Me Embracing the World

Me Embracing the World

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A wild ride, and I arrived! (Quetzaltenango(Xela), Guatemala)

The following entry was written in several parts over my past 3 weeks journey from my cushy home in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, to the cold mountain steps of Quetzaltenango Guatemala:

After spending almost two months basically as a city dweller, you'd think I'd almost have forgotten how to travel. And you'd be right!

I finished off my time in Rio in a wild rush. I tried to get everything done that I hadn't done for the past two weeks. To get everything done.... in two days. I finished off my guitar, pandeiro, and Portugese lessons (Thanks Janda!), looked to buy a pandeiro, met up with friends that I sorely hadn't met yet (Sorry Camila and Lulu! I promise to not be such a ditz next time!) and somewhere in the mix get a nice stylish Carioca haircut. I'll save you the suspense, among the rush, I didn't get a pandeiro(yet) and I didn't get a haircut(yet). "P

I did at least manage to meet up with all of my in those last couple days, Juliana, Vivian, Camila, Lulu, and Mikhael and his girlfriend Janda (Who, if you put two and two together, you´ll figure out was my Portugese teacher as well!). Mikhael's family was spending their vaction visiting and showed up a week after I did. I was lucky enough to come along for a couple family dinners, and even more lucky to find that we were on the same flight out to Panama! This was really quite great luck as the flight left at 6 in the morning, meaning we had to be there by 4, meaning there was very little sleeping to be done, and I didn´t have to catch my own cab all the way out to Tom Jobim national airport which is a good deal out away from Copacabana.

Its worth noting that I stopped writing this entry here at this point, and have shamefully let it sit here silent while I´ve been bumbling about Guatemala for the past two weeks.

So Lets Cut to the Chase... As I write this entry I am currently sitting in the office of Xelateco offices, the center of the appropriate technology company Xelateco, located in (not surprisingly) Xela, also know as Quetzaltenango. It´s 5pm, and I´m finishing up a day of work on my water filter project, so I can feel justified in writing a bit on my blog. I´ve been living a life of a pretty steady routine for the past few weeks, working on developing a water filter for implementing in the local communities, living with a local Guatemalan family(la familia Cony), going to Yoga, at least before I got sick last week, but I´m gonna start going again. Either way, the image I´ve been drawing is one of relative stationary work weeks, 1:30 lunches with mom´s and papa Cony, play a little guitar, go to bed, wake up and do it again. All in all, not a bad life, and definitely a big change from the life of the traveller, but how did I get here...

Well, Back to Brasil. Having finally conceded that I couldn´t possibly fit everything I wanted to do in my last day in Rio, I let some things slide. I didn´t get a haircut. I didn´t get a pandeiro, although I went to Rua Carioca, searched all the shops, found the perfect used one for 40 dollars, just went out for 5 mins to check one more store, and they sold it in the meantime. But such is life, lessons in letting go of expectations in the way you thought the world ¨had¨ to be. I ended up using my last sunset in Rio to just take a quiet walk down the beach by myself. I walked from Ipanema to Leblon and back, watching the sun dip behind the favelas, feeling the sand beneath my toes and realizing that it wasn´t in my faintest imagination back in November, that come April, I would be back there in Ipanema, just strolling among the straggelers as darkness set upon the beach. It was a nice walk, and I was even treated to a lightening display walking back down to Posto 10 where Mikhael´s parents´ hotel was. I tried not to think too much about the fact that I´d be flying in that lightning, but there was no need for my flight still wasn´t for 6 hours. In those hours I met up with Mikhael´s family, and we did the only touristy thing that I did in my whole time in Rio. We met up with Vivian´s family and went out to dinner at the Garrota de Ipanema restaurant, supposedly where Jobim and Morales first wrote the tune, but now its just a fancy churrasco joint for tourists. Regardless, it was a great time and felt like a good capping experience on my time in Rio. Of course it wasn´t quite my final experience, as I still had 3 hours before the flight, and Camila happened to be hanging out in a bar next to the hotel, so I went and got one final dose of the Rio nightlife before heading off to the airport.

