typical day

I went home for the holidays. Before I did, I made a list of the things I wanted to do and the things I wanted to eat in the USA. Partial results below:

1. Christmas with the family √
2. Pick up supplies for the coming year √
3. Speak English √
4. Pecan pie √

As you can see, the visit was a success.
My friend J Dilla is serving in Mali with Peace Corps. She wrote about a typical day in her site. It was a nice window into her life in West Africa.
When I was home, several people asked me about my typical day. But every day is different; there is no typical day. This is an unsatisfying answer.
So here I’ve decided to document one day for me in my site. The day, January 9, 2009, also happens to be one year after my first full day in-country.

. . .

7:00 AM In my dream, Barack Obama is giving an address in elementary Q’eqchi’. He’s saying things like, “How are you?” and “What is your name?” which aren’t things you say in an address. Also, who is your demographic adviser?

7:30 Awake. It’s cold in the house, probably sixty degrees. It’s not the Virginia January I just left, but it’s also not the indoor weather I want to wake up to.
It’s misty and gray outside and I consider going back to bed. But someone is setting off bombs left over from (something we were celebrating) yesterday.
I put on the water and some clothes.
Oatmeal and pressed coffee. I’m listening to some Kojo Nnamdi that I downloaded in Cobán last Sunday. Something about a greenhouse gas initiative in Maryland.
There’s some desultory preparation for the hike ahead.

I leave the house in the late morning. The sun’s out and everyone in the village has been awake and active for hours. I’m on my way to Sanimtacá.
While I was in the United States I printed some photos for some of my friends in the village. I’m handing out photos as I run into people on the road.
When someone gets a photo, they ask what it cost so they can reimburse me for it. I don’t want money so I’ve been telling them not to worry about it or, time permitting, “Sa il ch’oolejil ch’oq awe sa’ ralankil,” which means Merry Christmas.
But I’m starting to hatch a plan. Perhaps in exchange for printed photos (something they can’t make), I could get a home-cooked Q’eqchi’ meal (something I can’t make).

As I pass, some boys I know call for my attention. They’re working on a high shoulder above the road and they’re obscured by brush so I can’t really see them, and I have no idea what kind of work they’re doing.
To reduce (your) confusion, the ensuing dialogue will follow this format:


Boys: [Don Pedro! Good morning!] {How are you?}
Pedro: [Well, good morning.] {I’m well, how are you all?}
Boys: {Also good. Where are you going?}
Pedro: {I go to Sanimtacá. What are you all doing? Working?}
Boys: {We’re working,} [well, yes.] {Will you be around later?}
(That last part is a dirty joke.)
A young woman named Cristina arrives on the road with her sister.
Girls: {Until later.}
(This is a typical greeting)
Pedro: {Wait. I have your} [photo.]
Boys: {[Whoop!]}
Cristina: {Nice photo. What size?}
(I think she means what size is the price of the photo, but I’m implementing my food-for-photo plan.)
Pedro: {Tortilla.}
Girls: [Four?]
(The Q’eqchi’ word for “tortilla” is the same as the first syllable in the Spanish word for “four” and since my answer didn’t compute, they assumed I had switched languages.)
Boys: Laughter from behind the foliage.
Pedro: [Four?] {No. Tortilla. To eat.} Hand motion meaning “eat.”
Cristina: {What size?}
(Okay, I can’t tell if she’s restating her original question or asking how many tortillas I want. Or asking what size tortillas I want.)
Boys: {Maybe you guys should try English!}
Pedro: {To eat?}
Cristina: Staring at photo, trying to understand.
Pedro: {It pleases me to eat.}
Boys: Uproar
Girls: (unknown Q’eqchi’)
Pedro: Silent and hopeless attempt at translation {Good?}
Girls: {Good. Until later.}
The girls continue down the road
Boys: {Don Pedro, all good?}
Pedro: {Yes. All is goo-} I realize that they’re making fun of me. {Until later!} [Goodbye!]
Boys: Laughter. {[Whoop!]}

Li xCristina (Cristina)

The next hour is a hike through the mountain pass to Sanimtacá. I catch and photograph the lizards and gnarly spiders I find along the way.

I visit Ernesto’s house to drop off the radio and flashlights I bought for him in the States. He’s not home, but his four kids are. They bring me hot juice and five bananas. I head back up the trail to meet my students.

