Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Two Sides of Chauvinism

Walking down the street, my red hair (everyone says it is blond here) pulled up in a ponytail, wearing my Chaco’s, grubby pants, and t-shirt, I noticed a group of men ahead. Quick figuring in my head assessed the situation: I was grimy but I sure looked exotic, there were five males all eyes on me, 30 seconds to pass them; I estimated cat calls in 15 seconds. Internally, I rolled my eyes. Seriously, people! Gosh!

As I passed, I could feel their bulldog eyes fixed on me. They were practically drooling, slobbering, and foaming at the mouth like a pack of over sized, big-balled Great Danes. Here it comes, I thought, and sure enough, a few of them got enough of their senses back to hiss and whistle at me. Fine, I was going to stick it to the man, the great chauvinist idiots. I turned to them, and with sweetly sickening spite (just polite enough) in my voice said, “good afternoon!” My strategy is that if I remind them that I am a human, maybe they’ll treat me with respect. I’m over the “it’s another culture” bs. These men need to learn a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. They couldn’t be impolite; they had to respond with, “good afternoon,” too. Ha!

After the catwalk parade to the bus stop, I waited in line for the Number 2 bus. Finally, its red, hulking, diesel-spewing frame wheezed across the street. When I got on the bus, no seats remained. I grabbed hold of the railing and braced myself for the roller coaster ride to school. The bus huffed off down the street, wheeled itself around the corner, and dropped down the steep hill towards the university.

I felt a faint tap, tap on my shoulder and I looked over to see a young man offering me his seat. The ride is only a few minutes so I started to say no, but he insisted, so I said, “thank you,” and sat. It warmed my heart, this side of chauvinism. It’s so nice that women are offered this funny “special care” place in society where men open doors, offer seats, and pay for meals. I don’t quite understand how this “respect” for women works when five seconds before there had been no respect for my rights as human being. I still prefer this side of chauvinism. Thanks, dude. For all of you reading this, remember to stick it to the man and say thanks if someone opens the door for you! Ha!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dementors Strike Guate City

Dementors (Dementewhatzits?) are surely hovering around Vista Hermosa today. I can feel it as my mood persists in a grumpy state. I note the dull stillness of the people around me. Dementors are here; I can feel them.

Hurricane Dean swept across the Yucatán Peninsula in the early hours of today. Larger than the entire peninsula, diagrams showed its long, cyclonic fingers extending across Central America, including much of Guatemala.

I woke to a grey, still morning in Guate City. Rubbing the sleepy seeds from my eyes, I turned on the news to see reports on Dean. It had indeed struck Belize and Mexico as images of violent ocean, abandoned streets, and wind-whipped palm trees filled the screen. Satisfied it was not the apocalypse, I turned off the tube and returned to work. I had not yet noticed the depressing, Dementor-filled air.

Clouds banked in as the day progressed. When Rodrigo dropped me off after the Rotary meeting, he commented, “Here come the hurricane’s effects.” It was grey, dreary, and drizzling. In the afternoon I did my daily pilgrimage to Curves. Leaving the house, a cold wind whipped my hair and bit my cheeks. It threatened to rain, but instead only the wind whistled in the streets. Even with the wind, it was eerily still and silent on normally-bustling Vista Hermosa Boulevard. The guards of the wizard-prison, Azkaban, had surely left their posts.

I did my exercises and left the building to be greeted by a sullen grey mist. The sky was dark from the heavy layers of clouds resting over the city. What a contrast from yesterday’s gorgeous sky! Quickly, I hurried down the street, anxious to avoid being caught in a rainstorm. Muffled noises from cars filled the air. The sounds were less acute from everyday as they had to break through the mist to be heard.

It was more than enough stillness, dreariness, and depression for me. These after-effects of the hurricane wouldn’t stop me! I stopped at Pops and ordered a vanilla-caramel ice cream cone. It’s Brian’s birthday after all! As I hurried down my cold street slurping the sugary ice cream, I realized that since Dementors are on the loose, I probably should have ordered a chocolate ice cream. Or maybe I should just guard my soul, keep my mouth shut, and think happy thoughts. That gets them every time. Ha.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

La Tormenta (The Thunderstorm)

It was the middle of the night. The lights had gone out earlier that evening, leaving the whole street a dark, inky black. Vaguely, my subconscious became aware of the sound of rain splashing noisily against my bedroom roof. I pulled the blankets more securely around me, sighed, and drifted back into my dreams. Then, kaBOOOOOOOOOM, a huge thunderclap broke above my head. I started awake, yanked my blankets up to my chin, and instantly was aware of the ferocious storm raging outside my window.

