La Vida de Guatemala

It has been awhile since I have made a post and as I finish up my time in Guatemala there are a few things I need to share.  This post will take the style of many little posts.  Here we go:



Fireworks and Futbol!

A few weeks ago, I attended a soccer game of Xela (the town I’m in) versus another Guatemalan town, San Marco.  The game was exciting!  I felt like I was back in Australia where they lit off fireworks every time the home team scored.  Only in Guatemala, they lit of fireworks for everything.  The game itself was actually not the best soccer I have ever seen.  I hold firm that my high school soccer team could have beaten both teams.  Xela has a reputation in the quality of their soccer team.  They have a saying, “Jugar como nunca pero perder como siempre.”  It’s an ironic statement that basically means they always play amazing, but never win.  The game ended in a tie.


Baul, view from my classroom.

Xela is surrounded by a mountain range including a volcano, Santa Maria.  Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to climb Santa Maria.  Santa Maria is known for its full moon hikes that happen once a month.  There was one the second week I was here, that I wasn’t aware of at the time, and the next one will happen 3 days after I return to the United States.  However, I set out on my own mountain climbing experience.  Baul is a small mountain just outside the city center.  It has a beautiful park and patio with a giant cross at the top that is visible from most places in the city.  I have an ex-marine friend down here who runs up it every morning at 4:30am.  She invited me to join here sometime and my initial reaction was, “yeah… bring it on.”  Then after more consideration I decided to make sure I can hike the thing before I attempt to run up it.  So one Saturday with the idea in my head that if she can run up it every morning I should easily be able to hike it.  True and false.  After following some not so good directions from a lady at a convenience store I found myself lost and “free hiking” the side of this mountain.  So, by the time I was muddy and frustrated I found the road.  A paved road.  I can only conclude the lady was having a laugh with me because she sent me in the complete opposite direction.  Oh well.  I shrug it off and continue my hike.  As I

View of Xela from Baul

walk up this winding paved road I still feel like I’m not where I want to be, I was expecting a trail after all.  So I stop to ask a nice police officer if I’m headed the right direction.  He assured me the road would take me to the top, but if I wanted to take a trail, here is one that goes straight up. So up I went.  At this moment I realized I should have been more specific because as you can see from the photo the park is not at the top and I underestimated how far from the top it actually was.  I had made it to the top, which had nothing but a fire ring and I proceeded to start hiking down the other side attempting to find the park.  Just when I was about to give up, all of this work and I still can’t find the giant cross and the stupid park, is when the trail opened up into a camp ground that lead to the park where the cross was.  Miraculously my ex-marine friend was at the top.  She runs up it and prays at the cross every morning and this particular Saturday she decided to sleep in a bit before she ran.

The Basics of Xela

Casa Xelaju

My school is a five story building that has a patio at the top that you can see a majority of the city from, its beautiful and every once in awhile my teacher lets me have class up there.  This is a rare event though because my attention span become shorter with a panoramic view.

There are a few things I want to reflect on that I have learned in my cultural moments in Guatemala.  The first is the streets.  They are slightly confusing because they are all numbered and certain directions are Aviendas (avenues) and the other directions are Calles (streets) and just to shake it up they add in Diagonals ( I bet you can guess what directions those streets run in.)  However, each city is also split into zones. And if you enter a new zone the numbering of the streets starts over again.  And of course, they are rarely labeled so it doesn’t really matter what street it is anyways.  Walking down the streets of Guatemala is like the game Frogger.  The sidewalks are not very walkable as they are not continuous, different levels, and usually more dirty than the street. So most people walk in the street.  Many of the streets are one way, however if you feel the need to drive the other direction you merely put on your hazard signals and drive the opposite direction.  There are also many dogs in the streets, then add in the street venders and random parked cars and you have the game Frogger.  Oh, and don’t forget the bicycles.

Guatemala in its own unique was is a beautiful country.  However, they do (as much of Central America does) have a problem with pollution.  In one of my lessons, my teacher made me read an article (in Spanish of course) about the UN’s last meeting on pollution and how they created laws to control pollution world wide.  Central America is exempt from these laws until December 31, 2012.  I told him they have a lot of work to do in a year and he reminded me that laws in Guatemala are relative.

