Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guatemala: Xela (Week 3)

So another week (or so has past) and I have good news for all of you:  I´ve figured out how to make apostrophes easily!  You can now enjoy a properly punctuated email (at least as far as contractions go - I make no promises for semicolons).

Lets see, so the highlights of the past week are several.  First, I went to Lake Atitlan with two of my friends from the school (one of whom is also a friend from law school, Kim Spoerri, whom you all met when we went to the law review reception after graduation).  The lake is incredibly beautiful:  a beautiful blue lake surrounded by volcanoes with steep green slopes heading into the lake, with little villages on the edges of the water.  If this were in the US, it would be a major resort spot, with tons of hotels, mansions, condoes, and boats on the water.  Here, though, it´s entirely undeveloped.  The only boats on the lake were little motor boats serving as ferries between the villages.  I took one of them across the lake and it was pretty amazing.  It took us about 30 minutes to cross the lake, and the whole way the water was like glass.  Later on we went kayaking on the lake, which was great fun because the water was so smooth and we didn´t have to worry about boats.  Plus, the water was warm, the air was sunny but cool, and we were able to climb out and sun ourselves on rocks whenever we wanted to.  I sent a postcard of the lake to the parents, so you should be getting it sometime in the unforeseeable future when the Guatemalan mail service decides to operate.

Second, I´ve been learning more spanish.  It´s kind of hard not to when I have five hours of one-on-one instruction every day, plus homework every night.  Every day I have to give a ten minute presentation on a theme of my choice,using the verbs and vocabulary I´ve learned.  So far I´ve covered Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, the story about when that girl proposed to me in the library, my experiences on the archeological sites in Oregon excavating Chinese miners´ camps, the Belgian visa situation in 2000, and the story of the Mormon pioneers (including the Mormon Battalion and Abraham Hunsaker´s encounter with the Indian).  Today, in order to use the perfect tenses, I did a mock employment evaluation of the people who were on the Law Review with me.  This was a fun project because I could fire the people I didn´t like... 

For all the progress, though, I´m still not perfect.  I think my host parents think I´m rather dim.  The other night we were at dinner and I misused a word (at least, they said I misused it; I maintain that I heard my teacher use the verb in the same way I did), but rather than just telling me the proper usage and believing me when I said I understood, they insisted on giving me a half-hour lecture. 

Then, later, they turned on the television and started watching the news.  Apparently by then they had decided that not only did I have the vocabulary of a five year old, I must also be retarded and slightly deaf.  So, for every story that came up (say for example, about a truck accident on the highway), the woman would turn to me with that ever-so-patient look of "here I am, helping the poor dumb kid" and say slowly and loudly one word that related to the story (e.g., "TRUCK").  As if I couldn´t have picked that up from the picture of a truck that had been on the screen for the past five minutes...  It was hard to keep a straight face.

I have added a new element to my weekly routine.  After two weeks of studying, with only weekend activities, I began wanting more physical activity.  I quickly decided that running was out.  Given the cold and wet weather, and the fact that between narrow streets, lawless drivers, and zero pollution control on auto exhaust, I figured that running was more likely to result in asphyxiation, hypothermia, or being run over, than in anything positive.  So I decided to check out the local yoga studio.  Per usual, it is run by your standard American hippie who fell of the face of the earth long ago in search of spirituality or whatever (honestly, these people are everywhere down here... SOO obnoxious).  But the yoga class was really great, and I could get a weekly membership for only about $3.50.  So I´ve been going every day this week.  I´ll probably keep up that schedule for the rest of my time in Xela just because I like it so much.

Oh, another thing I did when I was at the lake last weekend was go shopping - the kind where you bargain hard for whatever you want.  At first I was a little intimidated because I didn´t want to offend or whatever.  But then I figured out that all I had to do was a) ask what the price was, b) act shocked and look like I was seriously going to walk away, c) respond to the merchant´s protests by throwing out some outrageously low price, and then d) working up from there, drawing on whatever excuses or rationales I could come up with to keep the price low.  SO much fun!  We went to various places in the market, practicing to see just how low we could get the price (such as, "you should give me a lower price because that woman over there just bought something from you too" or "hey, we just got off the last bus of the day so you can either rent us the room for the price I want or let it sit empty").  Eventually I got a great little bag for less than $7.  We also used our bargaining skills to bring the hotel room price down by about 50%.

Okay, that´s it for now.  I´m off to plan this weekend´s adventures. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Guatemala: Xela (Week 2)

I cant believe Im already nearly at the middle of my second week of classes; I have a feeling this trip is going to go by fast. 

I think Ive made some progress with the espanol.  Wouldnt mind making more progress, but most days arent too frustrating, and sometimes there are some nice breakthroughs.  I feel like my competency can be analogized to a jigsaw puzzle in mid-completion:  I have all these little sections that fit together and make sense, but you cant tell yet what the picture is.  I think Im slowly but surely getting to the point where my foundation is more or less sufficient, but where I just need lots of practice.  I also need to get some more vocabulary, so I went and got some childrens books to read. So at least that way Ill have the vocabulary AND the grammar of a five year old.

Ive also figured out more of the Guatemalan accent:  its quirks lies in the way the people say the final Ns on words such as bien and corazon.  Rather than the nice clear N that I expected (spanish supposedly being this language of pure sounds), they say more of an ´´ng´´ sound (similar to the way the people in Marseille corrupt the nasal ´´en´´ in France).  I think they also have more of a twangy ´´en´´ sound here.  So, Ashley, there will be no commentary on the accent when I get back...  In the meantime, Im trying to avoid picking up the more extreme elements of the accent.

Last weekend I went to Antigua Guatemala.  Its called Antigua Guatemala to distinguish it from Guatemala City, the capital of the country.  Antigua was the original capital, but when the colonists realized they had built their city in the middle of three active volcanoes (and when those three volcanoes erupted simulaneously in the 1700s, destroying the city), they moved their city about an hour east (but didnt change the name). Anyway, the city was rebuilt and today is incredibly beautiful.  Its definitely the most beautiful place Ive seen so far. All the houses were beautiful colors (red, yellow, blue, white, orange), with tile roofs, and courtyards full of fountains and brightly colored vines and ferns and flowers.  Honestly, its amazing.  Its also overrun by tourists.  At first, seeing the beauty, I thought that I should have studied there.  But after a few minutes of walking around and seeing virtually only tourists and hearing everything but spanish, I decided that Antigua was good to visit, but not for studying spanish. Also, after a while the perfection of the place made it feel a little like Disneyland compared to the grittiness of the rest of the country.  I fully enjoyed it, though, and took full advantage of the sunny weather and delightful scenery.

One fun adventure in Antigua was climing the volcano Pacaya.  This is one of the three encircling volcanoes and is only quasi dormant.  I took a bus to the base of the cone, and then climbed up the mountain with a German chamber orchestra.  Yes, it was kind of hilarious:  here were all these stout Germans with walking sticks and birkenstocks walking up the mountain and it turns out theyre a chamber orchestra on tour.  I half expected them to burst out into song and choreographed dance (with beer steins of course). It was a nice and very steep hike to the crater (the lower of two craters we didnt go the whole way).  We climbed over flows of lava (the sharp crumbly kind in Brads photos) to get to the middle of the crater.  I had no idea how hot it would be there.  Honestly, it looked like I was walking on the moon, but felt like I was in an oven.  If it hadnt been for the occasional cool breeze, I wouldnt have made it.  Fortunately, there was only really hot air and no actual hot lava.  Also fortunately, you could easily see where the hottest air vents were, because they were crusted with white mineral deposits.  And they were SUPER hot.  Our climbing guide had gathered green (green, mind you) branches and leaves as we hiked up the mountains.  When she threw them into one of the larger crevices, they instantly burst into flames as if they were the dryest tinder.  Definitely wouldnt want to trip and fall into one of those cracks...

As interesting as the crater was, the climb down the mountain was the best part.  We went down a different way from the way we came up.  It involved walking around the rim of the crater to the western edge just as the sun was setting so we could see the two other volcanoes in the distance.  Then we started down the slope of the crater.  Our guid told us that it would be more fun if we went fast, but of course I didnt believe her because (a) I thought she was being sarcastic and (b) the slope was SUPER steep and I didt fancy breaking my neck.  But then I realized what we were walking on:  the slope was entirely composed of pumice pebbles the size of a pea or smaller.  So me and one of the younger German guys (the oboist, it turns out) decided to give running down the mountainside a try -- and it was an absolute blast!  I quickly got into a swaying rhythm with my strides as I ran straight down the slope, and the only thing I can imagine is that it felt like downhill skiing in knee-deep in super-powdery snow.  It was SO much fun.  And it went on for a long time, too, which was great.  By the time I got to the bottom of the slope I wanted to climb up and do it again.

The trip to Antigua also involved my first adventure with the famous chicken buses.  These are all retired American schoolbuses that have been shipped down, painted bright colors, stenciled with messages about how Christ is with us, and driven by madmen as the most common form of public transportation.  I had been a little intimidated by them before (and mostly rightly so, given the general chaos that abounds), but I ended up having to use them to get back and forth from Antigua.  They are super cheap (about $1 or $2 per hour) and get super crowded (they smash more benches into the bus than are used in the states, and they usually have three adults per seat, plus little stools in the aisle).  They probably arent entirely safe, but it was great fun riding them -- definitely an adventure.  Im going to avoid doing any 12 hour trips in them, but I think theyll be okay for most of my travels.

When I got back from Antigua, the regular routine of school started again.  I have class for 5 hours a day, and then usually spend a few hours in the afternoon and evening studying spanish in cafes with friends before going having dinner and then going to bed early.  It took me a while to get used to having somebody do all the cooking and cleaning and laundry and everything, but Ive decided that its kind of a nice thing for a while.

Yesterday I went with some friends up to a hot springs in the foothills of a nearby volcano.  It was super foggy and cloudy, but when the mist temporarily cleared, it was incredibly beautiful:  it looked like something out of Jurassic Park or something, with really steep slopes going up, huge ferns and other exotic leaves, and crystal clear pools of water that is naturally as hot (or hotter) than a hot tub.  We just sat and soaked in the water for about an hour, chatting with some Danish girls and an Israeli guy.  (Oh, and by the way, by ´´we´´ I mean the other students at my school, who consist of me, a girl who is finishing her residency at Mass General in Boston, a girl from New York who is in graduate school, and two other people who just finished law school and are traveling between the bar and starting work.)

Last night, after the hot springs, was the US vs Guatemala soccer game in Guatemala City.  It was one of the qualifying games for the World Cup inSouth Africa, so needless to say there was lots of energy in town about the game.  We all watched it for a while in a bar with a big television (eventually I went home and finished watching the game with my host family). Soccer is such a better game to watch than american football.

And now I have to go plan this weekend´s trip. We are going to Lake Atitlan, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in the world (apparently theres some movement afoot to get it named one of the seven modern natural wonders of the world).  Ill let you know how it is...

Guatemala: Xela (Week 1)

I feel kind of like I am writing early in a mission... (oh, and by the way, dont judge me for not writing with apostrophes--the keyboard is super annoying and it the effort to put in apostrophes is sucking my will to live, so Im abandoning that project). 

So Ive been in Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) for two days now.  I got into Guatemala City on Saturday night after two short flights (approx 2.5 hrs each) and a 9 hour layover in Dallas.  The school had someone meet me at the airport, and I stayed at his house that night.  Then the next morning he put me on the bus to Xela.  It was a 4.5 hour drive that was kind of crazy and very beautiful.  Guatemala is an incredibly beautiful place.  There was a woman with me who was also going to Xela -- at first it was nice to have someone else along for the ride, but eventually I realized she was neurotic and super high maintenance (for example, she about had an aneurism when she found out that there was no bathroom on the bus). 

We got to Xela and my host family without any problems.  The family is an older couple (probably late 60s); she stays at home and cooks all day, and he is a presbyterian minister.  The house is a traditional house with all the rooms entering into a central courtyard full of geraniums and ferns (its amazing), and I have my own room with a bathroom on one side of the courtyard.  It isnt fancy by US standards, but its clean and solid and I have a feeling that by local standards it is very nice.  Amada and Fito (the couple) are very hospitable and friendly.  Amada cooks me three hot meals a day and is more than willing to speak spanish with me, tolerating my very poor skills right now.  Judging from conversations with other students, I think I really lucked out with my family situation.

