Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lago Atitlan

Guatemala is always an adventure.  Saturday I went to Lake Atitlan with Samantha.  It was her first time riding a public bus here, and it was a terrible first experience.  It was also probably the worst ride I’ve had except those involving Comalapa, which I hope to never out-do.  The windows were closed and the bus was going fast around the turns.  She started getting ill, but there were some very kind people who helped her out.  One gave her a plastic bag to puke into, and the other gave up his seat so that she could rest.  Restored my faith in humanity after my wallet was stolen on Thursday.  I felt terrible and wanted to do something, but we couldn’t really get off because we were somewhere I didn’t know and there weren’t any marked bus stops.  I was honestly not feeling the best either, but I was able to hold out until we arrived at our destination.  We ended up being able to take buses the rest of the way without problem because they actually had an appropriate amount of people.  On the way back, Samantha decided that we would call the Wuqu’ driver to take us home.  That was very nice, I must say.

There isn’t much to do in Pana, which is the town we went to.  Basically, you can look at the lake and buy tourist things.  I took advantage of both.  Got a fedora for half the listed price, then sat by the water and looked at the volcanoes.  It’s incredible.  A must-see for anyone who comes to Guatemala.  Here are a few pictures:

The man you see here is wearing the typical clothing of Solola, a town very near the lake.  It is one of the few towns where men still often wear their traditional clothes not just for tourism.  I have seen many men dressed like this come to market day in Tecpan.

For lunch we met up with Daniel from the class.  He thought he had land in Pana, but apparently some con man actually managed to take it from him.  I was sad to hear that, but otherwise he seemed to be having a good time.  His Kaqchikel actually functions.  I hope to get there in the next month. 

Overall, it was a great trip.  It’s nice to be with people I share my host-culture with some of the time, especially because my daily life in Paquip is so different.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

6-24 Bus Adventures, Comalapa

I requested the day off work so that I could go to the festival in San Juan Comalapa.  It’s their biggest of the year, and my teachers Ixkamey and Ixkaj were both there, so I went.  To get there, I knew I would have to take a bus.  I also knew that the route near Comalapa had a lot of curves as it went through the mountains.  Nonetheless, I figured that the trip would be worth the pain.  At the end, I still believe it was.  But getting there was much more of an adventure than I expected.

I had to take 2 buses to get there.  Fortunately, I found a guy on the first bus who was going to the same place, so I got off when he got off, then ran across a street to catch the next bus.  Now this bus was more full than any other bus I’ve ever been on.  We were in the middle of their route, so I had no chance of getting a seat.  I was 1 person away from having to hang out the door.  It was extremely uncomfortable, and I was holding on to whatever I could to stay in one place and not accidentally push anyone out to their death.  Or at least broken bones, maybe I’m being dramatic.  But my real story hasn’t yet began.  We stopped in a random place and 2 more people wanted to get on.  They were older, so they couldn’t handle hanging out the door.  So the helper told one other guy and myself to get out and go to the back of the bus.  Well, we got to the back and they were packed there too.  There was no way we could fit.  So what did we do?  Well, we went up to the roof of the bus.  Yup.  To be fair, at least they have some traction on the roof and a 6-inch railing around the whole thing.  But, as you can imagine, it was sketchy.  I prayed hard.  If that bus were to crash, I may have been able to survive by hitting the packs of stuff that were tied on top of the bus.  But I also might have flown off.  At first it was fun, I snuck out my camera and took a few selfies of the experience.  This is one thing that justifies selfies.

My compatriots always informed me of low-hanging trees ahead of time so that I wouldn’t get hit.  They were thin branches so it probably wouldn’t have knocked me off, but at 30-40 mph it would have hurt a lot.  I then abandoned my half-seated position for a laying-down position.  Many other trees threatened my existence throughout the trip, but none were low enough to catch me in my new position.  Also, speed bumps are interesting when on the top of a bus.  Did I get kicked up a foot above the roof?  No, it was probably only 6 inches.  But I tell you what, you feel those 6-inches when you come down.  Finally, we reached the turns.  The ones I mentioned in the introduction that I didn’t even want to take from within the bus.  Oh boy.  I held on tight.  It was terrifying, but in some strange way it was also exhilarating.  Maybe it is similar to what it feels like to drive a convertible!  Wind in my hair, sun out, connected to nature and to the road.  In a very different way.  Finally, the tumultuous curves came to an end and we had almost arrived in Comalapa.  At this point, the helper popped his head over the roof and asked us to pay!  I first wanted to ask why on earth he wanted to do this while we’re going 30 mph, and second wanted to ask for a discount for being outside the bus.  I did not pose either of these questions because I just wanted to get my wallet out of my pocked and give him the money before I fell off from not being able to hang on to the bars on the sides.  When I finally got off in Comalapa, a lot of people looked at me in wonder because I am sure they have never seen a gringo climb down from the top of a bus after an experience like mine.  What an experience.  A lot of crazy things happened in Peru, but nothing of this variety.  Wow.  I will never forget my adventures on top of an exotically-painted, retired American school bus through the mountains of Guatemala. 

