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Language, Love and Money

This is the first part of Language, Love, and Money, an essay on life in Guatemala. Learning Spanish (or any language) takes time and patience, and since it is a school night, I have to study later, but since I haven't been able to get any email for the past couple days, I thought I ought to take care of this first. Conjugating Verbs later...
Spanish is just like English, except that all the words are different. This might be seen as a great divide, but if you go through the process of replacing the english word for "whatever" with the Spanish word, "whatever"", swap the verbs and nouns into the right slots, drop in a little rolllll on the R's, a few idiomatic expressions and you are talking Spanish like a pro. If it's the thought that counts, then right off the bat, you are almost speaking Spanish. The little curls over the N's are just icing on the cake.
Studying with mi maestra, Gloria, for four hours a day (mas o meno), is mui interesante, pero, pienso que necessito hablar con los Guatemataltecos! You learn more that way. You still need to go to class or you will never pick up any grammer of vocabulary. You'll get your fill of non-textbook slang, more on that in a moment.
I know what's it's like to sit accross the table from someone attempting to talk your native tongue and having this stream of googa-plunka-woogie-woogie nonsense spill out onto the table like they were hit on the head by the falling Tower of Babel. I pity the poor woman who has to listen to me trash Spanish for the whole morning, five days a week. When I'm done, there will be a new character in that seat, who has yet to learn whatever she had just finished teaching me and she will have to start all over again, with "Is this a pencil?". So, I thought I could at least give her something I learned during the couple years I taught English as a Second Language. The famous, even infamous, world renound, much applauded, frequently copied, never duplicated, always useful, Berlitz Method. The one and only language learning method you will ever need. Kid Tested, Mother Approved, more people have taken formal study courses in the Berlitz method, in Berlitz schools around the world, than any other language learning method extant, now and forever, amen. Ladies and Gentlemen, let the magician's cabinet be opened; I'm going to share that method with you now.
Yes, No, Key, Or.
That's it. There is a little more to it, but you get the gist, the essence, right there.
The Berlitz teacher and the student sit at a table, preferably in a pleasant quiet atmosphere, (here we sit in a Spanish style courtyard, under the shade while the grass grows in the center, the fountain splashes a little white noise over the conversations of the nearby tables). Then the teacher asks the student some questions, the student answers. The student asks the teacher some of the same questions, turned around, names swapped out, the teacher answers those questions. They kick it around until they get comfy with it, then they move on to the next set of questions.
The order of the questions goes like this:
Yes Question:
Teacher: Is this a pencil?
Student: Yes, this is a pencil.
No Question:
Teacher: Is this a pen?
Student: No, this isn't a pen.
Key Question:
Teacher: What is this?
Student: This is a pencil.
Or Question:
Teacher: Is this a Pen or a Pencil?
Student: This is a pencil.
The teacher pretty much feeds it to the student the first time round, there's always a lot of gestures and facial movements to convey the feel of the thing, and the teacher always corrects the grammer and pronunciation of the student. The bulk of the work is done by this part of your brain that has just been sitting there doing jack-all-nothing since you finished learning your native language back when you were a little one. Five minutes running through the pencil thing, and the student knows how to ask what anything is called, and to answer the same question. From that you can pick up every noun in town. It takes two to Tango, so it always has to be both the teacher AND the student asking questions and answering them.
G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloooooooooria, G-L-O-R-I-A, is my Spanish teacher (maestra) who patiently listens to me ramble through the whole lesson, a metaphorical bull in a linguistic china shop, with all the feminins and masculins and pluralities sliced, diced, and jullianned, with vocabulary stolen from Italian, verbs whistled up out of the thin blue nowhere, grammer all over the map. Tonight, while trying to ask the Guatamalan medical students who live in the same house as me, what they knew about the symptoms of Anthrax, they told me it would maybe be better if we just talked in English.
Sometimes, in class, I am forced to parse through lists of verbs and conjugate them (yo tengo, tu tienes, el tiene, nosotros tienemos, ellos tienen) Though, rarely vocabulary lists, because I ask the names of everything when attempting to make long philosophical discourse in Spanish. I was told that my problem is that I want to talk in Spanish like I talk in English. Exactly, that's what I want. One thing you never learn in class is the way people really talk. Street talk, slang, abbreviations and turns of phrase that people use every day. This is why I skipped class on Friday, left Gloria to her own devices, and went on a weekend trip with some local Guatamaltecos. I spoke as much Spanish as people could tolerate listening to, and I won't bother trying to pretend I could lay out examples of what I learned as far as proper Spanish goes, but I did learn some couple of curious idioms. When talking about some friend of yours, whose name is Pablo, you might jokingly refer to him as "El Pablo", like "the Pablo". It's supposed to be unique to Guata style Spanish. As is the habit, when buying things, of refering to the item as a gift. You ask for something like a beer and say, "Me regalo un cerveza, por favor." Meaning "Give away a beer to me." Though, you might not say thank you like "por favor" you might shorten it to "porfa". The Guatamaltecos like to use abbreviated forms of common phrases.
