Hello, It’s Me: My First “Semester” in Guatemala

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Hi there,

It’s been MONTHS since I’ve posted and I’m heading to New York tomorrow to see the fam and eat lots of kale so a little reflection seems appropriate.

I’ve lived in Guatemala for almost six months now and feel more comfortable every day.

Here’s what’s been going on…

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The 6:30 am lancha from Pana is not exactly pleasant, but the view is

Emma’s Visit:

In late November, my friend Emma visited and it was such a gift. The whole trip was decided somewhat at the last minute because Emma had a few weeks between an internship and a job (employed friends, so adult). It’s so much fun to show someone who you’ve known for years around a place that’s so important and also so difficult to explain. We cooked a group thanksgiving, climbed a volcano, visited Semuc Champey, a place I still can’t believe exists and marveled at the excellence of Guatemalan avocados. I was somewhat shocked to see Emma at the airport, and even more shocked when about 6 hours later we were sitting at the table in my apartment, eating cauliflower quesadillas (highly recommend) and salad, catching up on everything, and it felt like the strangest and most natural thing in the world. Friendship is really something magical.

Activity highlights from the trip:

Climbing San Pedro: Santiago is surrounded by three volcanos but San Pedro is the one I stare at every day. It’s in a lot of my instagrams and climbing it felt kind of necessary. The climb is very steep and took about three hours to get up. We took breaks to snack and chat and the trail is really well maintained, though decidedly uphill. When we got to the top, the lake was so blue and the sky almost free of clouds. We were so sore the next day and went to bed very early that night but it was so worth it. It’s added a new dimension to my walks around town, knowing that I’ve seen the lake from above and that I climbed such a huge volcano.

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Not a bad view
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Walking sticks are unsung heroes

Semuc Champey: Semuc Champey sounds unbelievable; it’s deep in the jungle, past where roads are paved and it’s a series of turquoise pools formed because a river dips underneath its limestone bed. The name means where the river goes under the rocks. It’s not easy to get to per se but it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Six of us spent the weekend there at El Retiro, a great hostel that had really nice buffet dinners every night. This isn’t the kind of place you can walk around because it’s so dark and the town is so tiny. Lanquin, where we stayed, is about a 45 minute pick up truck ride from the park and the hostel organizes day trips. We arrived at the park and were immediately told to get on our bathing suits and head to the caves. They handed us each a candle and off we went. When we got to the mouth of the cave, the guides (who were the most hyper 21 year old boys) took ash from inside the cave and gave us “war paint,” which is why we look really dumb in all the photos. We swam in the caves for almost two hours and it was the coolest thing. There are no lights and you have to swim and jump and just keep going. I can’t do it justice but this part is fun and so different than anything else I’ve done. We followed the cave swim with a swing jump into the river, some tubing, a break for lunch (pro tip: the hostel’s lunch box is about 100 times worse than the food at the comedor where they take you to buy lunch so learn from our mistake and say no to the lunchbox) and then a (very steep and somewhat slippery) hike to the mirador and finally a swim in the pools themselves. It was an exhausting and exhilarating day and I’m so so glad we got to experience it. Nothing was too crowded as it’s a remote spot mostly with backpackers and tourists from elsewhere in Guatemala and the watery itinerary meant that people were much less concerned about getting pictures all day. (Though we all got some instas).

I definitely recommend Semuc Champey for rugged travelers who don’t care about safety regulations and are down to sit on a bus for a while for something totally mindbending. It was a total highlight.

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Around the lake and Antigua: We swam in the lake, enjoyed wine and cheese, took a tour of an organic coffee co-op and in Antigua, made chocolates and learned a ton at a chocolate museum tour. I also love this restaurant and was happy to take Emma there. We also visited a really fun mezcal bar that had a nice international crowd.

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Coffee was brought by priests to ornament churches. Coffee trees last 45 years but have to be resprouted every 15 years.
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Happy place!
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Lucille and Ethel

 

Cooking:

I know it comes through in these posts, but I cook a lot here. The restaurant options are limited and potlucks are the name of the game. In the past few months, I helped plan a thanksgiving dinner, complete with cranberry sauce and cranberry banana bread, hosted a hanukkah party with Lillie and two types of latkes and homemade applesauce and have cooked countless smaller meals on random nights. I tried two versions of green bean casserole at thanksgiving and am unimpressed by the whole thing. Due to the TSA confiscating canned pumpkin, I’ve still never had pumpkin pie, but there’s always next year.

My apartment is small but there’s more than enough room to have a few friends over for a dinner as simple as beans, tortillas, guacamole and salad. It’s also inspiring to see how locals transport food without a second thought and has definitely made me less fussy about tupperware (sure I can bring these delicious cookies over in a pot because well, it’s what I have and why not). Like so many things here, I’m hoping this habit is a part of my life for a long time.

