22 enero 2014 miercoles

"Want a TukTuk ride?"

“Want a TukTuk ride?”

I enticed my kids with the offer… “You know, Mom is still in Guatemala…so if you want one last trip before I leave, you’d better come this Christmas.” This vacation was definitely not planned for the faint-hearted or couch potatoes…however, as I discovered along the way, even I did not know what was written in the fine print of our adventures.

December 21stWelcome back to Guatemala!  My grown kids, Michelle and Alex, arrived after tiring nights in airports and travel. Alex had the additional stress of being abandoned at the airport in Guatemala City when the shuttle service I had paid for decided they had waited long enough. No consolation to him to learn that someone HAD been holding up a sign with his name but then had left. Anyway, he made it safely to Antigua by hopping a cab with other passengers.

December 22nd- Heading North to Lanquin. No rest for the weary. 8am the following morning we were on a shuttle van from Antigua where the adventurous traveler to Semuc Champey can explore caves with underground rivers or bats, jump 20-30ft from swings and bridges into a river, go tubing, hike to a lookout, and finally relax in clear turquoise natural pools. The scenery from our window changed from dry scrub to green jungle in the course of the 8hr van ride. Pulling into El Retiro, a Guatemalan-owned hostel tucked next to the river, we unloaded our bags. Yes, to the tasty dinner being prepared and yes to the Semuc Champey tour the next day, with the cost of 180 quetzales or $23.

Birds Eye View of Semuc Champey

Birds Eye View of Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey

December 23rd Turquoise Waters of Semuc Champey. Wearing swimsuits and smiles we departed at 9am, me inside the pickup…my kids stood with others in the back of the pickup, holding onto the metal framing. After a 45-minute bumpy, pot-holed ride llegamos (we arrived). First stop, the cave with the underground river. Water sandals or crocs are recommended due to the rocks underfoot. Each of us was given a lit candle as we waded into the cold wetness. The guide, Jose, age 21, was competent, athletic and a prankster. Wading into deepening water, we soon needed to swim which was a challenge while holding our candles aloft. Before we had gone very far, Jose initiated us to the cave society…drawing red lines on our faces from the juice of a fig-like fruit and black lines from the smoke residue on the cave walls. Thus adorned, we plunged ahead. Several times we swam in the near darkness; other times climbed ladders to reach other parts of the cave, but generally we waded in waist-deep water. At our turning point, some brave girls climbed up the wall with the guide’s help to jump down into the dark pool.

Isla Flores- in Peten

Isla Flores- in Peten

A girl I met in Mexico had showed me her souvenir scar from this misadventure; she had missed the deep center of the pool and gashed her leg. Jose, however, jumped with ease into the dark pool. Both then and later he delighted in surprising us by popping up his head in unexpected places. The 2nd time he did this, he startled a girl so much that she accidentally kicked him in the face…well, he survived.  Finally we reached the entrance of the cave…it felt good to emerge into the sun and warmth after the cool water.There was optional jumping from a high swing into the river. I think only one person executed it well; the others had rather red stomachs from their landings. Tubing was a yes, thankfully putting in AFTER the small falls. Hurrying after Jose on the shore, some chose to jump 25ft from the bridge to the river. Spectating was again fine for us. After a quick snack lunch, we entered Semuc Champey, site of turquoise natural pools. Not so fast, we had to earn our swim. Trekking up to the Mirador (lookout), we climbed wooden staircases and rocky paths for a fantastic view out over the pools below. Descending in the lush foliage, we could hear birds calling out.

Flooded streets in Flores...the largest lake in Guatemala rose 20cm in 1 week!

Flooded streets in Flores…the largest lake in Guatemala rose 20cm in 1 week!

My last visit to Semuc in April, our tour guide had blithely left us at the pools with only 40 minutes for bathing. With Jose, it was a follow-the-leader adventure, as we slipped into the first pool behind him. We swam, slid, and/or jumped from pool to pool…exploring about eight turquoise pozos (pools) in total before we headed on home. Pleasantly fatigued from all of the activities, we were guaranteed to sleep well.

December 24th –The Quaint Isla of Flores.  A 8hrs van ride was a pleasant rest from the previous day, arriving in late afternoon. Neil, the owner of Chaltunha Hostel, met us in Flores, and accompanied us by lancha (boat) the 15-minute ride to the town of San Miguel on the peninsula which is only reached by boat. This hostel has a fantastic view out to the island of Flores, just what we wanted for Christmas Eve fireworks, a better choice than his other hostel located on the island. Neil is from Belize, so our Christmas dinner included turkey but also the traditional rice and beans of his homeland plus a pudding-like dessert. Midnight brought on the show of fireworks from all of the towns on the horizon, all shot into the air by private citizens…gotta love Guatemalans’ fascination with bombas (fireworks)!!

Excavated pyramid at Yaxha

Excavated pyramid at Yaxha

December 25th – Yaxha ruins, Mud, and Monkeys. At Neil’s suggestion, we chose to visit a lesser known ruin on Christmas Day, about 1hr 45 minutes from Flores. We paid 300 quetzales ($38) for the taxi driver to drive us there and back, quite aware that he had slept little to none the night before. Yes, we dodged some nasty potholes in the pavement now and then, but it was the stern faces on the tourism police stating that the last 11 km were in bad shape that caused us all to think again. Our driver was optimistic. So we pushed ahead, crossing fingers…soon the 10” mud was scraping the underbelly of the taxi as we wiggled and swerved our way down the road. Hmmm…the driver stopped as we started cresting a hill. Could the taxi make it back up if we descended that mucky mess? He and Alex tromped through the deep mud to assess the situation. Optimism oozed from him…sure thing we can make it back. Michelle and I shot glances at each other that said (“I don’t want to push a taxi uphill in 10” mud!”) So slip sliding our way with mud gushing sounds and vibrations under our feet, we finally made it to the entrance. We hired a guide who rode with us the last 500m stretch. Ta dah, we made it! The taxi driver was more than happy to settle into a siesta in his taxi and munch on leftover tamales while we trekked through the ruins. A word of warning. This IS truly jungle and despite some insect repellent, the mosquitos had their Xmas feast on us. The best strategy was to keep moving.

Unexcavated temple at Yaxha

Unexcavated temple at Yaxha

Monkey madness

Monkey madness

Most of Yaxha has yet to be excavated…there are about 500 known structures and only 27 unearthed, so we saw many dirt mounds of different sizes with jumbled stones as we walked into the park. The twisting roots of trees anchor the mounds, showing how the jungle has reclaimed this ancient Mayan city. We climbed up several pyramids, and marveled at the view of the lagoon from the tallest structure. Our guide said that there had been commerce between Tikal and Yaxha, although Tikal was the more populated of the two cities. A special treat was watching and listening to the territorial battle between the spider monkeys and the howler monkeys in the treetops above us, resulting in a standoff. We humans did not concern them in the least.

View of laguna from atop Yaxha pyramid

View of laguna from atop Yaxha pyramid

With a constant watch of the sky for possible rain which could signal doom for our return trip, we finally called it a day and headed back to the taxi. Refreshed, our taxi driver was ready for the challenge to make it out to the main road. Our guide implied he would help us if we got stuck… Alex was put in the front passenger seat to give more weight and holding our breaths, the driver took a running start up the mud incline. With a lot of sliding and prayers, we made it through the worst of the mud…passing by a parked car at the crest; that driver had chosen to walk instead. Piece of cake, the driver indicated as we slurped the 11km to the highway. Nope, I hadn’t seen the hazardous road conditions in the fine print for that day. Safely back at our hostel, we shared our adventure stories with Neil and that he warn future visitors that road conditions could be tricky.

Tikal- A Mayan marvel

Tikal- A Mayan marvel

December 26th - Tikal Rises From the Jungle. Other visitors told us that a 3:30am departure for the sunrise tour was not worth the lack of sleep. We chose 6am which was early enough to experience the jungle waking up. First sight as we neared the entrance was a huge group of Coati, with their ringed tails pointed upright like masts. They foraged for food and then trotted across the road, some approaching to sniff at us and then scampering off. Colorful wild turkeys who looked like a cross with peacocks sauntered about in small groups, rather oblivious to our presence. A guide said three days are needed to fully explore Tikal…we aimed to see as much as possible in one day. The grounds are indeed extensive, so there are 15-25 minute treks between some groups of ruins. Morning was the best time for weather and less crowds. Temple II an IV are open to climb with the latter being the tallest. It is amazing to glance out on the jungle canopy with the tops of pyramids barely poking higher. So easy to see how these structures could be lost within nature’s cloak. After the fall of Tikal, the Mayans moved away and forgot about this place until it was discovered in  1848 by  the governor of Peten.

Alex sketches Tikal

Alex sketches Tikal

Pyramids arise from the jungle at Tikal

Pyramids arise from the jungle at Tikal

Alex sat down to sketch these ancient structures, to render another perspective besides our photos.

December 27th –  A Rest Day in Flores and Overnight Bus. By now we each sported a rather impressive collection of zancudo (mosquito) bites, hoping that no one looked too carefully at our legs for fear we might be thrown into quarantine! During the past three weeks it had rained heavily and steadily (hence the mud) but also resulting in flooding along the lake shore. Some streets on Flores actually resembled swimming pools, and I spotted a zillion tadpoles enjoying their new territory. Neil commented that the lake level had risen 20 cm in one week, which is an incredible amount of water. This is the largest lake in Guatemala with no natural outlet, so residents have to pray for sun and let evaporation bring the lake level back down.

