Guatemala V: Among the Pines

Momostenango, Totonicapan is a sprawling municipality in the Western Highlands, its name a salute to its Mayan roots and meaning “the place of mountains”. Gwen provided a well-reasoned system for gauging current levels of excitement in the event that you know nothing about this perhaps unpronounceable rural area to which you have been often individually assigned. If you Google image the name of your site, and there isn’t a dead body among the first page of search results, you should be excited. So how excited am I? Pretty fucking excited. Another gauge: does it appear in the Lonely Planet guide to Guatemala? Depending on who you are, you will either be disappointed that it has been “discovered” or, like me, will be drunk on happiness for its proximity to a major urban area, market access, and varied transportation options. Sites were distributed in neatly organized folders two months after arriving for training, a process that took into account our variable levels of neediness, likeability, and language capacity. I received a site using these criteria for successful volunteership: it is just far enough away from large-scale tourist operations that I will stay out of trouble, it is not shared by other volunteers so that I can finally have all the time in the world to invest my time in some oddball craft, and it is 97% K’iche speaking so that I can dazzle my health education counterparts with my Mayan language capacity. Oh, wait…

Snarky comments aside, I am ready for the Western Highlands.

And so my work partner, a supervisor for the Ministry of Education in the municipality of Momostenango, helped me lug my deadweight suitcase to my new assignment. His name is Pablo, and he is marked by just the right blend of professionalism and sarcasm. And so when he makes a joke about being a backup dancer for Marc Anthony, the fear recedes. And even more when he asks me how many bricks I brought from home. The road to Momostenango heads north from San Cristobal and Cuatro Caminos, also passing through San Francisco El Alto. The thin pavement through the grand and largely untouched pine forest is a nod to the road to Flagstaff, but instead of the red rooftops of Boulder, Colorado, the vista offers more sparsely populated towns, with scattered fires and the calls of birds yet unseen. The pines here are strong, leaning in towards the road as if they will reach out, grab stragglers off of pickup trucks, and pull them deep into the forests’ guts to digest. There is only one road to Momos, and I hope its magic never dies. That same bottled acidic fear from before crescendos when Pablo leaves me at my new rental, and I find myself quite alone.

There are the distant grumblings of thunder. I enter a part of the compound that is by all means luxurious, with three glass windows, a newly tiled floor, and running water in a private bathroom. I then unroll my yoga mat, using a mosquito net as a pillow, because for all of its unforeseen modernity, it is still bare. The emptiness is an intimidating force, every breath an echo. I turn on my side and, regretting it, turn back to center to survey the mountain of unpacked bags in the dim light coming through the windows of my second story and subtly yellow pine forest hideaway. As we had been forewarned, our spaces would be largely unfurnished, and it would be up to us to visit the local markets and carpentries and corner bodegas to stock them economically. In one evasive corner sit two empty plastic chairs that my new host gave to me out of pity (see also: tea, see also: invitation to dance class). On these first nights, everything becomes a metaphor for doom. She, either Doña Marina or Doña Betty depending on who you ask, is a Catholic fourth grade teacher with an accent lending to Quiche, her first language. She seems confused that I am 1. American and 2. speak Spanish, which manifests when she repeats everything twice. In the case of asking me where I am really from, she asks three times just to be sure. Other in and out occupants of the family compound include: her daughter Daisy, currently a medical student in Xela, a Mormon missionary from Retalhuleu named Don Juan, an NGO worker from Solola named Vanesa, and a 15 year old housekeeper named Dorotea. The cat’s name is Lola. Lola ate all my snacks. Apart from the introduction including name and nationality, I have found that three questions dictate the rest of conversation and often the strength of relationships, including identification of religion, if you have a husband (and if not, what is wrong with you), and appetite for Guatemalan food. To each her own, but I have found that my answers to each of these questions have been growing in ambiguity each time I respond, and my quality of life has improved correspondingly.

I wake up after the first night, and it is now frigid, my hands curled into tight claws, my legs twisted. And I have somehow locked myself in from the outside. I begin making a list of the essentials for my new space, but halt after my first read through because I feel my own resistance to the permanence setting in, the jitters that resound with buying furniture. I look to a history of what some have somewhat facetiously labeled “minimalism”, probably because I only ever have enough things of my own to carry onto a plane. Living out of bags suits me. I grudgingly invite over a team of carpenters who will custom fit a number of single style pieces engraved with various religious iconography and then deliver it assembled. Here I am, nesting.

