weak little assistant
Tuesday, March 14 2006
setting: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
For me it was an excruciating day of one-on-one Spanish education. This was nobody's fault; it's just a bitch to learn a language. That's how it is. It's like trying to draw with your left hand; none of the necessary muscles are developed, and neither are the neural pathways. You find yourself struggling to build a new method of communication, a metaphorical house from the ground up, when it would be so much easier to just use the house you already have, one that is perfectly good and standing right next door, the house of English. As I strained to communicate I felt like, if anything, I was losing what little ability I had to communicate in Spanish.
In the grand scheme of things I'm not a great or especially dedicated student unless the field of study is one I'm learning "just in time" for something I urgently need to know about. But I'm reasonably intelligent and have the ability to fake it, to learn despite a lack of motivation. Why, then, wasn't Spanish somehow sticking in my brain? Why was it so hard to pick the correct conjugation/pronoun/gender on the fly? This led me to think about te 43rd President of the United States, who, we're told, can speak fluent (if very poorly accented) Spanish. How the hell did this guy, who spends his days making news but is too lazy to read the newspaper, how did he manage to learn Spanish? It wasn't a good thought to have; it left me feeling very stupid indeed. Then again, George W. Bush probably speaks Spanish to the same extent that he "ranches," in other words, just as a well-rehearsed display in front of cameras. John F. Kennedy probably knew considerably more German.
This afternoon, a large group from the school (it was well over a dozen people) were taken on a tour of the city's cemetery, which is on the west end not far from either the school or the house where we're staying. Gretchen and I were a little late and actually met up with the tour at the cemetery itself. As with most urban cemeteries in Guatemala, the one in Xela is not a good place to go unless you are with a large group of others. Robberies happen there frequently. But it's not just robberies that happen there; many of the conventions of civil society appear to be abandoned at the cemetery gates, showcasing the sorts of things people do when they can be pretty sure no one is watching them. The cemetery is full of trash, so full in fact that little or no attempt is made to clean it up. The grass is long, though it appears that someone or something is preventing succession beyond the weedy-grassland stage (then again, the same is true for much of the rest of the deforested parts of Guatemala). Early in our tour, we stood around looking at the inexpensive, impermanent crypts near the front gate (these feature hand lettering as crude as the sort one sees on roadside signs advertising yard sales). As we stood there, my nose gradually reminded me of another thing we humans do when we're sure no one is watching us. Then I looked down and there it was: besmirched toilet paper and a big pancake of human poo. At least I wasn't standing in it.
The cemetery had once occupied part of the Park Central in the middle of Xela but had been moved here at some point in the 19th Century. It's home to the tombs of many famous and industrious Guatemalans, including at least one evil dictator (whose gradually-crumbing Greek-style crypt isn't defaced by any graffiti). Like much of Xela itself, the graveyard spoke of better times many years ago, a wealthier, less deeply-fractured time before certain earthquakes, regimes, and global economic paradigms.
I didn't pay close attention to the stories being told by our guide, who spoke only Spanish. One of the students was serving as a translator, but I was feeling alienated from the other students due to my the difficulty of today's lessons and the fact that they'd all been at the school so much longer than me. It also didn't help that Gretchen was having a much easier time with the language than I was. She had no hesitancy about asking questions in Spanish, not really caring that she couldn't speak the language perfectly. She's so extroverted that it renders her fearless even in languages she barely knows. This gives her a great fundamental advantage over me. I tend to keep silent and speak only when I'm pretty sure I know exactly what to say, which isn't very often. Consequently, I'm not flexing my neural muscles and they stay weak while Gretchen's grow steadily stronger.
After the cemetery tour, a small group of us snacked and drank alcoholic beverages at a little café somewhere near downtown. I made a point of referring to the electronica coming from the café's stereo as "musica punchis," and said this loud enough for others in the dining room to hear. The middle age woman and her teenage daughter at the neighboring table started laughing and then whispering "punchis! punchis!" to one another. "Punchis" is sort of an in-joke in the Spanish-speaking world, and it's still surprising for Latin Americans to hear gringos use the term. (The only reason I know this word is that I learned it from David the Rabbi's wife, who is something of an expert on Latin-derived cultures.)
It seemed kind of redundant and unnecessary to trudge home to our madre and eat the flavorless warmed-over leftovers she feeds us for dinner in her dreary kitchen, but that's the schedule, and it's part of our immersion. As always, I kept mostly quiet and let Gretchen do the talking.
Still, at some point in the evening I thought I heard a very weak voice in my head whispering advice on what to say next as I haltingly tried to construct a Spanish sentence. This was my Spanish self, a new and welcomed presence, one in need of vitamins, steroids, and roast beef sandwiches. The reason we'd come to Guatemala was to give each of us this little assistant, one that could hopefully one day handle our communication needs throughout half the New World. [The next day I would try to explain the sudden appearance of this novel voice to Luiz (my teacher), and (with the help of a few additional words of vocabulary, particularly metaforica, I would be somewhat able to get my point across.]
Crude lettering on temporary crypts near the front of Xela's sprawling cemetery. When relatives quit paying rent on these crypts, they're emptied and a new body takes up residence. Anabela and Karla here didn't make it through even a month of life, yet someone's been paying their rent for 15 years.
Volcán Santa Maria (12375 feet above sea level) on the south horizon of the cemetery, with a pyramid crypt in the foreground.
Another view of Santa Maria from the cemetery.
In Guatemala, the sculptural depiction of dead bodies is very common. It doesn't matter to Guatemalans how creepy this seems to visiting gringos.
The tomb of Vanuschca. People write their requests to Vanuschca's spirit on her tomb, and periodically the tomb is repainted various colors by God only knows whom.
A funeral procession today.
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