Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

The Guatemalan Shoeshine: Not much of a defense
February 24, 2012

The shoeshine is the perfect massage; you get the pleasant pressure sensation of a more traditional rub down without any of the awkward skin-to-skin contact stuff. It costs 50 cents, and afterwards you can strut about like a champ because you got the shiniest shoes on the Guatemalan block.

So why do my friends suddenly pretend they don’t know me when sit down for my weekly primping? Why do they walk away, giggling nervously, when I asked them to take this picture?

Shoeshine, Antigua, Guatemala

It’s my last night in Guatemala, and I want to remember this.

“Please take a photo!” I yell after them on a busy street, as things start getting awkward for real.

Is it weird because there is a brown man literally kneeling at my feet? Are my friends uncomfortable because I’m going to pay him (including a generous tip that doubles his regular fee), only a third of what I would pay for bus fare back home in Canada?

I convince myself they’re just jealous, as they refuse to look at me, pretending instead to stare at their sneakers and sandals, incapable of understanding the joys of a leather soul.


and after


Israel, Fuck Ya!
February 22, 2012

*This title was dictated to me by a young man of rather obvious nationality.
* I was later told to change it to “Israelis, fuck ya,” because, according to him, “we have soul, we are persons.”

I have met so many Israelis during my trip that they warrant their own blog post, if not their own teeny tiny country.

Let us begin with Dor, who has a girlfriend named Seashell. Having recently finished three years of military service, Dor has taken up carving horrifying effigies into avocado pits while bumming across Central America, one of which he gifted to me. When not carving, Dor is a staunch defender of the Hebrew language, explaining away the need for superfluous words, like one for feet.

One of Dor’s early creations, when he was still perfecting the art of avocado pit carving.

“It’s not funny. It’s entirely reasonable,” he insists, explaining that in Hebrew you just refer to that foot appendage thing as “the palms of my legs.”

Dor’s bosom buddy is Yoav, a photographer and musician who isn’t particularly good at pulling up his pants after using the toilet, but is who is most definitely, definitely, Jewish.

Yoav and Dor heckled me over my lack of haggling skills at every opportunity, especially after I almost paid $4.20 for a pair of sunglasses when the Guatemalan market man would have “obviously” gone down to $3.75. In the hostal Yoav learned the diddy “America, fuck ya!,” which he took to signing at every opportunity, like during breakfast, or after exposing his man bits to his scribbling Canadian roommate.

“You wrote that it was 15 inches, right?” he asks as I doodle in my travel journal, “no wait, make that 20.”

“What exactly did you do in the Israeli army?” I ask him, changing the subject. “I was a tank commander,” explains Yoav, “I went around attanking things.”

I’m almost positive that’s what he said.

Weeks earlier I met Smadar and Omer, a honeymooning couple who spent the evening teaching me an obscure, traditional Israeli card game name “Taki,” which quickly revealed itself to be nothing more than Uno wearing a Kippah.

By the time I got to Mexico I was quite good at recognizing the Israelis, since they all wear the same sandals. And if for some reason I met an Israeli without the sandals, they always had a perfectly reasonable explanation for why they weren’t wearing their nation’s heritage on the palms of their legs: “they were stolen” or “I lost them” or “they broke.” Never did I meet an Israeli who just flat out didn’t own a pair. (Note to Palestine: the sandals may just be their kryptonite. Note to my new Israeli friends: just kidding.)

Yoav models the Israeli sandal on the palm of his arms.

At this point you may be wondering how I made so many Israeli friends, given my political correctness. Strangely, it wasn’t my love of the sandals, nor my fluency in German.

In the back of my journal I’ve kept a list of all useful expressions in other languages: “Chuchumanga,” for mocking Americans, “wuggende, wuggende, wuggende” for befriending Danes, “Snyggt Skägg” for charming handsome bearded men and “am Arsch der Welt” for explaining where in the hell Tikal is located.

After a few too many Mexican margaritas with Israeli Noa I wrote “Yesh li tzitzi ve moach, yesh li hakol” in my notebook, but forgot to include the translation. It wasn’t until the end of my trip that Dor and Yoav explained how I managed to make so many friends with that one saying.

