Our last week in Guatemala was a blur — B and I were mighty active and, in between bouts of activity, were, unfortunately, mighty sick. However, I can say that we wrapped up our trip well and were sorry to leave on the plane heading home.

We celebrated the New Year in and around Xela’s Central Park, where all sorts of activities normally occur. And, while the New Year festivities in Xela are not nearly comparable in magnitude to those of Christmas, we were not disappointed. There was a massive firework display on the eve and, on the night of the first, we got caught up in a massive parade, in which the paraders wore deer-resembling costumes and danced to a brass band.

As for school, we finished our classes and can now proudly speak Spanish as well as any Guatemalan toddler. Our last activities as students of Pop-Wuj’s health program were touring Xela’s gigantic, free-of-charge, public hospital as well as a crowded tuberculosis clinic. We were impressed by the public hospital’s ability to see a fantastically high volume of patients, all free-of-charge as well as their ability to not only house their own patients but their patients’ entire visiting villages who crowd around the bedsides of their distant friends and relatives at all hours of the day and night.

We left Xela behind on Friday, regretfully bidding it farewell as we set off to spend the weekend in Antigua, Guatemala. Antigua is a bright city where modern, cosmopolitan delights mingle charmingly with ancient colonial ruins. The remains of several earthquake-destructed churches and other old establishments remain untouched just off the winding streets, peeking out from between the one-story tall, brightly painted buildings housing boutiques, restaurants and residing families. We spent our energy in Antigua touring the city, drinking good, fresh Guatemalan coffee (finally!), eating out at a wide range of shi-shi restaurants, watching the sun set behind the resident volcanoes from our inexpensive hotel’s rooftop terrace and enjoying a break from our working vacation.

We spent Monday night in Guatemala City at a five-star hotel my sis picked out — a treat from her for our last night in Guatemala (and, I also think my family was a bit unnerved by our story of the first night we spent in the city and didn’t trust us to pick a moderately safe place to stay ourselves — which is a reasonable concern knowing B’s and my budget sacrifices). We enjoyed our stay despite the haughty airs we endured from the front desk staff who eyed our huge backpacks and greasy hair, along with the rest of the staff whom, judging by the number of times my bright green sneakers were indignantly eyeballed, had never seen anyone walk into their hotel wearing jeans and tennis shoes before. The hotel was situated in Guatemala City’s Zona Viva (Zone of Life) which turned out to consist of hotel upon hotel upon costly restaurant upon hotel with a couple costly lobby restaurants — an area of the city catering to the wealthy business traveler. So B and I sucked it up and spent some money at the French restaurant in our own hotel lobby and rested for the trip home we had to take the next morning.

And so, we are finally back in East Lansing, after spending the night at Karen and Erik’s in Chicago and wrestling our crazy kitty back from their cat-sitting clutches. Thankfully, the weather has been fairly mild so far and I’m hoping for no snow for the rest of the winter — which, of course, would be ludicrous in Michigan even considering global warming. Anyway, Brandon started work today and is hoping for a raise in pay just for returning to work and I am back at school and have my first exam in a week. It’s amazing how easy it is to fall back into routine — which is good, I suppose, but I am already missing the errant nature of the Guatemalan highlands.

On Friday Amanda and I visited one of the largest markets in Guatemala
– San Francisco El Alto. There are many markets here but only a
handfull of really gigantic ones. One of these is Chichicastenango,
which is the more popular “tourist” market filled with “locally made”
trinkets from china and other mass produced items that most tourists
can´t get enough of (or so I hear) and another is the market of San
Francisco El Alto. San Francisco El Alto is located a few kilometers
up in the mountains from Xela. This market is most popular with the
locals because it deals in fresh produce, practical textiles, meats,
and farm animals. We decided to go because we love markets, we were
intrigued by rumors that it was the largest market in the country, and
our school had nothing for us to do that morning.

We met up with our friend Genny and headed out at around 9 am. The
first step was to find a suitable chicken bus headed in the right
direction. We found a major thorughfare and yelled out our desired
destination at each chicken bus that went by. The first few just
zoomed by but soon we found one that was headed our way. The bus ride
was familiar because we had taken the same route for The Stove Project
(see post below) so we just sat and enjoyed the beautiful view from
behind the cotton candy vendor´s wares as we ascended the mountain.
The chicken bus gradually got busier as we went along filling up with
locals either bring their goods to market or looking to buy some. Upon
arrival we had no trouble finding what we came for. The whole town was
one gigantic market with three or four rows of vendors in each street.
It was a little overwhelming and there was no logical place to start
so we just plunged in and began to absorb the sights and smells. There
were so many people that it was very difficult to maneuver the isles.
Everyone knows to be aware of pickpockets and purse snatchers in
crowded public places but we were extra cautions for a reason. Every
vendor we stopped at, whether it was to buy something or just admire,
told us to keep a tight hold on our bags and hold them in front of us
rather than on our backs. Needless to say, we obliged. At one corner
there were so many people that we literally could not move. I was
being carried away by the current in one direction while Amanda had no
choice but to sit on some poor man´s raisins.

We didn´t buy much but it was a great experience nonetheless. After
escaping the crowds we found some spectacular views of the countryside
and snapped a few photos. No sooner than we had decided to go back did
a chicken bus come roaring around the corner yelling ¨Xela! Xela!¨ We
yelled ¨Si! Si!¨ It stopped and we got on. I was very memorable for
the vast amounts of produce, beautiful textiles, and people. I don´t
think I will ever complain about the crowds at a market again after
experiencing San Francisco El Alto on a Friday afternoon.

Brandon and I had a good Christmas week, filled with lots of Spanish lessons, a little local medicine, and tons of local cuisine and markets. However, since we are finding it difficult to reign in Xela´s sporadic internet — as well as the time needed for blog updates — let us tell you about that soon, and allow us to backtrack and fill you in on the project we helped out with last Saturday: The Stove Project.

