One of my projects for the internship was making an online version of the EntreMundos Revista. Since wordpress is pretty easy to use it was mainly a lot of copying and pasting, but the good news is, that those of you who cannot easily stroll into a Quetzaltenango coffee shop to pick up a free print copy can now read my lovely articles (here and here) and those of my coworkers online: entremundosrevista.wordpress.com
And to fill in this post, here is a fun little nugget I wrote for the blog section of the website:
10 Sure-Fire Cures for Volunteers’ Blues
by Emily Ellis, EntreMundos Intern
Volunteering abroad most often proves to be a life-changing experience for the bright-eyed young philanthropist. Between meeting amazing people, learning a new language, and scrambling through gorgeous countrysides, you are almost guaranteed a good time – especially if you had the sense to find your perfect volunteer placement through an organization like EntreMundos.
However, as any stranger in a strange land knows, the grinning facebook albums and enthusiastic tweets don’t tell the entire story. Everyone has bad days, of course, but when you are in foreign country and out of your element, bad days can feel catastrophic. Getting berated by a woman in the market for accidently knocking over her pyramid of avocadoes, getting significantly overcharged by a taxi driver because you got confused over the exchange rate, seeing the salsa teacher who told you YOU were the prettiest girl at the disco the week before grinding with some Scandinavian blonde – not that any of these things have happened to me, of course, but when you are already vulnerable and out of your comfort zone, even the smallest crisis can send you scurrying to the nearest internet cafe to search for a ticket home.
So, in the spirit of cheering up all of you long-suffering volunteers and interns, I have compiled a handy list of things that, in my experience, never fail to bring a little ray of sunshine to the day.
1. Do your laundry.
2. Stay hydrated.
3. Smile at a baby.
4. Carry on a casual conversation with your local cashier, waiter etc. (in their language) without them looking at all confused.
5. Buy yourself an artisanal trinket. You deserve it!
6. Make a date with a cheap DVD and a beer, then go to bed at 9pm.
7. Bake something sweet for the folks at whatever organization you’re working for. In the words of a wise woman: “You can be unhappy before eating a cookie, you can be unhappy after eating a cookie, but you can never be unhappy WHILE eating a cookie.”
8. If possible, hug a puppy.
9. Take a yoga class
10. Read up on the poverty stats of your host country (or look out the window) and realize how lucky you are to be able to do amazing things like volunteer abroad in the first place.
Anything you would add to the list? Comment below!
Usually when people ask me what attracts me to Latin America, I mumble something about a rich and varied history or warm, open culture or beautiful scenery. But when it comes right down to it, it’s the shopping.
There are few things I find more pleasureable than pawing through a stack of hand-woven scarfs at an artisan market or purchasing a bag of fresh avocadoes for less than a dollar. I’d like to think that my materialism could be viewed as acceptable – even noble – in a “developing” country, since every purchase I make helps an artist or farmer put food on the table and whatnot, but the truth is, I do not buy things out of a desire to provide business for poor people. I buy things because they’re beautiful and I want them.
Evidence of this lies in the tangled wad of wirework jewelry spilling over my dresser, the curtain of scarves covering half my wall – spoils of months spent in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Vietnam. Some people come away from time abroad with relationships that last a lifetime or a new outlook on the world, but for me, it’s always been about the trinkets. Like a pirate boasting over his succesfull pillages, I enjoy nothing more than telling the stories behind my baubles (“Oh, this old thing? Cuzco ’09, hand-embroidered. I talked her down to $5.”) I may die poor, but my coffin will be lined like an Eygptain Pharoah’s.
So, in the spirit of materialism, I will ask you to indulge me as I share some of the pretty things I have bought in the last two months:
Yes, all those scarves are just from this trip ( mostly from TRAMA. ) But it’s chilly here and for the sake of proper accessorizing I needed one in every color.
I was sitting in a coffee shop idly wondering, “where does one buy a rug in Xela?” and then a man walked in with a stack of them on his back and dumped them at my feet.
