Wednesday, January 30, 2008
A dear friend who now lives in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico hoped to meet us at Lago Atitlan, but our dates of travel coincided with a trip he needed to make back to his home in Barcelona, Spain. He is an amazing photographer and today he surprised me by sending a photo he took of Lago Atitlan 10 years ago. It is without a doubt the most beautiful picture I have ever seen of the lake and comes close to capturing its magic at sunset.
(Gracias hermano por la foto y claro que nos encontraremos en otra ocasión muy pronto.)
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
We're back! And it was an amazing trip. I have traveled to many, many different countries - most of Western Europe (Spain, France, Italy, Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, Scotland) and even a few Eastern European ones (East Germany, when it was East Germany, Czechoslovakia, before it was the Czech Republic, and Hungary), and huge tracts of Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador. Learning about other cultures and getting to experience them first-hand is one of my passions. I just happened to marry a man who loves to stay home, and prefers to learn of other cultures, particularly ancient civilizations, from a good book. So it was a really big deal that he signed on for this trip. And it was a challenging one. (And that says a lot considering I lived for 6 months in the rural mountains of Mexico with no running water or electricity!) I think one of the most lasting impressions I will have from the trip is immense gratitude for my sweet little family. My dh and ds were the ones who really stretched out of their comfort zones and were so willing to follow my rather unconventional lead - and the fact that they did it with such goodwill felt like a huge testament of their love for me and for that I am very grateful.
The title of this post is from Buzz Lightyear's signature phrase in Toy Story, "To Infinity and Beyond!", but in Spanish, of course. The kids in our Guatemalan host family introduced us to their pirated version (dh and I had never even seen the original English version) and it was a huge hit with Carlitos (ds' middle name is Carlos). "Al Infinito y Mas Alla!" became the motto for our trip as every day brought great new adventures and it was fun to see the amused reactions we got when we were overheard, especially when families of young children chimed in as well. We also watched dubbed versions of Shrek, which was also very popular. A trip to the local market provided copies for us to take home and a Spanish version of Cars as a gift for the kids. (Since our return we have watched the movies many more times. It's clear that dh is continuing to improve his Spanish with every viewing. It makes me think of kids in Eastern Europe who learned English in the 1960's by listening to Beatles records over and over.)
Watching these movies with the kids was a definite highlight of our trip. It underscored how much we all enjoy the same simple pleasures. I really can't say enough positive things about the kids in our family - aged 8, 10 and 11. They were absolutely incredible. I think the greatest difference in our cultures is that Latino kids seem to genuinely enjoy spending time with small children. I have nephews who are 6 and 8 and they clearly want nothing to do with their young cousin. And who can blame them? He doesn't reliably share and he likes to tell you what to do. This did not bother the kids in our host family one bit. They were very interested in the toys ds brought with him, but when they saw he didn't want to share they were fine with it - even reassuring me when they saw that I was distressed that not only would he not share, but he would commandeer their toys as well - "Esta bien. No importa." ("It's fine. Don't worry about it.") Carlitos wanted to run around with them, seemingly endlessly, even interrupting their meals and yet they were always happy to oblige (grabbing a bite of their food as they came past their table). I found time to do things that were special interests of theirs - making jewelry with the girl and playing soccer with the boys - but it really was obvious that they accepted Carlitos for who he is and enjoyed him all the same and needed no other reasons to be with him. The host mom told me she hopes that when her kids are older they will be able to live in the US for a time as exchange students and I told her, whole-heartedly, that her kids would always be welcome in our home.
The hardest part of the trip was that Carlitos was definitely homesick for most of it. This really surprised me because he never expressed homesickness in any of our trips over the summer. It started the very first night as we sat on the bed in the room we were given in our host family's home: "I want to go home." Dh said, "Well, we are home." Ds, "Where are we going to sleep?" We said, "Right here on the bed." The funny thing was that the bed was a small double, and really was not big enough for all of us. The host mother seemed to have realized this as well and without prompting brought in a straw mat and pallet, ostensibly for Carlitos. Carlitos, however, has always slept with at least one of his parents and so he quickly made the assessment, "That's your bed, Daddy." And that's where Daddy slept. Didn't I say he was a trooper? Every day ds asked about his Grammy and our dog, Zoe, and said he wanted to go home and see them. This was touching and heart wrenching. So mostly we reflected back his sadness and validated it. Luckily, a friend (with 2 of her own kids and some experience with this issue) recommended that we bring a Bach flower remedy for homesickness and it really helped so much. After the remedy his sadness definitely had a lighter quality. I think the worst of the homesickness manifested after we watched Toy Story for the first time and ds remembered a Buzz Lightyear doll that my mom had given him a few weeks earlier, which had garnered little interest at the time. Now that he was introduced to the *real* Buzz he expressed more desire for that doll than I had ever seen for anything before. He was thrilled to be reunited with it and has been sleeping with it every night, just like the little boy in the movie.
In spite of the homesickness, it was obvious that ds was having a wonderful time. (We were very fortunate that there was no real illness. Both dh and ds had a day or two of GI distress, but not bad, and I felt great the whole time.) He played with the kids for hours each day and loved that we walked all day everywhere. (Which really reinforced our wish that we lived in a more pedestrian friendly town!) The opportunities for public transportation were also a bonus - ancient and reclaimed American school buses are used for trips into and out of town and ds and I rode on one every morning. We'd get out in some small town and walk around a bit until he would say, "I want to get on the bus again!" and we'd catch another back into town. The biggest change in Antigua since I was last there 6 years ago is that now there are hundreds of little motorized rickshaws (imported from India) called Tuc-tucs that ds LOVED. Every time he saw them he'd call out, "Look, mommy! A Tuc-tuc!" This was a lovely sing-songy refrain we heard all day. We only rode one once after ds and I had walked for well over an hour to the outskirts of town and were both tired. (And a little lost.) They are so much fun as they dart in and out of traffic - both motor and pedestrian. Dh imagined that a great scene in a James Bond movie would have a high speed Tuc-tuc chase.
We loved our Spanish lessons - dh took 4 hours in the morning and I had 3 hours in the afternoon. Of course, Carlitos just had more opportunities to be the little language sponge he is. The only thing is I think he thinks "momento" means "right now" - the kids in the family would be helping him with something, like building Legos, and they'd say, "Momento, momento" meaning, "Just a minute." And he would always respond with "Momento, momento!" like, "Right now!" Again, the kids would roll with it, no problem. It was thrilling to see how much he understood and could communicate in Spanish. He's generally pretty shy with strangers, but will reliably answer "Carlos" (with a perfect accent!) when asked, "Como te llamas?"
I have only scratched the surface of our adventures and have only talked about our life in Antigua - there are still many stories from Chichicastenango (the city that transforms into a huge indigenous market every Thursday and Sunday) and Lago Atitlan (a huge, pristine lake surrounded by volcanoes that, to me, is the most beautiful place in the world). Unfortunately our fancy digital camera broke within 10 minutes of bringing it out for the first time and so we relied on a disposable film camera. (Of course I have a huge album of pictures from my previous travels and really not so much has changed, so come over any time to see them!) My greatest disappointment is that we only got 2 pictures of Carlitos with the children from our host family. But, again, I have great hopes that we will be reunited again, perhaps in the US! For now you can see a few here that really do capture some lovely moments from a very special time. Just click on the picture to see a full frame.
At Probigua, our Spanish language school.
Probigua is an acronym for Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala or the Guatemalan Library Project. The tuition from the students serves as a source of much needed income to finance the school's mission to provide books to libraries and schools across the country. They also ask for a donation of Spanish language books from their students. Thanks to our friends we were able to bring down a huge box of books. A special thanks to Gillian who owns the Reader's Corner in Asheville and donated a whole set of encyclopedias!
Carlitos with his new best friend Andrez. We called Carlitos his sombra, or shadow, because he was always following him.
And there he is with Maria Teresa. The kids would play for hours running around. The older kids would pretend to fall down and Carlitos loved giving them a hand up.
We stayed at the lovely inn at Santiago Atitlan. It offers stone cottages with working fireplaces - ds and I loved maintaining the fire at a hearty roar each night. (Dh was most excited that there was a private bathroom and he didn't have to sleep on the floor!)
Carlitos also LOVED the lanchas, or motor boats, that are ubiquitous all around the lake as they are the main form of transportation to all the surrounding towns.
Here we are with the volcano, San Pedro, in the background. Truly this is the most magical place in the world.
One final note: Our host family, the director of our school, and the owners of the inn all told us that tourism (and thus the economy) has been adversely affected by reports in the media of instability in the country due to the recent elections. We never experienced any cause for concern and I hope this post will encourage others to travel to this beautiful country. I know my dh and ds are very happy to be home again but I can't wait to go back and hopefully it won't be too long before I can convince them to join me again!