Thursday, April 17, 2014

Stray Dogs, Surfboards, Coconuts, Cricket... and Heat

Just to get it out of the way: our weekend in El Paredon was really hot. Even at night, every small little stirring of breeze only offered temporary respite. To cut down on complaining, we banned the word "hot" and kept track of violations, with the biggest violator buying the group a round at the end of the weekend.

Luckily, El Paredon was full of wonderful things to help keep our minds off of the weather. One of them was our house which I found through AirBnB, La Choza Chula. It's run by a community-focused NGO that is working to help El Paredon benefit from the growing surfing scene there. Unfortunately, a lot of people who come in to surf aren't even aware of the existence of a town right down the road. Read more about what La Choza Chula does here.

We explored El Paredon and got to meet some of our neighbors as well as a few neighborhood kids who hang out in the shack's backyard. The yard has a few coconut trees and Jossie and I took a machete to a few coconuts to get into the inner coconutty goodness. The house itself has a dry erase board, which we took full advantage of in a pretty epic game of pictionary. We spent Saturday morning on the beach surfing and swimming in the afternoon we relaxed in the hammocks and pool of the Paredon Surf House with two cool Canadians we met there.

I caught a few more waves Saturday afternoon after Paul taught me and the Canadians how to play cricket. It's actually a pretty simple and fun game, but I'm sure it helped contribute to the sunburn on my shoulders.

Meals were fun as well. El Paredon doesn't really have restaurants, so for our two breakfasts we bought and cooked beans and eggs and some tortillas from a lady across the street who stood outside making them. We had a delicious lunch at the Surf House and for dinner we found a barbeque that had been set up for Holy Week that made us some pretty delicious empanadas, burgers and tostadas.

Sunday was on us before we knew it and we cleaned the house, said goodbye to the house's adopted stray dog Twiggy, and dragged our mosquito-bite ridden, sunburned bodies back onto a chicken bus headed in the direction of Antigua.

Irony: The guy from San Diego ended up saying "hot" the most, so I bought the round.

The Chicken Bus to El Paredon

After three weeks at the Spanish books, I needed to get out of Antigua for the weekend, so I planned a surfing trip to a small fishing village in southern Guatemala called El Paredon. After hearing about my plans that week, a few of my classmates decided they wanted to come with me, so at 1pm last Friday Jossie, Kylie, Meredith, Paul and I walked to Antigua's bus station with a mind for some adventure.

Antigua's bus station is actually a dusty, weird-smelling dirt lot located behind the market with no ticket counters or posted schedules. A cacophony of voices assaults the ears as the ayudante for each bus yells his destination. We followed a man yelling "Escuintlaescuintlaescuintlaescuintlaaaaaa" to a brightly painted chicken bus.

I should take a second to talk about chicken buses. Originally American school buses, once they reach a certain age or mileage or something they're sold second-hand and driven across Mexico to start new lives in Guatemala as medium-distance private coaches. Often painted bright colors and tricked out with lights, these glamorous but cheap transportation options have become a symbol of Guatemala for many travelers as they careen around corners and barely stop to let passengers on and off.

Our bus, which was packed with more and more people (hence the name "chicken bus") as the ride went on cost us 8 quetzales (about $1) for the 1.5 hours to Escuintla. In the hot dry streets of Escuintla, we found and boarded a bus headed for the coastal community of Sipacate. Twenty more quetzales, 1.5 more hours and 2 overly long rest stops later, we were dropped off in Sipacate, where we hailed two tuk-tuks.

Oh, what's a tuk-tuk? Travelers to southern and south-eastern Asia might be more familiar with these, but apparently they're big in Guate as well - super-charged, golf cart-sized three wheelers that serve as taxis for shorter distances. Our two tuk-tuks raced us down a long rural road, 7 kilometers through rice fields to a lonely pier on the Acoma river called El Escondite.

At the river I negotiated for one of the men operating a small river boat to take us down the river and up a different branch to isolated El Paredon. The sun was setting as we passed through thick mangrove forest on either side, curious leaping fish and other animals peeking at us from the water.

