May 10, 2005

If you can read this . . .

If you are reading this, chances are that you are not Guatemalan. Or, at least, that you did not spend your formative years in Guatemala. What do I mean by this? Simple. Guatemala has a huge literacy problem. We witnessed it first hand on the plane coming home. To give credit where credit is due, my wife picked up on it first and clued me in.

A substantial number of people boarding the plane to NY in Guatemala City could not read their boarding passes. The crew, knowing this, had to tell them where they were sitting by either leading the passengers to their seats, almost taking them by their hands, or by pointing to exactly which seat they had. One of the crew confirmed to my wife that a lot of people boarding in Guatemala could not read and needed the crew to fill out all of their immigration and customs forms. The crew did say that some of the passengers asked them to do it out of laziness and not because they couldn't read, but still. The crew came from El Salvador, by the way.

Can you imagine what that must be like? Navigating the rocks and shoals of modern life without being able to make sense of the world around you? Or, maybe you compensate, like where one sense gets stronger when another when gets weaker. Beats me. But to be deprived of reading poetry.

The literacy rates are very poor, according to the research I've done. Actually, one UNESCO graph is particularly interesting because it casts the information in the form of illiteracy percentages. If you click on the link, you will see that almost 4 out of every 10 Guatemalan women are illiterate and about 2.5 out of every 10 men are illiterate. Those numbers tower over all of the other countries UNESCO includes in their graph.

One aspect of the literacy problem fairly leaps off the page: the disparity between literacy rates for men and for women. This suggests that women have much more restricted access to formal education than the men do. It also suggests that women have it much tougher in general in Guatemalan society. Or, at least, maybe they do. I don't really know enough to fully draw that last conclusion. But is does suggest that, ipso facto, fewer opportunities exist for women as we in the developed world understand those opportunities.

No matter how you look at it, it's a total mess.

Still, I don't want to leave this topic with the implication that there is no hope. Since 1980, some 25 years ago, the rate of adult illiteracy has dropped from 47% of the population to 29.5%. That suggests hope, right?

Posted by Random Penseur at 04:04 PM | Comments (3)

May 09, 2005

Back from Guatemala

I am back from Guatemala, arriving home at a little after 1:00 this morning. I lack the coherence to give a full and reflective report, so, instead, I'm going to sort of sum up in a series of stand alone vignettes and random thoughts:

*They should just admit that the country is humid and that central air conditioning is helpful.

*I'm sure I've said this before, but Guatemala is an exciting, vibrant, lovely, dirty, sometimes scary place, filled with kind and gentle people who carry lots of guns, all the time, all over the place.

*Driving behind a pickup truck in which six National Policemen were sitting in the open bed of the truck, on the walls of the bed, was scary enough but when one of them started playing with his Uzi, I wanted to throw myself over the children and close my eyes. All we needed was a pothole. Big sigh of relief when they turned off the road.

*The National Zoo in Guatemala City is a friendly place and we were there on a day when the place was filled with children from outside the city. They were mostly indigenous peoples and we dressed, many of them, in traditional clothes. They were flat out fascinated by my blond haired blue eyes kids and spent a lot of time looking at them and talking about them. The Girl Child became uncomfortable with being stared at for so long and by so many. The Boy Child was oblivious. My mother in law explained that these children had probably never seen anyone who looked like my children.

*Marimba, when played for the locals and not the tourists, can be a lot of fun. It must have something to do with the vibe of the people listening and dancing to it.

*I know I've written about fruit in Guatemala before, but it is so damn good. We also had some other cool things:

pacaya: A vegetable, the initial blossom of a variety of date palm tree; has a slight bitter taste. Used in salads; deep fried in egg batter or served in a tomato based sauce. Most appreciated by Guatemalans and Salvadorians. Consumed year round in particular during Holy Week and November 1 (All Souls/Dia de los Difuntos).


Huiquil (which I am spelling wrong and which we had in a soup.

*More later on a couple of other topics from the trip.

Posted by Random Penseur at 11:33 AM | Comments (6)

May 06, 2005

How do you feed the children?

