Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On Being Sick

I often times feel more alive in the third world. Without the comforts of the U.S., life is more raw and rugged. My body and mind are challenged to deal with the daily necessities of being human. These challenges force me to do and think things that are founded on new lengths of myself. Perhaps I am constructing the path as I go; or, more likely, I am using extensions of myself that existed but before were never reached. This latter idea—that we have undiscovered foundations, multiple strengths and traits—is why the challenge is such a thrill. The ruggedness of the third world is bursting with life, forcing you to confront your every emotion, from ecstasy to fear. Somehow it is bewilderingly romantic.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of facing a challenge: being sick in the third world. Saturday morning after our hike up the mountain I started feeling queasy, but it wasn’t until after our three-hour trip to the village of Majadas, an hour presentation about myself and my work, a greasy meal of beans and eggs eaten with our hands, and the three-hour trip back to San Pablo that I started vomiting. My body was sick of going up and down while still trying to adapt to a new climate, new food, and a new schedule.

All I wanted was a clean tiled bathroom floor and a plush bathroom mat. Well, that, along with a clean toilet, ginger ale, indoor heating, saltines, Jell-O, television, comfortable pillows, a bath, and English. I didn’t think I was going to survive the comfort food of Guatemala, but I did. I didn’t think I was going to survive walking down the stairs and outside into the cold and dark every time I needed to use the toilet, but I did. I didn’t think I would last through the eyes peering down at me, whispering their advice and comments in Spanish, but I did.

I realize, though, that I brought to Guatemala an invaluable tool to help with these challenges. It is not something I have created myself or something that previously existed in my personality, but it is the best possible thing in my life. Ian. Perhaps it is he that builds these new planks for me to walk on, and perhaps it is he who long ago created these foundations of strength where he knew I would need the support.

Friday, January 27, 2006


We have now been here in San Pablo for eight days and it feels like months. I’ve been traveling each day to different communities to meet with jóvenes and people who have an interest in art workshops. Alex, my guide, and I start out at about 7:15 each morning, slowly making our way to the bus stop, 45 minutes uphill. We have regularly scheduled breaks at the different turns in the path and while I go through a full Nalgene of water a morning, trying to make up for the lack of oxygen, Alex breathes calmly and doesn’t take a sip of anything until his coffee at lunch.

From the bus stop I can overlook the surrounding communities and on the other side of the road the peak of the Tacaná Volcano invites one into the next set of valleys. The bus comes only once an hour, never on schedule, so sometimes we wait two minutes and other times we wait more than 60.

How I dread the chicken bus. Old recycled U.S. school buses—painted various outrageous colors and as rickety as can be—are called this because people actually bring their chickens with them. Yesterday a tired old woman carried a tired old rooster in a raggedy canvas bag upon her lap, as if it were a well-groomed poodle in a Gucci dog carrier. The dust is outrageous and flies into my eyes and mouth, the music is going to make us all deaf, and the roads might as well qualify as class-five rapids. On Wednesday, on the way to the village of Conlaj, Alex and I were sitting in the back of the bus when a foul smell and dark smoke started from below us. I asked him if we were going to explode. He shrugged and said moments later, lleva coraje, be brave.

The ride back from Conlaj is tricky. You can leave the town with public transport only twice in the afternoon, at 1:30 or 7. We missed these combis, but with luck we flagged down a truck making its way up to Tacaná. So had everyone else, it seemed. The truck was full of young students, and I held on tight to the rail with my right hand while my left attempted to keep me from falling into the young girls practicing their English and sending me furtive glances. When the raindrops started falling I felt content, somehow finding the breeze, the coldness, and the adventure comforting. Our transport to Linda Vista yesterday took an hour to show up, but even as we were crowding four people into the front I took pleasure in the fact that there was a roof over our heads.

Today I am not making any visits and the best part of this is there is no going anywhere, no hiking breathlessly uphill, no white-knuckling the seat in front of me. Instead, I sit in bed and look out our panoramic window over the mountains. All of the communities I will be working in are far away, between two to three hours, one-direction. It has been suggested a number of times that our residence should be in the city of Tacaná, closer to all of the locations. But as I glide back down the mountain each day, quickly watching my steps and feeling accomplished, I realize that I am anxious to get home. Somehow, I have fallen in love with San Pablo and its people, and I guess I’ll just have to put up with the transporte.


January 20, 2006

Blown away. We were blown away, we told them in English, unknowing of how to express our amazement in Spanish. Katharsis: a 5-person band of jóvenes, with songs they’ve written themselves, including a feminist one about the women killed in Ciudad Juárez a couple years ago. They played song after song as our jaws dropped lower and lower, tired from our long journey and in awe of their talents. They have an intense excitement about the world that is contagious, inspiring, and unprecedented.

Francisco, the director of programs at the IUCN, the umbrella organization for JEM, told us on the 2-1/2-hour drive here that these mountains aren’t places for people to be living. But San Pablo has done everything in its power to make this is a paradise nestled in the valleys and peaks that erode with human development and fall as landslides when hurricanes pass. Twenty years ago they started planting trees of all kinds and penned in their animals so they didn’t eat the seedlings, and they’ve been able to create what looks like the greenest mountainside from here to San Marcos. They have greenhouses for roses, tomatoes, and new arbolitos (small trees), organic compost trenches, and terraces for their crops. While Hurricane Stan passed by here this fall, creating a three-day period of fear and anxiety, no one in San Pablo was lost, and the way the boys describe it, the whole community went from house to house helping the elderly evacuate and collecting valuable items for the families to save. Landslides occurred on each side of the main plaza, on each side of many of the houses, but only and few houses, an animal pen, and a greenhouse were destroyed. They thank God (San Pablo is 99% Catholic) and they pray to the two-foot, cement-molded Virgen Mary that looks over them, set into a crevice of the rocky mountain above.

