• Good Friday fun

    What a day.

    Short version: my younger daughter got chomped on by a dog, we went to Coban to look at the carpets, and then, at the end of the day, we finally took her to a doctor. Also, it was a really fun day.

    Long version: brace yourself. Also, there will be a little blood, but it’s only fitting, seeing as it was Good Friday.

    So, Escobar, the neighbors’ old Rottweiler, was eating his breakfast when my daughter spied some of his food on the ground and picked it up to toss to another dog. Escobar didn’t approve and let her know by clamping down on her arm with his teeth. This is the same dog who has punctured car tires with his bare (bared?) teeth and who terrifies taxi drivers. In other words, he’s got a mean bite.

    Naturally, my daughter screamed and lit out for home where she bled all over the patio and her shirt, and we, once we realized she was actually hurt and not just screaming for the joy of it, jumped into high gear. After washing the wound (there were actually three—two small ones on the back of her wrist/hand and one bigger one on the inside of the wrist), we sat her down with a rag, ordered her older brother to read to her (so she would stop wailing and we could think), and started reading up on dog bites. We called our friend who is a nurse, messaged my brother-in-law who is a pharmacist, and paged through Where There Is No Doctor, the go-to health manual for overseas workers.

    I had been chatting with my mother online when all this went down, so my son (before we commissioned him to read to the wounded) took over the chatting. Here’s the conversation, slightly edited:

    My son: She just got bitten relly bad. Nothing to worry about.
    My mother: relly bad. NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT?????

    After about twenty minutes of allowing the wound to bleed, we called up Nurse Friend again and she said it was time to apply pressure. My husband put antibiotic on it and wrapped it in a panty liner (panty liners have more than one use, as we already know), we jotted down the recommended antibiotics, and off to town we went. This was our original plan (minus a pharmacy visit) because in Guatemala, Good Friday equals PARTY.

    For Guatemalan Catholics, Good Friday is a really, really, reallyreallyreally big deal. (Easter Sunday not so much.) On this day, they make elaborate alfombras (carpets) on the roads and then parade over them in a series of processions that last all day long and into the night.

    When we got to Chamelco, a procession was already underway.

    The fashionista rocking her panty liner bracelet.

    The carpets are mostly made out of colored sawdust, but pine needles get some heavy use, too.

    Fresh flowers, fruit, twigs, and candles are called into service as well. My favorite was this: Jesus on the cross with a banana in his hand.

    We went into the cathedral just to see what was going on.

    Tourist tidbit: our little town’s cathedral was the first one to be built in this whole region.

    Inside, there was some sort of service gearing up, plus people were working on the floats.

    readying the women’s float

    Later in the day, people would carry these giant floats through the streets. There was one for the women (16 women on each side) and a bigger one for the men (30 men on either side). These, however, are peanuts compared to the float in Antigua, the mother of all Good Friday celebrations. That one takes some ridiculous amount of men to carry it, like a hundred on each side.

    Once we arrived in Coban, we only had to walk a little ways up the road before arriving at a roped off street. It was buzzing with alfombra-making activity.

    self portrait 

    After watching for a bit, purchasing the antibiotic (and changing the bandage), we went to a little comedor for lunch.

    Fried fish was on the menu, and my fish-loving kids jumped at the opportunity. They didn’t, however, expect it to come with eyeballs attached.

    Turned out, fish with eyeballs isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, because if it still has eyes, then have they even gutted it? (Yes, of course, but we couldn’t convince everyone. It didn’t help that my husband’s fish was still partly raw.)

    Also, we are never giving that boy Pepsi ever again. Within minutes, the kid was pulsating with unbridled enthusiasm for life.

    Lunch over, we headed to central park. I sat myself in the shade and reveled in the abounding photo ops.

    fruit carts: peeled oranges waiting to be sliced in half and sprinkled with spicy ground pumpkin seeds, mango slices, fruit salad in bowls (and a honey bear because here fruit salad is always drizzled with honey)

    boiled field corn on a stick: they dress each ear with liberal amounts 
    of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise

    cotton candy: it takes two men to make it, one to catch the sugar with the stick 
    and the other to hand crank the machine

    Dog Bitten Daughter’s bandage was getting rather bloody (again), so we changed it.

    Immediately, we had a crowd.

    “We could charge money,” I hissed to my husband as I handed my older daughter the camera. (She didn’t back up far enough so she missed all the people standing on either side.)

    When we took off the bandage, the blood started running down her arm right away. Also, the wrist was swelling and there was a good bit of purple underneath.  

    Hmm, should we be concerned yet?

    Nah, not just yet. 

    We slapped on another bandage and went to the cathedral. Inside, the priest (or somebody) was preaching about the wounded and sick and people were milling all around. The huge floats were parked at the front of the church, awaiting their moment of glory.

    I alternated between hanging out in the church with the family and going outside so I could make phone calls. The wound was still, after three changes, steadily bleeding. Perhaps the damage was a little worse than we thought? Was a vein punctured? An artery? Should it be sutured? The high risk of infection had me slightly nervous. I kept checking her arm for red streaks.

