Thursday, April 8, 2010

Here goes!

So our last week back in the comfort of familiarity was short and packed. Monday we didn’t get to the headquarters because of a bus strike happening in Guate, the city. This was great for us, San Antonio and Santa Caterina hung out for the day: we played bananagrams at Leo’s house, hit the internet café and hung in our central park, reading and catching up on journal entries. Tuesday was a bunch of wrap up in the office, last words, tips, safety advice, rules. I bought “Que Rico” which is the Peace Corps Guatemala Volunteer cook book. I can’t wait til I have my own kitchen and can cook all ‘dem recipes for myself. Wednesday we jumped around to our various towns to get a last look at everyone’s project. We had a nice little temblador, bitty-earthquake, in the middle of the day that Fife’s family had been predicting for several days and he’d been warning us all morning there was an earthquake going to happen today and whaddyaknow, they were right! We were all mightily impressed. Thursday, though, was the icing on the cake: Swearing In! Fourty-four Peace Corps Trainees camioneta-ed, tuk-tuked, microbused and drove with our familes to Hotel Antigua where we all sat on a gorgeous day, dressed up to the nines and were officially inducted into the glorious world of Peace Corps Volunteerdom! And we have diplomas to show for it! Mama Tina came with me and her daughter-in-law Elsa to see my graduation. Afterwards we took our families out for lunch at a pizza joint, Jordan, Chad, Kate and I and our family members. For the afternoon, we took last pictures around the fountain, all the women in their beautiful huipiles, and parted ways..Peace Corps volunteers, finally on our very own! From here on out we are no longer going to be babied, to have every hour of our day scheduled out for us, no more private PC microbuses ferrying us around, nope. We aren’t trainees anymore, they’ve open their cupped hands and are letting us jump off into oblivion, hoping they’ve taught us enough that these wings will carry us aloft, on to our new lives.

