Friday, July 22, 2011

Third Week in Antigua

It's Friday evening, and I figured that I had better do the blog entry now rather than tomorrow, since tomorrow we're scheduled to leave for our weekend trip to Tikal, a famous set of Mayan ruins that lie in the jungle about 45 minutes away by plane. We will be back on Sunday evening. Since we don't have class on Monday (it's a holiday in Antigua), this was the weekend to go to Tikal.

Early in the week, the "main drag" in Antigua was taken over by a Guatemalan television station celebrating a major anniversary. They would be filming their news programs (6 PM and 10 PM) from the main street in Antigua. And so a huge tent and stage were constructed on the spot, electricity mains were piped in, and that evening there was lots of noise from the street. I didn't go out to check it out, but I certainly heard it all in my bedroom in the house, especially their midnight fireworks. It's one of things that goes with living so closely to the center of town. This is true generally on the weekends. Right now, for example, various parties in the area, groups in the street, and musical events in houses nearby are creating a cacophony that I'm sure I'll hear in my room until at least midnight. I'd put on earplugs, except that I wouldn't hear the 3 AM alarm for our 4 AM departure for Tikal.

Last Monday, I was surprised to learn that I would have a new teacher at San Jose el Viejo. Apparently, the school shuffles teachers around week by week, according to a variety of factors, including preferences expressed by returning students and the like. At first, I was a bit upset, but I soon warmed up to my new teacher, Silvia, and within two days found her to be just the right person to take my lessons to the next level. All through the week we have been proceeding via conversations in Spanish - halting on my part, clearly and slowly on hers - along with exercises, new material, quizzes, and the organization of the information that I've absorbed so far. One of her talents is the ability to connect various pieces of learning from the last two weeks and to highlight patterns in the language. I hope to be able to continue with her for another week and then perhaps move to yet another teacher for the last two weeks.

The days have passed quickly, and there are just a few things to highlight outside of class time. Each day, John and I spend the 30-minute break in the morning walking around the neighborhood, trying new streets every day. At noon, when his class ends, I take a 15-minute break inside the property and then return to the cubicle I've been in all morning (since 8 AM) for another session. I finish at 1:30 and make my way home for almuerzo with the Brothers.

On Tuesday, on my way home, the road was blocked by a long procession or parade that made its way through the central plaza area and consisted entirely of young students from, as far as I could tell, schools dedicated to indigenous populations. Kids were dressed in all sorts of costumes or uniforms, carried statues or other processional items, were led by a band, and generally seemed quite at ease walking down the middle of the street in organized groups. The procession was related to the fact that on July 25th, Antigua celebrates its patronal feast, Santiago (St. James), and the whole town takes a holiday. The parade was one of the events leading up the headliner next Monday. It was fun to watch the groups walks by and to take photos as they happened, By my estimate, the procession was about two football fields in length. I was late for lunch.

On Wednesday, John and I took an afternoon excursion to Santa Domingo, where we had been before when we took Elizabeth Bell's tour. On the way, we stopped by her travel agency to confirm our plans for this weekend. At Santa Domingo, we took our time walking around the various ruins, and although we didn't pay to enter the museums there, we did see lots of interesting parts of that old Dominican monastery, now a slick hotel and conference center.

It's a bit amazing to notice the variety of contrasts here in Antigua, as I'm sure is the case for the rest of Latin America. On the way back, we stopped by the Dona Luisa Cafe for an afternoon refreshment and I tried a "licuado" (papaya, if you must know) for the first time. Quite nice.

On Friday afternoon, the students from the school put on a musical performance in the main square. It was the history of Antigua and included singing, dancing, drama, and audience participation. Brother Francisco was in his element, running around taking pictures, talking with students, teachers, and parents, and generally enjoying himself and others. The performance lasted about an hour. At the end, the students came into the crowd, handing out flowers to the women and little flags to whomever would take them. Then the girls coaxed guys out onto the pavement for impromptu dancing to the music that was provided. Everyone seemed to have a terrific time. The students were all sophomores and had been preparing for this event for many weeks. If you'd like to see a short video I took of the event, click here.

