Travel Bugs 09/07/2010
Perhaps we have replaced vacations with stay-cations recently, or maybe posh get-aways to top-end sites have been traded in for a family trip to a more “rustic” location. More sites than ever are advertizing eco, green and sustainable tourism. The reliability of those claims aside, we often overlook the impact that our trips have on out hosts (both willing and unwilling). Here are a few rules of thumb anyone can use to be a better guest when visiting our global neighbors:
Keep an open heart and an open mind. We are, among other things, an infrastructure spoiled country, and we tend to want to travel without leaving the comforts of home. From my own personal experience, getting a little dirt on your hiking boots will not hurt you and neither will a tepid shower. The infrastructure in developing areas is often times lacking. The ability not to judge a book by its cover is important here. You may have to get past initial impressions of poor waste management or disorganization to meet some amazing people and learn about parts of the world that you would not have otherwise known. Letting go of the idea that you cannot survive without a latte in the morning will open up a whole world of possibilities and adventures.
Along with being patient with places, try to be patient with people. I have been guilty of thinking of my relationships as networking opportunities, but you miss many stories that way. Treat everyone from your bus driver to the woman in the market as someone with whom you want to become friends.
Think local. While I cannot speak for the whole world, I do know that in many places in Guatemala there are well-trained and underappreciated local guides. These men and women know the ins and outs of their community, and they can tell you anything from fun stories about the places and people you are seeing to the best place to have a local lunch. In Guatemala, there are whole groups that have received training at a national technical center studying methodology, birding, cultural tourism and sometimes English. Spend a little time researching off-the-beaten-path destinations, and ask about local guide associations. In Guatemala, you can get information about trained guides through INGUAT (http://www.visitguatemala.com/web/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=519). Not only will you get a unique service, you will be helping to support community development.
Buy direct. Anywhere you travel, it is easy to find knick-knacks to buy. Here in Guatemala, there are large artisan markets in any tourist destination. However, the people selling there are usually intermediaries, and more than once, I have found items in these markets that were factory made being sold as hand-made items. I encourage you to get off the beaten path, look around and buy directly from the groups or individuals who are making these products. What’s more, ask them to show you how they make them. You will likely get a better product at a lower price, and you will have some wonderful memories to take home with you.
Watch your waste. Waste treatment in developing countries is not what it is in the states. Not littering is not enough. When you throw your can or bottle in a trash can not only does it not get recycled, it is often thrown into a river basin. Sanitary landfills and water treatment plants are sorely lacking. Think about the products and packaging that you are buying and try to avoid disposable items while traveling to developed areas. If you do need to buy items with packaging, consider stuffing old plastic materials into a dry, clean plastic bottle that can be used for construction (http://puravidaatitlan.org/ecoblock_en.html).
Volunteer. In almost any part of the world, you can find organizations that are looking for an extra hand. While you will have to look carefully at the project goals, and its sustainability, volunteering can be a rewarding experience to add to your scrapbook.
One Year in Guatemala 01/08/2010
January 7th, 2010 marked exactly one year since I set foot on Guatemalan soil for the first time and started my adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This past year has been the most challenging and rewarding year of my life. I have grown tremendously and in ways that I never expected, and I thought that I would share a few of the lessons I have learned in the past 365 days.
1. Learning a language is a long and difficult process, but it is well worth every mistake, and you will make lots of mistakes. My Spanish has understandably improved in leaps and bounds in the year that I have been using it almost 24/7. I still manage to embarrass myself now and then, but laughing with people about my mistakes is another way to make friends. A language represents another way of approaching the world, and people's perspective of me changes when they realize that I can express myself and understand them in their language (or, many times, their second language since many Guatemalans where I work speak Kaqchikel as their first language). As a child, learning English opened doors to a universe of relationships and knowledge. Learning a second language is equally rewarding.
2. Where you are is never as important as who you are with. I know that this expression is common -place, but it has been a poignant phrase for me this past year. There are two sides to this. First, there is nothing that I miss as much as my family. While it is more fun to complain about the lack of hot showers or cheese, when I have a hard day water temperature and dairy don't matter. I am very blessed with a diverse, growing and nurturing family and there is no replacement or filler. On the other side are all of the wonderful people that I have met here. Everywhere I have gone I have met caring and inspired people. Sometimes it has taken searching and humility on my part, but I know that anywhere I may go there will be someone who has a lesson to teach me.
