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?
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…
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 …
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.
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 …