How I wish I had a Babel Fish

OR, how I wish I were a babel fish, what with all this rain! Seriously, it rains about 80% of the time here. And not a soft Seattle rain, but a real heavy rain that soaks to the bone and prevents one from wanting to do much other than make tea and crawl under the covers. Which I’ve been doing a lot of.
Mom says it will let up in a couple of weeks.. just when I’ll be moving on.

As a result of the rain and other factors, I haven’t made it to the internet cafe in several days. Here’s what’s been going on:

My new teacher is much better for me. She’s patient and more practical than the last guy. Between that and time I suppose, things on the language front are looking up a bit. Whereas last week, mi familia would joke that their one-year old and I had about the same level of comprehension, this week it looks like I’m pulling ahead. I just might have that kid beat by the time I leave. I am now actually able to understand the gist of what someone says to me – as long as they address me as a five-year old, by using simple words and speaking slowly. In turn, I can even reply to them in semi-complete sentences, albeit completely in the present tense and I’m sure in the wrong word order. But at least I can get my meaning across about half the time. Will wonders never cease.

There is a bar down the block from my house that always has great music blasting out of it. Usually it’s stuff I don’t know, but the other day they were playing Credence Clearwater Revival, which made me happy. Anyway, this bar is intimidating because it’s the total opposite of a gringo bar – very local, very muchacho. I fantasize about building up enough Spanish to one day be able to walk in there and hold my own.

New teacher and I have taken a couple of walks around the school rather than always sitting in front of the board. These outings have been great. Yesterday we wandered by a vegetable garden, and the farmer invited us to look around. Teach taught me the names of all the fruits and vegetables in the garden. There were a few that I knew (banana, cucumber, pepper, tomato, mint, cilantro), and a couple that I had never heard of or even seen before. Coincidentally, one of these was served at dinner that night – the guisquil (with an umlaut over the first u, which I can´t find on this keyboard). It was yummy – very juicy. Apparently they grow everywhere around here.

There is a flip side to my new teacher’s conversational style, which is that she doesn’t correct me as often as she should when I use the wrong conjugation or sentence structure. For this reason and a few others, I’m going to try yet another teacher next week. The school agrees that it’s good to get the information from a variety of perspectives.

This week also brought a new crop of students, many more than last week. There are a handful of Canadians, Americans, Brits, and Aussies for me to hang out and speak English with. [That was the point of coming here, wasn’t it??] They’re still mostly younger than me, but I don’t feel quite so old this week. At least they’re not fresh out of college. Several of them are out for many months or even years on the road traveling, similar to my situation. A bunch of us that meet every day at the “conversation club” hung out at the bar last night which was good fun, but today I woke up feeling under the weather. Today I learned “Mi nariz tiene mucho agua.
We´re all going down to the English pub to watch the VP debate tonight, which I’m looking forward to.

I wouldn’t recommend coming to Guatemala if you’re a germaphobe. It’s amazing to me that I haven’t gotten sick yet, what with the lack of sanitary practices. For example, when my family wants to salt their food, they lick one finger, stick it in the salt bowel, stick it back into their mouth, and keep eating. On the other hand, there aren’t all those noxious chemicals as there are in the U.S. that build up over time and slowly poison people like my friend Daniel.
I also would have expected to see more rodents and bugs. I haven’t seen a single cockroach at this house, and I have yet to see any mice or rats about. I guess all the wandering cats and dogs take care of those. In spite of huge cracks in all the doors and windows, there are also remarkably few mosquitoes or other flying bugs.

The other day I followed the path where the road ends and eventually came to a beach of sorts. It had been warm and sunny until I arrived, but then of course the clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped, so I only had a quick dip in the lake. But it’s a nice spot, and I can picture hanging out there more on a nice day.

I’ve been taking another route to school. There is a warren of little paths I hadn’t known about that my new teacher showed me. [I still have the American mind-set that you don’t go near other people’s property. But here, it seems you’re free to wander wherever you like.] These paths go between and alongside fields and houses, and provide shortcuts to taking the road. It’s also much prettier – part of it passes alongside the lake, and in the morning you see all the fishermen out in their little boats with the volcanoes behind.

I’m uploading some photos I took this week. You probably already noticed, but I just learned that if you click on a given photo, it will display it larger. Some of these pics need a judicious shot of levels balancing, but I can’t find any kind of photo editing program on these damn Windoze machines.


Waiting for the barber…

A few observations as I wait for the barber shop to open up..

