01 December 2007

They say that when you live in a place long enough, it becomes part of you. When it comes to Guatemala, I can only hope so. This place meant a lot to me, on many levels, and now I'm headed back to the states to see my family for the first time in a year. I came here, for the most part, as a complete moron, in a culture I knew nothing about and a language I was just beginning to understand. But, after a while, I found myself drawn to everything about this country, finding things that reminded me of parts of myself that I had forgotten while I was in such a hurry to graduate from college, get a job and take myself seriously.

I threw all that away when I went all Hunter S. Thompson and moved to Central America.

This is my final Post-a-Card until my next trip. I look back on Guatemala and what I've posted here, and I see a lot on the highlights from this experience, the moments where I felt such freedom and happiness about quitting my job and leaving everything to come here. I left out the parts where I literally collasped under the weight of the decision I'd made.

But here's the thing.

I realize now that the most valuable thing I'm going to take from all of this -- minus the 12 bottles of hot sauce in buried in my luggage -- is this:

I will probably never chase after the white picket fence, so many of my friends are married and getting jobs, leaving old ones, buying property so they can settle down and find a place for themselves in this messed up world, and while I think it's great for them, it also freaks me out, it's a small part of why I left, I had no idea what I wanted or where I wanted to go. I never really found a place that felt like home for me. Some people might have gotten a shrink. I moved to Central America. And now I'm leaving, a lot poorer, a little smarter, less in sync with the English language than I'd care to admit, but feeling a whole lot better about where I'm headed after realizing this:

It doesn't matter.

Anything can happen at this point, and I'm really okay with that, mostly because I've decided that "home" is not the name of a city, it's not even the place where you were born or grew up, home is an idea, it is a place where you can be yourself, it is where you are most happy, surrounded by people and places and music and food and a life that you love.

And for a while, Guatemala was home for me.

18 November 2007

Yes, I'm still alive...

Okay, so I haven't posted in a while, and a Post-A-Card couldn't even cover half of what has happened in the past couple of weeks, so I've decided to delight, no ASTOUND, you with a small portion of the photos Lexey and Tristan took when they came down to visit. Tristan and I were reporting on a story and Lexey took time off from work to meet up with us last week. I've had a blast traveling through Central America, but it's also been difficult realizing that when you've been gone as long as I have, it's pretty easy to fall off the map. Friends don't write as much. Your inbox isn't as full as it used to be. Your name comes up and someone says "Oh yeah, I remember her, isn't she still in Mexico or something?"

Basically, in times like these, you find out who's got your back.

There's Talia Buford, my best friend in the entire world, a girl who paid international postage to send me my favorite candy from the states and wish me an early Happy Thanksgiving. And then there's Lex and Tristan. Both of them offered major support when I decided to come to Guatemala, and I felt so lucky to have them both here to help me finish up my trip. They also happen to be two of my favorite photographers ever and you can check out their photo blogs here and here.

Here's some random shots from our travels. Enjoy.

Lake Atitlan, where we spent most of our time after leaving Antigua, the city where I've been hanging out for the past four months.
Getting ready to catch a shuttle from Antigua to Panajachel, the city where the boats dock and take people across the lake. The story was in Santa Cruz, which is the only village on the lake that is located up in the mountains. We hiked 20 minutes everyday just to get to it.
Your basic reaction to what Guatemalans call "transportation." Just imagine being shoved in a van with 16 other people and the kind of ass-hurting that comes when driving 50 miles per hour on cobblestone streets and you get the picture.
Seriously just happy to be alive...

Less than ideal working conditions, but we made it work.

Lexey having another one of her "SERIOUSLY, THIS IS WHERE YOU'VE BEEN LIVING?!?" moments ... there were a lot of them.
Documentation of the exact moments Tristan and I realized we no longer have jobs...
WARNING: Traveling with photographers subjects you to being photographed AT ALL TIMES.
I don't know Karate, but I know CRAZY...

We helped the world A LOT during this trip.

When did you get your nose pierced???

Tristan heading back to D.C.

Why am I going back to the states again?

oh yeah.

02 November 2007

The Kite Runners...

Halloween was cool, but the real holiday came the next day, on November 1, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. We caught a chicken bus out to a small village outside Antigua and witnessed one of the most bizarre rituals I've ever seen in my entire life.Let's just say it involved a cemetary, a crowd of Guatemalans, and kites the size of school buses. People honor their dead by flying the kites over the graves, and the tails on the end of the massive structures are made up of pieces of cloth, they include the messages families send to loved ones who have passed on.

It was beautiful, even if it seemed a little morbid.

The graves provided pretty good leverage for the runners, who had to pull the strings and keep them up in the air. Tristan's best "Where the Hell Am I?" look.

31 October 2007

We do things a little differently here...

