Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Getting Used to... all of it.

It’s funny how easy it is to get used to things that at first seem foreign.  I’m finding that there are a lot of things I’ve gotten used to in my first 3 months in Guatemala.

I’ve gotten used to drinking water out of a 5 gallon dispenser, putting the empty jug in my driveway to have it refilled periodically, and tipping the full jug back into the dispenser  on my own.

I’ve gotten used to the fact that I shouldn’t really walk at night—anywhere—alone or with friends.

I’ve gotten used to guards.  Lots of them.  I’m used to saying good morning to the 5-7 guards I regularly see on my walk to school.  One guard opens the gate at the back of my compound for me with a smile.  Two or three more patrol the parking lot I walk through (my favorite in the parking lot is only there sometimes, but he always gives me a big smile and says, “Hola Miss.  Buenos dias!”).  Two act as crossing guards as cars pull out of the parking lot.  And the two at the top of the hill give me a high five each and every morning.  One of them sometimes pantomimes reeling me up the hill as if I’m on a fishing line if I’m walking by myself, and he compliments me on my clothes every once in a while.

There are guards on the school campus, too.  That’s another thing I’ve gotten used to—a totally secure school campus.  Not only is the entire campus walled and gated.  Guards patrol the perimeter, strolling along or sitting at their stations.  When I run inside the walls in the afternoons, they nod pleasantly at me as I pass by. 

And I’ve gotten used to the city, more or less.  I still don’t love Guatemala City, and I can’t imagine that will change very drastically, even after I spend several years here.  It’s just not a pretty or a welcoming city.  When I think of the city as an entity, the first word that comes to mind is “gray.”  That’s partly because it’s the rainy season and the skies are often gray, I’m sure.  But I think part of the gray haze must be due to pollution that won’t go away even under endless sun.  And beyond that, the buildings are not designed for beauty.  Though there’s color in the city, my mental image of it is just…dreary. 
 The next color, after gray, which I feel dominates the city is forest green.  In my opinion, Guatemala City has quite a lot of greenery and tall, dark trees.  Especially my corner of the city.  That is one redeeming quality of the metropolitan area for me. 

I’ve gotten used to being surrounded by way more foreign teachers than I was used to at my old school.  The past few years, I’ve been at a small school where my social circle was made up of 5-8 other US teachers, and a few locals.  This year, when I threw a relatively small birthday party for a friend, 25-30 people attended.  A bigger party thrown the next night drew a crowd of almost 50 foreign hires.  There are lots of us, and everyone’s nice, and willing to spend time with others, and we all support each other—both professionally and socially. 

I’ve gotten more used to my relaxed teaching schedule than I’d like to admit.  If I ever have to go back to teaching all day every day, I’m not quite sure how I’ll cope.

I’m still getting used to having a maid.  When I first moved here, the idea of hiring someone to work for me was so foreign to me.  I felt capable of doing my own cleaning, and frankly, I didn’t want to get out of the habit of doing so.  But eventually, partly because there seemed to be so many maids looking for work at the beginning of the school year and partly because the idea of never having to mop was too tempting to resist, I gave in and hired someone.  I still dislike the feeling that someone works for me.  My condo has a maid’s corridors with a separate entrance, but the woman who cleans my house has a key to my main entrance, and I would be horrified to see her enter through any other door.  I don’t like it when she apologizes for things out of her control, and I feel guilty every time I leave her a note asking her to do something extra on a particular day.  I’m still getting used to this whole relationship. 

And of course I’ve gotten used to plenty of other things too.  Taking a ticket when you enter a parking lot (even Walmart).  Parking ramps with rows of green and red lights telling you how many open spaces there are available at any given time.  Dirt cheap produce at the supermarket.  Calling taxis.  Haggling for prices at artisan markets.  Turning off my water heater when it’s not in use to save a few dollars per month on my electricity bill.  Wearing pants or skirts everywhere, because wearing shorts simply isn’t done (and often it’s too chilly for that anyway).  Hanging up my laundry because I don’t have a dryer.  And a host of other things.

I wouldn’t call it culture shock, per say, because I feel like I knew what I was getting into with Latin America.  But regardless, life has taken some getting used to.  And more and more, things just seem normal to me now.     

Monday, October 21, 2013

Life at its Purest

our home for the weekend 
There’s something completely pure about the way we spent this past weekend.  I feel like each of us took joy in each simple moment we encountered, and we lived each of those moments to the fullest.  Whether we were running into the ocean fully clothed in our exuberance or swinging slowly in a hammock under the afternoon sun, we were fully present in each second.  

Five of us passed the weekend at a beach house in Iztapa, Guatemala this time.  We left straight from school on Friday at 3:00pm, picked up by Eddie, our private driver and host for the weekend.  Before leaving the city, we picked up William as well, our other guide and chef. 

