• the race we saw

    On Sunday we watched a half marathon. It was like watching ten thousand people trying not to die…in unison.

    Guatemalans like to run. We don’t remember anyone running in Nicaragua, so this came as a surprise. The attitude is so different from what I see in the states (and from mine). There’s no “oh I should run but don’t want to” attitude and hardly any “I’m going to run two miles every day no matter what” and not a bit of “I run to lose weight.” People simply like to run and so they do.

    So the Cobán half marathon is a really big deal. The runners starts in Cobán, run to Carchá and then turn around and head back.

    Because we go to church in Carchá, we decided to watch the race at its halfway point. We got there late (it’s hard to get a taxi on Sunday morning, plus it was pouring rain up until we left, plus our family has a fierce and proud tradition of falling apart every Sunday morning), so we missed seeing the Kenyans come through. (An Ethiopian won.)

    However, it takes a long time for ten thousand people to run by. We stationed ourselves across from a mariachi band and watched. There was a lot to see.


    There was runner in a bull uniform and another in a leopard suit. There were runners with dogs. There were children. There were people in wheelchairs. There were mamas who took time to kiss their cheering children. There were runners who stopped to take photos of the musicians. We even saw the very last runner—a frail old man, shuffling along,  grinning broadly, and completely ignoring the cluster of police escorts protecting him from being run over by the backed-up line of irritated drivers.

    The end.

  • spicy cabbage

    I don’t think of cabbage as a vegetable, at least not a very good one, for three reasons:

    1. Its white color implies a pallid, leached-out nutritive state, and in its most commonly eaten form—coleslaw—it’s usually drowned in mayonnaise which cancels out any vitamins it might possibly have.

    2. Kids balk at the tough crunch and occasional bite.

    3. It’s a heavy lug of a thing which I interpret to means it’s probably mostly just water anyway.

    So I avoid the lunky cabbage with its myriad problems. It’s just not worth the struggle.

    Except I kind of love the vegetable—its bite! its crunch! its versatility!—so I don’t completely avoid it. This ends up being a bittersweet affair, kind of like poking a sore tooth (if poking a sore tooth is bittersweet). What I mean is, what happens is this: I tentatively cook up some cabbage to test if my family may have matured in their tastebuds and the cabbage is fabulous and I fall in love with it all over again while my loved ones (though their rotten attitudes cause me to question whether or not I should use that adjective) renew their avowed hatred of the lowly cabbage. And then I mourn, dump buckets of ashes on my head, and beat my chest with my fists. Oh those cabbage-hating beasts!

    Though this time was a little different. I made spicy cabbage and my family revolted and I fell passionately in love (with the cabbage, not my family), but after feeling sad and bitter for a two full days, I went back to the market and bought another cabbage because I wanted to so there.

    Luisa’s recipe calls for sambal oelek but I knew I’d have as much hope finding that in Chamelco as I would a piece of the moon. I would improvise, I decided! But then in the midst of the mad supper dash, I tweeted Luisa just to see what she might recommend as a substitute.

    Considering she lives in Germany and it was the middle of the night there, I wasn’t surprised that a response wasn’t forthcoming. So I proceeded along, willy-nilly, following my own instincts. I added chili cobán for heat, paprika for color, curry for punch, and soy sauce just for anyhow. I topped the whole mess with fresh cilantro and served it over rice with a fried egg on top. It was make-your-heart-go-pitter-patter good.

    The next day Luisa tweeted back: garlic and chilis! Which would be fab, I’m sure, but my little creation had already made me so happy that I no longer had any desire to tamper with the ingredients whatsoever.

    In this dish, the crunchy veggies are transformed into something so tender soft (and slicked with oil without any trace of greasiness) that they are nearly succulent. In some ways the dish reminds me of pasta with its long and thin, soft and smooth strips of cabbage. Comfort food at its best.

    Can I get an amen? (Because my family sure won’t give me one.)

    Spicy Cabbage
    Adapted from Luisa of The Wednesday Chef (her book was one of the select few chosen to travel with us to Guatemala). In turn, Luisa got the recipe brainchild from Molly.