Michelle and me at Lake Atitlan

We girls at Lake Atitlan with San Pedro in background

Alex rented a kayak and promptly the end broke off his oar. With a new oar in hand, he paddled around some small islands. Michelle and I enjoyed internet time and exploring. As the sun set, we filled our stomachs at a lakeside restaurant, enjoying the last view. At 8pm we boarded our two-level bus bound for Guatemala City.  Primera clase (1st class) was upstairs where we settled in and lujo (luxury) which reclines a bit more was downstairs. After picking up more passengers in Santa Elena, the larger nearby town, we pointed south and snoozed our way to the capital. Around 6:30am we arrived in Guatemala City at a bustling but tiny bus station, then transferred to a shuttle to Antigua, where once again we changed for a shuttle tide to Pana (Panajachel) at Lake Atitlan. Marathon travel, but we had a lot of distance to cover in a short time.

Are we having fun yet?

Are we having fun yet?

Beauty in the treetops at Lake Atitlan

Beauty in the treetops at Lake Atitlan

December 28th –  Ziplining Madness at Lake Atitlan. Ziplining or called “canopy” in Guatemala was my intended Xmas gift to Alex and Michelle, but I signed on also when I learned that my entrance fee was nearly the same and I would not be able to follow them along at ground level.  Gulp!! This was the first time in Guatemala that I had ever signed a safety waiver form, but I felt more reassured by the numerous safety precautions. The ziplining was within 20 minutes of Pana, and yes, there were fantastic views of the lake….better to look out rather than DOWN! We were issued heavy duty gloves and when the guide waved a red flag we were to press heavily on the cable with our gloved hand to brake. Well, Michelle and I sometimes arrived a bit faster than desired, so we boinged rather fiercely at the end. At least I found my glasses lens in the nearby vegetation which had popped loose from the quick stop. There were seven zipline runs….all stretching across vast open spaces at the tree canopy. Thank goodness, we did not sign up for super extreme which had even longer runs. This was enough flight time for me. Photographing was not possible while shooting across the cable, because we needed to concentrate on when to brake, but those ahead got snapshots of the others in invigorating flight (or fright).

Ya. Basta. Enough adventure for the day….we had slept on an overnight bus, journeying from the jungles of Peten in the north to the capital city and then partway across the country to the lake. But when Alex heard about the ziplining gift it had to happen TODAY and not tomorrow as planned. We probably had doused ourselves with some bug spray, but not enough to ward off the new predators of biting flies. More red spots added to the collection. Now it was time to stroll down the main street of Pana, size up the merchandise and scout for good deals. As the sun descended in the sky we rushed to the lakeshore, just missing the sun setting but still enjoying the beauty left behind.

December 29th –  Lifevests and Prayers for Boatride to San Pedro. Sleeping in was a blessed treat, followed by last shopping in Pana. I kept an eye on time, saying we needed to leave before 4pm before the winds on the lake picked up. We popped into a TukTuk or mototaxi to arrive to the other pier for lanchas to San Pedro. Well, too late. The winds were a hefty gale at 4pm.

My shoes bit the dust after climbing San Pedro!

My shoes bit the dust after climbing San Pedro!

The pier rocked back and forth so much that I just wanted to be on the boat. After settling into the pitching lancha, the boat pilot advised all to put on their life vests (chalecos)…Whoa, I have never been asked to do that. Trying to look calm I signaled for the kids to do the same. Hang on, folks! It was a very choppy ride, with passengers screaming out in amusement and surprise each time the bottom of the boat abruptly hit a wave. I ducked down behind two girls in front of me, but not much spray came into the small cabin. Nearly ¾ across the lake we came across another lancha with engine troubles. Those passengers did not want to stay adrift in those waves. With the two boats tied up and knocking against each other, the two pilots did some exchange of boat batteries that resulted in both being operable. Let’s go already…the sky was darkening and the waves were pounding us.

Climbing Volcan San Pedro at Lake Atitlan

Climbing Volcan San Pedro at Lake Atitlan

View from atop San Pedro

View from atop San Pedro

December 30th  - Summiting San Pedro and Surviving Scorpions. Still dark when our alarms went off at 5:30am, drawing clothes onto our still sleepy bodies, Michelle asked “Will it be cold?” Bundle up I suggested.  Our driver promptly fetched us at 6am at the hostel, safely shepherding us past menacing dogs. Slowly the sun joined us. A breezy TukTuk (motor taxi) ride took us to the base of Volcan San Pedro where we met our friendly guide, Bartolo. A guide is required and groups are kept small, and at Q100 or $15/each I appreciated the company and security of a guide. Checking watches, we started at 6:30am and made our way steadily up the steps carved into the path. At times I rested to calm my heart rate. A “Big Stairmaster” is the description someone gave of this climb. Yes I agree. At 9,908 feet it provides a good challenge.

Bartolo was very kind and kept praising my “ritmo” (rhythm) that it was strong and steady. Some young Guatemalan men definitely were the rabbits, springing ahead and then resting, finishing their water early on.  We arrived at the same time; a personal triumph. The view from atop was indeed fantastic…with the lake villages sprinkled around the lake and the volcanoes of Antigua on the horizon. With a sigh, we left our perch after numerous photos and headed back down. 3hr 10 minutes up and 3hrs down to be gentle on my knees. As we neared the end, hopeful hikers just beginning the trek would ask, “Are we halfway yet?” Not wanting to disappoint, I suggested they ask their guide.

Cooking at San Pedro with our captured scorpion in the glass

Cooking at San Pedro with our captured scorpion in the glass

Yep, that's a scorpion!

Yep, that’s a scorpion!

Exploring San Pedro and picking up dinner supplies let us walk off some soreness…well, I speak for myself. Another TukTuk ride took us back to the lakeshore hostel. Generally I am easygoing about accommodations, but I will say that Hostal Punto de Oro did not live up to its internet image. As we prepared our dinner in the rather scuzzy kitchen, my eye caught the sight of something black on the counter. “THAT’S a SCORPION!” I yelled and grabbed a clear glass to plop over it. Now we had an unwanted kitchen companion, glancing nervously at the insect circling in the glass cage.  We had been told that there might be scorpions, so we now believed the rumors.  Alex made a sign, “Animalito Peligroso” with a drawing of a skull. We quickly took our dinner into the dining area and warned others about the scorpion. One of the hostel assistants got a box to catch the scorpion, and likes to freeze them and send them once dead to her grandson in the USA.  We gladly accepted her offer to wash our dishes. “That’s the least I can do since you climbed San Pedro today.” We did NOT want to go back in the kitchen. Before going to bed, we checked our beds and clothes since the assistant had said scorpions had been found in the rooms and bedding. Yikes! We were ready to leave the next morning; so glad to have had survived the hostel’s hazards.

Man dressed as a bull or toro with fireworks

Man dressed as a bull or toro with fireworks

Stilt dancers in Antigua

Stilt dancers in Antigua

December 31st  - With a BANG 2014 arrives in Antigua. Fond memories of the fiesta two years ago drew us back to Antigua to ring in the New Year. Michelle’s imminent departure on Jan 1st also figured into that plan. Guatemalans crave the bang of fireworks and firecrackers for any celebration. Safety? Well, just jump out of the way. The men galloping leisurely under butterfly or toro (bull) wooden armatures affixed with various fireworks which shot into the happy spectators. Surviving the pyrotechnics definitely welcomed in the New Year with style!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 11/26/2013

Adios mi querido San Bartolo!!..my Peace Corps service is completed!

25 noviembre 2013 – lunes

Packing up..

The mess of packing!

Goodbye futon..a strong lady carried you off!

Goodbye futon..a strong lady carried you off!

As I packed my bags a few weeks ago I came face-to-face with the passage of time. In my hand was my certificate for swearing in as a Peace Corps volunteer on October 29, 2010. Wow, it seems a lifetime ago that I disembarked that airplane in Guatemala City. Both my life and the world have moved forward since then…I settled into my little pueblo and helped promote leadership amongst indigenous women while world events of the re-election of Barack Obama and a presidential election in Guatemala hit the stage and much more.

Dancng with Ofelia

Dancing with Ofelia

My final weeks were filled with despedidas or goodbye parties; it was an opportunity for the women to give back to me. It was also special to be working again with my counterpart, Sonia, because the political situation that lasted nearly three months in San Bartolo had halted our work with women´s groups. Pacuntze gave a very lively fiesta with musica y baile. I convinced several women to join me in dance and although shy, several did twirl about with me, full of giggles and smiles. The men just looked on, even more timid than the women. Fine, I did not need them to have a good time. And yes, there were firecrackers, too…gotta have the noise and smoke to really kick a celebration into gear!

The Eagles of Tzanjon

The Eagles of Tzanjon

Pacuntze group; Creciendo Mejor

Pacuntze group; Creciendo Mejor

I can honestly say that I probably ate the equivalent of 2 chickens during that week…everyone  fed me caldo de pollo or chicken stew, and of course, as the guest of honor I was served not just one but two pieces. Good thing I wasn´t wearing Mayan corte or skirt with a faja tied tight around my waist, however, I did wear a guipil or Mayan blouse for each occasion. With each group, I posed and of course, I stood a good head above the women. I had to laugh when a señor in Chuiaj managed to aim the camera downwards as he snapped the photo…and rendered me HEADLESS! That is the punishment for being too tall.

