Monday, January 29, 2007

This is Antigua

Walking late at night in the lamp lit sidewalks with the crisp night air swirling down the empty cobblestone streets. Trying to cross the street while tuk-tuk’s fly by with their lawn-mower engines pattering loudly and single headlight lighting the way. Hesitantly stepping out into the mix of traffic (horse-drawn carriages, man-pulled carts, chicken buses, motorcycles, and Toyota trucks). Successfully crossing the street to the parque central where couples gaze lustily into each other’s eyes (I am surprised at how openly young people lock lips), voices and guitars sing private concerts, and the fountain glows different colors as it bubbles. This is Antigua at night. But tonight is different. Tonight a huge crowd is gathered near the entrance of the central cathedral, which is also lit up. Spotlights cast eerie shadows of stone saints on the white cathedral walls. A crowd of several hundred people spills from the park and into the street, gathering around a large stage where a full orchestra and choir (in full tuxedos and gowns) plays salsa, classical, and jazz music. The conductor speaks in between sets in Spanish and explains that this concert is for art, it is not for commercialism, not for sale, not even to promote this band, it is just for art's sake; and everyone is welcome to enjoy the beauty of the music. (Jill are you drooling yet?) So underneath the stars, with the clouds playing between the distant volcano-tops, I stood with 500 strangers. 500 other appreciators of music from all walks of life - from well cultured tourists from all over the world, to Maya locals who had never before heard anything like it. We stood and we listened to a free music. That was Saturday night in Antigua, Guatemala - also known as my home for the next four months. Seriously, does it get any better than this?

I have written all about my weekend excursions, but have yet to write anything about Antigua, so here are some slices of life from my hometown:

I bought a membership to a local gym, to keep all the frijoles and arroz (beans and rice) from doing too much damage, where I decided to try out an Aerobics class. And what a class! I have taken dance and work-out classes back in the States lots of times, but they were nothing like this one. “Aerobics” was really a non-couple version of salsa, with the students and instructor laughing and dancing the entire time. The music was banging, and you could barely hear the teacher speak (in English or Spanish), so to get our attention he would whistle, pat his head and use his arms to tell us what to do next. It was a blast. Definitely the most relaxed gym experience of my life; no one was trying to impress each other with their mighty moves or muscles, it was just fun.

Speaking of salsa… we checked out a dance club where all the locals go to dance and I was blown away. There was one couple that stopped me mid booty-shake (and you know how I like to booty shake), because I just had to watch them; they commanded and owned to dance floor. Salsa like I’ve never seen! The girl broke her heel mid dance, but did that stop her from doing the splits on the ground while her partner danced above her? Hell no! They were incredible, and after the salsa music switched to hip hop the guy challenged me to a dance off; much to his surprise I matched most of his moves. We both laughed and his partner came over to show me a few of the female salsa moves. It was a blast.

Here are some other experiences of Antigua:

-Being the only one who jumps every time celebratory fireworks go off in the street. (And this happens frequently. We are talking LOUD enough to be bombs, what a way to say happy birthday!)

-Teaching my host dad, Luiz, su-do-ku in Spanish; a true test of my Spanish skills.

- Watching the indigenous cows drive by in the street in front of my house on their final drive to the slaughter house.

- Sitting in the park and talking to teenage boys as they pull a prank with super glue on one of their friends.

- “Making” tortillas with Victoria (she laughed at my state shaped tortillas).

- Peering in one of the grand cathedrals and seeing at the very front of the church, on their knees in prayer, was a bride and groom taking their vows with their clans seated behind them.

- Watching incredibly elaborate religious processions, where 100 people hold up a memorial sculpture of Jesus on their backs and walk around the city, stopping at holy spots. (See pictures above)

- Reverently watching smoke plumes waft from the still active volcano Fuego (which means fire).

- Stepping foot into an old colonial hacienda which is now the largest and nicest McDonald’s I have ever seen. Can you believe it? I bet the original family never would have guessed that their elaborate home would one day become a fast-food chain.

