Sunday, July 31, 2016

Antigua, Guatemala: Girls: PDAs and Promises


School kids in uniforms abound in Antigua. White blouses and plaid pleated skirts for girls. White shirts and dark trousers for boys.

In the mornings on the way to school, on the way home during the lunch hour, or in the afternoon after school had let out, a common scene on the sidewalk: An adolescent boy and an adolescent girl together, up close. Sometimes kisses exchanged. Sometimes just long, meaningful looks. Sometimes caresses. Quite a lot of PDA, in fact.

I could just imagine what the boys were whispering into the girls' ears - the same thing boys have whispered into their desired targets for millennia, right?  Promises of love eternal, assurances of beauty, and all that.

All this PDA on the Antiguan streets surprised me because of two assumptions I held:
  • Guatemala's social culture is very traditional; i.e. very conservative in regards to dating between boys and girls, especially the public comportment of girls and women; and
  • Antigua is a small town, so observations-judgment-gossip spreads quickly. 

I asked both my Spanish teacher and my airbnb hostess about the prevalence of these public mating rituals.

In a nutshell, said both women, it's the same old story that spans current and past cultural mores. It's the boys' job to hunt and conquest. It's the girls' job to keep their legs closed. If a girl succumbs to a boy's advances, all judgment falls on her. After all, the boy was just doing what a boy is supposed to do.

Well, I asked, are condoms at least readily available?

Sure, but again, same old story. Boys don't want to wear them. Boys won't go to the pharmacy to buy them. Girls won't either because ... what "good girl" would buy condoms?

Although the adolescent romantic theater playing on Antigua's charming cobblestone streets might appear sweet - ahhh, young love! - it is a fanciful mist that masks the reality of disturbing cultural realities in Guatemala:

The dysfunctions are tied to these and other variables: 
  • Machismo culture that discounts girls and women, and where violence against girls and women is acceptable
  • Egregious gender inequality, where girls don't have the access boys do to education, health care, reproductive rights, or self-determination
  • Decades-long civil war that employed rape and other violence as a method of control 
  • Corrupt or ineffective government systems that ignore or don't have the capacity to effect positive changes or protect girls and women
  • Faith leaders who are complicit in maintaining the status quo for girls and women in Guatemala by failing to stand up for the physical and emotional safety and health of girls and women

Here are a couple of stories from two Peace Corps volunteers in Guatemala, and their experiences with sexual harassment in-country:

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Letters From Matt #11: Haramachi, Japan: Bubbly Things

Postcard from Matt, July 1991. Japan.

Letters From Matt are letters from my brother, Matt, from various of his domestic and international travels. The letters span decades, and I share them on Living Rootless at intervals, in no particular order. 

September 1991
Haramachi, Japan

Dear Mzuri,
Yesterday I bought a plastic aquarium and some inexpensive fish (by Japanese standards, they were cheap, anyway). I was really excited about the purchase and am right now listening happily to the bubbles vibrating the plastic container and making a noise that anyone else would consider annoying 

I set up the project on my big windowsill in my classroom. Hopefully, it will generate a few words of English from my students like maybe "Would you turn that noisy thing off," and maybe some words of admiration from some. 

Not wanting to buy a bag of rocks to cover the bottom, I rode my bike to the beach for my own selection. Surprisingly, I bumped into the new English teacher from the next town. She's a pretty blonde (I told her all your blonde jokes. Ain't I the suave one.) from Connecticut. 

She helped me collect rocks. We oohed and aahed at each one as if we were buying art objects.

As we were hunting for rocks, I spied one of those hand-blown green glass bubbles that were used to keep fish nets afloat. I lunged for it greedily, yelling "Look! It still has the net wrapped around it." I wonder how long it had been floating in the ocean. A typhoon passed through just one day earlier so I guess it brought the bubble along with it. Maybe it had sunk to the bottom of the ocean with a big rotten fish in it and finally after all these years came loose and washed ashore. It's a small glass bubble just bigger than my fist.

