Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Queridos amigos y familia,

Hola desde Oaxaca! Our trip is coming to an end and I’ve been lax in my writing. Too many different cities with too little internet access and too much going on are to blame, I suppose! While three weeks or so is a lot to cover in one last letter, I’ll do my best.

Our last week and a bit in Nahuala went by in a whirl. We spent the final weekend on a class trip that took us to a number of different K’iche’ speaking areas – Santa Maria del Quiche, Chichicastenango, Zacualpa, Santa Maria Chiquimula, and Totonicapan, as well as few other stops along the way. Most of the places we visited were former field sites of our professors, and so we were able to participate in some intriguing discussions with their colleagues and friends from years past. Aside from the brief visit I made with a few friends to a hotel that had played a major role in my seminar paper from last year (the Mayan Inn in Chichicastenango, the first hotel in the Highlands), the highlight of the trip for me was the night we spent in a monastery in Zacualpa. While it was not exactly a cheery stay – the monastery had been taken over by the military during the 1980s and used as a torture camp – the tour and talk we were given by the Mother Superior about the church’s efforts to collect stories, identify bodies, and work with the community to recover from the horrors of those years really brought home many of the books I’ve read about Guatemala and the lectures we had previously heard. While the stay ended in us getting an angry phone call from the same Mother Superior for having absconded with the keys to the dormitory and one of our professors having to take a long drive back to return them, it will definitely stay with me as a thought-provoking and heart-wrenching visit.

On our return to Nahuala, we were treated to a week of good bye parties with our families and the community (as well as a final exam, of course). Thursday evening was the big fiesta, with each of us giving a brief thank you speech in K’iche’, accompanied by many longer speeches from teachers and family members, as well as traditional dancing by school children of all ages. While we did not get to see the chicken sacrificing dance that a few people in the course had seen at other times with their families, we did get dragged down to the dance floor to do our best to keep up with the high schoolers and five year olds. As our families had dressed us all up in their finest clothes, we must have been quite a sight! Someone managed to get it all on tape, I believe, so hopefully we’ll all get a copy to remember it by. It was a beautiful (the huipils the women were wearing were incredible works of art) and fun way to say thank you to the community and celebrate the time we’d spent together, even if it was followed the next morning by sad good byes.

As I had a week to spare before my mom arrived, I took some time to unwind and say goodbye to my classmates in Antigua, taking hot showers, doing a bit of shopping, and eating lots of dessert. I then caught a ride with one of my professors up to Coban (not to be confused with Copan, Honduras, where the ruins are – this one is smack in the middle of Guatemala’s cloud forest and coffee country) where I enjoyed a couple days by myself, meeting people in my hostel and visiting the natural pools at Semuc Champey and seeing the bats fly out of the Lanquin Caves at sunset. Of all the places I’ve been on this trip, Semuc Champey, and all of Coban, for that matter, rate as some of the most naturally beautiful. The pools at Semuc Champey are created as a river goes below ground for some 300 meters, resulting in astonishing and terrifying white water at the entrance and exit and gloriously clear water, calm swimming pools on the surface above. I met some very nice people on the tour and we enjoyed our long luxurious swim thoroughly – it was my first chance to get some summer weather (though it still rained a bit) and swimming in since Morocco! I wished my dad had been there for the Lanquin Caves as we managed to make it back to the entrance just as the thousands of bats that live there came swooping out. I’ve been raised to love bats and the experience of standing in the middle of that swarm with the knowledge there was no chance of me getting hit was something I doubt I’ll have again.

I made my way back to Antigua in time to say farewell to another batch of classmates and hello to mom, who arrived so early that she managed to get to meet a few of them before they headed to the airport. After spending a relaxing day and night in Antigua, we traveled up to Xela by shuttle bus on Saturday, where we basically ate, wrapped presents, and crashed in order to be ready to head back to meet my family in Nahuala on Sunday. Both my real mom and my host mom were overjoyed to meet each other and my host family prepared us a lovely lunch of fried chicken and wandered with us through the market before it was time to say goodbye (again). While the language barriers caused some confusion – my real mom’s Spanish is decent but rusty and my host mom’s about the same – we were able to share a nice afternoon together, buy a few huipils, and give my host sisters and mom some fun things from home as thank you presents. I do hope I’ll make it back to see them again and, if nothing else, am extremely grateful for the time I got to spend with them.