Okay, so Halloween managed to make it's way here thanks to the tourists, we didn't exactly have access to pumpkins, but my buddy Tristan got into town this week and we headed to the market and bought some produce to carve up. Sure, they're not exactly ... pretty, but you get the point and they made the dimly lit bar where I've been working for the past month a little more attractive ... sort of.

I only have about a month left here in Central America and even though I came here with every intention of experiencing how people really live in Guatemala, it was really cool to have a piece of home here. I passed out candy at the bar, Tristan somehow squeezed into a child's size 4 teenage mutant ninja turtle costume he found at the market, and a good time was had by all.

About 50 years ago, my parents were married on this holiday, it's always been my favorite, this year it didn't dissapoint.

Geovani rockin' his costume.
The closest thing to a pumpkin we could find.
Geovani and his brother taking a day off from working the streets to just be kids.

Roberto, aka, Britney Spears, or a really ugly prepubescent girl ... depending on how you look at it.

19 October 2007

I've already written about Geovani in past Post-a-Cards. he's a local kid who comes in every night and keeps me company while I work. Our agreement is a simple one. I give him free refills on glasses of "leche" and in return, he helps me entertain/make fun of the hundreds of tourists who pass through the Black Cat hostel. at some point we became friends and everybody pretty much knows that whenever I work, there's a spot at the bar reserved for Geovani, who poses for pictures and makes them laugh. Everyone who meets me, at some point or another, meets Geovani. There was Derek and Chris, the Marines from Texas who would give him their leftover pizza when they were done with it. There was Elad (pictured above) the Israeli who was startled to find out Geovani was smarter than him. There was Jim, the local guy who talked to Geovani for a while, bought chocolate from him, and then shoved him away when he got annoyed with him.

The kid is dressed better than most of the other beggars, and I swear sometimes it's like he's a 30-year-old stuck inside an 11-year-olds body, but for some weird reason I connected with him.

Last night my manager was watching while I poured Geovani a glass of milk and bought him a bottle of water to take home. I thought she was going to yell at me, that I'd get in trouble once she realized i'd been feeding this kid, and if we were to add up all the shots of "leche" I've given him, it would most likely sustain a small pueblo for a couple months, but she didn't.

She told me she knew the kid, knew where he lived, that he was one of like 16 kids and they had a really rough life, their mother suffers from some kind of mental disability.

People ask me about Geovani all the time, they can't tell if he's just another one of the beggars who roam through Antigua or if he's my little brother. The truth is, I've built somewhat of an extended family down here, and somewhere along the way Geovani became part of it.

I'm almost done working at the hostal, and I'll be leaving Guatemala in about a month, the other night it struck me how much I'm going to miss him.

Think Michelle Pfeiffer in dangerous minds ... Guatemalan style

It's been a while since I got kicked out of a classroom, I was always the loud kid, the one who laughed just a little bit too much ( I have hazy memories of telling one substitute she was two fries short of a happy meal) And here I'm 24 years old, getting kicked out of class again by my friend, Simon, who told me I was disrupting his "ninos" a little bit too much with my camera and it'd probably be best if I left so they could concentrate.

In this case, "the class" is a group of underpriveleged Guatemalan kids who go to this small ghetto school where my friend Simon has been volunteering as a teacher for the past week. There are no books, these kids barely have enough money to buy the cheap notebooks they scribble in. I asked Simon if I could tag along, he's been telling me about his "ninos" for a while and I was really curious about a school system that takes on traveling tourists as instructors, so desperate they are, they'll take on anyone, even if it's just for a few days.

Most of the people who travel through Antigua are tourists in their early twenties, people just looking for a good time that consists of getting drunk every night and stumbling back to the hostal where I work ( I swear to God if one more person asks me where they can get some cocaine I'm going to start selling blocks of talcum powder)... My point is, most of the tourists my age sleep until noon or so and then yell at the bar staff because breakfast is only served until 11 a.m. and nothing sounds better than a big greasy Guatemalan breakfast when you wake up at 1 p.m. and with a hangover.

Simon gets up every day at 7:30 to go spend four hours with these kids, and it blew me away. When the girl he was traveling with got bored and moved onto San Pedro, Simon stayed in Antigua because he had made a commitment to the school and his "ninos." Getting to know him and spending time at the school was one of the best parts of this trip, I mean, sure, I spent most of the time making fun of Simon's accent and telling Pedro, the kid in front row, all the answers on his test and Simon spent most of our time together yelling: "Woman, has anyone ever told you that you are CRAZY!!"

I told him yes, many, many times.

But we had each other's back the other night, when this drunk Guatemalan guy stumbled into the bar and asked Simon what he was doing in Latin America. Simon told him he was teaching at a local school and Mr. Drunk Guy essentially told him he was a piece of crap for spending only a week with these kids and then leaving. He told Simon that if he'd really wanted to make a difference he'd stay for a year, and then he pointed at the dinner Simon was eating and told him that the kids in his class could probably live for a week off of what the meal had cost.

I told him to shut up.

He started yelling, reminding me that this was his country and I was just a stupid gringa and I couldn't talk to him like that. I couldn't help but see there was a very visible line that had formed, the division between the white people who travel here and the Guatemalans who have grown up in this country hating us and our "priveleged" lives. It's division I've experienced one too many times. The drunk guy eventually bowed out, got into a fight when another guy who told him to leave me alone. I left the bar until they were gone. Simon had already stalked out, the drunk guy made him feel like crap about himself and what he was doing here. But the next morning, the drunk guy somewhere else sleeping off his hangover, and here was Simon, getting up at 7:30 to go spend the day with his "ninos."

I made sure he knew that I was really proud of him and that he should feel really good about himself and what he was trying to do here. I tried to remind him that guys (ladies, you too) say really stupid things when they're drunk and for the most part, people can only make you feel bad if you let them.

a nice shot of Pedro the "special" kid who sits in the back and tries to stay awake.

Simon, feeling good again.

24 September 2007

"Sometimes music is the only thing that makes sense, play it loud enough, it keeps the demons at bay."

I think we forget how important life is, how sometimes all we have to do is just sit back and take it all in and stop pummeling through it like we can't wait to get it over with. It's sad, because most of the time we only do this when we've reached our lowest points or we're really frustrated or tired or disappointed with how our lives are going.

What does this have to do with a drum corp of Guatemalans?

The past week was rough, composed of the kind of "My So Called Life" moments that make you just want to curl up in bed and shut out the world (let's just say there's been a lot of "journaling" lately) but this morning I heard this band outside my window and realized I hadn't taken any photos of the drum corps who walk through Antigua. I stopped feeling sorry for myself, grabbed my camera and ran down the street, and then I shot for about an hour, the drumming vibrating in my chest, the complete energy of everything hitting me straight on, the kids in the street stunned silent, proud mothers taking pictures of their kids and bringing them water in between sets. I watched a man take his abuelita by the hand and lead her across the street after the band passed by, both waiting to cross out of respect for the music, and then it struck me how happy I was to be alone, because I was so choked up I just sat there and stared, so grateful I got to see it.

I send photos home and I imagine what people see, what it's like to view Guatemala like I once did, as a poverty-stricken, war torn country with little to offer the people who live there.

I find myself wanting to use images to explain just how wrong I was, that these people are some of the richest people I have ever met, the love of life they carry is profound, something you couldn't buy even if you wanted to. I find myself wanting to soak up as much from them as I possibly can. What I saw today was the same drum corp that goes through the streets of Antigua every single week, and in the crowd I saw the same people I see everyday in the market, in bookstores, in cafes, but I took more away from just siiting their watching them through my camera lense then they will ever know or understand. The drum corp jam is like most things in life, at first it looks really hard, complicated, like something you could never do in a million years.

But then one day you pick up a snare drum, or one afternoon you rock out to a Stevie Wonder album, everyday gets easier and you learn a little bit more with each step, and pretty soon you're jamming right along with them.

What I saw today is going to stay with me for a while. It reminded me that what I'm going through or experiencing isn't all that important in the grand scheme, there are more important things in this world, there is life going on all around you, even when you don't take the time to stop and notice it.

20 September 2007

No phone? How about a conch shell and a mountain top

IMORONA, MADAGASCAR – Dear John, I’m writing by the flicker of candle light from a village called Imorona, where a group of farmers sell vanilla on the international market. When I arrived this morning, ass-chapped and sore from a jolting ride in the back of a pickup truck, I climbed a dirt staircase up a mountain to take a in the lay of the land. It is absolutely paradise here. A river snakes through the feet of mountains, leaving the lime-green patchwork of rice paddies in its path. The mountains are still covered, mostly, in dense forest. And the ocean is a kaleidoscope of blues. It is striking to me how untouched this place is, at least by outside influence. Last night, for example, word came to town that a tsunami had hit southeast Asia … and that the wave might be headed here. That news came from a concerned relative who drove here, several hours, on a motorcycle, just to deliver it. Once it arrived, a moderate panic set in. About 500 people, the mayor told me, assembled in the middle of the night on top of the mountain to assess the situation in sure safety from any rising water. The planning of that meeting is what’s particularly awesome. Did they call everyone on the telephone? Of course not, they don’t those. Did they interrupt the usual television programming? Nope, no electricity here. So an official climbed the mountain, high above the town, with a conch shell in hand. When he reached the peak, he blew hard into the foot of the shell: “OOOO-EEEEEE!!!!!” He let out a high-pitched call that all the town could hear. Everyone scampered up the mountain right away to see what was the matter.
In an interview today, the mayor imitated it for me. The shell is the “telephone Malagache,” he said. It’s so cool that places like this still exist. Love, John