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 café, 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.  

6-11 Rough Day

When I went to sleep at 10 last night, I felt perfectly healthy except for the minor cold that was still causing congestion and a minor cough.  At 2:30, I woke up with symptoms I that I know you would not enjoy reading about.  It was absolutely terrible, I hope to never experience anything like that again. 

I had decided early in the morning that I was not going to attempt to go to class.  I eventually made it out to the common area where breakfast was waiting for me, but I wasn’t going to be able to eat it.  I settled for one pancake.  I was very grateful for Olanda, Ixim, and Louisa who were all very supportive and helpful throughout the day.  Olanda bought some Gatorade equivalents to rehydrate and fill me with electrolytes.  Samantha sent me some other electrolyte powders to put in water to assist with the rehydration process.  David, the med student who is working here for the year, and Anna, the director of the language course, came to visit me in the morning to make sure I was ok.  Basically, David’s thoughts were that I had some kind of bacteria that wasn’t present in the States so my body wasn’t accustomed to it, then I was dehydrated which further amplified the problem.  However, because I was able to keep liquids down, all I had to do was rest and rehydrate and I would be totally fine.  He was right, because after a few more hours of laying down followed by a little vomiting, I felt much better.  By lunch time, I was seated at the table attempting to use the internet. 

A group from Kab’lajuj Ey came to visit me during their lunch.  David, Daniel, Anna, and Louisa.  I was still exhausted, but it lifted my spirits to feel the care of my classmates.  I had soup for lunch in the house, then decided that I was feeling good enough to go to class.  This was a poor decision.  My brain could not engage and I was uncomfortable.  I sat with arms crossed in my chair because I was cold and probably looked like I hated the world.  I did eventually survive, but it is a process I wish I hadn’t put myself through. 

Following class Samantha and had a skype meeting regarding the GPS, which I was not entirely present for.  Whatever I didn’t catch, Samantha understood and will explain to me when I’m competent once again.  The rest of the night I spent on my computer before going to bed early.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

San Juan Comalapa

Class has been going pretty well this week.  Because I now understand the format, I am able to get a lot more out of it.  One of the teachers has been extremely helpful to me, always explaining what’s going on in class more in-depth during the breakout sessions.  I basically feel like my brain wants to vomit all the information out because it has learned so much in the past few days. 

Another student joined our class this week, and she’s also living with Ixim.  Olanda is her name.  She is originally from El Salvador, but moved to Guatemala city a few years ago to work with some women’s health programming.  Most of the work from her organization is done in a town where Kaqchikel is the most-used language, so it is very beneficial to her to learn it.  Working through translators just isn’t the same.

Because she has a car, she decided to visit the town of Comalapa, the home of 2 of our professors.  Louisa and I had the privilege of tagging along.  The drive out there was stunning, with mountains and volcanoes on all sides.  It is a different feel from the mountains in Peru; it is closer to a cloud forest because of the lower altitude.  The town itself was also very nice.  Ixkaj (I don’t recall her normal, Spanish name) gave us a guided tour.  We got to check out a lot of the little shops with paintings and hand-woven garments.  There were also some nice churches, etc.  At one point a guy came up to us and asked if we spoke English, which is not uncommon, but he had no accent!  I don’t think that ever happened to me in Peru…  I was so shocked to find someone who spoke English so well in this little Mayan town.  Below are some pictures of our time there:

Typical street in Comalapa

Louisa, Ixkaj, and I in front of one of the main churches

Ancient Mayan Relic in the main square with Churches in the background 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mayan Ceremony

My day started with going to Iximche’, the Mayan ruins very near Tecpan.  It was estimated that about 10,000 people once inhabited this place, though it is only a guess because population levels were already falling before the Spanish arrived.  These are the oldest ruins of the area, but the Spaniards did a very good job destroying everything so the most impressive buildings of today were reconstructed.  In the typical Spanish style, they showed up, got the Kaqchikel people to fight against another tribe, then turned on them and razed their city.  The ruins are very distinct from those in Peru.  Stairs up to the temples are much more common and more steep than those of the Incas.  Though to be fair, the majority that I saw in Peru were integrated to the terraces, so they had a completely different style.  I can’t fully describe to you the differences I noticed between the ruins, so I will just show you pictures:

Near the back of the ruins is a site for Mayan Ceremonies.  When we walked up a couple was on their knees in front of one of the small “altars,” which are circular rocks on the ground.  There is also a reconstructed rock structure near the site.  Our guide first walked us through the meanings of the names and the characteristics associated with each name.  Mine said something about medicine, but about half of them did so I had fairly good odds.  The ceremonies have a very interesting mix of old and new.  Old incense, old seeds, old herbs, yet it is accompanied by the sugary components of candles, pop, chocolate, and processed sugar.  It was interesting to think that such ceremonies had been taking place there for nearly 600 years.

I went to the artisan’s market today after Iximche’, and I got some chocolate, chocolate-flavored peanut butter (It’s hard to find PB down here), and some hacky-sacks.  Not a bad day, and I barely spent any money.

The rest of the day was uneventful.  I did make progress on my medical school applications, and have almost finalized my list of schools to apply to.  I think I will be able to meet my goal of submitting on next Sunday.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Guatemalan Birthday

Last night was a rough night of sleep.  A minor cold is coming on, and my congested sinuses and throat pressed me into misery.  As always, I was woken up at 5AM by the urgent messages the roosters always send to each other at that time.  I continued drifting in and out of sleep until 6 when my alarms started going off.  When I finally brought myself to a functional level of consciousness, I noticed that my blankets were all turned 90 degrees from when I had went to sleep.  I’m not sure I was ever so productive in restlessness.  Anyway, Happy Birthday, Michael!  Fortunately, my typical morning routine was accompanied by a card from Meghan, which made my dull-feeling world a little better.  When I finally exited my room I was greeted with “Happy Birthday” in Kaqchikel.  Everyone in the house greeted me with hugs and best wishes, and Ixim even gave me a little talk about blessings for the coming year.  It was very nice, I was grateful for her kindness.

Oxi B’atz’ (Daniel) came to Ixim’s house and we all walked over to the class together.  Ixim again told everyone it was my birthday and wished me the best in the coming year.  Unfortunately, the actual class started off rough.  We started in on the terrific “transitive verbs,” which are used whenever there is a recipient of the verb.  The crazy thing is that everything about these verbs is different than verbs that are not acting on something else.  The words for subjects become objects, many parts of the conjugation are dependent on whether or not the next part begins with a vowel or consonant, and it’s overall 100% different from English and Spanish.  So I was completely lost and couldn’t really answer questions when asked, which is not an experience I often have back home.  With all that in addition to the tiredness and general discomfort from my cold, I was unhappy. 

In the first breakout session with my teachers I started to understand better, but it was still hard.  During the break Samantha showed up to class with a cake in her hands!  I was very thankful that all my new friends cared enough to make this day special for me, even if I am away from everyone I know and love in the US.  I also went and bought a small pack of cookies for 1Q (1/7 of a dollar… awesome), which also improved my mood.  The next session was body parts, which weren’t exactly easy for my overloaded brain to learn, but it was better than the transitive verbs.  Soon we discussed nouns and possession in relation to the body, where most of the words change again.  It is so strange because the whole linguistic structure differs entirely from languages I have previously studied. 

Anyway, I made it until lunch.  As always, it was fantastic.  We had strawberry juice, a broth of some kind, and a main dish of flavorful rice, meat, and beans.  Of course, the meal ended with cake.  Now, the procedure for birthday celebrations here has a slightly different protocol than in the states.  They did sing to me first (in Spanish and English), which is something I was accustomed to.  Next, it is tradition for the birthday boy (or girl) to take the first bite of cake without first cutting it in any way.  So, I leaned in and took a bite of the luscious frosting.  However, I did not complete the second aspect of this ritual, which is to have my face shoved into the cake amidst the biting procedure.  So, I went down for a second bite so that Lajuj B’atz’ (one of the instructors) could have the pleasure of getting frosting in my face.  It wasn’t covering my whole face, but I and everyone else enjoyed the spectacle.  The cake was great after they cut it like normal as well, though my piece was marred by the points of contact with my face.  It was really great to have people care about my birthday, and as different as it all was, I could still certainly feel the warmth of everyone in the class.  I plan to bring the face-tradition back to the United States in a few months ;D

