Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beware....don't burn to death

The interesting thing about Guatemala that is so different than the superpowers of the world like the U.S., Canada, or the E.U. countries is the lack of regulations. This can be a great thing or a bad thing. In the case of trash and environmental concerns I think it’s disgraceful. When it comes to fun, I think it’s great.

My example of this is our trek to Volcan Pacaya. This is a very active volcano with lava flowing down the side and smoke belching out the top. What more could you want from a volcano? We got to the base of the mountain and started our trek to the top at the gates where there are about 15-20 children around the age of 6-10 that accost you to sell you walking sticks for the equivalent of 30-50 cents. This is after you’ve been accosted by children on the road selling you marshmallows. I’m a little slow so I had yet to see what the purpose of marshmallows is. I simply thought, “what an odd snack. People here are weird!”

The hike up to the volcano is magical. You start in the forest and follow a steep trail cut through the mountain. All along there are “taxis” to take you to the top. These are men on horses that yell out, “Taxi, Taxi.” These “taxis” leave a lot of poop on the trail so you have to walk carefully. Slowly you the trees thin and you’re suddenly in a barren waste of old lava flows. Lava when it cools is very brittle so it breaks quickly into the small rocks that you’ve seen in landscaping from the 80’s. Just imagine this covering an entire mountaintop and you’re about there. You could slide all the way down on a sled. It’s amazing. You walk past this part of the mountain and around a bend to the part where you start to smell the sulfer of the lava. About this time the clouds start coming in and you can feel the cool are drifting past your skin while the heat pours over the top of the next rise. As you come up higher in to the cloud soon you start to hear the thunder while you’re actually in the cloud. It’s an experience I had never had. Totally amazing.

The rain starts pouring down, but when you get to the actual lava it must be too hot to actually let the rain fall because it miraculously stops. The heat is amazing, but more incredible is the beauty of the lava flowing out of the side of a mountain. Like a little Dennis the Menace I cannot help but stick my stick into the lava and watch it catch on fire. You can scoop the lava out and watch it cool on the rocks on the side. This is something you could never do in the US, but here who are you going to sue? I mean really, the government can hardly pave a road, so I don’t know where they are going to get money to take care of you should you fall in, so it’s all at your own discretion. That’s awesome. Use your common sense and you can see something great in person and up close. Now that’s great stuff.

Now the bad news. You have to go down the mountain to get home and as soon as you leave the mountain top it starts to rain like there will never be another drop in the sky. The trail you hiked on the way up becomes a river of dirt and “taxi” poop. Lovely! But it’s definitely worth it!

The Dentist in a 3rd World Country

I had not been to the dentist in about 6 months and thought, now is as good a time as any. Besides I can check out what it’s like to go to the dentist in Central America. So I checked around Antigua and found the cleanest looking place. I walked in to find white tile, a clean look and feel and most importantly in a country that never seemed to smell quite right…it smelled like a dentist’s office. “this is it,” I thought. I waited around and out came a girl in scrubs (another good sign). She asked if I would like to see the dentist that day. Wow – one would never hear this in America. I told her tomorrow was good for me and then had my pick of times to come in. I inquired about the price…it was $20 for a cleaning! Holy cow! That is amazing. I couldn’t believe it.
All around I was a little disappointed. The cleaning was so similar to the experience in the US. The good news was my teeth were clean, but I thought this would be some amazing cultural experience.
It turns out my real experience was in talking about it with other people. My Spanish teacher, Patricia, for example explained that she had never been to the dentist (she is 45) because it is “muy carro” or very expensive. What I thought? $20 is expensive for the dentist? This is crazy.
It turns out that the average person in Guatemala – like my English Teacher earns the equivalent of $160/month. Spending one eighth of your income on the dentist is not important when it turns out feeding your family is about equal to the cost to feed a family in the US. Patricia explained that for example for birthdays cake is not common in Guatemala. Perhaps instead of having beans everyday you may have meat for the family on your birthday. I was further surprised to find that this great lady didn’t have a washing machine. She washed her clothes by hand in her small pueblo (she lived outside Antigua in one of the surrounding cities because it is cheaper).
Other interesting things that I found out. Public school in Guatemala is not that great as you can guess and private school, though inexpensive by our standards ($60/month) is out of reach of the average Guatemalan family as it is about ½ of their income. If you’re interested in supporting a child to be able to go to private school, I suggest that you do so through this website or perhaps you would like to donate to Patricia’s two children’s education. If you would like to, here is her address:
Patricia del Pinal de Valle
3ra Calle 3-70
Zona 1 Ciudad Vieja
Sacate Pequez
Guatemala, Centraoamerica
+503 7831 5255

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Antigua - I am here!