    I used chili cobán for my chili powder. It’s hot and smokey (and quite different from the chili-soup chili powder I use at home) and I’ll be bringing some back to the states with me. You can use any chili that you like: fresh and green, dried and fiery, saucy, powdered, etc. Whatever you have in your cupboards.

    Luisa’s recipe called for bacon and shrimp of which I had neither. I did, however, have some bacon grease in my fridge—a great addition. But you can omit all meat and just stick with olive oil, if you prefer. (I think some spicy sausages would work well here, too.)

    2-4 tablespoons olive oil, canola oil, or bacon grease
    1 medium head cabbage, thinly sliced
    1 onion, thinly sliced
    2 carrots, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced.
    2 teaspoons curry powder
    1 teaspoon (less, maybe) chili coban powder
    1 teaspoon paprika (smoked would be nice)
    2 teaspoons soy sauce
    3-4 roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
    salt and pepper to taste
    fresh cilantro, chopped

    In a large pot, heat the fat over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage, onions, and carrots. Simmer/saute until the vegetables have lost their rigid reserve. Reduce the heat, clap on the lid, and cook for another 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender through and through. Add the curry, chili, paprika, soy sauce, and tomatoes. Cook for a bit longer to meld flavors and soften the tomatoes. Add salt and pepper as needed.

    Serve the spicy cabbage over rice with lots of fresh cilantro.

  • the quotidian (5.27.13)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace


     Morning sun.
    Fairy garden art.

    View from the hammock.


     The rainy season has begun.
    While I was making a cake in my kitchen, I got rained on.
    (Instead of, “Someone left the cake out in the rain…” it’s “Someone made a ca-ake in the rain.”)


      A homemade gift from our landlord: guayava galette with butter crust, swoon!

    Fresh honey in an old whiskey bottle.
    One of our taxi drivers raises bees and recently harvested an enormous quantity of honey.
    I think it tastes a little off (rotten?) but the kids love it.


    Cake delivery: upon request, I made a birthday cake for one of the teachers.


     A Saturday afternoon experiment: beaver tails
     (I like donuts better.)
    Kids climbing in my kitchen window to see what I’m cooking.
    (The aforementioned beaver tails. It was very exciting.)


     End of workday crash.


    The cake that I had no self control against, and that I got rained on while making. 
    Chocolate icing between two layers of dark chocolate cake with vanilla icing 
    and a heavy shower of sprinkles.
  • down to the river to play

    Last Sunday we met up with some friends for lunch in the park. Our friends said, in an off-handed sort of way, that the park had a stream with some waterfalls and the kids could bring their swimming suits if they wanted to get wet. I was expecting a trickle of dirty water and a few rocks. When I rounded a corner in the dirt path, I was not at all prepared to see a semi-natural waterpark.

    While the adults visited, the children played in the spring fed—i.e. icy—water. For lunch we feasted on tuna salad, chili, braided bread, muffins, cookies, and cucumber-tomato salad. After a bit I wandered down to the water with my camera.

    The admission price is low while still being high enough to keep out the lollygaggers (about six dollars for our whole family). The park is within walking distance of our church and very close to where we were living when we first arrived here. Now I’m left to wonder what other gems are lurking just outside my awareness zone.

  • rosa de jamaica tea

    Alternate title: The Tea That Made Me Drunk

    Hibiscus tea—known in Guatemala as rosa de jamaica—is a popular beverage here. It’s like cranberry juice, tart, red, and fruity, but in a tea format. Here they sell packets of the drink a la koolaid, as well as in bottles of syrupy concentrate. However, I prefer to buy the real deal, the dried flowers themselves.

    I first got hooked on the tea when a friend served it for lunch one Sunday. She explained the process, which was super practical and doable, so the next week I told my husband to stop by the “bulk food store” on his way home and pick me up a couple ounces worth.

    I made a concentrate by steeping a couple handfuls of leaves in simmering water and adding sugar and fresh lime juice. We all loved it. (The second time around I tried honey instead of sugar, but the honey flavor over-powdered the fruity tea-ness.)

    Now. For the getting drunk part.