Sheets of rain slammed themselves against the building. Lightening flashed, illuminating the dark room in silvery light. Slowly, I crept over to the window and peered outside. Wind whipped the trees outside, knocking leaves of their branches. Rain lashed at the ground, drowning everything in sight. Thunder rumbled, grumbled, and moaned its way across the sky. Lightening accompanied these apocalyptic cracks from the sky. As the lightening flashed, I began to count, “one one-thousand, two one-thousand, EEK!” CRAAAAACK BOOOOM KABOOOM sounded the fierce thunder. Abandoning my nightly observations, I hopped back into bed, listening to the storm rage directly above my head. Was this the beginning of Hurricane Dean that was planned to hit the Yucatán? “I’ve never been in a hurricane,” I thought, “I’ve never been in a tropical storm either. Are there tornados here?” Apparently emergency mode was capturing my senses.

The storm dragged on into the night until finally I could count to six one-thousand, then seven one-thousand, then ten one-thousand as the storm edged itself away from my little home. As the thunder subsided and the rain resumed its gentle rat-a-tat-tat beat on the ceiling, I felt my eyes droop, lulled into the rainy night lullaby. “Goodnight, storm. Goodnight, rain. Goodnight, thunder,” I whispered before surrendering myself to sleep.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Diamonds in the Rough

This morning I woke with a ping in my chest. It reminded me of John Denver’s song, “Some days are diamonds (Some days are stone).” I felt like this morning was sure to be a stone. But I got up, ate a breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, and granola, and trundled up to the gym. I reminded myself that the gym always makes me feel good and refreshed. As I walked, I noted the refreshing cool morning air, free of Guatemala City’s typical smog and humidity. It had rained the night before and puddles lay on the stairs of the pedestrian walk. I tiptoed around the pools of water in the concrete crosswalk and looked westward towards the mountains.

An incredible view filled my eyes. Volcán de Agua was completely unveiled this morning. The fickle protector and destroyer of Antigua, Guatemala, shown in its deep blue-purple mystery as it graced the morning with its presence. The volcano’s neighboring conical mountains also peaked out from a low shroud of clouds to the north of Agua. My eyes widened to behold this gorgeous, perfect volcano. I wondered at its shape and unspoken power. The volcano held me in awe as a little wig of white cloud latched itself around the summit.

A little skip to my step, I hurried down the metal stairs, noting that the coffee lady was wrapping up her sales for the day; I was late to the gym. Near the gym, the flower vendor was carefully examining his Birds of Paradise, roses, and sunflowers. The sight of the flowers’ brilliant colors warmed my eyes. As I entered the yard, I stopped to talk briefly with the guard. As always, he smiled at me, and I enlightened him to the volcano’s beauty. Finally, I said, “you know, I’ve stopped to talk to you every day for the last three weeks, but I’ve never asked your name.” He informed me it was Rigoberto and I told him my name. We’re becoming friends, Rigoberto and I. He always looks out for my arrival and I always stop to say hi.

The gym made me feel better as always. I focused on pushing myself through the exercises before retiring to do my 200 sit ups and other callisthenic exercises. On the way out, I wished Rigoberto a happy weekend, and trundled off to buy a phone card. Lucky me! It was a 2 for 1 Tigo day and Brian’s in Lander for the weekend!

On the way home, a woman I met weeks ago in Rotary reintroduced herself as Burga and introduced me to her Westie. She lives in the same neighborhood as I and always walks her dog when I walk to the gym. I continued my well worn path down my pot-holed street. The gardeners were all out, trimming bushes, mowing lawns, and raking grass cuttings. By my favorite garden, where brilliant yellow and orange iris-like flowers bloom, the gardener was working. I told him I love looking at his flowers and he cut three bunches for me to take home. Walking down the street, with my delicate and beautiful yellow flowers, I could feel this morning turning into a diamond. It’s true some days are stones and others are diamonds, but more often I feel the days are diamonds in the rough. They appear dirty, raw, and hard on the surface, but each day small gifts turn the events towards a well-disguised diamond shining just enough to raise my attention.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Note to the reader

I've been noticing that I get all excited about writing things on this here blog. The consequence is that I hope to capture your attention enough to read the whole thing... Sorry the entries are always so long, honest.

