Dos Guapos Dos: Guatemala Edition

Flores, Guatemala

This past week, my daily routine of Spanish classes came to an abrupt and welcome end as Newman Granger, a lifelong friend and proven Central American traveler (resume: three previous trips to Costa Rica) joined me for a veritable Tour de Guatemala. (This is the second trip we have taken together in Latin America, the first being in Costa Rica, thus “Dos Guapos Dos.”) I met Newman at Aurora International Airport on Saturday morning, and — as I have found is often true when reuniting with old friends — his arrival felt oddly ordinary despite the unique, foreign location. From the airport, we shuttled into Antigua to embark on 36 hours of meandering through the beautiful colonial streets, sampling a half dozen cafes for their various preparations of Guatemalan coffee, and munching through the eclectic restaurant scene. After sleeping and eating for three weeks with a working-class family in Quetzaltenango, the Western-friendly food and accommodations in Antigua felt downright luxurious. The highlight was likely our first night’s dinner at Angie Angie, which featured delicious pasta, live music, a well-stoked fire in the open-air back patio, and a gooey chocolate brownie with ice cream for dessert. The only real downside to this dinner was the fact that I am not interested in a romantic relationship with Newman; otherwise, I am sure that the the amorous setting and Coldplay covers would would have sealed the deal.

In Antigua, Newman and I wasted little time delving into conversation topics that we would discuss throughout our nine days together, including politics (the current political situation and state of political dialogue in the United States is something that we can discuss ad nauseam), history (Virginians really can never get enough of this topic), travel stories and future travel plans (it was great to hear more details about Newman’s trip to Kilimanjaro this past summer, and then even greater still to hear this trip described to Daytona, then to Hannah, then to Maud, then again to Anna, then to Tory, then to a German woman I forgot the name of, then to a local shopkeeper, then to a cleaning lady, then to a rabbit wandering around our hostel*), funny stories from our shared past (having known each other for 25 years, there is plenty of material to draw on), religion and spirituality (Newman kicked off one of these discussions by asking a question with the appropriate amount of subtly — 0% — owed to one of your best friends: “Wait, so what exactly are your religious beliefs?”), the craft of writing (a Mark Twain quote recited by Newman captures a main takeaway that may even apply to this blog post: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”), business (maybe we should start one, sell it, then travel?), family, past relationships, and ideas about each of our futures. It would have been interesting to chart the exact correlation between conversation topic and caffeine consumption, but, if I had to guess, “business” and the “future” were likely the topics most positively correlated to our blood-caffeine (is that called “BCC”?) levels.

From Antigua, Newman and I made our way to beautiful Lake Atitlán for three nights, starting Monday. The first night we stayed in Santa Cruz at the hip, low-key La Iguana Perdida Hostel, nestled against the banks of the lake. In the course of our twenty-four hours there, we swam, enjoyed a family style dinner with other guests of the hostel, sweated through a three-hour hike to the top of a mirador overlooking Santa Cruz and the lake, and relaxed while reading on the porch of the hostel. We continued on from Santa Cruz to the relative hustle-and-bustle of San Pedro La Laguna, my September home, to find, unsurprisingly, nothing had really changed. Our hotel, Mikaso, provided adequate accommodations, but, more importantly, an outdoor hot tub that gave us a delicious shvitz under the stars both of our nights there. I showed Newman around my San Pedro haunts (Café Idea Connection, Sublime, Sababa, Hostel Fé, and Clover Restaurant) which were largely empty, as they had been back in September. However, the month prior, with my San Pedro School compañeros, scheduled classes, and meals with my host family, I had found the low-season vibes to be charming; however, this time around, with Newman and I looking for some social life, the place, missing many of the faces that had become familiar, struck me as more of a ghost town. Therefore, we spent the duration of our third day at Lake Atitlán in the nearby town of San Marcos, exploring the nature preserve, perfecting our jumping form into the lake off of the 8-meter high dock in the preserve, and venturing to the secluded Yoga Forest, a 25-minute hike above town, for a scenic yoga session.

Thursday marked the halfway point for Newman’s trip, and as we traveled from San Pedro to Antigua and then on to Guatemala City airport, we marveled at the amount of ground we had covered together in just four days. Also, we noted how Newman’s devoted watching of Narcos had given him a few choice Spanish phrases that allowed him to more effectively communicate in the language. For example, while ordering from a waiter or waitress, Newman’s exclamations of “muyyy, muyyyy import-TANT-tay” would reassure our server that, yes, their job was indeed important. However, Newman’s frequent quoting of Pablo Escobar — “¿Plata o plomo?”– was largely unhelpful, as we never really had to confront the gut-wrenching choice between silver or lead.

