In a hurry, at last

“What do I have to do to become a competent swimmer?” I ask.

“Can you swim at all?” the instructor asks.

I nod.

“Well, jump in and show me.”

I walk over to the ladder at the shallow end of the pool, gingerly lower myself into the water, and start doing a side-stroke down the length of the pool. She follows me on the deck. “Can you do the crawl?”

Reluctantly, I take a deep breath, turn on my stomach, and try to remember the crawl stretching my arms out close to the surface of the cool water as far forward as I can. I take quick gulps of air on alternate stokes, trying to relax, but my arms reach up, and my feet kick faster. After three breaths, I turn on my back and show her my back stroke, relieved I can breathe again. Soon, we are at the deep end: me treading water, her squatting down, “Not bad, you know how to swim, but you don’t look like you are enjoying yourself.”

She had hit the nail on the head. I want to get as much pleasure from swimming as I do from cycling, walking or skiing.

“Let’s talk,” she suggested holding out my towel.

Sitting on comfortable lounging chairs, on the deck of this adult-only pool, she waits for me to start.

I am not sure what she needs to know about my life-long fear of water. Maybe I should tell her about how I have tried to learn, my series of failures.

No, I think, she needs to know why I want to learn to swim, my puzzling attraction to water.

“O.K., well, you already know I am 70 years old, seventy and a half as my grandchildren would say.”

She chuckles and glances at the information sheet I had filled out. Birth date: November 8, 1946. Place of birth: Biggar Saskatchewan. The prairies, she thinks.

“I enjoy the water and some water sports.”

She looks surprised.

“During the summer I crew on some sail boats. We race twice a week on Lake Deschenes. Winters, I like to travel to warmer climes. For the last six years, I have been diving.”

Her eyebrows rise involuntarily.

“Scuba diving,” I gush. “I learned in the Red Sea. The reefs are fascinating.

“I even guided wilderness canoe trips one summer after graduating from university.

“This summer, I am learning to row… those long narrow boats. I like the full-body workout and the team-work.

“But I would like to enjoy swimming as much as these other sports. I want to be able to dive into the water and swim just for fun.”

“Are you afraid of the water?” she asks.

“Well,” I hesitate, “yes. Not as much as before; sometimes I still panic in the water.”

“I wonder why. You seem to know the basics,” she states.

“I am the only person in my family who knows how to swim. We didn’t have any lakes around where I grew up. Mom sent me to swimming classes one summer. Maybe I was six or seven, but the pool was crowded and some kids tried to dunk me. It was a noisy, dangerous place. I was afraid and ashamed.”

“Ashamed?” she prods.

“Yes. Ashamed of how skinny and white I looked in a bathing suit, and ashamed of being afraid.

“Then one summer, when I was sixteen, I worked as a nanny for a very rich family in Montreal. They had a pool behind their city home and a lovely house at a lake in the Laurentian Mountains. In my spare time I would try to get a tan. One day, at the public beach, I ventured out onto the long dock. I could see people playing in water up to their waists. I walked farther out and jumped in. The water was much deeper out there.

“I went down, my feet touched the bottom. I bent my knees and pushed off as hard as I could, hoping to reach the surface and grab onto something. Emerging from the water, I gasped for air and saw a rope that looped along the edge of the dock. I reached for it and missed. I went down again. Tried to push off harder this time. Missed. I think I did this four times before some kind person noticed and helped me climb up onto the dock.”

“Wow,” she says, “it is amazing how well you reacted. You didn’t really panic. You had a plan.”

“Well, I never jumped into any water again.”

“When did you learn to swim?” she asks.

“In my thirties, I used to watch our son at his swimming lessons. On Sundays, we would go and play in the pool with him. He would try to teach me. Finally I decide to take lessons myself, but they could never get me to dive or even jump into the water. I can feel a huge lump in my chest right now just thinking about it.”

“So how did you ever learn to scuba dive?”

“I was teaching in Egypt. The whole staff went to Dahab, on the Red Sea. The water was so warm and inviting. I tried snorkelling out to a nearby reef, but I was very nervous and afraid the water would come in my snorkel. So I rationalized that if I could breathe without fear of water entering my nose or mouth, I could explore the reefs. Scuba diving seemed like the perfect solution.

“My first dive was just an exploratory dive very near the surface of the famous Blue Hole in Dahab. It was spectacular: so many fish, such a colourful variety of coral and sponges. I wanted to learn to dive!

“It wasn’t easy, but that year, I got my Basic Open Water and Advanced Open Water certificates.”

“What were the hardest things to learn?” she asks.

“Oh,” pausing as I felt my chest tighten and my knees stiffen up. “Jumping off the boat into the water. I felt like in those movies where the guy with the parachute is at the open door of the plane, so afraid to jump out. My knees were shaking and the crew would give me the countdown. I would feel like giving up. Maybe I was just too old to learn. Sixty-four, already. Pushing that excuse aside, I would take a big step and sink into the ocean before rising again to the surface.”

“And now, how are you?” she asks.

“Not a problem,” I smile, “but there are some other manoeuvres that are more difficult.”

“Like what?” she pushes.

“Like taking your mouthpiece out of your mouth when you are ten or fifteen metres under water. You have to learn to do that in case you ever need to use someone else’s air. Some instructors do it for fun. They can blow air rings, or they let a small fish nibble at their teeth! I would like to be that relaxed.”

“O.K., I get the picture. You want to have a different relationship with water. You want to have fun.”

“You are right, but to have fun, I need to have confidence.”

“Well, you have come a long way already,” she smiles.

“Yes, let’s get started. I don’t have another seventy years. I need to fast-track this bit,” I said throwing off my towel as I stood up, still tall, white, and skinny.

 

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.