    Outside, the crowds were tucked to a fever pitch.

    Official looking men (my husband just informed me they are firemen) were finishing up an alfombra.

    A band arrived:

    Men in long robes scurried around moving motorcycles to make room for the procession:

    Seemingly out of the blue, two long lines of Roman soldiers marched into the church:

    Upon seeing the fierce, broom-capped men with their long pointy swords, my kids, boredom forgotten, snapped to attention.

    Roman soldier in training

    The Roman army had two not-yet-in-use generators—one at the head of the procession and another at the tail.

    That’s the best part, my husband said. So I got a picture.

    Then when I was outside, a whole line of men in black suits and sunglasses streamed around the side of the building and into the church.

    They—the first round of float carriers?—looked like the mafia, or secret service men. That many of them were on cell phones made them look all the more intimidating.

    They were accompanied by not-yet-lit incense carriers.

     And right about then was when I connected with the people I was calling. They said they could meet us at a private clinic—the best one in the area, our different sources agreed—so we had to leave the party.

    I never did get to see the monstrous floats in action, much to my everlasting disappointment.

    At the clinic, they called a doctor while we waited in a hallway. I let my daughter play games on my cell phone to take her mind off the upcoming ordeal. Our friend, who so generously stayed with us the entire time without us even asking her to, bless her heart, chattered away, helping to distract our daughter even more.

    The doctor came and was wonderful. He suggested, and we agreed, not to stitch up the bite because of the risk of infection.

    He flushed it out while I helped her breathe: in through your nose, out through your mouth, LOOK AT MY EYES. And then my son, who was outside with the other kids and Luvia (who was with our friends when they swung by the clinic to help us out—it’s all very confusing so don’t even try to follow), called on the cell phone and visited with her for the rest of the procedure. The doctor gave us a prescription for a 7-10 day treatment of high-powered antibiotics, as well as drops for inflammation and pain. And then we were done!

    Our friends offered to drive us all home, but I wanted to see more of the festivities. So my older daughter and I stayed in town while the rest of the family headed home.

    Even the kids had their own spot!

    Recognize this alfombra?

    I am so glad we stayed. We ended up walking down the same street that we first saw when we arrived in the morning, but now the alfombras were mostly completed. We joined the hordes of Guatemalans in admiring the alfombras and taking tons of pictures. It was like a giant block party: everyone working together to make something beautiful. The atmosphere was fun, light, focused, and peaceful.

    Towards the end of the street we discovered our landowners busy working on an alfombra with their extended family. One neighbor handed my daughter a bucket of sawdust and put her to work.

    The sun was setting, so we had to head home. The party, however, was far from over. The procession, we were told, wasn’t scheduled to reach that particular street until 9 p.m., and the whole thing wouldn’t be over until midnight or one o’clock.

    Back in Chamelco, the morning’s alfombras had already been swept clean. But more were being built on the side streets. The celebration was far from over.

  • on being together: it’s different here somehow

    This week—Holy Week—the entire country shuts down. Our children are off school and we’re off work. Also, because it’s a crazy busy time at all the vacation hot spots (read rivers, ponds, and beaches), travel is a sticky mess and prices are jacked through the roof. Therefore, we opted to go Nowhere. (I told you we aren’t any good at being tourists.) In other words, we are having a self-imposed staycation.

    The first part of the break was taken up with my brother and church and regular stuff. But then on Tuesday, while my husband was spending 12 hours on buses, the kids and I found ourselves at home with nowhere to go for an entire day for the first time in forever, or at least a couple months.

    As homeschoolers, this used to be a common occurrence. Many days we’d just be banging around the house together, reading, cleaning, cooking, studying, fighting, writing, etc. But since we’ve been here, we’ve been on an entirely different schedule. We get up early and then go our separate ways for hours on end. A strange woman shows up at my door to mop floors and scrub the toilet. There are neighbor kids to play with and lots of errands to run and then we shut down the day extra early so we can do it all over again the next day.

    I like this routine we’ve carved out for ourselves. It’s reasonable and fairly balanced, as far as schedules go. So with an entire week of no childcare (I mean, school) and no house help (oh crap) looming before me, I panicked just a little.

    “I don’t know how those homeschooling moms do it!” I fussed to my husband before bed one night. “How do they live with their kids all day long? I’m going to go out of my mind!”

    But I’ve been pleasantly surprised. After that awful Sunday, things have gradually gotten better. The kids are settling down and sinking into our agendaless existence. I didn’t realize how pushed we’ve been to get up, get out, and go, go, go. Even though ours is quite the laid back lifestyle, it’s a lot more than what we’re used to.

    So Tuesday morning, I woke up to the sound of a steady rain on the tin roof and my older son’s voice droning on and on as he read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to the other kids. We spent the day doing some Spanish study, reading aloud about the aboriginal people of Australia, and playing Spot It. I made granola and the kids played Ticket to Ride. We had rest time and writing time. Things went downhill around 4 pm, but we worked it through and ended the day with a couple chapters of The Phantom Tollbooth.