Yesterday, Chrissie, Pablo and I visited an incredible cathedral (see picture). While we were poking our noses around, the services started, so we took a seat. The services were in some unidentifiable language, not Spanish, not Latin, not Maya, and most of the attendees were “ladinos,” (non-indigenous) or tourists. Whatever language it was, it didn’t lose its power, but in fact became more moving in my eyes, because I realized that the people around me knew the service and message of the priests in spite of their varying native tongues. When we greeted the congregation around us, shook hands and hugged, it was incredibly powerful to know that these people who were from different countries, races, and worlds, were equal in this moment under the eyes of their god. They were equal servants and the customs or differences that usually forbade them to interact openly with each other disappeared. The faith of the attendees themselves was inspiring; an old couple sat in front of us on the wooden benches, and the woman struggled to pray on her knees while her husband, equally as frail, helped steady her. The thought of how old the church was, and how many prayers had been uttered here over the decades struck me. There is just nothing like that in Arizona. There are no churches that stir awe in your heart from the sheer beauty of the architecture and religious art (Ok, San Javier comes close). I understand now Danny, why you always reply “I was raised catholic” when someone asks your religious views; it’s not to describe your current beliefs, but to express the pride and culture that you grew up with. I will definitely be attending mass again, and hopefully next time in Spanish.
One clear difference in the conception of Catholicism in Guatemala is the focus on suffering. Most of the religious services I have attended in the U.S. focused on the renewing powers of Jesus, or of his rebirth, but here all the imagery and idolatry is focused on the pain and suffering of Jesus (or Mary) in his final hours. The processionals that I have seen pass by were of worshipers actually, physically carrying the burden of a thousand pound sculpture of their savior dying on their backs. If that isn't a clear testimony of what is important to these people, I am not sure what is. I think this aspect of Christianity really resonates with Guatemalans because of their harrowing pasts. It was only 10 years ago that the 30 year long civil war ended, and this is obvious from the persistent undertones of violence and suspicion in Guatemalan culture. Guatemalans don’t trust their government, their banks (for obvious reasons), or their military. Instead, they carry concealed weapons and trust in the suffering that God endured for them, and hope that their own suffering in this life will lead to better one after death.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Highlights from Honduras

My second weekend adventure took me to the green and humid hillsides of Copan, Honduras to visit mighty Maya ruins. (Fast Fact: the word Mayan is only used to describe the language of the Maya people) We left Antigua long before the sunrise and I tried to sleep while we bumped and twisted along the Guatemalan “paved” roads. When I awoke we were in the lush and green rolling hillsides of eastern Guatemala. Maybe it is because of all the car trips I took growing up, or maybe it is because I spent most of my childhood in the back of some old car, but watching the countryside whiz by in a car will forever fascinate me. I’m not sure if there is a better way to encapsulate, understand or get the feeling of a place than to drive through it and watch people, towns, landscapes and lives roll by. I observed that Honduras is an incredibly beautiful country but with a slower paced energy than Guatemala. The air was cleaner and the country much greener.

On our four day trip I was able to visit the amazing ruins of Copan. Walking into the entrance of this park, we were greeted by a dozen perched macaws and two wild large rodents scavenging in the lush forest around the ruins. I am not trying to sound romantic when I say that the sight was truly spiritual. As we walked down the path, butterflies with iridescent blue, bright yellow and spotted orange wings danced by (butterflies always remind me that Tina is nearby) and the ruins rose into my view as the forest thinned. As I came into the clearing, there was such an energy in the air. Ruins tens of feet tall gripped the forest hills and surrounded the clearing. There was plaza after plaza of ruins, and the thought that I was standing in a spot where people had lived, died, loved, lost, prayed, and strived thousands of years ago impacted my core. Photos really won’t do it any justice, but none the less here a few...

In addition to visiting the ruins, we rode horseback alongside a river and climbed through the forest to the top of a mountain to look down upon the town and ruins. My horse, Manzanita, was definitely the most spirited of the group despite being the skinniest horse I had ever ridden on. She insisted on galloping on every level path and I didn’t fight her. I just let the wind play with my hair and tried to match her rhythm. Afterwards the group laughed and told me that I was sexy on a horse.

