Tuesday, July 12, 2011

3 days, 8 chicken buses and only robbed once...sounds like a good experience to me!

So it's been the busiest month ever that I haven't had a chance to update the blog, and I am writing this the night before I leave to come home. 

Every weekend seems to be an adventure in Tapachula. Last weekend a few of my friends and I decided to take a trip to Guatemala. We took a bus called Los Galgos from Tapachula and within 15 minutes we arrived at the border in Talisman (which sounds like it should be in the Middle East and not in Mexico). I believe I've mentioned before how nervous I get around migration officials (sir:"where are you from?" me: "seat 10!") so I figured crossing the border would be interesting. We pull up to this tiny town on the river and are directed into the migration center. After you pass through Mexican migration you have to walk over  this bridge as 25 men with wads of cash practically assault you in order to get you to exchange money with them.  Meanwhile, the bus has disappeared so we have no idea where to go, and end up choosing to walk under another sketchy bridge to look for it. Turns out everything was fine, we end up finding the bus eventually, but it further confirmed my dislike of migration centers. Sometimes I think it might just be easier to cross as most people do, on rafts further down the river in Ciudad Hidalgo. Don't have to worry about officials or filling out forms there.

Chicken Bus only a quarter of the way full

The bus ride is about 5 or 6 hours to Guatemala City and the view the whole way is of volcanoes and greenery. As soon as we got to Guatemala City we took a chicken bus to the colonial town of Antigua.  This was the first of many chicken buses the following day (I believe we climbed, no squished into at least 7 of them to get to the Lago Atitlan). Jumping off of the bus when you get to your destination is also an adventure-I kind of just threw my bags out and hoped someone might catch me.  Although this was probably one of the more uncomfortable experiences I've ever had, being squished 3 to a seat with someone's butt in my face and another's armpit on my head, we met so many nice people who were willing to show us the way and help us out.

I was also surprised to see campaign posters plastered to every surface and every billboard and tree and lampost. Right now Guatemala is in the middle of campaigns and elections for president and other offices so there is a lot of tension and political violence. One candidate had two of his opponents killed and then faked an assassination attempt on his own life. Another candidate is the former first lady (Sandra) who divorced the current president in order to "marry the pueblo." Not sure I'm falling for that one Sandra.

We arrived in Antigua and it reminded me a lot of San Cristobal in Chiapas, a colonial city with tons of tourists.  The architecture and view of the mountains is very pretty, but I almost feel like most of it is catered to make the experience feel more authentic, which actually makes it feel a little less authentic. We ended up staying in a hostel called the Black Cat (thanks for the strange bug bites the next morning also) which was full of travelling backpackers but was pretty grungy.  All part of the experience. We toured the markets and walked around the city before going to the Lago Atitlan the next day.  After climbing into 4 buses in 4 hours, we finally arrived at the lake in the town of Panajachel, which had a beautiful view of a volcano. We took a quick boat ride, got a little seasick, and then ran to jump on another chicken bus to head back to Guatemala City (this one was more like a van, but don't worry, we took full advantage of the 5 seats by filling it with about 25 people).

Julia, Raquel and I on the boat in Lago Atitlan

Panajachel at Lago Atitlan

Guatemala City was different than I thought it would be. The hostel we stayed at was located in a very chic part of the city with malls and fancy restaurants. We met up with some friends and had a great time hanging out. It was great to just sit and chat with a group of kids my age from Guatemala and Mexico and Washington, DC, the world seemed a little bit smaller then (I know, pretty deep). I didn't feel unsafe like everyone had said it was, until I read the local newspaper on the busride home. Nope, maybe it was until our cellphones were stolen as we sat in traffic a block away from the bus station. 

 In the Center of Guatemala City at the Plaza

Although this may have been the craziest, most exhausting, and most adventurous trip I've ever taken, I am so glad that I had the experience.  I think sometimes the things that are more challenging are a little more exciting too.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I really miss...

I love Tapachula, but living in the boonies of Mexico has it's downsides as well.  The simple things in life that I really miss are...

1. Eating salad/vegetables without the fear that it might be washed in poop water

2. Flushing toilet paper down the toilet. (Note: we can't do that here.)

3. Speaking of poop water...I miss having water readily available and not having to buy & lug a huge 5 gallon jug a block down the street like a maniac.

4. Blending in a crowd (somewhat, I know I'm one of a kind).

5. There seems to be a theme with water...Hot water. I couldn't figure out how to switch the gas on so it would heat the water, and the instructions are in Spanish and who wants to mess around when you switch one thing wrong and poof...

6. Air conditioning (yes, I miss it a little) so that when I sweat too much it doesn't look like I peed my pants.

7. Lastly, I miss bugs/creatures that I am sort of used to. No more of these gigantor cockroaches, mosquitoes with malaria (exaggerating a little), moths the size of birds (not exaggerating) and bats.

Poor guy didn't make it. 

P.S. I should note that I also really miss my family and friends.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where are you from? Um..um...Seat 10!

Last weekend I took a little road trip with my roomie Megan and a couple of friends from Mexico to a town in Chiapas called San Cristobal de las Casas.  Three of the girls from Washington, DC and 45 other students from Ibero University in Mexico are doing their service work in this city, so we decided to go visit them for a little bit. 

It was about a 7 hour bus ride from Tapachula, up the coast of Chiapas heading north.  One of the stops we made was in a little town called Arriaga, about 200 km north of Tapachula.  This is the main hub for migrants waiting to hop on top of the train that goes north.  Apparently a few years ago the tracks in Tapachula used to be the main location for migrants waiting to hop the train, but after Hurricane Stan destroyed most of Tapachula in 2005, the tracks were abandoned.  There's a really interesting website that follows a few migrants starting in Tapachula and going to Arriaga before they jump the train, http://www.sequential-one.com/blog/?p=4534.  From what I've read, Arriaga is a pretty dangerous area because there are gangs that take advantage of the migrants passing through (don't worry Mom, I wasn't in any danger).  I'm getting off track (pun intended) but it just gives you an idea of how much migration is everywhere here.

Anyway, from where we got on the tour bus to Tuxtla Gutierrez (capitol of Chiapas) we passed about 6 checkpoints where either officials boarded the bus to check between seats and in the luggage bins, or we had to hop off the bus where people checked our bags.  This is how I almost got deported from Mexico. I had been sleeping and noticed that the bus stopped.  A man in a blue uniform with a menacing face (I thought so at least) got on the bus and was checking it out, he stopped by my seat and asks me a question that I didn't quite hear. I had one of those moments where I was terrified to be confronted by an official, mixed with translation issues so I kind of shouted back nervously, "Seat number 10!"  Turns out he was a migration officer and was asking me where I was from.  I thought because of pure stupidity he might send me back to the U.S. But I made it okay.

As soon as we arrived in San Cristobal, I was relieved by two things.  One, that it wasn't boiling hot and I was not sweating profusely for the first time in 4 weeks; and two, that the place was crawling with gringos and foreigners and I was not the only guera in town. This past weekend may have been a record of receiving only one shout out from a passer-by "hey baby!" while here in Tapachula, I would say there's an average of about 10 "hey baby"'s and "hello beautiful"'s each day.  Tapachula does not have a lot of tourists nor gringo visitors, hence the whole world staring at me like I am an alien when I walk by. San Cristobal is a very small, romantic colonial city located in the highlands of Chiapas and was the location of the Zapatista Rebellion in 1994 (google it). Now it has kind of transformed into a romanticized haven for tourists with cobblestone streets lined with European-looking and some even European-owned cafes and a plaza filled with hippies as well as indigenous women and children selling scarves, bracelets, and other crafts. There are pedestrian walk-ways and antique looking cathedrals.  Apparently there are streets known as "Gringolandia."  I had a great weekend going to cafes and hanging out with my friends from DC and also hanging out with my friends Raquel and Adriana who are from Mexico City and are doing their service work at DIF also.

Just chillin at a European cafe in Mexico
Nothing like eating breakfast from a Zapatista fruit cup!
Being super-touristy in the plaza (and not too many people are staring)

It was kind of funny though because on the ride home as we got closer to Tapachula I had that anxious/excited feeling when you've been gone from home for a little while and are just about to arrive home.  Apparently despite all of the downsides to living in Tapachula (unbearable heat, cockroaches, creepy men), I really love it here and wouldn't want to be living anywhere else.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Road Trip