Once in town, I met up with Ixkaj.  She led me around the festival, which was crazy and packed, as seems to be common in Latin America.  First we went through the market.  It is about the same as any other market, but it was huge for the size of the town.  Tarps above all the vendors, no space to walk, etc.  Eventually we came across the procession, where a statue of the patron Saint John is carried through the city.  It was a great excuse to get pictures of traditional clothing, and the statue was also very beautiful.  My favorite role was a guy with a long tool to move low power-lines out of the way when they were at risk of hitting the statue’s head.  Here are some pictures:

Then we arrived to the rides.  As much as I wanted to get the view from the top of the Ferris-wheel, I did not trust the thin supports and outdated machinery.  All rides seemed to be like that, but some were small enough that no one would die if they broke.  I enjoyed the traditional ride of chairs being rotated in a circle, but with a twist…  It was hand-cranked instead of machine operated.  All these things that we don’t see in the states. 

Eventually we made it over to the dancers.  It wasn’t anything as extravagant as Puno, but it was still interesting.  A nice live band plus masked dancers in very interesting outfits.  They seemed to be some kind of a mix between Spanish and Mayan influences.  My personal favorite looked like an African-American DJ.  Not sure what he was doing there.  Also, the skirts the women wore were incredibly short.  I was shocked, because culturally that is not a thing here.  Women wear skirts past their knees, or sometimes all the way down to their feet.  It seemed very strange that a religious festival happened to be the excuse for women to wear less clothing.


Ixkaj and I alternated between marveling at the rides and enjoying the dancers for a while, then got hungry and went to lunch.  There was one restaurant in town that was apparently the best, so we went there.  I was very impressed!  The food was delicious, and service wasn’t so bad.  It was great to chat about Kaqchikel and culture and whatnot with Ixkaj.  I also figured out that her sister, Ixkamey, had been to Chicago with Dr. Rohloff during his time at UIUC.  It dawned on me that this was the woman who Amanda Cuevas (director of the Office of Fellowships at GVSU) had given clothing to, because Ixkamey informed her it was from Comalapa.  I am still amazed by how small the world is.  Also, Dr. Rohloff had apparently stayed in their house for some time when he was learning Kaqchikel, so it was cool to hear about her interactions with the man I’ve heard so much about. 

The bus ride home was not so eventful, which I was ok with.  Sure, the bus was so packed that people were sitting 3 in every seat while the aisle was full as well.  That would be too much if it were full of the little kids it was designed for, and adults are something else.  In the evening I went around with Samantha to take GPS points then told Ixim about my adventures from the day.  She laughed hysterically out of disbelief while advising me not to do it again J  I think it was a good bonding time.  Tomorrow I again step into the reality of doing interviews in Paquip.

Monday, June 23, 2014

First 2 days in Paquip

Sorry for the delay on these, I have had many thoughts and wasn't sure how to communicate all of them to you.  The next few posts will be my best attempt.

Monday marked my first day in the field in Paquip.  At 6:15AM, I met up with Mildred, one of the research assistants affiliated with Wuqu Kawoq.  There is no official bus stop for this bus, it just comes to a corner that everyone figures out somehow.  Anyway, we got on one of those exotically-painted school buses and were on our way.

The scenery along the way was unrivaled.  Beautiful mountains all covered in vegetation because of our altitude here.  I could get used to that.  Though I can’t say I’d like to get used to those tiny, uncomfortable bus seats again.  These aren’t as nice as the buses in Peru that are old commercial buses instead of old school buses. 

At about 7:30, we arrived in Paquip.  What a pretty place.  The view out over the nearby mountains is just stunning.  The main town center is small, but it has several stores and a respectable road.  The rest of the town has dirt/gravel roads and is less organized.  We weren’t able to find someone to walk around with us, but a lady in town did draw us a map and we went on our way.  I was a bit nervous for the first interview, but (shockingly) everything went very well.  I think we are going to get some very good information about the root causes of malnutrition in this little town over the next month or 2.  This is such a unique experience.  A year ago it would be hard to imagine myself sitting in little adobe, cement, or wooden houses in an indigenous Mayan village.  I am with a translator who speaks Spanish and Kaqchikel, doing interview in a language I didn’t even know existed a year ago.  I love it though.  I am going to make sure that we get all the best data possible throughout this survey so that Wuqu can improve their programming in the best possible way.

