Sunday, July 10, 2011

First Week in Antigua

It's now the end of my first week in Antigua. Do I know Spanish? No. However, I am a bit more comfortable with learning Spanish. There has been a definite improvement in my ability to "pick up" what people mean when they speak, as long as they don't speak too fast or use grande palabras. It's a rather interesting phenomenon to realize that you're gradually understanding something that before was almost entirely unknown to you.

When we arrived last Sunday, of course, everything was new: the Brothers house, the town, the experience, the sounds at night, etc. The Brothers were extremely hospitable and we felt very comfortable. The church next door, La Merced, was surrounded by a huge crowd of people in very formal dress, just milling about. It was several days later that we realized that they were having one of the several Corpus Christi processions that occur at this time of year. Hence the flowers on some of the streets and the like. Unfortunately, we didn't know that at first, so while the processions were going down the street, we were in the house, napping or getting our things in order in our rooms.

Another interesting phenomenon accompanying these festivities is that once in a while, a HUGE loud blast is heard. At first, I thought, "Okay, this is it. We're in Guatemala and some bomb or other is going off." Immediately after hearing the blast(s), which in this case came from right next door at La Merced, you hear a whole bunch of car alarms going off around the neighborhood. Looking around, other people seemed to be unaware of anything strange going on. And by now, the end of the week, I think I'm at the same point. These bombas are loud fireworks without accompanying sparks or the like - exactly the same as those used large fireworks shows everywhere - that fly 100 or more feet up in the air and explode. They're both the sonic searchlights for some major event, religious or civil, calling people to come and investigate, and they're there to scare off the bad spirits. By now, I must have heard 50+ of them during the week at various times. They're sorta nice.

Later in the afternoon, before John and I walked to where our school was located, just to know how to get there, Brother Carlos - he's the one in the top photo - took us for a walk down the main street of Antigua, stopping in various places (where he seemed to know everyone) and showing us some of the highlights. He doesn't know a word of English, but somehow we communicated just fine. One of the old hotels was especially impressive, the Posada de Don Rodrigo, made up of a whole set of old building and showing off some wonderful courtyards, gardens, and rooftop vistas. It was a fine introduction to the city.

On Monday morning, we made our way to the language school at 7:30 AM and promptly set to work. Each of us was assigned a teacher (female, in both our cases) and began our program. The teachers are very friendly and helpful. They clearly know English, but they do everything they can to avoid having to answer us in English. My teacher has, so far, said perhaps 15 words English in 30 hours of class time. She gently invites you to speak in whatever Spanish you can, both gauging where you are and determining how you might best proceed. Class goes from 8 until 10 AM, when there is a half-hour break. John and I usually go for a walk down one of the nearby streets. Classes then resume from 10:30 AM until noon. For the first three days, we both returned to the house for "Almuerzo" - the main meal of the day with the Brothers - at 1:30 PM. I hustled back at 2:00 PM for another 2-hour session while John decided early on that 4 hours a day is plenty.

By the middle of the week, you're fairly floating in Spanish words and phrases and things known and unknown. This apparently is as it should be. By now, teachers and students have established a good rapport, and conversations (in Spanish, always in Spanish, nada but Spanish) begin to take shape, halting but steady. On Thursday, a group from the school, including John and I and our teachers, took a camioneta (a converted school bus used for all public transportation around here) to the pueblo of San Antonion in order to visit an indigenous women's cooperative. Along the way, the lessons continued, of course, with teachers sitting next to their students, speaking in Spanish. At the cooperative, one of the women gave a fascinating explanation of Mayan weaving traditions, using clear, simple, slowly pronounced Spanish. I even understood most of it! Then we were given a traditional Mayan dish - Pinean (?) - consisting of chicken and rice in a bowl of mole salsa, and we were invited to look around the place and perhaps purchase something to support the cooperative. Upon returning around noon, John went back to the house, while I continued straight into my afternoon session, stopping at 2 PM, which gave time later for a blessed siesta at home.

