Return from Innocence

I spent the morning collecting and readying myself for the journey home. So much had happened over the last 4 weeks that it was going to be rather interesting to live the experience of transitioning from my life in Guatemala and to a life back home in Canada. The question of for how long and when I would be returning to Guatemala was posed many times throughout the morning and was feeling uncertain as to the answer and hence reluctant in leaving NPH behind. The feeling of obligation and desire to stay in Paramos at the orphanage grew heavy as we drove away from the heavy gates, the ‘we’ being Ismar, three volunteer native teachers from the babies house and 8 bubbling little darlings (ranging from age 3-5) who sat in the rear compartment of the SUV, astride my mammoth backpack. I can’t tell you how irresistible the image was to capture …

The children were so delightful and adorable, I just wanted to hug them incessantly without ever letting them go. Needless to say, leaving was indescribably difficult but, indeed, necessary.

Ismar is a star and a godsend in making my experience at NPH easy and fluid. Not only is he fluent in speaking English but he is forever helpful, aiding in my transition at NPH, organizing transport to and from the orphanage plus enabling my deliverance to the airport with as much flourish and accommodation as is possible. Thanks Ismar!!! I owe him a 6 pack of Dr Pepper on my return :).

I enjoyed my last hours in Guatemala at the airport, enjoying perusing through the numerous duty-free shops before embarking on the final leg of my journey. SlaDE~ would be anxiously awaiting my arrival in Buffalo and I was grateful for the seamless transition of my passage from world to another, entirely different in their realities. I almost missed my connection from Charlotte NC to Buffalo NY as I forgot to put my clock ahead an hour. I was aimlessly passing my time in the internet lounge when I felt a sudden pang of hunger …. Seeing the endless supply of readymade expensive selections of restaurants made me realize how hungry I was on this voyage where no meals were provided in my flight segments (I don’t count snacks as food!). With that as a sidebar, I noted the time and realized that indeed I was about to miss my flight due to a forgotten time change with my watch. Yikes …. made it to the gates, panting, just as the last people were boarding. And from there I delivered smoothly to the awaiting arms of my beloved, realizing that indeed a month was a long time; I would need to get used to seeing a bald head again on the man who has vowed to be by my side for the rest of my life. Delicious! A happy beginning to a journey that has only just begun ….

no basura here!

It was such a surreal sight to see someone actually picking up garbage here in Guatemala. Antigua is a nostalgic clean city with character, so different from the rest of Guatemala and other third world countries. The city actually provides garbage cans conspicuously placed everywhere in positive attempts to keep it clean and appealing to the many tourists that they rely on heavily for sustenance. It’s such a shame that the government can’t adopt an incentive program throughout the country to keep it garbage-free and beautiful for the sake of the inhabitants and those that want to savour the glorious beauty so true to this country.

prowling like a Kat

I ventured into Antigua by chicken bus. Another great experience in seeing new country on my own discovery. With nothing but time on my hands, I flitted around both the artisan and food market. Amazing craftspeople and hard-cord vendors. Escaping the barking pleas for their wares takes a whimsical hand at not showing too much interest or involvement in their wares, even if interest was had. I stumbled upon the ‘The Black Cat’, unloaded my few belongings and started an exploration of the beautiful city … But as timing would have it, the rain starts and my umbrella breaks, finally! I discovered a hidden Thai restaurant but was vaguely disenchanted by its blah-ness … Mediocre at best. Off to the bagel barn for an overpriced yummy bagel and my luscious 1st cup of coffee in Guatemala. Fantastic! After numerous hours of winding my way in and out of tiny alcoves (partial shelter from the rain, enough to take photographs of the beautiful surrounds), I discovered a clothing store, after several hours of fighting the instinct for dry cover, and unlike my normal spend-thrift mode, bought a brightly supple and impractical pair of trousers. It was almost dark and time for me to turn into a pumpkin … I returned to the hostel and spent the evening lazily watching movies: “Layer Cake” and “The 40 Year old Virgin” … Both really great films. The former is intriguing; about a successful respected cocaine drug dealer who plans on early retirement but instead finds himself delving deeper into a richly layered world of double-crossings and painful lessons.

