Monday, December 30, 2013

Education worth the embarrassment

Once I put aside my embarrassment for being from the US, we learned quite a bit today. Our timing in Costa Rica is good for some things and not others. It is high tourist season. We are surrounded by people from the US, everyone immediately talks to us in English and we are often near people that I wish would disappear. For example, this morning we were with a guide and a small group walking through the cloud forest, across hanging bridges, looking for signs of wildlife. A large family without a guide was walking along singing Christmas carols. Really??? Once I get past that and the kids that tried to call the monkeys as if they were monkey monkey, or other bad imitations of the actual howler monkey sound, it was a pretty good day. 

Some of what I learned includes that my mom has managed to maintain a cloud forest in her house in Missouri. Many of the plants are the same but without the other wildlife and instead of growing up from the ground, in the cloud forest they grow off of the existing trees. Their roots take years to grow down into the soil. In the cloud forest the trees are tall and take up most of the light so the lower plants fight for 3% of the sunlight that filters through. Trees typically last only 100-200 years because they can't set deep roots in the volcanic rock below. Also because trees don't experience all the seasons as they do in the states, they don't develop the inner rings that define the age of a tree. There were many ficus trees as the monkeys like to eat the figs that they produce and then they repopulate the forest with their excrement which usually lands on leaves in the canopy rather than hitting the ground. Monkeys along with the birds, frogs and snakes all live in the upper levels of the canopy where they get their water from some of the plants that form pools of water where their leaves meet the stems. The only lower plants are those with a large leaf base as they need it to grab as much sun as possible.

While Costa Rica is home to many types of butterflies, very few live in the cloud forest. This is because butterflies are cold blooded animals and are unable to regulate their body temperature. With so little sun in the cloud forest it is not a viable environment for them. We did see an Owl Butterfly which is the largest butterfly. Our only really good pictures are on a camera as it was too far away and too camouflage to catch with my idevice, as was the family of howler monkeys. Both were really awesome to see though.
Other sightings included a millipede which has pairs of legs as opposed to the centipede that has individual legs, black guan bird, a humming bird nest, orchids, and hot lips, also known as Angelina Jolie.
We returned to our hotel which is in a beautiful setting. We had a couple hours to rest before our Don Juan coffee and chocolate tour. We did, by the way, meet Don Juan, father of 9 and grandfather of 23. Literary buffs can take that wherever you'd like, although here they didn't seem familiar with the reference.

We learned about the 8 layers to be removed to get to the actual coffee bean, that the fruit has to be red to pick which only happens in November, December, and January, and one must be careful
to leave the stem on the plant so another bean can grow there the following year. Our timing was good since we were able to see some ripe beans and go through the layer removing process. We learned that the best beans are grown in volcanic soil due to the climate, temperature and rain. That's why Kona and Costa Rica are so well known for their coffee. It takes about 80 beans to make one cup of coffee. The highest concentration of caffeine is in the lightest roast but it has the least taste where as a dark roast loses about 10% of its caffeine but has more flavor. Espresso is over roasted and can be from any bean that is roasted to a point of bitterness such that you don't really know if it was ever a good bean or not. In the process of preparing the bean it must be dried so that it loses most of its moisture, down to about 12%. This is done in Costa Rica through sun drying over 6-7 days. Speeding up the process by using other methods causes the bean to lose its flavor, similar to a fine aged wine vs. a not so aged wine. Generally Costa Rican coffee is not roasted before export so that it will be fresher by roasting closer to the date of sale. For my decaffeinated friends who are curious... the caffeine is boiled out when the bean is still green before it goes to drying and roasting.

In addition to coffee we learned about processing the cocoa bean into chocolate. Apparently white chocolate isn't actually chocolate at all but the butter/paste that is squeezed out of the cocoa to which sugar and milk are added, unless that butter is made into lotion or face scrub. We were able to taste various parts of the process. We also learned how the monkeys are very important for the growth of the cocoa plants as they eat the sweet part around the seed and then cast off the cocoa seed which will form a new plant.

The final part of our tour was processing the juice out of sugar cane. That was probably the tastiest part after our guide squeezed a fresh cut sour tangerine into the liquid sugar.