I had several surprising experiences, but I will limit myself to 2 examples.  First, unless the women were new moms, they often had 7-8 children.  It is typical of the region, but it is crazy to see such families among poverty that can’t support them.  This is likely one of the causes of malnutrition here.  Second, I met a woman that really shocked me.  When Mildred asked her for her age, she told us that she didn’t know.  She asked if we really needed it, which we did, so she had to go inside and dig up her official ID.  I am not sure if she could even read it, so she gave it to us and we informed her of her age.  Can you imagine that?  Not knowing your own age?  It is an incredibly different world than the one that we live in.  She doesn’t speak a major language (only Kaqchikel), and is not aware of basic facts about herself.  Meeting people like that really opens my eyes to the blessings I’ve been given.  I will certainly be more thankful of where I come from when I return back to the United States.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

6-15 Antigua

Louisa, Samantha, and I were all planning on going to Antigua today, but Samantha didn’t feel the best so she stayed home.  First, Louisa and I had to navigate the bus system, which is very interesting here.  They are all old, exotically-painted school buses, and you basically just have to know where to stand to catch most of them.  Omer from the house guided us to the stop, then we were on our way.  In this first bus, a soldier with a nice shot-gun was sitting in the back.  I assume this bus had some kind of problem with armed robbery in the past, so this is the measure to prevent that.  It was actually relaxing to have a guard on-board, just in case.  The ride overall wasn’t too terrible, though it did include one easy transition to another bus.  The view was great.  The only part I didn’t enjoy was right after getting on the other bus that was already full.  I had to try to be the 3rd person in a seat, which doesn’t really work for someone my size.  I need more than 3 inches.  It was a miserable 10 minutes until other people got off.  Here are some examples of these buses I’ve been describing to you:

In Antigua, we asked for directions to the ruins, then were on our way.  These are ruins of the old Spanish capital that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1717 and again in 1773.  It was after that destruction of the town that Spain ordered it abandoned.  They aren’t as cool as Mayan or Incan ruins, but they are interesting nonetheless.  I got some pictures at a church and another ruin.  Then was lunch, and back home.

Ruins of an Old Spanish Church after the earthquakes in the 1700's

A hidden part of the church that is largely intact an inaccessible to tourists.  Our guide was great and let us inside.

Framing of an ancient steeple through an old doorway.

More ruins

Ruins with the beautiful mountain in the background

The rest of the night I’ve been running around trying to prepare for the first interviews in Paquip tomorrow.  I’m not sure if I’m ready, but I know that I want to sleep well tonight, so I’m going to bed early.

Monday, June 16, 2014

6-14 Adventuring Around Town, Obed

I skyped with Meghan this morning, which was wonderful.  Unfortunately my internet cut out because I ran out of data, but we later discussed that at least we didn’t waste 5 minutes trying to say goodbye like we always do J

Then was a meeting with Wuqu about our responsibilities coming up next week.  We really have a lot to do, but we’ll make it.  I am starting to look at myself as crazy for signing up for so much work without pay, but then I remember that this is not about money, but rather is about preparing myself for my long-term goals of having a globally-impactful career.  At that point I remind myself that I’m not crazy, just different.

After hanging out a few extra minutes at the cafĂ©, I called dad over Skype.  It was a good father’s day present, at least the best that I can give right now.  We had lots of great discussion, and it is always fun to reach back in time 2 weeks to living at home before having my mind shaken by the new experiences of Guatemala. 

In the afternoon, Louisa and I adventured around the city for a while.  There are so many photogenic sights.  I know that I will almost always be disappointed by these pictures compared to those I took with my good camera in Peru, but I also know that it would be incredibly awkward to carry around a DSLR around a town where I already draw looks as if I’m an alien.  Below are a few of the highlights.

The view out my front door

The best moment was when we walked by a group of little kids, and they started laughing hysterically.  Such is the nature of how we are viewed here.  They played around near us for a long time.  It was fun for all of us.  I couldn’t help but wonder if we were the first white people they had seen in their entire lives.  Given the low frequency of white people here, and the location of their house off the beaten path, it is completely possible.  What an honor.

Later in the afternoon, Obed, a friend I was connected with through the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students , and I were finally able to meet up.  He was very welcoming to me; I went to his house for coffee and a small dinner, where he and his family asked me all about myself.  I think it was almost hard for them to understand why I would come to their little town and learn to speak Kaqchikel.  Especially if I wasn’t getting paid for it and wasn’t getting credit for it.  Again, a question I ask myself occasionally, but I did my best to explain it.  I am excited to have a friend in town now, even if he will only be here on weekends.  I also plan to go to church with him and his family tomorrow if I return at a decent hour.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ending Kab'lajuj Ey

Today, I was fighting my daily battle with the snooze button when all of a sudden I felt my bed shake.  Now, this wouldn’t be the first time someone came in my room uninvited.  So, I was at first ready to tell someone to get out of my room and leave me alone.  However, when I opened my eyes, no one was there and my bed was not the only piece of furniture with a tremor.  The whole room was shaking.  It soon dawned on me that I was experiencing an earthquake.  My tired body probably should have moved into a doorway, but I instead laid there observing my surroundings.  It was very short, so after a few minutes of contemplating whether or not it was a dream I got out of bed and started my morning.  At breakfast I confirmed that it was not my imagination.