OMG. So I got here on the last bus of the day (round 2pm after many more hours on the squished camionetas) and right off the bat I jumped into the life of my lovely aldea which right now is in Semana Santa, full swing. I didn’t even get my bags unpacked before the loudspeaker call down at the school drew nearly the entire community to join in the procession. I walked with Rosa and three of her daughters and her nephew in one of the two lines of folk slowly making their way up the cobblestone calle towards the church at the top of the hill. The afternoon was lovely, clouds sat over the lush mountains on either side of us and I felt otherworldly. Well I am otherworldly I guess, being the only one with pelo rubio y piel blanco among a sea of beautiful chestnut-skinned, dark haired gente. I was passed a handful of thick grasses and followed suit when I saw the others bending them over into loops and tying them into upsidown teardrops. A group of young men at the head of the line played guitars and women walked behind them singing . We walked slow and stopped intermittently and the encargados would rush to plug the microphone into the nearest house and speak words about God and living peaceful lives with good intentions. We walked up the steps of the church and passed inside. We found our seats and for two hours listened to words from the preacher, stories read from scripture, music and song…I was exhausted but content. This was my new community and I’m here to stay.
Monday: I went with Eduardo down the mountain to the river, running clear and gorgeous on this lovely morning. We met up with Pascual, Claudio and Luis and set to work making a trail that followed (and sometimes crossed) the river. I moved monte (weeds/brush) while Pascual cut his way through the jungle-y mix. We made our way to the first waterfall and there we opened up the pool beneath it, moving tons of big rocks to create a larger area for people to ploop around in. We covered the pathway in black sand from the river and poma, white lava stone that floats on the river surface and collects among the rocks. We worked til about 1:30 and had a snack on the riverbank (bananas, pan and tortillas with something yummy in between). After lunch Pascual and I got to work on our mueble, a shelving unit made from wood boards. Professional carpenters that we were, it took a lot of trial and error. A lot! We worked for 3 hours and I collapsed into bed around 7:30pm
Tuesday: I had a lazy morning of catching up on reading and my journal and looking through some of the mountains of electronic information that Peace Corps gives us (on everything from building trails, to developing NGOs, to how to build a bottle school and more). Afterwards, around 10pm I headed over to Eduardo’s house to watch the process of making pan (bread). As part of the Semana Santa tradition, the community shares in the making of loads and loads of sweet bread. Those who can afford to buy all the ingredients and spend several days making all manner of shapes, sizes, designs and flavors of pan and those who couldn’t afford to make the bread make dolls out of trash. The dolls symbolize Judas which they parade around from house to house with rackety noisemakers, whistles and masks carrying Judas on their shoulders and demanding pan in a loud chaos filled group at your door. But back to the pan. I met Fernando, Eduardo’s brother who told me all about the oven and how it’s made of clay and bricks and lime and it’s HUGE! A big igloo-like thing that almost filled the whole room, set on a brick base. He was the man in charge of the fire and the gaggle of women to either side were working furiously, rolling out bolas of egg-yellow maza, or dough, and rolling, cutting and twisting them into different designs, sometimes adding a more sugary design on top. As soon as I offered to join in, I was donning an apron and wetting my hands with grease and clumsily rolling out bolas and mimicking the designs that the ladies and girls showed me. After we filled three long shelves full of bread ready to bake, Fernando started pushing them into the oven as Margarita or Juaquina brought over the pans laden with pan. He used a long stick with a hook on the end, pushing and placing strategically so that he could retrieve those fully baked while still having room for the unbaked. Next I found myself joining Dona Emelia, an old woman who just about put me to shame with her endurance in mixing the maza. Bent over a wooden trough full of flour, oil, butter, egg, vanilla we hand mixed for what seemed like ever, my back ached and I was just about dripping sweat into the dough. Margarita tied back my hair for me and the heat of the oven and the work was extreme. But every time I looked over at Emelia, I knew that I wasn’t about to stop! I lasted two batches and felt pretty darn good, it was such a fun time! Laughing over how obvious it was which breads were mine and feeling such kindness from the women as they presented me a plate full of the breads we’d made together. It was a lovely time, a wonderful experience. That afternoon I shared my bread with my family and Pascual and I got back to work on our mueble. It’s getting there, little by little, the mistakes aren’t too devastating and we get a good laugh out of calling ourselves expertos y profesionales. When he said we were the grandest carpenters, he got a huge kick out of me adding “in this room”. That evening we got a visitor! Neil, an English man who is touring Central America and had already passed through town several months ago for a handful of days and now is back and hoping to stay a bit longer. He, Pascual, Rosa and I had dinner and talked way past my bedtime (9:30!) and had all kinds of interesting conversation about the community and other things.