Tomorrow ziplines, ATV, and relocation to the beach, our final destination before heading back to winter.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mixed Emotions

We spent our last full day in Guatemala City. As I mentioned in the last post there is far too much

western influence in the city. While they may be hanging tight to bits of their culture, there is a McDonalds around every corner like there are bars in Wisconsin. Next to our hotel was a McDonalds and across the street was a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. All are fast food places I would never visit in the states and it makes me sad too see how much of it is around every corner here. All of them had drive through and apparently they even offer delivery. I also noticed a McCafe full of Guatemalans. Some things I think are better not passed on to others...

Our hotel was in Zone 9, a short walk from some more typical restaurants in Zone 10 where Maia was able to order a big plate of black beans and tortillas while the rest of us could enjoy grilled meat, rice and fried sweet plantains. Our hotel offered a wonderful breakfast including fried plantains, of which I can never have enough and Morgan's favorite, that she doesn't get at home...Fruit Loops. The fruits and juices were all very fresh but we did have to be careful to only eat that which we could peel.

There was one main reason to spend 2 nights in the city. On Friday morning at 10am we met up 

with Maia's foster mom, Marina, her daughter Ana, and 

Ana's 2 sons. We met at the Relief Map and to get there we took a taxi. Most, if not all, taxis are used cars from the US that have often been in accidents or for some reason cast aside. There is a huge market for these damaged vehicles as long as the interior is in reasonably good condition. Mechanics will fix up or replace the engine and repair any exterior damage. The government will then allow a driver up to 15 years with that vehicle serving as a taxi. The girls enjoyed the novelty of an older vehicle when they saw this...

While Maia was very quiet during the time we were with her foster relatives, it was very emotional for me, and for Marina to see Maia again after 13 years. Maia was the 2nd of 13 kids that Marina had fostered and she was the youngest to leave at only 4 months. 

We talked about the affect on her and her family of adoptions closing in Guatemala. She told me how hard it was on her family as her husband had previously retired due to illness. She also clearly loved taking care of babies and misses that tremendously. Adoptions closed to the US first and later other countries. The last child they fostered went to a family from Israel that waited 2 years to bring their baby home. That child left Marina walking. She and Maia were the hardest for Marina to let go of as they had the longest and shortest stay with her family and Marina's first grandchild was born a month after Maia. Unfortunately We were unable to meet her oldest granddaughter that is Maia's age as she now lives in Coban. We have pictures of them together as infants.

Once there was no work for Marina or her husband the family from Israel helped them start a second hand clothing sale out of their house. They started with selling the many baby items that had 

been donated to them over the years. Today this work continues. Marina's husband has since passed away but she continues her work and has her daughter's family and her son living with her. While we met at the relief map, which was perhaps interesting for the kids, catching up with Marina was far more valuable than anything else we could have done.

After saying good by to Marina, Ana and family, we went to the city center briefly but it was hot and the kids really just wanted to swim. We took a cab back to Zone 10 where I got a picture of the apartment where Maia and I lived for a month and then headed back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the day at the pool which was a really nice way to end our time in Guatemala. 

Next post...Costa Rican Adventures.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Interesting Sightings

Xmas day was fairly mellow as we needed some down time so we spent most of it just at the hotel in Antigua, or at least the others did. Since I can't sit still I did a bit more exploring of Antigua both Wednesday and Thursday. This is a post about some interesting things I came across.

While it may be a bit hard to tell from the picture, this is the largest jar of Nutella I have ever seen. I would guess it contains about as much as two double packs from Costco. 

The next sighting was around the corner. A store I never anticipated seeing, although the western influence is growing, especially in cities in and around the capital. 

I couldn't help but walk in only to find that while the products are the same, one does not browse alone. No sooner was I in the door when an employee wanted to know exactly what I was looking for and was intending to accompany me throughout the store. 

I wandered a bit further to make my way towards the plaza. I spotted this woman on her way to sell woven products. It was a nice reminder of where I actually am.

Once in the plaza I came across these two young girls selling hand woven scarves. They told me they were both 13, just like Maia.

From there I headed back to the hotel and took a few more pictures along the way. Below you see a moto-taxi which we have seen throughout the country. At some point we might have to ride in one just to try it out. I also took a picture of one of the racing buses that I mentioned in a previous post. 

