Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Seven Months

This month:
  1. I finished my research in Tikal. That felt really good.
  2. I said goodbye to Tikal. People were sad and I was glad to be done.
  3. I hiked the Cuchumatanes Mountains, the tallest non-volcanic mountains in Central America, at a break-neck speed because of the guide. That messed up my Achilles tendons, which did not feel good.
  4. I experienced the small step revolution (more on that later). That was revolutionizing.
  5. I summitted La Torre (3837 m), the tallest non-volcanic point in Central America. That was exhausting.
  6. I met lots of cool people in Tikal and Xela. That was invigorating.
  7. I decided not to volunteer with Quetzaltrekkers in order to return to the USA. That was bitter-sweet.
  8. I entered data and transcribed interviews. That was an accomplishment.
  9. I felt good about Guatemala while in Xela. It's such a cool place. That was good.
  10. I finally discovered the Menonite bakery in Xela. That was like being in the USA with all the doughnuts, cookies, cinnamon rolls, and whoopie pies. MMMMMMM.
  11. I knit a hat. That was relaxing.
  12. I sat in chujs/temascals/Mayan saunas. That was refreshing.
  13. I learned to weave. That has yet to be judged.

Monday, January 21, 2008

La Famosa Nancy

I said goodbye to Tikal last week. Goodbye to the eerie hooting of the howler monkeys, to mosquitos, to the moldering smell of the buildings, and to all the park staff. Hundreds of people work in Tikal on various maintenance, construction, and administration projects. Saying goodbye to the park made me realize the number of people I had met and the impact I had had on this community.

At the end of my first day in Tikal in August, 2007, it seemed that everyone knew my name, which developed the affectionate nick name "la famosa Nancy"or famous Nancy. When I returned to the park a week later I was greeted by hundreds of workers with "hi, Nancy! Good to see you Nancy! You're back Nancy!" I was surprised that so many people remembered me. That recognition continued throughout my study as every day staff greeted me and talked to me with great interest. In Flores, store owners, Rotary members, and taxi drivers came to know who I was and greet me as well. Interesting, I thought, since I only interacted on a sporadic basis with all of them.

Then, my last week in Tikal, when I was saying my goodbyes to Don Salamon, the maintenance staff, Don Ramon, Carlos, and the other park staff, I realized that I had made a difference here. People knew me and liked me and seemed sad that I was leaving their small community. I received so many hugs, cheek kisses, trinkets, and handshakes that I finally saw that the park staff enjoyed my company. They recognized me as Nancy who sits in the Plaza and always asks how we are doing. Or as Nancy who says hi. Or just as Nancy the researcher. When both Carlos and Don Salamon seemed overcome with emotion at my parting, I was amazed that such small interactions over the course of 5 months could impact them so.

For me too, it was a sad parting from Tikal. I will miss hearing about Mayan cosmology from Don Salamon, joking with Carlos in American accents, and smiling when Rotary members shouted my full name gladly when they saw me. It was a great experience being part of Tikal and Flores' communities. It warms me to think that people cared about me there. And for that I will always be thankful.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Wal-Mart owns Pais, my local grocery store. It also owns Hiper-Pais, la Torre, la Bodega, Maxi Bodega, and la Despensa. It owns every single chain grocery store in this country. In my neighborhood, I have no choice but to shop Wal-Mart. Inside, I can buy Equate products and am cheerfully greeted by some Wal-Mart/Pais employee. Few Guatemalans appear concerned by the fact that their local grocery stores have sold their souls to Wal-Mart. This is so different from the people I know in the United States who find it a serious affront to their personal values to even look at a Wal-Mart. The horror super store with its bouncing smiling ball is a hit in Guatemala. Yet, the only way to identify that the stores are actually Wal-Mart stores is to look at the smiling badges the checkers wear. There is the familiar star and logo Wal-Mart. I’ve sold my soul for the convenience shopping in my neighborhood.