photo ops

Today was my day to catch up on photo and computer backup, as my iPod was left here at the orphanage for safekeeping.
So many flies. Las Moscas!!
Spent the whole day taking photos of the kids. Fabulous and oh so playful! The children love to have their photo taken, especially when they can visually review an instaneous digital image of a curious sweet face smiling back.

bus travel, yet again

Traveling day to Chimaltenango with Heidi, Rene, Shefali. The bus ride leaving Xela was far more comfortable than my excursion to this burgeoning city. Partly because I was travelling with friends and partly because the bus company provided for a cleaner and more luxurious bus than upon first arriving. My co-travellers carried on to Rio Dulce and I was picked up by Ismar from the NPH orphanage. My wait was just under an hour and amidst sucking in the grimy fumes from the passing bus caravans, I enjoyed my solitude in people watching and snatching a priceless photo here and there. Once at the orphanage, I was greeted wholeheartedly with gracious welcomes and warm hugs from the children I crossed paths with! The Director wasn’t here, so I spent my evening attempting to book my flight through Skype on a satellite connection — how frustrating that was!. I found it somewhat tedious in that it was extremely difficult for anyone to hear me, whereas I could hear the other party just fine. The rest of the evening was spent catching up and chatting with the volunteers I had met on my previous visit.

changing plans

Heidi, Rene, Shefali and I were supposed to leave for the market in Chichicastenango today but after having dinner with 5 other students last night, discussing the whole impact of what happened to Caroline and Peter. We were disturbed enough and in wanting of a meeting held with the school and all the other students to find out exactly what had happened (story below as told by the school and Police). It perturbed me greatly to find that it needed our pushing for this gathering to happen rather than have the school initiate this convening. The reaction of males and even the locals is incredibly troublesome (notwithstanding our teachers and school directors). Violence is looked at as an everyday experience rather than as a problem that needs to be addressed. I PRAY (and please keep this dear woman and man in your prayers) that they will have the help and support to get over this traumatic event, and that they will mentally and physically be okay after the help of their community and support system. I truly can’t imagine what they are going through, both of them, but especially poor Caroline. My heart bleeds for them …. It so could have happened to me, at any time, especially Friday night, being out so late and leaving at the same time/living so close to Caroline.

The horror of violence

Yesterday, the day started out beautifully — I found a yoga studio about 10 minutes from my homestay and the teacher was incredible. We practiced on straw mats (like those found at the beach) and in a small room, while listening to the local school band practice only blocks away. I stretched and soared unlike anything I am able to do when practicing on my own. I wish I had found this sooner, as I’m leaving tomorrow. And for only 10 qz a session ($1.50), you can’t beat the value! I met Heidi and Rene afterwards, ready for an afternoon of relaxation at Fuentes Georginas hot spring. We first stopped for breakfast, and as we sat down, I realized that I needed to change money before leaving Xela, as I wouldn’t know where and when next I would have the opportunity. So in deciding to do that, I quickly ran home to fetch my money. On the way home I ran into Daniel, a girl who lives in London, Ontario, only 30 minutes from my mother (small world). She was incredibly upset and I had to calm her down to hear her story. Before I describe to you what happened, I have to warn you, I will not hold back any details, and this/the details may disturb and horrify you, but I think it is incredibly important to tell this story, for the safety and education of women everywhere. For this reason solely do I recount the details and not as a means of creating hysteria about Guatemala itself or its people. Guatemala is definitely different from the world both you and I possibly know and live in. And there’s no doubt that violence against women (mostly local rather than foreign) is more prevalent here (see below note). But this violence can happen ANYWHERE in the world and it’s vitally important for me to distinguish this before you read further.

