Pedro El Viajero

Monday, July 6, 2009

The End of the Tour

"And she says that the scene isn't what it's been,
And she's thinking of going home."
- The End of the Tour, They Might Be Giants

On the morning of Thursday, June 25th, my flight landed in San Jose after a red-eye from Guatemala to LA and 6:30 a.m. connecting flight. After just under three months in Guatemala and just over three months in Latin America, my trip came to an end.

I had a fantastic time. After weeks of initial doubt of why I had left the familiarity of the South Bay and the comfort of a steady job, I found many volunteer opportunities and improved my Spanish by leaps and bounds. I made new friends down there, and I have no doubt that I will be returning to Guatemala within the next few years.

That said, this was different from my time in the Peace Corps. My stay in the country this time was much shorter, and I had much less structure to my life and fewer people to support me. But the true difference is where I currently am in my life. For me, 26 is a very different age than 22, which is how old I was when I joined the Peace Corps. Back then, when people asked me where I was from, I gave a muddled answer that included Chicago, San Jose and Boston, and often even included my adopted country, Moldova. When people asked me in Guatemala, I shortened my answer to just San Jose. It is now the place I feel most comfortable and the most established, and I am eager to feel comfortable and established again. I didn't want to feel that way when I joined the Peace Corps, but a lot of things can change in four years.

My next adventure is here, in San Jose. My next challenge to set down roots somewhere, which I have so far failed to do in any part of the world.

Wish me luck. Oh, and let me know if you're hiring.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Writer's block?

I've recently been reminded that I have a blog. I may write in it again, but internet cafés are not conducive to long, contemplative entries. They're not even suitable to short and glib ones.

Take, for example, what I started writing today. I was planning on writing about how aggressive and selfish drivers are in Guatemala. For some reason, I don't feel like describing it in any more detail than that. Yeah, they honk a lot and they deliberately screw up traffic flow because they think that they'll benefit from it, when in fact all they're doing is messing up everyone else when they go into oncoming traffic. It comes from a sense of thinking that they are better than the system, and as a whole, Guatemalans have many good historical reasons to think systems won't help them.

I could also write about how awful the system of education is. The fact that all you have to do to become a certified teacher is finish high school. The lack of preparation by most teachers, and their quickness to blame the poor state of education on the children's poverty or broken family. Teachers' inability or unwillingness to discipline their students or to create interesting, interactive, thought-provoking lessons. The fact that kids seem to not have anyone telling them that homework is important to do. It's frustrating to teach here, and the illiteracy rate is sky-high in this country.

I don't feel like writing about my good times, either. The weekend trip I took with my roommate to Lake Atitlán, a popular vacation spot for Guatemalans. There, in a restaurant on Saturday night, I saw an image that will stick with me for a long time. A seemingly wealthy ladino family was sitting at a table in a restaurant, and indigenous women and girls were walking around the restaurant, trying to sell trinkets and cheap souvenirs. I saw the 10-year-old daughter of the ladino family having colorful string braided into her hair at the table, and the girl who was doing the work was an indigenous girl of the same age. Skin color and social status made it so that the light-skinned girl was on vacation for the weekend, while the dark-skinned girl was working on a Saturday night to support her family. It is statistically probable that one girl will some day graduate from a university, while the other girl will probably be caring a baby on her back, hopefully postponing that inevitability until after she's 16.

These are little thoughts I've had, and they're impossible to refine or gel into cohesive entries while I'm sitting in an internet café. But there they are.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

My schedule solidifies

Thanks to a couple meetings this week, my schedule has solidified so that I'm busy every weekday morning. I'll be working one day a week in Totonicapán, teaching computer skills to workers in the county school district office. Two days a week, I'll be helping out a 4th grade teacher at Escuela de la Calle, an elementary school for poor and working kids in Quetzaltenango. Another two days a week, I will be traveling to Olintepeque (all of these places are spelled just like they sound) to teach computer lessons in a very small rural school.

I went to NUFED, the school in Olintepeque, today for the first time. First I had to wake up, which was a little tough because I had drunk quite a bit of wine the night before with my landlords and some of their friends. But I did eventually get out of bed and into the shower, and went to the center of Quetzaltenango, where I was scheduled to meet Iojana at 7 a.m. so that she could show me how to take public transportation to the school.

When I knocked on the door of the meeting place, a man across the street began talking to me. I turned to him as he said, "All I know is that I'm supposed to pick up an American who knocks on the door." We agreed that he must mean me, and we introduced ourselves. Jorge was in his late 50s or early 60s, with some silver dental work and a bit of scruff on his face. We turned away from the door and started walking, and he surprised me when he said, "I have my motorcycle."

I have never ridden a motorcycle. In my Peace Corps days, I knew that any volunteer who was caught on a motorcycle would be instantly sent home. Motorcycles, I have been taught throughout my life, are incredibly dangerous things that should never be ridden. Especially in a city like Xela, where traffic is insane and everyone operates on a faint knowledge of right-of-way laws as they cross blind intersections, getting on a motorcycle seemed to be suicide.

Well today I rode a motorcycle, and I didn't die. The ride was about 25 minutes, and I have to admit it was pretty cool. And let me dash anyone's hopes for my safety; I was not wearing a helmet.

