It rained again last Thursday as the teacher bus ambled slowly up 6 Calle. The wet streets looked like a mosaic of colors reflecting the brightly painted houses. A woman carrying a blue umbrella down the sidewalk was like a living watercolor. Her yellow skirt swished around her ankles and made the brown street water and cobblestones look as if someone had taken a splash of bright paint and streaked it down the sidewalk. The cars parked on the side of the road were mostly red, the houses stacked against each other tended towards orange and blue. The window of the van kept fogging up and I would wipe the condensation away with my sleeve. The sky was a deep, dark, ocean blue. The rain was a chilly rain, carrying with it the wish for wool socks and hot tea.
It has rained nearly every afternoon, occasionally waiting until after elementary’s second recess, but sometimes the kindergarten classes take chalk and blocks under the eaves of the kindergarten building and build towering castles and draw sunny skies while the thunder rolls off the mountains and the clouds pour.
The Sunday before last, Autumn and I had our first experience on a microbus. It was raining, but only a light drizzling rain. Anna Maria took us to Wal-Mart, showing us the proper way to flag down a bus (hand out, palm down, slight wave) and taking us all over the mall with no success finding a computer charger for Autumn’s computer. On the way home, Anna Maria flagged down a microbus, a small bus with an always open sliding door and always-full hard bench seats. There was a girl with one foot inside the bus and the other foot on the running board who was directing passengers when to get off and taking money as they did so. Anna Maria, Autumn and I all crowded in the already full bus. Autumn and I had to double over to fit inside the bus, and essentially squat while the driver bounced over speed bumps and sped around corners. One of my feet was about out the door, and Autumn and I were both trying to hold onto the doorframe to keep from falling out. We rode doubled-over and hanging out the door until a few passengers left the wood-topped bench and we could fit onto the edge of the seat, along with the five other people who were already there. At the next stop, Anna Maria decided we had had enough of that bus, and we got off and walked the rest of the twenty minutes home in the misty rain.
This past weekend, several of the teachers decided we should adventure outside of Xela and decided on Lake Atitlan as our journey’s end. Lake Atitlan is located in the Sierra Madre mountains and surrounded by three giant volcanoes: Atitlan, San Pedro, and Tolimán. The first part of the venture was to find a way to get to Panajachel. One of our options was a chicken bus, which is like a school-bus type bus, only instead of putting two people to a regular sized seat, they put three or four to a seat and it ends up being six to seven people across the aisle, completely blocking the walk-way and making it impossible to move. It is not recommended to take a chicken bus out of the city, as they have been known to get robbed and foreigners pickpocketed, or they go too fast around the curvy roads in the mountains and right off the edge of the road. But as it was the most inexpensive way to travel, and very authentic, we left our valuables at home, packed lightly, and hopped on a chicken bus. We missed the direct bus to Panajachel, which was supposed to leave at 9:00 am, but in the most untypical Guatemalan way, actually left at 8:40 am. Instead, we found a bus whose driver said it was going to Panajachel, and got on. It was a really nice greyhound-type bus and for the first two hours, we were comfortable and the bus was roomy. But when we passed a sign that pointed Panajachel to the right and the bus kept going left, we immediately asked the driver again if he was headed to Panajachel, to which the bus driver told us that we had to take another bus at the next stop to get to Panajachel. We got off the nice bus and crossed the road to catch another bus towards Panajachel. This one was a regular chicken bus and we were three to a bench as we started again. A man on the bus heard us discussing Panajachel and told us that Pana was were he lived and we still needed to get on one more bus after this one. After a half an hour, he showed us were to get off and back on another chicken bus. This one took us directly to Panajachel.
The view from the bus along the way to the lake was breathtaking. The mountains would fall away to reveal deep valleys full of small squares of crops. The clouds would cleave to the mountaintops and fill ravines in wisps of smoky-looking mist. Houses would be atop hills and down the side of the mountains. Horses and cows would be staked out near the road. Near the lake, we passed a crevice in the mountain above the bus full of green vines and goats. The shepherds were waiting near the road, watching the goats above their heads. Waterfalls would spring from the mountain’s side and flow under the road and off the mountains.
