seeing the wood for the trees

My blog posts have become like trees in an ever-thinning jungle, traveled through at speed while barely noticing the disappearing foliage. At least that’s my poetic way of saying it’s become harder to pull out the proverbial finger and update you good people back home the longer I’ve been here, which says something too about the whole experience. My life in Guatemala has become more and more normal, routine, domestic, seeming less and less exotic and exciting and worth writing about. But now the forest is almost gone and thoughts are necessarily turning to home. Only four weeks to go, so I’d better start appreciating what’s left before it’s out of sight. Now, where were we last?

December/January
Los papás were in town which gave us an excuse to go off on a few jollies around the countryside. The highlights were the inevitable but always spectacular trip to Átitlan, and a mangrove tour in the cool dawn of Monterrico on the Pacific coast. These trips were punctuated by oohs and aaahs and other less printable expletives from dad as he snapped this and that unwitting (or simply unidentifiable) bird. Even the vultures, more common than tortilla round these parts, got him going, but thankfully we never got in a position to excite their interest. ..

As the projects started up again it was a great opportunity for the folks to visit the school in Itzapa at the invitation of Elena. Mum was overwhelmed before she even arrived, although this may have had something to do with the chicken bus ride there. We were soon surrounded by the girls from the Toliman class keen to practice their English, giving mum a chance to try out her Spanish too. In Elena and Cástulo’s house we exchanged gifts, Elena receiving an apron designed by the schoolkids of Elgol, which she now wears for her baking sessions with the women’s group, and Cástulo a bottle of malt (which was empty about a week later). They bestowed upon us a delicious lunch of pepián washed down with illegal cusha, and a tour of the organic garden and school. When mum saw the sorry state of the English class desks she resolved to do something about it, and thanks to her and dad’s fundraising efforts back home, four months later we took delivery of some 30 brand new shiny ones. The artificial high produced by the new varnish may have worn off, but the desks will last a lot longer. Que vivan los escritorios nuevos!

As the folks flew back east the daily grind started again, and I had my own troubles to contend with, in the shape of two volunteer trainee-teachers by the names of, let’s say, Barbie and Ken. The former was a wannabe TV news journalist who didn’t say anything to anybody, didn’t eat anything offered by anyone, and spent her spare moments devouring tacky vampire novels. Ken was a megalomaniac yank recently ‘qualified’ from a TEFL course in Costa Rica, that playground for megalomaniac yank Ken-a-likes, and needless to say he didn’t have a clue about teaching English beyond thinking it was a platform to play-act to a captive audience. We also strongly suspected him of being partial to the old Bolivian marching powder, but being unable to prove it, had to stick it out rather than giving him the old Guatemalan marching orders. Ah, volunteering – a noble vocation indeed…

February/March
We moved house from the condominium on the southside of Antigua to the northerly neighbourhood of El Manchén, gaining a wee bit of space and independence and access to such local amenities as bars and bread shops. Aside from this, these months were characterized by an aborted attempt to write a proposal for an internationally recognized TEFL qualification for GVI Guatemala. The workload was ominous, the stakes were high, and completing it would have meant committing to at least a further 18 months on the project. After several long dark nights of the soul, battles with local private English schools that we needed to collaborate with, and consultations with an increasingly murky crystal ball, we knocked it on the head. Yes, we would be Europe-bound in July as originally planned. It was an excruciating decision, but after we’d talked it through with Dom and Doreen, it felt like an enormous weight was lifting. After all, they reminded me, by July I would have achieved what they’d hired me for – the English project was up and running, was well resourced, the kids were achieving great marks in their school exams, and the whole thing would be in good shape for the next intern to take over. Now we could focus on enjoying the time we had left, because it was about to start disappearing fast …

April
Flu is always a swine, but it would have been a real pig if that famous pandemic had hit Mexico before our wee holiday there during Easter. Semana Santa is a very big deal in Antigua, but even before the festivities got properly underway, we’d smelled enough incense and seen enough Roman soldiers with brush-heads sticking out of their helmets. Plus Irene’s visa was due to expire, so we figured it was a good opportunity to brave the 12-hour bus ride to Chiapas and enjoy a few days in the beautiful San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Now Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state, scene of the 1994 Zapatista rebellion and still the focus of hotly disputed debates over land, indigenous rights and military repression. Large chunks of the area are still under rebel control, governed by caracoles (or ‘snails’) who reject the ‘bad government’ of the federation and administer local affairs such as land distribution and education through discussion and community consensus. But on entering the area, the historically ignorant tourist would be forgiven for thinking they had just crossed the border between the 3rd and the 1st worlds. Mexico has main roads free of potholes, clean streets, shiny roadsigns, cars which look like they’d pass an MOT and a general feeling of affluence – everything, in fact, which is lacking in Guatemala.

