Monthly Archives: September 2011

Running up that hill

Last Monday, we had our second last day of class. We had a paper and a portfolio to turn in the next day, but I managed to get 99% of it done by the time London Mike bowled in from San Andres that afternoon.

I had somehow managed to score myself a ‘job’ hosting trivia up at the Irish pub and I was due to start at 7, so I made arrangements to meet him beforehand for dinner & drinks.

I was having a post-class bevy the week before, minding my own business, when I got the gig. I got talking to the bartender who suggested I stick around for trivia that night. I mentioned that I used to host a night in Sydney, the boss overheard me & asked me, “Would you like to host ours next week?”

Sure. Why not.

He gave me a one pager which answered most of my questions. I asked him how much he’d pay me. He said he’d pay me with a dinner and all I could drink. I laughed and asked him if he knew I was Australian. We shook hands, and that was that.

London Mike and I had met in San Ignacio Belize, had met up again in Flores (in the north of Guatemala) and had kept in touch while we both studying. Sometimes when you meet people on the road, they remind you of friends back home and it instantaneously feels familiar. It’s like that with Mike, who I had nicknamed Sparkles. We were both looking forward to catching up and letting our hair down a bit.

It was a pretty international crowd at Riley’s and they got rowdier & rowdier as the night went on, but it was a fun night. Sparkles pitched in with the scoring and music round, so it was an easy night for me. I drank like drinking was a sport, and I was representing Australia. We stayed until stumps. Sparkles walked me to my door and stumbled off into the distance to his hotel.

On Tuesday, I woke up with a raging hangover the size of a Whopper burger. I only just scraped through that last day of school, and somehow managed to finish all my work.

I called Sparkles, when I knocked off. He was having a social in a nice little courtyard bar with Dave – an Aussie bloke he’d bonded with during a small bus crash up north. I met them for a beer. We later met another one of Sparkle’s mates on a rooftop bar, a young Scottish lad by the name of Cameron, who would come to make a really big impression on me in a very short space of time. We ended up in the bar where Shelby sells shots on Ladies’ Night. You can get a plate of nachos about the size of a horse’s head at Monoloco’s. I kid you not. And damn good they are, too. So we did. Many beers later and I have to say I don’t really remember much of the night.

I collected Sparkles on Wednesday morning, we went to the markets to get some stuff for dinner, and then went for a walk up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). I can see it from my lil casa. It’s lit up at night, providing a nifty navigational point if you’re really drunk. I’m sure that’s not what it was designed for, but it’s come in handy a couple of times. There’s a great vista of the city from up there. It was a cracker of a day, so we decided to go back to the Sky Cafe to get the photos we missed the day before. We ambled about a bit more and then went our separate ways for a few hours.

I had him and my lovely teacher, now neighbour (just call him Stalker Phil) over for a roast dinner. Phil’s from Watford and there’s not a lot of English folk here, so I thought he might appreciate Mike’s company and a traditional English meal. I did a bloody good job of it, even if I do say so myself and we had a very civilised night.

Thursday, Sparkles and I were up at 6 to climb Pacaya, an active volcano about 1 & ½ hrs drive from here. After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last time was in May last year. It rises to an elevation of 2,552m which is just slightly higher than Mt Kosciusko, NSW.

I leaned in to talk with Sparkles at one point on the bus trip in, and all I could smell was booze. I don’t think I smelt much better, truth be told.

It was a hard 1 & ½ hour hike up a pretty steep incline. I was bringing up the rear of our group, huffing & puffing and behind me were about ½ dozen caballeros – basically dudes with horses. The word translates to gentlemen in Spanish, but they were pissin’ me off by breathing down the back of my neck and asking me if I wanted a “taxi” the whole freakin way. As much as I would have loved to have jump on one, I knew I would regret it if I did. The only way you’d get me on one of those things is if I was with a particular group of friends and we were in fancy dress. You know who you are.

I made it. And it was totally worth it. Even though, we didn’t have the clearest day, it was simply stunning in a very surreal way. It was like standing on another planet. Volcanic ash is like rough, rocky black sand. There was a remarkable amount of tenacious greenery growing. Smoke billowed from natural potholes. We climbed into a big one and it was like stepping into a natural sauna in the cloudy chill cloaking the mountain. We toasted marshmallows, and breathed in the sharp crisp air.

