Monday, September 29, 2008

El Fin De Semana Pasada

Over the weekend, I visited a community called Nueva Alianza about two hours southeast of here where a group of 40 Guatemalan families own a coffee growing farm and cooperative. Their history is very interesting, and as part of this tour the guests actually harvest coffee berries, see how they are processed, and go hiking in the rainforest and learn about the native plants, including those that are edible and some that will sting you or make you sick just from contact. (We also ate cardamon seeds right out of the pod!)

The group that went consisted of 4 students from my school including me, a couple from Denver, a guy from Australia, a young woman from Albuquerque (her parents are my parents´neighbors, it turns out), and a Canadian. The whole weekend cost $40 US, (is the US dollar still worth anything? I am not sure at this point. . . ) for transportation to and from, meals, tours, an overnight stay, and all the coffee you can drink. (And it was the best coffee I have had since I have been here.)

Anyway, we took a minivan to the entrance of the plantation and then transferred to the back of a small pickup truck. It brought back fond memories of my childhood in New Mexico as we bumped along the road that climbed into the hills close to the volcano Santa Maria.

Of all the activities, I enjoyed picking coffee berries the most. So, the next time you go to the Roastery and enjoy a fresh cup of Guatemalan coffee, know that it was by the sweat of my brow (and watch out for the Deet in there, since I was coated in it when I was picking.)

We harvested for about a half and hour by a small stream and you could hear it trickling along as you searched the bushes for the red berries. We were instructed by our guide not to pick the green or yellow ones--only red. You can also chew on the ripe berries and get the sweet miel (honey) out of the berry that surrounds the bean. (See the slide show to your right.)

The interesting thing about this particular farm is that they were privately owned up until about 8 years ago. The owner of the farm was in financial trouble and had not paid the workers for 18 months worth of wages. To make a long story short, the workers finally reclaimed the farm by force and, after many attempts, received support from some unions and a government funding agency to buy the farm and run it as a cooperative. Even so, they work very hard doing a variety of things: coffee harvesting, macademia nut harvesting, water purification and sales, biodisel fuel, and hydro-electric power. They are trying to diversify their ability to support themselves, because even at fair-trade prices, the average person working to harvest coffee for 4-5 hours a day makes about 40 Quetzales, which is equivalent to about $6. A father and son team gave us the tours with a young Michigan woman named Allison who volunteers as a translator. They are obviously very proud of all that they are trying to do.

I was impressed with all that they are trying to do as well. And although they are much better off as a cooperative, the people are obviously still working very hard to make a living. I may go back and stay there and harvest coffee for them (the busiest part of the harvest is now-December) and practice my Spanish for a couple of weeks if time allows. Something about harvesting berries for several hours a day really appeals to me. Must be some agricultural blood running somewhere in my veins.

Now it´s back to conjugating verbs, stumbling to use the preterite, and more rain in Xela. More on life with my family later this week!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

La gente me ha encontrado en Guatemala

(Translation: the people I have met in Guatemala)
Tracy, the NYU Librarian -- see her blog at

Sam, the Mt. Baker ski patroller

Bryant, the New Mexican (from Las Cruces) who is also the director of the Oxford Language Center in Guatemala City

Bryant´s dog, Remy (he looks sad but he is really quite a sweetheart!)

Flor, Juan, y Jose--los niños at The Earth Lodge with whom I played soccer (chicas verses chicos, y las chicas won 5-4, which made Jose cry, unfortunately)

Mi madre y mi hermana mas menor en la familia Alvilar en Xela (Maya y Paoula)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life in Xela

Following my strict ¨no plan¨plan, after a night in Panajachel I decided that it was not my kind of place, despite the beauty of Lake Atitlan. It was much too busy and touristy and focused on commerce for me, (los niños are relentless in trying to sell you small dolls, magnets, stuffed horses, etc.) so off I went on Sunday afternoon to Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela--pronounced Shey-lah.)

Xela is the second-largest city in Guatemala, and it has a European feel to it, with narrow streets and small shops & restaurants, at least near the city center.