We arrived in El Paredon right as dusk was beginning to set and were welcomed at La Choza Chula by a small local boy and two of the house's inhabitants, Seth and Kate. The trip had taken about 4.5 hours and 48 quetzales (~$6) to reach the isolated paradise of El Paredon.

Monday, April 14, 2014

El Basurero de El Manchén

In much of Guatemala, a daily fact that bums out many visiting Americans (and many local Guatemalans as well) is the large amount of litter that covers roadsides, empty lots, front yards and rivers. In the United States we are taught from a very early age that littering is bad - most states even criminalize throwing trash on the ground. A lot of Guatemalans are not inculcated with the same abhorrence of littering. In addition, the infrastructure we take for granted - public trashcans, regular trash service, government-run trash pickup programs for public spaces - are often scarce or non-existent here.

Photo: Mike Castillo, Prensa Libre

A microcosm of this nationwide problem exists in El Manchén, the beautiful ruins of a colonial era church across the street from my house. A dirt pathway runs right past the ruins, connecting the city of Antigua to a humble community of corrugated metal, cinder block and scrap wood homes hugging the back of a hill called Cerro de la Cruz. (A similar type of community, also on a hill called Cerro de la Cruz exploded into flames in Chile this weekend, destroying all the earthly possessions of 2,000 families). On their daily commute, students, taxi drivers, waiters, store owners, car washers, shoe shiners and Spanish teachers alike walk down the path past the ruins, snacking on foil wrapped candies and bags of chips. And then they throw them on the ground.

This seems like a little thing. It's not a big deal to drop one soda can in a world that still confronts poverty, war, disease and famine. But those soda cans and gum wrappers and chip bags add up over the decades to cover something beautiful with ugliness. In addition, this particular something beautiful also happens to be part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Without these big thoughts in mind, but rather with the simple idea that it would be nice to pick up some of the trash in the ruins where I play my ukulele in the evenings, I bough a box of trash bags and borrowed some gloves and spent a weekend picking up trash.

During those (overly) sunny hours picking up wrappers and shoes and glass and such, I got to chat with a lot of neighbors passing by, all of whom were thankful for the bit of work I was doing. I also got to meet and was helped by the head of a neighborhood committee that sponsored a Holy Week velación in the ruins the same weekend I was picking up trash.

Two afternoons and nine 30-gallon trash bags later, I had cleared a pleasant green spot on the south side of the ruins, but realized that even this little littered lot was too big of a challenge for me. Decades of litter were buried underneath the the more current litter. Old plastic grocery bags and copper wire were hopelessly intertwined in the roots of plants. I experienced first hand what plastic does when it decomposes. It doesn't break down into dirt or nothingness - just very small pieces of plastic that are impossible to pick up. Apparently this is the kind of stuff that you'll find in the Great Pacific Trash Vortex.

The most disappointing thing occurred the Monday after my boy scout-y trash pickup campaign. On my way to class, I watched as two teenage girls walked down the hill and dropped a candy wrapper right at the doors of the ruin. By the time I had returned from class that evening, the wind had blown seven or eight additional pieces of litter onto the plot I had cleared.

I felt a tiny bit better when Don Carlos, the father of my family got my nine bags into the community's trash pickup last week, but I'm afraid unless greater forces get involved, the ghostly basurero of the ruins of El Manchén will be forever cursed with the Sisyphean task of picking up never-ending windblown drifts of litter.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Most of my time here in Antigua is spent in class, where I work on my Spanish grammar, get rid of my spoken errors and improve my overall fluidity. As I mentioned earlier, I'm attending the Christian Spanish Academy, Antigua's only school accredited by Instituto Cervantes. There are a ton of schools here, but the majority of them don't have the organization and learning structure that CSA does.

Each day, I walk from my house through the streets of central Antigua to CSA where I sit down with my teacher Fernando and we chat about our previous day or about the news for about an hour. Then we dig into my homework from the previous night and do a review of this or that grammar rule that most people I know wouldn't be able to do in English. How many Americans do you know are familiar with the imperfect subjunctive case, for example?

The school itself is beautiful, as its founder is actually an architect who designed the building himself. Spending each day chatting in a verdant garden isn't a terrible way to improve my Spanish, but then again, whoever said that learning a language had to be terrible?