    One afternoon I arrived home from school tired, hot, sweaty, and very dehydrated. It was four in the afternoon and I hadn’t drunk anything all day except my morning coffee, stupidmeIknow. So I drank a glass of water chased by about six glasses of tea. It wasn’t full-strength tea, though. I like to fill my glass about 1/4 full (maybe less) of tea (or juice) and then top it off with water. In total, I probably drank two full glasses of tea.

    And then I got dizzy. And light-headed. And woozy.

    At first I thought it was the shock of rehydration (is there even such a thing?), but when the feelings didn’t subside and I couldn’t even do my email/office work for lack of an ability to think straight, I started to wonder. And then I remembered what I had read about hibiscus tea.

    Health benefits: the tea contains high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants, and it can help to reduce high blood pressure and inflammation.

    Side effects/warnings: do not drink the tea if taking acetaminophen, hormone replacement therapy, or pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have low blood pressure. And it said that “Some individuals have experienced an hallucinogenic effect from drinking hibiscus tea or a sensation of feeling intoxicated.” (source)

    Now I don’t think I was actually tipsy—what kind of a fruitcake gets drunk on tea!—though I suppose it’s possible. However, I believe it’s more likely that I have low blood pressure (I think this is true), and the tea just knocked it down a notch.

    I admit I am tempted to drink several glasses and see if anything happens—you know, in the name of scientific study—but I’m slightly spooked by the brew. For one, I don’t like feeling loopy. And two, low blood pressure, I’ve read, leads to heart and brain damage and I’m rather fond of both my heart and brain.

    Which really is too bad because it’s such an intoxicatingly (ha!) delicious drink.

    (Any health gurus out there, feel free to weigh in! 
    Am I out of my everloving mind to think the tea effected me that much? )

    Rosa de Jamaica Tea with Lime

    This tea would be fabulous with any number of additions, such as cinnamon, fresh ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mint, and even rum. The tea can be drunk cold or hot—I like it iced.

    I have no idea where to get rosa de jamaica in the states. Perhaps all the health food stores carry it? If you can’t find it, there’s always amazon.

    Proceed with caution.

    1 quart water
    ½ – 1 cup sugar
    juice of 2-3 limes
    1 cup rosa de jamaica (hibiscus) leaves

    Bring the water to a boil. Add the leaves, put a lid on the kettle, reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes.

    Pour the liquid through a strainer, and discard the leaves. Pour the tea into a pitcher and add the lime and sugar and stir well.

    Makes enough concentrate for ½ gallon to one full gallon of iced tea, depending on how strong you like it.

    Do not drink all at once.

  • more on trash

    Like I said before, trash is everywhere.

    It lines gutters, clutters yards, and peppers the roads. It covers cornfields like mulch.

    When we first arrived, pre-corn season, we noticed empty, trash-filled lots on our walks through town. Time passed and we noticed farmers planting corn in the lots. They didn’t clean the lots before planting—rather, they simply pushed the trash to one side, poked holes in the ground, and dropped in the seeds.
    And the corn grew, tall, strong, and brilliant green, right up through its blanket of plastic mulch.


    in a non-littering moment

    At a gorgeous local park, the kids found a Styrofoam plate at the water’s edge. So they set it afloat and off it whooshed. I had a minor hissy fit and made the main culprit pick up and appropriately dispose of five pieces of trash as penance. It felt like an inane activity, but I refuse to participate in the littering customs.


    While hitching a ride in a friend’s private car, we zipped by the dump.

    the workers’ houses

    do you see the workers? the vultures?

    I still want to go back some early morning and get more than just a handful of blurry drive bys.

  • the basics

    On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, I hold tutoring classes at Bezaleel. I have two groups, each with five students. In our allotted hour we do the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic.

    These are all first year students—the equivalent of 7th grade in the US. Most of them come from rural areas where their indigenous language is their primary tongue. Their schooling has been spotty, and they aren’t up to par with basic (low) educational standards. When they come to Bezaleel, they struggle.

    At first I wasn’t sure how I’d approach the classes. I’d be giving the kids more attention, but it wouldn’t be one-on-one—what small group activities could I use to meet each child where she was at?

