I state that I’m headed off on another expedition, they say, “Okay, maybe Saturday,” And leave it at that.

4. Sticker, Card, and other such Venders

One day in Guatemala City, while Pibs, Hanne, and I were trying to enjoy an open-air taco meal (bad idea to eat in the open in Latin America) flocks of boys (who should be in school) came up to our table. One boy with Power Ranger stickers attached himself to Hanne. When she insisted she really didn’t want any Power Ranger stickers he steeled himself and began flipping through the stickers as if thinking, “If I show you more Power Ranger stickers you will obviously want to buy them.” He finally realized he was wasting his time. Pibs credited him with persistence, which I suppose is true.

In Antigua, Hanne and I were sitting on a park bench when a little boy of five came up to us. Coooooompra,” he said with Bambi eyes, “Coooooompra. Mira. Muy bonito. Buuuuuuuy, look, very pretty.” He was trying to get us to purchase little cards with a painting of Antigua’s plaza and a prayer on the back. We attempted to tell him we really didn’t want to buy them, so he leaned his little body on me and shoved the cards directly into Hanne’s boob. “Whoa!” She exclaimed, and again insisted she didn’t want them. He switched aims and shoved the cards into my boobs, where I also exclaimed, “Whoa, kid!” Persistently staring at us with his big brown eyes he kept grinning and saying, “Coooompra! Bien, compra!”until after an awkward conversation with his mom, who did not call him off our boobs, he wandered away.

5. Craft venders

Single handedly, my least favorite, the pushiest, and persistently annoying group are the handicraft sellers. They are absolutely convinced that every white person wants whatever junk they are trying to sell. Walking through Panajachel I was accosted every minute to purchase ugly necklaces decorated with ceramic people-beads, pens covered in bright embroidery thread, my name written on a piece of rice, or richly colored and decorated clothes. The general tactic to convince gringas to purchase this stuff is to shove the item three inches from their face and insist that they need to buy it. If that doesn’t work, they will tend to show the person 5,000 of the same item (in different colors) convinced that if the gringa sees more of the item they will obviously want to buy it. Often these strategies come accompanied by attempts to speak English or to call the woman, “baby, muñeca, cariño, reina, or Barbie (one kid called me Barbie and I stopped, glared at him, and said, “don’t f***** call me Barbie!” I was pissed).

My favorite of such interactions was on the lakefront where Bridgette and I sat trying to figure out what to do. A woman came up, her arms laden with multicolored fabrics. She had targeted me and began explaining all the merits of purchasing a baby-blue quetzal decorated fabric. I told her over and over and over that I really didn’t want to buy anything. She said, “Look, so beautiful. Muy bonito. For you mother. Yes. For you mother. A present. A present from Guatemala. For your sister. For your aunt. For your brother. If not for someone you like, for your enemy. Buen precio. How much you pay? Good price. Okay, mira, for your Q40. Siiii, compra. In the end I had to get rude and tell her I really didn’t want to buy her fabrics. As soon as she backed off another person came up targeting Bridgette. Really people!

6. Beggers

Little snot-nosed, grubby, and probably, lice-infested kids also like to attack the gringas. I suppose we seem sympathetic. Their attempt is to get coins from the tourists (or get them to purchase whatever junk they’re selling) for “noble causes” that range from bread, water, candy, shirts, shoes, to you name it, they’ve got the answer.

In Panajachel a boy loudly smacking and chewing a piece of white bread smothered in refried beans came up to me trying to sell some particularly unattractive coin purses. Watching him simutaneously eat and haggle was quite impressive. He followed me for at least two blocks saying, “Cooooompra. Mira, cooooooompra. UN quetzal. Mira, dame un quetzal. Quiero agua pura. Dame un quetzal. Sí. Sí. Mira. Sí. Un quetzal. Quiero agua pura. Buuuuuuy. Look, buuuuuuuuy. One quetzal. Look, give me a quetzal. I want purified water. Give me a quetzal. Yes. Yes. Look. Yes. One quetzal. I want water.” For two blocks! He really was convinced I was going to give him something. Finally, some other likely-looking tourist attracted his attention and I was free for 30 seconds before 4 other street kids came up asking for gum, bread, water, anything under the sun. The worst thing is they say it indignantly. It’s not a request or a plea it’s a you-better-give-me-something-and-I-know-if-I-say-it-demandingly-enough-you-will-give-it-to-me kind of approach. It is not cute, charming, or heart-wrenching but strictly frustrating and annoying. These kids need a begging lesson.

What gets me is when people say the junk is cute and actually buy the ugly necklaces, traje-clad dolls, cheaply made purses, and embroidery thread pens (come on, that’s soooo fifth grade!). Apparently the hard approach works for some people. Personally, I think the greatest help to development in Guatemala would be for business students to come down and teach this informal sector how to sell goods. Maybe a little supply/demand, strategies, coaxing, and teaching an approach besides the hard sell would be effective here. It might even get cheap tourists like me to consider being more interested in their items. As it is, I get really irritated every time I hear some people come up saying, “COOOOOOMPRA!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The hulking metal-framed Linea Dorada bus wheezed 25 miles per hour through the Interamerican Highway construction zone near Tecpan. I watched the scenery change gradually from the hot, cement sprawl of Chimaltenago to the lush cornfields by Tecpan. Shortly, we passed several restaurants that serve delicious local foods like blue-corn tortillas, locally cured hams, cheeses, and freshly made jams. My mouth salivated as I thought of how delicious the hot chocolate is in one store before remembering that Xelajú has the best cocoa in the country.

Slower than George, the tortoise, the bus groaned up the mild grade past Tecpan and on into the second leg of the potentially six hour journey to Quetzaltenango. It was 10:00 am and as we passed these restaurants reeking with the smells of garlic, green onions, and coffee, I breathed a sigh of relief. We might just make it to Xela without stopping for refacción. The bus began to pick up speed as it edged over the end of the grade and along the sinuous highway. We drove speedily away from Tecpan and on towards Xela.

Then, as the bus slowed gradually for what appeared to be another construction zone, it jolted over the pavement onto the gravel road and eased into a parking area in front of a small, run-down restaurant. The breaks squealed as the driver excitedly parked the bus and the attendant hopped out to get in line. We all sat solidly on the bus, not believing that after only two hours of driving we would be stopping. Finally, the portly driver stood up and faced the crowd. Es hora de refacción. It’s time for snack break,” he said in a gleeful schoolboy voice. We all had to file off the bus, where the Guatemalans proceeded to excitedly purchase and consume coffee, tortillas, meat and cheese. Snack time is very important to them. “I hate refaccion,” Hanne and I said bitterly while Bridgette laughed. Thanks to refacción, we arrived in Xela at least an hour late….

…. Returning from Xela in a double decker Linea Dorada bus, Hanne and I sat praying the bus driver would just floor it to Guate. We got a late start and progressed slowly through the construction zones and paved highway. Our bus, going a maximum of 30 mph, was too timid to pass the myriad other vehicles on the road. Occasionally, I asked Hanne the time, despairing as I calculated that in three hours we had gone approximately 70 kilometers, not even half the distance back to Guate. Finally after hours, the lights of Tecpan blinked past and it seemed that yet again we were in the clear of refacción.