The flight was fine, but I didn´t sleep. We landed into Panama City jetlagged and groggy, said goodbye to Mikhael´s family, and then I was on my own again. A bit of a scary feeling, but I had forgotten how good it felt. Having no plans... no needs to do anything... except get on the next plane that was leaving in ten minutes :). Which I did. Flying in the air I struck up conversations with the people around me. A young guy from Ecuador flying to visit friends. A middle-aged missionary from Spain who had spent about 15 years doing work in Guatemala. It was about that point, about halfway into my two hour plane flight, that it occured to me that I was no longer in South America, that I was about to be in Guatemala, and that I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about it. History, culture, food, religion... I was as jumping blind. But the nice missionary man gave me a quick crash course in the basics, not to mention practice for my spanish because I had been speaking portugese for the past month and it took me a good week to finally switch back, although I think I´m better with both languages for the whole learning experience.

So yah, here I am, landing into Guatemala City, and having no idea about where I was, what I was really doing or where I was going to stay that night. A lot like first landing into Quito, except at least then I had a place to stay (oh Centro del Mundo Hostel, I´ll never forget you). Based on what I heard from the plane, I decided to not spend the night in Guate (what they call guatemala city) and just head straight out to the tourist safehaven of Antigua. It was only a 45 min micro drive and I was pleasantly surprised to have an eager van waiting to take me there for a small fee. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that I couldn´t change my 200 Reals that I still had from Brasil anywhere in Guatemala. Only US dollars. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wouldn´t be needing to since, back in the 3rd world, my money is ridiculously powerful down here (7.5 to 1). As of time of this writing, I´m living on about $8 a day, which is good, since I used up basically all my money in Rio.

So I hopped in the van, with 3 other people. I tried my best to look around, to absorb the new surroundings around me, but the most descriptive impression I could muster was that it looked bassically like the Mission in San Francisco, only larger. Then, after 30 hours without sleep, my head hit the seat, and I woke up in Antigua. I do recall waking up at one point and us driving down an INCREADIBLY steep hill, the driver put the car in first and we hummed our way down hundreads of meters in a matter of minutes. When I really woke up in Antigua, I found myself surrounded by a beautiful colonial village, with volcanoes on two sides, and antique churches where ever I looked (I think I read there´s something like 70 of them in a few square blocks). The two other passengers had hopped out at a fancy hotel, and I was left with a Thai girl who seemed to know where she was going. Having long been devoid of any guide books for quite some time now, I was really just relying on someone knowing where they were going and latching on to them. Of course, I wasn´t disapointed as she got off at a tipical backpackers hostel (the Yellow House, I think) and I decided that was a good a place as any to get off as well.

What ensued was a nap, a meal of fried chicken and rice, and then one of the longest best sleeps I´ve had in my life. Life reviving, world shifting sleep. 16 hours, from 6pm to 10am. I think I was finally catching up on all those sleepless nights in Rio, in Buenos Aires, and not to mention on the plane. Either way, I awoke to find myself in a different hemisphere, a different culture, a different world. The people spoke spanish, and were catholic, and had a large indigenous population, but besides that it was all new.

I guiltlessly spent 2 days wandering around Antigua with no plans, and no objectives. I strolled, and Antigua is perfect for that. Beautiful Colonial architecture lines every street. Ancient churches, destroyed from volcanoes. Small art gallerys in every nook and crany. Spanish schools densely packed into every available space. A tourists playground, and very safe. It reminded me a lot of Parati, Brasil, just south of Rio, the only thing missing was the sea. In replacement of that, however, were two GIANT volcanoes. VOLCANOES! I hadn´t real volcanoes since.... since... well Ecaudor! or Bolivia! Yah, there was one on the Bolivia-Chile Border... but that´s besides the point.... VOLCANOES! Tropical ones at that.

Or... sort of tropical.

If there is anything that has suprised me most it is the Guatemalan climate. I came thinking, Central America, hot, humid, tropical wonderland. But what I´ve found has been anything but that. Admittedly I´ve spent most of my time in Guatemala´s self proclaimed highlands (around 7000ft) but still, whats been most amazing is how similar the climate is, the trees. The name Guatemala is supposedly a bad spanish interpretation of what Guatemala´s northern mexican neighbors used to call it, ¨The Land of Many Trees¨. Not many jungles, although it has many of those too, but many trees.