From Nahuala/Xela we headed up into Chiapas on an all day shuttle that left us both exhausted but so happy to make it to San Cristobal. For me, it was wonderful to be back in a city I fell in love with two years ago, and the chance to show it to my mom, who had never been there before, made it all the better. We spent our four days there wandering through markets and museums and revisiting a lot of the places that had stuck in my memory. I was happy to find that I had not mis-remembered it and cannot wait to go back in the future for a longer period of time as my studies call for it. Happily for me, I was also able to meet with two historians who are incredibly knowledgeable about the work that has been done on Chiapas and the resources available, and they were both very encouraging and enthusiastic about my areas of interest and potential projects. Hurrah for an academic future!

From there we headed on an overnight bus to Mazunte on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Three days of sun-soaked beach time were very much called for, at least for me after a summer of freezing in Nahuala. While we didn’t manage to meet up with a friend of mine who was only a few towns away, we enjoyed our seafood and sea-bathing very much. Mom brought along a book of New York Times Sunday crosswords that we’ve been zooming through and each of us managed to get some good light reading in as well. There is little that feels as good to me as swimming in the ocean and Mazunte was one of the most tranquil and refreshing places I’ve managed to do it (aside from the slight sun burn, mosquito bites, and lack of fans). If anyone has an opportunity to go, I’d definitely encourage it – it’s a little out of the way (extra strength Dramamine is a wonderful thing), but that only makes it more peaceful.

We’re now spending our final days in Oaxaca City, the beautiful capital of Oaxaca State that reminds mom and me of the Mediterranean (without the sea), New Orleans, and La Jolla. It’s a city full of artists old and new, wonderful old churches, gorgeous architecture, quality museums, and a lot of good food. As in Chiapas, the artesanias are of the highest caliber, especially the rugs and pottery here. Today we took a five hour tour to a number of places outside the city – a giant tree (supposedly the widest in the world) called El Tule; a family run rug weaving business where we had the entire process from carding to dying to spinning, pattern making, and weaving demonstrated to us; a mescal (a type of liquor made from the agave cactus and similar to tequila, though stronger) distillery; and the ruins at Mitla, a later Zapotec site where, unlike many other sites, the buildings still standing haven’t had to be reconstructed as the town was never fully abandoned. Over 800 years old, the palaces at Mitla have withstood large earthquakes thanks to the unique architectural techniques that also resulted in intricate decorations on the sides of the buildings, precise geometric patterns that almost look like weaving. While nature has taken its toll on most ancient Mesoamerican cities, at Mitla, the destruction has primarily been caused by humans taking stones to build new structures. Luckily there’s enough left to get an idea of how beautiful the city must have been centuries ago.

We’re headed back to California day after tomorrow and there are so many more things I want to see that I guess I’ll just have to plan a return trip to this part of the world for the coming years. Though I suppose I’d have to any ways, seeing as this is where my school work will be bringing me! Hurrah! Mom and I have managed to fill a few bags with things to decorate my new apartment and the few remaining open spots on our walls at home. It all gets overwhelming after a while, but most of the places we’ve been have had plenty of cafes to kick back in with a beer or a limonada and a book and just take in the world around us. I can’t believe that it’s been two months since I’ve been in the States, but I suppose school and work call us homeward. I hope summer has treated you all well and look forward to seeing you in the coming days, weeks, or months!

