Sunday, August 8, 2010

Week 3: When Chinches and Pollitos Attack

I have concluded there are one bajillion tenses in Spanish. Okay, a slight exaggeration. But I spent an entire week struggling with two tenses, conjugating verbs incorrectly all over the place, at times frustrated as all get-out, but! slowly learning. And just when I started feeling comfortable with the preterit, boom, my teacher drops the imperfect tense on me, then offhandedly informs me that there are 26 verb tenses total. Totally dismayed, I wikied to check for validity, and it turns out are there only 18 tenses. Only. I can tell you right now, I am already eternally grateful for having taken Frau Crocker's grammar class way back in high school. Knowing what a past participle/auxillary verb/possessive pronoun is has helped keep the frustration at bay. It is also nice having gone through this to a lesser extent with German, which only has six tenses. But wow, learning Spanish is going to be no small feat.

In terms of how my Spanish is doing, I would say it has progressed well. It is hard to quantify, but I can say that am catching more and more of my family's conversation (which is at real-person speed), my teacher and I don't speak English anymore, and I was successfully able to explain what my "We Do What?!" t-shirt meant last week.

Besides studying a whole bunch last week, I did a few fun things:

I went to salsa lessons with friends. No pictures and not much of a story, but really fun by the end. I'm planning on going once a week.

I also attended the weekly school dinner. No one volunteered to cook this week, so we had Dominos. Whomp. If you're wondering, it tastes exactly the same down here, except 1. you eat it with salsa dulce (ketchup), which is kind of tasty; 2. the ham slices are actually ham slices; and 3. the crushed red chili packets are really spicy. Even so, it was still Dominos (I think even Chinese take-out would've been more interesting). Anyway, the meal was saved by the profuse amounts of Gallo and Cabro we all drank. This Thursday we're having chicken curry cooked by an actual Indian, so I'm looking forward to that.

This weekend I went to the beach. Champerico, to be exact. It is on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and is a popular destination for highland-dwelling folk to go for a daytrip. Ten of such folk, myself included, went there on Saturday. It was a welcome change to be in a place where you can wear shorts comfortably (Xela usually is in the low 70s, sunny and pleasant in the morning, but with heavy rain every afternoon. Long pants and shirt weather most of the time.). And the water! High 70s, at least. I'm tempted to call it bathwater. It was a lot of fun splashing around in it, but swimming wasn't really possible owing to the insanely dangerous undertow. Standing thigh-deep was asking for it, and this the locals knew: anyone, gringo or not, who went deeper than knee-level was watched closely by them, often with cell phones in hand. This way they were ready to take a picture right after the poor bather was bowled over by a wave, tumbled around underwater, and emerged sans bathing suit bottom or top. I spent a couple hours battling the waves, and survived without any indecent photos being taken, but my sinus did get a good saline flush on several occasions.


The beach itself was a bit dirty. It is black sand to start with, and there was a fair amount of discarded coconuts, water bottles and beer cans strewn about. But this was made up for by the groups of boys ambling around on horseback. They were fun to watch.

Lunch was an entire red snapper, deep fried, served with salad, fries, and corn tortillas. Delicious! And only $6. Voila:



Although my days last week were spent studying with friends and a doing a bunch of fun activities, the nights have been a different story. I've not been sleeping well at all. There are two reasons for this:

1. Chinches. You know them as bedbugs. From what I can tell, it is a relatively not-talked-about problem in Guatemala. Ask a teacher or your host mom and you're likely to get a puzzled look (my teacher: "chin-que?") or a staunch denial (a friend's host mom: "you don't have bedbugs, you're just allergic to pork"), but almost half of the students I've talked to here have bedbugs. Show a fellow student your itchy bites and most will inevitably say something to the effect of, "I have those too!" Fortunately for me, my host mom was familiar with bedbugs, although she says it is only a problem with the students and that her family has never had a problem. Her theory is that bedbugs like gringo blood better; my theory is that students tend to be a more mobile population and are more likely to come in contact with them, thus spreading them from bed to bed.

Unfortunately, I confirmed last week that my bed has them. It took me several weeks to be sure because one of the hostels I stayed in at the beginning of my trip also had them really bad, so when I arrived in Xela I already had about a dozen bites on me. The bites last for weeks, so when in the first week I noticed another two or three bites I wasn't sure if they were new, or if they were bites from the hostel which I'd missed on the first inspection. The second week I didn't get any new bites, so I was cautiously optimistic that I'd lucked out and been given a chinche-free family. But last week it seems the bedbugs decided it was Thanksgiving and I was the turkey, because I've gotten another dozen bites since. It has not been pleasant. Perhaps the thought of tiny insects living in your bed and feasting on your blood while you sleep doesn't bother you, but it sure as heck bothers me. Consequently, I've been sleeping terribly, and waking up to new itchy bites just makes things worse.

