Thursday, December 27, 2007
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
An important sector of
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
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
4. Sticker, Card, and other such Venders
One day in
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
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
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The hulking metal-framed Linea Dorada bus wheezed 25 miles per hour through the
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 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
These hobbitish people are seriously serious about their food. At it’s time for breakfast. At it’s time for refacción. At it’s time for lunch. At it’s time for refacción. At it’s time for refacción. Finally, at 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 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
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
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,
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
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
Sunday, December 2, 2007
The tinkling alarm of my Nokia cell phone startled me out of my profound sleep. Was it 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, 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
Frantically, Flor rushed out of her room at 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
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 in Julio and Sofi’s home. These Rotarians from Peten know how to celebrate birthdays. By we began to yawn and think of the days obligations. It was time to go home.
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
My heart filled with the sight of one of my best friends, getting to know her dad, and meeting invigorating and inspiring people in
Here are the ebbs and flows, comings and goings, successes and hardships of this month:
- Brian left, closing that happy chapter in
, but opening a new chapter for him in Guatemala . Patagonia, Chile
- I took advantage of the closing semester and traveled to
Atitlan, , and Tikal Antigua.
- The semester finished finally. No more school in
for me!! I made a vow in Guatemala 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! Ecuador
- We exchange students bonded, just before the other two left. Their time in
is done, but exploring how Guatemala has changed them is just beginning. They expressed their own love/hate relationship with Guatemala . Guatemala
- I realized going to Café Barista several times a week is worth the money just so that I’m out of the house.
- Hanne and Pibs came to see me. We hiked an active volcano and hung out in
- I decided to grab the brass ring.
- Spanish interviews now total 31. English interviews are at 40. I’m done!
- 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.
- 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)
- I realized I’m not the only one who feels tension in
. I met a young woman in Guatemala who lived by the Tikal Lakewho 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.
- This same young lady and I also shared the feeling that Peten is an infinitely happier and safer-feeling place than southern
- 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!”
- I felt included by Guatemalans (in Peten, of course) in social activities and didn't feel like I was invited out of politeness.
- I still have to hold my breath when I walk by security guards with their huge guns.
- I threw up for the first time in three years. That was fun. Nothing like food poisoning to make your day.
- Hanne showed me where the
embassy building is. I finally know where to go. It’s on Avenida Reforma and looks like a tank. US
- I’m curious about how this tense and lonely experience in
has changed me. It’s going to be a trip for the next few months. Guatemala
- At five months, I’m on the downward slope. The count down continues.
- I’m going home for Christmas in 19 days.