Once in the lakeside town, the man on the bus gave us the name of a good hotel not far from the bus stop and we ended up staying in Hotel Nimbo, a bright green hotel down a small street off the main road through Pana. Panajachel is a small town full of tourist attractions. Stalls of vendors lined the main road to the lake and we were bombarded with offers for boat rides (for free!), food, table runners, blankets, clothes and jewelry. Once past the vendors, the lake was quiet and tranquil. After eating lunch in a small café, we hired a private boat and set off across the lake towards Santiago. The water of Atitlan was deep blue and the waves were choppy. It was raining a bit, but we all sat in the open front of the boat in our rain jackets so we wouldn’t miss a single sight. The grey sky covered the tops of all but the littlest volcano. The lake narrowed and we were close to the volcanoes rising out from the water. As we rounded a corner, Santiago came into view, a vibrant contrast of bright buildings surrounded by green mountains and dim clouds. When I first stepped off the boat onto the pier, I thought it was my own legs that were unsteady, but I realized as I walked towards the various vendors set up near the water’s edge that it was the pier that was moving. It was a floating pier and was slowly rising and falling with the lake. The main street up Santiago from the pier was full of more vendors shouting outrageous prices at us, only to drop the price to half or even a quarter of the original price as we went by. We turned off the main road and explored down a less populated street. The houses along the street went from solid wall-to-wall homes, to yards and gardens and space between houses, to a banana farm with people using machetes to harvest huge banana bunches. Past the banana farm, the street disappeared into the lake. There were lines of wooden canoes with rotting bottoms tied up on the lake’s edge. A huge volcano sat just across the lake. Massive boulders jutted out of the water and several men in canoes rowed by us. We even were offered a ride for twenty-five quetzals, a little more than three dollars. We declined and headed back to our own boat.
On the way back to Panajachel, our boat captain would stop the boat, crawl over the roof from his steering wheel in the back of the boat to where we sat in front, and tell us about the volcanoes around us. It was in Spanish, though, and I only picked up bits and pieces. He let his son steer the boat a few times as we crossed the lake and the boy had to straddle the supporting poles to reach the wheel and see over the dashboard. Once, his son decided to sit down beneath the wheel—which had an open space so he could see below the dashboard—and his hands were high above his head with just his fingers reaching the steering wheel.
Dinner that night in Panajachel was in a restaurant that had little tiki-shack like dining areas. There was the main restaurant, and through the restaurant, there was a table set under a little house with a palm-leaf roof. It just fit five people, which was the number of our group, and was cozy and perfect. We all split a giant pizza and enjoyed the single candle our waiter lit on our table. It was chilly and we enjoyed hot tea and chocolate. After supper, we went for banana splits back down the main road. While waiting in the ice cream parlor, three little boys who looked to be around eight came in and wanted to shine our shoes. We all had tennis shoes on and didn’t need our shoes shined, but Malinda asked them where they were from and we found out two of them were brothers and they really wanted ice cream. Their hands were stained black with boot polish and each on carried a small stool and a wooden toolbox of cleaning supplies. They told us they were five, but we didn’t think they were quite that young. We wondered where their parents were. After ice cream and a late night of eight-thirty, we went back to the hotel and went to sleep. We set the alarm for five-twenty to see the sunrise, but it was raining and no one wanted to get out of bed. Yet, our teacher habits of getting up early wouldn’t let any of us sleep in too late, and we were up by seven-thirty and off to breakfast by eight. The town was very different by morning. The streets were quiet. No one tried to hassle with us about buying things. The tourists that were packing the streets the night before were nowhere to be found. It was pleasant and peaceful. We had a big breakfast of eggs and beans and tortillas from a cute little café and went back down to sit by the lake when we were finished. We sat on the lookout wall and Bek climbed down near the water’s edge to try to skip rocks (unsuccessfully) and give us observers a lesson on rock skipping. After enjoying the peacefulness of the lake and smell of water, we took a bus back to Xela. We had to switch three times again, and the last chicken bus was packed as full as it could possibly get. Every time someone had to get off, we all had to stand up and let him or her by because we were sitting in the aisle, lucky to get one leg on a seat. The guy collecting money grabbed onto a handrail at one point and jumped over people to reach the back. They played Disney’s White Fang in Spanish on the bus, which was a different experience, and we nearly missed our stop in Xela because we were watching the movie. Autumn heard someone shout, “Diecenueve!” and she went, “I think we got on the bus at 19th… This is our stop!” And that is how we made it from Xela to Panajachel and back again safe and sound.