This of course is only the surface view, but imagine our surprise when we took a boat ride down the spectacular Canyon Sumidero and they actually insisted we wear lifejackets – imagine that on Lago Átitlan! In the bars of San Cristóbal there were well-dressed young people with the newest mobile phones – actual Mexicans and not the tourists you find in Antigua – and a lot of music and laughter and apparent easy living. But the presence of the Maya in the centre, selling carvings, knitwear and Zapatista keyrings, and the run-down indigenous zones at the edge of town, hinted at another Chiapas that we were only to glimpse – in political graffiti, autonomous schools by the roadside painted with images of rebel commandantes, and the ubiquitous presence of the army.

So yes, we bought our Zapatista keyrings, sipped Mexican wine and munched tapas and wondered at it all, if it was bad to enjoy these things, or if stopping enjoying these things would make any difference at all. If the kids and their families we worked with back in Guate would ever dare to stand up and demand a better life for themselves as the communities here had done, as some of their parents, grandfathers and grandmothers had done in the days of the Guatemalan civil war, and what they had got for their efforts. That there weren’t any answers to these questions, but that the people of Chiapas had at least shown that another world was possible, and it was up to the rest of us what we did with their example.

May
With the swine flu came the rain – or at least with news of the swine flu came the rain, because according to the government, there wasn’t any swine flu in Guatemala. Strangely enough the Guatemalan press noted that Scotland had more cases than Guatemala, the only time I’d seen Scotland mentioned in the press except in reference to Alex Ferguson and Andy Murray. We erred on the side of caution, quarantined any new volunteers arriving from the north, and assuaged the fears of the new arrivals that no, all these kids sneezing at school have the normal, unporky Guatemalan flu that everyone gets at this time of year because of the weather.

Meantime the Guatemalan government had more serious issues to contend with. Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer, posted a video on YouTube stating ‘If you are watching this, I have been assassinated by the Guatemalan president, Alvaro Colom’. Indeed, he was dead, having been shot outside his home the day before. The video went on to accuse others in the government of conspiring in his murder, as well as to expose the biggest national bank for laundering millions of dollars of money from the narcotraficantes. This has sparked the biggest political scandal the country has seen in some time – less from the idea that the government could actually be involved in political assassination, which is hardly a new notion in these parts, but from the very public way it has been exposed. As thousands of protesters take to the streets in the city, the government have bribed, cajoled and threatened thousands of farm labourers, teachers and civil servants from around the country to take part in pro-Colom rallies in response. The whole matter is now being investigated by the FBI, so of course everyone is confident of a fair, transparent outcome!

On a lighter note, we were invited to the 15th birthday celebration of Blanca, one of my English students in Santa María de Jesus. We were well-fed with the customary pepián before heading, through a wild storm, up to the church, where the mass was dedicated to Blanca – 15 is regarded here as a coming-of-age. Then it was back to the house for cake and some legal but very nasty rum with Blanca’s extended family (so big it extended out into the street). It was a great day, but for Blanca only the start of a three-day party, and for her father Santiago the beginning of his next worry – that she would now be eligible for marriage and that he might be a grandpa before too long! But I think Blanca, a studious girl who works hard in my English class and has ambitions to be a teacher, has other plans – at least for now.

As for me, it is now a matter of getting on with it and leaving the project in good shape for the next manager to take over in June. So there is a lot of work to be done: training of new volunteers is ongoing, there are new materials to buy from the change from the desk-fund, and there are syllabi and schemes of work to finish up before we leave. And, hopefully, a final jaunt to take in Tikal and Semuc Champey, two of the most spectacular sights in Guatemala, but which we have saved until last. Then the next time I have contact with you, it will probably be in the flesh. But worry not: I have been nowhere near any pigs, especially not the ones that wear massive sombreros and oink ‘andele, andele! Arriba arriba!’ Now, mine’s a bacon sandwich …

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a christmas update


La Antorcha

Originally uploaded by neil1973

Well a merry Christmas to one and all … by way of a Christmas card, albeit rather a long one (!), I’m finally updating the blog. Unbelievably, it’s been nearly 4 months since I last wrote. So without further ado, here’s …