From Guatemala City airport, we took a flight into Flores, our launching off point for our exploration of Tikal, the ruins site of a famous ancient Mayan city, and, possibly more important to two Star Wars buffs like Newman and I, the filming location for the Rebel base on Yavin IV from the original Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. Thursday night we arrived in Flores, a beautiful island town in Lago Petén Itza that features Spanish colonial architecture and a hopping bar and restaurant scene for tourists. Exhausted from a full-day of travel, all we could muster for the evening was dinner at our hostel (Los Amigos) before crashing for the evening. We had the entire next day to explore the Flores area, so we decided to rent a canoe from the hostel, which came complete with straw hats, wooden paddles, and a small plastic bucket for bailing out water in case we started to sink (this must have been in lieu of the lifejackets we were never offered). The highlight of our lake expedition was our stop at Jorge’s Rope Swing, where a local guy has set-up a row swing on his lakeside property, charges admission for its use, and then sells nachos, beers, and soda to visitors. This enterprising Guatemalan’s swing has climbed to the #2 position on “Things to Do In Flores” on TripAdvisor, which speaks both to the quality of the experience he has created and to the lack of actual things to do in Flores. (I can say this with authority after swinging on Jorge’s rope, eating his nachos, drinking his beers, and then trying to find actual other things to do in Flores.)

On Saturday, we headed for Tikal and our accommodations for the evening — the Jungle Lodge. After finding the Jungle Lodge to be mostly empty and realizing that our initial plan to watch the sunrise from the park would likely be disappointing given the heavy cloud cover we had experienced in the area each morning , we decided to coordinate a sunset tour of the park instead. Our guide for this tour was Samuel, a Guatemalan from Flores that spoke slow and clear English, largely for dramatic effect, as he described the rich history of Tikal and the Mayan people. (Quick summary of Tikal history: Tikal was located in the geographical center of the Mayan civilization and was one of the most powerful Mayan city-states during the height of Mayan civilization, known as the “Classic Period,” which lasted from roughly 250-950 AD. Sometime in the 900’s, Tikal was abandoned due to drought and famine and was never repopulated. Thus, when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, the site was empty, and was not “rediscovered” until the mid-19th century when a Guatemalan-led expedition mapped the site for future exploration and excavation.) Samuel led us up to the top of Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal (70 meters/230 feet) for sunset, and, after a few minutes on the relatively crowded east-facing side of the temple, told us to quietly follow him as he led us, with a few acrobatic moves, around some scaffolding to reach the “off-limits” west side of the temple to get a glimpse of the sinking sun. Once there, he said we would stick around until well after dark to listen to the growing “jungle sounds,” but as the dusk fell and darkness began to envelope us on top of Temple IV, Samuel embarked on a monologue about his Mayan heritage and his own aspirations to be a Mayan shaman which would “probably happen in two or three years.” This monologue drowned out most of the growing “jungle sounds” filtering up to us. When the stars began to emerge above us and all other visitors had left, Samuel led us down the stairs off the temple, mentioning that “it would be better that we not hold the railing” which prompted an obvious “Why?” from one of the members of the group, as we all struggled to maintain our balances without the help of the railing. “Scorpions,” replied Samuel.

The walk out of the park took roughly 15-20 minutes and, at the exit, were greeted by a tarantula (not a scorpion). An excited Samuel scooped up the tarantula, turned it belly-side up to show us its fangs, then asked which of us would like to hold it. Unsurprisingly, none of us accepted despite Samuel’s insistence that it was “safe” while holding out the tarantula toward us in anticipation that one of us would offer our arm for the giant spider. After Samuel dropped the tarantula, Newman and I said goodbye to the quirky yet endearing Samuel and proceeded to have a leisurely dinner of mediocre food at the Jungle Lodge before bed.