The newspaper headline this morning here in Guatemala City was stark: 50% of Guatemalan Children Are Chronically Malnourished. It came with a helpful photograph of three small children sitting by the side of the road eating some meager looking tortillas. The poverty in Guatemala is breathtaking, as I'm sure poverty is anywhere. But when you put that statistic to it, it becomes much smaller and more immediate, the scope of the poverty, that is. Poverty becomes a hungry child, it's really that simple.

The consequences, it seems to me, are much graver than simply a child without enough to eat, a child who goes to bed hungry. Chronic malnutrition will stunt brain growth and will make it easier for disease to grab ahold. The malnourished child today, assuming he lives, will be the burden to society later, unable to earn more than a subsistence wage, if that. This seems fairly obvious. Solve the hunger problem and you give society as a whole a fighting chance.

The problem is that I don't see it changing in the near future.

Pity the hungry children in Guatemala. They deserve at least that.

I feel totally helpless.

Posted by Random Penseur at 05:09 PM | Comments (5)

January 07, 2005

Antigua Guatemala -- More Architectural Fragments

As you may recall from the previous post, Antigua Guatemala was a very wealthy city which was destroyed, in large part, by a combination of eathquake, flood, and volcanic eruption. The catastrophe devestated the buildings and the city in general. Some of the churches still remain unrestored. Here are some pictures I took of the volcanos, as seen from the city, and a couple of ruins and the beautiful, detailed, architectural elements. Can you imagine the wealth required to support the teaching and work for these craftsmen? I think that there is something very haunting and poignant about a ruin.

Here are the volcanos:



And here is the facade of the ruined cathedral in the main square (there is really nothing behind this facade, by the way):


Here is another church:


Here are two pictures of the rich detail I had talked about above on yet a third and different church:




Posted by Random Penseur at 09:40 AM | Comments (7)

January 05, 2005

Doorways of Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala was the administrative capital of Spanish colonial Central America. It was a city of stunning wealth, dazzling architecture and art, and great sophistication. Guatemala was an important post for Spain and ranked just below Mexico in terms of desirability for fortune seeking sons of the Spanish nobility and other scoundrels. It was pretty much destroyed in an earthquake and flood in 1773 and the Spanish ordered it pulled down as they moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City. The people of Antigua, known as Panzas Verdes, or Green Bellies because of all the avocados they eat, refused to pull it down. And they attempted to rebuild. Today, Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an exceptionally charming and beautiful place. I've been there now about 4 or 5 times and I love it.

It is also a good excuse to post some architectural element photographs and innaugurate a new category of the same name. This category will include pictures of pieces of buildings, architectural sculpture or ornament or just something on a building that catches my eye. It happens to me all the time and I've decided to start bringing my camera along with me more often.

I hope you enjoy the following shots of doorways and door knockers (with one excellent wall mounted wrought iron light to kick things off and light the way)!










Posted by Random Penseur at 04:02 PM | Comments (7)

January 04, 2005

The Flowers of Guatemala

Guatemala is called the land of the eternal Spring. I think these pictures of the flowers of Guatemala, taken by yours truly, help illustrate that name. I hope you enjoy them.








I hope you enjoyed them!

Posted by Random Penseur at 06:56 AM | Comments (7)

December 26, 2004

Sad Fact of the Day

I learned this morning, while on the morning walk with my father in law, that 50% of all children in Guatemala under the age of five are malnourished. Stunning.

Not to sound too priggish or holier than thou, but it is certainly something to contemplate post Christmas celebration, a fact which throws into stark relief the benefits my family has enjoyed this week.

Posted by Random Penseur at 01:05 PM | Comments (1)

December 25, 2004

God Jul / Feliz Navidad, etc.

Good morning to you all and a merry Christmas! We have had our combination Norwegian/Guatemalan Jul/Navidad. Christmas Breakfast is in 15 minutes so I have just a little time to write. Jul is, in my wife's family, all about the food. Norwegians celebrate Christmas, or Jul, on Christmas Eve. That is when the gifts are exchanged and the traditional food is consumed or at least kicked off. We had the very traditional foods in a tropical setting.

