What this is all about

Being a December graduate, I have decided to keep an open schedule and mind.  I have no definite plans for at least 5 months, and even then, nothing is certain.  This is all very new for me--I've always had a set plan of what I'm doing next.  Now, although I know the general direction I am heading, I am allowing opportunities to come to me that might have otherwise been lost if I had already made plans.
Join me for the ride as I begin to Learn By Living!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

...Into the night...

I tried to sleep in. but at 9:30 I heard someone yell out breakfast. I later found out that the whole house had already eaten and the cook wanted to put the food away…After breakfast I mastered the shower. I tell you this intimate detail (yet another one…) because it could be key to any of you traveling to places where hot water is a luxury. If you are lucky enough to have a water heater where you are staying, you will most likely have a large shower head with hot and cold switch on it. The key I found was to keep the water on really low for it to get hot, which is counterintuitive to those who turn the water on high for it to be hotter. Having it on low allows the water heater to work more efficiently and giving you a warm 5 minute shower. I’m glad Ubuntu trained me well for these environmentally healthy showers.
After lunch I went to a local coffee shop recommended to me by the other language student. Baviera is near my school. There were business people on computers, language and university students. I sat in the patio, which has a running fountain filled with calililies, until the sun set. I was compiling a K’iche’ dictionary from my vocabulary words from the previous week.
Do you remember talking on the phone for hours on end with your friends in high school? Or staying up all night talking to your floor mates or friends in college? And weren’t those some of the best conversations you have ever had? Well, tonight I added one to that list. After dinner we stayed at the dinning room table talking about the differences between school in the U.S. and here, cultural expectations, politics, Guatemalan sayings and slang, and anything you can imagine. What seemed like no time at all, someone that was facing the window said “ Um, you guys…turn around” and we did. It was light outside. It was 7AM! :)

E’k t’u’y=chicken in pot

I asked my teacher if I could start break a little early so that I could begin prepping for the cooking later that day. I had to figure out how to say it in K’iche’ before I could do this…I ended up only starting 5 minutes before break. The dilemma of the day was how to make the chicken soup. I have always made it with left over chicken. Put it in with the bones and all the veggies and let it boil on low for a long time. Both the other student and my host mom insisted that the way to do it was to boil the chicken. I have never boiled any kind of meat in my life! But they are both mothers and their children have survived. I had never thought so much the night before about cooking. I ended up deciding to do it both ways. I baked the chicken. I then boiled it so that the meat would fall off the bone easily and then let it cool so that the fat would rise to the top and then scoop it out. Then placed all of the vegetables and let it boil for an hour and a half. The salad of cucumber, tomato, lemon, salt and pepper, is eaten a lot here. Many foreigners are afraid of any type of salad (especially with lettuce) because it’s a good way of catching a bug. A trick we were taught if you don’t have the special store-bought disinfectant is to put the salad makings in a bowl with warm water and salt for 5 minutes. I cooked platanos (banana looking but bigger) for dessert. Cut into pieces and boiled in water with sugar for 5-7 minutes. Our meal of course was accompanied by bread from Xelapan (my favorite bakery!), cookies, pan dulce (bread but has yumminess of sugar), and tortillas to die for made by one of the teachers. Oh…and I’m forgetting the CABRO. The Cabro is the most popular beer here, and probably in all of Guatemala.
Although Cerveza Gallo is the best known one as the Guatemalan beer (aka Famosa in U.S.) Cabro seems to be the favorite among locals--not to mentioned it’s brewed in Xela. The meal was a success and there was plenty for the 16 of us! (reminded me of cooking for/with the intentional living community I lived with in college).
After the meal we pushed the chairs aside and began to dance! I had a fabulous time with the teachers, their spouses, the students in the university program, and the children! It’s the teachers’ turn to cook next week, already looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

