I’m not very good at closure, am I?

24 12 2009

I kept intending to get back on here and post a little bit about the last day or so in Guatemala.  Or maybe at least let everyone know I survived.  However, it didn’t happen … what a surprise.

I just now had a “cyber-friend” ask for an update on how I’m doing, though, and I decided to actually follow through on letting you know about my getting a job.  I’d been meaning to do this, but who knows if I ever would have!  I’m mainly going to post an email that I sent to some friends last week.


I quit my last job in March because my grades were threatening to drop seriously, and I hoped to have an opportunity to travel.  That did happen, but almost my only income since then has been my second trip in September through October, and I have been getting desperate.  I looked a lot during the summer for a job, but nothing materialized.  (I figured out why when I was able to make the mission trip.)

Since getting back, I simply have not felt like sending in applications like I was.  I couldn’t explain why at all (besides laziness).  I sent in a few, with no response.  And I applied for a data entry job with the Post Office, although I really didn’t want it.  It offered a decent per-hour wage, but (1) it was temporary, (2) it was probably a night shift, and (3) it was going to be detestably boring.  But I impulsively did it in early November, and was jumping through the necessary hoops.  After I passed the first assessment, they wanted me to take another.  I decided I might as well.  It was proctored at an adult learning center.  I had contacted them about volunteering a year or two ago, but they said they didn’t need me – Today a lady working there couldn’t imagine who had told me that or why.

Since I was up there again, I stopped at the front desk on the way out and asked about volunteering opportunities again, thinking they might have some sort of handout.  The receptionist went back and got the assistant director to talk to me.  After asking a little about my educational background, she said, “Since you just graduated, you’re probably still looking for a job?”  Somehow I knew where she was going even before she got that far.  She said that the lady who has worked there as receptionist for the last 10-12 years is retiring (this week), and they were looking for a replacement to start next week.  They hadn’t advertised the job in the newspaper because they didn’t want a flood of resumes.  So she took me over to talk to the business director, and he said I was his first interview, and could I email him my resume.

It felt absolutely right … like when I applied for the scholarship to study in Bolivia.  I was sure I would find out by the end of the week, because they wanted someone to start this week.  And then they didn’t contact me.

But after riding the roller coaster down, it started back up … they emailed me yesterday, called me in to meet another director today, and I am starting tomorrow!  The job is exactly what I want.  I’m going to be somewhat involved in education.  (I’m sure I can do some tutoring as a volunteer if I want.)  They want someone who can speak Spanish, because they have a lot of non-English-speaking clients.  I love the front desk position where I’m directly helping people.  It leaves my afternoons free after 2:30, so I can continue giving piano and Spanish lessons.  It is a non-profit organization.  I had been asking myself in recent weeks why I didn’t try applying at a place whose mission I believe in, instead of trying to find any random business that needed my skills and paid well.  I just didn’t know where to look.  Thankfully, it came looking for me!

I am just amazed at how it came about – my randomly applying for a job I wasn’t interested in, and that taking me up to this place in the window of time where they were getting serious about finding a replacement.  And even the inexplicable rejection a year or two ago, which left me still curious when I happened to be up there just now.

At any rate, it has come just when I needed it to.  I think I will be able now to go ahead and pick up an accounting class at WSU this spring, which I had all but given up on.


So … I have put in three days on that job, and it really is wonderful.  The atmosphere is one of a “big, happy family.”  They’re ready to use any and all of my strengths, it seems, and I just want to thank the Lord for working this out.

Have a very Merry Christmas!



13 10 2009

I just spent 5 hours wandering around in the jungle.

It was fantastic.

I decided that words just wouldn’t cut it … check out the pictures on http://www.flickr.com/photos/cathedralsfan/.  But over and above that, it does need some words and whatever to give you the setting and story.  So I’ll do my best.

I was up at 4:15 this morning, but just because that’s when my alarm clock gave me permission to quit trying to sleep.  Before five (departure time) I was standing outside of the hotel waiting on the promised bus.  Sooner or later a guy came down the street saying, “¿Tikal?”  He had my ticket’s serial number in his hand, so I followed him off to the bus.  Then we stopped by another couple of hotels, hollering “¿Tikal? ¿Tikal?”  One or two folks didn’t show up.  The attendant, who spoke good English, said we were leaving anyway, because we had selected an early ticket, and “You snooze – You lose.”  So we crossed the bridge from Flores and took off.  And stopped at at a terminal to call the hotels.  And said that one or two folks had appeared at the place where they bought the tickets, so we crossed the bridge again.  And picked up another tourist, and crossed the bridge again, and we were finally off.

I had gone to a panadería to buy pan (bread – a slightly sweet roll and two muffins) last night.  So that was my breakfast, with a little box of apple juice from the hotel.  I was hungry by 10.  We pulled into Tikal at about 6:20.  After wandering around a little, we all figured out where to pay the admission fee – which was three times as much as I had read.  One thing about Latin America I haven’t comprehended yet is their idea of “ticket control.”  Do they sell you the ticket at the entrance?  No.  They sell you the ticket fifty yards up the road.  Then, at the entrance, the “ticket control” takes the ticket, solemnly looks at it, punches a hole, and lets you in.  It has no sort of efficiency going for it.  However, if the idea is just to create or save jobs, perhaps Obama should take a look at the idea.

I will have to let the pictures describe the ruins themselves.  I wasn’t there in time for sunrise, but there was still a mist in the air.  I had read that you could hire a guide on the spot for about $10, but I didn’t see any.  So I just struck out on my own and enjoyed the solitude, in a lot of places.  The smell was immediately familiar – Jungle House at the zoo!