A Texaco gas station’s neon and florescent lights loomed ahead of us. “No, no, no!” Hanne began to moan next to me. I realized what was happening as if in slow motion. The bus was jack knifing itself a place to stop in the parking lot, “No, no, no!! REFACCION!” I exclaimed. “I’m boycotting it,” Hanne muttered, “I’m not getting off this damn bus.” We slumped in our seats as the attendant came up and called out, “15 minutos para descansar. 15 minutes to break for refacción.” Excitedly, the Guatemalans marched out of the bus to buy their nachos, tamales, tostados, aguas, and candies. They must have been starving after not eating for like two hours.

Disheartened, I walked to the bathroom where several Guatemalan women exclaimed in the same breath, “Aiiiiiiiii, it’s taking soooooo loooooong to get to Guate! Aiiiiiiii, I can’t believe we only have 15 minutes for refacción!!!!!!! Aiiiiiiiiiii, no! That’s not enough time.” I glared at them, thinking that without refacción we’d be a whole lot closer to Guatemala. Hanne had been kicked off the bus by the attendant who insisted that everyone needed the 15 minute descanso. She got off the bus muttering that if we were going to take freaking refacción then she was going to get something to eat too. I looked around at the people and said, “I don’t get it. Guatemalans eat snacks all the time; they’re constantly eating. How come they aren’t all fat?” Hanne looked at me and through gritted teeth said, “They are all fat! They just short and squat too!” When she said that, I started looking around, and indeed, the Guatemalans were all short, stocky, with substantial waists. Refacción! In the end, 15 minutes was 30 minutes and it took nearly 7 hours to drive the 200 kilometers to Guatemala from Xela….

…. Driving in microbus from Panajachel to los Encuentros, I thought the drive was going to hurl the bus over the mountain into the canyon. Maybe he’s just in a hurry for refacción, I thought. We arrived in los Encuentros before our connection shuttle to Xela. On the side of the dusty, congested highway Bridgette and I waited impatiently with the microbus driver. Where was the freaking micro already!? Gosh! Finally, the little white van drove up, pushed us inside, and started the three hour trip to Xela. Barely two minutes down the road, the driver pulled over, stalled the car and mumbled, “Sorry, sorry, I just…” and got out of the car with the attendant. Bridgette and I looked at each other, “refacción!!!!” Sure enough, five minutes later, the two drivers hurried back to the car, their arms full of Pepsi cola, bread, and potato chips. Bridgette concluded that refacción must have developed when most people still worked in hard labor, meaning they needed more calories. Most of them certainly don’t need those calories today. Refacción!....

…. Finally, this morning driving from Xela to Antigua I watched the miles melt under the microbus’ tires. We passed construction site after construction site, drove by chicken buses who in turn passed us, and forged a path through the persistent black exhaust of the construction cars. Halfway through the journey, we passed los Encuentros and turned left. “No, no, no!!!” I screamed in my head, “they can’t be stopping for refacción!” But indeed, it was 10:00 am and the drivers looked around at their load of foreigners and said, “Okay, we have 10 minutes for refacción.” Ten minutes, yeah right. After twenty minutes the drivers finally came back clutching Styrofoam cups of atol and frantically eating fluffy white rolls. I scowled at them, willing them to get back in the car so we could get Antigua before afternoon. We continued the journey with no more stops, but all I could think was, “I hate refacción.”

These hobbitish people are seriously serious about their food. At 7:30 it’s time for breakfast. At 10:00 it’s time for refacción. At 1:30 it’s time for lunch. At 3:00 it’s time for refacción. At 5:00 it’s time for refacción. Finally, at 7:30 it’s time for dinner. Where do they put all those calories? How do thy burn them off especially when exercise is a very novel concept? That question will continue to bother me as refacción will continue to harass me on my journeys around this country.

American moral of the story: Being well fed is the key to inefficiency.

Guatemalan moral to the story: When it’s time for refacción, it’s time for refacción, pues.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Turtle Liberation Front

As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, changing the sky to brilliant golds, reds, and oranges, humans emerged on the black sand beach and pelicans began swooping along the waves of Monterrico’s Pacific coast. A cluster of tourists stood excitedly by the Tortugario, or turtle hatchery. Their voices rose and fell with the emotion when one of the workers finally appeared with a large plastic tub filled with what, from a distance, appeared to be two-inch pebbles. The worker marched down the steep beachfront and drew a line in the still damp sand. Behind him impressive 5 to 12 foot waves crashed dramatically against the volcanic beach. The tourists clustered behind the line, eager to hand over their vouchers and receive one of those mysterious moving pebbles. Each one exclaimed as a tiny, freshly-hatched sea turtle was placed in their palms.

The baby turtles looked terribly fragile in their saviors’ hands. Their small gray bodies blended perfectly with the volcanic sand of the beach. In the people’s hands they moved their tiny flippers, ready to be liberated into the great Pacific Ocean. The worker announced it was time to release the turtles and each person squatted and placed their precious turtles in front of the line drawn in the sand. The worker emptied the rest of the hundred or so turtles from the bucket and the mad race began.

Each of those tiny turtles was programmed to flipper their way to the sea. Slowly they inched their way down the steep beach towards the crashing waves. Their small flippers pushed them across the black sand towards the ocean. Yet with every slamming wave the little turtle bodies were tossed and twisted with the waves. Some of the turtles could strain their flipper muscles against the waves force and propel themselves to the safety of the ocean. Others were tossed further up the beach where they had to begin the arduous liberation process anew. Finally more and more of the turtles made it to the sea and only the stragglers were left behind. A little boy in red trunks hurried forward and reoriented the stragglers towards the sea. This independent member of the Turtle Liberation Front insured that the remaining turtles were washed into to the fierce ocean.

Finally all the tiny bodies had been washed out into the ocean to meet their coming fate. Perhaps some would be eaten by pelicans and other fish. Others might not survive their first hiatus into the Pacific. Only 5% of those recently hatched turtles would survive to adulthood. Those 5% would continue to propagate and save the turtle species… as long as they could avoid their largest threat, humans. The Turtle Liberation Front watched as night fell on the Pacific and wished their liberated turtles the strength and fortune to survive in the wild world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The dark and the thin air pressed in around me. At base camp the air was still below freezing and dawn was hours away. The nineteen other hikers, three guides, and I stood huddled by the tents waiting for Justin, the leader, to indicate it was time to attempt the summit. I shivered as I stood in the predawn morning wondering if this hike would be as strenuous as Saturday had been.

On Saturday morning we Quetzaltrekkers had all awoken at 4:30 am hopped on two chicken buses, and transported ourselves towards Mexico and towards our destination of Tajumulco. We had hiked from 3000 meters to 4000 meters over the course of six hours. Each step up the hill grew slower and more arduous until the final half mile took nearly 45 minutes to complete. I had stayed at the back of the group with some other hikers and a guide where I resolutely climbed 5-20 steps before stopping, panting, for breath. “Slow and steady wins the race, Nancy,” I kept reminding myself, grateful that it was not actually a race of this peak. Although it was exhausting, each time I looked back at Asier, the guide, I smiled. It was thrilling to be on the mountain, in alpine air, in pine forest, amongst lupine and alpine grasses, and staring out at the amazing landscape Guatemala has to offer. Thrilling but harder than any hike I had ever done before. What would Sunday have in store for us?