The rest of the day was spent learning animals.  This was one of my favorite lessons, because the teachers (and students) gave very high-quality impersonations.  It was also today that I had my second embarrassing failure of the week.  Yesterday, when I was asked if I was fat, I responded “more or less,” because I really had very little idea about what I was being asked.  The room burst out laughing because I am basically the exact opposite of fat.  Today, I didn’t know an animal I was asked to impersonate, so I asked the instructor next to me.  Ixkamey informed me that it meant wolf.  So, I proceeded to crawl around the room and howl.  Come to find out at the end, I was actually asked to act like a cow.  Oops.  Everyone got a good laugh out of that one too. 

After class I went to an internet café to review some Wuqu’ Kawoq documents with Samantha, which was great.  I continue to be impressed with this organization.  It seems like they have thought of almost every possibility for the study to make sure they get good data.  I know that this isn’t my discipline, but I do think I can still tell when something is well planned versus poorly planned.  It will be a lot of hard work, but I know it will be an incredible experience.  I can tell that Samantha is going to be a great person to work with, for which I am very thankful.

The rest of the night I haven’t done much of anything related to the school.  That will probably come back to haunt me tomorrow as I saunter around scratching my sides and making monkey noises when asked to act like a rooster.  Oh well.  I am tired, stuffy, and really just want to go to bed.  Hopefully I feel better tomorrow.

Continuing Kab'lajuj Ey

I overall am still very much enjoying my time with Wuqu’ Kawoq in the Kab’lajuj Ey language school.  It is still blowing my mind a little bit every day, but I am happy with my improvement.  We’re already speaking in sentences and conjugating verbs.  The conjugations occur on the front of the word instead of the prefixes changing as in English and Spanish, so that’s been interesting.  Another interesting aspect of the language is that nouns change when they are possessed by something else.  For example, to say “the hand” versus “my hand”, you must use a different word for hand.  I am very happy that English doesn’t have anything like that.  Also, the number system is based on 20’s.  So, to say 33, one must say one-twenty-ten-three in the same way that we say 153 as one-hundred-fifty-three.  I can’t imagine thinking of numbers in that way.  It’s so bizarre.  Overall, there are good times and hard times (this is legitimately one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken), but I remain excited and ready to continue pressing into this fantastic experience.  