Traffic was, of course, horrendous at rush hour on Friday night, so it was 7pm before we reached the tiny town of Iztapa.  We pulled up to the dock and unloaded our van in darkness.  From there we boarded a small lancha (boat) and floated slowly down the river to our dock for the weekend. 

After finding our bedrooms in the big wooden house, we scampered down to the ocean.  The waves on the Pacific coast of Guatemala are treacherous, so in the darkness we only waded in to our knees (and Jen and Rachel sat in the sand and let the salt water wash over them and their clothes). 

Later, William cooked us pasta and we spent the rest of the evening on the front porch, chatting and enjoying a spectacular thunderstorm over the ocean.  When it grew late, the peals of thunder and the crash of the waves lulled us to sleep. 

Saturday morning, we were up at 7am and in the ocean before the waves grew too rough.  Then, we spent time reading, lying in hammocks, sunbathing, and splashing in the pool.  

morning sunshine on the deck

our dock 
Around 10am, we once again left our dock and took to the river in the little lancha.   The trip had been eerily beautiful the night before in the darkness, but was even more breathtaking that morning in the sunlight.  We passed luxurious retreats with helicopter landing pads, and locals standing up in their boats and fishing.  As I’m realizing about so many places in Guatemala, it was an area of contrast.  And beautiful in its way. 

gas station along the river and some fishermen

These people have money. 

 We dropped Eddie and my friends off at a beach where they’d take a surfing lesson, and then William and I and Don Terese  headed to the dock at Iztapa, where we left our boat and took the van to the town pier to purchase fresh seafood for the next two days.  Right on the dock, we purchased 3 ½ pounds of jumbo shrimp, caught fresh that morning.  We loaded them into our cooler, then headed into town to a market.  We stopped at a little fish stall where William picked out 5 healthy red snappers, also caught that morning.  He showed me how to lift up the gill and check for the bright red color that means the fish is fresh.  It was.  After we’d selected the fish, the woman working there slapped them onto a wet wooden table and scaled them for us with a small metal tool.  Fish scales flew everywhere.  It was great.  Then she cut out some guts from below the gills, washed the fish, and we loaded them too into our cooler.  Our last stop in town was at a produce stall to pick up parsley, jalapenos, and olive oil. 

When we had everything, we piled back into the van to return home. 
Buuuut there was a catch.
There was a feria that day in Iztapa, and while we’d been at the produce stall, they’d closed the road back because the parade was coming through.  Drat.

Thankfully, Don Terese knows the area, and we made a wide loop around the parade route and tried to avoid it.  We still came upon the route, and eventually were met by the parade itself and were forced to pull over.  But now we were at the beginning of the route, so we had front row seats to the parade, and after it had passed in 15-20 minutes, we were perfectly positioned to get out of there.  Had we waited in town, we might have been trapped for up to two hours.

And even better, we got to see the parade!  It consisted of expensive Andalusian horses that seemed to dance down the street, ridden by their rich owners, and their body guards who followed close around the sides.  William told me about how prized the horses are, and that they come from all over the country for this feria (not a big one, but I’m sure any parade is a good excuse to show off your horse if you’re the type who takes pride in that).  I really enjoyed it. 

After we picked up the surfers (who had had a fantastic time, of course), we went back to the house for more relaxation, and eventually a supremely tasty dinner of baked red snapper, potatoes, and salad, with pineapple for dessert. 

That evening, we played our own version of volleyball in the pool, feasted on BBQ chicken and beef, baked potatoes, and roasted vegetables, and splashed in the ocean’s waves at sunset.  After the sun fell, the full moon peeked out from behind the clouds.  William got a bonfire going on the beach, and we sat around it swatting mosquitos and zoning out for a while, until Jordan suggested we move inside and keep our party moving. 

volleyball in the pool 

And then we danced.  For hours.  Jordan got it started by telling me to bust out my best dance move.
“I don’t have a good dance move.  You’ve seen me dance,” I told him.
“Yes you do.  But all right—give me your most ridiculous dance move then.”
And that was all it took.

I danced like I used to in elementary school, long before looking good had anything to do with dancing.  We all did.  There was a lot of jumping around and waving arms in the air.  I felt completely uninhibited, feeling the music, laughing as I twirled and hopped and spun and shimmied, not caring one iota what anyone thought.  Dancing in its purest form.  As it should be.

Somewhere along the line, the dance evolved into a game involving a water bottle and showing off bartending flair.  However, since among us Eddie was really the only one with remote flair ability, it eventually became a game of “demonstrate your best dance move with the water bottle, then toss it to someone else.”  Ridiculous?  Of course.  Fun?  Of course.

