Friday, December 11, 2009

A Sweet Despedida

ANTIGUA, Guatemala -- My lovely Common Hope library colleague Lynn organized a little surprise going-away party, or despedida, for me. It was nothing fancy -- sweet bread from local bakery Dona Luisa's, shared with a handful of other volunteers and about a dozen of the regular kids.

I'm a long-time fan of Dona Luisa's banana bread, but now I'm a convert to the orange-chocolate bread, too. (Bread is a misnomer; it really is more like pound cake.)

The kids seemed to appreciate it, too. With no wiggling, the occasional giggle and very little talk, they settled in to devour three or four slices each.

Every now and then, I will read an article that ponderously tries to debunk the belief that sugar makes young  kids hyper. Parents always find this laughable, and I am reminded why. Our usually mild-mannered, shy little girls were all on turbo-drive half an hour after they finished the cake. It was like having a flock of a dozen hummingbirds working on jigsaw puzzles.

(Because the party was a surprise, I didn't have my camera with me. The photo here is one that I took in the library last week. Note how all the kids in it are sitting still.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Second City

QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala--Fortunately, most people call this city by its nickname.

"Quetzaltenango" means, roughly, "place of the quetzal,"--the Guatemalan national bird--in one Mayan lanaguage. (There are more than 20 living Mayan language.) The city's older name in another Mayan language is Xelaju, or roughly, "place of the 10 leaders." So people call it Xela, pronounced Shay-la.

It's the second largest Guatemalan city and the long-time trading center for the largely Mayan altiplano, or high plane,  area. (It's at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet.)  I made a quick visit this past weekend, just because I've never been there.

Xela is no Guatemala City--and what a good thing that is! The capital is the financial, cultural and intellectual center of this country. It's also crowded, filthy, polluted and dangerous. (Hey, that's probably the most generous description possible!) Xela is smaller, less crowded and cleaner. When I asked the young reception clerk at my downtown hotel whether it would be safe to walk around the neighborhood at twilight, she said sure, just avoid dark streets. In many neighborhoods of the capital that would simply be unthinkable.

Xela is also significantly less touristy than Antigua, the town where I have been living. In other words, it's the kind of small city where people actually live. Take a look at these photos. They focus on the downtown area; I didn't get to many residential neighborhoods.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Queman el Diablo

ANTIGUA, Guatemala--Maybe I was a little too close. After all, I was able to smell the gasoline they used to set fire to the devil, and at least one of the flying cinders hit me. The firefighters were certainly farther away.

At 6 p.m. on December 7, Guatemalans burn the devil. (Why 6 p.m.? No one has been able to explain that to me--just because that's when it's done.) Supposedly, the custom began in 1776 in Antigua, when people set fires outside their homes to light the way for a procession in honor of the Immaculate Conception, the feast of the Virgin Mary that is celebrated December 8.

The custom now is followed throughout the country. The idea is that you take the trash out of the house and burn it, to symbolize cleaning out all the bad things from the previous year and preparing for Christmas. These days, they try to discourage individual fires. For instance, there was an article in one newspaper today about all the environmental damage such fires can do if people burn plastics, tires and the like.

Instead, the sanctioned way to follow the custom these days is for a town to burn a replica of a devil--a  statue, a paper figure or the like. Here in Antigua, a papier mache-looking statue of a devil has been set up on the edge of town for more than a week. For the actual ceremony today, they moved him about a block. (The plaza where he was originally situated is bordered by two gas stations. Go figure.)

People gathered about an hour in advance, to eat street food and plant the kids in a spot with a good view. One of the traditional bands that usually plays in religious processions serenaded the crowd, which eventually filled about three blocks. Vendors sold devil horns (very popular). The master of ceremonies also wore a devil costume. I'm not quite sure why, since the idea was to annihilate the devil. Still.

After some satiric comments by MC Devil, someone set flame to the gasoline-soaked sticks that surrounded the devil statue. He went up with loud cracks, as if some firecrackers had been stuck inside the papier mache. The TV newscasters who were broadcasting live kept talking, although I think at least one of them moved a few feet away when the flames were at their crackling-est.

As the fire died down, some of the crowd dispersed. Others remained to eat more street food and watch a nearby performance by some scantily-clad Gallo Girls (young women sponsored by the big beer company) who danced on a street stage to loud contemporary Latin music.

The devil-burning was the big attraction of the night, but as I walked home, I skirted several little fires set in the streets outside houses, in what I'm guessing is the traditional manner. Several hours later, firecrackers are still going off somewhere nearby, and people are still wandering the streets in devil horns.