I looked up at the looming black shape of Tajumulco. We had to climb 220 meters to summit before the sun rose over the horizon. Finally, Justin, the lead guide, indicated it was time to hike. I clicked on my headlamp, got in the middle of the crowd, and started the hour climb to the summit. Almost immediately my lungs began to protest the physical strain of low oxygen and the steep climb ahead of me. A steady stream of clear mucus began dripping from my nose onto the rocks below. As I ascended, I determinately and fixedly stared at the pool of light illuminating my next step. “It’s just like climbing, Nancy. Just focus on your next move and mind that foot placement,” I thought as I resolved to move steadily uphill. Slowly the meters melted behind me as I took careful steps up the rocky slope towards the summit. Two hundred meters… 190 meters… 150 meters…. My breath came at slow, regulated pulses made to match my determined march up Tajumulco. The rock turned to loose pebbles, boulders, and scree. I pulled with my arms and pushed with my legs, forcing out the final 50 meters to the summit. Finally, I could see the rock falling away from above me, the slope flattening out, the stars glimmering overhead, and the thin golden line of sunlight to the east. We had made it! A grin burst over my face as I realized I had reached the summit of the highest peak in Central America.

Hanne and I bundled up in sleeping bags and huddled behind a boulder out of the wind to watch the sun come up. A sea of clouds swallowed the mountains below us, reminding me that Tajumulco means “above the clouds.” What an appropriate name. The crystal clear sky became a palette of colors as the sun moved gradually into the eastern sky. Profiled on the horizon sat a line of dynamic volcanoes stretching from Antigua and Lake Atitlan to Xela. Occasionally great bursts of ash would rise from Volcanes Fuego and Santiaguito, two of the most active volcanoes in the country. The cold air sucked the heavy sheets of clouds into the valleys below, making the sky look like a great river of clouds. Behind, Tajumulco’s blue shadow fell over Tacana, the second tallest peak, darkening its tall, stark form.

I breathed in the cold, pressing air, and found satisfaction in the wind whipping around the peak, the brilliant colors exploding from the sunrise, and the magnificent view that stretched from the volcanoes of the east, to Mexico, and to the Pacific Ocean. It was heaven to see this glimpse of the world from Tajumulco, the tallest mountain in Central America. I had bagged my first peak and what a peak it was.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


At Tuesday’s Rotary Peten meeting, the club realized that two of their club members were celebrating birthdays on Saturday. Since Don Pedro is a professional mariachi singer, what better way to celebrate than to have mañanitas and sing mariachi songs for the lucky birthday boy and girl?! This is what happened on Saturday morning.

The tinkling alarm of my Nokia cell phone startled me out of my profound sleep. Was it 3:45 already? I groaned, clicked on my headlamp, check my sandals for cockroaches, and switched on the overhead light. It felt like I had fallen asleep moments before; how could it already be time to wake up? I shuffled into Flor’s bathroom to wash my face and prepare for this early morning. At least I am used to getting up at 5:00 am when I’m in Petén, I thought, 3:45 isn’t that different. The shukos, or hotdogs, I’d eaten the night before grumbled in my tummy. Shukos are cheese-filled sausages covered in guacamole, cabbage, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup, and laid in a toasted bun. They’d been delicious the night before, but they, like I, protested this early morning wake-up call. I lay back on my bed, waiting for Flor to stumble out of her room. It was time for mañanitas with Flores’ Rotary Club.

Frantically, Flor rushed out of her room at 4:15 talking loudly to Don Pedro, “Ayyyy, me pasó la hora! Ahorita llegamos! I just woke up but we’re on our way, Don Pedro!” Outside Javier’s white diesel pickup rumbled up to the house. We rushed from the house and hopped into the truck to pick up Don Pedro and his stereo equipment. Flor stayed on the phone calling all the Rotary members to meet at Doña Aida’s house to begin her birthday right or at least really early. The caravan of cars rolled across the gravelly, pot-holed streets of Santa Elena until we reached Doña Aida’s humble house. The men hauled Don Pedro’s stereo system on the roof of the pickup while Flor pulled out a pack of fire crackers from the back of the truck.

With a loud burst of explosions and white-hot sparks, the fire crackers gave a shocking wake-up call to the still dark and silent night (except for the dogs barking and roosters calling but they’re a regular morning feature in Peten). Don Pedro, in his moment, announced the lucky birthday girl and began singing his heart out to Doña Aida. All us Rotary members cracked up at the noise and commotion as we waited anxiously for Doña Aida’s sleepy face to immerge from the house and announce the end of her manañita. Her whole family appeared at the door as we shouted, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FELIZ CUMPLEAÑOS Doña Aida!!! Then, we all tumbled back into our cars, with the birthday girl’s family in tow to celebrate the next Rotarian’s birthday.

Down more dark, early morning streets our caravan drove until we reached San Benito and Julio’s house. The routine repeated itself. Loud ruckus of fire crackers exploded in front of Julio and Sofi’s door spraying sparks and shredded newspaper all over their door step. Don Pedro began his deep mariachi singing to Julio (“Y sigo sieeeeeeeeeendo el reeeeeeey!”). We shouted and hooted for Julio to let us in to wish him a happy birthday. Finally, Julio and Sofi opened the door to the mañanita crew and we tumbled, muddy footed, into their living room.

The women busied themselves in the kitchen heating tamales and coffee, unwrapping the hot cornmeal from the banana leaves, placing them on plates, and passing them to the 14 hungry people waiting in the living room. Julio tuned in music on the radio and settled on techno, adding to the already frantic, heart-stopping morning of fire crackers and mariachi songs. We ate and boogied at 5:30 am in Julio and Sofi’s home. These Rotarians from Peten know how to celebrate birthdays. By 6:30 we began to yawn and think of the days obligations. It was time to go home.

Five Months

Another month is done here in Guatemala. This month has led me to thinking about how time ebbs and flows, how it seems to change me as much as the light changes every day.

Beautiful long shadows, clear skies, and golden light characterized this month. I loved watching shadows elongate and land features illuminate with the near-winter light. In Tikal, the temples glowed golden-red by four in the afternoon. I wished I had my camera, but as Brian said, nothing can really capture the power of those buildings.

My heart filled with the sight of one of my best friends, getting to know her dad, and meeting invigorating and inspiring people in Tikal.

Here are the ebbs and flows, comings and goings, successes and hardships of this month:

  1. Brian left, closing that happy chapter in Guatemala, but opening a new chapter for him in Patagonia, Chile.
  2. I took advantage of the closing semester and traveled to Atitlan, Tikal, and Antigua.
  3. The semester finished finally. No more school in Guatemala for me!! I made a vow in Ecuador never to take classes at a foreign university again. I broke that promise here, but I’m back to reinstating it! Nancy, NO MORE class for you!
  4. We exchange students bonded, just before the other two left. Their time in Guatemala is done, but exploring how Guatemala has changed them is just beginning. They expressed their own love/hate relationship with Guatemala.
  5. I realized going to Café Barista several times a week is worth the money just so that I’m out of the house.
  6. Hanne and Pibs came to see me. We hiked an active volcano and hung out in Tikal.
  7. I decided to grab the brass ring.
  8. Spanish interviews now total 31. English interviews are at 40. I’m done!
  9. It rained so much in Peten that Hanne asked if my hands and feet grew webs. They probably should have, but with my trusty raincoat and pack cover I survived.
  10. My lungs are protesting the heavy layer of pollution in the city. I always cover my mouth when I go outside and people look at me like I’m nuts. I don’t want to say when I go back, “I’ve got the black lung, pop!” (Zoolander)
  11. I realized I’m not the only one who feels tension in Guatemala. I met a young woman in Tikal who lived by the Lake who said, as I have said countless times, “I was just over it. I always felt so much tension and thought at any moment someone would just start shooting. I left two months early.” My jaw dropped. That is exactly how I feel.
  12. This same young lady and I also shared the feeling that Peten is an infinitely happier and safer-feeling place than southern Guatemala.
  13. In Peten men asked every day if I was going to get married when I go back to the States. Women stated that I would find a Guatemalan, get married, and stay here. I shook my head violently and generally exclaim (at least in my head), “HELL no!”
  14. I felt included by Guatemalans (in Peten, of course) in social activities and didn't feel like I was invited out of politeness.
  15. I still have to hold my breath when I walk by security guards with their huge guns.
  16. I threw up for the first time in three years. That was fun. Nothing like food poisoning to make your day.
  17. Hanne showed me where the US embassy building is. I finally know where to go. It’s on Avenida Reforma and looks like a tank.
  18. I’m curious about how this tense and lonely experience in Guatemala has changed me. It’s going to be a trip for the next few months.
  19. At five months, I’m on the downward slope. The count down continues.
  20. I’m going home for Christmas in 19 days.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pollo Campero

