Saturday, August 27, 2011

Se Termina

It's over. I'm back. However, before I get to the whole being back thing, I think I'll run through my last few weeks. They already feel a bit like distant memories, which is unfortunate in most ways, but might make it easier to write a blogpost that isn't absurdly long. [Forewarning: it didn't make it easier, and I wasn't able to be brief.]

Day In Guate

As I mentioned in a previous post, I bought a ticket to go see Wisin & Yandel, who might be THE biggest Reggaeton act right now. They're also one of my favorites. I decided to make a day of it, and spend the morning in the city with some Guatemalan girls who had been working at Safe Passage and who I'd convinced to give me a mini-tour. So I took a chicken bus from Antigua to Guate, with instructions to get off "where everyone gets off"-- at a place called El Trébol. However, there was no single stop where "everyone" got off, so I stayed on the bus until the bus driver told me his route was over and that we'd already passed el Trébol. So then I called the friend who was supposed to meet me, and talked to her for a second but then the call broke up, and she wouldn't answer when I called back. So, I flagged down another little urban bus--one of the shady rickety red ones that you're not really supposed to ride if you can avoid it-- and asked the driver to tell me when we passed el Trébol. Several minutes later, I asked him how far it was and he said we'd already passed it, and I had to catch another bus in the other direction. The driver was actually nice enough to give me my fare (about 12 US cents) back. I got another shady red bus, and this time the driver actually did let me off at el Trébol. The problem was, the friend who was supposed to meet me still wasn't answering her phone. So, I walked around el Trébol, which is basically a street market. I walked back and forth a few times on the main part. I walked a lap. I walked some more laps. I set deadlines to make a decision and go somewhere else. I set later deadlines. An hour later, I get desperate phone calls. Turns out that while she was talking to me, someone grabbed the phone out of the hand of the girl who was supposed to meet me and ran away. So she had to go back to her house, attacked the internet in search of my phone number, and finally went to a pay-phone to call me. A bit later, we meet up, and boy was my friend relieved to no longer have a gringo roaming Guate on his own, waiting for her. Anyway, after that adventure, the day went smoothly-- we met up with the rest of our posse, saw the sights of downtown Guate, and went to Little Caesar's for lunch (in Guatemala, they're $4 pizzas, down from $5 in the US). Eventually I made my way to the mall (accompanied this time, even though this time, thankfully) where I was to meet the gringo posse and our hired van to go to the concert.

We'd been warned that people would have been lined up overnight for the concert so we got there really early. That wasn't true. There was never a long line. Still, we chilled out in the parking lot and had a good time waiting. Then the concert. It was fun. It was a bit wild. It wasn't quite all I hoped it to be, because the cheap tickets we'd bought were pretty fun back. Still they sounded good and it was a fun time. We jumped back in the van, and arrived back in Antigua (although we were dropped off a bit sooner than we intended to be because we had a price dispute with the driver). It was a good day.


Most of my last few weeks was spent saying goodbye to friends (especially since a number of volunteers left in the weeks right before I left) and building up to saying goodbye to my students. When I found myself with free time on weekends, I would reflect on how my Safe Passage experience would seem when I would look back on it, trying to tie things together into a coherent memory. However, each of my last few weeks, I would show up on Monday with this notion of what I was doing that I'd concreted in my mind, just to realize that my mental summary of the experience was totally off-base. It's just a weird set of dynamics: on one (not inherently thrilling) hand-- spending time helping with menial homework assignments, trying to maintain order in a classroom full of rambunctious kids, and sometimes just sitting, planning, and waiting until someone finally has a menial homework assignment that I could help with ; while on the other hand, constantly re-realizing what kind of background the kids come from, noticing the slow but definite strengthening of my relationship with the kids, and appreciating how big my little bits of help really can be for the kids. I'm fairly happy with that summary of what the experience is, but at the same time, I'm not confident that if I went back for a day of work tomorrow my experience would fit with what I just described.

Now that I've tried to tackle what the day-to-day was, that leaves me at the end of the chain, on my last day. My morning with my older class was mostly normal. Helped with some homework, made some kids some logic puzzles (I introduced them to the challenging little grids that I used to spend hours on in elementary school), and chatted with the kids. Then the pizza that I'd ordered as a surprise arrived. From what I'd heard (and my experience as an 8th grader), I thought the kids would be giddy when pizza arrived. The response instead was appreciative, but very...understated. They were a lot less excited than I remember all of my classes being whenever food was brought in at any age (even up to this last year in college, people LOVE surprise free food). Regardless, they thanked me for it, I gave them a big card, they gave me a big card, we took a bunch of pictures, they tried to convince me to stay, then to make definite terms for my return, and it was nice.

My afternoon class, the 5th graders, didn't have homework that day, so the day ended up being quite festive. Much of the class was spent making cards for me, which the teacher distributed supplies for when I stepped out. However, I wasn't supposed to know, so the kids were all trying to keep me from seeing their cards. One kid fooled me at first and told me it was an assignment for art class, but then I caught on once he started grinning at me every time I looked at him, and constantly moving his pencil case to block my line of sight to his card. Festivities started at the end of English class, when a couple of the girls wrote me a message on the board and translated it into English with help from the English teacher. They kept telling me not to look, and the whole thing was precious. Right after English, the pizza I'd ordered for the afternoon class arrived. This class showed more enthusiasm than the other, although they almost seemed more baffled by the pizza than thrilled by it. After eating pizza, I gave the kids the big card I'd made them, and the kids presented me with cards, well-wishes, hugs, a bracelet I'm supposed to keep on until I come back, and three boys even sang me their well wishes as a trio, spastically throwing their bodies around the whole time out of some type of nervousness. I then played some Heads Up Seven Up with some kids (I showed it to them a couple days before when I suddenly found myself alone with a big group of kids without homework) as others crowded around the computer to watch a soccer game. When the day was done, I said a last goodbye and gave a last hug to each kid, and carried my big stack of cards to the volunteer bus for my last ride back to Antigua.