Abrazos fuertes,

Loq’alaj iwonojel (dear all y’all),

Well, it’s been another few weeks and only one week remains of my language program! I can’t believe it’s gone so fast, but here we are a few days from our final exam, and while I still can’t understand everything that’s going on around me, I am able to follow many more conversations, explain basic things to my family, and untangle short stories after a few tries. Of course, the stories have been chosen by our professors because they’re at our level, but the sense of accomplishment after finishing a local folk tale about why all the rivers dried up many years ago is nevertheless quite large. We continue to laugh at ourselves, especially over pronunciation (another student and I spent at least 5 minutes today saying the words “b’aqa tz’i’” (skinny dog) to one of our teachers until she was satisfied that we were getting the q at least close to right), but we spend more time talking with our teachers in K’iche’ than Spanish these days, and, apparently, some of our families have been bragging about how well we speak K’iche’ (that made all of us crack up, but it’s nice to hear nonetheless).

Most days continue to go as I wrote last time, and while they are very full, there really isn’t that much new to report on the Nahuala front. I helped my host family make chuchitos this week and was definitely more successful than my last tortilla attempts. Chuchitos are one of the various Guatemalan forms of tamales and are made with pieces of beef in pepían (a tomato and pumpkin seed sauce), as opposed to tamalitos – the plain masa pillows eaten as an alternative to tortillas – or the chicken filled ones whose name I’ve forgotten. Before we started, my sisters handed me an apron to tie on over my skirt, a very smart first step, though I still managed to get pepían all over myself. Seeing as mom and I make tamales every Christmas, I thought I’d have a better handle on how this process worked, but sadly, my experience served little purpose.

Rather than squishing out a flat bit of masa on a counter, putting filling in the middle, and wrapping the whole thing up with corn husks and string, chuchitos are made by making a larger version of a tortilla (sigh, though my bigger hands helped), placing a single piece of meat and some sauce in the middle, and then quickly folding the circle in half and pinching the edges together. While my tortilla making skills have improved, it was in the folding and not getting sauce everywhere step that I generally failed, resulting in a very messy apron (my host sisters’ remained clean) and chuchitos that often had more sauce on the wrapping than inside. Instead of corn husks, the chuchitos are wrapped in banana leaves or leaves from the corn stalk, folded over many times instead of tied. By my fifth or sixth attempt, I was doing okay, but I probably only made half as many as my sisters and it was definitely possible to tell which chuchitos were mine when we were eating. They all tasted wonderful, but mine were nowhere near as nice to look at. They were still proud of me, though, and the sisters made sure to include me in the “we made a good dinner tonight” comment. As chuchitos aren’t an every day food in my family, it was a special venture overall, and was topped off with chocolate con arroz (hot chocolate with rice), one of my favorite drinks here, making for a wonderful dinner.

Otherwise, I’ve been enjoying my weekend adventures to various parts of the country. After our trip to Xela, I spent the next weekend in Antigua and Guatemala City visiting my friend Amanda, another history PhD student from the University of Chicago. She is beginning to prepare her dissertation proposal and, as always, we had plenty to talk about relating to the history department and our program, and especially to the adventure that is doing historical research in Guatemala. As I have yet to really explore any of the archives here, she was incredibly helpful in orienting me to the basics of how the different places work, how best to approach their curators, and what I might expect to find. As I’ve spent my time in Guatemala thus far surrounded by anthropologists and linguists, it was wonderful to talk to another historian who understands the difficulty of getting at information about the country from before 1960 and who is now going through all the trials and tribulations I’ll be putting myself through in the coming years. We treated ourselves to good food, good showers, and leisurely wanders through Antigua, followed by a slightly less relaxing if perhaps more productive stint in Guatemala City. As we only get Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon free and Nahuala is 3ish hours from either place, I felt rather lucky to get a ride both ways from one of our professors – Sergio - who is originally from Guatemala City and was visiting his parents and doing some work in the city that weekend. Much more comfortable, if slightly less adventurous than taking a chicken bus, the ride also included an obligatory stop for hot chocolate and pie at a place he always always visits on his drive. Well worth it, too.

