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!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Weekend in Quetzaltenango, place of the quetzal

We just came back from a long car ride to and from Xela, the place of 10 peaks, otherwise known as Quetzaltenango, the place of the quetzal bird. The bird is no longer there, having left this sprawling metropolis in search of greener hills. 
Indoors arcade from 1920s, Xela

Xela is filled with unremarkable streets and small storefronts, an elegant central park and a museum whose wooden floorboards recall the old shops of my childhood with their faded blue paint. The first floor contains a touching history of technology, from the town’s first telephone bank, to mimeograph machines and the first portable telephones. Another room is devoted to the proud history of Xela, once the capital of its own separate country, once a modern city filled with coffee barons. A third room is filled with natural history oddities, from a family of stuffed lions with outsized staring eyes to jars of sad white fetuses. Hanging in midair is a stuffed goat with eight legs splayed in all directions, which lived for several hours and according to eyewitnesses,  gave off a strange yellow smoke when it breathed. One imagines the schoolchildren crowding around to read the descriptions and the undercurrent of Satanic urges hinted at by the commentary. 

Stone pedestrian bridge in Xela

Our purpose in visiting Xela was to help to build stoves that are fuel-efficient and have chimneys, helping to avoid respiratory disease which is the second leading cause of death in Guatemala. We met our friends in the early morning and took the chicken bus, the local bus which was formerly a US school bus, now painted in multicolors and decorated with religious sayings, out to a nearby suburb. A place of dusty hillsides, where construction is ongoing and huge trucks mine the earth. The homes are simple, with tin roofs and their dry rocky yards. Now is the dry season before the rains but after the harvest, so the land looks especially bereft. Instead of crops, the little tracts hold broken buckets and discarded plastic sandals.

Building the stove
The children crowded around as we worked, and helped wherever they could. The mother dug an expert hole, working in her sandals, while the children hauled wood and furniture out of the kitchen to make way for their new stove. After a morning’s work, we left the concrete and cinderblock frame to dry. On a later trip, volunteers will put in the firebox and install the shining chrome cooktop and metal chimney. The family will no longer have to cook over a simple fire in the kitchen building or breathe in the smoke.

On the way back, we spent a long dusty afternoon heading south and east back to Antigua.  We took the main road, the highway of Guatemala, its dusty margins covered by a perpetual fog of exhaust fumes and sellers of tropical fruits. The mameys, huge as a monkey’s head, hiding a clear yellow freshness inside. The zapotes with their dented, rotted appearance from the outside and the orange fruit like sweet squash.  The pitahayas like large plums, with a shocking neon purple flesh surrounding small black seeds. The pineapples each with their identical color shift from green to yellow, advertising their exquisite sweetness.

The Interamerican Highway it is called, the main conduit of traffic of all types from El Salvador and parts south on up to Mexico and the United States. The shortest route to Mexico where it stretches a finger south along the Pacific coast into Guatemala, its porous border welcoming travelers. Travel on the road is slowed by road works. Here the mudslide of last year came pouring over the bridge, the bridge still under repair and cars crawling around it through the underbrush. There a fuel truck has turned over on its side, its driver come back to alert the travelers to slow to a single lane. The shocking sight of it lying on its side like a dead animal, its fuel tank miraculously intact. Once we were jolted by a car coming towards us at full tilt, a construction detour unannounced to travelers coming from our direction.

Pickup trucks coming south with California license plates carrying loads of new items: car bumpers, washing machines, new bedframes. White panel trucks driving north with no company name, shut tight. One can imagine so many refugees packed tight inside, sweltering in the heat and praying for a safe journey.

Little tendrils of economic anxiety reached into my life in Guatemala, when someone took the numbers of my debit card and my attached security code from the automatic teller machine I used one day. The numbers made their way down this highway to Bogota, Columbia, just south of Panama. There, some desperate person turned those magic numbers into cash. A small tax on the rich for use by those in need. I did not even have to bear the cost due to the safety net of the United States banking system which reimbursed my loss. When the same thing happened to my Guatemalan friend, $800 an absolute fortune to him, his bank ignored and perhaps smiled on the theft. My dutiful report to the bank was met with a wall of stony silence.  Many in Guatemala are trying to create a state of economic and physical security, but poverty and related violence are hard to root out.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Early Bird Gets The Worm - by Conor

The steam rising from the expansive lake creates a blanket
Covering the view of the towering volcano.
The early morning sun is just starting to
Creep out from its bed and climb over the mountains.