Sunday, we arose to a steady rain (decision to do the sunset tour vindicated!), so we took our time at breakfast before heading out to explore the park for the morning. The rain had mostly cleared by the time we entered, but it left a picturesque mist that clung to many of the ruins. We spent the next several hours exploring the temples, palaces, residences, and religious monuments of the Ancient Maya before heading back to Flores mid-day, satisfied at the impressive additions to our iPhone camera rolls. As we pulled out of the park and headed home, I let my imagination wander to a galaxy far, far away, where Newman and I bumped into Luke Skywalker and some of his Rebel friends on the route home, who insisted that we turn the shuttle around and head for the Rebel base as X-wings, prepped for the impending assault on the Death Star, awaited us.

Our last afternoon together, Newman and I jumped into the steam room at Los Amigos for our fifth and final shvitz together before he headed off (some quick shvitz accounting: two hot tub sessions in San Pedro and three steam room sessions in Flores insured that we stayed properly shvitzed during our time together). The delicious Masala chai served by the hostel’s wait staff into the rest area outside of the steam room topped off this high quality steam experience, which proved to be the highlight of our stay in Los Amigos Hostel. We finished our time in Guatemala together by chatting for a few hours with two other travelers in the common area of Los Amigos, Anna and Sarah, who were about to embark on a tortuous twelve-hour, overnight bus ride to Antigua, and then dining at the lakeside restaurant of Raices, where our attention was occasionally distracted from our rehash of the prior week’s events by the magic tricks an elderly Belgian tourist was performing for a Guatemalan boy at the neighboring table.

As Newman heads back to the States and I have a few days to catch my breath before my brother arrives in Guatemala for 10 days (Dos Guapos to Dos Hermanos), I will have some time to do reflect and be introspective. In my time here, I actually have had less time alone than I had initially thought as I have been surprisingly quite busy with school and generally surrounded by people. This has been overwhelmingly positive, but I am looking forward to a few days to be mostly alone, enjoy the beauty of this part of the world, allow my mind to wander, and finish a book or two. When I left the States over two months ago, I did not have any expectations that I would have a specific revelation or develop a concrete next life step while here. I figured this adventure would, quite simply, be an interesting life experience and offer a bit more perspective before I take my next life step. When I left New York, there was this sense that my life was not completely in touch with what I care about most and conflicting, strong desires were making the decision of what to do next a bit confusing. (For example, I wanted to have more career momentum but I wanted “career momentum” to have less of a pull on my life. Also, I wanted more time time to spend with people I care about but I wanted other people’s opinion of me and what I do next to have less influence over me.) New York, in a lot of ways, turned up the volume on these internal conflicts that, I acknowledge, I may spend my entire life working on without ever completely resolving. However, some time away certainly has allowed me to turn the volume down and free my mind up. The point of this rambling conclusion is that a visit from an old friend with a thoughtful soul has helped to nudge me in the direction of taking some time for productive introspective while I am down here. Although this will largely take place off the pages of this blog (God invented journals for a reason), I will, from time-to-time, share with readers any insights or feelings that bubble up that I think may be worth sharing.

* = In reference to Newman’s Kili story, in all fairness, he patiently listed countless times to my rendition of the “what are you doing and what have you been doing with your life for the last 2+ months” spiel that I explained to each of the characters mentioned above. I.e. “I was living in NYC, wanted to move and find a different job, figured traveling would be cool before getting a job, now I’m in Guatemala, no specific future plans, but have general life goals, yes, blahblahlbahbleedeeblahblah…”

 

 

My Farewell Discurso to San Pedro

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

My time at San Pedro Spanish School and in San Pedro La Laguna came to an end this weekend. The farewells began with a speech I gave to all the other students and teachers on Friday morning in Spanish. Each graduating student is “required” to give such a speech on their last day. I say “required” because you could technically say, “No, given my basic knowledge of Spanish, my speech will probably be boring, definitely useless, and most certainly embarrassing. I refuse to subject myself to this right of passage, especially considering this passage is leading me to nowhere in particular.” (Not that this in anyway reflects my own viewpoint. I am just using my imagination to I think about what other students may think about this bonafide honor.) In order to prepare for this speech, I spent the better part of an hour on Thursday evening writing down my experiences in San Pedro in Spanish, relying heavily on my newfound expertise with the Spanish language, my Spanish dictionary, and Google Translate (only used for Spanish language emergencies, promise!). After a final review by my teacher Chusita on Friday morning, I delivered the below masterpiece to the people of San Pedro School — which I have, for your convenience, translated into English via Google Translate:

My time in San Pedro studying at the San Pedro school has been a good experience. I met many interesting people, both students and teachers. I think I’ve made a lot of new friends.

