Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lessons Learned in the Guat: Part 4

The end of my time as a Young Adult Volunteer in Guatemala is rapidly approaching and I haven't kept up with my blog, but before I forget I'd like to share a few more of the lessons I've learned during my time here.

Lesson 13: A SIMPLE perdón WILL SUFFICE
Anyone who's been around me for more than five minutes will tell you that I'm an accident-prone person. I can't get through a meal without spilling something and I'm always tripping. Because my little blunders often involve others, apologizing is a part of my daily life. Say, for example, I'm walking down the street not looking straight ahead and I run right into another pedestrian; in the U.S. I would stop and apologize (profusely if my victim looked mad or hurt). Here in Guatemala, however, the more I apologize, the angrier/more afraid my victims get. At first I thought it was because I'm a gringa, but after talking to quite a few Guatemalans about it, I realized that most Guatemalans aren't used to having people stop what they're doing and apologize for their blunders. I've observed many Guatemalan-on-Guatemalan accidents, and even the painful and/or messy mixups result with the guilty party muttering, "perdón" and going about their day. 
When you accidently clothesline a tiny elderly woman in the bus, "perdón." When you trip and spill half of your large blackberry smoothie on a businessman in the park, "perdón." When you smack into another cyclist, causing him to go careening head-first into the pavement, "perdón." When your child full-on smashes a dripping ice cream cone into the hair of the woman sitting in front of you on the bus, "perdón."
Based on my observations, the accidents I've been a victim of, and the innumerable blunders I've caused, I've learned: It's better for everyone if you just mutter, "perdón" and keep walking.

Before amoebas had four huge fiestas in my body,  I heard the term "amoeba" and thought of the tiny little specks, only barely visible when held under a microscope, that I had to draw in my high school biology class. If I had experienced amoebas back then I would have known to draw horns and fangs instead of smiles on their horrible little blobby faces. Amoebas are not my amigas. Amoebas are not harmless little specks. No Sir.  Amoebas are evil spirits. I'm serious. They hide inside of mangos and other delicious food and, just when you least expect it, they possess you. I don't know how they do it, but they settle their barely-visible blobby little selves in and turn the life of their host into hell on earth. Dante would have done well to include amoebas as a punishment for the dwellers of the ninth circle, the very center of the inferno. They're that treacherous. I won't get into the nitty-gritty details, but you can rest assured that you want to avoid the little devils at all costs.
Lesson 15: CERTAIN FOODS AND DRINKS ARE COLD(independent of their physical temperatures)

For the first few months I was here I was understandably in a perpetual state of confusion because I didn't get much outside of the bounds of simple conversation. However, when it came to conversations about food--a topic I had plenty of practice with--the more Spanish I understood, the more confused I became.
One night Dora asked me if I wanted some pan dulce (sweet bread). We eat pan dulce almost every night with our coffee and I was in the mood for something different, so I brought out our leftover fresas con crema (strawberries with cream) instead. Now I thought my suggestion was perfectly acceptable, so you can imagine my surprise when Dora--who I should add is a very calm and soft-spoken woman--leaped up from the table, grabbed the bowl out of my hands, and yelled, "NOOOOOOOOOOO." It was like one of those slow motion scenes out of an overly dramatic movie. When I asked her why we couldn't have the strawberries, she looked at me like I had three heads and replied in an exasperated voice, "iAy, Raquel! Ya sabes que la fresa es fria. Es MALISIMO comer comidas frias en la noche." (Oh, Rachel! You know that strawberry is cold. It's HORRIBLE to eat cold food at night.) At the time the urge to laugh was bubbling in my throat and I had to bite my lip to hold it in. "What in the world is she talking about? This woman gone crazy" I thought to myself.  
Here are a few comidas frias that shouldn't be eaten at night (no matter their physical temperature):
  • strawberry
  • avacado
  • mango
  • pork
  • red beans
  • cow's milk
The good news is there are several comidas calientes that are especially safe to eat any time of the day or night (hot or cold):
  • cacao (chocolate)
  • rosa de jamica (hibiscus flower used for tea and juice)
  • camomile tea
  • goat's milk
  • grilled meat (aside from pork) 
While the strawberry debacle seemed crazy at the time, it kind of makes sense to me now. Maybe it's because I ate a mango, a few nights later and was up all night with a terrible stomachache.  