Some of the symbolism in the drama has been lost on me, unfortunately, but I got the general idea. There are mythical figures, historical figures, and generally "fun" figures. At one point, a student with some sort of figure on his head (I think he's supposed to be a bull) is set alight, and fire crackers go off right above his head for quite some time while other students jump around him or symbolically hit his feet with pieces of fabric. I don't quite know what it all means, and parts of it seem to be a bit unsafe, but there you have it. When in Rome ...

Tonight (Friday), we also celebrated Br. Carlos' 62nd birthday in the community. Other festivities will occur on the weekend, apparently, and we should catch the tail end of the big party planned for Sunday afternoon. We had a very enjoyable dinner this evening and a terrific cake (with cafe and flan and other things in it). The interesting thing for me is that I'm beginning to figure out more and more of what others are saying in Spanish. It's not 100 percent by any means, but my ability to comprehend is gradually expanding. It's like that great quotation from Herbert McCabe: "As we understand a mystery, it enlarges our capacity for understanding." That's as true of language study as it is of anything else initially, or perhaps essentially, mysterious.

Totally unrelated tidbit: Earlier in the week I was surfing the internet and found a wonderful little video on Youtube from a Michael Buble concert in England. If you're interested in music and people's potential, you might enjoy it too - Here.

I'm sure that I'll have a lot of pictures and the like after our Tikal adventure. Stay tuned.

More pictures than you might want below (click on any of them to go to the photo album itself and see the captions for each of pictures).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Second Week in Antigua

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in the courtyard, just outside of my room, and simply enjoying the fact that I was here. The clouds were clear (for now ... it rains every day), the temperature mild, and from the TV room came the voice of an excited Spanish commentator describing the action of one of the quarter-finals of the America's Cup (soccer, that is, not sailing). I'm surrounded by all things Spanish and it's better than okay.

The major part of this week has, of course, been spent in school learning Spanish. And it doesn't stop when we come home. The morning and evening prayers are in Spanish, and all of our conversations with the Brothers and others here are in Spanish. In the process, our ears are becoming more familiar with the flow of the language. Most speakers we encounter speak very fast. It's really only the teachers and those who know that we are just learning who speak more slowly.

The highlights of this week include the school trip on Thursday to a Mayan cultural center and coffee plantation, and the Friday trip to a nearby private forest featuring a bird-watching path for avid bird watchers such as Br. John. And then the weekend with further unexpected activities.

Early in the week, Br. Julio took us for an evening tour of sixteen classrooms in the school, each of which had students preparing their "project" for the rest of the studentbody. They transformed their classroom into one into which groups of student would come the following day in order to learn about some social problem or concern. It was the students' job to make the "class" interesting, appealing, and convincing. Clearly, they were well into creating something special for their fellow students, staying late into the night to transform their classroom into a small theater that followed their theme. They would be evaluated on the following day when the school day consisted of students having their "classes" in a rotating fashion among all these special classrooms and displays.

It was a great way to tap into the creative potential of students, to have their studies come to a specific focus and task, and to engage the rest of the student body with the results of their research and preparation. On the following day, we had a short visit once more to see some of the finished preparations.

On Thursday, our Spanish school sponsored an outing with our teachers to a coffee plantation and cultural center here in Antigua. We took a rented camioneta - called a "chicken bus" by some, but not by me - and spent the morning listening, observing, and reading signs and explanations. All the while, our teachers were at our sides, continuing their lessons with us. The great advantage was that the guides were well trained to use simple language and to speak slowly and distinctly. John said that he understood virtually everything that the guides told us.

The first section dealt with Mayan musical instruments, both pre-colonial and post-colonial. It was all interesting stuff, and our guide was able to play pretty much anything that she picked up. The second section dealt with the coffee plantation. It reminded me of a vineyard/winery tour in the Napa Valley, only this one was all about coffee. And of course we had a sample at the very end of the tour. The tour also included an on-site nursery and a reconstructed Mayan village. Obviously, they had gone all out to make the experience as inclusive as possible. Since we had plenty of time to see everything, we took our time, finishing around lunch time.

The next day, John and I had arranged with our teachers to go to El Pilar, outside of the city and in the mountains. We would have to take a public bus for a bit and then walk the rest of the way. Although it was cloudy when we started, by the time we got there it was beginning to get sunny. Thankfully, it never rained.

