EMAIL 2: September 9
Jungle Party Hostel, Santiago, and Mayan Weavers
Thanks for all of your lovely emails and words of encouragement in the past seven days! I cannot express to you how much your emails meant to me. It made my few trips to the internet very enjoyable. It would be sad to spend money to go the internet if I did not have any mail to read.
First and foremost, I can't believe it has only been one week since I have left Florida. To be quite honest, it has seemed much longer than that. This has been an extremely long week and I am glad that is the weekend again. I can only assume that the first week is the hardest and longest of the next 52 weeks. Although I was not sad at the airport to leave, homesickness set in the last few days in Antigua as I try to figure out exactly what I want to come out of this fellowship and what are my realistic expectations.
I arrived on Friday evening to Antigua two and half hours later than I had anticipated because my shuttle never picked me up at the airport! I was able to use a different shuttle company at the airport to take me to Antigua but I was going to have to wait another hour. Then all of a sudden, the agent told me that the shuttle would be back in 20 minutes to pick me up and the fare was half price his original cost. I was completely confused- but obviously took the ride. The shuttle arrived 30 minutes later and to my disbelief the passengers who were on my flight that the shuttle took from the airport to Antigua almost an hour earlier were still in the van. What happened was that the shuttle was stuck in city traffic and turned around to pick me up. I felt terrible for the others in the van, but at the same time still quite thankful for the ride.
At nine o'clock, I arrived to the Jungle Party Hostel. (It was just that- a jungle party). I was more than two hours late to meet my cousin and the other Peace Corps Volunteers, so I decided I should just go to bed since I had no way of finding them at night. In addition to being late, I also came to the realization that I spoke too soon about my packing skills in my last email. It turns out that I have way to much stuff to actually carry like a normal person. (My duffle bag had already started to tear and fall apart). When I walked into the hostel I must have appeared disheveled and confused. An Australian backpacker came up to me and offered to carry my bags because he "felt bad watching me struggle." The Australian, named Stuart, and three other guys turned out to be my roommates for the weekend.
Saturday morning I woke up late and went to track down Erin and other Peace Corps people. I walked all around town confused. I could not find the Parque Central, which should not have been so difficult because I have been to Antigua before and it is the center of the city, but I was too stubborn to ask for directions. In the end, I found it and all of the Belize Peace Corps folks in the park. (It turned out that I was confusing Avenue and Street all morning).
It was so nice to see a friendly face and meet the other volunteers and spend time with them for the weekend. It definitely made my transition away from U.S. much easier. Throughout the weekend, we went shopping, watching the movie "Frida," went out to dinner, etc. The Peace Corps volunteers were heaven and paradise in Antigua. I had the wrong impression of life in Belize and Peace Corps Training. As I said in my last email, we were suppose to hike up Volcan Pacaya, but it turned out that the P.C. Volunteers were not allowed too. Instead, they decided to go to a spa. At first, I did not think I deserved a massage and sauna on my second day abroad (like the Peace Corps Vols), but the package was for two people and I couldn't not let Erin pamper herself. It turned out to be quite nice and affordable.
Antigua is a wonderful city full of rich history and plenty of tourists. It was built in 1523 and it was the capital of Guatemala for 233 years. You can tell how different it is from the rest of Guatemala because it clearly has more money and it has been influenced greatly by commercialization and western culture. For instance, it is not uncommon to see most locals wearing designer jeans and clothing and U.S. labels. (Some dress better than most backpackers).
On Monday, it was time to actually "start" my travels and head to Santiago-Atitlan. Stuart and I took a van (cramped with 9 other people and luggage) to Panachal. From Pana, I had to take a boat across Lake Atitlan to Santiago Atitlan. I was worried that I would have to carry all of my stuff down to the docks, but fortunately a man that worked at the boat (or la launcha) helped me.
The launchero told me that I had to take a private boat to Santiago instead of the public one because of where I was going in Santiago. (The public boat costs roughly $3 and it takes an hour and the private boat takes 20 minutes but costs $35). I agreed to take the private boat because I didn't know any better and I wanted to make it to Co'joyla. (This is only one example of the numerous times I have been "ripped off" as a tourist. I hope to become a little more assertive in the future.)
It turns out that I could have taken the public boat. My boat took me to a private dock of someone's house. We carried all of my stuff up a narrow path up hill through the bushes to the Director of Co'joyla's house. This is not where I wanted to go! We left my stuff there and then walked back down to the boat. We drove to the public dock access and then dropped me off (along with the other 3 people that I clearly paid for as well).
A local Santiago boy attempted to direct me towards the Association, but he had no idea where it was. I showed him on paper the name of Association and he replied by saying "he did not know how to read." He was thirteen years old. Illiteracy is a common reality for most of the people in Santiago.
When I finally arrived to Co'joyla, Candis (the director) was not expecting me. She came up and greeted me as "Lauren." She was confused and thought a British couple was coming. I had to reintroduce myself and the project. This was my first feeling that I might not have the right expectations of what I'll be doing in Santiago. I also met Lesley, a Canadian intern who is working for Ayudamos Foundation. (They have partnered with Co'joyla).
On Monday night, I met my host family and Lisa, an Irish volunteer, who is also staying with Francisco and Argentina. I could not be happier with my host family and the set up. They are very active in the community and everyone knows them. I am fortunate enough to have my own room, good food, hot showers, and friendly host parents.
I spent Tuesday and Wednesday learning about the Association and the Santiago culture. There is a lot of need here in Santiago . Although it is surrounded by 4 volcanoes and it sits on a beautiful lake, there is a lot of poverty among Santiago's 35,000 inhabitants. Almost all of the natives here speak Tzutujil, a Mayan language that is very different from Spanish. 80% of women here do not speak Spanish because they have not been educated. Most of the men speak Spanish because they had to learn Spanish during the Civil War which ended in 1996. Furthermore, Santiago was home to a lot of the civil war violence. Many guerillas were trained here and there was large military presence in Santiago. Santiago received international media attention when 10 people were killed in the Massacre of Santiago in 1990 at the height of the civil war.
Traditional back-strap looming is also an important tradition that many of the local women do. Generally, textiles and weaving are their only means of income. And in many cases, the weavers at the Association are the primary sources of income for their families. Girls at a young age learn how to warp and weave. It is not uncommon for 11 year old girls to provide a supplemental income for their families. The items made at the Association are all hand-made by 50 local weavers on their own time and the items are sold at almost US prices here to tourists or they are shipped to the US to be sold at trunk shows.
Tourism is common in Santiago which makes my experience so far all the more interesting. In the last few days, a part of me wants to run up and talk to all of the tourists to latch on to a piece of home. However, despite Santiago being the second largest destination for tourists after Panachel, most only stay for a few hours and rarely invest in the local economy. One local man said that US tourists have declined since 9/11 and for example, he has not sold any of his artisan products in the last two months.
To briefly wrap up (because I know this quite long), I'd like to express some of the challenges that I have experienced in the last few days which only sparked homesickness. At home or school, I always have a schedule and something to do to fill the time in a day. Whereas here, I am not actually working and don't actually have something to do. A part of me feels like I should be doing "fellowship" or volunteer work everyday as a full-time job, and the other half is trying to realize that down time is okay. Moreover, I have realized that I am not needed as a volunteer at Co'joyla. The reason why I was invited to visit was to learn about weaving and economic development and to observe Ayudamos and their housing projects. I am hoping to meet other organizations in the community (or outside Santiago) as well as identify volunteer work for myself.
I hope in the upcoming weeks here in Guatemala, I have the opportunities to explore some other programs as well as really grasp how I want my year abroad to take course. I want to learn the balance between "feeling like I should be doing something" and personal time and free travel.
Thanks again for all of the support and keep the emails coming!!! Have a wonderful weekend.
PS: It does not look like I will be purchasing a cell phone because it will not work all over Latin America. So, email will be the primary source of communication.