I have lived with a local family. My parents were Elsa and Bartolo and my brothers and sisters were Elsita, Bartolito, and Juanita. I enjoyed eating and spending time with my family, especially after being with them my Spanish improved. My family is very friendly and hospitable.

My teacher is Chusita; she is a good teacher and I am envious of her next student. I learned a lot of Spanish with Chusita and discussed many interesting topics, such as Guatemala’s politics, United States policies, and my previous girlfriends.

During my free time in San Pedro, I enjoyed many activities. I climbed the volcano San Pedro, I took the salsa lessons, I traveled to Xela, and saw the sunrise on the Nose of Indio. Finally, for the past two weeks, I taught the children of the lake. This experience was difficult but it was also gratifying.

I will miss this place because I have loved my time here. Thank you all!

The highlight/lowlight of the speech was most certainly when I struggled to pronounce “improved” in Spanish when saying “my Spanish improved.” Unfortunately, in the split second after this mishap, I was not able to think of the Spanish word for “ironic”, and, instead, just blurted out in the King’s English, “That’s ironic!” I think one of the Spanish teachers chuckled at this comment. I think.

The goodbyes continued the next day, as I said farewell to my “friendly and hospitable” family. They offered to host me again whenever, citing that fifty to seventy-year-olds especially enjoyed their homestay — helpful information in case I start dating an older woman during my time here in Latin America that would like to swing through San Pedro. Despite the fact that our parting was a bit sad, a part of me lives on in my Guatemalan family’s household as Elsita — the four year-old daughter who spent most of her time at meals singing songs she had made up (I confirmed with her mother that the songs she sung were brand new to the Hispanic tradition), dancing (technically not allowed by the Conservative Christian sect of which they are a part but, seriously, God would have frowned if anyone shut down such undeniable acts of cuteness), and making faces at me — is now the proud owner of a teddy bear named “Richardito.” Before he was owned by this budding Latin pop star, “Little Richard” was a prize at a fair in Quetzaltenango that “Big Richard” won last weekend and then gifted to Elsita in exchange for the hours of dining table entertainment she provided.

Finally, I scattered goodbyes to my classmates and friends I met in San Pedro, who have provided excellent English-speaking companionship throughout my month here. These friends hail from all over the globe, except, oddly enough, the United States (I am doing my best to represent the homeland!). However, I hesitated to say true goodbyes to most of them as I imagine many of our travels will overlap over the next few months, and as stated in my farewell discurso, “I think I’ve made a lot of new friends” and friends, well, they stay in touch.

Some of the Highlights of My Time in San Pedro La Laguna:

I Am in a Relationship with a Guatemalan Woman, but It’s Platonic

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Today marks the end of my third week here in San Pedro La Laguna, and I am happy to report that I am in a relationship with a local Guatemalan woman. Recently, Chusita and I have been spending as many as 4 to 5 hours together every day, struggling through the language barrier together (she only speaks Spanish). My conversations with Chusita have been quite interesting, as we have covered such wide-ranging topics as technology’s effect on society, a trip I took to Peru 7 years ago, Guatemalan politics, American politics, my sports career, gossip about other students and teachers in San Pedro School, bacteria found in Guatemalan strawberries that can give you seizures (don’t worry, you usually get better!), the local football championship match last Sunday (it was a barn-burner), the existence of God, where I can find a sturdy notebook in town, how to pronounce Spanish words, how not to pronounce Spanish words (which usually sound suspiciously like the sounds that have just come out of my mouth), the Guatemalan Civil War, the American Civil War, San Pedro’s history, chicken bus schedules, natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, chicken bus schedules), and countless other topics. This woman, of course, is my teacher at San Pedro School, and, as the click-baity title to this post gave away, our relationship is platonic (she is happily married and I am happily seeing where the wind will carry me in Central America over the next few months). However, we have forged quite a bond through our daily conversations these past 3 weeks.

