Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala, which isn’t saying much as the population’s only around 150,000. Still, after Antigua–a city not boasting much above 50,000–the possibilities seem endlessly enticing. A major difference between the two cities is while Antigua is the sweetheart of recurring rounds of tourists—the kind that come to Guatemala just for it (don’t ask me why…)—Xela’s a place that feels more ‘authentic.’ While there are plenty of Spanish schools and gringo-style cafes, most have a grittier look than those in Antigua and are concentrated in one area (Zone 1). Wandering beyond, the amount of tourists dissipate and a more realistic view of the city begins to emerge.
It’s the kind of place I have a feeling takes a while to truly understand, but might be well worth the effort. I’m spending the next week traveling elsewhere in Guate with a friend, but then I’ll return to Xela for another couple weeks.
view from the roof of my school.
My Spanish teacher said this graveyard was transplanted from another part of the city–apparently someone wanted the other land for construction. He said they still come across bones at the old site.
Gallo is one of the national beers of Guate and available all over for a $2 or so dollars.
Profamilia is a community organization that provides children with free lunch and a place to hang out to do homework after school. Sometimes they have organized English, computer or other class for the children–though I haven’t seen this in my brief time here. Many of the children go to school irregularly and work on the streets shining shoes or selling candy. Profamilia also has classes and events for adults–such as sewing and computer classes. Currently they have little funding and few paid employees/long-term volunteers. I’ll continue volunteering here when I return to Xela, so more to come….
I love going to work in the morning.
Not only because I love my job, but because my trip there (only 20 minutes!) is always filled with interesting sightings and people. Whether an especially precarious load atop someone’s head on a bicycle, clothes waving in the wind or half-understood conversations with the neighborhood tawla champ or a fruit-seller, my walk is never dull. The short journey is always filled with waves, smiles and sabah el-khair (good morning).
As I become more comfortable with the sights and sounds, I increasingly notice how beautiful and unexpected things are around every corner.
I feel like I could walk this way my whole life, and something new would draw my attention each time.
Cutting through the alleys, I stall to gaze at an unexpected courtyard, a nursery? with flowers painted on the walls, men polishing elegant furniture, or knots of garlic or bright clothes catching the sunlight.
I talk about Cairo a lot to friends and family across the world. I want to convey my passion, the beauty, the community, the ‘differentness.’ But there’s only so much words can say.
So today, enjoy the walk with me!
A couple days ago an Egyptian friend told me the infamous Moulid at Saayida Zeinab mosque was cancelled because of the hoorah over swine flu.
They don’t want big crowds, he said.
Camping out, as hundreds of thousands supposedly do in the weeks leading up to the big day, was declared illegal by the Egyptian authorities.
Moulids, meaning birthdays, are Suffi traditions celebrated all over Egypt.
Not specified in the Koran many Muslims do not know, partake or condone the practice.
This one in particular celebrates Saayida Zeinab, who is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammed, and therefore must occur only at her mosque.
When my roommate AJ announced it was today and he was covering it (he’s a journalist), I repeated what my friend said and stared out the window, wondering where all the people were.
While the huge crowds might have stayed home, Saayida’s birthday, was not a total bust.
Standing in front of the mosque, with an Egyptian friend, Amr, crowds swarmed around us.
He pointed out the frequency of galabyias–the long loose dresses men wear. It’s a different style than how we dress in Cairo, he said, explaining most of the worshippers are from rural regions of upper and lower Egypt.
A guy wearing a shirt reading, “I’m Noisy” with Elmo and white girl bearing arms, we drew attention from the crowd and the interest of a cop.
Do you want to go in the mosque? Amr asked me. The women go in that way–he pointed to an entrance where a mob of women fought to descend a couple steps into the mosque.
Yeah definitely! Can I…I asked? Our new buddy, the cop, said I could if I covered my arms and hair.
Putting on my veil, I spotted a women, standing with two friends, snapping my picture.
One of the friends came over.
Are you here to see this? She asked in Arabic, which Amr translated.
I live down the street, I told her. But yeah, I’m here now to check it out.
Are you scared of getting swine flu because of the big crowd.
Everywhere in Cairo is crowded, I answered. Plus I’m American, don’t you think I already have it? (Swine flu has been a huge deal here, especially since cases were found among American University students. Co-workers say people have moved away from them on subways out of fear of catching the bug.)
As she began to ask another questions, I became suspicious.
Her questions were well thought out, targeted for a specific angle…her friend snapped another picture and she held, what I’d thought was an iPod in her hand.
She was dressed differently, looked better kept and more focused than the many milling around the area.
