Literary Nonfiction

I am taking a creative writing course through the University of Iowa called Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction. This is my second submission; a piece I wrote (All names have been altered and some characters are credited with words/actions they did not say.) I am not particularly satisfied with it as it is more didactic that I wanted. Any comments or suggestions you might have will be received gratefully.

Val

“A Traveller’s Insights”

After visiting Guatemala for two weeks in January with my husband, I found the perfect place to spend the rest of the winter: Antigua. Eduardo headed home, and I settled in with a “home stay” taking Spanish classes in the morning and doing volunteer work in the afternoon. This is the way I like to travel, nice and slow.

Antiqua is a lovely colonial city about an hour outside of Guatemala City. It is known for its spring-like weather, Spanish schools, and spectacular Easter celebrations. There are many tourists just passing through and many students who take classes. Most are housed in private homes advertised to give one a true experience of living with a family. This is what I wanted, imagining myself making tasty local dishes with the lady of the house. In fact, most homes are extremely basic; food is simple and sparse. Meals are served to the guests who are all foreign students from various parts of the world. It became depressing very quickly. When the “mother” refused to allow me to boil water for tea on Sunday when she did not cook for us, I decided to look for another place.

After visiting some other homes the school recommended, I chose to spend more money and rent a lovely room in a gracious home, through Airbnb. The hostess was a university prof who turned out to be good company when she wasn’t working one of her three jobs.

The school was close by. I would walk briskly in the cool morning through the cobbled streets greeting passers-by with a friendly, “Buenos días.” It is considered impolite not to speak to people you meet in the streets. The instructors were mostly women. We often chatted around the coffee pot before classes started. One day, I overheard them discussing an upcoming meeting with the administration.  “It is not what they promised.” “I have to supply all my own materials.” “Let’s keep the discussion to the most important issue: money.” And their voices grew softer, as more students entered the room.

My instructor, Maia, came to my table later than usual, after getting herself a cup of coffee. She looked angry. I had been sitting there waiting; I smiled and said, “Hacen huelga?” Going on strike? She smirked and said, “Tal vez, we just might.” Then upon further discussion, I discovered they only earned Q400 quetzales a week. That is just a bit over $50 US dollars or $70 Canadian, far less than I was paying the school. And for 20 hours a week! These instructors could make more cleaning houses. The young woman who cleaned our house earned Q500 for the same number of hours.

“I bet those foreigners working in the office earn more than that,” I mused. “And this school is supposed to be a charitable organization. That is why I chose to study here over a privately owned school. I should complain to the head office in Europe.”

“Por favor, no,” Maia whispered, “you will get me into trouble.”

I quit the next week, and found a tutor, a university prof who taught Guatemalan history at university at night and Social Studies at a private high school by day. Q65 ($9 US/$12 CND) an hour sounded steep at first, but I was only going to take 3 to 5 hours a week.

Marisol was great. She pushed me to read texts that dissected the recent civil war, or the workings of the corrupt government officials, or current events. She got me writing in Spanish, something I find difficult and rather embarrassing as my level of writing does not reflect my thoughts very well, but this is what I wanted: a challenge, insight into the country, and discussion.

In the next few weeks, I met many other women who lived in Guatemala, most of them American or Canadian. Some spent the winters in Antigua; others worked, or stayed home while their husbands worked for foreign companies; others lived here permanently, going home just for special occasions.

One younger German woman was married to a Guatemalan. He was an architect. They had a nice condo, and a young baby. Although they had been together for many years, the baby seemed to driving them apart. Paula no longer had an income and missed her freedom; her daughter took up all of her time.  Francisco loved his daughter but found his wife distant, moody, and aggressive. I could understand having been married to a Mexican for the last thirty years. Intercultural marriages are difficult, especially when you are far from family.

Most women I met were older, retired like myself. They enjoyed each other’s company, and the good life in this country where foreign money goes much further than at home.

Dale, a single woman, shared a house with another woman in a chic district on the outskirts of Antigua. She organized money raising activities for a small charitable organization she had started ten years ago. She also enjoyed a varied and busy social life with many male companions both Guatemalan and foreign. At home it had never been so easy.

Susan was also having a second chance at love. She had met a fellow American, Sid, who was enjoying being a musician in his retirement. They both might have attended Woodstock judging by the way they dressed.

Andrea was more my type. She enjoyed hiking and bird watching; she spoke decent Spanish and was involved in the local drama group doing mostly ‘behind the scenes’ work, but with Guatemalans. She had even met some of the more famous movie actors.

All of these people lived in beautiful houses; all had domestic help; everyone could afford trips home. They were all involved to some degree in the local life.

Looking at life for Guatemalans, life is not so rosy even in Antigua, a relatively wealthy city. Many mothers spent their days on the streets selling baubles to the tourists, local and foreign. Most had a baby tied onto their back or on their hip. Others had one or more toddlers playing along beside them. Many small school-age children would help them hawk their wares, or look after their younger siblings. Older girls, around ten to fifteen could often been seen carrying a baby. I found out that Guatemala has a very high rate of young girls getting pregnant, as early as ten, so one never knew if the baby was a sibling or one of their own children. Boys might shine shoes, or sell wheelbarrows of peanuts. There weren’t so many boys; maybe they stayed at home and worked on the land.

Gladys, one woman I met, had befriended many of these boys. “Too often,” she told me, “they end up dead.” Elaborating she explained, “They are recruited into gangs and are either killed while committing a crime or by a rival gang.”

The level of violence in the country leads many youth to flee into Mexico on their way to the United States. Only a few are successful and even fewer avoid severe violence during their voyage.

Most local workers live in villages surrounding Antigua where housing is exorbitantly expensive by Guatemalan standards. “In these towns,” Maia explained, “gangs rule everyone’s life.” I was robbed at gunpoint just a year ago, on the street in broad daylight. It is not just tourists who have to be careful.”

Very few criminals are caught and charged. Those who are face worse violence in prison. While I was getting my nails done one afternoon, the esthetician’s boyfriend asked me, “Did you see that short video of a young woman being beaten and robbed by two guys on a motorcycle?”

“Yes,” I said, “everybody was sharing it at school. It went viral in Antigua. It was right in this neighbourhood.”

“Well,” he added, “the guy was arrested and sent to prison. Yesterday someone slit his throat.”

Slowly, I was understanding why Guatemalans took so many precautions: guards and cameras controlling the entrance to people’s houses, or stores, warnings not to use the local buses, tuk-tuks, or even taxis, women not going out after dark, people looking the other way when someone is being beaten or robbed, and probably other reflexes I wasn’t even aware of.

I asked my tutor, Marisol, “What is the cause of all this violence? Poverty, the civil war that lasted thirty-six years, drugs? What do you think?”

“Todo eso,” all of those, she answered. “People are so poor, they see wealthy Guatemalans or rich tourists as fair game. We all look rich to them. There is no help for them from the government; many cannot even send their kids to school because they can’t afford the uniform, books, lunches and transportation. ”

“Do you think tourism helps or causes more problems here in Guatemala?” I asked.

“What do you think?” she replied.

“Both, probably. We create expectations in people. Street vendors expect us to buy something from them. Young people see how we dress, how we eat in restaurants, carry cameras and other gear around with us, travel in first-class buses or taxis. And how many tourists are cheap with the locals, bargaining over a trifle, or rarely tipping. Some young tourists even hitchhike. In a tourist town like Antigua, locals cannot afford to live here. My room costs the same per day as a language teacher earns in a week. But we also give work to the people. Many rich locals are worse than foreigners. Tourists can’t be the only problem,” I trailed off.

“And what about volunteers? Are we seen in the same way?”

She looks at me, shrugs her shoulders, “Not everyone thinks in the same way,” she says.

Home soon

Travelling is great, but I always miss being home, and the closer the time to return home, the more I look forward to seeing family and friends, enjoying the comforts of home, getting back into some kind of routine, gardening, sailing, going for a favourite bike ride, starting new projects, working on some self-improvement items (such as down-sizing, home improvements, reading, exercising, studying, or whatever).

Today, I made a list, but it has been brewing for the last couple of weeks, especially because I have been rather bored here, resting, in order to get rid of the flu which turned into bronchitis, so I can enjoy these last days of sun, ocean, and heat.

After leaving Guatemala, via Belize, I spent one day exploring Tulum (a small but beautiful Mayan ruins site by the ocean) and sitting under a palapa on the beach. Unfortunately, I remembered to use sunscreen everywhere but my face! Forgot to bring my hat too!

A coati and me at the Tulum ruins

Here in Cozumel for the last five days, waiting and hoping that my lungs clear up enough to go diving. Fortunately, I am staying in a lovely big Airbnb apartment not far from a bright, modern hospital where I have been going twice a day for nebulisation treatments. The grocery store is not far, and there is a great little place to eat fresh hot tacos al pastor right around the corner, so all my basic needs are covered.

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Catching the setting sun.

I also got a Mexican sim card for my phone, so I have unlimited calls anywhere in Mexico, USA, and Canada. These calls are refreshing after a steady diet of facebook and TV. A CBC app on my ipad is also a boon, and it makes appreciate, as I listen to the weather reports, the warmth (actually, I should say heat) of Mexico.

Hasta pronto,

Val

Last days in Guatemala


Last days in Guatemala

If you are going to be sick, better not to be on the road. I got a bad case of the flu in Antigua, and was glad to be “at home” where I could sleep all day, and make myself something to eat when I got hungry.
Unfortunately, I still felt rather weak leaving for Semuc Champey. It was a long ten hour bus trip. The countryside got more striking as we entered the department of Alta Verapaz. It is greener; the mountains are steep with breath-taking views from the narrow winding roads.

It was a bit of an effort, but I pretty well kept up the the young ones the next day on our tour. The caves were particularly challenging as we were in water, often over our heads most of the time. It was rather difficult to keep our candles lit! I found it scary coming back: we had to slide down the rocks in a water fall into a deep pool. Lost my cap in there!

Afterwards, we relaxed in tubes as we floated down the river. Needless to say, the cough didn’t gey any better that day.

Another ten hour bus ride to Flores which is in the northern most department of Petén. The next day: Tikal, the most important and largest of the Mayan ruins. We had a great guide who took care to choose the shadiest paths as it was mid-day with temperatures over 35 degrees. He was also a lover of nature and pointed out many birds and spider monkeys to us.

The second day, the sunrise tour was more agreeable with its cooler temperture and its abundance of wild life (even if we didn’t see the sunrise due to the cloud cover). Highlights: two scorpions on the trail, a Great Currasow (male), toucans, trogons, herons, flycatchers, and many more.

Today, I am veging in the pretty town of Flores as my tour of another site was cancelled. Tomorrow heading back to Mexico.

The Ruins of Copán (Honduras)

The ruins of Copán (Honduras)

It takes about seven hours to drive from Antigua to Copán in Honduras. Most of the road is a narrow highway with a passing lane in some areas, but it would have been useful the whole way as the road winds it way East-Northeast of Guatemala City in mountainous terrain. The ride is not for the faint of heart.

At this time of year, the dry season, which they call summer here, (Winter is during the rainy season from May to October.) the trees are mostly bare except in low lying areas.

We left at 4 am, and I sat in front with the driver of the van. The sunrise was spectacular; there were often clouds below us over the valleys.

Copán is a small, border town which is frequented for its beautiful Mayan ruins which are considered to be the oldest. Copán lasted through the reign of sixteen kings. It is also considered to be the most beautiful of all the ruins found in Mayan territory which includes the south of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and parts of El Salvador.

After checking in at a nice little hotel, I was picked up by the guide who took me by tuktuk to the ruins. We spent the afternoon walking around the many courtyards, and pyramids, and the ball court. The guide was knowledgeable as he had worked his whole life at the ruins, first with archeologists digging and tunneling their way into the past and then re-constructing much of it as the stalae, the pyramids, the carvings and most of the artifacts were either overgrown with trees, or broken and strewn about by the forces of nature and man.

The other nice aspect of the Copán ruins is the setting. It is like a park and in places like the jungle. The whole site is well looked after. Many Scarlet Macaw which have been bred in order to save them from extinction now live in freedom. They do not wander too far as feeding stations and nests are provided for them. There are also other forms of wildlife. I happened to see a snake and a pair of Central American Agouti which are large rodents. They are related to the guinea pig and are quiet and quite shy.

At the hotel, I asked the young woman at the desk how late a woman alone can walk on the streets of the town. She answered that any woman can walk on any street as late as she pleases. This was a surprise to me as I had heard that Honduras is a lawless place… but not in Copán, apparently.

At any rate, I went to bed soon after dinner since I was up since 3 am.

The next morning, I walked back to the ruins, about one kilometre, to visit the museum. It houses most of the original statues and carvings to protect them from the sun and rain. On the actual site, they have installed reproductions. The beauty and complexity of the works are mind-boggling.

Before leaving Guatemala, I hope to visit Tikal the biggest of all the Mayan ruins. It is said that if Tikal could be compared to New York, Copán would be Paris.

Studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala

Taking Spanish classes in Antigua is a rather pleasant affair. There are many schools to choose from although they seem to be quite simialr in methodology and price.

Most schools offer one teacher per student. They converse, study the necessary grammar and sometimes go out to visit local sites. Most students do very well with this method, but I wanted something a little different since I already speak quite fluently. My aim is to advance my Spanish to an academic level, with the idea that, in the future, I might study (perhaps Women’s Studies) in a Spanish-speaking university.

After one month of classes, I am still searching for the ideal teacher. I need to read in Spanish more quickly, and write with more sophistication. With these goals in mind, I have accepted to meet with a university prof two afternoons a week which means giving up my volunteer work.

That is a pity really because I have enjoyed working with the NGO, Ninos de Guatemala. They have built three schools for children from poor families where they are taught the regular curriculum in a caring environment.

During the first three weeks I stayed with a Guatemalan “family”. The woman, Bertha, lives in a rented house where she rents five rooms and cooks three meals a day six days a week. She has three grown-up children who no longer live at home. There were two Guatemalan high school students from neighbouring towns, and a variety of other students: a German girl, a French guy, and then three Americans from a religious boarding school who were in Antigua just for a few days helping to build a house (something like Habitat for Humanity). The house was quite modest as were the meals. I found the landlady to be very frugal and fussy. After looking at some other home-stay options, I opted to rent through Airbnb. This lovely home is owned by a university professor. I can cook for myself and enjoy all the comforts of home: laundry facilities, lots of hot water, comfortable furniture, and a lovely garden. A couple of pluses I don’t have at home are: a second floor balcony with a view of three volcanos (one quite active), and a gated community with a doorman!

On weekends I relax, walk, browse in the shops, get my nails done, visit museums, or other places of interest such as the huge organic garden up on the mountain which serves great drinks and food, or the park which incorporates wonderful works of art. This past week, a lovely German woman studying at the same school as I, has been a nice companion.

I am looking forward to another month here before heading north through Guatemala and Belize and back into Mexico for a few more diving excursions before heading home to work in my own garden.

Two weeks travelling in Guatemala

These past two weeks, Eduardo and I have visited some parts of Guatemala. We met in the capital, Guatemala City, and headed out the next day to Antigua, a beautiful colonial city with cobble stone streets and well kept buildings. There are some old churches that have been destroyed by earthquakes; they are not restored, but fortified so they do not deteriorate further and are lovely as ruins. Many foreign and local tourists come to Antigua. It is a favourite getaway for folks from the capital, just a curvy downhill ride of about one hour.

While here, we enjoyed staying in a rather luxurious suite (or master bedroom) in a newer condo built like the old colonial houses. It is large with 2 or 3 other rooms, a huge kitchen, dining room, living room and central patio all located within a gated and guarded precinct. Every day, we walked the streets, visited local sites, museums, stores, cafes, and restaurants. It was a lovely way to start our holidays.”

Then we took a local bus to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, a rather large lake with 12 towns and villages on its shores. From this rather dreary looking town we took a ferry across to San Pedro. This town caters to tourists. Although we did not see any first class places, there are many economical hotels and hostels. The town is filled with young people, many looking like hippies from the 70’s. Some have set up businesses of their own, offering food, accommodation, massage and all other kinds of alternative remedies, restaurants, and bars.dsc04491

Over the next few days we visited five of the villages, each with their own charm. Every town has its own traditional dress. The men, in most villages, do not wear traditional clothing, whereas the women do, although most seem to mix and match quite freely, no longer adhering to the colours imposed upon them by the Spanish colonizers in order to know what village each person came from. Maybe a more astute eye can still identify some tell-tale style or colour, but it seemed like a mishmash to me (except in Santa Catarina).DSC04649.JPG

Finally we went back to Panajachel where we stayed with a loving Guatemalan family in a separate little apartment they rent through Airbnb. Cirilo picked us up in his tuktuk (pronounced touque-touque) and drove us across town away from centre into a very modest residential area. The apartment located at the back of his property, was nicely built, furnished, and decorated. Apparently he was able to build this apartment because a little old American woman befriended him and had it built there where she planned to live out the rest of her days. She then returned to the States for health reasons, and he rents it out in order to buy it back from her. Sunday, we hopped on the local chicken bus (That is what they call the local milk-run buses that stop anywhere to pick up or drop off people and their chickens, presumably.) to the famous market in Chichicastenango. The many stalls of brightly coloured woven materials was overwhelming. We wandered until we found a young woman selling delicious, piping hot tamales. We sat at their booth and ate them messily right from the banana leaves they were wrapped in. On our last day, Cirilo took us in his tuktuk to the prettiest village of them all, Santa Catarina Polopo, stopping along the way to take pictures. We had breakfast at a restaurant overlooking Lake Atitlan and its surrounding mountains and three volcanos.dsc04601

Our next stop was Quetzaltenango or Xela (pronouced Chela) which is the original Mayan name for the place. Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala and I found it to be dusty and very polluted. It was bitterly cold in the mornings and evenings going down to minus 2 but warm, even hot during the day. This combination brought on some serious allergies and cold-like symptoms in both Eduardo and me. We stayed at another Airbnb with a lovely young couple who seem to have inherited a semi-hotel come boarding house. We had a small, cold room with a tiny bathroom, but the couple made up for it by kindly suggesting many interesting places we could visit and telling us the best way to get there.

Therefore, everyday, we would escape from Xela on a chicken bus out to different places of interest.

Day one we explored the city a bit then went to the hots springs called Fuentes Georgina in the afternoon as the clouds were descending over the mountains. Sitting in the hot waters of the springs was magical as the vapours rose out of the water and mixed with the descending mist of the clouds swirling around the almost tropical greenery hanging from the surrounding mountains. Fortunately we got talking with a local woman who was entertaining guests from her church in the United States. They kindly offered to drive us almost all the way back to Xela. We did not realize how quickly night descended and how early the buses stop. They usually don’t run after 5 or 6 in the evening as many buses and other vehicles have been stopped and robbed by local thugs.DCIM100GOPROGOPR0790.

Day two we climbed up to a sacred lake located in the crater of an ancient volcano. It is called Chicabal. It was a fairly long, arduous walk up to the look out, then we went farther up to another look out before descending to the edge of the lake. From there we could see local indigenous people resting of the other side of the lake. As we walked around the south end of the lake there were various places where altars had been built for Mayan religious ceremonies. We chatted with some locals who had come up to the lake just for the pleasure. I asked one man what this place meant to him, and he seemed to be pleased to explain that it is a sacred place where they don’t swim or fish out of respect. He recounted a story about some people who did try to take a small boat out into the middle of the lake which isn’t even a kilometre across, and who got caught up in some kind of a vortex and were never seen again. He did however, eat a fish from the lake once. It had jumped out of the water practically at his feet and was still breathing, so he cooked and ate it. Before leaving, we saw a few young men with fishing lines who were going to try their luck, so I am not too sure about the taboo on fishing.dsc04685

Day three, we slept late under heavy blankets. In the afternoon, we visited the neighbouring towns of Totonicapan and San Andres Xecul where the church has a gaudy bright yellow façade covered with various colourful statues.dsc04714

It was a restful day to recuperate from the walk up the mountain and to rest up before visiting the Olmec and Mayan ruins called Takalik Abaj where the oldest ruins have been found (predating Tikal by a 1000 years). This is a national park, with very few tourists; although it is very well kept, and the guide was well informed about the history of the ruins, the fauna and flora of the park. Again, although it was not late, no bus or public transport came by while we waited for over an hour. When we finally decided to walk four kilometres to the village, a little half-ton truck came by and collected us; along with many locals, we stood in the back holding on to the frame. I was surprised how tired I felt when about thirty minutes later we descended into the village of Retalhuleu (Reu for short). The people in the truck got the driver to stop in front of a popular eatery. (I overheard them discussing where we should eat.) Anyway, it was delicious. I had a sizzling hot plate of barbecued pork ribs accompanied by a baked potato filled with melted cheese and a salad, and Eduardo had a huge filet of fish with all the trimmings. We then bussed back to Xela.

Eduardo’s last day before returning to Ottawa was spent travelling in a first class bus to Guatemala City where we stayed in another modest room in the home of some rather interesting people. The man and his wife have spent many years of their professional lives exhuming the bodies of victims of war, not only in their home country where people are still discovering human remains from the recent civil war, but also in many other countries around the world.

Markets and Artesanía

Artesanía translates as handicrafts, crafts, craftsmanship, or mastership. Where does the art come it? How do we differentiate between art and crafts? These questions have been niggling away while I visit the beautiful markets and shops of Guatemala.

For many items, it is obvious that commercialization has taken over. Some things are made in factories, maybe even factories outside the country. Some items are made over and over again in the same manner and same colours and size. To me this is craftsmanship (a rather sexist term, especially considering that most crafts are done by women). Craftsmanship demand a great deal of skill and is often confused with our modern version of crafts which often lovingly hangs on our refrigerator doors.

The Spanish word, artesanía, however includes the word ART. Much of Guatemala’s artesanía involves a huge amount of art and craft.

A visit to a Guatemalan market is a feast for the eyes. And if one goes into the food area, the array of food is tantalizing. Although I usually avoid street food, one item I consider safe is tamales because they are cooked the same day and are served piping hot. Yesterday was no exception. Eduardo and I clumsily ate two huge tamales wrapped in banana leaves right in the market stall. (Dough was made from rice and corn masa) It was the locals turn to stare!

Saturday market in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

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