Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Hello faithful Cuentos del Camino followers!

I wanted you to be the first to know that our family has published a book about our Big Trip. It is called "The BIG Trip: a Family Gap Year". What it's about:

Taking a year off from the rat race is an idle dream for many, but the McManamy family, including their three teenagers, decided to make it happen. The Big Trip: A Family Gap Year tells how they put high school, college and work on hold while they learned Spanish in Spain and volunteered in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Kenya. Choosing home stays and local transportation over hotels and rental cars, they undertook a deeply immersive journey of “slow travel,” living simply and experiencing life as the locals do. The teenagers contributed their own creative poems and stories to The Big Trip. A vivid account full of adventures and lively observations, the story also offers a template for anyone yearning to undertake an intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey of discovery. It is possible for families to take a Big Trip and enrich their lives without breaking the bank, losing a job, or falling behind in school. This compelling travel memoir motivates us all to follow even the wildest of our dreams.

Here is where you can order it, hot off the press:


Monday, February 4, 2013

Undercurrents of Violence

Before going to Guatemala, I wondered what it would be like to offer non-violence workshops in a country where violence is continually present as an undercurrent, and state-sponsored violence is rampant. Notably in this context, we had two police officers among the participants. The national police force is vastly underpaid and carries a history of violence against the people that was a legacy of US imperialism and was strongest during the genocide of indigenous people in the 1980s. In current days police are seen as either impotent or dangerous, or both. To say there is a lack of trust is a major understatement. There are reports of police involvement in petty as well as organized crime. Stories of police stealing from citizens during traffic stops are rampant. One friend told us that when he was stopped by the police he called his lawyer and told the police, “my lawyer is on the phone and is recording what happens here”, after which the officer sent him on his way without further questions.
I feared that personal safety would be a major issue. Guatemala continues to suffer from a high level of violence, related to the drug trade and to poverty in general.  The history of the Guatemala in the 1980s continues to hang over the country, which has yet to bring the perpetrators to justice. This violence, referred to as the Civil War or the Genocide, depending on one’s point of view, resulted in 200,000 killed, and 40,000 – 50,000 disappeared. Of these, the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) stated that the state was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war, the guerrillas for 3%. We were told that the region where we would be spending most of our time, the eastern city of Chiquimula, was afflicted by drug-related violence.
Our experience on the ground was mostly very peaceful. People walk and drive around day and night in Chiquimula without worries, and our hosts frequently left their door open during the daytime. Many participants said they have no violence in their homes, and indeed most of them are lucky not to have had anyone killed in their families. But all of them experience the effects of living in a country weighed down by a history of violence, from abroad and from within, including its colonial history of oppression by the light-skinned Spanish and continual oppression of its Mayan peoples, who constitute 50% of the population. In 2011, Guatemala’s attorney general was assassinated. The current president, Otto PĂ©rez Molina, is a former general during the time of the genocide, and he denies that genocide took place. He was elected on a platform of law and order, and indeed there are reports that violence has declined under his administration. But reconciliation has not yet taken place, and random violence is still common. We observed some of the effects of the society-wide violence on our last day in Guatemala. On our way to the airport in Guatemala City, traffic was paralyzed as a result of the murder of two police officers elsewhere in the city.
There are efforts to clean up the police force and one of these is called “Valor y Servicio”, valor and service. This branch of the force is working to change the police force from within, and the volunteers for our workshops came from this branch. They participated in both the first and second level workshop over two weekends, with the result that the group became familiar with them. Strong societal differences between police officers and citizens broke down, and we all saw them as individuals.  I noticed this most clearly on the last day, when we offered an exercise called Human to Human. In this exercise participants form pairs and one member of each pair closes his/her eyes, while the other one looks at his/her partner in compassion. When we first began the exercise, some of the participants had a hard time keeping their gaze on their partner. However, at the end, when both partners open their eyes and continue to gaze at each other with the acceptance of universal love, the faces had softened considerably. Many participants were teary. It was a remarkable experience.
Our workshop took place in a church in a tough neighborhood, where teen parenting and unemployment was rampant. The air was acrid with the smell of burning garbage, since the inhabitants cannot afford the fee for garbage removal. The concept of non-violence in personal communication would have been very foreign to most of the church’s neighbors. Our workshop participants came from the wider community, and they were very open to looking at the connections between violence in their personal communications and making peace in the larger world.
But what does non-violence mean in the context of a society nearly paralyzed by violence on a larger societal level? Can we really ask people to try to take a stand to make for a more peaceful nation, when they cannot trust the justice system? Or should we show people tools for communicating more peacefully in their personal lives and hope that this has a larger impact? As one observer visiting another culture and nation, I would not presume to tell anyone how to use the tools we offered in the Alternatives to Violence workshops. I can only offer the tools and pray that they will be useful in some way.