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan was the one place I'd been determined to visit that I hadn't gone to yet. When I found out that there was a well-regarded scuba school there that does 4 day certification classes at half the price I would pay in the US, I decided it would be a nice way to spend my last few days in Guatemala. Most of my friends who'd gone had paid to take a shuttle, but I'd been getting flyers for a coach bus that cost less than half the price. So, 6:30 in the morning I head out to catch the bus, and when I'm two blocks away from where the leaflet said the bus could be found, a man stops me and tries to point me two blocks in another direction where he says there's a chicken bus (refitted school bus) leaving for the lake. Since it's neither the type of bus nor the departure location advertised, I figure the guys just trying to get me onto his bus instead. 10 minutes of wandering later, I realize he wasn't and the leaflet was both wrong and misleading. I jump on the bus right as it's leaving, and 2.5 hours and some very tight turns later, I'm in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. I wandered the town a little bit to try to orient myself, but managed to walk to the next town before I succeeded in figuring out where I was. After eating a scrumptious meal as the only customer in a touristy balcony restaurant overlooking the lake, I wandered Pana a little more, then jumped on a public lancha (little motor boat) took off for Santa Cruz de la Laguna, where my diving school and hostel are located. My hostel, La Iguana Perdida was a really lovely place. Set right behind the dock, it was a little wooded escape from everything, complete with tasty food, a slightly hippyish vibe, and hammocks. During the mornings, I would be in the water with my British dive instructor, then the afternoons I would laze/wander around and also study for my scuba class. At night, there's a communal dinner where I met a lot of cool people who I would usually end up hanging out with until everyone was about to fall asleep in their chairs. It was a nice place to be, and where I spent the large majority of my time. However, I left a day and a half for other adventures.

Because of scuba scheduling, I didn't realize which day was my going to be my free day until 10 PM the night before, so I didn't really make any concrete plans. My two thoughts were to go to Santiago de Atitlan to buy some Mayan weaving, and to go to San Lucas Toliman, because I know people who've been there, and knew that when I got back, a guy from there would be staying at my house for a bit. I woke up absurdly early for no apparent reason, went down to the docks to catch the sunrise, and then realized there was no good reason for me to wait for two hours to eat breakfast at the hostel. So I decided I would set off in the direction of San Lucas Toliman, stopping for breakfast in Panajachel, and from there pass through Santiago and however many other towns I could in doing a clockwise lap around the lake using lanchas and whatever other transportation I came across. when the next lancha arrived, off I went.

As I ate my breakfast, I used my trusty Lonely Planet to figure out how to get to San Lucas. There are buses that run, but I didn't want to wait the two hours for the next one, so I decided I would take the public pick-up that passes through Santa Catarina Palopo (the village where some girls I bought a bracelet from in Antigua were from) to get San Antonio Palopo, from where I could catch a market-day lancha to San Lucas. The pick-up driver told me that it might be hard to get a lancha at that time of day, because it was already 9:30 and everyone who goes to San Lucas for the market goes early. The driver was right. Once I got to the dock in San Antonio, I asked some of the boat captains if there'd be more boats to San Lucas and they said of course. 30 minutes later I asked another captain and this one scolded me for not having flagged down a boat that had circled 30 yards out from the dock 10 minutes before. I'd assumed that a boat running a route would stop at the dock to see if people came. I was wrong. Oops. The captain assured me that another boat would come. Another 1.5 hours later, the first boat came back from San Lucas, and told me that boats were now coming back to San Antonio but no one would be heading to San Lucas. Fortunately I enjoyed my 2 hours of futile waiting. Right behind the dock there was a playground with some benches, so I spent the bulk of the time sitting and talking to the kids who came to swing and play on the jungle gym. They were cute and sweet, and since San Antonio isn't a major tourist stop at all, even the couple of kids who were trying to sell me things clearly weren't used to talking to a foreigner so I had a good time. Anyway, there happened to be a lancha that had been privately hired for a lake tour waiting for a family who was wandering San Antonio, and I talked the captain into letting me hop on for their next leg which was to Santiago Atitlan.

Santiago is in a narrow extension of the lake and you have to pass through reeds full of snorkel-wearing harpoon fisherman to get there. Santiago itself was a nice town, and happened to be very busy since it was market day. I haggled hard, made some nice purchases, ate well and cheaply at a nice litte restaurant for locals, forgot to take pictures, then jumped on a lancha for San Pedro.

San Pedro is know for its crowds of tourists and huge amounts of drugs. By the time I got there, I was exhausted and dehydrated, and since the docks we arrived at are far from the town, I jumped in a tuk-tuk (three wheeled cart that takes 1-4+ people wherever they need to go) and decided just to do a drive-thru of San Pedro to go straight for San Juan. I don't know if its just because I was in a bad state, but I thought San Pedro was the nastiest place I'd been as we passed through. Then my tuk-tuk got a flat tire on the way to San Juan, and I had to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately it was only 10 minutes downhill, because in my state of exhaustion I would not have been up for a hike.