    Yesterday, the rain continued—the only difference was that my husband was here with us. There was more book reading and Spanish study. My husband got out a 1000-piece puzzle and then rigged up a light so we could distinguish between the varying shades of blues and greens. I don’t think we’ve ever done a puzzle together, but we are, amazingly enough, very into it.

    Before we left to come here, a wise friend told my carpenter husband: You are not going to Guatemala to build anything. You are going to build a family.

    I always thought we had kind of already built a family, but I’m beginning to see what he meant. It’s different here, removed from all we know and rely on. Here it’s just us. We’re still the same people, very much so, but we’re growing and changing together. Sure, we still fight like cats and dogs, and yes, we get homesick and cry for our stateside friends, family, and pets, but we’re on this adventure together.

    Heck, we’re doing puzzles together. Something is obviously different.

  • the visit

    As I mentioned, my brother visited us for a week. Life was low-key and simple while he was here.


    *He and the kids cooked up some snails and crabs legs. The kids ate
    the crab legs and he ate the snails (though part way through he
    announced they tasted of “pond bottom” and quit).

    *He played lots of 10 Days in the USA with the kids.

    *We went to Cobán for church and afterwards paused in our trek across town to watch a soccer game.

    *My brother was about as fascinated by the market as I am and took to making trips to town and coming back with random food.

    *He visited the kids’ school with me and went with my husband to Bezaleel.

    *He borrowed a neighbor’s guitar and sat out on the porch strummin’ and a-hummin’ while the children fell asleep.

    got to experience riding in very full buses. (In the above photo, you’re looking at five of us.) Once we counted 28 people
    in a 12 passenger van. It always cracks me up when the ayudantes (bus
    assistants) tell us to make more room for people because there is
    supposed to be four in a row, or five (or six or eleven or whatever),
    and we just look at them blankly because, hello, we can not shrink our
    leg bones, thank you very much

    *He wanted a picture of himself with a gun-wielding guard, so I (and
    the guards) obliged. We agree that it was the most excitement those
    guards had all day and probably all week.
    *The only touristy thing we did was on Saturday when we went to a reserve and hiked up to the top of the forest to see out over Cobán and Chamelco (sort of).

    I want to start getting to know this area a little better. There are so many incredible things to see in Guatemala and the best place to start is right where we are. However, because simple day trips with six people can end up being quite pricey, and because it’s much easier to stay at home than to try to navigate the aforementioned stuffed buses, I often don’t even bother. But a friend mentioned this forest reserve to me. She said things like “close by” and “easy to get to” and “cheap,” so we slapped sunblock on everyone, filled water bottles, and set out.

    (When a kid waves this in your face and screams SPIDER, things happen.)

    Despite the fact that we chose the absolute worst time to visit a reserve—between 12 and 2 pm when all the animals and birds are snoozing their way through the shimmering heat of day—and despite the fact that the guide sprinted instead of walked, and despite the fact that a couple of my kids have no endurance for long, uphill, speed walks in the woods whatsoever, it was a splendid little foray. We got to do stuff like power walk through lush woods and see out over the whole of Cobán and glimpse a Toucan and examine an ant hill and see the most incredible camping spot ever—a perfectly level area shaded by two huge stands of bamboo and with a thick ground cover consisting of dried bamboo leaves. The reserve has gardens and pineapple plants and rhubarb (which I wanted to steal) and a swimming pool and velvety soft boxer dogs. We can go back any time to picnic, swim, and hike, the owner said. We just might take him up on it.

  • a list

    I have so many things to write about that I made a list. But the list is so long that it daunts me. So I’m skipping out entirely and doing a new, off-the-top-of-my-head list.

    1. The other day my brother asked my younger son this question: if you could see either Jesus or Obama, who would you choose?

    “Jesus,” my younger son promptly replied.

    Just as I was getting ready to ask why, he yelled, “No! Wait! Obama! Because if I see Jesus, that means I’m dead!”

    2. You know what I can’t get here? Real vanilla. There are cheap vanilla flavorings, flavorings that are way cheaper than our cheap vanilla extracts in the states. Like, fifty cents for a big ol’ bottle of brown stuff that stains my fingers like tobacco juice. Not that I’ve ever stained my fingers with tobacco juice…

    Actually, I have found real vanilla extract. It was in the fancy grocery store in Coban. Silly me bought one little (super expensive) bottle because I made the assumption (which, in situations such as these, I always pronounce ass-sue-nump-shun) that because the store was selling it, therefore the store carried it. WRONG.

    This is a new concept to me. In the States, if a store carries an item, it will be there so money-wielding patrons can purchase it. And if, by chance, they are out, then a near identical item can be found in the surrounding shelves, just with a different brand. And if, for some odd reason, the other four variations of the same item are also not there, then I can ask a store worker to rummage in the back of the store. And if that doesn’t work, then I can ask the store to special order it for me, or at least give me a rain check. And if that’s not good enough, I can always hop in my van and drive to one of the other six large grocery stores in my town and look there.

