Saturday, August 31, 2013

Solo en Español

Ten days ago, when I walked up to the airport terminal and couldn't understand a word the flight attendants were saying, I realized that nothing magical had happened in the year since I had last studied Spanish. I had not become fluent by vaguely hoping.

There are some with an enviable knack for languages. I’m not one of those people. It's taken me all week just to remember the word for "bubbles," and to converse at even the most basic level takes a sort of mental gymnastics that leaves my head aching.

I've always invested a great deal of effort into speaking and writing with elegance and clarity. In Spanish, I hope only for basic understanding. Speaking a little Spanish is like having an opaque window barely cracked open. You can see that something's outside, but the glimpse isn't enough to fully appreciate what's out there. Here, I feel like only a crack of my personality shows through, and less than a crack of my intelligence. It’s hard not being able to understand the subtleties of language that make up the hundred little jokes that make up a day.

My first day with my new family, words poured out of me in Spanish, almost-Spanish, and They-have-no-idea-what-you're-trying-to-say. On the one hand, I was thrilled that I could communicate in another language; on the other, I hated how limited that communication was. For example, I may say something like,

“The news! I know this thing on top of the news... Inside the news. I learn about this in my class. It is…bad.”

My Mamá doesn’t speak a word of English, so if I want to ask her what something is, I need to either play a game of charades or figure out how else to describe it, which can lead to elegant sentences like, “What is the name of the chicken who is a man, he says the sounds in the morning?" [10 points if you know what I meant]

I’m exciting to be learning, but I'm always tired. When I journal, I'll write in a Dora-the-Explorer style Spanglish. Sometimes I lose words in both languages.Most of my studies before were based on grammar tests and reading, so understanding is really hard for me. When people speak slowly and clearly, and let me ask lots of questions, I can pick up a lot. Just when I think I’m doing well, though, my family will carry on a conversation and I won’t pick up a single word.

I've been an ESL teacher on-and-off for two years, but this one week in Honduras has given me more sympathy towards language learners than anything else. I realize now how much education and effort it takes just to be barely conversant. I realize that though people seem funnier, smarter, and more complex in their heart language; they're the same person no matter how they speak. Sometimes it just takes patience to let the real person show through.

So start a conversation on the bus. Have the patience to speak slowly and clearly, and to repeat yourself. There are thousands of people around you who are living in a world they have to translate, and they may need someone to tell them they're doing better than they think.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Because Everyone Says, "Tell me ALL About It."

6:40am... I woke up before my alarm. I wish I could say it was to the rustic call of a rooster, but in reality it was the slightly less melodic blaring of a car parked down the street whose alarm must have been tripped by every person walking by. I walked outside and brushed my teeth, walking in circles around our little terrace. "Buenas días, Poli." I said to our little parrot. "Gordita!" it squawked, which means something like "little chubby one." My mamá assures me the word is affectionate.

7:00am... When I went upstairs, my mamá had "panqueques," pancakes, waiting for me. I never thought of pancakes as a Central American food, but I eat them for breakfast every day. The news was playing in the living room-- I thought it might be about the Honduran Attorney General who had recently quit amidst scandal. I knew there was a committee to choose a new one, but I couldn't figure out how to ask my mamá in Spanish. Instead, we talked about fruit. She expressed her sympathy at the lack of cheap fruits and vegetables in North America.

7:40am.... All ten of us Calvin students met by the bus stop. The public buses here are converted school buses shipped from the United States and other countries around the world. They aren't repainted, so it really does feel like swarming on the bus to go to school. Inside, the bus drivers deck their space with stickers that say things in Spanish like, "God is my guide," or "Jesus loves all." These proclamations share space with Looney Toons characters and Playboy emblems, in a combination that is both very American and very not. I always sit alone, and try to strike up conversation with whoever sits next to me. People are extraordinarily patient with me. If I'm feeling ambitious, the conversations turn to the Presidential election coming up in November. When I'm not feeling up to it, we talk about how cold it gets in Michigan or how good the food is here.