The walk energized me a bit, and enchanting little San Juan (as well as getting some hydration) brought me back to a normal, rational state. San Juan is basically the kind of place every village on the lake would like to have turned into. All of its tourist industry is operated through local collectives, including a huge number of weaving collectives who give demonstrations and sell their handwoven crafts that they make using cloth they make themselves from their own cotton and dye using only natural colorings. On top of that, they have bus stops and trashcans that are frequent and functional (other than Antigua which the government makes sure to keep very tourist friendly, every other place I'd been in Guatemala either had no trash cans, or had no trash cans that hadn't been vandalized). They also had murals of traditional scenes painted all over town, and had a gorgeous church that was being restored. At this point I had some tuk-tuk confusion (the plus side was that I got to enjoy more tuk-tuk decoration) , but eventually made my way back to San Pedro where I caught a lancha that stopped at San Marcos, Jaibalitos, and one other town (it was the last boat of the day so I didn't get to visit these towns) before dropping me back in Santa Cruz.

I made one other outing, back to San Juan to use its ATM and buy some of its nice crafts. This time, I was in a better mood and I decided to give San Pedro another chance. I decided I actually liked it-- it has a really nice central park, a funky busy downtown, and a weird touristy strip which had everything from a Buddha Bar to a Chabad House (Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera on this outing).

After that, I made my way back to Antigua where I said final goodbyes to the few people still in town at a rooftop bar overlooking some ruins. Then in the morning, I was awoken by a pounding on my door because my alarm hadn't gone off and my airport shuttle was there, on-time at 4:45. I managed to get out the door in 3 minutes, and only forgot a couple of little things. My flights back were smooth, and soon enough I was hugging my mom and sister outside the Pittsburgh airport.

Being Home

Within a few hours of being back in the US, I realized how used to I'd gotten quite used to certain cultural differences. I felt uncomfortable drinking tap water and had forgotten that water fountains exist, I looked around for a trashcan by the toilet before realizing I could throw the paper in the bowl, I was confused for a moment when my first purchase (Sesame Chicken of course, as American as it gets) ended up costing more because of sales tax, and I was shocked by how much skin people (especially girls) show here. All the same it hasn't been a hard adjustment. It's been nice seeing a lot of my friends, and hanging out. And I haven't even had to miss Spanish yet because we have a guy from Guatemala who's here on a professional exchange living with us. Now I'm going up to New England to be with my sisters for a bit, then heading back to school and back to real life (although college isn't exactly real life either, but it's the realest part of my life). I'm happy with where I am and the steps I'm going, and I'm happy that my path had me pass through Guatemala and Safe Passage.

[If you are interested in supporting safe passage, you can volunteer if you can commit to spending 5 weeks there, or you can go for one week as part of a support time. If you want to support them financially, they have all kinds of cool sponsorship programs, including one option that makes you one child's padrino (literally, god-parent)-- they'll send you cards, and you're encouraged to send them cards and gifts. All this information and more can be found at ]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Aqua Magic y la Vida Tranquila


The last couple of weeks have been fairly calm, that is to say, there haven't been any overnight trips and work at Safe Passage has gotten to be fairly routine. That said, I have had a few adventures. The major happening is that I went to Aqua Magic-- a beachfront waterpark a couple hours away in Puerto San Jose. Actually, I went on back-to-back Saturdays, because it so happened that my classes happened to be scheduled one weekend after the other. Classes go on this kind of field trip at the end of a week when they have been working with a support team (a group of volunteers who come just for a week), together with the volunteers as a reward for the kids and the culmination of the experience for the volunteers. Actually, there's a blogpost on the Safe Passage site describing the day's itinerary, so I'm not going to go into too much specific detail, but the day's a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun going down the slides with and teaching pool games to my kids. My younger class had gotten to take swimming lessons because of a United Way grant, but the older class missed out and I spent a lot of time trying to teach some basic buoyancy. The real highlight though was braving the waves-- most of my students had never seen the ocean before, and most of them were terrified of being swept out by the current, so as we went out to jump waves, my hands were squeezed white several times and all the kids alternated between screaming and laughing manically. I didn't bring my camera the first time (with the 8th graders) but I got some pictures the second time around (with the 5th graders):

My other excursion in the last couple of weeks was a 2 hour hike up to Earth Lodge--an ex-pat hostel/avocado farm in the mountains above Antigua. My friend and I walked up, chilled on the hammocks/couches for a while, breathed deeply, and a delicious nutritious lunch. In addition to the views from the top, it happened to be Corpus Christi in a couple of the villages we walked past, so we saw these beautiful paths of saw-dust designs leading to altars. When we were walking there, they were all still being put together, and by the time we left, they were all abandoned and messed up. Apparently, they are just used for a brief procession (we caught a brief glimpse of one). While sawdust designs and parades are all good and nice, the celebrations can get a bit annoying because they involve fairly constant firecrackers, which really don't sound any quieter even after hearing 30 in the course of 5 minutes.

I got a bigger taste of religious celebration right here in Antigua. Monday was Saint James's Day, and Santiago is the patron saint of Antigua, so there were quite the festivities. Unfortunately, I was at work and missed the bulk of the festivities, but what I caught was still quite cool. There were several parades through the course of the day, and we caught the very end--a high school drum and bugle corps proceeding a float bearing the cathedral's statue of Santiago, escorting the float into the cathedral. The night before, I saw a marimba ensemble, which consisted of 46 marimba players, 4 bassists, and 3 drummers all playing together. That night I joined a huge crowd in the park and watched Casa Blanca, a popular band that had several tremendous musicians. Most of their songs were jazz and salsa, but they closed out with two interesting choices-- "El Amor" by Tito El Bambino which is a popular ballad by a reggaeton artist, and then "I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown. The former was nice, the latter was bizarre, due to the singer's... interesting variations in melody and pronunciation, but the song was saved by an amazing five minute drum solo.