It was not nearly as warm as I was afraid.  That is not to say it wasn’t warm!  But I think it actually was better than it has been in town, here in Flores.  Most of the time we were in the shade, and there was a little air moving.  But I really have run up against the futility of trying to describe it!

I tried to imagine what it was like hundreds of years ago.  To be honest, I don’t even know what century it is from!  [In researching after I got home, I found that it was begun in the “B.C.” years, and I think had reached its peak before 1000 A.D.]  I was impressed by the main plaza.  The most impressive, though, was probably “Templo IV.”  You didn’t even know anything was there.  Then you ran into some wooden stairs up the side of some structure.  You climbed, climbed, and climbed some more.  From a kind of “landing” on the steep stairs leading up the face of the temple, you can see an extremely long way.  I am guessing it is the tallest structure in Tikal, which is the size of the smallest of the famous Egyptian pyramids, according to what I read.  Then you climb a few more flights of stores, and step out on the pyramid itself.  Suddenly, you are gazing out across miles of jungle.  I wouldn’t even venture to guess how many miles … You could see the mountains in the distance, though.  It is … quite frightening to look over the edge of these steps, although the face of it isn’t all uncovered, and if you fell vegetation would stop you in a few feet.  In this case, pictures definitely did not capture the sensation.  Again, I thought about the Mayan priests, and how the four of us who were up there at the moment would probably have been slain without mercy if we had been caught sunning ourselves there 600 years ago – not to mention that three of us were girls. [Oct. 30 – Maybe we should make that 1000 years ago.]  (However, I am not a Mayan expert.)  I still didn’t really get it.

I wandered around a little further.  I found another complex, “Grupo G,” and some howler monkeys there set up a horrid racket.  I couldn’t get pictures, but I took a video that I hope got some of the sound.  I had heard them from a distance earlier, and asked someone who happened by.  I had been telling myself it was revving engines, but it definitely wasn’t.  And jaguars seemed a little far out.  I would have been pretty nervous this second time, so much closer, if I hadn’t known what they were.  I think they didn’t like me …

As I wondered across a grassy plot, surrounded by moss-covered stone stairs, a little indigenous man got down from his ladder (I had noticed him there cleaning; he gestured at the monkeys) and came over to me.  He discussed the monkeys, ascertained that I understood the Spanish, and asked if I was Mennonite.  (Proof that human nature is the same everywhere?)  Then he started telling me how he worked there, maintaining the ruins, all day everyday.  The monkeys kept him company, he said.  He liked the tranquility here.  He was a “sacerdote Maya” – a Mayan priest.  Not a shaman or brujo (witch doctor), he assured me.  They practice black magic.  He just “had his beliefs.”

Really, I had felt more awe at the monkeys, the ants, which had been carrying out exactly these activities in this jungle all the centuries ago, who had been angered at Mayans invading their territory just as these were angry at me today – I had felt more awe at them than at the stones themselves, somehow.  But this small man was here, keeping the moss from growing on these rocks, just as his ancestors had done so many generations ago.  He comes in and lights his candle every morning, and although he doesn’t offer other sacrifices (that he mentioned to me), he feels that he is a priest here.

I looked into his face as he talked, and didn’t know what to say.  So I mostly listened.  He asked if I agreed with the Mayan “cosmovisión,” but I said, quite honestly, that I didn’t know much about it.  He told me that God wasn’t somewhere off on His throne – He is here, around us.  Proof?  The air that we breathe – we would die without it.  The water that sustains our life.  The earth, where we plant seeds, and they grow.  The fire that warms us and prepares our food.  These are, to Salomón, the spirit of God surrounding us … “In him we live, and move, and have our being.”  He apologized if he offended me, but I should like to know how I would have been offended.  (OK, I could go into a long-winded theological discussion here, but I would offend someone, and it would … be irrelevant.  Do I agree with him?  No.  Do I think that he needed someone to tell him, “You’re wrong?”  Didn’t Catholic priests try it 500 years ago?  Paul’s approach was better: Acts 17:22 and following.)

He asked if I would like for him to tell me about the complex where we were.  I was quite ready, as I probably could have used a guide.  He wanted to see my hand then.  And then I realized (as he was looking at my hand) that he was going to try to tell my fortune.  Which is something I had never intended to let anyone do.  (In point of fact, it was a purely theoretical question … I never expected to meet anyone who wanted to try.)  However, he didn’t exactly ask permission.  At that point, I started to doubt his simplicity, and even sincerity.  What does that have to do with earth, air, fire, and water; and did the Mayas really read palms with the same technique as the gypsies?  He told me that I would live many years, and that I had a long spiritual journey ahead of me, preaching to people.  (He had previously discovered that I had spent about five weeks at a mission in Guatemala, and that I was evangelical …)  I don’t know whether he believed it or not.  I really don’t.  I think he might have.  Then he told me some things about what that particular complex was used for, and I think I believe that, but I couldn’t help wondering if they also were his own ideas.  So I asked him if I could give him something … “Oh, that is your own affair”  (Es asunto suyo) … So I gave him 5 quetzales (under a dollar), and he pointed me out a little shortcut that took me somewhere I had already been, and he went back to his work.

His simplicity and sincerity?  He left me thinking.  I really believe that it is another example of the “living with incongruities” that one sees here.  He truly considers himself a Mayan priest.  And he truly appreciates those tips.

I spent five hours in Tikal, and left quite tired and warm.  The bus got back to Flores about 2:15, and I headed up to the only cheap, good restaurant I had found in town, where you can get a good lunch for $2.50.  Of course, I was too late for that.  I think one of the ladies felt sorry for me when I asked.  I’m sure I looked plenty warm, although I had slipped into the restroom to wash my hands and tidy my hair a little bit.  She said, “Podemos prepararle comida” … “We can get some food for you!”  So I paid twice as much, and got a good … they called it a steak, but it was pretty thin, and quite covered in a sort of tomato/mild pepper salsa, with rice, and French fries I couldn’t even finish.  And a cold Coke.  I was warm!

