Veni, Vidi, Vici

I came…to Guatemala to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming bilingual in Spanish but I found that to be a tertiary goal. Trusting God and learning about myself and the world around me were first and second.

I saw…things on a regular basis that absolutely broke my heart. People with missing and/or diseased limbs, a frail, incontinent, wheelchair bound teenager begging for money. The pain in a taxi driver’s face as he told me about his son who had recently been kidnapped and murdered. A dying dog who was whimpering and bleeding. Children selling books or pens or gum when they should have been in school. A boy so hungry that he looked as if he were about to faint. Prostitutes who sold their bodies for the equivalent of $5 or less.

I also saw…women in all seasons of life traveling alone.  The physical strength of Guatemalans as they made a living doing things most Americans would consider disdainful.  The emotional strength of a young mother who was widowed in her early 20’s. The friendliness of the people around me. Taxi drivers and policemen who marveled at the fact that I was traveling alone but at the same time, went out of their way to protect me with words and deeds. People from different cultures, countries and lifestyles.  One of the people that I was closest to here is an atheist. Clearly we have differing views, but that didn’t get in the way of us having a good time.

I conquered…a fear of exiting my comfort zone.  A comfort zone is like wearing a pair of Spanx.  They both make things look good on the outside but the price for deception is restriction. I decided it’s better to let it all hang out. When I did this I was able to:

Blog, not freak out about germs, enjoy weekend trips with people that I didn’t know very well, travel to Colombia alone, spend a winter without indoor heating, climb volcanoes, ride bikes through steep, lung burning trails and most importantly, take a long hard look at myself.

English is my first language, but I’m also semi-fluent in perfectionism, comparison and worry. There were many days when my teacher corrected me at least 100 times.  It got to the point where I didn’t want to talk because I was tired of being wrong. When new students arrived at school and it seemed that they were learning faster than me, I became frustrated. Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was renting a penthouse in the comparison trap. I silenced the slumlord inner voice by terminating my lease. Preoccupations with what would come after Guatemala also dominated my thoughts. Because of this, I wasted time and money, but I gained a heightened awareness of my shortcomings.

I came, I saw and I conquered but it was a team effort.  I couldn’t have pulled this off without believing that God would get me through the cultural and language barriers, insecurity, loneliness, doubt and discouragement. I left the states knowing that I had the support of my friends and family, and for that I am extremely grateful. October was one of the most difficult months I’ve ever had in my life: I dealt with stomach issues for the second time, my storage unit flooded and my grandfather died two days before my birthday. The notes of encouragement, prayers and phone calls inspired me to keep going. Muchas gracias to my teachers and everyone at La Democracia Spanish School, especially to Flory, my other GuataMama, and my Guatemalan family.

I’m not sure what comes next professionally or personally, so in the meantime:

Voy a vivir el momento (I’m going to live in the moment)
Para entender el destino (in order to understand the destination)
Voy a escuchar el silencio (I’m going to listen in silence)
Para encontrar el camino (in order to find the way)

Marc Anthony- Vivir Mi Vida

 

Big Bang Theory

Shortly after I arrived, I was sure that I made a mistake.  What kind of neighborhood did I live in?  At least 2 or 3 times a week, I woke up to the sound of what I thought were gunshots.  The block was under siege, but the culprits weren’t members of pandillas (gangs), they were relatives.

Guatemalan birthdays are celebrated a bit differently.  I’ve learned not to be mad when I hear the tell tale crackle at 5 or 6 in the morning. I feel that it’s my penance for the time that my uncle was asleep on the porch and I lit some firecrackers under his chair. My cousin and I thought it was funny but for some reason, he didn’t.  I guess we got our sense of humor from a different side of the family.

My Guatemalan grandfather had a birthday and this is what happened.  One really early Saturday morning, I heard a lot of commotion. It seemed to be closer than normal, so I went outside to take a peek.  This is what I saw:

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Yep, a Mariachi band.  All the paper on the ground is from the long string of fireworks. After a few songs, the band came inside to play and then they had coffee and cake with the family.

This morning at 4:15, I experienced what will probably be my last concert.  The band played 4 songs. I’ll be back in the states soon and birthday celebrations will consist of waiters and waitresses pretending to be interested while doing the Chicken Dance. I kind of like this tradition better.

Happy Birthday anonymous Guatemalan neighbor!

Bed Bathroom and Beyond

Bed and bathroom are self explanatory. Beyond is the 60 step round trip to the kitchen for herbal tea. Who told the Guatemalan germs that I was leaving next week? In a final thuggish, power hungry move, they have appeared on the scene once again. Instead of innocuously waiting on arrivals at La Aurora International Airport like this:

1-2013-01-01 00.00.00-232They decided to bid me a final adiós with one prominent finger. Así es (That’s the way it is.)

