Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Start of Halloween Festivities

We just finished our third full week of school this year. Damn we are spoiled. And yes, it did feel extremely long and we were all exhausted. I survived a minor food poisoning incident and Michael's students performed at the Friday school assembly. They sang animal songs with the 2nd graders and looked adorable with paper lion masks and toilet paper roll robins. Michael is working on uploading a video if you are interested in seeing it!

But don't worry about us (I can hear all the sympathetic comments coming), next week we are back to three days of school! We are having a giant Halloween party on Monday for all the kids and then we are all off on Tuesday because it is All Saint's Day. Oh the life we live!

Along with their ridiculous love of parades in Guatemala, Halloween and the Christmas play are the next two items on the "Important Activities in Life" list. Therefore, the party on Monday will include a jump house, a haunted house, food, games, prizes and costume contests. The teachers are all dressing up with a circus theme. We will put up pictures later. I think you will all be pretty impressed :)

I am also excited to say that the rainy season is done! People warned us that the rain would permanently stop overnight but I didn't really believe them. But lo and did and now we have entered windy season. The wind is here every day but is also accompanied by the SUN. Lots and lots of warming sun. Everyone is in a better mood and workers have appropriate weather conditions to start fixing all the storm damage.

The windy season also brings a lot of kite flying. One tradition on All Saints Day is a giant kite festival in a town called Sumpango. The festival is right next to the cemetery where everyone goes for the day with food, flowers and good words for their passed loved ones. They fly massive kites in the field to celebrate the life of their loved ones and tie messages on the kites that are swept away by the wind. We are going to the festival so I'll let you know how it is later!

We are having brunch with some fellow teachers today and then going to a Halloween party today at the local gringo hangout. I am going to be an evil stepsister with Liz and Michael is a giant pumpkin. You should have seen him trying on orange pants at a secondhand store with his costume. The store clerk was trying not to laugh and I couldn't help but laugh hysterically.

As many of you know, I absolutely love terrible jokes. Here are two for you.
What did the skeleton say to the vampire?? You suck.
Why did the ghost go to the bar? For the boos.

Happy Saturday.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It is Raining Cats and Dogs

As my basico students are learning hyperboles, alliterations and idioms in English class, one example comes to mind that couldn't be more appropriate. It has been raining cats and dogs. It has been raining consistently for about two weeks and once again today we don't have school. (I'm not complaining about the latter though). The road out of Panajachel is impassable still and is covered with mud and landslides. The ground is completely saturated and forces the water to invade Guatemalan homes, our school and the severely eroded riverbed. People are staying home to avoid getting trapped in any of the imminent landslides around the country. I always forget how much power is held by water.

I have come to the realization that I am allergic to whatever kind of mold grows here in tropical Guatemala. Unfortunately for me and my nose, all of this rain has created the perfect environment for my little mold friends. Everything is a little damp and refuses to dry! Currently, three of my six pairs of shoes, toothbrush handle, bags, mattress, tea bags, food and inside the house walls are all covered in mold. Damp underwear anyone? My favorite.

Last year when Hurricane Agatha hit Guatemala, there was a lot of damage and many lives lost. Here in Pana, the water knocked out multiple bridges and took many homes away in the river. Not surprisingly, this destruction was not shown in US media. However, as soon as a "so big, so round it doesn't look real" sinkhole formed in Guatemala City, it made front page news in National Geographic, ABC News, Huffington Post and so on. (My favorite quote above was published in the Christian Science Monitor) I have attached a picture below of the 30-story deep sinkhole. Let's hope the rain stops before the ground collapses again in sinkhole form--even though it would be perfect, real life footage for the next 2012:End of the World movie.

This weather almost competes with a Midwest winter; you can't really do anything outside, you are cold and the sun hasn't showed itself in way too long. I would at least like to enjoy Mother Nature's gifts by being able to go sledding right now. But alas, we get wet clothes and streets filled with stray dog poop because they don't want to venture to far from the verandahs either.

I'm sinnginnnng in the rainn, just singinnn in the rain

Email Update from Sept. 24, 2011

This is definitely not like any place I have been before. It is kind of a mix between Egypt, Greece and the Northern woods of Minnesota (minus the snow...and pine trees). I am back to the lands where I have to throw my toilet paper into the garbage cans and go to the local, outdoor market for my food. There is a very distinct smell here in Guatemala. It is a peaceful, relaxing odor that is some sort of mix between the fire smoke, tortillas and tropical forest. and maybe smelly dog. As you walk down the street, you can hear the pat, pat, pat of the women making tortillas all day long. They are so cheap--Michael and I bought 10 of them yesterday for 2 Q, or about 40 cents. Life is simple here, and everyone manages to put a smile on their face. It would be weird to go down the whole street without hearing multiple "Buenos Dias" even to us gringos!