I have never lived with a family that I did not know before. I’ve never thought twice about the exchange students in high school that bravely came from cities and towns in Europe and South America to experience one year in America and ended up living with a family in small-town, rural Iowa. How could they have known what to expect. They had to have been scared out of their minds.
I arrived at the school (Tecun Uman) and met with Mario the head of the school. He asked when I would like to start my classes and since it was only 11am and I was in Central America to learn Spanish, I said, “today would be great!” So I was set. I was to start 4 hours of instruction at 2 PM. He then told me that he would put me with a very special family. If I did not like them, I was welcome to switch. My stomach churned. This is the one thing that had been scaring me from the get go…living with people you don’t know. What American really wants that? Isn’t the purpose of our whole lives to own big cars with dark windows and big houses with big yards and even bigger, taller fences so we won’t have to see other people let alone live with them? How many of my neighbors have ever even set foot in my homes over the years?
Moments later though I was walking through the doors of the school to the Hyundai SUV of Annette Perez the mother of my host family. I put my bag in the back seat and said, “Hola” to Annette and got in. “Como te llama?” Annette asked? I didn’t understand a word she said. I think it was the fear of the experience, because although I didn’t know any Spanish, what person doesn’t know the phrase, “Como te llama?” So I stared at her blankly, I’m sure that I was simply reassuring all of her suspicions about Americans – they’re socially backward.” Though the house was only around the corner (literally around the corner) the ride seemed to take forever. Lots of questions I didn’t understand, but somehow knew I should understand. Wow, this is going to be a long learning experience, I thought.
We pulled into a carwash one block from the school and we were there. It turns out that Annette and her husband run a carwash/mechanic shop and the entrance to their house is in the back of the garage. Though the door to the house was a little courtyard with a palm tree in the middle, ferns hanging from the roof to the ground around the terrace and around the courtyard the various rooms of the house.
Annette showed me to a space near a table, introduced me to Ulong a student from Korea and Dany, who was from Montreal. I used my little French to ask how long he had been here and how he liked it, but immediately Annette, who had said she was, “mama,” interrupted, “Solo Espanol!” That ended that. I stood there as Annette walked off and Dany and Ulong went about their doings. I didn’t know where to put my things, or what was going on. Was I to whip out some cash and pay her before she showed me to a room? Finally Mama came back after what seemed like hours (truly it was probably more like a minute) and said, “su casa,” pointing to the room next to me. She then walked me to the bano, and the dining area. The more she talked the quieter I got, simply nodding my head when told to. It was almost 12:30 and somehow I figured out that she was telling me lunch would be soon.
At lunch Ulong, who had been studying for 3 months did most of the talking with Papa (Carlos) and Mama, while Dany pitched in here and there with one or two sentences. I later understood that Dany had just arrived yesterday and though he spoke English & French, did not speak Spanish. Lunch was amazing – Gallo beers (a Guatemalan brand), steak, mashed potatoes (from the box – too bad) and vegetables with fresh melon/mango juice. I think I was expecting that we would have shredded chicken and tortillas for every meal.

At 2 PM, after unpacking my things in my room, I headed for the school where I was introduced to a woman that was to be my “profesora,” Patricia. She took me up to a table on the roof where we passed a quick 4 hours discussing the time, when I had arrived, how long I would be here, etc. Suddenly 4 hours had passed and I had learned the conjugations of “Estar” and numerous adverbs to go with it. I knew that I had dos hermanas and un hermano. My padres vive in Nueva Mexico. I would be staying in Central America for dos meses. I had a whole new world of knowledge (the kind that most high school students possess by the end of the first week of Spanish).
I headed back to the Perez house very happy that evening with new knowledge and the belief that I could truly get a good grasp of Spanish in the coming weeks. I was thrilled. Now about the living part, I had to see…

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mi Gusta Muchas

The week has sped by - for having been here only 4 days I feel as though I've been here forever! I started classes this week, visited the local market - it's huge, more on that later, got lost in the rain, moved in with a host family, and hiked up to an active volcano and saw lava flow for the first time (more on that to come over the weekend too).

All in all it's been GREAT!!

Antigua is this amazingly quaint town - imagine extremely friendly people, volcanoes surrounding the city, cobble stone streets and over 40 churches, of which 30 are ruins that you can explore. You see the church here - it looks complete, but is missing a roof - so it's all grass inside, you can see throught the door in the photo below it. There are so many of these in the city - all in various states of decay. It's amazing to happen upon these every few blocks.

Because there are three major volcanoes surrounding the city, virtually every street affords a picture-perfect view, but it's not the volcanoes that make the city. There is so much going on all around. There are salsa classes on nearly every street, resaurants, plazas, chicken buses and more.

