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.

Introductions … new services, new people

12 09 2009

I might as well warn you now that I’m just planning to make a rather long post and get caught up.  I’ll divide it up here and there, I think, so that you can decide whether you want to keep reading or not!  Actually, you might try skipping through.  I tried to put the most interesting parts first, but now it seems somewhat reversed.

The translating has turned out not to be as big a job as I thought.  Rachel had already satisfactorily completed everything but the 29 pages she gave me.  I have about one page left of finishing up her work, and then I need to format it and it will be done.  As I was wrapping up my part of the translating on Wednesday, she came in and asked me if I like working with children. (Nah, I just came down to help with this school because I get sadistic pleasure out of keeping their noses to the grindstone.)  And do I like working with special-needs children?  I had to admit that I can’t claim prior experience at the elementary level, but I was quite ready to try.  So she told me that Juan Diego, eight years old, is on his way through kindergarten for the third time.  The public schools had him the first two times, and didn’t have the resources to help him, so they just sent him out to play when he acted up.  He has made tremendous progress this year in his class of about 10 students, with loving discipline.  However, at this point he’s still struggling with the names of the letters.

In point of fact, most of the children are.  ACE has a fairly strong phonics program (I must admit), and these children know letter sounds backwards and forwards, and can sound out words, even though they’re not really supposed to be reading till next year.  But achievement counts for nothing if you can’t pass the tests, so Juan Diego must know that when someone points to “a” it doesn’t mean “ape,” “antelope,” or “ah.”  (I didn’t finish learning the Spanish alphabet till I tried to teach it last month, after four years of college, but if kindergarteners finish the year without knowing any random letter when you point at it, it doesn’t matter that they’re already reading.)

Anyway, I readily admit that it’s something that needs work; I just can’t see the threat of not letting them “pass” kindergarten or participate in “graduation.”  That’s just the way the game is played, which is all education is about anyway, right?  (By the way, every youngster in the school has an average of 97 or above – most of them 99.x.  Just thought that might interest some people with whom I’ve had that conversation.  It’s purely objective grading, too.) 

So Juan Diego must learn his letter names, with 30% vision in one eye and 70% in the good one.  Rachel and I discussed some aspects of the matter, and some strategies, and we decided that I should pull him out 2-3 times a day and use flashcards or whatever I liked to help him.  I held my ground and said that I didn’t think it would be beneficial to work more than 15 minutes at a time, and when I finally reached into my ammunition store and pulled out a factoid from a certain methods class by a certain fabulous teacher, it found its mark, and I won.  (Said factoid being that a rule of thumb for activities at the elementary level should last for (student’s age + 2) minutes = 10 for Juan Diego, even if he were perfectly normal.)  I discovered a flaw in myself.  I’d really rather not negotiate; I prefer to just walk off if I am seriously disagreeing with someone.  But I can’t do that if I want to participate another five weeks, and so I had to buckle down and work with her.  I think it was good for me.

So … Rachel got her flashcards together, and yesterday she and James drilled the students for about half an hour on letter names versus letter sounds, and I cut stuff out and laminated.

Anyway.  There’s quite a while left, and Juan Diego is not done needing help, if I don’t miss my guess.


I don’t know if the last part was as interesting as I meant it to be or not.  Moving on, the church services have also been something to get used to.  Sunday morning, Lee was invited to preach at a baptism.  He and Sharon were concerned before they even went.  The baptism is held at a swimming pool by this church, and it results in quite a festive atmosphere for a Sunday service.  It was 100% new to me, because our church doesn’t “practice the ordinances” at all – blame it on Quaker influence somewhere way back, if you like.  I heard someone surmise that once, and so it’s what I say now.

But I didn’t see anything I felt like importing.  To say nothing else, I don’t know where the idea came from that girls should wear white tops for baptism (even if they didn’t have low necks), while men in swimming trunks are observing from the other end of the pool – they couldn’t get the whole place reserved this time.  I feel like saying quite a bit more, but I shall refrain.  Except that I think John Wesley and Adam Clarke demonstrated quite satisfactorily that baptism originally was by sprinkling or pouring rather than immersion, and why holiness folks have strayed from their Methodist roots, I’ll never understand.  Especially after attending this service.

