Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Not Without Some Blame

I'll admit it. When I see what a mess American imperialism has made of things in Central America I always feel a little prouder that I am from the land of the great white north. Not to offend any American readers that I may have. We all know that you are not your government's foreign policies, past or present. But I could never help feeling just the tiniest bit of Canadian superiority that my country didn't play an active role in these fiascos.

But recently I watched a documentary about a mining project here in Guatemala. The project is run by Glamis Gold, a Canadian owned company. So it isn't my government, but I now see that my country is playing a part in the exploitation of Latin America which means that tiny superior feeling has vanished.

Spokespeople for the project claim that the project has no disadvantages and only benefits fo the people of Guatemala. It is hard to envision what those benefits may be when Glamis will reap $870 million usd from the sale of the mine's gold and silver of which only 1% is kept in Guatemala to benefit the people.

The people of Sipakapa living near the mine are being left with depleted water supplies. In an area already struggling for sufficient water the mine uses in a single hour more water than the average agricultural working family uses in 22 years. Then of course there are the soil contaminacion and health risks associated with living in the vicinity of a mine. A Glamis Gold project in Honduras has already caused cases of skin irritations, rashes, respitory issues and potentially cancers that were not present before the development of the mine.

A year and a half ago the 14,000 inhabitants of Sipakapa held 14 consecutive town meetings and voted nearly unanimously against permitting the continued development of the mine. The documents of these votes were brought to the capital and presented to their government. But democacy works differently in this country. Mining continues. And the people are still waiting to reap the benefits.

Some may call this development but at what cost?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

My Home in Xela

My room thoughtfully decorated with snoopy
and other characters

SpongeBob is also popular in the house.
I find stickers stuck in all random places

The dining room

The courtyard
The house is predominately outside. Which can get a
little chilly in the cold mountain mornings

The family pila.
This is where clothes and plates are washed and teeth
are brushed.

The super scary electrical showerhead

Bebe, the family dog. Aka Perro Sucio
The poor thing is white in this dirty city.
He never stood a chance

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Feeling a Little Psychotic

In the past week I have noticed a big leap in my spanish. I am actually starting to think in the spanish without consciously trying to. Sometimes I'll be thinking about something in English and parts will slip into Spanish. Other times just weird random things pop up in Spanish. Even other times I'll be writing or typing in English and certain portions will end up written in Spanish.

Certainly I am so happy that I can now say many things in Spanish without rehearsing and structuring in my head first. But the problem lies in the fact that I now feel like there is this strange voice in my head. It doesn't sound like my voice. It doesn't quite belong there yet.

So by the end of the day it starts to make me feel a little anxious. I just want my mind to settle and stop racing as it does when these two voices are competing to be heard. I feel somewhat like there are two personalities inside me battling to get out.

Luckily there are super affordable yoga classes here in the evenings. I need to give my brain a rest and just breath for a little while.

A while back my friend Carrie, who is living here in Xela, described her experiences of living somewhere long term and speaking a non-native language. The ways in which it can change ones personality. Her experience is certainly much more intense than mine and I think she does a great job of describing what it feels like to have these changes running through one's brain. (If you want to read what she wrote scroll down to November 1st)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Photo Post

I just passed another great weekend in Xela and so there is lots I want to write about. But for now I am just going to post some photos. The first few are images from a hike I made with some fellow students from my school. Our guide was a member of the guerilla (the revolutionary fighters from the civil war) and the spot that we hiked to was one of their encampments during the war. We sat right where they had cooked, slept and trained listening to stories of the hardships endured by these guerilla as they fought for to improve the lives of the underpriviledged in this country. The spot is now used by the Mayan for spiritual ceremonies and offerings and provided some spectacular views.

My poor lungs were suffering though on the climb up (damn this nagging cough.) The guerilla would do the same hike at night, in the freezing cold, carrying upwards of 100 pounds. My shocking lung capacity combined with the fact that a friend and I took a slight diversion when we lost the group led our guide to tell me I would have made a poor guerilla. Hardly Surprising

Mayan Cross

More of the beautiful vista

The Group listening to our guide's stories

Typical village courtyard with drying corn

Village buildings

View of Tajumulco Volcano...the highest in Central America

The remaining few are some more scenes about town.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Small Talking

Yesterday, after being in Xela two weeks, I finally got around to paying a visit to the family that Chris and I lived with for six weeks as well as the school that we attended the last time we were here. I have been dreading it in no small way but everytime I speak to Chris he harrasses me (just a little) to the point that I knew I couldn´t put it off any longer. Plus the I'm sick excuse was become overused, even to myself. So in keeping with my new year's resolution that I am going to stop avoiding situations that make me uncomfortable I headed out, braced to make some small talk with people I hadn't been in touch with for over a year.

