Thursday, November 8, 2007

Los Muertos

Around mid-October my daily commute through the cemetery began to get a little complicated. At first I didn't realize what was going on, so I simply slowed my pace to avoid the ever increasing number of swinging paint cans, wheelbarrows, shovels and rakes slung over shoulders. Little by little the cemetery began to bloom. Tombs displayed shiny new veneers, beautiful flowers and wreaths. High above the blue sky flashed with soaring plastic homemade kites. Walking my bike past picnicking families perched atop their dearly departed, I eventually connected the dots. Xela's living was readying its dead for what is now my favorite holiday here in Guatemala, El Dia de Los Santos, or All Saints Day, celebrated on November 1st.

In a country scattered with clandestine burial grounds and whose death toll reached a horrific 200,000 during the 36-year civil war, I can only imagine that for most Guatemalans celebrating El Dia de Los Santos is more than a little bittersweet. Still, the mood in the cemeteries is friendly and even festive. Families honor their deceased loved ones by flooding their resting places with life. Prayers are sung, candles are lit, and enterprising animals feast on the treats laid out for the dead to enjoy: tamales, oranges, and opened cans of soda.

Ethan and I honored Guatemala's ghosts in our own sort of way. Two weeks before the holiday hit we visited the ancient Mayan ruins of Copan, Honduras, climbing its crumbling staircases and gazing up incredulously at the gigantic ceiba trees and intricately carved stelae. On our first day in Copan we entered the park after 3 PM which allowed us to return the next day for a repeat visit. We wandered through the park well into the early evening, and as most of the other visitors drained out and the witching hour began to glow, I sat quietly watching the valley fill with wildlife. Squawking macaws filled the trees and a handful of other brightly colored tropical birds chirped elaborately. Far below, overgrown rainforest rodents chittered and fought, racing over the ancient altars. Looking out across the Copan valley and watching the light hit the rock shaped thousands of years ago by Mayan hands, it wasn't a huge leap to imagine a time when the kingdom was full of market noise and ball court battles.

A week later, taking our first break from volunteering, Ethan and I signed up for a seven-day trek with Quetzaltrekkers, an organization that donates all of its profits to a school for street kids here in Xela called SEDELAC. The trek took place in the Ixil Triangle, a remote area in the Cuchumatane Mountains, home to some of Guatemala's most remarkable natural beauty as well as some of its most brutal massacres during the civil war. Ethan and I had been looking forward to the trek for weeks, not only because we were eager to hit the trail and leave the city, but also because the trek happened to end on El Dia De Los Santos in a town called Todos Santos, where we had heard the festivities were approached from a uniquely lunatic angle. Our guide book promised that the day-long drunken horse race was not to be missed. But even our most wild imaginings of riders wearing long red cloaks and beating their poor horses with live chickens (!) could not eclipse the six days of beautiful trekking in the Cuchumatane mountains, or the fun we had with our 16 other fellow trekkers from all over the world.

From Nebaj to Todos Santos we hiked through tiny towns, remote homesteads and spectacular countryside. Temperate rainforests gave way to interesting desert flora, and idyllic green valleys led up to impossibly craggy peaks. We visited a cheese farm, hiked by full moon to watch the sun rise over the mountains, and swam in the frigid early morning river. We slept in rural schools and ate dinner in families' homes. We sweated out our long days in Teamascals, or Mayan saunas, throwing hot water on the red hot coals and breathing slowly as our lungs clenched tight against the forbidding mixture of steam and smoke.

We met a lot of people along the way. Outside the cemetery in Nebaj we applauded as a graduate in cap and gown paraded past flanked by a sobbing mother and a beaming father, and a large extended family bringing up the rear. "Come to our house for tamales!" the father shouted.

Later, sitting inside the town's church Ethan and I accidentally crashed a wedding. No one seemed to mind so we stayed to watch as the bride walked down the aisle dressed in traje and a long white veil. On our way into the church I had noticed an older indigenous woman kneeling and crying in front of an altar just inside the church's entryway. We decided to leave before the "I do's" and so on the way out I stood where the woman had been kneeling. The altar was set back into the wall behind a large blue wooden cross. Behind the iron gate hundreds of small wooden crosses were fixed to the cement and scattered along the floor. Each bore a name and a date. A brightly colored painting hung above the gate depicting the plaza just outside the church's doors, but this scene was different: men, women and children were hog tied, blindfolded and bleeding. The altar was a memorial created to remember the innocent victims of the war. I scanned the crosses to find the most recent year: 1992 - just four years before the peace accords were signed.