After an intensive application process that consisted of a phone call, I was accepted to the Pop Vuh school of español and moved in with la familia Alivar, who live only about 12 doors down from the school. I now have tres hermanas menor, y una perro se llamamos ¨Pongi.¨ (Three younger sisters and a dog we call Pongi.) The family is very nice to me although I don´t understand a lot of what they are saying, especially to one another. There are six of us living in the house, which is long and narrow and has one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a store out front that sells used clothing.

On Monday night I went to a fiesta with my family--it was the mother´s brother´s birthday party. We walked about 8 blocks to the grandparents´house, and we played a game like "hot potato" where we would pass a toy while music played and then when the music stopped, whomever was holding the toy had to tell a joke, riddle, tongue-twister, or sing a song. Of course I couldn´t understand much of what was happening, but it was fun nonetheless and I got to sing a couple of old camp songs (in English, of course). Then we had dinner and hit a spiderman piñata (I played too, but did not get any candy to fall out of the stubborn spider.) Everyone is extremely nice and accomodating and the food is OK. So far we´ve had things like chicken tamales (but the sauce is not spicy), rice with vegetables and fried cauliflower, and a dish with cabbage, red peppers, and chicken in a creamy sauce. It´s nice to not have to worry about cooking or washing dishes, so I can´t complain.

Luckily, I was also invited to play in a soccer tournament fundraiser benefiting a local rural health organization. So on Monday and Tuesday afternoons I played at Futeca, an indoor soccer complex with small fields (we played 5 on 5 with two women on each team) made of the same rubber stuff that the new indoor fields in Granby have. I played OK, except that I had to be la portera (the goalie) some of the time, and I think in total had about 7 or 8 goals scored against me. Our team was mostly extranjeros, or foreigners, and we spoke English more than Spanish, although I am becoming familar with las palabras de futbol--la esquina, afuera, pasame, etc.

Things about this area that I find interesting include:
  • Many of the buildings have re-bar sticking out of the tops, I was told because if they decide to add on, it will be ready for the concrete blocks.
  • There are tons of shops that sell photo copies. My teacher told me that it´s because text books are very expensive and so students make photo copies of all the books rather than purchasing them.
  • Everyone is very emphatic about "agua caliente" in the showers, but the water is, at best luke warm, which makes showering similar to walking in the rain, which I have been doing a lot of.
Overall, it´s a lot colder here than I thought it would be--I haven`t worn my sundresses or shorts much, and I will probably need another sweater to get through the winter. Xela is at about 7,000 feet, and if I go next to Todos Santos or Coban, they are also mountainous and will be cold through the winter months, althought the rain is supposed to let up in a month or so (keep your fingers crossed! It feels a bit like Ireland here!)

I have more photos to post and will try to get them up later today. I think of you all frequently and miss my friends from home, although I am meeting lots of nice people here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My first mishap and mucho lluvia

Yesterday I walked from the village of El Hato (where the hostel is located) down to La Antigua, one of the most beautiful and frequently visited towns in Guatemala. It was a nice walk; I practiced my spanish in my head as I trekked down the 5 km paved road, flanked mostly by expensive homes and gardens.

I met with my spanish teacher, Luis, at a touristy restaurant called Cafe Condeza on the plaza of Antigua. Rain threatened, but it stayed dry until about 1/2 way through our lesson.
We finished and Luis said "Adios," but by then it was a steady downpour so I stayed on to write some postcards to people at home.

When I finally ventured into the town, the cobblestone streets had 6-8 inches of standing water in the middle of them, and I had my raincoat but no umbrella. I was soaked within minutes, searching for the post office (which I never did find). After some time at an Internet Cafe, I headed up to the edge of town where I was going to catch my first "chicken bus" (the public buses) up the hill to El Hato. I was a little bit late (if you can believe it!) so I was hurrying down the street. I was almost to the bus stop when a bus came around the corner. I waved it down and jumped on, and it promptly turned the corner--directly away from the road to El Hato. It was packed, so I was standing up front, practically in the driver's lap, and telling the Ayudante (the guy who calls out stops and collects the fares) "El bus no es correcto!" with most likely significant panic on my face. He seemed unconcerned.