Because apparently it means: “”I have titties and brains. I’m the whole package”.” Fuck, ya.

A Fool’s Celebrations
February 18, 2012

I have good reason to celebrate and lots of time to decide exactly how. 

I could, of course, quit my job and backpack across Central America.

I could visit the Mayan Ruins at Tikal, and climb the thousand year old temples that peak through the jungle skyline. I might even lose my way, and stumble across monkeys, lemurs and wild turkeys in the forests of the lost world.

Then again, I could also buy a one way ticket to Belize, and spend my days waiting for the sunset and my nights lounging in hammocks, waiting for the night to turn back into day.

I could become a Swiss German magnet, and befriend them all until I start rolling my R’s too. 

I would snorkel with sting rays, and a hundred turtles and a million sharks. If I could I might even put my hand out to touch the shark on it’s warm, fleshy belly.

My Valentine’s Day would consist of inviting myself along to a honeymooning Israeli couple’s romantic lobster dinner. We would all have a rather pleasant time and things wouldn’t get at all awkward until I invite myself over to their hotel room for a hot shower. They oblige, naturally.

I could take up residence with attractive sweaty men in my hostel room. They would deal with the steamy Carribean nights by sleeping in nothing but the tightest of underwear. 

I would make Danish friends and we would dance to a Belizean rock band’s version of American pop music. 

Unable to sleep at night, I would spend my days hammocking and starring out at the ocean with a lazy dog named Lady. 

But that’s what I did last week. So how am I supposed to celebrate getting accepted to Law School at McGill?







The Blind Feeding the Blind
February 7, 2012

I’ve been studying Spanish intensively for two weeks in Guatemala. I had 20 hours a week of one-on-one lessons with Ruben, a 27-year-old, football obsessed, father of 6-year-old twins. Once we’d established that I had 6-year-old nephews, it became difficult to fill the next 39 class hours with conversation. I mainly wanted to learn to speak Spanish, so we carried on anyway, talking in circles and comparing life in various countries. After two weeks I can stumble confidently through almost any conversation in Spanish, and have learned more about Guatemalan football than I ever wanted to know.

Ruben works at the Cooperativa Spanish School in San Pedro La Laguna. Since it’s a cooperative, teachers get paid more fairly than they would at other schools. Still, at $100 a week for 20 hours of private instruction, it couldn’t be cheaper. And life isn’t exactly expensive in San Pedro; it cost me $3 a night for a private hotel room (though shared with Liz, a pretty awesome roommate from NYC). The Cooperativa allocates 10% of what students pay in tuition to developmental projects. They pay the salaries of an art and a PE teacher in the local elementary school. They are also saving money to build a new home for a disadvantaged family.

I got to experience one of their developmental projects first hand last Friday. Every two weeks the school delivers bags of food (rice, pasta, oil, soap, eggs) to 26 poor families. Ruben and I were in charge of delivering two bags. The first went to a 76-year-old woman living alone. Her husband sold everything to pay for cancer treatment before ultimately dying, leaving her with nothing. She now relies entirely on the school for food. She thanked me and god profusely in Tzu’tjuhil, Ruben translating for her.

The next bag went to a larger family where the father had been blinded in an accident 12 years before, making it impossible for him to support his five young children. Feeling his way along stone paths, he makes his way to the same spot every day to beg for Quetzales. This second family didn’t speak Spanish either, leaving Ruben to translate everything. Again, they thanked me profusely. Choking on wood smoke in their two room hut, I’d never felt so embarrassingly, uncomfortably, rich. Extremely poor people are supposed to exist in World Vision infomercials, and my (semi)-rational fears of being mugged late at night. Standing in this family’s mud hut and clumsily taking their photo with my $600 camera was considerably more unsettling.


I left San Pedro yesterday. Tonight I head off into the jungle to visit caves and ruins, and maybe even impress some locals with my knowledge of last week’s soccer doping scandal.

Tz’utujil, a lesson.
January 31, 2012

I spent the evening learning Tz’utujil from Ana Maria Gonzalez Gonzalez.  At 8 years old, she’s a very serious maestra.

