Sunday, June 22, 2008

Quick blog, pictures and goodbye!

Ok...well I have about 15 minutes to write this blog, post these pictures and sign-off of the bloggin business for 9 days (more on that in a bit...)

First things first...a quick blog and my day yesterday. So when I was about 6 years old, I went on a family retreat where we did a bunch of stuff that really, the Fiterman family is not so good at. One of these things was horse back riding. So at about 6 years old, I mounted my first horse. Within about 15 minutes, this horse had dashed off into the woods with no one around leaving me with a couple scratches and pretty much terrified of riding a horse.

Since then, I've probably ridden 2 horses (girl scouts? birthday parties? who knows) and don't remember enjoying the experience a whole lot. Anyway, yesterday, all that changed.

I went horse back riding through Honduras and it was AMAZING! I had quite possibly the sweetest horse in the world. His name was Muñeco which means doll. He was gorgeous and so calm.
After about an hour of riding, we made it up to a spot called Hacienda de San Lucas. Ok folks, if you are curious what heaven is going to be like, just come here and you will find out immediately. It is unbelievable! Here are a few pics...

We hung out at the Hacienda for about 45 minutes or so and then headed back down the hill to Copan.

Now again, I know I've been known to exaggerrate from time to time but it was over 100 degrees here yesterday. And the original afternoon plan was to visit the natural hot springs. Well, let's just say that while soaking in my own sweat, suddenly, these hot springs didn't sound like such a great idea.

So, my friend Connie and I grabbed a quick bite in town and headed back up to Hacienda San Lucas (this time by tuk-tuk)
We spent the afternoon sleeping, laying, a little yoga, sleeping, sipping smoothies...oh, and sleeping. It was fabulous.

Now for the quick goodbye. Well, just as I am getting used to my new home here in Honduras, I am leaving! Next week is essentially spring break for the kids so there is no school. So another volunteer, Caroline, and I are off!

I am leaving today to start my trek down to Nicaragua (it takes two days to get there). In Nicaragua we are visiting a brand new GVI project in a tiny town called Estelí. After a few days there on the project, we are exploring mroe around Nicaragua and then onto Costa Rica!

That is pretty much all we have as far as a plan goes at this point. Our theory is that if you don't go in with a plan, it can't go wrong! So, I'm sure when I get back, I'll have LOTS of adventures to share with you guys.

So don't forget about the blog, keep the comments coming and as a little "goodbye" present, I have posted a BUNCH of pictures from Honduras. So check out the past two entries from here which now have some good visuals...

Signing off as a "real" backpacker...

xoxo,
Debra

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A day in the life...

Hey ya'll! Well...four more days in Honduras and I haven't melted...yet.

I am definitely settling into my new life here in quaint little Copan and I definitely owe all of you an update. I think the best way for me to explain what life here is like is just to take you through a "Day in the life of a Minnesotan girl living in Copan" (don't worry...this will not be the title of my book...)

My days usually start like this: I'm in the middle of some great dream when suddenly, this very annoying beeping enters the dream...about 15 minutes later, I realize that it is actually a combnation of my alarm clock and the alarm on my watch (I do not trust that only one of these contraptions would wake me) For the record, the time is 5:30 a.m.

I stumble out of bed bleary eyed, and fumble around for my light switch which is in quite possibly the weirdest and least convenient place ever. This next part of my day is definitely the worst part...the bathroom.

No, it's not Montasuma's Revenge (although he has gotten me a couple times...) it is the smell. So here in Copan, let's just say that the sewers a a bit older than those in Minnetonka. So every morning, I take a deep breath before entering my bathroom because throughout the night, some sort of sewage backs up into my toilet. Ah yes, the joys of thurd world travel.

But after a good flush, everything is ok and I can move on with my day. So now that I'm awake, I throw on the top t-shirt in the pile and top pair of pants in the stack (literally, this is how I get dressed now...just wear the two things on top...a far stretch from the fashionable days at Gen Mills) After my high fashion lok is complete, I climb down the pretty trecherous stairs and eat pancakes.

