Owl a student made

New becoming

The older I get, the more meaningless my numbers become. There are fewer markers than in youth, when 5 = school, 13 = hormones, 16 = driving, and 18 = adulthood and voting for the civic-minded, and 21 = drinking. To somehow get a handle on how quickly time is passing and how slowly I am changing I calculate the distance since key events or non-events. I graduated from high school almost half my lifetime ago. I’ve known my best friend for 23 years. I met my partner in crime when I was 30. My mother gave birth to me when she was 30. Despite my age, I’ve never owned a house or car and don’t see either happening soon. I’ve never been pregnant. I’m older than many, if not most, my students’ parents. I don’t feel 35, whatever those numbers should feel like. The 3 has two little cubbies I could crawl into; the 5 has one. Neither is as pointy as the 4.

Still, if I think about my age, I piddle a little, that is to say my heart thumps, my throat squeezes tight, and then I shut down the emotional circuits, disconnect, and find a book to escape into. Despite the message of youth-obsessed culture, I know 35 is not old, and older age doesn’t have to be the sad, hopeless, decrepit, inflexible, ugly, and undesirable portrait culture paints. I haven’t reached the half-way mark of my 82 year expectancy, according to WHO. My wise mind understands that age is worthless and bears only the value I ascribe. But let me indulge and say I’m not where I’d hoped I’d be. Or, letting go of expectations, impossible predictions when I’m a small part among billions, foresight, shoulds, I’ll adjust that to I’m not where I want to be, because I don’t know where that is, and I feel the door to there shrinking. [Not to get all Dr. Seuss, but Where is There? It’s not Here. Is it Near? Should I fear the Here and There not Here?). I feel too old to be this lost and insecure, more lost than I was at 18 and without the hope I had then, that hope of Youth, and Potential, and Bright Future, to be fighting some of the same demons as at 13, like acne, and disordered eating, and depression, and self-contempt and -doubt, and loneliness, and conflict avoidance. I don’t want to be on the proverbial deathbed ruing the time I wasted disliking myself. It’s nonsense, really, more not important stuff, that time spent in dark places. I’m old enough to have the important stuff sorted by now…aren’t I?

Growing up I wasn’t told that dreams change. In school, by family, I was asked what I wanted to be, as if there were only one thing I would ever become, similar to the myth that there’s only one soulmate. There might be many, or none. Stories usually end when the protagonist has reached The Dream or found The One. Maybe it’s our desire for certainty. I want certainty. There is none. People hop from job to job, live with parents indefinitely, see retirement as a fantasy, cling to worthless college degrees for a guarantee, cling to anything for a guarantee. In The Dream, I wanted to be a Writer, but the vastness of the field—the people, their skills, their voices—and my inability to foresee my place…. Bah, that’s just a fancy way of disguising that I got scared. I wrote a problem I couldn’t solve—how to bring the garden of a story to life (figuratively)—and then lost my confidence to write my way into and out of other problems. And then the stacks of half sheets—the white space of full sheets being too intimidating—filled with snippets of plays that went nowhere got too tall and I stopped waking at 4am to write and just…stopped chasing that dream. I doubted too many of my lines. I tried replacing it with others in theatre, but that drama eventually broke my heart. It took me into its gapping maw, chewed up the juicy bits and spat out the rest. I want(ed) to be married and just a little bit famous. Now I’m in search of another dream, another becoming. Or becomings.

This new becoming is so much more difficult than the first. The first time around I had teachers encouraging me, the relative comfort of school and peers, the cradle of parental support, the promise of potential. That meaningless potential, a bottomless cup to be filled. I’ve let, my fear has let, all those people down, not that they remember. I always felt like a phony. This second time ’round I’m dream-shy, leery of the chinks in the armor, the blade of confidence duller. I’m conscious of the need for money and medical care, that I somehow must prepare for the day I won’t be able to work. I shamefully consider the income-earning potential of my dreams. I plunge my soul for new dreams and find vagueness. I explore ideas and run aground. I skim my resume for skills and come up empty. I pick up a book and hide.

I’ve never wanted to go back to my younger self. The current demons are generally kinder than the old. But I do envy my students. I envy our teenage volunteers. Unless I can carry my current knowledge, I don’t want to be that young again, but I do want what that youth represents. The clean future slate. Untarnished hopes and dreams. So much time to mess up and succeed. Ignorance of failure’s weight and how much nonsense can hide the The Path.

If age isn’t important, why am I worrying? Because one day I’ll look too old to start over at the beginning of a field. Because I’ve lived this long and tomorrow could die with nothing of note in my obituary but regrets. I censor my self-ageism. I publicly cry that you’re never too old to change. I tell myself that I will make something work one day, if I keep trying (how American of me). My public face is hopeful. It is this hope that keeps me going, despite knowing that I might not ever make anything work. It took me here. The hope and the reality play tug-of-war with miles of intestine.

My heroes are Stargirl, Ramona QuimbyYotsuba, and Black Widow of The Avengers movie. In my dreams, theresa is lithe and flits from person to person, place to place, the world a hopscotch board, making smiles. She wears sparkles. Roadblocks make her laugh. She never needs sleep. She’s probably a fairy.

ta ta,

theresa

P.S. The owl was sewn by one of my (male) students in Actividades Practicas, a.k.a. Home Ec. I liked it so much he gave it to me.