Day 2: Kab'lajuj Ey

This is probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.  Ixim suggested that we shower in the morning because it usually rains at night, meaning that we actually have running water.  They have a collection unit on the roof.  I want to figure out why we have to be so careful of the water if it is coming from the sky, but that is for another day.  Anyway, I hopped in and wasn’t aware of any way to heat the water, so it was COLD.  I managed and began to think of how nice it would be to be in the US and have a warm shower.  But I would happily suffer than for the opportunity to be here with Wuqu’ Kawoq.  Breakfast was good, basically some beans, eggs, bread, juice, and tea.  I’m telling you, I eat well here.
Usually we will walk to class, but the rain was especially hard today so we took a tuk tuk.  This is the Guatemalan name for a mototaxi, as it is called in Peru.  These are essentially motorcycles with a frame and plastic around them to offer protection from the weather, and they put a small seat on the back for passengers.  Ixim, Luisa and I all crammed in the back of one, but I don’t think it was quite designed for people my size. Still a fun experience.  In a few minutes we got to the school, where we had some trouble finding out how to get in.  The other 2 stayed at one door while I went to another one.  An elderly, indigenous-looking woman who couldn’t be over 4.5 feet tall opened the door and let us in.  We discovered that we were the first people there when we walked into a bare room lined with empty chairs that was lit by 2 incandescent bulbs.  We decided to move the chairs to the room next door to avoid a leak in the roof.  Eventually 4 more Americans walked in (including Daniel) with 3 more teachers.  Small, intimate class.  And so it began.
They mercifully gave us a short introduction in Spanish at the beginning of the day, but almost the entirety of the class from that point forward was exclusively Kaqchikel.  I don’t know how many of you have been in a situation where you have been surrounded by a language you have never heard before, but it is a bit intimidating.  Then all of a sudden the teachers start coming up to you and asking questions or doing greetings.  Talk about being thrown into the fire.  I believe the philosophy of this is something like throwing someone who has never swam before into a pool, watching them drown for a while, and then bringing them back up for air for some lessons on what they should have been doing for their first few moments in the water.  We had several breaks throughout the day to ask questions and write everything down in smaller groups, which were very helpful.  Nonetheless, this is one of the hardest classes I have ever taken.  Amazingly, I can already see improvements.  My pronunciation is better than it was yesterday.  A week ago I couldn’t have told you that I was capable of making all the sounds I did today.  I can do basic greetings.  The most interesting part to me was that at the end I could understand their discussion of the possession of objects only based on the pronouns I had been learning throughout the rest of the day.  In that section, I felt like I had at least learned enough to follow the whole discussion.  As I have told myself before, I am going to stay engaged and give it 100% no matter how difficult or hopeless it feels.  I will learn this language, at least at a basic level, by the end of these 2 weeks. 

Rest of the day..  walk around town in the pouring rain and buy my internet modem with the help of Samantha, who will also be working on the same project as me with Wuqu’ Kawoq this summer.  Daniel also stopped at a bakery and talked to a guy for a while.  He went to school in the US for a while and knew kaqchikel and English.  The people here are so great.  Then back home, where I used my new internet and attempted to review the day. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Arrival :D

First, a side note about this blog.  I will not generally be typing as much as I did for Peru, because I don't have time and need to work on med school applications.  I will try to update this at least weekly.  Now, onto my first post.

Woa.  This place is different than Peru, and this experience will be very distinct.  Customs was weird, but easy.  I didn’t even have to send my baggage through the scanner.  Any of it.  That was freaking crazy.  They also literally do not have a visa, so I showed them my passport, they stamped it, and I was on my way.  There is absolutely no way they will have a legitimate way to charge me when I exit the country, so this should not be a Lima repeat.  Phew.  Ernesto and his daughter met me right outside, then we passed through Guatemala City on our way to Tecpan. 

In the city, I was observing everything very carefully to compare it to everything I knew in Peru.  I made a lot of observations.  I am going to try to summarize them now, though I don’t want to take so long because I am exhausted from the whole trip. 

First, the buses.  They are awesome.  Brightly colored, the majority hand painted, and looking like absolute chaos.  They all once served as school buses in the US, and when they were deemed to be getting old and unwanted, Guatemalans purchased them for use as public transportation.  Despite looking pretty carefully, I am not sure I saw anything that looked like consistent bus lines or if they were all just different people who owned them.  It was nuts.  Apparently these buses are designed to hold 50, but are usually filled to a capacity of about 80.  That’s why it’s not recommended that we take them..  they get too crazy.  But, I was happy to see that it was the same system as Peru in that the bus driver is accompanied by someone manning the door.  But stops didn’t seem so bad, but they didn’t usually have wider roads in those spots so everything got a bit congested.  At one point a bus must have died in the middle of the road because the door guy got out and was yelling and waving his arms at everyone to just go on by.  I didn’t understand his tactics because at one time he was in the lane people had to go into to get by his bus.  Strangest thing. 
Continuing in the line of transportation, I did not see taxis.  Ok, I saw one.  I don’t know if that means that legitimately very few run, or if it just means that those that do run are unmarked.  The former would make sense in that Guatemala is a less affluent country so they couldn’t afford taxis as much as in Peru.  In addition to not being marked as taxis, the cars also all had heavily tinted windows.  All of them.  I found this to be a strange trend, but it could be rooted in a desire to keep attention away from one’s self.