For the last hour and three quarters, I have been paying a dollar an hour for shade and ceiling fans – using an internet café!  Really, I’m mainly after the shade.  I checked out of the hotel, and will just go by for my luggage this evening before heading for the bus terminal.  I had another $20 I meant to change and do some more shopping, but I think I left it in my luggage, so as not to be tempted to spend it …  I guess it’s working.  I have just a little bit of money left, though …

I will close for now.  The bus leaves at 9:30 tonight.  It is scheduled to arrive at 6:00 a.m.  My flight leaves at 7:55.  Please hope and pray with me!  The folks who will pick me up at the terminal are American.  I hate to admit it, but I was relieved when the voice on the other end of the phone broke into English, and I realized that, to the couple who will be waiting on me, time means more than just hands moving around a clock …

P.S.  I might get the videos up later.  I am going to get off of here for now, though … it should be getting cooler outside!

[Reading this after coming back, I realize I was pretty tired and didn’t communicate as clearly as I would have liked!  I have done a little bit of editing since the first time around, to correct some of the worst problems.]

Ride the bus with me!

11 10 2009

This is my second post today – if you’re starting here, you might want to go back and get the first one.

While riding the bus yesterday, I did some writing.  I don’t like James Joyce at all, but here is a sort of stream-of-consciousness piece for you, if you like it!  I will restrict myself to minor edits, and leave some of the mistakes/Freudian slips for Manuel.

I got to the terminal just after 8 – most of the seats were still vacant, and I got my pick.  I watched people until about 9:45, when they started loading the 10:00 bus.  They filed everyone through a metal detector so sensitive that we all triggered the alarm, and no one paid attention.  A lady peeked into all the hand luggage.  I misunderstood instructions & got corrected.  Picking up my backpack, I almost stepped backwards over a curb, and the guy who had corrected me smiled and said, “¡Cuidado!” [Be careful!]  And I suddenly loved La fell in love with Latin America all over again.

We pulled out, and it started to drizzle.  The lady at an orange juice stand put up its umbrella.  We drove past people … people in shops, in doorways, on sidewalks.  I was seized so strongly with a desire to write that I rummaged through my backpack & finally committed a sort of sacrilege: There were two empty pages in the back of Crime and Punishment – a Norton’s Critical Edition – and I have ripped one of them out  am writing on it very small.  That means I have missed seeing lots of people, but now I can write my impressions before they blur.

We’re going through narrow streets & slummish cement block walls with purple bougainvillea lavishly spilling over the tops, and open shop fronts painted in primary colors.  We’re crossing bridges looking off into lush valleys, and the side streets go steeply up or down and are even narrower.  There are buzzards soaring above that valley.  The tops of the mountains in the distance are blurred by fog and clouds.  This valley has little shacks in it with tin roofs, all up and down the slope.  But all the time, I like Bolivia better.  I constantly think we’re almost out of the city, but then I see more of it.  I can’t decide how flowers react to poverty here – it is either disrespect or impartiality.  I think it’s the latter.  Greenery is everywhere, even poking out of rock faces.  This valley, with a small dried stand of cornstalks left in it, has a foul-looking, sluggish brown stream winding through the bottom.  And on the clothesline in front of that isolated shack along the road, a pink quilt with pictures of Tweety Bird is drying.

They are playing an annoying movie of American authenticities ethnicities [that was an interesting mistake I didn’t catch till today] overdubbed in Spanish.  At least that’s not as bad as the cowboys and Indians love story, overdubbed in Spain with a definite – Castilian? – accent, that they played between Sucre & La Paz for an audience with the heritage of Quechua Indians.

We are definitely out of town now.  We’ve just passed the turn-off back to Jalapa.  I am exulting in the feeling of being on my own, sink or swim, much the same as when I was stranded in Santa Cruz for 3 days.  Of course I recognize that it is serious, even life & death.  (So is driving to work every day.)  But there’s something about accepting that challenge, and putting my skills against it, and making my mistakes, talking to friendly people, and seeing experiencing things I never thought to see outside of books.  I’ll never climb mountains do mountain climbing, and don’t want to.  But if I married a man or had a friend (amiga) who was up to it, I definitely would backpack through Bolivia.

I think I’m noticing a change in the scenery now.  Perhaps it is a lower altitude.  The greenery & trees are becoming more “scrubby,” and there are cactus “trees.”  Seriously!  I didn’t even know that was a prickly pear’s natural growth habit.

… And here, I got a glimpse into countryside a hillside covered with palms.  At 1:30, as promised, we pulled into a little wayside restaurant.  Everyone piled out & got a sit-down meal on glass dishes from a cafeteria-style line.  I got rice and meat.  It tasted like beef, and was deliciously roasted, in a sauce that would have been stew if it had vegetables.  That was $4.50, and I splurged with another $1.25 on a big fruit cup … melons, papaya (I think), apple (I think) … Don’t remind me that I don’t like canteloupe; I like everything here.  (Still except raw vegetables.)  I am back on the bus now, deliciously full.  Habit was too strong for me in one respect … when they asked what I wanted to drink, I said “Pepsi.”

But the really wonderful thing is, this bus route is horribly indirect.   For a long time while, we have been running so close to the border with Honduras (according to the map they gave me) that I’m pretty sure the other side doesn’t look much different.  And … we are going to cross a little neck of a bay opening onto the Gulf of Mexico.  Assuming it is salt water, that is as close as I’m likely to get to the ocean for a while!  Right now the mountains are much more distant than they have been during the past month.  There are actually wide fields thinly sprinkled with cattle.  But lots more trees (and palms) than Kansas.  And I just realized I am understanding most of the Spanish in the movies, even though I’m mostly looking out my window.

Speaking of contrasts again – The first two movies are surely rated something the US that would keep them out of the public.  One had some men quite fixated on the screen at points … the other one, its audio still English, had quite strong language.  The third? Fireproof, a movie quite popular in US Christian evangelical circles about how Jesus & salvation are the answer to marital problems.  It took me quite a while to recognize it realize what it was.  Well, I suppose after the first two they probably can use this one.

We just stopped at an obligatory checkpoint.  Most of the passengers got off, and 3 officials came through squeezing hand luggage without speaking.  A sign threatened a $1,000 to $3,000 fine for “obstaculizing” the process.  (I am aware that is too literal a translation, but you get the picture.)  My backpack is under my seat instead of stowed overhead, & it just might have been hard to see past my skirt as I sat curiously watching.  But hey, if they don’t ask, why would I volunteer?  I think if I ever go into smuggling, it will be in Latin America.

After that, it was too dark to write.  And yes, that was all on less than one and a half sides of that sheet of thin paper from the back of a normal-sized book.

We pulled into Flores eventually … there is so much more I want to write, but I can’t spend forever on here.  I paid twice too much ($4) for a taxi.  I figured it was too much, but didn’t know what to bring him down to, and again, a dollar means more to him than to me.  He knew the hostel where I wanted to stay, which didn’t even bother putting an address on their website, and waited until she showed me my room, which I thought curious – until I saw her give him a commission when I followed her back down.  It was $10 a night, and well-recommended.  I like the place all right, but it had a very … college student atmosphere.  I moved this morning to a place that costs $27 a night, but I only have two nights left here, and I decided the $34 difference was worth it.  Oh, it was cute – when I bent down to write my name in the guest book, the girl reached up and felt of my hair!  Then she asked if it was real, I think.  When I said it was mine, she felt it again.  Lots of the indigenous women have long hair, but they don’t comb it like this. And tourists sure don’t.

I meant to take more pictures there … I was on a sort of second story, and the best way I can describe the sensation after looking out this morning is, like sleeping in a treehouse in the Jungle House at the zoo.  I guess that means the zoo did a good job.  It was horribly humid and sticky.  There was a fan, but that actually made me cold.  And I still couldn’t take the humidity.  I decided this morning that a hair dryer would have been more what I was after.  The place wasn’t rowdy at all.  But as usual down here, you can hear everything, down to clinking coins, from inside a room.  So I could hear people sit around talking until after 11:00.  It rained quite a while after midnight.  And I wasn’t tired enough to sleep much.  Church bells started chiming at 6:00, and I didn’t sleep any more.  Hopefully I will get tired enough this afternoon to take a nap.

I walked around some time this morning without encountering an evangelical church.  I would have visited the Catholic church, but it started at 8:00.  I got up and my hair was a frizzy mess, and I decided to wash it then instead of waiting till this afternoon.  Beside, I felt like a shower again anyway!   I couldn’t detect hot water, but I didn’t miss it.

While walking around, I came across this hotel and moved … and here I am.  I will get off of here and go back to my room, which is actually air-conditioned.  A blog kind of seems a strange place to request this, but I have a lot of people reading it, and if you want something to pray about, I need everything to go smoothly Tuesday night.  I don’t want to spend the night in Guatemala City, since it is said to be pretty dangerous, and I am going to take the night bus there Tuesday night.  It leaves at 9:00.  It is supposed to be an 8-hour trip, and my plane leaves just before 8:00 a.m.  I have to have a taxi (recommended by the missionaries) try to meet me at the bus terminal at 5:00 a.m.  I don’t have a cell phone.  Also, buses aren’t necessarily exactly on time.  It was an hour late last night when we got clear stopped.  So I really need all to go well.  I think this is the right thing to do, but I just don’t want major problems.

With that, I will close for now.  Thanks to my readers for your attention, your support, and (in many cases) your prayers!

Who would have guessed?

11 10 2009

Well, I’m sure y’all would never have had any expectation of this … but … that’s right, my plans have changed.  Not that I have any history of that.

It’s a little different this time.  During the first month in Jalapa, I offended in several points – some of them unwittingly, and some, I admit, carelessly.  If it had not been for the careless ones, we could probably have resolved the unwitting ones.  As it is, we had a long talk a week ago last Wednesday.  Several of the things Lee and Sharon brought up, I had already become aware of.  I thought we had cleared the air, and I worked on correcting the areas I needed to.  (This being a rather public forum, that’s as specific as I want to get … They weren’t anything “shocking,” if you’re curious!)  However, tensions had been running rather high beforehand, and it didn’t get resolved that easily.  I guess they also felt that I wasn’t making the corrections I needed to.  I disagree on that point, but so be it.  I was actually rather relieved when they suggested I move up the time of my departure.  One person said there was another factor or two, like (I guess) the new granddaughter’s due date moving up to just a few days after my leaving, and so I went back to Guatemala City on the same day that a director visiting from the US had to leave.

They were a little worried about what I would say about the mission, so I want to make clear that I never felt anything out of the way from any of them. As I mentioned above, if I had not been at fault in those areas, we could probably have resolved the other areas.  One thing that makes me feel a little more confident that it was partly a misunderstanding is, that I have heard one of my supposed faults charged upon my mom in exactly the same words.  And I guess I have more confidence in my mom than in myself, but I think that if her reaction in a stressful situation could be misinterpreted in that way, it is just possible that her daughter’s could.