September
April may have been the cruellest month for TS Eliot, but for me it was September. I was the only teacher travelling to Itzapa due to a dip in volunteer numbers, riding the chicken bus alone three times a week, scoffing tortillas alone, teaching 30 kids alone, generally just being ALONE apart from the odd welcome invite into Elena’s family kitchen for coffee and sympathy. Thankfully the monotony was relieved mid-month with the arrival of Amanda, a short-term teaching assistant from Boston, without whom I may well have contemplated escaping to less gloomy climes like San Salvador or Shotts. The moral support was especially welcome on the run-up to September 15th, Guatemalan independence day, a ‘celebration’ of Sadean proportions which basically enforces displays of national pride from a impoverished population with little to be proud of, in the form of drum-beating, baton twirling and militaristic marching. In a nutshell, the schoolkids of Guatemala are blackmailed into buying uniforms, instruments, and taking part in extra-curricular band practice, under the threat of being relieved of crucial course credits. The result was that our classes were reduced to 3 or 4 kids at times, the parents of whom had decided to stick two fingers up to the authorities and spend the little money they had on food rather than trumpets, at the risk of the bairns being failed on their exams and having to repeat the year.

On the day itself, we wandered down to the parades in Itzapa to see most of our students looking thoroughly miserable in their uniforms – particularly the girls, who had been forced into swapping their traditional (modest) dress for US-style cheerleader outfits. The parades themselves weren’t even applauded that enthusiastically by the locals, who were no doubt more concerned about paying the next month’s bills than celebrating 187 years of freedom from Spanish colonialism. For my part, I was starting to realise that Guatemalan independence was mainly about the freedom to continue exploiting the indigenous population without having to pay taxes to Madrid for the privilege. This is why organisations like GVI are needed, I was thinking, but it was depressing to think that we were here to try and make up for inequities that the country was visiting on itself. Every well-off Guatemalan I saw, every time Elena told me about schoolteachers extorting money from their students, every flash car from the city driving through Antigua, I wanted to show them what they were doing, on what their wealth was predicated, ask how they could live with themselves, shake them into starting to take some responsibility so that I could go home and contemplate my own country’s problems.

Thankfully the gloom was lifted by torchlight – literally – as the following day we went to take part in Santa María’s version of the celebrations. In Santa a couple of years ago the local population demonstrated vociferously against the independence marches, basically refusing to pay a penny towards the charade, with the result that the mayor was forced to capitulate and allowed the people to organise their own ‘torch runs’ in place of the marches. This basically involves lighting ‘La Antorcha’ in Antigua’s central square and running with it, behind an ambulance with sirens blaring, up the slopes of Volcán Agua towards the village, being cheered along and drenched in water most of the way. It seemed to renew my hope a little, symbolising a more truly independent, rebellious spirit on the part of the villagers and the kids. And of course I was as proud as any when I got my turn carrying the flame. Viva Guate!

October
What a relief it was to return to normal volunteer levels and reopen most of the classes. Once more hundreds of chicititos were running around the playground at breaktime, and once more I was getting on with what I was supposed to be doing – managing the program and training up volunteers to get into the classroom. We took on some more students, reshuffled the classes and began taking the youngsters of Clase Toliman for basic English once a week, preparing them for their entry into secondary school next year. Leslie and Kavin, my first long-term volunteers since July, did a great job, Leslie enjoying it so much that she decided to stay on for 6 months and has thus become my first intern and right-hand woman. Having an American (Leslie) and Oxbridge graduate (Kavin) on board did somewhat derail my moulding of the kids’ ‘Scotomalan’ accents (they now pronounce ‘water’ as ‘waaaar’ and ‘fork’ as ‘faaaawwwk’), but it was a small price to pay for avoiding complete mental and physical exhaustion on my part. The rain kept on beating down relentlessly, but there was some light chinking through the stormclouds. Summer was almost upon us, and in more ways than one.


November

Irene arrived, and with her the sun and my first holiday since I had arrived. Happy days! Off we went to Lago Atitlán for reunion, rest and recuperation. It was fantastic. Even a couple of days in the eerie hippy-hangout of San Marcos La Laguna didn’t spoil the fun – despite being full of tantric seekers and meditation centres, the friendliest being turned out to be a golden retriever who followed us everywhere and looked after our stuff when we went swimming in the lake.

The break sweet but short, getting back to work was difficult, not least because a question mark hung over Irene’s future in Guatemala, there not being too many job opportunities for Catalan marine engineers in a country with two ports. By the end of the month, though, she had become a full-time assistant to Doreen in the Santa María project, helping out with classes, preparing materials for the new year and generally getting stuck in and loving every minute.

