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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Guatemala and other things

Well, then. I guess it's time to get back on track.

In the days when July turned to August, I went out on a number of dates with a girl. Later, in the second week of August, we stepped it up and I found myself in a relationship. This effectively ended all my plans - of which there were many and more - to leave Costa Rica. Not that I've any regrets, mind.

It's now closing in on November, incredibly enough. My second birthday outside my native country has passed. The relationship between me and my girlfriend has grown into something very good. The world in general has been relatively quiet. And my teaching schedule changed.

High school

In Spanish, high school would be colegio, in Norwegian it's ungdomsskole, and in English it'd be equivalent to, more or less, secondary school. I can't tell you the exact circumstances that led me to (and out of) teaching there, due to contractual issues, but I'll gladly tell you some of the things I did there. Before I start, though, the basic concept was this: my private English school had a contract with a normal, semi-private colegio. My school would send teachers to the colegio to teach English.
- in the first ten minutes of one particular class, I evicted 16 of the 18 students.
- I regularly evicted between 3 and 10 students in every single class I taught.
- communications from the high school such as "Don't make the students cry" were routed to my private school. If my boss there didn't tell me not to make my students cry, it didn't count.
- I denied dozens of student requests to go the bathroom.
- I made the other (Tica) English teacher on the premises hate my guts, because all the students I evicted came to her to ask her to plea their cases to me (I hardly uttered a word in Spanish in the high school even though I could).
- roared three resisting Ticos into scrambling for their backpacks and nearly running out of the classroom

The two and a half weeks I taught there were quite interesting in their own, obscure way. Thank God I don't have to do that anymore, though - now I'm (hopefully) back to teaching in the private school.


The things I wish to say about her are all captured in the following monologue, delivered by her:
"I liked the shotgun in Doom [the computer game]. I would walk up to the monsters, stick it in their mouths and fire it, and watch as they flew backwards. I liked the 'chi-chic' sound it made when it was being reloaded."



So here we’ve come to the main part of this entry - my recent visa run to Guatemala. I went to the airport with my girlfriend and kissed her goodbye before I entered the departure terminal. I was armed with two telephone numbers and a return ticket to Guatemala City. After an interminable wait (some kind of organizational breakdown in the Taca administration), I got on the plane and landed in Guatemala about one and a half hours later. Entrance into the country was painless, and after some fumbling, I located the taxi stand (such as it was) and got a taxi into the center of Guatemala City:
Taxi driver(s): "¿Taxi, señor?"
Ole: "Um, si."
T: "¿Para donde?"
O: "El centro..."
T: "¿Donde en el centro?"
O: "No se. No importa. Necesito solo un lugar con internet."

I paid the fare and got out of the taxi next to 'Palaco' something, downtown. I found an ATM, got some local currency and went in search of an internet cafe to find the name of the city I was going to, which I had forgotten to write down. I found a cafe and the name, and by that time it was getting late - late enough for me to start thinking about hustling to get the bus to Quetzaltenango. I presumed that Guatemala was like Nicaragua and Costa Rica in that buses would generally not leave after late in the afternoon till next morning. Asking around, I was told that the terminal was a ways off and that I should take a taxi. The taxi driver had no idea where the terminal was, but asking around got us there eventually, just in time for me to jump on a bus to the impossible-to-pronounce-place.

I don't have a watch, so I can only guess that it was about five hours later that the bus arrived, after lots of obstacle-hurdling, including, but not limited to, a herd of cows (or goats?), lots of roadworks (Fim! Fim!) and a pretty radical mud-pit. I got off the bus at a randomly selected spot in Quetzaltenango, slung my sole piece of luggage (a small backpack) over my shoulder and went in search of a taxi. About half an hour later I got a big welcoming hug from my very tall British friend whom I hadn't seen since many a month, on a dark and quiet little town square in the middle of what I later learned was ‘Zona Uno’ in Xela (which is the more common name for Quetzaltenango). He took me to his apartment and introduced a woman there as his girlfriend. We had dinner together and caught up on each others’ lives.

Later that same evening, as I entered the hostel I were to stay at during my three nights in Xela (Shey-la), I was met by a person some of you might remember - mr. Leadership himself, the ultra-charismatic British bloke I first encountered in Quepos. My sparse luggage was stowed in my room and the three of us - me, mr. Leadership and mr. Tall (the one who met me first in Xela) - went out for drinks. At that time, I had been more or less sober for four months due to the fact that my girlfriend doesn’t drink, so getting drunk was easy enough.

Next morning I woke up and realized something: it was cold. Xela is way up in the mountains (2000+ feet) and the temperature difference between there and San Jose was pretty radical. I hadn’t brought a jacket (I don’t even have a jacket to bring), and I was wearing sandals, so I spent the days in Guatemala gracefully wearing socks and sandals, true gringo style. I showered (the hostel was really quite excellent, its name is Don Diego (I think) and is warmly recommended) and hit the streets of Xela, armed with the name and general direction of the local market (La Democracia) plus a camera. I ate breakfast in a dark, smoky room, a version of what we here in Costa Rica would call a soda, located on the outskirts of the market. The room had about five stalls where women (and often their daughters) were selling local food cooked on the spot. I had torta de carne, directly translated cake of meat. In Norway, we call it kjøttkake. And, miracle of miracles, in Guatemala it’s apparently quite normal to have hot chocolate with their breakfasts. Naturally, I asked for a cup, stared at the change the woman gave me to find out what it looked like and what it was worth (much to the amusement of the locals), then went to the market and spent the most of the day there.

The hostel has quite a few people living there semi-long-term (meaning, for a month or more), so the residents arrange dinner daily on a rotational basis. I ate dinner there, and spent the evening over at mr. Tall’s apartment, chilling.