The “Alright” Moment

The same way that I had an “Oh Shit” moment upon arriving in Guatemala, I had another epiphany moment in my journey.  For many weeks, I hadn’t decided how I felt about Guatemala.  Between the streets, the Chicken buses, and the general humor and lifestyle all surrounded by a beautiful scenery, it just didn’t make sense.  Then as I was sitting on a chicken bus this past weekend there was a lady in the front of the bus giving her faith witness to the passengers meanwhile the guy in the seat next to me is taking pulls from a liquor bottle and intently listening to her.  As she starts to cry, I’m thinking, “This is absolutely ridiculous.”  At that moment I felt like I was going to laugh and cry at the same time, I realized how much I love this country and that I absolutely believe Guatemala is beautiful in its own way.  I want to say it was in my head, but I said it out loud, I nodded my head and said, “Alright.  Hello Guatemala.”

My Last Week

This week is my last week in Guatemala and I cannot believe it.  I can’t believe the time has gone by so fast, but you know what they say, “time flies when you’re having fun.”  This week I will read my first chapter book in Spanish!  Reading a few chapters every day I should finish El Principito by Thursday.  If this name sounds familiar to any of you that’s because it is a famous French book entitled Le Petit Prince.  After this week, I will have read The Little Prince in French, English, and Spanish.  It has been four years since I have read it in both French and English, so it’s as if I am reading it for the first time.

Tomorrow night I am cooking Chili and S’mores for my family.  Many people cook for their family as a sign of gratitude for their hospitality.  I’m cooking as a sign of gratitude for their patience with me.  Just Kidding.  Chili is a tradition in my family and my chili is not as good as my Dad’s, but as soon as I add s’mores, it makes it the most American meal I can think of.  Wish me luck!

The Spanish Language

I have enjoyed learning the Spanish language over the last six weeks and still can’t believe how much information I was able to retain.  I still speak slowly because my brain needs time to re-structure the sense into one that can be understood in Spanish.  The Spanish language is complex, but in all actuality, I have learned it is simple.  You can take the stem of any verb infinitive and make it into 12 more words.  A billion versions of the verb, an adjective, maybe an adverb, and some nouns; all you have to do is change the ending. Tada!  What I really learned is that English is a complex language.

Wish me luck as I travel home and repack (because who ever packed my suitcase the first time did an awful job) and even more luck as I head off to Chicago for training, then to Mexico to start my real journey!

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Posted by on August 8, 2011 in Guatemala


On top of the world! … or at least Central America.

Volcan Tajumulco

This weekend I accomplished the one thing I wanted to do in Guatemala besides learn Spanish.  I climbed a volcano.  And, not just any volcano, but Tajumulco.  The top of this volcano is the highest point in Central America.  We never got to a place to take a good picture of the volcano from the bottom so this photo is courtesy of Google.

When someone told me this, I was determined to get to the top.  I had attempted to climb a volcano before in New Zealand, however because the weather was bad we were not able to make it to the top.  Our trip started very early in the morning because it was a journey just to get to the base of the volcano.  We all piled in the back of a moving truck to get to the bus depot.  When this truck showed up at 5am, we knew we were all in for an adventure we would never forget.

wait, you want us to climb in the back?

Guatemala has famous transportation known as “Chicken Buses”.  They once were American school buses that somehow found their way to Guatemala, were decorated, given a name, and put into use for public transport.  They are cheap to use and can sometimes be dangerous when it comes to theft. Our group made it too and from our destination with no problems.  However, I can honestly say I could never take a Chicken Bus ride again and be okay.  Imagine packing as many people as you can onto a school bus then racing through turbulent unkempt mountain roads.  I did not know it was possible to fit four adults into one school bus seat until Saturday.

We ate breakfast along the way at a small diner near the bus station of San Pedro.  They had the most wonderful spicy salsa that I completely covered all of my food in.  Life lesson number one of this trip was learned shortly after this.  Never eat an obnoxious amount of hot sauce then commence intense physical activity.  The air is so thin that your lungs are already burning with every step you take just to keep your heart pumping oxygen to your body, then add heart burn.  But, at that point of the day I figured if heart burn is the worst of my problems, then I think I’m in good shape.

