Monday, November 26, 2007

Ranchero Music

Ranchero music: Take two cups of Spanish, add four cups of country music, two table spoons of whining, three tablespoons of off key crooning, 12 fat men wearing horrendous matching cowboy outfits complete with fringe and sequins, and throw in a couple of accordions to taste. Mix thoroughly. Best when served with a side of bobbing.

This is Guatemala’s favorite music category. It’s the Spanish equivalent to country music. It certainly has the “my wife cheated on me, broke my heart and left me for a rich yuppie” theme down. Most songs either relate to illegal immigration or being left by a cruel hearted wench. My favorite is a song about running from La Migra. They do an excellent and hilarious imitation of a gringo accent. As much as the music can be amusing, five songs into a bus ride I get the urge to go on an accordion killing spree. (¡Gracias a Dios por iPods!) I thought they went extinct in the early 1900s, but it’s become clear they just migrated to Mexico and Guatemala. There is certainly no shortage of them here.

It is beyond me how any of these bands become famous. The lyrics are nothing special, the songs contain about three different guitar chords and the band members are all fat, short, old men with mustaches and cowboy hats whose size increases in relation to their ever increasing egos. They decorate their music videos with incredibly good looking women whose boob sizes increase in relation to the size of the cowboy hats. It’s really mind boggling! … But, then again, so is country music. The videos tend to focus on the lead singer, customarily an overly dramatic and poor actor, but each of the 12 to 200 band members gets a close up shot. I’m not entirely sure why there are so many band members. I’m not even sure they all play instruments.

The best part, however, is the dancing. Whoever started the rumor that all Latin Americans can dance was seriously deranged. Dancing in Guatemala, unless you are on the coast or in a major metropolis, consists mainly of bobbing back and forth. Directions: Bend arms so hands are at a 90 degree angle from shoulders. Make hands into fists. Peg elbows to waist. Shift weight from one foot to the other on beat with the music. Add to the bobbing effect by slightly bending at the waist toward which ever foot your weight is on. Now you’re dancing like a Guatemalan!

We, ranchero music and I, have a love hate relationship. As long as you’re with another appreciative soul you can spend hours entertaining yourself watching the videos (just mute the television). If you’re on a bus by yourself it can be torture. But Peace Corps is all about sharing and learning about a new culture, so I’m collecting CDs of ranchero music like there is no tomorrow. I plan on exposing everyone to the rich musical creations of Guatemala and Mexico upon my return home. Guard your stereos; you never know when the need to bob might hit me.

A Day in the Life of Sara

I have 45 minutes to kill until I have to be at Brian and Aneth’s house for dinner, so I thought I would sit down and share a little about my day, because, as it turns out, I actually kind of enjoy writing. It’s surprising I didn’t figure this out after choosing journalism as my major, but after 18 years of swearing I hated English, I guess it was hard for me to come to terms with. I’ve determined my hatred of English must have developed as a result of being told I wasn’t a good writer at a very young age. Regardless, on to more interesting subjects!

Today involved the usual trying to drag myself out of bed and convince myself to go to work, where I am not appreciated and do not have much to do. I’m still struggling to improve the situation, but I am losing ganas, as they say in español. My APCD came out to visit last week and I finally ascertained that although my cooperative is a “cooperative” per say, it’s actually more of a corporation in disguise. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why the founding members were able to exclusively control everything, but my APCD explained that if it is written into the bylaws this is entirely legal. So, in fact, the remaining members are really nothing more than venerated customers. Needless to say, I am a little perplexed as to why I am in Guatemala helping people who aren’t people in need of help, as all 25 founding members are well off especially by Cabricán standards. (On a side note, the power just went out again. I wish I hadn’t lost my headlamp. At least I have Jack Penate to entertain me. Many thanks to my iPod and Andrea!) The point of the matter is; I wasn’t able to convince myself to leave the apartment before 10, at which point I had my Mam class. I was able to finish my book, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and I highly recommend it.

In between my Mam classes today, where I learned such statements as “the dog has a lot of fleas,” and “My house has walls,” I intermittently worked on a brochure for my corporation in disguise and played too many games of spider solitaire.

This afternoon I opted to skip the gym in order to shuck corn with Juliana, Reina’s little sister. As the rain has finally stopped, (hallelujah!) the harvest has begun, and Reina, Juliana and various other members of the family spent all day yesterday collecting corn. Almost every family in Cabricán has at least one plot of land where they grow their own corn. Juliana has about 13 giant bags to shuck over the next couple of days. She figures since their mother is coming to help tomorrow, she should be able to finish by Saturday. Guatemalans use the corn to make tortillas, tamalitos (up the highlands they eat more tamalitos than tortillas, but there are always either tortillas or tamalitos served with every meal), and, on special occasions, chuchitos. They also eat corn on the cob, “helote,” and a million other things made with corn. (In writing this paragraph I realize that there is a lot to explain about corn and Guatemala and maybe I will make that my next blog post.) Juliana figures that the corn they harvest should last them eight months. They will buy corn for the remainder of the year. We tried to get Roberto to help out, but, being a mischievous six year-old, he declined in order to play fun games like: “mess with Sara’s hair,” “poke Sara in the back with sticks,” and “yell at Sara repeatedly until she responds at which point you decide you had nothing to tell her.”