In general, we start our daily four-hour class with a 2.5 – 3 hour discussion of various topics in Spanish, punctuated by roughly 10-12 coffee, bathroom, and Facebook breaks (Chusita is a huge Facebook fan). The last hour or so, she checks my homework, and then she teaches me a bit of grammar. In our discussions, we speak for roughly the same amount of time. It is important to note, however, that Chusita’s experience with the Spanish language allows her to express a bit more during her time speaking. To give you a feel for this, I recorded one of our recent conversations — which was about healthcare — and translated it into English below:

Chusita: “The healthcare system in Guatemala is a complex web of interconnected interests, needs, and responsibilities between the people, publicly-funded providers, private providers, and the government. Although Guatemalans are technically guaranteed free healthcare, persistent government underfunding (only $97 per person annually) and rampant government corruption have severely limited the capacity of publicly-funded providers to provide even some of the most basic aspects of healthcare to citizens. Therefore, Guatemalans are often forced to find care from private providers (which is generally unaffordable for the average Guatemalan) or go without proper healthcare. Adding to this complexity is the fact that 80% of the doctors work in one location (Guatemala City) while nearly 20% of the population only speaks in their indigenous tongue (some dialect of Mayan), which often makes it difficult for doctors to communicate properly with patients. In summary, the healthcare system in Guatemala is close to a disaster and in severe need of reforms and repairs. How would you describe the healthcare system in the United States, Richard?”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking.]

Richard: “Chusita, my great teacher, the people of the Unites States like the health. They need the health of the body. But, it is very difficult for many people.”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]

Richard: “The health is difficult in my country. The government wants health. The people wants health. The government creates law of the health. But many people do not like the law of the health.”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]

Richard: “The reading of health is popular for some people, is not popular for others.”

Chusita: “Reading?”

Richard: “Law. Forgive me, Chusita.”

Chusita: “Everything is good. Continue.”

Richard: “Trump does not want the law of the health.”

Chusita: “Trump! He is very, very crazy, the people of Guatemala do not understand him. I have many friends in the United States that are nervous about this new DACA legislation…” [END OF DISCUSSION ON HEALTHCARE]

As you can see from above, there are a few great things about Chusita. One, she is incredibly patient and willing to listen to my rambling, incomprehensible monologues across a vast array of topics (I imagine conversations with her 5-year-old son have given her some great experience in this department). Also, she has some well thought-out, informed opinions on a vast array of topics which has made the experience of learning how to speak Spanish with her quite interesting as I have learned quite a bit outside of just Spanish. Finally, she’s absolutely on-board for the whole taking breaks thing, an essential aspect of any daily, four-hour one-on-one teaching marathon.

Sadly, I will only be spending one more week with Chusita as my travels will be carrying me up into the highlands of Guatemala. Until then, I look forward to learning a bit more from the most significant woman in my life down here in Guatemala.

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Chusita is the one on the left

Hiking Volcan San Pedro: Start with a Tuc-Tuc, End with a Tuc-Tuc

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Friday evening at dinner with my host family, as they asked me their normal battery of questions in slow, gringo-friendly Spanish, I mentioned that I was interested in climbing the volcano neighboring our pueblo (Volcan San Pedro) over the weekend. After uttering these words, mi padre Bartolo enthusiastically jumped in and asked me if I needed a guide up the volcano as he “knows a guy.” I nodded and said “Si,” primarily due to my enthusiasm that Bartolo actually understood what I said (proving that my unique version of Spanish makes sense to somebody, somewhere on God’s green earth). Given my assent, Bartolo replied with more Spanish at an increased velocity that left me on my heels and saying “Si! Si! Si! Gracias!” Immediately after this flustered replied, I realized I had agreed to pay the guide at a rate a full 50% above the going price unless I could muster four more (cuatro más!) gringos to come with me on this arduous, 6+ hour hike. Where could I find so many gringos on such short notice?

Luckily, my fellow students at San Pedro School are proving to be excellent compadres in my adventures beyond “Gringolandia” (the literal name given by the locals to the touristy street of bars and restaurants beside the lake in San Pedro). A motley crew of seven from the school agreed to tackle this Guatemalan volcanic peak with me at dawn on Sunday morning. With a group of this size, we were able to fetch a much more reasonable price from the guide (125 quetzals/person) and would present a formidable force against any potential bandidos on the slopes of the volcano. (For the record, Volcan San Pedro is relatively safe these days as the Guatemalan government has marked it an official protected wilderness area. But, still, bring it on, bandidos!)

Our guide, named Luismeijia (pronounced: “Mark-que-oh”, please don’t ask me why), met me at my host family’s house bright and early at 5:45 am. Full of smiles, handshakes, and Spanish words I didn’t understand, we confirmed the price, met one of my schoolmates, and then hopped into a “tuc-tuc” to fetch the other gringos. (Quick note on tuc-tucs: These are infinitely maneuverable, three-wheeled taxis that swarm the streets of San Pedro, regularly bleeping the sounds “tooc! tooc!” to clear the road ahead of pedestrians and other, slower tuc-tuc’s. These guys all have names, are tricked out, and provide a wonderful, built-in alarm clock for the residents of the pueblo as the sounds “tooc-tooc” begin to fill the streets of San Pedro starting in pre-dawn hours.)