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Zompopos, Don Pablino, and A TYPICAL DAY IN MY GUAT LIFE

This entry is taken directly from my journal to give you an idea of the shenanigans I get in to on a dailiy basis.

Friday May 3, 2013

     I love even the seemingly uneventful days here. Today Dora and I got up to carry water like we do every other day at 5:15am. [We used to have running water in our house for an hour every other day, but it stopped coming about two months ago and now we go to Dora's sister Mimi's (a little ways up the street) to get our water. We each carry a five gallon bucket, fill it up, walk back to our house, dump the bucket in the pila, and repeat. Sometimes Mimi lets us receive water for the whole hour, but sometimes we only get 30 minutes. I have mixed emotions about the 30 minute days: one the one hand, I'm glad for the extra sleep, but, 30 minutes of 'water time' isn't enough to get us through two days comfortably, on those days the dirty dishes and clothes pile up, and sometimes we don't have enough water to fill up the big bucket we use to bathe.]
Mimi let us have the whole hour today, so our pila is about 3/4 full! :) 
    After breakfast Dora went to buy some thread and I heated up some water to bathe. It was already hot at 9am, but I heated up the water anyways [Dora thinks I'll die or something if I shower with cold water]. I had just put shampoo in my hair and was in the process of lathering when I heard someone knocking loudly on our front door. 'It's probably Willy or Julissa,' I thought, and continued shampooing. The knocking, however, got progressively louder, and I had no choice but to pull back the curtain, wrap up in my tiny towel, and answer the door. People always seem come by and urgently knock on the door when I'm home alone and naked.  Typical. 
    I was ready to give my little Guatemalan cousins a piece of my mind so I fully flung the door open. You can imagine my surprise when I found myself standing nose-to-nose with Don Pablino, a man with a pick-up who sometimes gives us a ride when Joni [aka 'el muchacho' our usual tuc-tuc driver] doesn't answer his phone.  Today Don Pablino had a truck-full of firewood that Dora had apparently ordered. I let him in and fled to dry off and put some clothes on. My hair was still soapy, but today was windy and I didn't want to give Don Pablino a free show. [When it's windy the curtain flys up, frequently and completely exposing the person behind it.] I came out of my room, after speed drying and putting on the first shirt and skirt in sight, to find this:

     I don't know how he did it, but Don Pablino filled up the entire entryway in under five minutes. My first instinct was to laugh, I mean, this random guy just showed up, barracaded me inside the house with firewood, and acted like it was a totally normal thing to do. As I stood there laughing, Dora showed up. Luckily Dora got him to move some of the wood so that we could at least shut the door [as you see in the photo above] and ordered him to help her climb over the mountain of wood. The look on her face when she saw me in my half-clean state was priceless, yet, being used to my awkwardness, all she said was, 'Ay Raquel.' After waving goodbye to Don Pablino, we proceeded to haul and organize the wood. We really didn't have any choice because it's not like we could leave the house without figuring out the wood situation.
       By the time we finished it was almost lunch time. Dora told me that she had a special surprise food for lunch. I was thinking it was maybe cheese to go with our tortillas, but no. It was giant ants. That's right, I ate giant ants today and they were delicious. Zompopos, as Dora told me, are giant ants that only come out once a year, after the first big rainstorm. People hunt/capture them after the storm and they are kind of like a delicacy for some of the people here. Apparently you can buy them in the market, but they´re expensive because catching them is tricky business. One of my uncles brought us some because he said that I just had to try them...

Dora trying the first fried Zompopo while Letty adds lime.

Of course I tried one.
 Ok, I ate half the bowl... 
I couldn't help it. 
They tasted like peanutbutter.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


We went to Belize for our February retreat because it was time to renew our visas.  And although getting there was a little tiring, we were glad to have a couple of days to talk, laugh, and cry together in a tranquil beach town called Placencia.

It certainly didn't take long for us to make ourselves right at home in Belize.

Here's a play-by-play of our day-long journey from Antigua, Guatemala to Placencia, Belize:

4:45am...Shuttle from Antigua to Greyhound station Guatemala City
6:30am...........Greyhound to Puerto Barrios
11:45am......Taxi to immigration office in Puerto Barrios
12:15pm...Ferry to Punta Gorda, Belize (passports stamped here)
3pm........Bus to Independence
5pm.................Hokey Pokey Water Taxi to Placencia
5:45pm............Arrival at Julia's Guesthouse in Placencia, BZ

Here we are about to hop on the ferry in Puerto Barrios.

