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!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The bank

Outside the bank is a sad line of elderly campesinos waiting to cash their Social Security checks. They stand patiently in the rain with their derby hats covered by plastic bags. On their faces is the look of resignation that is so frequent among the very poor. They have walked down from their homes high in the mountains and must later return on foot. Meanwhile, I am ushered to the front of the line, along with a local restauranteur. When I asked him about this later, he said that it used to be much worse before Evo came into power. Then the discrimination was very bad, and indigenous people were not even allowed into government buildings.

The Sea

This week we celebrated Dia del Mar, Day of the Sea: a big march with drums and sampeños (Andean pipes), and speeches about how Bolivians need to regain access to the sea. Bolivia lost its access to the sea 132 years ago, to Chile. How to get it back? Not much clarity. Just this: get a better education, don’t take drugs. Make our country strong. What was striking was the sad sense of yearning for the sea by those in this landlocked, beautiful country. Children performed poems they had written about the sea, politicians made rousing speeches. The marching bands had practiced in the streets for weeks. All were tinged with the sadness of a small landlocked country with little economic power. As beautiful as the Bolivian mountains are, the geography of this country keeps it poor. I loved seeing the multicolored indigenous flag beside the traditional national flag of Bolivia though.
The other day, one of the smaller children had an assignment to make waves on the ocean, as a writing exercise. The teacher had made a wavy line, one higher segment, moving down to a lower one, repeating across the page. The student was to continue the format of the waves. But neither she nor her father understood how to make a wave shape. They have never seen the sea.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Martha on Sorata, Bolivia

When we arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, the highest commercial airport in the world at 12,000 feet, our main concern was the altitude. We had been told to gather our belongings, drink some coca tea in the airport (legal drink here), and head to lower altitude with all due haste. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to feel light-headed and a bit queasy, even sitting in the airport. I think we somehow lost some organizing powers, because it actually took us three hours to fill out the paperwork, change money and buy a phone, drink our tea and then get on the road downhill. I don’t remember much about the trip since I lay down and slept, only seeing a few vistas of the enormous snow-covered mountains when I was able to open my eyes. In the towns, there seemed to be a large number of high (3-story) cinder block buildings under construction or newly built, supplementing the older two-story stucco buildings.
We arrived in Sorata, and spent the better part of 24 hours fast asleep. It may have been only partly the altitude, partly the overnight flight from Miami. We finally awoke to a pretty little town set in the midst of huge green mountains on all sides. Sorata is at the end of the road, in the foothills of the Cordillera Real (royal range) and there is no through traffic on the dirt road that passes for the main highway. You don’t think about motors much until you don’t hear them. It is so quiet here that we can hear the river a mile away, roaring down through the rocky valley.
We are living in the Internado, a student residence founded by Quakers to house indigenous students from the Aymara culture who live far outside town. Because of the Internado, the students are able to attend high schools in town, often the first generation to do so. On Friday afternoon, they take off on foot, some walking five or six hours to get home for the weekend. When I asked the students where they live, one said to me: “See that farthest peak? I live there.”  And off she went, with her long velour skirt, her many petticoats, and her long braids, to hike the distance.
The students are busy with school until noon, and in the afternoon they have many programmed activities. Soccer takes highest billing for the boys. They play every day at the school field, and this is the major town entertainment. On some afternoons they work in a field outside town where they are being taught organic farming; on other days they learn to use computers. They have quite a bit of homework as well. They stretch out their projects on the long tables and spend endless hours coloring world maps and recopying charts until they are perfect.
Coming directly from Guatemala, I am constantly struck by the similarities – and the differences – from that country. Both are countries with an indigenous majority, with a ladino or Spanish origin upper class. Racism is rife, but in Bolivia unlike in Guatemala there is indigenous leadership – Evo Morales is the first indigenous president.
We traveled from a warm climate with lots of local fruit to a higher, cooler climate in the Cordillera Real, the royal mountain range, in Bolivia. So of course the vegetables and fruits available here are different. Here we are eating lots of potatoes, quite a bit of beef, wonderful vegetable soups, and few fruits. Many families rely on farming in both places, both countries with a rural population base. In both countries I have been asked: “What does your family farm?”
We have started teaching school here, and the education is quite traditional as it is in Guatemala, with a focus on copying and memorizing texts. Students in the Internado benefit from enrichment programs including computer learning and a wonderful organic farming program.
One difference that affects our daily lives is the relative safety and isolation of life here in Sorata. When a merchant leaves her store for a few minutes, she leaves the door open, placing a broom across the entrance to indicate that she’ll be back. That would have been unheard of in Guatemala. Life is different in the big city, La Paz, but here in Sorata there is very little concern for theft. We can walk everywhere up in the mountains without worrying.