I happened upon a bicycle repair shop. There are lots of people on bikes although between the bumpy streets and crazy buses, I wouldn't ride here.

Finally, I took a picture of the street. All these bits of paper are everywhere.

 Its not just any trash. In Guatemala on Xmas Eve and Xmas Day as well as for New Years there are constant fireworks. The streets are full of the leftover exploded paper.

As you may be aware, there are certain areas of Guatemala where foreigners tend to travel, study Spanish, and at times take up residence. For one of my favorite sightings, I have to thank my dad. Prior to our trip he connected me with his patients, Ray and Judy who have taken up residence in Antigua. They invited us for breakfast this morning. Their house is nothing short of amazing. When they bought the property, which is very close to center city, it was ruins of a building with no roof. After 2 years of planning and 2 years of building it has to be one of the most incredible homes I have ever seen. Our nickel tour included a visit to the rooftop where I took the following photos overlooking the city.

They also have two beautiful Swiss mountain dogs, Kat and Maya. Our Maia of course made two new friends instantly and by the time we left even I had warmed up to them.

Our Antigua adventures came to an end as we headed to Guatemala City for our final day. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Holiday Blessing

Niños con Bendición was our first stop on Christmas Eve and I can't think of a better way to start off this holiday. A 

tremendous thank you goes out to friend Anna Ohlrogge who told us about them. We also would like to greatly thank our many friends who helped us by providing donated goods and funds that we were able to pass along to these children and their families. 

We arrived and were the only participants as Lesbi welcomed us with an introduction to who they are and why they do what they do. Niños con Bendición is a growing group now of 23 children. They learn the dances of their region and put on performances to earn money to pay for their food and education. It is possible to sponsor a specific child or donate to the organization. The children we met ranged in age from 5 years to 15.

The children all started out by introducing themselves with their name, age, and the department from which their native outfits came. While all the children are from San Antonio Aguas Calientes and the surrounding villages, they wore a variety of traditional clothes representing the whole country. Following their introductions, they performed 4 dances, each demonstrating an aspect of their culture from farming to a love and rejection story. For their final dance they asked us to join them. The older children played the drums and the marimba to provide the music for all the dances.

From Guatemala 2013

Once we finished dancing we were taken to another area where Lesbi and a couple of the younger girls taught us about making tortilla and the tradition/evolution of the tortilla making process. Without tortilla, Guatemalans can't eat and it isn't uncommon for growing boys to eat up to a dozen or more tortillas per meal. Then we were all given a chance to try smoothing out the masa, making it into balls, and then patting it out into a tortilla. Maia was a bit shy about participating in everything but when it came to actually making tortillas, she was a natural. Perhaps it's genetic. Mine were by far the worst. Not very round at all but they still tasted like tortilla. After we flattened them out they were placed on a big round clay slab over a hot wood fire. Lesbi explained to us how this is the traditional way to cook them and those who try to speed up the process and cook on metal with gas, while it works, the tortillas don't taste as good.

We were then served some tortillas made by us, black beans, and a very tasty spicy sauce. As we ate we learned more about the project. Lesbi is a trained teacher but was never able to secure a position with the government teaching. Her concern however is for the many children who can't attend school because they can't afford the uniforms, supplies and transportation to get there. For that reason she and her husband started Niños con Bendición. (They have a son of their own that turned 10 on the day we were visiting.) 

While Lesbi still doesn't have an official classroom, she has her 23 children of the community and an opportunity to teach. The children come to her almost every day. They learn music, dance, English, and are often fed there as well. Those who teach are volunteering their time to help the children and more and more children are coming all time as the word gets out about the great work they are doing. She dreams of some day having a bigger space to be able to provide a dance room, music room, classroom, and a larger performance space. All in good time with enough sponsors and people helping to support them, we hope she will realize her dream.

We are so thankful that with the help of friends and family we were able to provide toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, pens, pencils, scissors, erasers, paper, crayons, colored pencils, monetary contributions and so much more. For those of you who were kind enough to help us collect for this cause, we will be forever grateful and so are they. We also hope for any of our friends or family that happen to venture to Guatemala, that you take the opportunity to visit this very special place.

