"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together" -Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Activist

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sa il ch’oolejil ch’oq awe sa’ ralankil! (Merry Christmas!)

'Tis the holiday season in the village of Campur.  All week long Christmas pigs were being slaughtered, fireworks tested, women and men gift vendors knocking on my door hawking traditional dress, radios, plastic children's toys, and Avon.  Those who have electricity have twinkle lights hanging, some even have a tree.

I'll admit it; I can be a bit of a Grinch back home when it comes to Christmas.  I just feel like it's become such a poisoned holiday, such a circus, that I find myself waiting impatiently for the day to come so it can be over and we can all resume our lives, free of gems like "Santa Baby."  Don't get me wrong, I do love my family's traditions--Chinese food and midnight church on the 24th, gifts at midnight, a relaxed lasagna lunch with the whole family on the 25th.  And no matter where in the world I am, I usually end up mimicking these very traditions--I enjoyed a lovely Chinese food dinner with some PCV friends in the city, and am planning a post-New Years lasagna feast for the local family who was kind and generous enough to share their Christmas Eve with me.  

On Wednesday I took Dilan and his three-year old cousin Cristien to the market to see Santa.  It was horribly crowded but we managed to make our way towards the front of the crowd.  And there danced Santa, inside the pharmacy, in all his cheesy red-suited glory.  Dilan and Cristien were pretty unfazed by the whole thing and seemed more interested in the ice cream cones I had bought them than Guatemalan pharmacy Santa.  I've always wondered how and if Santa Claus works his way into places such as rural Guatemala.  Dilan helped me solve this mystery.  He asked me that day if Santa had ever visited me.  I told him that yes, when I was a little girl, Santa would come and leave my sister and I presents.  He seemed excited about this.  "Santa's never come to our house but my mom says that's because he lives too far away.  But once the Catholic nuns brought in Santa and he walked around giving all the kids bags of candy."  So there's my answer.  Santa exists to Guatemalan kids, although in a more far-off way.  Rural Guatemala is a bit too far away for Santa and his sleigh, and there are no chimneys for him to magically shimmy down.  Dilan will still receive a Christmas present or two--his mother got him some new clothes for when he starts school in January, and I got him and his brothers some new school supplies (thanks to some great care packages from people back home!)  But that's not what Christmas is about here.  It's not about a stupid fat white man in a red suit or iPhone 5's.  It's about family, good food, and, of course, fireworks.

For the 23rd Zurma, an eight-year old neighbor girl who comes over almost daily to do workout videos with me, invited me to come see her perform in the Chrismas pageant at the local church.  So I went to the church where I sat through a four-hour long Christmas service led mostly by the children of the congregation.  It was actually pretty entertaining, and I got a Christmas tamale out of the deal (although not until 11:30pm when the service ended).  During the closing prayer, which I noticed  Pastor Isabel did in Spanish, she asked everybody present to pray for me and my family far away in the United States.  All around me I heard murmured Q'eqchi' blessings for "Qana Jana ut li junkaba'al," and I was truly touched.  All week long people have been inviting me to spend the holiday with their families, to come watch the pig be slaughtered and to learn how the famous Christmas tamales are made.  Locals have always been concerned that I live out here alone, without my family, or a husband, or anybody else to take care of me.  But this Christmas they've all been especially concerned that I have a family to spend Christmas with, that I eat many tamales, and that I talk to my family back home.  Nothing and nobody can replace my family back home, but these folks sure do a pretty good job at taking care of me and making me feel loved.

The kids singing a song on the 23rd. Cristien and Dilan were the "U" and "C."