day 4: Field trip to San Andres Xecul

K’iche’ is continuing on nicely, besides the everlasting sore throat which I am just going to have to accept! Today’s after-school activity was a trip to the nearby town of San Andres Xecul. We started a block away from school and got on what is referred to as a camioneta (for outsiders it’s known as a chicken bus…imagine a U.S. school bus painted with vibrant colors, a man collecting tickets hanging out the front door yelling the various destinations, and lots of merchandize on the roof). On the camioneta, there were several merchants selling their goods--everything from candy and sodas to natural remedies (which the selling point was that dogs ate grass to heal their stomachs, so this mixture would help humans too). We then transferred to a pick-up truck that originally was going to charge us 30 Quetzales (Guatemalan currency) for the three of us, but then our guide (one of the women from the school) said thank you but we would wait…we ended up getting it for Q 2.00 each! We got into the back of the pick-up truck and it took off just as I grabbed on to the raised rail on the side of the truck. We stood for the entire 15 minutes at 120 miles/hr ride to the center of San Andres Xecul (see video below). This town is known for its market (which starts at 5AM, like just about everything else in the town), and its colorful church and matching calvario (start at church and process and stop at stations of the cross along the way and end up at the top of a mountain at the calvario which represents where Jesus was crucified). Right next to this, there are Mayan ceremony grounds set up. I asked what the relation ship was between both religious beliefs and I was told that for many Mayans, both traditions merge and are thought of as one. We went inside the church where there were several women in traditional dress (traje tipico) kneeling on the alter praying the rosary. Other women were sweeping, flipping the heavy pews, and making sure everything was ready for the next mass. These were the women of the church, I did not see a single male inside which surprised me because even until only decades ago women were not even allowed to step foot on the alter even as helpers. I was happy to see that in this town the women seemed somewhat in charge. On our way back we sat in the back of a pick up truck carrying freshly died cotton thread used for weavings and a K’iche’ speaking older gentleman. I asked him how he was doing, was able to answer his questions, and then I asked him what his name was…or so I thought. He looked at me a bit strange and then gave me a hesitant answer. I repeated his answer in my head, trying to figure out what that name translated to. To my horror, I realized that the name was in fact a number. I then realized I had asked this older gentleman how old he was!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Day 3 of language, with sugar on the side.

My professor knew that I liked and was interested in Maya culture, customs, and spirituality so she brought me a copy and explanation of one of the Mayan calendars-- “El Tzolkin” so that I could practice my K’iche’ as well as learn about the culture. My favorite one, a.k.a. the one that I remember without looking is B’atz’ which means thread or monkey.
During coffee break again today I heard some of the other teachers talking about how sugar had risen in price, I asked what was going on and it was explained to me that after the earthquake in Haiti, Mexico sent out a substantial amount of their sugar. So then Mexico didn’t have enough so they bought sugar from Guatemala, who apparently preferred to sell it at a high price to Mexico than to provide sugar to it’s own people. Not sure how true or false this is. Later on in the news tonight I saw that the government denied everything, that there was enough sugar. How come then is sugar being rationed and has doubled in price in two weeks? (photo: sign saying that a max of 5 lbs of sugar can be purchased, in smaller towns it’s 1lb).
I met the other student, who studies in the afternoons because she volunteers at a nearby school in the mornings. She is a retired social worker from Whidbey Island (shout out to Alicia A.!)--near Seattle--and has been here for 3 weeks already, she was also in Xela at the same school studying Spanish 15 years ago. We decided what we would make for that Friday night school dinner (every week students and teachers switch off making the dinner). I went to the market (Mercado) to buy the veggies that would go into our chicken soup and salad. Even when I asked for price per pound, they sometimes gave me the price per item assuming I would know it wasn’t per pound. So when I was asking around for the onions, I thought it was a bit expensive per onion, but every one of the women selling them told me the same price. Finally, I summoned the courage to ask whether it was per pound or each, and the reaction I was dreading came true: they laughed out loud and said it was obviously by pound. I was embarrassed, and tried to brush it off by saying “you never know with sugar the price it is today.” The women selling me the onions liked it so much that I felt I had redeemed myself. They even started to ask me what I was cooking and giving me tips…always good to know what is going on with the local economic goods.