 Beautiful hibiscus flowers smiled and danced in breezy Belize.


From right: Jensen, Annie, Rachel (Me), and Kate enjoying a beautiful beach. 
About two minutes after this was taken we all jumped up screaming because tiny translucent sand insects were biting our ankles and butts.   


Eating delicious cinnamon rolls before our snorkling excursion.
This picture is memorable because I ate on a boat and didn't vomit

After six months of wearing shoes 24/7 it was amazing to pad around the immaculate sidewalks and beaches of Belize sans shoes.

As much as I enjoyed Belize, Guatemala still has my heart...  

Saturday, April 13, 2013


I haven’t updated my blog in forever and it’s a bit overwhelming to think about filling in the gaps between the beginning of January and now, but I’ll do my best to give you a few highlights from January and the first half of February:

Tortuga (Turtle).

With Siempre in Monterrico, Guatemala
We went to Monterrico for our January YAV retreat and there we had the unique and wonderful opportunity to hold the teeniest most adorable baby sea turtles ever! Over a hundred hatchlings were released along with my little guy, who I named Siempre (Always).   About 4.5 seconds after I sent him on his way, Siempre did a summersault over one of his siblings. His fate looked pretty bleak.  However, eventually, the little guy mustered up a giant’s courage and managed to make it to the very edge of the shoreline just in time to be swept away by a gentle wave. To be sure, watching my newborn tortugita make his way through the canyons and sinkholes of sand was an unforgettable experience. 

Tortillando (Making tortillas)
Dora tortiallando with her niece, Lupita. 

One thing Guatemalans often ask, when they find out I live here, is, “Puedes tortillar?” (Can you make tortillas?) Thanks to my Guatemalan mom, Dora, I now smile and reply, ¡Por supesto que si, puedo tortillar!” (Of course I can make tortillas!) I can’t exactly explain it, but when someone here finds out that I can make tortillas, they almost immediately warm up to me. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that tortillando has played an integral part in me becoming part of a community here.


Día del Cariño (Day of affection/love/care)

Valentine’s Day, as many celebrate it in the U.S., is a day of: chocolate, flowers, disappointments, engagements, teddy bears, tears, kisses, and the list could go on for pages. Thank the Lord, February 14th is celebrated very differently here in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for chocolate and flowers, but the power that one commercialized day has—over the emotions of a good portion of otherwise happy and intelligent single members of our society—is seriously out of control. That’s a topic for another blog.
February 14 2013 was a delightful day, despite the fact that I had amebas and unfortunately spent the greater part of the day hobbling from my bed to the bathroom.  I was inundated with hugs, kisses, and sauldos (well wishes) from my Guatemalan family, calls and texts from several Guatemalan friends, and thoughtful cards, calls, and messages from friends and family at home. The amebas certainly didn’t show me any love, in fact, they wrecked holy havoc on my digestive system, but even they couldn’t ruin my day. I hate to sound cheesy, but  it really was a day of Cariño.
Julissa, one of my cousins, checking up on me that day. :)  

I snuck this picture of my family in the midst of a pica-pica battle
I can’t believe I wrote about Día del Cariño and almost forgot to tell you about a Guatemalan tradition referred to, in Chimlatenango, as pica-pica! I’m told that the week of Feb. 14this always a bit crazy because you never know when someone is going to crack an egg on your head, seriously. For the most part, people smash painted eggshells filled with glitter and little pieces of colorful paper on the heads of unsuspecting passersby, but some people use actual eggs followed by flower or other powders. Because I didn’t leave the house that day, I was lucky enough to only have the glitter and paper-filled egg shells cracked on my head.

(more to come soon!)...




