Here I am in Peace Corps Guatemala... I would like to share my experiences with those back home and elsewhere with this online journal. Please post comments and question if you have any. Any mail can be sent to:
Grace Hansen PCV
Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado Postal 33
Chimaltenango, Chimaltenango, 4001
Guatemala, Centro América
Or I can be reached by telephone:
or skype: grace.anna
When I was little, we went on a family hiking trip up to the Adirondacks. The goal was to hike Mt. Joe with my mom, my brother, my grandmother (Big Grace), and our little dog Daisy. When we got up there, we stopped at the Adirondack lodge and went to admire Heart Lake before we took off on our accent... This is where all the trouble began.
I don't know if it was Karma or just plain bad luck, but for whatever reason I experienced a series of unfortunate mishaps all within about a 30 minute period. First, while admiring the beauty of Heart Lake on that crisp fall morning, I somehow managed to trip and fall into the lake. I landed on my hands and knees in about a foot of cold, muddy water, and managed to get all of my clothes wet. We then headed into the ladies room at the lodge so that I could put on some dry clothes and upon entering into the restroom, my thumb somehow found its way into the door hinge and was smooshed as the door swung open. I burst into tears and cradled my stupid bruised, wandering thumb... I successfully got changed and the last thing we all needed before our hike was our jackets because those fall mornings can be quite chilly. So we went back to the car and we all got our jackets on. I remember mine was purple with flowers. I don't remember who did the zipping but I do know that the jacket was zipped, high above my chin and with this zip, it caught my lip and soon I was crying again and blood dripped down from my mouth.
None of these were very serious injuries and while it was a miserable time for me in that moment, I can look back and laugh at it now. One person who always got a good laugh out of it was Big Grace. In fact, she thought it was sooooo funny that she even wrote a little poem about it entitled:
Lake Placid Outing
Columbus Day -hooray, hooray!
How we've enjoyed Lake Placid today!
Adirondack Lodge, with the orange foliage around,
Looked so bright and gay, we found.
We set out to climb rocky Mt. Joe,
At Heart Lake's edge, Gracie stubbed her toe;
With a great splash -she had a nice dip.
When she put on her jacket she zipped her lip;
To the ladies room she ran at a very fast clip.
But soon her thumb was oh -so sore,
From being shut in the ladies room door.
To Gracie's wails, Helen said, "Shush."
Soon we were climbing through mud, rocks, and slush.
Straight up the mountain through foliage so lush.
And up to the top for the most magnificent view-
Of Sugar Loaf, White Face, and Marcy too.
Down again we descended down the slope-
Happy Daisy running free of her rope,
-was badly in need of some perfumed soap.
Helen tossed her in the lake where a big trout lay,
But Daisy just smiled and he swam away...
Dirty, but happy we're having dinner at "Jimmy's..."
What a feast! To the fudge cake, the children shout-
So this day was brought to mind again by my experience on Monday, which seemed to be a day of rather bad luck...
*Side note: I now have a new companion, -a puppy that someone left at one of my schools. Her name is Chula and she travels with me everywhere...
At 4pm on Monday I headed to the bus with Chula which would take us back to the Aldea from San Martin. The bus didn't actually leave until nearly 5 and during this waiting period the puppy was particularly antsy and I took her off the bus a number of times to try to get her to pee but to no avail. The bus is parked on a rather unsafe corner and she kept trying to run off under the bus which made me nervous. Let me just be clear in saying that this dog had 2 rather long windows of opportunity to relieve herself before the bus took off...
So FINALLY at about 5pm the bus rolled away and I noticed that we were taking the long way home which is a good 1 hour and 20 minute ride.
My sitemate Mary and I with Chula.
About 30 mins into the ride the puppy started getting really whiny and was trying to crawl out of my arms. I tried to contain her but since the bus wasn't too crowded and there was no one next to me I decide to set her on the seat next to me. As soon as I did this, she immediately started to pee. The bus banked a turn and all the pee ran down the vinyl seat onto my side, and my pants soaked it up like a sponge. I was actually relieved by this, because I thought at least no one else would see that the dog had just pissed on the seat... I sat dumbly in my soaked pants believing that the worst of it was over.