Moving on. I just couldn’t give up the trip to Tikal.  I presented the idea that since I would be doing it at my own time and expense, it didn’t really matter which date the return flight moved to, and so I was able to set it for this Wednesday (the 14th).  We drove into Guatemala City yesterday, Saturday.  At one point, traffic was held up for half an hour due to a head-on crash between to flatbed trucks (about the size of cargo vans).  That isn’t too unheard of in the US, but when you go by, there isn’t usually a partially covered corpse lying in the road by one truck.  It was pretty sobering.

I had made reservations online for a bus with Línea Dorada to Flores, near Tikal.  (Tikal is an archaeological site).  However, I didn’t get any email confirmation, and I was rather nervous about getting my seat.  I told them I would rather get there early than have them buy my breakfast (especially at Burger King, but I didn’t say that).  Wherever there are hungry people down here, there will be someone selling food, but not necessarily bus tickets.  Sure enough, not only did the confirmation not exist (that they mentioned), but the “luxury” line didn’t even run at that time.  I think I finally figured out that it is just that it is a sleeper bus and runs only at night, so I rode in simple “first class.”  It was hardly more than half full, so my worries were for nothing.  But I did enjoy buying my own little box of pineapple juice and a sort of strawberry-jelly turnover, and eating it in the terminal, more than sitting in Burger King with a “barely-clad” woman gyrating on the television.

I know that my anxious to experience it at close grips is unreasonable for someone who actually lives in that culture, but I don’t have to time to absorb it by osmosis, to let it just soak in a drop at a time.  I know that what I’m “experiencing” isn’t really more authentic than, say the local Burger King.  But still, that gyrating woman really doesn’t attract me over there.  And it makes me use my Spanish.

Now, I am going to say that this post is long enough, and share with you, in the next one, some stuff that I wrote yesterday.


29 09 2009

I held off on making another post for a while, until I might feel like I had something to say.  Now there’s too much to fit into one, I’m afraid.  Should I go with the “action” or narrative part, or the reflections?  I’m going to try to write my reflections right now, and see if I can get to the other part a little later on.

I should explain that last Friday and Saturday we went into Guatemala City.  So I saw a little more variety than I had lately.  It was the first time I had gone somewhere other than on my own two feet in the three weeks since that baptismal service.  I am pretty sure that’s a record in my life, but I hadn’t yet become anxious to shorten it.  But I’m trying to leave that gripe for another time …

I believe this weekend marked eight weeks in my life spent in Latin America.  I am aware that eight weeks seems a ridiculously short time to some who have had more opportunities to travel than I have, but on the other hand, when I come home I will have spent 25% of this year out of the country!  In Bolivia, I was able to brush the surface of the Inca culture; in Guatemala I am working on the Mayan; todavía me hace falta (I’m still lacking) the Aztec culture in Mexico.  As we were riding into town early Friday morning, I finally felt like I had united the many impressions I’ve received throughout this time.  I feel a little presumptuous in making such a pronouncement … but anyway, I need something to write before I lose all my readers.

The United States has proclaimed itself a melting pot, and now a tossed salad, for years.  Perhaps that is true.  I haven’t traveled much (warning: serious understatement) within the USA itself, but it seems to leave a pretty unified impression on me.  Yeah, people have a little different accent.  But I couldn’t always tell much difference between friends from California or from North Carolina; from Colorado or Virginia.  Immigrants?  They either assimilate into the mainstream, or they aren’t “included.”  Yes, we like Chinese food.  A Reader’s Digest article tells us we have made it pretty unrecognizable as Chinese, though.  And really … that’s something cultural?  I’m not commenting on this as good or bad, mind you.  Just trying to make some comparisons.  You, the reader, are welcome to state your opinions, in agreement or otherwise!

I love the way you get it all at once here ... city street, little boy fooling around on bicycle, flowers over an old-fashioned wall, satellite tower, and a mountain not far away!

I love the way you get it all at once here ... city street, little boy fooling around on bicycle, flowers over an old-fashioned wall, satellite tower, and a mountain not far away!

There’s been some instinct within me all the time down here that makes me want to back up as far as possible and try to get it all in one picture.  I know it isn’t artistic.   You saw it in the picture to the left when I posted it on Flickr with that caption.  The satellite tower simply doesn’t belong in that picture!

We were driving through Guatemala city.  (I don’t have good pictures and can’t upload them anyway, but just found this link that has some of what I’m talking about.)  Lots of people own cars.  Traffic is heavy … there is an “Oakland Mall” over there near the “Restaurante Español,” or if you prefer you can go the the “Restaurante Uruguayano.”  T-shirts in English – I hope that one boy doesn’t know what his means.  And over there to your left is a beautiful stone aqueduct.  It is called “colonial,” and probably has been there since about the 1700s.  In fact, it looks just like the famous aqueducts from of the age of the Roman Empire.  If my memory doesn’t fail me (I can’t access the book right now), I read that it was still being used in the 1960s to supply the city with water.  Now there are paved roads going under the arches.  It is overgrown with jungle foliage in places.  All along its base are pedestrian paths … and bus stops.

Something clicked.  Latin America is about contrasts like these.  It can’t be described in one paragraph.  Try to do so with America – you can throw in the American dream, free-enterprise capitalism, democracy, and the Bill of Rights, and most of us will be happy with it.  (I know I’m over-simplifying a little.)  The local newspaper here did a survey in August asking “Guatemaltecos” to describe themselves.  I can’t remember the top ten, but the top two were “trabajadores” and “chispudos.” “Trabajadores” just means “workers.”  “Chispudos” is tough to translate, but it comes from “chispa” (someone correct me if I’m wrong), meaning “flame” or “spark.” (Wow, I actually found the article, for those who can read Spanish.)  They have a spark of creativity, of ingenuity.  Refreshing my memory with the article, at the same time they see themselves as “luchadores” – people who are struggling against the odds.

