Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting to Know You

After a few months of actually living with my host family, things are progressing well, though not without a few bumps in the road.

I have to say that as the younger of two, I now have more true empathy for older siblings than ever before. When the kids embraced me into the family, they did so without any concept of personal space or private property. My limited Q’eqchi’ skills reduced me to the vocabulary of a toddler with a new infant in the house. Without any verbal subtlety at my disposal, I was reduced to a lot of “ink’a!!” (no/don’t) and physically removing them from my room, or my belongings from their hands. Their eagerness and interest went a long way toward making me feel welcome, but also made me want to scream at times. When they lined up outside my window to called my name at three second intervals for ten minutes or so, I quickly learned they had nothing to tell me and nothing to show me (and I certainly wasn’t able to tell them anything), but just wanted my attention. This was endearing to a point, and then quickly tore my nerves to shreds.

Almost immediately after moving in I began a ritual around dinner time with the older two kids. Most nights I bring in some copy paper and crayons and we color before or after dinner. As my Q’eqchi’ classes progressed I was able to learn to say things like “play later” and “rest now”, which didn’t seem to register with the kids, but was enough for Clementina to step in and help place some boundaries. Now the moment I’m in sight during the day, the kids eagerly ask when we will color again. So, now we have a nearly daily play-date that helps channel all that energy and that acts as reinforcement for my new vocabulary words, too. It started out with all of us drawing separately, but we soon developed the habit of asking each other what to draw. Eventually I noticed that Heidi is quickly frustrated by drawing, so I’ve also started sketching the outlines of something and having her color it in. Freddie wanted in on that as well, although his confidence in drawing is stronger. I suppose kids demand equal treatment the world over.

On nights I get home in time, I also try to help make the tortillas for dinner. I use the word “help” a bit loosely, since the overall quality certainly suffers, and I’m not sure I even speed up the process much. But, it’s a nice way for me to hang out with Clementina, and she gives me tips here and there and points out when I manage to turn out a pretty good one. We laugh at the misshapen ones, and talk through the schedule for the next day so she knows if I’ll be around for meal times. Usually we get in past where my Q’eqchi’ and her Spanish will let us understand one another, and then we just wait for Mariano to get home and help translate. Often I will have tried several means of miming or drawing what I mean, and by the time we get things cleared up I feel I have played some combination of Pictionary and Gestures.  

I’m definitely learning to savor simple joys.

Some afternoons when I come home from errands or work I will pull out the chairs from my room and line them up on the walkway outside my door. The kids and I sit down and watch the world go by. Inevitably one of them will start crawling under the chairs while the rest of us pretend not to know where the crawler is. Simple games have simple grammar, and that works just perfectly for me. Now and then I’ll make a batch of popcorn or share out some apples or mandarins and we all munch away happily exclaiming about how tasty everything is. Even carrying water from my water tank to the pila on laundry days is a chance for the kids to feel helpful and included while we all troop around with buckets of water, shouting to hurry the next person back to the spigot before ours overflows.

Fill my cup and let it overflow. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Suspicions Confirmed

Bugs really are bigger here in Alta.  More numerous, too. 

In my first few months here, I have encountered: disconcertingly large flying beetles, some of which look like miniature winged triceratops; the largest spiders I’ve ever seen outside of a terrarium; an orange and black centipede-like creature the length and width of my ring finger; cockroaches anywhere from one centimeter to two inches long; hopping cricket-grasshopper hybrids whose antenna are twice as long as their considerably long bodies; and large winged ant infestations – twice.  No scorpions yet.  Knock on wood.

These unwelcome visitors waited for me in places such as under my refrigerator, inside my dresser, inside my shoe, inside my suitcase, on the ceiling of my room, on the wall outside by the pila, on the path to the bathroom, inside the bathroom stall, under my latrine toilet seat, and flying up at me from inside my latrine while I was seated.

I’ll leave it to you to imagine where each creature lurked.

I’ve noticed spiders here have eyes that reflect the light of my headlamp.  This is helpful in that at night I tend to know when a spider is near before I actually cross its path.  This is also decidedly unhelpful in that it means I am aware of just how many spiders there are, and I get a case of the creepy crawlies far more frequently because of it.  In my book, any time you can have a staring contest with a spider it’s out of my comfort zone. 

Full disclosure, it doesn’t take much for a spider to be outside of my comfort zone.  I’m a bit arachnophobic, although daddy long-legs and anything smaller than a dime don’t faze me. I sometimes play with imagining a formula to determine at what point I go from calmly squishing the thing to having my heart rate and adrenaline spike while I get sweaty and nervous.  I think about variables like body size to leg length ratio, color, total diameter, and location encountered.  A PCV friend pointed out I’m attempting to find a rational pattern in a phobia, which is irrational by definition.   

When I spot a bug of any kind, it ends in one of three outcomes. 

First, I may decide it’s not a threat and feel free to leave it be.  This really only happens if the bug in question is outside, relatively small, and I can reasonably convince myself that I’m unlikely to encounter it again. 

Second, I may recruit help from a bystander.  My host father killed a large spider on the kitchen door for me with a piece of burning firewood.  My site mate often tells me not to look and takes care of a spider for me.  She is not afraid of spiders and I am not afraid of mice, so we trade off protecting one another. 

Third, I gather my pride and my courage and do battle myself.  I have a few designated kitchen implements for bug killing.  More than once I have to don boots and gloves before being brave enough to take matters into hand.  Freddie helped out in spotting and chasing cockroaches one afternoon.  Having him there helped me keep my head, since I ought to be at least as brave as a six-year-old.  Once a fellow PCV coached me by phone through a standoff with a large spider in my room as it approached midnight and I didn’t want to wake my host family for help.  I’m certain I woke them anyway with all my banging and laughing and “eeep”-ing.  Sometimes things get away and I have to accept a draw on the battle (although not the war).  There are at least two cockroaches who I swear like to come out from a crack in the corner of my roof just to taunt me and then run back into their lair.

My biggest hunting trophy from bug battles so far is the huge spider I encountered (outside, thankfully) and killed with a combination broom and hoe attack.  I definitely would have chickened out and asked Mariano for help, except I was too afraid to take my eyes off it in case it moved in the time it took me to go get someone.  I knew my arachnophobia would not allow me to sleep for days if I had seen the thing and then it disappeared to an unknown location.  So, I whacked it with a broom, twice.  I then took a picture with the broom and a triangle with centimeter markings on it.

After taking the photo, I realized it was NOT DEAD, but only stunned.  It started trying to walk again, so I found my hoe and then did my best to slice its body in half with the blade.  It was disgusting, terrifying, and a bit gratifying to have dealt with the situation on my own.

Despite all these many-legged irritants, I usually get by without a lot of irrational behavior.  Admittedly, I do sometimes wake up from a buggy dream convinced that I just saw something in my room (which was impossible with my eyes shut and the room dark…).  I cannot decide whether it is better to set up the mosquito net over my bed to help such things, or if my paranoia will just shift to thinking there is something stuck inside the net with me.  I figure by the end of my time here, I will either be a battle-hardened bug killer, or I will have developed some strange form of creepy-crawly-induced PTSD. 

I’m voting for the first.


Truly, I do not wish this entry to be a deterrent to anyone planning to visit me or others in Guatemala.  You can have a perfectly pleasant visit here, to Alta Verapaz or other places without fearing bug issues.  Even if you encounter such things, the locals (including yours truly) will protect you!