    I’m just a wee-bit dismayed.

    Also, I have yet to find a steady source of bread flour.

    A Real Vanilla-Less Baker (who is actually surviving just fine)

    3. I read this post first thing this morning and it made me very, very happy. Practically gleeful.

    4. I read this article (the tip-off link came from the aforementioned blog) a few days ago, then emailed the link to some family and friends, then made my brother and husband read it, and then read it out loud to the children (while my brother and husband listened) because it is fascinating.

    5. This is my husband, a.k.a. The Mama’s Minutia Blog Filter, giving me “The Look.”

    (Except usually “The Look” doesn’t include a smile.)

    Because I tend to say whatever pops into my mind, and because he’s routinely horrified at the things that come out of my mouth, he proofs almost every one of my posts before I hit publish.

    Usually, he just grunts his approval or mumbles something vague and entirely not pride-inducing, such as, It’s fine, and then I shriek, That’s all? Come on! It’s A-MAY-ZUH-ZING! and then he rolls his eyes and says, Sure, whatever, and then I kick him out of my desk chair so I can sulk in peace. So when he reads a post and then says, Um…, I pay attention and you all reap the benefits.

    (Psst! Notice the gray hair. Gray hair on men is extremely sexy, me thinks. Can I get an amen?)

    6. Right now my husband—oh husband of the graying temples—is on a bus on his way back from Guatemala City. He and my brother left our house this morning at 3:15 so my brother could catch his 11:30 flight back to the big bad states. They got to the airport at 9 am, and my husband, after doing a bit of poking around town, caught the noon bus back. He’ll be home in time for supper. The reason I’m writing this is so that you know that if, by chance, you should decide to come visit us, you can make it from your front door to our front door in one single solitary day which means, obviously, we’re practically neighbors!

  • of a moody Sunday

    It’s been a hard day. Tantrums (not mine) (mostly) before six a.m. are a sure-fire indicator that it’s going to be a no good, very bad day. And it was, for a good while, and then off and on for a bunch more hours. The cycle went something like this: blow up, work it through, simmer…and then do it all over again, yay! And while all that was going on, there were meals to fix, eat, and clean up after, buses and taxis to ride, groceries to purchase, and church to attend. It was not easy, pretty, or nice.

    Mid afternoon, things mellowed out a little. There was a peppy little breeze dancing down the porch. My older daughter pulled one of the mouse-eaten chairs out there for her rest time (there was no way on earth those girls could’ve co-existed in their hot little bedroom for 30 seconds, let alone a whole hour), but then she got busy with other things and I plunked myself down in the chair to read a magazine while sipping an iced coffee in an old jelly jar (brand: Anna Belly; flavor: strawberry) .

    From the party house down yonder came the lilting sounds of a marimba band. When they played Ya Queremos Pastel (We Want Cake), I joined in, much to my family’s annoyance. From a slightly different direction, there came the sound of a long-winded church service—the PLUNK-plunk-PLUNK-plunk-plunk-PLUNK of the bass and the nasal shrill of the lead singer into the mic.

    (Note to self: we have got to find a couple of hammocks and hang them up that porch. It’s the place to be on a sweltering, evil-mooded Sunday.)

    Anyway, my older daughter got it into her head to build a little house in the dirt along the edge of the porch.

    One thing led to another, and soon I was weaving dry leaves for a roof (or a floor mat) and she was soaking leaves for some thatch.

    My youngest son got out his cars and made a road.

    Flowers were collected and replanted, holes were dug, steps built.

    I just happened to click over to my friend’s blog, and, wouldn’t you know, she had just done a post on Fairy Houses! I showed the kids and the plot thickened.

    After a bit, my older son, husband, and visiting brother left to go “help” the neighbors harvest snails. (Or fish.) (Or something aquatic.) I set my younger daughter up at the computer to tool around the American Doll website. My younger son stuffed a rag with a banana and jocote (a fruit I haven’t told you about yet), tied it to the end of a headless broom, and trekked on down to the ponds. Her computer time up, my younger daughter soon followed.

    I ate a mango and snapped photos and typed this post, and still, my older daughter is hard at work, creating. Her creative calm helps me settle. Her total absorption is a balm for my wrung-out self. So, despite it being a (mostly) perfectly horrible day, the afternoon, I’m relieved to say, is shaping up to be pretty near perfect.

    I am not, however, placing any bets on the evening…


    After writing this, my daughter came in to my room and demanded I go take some more pictures.

    Her project was complete: flowers everywhere, lit votives, and a cross to top it all off with.

    Can you tell that my children attend a Catholic school and it’s Holy Week?

  • the walk home

    Usually, I take a taxi home from Chamelco. After walking to town, taking a bus to Bezaleel, working, taking a bus back to town, and navigating my way through a bunch of market purchases, I just want to get home as fast as possible. But yesterday, I didn’t have too much stuff in my market bag—just some tostados, two avocados, six hairbands (bought individually, of course), and a small bunch of cilantro—and I didn’t feel like tracking down a taxi and then sitting politely in the back seat, making small talk with the driver, and then digging out the exact change, so I slung my bag over my shoulder and struck out for home.