AVP among Friends in Guatemala

This is the first time that the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) has been offered to Quaker participants in Guatemala. My experience with AVP had been mostly in prisons, but in these workshops the participants were members of the evangelical Friends community. The curriculum is set up to be non-religious, though it has spiritual elements in the same way that the 12-step program does. The core of the program is to discover how to call on “transforming power” to shift and resolve conflicts. In these workshops where most of the participants are practicing Quakers and strong Christians, I wondered whether they would follow our lead to be inclusive in their language, or whether they would refer to their Christian values which are an enormous part of their lives. As it turned out, they generally seemed comfortable using non-religious language in the program. Some of them told us that they appreciated this more inclusive language and felt that it would be useful in non-Quaker groups that could use the AVP program: universities, workplaces, and police departments.
Despite our shared Quaker background, cultural differences between us and our Guatemalan host community were apparent. One of those differences came up around corporal punishment of children. Most of the Guatemalans believe in spanking their children. So for me, the question arose: should I label spanking as violent, share my own viewpoint gently, or leave this unchallenged? My sense of integrity generally called for me to speak out my own viewpoint that physical punishment of kids is rooted in violence and is not helpful to building peaceful families. But when we visited a pastor, his wife showed us how she threatens to hit her three-year-old with a wooden spoon. She asked the older brother to “go get the paddle”, and she proudly showed us how the little guy immediately changed his behavior. I did not tell her I disagreed with this policy. Was it because I was in her home, and she was about to serve us lunch? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s not useful to call out all of our disagreements. Maybe more was gained by noting all the ways in which we agree, despite our differences.
Minga and I stayed with some wonderful Friends. It was a gift to get to know them, to share their lives, and to learn about their belief systems. Guatemalan Friends have three yearly meetings, occasioned by some disagreements in policy that led to various splits. The Santidad yearly meeting split off from the Nacional with a strong concern to return to practices of the early Friends: separate worship for men and women was among the changes they chose. The third yearly meeting, Embajadores, is very small. All three groups are evangelical Christian in orientation. Their worship services are programmed with pastors offering the service, unlike the unprogrammed tradition in which both Minga and I worship. The women generally wear skirts to meeting, and jewelry and dancing are frowned upon. In their personal lives, the Quakers we met call on their faith frequently, and many of them prefer Christian radio stations and entertainment. Music is a huge part of their services and I rejoiced to hear the beautiful harmonies of a mother and daughter pair, as well as the clear soprano voice of Karen’s nephew, who has recorded a CD to sing of his love of Jesus.
We left Guatemala with the satisfaction of having given out 55 certificates of completion, each for a 20-hour workshop. Our hosts and organizers, Celeste Gomez and Karen Gregorio, devoted incredible efforts to bringing people together and making the workshops happen. The participants each gave a full weekend to the work with positive energy and commitment, setting aside their other obligations to be there, fully present. Participants committed to continue the work, to pass the training on in other groups. We talked about the program on TV, in meetings and churches, and to individuals, all of whom showed an interest in using the program to try to bring peace to their communities.

Guns and Alternatives to Violence

To our surprise, two police officers signed up for our Alternatives to Violence workshop in Guatemala. I had never seen anyone come to one of the workshops packing a pistol, but they were on duty. Whenever there was any noise in the neighborhood, they explored it for us. Most of the time they were there as participants. They knew only one other participant, who had invited them to attend. But they opened up and shared their feelings, and soon we were all one community.
After the workshop one day, they offered to take us to a local hot springs. So off we went in the patrol car. The officers were on duty, so they wore their uniforms and black shiny boots and kept their firearms and handcuffs at the ready. On the way back to town, there was a church service which we decided to attend. They attended also, as they were Quakers. We were all invited: the swimmers with our wet hair and sandals, and the police officers with their uniforms, black shiny boots, firearms and handcuffs at the ready.  We made for quite a group. No wonder the congregation was interested in hanging around the church long after their usual departure time!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In Honduras, a respite from teaching nonviolence workshops

