Friday, February 27, 2009

in sickness to disco

Sometime over the weekend i made the decision to go see a travel doctor. The sickness i`d caught several weeks before just wouldn`t go away, i wasn`t getting re-infected as i thought. I became obsessive about disinfecting everything while my housemates ate food off the floor- yet they were fine and i was not.

A friend of a friend of a friend recommended a doctor in Antigua. He was able to see me right away, so we agreed on wednesday. The girls were going in for spanish lessons, i would go with them. Always nicer to have company.

But the night before a frequent patron and friend of Carlos` comes by, he`s excited to invite us all to a disco. A disco? Its for the dedication of a new school in town. It seems like he is somehow involved- and very proud i might add. He really wants us all to come, the volunteers in particular. Unfortunately i was there as the sole representative of the North America Brigade. I had to break the news to him that the girls had spanish lessons, and before i could even finish groans of displeasure erupted from both he and Johana- they can go another day, go thursday! Clearly one of us needed to represent, my appointment was later in the day, so i promised i would be there. The groans subsided.

The others were, to my surprise, really excited about the prospect of a disco party full of school children. When they explained how much fun it would be i could see where they were coming from, but i still really didn`t want to go. I wasn`t feeling well and the idea of being a dancing mascot to inquistive children for an hour or two just didn`t seem like fun. Anneliese thought she would skip spanish school, and Ivy was really excited about the prospect of disco. They were already planning what they would wear.

Come morning i felt even worse than i had for the last few days. My bowels erupted, and then i dry heaved for a few minutes right as we were about to leave- i knew i was in trouble, but social obligation held me tight. The walk there was bumpy and hot, i hiccupped the whole way (i really really don`t like hiccups). A couple of times i thought i might throw up, i asked Carlos if it was legit for me to barf in the street. He was grossed out by my even asking, but he said yes, do it to the side.

We wound our way through unfamiliar streets until we were in a part of town i had never been. We came upon some small gardens exploding with green, small children came up to greet us (they were very excited to see gringos). We could hear the echo of a PA system, someone was enthusiastically announcing something. We turned the corner and there were a couple hundred people seated facing us, a little uncomfortable for Carlos, apparently he had taken us the the wrong way. We found some seats and listened politely as they called out names and had people come up, sang each ones praises and handed out pieces of paper (awards?). It was pretty boring, like being at your younger siblings 4th grade graduation, except you can`t even understand all of the boring stuff they are saying. Maybe it was better that way, i got to play with Johana`s nephew Jamie, a super cute kid who rides an orange donkey around the shop.

Somewhere in there i got the rumble and i knew i didn`t have long. I made my way to the outdoor toilets and proceeded to lose everything i had eaten that morning. Usually this makes me feel worse, but i actually felt much better, like a burden had been lifted. Oddly relieved i found my way back to my seat in the sun. We listened for longer. I had a few more runs- false alarms. And after a while people started to move. What is happening now i asked? They are going to cut the ribbon, we will follow them.

So we walked up a small incline, following the crowd. For some reason Carlos asked us to hang back, not to go all the way to the ribbon. I suppose the ribbon cutting was for those who donated money or gave lots of time, our role, it seemed, was to line the streets in their honor. While there Carlos decided that it was Ivy`s fault that Palo was so worn out and that i was sick. He called her a hamburger.

Look at that face, it has hamburger written all over it.

We dawled a while longer while things dissipated, some fireworks were set off (by far the highlight of the morning) and while i was back in the stall school apparently resumed. Wait a minute. What happened to disco? At this point making a fool out of myself for little kids to laugh about didn`t seem so bad, and it sure seemed a lot better than the past hour`s activities. Nope all done. Was it a trick? Is that really what they thought would get us there? Disco? Well, it i guess it worked, we were there. Glitter and all.

We then walked back to market, passing some pretty foul trash sites on the way. Whether by design or gravity, all of the trash here seems to end up in the water sources. Bad idea. Its surprising that they wouldn`t know, or if they do that the social codes would allow it (because laws certainly don`t seem to mean much here). It even looked like there was a bus buried in the river of trash. Its part of the double edged sword of people having true freedom, just as they can build themselves homes appropriate to their means and the amount of space that they actually need (a concept foreign to the states) they can also pitch whatever they want into the river without any threat of legal action or social recourse. Its just the most convenient method.