3. Planning is important, haste makes waste, and sometimes you just have to keep pushing forward. There is no doubt about it, I am a planner. Anyone who was in speech with me knows how important I think highlighters are. There is no replacement for a solid action plan, especially when working on community projects. It can also be a useful personal tool. A mission statement is a solid reminder of direction for individuals and groups. A well thought-out and elaborated plan makes sure that things get done on time, and that a group is working towards a common goal. However, on days when the members of the planning committee have gone to their corners or are nowhere to be found, on days when the materials don't show up or didn't get ordered, on the days when all that planning temporarily falls apart, it can sometimes be just as important to keep moving. Brainstorming a list of supplementary projects, entering data, filing papers, stuffing garbage in bottles, cutting up old tires to make gardens and washing your laundry by hand may not change the world, but it sure feels good!
4. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it also would have made him or her a darn good traveler. My pride often gets the best of me here. I am reluctant to look like an ignorant gringa, so I often nod my head and go along. It took a visit from my aunt over the holidays to help me realize how much I am missing when I do this. There are plenty of foods (mainly fruits) here I had no idea how to eat, and traditions I couldn't explain. Speaking one of the languages spoken here opens up plenty of doors, but not nearly as many if I don't use it. I am never going to look like anything but a gringa, but appearing ignorant and being ignorant are two very different things.
5. Some manners matter. In classes throughout high school and college I was taught which fork to use for my salad, how to pass salt and pepper properly (always as a pair), and to put my napkin on my lap. I won't say here that those manners aren't important, and you won't find me drinking soup directly from the bowl at a business lunch. However, I will say that there is something missing there. The manners that matter are the gestures that we make to other people as a show of respect. Saying good morning to coworkers on your way to your desk, asking permission to enter a room or a home, always saying please and thank you, much more than table manners, can form images and relationships.
6. Dance... in public if possible. I don't mean in clubs. They have their place, but the light is too dim and sporadic to really see people's faces and the music is far too loud to hear what they are saying. I mean dance. Dance swing, waltzes, salsa, jazz, tango, foxtrot or chachacha. I have not yet been to a wedding here where I didn't spend hours dancing to marimba music with a partner. As a result, I have learned a lot about people and my community at weddings (something that never happened in a club). I have also squeezed in a salsa lesson or two during vacations, and it is challenging both mentally and physically. Practicing new salsa steps in my room in the evening is also pretty fun and therapeutic. Bring back ballroom dancing!
To all of you, I wish you a very happy and satisfying new year filled with good lessons, good people, new discoveries and plenty of dancing.
Feliz Holiday of Choice 01/04/2010
"I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas (or holiday of choice) from the bottom of my heart." Now that I have left you with that tidbit of musical insanity looping in your head from the rest of the day...
This holiday season has been full of adventure and learning, although that isn't limited to the holiday season here. However, there were some special treats for me this holiday season. My aunt Jeanette came down for a visit over Christmas. Although actually getting her here turned out to be more complicated than I ever imagined, it was worth every minute that I spent at the airport (and traveling to and from the airport).
Originally, Jeanette would have gotten here on December 22nd around mid-day. However, the universe had other plans in mind and, after missing her connecting flight in Atlanta and being flown through both Mexico and El Salvador, she arrived on December 23rd around 4:30 in the afternoon. Fortunately, we'd left things pretty open so it was easy to rearrange schedules, but it made for a very short trip.
Her first night in we stayed in a hostel that I really like in Antigua. $10 for two people for a quiet room with hot water isn't too bad. That left us more to spend on other things, namely food. We ate our way around town during her entire visit, and found some treasures. Our favorite find of the week was Fernando's Kaffee, which has the best coffee and chocolate I have ever had. This is coming from someone who adores coffee and usually doesn't care for chocolate. The food is also amazing, and it will undoubtedly be a stop for anyone who comes to visit.
After a lovely breakfast at Fernando's on the morning of the 24th (a wonderful way to start the day), we headed back to my site to celebrate Christmas with my Guatemalan friends. The tradition here is to stay up until midnight and set off fireworks. While we spent some time with Estela's family and ate plenty (yet again) we neither made it to midnight nor set off fireworks. For my part, I slept so soundly that I didn't even hear them.
On the 25th we broke out the traditions. Jeanette brought lots of Christmas lights and decorations with her and Uncle David did an awesome and painstaking job of burning DVDs for me. So we had lights and movies while we baked cookies with some very precious Ghirardelli chocolate chips (which I have since also used in a pancake or two).