Friday, March 8, 2013

Two Gifts

The day after Christmas I was blessed with a visit from my sister and parents. I hadn’t seen them in four months and I began to tear up when I saw them making their way through the throngs of people outside the airport in Guatemala City. I had eagerly anticipated their visit for weeks, but was unprepared for the strong wave of emotions that washed over me when I saw their familiar faces and tall frames emerge from the crowd.
We spent our first few hours sharing stories that were too long to tell over the phone and I found myself laughing harder than I had in months. It meant so much to be able to communicate with them and not have to worry about the minutes on my phone running out, letters being lost in the mail, or dysfunctional Skype connections. Though the trip was mostly centered on spending time catching up, the Lee fam had its fair share of Guatemalan adventures.
This year's family Chirstmas photo

On our first full day together we went to visit my Guatemalan family in Chimaltenango. We had all been looking forward to this day for weeks and it was quite a day. One of my Guatemalan aunts and her husband picked us up in Antigua and I couldn’t help but laugh as I tried to translate amidst the noise and unpredictability of Guatemalan traffic.  When we arrived at my house in Chimal nearly the entire family was there to greet us. Though my two families are from completely different cultures and don’t share a common language, they bonded right away.

My sister and my Guatemalan cousins were instant friends
While I did spend a good part of our time together translating, I was touched to see my families using what little they knew of the others’ language to communicate.Dora prepared a delicious meal for us to share and after a few delightful hours at the house, most of us piled into the back of a pickup and headed down to see the firework booths where Dora and many other members of the family work during the month of December. We rode a chicken bus back to Antigua. I don't think the Lees will forget that ride anytime soon...

Having both of my families in one place was an experience I will never forget. Thinking back on our day together reminds me of a quote by Desmond Tutu: 
You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them.

God blessed me with two families, two gifts, I wouldn't trade for the world.



Saturday, January 5, 2013

Feliz Cumpleanos/Navidad/Ano Nuevo

I know I haven’t been the best about updating my blog lately, but it’s definitely not for lack of activity in my life here in Guatemala.

A Birthday to Remeber
Imagine waking up at 5:30am to the hushed whispers of your entire family outside your door on the morning of your birthday.  On the morning of December 14, that is exactly what I woke up to. My mom, Dora, her sisters, their husbands, and their children threw me an amazing surprise birthday party at 6 o’clock in the morning. The women in the family began the celebration by presenting me with a beautiful traditional outfit, which they helped me put on.  It might have been embarrassing to have them all see me in just my ropa interior (underwear), but after all of the embarrassing things I’ve said and done here, something as minor as having all of the women in my Guatemalan family see me basically naked didn’t even redden my cheeks.  Besides, I was too excited about my beautiful new outfit to be embarrassed! After I was all dressed everyone who was there (about 30 people) gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and wished me a Feliz Cumpleanos. After that, we all sat down to a delicious breakfast of my favorite Guatemalan dishes.  Of course, just when I felt like the belt cinched tightly around my waist might give way, they rolled out a huge cake.
My Guatemalan family knew that I would be feeling homesick on my birthday but they all also had to work that day, so they found a way to show me their love and unbelievable generosity by throwing me a birthday party I will never forget.    

13 Bak’tun
I’m sure many of you heard that a cycle of the Mayan calendar came to an end on December 21; however, it seems that there is some misinformation floating around about what the end of the cycle on the calendar actually signifies.  I am by no means an expert on Mayan spirituality, but I’ve had the privilege of speaking with a several people who are, so I thought I’d share a bit of their knowledge with you. J 
According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred text of theMayans, the cycle that ended on December 21, 2012 began on August 11, 3114 B.C.E. In other words, 5,125 years of the corn age were completed on December 21; ushering in a new era of renewal and change in human society. This new era, known as the 13 Bak’tun, is the era of peace, knowledge, reconciliation, and positive change; not the end of the world, just the end of a cycle. The 13 Bak’tun does not bring about the apocalypse, but the polar opposite. According to the Maya philosophy, we will come to be one with each other, one with the earth, and one with the universe in this new cycle of peace. Take that, Nostradamus.

Feliz Navidad
Picture your church on Christmas; it’s full, right? I didn’t even know what a full church really looked like until I came to Guatemala. Sure, my church boasts standing room only on Christmas and Easter, and its pews are relatively full on an average Sunday, but I never worry about having a seat. Here in Guatemala, the churches get so packed that people are literally standing outside the church doors, on an average Sunday. Many people even bring their own chairs in anticipation of a full house. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that every Sunday feels like Christmas in the Guat. 
During the month of December my family sells fireworks in Chimaltenango’s central park. For the past eight years, my mom, Dora, has spent morning, noon, and night with her firework booth during the month of December.  On Christmas Eve I decided to don my beautiful traditional outfit and spend the day in the park with my family. During the day hundreds of people passed by our booths to buy fireworks, but once it got dark, it seemed as though there were thousands milling about the park, in hopes of buying fireworks to set off at midnight. I guess I thought that we would take a break to go to Christmas Eve mass, but that would have been impossible. I arrived at the booth at about 2 in the afternoon, and we did not leave until well after 2 in the morning. At that point I was so tired I worried I might fall asleep in the bed of the pickup truck which drove about 25 members of my family to Dora’s house. No one really explained why we were all going to Dora’s, but I just planned on getting into bed and slipping into a coma.