After the two day transition period I allotted myself in Antigua, I decided it was time to hop a bus to Quetzaltenango, also commonly know as Xela, from the Mayan name Xelaju, just a couple hours down the road from Antigua (Yet a good part across the whole country). I thought about trying to find a 1st class shuttle service, but none left directly from Antigua, and that morning I just packed up my stuff walked down the street and hopped on to what the tourists call a ¨Chicken Bus¨, which is really just a brightly coloured school bus, headed for Chimaltenango, which was my transfer point to Xela. Even though I remember part of the sales pitch by the salesman in REI for my backpack was that when I´m in Guatemala, I don´t want to let those ¨campesinos¨ just throw my bag up top, not knowing if it will be there when I get off. That´s why I needed a small backpack. Well... yah, it didn´t really work like that. More like I could hardly get the pack off my back before it was whisked up to the roof and tied to one of the sidepoles in a slightly comical yet probably sufficient manner.

But the trees. Driving up to Chimaltenango, we rolled up in the hills, curving on ever windier roads up out of the lowlands and into... a pine forrest! Not just any old pine forrest, but a pine forrest on the same continent, nay basically the same extended mountain range as my beloved Sierra Nevadas back home. I knew I had a bad case of the been away from home for a long time´s, when the very sight of the trees made me overcome with excitement. I just couldn´t get over how much it looked like the sierra nevadas. I mean, this wasn´t the Andes anymore, this wasn´t the Patagonia mountain ranges, I swore on my life that I had found myself surrounded by northern california pine. And it brought back all these memories of home, and for a second I even fooled myself into thinking that this little chicken bus was going to drive me all the way back to the front step of my house in Marin. OK, so I was full of it, but it all led me to the thought that now that I was in Central America, there technically was one continuous piece of pavement that connected the ground where I was standing with the front steps of my house. It was just a total mind shift. Unreal. And I don´t care if the Panamerican Highway is dirt in someparts or whatever, I don´t want to hear it. I like the image. I like feeling the concrete (pun only marginally intended) connection between my feet and home.

So my bus ride to Chimaltenango was actually quite pleasent. I started to wonder what all this chicken bus nonsense that tourists make such a big deal about was all about. Arriving into Chimaltenango wasn´t so much of a bus stop as the side of a highway in the middle of a city. I was quickly popped of the bus, backpack still intact, and instructed to go wave something down on the other side of the street. I saw a group of french girls packed together with equally confused looks upon their faces, but they were going to Atitlan so instead of latching on to anything, I just sat there on the side of the road. People were more than willing to offer their services, ¨Xela, xela!¨in helping me find a bus. It took about 20 minutes. I was origionally thinking of waving down a Linea Dorado, a nice ¨1st class¨ bus, but they´re were only two a day, and I saw the chicken bus coming down the street with the XELA written all over it, so I hopped on, based on my last ride, how bad could it be?

Well it was obvious from the start, that this was not the same as my first bus. I didn´t see where they put my backpack among the mound of stuff up top. I didn´t have time. As soon as they took my pack off, the bus started pulling away with 3 people still hanging out the front. I squeezed in for my spot, because Hell if they´re going to leave with my backpack and not me. I wondered why people wouldn´t just go in, untill I finally made my way in enough to see that the whole bus was packed 5 to a row. Now, when I say 5 to a row, I mean 5 average adults, maybe 6 with some children, with 2 on each side and one person sitting in the gap between the two bus seats, seeming held up by nothing other than the sheer friction with the other passengers. Theres something to be said as well for the jarring sight of seeing full grown people, albeit small people, packed into seats designed for children. It just had the surreal look of a strange movie, with a palpable irony that I couldn't really describe with words, but could feel when I finally tried to squeeze my knees into a seat that they hadn't occupied since 8th grade. I stood there standing for a second until I realized that the guy behind me was still hanging out the door! With many ¨con permiso¨´s and ¨disculpe¨´s I wound my way to the back of the bus, carrying my guitar high above my head of course.

It was at that point that I had an interesting realization that they don´t just say ¨excuse me(disculpe)¨ here, they say ¨with your permission(con permiso)¨. I felt like I really needed their permission, forcing old ladies to squeeze against their neighbors as I snaked my clumsy through the tightly-knit matrix of packed Guatemalans, mostly old women in traditional outfits giving me glancing mildly curious looks. I worked my way to a spot in the back where I fit into one of those aforementioned cracks in the center of a row and sat back to enjoy the ride.

