Taking Liberties: Life & Love in Upper Middle Age

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Final Posting from Guatemala; I'm on my way home

Sabbatical letter # 6
February 23, 2006

The Highlights:
The book project is finished;
Staring, scaring and speaking Spanish;
I’m on my way home!

Dear Friends,
I am winding up 2 ½ months in Guatemala and writing what will be my last letter to you from Latin America.

The challenge of completing “Mi Historia de la Tormenta Stan,” the Spanish version of Gil Kliman’s disaster mental health workbook, has been pretty much my full time focus for the last seven weeks. Thank you, thank you to the many people who responded to my request for monetary help with this project. Your astounding enthusiasm and generosity enabled me to move steadily through the tasks of production – recruiting and then paying an artist, a typist, and a photocopy service – instead of getting stalled (as so often happens) waiting for NGO boards and committees to meet and negotiate funding decisions. Now that there is a finished product (being praised for being culturally sensitive, timely and relevant,) it should be easy to get funding for more copies and wider distribution.

The book is quite wonderful. It has a coloring book section with gorgeous line drawings depicting people in traditional Mayan clothing and scenes from the event. These include pictures of Lake Atitlan with its majestic volcanoes, the mudslides, the emergency shelters, the drama of families separated and reunited, and a final hopeful drawing of the corn growing back and children at play. Everyone who sees the book is charmed by the illustrations.

Although the project was a lot of work, it provided a wonderful way to meet other volunteers and community members, to make some friends and participate in the life of Santiago Atitlan. Still, there were days when I was sick of crumbling concrete and protruding rebar, barking dogs, smoky fires, and pickup trucks roaring down unpaved roads whipping dusty uproar into eyes, hair and clothing. What a tease to be incarcerated in this ugly town just out of sight of one of the world’s most exquisitely beautiful lakes. Without the tether of this project, I’d have been long gone.

At a certain point, I realized that I was getting the blues. I figured out that I was pining for physical beauty and vigorous exercise. So, I invited Lettie and Luis, my Antigua “family,” to be my guests for the weekend at the beautiful Posada Santiago Hotel. This is a rustic stone hotel and restaurant located at the far end of town, run by an American couple and equipped with swimming pool, canoes, stone sauna and a Jacuzzi right on the lakefront. Luis had his first experience of swimming and I got to witness him falling in love with my favorite sport. (“Dona Leah, this is buenissima!”) I also discovered that the hotel has a low cost dormitory and so I moved into the Posada for my last week. I met a fellow traveler, a woman named Leslie who is about my age, and we would get together each evening for sunset soaks in the Jacuzzi and to share an entrée at dinner. I continued to visit my host family on a daily basis, but my move was the right medicine. With more exercise and surrounded by natural beauty, I immediately got happy again.

Once the book was finished, Guatemalans kept remarking how quickly I had completed it. I could only look at them quizzically. It reminded me of how people describe someone having “an easy birth.” (It’s only easy when you’re not the one doing it!)

Finishing up the project included getting copies to community leaders, thanking those who helped with various aspects, and cultivating a sense of ownership by others in the community. This last was a challenge given my rudimentary Spanish. But I’ve been refining the art of simple and vivid expression. To the coalition of mental health workers in town I explained that to write the book was half the work; the other half was to bring it to the children. I told this mostly female group that I was now ready to birth the book (the delightful Spanish phrase for giving birth is “dar la luz” which means “to give the light”). “But this baby needs a midwife and it needs parents to take care of it. I hope this group can please, please, be the midwife and the parents.” And indeed, the mental health coalition willingly agreed to adopt the task of workbook testing and distribution.

I invited 20 people to a thank-you and farewell lunch at the Posada’s lakefront restaurant built of stone and wood and glass. Hot-off-the press copies of the book were at each place. Someone showed up with an uninvited guest - the Minister for Education for the entire region! He was wildly enthusiastic about the book; he addressed me and made a long, long speech (which I pretended to understand) to the effect that there was a great need for such materials, nothing like it existed and – once tested - he intended for every teacher to get a copy. Obviously, I am very happy. Thank you for your part in helping me pull it off.

Along with hard work, there have been some amusing moments, most of them variations on the theme of linguistic and cultural unfamiliarity and clumsiness. You’ve probably heard the term “Spanglish.” Because there is no Spanish school in Santiago, Leslie and I began practicing our Spanish together. I remarked to her that although I could communicate successfully, I certainly mangled the Spanish language. That’s when we decided what we are speaking should be called “Manglish.”

Lest you imagine that I underestimate my abilities, I’ll provide an example. I was at the photocopy tienda, a storefront that opens onto the street. I needed to order 20 copies of the workbook, choose card stock for the cover, select binding, and negotiate payment and pick-up. It took a while to make myself understood, but the Mayan salesgirl and I were both patient and eventually we worked it out. It wasn’t until I turned to leave that I noticed a line of about 6 junior high school kids behind me, silently doubled over laughing. I asked them candidly, “Does my Spanish sound pretty funny to you?” Giggling, they acknowledged, “Yes.” I laughed and told them, “The worst part is that I am trying SO hard to do it right!” They thought this was hilarious.

In Santiago Atitlan, foreigners are still somewhat of a novelty. (Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Many foreign visitors arrive by boat each day to walk up and down the one shopping street that runs from the boat launch to the central square. Then they return to the boats and depart.) Outside of that area we are still somewhat of a novelty. Many people just say “buenas dias” and it’s no big deal. Children and adolescents often stare at us and giggle. Other children, in an instantaneous and sadly Pavlovian reaction to a white face, thrust out their hands and beg “Quetzal?” (This is the Guatemalan currency.) But the most disturbing responses have come from toddlers of about 18 months to two years of age. I was playing around with a bunch of young kids when a little girl started crying intensely. I asked someone what had happened to her and I was informed with some embarrassment, “She’s frightened of you.” Another day, I was working with the typist and I leaned out his window to take a break. I was making silly faces for a group of children across the street when a boy of about 18 months burst into tears. This time I didn’t have to ask what the problem was. As a person who adores babies and toddlers, it is quite an experience for me to be the object of terror to small children.

It turns out that the challenge of getting accustomed to foreign faces cuts both ways. In my early weeks in Santiago Atitlan, I continued to embarrass myself by confusing one Mayan individual with another. For example, I warmly thanked one of the mental health workers for having invited me along to a training session for midwives. She gave me a blank look and then graciously accepted my thanks. A few minutes later, in walked the mental health worker who had actually taken me to the training session. I kept calling Lucia, one of the social workers, “Angelica,” until she finally told me, “I don’t know anyone named Angelica.” This sort of thing happened repeatedly and was fairly mortifying until an event helped put it into a fresh and refreshing perspective.

The youngest of the four children in my host family is Diana. She is 26 years old, the only one who speaks English and she lives in Guatemala City. One weekend she came to Santiago Atitlan to visit her family. Coming into the cozy kitchen and seeing me for the first time, she warmly greeted me with, “Hello, Katie.” (Katie is the Peace Corps volunteer who also lives with my host family.) What made this funny is that Katie is a towering 5’10” and very blond. She has a loud booming voice and the strong, sturdy body of a college athlete. Suddenly I got it, that to them we gringos all look alike. Diana’s faux pas helped me relax and forgive myself until, little by little, I was able to identify people in town and keep them straight.

Now, as I prepare to leave Guatemala, I’m on hugging terms with a good number of these people. I am savoring warm, heart-felt goodbyes. At my thank-you fiesta I told my guests that I had come to Central America with three desires. One was to learn Spanish; the second was to find out if I had any skills that could be of service outside the US; and the third was to discover if I could feel safe and happy traveling alone.

In the past four months, I’ve learned some Spanish. I have been of service. And I’ve discovered that “traveling alone” is an odd misnomer. “Alone” may be the right name for the anxious moment before getting on a plane for an unfamiliar destination. But the past four months have been anything but lonely. I have been content and happy and I feel fully alive.

Chuck will meet me at the airport and we will go directly to Calistoga for three days of warm water and reunion before I return to face the music of homeowner hassles and four months of mail. I’ll be back home by February 27th.

See you soon!