 As I walked into the house and prepared to go directly to bed, I noticed the familiar smell of tamales and was inundated with hugs and kisses from my aunts, uncles, cousins, and mom, all wishing me a Feliz Navidad. Everyone was crying and talking about how thankful they were for all of the blessings God had bestowed upon them; Dora told me I was her greatest blessing. After everyone had been wished a Feliz Navidad we set out blankets on the floor in Dora’s room and ate tamales and drank Coke; keep in mind that it was about 3am at this point. The tamales were delicious and I’m always in the mood for Coke, but after the meal I felt sleepier than ever. As I thanked everyone for the meal and the beautiful day I could think of nothing but climbing into my bed in the next room. I got up to make my exit for the night, barely noticing that all of the kids followed me. I was beginning to pull back my blankets when they stared at me and asked me incredulously, “Que estas haciendo?” (What are you doing?) When I told them that I planned on sleeping, they all started to laugh. “iNo te puedes! Vamos a kemar nuestros cuetes!” (No you can’t! We’re going to set off our fireworks!) It is impossible for me to say no to one Guatemalan child, let alone twelve. We set off fireworks until the sun began to glimmer in the horizon and sleep finally claimed me at 6am on Christmas day.   

My life in the Guat is unpredictable to say the least, but one thing I can always look forward to here is adventure.  I’ve found happiness in the most unlikely places here and am falling in love with this crazy, funny, simple Guatemalan life. I can’t wait to tell you all about the Lee family’s visit to the Guat, but that will have to wait until next time because I can’t stare at this screen any longer. You are all in my thoughts and prayers! Thanks for reading!  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Settling In

I love my new life in Chimaltenango. I absolutely adore Dora, my host mom. She and I can talk for hours, which is rather remarkable, considering that I only have 2 months of experience speaking Spanish. The fact that I love to talk to people and hear their stories has made the learning process rather easy. Of course, I still have daily moments of verguenza (embarrassment), but those moments are often wonderfully chistoso (funny). The past two weeks I worked with the children of the women in the Corazon de Mujer group. Working with the two to six-year-olds was a humbling experience, let me tell you. I have never been known for paciencia (patience). I had the expectation that I would be teaching them English songs and games and we would all hold hands and skip afterwards, needless to say, this did not occur. I had babies running here and there, biting each other, crying, and doing everything but listening to the Gringa (me). After a day of complete and utter chaos I decided to try a new approach: do anything to keep the kids from eating one another and/or crying. We played with play-doh, drew pictures, and read stories. Only two kids cried the second day and only one got bitten. I used art as the vehicle to teach the kids words in English and they really seemed to like this approach. And while we had very few supplies to work with, my kids were definitely not lacking in the imagination department. For several of the days I also had the opportunity to work with the older kids, ages 6-13, and that was a blast! I really connected with them and they were extremely eager to learn (aprender) English; we played games and sang songs, though we never got around to the holding hands and skipping bit.

Another exciting bit of news: I learned to weave. No joke. I spent 13 hours weaving a scarf (pictures of the process will be in the next post).  I think Dora was a little nervous to teach me, because it's actually pretty hard to learn, but I caught on quickly. :) It was actually kind of funny because when her friends and sisters came over she brought them into the room where I was weaving and bragged to them that I was better at weaving than most Guatemalans. Of course this caused me to blush furiously and fumble with my weaving (I've never been very comfortable with an audience). Although her praise made me embarrassed, it also made me feel like she is starting to think of me like a daughter (hija). I feel so lucky to have her as one of my Guatemalan moms, because she is one of the most amazing people I've ever met. I'd love to tell you all about her amazing story, but I need to ask her permission first. I'll post again soon! Thanks so much for reading and please keep my Guatemalan family and me in your prayers! :)