The Stove Project is one of the programs in which our Spanish school, Pop-Wuj, is involved in. The school, in cooperation with the organization Entremundos and some long-term volunteers, are building new stoves in Pacaxjoj, a Mayan community approximately 1 hour straight up from Xela. The reason for the stove project? The stoves that the families in this community (and, presumably, many other Mayan communities) use are inefficient, costly and cause a host of respiratory and eye illnesses. The current stoves are either basic campfires, with a makeshift cooking surface, or are old, inefficient stoves without chimneys. Both eat up tons of costly firewood and are set up inside small, unventilated cooking structures. Since there’s a lot of intense cooking happening every day by the women of the families in Pacaxjoj, the women and children (because the children follow the women) are exposed to several hours of thick, black cooking smoke — which they breath and blink in every day. This is what causes the health problems. The Stove Project is working on building every family in Pacaxjoj a new stove that is ventilated — no more smokey cooking buildings — and less costly to maintain due to its energy efficiency. And, last Saturday, Brandon and I had an opportunity to help build one of these new stoves and hang out with a bunch of hip Pacaxjojians in the gorgeous Guatemalan highlands.

While I would like to say that we worked our butts off, sweating and grunting with an intense work load, we actually contributed very little to the actual building project (besides the Q.100 – about $15 – that we each paid for our volunteer trip). The long-term volunteers had thoughtfully left all the easy jobs for us, such as cutting bricks with machetes and mixing cement soup, and a local guy did some serious quality control while we were working. I, admittedly, did nothing but play with a gaggle of little boys who were intrigued with the new Gringos — and who were especially enthralled with gigantic Brandon and squealed delightedly when he easily snatched an errant toy from the roof of their house. In return for helping to build the stove, we got to eat a delicious lunch prepared by the women of the households (a note of caution here — if you ever find yourself snacking on Mayan food in the Guatemalan highlands, go easy on the dark red sauce with chile seeds floating in it — yow!) and then went on a guided hike by one of the local youths who showed us some of the useful — and beautiful — flora and fauna of the surrounding forest. It was a good day. Check out our flickr photos for a picture of the finished project.

P.S. If you are interested in this project, contact Pop-Wuj or Entremundos for more iformation.

Hola de Guatemala! Brandito and I have spent eight days in Xela and have finally settled in. We have learned how to shop the markets and to buy local produce (which we actually know how to eat), how to take hot showers (there’s an art to it), how to stay away from stray doggies, what the most dangerous Guatemalan career is (chicken-bus assistant), what the elusive, dreaded ameobas are and most importantly — how to celebrate a Guatemalan Christmas. Last night at midnight, on the eve of Christmas, Xela sounded like it was under seige — the sky was glowing green and red, firecrackers were popping in the streets and every family in the city had at least a ton of their own fireworks they were shooting from their roofs and windows. It was a show that would have shamed the best of the Big Onion’s. Today, the city has shut down except for a few straggling Gringos with nothing to do (like B and I), a couple street dances and some venders selling chocolate covered marshmallows and corn on a stick — Mayan style.

We missed spending the holidays with our familias this year — even though Guatemalans certainly know how to celebrate Navidad, we realized that without the family to celebrate with, it doesn’t feel a bit like Christmas.

We managed to wake up to the alarm I set on my cell phone promptly. We hopped out of bed, got dressed, paid for the room and out the door by 7:15 am. As we were walking to the bus station we were energized by the bustle of Guatemala City. Everywhere around us people were setting up their goods to sell at the street markets, hurrying to work, and trying to run me over with their cars and busses. We bought tickets, ate breakfast, and were on our way by 8:30 am.

The bus ride was a memorable one. Our driver didn’t seem to care that he was driving on a two-way street, up a mountain, and into oncoming traffic. Nor did he seem to mind that at every hair-pin turn he took going 75mph two wheels on one side would be off of the ground. It was a thrilling, nail-biting four hour ride punctuated by short stops in small towns where people selling snacks, drinks, and various other things would hop aboard for a few minutes and try to get you to buy their stuff. One man wearing a button down shirt and tie stayed on the bus for well over an hour constantly talking the entire time. Amanda and I were trying to determine if he was a preacher, salesman, or motivational speaker. It turns out he was selling small bags of fertalizer. We bought four.

The sights along the way were beautiful. Mountains as far as the eye could see covered in clouds and mist. Many people living along the road weaving, carrying loads of firewood, or preparing food. All the children would stop and wave at the bus as we zoomed by. We spent most of the time looking out the windows and trying to stay in our seats as the bus wobbled from side to side.

The city of Quetzaltenango (Xela) is a populus metropolis nestled in the mountainous Guatemalan Highlands. It is very colorful and vibrant with people everywhere. We arrived early afternoon, met our host family, and began our lessons. The lessons were challenging especially because we were so exhaused. After getting orientated at the school we headed back to our host families house and had dinner. Coversation was not easy considering the fact that they speak almost no english but we managed to enjoy it. After a long day of travel and attempted spanish speaking sleep came easy.

Brandon and I danced gleefully around the apartment this week on the morning of the arrival of a little pre-Christmas gift from my folks — 810 beautiful Guatemalan Quetzales. We hurriedly stuffed our threadbare pockets with the new dough, dreaming of ways to spend it and anxiously awaiting Sunday — the commencement of our three week Spanish Immersion Program in Xela. Which, by the way, is tomorrow. B and I are spending the night in Chi-town, celebrating the successful completion of my first semester of med school and biding our time until we can fly out of O’Hare tomorrow in the pre-dawn hours, leaving the winter behind for a time. img_0115.jpg