    It wasn’t until I was leaving town that I remembered I had my camera in my backpack. Which then led to this internal debate.

    Me: Yay! You can take some pictures!
    Self: But no one else is with me and what if someone decides to snitch my camera.
    Me: It’s so gorgeous today!
    Self: I’m an easy target for a hit and run robbery.
    Me: You’ve gotta take pictures of the road home. This is Your Life.
    Self: Eh, I don’t know…
    Me: No one is around! It’s broad daylight!
    Self: I really like my camera. I’d like to take it back home with me.
    Me: Look. Just loop the camera around your neck and tuck it into your bag, like so. There! Isn’t that nice and discreet?
    Self: Well, if you say so…

    We don’t know the exact address of where we are living. What we tell taxi drivers is this: Take us to the road of Casa de San Juan (Saint John’s House). A little bit beyond that, turn right into Rancho Santa Fe (Ranch Saint Faith). (Or something like that.)

    We live in a well-off part of Chamelco. You might say we live in the fancy suburbs. Casa de San Juan is a big establishment that hosts all sorts of parties and events, though I have yet to see anything be hosted there. Some dignitary lives in our general area. There’s an upscale restaurant, or there used to be—not sure which. There are houses with armed guards, though I rarely see them along the road—they slink around back behind the high hedges (I presume).

    one of the suburban houses

    (Hey Mom! Check out the giant Benjamin Ficus bushes on the right!)

    Big SUVs drive back and forth on the hand-swept paved road. Hired men clip the hedges by hand and cut the grass with machetes. (Though once, on our walk to church, we passed a man mowing a lawn with a mower. The smell of gas mingling with freshly cut grass, the putt-putt of the small motor, and the fact that it was a Sunday of all days combined to transport us back to a Sunday afternoon in the States.) Villagers, women with baskets on their heads, men bend double with homemade wooden tables that they’re hoping to sell in market, school kids, and boys on bicycles are constantly streaming by. But because it’s a wealthy area—because of the sharp separation between rich and poor—it’s an extremely safe neighborhood. Which is weird.

    The ranch gardener trimmed the hedge on the right by hand, 
    with a clippers and a broom to sweep up the clippings. 
    It took him days. 
    We thought he was finally done, 
    but then we walked by and heard the steady snip-snip-snipping from the other side…

    At our first house in Carchá, we were told we shouldn’t even open our front door because people would ogle our stuff and eventually rob us of it. But where we are now, way back in and perched on top of a hill, there are no such worries. Sure, we lock our door when we leave, but when we’re home, we leave the doors gaping open. We don’t have an armed guard on the property (that I’m aware of), but the hired men keep a sharp eye out and interrogate any strange faces that show up, and there are the three dogs that strangers are (rightfully) terrified of. Heck, the Big House is completely open to the elements via the porch and living area, and they leave all sorts of stuff like power tools (!) sitting around outside. We feel perfectly comfortable keeping our washing machine and dryer on our porch and leaving clothes drying on the line while we go to work.

    The house directly across from the entrance to “our” property.

    When I first came here, I said that of our two situations—work and home—only one could be a challenge. At least, that was my hope. If they were both difficult situations, then I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to stick it out. In retrospect, I’ve decided that the home situation isn’t optional. It has to be safe and comfortable. I need, we need, a place to unwind, to be ourselves, to be at home. We have that, and it’s even better than I thought it could be. For this, I am supremely grateful.

    But back to the walk home. Here’s the entrance to our property, Rancho Santa Fe.

    I can never get over the bougainvillea. It’s lush and vibrant and makes me feel like skipping.

    Except that by the time I reach the entrance, I don’t skip because I’m hot and tired and just want to get home as quickly as possible.

    To the right of the entrance is a soccer field.

    With its sloping sides, soccer “bowl” is a more apt name.

    Up in the distance, to the left, is the gardener. This old (40s? 60s? it’s impossible to tell a person’s age here) man is a hard worker to beat all hard workers. He shows up early and works steadily all day long, machete-ing grass, transforming overgrown fields into orderly gardens, planting and hauling and raking.

    There’s a creek that they’ve been walling up and shaping into a little pond of sorts, I’m not sure why. (My husband says it’s for a water source for the animals.) I think it may make a good cool-down spot, one of these hot days.

    Our house is on the top of that there hill. You can see a little of the big house. Ours is off to the right and back a little ways. The driveway goes to the left, out of the picture, and then winds across, up, and around that hill.

    Here I am, up past the house that’s being built. (Want to move here and be neighbors?) The side of the hill is planted in some sort of flowering bush, and then the gardener went back through and planted beans and cilantro.

    A little further up the hill and here I’m looking down on the field that’s been planted with pine trees. Planting trees instead of crops is something the wealthy do—poor people have no option, and not enough land, to do anything but plant food.

