So, I bought a one way ticket to Guatemala hoping to keep all future travel plans wide open. Sometime around the end of November I left my family and friends (which, by the way, was one of the hardest things I´ve ever done. I've said goodbye to many people in my life, but this time it was much harder to say goodbye to all those who mean so much to me. I know many of you will still be with me in spirit during my travels, but not knowing when I will return made it much more emotional for me). The day after I arrived in Guatemala City, a big, ugly, and somewhat dangerous city of too many millions of people, I hopped a bus to Quetzaltenango. Quetzaltenango, also known as 'Xela' (the 'x' is pronounced 'sh', so "shella") is a high mountain city (elev 2335m) of about 250,000-500,000 people, depending on who you ask. The city itself is nothing spectacular, but it is nestled up against some incredibly beautiful volcanoes. Like most of the Guatemalan highlands, there is a predominant presence of Mayan people and culture. There are something like 23 distinct Mayan languages and even more styles of Mayan dress, each noticeably different than the other. Many of the Mayan women sell beautiful textiles or other handmade products in the local markets. They seem like very kind and hard working people, but there is definitely a complex social class hierarchy. Generally speaking, it seems as if many of the Mayans find themselves in a lower social class, as observed in many indigenous populations across the world. Regardless, they are a very beautiful and colorful people. I have truly enjoyed observing the various styles of dress and gorgeous textiles.
When I think of Guatemala, I think subtropical to tropical, beaches, warmth (even hot), humidity, etc. Xela was anything but. The days were wonderful with the sun beating down and warming to temperatures of 60-70 degrees F, but the second the sun went down, it got ridiculously cold. Aside: when I travel, I carry a guidebook, but I only consult it if necessary. I tend to get the bulk of my information from other travelers. You could say that I travel by word of mouth. As a result, I often don't do my homework before arrival and this time I paid for it: I had 6 of the coldest weeks of my life. Almost all buildings in Guatemala are made from concrete and they have no heating system. As a result, they make excellent refrigerators. Everyday, I would wear long pants, long sleeves, and my fleece to class. On the really cold days I would put on long underwear, gloves, and a warm hat. I truly enjoyed my classes, but by the end of the class each day my fingers were so cold that it hurt to type even the shortest email. Then I would walk home in the 65 degree sunshine. It was quite unique, even paradoxical. Then, when the sun went down, the cold would return almost immediately. I spent many nights under 4 or 5 blankets trying to keep warm. I can honestly say that those were 6 of the coldest weeks of my life. Even though it gets 20 to 30 F below for a week or two back home, the houses are well insulated and they all have heating. But it's incredibly hard to stay warm when you live in the cold all day long. I am rambling. It was cold.
After a bit of investigating, some advice from a friend, and a bit of luck, I chose to study at Utatlan Spanish School. http://www.xelapages.com/utatlan/ The classes were amazing and the staff was great. I would highly recommend them to anyone interested in Spanish immersion classes. I paid $130 a week for 20 hours of one-on-one tutoring (4 hours a day Mon-Fri), this also included my home stay and all 3 meals 7 day a week- a pretty darn good deal I must say. It's incredibly difficult to try to survive on $600 a month in the States, so I count this the deal of the century. Since there are 23+ Spanish schools in Xela, there is a wide range of experience amongst instructors. I was fortunate because I placed a reservation before my arrival and I was matched with an amazing teacher. His name was (and still is) Mario. Super cool guy with many years of teaching experience. He only taught in Spanish, but he was able to translate many words I didn't know into English. He used the translator program on Google, which I found very helpful. But what I got a kick out of was how he would push the 'listen' button and a cheezy female computer voice would speak the English translation, then Mario would mimic the voice. This led to some great laughs. When the internet wasn't working, which was all too often in Xela, we would ask his brother, a fellow professor, what certain words meant. As a result, I called him Juan Google, but he didn't say the translations like the computerized gal did, which was quite disappointing. With his teaching experience and my somewhat natural knack to pick up a new language (which I was pleasantly surprised to learn this about myself), we covered all the `rules and regulations´ of the Spanish language in about 5 1/2 weeks, which I thought was pretty darn cool. I was by no means proficient after those weeks, but I now have another diploma saying I have graduated from the Utatlan Spanish School (and I said I would never go back to school...). He said he had nothing more to teach me, just that I needed to keep practicing on my own. I will admit that I have slacked a bit on my studies since entering the backpacker lifestyle, but I try to talk to the locals as much as possible, listen in on other people's conversations, read the newspaper, and watch the occasional movie in Spanish. The one thing I have neglected to do is write in Spanish on a regular basis, but I never did like writing anyway.
