Sunday, August 16, 2015

"How's the View on Your Side?"

“So what do you think?  Mini or full adventure?” Chris asked me via messenger on Thursday afternoon.  Before I knew Chris would be in town this weekend, I had already made plans with my co-workers for Saturday evening.  But an adventure with Chris is something no one should pass up when given the chance.

Full adventure was the obvious choice. 
I backed out of my Saturday plans, and Chris and I left that morning bound for Mixco Viejo to be followed by a surprise which I only knew entailed a road/village that Chris had never been to. 

We left the city and wound up the hills, through an area Chris calls the furniture capital of Guatemala, towards San Juan Sacatepequez.    The views were simply stunning.  The skies were clear, and we pulled over to take a few photos of Guatemala City spread out in the distance. 

As our road curved over ridges, the view on either side of the truck kept changing.  With sweeping valleys spread out on both sides, Chris would ask me, “How’s the view on your side?”  “Pretty fantastic,” I would reply, “How about yours?”  “Eh, it’s all right.” 

Around mid-morning, we arrived at Mixco Viejo.  We paid our entrance fees and then entered the Maya ruins.  We had no guide or any information about the ruins, so we made it up, imagining what the temples and houses must have looked like hundreds of years ago.

Ball court or swimming pool?  The debate rages on.

Eventually, we found a spot in the shade to sit and enjoy the view, talk about our life goals, and identify farm animals by the noises drifting across the valley.  After splitting a granola bar for “lunch,” we gathered our things and took the road again, the real adventure beginning.

Just minutes after leaving the ruins, the road went from paved to rutted dirt.  I was thankful we were in Chris’s truck and not my little Volkswagen.  We made our way down the valley, Chris checking his gps now and again.  At one point we spotted a river.  “Oh, that river’s on the map.  That’s a good sign.  I’m not sure whether there’s a bridge, though.  That’s not on the map.” 

The river
Thankfully, the bridge existed.  A one-lane wooden bridge with no guard rails.  Jolly good. 

The bridge!  Just wide enough for us.

Just when we were beginning to wonder whether the dirt road would continue all the way to our destination (still a secret surprise to me), we reached the town of Joyabaj, and from there, the road was paved and less winding.  We made good time and arrived in Santa Cruz del Quiché (our destination) by mid-afternoon. 

We checked into our hotel (and little place that looked questionable from the outside, but was actually quite bright and airy on the interior), then set off to explore the town.

By lucky coincidence, Quiché’s town feria (festival) was this weekend.  We wandered to the town square where a presentation was taking place.  We couldn’t understand enough of what was going on to make complete sense of it, but we got the impression it was a re-enactment of the Spaniards meeting Tecún Umán, one of the last rulers of the k´iche´ people for which the area is named. 

A little more wandering found us an empty 2nd floor restaurant overlooking a crowd of people waiting for a concert to begin.  The food was good and the location superb for people watching and for listening to the music. 

Our view of the concert

After our “lupper,” it was about 5pm, and unsure what to do with ourselves for the rest of the evening, Chris asked our waiter for a recommendation.  He told him about a place called El Terminal where he said there would be food and games.  Off we went to explore. 

El Terminal turned out to be the bus terminal (shocking title for it).  There were indeed lines of market stalls, restaurants, carnival games, and rides.   I loved walking through the stalls and looking at all of the sweets, toys, and other items.  It was a market unlike any tourist market I’ve been to in Guatemala; it felt more authentic, and it was filled with people out having a good time on Saturday evening. 

We played a few carnival games (Chris played more than I did).  He won a prize which he gave to me—a pink poster claiming me as his best friend forever.  I agreed to put it on the wall in my home, except the next day we FORGOT IT IN QUICHÉ. 

Mejor amigo por siempre?!  How sweet! 

From an engineering standpoint, Chris deemed the ferris wheels whipping around at high speeds to be unsafe, not to mention slightly terrifying, so we passed on any rides and we went back to the hotel to recharge for the night. 

Sunday morning, our plan was to walk to a café for breakfast, then return to the hotel and take the truck out.  However, when we emerged onto the street at around 8:20am, people were setting up their market stalls up and down the street (without leaving an area for cars to pass through).  We decided we’d better get the truck out right then, before leaving became completely impossible.

Navigating was still tricky.  At one point, a car had to back up to make room for us (he had to back up for at least a block), and Chris had to get out and pick up a motorcycle and move it over to make room for us.  We squeezed through with inches to spare. 

Yup, it was as tight as it looks in the picture. 

With that stress, Chris decided to get out of town straight away and leave breakfast for later.  First, we stopped at the last surprise of the trip—one more set of ruins. 

These ruins were less excavated, but the site had a nicely done museum detailing the people who once lived there and the history of the area.  The grounds were also absolutely stunning, and I enjoyed the short walk immensely.  

