Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lago de Atitlan

Apologies for the delay in actually posting pictures and anything interesting about my trip to Guatemala. Subsequent trips to Yosemite and now Philadelphia have led to a backlog of blog posts. For all of my five readers.

So here is the first weekend of my trip, a visit to Lago de Atitlan.

(If you click on the slideshow it will take you to the Picasa album so you can skip the boring pictures)
Lago de Atitlan is a good sized lake that's a prime destination for tourists. If you look at my pictures of the cute little towns and lush green volcanoes surrounding the lake, you might get an idea of why. Below is a panoramic of El Lago, courtesy of Katie, another teacher in my travel group.

My favorite part of the weekend was the trip to Santiago and my first taste of the blending between indigenous and colonial/Spanish Guatemalan cultures. The church in Santiago, like many churches in Guatemala, has prominent features reflecting the melding of cultures. First, what do those steps remind you of? If you answered "A Mayan Temple," you are correct.

From Guatemala - Panajachel Lago de Atitlan

A feature unique to Santiago is that it is supposed to be the place where the Mayan gods came down to Earth to give humans the gift of knowledge. Naturally, this is showcased in the town's Catholic church. Here's a picture of the altar with a beautiful carving of a quetzal handing a book over to Man. (If you want a closer-up view, click on the picture and then zoom in. It'll be blurry, but you'll get the idea)

From Guatemala - Panajachel Lago de Atitlan

Coming soon: more cultural blending with Maximon AKA San Simon AKA Who is this Effigy?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Soy Gringa?

My Guatemalan home, Queztaltenango (AKA Xelaju or just Xela to mot everyone), is second only to Antigua in its number of Spanish language schools. As such, it's easy to find--and in fact difficult to avoid--other foreigners. During the day I see teacher-student pairs wandering the streets on field trips to museums or local markets. In the evenings the gringos flock to the bars and restaurants that promise vegan delights, relatively cheap local beer, and where even the "comdia tipica" is too expensive for the average Quetzalteco.

As per usual when traveling outside the US (or inside the US for that matter), there's something amiss about my inclusion in this grigo subculture. In my mind I'm just as foreign as the rest (if not more so due to my dismal Spanish) but my dark hair and skin raise eyebrows and questions. When I pass white people on the street, they look me up and down, unsure whether it's appropriate to say "hello" or "hola." My clothes scream "America" (today I'm wearing hiking boots and North Face pants and carrying a Nalgene), but something--i.e. my melanin--is off.

The Guatemalans themselves seem to err on the side of "foreigner," perhaps because of my clothing or perhaps because their more well trained eyes know that my dark features are hardly Mayan and unlikely to be Central American. Still, I have been stopped twice on the street for directions (fortunately, my Spanish teacher was with me and stepped in to relieve my deer-in-the-headlights state). At my Spanish school a teacher noted that there is a student here with a Latino last name and inquired if I am her. Americans and Guatemalans alike want to know "Donde eres?" but are unsatisfied with the idea that San Francisco could be the ultimate answer (explaining my Michigan childhood is also insufficient).

Of course this is all a blatant reflection of what it means to be American, and of course this is not new information. At times I sometimes feel lucky that I can theoretically blend in more than your average white girl, that I can theoretically engage more fully in my immersion experience. A woman from Arkansas shared with me her jealously that I can probably walk the streets more safely because "they" are wouldn't see me as a foreign target for crime. (Don't worry, parents. Even if I did agree with her, I'd see that as no reason to let down my guard. I mentally placed her thoughts in the same category as the frequent comment that I'm so lucky I don't have to go tanning). There may be advantages that come from traveling with brown skin in brown-skinned countries, but then someone is disappointed when I can't understand Spanish and can't dance salsa and it's just another reminder that once again I don't fit in in the way it's expected.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Comida Guatemalteca

Obviously there is much else to write about Guatemala, but since most topics of interest necessitate accompanying pictures, I'll wait until I get home to blog about that.

People have been asking what the comida tipica is here, and I'm not sure I've actually gotten a good handle on that. My host family has been hosting students for 15+ years, so they definitely serve me food that is a little more kind to American tastes and digestive preferences. For breakfast, there are corn flakes and then some sort of toast (regular toast, French toast) and a fresh banana. The best part, however, is the daily freshly squeezed jugo de naranja. I am pretty sure my host mother gets up at least an hour and a half before the rest of us to cook it all.

Lunch is the main meal of the day, so it usually includes meat. For my host family, that has meant everything from delicious chicken to not-so-delicious hot dogs. There´s usually rice and some sort of sauce, and always tortillas. Dinner is smaller and at my house it usually involves some combination of eggs, beans, and tortillas. We have hot drinks (tea or instant coffee) with breakfast and dinner and a cold drink (horchata or some kool-aid-ish drink) at lunch. By the end of the day, I'm stuffed. Other American students I've talked to seem to have somewhat different meals. Others have more eggs and beans and rice, although the common thread is always tortillas.

Although I love having three meals a day cooked for me, it means I haven't had much of an opportunity to explore food on my own. Everyday I walk through the market area of town where I can smell fresh tortillas, frying platanos, and all kinds of delicious sauces. I'm not scared to try street food (the only time it has ever done me wrong was when I chipped my tooth on Kenyan peanut brittle), but I'm usually too full from all the delicious food my host family serves.

Coming up when I can post pictures: a chocolate-making extravaganza in which our heroine samples, pounds and dries her own drinking chocolate bars.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Spanish: Improving

I am now on my fifth day in Guatemala. There's much to report and remark on, but my main focus (and cause of exhaustion) thus far has been learning and attempting to speak in Spanish.

It should be noted that the last time I had any sort of formal education in Spanish was elementary school, and I'm not sure I can really count that. My more recent education has been from listening to my students, the two weeks last summer in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (where I was sheltered by traveling with three Spanish teachers who did pretty much all the talking), and the many times that random people have mistaken me as Latina and started speaking to me in Spanish. Which is all to say, I can understand a decent amount (including a lot of curse words), but can speak approximately nothing.

The first place that this has caused a problem is with my host family. They are incredibly nice and welcoming and all of that, but I can't really say much in response to their questions. Most of the time I can understand what they're asking, but my responses are all one or two words: "Gracias!" "Esta bien" "Soy maestra de matimaticos" (which I quickly learned should be "de las matimaticas." Oops). I know they don't expect me to be fluent, but I just feel rude that I'm not really talking to them. It's not that I don't want to; I just don't have the words to say what I want. Smiling, nodding, and making exaggerated gestures gets me somewhere (like they stop bringing me tortillas eventually), but it doesn't work when they ask me what I've done that day.

The good news is that my Spanish classes are kind of amazing. Every morning I spend 4.5 hours with one other American (a special ed teacher from Minnesota) and our teacher. With only two people in the class, it's impossible to hide. So far, I have probably learned at least 200 new words as well as regular (and some irregular) verb conjugations in the present, past and future tenses. I swear that I have already been taught an entire Spanish I course in the past three days, if not more. Whether or not I have learned an entire Spanish I course is debatable. But I do see a noticeable improvement in not feeling like a complete idiot.

My primary goal in being here is to be able to speak to my students' parents, so once I learn some more words/phrases like "throwing" and "never does homework" I think I'll actually be okay.