The good news came as we went off to Chichicastenango in the Highlands for Central America’s oldest market, an excursion into the heartland of Guatemala’s Qui’che Maya, the people most devastated by the civil war but who nevertheless retain a strong indigenous character and traditions. This is one of the few parts of the country where you can see men wearing traditional costume as part of their daily lives. Imagine going up to Skye and seeing Highlanders wrapped in plaid as a matter of course and not because tourism makes it profitable to do so, and hearing Gaelic spoken everywhere, and you have something of the flavour of it. And as if to reinforce the analogy, in Chichi we saw our first Guatemalan sheep …

December
With another long-termer, Moira, trained up and able to take over classes with Leslie, I was sent off to the GVI project in Honduras to help kick-start their English program. With several Latin American governments now introducing English into their national curricula, with little in the way of materials or training to back it up, part of my job has become to adapt our Guatemalan program to suit the needs of the other projects, a task which will take me to Ecuador and Peru in the new year. The Honduran project is based in the beautiful town of Copán Ruinas, a sleepy and diminutive version of Antigua where beer is half the price and school finishes at midday! Effectively getting the work done in a couple of days, I was free to explore the amazing Mayan archaeological site a couple of kilometres from the town. Pyramidical temples, intricately-carved statues, altars and hieroglyphics, and even an ancient Mayan football pitch all point to the civilisation which thrived in the area about 1500 years ago, as well as undermining the myth that the Scots invented soccer. Apparently, though, in the Mayan version the winners were the ones who were sacrificed, a practice which obviously flies in the face of the Scottish tradition of only putting underachievers to the sword…

Following that, I bussed it up to the Caribbean coast of Honduras, via the city of San Pedro Sula, a town I would recommend to nobody – put it this way, I was glad to discover it is Central America’s most dangerous city after I got out of it. The sleepy coastal town of Tela was a welcome contrast. Here there is more of an Afro-Caribbean feel to life, as much of the population is made up of the Garífuna, descended from African slaves who rather ungratefully rebelled against their British masters some years ago, were dumped on an island and eventually made it to the northern coasts of Guatemala and Honduras. I dipped my toes in the Caribbean, sampled conch, coconut bread and even cheaper beer, and practised my Spanish chatting about Sean Connery with the hotel receptionist. Everyone I’ve met here who knows about Scotland is always keen to have a blether about whatever particular cultural cliché they happen to have heard of, whether it be bagpipes, men in skirts, Braveheart or Glasgow Celtic. In this case the lad had spent years convinced Sean Connery was American, due to how brilliantly he’d assimilated the accent. Recalling the ignorance of most of my countrymen regarding Guatemala and Honduras – they didn’t even know where they were, never mind recognising any of their celebrities – I humoured him by commenting that Sir Sean was certainly renowned for his way with words.

Returning to Guate, the run-up to Christmas has been busy, especially with trying to get all the English students tested in preparation for opening up yet more classes next year. The kids have all done brilliantly in their national exams – out of all the students sitting English exams at school, only one failed – which is a great vindication of the program we are running, designed as it is primarily to compensate for the patchy teaching of English at secondary level. Not content with that, we have our own testing regime to follow, which climaxed in the last Friday of term in Itzapa, with a furious bout of examining, marking, writing names on diplomas, tying them up with red ribbon and handing them out – all in the space of a day! Things were rather more relaxed in Santa María (as usual), as we were able to enjoy a formal graduation ceremony with the smallest children putting on a song and dance for the older kids from our classes.

This was a lovely way to finish the school year, alongside the Christmas party in Itzapa (which doubled as a birthday celebration for Dom). The kusha (illegal Mayan firewater) was flowing freely from about 11am (for those of age only of course), and we were treated to music and dance from the kids as well as the women’s group. To top it all, Profe Juan, a lively 73-year old volunteer, donned a Santa suit in the heat and distributed presents to the children – most of whom had never seen a Santa in their lives. The dancing continued into the night – useful practice for the upcoming Christmas and New Year parties in Antigua – although admittedly I copped out early and by 7 o’ clock could be found, alongside the exhausted Santa, huddled in Elena’s kitchen with a hot chocolate and a tamal. But while Santa has work yet to do this Christmas, I can safely say I’ve earned my holidays!

Now almost 6 months since I arrived here, I can see how much has been achieved and how much remains to be done. Thanks to all the support I got from people back home, as well as strong backing from GVI, we now have a good library of English resources, decent stationery and art supplies, and audio equipment, with a bit of spare cash to take us into 2009. On top of that, we’ve established syllabi from beginner to elementary, alongside a volunteer training program, all of which take into account the particular needs of the bilingual children we’re working with. All this will now form the basis for teaching English in GVI schools in the other Latin American countries, something I’m now very much looking forward to implementing in the coming year.

So salud to one and all, and que tengan una buen navidad y prospero año nuevo!

back aboard the chicken bus


the chicken bus to Itzapa

Originally uploaded by neil1973

On my return to Guatemala I was gutted to learn that GVI had stopped using the local chicken buses to get us to and from the projects, instead employing private shuttles. For Santa Maria, the reason was sensible- the buses are usually packed and we didn’t want to deprive local people of seats, especially on market days. But the largely empty bus to Itzapa was also a no-no, thanks to the ever-vigilant Foreign & Commonwealth Office, whose advice not to use them for safety reasons means that insurance companies back home will not cough up for any robberies or accidents occurring on them.