About 2 minutes later a guys got on the bus and decided to sit right next to me (even though there were other empty seats). I tried to send him telepathic messages that this was not a good idea but he didn't seem to get it. The pee on the seat had mostly dried up next to me but I still felt uneasy about having a seatmate... I thought he might smell the urine and figure us out.
At this point I expected the puppy to hunker down and take a nap but instead she began squirming and lunging out of my arms towards my seatmate. This is a bad sign, I thought...
I knew she had to poop and I had no idea what to do. Since we were taking the long way home, if I got off the bus right away, I would likely never have found a ride to Estancia and we were too far from San Martín to make it back by foot. So I tried to comfort her until we got a little closer to home... She started to calm down a little and I thought we might make it but then she started up again and I knew I had to do something. Peeing on the bus was one thing... and I was lucky we had gotten away with it. But if she took a dump, I was done for. Everyone on the bus, who were all my neighbors to begin with, would know what had happened. The bus driver would probably never let Chula ride the bus again and that would be the end of my attempt to bring a positive light to "chuchos de la calle" (street dogs).
I tried to judge just how much time I had... We definitely needed to wait a little longer before getting off, so we could at least make the walk home before dark. I just pictured standing up with the puppy in my arms, and walking to the front of the bus as turds fell to the floor, leaving a trail on our way out. I can't let that happen, I thought.
Finally I scooped up my belongings and motioned for the bus to stop and the bus driver looked confused because he knew I was getting off well before my stop and I had also paid the fare for the entire trip...
We got off the bus and the puppy immediately squatted and peed for a solid 30 seconds. I couldn't believe how much pee she had stored up and I wanted to scream at her for not peeing in all that time I tried to make her go before getting on the bus! She then took a huge dump and we began our 30 minute walk to Estancia.
My pants were soaked in dog piss and I was in a bad mood but I glanced down at the puppy and she was bounding around my feet full of joy and energy. Suddenly I lost my footing and fell on my ass, catching myself on one hand which got cut up by the gravel. The wet pee pants caused the dirt to stick to my ass like glue and as I got up and brushed myself off I tried not to cry because I knew this was one of those things that would be really funny later. At this point I also realized that I had left ALL of my groceries and ALL of my food from the market, at my friend's house in San Martín and that now I would have no food for the week and no crucial items such as toilet paper and avocados...
Well, at least I have dog food, I thought. I could always eat that.
To make matters worse, due to my early evacuation from the bus, and the long walk that ensued, I completely missed an english class that I had scheduled and as I got closer to my house I saw a group of my students walking back home. They had obviously been waiting for me and in their polite way they asked me, "Seño, you didn't have english class today?"
"No," I said. "I had a bit of bad luck today. I'm very sorry."
This made me feel terrible because I hate not coming through on commitments.
Finally I got home and vented to Yolanda about my stupid day, changed into some clean clothes, and ate some stale chips and beans for dinner before hopping into bed for some relaxation time.
I'm certain that Big Grace would have gotten a good chuckle out of my Maddening Monday and with this in mind, I feel the urge to shake it all off and laugh right along with her.
For Semana Santa my friend Patrick came to visit and we planned a grand trip up north to see the beautiful sites that Guatemala has to offer.
Day 1: Patrick arrives and we immediately hop on a bus up to Coban with the hopes of making it to Semuc Champey by night fall. The 5 hour bus ride turned out to be a 7 hour bus trip due to heavy holiday traffic, but eventually we made it to Coban where we enjoyed a delicious dinner before heading off in a shuttle to Lanquin. We stayed at a place that came highly recommended and the whole way there, I told Patrick of the beauty and serenity he could expect when we arrived. Contrary to my last experience in Lanquin, we were not met by serenity but rather, a disco-like atmosphere full of drunken foreigners playing musical chairs. I don't think Patrick was very impressed... but nevertheless we enjoyed ourselves by sitting on the porch of the cabin, drinking a cold beer and watching the shenanigans from a safe distance.
