Introductions


Just two more weeks and then it will finally be my turn.

Two weeks from today will be my first day as a student in Paris. Well, “student” may be a bit too optimistic of a term considering that, for at least the first few days, I won’t be studying much of anything except a map in furious hope that I don’t get too terribly lost.

“But why would you be nervous?” My friends ask. “You’ve been to Paris before.”

Yes, that’s true. My first visit to Paris was at age 11, when my appreciation for the culture of the place was about what you would expect. My fondest memories are of eating ice cream and of running rampant in the backyard of a chateau with the other fifth graders.

My second trip to Paris was at age 17, when I began to better appreciate just what was so special about the city. But even then I was just a visitor passing through: sleeping in a hotel, hitting the tourist hot-spots, not particularly aware of how it would have felt to actually live there.

This time it’s going to be different. Paris is going to be my home for almost four months, a thought which both excites and terrifies me.

What if, after 21 years of living in the American South, I’m not suited for Parisian life? What if my French really sucks and my host family thinks I’m stupid?

I’ve got two more weeks until I fly across the Atlantic and find out.

Until then, I’ll be sitting at home, waiting for Paris.

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I arrived in Quito, Ecuador last night, and my head has pounded since I woke up this morning. Apparently, Quito is the second-highest capital city in the world, and I’m paying for it. The altitude is a quiet, humbling, and spiteful predator that preys on any tourist unaccustomed to living 10,000 feet in the air. Aside from its ability to produce a brain-splitting headache, it can reduce even the fittest of athletes, of which I am nowhere near, to a sputtering, out-of-breath asthmatic, and it only takes walking up some stairs to feel its power.

But Quito is too damn gorgeous to despise for a second, even in my bitter state. The views from any point in the city are jaw-dropping: impressive mountains that surround the city and a deep blue equatorial sky cast a stunning backdrop to its tallest buildings. Within a week, I should be adjusted to the altitude, but I hope to never get adjusted to walking outside without being overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this place.

I got into Vancouver yesterday evening.  My luggage did not, but the airline gave me a pretty substantial care package:  toothbrush, toothpaste, condom.  So yeah, that should keep me pretty much set for the next month.

Things of note:
1.  Gas is $1.42 here.
2.  This is for liters, not gallons.  Oops.
3.  There is a baby beluga in the Vancouver aquarium.
4.  Two blocks from the couch I’m sleeping on is a store that sells nothing but cupcakes.

This morning, I headed to the University of British Columbia to help Harry out with inventory.  Harry is a cool guy who (from what I gathered) is writing a textbook on how to build underwater robots.

A lot of people working with the Pavilion Lake project are faculty or grad students at UBC, so a bunch of our stuff is in the  Civil Engineering school here.  We were basically working in an enormous garage, fondly called the Rusty Hut, which houses a hydraulics lab.  There are hundreds of items that have to be inventoried … everything from giant buoys to secchi disks to AAA batteries.  I keep being amazed by how huge an undertaking this project is.  (Not to mention expensive.  The daily rental price for the submarines?  YOWZA!)

Also today we sliced up and shackled some really big chains (sparks flying everywhere!  wooo power tools!!).  They’re going to be attached to the two-ton blocks of cement which will serve as the anchors for the barge.  The barge is what the subs will be launched from, and apparently the barge is so big that we’ve arranged to block off a highway to get everything up to Pavilion Lake.

Obviously a lot of “real science” involves tedious tasks like inventories.  But inside the Rusty Hut is exactly how I pictured Science when I was a third grader: gigantic pipes and copper coils and even a door labeled with nothing but DANGER LASERS.

Until now I’ve balked at the task of describing my host family and the relationship that has developed in our short time together. The phenomenon that occurred over two weeks – something of a fledgling love affair between an American college kid craving for a cultural connection and a family of four that knows little outside of the pueblo that has borne generations of its ancestors – is tough to believe, never mind to describe.

 

The situation was ideal. My previous knowledge of Spanish facilitated the transition from awkward lodger to embraced family member, but all credit must go to the Bautista Garcias. Social Entrepreneur Corps thrust me into the perfect home.

 

I knew it from the moment I arrived. Wilmer Enrique and Vilfred Obed, 10 and 8, frantically rushed to the door. Their father Luis quickly followed, wide smile and outreached hand at the ready, urging his two panting children to allow me in. Their mother Yolanda followed behind, quiet at this first introduction, but wearing an electric smile that demonstrated my welcome into her home more than any words could ever offer.