Our tuc-tuc caravan climbed roughly 10 minutes outside of the city, bringing us to the entrance to Volcan San Pedro Park around 6:15 am. Our guide, “Que-oh” as he asked us to call him, began quizzing us on our names and countries of origin. After we had informed him that we hailed from the U.S., Germany, Australia, England, and Switzerland, he happily exclaimed, “Americans! Australians! Germans! VERY GOOD. Very generous. Very friendly. BUT, Israelis, French, and Spanish…VERY BAD. Bad people from those countries. Not friendly. Not generous.” Unsure of how to deal with this curiously Trumpian response to our countries of origin, the seven of us chose to ignore it and follow the guide up the slopes of the volcano.

The hike soon presented a couple of fantastic views of the lake, the village of San Pedro, and the surrounding mountains, as well as, surprisingly, a tire swing. We all gave the swing a go, although Antien, my schoolmate from Germany, certainly had the most fun on this mountainside surprise, exclaiming “una más vez!” (one more time) roughly 8-10 times in a row before shoving off for her actual “one last” swing. As we climbed beyond the swing, we ascended into a fog of clouds that, unfortunately, covered the top half of the mountain and prevented us from getting much of a view at the top. It took us roughly 3 hours to slug through the 3.5 mile (6 km) hike that ascended an aggressive 4,000 feet, peaking out at 9,908 feet (3,020 meters). The trail itself was well-maintained, switchback-heavy, and muddy towards the top. After an extended snack break at the top, where we stared into the whiteness of the clouds beyond, we descended.

During the descent, the spirit of our group certainly lifted, as evidenced by the impromptu, trail karaoke in which we indulged (my personal highlight was the “Bare Necessities”…in German). Roughly 2 hours after we departed from the top, we were at the entrance to the park, where Que-oh called us a few tuc-tuc’s and said his goodbyes (as his house was very close nto the entrance of the park and he would not be riding into San Pedro with us). In general, Que-oh proved to be a reliable, friendly guide, who was quick to help us with both our Spanish (“lodo” = mud, “resbaladizo” = slippery) and our Mayan (he really pushed hard for group adoption of “let’s go!” or “hohoho!” in Mayan). Another feature (or bug?) of Que-oh’s guide service is that he is a ladies man. He asked for a number of pictures with “solo las chicas!” (only the ladies!) and pointed out several times with a grin that there were “cuatro chicos, cuatro chicas, muy bien!” (four guys – of which Que-oh was included – and four girls, very good!). Oh, Que-oh…you dog!

The seven of us re-united for hamburgers and omelettes at El Barrio, a restaurant back in the comfort of “Gringolandia” in San Pedro. The driving rain that soon began to pound the tin roof of El Barrio reassured us that we had made a good decision with such an early departure for the peak of the volcano and lulled us into a drowsiness that would carry us back to our host families for well-earned afternoon siestas.

 

National Strike! Guatemala Grinds to a Halt for a Day

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

As luck would have it (or not have it…), the beginning of my studies last week at the San Pedro School began just as a political crisis in the country was beginning to unfold. On my first day of class (September 11th), the Guatemalan Congress voted to grant the President, Jimmy Morales, immunity from an ongoing United Nations investigation into his campaign finances. (The investigation is looking into, among other over-the-top forms of corruption, allegations that the Morales’ campaign received money from international drug traffickers.) Then two days later (September 13th), the Guatemalan Congress officially institutionalized corruption by passing two comically self-serving laws: one that shields politicians from prosecution in cases of illegal campaign financing and another that effectively allows anyone with a prison sentence of under 10 years to buy their way out of prison (the clever idea here is that politicians not yet in prison are looking for a way to get their buddies already in prison out of the can). Social media exploded with the hashtag #MiercolesNegro (“#BlackWednesday”) the day these laws were passed. (Seems to me that hashtag would have come in handy in the U.S. on Wednesday, December 9th, 2016.)

