Monday, June 29, 2009

Farewell to Antigua

Tomorrow I head back to El Salvador, taking with me many fond memories of Antigua and of the maddening, frustrating, hilarious process of learning another language as an adult (children, bless their hearts, have no trouble with this at all). I hope I emerge more comprehensible, though I am sure I will continue to be a source of comedy to my Latino/a friends.
I was happily distracted from the subjuntive and its many complications by the fourth Corpus Christi celebration this month. The first, on the actual day reserved for Corpus Christi, the feast celebrating the gift of the Eucharist, took place in the Cathedral, and was followed by a grand procession. But why have only one procession when you can have several? Each of the major churches of Antigua took turns with their own Corpus Christi celebration and procession on the following Sundays - first the Escuela de Cristo, then La Merced, and finally, on Sunday, San Francisco El Grande, the church closest to the Molina's house. Before Sunday's celebration Los Gigantes - giant figures mounted on tripods, see the first photo above, danced in the streets where Sunday's procession takes place. The giants dance with the aid of strong men and - I don't know why though I asked - they are two couples, one clearly European and the oher clearly African. Then on Sunday the procession emerged from the church, complete with incense and firecrackers, and made its slow way through the streets of the neighborhood. Doña Thelma has bought pine needles for the passage of the Corpus - they made the entrance to the house smell wonderful all week - and the family rushed out to place them in the street just before the procession arrived. Then the padre carrying the cross and his canopy passed over the pine needles, and five minutes later the street sweepers were cleaning up, collecting the pine needles and putting them in the dump truck (see last photo). So those pine needles were out in the street for no more than 15 minutes. The people of Antigua know how to celebrate, and how to clean up afterwards.

A coup in Honduras

While I've been peacefully improving my Spanish in Antigua, a military coup has taken place in Honduras, El Salvador's neighbor. The President, Manuel Zelaya, was rousted out of his bed in the Casa Presidencial by soldiers with machine guns, taken to a plane, and flown into exile in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, the Honduran legislature elected another member of his party as President. Electricity was shut off for most of Sunday in Tegucigalpa, and the local TV stations are broadcasting only telenovelas and cartoons. Sounds like an old-fashioned Latin American coup, but this time the coup is being soundly opposed by - as far as I can tell - all the governments of the Americas, including the U.S. For the story to date, read the New York Times.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A city of many churches

It's pretty astonishing to find that there are three Catholic churches within three blocks of the house I'm staying in, and that all of them offer a daily Mass (or two or three). I've been taking advantage of this wealth of wonderful possibilities and it's even more astonishing to report that all three of these churches have a good number of people present at their daily masses, and are crammed on Sundays.

These three churches are only a few of the many - dozens? - in Antigua, some historic ruins, of course, but many offering Masses, sponsoring processions, and carrying on a passionate life of faith. It's been a joy to discover that I'm having no difficulty in following the homilies, though this can be, as you might imagine, a mixed joy. I've heard one excellent homilist, Fr. Carlos of Escuela de Cristo, but, alas, both of his daily masses are said at times when I have to be at school or at a meal.

But whether the homilies are joyful or lackluster, it is a joy to be present at Mass with this community of believers.

Looking at the volcano

I'd recommend to anyone this way to learn a language: four hours a day one-to-one with an experienced teacher. It's a joy to be able to take subjects at my own pace, rather than being part of a class, and it's especially a joy to get to ask Rosa Maria, aka Rosita, some of the millions of questions I have about life in Centroamerica.

We take our daily four hours on the rooftop of the school, looking out at the hills and volcanoes that surround Antigua (there we are at a favorite table). I am constantly distracted by the Volcan de Fuego, the Fire Volcano, that belches out puffs of ash and smoke pretty frequently, but doesn't seem to worry anyone in Antigua (in part, no doubt, because anything that comes out of that volcano heads in a direction away from Antigua). I've been trying to get a good photo of the volcano at work, a challenge because this is the rainy season and the clouds cover it early in the mornings. But today was my day: the sky was clear and the volcano was puffing away and you can see what a fine contribution it makes to my day and my learning.

picops and hoosegows

Wonderfully funny things happen when words move from one language to another. I shared one of my favorites, the western U.S. word hoosegow with my teacher Rosa Maria yesterday. She looked at it in puzzlement, and I explained that it was a transliteration into English of juzgado, the Spanish word for a court, though in the West, the jail was the hoosegow, not the court.

I loved finding the word picop in an excellent book I'm reading in Spanish about the murder of Bishop Gerardi, subsequent investigations and the court case (in English, it's The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman). A picop, in case you didn't sound it out, is known as a pickup in the U.S.

Hoosegows and picops - a delightful change from wrestling with the subjunctive and stem-changing verbs.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mercados and minor disasters

Here's a bit of the beauty and abundance of the market in Antigua, which goes on and on for blocks. Rosa Maria, my teacher, took me over to the market for atole blanco (a hot and salty corn drink made with white cornmeal and black beans) and tamales. Delicious! I'm also enjoying the food at Doña Thelma's house - she is a wonderful cook, and has made many local specialties while I've been there. Lunch, almuerzo, is the main meal of the day here, as it is in El Salvador. Breakfast and supper are both accompanied by a plate with a large fresh roll and a big leaf-shaped cookie, called an hoja (leaf), perfect for dipping into tea or coffee. I have probably gained a pound or two, because the hojas are very hard to resist.
My minor disaster was what must be a typical accident here. I walked out of an internet café and walked on down the sidewalk, thinking over something or other, and WHAM, walked right into one of the projecting stone window sills that stick out into the sidewalks all over Antigua. I soon noticed that blood was dripping down from my forehead and concluded that I had a little head wound. As you may know, nothing bleeds like a head wound! I walked toward my house looking like the survivor of a violent attack. A couple of very nice men insisted on giving me a ride, and when I got back to the house, Don Carlos, Thelma's husband, provided cotton and iodine. A brief headache, well deserved, but after a couple of hours I was back to normal, promising to pay CAREFUL attention to my surroundings. The next day, on my way to school, as I was scanning the horizon for window sills to avoid I managed to step into a fresh heap of dog poop. Sometimes you just can't win.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


My Spanish is slowly - but surely - improving. Yesterday, I got out my iPod and listened to a broadcast of BBC's Mundo - a daily Spanish news roundup. When I was last listening to Mundo, back in Bellevue in December, I'd get the general drift of a news story, but miss all the details. This time I understood every word and thought the announcer and the various reporters were really speaking quite slowly - as I'm sure they were.

I'm understanding the radio here, and getting the gist of overheard conversations, and enjoying talking with Thelma and her family at mealtimes. The verbs still get crossed on my tongue, but at least I'm usually aware of that.

On the other hand, there are moments in Spanish - as in English, as in any language - that feel a bit to the learner like a trap deliberately set for fools to fall into. I've long known that most Spanish nouns that end in -ma look like feminine nouns, but are, in fact, masculine: el mapa (the map) or el trauma. Imagine my dismay at discovering that el arma (the armament) is, instead, a feminine noun with which you use the masculine article el. El arma perfecta you would need to say, or las armas vendidas. Alas!

Monday, June 15, 2009

A visitor

Yesterday and this morning I had a great visit with Sheila McShane, CSJP Associate, and Director of the Clinica Maxeñia in Santo Tomas la Union, Guatemala. Sheila was accompanying some clinic volunteers on their way to the airport, and managed to stay overnight for a visit in Antigua. We walked, and talked, and walked and ate and talked our way through Antigua, where we discovered a common (and dangerous) delight in bookstores. I came away with books on the 1998 assassination of Bishop Gerardi, on Mayan spirituality, and on the Guatemalan Civil War, all in Spanish. It's a great joy to spend time with a friend from home!

Then this morning, we walked through the market in search of manzanilla and other herbs that will be used at the Clinica Maxeñia to make a tea that's supposed to confer immunity from the H1N1 flu sweeping through Guatemala. Schools have been closed a week early here, and today I saw people wearing masks for the first time. I've read that older adults (that would include me) seem to have some immunity from this flu, probably because we participated in earlier epidemics (I remember vividly the 1968 epidemic, which I managed to come down with on a very miserable New Year's Eve). I hope it's true.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Corpus Cristi

Yesterday began the celebration of Corpus Cristi in Antigua and I began the day feeling a worried and lonely. I think it will always be that way when I want to be part of what's happening with Sisters and friends at home and realize how far away I am. I'd learned that Chero Chuma, a young CSJP Sister from Kenya who is very dear to me, had to travel home because of a mixup with her Visa, and I was worried about her.
But Corpus Cristi shook the worry out of me. I went to the celebration in the Cathedral with Rosi, my teacher, where incense did battle with the gunpowder from the fireworks exploding outside. After Mass we joined the procession, following the host through the streets of Antigua, walking over carpets of pine needles and flowers, listening to the band and admiring the little angelitos. Corpus Cristi, like most festive events in Antigua, involves special food: talluyos, a tamale made with corn and red beans, and tamalitos de combray, a sweet tamale flavored with cinnamon. We enjoyed both, along with a short vacation from the imperfect and preterit tenses. What a perfect way to celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ, with a procession, with a banquet!