Day 2: The next morning we awoke to the promised peace and serenity and after a delicious breakfast, we started our journey up to Semuc Champey. The pools there were just as blue and beautiful as ever and after a sweaty hike up, we were more than ready for a swim. We spent a good part of the day exploring and relaxing before starting back to the lodge. We hitched a ride in a pickup truck and sat uncomfortable on a cushion of crushed beer cans. I was assured that the driver was not drinking, only the passengers that sat in the back with us. They were quite entertaining with their remarks and jokes and one of them secretly snapped a photo of Pat... well not really of Pat, but actually just of his beard. I don't think they were used to seeing such abundant facial hair.
When we got back to the lodge we met up with my friend Hannah, another PCV living in the area. Just before sunset we all went to the caves of Lanquin for a quick tour and to watch the great exodus of bats at dusk. The darker it got, the more they seemed to flow out in a steady, stream. They whizzed past our faces in blinks and blurs and you could feel the collective wind of them whooshing by.
Day 3: Hannah went off to a meeting and as Pat and I sat at breakfast we spontaneously decided to take off for Flores as soon as possible. I ran up to reception and the woman at the desk told me that the shuttle was leaving now. As in RIGHT now. I could here the engine starting up and the gravel crunching under the tires as the van began to pull away. The woman called the driver and asked him to wait 5 minutes for us. We quickly packed up all of our things, and brushed our teeth en route to the parking lot. We hunkered down for the 4 hour car ride up to Flores. Our final destination was the Hotel Mon Ami located on the other side of lake Peten, in El Remate. The hotel was quaint and tucked back on a quiet dirt road. Just in front was a long rickety dock which stretched out over the water which was fresh and blue and oh so inviting. After a long, hot journey, the water felt great and we were very happy with our choice to stay in El Remate.
Day 4: We awoke very early to catch a bus to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal. It was well worth the journey and when we first entered the grand plaza I felt completely overwhelmed and awed by what surrounded us. It seemed to me such an extraordinary human achievement.
I was also fascinated by the lush jungle and all the wild life that inhabited it. We saw beautiful birds, spider monkeys, and something that resembled a giant hamster deer.
We climbed the amazing towering structures and gazed down over the jungle canopy as howler monkeys made their ominous calls. Howler monkeys in fact don't sound like monkeys at all... They sound like demons. I wouldn't call it howling as much as roaring. An interesting fact about these creatures, which I learned from my friend Hannah, is that all the dinosaur roars and snarls used in the Jurassic Park movies were actually howler monkeys.
After a day of exploration we headed back to the hotel and took a dip in the lake, and hung out on the dock while dusk settled in. It was a perfectly peaceful and relaxing day.
Day 5: Another early morning off to another beautiful place... We hopped on a bus to Rio Dulce hoping to "aprovechar" the week and experience as much as possible. This gave us only a taste of the beauty of these places and often times, we wished we had more time... But at least we know where to go next time!
A slight mishap occurred upon our departure from the bus terminal. I don't remember if the driver was talking on his cell phone or exactly what was going on at the time, but I distinctly remember seeing from my front seat position on the bus, the form of a man smashing into the right side window followed by the sound of grinding metal and what I imagined to be crushing bone... The driver cursed and pulled over to the side of the road in a panic and most of the passengers poured out to see what had happened. I imagined that there must be a dead body in the road after that collision but I remembered that I had my first aid kit and decided to get out and see if I could be of any help. There behind the bus was a young man with a mangled bicycle. Miraculously he did not appear to be injured although his face was pale and ashen. He looked confused and disoriented as the bus driver kept repeating that he shouldn't have ridden his bike into the front of his bus. After a few minutes of argument and a survey of the mangled bike, the bus driver returned to the pilot seat and we were on our way again without ever looking back. I do hope the man on the bike got some medical attention and compensation for his damaged property but somehow I don't think he did...
we arrived in Rio Dulce and waited for our boat to the Finca Tatín where we would be spending the night. The boat skimmed over the beautiful lake Izabal and the fresh air was wonderful after a long hot bus ride.We crossed the lake and continued onto the Rio Dulce which winds through the jungle and feeds into the Caribbean sea. When we arrived in front of the finca we quickly realized that only one night in such a beautiful place would not suffice, but due to time constraints we had to stick to our schedule. The finca was set alongside the river and shrouded in the trees and flowers of the jungle.