The only act of rebellion against the mega power that I've seen was a grafitti on the side of la Despensa in Xela. It read, “ No a Wal-Mart. No al imperialismo. No Wal-Mart. No imperialism.” Ironically, the next day the message had been painted over and the wall returned to its brainwashed state of no recognition.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

100 Beautiful Things about Guatemala

Today in Eat, Pray, Love, I listened to Gilbert’s reflections of her time in India studying in an ashram and meditating. One particular quote stood out to me, “You are, after all, what you think. Your emotions are slaves to your thoughts and you are slave to your emotions.” I forget sometimes to remember what is beautiful or what makes me happy in Guatemala. I feel so out of place that it is often easier to reflect on what’s complicated about Guatemala and not what makes it such an intriguing place. After such a heavy post, I wanted to express some of the beauty I see in Guatemala:

  1. Marvin Cone clouds billow every day in the sky due to tropical convection. In the evenings they turn brilliant pinks, oranges, and yellows.
  2. Blossoms everywhere in every color, shape, and texture.
  3. Warm weather and blue skies.
  4. Pupusas – stuffed tortillas filled with cheese, meat, beans, you name it. They’re actually from El Salvador, but they’re quite popular here.
  5. Vibrant colors of weavings and traditional fabrics.
  6. Horrible Guatemalan-Spanish accents that make everyone sound like they’re constantly whining.
  7. Jade.
  8. Mayan temples.
  9. Tajumulco.
  10. Xela aka Xelaju aka Quetzaltenango aka my favorite town in Guatemala.
  11. Antigua.
  12. Chocolate from Chocotenango.
  13. Hot chocolate with cinnamon that tastes like the elixir of the gods.
  14. Coffee.
  15. Smiles and encouragement at the gym.
  16. Micro buses that get me around the country.
  17. Refaccion, even though I hate snack break.
  18. The Westin Camino Real where Rotary meets weekly.
  19. My apartment, gray walls and everything.
  20. The toothless woman who sells tortillas and always grins when she sees me.
  21. The Curves security guards with their gold-lined teeth.
  22. The afternoon sun that turns everything golden.
  23. Toucans and parrots.
  24. Spider and howler monkeys.
  25. The checkers at the grocery store who all know me and always say hi.
  26. Vista Hermosa Bookshop, my local English language bookstore.
  27. Rainbow Room café in Antigua although I never find good books there.
  28. The very effeminate waiter at the bagel shop who knows exactly what I want every time I go in (1/2 dozen bagels, everything, onion, and some more everything).
  29. The fact that the Café Barista waiters always pretend not to know who I am, even though they really do.
  30. Gelato samples at Café Barista.
  31. Plants that survive in the canopy by absorbing mist from the air.
  32. Quetzales.
  33. Tikal.
  34. Peten Itza and Yaxha lakes.
  35. Lake Atitlan, even though I don’t like it.
  36. Quetzaltrekkers.
  37. Cookies from the Menonite bakery in Xela.
  38. Cement slides I fly off of and crash spectacularly and scrape my knee on.
  39. Fresh tropical fruit like pineapples, zapotes, bananas, strawberries.
  40. Hot atol on cold mornings.
  41. Museums about the Maya, even though they need to work on their interpretation.
  42. My taxi driver, Juan Alonzo, just because he always gives me rides and looks out for me.
  43. Solitude, although I am frequently lonely.
  44. The back road to Curves.
  45. The poor taco stand boy trying to cross the street with his Pepsi Cola shaped grill.
  46. Rotary Club Guatemala Sur, for all its machismo actions and bingo playing.
  47. Triple days for Tigo cards.
  48. Calling internationally on my cell phone.
  49. The view of Volcanes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango from the cross walk by the grocery store.
  50. Fruit venders who know what fruit I want to buy and the price I want to buy it at.
  51. Rex II, the golden retriever, who is always glad to see me.
  52. The fact the dog down the street and I made friends when I let her back inside her gate after she had somehow gotten out and didn’t know how to get back in.
  53. The crisp contrast between clear blue skies and fantastically painted walls, brightly colored flowers, and green leaves.
  54. The road to Xela. It takes forever, but the whole way is a beautiful mosaic of volcanoes, corn fields, and valleys.
  55. Sunsets and sunrises.
  56. Having time to write.
  57. The clipped Spanish spoken by the indigenous Maya.
  58. The way national tourists in Tikal say they go to see Tikal to make sure it really exists.
  59. Travelers excited to be in Guatemala.
  60. Lightening storms.
  61. Crashing waves and black sand beaches of Monterrico.
  62. Watching baby sea turtles get released into the ocean.
  63. Two for one movie nights at the movie theater.
  64. Poporopo, the word for popcorn.
  65. Licuados, or smoothies, delicious whether they are made with water, milk, or yogurt.
  66. How it takes so long to get anywhere you notice the changing scenery
  67. Beberly and her hugs.
  68. The ambivalent nature of Guatemalan relationships.
  69. The fact that Guatemala imports cranberries, cheddar cheese, Silk soy milk, Twix, and maple syrup.
  70. Slang.
  71. How the insanity of this country makes me laugh, shake my head, and jump on board… sort of.
  72. Chicken buses (like the Orellana Chicken Buses with their naked lady emblems).
  73. Crowding over 100 people into chicken buses
  74. Sitting in the back of a chicken bus and flying feet into the air whenever the bus goes over a speed bump (about ever 10 minutes).
  75. Pollo Campero and everyone’s obsession with it (it’s soooo good).
  76. Really ugly necklaces and embroidery thread covered pens that end up in Goodwill.
  77. Guatemalans perseverance even when the going gets tough.
  78. Scrambled eggs, refried beans, tortillas, and chili sauce being the only meal in the entire country (besides Pollo Campero).
  79. The number of tortillas one person eats per day (at least 20).
  80. Canyons, mountains, and plains.
  81. Watching Pacaya spew out lava.
  82. Being close enough to the USA that people come to visit.
  83. How random people always offer help or advise, even when I don’t ask for it.
  84. Ceiba trees.
  85. Hearing awful ranchera songs for hours on the bus (“Si fuera ladron, te robaria tu cuerpo, te robaria tus besos, te robaria tu amor” If I was a thief, I would steal your body, I would steal your kises, I would steal your love).
  86. How very inflexible people are when it comes to sizes of things (“We only have the large size.” “Can’t you just fill it less?” “But we only have the large”).
  87. Too many people employed in one store so that my table gets mopped around at least three times while I’m sitting at it.
  88. Orquids.
  89. Zip lines in Chuiraxamolo Municipal Park.
  90. How shoestring backpackers think Casa Argentina in Xela is the bomb, when it’s really just a gross, dirty hostel with broken beds and toilets that don’t function.
  91. Teresita from Santiago Atitlan.
  92. Church ruins in Antigua.
  93. Pops ice cream and people’s obsession with eating it, especially in banana splits.
  94. Vesuvio Pizzaria, the only good pizza I’ve ever eaten in Latin America (besides one other place in Ecuador).
  95. Trees at 4000 meters.
  96. How excited people get about weather changes like snow in the highlands.
  97. Carlos Peña hairstyles. Nothing is hotter than the skunk cut.
  98. The Cathedral in Xela.
  99. The traditional dress of women from Zunil – florescent colors.
  100. Esperanza and her family with their ready laugh, jokes, smiles, and welcoming embraces.