But going beyond those traits (which Americans would probably like to appropriate themselves), as an outsider looking in, the mixing and blending runs far deeper and closer to the roots of the society.  Start with the religion – no, start with the people themselves.  Who are Latin Americans, as a whole?  They are a blend of two races.  Not many races, who mostly migrated here in search of similar dreams, but two races with entirely different origins, historically at enmity with one another.  On one side you have the “Indian,” native to the country.  On the other, you have the Spanish race, which arrived to conquer and enrich itself.  (Sorry, Manuel.  I’m glad you’re not nationalistic here …)  They made slaves of the Indians, yet they also intermingled, and the product today is a range of shades from nearly white to entirely dark.  The families who are mostly European are usually the upper class, and the mostly Indian families achieve varying degrees of success or poverty.  And there is a host of people in between.

What about the religion?  You have little towns, every one with the cathedral next to the plaza.  Inside the church, the priest does … whatever he does, in the presence of a Virgin who might be fair-skinned and might be dark.  Outside somewhere, in many places, the witch doctor still practices.  (A classic dance here – probably still performed in at least some places – involved erecting a pole in the plaza, and connecting it by a rope to the steeple, while the dancers, really actors in this culture, crossed that rope.)  The common people go inside the church to carry out the Christian rites, and on the steps in front, they burn incense to their native gods.  Of course Catholicism has been the consummate “mixer” and “blender” wherever it landed during its history, but it has found fertile ground for that approach here.

Technology?  There was the boy speaking English in the restaurant I visited, with his iPhone.  And the middle-class accountant’s wife who hosted a baby shower for Rachel last weekend, who didn’t have a sink in her kitchen – we presume she washed dishes out on the patio.

I can’t begin to really describe the contrasts in this culture.  They’re everywhere.  They were in the Burger King where I got scrambled eggs, tortillas, and beans for breakfast on Friday.  They’re in the church where the Mexican-style guitar player plugs into the same amp as the pastor on the Casio keyboard.  They’re in the hand-woven, multi-colored textiles sown into a woman’s suit jacket.  They’re in the democracy whose greasy-palmed former president bought himself an island in the Mediterranean on which to retire.  And I can’t help but feel that a large part of the identity of these people lies in their adaptation to live in this world of countless layers of incongruities.

I apologize that these thoughts are still half-baked and not entirely developed.  If I had more patience, I’d hold off on publishing them till tomorrow.  If you, as a reader, would like to agree or disagree in the comments, feel free to do so.  I know that some of my readers have a lot more experience in the matter than I do.  Some have traveled to multiple countries; some have much more extended experience living in Latin America; some are Hispanic and can approach it from that perspective.  Most, if not all, live in the USA, and know it from different angles than my own.  If you would like to clarify some point, or just add your own thoughts or reactions, I would welcome the discussion!  Probably I will do do some editing or commenting after I’ve had a little more time to sleep on these ideas.

More observations

19 09 2009

I “escaped” again this afternoon for about 45 minutes.  Someone had told me I needed to try churros – I think they’re a Mexican specialty – and I went up to a little panadería (bread shop) I had seen a few blocks away.  I bought two for one quetzal (Q7.9/$1).  It was about like graham crackers would taste if you made them twice as thick and rolled them into fancy work before sprinkling sugar on top.  I go past the little shops and look in, and they’re so inviting, but I haven’t ever known what to ask for.  I don’t like just pointing and saying, “Give me that.”  When they know that I don’t know what it is at all.

Then I wandered a little farther … I’d eaten breakfast very late in the morning and no lunch.  I found my frozen yogurt shop again.  This time there were people ordering in front of me, and I watched them a little while.  I asked for mango, and the girl told me that I could have three fruits.  I randomly put together mango, strawberries, and banana.  The yogurt was almost gone when I realized my fresas (strawberries) had really been cerezas (cherries).

See, I sat down and started reading this Guatemalan newspaper.  It was a countrywide one.  The first five to eight pages were the crime reports.  Two teenagers had been killed in Guatemala City.  Over somewhere else, a guy who delivered bottled water on his motorcycle was murdered.  If I got the gist of that right, it was because he wouldn’t pay a Q5 fee to be under some gang’s “protection.”  They’d found a dead women with dogs after her body out somewhere else – didn’t know who she was.  And a baby a couple of months old with a wound on it, that had been thrown in a river some days earlier.  And a couple of policemen that had been arrested for ongoing shoplifting in a local market somewhere.  And an ex-policeman that was gunned down with an M-16 while driving his car.  And a couple that was gunned down in the street, while their 24-year-old son was killed a few minutes later by someone (I assume the same murderers) breaking into his home – He yelled at his wife and little baby to hide because someone was after him, and they survived.

There were almost no reports of anyone being arrested for the murders.  They had pictures of the dead bodies, or the crime scenes.  They had descriptions of the getaway car.  There were pictures of a couple men who were arrested with stolen horses.  As I read, I understood why I had heard Guatemalans speak almost reminiscently of a cruel, self-serving, dictatorial leader from a few decades ago who had arrested any robbers on the spot and had them immediately shot.  Back then, they remember, you could even leave your front door open, and nobody dared to steal anything.  Last Saturday, I was standing in front of his portrait in that museum.  They said he considered himself the Napoleon of the Americas.

There followed a community section, and after that a two-page write-up about a home for old people that was out of money and about to close.  They couldn’t pay the workers, and some were single moms who had to leave and go somewhere that they could earn money for food.  There were pictures of a 103-year-old woman.  Another woman, 77 years old, had been abandoned by her daughter on the streets of Antigua after her son-in-law didn’t want her any more.  She had lost an eye from the beatings she received from these two.  A man said his wife and son dropped him off there and told him they would come back for him, but he hadn’t seen them since.

