A friend asked a funny question the other day. She wanted to know if we were bored on our trip. More specifically, she wanted to know if the kids were bored. This thought had never really occurred to me. But if you have kids, then you are no stranger to the "I'm booooooooored." half moan half whine. And I can say that on more typical 'vacations' we have experienced boredom. But not this time. On actual 'travel days' there are so many logistical distractions that even an arduous and never ending bus trip can't be classified as boring. Long, nerve wracking, sketchy, mysterious, stinky, enlightening, mind numbing, hot, sticky, tension filled, downright aggressive, sleepy, cramped, scary, etc....but never boring. Even after three months we were always on our proverbial toes and we're constantly being amazed, shocked and awed. Central America is so diverse and culturally rich that we never experienced boredom. We also were aiming to always be learning, whether it was language, food, foreign money, history, politics, scuba, surf, customs, or unique religious practices. And then of course there is architecture, landscape, and local flora and fauna. See what I mean?
Believe it or not, kids have an innate desire to learn and grow and there is nothing in the world like foreign travel to foster that in a natural way, free of boredom. Their minds were always peaked. They were constantly doing math, which they claim to hate, with never ending calculations from dollars to quetzals to lempira. Lewis and Della are cut throat money managers and quickly figured out that they were being charged more because they were American and because they were kids, in certain instances. Do you think they stood for this? No, hell, they didn't. And in Spanish, they would negotiate their fair price and change, sometimes with heat. We never helped them. Because learning and growing are personal. Della came out of a shop in Antigua and asked me, "Mom, how do I say "I appreciate your honesty." in Spanish?" How do you teach math, ethics, language and grace all in one lesson to a child? Travel.
I do want to add that store owners are honest and are simply working with the very real fact that many, many American travelers are often too lazy to convert and properly assimilate to the local currency. My kids went to the tienda a few times with some kids from Wisconsin who were traveling in Guatemala for ten day with a tour group. They wouldn't go to the trouble to convert currencies and would pay 1 US dollar for something that cost 1 Quetzal....effectively giving 10 times the value of the item and willingly creating a flawed system. It quickly becomes a cold, hard, fact that money, for most Americans, is easily wasted. Don't be that traveler.
We spent long stretches of time in a few places....Xela, Utila, Antigua, El Tunco. We met people. We made friends. Most places, the kids could do their own thing. They could run to the corner store, go swimming, snorkeling or boating. They could order their own meals and hang out with folks, play games, read, watch movies, There were animals to be played with. Primarily and constantly, we were figuring out new cultures, languages, and customs. We were always learning, sometimes with intention but more often, covertly and under the radar. There was no room for boredom.
We usually stayed in hostels. We lived somewhat communally, which meant that there was always someone new to meet or hang out with. We met very few kids along the way, but the backpacker set is a lovely group of folks. They are young and vibrant and fun to hang out with. They were good to my kids. Hostels often plan events. We'd go to "movie night" or the kids would participate in "water games". We never played beer pong, but it was amusing to watch, and the antithesis of boring!
Pictured above is a fun afternoon of water games at our dive hostel. Della loved Drip, Drip, Drop. You can figure it out from the photos! They built a water slide. Our local dogs were avid swimmers and always willing to play. Travel heightens your senses and raises the old awareness, And if boredom whispers at the door on a lazy afternoon I suppose you could stand at the end of the dock and meditate on soaring eagle rays and sailboats moored in the sunset till it passes.
Nothing is straightforward in Central America and I mean NOTHING. I am posting this from my phone because the computer is on the fritz and has been for a few weeks. Something as simple as finding a mag charger for a Mac Air is literally a wild goose chase that could involve a soap salesman, a Burger King, or a stint in prison. You just never know. My Dad's final parting words before our trip were not "I love you" or "have fun". His final words were "don't do anything stupid".