This Thursday we celebrated Faria Chapina at school. Guatemala is getting ready to celebrate Independence Day and this was the school’s version of the massive fair that arrived in Xela this week. Most of the schools in Guatemala get the whole week off to celebrate Guatemala’s Independence, but ours takes three days off next week. The fair is one of the most famous in Guatemala. My host family told Autumn and me that people come from all over central and south America to go to the fair—it is like the State Fair in the US, only it’s a country-wide fair. Our school’s Faria Chapina celebrated with traditional Guatemalan food from vendors and lots of games and socializing set up by the student council. For one ticket, you could vote on what teacher got pie in the face, or for four tickets you could get amazing garnachas, which are little tortillas fried on a flat stove with meat and vegetables added on top. The students could hardly wait until early dismissal so they could celebrate at the school fair. During Bible class, the last class that day, and in which I had a combined class of both kindergarten classes, the kindergartener’s starting chanting, “Feria Chapina! Feria Chapina! Feria Chapina!” while they were supposed to be doing an activity about Abraham and Sarah. It was humorous to see those little bodies gathered on the rug spontaneously bursting into thrilled excitement. I thought, “This is how community works. It is solidarity brought on by similar circumstances, or even a uniting point of reference, and all of the sudden community is twenty papers that get put down and twenty voices that take up the same song, and there it is: Unification.”
Each week during collaboration groups, our mentor asks us our highs and lows of the week. The word “rhythm” kept going through my mind as I thought of the one-month mark of teaching kindergarten. The first week was like trying to herd cats. The second week was like swimming where I could tiptoe and juuuust touch the bottom. But the third week was like magic—someone flipped a switch and all the sudden I had a rhythm to follow. Things started to have a predicable pattern than I could plan for and try to improve in. I knew by the third week which students needed only a quick verbal reminder to behave and which students needed much firmer reminders with much stricter consequences. I figured out how to set expectations up for my students so that they would be more likely to succeed—small things, like telling them not to use markers to draw on the carpet or each other before handing out the dry-erase markers during math sessions.
This. Is. Huge.
I took for granted the things I expect people to know, even little bitty ones, such as how to pass pencils and whiteboards to another person, or what to do with a glue stick. I forget sometimes, too, because they are so quick to pick up on so many other things, that they need reminders about how to walk and not run to the bathroom, or how we certainly don’t use the tables as objects to swing between, or even that we raise our hand before speaking—or once we raise our hand, we have to wait to be called on before shouting an answer. They are eager to share and have yet to learn the robbing self-consciousness of adolescence where the unabashed sharing of an opinion is contingent on if that opinion is the right opinion. I read on a blog about a method of saying, “Me too!” without interrupting the speaker during class sharing time. It is essentially the ‘hang loose’ sign or as my kids call it, ‘the telephone’, and the student can make the sign with their hand and move it towards the people who is speaking and back towards themselves. It has taken practice, but the students are finally getting the hang of just using the sign and not shouting, “Me too!” and interrupting the original sharer.
Michaela, the counselor and elementary’s mentor teacher, talked about logical consequences in the classroom this week. Logical consequences work so that if a student can’t use the markers correctly, he or she doesn’t get to use the markers. Michaela talked about giving students a choice between two things you want them to do where they are the one choosing if they are going to behave. I can say, “You can either finish your work now, or you can stay with me during recess and finish.” The students become responsible for their actions by having a choice. I have been trying to implement it more thoroughly in class this week. Yesterday, I told one student I would give him a choice when he didn’t want to eat his snack, and couldn’t think of a good choice to give him because we were having 4th and 5th grade reading partners come in to class in five minutes and I knew sitting him out of reading time was not going to be particularly motivating for him. I couldn’t think of anything at all, so I told him he could either finish all of his snack, or finish all of his snack. He make the cutest confused face and the whole class started laughing—they are sharp!—and he started laughing, too. Then the whole class wanted choices, and I told them they could either eat their entire snack, or eat their entire snack, and they thought it was great fun. Next time I am going to have to have a choice in mind before I tell them they can choose! I have been learning each day new ways to interact with my students and to change lessons and grow as a teacher as one thing works in class and another does not. It has taken time to reach the point where I feel like there is even a rhythm to follow, but I’m beginning to be able to put my feet in the right places and find some semblance of a path.
I am thankful for each of my students. They are precious little eternal souls soaking up life, and I am thankful that God saw fit to put me in their lives just when he did. They have taught me much, and I can only hope I teach them much as well.