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My first time

Sunday, July 24, 2005 by Jeff

My muscles ache, my hand is blistered, and I smell like a locker room. Two and a half hours of floor hockey - my first time ever in the rink - took the piss right out of me. First times are invariably humbling. Thank god, I wasn't the only beginner (Paola joined me)...but close enough. Everyone else could run, walk, and slapshot past, around, and all over me. My team did manage a couple of points, but our overworked goalie watched a half dozen rubber balls whiz right him. These players were good - I have Canadian envy. I'm also amidst another first time, this time teaching social research methods. It's a grueling schedule of reading, prepping, and teaching that begins at 8am, moves to the classroom from 3-4:45 every day, and then weighs on me the rest of the night. Hockey is a great escape, and I'm thankful for that. During the week it's reliability, validity, nominal and ordinal variables, surveys and experiments, qualitative, quantitative, and comparative research. It's enough to test the patience of even the most dedicated scholar. But for a one-month job, it ain't bad. I'm my own boss and it regularly gets me to bed before midnight. In two and a half weeks the class ends and I have another trip planned, and it'll be my first time in Philadelphia. And while I'm not a cheese steak kind of guy, I do look forward to seeing the other side of Pennsylvania. I'm traveling under the auspicies of professional duties (Sociology conference), but a few days with Uncle Larry and Aunt Judy in Maryland and a few more with my old college friend Eric in DC, and I think this qualifies as a gen-u-wine vacation. The conference will be my first at which I am not presenting my own work - I'll be the spectator, amateur sociologist, and schmoozer. Like all first times, I'm sure it will be humbling.

Back to work

Sunday, July 10, 2005 by Jeff

Heather stood on the north side of the Interamerican Highway and I on the south, each of us waiting for buses going to opposite sides of Guatemala. Three chicken buses later I was in Antigua, again, while Heather, with our camera and four weeks to go, made her way back to Xela. Antigua is hardly a respite from the oppressive tourism of Lake Átitlan, but it is generally wealthier and in many ways more peaceful. I passed a day and a half with last-minute souvenier shopping, reading, and a couple of dollar movies (Hotel Rwanda and Kinsey). Then, last Thursday, I caught a taxi to the airport in Guatemala City and was back in Tucson in a few hours. Here I sit in my 4th-floor office in the Social Sciences Building marveling at the more than 1,000 photos Heather and I collected over the past two months (can you imagine what it would cost to develop these?!). She's still down south snapping away, so that number is still growing. Readjusting to life at home has been remarkably easy, and I can already feel the bad habits kicking in - sleeping in, wasting time on the computer, drinking. But because I begin teaching tomorrow I'm going to have to reign in my slothfulness. Some familiarities of home haven't escaped my attention. I can flush toilet paper without concern for the plumbing. Water is continuous. Hot water is bountiful. I don't have to buy drinking water. My kitchen is fully stocked. Air conditioning. Insulation. Healthy dogs. Unarmed security guards. No pickpockets. One-quarter the murders. One-sixth the poverty. Ten-times the per capita income. And there are other luxuries too. My own bed. A fast computer. My dog and my friends. Good vegetarian restaurants. Several changes of clothes. And I speak the language pretty well here. These things shouldn't be taken for granted! It feels good to be home.

Guatemala: July 4

Monday, July 04, 2005 by Jeff

Two weeks of Spanish lessons later I´m still a bumbling gringo who mangles the language with verve. I´ve been at a different language school this time around with a different maestra for each of the past two weeks. One was a 20 year-old psychology student who dreams of following her friends who´ve already snuck into the U.S. (very common here). The other was a 40 year-old, hardened veteran of the Xela language schools who insisted that I stop mangling the basics before moving onto the tougher stuff. It helped. Heather and I decided to take it easy for a while in Xela - she´s nearly always battling an unfriendly stomach - and stick to studying, cooking, and sleeping. At the end of last week we packed our bags and headed to the famous lake here, Lago de Átitlan. It´s an enormous mountain lake that formed in the crater of an ancient volcanic eruption, and has been shaped by the three volcanoes that have arisen on its banks. It is ringed by small pueblos, each having its own character - one known for marijuana, another for yoga and meditation, another for gringos shopping, and a few of them for the traditions of their non-tourist cultures. The area is absolutely overrun with travelers. I hate it. The land is spectacular - deep green forests, steep mountainside farms, towering volcanoes, and the blue water - but being inundated by vendors selling textiles and trinkets when we walk, turn, sit, sneeze, or eat is a bit more than I´d expected. I´ve learned that tourism is Guatemala´s largest "legitimate" industry (in the formal economy), surpassing the influential agricultural exports that I´ve been learning about for a year. [Photos: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7] This region around the lake was one of many particularly hard hit by the 36-year civil war that officially ended in 1996. A UN-sponsored Truth Commission report released in 1999 indicated that some 200,000 people died in this war. Almost all were indigenous people killed by the military or closely-aligned para-military groups - the commission calls it genocide. Today in Santiago Átitlan, on the lake´s southern shores, we went into a church with a memorial commemorating an American-born priest killed by the military, ten other civilians murdered while working on their farms, as well as hundreds more who died or were disappeared during the war. Everyone with whom I´ve spoken about the war has stories of friends or family who were killed or disappeared. However, life in the cities where we´ve spent the majority of our time was fairly well removed from these difficult-to-grasp realities. The peace accords were signed nearly a decade ago, but many people here are convinced that aggression, coercion, and killings still occur in many rural areas, although it evades the mainstream press. I´m in my final days in the country and Heather and I are having every opportunity to buy souveniers. The widely known market at Chichicastenango was a remarkable spectacle [photos: 1 2 3 4 5 6], as have been the views around the lake. Tomorrow we´ll say goodbye, Heather will leave once again for Xela and four more weeks of Spanish classes, and I´ll head to Antigua for a day before flying home on the 7th. Happy birthday Mary and I hope no one loses and eye playing with fireworks. Your comments to this blog are dying off, but I´d love to know that someone out there is reading this. Salud.

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Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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