Make sure you read the comment from Clair under “First day at language school” – he writes about this town 20 years ago. Wow, how it must have changed! I asked my teacher about La Ultima Cena restaurante, and he said he thinks it’s still there, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating there (as one would guess from the name!)

The temperature fluctuates at least 20 degrees throughout the day, which is a real p.i.t.a. I’m constantly wishing i had either more or less clothes on, or with me.

My request to change teachers for next week went over well. My current teacher agreed – I suspect he was as frustrated as I was! In the end, I was pretty sick of his impatient attitude. I already feel better. I chose a woman (by nature more patient? Terrible generalization, I know) who a fellow student recommended. She said they just talk, and occasionally even go on outings in the town.

I’ve signed up for a hike up the volcano tomorrow, leaving at 6 am! However, it’s not sure to go – it needs a minimum of 5 people, and currently there are only 3 of us signed up. Rain, too, could cancel the hike.

I’ve learned that the kids go to school in two shifts: the younger ones in the morning, and the older ones in the afternoon. So my 11-year old sister has breakfast when I do, around 7:15 each day, while her 13-year old sister sleeps in. Around mid-day, it’s like the shifts changing in a factory town – you see all the kids out in the streets, trading places. It also means that the older ones are walking home at night with no streetlights, which feels odd but I guess it’s normal for them. [It gets dark at about 6:30 or 7:00p each day]. I assume the shifts are because they only have so much room and/or teachers at the school. The older one got in trouble last night because she got a really bad grade on an important test in natural sciences. Mom was pretty bummed out.

A typical day for me: It gets light around 5:30 or 6, and by that time things are going – construction, cooking, cleaning. Crazy people. I get up about 6:45, wash up, go downstairs for breakfast. So far it’s been: granola w/ yogurt, pancakes, cereal, or cream of wheat. They don’t have much in their cupboards or refrigerator. Not many fresh things, either (milk, for example, is powdered. so i’ve learned to take my coffee black with sugar), except there are always bananas and avocados around. I have bananas cut up into every breakfast meal. They’re much smaller than the ones in the States. We also cut up avocado into most lunch and dinner meals – yum! I never knew how good avocados could be in soup, for example. Mom also puts lime into a lot of things, which really adds a great flavor – to soup, salad, etc. The family doesn’t have a dining table, and never eats all together (even dinner), which surprised me.

Around 7:45, I head to school. A pleasant 10 minute walk. Grab a cup of joe (which is generally strong and good everywhere), and meet my teacher down by the lake for our lessons. Bang my head against some grammar for two hours, then we take a short break. Chat with other students, buy a snack from a local woman, then head back to learning. At 12 noon we knock off, and I head home for lunch. Lunch seems to be the biggest meal of the day. Today mom made a wonderful soup w/ rice and chicken in a tomato and chile base. Other days it’s been fried potatoes with salad (mostly iceberg, with some tomatoes and cukes), some kind of pasta with red sauce, etc. Generally hearty but simple.

At this point, I walk around town, go to a internet cafe, run errands, etc. Generally try my best to avoid doing my homework. Tuesday thru Thursdays, there is an optional “conversation club” at the school, which consists of a few of us sitting around with a teacher, chatting in Spanish. Or failing miserably, in my case. This has been helpful to me, although I’m sure painful to the other, more advanced students. Then at 6 pm on those days, there is a different activity at the school. On Tuesday we saw a quasi-documentary film (“Las Cruces”, with English subtitles) about a town during the so-called civil war in the 80’s. I say so-called because it was really the U.S. government, under the direction of the United Fruit Company that started, and financed, the atrocities. The Guatemalans would not have turned on each other if the U.S. hadn’t pressured them to, just as in Nicaragua and the rest of Centro America.

Anyway.. Wednesday was salsa lessons, which i did not partake in. I thought i might build up the courage, but in the end chickened out. It was pretty busy, just about all the students (15 or 20) were packed in there. Last night was a talk by one of the survivors of the war – he was kidnapped and took two bullets. Witnessed a lot of hell, I think a couple of his family members were “disappeared”. Unfortunately I didn’t understand a word he said, so I left at a certain point.

After the activities, I head home for supper. Again, it’s usually just me sitting at the kitchen counter with mom and maybe one of the girls. Haven’t seen much of dad, and I finally asked why – he drives a tourist bus like the one I took here, so he’s often gone for long stretches between cities.

After dinner, I retire to the patio outside my room and dig into my homework. Last night it took me three hours to write about 50 sentences, and I don’t think I retained much – as witnessed by the verbal test I got this morning. Thus my need to change teachers.