The male species at its finest.

The second life lesson I learned was in chivalry.  There was a couple from Auckland, New Zealand on our trip.  Less than a third of the way to the top, the girl couldn’t carry her pack any longer.  So her boyfriend carried it for her as well as his own.  And yes, he carried it all the way to the top.  The rest of the gentlemen on the trip made him swear to not spread the word because they couldn’t compete with that.  His response, “well, I suck at most of the other stuff so it all evens out.”  He was still the hero of all the women on the trip.  The rest of us were all trying to figure out where we would find such a man that would add 65 more pounds to his load up a mountain.

We made it to base camp just before it started raining, which was a major blessing to our day.  As soon as we got everything set up, the rain commenced.  It rained, and rained, and rained, and rained some more.  It rained all afternoon and all night.  I must also reflect that at 13,000 ft it’s cold.  It was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at our base camp.  I was in a very “go with the flow” mood, so when everyone was freaking out about where everyone was going to sleep I said I would sleep wherever there was room.  This left me by the door of the tent.  Which at the time seemed convenient if I needed to grab anything or if I had to get up in the middle of the night so was content with the situation.  The crew I was sharing a tent with were not the most avid of campers, they didn’t understand that when its raining, every time you open the tent you increase the amount of water in the tent.  They also did not comprehend the fact that the tent is meant to be waterproof and this means that once water is in its going to stay there.  So by the time it was bedtime there was a pool of water under my sleeping bag.  This coupled with the chill did not make this the most enjoyable camping experience of my life.  However, I just kept reminding myself of what was waiting at the summit for me in the morning.

As we were going to bed everyone kept asking me if I was okay because my sleeping bag was wet.  The thing is there was nothing anyone could have done for me at that point besides trade sleeping bags with me, and lets be honest, no one was showing that chivalry for me.  So my response to every inquiry, “it’s happening… and I’m over it.”  The truth was, I was only over it as long I got to the summit in the morning.  We were warned before we even left that this is rainy season so if it’s raining when we wake up at 3:30 am to climb the last stretch to see the sunrise, we wouldn’t be able to do it because it would be too dangerous.  I was lying in the fetal position trying my hardest to keep my entire body in the half of my sleeping bag that wasn’t wet and sleeping was just not an option, so I was wide awake when one of our guides poked her head in our tent at 3:30 am to say that it was raining and we would wait a couple of hours and try again.  Now I was getting worried.  What if we didn’t make it?  What if all of this freezing and climbing was a waste?

Good morning cliff!

When she came back at 5:30 and announced we were going to do it, I was more than elated to jump out of my bed and shove my shoes on (I was already wearing every scrap of clothing I brought with me).  The rain was over and the clouds had lifted and we could finally see that we had been camping on the side of a gorgeous cliff, which alone made up for my terrible sleep.  My spirits were lifted.  We made it to the top, not in time to see the sunrise but still in time to enjoy the view before the clouds came in for the day.

Moments like that are the moments that take your breath away in life.  The moments where you feel a sense of accomplishment and you feel closer to God as you just staring out at the vast view of his creation.  You feel the love of the people around you as you celebrate together what you were able to accomplish together.  Because it is together that you do it.  Could a single person make it to the top? Of course.  But it’s not the same as carrying someone’s bag or just lending a hand to someone who needs help over a rock.  Climbing a mountain is like walking a ridiculously long labyrinth.  You have time to think and contemplate life and its meaning.

On top of the world! ... or at least Central America

There is a labyrinth in the center of Concourse A of the Atlanta airport, that I of course walked in my 8 hour layover, however, the difference is it is a labyrinth with a beautiful epiphany at the end.  When you stare out over the land, your problems that you have been contemplating seem small and you can almost hear someone whisper in the wind, “No worries.  You are going to be just fine.”  This is the moment when everything seems worthwhile and you realize why you climbed all the way to the top of a volcano in the first place.