Are you a journalist? I asked her in Arabic.
Are you recording this?
She said she wasn’t.
She asked if I was going to go in. I said I was, half hoping she’d join.
She didn’t seem to have any intention.
Her friend snapped another picture as I put on my headscarf and Amr and I headed to the entrance.
I relinquished my shoes to a guy at the door was pushed forward by the masses of woman vying to enter.
Think of the most crowded concert you’ve attended and those lines of people forcibly pushing their way to the front or out. Now imagine there is not one destination, people are sitting on the floor, praying begging for money, eating, holding babies, yelling and grabbing your clothes.
From all sides I was shoved deeper into the congregation.
Eyes ahead, overwhelmed by the masses of praying before me, I felt a slap on my shoulder. An elderly woman was whacking me with some clothe.
Apparently she didn’t approve of my dress. Khalas–”enough” I yelled at her. Another woman tried to help by forcefully rearranging my shawl.
In the deepest room women touched and prayed toward a wall and snapped pictures with their cell phone.
All the incentive I needed, I pulled out my camera and snatched a couple shots.
Out in the street, Cairo air never felt so fresh and clear.
Change is my favorite. Today I returned to Cairo from Alexandria and tomorrow a new adventure begins.
The remaining Northeastern students will return to the United States (I’ll miss you guys =/ ) and I’ll begin my internship at the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in downtown Cairo.
I’m able to spend 6 months working in Cairo because of NU’s co-ops program.
The idea is students get real world experience and build their resumes while remaining full-times students.
While last year I took advantage of NU’s vast job database and enjoyed working at the New England Council in Washington, DC–this time around I decided to do my own thing.
Thanks to the advice, flexibility and patience of my co-op advisors, Lisa Worsh, Cynthia Sweet and Ketty Rosenfeld, among other professors and contacts, I’ve settled.
The aim of RLAP is to help refugees prepare testimony for the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Migration Organization, in charge of resettlement.
I’ll be working with refugees already approved for resettlement to prepare them for life in new lands–usually the U.S.
I’ll find out more tomorrow, but this involves everything from assisting with housing, jobs, education and language to discussing cultural norms and expectations. After a bit, I might work on the legal side of things too—interviewing and preparing for testimony.
The project was originally specifically for Iraqi refugees and they continue to make up the bulk of the clients. For obvious reasons, the U.S. is accepting more Iraqi refugees than any others.
What kind of things are happening with projects of this sort now? Here’s one perspective.
I’m excited to begin this new phase.
I’m always searching for new ways to describe Cairo to family and friends who have never been here.
Before I left, I had a fun night out with two of my closest friends Sarah Gordon and Chrissy Speich. Walking down the streets of Boston they were singing Taylor Swift songs.
I was out of the loop and didn’t know the words, so before I left, I downloaded a couple.
“The Way I Loved You,” goes like this:
“He is sensible and so incredible and all my single friends are jealous
He says everything I need to hear and it’s like I couldn’t ask for anything better
He opens up my door and I get into his car and he says you look beautiful tonight
And I feel perfectly fine
I miss screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain
And it’s 2 am and I’m cursing your name.
So in love that you act insane
And that’s the way I loved you
Breaking down and coming undone
It’s a roller coaster counter-rush
Never knew I could feel so much
And that’s the way I loved you.
OK. Thanks for reading through that. You either secretly (or openly) love it or you’re really wondering where I’m going….
Cairo is infuriating, crowded, hot and filthy.
Males constantly harass me in the streets and sometimes I get sick from the food.
People try to overcharge me because I’m female and foreign.
Sometimes I end up in the wrong place because I can’t communicate with cab drivers, read building names, or maps in Arabic.
Sometimes I really want delicious grilled chicken with onions and peppers and the cook, smiling, gives me fried chicken fingers and fries. “American, yes?”
Other than the teas, things aren’t sugar-coated here. Bathrooms usually don’t have toilet paper and the tastiest restaurants might be in the dingiest allies.
The perfect flat might be in a dilapidated building with an elevator which only goes up, not down.
Going to the beautiful cave church requires a trip through a village of horrid smelling garbage.
Taylor sings on about respecting space and talking politely but concludes–
“And my hearts not breaking because I’m not feeling anything at all.”
The range of emotions and types of experiences in Cairo is boundless. Feeling nothing at all, being bored, is virtually impossible.
People who barely knew me have welcomed me into their lives and homes.
I’ve met so many eager to talk and share ideas. They want to talk about politics,
religion, culture, gender and freedom. They read the news and feel invested in unfolding events.