    See that not-so-little patch of bare earth? The gardener cleared that by hand in a day and a half an then planted beans (or corn or something). Makes my back hurt and my hands blister just thinking about it.

    These Dr. Seuss trees crack me up.

    Some of them have spiky straight hair.

    And others have hair that gets all curly at the bottom, just like human hair. When it rains, the curls frizz up into wild kinky happiness…or maybe I’m just imagining things.

    And then I finally come to the top of the hill and there is our squat little red barn of a house waiting for me.

    Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

  • over the moon

    Several weeks ago, my younger daughter turned nine. Or rather, two and a quarter, since she’s a Leap Year Baby.

    We made whoopie pies to share with her class (and a taxi driver and the neighbor kids and another volunteer who was celebrating a birthday), and that afternoon we had a piñata, in honor of both the February birthdays. There was a chocolate cake and a few little gifts—a recorder for school, a fake Barbie, a stuffed Pooh Bear, etc.


    However, it wasn’t until yesterday that she got her real gift. We weren’t sure it was all going to work out, so we downplayed the whole thing: we said that her uncle was bringing one of her birthday presents when he came, but it wasn’t any big deal. Which was a lie and I think she knew it.

    See, a ways back when I wrote this post about her one and only toy, I alluded to her great, persistent and vocal longing for an American Doll. My cousin-in-law read the post and immediately announced, She can have mine. And then she, bless her heart, bent over backwards to travel to her parents’ house, dig it out of their attic, and mail it to my brother.

    Yesterday after school, we called everyone together and handed her the box.

    When she opened it, there was a loud gasp followed by much hollering.

    Hers is the Felicity doll, the girl from Virginia, which is fitting, I think. I read all about her online the night before—how she was the first doll to be added to the collection in 1991 and how she was discontinued in 2002 and how there was such an uproar that they re-introduced her a couple years later.

    My daughter, however, doesn’t care about all that. She has an American Doll of her very own and that’s all that matters. She has opted to call her “Lily,” which is probably some type of American Doll sacrilege.

    Lily has her own bed under the night table. My daughter goes into her room and shuts the door and I can hear her happily chattering away to her new friend.

    Thank you, Kate. You have made one little girl (and her mama) very, very happy.

  • no buffer

    Good morning!

    morning sun winking at us from under the door

    The sun is shining, the sky is blueblueblue, and there’s a cheerful breeze. This morning, I washed my sheets, dried them on the line, and had them back on the bed by 9:15.


    Yesterday, my husband traveled into Guatemala City and this morning he is picking up my brother at the airport, our first international guest, wheee! They will arrive home this evening, hopefully before the kids’ bedtime. Because, see, the children are so excited that there is no way I’ll be able to make them go to sleep if their adored uncle hasn’t shown up yet. (And it may be impossible to get to them to bed even if he has, though the fact that he will be dead on his feet might help speed things up.) I did warn the children that they would not be going through his bags tonight. (I did not add that I will be going through them after they are all asleep. Rumor has it that chocolate is in one of those bags, and where chocolate is involved, I can not be expected to wait!)

    I woke up at five this morning. Laying in bed, listening to the wind terrorize the tin roof, I thought about the weather. And then I wrote a post in my head. It was very good and very profound. Too bad for all of us that now, a few hours later, I can’t remember exactly how it went.

    Oh well. I’ll do my best. (Clears throat.)


    Even though the weather is much more extreme in the states, it’s much more noticeable here because there is no buffer. In the states we have things like AC and central heat and cars with windows that work and insulated houses with rugs and no reason to be outside if we don’t want to. Funny thing is, we fuss about the weather all the time.

    Here, whatever it’s doing outside, it’s doing inside, too (though hopefully the roofs are doing their job and keeping the rain out). Most walls are concrete block, or simply slabs of wood nailed to posts with great big cracks between the pieces. The roofs are tin, as are some of the walls. Therefore, if it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside. If it’s hot outside, it’s a furnace inside. If it’s wet outside, it feels (and sometimes is) wet inside. And no one hardly says a peep about the weather!

    Life is rawer here. There is not a buffer to cushion us from the scrappiness of being alive. For most people, it’s hand to mouth every day. It’s taken me awhile to catch on, but this is why fruit and vegetables are sold ready to eat this very minute. Because that’s why people buy them—to eat NOW. There’s no storing up 50-pound sacks of oats (oh, how I miss my big sacks of oats!) or bushels of apples. There is no canning or freezing or preserving. There is no need to because fruits and veggies are in season year round, yes, but it’s also because the people don’t have the resources for such investments.

    The other week, I stepped into a pharmacy in search of bandaids. The guy behind the counter placed a single band aid on the counter. “Twenty-five cents,” he said.

    “Oh no!” I said. “I’d like a whole box, please.”

    He looked at me like I was addled—who in their right mind needs an entire box of bandaids?—but then he got a calculator and figured out the price of the whole box.

    Like band aids, everything is sold individually. One light bulb, one pen, one piece of candy, one banana, one ounce of coffee, etc. You buy what you need this day, right now, period.