On the 26th we took a trip on the bus (which Jeanette can now tell you is very entertaining) up to the ruins at Iximche. It was a nice day trip and the first time, shockingly, that I have seen Mayan ruins since I have been in Guatemala. It was a neat experience, and I got a few pictures out of the deal as well.
On the 27th we headed back to Antigua to see a few more of the sights there and continue our fantastic food frenzy. We went to the Capuchinas ruins where I translated despite my lack of Catholic vocabulary in both English and Spanish. It was a very interesting tour, and one that I would recommend. We browsed Casa de los Gigantes, which is a wonderful store full of creative things made by artisan or womens groups in Guatemala. We had dinner at Welten (the best gnocci I have ever had), and called it a day. I looked for some salsa dancing, but with the holidays everything was closed.
On the 28th we had breakfast at Fernando's again, and then it was off to the airport. It was difficult for me to say goodbye, but it helped to have new friends waiting for me in Antigua and a Salsa lesson scheduled for the afternoon. (I have to take advantage of my vacation days.)
New years was low-key for me. I got a call from Victor's parents and from Dad's family. Then, I tucked into bed at just about my normal hour. Well-rested is a good way to ring in a fresh start. On the first I had a wonderful lunch with the family of my friend Erika. I enjoy living alone and having a quiet retreat when I need it, but a family lunch here is always a happy affair, and I love sitting in the kitchen with the women and pitching in when they will let me. Here, the vast majority of the domestic work is still done by women, and there is a feeling of security and feminine power in the kitchen. There is also the warmth of the stove to cut the chilly winds that are running around this time of year and, of course, there are many times children giggling or crying or playing.
Overall, it was a holiday of people. And where there are friends and family there is joy. May your new year bring you joy as well.
Three Despedidas and a Wedding 12/15/2009
While neither Tom Selleck nor Ted Danson have made an appearance this week (nope, no Steve Guttenberg either), it has been a fun and action-filled time. For those of you who are purely English-speakers, a despedida is a going-away party. As you can imagine, then, there have been a few ups and downs. Last week, a friend of mine from the capital headed off to Europe for two months. I was able to get special permission from the Peace Corps to stay with his family in the capital for his last weekend in Guatemala. What an interesting new view of Guatemala!
On Friday the 4th I got into the capital and waited at the office while he finished work, which is interesting in and of itself. Saturday was a tour of supermarkets, soccer games, and the going away party. Sunday we salsa danced in the living room and had lunch with his family (including a very precious two-month-old niece). Monday I headed back to my site and he went off to Europe. I am keeping my fingers crossed for a post-card even though I have been terrible myself about sending them out to friends and family back home.
Fortunately I didn't have much time to think about goodbyes on Monday, because Monday evenings are my evenings with Liliana (an upbeat and outgoing Guatemalan friend of mine). This Monday (the 7th) we just so happened to have plans to go to a choir concert here in my site. When we arrived (a little late) it was a group of kids from the community singing Christmas songs while bundled up in scarves. It was adorable and heart-warming. Then, a group of four teenagers went up and sang a couple of songs. Had it ended there it would have been an adorable community concert. However, another choir came up and performed. While I don't know where they were from, I can say that they were amazing. It was an a capella group called Coro Victoria. I had shivers watching them and hearing the tunes of some of my favorite songs that brought memories of home and family flooding in with the music.
The rest of last week was spent mostly at my desk working on translating a Project Plan for Peace Corps, writing English lessons and attending meetings. On Friday night, however, I headed out to the edge of town where there is an organization of foreigners (including a few former Peace Corps Volunteers) who work in construction using recycled materials. They frequently have volunteers coming and going. Some stay for a few weeks and some stay for months. Several of them are coming to the end of their time here so Friday night we cooked pizzas and chatted with people from all over the world. There were people from my site as well as new friends from Australia, Holland, South Africa, and England. One newly-arrived individual from LA knew a little bit of salsa, so we did some dancing as well. While our coordination clearly marked us as gringos, we had lots of fun.
On Saturday morning I was up early and at the house of a friend of a friend watching parts of wedding preparations. Since I didn't know the bride directly, I didn't really get a good grasp of what all was involved, but the vast majority of the traditions seemed parallel to wedding ceremonies in the states. The one big exception is a procession through the streets with a band and all of the invitees. Being at least a head taller than everyone else and the only person without black hair I tend to stick out during these types of events (more than I normally do), and one bus driver pointed out that the wedding had a mascota (which is the word for both house pet and mascot). The reception involved both food and dancing, and I knew several people, so it was a wonderful time. I still have bandaids on my feet from all the dancing. I don't plan to stop dancing any time soon so bandages are likely going to be a common occurrence. In my personal opinion, the marimba and salsa and cumbia that is played at weddings here is much more dance-able the hokie pokie or JLo's newest tune that gets used to punish wedding guests in the states.