These things make me happy everyday. They’re beautiful even when I don’t always think they are beautiful at the time. Although life in Guatemala is hard, I reflect on this list and it gives me joy day.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Winter Symbols

There is something in the cold comfort of bare oak trees that will forever nourish me. Throughout my childhood growing up in the bitter cold of Iowa winters, the rasping grey-brown branches of the white oak symbolized life changing. Every season the trees would display some new miracle. In spring time pollen falling in long worm-shaped spirals would sink in rain puddles where I would fish them with Jeffery. Rich green leaves crowned the canopy in the long humid months of summer. In the fall, rust brown leaves would spin from the sky for us to rake into piles and drag into the backyard. Winter exposed the bare branches and coated them in layers of white, billowing snow.

Oak trees are one of the most familiar and homey trees I have experienced. Although I love the trees of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, nothing, not even the changing tamarack, seems to connect to so much of my life as the oak tree. Growing up on the border between the oak savanna and the tall grass prairie, oak trees older than the Civil War graced the surrounding hills. On windy days, I would play in the yard imagining I was conducting the trees to play the soft whooshing sounds their leaves made when playing with the breeze. Down the street a hillside of oak trees cooled the summer days and created a miniature wilderness in the midst of our neighborhood. The Nature Center brought together the subtle lines of prairie and oak savanna in a picturesque union of golden fields and brown-green limbs on the Cedar River flood plain.

