Monday, August 8, 2011

Fifth Week in Antigua

If there might be such a thing as a "normal" week, this would pretty much have been it. The primary tasks of the week remained the primary tasks; i.e., learning Spanish. All through the week, my teacher and I worked our way into the world of past participles, those time-based expressions that we so often take for granted.

This is where grammar is at its best, helping one to understand why and how those things that we simply do and take for granted when we speak actually happen. As youngsters, we learn meanings and senses and expressions that describe a host of different perspectives - have, had, might have, should have had, etc. - and we don't really give them a second thought. It's only when you have to build that sense from scratch that their complexity reveals itself. Sort of like looking at something through a stereo-scope; all of a sudden you realize that its all way more complex than you once thought. And if that's simply the hint from the world of science and linguistics, imagine what real and hidden complexities may lie in areas such as human relations, morality, and practical theology.

One nice experience during the week was to take the class "on the road" and fulfill a promise I'd made to Gery Short, from the DLSI office of education, to find "Chata", someone with whom he, his son, and his son's friend lived for three months some six years ago when they came to Antigua to study Spanish. I had a name, a description of her house, her step-father's name, and a photograph. But that was it. My teacher and I set out to discover where she lived today. We used the most popular method for finding someone in Antigua - just ask around and follow those leads.

In the morning on Tuesday, we went to a house near the Colegio that had been described to us as her former dwelling. We knocked several times, and finally an elderly lady came to the door and Sylvia was able to learn that Chata had moved to another part of town, although she didn't know specificly where in that part of town she currently lived. But it was a start. We walked to that part of town and asked at a small store (tienda) and some ladies on the street who were waiting for a bus. After a couple of tries, we were directed in a direction "over there" - that was as specific as they could get. Once we got "over there" we asked again at a small tienda on the street, and this time we directed several streets down. Her place was at the end, we were told, although I didn't quite know what "at the end" really meant. But once we got to that street, we noticed at the very end that was a building with a window in it, and a lady in window was speaking to a man in the street. The closer we got, the more it seemed as if that lady might be the person we'd been looking for, based on the photograph from six years earlier.

We arrived at the building, but the lady looked at us suspiciously, although friendly. When I told her who I was and asked her if she knew Gery Short, her face lit up and she named Gery's son Joseph and Joe's friend, Teo. She invited us into her home and we spent a very nice 30 minutes talking about their time in Antigua, what she was doing now, and the like. Her son is now a driver for a tour company and out of town, but she hoped that when he returned I might come over for dinner with her and her family. I left the cell phone number of one of the Brothers and I'll likely know tomorrow if this dinner will still come about. In any case, it was great to meet her and to deliver the gifts and notes from Gery. Plus, along the way, I kept learning new Spanish words and phrases, practicing my halting conversation in Spanish with my teacher and with others.

Several times during the week, I walked around town in the afternoons after my classes, usually ending up at the mercado, which I find to be a fascinating mix of humanity. Although hectic, it has its own tranquility about it. The people there are comfortable and relaxed in their element. They are also friendly and helpful, although of course they would like to make a sale. And it appears that they don't mind bargaining at all; in fact they rather enjoy it. In the end, everybody leaves satisfied. However, I don't think this method would work quite as well at Macy's.

I had also come to know one of the street artists, Gerardo, who sits in the same spot every day on the main street in Antigua (where the arch is) and whose work I found better than most. At one point, I asked him to do a watercolor of Mont La Salle, based on some drawings and photographs that I was able to print out, and he was happy to do so (for a very reasonable price). This will make a nice memory of my time in Antigua.

At the end of the week, on Sunday, Br. Francisco told me he would be going to Huehuetenango for the funeral of the mother of Br. Benjamin, a former Visitor of the province. I asked to go along and he was happy to have the company. It's 95 miles as the crow flies, and on these roads it takes about 2.5 to 3 hours, but since it was a Sunday, the traffic was light and we zipped right along. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch, choosing the local dish - a sort of rich chicken soup with guacamole, rice, a hefty section of chicken, and a boiled egg. Very rich and delicious. Outside, a marimba group played throughout lunch, the music drifting in through the windows. I remember thinking: "This is a nice, authentic piece of the Guatemala experience." We crossed a mountain pass at close to 10,000 feet - called "Alaska" by the locals - and saw some wonderful sights of mountain towns and villages in the distance. At one point, I could see clouds below us, covering various valleys.