I learned the cool and interesting stuff while skipping class Friday to go to Rio Dulce (that's right, Sweet River). Here's how things work around here. Someone from Germany goes to school in the USA and meets a student from Guata, when German Girl goes to Guata for school project, she looks up the best friend of Guata Girl living in Ciudad de Guatemala, and both end up hanging out in the student house of an Antigua language school, enter America boy, who by virtue of sitting at the right table at the right time (through circuitous and random events) gets invited to make the trip to Rio Dulce, vacation paradise of the Guatamalan elite.
The really interesting thing about this trip was the opportunity to ask a lot of questions, to find out what people thought about, what they were interested in, what was the same, and what was different between the people of Guatemala, and my own funky little culture. I have to say that I am particularly interested in the morals and habits of people, where they draw the line between good and bad, what gets sorted with the dirt, and what gets to be called clean. I got something better that that, in a car with two last year students from the best university in Guata, I got a breakdown of how macro and micro economics work for the rich and for the poor. How independence and freedom is tied into culture got thrown into the bargain, along with a lot of cool slang, and an inside look into the family lives of the "haves" in a country of "have nots".
We are in the car picking up Moy at his house, ("Moy" is a shortening of "mi amore" or "mi amorcito" as a parent would call a baby). He grabs the genie electronic gate opener, it's not for his gate because it's not his car. He cracks it open and hacks it right there, resetting the jumpers inside so that it works for opening the gate that protects his family's house from the mean streets of Guata outside. The big steel door tracks out of the way, the Hyundai sedan zips through, and before the gate is closed, the genie is reset and reassembled. I realize there that I am dealing with smart, well educated, conscious, creative people. Kids that watch CNN, who read books in English for pleasure. People with the surety that they will be making it in this world, who are going to put out the effort to get there. Their mastery of English was key to me being able to get any information that made sense, since I am still sorting out what's a pen and what's a pencil in Spanish. I did hear a lot of Spanish though, as much as I should be hearing all the time instead of talking getto jive with Deutchlanders and Dutch, and all the time the little part of the brain that does language is kicking, locking in vocabulary and setting up that linguistic algorithm that tells you when stuff "sounds right".
On Money...
The average Guatamalteco doesn't make much money. Still, living is cheap, and more you are willing to put up with doing without, the less money you need. Of course, the boundary line that borders what you can't do without is drawn mostly by your culture. You are raised to a particular standard. Material happiness is a function of how far above that line you are able to support yourself. Get below that line, and you start to get itchy. For someone like me, I really need like 30K a year to keep myself together. Keep fresh tires on my Canondale, gourmet coffee in the mug, and let me take a trip here and there. The average Guatamalan worker makes about 2000 Quetzales a month. That's about $250. Annual salary looks like $3000. OK, playing fast and furious with the numbers, throw half of it at housing, now you've got about $30 a week to take care of everything else. How much does a decent school cost? About $30 a month per child, and you can't skimp on education, so you bite that bullet. Maybe a housewife can pop over to the market and get the fixings for a day's eating for 20 Quetzales, or $2.50, $17.50 a week, $70 a month. Now you've got $20 to spend on clothes, Christmas presents, firecrackers, haircuts, books, electronic goods, drapes, travel, italian language classes, candy bars, and the whole nine yards. The numbers here are kinda sloppy, but the point here is that this family won't be getting braces, they won't be picking up and big ticket items like automobiles, appliances, or airplane tickets. In the micro-economy of the local area, they can live a fairly normal life. Read Steinbeck's "The Pearl" and see that people get up in the morning drink a little something hot and step out into the same sunshine you step out into to do whatever it is they do while you are doing whatever it is you do to keep the broadband access connected. They have some friends to share congradulations with on their birthday, they meet people to fall in love with and get married and have children who will likely be doing something very similar in the too near future. In the macro-economy of the world at large, these guys don't get to play. With limited access to education, with no way to save money, without the options of credit or the benefits of ownership, there is no path leading into the promised land of milk and honey. They are not in the same ballpark as people who can earn interest on saved money, who can take out loans based on the assumption that the future holds a return on the investment, who will be earning more money than they will need to stay alive. Ballpark, Hell, they aren't even playing the same game. I wonder if the poor would be interested in what I am interested in if only they had the money to do so. Would they wish to see the world, or cater to curious culinary tastes if you gave them a pile of cash. I don't know that there is a lottery here, but it would be interesting to see where the money went if it got into those hands.