I’ve found a library downtown with free internet and seen new parts of the city searching for flats.
Exploring the last few days I’ll be in an upper-class area with trees and guards and turn the bend to behold crowded streets decked with juice stands, koshari, and all sorts of people interacting.
I’ve met Americans, French, Palestinians and Britons who navigate life here as comfortably as Egyptians.
I have relied on myself and put more trust in others–sometimes strangers–than I thought I was capable of granting.
I have been scared, alone and overwhelmed. I’ve been ecstatic when I’ve gotten things right.
Loving and appreciating Cairo–just living here is not always easy. Every-day-things–making a copy of my resume, finding a new street– can feel like an epic odyssey.
Yet at the end of the day, if I’m dirty from walking outside, physically and mentally exhausted; if I’ve learned a new word or made a new friend–it’s a day well spent.
To finish on a note—
“….You were wild and crazy, intoxicating
And that’s the way I loved you…..”
Everyone on this trip who has walked with me will tell you I’ve led them astray at least once. My favorite companions, many times. I think my sense of confidence fools people.
I just walk, whether I know the way or not.
First, I believe “lost” is usually just a state of mind. I might not be where I want, but I’m usually somewhere interesting and I’ve met such great people through wondering.
Second, I have confidence that I’ll figure out where we are or how to get where we want around the next bend. (Really annoying to companions who think we’re lost.)
Third there’s a safety net in the cities we’re in. Almost always, there are taxis I could jump in and say my destination or people nearby I could ask.
The following anecdotes are in honor of going where you don’t know the way.
Today we arrived in Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, north of the capital, Damascus.
After ditching my bags, I rushed out of our hotel in search of a water bottle. Usually sold at every street corner and food stand, I expected this to be a quick errand.
I walked past store after store peering in coolers and asking. One guy poured me a glass of Seven-Up, and another filled an ancient looking bottle with tap water. Both I apologetically refused (It’s really rude to refuse drinks when someone offers here).
A boy on a bicycle stopped to shake my hand and held on until I pulled my hand away.
Though occasionally awkward, when someone offers me their hand politely or curiously, I alway shake it. So often when we, as Americans, walk down the street here, however conservatively we’re dressed, we’re a spectacle. A handshake is an easy way to communicate, level, assure and offer respect. Valuable in a part of the world we have screwed up relations pretty badly.
After many attempts, a man told me in English to walk down a street a little further.
At the next stand I stopped at the vendor handed over what I coveted. It took the form of a dirty bottle of Canadian Dry brand water. Despite the dirt on the bottle, the top was sealed. I happily paid 25 Syrian pounds–about 50 cents, for the 1.5 liter bottle.
I remembered my way back because each stand I passed, each old building, each group of men hanging outside, was memoriable.
I traced my way back through the maze of winding streets, some so small no cars could pass. A group of girls I passed minutes before ran to me, asked my name and one by one shook my hand, telling me theirs. A veiled woman who looked about my age looked on from a doorway and smiled.
Another man pointed to me–I thought he wanted me to take a picture–he was holding a box, he opened it and a bird popped its head out. His friend made the universal money gesture–sorry I’m not buying your bird guys.
A man cooking meat who I had asked for water waved and smiled kindly, asking where I was from. He handed me a purple drink over the counter.
Tired of refusing things and not wanting to be rude, I took it and sipped. It was delicious fresh mulberry.
We talked for a few minutes as he cooked customers meet on demand.
He said he loved America, asked where I was from and of course mentioned Obama. (They really believe in him hear guys–let’s not disappoint!)
I thanked him for the drink he wanted no payment for and wandered back to the hotel.
Later I wondered to the souk (market).
I ate the best ice cream of my life and asked for directions.
Five minutes later, down the road, the same man checked up on me–shoes this way, clothes that, he told me.
A few minutes later I ducked in a bookstore because a young tourist police, also eating ice cream, who offered to “be my brother” was tailing me a little too obviously.
I would have been concerned, but since it’s Syria, I was just amused.
Successfully in the souk, vendors of Aleppo were not like any others I’ve encountered here or Egypt.
The prices they offered were so low I didn’t haggle. The people were relaxed, talked and smiled.
Most I talked to were Armenian–many fled here in 1915 during the genocide in Serbia.
Back at the hotel, another student said it was because it’s because in Syria it’s illegal for the vendors to solicit tourists.
And, I found my way back easily by running into Nick grabbing falafel–he knew just how to return to the hotel. Which was right around the corner. I walked in a huge loop.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J. R. R. Tolkien