We are now in our third week of school. Tgif. The life of a teacher is tough! I absolutely love my kids (I'm teaching 5th-9th grade science, math lab and science literacy) every day and it keeps me busy! Planning for everything takes me a long time along with creatively thinking of how to do certain experiments without any of
the right equipment. If you are curious, I have put up some pictures of my classrooms and students on my Facebook! It has been refreshing to see and interact with the youth here. Middle school boys and girls have raging hormones and ridiculous attitudes in Guatemala too :)

It has been a very interesting transition from Milwaukee to Panajachel. The people here are also extremely poor and many do not have electricity. But, the respect that they have for school and for each other is wonderful to watch. I have been given a kiss on the
check most days of the week by my students and everyone seems to be trying their hardest. I think daily, "I only have to ask you once, maybe twice, for you to look up and pay attention? So amazing!" It is still hard to hear stories of their lives at home, but I am really trying to engage them in school and be a person they can talk to whenever they want. It is the least I can do.

Most of the students at school are Guatemalan with a handful of foreigners. I have learned to teach using demonstrations, written directions and verbal directions to reach all the students in the room. They are all at different levels of English proficiency and
therefore creating a whole new layer of teaching I haven't really had to think about before. I have also had fun teaching them new English words and phrases. Today, they learned the word "yawning" and the phrase "catching some z's" during our mini sleep unit. Last week, one of my students came up to me at the end of the day and said "Break a
leg!" before leaving...she wanted to wish me luck over the weekend. Not quite the right context, but I appreciated it!

I will get the sad and depressing information out in one paragraph. Here I go! Like I stated above, there is extreme poverty here. Most of the people are indigenous Mayan people who still wear the traditional clothing and maintain a strict patriarchal hierarchy. Most homes are little shacks with dirt floors or cement. Alcoholism is a big problem here for the Guatemalan men. There are many days where I will see a
man stumbling down the street or just passed out cold on the sidewalk. There is also a large population of stray dogs. Many locals do not treat the strays very well and many flinch when you put your hand out because they are afraid to be hit. There are also certain days of the week where they will try to poison the dogs that go up by the market.
There are a lot of mixed feelings about them. Along with the strays, almost every house has a "guard dog" here which I think is hilarious because they don't do anything besides bark and be obnoxious. They are not well cared for, never receive any human affection and are pretty much left in the yard to bark at people.

Alright, I take it back about all the guard dogs not doing anything. I was actually attacked by the guard dog at the school my second week here haha. He came up from behind and I turned just in time to see his teeth bearing and I started running and screaming. He ripped off my entire pant leg before his chain pulled him back. I don't know how
he didn't get my leg and I am laughing about it now but it scared the crap out of me. Plus, he ruined one of the only pairs of capris I brought. Little shit.

Okay, offdah. Enough!

Guatemala just had their big political elections last Sunday and everyone had been preparing for months. People painted political messages on rocks everywhere and the streets were covered in posters. They also had many parades for different parties--Guatemala has at least 20 different political parties--and everyone thinks it is a
brilliant idea to shoot off way too many firecrackers. My second week here, I woke up around 4 a.m. to hear, what I thought to be, someone blowing up the riverbed next to our house. The new mayor of Panajachel is the father of two of my students. He has been the mayor two times before and rumor has it that they own the local prostitute house and a hotel. Gotta love Guatemalan politics. People were also happy this year to have very little violence on election day. There were only a couple instances this year where someone lit the voting building on fire to reduce the votes for a specific party, a bus hold up for incoming voters and a major road block going into Guatemala City to prevent more voters. Apparently last year, one candidate hired someone to kill all the other candidates so that he would have to win. Do whatever it takes to win, right???

It is the rainy season, or winter, here right now. Like clockwork, it rains every day usually around 3-4 p.m. Although it is annoying, the lake and volcanos look amazing right before it rains as the clouds are really low and slowly move to cover everything in their path. You would think having the rainy season for about 5 months every year,
Guatemalans would want to invest in a rain jacket. But no, only the gringos wear raincoats here and all the Guatemalans run or hold up a piece of plastic. Even a cheap poncho would be better!