I decided to spend Christmas Eve with Naomi's family (her mother is Pastor Isabel of the Evangelical church).  I spent the morning making Cheesecake brownies and Rice Krispie Treats, enjoyed a nice hot bucket bath, and walked over to their house in the early afternoon.  I like spending time with Naomi's family because they treat me as an equal; they're used to Gringos (they've been hosting groups of American missionaries for years) so they're not as fazed by me as some other local families.  (You'd think after all this time people wouldn't fawn over me so much, but my Gringa-ness just never gets old for most people around here.)  I spent the afternoon playing Uno and Huicha (a Guatemalan game reminiscent of Parcheesi) with Naomi's brothers.  Around dusk I helped Doña Isabel wrap up 80 Christmas tamales out back by the chicken coop.  I'm awful at tamale-making but she put me to work tying the banana leaves up with raffia.  Pastor Isabel is a licensed social worker and has spent time in the States doing church work so she's uncharacteristically open about different religions, cultures and philosophies.  And she loves to talk.  We had a grand ole time folding tamales in the dark, chatting about social work and life in the States.  She couldn't stop talking about how fast Americans walk.  I told her that it still pains me how slowly Guatemalans walk.  After all the tamales were made and steaming over the fire, we played some more Uno while everybody got dressed up and ready for dinner.  Around 10:30pm we sat down, unveiled the steaming tamales, and gave thanks for a wonderful Christmas.  Right before midnight we all bundled up (despite it being 60+ degrees outside) and went outside to await the show.  Campur at midnight sounded like it was under an air-raid attack; everybody outside in the roads, all setting off fireworks at once, hooting and hollering all the way.  It was actually kind of nice, and perhaps the first time I've ever enjoy fireworks here.  I still miss the comfort of home, but I couldn't have asked for a better holiday here.  Wednesday I'm off for El Salvador where I'll be bringing in the New Year with four fellow PCVs.  It's been a great year.

The Christmas Eve feast: tamales, fruit, bread, tostadas, and ponche (basically hot fruit coctail).

Naomi and her brothers ready for the feast!

Monday, December 19, 2011

A good ride

Riding home on the Campur bus after dark.  I could count on one hand how many times this has happened over the past twenty months, mostly because I tend to travel early in the day.  But every once in a very long while, it works out that I end up on the bus that doesn't leave the city until right before dusk.  It's perhaps equally as rare that I end up in the passenger seat of the microbus. 

Some observations on the microbus passenger seat: it's seemingly the most prized seat, the best/most comfortable seat on the bus and is therefore one of the first to be claimed.  However, the bus driver/ayudante will often informally reserve this seat for someone special (usually a woman).  A woman they know, either from their family, or professionally, or a woman whom they know is respected.  I've seen drivers kick others out of the passenger seat to give it to more passenger-seat deserving women such as the head nurse from the village health center, the female director of one of my schools, or, of course, me (in these cases I've always denied their offer and taken a seat in the back--I'm not about to boot anybody out just because I'm the village Gringa--can't say I haven't been tempted, though).  So that's another thing about the passenger seat--even if you get there first while it's still unoccupied, you can't just sit there.  This is what you do instead: As the microbus sits in the lot waiting to fill up and leave, there's a certain dance that one must go through to get on the bus.  There is typically only one bus leaving for each village at a time.  Each of these microbuses are clearly marked with the name of their origin and the name of their destination in block adhesive lettering on the windshield (so even if I didn't recognize the driver as one of the Campur bus drivers, which by now I always do, I could just get on the bus with the giant "CAMPUR" stamped on its windshield).  Despite this fact, upon approaching your chosen bus, the ayudante (literally "helper," he is the bus driver's assistant who handles the fares, the passengers' cargo, etc.) will surely ask "B'ar yookat?" ("Where are you going?") to which I reply, "Q'anpur" ("to Campur").  This interaction happens even with ayudantes who have known me for a while, who know where I'm going before they even ask me.  The ayudante, satisfied with my response, tells me "hay lugares atrás" ("there are spaces in the back") and takes any large bags I might have and ties them to the cargo rack on the micro's roof.  This gives me free reign on any of the unoccupied seats on the bus.  Except, of course, the passenger seat.  To get the passenger seat, the ayudante (oftentimes via the driver) will instead state "pase adelante Seño" ("go up front Miss") and unlock and open the front passenger side door before loading my cargo on the roof.  Or, if I'm feeling bold and see that the passenger seat is vacant, I can ask if I can "pasar adelante," and they'll either tell me it's reserved or let me have it. 