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Cats!

Hagfish don’t speak Spanish

Last week’s post cancelled due to ignorance. It was something on the theme of the temporality of so much here and poverty, then I realized that nearly all I observed here could apply to poverty in the US, which lead me to wonder what, if anything, was different and what should my role be in that. I’m here trying to make a small change, why do I not do that in my home country? It all became too complicated for a weekend and I didn’t feel qualified on the topic. So the post remains in the draft box.

Today’s thoughts:

Five months in, how’s my Spanish coming along? I was so proud of my first efforts, my first fuck-ups. Full of hope and energy, I valiantly struggled to push aside the language barrier and exchange ideas with my newfound friends. No, not really. That’s how my ideal self envisioned the events, but there haven’t been many friends and the barrier falls over. My Spanish sputters along in the same old way. I teach English and live with English speakers. I use Spanish to communicate to the principal that I’m borrowing his calculator and ask if I’m really supposed to give the 9th graders extra points for the museum trip, offer one of the school cleaners a piece of cake, and request a pound of green beans at the market. I’ve learned the words for cash (effectivo), come in/move by (pase), and sloth (peresozo, the same as lazy). Flustered, I often mix up pensar (to think) and querer (to like), despite having known them for years. A month ago, when I was invited to one of my favorite homes with a fellow volunteer—a local favorite who became fluent in a year—I was reduced to observer, straining to understand their conversation for, no exaggeration, hours. Meanwhile, Vee travels in Guatemala for two weeks and returns confident and willing to barge in with broken Spanish at any opportunity.

Maybe language learning is for extroverts. More accurately, language learning is for people who are able to make small talk or say nothing, really, just for the sake of talking. It’s also for people who have confidence that others will want to talk to them. None of these are me. At a recent birthday party four of us attended, I was seated with two friends of the family, one of whom was the mother of a student. I would have enjoyed getting to know her, but it’s difficult enough to bridge that gap in English without self-awareness-reducing chemical aid like caffeine or alcohol, much less in a language I barely speak and when I’m unsure of culturally acceptable topics; and then my style of semi-intense probing might not be appropriate for a party. I’m more into the What makes you tick? conversation and less This music makes me want to dance, OMG this goofy thing happened to me yesterday you have to listen to it, Isn’t it funny how much the kids are obsessed with their phones? To each their own, I just can’t do it. If I were engaged by someone else, I would try, bravely, strongly, but it wouldn’t go very far because we’d reach the limits of my abilities or the topics I can ask questions for quickly. And generally the families assume we don’t speak Spanish, so they don’t try to engage.

When I chose to work with this school, I was afraid that this lack of learning would happen since I would be living with volunteers rather than a family, but I wanted the proximity and support of other teachers. The alternative was life with a family but possibly too rowdy for my sanity and with not as much support. There wasn’t an ideal situation, and I chose the one that would better promote teaching success rather than language learning success.

This is all a terrible way of looking at language learning and myself. I’m just disappointed that I’m this socially awkward hagfish that resists evolution, that I’m not someone else, someone who believes that she is worth talking to, even in another language, and disappointed that I can’t kick my ass hard enough to…to what? find little funny things to say? find anything to say? I’m rather negative about all of this, especially when I see how quickly my roommate is progressing, due to her newfound friends. Maybe I need longer calves.

Okay, I need to believe in the lights ahead. I do have a conversation partner at school I should utilize more. As far as topics of conversation go, I can always ask her how to navigate the cultural waters that divide us and appropriate party conversation. I could also accept my status as a perennially awkward seafloor-dwelling scavenger. We all have a part to play.

Yours in goof,

theresa

P.S. The cats at our school understand that it’s not what you say but how much sun and playtime you enjoy that really matters.

A variety of fine sign.

Ugly Girls

Because of the teaching time crunch, I usually create posts within in a short time span. I draft Saturday and refine and publish Sunday at 101pm CST. Now on holiday, I’ve been working on a post, but not this post, for a few days, looking for the in, to identify exactly what I want to share. All the bits of the theme are scattered about in different notes on Evernote. A hook is found and explored, then it meanders and I get lost…another hook is found and explored and….. It might be the lack of pressure—I don’t have to have it done today—and thus I question my words and intent more and nothing passes the sniff test. Or maybe I just have so much room to expand and think and play that my brain is giddy with freedom.

I often worry that my blog is too negative and that worry inspired a bathroom thought about audience. Way back in writing school and teachings thereafter I was advised to consider my audience. Who is my audience for this blog? Initially it was people who knew me IRL and the ephemeral cloudpeople out there who just might chance across my musings. After a few friends commented that they appreciated the blog’s honesty, a feature essential to good writing, I hoped it might be a light for readers who were, like me, tired of life-adventure blogs with an extroverted and self-assured tone, that gloss over the challenges and want to explain how things should be done and sell their point-of-view in some way. All I want to sell to the world that stumbles here is my honesty. That is my audience.