Instead of Stop signs having the Spanish formal command for “Stop,” they had the word for “tall” or “high.”  No idea why. 

Some things were similar to my past experiences.  First, the store structure looked similar.  When I looked to the side of the road the stores looked almost exactly the same as in Peru.  There is also an overabundance of metal roofs, and what isn’t metal is the same type of “Spanish” roofing that I was familiar with in Peru.  Idk the name, but here’s an example from Peru:

Last, I learned that the Mayan Ruins near Tecpan are some of the oldest and most authentic in Guatemala.  The only thing barring them from tourism is probably an infrastructure and promotion to make that happen.
Well, that was the 45-minute bus ride.  Then we picked up Daniel, who is a 43-year-old middle-school teacher from Cali who has been here once before.  I guess he has a fascination with learning indigenous languages, but he isn’t actually doing anything specific with it as a teacher.  He’s a cool guy though, I have so much respect for him doing something bold like this at a less youthful age.  Not many people have that kind of guts.  Heck, most people my age don’t have that kind of guts.  I think I’m going to enjoy getting to know him throughout the course of this trip.

Once we arrived in Tecpan, we met up with one of the teachers of the class and another student with her who is named Luisa.  I will be sharing a host home with her, which will be good to practice the language after class.  The room she’s in has 2 beds so it could hold at least 2 volunteers, while mine is just one bed but I have some awesome closet space, a tv, and a private bathroom.  I think I'm getting a great deal :)

My host mom, Ixim (pronounced eesheem), is fantastic.  She welcomed us with a hug at the door, and Daniel started remembering his lessons from last summer and they started right in on Kaqchikel.  It is in one sense intimidating, but in another amazing because he learned all that in basically 3 weeks.  I have 8.  I could really develop an intermediate level of this ancient Mayan language.  I have been practicing random words all day, but the one sound that is very hard is the uvular click.  I’m not sure I have ever done that.  Ever.  So I will be practicing a lot I think.  Ixim will be teaching our class as well, so she is extremely good at teaching this language.  She is also caring and clearly just loves hosting and caring for guests.  She happily made me lunch when I arrived, and proceeded to talk with Luisa and I for probably an hour and a half.  This was all Spanish of course, but as time progresses we are going to wean out of that and start speaking Kaqchikel.  I really may not work on my Spanish too much this trip if I can start to get the hang of this Mayan language. 
Before dinner I walked around with Luisa and tried to find a bank to withdraw money without success.  I knew I couldn’t buy a phone or an internet connection for my laptop without that, so we eventually tracked down an internet shop and I used that to tell everyone I was safe here.  I hope to get a more permanent option soon to aid me in medical school applications.  We also explored some other parts of the city, which was cool to see.  It has a very small-town feel because there aren’t many large buildings..  ok any large buildings..  but it is clean and the nearby mountains are fantastic.  I think even more than in Peru, I feel like an outsider here.  Everyone looks at me, since I am so obviously different than the rest of the city.  Kids sometimes congregated behind the 2 of us just to watch what we were doing.  Occasionally we would hear one ask for our names or someone would shout “Hello!” from a window or passing car.  I bet it is one of the very few English words they know.  There are actually some legitimate English speakers here, but somehow I just don’t feel like those people are the same as the ones shouting out car windows at foreigners. 

Dinner was stellar, and now I am going to bed. 

BATHROOMS…  Stay tuned for the next post.. 

Continued the next morning…

One other thing I forgot to mention is the many different Spanish conventions I have experienced here.  Many words are different.  For example banana in Peru is banano here.  I don’t know so many vegetable words because they weren’t really edible in Peru, but in Guatemala they are prevalent and delicious, so I will become familiar with those.  Some things I really like about Spanish here, like they have many words for delicious instead of just using rico all the time.  Probably the strangest thing thus far in Spanish is the use of the formal and informal tenses.  Formal is used in all cases where you are not intimately close to the other person.  Very good friends, family, etc.  So I have to use the formal tense all the time, which I really haven’t ever done, so that will be a good way for me to improve that when I am not practicing Kaqchikel.