Thursday, May 21, 2009

Painting dogs red

It is hard to believe that I have already been in Guatemala for a week! The time has truly flown by! It is amazing how quickly one’s daily reality can change. One week ago I was at home, looking after about 30 cats, watching the daffodils open, listening to spring peepers in the marsh, and spending lots of money at Canadian Tire and Shoppers Drug Mart preparing for this trip. I am now living in the mountains, eating rice and beans with tortillas at least once a day at the comedor, buying supplies at small tiendas which like to sell everything in very small quantities, and walking around town with a GPS, a backpack stuffed with rain gear, and a paint gun, greeting passers-by in Spanish. It seems almost normal!

To catch you up on the last few days: Saturday morning is market day in Todos Santos. Bus loads of people come into town from nearby villages, either to get supplies, or to sell anything from woven fabrics to tamales to mangoes sold out of the back of pickup trucks, to burnt CDs (Bryan Adams seems pretty popular here- he’s right up there with the marimba music and Celin´s "My heart will go on"!) I decided to take advantage of my time off (surveys can’t be done on Saturday because no one is home on market day) and go for a hike. So in the company of Kat, a quirky British girl who has visited 76 countries, has decided to wear traje (the local dress) and who works at the Spanish language school and occasionally gives hikes, we took the bus about 20 minutes down the road to hike up a mountain. It was a very cloudy morning, and the view from the top extended about 100 feet in front of us (instead of the chain of volcanoes that one can see on a clear day). Nonetheless, it was nice to get out, and I was already much more acclimatized to the altitude (when I arrived, it was a strain just to walk up the hill to my hotel!)

Saturday night Kate and Nick arrived. Kate is a veterinarian who has previously volunteered with the Todos Santos project, and who was here for a month in January to perform the sterilizations. This time she is here to accompany Nick, an Aeroplan employee who was selected from a group of interested employees to come and visit the project. It has been fantastic having them here. They have been trekking around with Andres and I since Monday. Sunday was also a day off, since Andres had a soccer game all morning, so Nick, Kate and I did about a 2 hour hike before the rain began.

Work began on Monday, when we joined Andres to help him finish his household surveys and to help put collars on all owned dogs before we could begin marking the stray dogs. I would love to be able to describe this process adequately, but am afraid that the overall impression is lost in translation. Imagine 3 gringos in the company of one local man (I believe in his late 20s), scrambling around dirt paths, cobbled roads, and all possible alleyways, up hills and down (although it seemed that they were less frequently downhill), and visiting every house to ask in Mam, the local language that is spoken by about 80% of the people here, whether or not they have dogs, how many, if they are vaccinated, sterilized, etc. When people arrive at a neighbour’s, they announce their presence by whistling and giving a sort of owl hoot. Andres thought it was pretty funny when I tried hooting to get the attention of a tienda owner later in the day. It is amazing to see that there is nearly always someone at home. Often we will enter a yard where there is a young girl or older woman weaving, or where men are chopping wood. Sometimes it is just the children who are home, but they seem quite capable of answering the surveys, and are often the ones who are the best at handling the dogs to put the collars on.

This was our activity for the entire day of Monday and Tuesday, walking through the 11 different communities that encircle “El Centro”. We gave out about 100 collars, and this after Vets Without Borders having given out several in January. Yesterday, Wednesday, we began the dog count. We set out at 6:30 after a breakfast of café con leche and pan dulce (sort of like a dry pound cake- much better once dipped in the coffee!) Andres, who knows the route like the back of his hand, was armed with a 2L spray bottle of homemade red paint (a mix of different food colourings that wear off after about a week). I had the clipboard to count the number of dogs marked in each community, as well as the GPS to check that we were covering the whole area, and Kate and Nick were helping scout for stray dogs without collars and to check if they were male or female. We passed through all 12 communities in about 6 hours. I consider myself to be in pretty good shape (I jog about 50 minutes twice a week), but I have to say that I was pretty dead at the end of the walk. Walking through the communities is never flat. You are either going up or down. There is no in between. The paths are strewn with assorted garbage, rocks, chickens and dogs (now mostly with collars!). We pass by people walking to town in traje, high heels and carrying baskets of squash on their heads! We shaved an hour off our walking time this morning, we will do a 3rd count tomorrow, and a last count will be performed on Sunday (we’re skipping market day). I wasn’t expecting this much exercise!

Other important descriptions of life in Todos Santos:
-I dread taking showers (although I assure you that I still am, mostly for the sake of my team members), because it is either freezing cold, or if I choose to use hot water- which I usually do- the water pressure is essentially reduced to a trickle.
-Any place is a good place to hang laundry: clothes are placed out on rooftops, on trees, and piled on clothes lines which are often on rooftops.
-Everyone here has Tigo cell phones (I don’t think Tigo has any competition by the looks of it!)
-The most popular dog names seem to be Scooby, Oso (which means Bear in Spanish) and Duke. There are a few dogs who seem to recognize that gringos are a good food source, and we often pick up a dogs as we walk around who will happily trot along beside us for a few communities before going back to their home location. And yes, we succumb to the puppy eyes and usually save them some tortillas from lunch.

From Todos Santos, after finishing up the population count Kate, Nick and I plan to travel to Antigua on Monday to visit the town and hopefully continue the hiking tradition and climb a volcano! We should be ready to take it on after hiking around Todos Santos for a week!

*** Je m´excuse, je prends une pause du francais, je trouve l´écrire très difficile en ce moment parce que je pense en espagnol! De retour la prochaine fois, promis!