Amber from Chiapas, sold by some hippiesh guy at the monthly artisan market in the central park. I’d like to think that the 100Q he offered me for the set (about 12$) was a good deal, but it’s a mark of a good artisan to make girls feel like they’re getting a good deal (note: this pic is from the google, but mine are similar.)
All-natural beautifying products, also purchased at the market: green tea facial scrub, almond oil, honey soap. Because everyone deserves to feel fancy and all-natural.
And, lastly, I have to mention MegaPaca. I half-wish that I had not discovered this store. It is a massive thrift shop where you can find clothes and household items for “los precios mas bajos!” Instead of spending Sunday mornings in tranquil medidation or worship, I usually take a bus out to Zone 3 and pass a couple happy hours rifling through the fresh shipment of stuff from the U.S. I’ve found Ralph Lauren sweaters for a few cents each and managed to furnish my bed (down comforter, sheets etc.) for less than 10$.
Doesn’t it make you wish you were in Quetzaltenango? But don’t feel too envious, I’ll be sure to bring you back a scarf.
Many years ago when I was bright-eyed college student, I thought it would be exciting to write for the Guilfordian and signed up for a journalism course. After about an hour into the class, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. Journalism was the opposite of exciting. It was all pestering people for interviews about the campus squirrels eating cigarette butts and trying to figure out who kept ripping the water fountain off the wall in the freshman dorm. As a literature major, I decided to spend my writerly energies focusing on things that actually interested me – i.e, poetry and the next Great American Novel – and dropped the class the next day.
Three and a half years out of Guilford, I’m giving journalism a second try. Fortunately, writing for EntreMundos Revista is decidedly more interesting than writing for a college newspaper. For one thing, the editor set me loose without writing guidelines other than a word limit for articles, and figuring things out as you go along has always been my preferred learning method. For another, conducting my interviews in Spanish (my Spanish really isn’t quite good enough to be interviewing people in, but I’ve managed reasonably well,) and wandering around a new city to track down my interviewees has certainly livens things up. Since the next issue of the Revista is about Guatemalan women, my assignments have included writing profiles of female directors of local NGOs and writing an article on Guatemalan midwifery (the latter was my idea, since, you know . . . women, midwifes.)
My very first interview was with Oralia Chopen and Amparo de Leon de Rubio, indigenous weavers and directors of TRAMA Textiles, one of the most interesting organizations in Quetzaltenango, in my opinion. TRAMA was started shortly after the end of the Guatemalan Civil War, in order to give women who had lost their husbands and sons a way to earn a living by selling their textiles. I thought it would be easy to take notes, but since I didn’t have a tape recorder and Amparo (who did most of the talking) spoke in rapid and passionate Spanish, I didn’t quite get everything and panicked to scribble spanglishy quotes whilst appearing like I was paying attention to her. Then, suddenly, Amarpo started crying as she talked about the difficulties faced by impoverished women struggling to care for their children. I was a little alarmed, but I also appreciated her openness while talking to me. My first interview ever and I’d already gone all Barbara Walters.
Of the other interviews I’ve done – some in the welcomed company of Patri, a fellow journalism intern from Spain who helps out with the language issues – my interview with Maria Feliciana Chojolan Lopez, a midwife with more than 20 years experience, was the most interesting. Due to the high prices of health care (high for impoverished people, anyway,) in Guatemala, the distance between hospitals and rural villages, and language barriers – in many indigenous communities there are people who don’t speak Spanish – many women prefer to give birth at home, so traditional midwifery is common and necessary. Maria was a stout woman of about 50 or 60 who showed up for our interview on one of the days she traveled into Xela from her village to attend a free midwifery class – despite 20 years experience, she still felt there was a lot to learn. Although I wanted to talk about her life, she seemed more interested in walking me through the steps of assisting a birthing mother – cinnamon tea to heat and relax the body, bottles of hot water on either side of the woman’s stomach to help the baby come down straight, white candles for prayer. She presented me with a dirty, much-folded sheet containing a list of medicinal plants and their uses for laboring mothers, which I made a copy of, because it was cool and to be prepared just in case I find some pregnant woman in my company goes into labor. If I ever give birth myself I think I would prefer to be drugged senseless until the whole thing was over with, but I certainly admire the women who do it the painful, scary, all-natural way.