Searching for the Maximon

Santiago Atitlan lies above a small inlet on Lake Atitlan. Towering above the town are Volcanes Atitlan and Toliman yet it is Atitlan that hovers like a protective guardian to the small town below. All the narrow streets arch upwards, as though reaching towards the volcano, uniting it with every entity of the town. The street running up from the docks is lined with artisan crafts of all sorts. Beautifully woven huipiles have been converted into pillow covers, intricate purses, and bed spreads. Wooden masks and carved pelicans peak out from dark wood working shops. Everywhere small children run asking white tourists if they would like to visit the Maximón.

As is my custom in every small town, I made my pilgrimage up to the local church, Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol. To arrive at the church plaza, I climbed up sets of steep, conical stairs that mirrored the shape of the volcano. The ancient town cross greeted me as my eyes grew level with the plaza. There, behind the stone cross, sat a squat church with a historic belfry tower and convent. Grungy boys called out “Maximón, Maximón!” as I walked towards the heavy wooden door of the church. Inside, I learned the disturbed history of a town brutalized by the civil war. It was here town members slept to protect themselves from rampaging rebels and soldiers. It was here the minister was martyred, leaving behind his heart and blood to protect the town. It was in this town, after a massacre, that the townspeople rose up and led the movement towards peace after thirty years of strife passed through the country. Because of Santiago Atitlan, peace returned to Guatemala.

I moved from the new church with its gilded alter and hair-dresser clothed saints into the patio of the old convent. There, a spectacular lotus-shaped fountain met my eyes. Chiseled into the fountain were four crudely cut crosses. The crosses were so weathered into the rock that I had to pay acute attention to discern their shape.

A young Swedish woman sitting in the patio working on embroidering let me sit and talk with her. We were interrupted by Andrés, a dirty barefooted boy of about six years, asking to take us to see Maximón. We agreed, even at the steep price of Q 20 for him to lead us to Maximón.

We made our way down the conical stairs with other child-guides hollering to take us to the saint, across the plaza, and onto the street. Andrés trotted ahead, leading us to a corroded alley. He tugged on my sleeve, gesturing to a turquoise house saying, “there’s the Maximón.” He slipped down the street ahead of us, stopping only to point out a voodoo doll perched in the window of a house.

We stopped in front of the little, dark house, wondering where Andrés had disappeared to before he immerged to lead us inside. The old man who owned the property announced that we should enter the house for there was Maximón. The oppressive scent of burning tobacco, palo santo, and aguardiente filled our nostrils. We proceeded into a dark, candle and Christmas light-lit room, to be greeted by four figures. On the left, inside a glass-sided coffin, lay Christ, blood trickling down his forehead from his crown of thorns. Above the coffin sat his cross. Two men, members of the cofradía, a Mayan Catholic brotherhood, guarded the Maximón.

In front of them, lit by candle offerings sat Maximón, a fat cigar held tightly between his lips. His head was covered with an old, yellowing cowboy hat. A brightly colored woven fabric kept his back warm while his front was decorated with elaborate silk scarves. Behind Maximón stood a dozen glass flasks filled with aguardiente, sugar cane alcohol. A cup held in his hand revealed the remains of smoked cigarettes, left as an offering to this saint. Another cup showed offerings of Quetzals of various amounts. I dropped a Quetzal into the cup, the clunk of metal on metal unnatural in this solemn atmosphere. I asked the Maximón to keep my family safe, help me finish my research, and keep me occupied Saturday evenings to avoid the Group.

The Maximón enjoys his tobacco and rum, as was revealed by people’s offerings. People in the highlands give him these un-sanctimonious offerings in return for blessing for a successful business, a good harvest, and healthy families. This saint, a combination of the Mayan Rilaj Maam and catholic San Simon, guards the Guatemalan highlands. He is a mixture of Mayan gods, Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish conquistador who conquered Guatemala), and Judas. It’s a formidable combination.