Discapacitados en Guatemala

My language school is a cooperative. Many language schools in countries like Guatemala are owned by foreigners, this one is not. Part of the tuition from language classes goes towards scholarships offered by the school for indigenous women to attend one of the universities in Xela. Today’s “after-school” activity was a lecture regarding the handicapped in Guatemala by one of the women that is part of the scholarship program and is in her last year of physical therapy. She explained how in her studies and practicing of her profession it was important to take into account the cultural factors regarding healing as well as causes. She explained how a handicap (mental and/or physical) of someone was considered to be a repercussion of a sin committed by the family or that individual. She said that the majority of handicapped people are in rural areas and are indigenous. There is no will towards any type of preventative care. She is Maya indigenous so she believes half in traditional healing but is also a scientist so believes in “modern” medicinal practices. The techniques she has learned at school are and would be (to those who wont accept it)very helpful to the families and communities she serves. For example, where as she believes that having a cast for a broken arm and physical therapy afterwards is important in the healing process and future functioning of the arm, she also acknowledges the work of traditional healers such as curanderos(natural healers) or hueseros (specifically bone healers-that go straight into moving the bone and arm without any type of brace). Her reasoning for this she says is because there must be something to these ways of healing that for centuries have worked, if not, the practice nor the patients would have survived all of these years. Other things she mentioned were gender roles when it comes to the handicapped as well as the environment that they are forced to live in. although not all, most people who have a handicap are taken care of by a female in the family. She told stories of how a boy wouldn’t change his little brother’s diaper because his mom wasn’t home and he couldn’t get a hold of his grandmother, so he let his brother lay in a dirty diaper for hours. There is little to no handicap accessibility in Guatemala. To cross some streets one has to go up about 50-80 steps and go over a skyway; there are no elevators; the buses have no way of transporting someone in a wheel chair; the sidewalks are barely large enough for two people to walk side by side let alone a wheel chair or access ramps from street to street, so they end up riding in the street out of the view of the cars that are driving along side them. There is a group fighting for the rights of those who are handicapped in Guatemala--COPDIGUA.

“Rule #1: Do not put toilet paper in a Guatemalan toilet, the drainage system cannot handle it!”

Humans are creatures of habit, and since living in the US I’ve developed the habit of throwing it in the toilet. TMI? Perhaps. But I find the situation humorous. In the packet given to me by the language school, this was the first rule. I looked to see what the 2nd and 3rd rules were and…there weren’t any. I guess there is only one rule. Toilet paper and drainage are a big deal. I find myself remembering this rule as soon as the scented paper (yes, scented, and sometimes even pink) leaves my fingertips, and I feel dread at the prospect that this will be the time that the drainage gets backed up and I end up flooding the bathroom. So far so good, will let you know if it finally happens to me or if I am conditioned by my fear of flooding to no longer throw it in the bowl.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sometimes a photograph says it all.....