So, Chero, I hope you get home in time to celebrate Corpus Cristi with your family, and I hope your new Visa will soon be arranged. And I wish I had been home to give you a hug before you got on the plane, but I wouldn't have wanted to miss yesterday in Antigua.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Beautiful Antigua

It would be hard to find a place more blessed in setting, climate, and sheer beauty than Antigua, Guatemala. Doorways like the one this this photo open into patios full of flowers and perhaps a fountain - there's even a small fountain with koi at the center of Doña Thelma's patio, where I'm living for the month. The straight streets and houses that start at the sidewalk are interrupted by frequent ruins of historic churches and monasteries. They're set against the stunning background of volcanoes and steep green hills.
In many ways this city reminds me of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Like Santa Fe, it's supported by tourism and is self-protective of its looks (there are four permitted colors for houses, which is about three more than in Santa Fe, but the same requirement to get approvals for any exterior changes). And Antigua, like Santa Fe, offers the artesania of its indigenous culture - Mayan here, Pueblo there. Yesterday I went on a school excursion to a coffee beneficio complete with a coffee museum and museum of Mayan muscial instruments. It's very close to Antigua, but as we drove the 2 kilometers the houses and little stores suddenly began to look like the rest of Centroamerica - and I have to say that was refreshing!
Speaking of coffee, you'd think a place famous for its coffee would have coffee presses and coffee cones in the stores. No. You can get a 12-cup electric drip or a pot to boil the coffee in, and mostly Antigueños seem to drink instant coffee, as does Doña Thelma. I came without my little Melitta cone, because it's the one treasured thing that seems to have disappeared in the moving process (or is lurking in the bottom of some box). Today I bought a funnel and some Melitta filters (those are available) and I hope to have real coffee with breakfast tomorrow morning.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Walking Antigua

Antigua is a perfect city for walkers, with beautiful scenes and moments everywhere. I walked out with my camera yesterday, and hope to have images to show someday, but not until I can figure out how and where to download. Meanwhile, a promise of photos to come!

Saturday I went to the market, at Rosa Maria's suggestion - not the Artesania market, which is always open, but the fruit and vegetable (and egg and poultry and cheese and old clothing and...) market which peaks on Saturdays. It's an astonishing place, a city of vendors, pile after pile of tomatoes, cherries, mangoes, huisquil (somewhat like a squash in flavor and use). I went in mid-afternoon and must have walked at least a mile just walking through the market and there were still a city's worth of vegetables waiting to be chosen. What happens to the leftovers? It's a glorious and overwhelming sight.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The really important thing

The really important thing that happened on June 1st in El Salvador - and that I didn't blog about because I ran out of time - was the inauguration of President Mauricio Funes, the first President from the left-wing FMLN. This is also, I believe, the first peaceful and democratic transition of government from one party to an opposing one in El Salvador's history. A wonderful and memorable day!

At the start of the day, Funes and his wife went to the crypt of the Cathedral to pray at Monseñor Romero's tomb, and to pledge themselves to carry on his preferential option for the poor - a moment of deep resonance throughout El Salvador.

Marta and I watched it all on television from Suchitoto - an event filled with pomp and ceremony, and with deep meaning. I rejoiced in Hillary Clinton's presence - wearing a red pantsuit, the FMLN color - as a sign of U.S. Government support for this democratic transition and for Funes. And we rejoiced in Funes' inaugural address, where he called for a focus on the needs of the poorest people in El Salvador, for new homes, a better healthcare system, better education. Funding all of this and carrying it out will not be easy, it never is, but Funes begins his term with a 72% approval rating, which will surely help. For more details on his speech and the first steps of the new government, go to Tim's El Salvador blog, always an excellent source of evenhanded information. By the way, Funes named Obama and Brazil's President Lula da Silva as his inspirations in choosing the path ahead.

Now I find myself in Guatemala, which is having its own political troubles. But in the beautiful city of Antigua, all seems very calm and peaceful (and full of U.S. tourists - you hear as much English as Spanish in the streets). I'm spending four hours a day with my splendid teacher, Rosa Maria, and let me tell you, it is exhausting to have one-to-one instruction for four hours. Home is about eight blocks from the school, with Thelma Molina, who has a great family and a pleasant house - and is a good cook as well. Between times, I'm reading novels in Spanish, going to Mass at the historic churches here, and wandering happily in Antigua. Oh, and going to sleep at 8:30 pm because I can't keep my eyes open any longer.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I'm in Antigua, Guatemala tonight - Peggy drove me into San Salvador very early this morning (we started at 4 am) to catch the bus to the Ciudad de Guatemala, where I found a friendly and chatty taxi driver to take me to Antigua, about an hour further on. This ancient, beautiful city is full of English-speaking tourists and language schools. Tonight I'm staying at a hotel, but tomorrow I head for the Escuela Maya and a family home...