So, I haven't gotten a tattoo or pierced any body parts and neither have the kids. I think that's sort of what he meant. However, several times most everyday, we have done something that would easily fall into the 'stupid' category. Whether it's crossing a border into a recently war torn country, eating black clams from a jungle swamp, driving through San Pedro Sula (google it), or simply stepping up into a chicken bus we have said yes to adventure, yes to life, and sometimes yes to stupid. Sorry Dad.
I don't dare upload a picture. It will time out and I'll have to start all over. Wifi is ridiculously unpredictable. I am writing down the stories and will share them all when we get home, I promise. Because I know you want to hear about Max on the crib mattress in the back of the pick up truck, what it's like to find yourself in an El Salvadorean hospital (loose term)twice in one day, and where you should go to indulge your dark side, should you have one, in a positive, uplifting environment. How cryptic is that?
We we are headed back to Antigua today to insinuate ourselves into the biggest, loudest, most crowded and fervent celebration in all of Central America....Semana Santa. We have been warned that it is nonstop, and over the top, That we'd be crazy (stupid) to be in Antigua during Semana Santa. But I love Easter. I love the idea of being in the very epicenter, barring the Vatican, of Holy Week. So while it may not be the most prudent choice, sharing Easter with such an exuberant group of faithful folks sounds like a good idea.
Bottom line....hang on....I'll be back in touch.
We’re having a hard time leaving Utila. The kids don’t want to go. It feels homey. We’ve figured out how things work, which is not hard since the main street is less than a mile long. There is a clear blue ocean out the back door, and a dog has adopted us. I am quite happy to subsist on avocado baleadas (a fresh tortilla with black beans, egg, salty cheese, and avocado) bananas and fresh coconut water, which makes my food bill for the entire day a whopping seventy cents. .
Utila offers just enough and then no more. It requires island ingenuity.....I had to make my Valentine's from the pages of an old German novel and am trying to come up with a recipe for sunscreen. It’s very poor, but it provides. Last night was sushi night at our hostel and it was darn good. The guy who made it all posted a list of choices and then you sign up and he delivers. The ladies in the kitchen at our hostel are exploiting my children's sugar addiction, twenty limpiras at a time.
"Hola, Guapo.!¿Quieres un poco de pastel ?" ....Hey Handsome! Want some cake? And of course they do. Last night it was poppyseed cake with strawberry ice-cream. Who can argue with that?
When you read the guide books they say that Utila has a ‘trash problem’. It does and they are working on it. I’m sure it has infrastructure problems. There are no street rules, signs, or police here. We rented a golf cart and I asked about policies and rules. The guy just looked at me. “Try not to wreck it.” he said. I gave Della the keys and we were off…..
It’s not unlike stepping back in time to maybe 1982. The international backpacker set is loud, fun, carefree and interesting. Diversity rules the day and it's fun just trying to figure out what languages are being spoken and what country advocates toe socks and underwear as proper daytime attire. Wes Anderson should make a movie here. But then it would be spoiled, or saved, depending on how you see things.
If we knew where we were going exactly, it might be easier to leave, but we change our mind every day. There are lots of great choices, There is Belize, Tikal, the Pacific coast of El Salvador, Mexico, or probably the best choice....Nicaragua. HOWEVER, we don't think we can handle the twenty hour shuttle ride. (It's advertised at twelve hours, but the grapevine says different) We have found that a great deal of our time is spent debating the pros and cons of modes of travel with other travelers and working out plans.
Travel days can be brutal. A full frontal assault of body, mind and spirit. The shuttle ride here was ridiculous....with twelve very large people crammed in the smallest van you can imagine. Which is perhaps good in the sense that the absentee seat belts are rendered useless, as no one can budge anyway. The roads are virtually lawless. Potholes are wide and deep. Shocks are nonexistent, so you could very well lose or loose a tooth, and you should definitely be wearing a supportive bra. No one in Central America got the memo on 'How to pass on a mountain road with a fast approaching line of traffic, the first of which is a gas truck....." I'm not even going to mention banditos.