I don’t know if I’ll continue with journalism or not after this internship is over, since I think most gigs I could find in the U.S. would be pretty boring compared to running around Guatemala talking to midwives and weavers and NGO directors. But, even if it doesn’t develop into a career, it’s a good addition to my ever-growing list of odd jobs.
any sort of job in the food industry, I was initially more excited than I care to admit at the prospect of working at Black Cat Xela. I´d spent so much time listening to the under-30 crowd in Asheville (practically all of whom are waiters and bartenders) gossiping and griping about their work that a part of me longed to speak their language, one of tips and bad managers and covered shifts. In the back of my head, I always thought that you haven´t really lived until you´ve worked in the service industry. So when I spotted a help wanted flyer for Black Cat – a hip backpacker hostel/bar/restaurant, no experience required – I saw a chance for that longing to be fulfilled. Forget identifying myself as a teacher, I was going to be an official bartender.
Like most things in life, working at Black Cat has proved a little more complicated than I originally thought. My position could be described as bartender/waitress/assistant cook/receptionist/translator/bouncer. There are tours to book (a different system of payment/commissions/etc. depending on the company or tour guide), cocktails to make, food to serve, dishes to wash, a mind-boggling system of folders, clipboards, and spreadsheets that need to be filled out for every guest, money to be carefully counted and recounted. As a relatively spacey individual with limited people-pleasing skills and a poor grasp of mathematics, especially when it comes to the Quetzal, I am not exactly the best person for the job. Consequently, plenty of ¨errores¨ have ensued.
On my first day, the very first people to show up at the bar were a group of drunk Guatemalans (at 3pm, mind you,) – two dirty, scruffy fellows who looked vaguely homeless, one well-groomed kid with hipster glasses and a breifcase, and a taciturn, goth woman – who wished for nachoes and countless litres of Cabro. My very first transaction involved undercharging them for the beer (goddamn Quetzal) and, unfortunately, having to pay out of my salary. The long-suffering Dona Letti, the cook who is the only other person who works the evening shift at the hostal, cautioned me not to let them drink too much, as they were known trouble-makers and would scare off the sweet little American and British backpackers. Not let them drink too much? How the hell was I supposed to refuse a litro to a group of boisterous Guatemalan men, who could probably easily reach around me and snatch a bottle of beer if they wanted it? I pictured them jumping over the bar and helping themselves to the row of liquor bottles and packs of cigarettes behind my head, while I huddled in a corner and quivered like the gringuita I was.
I spent the next two hours anxiously cleaning glasses and eyeing the group as they became increasingly louder and more obnoxious, braying inexplicably whenever a backpacker timidly edged by their table to order a coffee or ask about laundry. Fortunately, a Guatemalan coworker from EntreMundos happened to come in to say hi to me, and at his appearance the group abruptly shut up, paid their tab and stumbled out. Who knows why – everyone in Xela seems to have some sort of connection to everyone else.
My second screw-up occurred later that evening, when an Argentinean guest ordered a drink in rapid, heavily-accented Spanish, the only word of which I understood was ¨naranja¨ (orange). Assuming that this must have be the Spanish term for screwdriver, I whipped one up, only to have the woman approach me a few minutes later and politely inform me that there was alcohol in her orange juice, and she that she didn´t drink. My face flamed and the shot of vodka came out of my salary.
Working at Black Cat has its perks as well – I enjoyed having visitors (mostly male Guatemalan aquaintances who were passing by) – and I felt a bit like the blonde bartender on Cheers, or maybe Moe on The Simpsons, as they chatted idly with me and I made their cocktails (¨tell me your troubles, son.¨) All in all, I didn´t make any catastrophic mistakes, at least not yet. And when I return to Asheville, I look forward to basking in the street cred I will have earned from working in a Guatemalan bar.
