Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The migrant's life

The other day three Guatemalans shared their experiences of migrating to the US and being deported. I don’t want to try and relay their life story or begin to pretend like I have an answer on exactly how immigration should be handled. But I think there are several things everyone should understand.

1.)    Immigrants, (documented or not) are people just like me or you. Given the circumstances and the choices faced by a migrant, you may very well decide that illegally entering a country is your best option also. Be very careful what you criminalize.

2.)    “They” aren’t coming to take your jobs and loaf off your tax payments. “They” would much rather be in their own country with their own family than risking their life to get to the US and do a job most US citizens don’t want to do.* It’s not literally America that is the allure of the “American Dream”, but rather the ability to work and obtain a decent standard of living for your work.

3.)    On that note, it is NEVER FAIR OR JUST to say that people who are poor ARE POOR BECAUSE THEY ARE LAZY. Many very poor people work harder than I could ever dream of. Structural causes, people! Yes many poor people do drugs and have mental illness. Many rich people also do drugs and have mental illnesses; they just have the privacy of a house so you don’t have to know about it.

4.)    In fact, people who migrate tend to be of the intelligent, brave, resourceful, and hardworking sort. Do you think it sounds fun and easy to spend a few months to riding through Mexico squished in a truck and then hiking the Chihuahuan desert with people you’ve never met?

5.)    Not knowing English does not make a person stupid unless you are stupid for not knowing Quiche.

Generalization to live by: Analyze the causes of a social problem instead of condemning the effects.

*I don’t mean to generalize for an entire population, but I think the point needs to be made in that way.

Monday, February 11, 2013

La vida diaria

Here are some random things that everyone needs to know about my life in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala:

Everyone here has great spatial reasoning skills. Mine are getting to be superb (and it was definitely an underdeveloped portion of my brain). When I first got here, just walking on the sidewalks was terrifying because they are extremely narrow and cars whiz by going like 60 through downtown. (Stopping for traffic lights, people, and other cars is entirely optional. The only incentive is the rarity of insurance). I inched along close to the buildings my first week. Now I let trucks whiz by three inches from my toes and hardly notice. Every once in awhile a side view mirror will love tap my backpack. (Okay, I’m exaggerating there.)

There’s also a nice code of sidewalk chivalry. I usually just naturally stay to the right, whether that puts me hugging the building or at the mercy of the road when someone needs to pass going the other direction. However, usually a man will look really offended if you step off the road for him rather than letting him take on the peril. So that’s always a nice gesture.

There are stray dogs EVERYWHERE. All different kinds, and they are all super cute. I feed them bread a lot. I know bread isn’t even nutritious to dogs, but I can’t help it and they like it!

My professor is a riot. Today in class we heard one of the students was out sick, so she jumped up and asked if I was allergic to smoke. Puzzled, I said no. She then pulled out a stash of eucalyptus leaves and a clay dish from the corner of the room. We then proceeded to have a small eucalyptus leaf campfire to purify the air from germs and bad spirits as per tradition. She also is VERY sensitive to the cold (granted it was also NEGATIVE FOUR CENTIGRADOS this morning, and our building is in the open air!!!). She wears a shirt, a sweatshirt, a vest, another sweatshirt, and a winter coat every day with a scarf and hat. She has a different hat for every day of the week. She is obsessed with Xela’s fútbol team and loves chocolate and bread, so we get along pretty well. On Friday during class we walked across the city to the Mennonite Bake Shop. I ate a glazed chocolate covered donut that was filled with peanut butter. Best idea ever. So when I say Spanish class is really difficult, I suppose I concede that it comes with an equal number of perks.

My host family is also still really great. My host mom is SUPER smart and I’m pretty sure she knows everything about everything (I’m 98% sure she’s hiding the fact that she’s nearly fluent in English). In corners all over the house and on every available shelf there are books about every subject available, including very extensive literature on medicine! My host brother is studying to be at optometrist. Nacho, their Chihuahua, is not my biggest fan and only recent stopped attacking me when I walk in the door. The two birds have cured me of any desire to have pet birds in my life, ever.