Yep. Pancakes every day (or at least the last 6 days running). I'm definitely not complaining since there are MUCH worse options of things to eat every day and I've never had a real probelm with repetition. So I throw down my 3 pancakes with honey (very weird...hoep I get used to that soon) and my banana and it's off to school.

I think I mentioned this fact in my last blog but in Honduras you are pretty much always in one of two states while walking: Walking straight up hill or shuffling straight down hill. These hills are no joke. So first I do my awkward shuffle down the hill, then I climb the huge hill and then it's down 126 steps (yes, I have counted this several times).


There at the bottom of the hill awaits a rusty navy blue pick-up truck. We climb into the back and we're off! First, we need to stop at this market to pick up fruit for the kids and load 150 bananas and 5 watermelons into the truck. And then, we are really off...

So over the past 4 days I have tried to take pictures of the ride and it is virtually inpossible. But what I can tell you is that it is truly stunning. We ride alongside a river and up a hill that is so green...again, my writing skills just are not up to the task of describing this one. It takes us about 25 minutes to get to the school and we usually pick up a couple of kids alng the way.

The school literally pops up out of no where. It's like we are seeing endless untouched land and all of the sudden, there is a little turquoise school that just creeps on our right with about 30 kids just waiting for us to get there.

Again, I will definitely write more about the school later but it is really great. It is very different from my other school. Not better or worse...just really different. I have 2nd graders again (8-10) and I'm definitely already loving all 20 of them...even Kevin, the ADHD child who has quite possibly the loudest voice I have ever heard (more on all the kids and the school in another entry)


School goes from 7 to 12 and even though we are loaded back in that pick up truck by 12:30, it feels like a lifetime since that alarm went off at 5:30. So we head back down (amazingly, the views are equally stunning on the way down) and unload the pick up truck.

Now exactly why we get off at the bottom of the 126 stairs when all of us live at the TOP of the 126 stairs is beyond me but I have filed this in the TIH category (This is Honduras...) So I climb the 126 stairs (have I mentioned that there are 126 stairs yet??), shuffle awkwardly down a hill, struggle to climb the mountain and go back to my house for lunch. At this point, I shove whatever Tina puts in front of my into my face (a, because I'm starving and b, because I have spanish class and really want to have time to buy a diet coke) and I'm of again.

You guessed it, down the hill, up the hill, down the stairs and to the Spanish school. I have SPanish lessons for 4 hours a day for my first week and am trying to fit some more in while I'm here in Honduras but we'll see how that goes.

My Spanish teacher is adorable and looks about 12. She is actually 18 (which is insane) but she is so sweet and classes have been great. I do have a quick funny story about spanish class...

Now this doesn't even touch the circumsision mishap but it is still funny and ironically, again about beign jewish (I think I just need to stop metioning this fact). So we were talking about countries I've visited and Israel came up and one thing led to another and suddenly, it came up that I was Jewish. She did have a slight look of surprise when I mentioned it (I don't think there are a whole lot of USY chapters here in Copan if you know what I mean)

Anyway, the next day (clearly this fact that I was Jewish had stuck with here) here's how it went:
Her: You said you Jewish right?
Me: Yep.
Her: You look exactly like a jew.

Now it was about this time that I had to remind myself that in this culture, people call each other fat to their face and it isn't offensive. People just say it how it is around here. But nonetheless, it was a funny story.

So after Spanish class, I drag my ass back up the 126 stairs (seriously people, I am going to have a rock hard ass when this is over...and ridiculously oversized calves), down, up....you get the picture and home where I immediately throw myself into an ice cold shower. I think I forgot to mention that all of these activities occur in 95 degree heat.

Dinner time followed by either out for a drink, a salsa lesson, a little internet (like tonight!) or just chilling at home watching either Anderson Cooper on CNN on the only English channel I have or trying to watch the Simpson's in Spanish.