So I finished my yogurt and left.  I wandered on down to the plaza to look at the cathedral and see what times it might be possible to visit it.  It was open, and there were people cleaning and more in it.  I don’t think they would be used to tourists coming in.  And I came back here to get you guys up-to-date.

In other news … Lee asked me last night how I would like to go to Honduras.  He said there is an ACE conference to be held in Spanish there.  I looked over at Maria, and we started laughing.  I said, “I think that’s just where I need to be.”  Finally I said the Spanish part sounded good …  If I go, we’ll also be cutting catty-corner across El Salvador.  I suppose that sounds pleasant and all, but … I’d rather have quality time in one place than hop, skip, and jump around.  It would only be a Thursday to Saturday, but I’m just not interested in anything to do with ACE.

On the other hand, I asked Lee about these women who go out and hold children’s Sunday Schools in the surrounding areas on Sunday, and he said he would talk to somebody about me going with them.  (It was his suggestion originally.)

Lee and Sharon got back from Honduras on Thursday … and if there is more news, I’m not able to think of it right now.  Talk to you later!

P.S.  One of the students from my group in Bolivia emailed me 194 pictures from that first two weeks, the part where I lost my camera.  They include a lot of pictures of our hike in the mountains.  If you’re interested, you can view them in the Kodak gallery over here.  (Let me known in the comments if that link doesn’t work – I just copied it out of his email.)  I know that’s a lot of pictures, but I have neither the time nor the patience to be more selective!

P.S.2  Lee told me that this specific newspaper goes after the sensational in the first place … But that didn’t make me feel an awful lot better.

Día de la Independencia

15 09 2009

I seem to have a knack for hitting festivities south of the border.  Or maybe not – It could be that it takes a special knack not to spend time down here without experiencing festivities. 

In Bolivia they were celebrating the Bicentenario (Bicentennial) of the first Latin American attempt to throw off Spain’s domination.  They told us that every day in Sucre hay una protesta o una fiesta – there’s a protest or a party.  It was a slight exaggeration, but there were certainly parades of school children practicing their instruments with thrilling marching music.

It is a lot calmer here.  Perhaps the warmer temperatures discourage such exertions.  But just about every day, as I’ve been organizing the books in Lee’s office, steeped in our microcosm of English, there have been cars going by with the radio blaring Spanish music, or a chattering couple passing the window, or a half-dozen boys carrying drums home from school, determined to rouse the neighbors as they chase one another down the street.  My heart jumps, and I stand up, and look out the window, and want to go out and take it all in, and I sit down and go back to dusting books.

Lee and I were discussing whether I would have anything to do if I spent the day in Flores up near Tikal – whether there were enough tourists there that I could shop or whatever.  I assured him that I could easily entertain myself in a Latin American city for a good three hours just by walking around.  He said, “You could be entertained three hours just standing on the street corner in a Latin American city!” 

But since last Thursday, we’ve had a little more specific holiday-making here.  El 15 de septiembre – today – is Independence Day for Guatemala, Honduras, and, a Mexican reminded me, Mexico.  (I really am not much good at Mexico.  Kind of makes me ashamed of myself.)  Of course that means a parade, and a marching band, and fireworks, and probably lots of other things I didn’t get in on.  Maria is sitting across the room writing a blog, so maybe she will share some pictures and so on with you all … I can’t make mine upload. 😦

Last Thursday, the school held its honors ceremony.  All of the youngsters had a 97% or higher average, and one can’t really demand more than that for honors, grade-wise!  So everyone of them got a sash, with the colors of the Guatemalan flag, pinned on one shoulder and across their chest.  I liked the ceremony.  They gave the sashes to the parents beforehand, and then (after a prayer and a little talk) had a “national” (local) teaching assistant call each student up for their parents to come and pin the sash on.  Then the mamas and daddys kissed their little boys and girls, someone snapped a picture or several, and there was a round of applause.  Juan Diego was so proud of himself!  It was very sweet.  When the last one got done, the electricity went off.  It being a sort of Third World country, everyone was used to it, so the “DJ” who was playing music the school used aimed the laptop screen at James, and the rest of the light came from cell phones and digital camera screens.  As usual, the outage only lasted 5 minutes or so.

When I went in, I made sure to not seat myself with only other English speakers, or quite on the back row.  Although the family in my row wouldn’t use the vacant next to me.  I noticed Juan Diego talking to the ladies behind me, and I gave it my best shot … Sure enough, they were his family, and introduced themselves to me as his grandma and mother.  I wasn’t sure at the moment whether they even cared that I was interested.  They were friendly, and several other people kissed me goodbye when they left, although I don’t think they knew me.  But I discovered afterwards that I most definitely did make friends with Juan Diego’s grandma.  She smiled and waved when they passed me in the car, and I saw her in church on Sunday too.  (Well, Dr. Smartt will be proud of me …)

Sunday was the first day of parades.  It was for the youngest children.  James and Rachel had to get special permission to have the school children parade on a different day.  We were in church … the Sunday School teacher was giving it his best … and here came the bands.  It is the most inspiring marching music.  Only the piano player of Friday night could have rivalled it at all, and he wasn’t there.  We hadn’t had good attendance to begin with, and I saw about four people get up and leave.  I didn’t bother counting the heads looking back at the open door.  The teacher struggled on.