Hiking through the foggy wilderness of the Cuchumatanes it was easy to see why the Guerilla Army used the Ixil Triangle as a base of operations; it must have been easy to remain hidden here indefinitely. Every now and then hiking past a fence or beneath a ridge I would look up in time to see a pair of quiet eyes fixed on mine. Sometimes the face would smile, but most often it would disappear quickly out of sight.

On our last day of trekking we summited La Torre, the highest non-volcanic point in Guatemala, with our host from the night before (pictured above in traditional Todos Santos traje). Sitting under the hot sun, surrounded by stunning views of the volcano chain, he told us his story, the story of his family and of his pueblo during the violence of the 1980s. Under the command of General Efrain Rios Montt, the fighting during the 1980s was particularly brutal and indigenous campesinos were regularly caught in the crossfire between left-wing rebel guerrilla groups and the Guatemalan army. Rios Montt is known for deliberately targeting thousands of indigenous Mayans who were suspected of harboring sympathies for the guerilla movement. Terrorized by regular acts of rape, torture and genocide, many indigenous populations, like the residents of La Ventosa, were persuaded to support the guerillas in exchange for protection from the Guatemalan army.

During one of the guerrilla army's regular visits to the town, many of the villagers of La Ventosa decided to add their names to the list of guerilla sympathizers. However, our host and his father remained ambivalent and ultimately decided not to join. After putting their names to paper, the residents followed the guerilla army's instructions agreeing to down power lines and destroy bridges in order to help disable the army's hold on the region.

Weeks later, our host was awakened before dawn to the sound of screaming. The army had some how gotten hold of the list of guerrilla supporters from La Ventosa and they were rounding up the entire village. Families and neighbors were forced to watch as one by one the guerrilla supporters were tortured and killed. One of the army's victim's that day was our host's uncle who was mistaken for someone else on the list by the same name. Because of an unfortunate scar his uncle had slicing his eyebrow, the army was convinced that he was not only a supporter but also a guerrilla commander. Despite the gruesome torture he was subjected to that day, his uncle miraculously survived, as did the man who shared his name. Our host expressed his grief and his anger at the guerrilla army for letting this happen to the people of La Ventosa. No one on the list had been protected. Later, stuck between the invisible protection promised by the guerrillas, and the terror committed by the army, many residents of La Ventosa agreed to join the army as civilian patrols. Once word spread to the guerrillas, they returned to La Ventosa to set and example. Like the army, they rounded up the civil patrolmen and lynched them in the town's center.

Hearing our host's story was of course heartbreakingly sad, but I was grateful for his candor and willingness to share it. I was grateful too for the way his teenage sons could sit on the mountaintop, aware of the tragic story their father was relating, but mostly enjoying the day and listening to their i-pods.

Later that day we reached Todos Santos where the festival had already begun. We arrived at around 4 PM and men in traditional dress were either already passed out in the street from drinking or weaving around to the tinkle of marimba like zombies. We learned that during the rest of the year the bars are required by law to close early because of the widespread alcoholism in the town.

More than anything else, the festival was strange and sad. Like everyone else I went to watch the 12 hour horse race the next day and stood along the edge in the muck watching the men race back and forth, back and forth. As it turns out they thankfully don't use live chickens anymore to spur on their horses, but many of the riders were swilling beer, or riding hard and fast with their arms held out like airplane wings.

The crowd watched mostly in silence. There was no applause and no cheering. My nerves prickled with the knowledge that at any moment the worst might happen. And then it did. Around the middle of the day one drunken rider left from the wrong end of the track heading toward a line of charging horses at full speed. Two horses crashed with a god-awful sound and flopped upside down onto their backs. The riders lay still and the crowd surged around. Eventually the men stood up and the horses were led spastically out of the track. It's hard to imagine that the horses could have survived the collision. One indigenous woman turned to me and with rare emotion said, "They can kill themselves, but it's horrible - why do they have to kill the horses?"

The race continued for the rest of the day, and after the crash the spectacle seemed a little more subdued and the mood a little lighter. After experiencing the horror of the crash, what was left to fear?