Gracias a Dios is the name of a town in the Lempira region of Honduras, in the mountains. The Spanish conquistadores gave it that name, praising God that at last they had found a flat bit of ground to place a town. It is a pleasant town, one that many travelers have given thanks to have found. Its cobblestone streets, ice cream shops, and bookstores create a quaint atmosphere that is quite different from the rest of the region which is generally poor and rural. After spending some weeks in Guatemala, we found our safety radar going down substantially in the Lempira region. The region as a whole is generally safe, with many joggers both local and foreign, and including women, running around the countryside by day and night. I went for a jog on a dirt road heading out of town, which led to the river. A woman was there washing clothes, and a young man with amazingly green eyes was enjoying the scenery with his young wife and their newborn baby girl.
We have been welcomed warmly into the Friends’ community in the Lempira region. The first evening we were invited to a special pastors’ celebration and met many of the local Friends in the community. The next day, we felt like locals, as we walked around the town and ran into many of our new friends. We visited Orlando Pineda’s bookstore, and were given a couple of his inspirational books to read.  We ran into the sister of our hosts in Guatemala, Mabel Henriquez, who invited us to a hot springs along with some relatives and friends.  Huge trees hung over the water, where steam rose from pools with stone floors. Since we were there on a weekday evening, we were among the only visitors. Swimming laps in the quiet pool was heavenly.

Elida's family at breakfast

We stayed with Quaker Elida Rosa Sanchez and her extended family in Gracias. Elida is a teacher and is active in her monthly meeting and beyond. First thing in the morning we were greeted by one of the children in the family bringing a bucket of chicks and the mother hen from the front yard where they are protected overnight to the back yard where they spend the day. After breakfast the three youngest children, none of whom are over twelve years of age, washed the dishes, swept the yard and watered the plants.  Their quiet faith fills their lives.

Our next stop was San Marcos, another town two hours’ drive away. Elida and other Friends gave us a ride, as they were on the way to organize the Friends’ library in San Marcos. San Marcos is special in a different way. It is not on the tourist route, as is the case with Gracias Lempira. A small town in the mountains, with mostly unpaved roads, it is a relaxed place. It also feels very safe, and residents are free to stroll around the central square at night, admiring the stars.  
Dionel and Glenda's stove

 We went to sleep to the sounds of frogs in the hills and woke to the contented snorts of the horse grazing next door. Our hosts have electricity and fuel for the stove in the kitchen, but they prefer to use the outdoors kitchen where they cook with wood using a traditional oven and stove. They obtain the wood from a friend, freeing them from using their limited church salary for fuel. The sweet smell of burning wood fills the yard. We stayed with Pastor Dionel Mejia and his family, Glenda, Nayansy and Anita, age 5. We were invited to the women’s worship, a small group meeting in one of the member’s homes. One of the group members, the wife of the pastor who is also a pastor, offered a Bible discussion. They ended their evening with fried rice from the Chinese takeout!

Anita in a favorite spot

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Black Christ, Esquipulas, Guatemala

 Last Tuesday was the annual celebration of the Black Christ in Esquipulas, one of the main pilgrimage sites in Central America. Minga and I went by bus with lots of other celebrants to take in the sights of this huge Catholic celebration. Surrounding the cathedral were hundreds of plastic tarps, housing families who had come for the two-week celebration. Beans were cooking on the sidewalk over wood fires, and children played among the tents and around the visitors strolling in the park. The diversity of visitors was broad: wealthy urban couples from Mexico City with Gucci handbags and shoes, side by side with Mayan women wearing their traditional brightly-colored woven skirts and blouses. Buses were parked on the side streets announcing their purpose and origin: Pilgrimage to the Christ of Esquipulas from Veracruz, Mexico, read one sign.
Many mementos are on offer: postcards, amulets, and local items including cowboy hats with multi-colored pompoms. Mayan girls get their photographic portraits taken in front of the cathedral.
Unlike in other parts of Guatemala, restaurants abound, offering meals to the travelers. Around the cathedral were several lines of people waiting. One led to the nave, where for a fee and a long wait one can visit the main attraction, a statue of Christ made out of dark wood in the eighteenth century. On the way there, one can place a votive candle in the anteroom where there is a replica of the same statue. Worshipers prayed all around the replica, rubbing their hands and important documents on it. The anteroom was unbearably hot, with thousands of candles, and wax dripping all over the floor. Inadvertently, we found ourselves on another line, and soon received the blessing of a priest who sprinkled us with holy water.
The “main stage” in the park hosted curious events, including a dance by people wearing huge animal costumes. They minced around rather sedately on their sneakers, bobbing their oversized heads to the music. It was an endurance contest given the heat. On a signal, they all took off their costume heads and received water and towels from their families.
We never did experience the mass, but it was enough to visit the sanctuary and pay our respects. After a few hours in Esquipulas, I was ready to retire from the crowds and heat, wishing someone would towel off my brow and give me a cool drink. Instead, we joined the crowded bus and made our way back “home” to Chiquimulas, with a sigh of relief.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

