Caridad's Entry #6

"A Day in the Guate-Life"

Saturday, March 13, 2004

My alarm goes off well before sunrise. 4:30 a.m. always comes too soon no matter how early I go to bed. But up and at ‘em, even though my work doesn’t officially start until 9 a.m. If I don’t get up now I could still make it to my class with time to spare, but I’d have to hitchhike, since today there’s only one bus to the tiny village of Sicnup. Hitchhiking is common and relatively safe here, but it means I’d probably have to ride with chickens (dead and alive) stuffed in baskets in the back of a pickup on an unpaved road. I’m not really into that, especially when the air hasn’t been warmed by the sun yet and I’m only 30 percent awake. So, yes, getting out of bed at 4:30 is absolutely worth it today.

I throw a big flowy skirt over my fleece pants, along a sweater and a skicap. I’ll be down to my t-shirt in a few hours, but before the sun comes up I need a few good layers. I take my backpack and trudge up the street to the bus stop. This “city street” is more like the Lewiston Grade, and I have to climb it almost every time I leave the house. My calves are tough as nails! I cop a squat on a cement block next to Parque Central (which is much smaller than its name implies). A few other people are waiting for the bus with who-knows-what bundled in bright woven cloths. Most of the bundles are bigger than a healthy toddler, but the Guate-hobbits have no trouble with the load.

The bus (aka minivan) arrives a little after 5 and fills up way too quickly. There are probably a few chickens in here too. I’m lucky to get a seat of any kind. One buttcheek is planted on the edge of a fold-out seat. The rest of me hangs in the 6 inches next to the sliding door. I actually a little comfortable. At least the van is heated. I try to sleep a bit while ranchero music drones on the radio. Six months in this country and every one of those ranchero songs still sounds exactly the same to me. I wonder if I’ll miss it some day.

It’s still dark when I come to my stop at 6. I have to wait for one of my students to arrive, since a 40-minute walk in the highlands is not something a gringa should do alone. I make the best of my situation—another nap! I find another cement block to sit on, pull my skicap over my face and use my backpack as a pillow until the sun peeps through. I lift my skicap and find a sight better than any painting. The mountains are purple in the dawn, and they stretch forever. Like soft ocean waves. This view is available every day, lucky me.

Rosario, a friend from the church in Sicnup, shows up at 7. “Hola, mi hermano! Que tal?” is my greeting, which literally means, “Hey, my brotha! What’s up?” All we’re missing is hip-hop and a happenin’ hand shake. But Rosario doesn’t know this. We head for the road to Sicnup, which will probably be under construction until my grandchildren graduate from college. It’s mostly undulating dirt and rocks, but two 100-foot sections have been paved. By hand. If anyone ever wants to leave this place, they usually walk or take a horse. “How many people live in Sicnup?” I ask Rosario. “Oh, lots. Maybe 250,” he says.

We arrive in Sicnup 40 minutes later and I sit in the now sunny grass and collect my notes for today’s lesson. Today we’ll discuss diarrea, or the sit-downs as Guatemalans call it. Amazingly, students show up early. Other than daily chores and a church service, my class is today’s main excitement. A young woman named Maria brings me a breakfast of beans, eggs and tortillas (again!). Her traditional blouse is hand-stitched with beads and intricate flowers. She tells me she wants to learn English because her husband is working in Georgia. They were married two years ago, and he’s been gone for a year. They have a daughter, who will be four by the time he returns home. Talk about patience.

My students are varied in education, from the whiz-kid 7-year-old to the illiterate 40-year-old mother. Everyone is a little shy, but they’re getting used to me. They have a good laugh when I tell them we’re going to talk about poop in church. I put the lesson on an old chalkboard, using as few words as possible since it’s easy for them to spend half the morning copying notes.

I spend a good portion of the class explaining why we become dehydrated when we have the “sit downs.” When the bad little animals enter your stomach, your body goes to war, I say. Water from all parts of your body goes to your stomach so the animals will leave. The water and the little animals come out in vomit and poop. The war continues, and water keeps leaving your body. Pretty soon, you’re like a flower without rain. You’re all weak and dried up. So you have to eat little meals of soft food, fruit and veggies until you’re strong again.

They get it after a half hour. I hope to God my explanation is accurate. At least now they know that diarrhea isn’t caused by sin or the cold.

After the poop talk is our English lesson. We only meet every other week, but the little I can teach is sticking. We start the lesson with a simple chorus I learned in the US: “Holy, you are holy. King of kings, lord of lords, you are holy.” They sing with mucho gusto in English and Spanish, and the little church is filled with a sense of WOW. Their voices are angelic, for lack of a better word. I think the word “holy” is one of my favorites, especially when I hear it in their sweet, careful accents. Shy as they are, they agree to sing this song with me at a revival in Sicnup this month. We are all quietly super-excited. 

We end the lesson at 12:30, and I go to the latrine to get rid of my sweats. Now it’s sunscreen weather. Back at the church I eat a lunch of rice, eggs and tortillas (viva variety!) before hitting the trail with Andres, a little boy with a big cowboy hat and a huge smile. Andres is incredibly gentle and perceptive, and laughs easily. The walk is long, hot and steep—enough to make a Guatemalan sweat. But we hardly notice this as we trudge along, swapping English and K’anjob’al lessons. Every few minutes we laugh at our ridiculous accents. Suddenly he stops and points to a house at the top of a mammoth hill covered in trees. “There’s my house,” he says. He came all the way down just for my class. I am humbled.

Andres is timeless. He’s 14, but looks nine. He jokes like a 20-year-old, but carries the grace of a man with grandchildren. He says he’s finishing the 6th grade in Sicnup and wants to continue studying in San Juan Ixcoy next year. My heart does a little dance. He won’t get lost in these mountains! Maybe he’ll be able to start his own business or go to college some day. At the very least, he knows his mind is worth more than his machete. I love this kid.

I hop another microbus at the end of the road. This time only half of one buttcheek is seated. There are eight people squashed inside a narrow five-foot space. Four people get off and the bus is still full to capacity. Insurance restrictions aren’t a big deal here. The ranchero music is the same as always.

I arrive home at 3 p.m.—it’s already been a very long day. The kids I live with are playing basketball in the dirt road. They score points by throwing their flimsy plastic ball over the electricity lines. They don’t score very often. I head upstairs, where my host-sister Herminda is cleaning and her husband, Felipe is talking about politics. She is working hard and he is talking about heavy subjects, but there’s a lightness in the conversation.

Herminda fills a plastic basket with semi-cooked corn and I take it down to the pila, the cement sink where we wash everything in the house. I dump water on the kernels and start to scrubbin’. It feels like I’m playing in a mountain of marbles. After all the gunk is washed off, I pour the corn into a plastic bowl and cover it with a bright red cloth. I’m careful to collect any kernels that fall out of the bowl. Corn is life for the Maya. They believe wasting it is a sin, and I can’t say I disagree. I eat at least 12 tortillas every day, and I’m just a gringa.

Maria, who’s 10, comes with me to the molino. Here we pour the corn with water into a funky old machine that turns it into masa, tortilla dough. I collect our masa from the loud machine and Maria jokes that I’m their servant imported from the United States. We pay the equivalent of 4 US cents and take home enough dough for at least 100 tortillas.

Maria talks about the basketball game she played yesterday, how a boy’s pants fell down on the court, and how her team won against the mean girls at school. I grin and listen as I carefully place the masa bowl on my head. I have to use one hand to keep it from falling in the dirt—how do the women here can carry their whole lives on their heads? Maria gives me a loving look and wraps her arms around my waist as we walk.

I’ve never had a little sister before. I’ve never lived with sheep, pigs, passed out drunks, a river and school buses all on the same street. I’ve never known corn so intimately. I’ve never tried to live in three languages at once. This is my life, at least for a few more months. It’s all so weird, but I finally feel normal in it. I feel surprised and relieved by this. But mostly, I’m grateful.