Sidenote about the Mormons:  Turns out that there are really only three religions in Xela, one of which is the Mormons.  Already Ive found two big LDS chapels (including one that is probably a stake center about a block from my school).  Havent seen any missionaries yet, though, and the church was closed on Sunday when I stopped by.

The weather is mixed.  We are in the mountains, so the temperature varies significantly between day and night.  In the morning its foggy and chilly until the fog burns off around 8am.  Then from 8 until about 2 it is the most beautiful weather imaginable -- honestly, it really could not be better:  the sun is warm, the air fresh, with a light breeze, perfectly clear blue skies, not too humid or too dry, etc.  Im guessing the temperature is in the low to mid 70s.  The downside is that perfection lasts only until about 2 when the clouds roll in and it becomes cloudy and chilly for the rest of the day.  Its chillier than I had expected (probably gets down into the low 60s or maybe even the high 50s), so I end up wearing all my layers most of the time (except in the morning when the sun is out).  So far what I have has been enough, but I may end up picking up another sweatshirt if it gets cooler as the month progresses.  In any case, once I head to the tropical part of the country it will be in the 90s and Ill get to wear my summer clothes.

The school is good; in fact, its better than I expected.  It is definitely one of the better schools in town and has been very professional and well organized so far.  I have a good teacher.  We meed one-on-one for five hours every day.  The first day was a real struggle for me -- I had forgotten just how exhausting it is to learning and listening to and understanding another language in a different country with different customs and etc.  And unlike the mission, where I could at least seek refuge in some English conversation at the end of the day with my companion, there is no respite at home because dear Amada wants to sit and talk over long dinners every night.  Its what I wanted, because it will force me to learn more and practice what I learn, but it IS exhausting and sometimes overwhelming.  I have to remind myself that I have only been here for two days -- and all things considered, Im doing fine.  I will be happier, though, when things smooth out a bit. 

My French is both a blessing and a hindrance.  A blessing because there are so many similarities in vocabulary and grammar that Im able to fake my way pretty well. I can also understand the majority of anything that is said to me.  Its a hindrance because with all the faking, people think I know more than I actually do.  I had to remind my teacher today that although I grasp words and concepts quickly, I dont actually know anything and so we cant skip to the harder stuff without learning the basic stuff (like how to count) first.  Also, there are some things that Im just really resistant to, coming from the French background.  For example, I feel like they leave out so many words!  No articles, no pronouns, not nearly as many prepositions. To my French sensibilities, I feel like Im talking like a caveman and its taking me a while to feel confident that what Im saying actually makes sense.  Also, I can see what people say about the Guatemalan accent.  It is not beautiful.  Sometimes its downright hard to understand--seems more like mumbling.  Its kind of sad because I really like to model my accent on what I hear.  At least with French I could hear really beautiful accents all the time, and it was really fun to emulate.  Here, Im still trying to sort out which accent to model myself after.  In any case, Amada tells me that Im doing pretty well with clear enunciation, and my teacher (Magdalena) said on the first day that she was surprised when I said I was from the US becuase I didnt speak like an american.  She asked me right away if I spoke other languages and was vindicated when I said French--she said I formulated my sounds like a European much more than an American. 

Its definitely a third world country down here, and its definitely different from anywhere Ive traveled before.  I havent felt unsafe yet, and I have been fine with the food (today Magdalena took me to the market and forced, er, taught me to haggle with this little Mayan woman over the price of this really delicious purple banana--it was fun).  I do feel a tad like a fish out of water, though, so Im glad to have a few weeks to get my bearings before launching on more serious travels.  I kind of wish the sun were out in the afternoon so that I could tan darker and be less obviously white (although I suppose my clothes and height will always be dead giveaways no matter what).

Oh, and a sidenote for Mom:  You would not believe the geraniums here!  I've seen plants that are 5 or 6 feet tall, with flowers a good two inches across (and I mean the individual flowers, not the whole head of flowers).  They´re really more like bushes than the little bedding plants that we have in the US.  And the great thing is that the plants themselves are no different--they just get bigger when they have a continual growing season. 

Alright, thats it for now.  I'm going to go find a place to review my vocabulary from today and put together my presentation for tomorrow.  I hope you are all well!  Ill write more when I can!