Wednesday: Went out with Pascual to his terreno, the plot of land he owns and grows coffee, fruits and harvests his firewood from. We spent all morning there, collecting and planting seeds, harvesting fruits and greens, viewing his wide range of cultivars: plantain, banana, macadamias, limes, guisquil, mangoes (no, not ripe at the moment unfortunately). It was, aside from getting eaten alive by bugs, a grand time. I heard a black throated green warbler singing, doesn’t the little bugger know it’s not spring yet? Not to mention has a long way to travel back up to the states before he should be thinking about finding himself a sweetheart! Back home we lunched on guisquil and greens we’d harvested (and, of course, pan now that there’s a neverending supply). Afterwards Pascual put more time in on our mueble which is now practically complete: two long top shelves (which we’re going to put a division in, as support), a line of cubby holes down one side and a bar on the other for hanging my clothes. It’s fantastic! Now I gotta put some shalack on it (varnish, I dunno, something to make it look pretty and keep the termites from eating it..they’ve already discovered it since the desk in my room is infested..I just killed one in my bed right now…don’t worry we’re moving the desk tomorrow..). After we finished there, Pascual had to help Rosa prepare 10 chickens for tomorrow, i.e. kill ‘em dead. Being a good Peace Corps Volunteer, I asked if I could try. Well, I’ll just say, the killing was the easy part. Messy yes, but once that was over with I had to pluck her clean (after submerging it in boiling water), even her head, then I gave the whole body a good scrub with soap. Next I cut off the head and legs at the “knees” and cut into the upper chest to pull out the swallowing tube (bear with me) and then into the abdomen to extract all the innards. Next I cut off the beak and got the rest of the swallowing tube and the tongue and put the legs in boiling water for a few moments and was able to strip off the scaley yellow skin. I cut off the toenails and added the legs to the “for keeps” pile with the head and body. I found my way through the innards and cut the gizzard apart from the strong muscle that surrounds it and scrubbed the muscle clean and added that to the pile as well as the heart and liver. There you go! Tomorrow I’m gonna eat it and, with all this written down, I’ll know how to do it again in the future. Hopefully I’ll have a few more practice runs, though, before I try it myself. Throughout the afternoon and evening Judas dolls came knocking at our door followed by hoards of masked children working homemade noisemakers, blowing whistles and yelling. Melbet and Josaphina, the two youngest sisters ran with me to the door, shoving a small round loaf of bread into my hands to drop into the bag held open by the smallest of each group. It was really a lot like Halloween but much more exciting. There was always a moment of shock when they saw a gringo come to the door, making it all the more fun. Now, with a tummy full of pan, it’s time for bed. ‘Cept I’m not tired. They make the weakest coffee known to man here and adults and children alike drink it every hour of the day and night and if I have it after 5pm, my bedtime is shot. I’ll just have to lay in the dark and scratch my bug bites for an hour or so.
Thursday: Woke up to the sound of the announcer who blares over the loudspeaker from the iglesia every morning around 6am if not earlier. I came out of my room to a flurry of activity around the house, Rosa, Pascual and the kids all hard at work: more chickens. So at 6:30 in the morning I was up to my elbows in feathers as I desplumar-ed (aka defeathered) one chicken after another. After breakfast, Neil and I headed up to the vegetable garden and spent the morning weeding. I enjoyed talking (yes, in English) with my new friend. He has a good bit of experience and insight into the town, having been here before, that he was really quite helpful as I brainstormed possibilities and approaches to project ideas for the next two years. It was a gorgeous day (oh aren’t they all..) we had flocks of parrots zipping across above us, chattering for all the world to hear. Bright green gems, they were. I heard a kiskadee and a Willow Flycatcher (always fun to recognize songs I haven’t heard in a long time) amongst the din of birds I’ve yet to learn and identify. We worked for three hours and the bugs weren’t bad at all and I’m convincing myself I’m getting use to them, whether I am or not..but over the past two nights I haven’t woken up once for scratching! My walk back to the house after we finished was through crowds of masked jóvenes dressed in red symbolizing religious figures. They danced on the basketball cancha surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, another Semana Santa tradition. A masked figure came up to me and began talking in broken English, asking how I liked the town and the festivities. Back at the house we ate, and I must say the chicken was quite good for all the work put into it (and I helped!). Later in the afternoon, we sat around after lunch talking with Rosa and Neil about the coffee production in the town (I learned that all along I’ve been drinking organic coffee straight from beautiful hills that surround us here in my new home!). For the afternoon Neil and I did a bit of exploring around the edges of town that I’d had yet to see. On my way to the albergue where he’s been staying, I was stopped by a lovely old woman who clasped my arm in greeting and asked if I’d eaten. Oh yes, lots of food. And pan? Yes, so much pan during this week of Semana Santa! Did I want some more? Wait here, let me get you some pan! She ran off into her house and was back moments later with three loaflets of pan. I told her about how I’d be here for two years and already was so enchanted by her lovely town. She was so wonderfully sweet, Matilda was her name. I gave Neil a loaf and we went walking. We went down to the river below the cancha and stopped to watch birds for a bit when a young man named Vitrilino came by and, seeing that we were enjoying nature, invited us up to a little overlook for what ended up being a gorgeous view of the thicket. We talked with him for a while and then continued on our way. I shared my binoculars with Neil for him to look at a beautiful glasswinged butterfly but he was so taken with the strength of my binox that he was blown away just looking at leaves! We walked on and found our way up to the cancha de futbol and while talking about our desire to play a boy came out of the woods kicking a soccer ball and, before we knew it, we found ourselves in a match, one goalie, one offense and one defense with Dani as the sun went down behind a shroud of pink clouds. Terrific.