I had one other adventure, which wasn't really an excursion. On the way back from Safe Passage, I got off the volunteer bus in front of a mall with the intention of going in, buying a ticket for the upcoming Wisin & Yandell show (they're a very good and extremely popular reggaeton group), and then catching a bus back to Antigua. However, due to construction and uninformed security guards, I ended up making my way back and forth and back again among three of Guatemala's major malls, trying to find the correct kiosk. Fortunately, the return journey was still and adventure but went a lot smoother-- I had no problem taking my first chicken bus all by myself (chicken buses are old school buses which are given crazy paint jobs and are filled up with guatemalans three to a seat, which really means two and a half people in each seat, with the people sitting on the aisle sides hanging out into the aisle and meeting up in the middle so that its 6 people wedged together all the way across).

Safe Passage

I now only have a week and a half left working at Safe Passage, and yet up until a week ago, I was somehow still convinced that my time here could still be responsibly rounded to a month (to be fair, I hadn't yet fully decided that my last week would be spent visiting Lake Atitlan, and 3 1/2 weeks is somewhat close to a month). Fortunately though, I haven't been stressing my departure so much, even as a lot of the volunteers who arrived with me have left in the last couple of weeks. As always, working with the kids has been a lot of progress, interspersed with periodic frustration. On the one hand, I feel like I'm getting closer to having real personal relationships with a lot of the kids (especially after going to the waterpark with them) and I also do feel like I'm getting some big academic concepts across, especially in math. On the other hand, as the whole things becomes more routine, I've noticed that the thrill of seeing a kid understand something new has dulled a little bit, and since my surroundings are no longer as new and exciting, my occasional bouts of boredom when there's not really anything to do have become even more boring. I'm pretty sure I'm already over-dissecting my experience, and that this isn't that interesting either, so I'm just going to share a couple of anecdotes/happenings:
  • A couple of volunteers who were part of a medical support team (they provide one week of free open clinic for the community) decided they wanted to do an art project. As a result, instead of normal value-centered art class, my 5th graders made origami frogs and crowns. The challenge was then to make the frog jump into the crown. However, my kids' skill and enthusiasm brought the activity to a new level-- by the end of the class, many crowns were intricately colored, others had all kinds of origami embellishments, and a couple of boys had managed to jump their frogs into a stack of 6 crowns-- at least a couple of feet high.
  • My 8th grade English class recently started a new project that involves inventing a futuristic product and making a pamphlet to advertise it. The idea is that it gets them to make complete sentences and to expand their vocabulary, especially with adjectives. Because Guatemalan schools do even more to stifle creativity than American ones, a lot of the kids seemed very lost at first when they were given the assignment to invent something, but the creative juices got flowing eventually to a certain degree. One group of boys just wanted to sell water, but market it with all kinds of silly English phrases they'd picked up from Reggaeton. They eventually decided to make it a bottomless bottle of water, after we made them realize what they had wasn't really an invention, much less futuristic.
  • One group of three 5th grade boys who go to the same school had tests coming up, so I took them outside to help them study. The first thing we worked on was memorizing the names of the Chiefs and Conquistadores of Central America. I tried to help the kids come up with pneumonic devices, but it's a lot harder to do in not-my-native-language. The ones I came up with weren't great and were quite silly, but I think the boys all had the names down by the end, so I guess I got the job done.
Upcoming Events:
-Wisin y Yandel Concert (preceded by a minitour of Guatemala city)
-Scuba diving at Lake Atitlan
-Saying goodbye to everyone
-Coming home

Monday, July 11, 2011

Alternando Entre Viajes y Realidades

Camino Seguro and Realities

I've now been here a month, which means my time is just about half-up. This is sad to me, not because I expect to be disappointed by the lifestyle I'll go back to, nor because I feel like I'm not getting enough time here to do what I want to, but because it reminds me that I'm going to be leaving the kids who I've dedicated so much time to building a relationship with. I'm a little bit sad for me, just because I'll be losing these people I'm getting to care about, but mostly I'm finding it hard to deal with the fact that I will be abandoning them in a certain sense. Even more than teaching Algebra and English and how to do research online, what I really have been trying to get across to the kids is that there are people who care about them, people who will be devoted to listening to and dealing with their concerns, people they can trust. And yet, even though I've been up-front with them about how long I'm staying, I realize that any amount of that message I manage to get across is going to be tainted in their minds by the fact that I left.

Teaching has been tiring but rewarding, and the experience has been progressing nicely. After a week and a half, I knew all of my kids names and was able to get all of them to at the very least answer the questions I ask them. Since then, it's been steady progress in building relationships with them-- there are now a lot of kids who ask for my help before I offer it, a lot of them who say hi and bye to me without me prompting it, and a few kids who have shared some of the things that are troubling them from their lives. On top of that, I feel like I have made some progress with teaching the actual subject matter. Mostly I help kids with English and Math. English has been a little frustrating at times for a few reasons. First, I constantly have to overcome the notion that helping with homework means doing it for them. Second, the English the kids learn comes from disjointed curriculums and the teachers at their schools clearly don't speak English-- today I was helping one kid come up with questions in English, and he showed me the examples his teacher had given him, which included "Where live you?" among other...interesting sentences. Still, it's been satisfying to be able to give the kids some English lessons that they can feel more confident in, and seeing how that affects their enthusiasm for learning English. Math has been more consistently satisfying. The math I'm teaching is all the kind of Math I did back when I considered myself more of a math person, and it's really gratifying to be able to explain the conceptual underpinnings and see kids learn math by understanding it, rather than memorizing steps (although I can't pretend I don't also sometimes get frustrated and fall back on a rule I can't make sufficiently clear). I think that the class sizes here (40+ in any public school, and some private schools) keeps the kids from asking questions when they don't understand something, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that in each of my classes, all but a handful of kids approach math very cynically, expecting not to understand anything before they've even tried. It's really nice to give kids like that a good old fashioned "Aha! I've got it!" moment.