National pride in Guatemala appears to revolve around two products: 1) Gallo Cerveza and 2) Pollo Campero. Everyone consumes them as if they are part of the national anthem and pledge of allegiance to Guatemala (imagine: “Gallo Cerveza y Pollo Campero confiamos en ustedes! Somos orgullosos de nuestros productos nacionales! Gallo Beer and Country Chicken we trust you! We are proud of our national products!” I can hear the jingle now). They certainly are formative parts of their culture.

I remember when I first moved to Guatemala all people talked about was how I just had to eat Pollo Campero because it’s sooooooooo good. I ignored these Guatemalans for months because I didn’t want to do what everyone does and eat the Pollo. Everyday someone would ask me if I’d tried Pollo Campero and I would say no. “No!” they’d exclaim, “You have to try Pollo Campero! You can’t leave Guatemala without trying Pollo Campero!! WHY haven’t you eaten Pollo Campero yet!???” After every encounter my head would spin at their firm and loyal exclamations about fried chicken.

It was months before Pollo Campero came to me. In Flores, Peten, at the end of September’s data collection period I was staying with a Rotary family who ate good chapín (Guatemalan) food. On my last day we drove to the Pollo Campero truck (they don’t have a restaurant in Santa Elena) where Flor hopped out of the car and trotted up to the Pollo truck (like a taco truck but less cool). She came back carrying containers of fried chicken, tubs of cole slaw, a bag of cheap white bread rolls, and a two-liter of Pepsi. Right on. It was time to try the Pollo.

At the lunch table the whole family got right into their chicken. “Mmmm, nothing beats fried chicken and nothing is better than Pollo Campero,” they exclaimed. Mmm…. It’s decent as fried chicken goes, but Guatemalans have an insane level of pride in their national fried chicken.

Back in the capital, now that I’ve had my Pollo Campero cherry broken, I occasionally order the Pollo Campero meal for take out because nothing beats fried chicken. Only once have I stayed and that was to initiate Nick and Brian to the experience. You see, you can’t leave Guatemala without having eaten at Pollo Campero!

Walking into the restaurant is instant chaos. The restaurant is always busy. And I mean always busy. No matter the time of day the restaurant is packed with Guatemalans happily gnawing on chicken legs, dunking champuradas (like a cookie) in sugary coffee, and licking soft serve white and pink ice cream cones. People are happy to be in Pollo Campero. It’s a privilege to eat at the nation’s most popular restaurant. They are proud of their Pollo Campero!

Dozens of bustling employees dressed in immaculate khakis, bright orange hats, and orange and yellow Pollo polo shirts dart towards you directing you to empty seats, handing you brightly colored menus and scattering to other calls being shouted through their radio headsets (whose heard of sit-down-before-you-order fast food?). Waitresses take orders on electronic pads meaning your order of the Pollo Campero combo (two pieces of fried chicken, one small fry, one unhealthy white roll, and a small Pepsi cola) is instantly relayed to the five guys waiting to fill orders. Five seconds later (literally) out comes a tray full Correl indestructible plates laden with the grease bomb order. There’s hardly time to breath before your order is ready. I can picture the staff in the back high-fiving at another successful 5-second delivery of fried chicken.

There is always some orange and yellow employee bustling around mopping or sweeping the floor right under your feet, hovering around to take your plate the instant it is chicken-less, or waiting expectantly for you to order their delicious coffee and champurada snack-time offering. It’s always time for refacción, or snack hour, in Guatemala, and what is better than a tummy full of fried chicken topped off with coffee and champuradas, pues.

Pollo Campero is really something. It’s the Bonanza, the Texas Steakhouse, the McDonalds, or the KFC of Guatemala. But, as Guatemalans so frequently say, “Oh, but it’s so much better than KFC! I had KFC once in the United States and Pollo Campero is just soooooo much better than KFC, pues. Sí, vos, mucho mejor, Pollo Campero. We used to take it on the airplane when visiting family in the United States, vos. That’s all they wanted from Guatemala was Pollo Campero because it’s sooooo good, vos. Pues… sí…delicioso.” It is considered a sacrilege not to consume the Pollo Campero.

It is also probably the most common place to take a girl out on a date. I mean, who could resist the irresistible smells of fried chicken and a date at the country’s most popular fast food restaurant? I, for instance, have now officially been asked on two dates to Pollo Campero. The latest happened just today. I was walking down my street towards home when the new little guard for the thirteen story apartment building trotted across the street saying, “Ah, yes! You live around here? Oh yes, I thought, I hadn’t seen this blanquita, this little white lady, before. Oh, yes. I will take you out to Pollo Campero on a date? Just come by? Give me your phone number and we can go to Pollo Campero.” I tried not to laugh because I suppose that takes a lot of guts to just ask some random white girl on a date. As politely as I could I said I was engaged (I’m not) and continued my walk down the street as the guard said, “Pues… sí… Pollo Campero! God bless you! Just give me your number and we can go to Pollo Campero… sí, pues....

Pollo Campero… national pride. Hooking guys and girls up for decades over a hot plate of fried chicken.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Guatemala City

Every visit to Tikal, I spend time conversing with visitors who inevitably ask me what Guatemala City is like. I always feel like this question is so loaded because every guide book and website and communication about Guatemala talks about how horrible, terrible, awful, disgusting, polluted, oppressive, and dreadful Guatemala City is. Every guide advices people to get out as fast as possible and travel to Antigua, which is a much nicer place to visit. My general answer revolves around the positive and negatives of GC. The positives include several good and interesting museums and a few places to go out. The negatives involve pollution, difficulties and potential dangers of public transit, and general difficulties of negotiating the town. I advise them to see the museums and Central Plaza if they really want to hang out in the capital and otherwise to hoof it out of town. For me, I appreciate seeing two sides of Guatemala, provincial in Tikal and metropolitan… or enormous city… in Guatemala City.

How can I describe Guatemala City?

A constant cacophony of sounds crashes in my ears as I walk along Vista Hermosa Boulevard. Rumbling cement trucks, garbage trucks, semi trucks, and chicken buses cruise by at neck-breaking speeds as if the Boulevard is the Daytona 500 and which ever massive machine reaches Carretera El Salvador will win the grand prize. Only here there are no prizes and the aggressiveness of drivers seems unwarranted and out of place in this upper class zone.

Vista Hermosa is one of the main arteries in town and connects Zona 10 with Carretera El Salvador, rich neighborhoods with other rich neighborhoods with slums just blocks away. High rises and volcanoes loom in the horizon as slowly these hulking concrete buildings pop up in low-lying family units. There seem to be no building codes here just a frantic push towards development, constructions, and moving asi adelante, pues, moving forward. On early mornings or on rare days I can look out from the pedestrian cross walk and see Volcan de Agua’s conical shape rising distantly over the city. Normally, however, a thick layer of grey smog coats the city and obscures even the nearest mountains from view. When this happens only the imitation Eiffel Tower and high rise office buildings near Zona 10 are visible in the distance.