The birds swoop silently in and out
Of the clouds like mosquitos on a cool fresh summer’s night.
Their reflections zip back and forth
On the top of the water.

Unbroken silence is denied by the small waves rhythmically lapping
Against the dock.
The sounds drifting over from the nearby town are
Barely audible.
Cars driving on the road seem timid,
Not fully awake yet.

In the middle of the lake, three centuries away,
A figure
Resembling the ferryman across the River Styx
Slowly paddles his way across the lake.
Shrouded in a cloak of mist and fog,
Solemnly gliding across the water.
Once he reaches the shore, he mutely passes the
Long row of women doubled over rocks in the shallows,
Painstakingly scrubbing dirt out of their clothes.

An ocean away, as if underwater, a horn
Signals the farewell of the early boat
Leaving this small town wedged in between the lofty volcano, the shimmering lake, and the endless mountains.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Volunteering in Antigua and other stories

I hope I never stop noticing:

»    The women in their traditional skirts (corte), blouses (huipiles) and belts, a riot of color, yet each is so carefully planned. Each village has its own huipile style, and they take up to six months to be embroidered by hand. Birds, flowers, stripes and zigzag patterns predominate in bold patterns, contrasting with the shy smiles on the women’s faces as they greet us  
“Buenos días”. The women carry their goods to market on their heads. Usually there is a baby or small child peering out of the cloth (rebolso) that they carry across one shoulder. Despite their heavy burdens, they step lightly off the high curb and among the wind-strewn plastic bags on the street.
»    The crumbling ruins everywhere – fountains, churches, statues. In one church-yard guarded by a loyal family there is a truckload full of statuary that used to be inside the church. Jesus carries his cross, his ignominy increased by the plastic tarp that partially covers him. 
 »  The mini-van delivering plantain chips and soda pop, with its hired armed guard. How much money could it possibly have on board? When I paid for a drink with 100 quetzales, about $12, the store owner had to go next door for change. Yet the guard stands vigilantly watching both directions, while the delivery is made. He holds his automatic weapon, trigger-finger at the ready.
»    The never-ending stucco walls, close to the street. They ripple in the heat. Spilling over the walls are gardens that ran out of room on the other side. Flowers in impossible colors and shapes, poinsettia trees.
»     On our terrace, flowers surprise me. Yesterday, a huge red amaryllis raised its head among the foliage. At night, the scent of the “huele de noche” or “smells wonderful at night” wafts in the window. Though its flowers are easily overlooked, the smell fills the small garden.
Some flower food for starved northerners