This blog has been gathering dust in the dark recesses of the internet for at least two years, ever since my plane from Saigon touched down at the Charlotte Airport and I have been more or less stateside. It was a bit strange reading over the last entry I made on this blog – two years ago, I thought I would be settled and in grad school by the ripe old age of 26, but it was not to be, at least not yet. I am writing from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, my home away from home for a currently unspecified amount of time.
Bored, restless, and passing my afternoons splayed out in front of a cheap Walmart fan during Cambridge´s hellish summer last year, I found myself trawling idealist.org and happened across an ad for a journalism internship with EntreMundos, an indepedent, bilingual human-rights magazine located in Guatemala. Reasoning that such opportunities don´t come about often and that responsible adulthood could be put off for another year or so, I applied for the internship, and a few months later found myself sitting in a crowded depot in Guatemala City waiting for the bus that would take me up into the mountains and to Quetzaltenango (¨Xela¨.)
I´ve been here a little over a month, and while I would love to post pictures of the beautiful forests and volcanic peaks cutting across the horizon, I have been pretty much city-bound since my arrival. Not that Xela isn´t an interesting place to spend a month. It´s not as visually stunning as colonial Central American cities like Antigua or Granada, but it is probably a more pleasant place to live because of that – not particularly touristy, but with a hearty international population (due to the fact that there is a Spanish School or NGO practically on every block.) While wobbling over the cobblestones to the EntreMundos office in the morning, I will typically pass by indigenous women dressed in intricately woven skirts and cardigans, sharp-dressed Guatemalan businessmen barking Spanish into their smartphones, and foreign students in The North Face jackets puzzling over stands of steaming enchiladas. Xela certainly doesn´t lack for variety.
I won´t prattle on for too long, but to give a general idea of what I´ve been up to, the last month has included: traveling around the city conducting interviews for the magazine ( in my inelegant Spanish, with several patient and awesome directoras of local NGOs), teaching part-time English classes, bartending at a backpacker hostel (my English got me the job, not my bartending skills, so we´ll see how that goes), enjoying the novelty of cheap cocktails, and seeing my first ever fútbol match. I will leave you with a photo of the latter, provided by a friend who is less forgetful than I am when it comes to cameras:
You can´t see me, but I was sitting to the right of the photographer cradling a bucket-sized plastic cup of beer and jumping whenever someone in the stand set off a firework or attempted to throw an empty soda can at the opposing team. It´s good to be back in Latin America.
I like Cambodia. When we crossed the border and it took the officers all of three minutes to glance at my paper work and slap a visa in my passport (after inquiringly amicably about how I liked being a teacher in Vietnam), I had a feeling this would prove to be a laid back sort of place. And it is. I hardly ever have an exchange with a Cambodian person without them chuckling, even if I am refusing to ride in their tuk tuk or telling them that their dried mangoes are too expensive.
Being shamefully ignorant of Asian things (and never having seen Tomb Raider), I hadn’t heard of the Angkor Wat temples until I arrived. But they are a pretty big deal – easily on par with Macchu Picchu, almost up there with the Pyramids. People come to Cambodia just to see them. And, after having spent a full day wandering under the benevolent stone gazes of giant mossy buddhas with my mouth hanging open, I can understand why.
Angkor Wat is a city of temples built in around 1000bc. I spent eight hours there and only saw about five temples. There are far more, and some people buy passes that last days, but it for me it was better to soak in the sublimity in smaller doses. One of the coolest things about Angkor Wat is that it is located in forest threaded with streams and ringing with the calls of songbirds, so you can kind of get an idea of what it must have been like to go there back when the city was first constructed. It is still a very touristy place, don’t get me wrong, but there were moments when I spotted an elephant trudging along in the distance and imagined I was in a different time.
Some of the temples are gigantic and remarkably well preserved, and some of them are in the process of being swallowed back up by the jungle. I’m just going to finish this post up with a few pictures, as I think trying to describe them myself would be an exhausting and futile exercise. But take my word for it – they are pretty damn amazing.
PS: If you are interested in another take on these travels, Clara’s blog link is http://clara-keepingitreal.blogspot.com/