After all that activity, I had planned to stay home on Sunday with mugs of warm milk and a book. It didn't work out that way because Sunday was the festival of Guadalupe. There is a church on a hill just outside of the city where I live that is the Church of Guadalupe which gets used only once a year during this festival. It is mostly a religious festival with many people attending mass at the church in the morning and visiting the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe throughout the day. However, there is also plenty of music (though no dancing) and food. I spent the day with Liliana, Jordi (a friend from Holland), and the three Norwegians who are going to be living and working in my site until November of next year. Who would have thought that a Peace Corps site in semi-rural Guatemala would be such a melting pot? I'm just going to have to plan a backpacking trip through Europe in future years to visit all the new friends I am making here.
For those of you who are keeping count, I am still one despedida short. Tonight I am going back outside of town to say fair well to a friend from the states who has been working with the construction organization since I have been here. She has been a great sounding-board and a huge source of support and I will miss her very much, but I am sure that we will run into each other again and I am glad to have had the chance to cross paths here in Guatemala.
H is for Hogar 08/10/2009
I find it hard to believe that I haven’t written a post since the fair. The time has certainly flown by, but in a way it seems like that happened ages ago. Part of the problem is that I have, as usual, been very busy. However, it is also because I have moved out of everything-is-so-new-and-different-I-can’t-wait-to-share-this mode and into this-is-normal-life-why-would-I-write-about-this mode. In fact, I’m writing this as I am sitting on my back patio sipping a mocha and nibbling on garlic sea salt bagels. Before you start writing your congressmen and women about the financial crisis and the cushy lives of Peace Corps volunteers, I would like to clarify. I made the bagels myself (with the help of an early-Christmas kitchen present from Aunt Jeanette XO) and the mocha is a concoction of powdered milk, cheap cocoa powder, instant coffee, and sugar. I would be happy to share the recipe for either, but I think that for most of the people reading this a trip down the street to Breuger’s Bagels would be much more convenient ;). However, for those adventurous individuals who want a taste of the Peace Corps (Morgan style) here they are: (just for fun I’m also throwing in a salsa recipe that I winged for a party last night)
Moca Mix (Thank you, Lourdes!)
In an averaged size mug (not one of those Giant Gulps from the gas station that hold enough coffee to surely cause some sort of caffeine poisoning):
3 Tablespoons Powdered Milk (you may have to go to the Piggly Wiggly for this one)
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder (the cheaper the better)
1 Tablespoon instant coffee (again, the cheaper the bitter.. I mean better)
2 Tablespoons sugar
Fill mug with hot water to an inch from the top and stir well. Serve with beans and huevos rancheros.
Bagels (Thank you, Travis!)
4.5 Cups Flour
2 Tablespoons Dry Yeast
1.5 Cups Warm Water
4 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Salt
Mix the flour and yeast. In a separate bowl, mix the water, 3tablespoons of the sugar, and salt. Pour this over the flour mixture.Beat together for 3-4 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl. Turn it onto a floured board and knead for 6-8 minutes. Add more flour or water as necessary to form dough. Cut the dough into 12 portions and form into balls. Punch a hole in the center of each one, pulling gently to form a larger hole in the center. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rise for 20 minutes. Boil a pot of water with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Put 4-5 bagels in the water at a time and boil for 7 minutes. DRAIN THE BAGELS WELL. Bake for about 30 min at 350F.To add a topping like cinnamon and sugar, sesame, or sea salt, sprinkle on the bagels before baking. These also work in a Peace Corps oven (known to the rest of the world as a Dutch oven). Feel free to mix your own fun ingredients into the dough as well, and let me know what turns out well! NOTE: For real Peace Corps flavor, cream cheese and butter are allowed nowhere near these bagels.
Pineapple Salsa Dip (This one is my own and estimated in a big way, use at your own risk.)