After the trek I have more or less continued at a break-neck pace. I biked to Zunil the day after we got back to Xela, saw the wooden Mayan deity San Simon, and then the next day I climbed volcano Santa Maria just outside Xela with Ethan, Fernando and Jose. The 4,500 foot climb was unrelenting but the views at the top were spectacular. We could see everything: the pacific shore, the volcanoes that jaggedly lead to the lake and Antigua, Tajamulco and, of course, the still active Santiaguito puffing away every forty-five minutes. Far away in the distance we could even see the Cuchumatanes covered in a blanket of cloud.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Half Time

It's October 18th, which means that I've been in Guatemala for almost two months...which means that we are just about half way through our time here! Before I panic or get mopey, I thought it was high time to reflect a little on volunteering with Manos De Colores and post some cute pictures of the kids.

The work week

Our volunteer schedule begins on Monday evenings when Ethan and I set out to meet with the other volunteers from El Nahual/Manos De Colores at a nearby cafe, The Blue Angel. Once gathered we gobble down their weirdly addictin
g vegan chocolate chip cookies, discuss the school's events for the week and share our lesson plan ideas. Every day El Nahual offers some kind of activity for the students and volunteers. My favorite: Wednesday night soccer! We rent out an indoor court and blow off our mid-week bike-transit steam by blasting soccer balls at each other - so fun! A close second would be the weekly community dinner (i.e. gorge fest) on Friday where students and volunteers get together in El Nahual's kitchen to attempt to outdo one another. Last week's feast included: Swedish meatballs, lasagna, and garlic bread made by me, Thai noodles with tofu, cinnamon buns and apple pie.

Although Manos De Colores runs an on-site aftersc
hool program based at El Nahual, due to my schedule I'm currently teaching a total of eight English classes in three different off-site school programs: La Cuchilla (which refers to the shape of the neighborhood and means "razor"), Canton Candalaria, and Telesecondaria. Right now I'm happy with my schedule especially because it allows me to get to know three very different programs and three very distinct groups of students - however, after biking all over Xela, by the end of the week I'm wiped.

Some whining about getting there

In order to get to all of my school placements I first walk to El Nahual traveling past headstone shop row and a corridor of open doorways filled with women standing behind huge hot metal skillets, talking quietly and slapping out the tortillas that will be warm and ready to sell in the afternoon. If it's a nice day I cut up through the graveyard, the city's largest expanse of uninterrupted green, peppered with colorful cerulean tombs and wildflowers. As I get closer to El Nahual, the pavement gives way to rutted, eroded dirt roads. It's not uncommon to see a neighbor teasing milk from his goat, or the very same goat looking pleased and prancing (do goats prance?) having escaped from his tether. On this hill the children stop and shout: "Goodbye, teacher!" literally translating what is commonly used as a passing greeting here, Adios.

After the fifteen-twenty minute walk uphill to El Nahual, which never fails to wind me, I hop on my bike and head up to Canton Candalaria (in the morning) or La Cuchilla (in the afternoon). If I'm lucky I've managed to avoid the bike with t
he flat tire, or the one with the uncontrollable swiveling seat, or my favorite, the one with the brakes that drag against the tires on the uphill climb. The AM ride to Canton Candalaria takes us past the city dump on a steep, wet pocked road and brings us up near the base of the volcano, Santa Maria, on a path flanked by corn and small one-room houses. La Cuchilla provides a slightly more urban experience. We ride up towards the city's zoo and turn to go uphill past one of Xela's recent luxury developments, and then continue on up until we've reached the edge of the "razor." Each thirty minute ride leaves us sweaty with black boogers - thanks to the ever present car fumes.

On Wednesday's I walk five minutes from El Nahual to Telesecondaria. Oh, how I love Wednesdays!

La Cuchilla

For the past couple of months, every Tuesday and Thursday from 3 PM - 5 PM, we have offered afterschool programming for the kids in the community of La Cuchilla at the school, Escuela de La Republica de Holanda (the school receives a good amount of financial support from Holland). We divide the students into two groups, Kindergarten through second grade in one, third through sixth grade in the other. Each group receives an hour of English and an hour of Art. Starting last week, however, many schools let out for their three-month vacation which means that we now have many more students interested in attending the program. As "coordinator" I work closely with Betty, the director of the school and her husband, Jaime who happens to be the director of El Nahual. Last week I visited the school during the day to hand out announcements about the vacation program and give a little spiel in Spanish. This past week our numbers have swelled - we now have 70 students (in two very small classrooms) currently enrolled in the program. And, I expect even more to enroll today. Next week we will begin to offer programs at La Cuchilla in the morning from 9 AM - 12 PM (trading time slots with Candalaria), and after hiring a Guatemalteco teacher, we will offer Spanish Language instruction and Math in addition to the gringo-led English and Art.