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I Have Friends In High Places

But Santa Maria isn’t one of them. I’m really not sure why I thought that it would be a good idea to hike one of the highest volcanoes in Central America.  At midnight. Maybe it was the romantic in me. Seduced by visions of a beautiful moonlit stroll, I recruited a few friends from school to join me on a ascent from 8,000 meters to 12,375 meters. When you’re the organizer, it’s not okay to get cold feet and back out.  I was stuck.

After dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant, we walked over to meet the rest of the group.  I carried my faithful child sized backpack, thinking I wouldn’t need anything other than a few small bottles of water and the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I made. Wrong. Because it’s cold and windy at the summit, we had to carry sleeping bags and 2.5 liters of water. This is what I get for not reading the fine print.

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We picked up a couple of police officers from the tourist division and we were on our way. It started off well with laughter and good conversation.  There were several guides dispersed throughout the group so we could walk at our own pace.  I was feeling like a champ until the 2.5 hour mark, which wasn’t okay because that was slightly more than the halfway mark.  The ascent is steep and it’s all up hill. My stomach started churning and I thought for sure that I would be able to kindly sacrifice my dinner to the Mayan gods. Nope. I thought about forcing the issue but my hands were filthy from the seemingly dozens of times that I lost my balance and fell forward.

My thoughts began to drift toward the extreme.  The following is a brief summary of things that were rolling around in my head:

What was I thinking?  It’s 2:30 in the morning, I should be in bed.  This is hard. I think that I want to be left for dead.  Wait, what if God is listening and decides to honor my request? Okay, I’m going to sing a Negro spiritual.  Surely if it helped the slaves, it can help me.  Why didn’t I go on Ancestry.com to see if I even have any slaves in my lineage? Slaves didn’t have to climb up volcanoes.  How did Harriet Tubman do it? Okay, I can draw some strength from her legacy.  This isn’t working.  Who else?  Oh yeah, I can sing the theme song from “Rocky”. Okay, let me think of some bible verses.  Those that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. Nope, what’s more appropriate is “Do not put your Lord to the test.” Surely I’m testing His patience by trying to climb a mountain at 3 am. Oh, my stomach really hurts.  So, this is what mal de montaña (altitude sickness) feels like. If this man tells me one more time that were getting close, I’m going to cry.  He said that an hour ago. Where is the top of the mountain?  Are there wild animals out here? Oh Lord help me. Peeing behind a bush is so unladylike. Why did I decide to do this?

One of the police officers was really nice and asked me if I wanted to switch backpacks so that my load would be lighter.  His backpack was actually heavier than mine. I guess he figured that we would never make it up the volcano at the rate I was going,so he carried both of our backpacks.  Trudging along, I made it after a total of almost 5 hours.  I wanted to enjoy the beauty of being above the clouds but it was cold, windy and my stomach was still dancing to its own music. I marveled in the beauty for all of 2 minutes and then I settled into the sleeping bag.  Physically, I was between a rock and a hard place as I tried to get comfortable on the ground.  The rock looked like it would make a pillow but my last name is neither Flintstone or Rubble. My preferred accommodations have more than 3 stars and sheets with thread counts in the hundreds.  Here I was in a borrowed sleeping bag, wearing a borrowed jacket and room service was instant hot chocolate and/or oatmeal with peanut butter, jelly and powdered milk, served by guides crazy enough to be drinking beer at 7 in the morning.

Speaking of having friends in high places, I gave my camera to my  one of my friends to capture the moment.

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The descent was easier because I took a Nauseol (Dramamine) which settled my stomach. Since I have almost walked the soles of my hiking boots and the ground was unstable, I slipped several times.  Once again, el policía to the rescue.  He held my hand most of the 3 hours that it took to reach the bottom.  At one point, we both fell and in complete gentleman form, he landed like a cat on all fours without making bodily contact. We both laughed, brushed the dirt off and kept on moving.

I wanted to thank him for going out of his way to help me so I invited him to dinner.  When we met up again, he said, ” You look different.”  I said, “Yes. Healthy.”

 

On The Seventh Day God Rested

And my amigo should have also.  I’ve been here for awhile now so I frequent the same places and chat with some of the same people.  There’s one man I know who I’ll refer to as “Juan”. He asked me where I was from and when I told him the United States, his eyes perked up and I learned that he had lived there as well.

We talked about our favorite foods and the 5 years he spent working in “esclavitud” (slavery) in a Chinese restaurant. Most of the money he earned was sent back home to save for a house and land.  It’s not good to make assumptions and I didn’t want to be rude, so I asked him if the US Government bought him a return ticket. The mischievous grin was a dead giveaway.

Exactly how hard is it to cross the border?  It’s more difficult now because of technology and fences, but 10 years ago, all you had to do was have some money.  Juan went from Guatemala to Mexico and whereas he didn’t have legal papers, currency worked just fine. Mexico to Houston to New Jersey.