2 Tablespoons Sunflower Seed Oil (or other oil that has a high burning point)
2 Cloves of Garlic Finely Chopped (4 if it’s the small garlic bought in the markets in Guatemala)
1 Large White Onion Finely Chopped
1 Red Bell Pepper Finely Chopped
2 Jalapeño Peppers Finely Chopped (seeded, unless you’re brave… which I’m not)
1 Small Pineapple Finely Chopped
½ Cup of Sugar
1 Tablespoon Salt
1 Block of Cream Cheese (I know, I know… this throws the bagel rule out the window, but I looked all over and made a special exception for this recipe)
1 Bag of Mucho Nacho Tortilla Chips (Sorry, for all you people in the states, you’ll have to find a knock-off brand. ;))
In a large pan over low heat, cook the garlic, onion, and peppers in the oil until onions are clear and peppers are well cooked. Add the pineapple, salt, and sugar (and chili powder to taste if you want an extra kick). Stir occasionally and cook until most of the water from the pineapple has evaporated. Allow the mixture to cool. Place the block of cream cheese in a serving bowl and pour the pineapple mixture over the top. Serve with tortilla chips or saltine crackers.
So, along with spending lots of time in the kitchen I have also been nestling into my wonderful little house. I finally made a trip to the “lumber yard” and bought a few 8’ boards to make a long block-and-board shelf in my room. This means that my clothes and books are no longer in piles on my floor. Small project, big difference. I’m also figuring out how to make hanging pots out of plastic balls that the kids buy at the stores here for around 3 Quetzales. For less than 50 cents, they don’t last terribly long as balls. I’ll be sure to post pictures when I have some herbs growing. I’m also working on finding some old tires to make some little vegetable gardens. Again, when I have them figured out I will be sure to post pictures.
While I have certainly been settling into my home, I haven’t spent all of my time in my house. The past month I have been working with the Municipality on a campaign to get people to put their inorganic garbage in plastic bottles. Right now we are focusing on 6th grade and kindergarten students. Two weeks ago we held a workshop for 6th grade teachers (between 20 and 30 showed up) and this past Friday we held a workshop for kindergarten teachers (around 50 showed up). At each of the workshops I gave a presentation on non-formal and environmental education and we handed out a manual that I had written (all based on Peace Corps training, I just put it on paper in Spanish). Then, the municipality introduced a competition between the classrooms to see who could collect the most plastic bottles filled with inorganic garbage. The top three classrooms in 6thgrade will win 100 lunches from the Municipality for their graduation ceremony. The top three classrooms in Kindergarten will get piñatas from the municipality for children’s’ day. The teachers have to sign up with the Municipality in order to be part of the competition and each of the children in the classroom and the teacher sign and “agreement” with the municipality saying that they take responsibility for their part in taking care of our environment.
After they are signed up, each classroom gets a bin in which to keep their full bottles, t-shirts, baseball caps, stickers, and tri-folds about the environment. So, as a part of that I have also been going around to classrooms to talk to the kids about what we are doing and to help hand out the materials that they get for signing up to be a part of the competition. I have been absolutely amazed at the initiative that the teachers and students (as well as the Municipality) have taken!Almost every classroom we visited already had dozens of bottles filled with inorganic garbage! I put the information down on paper, and threw out a few ideas to get the ball rolling, but SO much of this has come from the Municipality and the community, and I am just tickled pink! To me, small projects that will continue in the community long after I am gone are a much bigger accomplishment than any big thing I might be able to do on my own. I don’t have words to describe how proud I am to be able to share time and experiences with such a wonderful community of people.
For those of you wondering why in the world we are encouraging people to put garbage in bottles (and spending a good chunk of time stuffing garbage in bottles myself), you should take a look at the website www.puravidaatitlan.org. We aren’t working directly with this organization, but the website is a wonderful example of just what can be accomplished with trash. Currently, Long Way Home (another US organization) is working on building a school with the bottles we are collecting, and in the near future we hope to be building our tourism office and artisan market from bottles filled with the trash that is currently littering the streets and streams. It’s a big project, and a big problem, but there are numerous benefits. I am hoping to share this technique with individuals in the states when I get back.While it may not be used there to build houses or schools, it could be used for sheds, chicken coups, planters, benches, or whatever you can dream up!
I tell the kids here all the time that they have a lot more power than they know. What they do and model affects what their friends and family do, and what happens here affects the whole world.Conversely, the choices you make in your home affect Guatemala.We’re all in this together, and I am proud to have such excellent company!
How to Eat a Tortilla 06/25/2009
Just Let it be Found 06/06/2009
Rolin', rolin', rolin'... 05/21/2009