Last weekend, four of us bummed a ride to Antigua from Sergio (again), and after a nice dinner with another of my friends – Caroline, from Harvard, who is studying Spanish for a few weeks here –, we turned in rather early in order to catch a 4am shuttle to Copán, Honduras. While the shuttle ride was somewhat unpleasant due to the other occupants, more traffic than expected, and numerous delays related to missed bus connections and a too-long breakfast stop at a mediocre resident, we made it to the town of Copán Ruinas by noon. Copán is only 20 minutes or so from the Guatemala-Honduras border, and is one of the better known classical Maya sights, renowned for the incredible quality of its sculpture. Apparently we arrived at the same time as a tropical depression that resulted in torrential rain, but as we only had Saturday to see everything (we had to leave early Sunday in order to get back in time for dinner with our families), we ventured out nonetheless. Us three girls had umbrellas (they only did minimal good), but Derek stuck it out without, at one point resorting to pulling off his t-shirt and wringing it our, as much good as that did. And while us girls had managed to stay damp rather than sopping, our tuk-tuk ride back to the hostel made that irrelevant, and we all looked like we’d just jumped in a swimming pool when we arrived. Hoping to avoid another soaking, we spent the rest of the evening in a restaurant playing Euchre, eating brownies and pasta, and drinking beer.

Copán was worth it, though, as the things that have been uncovered are incredibly beautiful. Luckily for us, the site has as a spectacular museum that contains many of the nicest pieces (originals, and a few replicas) that have been found. Intricate hieroglyphs, wonderful relief sculptures animals – bats, macaws, frogs –, as well as restored facades of buildings complete with representations of kings, queens, scribes, and gods. The detail worked into many of these images is unbelievable and I only hope that the photos I took do it justice. Robin, one of the other students who came, is working on glyphs in school, and Copán especially, and so she was able to elucidate much of what we were looking at much better than any of our guidebooks. The rain let up a bit as we finished the museum, so we headed out into the ruins themselves, only to find ourselves again subject to downpour. Throwing up our hands, we continued on our way, clambering over steep sets of stairs on the sides of partially reconstructed pyramids, splashing through puddles in order to see the dancing jaguars carved into the side of one building, and, according to level of commitment, braving rushing streams to get a better look at stellae.

Another unique feature of Copán are the archeological tunnels that have been stabilized and opened up to the public, allowing people to see the still intact “Rosalia” temple that was found buried under another, more recent construction. Though there’s a guard at the entrance and the whole thing is relatively well lit and carefully blocked off in sections, it still feels pretty adventurous to go running around inside a pyramid, getting a close up look at what archeologists have been working on for the past decades. Because it was so thoroughly and carefully buried inside another building, the temple is very well preserved and little of the detail in the carvings has been worn away by weather and time. It was also, of course, another way to escape from the rain.

This weekend is a class trip to a number of K’iche’ speaking cities, each with its own dialect, and I’ll be sure to write about the experience some time soon. As this coming week will include a number of good bye parties and the like and once the program is over, I’m spending a week trying to get to Tikal and back, seeing the northeast of the country in the process, I’m not sure when I’ll write again. I should be able to post photos at that point, though, and I’ll be sure to send along links if nothing else (I actually don’t have many photos as taking photos of people without their permission is very culturally inappropriate, but my family has okayed some group portraits and I have weekend shots as well). After that, my mom is going to meet me in
Antigua and join me for the rest of my trip northwards, two weeks we plan to spend seeing some of the places she visited many years ago and exploring Chiapas and Oaxaca. I'm so excited that she'll be traveling with me, as it makes the prospect of traveling for another month much
more inviting!

Chab'ej chik (We'll talk soon)!

Xb’eq’ij! (Good afternoon, literally, the day has come!)

Well, as many of you have asked for more details of my life here, and as it isn’t as though there are terribly many events to report, this email is going to be a bit more descriptive than the last. Not promising purple prose, but I’ll try to go a bit deeper into what the Western Highlands of Guatemala look like, at least from the Nahualense perspective.

As those of you who tried to find Nahuala on the map may have noticed, my spelling last time is not the only one. Nahualha, Nahuala, and, in K’iche’, Nawalja’ are all apparently acceptable spellings, though I guess Nahuala is the most widely used. It’s not a town you’re going to find in many of the guidebooks – the Rough Guide to Guatemala mentions it in passing as a good market town but not a place to stay, as, according to them but not to us, the locals are hostile to outsiders and the local shamans are known for their black magic (hah). But via googlemaps or some such, look west of Lake Atitlan along the Pan-American Highway just a bit before it forks. Nawalja’ translates to something like “place of the water spirits” and there is a (now trash filled) river that runs through town and, according to some, is still home to the nawals/nahuals.

In the town center, the old adobe homes have been replaced by cement block buildings painted in white and various pastel shades. The market – Thursdays and Sundays – is held in front of the Cathedral and in the surrounding side streets. As it is the largest center for a ways around, the otherwise empty cobblestone and mud streets fill up with blue plastic tarp stalls under which an amazing variety of goods are to be found – beans and corn, shoes new and used, huipils and the blue cloth used to make skirts (cortes or uq’), cds and dvds, all manner of fruit, toiletry, and school supply, and who knows what else. I haven’t yet been here for a Sunday market, but I’m planning on staying at least one weekend to see what I can find. I suppose you’d say it’s much more “authentic” as few tourists come through; this means basically that the arts and crafts are sparser but probably more reasonably priced while the every day goods are much more diverse.

As to everyday Nahuala, most people in town are indigenous K’iche’ speakers; generally only men speak Spanish, though with expanded bilingual education, younger generations are more likely to be fluent as well. Men primarily wear Western style clothing – pants and shirts – though occasionally you’ll see an older man in the traditional koxtar (a vaguely kilt-like affair with small white shorts underneath) and kutin (a long-sleeved shirt in light colors); sometimes you even get a rather amusing mix of the two – koxtar with a brand name t-shirt and baseball cap. Women, except younger girls, continue to wear traditional traje – dark blue corte (skirt) tied with an embroidered faja and a huipil on top. While huipils continue to be identified with particular towns – there are a few styles native to Nahuala, mostly involving red or orange embroidery on a white or navy base – the trend recently has been to wear huipils from other parts of Guatemala, with different towns going in and out of style. As well, among younger women especially, the corte will often be worn with an American style shirt and sweater instead of the huipil. It all makes for a rather dazzling array of dress. My family has offered to dress me up many times, and as soon as I have photos, I’ll send them along. From those girls in our group who have been dressed up in traje, I’m dreading how tight my host sister will wrap my faja, as apparently in addition to keeping the corte up, it’s supposed to accentuate my waist and make me look guapa.

School starts around 8:30 every morning, meaning I leave home around 8, having woken up and eaten an early breakfast with my little “sister” and “niece” before they head to school at 7:30. Breakfast is generally around the wood stove in the kitchen area, where we are joined by the three family cats – Tigre, Q’eq (Black), and Missi Puss – who seem to enjoy a life of sitting together on one chair staring at the fire all day. Mike’l now trusts me to make it to school on my own every day, and as I walk, I greet everyone I pass with “Saqirik” (good morning) or “Jeba’” (roughly goodbye, though it’s also used as a greeting-in-passing). It’s very impolite to not say anything to those people you see, and if the person is older, a respectful “nan” or “tat” is also expected. Occasionally I’m questioned by older women as to where I’m going – this is their right – and one of the first phrases we were taught was “Kinb’e pa tijobal” (I’m going to school), as this is always an acceptable answer guaranteed to dispel any potential gossip.

Gossip is one of the biggest concerns of our professors and families, as “co-resident kin groups” (as they’re called by anthropologists) are very closed with information, and we don’t want to expose any of our host families to slander. Thus, we’re expected to be exceptionally polite, not spend too much time with any person of the opposite sex, and wear loose-fitting, non-revealing clothing. Pants haven’t proven to be a problem (though we were warned to be careful with them), but we’ve all put away any skirts that reveal anything above mid-calf and keep our shoulders well covered. As it’s pretty chilly, this has been relatively easy so far. Fashion has mostly gone out the window – as expected – and we’re all sure to come away from this summer with some amusing photos of very bundled up and mismatched friends.

Nahuala is very hilly, and we all go up and down many slopes on our way to school. We pass numerous churches – the central Cathedral as well as a growing number of evangelical churches –, corn fields with cows and goats grazing on the edges, local schools, and the seemingly never ending expansion projects on the Pan-American Highway. Most people are friendly and encouraging of our K’iche’ greetings, though the smaller kids generally laugh and point and sometimes older folks join in, especially if someone is dressed up in traje. Tuc-tucs – the three-wheeled, vaguely golf cart looking vehicles that have become the taxis of Guatemala – often pass and offer us rides if they’re not already occupied, but I think we’re all determined to conquer the altitude and long steep hills and work off the carbohydrate-loaded meals we eat, and so we decline.

By the time we reach school – as we’re all going at the same time, we usually find each other on the road – we’re all ready for the real coffee we’ve imported from Panajachel, bought from a rather obsessed American who worked as a coffee bean buyer for many years before setting up shop in Panajachel. Guatemalans don’t drink coffee American style, but rather prepare a very weak brew from NesCafe, and so we’re all very grateful to our teachers for having splurged on these excellent beans (organic and free trade, of course). I’m not the biggest coffee drinker at home, but after this summer I think I’ll have joined the ranks as the caffeine deprivation headaches I’m going to have if I try and quit will be hell. Class lasts til about noon, when we break for a long lunch prepared by a local family and carried up to the school in baskets on women’s heads. Then it’s a few hours of homework and one-on-one/two-on-one conversation with our local teachers, occasional lectures, and we head back to town to find the internet, drink something warm in the center, or return home.

Evenings at home mostly center around me practicing what I’ve learned that day, trying to figure out what the family is saying while gathered in the kitchen to make and eat dinner (sometimes we eat in the “dining room,” but everyone seems more comfortable around the kitchen fire), and, if it’s a Tuesday or Thursday, bathing in the tuj. While most of the other host families have a shower, mine has yet to install one, and so I get to clean up in the traditional temascal (Spanish for tuj). Essentially, this is a one-person sauna with one large bucket of very hot water and one of cold water that the bather mixes in a smaller tub before using another, even smaller, bucket to dump the water over him or herself. Generally lit with just a candle, the tuj has a wooden bench to sit on while bathing, and is big enough that, as one of my friends put it, many children are conceived in there. This fact often leads to lots of joking about going in the tuj with another person, but despite much such laughing at my expense, I have yet to be intruded upon. Apparently people occasionally do pass out from the heat, so my sisters will call in to make sure I’m still conscious and have enough water. I’m a big fan of the tuj, especially on the colder days, and knowing that I’ll have showers at hostels on weekends, I have no complaints that it’s my only way to stay clean. My host family doesn’t believe me when I tell them that the U.S. equivalent is rather a luxury or that other students are jealous that I get to tuj on a regular basis while they just have showers. It may not be the easiest way to bathe, but I always come out feeling very clean, relaxed, and ready for bed.

My family must think that gringos are unusually sleepy, as I’m generally in bed by 8:30, directly after dinner, but having to think in three languages all day is exhausting and I’m pretty hopeless for anything but writing in my journal and reading any time past 8, let alone 9. With a large pile of wool blankets and my down sleeping bag, I manage to stay toasty at night, and, despite the chorus of dogs that lasts late into the night, I’m getting much more sleep here than I’m used to and thoroughly enjoying it.

Maybe next time I write I’ll have more travels to report, but for now, chichijij iwib’ (take care of yourselves) and chixki’kotoq (be happy)!

Saqarik friends and family!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m spending my summer in Guatemala/southern Mexico learning K’iche’ Maya (the most prevalent of the many indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala) and “doing research” for school (essentially looking for a possible project for the coming year). I’ve been here two weeks now and figured it was time I started my travelogue emails up again! If you don’t feel like getting periodic updates from me, just say – I won’t be hurt! My internet access is rather sporadic at this point, so if you write to me, I apologize if it takes a while to get back to you.

In any case, like I said, I’ve been in Guatemala for almost two weeks, having arrived a few days late due to some hiccups during a trip to Morocco to reunite with a number of my college friends. The first week of classes – the K’iche’ (means “many trees”) program is being run jointly through University of Chicago and Vanderbilt – was spent in Panajachel, a rather touristy town about 2.5 hrs outside of Guatemala City on Lake Atitlan. Panajachel is mostly composed of restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and places to buy any sort of artesanias you might associate with Guatemala. The program put us up at a very nice hotel complete with conference rooms, a pool, and a nice restaurant that fed us breakfast and lunch every day. We spent our days alternating between crash course K’iche’ lessons to prep us for living with families that speak very little Spanish and cultural lectures from our professors to orient us to our surroundings.

There are 12 students in the program and three professors; most people are linguists or anthropologists, and we’ve been split into an intro class (people from all over) and an intermediate class (students mostly from Vanderbilt who have been studying the language for the last year or so). Mostly it’s grad students who have traveled in Latin America before, but there are a couple people who have little experience with rural life and who are discovering all the quirks and delights of living out here for the first time. Everyone brings a different background and different interests to the program, making for a wonderful diversity of knowledge and a great opportunity to share insights and information. It was great to have a first week with relative creature comforts in Panajachel to get to know each other and figure out the basics of the language before heading out to our home stays, but I think we all knew that our language skills weren’t really going to improve until we got to Nahaulha and our temporary families.

We arrived in Nahuala – the 8000 odd person seat of a 15,000 person municipality about an hour up into the highlands from Pana – on a Sunday afternoon in two “minibuses” or shuttles overflowing with too much luggage, supplies for the school, and some rather carsick students. After been greeted by Manuel (or Wel in K’iche’), the coordinator and host of the program in Nahuala, we were sent home with our families to unpack and settle in. I’m living near the center of town with an extended family of mostly daughters, only one of whom speaks much Spanish. My host mom and dad – nan To’n and tat Mikel – are both weavers, though because tat Mikel has been sick since I’ve arrived, I haven’t seen much of either of them. Rather, I spend most of my time with the daughters: Mari’y (Maria) is the oldest and married to Wel (not the same as our coordinator), and they have a daughter named To’n (Antonia) who is 5 or 6; Kla’r (Clara) is the next oldest and she and Mike’l (Michaela) seem to do most of the housework; the youngest is Xe’p (Isabella), who is probably 14 or so and still in school.

Mike’l is the daughter who speaks Spanish and has become my translator/guide to Nahualha and my family. She’s about my age and actually a very good teacher – before she’ll tell me what anything anyone has said means, she makes me repeat it in K’iche’, laughs and helps me with my pronunciation, and then translates for me. In return, I give her some English words and attempt to help around the house a bit. This is mostly futile – my tortillas (the mainstay of all meals) are still pretty pathetic and the sisters mostly relegate me to the corner of the kitchen nearest the fire/stove to stay warm and entertain them. Unlike Chiapas, we get more than beans, tortillas, and weak coffee here, but those still form the basic food groups of my family. Add in eggs, noodles, various kinds of meat (including some small, very bony fish that pretty much silenced everyone at dinner as we tried to extract all the bones before choking on them), bread (kaxlan waj or “Spanish food”) and fruit, and you’ve got my diet at home. We’re fed a pretty big lunch at school everyday, so no one is complaining about lack of food, though some of the other students have had to try some things – cow stomach and other intestines, mostly – that haven’t been terribly appetizing.

Our school is in one of the many buildings constructed with remittances around town that remain mostly empty, waiting for brothers in the States to come home and fill them (this is the case in my family as well – the only brother has been in New York for 12 years now and I’m the only one living in the very well built and very empty part of the family compound built with the money he’s sent home). It’s in one of the cantones (vaguely suburbs or hamlets), about a half hour walk mostly uphill from our homestays. Of course, it’s in the coldest part of Nahualha and none of us really came prepared for the rainy season in highland Guatemala. We spend most of the day in class, half of it with our American professors going over grammar and half of it doing one on one or two on one with local native speakers to practice pronunciation and conversational skills.

K’iche’ is my first non-European language and is rather like a puzzle much of the time. There are some sounds that we don’t have in English and plenty of glottal stops that can make all the difference between saying “youngest child” and “shit” (apparently one of my friend’s host families got a very good laugh out of this while she was trying to do her homework with them one night; she didn’t realize she’d been calling the youngest kid a little shit until a few days later). We’re all having a pretty good time with it, though, and none of us are above laughing at ourselves when we trip over our k’s and q’s. Hearing the language all the time at home is definitely helpful, and though I still don’t understand the majority of what’s being said, I catch more grammatical constructions and vocabulary words every day. I’m still pretty limited to declarative sentences and basic questions, but my family has no problem with these and with giving me more words to expand what I can say. I often know they’re talking about me even if I can’t tell what they’re saying, but I just practice my grammar in my head and nod and smile. I’m sure that in the next few weeks things will just keep getting better!

Right now I’m in Xelaju (also known as Quetzaltenango, but all the cool kids call it Xela) with most of the other beginning students, enjoying our weekend off. We’ve all been filling up on Italian food, French toast, and lattes and buying ourselves warm clothes from the used American clothing stores – I found a giant Old Navy fleece and some new leg warmers that are going to make all the difference in the coming weeks. It’s not hard to get from Nahualha to other places around the highlands – we just stand out on the Pan American highway and hail any of the old school buses (foreigners call them chicken buses) passing by that happen to be going where we’re headed. Most are covered in religious decals and painted bright colors and they blast pop music or evangelical songs as they rush past. It’s an occasionally nauseating and sometimes terrifying but always amusing way to travel. I don’t think there are as many actual chickens on the buses as there used to be, but they’re great for people watching. We’re not sure where we’re headed in the coming weeks, but I’ll send another email when I get the chance!

I hope you’re all enjoying your summers and if you’re going to be anywhere in Guatemala in July or southern Mexico in August, let me know and we can try to meet up! I’ll be flying out from Cancun at the end of August and probably taking a few days beforehand to enjoy the sun and sand on an island called Isla Mujeres off the coast, so if anyone wants to join me, I’d love the company!

Ki’nloq’oj (love you all!)

summer posts in order

well, i should have done this along the way, but oh well. over the course of the summer i sent out those long obnoxious mass emails to family and friends describing my adventures. imagine that they arrived every two weeks or so. i suppose i could just post date them, but i'm a little too lazy to do that. instead, all at once. and possibly a return to normal blogging.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


i am the first to admit i have been absent lately. my life is one paper after another and my brain is a bit fried at the moment. i leave for morocco in 5.5 days. i have to bring all my things for guatemala to morocco. i have to write one more 20 page paper and complete a take home exam. i also have to move out of my apartment. my list of things to do is much longer than that, but i've got it written down in so many other places, it doesn't need to be reiterated here.

but since i promised them, here are some photos from home and kinetics. home was a much needed recharge, though that charge, like the battery charge on my computer, seems to drain more quickly than it used to. much more quickly. i just have to remind myself: in one week i will be installed on a beach in morocco with my favorite friends from college. with nothing to worry about.

for more information on kinetics and some context for the photos below, please see here
and here

hippypotomus (mouth opened, ears wiggled, smoke came out of nostrils)

it's marimba filled derriere

one sick mutha' (it spun)

robosnail - very elegant snail (one of three gastropod mollusks competing this year)

not a cop car. rather, not a cop car with its insides intact, but instead the counterfeit bluesmobile powered by pedals.

the lead elephant in melvin's carousel (it played calliope music and spritzed water from its trunk)

mechanical chicken (best posse, photos to come later)

biking vikings (can you spot the muffin tins? pie pans? fridge coils?)

look at that character!

photos of folks to come later.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


the week was spent writing (20 p turned into 25) an attempting to do reading for classes. it vaguely worked. the draft is done.

now i am home, in arcata, happy as a clam. kinetics today and through the weekend (expect photos), much good food, and, well, relaxed. may or may not write.

happy long weekend!