Christmas in Cusco

Let’s get the spelling question out of the way: Cusco is often spelled Cuzco.. they’re equally (in)correct, since it’s a transliteration from Quechua. The official spelling is Quscu (which translates as “Navel of the World“, isn’t that a lovely image?)

I figured Cusco would be a good place to hole up for a few weeks during the holidays. My idea was that by taking Spanish classes, I would integrate into a family and a community and thereby not be alone for Christmas. Things turned out rather well..

Introduction to the city

Wandering around lost after walking from the bus station (since I eschew taxis), I ran into a young American couple that I hung out with in Vilcabamba (Ecuador) many months ago. Grace and Cody – they were the ones who stayed so long there because they were making more money from the poker games than they were spending on daily living. Amazing that we should bump into each other here after so long. We were only able to hang out a couple of nights together as they had to finally get back to the States. But they recommended a Spanish school for me to attend here – FairPlay. Back to that in a minute.

I’m glad it was a sunny and warm day when I pulled into town otherwise I might never have stayed so long. The weather this time of year is generally rainy and cold, particularly chilling to the bones owing to the fact that none of the buildings have insulated windows nor heat. I would have difficulty living here if only for that reason. The beds have heavy wool blankets which means that you’re warm by the morning, but it’s freezing until your body heats up the bed. Large, strong hail is surprisingly common here. And yet, the climate is surprisingly dry for the amount that it rains. I suppose it’s due to the thin atmosphere at this high altitude – there just isn’t anything there to hold the moisture. When the sun does come out, things dry out incredibly quickly.

A couple of other odd things about the altitude (3,600m/11,800′) – fires don’t burn very well, due to the lack of oxygen. The matches are huge in an effort to stay lit. On the plus side, that means forest fires are never a problem. On the flip side, if you’re trying to start a fire or keep one going (for a BBQ, say, or in a fireplace), they require contant tending and blowing. Also: since water boils at a far lower temperature up here (88° C vs. 100° C at sea level), there is some debate as to whether boiling water actually purifies it enough to drink. Oh well, I haven’t gotten sick yet.

It only takes a few hours of walking around in the warm sun to fall in love with Cusco. I finally understand why it’s such a tourist destination (nearly a million tourists a year!) – stunning architecture abounds at every corner you turn; romantic views from every hill; and surprisingly gentle and kind residents, uncommon for such a touristed place. Even the touts are not as aggressive or ornery as elsewhere. The central area is refreshingly clean and free of stray dogs – a welcome respite.

This will sound odd, but Cusco reminds me a bit of Istanbul. Built long before cars, many of the streets are just narrow alleyways and pedestrian-friendly plazas and passages. Far more approachable and livable than modern cities with their traffic-clogged avenues designed solely for vehicles, not for people.

The buildings are a sight to behold with their red tiled roofs and foundations dating back to when Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. The Spaniards came and did their damndest to erase the existing culture, but a lot of it survived. In a classic case of empiralism, the Spanish built Catholic churches on top of Incan houses of worship in an effort to wipe out the existing religion. You can see this all over Europe as well – in some cases, three or four layers/cultures/religions built one on top of each other.

The matching red tiled roofs and uniform height of the buildings here are no accident – it’s the law. A welcome change from the usual hodge-podge, haphazard, and function over form of most buildings in Latin America.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…


More observations from small-town Guatemala

Learning a new language is definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. After a week of 5-hour classes per day, I dropped back to four. There were days I was so frustrated I just wanted to cry. Things are better now.. I’m even finding myself forming sentences in my head directly in Spanish, without translating each word to and from English.

One of the reasons my teacher has been so patient with me is that she only recently learned Spanish herself, about 6 years ago. She arrived at University speaking only Tz’utujil, and had a really tough time fitting in and learning Spanish. It took her 3 years, she says.

It’s interesting to notice how we each learn differently. Me, I’m a visual person. When I struggle to recall a word or definition, I actually see the word on the paper in my mind, at least until it becomes set in my brain. Which means that if I hear a word or definition, it generally just goes right back out again. I need to write it down and repeatedly see it on the page for it to stick.

