A day in my life in San Pedro



I’ve been working here in San Pedro for two weeks now, and I owe people an update on what I’m up to here.

The first week, I slept in a hotel and ate at the house of my coworker’s parents. I was going to move in with them when they got a bed for their spare room, but they couldn’t find a convenient one to borrow or buy. So, after a week in the hotel, I found the family I lived with before at the top of the hill and asked them for a room. They were delighted to have me back with them.

I live with Familia Bixchul, including Paula (the grandmother), Gloria (the mom), Juan Diego (Gloria’s son), and Jennifer (Juan’s sister). Both Paula and Gloria have husbands who live in the house, but for some reason our schedules never overlap, so I really don’t know them at all. It’s like this in Guatemalan families I’ve observed: the extended family lives together, but people come and go on their own schedule. The food is all the kind that tastes fine if it’s been sitting on the stove a while, so when you are ready for a meal, you just present yourself to Paula, and eat with whoever else it already there.

Speaking of whoever else, this week we had two guys from the United States staying with us. The maximum gringo capacity of this house is 3, which suits me fine. It’s nice to have some company from time to time, and also nice not to be overrun by english speakers.

As I mentioned before, it’s pretty much impossible to sleep in Guatemala after about 6 am. The roosters start at 4:30 am, the mill starts at 5:30, and by 6 am, the neighbors all have their radios on at top volume. After all, if your neighbor’s marimba music is at top volume, how else will you be able to hear your evangelical choir other than to play it at top volume? It sort of makes sense, if you think about it. And believe me, every morning I lay in bed thinking about it…

So I get up at 6:30 am or so and have a shower. I’ve long since gotten used to the aqua-death-machine that Guatemalans call a shower and hardly flinch when the lights dim, in a great approximation of the effect they use in the electric chair scenes in movies. In case I didn’t mention it before, it’s an electric showerhead. Remember how when you were a kid your parents taught you that electricty + bath = death? Turns out they what they meant was, “Electricty + bath = death, but not if you’re in Guatemala”. I cannot explain it, but somehow I have not yet been killed by the electric showerhead. I fully expect to tomorrow, as I do every morning.

Ok, I’ll stop being a joker for a second. What I’m talking about is a just-in-time water heater. We have them in the US too, for making our tea. How bourgeois. The reason I call them aqua-death-machines is that instead of being mounted under a counter, where you can pretend that water is not being mixed with electricity to make your tea, the actual showerhead is the heater. And there’s a pair of wires leading from the showerhead to the wall. Usually, in lieu of wire nuts, the wires are twisted together and have some electrical tape on them. The electrical tape is usually peeling off, as it does. And all this is suspended somewhat precariously above you.

So anyway… I survive my nice comfortable shower, and head up for breakfast. It’s two pancakes and atol (which is like cream of wheat, or oatmeal, or mashed plantains). Mi abuela remembered that I can’t eat three pancakes, how cool is that? I go back downstairs and kill time for a while, studying Spanish or reading (in English so far, though I hope to read a few Spanish books while I am here).

I head in to work at 8:30 or so. Earlier this week I was arriving before everyone else, so I gave up and am arriving closer to 9 am now. I sit down and like all computer workers everywhere, commence staring at the computer for several hours. What I’m doing during that time is working on two software projects that I think Planeta en Línea could use. For both of them, I am also concentrating on how I can make them useful to the wider community. Afterall, there’s no sense having my work be stuck here at this one site.

For the techies out there, the two projects are related to network monitoring and DNS. No big surprise there. If the DNS thing turns out like I hope, it might be the kind of thing you’ll want to use in the little Internet Cafe that is your home network. If I don’t announce anything, it’s been a spectacular failure. Feel free to ridicule me for announcing vaporware.

One thing I’ve learned is how inconvient it is to live your digital life in a language other then English. How many of you out there knew that Putty has a UTF-8 mode, and that it is not the default? How many of you knew that if you only set the LANG variable to “es”, Unix does The Wrong Thing. You have to tell it which Spanish you want. Guatemalan is “es_GT.UTF-8”. For the record, Windows does this all much, much closer to right than Unix. But take a look at the first three bytes of a file saved as UTF-8 in notepad.exe sometime. (Have a vomit bag handy.)

When I’m not hacking code, I hang out downstairs in the Internet Cafe, poking at the machines and thinking about how I might make the administration of them better. Because Planeta en Línea is already doing a fantastic job, it’s tricky to figure out where I can be helpful instead of just an annoying gringo with Big Ideas. The last thing I want is to leave behind things that are a burden to maintain.

Juan and I also have been working on parts of the network, to make the wifi distribution more solid and to find and fix problems. Juan is a pretty good troubleshooter, so I don’t have much to teach. Mostly I learn Spanish as I try to explain an idea for a test I have, only to find out that’s precisely what Juan is already doing. “Ya hago,” dice con una sonrisa. Doh.

Lunch is at 12:30 or so. I trudge up the hill and eat, then hang out for a while, sometimes even sneaking a siesta in (but not often). Juan and I start work again at 2 pm. We usually have a Photoshop lesson then, but some days things come up and we don’t do it.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday I have Spanish lessons from 3 pm until 6 pm. My teacher is Jose from the same school I studied at before. He’s patient, and does a good job of mixing conversation and exercises. I have to be pretty clear about what I want him to teach me, instead of just waiting for the lessons to come. Left to his own devices, I think he’d be happy to only use conversation to teach me. Alas, I know that when I am corrected in the middle of a conversation the lesson goes in one ear and out the other. I have to learn by reading, and preferably by writing. Jose now knows that, and we are coming to a workable system. I think I’ll probably stick with him for many more weeks, possibly as long as I am here.

Dinner is around 6:30 pm. It is every day, without fail, eggs and beans (and the ubiquitous tortillas). Which is no big deal, I like eggs and beans. But 7 days out of 7 is a few too many. So I warned my family when I moved in that they should expect that 2 or 3 days a week I would eat dinner on my own in the gringo establishments down the hill. That helps me keep my sanity, and I meet interesting people too. Last night I met a pair of precocious sisters and a very proud dad. He’s brought them to San Pedro two summers in a row to help them master Spanish.

On the weekends I plan an outting for myself. Last weekend I went to the market at Chichicastenango. It was moderately interesting, but really not much different than any other market I’ve been to here. It is mostly an example of travel book hype. Sometimes you wonder if the travel book writers are actually all located in New York, and just take what other people said and fluff it up. I’m convinced that the infinite cycle of plagarism and fluffery results in things like the market at Chichi.

Tomorrow, I am going to take a hike up to the top of a nearby mountain. I managed to join up with some Aussies who arranged it. They are a really nice couple, just finished working 2 years in a health clinic in the outback. They are now blowing the money they couldn’t spend on anything in that small-town life on 12 months traveling from Mexico to Patagonia (or until the money runs out, whichever comes first).

In case it wasn’t clear (after the hyperbole about the aqua-death-machines) I’m quite happy here. This is exactly what I envisioned for myself for this time. It remains to be seen how helpful I can really be to Planeta en Línea, but I can tell that this time is going to be useful to me!


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