A Guest Post from my Dad: She’s Going Where?

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Throwback thursday alert: I haven’t posted about my family’s August visit yet but it was a big event and a complicated one. I’ll share it instead from my dad’s perspective. Neil is a prolific writer and emailer and shared the following thoughts on their visit. Their visit was a cool moment to show them my daily life and be reminded of how much I’ve adjusted to life here. It was very interesting to see what most struck them. Enjoy and let us know what you think!  Take it away, Dad.

[We went to Guatemala in early August but I’m just getting around to posting this now. College move in and other events got in the way. Recent articles about political corruption there were published after our trip and we visited before the summer interns went back to their home countries.]

“She’s Going Where?”
When Karen and I would tell friends and relatives about Abigail’s post-graduation plans, we’d usually get a skeptical, puzzled, or worried response. After telling people that she was a PiLA fellow working for a more than 30 year old association of Maya Women Weavers and living in a small town on a beautiful volcanic lake, their reactions would soften, a little.

Still, we couldn’t really blame them for the initial response. We didn’t know much about Guatemala generally and knew virtually nothing about Santiago Atitlan. Yes, we knew that Guatemala was in Central America (I’m pretty certain that I would have properly placed it on a map) but we had also heard that Guatemala City had one of the worst murder rates in the world. We were comforted by that fact that Santiago was a long drive from the capital but mention of “considerable state-sponsored violence during the country’s civil war” on the city’s paltry Wikipedia page was less than ideal. As you know from her blog, Abigail loves travel, is passionate about international development, and speaks Spanish fluently but she’s a big city denizen at heart and Santiago is a small town. Besides, as one woman (Said woman was born in Poland and immigrated to New York, a journey of 4200 miles or so) in our neighborhood said, “It’s too far!”

75 Pounds Later
We started planning our trip to visit Abigail a bit more than a month before she left. After battling with our eternal family enemy, the calendar, Karen, Leah and I decided that early August would work out the best. Abigail would have about five weeks in Santiago before we arrived and that gap worked out in Argentina.   Having been told that an early arrival in GC was necessary because driving at night wasn’t safe (Again, not comforting.) we booked a 7:30 am departure from LaGuardia[3] (New York’s very own “third world country” airport according to Vice President Biden), which would get us to the capital by 1:15 on a Friday. Abigail would have the entire weekend free to spend with us and was, ultimately, able to join us for a little while in Antigua (I’ll skip the Antigua portion of the trip in part because it’s known enough to have a 36 hours in…).

The three of us were going for less than a week but this trip was the last chance before year-end for Abigail to get a big delivery. What started with a yoga mat that wasn’t initially packed because it fell behind a trunk grew to a 75 pound, two suitcase filling, precisely requested pile of necessities—including said yoga mat, a thicker exercise mat, birthday cards and presents, chia seeds, hemp seeds, lentils, gin, wine, some clothes, Dijon mustard, various spices, and a #sokoffler glass. Notwithstanding a tense and slow, very early morning cab ride to the airport, we seamlessly arrived, after changing planes in Houston, with our luggage in the early afternoon. We went through immigration and customs and found our driver without any trouble. Nothing about the airport or its immediate environs made us think that Guatemala City was anything other than a typically large city in Latin America, in contrast to the aforementioned fears, and except for the absence of air conditioning, the airport compared well to LaGuardia.

Our Real Journey
The drive from the airport to La Posada de Santiago is 131km (81 miles) and it took up more than five hours, which we were told to expect. Still, we didn’t expect that we’d average well less than 20 mph. Picking our way through the traffic out of the city, past the equestrian center, past the museum hosting a school field trip, and past the ubiquitous election billboards, we got a clue as to why. By far the most prevalent roadside businesses were tire and auto repair shops. Once we got out of GC, we were in what seemed to be a middle class area with strip malls, lots of fried chicken places, gated communities and parks. As we approached the much more modestly developed Chimaltenango, traffic essentially stopped. It took us about an hour to work our way through the town as the larger highway narrowed to a two lane bridge, complete with a uniformed toll taker (no gate) holding a wooden box. Parts of both the towns and the countryside were populated by dogs, cattle, goats, chickens, and various other animals along the side of the road. We had one unscheduled, mysterious stop at a police checkpoint which seemed to involve the checking of papers and then another at a faux Swiss chateau restaurant, serving local food, up in the clouds for bathrooms and a snack. More than three hours in, the drive hadn’t been particularly hard, just long, and then we went over the mountains and down to the lake.