Our final day at the house, Sunday, we were all reluctant to think of leaving.  We drank in the view, dipped in the pool, sat about playing Jenga and reading.  Lunch was my favorite meal of the trip—our jumbo shrimp along with rice and roasted vegetables in a salad.  I could have eaten for days had my stomach not filled.  But finally, 3:30 rolled around and it was time to pack up.  So we collected our belongings and filled the little boat one last time, waving good bye to our oasis in Iztapa.  

Photo credit to Michelle
(her feet, not mine) 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Subir a la Meta

About a month ago, I heard about a 10K trail race in October here in Guatemala, and I thought to myself, “I should sign up.  It will give me something to train for and help me get back into a running routine.”  Three weeks later, it was time to actually sign up for the race, and though I’d done some running, I definitely hadn’t trained.

And then Amy decided we should sign up not only for the 10K on the 6th, but also the 16K on the 13th.  And I shrugged and agreed. 

Last week’s race was difficult.  The uphill stretches winded me, and there was a point I felt it was the hardest race I’d ever run.  I finished it much slower than any of my previous 10K times.  (And yet, somehow I ended up taking 4th place in women’s overall rankings?)  It made me feel a little better to discover after the race that our “10K” had actually been closer to 12 kilometers, putting my pace closer to a normal training run rate, and coupled with the fact that I was running at elevation and hadn’t trained, I didn’t feel too badly about it.

But this week’s race?  The course was a monster.  A beast to be reckoned with.  And TOTALLY intimidating. 

Carrie shared the route map the night before the event.  This is what it looks like.

Now, take a look at the elevation map at the bottom.  That course climbs almost 1000 meters.  That’s a KILOMETER!  That’s over half a mile—straight up!  Let’s put this into perspective.  The San Blas half marathon, which I always thought was crazy difficult, only climbs 175 meters.  Day 2 of the Inca Trail in Peru, we climbed 1200 meters in about 5 hours (wearing 25 pound packs and with several rest breaks along the way). 

Just looking at the map had me FREAKED OUT. 
And then we got to the start of the race, and the guy who was previewing the race over a megaphone before the start told us, “After the first 2km, there’s a water station.  Then the route begins to climb, and keeps climbing for the next 4km.  Now, you won’t run on this climb.  You’ll walk.” 
It’s a race.  Who’s he to tell me I’m going to walk it? 

But he was right.  I walked.  As did everyone around me.
Do you know what a 43% elevation grade looks like? 
It is halfway to straight up and down. 
It’s STEEP.  And this hill didn’t seem to stop ever. 

The top of one of the not-so-steep hills

Somehow, I pulled myself up the repeated climbs and managed not to completely biff it as I attempted to make up some time on the flat/downhill spots.  As I came upon one other racer on our last super steep hill, he looked to me and said, “This is torture.  It’s not a race.”

And I kind of agree.  Maybe torture is a strong word.  But I certainly walked more than I ran, and I was way more concerned with finishing the beast than I was with my finish time.

The good news?  I finished it.  No injuries.

I guess that’s a pretty good feeling.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Trapped in the Library

“Mr. O’Neill!  Mr. O’Neill!  It’s raining!!  Come look!”

It seemed like a pretty obvious statement.  It had been pouring when I’d escorted my 5th period class to the library, walking single-file in the center of the covered walkways to avoid puddles and raindrops, and the rain had continued the entire class.

But Ana Alicia didn’t mean it was raining outside.  She meant it was now raining inside.  She stood a few feet from the wall, looking up, and sure enough, fine droplets of water were somehow making their way through the ceiling to filter down into the room.  Two computers were right there, so the girls working on them shut them down and moved away from the wetness. 

That wasn’t the worst of our problems, though.  As I started telling kids to save their work and shut down their computers, Mr. O’Neill came over to me to inform me he wasn’t sure we’d be able to leave.  Sure enough, a quick glance out the window confirmed that the sidewalk was now a 6” deep river of brown water. 

I didn't have my camera with me, but this is Carrie's
photo of what it looked like outside the 6th grade rooms.
The library sidewalk was just as flooded.  

The kids begged and pleaded.  It was the end of the day, the buses were coming, some had Conferences starting.  Couldn’t they just take off their socks and shoes and make a run for it? 
No, definitely not.

We were trapped in the library. 

There’s a back way out, of course, and that sidewalk wasn’t so flooded.  But the pathway there also isn’t covered, and it was still sheeting rain. 
Definitely trapped.

Hyung's photo of the middle school area.
That brown pool of water is usually grass...

