Sunday, September 28, 2008

San Salvador

We are now in San Salvador in the guest house (temporarily) run by CGE.

But before we get there, a quick rundown of the last week. We left Xela last Friday (just over a week ago) for one night in Santa Anita. The community of Santa Anita was founded by former combatants in the Guatemalan civil war after the signing of the Peace Accords. They collectively own 1000+ cords(?) of mountainside land, about 950 of which are in production of a fair-trade, organic coffee crop. We met with the man in charge of roasting and foreign markets for the coffee. It was a great introduction to the reality of fair trade labeling (not a blemish-free process, by any means) and the lives of ex-guerrillas.

The following day we split into two groups, one of which went to Cantel and one to La Escuela de la Montana (the Mountain School of PLQ). I went with the latter group, seven in all, including Rebekah the intern/coordinator. It was a pretty fantastic week of four laid-back Spanish class days, at least one presentation or field trip each day, etc. We visited a regular coffee finca owned by a former president of Guatemala who is now the mayor of Guatemala City. We also spent a great deal of time with the other folks living at the school, from California, London, and Sweden.

Friday (two days ago) we returned to Xela for the day and night, then left for Antigua. In Xela, I caught up on all of my emailing from the previous week. In the course of that, I found out that a friend from high school was struck and killed by a truck on his bicycle on Tuesday. I also found out that the older brother of another South friend died during the week. Without much time (or many details that I know), I will simply ask people to keep Jeff and Nick's families in your prayers right now.

As for now (note: several days later than when I started this, due to computer access) we are in San Salvador taking a class on Liberation Theology. We have a three-hour lecture three days a week (the middle days) and at least one history or current events lecture each afternoon. This afternoon we met with Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest and one of the major bases in the history of LT. For those familiar with the massacre of the Jesuits and their gardener's wife and daughter, Sobrino was supposed to be in the house with them that night. He happened to be out of the country, but the military thought he was there. He had already written a great deal on LT and has continued to do so, especially in ways that do not always endear him to the church hierarchy. He is quite a presence and not usually able to meet with CGE semester programs, so we were pretty lucky.

This weekend are the rural pastoral accompaniments in Base Christian Communities. I am very excited to see these more practical, real-life examples of LT being acted out in the lives of Salvadorans post war.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Damas y...cebollas?

I´m realizing that I have yet to say much about the class aspect of this program. So here we are:

Yesterday (Tuesday on account of the national holiday on Monday) we began our third and final week here at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzaltenango. Friday is our ¨graduation¨ ceremony, which includes a traditional Guatemalan dinner, provided by the faculty, while the students are incharge of drinks.

Each weekday for the past two-plus weeks, classes have started at 8am, with a break from 10:30-11, and then continued til 1pm. Some days we have group activities (with just the CGE group) and some days there are cultural, political, or otherwise educational activities planned by the school. My teacher is great, though we´ve been having communication difficulties the last couple of days. (I think I´m to the point now where my Spanish is not SO simple that it can just act like English. It´s causing me troubles.) Right now I´m working on the subjunctive form which, I would bet, just caused all of you Spanish-speakers and -learners out there to give a big, fed-up groan. It certainly does for me. But all in all, I´m getting things decently.

The big challenge for me, linguistically, is to remember the things I learned one or two units ago, as new information gets packed into my not-so-spongy-anymore brain.

Next week, the group splits into two to head for a one-week stay at rural language schools. Classes there will be only 4 hours each day, as opposed to 5 here. There won´t be a set curriculum; we will simply decide, with our individual teachers, what things could use more time. One of the opportunities we´ll have in my group (in a PLQ-affiliated school in La MontaƱa) is a visit to a regular, non-cooperative coffee finca. I´m excited about this because we are going to be visiting a couple cooperative/fair trade growers and it will be good to have a basis for comparison.

Today, we visited a Mayan priestess (sacerdota) who told about the twenty major spirits in the Maya tradition and allowed us to participate in a ceremony. Interestingly, we were scheduled to meet with a husband and wife priest/-ess couple, but we were unable to. There was a change in the law regarding personal identification in Guatemala today, which caused some unrest on local levels. That in turn caused some highways to be cut off in various places, so out original presenters were stuck en route and had to turn around. [Just a note, we´re all more than fine here. We didn´t even know this had been happening until Joe told us why the plan had changed.]