The rest of the day was for the most part anticlimactic.  We went back to our base camp, packed up, ate some breakfast, then hiked back down.  We got to the bottom just in time for lunch.  I was hurrying down the mountain to be the first to use the bathroom at the restaurant we were having lunch at.  This was another life lesson as karma caught up with me.  For those of you reading this thinking, “wow I can’t believe A.J. made it up and down a volcano with no injuries,”  I did not go completely unharmed.  I was indeed the first person to use the restroom.  I walked in, flipped the light switch that instantly electrocuted me enough to knock me off my feet.  A sensation that I also could live happily without experiencing again.  So, thanks to me everyone safely peed in the dark.

The trip, as many in my life do, did not go “smoothly”, but in the end it was worth the journey to get there.  I am happy that I finally made it to the top of a volcano!  My learning of Spanish is going well and every day I am more surprised to see how much I can soak up.  And I can only imagine how much more I can learn in the next month!

As always, here is the link to my complete photo album of my trip:

Hasta Luego!

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Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Guatemala


Feliz Cumpleaños a mi!

This past week has been an amazing week of learning Spanish.  I still cannot believe I was capable of learning so much in such short of a time span!  To top it all of my birthday was Saturday and we travelled to Lake Atitlan.  The lake is gorgeous and I took way to many photos.

While we were at the lake we travelled across the lake on a small boat.  The 12 year old driver told everyone to sit near the back, and I’m thinking “why would I do that? Then I couldn’t see the beautiful view of the lake as we cross it.”  And of course the 12 year old driver knew what he was talking about.  The front of the boat was airborne because the boat was at a 45 degree angle.  It bounced so much that you regretted not only your lunch in the front of the boat, but almost everything you had ever eaten.  It was so intensely bouncing my sunglasses fell of my face!

Panajachel is the town that we were based in and our hotel was beautiful.  It had a pretty garden outside our rooms with a tree that grew limes!  Panajachel and all the surrounding towns of Lake Atitlan have large street markets to buy souvenirs.  I was in the process of buying a t-shirt from a woman and she didn’t have the size I wanted so without a word she took off running up this hill with a baby in a bag on her back.  I didn’t really know what to think it was very interesting.  I bought the t-shirt, I think she earned it.

That is not even remotely the strangest thing I have seen since being in Guatemala.  The strangest thing, to which no one has been able to explain, was a man sitting on the side of the street slicing limes in half and putting them inside his socks.

Anyways, after we experienced the boat and the markets we took a walk.  Our valiant guide, Jaime, took us to see the mud river, which flooded the town a few years back and took with it many houses and shops.  Then we kept walking, and soon we ran out of town.  We walked some more and soon we ran out of road.  No one was quite sure where Jaime was taking us, and a few people were not happy at all with the excessive amount of walking.  Someone had told me Jaime was taking us to  a waterfall and so I went with it.  Jaime did not end up taking us to a waterfall, but a hidden private beach on the lake.  We got there just in time to watch a beautiful sunset over the lake.  It was an amazing birthday present.

Sunday, however, was not the best day of my life.  Let’s just say that the riches of Guatemala hit me all at once.  Our poor bus driver had to stop the bus twice so that I could vomit on the side of the road.  Sorry if that’s too much information for you all, but we continued our tourism to Chichicastenango and I did not see any of it except the gas station the bus was parked next to because I spent the whole afternoon napping on the bus.  The kind bus driver checked on me every once in awhile and went to a store to get me some mineral water for my stomach.  The rest of the group hiked a mountainside to see a Mayan church, but there was no way I would have made it.  I was not happy, and for the record I rarely let illness rob me of such experiences.

Today has been a much better day! Tonight one of my fellow students of Spanish is hosting a fiesta for my birthday.  One of the local women is cooking authentic Guatemalan food, I am very excited!  And I hope my stomach can handle it!  Please enjoy the pictures of the lake!

Here is the link to my photos of the lake:

Adios, until next time!


Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Guatemala


Pictures of Xela

Here is the link to my pictures from Xela so far:


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Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Guatemala


No Me Gusta El Gallo!