At the Zoo for El Dia Del Nino

Vacation program registration began last week. Students wanting to participate in the program were required to come to class with a parent and what Jaime refers to as a symbolic 10Q ($1.50), which is intended to give students and parents ownership of the program. It was great to finally meet many of my students' parents, and learn a little more about La Cuchilla through the adult community members, i.e. the mothers - no fathers were present, which is something they all joked about. At La Cuchilla the children are sweet, smart, fun and relatively well-dressed with sturdy shoes and backpacks. Because none of the children dress in traje, or traditional indigenous garments, I assumed that
they were by and large ladino - a mix of Spanish and indigenous descent. However, after meeting their mothers, many of whom were dressed in traje, I realized that that was not necessarily the case. It's difficult to reconcile my students' joy and enthusiasm for learning with their apparently difficult lives and the realities of learning in a school with little resources. Speaking with Betty I learned that most of my students live crammed in a one-room house with a large extended family. Many of my older students are depended upon to care for their younger siblings while their parents work long, extended hours. Lunch includes a stop at the tienda across from the school which is stocked with candy and salty snacks. The school itself is friendly but barren, lacking classroom art or decoration, and basic supplies like books and playground toys. However, when teaching a song or playing a game with the students at La Cuchilla it's easy to forget the details. Even when sweeping out the rainwater that has gathered in the classroom overnight I have to stop and pay attention: my students’ lives are hard, yet here we are laughing, shooing out the several inches of water that has collected under their desks. Speaking with the students' mothers during registration I could feel the impact of our program in the community, and the hope and the excitement the opportunity to learn generates. Many of the mothers of my brightest students couldn't sign their name, nor provide me with a numbered street address.

Our latest project in English class at La Cuchilla is writing mini-biographies including photos to post on the classroom walls. I'm also really interested in starting a pen-pal project with a school in the states, hopefully Lansdowne Friends School, where I went to school and where my mother works. Tuesday we came up with classroom rules (all 70 of us); the vacation program is giving us a wonderful, fresh start.

Canton Candalaria

Canton Candalaria is an indigenous community just outside the city with stunning views of Volcano, Santa Maria. Unlike La Cuchilla, Canton Candalaria's poverty is overt and in your face. The children wear the same clothing to school every day (most of them wear traje) their shoes are riddled and worn, and without running water, hygiene and health are huge issues.

I teach two English classes here, one in the second/third grade class, and one in the sixth grade class. The ages range wildly in both classes. In the first class the students are anywhere from eight to eleven. In the second class most are fifteen and sixteen and will be faced with the difficult decision next year to work or continue their studies.

Teaching at Canton Candalaria is hard to say the least. With the help of volunteers from El Nahual, the community is hard at work on a new school building that can house all of the students. For now, the students learn crammed in small classrooms separated by plastic tarps or in families' houses. Hearing, seeing and participating in class is a huge challenge. And, it is virtually impossible to respond to individual students' needs. With the younger class I've been focusing on the alphabet, singing, playing bingo and doling out precious stickers as prizes. In the older class one of my favorite projects was in art class. I gave them a blank comic template, a couple of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips in Spanish as examples, and they created their own beautiful comic book characters and stories. We've compiled them all in a book titled by the students, "Las Estrellas" ("The Stars"). However, my favorite time with the students is during the break between classes. We sit out in the sun opposite the clanging construction of the new school building and play. We teach the students playground games like ring around the rosy, and songs like Bingo. They put their arms up for hugs and plead, "subeme!" ("lift me up!"). Ethan attracts the biggest line.

Like La Cuchilla, we'll be starting vacation programs soon. I'm hoping that the older group will continue to come. I'd like to start a community photography project with them where they can take pictures and describe their community in English.

Finally, Telesecondaria

Telesecondaria is a five minute walk from El Nahual. Every Wednesday I teach two English classes to students ranging in ages 13-17. As a teacher the classes at Telesecondaria are a lot of fun and in many ways easier to control because we teach during regular school hours. I've taught a lot of Side By Side curriculum in these classes as well as incorporated a lot of games. Unlike the teenagers at Canton Candalaria, who needed a huge amount of prompting and explanation to pass a ball around the circle for a name game, the students at Telesecondaria will gladly don a blindfold and spin in circles (this did have a connection to English class, I swear).

My second class at Telesecondaria takes place in Don Angel's classroom. Don Angel teaches Spanish every now and then at El Nahual and works with Jaime to coordinate the English program at the high school. Before teaching at Telesecondaria, I had heard a little about the program. Basically, Telesecondaria uses televisions in the classroom to cut educational costs. From 1 PM - 6 PM the students attend school and learn through educational videos and programming primarily. Not sure what to think about the program, I asked Don Angel to tell me more. In describing the school to me, Don Angel cited progressive Brazilian educator, Paulo Friere, saying that Telesecondaria is one of many similar school models used in developing countries to help make secondary school possible for more students. Does it work? Don Angel firmly believes that it not only works, but also encourages students to be critical thinkers. How it does this, or whether or not I agree with Don Angel is TBD. I'm also a little confused about the role of the teacher, who Don Angel referred to as a "mediator." I know the teachers participate in teacher training and now, because the school is a polling place for the segunda vuelta in November and has removed all of its primary teaching tools - the TVs, the teachers are the only teaching mediums. How the classes differ when the TVs are present and functioning in the classroom is unclear to me.

For the next couple of classes at Telesecondaria we will be coming up with presentations for their end of the year performance. My students will be using hip-hop in one class, and animals in the other to talk about what they've learned in English.

Well, my internet is being temperamental and tomorrow morning Ethan and I are headed to the Copan ruins in Honduras. I will upload more photos of the kids when we get back!

Monday, October 15, 2007


Last weekend the owners/landlords of my (not yet open) restaurant/apartment ("Ojalá") hosted a benefit dinner for a friend who recently suffered a bad accident. The event included an amazing sushi dinner made by my landlord, Georgie, a drumming performance including my other landlord, Kike and roommate, Mark, a blues band performance and an absurdist theater production - which was absurd indeed. The roommates and I all helped out at the event and I got to work at the bar which was a clumsy, hilarious adventure, although everyone did love my "special" mojitos. Anyway, I thought I'd use the event as an excuse to post some pictures of where I'm living and my roommates. Enjoy!

Carolina and Emily in the bar

Georgie making sushi

me and kunal

Not pictured: Benta and Mark, and Ethan (who was back in the states for a wedding)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just Fever

On Sunday, Ethan and I went on a hike with our housemates, Emily and Kunal, to one of the most sacred lakes in Guatemala - Laguna Chicabal. Laguna Chicabal is a crater lake nestled at the top of an old volcano (I'm not sure if it's technically active or not). In order to avoid the niebla (fog - one of my favorite words in Spanish), we left at around 6 AM to arrive at the top of the volcano at around 9 AM, panting from the altitude and the steep climb. Our timing was perfect. From one side we got some great views of Santa Maria - the perfect cone-shaped volcano that you can see from just about anywhere in Xela, and its still active little sister, Santiaguito that erupted in the early 1900s burying the surrounding towns in several feet of pumice and ash. Looking over the other side, we could see straight down to chicabal, blue and shimmering.

In order to reach the lake we had to climb down some 600 steps, through a corridor of lush green foliage and mossy trees. Once at the base, we followed a trail around the water's edge taking us past Mayan altars, big blue crosses laden with flowers, corrugated metal and what looked like fireworks remains. We did our best to catch a glimpse of the misanthropic quetzal - to no avail - but we did see humming birds and heard plenty of el canto de los aves. As predicted, after lunch on the shore, the fog started to pour in over the lip of the crater swirling over the water and passing in between the trees. It's incredible how quickly the weather changes here. On the hike back we could see our breath, but little else - everything was softened and obscured by a heavy curtain of fog.

Our next stop at Hiper Paiz, the city's mall/walmart was not so sacred. After the hike Emily, Kunal and I stopped in to get some essentials (yogurt, jam) and while in line I smashed both accidentally (?) in the eerily bright white aisle (Kunal caught all the awkwardness on film). The check out lady was very nice and let me go replace them, but I'm not going back to "Hiper" (ee-pur) any time soon. I'd much rather do all my purchasing from the ladies in the outdoor markets who lower their jacked up extranjera prices once when you ask, "y por lo menos?" and then again in response to "con discuenta?" Anyway, since our hike, or as a result of the Hiper mishap, I've been laid up with the flu and a fever. I'm feeling a little better today and am hoping that I'll be able to get to La Cuchilla at 2 PM for El Dia Del Niño. October 1st is Guatemala's Dia Del Niño (Day of the Child) so throughout the week El Nahual has planned some special events for our ninos. Today's fiesta will take place at the Zoo for both students from La Cuchilla and Manos De Colores - we managed to get a piñata, a cake and collected and wrapped over 300 gifts for all of our niños - I don't want to miss it. Time for more tea.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Feria Fever