Matt's Japanese fishing bubble, years later. Credit: Matt

This morning at 6:30 a friend picked me up at my apartment and we went canoeing in his 13 ft Coleman canoe. The river was high and fast and the canoe not very stable. Water lapped into the boat as we cut through bumpy water. Today is a holiday because of the Autumn equinox, even more special because a full moon has come at the same time and that's good luck. We have a holiday at every solstice and equinox. 

Thanks a lot for the book. I just started it and it's very interesting reading for me now. 

Take care, 

Brother Matt

Friday, July 29, 2016

Antigua, Guatemala: My Antiguan Home

My Antiguan lodgings, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.

One morning, I sat on a cushioned bench on my airbnb hostess' covered veranda. I took in my garden surroundings. A walled courtyard. Entertaining cloud formations in the sky. Birds singing in the local language, melodic and cheering.

My Antiguan lodgings, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.

Around me was artwork of various subjects, media, textures, colors, and sizes. Each piece invited my attention.

I admired the modest, but well-curated flower displays in the garden. I ate many lunches on the veranda. I pulled basil leaves from a garden plant for a savory pouf to sandwiches made with tomatoes and salty, soft farmer cheese on that luscious bread I loved.

My bedroom was at the end of a wing of rooms. The wing had three bedrooms. Two bedrooms shared a full bath. One could enter either of these bedrooms or the shared bath from the veranda, via an alcove.

My bedroom had a private bath. From my bed, I could look out to the garden through the room's french doors.

From my little enclave neighborhood, I could see:

View from my Antiguan neighborhood, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.

View from my Antiguan neighborhood, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.

My Antiguan neighborhood, Antigua, Guatemala. April 2016.

French doors and walled courtyards. In my perfect world, if and when I ever settle down, my little place will have these two features.

A pictorial visit to my apartment in Alamogordo in 2012-2013, with a soul-gladdening view through its french doors.

My Alamogordo apartment, 2012-2013.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Going Back to Antigua

Walkway between La Iguana Perdida and neighboring property, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Time to say goodbye to Lake Atitlan and return to Antigua.

Public dock, Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Upon disembarking at the Panajachel dock, I meandered up toward my bus pick-up, taking a different route than I'd used when I arrived at Lake Atitlan a few days before. By chance, I came across a street that one might call the Golden Kilometer of artisan tables, where vendors sold their jewelry, polished stones, leather work, etc. I saw some items that interested me, but they were beyond my budget. There were more than a few nomadic expats selling their wares.

I arrived very early for the bus departure, so I walked over to a cafe down the road, and asked the staff if they could boil a couple of eggs for me. They were happy to do so and even peeled them and put them in a coffee cup with a lid so they'd be bus-ride sturdy. With some of my left-over German bread, they were perfect bus food.

A little bit of Panajachel from my chicken bus back to Antigua below. If you get motion sickness, you might want to take a Dramamine before watching.

The bus trip back to Antigua was uneventful. However, I did have the opportunity to notice again the curious motels I'd seen on the way to Lake Atitlan.

The motels boasted extravagant names of love and queens and romance. Quite outside the box of social conservatism that one associates with Guatemala. More on this later.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Flashback to July 2011: To Gurjaani, A Weekend in the Country

Five years ago, I lived in Caucasus Georgia. Gosh darn it was hot in July! On this particular weekend, I was able to escape the city and visit the countryside. The charm of Tuscany has nothing on rural Georgia.

Of course, even Rembrandt paintings have the occasional fly on the fruit.

Friday, July 29, 2011

To Gurjaani: A Weekend in the Country

Today, I took a marshrutka from Rustavi to Gurjaani, with the assistance of my host Giorgi. I'd spend the weekend there with his mother, Nino, and her sisters and other relatives. But first, today's Building Behind Me:

Building Behind Me 072911

It was good to get out of Rustavi and to see actual countryside again. The breeze coming through the window felt good. I noticed that the Georgians are a quiet bunch in the minibus. No thank yous to the bus driver when paying their money and getting off. And the bus driver feels no compunction about stopping on a spot in the road that forces a disembarkee to step into weeds.

