Posted by: elizagritz | January 7, 2010

First musings from the road

The picture above came with the blog and does not much resemble where we are.

Hello home people!  It’s taken us a while to get going with our updates from Central America because of our sporadic access to the internet.  This is Elizabeth, and I’m writing on behalf of all of us, just for today.  Hopefully the internet “cafe” (more of an internet place, I suppose) in our little town will be open for real someday soon and the other girls will be able to add their thoughts.

So, where are we, and how did we get here?

I’m writing this from Flores, Guatemala, a little colonial island in the middle of El Lago Peten Itza, but we’re staying on the other side of the lake in a small town called San Andres.  We’ve been studying Spanish and living with our families for a week now and haven’t yet done much exploring of this incredibly rich area, mostly because of the health issues suggested in the title.  But before I get to that, I should tell you a bit about our journey down here.

I left New York at 6:45 am having not slept at all, but I got myself a $250 Continental voucher for bumping myself up from the 5:45 departure.  Score.  Vira left DC shortly after to fly to Florida where she would board a plane with Shana.  They landed in Guatemala City just 15 minutes before me and were waiting for me on the other side of customs after I breezed through.  Our baggage arrived without a hitch, even after I’d changed flights.

It’s always a little nerve-wracking when you first arrive in another country and you have everything you need for the length of your stay on your back.  (In our cases, on our backs and our fronts–we looked pretty silly.)  It’s especially challenging when you’ve been warned about cab drivers and have the words of caution of every person who cares about you back home playing over and over in your head.  Upon leaving the airport we were greeted by a few hundred people who were waiting eagerly for people other than us.  We found our way through the crowd (at one point it became quite difficult as a group of women dressed in colorful traditional clothing suddenly filled the one exit point to greet what could only have been a tremendous celebrity) and went warily to the taxi stand.  Shana wanted to bargain with the guy, but since I was in charge of the Spanish speaking and I felt it was a reasonable enough price not to warrant an uncomfortable exchange, we got in.

Time and time again, I find that taxi drivers are knowledgeable folks who make excellent tour guides, and the good ones always seem to come along at just the right times.  We got a mini tour through the parts of the capital that were on the way to the bus station, I got some practice flexing my fumbling translation skills, and we were immediately put at ease in our new environment.

Because our bus wasn’t scheduled to leave for Peten for another six hours or so, we headed over to a hostel Shana had the forethought to map out for us where we asked if we could set down our things and hang out for a bit.  The folks at the hostel were quite friendly and even locked up our stuff in a closet so that we could go get food and roam around without worry.  We met some fairly nice, though later overbearing, folks, one of whom ended up professing his utter adoration of Vira and insisted on giving her what we have come to call her “Love Hammock”.  In case that sounds bad, I’ll just add that we haven’t yet had the chance to string it up and enjoy it.

We ate our first meal in the restaurant next door to the hostel (two choices: chicken or steak) and got off to a poor start in our commitment to clean food and safe choices.  I’m sure we came out of our first food venture unscathed.  While we were eating we discovered a poster that advertised an incredible New Years Eve party on Lake Atitlan that sounded too amazing to pass up.  There were going to be traditional Mayan sweat lodges (so it said), documentaries, camping, music and dancing, and perhaps some sort of natural hot tubs.  It sounded like an incredible way to pass the New Year, but we decided to pass up the temptation (it was very out of the way) and to stay on track with our mission.

The bus ride.

To get from Guatemala City to Santa Elena, Peten takes somewhere around eight hours.  We decided to do the trip overnight so as to not be awake for any scary turns or treacherous  roadways, and so that we might have a chance to sleep through it.  We’d heard that it could either be extremely cold on the bus if the AC was working, or, if not, it could be a sauna.  We got a little of both.  Somewhere around three or four in the morning, we kept being awoken by successive stops at gas stations.  My sleepy brain was puzzled, but I let it go, thinking only that it was interesting that suddenly we needed so much gas.  Shana was having an experience all her own by the window, as every time the bus stopped the driver would leave it idling, and the idle set the windows into a cacophonous rattle.  She did her best to control the vibrating roar by pressing the panes together, without her brain actually exploding all over the seats in frustration.  Eventually the bus driver called our journey good after attempting to venture down a steep and jungly hill a few times and finding, apparently, that it wasn’t going to work.  We stopped, the AC stopped working but continued to blow thick, now hot, air on us, and Shana got off the bus.  Vira continued to sleep, sitting up, with her mouth halfway open.  (She’s going to love me for that.)