One of the jobs that you might have is house servant. The maids and cooks in the houses of middle and upper class people are called (get this) muchachas, or even chachas. The muchacha is an integral part of the household, she cooks all the food and cleans the house. This is not to say that the mother of the house doesn't do anything, she runs the house, organizes the muchachas, cooks for special occasions, and sees that everything goes as planned. The servants cook the regular meals, make the beds, clean everything, and hover quietly in the background. They seem to be universally aboriginal (there is some debate about the appropriate term for them, but "Indians" seems to be not OK, while Natives is allright, Aboriginal might be best.) They wear traditional clothes, elaborate colorful costumes, complex as kimonos intricately knotted in wild patterns with every single color represented, plus shot through with metallic threads here and there. They are so quiet you can't believe it, but they are allways there in the background. There is no chatter, they do what they do without conversation, they pretend not to speak any Spanish, though they seem to understand whatever you ask for. Hearing and speaking are not the same thing. When they are alone, in the room they share near the kitchen, they talk and laugh in a Mayan dialect. I woke up, stepped out of bed, into the bathroom. When I walked back in the bedroom, the bed was already made, like I had never been there. I feel a little funny asking another person to do something I could damn well do myself, but when I see a plate of Uevos y Frijoles hit the table, I look up at the muchacha and ask for the same thing.
So what if you're not a native, you've got Spanish blood, a good family, enough money to get you a good education at a good school, and enough contacts to get you a decent job afterwards. This makes you one of the very few at the top. There really isn't any kind of middle class, it's just an ocean of poverty, some scratchers here and there trying to get up the onramp to the fastlane, and the rich. It is said that Guatamala is owned by a few dozen families who have control of most of the flow of money and power. These folks live in a developing nation, but they play in the marketplace at large. They have consumer goods whose value is independant of geography. Things like gasoline, film, electronics, and automobiles are not cheaper because you live here. Gas is about the same price here as in the USA. Things that have to be purchased outside Central America cost just as much for anyone. To have these things, you can't be an employee, you have to be an entrepeneur, turning raw materials and resources (even resources like labor) into cash. Then you are playing with the same rules, in the same game, even on the same team, as people in the USA or Europe, Japan, Australia, etc. Suppose you get all the breaks, and find yourself leaping into the job market in your early twenties, with a head full of trivia and a piece of paper that says you know things that need to be known about something. You can expect to start a job at 12,000 to 15,000 Quetzales a month. That's $1500 - $1875 a month. In America, it's not much, you can live in a crappy apartment, probably with a roommate, you have to look at the prices of food in the market to pick out the cheapest brand, and you can drive an econo-box used car to the movies when you want to get some entertainment. In Guata, you are on your way to a life of increasing wealth as you climb the ladder. The thing, though, is that you were always on that ladder, and you've been climbing since childhood. It is expected that the sons and daughters of the good families should turn out with the same values and habits as the previous generation. To that end, they are given all the help they can muster. Parents invest heavily in the education and happiness of their children. The children, in turn, are deeply interested in keeping the trust and affection of their parents. They are likely to spend a lot of time with the family, almost universally, they live with their parents until marriage. They marry young, early in their careers but after college, and they get started early on family so that they can have someone to fill in for them later, as they will fill in for their own parents. Contacts may decide as much as education where you end up working, but a job is a job, and you earn a regular salary, whoever your dad might be. This salary is many time what an average Guatemalteco earns, so lifestyle is much better, nevertheless, if the salary is still only equal to what you make waiting tables in the USA, you can hardly go out and buy the new Mitsubishi, even if you can see the commercial for it on MTV. To that end, some of the family wealth trickles down to buoy the prospects of the fledgeling, keeping them in the manner to which they are accustomed. This is an investment in the future, as the only way to go is up, and the sky is the limit for these guys, just as it is for anyone participating in the global marketplace.
Of course, there's a catch. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Here's an interesting example in the lives of a couple of cool Guatamalan guys, the kind of batos locos you meet in a youth hostel in Hamburg who look like long haired mexican hippies and you ask them where they are from, they tell you Guatamala, and you're not sure where that is, but it sounds kinda cool. If fact "El Pablo" and "El Ernesto" went to europe and hung out in Germany as exchange students or something like that and decided they liked the Western Way, they liked the "Fuck Off" attitude, they liked the indivuduality that being different from the people around you instead of the same, they liked the search for personal happiness. Now go back to Guatamala, stay in your parents house and eat three squares hot off the muchachas tamale press, and try to get back into that groove where your function is to duplicate the lives and morals of your parents. Play out the dance steps through university, get a job like your parents could dig, find a nice Guata girl who can keep you in line, and make sure that it's all ready to start over with Pablo and Ernesto junior.
