The case for Uruguay

I still remember killing a rainy afternoon in Costa Rica over two years ago by simply trying to name as many countries and their capitals as my memory allowed. Of course, the non-boring factor of this rather straightforward game was my friend competing against me, but after we both realized our geographic orientation was pretty much on the same level, we started collaborating on filling the blanks.

And in South America, I was definitely confusing Uruguay, Paraguay, and the Guianas, not to mention Suriname. Actually, I still need a tad of help from Google to put everything up north in order, but I’m definitely (and thankfully) worlds away from ever asking “Uruguay? Is that in… where exactly is Uruguay? Africa?”. Well, to eliminate any doubts, Uruguay is right here:

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Sandwiched between two giants, Uruguay has probably remained unknown to many, save for the Simpsons’ fans who watched Homer misread its name as… “U R GAY”, or Argentina guidebook holders that flipped through the last chapter dedicated to… yes, the entire country of Uruguay. It doesn’t get much better than that. After my visit there, all excited, I shared some revelations about this tiny, impressive place with a friend who just looked at me and replied “Really? Uruguay? I thought it’s some poor 3rd world country…”. And not even that! My Uruguayan host, in good humor, told me how amongst Latinos his home country is referred to as an “extension of Argentina” or “the Europeans” and his Spanish misunderstood because of the yeísmo-filled accent.

Let me tell you – this fun-sized country might actually be a pleasant day trip away from Buenos Aires, but it is SO worth staying for longer, and staying in more places than just the touristy, overrated (World Heritage Site nonetheless) Colonia del Sacramento!

There’s definitely enough to intrigue and/or impress you: Uruguay’s population is only 3.3 million, but the vast majority (in the number of 1.8 million) fits in the capital, Montevideo, which is still roughly only one fifth of the area of Buenos Aires (and one tenth of its population… so much more space!). But hey, it’s still not the smallest country in South America!

And have you yet heard of the ‘poorest’ president in the world, who not only lives on a farm (he’s actually a farmer by profession according to Wiki), but gives out 90% of his earnings to charity? Yea, he’s Uruguayan. The president of the most socially liberal democratic country in the whole of Latin America, where same-sex marriage is about to become legal at the beginning of August (even though civil unions were recognized nationally since 2008), abortion has been legalized in 2012, and the possession of drugs for personal use has never been a crime.

More? All museums and cultural centers are free (with very few exceptions), and if you’re about to ask about food – fear not. Uruguay is the number #1 beef consumer in the world beating Argentina not only in steak-eating, but also in the amount of cows per capita in the country. It’s 4 animals per each citizen in Uruguay, while it’s only mere 1.1 cows per an Argentine. This really is a fun fact, though not my favorite, since I’m a vegetarian, but I still did not have any problems getting fed over there, even when we went over to a friend’s friend’s place for dinner.

All I’m saying for now is that everyone deserves a chance. Listen to the stereotypes, put them in your pocket, and go prove all those preachers wrong! I had a curiously amazing time visiting Uruguay, and I am most definitely coming back for a much more elaborate tour – hopefully under the full-blown sun that they carry on their flag.

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The perks of being a procrastinator (a.k.a. “busy”)

One pat on the back and I disappear into the ether. Call me a quitter, a lazy bum, or whatever else you want – I’ll excuse myself with being… busy. It will be a white lie, if you will. After a major part of the summer in Guatemala I wandered off back to the great land of North America, picked my Mom from the Boston Logan airport, and took her by hand to explore seven states that to a Polish woman from a relatively small town who has never traveled across the Atlantic represented the United States of America. Starting off with Boston, we followed to Providence (the only real reason being that I live there…), NYC, Niagara Falls, LA, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Denver. Choice and itinerary being mostly subjective and random, it actually took us a month to complete. Only to finish right where I started: college.

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I’ll leave those few months out for mostly un-entertaining motives, and the fact that I didn’t get into the travel writing class. Hop, skip, and I finally have a one-way ticket to Poland, and a one-way ticket to Argentina. Since the dates on those two varied by 2 months, and I was actually bound to start a semester of study abroad, I relaxed by ‘skiing’ some in the Tatra mountains, and then decided to visit Uni folks on a mini-tour around main European attractions that I wanted to see. “To see” referring to both the ‘folks’ (or rather dear friends), and, well, attractions. A week in London, a week in Paris, and a week in Barcelona later I was putting my suitcase on a weighing scale praying, per usual, that it does not exceed 23kg. It did.

I’ve been a resident of Buenos Aires, Argentina for over two full months now (OK, jokes, my residency papers haven’t been processed yet – such is bureaucracy. And Argentina). I’ve gone through periods of excitement, tiredness, confusion, inspiration, and you-name-it only to keep yearning for more. Which, again, kept me too ‘busy’ to share my view of this marvel of a city with the world. Now my friends in the US are spamming my Facebook newsfeed with “It’s finals period!” posts while I haven’t yet started midterms… it will get truly miserable by July, when I will be in the major minority of still active, exam-taking students drowning in the sea of vacation and best-internship-of-my-life photos and accounts. 

The irony is that since last summer, like never before, I’ve been travelling with my laptop to destinations filled with Wi-Fi, and took copious cryptic notes on “Stickies”, Post-Its, bills, and flight tickets, only to tell myself “I’ll write it all out tomorrow”. Everyone can guess how that ended. It simply never begun.

 Now I’m lost, because everything on WordPress has changed. Just like me.

The Best Way to Cure a Hangover

I knew, stated, and confirmed that I would come back to Xela one day. As much as it was predictable that such thing would happen in the span of July, my last month in Guatemala, I had no idea it would be only after three weeks of living in San Juan.

Las Fuentes Georginas

Dreams do come true, I tell you! After only commenting on a picture of beautiful Las Fuentes Georginas (quote-in-quote “WHERE IS THIS PLACE?!”), Marina, my friend who decided to share this NGO internship in Guatemala experience with me, had her way to convince us to spend a day in this gorgeous natural spa. It just so happened to be the weekend of my recently acquired friends’ birthday, and guess what? He lives and throws parties in Xela exactly. We packed our backpacks lightly, put away some money for champagne and Quetzalteca (local white rum that has an image of traditionally dressed Guatemalan woman as a logo), made sure our swimsuits are ready and took the infamous chicken bus to Xela (Quetzaltenango).

Quetzalteca

The problem was, the drivers here just want to pack anyone and everyone inside their vehicles, so instead of explaining to us we’re boarding a bus to Guatemala not Xela, they just rushed us in and assured everything’s going to be alright.

Except it wasn’t.

Instead of just sitting uncomfortably for 3 hours, we ended up hanging out on the side of a “highway” not of out of our own choice and changing buses 3 times before we got where we were supposed to be. Then I realized I don’t know the city as well as I though I did, and we walked forever before reaching our very first and very important stop: Xela Pan. Now, literally it just translates to Xela’s bread, but goodness! This bakery offers quality pastries (real éclairs!) for half a dollar. I’m sort of glad I had to move to San Juan – otherwise I might have ended up twice as heavy as I usually am.
Two of us split three of those delicious, creamy mood-lifters, and partied the rest of the afternoon and night away. In the rhythm of salsa, of course!

The very foggy spa

The next day started with a perfect (but scary, since it was incredibly foggy) 20min drive to the Hot Springs, followed by very hangover-friendly relaxation. The weather might not have been the most desired, but feeling the cold rain on our faces while soaking the rest of our bodies in comforting hot water felt incredibly freeing. It very well might have been the first time ever since we started interning that no one thought about work, at least for an hour or two.  With all the skin hydration and wrinkly fingers, we ate tortillas like one should in Guatemala and drove back, a little less tense about the road and actually… anything else, really.

Too bad that on our way back, all the relaxation faded away as soon as we heard “Buses to San Pedro don’t run on Sundays”. Perfect. Three bus-switches later, we just went for a tuk-tuk (aka rickshaw) lift and fell onto our respective beds. Sleeping after that weekend was even more delicious than the Xela Pan éclairs. Especially because I most surely dreamt of them.

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.

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:

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(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.