Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Writing on the Wall

One of my favorite pastimes here is walking around and photographing the graffiti. Guatemala has such a tumultuous political history, and it is often expressed in the graffiti around the streets.

Mural at the public university

I went to the public university with my teacher one day and she explained the significance of a lot of the murals. It was quite an interesting and educational experience. I compared it to the murals around Skidmore and University of South Carolina. I don’t remember many political overtones at either of my U.S. schools, but everything at the University in Guatemala reflected the tumultuous past, whether it was a mural of Che Guevara or one depicting the corruption in the government.

Political Street Graffiti

I just found this one walking on the streets. The skeletons represent student revolutionaries, the suited person is either or a solider or government official. I can’t remember (or read) all of what the words say, but it’s for the abolishment of something…

Dark suited figure

True Love


Fat man

Not all of the images have actual political context. I’m sure many are just artistic expressions. I like coming across them. It’s like a private art show…because often times they are located on streets that don’t get as much traffic or are more out of the way. I hope to find more treasures to share.


Mercado in Chichicastenango

Luckily it didn’t rain

This weekend looks to be a chilly rainy one, hopefully it will keep me inside studying! Between volunteering and taking actual classes I feel like I have no time to let anything stick in my head. Plus, there are some good side trips that take away my weekend study time.

For example, last Sunday Stacy and I went with a few of the medical students to a market in Chichi.

Market Day

It is basically a huge market for traditional crafty objects, like woven and embroidered clothes and carved masks. I intended to bring only Q200, about 25 Dollar, but I let Stacy borrow some, and then she ended up taking out her own money anyway, so I had Q400…and I spent almost all of it!

Part of the fun of the day was haggling. I’m not a good haggler, but here it is pretty much expected of you. Considering it is a specifically tourist market most objects are marked up pretty high. I ended up buying 2 scarfs, a small bag for cash and one for coins, some jelly shoes, a gold plated necklace chain (nice and long), and a beautiful traditional embroidered belt. Half the fun (and disappointment) was getting home and showing my host mother, who informed me of how much I should have paid.

Stacy in the hand embroidered poncho she purchased
Turkeys for sale
Church in Chichi
Parrots at the nicest hotel I’ve seen in all of Guatemala … so far

Soooo…Gas or Electric isn’t an Option?

As I believe I’ve written, my days are pretty full. I volunteer in the morning, and take Spanish lessons in the afternoon. The volunteer projects vary throughout the week, and we’re assigned a few days, but basically allowed to participate in whichever ones we choose, with the expectation that we’ll work at least 3 mornings a week.

The fire where all food is cooked

One of the ongoing projects that I’m assisting with is building stoves for the community. Many people who live outside the city proper use a configuration of large stones and wood to cook their food. They burn trash, wood, furniture, plastic…basically whatever they can get their hands on that will burn. The fires aren’t very efficient, and they contribute to localized deforestation. So, Pop Wuj social work group has a project that builds stoves out of cinder blocks, terra cotta bricks, clay, cement and a few other materials. These stoves burn more efficiently and they keep the smoke out of the house. They also help prevent burns, which are fairly common over the open flames.

This is our group mixing clay.

Here's how they mix clay.

The family we were helping today was very grateful. The matriarch is an 80 year old woman and she insisted on helping us. Even when we tried to tell her she didn’t need to help. It’s an interesting experience for the families when a bunch of gringos come in and starts some construction. Stacy let the children play with her camera, which was also a big hit.

The stove we were working on.

Sometimes large groups come to work on the stoves, but if it’s just Pop Wuj students volunteering then there’s only one day of work per week. It’s a slow process, but it will make a large change in these families lives.

Some of our helpers

And they had PUPPIES!!!

Volcano Climbing

Monumento Natural y Cultural Volcan Y Laguna Chicabal

On our first Monday at Pop Wuj we sat through an informational meeting describing the weeks activities. A trip for Sunday the (13th of June) was described as a trip to a volcano and lake in a nearby area. As I’m dying to see an active volcano I signed up immediately. Unfortunately I didn’t know what I was in for…

On Sunday morning we set out for the rainforestat 7 am. This is the only rainforest in Guatemala. I of course put my raincoat on the bed so I wouldn’t forget it, and upon arriving at our starting point, realized it was still on the bed. At least it was only sporadically misting at this point.