Finally, a young Gutemalteca (Gutemalan woman) got on board and told me that she would help me. So I stayed on the bus as it wound through the streets of Antigua, getting farther and farther (not that I knew where I was, but I had a general sense of direction) from the road to El Hato.

Finally, we got to the main market where there are tons of buses going to all sorts of destinations, but I knew that there are only three buses to El Hato per day, and I had just missed the last one. But the young woman took me to the taxi stand and I had a nice taxi driver (who had lived in New Jersey for a year) shuttle me back up the hill.

Cost of the bus to El Hato: 4 Quetzales (about 65 cents). Cost of the taxi to El Hato: 25 Q (about $3.50). Lesson learned: Look at the destination written on the front of the bus prior to boarding (priceless).

Today skies are clearer and I am on to Panajachel (on the lake) where I will start more intensive Spanish school. I can't wait until I can communicate more effectively!

My best to you all! Thanks for reading my ramblings!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

First Impressions

If first impressions are any indication, I am going to love this country and this experience. La Aurora airport was newly remodeled with nice banos, immigration and customs were a breeze, my luggage arrived immediately and in tact, and Victor the driver was awaiting me as promised to whisk me away to the Dos Lunes Guesthouse in Guatemala City. After a night in good company (Tracy, a New Yorker Librarian/Massage Therapist and Sam, ski patroller at Mt. Baker in Washington) with a couple of Gallo cervezas (thanks, Sam), I explored Guatemala City on foot.

It surprised me that the city is not especially pedestrian-friendly. Starting from Zona Viva, (the touristy section), I walked about 15 blocks to the University grounds, where I visited two museums. There are sections with sidewalks, and the in the residential areas there is minimal traffic, but I did not see a lot of people walking--most people are in cars or on motor bikes.

Last night I connected with a New Mexican named Bryant who started the Oxford Language Center in the City, with a branch in Coban. Even though I didn't bring him any green chile, we had dinner together at Tacontento (Happy Taco) and he drove me to fetch my 42 lb backpack at the guesthouse. He also gave me a lot of background on Guatemala, the politics, the gap in the distribution of wealth, etc. And he provided me a futon to sleep on, good conversation with his roomate, Tom, and a delicious breakfast. Bryant is also very much involved with a non-profit organization called Camino Seguro, that seeks to provide education and nutrition for children who live in the Guatemala City's dump (the largest in Central America). Their parents work in the dump, separating and selling recyclables and other items they can reuse from the dump. It is amazing, actually--they reduce the amount of trash going into the dump by over a million tons a year. But Camino Seguro is trying to break the cycle, since there are now generations of families, (grandparent to grandchild) all working and living in the dump.

Although living in Guatemala City was not on my agenda, Bryant told me that they need help organizing the library there. Apparently they get tons of book donations, but have no way to get them into a useful organizational system. So I hope to return to the city in November and work on that for a few weeks.

Now I am in the mountains outside Antigua, at a hostel run by a Canadian-American couple. It's called Earth Lodge and they have great vegetarian fare, avocado groves, and hiking trails into the mountains behind the lodge. I am going to try to post some photos if I can get them to upload. The Internet connection decent, but drops now and then and you have to start over.

Miss everyone!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Early Retirement

I keep joking about being retired. It's a nice feeling in a way, knowing that when Monday comes there's no need to wake up early, decide what to wear, and feel the weight an impending work weeks brings. But there's also the slightly panicky feeling of checking my bank balance and seeing funds being withdrawn--but nothing coming in.

The most amazing thing about being retired is that my whole day can be spent doing things I used to do before or after work. For example: going for a bike ride and a swim used to be a before or after work activity, and when I was home it became my whole day. Running errands? It used to be something I did quick at lunch or after work. Now it takes up the whole day. It's amazing what you can find to do when there's nothing you have to do.

I also have thought a lot about the fact that you're supposed to wait until a certain age and then retire. My friend Lily and I were talking about it yesterday, and we agree: for every 6-8 years you work, you should get to take 2 years off, dip into your retirement funds, and experience something new and different.

I guess that's what I am trying to do. Tomorrow I board the plane at 8:38 a.m. When I get off I will be in Guatemala!