Northeastern Tour

Camino Seguro takes up 50 hours of my time in a normal week (including the twice-daiiy hour-long busrides) but being me, I've spent very little the rest of my time sedentary, as tired as I may be at some moments. Last week we had Thursday and Friday off, so I formed a group of 6 and made plans to take advantage of our time off by going on a whirlwind tour of Northeastern Guatemala. Wednesday night we caught an 8 hour overnight bus (we had seats, but some people were sitting on stools in the aisles) to Flores, a pretty island city in Lake Peten Itza. We jumped on a lancha (little motorboat) and spent the morning and afternoon touring the lake, first relaxing on a dock in lovely San Jose, then getting a tour (with a 10 year old and his 3 dogs as our guides) of a little peninsula with several archaelogical sites currently being dug up, 3 gorgeous lookout sites, and abundant wildlife (leafcutter ants, rattlesnake, etc.).

We then made our way to Tikal (Mayan ruins, once a city home to tens of thousands of people), where we slept briefly so that we could catch the sunrise tour. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to actually see the sun itself rise, but it was still stunning to see the forms of the temple emerge from the darkness of the jungle, with howler monkeys screaming and countless types of birds calling out. Walking around the ruins was also deeply impressive, and made all the more entertaining by our extraordinarily feisty, bitter, and self-assured tour guide. In addition to the stunning temples themselves, we got to see some pretty cool wildlife (including a scorpion in our room).

After Tikal, we found another beach dock to relax on for a bit in El Remate, before spending the rest of the day lazing around Flores, before we had to go catch our bus to Rio Dulce. Waiting for the bus was quite an experience. The agency we booked our buses through for some reason told us that every leg of our trip departed an hour before it really did, and wanted us there an hour before that time, which meant that twice (by the third leg, we'd caught on) we waited in a bus station for two hours. The bus station in Santa Elena (just across the bridge from Flores) was hot, dirty, and sketchy. Nothing particularly dramatic happened, but it as a truly surreal experience sitting there for two hours, all of us thoroughly exhausted.

Our bus arrived into Rio Dulce and we quickly made our way to our hostel and went straight to sleep. In the morning, I was the first one up, and was stunned to find the view that our $6 hostel afforded from its lovely dock/deck/patio/restaurant.
I took a stroll around Rio Dulce while some members of our party finished waking up, getting dressed, and eating. The town has a very interesting character. It has a bridge which I've been told is the largest in Central America, it has a very hectic main street, supposedly a culture leftover from when the town was the last stop before the daunting journey through Petén and up the Yucatan, and also a huge number of yachters because it is the safest port in the Western Caribbean during hurricane season. It was quite a contrast seeing 10-year-old street vendors and just a few hundred yards away, 10-year-olds on jet-skis pulling into a fancy American-style full-service marine gas station.

Anyway, we soon jumped on another Lancha, this time to do the stunning 2.5 hour ride down the Rio Dulce, all the way to Livingston where it dumps into the Caribbean. Words can't do the river justice. I'll try with pictures.

Livingston itself is quite a unique place. It can only be reached by boat, and is Guatemala's center of Garifuna culture. The Garifuna people are the primarily the descendants of West-Africans who lived freely on St. Vincent after their slave ship crashed there, but their genealogy and culture also draw from the indigenous peoples of the Carribean. Anyway, they were expelled by the British to Honduras, and have maintained their culture along the Caribbean coast of Central America. In Livingston, we stayed in a very lively, very fun, very Gringo $6 hostel called Casa de la Iguana, where we ran into 6 more Safe Passage volunteers. The hostel is the kind of place where you could hang out forever (a few do, and get paid a little bit for it), and we hung there before checking out Livingston's nightlife, which has a very lively dance scene for a town so small.

Next morning, we woke up, caught a boat to Puerto Barrios (which was United Fruit Company's main port, and is still a port for Chiquita Banana) , and from there caught a bus back to Antigua.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

The beaches in El Salvador are supposed to be a good bit nicer than those in Guatemala, so a friend convinced me to pony-up for a weekend trip to El Tunco, a surfers' haven beach town thats just 5 hours away. This trip was more about relaxing and enjoying so it requires a lot less detail. Some happenings while we were there:
tastiest fish I've ever had, which only cost me $3, having a table created for us on the street because a restaurant was full (and subsequently ending up with a 5 dog dog-fight under our table), some of the best ice cream/popsicles I've ever had, another fantastic cheap hostel, chilling on the beach, drinking a fresh $1 coconut on the beach, and taking a surf lesson (which was so much more exhausting than what I remembered).
Our trip back was also quite memorable, though not necessarily in a way I would have wanted it to be. Events included:
our driver stopping a number of times to pour water on his head, buy food, and give money to people for no apparent reason; our van hitting a bump and all of our luggage falling out the back; our driver telling me that he was sick and that the liquor he'd drank a several hours before hadn't sat well in his stomach (at this point we were almost back, and it was most certainly out of his system so there was nothing to be done), our driver and guide looking terrified as a car that had been following for some ways honked at us, and stopping for 10 minutes as we watched and waited for a tractor to turn upright a big truck that had flipped going around a bend.
Despite all that chaos, we made it back safe and sound, and ready to start another week of Camino Seguro.