Driving on the winding, potholed, mountain clinging roads was an entirely different journey. Guardrails along the side of the roads were intermittent, at best, exposing steep drop offs. When the roadway looked bad on one side, the driver would simply shift into the lane of oncoming traffic, even around blind curves. We now understood why auto repair shops seemed to be the nation’s number one business. Fortunately, traffic was very light and evasive maneuvers were not necessary. The views of the hillsides and the lake were spectacular but we agreed that the drive alone would likely be too difficult and nerve wracking for our parents. For movie fans, the last part of the journey was a combination of Sorcerer and Lost Horizon. As we arrived around nightfall, we realized that the warning about not driving at night was because of the last part of the drive more than anything.

Our First Tuk-tuk Ride
Abigail was waiting for us in the lobby of the Posada for a joyous reunion. We checked into our room, grabbed the 75 pounds of essential items and headed down to the main road. It was dark by then and our plan was to take tuk-tuks (we’d need two since they only seat three) to Abigail’s apartment, meet her host family, drop off her stuff, pick up clothes for the weekend, and return to the Posada for dinner. No problem. We hail the first tuk-tuk[5], shoved the large duffle bag onto the back ledge—threatening to topple the vehicle in the process before it fell off and hit Karen in the head—and listened as Abigail gave the driver directions to her apartment in Spanish and told us that it was near a place selling fried chicken and the host mom’s store (Tienda Loida). With that, Karen and I were off on a bone jarring ride. Tuk-tuks seemingly have no shock absorbers and the streets of Santiago are paved with concrete blocks. As our driver made turn after turn, up and down hills and up again, through increasingly narrow streets which were filled with activity, we enjoyed the thrill of discovery crossed with the sensation of being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. That was until the driver stopped and turned to ask us, “where is it?” At least, that’s what I thought he said. I did catch a “donde?” I successfully conveyed, via my irrevocably broken Spanish (Abigail note: Dad took Spanish in high school and has barely used it since) that I didn’t know while Karen insisted, in English, that Abigail had told him where to go. He incredulously responded something akin to “what do you mean, you don’t know?” Ignoring the nagging thoughts that we were without a cell phone and separated from our Spanish speaking daughters somewhere in city with no street names or signs, I said, “pollo frito?”[6] He shrugged with recognition, drove another 15 feet and indicated we had arrived. Indeed we had: in front of us was the Tienda Loida sign. We walked in with the big bag and confused looks, the man in the shop looked at us, paused, and said, “Los padres de Abigail.” We nodded, exchanged greetings, we’re welcomed into the courtyard of their home, and met their two younger children. Karen remembered their names and asked the eight year old girl—who was wearing a Dora t-shirt—about Toby, their kitten. She found him and awkwardly picked him up to show us. I gently took him and held him on my lap. Within seconds, he was happily purring and I said, “Me hablo gato.” Despite my language butchery, they laughed and that is how Abigail and Leah arrived to this image.
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Cojolya
After breakfast at La Posada the following morning, Abigail lead us along the road into town and toward the Cojolya store and offices. Our heads were on a swivel as we walked along the lake and through parts of town for the first time during daylight. We took in the political logos painted on nearly every available surface, the jumble of streets crossing at odd angles and inclines, and the variation in construction from unfinished cinder blocks to painted, plastered, or tiled cinder blocks. Cojolya’s shop and products are beautiful and Co-founder Antonio arrived to take us on a weaver’s tour, which would seem to entail walking the near entirety of town.

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Parents love taking pictures like this

As Antonio took us uphill along narrow alley to narrower alley and past gardens growing corn, avocados, and tomatoes and chickens pecking in yards, we got a sense of how densely populated some areas were and how houses were in a near continual state of construction and addition. Dwellings were mostly a series of cinderblock constructed rooms with corrugated metal roofs and door and window openings, largely without windows or doors. Floors were made of concrete and some buildings had exposed rebar waiting for the addition of a second floor. At our first stop, Tomas showed us the Jaspe reverse tie-dying process as his wife wove some of the dyed yarn. The stove [7] he used to heat up the dye also is the family’s only cooking element and it was located in a separate building with wooden stick walls. Antonio told us that, until around 15 years ago, virtually every dwelling in the area was constructed as such. At our next stop, weaver Andrea worked out of the narrow front room of her house. Like our first stop, her walls were largely unadorned, except for religion images including one of Pope Francis. Our presence along the alley brought forth a handful of children who came to look at the strangers. Our final stop was at the store/shop/home of master weaver Maria. Her products are beautiful and more intricate and she has a vibrant personality and big smile, which breaks through the language barrier.[8]