At the market we split ways, Jamie and his mother went back to the shop, Ivy stayed in the market and i made my way to Antigua.

Although having had a rough morning i knew that the 90% downhill bike ride to Antigua would be fine for me. Along the way i ran into Anneliese, we stopped our bikes in the middle of the road and talked for a bit. She had had a fun lesson with her teacher, the highlight of which was when the teacher accidentally said poop when trying to say potatoes.

The bike ride to Antigua is really beautiful. I love doing it, its my favorite bike ride of all time, it even trumps riding through our nations capital on a warm fall night (sorry Sammie). The climax is in passing a series of mountains, visible from Maya Pedal. A deep ravine opens up and you almost feel like you are going to fly off into it. The mountains tower overhead and when the light is just right it pulls you to a complete awe-filled stop.

There are interesting smaller towns along the way with lively town centers and interesting hand painted signs.

There are also churches and markets, forest that almost looks like jungle (i don`t think it is) and a variety of homes, both rich and poor (Antiuga is a great center of wealth in the country).

It took me a while of asking around to finally find Higher Grounds Cafe, where Erin and i had agreed to meet. I was several hours late at this point, the not-disco went on far longer than expected (and also started later than scheduled). Fortunately she was so enveloped in downloading music and movies that she refused to leave- it might also be that shes really kind and patient, but she claimed movies.

Its funny, things here can be so... imprecise. And its just expected. Like the disco not actually being a disco and starting hours after we were told it would. Or how when i asked for directions to higher grounds several people assured me they knew where it was and gave me totally false information. Others just pointed in a general direction and said its that way. Half the time people don`t seem to know the street names in their own town- taxi drivers even, you say i want to go to this place, they dont know it, okay, its on this street, don`t know it- so you just kind of drive around and guess where you`re supposed to be.

And along with ruins, no tourist trap would be complete without...
a McDonald´s

Erin was kind enough to show me around her favorite haunts- the high end food store (which actually sold trader joes stuff for twice the price) the chocolate shop (where the doting store owner gave her, more than the ususal amount, of free samples) and the DVD vendor who was supposedly holding titles for her.

After waiting behind some indecisive gringos for what felt like a half an hour, we finally got to talk to the kid behind the DVD stand. He didn`t know what we were talking about, the boss would be back later. The timing was perfect, i needed to get to my appointment.

Erin was kind enough to stick with me through the evening, i sensed she had been ready to leave hours earlier but waited it out to be polite. What is it about Canada? Or really, what is it about us?

Fortunately, the directions to the doctors were more accurate than to the coffee shop and i made it in time. My doctor was a friendly man, he listened patiently while i tried to describe to him in the best detail that i could (using lots of hand gesutres and funny sounds from my mouth) all of the things that had been happening over the last month. He called it puje y tempeso, or something like that. The name seemed to make him laugh, i didn`t get it.

He checked my blood pressure and hearbeat, said they were perfect, weighed me and announced that i was 134 pounds. Before i came i weighed around 160, and there was no way that 26 pounds slipped away unnoticed. I politely suggested that perhaps his metric scale was off (i said nothing of his calculations). He insisted in its accuracy. Arguing the point seemed useless.

He felt around my stomach and found some gurgles- here he said, here is where the diarrhea is. Good to know, there was still some fun left. He said it wasn`t worht doing bloodwork, or a stool sample. He gave medicine to take care of the most likely suspects, basic amoebas and worms. Take it for a week, if you dont get better come back. After a day and a half i definitely feel better.
Luckily the visit didn`t take that long, and Erin had a book she was engrossed in anyway- Bill McKibbens Deep Economy. Next were the meds. They were by far the most expensive part of the whole shebang. Sometimes its easy to forget that the Quetzals we trade in every day aren`t dollars, they are worth much less. I guess i`ve gotten used to living on 50Q a week, making 500 feel like a lot. (For perspective though, the total for me was a little less than 75 dollars for the visit and the medicine combined- in the states it would be several hundred dollars, uninsured).