When we got to Huehue, I met Br. Fernando at the community associated with the Colegio La Salle there. He took us for a brief and quick tour around downtown prior to the burial service at the cemetery. We especially visited Casa Miller, a school for indigenous youth dedicated to Br. James Miller, FSC, who was shot in front of the school in 1982 as he was painting the wall, most likely by plain clothes military personnel. (Link) His story is now well known to most of the Lasallian world, and his name was added to a list of 70 martyrs that were presented to Pope John Paul II when he visited the area last.

We were shown the exact place where he had been on the day he died, along with a bulletin board filled with photographs from the event and the shirt that he had been wearing at the time - with the bullet holes clearly present. The whole thing was rather sobering and a good reminder of the state of the country in the early 1980's when civil war and genocide were the common experience. The school remains a schools for indigenous youth and includes a dormitory for those kids (17 at the present time) who cannot commute from their homes on a regular basis.

After a quick visit to the cathedral, we walked to the cemetery (located very close to the school) where several Brothers were already waiting. After another 20 minutes or so, a procession came walking down the street and the mourning part arrived. One thing that was different from my experience with funerals in the past was that the casket what borne by a group of women who had been family, friends, or acquaintances of the deceased. It was the first time that I'd seen a group of women as pall-bearers - and who really did carry the coffin.

The cemetery is above-ground and quite colorful. It reminds me of the cemeteries in New Orleans. There are many plastic flowers or wreaths. Compared to the noises in the streets outside, the inside is tranquil and peaceful. No grass or plants, but still a quiet atmosphere.

The casket was brought to the crypt where it was set down for a short 10-minute service led by some of her sons, including Br. Benjamin. Then, while those attending sang several songs, different men in the crowd came forward to hoist the coffin above their heads and insert it into the crypt, after which everyone stayed while workmen sealed the crypt with mortar and bricks. Only at the end, after singing the Salve Regina, did people begin to drift away.

After the funeral, there was a short time for conversation among the Brothers, but then it was time to return to Antigua. There were 18 Brothers who attended the funeral, many of them from the Guatemala City area, and it would be a lengthy journey back. On the way back, evening fell and pretty soon we were driving in the dark. Lower down from "Alaska" there was quite a bit of construction, usually indicated by a quick sign and some rocks (no lights on the highway at all) telling us to move into the other double-lane road and share the road with oncoming traffic. At one point, lights from a big-rig trailer and some cars hit us in such a way that we briefly went off the side of the new pavement (a drop of some six inches), veering away but then coming back onto the road. Luckily, we didn't lose control of the car, although we were going quite fast.

However, another 200 feet and we could hear the results of this little mishap - a flat tire. Brother Francisco moved to the side of the road and confirmed it. So here we were in the middle of Guatemala on a dark highway with a flat and no AAA in sight or available. There was only one thing to do, of course, change the flat. Brother Francisco called some of the other Brothers who were driving back and soon we had a whole gaggle of Brothers helping us out. Prior to their arrival, it took Francisco and I a while to figure out how to get the jack out of the back of the car. (I finally looked it up in the manual; desperate times call for desperate measures - even in Spanish.) After about twenty minutes, we had the tire changed and were back on the road.

The current Visitor, Br. Cecilio, had suggested that we all meet at a restaurant along the road for an evening meal, and so some time later we were upstairs in a roadside restaurant enjoying a meal in the company of the 10 or so other Brothers. Needless to say, we returned to our community in Antigua rather later than expected, although not ridiculously so. As Francisco said at the end, it was buena adventura. And so it was.

For those who are curious about the Brothers house here, I made a short video some weeks ago of both where the house is and what it all looks like. If you go to this link, you will be able to see it. However, it's password protected, and I'll remove the video in a month or so. The password is "antigua1".

The slideshow below has more of the pictures that I took. Click on the show to go through the pictures yourself and to read some of the captions.