On his day off, he decided to go for a walk.  He didn’t know that the forecast called for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) with a 100% chance of incarceration. After a three month stay in jail, he tried to get deported to Mexico. Had he brushed up on Mexican civics, this entry would have been about something else. Since he didn’t know the Mexican National Anthem or any other pertinent facts, he feigned illiteracy and claimed to speak an indigenous dialect. This didn’t work either, because there just so happened to be a woman there from the indigenous tribe that he claimed to be a member of.  If you go by what the media portrays, you would think that all immigrants speak Spanish. Juan told me that his cellmates were from all over the world including Europe and Asia.

So what happened with the house and land he wanted to buy?  Well, his wife wasn’t so upstanding.  She married someone else shortly after he left and took the money.  When he returned, he never saw her or his savings again.  I asked him what he would do if he saw her now.  He told me, “Nothing, because many years have passed and I’ve moved on.” On the surface, he seems to have peace but I also learned he prefers to spend his time either working or alone.

I also asked him if he would risk going to the states again.  He said, “Yes.”  His salary here for 15 hour days is $330/monthly.  Basically, it’s the same amount that he earned weekly in the states.

Should I decide to return here permanently, I have a business partner who has the idea that we can make a killing serving “Gringo food.”

It All Comes Out in The Wash

When I started my trip, I used a lavanderia (laundromat) that was near the apartment and frequented by many international travelers. I continued to take my clothes there until something strange happened.  One morning after using a freshly washed pillowcase, I noticed a spot of blood.  I dismissed it as a random pimple because my skin has gone haywire.  It happened again a week later and I figured that although the dirt was getting out, there was a possibility that bedbugs had gotten in. No bueno.  From then on, I used the lavanderias close to my school or I hand wash.

Hardly anyone here has a dryer.  At my house we either hang items on the clothesline or put them on the tin roof.  In rural areas of Lake Atitlan, things are done a bit differently.

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2013-01-01 00.00.00-487If you pay not so close attention to my pictures, you’ll see that I wear the same clothes over and over.  So when it came time to freshen up my wardrobe a bit, I logged on to the Nordstrom’s website and did a happy dance when I realized that they shipped to Guatemala.  It only took about 30 seconds to realize that this was a stupid idea. Instead I went to Megapaca, which was a giant thrift store where clothes (new and used) are given a second chance.  I spent a wallet busting $2 on a pair of new Ralph Lauren pajama bottoms and this shirt that makes me feel super athletic.

DSCN1975Who was #13? Was she lucky?

All the Tide in the world couldn’t help the owners of Megapaca,whose stores were recently closed due allegations of lavado de dinero (money laundering).

Taxation With Representation

It’s good to know that if you’re traveling abroad or an expatriate, The US Embassy is available to provide assistance.  I went to the annual Town Hall meeting which was conducted by 3 Foreign Service Officers.  There were about 60 US citizens in attendance. These are some of the things that I learned:

How Your Tax Dollars Work Abroad

  1. Visa, it’s every where you want to be.  Actually, without one, you can neither legally leave nor enter a country. The 3 types are Immigrant, Non Immigrant and Immigrant with Family living in the US. For non US citizens, the process is difficult because the government operates under the assumption that foreigners are traveling with the intent to remain in the states.
  2. Passport services. There’s a 2 week turnaround here and in an emergency, it may be possible to have one issued in the same day.
  3. Emergencies.  If you’re in an accident, ill, the victim of a crime or have to deal with a death abroad, they provide resources. It’s kind of like an overseas social work department.
  4. Crisis.  If there’s a crisis, the US will do whatever it takes to get it’s citizens out in the event of a full scale evacuation.   There are Marines who are specially trained to deal with this scenario.
  5. Big Brother is Watching You.  There may be some people who get freaked out by this but you can sign up with the traveler program and enter your travel information.  It makes you easy to find in an emergency.
  6. There are approximately 400 employees with 12 different agencies including divisions of the IRS, customs and agriculture.

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My house sister and I representing for the travelers studying abroad.

Printer Fluid, No Printer

After leaving the hostel in Guatape, I flagged a bus down that was heading towards Medellin. I settled in for the 1.5 hour ride, turned my music on and took off my big glasses. We stopped to pick up a cowboy(complete with his rope) who worked in a neighboring farm.  I started to nod off but quickly woke up when our bus almost rear ended the truck in front of us. Instinctively, I locked arms with him and we both were grateful that the bus had good brakes. He exited and about 20 minutes later, a group of 6 teens boarded.  I’m used to being around groups of teens and I’m not easily intimidated, but this group gave me an uneasy feeling.