One silver lining in all this turmoil is the fact that there is strong protection for freedom of speech. The Prensa Libre is the primary Guatemalan paper, and their coverage of politics essentially reads like the NY Times if you just substitute “Donald Trump” for “every politician in the country.” In order to up my Guatemalan political activism game (as well as my Spanish), I’ve subscribed to the daily edition of the Libre, which has allowed me to spend roughly 40% of my Spanish classes talking to my teacher about the political situation (which certainly beats mulling over the details of Antonio Banderas’s life, an actual exercise I completed last week).

Also positive is that fact that there seems to be strong protection for the right to peacefully protest (e.g. in 2015, Guatemalans protested for 20 straight weekends in the capital until their previous president, Otto Molina resigned amidst scandal). As such, a “National Strike” was declared yesterday in order to allow citizens a day off of work to protest. As an act of solidarity, I refused go to class (i.e. my teacher cancelled class in order to travel to Guatemala City to take to the streets in protest), and I attended my local antigovernment protest here in San Pedro. Given the raucous scene of antigovernment vitriol that I witnessed, I only lasted a few minutes as I was fearful the situation might spiral out of control:

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Why protest standing up when you can protest sitting down?

Although the scene in Guatemala City yesterday did seem to take the cake for “most raucous”:

This looks like the real protest

Late last week, the Constitutional Court did in fact suspend the new laws for further review late last week. However, today their Congress voted to maintain the President’s immunity, so it remains to be seen what happens next in this blossoming political crisis. No matter the situation, I’ll be following the situation closely with my trusty Libre and a 4-year-old’s grasp of the situation (given my current level of Spanish comprehension).

No Hablo Español

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

This morning, I opened up the new Spanish-English dictionary I downloaded on my phone last night and took a gander at the “Phrase of Day” feature. I figured the phrase might be something I could use to break the long awkward pauses at meals with my host family (that I do my best to smile and nod through) or something I could drop into the one-on-one sessions with my Spanish instructor (that I also do my best to smile and nod through). Instead, the phrase offered a perfect reflection of how I feel about my first two days of Spanish immersion:

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I closed this mind-reading app and headed to class, short one clever phrase to drop into a Spanish conversation today.

My first two days in San Pedro have been dominated by Spanish classes at San Pedro Spanish School. Classes run from 8 am to 1 pm everyday, with optional conversation practice from 5:15 – 6 pm. The classes are conducted in lakeside cabanas with a personal Spanish instructor (Chusita is mine) and include both grammar practice and conversation. (I say “conversation” but it’s more accurately described as me staring at Chusita with a furrowed brow as she speaks in a language I don’t understand about a country that is still largely unfamiliar to me. Occasionally, she stops and stares at me because she has asked me a question, unbeknownst to me. Once I realize that a question has been asked, I nod knowingly and say “Es diferente en Estados Unidos.” Surprisingly, this answer usually works). Conversation classes are with several other students at a similar level and include an instructor to guide the direction of the conversation. For now, I consider these sessions a victory if at least one other person understands at least one thing I say. I may actually be 2 for 2. (I keep “Cómo te llamas” in my backpocket).

Given my schedule, there has been some free time over the last few days, but, after a 6 hour onslaught of Spanish, I’ve found myself spending most of the rest of my time siesta’ing, reading (in English), and surfing the Internet (the English version of it). However, I did discover the local gym, Nufos, only a 3 minute walk from my casa, and squeezed in a workout this afternoon. The music blasting in the place was surprisingly solid (a mash-up of 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s rock) and the equipment consisted of some basic free weights and workable but somewhat rickety machines. I joined for one week (for 75Q or ~$10) and am thinking I might become a regular. (I was the only gringo in the place today, so I’m hoping “becoming a regular” will give me some more legitimacy amongst the locals).

Also of note is that this Friday is Independence Day in Guatemala, aka Quince de Septiembre! (Interestingly enough, when Guatemala gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the country consisted of present-day Chiapas (the southernmost state Mexico), Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras; those countries together formed the “Captaincy General of Guatemala”. This federation was dissolved two years later.) In celebration of independence, fiestas will be going on all week throughout the country, including in my pueblo of San Pedro. We got things kicked off this morning with a parade of little kids (niños màs pequeña, ages ~4-8) that walked through town, hilariously playing musical instruments, and, in some cases, dressed up as grown-ups. The little girl in my homestay family, Elsita, was an integral part of this parade and really gave it her all (as proven by the fact that she required an afternoon nap…but please keep this to yourself, she would be embarrassed if you knew).