The truth is that no form of transport in Guatemala is safe, due to poor standards of vehicle maintenance, pothole-riddled tarmac, and drunk and unlicensed drivers on the roads. Our shuttle driver to Santa Maria drives with about as much care as your average highlander on his way home from the pub, and his vehicle is equally haphazard, once shunting forward alarmingly while parked on a slope and almost taking off the toes of several loitering schoolkids. By comparison the local chicken buses are regarded as the safest in the country, we are well-known to the drivers and conductors on the routes, and no incidents of the ‘robbery and rape’ threatened by the FCO have ever occurred in the six years of GVI’s presence here.

As a result of the school in Itzapa being closed due to lack of volunteers, with only my English class remaining open, I was asked if I didn’t mind saving GVI some money and travelling by chicken bus with my assistants. Always willing to test the boundaries of fate, and throwing caution to the winds, etcetera, I gladly accepted. In truth there is nothing to beat a chicken bus ride if you want to experience an authentic slice of Guatemalan life. Here it comes, hurtling down the street, painted green, red and white and trailing the thickest black smoke. ‘Pastores St Luis Parramos ITZAPAAAAAAAA’ bellows the conductor, and on you get, your ‘Buenas Dias’ always returned by all and sundry, squeezing yourself into the miniscule seats before it charges off again. The driver will be blasting the same Mexican ska CD as ever through a sound system way more sophisticated than the mechanics of the bus, his various crucifixes and effigies of the Virgin dangling from the mirror, accelerating through corners, screeching to a halt at unmarked bus stops wherever a soul is in need of a ride. In the morning it wakes me up, and in the evening, strangely, it lulls me to sleep. I can only surmise that my old man drove my pregnant mother around in a rickety vehicle at high speeds sometime during 1972/3, and that I am succumbing to a primordial womb memory.

In truth I have never seen a chicken on a chicken bus, but on Monday there was an unfortunate goose on its way to market. I hope for its family’s sake its life was not insured by a British company.

In other news, there has been rain. A lot of rain – the type of rain that makes Glasgow rain a pleasant memory. Water comes tumbling down the slopes of the appropriately named Volcan Agua and the streets turn into rivers, the crossing of which can be hazardous. It never ceases to amaze me how few locals carry umbrellas or raincoats, preferring to stand under archways or roofs waiting for the deluge to pass. Personally, I treat the floods as gushing hebridean burns, hopping onto the larger cobblestones and suffering the consequences of my poor balance. This approach has already destroyed one pair of sandals and is threatening more damage to my remaining footwear.

Back in school, the kids are not put off, and still insist on playing outside during breaktimes. On Friday in Itzapa I decided to join in with the football, playing ‘goal and in’ with three of the lads. Not satisfied with scoring two, I took an almighty heave at the ball while wee Pedro was in goal – unfortunately for him also taking with me a large slab of mud which splattered him from head to toe. True to the cruelty of kids his misfortune was compounded by hearty laughs from the other boys, so I helped clean him up and hoped the incident would not make his already poor attendance deteriorate further.

Finally, school was suspended for a morning this week as we took the kids out to the fields to help plant trees – part of the Plan Semillas which runs in conjunction with the stove-building project in attempting to reverse the trend of deforestation. Thankfully the rain stayed off, and we helped plant around 300 saplings at the edge of an almighty forest of maize. The highlight was when I inadvertently chopped a small snake in half with a spade. Its two wriggling halves provided endless amusement to the kids, but their assurances that a whole one would certainly have bitten me added caution to my planting when it came to putting the trees into the earth. On the way back to school, the girls foolishly gifted me with what has become my classroom ‘tawser’ – a feathery weed which produces hysterical fear in the owner of any neck it threatens to tickle. Since its installation as part of the repressive apparatus of the Itzapa schoolroom, homework completion has strangely doubled …

with thanks to Amanda for the photos.

a video, a party, a tornado and some killer ants

This short, made by former GVI volunteer Nathan Golon, really expresses far more than I could what our schools projects are about here – mainly because it allows the people we are working with to tell the story rather than focusing on us. It features Elena, the community leader from Itzapa and an eloquent speaker, and 12-year-old Carla, one of my English students from Santa Maria and probably my favourite – although it’s a tough choice. Anyway, a picture’s worth a thousand words etcetera so I’ll get on to other things.