Cock a doodle doo...good morning Xela

Class starts at 8, I woke up a little before my 7AM alarm clock to the sound of a rooster. “oh, how lovely” I though, “a natural alarm clock.” I ate breakfast with the family, which I usually don’t eat this early, much less with other people. Because I hadn’t calculated actually sitting down to eat and having someone to talk to, I was a bit late for my first day of class. My teacher is really nice. She is from a nearby town that is known for their glass making--glasses by the way which have been my favorite since I was a kid. The classic ones that this factory makes is from recycled glass, with bubbles that have become trapped within the thickness of the glass and the rim is a deep blue. My first class was much harder than I thought. I went into it knowing that it was a difficult language to learn, but I had no idea that I would physically be challenged by the language and not just mentally. I learned the alphabet, which yes, it is different. There is no letter C, but there is a CH and a CH’ which are considered one letter in itself. The apostrophe is called a juch in K’iche’--which serves to give that sound the stress. There used to be several signs accompanying letters in written K’iche’ but there was a lot of confusion. The alphabet I learned is the latest attempt as standardization. I asked where I could buy a K’iche’-Spanish dictionary and was given a look of surprise that I would even ask. Apparently there is no such thing yet. There aren’t even any books that have the grammatical rules of the language because these rules are still being developed. My professor happens to have a book with some words translated (maybe about 500-800) and a grammar book. These were given to her by the education counsel because she studied and trained to be a bilingual (Spanish and Quiche) teacher. Well, back to the physical demands of the language. I spent the majority of today trying to pronounce the letters. Yes, learning to say the letters of the alphabet for 5 hours seems like a lot right? Well, considering that the noises I am required to produce the sound of the letters comes from muscles I’m pretty sure I’ve not only never used but never knew were there combined with breathing… it’s tough! I have a sore throat from my first day.
A movie was shown at the school today. The translation of the title is “ A man looking towards the South-East.” The film was from Argentina, and it was about a doctor at an asylum who took special interest in a patient who claimed to be from another world. Throughout the film the patient makes good things happen with his mind, such as moving a plate of food in front of a hungry family. He claims to be in the human world to study the human brain because there is one weapon that humans have that his kind can’t understand: “human stupidity is the only weapon we can’t fight against.” I thought the film was very Fellini 8 ½ ish. There is going to be a lecture on how mental health patients and disabled persons are treated in Guatemala.
My sim card in my Guatemalan phone isn’t working so I had to walk to the only place where there is a customer service center--The Mall. I had already walked for a while in the direction that I was told but didn’t see any of the markers that I was told. I arrived at the market. It was gorgeous to see the colors of the Guipiles (traditional dress of the Indigenous in Guatemala, each group has different designs and colors) with the wide variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and flowers. I ended up following a woman with a Gucci bag--not that I want to stereotype--She must be going to the mall I though, or at least know where it is. I found the mall, and on the way back I was offered a discounted fare for the bus. I walked. Pictured: My walk to school.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

“well some one is ready to do some backpacking”

“well some one is ready to do some backpacking” said one of the 7 English speaking passengers as I moved down the back of the plane looking for a spot to stash my bag as I was literally the last one on the plane… they (the airline) never called my section, I guess I was the only one in boarding section 6. Once I found where to put my bag, I had to walk back to the front of the plane where my seat was, everyone was watching.
Once having landed in the Guatemalan airport there was a huge line to get out and they were checking everyone’s bag by hand. Although I knew that food like granola bars usually allowed because they are sealed, I worried that they could possibly make a huge deal about the ones I had. I pretended not to notice the line and smiled at the officer and said that I only had carry-on luggage. He spit out a airline name and a flight number, I nodded, and he let me thorough. It wasn’t the flight I came on.
The director of the school held up my name on a piece of paper amongst all of the other anxiously awaiting pick-up parties. I always wanted to be the person who walks up to someone holding up a name. The only other time this has happened was when I went to Brazil with my mom, but that time it was her name.
We drove along side the airport where the only thing separating the airstrip and planes from the road is a mesh-chicken wire wall where people line up to watch their loved ones arrive and depart. About 20 minutes after we left the airport the car began to make a strange noise. The driver was ever apologetic as we finally found a Pinchazo (mechanic shop sort of) that was open on a Sunday afternoon. Having not slept for 48 hours, not having eaten properly, and wanting to not extend the already 4 hour drive to the city where the school is, I was surprisingly calm. I stood outside happy to stretch my legs after sitting on the airplane for 6 hours but couldn’t refuse the chair dusted and brought to me by the owner of the shop. I sat and watched as the father and young son attended other customers that drove up onto the sidewalk. I’m not a big car person, so correct me if I’m wrong, but if a tire busts most people just buy another one? Either way. I watched a boy, no older than 13, take the rubber of the tire off and then a patched up one back on…using a crowbar and his weight. He swung, hanging off it, and even jumped in the area that is underneath the hubcap (sorry.. don’t know the name). What was making the noise were the brakes on one side. We couldn’t find any place that had a spare part...including a junk yard. The mechanic sanded it a certain way and assured us that it would get us to Xela fine, and then to change the part on Monday. I fell in and out of sleep on the way to Xela. Woke up and it was all dark around, and there was heavy fog. It was only thanks to the new road they built about 3 years ago that we were able to manage the turns as we went up the side of the mountain. Lets just say I’m glad I didn’t make this trip before this road was in place. With all new things, sometimes one wonders how anyone survived without it…but somehow they have, and so have we.
Got the school safely where my host family was supposed to be waiting for me. Yes, key word “supposed to be.” after calling to inquire and being told they weren’t in town, we got what in Guatemala we call the “fijense”--which essentially is the beginning to any excuse. It turns out the family wasn’t even in the same state at the time. The director called another family, although usually they are given at least a week notice, and thankfully they were willing to take me. There are some local university students living in the extra rooms as well, I think it will be really nice to have other people my age around for the next two weeks.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