Just as we were about to turn around, I saw a sign to the caves and insisted they would be worth seeing.  Chris indulged me, even though I think he really would have preferred to be in the truck or finding coffee instead. 

Cave entrance

The caves turned out to be a long man-made tunnel with several fingers branching off at the end.  I turned on my phone's flashlight to light our way.  After a few steps in the darkness, Chris asked me to shine my light at the ceiling.  I obliged.
“How’s it look?”  I asked.  “We okay?”
“Yeah, looks good for now,” he answered.  Having a mining engineer friend whose job description includes making sure tunnels are safe can come in handy when exploring shady tunnels in rural Guatemala. 

After the caves, we took to the road again.  Having bypassed the town, we searched out a roadside comedor that looked legit.  A place that had wooden tables inside, a tortilla grill outside, and a sign advertising breakfast, lunch, and coffee seemed to fit the bill.  $5 fed both of us eggs, rice, beans, chorizo, tortillas, and coffee.  Absolutely no complaints. 

The rest of the drive home was beautiful, but being on main highways, seemed decidedly less adventurous than the previous day’s journey.  We popped in our new reggaeton cds (purchased at El Terminal the night before) and passed the time by making the sign of each political advertisement we passed (the presidential election is coming up soon, and it’s amazing how many campaign logos involve hands in various positions—thumbs up, fingers straight, a fist, 2 hands gripping wrists, 2 hands with the thumbs overlapping). 

The weekend ended much too quickly, but we have the memories and photos to tide us over until the next adventure.  

We pulled over one last time for one last snapshot of the view on "my side."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

When Old Friends Come to Visit...

I’ve been back in Guate for two weeks now, but both weeks seemed to pass in the flash of an eye, leaving me today, for the first time, with a chance to catch my breath and reflect on them.

There’s a reason I felt so occupied the first two weeks; I had a lot going on.  Two days after returning to Guatemala, my dear friend G-Money (of college marching band and Peru adventure fame) arrived to visit.  Unfortunately, her arrival coincided perfectly with my return to work.  While I scrambled to get my classroom ready for the arrival of my new students, G-Money spent her first two days in the country relaxing and exploring the area around my neighborhood.  She mastered ordering coffee in Spanish, visited the grocery store 3 days running (with different people each time), and explored Cayalá. 

On Saturday morning, my first day off, our adventure really began.  We set off before dawn to make it to Lake Atitlan as early as possible. 

The trip was perfect from the start.  We flew through Guatemala City with almost zero traffic to slow us down.  We made good time, passing through Chimaltenango (everyone’s least favorite town because of the bottleneck in traffic that it creates) just 45 minutes after leaving my house.  Just as we were starting to crave breakfast, we arrived in Tecpan to the wonderful surprise that one of my favorite restaurants was open and serving up fresh coffee and hot tortillas. 

Breakfast at Kappe Paulino's

As we snaked down through Solalá and saw our first glimpses of the lake, it was clear we had been gifted with a gorgeous day.  A bright blue sky illuminated the volcanoes beautifully with not a rain cloud in sight. 

At the dock, a boat worker told us his public lancha was leaving in three minutes, and he was true to his word.  Even though there were only 4 of us on the boat (which could have held 20 people easily), we pushed off in three minutes and were in Santa Cruz in no time. 

We enjoyed a leisurely, beautiful walk to our hotel, where we dropped off our bags (we were much too early to check in) and then decided on a stroll to explore the town of Santa Cruz proper, up the hill. 
View on the walk to the hotel

The trek turned out to be a serious uphill climb in nearly full sun, and while we enjoyed it with no complaints, upon returning, we both agreed that a cold smoothie sounded like the perfect reward.  My strawberry banana smoothie, coupled with a shaded chair and a view of the lake, hit the spot, and refreshed, we returned to our hotel.

The view from Santa Cruz

There, we discovered that the board game Ticket to Ride was available for our use, so we spent an hour before lunch playing the game with, again, a great view of the lake.  (I love Ticket to Ride, and G-Money and I used to play it in college.  Finding it in Guatemala was an unexpected treat). 

Lunch was delicious, and after it, we were shown to our room—a cabin high on the hill overlook the lake.  Now, we’d been warned that our room was pretty far up the hill, but I didn’t really know what that meant.  181 steps later, I was breathing a bit heavily and working to keep up with Carlos, who was showing us the way.  Still, the view was worth it, and a little bun-burning workout never hurt anyone. 

About the halfway point on the climb up/down

Next on the agenda was some time relaxing on the hotel patio.  I promptly took a nap in a hammock enjoying the cool breeze, the shade, and the view (until my eyes closed). 