Actually, Carla features in my other main story this week, as she was my dance partner at the Santa Maria birthday celebrations. All the kids whose birthdays fall in that particular month are gathered together and sat in a row, where they are hugged in turn by every kid and teacher, to the chants of ‘BESO! BESO!’ (‘kiss! kiss!’) whenever a girl has to hug a boy or vice versa – although only about one in ten are gallus enough to place a smacker on the cheek of the disconsolate victim. Once they all look thoroughly sick of the physical contact, each receives a gift – wee Hector, another of my students, was delighted to receive a recorder and some colouring pencils.

The party then moves on to the piñata, where each celebrant gets to whack a large fluffy donkey suspended from the roof until the sweeties fall out and all hell breaks loose. And then the climax – a succession of dances including a bit of improvised salsa and the legendary ‘manteca’, a song about lard which has a hilarious dance routine as infectious as it is daft. Anyway, I was chuffed to bits when Carla announced her intentions to dance with me by running up and hugging the life out of me. Unfortunately, none of the other girls in the class could be persuaded to join in later on. Bloomin’ teenagers…

There has been more cause for celebration for me as my two volunteers have really knuckled under and developed brilliantly as teachers. It’s been tough going at times, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons on how to manage people, but the course has worked well and both of them have got a lot out of it – as have the students. This is their last week now and they’re really dreading saying goodbye to the kids. But unlike other classes in the projects, which sometimes have to close when volunteers leave and there’s no-one to replace them, I am providing the continuity and we’ll be able to keep the English classes running in otherwise deserted schools.

The Itzapa school really was deserted quite early yesterday as a violent storm blew in and we had to send the kids running off home. To be honest I missed most of the excitement, but a mini-tornado descended onto the street outside the classroom – I was too busy trying to get the kids back on task and away from the window to appreciate its severity! I did see a lot of paper and other rubbish swirling up into the tail-end of the cone, and later went to inspect the damage in the other school, where a bit of roofing had come off and a chicken had got blown up into a tree. We got off lightly, as did the chicken, which was probably destined for the pot that night.

The final excitement to report is that I managed to fit in a bit of rock climbing last Saturday on some crags near Lago Amatitlan, a glorified boating pond frequented by Guate city-slickers. The first pitch was relatively easy apart from the presence of about a million biting ants on the top ledge. After I and a couple of others had disturbed them, they were really wound up and reserved their most vicious attack for poor Ross, my housemate here, whose feet, knees and hands swole up into nasty, itchy pustules the next day. Now there’s an objective danger you don’t read about in the climbing books …

The second climb was a far trickier chimney, thankfully devoid of ants, housing only an amiable lizard at its top. Unfortunately I never managed to pay him a visit, falling off three times at the crux, before finally mastering it only to fall off once more, having reached my limit for the day. I will be back – as long as I can find an ant-proof suit somewhere in Antigua market…

eating my fill

well, my trip to lago átitlan was amazing. never has a 30 mile bike ride been so easy – as we coasted down from 2300 metres up, I only had to use my pedals three times! our destination was the lakeside town of panajachel, or ´gringotenango´ (as the locals call it, due to the high density of hippies), from where a wee boat took us to our hotel – the idyllic casa del mundo. my room had amazing views across the lake to the three volcanoes on the other side, and tropical greenery, replete with hummingbirds, tumbling down to the shoreside. paradise!

as my birthday was on monday, we spent the saturday night in the hotel starting up a wee celebration party – until realising that the closely attending hotel staff were not there to serve us more food or drink, but to hurry us off to bed – at 9pm! for which i was quite grateful to be honest – i got my first decent, solid sleep since arriving in guatemala.

the next day i enjoyed a hearty breakfast consisting of two massive burritos, managing to burn off the first one on a paddle round the lakeside in a kayak, and then the second hiking back to the hotel in the midday heat. this otherwise unchallenging stroll was made more interesting by packs of local dogs, who probably would´ve barked at us anyway, but the presence of guide matt´s black lab, mina, seemed to work them into a slavering fury. a few well-aimed stones kept them at bay, but more interestingly, mina did not respond in the slightest! a more placid beast i have never met.

life back on the projects has been tough this week, partly due to the disappearance of the clear spell and the resumption of the daily deluge, and partly due to my increasing irritation with some of the less mature volunteers. having daddy pay for your gapyear travels and voluntary work doesn’t always equate with commitment or enthusiasm, and certainly not with responsibility either – the state of our house after wednesday´s barbecue sending me into a fit of rage which I thankfully managed to distill into a terse telling-off at thursday lunchtime. we move into our new pad tomorrow and barbecues are definitely off the menu for a couple of weeks, thankfully – by which time the few spoilers in the large group of volunteers we have at the moment will be gone.