“Wajkex” she says.

“Wajakech” I repeat.

“Write it down” she tells me, eyeing my notebook seriously.

Ana (ei, en, ei, she spells for me, in English) is the baby of the Gonzalez Gonzalez family, though a litter of unidentified children always seem to be passing in and out of the dining room. 

“What’s her name?” I ask Ana, pointing the new baby sitting on her lap during our lesson.

“Uh, I don’t remember,” she answers naturally, changing the subject back to our lesson. It’s hard to concentrate though, since Ana’s big sister Evelyn (pronounced Ebely) is teaching my roomate Liz some Tz’utujil, pounding out her lesson on a prehistoric typewriter. 

“Xoot” Ana writes.

I pronounce it “shoot!” remembering that the x is pronounced like a sh in Tz’utujil. A Xoot is apparently a contraption used to cook tortillas, based on the explanatory drawings Ana keeps in her language studies notebook.She’s not much of an artist, so it might also be an armadillo. 

Over dinner I had asked Ana how to say a few things in Tz’utujil, the Mayan language spoken in this area of Guatemala. Mostly I just wanted to impress my Spanish teacher with something like “Good morning, my name is Emily”  (Aqbil, hanou’be Emily).

Like most people in this area, my Spanish teacher Ruben is Tz’utujil. Since we spend four hours a day together conjugating irregular verbs, I thought I’d learn a few words of his parents’ native tongue, though Ruben admits he doesn’t speak it much anymore.

Ana doesn’t seem to know much Tz’utujil either, since she keeps yelling at her mom in the kitchen to translate everything. While Ana speaks Spanish at home, she is leanring both English and Tz’utujil at school (all Guatemalan children are required to learn the Mayan language of their area). So far Ana has learned to spell her name and say good morning in English, a phrase she uses to greet me at all hours of the day and night.

“Good morning” she says to me, bouncing the baby on her lap and calling my attention back to yet another obscure and unpronouncable Tz’utujil Word. When this is over I still have hours of Spanish homework waiting upstairs. Xoot. 

The Chicken Drop: a night out in Belize
January 26, 2012

It had been another exhausting day in Caye Caulker, Belize, full of enfeebling activities such as hammocking, sunbathing, reading, watching the sunset, and reading while sunbathing in a hammock at sunset.

After the obligatory 5 o’clock shower (for washing off all the suntan lotion and sand of the day), it seemed like a good idea to relax atthe island’s token sports bar to watch the New Jersey Devil’s cream
the Leafs. (I’ll be getting to the part of the story where the chicken runs around in a circle while beligerent tourists try and scare the shit out of it soon).

At the bar I met up with a Torontonian and a blue-eyed Swede, both deceivingly nice guys with an unfortunate habit of cheering for the Leafs (as an example of how bizarre leafs fan are, one guy had brought his own Leafs beer cozy along to Belize to help cheer for his team).

This is about the time in the story when I started feeling homesick. Though I spent less than 2 of the last 14 months in Canada, I rarely take part in very Canadian activities like NHL games, so homesickness was quite new to me. I suddenly had visions of watching the game in grama’s living room while drinking a Canadian and rolling up the rim of a Tim Horton’s cup. Luckily for me I quickly realised that my homesickness had more to do with all the corporate advertising on the boards than any real affection for my homeland, leaving me happy enough to take part in the chicken drop.

By the time I got to the chicken drop shit was about to go down. For those who have never witnessed this perticular manifestation of animal cruelty, a chicken drop is when you shake a chicken a lot before letting it loose in a pen where beligerent tourists yell at it and try to get it to shit on their number on the ground.

“Don’t worry, I bet on lots of numbers for us” said the Swede, handing me the dredges of a cuba libre.

So the fun began, and the gamblers were all, literally, trying to scare the shit out of a chicken. The Americans had strangely become less loud, calmed perhaps by the possibility of winning $50 cash.

The poor chicken, unaccustomed to such a leading role, ran straight for the corner and stayed there, sticking its ass defiantly into the air. Then, after a few more shouts and taunts, the chicken shat, squarely, and unmistakably, in number 88.

We had won.