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.