meantime the teaching has been going well – attendances are steady and the majority of the kids are making good progress with their english. the problem for some is that english is a third language for them, and with limited literacy in spanish it´s tough for them to make it stick. but when communication breaks down i’ve been able to rely on my improving spanish, on which i was complimented yesterday by elena, the Itzapa communuity leader! she then tried to convince me that learning kaq’chikel, the local mayan language, would be easy for me because it´s really similar to english. how so? i wondered, given that it sounds more like one of the south-african click-languages… well, she explained, the word for ‘house’ sounds like ‘church’. and the word for mother-in-law is ‘nan’. there her comparative analysis broke down a little so i humoured her by explaining that your nan could be your gran back home, which seemed to cheer her up.

i´ve been privileged to enjoy the local delicacy of pepian three days in a row this week – in three contrasting but equally delicious styles. it´s normally cooked only on special occasions, such as when long-term volunteers or interns leave, which happened on thursday in santa maria and friday in itzapa (i knew working in both projects was going to bring its advantages!) … then today i was actually shown how to make it on a great cookery course i went on with a few friends (it´s really a complex process of stewing various vegetables and blending spices for several hours). even better than that, i made my first flour tortilla and *real* tacos (u´ll never buy them from the supermarket again after trying these!) – and a magical pudding made from guiskile, a local squash-like root which is fast becoming my favourite vegetable. yum.

for some strange reason i´m gaining a reputation as a human bin, not only polishing off double breakfast burritos, but willingly clearing the plates of fussy eaters in both projects. yet the message from back home is that, judging by pictures, i need to eat more. i´m doing my best, folks, i´m doing my best …

confusion & calamity


Picture 014

Originally uploaded by neil1973

I have inadvertently caused something of a sexual revolution in Santa Maria. Taking the afternoon class for their first proper lesson, I introduced my two volunteers to the kids. Les presento Seňo Liz, y Seňo Lisa … y yo soy Seňo Neil! (I present to you Miss Liz and Miss Lisa, and I am Miss Neil)… Momentarily forgetting my aggrandizing masculine title ‘Profe Neil’ may have consequences as yet unfathomable. I’m rather hoping they’ll have forgotten by next week.

But this apart, my first full week’s teaching has been going well. Itzapa and Santa Maria present contrasting challenges. Itzapa’s morning group have mixed abilities, the boys moody and hormonal, and the girls lacking any confidence whatsoever – but the whole lot became highly confused when I gave them juggling balls to chuck at targets on the board. But once they saw the point – it’s actually a physical way of getting students to choose between different grammar structures – they chucked their balls with gusto! Getting them off their backsides and away from paperwork is the plan, even if they think I’m a gigantic lunatic for the time being.

Lunacy on a gigantic scale is the order of the day in the afternoons at Itzapa, where 30 students to split between two tiny classrooms turned up on Monday. Seňos Liz y Lisa therefore got their first taste of the business end of teaching, but coped admirably and got a massive buzz out of it as well. They took their first full class on Wednesday, a group of grubby-faced little boys and giggling girls who so far have avoided English classes like the plague. The curiosity value attached to a new permanent English profe and his glamorous assistants seems to have drawn them back in, and if all goes well, they’ll hopefully become a bit more committed (before I do ; )

Santa Maria is a different kettle of tortillas altogether. All the kids there are beginners, and therefore carry no real expectations of what an English class is about. As a result they are more open, and in particular with the younger afternoon kids, eager and sponge-like. And sitting in on the class today was the oldest kid of all, the local school coordinator Santiago, in whose house we eat at lunchtimes. What a guy – on Friday, playing football with the kids, wee Gustavo tripped him up, he cracked his chin on the concrete and bit through half his tongue … yeah, I winced when I heard that as well. The local doc sewed it back together and Santiago is bearing up bravely, although he isn’t too keen on having to survive on a diet of soup for the next month.

Actually it’s been a week of calamities, thankfully none of which have involved me. A new volunteer, Amy, fell out of bed on her first night in Antigua and broke her nose… Leigh, a volunteer teacher from South Carolina 3 inches taller than me, split his head open twice on two separate doorframes in Itzapa … and to top it all, my boss Dom suffered a rather amusing case of whiplash. As he was peeing on the lemon tree in his garden, a practice he swears by – for the good of the tree presumably – and indulges at 5:30 every morning, the Monday edition of the newspaper, heavy with magazine supplements, came flying over the wall and whacked him on the back of the head. The offending paperboy was long gone by the time he regained consciousness, but the pain has sadly lingered …