I got a bunch of gushy reflection out at the beginning, and know that I still have a month to muse on everything Camino Seguro (especially since I think the bulk of my travelling is behind me), and this post is most certainly long enough already, but I don't want to end talking about travel because it is really kind of a bonus of being here, and isn't the central purpose of my trip. So, a quick anecdote. Many of the kids I work with in Camino Seguro come from rough situations, and while the kids will usually tell me if it's something at home or at school that's bothering them when they're upset, it's not often that specifics come out, so whenever a detail flashes out, it's a really strong reminder of what their reality is. The other day, one girl went to get seconds of lunch. I stayed with her, as did a two of her friends. As she was eating, her two friends were laughing, saying "She hasn't eaten all weekend! Her parents don't have any money! Her mom-- her mom looks like this!", they then proceeded to suck their cheeks in, to look as malnourished as they could. When I told this story to someone else for the first time, their response was, "Didn't you tell them to stop laughing?" I had to think for a moment, to consider whether I should have told them to stop. However, the thing is, this isn't one unfortunate episode, this is real life for these kids, and I think laughing with her friends helps the girl cope. She certainly wasn't bothered by it. It's crazy to imagine being at the point where you've been put in such an unfortunate situation so many times that laughing at it is more effective than fearing or resenting it. It's a different reality.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

La Sustancia de Mi Vida Acá Llega

I've now finished my first working at Camino Seguro, and it's been great, meaningful, powerful, tiring, fun, stimulating, and a million other things. However, before I get into that, I took a trip last weekend that deserves some mention.

Someone I'd met at the language school asked if I wanted to come along on a trip to Semuc Champey, which he described as being highly recommended, involving water and caves, and costing not-that-much money. So, I said I was in without really asking for any more info. Because I went on a tour of the Camino Seguro facilities, I wasn't at school to sign-up with the rest of the folk, and went into Friday morning knowing just what I described above and having no idea if I was going for sure. Sure enough I showed up, signed up during our midmorning break, and left at 2 PM that day. My host-mom found it somewhere between funny and unbelievable that I was committing to the trip knowing just about nothing about it, not even a real price or return or departure times, but the trip was a lovely adventure so I'd say my methods served me. Semuc Champey is a nature area with beautiful natural pools that you can swim in, waterfalls and cliffs and rope-swings to jump off of, a river to tube down, and a partially submerged cave to explore by candle-light. We did all of that in just one day. It's about 9 hours away from Antigua, so Friday and Sunday were both travel days, leaving Saturday as the day of nonstop awesomeness. Aside from Semuc Champey being so cool itself, the group I went with made the trip really fun. I only knew 4 out of the 10 people going before I got on the van, but by the end I'd say I got know everyone quite well. Everyone on the trip was interesting, but also really laid back, good traits to have for 2 long busrides and 1 chock-full of activity. I laughed a lot, and learned a lot about Taiwan, life at a small christian college in MI, entrepreneurship, and LA's Persian Jews, among other things. It was a blast.

Some pictures:

Monday morning I woke up at 6:30 to catch a the Camino Seguro volunteer bus into Guate (what the capital is usually called here). Monday was orientation for the 11 new volunteers, which is a huge amount given that the program usually has around 40 at a time all of whom are there for 5 weeks at the very least. Because there were so many of us, orientation took the whole 8 hours, and we didn't find out our jobs and start working until the next day. Tuesday morning on the bus, I found out that I would be working with Segundo Básico (8th grade) and Quinto Primario (5th grade). I was supposed to start out shadowing someone, but the person I was supposed to shadow was sick, so I just jumped right in. The first day went amazingly well and each day after went only better. Basically, Camino Seguro provides the kids with meals, English lessons, and homework support so it's not like we have to have lesson plans that progressively cover huge topics. Basically, I walk around and see which kids want help with homework, and if no one has any questions, do my best to maintain order and calm, and to keep the kids with no homework learning or engaged or at the very least, entertained. Mostly I've helped with English and Math, and I really feel like I've helped some of the kids learn some important concepts, which is really satisfying.

As I somewhat explained in an earlier post, the kids who get to go to Camino Seguro come from families that live on the edges of, and/or work in the huge garbage dump. The main criteria for choosing from all of the kids of the community around the dump is need, as determined by Camino Seguro's social workers. That means that a lot of the kids I work with don't just come from poor backgrounds, they come from families that can be abusive, full of addicts, or non-existant. Because of this, the personal relationship I form with the kids has a significance thats a lot deeper than just getting them comfortable enough with me to ask for help with homework. It's been hard trying to building a relationship with about 50 kids in just 4 days (especially because I'm not very good with names), but I can already talk to and get a grin out of most of the kids (which is so gratifying to see on a face that comes in grim, dirty, glum) and I know that my connection with the kids will only get deeper. I know I haven't done much at all yet, bust already I'm somewhat lost for words when it comes to expressing what a difference I see in the kids even after just a few days trying to convey to the kids that they do have personal value and trying to give them something to smile about.

