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.