 

The first day there my Spanish failed me. Over dinner I couldn’t come close to demonstrating my appreciation for their generosity and honesty and infectious warmth in my second language. I am still struggling. My Spanish has steadily improved, but the extent to which they opened both their home and their hearts to a foreign stranger overwhelms me from the minute I awake each morning. I’m worried that my grasp for the language will never be sufficient to portray my gratitude.

 

“Con confianza” my host father kept repeating that first day, and throughout my first week in his home. “In confidence”. I had asked about the rules of the house, but found that there were none. Everything they owned was also mine, in confidence. No phrase better captures the quality, the “calidad”, of these people. Ever trusting, ever affectionate, ever selfless, ever generous. I did nothing to gain that first investment of faith. I am still vying to justly earn it.

 

The two previous host families I´d lived with in Sevilla and Buenos Aires were comprised of single mothers and children over 27. The stable presence of an amicable father and two younger children with whom to play futbol is an entirely new and invigorating experience.

 

This is a family in full bloom. There is no natural role for me to fill. Yet still, this family let this spoiled gringo into their home, the one they built with their own hands; in an offhand comment to a cousin just a week into my trip, Wilmer referred to me as his brother. Big brother, just like home, suits me fine.

I took a full week to digest my new environment before attempting to write anything about Guatemala. Even aside the fact that the internet is an excursion every time and that I’ve been busy almost every waking second since arriving, I felt that my initial assimilation would be muddied by any internet exposure. Selfish, I know, but I wanted to completely cut myself off for the first few days in order to observe everything in isolation and find out exactly what I’m here for before trying to delineate anything in print.

So here’s a bare bones introduction –

For the next month and a half, I’ll be one of 26 interns working for Social Entrepreneur Corps, which creates the opportunity for college students to immerse in Guatemalan culture while simultaneously supplementing the numerous social entrepreneurship ventures of Soluciones Comunitarias, a Guatemalan NGO founded by two ex-Peace Corps volunteers.

The basic premise of our future Guatemalan endeavors: ¨Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.¨

For the first two weeks, the interns participate in a two week orientation in Antigua to equip us with cultural, lingual and business knowledge to prepare us for the field. We’ve been kept busy by Spanish tutoring in the mornings, and lectures and discussions concerning the MicroConsignment model employed by the parent organization in its various ventures during the afternoons.

During our time in Antigua, we all live with host families in small pueblos outside of Antigua. Each night spent with the family, trying out the language and Guatemalan dishes on for size. I am living in Magdalena with the Garcia Bautistas, with two unbelievably affectionate parents and 8 and 10 year old brothers who never stop moving.

I adore them.

Much, much more on them in later posts.


Next Monday we embark on the next phase of the program. The students will be split into four groups, and each will travel separately to the Guatemalan pueblos of Xela (Quetzaltenango), Sololá, Cobán, and Nebaj for six-day, rotating stints. During our time at each site we will be conducting feasibility studies for products and services to create healthcare solutions, and design and implement social entrepreneurship ventures for vulnerable rural populations. I’m pumped.

That just about covers where I am as I understand it. This will definitely be my most formal and impersonal post, and hopefully the last of its kind. I figure that context is never such a bad thing. Especially when I used the last few paragraphs to convince myself that I’m here.

Griselda welcomed Mario and the rest of the group into a meeting room of the size of a large classroom that would serve a class of thirty. That was the front part of her house where she holds the meetings of her organization every Saturday at 3:00 pm. The more than modest house is a building that she built with her own hands, a clear representation of Griselda’s enthusiasm and perseverance.

As we start talking to her we can notice the happiness to receive us and the simplicity of her words. “My friends come to ask me ‘Griselda, where can we go for a meal?’. I tell them that we will find a place. I ask them to be patient. Then we go together and ask in the grocery store to give us whatever they can help us with. Sometimes we also go to the municipality to ask for goodies. We are never sure whether we will find a place to eat the next day.”

Griselda, as several hundred thousand Peruvians, settled in the suburbs of Lima escaping from the insecurity created in the country side by terrorist groups like “Shining Path”; and searching for a better quality of life in the big grey city. The places that the immigrants found were hills of sand in the middle of a semi-dessert, without access to water or electricity. Little by little, the new residents like Griselda were creating communities that soon new became districts of the metropolitan Lima. Districts like Ano Nuevo, where Griselda lives, struggled to get recognition and assistance from the central government and now we can observe streets with pavement and some public places like plazas and soccer fields. Nonetheless, poverty is still a great part of the reality of its inhabitants.