»    The children in the program where we volunteer: Los Patojos (The Kids). Their neighborhood is tough, yet they are so sweet. They approach us and ask for our help with their homework, their projects. “Show me how you make a paper airplane”. After I demonstrated the basic design and gave a little treatise on how you can alter the shape to improve the flight, a little girl came up to me. In her hand was a three-dimensional paper flower, the exact replica of a tulip. She offered it shyly to me by its paper stem. I was so glad to see her playful smile and the pride with which she showed it to me. I guess she already knew something about origami. In fact, I think she sells these flowers on the street.
We passed a man wearing a sweatshirt from Berwick Academy. I had to bite my tongue not to speak my recognition of this school, so near home. However, the man has no connection to our friends at home. Instead, he purchased the sweatshirt in a used clothing store because he liked the color or the price. Likewise, the men wearing shirts that announce “Girl Power!” or “2004 National Cheerleading Competition”. If these macho guys knew what they were wearing, they might choose a different shirt. Once in Cuba, I saw the man wearing my own shirt. I gave a gasp when I saw it, though it was not a big coincidence since I had left some clothing with the community on a previous trip to Cuba. Eventually I get used to the idea that people do not know the meaning of the cast-off clothes they are wearing. Or rather, the clothes have their own new value system, one that is recognized by the buyers, sellers and owners of the clothes. I do not know these subtle distinctions, just like the vast number of colorful Guatemaltecan expressions that still shoot right over my head.
Besides working at Los Patojos with my teens, I am also volunteering with Namaste, a women’s microenterprise program. In addition to microloans supporting women in their work selling tortillas, weaving fabric and the like, they offer business education to help the women improve their businesses. Business advisors travel to the villages and meet with groups of women. The women learn about how to keep track of expenses, how to attract and keep customers, and how to keep their business funds separate from their personal expenses (easier said than done). Last week we traveled to a nearby village where all the women wore traditional clothing. I learned that the traditional sash is a great place to store your cell phone. The work of these women was to make huipiles. We met in one of the women’s homes, where we sat in a circle. Some of the older women did not read, but they were respected as elders with much wisdom to offer.
This week we went to another village and met with another group to offer education. Here, the women run general stores, tortilla shops or flower shops. All the women had aprons over their modern clothing. These women were much more outspoken. The laughter and sharing went on long after the formal session had ended. We talked about lots of things, like how to keep a customer waiting who comes in when it is busy (make eye contact with a smile!) and whether to allow customers to buy on credit. I found it informative!
My role with Namaste is to help assess their programs in general, and to help with the re-writing of their educational curriculum in particular. I am also looking at how to measure the economic well-being of the women, which is notoriously difficult in a culture where hardly anyone has a bank account, where the gains are often under the table, and where the pig being raised for profit sometimes ends up being eaten by the family! There is a simple tool called Progress out of Poverty Index, which can be used to measure economic well-being with only 10 questions, most of which can be observed visually in the home. It is being used internationally, and is much easier than trying to conduct a “wallet biopsy” as we do in the US.
Here is a blog posting that I put together for Los Patojos:
My 3 teens and I are volunteering for a month at Los Patojos, ( “The Kids”) near Antigua, Guatemala. We did quite a bit of research before choosing this NGO, and as you may know there are many NGOs in the Antigua area! Each is doing wonderful work in its own way, and the needs are tremendous so there is no problem with excess capacity of volunteers. What drew us to Los Patojos is evident if you look at the wonderful photos on the site: the place is full of joy! Among the many after-school enrichment programs for low-income children, Los Patojos seems to be unique in encouraging children to be their most creative and joyful selves. The walls are covered with murals, children are encouraged to play ball and horse around during study breaks, and the sense of personal responsibility being taught reminds me of our Montessori education at home. The staff takes pains to treat the kids with the respect and love which many of them do not receive at home.

Juan Pablo, the founder, has a vision for social justice which pervades the center. They are teaching the kids to be the leaders of tomorrow, to have an understanding of the political realities of Guatemala and abroad, and to have a sense that they CAN make a difference in the world. So for example, the staff get together periodically to talk about political realities and how to create justice in Guatemala. This month, the teens are creating a newsletter, and they are planning a break dance event for the community – this in one of the most severely disadvantaged communities in the country, where people do not feel safe venturing out after dark.

I started by roaming around the center, getting to know the rhythms of the afternoon and exploring the age groups. From teaching jump rope, beading and painting with the youngest ones, to reading a simple book and working out English words with the older ones, to just sitting quietly with a child as he did his homework, helping him or her to concentrate better in that wildly festive atmosphere, I felt needed and helpful right away. Within a few minutes, children started to approach me with questions. I felt that little hand on my back, and a hesitant “Seño – puedes ayudarme?” “Teacher, can you help me?” At the end of the day, I was showered with hugs from many kids. Even more gratifying: when we walk through the neighborhood after the sessions, I meet many of the parents, who greet us with a smile of recognition. Several times, they have come up to me to thank me for being there for their children.

Yesterday, Juan Pablo told me that the oldest elementary-aged children, age 10 to 12, needed some volunteer help. So I went to the coordinator of that group, Rafa, and told him I was available to take a group. Honestly I had no idea what would happen a few minutes later when 10 children assembled eagerly in their classroom, ready for what I had to offer. As it turned out, we had a wonderful conversation ranging from geography (Where is Kenya? What direction is the United States from here?) to how it feels to fall into a huge snowbank (a current topic with all the snow up north this winter). I found that the children knew the English-language Happy Birthday song but they did not know what the words meant. After we learned this we launched eagerly into the Spanish rejoinder, “Ya queremos pastel!” (“We want cake now!”) which they taught me. When I talked about my religion, we got into a conversation about who is that man with the black hat on the cereal box, and we even invented a little song that Quaker Oats could use as its advertising jingle! I look forward to an ongoing conversation with the group, helping them to discover their voices and learn more about the world and the role they can play to make it better
Mayan family relaxing on Sunday

Children studying at Los Patojos

Jesus in the garden