    Here are some other examples that illustrate this Lack of Buffer.

    In the States: it’s expected that things will work when you buy them. If they don’t, we are indignant. And returning them is such a stinking headache!

    Here: it’s the norm for things not to work and there is NO return policy, not ever. (Why yes, the use of italics and all-caps do indeed indicate an elevated level of frustration, you astute reader, you!) The post-it notes don’t stick. The tape doesn’t stick. The envelopes don’t stick. (So NOW what, if there is no sticky tape with which to close the envelope?) Clothing falls apart. Extension cords don’t conduct electricity. Earphones don’t work. Therefore, it’s the norm for all electrical products to be tested in front of the customer (much like servers in fancy restaurants pouring a bit of wine into the glass for the patron to sample before making a final decision) to prove that they do indeed work, from hand saws to light bulbs. Also, always test pens before buying them.

    In the States (where I live, anyway): we all have our own cars, at least one per household and maybe three or four.

    Here: not many people have cars and if you want to get around—and opt not to go by foot, bike, or bus—you take a taxi. This is a luxury, but the taxis are not.There are taxis that funnel exhaust directly into the back seat. Go above 25 mph, and many fishtail all over the road because the wheel is bent. (You know what’s worrisome? Sitting in a taxi and having a passerby point to the tire and yell some warning at the driver.) The windshields are cracked. The door handles don’t work (so you have to wait till the taxi driver gets out and opens the door for you—taxi drivers are the most chivalrous people in town!) The taxis have no shocks so they drive across the crazy-high speed bumps at an angle, and even then the cars sometimes get stranded, all four wheels spinning frantically like an upside down bug. (Okay, so I’m exaggerating. But only a little!) (And I’m not exaggerating when I say that we can sometimes feel the speed bumps with our feet as we pass over them!) Once, we rode in a taxi that had to back up and start over to make it up a little hill, and then, on the hill up to our house, it really didn’t make it up, so we all had to get out and walk.

    In the States: trash is removed quickly and quietly disappears to Who Knows Where.

    Here: trash is visible everywhere. We pass the dump on our way from Chamelco to Carcha. It’s a  whole side of a mountain, covered in smoking, steaming trash. The workers (and the people who live there) pick through the toilet paper and rotten food and leaky batteries in search of the recyclables, and at the entrance there are often big bales of plastic waiting for pick-up. (Recycling in reverse.)

    Trash lines the roads, surrounds the houses, and coats the cornfields like mulch. People throw trash down, not out, even in their own houses. Then, once or twice a day, they sweep their living area, pushing the trash out into the yard or the street.


    This post feels garbled, incoherent, repetitive, and clumsy. I am, however, leaving it as is because there are other things to say and I’m sick of polishing the same old thoughts over and over again. (You: That was polished? Me: SHUT UP.) Therefore, I’m making the executive decision that, for right now, anyway, it is better to write things down and get them them Out There than it is to hold on to them. Besides, my hunch is that the more I write, the more clarity there will be. I mean, if I talk about the dump today and then I post pictures of it in July and then you catch a glimpse of a loaded and low-hanging garbage truck (like a baby with a poopy) in a September post, it will hopefully all come together to present something that gives a good representation of Taking Out The Trash In Guatemala According to an MCCer. (Oh bother. Now this paragraph is one convoluted mess. I give up.)

    sun: through the cracked glass of my bedroom window

    Written on Monday, March 18. My brother arrived and my chocolate basket is overflowing!

  • warmth

    One of the hardest things for me to acclimate to here is the cold. I do not like being cold. My fingers turn blue and my toes go numb and my nose won’t stop running. My shoulders hunch up and my back hurts and I get The Spine Shivers. I get snippy.

    I should clarify: I don’t mind the cold as long as I can get away from it. As long as there is a warm place to go to, I rather enjoy the cold and the things that go with it, like wool socks, candles, and hot drinks. But put me in a drafty, cement block house with a tin roof and no hot water (except for in the shower—thank goodness we have hot showers!) and no heat source, and then make it rain for days on end and make the temperature plummet so low that it frosts, and you have one very chilled and unhappy mama.

    Hugging warm clothes from the dryer.
    (After getting some strong encouragement to purchase a machine—we don’t even own a machine in the states!—we bit the bullet and did. It does wonders for my emotional stability.)

    I heat up water on the stove and then soak my fingers in it until I can feel them again. I layer up. I steal my husband’s coat. I wrap myself up in a comforter like a human burrito and then slouch down in front of the computer and do not move. I do jumping jacks. I try to pretend I’m not actually cold and wash my hair in the kitchen sink and nearly pass out from an iced skull. I turn on the oven and stick my feet in it. I dream of an oven big enough that I could climb in completely. Or I fantasize that I’m a sick baby bunny with kind owners who take pity and put it, in its hay-lined nesting box, into the turned-low oven to warm up.

    Of course I’m being a wimp. All these thousands of people have been living without heat for centuries and they’re doing just fine. It’s doable. I should just relax into the perpetual cold and go with it.