My ears protest as the beastly form of a corroding number 1 bus careens past me. It’s grumbling sound changes to a shrieking cry as the driver takes his foot of the gas, pushes in the clutch, and jams the bus into a higher gear. The grumbling continues until all it leaves behind is the impermeable cloud of black diesel smoke that covers the entire street. I cover my mouth with my sleeve as I walk through the cloud of acrid, dirty smoke. People look at me like I’m crazy, but anything I can do to prevent lead build up in my lungs is something. Synonymous with the smoke, smog, and general overwhelming air pollution of the city, my lungs begin to ache, nose begins to run, and I begin to cough as my body fights the allergic irritation of air pollution. Brian wondered how people can possible exercise outside here – the pollution truly must shorten your life by several years.

I watch as the Number 1 Centro bus hurls down the opposite side of the street. It’s packed so full of people that men are clinging precariously to the front and back bumbers and wheel rims, anywhere they can in order to get to their destination. I always pray those men won’t fall off, get run over, or be trampled by the reckless driving surrounding them. They’re like martyrs for the revamp, red school buses whose lives have been miraculously sustained by replacement parts and acts of God to keep them running. On more than one of those buses the floor is rusted nearly or completely through. Sometimes it offers a view of the pavement whirling away below. Other times the drivers have covered the spongy metal, hot from the engine, with plywood, as if that inspires confidence in the security of the floor.

A car backfiring like a gun shot jars me back into consciousness on the Boulevard. Cars backfiring, firecrackers, and fireworks mark any moment of the day. It seems as though Guatemalans light firecrackers for any and every situation. For me, I am always startled and shocked at this noise that I firstly associate with gunshots before realizing that there is yet another celebration of noise in the neighborhood. Maybe this paranoia comes from the constant stress of hearing deadly stories of life in Guatemala. Maybe it comes from the recollection that only ten years earlier the country “ended” a thirty-year civil war. Or maybe it comes from the jolting reality of hearing gunshots to terrible results in ever quiet and peaceful Moscow this spring. I think it’s the combination but it always makes me so edgy and nervous and exposed to hear these sounds.

Boys no older than 14, who probably only studied until second grade, sit resolutely outside Blockbuster and pitch their collection of pirated DVD’s packed squarely into their worn out second or third hand L.L. Bean and Jan Sport backpacks. Peliculas, seño? Son originales! Films, lady? They’re originals!” they exclaim as they try to convince me to purchase their films. By original I’m sure they mean filmed in the movie theater, which always reminds me of Mystery Science Theater as people’s heads pop up when they leave the theater to purchase popcorn, soda, or to use the bathroom. I shake my head and continue down the avenue past maquila clothing stores where Koreans sell clothing made in their Korean-Guatemalan factories for less than Q25 per shirt (~$2.00). They are always the latest Latina fashion of brightly colored printed baby-doll shirts with hearts, flowers, stripes, and large plastic butterfly buttons adorning the front. I imagine 20 year olds wearing these shirts that make them look pregnant and 12 years old at the same time. It’s not an attractive image.

The wrinkled lady who sells hot tortillas from a large plastic container sits everyday except Sunday outside Paiz, the grocery store, waiting to sell the corn flatbread to passersby. I stop to talk with her and she greets me happily. Her mouth is full of red gums and broken, jagged teeth. No le había visto, seño. I haven’t seen you, ma’am. I was wondering when you would bye tortillas again.” She scoops 8 tortillas into a pink plastic sack for me as I dig in my coin purse for 2 quetzales. It’s such a juxtaposition to see this poor woman sitting outside Paiz, owned by Wal-Mart, where all the wealthy neighborhood people purchase their groceries. Across the access road from her are two indigenous women cackling over a small wood fire where they are preparing humble meals of chicken, rice, and beans for the poor workers in the neighborhood. Their eyes have the glazed, bluish grey look of cataracts caused by standing over the smoky fires day after day.

Down the street a Mayan woman sits in the shade with her small stand of avocadoes, papayas, strawberries, and pineapples waiting to sell her wares. I ask the price of avocadoes and while exchanging money she asks if my hair color is original. I tell her it is and she exclaims, “Qué calidad! That’s quality!” It makes me smile as it’s definitely the best compliment I’ve ever received about my hair color. Quality.

There are always these small fruit stands or trucks around the neighborhood. When they drive through the neighborhood the venders announce their produce in mournful, drawn out voices as if there were nothing more serious in life than selling a tomato, lettuce, or oranges (“tomaaaaaaaaaaates, lechuuuuuuuuugas, naraaaaaaaaanjas!”) to the maids of these households. Others drive in their decrepid Toyota trucks and call through loud speakers, “Hay naranjas, uvas, limon.... There are oranges, grapes, limes.” At home I always know which vender is coming by the sound of their voice, the time of day, and occasionally the tinkling bell of the ice cream cart.

In the stores the same people work all day every day. I know all the grocers in Paiz, for example, and they always smile when they see the red head (though I’m sure they think I am blond) come through their aisle. “How was Tikal this week, seño?” they always ask as they pack my groceries in three times as many yellow plastic sacks as is really necessary. Whenever I insist that I don’t actually need a bag they look at me for a good 10 seconds, continue to bag, until I firmly say that I really don’t need a bag, thank you. Then they look at me some more, ask if I’m sure, and as if I’m crazy, hand me whatever small item I’ve purchased. Gringa loca.
It’s funny how insanity is common here like how people drive, fail to learn to parallel park, honk, and generally live in a chaotic, overwhelming style. It must just be the difference in culture for me where I find no sense of normality over the blatant holding-life-in-the-palm-of-your-hand manner that Guatemalans exist. I am constantly amazed, for example, at how they drive exceedingly fast in residential streets, on highways, or in traffic with no seatbelts on. I wonder how there are not more accidents or traffic confusions but people seem to understand the normalcy in the insanity, the life-threatening mediocrity of situations. In this constant threat, fear, and struggle they live, survive, and thrive.

How can I describe Guatemala City to a passing tourist? It is an overwhelming proposition.

One Hundred and Fifty-Seven

I normally wouldn't write about work here but, it is an exciting day. I just returned from Tikal and have officially broken the 150 mark of surveys. 157 and counting! COUNT IT!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Frogger

At 4:30 every afternoon the local street food stands wrap up business for the day. They seem to know people's tastes change from their grilled sausages and tacos to atol and bread. At this time, one stand in particular always sticks out. A young boy of about 15 years mans a grill shaped like a Pepsi Cola can. He spends the entire day talking with the other vendors, cooking meat for tacos, and standing slouched over by his Pepsi grill.

When 4:00 rolls around, he takes down his grill's awning, packs his products inside the can, and begins to valiently push the heavy cart up Vista Hermosa Boulevard to the nearest crossing. Vista Hermosa constantly has traffic on it. Normally this can be bumper to bumper and backed up several kilometers from Pais, where the taco boy has his stand. To get across the street, the boy has to strategically plan the crossing so he can get enough momentum to push the grill uphill and across the first lanes of traffic. Every afternoon, walking back from my excursions out of the house, I stand on the pedestrian overpass and watch as he pushes the cart just barely into the intersection, braces his legs, and waits to propel the grill across the intersection.