Later that day, Chrissie and I flew above the Honduran forest floor on a cable zipline. It was an incredible adrenaline rush to be suspended hundreds of feet over the ground flying through the air like Tarzan. The longest cable was over 1 meter long and easily 300 feet in the air. Being the adrenaline junkie that I am, I tried every trick that they let first-timers do, upside down and superman style.

The next day we all piled into the back of a pickup and rambled over the Honduran hills to swim in a natural river hot springs. Once again Tina gently reminded me of her presence, and in the middle of the lush jungle ravine, without any villages nearby – a true fairyland, we passed a lone white horse lying down next to a stream. As we passed I asked everyone, “Did you see the unicorn?” When we got to the hot springs we piled into a little cove where the boiling hot spring water mixed with the cold stream water, making a comfortable warm natural Jacuzzi to swim and splash in.

Being there in the small town of Copan Ruinas felt like being in a beach town in southern California without the ocean. The people were incredibly easy going and every hotel was equipped with hammocks for napping and lounging. However, in this beautiful and low key town there were more stray dogs than I have ever seen anywhere. Packs of small lap dogs yapping, packs of large dogs barking, female dogs in heat with four males following close behind, and terribly sick and skinny dogs. I actually burst into tears my second night in town because of a sickly skinny dog which I saw. She was nervously pacing back and forth in the street desperately looking for someone to give her some food, and when she came close and turned her head I saw that one of her eyes was popped out of its socket and hanging there. It was so upsetting to me, so unnecessary – a simple operation and some food could save her easily – but the locals just kicked her away. To them she was nothing more than a nuisance and ugly bother. She will undoubtedly die a slow death from an infection, and I just couldn’t help being affected by the needlessness and grotesqueness of it. Until visiting this town I didn’t know how I felt about the termination of animals by animal shelters, but I understand now the alternative, and realize that fewer animals with worthwhile lives is far better than a rampant overpopulation of suffering animals.

It is the small things like this, that make you realize all that you take for granted. Living in a country which provides services like animal control, free neutering, spaying and, if necessary termination of strays isn’t something you think to be grateful of, but it should be appreciated. I can easily list things which I have been reminded to not take for granted within the past few days: having a country with a stable economy, where you can go to the ATM and withdraw your money when you want. The banks here literally ran out of money for a week and half. They just didn’t have any, and if you didn’t have some saved up – too bad. The banks were waiting for a shipment of money to come in from - get this - Canada and Spain, where it is printed. Having water and electricity that turn on every time. Even though my family pays for both, there just wasn’t any water for five days; showering, cooking, and flushing toilets had to be done with reserves. Having clear and punishable road laws. Driving in a third world country is dangerous everytime, and it makes me think differently about our own traffic lawes. My complaints about traffic tickets instead should be thoughts of gratefulness that we have viable law enforcement to protect drivers (sometimes from themselves). The list goes on… I guess one of the things that is hard to not take away from living here is an appreciation for the real and actual difficulties of the lives of the people here and how much more they have to deal with. We try to trick ourselves, in the US, into believing that we live stressful lives, and that we have so much to deal with, so much work; there is almost a sentiment of a duty or even entitlement to anxiety. But these people live alongside the probability of sincere danger to their lives and well being everyday, and yet, maintain a calmness and passivity. Their lives are not without stress, on the contrary, but they have such clear and natural understanding of what is important and what actually matters – making family and friendships their first priority and leave the worrying to God or to something greater than themselves. Some people say that this passiveness is the result of decades of war, but I think it is more a preexisting characteristic of the national psyche. If I could learn to take make one part of their lives a part of my own, I would like to uphold the same level of clarity and continuous appreciation that most Guatemalans so naturally possess.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

La primera semana - The first week

Hola a todos!