L'Art di Packing

I got to the airport at 3 in the morning because I was afraid that if I slept I wouldn’t make it by 4:30 to catch my 7AM flight. Who would have though that O‘Hare International Airport would ever be closed? I found the only chair available that was away from the chilly Chicago air. It was by a family that was being really loud. Great, I thought, I wont even be able to rest at the airport until the security opens at 4:30. As I got closer though, I heard them speaking Spanish. It was a Guatemalan family that was going back after having been away for ten years. The teenage boy in the family was trying to see if he could remember the entire Guatemalan National Anthem. It made me think about how it would be to be gone so long from your home country.
Traveling with just a backpack is totally different experience. Talking to others along the way and telling them how long I’m going to be traveling for, they are always surprised that everything I have is in one backpack. I had actually thought that perhaps I had to much stuff with me. Packing everything that I need, including different climates, was a difficult challenge for me. Those of you who knew me my first year of college (especially my roommate then!) know that I managed to get 11 suitcases on the plane and into a small dorm room. One bag is a huge step for me.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Time well spent

On my way south of the border I had a 16 hour layover and I was lucky enough that within those hours I was able to see a magnificent performance of the Vagina Monologues. I was so happy not only to see a lot of my friends that night but also excited and proud that I knew several of the women who participated in the performance. It was a very powerful show. Although this is my fifth performance, I see new things from the recurring monologues and thoroughly enjoy the new ones. Great job ladies!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Learning to Eat

For the last two years I’ve participated in my University’s Hunger Week book club. We read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver the first year and In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan the second year. While I considered myself a “good eater” by preferring organics, farmer markets, etc. But these discussions and books helped me further develop my view on food, how it is processed, where it is grown, how it is transported, and what role I give it in my life. Being a college student I developed bad eating habits while at school. Eating between classes, and even on the weekends I would eat quickly…spending an average of 10 minutes for my whole meal (plus 5 for preparation of buying). I tried to cook in the kitchen provided to upper level students, but I always felt as though I did not have enough time. I loved eating when I went home for breaks or when my parents came to visit--all I could talk about was food and eat it. They always asked whether or not I was eating at all at school. .One of the things I came to realize was that I was no longer enjoying my food. Anything tastes great with Ranch dressing while your in college. I was no longer spending time with my food like my family does when they cook. Last year I lived in a wonderful community house where a lot of cooking occurred. We had community dinner, switching who cooked each week, and we cooked for ourselves and each other the rest of the time. The conversations I had while preparing meals in the kitchen, eating meals together, or just getting a glass of water from the kitchen and finding myself hours later still there talking, will be ones that I will never forget. As a community we tried to be as environmentally friendly and in line with social justice ideals as we could. We composted (yes, we even had compost worms!), recycled (each floor had about 7 different containers to separate recyclables), tried to not buy brands that we knew had unjust policies and practices, and participated in Food Not Bombs (which is a total food-influencing-life experience in itself…check out where there is one near you). Now that I’ve graduated, and am no longer living in a winter wonderland, I decided to plant some of my own food. Literally knowing where my food comes from and knowing that I took part in really creating my own food. Yummy organic purple spinach, radicchio, three kinds of tomatoes, lettuce.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Food, Wine, Bowling, and Norwegians