    My mother has spent the last year working with “behind” students at a couple elementary schools in her area. Her techniques have been highly effective (the school directors are totally impressed), so I asked her what I should focus on. Reading, reading, reading, came the reply.

    So we read together. The school library has three stacks of children’s books, about two-thirds of which are in Spanish. When there are duplicate books, I pass them out and we read around the circle. If there’s just one book, I read it to them. I was delighted to discover that they have some of my favorite children’s books: Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Frog and Toad, Corduroy, and Curious George, among others.

    The students listen to the stories, spellbound. They laugh at the funny parts. Watching them make a connection between words and pleasure is about the most gratifying thing ever.

    I asked one group of students if their parents could read. Half of
    them said no. Only one girl said her house had any books in it.

    No books in your house. Can you imagine?

    Nope, me neither. If only I had piles of books and we could spend hours reading together!

    But alas, the supply is low, so I space the reading out—several books at the beginning of the hour, maybe, and an extra fun book to end with. In between I have them do freewriting drills and journaling. We practice addition flash cards and count red beans in three piles of five and three piles of six and so on, to illustrate multiplication. We play games like Dutch Blitz and Spot It. Anything to give their minds a workout—that’s my goal.

    We meet in the school’s auditorium, and while it works, I find myself longing for my own office/classroom. I can see it perfectly. It’d be a small room, but there would be a window. In the middle of the room would be a wooden table surrounded by a handful of chairs. There would be maps on the wall, a whiteboard, and shelves filled with books, puzzles, markers, and games. A cozy lamp would sit on my desk. Students would come in for tutoring sessions, or to ask questions about their homework, or to play games, or to draw, or to talk. It’s not going to happen, I know—no space, no resources, but mostly because we’re only here for a few more months—but still, it’s fun to dream…

  • the trouble with Mother’s Day

    Mother’s Day has always made me uncomfortable. The festivities felt hollow. Forced, maybe. Too hallmark-y. But I could never put my finger on why I felt so squirmy, so I just brushed it off as some weird Jennifer-ism.

    And then last week two things happened—or, rather, I made two observations—and it clicked.

    First, at my children’s mother’s day program (which involved inordinate amounts of butt wiggling, lip-synching, and flowery moms-are-awesome prose), all I could think of was our two sweet neighbor boys whose parents are in the middle of a divorce and who are living with their Grandma and aunt instead of their mama. I don’t know any details, but I sense there’s a good bit of pain. So while I watched those boys bouncing around on stage, chorusing “We love you, Mama!” with all the other kids, all I could think of was the hole in their lives.

    Second, all day long on Sunday, May 12, my Facebook feed was flooded with beautiful pictures of people with their mothers. It made me sad, a little, because my mom is so far away and we’re missing each other. But that’s okay—separations are sad and sadness is life and all that.

    What struck me as odd were all the posts acknowledging the children without mothers, the mothers without children, and every possible combination in between. The posts were poignant and spot-on. Mothering is painful and rich and wretched and holy. How we have been mothered, or not, and how we have mothered, or not, hits our core, hard.

    I’m glad that people are acknowledging all the ways a person can mother and be mothered. The definition of mothering should be broadened. I am grateful that in my church the mothers aren’t asked to stand on Mother’s Day.

    In no other holiday do we spend so much time acknowledging and apologizing to the people whose hurt is extra pronounced because of that special day. The other holidays—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, New Year’s, Forth of July, you name it*—aren’t about us. Those holidays are broader. They’re about something beyond us. We are invited to enter in, but we aren’t the reason for the celebration. Uteruses don’t have any say in the matter.

    I love being appreciated as much as the next person, maybe even more. I’m certainly not above milking the day for all it’s worth (hello ice cream maker and deck furniture!). But why not celebrate our mothers on our birthdays? Because that’s the day—the day they pushed us into the world, or laid flat on their backs while we were evacuated through the sunroof, or signed the adoption papers—that’s the day that makes the most sense, me thinks.