And then, it's bedtime.

The days are full. The stairs are impossible. The heat is nearly unbearable. The food is bizarre. The roads are unpaved. The bathroom is smelly. And the teachers are slighty offensive.

But you know what? I'm loving it.

xoxo,
Debra

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hola from Honduras!

Alright folks...we've got a lot to catch up on. Before I even get to Honduras, I need to take it from where we last left off...seat 10F.

Ok...so I was sat in the exit row. Sweet deal right? Wrong. So not only did I have zero extra leg room and a seat that did not recline. But I happened to also have the great fortune of sitting next to quite possibly the worst seat neighbor in the history of air travel.

This guy thought it was hilarious every time we hit a bump to scream "We're goin' down!!" and then any time someone put something down on the floor of the exit row he screamed, "Get that off teh floor...I can't have anything in my way if I'm going to start throwing people out the exit door!" And if that wasn't enough, every time the flight attendant bell rang, he would echo the ding-dong tune with the words "Bong-Water..."

Ok...well needless to say I made it safe and sound to Antigua and didn't need Exit Row Guy's services of throwing me out the window. When I got into my shuttle to get back to the city, I was so surprised to find out that they actually still speak Spanish here in Guatemala!

SEriously...you would not think that only a week back home would make me forgot but it really was hard to get back into the swing of things. Anyway, I got back to the city and it was so good to see everyone at "our" coffee shop. It's like they had been waiting for me the whole week! (obvioulsy I know that is not true but I like to think that things stop around here while I'm gone...and for the record...all of you at home...your lives are stopped while I am here...)

So I had (another) farewell BBQ and then out for a bit. After about 11 minutes of sleep, my shuttle came to pick me up at 4:00 am to head to my new home...Copan, Honduras! So during this 5 hour drive, I managed to have a couple more travel adventures but far and away, the most random thing ever happened at the border crossing between Guatemala and Honduras.

So...somewhere tucked in between the line where you have to pay to get your passport stamped and the line for a square of TP to go to the bathroom was this tiny little old lady with a blue checkered apron selling cinnamon rolls. Seriously...this woman was as American as apple pie and came straight off of Dan Patch Road from the Minnesota State Fair. Bizarre to say the least...
Ok...so I've been writing for an hour and I haven't even gotten to Honduras! So I arrive here about 11 or so and go straight to my new host family. I get to the street where my house is and on one side is a cute little house and on the other is a construction zone. So, I start rolling my suitcase to the house when the project manager Caroline informs me that nope...I am living in the construction zone.

Don't panic...I thought. But I climbed the stairs (that have no railing) and was led to my room which is actually really nice. But before I even noticed that it was nice, my eyes focused in on one thing and one thing only...I HAVE TV!!!!

Yes ladies and gentleman...it's true. It may only be CNN and one other channel in English but I am not going to complain. My house mom is really sweet and again, I think as I live here longer, I'll write an entire blog entry about the adventures of living in this house (and I think there could be quite a few considered every day, I discover that there are more and more people living in it!)

Saturday pretty much entailed unpacking an dlosing conciousness for most of the afternoon and turning in early (it's possible that I was actually in a come during my walking tour of the city...)

Didn't waste too much time and on Sunday it was off to the "main event" here in Copan which are the ruins. Another volunteer and I toured the ruins all Sunday morning and they were amazing! Not quite as extensive as Tikal but incredble nonetheless.
My guide was a little "loco"...cell phone, snake lover, you get the picture...
And here is me on the "Sacrificial Ball" where they actually performed human sacrifice.
Sunday afternoon I met the other volunteers and we had orientation (again...pretty much don't be dumb and don't die) and then a movie night at home.

I went to the project for the first time today and needless to say, it was AMAZING! Again, WAY too much to write right now so stay tuned for more on the project VERY soon.

