28 September, 2008

Counting Blessings

September has been a very busy month. I have actually been doing a bit of traveling thanks to a lull in school activity and a visit from some friends from the U.S. of A.

I got a chance to visit the ocean for the first time since I have been in Guatemala, which seems strange since I can see it on clear days on my walk to work. I joined up with a group of friends traveling to the coast, and we met up in Antigua early one Saturday morning to head down to the beach town of Monterrico. After lounging around for the afternoon, we set out on a hike to find some Leatherback turtles that supposedly were leaving their ocean homes to lay their eggs on the beach. We had gotten sold on the hike by a local guide who promised detailed information and who seemed to be very knowledgeable about these marine turtles. However, when the time came to head out hunting, he ended up leaving us with two teenage kids who didn’t know a turtle from a log and ended up just asking other people on the beach who were collecting the eggs themselves. This was a bit shady, because although they all assured us that they were collecting the eggs to sell to a hatchery in town that was set up to combat egg poaching, no one was writing down any information or even seemed to be taking good care of the eggs (they carried them in plastic shopping bags). After a good 45 minute hike up the beach and passing two nests, we finally found one female who had just started laying. The guy who had found the turtle first had “dibs” on the eggs, but he let us watch and even catch the eggs as the female deposited them in the nest! This was an extremely weird feeling, and especially being uncertain of the fate of the little guys, I’m still not sure that I recommend the hike, but if the babies end up in the hatchery and not in some Capitaleño’s soup, it probably is a good thing that these people are doing.

The second week of September was my school’s week long celebration of Independence Day. We spent four days doing talent shows, a scholastic bowl, a beauty pageant, and a field day. I was privileged to take part in all the festivities, and it actually was pretty fun. On Friday we had a running of the Antorcha, which commemorates the arrival from Mexico of news that Guatemala had won her independence from Spain. To celebrate this, I got up at 3:30 in the morning to supposedly leave town at 4 AM. Well, what I had forgotten is that although the teachers at my school are usually very punctual, we were dealing with other Guatemalans. So the bus that we had chartered for 4 AM showed up at 5 AM. I boarded the bus with my teachers and a whole bunch of students and their families, and we set off for Panahachel, at town on Lake Atitlán. We arrived at about 9 and had until 2 to enjoy the lake and the tourist town. I ended up hanging out with my director and the other male teacher while all the female teachers bought tourist trinkets. We left of course an hour late at 3 PM and didn’t get back to our town until 9 PM. When we arrived, about a kilometer out of town I got off the bus with all the students and some of the parents. Several of the students had makeshift torches that were constructed of coffee or soup cans screwed onto branches or broom handles. Inside they placed cotton whetted with gasoline, which were then set ablaze and handed to the 8-12 year olds. The kids then set out running and blowing whistles or screaming at the top of their lungs. We ran through the whole town, about a 3 km run, as people stood by the side of the road cheering. This apparently served as a summons to the school, where the winners of the talent shows reenacted their performances and all other winners were recognized individually. Following that, we had a dance party in the school yard, and I finally went home and fell asleep with my clothes on at 11.

The next day I left site again, this time not until 5:30, and headed into the Capital to pick up my friends Jared and Jimmy (fellow Augustana Alumni). We headed back to my site for a few days, took a brief tour of Xela, and then we even took a day trip to Lake Atitlán and back to the town of Panahachel again. They came bearing gifts: a replacement camera!!! It was purchased by First Presbyterian in Elgin, and I really don’t know how to thank them enough. It’s amazing that the congregation could be so generous, and I am humbled by the interest that my home congregation has shown in my work down here. I’m incredibly blessed to be supported by so many people. To those of you from church that are keeping up with me via this blog, I really can’t thank you enough for such an incredible gift.

I think that Jimmy and Jared enjoyed their trip despite a lot of uncomfortable traveling, and I sure learned a lot about hosting people. I’ll be including a little list of things to consider if you want to visit Guatemala in a separate entry based mostly on our experiences. For my part, it was great to have people from home come visit and experience a bit of my life. I think the main thing that their visit did for me was verify exactly how crazy I have become in the last 9 months. I must be pretty well adjusted to life here, because things like jumping on a 5 hour bus ride where my knees are literally under my chin or walking for an hour and a half to get somewhere seem second nature to me. My sense of time has completely changed, as was evident by my absolute inability to give accurate times that a journey would take; most of my traveling involves leaving someplace at dawn and going until I get there, so trying to incorporate multiple destinations in a single day really taxed my logistic skills. I also realized that I have been getting very upset over very small amounts of money, like when a bus tried to change one Quetzal more per person on our ride up to Quetzaltenango. One Q is like 15 cents. I should probably let that stuff go, but when you live your life on $275 a month, and 2Q is one percent of your monthly income, 15 cents seems like a lot larger quantity of money.

After an early morning trip to drop off Jared and Jimmy in Antigua, I headed back north on the Panamerican Highway to Santa Clara La Laguna which is the site of a fellow Environmental Ed volunteer to celebrate Joey’s birthday. We had a cake and even a little spontaneous dance party in the kitchen. It was really nice, and I think Joey had a good time. The next day we headed up to Chicamán for a welcome party for some of the new volunteers in the department of El Quiché, and with hopes of a river tubing trip, but due to recent heavy rains that wasn’t in the cards. It was a nice weekend though, despite the heavy traveling, with the only down part being the robbery of my external hard drive which I had been carrying to send some data to the volunteer I replaced. It was in my backpack which I allowed to be put on the roof of a microbus because there wasn’t room inside. It would have been fine, but the driver kept stopping to allow people to climb on the top of the bus, and one of those passengers happened to have a razor blade they used to slash open my backpack and steal the hard drive and my USB pen drive as well. At least every time I get robbed I have less to lose; if someone wants to rob me next time they are going to have to bring a truck, because the only things I have left worth stealing are my bed and refrigerator!

This week is finally a return to normalcy for me, and a chance to rest my aching spine by staying off of busses for awhile. I returned yesterday to a celebration at the Basico (think Junior High) in my site. They were commemorating their 4th anniversary of being a school, which basically involved a beauty pageant, but with a twist as it also involved two male contestants competing for a separate title. The categories here were sportswear, talent (mostly dancing while lip-singing), evening wear, and speech. The moms in the crowd really went nuts for the two guys. Check out another upcoming entry devoted to the oddities of Guatemalan beauty pageants. Tuesday and Wednesday there were parties all over town, and fireworks going off every so often. Judging by the focus around the Catholic Church, I deduced that it was some kind of holiday, but asking around town no one knew what holiday it was, just that it was the 24th of September. At about 7 PM on Wednesday night I started hearing a lot of big fireworks, so I decided it would probably be a good idea to go for a walk. I got up to the church and saw a procession starting its walk, so I almost impulsively joined in. I’m not really sure where that instinct came from… maybe I’m adjusting even more than I thought I was. On that note, Peace.