Monday, October 1, 2007

Total Randomness...

Just some random things that have happened in Guatemala and in my life since I last wrote.

--The Latin American Idol was this past weekend and a Guatemalan won. As any proud people should be, the Guatemalans are going crazy for their new celebrity. Everything seems to be plastered with Carlos Peña´s face, name or songs.
--I´m making plans for a weeklong trip to Mexico with an American family who lives in Xela as well. They need to renew their visa´s and so I´m taking the opportunity to do the same (not to mention to visit a few ancient ruins, etc...) I think we´re leaving sometime next week.
--Last week I visited a family of weavers who live up in the mountains. The six children and two parents make wool rugs and blankets, completing the process from start to finish. They begin by sheering the sheep. Then they wash the wool in the river. They dye the wool with natural things such as rocks, grass, insects and bark. Then they spin and weave the wool into intricate tapestries. After being explained the whole process I was allowed to try my hand at spinning and weaving. Its such a beautiful process that I wish I had an extra month or two in this country to take weaving classes....

A final thought:
Today I saw performing clown children again. Two brothers: one barely old enough to be out of diapers, the other a head taller, but already leading the life of a working man. They stood just in front of our microbus for several minutes during a lingering traffic jam. At first all I could see were their juggling balls, dancing in and out of view through the tainted window, their mismatched suspenders and vibrantly striped trousers still hidden from sight. As the impatient cars cleared out and our van finally passed through the intersection, I saw their faces clearly. Their fake, painted smiles taunted me. I wonder if they have forgotten how to smile themselves. I thought of my life, living in the same city as them, walking the same weary streets, breathing in the same infected air and yet looking at it all through such different eyes.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Here´s something I was thinking today as I walked back from work at the project:

Everybody in Guatemala seems to be waiting for something.

The abuelita in full traje at the street corner, baby slung across her back with an expertise that only comes from decades of practice, stares through the smog of the passing chicken buses…and waits. The boy who wakes every morning to stand on the speed bump a few blocks from my house and sell The Prensa Libre (the national newspaper) to unfortunate passersby who find themselves reading another headline of violence and corruption…he waits. The ragged dog who wanders the streets in a camouflage of dust, grime and weariness, unclaimed and unnamed, searching for the rare scrap of bread and avoiding confrontation…also waits. The school girls in full uniform, plaid skirts dancing above bruised knees; the shoe shiner whose chemicals are paying a toll on his mind; the ice-cream vendor with twinkling bell that belie the soft, strained beat of his heart; the university student who teaches Spanish in the afternoons and cleans houses on the weekends; the madre of sixteen years who can roll a perfect tortilla in seven seconds; even the long-haired gringo in the central park who reads Aristotle and bargains for hand-weaved bracelets, all seem to be waiting…for something.

Perhaps in a language where “esperar” means “to wait” and “to hope,” the are easily confused.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A bus ride through Xelaju

Everything we do here is done slowly, with lethargy. We creep along to Xela Pan (the bakery) with the maestros from the Spanish school. My host sisters and I return home an hour after we were told we had to be back. Sometimes we talk for a solid hour after dinner and then we sit in silence…thinking of what else to say. The only thing they do quickly here is drive. Like maniacs, honking, swerving, screeching to a halt and then peeling out. EVERYONE has the simultaneous right-of-way…except for pedestrians.

I wish I could take each of you for a bus ride through Xela, just once. Oddly enough, it’s one of the most unique experiences I have in Xela. The buses are actually large vans for twelve to fifteen passengers. Each bus has a driver and an assistant. The assistants are uniformly young boys about the age of my brother Seppi. They stand on the step into the bus and hang out of the door, calling out a mantra of the various stops or destinations. If there is no assistant, you only need call out your desired destination and the driver will indicate with a flick of his head or hands whether or not he can take you there. As far as I can tell you have to know where buses pass just from experience because there are no marked bus stops. Basically, if you put out your hand, a bus will find you within seconds, even if it requires crossing several lanes of honking traffic.

What is most rich about the bus rides is the sheer number of people who manage to fit into one bus for a ride across town. I have counted up to more than thirty people in a bus meant to fit less than half that much. Furthermore, many of the passengers bring with them bundles of fruits, sacks of grain, briefcases, or yards of woven cloth. If the passenger getting on the bus can’t hold their possessions themselves, the next closest sitting passenger offers to carry the belongings until the owner gets off the bus. This is rarely an act of courtesy, but rather done out of mere necessity. The rule that the elderly and small children are given the priority for seats does not exist. Toddlers are squeezed between strangers, abuelitas sit on the floor, and only the assistant relinquishes his spot.