Conor on Guatemala and Bolivia

For this round of contributions to the blog, I was asked to try not to write a poem. I was thinking about the difference between life at home and in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s quite a touristy place, but in a sense that’s a good thing. There’s something to be said for familiarity, but another part of travelling is trying new things and widening one’s comfort zone. With a TV, reliable internet and various other luxuries, I feel like it would be a stretch to say that life in Antigua is completely different from home.
Our stay in Antigua has showed us some of the reasons there are so many expats here. It felt like a place we could actually live in for longer than eight weeks. We’re acquainted with our neighbors, and we like to say we know the town well. I’ve gotten used to living in our “apartamentito”, and it seems like the differences are becoming less significant over time. It’s normal to walk three blocks to the supermarket. The city stretches only eight blocks from the north to south, and waking up in nice warm weather to the calls of exotic birds and a small patio bathed in sunlight is a delight. ­­­­­
When we walk around the city, we notice that all the walls and doors are closed to the street, and there is no concept of a front yard. Each door is like a mysterious oyster waiting to be opened. It seems almost hostile, but the word “almost” lingers, like a soft pillow, assuring you that this crazy idea is far from the truth. Behind each door there may be a small family living in a tiny space, a wonderfully blooming garden or a long alleyway lined with plants splitting off into different houses.
Opposite this feeling, if you get on a bus for ten or twenty minutes, you end up in an area where almost everything is constructed out of worn, rusty corrugated metal. People cook with an open fire in the middle of the room. We tried to help a little with this problem by going to Xela (otherwise known as Quetzaltenango, place of the Quetzal bird) to build safe stoves with proper chimney pipes to let out the harmful smoke. We spent our afternoons at Los Patojos, volunteering and spending time with Guatemalan kids in the program. Although I feel it seemed like there was not much to do at times, just sitting next to the kids while they work helps them concentrate and stay in thei­­­­­­­r­­ seats.
Now that we’re in Sorata, Bolivia, even the small size of Antigua seems big. Sorata is a small town set on a mountainside. The view out our window is incredible, when it’s not blocked by the fog that seems to come almost every day. There are wonderful day hikes all around, one going to a big natural cave with a pool of water big enough to take a paddle boat around in. Although we didn’t see any bats there, we could definitely hear them.
We are living in the Quaker Internado, a project set up for kids who live way up in the mountains to come down and do a five day boarding schedule. All the meals are cooked by Maria, the “mother of the house”, and the “father” role goes to Eusebio. It is nice not to have to cook, although this week we cooked one meal for all the students. We have just started to teach English classes at one of the high schools in town, and we’re looking forward to continuing that. All the kids are great; we play volleyball in the courtyard, eat meals together, and just hang out. We’ve started the silkscreen process, where each kid will draw a design and make a t-shirt.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Song from Evan

The following are lyrics to a song that Evan, my 19 year-old son, wrote for me as a birthday present last week. He asked me to share it on the blog.

We would wake, to rented beds and dark mornings
We would take our cheese and bread and start walking

And the clouds would sink beneath us,
As we changed sunscreen for our sweaters.
And no blisters could defeat us,
 Nor could stormy mountain weather.
As our shadows took the trail
Through morning’s misty veil,
We grew together.

You’re our mother,  you’re our partner, you’re our overhanging tree;
You led us through Santiago, now you’ve brought us to the sea.

Valencia caught autumn’s breeze
But the sand and waves stayed warm.
From five flights up we watched the sea
And heard the breakers form.
As the light drained from the Spanish sky,
We took the breakers by surprise.
And to the sea, returned.

You’re our mother, you’re our partner, you’re our overhanging tree;
You led us through Santiago, now you’ve brought us to the sea.