The bus was completely full, so one of them sat next to me.  He smelled like paint and I immediately knew that he wasn’t a painter. I racked my brain trying to remember what people who are high on inhalants do. He reached under my thigh and I realized that he dropped his straw.  My suspicions were confirmed when he pulled out a plastic bag and began to huff. I started praying like nobody’s business because 3 of them looked extra sketchy.  They had a clean cut looking girl with them who sat up front and chatted up the driver.  I alternated between looking at him out of the corner of my eye and watching the rest of them. About 10 minutes later, my seatmate pulled out a bag of coke and then I realized that’s what the straw was for. Unsure of their intentions, I began to mentally note everything from their physical appearance to their clothing to what they had in their hands. I’ve taken over a year of Krav Maga, which is sufficient for a one-one one situation, but this wasn’t a kung fu movie.  I kept praying and watching, hoping that the only harm they would do was to themselves.  The bus emptied out a bit but the group was still scattered about so it didn’t make sense to move.  One of the other group members came to the back where I was and they proceeded to share the baggie of printer fluid.  At some point I guess the effects were wearing off, so they added more liquid to the bag. Meanwhile, the first guy was shouting out music requests to the girl who was changing the stations on the radio. After what seemed to be the longest ride ever, we arrived at the bus terminal without incident. I was so disturbed that I went home and didn’t go back out the rest of the day.

The Odd Couple Travels Together

Less than 10 hours after my mom’s arrival, I wondered if I had made a mistake by rooming with her.  I haven’t lived at home in forever, so I forgot that she wakes up in time to let the roosters know that they should wake up in 2 more hours.   Sometime before 4 am, bright light and strange sounds awakened me.  I gave my mom the look of death as she rifled around looking for my computer.  I gave her everything she needed and I put my sleeping mask back on.  Thirty minutes later, I couldn’t believe how loud the clicks of computer keys were.  The hotel was full and we were leaving the next day for Jardin, so I willed myself back to sleep.  Apparently, I’ve acclimated to the coldness of Xela because I woke up and saw my mom wearing a cap and her jacket. She told me I froze her out.

After our overnight trip, we returned to Medellin late in the afternoon and I had a strategy. Mom and I went to the mall and I walked her around until she was tired.  I didn’t feel bad.  I’m sure she did it to me  at some point during my childhood.  My plan worked and she woke up at 6 the next day.

I don’t use electronics at least 1-2 hours before bedtime.  It disrupts my sleep.  Guess who was looking for her favorite TV show at 10pm?

My itinerary included a really nice restaurant that serves cute little plates and has a supposedly amazing atmosphere.  She prefers to get more food for her money.  We ended up at a restaurant where the food was good and there was a lot of it. I wish I could apologize to the cute little animal that I saw at the botanical garden (I ate one of his cousins.)  I thought that the waiter was describing wild boar.

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We both realized that we needed to compromise and be patient or else our trip would have been disastrous.  She slept in a cap, kept her jacket near the bed and I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of some random program in the background. Not only did we have a good time, we shared in the misery of eating what we assumed to be pork.  We laughed about our nightmare filled sleepless night and the revenge Mother Nature took on us for eating the cute little creature pictured below.2013-01-01 00.00.00-861

Medellin’s Marvelous Metro

He was the color of Dulce de Leche and was probably just as sweet. As he moved closer to me, I silently thanked the company who made his shampoo and cologne. We locked eyes and exchanged smiles, words weren’t necessary. My legs became a bit unsteady but I quickly regained my balance.  By now, our bodies were touching. My front was pressed up against his back. Where would we end up?

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Don’t get too excited. It was just another day on Medellin’s Metro, the light rail train.  For less than one dollar, you can travel to most of the major points of interest in the city. Because its consistently full, finding a seat is a luxury.  That being said, the riders seem to be surprisingly polite.  A prerecorded loop reminds patrons that they should be accommodating to people with disabilities and the elderly.  

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I witnessed this first hand when the younger ladies gave up their seats for my mom and the lady sitting next to her. The stations look and smell nothing like the subways of New York.  Not a speck of trash, no rats and some stops have mini art galleries and malls.

What I found most comical is what I like to call, “The Mad Dash Mash”.  At rush hour, there are anywhere from 40-70 people in front of each set of doors. As soon as everyone exits, the people that are waiting rush through the doors like its Black Friday.  People squeeze in and jockey for position.  It’s chaotic but not violent and when someone steps on your foot, it isn’t a big deal. If by chance the doors open again before departure, more people cram in and the new arrivals smile at their good fortune.  I don’t understand the mash because the trains run about every 4 or 5 minutes.

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The cable cars are also a part of public transportation.  They were built to provide residents of outer areas access to employment in the city.

Of course there are pickpockets and thieves.  To decrease the likelihood of robbery, you wear your backpack on your front.  Observe what the locals do and act accordingly.  I carry a child sized pack and when I ride, I wear my jacket over it.  It makes me look like I have a humpback, but safety trumps fashion sense.