Tip-Toeing To The Tire Turtle

It all started two weeks ago. Actually, the ‘mother project’ has been executed several months before, but the hatching of our turtle could be traced back to the first trip to a dump.

Santa Clara dump

Yes, a dump. We (the Rising Minds team) were to construct a playground for very young Guatemalan kids, and we were to do it in a sustainable, cheap, and empowering way. Inspired by endeavors like the “enTIREly fun playgrounds”, we set off into the tangled roads up the mountains and did a little pinchazo (a sort of tire/car parts shop) orientation. In the towns of Santa Clara, San Juan, and surroundings there were quite a few of those ‘shops’ and with equally clueless expressions, their owners promised to let us take their… trash. All we needed were used useless tires that didn’t have any metal stringy parts sticking out of them. Lesson #1: tires have metal in them. Not always, but when they do, they’re not the safest playground building material. And no worries, we figured that way before anyone got hurt.
So with the good word, we counted 22 promised tires and went back home, very satisfied, and very excited to confirm our sandbox/turtle design.

Things in Guatemala run slightly differently than they do in, let’s say, US. That’s the sole reason why the next day we ended up with only 15 out of those 22 promised tires on top of a Rising Minds’ friends’ van. That did not seem like enough, so decisions had to be made: with very adventurous hearts the three of us (plus the dedicated young son of the driver) slid down the slope and into the Sana Clara dump. We knew there were recently-thrown-away tires there, and all our hopes seemed to lay in there too. A rather questionably hygienic hour later, we had 6 tires more, very dirty hands, and sweaty foreheads. Us rolling the tires up the hill was excruciatingly similar to Sisyphus’ work, and believe me, that comparison was not motivating. But it didn’t matter. Mission accomplished!

It took two more weeks of waiting for the rains to go away and for my co-worker’s engineer dad to come, but we were more than ready and extremely excited to get the actual job done. Upon our arrival in the village of Panyebar, where we were constructing, 11 mothers were waiting for instructions with their kids wrapped in blankets around their backs, and hoes in their hands.

Empowerment: Mothers of Panyebar working on a playground for their kids

It was all work in progress that we needed to figure out as we went: trials and errors, realizations about tire structure (they’re very flexible and not that easy to put a screw in, as the rubber closes on you before you put a bolt through), and capacity/reality checks. Those are just details, though. We got on the job without a blink and finished the same day despite some lags revolving around the lack of washers that would prevent bolts and screws from pulling through the tires.

For stability, we stacked 4 tires on top of each other as the main turtle body part, constructed two-tired legs/shell parts around it, and put two tires half way into the ground to make up for the neck and tail, which brought about a wave of laughs amongst the mothers, as our sometimes-poor Spanish skills made us confuse ‘tail’ with ‘butt’. Cheerful.

The head was a whole new project altogether, and with a limited battery power tools, we had to fight for the eyes to be done out of separate tires rather than painted on. It might have been challenging for two college girls dealing with slim tuk-tuk tires, but the effect was well… well worth it:

Our soon-to-come-to-life Turtle

We came back the next day to paint the playground and make sure the turtle comes to life. Even though the sun there was striking hot the entire day, we still managed to convince the kids to put the play off for one more day to allow it to dry, but I must say, I was curious and excited myself to see them climb the turtle and give it a good endurance test. We’re back there Wednesday, so nothing missed. For now we’ve just decided to stay in the office and stare at our screens, this time decorated with the bright green TURTLE pictures.

THE TURTLE: Recycled Tire Playground

More photos of the process HERE.

¡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.

A no-longer-blonde adventure

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Guatemala City Central Park

Every now and then I have an urge to do something to my hair. Whether it’s going bald (almost for a cause) or an amateur asymmetrical cut, it never seems to surprise my friends. So I went ginger for a change, and with that, I went to Guatemala.

As a lonely, vulnerable woman, I pulled each and every single string I could to connect with friends, and friends of friends, and their friends, so my loneliness wouldn’t last longer than my flight.  And it worked! Upon my arrival to Guatemala City a smile (familiar only from facebook), greeted me from across the little gate. My enthusiasm confused several taxi drivers who almost got a client – or so they thought – and I rushed with two backpacks (one front, one back) to meet my temporary host.

The capital was only a short stop for me, however nice, because I ambitiously decided to do more studying just after finishing the semester at college. Spanish School, here I come! After all, that’s one of the things gringos believe Guatemala is famous for. So after two full days of relaxing, I got escorted to a bus stop at 5.30am and… left alone. Predicted, prepared for, and not so new to me. But it always strikes.

I had a lot of time to observe. And as much as I am used to vendors entering the bus at every stop and pitching their product in extremely fast Spanish, I never realized how invisible I could be. It’s always the foreigners who get the most (oftentimes unwanted) attention, but for these salesmen we’re good only to be overlooked. Soon enough, I realized that without me expressing active interest, they will assume I know no Spanish, have no idea about their ways, and am no potential customer. I might have been slightly hungry by then, but being ignored never felt as comfortable.

So I reached my destination, chit-chatted with a rather bored, customer-less taxi driver, decided I shall use no English from now on, and knocked heavily on the school’s door. Barely a formality.

Now, with my own room in a Guatemalan house, an actual local phone number, improved Spanish, and no-longer-blonde hair, I almost feel like a native. Maybe I can cross “sign up for couchsurfing!” off of my TO-DO list.