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arrival
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Guatemala Journal
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 arrival

26 julio
In spring of 2003
, I accepted a two year teaching position in Guatemala City, high school technology teacher at an American international school. I was apprehensive but excited about the trip when I approached the airport gate for my connecting flight to Guatemala. Something about this gathering in the waiting area seemed different. I noticed that the behavior of the other waiting passengers was not the usual aloof, sophisticated manner of most American and European travelers. They were smiling and talkative, intimate and familiar, in small groups like family members. The standard airport announcements were fluid and musical in rapid Spanish, undecipherable. I wasn't understanding much and already felt out of place. The first real panic attack hit me, this is really finally happening, and it's for two years! Sitting on the plane next to a missionary, he explained that he was moving his family to Guatemala because it's warm and friendly, a little slower pace, and where he wants to spend his life. They will spend the first month in an intensive Spanish class in Antigua then move to a small town in the east. I heard the words I had heard before from the few people who I've met who have lived here - "I fell in love with Guatemala." I caught snatches of an animated conversation in Spanish behind me and understood a phrase here and there. My nervousness was gone and the excitement was back.

The airport exit looked much like the one I'd seen on an earlier trip to Costa Rica - a small group of people with signs and waving. I scanned the crowd and stood in a noticeable spot, but there was no one there to meet me. I checked my paperwork which said "a representative from Colegio Maya", my new school, will meet me at the airport - no evening phone number or hotel name. I waited an hour and a half, starting to get a little worried, then mapped out a game plan. I would wait till 10:00 pm and go to one of the hotels that met the arrivals with signs, and call the school in the morning. There were a few small people, shorter than even me at 5'1", waiting with many children, and brightly colorful woven clothing draped around them - the indigenous Maya people of my new land. A tall woman appeared, white hair and big smile, hovering for a moment. Sherry, the school director and my new boss, emerged from the sea of faces and hugged me. I had been found - they had confused my American Airlines flight with Delta and were expecting me at 9:00 pm not 7:00. Jennifer, the young woman who made all the arrangements for incoming teachers, was delayed in traffic and met us at the hotel room. Two warm, welcoming people, and a big bouquet of local flowers in pinks and purples waiting in my modern hotel room.

Early the next morning I took a walk. The obvious tourist, I rounded blocks trying not to get lost, taking photographs of the vividly painted buildings and signs, gracefully arching trees, and climbing flowering vines and bushes everywhere. When I travel, everything looks so fresh and interesting the first few days, then becomes more familiar and taken for granted, so I like to get out there first thing and enjoy the sights and sounds. This end of Guatemala City was very urban - high rise apartments, office buildings and hotels and little shops, busy communication lines criss-crossing the streets, lots of loud traffic from compact cars and old pickups. Shoe shiners, food and other varied vendors out on the surprisingly clean streets. A few recognizable fast food chains here and there. The hotel was located in Zone 10, also called Zona Viva because it's the lively section of town where the nightclubs, hotels and restaurants are. The streets were full of people going to work and out doing whatever they do in cities. Not at all like the seedy streets described in tour books and travel advisories. I would visit those later.

Most of the apartments and office buildings had locked gates and guards. It was alarming to see the huge automatic weapons security guards held as the greeted you. I liked the Zone 10 neighborhood, and although I looked at a few other possibilities, settled into a small, comfortable place where I could find services within walking distance. A well tended profusion of flowers and large plants surround four white apartment buildings housing four units apiece with outside entrances at the Santa Clara apartamentos. I looked at two, and accepted the upstairs two-bedroom apartment, charmed by the balcony spilling over with orange flowers. It had one dark wood wall and built in bookcase, white brick walls and tiled floors, fireplace, ceiling fan in the bedroom and a nice hanging light that I could picture over the carved wooden table I bought by email from an outgoing teacher. Two teachers from my school lived in the complex, so I would know a few neighbors.

The school, Colegio Maya, had an attractive campus with many buildings high on a hill overlooking the city, and of course beautiful gardens. Miguel, the network techie, gave me the tour, including the new PE building and recently expanded library. The staff welcomed me enthusiastically, especially when they found out I was the technology teacher - everyone wants some computer help. I was welcomed with hugs and the traditional Guatemalan kiss on the cheek. I spent several days the first week working on converting the in-house school system to the new school year. The staff was anxiously waiting for that to be complete before entering new data - apparently there had been some serious problems with the system recently. I became the hero of the hour, having gotten it completed Friday morning. (Whew! It's good to have an early success!)

In the evenings, the new teachers shared stories over dinner. The trendy restaurants with loud music in Zona Viva could have easily been found in the Cherry Creek district of Denver. I soon understood why this time of year was called the rainy season - one night, it just started pouring buckets, just in time for a walk to dinner. I guess it was time to get my proverbial feet wet.

On Thursday Jennifer picked us the new librarian and me for a tour of the city. She said we would avoid Avenida la Reforma, a major street, because there were demonstrations expected. After several appeals through lower courts, the Supreme Court had ruled that former dictator Rios Montt could not run as a candidate for president. A little history here: Montt seized power by a coup in 1982 and was president for 18 months before being deposed. His reign during the civil war against the indigenous people fighting for rights was marked by genocide and excessive repression. The new constitution in 1996 decreed that anyone who had come to power by coup cannot run for president.

There were thick black clouds ahead and an acrid smell like something was burning. Jennifer drove down Diagonal 6, a main connecting street in this area, then said she would pull down a side street to turn around. Suddenly the turn took us into a demonstration area - tires were burning in the middle of the street, groups of men running emerged from the smoke, many carrying sticks and wearing black hoods. We turned around quickly and spent the rest of the day at the school. In the evening, the new teachers gathered at the director's house, talking about local politics, until late evening when we were able to return to the hotel.

Three of the teachers were stuck in the hotel all day. They observed trucks coming to drop off tires, and buses unloading demonstrators. The tires were spread down several streets and set on fire. The hotel wouldn't allow them to even step out without several guards. They spent the day watching the developments and visiting in the restaurant, free wine provided by the hotel. Apparently it was expected the president would be at an office near here, which was why the demonstration was in this neighborhood - there were also demonstrations downtown at the Supreme Court building. The word from locals was that the demonstrators for Rios Montt were paid and bused in from the country. Obviously everything was well organized, this was not a spontaneous outburst, which may explain why there was no serious violence just a lot of vandalism - smashing car windows, etc. It is said they were hoping to force the president to declare a state of emergency, which would stop the elections. The police did nothing but watch, not wanting to incite more violence. Years later newspapers and journalists would refer to this day as Black Thursday.

Quite an exciting welcome! Things quieted down Friday - smaller peaceful demonstrations downtown. The result was that, a few days later, the Constitutional Congress decided it was all right for Rios Montt to appear on the ballot. I was delighted with the school and staff, the surroundings, the climate - around 70f/24c most of the time. Notwithstanding national politics, life is good here.

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