If there was such a thing as a travel fairy, I'd click my heels, and have five cheap plane tickets to the next destination. Amber, a friend at the hostel, has found a yacht that goes from here to Belize City, but we'd need to find 17 other people to go with us, which is really quite doable. We could sail to Rio Dulce with a boat anchored just off shore from our hostel, which my children are voting for, but I think it's because the captain houses a ferret in his dreadlocks. Everyone and his brother will drive you anywhere, but it seems like the last best bet.
So while it's fun to plan the next leg of the trip, it requires a few days of torture, when actually executed, so as I said.....Utila is just perfect right now. I'll continue debating which color coconut tastes best, looking for sea turtles in clear blue waters, playing gin rummy while drinking gin or rum, and marveling at this sweet little island that floats, ever so cooly, in an azure bath off the coast of Honduras.
Hola Utila! Utila is the smallest of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. It's a tiny island with an even smaller little town. It’s claim to fame is it’s diving and it just happens to be the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI open water certification. We are staying at a dive hostel that provides lodging, scuba certification, all your gear, and dives. There is a little restaurant right outside our room where the kids can sit at the bar and order their fill of limeade and pancakes for very few limpiras. The upside of a hostel over a hotel is the ‘community living’ aspect. You quickly become a part of a bigger, funner community just because everyone is hanging out together on the little beach, swinging in the hammocks, or hanging out at the bar. We stay in a dorm like room. We have an entire dog network that runs up and down the main street and checks in regularly for any scraps or affection that they can find.
There is barely a street here. The main drag is more like a big sidewalk and couldn’t handle two passing cars if it had to, which is fine, because there are no cars here, just lots of tuk tuks, golf carts, motorcycles, dogs, folks and bikes…. The island is primitive, but that doesn’t say much, does it? Put it this way….I figured i’d buy a bathing suit when I got here and I figured wrong. There is no bathing suit to be bought….on an island?!? That astounds me in a good way. I hate shopping for bathing suits anyway.
I’ll be happy in my thrift store mis-matched bikini that I got, just in case, the day before we left for fifty cents. Customer Service is not really a thing here and it’s sometimes frustrating because I’m a spoiled American, but also refreshing because we’ve taken it waaaayyy too far with all of our yelping and reviewing and such.
We are here to dive and it couldn’t be better. Della is 10. She is the youngest to be certified here in several years. The entire island worked together to find her equipment that fit. They bought little tanks just for her. If you know Della you know that she’s petite and if you know scuba diving you know that the equipment is massive and heavy. Long story short, she has rocked it! She is certified and it was a ton of work and she did it. The boys are certified, too. I am so proud of them all!
Early this morning, on their first fun dive after passing all their skills, a sea turtle swam by to congratulate them.
NOTES: We are diving/staying with Captain Morgan’s Dive Center. Ask for Wit to be your instructor. The crepe place is awesome, try the wood fired pizza at Mango Inn, Trudy’s has real coffee, buy your pineapple from the guy on the street and have your children bust open the coconuts on the beach for you to drink, Rehab is a cool spot on the water to drink a beer and eat some seafood, and you can exorcise any personal demons with the locals at Skid Row.
Guatemala is nothing if not a paradox. Just when you think you might be Guatemala-ed out, it throws you an unexpected twist. Xocomil, located in the middle of nowhere, is one of the best water parks in the world. It costs next to nothing to get in....$12 American, a fortune around here, and it's rather awesome. It's so awesome that they are putting in an International airport solely for the park. It's one of the top destinations in Central and South America. There is something for everyone and state of the art technology (not something Guatemala is known for) means that some rides are almost too scary! My boys would only ride the roller coaster once! When you are atop the huge towers waiting to go down, you can see for miles in all directions. It looks like they filmed Jurassic Park here and that any moment Hu-normous Rex might come crashing out of the jungle.
The scariest ride is a vertical tube that they seal you into.They lock the door and then turn a key. It's just awful and very, very fun. A woman counts down, 3-2-1, in an eerie sci-fi voice. And the floor drops out from under you. You free fall for a long, long way through a small tube and then you are swept up vertically in a series of loops that eventually crash into a pool at the bottom.