In general, things here are going very well. We have been here almost a month -- at the end of this week, we will be one quarter done with the program, which is hard to believe! As always, I will try to keep updates coming as often as I can manage.

Until then...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Non-alligned civilians

This will have to be brief. We spent the holiday weekend (Independence Day from Spain, which is September 15 for most of Latin America) in San Pedro Atitlan. It is a town on the second largest lake in Guatemala -- rather touristy, but not full of people, so really just a laid-back wonderful place to spend two days. We took a two and a half hour bus ride and then a half hour boat ride to get there. Our hotel was about a block up from the lake and we rarely got further into town than that (though we did travel laterally near the lake, in our defense!).

We kayaked and enjoyed the views. There is a sizeable Israeli community there, so I got my hummus fix for the last three weeks. Then yesterday was spent walking around Xela, watching the holiday festivities, and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Also, in the group there were two birthdays yesterday and another tomorrow, so there was plenty of celebrating. (I should mention that about half of our number actually hiked to the lake, a two+-day hike. They´re crazy, in my opinion.)

This afternoon we met with one of the teachers here at PLQ to hear his experiences as a non-alligned civilian during the conflict. Suffice it to say, at each turn, my understanding of the history here becomes more complex and confused (in the ¨good way¨). His stories underlined for me the reality of nuance in the midst of conflict, even when that conflict seems to demand taking a side. The experiences he told of -- the loss of two classmates in 5th grade to a grenade explosion; the loss of another classmate in a chillingly Emmitt-Till-like situation during a class fieldtrip (the boy turned up tortured, tied up, and thrown in a swimming pool because someone thought he wanted to steal army uniforms); the death of his own uncle when he (the teacher) was five.

This uncle was his father´s only brother and, for me, there is always something incredibly wrenching about hearing that someone has lost their one and only sibling. (It probably comes from my own experience, not that I think it is somehow easier to lose a sibling if you have others. I´m not sure what it´s all about, really.) It was a difficult lecture to listen to, but incredibly interesting at the same time. The brother (his uncle) was forcibly recruited into the army, underage, which was a common practice at the time, especially for indigenous young men. This also led to stories of the three times he was able to just barely escape being conscripted himself.

As I said, this is brief, but I want to keep folks up to date. Also, new photos, without titles or any helpful information. But they are there, which is more than the internet cafe could do. (I´m at the language school lab at the moment, now that the internet is back up.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

(Just a few) new photos at the bucket. More to come, but I´ve had issues with loading them from my camera.

You can also check out Annie´s blog for a few good photos from Chichicastenango. (For the record, we came up with the ---inca.blogspot idea completely independently of one another.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008


The group spent the weekend in a town called Chichicastenango, or Qiche´, about two and a half hours outside of Xela. (As a note, many towns here have multiple names, one Mayan and one Aztec-derived. If it ends in a -tenango, it is the Aztec title for ¨place of the...¨)

We left on Friday and just got back about an hour ago. Our main purposes in going were to visit a sewing cooperative and see the main Catholic church in town. The cooperative was founded during the mid-80s by a Methodist pastor and a group of women whose husbands had been killed as a part of the war. Many of them (the husbands) died when, in 1982, the local Methodist church was locked and bombed with 40-plus people inside. (To note, this was not at all uncommon during ¨la guerra.¨ The notion of the church as sanctuary was completely off the table. A good film, which my class watched last week, was La Hija del Puma. Very heavy movie, not for kids, I would say. But incredibly powerful.)

After this, many of the women needed to find a way to make a living and raise their families. This was combined with the fact that the war was vastly disproportionately focused on indigenous communities to point the women toward a sewing cooperative that produces traditional indigenous woven and sewn crafts. Scarves, shirts, bags, dolls, blankets, wall art, you name it, they make it and make it beautifully. As a cooperative, all of them women contribute and each is assisted in different forms by the money made. (Their crafts, and those of the men´s tailor project associated with them, can be found in the US through Ten Thousand Villages, for those interested.)