I am not sure why I was so reluctant to make these visits. I suppose a part of me was worried they wouldn't remember me (very akward). I know a big part was worried that I wouldn't be able to understand what they said to me (a little less akward). But really it is just that I hate that small talk conversation that never amounts to anything of much substance.

Anyone who knows me has heard me rant about how much I hate small talk. I hate the akwardness. I hate the raking my brain for what to say next. Now multiple this by about a gizillion and you can begin to imagine how much I hate small talk in spanish. There is still a limited breadth to how I can phrase things in Spanish when trying to hold a conversation that flows faster than a tortoise pace.

But in the end, after all that worry, it all went okay. As I mentioned in a previous post, Guatemaltecans are an extremely gratious and friendly people. Sheny, my former homestay mother, just kept repeating how happy it made her that that I had come to visit. She even invited me back next week for a very special lunch with the entire family.

Things were much the same at the school. Though perhaps made a little testy by the fact that I opted to study at another school. (Well really only the directora seemed to care about that) The teachers greeted me with many hugs and questions about my life in Australia and Chris. My head was spinning trying to get my spanish words out fast enough to answer their inquiries.

Funny how two situations that I was dreading turned out to be absolutely heart warming.

Friday, January 19, 2007

To Be Or Not To Be

Every language has its subtle nuances or better said the things that make one want to yank their hair out in frustration while trying to master these grammatical hurdles.

In spanish there are two verbs to express ´to be´. This is basic stuff. We are talking first week of classes material. But it continues to plague me to this day.

One verb is used to describe characteristics. She is blonde. The house is yellow. The other for conditions. The door is open. I am in the park.

Seems simple right? And I really do think I have a grasp of the basics. I know being happy is a condition and being tall is a characteristic. But then we come to yesterday when in the midst of a lengthy exercise when my brain is thinking of about a dozen grammatical concepts I translated the sentence ¨the house is haunted´ using the wrong verb. Apparently it is a condition not a characteristic. Personally I still think it could go either way.

My teacher then proceeds to tell me that it is obvious I don´t really understand this utterly basic concept. I couldn´t decide if I wanted to cry, punch my teacher in the head, tear up all my notes or run screaming from the school. Perhaps a combination of all four. Instead I opted for yet another cup of coffee and settled myself back at my desk for another three hours of banging my head over these subtle nuances.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anyone Have Change for a Hundred?

Guatemala is experiencing a minor monetary crisis. Things are somewhat improved since November when people would line up for hours early in the morning to get money out of the atms before they were emptied. Luckily, now on occasional days, the atms have money until at least noon. There is simply an extreme lack of bills in circulation at the moment.

When the atm does spit out money it is in 100 quetzal notes. This is only about $15 cdn but noone ever has sufficient change. I hate the look of panic I invoke when I pull out a 100 to pay for my purchase.

And the government's solution to the monetary crisis? From what I have heard their intent is to release a batch of 500 quetzal notes. In a country where a cup of coffee costs 10 quetzals one can only imagine how helpful this will be for all the day to day transactions occurring in this country.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Buen Provecho - Guatemaltecan Politeness

I have remembered one of the many reasons Guatemala was my favourite stop on last year's Central America travels. The kindness and hospitality of the people here is unmatched elsewhere. The is a general level of politeness and courtesy in all interactions. People approach strangers with humility and respect. When good service or a nice favour is received the thank yous are abundent and the server is told they are muy amable (very kind)

Meeting new Guatemaltecans has been an enlightening experience. Introductions are met with a firm handshake, a mucho gusto (lit: much pleasure) and if the pair are of the opposite sex there is a brief kiss on the cheek. To which is added to all this an unnameable sincerity. They truly are pleased to meet you.

Perhaps my favourite custome is the phrase Buen Provecho. There is no literal translation in english. Close would be the french saying Bon Appetit but they are not used in exactly the same way. Whereas a bon appetit is wished at the start of the meal, buen provecho can be expressed before, during and after a meal. At anytime and by anyone.