I did enjoy the Sunday night service.  I’m afraid there’s quite a bit of what we call “wildfire” here, but it was interesting.  They had a trumpet player, and two acoustic guitars, and a keyboard.  They run their sound a little loud.  Just a little, you know. 😉 I really did enjoy the trumpet player.  I wasn’t sure whether the high point musically was when they asked him to sing, or when they asked the keyboard player to sing.  See, I liked the trumpet player’s singing, but then he couldn’t play the trumpet.  And I appreciated when the piano player stopped playing, but I didn’t enjoy his singing as much. 

The piano player turned out to be the pastor, and he got everyone to stick their hands in the air and say Amen sufficiently, and then preached.  Oh, but I missed René in Sucre.  During prayer here, my mind went back to a little second-floor room with a young man praying from the pulpit, as his voice rose and earnestly pled with God, and God’s presence settling into the room, even with most people pretty quiet.  But you take what you can get.

Wednesday, there were two funerals, if I understood.  Someone from the church had died, and the pastor’s brother had (not unexpectedly) passed away.  So Maria and I showed up, but there were just a few people who had come to pray a few minutes before going to the funeral or whatever it was.

Last night, they were to have a missionary service at 6:00.  Maria and I went with some anticipation – well, maybe I should speak for myself.  The church was decorated tastefully in blue and gold, and I loved the touch of spreading fresh pine needles all over the tile floor.  They had all the folding chairs out, and evidently expected a crowd.

About 6:45, they got the sound adjusted like they wanted it … it was done in such a manner as to prevent folks whispering to one another.  Hollering, maybe, but not whispering.  The missionary and his wife sat down on the front seat, she not at all in line with typical holiness standards, and with a V-neck revealing … more than I think I’ve ever seen in a professing holiness woman.

Oh … the piano player.  I somehow knew when I saw him shuffling across the platform towards the bench, a young man unable to straighten up, that he could play the piano.  They say that when God takes one ability, he frequently gives another.  I have heard greater virtuosos.  And no, I won’t say that it all was entirely appropriate for church.  But when I hear piano accompaniment that good, I’m going to enjoy it!  He was throwing in all sorts of chords, and grinning to himself all the time, and always in control of the rhythm – something I’d missed Sunday night.  I think he and my brother would enjoy an afternoon together.

Then they called up the poor struggling evangelist, and he went to his Mac laptop and turned on his soundtracks, and I eventually realized that we had actually come to a concert.  It wasn’t so much the music that was objectionable, although Lee and Sharon said they heard it a block away, but there was just a vein of performance and emotionalism running through it all the way.  He did preach (on Jesus turning water into wine), and he even preached specifically against sin when they called him back up after the wildly successful altar call.  (Said sin being pirated CDs.)

As to the altar call, I was and still am quite curious as to 1/4 of the audience having been converted after repeating a sinner’s prayer, and I should like to know whether they will be there on Sunday, and when they’ll be joining the church.  The pastor announced to us that their names had been inscribed in heaven and the angels were having a party now.  (On a side note, I noticed one man turning around from the altar and beckoning to his women-folk to follow him up there, which they did.  That did seem pretty non-US.)

Then the missionary’s wife went back to man the product table (or to woman it?), and they called some children on stage and had them sing and invited a round of applause, and everybody went out and bought tostadas from the booth in front, and we all went home.  (Actually, I bought some sort of delicious warm, thick drink with a piece of cinnamon stick in it.)

I am not trying to be offensive here; I recognize that I have a range of readers from different backgrounds.  I am not meaning to denounce the church people, or to condemn churches with practices different from mine.  As to anything beyond “reporting,” I am simply measuring this specific church by the standards which I understand this organization to use.  If they professed different beliefs, then I hope I would ask myself whether they were conforming to what they believed.  I am quite sure that there are numerous good people here, and it’s hard for me as essentially an outsider to distinguish what positions people hold.  I really have only attended one service representative of “normal” here.  Also, I really respect the missionaries’ recognition that this is a self-supporting, independent network of churches, and that they don’t have the right to dictate anything.  Finally, I know that if an outsider came into my church or movement, they would misinterpret a lot of things at first. 