Adam, enjoying a ride on my back, Guatemala style!

Adam, enjoying a ride on my back, Guatemala style!

There was some miscommunication with the women of Paxboch and when Sonia and I arrived they were incredibly embarrassed that nothing had been planned. Sonia added insult to injury by telling them that ALL of the other groups had planned goodbye parties. Poor women! They had to save face. ¨When can you come back?¨ they asked. I said that two days later I was free to return because my last week was being saved for packing and report-writing. Bueno, that´s what we settled on. So twice Sonia and I trekked out to Paxboch.

¨¿Se va una vez?¨was the  frequent question,  ¨Are you leaving for good?¨ Their eyes would widen when I shared that I was going to travel for two months, starting with 4wks in Mexico and Belize and then enjoying Christmas in Guatemala with my children. ¨Llevenos con usted!¨ Take us with you! Again they had creative schemes of shrinking little to be in my hair, blouse or suitcase. Travel even within their own country is not something they can afford with time or money, and the idea of traveling to their neighboring countries was exotic indeed.

Dos cabezas y un cuerpo..sharing a body and heart

Dos cabezas y un cuerpo..sharing a body and heart

Sonia and her new refrigerator

Sonia and her new refrigerator

It was an emotional final weeks with Sonia…our professional relationship was coming to an end, but not the friendship. Several times she cried as I gifted her photos, clothing, mirror, and more. The photos recalled all of the times we worked together, both serious and silly. One of my favorite photos is of me and a clown crouching down so that Sonia could be the tallest; that was when we had volunteered with translation services for a medical mission.  Gifting my belongings was important to lighten my load but also to pass along keepsakes to remember me. I had to smile when I ducked into a Women´s Commission meeting to say goodbye and Sonia was already wearing a purple sweater that I had gifted. Her happiest gift was my little refrigerator which she has coveted for awhile…and it journeyed to her home in a loving ride in a TukTuk (3-wheeled motortaxi).

So bit by bit, my belongings made their way out my door…whew! I had sure accumulated quite a bit in 3yrs! Mostly friends asked for my belongings, but even strangers would stop me and ask if there was anything left for them. I gave the news that my large belongings already had ¨dueños¨or owners. There were some lucky folks who got surprise gifts on my last few days…those items that would not fit into my overstuffed bags. I did not sleep my last night in San Bartolo as I finished packing…just glancing at but not getting in the bed that was already sold.  Tipica or Mayan textiles, blouses and skirts weigh a ton!! I lugged both suitcases to a friend who had a scale and they were within a breath of the 50lbs maximum. Nada mas!

Goodbye to my Patulup family!

Goodbye to my Patulup family!

I felt honored with all of the goodbye parties…I had four with women´s groups and five with friends, and yikes! They also gave gifts, fortunately small ones. The more special goodbyes were with Sonia and of course, my Patulup family. The kids were delighted with receiving the puzzles that I always had ready for their pleasure…and their eyes grew big with even more toys landing into their open hands.  Yes, it felt like an early Christmas. I tried my best to gift to those who were most in need. Erwin, the shoeshine man, with poor eyesight and always making bracelets (and selling very few) told me he had three children ages 2, 4, and 8. I surprised him with two bags of toys, food, and bracelet materials. In return I got a grateful hug…he had asked for nothing, but he was definitely deserving of my belongings.

The new oven!!

The new oven!!

As for my Patulup family, they were so excited by the purchase of my oven!! We are going to make pizza to sell, Armando the dad, told me. I wished them the best of luck with baking and selling…and they are on their way with all of my baking pans, bowls, ingredients and recipes. I said that I wanted to hear of their success when next in touch with them.

Finally, my bags were packed and my heart skipped a beat as I boarded the bus to leave. My elderly neighbor, Doña Paula cried as she gave me a final embrace. I tried to soften the goodbye by saying that I might return for a final visit in January before my flight to Seattle.  Next stop, the Peac e Corps office to write those final reports and sign off on last tasks. Thankfully, the country director gave me a little breathing room as I faced down my Completion of Service (COS) date of Thursday, November 21st.

George Like, Country Director,  honoring my service

George Like, Country Director, honoring my service

It was an honor to give a presentation of my work to fifteen Peace Corps staff and volunteers and then excitedly stand beside George Like, the Country Director, and finish my Peace Corps service with a certificate and the symbolic ringing the bell. A group of new volunteers watched the process and I told them, ¨You will all get to this moment someday and I hope that you have a fantastic service!¨

Ringing the bell!

Ringing the bell!

When I felt a bit teary-eyed, my supervisor, Carlos, teased me, ¨Que llore!¨but no, I choked back my tears and just gave a triumphant smile as the grand finale to these special three  years of my life. I am now a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a new identity that I am trying on for size.

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 10/19/2013

The Magic and Wonder of Maps; Knowing Our Place in the World

18 octubre 2013 viernes

My pride and joy!!Ecoladrillo (ecobrick) school garden project and Guatemalan map

My pride and joy!!Ecoladrillo (ecobrick) school garden project and Guatemalan map

About two months ago I was seized with the desire for a completely different activity as my PC service comes to a close. Oddly enough, a blank wall was the answer. Not just any wall, but two blank spaces on the exterior concrete wall at Chotzague Elementary.  It made sense. After all, for the past two years I have worked with these elementary students to construct a school garden wall from trash-filled bottles as well as, offer English, baking, and environmental classes. So why not paint a MAP?

Step 1: Cleaning and prepping the walls

Step 1: Cleaning and prepping the walls

Step 2: Painting the background

Step 2: Painting the background

I approached Byron, the school principal, with my brilliant ah-hah idea of painting a map of Guatemala…and he surprised me in turn. “¿Porque no pinta tambien un mapa mundial?” (Why don’t you paint a world map as well?) which he had seen in the elementary school in downtown San Bartolo. Gulp. Well okay I told him, knowing that the project had just expanded.  Since the wall actually belongs to the local community center as part of their meeting hall, he needed their approval part of the community center he needed to solicit approval from the local community in order to proceed. A few weeks later I received the green light from the local heads of state. Next up, who pays for materials? I told the principal that I could donate some funds, up to Q200 or $25 (yes, your donations are still being useful) and that I would like the school to donate an equal amount. Interesting note, apparently since public school in Guatemala is technically free (not entirely true because children often have to purchase uniforms, etc.) the principal is not allowed to solicit funds, but can suggest a donation. Fine, suggest away then.

Step 3: Drawing the map of Guatemala

Step 3: Drawing the map of Guatemala

I attended the next parent meeting to pitch the idea. The principal did the hard sell with suggesting Q3 or $0.45 per parent which seemed reasonable to the parents; the vote was an overwhelming yes.

Practice makes perfect…so the Guatemala map got elected to be the guinea pig since it is the simpler map. Children were enlisted to clean both walls and prep them with a painted white background. Consulting a small map of Guatemala blocked off in squares; we drew a grid on the wall and expanded to the allotted space.

I made sure to involve a lot of girls in the project because they are often marginalized and are excluded from technical or leadership activities.  With just a little quality control and erasing, the outline took shape within a day. Painting was rapid and fun, and even the PE teacher joined us, telling me, “Me gusta pintar!” (I like to paint!) so he got to paint Peten, the  tropical department far to the north and harder to reach for the shorter students. Of course, we needed get our town on the map, so a small dot and label shows the location of San Bartolo.

Step 4: Painting shorelines...

Step 4: Painting shorelines…

Umm..now the challenging World Map. I brought my laptop to the school the following week, hoping to project an image of the world map to trace on the wall. Surprise, surprise! No electricity that day. Truly back to the drawing board as I embarked on the grid method (or better known as grit-my-teeth method). Three full days later I had the world drawn and quartered.

Paintbrushes at the ready; we started with the shorelines outlined in blue.I loved the various comments and conversations regarding the world map…

Young boy pointing to a small island in the middle of the ocean, “Do people actually LIVE there?” he asked incredulously. I answered that probably so since people are just about everywhere.  He was amazed.

Four-year-old asked if I was painting a map of Chotzague, the village where the school is located. I replied, “No, I am painting the WHOLE world,” and then I chuckled to myself as I understood his perspective. Chotzague actually IS his whole world.

Students and parents glanced from the large adjacent painted map of Guatemala to their size and location in the world map. They received quite a shock when they saw how small their country is relative to the others.  As they glanced to the large northern areas of the globe they commented in wonder, “Wow! Canada is big! Russia is big!” This time the USA got beat out by its northern neighbors.

World Map takes shape!

World Map takes shape!

Sometimes kids and adults would be looking at Africa as they searched for Guatemala, “First, find Mexico,” I would hint.

A teacher at the school remarked, “So that is the shape of the world”, and it took me a moment to realize that she thought the world is oblong-shaped as is the map. I gently corrected her, “No, the world is round but we show it this way,” so badly wanting an orange and its peel to demonstrate the reason for the oblong shape.

A meticulous painter!

A meticulous painter!

Lastly, the kids wondered about Antarctica; what was that big white space at the bottom of the globe? “Puro hielo”…pure ice I replied, and that it was home to the penguins but adding that they just lived there and didn’t really dance as shown in the movies.

The tricky part was juggling a desire to involve a variety of students and maintaining some quality control…for instance, Silvia, a 6th grade girl was a conscientious painter, but a bit shaky on painting outlines, so I diplomatically tapped another girl for painting boundaries, and Silvia to paint the interior. Throughout the week, students left at 1pm and I stayed on until 4-6pm to finish drawing, painting the more difficult areas, and general tidying up. I would load up on snacks at recess hour, knowing that my next meal and break to sit down would be a good 6hrs later.

Ta dah!! The finished World Map and Byron, school principal

Ta dah!! The finished World Map and Byron, school principal

So poco a poco, we got there…and yes, the PE teacher jumped into the act again and got to paint the Scandinavian countries and Russia. Oh yes, I can’t forget that I played loosely with geopolitical boundaries. The materials from Peace Corps had not updated the breakup of Yugoslavia…oops! so I did a bit of guesstimating because I never had time to confirm the real countries.

During the final days of painting I had to abide by the “good enough” principle because I  desperately needed to finish the project on October 4th, only two days before an emergency visit back to the USA. Thankfully, Oct 4th saw me brushing a coat of varnish on both maps; they now glisten for all to admire and utilize. Mission accomplished!!!

A beautiful Guatemala and some of my painters!!

A beautiful Guatemala and some of my painters!!

Guatemala map...a useful teaching tool for students!

Guatemala map…a useful teaching tool for students!

Two maps for the price of one!

Two maps for the price of one!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 09/24/2013

My Last Guatemalan Fiestas; Enjoying Fireworks and Smiles

21 septiembre 2013 sabado 

Enjoying Feria with my Favorite FriendsTime in Guatemala often seems to exist in a different dimension…the months and years have galloped by quickly, but the pace of an average day is a leisurely trot, even a walk.  My eye is now on the finish line. Exactly two months from today I will ring the bell in the Peace Corps office to signal the end of my Peace Corps service…an emotional gesture for those of us who adopted Guatemala as our home for a few years, while trying to make a positive difference in our host communities.  A short 3 years and 3 months since I left the USA! Where this will all lead me is an unknown but exciting challenge…that chapter will come after some deserved travel time for adventure and reflection.

So you have probably ascertained from my blog that Guatemalans LOVE fiestas!! The louder the better…and the last two have been no exception.

Hoping to Win Reina Infantil!

Hoping to Win Reina Infantil!

At the end of August we celebrated our patron saint, San Bartolome. He is both namesake and protector of our little town, so we party in his honor. Young girls competed for the desired position of “Reina” (queen) of this or that school in events called “veladas”. These are elaborate productions to highlight the girls’ talents and entertain the admiring crowd.

On a very rainy night, I attended the velada for the Reina Infantil (Child Queen), sitting in the front row with my sitemate, Bill. My intention was to take pictures and try to stay dry as we sat under the tarp strung across the school playground. Uh oh…not so fast.  Two women from my library committee approached me with the oft-dreaded phrase, “Fijese que..” which casually translates to, “Guess what…I have got some bad news or a request of you..” I had noticed two well-dressed men sitting on the stage, clearly serving as judges, and I had also observed the empty chair alongside them. Well, I was now being tapped to fill that chair. The invited judge had not shown up. My friends implored me to serve as judge to offer a female perspective. Fine, I was honored, but now I couldn’t take photos…oh well.  I felt rather drab in my turquoise windbreaker next to the men, but I did not regret those extra layers as the rainy evening wore on. There were three tiny candidates ages 5-6 years old, all looking like little dolls. First presentation was each showing up in tipica or Mayan outfit with a little skit. Reenacting Mayan spiritual ceremonies each acted out an offering of corn to the four directions of the world. Serious business to celebrate their culture…smiles were tucked away until later.

Game on!

Game on!

Next up was “fantasia”….we were treated to a skit with Tinkerbell, another with dancing fruits and vegetables, and the last one I’ve already forgotten. As these presentations unfolded, the night sky let loose a furious rain. The blue tarps were perforated with holes like a colander so the poor audience was getting soaked, trying to move away from the showers and popping open their umbrellas. Seated on stage, I was dry under a metal roof but I felt quite guilty for my privileged position. But the show must go on.

Last presentation was each girl traipsing down the aisle in her traje de gala (evening gown) on the arm of her caballero (escort). These coifed miniature princesses dressed in finery offered a preview of their 15th birthday celebrations ten years in the future. Holding in some chuckles, I watched with bemusement an over-the-top entrance of one candidate. A canopied twin bed was lifted onto the stage so that the little reina could act out Sleeping Beauty. She lay still on the bed until her prince kissed her and once awakened, she stretched and then took her seat on stage with the other reinas who sat regally on the stage, shivering from the cold. Some coats quickly appeared.

Each reina candidate gave a brief speech, obviously written by parents. But they delivered their lines on caring for the environment and more with passion even if the topic was beyond their comprehension. Judging time! Each of us had to rank the aspiring reinas on: creatividad, seguridad (self-assuredness), coordinacion, etc. Thankfully we three judges were unanimous in our choice. Phew! Sadly, most of the crowd had slipped out, tired off being wet and cold, so it only about 30 people were present to applaud the choice of Lluvia, the new Reina Infantil…her name literally means “Rain.” So appropriate.

The Sweet Rewards of our Bake Sale

The Sweet Rewards of our Bake Sale

Other highlights from the San Bartolo feria were attending other veladas, the parade with drum-banging and xylophone-playing bands, snacking on fair food, and of course, the annual tradition of baking with my little Patulup friends to sell our treats to earn them spending money.  Last year’s production: 2 carrot cakes. This year: 3 carrot cakes and 1 banana cake. Secret to our success was selling straight out of the oven. Who can resist a warm piece of cake? Each child thus earned Q72 or nearly $10 which is a LOT of money for them. Their eyes hungrily scanned all the options of toys, food, and games…and they sampled it all! Their first purchases brought happy smiles. Customers still asked for more cake, but basta! I had reached my saturation point with baking and just wanted to enjoy feria, too. As my third and final feria in San Bartolo wound down; I felt like I belonged here.

Three weeks later, all of Guatemala celebrated Dia de Independencia on September 15th…although the whole month of September is actually designated for the celebration. This time I headed to Antigua at the invitation of a professor from Seattle Pacific University to offer a presentation to her visiting students. An offer of the friendly company of fellow Seattleites, food and lodging, and spending the fiesta in Antigua…well, it was an easy YES. More parades with banging drums, dancing girls, and of course, fireworks. In San Bartolo band members and dancers perform with endearing enthusiasm, in Antigua it was professional quality with the benefit of professional training of the private school students; each had their own merits.

Antigua Celebration

Antigua Celebration

Lighting the torch...Go runners, go!

Lighting the torch…Go runners, go!

September 14th is the big day for Antorchas or Torch runs which reenact how news was spread about gaining independence so many years ago. Groups of youth and adults assemble with handmade torches which were lit at the Central Park in Antigua and then they ran off enthusiastically towards their home towns or schools.

Antorcha Run in Antigua

Antorcha Run in Antigua

Some merchants took delight in throwing buckets of water on the runners who squealed as they tried to escape the deluge. Bands on opposite corners of the park blasted out their music, unconcerned that student bands were also trying to play their tunes. Firecrackers were a constant presence, with the crowd turning away and covering ears and eyes. This is a country willing to celebrate and not worry about lawsuits, with token attention to safety.

Many smiles and photos are what I will hold onto from these last fiestas… Happy Feria San Bartolo and Happy Birthday Guatemala!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 08/23/2013

Honoring our Elders; the Torchbearers of Our Family Legacy

23 agosto 2013 viernes  

Poppa Don, my dear dad

Poppa Don, my dear dad

How quickly two months have passed since my last visit to the USA!!… Why this last visit you wonder? Well, a joyous family reunion to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday.  An impressive milestone to which I aspire.

Being the typical American family, we are scattered across the landscape of the USA and beyond, so it is a major effort to get all of us in one location. My siblings and families chose the jagged mountains of Estes Park, Colorado as our reunion location. And at 8,000+ ft of altitude, we enjoyed being that much closer to the sun and stars. I logged the greatest number of miles, flying in from Guatemala, but the arrival of everyone was well choreographed.

The gang is all here!

The gang is all here!

Any of you who have ever organized a family reunion truly understand the logistical challenges and important details. Through a multitude of emails we checked in: Towels provided? Yes. Food preferences?  Keep it simple and don’t be too picky.  Games? Of course, bring them on….for instance, Bananagrams made the final cut, providing moments of creative spelling and laughter (I highly recommend this interactive crossword game). Yep, the plans all worked out in the end.

Hugs and views in Estes Park

Hugs and views in Estes Park

Sometimes when I am relaxing in my cozy studio space in San Bartolo with the radio playing American songs (as I am at this very moment) I can trick myself into thinking that I don’t live so far away.  But for each trek northward I am jerked back to the reality that I live in Central and not North America after suffering through multiple flights and delays. I always arrive wearily into the embraces of my two grown children, Alex and Michelle. This Christmas and New Year’s it will be their turn again to fly down to my territory of Guatemala. Several times I have spread my map across my table several times, dreamily planning our new adventures…if you checked out a recent posting, Semuc Champey  with its magical blue pools and exciting spelunking will be one stop.  Of course, we also have to visit Tikal, the impressive Mayan city excavated in the jungle of northern Guatemala and the beautiful Lake Atitlan. This family trip will be a great celebration of the end of my Peace Corps service!!