I had an afternoon kip, and later that night, met up with Phil, Sparkles and Cameron and a few others at Gaia – a gorgeous hookah bar with lush cushions and beautiful decor. We had a few drinks and easy conversation, while an awesome local band played. Albeit too loudly. But hey, it’s Latin America – they don’t do ambience here.

Friday afternoon, Sparkles, Cameron and I had a very cultural afternoon. We stopped into La Merced, which is a building I’ve walked past nearly every day. It used to be an old monastery, which was built in the 1700s. Outside, there are all these intricate white religious carvings, niched into the happy yellow walls. Inside is surprisingly massive and the courtyard features the largest water fountain in Antigua. From the top terrace, you’ll get a great view of Volcán de Fuego, which you can see almost everywhere from this pretty little city. But not like this.

We then walked up to a place called Casa Santa Domingo, a glorious old hotel which is situated in the stupidly beautiful grounds of another monastery. We wondered around for a while, oohing and ahhing at the gardens and the statues
and the art and the relics and the pretty Scarlet Macaws, which are kinda like rainbow lorikeets but bigger and brighter.

From there, we got a ride in a fancy golf cart to a place called El Tenedor del Cerro (which translates to “the fork on the hill”). It’s essentially a wedding reception venue / high-end restaurant, but the reason we went there is because the place offers what has to be the best views of the city, and all throughout the grounds is this eclectic collection of completely unexpected weird-arse large-scale sculpture by lauded local artists. We spent a good couple of hours there, taking photos and fooling around.

We missed the return shuttle so I flagged down a fancy car to hitch a ride back down the hill. The wife of the Guatemalan driver was an American lady, all decked out in jewels. I asked her for her story and she told us she had been living here on-and for some 30 odd years. Her mother was a missionary who took in 58 orphans and gave them a home. She told us she was still in contact with many of them. Amazing story right there in a 15 min drive. Awesome stuff.

We parted ways for a bit of downtime. The boys had to pack as they were both leaving the next day. Cameron back home to pick up his studies back in Scotland. And Sparkles was headed for Honduras. We met up one last time at Monoloco with all their mates. Many beers and many silly photos later, I bid my farewell to them both rather unceremoniously, given how much I had enjoyed their company. It’s very likely Sparkles & I will be able to link up again in Nicaragua. and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron rocks up on my doorstep one day.

I’ve spent the last two days just chilling out, mucking around on my new netbook, listening to music, watching movies, cooking meals and drinking wine. I did venture out yesterday afternoon for a tasty Asian meal and a poke around a contemporary artist’s workshop, but apart from that – it’s been
pretty quiet since the boys left town. Which has been fine by me…

Computer games

So, this is my first post using my new little netbook, which I am freaking excited about, folks. I will admit the iPad is a bit sexy, and you can do the swipey thing with your fingers and that looks kinda cool for about a minute but then the screen gets all smudgey and then it’s just annoying.

The iPad a bit like a young Eastern suburbs girl who goes to Randwick Races all dressed up, but then ends up walking home trashed with her heels in her hand. She looks to be a bit of an alright on first glance, but really she’s a bit tarty, pretty superficial, and deep down inside she’s just a bit stupid.

I mean, the iPad is just a glorified web browser. A big iPod (why anyone would need a big iPod is beyond me). She’s a storage unit. Without a freaking USB port. And she can’t do more than one thing at time, which in my eyes, renders her a bit of a retard.

I say this, having spent the past few months on the road with an iPad and, look: it was a gift from a very generous friends of mine, and it did allow me to start writing and stay in touch and i don’t want to seem to ungrateful… BUT:
The upsides of my new purchase include having a proper keyboard to type on! being able to use the bits of WordPress which aren’t iOS-friendly (ie, incorporating search tags, uploading images, linking to stuff, etc! being able to use Office instead of dumbarse Pages and Numbers! being able to edit and upload photos easily! being able to see my friends when i Skype them! and being able to view websites (read, porn) with flash!!!

I can’t think of any downsides. As in none.

