Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chichicastenango and Mayan Families Party, Thursday, December 10

Thursday was the transition day for Michael and me. We had finished four long days of volunteer work with Mayan Families, but we hadn't yet said our goodbyes.

Since we only had four full days during our April trip to Guatemala, we only saw a small part of the country. One of our objectives on the December trip was to see a bit more.

Our first destination was Chichicastenango for its world-famous market day. "Chichi," as it is called, is less than 20 miles away from Panajachel as the crow flies. However, because of the mountainous terrain, the trip by bus can take up to three hours.

We opted for a tourist mini bus and left a gloriously beautiful Panajachel at about 8am. The bus wound up the roads that had become so familiar: the turnoff to San Jorge, the city center of Solola, and the road that had taken us here on Saturday. But then we encountered new a whole different micro-climate, it seemed. The sun disappeared behind the clouds and fog started to descend.

We went through an agricultural checkpoint as we left the department of Solola and entered El Quiche. I noticed differences in the women's cortes (skirts) -- theirs had a horizontal band a few inches below the waist. Michael remarked that we would no longer be able to use our limited Kakchiquel we (or, rather, he) had picked up in Pana. The Quiche are a different people than the Kakchiquel and have a different language.

Finally, we arrive in Chichi. It had only taken us about two hours, thankfully. The weather was chillier than we had expected, but at least I had a scarf to wrap myself in. Michael and I dove into the crowds, looking for the center of the market.

There were hundreds of stalls lining the streets, selling primarily decorative items for tourists. We pressed ahead, knowing that the famous church and the local part of the market were awaiting us further in.

And finally we saw Santo Tomas, the church I had seen before in photos and paintings.

Amazingly, it looked very much like what I had expected. There were all sorts of vendors on the steps with flowers, and there were shamans burning incense.

A registered tour guide approached us and asked if we would like a tour of the church. Unfortunately, I did not get a shot of her. But we agreed, and she led us in the side entrance. The front door of the church is reserved for the shamans, she said.

Photography was not allowed inside the church, so I will have to describe it to you. Inside it was rather dark. There were no lights -- rather the illumination came from open doors by the steps and the side. This is a Catholic church, but the locals are allowed to practice their Mayan traditions on certain days. Thursday is Mayan. Sunday is a mix of Catholic and Mayan, and I believe the rest of the days are Catholic.

All down the aisle of the church were low stone slabs, about a foot off the floor, that are used for Mayan rituals. We saw people kneeling at the slabs lighting candles or arranging small bottles of alcohol wrapped in corn husks as offerings. Each slab was apparently dedicated to a different thing: good luck, health, marriage, etc.

The church is over 400 years old and was built on the site of a Mayan temple. So in order to convert the natives to Catholicism, the powers that be had to allow them to continue to practice some of their Mayan traditions. This is called "syncretism," and it's something I'm curious to learn more about.

Being a Catholic myself, it was very surprising to see a very different use of a church than I ever had before. There was something mysterious and fascinating about it, even if it did strike me as somewhat questionable from a religious perspective.

After the tour of the church, we asked our guide to take us to the food portion of the market. We really wanted to see the meal vendors and learn a bit more about local cuisine, but we had a miscommunication, so our guide led us to the fruit and vegetable market.

Then we decided we'd explore the rest on our own, so we paid the guide and set off.

While looking for food vendors, we found our way to the back end of the market and the famous Mayan Inn. We decided to stop there for a beverage and a brief rest.

The hotel was awash in Christmas decorations, which seemed a little incongruous with the lush gardens and parrots for someone like me, who has spent every Christmas in a cold weather climate.

If you look at the painting above the fireplace, that is a depiction of the Mayan candle-lighting ceremonies in Santo Tomas.

Outside the Mayan Inn, you could see a brightly colored cemetary in the distance.

Then we went back into the market. Michael bought one of these little orange bananas. The seller was very surprised that he wanted only one. I asked if I could take a photo, but he motioned that I could only take a photo of the fruit.

We also bought some delicious blue corn tortillas, fresh off the grill. When I asked to take her picture, the woman selling the tortillas asked me for more money, so we moved on.

There were so many possible things to buy. The huipiles, cortes, and belts (women's traditional dress) were so beautiful. But we reasoned it wouldn't be that practical to buy something for display. We have prints we bought a few years ago we still haven't framed...when would we get around to doing something creative with any of these?

The paths through the inner market were packed. One of the more bizarre traffic jams we encountered involved a man holding a large, live turkey!

But we wanted to buy a few souvenirs from our trip, so we made our way over to the more touristy area. There were so many textiles, wood carvings, and more. It was overwhelming.

We stopped at this stand and were admiring the handmade wall-hangings. Of course, the vendors always want to find out what price you would pay for their wares, so they can trap you into purchasing something! I gave my price, but the woman was not willing to go that low.

So Michael and I moved on and started walking down the narrow lane filled with vendors of similar items. But the woman would not let us go. She followed us and offered a price lower than she had originally said. I continued to state my price, and we walked on. The woman kept following us, and we said, "No, gracias." Finally, it looked like we had lost her. But then, and this had to have been at least a good half mile away from her stand, she reappeared and offered a price that was a few dollars away from mine.

Michael was reminded of his grandmother and how much time and effort her handicrafts took, so he said he felt bad about bargaining the woman down any more. The question was, did I want it? There were so many beautiful things at the market. It was really hard to decide. But after this woman had put so much work into this sale, I decided to go with her. So we went back and bought the wall-hanging she is holding with the blue peacocks and the quetzal (the elusive national bird of Guatemala) at the bottom.

Then we were done shopping. It's extremely tiring to shop, even when there are thousands of fantastic items, when everyone is clamoring for your money. Not only were there many vendors whose stalls we visited, but there were also plenty of roving vendors holding up bags or quilts or toys every few paces.

So we escaped to the second story restaurant, Los Cofrades, where we could eat in relative peace.

When it was time to meet up at 1:45 for the mini bus to take us back to Pana, we came upon a dreadful scene. The mini bus was already filled with tourists, and their luggage, who had not been on the bus on the trip there! It was an agonizing half hour or so while we waited to see what would happen and small children and old women tried to sell us things.

Finally, we were let onto the bus and most of the other people had to go to a different bus. And then we were off. I couldn't wait to leave the throngs in Chichi. The church was really worthwhile, but the rest I could have done without.

As we made our way to Solola, the skies cleared, and it became a gorgeous day.

We stopped briefly at the mirador or view point to look down at Lake Atitlan.

That's a view of Panajachel from above.

After we returned, Michael went to find Chico (who had been released back to the street after recovering from surgery), and I took a tuk-tuk over to Sharon's. When I got there, they were all done for the day, so I wound up taking the tuk-tuk right back with Tricia.

The girls and I decided to go down to the lakefront for the sunset.

After our walk, we embarked on a power shopping trip. We had seen the little beaded ornaments and keychains earlier on. They are gorgeous and in the shapes of things like quetzals, angels, fish, donkeys, lady bugs, stars, etc. I found a store with an enormous selection and lower starting prices than other vendors. So we all went to the store, and Mary told the shopkeeper that we all were going to spend a lot of money and asked what was the best price he could give us for the items.

Once the price was agreed upon, we charged! I bought over 30, which I later gave to my co-workers and my family. There were so many other great things, like beaded purses (our friend, Seth, likened them to wampum) and fabulous necklaces and bracelets.

In the end, I think together we spent over $200 at this one store, which made that shopkeeper one lucky guy! It was so much fun for all of us!

After the shopping spree, I met up with Michael and we went on the hunt for beer and wine to bring to that night's farewell party for the volunteers at Patty's house.

We took a mad tuk-tuk dash to a supermarket. Unfortunately, there were only cans (no bottles) of Gallo left. But we got them and a bottle of wine. As we found out, cans are more expensive than bottled beer. Strange. I'd prefer the bottled.

Anyway, we got back and just barely scraped together the 20 Quetzales for the round trip tuk-tuk ride. That was one of the banes of our existence down there! No one ever had change, and most things were too inexpensive to use a 100 Quetzales note (which is the only kind of note the ATM gave out). By the way, the exchange rate was around 7.5 Quetzales to the dollar, but that fluctuated a bit while we were there.