When I landed in New York City to spend Christmas with my family, the first thing that registered with me was seeing in the darkness the naked winter trees of my youth. I knew when I crossed the river to New Jersey the hillsides would be covered with this wintery symbol. I welcomed the trees, the cold, the grey winter sky, and the brown land into my heart even as those winter symbols drew me back home. For, in Guatemala, the resolute tropical atmosphere, humidity, and overly green 5,000 foot hills, always give me the crawls. It just does not feel right that there is a consistency and never-changing environment around me. I need the cold, the sweaters, the winter light, and the hope of coming spring. Here in Central America, I feel decidedly uncomfortable about the climate (although it’s nice to be warm) for its lack of change, never-falling leaves, and constant unfamiliar and overwhelming green.

In Guatemala, the months hardly seem to vary and there is little seasonal change to look forward to as I cross off the days on the calendar. December in Iowa, Idaho, and New Jersey means cold, the longest night of the year, Christmas, and returning light. December in Guatemala seemed to mean constant fireworks, consistent temperature, posadas, and Gallo Christmas trees. I hardly realized Christmas was approaching here without the seasonal traditions of cookie baking, tree scavenging and decorating, and catching up with home. What is Christmas here? I never learned.

Seeing the bare limbs of the deciduous trees and the ice on Cedar Lake, feeling the warmth of family, and enjoying the spirit of the season through Christmas carols, caresses, and compassion, I felt safe and whole again for the first time in six months. What a remedy to months of solitude. The wintery symbols were all I needed to feel complete again.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


For the past 3 days tremors have shaken Guatemala City. My imagination would like to pretend these are Giants shaking and grooving, or that Chicken Little is running about exclaiming, “the sky is falling!” But it’s really the earth moving.

On Friday, I sat in my flimsy chrome chair at the kitchen table resolutely punching numbers into my Tikal database. My chair started shaking. I thought it must just be because the chair is weak or maybe I felt dizzy. Then I noticed that a low rumbling sound, almost imperceptible, seemed to be groaning from the earth itself. The table started shaking. I looked up alarmed and saw my entire apartment begin to twist, warp, and move to the earth’s grumble. The structure shook unnaturally, shaking on the world’s plastic surface as earth buckled and stretched below. It felt as if a malignant being were trying to escape from the center of the earth through Guatemala’s sewers.

My eyes went wide in shock and fear. I’d never been in a big earthquake before, and this was big. This was moving my whole house in a circular skewering movement. What was I supposed to do? Frantically I stood and shaky-kneed moved over to pick up my passport, debit cards, water, and camera from a nearby chair and shoved them in a bag. Now what? Was I supposed to run outside to escape a collapsing building or hide in a doorway, closet or bathroom like in a tornado?

Within 10 seconds the quake stopped, leaving the world as stagnant, yet unsettled, as before it started. The world seemed inert again, but also suddenly alive and full of the human tension that permeates Guatemala City. I was reminded of Global Environmental Change and Lee’s talk about plate tectonics and how corn and the Himalayas are related. “C4 plants! Carbon dioxide! I want to go home! There are no earthquakes where I live!” The four thoughts rushed simultaneously in my head even as I realized that Yellowstone experiences several quakes a day, we just don’t feel them. Teeth gritted determinately, I reminded myself of my vow to return home by the end of February. “I’m not letting an earthquake prevent me from going home!” I stated determinately and daringly to Guatemala’s active crust.

The rest of the day, while I tried to ignore the thought that “the earth is still very much alive,” as Pibs says, I couldn’t help being hypersensitive to subtle movements. My shaky table continued to shake as I typed on my computer’s keyboard. Was that the start of another quake? I occasionally lifted my hands from it to see if the world was moving. The forceful 80 mph wind outside howled and shook the house. I turned off the music to listen.