While in Iowa, I spent some time in Decorah, IA- home to Luther College, the Upper Iowa River, The Vesterheim museum, a great restaurant, a co-op, a brewery, a winery, and $1 games, rentals, and beers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Oneota Bowling Lanes.
Among the many great programs at Luther College is their music and art program. While walking through one of the art buildings, one hears operatic singing, violins, quartet practice, all coming from the rehearsal/practice rooms. I visited one of their museums on-campus, and in addition to beautiful art, there were some interactive pieces--including the one pictured here.The idea is that sound actually comes from your throat and not your mouth. Which I never realized is actually how those tiny cell phones that don’t reach your mouth pick up sound.
The upper Iowa River is really neat, in my opinion more so in the summer months when one can lay in a tube and float down. But winter at the river also produces some magnificent vistas.
There is an entire Viking ship inside of the Vesterheim museum! Pretty neat huh? The museum also houses some houses :) these are representations of the first settlers from the Nordic countries to Decorah and surrounding towns. If you didn’t notice that the area is of Nordic ancestry by all of the beautiful tall, blond, and light eyed people around, you would know because almost everything has “Viking” or “Nordic” in the title.
My favorite restaurant in Decorah is Rubaiyat. (from their website: “The name "Rubaiyat" derives from a collection of poetry written over 1000 years ago by a Persian gentleman named Omar Khayyam. The poems are a testimony of living life to its fullest with the help of good food and great wine and together, the joy that they can bring to life.”) Their food is great, their wine list is impressive, and their service is fantastic. Although I personally don’t like beer, it’s fun to see what people get on “mystery beer night.” you pay one price to pick one out of a bag and you could get anything from a domestic (and even local from the brewery up the street) to an exotic beer…luck of the draw I guess.
One would never think that is a winery in Decorah, and much less that they have wine tasting. Well, they do-even when it's snowing! Their wines are mostly desert wines or heavily fruit based.
$1 bowling…let just say that I got some pretty sweet back spin on my ball now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Patience by way of Tamal!

The majority of those rounded up and deported were Guatemalan. There used to be a few stores owned and run by Guatemalans. There was only one left that I could find. There, I was able to find flour to make tamales/chuchitos, corn husks, and special chocolate to make choco-bananas. There is a difference between tamales and chuchitos, at least for some of us. In the USA, tamales are mostly thought of as small flour, meat, and cheese goodness wrapped up in a corn husk…In Guatemala, we call this a Chuchito. A tamale, or a tamal as we say, is actually a melt-in-your-mouth concoction wrapped in a banana leaf and usually about 3 times the size of a chuchito. So I made chuchitos for the first time, lots of them. I always knew they were time intensive, but never as much as they actually were to make. Mixing the masa; cutting the chile without touching anything else (even after washing several time I touched my lips and had a burn from the chile for a long time); soaking the corn husks,; choosing a small (inner shell) and large (outer shell) husk; tearing some husks to make the ties for the tamales; putting just enough cheese so that it doesn’t seep out of the masa enclave but not too little so that the tamal turns out dry; rolling and shaping the masa once the outer shell is on to make the small rectangular shape; tying it with a strip of husk without breaking it; steaming about 5 tamales at a time in our non-industrial stove top steamer for at least one hour for each batch; repeat 100 times.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Postville, IA

After graduating in December, I spent some time in Iowa. While I was there, I had to opportunity to participate and learn from a project being built will the goal of not forgetting the raid in Postville, IA. So much happens in our daily lives and around the world that it’s not difficult to forget about incidents such as this raid. We follow the story, the details, and maybe even participate by volunteering our time or marching in protest for what occurred…but unfortunately very few stay on or keep up with what is going on in the months after the initial surge of support. One of the ideas behind this project is to keep people informed about how people in this town have been affected by the raid and what the lasting consequences of the raid have been. I participated by meeting, interviewing, and videotaping some of the people in the community. Check out the short video (click here) introducing some of the women I interviewed that will be writing a weekly blog (starting in May 2010) about what their lives are like now--including how their legal cases are proceeding, how the economy in Postville has been affected, and their perspective on current issues such as health care and immigration. More video, including full interviews, will be coming soon. Also, keep a look out for an awesome documentary, abUSed: the Postville Raid (see trailer here), by Oscar Nominated Guatemalan director Luis Argueta (also directed Guatemalan film El Silencio de Neto).