So many things happend at the school, and my internet time is nearly up, so I'll have to save more for another day. But this school should be fun, and I'm moving up from my previous developing country computer lab, because instead of having Windows 98 on all the computers and only one computer for every three students, I now have computers running Windows 2000 and a computer for every student. Very exciting stuff.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Volcano Run 2

Saturday's volcano run:

Volcano: Santa María
Peak: 3,772 m (12,372 ft)
Starting elevation: 2,333 m (7,654 ft)
Crew: Connie, my roommate; Carlos, a friend from nearby Totonicapán; Hector, Carlos' cousin; and myself

Start: 6:30 a.m.
Summit: 9:40 a.m.
Descent start: 10:30 a.m.
Finish: 12:10 p.m.

I felt much better climbing this time, especially because I brought three sandwiches and five total bottles of water and Gatorade. The sky was much cloudier and foggier, which made the going easy but also gave us very little scenery.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Death to the Department of Weights and Measures

Ask a Guatemalan man how tall he is, and he'll respond in meters and centimeters. Ask a Guatemalan woman how far she drove, and she'll use kilometers. Ask a Guatemalan child how much water is in the bottle he's holding, and he'll use milliliters. Turn on the TV, and the weather report will tell you the temperature in degrees centigrade. The metric system is alive and well in Guatemala.

Until, that is, you drive by a gas station and see the prices per gallon of fuel. Or when you're discussing physical fitness and a Guatemalan tells you that he needs to lose 20 pounds.

The Guatemalans have adopted a strange mishmash of metric and imperial measurements, and it has led to a great conversation with my landlord. Before I describe that conversation, however, I should repeat as reference a conversation I had with my Moldovan host mother years ago:

Me: In America, we don't use kilograms. We use pounds.
Maria: What? But how do you know how much to get at the market?
Me: We just use pounds instead of kilograms and everyone understands.
Maria: So let's say I go to the market and want a kilogram of beef.
Me: You say, "I'd like two pounds of beef, please."
Maria: Hmmm... (with a look on her face that told me that she disapproved of this entire concept of pounds)

Now flash forward to 2009, when I talked with my landlord, Irwin.

Me: So Guatemalans use pounds here?
Irwin: Yeah. But in the U.S., you use kilograms, right?
Me: No, in the U.S., we use pounds, but most countries use kilograms. In Moldova, for example, they use kilograms.
Irwin: So if you go to the market and you want a pound of beef, they don't understand you?
Me: No.
Irwin: But then if you ask for a kilogram of beef, that's too much.
Me: Well, you could ask for a half-kilogram of beef.
Irwin: No, (smiling) that's too complicated.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Suddenly, I got busy

Things got busy for me this week. This ought to give an idea of what I've been doing.

Monday: Helped my landlords tweak some of the English they wrote for an ad they're placing for their language school. Did some shopping, including buying Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Read most of it that day.

Tuesday: Taught three English classes at CEIPA. Met with my partner teacher, Judith over ice cream, me practicing my Spanish and she practicing her English. Then returned to CEIPA and met Gabriel and some of his video crew. I told them that I was new, that I was here until the end of June, and that I had 10 years of videography experience. They set me up to do some work with them on Thursday. At night, I went to the Royal Paris Café, where I met a Dutch acquaintance, TJ, to watch a Belgian movie in French with Spanish subtitles. We got the gist of it. After the movie, the Guatemalan woman next to us struck up a conversation, and she asked me if I'd be able to volunteer at her organization to teach kids how to use computers. We swapped contact information. When I got home, I finished the Harry Potter book. I want to read more of the series as fast as I can.

Wednesday: My alarm went off at 7:30, although I was up a little beforehand. I took an hour-long bus to Totonicapán to meet a retired teacher, Miguel, who was going to introduce me to the county's school supervisor, Camila. She was busy, so we said we'd come back later. We went to a hotel's restaurant downtown, had some coffee and tea, and then returned. We met with Camila, who spent the first five minutes of the meeting stressing that they couldn't pay me anything. I kept saying that I didn't need to be paid, and I finally got my point across to her by saying, "Nobody comes to Guatemala to make money." Miguel laughed, and continued to laugh about it for the next half-hour. I set up another meeting for Monday morning, when I'll be introduced to the IT team at the district office.

Still Wednesday: Took the bus back from Toto into Xela, and walked into the center of town to find a cheap meal of three tacos and a bottle of water for just over $2. Then I hopped on a bus to Las Rosas, another neighborhood in Xela, where I met with Guadalupe, the head of Escuela de la Calle, another school dedicated toward the problems of child poverty. I offered my services for whatever they needed, and we agreed that I would volunteer as a teacher's assistant a couple or three days a week. He also was going to survey the teachers at the school to see what computer skills they feel they need to learn, and the plan is that I'll do some computer seminars for teachers as well. I headed home, and I'm currently at the internet café near my apartment. Tonight, I'll be attending an Earth Day party organized by some charitable organization whose name I forget.

Thursday: I'll be heading to CEIPA at 8 a.m. to help them film an event. In the afternoon, I should be meeting Gaby (the woman from Tuesday's movie night) to see what can be done about those computer classes. I'm sure something else will come up as well.

Friday: I'll meet with a CEIPA student and some of his friends 9:30 in the morning to talk about private tutoring for them. This will actually pay me something, although I'm sure it won't be much.

Saturday: Volcano? I couldn't go last weekend because of a wildfire, but hopefully I'll have a group eager to go this weekend.

And to think, two weeks ago I was depressed because I didn't have anything to do.

Best graffiti selection for the day

The best graffiti I saw today, translated from Spanish, said:

"Hare Krishna. Sing it!"