There are little cars/scooters called tuk-tuks that drive all over the city serving as taxis. They are awesome to ride in as the drivers are crazy and they have been our saviors trying to get home in the pouring rain. Plus, they are very cheap, costing 5 Q or about 70 cents to anywhere in the city.

Pana is great, but the real treasures around here are the little towns surrounding Lake Atitlan. Most weekends, we have taken a boat to a different town around the lake for the day. Our favorites so far are Santa Cruz, San Marcos and San Pedro. The towns are much smaller than Pana, have few gringos and are great places to relax (this is the part
that reminds me of the Northwoods!). If anyone comes to visit, we will definitely go explore!

I am slowly getting to know my fellow teachers, other local gringos and some Guatemalans. I am playing on a co-ed, non-competitive soccer league that started last week and it was a blast. It was great to play on a team again and have fun.

I think that is it for now. I miss you all and PLEASE write back to tell me what is going on with you! If you have skype (everyone get skype!) I would love to chat! My username is jess.schaeffer. Add me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I've arrived in Panajachel, Guatemala, my new home for at least the next year. After a connecting flight through Fort Lauderdale, I was whisked away in a microbus for three hours through the Guatemalan countryside. Chicken buses dangerously swerved around us, in and out of oncoming traffic, people and luggage flying on and off in a well-orchestrated, high speed dance. The last hour of the drive involved a long, winding road up through the mountains, eventually allowing for the first views of Lake Atilán, the primary geological motivation for my move. The town is a hustling, bustling sort of place. It is, nonetheless, a town, nestled beautifully in a valley, surrounded my forested cliffs on all sides, except that of the lake. Lake Atitlán is majestic and shockingly clear of boats. The only traffic one sees is the occasional small lancha taking passengers to the surrounding towns around the lake. Three volcanos grace the lake from above, completing a portrait that never seems quite real.

The mix of people here is very unique. The majority come from one of three different groups of Mayans. There are also a few ladinos (hispanic) and a sprinkling of resident gringos. Pana became a prized destination for hippies in the 70s, and there are still a few of the original ones left in town. Others moved here in the 80s and 90s after the civil war ended. A lot of these ones (including "crazy joe", as I like to call him, who I met walking into town the other day), are just a little bit off. I think it takes a certain breed of person to stay in Pana for an entire lifetime... A lot of them stumbled upon Pana when traveling and just never left. It's a common story down here, and I can't really blame them! The newest generation largely works for NGOs and non-profits in the area.

I buy most of my food at the local market, which is always overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables. All sorts of meat hang from the butcher stalls, but the swarms of flies have so far convinced me to not make a purchase. Overall, things are fairly priced, cheaper than one would find at home but not so cheap as to make you wonder how the farmers manage to survive. Pictures to come later.

The house I'm living in until November is amazing. I ended up moving into a smaller unit on the same property about three days after I arrived, as a family from California has moved into the bigger one. It's nice having some company, as my house is on the outskirts of town. They moved in after their rented house in the neighboring town was being threatened by the rising lake water. They've been living on the lake for 9 months, their children having attended LIFE School (where I'll be working) for part of last year. Kevin did the peace corps in Sierra Leon and worked with refugees in Cambodia for 10 years. They also spent some time in Australia and took a three-month roadtrip around the US a few years ago. The oldest son was born in Thailand. Pretty cool family to say the least.

I had to fight back flood water in my house for a few days as it wasn't draining properly from the property next door and seeping in through my floors and walls. A new pipe was installed and so far the intense rainy-season downpours don't seem to be causing any more problems. It has actually only rained a few times since I've been here, but I've heard the rain will come pretty much everyday starting soon until November. The weather has been absolutely perfect so far, minus the occasional shower.

This week I've been getting to know the new teachers, most of whom arrived a few days ago. Katie (2nd grade teacher) and I have been sorting through 1st and 2nd grade materials at the school for the last few days. We've battled dozens of large spiders that are less than happy about our arrival and seem determined to remain amongst the books and papers. We rewarded ourselves yesterday with some large bottles of beer and about four hours of hanging out on her amazing porch overlooking the lake.

Overall, the school is great, with lots of outdoor space, and a very organized and dedicated director. The teaching staff is young, although I'm definitely still the youngest, and seems great. We all start work on Monday (setting up rooms, curriculum planning, etc). Students arrive on September 5th. We'll most likely be taking a trip to some of the surrounding towns this weekend.

That's all for now. More details to come.