I had to put up with a few days of new bites because I wanted to be sure-sure that I had them before telling my host mom, since saying you were given a bug-infested bed to sleep in isn't something to say without total confidence. She was understanding, and so we're going to try killing the f'ers. To do so, you put all your clothes and sheets in the wash and Raid the heck out of your bed, dresser, bed frame, wall sockets, etc. This is what mi mama and I did this morning. My fingers are crossed that they were living in one of the places we sprayed. If we didn't, they'll be back*.

2. Pollitos. These dudes made my last two nights even worse:


"What the?!", right? These are pollo del dia, and you can buy them in any color imaginable at the market for about Q1 ($0.13).

The sad thing about these guys, as their name suggests, is that they only live for a few days. My host mom claims this is because they're essentially genetic chicken rejects; they can't lay eggs nor will they be especially meaty. Somehow chicken farmers can recognize these guys when they're born. Normally they just kill them. But someone had the (ahem) bright idea that, if you dunk them in a vat of food coloring and market them as novelty children's toys, you could get a few bucks out of them before they died anyway. I'm not quite sure what I think about this yet. I'm curious to hear what y'all think.

Anyway, one of my host sisters bought two pollitos for her son, Rodrico, and for two days and two nights they peeped constantly. The first night they peeped quite vigorously, which made it hard to sleep soundly, which made me wake up more frequently, which made me think about chinches eating me, which made it hard to get back to sleep, etc., etc.

The pink one died quite suddenly on the second day. The green one survived through most of the second night. But, my goodness people, the poor green one suffered a long, rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light kind of death. It peeped right until the end, softer and more slowly as the night wore on. It was horrible to listen to, and it made me cry.

Which brings me to today/this week. I'm tired, but am hopeful I'll be sleeping better shortly. I don't think I'll be going anywhere super exciting this weekend, since I'd like to buckle down and study. Kind of like med school, there's always more to learn :)

*If it becomes apparent the chinches can't be beat I'll change families, but I really, really like my family, and so would like to stay with them if possible, even if that means fumigating my room a couple of times.

Xela rain

A typical Xela afternoon.


  1. Wow what a series of adventures. I had no idea Spanish had that many tenses JEEZ! Those pollitos are so cute! You're story about the green was pretty sad. I wonder what is wrong with them that they die so quickly. Good luck with raiding your bed! Mindy had a similar issue when she was in Bolivia & Peru. Sleep better!

  2. Thanks Kara :) How's your Africa adventure going?

  3. Pole pole (slowly). Edward has some friends from Yale who are trying to see the Minister of Education, and Edward is trying to help them. They are getting a bit of the run-around, so I am just hanging out with Edward's siblings in Morogoro, practicing swahili and eating a lot of rice and beans. You inspired me to do a travel blog too, if you want to check it out.

  4. Good luck with the bed bugs. Our last excursion to the movies resulted in me getting about 300 bites (not exaggerating) on my forearm. Fortunately, I have a pretty mild reaction. 3 weeks later, a planned 2-day drive back from Minnesota turned into a drive through the night when we discovered bed bugs in our hotel room. Linnea woke up at 1am itching, and found bed bugs in the sheets (fortunately Linnea reacts instantly to bed bug bites; a canary in the coal mine so to speak). Ironically, we had watched True Blood just before going to sleep.

    Love the blog. It brings back memories from when I was in Costa Rica, like the fear of electrocution every time you take a shower.

  5. hi becky,

    i would probably be on constant steroids/benadryl/cortisone cream to fight the bed bugs. i am just getting over poison sumac. great efforts on learning the spanish tenses. but sad about your little chicks--dyed then dead...enjoy yourself, senorita. love, aunt jan

  6. Kara: glad to hear you're having a good time, even if things are moving slowly. Your blog looks awesome, and I will be following closely.

    Jesse: you got /bedbug/ bites from a movie theater?! And 300!? That the hell? Did you feel them crawling on you/see them? And jeebus, the hotel stay sounds gosh-awful. Which place was this?

    I don't believe I've ever heard your Costa Rica stories! Did you have long hippy hair in those days? ;)

    Aunt Jan: I've been using a lot of Caladryl, and it works well, though my guess is that it isn't heavy-hitting enough for poison sumac (how'd you manage to get that?). My mom used to put it on our mosquito bites when we were little. It is kind of comforting that it still looks and smells the same as I remember :)