Round and round the San Juan Eye

The San Juan fair Ferris Wheel

At the very moment I live in San Juan la Laguna, a small purely Guatemalan town on the shore of Lake Atitlan. It’s 10min and 10 Quetzales (local currency) away from another small Guatemalan town – San Pedro – which is filled with global citizens, vagabonds, temporary explorers, Spanish students, and other sorts of blondes on the go. The dynamics, frankly, are quite amusing – going from one corner (Mashroom? Something special?) to another (fried plaintain, huipiles – traditional clothing, and the sound of a woman’s hands clapping tortillas) might be a surprisingly long trip, as almost no one makes it to San Juan from San Pedro.

Well I did, and what a treat it is! I’m not going to praise the wonders of homestays abroad just yet, but my lovely summer-2012-family made sure I squeeze some local fair amusement into my already busy schedule.

As we were leaving the house, Arly, my recent little host-sister, grabbed my arm knowing very well that once we enter the crowds, there will be nothing else. I stumped awkwardly, rising above everyone else (5’9’’ never felt that tall), falling over my own ankle-long skirt. But there we were, in the center of action, arm in arm with every single citizen of San Juan and surrounding pueblos, passing stalls of hot pizza and getting dangerously close to the rueda. Rueda is a Ferris Wheel. Just like the London Eye, only that the San Juan Eye is not so large and fancy, but made of put together PVC pipes and flickering Christmas-like lights. It’s large enough to require a certain amount of life-risking leanings for someone to try out this (un)stable entertainment, though.

“Which one are you going for?” asked my host mom with a slightly crazed look, catching onto Arly’s hand. There were two Eyes, the small one completely shadowed (both literally and metaphorically) by the Big Eye. I said Big. I wasn’t sure why. I only figured that since I’ll live here for a total of 6 weeks, I should sooner or later face this attraction.

With Arly and her older (not at all amused) brother Allan, we bought tickets ($0.75 each – all you need to risk your life and any recent meals) and stepped onto the trembling steps of the bizarre construction. It started moving and swinging us slowly, barely reaching the top of the circle. I thought “Well, that was fun, nice view of the surrounding areas, too shaky to let go of the securing bar and take out my camera, but still worth the 5Q.” I smiled at my little host sister, feeling like the real protector (it was her first time on the Big wheel too), and completely froze as we started speeding up without a warning. It made my stomachs shift around. I couldn’t count how many times we made the top, neither how many more screams I’ve heard. I kept looking to the side, half watching out for the little girl, half avoiding looking front (and much worse – down!) and full avoiding thinking of the fragility of the Big Eye. Then it slowed down. Along with my heartbeat, my breath, and mortal thoughts.

I smiled, made a barely correct comment in Spanish to Arly, and she only replied “Y ahora atras!”. What? As in… back? How… back? Back? No, back. No!
But it happened. We gained speed and started all over again, only in reverse. I thanked God and my Host Mom in my mind for putting dinner off for later. My fingers clinging onto the seat, my skirt flying up (how, oh how, could have I predicted that?), I leaned back and looked for the tad of enjoyment I must have been getting out of it, but found only shaky limbs. How is this happening to me, me who last year desperately (hence successfully) wanted to find a bungee jumping spot in the middle of Warsaw, in Poland?

I still smiled away, keeping the Big Sister authority untouched – we were finally done. Without a second look back, we left and headed straight to one of the street pizza stalls, where I had to remind everyone around that vegetarians do not eat ham by giving out tiny slices to the family members. Sharing is caring, huh? As long as I don’t have to share any more seats on a random Ferris Wheel in an unknown country.

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Show me your chicken

Lake Atitlan

There is no travelling through Latin America without any “slightly shocking” bus rides. It’s not even exclusive to the Americas – those little local buses run around the whole developing world. Once you board a converted-yellow-US-school-bus you’ll know what I mean when I say these are special. To my own surprise I boarded the first ‘local’ bus in Guatemala only a few days ago. What a ride!

Oh, it’s quite important to mention they’re called chicken buses, at least here in Central America. Of course, there’s a very good reason for that. I wish I had a picture that expresses more than a 1,000 words, but I missed my best-ever opportunity. Seating in the third row on the left, I peaked over my book (you can’t really read on such bumpy roads) and saw a… chicken peaking over a hole in its card box. I swear we even made eye contact.

I dropped it fast and turned to search for my camera, but those lovely chicken buses have so little leg space, that my backpack was impossible to pull up from under my knees without doing some serious yoga on the spot. And I’m not able to do that. So it took me a good five minutes, and trying to be secretive and technologically-culturally sensitive, I directed the lens at the box and… the chicken was gone! It hid inside, getting more bored than curious over (I guess) a usual view. My once in a lifetime opportunity was gone forever i.e. until the next such ride.
“Show me your chicken” I kept thinking while peaking over every minute and a half, before I realized my English phrasing might get really awkward sometimes, whether only in my thoughts or documented on my blog. Either way, the charm didn’t work.

I was absolutely disappointed in myself and the missed opportunity, but the rather foggy window provided me with enough entertainment instead. Soon enough I saw the beautiful spread of Lake Atitlan in front of me, and just as I was about to gasp and smile to myself we turned around yet another corner and a few wildly posed excavators were feeding on a nearby hill. So much for the hopeful, breathtaking views.

It did turn a little nicer and more positive when I noticed two grown men playing with a ball on a gas station by the road. It wasn’t even a soccer ball or anything of the more-professional sort, no. It was a simple, small, rubber ball like the first one you ever got as a 4-year-old child. They seemed happy. Adorable, truly.

Then I felt the guy’s next to me head falling heavily onto my shoulder. He was fast asleep, thank heavens he wasn’t snoring, and I tried really subtly to move away in the little space I had to coordinate within, but I wasn’t as successful as I wished. I quickly remember that one time I fell asleep on an unknown Indian man’s shoulder traveling back in high school after an all-nighter at a train station. Funnily, I had a group of friends with me who instead of waking me up thought it would be hilarious to see my face once I wake up and realize what’s happening. This Guatemalan guy to my right had no friends there to either wake him up or laugh at him soon after – he was forgiven and, frankly, ignored.

Falling from one hill onto another, I let myself enjoy the beauty of this overtly-cheap and questionably-safe, unpredicted rollercoaster ride. Highly recommended (but not for your nerves).

¡No eres gringa!

Parque el Calvario, Xela, Guatemala

Assimilation is not that difficult. Proficiency in Spanish helps indescribably, but more than that it’s the people around. I’ve been constantly impressed by their willingness to teach, learn, exchange, and have fun with us foreigners. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the city of Xela for a week or three months – they will treat you like a great friend after a mere introduction and make sure your impressions of Guatemala stay positive as you leave. They sneakily plant in you a craving to come back, too. I’ve barely arrived, but am already falling for Guatemala and Xela itself, and am seriously wondering… “when will I come back here?”
Now, from someone who wants to visit a new country each time she leaves her home – wherever it might be at the time – it’s a huge compliment. A huge mystery, too. The vibe here seems clinging and drawing you in, the community appears so small and so available, but at the same time so diverse and dynamic. No wonder people genuinely want to be a part of it.

I arrived on Wednesday, and within a few hours I was enjoying the stories from other students sharing their much-longer-term impressions of the city with me over a cup of hot chocolate. During a salsa class I met a guy who had a Polish friend, and of course I insisted he introduces us, so my Saturday night was set. On a Friday, a few of my fellow students were sharing home-made pizza, so I joined eagerly only to make a lot of friends from all over Guatemala studying in Xela, who showed me both the local cantinas (small, local sort of “bars’), and hidden art galleries and museums. One of my self-proclaimed guides went as far as to say I’m not even a gringa.
“Your Spanish is good, and you’re not from the States!”
As weird as that statement was, and as much as I disagreed with it, his words still made me feel a little proud of myself. I will never be taken for a local, but if someone who gets to know me can at least see past my tourist self, I’ll take it.

As soon as I’m satisfied with my situation and network development, I have to leave. That experience, however, definitely makes me much less anxious about being in San Pedro for 6 weeks. I know that I will find other ‘vagabonds’, and soon enough my dear Brazilian friend will join me in the effort of gaining job experience and having a successfully relaxing and fun summer.

After seeing the loveliness of the Guatemalan life (especially on a Sunday, where all businesses besides those selling ice-cream and street snacks close, and whole families stay on playgrounds with their overtly energetic, smiley children) I can’t wait for more!
With a single kiss on a cheek for both a hello and a goodbye, I’m leaving Xela.

The mysteries of merging cultures

Once upon a time the Mayans lived in peace. They led their lives uninterrupted planting corn, weaving beautiful fabrics, and following their rituals without the slightest awareness of Christianity or the Spaniards. As we all know, it changed substantially, and right now, what you can see in Guatemala is an amusing mixture of the ancient with the modern.

Yesterday, as the only student at my Spanish school signed up for an afternoon activity (oh, I would), I went with my teacher to the village named Zunil, in the mountains of Guatemala. It’s small, busy, colorful, very agricultural, and for a reason I don’t know full of vulture birds. It struck me, as in between the sights of traditionally dressed women caring baskets full of produce on their heads, I faced big, black birds with ugly faces covered in what reminded me of gray Halloween masks. It wasn’t the main attraction, though. Zunil is famous for its image of San Simon.

I was told beforehand that it’s some sort of a statue of a powerful saint who can solve your problems after an appropriate prayer or “sacrifice” like a lit candle and 5 Quetzales (half a dollar).  Oh how surprised I was when I laid my eyes on a wooden, dressed-up doll.

Let me start from the beginning. The image is in one of the local houses, just a bare, gray, concrete room. Inside, there were a few indigenous women sitting on chairs by the left wall, busy with what I assume were some domestic tasks. Seeing me, one of them jumped to collect the entrance fee, and with a valuable piece of paper in her hand went back to whatever she was doing. I looked at the saint. He was on a pedestal, situated in a chair faced by a chorus of tall, lit candles and some flowers. His face was covered half by a cowboy hat, and half by modern-looking sunglasses. He was wearing a mouth covering black bandana too. I turned to my teacher trying to voicelessly ask… something, when I smelled a cigarette. It was stuck in San Simon’s face. Then I noticed there’s a liquor bottle on the floor, too. Well, I guess a man wearing a suit jacket, ironed black pants, and shiny shoes (not mentioning the shininess of whatever was visible of his face) needs to have some fun. What was even more interesting, was the towel in the colors of the American flag wrapped around his shoulders, black winter gloves covering his palms, and the silver chain with several rings on it hanging down his chest. Oh, I almost forgot about the donation basket in his lap.

Can’t picture it yet? Let me help you with that:

Image

(photo credit goes to: http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/ang_kenny/1/1268697726/tpod.html#pbrowser/ang_kenny/1/1268697726/filename=san-simon-effigy-in-zunil.jpg)

I was astonished. As someone who was raised catholic, I am used to praising shrines and statues, but this one was so different, it took me a while to wrap my head around it. He’s considered powerful. The young ask him for love. The brave for a successful journey to the US (I guess that’s why the towel-flag). The sick for health. The helpless for inspiration and confidence. I must say it was an experience. An experience with a lot of religious perspective.

Droplets of chocolate

Guatemalan hot chocolate

I can’t just simply walk by a place that has something to do with chocolate.

There are many, many reasons why I keep coming back to Latin America, but I just realized that there always is a chocolateria or a chocolate museum in the big city. I never fail to have a look, and most of the time a taste too. This past Wednesday, I reached an epiphany through following my language school’s effort of gringo enculturation: a trip to a chocolateria.

Before my mouth starts watering at the thought of it, I’ll get you started on your chocolate education:
Basics, essentials, and everything that’s good for you:
– Chocolate makes you feel better – its natural antidepressant (tryptophan) helps your body create serotonin
– Chocolate is an aphrodisiac – chemicals found in cacao (like theobromine) act as mild sexual stimulants
– Chocolate is good for your heart – it contains high quality anti-oxidants that have anticanceric properties and can protect you from heart diseases
Fun facts:
– 875,000 chocolate chips would provide you with enough energy to walk… around the world!
– Having chocolate melt in your mouth increases your brain activity and heart rate more intensely than passionate kissing. And guess what – it lasts four times longer
– Chocolate causing acne is a popular belief, but… it’s a myth.
Cultural bits and pieces:
– For every chocolate bar consumed by the Chinese, the British eat 1,000. Yes, a 1,000!
– 1 in every 200 workers in Belgium is involved in the chocolate industry
– ~61% of cocoa beans used for world’s chocolate production come from Africa
(all of these facts were reproduced from Choco Museo’s exhibition boards in Granada, Nicaragua)

And while Guatemala produces barely 1% of chocolate out there, it really is worth trying. During our relatively short visit in the museum/shop, we watched a documentary about cocoa’s history, and ate three desserts each. Before we calmed down from the excitement brought by chocolate dipped fruit, a chocolate-infused yoghurt was served, then as a break each of us got a block of cocoa paste to play with (a.k.a. ‘design your own chocolate bar’), and to top it off, everyone drank a glass of delicious, genuine, organic hot chocolate. All of it for under $3.

As the chocolateria owner Doña Pancha told us, 50g of chocolate a day in any form (maybe besides the added fat and sugar) can lead you through a healthy, strong, and delicious life. So treat yourself, you have all the excuses you’ll ever need.