At any rate, presently we arrived in Gurjaani and soon enough I saw Nino and several young'ns anxiously looking out for my arrival. Nino felt very relieved when I came. We walked down a gravel-y road between strong, two-story, stone-and-brick houses, all in the same style.

Gurjaani residential street

Gurjaani house

We didn't walk far before getting to Nino's parent's homestead, where Nino's sister, Maia, lives. Forty days ago, their mother had died, and this get-together was a customary gathering that occurs 40 days after the loved one's death. It marks an end to a period of mourning. (I seem to recall Ayano, of the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia, telling me of a similar process. Once the 40-day mark occurs, the next and final note of the mourning is the first year's anniversary of the loved one's death. I wonder if the same happens in Georgia.)  

Entering the family compound, I see beautiful flowers, a table under a grape arbor, at which several men sat amidst food and drink, and women and girls coming toward me. We went inside the house, where the women soon filled a table with breads, fruits, fish, meats, cheeses, and other things I can't remember. With the dusk light coming in, it was all very Rembrandt-ish.

A supra in Gurjaani, Georgia. July 2011.

A supra in Gurjaani, Georgia. July 2011.

A supra in Gurjaani, Georgia. July 2011.

A supra in Gurjaani, Georgia. July 2011.

Served with dinner was a very nice local wine. Many beautiful toasts wishing me, my family, my country, and then everyone's family and country well.

I loved the mackerel, lightly battered. Very meaty. Hostesses were Maia and sisters Nino (my hostess), Mzia, and Nely. Maia was their mother's primary caretaker before she died. She'd been blind for some years. Also present were Nely's and Mzia's granddaughters, Little Nely, Nino, and Mariami. Neighbors also stopped by, including Nika, her sister Vika, brother Martin, another neighbor Giorgi, Ketel, Manana #1 and Manana #2, and Manana #2's daughter, Tina.

There were numerous beds in the  house's lower level. Mzia, I discovered later, slept on a bed outside in the courtyard.

.... umm, did I mention the squat toilet in the brick house outside? Yeah.

The family and neighbors --- very pleasant and hospitable. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Santa Cruz: Santa Elena Church

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Ah, so many churches to walk into in the world. Can one ever tire of visiting churches? 


I think maybe historic houses of worship in destination lands are like fast food, in a way. Low-hanging cultural fruit, one on every corner, easy to enter. And we can feel culturally virtuous upon visiting same. But even a diet of fast food wears, tasty though it may be. 

Decades ago, a brother and I traveled together to Western Europe. If we saw a church, pretty much, we went inside. History! Art! Architecture! But there came a point when we agreed that we did not care to enter even one more Romanesque, Gothic, or any other 'esque or 'ic for the duration of our trip. And we did not.

In Caucasus Georgia, I also reached my fill, to the disappointment of my hostess, Neli, who wished me to appreciate the unique historical, architectural, or spiritual nuances that each and every Georgian church possessed.

But I had not yet reached the saturation point in Guatemala when I visited Santa Cruz, so when I saw the doors to the Santa Elena Church open, I went in, of course.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Elena Church, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

I didn't do much in Santa Cruz other than visit the church and the café. There was a small farmer's market happening in a building off the square, and I bought some fruit.

Boys played basketball in the town square.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Up to Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Cruz' village center is up high from the public dock. The road to the village is steep. In the photo above, do you see the multi-story yellow structure? That's the artisanal and culinary arts school. That's our destination.

Let's take that walk up the hill, using the yellow vocational school as our focus.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Looking down toward the dock, we see a tuk-tuk tuk-tukking up the hill. 

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

We're getting closer.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Voilá, we have arrived at the summit.

Cafe Sabor Cruceño, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

It's mid-afternoon. We've already had lunch and it's too early for dinner, so we have fresh mango juice. Yum. We enjoy the view. Despite the haze. Which is the curse of my month in Guatemala.