The cabins were rustic and each bed was veiled in a lace mosquito net which made it look more like a place for dead people to rest then for those of us still among the living. No matter though. It was beautiful and quiet and we shared the evening with travelers from all over the world.
Day 6: We freed ourselves from our bug nets just as the sky was turning light so that we could kayak down the river a bit before breakfast and before our sadly premature departure. The morning was warm and we paddled along, passing local fisherman casting their nets. The bird life was plentiful and large white egrets swooped down from there tree perches to scoop up their breakfast. We had to turn back after about an hour and packed our things before joining the rest of the early risers at breakfast.
At the last moment, we decided to change our plans and make one last stop in Livingston and Puerto Barrios before hopping back on the bus to Flores. Livingston was an interesting place full of Caribbean culture mixed with Guatemalan tradition. This is the home of the Garífuna people who are Guatemalans descended from African slaves. They speak Spanish and creole and have a uniquely different culture from the rest of Guatemala. I would have liked to explore Livingston a little bit more but because we were tight on time, we really only saw the main street and plaza which for me was a little touristy.
After the short visit we got on a boat heading for Puerto Barrios where we planned to have lunch before the long bus ride. Upon arriving there, we were bombarded by traffic, loud music, and people everywhere! This was not what we expected and after wandering around dumbly for about an hour we decided to get on the road sooner rather than later. This was maybe the only rough day we had on the trip... In an effort to leave Puerto Barrios I asked around for buses and shuttles that could take us back to Rio Dulce (where we would then catch the bus to Flores). We encountered a lot of people trying to take advantage of us and overcharge us for the bus trip which made me feel very frustrated... We ended up getting in a shuttle with some sketchy folks and I immediately regretted it. The driver, seemingly uninhibited by the rainy conditions, drove down the windy road at reckless speed. FINALLY we stopped and transferred into another shuttle which put us much more at ease. In Rio Dulce we had a delicious lunch on the lake before the bus back to Flores.
We waited in town at the bus stop and finally saw a large retired tour bus pull up and we climbed aboard. We were immediately struck by the atmosphere inside. Extremely hot and humid. The bus was meant to always run the AC and so the windows were of the non-opening variety. People were packed in, to full capacity and sweat was dripping off every brow. The windows were steamed up and I wondered how we would ever survive the 4 hour ride on that bus...
Well we made it. Finally. And got a taxi to our hotel in Flores which was another stressful endeavor but eventually ended with us having a good dinner and great nights sleep in a lake view room.
Day 7: We ended the trip with a short flight back to Guatemala City. Thanks so much to Pat who got me the plane ticket and saved me from being stranded (I owe you)! Once in Guatemala we enjoyed our last cup of coffee/ tea together and I left Pat at the airport while I made the journey back home. It was a beautiful trip and I am glad we saw all that we did.
Here are some photos of the delicious Pulike I learned to make with the women's group.
I later tried to replicate the recipe as a vegeterian version but was made with disaster. I boiled the vegetables together and poured them into my hardly used, nearly new, fancy, glass blender. I then lifted the blender (full of boiling hot veggies and water) onto the blender base but when I did so, the entire bottom of the blender fell out and the scalding contents slattered onto the floor and all over my feet. Ouch. It seems that somehow my very new blender is completely cracked on the bottom and therefor has been rendered useless. Apparently they sell the plastic bottom part somewhere here but I doubt it will be easy to find...
After my initial rage, I cleaned up, went to the store, and tried again. I made the veggie broth with success and then decided to get tricky and add some lentils and chick peas. This turned out to be a fantastic recipe and I will include it below. Just be sure all your hardware is working properly and of sound consrtuction.