The following day, on Friday, my teacher and John's decided that we should have a common session doing Bingo, since both of us were having trouble with our numbers, and so we spent a profitable 90 minutes having a joint conversation around numbers. That ended at noon, and by now my teacher and I had decided that it would be best to simply continue our session during everyone else's lunch break and end at 1:30 PM. That way I'd get back to the house a bit late for almuerzo and we would both have the rest of the afternoon free. Also, returning for the late afternoon session hadn't become very productive for me.... the specter of old(er) age and the afternoon "I think I'll put my feet up" made themselves known, I believe.

On Saturday, both John and I wanted to take the highly recommended walking tour of the city with Elizabeth Bell, who literally wrote the book on the place. She came here in 1969 from Palo Alto at the age of 14 and didn't leave. She's now intimately connected to most, if not all, of the restoration projects in the city and calls it home. The tour cost $20 but was worth every penny, especially since it included entry fees to the major sites.

We met in the central square with about 10 other people on the tour and proceeded around the square to the major buildings there. Her explanations were clear, concise, and interesting. She's been doing this tour for years, and it showed. She left time for questions at each location and answered them thoroughly, even bringing back a topic from a question later in the tour, if it was relevant. The three hours went by very quickly.

Saturday evening, the Brothers took us to a nearby Chinese restaurant. Yes, Chinese. And nearby in this case means about 120 feet from the front door, right at the top of that major Antigua street with the big yellow arch in it. It was somewhat humorous to read a menu in Spanish, Chinese, and English, and to hear them ordering Chinese dishes in Spanish. After dinner, we all walked down the street enjoying the evening ambiance, with lots of talking, laughter, music, and energy in the air. Even after returning, all that noise remained nearby (literally), and things only settled down after 10:30 PM (for me in my room) or much later for the others. Apparently, this is the common Friday and Saturday evening dynamic and the price you pay for living right in the middle of all of the action, as it were. The message was, get used to it.

Today, Sunday, John and I made our way to Santo Domingo for Mass (Ordinary Time) and the local Corpus Christi procession there. I don't quite know how they pull that off, liturgically, but with thousands of years of tradition, it all works for them. This particular procession was a small-scale affair, compared to what goes on in the other locations around the city during these weeks. But what did we know? It was all novel to us. Afterwards, John and I went to a popular place for breakfast, where we met one of the many seminarians from the U.S. who are here for language studies. He explained that dioceses are sending seminarians to Central America because Mexico had become just a bit too dangerous. After lunch, John returned home while I wandered streets for a few hours, going to one of the very interesting supermercados (where the locals shops; it's nothing like Safeway) to pick up some things that I needed to get. It was busy in the streets, but everyone was friendly and courteous. Somehow you don't expect anything else here.

This evening, Steve Smith from Saint Mary's University in Winona arrived. He was a LTIP participant three years ago and is spending the summer in Guatemala. He will be staying with us in this community until August 20th. So it looks as if there will be three Spanish-speaking Brothers here and three English-speaking folks. Kind of an even match, linguistically. However, even when we Ameriglots meet, it's Spanish, always Spanish - well, with some exceptions. After all, we're in Antigua.

Other things happened this week that I don't have room for in this posting; if you've even read this far. They include, getting a tour of the school by Brs. Julio, meeting the students of both the day and the night school (for kids who work during the day) by Br. Francisco; John and I visiting various churches for daily Mass since the Brothers attend the daily school Mass at 9 AM; exploring the city after school by walking through the densely packed market area - sort of a combined Arabic and U.S. flea market, only with much smaller passing lanes; making our way to school and beginning to know the characters on the way; and so on.

Last thought: I'm reminded of the scene in the Helen Keller movie where she figures out that those signs in her hand are there to communicate meaning. Remember the "water" moment at the well? That's a good metaphor of what's happening with us, although infinitely more slowly.
Gradually, we're figuring out how those funny sounds that our teachers and the Brothers are making are related to the meanings of words and sentences. At some point in our futures, hopefully while we're still here, the puzzle pieces will begin to "click" and "fit" in such a way that we turn that same kind of corner and the Spanish language world will begin to show itself in all its rich colors and textures.

Meanwhile, if I can just keep separate the meanings of "a" "de" "que" "en" "el" "al" and "o", I'll be happy.

Pasos de bebé.

More pictures than you want here: