Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Papi te amo Areta dice todo el tiempo

First Question - Why do airplane bloody mary's taste so good?

57 pages of notes. Nearly 400 flashcards with over 40 of them having full verb conjugations. Learning a new language is so incredibly intense - willing your brain to comprehend. Straining to decipher. Taking far too long to compose a response before speaking. Repeating it to yourself over and over before it comes out. My teacher Rochael was incredibly good, but 5 hours of one on one time for five days straight all in Spanish was a bit mind numbing. I remember thinking before I left that I wasn't sure a week would even be enough to gain a basic comprehension. Wrong! Trying desperately to not get hung up on one particular word you think you must know but can't remember and unintentionally ignoring the next 5-6 words and missing the meaning entirely. On the other hand there's the listen to all but comprehend none because you can't take the time to stop listening to process anything. The fine line of paying enough attention to be able to identify the words you know - a skill like skimming or speed reading. Maybe even some of the same mechanism behind a photographic memory? taking a snapshot of an auditory stream. Then you just hope the words you understand are ones which can impart the meaning. I was able to understand about 80% of my teacher (from 0% to 90 by the end) but he spoke really slowly and repetitively - unlike the native older women i spoke with - that was more like 25% comprehension. If that! I haven't stretched my brain like that in ages - probably since math proofs in grad school. It felt good and i actually think it made me smarter. or i should say less dumb - lately I have been suffering from poor word retrieval, absent mindedness, losing items still in my grasp... I think I may have actually reversed some brain trauma from an extended sleep deprivation and over exertion at work. I also slept a lot. 8-9 hours each night along with at least one daily nap, sometimes two for two weeks straight. Did I mention how great Guatemala is? I love sleeping!

The terrain reminded me a bit of Rwanda - many a volcano. I think even though a majority of the population lives below the poverty line, the poverty is somehow less obvious than the developing countries in Africa I've been to. I think it may be the building materials used? Like somehow a one room concrete block house looks less impoverished than a one room mud house with a thatched roof? Apparently it does to me. The yearly wage in Tanzania is nearly the monthly wage in Guatemala - though having a stronger currency does not seem to make much of a difference in their daily lives. Guatemala is full of extremely hard workers - no question there. The other aspect is that Guatemala has amazing indigenous textile production which the Mayan people wear every day. Superficial though it may sound, traditional mayan dress looks infinitely better than old ill fitting clothes from the US with blaring branding. The aesthetic dissonance of seeing someone in tanzania without any shoes, but with a large blue shirt proclaiming "Tommy Hilfiger" is extremely jarring.

My second week was spent visiting 5 NGO's that are supported by one of our clients - Global Giving - a great non-profit that helps to fund and support over 800 projects worldwide, and the sponsor of this second week. First to WINGS in Antigua. Oooof. Family planning in a country where children are a sign of a man's power and sexual prowess and the Catholic church outlaws birth control? They are doing amazing work educating not only women about their options, but they have a youth program as well as Men's education - not only discussing reproduction, birth control, anatomy but also the proper way to treat people in relationships. Fostering respect in an attempt to curb what is a tragic widespread acceptance of domestic violence against women. It's important to keep in mind that the subject of peoples bodies and anatomy is completely taboo. The girls there don't play soccer because they think that their uterus will drop if they run?! So treading lightly and garnering respect first in the community is paramount to their success. They can't just barge in and talk about birth control or they would be shunned. In an even more tragic twist it turns out our guide, who is a very well-educated British woman has been in an abusive marriage for years. While we can see how it would be near to impossible for impoverished women with 8 children (the average for indigenous women) and no means of income to leave an abusive husband, we can't forget it can be just as hard for a well-educated, well informed professional as well. Don't ask me how, but whenever my mother goes somewhere she gets people - strangers or close to - who confide in her their personal trials and tribulations. Must be she has some sort of psychologist magnet even though she's retired. So although WINGS only operates in two regions, they are making impressive headway and are growing rapidly as an organization. I wish there could be 12 more such organizations to cover the rest of the country!

We also visited a women's textile collective - Santiago Zamora. Again, the way too common story of the illiterate Mayan women with abusive husbands and the potential for more children than they wanted. But here they had an amazing strength, willpower and lack of fear which somehow grew out of this hopeless situation. These women went off and learned a trade, with the understanding they could never be free of the abuse and control unless they took control of their own lives and had a marketable skill and a means for an income. They went against their husbands wishes and eventually started up the textile collective and really bettered their lives - inspirational to say the least. When asked what happened to her abusive husband, she smiled and said oh, he's fine now. Once they saw we were serious and successful they became more respectful and started treating us better.

Over to Lake Atitlan which is stunning if not infected with cyanobacteria and used as a dump for pretty much everything dumpable. Pueblo a pueblo is a smaller operation focused on helping indigenous families whose village was destroyed in the mudslides of 2005. They're building a library for the school and just started a large organic garden to supplement the healthy lunch program where a different town mother cooks lunch for all of the school children each day. One of the largest problems in Guatemala is the malnutrition. Ironically farmers whose livelihood is growing fruit and vegetables are better off selling it since it brings in more money, so they subsist off of very little food and not nearly so nutritious - primarily corn. They also have two sponsorship programs both of which are 300$/year - one to support one child throughout the school year to provide them with supplies and to support their classroom and teachers. The other is a maternal program for pre and post natal care and nutrition through the first 5 years of the child's life. 10% of children in Guatemala die before the age of 5. TEN percent. That's nearly incomprehensible.

I guess the sign of a good vacation is coming home rested and feeling like you have been gone for far longer than you actually were. Check! Aside from a stone pillow and a happy family of fleas that ate off of me for over a week it was a wonderful trip and I learned more about Guatemala than I thought was possible in such a short time. Plans are a brewin' to return and study for longer next year - we'll see!