I see the downside to moving around so much. I am just now getting really comfortable with the city and feeling at home here and it is almost time to leave. I think it will take me much less time in San Salvador and Managua though. I have never traveled by myself or to anywhere truly foreign before, so I spent the first few weeks paying so much attention and being hyper-aware that I missed a lot of the finer points of the city. I notice new bakeries, landscaping, people, and scenery every day that I missed before just trying to make it to where I was going without getting lost. I definitely love Xela though and would come back here in a heartbeat. The fact that people walk everywhere means that even with a fairly large population people tend to walk the same places daily, so I am constantly running into familiar faces. It’s crazy to think that walking around Xela for the day I would easily run into probably ten people I know, but touring Round Rock it would be quite a coincidence to see more than 2 or 3.

Apparently I missed a little earthquake on Friday while we were traveling. My host mom said the hanging plants were swinging away during lunch. I'm a little upset I missed it, I've never felt an earthquake! I looked it up, it was a 4.7 with an epicenter a little ways across the Mexican border.

The only picture this time is a flower at my host family’s house. My host mom made a point to show it to me because apparently the plant only produces flowers a few times a year and the flower only lives for a few hours. But it is really beautiful!

A chicken bus to paradise

This weekend we had no scheduled activities, so all 16 of us decided to head to Lago de Atitlan, a notoriously gorgeous area of Guatemala nestled in between the mountains of volcanoes. We stayed at a hotel/hostel called La Iguana Perdida. The place is very much geared towards extrañjeros- during the course of the weekend I heard mostly English, but aside from Spanish also Russian, German, French, and a looooot of different accents!  We swam, hiked, ate at a restaurant where a lot of locals from around the world hang out, watched phenomenal sunrises and sunsets, and spent a decent amount of time reading in a hammock. They also serve dinner there (staying for the night is 30Q, and dinner is 60Q, the equivalent of about $8) and it was some of the best food I’ve even eaten! Chicken and pasta and carrots and beans and rice and bread and brownies (and rum and coke for a mere 10Q!)… it was GREAT. I needed some time in the fresh air after a week of Spanish and the fact that it was essentially a mini Caribbean vacation definitely didn’t hurt morale.

I think the only reason the entire world doesn’t live there is because getting there is a bit of an adventure. We had to take a bus for three hours and then ride across a very choppy lake on a little tiny boat after haggling with several boat operators in order to not pay the “tourist price” of approximately A LOT more than they would charge the locals. There are port towns located all around the lake, so the bus took us to Panachel, which is a very scenic and touristy place with many shops and restaurants. Our boat took us to our port of Santa Cruz, one of the more relaxing and safe places to be.

The bus ride on the way there wasn’t bad, except for the obnoxiously fast turns going up and down mountains. I have heard a lot of people speak of bus experiences in Latin America, going on roads with little or no guardrails through the mountains at about 90 MPH…. that was basically our experience. Also, there is a saying that down here that there is no such thing as a full bus. Our ride home allowed us to experience this. If each seat had 2 people then the bus should have held 32 plus a driver. I counted 76 bodies aboard for this lovely three hour journey! 

Our treehouse-esque cabin
Just a cool mural.
and sunrise!

Word on the street is that these ducks migrated down from Michigan for the winter.
Various views from our hike!

What a cool place to hang out!
My playmate
A giant red cloth rope to climb.
A banana tree!!!
Our crew on the boat ride back

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Here is an assembly of my favorite quotes from various sources since being here. Some are movies and some are from our speakers. 

"To be young implies to be a rebel."

"-Is that a conviction or a hope?
-I make no distinction between the two."
-Imagining Argentina

"[Guatemala] is a country that doesn't know its greatest richness is in its people."

"-It's God's will.
-I think God looks at things and vomits."

"We aren't cowards, but we aren't heroes either. We are just ordinary people trying to do our job."

"They are equal and they are us."