I used to believe that I could be a Writer (big “W”). I went to playwriting school and everything. When asked why I wrote, why I thought I should be known, I said it was because I had a point of view that I rarely saw outside of teen theatre. The point of view of an Ugly Girl. Now I believe this concept is popularized (no, this is not some claim to cool before it was cool), merchandized, and on its way to fetishization. But my version, the only known version in my world at that time, was created in front of the student mail boxes in the then-called Dramatic Writing Program of NYU with a girl named Miriam, shortly after my Introduction to Screenwriting class. I was one of two women in the class, the other being a very attractive and confident student who has since written her way to the Pulitzer Prize (confidence well placed!). I was speaking about something and my co-female leapt in with her own idea (rather rude of her to interrupt perhaps) and suddenly the class came alive, all the males crawled into her light, and I was blocked out. Ah, okay, this is how it works.

Ugly Girls aren’t ugly, per se, but they are on the get-to-know-them-to-see-their-beauty spectrum, or they just have a nonstandard form of beauty. They aren’t wearing the coolest clothes or make-up, their bodies aren’t up to the advertised standard, and they’re gawky or awkward or just a little off. Alienation might also be key. With few words Miriam instantly understood my troubles in class and in that conversation Ugly Girls were born. That in two words was why I was going to be a writer.

In retrospect, through the post-therapy, post-additional self-awareness, post-getting-out-of-my-head-more lens, I know my interpretation of the class dynamics may be inaccurate, but the phenomenon and what that moment fertilized, the Ugly Girls, is real.

Janeane Garofalo

Abby. The cat, however, is pure Hollywood starlet.

Miranda

Miranda. Cheeky.

Brienne kicking ass.

Brienne kicking ass.

Janeane Garofalo as Abby in The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a U.G. Miranda Hart as Miranda in Miranda (such fun), in all her 6+ foot glory, is a U.G. I’d put Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones there too. Being an Ugly Girl doesn’t bar you from personal success, but it comes with greater social challenges. (For the record, I find those three characters beautiful. I’d jump ’em in a heartbeat.)

I’ve never written about this before. I’m discovering questions. There are a lot of ugly women out there, but are they Ugly Girls? Sarah Palin is ugly inside and out, and it’s the inside that immediately disqualifies her, but were she beautiful on the inside? Maybe. Or, no, because she is attempting to be mainstream. Oh, this is a bad example. I think a key part of Ugly Girl-ness is an inability to conform to the mainstream, even if you want to, which is why Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club doesn’t qualify. I’ve expressed on this blog my desire for pretty things, to be pretty and disheveled in just the right way. But I can’t. I’ve tried and can’t make it work out. I probably don’t want it enough. An Ugly Girl doesn’t have to reject the mainstream and wear that as a badge of honor; for her, it was never an option. Please believe I’m not trying to be elitist or hold up wounds as a perverse claim of superior personhood. I’m attempting to explain a way of interacting in this world.

Like I said, I used to believe in myself as a Writer, in part because of my desire to promote the Ugly Girl experience as one with equal validity. Today I’ll allow myself to say I am a writer (little “w”). My lack of confidence and skills as a writer that eventually quashed The Dream could and might one day be its own post(s). I also stopped believing in the necessity of my voice. The U.G. type is seen more in the media, though she’s impure—her status is only temporary, a, if not the, problem that needs a solution. The plots play the U.G. as a rebel against conformation for the sake of rebelling (I’m drawing a blank on examples. Anyone?) or she’s a Hollywood-beautiful actress we are supposed to believe is anything but (Minnie Driver, Circle of Friends) or all she needed was the right friends and make-up (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club). In any event, the resolution often involves the character’s admittance into the mainstream. I no longer think the U.G. stories aren’t being written. I’m sure they are, but Hollywood and such doesn’t buy them, at least not in pure form, with a potential positive resolution being self-acceptance or something that doesn’t incorporate U. G.-ness as a problem, because those ideas aren’t what we supposedly want to buy. Or do we?

Neil LaBute is not my favorite playwright—he takes a hammer and hits you over the head with his points—but he has a play called reasons to be pretty. For about five minutes of my life I acted and there was a role in that play written for me. One woman is beautiful, the other is “ordinary.” The “ordinary” woman is an Ugly Girl. Her appearance is nothing fancy, she feels it from society, and she has a peace with it. Her story is one I longed for for years. (I’m sad to say that the Portland production was lacking.) The play was very popular and was nominated for several and won a few major awards. So there is an audience for this unsexy story, even in the US. There is an audience for the Ugly Girl.

I do regularly see U.G. stories and actresses in media outside the States. That’s nice.

In a writing class with Martin Epstein I wrote a piece about how much I hated my manipulative college roommate. A response to the piece was that it revealed more about the writer than the character. Of course, this blog is intended to reveal me, but I do attempt to control the message. I don’t want the message here to be one of self-loathing, because it isn’t, or self-pity. Of course it’s one of self-doubt, confusion, alienation, more square peg round hole stuff. But I want it simply to be neutral, without judgment.

This is one way of experiencing the world.

theresa

Junior the cat

Almost Christmas in La Ceiba, or I’m a terrible planner

22 December 2014: Maps

The deceptive map.

The map of deception.