Somehow I feel incredible safe while riding these packed buses. Even though I may literally have someone on my lap, I don’t feel like anything can happen in a place so brimming full of traveling people and whispering voices and staring eyes. Although, one time I did think I was being pick-pocketed. I felt someone touching my back pocket as if trying to reach something. Afraid to say anything, I glanced to the side and behind me and saw my neighbor digging for a Quetzal in her pocket. We were sitting so closely that I couldn’t distinguish her pocket from mine!

One of my favorite things about the bus rides are when the driver doesn’t have an assistant and closes the door by breaking quickly and then resuming his speeding pace. Or when the radio plays an American pop song and the man across from me mouths the words subconsciously. Or the fact that it only cost a Quetzal to ride, regardless of your destination.

But more importantly, these rides epitomize something so intrinsically Guatemalan that my heart beats a little faster every time I ride and I find my lips curling up in a sad smile from time to time. The smell of hard working people, the empty eyes of the eleven-year-old who hangs out the window—half his body moving with the bus and half dragging somewhere behind, the shuffle of the golden coins on the dashboard, the blank faces of the passengers who rarely acknowledge the existence of the other people pressed against their crouching bodies. It all feels so absolutely real. There’s nothing manufactured or glossy like in a bus in the States. There’s just raw human yearning and waiting. And there’s nothing I can do but mirror the blank stares and clutch my backpack to my chest.

Queridos amigos,


My schedule doesn’t leave much time for writing in my own diary, much less one that requires access to internet. But I want to give anyone who’s interested a general idea of what I’m doing here and how I feel about it.

Two full weeks have passed and I have settled into a relatively consistent schedule. My mornings start early (for me) with my alarm sounding at 6:00 or 6:30 (depending on whether or not I want to get a shower). I am living with a family of four daughters, two parents, one nasty guard dog and a fair share of bed bugs. Those of us who are human have a rushed breakfast as the attempt is made to get all five of us girls out the door and into the back seat of the family car. We live on the edge of the city of Xela, making for a ten minute car ride into the school that my host family runs (my host father being the principle and my host mother the secretary). On our way to the school we drive over a series of speed bumps. Every day a boy stands on the first speed bump and sells the local newspaper to drivers who must slow to cross the speed bumps. When we arrive at the school I walk another ten or fifteen minutes to my daily Spanish lessons which start at 8:00 AM.

My Spanish lessons at Centro Maya Xela are the first half of my two-fold day. Each student at the school works individually with one teacher for five hours daily, until 1:00 PM. My teacher is a university student named Carolina who teaches Spanish in the mornings and takes classes in the afternoons. There are about a dozen students and corresponding teachers at Centro Maya. We quickly form a relatively tight community, sometimes studying in groups, playing ping pong at every chance we get to slip away from our books, sharing dinner once a week and making weekly trips to local attractions. It is at the Spanish school that I get to share Tracy Chapman music, attempt to understand Pablo Neruda in Spanish, learn to dance the Meringue, participate in teacher vs. student basketball games and drink countless cups of coffee in an attempt to keep warm in the unheated building.

At 1:00 I leave Centro Maya and walk several blocks to the main road where I catch a bus heading for the central park downtown. Thirty minutes later, I arrive several blocks from my afternoon work. I spend the next four hours at Casa de Esperanza y Educacion. This project is an after school program designed for students who are struggling or failing school. Basically, most students who are enrolled in the project wouldn’t be in school if it weren’t for this extra help. The students receive everything from uniforms and books to food and (most importantly) homework help, which is where I come in. I go from class to class and help the individual students complete their English homework. Sometimes I work on translations for two hours with one student. Other times, I teach an entire class of seven-year-olds their numbers in English (and sometimes in Spanish too!).

At 5:00 PM the project lets out and I catch a bus back home. I usually have a chance to work or rest or read for about an hour before I make dinner and then wait for the arrival of the rest of my family who spend their entire days at the school in town. We eat a late dinner but head to bed right after cleaning up. I’ve started reading the seventh Harry Potter book (being the last girl in my family—and also the only one to read it in English) so this has kept me up pretty late the past few nights but normally, I try to fall asleep as quickly as possible in my cold, downstairs bedroom.

Honestly, I am very content with this schedule and am happy for the full and tiring days. My only wish would be to live closer to the center of town. As it is, I have to always make plans to go anywhere, as I need to get a ride or take a bus. I know a lot of volunteers who live closer and have more freedom to be spontaneous. But I guess the set-up isn’t that different then my situation at home in the States, so I can’t complain.

There are so many images that I want to take and show to all of you. But they aren’t images that a camera alone could capture. I wish I could package the smells and the colors and the motion of the streets and deliver them to you so that you can know how different a life in Guatemala is. So with my words and some photos I will try to place some of these images here, so that you can try to see.

With love, excitement, and waaaay too many tortillas,