1 red pepper
1/2 large carrot
Fresh Yerba Buena (or mint)
Bay Leaf (whole or powder)
1 cup Lentils
1 cup Chick Peas
1 tablespoon diced onion
1 tablespoon grated coconut
1 tablespoon grated ginger (fresh)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
Boil the red pepper, tomato, carrot, and onion with a little salt to taste. Place them in a functional blender and blend until smoothe. Meanwhile, cook the lentils and chick pease together with plenty of water so they don't burn. Add salt, pepper, cumin, curry, and bay leaf to taste. Take them off the stove when the chickpeas are still snappy, not mushy like baby food.
In a large pot, sauté the 1 tablespoon of diced onion, ginger and coconut with a tiny bit of oil until a little brown. Mix in the veggie puré and delightful bean mixture. Heat on low and continue adding spices as you wish. Once you are satisfied with the flavor, I recommend chopping up a little more fresh cilantro and yerba buena and adding it in. The very last thing to add is the 1/2 cup of plain yogurt.
Also, here are some photos from an architecture project I did with some kids from one school. They had to research and build a model of a famous building and they all come out really well! They were all so serious in the first photos that I commanded them to make a silly face for the second...
First of all, false alarm on the chicken killing... I guess they decided it would be easier to just buy the meat this time but they have assured me that someday soon, I will learn the secrets of chicken execution.
Here are some photos and videos from the birthday party this weekend. Miriam just turned 7 years old on Wednesday and her little brother Juan José turned 1 year old on Thursday. The party was Saturday and it was a great time! Piñatas never get boring for me...
Here we have Miriam taking the first swings at the piñata...
8:52 am and I estimate that it is about 95º outside... Luckily there is a light breeze that picks up every now and then which helps to dry a bit of the sweat off your brow.
-But because it has been so dry in these past few months, the streets are covered in a fine dust. I don't mean fine like, "damn, you fine," but rather a dust as light as sifted flour which when disturbed by the slightest gust of wind, whirls up and covers all surrounding surfaces.
A sweaty face is the perfect place for this dust to settle and many of us walk around the Aldea sporting a grey sweatstache (dusty mustache). The dust settles on houses, chuchos, cars, and dishes sitting in the pila. If left untouched for long enough, the dust could resemble a light, early winter snowfall...
Life is going well and the days are passing quickly. Work has been slow-going but I am feeling optimistic about the months ahead. The women's group has been going especially well and this week the woman have offered to teach me one of their most traditional recipes, Pulike. This dish is a delicious orange soup made with chicken and cilantro and served with tamalitos. This afternoon I will learn every step in the preparation of Pulike, including the killing of a chicken.
I think it is only fair that I learn to kill at least one chicken here in Guatemala. Since here, I have been eating chicken and it seems only right to fully understand where that drumstick comes from. In the US we never think about our meat as an actual living animal, and once packaged and put on supermarket shelves consumers see only a steak, a roast, a pork chop, or a chicken breast. I think it is good to take responsibility for ourselves and the food we choose to eat and that is why I have agreed to kill a chicken.
Perhaps after this experience, I will no longer want to eat chickens but I doubt it. I don't mind eating chickens here in the campo as much as I do when I am at home. Factory farms leave a bad taste in my mouth and I don't like to be so disconnected and uncertain about what I am eating.
Here the chickens are running around everywhere. When they first hatch they are so cute... Little bundles of feathers running around, clearly confused by their new world. Then they grow up and they are ugly with a capital U. Their feathers grow in all patchy and weird with speckles and bald spots galore. They get into everything... wander into my room and crap on the floor. -And don't even get me started on the roosters... It is a myth that they only crow at the crack of dawn. They crow at the crack of everything. For the most part, I have learned to tune them out, but sometimes they seem to join together in such a loud chorus that I wish to turn them all into chicken McNuggets.
-I dislike chickens, but this is not why I eat them here in Guatemala.
I will be sure to post the vivid details of the chicken sacrifice of this afternoon.