into the matrix, away from the gritty
Friday, March 17 2006
setting: Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Today was the last day of the first week of intensive Spanish classes, and if anything all I was sure of was that there is a lot more to knowing Spanish than I ever imagined. My teacher and I took a little break from the usual routine and went for a stroll through the city with Gretchen and her teacher, eventually stopping at a bookstore (in Spanish, they go by the somewhat confusing term libraria), where Gretchen bought a few gifts for her teacher Alma, whom she has come to like very much. According to my teacher Luis, the music being played on the libararia's stereo was Protestant Christian. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, Xela has become a hotbed for the recruitment of evangelical Christian souls, souls that would otherwise burn for all eternity in hell for their wrong-headed Catholic errors. Luis said that he's Catholic but not fanatically so. As for Gretchen and me, we both freely admit to being ateos, something that is greeted with considerably more acceptance than it was when we made such admissions in, say, Jordan.
Next we wandered over to the old Xela theatre, a performance place for live productions. Gretchen had looks at other buildings in Xela's crumbling downtown and decided that the city must be one of the most impoverished she had ever visited. Not only is the city cemetery full of trash and human excrement, but the city's official palace is in a state of creeping ruin. And its museum has haywire wound around its corinthian columns to keep them from flexing dangerously in an earthquake. But the theatre was in an excellent state of repair, full of glorious ornament and features from a time when skilled craftsmanship was cheap enough to afford such things. Surely it must be a ray of hope to the residents of the city. No doubt this was why our teachers had decided to bring us to it.
Perhaps because it was Friday during Lent, at lunch I was treated to some food a little outside the dreary usual: sardines in a mildly-spicy tomato sauce. It was delicious and I ate a lot. But evidently our hosts had forgotten to consider the fact that Gretchen is a vegetarian who doesn't eat fish. At the last minute they made her what they always make her when they can't come up with a better idea: a dreary egg sandwich. Just the typing of those words turns my stomach. Happily, though, it would be the last meal we'd be eating here all weekend.
I neglected to mention in yesterday's entry that the power company cut the power to our house yesterday. It seemed that our madre, Lily, hadn't been paying the electrical bills. She claimed she hadn't been getting those bills, but that excuse hadn't won her any slack from the power company. Luckily, nothing much in her house is powered by electricity to begin with; even the water is heated with a gas burner that one starts with a match. But it did mean we were forced to study by candlelight last night. We could have even watched a movie; my iBook had a full three hour charge in its battery.
At the end of the evening last night the family godfather (padrino) showed up with a hefty check (worth something like $100, an unimaginable fortune in Guatemala) to pay the complete balance owed on "the light bill." I'd never really understood the idea behind having godfathers until this point, but here it was, the practical benefit. Godparents are additional family members tacked on to an existing family, outside the connections of marriage and blood. Preferably, as in the case of this particular padrino, the godfather is in a slightly better socio-economic position than the rest of the family.
Today during lunch a guy from the electric company showed up on a motorbike to turn the power back on. He banged on the door violently when he arrived, and Lily only had to glance at him to tell he was "borracho," drunk. Yet he was the one who would be reconnecting the power, and, it being the third world, it probably wasn't as simple as flipping a switch. Welcome to Friday in Guatemala!
In the afternoon I started work on the Celas Maya website and rapidly determined that it was going to be a lot more work than I had initially suspected. The complication was that the site consisted of dozens of pages, each of which came in three different versions, one each for three different languages (English, French, and German). Since nobody had seen fit to consolidate any of the HTML or design details into either includes or style sheets, it meant that any redesign I attempted would have to touch over a hundred individual pages. So I turned my attention to solving a different problem, the failure of emails sent from the website's registration form to actually be sent. I made a quick and dirty file-based registration browser using a lot of code borrowed from my web-based MySQL tool. It kind of sucked to be working on web development in sunny Guatemala, but it was kind of wonderful too. I'd been given the best computer in the computer lab and had all the internet time on it I wanted, free of charge. It was great to be able to slurp myself up into the matrix, away from the gritty, polluted reality of Xela. But it was still a far cry from sitting at my computer at home. The worst thing of all was the keyboard, which had all the funny characters I needed for PHP hidden away as third-tier characters on exotic buttons. And sometimes these characters weren't even available on the buttons they were supposed to live on; the keyboard had been set up to allow for switching between English, German, French, and Spanish layouts, but these seemed to switch back and forth completely at random, probably in response to a common key sequence I'm used to executing routinely on my keyboard back at home.
After I'd had enough of code slinging for the day, I joined Gretchen and the other students in the Celas Maya great room for the weekly feast. This week we were expected to bring beverages and (for food) were treated to chuchitos, a traditional Guatemalan dish prepared by the staff. They're basically tamales stuffed with beans or meat.
The chuchitos hadn't been a lot of food so a group of us headed off to the mysterious Café Q (a nearby restraunt with purportedly vegetarian cuisine). But at the door we were greeted by a hippie gringo dude, apparently a kitchen staffer. "No eye virderuz," he said with a distinctly American accent. The thing about Café Q is that it is only open for a few hours a week. So when (as tonight) they'd be open but don't have vegetables, that severely cuts into their possible hours of operation.
We ended up back at our usual haunt, Casa Babylon, where Gretchen and I ate delicious personal pizzas containing either tofu or crumbled tempeh. This was to be the first time that I spoke extensively in English with my classmates. I regaled them all with tales of my youth with my back-to-the-landish parents, and how living conditions during my childhood weren't a whole lot more first world than they are in present-day Guatemala. "But it was good for me," I added, "It made me resourceful and inventive, skills I'm glad I have."
The Xela theatre, Xela's one beam of architectural hope.
Wooden seats in the Xela theatre.
Gretchen and her teacher Alma, in front of the Xela theatre.
A beautiful concrete block wall near Celas Maya.
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