The perfect spot for some serious relaxation

After that, we decided to see a bit more of the lake villages.  We took a public boat over to the village of San Juan, which has become a town of trade cooperatives.  We learned about the existence of the women’s weaving co-op, the coffee co-op, the artesan’s co-op.  We stopped at a few stalls, and the women were eager to tell us about their use of natural dies or to demonstrate how they craft the patterns on their looms.  After buying a pair of earrings made with flower petals, we strolled through town enjoying some of the murals.  Then, we took a tuk tuk to the neighboring town of San Pedro.

One of the murals in San Juan

San Pedro is a tourist’s town, and we walked the strip with me pointing out all of the restaurants I’ve been to.  (I’ve only been to San Pedro once, for a three day weekend, but apparently I ate my way through the town). 

Then it was back to Santa Cruz for the evening.  We dined family style at Iguana Perdida, a hostel nearby our hotel.  Dinner conversation was interesting and the food was delicious.  We fell into bed early and slept soundly. 

Sunday morning, we enjoyed a yoga class (again, like all things over the weekend, with a great view of the lake), followed by a leisurely breakfast.  Full and happy, we showered (again, leisurely), and checked out around noon.  We made our way back to Antigua, where we dropped G-Money off at her hotel, took a walk around, ate a mid-afternoon meal (lupper, if you will), and then I took to my car and braved traffic back into the city. 

G-Money spent the next day and a half in Antigua on her own while I went back to work, welcoming my new students and beginning a new school year.  While I wish she could have stayed much longer and that I could have taken time off to spend more time with her, I’m so grateful for the time we did have.  It was amazing to see an old friend (and it had been so long since we’d traveled together, I had forgotten what an AWESOME travel companion she is!  Can you believe that?!).  I’m really lucky to have her for a friend, and that she was able to make a visit to Guate work.  Next up: my visit to her in Asia!  Next summer.    

Saturday, August 8, 2015

One for All and All for Bob

A new school year has officially started, and with it, a new crop of 7th graders.  This week has been full of briefing kids on routines and procedures as well as getting to know them and building community. 

Each year I have an advisory group.  These 10-15 students come to my room for 10 minutes each morning, and for 40 minutes on Monday afternoon.  I act as their advocate, checking in with them about everything from their grades to their social well-being, making sure no one falls through the cracks.  This first week of school, my advisory spent a lot of time together.

One thing I’ve learned: if you want a recipe for instant unity, the secret is to introduce a team mascot. 

Enter Bob, the Flying Pejelagarto. 

I had this furry frog/lizard stuffed animal in my classroom, left over from last year.  As my kids and I started to brainstorm names for our group (each advisory gives themselves a name, writes a chant or cheer, and competes against the other advisories in friendly competitions throughout the year), I pulled the lizard off of my shelf and suggested the possibility of using him as a mascot. 


30 seconds later, a group of boys was giggling and piped up, “We’ve got a name!  We can be the pejelagartos!”  The rest of the class seemed to approve, as well as finding this hilarious. 

Now, I know “lagarto” is Spanish for lizard, but I’d never heard the term pejelagarto.  I asked the students what it was, and the boy who’d thought of it said, “It’s like a…hairy lizard!  It’s that thing!” pointing to my stuffed animal.  So we named our pejelagarto Bob, and that was that. 

As soon as my kids left the room, I sent a message to my trusted information source when it comes to Guatemalan Spanish—Richard—to make sure that the word has no inappropriate connotations.  Surprisingly, Richard had never heard the word either, but after a quick consult with his coworkers, he was back with the answer: a pejelagarto is a character from the movie Monsters, Inc.  Specifically, it’s the character Randolph. 

All right then.  Bob the Pejelagarto it is.
(A later google search revealed that a pejelagarto is also a weird looking sort of fish). 

Bob has become the superstar of our advisory.  My students made him a cape, so he’s a superhero of sorts.  When we’re in advisory, one of the kids is generally holding him, petting him, or sitting with him perched on a shoulder.  When we go out to play kickball, Bob comes with us.  Our advisory cheer involves a group huddle, with Bob sitting on the middle of our hands (so he is tossed into the air at the end of the cheer).  

Yesterday after an evacuation drill, my advisory beat me back to our room.  I entered to find them all clustered around a desk in the back of the room with Bob in the center.  Bob has become family.  Two of the boys have deemed themselves mother and father.  Another girl is Bob's madrina (godmother).  In the group standing around him, another student made himself a priest and with a bit of water, Bob was baptised.  He even had a white baptism gown.  All of the advisory students swore an oath to protect Bob and make sure no harm comes to him.

the baptism gown

Bob’s adventures are sure to continue.  For example, apparently Bob’s birthday is coming up this week, and a party is being planned.

I cannot wait to see what this coming year with this imaginative, creative, loving group of kids brings me.  But I’m pretty excited about it!  

Bob's normal roost