As difficult and stressful as this language course has been, it is also hard to see it go.  During our last lesson in the morning I was not feeling very good.  It is always hard to focus when I am physically miserable in some way.  So I did ok at best during the review, though I managed to limp my way through the new lesson about weather.  Ixkaj mentioned in class that she wasn’t feeling so good today, so I sat by her and talked about that during the break.  Misery loves company, right?  I hope to maintain contact with her after the conclusion of class.  I couldn’t eat hardly at all during lunch.  Ixkamey asked if she could have my food that I wasn’t going to eat, and I of course said yes.  I looked over 30 seconds later and saw that all the meatloaf was gone and she was digging into a potato.  I assume she packaged the meatloaf somewhere, but she looked at me with big eyes and said, “I have 2 mouths!”  You had to be there, but I assure you it was hilarious. 

For the afternoon, we played a role reversal; we taught them English.  This was fantastic, because it shows what they are doing to us.  We were completely lost and terrified about being asked things that to them are the most basic questions in the world.  Today, we got to witness the same fear and apprehension in their eyes, though some of them already knew an ok amount of English.  We taught greetings, names, and a few body-parts.  Our format was almost identical to theirs, where we would do something amongst ourselves, then start including students,  and finally require students to do it all.  So great.  Slow, deliberate, almost painful, but hilarious.  We also gave them all American names.  The best one was for the guy, who we named Tucker.  I lost it every time we called on him.  I felt kind of bad for Ixkaj, because she was the only one who hadn’t had much previous exposure to English.  I wanted to see Lajuj B’atz’ (the guy) struggle, because he could handle it well and he was never ashamed to make us do uncomfortable things during the class.  Nonetheless, it was interesting to be on the other side of the confused, terrified look that masked my face for the last 2 weeks. 

At the very end, we were all presented with our diplomas by a teacher.  Since I worked with Ixkaj more than anyone else, she gave me my diploma.  This moment and those that followed were bittersweet.  In one sense, I was very ready to be done.  The last 3 days were rough due to my illnesses.  But, it was really a great group of people and I will miss them a lot.  I will probably never see most of them ever again.  Daniel was almost teary-eyed because everything was hitting him so hard.  We all exchanged emails and phone numbers, which is great, but we know how that tends to go.  Below are some of the highlight pictures of the day:

My whole class, left to right:  Back: Me, David, Lajuj B'atz', Daniel, Samantha, Carolyn.  Front:  Ixkamey, Louisa, Ixim, Ixkaj, Ixtoj

Receiving the diploma!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

6-12 Improvements

I woke up today without problems during the night.  I actually slept quite well, which surprised me.  I could tell I was feeling much better, but was still cautious with my food choices.  That seemed to work out well, since the rest of the day went quite well.  Throughout class I still had some trouble focusing, but I think the bigger problem is that I haven’t been studying.  I’ve had a lot of other problems that were more pressing.

Later, Samantha and I went to a training about anthropometry, which is the technical term for weighing and taking the heights of children.  I did have a basic understanding because of Peru, but I definitely learned things.  We have a hanging scale instead of the table one I used in Peru, but I am familiar with it now.  Afterward we had the joy of putting what we learned into practice!  Now, I am already familiar with the psychological warfare that takes place between hysterically screaming children and the people charged with weighing them from Peru.  That doesn’t make it enjoyable, but it is tolerable.  The first child we weighed was almost 2 years old, and her sound-making abilities were nothing short of world-class.  Eventually we finished her measurements, and by that point the boy of almost 4 years was already crying.  That’s never a good start.  Getting him into the harness for the hanging scale was a challenge, then his thrashing prevented an accurate measurement for some time.  Then was the height, which was no better.  Hopefully all of the children aren’t quite that difficult, but chances are that we will have some who don’t want to cooperate.  Sadly, these children were fairly typical in terms of stunting for this region of Guatemala.  Their weights were slightly below average, but still far out of the “underweight” category that is based on age vs. weight.  However, in terms of stunting, which is described as age vs. height, they were both in the severely malnourished category.  This occurs because they are being fed something, which maintains their weight, but it is not sufficient to correctly augment their physical development.  Stunting is an indicator of future shortness, weakness, and undeveloped brain functions.  Our study will be trying to tease out the root causes of stunting in a place with such abundant natural resources.  As I have said before, it is completely different than anything I have ever done before, but I am very excited for the lessons I will be able to learn through this opportunity.