Xela is a nice city. Guatemala is generally not known for its tranquila cities, that is to say, there’s generally a lot of crime about. Not so with Xela, where you can go pretty much anywhere, anytime, unmolested. Zona Uno, where I stayed, has narrow, cobbled streets which make up fairly square blocks of mixed residential/commercial buildings. Vehicles (especially the local buses, eerily similar to the ‘taxis’ in Cape Town) navigate the streets at high speeds, and pedestrians are well advised to stick to the narrow sidewalks. It’s a city of about 200 000 people, and it’s obvious that it’s not alien to the concept of tourism; a fact easily discerned from counting the number of Spanish schools about. Men and women in strange outfits abound: traditional dresses, hats and whatnot - children are often kept in a shawl slung over the shoulders of the women and tied in front. Their features are dissimilar from the average Tico, whose blood and genes are quite thoroughly different from native Central Americans. In Guatemala, native blood is abundant. The staple food, here as elsewhere in this part of the world, has a lot to do with beans and rice, though with some original touches, such as the aforementioned hot chocolate. Their torte de carne is different in texture and appearance from the Norwegian version, but it tastes similar. Groceries and most everyday goods are vended in the markets around the city, and the quality of foodstuffs is very high. I liked Xela a lot - it’s a place I would not hesitate to stay in for a while.

My third and final day in Quetzaltenango (I think it’s something like... kets-alten-ango) was passed in a huge market in a nearby town. I went there with mr. Tall and his girlfriend. Now, I’ve seen a couple of pretty wild markets before, but this was easily up there with the best of them. It was packed, in the sense that you couldn’t walk a single step without either bumping into someone or narrowly avoid bumping into someone. It stretched out over a total of, I think, ten blocks or so (about a square kilometre, though it was located in the streets and there were buildings interspersed between the rows of stalls). All sorts of clothes were for sale - hell, anything related to textiles in one way or another could be gotten there. I spent a delightful day picking through the stalls with mr. Tall’s girlfriend (he went off on his own, for some reason), lamenting the fact that the town didn’t have an ATM so I could buy Christmas presents for everyone and their mothers. There was a guy there who sold what appeared to be crushed Coyote intestines, which, according to him, has enormous healing powers in relation to pretty much any ailment. By the time I came back to his general area, though (I look first, and buy later), he had packed up and left. I would have loved to buy some of that stuff. I can only imagine the joy of convincing the customs officers in Guatemala and Costa Rica to let me keep it. We had dinner in a Guatemalan version of a soda, which I can’t remember their name for. Family-run cafe-ish kind of affair, anyway. Mr. Tall and his girlfriend had to leave to go to their respective jobs in Xela, but I stayed for a little while longer before I returned.

There was some kind of birthday party going on in the hostel and the poor, beleaguered Belgium girl who was stuck on dinner duty seemed to need whatever help she could get, so I gave it. She served a terrific chicken-and-rice-Thai-ish dish, and we spent most of the evening in the hostel eating and drinking - 16 people or so, including me and my British friends. We went out for drinks later and thus passed a fairly uneventful, though extremely pleasant, night.

My fourth and final day in Guatemala was mostly spent travelling. I got on the bus towards Guatemala City and boy was it slow. It broke down about half an hour outside the city and an hour and a half passed before another came to bring us along. I’m a patient man (wasn’t, before, but learned patience after lots of travelling and, lately, teaching English) and don’t get worked up much, especially when travelling in relatively third-world countries, but the row of roadwork queues and general lack of progress that plagued us started getting on my nerves after a while, especially considering I had a plane to catch. When we finally arrived in Guatemala City, the friendly co-bus-driver arranged a taxi to take me to the airport, but I think the taxi driver felt kind of slighted as I stormed past him muttering something about ‘bathroom emergency’ and disappeared into the toilet. I stood peeing for a good five minutes. He was faithful, though - the taxi driver, that is - and waited patiently until I was done. There were two other people in the car (which didn’t look like much of a taxi), but all my instincts told me that this was completely trustworthy, so I got in and remained utterly calm and relaxed as the driver navigated into a part of the city distinct from the airport, let the two passengers off somewhere in there, then took me to the airport. There I was harassed to a totally undeserved degree by a customs officer who seemed to believe I was up to some shady business - a notion that, oddly enough, seemed reinforced when he found one of my presents to my girlfriend, a nice teddy bear holding a heart with ‘I love you’ written on it, which he held up to the light while muttering darkly in Spanish. His attention was diverted by some other pressing business before too long, though, whereupon I was let off the hook and hit the surprisingly well-stocked tax-free stores.

Four days without my girlfriend! It was good to see her again - she met me in the airport holding a sign written in dubious Norwegian, conjured up from the Spanish-Norwegian dictionary I gave her as a present. She told me that work had called (I don’t have a cell phone and the relationship between me and my girlfriend is, for various reasons, one of the most well-known facts in my workplace, so they call her when there’s something I need to know urgently) and that I wasn’t teaching high school anymore. Hooray!

And that’s about it. The longest blog entry I’ve written in a long time. To be honest, not much has happened here - I spend time with my girlfriend and teach, and that’s pretty much it. I did an aborted attempt at joining the Little Theatre Group at some point, a plan I haven’t quite given up yet. I started eating salads at least once a week and I’m trying hard to vary my meals every day. My first private class is starting next week, if everything works out. Looks like I have to go for a couple of weeks with no work because of, well, issues that I can’t really talk about (though it has nothing to do with me personally, just coincidences and contractual stuff, things outside my control). I had a great time in Guatemala, and I’d love to go back there at one point or another. Life is good in San Jose too, what with my relationship soon entering its third month and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere but onward any time soon. I’ve started preparations for my mid-December return to ze Vaterland, to where I won’t be going alone, it seems...