First of all, I’ll back up a bit … At my school, every Friday night there is a graduation party, for those students leaving and possibly for new students arriving, where everyone has the opportunity to meet up with the other students in a social atmosphere. Typically, the students who study Spanish at our and other Xela schools are in their early to mid-20’s, and it’s quite standard for many people to go out every evening during the week and party in some fashion. Of course this is a generalization, but the relevance behind the statement is that often the local travellers will be out late at night. Usually someone in a group from our school will accompany any lone female home late at night and tonight was no different. When after dancing at the ‘Kokoloco’, I left earlier than than closing of the dance bar at 1am. Heidi, Rene and Jeannie walked me home (my neighbourhood is a bit more darker and more secluded than some others, although very close to the school and to this bar). Anytime after 9pm I don’t usually go out, especially as I get up so early to do either my homework, my yoga and a walk up the mountain (or all of them combined). Tonight was an exception for me staying out; I am extremely grateful to have made friends who would look out for each other’s safety and to not let solo females walk home alone after dark, especially late in the evening. However, I am quick to realize that for my and other’s safety, taking a taxi home at night is the best and only option. From here, the story continues as told to me by Daniel. I will change the two students names for their own protection.

I was told that Caroline and Peter left the bar shortly after we did and Peter, being the gentleman that he is, walked Caroline home. It was only minutes from her home that they were kidnapped by 3 men with guns and machetes. They took them in a car to a house in another village where Peter was severely beaten and Caroline was brutally raped and violently assaulted with a gun. Afterwards the men called 2 other men + a child (between 10 and 12 years of age) to the house where further violence erupted. Because of the presence of a child, the Inguat (tourist police I believe?) think that perhaps it was gang related. I’m uncertain as to how many hours passed before they were (amazingly) returned to Xela, but not before being robbed of their belongings and forced to go to 4 separate Bank ATMs to withdraw money (2 of which only worked). Shaken, Caroline and Peter found their way back to Peter’s house, at about 4am, where extremely helpful roommates helped them as best as they could to calm them down and look at their options. Caroline went to 2 separate hospitals (where the wait was long, obtrusive and painful) and after only being offered the option of an exam by a male doctor, she opted out of waiting on a system that is painfully lacking in sensitivity and effectiveness. She was however given the morning-after pill, which is a blessing. What surprises me immensely is that the American Embassy in Guatemala would do NOTHING for her except list a few numbers that she could pursue in calling. How horrible to first experience what she did but also to have a system set up to support people in emergency, fail her miserably. The Inguat and Peter were the most helpful in Caroline’s need for returning home to the US, only a DAY after she arrived in the country. My heart goes out to the brave woman and to Peter for doing the best that he could in the most trying of situations where extreme violence and the threat of death was a foremost and terrifying realistic possibility.

The moral of this story is twofold.
As I mentioned before, education of the potential for violence ANYWHERE in the world is there for both men and women, especially late at night when out on the streets. The importance of taking a taxi can’t be stressed enough if you find yourself in the city late at night without a ride. Cost should never be a factor where safety is involved (and I’m not saying that it was for Caroline and Peter).
Secondly, this will help explain part of the reason for why I have temporarily decided to halt my trip short here in Guatemala and return home. On top of this reality check, there are serious health issues in both my and slaDE~s family that I need to attend to as well as be home where I can be there for my loved ones. The last week has been wrought with decisions and I have been torn back and forth by what I should and shouldn’t do, what is right and necessary for me, my loved ones and for the orphanage. But my decision is solid and has helped firm my plans in my mind about what is right and true, for me in this moment of my life. I didn’t think lightly about my decision, especially after feeling that I’ve let NPH and the orphans down (giving my word and commitment for a full year). But when my gut tells me that I need to go home, I have to listen to my gut …. it doesn’t speak to me often (except when I’m hungry and I fully understand it’s message then!), but when it does, I listen and take action. This will also give me an opportunity to re-evaluate my and my partners needs. I ( and slaDE~) still both very much want to volunteer in Central America (specifically with NPH, here in Guatemala or wherever is open) but the next time will be with him where we have the time and opportunity to plan it more fully, save and also learn more Spanish prior to such a commitment. On top of that, I don’t feel safe here in Guatemala at night, as a solo-travelling woman, spending another month learning Spanish before taking on my volunteer position with NPH. Xela is a relatively safe town in the Highlands compared to say Guatemala City and Antigua. But prudence and diligence can only take you so far.