I also hadn’t anticipated how physically exhausting running my brain this hard would be. Whereas in New York I could survive fine on 6 or 7 hours of sleep a night, here I’ve found that if I don’t get a full 8 hours, I’m useless in class. Which means I have to be in bed by 10pm.. what a dull life!

I keep mixing up the word for “scared” (miedo) with the one for “shit” (mierda). I’ll let you imagine the funny sentences that have come out of my mouth with that mix-up.

There was another presentation at school on a different aspect of the culture, this time on the Mayan Calandar. I didn’t understand most of the talk, but we did ask whether the world will really end in 2012, as the new agers would have us believe. The expert was emphatic – he said the current Mayan calendar ends in 2012, but that simply means it’s the end of a cycle, not the world. Their entire belief system is built on circular, repeating patterns.. so no need to panic.

I’ve been reading up on Guatemalan history, and it turns out this very spot has some historical significance. When the Conquistadors (Spaniards) arrived in the early 16th century the Mayan civilization was in decline, with most of the tribes sparring with each other. Many of the tribes resisted the invaders, but the Kaqchikel collaborated with the bastards. That old maxim, “if your enemy is my enemy, then we must be friends”. Or something like that. Anyway, one day in 1523, the Conquistadors along with the Kaqchikel in 300 canoes came racing across the lake and conquered the people of this town, the Tz’utujil. Hard to imagine today!

My teacher’s grandfather built canoes, which was the main means of transport before today’s motorboats. I wonder how long it took to get across the lake in those days (it’s about 20 minutes in a motorboat)! He’s one of the village elders.. she’s told me a number of good stories about him, like how he used to make soap.

Today there are about 100,000 extant ethnic Tz’utuji people (including my family and all the teachers), all of whom live around this lake. The language, however, is dying, as about half that number currently speak it. The younger generation can understand it, but not speak it. Consider that in another couple of generations, it will become extinct. Apparently each of the 21 Mayan languages are as distinct from each other as Portuguese is from Spanish. Some words are similar, but it’s a lot more individual than simply regional dialects as I had thought. Amazing the variety, given the relatively small geographic area. I guess the tribes really stuck to themselves for a long period of time for their languages to develop so differently.

Coming here is a lot like going back in time. They are dealing with all of the conflicts between modern and traditional society – respecting the earth vs. stripping it for resources, conflict between religions, industry vs. indigenous.

Hiking around one occasionally sees burnt patches of ground. Naturally I thought they were from UFO’s, but it turns out they’re sacred Mayan sites where they still practice ceremonies.

Last week the owner of a local gringo bar died. I believe it was suicide, possibly by drug overdose. Apparently he had been here for 20 years and had done a lot for the community. There’s been much grieving. Traditionally when someone dies all the extended friends and family come over to the house and sit with the family for 8 days. There can be upwards of 300-500 people visiting! They bring gifts of food, which the family then cooks and serves to everyone.

It’s an obvious statement, but the weather makes all the difference in how I perceive a place. For example when I think of Paris, I think of a cold, dark, dreary city, because 4 out of the 5 times I’ve been there, it was winter. I’m glad the weather has changed here. It’s no longer raining, the sun is out most of the time, and it’s beautiful. A couple of days ago the winds began, which are supposed to continue for months. They’re wicked strong, too – definitely not boating weather.

I’m told 30% of the locals drink the lake water, because they can’t afford purifiers. Guess where most of the sewage goes, too? That’s right, straight into the lake. Cholera or dysentery, anyone?

It’s neat how things like avocados, which are so expensive and precious in the States, are literally falling off of trees here. Want to make guacamole, or a cuba libre? Just walk outside the door and pick the fruit off the nearest tree!

Another thing I like about life down here is how much closer to reality I feel. In the States, I felt smothered by all the insulation. One rarely experiences the core of life in the States, because things are set up to protect you from truly experiencing things. Whether it be cars to insulate us from actually interacting with people on the street, television to insulate us from real life (or “reality shows” substituting for real life), or all of the myriad ways that modern society helps us to build walls around ourselves so we don’t have to have authentic experiences. All of that is stripped away in a place that doesn’t have the infrastructure or can’t afford those “luxuries”. Instead one experiences all of the raw pain, joy, and struggle of human existence – the way it was for thousands of years, before modern conveniences.