(I do know some people are interested, and if you’re not, you’re under no obligation to continue.) For those whom I haven’t lost yet  …

6 hours later – I couldn’t remember what I wanted to write about, so I gave up.  It was shaping up to be a really warm day today, but it started raining around noon and kept it up for an hour or so.  That broke the heat, and I escaped for a pleasant afternoon.  The Rickenbachs (Lee and Sharon) have gone to Honduras till partway through next week, and it’s just Maria and I here.  I had determined to buy my lunch.  (The folks here and I have a bit of an ideological difference when it comes to food.  They’re proud that they’ve learned to subsist primarily on vegetables and fruit … and I don’t see that it’s anything to be proud of. 😆  However, I do get a fair amount of meat.  In Bolivia I got to craving peanut butter – I guess for protein – after 2 or 3 weeks!)  It was about 3:00 when I finally found a place I wanted to eat, and all I’d had was a fruit & yogurt breakfast.  I managed to find something that wasn’t an expensive, fine-dining restaurant, but wasn’t hamburgers either.  And I have to say, they can make good steak in Guatemala.  I can’t help looking for the Heinz 57, but it doesn’t need it.  There was a family in there, and the youngsters were all talking English – I think they know more slang than I do (not saying much). 

Question:  Why is it that an American who has travelled to other countries is “well-travelled” and, if they’ve sent a few weeks backpacking and staying in hostels, possibly even “bicultural,” but a Latin American who has earned a living in the US for a while is (to describe the US perception as best I can) someone a little humorous who just doesn’t belong?  Inquiring minds want to know.

After that, I carried out the main part of my plot for the afternoon.  Maria and I passed some old wooden doors last week, and I glanced up and saw, on a a paper which had been in the sun for a long time, that it was the Jalapa historical museum.  I’m guessing it may be about the only one in town, but who knows.  It claimed to be open weekday mornings, and Sat. & Sun. from 3 to 6.  I made it over there about 4 today.  It certainly didn’t look open.  I knocked … looked through the dilapidated wood, and it didn’t look too inviting anyway … knocked again … Finally I mosied off.  There was a door open across the street, and women were in there sewing.  This being Guatemala rather than Sucre, Bolivia, I thought they might not mind helping out a foreigner, so I asked if they knew if this museum was open.  One of the ladies assured me that it should be, came out, crossed the street, got the attendant’s attention, told me I needed to knock harder, and explained to the man that I wanted to see the museum.  It is a block and a half from the house, but I don’t think anyone from here has ever gone. 

There are moments, as an American foreigner, that one doesn’t feel very welcome in other countries.  Then there are the moments when you knock on a museum door, undoubtedly the first foreign visitor in ages, and some volunteer takes an hour and a half to give you a personal tour, explain every photograph, make the history of Guatemala come alive, answer questions, show you every room and explain how it was typical or atypical, what was original and what is duplicated – and even appear appreciative of an interested audience.  Then when it’s all done he kindly asks you to sign the guest book, and you ask if he wasn’t supposed to charge you (like it says on the door), and he agrees that your grand tour did cost you all of $2.50, just to support the work, and invites you to come again some time if you have a chance.

I have seen “gramophones” (the famous old Victrolas) in museums before, and you probably have too.  But unless you’re a little older than I am, you probably haven’t heard one play.  Just ask the next museum guide you meet to wind that thing up and let you listen to it!  It seemed he would have let me touch anything in the place, although I can’t say it seems like a wise policy to this American.  In Abraham Lincoln’s house, they warned us that if even our heels slipped off the marked path, the alarms would all go off.  And I suppose that house will last longer.  I asked in one room if I could take a picture.  He said it wasn’t usually allowed, but it was OK to take one.  He actually took one of me in the room.  ( By the way, I would check out those Flickr photos.  I commented on the one of the kitchen with some of the explanations the guide made to me – it interested me, at any rate.

So that has been my most rewarding escape.  A couple of other times I’ve slipped out on my own … went to a frozen yogurt store … bought a Coke … had a trio of school-age boys holler something after I went past which they thought I wouldn’t understand.  It was very tempting to answer them.