I must briefly put in a good word for my little friend, the dictionary. Before leaving the States, I bought the Franklin BES-2150 Merriam-Webster Spanish-English electronic pocket dictionary. Say that 10 times as fast as you can. Anyway, this little guy has been invaluable in my Spanish edumacation. Not only is it small enough to carry in your pocket, but it is much faster than the traditional dictionary. I suspect I can find 2-3 words in the time it would take me to flip through the pages of a book dictionary for just one word. It also has all the conjugations of each verb, an advanced English dictionary, long vocab lists, and even a bunch of 'fun' vocab games. It was a little pricy (over $100), but it was worth every penny as far as I am concerned. I would highly recommend it for anyone serious about learning a foreign language.
I made a number of observations in Xela that I have found also apply to many other towns in Guatemala. Many streets are cobblestone and incredibly uneven. As a result, I suspect mechanics specializing in suspensions make a pretty penny, if pretty pennies can be made here. The sidewalks were very narrow and uneven as well. Most were made of a combination of cobblestone and 'cobblecrete' (the concrete version of cobblestone). Sometimes they even had a power pole placed directly in the middle of the sidewalk, requiring one to step into the busy street to pass by. Speaking of streets, the traffic can be described as organized chaos. When there are lines painted on the streets, they don't exactly mean a whole lot. From what I have observed, there are a number of unwritten traffic codes that everyone follows, but you must look out for number one when you are trying to cross the street. All that said, there are surprisingly few accidents here because most people drive aggressively yet defensively. I wouldn't be surprised if there are significantly more traffic accidents in the States, which makes the States a much more dangerous place to live (a side not for those of you are worried about my safety traveling solo down here).
Chicken buses, on the other hand, are another experience. It seems as if most of the retired and unwanted Bluebird school bus from the States and Canada are shipped down here where they are mechanically refurbished in some form or another. The outsides are also repainted with creative, bright colors and often pimped out with chrome. The insides, however, remain the same old seats. What was a comfortable ride when I was in 6th grade is a bit more cramped with my long legs. Not only that, but they can pack more people into a bus than I thought humanly possible. In a full bus they jam 3 per seat and then have 2 people sitting in the aisle with one cheek on the seat and the other cheek supported by the other person in the aisle, kind of like the keystones of an arch. Of course, there is room between the pairs of 'keystoners' in the aisle, so they can squeak at least one more person (usually a mother with multiple children counts as one) between each of them. Assuming that a bus has 10 rows of seats (I haven't actually counted) and that all spare standing room is filled, the average chicken bus can hold upwards of 100 people, including small children. Add all the bags and miscellaneous items in the overhead racks as well as an insane amount of cargo tied down on the roof rack spanning the full length of the bus, and you have something that looks like the sleigh out of "When the Grinch stole Christmas". Then send this beast barreling down the mountain at uncomfortably high speeds on a poorly maintained and curvy highway and you have yourself a real chicken bus experience. It's actually kind of fun if: you are feeling a bit adventurous, the ride isn't too long, the diesel exhaust isn't blowing back into your window, you have a somewhat comfortable seat or spot on the floor, it's not too hot or too cold, the music's not so loud that your eardrums are bleeding, you don't have to pee like a racehorse, you are not sitting next to some one who hasn't bathed in weeks, you don't get anything stolen, you don’t have a solid case of traveler’s diearrhea (kind of an oxymoron, eh?), the bus doesn't go over a guardrail or get in an accident...you get the picture. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it´s convenient and cheap.