Occasionally one sees bright graphic symbols spray-painted onto buildings or rocks. It turns out these are political propaganda for the illiterate population. They first train the populace to identify a certain graphic with a certain political party, then hammer them with that imagery. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to read a candidate’s name if it were posted up around town.

It’s really the Wild West down here. One hardly ever sees the police, and never any other kind of government official. There are no Health & Safety rules that I can see, or at least they’re not enforced. You build whatever you want, whenever you want, in whatever manner you want. Which is kinda scary given how prone this place is to earthquakes – the neighboring town was nearly wiped out in 2005 by a massive mudslide caused by an earthquake.
In general, I like the libertarian nature of things here. Nobody’s going to hassle me for walking down the street with a beer, for example. Although it’s a fine line when personal safety takes a back seat.

Speaking of earthquakes, we had one the other day. I was browsing in a bookshop talking to the quack proprietor when it hit. It was pretty wild – the shaking lasted about 8 seconds, and there was a decent aftershock too. It was a 6.6 in the epicenter of Chiapas. Don’t know how strong that would have been here.
I had to force myself to back away from this guy I was rapping with because his conspiracy theories were really getting on my tits. He sounded reasonable enough at first.. he’s from Austin, with a newborn, and we were chatting pleasantly. And then… reality left the room. He started saying things like, “take gamma rays, which of course are wormholes..” Um, I know a thing or two about astrophysics, and gamma rays are definitely NOT wormholes. Whatever the subject was, he would simply say, “don’t take my word for it, look it up – on these websites..” Um, just because some crackpot makes a website that references another crackpot’s website does not mean it’s true! Jeezus.

Speaking of the wild west, there are guards with shotguns guarding the bank (expected), and.. delivery trucks (!). Picture your local Coca-Cola truck being guarded by a dude with a serious-looking shotgun. I guess they really value their soda, wouldn’t want any being swiped!

As in many countries, many of the men walk around with machetes. It’s disconcerting at first, but here it’s viewed as a tool, not as a weapon. They use it for everything – cutting, digging, slashing. You hardly ever see a saw – instead, they’ll whack away at a tree branch with the machete.

For the amount of sugar they put in their coffee, there is surprisingly little in their cookies. I passed a bakery in Panajachel over the weekend and sampled their baked goods. Overall, pretty bland.

Food is very cheap here, but liquor is not. Beer really adds up. Anything imported just for the gringos is expensive. Junk food – Cokes, candy, Pringles.

It’s coming up on coffee harvest time. You know because the beans on the trees (low trees, like shrubs really) turn from their usual green to red. Then you can pick them. They don’t actually smell or taste like coffee until you roast them. I wonder how & who discovered that. I was amazed to learn that the tree only produces once per year. That’s a ton of acreage being taken up the rest of the year by these trees.

It’s been fun watching the one-year old in my family develop. She couldn’t walk when I first arrived, and was only speaking in babbles. Now she’s cruising around on two feet, and keeps saying “hola!” over and over. It’s time the kid learned her second word. Ironically, I’ve seen her grow more than her own father has, since he’s always on the road.
The eleven-year old, on the other hand, hates me. No matter how I try to engage her in conversation, she just glares at me. We started out alright, but then I did a couple things she didn’t like, like run the microwave for more than one minute. “Kid, I’ve been running microwaves since before you was but a glint in yo mama’s eye, so spare me the lecture!” (I thought it, but didn’t say it.) Maybe she just doesn’t like men, since she loved the Canadian woman who lived with us for a few weeks. Maybe she’s in love with me. Who knows.
The 13-year old is so much more mature – in American maturity years, she’s about 23.

The Canadian was replaced by a good ole’ boy from Oklahoma. As hard as I try (ok, not that hard), I have trouble getting past that thick drawl and contraction of every other word. To my ear he sounds stupid, even though I know he’s not. He came down with some stomach flu yesterday, but is too proud to accept much help. People who won’t accept help are almost as annoying as those who demand too much help. We’re all in this world together, we gotta look out for one another.

I learned why the family sews all day. Turns out grandma has a tienda in town where they sell the blouses that the family cranks out.

Lake Atitlan is in the running for one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World. There are signs up asking people to go vote for it online.

The power goes out so often here (but only for a minute at a time) that all the internet cafes have their computers plugged into UPS backups.. smart.

One occasionally sees young lovers secretly nuzzling in doorways or such, but never any PDA, not even hand holding. It’s all very chaste, and takes you back to the early 20th C.

I couldn’t figure out what a lot of the floating “trash” was, when someone pointed out that they’re actually rocks. Now, who’s ever heard of a floating rock? But of course, they’re pumice, from the volcano. Cool!

On the recommendation of a friend, I brought along Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs, a tome of a book that is way over my head as it turns out, so I’m leaving it here when I hit the road. I also brought along Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, which is excellent and I highly recommend. It’s actually fun to read, unlike every other language book I’ve run across. The author goes into all the useful phrases that are actually used by people, as opposed to dictionary definitions. I went ahead and ordered a couple more language books from Amazon to be shipped here, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to arrive by the time I leave. Oh well. Arnie was most kind in sending me a care package with language lessons on CD (that I’ve since loaded onto my iPod), vitamins, and a rain fly for my backpack. Oh, and sections from the New York Times, a real treat!

I’ve been reading fiction for the first time in years. I never had time for it before, and always prefered my tech magazines to actual books. I brought One Hundred Years of Solitude with me, which I was expecting to really like based on what a classic it is. But what did Mark Twain say, that a classic is one that everyone thinks they ought to have read but actually haven’t? I love Garcia’s magical realism style, his descriptions are so evocative and rich. But the plot is impossible to parse. I gave up after getting about half-way through.
In it’s place I picked up Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’m loving.

This weekend is All Saints and Day of the Dead, which seems like a good time to move on and begin my travels. I thought about going to the town of Todos Santos for the weekend, since they celebrate in style. To wit:
“For three days, the village is taken over by unrestrained drinking, dance and marimba music. The event opens with an all-day horse race, which starts out as a massive stampede. The riders tear up the course, thrashing their horses with live chickens, pink capes flowing out behind them. At either end of the run they take a drink before burning back again. As the day wears on some riders retire, collapse, or tie themselves on, leaving only the toughest to ride it out. On the second day, the action moves to the cemetery, with marimba bands and drink stalls setting up amongst the graves for a day of intense ritual that combines grief and celebration. By the end of the fiesta, the streets are littered with bodies and the jail packed with brawlers.”
As much fun as that sounds, I am instead going to take in a more tranquil fiesta, that of the Kite Festival. The author of Moon Travel Handbooks for Guatemala says that it’s his favorite spectacle of the entire year. Photos and story to follow next week.


Random observations

"Jesus is the Man!"

"Jesus is the Man!"

That about sums it up, folks…

There have been huge “booms” day and night for a while now. At first I thought them Ruskies were invading. Then I decided they were cars backfiring. Now I’ve learned they’re actually fireworks, being set off to celebrate some Catholic holiday I’ve never heard of. But what’s weird is people set them off in the daytime, when there is no hope of seeing them, and even at 5 in the morning when sensible folks are trying to sleep!
Speaking of churches – one can hear them most every night, belting out their songs, stirring up the congregation. I quite like it.

At any given time, there are a dozen kites flying over the town. At first I thought kids stayed up day and night keeping their kites aloft, but now I realize there is always enough wind to keep them up for days on end. You can see the boys (only boys – girls don’t fly kites, according to my 11-year old sister) in the street running to get theirs back up when they fall.

A new student joined our family this past week. She’s a sweet, earnest middle-aged woman from Calgary. Her Spanish is better than mine, so she’s been a bridge between me and the family. It’s been nice to have another gringo in the house to compare notes with, although she’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes: always playing with the kids, giving presents, saying all the right things. Things I wish I were doing, just don’t quite have the capacity for yet.