We began hiking up steep roads through a small village. Considering I haven’t had any strenuous exercise in about 3 weeks and we’re at about 2700 meters, this was an adventure to say the least. Stacy and I were the only ones wearing shorts, and we were definitely considered the lucky ones as everyone was huffing and puffing and sweating their way up the cobblestone paved roads. And then it got harder. It turned to an interesting combination of sand and mud. Thank goodness I stole my mom’s waterproof sneakers. The only respite was when the road turned from a 45 degree incline to a 10 degree incline. It was nuts. Finally we arrived at THE PARK! That meant we only had another 30 minutes of uphill hiking to go.

Lake Chicabal

Of course, we were now in the legitimate rain forest, and it had started raining. And it was about 50 degrees. So now we were freezing, and I was wet. We ate our brunch (it was only about 10:30 am at this point) overlooking the lake because there were more sheltered picnic tables available. That’s when I realized I was mistaken, we weren’t seeing a volcano and a lake, we were seeing a crater lake. It was still beautiful, but not quite what I had expected.

Descending the Steps to the Lake

View of the stairs from Below.

We descended 577 stairs to get down to lake level and we saw some groups of Mayans performing ceremonies to calm the volcanoes and stop the rain. Unfortunately for us it was raining even harder! After a few more picture ops we started our return trek. It was not as hard on the lungs, but pretty hard on the knees. All in all, a great day of aerobic (and at times anaerobic) exercise with pretty cool cultural references.

Guatemala Pig in a yard on the way to Lake Chicabal

Wait, is this Vermont or Guatemala?

The outside of our compound

So, when I signed up for this experience I guess I forgot some of the key elements of school. Like structured days. And constantly putting new information in your head. And having your brain hurt because of the altitude. And not speaking the native language. Well, the last two don’t have as much to do with school, but they are fun little factors affecting this experience.

Stacy and I live in a house with Marina de Barrera. Her daughter, Patty, is actually my Spanish teacher. Small world. The house is about a 10 minute walk from Pop Wuj, and we walk to school in the morning, home for lunch, back to school in the afternoon and back home again for dinner. Marina is a pretty good cook. We’ve had pancakes and eggs and beans for breakfast, chicken and rice and vegetables for lunch and the dinners vary, generally consisting of rice, meat and beans. Every meal also comes with tamales and hot sauce, without fail.

The Guard Dogs

The climate is kind of like Vermont (or at least the way I think of the state). It’s chilly at night, like I wish I had a comforter, and I sleep in socks every night. The days can get nice and warm, t-shirt weather generally. Often times there will be an afternoon shower to add to the excitement.

School has been pretty interesting. All week we’ve had cultural competency lectures in the morning to kind of help us be aware of the cultural context of this country. Basically we have learned that it is important to throw our expectations out the window and simply help with the programs where we are needed. We can’t fix everything, and there are thousands of roadblocks along the way. I’m hoping to work in the stove program, if I do I’m sure I’ll explain it later.

Stacy has been cooking for the school all day. She volunteered on our first day to cook for the weekly Thursday night dinner. This week it’s for 50 people…she definitely didn’t know what she was getting into when she volunteered, but she’s been having fun with the experience. Hopefully we’ll enjoy the food as much as she enjoyed cooking it!

Inside the compound, view of bathroom/kitchen region.

Some grafiti on our street. Its an animal of legend.

Also, I got a phone! 011 502 4033 7013! llamame!

How does this ATM Work?

Where am I again? Oh yeah.

The trip to Guatemala didn’t begin very auspiciously. We very nearly didn’t make it to Guatemala because of the worst car service ride I’ve ever had. Our driver was 10 minutes late, he went the most roundabout route possible, and upon merging onto the highway he promptly began swerving and didn’t go above 45 MPH. It was an adventure in itself, and all before 5 am.