In the coming posts I'll touch on all of them!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dios Mio it's Early!

It's Tuesday morning and I'm in Super Shuttle on the way to La Guardia at the ungodly hour of 2:45 am. What was I thinking booking a 5:45 am flight? Oh, that's right, I was using miles and that's the only one that I could get.

The flight left on time and by 10:30 am I have already watched the Caribbean islands drift past me and lush mountains rise up under the wing of the plane. As we descend to Guatemala City you can see the tops of the hills have been scraped flat and small tin and concrete homes have been built on every possible inch of the mountain tops with paths winding up and down the hills to connect one small community to another. Quickly the pathways get shorter and the number of huts/houses become greater. Suddenly the wings of the plane are almost scraping the clothes flapping from the lines strung in small clearings between houses and then the plane touches down mere feet from the last home. 

The initial view of Guatemala is that it is the poorest of cities thus far visited in Central America, but as the plane turns on the tarmac to head toward the terminal a skyline of 15-story buildings emerges with "Crowne Plaza" proudly emblazened across the closest of the city's buildings.

Inside the terminal it is amazingly clean and new. Most municipalities in the U.S. would be salivating over the idea of such a beautiful facility. 

Outside the terminal I catch a shuttle to Antigua for an amazing $10. In front of me is a student, Chelsea, from Vancouver Island. Chelsea has been in Central America for most of the year already and was just home for a short break and is now returning. She plans to spend a week or two in Antigua and then head to Costa Rica. Why? It turns out she needs a root canal - it's way cheaper to come here even with a $500 plane ticket. Plus she says the dentists are great and it's a good excuse to extend her stay until school starts again in September. Hmmmm....perhaps I should come pitch the Obama administration on medical travel program and just forget about overhauling our health care. 

Maybe I will go in for a cleaning and see how it goes. I wonder if I'll come home needing dentures?

Let the Spanish Lessons Begin

Pedro told me that he thinks I should start my Spanish lessons prior to departing New York. So he got me a ticket to the Univision media buy-in event at Gotham Hall. The star of the show....Paulina Rubio. This is so exciting. I love her!!! 

But before she comes out it's the winner of Mexican Idol. He's good, but I wouldn't have com
e out of my way to see him. Then out she comes. She's got legs a mile long, great, big, blonde hair and this beautiful smile and glint in her eye. You just want fall in love with her and that's before she opens her mouth.

If you haven't seen her, you have to check her out! She's a cross of Britney & Shakira only better:

It was so incredible because we were so close to the stage. In fact the person next to me is zooming in on her cellulite as she sits on the edge of the stage. I don't know if you can really call it
 cellulite because she is so thin and beautiful, but I guess when you scrunch your leg under you
, you can get a little bit of cottage cheese look. Oh well. Can you believe she's 38 in June of this year? She really doesn't look it at all!

All in all a big success, but I don't think that I got a huge boost in my vocabulary, but I will say that I got a lot of fun and my friend, Julio, said that having seen Paulina so close gives me street cred with the Latinos. Ha ha!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Oh New York, I'll miss you!

The last four days in New York were ones that make you never want to leave the city. The rainy weather has just left and suddenly it's cool, clear spring, not quite summer, but the air is so fresh you just feel alive.

Thursday Ben surprised me by saying he had switched weekends at his Fire Island house so we could spend one weekend on the island before I leave. If you've never been to Fire Island, it is transportive place. You're so close to the city, but miles from it.

You rush to Penn Station to catch the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) out to the Hamptons, in the frenetic atmosphere of Penn Station you stand alongside harried commuters that have chosen to travel by train into the city daily so that their families can have a "real" home with a patch of lawn to give their children a "normal" upbringing. Mixed in with this group is another set of people. Eyes bright, weekend bags on the floor near them while they watch lcd screens waiting for the platform number light up next to the train that will carry them toward a crashing surf and salty breezes.

On the train the city passes your window, slowly the buildings get smaller and the spaces between larger and you're filled with the excitement that a whole weekend is about to start. In your train car you'll look around for a few familiar faces that are heading out and you'll share a smile in a knowing way that you're about to let all your cares fall behind.

You pull into a station in a quaint town, carry ayour weekend bag onto the ferry. It pulls out of the harbor and and lets the mainland and all your workaday worries slip behind you as it heads toward the thin strip of land on the horizon.

Is this how I will feel as the plane leaves on Tuesday? All my worries slipping behind feeling like I'm heading on an exciting break toward a barrier island that protects the coast from winter seas and shelters a group of people from their concerns.

I know it's the people around me, the ones that form a safe haven from life's storms - that's what I'll miss. That's what New York is to me.