First some context...
I just graduated from law school and decided to push off work for a few months to explore a new part of the world and slay a personal demon: I´ve always been terrible at languages but hate that I only speak English. I have only two major goals for this trip: learn Spanish and take a break from life.
I arrived in Guatemala in 2/13/07 and stayed in Guatemala City for one night. The next day, I headed to Antigua for language school on a crazy re-fabbed school bus known here as a ¨chicken bus¨ (see picture).
I later taught one of my Spanish instructors who is studying English to say ¨The chicken buses are pimped out.¨ Check out this short but hilarious video (of course, this is not as funny as my Spanish must sound to the locals):
For $140/week, I get 3.5 hours of language instruction Mon-Fri, three home-cooked meals a day Mon-Sat, and a room with a Guatemalan family all week...much cheaper than living at home. I've been here for two weeks now--mostly studying Spanish; hanging out with folks from Canada, Sweden, Germany, and the States; and taking weekend excursions which I'll describe in future (shorter, I promise) posts.
Now to explain the name of the blog...
The gringo part is pretty obvious. "Gallo" means rooster in Spanish; it is also the only local Guatemalan beer. Here´s a picture of el gringo y el gallo:
In addition to this happy coincidence, the following story explains why I've chosen this name for my blog:
[2/21/07] I moved houses today...because of a rooster. That's right. I had a perfectly fine setup at my second homestay (the school director had asked me to switch houses previously for an unknown reason)--my own mini-deck, etc. I wasn't crazy about the food or the company--we weren't eating with the family, the conversations amongst us students were a bit awkward; and my friend Corey raved about his set-up in another house. But, I liked being settled and I wouldn't have asked to move (especially since I was living with the co-director of the school--asking to move out could have made things awkward).
Then came the rooster. Starting on Saturday or Sunday morning at 5am I heard what I at first thought was an especially loud (muy ruidoso) and abrasive alarm clock. In definite intervals of 3-4 seconds: KA-KA...KA-KA...KA-KA. It sounded like the alarm clock was in the next room, but I knew I was the only one upstairs, so it must have been in the next house. The next morning, at 5am, off went the alarm. I was exhausted from having returned from El Volcan Pacaya [more on this later] and then foolishly going out drinking afterwards. I had class at 8am and I desperately needed sleep. I couldn't believe that some inconsiderate soul was just letting his/her alarm clock go off.
But this time, the intervals were not definite...and I quickly realized my mistake. Having grown up in the suburbs and lived in cities all my life, I'd never heard...a fucking rooster. Just like a cliche, I was being roused before dawn by a fucking rooster. I was probably the closest sleeping human to the damn bird.
By the time breakfast was served at 7am, I hadn't been back to sleep--and I was not happy. I decided to sleep in and go to school an hour late--but I hadn't paid for the week yet and I got worried that not showing up this particular day would complicate matters unnecessarily, so I couldn't sleep.
I made it to school about 15 minutes late and was exhausted all through my Spanish lesson. The next morning, the rooster struck again and that day I asked about moving houses.
I think I owe the rooster a thank-you note b/c the new family is great, the food is good (a sumptuous fruit plate of pineapple, papaya, banana and yogurt for breakfast, lots of comida tipica--more on this later); I have my own private bathroom (bano)--unheard of in these here parts; and I'm now roommates with my friends Corey (from Santa Barbara) and Carolin (Germany).
Here are Corey, Thekla (top right), and Carolin (bottom right).
And, finally, some self-indulgent philosphizing...
The whole rooster incident tapped into some thoughts I've been having about the philosophy of travel, and of life, really.
It seems to me that enjoying a trip like mine is to a large degree about striking a balance between seeking the best possible experience while remaining focused on and satisfied by the experience you're actually having. I do NOT want to spend my trip wondering if there's a better language school out there; if the house I'm not staying in has better food; if the next town has a better hostel, if the road not taken would have provided the essential, defining moments of my trip.
On the other hand, sometimes it's important to not be satisfied with the situation at hand and to seek a change--however large or small. If it weren't for the rooster, I would have stayed in a place with mediocre food and awkward conversation rather than improving my lot.
This reminds me of a great graduation speech I once read by Barry Schartz, author of Paradox of Choice. His essential point is that for most things in life, "good enough" is good enough. We should be careful about always seeking perfection at the expense of enjoying our lives. He calls this healthy perspective "satisficing."
Of course there are some things for which we should be "maximizers." Perhaps the rooster story shows that I choose to maximize when it comes to sleep. But I think there's a deeper message about social change burried in there somewhere as well. When dealt a lousy hand, we shouldn´t be satisfied with our lot.