Monday, November 30, 2009

So How Does This Work, Anyway?

ANTIGUA, Guatemala--Hundreds of people come to Antigua each month to study Spanish. Should you?

I'm biased--I've done this twice and I love it. It might or might not work for you. Obviously, there are plenty of other places to study, but I know only Antigua.

First thing to understand: You're not going to come here for one week and leave fluent, even if you took Spanish in high school. This can be a lot of work. Most people will study for a month or more, and will just end up kicking themselves that they aren't better and smarter than they are, and that they don't have more time. However, there are also people here for a week or two, just learning enough to survive before they launch themselves into a longer trip south. That's fine, too.

Most schools seem to work the same way. You are assigned a teacher and study together one-on-one, for four or more hours per weekday. The content of the classes depends on your level, which can be anywhere from absolute beginner to practically fluent. Studying involves grammar drills, but also a lot of conversation. (There's homework, too.)

You can live with a family, who will provide room, board and more Spanish practice. But you can also live in a hotel, a dorm-like guesthouse or your own apartment. (The last seems to be a common choice among longer-term visitors, or those who are here with spouses and family.) Some people complain that the meals the families serve are stingy--tortillas, beans and maybe some chicken. I guess that happens with some schools, which pay the families miserably. But I have been very lucky. Both times here I have lived with great families that served excellent food. Yes, I have lost appreciable weight, not because I'm being starved, but rather because I'm eating a portion-controlled fruit-and-veggie heavy diet.

The studying style here is called immersion, but just about everyone realizes that true immersion is difficult in Antigua. There are too many other students, not to mention tourists. I've also concluded that if you just study and laze around, you're not forced to use other language muscles, the way you would be if you worked or hung out with local friends. Working in a situation like mine--volunteers at the project generally speak together in English--is not going to improve your adult Spanish vocabulary, either. (Now, your ability to ask a 9-year-old whether she needs help with a jigsaw puzzle--that's going to skyrocket!)

You can pay once a week, in advance. Prices seem ridiculously cheap by North American standards, but they do vary. Spot-checking a few reputable schools gives me prices for room, board and 20 hours of class varying from $170 to $310 per week. If you don't like a house, it's cool to ask to switch. If a school doesn't click with you, you can switch that, too. The guidebooks all say you can just drift into town, visit a couple schools, and pick one. I've never done it that way--I've followed the recommendations of my U.S. Spanish teacher. It has worked for me.

Most students seem to study four hours a day, 8am to noon. That means their afternoons are free for whatever--relaxing, studying, writing, working. Others study for six or seven hours--that leaves almost no brain cells available for other things. (An 8am class start means you are up at 6am, but that's easy in Antigua, because church bells, fireworks and even the occasional rooster seem to observe that schedule.)

Life in a family homestay may be more regimented than you are used to. Meals are at set hours. You develop routines on study times and the like. You're not part of the family, but they do keep an eye on what you're doing (especially with younger students.)

If you are considering this and have specific questions, feel free to ask!

And if you're wondering, the photo above is the devil. He's on display in one Antigua square this week. Next week, he's going to be burned in a much-anticipated ceremony/party. No, I don't understand it either, yet!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mi Ahijada

SAN GASPAR, Guatemala--The younger, shorter woman in the photo is Aura, my ahijada -- that is, my godchild or sponsored child.

The sponsor system is a common way for nonprofits here and elsewhere to attract contributors. You establish a direct link between the sponsor and the child, who exchange letters, photos and the like. That emotional link helps insure that the sponsor won't stop giving. I'm not a great madrina, or godmother. That is, I don't write a lot of personal letters. But I do keep writing the checks.

Now, no matter what the ads from some charities say, my $2 a day doesn't actually feed Aura or anything like that. It doesn't go directly to her family. Rather, it goes to a fund that pays for things such as her high school scholarship, her school uniform and the salary of the social worker who regularly visits her family. As far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing. It spreads the money out. Also, I don't think a direct cash payment would be the best way to insure that things such as tuition get paid--other priorities would likely come first, like food.

That's because Aura's family has a monthly income of less than $300. And while life is less expensive here than up north, that's not enough for anything that most Americans would consider acceptable.

It's an intact family, with an employed father and a supportive mother. But there are eight kids, which means it is something close to miraculous that all the little ones are actually enrolled in school.

