A Good Feeling

Thursday 6.3.10

(Quite a long post, but lots of updates)

Since I’ve been out of writing updates for a while, I feel like I should just review a little my general feeling of my time spent here in my site so far: I’m happy. The children whom I encounter on the streets no longer stare and point all the while hiding behind their mother, no, they say “buenos tardes Katy!” When I walk from my house two blocks down to the store, the kids don’t giggle and call me gringa anymore, they ask me when I’m going to come play fútbol with them. I’m on a first name basis with the microbus driver and helper. When I meet adults in the street they greet me with a genuine smile and a “buenos tardes” or a “xb’ek’iq’” or the appropriate greeting for whatever time of day it is. People in the market in a town 45 minutes away recognize me and shout “Katy!” when they see me, even though I don’t recognize them most of the time. People in the microbus terminal see me and don’t ask me anymore what town I’m going to because they already know. They know me, and I feel like a real part of the community because of this.

I do still get the weird looks and stares and silly questions like “don’t you miss your family?” or “how old are you?…and you’re not married!!?” from people I don’t know. And every person that I meet feels like it’s their moral obligation to explain to me how many relatives they have that are now or have ever worked in the United States, in what state and/or city they live in, how long they’ve been there, if they themselves have ever been to the US with all the corresponding information, and then they recite to me all the words in English they have ever learned in their entire life (which is usually between two and five).

“hchigh, hhuw auyuu” hi, how are you?

“wash yoo niim” what’s your name?

“guut” good

“ohkeeey” okay!

“guut beigh” good bye

This is a little more than irritating but I have learned to accept it and try to segway rapidly into some other topic to talk about, like the weather, the milpa (corn harvest), how many brothers they have, or the fact that in the US people do not get married “just for two or four years or a certain set amount of time”. It’s quite interesting to me how many people have asked me, “so, in your country, do people get married forever or just a little while, like two years or five years? Because I’ve heard that you can say at the beginning that you just want to be married for two or five years?” I always reply that the idea is always to be married forever, but sometimes people just find out that they don’t work as well together as they thought. Or sometimes one person turns out to be a bad person or a drunk and they get a divorce. “Oh, well I heard that they just get married for a short period of time.” Yes, that happens sometimes, but the idea from the beginning is that they will be married forever. “Oh, but some people just get married for a short period of time, right?” Yes, but that is not the plan from the beginning. “Oh, because I heard that people just get married for a few years and that’s all.”

The first couple weeks I spent here at site I was really frustrated with all these questions. It consumed a lot of my energy to answer the same boring questions over and over, and I was quite frustrated. Now I get these questions less and less, and I get more questions like “where are you going?” and “it’s beautiful how sunny it is, isn’t it?”. These topics are considered quite advanced for Guatemalan small talk so I feel quite honored and much less frustrated to be in this next stage of conversation topics.

I’m getting busier with work, doing more interesting stuff than I had been during the first month. This week I’m going down to the finca twice to scout out where we want to make trails for horseback rides. My coworker thought this could be done in half a day, but I told him we should plan on a full week. We compromised on two days and then we’re going to see where we are at that point. We have a test-run with a group of tour bus operators that are going to come sometime in July and act as tourists to evaluate us and give us pointers, so we have to have our main points of interest up and running by that point.

I have another idea for a nighttime activity that I think will be popular with tourists – especially from other countries. The idea would be to go to two or three different houses, spend about 30-45 minutes at each one, and hear a story and get a snack or a drink at each house. The people of El Quiché were severely affected by the war in the 80s and I think the stories about the hardships of the war, being displaced from their homes, and living in the mountains on the run for four years of their life share a very rich and important part of their culture. Right now I’m trying to find families willing to tell their stories, willing to have tourists in their home, willing to share a chuchito or enchilada, snacks; an atol, a typical drink; and a cuxa (cusha), the local moonshine. I think that talking in small groups, in a more family-like and relaxed setting, and without the pressures of a schedule to keep is exactly what tourists who come to visit a small town are looking for. They want the experience of a small town; to learn the history of the locals, to experience their customs and eat their food, to see their houses and their actual standard of living. Not necessarily to live exactly like the locals, but I think when people really seek culture they seek this kind of experience.

Aside from the work part, which occupies a surprising amount of time considering what I actually accomplish in one day, the rest of my social life is going pretty well too. I feel like I’ve actually made a few friends based on more than the fact that they are also unmarried young women. I have build rapport with the people who manage the local stores and I’ve gotten pretty good at small-talking and spending a good half hour chatting about nothing much when I go and visit them. I can even remember most of their names!