We were stuck seemingly in the middle of nowhere for about five hours.  The director of our school had gotten up at five am to pick us up in Santa Elena, but we never arrived.  It was a seriously uncomfortable bit of time, and it’s thankfully a hazy memory for me as I was so tired from the lack of sleep the night before and the absolute drain of traveling in this manner.

Arriving in San Andres was a relief.  My host mama’s name is Isabel and she’s the sweetest lady.  She has two grown sons and a daughter, all of whom have been kind and welcoming to me, as well as their wives and husband, respectively, and the three grandchildren that I’ve met.  It’s pretty awkward trying to speak with them and to try to understand the meat of their conversations, but I’m getting more accustomed to it every day.  My classes are great and I feel very confident in the abilities of my teacher, though we spend quite a lot of time just talking.  That is exactly the practice I need.  I try to talk to my teacher about political stuff a lot, and I think she thinks I’m either silly or digging for controversy, but I could care less.  She’s definitely shared some interesting information with me and has helped me to understand some cultural things better.  And if my preferred controversy is political, hers is certainly interpersonal, and now I’m learning how to gossip in Spanish.  !

Some life things.

Our classes start at 8am each day, so we arise sometime around seven, get dressed and do morning-y things, and eat the breakfasts that our host families make for us.  We each live in different homes so that we’re encouraged to speak more Spanish.  I was worried that my host family would cook me lots of food and make me big breakfasts in the mornings–especially as we Americans seem to have a reputation for eating a lot; I wonder where that comes from–but I have been so pleasantly surprised to find fruits salads, or oatmeal, and even something resembling a smoothie (a liquado or batido, for those of you who are familiar).  Breakfast is accompanied by a cup of coffee.  Instant.  I’ve started drinking it black, as it’s easier to pass on milk when it comes dry in a bag.

My classes are fun and satisfying.  I understand everything my teacher says and I feel like I’m learning a lot.  Shana and Vira are learning a lot as well, although they don’t seem to have given themselves credit for it yet.  Learning languages is a slow process, you know, and it’s one that is full of challenges that include many awkward silences, a sense of communicating like a two year old (with a fairly mature concept of the world for its age), and a fairly endless sense of embarrassment.  I haven’t left this stage of the process, either.  The other day, when I told my host mama that I was going to stay over at Shana’s house, I accidentally informed her that Shana and I were sleeping together.  I only guessed my mistake by the awkward pause and l later confirmed with my teacher.  Oh, the humility.

I’ve written a lot here and should probably carry on with the day.  I’d like to end this post by painting a little picture of the town, if I can.  It sits on a hillside at the edge of the lake, and when you ask anyone where anything is, they always tell you, “arriba.”  It’s a joke that really gets them, that every is arriba.  (Up the hill.)  The houses are humble and many of the buildings are painted pretty colors like sky blue and creamy orange.  Streets are steep and work out our legs, and there are always at least a few dogs in sight.  The dogs are a constant source of pity for us, as two in the neighborhood were just hit by a car–one suffers from a broken jaw (now a crooked-faced pit bull with her little tongue hanging out) and the other from a black eye of sorts.  Many of the animals are in a terrible state and all you can do is feel bad.  The one with the broken jaw is pretty friendly and wants to get pets, but you just can’t touch her.  I’ll save you the worst details.

Anyway, we’re having an adventure here, complete with cold water showers, intermittently running water, fireworks that sound like bombs in the middle of the night, friendly families, stories that travel like lightening, and some fairly cool weather.  Oh, and the other girls have been pretty sick with stomach issues.  But it’s all passing, and the journey continues.  This weekend we’ll be going to Tikal and probably some other ruins, and I’m extremely excited to spend some time learning (more) about and soaking in the incredible history of this area.

Hasta la proxima!

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