Cafe Sabor Cruceño, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Cafe Sabor Cruceño, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Cafe Sabor Cruceño, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

We peek into the yard below and see ... what is that? .... a duck? a chicken? a chuck? ..... sitting atop a dog, which doesn't seem to mind.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

I'm sure the neighbors love having tourists peering into their yard every day. Maybe the more polite tourists don't peer. 

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Well, the name of this journal isn't Living Peerless.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: A Visit to Jaibalito

Neighborhood market and cafe, Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Jaibalito is a village on Lake Atitlan that neighbors Santa Cruz. You can walk between Jaibalito and Santa Cruz or you can take a launch between the two village docks.

My original plan was to walk, and I set out to do just that.

But I allowed myself to listen too closely to my fearful side. On occasion, tourists experience robberies on the path between one village and another. My impression was that, as it pertained to the path between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, it would *probably* not be an issue.

Years ago, when I was in my 20s, I did a summer study in Ecuador and Peru. The mother of one of my fellow students came with her daughter. I don't remember her name, so I'll call her Dorothy. Dorothy was probably in her 50s. She had silver hair. Peru at that time was rife with pickpockets who used a variety of creative ploys to separate you from your valuables. Pickpockets singled Dorothy out for several attempts. In other words, thieves perceived her as the weak gazelle to be culled from the herd, simply because of her age. I filed this observation in my memory bank.

It doesn't matter if I, as now that woman with silver hair, could ward off a theft attempt. What matters is that I might be put in the position of handling such an assault, when a younger traveler might not, simply because the perception exists that I am more vulnerable. This is annoying, but it's a variable that's got to be considered.

Another variable in my intended walk was that I was alone, which I also factored into my risk calculations.

I think what clinched it for me, though - the decision to take the boat instead of walking - was when I reached a point in the walk where I was veering away from the openness of the water and a line of houses, into what seemed secluded woods, and I thought: Dogs. Mean dogs.

Risk management is a balancing act. I talk with my English-language students about the connotation of some words; where they are on a continuum of similar meaning.  In the vocabulary of risk, I strive to be adventurous yet prudent. I try to avoid being foolhardy or fearful.

Was it safe for me to walk from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito? I think it probably would have been just fine. On this day, however, fearfulness won out.

These negotiations of the mind. They are part of solo travel.

Laundry day in Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Lake Atitlan communities are home to both Mayans and to affluent expats or Guatemalans, "affluent" being a relative term. The Mayans are unlikely to have decent access to education, good healthcare and nutrition, and well, many choices in general about their life trajectories

Shortly after I disembarked from the launch and approached the hamlet from the dock, a local gentleman came up to me and inquired if I was looking to buy property. If so, he would be delighted to assist me in doing so. 

At the Jaibalito dock, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

At the Jaibalito dock, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

My first stop was at a tiny market and cafe, where I ordered a café con leche, and just sat in a chair while I took things in. I had no agenda in Jaibalito other than to poke around. Oh, and have lunch somewhere.

No, none of these chickens were lunch:

Jaibalito rooster, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Jaibalito rooster, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Jaibalito hen and chicks, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

I passed a church as I wended my way upward through the village. The door was open. This must mean I'm invited inside, right?

Renovacion Carisma Catolica Church, Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Renovacion Carisma Catolica Church, Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Renovacion Carisma Catolica Church, Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

I did have lunch in Jaibalito, at the Posada Jaibalito. The lunch wasn't remarkable one way or another, but my heart fluttered at the idea of the hearty, homemade German bread offered there. I bought a loaf, in which I indulged over the next day and a half.

The above-pictured chickens provided some entertainment at the Posada, which has a tropical-lush backpacker-y vibe. Meals on wooden tables, which are under a roof, but open on all sides.

I filmed the trip back to Santa Cruz on the launch below:

Below is the view of a bluff that is between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito. This is where I walked part of the way the previous day.

You can see the stilted wooden "boardwalk," as it appears from the lake.

Here is the perspective from the boardwalk itself:

Boardwalk en route between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

Boardwalk en route between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.