My house mother runs a comedor (a modest restaurant) in the front part of our house at lunchtime. So for the past week I have been enjoying my comida tipica in the company of her regular clientele. When anyone enters the room and sees me eating they wish me buen provecho. When Annie serves the meal she says buen provecho. And when I get up to leave the table it is customary to say muchas gracias to the others in the room to which they reply buen provecho.

As I learn more about the subtle niceities and etiquete of the people here I can't help but grow more humble and thankful of the time I get to spend in such an enriching cultural.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fast Friendships

I have obsessed ad naseum about my failing to make any meaningful friendships during my first semester at university. I've tried to think of many reasons for why this would be. I blame limited interaction time each week. My dedication to my studies. But mostly I just wonder if there is something wrong with me.

But here I am in Xela and within a week a have found myself caught up within a group of fellow students that I have naturally clicked with. There are group dinners and yoga classes with a large group of girls. Then of course there has been the chance for long catch up sessions over coffee with Carrie, one of the closest friends I made during my travels last year who is now living more or less permanently here in Xela.

One could suppose that studying spanish at a socially progressive school in Guatemala attracts a rather narrow spectrum of people. Certainly narrower than an economic masters program at a large university in Australia. And one could futher suppose that these are people that I could easily find things in common with that go deeper than discussing the answer to question 3 on this week's problem set.

So it certainly doesn't solve my friendless issue back in Australia. I worry that after all this travel and meeting new people so fluently I may have lost an ability to develop friendships back in the real world. But for now I am excited to spend the next few weeks getting to know these people with so many interesting experiences.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Rough Start

So who knows if it was the altitude, the flights or just the long day in transit but I managed to come down with a particularily nasty strain of cold. I spent most of Sunday shivering under blankets watching Harry Potter and other movies dubbed into Spanish. I did manage to drag myself out long enough to observe a typical Sunday afternoon in the market. Families leaving the church and buying ice creams. Market stalls filled with colourful textiles. Pigeons patrolling for leftover scraps of food. Guatemalan life that continues to fascinate me as the pictures will attest.

But sadly my day of rest did little to heal my sick body. Things only got worse and now I have completely lost my voice. I don´t really need to explain what a pain is to try and learn to speak Spanish when I cannot even speak.

Luckily I have moved in with a lovely family. My house mother has been filling me nonstop with homemade soup and tea with honey. So hopefully it won´t be long before my voice is on the mend and I can do more during my five hours of class each day than written exercise after written exercise.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Xela - The Sequel

After 24 hours in transit I arrived back in Xela, the Guatemalan city where a little over a year ago Chris and I started our time in Central America. This time I was returning on my own. A blown tire that delayed the bus for 3 hours followed by construction that had us averaging less than 10 kilometres an hour meant I arrived in town hours later than anticipated. As it was beginning to get dark I was thankful that I was arriving into somewhat familar surroundings and I quickly settled myself into a hotel near the park, fed myself at one of my favourite restaurants and then retired early to my comfy hotel room.

Before leaving Canada I reread my first impressions of Guatemala from last year. I was so wild eyed and enchanted by this place. Today walking around the city I smiled when I encountered places that brought back memories but it was all much more subdued. For me, much of the excitement in travel is the romance of falling in love with new places. Those butterflies in my stomach as the bus pulls into a new city that is waiting for fresh exploration. The adrenaline rush of navigating the confusing streets of a new town. The joy of discovering a great cafe or even just a perfect spot to sit and watch the world go by.

This time around the objective is not exploration of unknown locales but four weeks of intensive spanish lessons. An attempt to move my spanish out of the realm of polite tourist conversation and into that of truly conversing.

While most of the country I have seen so far seems familar there are glimpses of changes. A country that is in the midst of development and rebuilding after a turbulent history. Those sections of the Pan America Highway that caused so many irritating delays are under construction due to economic expansion. Development that will move goods throughout the region all that much faster and hopefully bring much needed investment dollars. And with highway improvements comes other growth. Restaurants and hotels are built along the highway to accomodate travellers. These aren't just basic comedores(traditional eateries in cement buildings with plastic tables and chairs) and tiny rundown guesthouses. They are swanky establishments with bright shiny glass windows and airconditioning.

Things certainly are changing. They say you can never go back. I know that my time here in Xela will by no means be a repetition of my last stay here. But I do hope that it will introduce me to new people, new experiences and some much needed new spanish vocabulary.