We started at 12 with grøt. Grøt is a rice porridge to which sugar and butter and cinnamon is added to each bowl. An almond is hidden in one of the bowls and the lucky almond finder is rewarded with a pig made entirely from marzipan. The election this year was rigged and the Girl Child was the happy beneficiary of the electoral corruption. She promptly ate the pig's legs and hid the remainer under one of the couches in the living room. I found it later.

Dinner kicked off at 5 or so with the super heavy Ribbe. Ribbe is a cut of pork with ribs and very crunchy skin and fat bits. It is eaten also with Medistercaker (a kind of meatball) and Julepolser (a sausage). Side dishes included red cabbage and sour cabbage, stringbeans, taters, and maybe something else. Drink? Aquavit and beer. I will say merely that when I got up from the table, I seriously considered passing out as a sensible option. Too much aquavit, perhaps. Oh, and a meal fit for a Norwegian farmer eating in the dead of Winter which is instead being eaten by a lawyer in the heat of Guatemala. Not a natural translation, it seems to me.

One of my sisters in law dressed up as Julenissen (Santa Claus) and scared the living daylights out of the Boy Child. He regarded the front door with great suspicion from that point forward in the evening.

Hope your holiday was equally fun! Off to more aquavit and beer for breakfast, now!

Posted by Random Penseur at 10:00 AM | Comments (4)

December 19, 2004

I met the mountain and the mountain won

I am afeared of heights. I have been since I was a child. Nonetheless, as I described in the post below this one, I attempted to scale the volcano Pacaya with my sister in law this morning. It was great fun, even if it kind of kicked my ass on the way up. Well, maybe the altitude had something to do with it, too. I got about 90% of the way up when my fear of heights kicked in something fierce and I kind of froze half way up this trail. Also, did I mention that I could not see much more than 5 feet in front of me at this point? The clouds were that heavy and we were right in them. I knew that on one side of me was a fatal drop into a bowl of cooled lava and I had no real grasp of what was on the other side. Oh, and the trail? Black volcanic sand so you were slipping and sliding the whole way. I just decided, as my anxiety mounted with each step, to stop and I sat right down on a volcanic stone. I know it was volcanic because it left a little bit of itself in the palm of my hand. It didn't hurt, I only noticed it because I was bleeding. So I made my way back down to the bottom of this trail and waited for my sister in law to make her ascent and then rejoin me.

I had time to think, there, alone in the cold. And it was mighty cold and windy. I came to a conclusion that I will share with you here, after I contemplated my fear of heights and my desire to try anyway. Here it is. I have certain limitations but life is about trying to push those limitations from time to time and either expand them or learn to accept them and live gracefully within their confines. I accepted a limitation today. But only after trying and climbing a very steep mountain trail for about an hour and a half.

My title said that I met the mountain and the mountain won. Untrue, as I think about it. I did meet the mountain but I learned something and I think I call it a draw.

Amusingly enough, I had a very pleasant chat with a fellow who is going to be doing a joint venture between his company and another foreign company with US law to apply. I was able to steer him to a good lawyer in Miami. If it was NY, I have no doubt he would have retained me. That's right, I can go up a volcano in Guatemala, knowing not a soul other than my sister in law, and come down with a new client. In any event, my wife and I are having dinner with him and his wife tomorrow night in Antigua.

Posted by Random Penseur at 03:32 PM | Comments (8)

December 18, 2004

I don't know where I'm a gonna go when Pacaya blows

[With apologies to Mr. Buffet]

Tomorrow morning, we merry and intrepid two (my sister in law and me) will depart at 6:00 a.m. to scale the active volcano, Pacaya. We arrived in Guatemala yesterday after a tough flight with 2 underslept and overcolded children. I leave tomorrow, bringing with me water, camera, and my fear of heights to attempt the "thrilling but terrifying ascent" (guidebook) up the cone of the most active volcano in Guatemala. Should be fun. Of course, plenty of people have been robbed on this climb but it is supposed to be much safer now. We'll see. Pictures to follow upon the return.

How is Guatemala? Let me simply quote the Girl Child who said to me, as we strolled around her grandparents' garden, "My, it sure is a beautiful day here, Pappa." And now I must go. The Girl Child and the pool beckon.


Posted by Random Penseur at 04:37 PM | Comments (3)