I justified the purchase by saying it would make completing my TEFL course easier (and it did), but mainly i bought it because i want to do more than the iPad will allow me. Especially when it comes to blogging and sharing photos of my travels.

iPads are shithouse. There i said it. Rant over.

(Scott, thank you – but she’s coming home in a box.)

Oh, and for those of you who are reading because you want to hear about me doing cool stuff in places you’ve never heard of. Stay tuned. Posts with tags and pictures and links and all sorts of features to come x

Mysterious ways

Religion on the whole, doesn’t really blow my skirt up. Very little of it makes sense to me. The do good, be good bits do. But it’s not hard to work that stuff out on your own, is it?

It’s easy to write off folks with a faith because… well, there’s evolution for starters… but really, I think because there are so many freaking religious nut jobs out there. Ranging from those who live in pretty green countries who are warring with their neighbors, through to racist grandmothers who go to church every Sunday, and the pedophiliac priests who don’t think my gay friends have a right to be married.

Having said that – I have met some wonderfully smart, incredibly articulate, well travelled, open-minded and completely inspirational people who are religious.

I don’t think I had ever met a nun, before I was invited to have dinner with ACDC’s Aunty Ivy. She totally fits my definition of cool. She is interesting. And interested. She’s quietly spoken by nature, but you can see how rowdy she’d get at Rabbitoh’s game. She’s got a gentle spirit but I don’t think you’d be wise to be messin with anyone she loves. She struck me as someone who likes her creature comforts but she’d also happily sleep on a dirt floor in an African country to do volunteer work with kids in need. I just loved all the contradictions. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me that you could be a nun and like a tinny or two.

A couple of years ago, I met this bloke at a party full of fitness freaks. Short and ruddy with an unruly beard and a gruff voice – his name was Graham Long and he was the larrikin pastor of a well-known chapel in Sydney’s red light district, a place called The Wayside. Their ethos is giving people a hand up not a handout. They provide a range of services to people who have fallen, well… by the wayside. Everything from showers, to referrals for health and home agencies, advocacy, and I love this: “a judgment free space for those just looking for a chat, a coffee or a quiet place to think.” God only knows, we all need that. I remember him (Graham, not God) saying to me that he came home “at the end of every day completely spent, but completely energized” by what he did for work. And that he didn’t really consider it a job. He’d do it even if they didn’t pay him.

A few weeks later, I was reading an article about a woman who was coordinating a singles / charity event. I really liked the idea of mixing the two. Fail to meet the right bloke? That’s okay. You still get to feel good about yourself, because you’re doing something for someone else. She said, “I don’t have a job. I have a life I love.”

Both of these things have been rattling around in my head for a long time.

I suppose you could say I’ve done some interesting stuff for work. I’ve been the voiceover in upscale department stores. I’ve sold everything from ice creams, to ‘sexy giftware’, to cars. I was the production manager on a low budget film shoot. I did a short stint in the medical imaging field. I once wore a bunny suit (man, those things Smell. Bad.) I was the graphic designer of an independent newspaper. I worked in the engineering industry for a while (loved those boys. They swore like sailors and introduced me to French champagne). I worked for a wee while at one of London’s top ad agencies as a proofreader. I waited tables (that only lasted 4 hours). I have hosted trivia nights and been the MC at weddings (although i did the latter for love). And most recently, I was one of the Marketing Managers for one of Australia’s most famous icons (the pointy white building on Sydney Harbour).

I’ve spent a bit of time over the past year thinking, what would make me feel like the pastor or the social entrepreneur? What do I want be when I grow up?

Things that kept popping up time and time again: writing, teaching and / or training, having my own consultancy…  I also harbored romantic notions of owning  an old-school pub and spending my days listening to old sea dogs swill stories around inside their schooners.

So, when I decided to take some time out this year to travel – I also decided I would work towards effecting change in this part of my life… To that end, I found myself signing up for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certification.

It has been a particularly intense month. I haven’t done any formal study (apart from a few professional development courses) for a decade, so it was a complete shock to the system. I don’t know what planet I was on – but I really did think I was just going to swan on in to our pretty lil Spanish colonial school for a few hours of class, maybe do a bit of homework in the gorgeous garden with its statues and water fountain…  and then breeze through a couple of prac lessons. I mean – there couldn’t be that much to teaching English. Surely.