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In the drinking realm, three of my friends and I have taken over Clarooscuro, one of Santiago’s two bars twice. We make our own menu and playlist and spend the night tending bar. It’s an incredible gratifying activity and it’s such a fun challenge to see what you can make with what’s available. Some highlights: watermelon mint gin and tonics, tequila hibiscus punch, micheladas, muddled strawberry gin and tonics, whiskey sours and shots involving whipped cream whose name I will not type. Another benefit of this experience is making the bar a female space. Our group is almost all girls but there are local customers there too, all men and there’s something very empowering about taking ownership of this public space, even if it’s only for a night’s diversion.

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The family I live with has been another highlight of my time here. They’re the most caring people and such a joy to spend time with. After college, an environment where everyone is more or less the same age, coming home to hugs from an eight year old and sage advice from a mom in her 40s is so refreshing. Andy, my host brother, is 13 and it’s crazy how much taller he’s gotten since I’ve arrived. They own a store next to the house and I love stopping in on my way home from work, sitting for a while and talking about the day. We’ve celebrated birthdays, joked about random stuff and Amy even helped light the menorah on several nights of hanukkah.

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I promise, this was their idea

Work:

The work year ended with a christmas party for our weavers that was absolutely fantastic AND something I had almost nothing to do with. Our artisan board of directors planned all of the activities and Celine and I spoke briefly and helped with the set up, buying prizes for games and clean up. We weren’t even allowed to cook because the weavers prefer traditional food. That division of labor felt exactly right and was also a great way to see how much the board of directors has embraced their leadership. There was a piñata, a dance we all learned, a hilarious game involving tying balloons to your ankles and then trying to stomp out the other team, and some heartfelt speeches, all in tzutujil. Thanks to the generosity shown in our fundraising campaign, we gave each household a water filter, which is a huge deal in terms of reducing the costs of buying bottled water and in terms of health for the whole family. We got to wear traje which is always fun and really enjoyed spending time with the weavers in Celine’s beautiful garden.

Shameless plug:

Our weavers are some of the most talented people I’ve ever met and most of them are in their 50s. It’s very important for the sustainability of backstrap weaving and of Cojolya to get some fresh blood. We’re working on fundraising to create a weaving school in Santiago and we need your help. If you donate, we’ll put the money straight to use. We can get supplies, pay the weavers for their time and design a curriculum for girls to learn and create. Weaving has always been taught at home, so in short, you can only learn it if your mom knows how. You can hear how important weaving is, straight from our artisans

If you’d like to contribute, it would mean a great deal to me and to the artisans I work with. We’ve wanted to operate a program like this for a while now and funds are the only thing holding us back.

Chh-chh-changes

Santiago in January will be a very different place. Two of my closest friends left Guatemala yesterday, one of whom lived with me. Our house and our community won’t be the same (seriously, the woman who I buy vegetables from at the market gave me a free avocado yesterday because my friends left me and I looked sad). We had an exciting few weeks of despedida activities but goodbyes are hard. I anticipate coming back to New York will be harder than I expect, a friend advised me that I’ll never have felt as strange at home and I’m definitely looking forward to coming back in January. My life right now, on the lake, with the best fruit I’ve had and some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, is so much different than I ever thought it would be and I’m so excited for the next half of my time here.

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Sunset party boat ride, one of many ways to say goodbye

Links

Books I’ve read and really enjoyed: Behind the Beautiful Forevers (If you’re at all interested in development and poverty, you must read this), All the Light We Cannot See

Podcasts that rock, because Serial’s second season is so meh: The first segment of this episode is so worth listening because a) it proves that it is more than possible to talk about teenage girls without being condescending and dismissive and b) it’s very entertaining. I also enjoy The Eater Upsell (their episode with Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster is about gentrification as much as it’s about beer). A Few things with Claire and Erica continues to be a joy and this Nigella Lawson interview inspired me to invite friends over for dinner on a tuesday.

Video: I saw Ixcanul, Guatemala’s first ever submission to the Oscars, last weekend at a screening in Pana. It started an hour late because power was out in the entire town and they had to find a generator but the movie is stunning. It’s all in kaqchikel, an indigenous language and tells the story of rural life on the side of a volcano and a young girl who wants something different. The two lead actresses and producer were both there and talked about the struggles of distribution and the consequences of the movie (everyone assumes they’re rich now etc). If you see this playing anywhere near you, go see it and support it. This video series, heartbreaking as it is, also gives an important look at the issue of teen pregnancy in Guatemala. This mini doc about child labor in Bolivia is also relevant.

Reads:

Twitter led this young woman away from the Westboro baptist Church

The patriarchy is oppressive and everywhere, especially in literature.

This article about unclaimed baggage is emotionally wrenching.

Anything about refugees should break your heart; this piece gave a good overview of the journey.

Before you click away, here’s one more chance to donate to help Santiago’s next Generation of Weavers. 

xoxo

 

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