On a cheerier note, at the end of the week we managed to present our students each with a ring binder to keep their English notes in. In Santa Maria on Thursday morning, I explained carefully in Spanish that these folders were theirs to take home and bring to class each day, and that they should take good care of them. I reiterated this at the end of the lesson, but the students were looking at me and each other with confused expressions. Estos son regalos?? (These are presents?) Si, si! Para ustedes! I replied. They couldn’t believe it, and neither could I. I have never seen kids so grateful for so little.

grey over antigua the clouds piled up …

Finally – my first post from Guatemala! I’ve been here for only two days now but already the work has started in earnest. After 15 hours of flying, a night in a hotel directly under the Heathrow flightpath, and two hours sitting aimlessly on an unmoving plane at Madrid airport, I finally arrived in Guatemala City on Monday evening. From there a 45 minute taxi ride brought me to the GVI house in Antigua, where I met my five new flatmates, dumped my suitcases in the room, and for the first time wondered what kind of crazy thinking had brought me here…

But so far there hasn’t been too much time for reflection! First thing on Tuesday morning, Dom (the Latin America project manager) drove me up to the first school project I’ll be working on, in a village called Santa Maria, half-way up Volcán Agua. Meeting the children I’ll be working with was a great experience – first they all hugged me (a traditional Mayan form of greeting), and then they got so excited about learning English that I decided to give them their first lesson there and then! After half an hour of ‘My name is …’ and ‘How are you…?’, I had a queue of little girls desperate to know the English words for el mundo (the world), el sol (the sun), las estrellas (the stars) and la luna (you work it out!) – and about a thousand other words. They’ll have forgotten them all by the next time I see them, but the fact they are so enthusiastic is really encouraging for me.

Then today I returned to Itzapa, the town I worked in at Christmas. It was good to see some familiar faces, as well as to see the school in action – six levels of classes, over two hundred kids and a clutch of volunteers all working hard to give them a good grounding in Spanish literacy and numeracy. The older kids, who I’ll be working with mostly, were working hard on their English grammar – which is all they seem to have been taught for the past 6 months. They didn’t seem to care how boring this was – I wonder how they’ll react when I start the classes in my way? Could be interesting! Especially so since the afternoon class comprises 28 students crammed in to a small room, some with bums too big for the tiny primary school chairs they had to sit on. But from next week I’ll be able to split the class into smaller groups and they can start learning properly.

Then later on I delivered the first training session to the volunteers who’ll be working for me – two Elizabeths, one American and one English. They seem raring to go, but I wonder whether this enthusiasm will wear off once we get going on our 32 hour weekly teaching timetable!

We’re right in the middle of the rainy season here (not so different from Scotland then!), but like everywhere else in the world, climate change is having a big effect. Only ten years ago the rain here fell very regularly – at 4 ‘o clock more or less precisely, every day – but now it’s more sporadic, which is having a bad effect on the food people grow. A lot of the crops are failing, which, combined with a ‘free trade’ agreement with the USA (where the Americans basically buy all the best food for the cheapest prices), means that the cost of basic foods like beans and maize has risen dramatically in the last year. You can imagine the effects of this on the poorest communities such as the ones I’m working in.

Living in a developing country like this means getting used to things like power cuts, flea-ridden dogs everywhere, flash-floods and, ironically enough, the water supply cutting out after 10pm – as well as the everyday poverty of the communities outside Antigua where I’m working. But there are so many positive things too – Antigua itself is a beautiful place to live, the whole landscape is incredibly dramatic, and the people are really friendly – sometimes in a quiet, reserved way – and sometimes full of fun. Speaking of which, it’s amazing to see the kids playing during breaktimes. They splash through muddy puddles with footballs, they play counting games in circles, they spin wooden tops and try to catch them in their hands – all things the kids back home, with their electronic entertainments, would find ridiculous and old fashioned. But these games are all about interacting, communicating and laughing together, all important parts of life in the indigenous communities here. Life is hard, but if they are to survive, people have to work together – and the kids’ games seem to be part of that ethos.

Well tomorrow I’m off to the big bad city with Dom & Doreen to source some more books for the school. I’m really quite glad they’re taking me – I’ve heard so many horror stories about Guatemala City, the thought of going there alone and getting lost was giving me nightmares! But I’m sure it can’t be all bad. Just like Glasgow isn’t all bad, despite the significant minority of imbeciles. The night before I left Scotland – the day of the big Orange marches in Glasgow – I got accosted by one of those natives you really don’t want to bump into up a dark close. ‘It’s Protestant Day, man!’ he girned at me through his Glasgow smile. ‘I’m gonnae batter some Catholics! Yer no Catholic ur ye? Don’t get me wrong, I’m no bitter – it’s just bigoted Catholics I hate!’

It was surely time to leave.