I usually crash around 10pm, maybe watch a bit of a movie on the iPhone first, or read a bit. As you can imagine from my schedule, it’s been fairly lonely.. so I’m looking forward to this weekend. I’ll try to hit up some of the local bars and actually interact with people.

Here are a couple more photos of this town.

I have no idea

I have no idea

On my way to school

On my way to school

Girl with mom´s weavings

Girl with mom´s weavings


A bit down, a bit bored

Better than a backpack!

Better than a backpack!

Didn’t think I’d be saying that, did you? Still frustrated with the language progress. I think I will change teachers after all. He’s very precise, and all the exact grammar lessons would be great if I had a year to learn proper Spanish. But I only want to be able to communicate. I really don’t care if some of my verb tenses are incorrect or the wrong gender. So I’ll speak to the school about that tomorrow. This weekend should allow me to get out a bit more and interact with other gringos, which will be nice I hope.

Home life is great, though. Mom is very sweet and patient. The kids are nice, and I’m thrilled I have my own private room on the roof. Yesterday I went for a run which felt good. Not only to get the endorphins and blood moving, but also to see something new. Listening to my own music, which should always be remembered as a great remedy for the blues. Apparently if I had gone a bit further along the path, I would have come to a beach. Perhaps I’ll do that tomorrow. It continues to rain for several hours each day, although it’s hard to predict exactly when. It can be a bit cold, too. I guess that’s what I get for coming in the rainy season!

Many of the women walk around with baskets on their heads, like you see in other developing countries. Their balance is most impressive, particularly when going up some of these steep hills. The town has lots of small scooter-like vehicles called tuk-tuks that serve as local taxis. They’re 3-wheeled, driven like a motorcycle, with a bench in back, and covered in a frame and tarp. Each one is decorated distinctively, like the “chicken buses” (so called because you might find yourself sitting next to a chicken). There are a lot of motorcycles about (but not a helmet to be found) and bicycles, too. Beat-up mountain bikes, since it’s rough terrain around here. The level of decor in the houses is what would be described in the U.S. as white trash. [I don’t mean that pejoratively, just trying to describe.] Last night there was a loud bang and the power went out everywhere (I have a view of town from outside my room). I came running downstairs with a flashlight but by the time I reached the family, the lights had come back on, and no one seemed plussed – they had all returned to their sewing machines and telenovela.

Here are some photos of San Pedro (the town I’m in).

View from my room
View from my room
Tuk-tuks, bars, shops, lake beyond

Tuk-tuks, bars, shops, lake beyond


It’s raining and I’m frustrated

Second day of language school. I know I should give myself a break (and not compare myself to others), but it’s slow going. Not sure if it’s the teacher, the technique, me, or what. Probably a bit of everything.

In other news, it’s been raining for about 36 hours. Don’t get me wrong, I like the rain. And it is beautiful. And not particularly cold. But still.

Further observations about the town:

The women and girls seem to make all their own clothes, and they’re beautiful. Long colorful skirts and blouses, just like you picture. The men and boys all wear bought clothing – jeans, t-shirts, the usual. My particular house has three sewing machines in the living room. Apparently they each do different things. The 11-year old daughter was busy on them last night. Mom says this is nothing – certain times of year (in preparation for the festivals), all the machines are busy day and night.

There are mangy dogs roaming around everywhere. Some cats, too – mostly kittens. So cute! But one traveler warned me not to pet them because they have fleas 🙁

There is rebar sticking out of the top of most of the buildings, as if they thought they might continue building someday. I’ll have to get to the bottom of this mystery.

There are many Israelis here. Both regular tourists and language students. Interesting.

Finally met my host mother and father. Dad I only said two sentences to, but Mom and I have chatted, since she feeds me. She’s wonderful. Clearly used to foreign students. Very helpful in supplying me with the correct words for things. She’s also quite happy I’m not a vegetarian.

Check out the website for my school to get an idea of things. There are photos there that show the cute little cabanas we each study in: http://sanpedrospanishschool.com/

I met a man in the street today who claimed to be a shaman. Said he mixes up many different herbs and tinctures for all kinds of uses and ailments, did I want to try some? Um.. no thanks.

Speaking of questionable characters – back in Antigua, I was wandering through a night market and one of the artisans came up and introduced himself. As he was shaking my hand (a bit too long) his thumb rubbed the back of my hand in an odd pattern. I wondered if he was putting a spell on me. Turned out he was cruising me, none too subtly – within 30 seconds, he explained that he was gay, and I could study Spanish with him, and even live with him if I like! So sweet to offer, but I’ll pass…

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