Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Chicken Bus

Everyday, to get from Antigua to Guatemala city, I take what´s called a chicken bus, a uniquely Central American creation. This is basically an old school bus that has been repainted from its original yellow to a variety of bright colours, and is used as public transportation between cities throughout Guatemala. Often, they have a new front end put on, to help get through the mountainous terrain, not to mention achieve some pretty terrifying speed and unlikely acceleration. Each driver has an assistant to help collect fares, to direct the passengers to the bus and the vehicular traffic around the bus. They´re really good at the directing passengers to the bus part... so good that most rides feature 3 people in a seat designed for two, as well as numerous people standing (luckily, they´ve added some extra bars for holding on to). Pretty much all chicken buses (at least the reputable ones) have a name. Mine is called Primorosa and she´s been pretty good to me. (Actually, there are a few Primorosas... I think the name helps people figure out exactly the route it´s going on, or else maybe who owns it).

This week, I´ve developed an incredible knack for having the fattest lady on the bus decide to take the seat next to me. This is especially remarkable considering how skinny and generally small most guatemalans are - obese guatemalans must make up a very small percentage of the population. I´m not quite sure what I´m doing to make myself so irresistable to these particular females, but I would like to learn how to stop.

Tomorrow is my last day commuting to Guatemala City via chicken bus, as well as volunteering at the project. I´ll miss both the bus and the school. The fat ladies... not so much.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Guatemala, in sickness and in health

I´ve made it to the halfway point of my Guatemala trip, although not without mishap. Shortly after writing my last blog entry, I started feeling a little off. After my first day at the projet on Monday, I came home, and couldn´t sleep because my stomach was hurting so badly. Long story short, I didn´t make it into the school in Guatemala City on Tuesday, because my body was busy expelling the toxins that I´d ingested in the local cuisine, leaving me weak and feverish. Luckily, I recovered enough to make it into school on Wednesday, and started eating proper meals again on Thursday. Oh food, my old friend, how I missed you.

School has been going okay as well. The grade 2´s and 3´s have learned that I make a fun jungle gym, especially the boys, and they spend much of their time hanging off me. The grade 4 &5 girls have been a little slower to warm up to me, but I´m starting to have stilted conversations with some of them. Which is really my main obstacle - my near total lack of spanish. I mean, I know enough to do tourist stuff, but when it comes to being in a classroom for a full day, I´m mostly pretty lost, and have admittedly felt kind of useless much of the time. When I take the bus in in the morning, I´m filled with dread - not because the school is that horrible, but I think because the atmosphere of the neighbourhood is so depressing and opressive that it hits me like a strong smell every time we drive into Guatemala City. (Although, then again, that could be any of the number of actual strong smells that pervade Guatemala, such as diesel fuel, garbage, etc.)

Anyway, in a nutshel, the days are long, and not easy, but they have their moments. Many of the kids are so cute they make me want to puke - but in a totally good way.

This past weekend, I got to be a tourist for a couple of days. On Saturday, I went to Lake Atitlan, a deep lake surrounded by volcanoes a couple of hours outside of Antigua. The air was fresh, and the town I stayed in, Panajachel, was laid back and pretty - a perfect respite to my hectic urban Guatemalan week. I hung out on the beach there a bit - not a spectacular beach by any means, but any beach in a tropical country can´t be all bad. I took a boat trip to a nearby city, Santiago. There was a music festival just outside of Santiago - after getting off the boat, I took a Tuktuk there ("Tuktuk" being a type of taxi that consists of a scooter with a contraption built onto it to allow passengers to sit behind the driver. I presume it´s named after the sound it makes.) After riding in the tuktuk along the lakeside, passing mayan women washing clothes in the lake, I came to a field in the middle of nowhere where a makeshift stage was setup with a big band playing latin music, while a mostly white audience sat or stood or danced. That night, I ate dinner overlooking the water, with the lights of the town of San Pedro visible across the lake like a cluster of stars, and a quarter moon in the sky bright enough to make the silhouette of the nearby volcanoes visible.

Sunday, I went to Chichicastenango, famous for its sunday market day. As advertised, it was huge, crowded, busy, and haggle-tastic. I bought a bunch of crap, since that´s all there really is to do there.

Anyway, I´m exhausted as usual after my day of school. Hasta luego!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

From a Scarborough visual art classroom to Guatemala

Apologies for the silence on the blog front. Since I last blogged, I finished my last 4 weeks of classroom teaching, thus completing the requisite number of hours required by the ministry of education to receive my teaching license. I also turned 30 (most everyone reading this was likely at the party, which was an absolute blast. Thanks to all those who attended, for making it totally memorable. Well, except for some brief forgettable moments later in the evening, and the next day, which I´ve since chosen to forget.)

As you can see, it´s been a busy past month. I should also mention that I´m in Guatemala. I´ve spent the past week trying, with marginal success, to learn spanish. I´ve taken classes every morning this past week for 5 hours a day starting at 8am, with Rafael, my teacher. I´ve attempted to tell him my life story, along with details about the geography of canada, all in spanish, while trying to properly conjugate verbs (as long as they´re in present or future tenses... I have no idea about past tense), and the difference between "por" and "para".
My hotel is amazing, and Antigua is an incredible city. It´s a maze of decrepid colonial architecture, painted deep pinks, yellows, oranges and reds, all surrounded by volcanos. One Volcano looms to the south, remarkably close to the city, and another to the West, Fuego, has been having small eruptions lately, sending plumes of grey smoke into the sky. Yesterday, I hiked up Volcan Pacaya, another active volcano just outside of the city. I didn´t get all that close to the top, but I was close enough to see rivulets and bursts of orange-red from near the apex. I climbed through black volcanic rock as far as I could see, while bursts of heat came from cracks in the rock below my feet. In short, it was awesome.

On Friday, I went on a tour of Camino Seguro, the school where I start volunteering tomorrow. Most of the various buildings they use were modest but clean and functional. A couple of them, including the building that houses the grade 2 class I´ll be helping out in, are quite new. The neighbourhood is basically a slum, consisting mostly of shacks constructed from corrugated iron. We also drove to the Guatemala City cemetery, which overlooks the garbage dump. There were clusters of hundreds of people swarming around the newly arrived trucks of refuse, trying to pick through the mess for recyclables they can sell. Overhead and perched on nearby crypts were at least as many vultures as there were people in the dump. Making all this even more surreal is the bright Guatemalan sun shining down through the haze of methane gas that hovers in the air.

Anyway, that should mostly bring things up to date. This week will be a busy one. I´ll try to get pictures online soon, along with another Guatemala update in a week or two.