Last week Ethan and I got our first real dose of celebration Guatemalteco-style. Having studied abroad in Valencia, Spain during Las Fallas, I was prepared for a siege of serious committed partying, the smell of gunpowder in my nostrils and enormous flames. Though light on the gunpowder and the fire, the streets of Xela hummed with excitement and the city swelled with out-of-towners during La Feria and El Dia De La Independencia. Every day we were treated to epic parades of countless marching bands drumming out old military anthems, the sounds of Marimba, modest fireworks, free outdoor rock concerts, and of course the Fair - a sprawling spectacle with rides, food, hundreds of games and vendors.

Ethan and I decided to visit the fairgrounds on the most popular day, Saturday. We hopped on a chicken bus and rode all the way there crammed in the aisle. No big deal. Getting where you're going, both on the large chicken buses and the mini-buses that race through the city, requires a kind of yogic balance and concentration - sometimes straddling an elderly person, sometimes arching over the lucky ones crammed three to a seat. When we arrived at the fair, we followed the sea of people down a dusty road lined with hundreds of vendors selling everything from tupperware to ice cream. When it came time to enter the actual fairgrounds and the labyrinth of amusement park stalls and stands, we did what everyone else did, nudged our way into the enormous snaking mob, our hands out in front of us, forming a kind of a-rhythmic conga line. We took a couple of breaks from the masses, once to play foozeball (a young Guatemalteco helped me beat Ethan pretty bad) and two more times to hop on rickety rides. The Ferris Wheel was off the table as it looked like it was pieced together from an erector set and was careening at unchecked speeds by its prepubescent controller - I'd never before seen people screaming on a Ferris Wheel. We opted for the Round-A-Something that spun you around very fast and then thrust you up towards the sky at a 45 degree angle - kind of like an outdoor "Gravitron." I never would have gotten on one of the rides had it not been for Ethan's insistence, and now I'm glad I did. The view was incredible: the sea of people, the Ferris Wheel framed against the volcano, the blue sunny sky. We went on the Pirate Ship next and afterwards I began to relax into the experience, walking with my arms out in front, slowing with the pace of the crowd, chatting with the other fair-goers, mostly indigenous, standing in line and laughing nervously before the enormous gears began to turn.

Not unlike our experience at the fair, after a month living and volunteering in Xela, Ethan and I have begun to relax into our lives here. Since the Feria a lot has happened! Last weekend Ethan turned 30! To celebrate we visited beautiful Lago de Atitlan to swim in its turquoise waters, sun ourselves on the warm volcanic rocks and hike six miles along the shore from Santa Cruz to San Marcos (getting lost along the way in corn and coffee plantations perched on mountaintops). It was wonderful to finally get to the lake but by the end of the weekend I was eager to get back to chilly Xela and the niños at El Nahual. Getting to know the students in the four different programs where I've been teaching at El Nahual has been the most rewarding part of my time here - hands down. Not only the students, but also the Spanish teachers and my fellow volunteers make El Nahual a very special place. With my prior teaching experience I've found that I've already been able to contribute a lot to the program. Jaime, the Director of El Nahual, bestowed me with the title of "coordinator" of La Cuchilla, the academic afterschool program where I teach twice a week and has asked me to continue on after the holidays as school programs coordinators - there are a lot of "coordinators" here. If it wasn't for my ever-diminishing quetzales, not to mention my ticket to China in January, I would seriously consider staying. I'm hooked. Every day I'm constantly mulling over lessons and activities that can engage 50 students at once, encourage Donald to take a seat, and satisfy pint-sized Juan's already impressive grasp of the English language. We play bingo, draw comics, play charades and "gotcha," sing bilingual songs with gusto, recite the alphabet, sing out the days of the week, and for this we receive a million hugs and kisses. One thing I'm looking forward to in the weeks to come is compiling curriculum resources and a guide for El Nahual's volunteer teachers. Many volunteers join us without prior teaching experience or Spanish ability, which gets interesting in a classroom of fifty boisterous niños. All of the programs where I am currently teaching are slightly different and unique, and each come with their fair share of obstacles namely, a lack of resources (from pencils to shoes and uniforms) and funding. Ethan has just finished a post that briefly describes El Nahual's ever-expanding programs and services and how you can support them. In an effort to avoid redundancy, if you have a moment please check out Ethan's blog, and if you can, consider giving. I'll weigh in with my thoughts on volunteering, and some pictures in my next post. For now - Lago de Atitlan!