"Cry me a River", you might say. Americans live on their own when they are teenagers, they go out with, move in with, hang out with, and do whatever with whoever they damn well please for as long as they like without ten cents worth of thought towards whether their parents would rather see them doing something else. More or less, I think the parents are pleased to be relieved of baby sitting duty that much earlier, they like to see their progeny grow up, get out there and thrive on their own and are proud of the independence they have bred into them, so long as they get a happy birthday phone call and get included in the group email.
Guatamaltecos run a little bit out of options as soon as they step outside the gate and into the wild. Get a job without a university degree puts you in the position of other generally competent but untrained persons. You can aquire a skill and get a job doing something like mechanic, artist, cop, fireman, minor paper pusher, and make near nothing, far less than is needed to support you in the manner to which you are accustomed, even if your parents are pretty middle class and live like middle class americans with cars and couches and tv's. If you had extraordinary drive and motivation, you could go to med school ($3600 a year for 7 years) and get a job as a doctor. A pediatrician makes around $2000 a month, specialists and surgeons make significantly more. Mostly though, people who want to live a life that isn't an imitation of their parents life have few choices. For Pablo and Ernesto, who would be fine in the USA, working in the record store, going to the beach, sharing an apartment where they could hang out eating fast food and watching cable, Guata doesn't work for them. Their lifestyle is fantasy that can't last past marriage, it's just an extended childhood. They can't do it because there is no way for them to enter the economic mainstream without being a different kind of person.
In the house I live in there are a dozen or so people from all over. The girl in the next room is in medical school. Her father is a surgeon, she has two siblings who are doctors, and as a sixth year medical student at age 22, she has already delivered 180 babies, performed apendectomies, sewn up intestines, and put tubes into organs that should never see sunlight. At age twenty they put a guys heart in her hands to pump manually. Serious internal medicine and obstetrics usually reserved for real grown up doctors. She said if I come down to the hospital, they will let me deliver a baby. It took some convining for me to believe that she wasn't kidding, but the other med students here confirm it. Es Verdad. Come on down to the hospital, scrub in, and put on your catcher's mitt, cause there are more babies than doctors by a long shot. Here's an example of what happens to the very brave who strike out a little. This med student clearly comes from a medical family, her father is a revered and well know surgeon who makes a real living earning real money by any standards. She had never made a bed or had to cook, (thank you, Muchacha). She had a car, sweet digs in the family casa, and the support to do whatever she needed as she went through med school. She has followed the footsteps in going to med school, greatly pleasing the family. When it came time to go work in a hospital, she chose a public hospital in Antigua, rather than the big good hospital in Guata City. Her father, being against this move as it would be better to be in the best possible hospital, cut off all the perks and comforts that she was used to. He still supports her by paying her rent at this student house, including food, and a little spending money (like $125 a month). But no car, none of the real modern comforts, basic accomodations, and no frills. It's not really a punishment, but it's an example of how closely the future of the individual is tied to the will of the family. This is why even the most wealthy Guatamalans are not able to pull together some cash and go traveling through India, why they can't move out of the house and live with their girlfriends, why they can't wear a green mohawk, and why their social lives must revolve around the friends and associates of their parents. The parents only pay for what they are willing to pay for. That means, other than decisions about what you are interested in and who your friends are, your function as a sort investment by your parents. They want to have well educated, well spoken, neatly dressed children who are engaged in worthy pursuits with people of similar character. It is a noble desire, and something that the parents believe in with the absolute surety of those who have already been through it all themselves.
Which brings me naturely to the most culturally independent instinctive activity the human circus has to offer. The great big sideshow we call Love. It's got freaks and geeks, and acts of death defying daring that will make you cover your eyes and catch your breath. Whatever I learned about the Guatamaltecan twist on The Only Game in Town, I'll have to illuminate in the next part of this giant email. I need to get something out so that people know I'm not dead or missing, the internet cafe closes in 30 minutes, and so I gotta vamo mui rapido. I never saw such a long email, so I hope you read it in parts or something.
One last word is a shout out to my big brother, Sargeant Ray Hendrick of the United States Army Airborne Rangers, present location unknown, last seen whispering quietly to his M16, squatting in the back of a C-130 troop transport filled with a team of the most highly trained black hearted gun toting razor toothed hombres ever to leap from the sky raining fire and fury and general mayhem on everything that stands against them. Just like Federal Express, you call the Rangers when it Absolutely, Positively, Has to be Destroyed Overnight. I'll be happiest if he ends up processing paperwork in the rear eschelon, but wherever he goes let it be safely and quickly. Keep your powder dry.
From Antigua, Guatamala;

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