The septic systems, if you can call them that, are not designed to handle toilet paper and other sanitary product. As a result, all paper waste must be delicately placed in a trash bin next to the toilet. One might call it a ‘poopy paper bucket of goodness’. The quality and cleanliness of these disposals varies as much as the toilets. It takes a bit of getting used to, but eventually it becomes second nature. Speaking of garbage, there’s garbage everywhere. Most towns/cities don’t have public trash cans, so it’s just common practice to throw your trash on the ground, regardless of where you are. I have visited some incredibly beautiful places that have been tainted, even ruined, by an overabundance of trash. The general population here has no concept of keeping the environment free of litter. The road sides are covered as people thoughtlessly throw their waste out of the cars and busses. In fact, just the other day I saw a 4-5 year old boy deliberately walk around his mother to throw his candy bar wrapper out the window of the minivan. I think they are trained at an early age that garbage is better left on the ground than in your pocket. The black sand beaches of the southern coast are gorgeous, minus the line of plastic bottles and other crap that has been washed up to the high water mark. Once, I almost stepped on a hypodermic needle and syringe while enjoying a peaceful stroll on the beach. Not cool. Most of the lakes and rivers are polluted with wrappers and bottles. Probably the most disappointing garbage experience was when I hiked Volcan Santa Maria. I will describe my amazing experience in a later blog, but after the sun rose I was stunned to see that the summit of the volcano was absolutely covered in rubbish. It was truly a disappointment after such a breath-taking experience. Enough of this garbage, let’s talk about cleanup.
As far as street trash goes, a group of city employees usually comes by with brooms and wheel barrows once daily to sweep up the trash. What they haven’t figured out is that placing public trash cans around the city would greatly reduce the time and money needed to keep the place clean. Another illogical practice, at least in my mind, is their weekly garbage pick up. I only witnessed this in Xela, but the night before the garbage truck (which happens to look an awful lot like a colorful grain truck) comes everyone puts there bags of rubbish on at the street corner. A few guys on the ground throw the bags of trash to a guy in the back who stacks it to the point of overflowing. What gets me is that by the time the collection comes in the morning, the street dogs and drunk bums (charra) have ripped open all the bags searching for food. So, Team Trash has to clean up a mountain of trash strewn across every street corner. It doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s how they roll down here. They’ve got it all figured out, so I’m not gonna rock boat.
Nothing is built to code because there is no code. I have seen some very creative and incredibly unsafe plumbing and electrical fixtures. I actually consider them more like works of art than anything. Almost all showers in Central America are heated by passing cold water through an electrically heated coil. It usually does the job, but it takes a bit of getting used to especially when there are wires shooting off from every direction from the shower head. I have even felt an occasional jolt pass through my body while taking a shower, kinda warms you from the inside out like a fine liquor or microwave.
There is rarely silence in the streets here. Since there are no sound restrictions, so many store fronts place amplified speakers just outside on the sidewalk and blare the worst music they have on file. I have found much of the Latin pop music to be as annoying that of the States, but they take it to the next level. Imagine Lady Gaga with a high, nasally voice (more annoying than it already is) singing in Spanish to a reggaeton beat, and turn up your crappy amplified speakers so that the distortion can be heard clearly from 3-4 blocks away. Now try to focus on learning a foreign language when your friends across the street bust out their Latin Gaga mix without shame. After the sun sets, you would expect things to quiet down a bit, but the style and type of noise simply changes. Keep in mind that I always sleep with earplugs in, but often I have been woken by various sounds (this is by no means a complete list): dogs barking and/or fighting, car alarms, squealing tires, borrachos (drunks) singing/yelling/falling/making noise, firecrackers (they are bigger and much louder here, especially when amplified by the narrow streets. Firecrackers are also sold at many local stores all year long, so the little boys have plenty to keep themselves busy), music pounding from the nearby clubs, and roosters. I always thought that roosters crowed in the morning. What do I know? Apparently half of the Guatemalan rooster population crows between 8 and 11 pm nightly, so get used to it. As if it isn't hard enough to find some peace and quiet, evangelistic preachers scream their message on radios, TV's, and in person. They also blast their message and music onto the streets as loud as their amplifying equipment will allow from churches, meeting spaces, and in markets. I am not opposed to preaching or spiritual teaching, but I am opposed to headache-inducing fire and brimstone. You like apples, I like bananas, as well as my hearing.