A view of the twin volcanoes from Santa Cruz

Me, swimming and chatting with a fisherman, Diego

View from our hike from Santa Cruz to San Marcos

Ethan being 30

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Mi maestro Carlos y yo at Sakribal: Siempre Platicamos

Luis Spinning

Telma and her daughter in the kitchen

Curious Chicken

Sunday's national elections

Children line up to vote, while other children check their identification and take their fingerprints.

On Friday Ethan and I finished up our studies at Sakribal (for now). In two weeks we attended 50 hours total of one-on-one Spanish classes. It was intense and exhausting! My teacher Carlos, a young law student, was very good despite the fact that he roared with laughter when I told him I had been proficient in college. He helped me re-sort the subjunctive from the conditional, the differences between por y para, and was a great resource in learning more about Xela and Guatemala, and especially as the elections were approaching - local politics.
Until this Sunday, election day, we have experienced Xela through the steady bombardment of campaign slogans and jingles blasted from the backs of pick up trucks. The faces of candidates were plastered everywhere: the sides of houses, billboards and even mountains. For the presidential race there were a total of eleven candidates, each with their own party and logo. Ethan and I went to a conference about the election at a volunteer center, Entremundos, and we learned that every year new political parties surface bearing a brand new shiny logo. In fact, the same political party has never been re-elected. But only the candidates supported by one of the seven most powerful families in Guatemala have any real chance of winning. Despite the fact that only seven families control much of Guatemala's wealth and politics, the turn-out on election day is huge, and civic and national pride is simply part of being a Guatemalan (even the children vote in las elecciones infantiles!). Most see the national elections as an opportunity to make change at the local level, their most important vote being for mayor. The mayors have been decided, but in November there will be a "segunda vuelta" for the presidency. The presidency will either go to Alvaro Colom (of UNE: Union Nacional la Esperanza) or Otto Perez Molina (Partido Patriota, whose slogan reads: Mano Dura - or - Firm Hand). Molina is less of a favorite in our circles. A former General, he was present during the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, and he controversially usurped "mano dura" from a campesino revolutionary slogan, neglecting the other lines the campesinos had included regarding brains, and heart. Colom lost the last election, and historically, the following election goes to the second runner up from the previous race; however, this race has been surprisingly close. We'll see what happens in November.
This week the elections have moved aside to make way for the FERIA! Xela is home to the Central American Independence Day celebration (September 15th) but the festivities already began last night! According to our neighbors, this included two torch bearers running into town, as well as a semi filled with a million reinas (which almost jack-knifed turning around parque central). By all accounts, this will be a crazy time to be in Xela. School is out and everyone is excited to attend the parades, concerts, and the 50's-era amusement park located just outside the city (Carlos promised some Coney Island-like spectacles as well). Today Ethan and I woke up at 7 AM and wandered over to La Democracia, home of the enormous sprawling outdoor market where you can buy cilantro for a nickel, to see the elementary school children on parade. Little Miss Indigena and Little Miss Xela were both present presiding over the festivities along with their sister representatives from every single elementary school in Quetzaltenango (it even looked as though there were some Little Misses from other Central American countries as well). Little Miss Congeniality along with Little Miss Athletics, and countless other little misses waved graciously at everyone in the crowd. It's funny, I have a completely different view of little dolled up queens walking around in Guatemala, than I do of their Jon Benet counterparts in the states. During our first week Ethan and I went to the Teatro Municipal to see the La Princesa Indigena pageant. Women from all over the surrounding pueblos arrived to compete dressed in traje typica and armed with an image or object representative of their pueblo. There was an excruciatingly slow procession of all of the contestants, as they shuffled backwards across the stage barefoot, candles aflame; in the end it appeared that they were judged according to their bilingual message to the masses (k'iche and castellano) which addressed indigenous rights and visibility. Less little miss sunshine, and more miss serious activist. Anyway, it was fun to see the little ones finally strut their stuff in the parade. For the past few weeks you could hear the drums and xylophones gearing up for this morning's event. (I'll post a video clip soon) Miraculously we even got to see our niños from La Cuchilla, where we've been teaching Art and English. They had pleaded with us to come see them the day