As far as my Spanish speaking goes, I have now advanced from a Spanish-English word-for-word dictionary to a Spanish dictionary with the definitions in Spanish. I find the Spanish-English dictionary to be useful for day to day use but insufficient for really understanding new vocabulary words and their context. However, it takes me a good 10 minutes to look up one word because in the definition of one I find two other words that I don’t understand…and have to look up. In their definitions I inevitably find another one or two words that I don’t understand…that I have to look up. In this way I actually learn a good dozen words when my only intention was to learn one. I’m reading Don Quijote in Spanish and this is why I’m looking up so many words. The first part is about 500 pages long and my goal is to finish it in one month, which makes it about 20 pages a day. I usually read at a pace of one page in two minutes or a little faster, so I’m thinking more like one page in five minutes for this book. I don’t mind, I’ve got plenty of free time, I’ve heard it’s a really good book, and it’s nice to have something to talk about with other people.

I’ve also been taking a lot of photographs, mostly of insects, but soon I’m hoping to branch out and do some more artsy-fartsy stuff. I love photographing insects, but it’s feeling a little rudimentary and I feel like I could be doing a lot more advanced stuff and learning more about photography by branching out into different genres. But nothing fascinates me as much as nature does so I’m a little short on ideas right now.

So, emotional health: good, psychological health: good, physical health: umm…lacking. I try to take a long lunch every day to go for a walk or a run, but it’s hard to explain just how important it is to my physical and mental well-being to do something active every day. Plus except for the past week it’s been raining basically every day all day, or off-and-on when you never ever know when it’s going to start or stop.

The food situation is going really well, also. One of my new favorite foods is platanos fritos, fried plantains. I cook them myself and I use way way less oil then I was taught to, but they still taste delicious with a little sugar or cream. One platano costs Q1.50 (12 cents) and it’s a perfect amount for the dinner of one person, maybe with a few black beans too. Another favorite dinner of mine is cooked green beans in scrambled eggs. This may sound strange, but it’s actually not. You whip up one egg until it’s nice and fluffy, line up 8-10 green beans in a bowl and coat them with the airy eggs, then cook them all together in a pan. I eat them with a little tomato sauce or hot sauce and some salt. The first time I tried them I thought it was a strange combination of flavors, but now I really like them. It’s cheap and easy and quite healthy. I introduced my family to the concept of French toast, which was quite delicious even though we used powdered milk. (On an off note, I will never ever be able to hear the phrase “powdered milk” without thinking of Garrison Keeler and his song on Prairie Home about powder milk biscuits.) I’m almost ready to try cooking meat on my own. There actually is one store in town that sells fresh chicken by the pound, so I’m going to go one day and buy me a half pound of meat, season it (because nobody in Guatemala knows how to add flavor to their food besides hot sauce or cilantro), and cook it my very own self. I don’t really care so much if it comes out tasty, at least for this first try, but it has to come out cooked all the way through because I really don’t want to get sick.

I haven’t been sick in the past few weeks, and I attribute this to becoming an agua pura (filtered water) snob. My family boils their water, but I had a feeling that even boiling water for the recommended 15 minutes was probably not enough to remove all the bad guys living in the water causing me bathroom problems. So now I buy 5 gallons of water every week for Q15 (about $2) and it more than lasts me for all my weekly drinking, tooth-brushing, and cooking needs. To any of my PC buddies reading this and still drinking boiled water, vale la pena bastante (it’s quite worth the cost) to buy your agua pura every week.

On a musical note, my counterpart just got his keyboard fixed so now I can start playing again and hopefully start teaching as well. Before he got it fixed I could play, but the connection was iffy which made the sound crack no matter how loudly or which notes you played. My counterpart also really wants a youth choir to be on the program of entertainment for when tourist groups come, but the music teacher doesn’t know how to read sheet music and I doubt she has any experience directing a choir. I don’t have any experience directing a choir, but I feel like I have more basics than she does, more patience, and a better method of teaching. Besides, none of the students like her. She’s one of those people who was really nerdy and controlling in high school, who always thought she was right, and who everybody thought was a big pain in the ass because of all her opinions and thoughts that never really had anything to do with anything. Now, Marta is not a pain, but I understand why the students don’t like working with her. She’s one of those people that talks down to everyone else, whether she knows it or not I’m not sure, and always has a firm opinion that she is correct. Last week I gave an English class and I instructed everyone to put their pencils down because we were just going to speak for a little, that we would have time to copy after we were done speaking. I told them this about four times before I confiscated two pencils (hers and her father’s). Everybody laughed and was in good spirits, but I was a little frustrated that a teacher would have that hard of a time following simple instructions.

Well, I have tired of writing today, but I’m going to try hard and give more frequent updates and hopefully some interesting pictures that are not of insects. The sunrises are exceptional, but they only happen around 5:20am and if I’m unlucky enough to be awake at that hour it’s because I have to pee, and then when I exit the restroom the sun has already risen and the clouds are no longer lined in gold nor the hills textured and illuminated by the extreme angle of the sun. But I’ll try for something interesting soon.

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