Sunday, February 3, 2013


This weekend we went to Chichicastenango. "-tenango" translates to "place of" so this was "the place of Quiche" because there is a very large indigenous population there. The cathedral there was actually built on top of a Mayan temple that the Spaniards kindly demolished, so the religion there mixes a lot of traditional Catholicism with Mayan tradition as well.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. On the way to Chichi, aside from the 2 hours drive through the highlands, which I spent glued to my window, we stopped widow's cooperative. During the war, the army bombed a church in this village, killing 40 of the townspeople. Then, many other men were kidnapped, assassinated  or forced into the "Civil Defense Patrol", leaving a community even more poor and torn apart. The Methodist Church really helped them rebuild, and through a series of events many widows from the community began to do what they could as work for the church in return for food and supplies. This evolved into a large cooperative where the women make textiles and artisan items and sell them. They live in community, grow crops, and are able to send their children to school (even primary and secondary school can be a privilege to attend depending on where you live). It was an amazing experience to meet the women and hear their story firsthand from several of them and the pastor of the Methodist Church. I proceeded to buy quite a lot of souvenirs from them. It's awesome to buy something so beautiful from the very woman who created it!

We then headed on to the city, where he had dinner and relaxed. Then, today, after watching part of mass at the church and having some delicious breakfast, we headed to the market, which was quite an experience. Children selling toys and other items literally chase you down, asking you in perfect English to buy a flute for your boyfriend or asking you to buy them shoes for school (while wearing perfectly nice shoes). There are also adorable stray dogs EVERYWHERE, bascially every breed imaginable. There are so many people and so many colors. Haggling is part of the culture and if you are obviously a foreigner the price they give for items is extremely high. You can see them scope you out and then make up a price based on how new and how eager you look. So then you argue with them in Spanish for awhile (if only to learn they speak better English than you do Spanish), and then settle on a price approximately 1/5 of what the originally asked. I am normally not someone who likes this type of game, but I have to say I got into it quite a bit, trying to get the most for my quetzales! I hear they're saying these days that women like shopping so much because it activates some survival instincts from the hunter-gatherer days when women gathered goods for the family.... I believe it. 
The Widow's Cooperative

A few of the women and a boy who made faces at us all through the presentation!

View of the market from the hotel balcony

Gorgeous hotel balcony with pretty plants



This Volcano Santa Maria. I am still hoping for a chance to climb it while we are here.

Spanish, Spanish, and more Spanish…

Soooo this post is from Thursday, I just never put it up!

This week has been spent in language class- five hours a day! Plus a LOT of homework. Since the course only lasts three weeks there is quite a lot packed into each day. So we have that from 8-1 every day (with a coffee and bread break halfway through, thank goodness!) Then in the afternoon we usually have a speaker or watch a documentary or something like that. Today I am going to a yoga class at 4 and then playing some fútbol at 7! Tomorrow will also be fun, after class we are going to visit a community where they have some volcano-heated spas. The language school hosts a dinner and party each Friday for all those who have completed their course that week, so that will also be a nice chance to relax. Then on Saturday we are traveling to spend the night in a community with a large indigenous population and go to their artisan market on Sunday!

It is nearly impossible to sleep here, even with earplugs. Apparently the cool thing to do is light fireworks in the streets every hour or two. Also, there are bajillions of stray dogs on the streets and they have barking contests every six or so minutes. Nevermind the fact that it is COLD. It starts out around 40 and creeps up to about 70, so it doesn't seem like it would be bad. However, most buildings are not fully enclosed and there isn't indoor heating. So basically the cold just crawls into your bones and lives there. I can’t say I’m not looking forward to El Salvador and Nicaragua! I know I’ll regret that when I live in a pile of sweat, but I’m used to being hot all the time!! I'm pretty much freezing from the time I wake up until the sun comes out of the clouds around 10 and my professor and I move our class to the roof terrace to soak up the warm. 

Anyway, it’s definitely been interesting to be surrounded by Spanish pretty much all day, for class and then with my host family. I’m getting more comfortable speaking, but it also makes me realize how many mistakes I make and how difficult it is to portray complex thoughts and ideas.

There is also a GORGEOUS running trail here. I’ve been running with my friend Rachel in the morning before class. The trail winds up a mountain and I definitely can’t run the whole thing yet, it's so steep! However, you can see the ENTIRE city from the lookout points and we are there right as the sun comes over the mountains. Absolutely worth getting up early for, that's for sure!