I looked out into the surrounding countryside as the road winded higher and higher into the steep cliffed hills that characterize Guatemala's highlands. VERY steep. Bolivia/Peru steep. But the earth was decidedly softer, lots of brown lush dirt, lots of trees, until even the trees became scarcer as we reached up higher. We drove up into the clouds into the climate which I've been living for the past two weeks. I'm living in the clouds. Even if there are no clouds in the sky, they'res always a white, visibility obscuring haze present in the air, that can't just be accounted for by smog or burning of trash (of which, there is a lot of both). As the cold high altitude air filled the bus, I became glad for the body heat of my tightly packed companions.

The driver didn't drive TOO crazy, compared to all my other experiences. I think other tourists call them chicken buses because you wouldn't be too surprised to see your neighboring passenger is actually a chicken in a cage, but as we passed car after car on windy, two lane, blind turns, I began to develop my own theory that its from the drivers kick of life that he gets from playing chicken with oncoming traffic as much as possible.

The ride was full of memorable experiences, a real wild ride, but a great experience. What should have taken 2 hours ended up taking 4 and I realized that not all hours in a bus are equal. Through south america, I became accustomed to long bus rides, 12, or 20 hours were not uncommon for a days travel. But somehow this 4 hours becoming intimately familiar with my neighbors was somehow a bit more of an adventure than a 10 hour Argentinian, Chilean, Peruvian, or even Bolivian bus (I took some good buses in Bolivia). Among other factors, I think it comes from the distances being smaller, and people being willing to accept a bit more of temporary discomfort based on its being temporary.

The reason it took so long is that the whole road between Guate and Xela was under construction. This meant that every 15 minutes or so, 8 times in total, we would stop for a mile long road block as we waited our turn to be let through the construction zone. Instead of proceeding in an orderly single file manner when our turn finally came to proceed, the line of cars would break into a mad scramble to be the first through the one lane entrance. Every time, without file, a mile long line of cars would dissolve into a 3 lane rush, cars squeezing eachother at every angle, skirting inches past eachother, people running back to their cars to not get left behind, having been passing the wait outside, and all the while, a huge cloud of dirt rising up from the poor road. The scene resembled something out of Madmax. People hanging to roofs, dust rising in some sort of mass exodus. Well, thats what it should have resembled, but for some reason to me, I couldn't help but think of the mediocre movie "Rat Race" that came out a while ago and hearing the theme to "Benny Hill" running through my head the whole time. (Ba du du, du du du du, du du du du....). Viewed that way, I just couldn't help but laugh eachtime we all made our clownish mad dash to be first.

The most memorable of these roadblocks was right in the middle of a steep hill. I don't think it was intentionally a road block, but more of a functional one due, to the fact that a fellow chicken bus was stuck, diagonal across the whole of the road. We were high enough now that it was a bit damp, and the dust on the road from the construction had turned to wet sand. This left the bus in such a position that it had no traction to make it up the steep hill. Rather than have the people get out of the bus, a few people jumped out and threw sand underneath the wheels, and putting a stone behind the back wheel. The bus would stutter, start, make about a foot uphill and then start a diagonal slide, hydroplaning, off towards the side of the road, where a 4 foot drop awaited the poor passengers. Luckily, they would always seem to manage to stop the bus before it every actually slipped off into the sandy construction side pit. We watched the whole scene unfold for 20 minutes from an awkward position of being right in front of the bus, facing downward on the equally steep slope. But we had good brakes and a good conservative driver. As soon as any space opened on the road, other cars tried to make their way past the struggling bus, of course only making the situation more precarious and more dangerous. We held our ground. The bus behind them didn't even wait for a space to open up. They tried to hop the 3-4 foot gap down to the dirt construction road to sidestep the whole issue. The bus eventually made a run for it, it was VERY close to tipping over the edge for a second, until the people came upon a strategy. They learned that they could use the hydroplaning to their advantage by getting a bunch of people to push the bus from behind as its wheels spun furiously with the sole effecting of reducing the friction with road. And thus the bus made it up the slope. Sideways. Wheels spinning, hydroplaning, being pushed from behind and from the side to keep it at least straight enough so it wouldn't meander into the oncoming traffic, including us. Once it finally made it past us we kept going on our way, only the pass the unfortunate bus that tried to pass the first bus on the side. It had managed to get its two right wheels off the 3-4 foot drop onto the construction part of the road, but only those two wheels. They were precariously trying to land their front left, but had managed to position the bus so that it wasn't very clear if when they put that wheel over the edge, if they would flip over. It's quite a sight to see a big yellow school bus on the verge of flipping over on its head. Very surreal really. Like something from a twisted kids movie. Well... the bus just went for it. Spun the wheels with all its might, teetered, tottered, and thankfully for all involved got a little friction under its wheels and came bouncing down on its four wheels. We just slowly made on our way, thankful that our driver wasn't such a risk taker.