I teach a guide class in Sanimtacá focusing on birdwatching. Up until now, all of our classes have been indoor affairs with copious illustrations on the whiteboard to bridge the language gaps.
Basic education is lacking in the village. The city has assigned one teacher to Sanimtacá and he has to manage grades one through six in a single classroom. He arrives around seven in the morning and motors out on his dirt bike at lunchtime.
In my guide class, have a dozen or so students in their late teens.
I quickly discovered that understanding of fundamental science concepts was lacking. So up until now, we have been learning basic science principles to pave the way for bird study.
We’ve been over earth science, basic biology, and a few giggly weeks of sexual reproduction leading us to evolution. I had some concerns about teaching sex and evolution in a traditional Mayan-Catholic society. So I kept it light. But there were no torch-bearing villagers, no Scopes trial, no hook-faced birds to pick at my Promethean liver. Nothing.
Religion is not self-conscious here, the people aren’t sensitive to ideological conflict. As far as they can tell, there are two religions: Catholic and Evangelical, and they come from the same book.

Before I left for vacation, we specified a time and place to meet for the next class. As I arrive at the designated place, I wonder if planning so far in advance might have been a mistake. There are no students waiting for me.
So I find a seat on the side of the road and pull out a book. This is incidental free time and my days are littered with it.
After fifteen minutes, four of my girls come around the bend. But instead of starting class, they stop in the road. I motion for them to come over, which makes them laugh. Instead, they take a seat in the grass next to the road.
I’m about fifty feet away. There is a book in my hand, but I’m clearly not occupied, I’m ready to start class.
I sit where I am while the girls chat in Q’eqchi’. From time to time I catch “Qaw Ped,” which is my name (sort of), and I look up. Every time I look, the girls laugh.
It may seem strange that I would let my students waste my time like this, but I’ve learned that I get better results from going with the flow than from imposing my own schedule. After an hour, the girls get up and come over.
We head up the trail and start looking for birds. I had some suspicion that bird class attracted students (especially the girls) because it’s a novel activity that takes place outside of the house. But once on the trail, the giggling dies down and the girls walk quietly with their eyes on the trees. I let them pass my binoculars around and I have them use the field guide to identify species.
Once we have a species identified, they surprise me by jotting down the name. They turn out to be more interested in learning than I gave them credit for.
We ascend the valley towards the cloud forest. We see bushy-crested jays, slate-throated redstarts, and assorted migratory warblers. But after a few hours, it’s getting late. We end up turning around before reaching the forest.
We set a time for the next class (earlier, in case the girls need an hour to chat) and part ways at a fork in the trail. I hike out of the valley alone and head back down the road towards Samac.

I walk for an hour as a full moon crests the hill. As I reach the village I stop at a family store. Margarita is at the window. She covers her smile as she sees me coming. I ask for two cans of beans and four eggs. Margarita’s front teeth fell out last month and she hides her mouth behind the cans as she tells me the price.

I get home and drop my pack off at the house. Then I head to my nearest neighbor’s house to buy tortillas. When I get there they tell me they don’t have any. I think they must be joking, but they send me next door to Don Felipe’s house.
Felipe has twelve children. While I wait in the dining room for my tortillas, the kids swarm me and give me an impromptu Q’eqchi’ lesson by naming everything they see.
But they don’t realize that some of the words they use are derived from the Spanish.
A truck rumbles by on the road and Freddy yells “Camionet!”
“B’eeleb’aal ch’iich,” I correct him.
Little Felipe Baudilio points at my hat and tells me it’s called “Gorr.”
“Kaxlan punit?”
“Oh yeah, kaxlan punit.” he amends.
Don Felipe arrives with a stack of tortillas and a scrap of chicken. I ask what size the price is. He tells me that there’s no price. Many thanks around and I go home to make dinner.
I cook up the eggs and beans and roll them up in the tortillas with lettuce and chili. I put on some music and eat at my desk. Now that it’s dark, the village has retired and there’s no one out on the street.
I enjoy the night time because it’s quiet and I can read or write without interruption. I boil some water for tea and use the rest of the hot water to wash my hair in the pila outside my window. By now it’s cool enough to see my breath against the dark and the fog is rolling in.
My house has two rooms. I live in one and sleep in the other. Now it’s time for bed so I go to the other room. I consider setting my alarm, but with nothing special scheduled, I’m confident that the combination of roosters, honking, and leftover rockets will be sufficient to get me up in time for tomorrow.

3 Responses to “typical day”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    thanks for the plug! and for sharing what a day is like for you. reading about your food makes my mouth water though. mali food is a little lacking…

  2. Juliette Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been dying to know what a day is like for you, and I hung onto every word. I wouldn’t be upset if you did more “typical” day posts from time to time. Hope you’re well!

    BTW, we are now drinking your coffee. It tastes different than what we are accustomed to, but not bad. It has a fruity flavor. I like it. Haven’t tried the tea yet.

  3. Gustavo (juliette's dad) Says:

    Great post. On thursday after having dinner at home with a friend, I brought the computer to the table and read your post aloud for all to enjoy while drinking a cup of coffee. We all enjoyed it and applauded you for what you are doing. I am looking forward to your next post.