Maria is the best
Maria is the best
Jaspe in progress
Jaspe in progress

The tour, and time back upstairs at Cojolya’s offices, gave us a sense for the variety of living situations of the Cojoyla weavers as well as the mechanics of the back strap weaving process and the production cycle from yarn to finished items.[9]

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Life and Social Life Along the Lake
For the rest of our time in the area, we soaked up the local atmosphere along with the local coffee, food and drinks. We took a lancha to Pana (40 minute wait until departure), a private lancha back (totally fleeced but we were otherwise stranded), and a pre-arranged private lancha to San Pedro and San Juan.[10] To varying degrees, we got to explore these towns and compare and contrast them with Santiago. San Pedro had a distinctly hippie vibe and the greatest variety of food, including a delicious brunch, San Juan was the most like Santiago with its various artisans shops, and Pana was the most touristy.

If your lancha looks like this...
If your lancha looks like this…you have a long wait ahead
Brunch in San Pedro with very impressive croissants
Brunch in San Pedro with very impressive croissants

Back in Santiago, we frequented two coffee shops, both with delicious coffee and wifi[11], ate at Largarijas, ate and drank at Quilas, and walked through the market.

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Cafe Rafa, home of Santiago's best coffee
Cafe Rafa, home of Santiago’s best coffee
It's more crowded than trader joe's
It’s more crowded than trader joe’s

Most importantly, we got to spend time with Abigail’s friends and got a sense of the special type of person who comes to this remote region of a developing country to live and work. As a whole, we came away comforted that Abigail can both survive and thrive here. The region is beautiful, everyday life seems manageable enough, work appears interesting, challenging and rewarding, and her friends are supportive, intelligent, engaged, and nice. Yes, her year will be an adventure but it doesn’t seem like it will be an ordeal.

