Alto. Topes.

the skylight at Hotel California

I am standing on a wood-plank platform at the front of a narrow cement block building. The afternoon rain has slowed to a mist and slowly drifts through the chain-link windows under the corrugated tin roof. Onlookers crowd against the windows, vying to get a glimpse of the newcomers on stage. In back of me is a three-piece band, including drums, marimba, and tambourine. The drummer has a constant roll going, not loud, but as much a part of the background as the mist.

On either side of me are the people who will be my co-workers for the next three months: four gringos, one argentino, and seven guatemaltecos. In front of me, Julio is introducing us into a microphone in a mixture of Chuj (“choo”) and Spanish that I can catch about fifty percent of. Suddenly, he switches to a Spanish I understand. “And now, we’ll listen to the words of our respected teachers! We’ll begin… here.” And he gestures to the argentino standing next to me.

I have been in San Mateo Ixtatán for a total of 30 minutes, after a 10-hour drive from Antigua over the past two days. I have no idea where I’m sleeping tonight. I haven’t eaten in almost seven hours. I haven’t showered. I’m wearing chacos and it’s 40 degrees out. I’m freezing.

And now I am expected to make a speech to my future students and their parents. Surprise!

I feel the farthest from home I have ever been.


Yesterday morning in Antigua I received a call from Henry’s wife, María, to let me know he would be two hours late. Construction on the road from Huehuetenango was bad.

So… I checked my email in an internet cafe, drank some more coffee, and people-watched in the plaza. Bad news on my email. My research plan requires more revisions. *sigh*

Henry picked me up around 11 am, in a four-door Mazda pickup. He is originally from San Mateo, but grew up in Guatemala City. His wife works for the Foundation, and that is how he also came to work there.

We picked up my bags at Earth Lodge and beat a fast path to the airport, where we picked up Fernando (Argentine most recently from Charlotte, NC) and Natalia (from upstate NY and Atlanta, GA). From there we set out on the road to Huehuetenango, the municipal center of the department of Huehuetenango.

Normally the drive takes about 5 hours; it took Henry 7 hours to reach Antigua because of the construction, and it took us 6 hours to get from the airport to Huehue because of the curvas peligrosas and the neblina (ahem. dangerous curves and fog.). We stayed in Hotel California, a very nice (by Guatemalan standards) hotel that even had hot water!

Henry later told us that it was owned by a man from Soloma, a town that is well-known for its traficantes (drug dealers) and coyotes (people who smuggle illegal aliens into the USA). Both big businesses. Bigger than hotels.

We stopped for a desayuno típico of tortillas, scrambled eggs, black beans, and coffee. 12Q.

The drive from Huehue to San Mateo took another 5 hours. We climbed seemingly never-ending switchbacks until Henry joked that we had finally arrived at Heaven. When asked why people chose to live so far into the mountains, he explained that they wanted to be closer to God (claro)!

en route to San Mateo

We arrived in San Mateo just in time to drop our bags in the Foundation headquarters and walk to the town center for the initiation ceremony of the school year. Fer, Natalia and I had no idea what was going on.

The ceremony began with several songs from the three-piece band. At this point, I was so hungry that I begged for some small change (I had left my bag, along with camera and money, in the Foundation office) to go buy some galletas. I bought a bag of 48 chocolate creme cookies for 6Q from a streetside tienda, in sheer desperation.

The Chuj princess (winner of last year’s talent contest) acted as the master of ceremonies. After the procession of flags and what I assumed to be the national anthem, Chico Hernández (principal of the school) gave a brief introduction and welcoming speech. His speech reiterrated how proud he was to be from San Mateo, and how the school and the steps it was taking in improving citizens’ lives made him proud to be Chuj and from San Mateo.

I learned later that people from San Mateo are often seen as being at the “bottom of the heap,” by both ladinos (the Guatemalan word for mestizo, or of mixed indigenous and European blood) and other indígenas. Many people from San Mateo, after having moved elsewhere, will lie about where they are actually from.

The reason San Mateo is so looked-down upon, according to Beth-Neville (the director of Fundación Ixtateca) could be that the weather here is so bad, and there is very little land for farming. The salt mines have been mostly used up, and most of the young men here have gone to the USA to find work. Nearly a million dollars is remitted to San Mateo every year, by immigrants to the US.

After Chico’s speech, Julio called the teachers up one by one. Before my turn came, Jessica (one of the other gringas) let me know that I should mention that I’m teaching ciencias sociales.

What? Social Science? I thought that I was teaching a photo workshop…

And then came the speeches.

Following our speeches (I kept mine short and sweet… and still managed to mangle ciencias sociales, much to the amusement of several mothers sitting in the third row) Beth-Neville gave a short speech thanking everyone.

And then came the school board elections. First Chico took nominations from the audience, while Julio typed them into a computer, which projected the word document onto a portable screen.

Then, it seemed, (I say “it seemed” because business was conducted in a mixture of Chuj and Spanish, which I had a very hard time understanding) Chico went one by one down the rows and asked for peoples’ votes on each member of the parent board. The entire process took about 45 minutes.

Following the elections, Julio again projected a word document on to the portable screen. This document was in fact a permission slip, which he translated verbally into Chuj so that non-Spanish speaking parents would understand it. Upon completion, he asked for questions and “debate” over the points of the permission slip/ school agreement. This process took another 45 minutes.

One father spoke very emphatically in Chuj for nearly 20 minutes; the other teachers and I thought that he might be angry about something, because he kept saying “maestros” and “inadequado” in Spanish. We asked later, and it turned out that he was actually supporting the school, and reitterating how he thought it was better than the other school in town.

After the debates had been concluded, one of the teachers read off the minutes in Spanish, to make sure there were no objections to what had transpired during the ceremony. Since there were no objections, one by one every person in attendance signed the minutes book, while the three piece band played background music.

After everyone had signed, a few pairs began to dance to the music. I managed to escape the first song (I was so cold and so hungry after the three-hour ceremony that I really wanted to curl up in a ball and cry), but got caught by Juan, one of the school administrators, in the second song. We were the only pair dancing. The second song was also twice as long as the first.

Whew! What an introduction to the town!

I was hoping to settle in a bit when we returned to the Foundation offices, but no such luck. As it turns out, classes do not start on Monday, as I had been told, but rather tomorrow.

And I am not teaching a small, 5-hour-per-week photo workshop as I expected, but rather 20 hours of Social Science a week.

Wow. I feel like I’ve just hit a speed bump. And not just any speed bump. One of those 3-foot high topes they put on the highway through small mountain towns to make the cars slow down.

Let the planning begin!


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