The walk was longer than we had anticipated, but eventually we got there. The people along the way were all very friendly and helpful. Once we got to the place, and after paying our entrance fees, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The available trail could be a 2-hour or a 4-5 hour experience. We chose to simply stick to the opening section. There was a covered hummingbird feeder station where 30 or more hummingbirds fed regularly. Further on, the "path" consisted of a series of stairs that went up and up and up. We heard the birds all around us but couldn't see a blessed one, despite our common efforts.

However, we did make it up to the highest point, where there was an outlook that looked down onto the valley below. At that point we decided that we'd probably done enough and made our way back down to the main road where we caught another camioneta back to town. That converted schoolbus was packed, packed with students who had just been released from school. All very polite and curious - and I wish I'd had the courage to take photo inside - but the bus was packed to the gills. There must have been 75 people in a bus made for 40. At least three to a seat and the aisles jam-packed. Yet the "helper" was able to wade his way through, collecting money and having kids skootch over to make room for someone else. Quite the Guatemala experience. Once we'd returned, we all decided to call it a day and I returned to the house for my first siesta of the week.

That evening, there was a youth symphony concert at the school to which we had been invited. The orchestra was made up mostly of youth from the area playing 95% string instruments. The "hall"was the open gymnasium. There was a downpour, of course, but that didn't prevent parents and friends from coming to see it. With the metal roof and the heavy downpour, it was difficult to hear the soft bits, but everyone seemed to enjoy the evening, and the kids were pretty good, all things considered. Nevertheless, John and I decided to call it a day at the break, when everyone lined up for their free cup of coffee.

On Saturday, I joined Br. Julio and Steve for a trip to "Guate" (the capitol), about 45 minutes away by car. There, we went to a very nice shopping center where there was a big sale going on. After wandering around a bit, we went to where you could really get whatever you were looking for ..... Walmart! The place was huge. You needed a guide just to get to the other side of the store. Thankfully, every aisle had at least one person standing there, helping people out and probably keeping an eye on pilfering. I was able to find all the things I needed, and then some.

When we got back for the afternoon meal, there were four Brothers at the table from Spain. One of them, another Br. Francisco, is teaching here in Guatemala (at Santa Maria Visitacion at Lake Atitlan) and he was hosting the Spanish Brothers for the week. They were just here for a day visit and would return to Spain within a day of two. It was funny to hear the Spanish I'd been listening to spoken in a different accent, and even more rapidly if that could be believed. They asked for a photograph after lunch and then left to explore the city. John and I went to the central plaza where tents had been set up with various book sellers. We explored, found some bargains, and then made our way back, stopping for ice cream for good measure.

That evening, the Director had prepared a special social and dinner for us outside. As before, prior to the social, several Brothers made short speeches and then we enjoyed the food and each other's company for the rest of the evening. Br. Francisco had brought out his iPod and we listened to Spanish, Mexican, and American Country music, singing along when we could. It was all very nice and relaxed - a good way to end the week.

On Sunday morning, after going to Mass next door at La Merced (a loooooong homily during which I was able to outline several projects for myself and review conjugations), we did some work in our rooms. Around lunch time, the Brothers announced that we would go to Pollo Campero for lunch; it was located just down the street. So off we went to this popular hot-spot in Guatemala. It's sort of like KFC but with a restaurant atmosphere, lots of kids, and chicken that tastes just slightly different from most chicken you might have had.

Following lunch, Br. Julio drove Steve, John, and myself back into Guatemala City in order to see the latest Harry Potter movie. We arrived at the theater, inside a shopping center, and found a line that reminded me of the line at Disneyworld for Splash Mountain. It would take 90 minutes to get to the front. So Julio said that he knew of another place. I thought that it would be the same sort of line wherever we went, but once we got to this other shopping center, we found a quite reasonable line and got our tickets. Their system includes assigned seating; first come, first chosen seats. Our seats were in row A. So the week ended with watching the final Harry Potter movie, in dubbed Spanish, with my neck craned back to a screen that began 15 feet away and reached up into the ceiling. But it was great, and I even picked up some of the dialogue. From what I could tell, the good guys win.

Now it's back to the books for the week and into the world of declensions, conjugations, past participles, gerunds, and a word order that still really seems like magic to me.

More pictures than you want in the slideshow below (You can click on it to see individual photographs with their captions):