This morning was the Catholic church. It was built during the colonial period directly on the site of a sacred Maya area. The intention of squashing the culture by taking this particular piece of sacred land did not directly work out, however. (Obviously in other ways, this idea was incredibly successful. I´m simply talking about this church in Chichicastenango.) The two traditions have been blended in remarkable ways since then. This particular church is one of the only places in Central America where marimbas, an instrument usually identified with ¨pagan¨Mayan traditions, are used in services and the accompaniment for the different parts of the mass. Preaching is also done, by a native speaker, in both Qiche´and Spanish. It was quite impressive to walk through a group of traditional Mayan elders to enter the church only to see similarly-dressed people sitting up next to the altar.

The other amazing (and overhwhelming) thing that happens in Chichi on Sundays is the market. Good heavens, the market. It is, for you Minnesotans, more visually stimulating than the State Fair and, while it takes up less ground, easily packs in as many people. I intentionally left my money at our hotel, because I knew there would be just too many fantastic things available. (I was right.)

I feel like I should say something about Chichicastenango itself, as it is such a lovely town. We had such a good time, despite our limited time there. We found great people to talk to, wonderful restaurants and cafes. We tried to go dancing to marimba music, but it had been canceled unexpectedly. All in all, really a wonderful place.

The ride back was relatively uneventful with one exception. (Mom, you can skip this part; Darlene, you can delete it before showing grandma and grandpa...) Since we were traveling through mountains, the roads were not always terribly wide or actually buffered by anything. I never felt like we were in danger, but about half-way through the trip back here to Xela, we saw a group of people congregated around one of the edges. As it turns out, a car had run over the edge and plumeted into the canyon.

This isn´t to scare, but it really made me (and all of us) reflect a bit on the brevity and fragility of life. I know that to think about that when confronted by the likely death of someone is more than cliche, but it is true nonetheless. So I remain thankful to have the opportunity to take part in a journey like this, in safe hands, and really see so much of a place that I would not otherwise have had the chance to know. I pray for families and loved ones of the people who went over.

This is not much of a note to end on, and I´ve meant to say this anyway: May I just say that the people I´m in this group with are some of the most fascinating, genuine, wonderful people. I feel like we´ve known each other for more than just two weeks, yet we continue to learn so many things about each other. It´s great!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Food and...

[Note: I started typing this on Tuesday, the day after our classes started, but didn´t have time to finish. Plenty more has happened since then, but I wanted to finish this thought first.]

Yesterday was a very good day. As I was reflecting on what made it that way (calling my family for the first time, a good conversation in class, fun group activities), I realized that food had a lot to do with it. For the first time since we got our host families, yesterday´s meals all included something other than pasta, rice, or potatoes. At breakfast I was met with a large plate of papaya, pineapple, watermelon, and banana. Lunch and dinner were broccoli, rice, and salsa. It got me thinking.

It is amazing how closely tied my mood is to my eating habits. (My family will testify.) When I eat well I feel good physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. The thing is, that is such a privileged fact to even know about myself. It requires a long enough period of access to fresh, good food that I know it makes me feel wonderful.

Now, I live in a world (heavens, a city) where most people do not know what that feels like. I was going to write ¨know that such a reality exists,¨but not only would that be hyperbole, my guess is that most people know damn well what I and millions of other people sleep well each night despite our relatively full knowledge that their realities exist.

And I don´t reall know what my active response is. To quit eating quality food (that is, to stop supporting local, small-scale farmers and the public policy that allows me that food) seem like a pretentious but ineffective attempt at solidarity. It seems to me that solidarity doesn´t mean that we all agree to accept, for eternity, the wost conditions in existence in the name of equality. That seems a whole lot more like giving up, and the more I learn -- and the more overwhelmed I get -- the more I want to continue. As dad interprets the psalm (141? 145? one of them) verse ¨my tears are my food,¨the more I cry and scream, the more fuel there is under the fire.

So we have come full circle back to food. Not really sure where this leaves me. This will, I´m sure, be a pretty constant thought train through the rest of the semester (rest of my life). It continues to unfold in my mind.