Last post from Guatemala

On our last day volunteering with the kids, we brought vats of ice cream and cones. They lined up and we all had an ice cream feast. We also gave each of them a simple Mayan bracelet, or pulsera.  Every day since I had brought our plastic beads and gimp, kids had asked me: “Can we make bracelets again today seño?” Lot of kids made lots of bracelets while we were there. But the bracelets did not seem to have much staying power. Either the string was too fine, or the gimp came apart, or the bracelets were given away. We didn’t see the kids wearing their bracelets much. But they kept asking. So we thought a remembrance of us from their culture would be fun. The kids at Los Patojos are a few steps removed from their Mayan ancestors, but they identify as Mayans. So we wanted to offer them something to encourage Mayan pride. They loved them.
We were so sorry to leave. The kids in my classroom had each made me a beautiful star with a personal note on it. They made me cry. We have so many great memories of our time together. From our hikes in the mountains (I told the kids to be careful, not to fall down the steep slopes, then the teachers yelled “OK kids, RUN!”) to our card games (Go Fish and War in Spanish were their favorites, no betting though…). I loved the free spirits encouraged by the program, so different from what is encouraged by the schools and many other programs in Guatemala.
At Namaste, I finished a trial of the Progress out of Poverty Index and produced a report on it. I think it would be an excellent tool for the microcredit program to use to evaluate its progress and to choose clients who can benefit from its work. The people at Namaste are very dedicated to helping women with their businesses.
After we finished our volunteering with the microcredit project, Namaste,  and Los Patojos, we took a weekend off and went out to the Caribbean coast of Guatemala to have a look around. This time was a real treat. We toured around on a sailboat, down the river to the town of Livingston, on the coast.
 Livingston is a Garífuna community, with a majority of people of African and West Indian origin. The Garífuna people are really poor, living in a ghetto within the majority-Latino culture and apparently taking a backseat to the Mayan communities in philanthropy as well. As we walked around the Garífuna community we met Phillip, a man who seemed to be the self-appointed ambassador of Garífuna culture in Livingston. He had studied in Chicago, and had known Jerry Garcia when he came down to Livingston in the winter. He was well versed in economics. Phillip gave us a tour of his community and invited us into his relatives’ home. Though there was electricity and running water, there were no streets or community institutions, there seemed to be no jobs, and no benefit from tourism for the Garífuna people. The restaurants and stores, even those which advertised Garífuna culture, appeared to be run by Latinos.
Phillip’s description of the plight of his people certainly seemed accurate from what we saw during our short visit.  Despite the poverty of the Mayan cultures, there is some government and lots of NGO support for them. But we have not seen any evidence of support for the Garífuna people. As everywhere, racism against African-origin people abounds in Guatemala, so Phillip’s description seemed reasonable. I would like to learn more about it. But we didn’t have time…we had to leave Livingston and spend more time on the river.
Heading upriver from Livingston, we quickly entered a narrow gorge with walls of green on either side. I spent hours looking at the foliage with binoculars. It may have looked like I was looking for monkeys, which I was. But in fact, I was feasting my eyes on the green spaces. Here a sunny glade among the trees, there many different types of leaves, a whole world of green.
Where did we swim? Rio Tatín, a short tributary, where we swam upriver to the headwaters, the location of the Ak’Tenamit program which houses 500 Mayan students, a school and a health center. We were there on a hot weekend afternoon, and the students were giggling and shrieking on the docks, pushing each other into the warm water. Even the indigenous girls with their long skirts were pushed in by the end of the afternoon. Upstream, a boy sat on a rock in the water and washed each of his toes carefully with soap. There was a faint sewage smell nearby, though the water seemed quite clean overall.
Above Finca Paraíso, we hiked to a warm sulfurous spring spilling over in waterfalls into a pool. The water, warmed by the volcanic rocks, was truly hot and gave off clouds of steam. Downstream, kids went to school and women washed their clothes in the water. Cows were led to pasture and little boys went to soccer games.
Along the edge of the Rio Dulce (Sweet River) was a very hot spring and hot caves. The guide who lives there said that the area is used for Mayan ceremonies.
It was a wonderful relaxing end to our two month stay in Guatemala. Next stop: Bolivia!

Monday, March 7, 2011


I gave a lecture on the world map to the kids at Los Patojos. Turns out they have very little understanding of geography. So I stood at the whiteboard and sketched the world map for them. We talked about the continents, the equator, and the oceans. We talked about the convention of putting north on top and south down below. Why? Because the mapmakers were from the north. We turned our heads upside down and tried to imagine what the map would look like with south on top. This exercise was uninteresting to them. First, because they are do not know what the world map looks like. Second, because they are in the middle anyway.
This week, I will talk with them about Africa. When I asked some of them what is happening in northern Africa this year, most of them were unfamiliar with Mubarak’s departure, or crises in Tunisia, Libya or elsewhere. One of them told me he had heard about Egypt, that it was the biggest empire on earth. I asked him where he heard this. “In the Bible”, he said.