Unless you are Della.
In her case, she dropped as she should have and shot almost, BUT NOT QUITE, up to the next huge loop. She slowed and stopped, then slid BACKWARDS back through the ride. You can sort of see people shooting though the tubes. Max was the one to sound the alarm. They were waiting at the bottom, I was at the top. Max, who has no tolerance for drama of any kind (I am raising a young version of my own father, which is funny, really) started violently shaking his head and crossing his arms back and forth. As if she didn't make the field goal attempt. Matt chimed in and the lifeguards told him to take it down a notch. It's not like his daughter was trapped in a Human Torpedo Tube?!!!!?!! Della, ever calm and practical, made her way to the light. There was a clear part of the tube that was also a door and some dude let her out.
She was/is perfectly fine and was actually excited to be able to go back and tell her story to her friend Ben, who dared her to do it in the first place. Viva Guatemala!
We've been in Xela for a month. We leave this weekend. We had a little fiesta tonight and then a graduation potluck at our school. I'm a little sad. We walk down the street and know people. We've figured out how things work around here, and I have a fair grip on Spanish. The kids have made friends, both young and old, and although school is hard, it's very rewarding. We are collectively known as the Familia Patton, which I love.
As the guide books will tell you, Xela is a real Guatemalan city. It's gritty and honest, and there is just enough splendor and antiquity amongst the mayhem to keep it all mesmerizing. I've come to appreciate everything that it throws at us. One thing that you quickly learn is that there is no room for comparisons. I can't compare Guatemala to home. It would be a disservice to both. I feel very sentimental about Guatemala. Both the people and the place grab at you in unexpected ways. As you walk down an average street there is a roller coaster of sensory assault....everyday modern life and commerce, ancient culture and women in centuries old mayan garb, baskets on head and babies on back, dog poop, human poop, flower stalls, cobblestones and motorcycles, fresh bread and pupusas, and 8 inch wide sidewalks. Life is pulsing. There is no such thing as personal space in Guatemala. If you groove on your daily habits and have strict notions as to diet and hygiene, stay home.
But I will be ready to relax a bit! This trip was very loosely planned. We knew we would go to language school. We did a bit of research (not much) and found one that felt right and fit the budget. We were lucky and it's been a perfect fit. Our apartment is above another language school, one that it is touted as the best, but from what I've heard and seen, our experience was much more intimate and family like. For those interested in the details....the name of our school is Ulew Tinimit and here's the link. We had initially contacted a Catholic monastery outside of Xela that had a language school and thought we would study there. It was cost prohibitive and now I'm so glad. While I'm sure it would have been fine, we would have been completely isolated from 'real life' in Xela. Planning from afar, it felt 'safe and familiar. But we didn't come this far to isolate ourselves and I have loved every minute of the bustle of Xela, both gritty and bonita!
We planned on taking the month of January to plan for February and February to plan for March. If you're a type A person, you might want to stop reading. Our plans change all the time. We talk with fellow travelers and glean new insight. What they loved, what they hated....In Central America, reservations are rarely necessary for hostels, buses or airplanes. It's not the way things work at this level of travel. From here we will go back to Antigua for a few days, then catch a bus to Honduras. We will stop in Copan Ruinas for a few days, then make our way to La Ceiba, where we will catch a ferry to the Bay Islands. Utilla, to be exact. We hope to get our scuba certification and catch the whale shark migration. Some of our school friends are headed in the same direction, so it should be a blast.
It's been hard writing about this trip because there is so much to say. So so so much. I will try to narrow it down and get busy, but I have a feeling that the Honduran jungle is not well-wired for internet!
As far as I know, we'll come back into Guatamala and explore the western side of things....Tikal, Semuc Champey, Livingston and the Rio Dulce. After that? Maybe El Salvador and Nicaragua, if time permits. We had planned on Costa Rica and Panama but there won't be time, and most travelers we've met don't recommend Costa Rica. Go figure. Three months is feeling like way too little time to see it all. I will say this. From here forward, our life will be different. Not sure how, but sure that it will!