I would like to take a moment to briefly whine about my home stay, just briefly though. The shower was ridiculously weak and cold (a warm shower is important when you live in a refrigerator: decreased core and ambient temperature + cold shower = shower aversion). Let's just say I'd maximize the time between showers as I felt necessary. Hey, it's hard to stink when you never sweat. Don't worry, I have been showering much more regularly since leaving the land of the cold. But it was nearly a month after I arrived in Guatemala before I was able to take a comfortable, hot shower. I also had trouble falling asleep some nights as the walls between rooms were makeshift wooden structures in which light and sound and smells, such as toxic fresh paint fumes, passed freely. The sad thing is that these wonderful people lived like this everyday, and they have it so much better than many of the poor villages I have visited. We are so ridiculously spoiled in the Western world. We are so used to so many conveniences that we (I) often have a hard time adjusting to the new situation. Even though all the basic needs are covered, we always want more. Heck, it took me weeks to get used to sleeping on an old, worn out bed after leaving my ultra comfortable bed back home. I have been softened, I am weak, I am spoiled.
All that aside, my home stay was truly a great experience. The wonderful people and great food singlehandedly outweighed the frustrations. Gladys, the owner of the house, lived there with her son and his girlfriend. She also had a few extra rooms to rent, so there were anywhere from 4-6 people living there at any one time. I know Guatemala is not known for its exquisite cuisine, but in my mind Gladys is one of the best cooks here. As a result of the good food, the pleasure I take in eating good food, and the constant cold, I began to put on a few pounds. I think I have lost those pounds, though I don't know if it from surfing, the heat, tapeworms, or any combination of the above.
Gladys is one of the sweetest people I have ever met; so kind, caring, and gentle. Her profession is a Spanish instructor. She was not feeling well after sitting for 4 hours of class twice daily, so she went to the doctor to have some tests run. I am very sad to say that she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in the midst of my stay in Xela. The doctors said that it had progressed beyond surgical excision and she was not interested in chemo or radiation. However, she did find a naturopath who said he could help cure her. I don't quite know what concoction of minerals he prescribed, but she had to go in every other day for IV injections. I am concerned that the nurses and medical assistants here are poorly trained, at least the ones in Xela. She would come home everyday with bruises all over her arms. Apparently it would take 5-9 sticks before they could find a vein. They told her she had bad veins, but it turns out that they never put on a new needle. They were down right pathetic. After one of her worst experiences (I think it was the 9 attempt day), I asked her if she would like me to try. I told her I had never given and IV injection to a person, but if I can hit a cat's vein I thought I could hit one of hers. I was successful on the second attempt of the first two treatments, but each subsequent time I hit the vein on my first try, and I never caused a single bruise. By the end of her treatments, she was calling me her angel send by God. There is no question I developed a special place in her heart as she gained a place in mine.
I have no doubt that I was meant to be there when I was, and it was truly a pleasure and an honor to help someone in need. As many of you know, I have a 'professional' degree, but my job at the small animal clinic was just not fulfilling a huge piece of my heart. One of the main reasons I left was to figure out what I am meant to do with my life. I have truly been blessed with a great education and some incredible opportunities, I just know deep down inside that I am meant to do more with these blessings. What does that looks like? I have no idea, but I hopeful that I will find at least some piece of the answer on this journey. I feel that this experience with Gladys was just a taste of what's to come. I am truly excited for the future, whatever that may look like. I may not find all the answers I am searching for, but I know it is going to be quite the journey- physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.