On day one, our teacher told us to not make plans for the last two weekends before the course ended. And now i know why. We’ve basically squeezed a uni semester’s worth of work into 150 hours. We’ve had 6 hours of practical teaching which has necessitated hours of lesson planning, prior. We’ve had reading almost every night for anywhere between 1-2 hours. So I’ve seen the inside of the classroom, the computer lab, my text books, and my eyelids. And very little of Antigua.

We had to study grammar. And then we had to study how to teach grammar. And then we had to teach grammar.

In the 70s, grammar wasn’t on the Australian curriculum. So it was just as well, from a very early age – I had taken a personal if not rather peculiar interest in the way our language was constructed. I read a dictionary like a normal book. Like from front to back. I was editing the high school newspaper at age 13. I took a 2 day intensive course on grammar at Sydney University. Of my own free will. (nerd.)

A native speaker simply acquires knowledge of grammar through common usage. We don’t need to understand it. I intrinsically understand what goes where and when. I just suck at knowing what it’s called and knowing why we use it. And i wouldn’t be all that bothered, except you do kinda need to know this stuff if you’re going to teach English to others. And you need to be prepared that some of your students will know more about grammar than you do.

I still don’t remember what past perfect progressive is.

Anyway, I was absolutely fine with it all until I had started having The Meltdown, which began on Wednesday night. All the feedback I was hearing (& I should make the distinction between hearing and receiving) was so damn ‘constructive’ – I was wondering if I was in the wrong place. Maybe i wasn’t cut out to be a teacher after all.

My good friend Andrea prompted me to recall how it felt to start any new job. I don’t know about you, but I always end those first few weeks in a new job, thinking maybe I’d rather just work in a record store.

The Meltdown bubbled and boiled for two days. Apparently The Meltdown is not uncommon among TEFLers. One of our classmates dropped out. Another got quite ill. My stress just manifested through my leaky eyeballs.

Then at the end of my last prac lesson on Friday – my students made an announcement (in English) saying they wanted to host a party for me to say thank you. Then they laid out a little spread of home-made Guatemalan food in the garden. And sung me happy birthday. (My birthday’s not until November.) And well, that just sent me right over the edge. There were tears. Of gratitude. And i admit, of relief. But mostly of gratitude. These people have so little and yet were being so generous towards me. I was just lost for words.

For the last few days, I had been of the mindset that I wouldn’t actually pursue any teaching jobs. Because I felt like I sucked at it. And because grammar could go fuck itself.

But then last night we had a wee graduation party at our school. And of course, as fate would have it – a lady who had taken the course with our teacher in Feb and who was now teaching in Costa Rica had come up to Guatemala for her border run. She had walked past the school earlier that day, swung in to say hi and ended up at our party.

We talked, and she told me she had gone through EXACTLY the same thing. She said it was entirely different, once you were out in the field. She said it was far more relaxed than she ever imagined. And all the students wanted was to practice their English and to have a laugh. And then she said this: She didn’t feel like it was really work, she had so much fun everyday.

And I was reminded of the social entrepreneur and the pastor. Maybe God does work in mysterious ways.

Power to the people

Apparently, Mexico’s drug cartels have expanded ops into this and the other countries that lie between it and South America. Makes sense. The drugs have gotta get through somehow.

So there’s allegations of under the table payments to political candidates, to protect said business interests. That results in unregulated political campaign spending (there’s supposedly a US$6 million cap that each party can spend on elections) And of course then, there’s the issue of vote-buying.

Today the people of Guatemala will vote for their new president. Well, an estimated 40% of them will. This only the 4th election since the civil war ended in 1996. A civil war that lasted more than 35 years, took an estimated 200,000 lives and left more than a million refugees.

It’s interesting watching another country go to the polls. Campaigning here is a lot more colorful and a helluva lot noisier than back home. There’s a lot of firecrackers. Protests. Campaigning rallies. Cars with loudspeakers affixed to the roofed. We’re currently in the midst of a 48 hour alcohol sales ban (It’s okay, folks. No need to be alarmed. I stocked up.)