That said, teaching--especially in my second language to kids from rough backgrounds-- isn't all fun and easy smiles and cooperation. I'm still struggling to earn serious respect from some kids, and the chaos that arises when a lot of kids aren't working can really do a number on you. Friday only a couple of kids in my older class had homework, and that got to be exhausing really quickly. I took a nap after I ate which helped, but as always, a certain few kids were being really uncooperative about taking their vitamins, waiting their turn to get toothpaste, and lining up to head to the classroom, and that put me on edge. We were scheduled for gym class that day, and it was raining, which meant that there would be combined, indoor gym class (which is notoriously chaotic) and my patience was already running short. Fortunately, English class was first, and I was reminded in a very direct and powerful way what I was working for. Because the next day was Teacher's Day, the lesson for the day was to make Happy Teacher's Day cards for their teacher, who they've been with now for a year and a half. To my surprise, several kids asked for a second sheet of construction paper, and made me a card too. All of the cards had really sweet messages, and it was particularly touching because a couple of them came from kids I'd been struggling to get the right kind of respect from. Just like that, my day was turned around, I maintained my enthusiasm through a chaotic gym class, and came home for the weekend feeling satisfied in what I'd accomplished during my first week.

Stepping back from Camino Seguro to talk about something else (which as I had been warned beforehand, can be a challenge), Saturday morning I went with a friend and climbed Volcán Pacaya, a volcano not far from Antigua that just erupted last year. It was cool to see huge swathes of land freshly covered in volcanic ash, the views were lovely when the clouds parted for a moment, and all of the colors were vivid, but we didn't realize that the standard hike doesnt actually go all the way to the top. It only costs $8 more to get a guide to take you up to the crater at the peak where you can see the lava, but since we came with a group and didn't know it beforehand, there was nothing to be done. Maybe I'll do the full thing some time as a night-time hike, which is supposed to be amazing.

3 things that are different here

1. Right now it is the rainy season, so you can count on it to rain hard once during the afternoon. Unfortunately, it also can rain several times a day (e.g. today, when rain spoiled plans to take a walk up to the gringo hippy avocado farm/commune/hostel, and to play ultimate frisbee).
2. Because of the climate, most multi-room buildings have open-air hallways and an open patio. Paths from room to room have overhangs so that you can walk from place to place without getting wet, but since there's no need for AC or heat, everything's pretty open.
3. The dynamic between locals and foreigners here is different from any I've experienced. Maybe not so drastically different, but especially here in Antigua--Guatemala's tourist HQ--it's always present. My perspective isn't fair of course because I haven't gone anywhere off the beaten path for foreigners so everyone I've been around has been very used to foreigners coming and going, but even considering what I've experienced just a substrain of Guatemalan culture, I haven't ever spent time in a place where such a big proportion of people get their livelihoods from tourist-related industries. I think especially because of the language barrier (if you look gringo, you're assumed to speak slim-to-no Spanish), I get the sense that when people look at me and see a gringo, I'm thought of either as being a possible source of money, or as common oddity that isn't particularly interesting. Of course, there are Guatemalans who are very kind to and interested by foreigners, but especially before people realize that I speak Spanish, I feel like there's a preconception that I can only have the same amount of significance to them as all the other gringos they see, and no thought that I might be of any interest past that. It's a subtle difference that might be more pronounced for me because I've always lived in a pretty small and interconnected community, but it is a bit disconcerting for me. All the same, even where this preconception is present, it can be overcome. I know a lot of people do form close relationships with Guatemalans, and hopefully I'll soon be one of those people.

Coming Up:
-My second week at Camino Seguro
-A whirlwind tour of northern Guatemala over the four-day weekend

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Se Empieza-- Llego y Empiezo a Acostumbrarme

This post is quite long, but hey-- EVERYTHING is new at this point so there's a lot to say. Hopefully I'll be able to be more concise in the future. All the same, I'm writing more to document things than for whatever audience there may be, so I don't feel too bad. I guess the bottom line is, don't worry if you want to skim.

Sunday night, only an hour or so after my plane was supposed to have landed, I arrived in Guatemala. My plane had been delayed for mechanical difficulties in Dallas but I wasn't too upset about as it let me spend more time with the massage machines in the Brookstone. The whole travelling process went smoothly, though I was a touch frightened about a half hour before we landed because we flew right through the middle of a very electrically active thunderstorm. Anyway, I arrived and found my ride without any problem. Oscar, who was very friendly, laughed with me for a lot of the hour long ride as he told stories of awkward rides with nervous gringas who didn't speak any spanish. Soon, we pulled up to my homestay, a nice little red house in the northeast corner of town. I met the father, Hector who welcomed me, showed me my room, explained the shower, and politely left me to sleep. This house has two rooms for students, but until Sunday I'm the only guest. My room is cozy and comfortable except for the mattress, which is very worn down in the middle and has springs that stick through the top (for the first few nights I covered them with socks so they wouldnt poke me through the sheets, but I just flipped the mattress and put the bad that had been under it on top of it, so hopefully tonight I'll be more comfortable). Regardless, I've had no problem sleeping so far, so I can't complain too much.
For my first few days, the morning routine was the same-- wake up at 6:30, at 7 go downstairs and eat breakfast with Sandra, the mother. The family doesn't have the same meal schedule as the one that seems to be standard for homestays here, (7, 1, and 7), but someone (almost always Sandra) keeps the student company during every meal. Sandra is a very good cook, extremely nice, and tremendously talkitive-- a good combination of traits for someone who cooks your meals then sustains a conversation with you despite the fact that your mouth is full most of the time. Sandra is also very positive and optimistic-- the two sentences I've heard the most from her definitely have to be "Tu español es perfecto!" and "Te va a gustar!" ("Your Spanish is perfect!" and "You're going to like it!". Her positivity has definitely been nice these past few days as I'm still settling in and trying to make friends and figure out what to be doing and all that jazz. Anyway, after breakfast I head down to Escuela de Español la Unión where I've been taking classes. I have one-on-one lessons with Walter, who's in his late 20s, really nice, and a very good teacher. Mostly I we just ask each other questions about whatever, and he corrects me and teaches me vocabulary as we go. I'm glad I took the class because in addition to tidying up my grammar, I now have my own dictionary of Guatemalan slang. Probably even more importantly, I have mostly mastered conjugating verbs for vos, which is the even less formal version of you that is used here but is neither used in Chile nor taught in the US, but especially important to know as a guy here because if one guy addresses another as rather thanvosorusted, it is generally interpreted as meaning that you are romantically interested in them, which is not a message I want to be sending (of course people give foreigners some slack, but especially if I'm going to be working with kids, I'd rather avoid the issue). Classes go from 8 AM to 12 or 1 PM, with nice 30 minute break in the middle to mingle with other students. After class I walk 5 blocks to get home for lunch, then from there see how I can spend the day.