    I expect I’m an anomaly with my squirmy idiosyncracies (am I? am I??). I don’t foresee Mother’s Day ending anytime soon. So I’ll continue to accept my children’s handmade cards and savor the opportunity to put my feet up a little extra long on that Sunday in May. And every May I’ll feel awkward about all the mother honoring going on—not because mothering shouldn’t be celebrated—but because it’s done at the expense of highlighting other people’s grief and pain.

    That’s all.

    *I lump Valentine’s Day in the same boat with Mother’s Day: Hallmark-y and shallow. But there’s something different, more carnal, about the mother-child bond. You can pass through a string of lovers (though I don’t recommend it), but not children.

    Ps. Excuse the semi-weird-looking photos of my younger daughter. My mother’s the one that pointed this out. She looks “a little sick there,” she said. Thanks, Mom.

  • the quotidian (5.20.13)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    Saturday baking.

    The second cup and my self-betterment book.
    (I’m reading it to the two olders now.)

    The view from the sofa.

    Takeout (or carry-home): my mother’s day lunch. 
    I sent them to town for some street-food-licious lunch: 
    grilled beef strips, tortillas, cabbage slaw, and onions.

    (photo by my little boy)

    Self portrait.

    Fancy braid, courtesy of her sweet teacher.


    Fencing in the weeds.

    Dirt garden creations.

    Glued on keyrings: the girl is obsessed.
    We told the girls to ask their friends where to get their ears pierced. They reported that no one knew since they all got their ears pierced in the hospital when they were newborns.
    When my husband finally took her to the mall, she chickened out.

    To go with my bedtime reading. 
    I get so tired of not having large cups, so I resorted to a quart-sized yogurt container.
    Not the same mouth feel as a quart jar, but it worked.
  • help

    Having a maid is a confusing thing. 
    I tried to organize my thoughts into an orderly progression complete 
    with smooth transitions and a tidy conclusion. It didn’t work, so I settled for snippets.
    (Also, saying “the help” makes me think of poo-pie. Just putting that out there.)


    “Excuse me for bothering you, but I have a favor to ask.” Jovita nervously fiddled with the broom handle.

    I was getting ready to leave for work and had come over to where she was sweeping the kitchen to say goodbye.

    “Sure. What is it?” I asked.

    “Would you be able to loan me 500 quetzales?” She looked everywhere but in my eyes. “My children need help with their schooling and we have been having a lot of difficulty lately. We don’t have enough food, either, and last night the children didn’t have supper.”

    This wasn’t the first time Jovita had asked for money. Back in the beginning she’d asked for a raise. We were still in the negotiating stages and I’d raised her pay by five quetzales.

    Then she asked for a paid Easter week holiday. Answer: yes, of course.

    She’d asked me to be the godparent (er, fairy godmother) for two of her children. Answer: no.

    She’d asked for money for the children’s schooling. Answer: no.

    And now she was asking for a loan. Quite frankly, I was fed up with all the asking.


    Jovita has been working for us for about three months now. We decided to let Luvia, the woman who helped us in the very beginning, go once we moved out into the country. The distance was pretty great for Luvia. Plus, she wasn’t all that great at housekeeping, so we let her go.

    Jovita is 39 years old. She has seven children. She walks one hour each way to get to my house, and she comes three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She arrives at eight and leaves at noon.

    While here, she sweeps and mops the floor, scrubs the bathroom, and sweeps the patio and porch. If there is time leftover, she washes windows, wipes down doors, etc.

    She is quiet and unassuming, and after Luvia’s chattery, bubbly bossiness, I appreciate the calm.

    I pay Jovita Q40 for four hours of work. This is the equivalent of two bags of cornflakes.


    Here, the person who cleans your house is called your “muchacha” (girl). Even if the woman is fifty years old, if she washes your underwear, she’s called a girl. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

    In fact, having a servant makes my conscience get the nervous twitch. I was raised that it was uppity to expect other people to do my dirty work. Whenever I baulked at getting my hands dirty, my mother would shrill, “There aren’t any princesses in this house!” (She made no mention of queens.) (Actually, that’s not true. I think she periodically crowed, “I am queen! Obey! Serve!” Or maybe I’m confusing her with me?)

