I can easily imagine myself sitting at the airport in June wondering where the time has gone. I can still see myself last July, packing for the year. Christmas break came and is gone and it seems like little time at all.
Many people over Christmas break asked me what exactly it was like living in Guatemala: what was the city like? What did I eat? What were the houses like?
Quetzaltenango is 150 some thousand people. It looks like someone took European influences and tossed them together with Latin American culture to create solid walls of multi-colored blocks of cement with window boxes under intricately wrought iron bars. Inside the solid line of wall are the houses. Most doors open to a courtyard for the car or cars. Some have rooms around the courtyard like a fort, and in others, the houses stand behind and rise up narrowly but some two to three stories tall. Supermarkets are not a universal necessity, and markets and tiendas wait around every corner. Tiendas are small shops set into one room selling anything from hangers, canola oil and jewelry to chocolates and cigarettes—some even put minutes back on your phone. There are fabric tiendas selling quilting materials; snack tiendas selling drinks and bagged food; there are miscellaneous tiendas selling most everything else. The stores often have barred counters with openings cut in the iron wide enough to put money through and get your knickknacks backs. The markets remind me of what I imagine medieval markets would have been like, except in the largest markets, they sell not just food, but modern conveniences like household goods, as well as shoes and clothes. The women put tarps down—sometimes—and lay out burlap bags of vegetables and woven baskets of fruit. Or they stack red and blue plastic crates on top of each other and to make the produce higher off the ground. Often a sample of a fruit like papaya or avocado is cut open and arranged on top of the rest of the pile to entice customers to buy the ripe produce. Some ladies have large yard umbrellas in beach-ball colors wedged among the fruits and vegetables to give shade. Others are shelling peas or weighing out produce in hanging scales counter-weighted by more fruits and vegetables, and then there are the ladies who are washing carrots or radishes in dirty water in a bucket or the dirtier water of the street. The dark hair of the women is often braided in two braids down her back with ribbon woven throughout and tied together at the bottom. Most wear the indigenous woven skirts and the huipil of the Mayans. The clothing booths are normally more elaborate. Tarps enclose the booth and the clothes are on racks or on mannequins or hanging from grids. Other times, the clothes are thrown in a pile on a table or the ground, occasionally folded. You can buy silk curtains and used shoes; new phones and pirated movies; Hollister sweatshirts and cheap trinkets. People walk by selling belts or scarves from where they are hanging from an arm, or carrying a cotton candy holder selling candy and Santa hats. There are fish in tanks and birds in cages under heating lamps. The streets are chaotic with microbuses and people and cars bustling about through the markets.
The city has lovely Greek architecture in the theatre, intricately carved wooden doors down the streets, beautiful courtyards full of flowers and trees, the fanciest Taco Bell I have ever seen, tall and stately churches, and also houses that have the dirt walls exposed under the cement façade, streets full of trash and potholes, tin shacks next to ornate cinderblock houses, washed-out dirt roads shooting off from newly laid builders-stones. It is a city of contrasts.
Our house mom, Ana Maria is a very good cook and we have tamales and lots of tortillas, eggs and beans, tostadas, rice and meat, and cooked vegetables. Ana Maria told Autumn and me that the city had just tested the water and found three parasites in the city water supply. As of that night, I have been using filtered water to brush my teeth. No one drinks the water in the city, but most people who have been raised here have immunity to the parasites. Not so for those who have only been here for a few months.
Last week, several of the teachers and I hiked an extinct volcano called Chicabal with a lake in the crater at the top. The lake is sacred to the Mayans’ and on our way out of the crater, we were in the midst of a procession of brightly clad women and men in dress pants and shirts who had just come from some sort of ceremony. The lake was a deep blue; clouds would roll over the edges of the crater suddenly, snake among the trees and over the lake like mist and just as quickly, would clear away again. Once we hiked to the top of the volcano, there are so many steps down into the crater and to the lake that my legs were shaking by the time I reached the bottom. The crawl out proved more difficult and quite a bit slower, but well worth the effort to see Laguna Chicabal. We rounded off the day with ice cream from a tienda at the bottom of the park and considered it a pretty good day.
Classes these past weeks have been a lot of fun. I can watch my kids mature and learn right before my eyes. One of my students asked me what lightning was. As I was pulling up a YouTube video about the weather, he conjectured, “Maybe all the electricity of the earth evaporates like water and goes into the clouds, and when there is too much, it gets heavy and comes down!” Lightening impressed him and we watched the video on how it was formed twice through.
My class has also been obsessed with cheetahs lately. Instead of reading, I will catch them growling at each other, the book about cheetahs in the middle of the circled mob. I have read them the book several times by now, but they are never tired of it. They like running like a cheetah, growling like a cheetah, making claws out of their hands like a cheetah and apparently reading like a cheetah. This week, they have switched to wolves and I have decided the call of the wild must be universal. I got a story of wolves from the library that had an audio recording with it. The background of the story had wolves howling as the book was read aloud and I played it during snack time last week. My kids would be eating or playing around until the wolves started howling. As soon as one wolf started, my kids joined in, dropping whatever they were doing, until my class was a pack of howling children.
January 30th was the 100th day of school. My class and I dressed as 100-year-old people. I did my hair in a messy old-lady bun. One of Sharde’s kindergartener’s walked by me going to the cafeteria and informed me, “Miss Cowan, you are lazy!” Sharde asked her why and she said it was because my hair was a mess. One of my students had a cotton ball wig and another had fake grey bushy eyebrows pasted on. Other students had hats they told me were for old men, and most wore glasses. We had a parade around the schoolyard before starting class. It was hard to have the proper seriousness for subjects like math when a grey-mustached six-year-old would growl like a cheetah at his friend across the carpet.
It doesn’t seem possible that I am starting the fifth week of teaching since getting back, and to think that next month will be the end of the third quarter of the school year is hard to grasp. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers and continued support of my Guatemalan journey. Until next time, Buenos Noches!