Then we were let in through Patty's front gate. I was amazed at how beautiful her home is. In fact, of all the homes I have seen in my life, hers is one of my absolute favorites. Patty has a courtyard, where tables were set up for our dinner. There are trees and paths to different parts of the house.

Inside, there is an incredibly warm and inviting kitchen and living room area with a big stone fireplace.

Michael and I sat across from the fireplace for a while with this street dog that had snuck in. Not Chico, though.

It was an absolutely wonderful evening. Almost all the volunteers were there, and by now, many of them were good friends. We had a delicious salad and pasta meal. In fact, it brought back memories of my friend, Tanja's cooking in Berlin. And if any of you remember my post about her cooking, you'll know what a poignant memory that was.

The evening was pure magic, and it was the perfect way to end our time in Pana. We said our goodbyes to the Mayan Families staff and fellow volunteers and our wishes to see everyone again next year.

Thankfully, it wasn't overwhelmingly sad at the end. We made plans to meet up with Tricia's group early the next day for one last breakfast together!

2008 Recap

I interrupt the Guatemala coverage to give a quick recap of 2008.

This year has been filled with a number of great things:

    • Our first and second trip to Guatemala and getting involved with Mayan Families

    • My solo trip to Mexico

    • Visits to Michael's relatives in Minnesota and Florida

    • Hosting both Easter and Thanksgiving for my family

    • A fantastic Christmas in Pennsylvania

    • Purchasing our first home

    • The pregnancy and birth of our dear friends, Rachel and Seth's first child

    • The birth of this blog! As well as communicating with so many wonderful people through blogging

    • Reconnecting with a number of old friends through Facebook

    • Becoming a philanthropist -- even though I'm not giving millions (or even close!), I am giving more and giving with more purpose than ever before

There were many other things, but these are some of the highlights.

I'm looking forward to 2009, and I'll post some of my resolutions tomorrow. Already, I have something new to look forward to.

Today, I started sponsorship of a child in Kenya through the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging. I've really been enjoying their blog, which I have a link to on the right. My mom has been a long-time sponsor, and I've also been spurred on by Nikki, who has various sponsored kids around the globe.

May you all have a great end to 2008 and a wonderful start to 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

San Jorge Christmas Party, Wednesday, December 10

By Wednesday, Michael and I needed to take a break from Hotel Dos Mundos' predictable morning fare. So we walked down Calle Santander to find another breakfast option. There weren't too many places open before 8am, but we finally found something

On the way back to the hotel, Michael spotted a dog who looked like Chico.

Hold on! It was indeed Chico! How could he be out on the street and not in Patty's truck?

Michael lured him back to Patty's with some bread, and we found out the story. Chico had been crying and barking for a good part of the night, so Patty finally let Chico out of the truck. Thankfully, we were able to find him again!

Michael put a leash on him, and then Chico suddenly got very scared and submissive.

Poor guy! He had no idea what was in store for him. But it was all for the best. There are far too many ownerless dogs on the streets of Panajachel, and the best way to control their population is through catch-neuter-release programs. By getting him neutered that day, the team prevented many possible litters of unwanted puppies from being born.

As we were waiting for our transportation that morning, a whole host of vendors descended upon our group. Again, I got off fairly easy. I only bought the chicken potholder this boy is holding.

Then our van came, and it was time for our group to head to the neighboring village of San Jorge for their women's group's Christmas party.

Michael and I had visited San Jorge in April, and we saw the community center being built. You can see pictures and read our account here.

Now, the community center is finished, and it was the site of our party.

Upon arrival, we saw the area outside completely decked out for the festivities. There were balloons and the traditional pine needles on the ground for a Christmas party.

A sound system was set up, and mothers were starting to gather with their children.

Once we brought in the toys and the baskets, the leader of the women's group spoke and thanked us. Sharon also gave a speech.

More and more families trickled in.

Then it was time for the kids to line up and play some games.

The Payasitos made their return.

While the kids were outside, the volunteers inside the community center organized the toys.

By the time the Payaso and Payasitos took the stage, quite a crowd had assembled. The clown amused us all with some contests, including a dance-off with some of the women paired up with some of the boys. Everyone got a good chuckle...and the winners got prizes, including plastic pitchers for the women and toys for the kids.