Alex and Michelle, my pride and joy!

Alex and Michelle, my pride and joy!

Switching gears back to our time in Colorado. Not surprisingly, Alex who is an avid bicyclist, prodded Michelle and me onto some loaner bikes to explore Boulder, Colorado and beyond. Borrowing Alex’s bikes required some creative riding on tiptoe even with lowered seats….our 5’5” frames are considerably smaller than his 6’3” frame, but with a little pain and willpower we managed.  Downtown Boulder was bursting alive with street musicians and pedestrians; so great to see a vibrant downtown.

At our rental home in Estes Park, we spent our days filling our stomachs with delicious treats then hiking off the calories amongst blue lakes and mountain peaks.

Hiking off those calories with my kids and sister, Sherry

Hiking off those calories with my kids and sister, Sherry

Each family was assigned a cooking day, and I chose Guatemala dishes for our turn. Well, I can report that the breakfast was an easy success of scrambled eggs, fried plantains, corn tortillas, black beans, watermelon, and of course, the very rich hot chocolate from Guatemalan cocoa beans. After all, who doesn’t like chocolate? The evening dish of Chicken Pepian, well, that was a bit more challenging. The blender didn’t muster up to the task I required, so the  ingredients of cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, pumpkin and sesame seeds ended up more crunchy than intended.

We gave it a good try. If you can’t win on taste, then appeal to another of the senses…so Michelle and I were a vision of Mayan beauty, adorned with handmade aprons (by me!) out of colorful Mayan woven fabric; we at least looked the part!

Guatemalan breakfast anyone?

Guatemalan breakfast anyone?

Most important was just spending time together, reminiscing and creating new memories. After a lifetime of raising a family with its moments of tears, smiles and adventures, it was important for us three children to honor our father for bringing us into this world and surviving to laugh about it.

Our beloved father, Don Wright, got to reign as the wise and revered elder of the family during our time together. Placemats lovingly created with family photos were given to each family member, triggering stories about the moments they captured.

Dad and us three kids, Sherry, me and Steve

Dad and us three kids, Sherry, me and Steve

Such as, my children burying their “Poppa Don” up to his neck at a North Carolina beach…big hairdos from the 1980s (glad those are gone forever!)…dance numbers and playful wrestling. Each family has the treasure of an oral history which bears repeating for each new generation. Photos and videos can help spark the memories, but sitting at the knees of our elders and listening to their life story is a priceless reverence and respect, so it was high time for us to share those moments.

Too often we shy away from telling our deepest feelings, even with our closest family members, but I want to share with you a few of my appreciations.

Often apart, but always tied together with love

Often apart, but always tied together with love

Dear Dad, I thank you with all my heart for the sacrifices you and mom made as we struggled through those early years with us three children born within 4 ½ years and your career in its early steps. I remember the multiple treks across the country by train and car to keep in contact with your Kentucky roots and our extended family. The lessons you imparted are many. You taught me to value hard work carried out with care and compassion, to embrace adventure and an element of mystery, and lastly, to nurture a childlike spirit to remain forever young.  ¡Te amo, Dad!

Birthday girl at 83!

Birthday girl at 83!

Within a week of my return to my Guatemalan little town, another elder in my life was celebrating a birthday. My neighbor, Doña Paula, a small but feisty octogenarian was celebrating her 83rd birthday! The sentiment of her family members was the same love and reverence although the celebration took on a decidedly different form. During the day, the female family members busied themselves with the preparation of chicken tamales to be served at the evening Evangelical service in her honor. Family members streamed in by car from the capital city five hours away or from Xela a mere 1 ½ hours away. A much simpler assembling of family and one that I envied. Several times a year this extended family reunites for holidays, birthdays, and our town feria. There are now seven grown children out of the original ten children to whom she gave birth. An impressive feat of physical endurance!

Fiesta con sus familiares y amigos!

Fiesta con sus familiares y amigos!

As the afternoon on celebration day wound down into evening, a carload of food was sent to the church only a few blocks away. Friends and relatives quietly slipped into their folding chairs after a nod in the direction of the guest of honor, and occasionally offering a hug. A male family member acted as a lay minister, leading the service with Bible readings and hymns. I have learned to follow along to feel more part of the congregation; however, my physical difference is still striking as I tower above the jet black hair of everyone, at my modest height of 5’5”. As the service came to an end, everyone lined up to present their gifts and hug the person of honor. Typical gifts are dishes, towels, and other household items which my neighbor will lovingly store in her cabinet along with many other such items.

Wise and Strong Mayan Women

Wise and Strong Mayan Women

Lastly, Doña Paula announced that she would like to sing a few hymns with her friends. So a group of tiny but indomitable elderly women lined up at the front of the church, each worn down by years and many children. Yet they still sang heartily with vigor. At 9:30pm, children and adults were hungrily ready for the hot treat of tamales and coffee. If I remember correctly, I was especially hungry and munched down a second tamale. In my defense, tamales are one of my favorite foods. Left behind was a mound of banana leaves which were the wrappers in which the tamales were steamed….Then voices of everyone sang out “buen provecho” and “gracias” and the congregation of about forty filed out into the cool night air. Another elder honored and revered.

Nurturing his inner child...Dad as an elk

Nurturing his inner child…Dad as an elk

Enjoying her chicken-pecking toy from me!

Enjoying her chicken-pecking toy from me!

So Happy Birthday to my dear dad and Feliz Cumpleaños to Doña Paula!! The world is certainly a much different place than when you were born 80 and 83 years ago respectively. And yet each of you have adapted and gone with the flow.

I wish you both many more years of health, family love and celebrations…and most importantly, that you keep that childlike wonder in your hearts.

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 07/16/2013

Oh Happy Inauguration Day for the Library…a parade of smiles!

15 julio 2013 lunes  

Promoting reading

Promoting reading

Whoa! My eyes popped open wide at the 183 hits that my last blog posting recently garnered in one day!! (I generally average 8-15 hits/day with a high around 40-50/day).  I suspect that the search word “vacation” lent me those new readers, so I welcome all of you to my blog. Perhaps I should continue my travel log postings de vez en cuando…to prime and transform those travel urges into action. Nothing like some photos of exotic lands to loosen your grip on that VISA card and book a vacation, especially if you are tiring of staring at those gray fabric walls of your work cubicle.

A proud moment for my comite and me

A proud moment for my comite and me

Changing channels here…..In the life of every Peace Corps volunteer who has labored many long hours and months on a project while navigating a different culture there arises a deep need for celebration and closure…Friday was indeed that day for me.  Yes, the fiesta was also for the library committee and community, but after more than a year of effort I wanted and needed to close that chapter. The finish line of my service is now within sight and appears as a bright ribbon stretched across the horizon embroidered with “November”.  So it is high time to wrap up. The visit of my “jefe” or Peace Corps supervisor and mentor, Carlos Julajuj, made the day even more special.

Carlos, my comite, and the children's furniture that I painted

Carlos, my comite, and the children’s furniture that I painted

I do admit to having serious doubts that the inauguration of the library project would really  happen…a 2wk trip to the USA put me out of contact, then I returned for just 3 days to my town before heading to Antigua for July 4th festivities. Each time in San Bartolo I checked in with committee members, reviewing responsibilities and deadlines. Me, I concerned myself to returning the three malfunctioning computers to the friendly NGO, then fetching and re-installing them. I even had to pay bus fare for those fatty computers who sat luxuriously on the bus seat with me; I did not trust them to the shaking they would endure if placed in the luggage rack. Mil gracias to my generous donors who contributed $1000 to purchase the eight computers and more supplies for the municipal library. My committee members often refer to the benefits reaped from the generic entity of “Amigos de Guatemala” (Friends of Guatemala fund) but I smile at this because I personally know your friendly faces.

Step it up for reading!

Step it up for reading!

Inauguration Day: Grey clouds with a threatening countenance greeted me at 7am, reaffirming my decision to wear a warmer Mayan huipil (blouse)…Please don’t rain was my mantra through a hasty breakfast of Corn Flakes.  With extra care I tied my faja (belt)around my corte (skirt)  so as to avoid any embarrassing disclosures. Lista, I stepped out of my home and promptly received admiring praise from my elderly neighbor. Walking carefully on the concrete pavers with high heels, I arrived at city hall for last minute editing help from a work companion for my palabras which I would give during the ceremony.

Comite and alcalde (mayor) strutting their stuff

Comite and alcalde (mayor) strutting their stuff

Desfiles or parades are an essential component of any Guatemalan fiesta, just gotta have them… twenty elementary kids lined up with their banners proclaiming the benefits of reading.  Middle school adolescents banged out tunes on their xylophones and instruments. At parade pace, we wound through the streets of San Bartolo waving to curious onlookers. I walked alongside the mayor, Edduar Amarildo Chun, and made small talk and inquiries about our town’s feria for next month…I shared my intention to dance a lot in celebration of my last year in San Bartolo. Well, we will be enlisting the services of lower cost bands. Apparently there is only half the funds that were spent last year available for this fiesta…just as long as I can dance I said. He smiled.