Overall, I am adjusting to life in Copan. I can't say it's love at first sight but it wasn't with Antigua either. I think that when I left for Guatemala, I was ready and expecting an adjustment period but I'm not sure I was as prepared for it here as I should have been. I definitely miss my friends and newfound family in Antigua and am missing home a little bit too after my very short visit.

But if there is one thing I've learned on this trip is that things just take a little more time than you think and I'm sure that before long, there will be another blog entry entitled "I think I'm in love..."

xoxo,
Debra

Friday, June 13, 2008

What a week...

To try to describe the last 7 days is definitely the hardest thing I’ve had to do since starting this blog. I should probably start by telling you that I am writing this entry from seat 10F on an airplane heading from Charlotte back to Guatemala.

As I think many of you know, my Grandpa Ben passed away this past Saturday after a long battle with several health issues. I have spent the last 5 days in Minneapolis with family and friends and even now as I think about it, it all feels like a blurry dream.

I’m really not too sure how to write this entry but I do know that I want to try and capture what the last week has been like since it has definitely had an impact on the journey. I also want to use this entry as my official farewell to Guatemala because starting tomorrow, I will be beginning my next teaching project in Honduras.

So I guess I’ll start there…saying goodbye to Antigua.

It all started last Thursday. I had just etched my name into my final stove in Santa Maria de Jesus and was trekking back to the school. What was waiting for me was amazing. All of the kids (all 100+ of them!) were waiting in a line to say one final goodbye to me. Many of them had crayon drawings, picked flowers, made paper airplanes and other priceless kid gifts for me to say goodbye and thank you.

I made each of them a card with a picture of me and each of them individually as just a little thank you from me. If they only knew how much each of them had taught me over the past 7 weeks, I think they might stop calling me the teacher!
As I hugged each one of them, it was hard not to let the thought that I will most likely never see these kids again enter my mind. These kids that I have taught, learned from, played with, laughed with and fallen in love with will probably only now exist for me in photos and through this blog’s memories. But I tried not to think about it as much as I could and just hugged each kid, fought back the tears and just tried to really take in the moment as much as I could.

Picking which pictures to put here was so hard because every kid is just so amazing but just to give you an idea, here are a few (and a video!)…
video

Friday was yet another incredible day. At Santa Maria they had Planacientos, which is a day to honor the elderly in the community. All of the grandparents of the kids came to the school to be honored. It was so incredible to see the wrinkled faces and tired eyes of almost 80 men and women who came to see us.
We started by thanking all of them for coming and for supporting their kids coming to school. And then, several of them stood up one by one to thank us for our work. It was amazing! (seriously…the English language has got to come up with more words for “amazing” and “incredible”…I just feel like I’m using those words too much!)

Often in these very poor communities, what little the families have goes to the children. So many times, the elderly are left with very little food. So at this celebration, we gave each grandparent a bag with the “basics”…flour, sugar, pasta, oil, soap. We called each of their names individually to come and get their bags. It really felt like we gave each person the honor and respect they deserved and didn’t feel like a simple handout.
After these couple intense days up at the project, it was time to have a little fun! Friday nights are barbeques for the GVI crew where they welcome new volunteers and say goodbye to us who are leaving. The BBQ was fabulous and afterwards, we hit the town with our dancing shoes on and tequila shots in hand. Even the dance clubs are built into ruins around here!

To all of the kids and families in Santa Maria, to my host family and to the other volunteers…what can I say? You have honestly made the past 7 weeks wonderful. When I left on this journey, I wasn’t so sure what I’d find on the other side but I could never ever have imagined I’d be greeted with such amazing people. Thank you all for making my first leg of my journey one I will never, ever forget.


Ok…Saturday morning. I went to the internet café and got the news of my grandfather. My family and friends had been trying to get a hold of me for the past two days but the internet was down and my phone was out of credit. I know that all of that happened for a reason because the last thing my grandpa would have wanted was for me to miss any part of my goodbye to Antigua. To be honest, a lot of Saturday seems like a blur. A lot of travel arrangements and calls to home. Packing up and trying to just focus on getting back to Minnesota.