I fell asleep that evening to restless dreams where The New Pornographers’ “Myriad Harbor” echoed in my ears. A shriek coming from the beds moving and the same low rumble from the earth-monster partially woke me at 4:00 am. I forced my heavy eyelids open, trying to decide if that was really another quake or if my active imagination was on overdrive. The world stopped moving and almost instantly I drifted back to sleep.

The following morning Bridgette, who was over 70 miles away from me called to say she had felt the night quake too. Fear slunk coldly into me as I thought of how strong a quake had to be for both her house and my house to move to the same tremor. The day past quietly and the earth seemed to have scratched the itch that pestered it into shaking. My nerves calmed a little, wondering how many more “study abroad moments” I really wanted to experience in Guatemala.

Today I went and talked to Rosemarie and Roberto about proper earthquake protection. Rosemarie’s eyes went wide as she said, “Yes! It was a very big quake! They are normally very small quakes but this was big.” Roberto interjected, “Yes in the papers it said it was a 5 something.” Roberto informed me that upon a tremor I should lie down next to the bed and throw a blanket over me. Going under the bed meant I could get squashed. I refrained from saying that I was sure lying next to the bed would do little to stop the ceiling from killing me either.

I had just returned to my work when I felt it again. The earth shuddered and twisted. The earth-monster was trying to reappear. Again, my eyes popped open with fear as my breath came low and shallow. The world shook and I thought, “I just want to go home, please.” Maybe the earth heard me as the world righted itself seconds later. Maybe I’m just hopeful that it listened. Mostly, I want to leave before the sky crashes into the earth’s hungry mouth.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Six Months

For the first time in Guatemala I had friends around. Friends who truly care about me, love me, and nourish me. For the first time in six months, I explored Guatemala joyously with the companionship of Bridgette, Hanne, and Pibs at my side. The wonders of Guatemala opened to me as I saw the heavens from Tajumulco and alpine environment around Xela, experienced crashing waves and turtle releases in Monterrico, learned everything there was to learn about coffee production, and laughed at street venders and snack eaters. Guatemala became something less serious and more joyous during December. It was a time where I met beautiful and inspirational people, savored and learned to make rich hot chocolate, and saw through the frustrations to the humor of this foreign country.

Friends made all the difference. Having someone to talk to and share with, experience and wonder with, and inspire me to explore Guatemala’s beauty made this time abroad blossom for me. All I needed was the support of people to get me to find a better place in this foreign land.

Thank God for Pibs with his words of inspiration and support, for Hanne who got me out there, and for Bridgette’s calming and cheerful presence. They saved December and Guatemala for me. Hanne got me mountain climbing and traveling again. Pibs said I’m doing all right and making good decisions. Bridgette helped root me again in the spirit of home-finding in a foreign country. Their support has been invaluable and I thank them forever for helping me find the joy in the tension, the rush of traveling 100 miles at 25 miles an hour, and humor in the insanity of Guatemala.

Then I went home. I went home to the warm embraces of family for Christmas. I nearly cried when I set my feet on the homeland again. There was New York City’s skyline, the one city I’d consider living in. There was Dan waiting to show me around his new home. Getting off the bus in Denville, I was united with one of my most sacred places. There was my aunt, uncle, and cousins making jokes, finding treats to eat at the Viking Bakery, and always ready to walk around Cedar Lake. There was my Grandma always ready with a hug and stories and my Grandpa ready with a joke and Snickers in the top drawer of his desk. My parent’s came: Mom working on a puzzle like every Christmas and Dad back to exploring his childhood home. Marie and Jack were there with their humor and calm sense of selves. Everyone was there, my whole family.

Even though the Christmas traditions were different from Iowa, the sense of home, safety, and comfort filled me with the spirit of the season and spirit of love. I was loved and I loved in return. I understood the culture, the nuances, the language. The warmth of 33 Cedar Lake West filled me as it always does with the joy and beauty of having a sense of place, a sacred place, that revolves around home, family, humor, seriousness, and love. The most wonderful Christmas miracle was being home with my family.

This December blessed me with family and friends. They saved Guatemala for me. They made this six month priceless, unforgettable, and reviving. I thank you, friends and family, forever.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year’s Eve

We watched the sun set over Manhattan from the Queens bound N train. The train clattered and shrieked along its elevated platform as we rattled towards the end of the line in Astoria. It was completely dark as we walked down the Greek dominated streets of Astoria towards Karissa’s home. There were countless bakeries emitting tempting smells of freshly baked cupcakes, gingerbread, and fruit tarts onto the street. The fish market restaurant was busy (according to Karissa it’s always busy) on this New Year’s Eve night.

Her apartment lies in the basement of a quiet residential street in Astoria, eight blocks from the end of the line of the N train. It was cozy inside and we settled in trying to figure out the New Year’s plan. Everyone’s dream, it seems, is to be at Times Square when the ball drops. We formulated our plan around trying to see the ball early, and find a place to hang out and stay there until midnight because according to Karissa’s friends, “it’s a terrible idea to bar hop on New Year’s.” According to Eli, “New Year’s is a great time to ride the subway. Everyone’s happy.” We were armed with these pieces of advice as we ventured out into the night.

Back on the N train, we commuted to mid town Manhattan where we sat watching people in fancy party outfits, skirts that barely covered their bottoms, three inch heels, and emo clothes load and unload to their respective parties. When we arrived in mid town I was instantly amazed by the deceptive quiet. This part of town is constantly flashing, covered in tourists, and loud. While there were thousands of people in the 10 radius blocks around Times Square, no one seemed to be speaking or moving. There was an unnatural hush. Karissa looked at me and said, “Oh just you wait, it won’t stay quiet for long.”

We followed the rush of people trying to make their way to see the ball. I walked along trying to figure out why everyone makes such a big deal out of New Year’s anyway. All people seem to do is get dressed in outrageous clothes, go to some party, get drunk and try to make out with some person. Or maybe that’s what we always think people are doing. My New Year’s eves normally consist of going to a movie or wishing I had some place to go out to while my parents and their friends eat roasted chestnuts and shrimp cocktail and put together puzzles at home. Well, now was my chance to see what New Yorkers do.

After following the crowd ever further uptown away from Times Square, Karissa, Emily, and I decided to give up. It wasn’t worth walking to 55th then 59th then 65th then who knows where to try to see a ball we wouldn’t be able to see from that far away. It was time to move onto the next part of the plan. Karissa steered us to 9th Ave and away from the crowd where we walked looking for a cool pub to hang out in until midnight. Luck was with us as we found the Snug, a little chill bar on 9th Ave with no cover fee. But, before long we migrated to a new locale, even though Karissa had been explicitly informed by every friend “not to bar hop on New Year’s Eve!” The other bar was a sport’s bar and needless to say, we returned to the Snug with 45 minutes to spare.

The Snug was packed with all sorts of people as the final half hour ticked by. The bar tenders handed out party hats and noise makers in preparation for the madness. Instantly, the bar was full of loud hoots, shrieks, toots, and crackling noises as people tried out their respective noise makers. Girls went into the boys bathrooms when the line for the girl potty backed up so far the call of nature took over.

Finally, the final two minutes approached. The crowd went wild blowing on their noise makers and shouting, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!” The ball began to drop, celebrating its 100th year of existence. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!” the crowd in the Snug exclaimed. The three of us stood and laughed as people began downing champagne, jumping in the air, kissing their significant others or whoever else was around, and crying joyfully about the New Year. Old Langs Ain began playing and people drunkenly tried to sing along. Their attempts were noble, but we didn’t stick around to hear them. It was time to head for the subway.

On our walk there, we passed by separate groups of people hollering happily, “HAPPY F****** NEW YEAR! HAPPY M***** F****** NEW YEAR!” Hell yeah! Other groups were unhappily crying and screaming at each other saying, “I can’t BELIEVE you kissed her!!!!!!” “Well, you went off with TOM!” Bad idea. New Year’s ruined. Not smart to randomly kiss people. Hopefully the rest of the year kicks off better for them.

Finally we reached the Columbus Circle A train stop and I descended into the unnatural tube to get transported back to Brooklyn. New Year’s hats, sound makers, and smiling people surrounded me on the train. So this is how New Yorkers celebrate, I thought. Right on, “Happy F****** New Year indeed!”

Wishing you a very happy and fruitful 2008! It's gonna be great in 2008!