Palabras from the school superintendent...my jefe, Carlos, at my side

Palabras from the school superintendent…my jefe, Carlos, at my side

Palabras or speeches are also essential to any fiesta…greeting all those who are present, then thanking each in turn. (Oh yes, not to forget the infamous firecrackers that were set off at the beginning of the parade). Carlos, my jefe, praised the comité for their efforts and encouraged the City Council members and citizens to keep striving for more educational opportunities to benefit the population and to provide continued support to the library. My speech was brief, but I wanted to make sure to thank the essential actors. For those wanting to practice their Spanish I include this excerpt:

Happy library users

Happy library users

“Hoy es un día alegre para celebrar la finalización del proyecto de mejoramiento de la biblioteca municipal que el comité empezó hace un año con mi apoyo. Es un gran placer trabajar con este grupo tan dedicado durante este año y muchos de ellos han trabajado 11 años o más para realizar esta biblioteca. Son buenos ejemplos que la voluntad realmente existe en San Bartolo! Un aplauso para ellos. Este proyecto empezó con una visita a la biblioteca de San Carlos Sija que nos impresionó con su mobiliario y sus actividades. Regresamos de esta visita con una visión que hoy estamos celebrando…..Mil gracias al comité por trabajar día y noche para realizar este proyecto exitoso.”

Offical ribbon-cutting by the mayor...We're in business now!

Offical ribbon-cutting by the mayor…We’re in business now!

Following the palabras, the participating youth filed into the library for their snack and drink, whereas the adults sat at tables awaiting a tasty lunch of Pepian de Pollo from my good  friend, Doña Fina. The mayor assumed the head of the table and city councilmen flanked him at the table to enjoy the meal. Carlos and I conversed with Don German, (who wears many hats: comité member and principal of both an elementary school and middle school). San Bartolo is nearing 40 elementary schools scattered throughout the many villages, but has less than 10 middle schools with many adolescents nowhere near any of these. The failing grade truly goes to the fact that no “diversificado” or high school exists within our town, thus, forcing those who want vocational or university education to live away from home. For many parents that is not economically feasible nor do they want to cast out their adolescents to live with others far away.

Our computers thanks to your donations!

Our computers thanks to your donations!

So my hope is that this Library Improvement Project is a step towards more educational opportunities, not just for youth, but also adults…I will be inviting some of my señoras to actually USE these computers. Stay tuned for my adventures as computer instructor; it could make for some humorous reading! 

Chicken pepian IS a celebration in itself!

Chicken pepian IS a celebration in itself!

Muchas gracias otra vez to those of my blog readers who donated funds for my library project…your economic and emotional support means a lot to me!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 07/08/2013

Seeking Vacation Ideas? Consider Guatemala and Mexico

7 julio 2013 domingo  

Turquoise waters of Semuc Champey in Guatemala

Turquoise waters of Semuc Champey in Guatemala

As the sun makes a permanent entrance on the summer stage, hard-working Americans browse the travel section in their favorite bookstores. Perhaps you have already lined up some adventures for this year, but if not, there is still time for an escape to exotic lands!  So I have two strong recommendations to pass along…Guatemala and the state of Chiapas in Mexico.

Of course, I am partial to Guatemala which has been my adopted home for these past 900 days or so. If you have followed my blog at all, there have been photos and descriptions of various sites in this Land of Eternal Spring. So I will take a moment to add one more site: Semuc Champey  in the department of Alta Verapaz. Well worth an exploration!

 

Natural pools or pozos of Semuc Champey...Dive in!

Natural pools or pozos of Semuc Champey…Dive in!

Paty, a Guatemalan girlfriend, and I headed there for yet another birthday celebration at the end of April. The 7hr van ride from Antigua winds through mountains, then dry desert land, and finally ends in the selva ( jungle). Lanquin is a small town that boasts a variety of hostals, some stores, and van rides to the natural pools and caves of Semuc Champey  or north to Tikal. Lush greenery brushed against the pickup as we headed to Semuc, with our first stop the cave with an underground river. Paty, a nonswimmer, donned a life jacket, and the guide handed each of us a lit candle as we waded into the cool water of the cave’s interior. Candlelight bounced off the walls which had some formations, but the beauty was in the silence of this underground world. At times, we climbed narrow ladders to reach another space, and yes, we did have to swim at times…a definite challenge holding aloft a burning candle. Paty thankfully received a tow from the guide because I had no extra hand to help. After 1 ½ hrs we reached a deep pool where the brave could climb a wall and splash-dive into the dark water below. No thank you! We then waded our way back to the cave entrance, emerging into the sun.

 Made it to the Mirador!

Made it to the Mirador!

A quick body adjustment as we departed the cool interior of the cave to the bright sun and humidity outside. Trekking up to the mirador or lookout point, we paused to drink. Enterprising Guatemalans had set up food sales at strategic points with success in enticing thirsty visitors with their drinks and fruit. At the mirador we were able to gaze down upon the turquoise pozos or natural pools which looked very inviting as we wiped away the sweat. Our group of young 20 somethings  fairly ran down to the pozos but we brought up the rear with a more leisurely pace . A magical set of pools beckon the sweating visitor to enter, and we offered no resistance to the invitation.  Finally our guides signaled time to leave so we piled into the back of a pickup truck for the bumpy ride back to Lanquin.

Lively San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico

Lively San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico

That night we treated ourselves to a delicious barbeque dinner at the Zephyr Hostel which is located on a spur of land overlooking the river and jungle…indeed a 5-star meal!!  Paty was worn out from the day’s adventures, but I mustered up a bit of energy for dancing at our hostel…dodging the bolo (drunk) who got exactly one dance with me until I figured out his inebriated condition! As I solo danced out of his sight, my fellow hostel companions applauded in appreciation and I raised a cautionary finger to my lips for them to be silent….I was hiding out from Señor Bolo.

Backing up in time to the end of March, I headed just across the border to the state of Chiapas in Mexico to celebrate Semana Santa or Easter week. Another considerable trip of 7-8hrs from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala up to Huehuetenango to cross into Mexico. Distances are not that great but travel is slow, especially with all of the speed bumps erected by communities to control the velocity of traffic on the Interamerican highway. The creativity award goes to the children who sold cut fruit and other treats as vans and buses crept over dirt speed bumps which the kids themselves had erected!

Crazy nightlife in San Cristobal...the Penguin strikes!

Crazy nightlife in San Cristobal…the Penguin strikes!

The infrastructure of Mexico is definitely a notch or two above that of Guatemala, with wide well-paved roads and sidewalks. And yes, capitalism seems to have a firmer grasp, with a Sam’s Club and other American chains. In the afternoon we arrived to San Cristobal de las Casas with its brightly painted colonial architecture…and eclectic mix of nationalities. A refreshing break from the dominance of American tourists and residents one usually finds in Antigua, Guatemala…lending to a much more cosmopolitan atmosphere. Evening entertainment included swishing skirts and foot tapping from Mexican folkloric dancing and window shopping on lively pedestrian streets.

Palenque: Testament to the beauty and engineering of Mayan culture

Palenque: Testament to the beauty and engineering of Mayan culture

A fantastic side trip is Palenque…site of an important Mayan city with a spreading complex of pyramids and other buildings in the jungle. Choose the morning to avoid the afternoon heat and humidity. Those irregular and tall stone steps will indeed tire you out but provide a fantastic view…let your imagination wander back to the time of Mayan warriors and maidens. I eavesdropped on a few tour guides providing interesting and juicy details.  From prison cells to stone beds for married couples…thank goodness we now offer more comfort on the latter.

 

Majestic pyramid

Majestic pyramid

Borrowing from Wikipedia now: The Palenque ruins date back to 226 BC to its fall around 1123 AD. After its decline, it was absorbed into the jungle which is made up of cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees, but has been excavated and restored and is now a famous archaeological site. Palenque is a medium-sized site, much smaller than such huge sites as Tikal or  Copan, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas produced. The most famous ruler of Palenque was Pacal the Great whose tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions. By 2005, the discovered area covered up to 2.5 km² (1 sq. mi), but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.

Bas relief at Palenque

Bas relief at Palenque

After I finish my Peace Corps service in November, I will return to that Mexican jewel, San Cristobal de las Casas and the state of Chiapas for more adventures…photos of the Canyon del Sumidero which is near San Cris has caught my eye, so I will glide by boat along the river through its steep canyon walls. So there I have given you some travel ideas for now or the future. Disfrutelas. (Take advantage of them!) Life is short, so pack your suitcase or backpack and head out to see the natural and manmade marvels of this world.

 

 

 

Recyled king and queen in San Cristobal

Recyled king and queen in San Cristobal

Catedral in San Cristobal

Catedral in San Cristobal

Mural protesting American companies patenting plants and robbing indigenous people control of their natural resources

Mural protesting American companies patenting plants and robbing indigenous people control of their natural resources

4 junio 2013 martes

Going native!

Going native!

A few weeks ago I watched the DVD “Because I Said So” with Diane Keaton about a “helicopter” mom interfering in her adult daughter’s life to the extent of placing an ad and interviewing potential mates for her daughter. Not a noteworthy movie, but it gave me a few laughs and some thoughts…

June is a month that brims with romance and weddings, so it set me to I wondering…After 2 ½ years of living in rural Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer WHAT  personal qualities could I now promote in seeking a future life partner?  What follows is my tongue in cheek but very real answer to that question.

