This week my group traveled to Nebaj,¨the southern gateway to the Ixil region¨ and hub of the Ixil triangle. This is the farthest from home I´ve felt since leaving for Guatemala. Aside from literally being a good 6 hours from Antigua on oftentimes harrowing dirt roads, the prevelence of the indiginous Mayan language native to this town, Ixil, makes it a gateway to another world for outsiders. Gringos are much less common in this less traveled tregion, and kids in the street often giggle in response to us. Spanish is the second language of this region, and for many of the older generation, Spanish isn´t spoken at all.
 
So in terms of communicating, I´m back to square one.
 
I´m being a little dramatic – its not as if Spanish is useless here, as the majority of people speak a good amount, if not fluently. But the majority of conversations, even around us Spanish speakers during organization meetings, are in Ixil, a language sprinkled with sounds and halts in speech that would make any beatboxer jealous. Plus,  knowing that I need to worry about getting accross what I want to say in my second language to someone else understanding in their own second language can add a little more intimidation to the mix.
 
To help us out, Soluciones Comunitarias hooked the entire group up with a two hour Ixil class. I fantasized about being able to talk to Mayan Emporers, but we were reminded that Ixil is only one of more than 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala – so regardless of how hard we study, there´s still will be some major disconnect.  Only 70,000 people still speak this Mayan variant, and my host mother here mentioned how it was dying out among the younger generation, who goes to school to take classes only in Spanish as mandated by the government.
 
To do my part in preserving this cultural gem, I´ve decided to post some key Ixil words and phrases for extranjero use, all in Ixil spelling. Also included is a pronunciation guide – but be warned, the rubric for pronunciation is nowhere near scientific. You´ll see what I mean below, and I´m sorry in advance.
 
B – b alone has no sound, like a h in spanish
B´- make a soft bop noise bay closing your lips and blowing
Xh – sounds like the english ¨sh¨
Q´- a short, throatal ¨k¨ of sharp ¨ch¨ sound separated from the next syllable
Ch´- A sounjd I can only describe like this: ¨tchi¨ (but with a short i and emphasis on the consonants)
X´- make a chic sound, but cut t off your breath. Think beat boxing.
´ – any time you see this, cut off your breath, and quickly.
All vowels – Spanish pronunciation. All short vowels.
 
Hello – Ka che´
How are you – Kam tolelaxh
I´m well – B´an kuxhin
Please – B´anvanil
Shut up – Chiatz´ii
Thank you – Tantixh
I love you – Nun saaxh
I don´t love you, I hate you – ye nun saaxh ni chian vama se
And the most important: Marcos – Kuxh
 
I always knew I had a spiritual connection to that 90´s fad

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Two weeks ago, I stumbled upon this monument within the sprawling labyrinth of winding alleys and pastel-colored graves in the general cemetery of Quetzaltenango. When I rediscovered the photo again an hour ago in the wee hours of July 4th, I was taken aback by the patriotism behind its words.

But these are the words of Guatemalans, not Americans. Memorialized in Xela, not Arlington.

Quick research revealed that the epitaph remembers those who fought in an 1898 revolution against the forces of General José María Reina Barrios, who had dissolved congress with the tyrannical intention of remaining in power beyond the mandate granted by the 1892 presidential elections. They died for the democratic ideal.

The inscription holds poignant significance  for both a country still healing from a 30 year civil conflict and a misplaced Yankee missing fireworks back home.

For my entire life, I’d been under the impression that broccoli appeared on my plate magically. Due to some reason born from a profound ignorance of all things Earth inherent to my suburban East Coast upbringing, I’d never considered it in its natural state.

 

My naïve worldview was destroyed when my host father came home with real, fresh-from-the-ground broccoli plants. They blew my mind. They had leaves! Just like everything else! I’m not sure I can believe that these bizarre, extraterrestrial plants actually grow in cultivated fields just like any other veggie my mother had to force down my throat as a child. However, I do have a promise to go out to the family’s fields within the next few weeks to confirm what I’ve just seen. Until then, I’ll be holding on to my conspiracy theories.

 

Here’s a look at the goods:

 

At eleven thirty PM three crazy gringos awoke from a carefully planned nap and packed every possible long-sleeved layer of clothing into daypacks. Considering we had originally assumed the weather in Guatemala to be appropriate of a blistering summer next to the equator – whereas it’s actually the rainy season, the one Guatemaltecos call winter – it did not take long for us to realize we were woefully unprepared. Six liters of water, six bananas, three bandanas and a pound of granola later, we were as set as we ever would be to conquer Santa Maria.

Conquer would prove to be a very relative term.

At twelve fifteen AM we piled into a van to take us to the peak’s base. Inside, we met our guide Carlos. Carlos is the man. No more than five foot five, he embodies the stereotypical Guatemalan – short in stature, long in character and wit, with a classic mullet to boot. Also, the man could climb a mountain like a goat. He was born to do it. On the volcano, he kept a brisk pace that had all of us, other than the triathlete among us, gasping for breath like chain-smokers in the thinning air. Carlos said he was making up for his last ascent, during which eight Dutch women had bored him with their sluggish eight hour pace. I cursed their country all the way up.

At four thirty AM we were literally on top of the world. One problem: we couldn’t see anything in the pitch black of the early morning. Carlos’ backbreaking pace doomed us to an hour of stagnancy and absolute vulnerability to the type of wind and cold that would make a northeastern winter proud.

When the sun finally lent some rays an hour later, we finally had evidence that 12,300 feet stood between us and the ground. Santa Maria’s massive shadow was perhaps the most impressive, stretching well into the opposite horizon, dominating the landscape at our feet like nothing we had ever seen. Another lesser volcano blew its top thousands of feet below. Mentally and physically validated, we tried to soak it all in. But there were too many colors and too many peaks. Before we could put it all together, we were ready to rumble. It was all just another day’s work.

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.

Before arriving to Guatemala, due to stints in various Spanish-speaking countries during the past five years, my Spanish was a mildly proficient jumble of Gringo, Sevillan lisp, Argentine “J’s”, and Dominican slang. To even wish to be respected here, I’ve had to quit the impossible charade of being from all these countries at once, and embark on a mission to speak some pure Español Guatemalteco. The Spanish here is really pleasant – clearly expressed, reasonably paced, limited accent and all words intact – and I haven’t been able to get away with slurring my words like some punk out of a Reggaeton video. My host father insists that I’m becoming more Guatemalan, or “Chapín” (pronounced chap-een) – a descriptive term that reflects both identity as a Guatemalan National and the inherent pride in the country that exudes from almost anyone you meet here – by day as I learn the local lingo and break my bad lingual habits.

 

The fruition of this process is a long time coming, but I’ve already begun to pin down some aspects of the country that are central to this transformation beyond learning the vernacular. Here’s the first entry in a long list of things distinctly Guatemalan that one must experience before ever hoping to become a full-fledged “Chapin” that I plan on adding to throughout the summer:

 

1. Chicken Buses
Simply put, you haven’t come close to experiencing Guatemala if you haven’t been crammed between two villagers on a seat meant for one and a half normal sized people, holding on for dear life in a ridiculously painted American school bus careening through rollercoaster mountain passes at 60 mph. These unbelievable machines are often the single link for the poorer population between the larger cities and surrounding rural areas. Every ride promises a new outrageous experience. With little to no regard for human life, the engine fires up before you’re fully on board. Shrewd money collectors pull absurd, real-life Spider Man moves to climb from the front side door, over the roof of the bus, and down back in through the back door at full speed. With a soundtrack of legendary music blaring – remixes of MJ’s Billy Jean included – and “Dios es Amor” signs in abundance next to scantily clad pinups, this ride is fully pimped and primed to change the life of any gringo.

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.