From this verticle view, I have a clear view of the complicated game the taco boy is playing. It brings to mind Seinfeld's Frogger episode, where George buys a Frogger machine with his top score on it and has to cross one of NYC's avenues to save his score. He darts across the street like a frog leaping across a street in the video game. Resolutely cheerful arcade music plays as he pushes, pulls, and propells his Frogger machine across the avenue. Just as he reaches the other side, he can't get the top-heavy machine over the curve and it gets smashed by a semi, loosing his top score and destroying the beloved and expensive arcade game.

Taco boy reminds me of George as he darts through the traffic to reach the other side. Every second he calculates his odds at crossing the 5 lanes (made 6-8 by crazy Guatemalan drivers) of peril with his only livelihood in tow. I sit in suspense, the Postal Service's arcade-like music pulsing in my head, wondering, "WILL HE MAKE IT!???" It's a gamble, an exciting moment as he shoves the grill across the street, narrowly colliding with a motorcycle, and makes it to the meridian.

Now comes the more complicated side of the Boulevard. Can he cross the three, heavily trafficked lanes to reach 19 calle?? Can he do it!? He waits for the break in traffic. He stands, poised, to push that cart into the lanes of cars. A red bus thunders by spewing him with thick, cancerous smoke. A car weaves past honking manically as he tries to venture into the on-coming traffic. The Vesuvio Pizzaria motorcycle with its chimney shaped delivery basket zips along the road. How will the taco boy make it? But yes, just like Frogger, he sees a break, pushes the grill into the street, darts around on-coming Mercedes, Volvos, and beat-up Dodges until he makes it, just barely missing another Red Number 1 bus, to the safety of 19 Calle. He made it! High score goes, yet again, to the taco boy!

Thursday, November 8, 2007


November whooshed into Guatemala in extremes. Overnight from October 31 to November 1 everything changed. November came in like a lion with cool, brisk breezes that pulled little boys kites high into the air. In two days I went from short sleeves to long johns as the warm air of the previous nights was replaced by cold seemingly arctic air (probably 50 and 60 degrees). All of a sudden September and October’s sad persistent grey clouds that indicate rainstorms were pushed away, leaving clear bright blue skies and smiling sun overhead. Golden rays of light replaced the fierce direct sunbeams of July and August. There has been no oppressive humidity like that that made my hair curl and armpits sweat as soon as I step outside in the capital. Now, it’s just refreshing light air to match the sun rays, blue sky, and wispy clouds overhead.

Everywhere flowers are blooming red, magenta, orange, and yellow. They are in the trees, on the bushes, hidden in the grasses. They smile out at me as if exclaiming the joy of life. High in neighborhood trees hang heavy branches of yellow-green Valencia oranges. I can taste their sweet juice when I close my eyes. The coffee beans are ripening on the bushes outside. In the countryside the tall corn stalks hang heavy with cobs. It’s like rebirth here in November. All the heavy oppression is gone with the breeze that blows through the trees, rustles branches, and sends the occasional orange to the ground.

November’s combination of air, light, flowers, and colors has transformed this country. It is beautiful.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I Live in the Matrix

My Sociology of Development class closely parallels classes I have taken at UI. So, to save time, I always try to revamp essays to apply to the class. This unit we discussed Bourdieu and Giddens, two macro-society theorists. This was convenient because I had already written an essay on their theories for Theory class last fall (thanks Troy). While rereading my paper over Bourdieu and Giddens’ macro theories on society, I realized that my life in Guatemala City is a reflection of their theories. My life is the Matrix!

Giddens and Bourdieu discuss what is called habitus, where people have to accept their lot in life because normally they don’t have the individual power to change it. It’s pretty much maintaining the status quo, which happens all the time here (the poor stay poor and the rich get rich). My habitus is accepting that I appear to have capital, yet really having few social and economic connections, and also to be a hermit-esque ex-pat. Since I live alone it’s really hard to get inside of Guatemalan society.

Giddens also talks about how people perform the same behaviors, miming the people who are in the society to fit in (or until the wrong behaviors are corrected). Here, since I live all alone, I never get to know about Guatemalan anything. I’m a genuine ex-pat. I need an insider to explain things like “gordita” means “looking good!” and that if I am going to miss class I don’t tell the teacher but the department why I’ll be gone (hierarchy is very important here). Without an insider I have no idea the things I’m doing are wrong. So, I’ve done or understood things wrong and sometimes people are nice enough to explain them to me (phew).

That brings me to power and Bourdieu. Bourdieu explains that society is run in different fields. People live in different fields, or life statuses/realities, where they have different amounts of power. Power is what Bourdieu calls “capital” and there are three kinds of capital: economic (wealth), cultural (university, going to plays, listening to opera), and social (being well connected like a WASP). The more capital you have the more power you have in society. Economic and social are the most powerful (think about how much influence oil companies have in the USA) and influential. Here in Guatemala, I live in Zona 15 (where really rich people live), go to a ritzy school, am connected to Rotary International, and I’m a white American. This makes Guatemalans perceive that I have great amounts of economic and social capital. The truth is, I’m poor but chose to live in Zona 15 for safety reasons, go to Universidad del Valle for the ease of acceptance into the school (social capital!), but I have no connections to anyone important in Guatemalan society (well… maybe through school and Rotary). As an American it sure looks like I have lots of capital (hm… I should take advantage of that). I feel like it looks like I can play on different fields here, but really, I’m an out of place college student living in a ritzy neighborhood. It’s like living in the Matrix, playing on different fields, and really realizing that this life is not reality (or my reality).

I’d like to give one more example of how my life reflects Bourdieu and Giddens theories (which are rather like the Matrix). I like to go to Café Barista, the local coffee shop, because I like good lattes. It’s a really modern building with hip architecture, square chairs and couches (like a magazine picture). They like to play Putumayo music, probably to make them seem more globally conscious or organic or something. However, it always bothers me that people who go there look like tools and stooges, which makes me worry I’m a tool for going to the coffee shop. At any rate, I’m out of my comfort field….

Today there was an incredible amount of rich looking Guatemalans in Café Barista. It made me think of the Matrix because as a white American going to Café Barista, it probably seems like I’m on the same playing field of these rich Guatemalans. Yet, they all wear trendy clothes and have cool cars, are well connected, and probably can more easily afford their “mocha frappuchinos” than I can a latte (I should stop drinking coffee).

I realized this bizarre intersection of my middle-class Americanness (western Americanness at this point) at Café Barista today. I feel like I don’t have the same levels of social, economic, and cultural capital as these other people, yet I am able to frequent the same locations as they are (perceived social and economic capital). This came to a head today when a well dressed man started talking to me about what I’m doing in Guatemala (the conversation brought on by the fact I’m reading a leftist novel about Guatemala). He’s an important lawyer and was very proud to show me his last name was COLOM, meaning he’s related to the incoming president. Talk about social, cultural, and economic wealth! And he established his power over me by using all of those in the conversation (e.g. important lawyer, well connected, sophisticated). All that went through my head was BOURDIEU and wishing I could STICK IT TO THE MAN and, of course, THE MATRIX!!!! I realized, again, that I live in the Matrix in this complicated society of playing fields, power, capital, and hierarchy. I hope no one realizes that I’m really like Keanu and trying to escape this system. But, well… if Keanu can do it, anyone can (actually, the cockroach that lives in my house is probably more like Keanu than I am. I’m the clone that tries to kill it every day and it escapes…).