Maps deceive me, at least the kind found in my travel books. The cities consist of small, four-sided outlines. The parks and rivers are shaded gray. Deemed notable restaurants and places to stay are marked with black squares and triangles. The streets and avenues are clearly labeled. It’s all so contained, neat, clean, conflict and stress free. Look! The ocean is only seven blocks away! That cafeteria that sounds so tasty is on the same street as where I’m staying!  So despite my guidebook and other sources saying that La Ceiba is the largest city on the North Coast, I’m, because of all those neat, clean lines, dismayed when the bus enters…what is obviously a big city, with its powerline bundles, streets crammed with vendors, and crowded roads without stop signs or lights. The lines in my guidebook have been colored in. Crap! What was I thinking? I’m in Central America: this is what a big city looks like. Baby pout, complete with thrashing fists: But I don’t wanna be in a big city on my vacation.

Now it’s time for damage control—I don’t have to stay here, we all make mistakes, the owner of the hostel is supposed to be helpful with things like setting up tours, just taking the buses here by myself was an accomplishment-–mentally talking myself out of purchasing a ticket for the Shame Spiral Express. I keep talking and talking, through the awkward exchange with the woman at the hostel who lets me in but doesn’t understand when I try to explain that I’ve already partially paid for a room (she straightens it out with the owner); through the wandering up and down of streets in search of a non-US fast food place to eat; through observation that there are very few street signs, rendering my guidebook and the internet nearly useless unless I want to count blocks;

[Shame break: After a bit of pacing back and forth on the street in search of the ingress point, I found my way to the pier, a rather new structure and wonderfully designed so I can either lean against the railings or walk a few steps down to a walkway surrounding the pier to sit or dive off into the water. I choose sitting and am joined by a local with decent English who when I passed a few minutes earlier was insistent on learning where I was from and my name. I told him he’d have to wonder, which prompted a response of “You are a wonder woman!” He’s older, dressed in paint splattered clothes, earnest and not creepy. He speaks mostly, about his country and how he wants it to get better. He has a strong belief in the current president, who doesn’t look the other way with the drug violence. He believes that the US can and is helping Honduras and also hates the Bush family. We chat; I watch the clouds pass over Pico Bonito, the boys diving into the water. The beach here is not nearly as ugly as I was lead to believe.]

through finding myself back at the hostel rather early, wondering if I’ll be able to set up any tours tomorrow, because dammit, I really shouldn’t have started planning my vacation only two weeks ago, and I should have called some tour companies because fuck doing it all DIY but I have this thing about using the phone, especially in Spanish, and I have a well-developed ability to avoid activities that cause me extreme anxiety, like planning adventures to unknown places; through watching a movie and feeling generally like a loser;

23 December 2014: Monkeys and mangroves

through waking up and wondering if the owner will prove helpful in setting up tours today; through laying in bed and feeling like such a wimp for all of this being so emotionally difficult.

11am. The owner, Peter, has arranged a kayak tour at the Refugio de Vida Silverstre Cuero y Salado, a mangrove covered wetland home to lovely animals like jaguars and howler monkeys and manatees and birds.  I am the first to request a kayak tour at the refuge…go me! [The tour actually takes place in Laguna de Cacao, which is pretty but not what I requested and paid for.]

I ate a delicious plato típico for breakfast (eggs, frijoles licuados, two kinds of cheese, tajadas, and ham slice), discovered corn flan on the menu and promised to return tomorrow, and then wandered to the beach alongside the rather stinky El Estero, observing how nice it is to walk freely because I’m ignorant of the dangerous parts of town, though I’m still in the central part of town with all the hotels. My lip was and still is twitching…from anxiety? As I was leaving the hostel, I passed a large group of travelers eating breakfast and looking generally as if they do this all the time, and I suspect that no matter how much I travel, I will never look that cool and casual because I’m just not that kind of person, though I want to be. They were also tall—is that the key to cool person travel? Should I invest in a stretching machine or heels? Anyway, anxiety because I don’t want to have traveled six hours just to read in my room and occasionally leave to eat decent food. Granted, it is quieter here than where I currently live. There are firecrackers but not right outside my window, and I do have a fan and private bath and it is overall rather pleasant except for having to be let in and out of the hostel, which is kept locked for security. I suppose what is really bothering me is possibly being judged, by the anonymous Them always lurking in the soft, insecure corners, or in the physical form of the Other Volunteers or People in My Life, as having failed at My Vacation; and I don’t want to waste these precious days in being unhappy.

Then I suppose I just shouldn’t. I am content right now writing in this. I’m a little tired so may take a nap, get lunch, and then get ready for my kayaking adventure.

3pm+. I am picked up in a white battered truck by a young man named Daniel, who also has some English (with all these English speakers I have few opportunities to practice Spanish). I am his third tour of the day. He’s been working nonstop since about 5am and has barely eaten. None of this is said in complaint—he loves his job and spends most of the hour-long ride pointing out edible plants and telling me about the 400 snakes in Honduras, only three of which are poisonous, and how he prefers living in the jungle to his apartment in La Ceiba. As we drive, swerving around the potholes that plague the roads in Honduras, I reflect that it feels rather odd to be alone on this tour, with an unknown man in a truck, when the reputation of Honduran men isn’t that positive. (Or is it odd that I am prompted to think this way?) I am self-conscious of my skin and gender when he idles at a stop light to purchase coconut water and when we pass slowly through a village, where the residents stare at the truck (as I’ve noticed people do to all cars passing through any neighborhood). I’m not concerned, but I can hear the voices of those who worry about these things questioning, Is This Wise? Still, I push those voices aside and reflect that right here, in this truck, on my adventure, I am happy.