I have been here for only six days and yet it seems like much more. Although it takes me a few hours to get into the rhythm of the lifestyle, once I reacquaint myself with this mode of life, I feel so at home. Life in third world countries feels very natural. Nothing is forced and everything is held together with a constant calmness. The city of Antigua is adorable. Cobbled streets filled with tuk-tuks (rickshaws from India), motorcycles, cars, and chicken-buses (the local mode of transportation). Women wearing beautiful brightly colored textiles while carrying goods to sell in baskets on their heads. Workers and artisans creating art to sell to the numerous tourists. The colonial architecture of the numerous cathedrals and brightly colored stores and homes. Greetings of “Buenas Dias” to every passerby. The occasional stray dog and la policia walking around with arms.

Here are a few gems from the past few days:

- While purchasing a cell phone to call home, a little girl looked down from a second floor balcony and played a game of pickaboo with me. In her sweet 2 year-old Spanish she said “Hola! Adios! Hola! Adios!” as she hid and reappeared behind a chair. Absolutely priceless. Her mother smiled approvingly at us as I played back.

- Feeling like a giant as I walked through the market for the first time with hundreds of Guatemaltecos bustling about their way.

- Driving from the airport in Guatemala City to Antigua, and seeing the massive expanse of humanity and city as we slowly climbed up the green mountains. (As an indication of how modern and large Guatemala City is, we passed four McDonald’s on our short trip through it.)

- Sweating and moving to the rhythm as I learned to salsa dance with a group of Canadian students and professional Guatemalan dancer in a smoky and darkly lit bar.

- Sitting in the CIRMA rooftop classroom with the three volcanoes and tall cathedrals encircling us and thinking to myself, is this real? In the background professors teach about Mayan archaeology, Central American politics and culture.

- Waking up to the sounds of buses passing by, the chirps of caged finches in the family garden and a neighbor’s old mix tape of Ace of Base, Vanilla Ice and local love ballads.

- Hearing tens of different languages while trekking through a steamy and overcrowded bar packed with hundreds of tourists from all over the world.

- Meeting the joyous grandson of my homestay parents who has more energy than a ball of fire: I said ‘Hola!’ and he ran to give me a huge and sincere hug and then demanded a high five; of course prompting me to teach him a secret handshake.

- Eating an amazing traditional Guatemalan feast with eight espanolas that came to eat at my homestay simply because of my homestay mother’s reputation as the best cook in Antigua. (Let’s just say there hasn’t been a meal yet when I wasn’t completely satisfied)

- Feeling the spray of the water of Lago de Atitlan on my face as we cross the 128 sq miles of water from one mountain-clinging village to the next.

- Having a little 9 year old Guatemalteca (Rosa Maria in the picture to the left with me) walk by as I try to put on my newly purchased traditional skirt, and laughing at my inability and correcting my mistake by taking over and dressing me properly.

- Jumping into the freezing cold eco-friendly hotel pool in Santiago de Atitlan and refusing to get out simply because of how beautiful the surrounding lush jungle smells, sounds and looks.

- Following some local ninos to the sacred home of the local diety of sinners called San Simon or Maximon and listening to traditional drums and flute as we paid homage to the effigy of the healing god by leaving a few quetzals, cigars or spirits by his side.

- Winding through mountaintop highways in the “chicken bus” with a group of Guatemalan City high schoolers singing in Spanish at the top of their lungs “we need to piss!” in futile hopes that the driver would pull over.

My homestay family is incredibly sweet. Victoria, the mama of the house is so kind and patient. She walked us all through the house and showed us the cocina, comedor, jardin, y sus cuartos (kitchen, dining room, garden and our room) and assured us that she wants us to be tranquillo here. Sort of a ‘mi casa es tu casa’ philosophy. She absolutely loves to cook (and only cooks natural and traditional foods), and I have already learned a little bit of folk wisdom. She explained to me the importance of the four colors of tortillas. “Eat black tortillas for healthy hair, white tortillas for healthy bones, yellow tortillas for healthy skin and red tortillas for healthy veins.” I told her that I must need to eat a lot of black tortillas, because my hair is much to light. She laughed.

