Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Cockroach

In September, a thick-shelled brown cockroach sauntered into my house behind my feet. It just walked right in and made itself at home. I freaked out when I saw it even as Beberly was saying, “Aiiii, no lo lastimes! Don’t hurt it!” I looked at her funny and thought, why the heck is she sympathizing for a nasty, dirty, infectious, multiplying, disgusting roach?! Eaaaaaeeech. Promptly, I tried to squash the nasty bugger but it speeded away out of site into the kitchen. My dreams that night were full of cockroach populations crawling all over my kitchen and bedroom, emerging from drains, squeezing under doorways, and hissing loudly at me. That’s it, I thought, this roach is going down.

Months past as every night I tried to smash its exoskeleton into oblivion. We had a tournament going on: who would win “survival of the fittest?” Finally, in October, I got it! I smashed it against the wall and watched it fall into the dark abyss behind the stove. Had I killed it? Could it be? But alas, as I stared into the darkness, I noted that its shiny body was missing. The bugger survived!

Reluctant to buy chemicals to kill it, I kept up the David and Goliath contest with the cockroach. It seemed that the roach, David, was winning, as I, the bumbling giant, had to learn to live with its filthy presence. Entomologists exclaimed about the benefits of roaches. New York City would be a giant mound of trash if cockroaches didn’t eat the garbage. They come in so many colors and sizes. They’re so useful,” they explained. But I didn’t care, to me, they would always be the terror of my middle school life, the haunting of their speedy frames dead on the stairwells and scuttling in the boiler room. I hated them.

I tried many tactics. I would keep all lights off and approach the wall by the stove silently prepared to bean it with a shoe. I would wake at various hours of the night and fly at it like a ghost to smash its ugly body. I went away for weeks at a time, hopeful that it would die from lack of food. I sprayed it with cleaning supplies. But, alas, no, it continued to live despite my many attempts. It did, however, become wary of me.

Finally, I resigned defeat. It would survive longer than my lease on the apartment. Fine, whatever, see if I care, I thought to myself as I packed my bags and headed to Honduras. Whatever, roach.

Ten days later I returned. All was still in the house. I went to the sink to fill up a glass of water and looked down at the drain. “Oh my goodness,” I exclaimed. “Oh my gosh!” For there, lying with its 5 legs prostrate (apparently I had smashed off one leg) and antenna askew, was David, the cockroach. Its one-inch frame glistened menacingly even in its final moments. I ran water in the sink, not wanting it to escape if it were merely playing dead. It spiraled and circled in the flow of water, a sole leg twitching. I dumped in cleaning fluids with a, “take that! Hah!” and finally, I squashed off its little head to make sure it was really dead as a doornail.

As it turns out, the cockroach did not outlast the lease. Goliath has won.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hedman Alas

I am amazed, absolutely amazed, by Hedman Alas. For days I moaned and griped about how expensive it was to take the Hedman Alas busline from Guatemala City to Honduras. But, I had no idea what that ticket meant. In amazement, I climbed abord the immaculate, sparkling bus in Guatemala City. Here is what it was like:

  1. Clean, clean seats
  2. Working reading light
  3. Working air vent
  4. Burger King snack for breakfast
  5. Clean bathrooms
  6. Soda and chips for an afternoon snack
  7. All immigration services taken care of
  8. Armed guard
  9. Helpful and friendly bus attendants
  10. A recorded message about safety and enjoyment on the bs
  11. Seat belts
  12. Air conditioning
  13. Movie
  14. Speaker jack so the movie didn´t blare out at us all
  15. Blankets and pillows.

This was pure luxery. What an amazing bus. Then, I got on the economy Cotraipbal bus from San Pedro Sula to Jutiapa and was projected back into Latin American reality (none of the above included... except for one nice attendant who told me where to get off the bus)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Sun’s Full Glory

It was four in the morning when we started up the 85 switchback hill. The faint light projected by my headlamp helped me concentrate on placing one foot in front of the other as I small-stepped it up the mountain. Before long, we left the dark town of Xexocom behind, swallowed in the valley below. Overhead occasional stars peaked out from the blanket of grey-black clouds above. I glanced only occasionally up at the weaning night as I focused full attention on my foot placement. My Asolo boots helped me climb ever higher towards a plateau high in the Cuchumatanes Mountains. It seemed like we were climbing to the roof of the world.

Two hours later the group huddled in a switchback to watch the sun dawn over the valley below. It was cold. I shivered as I pulled my sleeping bag around me and huddled so that only my face protruded from its lining. In the warm cocoon I dozed into the dreamless space of pre-dawn light only to be roused awake by Alex muttering about the clouds. My eyelids eased open and I looked at the gray light and heavy clouds accumulating above. It was going to rain. It hadn’t rained for months in Guatemala, but it was going to rain today.

The group began to wolf down their morning mosh, or oatmeal, and watch the clouds grow ever thicker and ever closer to our huge mountain. Before long fat drops of rain began to fall; a misting at first, then harder and faster. I hurried to pack away my sleeping bag, pull on my raincoat, and cover my pack in my rain cover. My whole body shivered, reminding me of how much the days of cold dampness affect my body temperature. I thought, can’t we get the rest of the hike started?

Finally, we began to move. It was still two and a half hours to the top of the 85 switchback hill. We had miles to hike before we would reach our destination of Canton Primero. Hours to go in the mist. I plodded upward, feeling increasingly like an obedient mule as I conveyor-belted myself up the steep slope. Each step cried my mantra: small step rev-o-lu-tion, small step rev-o-lu-tion, small step rev-o-lu-tion.

We emerged from the thick pine forest of the hill and onto a broad, glacial rock strewn plateau. The rocks seemed to embody the mist that hung thick and damp around us. We continued on, watching small, road-less communities herd sheep and goats along the alpine plateau. It was still cold and wet. I wrapped myself in every article of clothing I had brought on the hike but only the physical effort of walking kept me warm. When we stopped, the deep shivering started again in my body.

Although the cold and wet enveloped us, it awoke me to the wild mystery of this alpine environment. Where only fog lay in front of us, huge pine trees would emerge from the mist. Old Man’s Beard and other mosses popped out at my eyes, their bright spring greens contrasting the gray of the day. Indigenous people walking along a ridge would appear at first glance to be moving stones until a turn of a head, a shout, or an identification of color turned them from stone to human. Piles of firewood and adobe huts reminded me that while we were in the middle of no where, Cuchumatanes Mountains, Guatemala, we were in someone’s home, middle of no where, Cuchumatanes Mountains, Guatemala. It made me wonder how people came to live on the top of the 85 switchback hill.

Hours later of walking through this misty world we began a steep decent into the Pericon Valley. Evidence of a higher population density arose as we noted hillsides covered in wheat and cornfields. We slid down a muddy path strewn with garbage, manure, and broken grasses to a collection of houses on the steep hillside. Children’s faces, full of eager, yet wary curiosity stared at us from behind slopes, doorways, and shrubs. We had reached Canton Primero.

Our guide led us through a narrow space by the school and we were home. We had hiked 11 miles in record time, arriving 4 hours earlier than expected at our abandoned school/doghouse but actual shack in Canton Primero. Exhausted, we lay on the cement behind the real school and waited for the rain to stop. The sun toyed with us, coming out for brief moments before hiding behind sheets of rain and clouds. We spread our sleeping bags on a ladder under the roof, hoping the occasional sun would dry take away their dampness. We joked, laughed, and told stories as the hours whittled away and the sun began to sink behind the Cuchumatanes.

As if on key, as if to bless us and give us hope for a coming day, the lengthening sun broke from the clouds and bathed the valley in a brilliant sunset. It beckoned us to behold its beauty, a final gift after the misty, mysterious day. I fell asleep listening to the wind and occasional rain blow at the shack’s tin roof. Curled in my warm, dry sleeping bag, I said a blessing for the mysterious day and a prayer that tomorrow would wake up to the sun’s full glory.

Click Here for Photos on Flickr

Monday, February 11, 2008

Confrontations and Repeat Conversations

As a white, red-headed foreigner living in Guatemala, it’s hard not to feel like everyone targets you. It’s made even worse by the inaccurate stereotype that everyone who is white and a foreigner is obviously rich. As Hanne says, compared to the peasants, perhaps we are richer in their country. But it’s all relative, my friends.

Mostly, constantly feeling like I’m getting ripped off by nice people who think I’m rich leads for a very dramatic existence in Guatemala. All I want is to see this place, enjoy life, and be able to house and feed myself. Is that so much to ask? But several times a week, I have confrontations. Confrontations and repeat conversations.

I have confrontations about money: getting overcharged for services, haggling for a better price, and monetary demands from street kids. Repetative conversations seem the norm: gas is so expensive, but I’m undercharging her, but… but… but. Arguments trying to get a fair price, not the gringa price, take a lot of guts. Only once has someone said the truth, “well, you’re charged more because you’re white. You’re charged more because you’re not from here.” There’s one honest soul in this country, and he’s boatman in Panajachel (just kidding, there's lots of honest people).

What does it take people to get a fair price!? Oh, let me give you some scenarios.

  1. Taxi Drivers in Guatemala City

Nancy: How much is it to go to Zona 15, Vista Hermosa 1? (about 5 miles – should be Q40)

Taxi Driver: Oooooh, Q70.

Nancy: What?!

Taxi Driver: Q70.

Nancy: Why so much? It should be Q40.

Taxi Driver: Ooooh, but gas is soooooooo expensive these days. It costs sooooo much to drive around and Vista Hermosa is soooooo faaaaar away.

Nancy: It takes 10 minutes to get there. Q40.

Taxi Driver: No, seño, I can’t drive for that little. It is so expensive to get there. You can’t expect me to accept less than Q60.

Nancy: The last taxi driver took me for Q40.

Taxi Driver: Fine, fine, Q55. It’s just that gas is soooooo expensive. Look, it’s over Q24 a gallon. That’s sooooo much money. And Vista Hermosa is soooo far away.

Nancy: Q50.

Taxi driver: Q55.

Nancy: Q50.

Taxi driver: Fine, Q50. But, gas is so expensive these days. Look, it’s over Q24 a gallon. And Vista Hermosa is soooo far away.

By this time I’m trying not to roll my eyes and be annoyed at how expensive everything is in Guatemala City. The taxi drivers really like to talk about how expensive gas is when they see I’m white and I’m going to an exclusive part of town. The real reason for the price inflation is I’m white and a foreigner and obviously have money.

  1. Trama: the Women’s Weaving Cooperative.

Nancy: It says here in your brochure that a scarf takes about 10 hours to make and costs Q325. Why are you charging me more?

Doña Aurelia: Well, we charge by the hour and you used more than 10 hours to finish your project.

Nancy: But, after the loom was set up, I did all the work myself. Why are you charging me for work I did myself? Why don’t have a set price for projects?

Doña Aurelia: Hm, that’s a good point. I’ll tell Doña Amparo. You don’t have to pay the full amount. It’s okay.

Nancy: [confused at this negotiation] Okay, but I still want to give you a fair exchange.

Doña Aurelia: It’s okay.

[enter Doña Amparo]

Doña Amparo: Aiiiiiii, chica, how did your scarf turn out? Aiiiii, chica, it’s so pretty.

Doña Aurelia: We were just talking about how the price in the brochure and the cost of the scarf didn’t match and I said it was okay that she pays less because she says we didn’t help her and she did it all herself.

Nancy: What I said was that the prices don’t match, that it makes more sense to have a price per project that covers expenses and original labor, and that after the loom is set up I did the work myself.

Doña Amparo: Aiiii, chica, you’re right, we should have something in the brochure that says extra hours will be charged.

Nancy: That’s a great idea.

Doña Amparo: Aiii, chica, it’s just that we are supporting 400 women with this cooperative. We don’t even get a salary because all the money goes to the women. The money from the weaving classes goes to pay for paper, rent, staples and supplies. We have to have volunteers because we don’t even get paid. Aiii, chica, we have to make little projects ourselves in order to make a living. Aiii, chica, life is so hard. We’re supporting 400 women with this cooperative….

At this point Doña Amparo starts sounding like adults in Peanuts “waaaah wah wah wah wah.”

Nancy: I know, that’s why I decided to learn to weave here. But, the prices don’t match with what you’re charging.

Doña Amparo: Aiiii, chica, it’s true. Aiii, it’s just that some people weave in less time and we can’t charge them more when they work less time. Aiii, chica, life is so hard. We are supporting 400 women with this cooperative. We don’t even get a salary. Aiii, chica.

Doña Aurelia: She said it took longer because she didn’t make a scarf but a table runner since there are no spaces in the weaving.

Nancy: No, I said that the price in the brochure and the price you’re charging me don’t match and is too expensive for something I made myself.

Doña Amparo: Aiiiiiii, chica. Aiii, it’s just that some people weave in less time and we can’t charge them more when they work less time. Aiii, chica, life is so hard. We are supporting 400 women with this cooperative. We don’t even get a salary. Aiii, chica.

After twenty minutes of this repetitive conversation, I bought a cosmetic case in order to appease them and left, feeling less ripped off but still ripped off since I had left the same amount of money in the store as they were going to charge me in the first place.

The real reason for this price gauging is I’m white and a foreigner and obviously have money.

  1. The Rent for One Week at Esperanza’s House

Nancy: Esperanza, I’m leaving today, how much do you want me to give you for rent? I stayed here one week this week and two nights last week.

Esperanza: I’ll think about it.

Nancy: Okay.

[several hours later]

Esperanza: I decided to charge you Q150 for last week and Q350 for this week.

Nancy: But you charge Bridgette Q300 a week.

Esperanza: Yes, but when she came I decided to charge her less than the language students. Language students have to pay Q350 a week.

Nancy: But why are you charging me more than Bridgette? I’m not a language student. Can’t you charge me Q300?

Esperanza: Aiiiii, but I should be charging her Q350.

Nancy: But you’re charging her Q300.

Esperanza: Okay, Q300 for you too. But just because you’re one of my girls. Just for you and Bridgette, okay? I hope you send other students to me. You know I have such a good home here. Aiiiii, the gas is so expensive these days. It costs so much to buy gas and food and the gas is so expensive. Aiiiii, it costs soo much money.

Nancy: So Q300 for this week then? I’ll give it to you later.

Bridgette: How much is she charging you?

Nancy: Q150 for last week and Q300 for this week.

Bridgette: What?! I paid Q100 for last week and we were here for the same amount of time. That’s what Tania paid too. And she charged me too much for last week.

Craig: What is she charging you?

Nancy: Q150 for last week and Q300 for this week.

Craig: That’s not right. I pay Q350 a week and you were just here for two nights last week. You should only have to pay Q100 because Q350 divided by 7 is Q50 per day.

Nancy: You’re right! I was only here two days so it should only be Q100.

Craig: She’s probably trying to get more out of you because we’re all leaving and there won’t be more income for awhile.

Nancy: Esperanza, I’m confused. You are charging me Q150 for two nights last week but you only charged Bridgette Q100. Plus, the language students pay Q350 a week. Q350 divided by 7 is Q50 per day, which means I should only have to give you Q100.

Esperanza: Oh, but I charge Bridgette less per week. And I realized after I told her that I had asked for the wrong amount. I asked for too little from last week.

Nancy: Esperanza, the language students pay Q350 a week. Q350 divided by 7 is Q50 per day, which means I should only have to give you Q100 for last week.

Esperanza: Oh, but I charge Bridgette less per week. And I realized after I told her that I had asked for the wrong amount. I asked for too little from last week.

Nancy: Okay, Esperanza, I’ll give you Q400 total for this week and last week.

Esperanza: It’s okay because you’re one of my girls and I hope you will send language students to me and gas is so expensive these days. Aiii, it costs sooo much.

The real answer to this price inflation is Esperanza was loosing three renters in short time, was worried about money, and decided to price gauge me because I’m white, a foreigner, and obviously have money.

It’s hard for there not to be a constant feeling of getting screwed over with these kinds of confrontations. I swear, if I hear one more comment about gas prices I’m going to scream. This is what I get for being forward about everything.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Part of My House Flooded Last Night

When you think about flooding, normally you think about normal occurances. A pipe broke, it rained so hard the house flooded, the river rose, your ceiling leaked. But, you don't normally think about the other way a house floods. A way that seems almost foreign to developed countries' mindsets. It is, in fact, a very common flooding incident in Latin America. It happened to me today.

I awoke early in order to take the garbage out. As I trudged into my bathroom to empty the full can of soiled toilet paper, my flip flop slipped on a puddle of water. My sleep-fogged brain registered that something had happened to the toilet, but it didn’t look serious, so I took the garbage outside.

Then I noticed it, a veritable river of water oozing from the bathroom into the hallway. Puddles of toilet water ran downhill until forming a centimeter deep reservoir in my kitchen. It was the Latin American Bathroom Nightmare. The one fear all foreign travelers and livers in Latin America share. The toilet overflow. The porcelain explosion. The leaking toilet.