1. Might as well get the physical aspect out of the way…I am blessed and cursed with sweet blood. Thus, I am powder-fresh on my upper half, and please accept that it’s a natural flea repellent sprayed on my clothing and lower half to keep those pesky buggers in check.

2. I have very flexible lung power; I am able to summit huge volcanoes (inactive) in a single bound, well, more like in a few hours AND I am able to compress my lungs into a miniscule space in my body when squeezed from all sides by a multitude of bus-riding Guatemalans.

Perfecting my tortillar ability

Perfecting my tortillar ability

3. I have unrivaled squatting ability and I can hold this ungainly position for considerable time, whether to help a Guatemalan child plant seeds in a garden or to make tortillas on an open fire or most importantly, to avoid contact with less than desired latrines.

  1.  4. I follow the Girl Scout Motto “Be Prepared” and I carry a supply of stolen T.P. (plucked from those rare bathrooms that actually HAVE it), tiny spoons for yoghurt, Band-Aids, and plastic baggies for food waste or flea-ridden socks, whichever comes first.

5. I have adequate but not obsessive hygiene in the kitchen; my belief is that water can be reused for many tasks. Fetching water from my outside pila (sink) has helped with that thriftiness, but I WILL change the water when flies are found swimming belly up.

6. I creatively employ duct tape for a multitude of needs, including weather-stripping and repair of books, umbrellas and shoes. I do admit to a MILD addiction to that marvelous silver tape but it is under control…I’ve got it down to one roll/month to be happy.

7. I am always inventing, whether it is food tents from wire and sheer curtains to avoid food contamination from flies, shelf supports from Coke cans, or filling plastic water bottles with trash as a building material for a garden wall for a school. So DO NOT throw anything out without first consulting me; it may be reincarnated for a 2nd or even 3rd use.

Guatemala captures my heart!

Guatemala captures my heart!

8. I have gone native and the beauty of Guatemalan culture has touched my heart.  I wear Mayan traje (outfit) with huipil (blouse), corte (skirt) and faja (woven belt) on special occasions…this is a surefire means to solicit compliments if I am in need…I welcome ¡Qué guapa! Balancing a full basket on my head is a yet untested skill.

9. I can decline smuggling requests with compassion…everyone here longs to visit the USA where many have relatives. Obtaining a visa is very costly and difficult…so we joke about how they might accompany me to the USA each time I announce an upcoming trip… hiding in my suitcase or blouse. Drum roll…The creativity award goes to the women who suggested that they shrink themselves small enough to attach to my hair like piojos or head lice. Thanks but really, no thanks.

Up for some blackberry pie?

Up for some blackberry pie?

10. I am master chef of carrot cake and more… winning the hearts and stomachs of Guatemalans and fellow volunteers with treats creatively baked in a pot on stovetop when there is no oven to be had.  I am a complete bakery shop, carrying the ingredients for baking and cake pans to sell to the newly converted in our far-flung villages. A true peddler of sweets as I bump along dirt roads in the back of a pickup with my supplies!

11. I am very precise in surgically removing fuzzy, furry, black or green spots to salvage the remainder of the patient (any edible item) with absolutely no lasting health effects to the consumer, guaranteed! Food is precious in Guatemala…too yucky goes to the pigs!!

12. I swear by the efficacy of fingers in ears to drown out the sound of camionetas (chicken buses) blaring their horns at my doorstep, crowing roosters and late-night Evangelical services. I am even able to return to sleep quickly after early dawn firecrackers.

..and a partner appeared!

..and a partner appeared!

13. I have learned to keep my modesty in check after years of enjoying San Bartolo hot springs (the community bath); I am able to scrub my private parts under my clothes while astutely avoiding eye contact with a male seated within inches of me doing the same.

14. I have excellent tact in graciously declining multiple marriage proposals from married men even within the same evening, and I also refuse offers of husbands from disgruntled wives.

15. I throw my own party for entertainment, blaring romantic dance music from my Q70 radio while twirling about my room; partner desired but optional if there is a shortage.

It's a crazy but fun life...join me someday?

It’s a crazy but fun life…join me someday?

So that sums it up…some personal qualities that I have learned or improved upon during my 2 ½ years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala (this is the short list!)….the mystery is where this will all lead me in my next ventures of seeking a life partner….as Guatemalans love to say: “Saber” (“Who knows?”)

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 05/03/2013

A VERY Guatemalan birthday… CRACKLE!!! POP!! POP!! POP!!

1 mayo 2013 miércoles

 Given that this is my last year in Guatemala, I decided to spread news widely of my upcoming birthday…and I was justly rewarded!

5:20am on April 16th (D-Day or actual B-day)…. in the midst of my deep slumber, CRACKLE!!! POP!! POP!! exploded outside my door. The infamous cohuetes or firecrackers to announce a special occasion. “That’s sweet” I murmur, appreciating the sentiment and roll back over for some more zzzs.

A birthday serenade at dawn!

A birthday serenade at dawn!

5:30am…a SECOND round!!! More CRACKLE!!! POP!! POP!! POP!! for a minute or more. Now I am truly awake and contemplating my next move when I hear the serenata (serenading).  Voices are singing unknown birthday songs. “Okay, I’m up” and I approach my door with sleepy curiosity. Cranking open the window, I see my work companion, Sonia, her older son, Alva and husband (strumming a guitar) and their two small children. All are wrapped in scarves and coats against the morning cold and singing heartily, when I spy Alva’s basket with cups. “Oh, *%!# they are going to want to come in! ” I realize with slight alarm. I applaud as they sing their last note, then announce to their expectant faces “just let me throw on some clothes”.  A mini robe barely covers my pjs and I let the troubadours stream in…well, it’s too early for modesty, so I attempt to be gracias hostess at this hour of dawn.  Thankfully my room is still cluttered with half a dozen little wooden chairs for the library, so everyone perches on those and we breakfast on the tea and chicken sandwiches they had brought. I even gobble down a 2nd sandwich, “hey, I’m already awake” I figure.  After an hour of conversation. they announce their departure with hugs. I give a heartfelt gracias and slip back into bed for a half hour.

Whoa! I finally got the infamous firecrackers that other volunteers had boasted of…so I felt both blessed and tired. At the more normal 7:15am waking, I rose to wrap the Mayan corte (skirt) around my waist, attempt a tight knot with faja (belt) and slip the Coban-style huipil (white embroidered blouse) over my head. My bag bulged with baking supplies for a banana cake, a surprise activity for the women’s group so that THEY will make my birthday cake.  Far-flung Chuiaj was our destination, and I splurge on paying combustible (gas) for a car so that we could avoid the long trek of walking, catching rides with pickup trucks, etc.  I assure my driver friend, Rigo, that we would be there for about 90 minutes for the cake-baking and then depart.

Yummm! Caldo de pollo!

Yummm! Caldo de pollo!

9:30am…we bump along the dirt roads and arrive in the small village of Chuiaj. A short walk down a small dirt path to the tidy adobe house of Doña Dominga and family, next to the elementary school, we greet the assembled women in their colorful traje with taps on the arms and kisses to their cheeks. We defer to Rigo who gives his talk about “medicos americanos” coming next month for a 2-day medical mission nearby and all treatment is gratis (free). Women line up to list their names and medical needs. I wander into the kitchen where a giant pot is bubbling with chicken stew.  Sorpresa!! Sonia shows me the surprise lunch underway. She is so tickled and proud to have pulled this off without me suspecting, sharing that she talked on the phone in K’iche’ while I was nearby so that I wouldn’t understand….tricky! I feel honored by Sonia’s generosity and friendship to organize this lunch, pay for the ingredients and enlist the women’s help and cooperation.

Generous women of Chuiaj

Generous women of Chuiaj

11am- A sweet smell of bananas wafts from the aluminum pot as we remove the banana cake. Dessert FIRST  is the decision, so everyone holds out a hand to be rewarded with a sweet appetizer….serenading me with the usual birthday song, “Queremos pastel, queremos pastel, aunque  sea un pedacito, queremos pastel” (We would like cake, we would like cake, even if it’s just a little piece, we would like cake).

12pm- Caldo de pollo (chicken stew) with chow mein noodles and guisquil ( a starchy vegetable) is ladled into bowls and everyone settles into the aroma and taste. We guests are served at a table in a dining room and the women contentedly sit apart from us in the kitchen, corte tucked under them on the concrete floor. This physical separation of guests and cooks feels both very typical but lamentable. Guatemalans frequently sit on the bare ground whereas most Americans have neither the agility nor willingness to do so. At one point I whisper to Rigo that we apparently would be staying awhile, and he shrugs good naturedly, “no problema” while also benefitting from a free lunch.

A gift from the heart!

A gift from the heart!

1pm- The women assemble in the patio after collecting our dirty dishes…something is afoot. A woman steps forward and presents me with a black and white corte or Mayan skirt (8yds long) which I recognize is no small cost. Otra vez I am very touched again by their rich generosity despite their limited economic means …I know that this came from their hearts without prompting from Sonia. A truly blessed moment of my Peace Corps service!

The afternoon passes in a blur of everyone in the muni wishing me “feliz cumpleaños” with warm abrazos (hugs). Work? Not today really.

7pm-Sonia and I head to Alva’s house for dinner with her family….sweet! I do not have to cook ANY meals today! June bugs are invading Alva’s patio and trying to enter the house. We hold off their siege and eat beans and chorizo (pork sausage) and tortillas. Alva is a bit stressed because just prior to dinner she had rushed her youngest to the health center with a bleeding nose from a fall. A quick recovery and all was well, and finally she can sit and relax with us.