You know you're in Mexico when you've ridden in the back of a pickup truck for 2 hours up the highway of death (and/or the highway of nausea) to deliver medicine to people in a pueblito. Last week I took a little road trip with a couple of employees and the doctor from DIF to travel to this little town in the mountains to visit people who are unable to come down to see the doctors in Tapachula.  The ride up was pretty incredible-the view of the sunrise over the Volcán Tacaná was gorgeous despite the curviest/scariest roads I've ever been on.  I think I had one of the best seats in the house, riding in the back of the pick-up truck holding on for dear-life.  However, I was told I could put my trust in our "rough around the edges" driver named Victor who I am pretty sure smoked a pack of cigarettes just on the ride up.  It was all worth it when we passed a gigantic rock-wall covered with trees and greens not to mention the beautiful waterfall. 
 La Volcán Tacaná
 Curvy Road + Beautiful View

Despite the beautiful views, I couldn't help but feel that the trip was all too bittersweet.  After we arrived in the town, we were invited into a couple of different homes.  At the first, I was told the bathroom was out back-and it was indeed (a hole in the ground sheltered by three pieces of tin and a sheet for the door).  Most of the houses had dirt floors, and the one house where we set up had one room with a bed in the corner and a table where we placed the medicine. There were about 15 people who waited in line to speak with the doctor, but they were only given some medications to temporarily ease the pain.  Almost everyone who came to the table had a hard time signing their name as well.  As I sat there observing, it really bothered me that there wasn't a more long-term solution to help these people.  I couldn't help think that we really didn't do much of anything to help, except ease their aches and pains for a couple of days.  I spoke to the owner of the house a bit and he told me that he has made the trek to the United States two times through the desert.  He said although his life in the US was very tough, it never compares to the struggles they face at home.  A lot of the young to middle aged men I meet here have similar stories like this, it's the reality in a place where you are struggling to put food on the table for your family.

I debated whether or not to keep all of these posts very upbeat and just share the best parts with everyone-but I'm finding the reality here isn't always an adventure or a vacation, and that there are so many struggles that normal people face here every day that I can't nor want to forget.  Between the mountains and volcanoes, waterfalls and beaches, I am meeting amazing people here who are making this trip most worthwhile.  After a very difficult and emotional week, I would like to end by recognizing a little baby girl who I met two weeks ago when she came to stay at the place where I work: Rosa Isela, only 7 months old, who passed away this past weekend after being sick. 


Monday, June 13, 2011

Welcome to Tapachula

Here I am, three weeks in Mexico, and I decide it is about time that I start sharing some of my experiences.  It still sounds weird when I say that I am living in Mexico-I might not ever get used to the idea until I leave.  But here I am, in the city of Tapachula, located in the state of Chiapas, only 15 minutes from the Guatemalan border and 20 minutes from the Pacific Ocean.  Just to fill you in on the name of the blog, I am often referred to as "güera" (usually shouted to me from cars) which should not be confused with gringa (or someone from the US), but rather a lighter skinned, lighter haired person (can even mean Mexicans). Maybe they think I'm  Mexican already! Although I highly doubt it...

I live in a 2 bedroom apartment with two of my good gringa friends and we share a building with 3 other Mexican students who are also in Tapachula volunteering.  When I first got here, the heat was so thick you could practically swim in it.  Now I am getting used to just being sweaty most of the time, and I look forward to the heavy rain storms almost every day in the afternoon because it usually cools down a little after that, and the streets turn into little rivers after the rain. 

  Living Room

Bedroom that Megan and I share

I am currently working at the governmental organization called DIF (Desarollo Integral de la Familia) which translates to Integral Family Development.  DIF is an organization which provides social services such as daycare, a nursing home for abandoned elders, a center for battered women, and also a temporary shelter for abandoned or abused children.  I am currently working in the section upstairs called CASACAMAS which is divided by girls and boys, and serves as a temporary location (can be a few weeks or even a year) for children and babies who have been abused, abandoned, neglected, sexually assaulted, and whose situations are being processed by the government to see where they can send them.  Many of the children who have been abandoned end up in orphanages around the country and other children who have been abused often return to the streets or to some family member.  Right now there are about 17 kids (girls and boys) from the ages of 1 month old to 14 years old, but most of the kids are younger.  Every child has a story, and each story breaks my heart, but I am getting to know them each individually and really love spending time there each day thinking of activities to keep the kids occupied, and even just to give them some attention and love that no one else is able to give them. 

 Aremi (3 yrs) puts everything in her mouth

Lupita is so sweet, she calls me Tia (aunt) and has the biggest eyes ever