In one of the pharmacies i went to, i was amused to see the local beer stocked on the shelves, right between Pepto-Bismol and Ensure.

Having completed the health mission for the day, we returned to the DVD guy, the boss was back but the titles still hadn`t come in. Erin was disappointed, i picked up two films Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionare, both of which i had heard were really good. The thought of Brad Pitt cheered Erin up some.

I suggested we get some dinner, excited to have some food closer to the quality of that at home. Erin wanted to eat at a local joint, i resisted, but she refused to eat elsewhere. I lucked out- no vegan options. Aha, why don`t we eat at the vegan/vegetarian cafe where we presented last week? The thought of delicious vegan food won Erin over, and we wandered to Rainbow Cafe. Interestingly, this time the first person to give us directions seemed totally confused, but claimed it was "that way." We didn`t believe her, but she was right.

Dinner was awesome, i had chicken fajitas that were absolutely delicious. Erin ordered Israeli falafel, and in typical matthew fashion i helped her finish it. Mmmm, i miss really good food. Especially food that doesn`t require me to bleach it first.

Enjoying the atmosphere and live music we took our time, sharing stories from home. (According to Erin, street hockey is a very important part of thanksgiving). I talked a lot about my sweetheart whom i am very excited to see come April, Erin was kind enough to humor me. Our leisurely meal left us busless, which was just as well, buses are targets after dark. We considered a hostel, but she reasoned it`d be cheaper for us to hire a taxi back. She was right (she usually is).

Last bus of the night, definitely not going our way. I love the bling on these things, they get really into decorating their buses and tuk-tuks

It took a little bargaining but we were finally able to secure a ride that didn`t mind the bike coming along. He was a really friendly guy, we talked most of the way in spanish, though he was pretty excited to use his english. *side note, the most common thing people have said to me in english, just random strangers on the street, is "very good," which they pronounce more like "berry guuuhhh," no idea why*

The ride was uneventful, as i`m sure my mother will be relieved to hear, and we arrived back at 9:00. Erin had the foresight to get our drivers number for future use. Our housemates were a little concerned, there was no way to call, in either direction. But we made it up to them with Erin`s chocolate and Benjamin Button- interesting movie, subtle but impressive special effects.

Thats all for now. The medicine is going fine, though i did spend yesterday sleeping. Good chance to catch up on my reading. And Batman.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the flatest piece of dirt we could find

When camping fell through for the weekend we decided it was monday night or bust, Palo was determined that we not push it off and push it off and then not do it (which easily could have happened). So we exictedly planned our meals, collected and prepared our food.

Anneliese made an awesome camp stove, it is a series of stainless steel chain rings wired, not welded, together with four kickstands bolted on as legs. The kickstands are particularly ingenious because they fold down flat against the chain rings, drastically increasing the portability of the stove. The Guatemalan way is rubbing off on all of us.

Erin and i didn´t realize it, but the others left in a rush to beat the dark leaving us behind to collect all the things still left. We grabbed all of the remaining items, stuffed them into bags not-quite-big-enough and sauntered up the hill.

My camera decided to shut down just as we started up, thankfully Erin had her (much nicer) camera to fill the gap. Here´s some of what we saw along the way.

On the way up to Carlos´ farm (where we´d be camping) we passed a series of these strange swaths chiseled out of the mountain side. Most of them looked as if they were designed for a truck to back into and they had unfamiliar pipes and tubing systems exposed. We weren´t sure if it was some sort of agricultural something-or-other or what. (We found out on the way back down that they were supposed to be house lots of a failed fancy housing project called Bella Vista).

After about 25 minutes Erin and i came upon Carlos´ finca (farm). I should have realized, but somehow dind´t put together that his farm would be one of the steeply sloped, seemingly impossible, mountainside plots. Everyone here uses slash and burn and plants row after row of the same crop. Who knows if they use pesticides, i´m guessing most can´t afford it. The dirt looks like it is going to blow away, it looks like the dust on the beaten roads or the trampled soccer fields. Permaculture could do wonders here.