    The do-your-own-dirty work logic went something like this: if we get so busy or have so much stuff that we aren’t able to scrub our own shower scum or corral our own dust bunnies, then we had better slow down. Caring for our living space and possessions helps prevent us from getting all-consumed with the rush-rush of life. It keeps us grounded. Furthermore, scrubbing a toilet gets us more than a clean toilet—it gets us some much needed perspective (and a loopy high from the cleaning products).

    But then I wonder, is it even within a Guatemalan woman’s paradigm to believe that cleaning her own toilet might give her some perspective? Or could it be that that’s only what an elitist North American might think about the porcelain polishing? And if that’s the case…oh, the irony!


    One of my biggest fears is that with a maid to pick up socks, my children will transform into entitled brats. According to this photo, it looks like they already have.

    They haven’t, though, I don’t think. Taking a break from vacuuming and window washing isn’t going to shrink our souls (I hope). And besides, they still pick up, fold laundry, wash dishes, and do other odd jobs upon demand.

    They even cut the grass by hand. With machetes.

    The fact is this: our life is different here. At home we have zero-turn mowers, cars, and central vac to help out. Here we have Jovita.

    And if I’m to be completely honest, having a maid is wonderful. It feeds my repressed Lady Grantham fantasies.   


    Mother’s Day was coming up. Jovita had made mention that all women have off from work on that holiday. I didn’t say much—I wanted to check with someone else about the local customs first.

    So one day at lunch, over our bowls of potato stew, I asked one of my co-workers if it’s the custom for house help to not work on Mother’s Day.

    “No,” she said. “But you can give her the day off if you want.”

    The dinning hall was mostly empty so I pressed for more details. I learned that:

    *her house help works six days a week, from 7 am to 4 pm (or was it 5?)
    *her help does the sweeping, laundry, cooking, and child care
    *she pays her Q500 a month
    *when paying per day, Q20 is the going rate

    That night at supper, I reported the conversation, and then we had a mini math lesson, and then we all spent some time reeling.

    These women work all day at the end of which they haven’t even earned enough money to buy a gallon of milk.

    Why do they do it?

    And how?


    Jovita’s pleas for money tie me up in knots. I feel belittled and used, like all I am to her is An Opportunity To Exploit

    It’s not her fault that she thinks all North Americans are wallowing in cash. We handed that idea to her via our smiley, let’s-help-all-the-poor-people short term missions, our wildly unrealistic reality shows, soaps, and pert newscasters, and our foreign policies that dictate, control, and ravage.

    I get that it’s hard for her to understand that there’s another side to North Americans. That some of us drive clunker cars and have one income. That some of us toil for hours over our garden plots. That some of us pull two shift to pay off the college loan. That some of us have said no to credit cards and yes to saving.

    Sometimes when she asks me for favors, I feel like shouting, Hey, look. I come from a rich country and you come from a poor country. Neither of us had any say in that. We each have to work with what we’ve got. I struggle with comparing up and wanting more, too

    But I can’t really say that to someone who has less than me, can I? That would be crass. Thoughtless and cold.

    So what do I say? I say, I’m sorry, and then I explain that all the money we are using right now is through our sponsoring agency (a mostly true statement). We are volunteers. We do not have an income.

    And when she apologizes profusely for bothering me, I tell her not to worry about it, that I’m sorry she’s struggling, that I’m glad I can provide her with a job.

    And I leave it at that. Because it’s impossible to explain mortgages and homeowner’s insurance and the cost of living and our huge, wonderful supportive community and doctor’s bills and the ridiculous price of a college education. The gap is too wide.

    I want to treat her well. I want her to feel respected, and in turn I want to be respected. For who I am, another woman, only two years her junior, attempting to raise children, love my husband, and make a go of it in this little world, just like she is.


    So that’s where we are. It’s convoluted and messy. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, and I certainly don’t have answers. Straddling two worlds can be awkward and uncomfortable. It might even be silly, impractical, and unhelpful.

    But hey, for what it’s worth, my floors are clean.


    Ps. My sister-in-law, living in India, pointed me to this blog post. It. helps flesh out the conundrum even more.