I have been quite happy with my new teacher. Third time’s a charm, apparently. I liken it to finding a therapist – you just have to keep trying until you find someone you click with. She’s a great compromise between the strictness of my first teach and the relaxed conversationalist of my second. I’ve even upped my lessons to five hours a day, instead of four. It’s so cheap there’s really no reason not to as long as one’s brain can take it. So far, I haven’t found the last hour to be any more taxing than the previous four, so I think I’ll stick with this level. I’m anxious to get this stuff, and it’s just not coming soon enough. I’m hoping one of these days things will just begin to fall into place, and I’ll be able to stop taking enormous pauses between every word as I consider the conjugation, gender, preposition, and placement of the word that should come next. Clearly, I was overly optimistic thinking that I could get to a comfortable level of Spanish in three to four weeks. All told, my situation here is pretty good, so I’m thinking I should stick it out for another two to three weeks before moving on.

My teacher lent me a beginner’s Spanish book. Taking a look on the back cover, I see it was bought from a bookstore I used to live down the street from in Seattle! I love coincidences like that. I wonder what kind of journey that book took before ending up in San Pedro, Guatemala.

Another one of the new crop of students is also from New York. We got to talking, learned that we’re in the same business, and eventually came to the incredible fact that she was on my crew when Merce played the State Theatre at Lincoln Center Festival in 2002! [She’s a union stagehand electrician, and works full-time at the State.] What a small world!

I’ve noticed that weekends are for bathing in the lake. You see entire families down at the shore washing their hair, clothes, and bodies. The kids are really cute.

My teacher is a great resource for questions I have about the culture. Today she told me all about her home life, and I got confirmation that my family is definitely better off than most. Her living situation seems to be typical here: she lives in a small abode with 12 people (extended family) sharing four rooms. They don’t have any electrical appliances. No washing machine, no refrigerator. Their stove is wood-fired. They don’t have a dining room table, so they eat in a circle on the floor. Yet she didn’t have a note of sadness or pity in her voice telling me all this. On the contrary, she raved about how close they all are, how meals are a fiesta of gabbing, and how much she loves her family. And you’d never know how poor she is by looking at her – she’s always very put together, elegant even.

Illiteracy is a big deal here: 10 years ago, about 50 percent of the population in Guatemala were illiterate. Thanks to a big push by the government, that figure is now down to around 30 percent. That’s better than most of Africa, but still below most of the rest of Latin America. My teacher’s mother cannot read or write, and her grandparents only speak Tz’utujil, not Spanish.

The school organizes nice evenings. Last night there was a presentation by a local expert on Mayan art. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but he drew pretty drawings on the whiteboard, and I had a kitten purring in my lap all evening, so I was happy.

We all tromped down to the pub to watch the last of the presidential debates, but unfortunately we were relegated to the back room, pre-empted by some big soccer game that was being shown in the main room. OK, I understand – Guatemala was playing Cuba. The crowd, game, and dishes drowned out any hope we had of actually hearing the debate – all we could do was watch in frustration.
During a commercial break, an ad came on for the iPhone 3G, newly released here in Guatemala! Sitting here amongst people living well below the poverty line, it’s hard to imagine who the ad is directed at. But apparently there is a whole segment of Guatemalan society who can afford such things.

Several internet cafes here have Skype, headsets, and even webcams. I had really nice videochats with Xtine and Abi, and would love to with anyone else. Just let me know, and we’ll set up a time to talk.


Language is a minefield

Part of my homework last week was to write example sentences using different verbs I’m supposed to be learning. According to the study materials I’m using, the verb coger means “to catch”. So one of the sentences I wrote was, ¿Puedes ayudarme coger mi perro? or in English, “Will you help me catch my dog?”

We’re going over my homework, and I read this sentence aloud. My teacher turns bright red, and starts giggling uncontrollably. It turns out that although coger officially means “to catch”, in Central America it is in fact slang for “to fuck”. So what I actually said was, “Will you help me fuck my dog?”.

Which reminded her of the time she had a student who kept confusing the word for “horse” (caballo) with the word for “gentlemen” (caballero). The student kept insisting that she loved riding “caballeros”, to everyone’s great delight.

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