Why do I like the passenger seat?  One: window control.  I can roll up and down my window as I please to control the air flow.  Two: a seat belt.  It's the only seat on the bus with one, and my Gringa self likes the (false?) security.  Three: the view.  The view through the front windshield is undoubtably the best one, and makes it the easiest to avoid carsickness on those endlessly windy mountain roads.  And four: roominess.  I have watched in wonder/horror as ayudantes pack four more people and a baby into a microbus that was already overcapactiy to begin with.  In the back of the micro, chaos reigns.  More passengers mean more bus fares, so the ayudante will literally cram it full until people are three to a seat, with another standing over them, using the ceiling for support and balance.  In the front, however, there are limits.  Microbus drivers take their job seriously (as they should), and won't risk compromising their driving ability by having some passenger sitting in their lap.  So the most I've ever seen sit in the front is four: the driver and three passengers (which due to the little booster seat in the front center four really isn't as crowded as it seems). 

So tonight I won the microbus lottery.  Not only did my bus leave after 5:30pm, but I was elected to sit in the passenger throne (this particular bus driver knows me well and always gives me passenger seat dibs).  Cruising at dusk with the road stretched out in front of me, Fleet Foxes playing through my earbuds; it was the most pleasant ride I've taken in a long, long while.  There's just something about riding along at night that's so peaceful, so cozy.  As the daughter of two musicians I used to love nothing more than the long car rides back from my parents' evening gigs in the city.  The interstate was so smooth and hypnotizing the way the streetlamps would go by at even intervals, the car not slowing down or speeding up but gliding along at a constant, unfaltering speed.  I don't know why, but those car rides made me feel so safe.  Like we could glide along like that forever.  I used to always wake up at the off-ramp to our neighborhood and be sad that we were almost home.

There's something similarly calming and comforting about traveling the Campur road at night.  The warm humid breeze hitting my face, the street unfolding only as far as the headlights illuminate it, the eclectic mix of pine and palm trees passing on the roadside.  Watching the roadside tiendas pass, each with only a small candle lighting it's interior, or for the few that have electricity, a single bare bulb.  Smelling the smokey smell of the comales heating up over the wood fires, watching small groups of people hurry home on the roadside.  And once off the main road, becoming completely enveloped by the darkness, amazed how this automobile can maneuver the dirt road, working it's way through the jungle like a familiar stranger until finally, I'm home. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day of the Devil and Aguacatan

On my way back from Mexico I spent two lovely nights in Aguacatan, Huehuetenango, where my volunteer friend Callie lives and works.  Aguacatan is a larger pueblo situated in a nice sunny valley of Huehue, equipped with a central park, market, countless tiendas, a pool, and much more.  I was immediately jealous of Callie when I discovered that she can buy fresh whole wheat bread in her site, something unimaginable to me in my bakeryless village.  But while she may have easy access to whole grain products, her daily commutes to her schools are like nothing I've experienced here.  On the second day of my visit we headed up to one of her schools where she had scheduled a cooking class with some of her students and members of the community.  We had to leave her house at 6:30am to arrive at the school by 9am.  Two bus rides, a road-block, an hour-long walk and finally a ride in the back of a pickup later, we arrive at her school, dusty and tired but ready to start cooking.  The class was so much fun and her students were great, although extremely shy.  Luckily we were able to catch a direct bus back at noon, and were back at her house before 1pm.  I can't imagine facing such a complicated commute everyday, especially in the rainy season, and have a new-found respect for Callie's work in her schools.  I'm lucky enough that three of my four schools are within walking distance (the furthest only a 45-minute walk), and only one is a bit complicated depending on if I can find a ride or not.  But I guess in Peace Corps you win some and lose some--I love my site in so many ways, but sometimes it's frustrating that I have to go two hours into the city to buy things like olive oil and skim milk and wheat bread.  On the other hand, however, I don't have to take two bus rides up a mountainside to get to work.