Someone commented to me by email that they were concerned I wasn’t enjoying Guatemala as much as Bolivia.  Well, it would be hard to enjoy anything that much.  (I kind of left my heart in Bolivia.)  And this is a very different set of circumstances, forcing me to react in different ways.  But I don’t need just a repeat of a previous experience.  I’m developing insights in different ways and directions this time.  Yeah, a lot of English conversation – but there’s more information being shared that way.  Anyway, that is a topic for another day.  Congratulations if you stuck with me this far!

I’m now remembering quite a bit more I wanted to share, but I will spare you.  BTW, Maria posted an update herself, where she borrowed a couple of my pictures.

All going well

8 09 2009

I noticed just now that my hose-squirting friend has been converted into an ally.  I just came in from watching the children at recess, and he was standing in the yard, holding the hose, waiting for the word to add a little more water to the current batch of mortar.  He was as passive to the swarms of first-graders screaming around him as his older companion.  I think maybe even more so, because the “mason” would stop and stand with his hands on his hips and smile as he watched them, but the little boy stayed solemnly focused on his work.

The school boys were engaged in activity that should perhaps wait another ten years or so … Each one was trying to catch himself a girl.  It took a little while for me to realize it wasn’t just tag.  There are more girls than boys, so the boys pretty much had their pick.  They try to corner them or just chase them down, and at any minute you can see two or three of them leading their trophies away, until they lose them.

If anyone wonders where stereotypes of “females” came from, they should visit here.  Talk to a typical uneducated teenage girl … their conversation is as inane, full of innocent wonderment, giggly, …. etc.  as the most chauvinistic person could expect.  I’m not referring to character; just that a lot of them aren’t getting a quality education.  Of course, I’m sure there are lots of exceptions as well.  It is just a different world for women here.

I have looked at myself, and thought about the reactions I tend to meet.  Just look at it: I’m blond in a world of dark hair, light complected in a world of dark complexions, tall in a world of short people, educated in a world of little education, relatively thin in a world of “plump” women.  I think that it should be abundantly clear that any attraction based on these novelties is not worth ten cents!  Even take into account another couple of large factors – I appear to be wealthy in a world of poverty, and (as long as I’m single) I carry with me a free pass to the US in a world where mansions are built by remittances from formerly poor family members there.  The fact is, that in America, a country of 300 million, I am guessing there are a good 25 to 5o million people who share every one of these characteristics.  I just happen to be one of the very few in Jalapa at the moment!  (Probably not half a dozen.)  So I can’t help be conscious of people looking sometimes.

Right now, at school, I’m engaged in translating the standards of the ACE curriculum so that the administration can submit it for approval to the government.  It’s a joke.  To start with, we’re breaking the first rule of translation: Always translate to your native language.  I’m working on math right now, and I’ve never done more than addition, subtraction, and multiplication in Spanish!  So I have to try to research how to say “greatest common factor,” “reduce fractions,” “count by 100s,” ïmproper and proper fractions,” solve word problems by dividing 3-digit numbers by 1-digit divisors,” and so on.  If nothing else, it is extremely inefficient.  If this were a real job at a for-profit agency, I would probably refuse to do it and tell them to have it done right, or else issue a gigantic disclaimer in ALL CAPS.  As in, “I have no idea at all how to do this, and it is going to turn out pretty bad.”  But I figure that I won’t do worse than anyone else here would, and they can’t afford to have it done right.  On top of that, they tell me that no one will ever actually read more than the first page or two.  Finally, the government shouldn’t get too uptight about it, because the English churned out by these Latin American governments frequently makes me cringe!

I was finding it frustrating at first, because I don’t like to do work that I can’t do well.  But Sharon came in yesterday and repeated to me what James had said, about it taking a tremendous load off of him to know someone was seated here at this desk working on the things which had been so neglected previously.  So I am going to give them the best I can.

9-5-09 (I’m just no good at titles.)

5 09 2009

Something clicked yesterday and today, and I think I can take the “maybe” out of my settling in.  At least, comparatively speaking.  This is just a pretty different experience from last time.  I’m staying with an American family – it’s kind of like trying to figure out how to fit in at an aunt and uncle’s house for two months, when I’ve never met them before.  I’m not company, but I don’t know the ropes either. 