Many people will turn to you during conversation and with eager eyes ask if you have photos from home, because it is difficult to visualize our often vague and depoliticized responses about what it is like to be an American. Seriously though, I have no idea how to respond to this, so I usually mumble something Ron Swanson-esque about how being an American means celebrating the individual’s rights, before teetering off in thought. I am being taught the image of the American dream as it is seen from the outside, the apparent carelessness of being an American on a media-inflated paved gold road to opportunity, usually from the inside of a Ferrari with tinted windows and a sunroof, the ideal vista for spraying people with champagne. At first I would joke along saying that, yes, that is how I spend the majority of my time. When I show photos of my life at home, of my friends and family, of the house I grew up in, and of my travels, I introduce them delicately, but cannot dodge the flooding sense of shame. It is painful for me (as well as uncomfortable as well as absolutely essential) to face my own privilege during these conversations, knowing full well that my health and education are attributed to certain socioeconomic factors. This also becomes a true test for skills in diplomacy. In hopes of inspiring a better understanding of the diversity in the U.S., I am going through the Humans of New York anthology with Dorotea, hoping that my poor translations of NYC slang can help her form a more thorough perception of the wealth of stories one city can hold and teach some conversational English on the side. She laughs every time she sees bare legs and sometimes seems more interested in the clothed mini dogs than the stories, but at one point she turned to me and blankly remarked how brave she thinks it is to be one of the photographed and interviewed, and so we read on. My thankfulness expands while I reassess all of my expectations that don’t transcend many borders into the developing world: admission to museums and art galleries, the FDA, SEPTA regional rail (I admit this one resentfully), access to Harry Potter books, water purification, benefits for the disabled, IKEA, trash collection, nominal trust in the police force and judicial system, and to have two parents in the picture who emphasized long-term benefits of higher education.

I live in the shadow of a Mormon megachurch, its spire the highest point on my side of the mountain. It is a ghost of Mt. Lebanon that has followed me here, this relic of the white American suburbs, with its state of the art basketball court, alternative generator for a constant power supply, and well trimmed green pastures. The color drains from my skin. To one side, an unkempt field with a family’s wood stove taking up most of their single room living space, the fire their light and heat. To the other, two cows drinking from a river lost in plastic trash and wasted by runoff from houses. So how did this get here? And then I wrench my face back towards the dirt road ahead, a veritable bolo (n., drunk man) minefield, the opening scene of some dystopian zombie flick–they are stumbling, sometimes crawling, with arms extended and all dawn drawn from their eyes. I dodge a puddle and jump over a dark huddled mass on the way to the dance studio, mumbling in awe of all of the contrasts that come with development. It turned out that the Doña’s dance class is a mix of the Insanity workouts and Zumba in a basement gym, where I have earned the nickname “fresca como lechuga.” It is one of the first environments where I have seen women wearing pants and listening to club music, and many of them work in Xela. I am still trying to figure out what makes me fresh like lettuce, but it feels like integration.

I tried churrasco one day, longaniza another, but the street food, in all its excellence, is actually killing me down here. It has been five days since I have eaten a vegetable. Seño Betty laughs when I say this because she thinks that all vegetables (except potatoes) are bullshit. I go with her to her fourth grade classroom, where, during the sun’s midday peak, we bake like tamales under a tin roof. I am the first American they have seen in the flesh, and I am not what they expected. The questions begin. Have you been to the desert? Did you have blonde hair before? Do you like pizza? Do you know my uncle? And I learn that, indeed, everybody has an uncle in Los Angeles. I teach them head, shoulders, knees, and toes, and now get stopped in the street for impromptu performances. Kids who have one shirt that fits and can’t afford toothpaste are stuffing candy into your pockets. You act like it is the first piece of candy you have ever seen and the last you are ever likely to eat because of how much it means to them.

I write this way, not to worry you, or scare you, because the first days are hard. Much of it gets easier, even hourly. I am becoming recognized as the new gringa in town, hauling side tables over a shoulder, attempting to retain a regal posture and all in all failing spectacularly to blend in.

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Jesus Saves, I Spend – St. Vincent

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