Posted from Solola, Guatemala.
(Guatemala – Some Activities)
We have some nice photos of the area, from wonderful vistas to our participating in activities. To see them, visit our accompanying photo post.
In the previous post we announced that we are now happily matriculated in a Spanish immersion school in the area of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. There are dozens of such schools in the area – actually, Spanish immersion schools are quite an industry throughout this country. Many months ago, in the process of selecting a school, it was important to us to find one that offered extra-cirricular activities and opportunities that would help introduce us to the people and culture of Guatemala. We have averred since before departing on this trip that it was not about vacationing or sight-seeing; we want to experience the communities, lives, and different cultures of other parts of the world – not to the extent where we would think we had become experts (that would be presumptuous) but to, as one of our friends worded it, “widen our lens.”
Recently we have been able to participate in and experience many such opportunities, some organized by the school and others outside the school. The school has screened several movies about Guatemala, both scripted and documentaries, that has shed some light on the recent 35-year civil war. Both of us remember scattered details of the fighting in Nicaragua in the 1980’s, mostly because of the resulting scandals in the Reagan administration. But occurring simultaneously in Guatemala, and receiving much less attention from the U.S. press, was a brutal military operation against the indigenous people, who had decided to peacefully organize in an effort to stand up to the sub-human way most of them were being treated while working on farms. The military publicly presented these organized workers as guerillas, but they were not – the guerillas existed and did retaliate against the government and the military with acts of violence but were a separate movement – in order to justify slaughtering thousands of innocent indigenous Guatemalans.
The school also arranged one of the instructors to talk about medicinas naturales. The Mayan people are great believers in the power of plants to cure what ails you. From making teas of herbs to putting drops of tomato juice in one’s eyes, they believe that natural is the way to go. Joe had some first-hand experience with this last week, as he was the first of us (after more than a month south of the U.S. border) to suffer an intestinal setback. If the culprit was food, it was not from food our host prepared; it was likely from something we couldn’t resist from a street vendor. It is also possible that he inadvertently ingested some of the local water, which we do not drink but with which we do shower and wash our faces.
In any case, our host made him a special tea to help alleviate his dolor de estómago (stomach ache): garlic and mint. Yes, in one tea. Together. Garlic AND mint. It smelled awful and tasted just as bad. That night his stomach turned in ways it had never done before in 39 years. Even on the other side of the room Erik could hear Joe’s stomach in the night. In any case, we cannot say with any certainty that it was ineffective. He did feel better by the afternoon of the next day. Whether that can be attributed, at least in part, to the tea is unknown. But we will concede this: the garlic broth (if you had experienced what Joe experienced you would be hard-pressed to believe that the mint had any part in this) slammed its way through his intestinal system, knocking on every internal wall, and may have helped clean out the remains of his illness. Lesson learned? Hardly. We will not let a little discomfort prevent us from continuing to carefully probe the local cuisine.
Speaking of which, last Friday we participated in the making of a typical Guatemalan dish, pupusas, at our school. Pupusas are thick, flat tortillas made from masa (ground corn) that have a little pocket of cheese in the middle. There are fried in a little oil on the stove top and then topped with condiments. Ours were topped with onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and carrots. It was very fun to work with the masa, which, after water and salt was added, was similar in texture to very smooth cookie dough. All the students who helped make the meal got to eat it, and it was deliciosa.
On Saturday the 21st one of the staff of the school took us to a nearby mountain nicknamed Cara Maya because it looks likes the profile of a person looking up into the sky. (Cara is spanish for “face.”) At 7:00 in the morning we boarded a “Chicken Bus” for nearby Santa Clara. What is a Chicken Bus? We’re glad you asked. A Chicken Bus is a regulation United States school bus that has been retired (they all are automatically retired once they reach a certain mileage) and sold to Gautemala. The drivers decorate the outsides and insides of the buses in spectacular, hard to believe ways. They are quite stunning, to be honest. The bus traversed the same road we came into town on just over two weeks ago; the same road with angles far less than 90 degrees. Apollo didn’t enjoy them then, and now a school bus was doing them. There was even one turn were the bus driver had to back up and readjust in order to successful maneuver the angle (in the U.S., this is called a “Y turn.”) But these drivers are very experienced, driving this route every day, and although nauseatingly (but not surprisingly) bumpy, the driver was to be commended. Keep in mind as well that these are not wide roads. We took some of the steep, sharp turns by hugging the left side of the road with considerable speed; the gods help anyone who happened to be oncoming at that time.
Cara Maya was spectacular for its view of Lake Atitlan and several of the surrounding villages. The 20-minute hike up the mountain was a good workout and rather steep. We crossed through farms, following a maze of paths that would completely disorient even someone with a map. After spending time on top of the mountain, we headed to the huge Saturday outdoor market in Santa Clara. This is another activity that we have enjoyed: experiencing the different mercados of these villages. There is always plenty of produce to buy, as well as poultry and meats and fish, often kitchen items, fabric for indigenous attire, shoes, jeans, hardware items, snacks, and plenty of other stuff. They are boisterous and colorful and usually teeming with people purchasing their fresh supplies for a couple of days. And the people are not shy about getting in your way in order to get where they want to be – but, again, no one is doing it to be rude and no one takes it personally. You just adapt and play along.