I did have an interesting conversation with Juliana, even though it was reminiscent of almost every conversation that I have with Guatemalans about the US, revolving around the subject of September 11th and the question “why does the US keep deporting Guatemalans?” Generally speaking, I am all for immigrants illegal or legal (although I think the US should reform its policy so the immigrants can enter legally), but it’s really amusing to me that people here don’t understand that by entering the country illegally, “mojados” are breaking the law.

Anyway, my 45 minutes are up and I am off to enjoy a gourmet dinner cooked by my site mates. If nothing else, I really lucked out in getting placed with people that can cook!


Colas are the bane of my existence. The direct translation for cola is tail, which is fitting since the line of cars that amasses down the Pan American highway begins to look a lot like a tail after an hour and a half of standstill.

Road conditions in Guatemala are anything but great, and, rightly so, the Guatemalan government has decided to remedy this, at least in part. However, in the act of widening and repaving the Pan American highway they have made getting up to Xela a massive headache for all involved. Since the highway is currently a two lane winding road through the mountains, to make any progress they have to cut off traffic; hence, the colas. While the trip from Xela to Chimaltenango should normally take three hours, depending on your luck with hitting or missing colas, it now takes anywhere from four and half to six hours.

Camioneta (bus) drivers like to improve upon this situation by driving the wrong way down the highway, bypassing the whole cola, only to block all oncoming traffic at the front. The mass of camionetas that accumulate at the front then proceed to try and cut each other off when the road is reopened causing me a massive heart attack. In their zeal to be off down the highway they get within inches of each other, and the ayudantes (these are the guys who throw bags up on top of the bus, help the bus driver change lanes and pass cars, and collect your fare, or, if you’re a gringo, try and rip you off) scream profanities at each other while shaking their fists and attempting to appear all sorts of manly.

To avoid colas I have found it is best to either leave before the crack of dawn (think 3 am) or travel on a Sunday, this way avoiding all road work. However, lately I have been foiled twice in this attempt. Once I took the 3 am camioneta out of my site only to hit a two hour standstill somewhere before reaching Nahuala. The cause of my pain and annoyance: a mudslide. My mistake this day was leaving too early because we had to wait for the work crews to show up to clear off the road. On the bright side, the rainy season is now over, so I don’t think I should have to contend with this again until at least June. The second occasion occurred this weekend. I was traveling back home on a Sunday, only to find that road work is now no longer contained to Monday through Saturday. After hitting one hour and a half long cola and another 45 minute cola I was barely able to catch the last camioneta back to my site. But I caught it! My reward: the two and half hour camioneta ride down a dirt road back into my site… and of course, sleeping in my own bed. After spending 11 hours trying to get home I swear I will never ever travel to Chimaltenango for only one day again (this month). (It’s amazing how quickly you get used to traveling long distances… two and half hours is nothing to me, I start balking at about eight hours depending on how long the trip is for).

On the bright side, the rumor is the road into my site is being paved! I have witnessed all sorts of machinery digging away at the mountainside on the way in from Xela. Of course, this also means, I am now contending with colas not only between Xela and Chimaltenango, but also between Xela and Cabricán. If you thought it was impossible to have a traffic jam on a dirt road in the middle of a cornfield, you were wrong.


I began taking Mam classes this week. Mam, the local Mayan language, is spoken by most of the people in my town but is not needed so long as you are staying in the municipality of Cabricán and not heading out into any of the aldeas. My teacher, Doña Aida, is in charge of bilingual education (Mam and Spanish) in Cabricán and I really lucked out finding her because she has so much experience teaching the language. Hopefully I don’t tire of having one hour of classes every day for four months, because I think it would be really cool to be able to speak at least part of a Mayan language. I say part, because there is no way I’ll be able to master this. I’ve spent my first couple of days butchering the pronunciation as the language requires a lot of clicking and hacking from the back of your throat. I make a fool of myself every time I try to pronounce a word with a Q or a J in it. I think it sounds like I’m coughing up a lung. In any case, it will keep me occupied as the language is so complicated and I’m learning it from Spanish and not English. On the bright side, Doña Aida swears I am better at it than most of the gringos she has taught. We had a little laugh today as I explained to her I learned to roll my R’s studying abroad in Chile by repeating the phrase “para ti” on the buses, as this is what someone had suggested to me. She said people were going to ask me if I had something stuck in my throat if I tried practicing the Q and J on the buses in Cabricán.

Some phrases in Mam:
Se’nta’ye – ¿Como está? – How are you?
Tz’oka – Pase Adelante – Please come in.
Lweye – Adios – Goodbye
Chjontiye – Gracias – Thank you
Qal tb’iye – ¿Como se llama? – What’s your name?
Jantume’ tzajniye – ¿De donde viene? – Where are you from?
Atz tzajneqine’ kyxol xq’en* – Vengo de los Estados Unidos – I am from the United States
*(Translated directly, this actually means: I am from the place of the blonde people.)