As soon as I arrived in Xela I had a quick and silent lunch with my host mother.  She does not speak English and yesterday noon I did not speak Spanish.  If you had asked me before I left how much I could learn I would have never believed I was capable of learning so much in one day.  Today after two days of class I had my first real conversation with my host mother at lunch.  I was absolutely stunned (and so was she) that I had retained that much information in 24 hours.

My arch-nemesis

Today started bright and early with the family rooster (el gallo) crowing from 3am to 8am.  Estoy muy enojada.  (I am very angry).  I had no idea what the bird was called until this afternoon when my instructor asked me why I was so tired and I just said I couldn´t sleep much.  Then we started to learn the names of barnyard animals and I pointed at the rooster on the page and shouted “AH NO ME GUSTA EL GALLO!”  Needless to say I startled her, but then she just about died laughing when she put it all together.

My profesora´s name is Irina and she thinks all of my Spanglish is funny.  Ps she just peered over my shoulder and all she could read was No Me Gusta El Galla” and is now hysterically laughing at me.  My brain only thinks in Spanglish, which is probably good.  I also have a tendency to shout ” Los Pies Felices” (Happy Feet).  To which I have no idea why, but it relieves some stress.  I haven´t gotten around to doing much site seeing yet, as I haven´t had the time.  I´m hoping to relax more this weekend.

We did have a celebration on the 4th at the school.  The “Children of Virginia”, as the school calls them, put on a small fiesta with food and fireworks. It was a nice wa to get aquainted with the teachers and other students.

A couple of side notes:  I apologize if words are spelt incorrectly because this spanish computer thinks every word I write is spelt incorrectly so It´s not as easy for me to catch.  Second, I hope to post some photos soon.  I need to figure out how to do it first.

Until next time, A.J.

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Posted by on July 6, 2011 in Guatemala


The “Oh Shit” Moment

Today my adventure began very early and naturally did not go according to plan.  My flight was delayed from Moline so I would miss my connecting flight.  So now I was about to spend 8 hours in the Atlanta airport and arrive in Guatemala 10 hours late. Bring it on!  A mild panic attack, a labyrinth walk in the center of concourse A, and a few international calls en Español and all is well.

During the flight to Guatemala I was seated next to two young Guatemalans on their way back from London after vacationing in Europe.  They helped me with the essential Spanish on the few forms we had to fill out.  The airport was a piece of cake.  Buenos Noches were the only words spoken to me by airport staff, they stamped my passport and pushed me out the door.

This was my “Oh Shit” moment.  A hundred Guatemalans are standing outside the door yelling for love ones or soliciting hotels all holdings signs with names.  Everyone kept talking to me in Spanish… my response “No”.  I walked around for a significant period of time staring at signs when I was forced to realize that none of them said my name.  This was the moment, the moment when it finally hit me that I was in a foreign country by myself.  Thanks to Alyssa and Pablo Cabrera for loaning me a Guatemalan cell phone that still had some minutes left on it I was able to call my ride.  Then I waited. I stood for a half hour and continued to turn down any taxi/hotel offers.  Then this sweet little woman with a white board on a long pole appeared out of nowhere and was sticking her sign in everyone’s face.  She was determined to find someone.  I catch a glimpse of the sign, “Alexayndra Haysen”.  My first thought was “oo I’ve never seen Alexandra with a y in it before, neat.”  I did not think anything else of it.  Then as she passed by a couple more times looking more frantic and determined to find Alexayndra and I thought, “wait a minute, maybe Alexayndra is me?”  Indeed it was.  Raquel and her husband welcomed me into their home tonight and are putting me on a bus bright and early in the morning for Xela!  What was my first stop after leaving the airport in Guatemala? Kentucky Fried Chicken at 10pm.  I found irony in the situation.

To all of you who assured me I know more Spanish than I think I do, you were quite right.  My “oh shit” moment released my native tongue. Raquel was an excellent teacher to start my journey.  She said everything in Spanish then repeated it in English for me.  Today, like most, was not even remotely how I had envisioned it but all is well and I look forward to the fiascos tomorrow will bring my way.

Hasta Luego


Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Guatemala