Later: I see a howler monkey and her baby waaaayyy up there in the tree. Daniel hoots deeply. The monkeys respond. Another monkey sits in the crook of some branches. Another is hanging by her (I’m told) tail and poking through the leaves and eating. Yep. I am seeing monkeys. They’re too far away for my camera, so believe me. They have fat bellies and their tails are so strong as they do that dangling monkey thing!

The lagoon is surrounded by mangroves, their massive roots jutting out of the water. Daniel tells me the Garifuna use the water to make wine. I haven’t kayaked before. When he paddles too, we move rapidly; otherwise, the kayak barely moves and I splash a lot of water on my shorts. The only wildlife we see is a crab that bites Daniel’s hand. I’m mildly disappointed but not much. The lagoon is so quiet and calm and the mangroves impressive with their bunches of legs. In 8th grade I read an essay about floating mangrove islands, but I’m told these don’t move. Maybe their roots are too entangled. My camera runs out of memory after five pictures (and I later discover didn’t come with a cord to transfer pictures).

Cacao pod.

This could make chocolate.

On the drive to the lagoon, we also passed many cacao trees, but none with ripe pods. Daniel’s co-guide hands me a ripe pod, creamy yellow the length of a banana but thick like a mango. The seeds are surrounded by a sweet edible flesh. Nature!

On the ride back to La Ceiba, Daniel asks if I’d like to try mango wine, or garifuni, a type of alcohol made by the Garifuna. I’m not much of a drinker but when New Experience calls, always answer. He pulls into Sambo Creek, a Garifuna village, and inquires of passersby for garifuni. We pull in front of a house and he returns with manzanitas, a Honduran apple—red skin, soft, tart—and a small bottle, two shots worth. The alcohol is raw but reminiscent of mangoes. It warms my stomach and leaves Daniel invigorated. I really want to find more of those apples.

Back in La Ceiba, hungry, I end up at Pizza Hut. Meh. I read Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Should I stay here for Christmas Day? There are no buses that day and everything will be closed down. I could probably use the kitchen to cook food, but how awkward, maybe too awkward. I decide to go to Pico Bonito tomorrow and then leave that afternoon. While Christmas in my new home will be dull, at least I will be able to eat.

bridge to waterfalls

Bridge over Rio Cangrejal, to the forest.

24 December 2014: Waterfalls     

Breakfast is another plato típico. Afterwards, as I repack my backpack, I question my choice to leave after only two days. It’s not as if my small town has anything better to offer and here there are more places to walk around, and while the shower isn’t hot it is lukewarm, and that’s something. Plus it’s peaceful. But damn having to ring the bell to be let out of the building is awkward and then how am I going to eat if everything is closed? No, might as well go. Why pay to sit in a room in another city for a day if I’m planning to leave the next?

Daniel and I re-meet at 830am. Today he’s tired—he got too much sleep. The road to Pico Bonito is horrible. Really, nearly all of the roads here are horrible, even the paved ones. Most of our journey is over a road that is unpaved but covered with large, smooth rocks. I suppose it must help with drainage during heavy rains but it is bumpy as hell to drive over. Two women hop a ride early on and are carried most of the way into the park. A friend/co-worker of Daniel climbs onto the back of the truck and is carried to the visitor’s center. The truck rattles, groans, and shakes, but holds together, and I admire the river, rapids, and trees. Daniel picks a purple morning glory for me.

Waterfall

The first waterfall.

I’m not an experienced hiker. I enjoy it, but the paths I’ve been on would probably be categorized as easy. This is not easy. It is up and up and up, lifting myself over tree roots that ring hollow when tapped, ducking under branches, looking for solid footing amid the rocks, and even slipping and falling on a wet patch near a waterfall. I jog occasionally but this is the most strenuous exercise I’ve had in months. The breaks are worth it though, at a small waterfall, eating melon indio, soaking my feet in the pool. Then at the biggest waterfall, approached by descending extremely steep steps where I tell myself that as long as I am careful I will not slip and die. (I didn’t.) Initially I had planned to swim in the pool of this waterfall, one that hikers have apparently scaled, but upon sight of the rocks I would have to scramble over to reach the pool, after the scare of the descent, I content myself with sitting in the mist, drinking juice, eating pineapple, and watching Daniel scramble and hearing him hoot at the numbing temperature.

That brings me to another topic, which I should research at some point. In Honduras, people throw trash on the ground while walking, biking, driving; it all goes to the ground.  Other volunteers do this, albeit with only fruit. I’ve asked them about this and their response has been, “It’s natural.” Well, yes, but doesn’t it take a while to decompose? So I am surprised when Daniel says I should toss my melon rinds aside. I do, but I’m uncomfortable, but I know he and others hike here and I don’t see fruit rinds or food all over, so…the animals must be eating it? And while I see food wrappers all over the roads, I don’t see banana or orange or lychee peels all over the place. So…the animals? I am content to not throw my stuff out the window, but I wonder who is right in this case.

The big waterfall.

The last and biggest waterfall.

The return hike is a rush because I’m close to missing the bus. Now it’s down and down and down, its own challenge. At the visitors center I spend a few delightful moments with their black and white cat, Junior. Junior is the first affectionate cat I’ve met in Honduras. Most cats are feral and kept by families as mousers. While my own three cats may drive me crazy, I love having cat affairs.

My 230pm bus is cancelled and the next isn’t until 415pm. This means: time for flan! Alas, the cafe is closed early for the holiday. I have yet another plato típico, boring, but the licuado saves the day.

The bus to San Pedro is mostly empty and I have the two seats to myself. Am I making the right decision to return early? I should have gone somewhere else, probably, like a good, spontaneous little traveler, but I don’t have any regrets until I hear the first firework. Shit. Near San Pedro we pass about 20 or 30 firework stands…in a row. My little neighborhood loves fireworks. For the past few weeks I’ve been wearing earplugs constantly. How did I forget about this? I did hear them from my hostel room, but being on the second story, I was a little removed.

The taxi driver gives me a bit of a deal on the fare because “Tengo cuidar con los maestros” which I appreciate on the pitch black road, with its blind curves and potholes. I teach him how to say “Hi,” “Hello,” and “My name is Juan Angel.”

And then I’m back. The fireworks and music are going like mad, Maxi Despensa is closed so I grab what food I can from the secret pulperia. I talk to a housemate and eat rice. I watch a movie, mope over an annoying email, and try not to be upset with myself. There were no good solutions to the Where to Stay for Christmas problem and I just didn’t plan properly for this vacation. Next time I will. It’s all about learning, isn’t it? At least the roommate isn’t home.

25 December 2014: Sigh 

Feliz Navidad and be sure to hug a unicorn!

Without fail,

theresa

Pretty river.

Rio Cangrejal.

Kids and me dancing

Level up

I just don’t think quickly. My high school biology teacher said he liked to watch my face during class because he could see me putting the pieces together. Sometimes I do feel like my thoughts are a Tetris game, somewhere around level 4, when the pieces are falling a wee bit faster than the initial level. An idea drops down, I slide it into place, another idea drops, I flip-flip-flip it and slide it into place. Idea by idea, click by click, until things are lined up and…release: I understand.

Early this week a final piece fell into place, and I leveled up after verbally chastising a student again for an action that deserved at least a name on the board, lost my train of thought, as I do during these moments, and turned to wipe the whiteboard, while the gossip behind me quickly rose. I am a teacher, regardless of the green around my ears, and I deserve attention and respect. Why am I not demanding it from my students? Why am I not teaching them what I need and deserve? Why am I disrespecting myself? If I don’t demand it, if I don’t teach them how to practice it, if I don’t show it to myself, how can I expect my students, children who laugh when someone hurts him/herself, leave books on the floor, and have no trouble telling me their peers are stupid, to give me respect? I can’t. Having read my teaching posts, I would expect loyal readers, or actually anyone, to be thinking, Took you long enough. 

The parents I’ve interacted with give me respect without my having to ask for it or prove myself. I was invited to a birthday party for one of my 8th grade students. The mother seated me and my three fellow volunteers at the table on the best chairs. The mother, aware of my passion for fried sweet plantains, made a special plate of them for me (which I reluctantly shared). When we parted she told me, “Nuestra casa es su casa.” Other parents and two of our Honduran teachers have said the same, and while the phrase is almost cliché, part of the travel-outside-of-the-US-everyone-is-so-kind lore, the faces the words come from appear genuine (and, goodness, I sure would love to visit these houses more often if it weren’t so damn awkward for this monolingual wallflower). If these parents can give me, a neophyte teacher, such respect, even kindness, again, how can I not give it to myself? Level up.

‘Cuz this shit’s for real. I may be green but I am one of the many tools that will help mold these little human beings into adults, and I’m no less important than any other. Rationally, I know this is true, but within the emotionally charged spaces of my mind, in the gaps between my bones, I feel so small, like a wisp of a person who’s barely there at all, or bothersome, like that person who is blocking the [insert tasty food stuff here] you want, and my personhood, the fact of my existence, is much less important than yours. Reader, whomever you are, I will usually assume that despite my having grabbed the last jar of [insert tasty food stuff here] first, you deserve it, somehow, because your presence is much more solid than mine, your immediacy is felt, your wants are known. Much of the time, that is my reaction. Though not always. Sometimes I will take that damn [insert tasty food stuff here] because why the hell shouldn’t I? I need more of those days.

I ponder the origin of this conflict and some of it I know, some will remain a mystery, part of my chemistry reacting to the world, but ultimately the origin is unimportant. I am here and now.

Now, where does this all leave me? Still wiping the whiteboard, burdened with new understanding, uncertain of strategy. The blocks fall faster now and I’m not flip-flip-sliding fast enough. A fellow teacher said I must like the battleground that can be my class, otherwise, why wouldn’t I change it? Well, I’m only an inch tall today.

Back to class. Friday afternoon was playtime since it was the first event of the school Olympics*. The Olympics ended early, leaving me with 8th period to fill with practicing our song for the school Christmas celebration, and then the last 10 minutes free after the kids give me 3 past continuous sentences. I admit my attention is elsewhere, then I turn to see one of my girls climbing the forbidden stairs, forbidden because they lead to the roof and each step is just a metal frame, with no center. And what was it about that moment? Was it the uncertainty I was feeling over how to teach the student-chosen song and my kids’ growing frustration with it? Was it the post-performance crash after the rush of my Olympic team being the highlight of the presentations? The girl, and her cohort, managed to push the Activate Teacher Yelling Voice button, which did draw them back to the group but didn’t stop their giggling through incomplete apologies. Then I felt ashamed. Another teacher, who witnessed the event, felt my response was just right, but…I don’t know. This isn’t the way I want to do these things, but I have put the pieces in place that lead to that moment, despite my knowing I should do otherwise.

It’s two weeks until Christmas break and I doubt I’ll do much changing until then. For now I’m hanging on, trying to balance teaching with the fun of holiday classroom activities (Secret Friend, decorating, blah blah). But after Christmas break, a time I’ve read and heard that newbie teachers return to school invigorated and with new plans in place, I have to empower myself for change.

*So what are the school Olympics? The students are divided into houses (Yellow, with Vee) and the houses pick a country (Italy) and the first event is presentation of the country to the school. The event du jour was unanimously mine, a simplified Tarantella with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, a simply sweeter than sugar group of kids. Throughout the year are other events, such as the sports competitions this upcoming Friday. Kids can earn additional points for their team by being awesome in class (I am terrible at awarding these points.).

In other news, almost all of my students passed their recent Science quizzes—a first—and many of my 7th graders are now able to put together a past continuous sentence, but despite my best efforts and use of science, my more religious 9th graders refuse to believe that humans are animals.

And that’s that,

theresa

the road

The Roads

This town is designed for walking. Within the length of a city block from my house are four pulperias. They sell everything from toilet paper to packaged cookies to produce to used clothes. Within a one mile radius are scads more pulperias and hardware stores, used clothing stores, produce stands, bakeries, and stalls that sell tacos and baleadas, underwear, watches, and fans, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, clinics, churches, and two supermarkets. New stands appear every day. The only parking lot is that of the new supermarket, and while the store is crowded inside, the lot is mostly empty.

Until I reach the commercial area with its two paved parallel streets, I can walk anywhere in the road with little fear of being squashed by cars. At times this is required because a portion of the dirt and rock road is filled with a large puddle or is too rocky or uneven. The road isn’t much wider than a car, so there really isn’t any side to keep to. The street can be noisy, but it’s usually the noise of conversation, music, kids yelling, and roosters proclaiming some edict or other. Nothing rushes by faster than I could run, except a mountain bike braving the downward rocky slope. Cars that do pass barely crawl above 5 mph because the road is so uneven.

Everything is snug and huddled close. The houses are within speaking distance. The tallest building has two stories.

For while I’ve been gnawing on why I don’t mind walking to the supermarket everyday but would groan at the thought of doing that back in Portland, where the distance between house and grocery is comparable. I live in a “walkable” neighborhood, which in the US means there are sidewalks on most of the streets and a grocery store within a mile of my house. But it’s noisy. I have to stand at stop signs to wait for car (and bike) traffic to pass. The road is much wider than speaking distance and the buildings tall. It’s neat, contained, and no doubt all regulated by some sort of rule. And while I could walk in the middle of many of the side streets, I haven’t the desire since it all is black asphalt, without the proximity of trees, houses, any sort of character. After all, they are often wide enough to fit two cars, with more cars parked along the side of the road. I’m a dwarfed speck amidst the hubbub of machines, the shadows of apartment buildings. People walk protected in a self-contained armor of haste, preoccupation, cell phone, and distance. Doors are very much closed and sit separate from the street. Walkability is relative.

Here, every window has bars and houses sit behind barriers of some sort, yet the door might be only a curtain, laundry hangs in the yard, people are in the doorway or at the gate or hanging that laundry. The doorway is open and someone is watching television. It’s open, and yes that can be annoying when that means having those eyes on me, but often if I look up the eyes won’t shy away. Maybe they’ll smile or not.

[I interrupted this entry to write: Am I really writing about walking? Maybe, again, I’m really writing about fitting in? I look at everything through the lens of my previous life; objectivity is non-existent, in the end.] 

I am also cloaked in a silence that comes with the language barrier. I don’t have to fear being spoken to by a familiar face, beyond a greeting, because s/he knows I won’t understand. Back home, I would cross the street, turn a corner to avoid an acquaintance if I wasn’t feeling capable of awkward small talk. Here, that acquaintance and I warmly—at least on my side—acknowledge each other’s existence and then move along, little risk of small talk.

I am in no way idealizing the roads, not that this is really a post about them, is it? The roads are covered in trash. During a heavy rain, the bottom of our road floods and unless I want to walk several additional blocks to circumvent the pond, the only passage is through and, depending on the length of the rain, the water and other muck may reach knee height. Navigating the holes and rocks makes for moderate ankle-twisting ambulation or head- and rib-knocking driving/riding. The roads have been “repaired” since I’ve been here, meaning that piles of dirt were spread to fill the holes. Gradually, the heavy rains are exposing the gaps and large rocks. On other roads, gravel is used to fill the same areas over and over. Some kids miss school on rainier days. Our class trip to San Pedro was cancelled due to mudslides. The highway, with its lack of lights and many holes, is teeth clenching at night as cars swerve across the obstacle course .