One of the two main contenders is a retired army general. Who evidently had nothing to do with anything except of course the peace negotations. He looks a little too much like Malcolm Turnbull for my liking. And his logo is a closed fist. Where’s he gunna put that if he gets in, I wonder? Although apparently he is tipped as the favorite.

The other candidate is my preferred choice only because he looks a bit like Buddy Holly. At 41, he’s the youngest candidate and only just qualifies to run for office. His logo is a much happier thumbs up. Apparently, all the youngns like him. Problem is, he doesn’t necessarily look like he’s got what it takes to do what’s needed in just 4 years (no subsequent terms allowed.)

I don’t want to be too flippant about this. It’s important that whoever gets in is going to get stuck into rectifying this country’s two most prevalent problems: poverty and crime.

Evidently some 43% of children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. And the murder rate last year was 40 per 100,000 people. One of the highest in the world. Those figures are staggering.

Guatemala is a ridiculously gorgeous country. And the people here seem, for the most part, happy. They’re very family orientated. It seems to me, to be a very united nation. What they need is a leader with balls to stand up to the leaders of criminal gangs, and the ability to make real headway in redressing poverty. Easier said than done, I suppose.

May the better man win.

(Oh, and as a postscript … that woman i mentioned in a previous post. The only female candidate. The one who got divorced so she could qualify to run. Two things: she is, well was, married to the current President. And a month ago, the Supreme Court upheld a sentence preventing her from continuing to run.)

11 Sept

My thoughts are also with those impacted by the tragic events in the US, a decade ago.

Everyday people

I once met a strange man who sold sausage skins for a living. I’ve had dinner with a quietly-spoken Aboriginal Greens activist. I know the enigmatic owners of Australia’s longest-running fetish club. I met a grown woman, who spent her whole time dressed as a fairy. I had a fling with a Gold Medal Olympian. I’ve partied in Prague with a professional clown. I worked with a woman who has survived 4 different types of cancer. One of my mates is a firefighter by day, a director of a film festival by night and a lawyer on the weekends. I knew an ex-Nazi POW. I have shared a 4-day train journey across the Nullabor with a well-known social researcher. I once dated a blind man, who owned a car. I’ve done lines with a biker with tears tattooed on his face. I’m friends with a woman who has singlehandedly raised one of the most impressive teenagers you’ll ever meet. And I once picked up a hitchhiker who was carrying nothing but a box of mice.

All of these people share one thing in common: the most incredible stories.

In Belize just recently, I met a man who’d been jailed for 7 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit. He shared with me his story of what happened on the night he got arrested and some of his time in jail. I bought a book of his poetry. Stuff he wrote, while he was doing time. Letters to his mother. Heart wrenching stuff.

Last night, I invited my neighbor around for a drink. Michael is a fascinating gentleman in his late 60s who, after several career incarnations, is now a journalist and travel writer. He told me about a massacre he reported on… Less than 4 months ago in the Peten province just a few hours from here, 29 people were found beheaded in a field. He told me about the time he drove 700 miles to Montana, only to watch a hillbilly predict where they would find gold by waving his keys over a map. And they did. And then he shared with me a rollicking story about an acid-taking gem merchant who he got mixed up for a bit in India. Needless to say, I’m hoping to get some more Michael time before I leave.

And in my TEFL class, there are these two nothing-short-of-inspirational women.

One has only just turned 18. Shelby is bright-as-a-button and looks like she belongs in the Mickey Mouse Club with her cute lil bangs. She hasn’t shared her story with me just yet, but I suspect she must have one… How else does someone so young end up living and studying in such a foreign country, and volunteering with orphans who have the most atrocious deformities (stuff that would bring a grown man to his knees). And yet here she is, on her own. When I was her age, all I was doing was getting drunk, shagging boys, and skipping school. You just know when you meet Shelby she is going to lead an amazing life. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

The other woman is a sparkly girl in her early 60s, who as a teenager had to give up her firstborn for adoption. Over quiche and lemonade, she told me the most tear-jerking story about how everything came together, so she could her meet and have a healthy relationship with her biological daughter. Jenny also has an adopted Guatemalan daughter, which is how she ended up here two decades ago. At the time, she met a local man whom she immediately connected with. And he proposed to her.  Problem was, she was on the cusp of marrying someone else. Now, after several wrong marriages between them, they are finally getting a second chance. He said to her a few weeks ago, “the next time I ask you to marry me, you’re not allowed to say no.” It’s a romance to rival The Notebook. And it’s by no means her only story. I’m in love with all the beautiful lines on Jenny’s face and i imagine that behind every one, is another incredible story. And I want the privilege of hearing them all.