Eventually we came across our comrades, they had scoped out the flatest possible spot on the whole mountain. I was impressed by their sleuthing. Technically this was not Carlos´land, but the neighbors are friendly and didn´t seem to mind.

The camera can´t do justice to the breathtaking view that we enjoyed for 16 hours, the cloudy skies also don´t help.

Below is Itzapa, at night we could also see Chimaltenango, Paramos and the light pollution from Antigua behind a neighboring mountain.

We didn´t waste any time getting a fire started, as it would be dark soon and we were eager to get some good coals going for dinner. Anneliese´s camping stove folded out beautifully and impressed us all for the whole evening.

Three of us went scavenging for wood while the other two got the fire started. It was slim pickings, but we managed to scrounge enough for the evening. We even found a nice log to sit on.

We enjoyed the fire for a few minutes while we waited for the tortilla pan (just a flat sheet of metal) to heat up. All of our food was laid out on a cloth, Ivy handed me a random piece of plywood and i rigged up a table to start the food prep.

I spent the next 45 miuntes scooping out beans and cheese and smuchsing them between tortillas (tortillas here are tiny compared to what we´re used to in the states, i´d guess because its all done between small palms). Anneliese had the prescience to stick a tin foil covered pepper into the coals- it was the perfect addition to our quesadillas. They were... so... gooood...

Next on the menu were the much anticpated angelitas (literally little angels, but we´d called them marshmallows). These little angels were far from small, in fact, they were the hugest marshmallows any of us had ever seen (a big part of the excitement).

I realize the picture isn´t the best, but if Palo´s excitement doesn´t convince you of the montsrous glory of our air inflated sugar pillows, perhaps this will- cut in half they were still larger than the normal US marshmallow.

Palo was excited to stick his marshmallow between two Chikys, a native brand of cookie that is already half covered in chocolate. He claimed it was exactly like a smore, but even more convenient. This inspired Erin to stick her giantic sugar cloud between two pieces of hannukah gelt (not actually gelt, but close enough).

Oops, camera strap.

But by far the highlight of the dessert menu, the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance, were the banana boats. For those unfamiliar with a banana boat it´s a banana stuffed full of marshmallow and chocolate wrapped in tin foil and left in the coals to melt into one giant pile of deliciousness.
I was first introduced to banana boats at Church of the Brethren camp in 8th grade. I had since forgotten about them, but was very happy to be re-introduced.

Ohhh so good!

Ivy and Palo took turns serenading us. They are both really talented musicians and play in a ton of bands back in the states.

When it came time to crash we all sardined together on a salvaged tarp Chris had laid out. It was cold and we were happy to cram together to share body heat. Hopped up on sugar we giggled our way to sleep like a bunch of 4th graders at a slumber party. We were pretty punchy and everything was really funny.

Out of the necessity of the cold i cocooned inside my sleeping bag, head covered and all. It turned out to be a good move because it sprinkled throughout the night and i stayed warm and dry. My sleeping bag was not so lucky.

We woke up to the rising sun, doing its best to light the sky for us despite competition from some grumpy clouds.

Some of us had trouble getting out of bed. (Oh soooo classy).

Palo made a fire from the remains of the previous night´s, using some fairly wet wood, which is not easy. I thought it best not to trouble him with the precise knowledge of how i put it out the night before.

We ate the leftover fruit for breakfast. Roasted pineapple was a big hit.

Past the sunsrise the morning view was pretty murky.

And just like i learned in boy scouts my bag was a whole foot and a half off the ground. You know, for the bears.

(I was never in boy scouts)

Our walk back was really nice, all down hill, and we brought the blue skies with us. If we´d have been going uphill i would have had to take off my sweatshirt, but we weren´t and it was just right. We passed plenty of curious Itzapans on their way to work. We wondered what they thought of the groggy, dirty gringos.

Unfortunately we returned to a padlocked door, something none of us other than Palo had experienced. I was flabbergasted. Mostly becuase i really, really, needed to use the facilities.

Waiting was not an option.

I didn´t realze how much i looked like spiderman until i saw these photos. Ah, childhood dream fulfilled.