Friday: Woke up today and saw the looong alfombra, the sawdust carpet that the children in the secondary school spent all night creating. They drew out designs and words, flowers and crosses with different colors of dyed asserin. It was quite impressive, all the work they put into it, and the thing covered the entire length of the calle. For the morning they had a religious procession where white robed youths led the community from the church to the school and back, stopping at various points to speak. A group carried a religious shrine adorned in flowers. Later I joined Pascual who led a group of muchachos on a recorrido, or tour, down to the river where we’d improved the trail and build up the pool below the waterfall. The group was in high spirits and down at the water they jumped right in and laughed under the beating cascade. I sat with Conrado, one of the members of the asociación and we talked about all kinds of things. He was bien paciente with my Spanish and we talked for almost an hour while the others played. They shared their gaseosas (sodas) with us and Pascual used his machete to cut up a melon he’d brought. It was beautiful out and the clouds made their way in for a matte afternoon. We climbed back up the tall ridge, serpentining higher and higher til we reached the road leading back to town. The men were really pleased with the tour and already were talking about coming back with friends. This is great because these are our “customers”, they loved our trail and had no objection to paying 15Q each for the experience. Yes, bring your friends, tell others, come back again!
The weekend went well, Saturday a good deal of the community went down to the river for an afternoon of fun. Rosa, Pascual, Josaline, Melbet, Wendy and I hiked down and straight off Wendy and I sloshed into the poza (pool) below the waterfall and stuck our heads under letting loose a few gurgling shrieks as the force of the water as well as the frigidness. I made some attempts at teaching her to swim but mostly she held herself up in the shallows and kicked, not wanting to submerge. My first failure as a Peace Corps volunteer and certainly not the last...but I won’t stop trying! We lunched on guisquil from Pascual’s terreno and what appeared as big juicy mushrooms but rather turned out to be chicken gizzards and the first bite tasted like the death I smelled the day of the killings and the second bite only vaguely hinted at the flavor you and I recognize and love. I decided that was enough. Luckily Melbet lives for any and all manner of carne so I passed it off to her.
Sunday I had the day to myself and did a bit of hiking down the beautiful ridge toward one of Pascual’s parcelas. The view is gorgeous to either side, lush mountain slopes with the volcanoes in the distance. Santiaguito, the active little loaf below the more dominating Santa Maria rumbled throughout the entire day. I saw all kinds of birds including a red-legged honeycreeper, black and white warbler, olive sided flycatcher, warbling vireo, boat billed flycatcher, summer tanager, rose breasted grosbeak, many black throated green warblers (singing still!), common tody flycatcher, black and white warbler, white winged tanager, slate throated redstart…a great morning to drink it all in at my own leisurely pace.
Monday, Neil and I went down and joined Pascual and his son Jonathan down on one of the parcels and we got busy chopping firewood with machetes. The blister popped and yes it still smarts but oh the satisfaction of hacking away with a machete…That afternoon we had the most lovely experience. Neil and I were looking to find Rosalia who was his host “mother” when he last visited. We didn’t find her but ended up chatting awhile with her neighbor Ruth. I love explaining to people that I’m going to be around for the next two years, yep, two whole years! Nope, I’m not leaving in between, two whole years. On our way down the dirt road, we stopped and got to talking with two cute lil’ ones sitting on the stoop of their house, Edmond and Jessica. Well, Rosalia appeared on the road and those two had a little reunion and she told us to come on over to Ismael’s house, next door. We walked in and the whole family was sitting about in the dirt yard and we sat down with Ismael and got to talking. Well I’m totally enamored with this guy, he knows a fantastic deal about the birdlife around the aldea and from his yard he was pointing out everything that flew by and teaching us the names in Spanish. He works for the Asociacion but has been kind of fading out of it due to his other work commitments. He works for Manos Campesinos which is an organic coffee supplier for which he has to travel to Escuintla (2hrs away?) fairly often. Additionally he cuts hair, there at his house (as he points to the ground to what’s left of the last client). So he’s not able to make all the ASODILL meetings and commitments and isn’t always available when they need a tour guide at the last minute. Well I’m hoping that our shared interest (we ended up talking for more than an hour on all things nature, then bleeding into Guatemalan politics..he’s fascinating and has a great deal of knowledge and is very in tuned with the need for nature conservation and awareness) perhaps I can re-initiate his interest and commitment. Before we left, he, Neil took out his camera wanting some goodbye pictures and we took all manner of pictures with different combinations of us and the family (I busted out my camera too). They were lovely people, showering us with pan dulce y café while we chatted. Ismael told me to drop in anytime I want. Oh this is totally what I daydreamed about, connecting with the community, having it become family. His wrinkled mother told me we all were going to cry when I leave, two years from now, and I already knew this to be true.


  1. You are sooo adventureous. Every day you have a different route to travel and explore, you'll never want to leave.Sounds so beautifull there. hope to see more pictures. hope you had a great Easter, do they have a traditional Easter holiday there? Oh and i don't know, if chicken will ever seem the same , Ha.. Ha.. after ur details about preparation for eating them.Job well done as usual! Stay safe, love and miss you. (WCM) Deb

  2. This was so beautiful, thank you for posting so often, I love following along! This IS exactly what you used to say you wanted, you are truly becoming part of la familia y la comunidad...

    -monica m

  3. It's strange to say this, but I envy you your chicken experience. Thanks for posting and please keep it up. Be safe! Love you,


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