But the community isn’t successful just because of its environmental and religious philosophies (not all of which are universally practiced), but also because of the faith they have in their kids. The Instituto teaches 180 kids in the mornings and 100 in the afternoons, with grades all the way through high school. Cristian, our host, reads Nietszche and calls his family sentimental, with corazones de pollo, hearts of chickens. His father tells us that they created the Instituto for three reasons: to give their kids good values, to teach them how to be professionals, and to instill in them the spirit of volunteerism. The jóvenes here don’t only have values and the spirit of service, but also an intense passion to make art. Cristian said upon our arrival that when you are an artist you need to find an outlet, you need to find a way to get the thing out. They look to the future, with hopes of a virtual library, a philosophy school, and perhaps someday their own university.

Yesterday I spend the afternoon giving an informal drawing class to our guides for the day, Waner and Alex. They hung on my every comment, my every word. We basked in the yard, the colorful greenhouse, and in the bonsai garden, drawing flowers and grass and rocks. Earlier in the day they brought us around to meet some of the people and see the sights. A general store with art supplies that also functions as an ATM machine, a food store with a wide selection of veggies, a pharmacy, an internet café with 5 compus, a tailor, a Catholic church, soccer and basketball courts, and more. Everyone was so pleased to meet us and said it was an honor to have us and that we were now part of the family. On Thursday when we arrived and about 20 jóvenes met us in the plaza, each one spoke with a genuine kindness and sincerity about our arrival and his or her excitement. Some said they had been waiting months for the arrival of an artist; others, their whole lives.

Today I’m going to be meeting with a large part of JEM in the closest medium-sized city, Tacaná. They tell me there are 1,200 kids in the area that are part of JEM and 300 are very active, going to meetings every 15 days or so and involved in lots of activities. Here in San Pablo there are 100 jóvenes and about 40 that are very active. It is obvious that they want me to have an effect on all of them and that they are dying to become artists themselves. Cristian and I have talked a bit about planning and he seems open to my ideas about how we could possibly reach all these kids, and I think it’s going to be a great place, a lot of work, and a really altering experience.

Desde la Ciudad de Guatemala

January 16, 2006

Monday morning at 5:30 we hop in a taxi, decide the meter would be more economical than the $45 flat rate, and race off to JFK for our Taca flight to Guatemala City. Four blocks in our driver stops abruptly and hustles his way into a conversation with a man and his luggage heading to La Guardia. Thirty-dollars he hollers. Get in, get in! My 5:30 a.m. mood takes over and I lean over to tell him my opinion. This is my last taxi ride in the US, my last bit of private straightforward service. We pay for your time and gas and you bring us where we want to go. Easy. As I saw the quality yellow-cab service razed before my eyes I knew the trip had begun.

For those that might not know I am here in Guatemala for the next nine months working for ArtCorps, a program dedicated to changing the world through arts communication. Currently the three other artists (two of whom will work in Guatemala and one in El Salvador) and I are hanging out in Guatemala City, getting a feel for the place, for each other, and for our plans. I will be working with a youth group, Jóvenes en la Misión (JEM), which is a project under the wings of the World Conservation Union, a large international environmental organization. Ian and I will be living in San Pablo, a small mountain village of about 400 that sits a half hour’s walk from the closest marketplace/city and close to the Mexican border.

Cristian, a 23-year-old coordinator of the youth group, has been communicating with me since early November. His emails have been a support, an uplifting reminder of why I want to do ArtCorps—to give individual and collective voices to others through the power of making art. He is exactly what I expected, hesitant yet eager. He has hope and tells me that the most notable characteristic of the community is that it is visionary. What a difference their excitement makes in my own thinking. Blanca Estela—my local program coordinator here in Guatemala City—tells me that they are thrilled about my arrival and can’t wait to show me around the mountains and bring me to meet the jóvenes, all in different villages.

On fears: I stared off at the beige-colored wall in the lobby of the temp agency back in November and pondered my future together with the jóvenes. But things are always more perfect in the ideal circumstances of my daydreams. I expect it to be difficult. I am concerned I won’t be able to communicate the hidden subtleties that art demands and all will be lost from the beginning. My relationship with Spanish is still a budding one, learning to take root, and I must recognize that the first month will be challenging. I must find other ways to communicate the intricacies of our lives, by being more direct, or by using silence to guide us. But just by speaking some today and listening I am only concerned with my own expression, and that will come. My tongue jumps over words and skips to the point, leaving everyone lost and my idea incoherent. The other artists are all older and have lots of experience doing this kind of thing. I am the young married one—they must think I was too fearful to come by myself so I tied the knot for security reasons. Really, I look forward to learning more about them and sharing strategies and techniques. As one told us about the racism workshops and ancestral theater pieces she recently developed, I saw that I have so much to learn. So currently I am observing, feeling my way, and am confident, strong, and so proud of myself for hopping that Taca flight and coming down here.