We were soon informed that the buses wouldn’t be coming for another hour (because the parking lot was even more flooded than the sidewalks) and conferences were cancelled for the night.  So we shuffled into Multipurpose Room A, and popped in a movie.  Between that and allowing some of them to use their ipads to entertain themselves, a semblance of “order” was maintained for the next 45 minutes until the sidewalks cleared and we were allowed to head back to the middle school section. 

I can tell you one thing.  I never expected a flood to trap me in a school library.    

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Chopping coconuts, hanging with Alfredo, and dreaming of Cayawana

From the moment my ride picked me up and I heard the sounds of Reggaeton coming from the pickup truck’s speakers, I knew it’d be a good weekend.  I was riding to the beach with Amy and her friend Chris, and we were meeting 7 other CAG folks at a beach house. 

When Chris picked us up, he informed us we were going to take a back way to the beach, avoiding most of the city and taking the ferry.  It was definitely the way I would always choose to travel in a country as beautiful as Guatemala.  We enjoyed pretty good roads for the entire drive, and took in some beautiful countryside. 

You know you're in the Guatemalan
countryside when you come around the
corner and see this.

The ferry was the first part of the weekend’s adventure. 

“How often do the ferries leave?  Are we going to have to wait for one?” Amy asked.
Chris smirked.  “It’s not that kind of ferry.  Just wait,” he said.
“How many cars fit on it?” she asked.
“Two,” he answered.  And then, after a bit of thought, “…it’s really more of a car canoe than a ferry.”
“A car canoe?  What do you mean?”
“Just wait,” he told us. 
We waited.  And I couldn’t really envision it.  I definitely didn’t think it would look like this.

So we loaded the 2 cars in our small caravan (Michelle, Steph, and Kenra were following us), and all six of us hopped into the truck bed for the ride, enjoying a coco frio along the way. 

After the ferry, it was a pretty short trip to the beach house in Hawaii, a small village on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, near Monterrico, which is more of a tourist destination than Hawaii. 
Our beach house was large, with 5 bedrooms (2  queen beds in each), and it came with a pool and a gate right out onto the beach.  Ideal for a weekend escape. 

That first night included a lot of camaraderie as we got to know each other (of the 10 people there, I only knew Kenra and Amy really, and I rarely see them since we work in different sections of the school).  We still had our coconuts from the ferry, and we really wanted to crack them open and enjoy the meat inside.  We noted a machete around the front of the house, and the groundskeeper being around that evening, we asked him if we could use it.  He let us girls try until we realized we were failures, then he expertly chopped open our cocos for us. 

The man with the machete

Well, at least I made contact...

Saturday morning, most of us woke early (the sleep schedule of teachers) and spent the morning relaxing by the pool, reading or napping.  (Get up early in order to nap in the sun?  Hey, no judging.)  Mid-morning, Chris rented a 4-wheeler and gave Kenra and I lessons on how to drive it, since we hadn’t before, and we spent a fun hour running up and down the beach.  After that, and after a delicious lunch at the house, we continued with more of the same.  Read, snack, chat, swim, nap, repeat. 

At 5pm, we left the house to go into the town of Monterrico, where we found the guy with the bucket on the beach, gave him 10Q (about $1.25), and each received a baby sea turtle that we could personally release into the ocean.  The money goes towards Turtle Hatchery, an organization which buys turtle eggs from locals (who have found them on their stretch of beach) and reburies the eggs to keep them safe until hatch, then ensures they make it from sand to sea.  Their survival after that isn’t guaranteed, of course, but it gives the little guys a leg up.

Releasing my baby turtle (who I named Turbo, because he was super squirmy in my hand) was definitely a very cool experience.  I mean, what’s cuter than a baby sea turtle??  Not much.  Maybe an especially fluffy puppy.  Maybe.  But that’s not the point. 

After our turtle experience, we had dinner in town, then returned back to the beach house to celebrate Amy’s birthday (which was on Sunday). 

Sunday morning, Amy and I took a short run on the beach (because, why not?), and then we all reluctantly packed up and bid good-bye to our retreat.

The weekend was a close to perfect as I could ask for.  It was exactly what I needed—a perfect escape.  Escape from what, you ask?  From the city, from smoke and smog, from work and from the people I see every day.  It’s not that I don’t love all of those things (with perhaps the exception of smoke and smog), but I needed a break.  And this weekend gave me that break, leaving me refreshed and excited to see the city and the students and my colleagues again on Monday morning.

As for the wacky title of this post?
Well, cutting coconuts you understand.
Alfredo was purchased by Chris on our way to the beach.  He’s a pretty sweet ball—the kind with a handle that you’re supposed to sit on and bounce with.  He made a great pool companion.
And Cayawana?  Only the best country in the world.  Ask Amy about it.  She’s been there, I think.