(Quick example of Sunday breakfast at the market: one morning we went to a mercado for breakfast, as our hosts are not required to provide meals on Sundays. We each had a banana, a large slice of pineapple, and a tostada loaded with various toppings including beans, guacamole, cabbage, onions. etc. Our total bill for breakfast (2 bananas + 2 pineapple sections + 2 tostadas = 8 Quetzales. Or one U.S. dollar. You gotta love that.)
After the morning visit to the market we had to find our way back to our village, several villages away. The chicken buses don’t return until the afternoon, so we hopped on the back of a pick-up truck (called a “pick-up” here but pronounced “peek oop” with a definite space between the two syllables) with about two dozen others and their purchases for the day, which included a couple of roosters. Oh, how we love roosters. After arriving in the next city, we decided to employ a tuk-tuk to get us the rest of the way back. Our driver was a maniac, passing about a dozen other tuk-tuks on the way, but he got us back to town for about $2.50 for three of us. After standing in the bed of a pick-up truck and then racing over potholed streets as if inside some video game, it was nice to spend fifteen minutes with our feet on the road walking back to our house.
On Sunday, January 15, we attended an inauguration ceremony in the town of San Pedro. The newly elected government officials were being sworn in. It was interesting to witness, although we hardly new what some of them were saying (hmm… much like in the U.S. except we actually speak that language). There were local music ensembles: three men playing one marimba – the national instrument as it is considered to have been invented here – with two little girls acting as percussionists, and a small brass marching band, presumably made up of local high school kids. The out-going mayor talked for about 30 minutes in the blazing sun about what he had accomplished during his tenure. (For Americans, we couldn’t help but think this was a little awkward, but apparently it’s not unusual. It was almost like, “These are all the things I did for you and yet you did not reelect me.”) The newly elected mayor said little but did express his appreciation to the townspeople and then swore in the other newly elected representatives. There were incoming and outgoing processionals of the people from both the winning and losing parties, plenty of respectful applauding, and then at night was a big fiesta in the town center (a.k.a. the town basketball – er, básquetbol – court).
The fiesta was a hoot to behold. There were two musical acts: one was a large band with four singers, a few trumpets, two marimbas, some saxophones, and plenty of percussion. Their music was lively and fun. The other musical act was a DJ playing prerecorded hip-hop music. The two acts alternated about every hour. What struck us was that, despite the large attendance of the area’s high-school-aged crowd, none of them danced. They just stood there and stared at the DJ. Or stared at the band. And no one applauded – at all. Even when one of the singers would beckon, “Aplauso, aplauso, aplauso!” they would only be a feint smattering, mainly from the adults who did dance to the band’s music. It was a little eerie for us; we didn’t get it. But obviously no one was trying to be rude: it’s just a cultural difference from what we are used to.
But the people are hardly icy and unfeeling. On the contrary, they are warm and friendly and like to have fun just like everybody else. On the evening of Saturday the 21st we attended another activity in the same plaza that included two lengthy skits with actors. The first one had a message of empowerment for the young women, demonstrating ideas of how to successfully avoid being in bad situations (especially with a controlling boyfriend). We thought the message was a rather bold one, considering the conservatism that pervades most of the small villages throughout the country. The second skit had a similar message but was overtly comic in tone. Unfortunately for us, this skit consistently alternated between Spanish and Tz’utujil, the local Mayan dialect. The skit was unabashedly silly (with two men playing all the roles, including those of women) and the crowd totally ate it up. Despite our ignorance of what was being said, it was incredibly enjoyable to see the townspeople loose and happy, freely guffawing at the wacky comedy on the stage.
Oh – and that was another point of interest for us: the idea of sitting and appreciating a play is such a foreign activity to many of these people, especially the youngsters, that several times during the course of the evening a bystander would unwittingly cross the outdoor stage, which was at one end of the básquetbol court, simply as a quick and efficient way to get from one side of the pavilion to the other – during the performance. And during the first skit, which was presented directly in front of the stage, when the actors would disappear behind a curtain to change costumes while still uttering lines, a couple of girls – oblivious to Western theater etiquette and the fact that they were front and center of a couple hundred people who were looking directly at them – walked up onto the stage so that they could peer down behind the curtain and see what was going on. How can you not smile at that?
But, alas. This post has gotten too lengthy and we haven’t even mentioned the neighborhood that is by far our least favorite part of this location. The area known to the locals as Gringolandia will have to await elaboration until the next post. Also in the next post, we hope to convey more details about the home in which we are staying and all the work the wife undertakes in her daily culinary efforts (which are usually pretty spectacular).
As for us, tenemos que practicar los verbos (we have to practice verbs.) ¡Hasta luego!