I stared at the network of streams, rivers, and lakes that had formed in my kitchen. Thank God the water didn’t go into either the living room, where my luggage is, or into the other part of the kitchen, where my computer cables are. I glared blindly at the puddles until I realized putting on my glasses would make it easier to see the extent of the damage.

It was time to fix the tank. I went into the bathroom, took off the porcelain tank top, and adjusted the water level screw. Then, on to the next predicament of the newly formed lake in my kitchen. Luckily, I had about 5 towels to employ in the soaking up of water, as mops in Guatemala are really just rags attached to a stick. Not very effective for efficient water soaking-up. One by one I grabbed soaked towels, strained them in the sink, and returned them to the kitchen lake. Finally, I managed to soak up the last of the puddle, mop away my dirty foot prints, and went back to bed. What was the point of cooking in a marsh? Twenty minutes later, the remaining water seemed to have dried up and I could go about my normal business. The one difference, I’d be watching that toilet to make sure it didn’t explode on me again. I’ve got its number. Oh Latin American toilet issues.

Only 20 days to go in Guatemala.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Small Step Revolution

Trudging up yet another 30 degree slope and watching the line of hikers grow farther and farther away from me, I started thinking about my childhood. I have so many memories of being outside and enjoying nature. But rarely was I hiking. My brother and dad would always hike peaks and explore mountains while shy me and sympathetic mom would find other things to do. During this 11 mile day 2 of the Nebaj-Todos Santos hike I wondered at why I was so resistent to hiking as a kid. The answer I came up with was that I was always the smallest, the slowest, and the one that was left in the dust. I would always get so upset as the rest of my family seemed to keep fast paces and I was stuck always trying to catch up. It would always make my little face screw up with sobs and I would run, bike, or trot as fast as I could to keep up. And I never could. Man, I hated it!

Moving to Idaho changed my attitude about outdoor activities like climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, and biking. I naturally fell into its great outdoor community and discovered I could keep up and relly truly loved all the above activities! I was finally in a place where I could consistently get outside and was with friends who also loved it, taught me, and helped me improve my skills. Now when my folks and I were in the West, I could keep up and loved watching them enjoy the outdoor experiences too. Life was good. I realized that I was a consistent hiker. Maybe not fire crew material, but consistent. No more sobbing about being in the back for me! I relished the back!

I’ve been two-footing it through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Guatemala since. People told me I was a good hiker, always in a good mood, okay with different paces, and enjoy the hike. So, now, hiking through the Cuchumatanes, what was the deal? There the group went, hundreds of feet in front of me, speeding through the Cuchumatanes Mountains, and I was left in the dust... again. Dangit!

I remembered how people always give such helpful advice as “keep a steady pace and you’ll make it to the top. Don’t take breaks. Just keep going.” Well, shoot, I was keeping a steady pace and still having to take breathers on the uphills. I couldn’t breath at over 3000 meters without taking a break. Why could everyone else keep up with the ridiculously fast guide? Meah!

Finally, Alex slowed down to wait for me. We talked about hiking skills and she said, “You’re still taking really big steps. Take really little ones and you’ll get there. Small steps get you anywhere you need to go!” I immediately changed my steps and realized the small step revolution. All of a sudden I could power up those hills! I was hiking away, not needing breaks, and moving like a mule, sherpa, or llama up those 30 degree slopes. Why hadn’t anyone told me this crucial step before? Why hadn’t they said, “You need to have a consistent pace and take small steps when climbing hills”? Come on, people, the Small Step Revolution can get you anywhere!

I saw the rest of the hike unfold in frot of me. I could make it up and down all those mountains with the small step revolution! And indeed I could. My breaks reduced to nothing as miles melted under my feet. But still, the group was way ahead of me no matter what I did. I guess I am just not a fast hiker. But instead of my face screwing up with repressed sobs at being left in the dust, I enjoyed developing my small step skills, examining the dark soil under my feet, and visiting with the handful of other people who couldn’t, didn’t, or wouldn’t keep up with the guides’ army-training-pace march through the mountains. Fine, I thought, I can’t keep up, but I can consistently hike with my pace and small steps all the way from Nebaj to Todos Santos (38 miles).

The small step revolution gets you anywhere your head and heart desire!