So it’s been pretty unsettling for me to see how much this trip has brought to light my own particular weaknesses: my deep need for security, my discomfort with newness, my anxieties about being unsure what what’s up, what I’m expected to do in unanticipated situations.
This weekend was a difficult one for me. We left Antigua, where we had been studying for three weeks, and took a bus through the mountains to Quetzaltenango (known locally as Xela), the second largest city in Guatemala. It sits in a valley, entirely ringed by mountains—including two volcanoes, one of them active. The trip was uneventful, and shorter than we’d expected (less traffic and no construction on a Sunday morning). But we got to Xela four hours before our school opened, six hours before our host family would be ready to receive us. We spent most of that time hanging out in Café Bavaria, a large, spacious, light-, plant- and photo-filled restaurant. For several hours, a small band--one bass, one guitar, and marimbas—was playing. Their music was SO sad; I couldn’t stop crying—and wondering what I was doing here.
Things got worse as the day went on. Our family picked us up in a van packed with about 12 people (not much room for us, much less for all our luggage!)--and took us along on a visit to see a new baby, and more extended family. After a few jokes about our poor Spanish and their nonexistent English, we really weren’t able to hold a conversation, couldn’t understand anything that was going on, were hesitant to eat the food…
I hated it. i felt so impolite, so awkward, so CLUELESS. I am realizing how very much I need--if not to be in control of the situation--at least to know what’s going on, and how to act. Seems as though that’s generally not going to be possible on this trip, and I’m having a hard time coming to terms with that fact.
The school where we’re studying for the next three weeks is very different than the one we just left. San Jose el Viejo in Antigua was a very beautiful and very tourist-y sort of place, where lots of older (=my age; fifty-ish) Americans and Europeans come to brush up ontheir language skills—as well as quite a few younger ones who are also there to adopt Guatemalean babies.
Our new school, Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco, is a very different place, with a much younger clientele. There are about 40 students here now; only one other is 50ish; the rest are in their twenties. The school was founded to commmorate the lives of two student martyrs, and it has an explicitly political focus. The walls are covered with posters like “Killer coke (the black death of capitalism”). The first morning our orientation began with an overview of the history of Guatemala (including the 1954 CIA-led coup that led directly to the atrocities of a 36-year-long civil war). Then we watched a documentary about the exhumation of clandestine graveyards, the identification of bodies, and the construction of a memorial to the disappeared. This afternoon there was a conference with Sandinistas from Nicaragua. There are also daily trips into the countryside, to learn more about people’s lives there (this morning we had our first ride on a chicken bus, followed by a ride on the back of a pick-up truck--shades of my childhood!—to Santa Andreas, a Mayan town in the mountains.
We are under the impression that we are getting at least a little bit further under those closed walls that make us feel so outside this culture—though we have lots of questions about the simplicity of the story that we’re being told: what role did Mayan culture play the military takeover—and in its continued support? How might inclinations and needs for strong leadership contribute, from the ground up, to structure of oppression?
Another sharp difference about our new school: At San Jose el Viejo, in Antigua,we met with our teachers in individual “cubículos.” Although we could hear one another’s mistakes and laughter, both living and learning there were very private affairs. At PLQ, the teaching is explicitly Freirean—learning not just to know, but to change the world. The lessons are one-on-one, but they all take place in the same large space. There is a much stronger sense of this activity as a public one, for the public good. I suspect this helps with the language learning: it becomes less a private arena for error, more an open public search for a shared means of expression—and shared work in the world.
Now THAT I’m comfortable with!