Only one more day of Spanish lessons to go. Friday the school is going, en masse, to a local market, so I only have one more chance to learn correct grammar. This week, my teacher has been focusing on teaching me the polite way to say things, for example how you answer the question “do you like my new dress?” when you really think it’s ugly. This is the conditional form. It’s also handy when ordering in a restaurant or shop. He says it’s a way for me to get a quick and positive response. He’s also been teaching me other things that will make me sound really smart. Of course, I can’t remember what they are right now to explain them to you, so I’m not sure he’s been successful.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed my time here in Xela a great deal. I started to say more than last time, but it’s hard to compare the experiences. Two huge differences this time: 1) I know a lot more Spanish than I did two years ago and 2) We’re having a heat wave. I’m down to one layer of clothes for sleeping under the four blankets, sometimes just a T-shirt. I’m still glad I brought along my flannel sweats because I have used them most nights along with at least two shirts. The mornings are much more pleasant also when you can’t see the steam heating up the freezing cold bathroom.
My Spanish is so good now that I understood almost all of the conferencia – lecture/discussion – on the role of the Catholic Church in the counter-revolution, enough to add numerous editorial comments, but that made it a lot more interesting (I think). There’s also a Lutheran minister at my school, so it’s interesting to discuss religion with him. It also helped that I’d read the book – Bitter Fruit – which explains all about how the CIA directed the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954 and replaced it with a military one. The church sided with the rich land-owners and traditional power structure (and CIA) that has kept Guatemala a feudal society since the time of the conquistadors. It’s no wonder that in the last 30 years there’s been a huge exodus from the church for this as well as other reasons.
The thing about the whole situation here in 1954 is that it is disturbingly like the weapons of mass destruction. Among many other things, the U.S. government believed/said/wanted everyone to believe (take your pick) that the Russians (communists) were here directing the socialist government in its efforts that included land reform to redistribute resources to more of the general population. It is true there was a communist party in Guatemala at that time, but afterwards, investigations showed zero proof that Russia had any direct connection to Guatemala. None. So after military action on the part of the U.S. (albeit somewhat covert), the primary cause for going in was found to be non-existent. Sound familiar?
Were there communists in Guatemala? Yes. Would Guatemala have followed in the footsteps of Cuba? Would they have truly been a threat to the U.S.? No one knows.
Was Saddam Hussein a bad guy? Yes. If we hadn’t done anything, would he blow us up in 10 years? No one knows.
What we do know is that little has changed here in Guatemala since the 50s. The feudal system, to a greater or lesser extent, still exists. Sixty percent of the population lives in poverty. And the activities in the 50s are widely believed to be the smoldering fires that resulted in the longest civil war in the region – 36 years – that only officially ended in 1996. Hundreds of thousands dead or disappeared, entire villages wiped out. I am too young to remember the days when the Cold War was most tense, and I’m sure things seemed different then. But from my perspective today, it appears the United States did not value free and democratic elections as much back then. The people here elected a government. The CIA overthrew it and put in military rulers.
So by now you’re probably feeling bummed out about this or irritated with my opinions if you don’t agree with them. Doesn’t she have anything happy to say, you may be wondering? I’d like to hear about something else.
I’m wishing I’d brought along a tape recorder so you could hear part of my day. I think this would be a great place for a story like they have on NPR’s Radio Expeditions. For example, yesterday my day started at 6:30 a.m. with a huge blast of fireworks. You can hear fireworks here numerous times throughout the day as they’re used for any kind of celebration, from a birthday to a major civic festival.
Then I heard the church bells ring. I asked Veronica (the mom in my family here) about it and she said they ring every day at 6:30 a.m. because mass is at 7. One half hour before every mass the bells ring, I guess so people know to get their act together and get over to the church. Fortunately, I’d slept through it every day but yesterday, which is surprising because the roosters start crowing significantly before dawn and huge trucks rumble through our neighborhood early also. If none of those things get you up, sometimes people come to our house very early in the morning to buy chicken – packaged and ready to cook. Last week, one patron rang the doorbell at 6:15 a.m. This is not a good town for the late sleeper.
Next door to the school there are more roosters, and they crow all morning long. The ice cream vender pushes his little cart down the street tinkling his bell. Today the men working on an addition to the school chopped up cement outside the window of my classroom. Large trucks grind their gears and rumble by at 40 miles an hour on the cobblestone streets, belching black exhaust on the many people walking in the street on my way home for lunch. Dog barking is nearly a constant and in my house in the evenings our two dogs growl and bark at each other in the courtyard as they play-fight over the sole doggie toy – a stick of wood.
But what I would love to have taped the most, a truly unique experience to Guatemala – is the church choir in Chichicastenango singing Blowin’ in the Wind in Spanish with marimba (like a xylophone) accompaniment. The church choirs here have a gift for nearly yelling songs just below the pitch. It is impressive.
Friday or Saturday I’m heading to Lake Atitlan – one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I’m sorry to be leaving here so soon, because I feel like if I stayed just a little bit longer, I could learn so much more. But I felt that way last time too. In reality, I’d need to stay for a year or more to be fluent.