My life in Guatemala is not reality, but a playing field. The Matrix exists.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Standing in the American Airlines check-in with Brian, we began to notice several moms and dads with little babies. I thought nothing of it until Brian said he reckoned those were all adopted babies. Awakened to this fact, I looked at each of the oddly matched parents and babies standing for long amounts of time in check-in. Sure enough, those brown little babies with their white, happy parents must be products of Guatemalans who put their children up for adoption. I turned to Brian and said, "You know, there is a myth here among the country folk that Americans adopt babies from Guatemala to eat them." Mmmm, grilled Guatemalan is such a delicacy in the USA. The strangest part is they say it with such belief and conviction in their eyes....

As I looked at these newly created families, I wondered what their lives would be like in the States. Would the parents keep the kids original Spanish names like Carlos, Natalia, Rodrigo? Would they receive new Anglo-Saxon names like Josh, Helen, Robert? Imagine what it must be like to be whisked away from Guatemala, a developing country where presumably they would end up as shoe shiners on the street and instead would grow up in the suburbs playing soccer and piano. When will they begin to wonder about their biological families? Is it possible for the “parents” to love the child as deeply as if biology were involved?

They looked so happy there cooing their new kids and rocking back and forth. I wonder what the babies thought. If they realized what was happening? If they were scared or anxious? If they knew their mama and papa didn’t want them or couldn’t care for them? What was going on in their little heads? Not one of them cried. Not one of them made a single sound the entire time we were in line. Maybe they were okay with the idea of going to the Promised Land. Maybe they felt safe and secure in the arms of their loving adopted parents. I hope they all have good lives.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Barriletes in Atitlan

The late afternoon light illuminated the cobble-stoned streets of San Juan la Laguna, Atitlan. Shadows elongated as the sun moved slowly towards the horizon, casting the towering volcanoes and rugged hills in golden-pink light. The wind off the lake caused small white caps to form and slap persistently against the reed-covered shore near the town. Women and men of all ages sat in shop doorways talking in the wind-echoing sounds of T’zutujil, an indigenous Mayan dialect found around Lake Atitlan. They would switch quickly to Spanish as I walked down the street greeting them. Buenas tardes,” they responded politely before continuing their relaxed conversation with their neighbors.

Trotting down the street, I noticed the signs of November surrounding the small town. The sky was clear and free of the persistent clouds that marked the rainy season. There was a constant, yet unreliable, wind that cooled the sun-warmed afternoon and summoned the evening. The light was fading although it was only 5:00 in the afternoon in the tropics. And more than anything, there were kites everywhere, a sign of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations recently passed.

Several Guatemalans have told me that kites help unite the spirits in the sky with the ground below. Indigenous Maya will write wishes or thoughts to their ancestors and tie them to their kites’ frames to send to the heavens. With any luck, they will be able to communicate with their dead loved-ones. What a beautiful idea.

I looked into the sky at the cirrus clouds that cast ribbons through the deep blue and noticed on every telephone wire and nearly every tree the limp forms of battered home-made kites. It reminded me of Charlie Brown and the Kite Eating Tree, only in Guatemala there were Kite Eating Wires as well. Hopefully if those kites had wishes, they were sent to the sky before being devoured by wires, trees, and poles.

Loud cries of T’zutujil sounded from the street startling me out of my sky-dreaming. Small boys, their pants dragging on the street and hands grasping toilet paper rolls wound with string, ran swiftly to catch the finicky wind that would take their hand-made kites into the sky. The bright, octagonal shapes lifted up, up into the sky, born into the wind rising from the mountains. Each of the homemade kites, a mosaic of blue, orange, red, yellow, and green patchwork, lifted cheerfully into the heavens. Their long tails caught the breeze and waved merrily at the passersby below. I hoped their kites wouldn’t meet the same fate as the dozens hanging limply in the poles and wires above. But, just as I hoped this, the wind died, and one of the octagonal kites fell dispiritedly on the opposite side of a phone line as the boy-owner. He and his friends began to giggle and tried to pulley the kite back over the wire and onto their side of the street. They tried and tried but gravity persisted and the kite lay defeated on the other side of the wire. I walked away from their persuits, but sitting here now, I wonder if they ever saved their brave barrilete (kite).

The wind picked up again and in the distance, dancing between the mountains and the sky, I saw another barrilete begin to fly. It looped and twirled beautifully in the windy air and I smiled, remembering all my fond memories of kite flying throughout my life. It was so interesting, I thought, that here everything is opposite the United States. There, March is the windy season when every girl and boy pulls out plastic kites and run to the nearest field where, in teams of two, they run, run, run until the kite catches air and launches into the sky. Here, only boys fly paper crepe kites in the windy month of November. The little frames need barely any encouragement, and certainly only need one boy child to coax it into the sky. How very different.

Eventually night grew closer and closer with the ever-growing shadows on the street corners. The boys, clutching those kites that had survived the day, ran giggling home for their nightly meal of tortillas, beans, and eggs. Those kites that had met the kite-eating fate hung sadly in the wires, their tails begging to launch into the sky again.

I watched the sky change from the lingering traces of red, pink, and purple, to the dark blue-black of night in the Highlands. At the hotel, I climbed to the re-bar baring roof and stared into the sky. I felt lonely there on the rooftop, shivering slightly in the cold breeze. And then I saw the stars and the Milky Way. It is my first recollection of looking at stars in Guatemala. How could I have passed four months with no recollection of the twinkling lights overhead?

Yet, still, my loneliness persisted for even though I knew it was the same sky my family and friends saw, it was completely different. Like kite-flying in November and not March. I couldn’t identify a single constellation. Where, oh, where was Orion? I needed to find it to connect to all I cared about at home. But to no avail, I could not see it. Saddened, I returned to the second floor and sat staring out into the dark night until as if framed by the ceiling and balcony railing, as if I needed to sit there for it to appear, I found Orion. He was lying on his side, his great arm rose over his head and bow in hand, his belt twinkled at me as if saying, Nancy, I’m still here. It is November after all.

Excited and rejuvenated, I clambered back up the uneven steps to the broad rooftop to spy on Orion. There he was as backwards as kites in November and clear skies instead of rainy Moscow. A smile spread across my face as I realized that the same sky my parents see is here, only sideways. My eyes finally spotted Cassiopeia’s W-shaped form, Taurus’ upside down V, the Pleiades, and Cassiopeia’s husband (whose name I always forget). Seeing those stars, connecting to the sky like the cheerful crepe-paper kites, was like coming home again. Eagerly, I searched for the Big Dipper and the Northern Star to complete my constellation search, but I could not find it; it was not out yet. Still, my heart filled at the site of the darkened sky overflowing with lanterns of light. I had connected to the night sky, to home, and perhaps, like the Mayas’ persistent little kites, to the spirits above.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Four Months

October seemed to pass in a whirlwind. I feel like I hardly returned from the September Tikal trip before I was heading up the long, winding road yet again to the flatlands of Tikal. The week was less productive than the first data collection period, but accented by Mayan descendents dressed in traditional huipiles and cortes playing hand-made harps, violins, and guitars. Black smoke filled the air on October 12 when hundreds of Mayas came to celebrate Día de la Raza with a Mayan ceremony in the Grand Plaza. I left to receive Brian into Guatemala.

Having Brian in Guatemala made the happiest three weeks here. We explored Antigua and Tikal’s ruins, enjoyed each other’s company, caught up, had coffee, and made delicious food. Home had come again. For Halloween we carved pumpkins, made pumpkin cobbler and ate delicious homemade Cornish Pasties – a Halloween and fall staple.