And that was it. An hour later I came into Xela, hopped in a taxi and showed up on the Cony Family doorstep. That first night I was accepted warmly and openly into the Cony family. We stayed up, sitting around the dinner table, playing guitar, singing and generally enjoying eachothers new company.

But what am I doing now?

So, Me! I'm in Gutemala right now! Quetzaltenango to be specific. Working with a nonprof, AIDG to design a water filter for a company Xelateco to sell to other NGO's (and eventually hopefully community members themselves) to install in local communities. Its a different
type of NGO, because we're not just going installing stuff, we're doing our best to incubate a Guatemalan company that can take over the reigns and sustain itself, continuing to serve the local communities, long after we've picked up and moved on to Haiti, Indonesia, or wherever to start another company. In principle, its a great idea, and it certainly gets the donor dollars flowing. Practically, its been pretty sucessful so far, but AIDG has provided the money for most of
Xelateco's instalations, so it's really crunch time here, because Xelateco has got to step up and secure some customers for themselves. And yet all we can do is support, they really have to take control or the whole point is lost. Also, AIDG's been here for about 2 years in what was envisioned as a 3 year plan, so NOW is the time Xelateco needs to step up, and to add to that, this is AIDG's first incubated business, so if it dosen't work here, that's it, you're not going to get money to go try it in some other country. So, my role in it all, is to work on developing a filter which is cheap, effective, and can become part of Xelateco's product line that will hopefully become it's bread and butter of sales. Up till now, most of their time was spent constructing a hydroelectric installation for 200 familys, which was both a blessing and a curse. It got everyone motivated, showed that they're adept at a quality large installation with metalworking, casting, and electronics, and was a PR goldmine for donors. It came very quickly after the setting up of Xelateco, however, so most they're time so far was spent on it, which means that the other technologies which should be the bread and butter of their portfolio are not as developed as they should be, especially given that we now find the business 2 years old, so they'res added expection of what a 2 year business should be bringing in, even though the product line isn't quite there yet.

So, its make or break time, which is quite exciting, but also leaves you unsure if your work will still be here in a year or two. Like I said, make or break. It also seems to weigh on the AIDG'ers more than the Xelateco'ers because this isn't just the sucess or faliure of a business, its the proving of a incubation model which they hope to someday apply globally. Sort of the microfinance of 3rd world infrastructure development.

And that's the best I can do to describe what I've been up to.... from
9-5. Outside of that, I've been living with a cool family about three blocks from the intern house. A family of 6, the house is constantly filled with Mama and papa(Carlos) Cony and their children Elizabeth(mid twenties, owns a pinata shop), Jose ( 23, plays guitar, really fun to hang out with, bassically the Guatemalan version of me, except that he has a 6 year old child in Chimaltenango. I'm sharing a 2 room minihouse out back of the main house with Jose.), Dulce Maria (around 10 years old, and TOO cute, irreseperable from her sister Eva), Eva (around 6 years old, prone to giggleing, can be found with her sister taking piano lessons on little casio keyboards, or watching pirated DVD's of Titanic at least twice a day). This family really has been WAY too nice to me, I don't deserve it for the 6 bucks a day I pay to stay there, but they give me my own room, 3 solid meals a day, and more importantly, treat me like one of the family. I can even regularly be caught calling them my family, saying something along the line of "I've got to go home (to my family) to dinner".

In full disclosure, those last paragraphs were stolen from an email I wrote, but in all fairness, its 8:30 and I'm late for dinner with the family. Of course, I've had more experiences and done more things, and all that, but hopefully I won't wait another 3 weeks before writing my next entry (I only have 5 weeks left!) Scary! And hopefully I've given you all, and myself, a little sense of what I've been up to during all this radio silence.

My best love and wishes to you all!