At first it felt too isolated – or rather insulated – from the world of Jalapa outside.  But last night the lady who comes in once or twice a week to help them clean ended up staying to supper, with five youngsters.  I assume they were all hers, but she hardly looked old enough!  I am uploading pictures to Flickr right now of them.  They picked some ripe mandarin oranges out of a tree in the back yard, and everyone minus Lee sat down to eat them.  Then they started playing a game which for all I know was unique to them, though I doubt it.  It had to do with stretching an elastic strip between two people at ever-increasing heights, and jumping up to step on it, and jumping off again … just the sort of game that children play.  Then they insisted that Maria and I take our turns at it, and of course the atmosphere entirely loosened up as we started having fun with one another.  After supper everyone was telling riddles.  I confess I shamelessly borrowed about the only Spanish riddle I know, which I learned from a certain Mexican named Juan, adapted it to Guatemala, and was rewarded in like coin with a pun just a little bit better, which I have now stored away.

The children surprised – rather, were surprised by – a mother cat carrying a kitten along the wall of the yard, and she dropped it when the girl screamed.  (Hey, I was trying to figure out what that noise was … it’s raining, for the first time since I got here.  Out of a halfway-sunny sky.)  So after Much Ado about Nothing, they finally consented to leave it in a safe place on the other side of the wall.  To my unspeakable relief, the mother cat retrieved it during the night.  I love kittens, and I may be known as an orphan kitten near-“expert,” but taking on a 2-3 week old orphan with an eye dropper and home-made cat milk substitute was not on my list of things I wanted to spend the next month doing! 


Day before yesterday, I enjoyed watching a little drama at the school.  It is inside this “compound-like” area with a few other families, presumibly connected with the church, opening onto it.  They are building a little bathroom addition to one of the buildings, for when guests come, and I’ve enjoyed watching the two Guatemalan men working at it. 

Mixing mortar by hand

Mixing mortar by hand

My first day there, they had dug out a footing and were mixing mortar to lay several rows of concrete blocks.  My second day, they put forms on top of that and mixed concrete to pour maybe an 18-inch footing, and yesterday they were doing mortar and putting up concrete-block walls.  All of it is without power tools, and the younger man mixes up the concrete or mortar with a hoe and shovel, in a pile on top of the ground, until it looks right to him (I guess).  I think it looks a little wet, but it’s none of my business! 

I looked out of the window once, and I would guess that this little boy had been tormenting him, because he had taken the hose – it’s pretty long range – and was squirting him with it several times as he ran across the yard.  It was all quite good-natured.  I’d guess the little boy for about 12, and the young man around maybe 20.  So that was all fine and good, until the man shouldered his bucket of concrete and carried it over to the form.  As he stood up from pouring it in, his older friend just nodded over at the cement pile. 

Working on the room addition

Working on the room addition

He looked around, and the little boy, being no dummy, had got the hose.  He wasn’t sure whether he dared or not.  But as the worker got closer, it was now or never, and he let him have it!  Everyone out there was laughing, and I was just trying to stay quiet at my window.  The little guy stuck it out as long as he could, surrendered the hose, and took off on the run.  But he was caught before he got to the gate, and got a good drenching. 

As he was leaning against the wall laughing (punish an American 12-year-old like that and see how much he laughs), Hermano Jaime (James) was sent out onto the second-story balcony by his wife, to see what was going on.  He couldn’t deny the justice in “he did it to me because I did it to him, but I only did it to him because he was doing it to me” or however the explanation must have gone.  But he did admonish the boy to have “compasión” on the mortar worker.  So the little drama, mostly in wordless pantomime with laughter for sound effects, ended.

Settling In, Maybe

3 09 2009

I don’t know whether I want to do this right now or not, but I did say I was going to post some more tonight.