10 Sept

Stop!

Since I’ve begun traveling, I have stopped:

wearing beauty products, except deodorant
wearing makeup, save for a little mascara and sometimes lipgloss
weighing myself daily
reading the horoscopes in the hope that someone else thinks today is going to be a good day
wearing 12cm stilettos
setting the alarm (I’m naturally waking up around 6 most mornings)
watching shit television
worrying about things I haven’t got or haven’t done
fretting over petty issues with petty people
losing sleep over loser boys
trying to understand office politics
running for public transport
being a coffee snob

With the exception of the last item, i think these are good things. On the other hand I have also stopped:

exercising (unless you count walking at snail’s pace, everywhere)
eating home cooked meals (although this is all about to change, as I have a proper kitchen until the end of September!)
eating vegetables (capsicum & onion are NOT the only vegetables, Latin America)

All in all, reckon I’m coming up on top!

6 Sept

The long and winding road

I am exactly where I am meant to be.

I believe that we all have a bunch of lessons we’re supposed to learn in this life, based on what we’ve learnt in previous lives.

I believe there are a number of ways that we can go about achieving these predetermined objectives.

We can linger on a lovely lane, ride a rocky road, stagger up stupid street (my preferred MO) or do the sensible thing and take the most direct route (no alliteration necessary).

We can go via limo or in a tuk tuk (sometimes people have no choice in terms of the vehicle and i am of the view that it’s completely irrelevant, anyways).

I also believe certain people will come into our lives to test our knowledge or confidence of where we are going. Some will come into our lives to distract us (and this can be a bad thing or a good thing). Other people are sent to help us along our way.

So I always try and tune into this concept of “Am i in the right ‘place’ (and i use this word in the broadest sense) to facilitate whatever it is I’m supposed to be learning?” (the big one for me at the moment, after seeing an amazing TED talk by Brene Brown is ‘vulnerability’. I’ll save that for another post).

So, what I want to know is this: Do you ever experience déjà vu?

I usually experience déjà vu when I’m having a really inane conversation with someone I’ve known for ages… You know we’re talking about the price of broccoli or something equally fascinating. Or I’m with a colleague I’ve worked with for years, and we’re mulling over a spreadsheet. So when it’s in this context, you can kind of write it off as a weird-arse / boring version of a memory (or a glitch in the matrix, if you prefer such things clad in cool black trench coats).

I have long harbored an image, that my brain is a room that contains a raft of filing cabinets. And there’s this really tiny & wiry old man who’s been keeping the files for years. And he’s lovely and all, but while he used to be good at his job, he’s getting a bit slow and doddery these days. He forgets where things are. Or it takes him a long time to retrieve a file. Sometimes he snoozes on the job. And he doesn’t maintain the room as well as he should. The lights above the cabinets are a bit sketchy.

When I have déjà vu, I feel like the light bulbs are just flickering on and off momentarily.

Now… i did a bit of reading about this, and psychologists make a distinction between déjà vu (which translates to ‘already seen’) and jamais vu (which translates to ‘never seen’).

Jamais vu describes that sensation you have, when you feel like you’ve been there before – but you know it’s simply not possible.

I’ve experienced this 2 times here in Antigua. And it kind of freaked me out. I got all goosebumpy. And shivery. And hairy. You know what i mean, right? But post the mini-freak, I found there was also something slightly reassuring about it.

It made me feel like – I am. exactly. where I’m supposed to be.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t actually care. I trust that the Universe knows what’s she’s doing.

I trust that I am on the right road. And as far as I’m concerned a tuk tuk is way cooler than a limo.

4 August

PS: I’m particularly keen to hear your stories… What have been your weirdest experiences of jamais vu.