Over the next few days, I’ll hopefully be doing a bit more bonding with my classmates (I have plans to get beers with a few tonight) and taking part in the Guatemalan independence day fiestas (I’m rooting for it to become my new favorite holiday). Hasta luego, amigos!

 

Antigua and My Guatemalan Family

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

“Much gusto, Richard! Bienvenido a mi familia!” said a smiling Elsa, the matriarch of my new Guatemalan family, as she showed me my new, personal veranda overlooking Lake Atitlan here in San Pedro La Laguna. Struggling to grasp the Spanish word for “view,” I resorted to, well, the English word for “view.” “Esta…uhhh…view…es muy bonita!” Elsa smiled knowingly, looked out towards the lake, and proclaimed “la vista!” And so my Spanish immersion attempt begins, one conversation in broken Spanish at a time.

My arrival at San Pedro La Laguna this afternoon was preceded by an action-packed last 24 hours in Antigua which began with a rousing cultural and historical tour led by the resident historian, Elizabeth Bell. Bell is no amateur historian —  she’s published multiple books on the history and culture of Antigua which are for sale all over town (this includes at least two coloring books of major Antigua sites which demonstrates the depth of the woman’s passion for this former Guatemalan capital). The tour began strong, as Bell showed us around the major sites off the Parque Central and pummeled us with her knowledge of all things Antigua (history, politics, religion, current events, and fun facts, i.e. the 1938 Tarzan movie was filmed in none other than Antigua). However, this momentum came to a screeching halt about an hour and half into the tour as Bell ushered us into the Jade Museum. For those of you who don’t know, jade is a precious mineral found in Guatemala that is popular in jewelry. Then there is a lot of other boring stuff about jade that the Jade Museum covers in detail. After about 45 minutes of that yawnfest of a museum, Bell did capture a bit of the momentum back at our final stop on the tour, the Casa Santo Domingo. The highlight of this stop was a crypt that includes exhumed human skeletons from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Pretty cool stuff.

After the tour, I meandered around some parts of Antigua I had yet to explore. This was going swimmingly until I met Oleg, a Ukrainian now living in New York City. Oleg asked me to take his picture in front of Iglesia San Francisco. Then his picture from a different angle in front of the church. Then his picture in the church’s garden. Then his picture in the middle of a park down the street. Then his picture from the end of the park down the street. Then his picture in the Parque Central. Then his picture in front of the church by the Parque Central. Then his picture in a picturesque street on the way to my hostel (I was now heading there for “a nap”). Then his picture in front a church next to my hostel. Then his picture in front of my hostel. Then his picture from inside my hostel. Then…OK, so the last two pictures did not happen! But literally all of the other pictures are true pictures that did happen. And when Oleg finally agreed to part ways, I was disappointed I did not receive a tip from him given my instrumental role in the creation of his masterful photo album entitled “Oleg Standing in Front of Places in Antigua, Guatemala”.

As evening approached last night, I debated whether to have a quiet dinner and call it an early night or head back to Cafe No Sé to see if my new bartender friends had anything going on. I opted for the latter given that the first option felt like defeat. Sure enough, Cafe No Sé did not let this wandering soul down. Marissa, an American teaching at a local school that works at the No Sé on the weekends, invited me and my other new friends from the bar (a gay couple from San Francisco down for a long weekend) to a local salsa event. Given that “I know how to do salsa” (said the mezcal in my body at that moment), I agreed and found myself in a school gym with several hundred Guatemalans that were absolutely ripping up some salsa. There wasn’t too much for a gringo like me to do other than watch in awe at the scene, which was highlighted by a legitimate salsa performance by locals in costume. I did make a brief foray onto the dance floor which ended with a small, personal victory in the form of a “compliment” from Marissa. (“I thought you would be terrible at salsa and you actually weren’t terrible!”). After a few hours of this otherworldly salsa scene, my new friends and I ended the night back at the No Sé  in a scene much more familiar to me — in a crowded bar, singing along at the top of our lungs to “Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner.

I pulled out of Antigua in my shuttle this morning around 8:30 am, feeling satisfied about my three days there and properly launched into this adventure. The four-hour journey from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna only helped to build my excitement for what lies ahead as I listened to the wealth of travel stories being recounted by my shuttlemates. And as I now find myself living with Elsa, Bartolo, Juanita, Elsita, and Bartolito, I am interested to see how the next chapter of my own story unfolds.