Of course, a Latin American parade doesn’t have just one band.  The Pied Piper’s march continued for an hour or so, it seemed to me, and each new band had a different charm.  Drums … brass … little snatches of melody that could capture anyone … I told Maria at lunch that I thought it would have been more effective to just take a five minute break and everyone go out to look and tap their feet for a few minutes!  Everyone but the congregation, though, pretended it wasn’t happening.  I guess maybe they do have a reason for turning the music up so loud, because we did drown it out while we were singing …

Oh, one other thing.  The pastor announced from the pulpit that the ladies in charge of music should take hermana (Sister) Maria and hermana Amy into account, because they could sing specials, lead songs, and read Scripture just fine.  (He must have faith.)  Hermana Amy comes already knowing Spanish, because she has studied it in the university, so ……   I can plead off on the song leading because I have a really low range and don’t know a lot of their songs.  The other parts – that should be interesting.

We weren’t in on anything else Sunday, except hearing the fireworks.  I know that the firecrackers they sell here are charged several times stronger than the ones we use.

Monday was our day.  Rachel had warned me ahead of time that the schools and parents here dress their little girls atrociously.  (I don’t guess it’s worse than cheerleading.)  James and Rachel made it clear that their students were to wear their school uniforms.  Since they are little children, they let them ride in a wagon, pulled by James in the SUV.  James said that he had gone out the night before and their young Rottweiller had yanked off a mouthful of the blue plastic it was decorated with!  The SUV overheats, and he had to drive it for an hour or two in weather around 80-90 degrees with the heater running full blast.  They got a native speaker to record a little “commercial” explaining their school on a CD along with the children’s songs (one English & one Spanish) for the children to sing.  If I’m not mistaken, Maria is uploading a video of it right now.  They played this through a couple of amplifiers in place of a band.  Probably because of being “misfits,” (with the carriage and younger children, I mean,) they were the last ones in the parade.

I “hung out with” Rachel and Blanca (the “national” principal) following on foot for a while; then we went back to the school to make a banana-pineapple licuado (frozen fruit blended with water and sweetened), and set out cookies.  I was getting “antsy” … finally we were done.  I left a little ahead of them – I don’t know if they went back to the end of the parade to follow their carroza (cart/float) the rest of the way, or what.  I remained stationary on the corner and let the parade go by.

Almost every school had its band, even if they were just drummers.  I think they had adult musicians in the Sunday parade, and these weren’t nearly as good, of course.  Lots of shimmering costumes, uniforms on the boys, drums and brass instruments and … all that could go into making it fun.  Most of the girls weren’t quite as bad as I had been afraid.  But they had their sections of girls in short, short skirts, with skimpy tops that didn’t meet, and they had been carefully taught to swing their bodies with a significance that most of them didn’t understand, in front of everyone lining the streets.  I would guess that they ranged from six to thirteen or so.  One older girl, as she walked by seemed for a little to actually be trying to hold her skimpy skirt down in front and back.  Another little one had parents decent enough to put some white tights on her.  I got one picture of a group in attractive, more traditional clothing, but I can’t get it to display right.  So I’m just uploading one picture, I think, to give a tiny idea of the parade (a decent part, don’t worry!).

James, Rachel, and Blanca felt that they had got a really good response with their little group.  Blanca said that people were actually waiting to see “something different.”  All the children and their families came back to the school for refreshments, and that was that.  Oh, actually there was something else I noticed.  The three guys building the room addition had to work that day … and we all had punch and cookies in front of them without the slightest twinge.  When it was finally over and the punch had been watered down to give a few refills, I ventured to suggest that they might like some, but we had run out of cups.  It seemed so weird.  My dad taught me not to eat in front of people who didn’t have anything, and I’m pretty sure that in the States we would offer at least a cup of the cold drink.  The parents, students, and staff all had some.  Of course, on the other hand, the hired men weren’t expecting anything.

Today was to be the oldest set of students.  I think this parade started a couple hours earlier than yesterday’s, and by the time Maria and I were feeling like venturing out and taking a look, the drums were no longer sounding.

Tonight I went out to get a Coke.  Something drew me to the plaza, and as I got over there, there were groups of soldiers, and lots of the young people in their holiday clothes again.  I passed very close to some of the soldiers, and they seemed horribly young to be carrying rifles ….. 

I positioned myself by a booth where a lady was making a killing off of grinding up ice and selling snow cones.  (I felt so ridiculous with my Coke, but I hadn’t planned to go to the plaza.)  The group over in front of the government building was full of handsome uniforms and clothes.  The uniforms here are the same blue-green as the color of the national flag – quite a different effect.  They were playing canned music through some speakers.  Eventually, the important people came out on the platform.  They seemed to be awarding scholarships, and maybe teaching awards.  What better way to celebrate Independence Day?  I found the ceremony, as a whole, quite as impressive as anything we do (or don’t do) to celebrate “Fourth of July.”

In between announcements, a band (of soldiers, I think) played short snatches of songs.  Then they did the national anthem.  The majority of onlookers just looked on.  But a little old man standing by me, with leaves (to stay cool?) falling down out of his baseball cap, who had parked his bike, picked up his machete in a leather sheath from the handlebars, and stationed himself to watch, sang along softly through the entire anthem.  Somehow it made it more solemn than even the seven soldiers standing at attention on the roof of the building.  They got done and lowered the flag to a 21-gun salute.  (Actually 19 – they misfired on the second and third rounds.)  The effect would have been heightened if it hadn’t set off a nearby car alarm, as did the fireworks which I don’t think were scheduled.  But it wouldn’t have been Latin America if everything had been scheduled and followed through on.

Then the little man put his machete back on the bike and rode away, and the boyfriends and girlfriends started kissing one another again, and everybody went home. 

I was pretty isolated there.  At the end, a couple of ladies passed me, and one of them must have been from the church, because she greeted me with a “God bless you” and shook my hand going by.  And nearby people suddenly rearranged their opinions of me – it was obvious – and tried to decide which category I really did fit into.  If they figured it out, they did better than me.