Friday, May 15, 2009

First impressions

I’m in Guatemala! I arrived in Todos Santos on the evening of the 14th, after about a total of 8 hours on the bus from Guatemala City, passing through Huehuetenango. The view was similar for most of the ride: dark green hills, roadside huts selling an assortment of chips, galletas (cookies) and aguas (flavoured waters), and houses with rusted metal roofs. The road seemed to be perpetually twisting up, and at some points I think we were actually inside the clouds. I changed buses in Huehuetenango, and for the last two hours to Todos Santos, I was squished in the back of a large van mostly filled with villagers, wearing the beautifully woven traditional costume: red and white striped pants, a white shirt with some detail, and a straw hat for the men, while women tend to wear dark-coloured striped shirts and skirts. I took up more place than I would have liked with my two large backpacks!

I am checked into a small hotel called El Viajero, where I have three single beds to myself for about the equivalent of $5 per night. In general, my Spanish is getting me by, although I don’t understand everything. For example, after settling into my room, I went and found a Comedor (a small, family-run restaurant). After ordering arroz y frijoles (rice and beans, which came with a large stack of corn tortillas), I was then asked ‘que quiere tomar” I answered again arroz y frijoles, which they found hilarious. I then remembered that “tomar” meant “to drink”, and ordered a coffee. I haven’t seen many dogs yet, although one poked its head in while I was eating. I threw it a piece of tortilla, and it sort of hesitated until I said it was ok, and then he quietly took it and left. I fell asleep on the first night to the sound of the church next door playing very loud organ music, with vocals that didn’t seem to fit exactly with what was being played. The nights are cold here, and I slept in my sleeping bag, under about 5 blankets, with my toque on.

This morning I met Kelly, who is the local Peace Corps volunteer. She has been very friendly, and introduced me to Raul Perez Ramos at the municipal office, as well as Don Julio Alvarado. We then went to meet Benita, who is a very smiling, bubbly and welcoming lady with whom VWB has been storing project materials. I picked up the water gun and red paint that we will need later on for the population count. Andres, with whom I will be performing the count, is in the process of completing the household surveys, so we will likely begin the marking on Monday. It was a beautiful morning, but now, at 1pm, the rain is coming down hard. I think that this will likely be the case for the remainder of my time in Todos Santos, as the rainy season began in the beginning of May.


Je suis au Guatemala! Je suis arrivée à Todos Santos le soir du 14, après environ 8 heures en autobus à partir de la ville de Guatemala, avec un arrêt à Huehuetenango. La vue restait semblable durant la plupart du voyage: des monts verts foncés, des petites cabines qui vendaient des chips, des biscuits et des boissons, ainsi que des maisons à toit rouillé. La route montait constamment, et à certains points je pense qu’on était dans les nuages. J’ai change d’autobus à Huehuetenango, et pour les dernières 2 heures avant d’arriver à Todos Santos, j’étais entassée en arrière d’un minibus pour une vintaine de personnes, la plupart étant des villageois en costume traditionnelle. Les homes portent des pantalons rayés rouge et blanc, une chemise blanche tissée et un chapeau en paille. Les femmes portent des jupes et chemises rayées en couleurs foncées. Je prenais plus de place que j’aurais aimé avec mes gros sacs à dos!

Je reste dans un petit auberge qui s’appelle El Viajero. J’ai trois lits simples à moi seule pour le prix de 5$ la nuit! En general, je me débrouille avec mon espagnol, mais je ne comprends pas tout. Par example, après avoir m’installée dans ma chambre, je suis allée chercher quelque chose à manger dans un “comedor” (un petit resto familial). J’ai commandé du riz avec des “bines”, qui sont venus avec un panier de tortillas au maïs. Ensuite ils m’ont demandé “que quiere tomar”, et je ne comprenais pas pourquoi ils redemandaient qu’est-ce que je voulais manger. Ça m’a pris un moment avant de se souvenir que “tomar” veut dire boire. Je ne vois pas autant de chiens ici que j’aurais pensé, mais ils semblent apprécier les tortillas! Les nuits sont froides ici, et je me suis couchée avec mon sac de couchage, 4 couvertes et ma toque!

Ce matin j’ai rencontré Kelly, une bénévole avec le Peace Corps, qui m’a introduit à quelques members du bureau municipal. Je suis également allée récupérer des matériaux nécessaires pour le marquage des chiens (fusil d’eau et du colorant) de la maison de Benita: une femme très acceuillante avec qui VSF laisse des matériaux du projet. Finalement, j’ai rencontré Andrés avec qui je vais faire le census des chiens. Il est en train de finir des sondages de chaque maison, alors je pense qu’on ne commencera que lundi. La pluie commence ici vers 13h00, étant la saison des pluies. Je suis contente d’avoir apporté une bonne sélection de livres!

Monday, May 11, 2009

2 days to go...

Wow, it seems as if this trip has come up out of nowhere! Everything is planned, organized, mostly packed, I'm vaccinated against everything... but still hard to believe that in 2 days I will be lugging around a big backpack and asking for directions in Spanish! I hope that you will all enjoy following along with me as I try to understand the rabies situation in Guatemala and try to make my way around on my first big solo adventure!


Il me semble que ce voyage est arrivé de nul part! Tout est préparé, organisé, mes bagages sont faits (presque), et je suis vaccinée contre à peut près tout... mais il reste difficile à croire que d'ici 2 jours, je me déplacerai avec un gros sac à dos et que je vais devoir demander des directions en espagnol! J'espère que vous allez vous amuser en suivant mes aventures au Guatemala pendant que j'essaie de comprendre la situation de la rage dans ce pays.