Every year, the Maximón honors a different family with his presence. The ceremony, held in May, keeps the balance of power healthy in these communities. It also means only locals know how to find him, insuring a modest income for little boys who lead gullible strangers to the Maximón. With that, and the steep Q 10 to take his picture, the cofradía can insure the Maximón’s protection. However, this glimpse into rural, Mayan life was priceless, captivating, and enriching. I now know and have been enlightened to the Maximón’s powerful presence.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Taste of Antigua

Sense of place seems a characteristic of places where everyone feels universally comfortable, intrigued, and in love. Definitely, sense of place can have negative connotations, but I like to think of it in a more positive light. Antigua, Guatemala, is one of the most amazing towns I have seen. The whole place is filled with a peaceful, traditional, romantic image of what Guatemala must have been like in the 18th century. The town represents such a strong sense of heritage and pride of place that it is easy to be swept off your feet with the beauty of the location.

I looked around at awe at this beautiful, and oddly familiar, design of cobblestone streets and ancient houses. It reminded me of Quito Viejo. 17th and 18th century colonial Spanish architecture graced all the streets. House walls, painted cheerful shades of red, orange, yellow, and white, disguised the incredibility of the actual homes. The houses, built inside the wall that faces the street, lie hidden, like flowers waiting to bloom or raspberries shyly peaking out from under leaves, waiting for their secrets to be discovered. As I glanced up at the rafters, ceramic tiles painted in traditional Spanish designs revealed themselves to my eyes. Closer glimpses at the dark, heavy wooden doors exposed brass fixings and elaborate hand or lion shaped knockers. Above the doors family symbols graced door frames. Hidden on the tops of iron window covers lay Catholic crosses or Augustine hearts.

And inside, oh inside those romantic walls, lay the intrigues of patios. Little Eden’s inside each building allows the inhabitants to be consistently close to paradise and close to nature. Orchids bloomed mysteriously from their perches in the patio trees. Catholic symbolism exposed itself to the faithful’s eye. I noticed a carving of the Last Supper under a rock, a miniature Piedad illuminated inside an enormous vase, the Virgin Mary hidden in a scallop-shaped niche in the wall, an ornate gold and wood cross exposing Christ’s final suffering on the cross.

My heart flew to this romantic time period; one I surely would never wish to live in, but one whose sense of place is so lovingly cherished centuries later. As we walked the streets, another of Antigua’s secrets bloomed before my eyes. Along one of the traditional, cobblestone streets immerged the ruins of a baroque church. The façade was lovingly carved and seemingly carelessly preserved. It marked the violent epics of the town – landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes had shaken the historic city, causing buildings to collapse, their ruins still being explored today. While many of the buildings retain the 18th century feel, the older ones lie partially destroyed, yet beautifully preserved in their decrepit state. The entire effect of this historic town was one of unity, solidarity, and overwhelmingly of a sense of culture, community and place that forms Antigua, Guatemala.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Over-Pasteurized Un-refrigerated Milk

The most common form of dairy milk (moo cow) sits in the un-refrigerated section of the supermarket. Half an aisle is dedicated to milk that has been so pasteurized that nothing, including the milk itself, can survive. It is so sterilized it does not need to be refrigerated. The unfortunate thing is that somewhere in the processing, the milk develops a sickeningly sweet, artificial taste that renders this product complete unlike any milk I have tried before. The first time I drank it, I had to do a double take and make sure I had indeed purchased milk. Bleah. I miss organic.

Well, on Wednesday, doing my thrilling weekly grocery shopping, I stopped in front of the milk selection, trying to decide which variety to taste this week. Should I try Sula, Dos Pinos, Président? My eyes scanned the shelves. I felt like I was playing Russian Roulette; which of these paper milk containers offers the most milk-like flavor? Which would render a product that didn't taste like an over-sweetened reconstituted dairy product? Which would be least like artificial creamer?

My eyes passed carefully over the varieties as though x-raying the contents. Then, lo and behold, my eyes landed on something I had never noticed before. It was the most exciting product I have yet seen in the store. Hidden in the lower left corner, where communicators everywhere try to hide the least relevant information, sat the distinctive red and blue impermeable boxes of Silk. Silk soy milk! SILK! SOY MILK! My mouth began to salivate. I began imagining drinking that distinctive soy taste straight, not heated up or infiltrated with NesCafe or NesQuick to disguise its delicious flavor. It would be worth the Q 21 just to taste something so homelike so wholesome so… utterly, indescribably good. Organic, delicious, soy milk, you’ve saved me. Oh, it’s the little things in life that make it so satisfying.