    But how is it physically possible to relax when you’re cold? I can’t figure it out.

    A friend commented that she doesn’t believe we have bad weather here because the sun is always shining in the photos I post. That’s because I don’t take my camera out when it’s raining! I don’t want to get it wet and the lighting is bad in the gray dark. But this latest rainy spell, I made it my goal to take some pictures. I couldn’t really catch the bleak, cold wetness, probably because we’re living in a tropical wonderland, but I tried.

    There’s a pattern to the weather, I’m learning. We’ll have a spell of warm weather that gets progressively hotter as the days go by. Then there’s an in-between day in which the wind blows and clouds clutter the sky. That night it invariably pours rain, great solid sheets of rain. The heavy rains only last several minutes before dialing back to a soaking rain that holds steady while waiting for the clouds to muster their resolve and once again hold forth. It’s like riding waves, but upside down: RUSH, pour-pour-pour, RUSH, pour-pour-pour.

    After about 12 hours of this, the clouds are dragging close to the ground, ragged and worn out, and the temperature drops. For the next two days, maybe three, the clouds remain low and shredded. There is a steady, misty drizzle (called chipi-chipi) that hardly wets your hair interspersed with soft rains.

    Look closely and you can see the chipi-chipi. 

    And then, finally, comes a day of almost no rain. As the cloud cover and humidity lessen, the temperature drops even further. It will be bittingly cold the next morning but that’s a sure sign that the sun will come out, whoo-hoo! In a couple days it will be hot enough to go swimming and wear shorts to bed and drink iced coffee, and the sky will be so blue that the grey clouds seem like nothing but a made-up memory.

    Right now we’re on the last day of the rainy cycle, I think. It’s misting lightly and there’s supposed to be sun tomorrow.

    But yesterday morning, in the middle of the cold and wet, I decided I could take it no longer.

    While the kids were at school, I hopped on a bus and took off for Cobán and its fancy (Walmart) grocery store where I picked out four single bed comforters. By bundling up in jackets and socks, the kids had been staying warm at night, but just barely. It was time they each had their own insulating comforter.

    When they came home after school and spied their newly made-up beds, the shouts of joy and screeches of glee were so intense that I actually felt bad. Were they that cold all this time? What kind of a mother would let her children shiver through their dreams? Also, could the cold night temps be the reason the youngest was have trouble with bladder control? Oh dear.

    Last night when we gathered for bedtime reading, the kids trouped out to the drafty living area, their colorful, puffy, warm comforter wrapped tight about their shoulders. What bliss!

    I go to bed each night hoping that the next day will bring warmer weather. I’m not asking for much—just a few hours of sun in which to thaw out would be plenty!

    Written yesterday, on Friday, March 15.  This morning, it is weirdly raining while there is blue sky and the sun is shining, yes!

  • bolt popcorn

    When we were stateside, one of our favored family traditions was Sunday popcorn and movie movie. We’d get a movie from Redbox or Netflix, and late Sunday afternoon, I’d commence with the popcorn making. Using my trusty whirley pop (bought in excellent condition for four dollars from a thrift store in Pennsylvania), I’d spend about half an hour cranking out batch after batch of popcorn—six in total, which is the equivalent of three cups of popcorn kernels. One batch was left salted and buttered, two batches were salted, buttered, and cheesed (with nutritional yeast), and three batches were salted, buttered, sugared, and spiced. Then we’d pile onto the sofa and my husband would tentatively bounce up and down and say, “This sofa is going to break one of these days,” and “we won’t be able to all fit on this much longer,” and then we’d start the movie and eat popcorn and apples till we bloated.

    I contemplated bringing my whirley popper. I did, really. But then I thought, Nah, we’ll make do with kettles like they used to do in the olden days (like, back when I was a kid).

    And that’s how it came to be that I’ve scorched batch after batch of popcorn here. I tried large, lightweight kettles and super-duper heavy-bottomed kettles and little teensy-tiny kettles. I tried stirring the popcorn until it started popping and then clapping the lid on and shaking wildly. I tried leaving the kernels to go about the business of exploding themselves undisturbed. I tried adding extra oil. I tried blue popcorn we brought from the States and regular yellow popcorn from here. Nothing worked.

    And then I experimented with my big, flat metal pan—success! True, it was so shallow that I could hardly pop any popcorn in it at a time, and true I had to shake it so hard my butt about fell off, but we were eating popcorn!

    One night my husband, sick of watching my butt almost fall off, I guess, scrubbed a couple nails and added them to the pan of oily kernels. In the shaking process, the nails rolled all over the pan, stirring up the kernels just like my whirley popper. I didn’t have to wiggle my butt nearly so hard. The next time, he upgraded from the lightweight nails to some heavy bolts.

    And so now, every movie night, I take the bolts out of the mug where they’re stored with our few precious twisties and rubberbands, plunk them into the pan of oil and kernels, and shake us up a bunch of movie night popcorn.

    The end.

    PS. I bet Amanda doesn’t have Bolt Popcorn included in her Year of Popcorn series!