8:30am... A van picked us up at the bus stop and drove us to the Pedagogica, which is a Teacher's College in downtown Tegucicalpa. Half of us went to their Spanish 201 class, while the rest of us sat around a table with a tutor. We talked about a short story we had read and I only mostly understood and I despaired again of ever becoming conversant, let alone fluent in a second language.

10:00am... At the end of our class, I walked to the cafeteria, where many different windows sold different versions of the same food. Every day I order something at random, and every day what I get is a surprise. Enchiladas here, for example, are open-faced tacos topped with cabbage and carrots. But I have yet to try food that I really haven't liked.

10:30am... We all came together  for our Calvin class, taught by our professors who work for Calvin but have lived in Honduras for 25 years. For the first few weeks, we're taking a crash course of Honduran history, politics, and culture. It's fascinating and completely new to me. I've only been here for a week, and I've already been convicted of my ignorance in foreign policy and world history. We're also studying current events. We spent almost 30 minutes talking about the events leading up to the Attorney General's impeachment, as well as the consequences. Studying politics here where they're happening is so different than sitting in a classroom in Michigan and trying to care about people you don't know and incidents you don't understand!

1:30pm... We all went to the mall before heading back to Santa Lucia. The currency here is the "Lempira," and one Lempira is about equal to a nickel. Even though I know the exchange rate, it's still feels strange to pay 200 of anything for a small bag of groceries!

4:00-6:00pm... During this time, I usually start my homework, take a nap, or visit the internet café down the street. For about a dollar I can get a delicious iced coffee and use the wifi while looking out over the fantastic view. There are mountains everywhere you look in Honduras, and as the light fades at night and the fog rolls in, I'm convinced this is the most beautiful place in the world.

6:00pm... For dinner, we eat a lot of eggs, a lot of corn tortillas, and a lot of refried beans. I've never once been hungry here. My family is always coming and going, so we don't usually eat all together, but by about 7:30 most everyone has settled down to watch TV.

7:30pm... I've watched Enchanted in Spanish, and both the History and Disney channel, but usually my family watches the news. I ask a million stupid questions, and they correct my butchered Spanish while 2-year-old Zoe (pronounced like Soy) pulls on my arm to try to get me to play with her. They try to help me with my homework, and I try to hold up my half of a conversation. Sometimes some of the younger Hondurans will take me on a walk, and sometimes I'll visit the other Calvin students.

10:00pm... After thinking in Spanish all day, two 45-minute bus rides, and challenging homework, I'm exhausted by the end of the day. I take a shower in the usually-cold water (there's only one knob, so you take what you can get) and retire to my little bedroom, read my Bible, and go to bed.

And that's my routine so far. I feel welcomed and safe, and though I can get frustrated at my inability to communicate, overall the experience has been amazing. These are my quiet days. I know in the months to come I'll go on trips and adventures, try new things, and probably get lost, but it's nice to have a habit to fall back on.

I've loved every day of Honduras so far, and I can't wait to learn more and do more!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Estamos Aquí... We are Here!

The bus rolled over cobblestone hills, taking us into a little city straight out of a travel guide. The ten of us stepped out, exhausted from our 10 hours of traveling, carrying in our hands the suitcases we would live out of for the next four months. Our professors led us to the porch of a house where women and children sat and laughed together, and one by one the women recognized us, drew us in for a hug, and welcomed us into their families.

For our stay in Honduras, each of us will live in a different home in the beautiful city of Santa Lucia, about a 45-minute bus ride from the capital Tegucigalpa. These families provide us with our own room, and cook us breakfast and dinner every day.

My living room is here, where I watch Disney shows in Spanish with my adopted family and eat the delicious meals my mamá cooks for me. My brothers, who are in college, bring their friends in here, and my sister plays here with my adorable niece.

Walking out of the kitchen, there is an enclosed terrace where the laundry hangs to dry, and the floppy mutt, Scott, barks at our neighbor's roosters. My room is behind the door in the picture. It's tiny but comfortable, with just enough room for a small bed and a desk. In the mornings, I walk to the outdoor sink and brush my teeth while watching the cars struggle up the cobblestone hills.

This is my neighborhood. It is filled with "pulperías," or little stores that cater to the swarms of tourists that flock to Santa Lucia on Sunday afternoons. During the rest of the week, the town is safe and sleepy, wonderful for walks down to the library, the park, or the hundred-year-old Catholic church.

Honduras is absolutely beautiful, and these pictures can't do it justice. In the middle of its rainy season, everything is lush and green. There are mountains wherever you look, and at night the lights of distant Tegucicalpa sparkle like stars.

Almost no one in Santa Lucia speaks English, and my two semesters of Spanish are being pushed to their absolute limit. In Spanish class, you learn to discuss the weather, or the color of a shirt. Nothing prepares you for when your papá turns off the news and asks in Spanish, "So, what do you think of President Obama?"

 Our first five days here have been a blur of getting to know our families, our city, and our classmates. We take a public bus every day to Tegucigalpa, where we study at a "Pedagogica," a public university. Those whose Spanish is more advanced will take classes with Honduran students, while the rest of us study with our English-speaking professors.

I'm tempted to go on and on, talking about the way street vendors sell water in plastic bags and I've eaten types of fruit I've never heard of before. I want to talk about the National Park we visited and the group of young Hondurans who tried to teach us to dance. I want to talk about playing pool with a 9-year-old and the way he laughed at my broken Spanish.

There is so much to learn here and so much to do here. I could talk about all the ways Honduras is different or the same, but there's no way to compare it to what I'm used to. I'm walking forward with new eyes, ready to experience whatever happens, however it happens. There will be time for all those stories! Right now I have homework to finish, dinner to be back in time for, and a city to explore...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shooting Stars and Hard Goodbyes

August has been a gauntlet of goodbyes. No sooner is one finished than I’m smacked in the face with another. Our last ACMNP worship service. My last hike in the canyon. Friends driving and flying away— I’ve learned that saying goodbye, unlike juggling or playing the flute, does not get easier with practice.

The meteors have been falling since the beginning of August, but Monday night was the peak. It was the last night we all had together before the first of us left. We drove out to where no one else was in the middle of the night and lay on our backs looking up.

Here, on a clear night, the sky is salted full of stars and the Milky Way stands out like a ribbon. That night the meteors streaked in bright smears of light, and we counted dozens.

It was too dark to see everyone’s faces, but the voices I’ve grown used to rose and fell as I lay there with my favorite people in the whole Grand Canyon.

One girl brought her guitar and picked it softly as we stared up. I’m sure I could come up with metaphors for how much more beautiful the stars were having left the sky, for how bright shined the trace of their exits—but it’s enough for now to say we listened to each other, watched the sky, and knew there would never be another moment quite like we had then.

“He loves us—oh, how He loves us—oh, how He loves…” she sang and we joined in, remembering the reason why we came out here in the first place.

Then we sang the song that’s become my anthem for the summer, “Indescribable.”

“You placed the stars in the sky and you know them by name—you are amazing, God.”

As we leave one by one I’m comforted by that—that the God who named the stars extends far past the canyon. Even if I never see these people again, we’re united in purpose and passion. We’re traveling off to serve the homeless in St. Louis, to perform music in Pittsburgh, to ask the right questions in California and Honduras.

And to always look back on Grand Canyon, for better or for worse, as a home.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I am (Probably) not Going to Die this Fall

It's hard to believe, but two weeks from tomorrow I'll be on an airplane flight that will take me out of this country. I'm going to be spending the next three and a half months living and studying in Honduras. I'm incredibly excited for what looks like a life-changing semester; but, of course, everyone has a different idea about what constitutes exciting. When one of the bellmen I work with found out I was going to Honduras, he was quick to tell me everything he knew about the country.

"I hear it's, like, super dangerous," he said. "Aren't you scared?"

Yes, the United States has issued travel warnings for the country. Yes, I did have to sign special papers to go on the semester. But no, I'm not scared. The semester is well-established, run by competent professors who have called Honduras their home for years.

"We are often asked if Tegucigalpa [the Honduran capital] is dangerous," JoAnn VanEngen, one of the professors wrote in our informational packet. "The answer is, it can be."

But, she continued, so can any city in the United States. The response should be caution and education-- certainly not staying at home.

The bellman wouldn't let me leave it at that. Practicing his Spanish, he asked haltingly, "Temes la peligrosa?", "Are you afraid of the danger?"

No, I said. I'll be living in a safe neighborhood, far from the gang violence that brings the crime rate up so high. I'll be studying with the organizations that are helping make Honduras a safer place every year. I'll be wise. I'll be cautious.

I was walking back from lunch the next day when the bellman appeared out of nowhere, like the physical embodiment of my unvoiced worries. "I was talking to my roommate," he said. "He says you're going to die."

I'm not going to die. I'm going to learn.

"Honduras isn't perfect," says my school's study-abroad website, "But it is the perfect place to look for answers to the hard questions about our place in the not-so-perfect world we live in... You'll learn about the factors that make Honduras the third poorest country in the western world. Then you'll use that knowledge as a lens to look at the rest of the world."

I'm going to witness a Presidential election, visit an orphanage, subsistence farms, and garment factories. I'm going to experience life in a way I never have before. Aren't you all jumping to buy plane tickets alongside me?

Maybe it's a little dangerous. But what worth doing isn't? I offer my guarantee and my assurance to the bellman and whoever else asks: I am not going to die this Fall.

(If you're interested, this article, published in my school newspaper last year, explains the travel warnings to Honduras and the subsequent responses. If you want to keep up with me over the next few months, I'll keep blogging! Let's see where this adventure goes)

Friday, August 2, 2013

All of us are Tourists

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Reservation

Breathing heavy from the hike, we stop at the bottom of the canyon and sneer at those who let the skinny horses cart their backpacks to the bottom. We jeer at those who flew down in a helicopter. But the water is the same blue-green for all of us. How can the journey matter when the destination is the same?

Hurtling graveward, I wonder if we’ll find the journey worth it. Are we travelers here on earth, or are we tourists, stopping only long enough for a photograph?

Somewhere, Everywhere

I am sick and tired of fanny packs. Of overpriced tchotchkes and the dim, muddled people who buy them. Memories can’t be pocketed by magnet or postcard or overpriced T-shirt.

The hikers with the heaviest backpacks have the hardest time making it up the path. Considering lilies is impossible when you’ve plucked them and pressed them and hung them on your wall.

Maswik Cabins, Grand Canyon Village

My open door faces guest cabins. I can sit in bed and watch them drag their suitcases up the stairs. They’re noisy and they’re always lost. They stay for a night, then a new gaggle arrives in their place, perched on the cabin porches like big, dull geese with clipped wings.

The tourists blend into each other in an eccentric wallpaper of elderly Japanese people in huge sun visors and slim Italians with shockingly low-cut shirts. Sunglasses press into the burned-pink flesh of their meaty foreheads. They all complain about parking. They all ask for the bar.

But these people are artists and teachers and lovers; children and parents and the reason I’m here. They pay for the trails I hike and the programs I enjoy. They are the reason for the shuttle bus I know so well and the hotel that pays me every other week. If we didn’t have tourists, would the Canyon be so Grand? Does it diminish with every set of eyes, or does it grow?

Somewhere, Everywhere

The Star Spangled Banner is locked away, because air and sunlight eat around the bullet holes. If enough people look at a book for long enough, the words will fade and the paper crumble. The same sun and water that break apart our treasures batter us. Is this why we stay inside? If we shield our bodies, will we save ourselves from the poison of breath and light and time?

Shuttle Bus, Grand Canyon Village

“Moose!” the woman on the shuttle bus shouts and nearly lunges out of her seat. Before I can stop myself, I correct her: “Elk.”

“Tell the driver to stop!” she shouts, craning her head, reaching for a camera.

“They’re out every night,” I say, because I can’t help it. “You get used to them.”

But here’s the secret: when I come upon an elk with a rack of velvet horns, my heart stops. Dark neck, tawny flank, knob-knees, he utters an eerie cry like a whining child and I breath out of my mouth and my nose and forget how to breathe back in for a moment.

Somewhere, Everywhere

All of us are looking for something that will last longer than we will. We grip memories tight in our sweaty fists. We so desperately want to feel again, we chase after wonder like a child chases butterflies. Some of us are aghast when our sticky fingers crush the fragile wings. But some of us crumple the bodies in our pockets as souvenirs.

When we love food, we consume it. There is nothing left but crumbs.

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Reservation

Supai village startles us. After miles of bare rock, barbed-wire fences and satellite dishes seem alien. Wiping dust from our ears, we hear a man with a lawnmower shortening the thick green grass behind his prefabricated house. It must have been carried down in pieces on the back of a horse, unless a helicopter lowered it. The pack horses rest behind wire. Their eyes are rimmed by flies and their ribs are countable.

A dog prances up to us, eyes wet and turned up. “Don’t touch it,” one who’s been here before tells us. “It’s a res dog.” Painted signs point us to the tourist office, which is a whitewashed shack; though it has air conditioning, and sells ice cream from a small refrigerator with crusted ice along the sides.

“It’s so poor!” one honest girl mouths, too loudly, and I cringe and fold inside myself. This is the one who said how lucky that the government had given the Havasupai—the People-of-the-Blue-Green-Waters—this beautiful land, this beautiful bounteous land in the dust of a remote canyon, eight miles from high ground by horse or weary foot.

I bite my tongue. I want the canyon to open up and drop me deeper, away from the even glances of the Havasupai girls my age with babies in hand, their stares too blank to be accusing, too guarded to let me flail them with my guilt.

When we pay our dues at the tourist office, a woman hands each of us an emergency-red wristband with “TOURIST” printed on it so we remember when we see it that this will never be our home. Others pull out their cameras. I duck my head instead.

There are waterfalls tucked in the bottom of the canyon. They are spectacular. People crowd into the crystal pools. They model bikinis and scream with joy as they jump off cliff ledges. We clamber up ridges and swing in hammocks, letting the roar of the river rush us to sleep. Every one of us sports the wristband. The Havasupai have left us to the water and the water to us.

I think that someone ate their fill, then tossed the scraps and demanded a share of even those. This makes me sick, but even so I’m grateful. The water is so cool and clear.

Have I paid my dues? Can one ever really pay enough? I’m a tourist and I hate it. Eyes have touched every surface of this earth, if not the next one. To whom does it belong?

When we’re hiking out, the dog follows me up the trail. He stops when I stop. He pants at my feet. He is a res dog, so I do not want to touch him, but he looks up at me with wet eyes and a mouth twisted somehow, resolutely, in a grin.

Somewhere, Everywhere

We destroy what we love by loving it. We’re hurtling graveward with butterfly wings. But the world is worth exploring, and all of us are tourists somewhere, sometime, even if it was only when we burst headfirst into this world.

We learn to be travelers, slowly. We drop our backpacks by the side of the path and take deep breaths. Maybe life is not what’s picked up, but what is left behind. Maybe we need the gawkers. Maybe we let the flag unfurl and fade.

We protect what we love by hiding it from the atmosphere’s appetite, but the sterile boxes work by shrouding things in darkness and silence, by killing anything that lives.

And wonder is a living, breathing thing.