Today, Brian left, making today the saddest day yet. It’s Day of the Dead here, and I feel as though half of me is gone. The apartment is awfully big and lonely now.

This also marks half way through my time here. My mind is turning towards things Iam looking for until December. I have two other visitors – Hanne and Bridgette – coming to stay for awhile but even more exciting is thinking about Christmas time when I will go home to see my family.

It’s been a long four months in Guatemala. It’s at that slump time where so much has gone but so much more remains. I suppose the time will pass quickly and soon it will be December, then January, the February, then home. I look forward to returning to home. I look forward to May when Brian will be back from his journey to Chile. I look forward to greeting you all again. Four months down and four to go – halfway through this Guatemalan Adventure.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Overnight Bus Ride

Brian and I watched as the double-decker Linea Dorada luxury bus pulled into the Zona 1 station at 8:30 pm. Its hulking yellow frame seemed to tip precariously as it strained over the slight incline into the parking lot. Instantly, a small crew of men in uniforms that resembled pilot outfits began hauling heavy boxes, bundles, and packages towards the lower level of the bus. Other men opened up the extensive storage unit and neatly piled the boxes into the vast space.

At precisely 8:40 the bus began to load its other, perhaps more priceless but less economically valuable, cargo: humans. The line began to shove its way slowly towards the bus where each personal bag was checked for weapons and everyone was patted down. I must have looked like an easy-go-lucky-no-danger-here white girl as I was waved through without the hassle. Brian, however, got the pat-down.

We walked up the steep stairs passed the tiny bathroom and down the long aisle towards our seats 44-45. It was nearly the back of the bus. I made a mental note not to look towards the front of the bus as we zoomed around tight curves in the highlands. By 8:53 everyone was on, all the luggage was loaded, and the groaning golden hulk began pulling out of the station and onto the narrow colonial street.

A neatly uniformed woman stood up and explained the bus rules to us. “Thank you very much, passengers, for obeying these rules. The bathroom is only for pee-pee no poo-poo. Be kind to your fellow passengers and respect the bus. Don’t poo-poo.” With that, the bus lurched around the Zona 1 corners and launched itself onto the road. The “stewardess” walked by with a large black plastic bag and handed each of us a Styrofoam container containing one suspicious sandwich with chopped meat, a packet of dry cookies best for dipping in coffee, and two blue mints. After distributing our meager meal she prowled the aisle holding a shopping basket full of canned juices for us to select. Brian and I both ended up with Pineapple Nectar, which we stored until later time.

An hour later we had finally left the city behind, were an hour into the movie “Wicker Man,” and had begun the long, arduous overnight journey to Peten. I attempted to close my eyes and rest, all the while remembering what a bad overnight bus rider I am. The bus moaned as it turned around sharp corners, rumbled over recent road construction sites, and used compression breaks to slow itself down steep hillsides. Eventually I must have dozed off, only to be wakened by the persistent dripping of condensed water from the air conditioners falling onto my exposed arms. The cold drips startled me out of my stupor and I tried in vain to prevent the drips for the rest of the night. Occasionally I would doze off again, just to be scared awake by the image of the bus tipping towards the nearby cliff like a vision of death. As always in Latin America, my tendency to cross myself returned and I fervently prayed that we would make it safely there (please let us get there safely, please let us get there safely…).

In every tiny provincial town the bus slowed itself groaningly and launched over the excessive quantities of speed bumps that characterize the crossing of towns and the main highway. Finally, six speed bumps later (after every town) the bus returned to its maximum speed of around 40 miles per hour and we continued huffing and puffing our way to Flores (the speed ranged between maybe 20 mph and 40 mph). After what seemed like a surprisingly little amount of town for an overnight bus, the mandatory detour near Poptun steered the bus into the control check for illegal fruits. There have been several pests introduced to Peten by various fruits and the problem is so severe they’ve altered traffic and check each bag and parcel for the illegal fruit. Apples are okay though. So are plantains. But the list of banned fruit is extensive.

Brian and I were surprised to see it was already 3:00 am. We were almost there! Where had the night gone? I couldn’t be bothered thinking about the road already traveled or yet to be traveled. I needed to find the bathroom. Eventually, after wandering around the cold, cement check point, which made me imagine strongly a military check point during Guatemala’s “little war” of 30 years, I noted the sanitario sign and followed it to the basic bathroom where water pressure does not remove waste products and tanks of water with empty containers of orange juice float for the purpose of flushing. There was no toilet paper. Of course, there was no toilet paper. But I asked at the concession stand and for 2Q (26 cents) I bought a role of brown toilet paper reminiscent of brown paper towels found in high school bathrooms. What a relief.

We all filed back onto the bus after the fruit search and the bus rolled into action again. Only 2.5 to 3 hours to go. Before long, the grey pre-dawn began to fill the tropical sky. I sleepily watched as dark figures grew more and more distinct until I recognized the octagonal INGUAT tourist center that marks the T-intersection between the road to Guatemala City and Flores-Tikal. The golden bus eased itself onto the Flores-bound road and chugged off the remaining 10 km to town. Finally, at 5:30 am, we arrived to the morning bustle and confusion of Flores.

We were bombarded by too-eager micro-bus owners looking for people to drive to Tikal. “Special offer! Special deal! Only 25Q for you to Tikal! Good deal,” they all shouted into the confused morning. Other big-bellied Peteneros called out, “Taxi! Taaaaaaaaxi! Tikal! Tikaaaaaal! Hostal? Necesitas hostal? You need hotel? I take you to good one then we go to Tikal! I leave at 6:30. Good price just for you!” We struggled out of the fray and stumbled in early-morning-little-sleep stupors over to greet my fellow Tikal workers waiting for the white and green Tikal bus to pick them up. What a surprise for them to see us there fresh off the Linea Dorada luxury express bus. As their bus drove up, we waved them goodbye and walked down the quiet back-street of Flores looking for a hotel.

At 6:00 am, we approached the Mirador del Lago, positioned strategically with a view of Lake Peten Itza. After listening for signs of life, I bravely knocked on the window and called, “Buenos días?” We heard distinct coughing and hacking followed by a, “Ya voy! I’m coming,” as the door to the yellow-green hostal opened up and a slightly disheveled, possibly hung-over hotel clerk let us in and showed us our room. I followed him downstairs where he accepted our Q120 and wrote out a little receipt for the payment.

When I returned upstairs, I briefly admired our room with a view, balcony and breeze from the lake, while thinking in Ecuador this $20.00 room would be a $5.00 value. Brian lay on the bed, passed out after only 2 minutes in the room. I could feel my eyelids droop as I fixed the fan to blow on us and lay down beside him. Three hours later, we awoke to hungry bellies, humidity, and the still air of mid-morning Flores. Still dazed from the bus ride, we wandered outside in search of breakfast before returning to sleep some more. Then, at 4:50 we re-immerged to explore the town – still in a daze.

Some say the whole concept of the overnight bus ride is so you sleep. That concept doesn’t work for me. The truth is, Linea Dorada's motto ("ON THE GROUND THE SAME COMFORT YOU HAVE IN THE AIR") is just not true. I think we would have been just as served to take the day-time bus as we spent the entire day in a hot, sick stupor. We both caught colds on the bus. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the Flores-Tikal ambiances and when it came time to leave, bought plane tickets to avoid the arduous overnight adventure in the Luxury Linea Dorada bus. Haleluja, 1.5 hours later we were back in the comfort of our homes. Cost analysis concludes that for 10 hours at $20.00 versus 45 minutes at $120.00 that it was worth that extra $100 to ensure our health, happiness, and humanity.