Then it was time to begin the distribution of the tamale baskets. These are just some of the baskets we handed out that day! In total, there were over 200.

The distribution process was quite time-consuming. First a family would come in and get on line. The kids would each pick out a toy from the table. We usually tried first to give a child a toy or offer them a choice of two, but often times the kids saw something they liked better on the table. Then the mother would receive the basket, and the whole family would pose with Santa, making sure they had their numbers (many of the kids are sponsored students) visibile.

Some of the kids brought drawings for their sponsors. More pictures were taken, and then the drawings were collected. The kids' hands had to be marked that they had received their toys, and the mothers received the ticket for the meat portion of the basket, which would be distributed a few days before Christmas (since no one has refrigeration).

Before we knew it, it was 2pm, and we still had many, many baskets to distribute. But everyone was famished, so we stopped for lunch.

A cooking group had been hard at work with the preparation of the meal.

Women lined up with small pots to receive the portion for their family.

Each one received some chicken and then a soup was poured over that into the bowl.

Contrast that with our meal: According to Sharon, the women knew that volunteers like us are often hesitant to eat the food that is prepared, since they are afraid of getting sick. So the women all contributed money so they could buy us a meal catered by a restaurant in Panajachel! That must have cost a fortune for them. I was absolutely blown away by the depth of their generosity and gratitude. This was the most humbling meal of my life.

First we had hibiscus punch in tall glasses.

Then we were served this feast: a huge chicken breast, mashed potatoes, a mushroom gravy, rice pilaf, and broccoli. All on nice china. Again, compare this to the little pails and pots in which the women were getting their own food. I gulped back tears in my eyes and chowed down.

Even though it was an enormous portion, I did my very best to finish my entire plate in gratitude for their sacrifice.

After lunch, we had to finish bringing down the rest of the tamale baskets, which were temporarily on the roof of the community center. While up there, I took a look around at the village.

I was reminded of how much we have in the States and how much we take for granted. But I also thought about how a great quantity of personal possesions does not guarantee happiness. These children were absolutely thrilled to receive one stuffed animal as a Christmas gift. How many kids in the US would be?

I looked down and saw the crowd was thinning. Lunch was over, and it was time to finish the distribution.

One of the tamale basket recipients was the grandmother of Julio, the Mayan Families staff member whom we had first met in April. Actually, both of Julio's grandmothers were present, as well as his mother.

As the toy piles started to dwindle, I searched for the stuffed animals that would be more appropriate for the older boys who were still waiting. It was tough, but I did find some.

And these boys were able to find something they liked.

For the girls, the dolls went very fast. In fact, I learned a new word: Muñeca, since so many girls asked for one.

Sarah's sponsored student lives in San Jorge, and she spent most of the day with us. She showed a great interest in photography, so Sarah let her use her camera.

Below is a portrait the little girl snapped with my camera:

Check out Aleeya, Sharon's daughter, in traditional dress, above center! She can rock both Western and Mayan looks with ease!

Finally, the task that had seemed impossible was done: we had distributed all of the tamale baskets and all of the toys. The sun was going down, and it was time to pack up the van and head back to Panajachel.

It was a very long day, and I couldn't have hacked it without all the support of my fellow volunteers and the people we served.

On our way back, Tricia and I spied this woman doing the traditional backstrap weaving in her home! It was intriguing to see this done for real and not in a tourist setting.

I stopped by the lone concession stand on the town square and bought tiny bags of popcorn and crispies. The vendor also had the small bags of cut fruit that had fascinated me in April.

Tricia paused for a minute, and I watched the fog start to roll down the mountain.

When we got back to town, I went to find Michael. Again, cell phones would be a good call next time! We finally found each other, and we went for dinner at Las Chinitas, where we heard Ezzy from the Mayan Families Healthy Pets group sing and play guitar.

Two young vendor girls came in and tried to sell us some knickknacks. I didn't want to buy, but I did have some food left over in my bowl. So I asked the girls if they wanted to eat that. They hungrily took the bowl and devoured the food at a nearby table. They brought the bowl back completely empty. Michael had a bit left on his plate, so we gave that to them, as well. I had taken his discarded shrimp tails off the plate, since I was afraid they would have eaten those, as well!

It was an experience. We went to bed that evening with quite a lot of food for thought.