Each day La Unión (the Spanish school) has some activity that they offer their students. Monday they offered a free salsa and merengue class, so I went and actually had fun. Monday I also went for a walk with the intention of getting a little lost to explore the town, but I got a little more lost than I intended to and got home more than two hours later. Tuesday I didn't do whatever La Unión's activity was because I went on a walking tour of Antigua with the volunteer coordinator for Camino Seguro (my volunteer program) and a few of the other volunteers who are starting this week. The volunteers all seem cool people, and we decided to all go out that night to a one bar people had recommended to us, which is probably the most gringo bar in town (while there's nothing wrong with the place being full of foreigners, I found it ridiculous that they served Bacardi rum instead of one of the many Guatemalan rums that are supposed to be really good). Later in the evening, I joined some people from the Spanish school at the dancehall next door to the bar. For an hour or so they just played music for salsa, and there were some really good (intimidating) salsa dancers (I still attempted to pretend salsa competence once). After a while though, they started playing reggaeton and other music that you can dance more freely to and I had a good time. Wednesday after lunch, I went with some folk from the la Unión up to the top of Cerro de la Cruz, which has a great view of the whole of Antigua, with the behemoth that is Volcán de Agua as a backdrop.

Today instead of going to class I went into the capital, commonly referred to as Guate for a tour of Camino Seguro's facilities. I'm not going to say too much about it, because I'm sure I'll have a good bit to say once I'm more familiar with it, but it's really impressive how much they've built up given that they were founded just twelve years ago by one twenty-something year old. They have all kinds of educational and self-betterment programs for people who work collecting garbage in Central America's largest dump, which is pretty much right in the middle of the city.
The back 1/4 of the garbage dump-- a crowd gathers to sort through the latest delivery of trash

A stark contrast: a playground in the camino seguro compound, and just across the wall, shantytown built on landfill, and just past that the landfill (you can see a yellow truck)

So far I've had a pretty easy time settling in, but I'm eager to get started because while Antigua is really nice, really pretty, and full of old churches (both restored and in ruins), the fact that it's so full of tourists makes me uncomfortable for some reason--I feel like the presence of so many hapless Gringos makes locals assume at a glance that I can't hold a conversation in Spanish and that I'm just swinging through to see the sights. Maybe I was a bit spoiled by my time in Curicó, where I could blend in with a lot more ease, and there were hardly any foreigners to begin with. More than that, I want to feel like I'm doing more with my time, especially since I really believe in Camino Seguro (although they still haven't told me how exactly I'll be helping). 10 hour days will be exhausting but I think they'll be really rewarding. Plus, I keep hearing how great the community of volunteers is, and I'd like to have some friends I can call to hang out with in the evenings. So, I'm very much looking forward to what's ahead-- a tentative trip with a few people from La Unión to the underwater caves at Semuc Champey this weekend, then starting at Camino Seguro on Monday.

I know that this post is already a little bit absurdly long, but since it seemed like the most popular feature of my Chile blog, I'm going to do it any how. Without further ado:

three things that are different here

1. There are tons and tons of cars with heavily tinted windows. I suspect this might have to do with the presence of drug money, which people say is the reason for all of the nice cars around here.
2. Tortillas here are about six inches in diameter, and are doughier than those you find in the US, and are served with basically everything.
3. There's a lot to say about all of the ways in which money is different here-- its done in Quetzales (about 7.8 to a dollar), the same amount of it buys a lot more of just about everything except technology, but what I find most extreme is the difference in salaries. Examples: My Spanish teacher, who has certification and is one of the better teachers in one of the better schools, makes less than $3 an hour. My host-mother who is a certified physical therapist, only gets $12 for each 1.5 hour therapy session (if you consider all of the paperwork she has to do because she works independently, she probably gets just about what would be minimum wage in the US). The minimum wage here is just under a dollar an hour, and there are a lot of people who don't even make that, both because the law isn't well-enforced, and because so many people work in the informal economy-- including those Camino Seguro serves who collect recyclables in the dump, and many of the people I see in the street, trying to sell their wares to tourists. Even with cheaper prices here, that's often not enough to afford even just the things that Americas consider the barest of necessities.

I'm already rethinking my priorities, already re-evaluating the value of basic opportunity, already feeling like my perspective has started to change significantly.