I got home on Sunday night where my best friend Rachel picked me up from the airport…quite possibly the best hug ever. It was hard to balance all of the mixed emotions. Sad because of the situation, excited to see everyone, not wanting to leave Guatemala, happy to be home...even it only for a few days.

The next few days were overwhelming to say the least. It really was good to spend some quality time with my family, even under the circumstances and so good to see my friends from home.

I know it sounds strange but the whole week felt more like a tribute and celebration of my grandpa than a funeral and shiva. Every person that came and every word that was said was such an honor to him and I was just so proud to be one of his granddaughters.

I need to take a minute to thank everyone who was there for me this week. Everyone from Dom and Doreen here in Guatemala who made sure I got home to every single friend and family member who welcomed me back with open arms and ears. I honestly am not sure I would be back on this plane without all of your support. I love you all more than words could ever say.

As I continue on this journey, I know that I am doing exactly what my grandpa would have wanted…doing my tiny part to make this world just a little better. Teaching a little, learning a lot and laughing as much as possible.

xoxo,
Debra

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Stoves with a little side of salsa…

Well, it’s quite possible that I have now officially lost all of my blog fans. After all of the AMAZING comments from last post, what did I do?? Blew you all off for an entire week! Well, if there are any of you still out there reading this, I promise this will be a good one. And I promise to be better about updating more often! But as you’ll see from this entry, it has been a crazy, rainy, exhausting, exhilirating and just plain INSANE week.

So I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before in the blog or to any of you but for my last week in Guatemala, rather than teaching, I was working on a stove project. Next logical question...what is a stove project?? Let me explain...

In the community where I teach, Santa Maria de Jesus, the living conditions are really pretty bad. Our students usually live in nothing more than a one room square hut made of reeds. They sleep, eat, cook, clean...everything in what is nothing bigger than a manager’s cube at General Mills. (and for any of you Mills people reading this, you know that is not a big place!)

Ok, so imagine that in this tiny one room there are several kids and often a few adult family members sleeping in the same room as an open fire stove that is burning constantly. The smoke inhalation is not only dangerous, but often very deadly. Smoke inhalation has killed some, shortened many lives and makes many of our students sick on a regular basis.

Well...enter the stove project! The stove project builds a stove in the house that is essentially no more than a brick box, a stove top and a chimney to let the smoke out of the house. It is still a wood burning stove but it uses 90% less wood (good for the family in terms of money savings and also a huge benefit to the environment) and nearly eliminates all the smoke within the house’s tiny walls.

Alright, so now that you understand what the stove project is and why it is so important, I can tell you about the adventures of building one of these bad boys!

Before I go any further, I need to thank all of “fundhis” (construction workers) in Africa who seriously prepared me for this experience. I never thought that I’d use those cement mixing skills again but as it turns out, mixing cement is remarkably similar all around the world!

It takes two days to build one stove so I built two stoves this week for two different families. So I arrived on day one, ready to build. I had my work gloves in hand and my camera at the ready. What I wasn’t prepared for was to be greeted in Santa Maria with a monsoon. So I’m not sure how much news this has made at home but there was recently a hurricane in Nicuragua (Hurricane Alma) and we have definitely been feeling the effects of it up here in Guatemala!
Within 3 minutes, I was soaked from head to toe...and this is before getting to the house! The mason I was working with for the week gave me a pink plastic tarp to wear as a skirt, I threw on my raincoat and it was off to my first house about a km away. I walked into the aluminum tin door of the community (gives new meaning to the term gated community...), pulled back the sheet that doubles as a door for this family and had a look around. That pretty much involved turning 360 degrees around in a circle and the home tour was over.
Some of you loyal blog fans may remember a little girl I told you about in my first entry about my students named Brenda...or more commonly known as Gordita (little fat girl). Well, that is the house I was building my first stove in! She sat in a tiny chair the entire time and watched me shovel, scoop, saw and moan every 45 seconds asking me in Spanish “What are you doing?”, I’d answer, and then “Why?”
Somehow in all my Spanish lessons, the terms cement, re-bar, mortar and wire cutter didn’t make the vocabulary lists so I pretty much just kept saying, “I’m building you a stove!” But in English, it went something like this:

Sift about 50 pounds of dirt to get all the rocks out. Add some cement. Stir. Add some water. Stir And Voila! You’ve got yourself some good lookin’ mortar! We took that mortar and made a foundation and started laying the cinder blocks to form the stove. Once that was up...the REAL fun was about to begin.
Now, I don’t usually swear in this blog because I’m just not sure who out there is reading it. But kids, watch out, because here it comes. So once the foundation is up and a few layers of bricks are laid, comes the re-bar...or as I lovingly call it...the Fucking Re-Bar. Re-bar (which I have no idea how to spell or what it means) is just a metal bar that we had to saw into about 15,000 pieces (ok fine, 12 pieces) and then make into a grid.
Lets just say that I have a lot of skills, but sawing Fucking Re-Bar just ain’t one of them. It probably took me about an hour to cut these 12 lousy pieces of Fucking Re-bar. And after that, I tied them together with wire (as it turns out, not so good at wire cutting either...) But the finished project was beautiful and I’ve never seen such a beautiful re-bar grid...

Anyway, after that, it is time to lay the bricks and then place the stove top (not quite as simple as it sounds...making that baby level was no easy task!) This is how the stove looks after day one:

So after day one, I dragged my soaking wet tush home for a shower and some dry clothes and put myself and my arms that felt like Jello to sleep for the night.

Ok...quick intermission from the stove project. So we arrived at the bus stop on Tuesday morning decked out in our rain gear and found out that there had been some mud slides and serious wind issues at Santa Maria so we couldn’t go up to the project...Rain Day!!

We spent the day bumming around Antigua, saw a movie and did everything we could to stay dry. But in the afternoon, we decided what better way to spend a rainy afternoon in Antigua than to try out our hips at a little salsa lessons?!?

Well, I could go on about this one for a while but let’s just say it was hilarious, SOOO fun and actually resulted in two more small group lessons since! Check out the video...
video
Luckily, by Wednesday, the storm had let up and it was back to Santa Maria for stove number 2. Because of the tight timing, they had to finish the first stove without me and I had to move straight onto Wilmer’s stove (another kid I blogged about earlier) Wilmer’s house was much different than Brenda’s. It wasn’t made of reed and at first I found myself saying, this is actually pretty nice! And then I took another look and realized that I think I’ve been away from home just a bit too long if this is now what I consider nice...

Anyway, because I missed day #2, guess what I got to start out my day with on Wednesday? Yep! You got it...Fucking Re-Bar! Anyway, this day was remarkably similar to my first so I won’t recount it.
But my last day was awesome and I actually got to finish my first stove! We sealed the entire stove with a very smooth cement and when it was finished, I honestly am not sure I’ve ever seen such a beautiful stove in my life.

It was so incredible to see the entire family looking on as the stove was built before their eyes. In this smoke-filled room stood a stove that will actually add up to 15 years onto each family member’s life. It is so incredible that this $200 stove which is nothing more than sand, cement, water, bricks and of course, re-bar, will add a total of up to 150 years onto the lives of one family. (yes...8 kids in Wilmer’s family)

When I had finished the stove, the mason handed me a nail and I got to etch my name and country into this stove. I can hardly believe that in these two homes, my name will be etched into a stove that will last more than 20 years.

Just as the stove was finishing, the mom in the house looked at the stove and asked me if I was able to have a stove like this in my house in the States. I didn’t even know how to answer. It is so incredible just how far away we seem to them and how something as small as a stove can bring us all together.
xoxo, Debra