Phone calls with loved ones in the USA put a sweet end to my special day…I feel truly beloved!! A funny footnote. The following day Yamilet, daughter of my neighbor, asks me with indignation, “Why did you let Sonia and Alva come into your house and not us? We serenaded you too, and even had coffee ready!” I showed my surprise. “You sang, too?”  “Yes, right after the cohuetes.” I profusely apologized for the perceived slight and admitted that I must have briefly fallen asleep, and that it took 2 rounds of firecrackers to truly wake me up! I was forgiven…Wow, that would have indeed been quite the crowd in my room at 5:30am!!

So yes, it was a true Guatemalan birthday celebration this year. Hmmm…just wondering, does anyone else want firecrackers at dawn for their birthday next year? I am quite willing and ready to share this delightful Guatemalan tradition…..just you wait and see!!!

Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 03/20/2013

Estufas para Chuiaj (Stoves for Chuiaj)

18 marzo 2013 lunes 

Village of Chuiaj

Village of Chuiaj

7:10am-  Hrrumph….My slumber reluctantly accepts its finale with the ringing of my Samsung teléfono. Gladis,  my neighbor’s 16 yr old muchacha, had tied their gallo (rooster) in my backyard patio within 10ft of my bedroom, so it was a night interrupted by his crowing and rather unkind thoughts on my part. Such is rural life, but I remind Gladis with a weary smile to please tie him elsewhere tonight. Plugging ears with fingers and music for white noise is not my idea of restful sleep. Still a mystery to me why my neighbor buys a gallo occasionally when her gallinas appear more plump and tasty. I will shed no tears when he turns up in the next caldo (stew), the sooner the better!

 

Oficina Municipal de la Mujer...Sonia and me

Oficina Municipal de la Mujer…Sonia and me

7:55am- Slathering on sunscreen, then with carrot bread in hand, I slam the metal patio door and trot the two blocks to the muni. Sure enough, Sonia found transport for us and waves from high up in the cab of the city’s dump truck. “ ¡Tere, apurese!” (Teri, hurry up!) Climbing up, I squeeze myself in with the other two occupants and shut the door. Our truck lurches forward and shudders as we head down the steep hill on the concrete pavers toward the river. Sonia and I exchange updates of our weekend activities. I share that I had enjoyed my time in Antigua, playing tour guide to two new volunteer trainees during their first “free day” since their arrival last month. “¿Cómo fue su fin de semana?”I ask her.  Answer, “calidad” (great) but still no discovery of her lost glasses. ¡Lastima! These will cost Q500 ($65) which Sonia really does not have to spend. So I offer to be her eyes for the day…last week she had cried “culebra” in alarm as we walked on a dirt path. Laughing, I told her it was just a stick, no snake after all. Yes, she really does need her glasses. Sure wish I could wave a magic wand to solve yet another problem seeking scarce financial resources.

 

Working in Chuiaj to assess homes and stoves

Working in Chuiaj to assess homes and stoves

8:30am- With care we climb down from the truck as it screeches to a halt, the end of the ride for us…hats against the bright sun, we trudge up and down the hills. After 20 minutes of passing dusty pine trees and the occasional adobe house, we reach the Aldea of Pachuchup with its concrete block schoolhouse and adjacent community salon. Women in traje hasten down the paved street to a meeting.  In response to our question of how much further they offer the discouraging “falta”(a distance ahead ).  Por suerte, a pickup truck stops, also heading to Chuiaj. Clamoring into the back, I claim the spare tire which offers some cushioning against the potholes of the dirt road. Dust and more dust. Rain is a longtime memory so everything is coated with the fine brown dirt. I plunk Q5 ($0.65) in the driver’s outstretched hand after our bumpy ride.  “Muchas  gracias.”

 

Dona Dominga and her stove

Dona Dominga and her stove

9:00am- Hiking down a winding path carved in the small dirt bank, we duck into the home of Doña Dominga, a tidy adobe house with several buildings. Drats!  We learn that today is a bad choice of meeting day; many women have gone to the Monday market day in Pologua to purchase their weekly food.  As we sort out our options, we are offered bananas, bread and a steaming atol de elote (corn drink). Si, we accept this welcome refacción after our morning trek. The intended topic for today gets shelved (how to write meeting minutes, create an agenda, etc.) and we choose to visit homes to assess their need for new cook stoves.

This year there will be 60 beneficiaries of this “mejoramiento de vivienda” (housing improvement ) project in 8 different communities, a reduction from the 117 cook stoves received by women in ten communities for the 2012 project. Our host points out that her stove is “demasiado chiquito”.  Sonia nods understandingly however, I chime in “pero está en buen estado” (it’s in good shape).

 

Definitely needing a stove

Definitely needing a stove

So begins the strategic game of group members trying to convince us of their need, especially those with the narrow stoves wanting three instead of their two burner spaces on their metal plancha (stovetop).  Yet just last week I visited the village of Chicorral where most women still cook on the ground, with pots balanced on a fire ring of stones. I feel this group today exhibits less need, and thus I play “bad cop” since Sonia is being rather conciliatory

Sadly, their narrow stoves and displeasure with them are so very typical of poorly designed projects here in Guatemala.  Someone, perhaps the planning director or random engineer, wrote up the specifications and project profile without consulting the recipients and thus, the less than successful result. Even more infuriating to me was the specification for 5 sq meters of pavimiento for the kitchen, which ends up being a token patch of concrete near the stove. With most of the kitchen still a dirt floor, it does not achieve the objective of improved hygiene in the kitchen. Sonia told the women, “¡Tere, se enojó!” (Teri got angry!) Darn right I did! I told Sonia that if we do a project we might as well do it right. Putting my anger and frustration into action, I made sure that the 2014 project profile was revised with a new specification of 5m x 5 m so that those 125 beneficiaries will have paved kitchens. So glad that I had the power and ability to effect this change…all to achieve a better project for the women of San Bartolo!

 

Adobe home underway

Adobe home underway

The next few hours our group of seven women, one husband, us two, and a few dogs hike to the various homes scattered in the meadows of the pine forest. Quickly we appreciate the distance women trek to attend our meetings. Lack of exercise is NOT a problem here. Adobe homes all, despite the general realization that concrete block homes reinforced with rebar are much safer for resisting earthquakes. “Aren’t adobe homes outlawed now?” someone asks as we walk by an adobe home under construction with the woman setting down the 60lb adobe brick. THAT is a law without any chance of enforcement because most rural homes are adobe.

 

Damaged stove and health risk from smoke

Damaged stove and health risk from smoke

Final tally from house visits: one woman without a cook stove and two with damaged ones, so these all merit a new stove…I await a private moment with Sonia to question the need of the others. The husband buys us water bottles and jokes, “for my new stove” (he already has one), dispensing with any subtlety in his small bribe…I smile and add, “if you don’t get a stove there are other projects, such as, chickens to raise and fruit trees”.  I want to keep harmony within the group and to offer hope for other projects.

11:20am – Time to head back so we trudge up a huge hill with protesting legs. “No aguanto” (I can’t make it) groans Sonia and a woman takes her bag filled with papers. Finally we arrive at the cruce (crossroads) and a pickup with ice cream cart tied in the back lets us hop aboard. “Helados, un quetzal!” ($0.15) his megaphone sings as we bump along. Shy children appear from doorways waving their money. Packaged ice cream cones are handed over. One woman buys seven for her family; a sweet treat on this warm day. I bang on the side of the truck several times with my hand, the signal to disembark. Still far from the center of town we chase down the few shadows on the dirt road, me worrying that my sunscreen has now been sweated off. More conversation, and some gossip (chisme) from Sonia about our workmates …Guatemalans relish the latter to spice up the day.

11:45am- No cars or pickups pass us, so we walk the roller coaster road from Pachuchup to the small community of Pacuntze for the next forty minutes. Sadly, there are no blackberries along the road despite being in season. Fortunately, the shiny white micro (van) arrives on time at 12:25pm and we sink into the luxurious cushioned seats sheltered from the merciless sun. At 12:45pm we arrive at the muni (city hall). I rush into the office to print up the afternoon attendance list for Sonia, which she seeks later on her way to her group.

 

Trekking from one home to another

Trekking from one home to another

1:15pm- Relishing my vegetable soup, grilled cheese sandwich with avocado and a moment of calm in my darkened room. My thoughts drift to the homes we visited, with some anguish I review that two women we visited had received new stoves from the 2012 project despite already having cook stoves (albeit small ones). I am always writing my own job description here, and one responsibility I have chosen is to act as project advisor to Sonia, to help her critically evaluate how projects are developed and allocated.  Hopefully she will carry these lessons forward after I have left. Just today in a moment of appreciating my support, she implored, “Tere, no se vaya!” (Teri, don’t leave!)  I smile and remind her that I still have 8 months left.

9:00pm- I am star-gazing as I press up against the cool concrete pila (outdoor sink). Dipping my tattered scrubbie into the dish with hard soap, I absentmindedly wash away the remnants of my meals. Fireflies flit about, attracted by the humidity gifted by the brief afternoon rain. Blessed silence. The rooster has been shut away in the chicken house. I am very thankful for small favors such as this. Goodnight Moon. Goodnight Everyone.

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers