On things I will miss and things I won’t

Ian Zimmermann


April 24, 2010

As my time in Nebaj quickly comes to an end – just 4 short days until I leave – I’m left forced to think about the upcoming transition back into my old life. Call it reverse culture-shock or what you will, many basic things will be substantially different that what I’ve grown accustomed to.

So I’ve been reminiscing about my Guatemalan life, the positives and negatives – those things I’ve enjoyed and those I haven’t. I think I can do my best to distill the differences that exist between my lives in Guatemala and New Hampshire into three main categories: things I will definitely miss about Nebaj/Guatemala, things that I will be more than happy to do without, and things that I am still unsure about. Without further ado, I present my list.

Things I will miss: Corn tortillas – Without having spent time in Central America, I don’t think that it’s possible to grasp how much a part of the diet tortillas are. I eat probably 5 per day, but god, they’re so good. And it’s a safe bet that the flour tortillas of the pseudo-Mexican restaurants of Keene, New Hampshire (sorry Armadillo’s, Margarita’s) will not be able to fill the corn tortillas void sure to exist in my stomach and heart.

Things I will miss: My Guatemalan family – As an only child, it remained something of a personal test to see if I could successfully assimilate into a family of 8. Resoundingly, I can. Hands down, there is nothing in this country that I could possibly miss more than Helen, Fredi, Jacinto, Vicente, Maria, Rosa, Catarina, and Elena.

Things I’m happy to do without: Chuchos – Guatemalan street dogs. For starters, they fight outside my room all night. Moreover, they’re generally just crazy. The other day I was as close to attacked as I had been in six-plus months in Guatemala. A group of chuchos dodged my arsenal of rocks and it took a shout on my part to faze them long enough so that I could get away. So yeah, the American notion of dogs as pets doesn’t sound too shabby.

Things I’m happy to do without: Tiny dinners – Ricardo thinks I’m absolutely crazy on this point. “Why would you eat a lot in the night if you’re just going to sleep?” he’s asked multiple times when I mention the American custom of having dinner as the day’s largest meal. I don’t know man, because my body wants some food. Also, swapping some fresh vegetables and some protein in place of the small plate of black beans I get here will seem quite refreshing.

Things I haven’t yet decided about: Guatemalan transportation – The camionetas and 15-seater micro buses (15 seats does NOT mean 15 people, mind you) are overcrowded, dangerous, and tend to contain body odors that my pre-Guatemalan self would have had trouble believing existed. That said, they are dirt cheap (US$1 per hour of driving is usually about right), super efficient (you can get pretty much anywhere you would want with just a little planning), and at least somewhat environmentally friendly (when you ignore the giant clouds of black smoke and realize that the drivers are moving a whole bunch of people on a relatively small amount of energy). So it remains to be seen.

Things I will miss: Amazing cell phone system – For starters, my cell phone works anywhere in Guatemala, which I definitely can’t say about my old cell in New Hampshire. Second, in Guatemala you pay for neither incoming calls nor texts, which is certainly preferable to having to dish out every time some idiot forwards you some chain text. Finally: triple days – so good. As the name suggests, on a triple days your 50 quetzales becomes Q150 like magic. Magic I say!

Things I’m happy to do without: Purifying water – Upon arriving in the States, I certainly don’t expect to be complaining about the ability to drink water straight from the faucet without fear of gastro-parasites.

Things I’m happy to do without: Guatemalan music – Not to say that there isn’t some incredible Latin music… It just doesn’t come from Guatemala. If I never again hear a marimba, no complaints. Oh, also the Mexican banda music that the bus drivers blast, wow. Supposedly it has roots in polka. Now, its roots are firmly planted in being untalented and as clichéd as possible. No, really.

Things I will miss: Q10 haircuts – That’s a haircut for $1.25. They aren’t incredible cuts, surely, but who cares?

Things I will miss: El Descanso – A touristy restaurant in Nebaj – known by Rough Guide as the only place in town with even a “vaguely cosmopolitan” atmosphere. But I’ve spent a whole lot of hours on those couches working on lesson plans, sending emails, and socializing with the wait-staff, the semi-permanent Nebaj NGO workers, and random tourists passing through.

Things I haven’t yet decided about: Guatemalan plumbing – Not so much that I haven’t decided about it as that I know it’s going to feel really (I mean REALLY) strange putting toilet paper in the toilet for a change.

Things I’m happy to do without: Lack of pedestrian right of way – I’m actually quite excited to be able to step out into the road and actually expect drivers to stop for me. Here, not so much.

Things I will miss: Waking up to serene mountain setting – There is nothing like being surrounded by 360 degrees of impressively lush mountains reaching towards the heavens.

Things I will miss: Licuados – Absolutely delicious fruit smoothies. Super fresh, very inexpensive.

Things I will miss: Boxboles – A traditional dish of the Ixil region in which the leaves of the huiskil vegetable are rolled up with ground maiz inside and then boiled and served with a pair of sauces. I fail at describing them, but they’re like nothing else I’ve ever eaten, so yummy, so good.

Things I’m happy to do without: Middle of the night earthquakes – Actually, any earthquakes. The worst part comes after the earthquake when I can never bring myself to fall asleep because of some deep-rooted paranoia that another tremor is just seconds away.

Things I will miss: The chuu – A traditional Mayan sweat lodge. Basically it’s a small room with a fire and hot water that you use to clean yourself. But ten times better than I make it sound. Plus, do it and then you sleep like a baby all night long.

Things I haven’t yet decided about: Cortes – Very impressive red skirts worn by Ixil women. To a degree, they suggest that the traditional culture is very alive. At the same time, the cortes are not truly “traditional,” but were forced on the population by the Spaniards, who needed an easy way to identify who they owned. As pretty as they are, I do like the notion of people exercising some degree of self-expression through their personal appearance, so this one’s a tossup.

Things I’m happy to do without: Bolos –Drunks. Though drinking is not socially accepted in Nebaj, the majority of alcohol consumption occurs in the street and not behind closed doors. So I look forward to not having to deal with drunks at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday and not having to see them rolling around and moaning in the street all day.

Things I’m happy to do without: Pila-washed clothes – My clothes expand every time they’re washed. So no complaints when I can use the washer/dryer.

Things I’m happy to do without: Always feeling dirty – Something about Guatemala never lets me feel completely clean.

Things I’m happy to do without: Burning trash – My guess is that I’ve done some permanent respiratory damage with the plastic fumes I’ve inhaled.

Things I’m happy to do without: Roosters – The whole thing about roosters crowing at day break is sheer myth. They go at it all night and day long.

Things I haven’t yet decided about: Fried chicken – For whatever reason, it’s insanely popular here and, though I’d never been a fan back home, it is much less sketchy than other meat products one can eat

Things I’m happy to do without: Hair gel – The guys wear it, a whole lot of it. Always. Why?

Things I’m happy to do without: Firecrackers – So unnecessary, so loud. Again, why?

And so, I come to the end of my list. I’m quite sure I’ve left out some very important things, but I’ve certainly touched on a good deal of my Nebaj experience and with that – I leave to my tiny black bean dinner and Mayan sweat lodge.

Ian Zimmermann