Stray Observations

  • One great feeling as a parent is when people are excited to meet you because they know your child. We’ve experienced this multiple times with both of our children. In Santiago, Abigail’s host family and work colleagues were particularly effusive in their greetings reflecting how much they like, respect, and appreciate Abigail.
  • Speaking of greetings, Spanish (and the romance languages in general) uses a far richer assortment than English of words and phrases to say, “nice to meet you.”
  • Another great feeling as a parent is visiting your child and seeing that they are comfortable in their situation and finding their way nicely. That was definitely the case with Abigail in terms of work and home stay interaction, getting around generally, and having friends call out to her to join them from the second floor of a coffee shop as we walked by.
  • Despite having been told and seen the photos, we still were struck by how short the people of Santiago are. Abigail is taller than most of the men here and discerning the ages of children is decidedly difficult as our observation scale isn’t applicable. Kaitlin (blog plug) would be on the tall side here.
  • Height differences were a continual source of amusement any time Abigail introduced Leah (who has a couple of inches on her) to the locals. Each time, we’d hear (in Spanish), “This is my sister.” “Oh, so tall.” “Yes, and she’s younger.” “Ooooh, younger and taller.”
  • Tap water in Guatemala isn’t safe for drinking but bottled water is plentiful. Coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels will allow you to fill up your water bottle for free. La Posada has a potable tap in the rooms which makes teeth brushing easier. Since the locals can’t drink the water either, salads and other uncooked foods are prepared with filtered water and we didn’t have any problems.
  • Loida runs one of the many tiendas in town which are akin to the corner convenience store and are numerous. Prominent items include soda and other soft drinks, individual bags of various snacks, single use packages of shampoo, toilet paper, tooth paste, and various grocery items. Loida’s store also has a grinder to turn corn into masa (for tortillas) and sells corn as well.
  • We didn’t avail ourselves of all of the transportation alternatives. We didn’t take a flate, which is a flatbed or pickup truck costing about a third of a tuk-tuk fare. Passengers stand in the back and hold onto the railing which curves over the truck. For longer hauls, “Chicken Buses” are popular. These are repurposed Blue Bird school buses which have been brightly painted. We also saw some hearty people riding bikes up the hills between towns.
  • In general, we were impressed by the variety of food available, especially in some of the neighboring towns. Vegetarian options were plentiful and the plato tipico was far from the only choice. The market also featured a variety of fruits and vegetables in season. Abigail has found almond milk locally and Brooklyn Lager was available at La Posada.
  • The Spanish converted the Mayans to Catholicism and built a big church in the center of town. However, many of the locals now worship at evangelical churches, of which there were many. Some had large (and expensive looking) buildings with schools attached. Others were one room store fronts. Several of the later had services into the early evening on Sunday with an amplified band bouncing their sounds off the tiled interior walls as we passed.
  • Unfortunately, we weren’t in Santiago on a Tuesday when I could have participated in the weekly soccer game. They don’t play on the dirt field in the center of town but at a smaller artificial turf field (I wonder how that was built and paid for) a bit out of town, taking a flete to get there. Abigail participates but hasn’t asked us to send kicks or a kit, yet.
  • Given its tropical location, the weather is largely invariable. High were typically in the low 80s and we didn’t get any rain to speak of. We were comfortable in our jeans and short sleeve shirts.
  • Many of the locals wear their traje (traditional outfit) and I can’t say enough about how adorable the young kids are in their traje. Adult women were most likely to wear traje while children and men, in general, branched out a bit. Of course, we speculated as to what our traje would be. We got stuck on whether Jack’s sandals or Lulu leggings would dictate the women’s outfit.
  • Even in this remote area, brand and cultural diffusion has made its mark. Barcelona jerseys, t-shirts, and official endorsements were all over the place. That was largely to be expected but various shops also sold unofficial movie tie-ins, including Minions (which drove Leah crazy). We also saw various American t-shirts and baseball caps which are sold at a second hand swap meet of sorts. It’s a bit odd to see a man in Santiago wearing a Brewers cap. I did not ask him about Ryan Braun.
  • As the week went on, I started to feel the reality of nothing but hard surfaces in the town. The roads are concrete and uneven. The floors are tile. Carpeting isn’t a thing. Just walking around town provides a version of a workout and we were reminded of the 5000+ feet elevation going up some of the steeper streets. One of the organizations in town, Adisa, works with differently abled people to protect and further their rights. Some of them use wheelchairs and I can’t imagine how they navigate around town.
  • The streets, pathways and lanes in the town around the lake generally don’t have names or street signs (I’m told that “una via” doesn’t count). Fortunately, Abigail has an uncanny sense of direction but even she struggled a bit to get us to the brunch place in San Pedro as she had only been there once before.
  • Flying into Guatemala for a few days from our privileged lives in New York, I realize I have little ability to accurately assess what life is really like in Santiago. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help thinking about what poverty meant there, what constituted subsistence, and what constituted wealth or a higher income. By many measures[12], Guatemala is a poor country but what does that mean in Santiago? I didn’t see an area which would constitute a slum, evidence of a homeless population, or people begging in the streets. Yes, a couple of trash strewn lots near the top of the town were disconcerting as were the nature of some of the dwellings we saw. In contrast, the park by the lake, the vibrancy of the market, and the plethora of tiendas and chicken stands demonstrated economic activity, public works and leisure time. Even amongst the weavers—who clearly benefit from Cojolya’s activities—the variety of housing was stark. Bigger rooms, more furniture, appliances, and decorations were all signs of more wealth. A fancy wardrobe (traje was the standard), vehicles (most cars and trucks were work related), electronics and consumer items (not a lot to be seen) gave little indication.[13] Many families were striving, taking in boarders, running a store or a restaurant, all while working other jobs. Some men commute for the week to GC for better work. When possible, parents send their children to private (run by the churches) schools through high school and some of these children would attend university in GC and get a professional job. Even so, they would live at home until they were married. As far as I could tell, people were getting by and, because of the lower cost of living and different expectations and consumer needs, they were doing relatively all right.[14]

[1] Said woman was born in Poland and immigrated to New York, a journey of 4200 miles or so.

[2] Again, not comforting.

[3] New York’s very own “third world country” airport according to Vice President Biden,

[4] I’ll skip the Antigua portion of the trip in part because it’s known enough to have a 36 hours in…

[5] Tuk-tuks, or motorized rickshaws, are common outside of Europe and North America. We decided they resemble a Cozy Coupe with lawnmower engine installed.

[6] I had seen such signs everywhere.

[7] An ONIL sustainable cook stove which Cojoyla helps to install around the region.

[8] Antonio speaks Spanish as a second language. His mother tongue is Tz’utujil and he communicates with the weavers in that language as most of them don’t speak much Spanish.

[9] Briefly put, the weavers create the fabric and Cojolya does everything—providing the yarn, specifying patterns, designing products, turning the fabric into the actual products—else. For more detail, go take a tour.

[10] Launchas probably deserve a dedicated blog post but, of note, never did the person who negotiated our fare actually helm the boat despite assertions of “soy capitan.”

[11] Two of Abigail’s life necessities.

[12] Guatemala ranks 151st in GDP per capital and half of the population lives below the poverty level.

[13] We did see one local riding an expensive looking road bicycle wearing a full cycling jersey and using clipless pedals. He clearly had disposable income.

[14] This observation applies only the Santiago since Guatemala is the tenth most unequal country according to the Gini Index (which is forced to use dated figures, 2007 for Guatemala’s case).

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