nb: ‘What’s most perturbing here in Guatemala is a persistent rise in the numbers of women murdered, many dying the most gruesome of deaths for apparently motiveless reasons, a sadistic phenomenon known as femicide. It’s widely believed that these deaths are related to gang violence and territorial disputes.’ (Rough Guide to Guatemala, page 475). My theory of both Caroline and Peter remaining alive is the fact that perhaps such a motiveless crime (death) would draw further unnecessary attention to both the criminals (their gang?) and the country.

Continuing from my story about Fuentes Geoginas, this a natural hot spring that has the scent of sulphur and eucalyptus filling the air. The landscape along the road is very picturesque and there is a tremendous view of Zunil. I took many photos during our day, trying to vanquish from my thoughts of the horrors of last night. An early night was had and I made sure to be inside once it was dark …

Graduation Day from Juan Sissay

Again, a graduation party for the students of Juan Sissay — tonight was an unexpected surprise for everyone including myself; I made a spontaneous decision to leave this school and Xela, to go to San Pedro for the remaining 4 weeks before starting my volunteer work. I do know that I’ve made the right decision. On Sunday I would go with Heidi and Rene to Chichicastenango and then, life will happen, one day at a time.

Sharing and caring, moving on and reaching beyond expectations …

June already and 3.5 weeks have passed since my arrival in Guatemala. My Spanish I feel is still marginal and I’m a bit frustrated by the school. Perhaps my standards are high and I want too much from my teachers, but the quality of teaching from my past two maestros just hasn’t been what I had hoped. Don’t get me wrong … the two young University-educated teachers I’ve had have been extremely nice, but I think that I’m a bit more needy when it comes to both the conversational Spanish I hanker and my needs and desires for wanting to improve — I’m finding that there are way too many breaks and interruptions for my liking which hampers the flow of my speaking and learning. I’m not sure if this is consistent with or common in all the Spanish schools here in Guatemala? Perhaps I’m a bit slow when it comes to learning and REMEMBERING a new language? Or perhaps I’m too demanding in my native way? These are always possibilities :). Regardless of my abilities and perceptions, I’m going to give Juan Sissay one more week of my carefully guarded time and $, asking for a different teacher to see how my language progression and training goes.

My desire to stay in Xela for at least another week is in part because I truly love both my current homestay and my rigorous daily walking routine, and partly because the indigenous culture here in Xela is more prevalent than the small touristy town of San Pedro (my next planned for stop in learning learn Spanish before I start work at the orphanage). I was incredibly inspired this past weekend and can see myself spending the next 3 weeks after Xela there!
At this moment in time I want to experience life in a warmer climate and right by a beautiful lake. Today is spent studying … I have a HUGE listing of irregular and reflexive verbs to learn for an test tomorrow morning.

Egads … where am I going to be in my spoke language ability in a months time when I need to start my volunteer project?? I truly hope that my Spanish is at a level that is consistent with the needs of NPH and my volunteer position. I gave my word to NPH and all I can do is my best. We’ll see where it goes from there, come July?!

I just had an afternoon snack — chocolate soymilk from the Mennonite Bakeshop … it’s so wonderful to share the interesting treats I find in town with my housemother Remelia and then try to explain what they are ‘en espanol’! She had never tasted soymilk before and the look of surprise on her face when she drank it was priceless. The people of Guatemala are very poor and to enjoy the luxury of fresh milk or cheese and whole bread is a real treat. Nice to give back, even in a small way, for all that they give to me, and more.