On my second night in Aguacatan we got to bear witness to the wonderful Day of the Devil festivities, which happen every year on December 7th.  Day of the Devil (Dia del diablo) is a Guatemalan festivo in which they construct or buy papier-mache Devils, stuff them full of cheap fireworks, set them in the middle of the road in front of their homes, and come dusk, set the whole thing on fire.  It's also traditional for families to spring-clean their houses, dragging whatever they deem as garbage into the street and burning that, as well.  Dia del diablo is a chance for people to literally clean out and burn up the demons that have been hiding away in the nooks and crannies of their homes, in preparation for the new year.  It's always best to start the new year off demon-free. 

Devil burning (photo courtesy of Kevin W's blog)
While the concept behind Day of the Devil has its appeal (I'm a big supporter of spring-cleaning and ridding oneself of worthless junk once a year), its result is less appealing.  Come dusk, all throughout the pueblo the streets are filled with things on fire.  God forbid a windy night come through (this is the peak of dry season, after all) and who knows what else might end up in ashes along with the demons and old mattresses.  And if the fire-littered streets weren't enough, as each Devil burns up, the nice little stockpile of firecrackers hidden in its papier mache breadbasket ignite all at once, creating a cacophony of loud and violent pyrotechnics.  Callie and I lasted about two minutes in the street in front of her house before we retreated once again to the fire-free confines of her kitchen.  The fire, smoke, and ear-piercing fireworks were a little too much for us Gringas.  (Although in my lovely home of Alta Verapaz, in San Cristobal, they take Dia del Diablo to an entirely different level.  In San Cris they do something called "Balls of Fire" (Bolos de Gas) where they soak soccer balls in gasoline, ignite them, and then kick them around at each other, throwing people in the public pila in the event that they should catch on fire, as well.)

Its always been a big mystery to me why, in a country that was overrun with civil war violence and genocide not 15 years ago why the locals seem to love so fondly the violent, noisy, and jolting experience of setting off fireworks at all hours of the day and night.  I just don't get it.

Mexico and things

December is flying.  After a Gender and Development committee meeting in Xela on the 2nd, I took off for Chiapas, Mexico with two of my fellow GAD ladies for a four-night stint in San Cristobal de las Casas.  I'll quote some of my journal notes on the trip:

Only a day after plunging head-first (via two terribly long and tiring bus rides) into the heart of the Western highlands, my head still hurts from the altitude and the skin on my face and lips is chapped and cracked from the total lack of moisture in the air.  After not leaving the humid and eternally rainy Alta Verapaz for a while I tend to forget that the rest of the country is in the peak of the dry season.  Dry season is nice since you never have to plan for rain, and it gives the Guatemalans the perfect chance to sun-dry their corn harvest of the season, which you see spread across corrugated tin roofs for miles and miles, hanging from its own papery husks from clotheslines and makeshift racks.  But it's hard to acclimate to this dryness, especially with the dust.  At the end of a day, I'm literally covered in a thin layer of brownish dust that, after being kicked up off the roads by buses and people, settles on whatever surface it chooses.

The road through Huehuetenango to the Mexican border is a beautiful ride, although I often have to pry my attention away from the chicken bus window to entertain the infant whose mother is seated next to me, who I've found will stop crying if I wave my braid in her face until she grabs it with her little sticky baby hands.  The mother seems relieved that the Gringa has found such an effective tear-stopping tactic, and continues babbling away in Quiche or whatever Mayan language she's speaking to her friend across the aisle.  My legs ache from bracing against the turns, and I wonder how one could possibly manage chicken bus travel with an infant in tow.  It's hard enough keeping track of myself and my backpack.  As we near the border, I look around the bus and wonder if any of my fellow passengers are Guatemalans on their way to the States.  I hear it everyday from people around my village; "I'm going to go to the U.S. soon to make some money" as if they had just decided to wash a load of laundry.  Risking their lives to cross the borders is a risk that a lot of people here feel forced to take.