AVP among Quakers in Guatemala

My friend Minga and I traded our winter clothes for cool skirts and sandals, and went to Guatemala to offer workshops through the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).  We offered the first one last weekend in Ipala, a city in southeast Guatemala.

Part of the AVP group

The workshop was very much appreciated. Thirty-one people received certificates and more attended for part of the time but were unable to complete the three-day commitment. Most of the people who participated were Quakers, connected to the local Friends Meeting. They hosted us and provided two large meeting spaces for us, enabling us to provide two concurrent workshops. The City of Ipala provided food for all the participants, a veritable banquet with lunch every day, and two “snacks” which generally consisted of something I might consider an entire meal: ham sandwiches, tortillas or empanadas, and soft drinks. This is the first workshop to be offered to Quakers in Guatemala, and perhaps the largest to be offered in Guatemala at one time. It was so wonderful to see the enthusiasm and commitment to offering the program.  It is also humbling, as well, to see the importance they place on the training and their hopes that it will make a difference in finding peaceful alternatives to the violence we all face.
Ipala is a close-knit community, though a city of 25,000. Most of the attendees knew each other, either through participation in the Quaker meeting, schools or university. In some cases, they were relatives. Sometimes when people know each other they are hesitant to share their personal stories in AVP. But many of the participants said they had shared in pairs some issues that they had not shared previously with others. Many of them said they appreciated most an exercise called Empathy, where participants assemble into groups of four people, and each writes a paragraph about an issue that they are working on. Then the papers are redistributed and each reads and suggests solutions to someone else’s issue.

AVP in action

We talked about the violence in families: abuse, abandonment (many of the participants had absent fathers or husbands) and absence of respectful communication. We practiced “I” messages, trying for clear communication without placing blame. We also had lots of fun exercises. The Guatemalan and North American facilitators worked together with good sharing of responsibilities. The Guatemalan participants put up with our imperfect Spanish and we all understood each other well. There was a funny moment when I gave my name as Martha Magnetica (Magnetic Martha) but it was understood as Martha Maniatica (Crazy Martha)! We had lots of laughs.
I had heard that the region is one with quite a bit of violence due to the drug trade, but we are so relieved to see that it seems to be – on the surface – less dangerous than we had feared. We made plans on the last day to hike up a nearby volcano, and were told that the biggest danger would be getting lost. So we were pleased that two of the workshop participants agreed to go with us. It was incredibly beautiful. We started very early in the morning, taking a bus out of town and hiking up the road through the “skirts” of the mountain. Lots of birds and flowering trees. The dry season is just beginning and many plants are blossoming. There were farmers working with horses, and little houses up in the hills.

Laguna on top of Ipala volcano

After an hour’s walk, we got to the top of the volcano where there was a pristine lake filling the now-dormant caldera. On one side was a moist mini-rainforest, with trees covered with bromeliads. On the other (windy) side, a few minutes’ walk away, was a dry cedar forest, where the wind whistled through the trees. No underbrush, only beautiful cedar trees and birds. Between the two was the clear lake with its cool clean water, where we swam and enjoyed a peaceful quiet Monday picnic. It was an idyllic place to rest our bodies and spirits after the workshop.

Karen, cocinera de calidad!

Now we are back in the larger city of Chiquimula, close to an hour's drive from Ipala by bus. We are staying with Karen, an active Quaker who has traveled a lot among Friends and understands well the needs that travelers have. She and her mother are extraordinary hosts, offering us sumptuous and healthy meals as well as helping situate us in the community. This morning we took a tour around the Quaker sites in the community: the large school, church and many other projects and missions, including a radio station and a museum!