After that ride the first flight was pretty uneventful. On the second leg of our flight, from Miami to Guatemala City, we had a difficult time communicating with our row-mate, a middle-aged Guatemalan man. As a result we didn’t get to sit next to each other, we got to sandwich him in between us. While we were filling out our forms for customs we determined he was illiterate. I tried to ignore it, because I’m sure it happens from time to time in a country with an unreliable education system like Guatemala (I know, I’m a jerk), and the authorities know how to deal with it. Stacy being such a do-gooder insisted we help, and somehow I ended up filling out his customs forms. He was thankful and ignored how I butchered the pronunciation of the Spanish as I read questions to him. We never could understand what his profession was. Hopefully he didn’t end up getting detained. As a side note, I think he broke my earphones when he was getting up to let Stacy go to the bathroom. I guess that’s what I get for being reluctant to help a stranger.

The first thing I did at the airport, after passing through various checkpoints and proving my luggage was really mine, was to try to get some money, because unfortunately they don’t change €5 bills (for whatever reason that and a few $1 bills was all the currency I brought). I tried about a million times to get the airport ATM machine to work and it just wouldn’t! Luckily Stacy had some money we could change and we hopped in a taxi and went to the bus station with high hopes that we’d find a money tree along the way.

Fountain in Guatemala City, Guatemala

The ticket salesman pointed us in the direction of a working ATM, we bought our tickets, and then did a little sight-seeing since we had a few hours to kill. There was a pretty fountain, a neat governmental building in a park that was closed, a Guatemala building in case you forgot what country you were in, and a festive market. We had been gorging on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all day (gotta try to save money by not buying airplane food!) or else we would have stopped at the food stall in the market. As Anthony Bourdain says, it’s always the best food in town, and it sure smelled like that was the truth.

Landslide on the road to Xela.

We managed to get to the bus before a torrential downpour, a relief since our raincoats were in the bags we had already checked. Riding on the busses is pretty neat because the driver works in a team with 1-3 other guys who periodically stick their head out the door while the driver moves into the opposing traffic lane to ensure he doesn’t hit the car he is passing. We purposefully sat in the front row so we could see some of the impressive landslides and the beautiful countryside. Luckily for us the bus was equipped with a rosary, which is obviously the reason we didn’t fall off the road during any one of the hairpin turns.

Rosary in the bus

View of the countryside while on the bus

We got to Xela safely, and met our host family. The mom is a sweet and traditional woman who has infinite patience with our novice Spanish. I can’t wait till we can actually understand the telanovelas that we watch during mealtime.

Heading Down Guatemala Way

I am right now in the final days of preparation before heading off to GUATEMALA!!!

I will be refreshing my spanish language skills and volunteering in Quetzaltenango (Xela, pronounced: Shay-la, for short), Guatemala for 4 weeks this summer.

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (probably technically under the 'Guatemala' label for the capital city).

I will be heading off with one of my college friends, Stacy, so I’m sure you’ll hear her name a bunch in future posts. Right now we are editing our backpacks. Although we will both be spending 4 weeks living with our respective host families we are hoping to change our return flights and do a little traveling. Luckily, despite many homes in Central American countries being featured on House Hunters International (HGTV Channel), it is still an extremely affordable place to travel and stay, even for two broke PhD students. We want to make sure we don’t have too much extra junk in our packs if we’re going to be hauling them around for a week or so.

We will be learning Spanish and volunteering through Pop Wuj (pronounced: pope woo). I’ve mentioned them previously, when I hinted at this trip. For less than it costs to live in New York City for one month we will be provided with a private room, 3 square meals a day, potable water, Spanish lessons, wireless internet (it is 2010 after all), social work experience and, of course, a great life experience.

Sinkhole in Guatemala City

My parents are somewhat worried about the state of affairs in Guatemala, what with the huge sinkhole, the landslides due to tropical storms and volcanoes erupting. To appease them and for peace of mind (and because I didn’t get any vaccinations) I purchased a travel health insurance plan for the duration of the trip. Although I typically don’t purchase any of type of travel insurance, considering I’ll be spending a month in a location where hepatitis and typhoid fever are possibilities (although unlikely), it’s better to be safe than sorry. Plus its great because I can use it for anything, not just emergencies. Instead of suffering through a cold and missing out on any great experiences I can just hop over to a doctor for some medicine and it’s 100% covered. And it covers lost luggage which is excellent considering I’m nervous about our luggage making the connection.

I finished my most important pre-excursion ritual Thursday (Manicure/Pedicure at my favorite salon in the Shoppes at Blackstone Valley Plaza), so now I’m going to finish packing and run some last-minute errands before heading south on Sunday!