before and sure enough, right before we were about to leave due to parade fatigue, there they were with their Guatemalan flags and high-laced boots grinning and waving at us. I'll write more about the volunteer experience soon, but suffice it to say for now that it has been wonderful! We bike 25 minutes each way to both of our school placements, La Cuchilla and La Candalaria - two of the poorest schools in Xela. The students range from ages 7-14, and are eager to learn, play and give hugs. After each class the girls and a select crew of precocious boys line up to give us 'un beso' before leaving. I'm also working on Saturdays with a group of teenagers who meet from 7 AM to 6 PM every week for an accelerated high school degree program. I have been loving teaching this class of eager, though shy, students.
I uploaded some pictures from our Monday trip to Momostenango. Telma, a woman who cleans Sakribal in the mornings as well as brings her family's beautiful weaving to the school to sell, offered to take the two of us to her home to see more of her wares, the looms themselves, and have lunch. We met Telma at the school and she accompanied us on the Chicken Bus (a souped up school bus crammed with people blasting bachata). We rode up past San Francisco El Alto, the largest market in Guatemala that we visited last Friday where you can get rugs, cow brains and electronics, and continued up into the mountains past the city smog. Telma asked the driver to stop directly outside her house (we never would've been able to find it on our own) and we walked down the slippery, mud path past the chickens - she hurled a rock on the tin roof to let the family know the gringos had arrived.
Telma, her husband Luis, and their six children continue to run the family weaving business started generations ago. Luis made a point of telling us that the children help out for part of the day, but they also attend school. Two in fact are headed to university next year - not a small feat in a country where only 10% of the students graduate - in fact, Luis himself can only read and write a little. They showed us how to card and spin the wool from their sheep, pointed out the materials they use for dying the wool (insects, berries, leaves and wood), and had us work a few rows on a beautiful rug with interlocking blue and white birds. After we finally decided which rug and wall hanging to buy, we had lunch with the family in their kitchen constructed of mud bricks, and ate tortillas cooked on a ceramic pan over the open fire, listening as the conversation drifted between k'iche and castellano. Before we left, Luis took us to the center of town where we saw the Mayan-Catholic church, where Mayan ceremonies take place right alongside Catholic Mass. He welcomed us to return for several days if we like, for a sauna and a hike in the mountains. We didn't want to leave.
But for now it's back to city living; however, Xela really feels like more of a small town (with a little more car exhaust). Everyone we meet is so warm and welcoming. Walking down the street it's completely normal to greet one another with a "buenos dias" or a "buenas tardes" and a wide friendly smile. On Sunday we moved out of our home stay into our new place which was a little bittersweet. We'll miss our family, Zuye and Elton especially, but we hope to visit. Ethan and I found a fantastic apartment inside a Mediterranean restaurant - it's not yet open, but when it is dinner is included! Our landlords are young bohemian ex-pats from Australia and Spain, we have hot water, and a fig tree growing in the courtyard. It's a beautiful space, and our landlords plan on hosting Feria after-parties there, as well as poetry readings and other cultural events when the restaurant opens. Oddly enough our next door neighbor worked at the same wilderness program where I instructed in Loa, UT! Only two and a half weeks down and Xela already feels like home.

Check out Ethan's blog for more about Xela, etc.

Monday, August 27, 2007

El Arco de Iris

Well, we made it. We’re finally here in Guatemala! Our plane touched down in Guate at around 1 PM Saturday and now we’re here in Xela, already beguiled by the place and by the people.

Yesterday our host mother, Maritza, met us at Sakribal with her two adorable children in tow, Elton, 9 and Zuye, 7. Maritza, and her husband, who we haven't officially met, are a little reserved, but their children are incredibly precocious. We spent the entire afternoon on the roof constructing an ever-changing fort or "castillo" under Zuye's careful administration, reading fairy tales, and then moving the entire operation underneath the awning when the afternoon downpour began. At some point in the afternoon Zuye spotted a rainbow suspended above us, pinned up between two clouds like the walls of our castillo. Beautiful! After a little while, some hide and go seek, spinning in circles, and a game of keep-away, Ethan and I managed to get away for a short stroll around the city.

Since our arrival we've been busy with Spanish classes in the morning and volunteering in the afternoon. There's hardly any time at all to write! For now I'll be content with sharing a few photos - and I'll send more news once I'm through with Spanish classes and we've settled into our schedule here.

El Castillo and our hostess