I got out yesterday and wandered around for a couple of hours.  However, I didn’t feel free to get off of the streets that I knew led by the house.  I can’t get a map here.  I didn’t see another foreigner at all, and they tell me that is usual.  I found the farmer’s market, and wandered through there a little while.  That is something I have found fascinating since the first minute that Roberto in Bolivia led us past the front entrance and we peeked inside.  That’s where you see people in traditional dress … it’s where you see all the unique, authentic (not tourist-oriented) places where the native people buy the necessaries of life … it’s where you kinda want to hold your breath as you walk past the fresh-butchered meat (here they’re sitting shooing flies off of it) … it just leaves me feeling that I have reached the heart of the city, that and the plaza.  I think that this place really is much smaller than any Latin American place I have seen so far.  And I did not encounter one single … anything oriented towards outsiders.  At least there shouldn’t be too many shopping temptations!  Sharon does tell me that this is a great place to buy fabric, though.  And I’m kind of thinking about just doing my Christmas shopping in Guatemala!

(For future reference … the two “senior missionaries”(?) are Lee and Sharon.  Their son and daughter-in-law, James and Rachel, are pretty much in charge of the school, and Maria is the other single girl out here.)

Someone asked me by email if I’m teaching English or Spanish.  The school here accepts children between 6 and 8 years old, teaches them English, and also teaches all the other subjects primarily in English.  I am not “in charge” of anything, but I’m supposed to end up helping with this and that.  So far (two days) they’ve just pretty much had me observing.

Yesterday Rachel suggested I start going through the “Procedures Manual” of ACE teaching.  ACE is Accelerated Christian Education, and it is one of the most despicable educational programs invented in the last several decades.  But I didn’t mean to say so.  So, yeah, it’s a great program and everything.  In fact, the manual promises that if you will learn and apply the principles therein, you will inevitablysucceed in educating the youngsters!!! Wow!!!!  They’ve apparently even trademarked the name “Escuela del futuro” – “School of the future”!!!!!  So why isn’t everybody using it?? 

I have no intention of criticizing the teachers.  They’re very committed.  I believe they have a gift for education.  They’ve made it clear that they would like for me to consider filling a permanent need.  But they’ve also made it clear that they value their double accreditation – not just with the Association of Christian Schools Something-or-other, but with ACE.  And I just cannot consent to handcuff myself to something like this. 

I mean, they don’t have flexibility in their decisions if they want this inevitable success.  It appears that they have to cut their wrists and sign with their own blood that they will have personal desks for each student in the prescribed manner, and that students (instead of raising their hands) will raise the national flag for academic questions and the Christian flag for all other questions, or whichever way around it goes.  (I suppose I should just be glad that it says “national” rather than “American” flag.  And yes, I did add this parenthesis primarily for Manuel’s enjoyment.)  And it might be confusing to students if they learned “A is for apple” one year and “A is for antelope” the next.  So STICK TO THE BOOK!  (So why don’t we just go back to “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all”?)  Fine.  But without me, please.

Don’t get me wrong.  Two months of being a helper is fine.  I believe that they have at least considered  letting me work with students for whom success is not proving so inevitable.  I love tutoring, and if I don’t see that starting to happen, I might drop a comment that way to tilt the scale.  I know that some students are needing individualized help outside the classroom.  But just don’t dream of asking me to subscribe to the idea that someone back in 1977 came up with a math course that would suit every student with an IQ between 60 and 120 or so for the next … well, forever, I guess.  I did notice that copyright date on one of the PACEs, although some are more recent.  I would be disloyal, I know, within the first week.  So they’ll just have to keep it to themselves.  Besides, I haven’t even been to church here yet, and I still like Bolivia way better.

I guess I have got my little rant out, and I need to think about bed.  It’s only a quarter to nine, but I need to catch up a little.  I do want to reaffirm that I appreciate what the missionaries are doing.  They’re quite willing to do what it takes to teach.  James gets out in the middle of the floor every morning and leads the kindergarteners in a series of alphabet songs with the most ridiculous actions .. they play like apes, and ducks, and emus, and antelopes … but not apples.

P.S. x 2.  1. I will just apologize once and for all for any atrocious spelling/grammatical/homonymmistakes.  (Oh, brother … I just ran spell-check and found I spelled that “honomym.”)  I have to type this stuff in a small window, and I don’t always have or take the time to proofread much.  2. I exaggerated about the signing in blood part … the flags aren’t on the list of absolutely-necessary-for-accreditation part; it just sounded better.  (Like George Younce and Gerald Wolfe … That didn’t really happen; I made that up.)  😀  And they’re strongly recommended.