Upside Down Seasons

In January, in the middle of one of the snowiest winters on record, we flew to Guatemala.  In the midst of poverty, we found bouganvilleas filling our vision with their bright colors. Jacaranda high up in the air created a violet mist above us. Cool air, but in the nighttime, where it belongs. We slept with the window open and the cool moonlight pooling on the floor. In the daytime, it was warm enough to consider swimming.
Near the spring solstice, we will fly south, to autumn. It will be cold, with mountain air catching in our throats. We will live in the mountains as the fall progresses, into winter.

Trip to San Juan Comalapa

School building, Long Way Home
We went to Comalapa to visit a non-profit called Long Way Home, led by friends of ours from home. It is an initiative to build out of recycled materials including tires, glass and plastic bottles, all encased in mud and wattle. We saw organic-looking round buildings, with arched entrances. At any time, I expected the futuristic people in “2001” to wander out with clubs in their hands. Natural light is provided by wine bottles sunk into the ceiling, reminding us surprisingly of the ancient bath structures we saw in Morocco, where star-shaped openings let in natural ceiling light and let out heat. The designers are experimenting with solar hot water using runoff water systems and also organic toilets. It is all very ambitious. They have opened a community park where the entrance fee is a bag of recyclables.
Comalapa has good art karma. It is a smaller city, tucked into the hills and inhabited mainly by Kak’chikel Maya people. Guatemala’s National Anthem was written by a resident, and there are many visual artists, known and unknown, living here. Unknown artists include large numbers of women who weave their clothing with fabulous flowers across the bodice and back, surmounted by a row of smaller flowers around the neck. The designs of the San Juan Comalapa “huipiles” are renowned.

A famous world-renowned artist is Oscar Perén, whom we met in his studio. He showed us his canvasses bursting with color and details from Guatemala, with stories, history, and folklore filling each one.
On the main street is a series of murals telling the history of Guatemala, from the early Mayans to Spanish conquistadores, to the conflict in the 1980s and 1990s which some call Civil War but others call the genocide. It includes a section on dreams for the future of the region.

Mural: “Urban and Rural Development Council: Weaving our Future"
Communities like Comalapa were almost destroyed in the genocide. Right-wing government soldiers drove the people out of their communities and into hiding in the hills. Anti-government guerrilla forces tried to free the indigenous people from their oppressive government , but the Mayan people ended up caught in the crossfire. The efforts at Comalapa mark a beginning of truth-telling about the genocide that has not yet taken place. The perpetrators are still in power.
Huipiles, market day, Comalapa
Selling patterns and thread, Comalapa
Friends at the market
As we wandered through the market at Comalapa, I could only think COLOR. My entire field of vision was filled with such vivid colors as it’s hard for a northerner to relate. Walls of plum tomatoes, rainbow-colored mangoes, huge slabs of raw meat, yellow pork rinds sizzling in vats of oil, piles of fresh green herbs and everywhere the women in their incredible traditional trajes. Small vignettes also: a boy playing cards directly under his mother’s table, babies everywhere being carried on their mothers’ or sisters’ backs,  teens giggling together, women being repaid after sale of their handicraft.

Hopeful seller

People eat out infrequently in Comalapa. We went to one of the only restaurants, owned by a friend of ours. The only other guests greeted us individually as they left. Coffee is not the beverage of choice either. When we went to the only coffee shop in town to assuage our coffee addictions, the owner was happy to see us. I asked whether people drank much coffee in town. “Not yet”, he said. He wiped the dust off the table and moved histoddler out from the galley kitchen to start up the pot. I think we were the only customers of the day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Poem by Laura - Buses


I’m thinking about buses.
Here, they shake with color
And fill with music.
It doesn’t come from the stereo,
But up from the ripped leather seats,
Whose broken metal frames like to sharpen their teeth on pant legs.
But never mind those ravenous monsters.
It comes from the cracked leather and chipped walls,
Bubbling past our ears and flowing through the windows,
Mingling with the clouds of exhaust we leave behind.
I think maybe that’s what these people are made of,
That music and color that spills out of their buses,
Appears in a mango-colored window,
In so many woven art works
And skillfully mixed bowls of guacamole.
I enjoy the buses here -
These traveling fiestas on wheels.