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...

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