As the holidays for us is a time not only for spending with friends and family but to also think about our community and role on this planet, our next stop was Valhalla, a macadamia nut farm that Dean and I visited 13 years ago. It is owned by Lorenzo a retired firefighter from San Francisco and his wife. They farm completely organically and have 2 varieties of macadamia nut trees. They have been running this farm for 35 years. The beauty of these trees in addition to being a source of food and other products is their contribution to the environment and their ability to clean the air. Unfortunately it can be seen as a losing battle in an area with no regulation of vehicle fumes but the hope is for them to eventually plant enough trees worldwide to fight against the impacts of global warming. Not long ago they received a major award in Switzerland for their impact on the world. They have planted over 350,000 trees in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nigeria.

After learning about their completely organic farming methods and their very low impact methods of processing the tree fruits into a final product for sale and export, we entered their spa/showroom space. We were introduced to macadamia lotion that does wonders for psoriasis and eczema, oils and shampoos, and of course chocolate covered macadamia nuts.

We followed up a few purchases with a lovely conversation as we joined Lorenzo and family during their breakfast. Lorenzo loves to tell stories and the girls thought that he reminded them a lot of their Papa (Lauren's dad).

We returned to the hotel where Dean took a rest as he wasn't felling well, Maia decided to just chill, and Morgan and I took a van in to town to check out a bit of Antigua. More on our impressions of Antigua to come.

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Guat's up?

Guatemalans enjoy playing with the English language. Those who can afford it take English classes but those aren't typically offered in school and there are many children that can't afford the basic needs to go to school. More about that in a future post.

We got a bit later start today as we met up with Jairo, our guide at 9:30. We walked down to the port where we boarded a boat to cross Lake Atitlan. The lake is really beautiful as it sits in a crater overseen by 3 volcanos and possibly a 4th which is emerging slowly.

Our first stop was the village of San Juan La Laguna (known to some as San Juan La Locura). Upon our arrival several young men descended upon our boat before we could even get out, offering their services as a guide. Jairo did a great job of fending them off for us.  

We noticed some buildings that appeared to be mostly under water. Jairo explained to us how the lake is fed by 3 rivers but there is no outlet for it. So during the winter months there is heavy water flow and the only way water is eliminated is 

through evaporation in the summer, when the rivers dry up. As a result, anyone who builds too close to the edge eventually gets flooded out.

We then headed up a steep hill towards the center of the village. 

We saw a couple of schools which reminded me of what I have seen in Nicaragua and even in Spain. Schools don't have fancy parks and playground equipment. The kids are expected to use their imaginations to play. There were some basketball hoops and walls for playing with balls against a wall, but that's really about it.

From there we continued on towards the town center. We passed some really beautiful wall paintings that offered some stories and history of the people in that area as well as very artistic graffiti. It is apparently common to see houses with a single floor and then some partial construction on top. Jairo explained to us that as funds come in to move the economy of the village they build what they can and then wait for the next inversion of money to be able to continue and build the next story.

Moving on into town we found an Xmas tree made of AstroTurf with presents under it. A bit more influence of western culture. We continued on to a small garden coop. The woman who worked there explained how they are working with a number of families who have small gardens at their homes. They grow a variety of plants including chamomile, basil, rosemary, and others I'm less familiar with. From these plants they make shampoos for all hair types and teas for everything from indigestion to helping nursing mothers produce more milk.

Across the street we entered a coop where we learned about weaving and textiles. In the center of the coop was a cotton tree. They showed us how they went from the cotton on the tree to turning it into yarn. From there they use a variety of 
foods such as carrots and basil to create the dyes that they soak the yarn in. In order to set the color so it doesn't lose it's intensity when washed, they finalize the process by soaking it with banana leaves. Finally we were shown how she sets up her loom on her waist and weaves. It's a slow process but the results are beautiful. The girls and I each chose a few things to buy and every item had a tag indicating the name of the weaver.

We finished out our tour of San Juan la Laguna and headed by boat to Santiago Atitlan, the largest village along the lake. Jairo stopped an elderly woman as we entered town and asked her to show us how she ties her hair. It was really interesting to see how quickly she did it. This particular head wrap is specific to this village. Each village has its 
own dress and those in the know can identify where a person is from based on the clothes that they are wearing. Today it is mostly the women who continue to dress in traditional clothing while the men are mostly in western clothes.

Jairo then explained to us the different religions and beliefs that are most present in Guatemala. We went to see the Maximón (pronounced more like ma-she-mon). It was a wooden figure that is overseen all day long by its caretakers. They always have a cigarette in his mouth and they even tilt him back for a drink of whiskey. His caretakers charge for you to see him and take pictures but their primary focus is when people come in looking to this being/saint of sorts for assistance. We happened in on a couple of men that were looking for some sort of help. There is an interpreter there to communicate with this being. We couldn't understand what he said as it was in an unknown language and he moved and spoke as if he too was drunk. It's very hard to describe but the linked Wikipedia article does a nice job of explaining how this figure came to be.

We finished out our visit to Santiago walking through the market to get to the Catholic Church. Once there Jairo was able to explain some of the carvings on the wall behind the altar and how the invasion and attempt at converting the people from Mayan beliefs to Catholic. It didn't work as well as they had hoped since the belief in Mayan idols and traditions is so strong. They now intersect a bit but Catholicism as we know it, didn't take over this community.

We then returned to Pana to get the car and some food before our 2.5 hour journey to Antigua.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Western influences... Indigenous cultures...

Our late night arrival in Guatemala went as planned and was without incident despite only 30 minutes to change planes in San Salvador. Upon arrival, I couldn't believe how much bigger and more modern the airport looked. In 13 years much has changed but we are hoping to find that the overall culture remains the same. On our van ride to the hotel we realized how much western culture has now influenced life here as we passed McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Very disappointing...

Today we traveled to Chichicastenago with our piloto/guía, Jairo. He's a really nice guy from just outside of Antigua and has an 11 year old daughter and a 2 year old son. He is very knowledgable about the history of the people and the governance of the different departments (the Guatemalan version of states) that we drove through on our 2.5 hour drive. He told us also about the agriculture, overall economy and pointed out some foods at roadside stands that were new to us. 

As we got further out of the city we saw more and more families along the roadside waving. Apparently they do this in hopes that people will stop and give them candy or, I suspect, any other spare food one might have. We also saw the racing buses. Racing buses are soupped-up versions of school buses from the US and Canada that are now used for urban transport. They are often referred to by us as chicken buses. The reason for the 

racing is that they are required to pay a set fee everyday plus the cost of their gas and maintainence. If they race to get the most passengers they make the most money. On the highway towards Chichi they put in speed bumps to slow down the rate of accidents and fatalities that result from these racing buses.

Once in Chichi we learned that it was the anniversary of Santo Tomás which meant there was an extra level of crazy by the main church. Chichi is the only city that has both a Mayan and a Catholic Church. Jairo explained to us how it was more 

of an invasion than a conquest when the Spanish came in. Their plan was to convert the Mayans to Catholics and they thought this would be easy since the Mayans already believed in Gods. However it wasn't as easy as they thought since the Mayans weren't looking to give up their beliefs. That said, I n order to comply and not face persecution, many Mayans agreed to Catholicism in name only but continued practicing their own religion.

In a parallel vein, there were battling bands in front of the church. The loudest one made the stone ground below us shake and the other one we could hardly hear even when standing directly in front of the stage. They didn't quit though or even 

seem bothered by the battling bands. They just accepted it and carried on with their own beat. There were a couple of dances going on as well. In one, the men were dressed in typical Mexican clothing and dancing with snakes in their hands.  This costume was to remember the Mexicans that accompanied the Spaniards during the invasion. The other dance involved elaborate costumes with headdress and apparently the traditional tennis shoe. We were able to get a picture with one of the dancers as he was a friend of Jairo, who seemed to know people everywhere we went.

After a bit of an historical tour, Maia befriending a talking parrot, and some lunch, it was time to let the shopping begin. The girls picked up some instruments and a few other things, I got a couple 

woven belts, and Dean just enjoyed looking around. Then we were off to Panajachel, about 1 hour more. Perfect for Dean to get a good nap in and for Jairo and I to have a nice discussion about religion, travel, and people around the world.

Upon arrival in Pana we checked in and Morgan and I went exploring while Maia searched for wifi and Dean finished his resting. Later our dinner was delicious and Morgan and I found a few more things that we just had to have.

Tomorrow a tour of some of the towns on the other side of Lake Atitlan.

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