San Cristobal de las Casas.
A very small Mexican banana
Carrie keeps joking that after living in Guatemala for so long, Mexico is going to seem like the land of milk and honey to us.  But in a lot of ways, it really has.  The landscapes, architecture, and people don't look much different at all here than in a city in Guatemala.  But there is something different in the way people are talking and carrying themselves, a different vibe in the air, that is completely new and intriguing.

A door I liked in San Cris
Walking through the city center on the way to our hostel that first night I stared in awe and all the European-style sidewalk cafes and the people seated at tables, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, without a care in the world.  On our last night we stopped into a bar/cafe where a hipstered-out Mexican guy was playing excellently-executed coffeehouse acoustic versions of Pearl Jam, DMB, Nirvana--my high school playlist more or less.  I found myself utterly captivated, sitting there with a big stupid smile on my face, all for some silly live coffeehouse music.  But that's the thing--I haven't seen or even come near to anything so close to home the entire time I've been in Guatemala.  There are no coffeehouses where I live; no hipster musicians plugging out Eddie Vedder covers while sipping a Corona.  Because that's the thing--I don't really miss technology, cable TV, fast food.  I can do without hot water and dishwashers, albeit begrudgingly.  The things I miss most are live music, coffeehouses where I can sit all day long, cozy bookstores, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, yoga classes, talking with informed people about informed things--that's what feels most like home to me.
Parade in San Cris

San Cris, in some ways, reminds me a lot of Barcelona.  The people have that same relaxed vibe--but maybe it's because most people we meet are Mexicans on vacation from other parts of the country.  What are the San Cris locals like, I wonder?  Chiapas is the center of the Zapatista/EZLN movement, and I was hoping to be able to meet some of these Zapatistas.  But after asking around, we decided against it; you have to obtain special permission to enter the Zapatista communities and, as I heard later from a traveler who had gone himself, they blindfold you on the last leg of the bus trip so that you don't know the exact location of their community.  They wear black face masks when in the public eye to protect their identity, and from pictures I've seen, are armed to the teeth.  So needless to say I think it's best we stayed in San Cris.
San Cris street art (reads "Monsanto is not a saint")
But we did have a chance to meet some of the women in TierraAdentro, a cafe/restaurant that identifies itself with the movement and is the home of several shops owned by Zapatista women artisans.  It was really fascinating, on many levels, to see indigenous women so empowered and so involved in a political movement.  That revolutionary vibe, in fact, seems to be spread throughout the city.   The street art is all pro-anarchy and anti-corporation.  Lots of the people we see and have met are free-spirits, hippies talking of chakras and inner-warriors and such.  But then a parade passes by and I'm pulled back to the Central American culture I know so well, full of parades, religion, and procedure.

Palenque/Misol Ha.
Mexico is familiar and amazingly different all at once.  Because once you leave the city and drive for about 5 hours, you get to Palenque, the Mayan ruins of Chiapas.
Mayan ruins at Palenque
The ruins were beautiful, and we made it a point to climb up all the biggest temples (we had opted out of a guide because who really wants to hear where the ancient Mayans might have eaten breakfast?) and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The bus ride was long and exhausting, but it was great to see all that we did in one short day.  A few of the pretentious hippies running our hostel told us "you can only see maybe 2% of the ruins in one short visit, it's not worth it."  But I'm no archeologist, and while the ruins are amazingly majestic and beautiful, after a while they all start to look the same.  One day of Mayan ruins was plenty for me, thanks.  Four days of Mexico, however, wasn't nearly enough.