4/27/19 - 5/3/19
The thing about learning a language is that at some point you have to begin saying things that are more complicated than “Where is the bathroom?” If you’re a first-worlder in Latin America, even with the observational prowess equivalent to that of a grown man with a third grade reading level, you will notice that there is something very different about the way these people live. Without the language, the best you can hope for is that same degree of fascination you have when watching a national geographic documentary.
“Oh look honey,” you might say, “there’s an eighty year old man in traditional hand woven garb carrying a sixty pound cord of firewood on his back up a hill with a thirty percent grade.”
“Oh my gosh,” your spouse would reply, “and just look at the juxtaposition of those Nike’s against that outfit. How do you ask if we can take a selfie with him in Spanish?”
“Who cares, if it bothers him it’s not like he could chase us with all those twigs on his back.”
The photo would be posted on Instagram with a caption explaining how enlightening it has been for the couple to interact with traditional cultures. Had they had a slightly stronger grasp on the language though, they could have had a conversation that would have caused certain cognitive dissonance and perhaps ruined the feel good nature of their trip.
My personal goals for Spanish are to have what I consider to be interesting conversations and occasionally tell a story about the time I ate fish eyes. Guatemalan Spanish is known as being extraordinarily bland and is therefore a great place to learn. The dialect in Northern Mexico was so fast, laden with colloquialisms, and each word seemed half enunciated as it melted into the next. Here, the speech is less frenetic and each syllable is pronounced with cutting precision.
I tend to be more interested in learning about my teachers’ lives and local issues than about perfect grammar. I believe this curiosity ultimately forces one to learn how to say things properly. It can also lend profound insight into how language shapes the way we think. In America, a young lad might express his interest to build a farm. A few weeks back in San Cristobal I met a Mexican couple that told me about their dreams to grow a farm. One implies a certain degree of individualism and dominance, the other seems more about collaboration and nurturing.
After taking classes for four hours per day in San Cristobal, I convinced Soph that we should do a six hour a day sufferfest in San Pedro in which we each took a 3 hour morning class on our own followed by a joint afternoon session. I studied with a woman named Maria from nine to noon. If you are moderately empathetic and a bit prone to feeling guilt caused by the realization that you enjoy a certain degree of privilege as a result of your nationality or skin color, then taking Spanish lessons from a Mayan woman in the hills of Guatemala probably isn’t for you. At the very least, I would not advise diving into social matters or comparing what you got for Christmas when you were five.
Without getting too technical about the mechanics of language, Spanish has something called the subjunctive mood. It is perhaps better to think of it as a way of conjugating verbs in a very specific form of future tense. Alas, it is not a tense. It is a mood. This mood is used to express things that you hope for, but doubt you will ever get. The first time I really heard and understood somebody using it was when Maria and I were discussing the possibility of using plant based systems to provide clean air and water should humans ever try to colonize Mars. She asked me if I would travel to the moon if I had the money. I asked where in the world she would like to travel. To this she responded, “Tuveria denero, iría a los estados unidos.”
“Tuveria” is the subjunctive form of “Tener” which is the equivalent of the English possessive verb “have.” So loosely she said “If I had the money I would go to the United States.” But here is the magic of the subjunctive; there is an implication, an understanding… that these things will never happen. A large percentage of their language is dedicated solely to articulating things that they hope for, but don’t believe they will ever have. Somebody recently recommended a book called “Open Veins of Latin America.” of which I read half of the foreword. In short it appears to be about what the persistent pillaging of natural resources, rule by crooked leaders that facilitate said pillaging, and general state of being kicked around for centuries tends to have on the collective consciousness of a people. All of that being said, I haven’t read the book and I don’t really know anything about Spanish, yet all of this seems relevant somehow.
Our afternoon instructor was Lesbi. At some point we were discussing phones and technology. She asked us what our first memories of computers were. I recalled having an Apple IIE in the house as a kid, but more vividly I recalled the day when the librarian (“guardia de los libros” in Spanish which means “Guardian of the books.”) rolled a PC into our fifth grade class that had the entire encyclopedia on it, complete with color photos. It was about ten years after this that Lesbi saw her first computer.
You think about things like that and you think about certain advantages that one person might have in competing in the modern world over others. Advantages that you generally take for granted. At the same time, it is hard not to look at the place and think that it is the modern world that is causing it to lose not only its charm, but maybe its gumption as well. Every town on this lake has Mayan roots. The communities speak slightly different variations of the Mayan language Tz’utujil and have their own style of traditional dress. A generation ago these places were generally made up of people that worked and lived off the land. Fish in the lake, fruit and veggies grown on the near vertical slopes in rich volcanic soil.
Maybe it was horrible. Maybe people dreamed of the day when tourism would discover this place and bring its army of tuk-tuks (an entertaining three wheeled taxi that appears to be exempt from all emissions standards), booze and drug thirsty foreigners. The imported soaps make doing laundry by hand much easier, and having flush toilets seems better than sprinkling ash on shit in a hole.
Dealing with plastic waste is enough of a problem that some towns have banned grocery bags and drinking straws. The plumbing system is overtaxed. Everything drains directly into the lake. That water is not fit for drinking and I wouldn’t touch a fish from it. The locals don’t have a choice. The soaps and fecal matter cause an annual algae plume that turns the lake yellow and generally smells of shit. I’ve heard there are mining operations nearby that dump and cause runoff into it as well. Maria used to work in the local communities educating them about water pollution. She said some of the rivers draining into the lake have literally turned black.
“What happened to this lake is no different than what is happening to the air of the planet,” Maria tells me. “We see the changes quicker here because it is so much smaller. It happens slowly until the day you realize how terrible it has become and it seems overwhelming to try to fix it.”
We, tourists collectively, pat each other on the back for being environmentally conscious and attending yoga classes on a bamboo deck with a volcano in the background. This makes us enlightened. We also buy the packaged goods that locals cannot afford because our guts can’t handle the street food. We throw the garbage in the bin, tell each other how it is sad that they don’t recycle here, and leave after a week or two with some pictures carefully aimed to avoid the trash pile, our trash pile, on the edge of town. The locals watch, mostly with a feeling of powerlessness, as a highland microclimate that has supported them for centuries gets destroyed in a few decades. They share plenty of blame in this process as well. When asked about how to stop further damage and begin repairing the environment, the wise elders offer “God will help us.”
Like what we're doing here? Throw us some bread. It keeps tires on the bikes and food in our bellies! Better yet, share us on social media or send a link to a friend with a message that says something like "Hey, I consider you a person of refined taste and culture and think that you would enjoy this."