Her husband Luiz is a retired electrician, and together they have two daughters. They have been married for 30 years and are both in their 50s, but have the bodies of 70 year-old americans. Between them they have bad legs, bad circulation, bad vision, diabetes, thyroid problems, arthritis, liver problems and the weathered, wrinkled skin of people who have had to fight for their prosperity. Neither of them speaks any English, but they are both very patient and good at deciphering the broken Spanish of their frequent guests. Their oldest daughter has a son and lives in another part of town. The other daughter, Maria Luisa, lives at the house and she is in her first year of medical school to become a pediatrician. She is bilingual, which has already come in handy – like when my roommate asked for a “small alcoholic drink” (cervezita) instead of a napkin (servilleta) at the dinner table.

Their home is adorable. It is very clean, neat, colorful and homey.
The seƱor of the 'de Leon' family just repainted the inside of the house and it is bright colors of pink, light blue and yellow. Upstairs there is a small patio which has a view of the three surrounding volcanoes and cathedral tops. I have my own room with a double sized bed, lamp, wooden desk, chair and door which locks. My room leads out to the courtyard with patio, small green herb garden and statue of Mary. They run their home like a hostel and have tons of experience housing tourists. In fact, there are five French-speaking Canadian college students staying here for the next two weeks and an Austrian worker lives here as well. There are eight rooms in all and four bathrooms. To maximize their profits, the daughter sleeps in the same large room with her parents, which is not an uncommon practice here at any age. Living in a home which is designed to constantly have guests will undoubtedly bring a totally unique element to my homestay experience that I couldn’t have gotten in another home. Needless to say, I couldn’t be happier with my living arrangements

As for the school, el Centro de Investigaciones de Mesoamerica (CIRMA), it is fantastic. The actual building of the school is a breathtaking old mansion near the central park of the city. The main purpose of the school is to restore and collect important historical documents, and it housing one of the most impressive photograph and document archive collections of Central America. The first day we got to peak into the climatized document warehouse and were able to see original photographs of Guatemala from the 1840s. The staff is very helpful, and has been attentive to all the students needs. Barbara, the director keeps tabs on all the students, and by ‘all’ I mean the nine of us. There are 8 undergraduate students, one from Berkley, one from Ohio University, six from the UA and one graduate student. It is definitely a mixed group: ages range from 20 to 28, there are 2 guys, 7 girls, two native Spanish speakers, two returning CIRMA students and one married student.

Although I have only met three of my four professors in this short first week of class, I am impressed. My political history professor’s life should be made into a novel. He is anything but a professor. Jose Antonio Cabrera is El Salvadoran and helped turn the government in that country as a guerilla fighter and peace keeper for the United Nations. He speaks Spanish, English and Russian and has helped to rebuild soviet decimated countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, as well as South Africa, Angola, and countless others… He has lived in more countries than anyone I have ever met, and has an invaluable perspective on the current affairs in developing countries. But he would preface anything by saying, “This is my opinion, and every opinion is slanted and biased, so listen to what I say with questioning mind.” He has an incredibly playful and unique manner which easily captures whatever audience is around him.

My archaeology professor Erick Ponciano is a professor at the University of Arizona who is working in the Peten (northern Guatemala) excavating Mayan ruins. He is a solid speaker and educator, but it is the material that makes his class so interesting. Not only will we be reading and listening to lectures about the Maya, but we will be going on four class trips to the actual sites of this living history. Next, my Spanish teacher is a local Guatemalan who teaches at the University of Guatemala and has just published his first literature book. On the first day of class he evaluated our Spanish skills and I was where I needed to be, but after the first day in country, I have to admit that I was pretty impressed with myself. It’s like I have shelves of dusty unused language skills that have just had their first breath of fresh air in a decade. I just open my mouth and say what I want and it comes out. I don’t really have to think in English and then translate, it just comes easily. It might not be perfect or direct, but I can always find a way to communicate what it is I want to say. With the help of the four fluent students at the school, I am definitely coming back fluent.

I’ve definitely written enough for a first entry, and if you have read this far, then I applaud you for your tenacity and reward you with some pictures. Check out the photos at the bottom of this page...