I assume that poverty prevents car ownership and that many people would prefer to have a car. Or would they? Moto-taxis go anywhere within town for ten lempiras (USD 0.50) and bus connections take a person just about anywhere in the country. I’ve seen women unloading tuk-tuks stuffed with plantain-laden branches and tuk-tuks transporting construction equipment, the length of the wood or metal bars three times that of the little three-wheeler. And there is nothing quite like riding in a shared vehicle. A van that claims to seat ten will easily fit twenty-five if you leave the sliding door open so that passengers can grip the roof and stand on the runners. One of my students balanced three other boys on his bike and rode them all to football practice. People make do quite well, as you do when you have to. When you don’t have to…everything and everyone separates, I imagine.

So what is this post really about? I’ve touched on cars, roads, walking, poverty, language barriers. Maybe it’s about the pleasures—to an introverted outsider—of a smaller (adjective chosen without the slightest condescension and with full awareness of how much could change with improved technology and infrastructure) world. Whenever I return to something that resembles my previous life, I have no doubt I will miss the community and quiet and coziness of a walk down the road.

Ta ta,

theresa

P.S. This may be the only time I say that the town is quiet. In most other ways, it is anything but.

Smiling

Thank you for smiling

I never knew just how much I rely on smiling in business exchanges. It happens less now, but I when I purchase something from the secret pulperia (a pulperia semi-hidden behind a wall) and the owner doesn’t smile, I wonder if I insulted her, was rude, or if my purchases were annoying. When she does smile, I walk down her steps content, even if she’s out of the tortillas or tajadas I requested. This type of interaction repeats everywhere: the produce stands, the school supply store, and the supermercado where the clerks tend to look rather bored, though that’s probably just their resting faces. The clerks and owners are polite, but there’s no smile to accompany their Buenas/Hola or Gracias and, despite repeated exposure, I replay the interaction, looking for my offense, searching for the smile.

Resting face

My neutral face looks a little sad.

Articles, discussion threads, and studies about cultural differences often cite the “friendliness” or “politeness” or “smileyness” of the U.S. population (just google “culture” + “smiling”). Depending on the author, this is either praised as welcoming or disparaged as sign of the culture’s falsity. In my previous life, when I read these articles I would think of frozen-faced flight attendants as they waved me off the plane or the grumpy check-out person who definitely did not smile while helping me, the supposed British stiff upper lip or the rumor that Germans have no sense of humor … but I wouldn’t really understand what the author was talking about. People in the U.S. smile too much? Yes, some are bad at faking it, but what does “too much” mean? After all, I come from the land of smile therapy.

Now I think I understand, at least a little. As much as the disinterested facial expression causes the furrow between my brows to deepen into a canyon, why is it reasonable to expect a smile during our business transaction? I need something, s/he supplies it. Why does s/he need to appear thankful, and why do I either when it comes down to it? Does this transaction give either one of us significant pleasure? In the day-to-day, probably not. It’s about supply and demand. Let’s keep it honest and not muddle it with emotions. I find working in customer service, particularly in a store, face-to-face with customers, exhausting. I have to fake enthusiasm for a stranger and her/his purchases for 8 hours. Really, while I wish the customer no ill will, I rarely could care less. I’m there because I need money and the customer is there because s/he needs what I happen to be selling. I and the store I’m in are no more than a convenience. Yes, I’m happy to have a job and I will serve you with the courtesy you deserve as a human being, but why am I required to make it personal? Does it have something to do with the U.S. prioritizing industry and money over humanity? I’m sure there is a profit margin attached to a smile, or what appears as a smile, because a genuine smile can’t be imitated. (Accept no imitations, folks!)

Smiley face.

I don’t really smile like this, but I look happy.

Despite my burgeoning awareness, I continue to seek out the smile. I frequent the same licuado stand because the young man always smiles during our exchanges. I doubt our secret pulperia has better prices than my usual produce stand, but the young girl who occasionally helps me can be so goofy, thus I buy bananas. In the States, I will return to a store if the clerks smile, even if the prices are slightly higher. That’s my reaction to an upturn of lips or baring of teeth, but what is the reaction of someone used to a less smiley culture? A culture that doesn’t equate smiling with competency and courtesy? (There have been reams written on this topic and my question doesn’t merit notice, so I’d rather ponder and navel gaze than research at the moment.) Conversely, I am slightly more comfortable with not accompanying my Gracias with a smile if I’m not feelin’ it. I’m less afraid that I will be found rude.

Besides, smiling causes wrinkles, and who wants that? Hmm…maybe cultures that smile less are secretly obsessed with appearing youthful. No, that’s the U.S. Never mind.

(No, I really don’t care about wrinkles. Well, not much, yet.)

Shake your ta-tas,

theresa

P.S. Having a mouth close up at the top of this post may not be the best decision.

P.P.S. Feeling a little bit of the goof today, in case you couldn’t tell. And while we’re on the topic of goof and smiling, Miranda rarely fails to evoke my genuine smile.