I visited the family for an hour this week. The littlest girls were smiley and shy, speaking in near-whispers, in a way common with Guatemalan girls. The mother was friendly,  gracious and obviously proud of her kids. The house was small, especially with that many little children around. There was a main room that serves as living room, kitchen and dining room. Three bedrooms were curtained off. I know from the social work report that there's electricity and a bathroom with running water. I know from my experience that there's a dirt floor. Oh, and chickens pecking around on that dirt floor, six adults and three chicks, all at various points in the food production process.

It was the first time that I have met Aura, who I have sponsored for four years. She's in high school, an admirable feat here. She's studying for a career in tourism administration--accounting and the like. She's not tiny and cute, like many of the other ahijados affiliated with the project. (OK, maybe she's tiny--compared with me, most Guatemalan women are--and obviously she's cute, but not the way that the six-year-olds are.)

Instead, she is a well-spoken, polite young lady who very soon will be able to help support the rest of her family, and will have a very good chance of breaking the cycle of poverty. I'm proud to have met her.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Getting In Deep

PANAJACHEL, Guatemala--Even now, Lake Atitlan is one of the most spectacular places imaginable.

The big high-altitude lake, tucked under three picture-perfect volcanos, is suffering. There's a huge brownish algae bloom floating on the once-clear water. This impossible-to-ignore development has kicked folks into gear as they begin to debate how to rescue this treasure.

The reason for the degradation of the lake, of course, is human development. Plenty of folks are to blame. The towns ringing the lake have grown without any thought of environmental impact. Both the tourist town of Panajachel and the many smaller indigenous settlements that ring the lake pump raw sewage into the water. People wash their clothes directly in the lake, using phosphate-rich detergents. Untold numbers of small farms produce fertilizer-rich runoff.

For years, the deep lake has absorbed this abuse. But back in 2005, Hurricane Stan added an additional twist by washing plenty of toxic junk into the lake, and more important, severely damaging the water-treatment plant.

Not surprisingly in this country's corrupt system, millions of dollars donated or set aside for environmental improvements have simply disappeared into the mountain air.

My visit this weekend was my third time at the lake. I feared the worst. And indeed, when we were out in the lancha (small boat) that acts as a ferry among the lake towns, we got a good whiff of the ugly brown algae bloom. But from the shores of the lake, it wasn't too horrid. The optimist in me concluded that the lake isn't yet dead, and that possibly the algae bloom could alarm people enough so that they actually do the right things. Like they say here, Ojala que si...

(Travelers' note: Once you get to Guatemala, it is easy to visit the major tourist attractions such as the lake. There's a surprisingly functional system of tourist minibuses that take you where you  want to go for reasonable prices. I can already hear the hardcore shoestring travelers jumping in to harangue me about how much cheaper and more authentic it is to use the chicken buses. Yes, it is. But, hey, dudes--the tourist shuttle from Antigua to Pana is $25 roundtrip. Your cab fare to and from happy hour back home is more than that.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

These Kids Today!

ANTIGUA, Guatemala--Judging by the little hearts and the smiley faces, the letter was written by a young teenage girl.

It was a slow afternoon in our library at Common Hope, so I was keeping busy by translating a few of the letters that the kids write (in Spanish) to their (generally English-speaking) sponsors. My Spanish is far from fluent, but it's certainly up to the level of translating a letter from a kid, right?


Most of the girl's letter was straightforward--affectionate greetings, grateful thanks and the like. But I was stumbling on a few things, so I asked my colleague, Lynn,  if she could help me a little. She has lived here for nine years, so her Spanish is fluent.

The first mystery was the letter "x," which showed up several times in the middle of sentences. In context, it should have been the word "por," Spanish for "for." But "x?" Lynn puzzled for a few minutes, then pointed out that the "times" sign in Spanish multiplication problems is pronounced as por. That made it easy for me to determine that "xq" meant "porque," or "because."

The next mystery was a scrawl that looked sort of like "100pre." I wondered if it was just some sort of handwriting problem. After a few more minutes, Lynn figured out that one, too. In Spanish, the number 100 is  "cien." Thus "100 (cien) pre" sounds a lot like the word "siempre," or forever. Think about signing your high school yearbook "4ever."

The next one stumped us. "TKM," our young correspondent had written--three times in one letter. We tried different ways of pronouncing it, jumbled the letters, whatever. Nope. Eventually, we turned to Google. (That can be a painfully slow process, so it certainly wasn't our first choice.) That crutch helped us figure it out: "TKM" is teenager-ese for "te quiero mucho." (Quiero is pronounced kee-air-oh.) Again, think of your high school yearbook.

It means "I love you very much."