Remind me to tell you about:
Going to Guatemalan Church....awesome
How Della got trapped in a narrow tube in Central America's largest water park....all's well that ends well!
The Wonders of the Guatemalan Medical System .....wish I didn't know, but I do. (unrelated to above!)
The Chicken Bus ride from hell....a story that we will be telling for the rest of our lives, Lewis in particular.
What we are reading on the road.....we are like the bookmobile!
Social Justice in Guatemala....is there any good answer....not really, but hope rules the day.
Trama...a women's collective worth your time
Where to begin? Della looks through the images on the blog and says "Mom, those are good pictures, but they don't really capture the chaos of things. For a ten year old, she's fairly astute. I wrote here about the morning wake up call. What I have come to learn is that this is the absolute norm around here. This place operates at top volume 24/7. Layer upon layer of sound. And I am down with it. HOWEVER.
HOWEVER. Gallo means rooster. And it's the freaking national bird. Not really, of course, The elusive Quetzal is the REAL national bird, but the designation should be reassigned. Gallo also happens to be the national beer, something akin to our Budweiser, and is made here in Xela. There's more to that, too, but let's stick with birds for now. The gallo, in it's many forms, is muy popular.
Our apartment is typical of any home here. We are crowded into a city block, cheek to jowl with our neighbors. There is no such thing as insulation or double paned windows. Our roof is a sheet of very thin plastic. And as you're probably aware, sound carries.
The image above is the view out our bedroom window. They are a big family. I love their poinsettia tree. And I'm sure that they're nice folks. But they raise roosters.
I'm not sure why one would raise roosters. Before bed, our first night here, Della asked about roosters and when they crow. I was imagining a bucolic farm setting with a patriarchal rooster somewhere IN THE DISTANCE. I said something poetic like "Oh, roosters are the herald of the morning; they might wake us up early."
Truer words have never been spoken.
We go to bed early. 9 ish. At 10:00 it started. They might as well have been in bed with us. The crowing alarm sounded every 20 seconds throughout the night. It's not a noise that you can acclimate to. Each and every time it jars your heart and makes you sweat
I would lie there and anticipate the next crow, then jump when it sounded. Six hours later, there was no change. I thought surely their throats must be raw and irritated, wouldn't they have to stop at some point? I'm an easy going person., but this was not working for me. I was feeling violent. I was identifying well with the term "ring your neck". But in the end, because sleep is non-negotiable and this was our new, if temporary, home I began to ponder solutions. How to silence these feathered evangelists of the night?
As I lay there, I began to hatch a plan….or at least, several viable options. Perhaps we could move our bed into the living room and the living room into the bedroom. It would be a bit of a pain, but if we closed the door to the bedroom we could create a decent sound barrier. Or, and this is where I got excited, I could make my way around the block, knock on these people’s door and offer them cold hard cash for the gallos. How much could a few Guatemalan birds cost? It could, quite possibly, be the best $10-$12 dollars ever spent. To recoup some of my money I could march right down to the parque central and sell the dang things, just like every body else in town does. This begged the question, …. how to carry several roosters several blocks? I don’t much care for pecking fowl. I especially don’t like their legs. The biggest hitch in the plan was transporting the birds, and then it hit me. This just might work. I could kill several birds with one stone, so to speak.
Negotiating with a native would require me to up my language game. AND it would be necessary to include a non-compete clause,: no more roosters for the next 30 days. My language skills would be tested and this is good.
I would also need to work on my haggling skills. I hate to haggle over prices and it’s a way of life around here. I make Della do it for me. Seriously. She is a shark. This would force me to engage in some serious negotiating.
And maybe, just maybe, after I stuffed three live roosters into my sleek backpack and schlepped them down a shabby scenic cobblestone street to a colorful Central American town square, I’d fulfill another odd goal of mine…to make the cover of the Patagonia catalog.
These roosters are my destiny.
Hasta Mañana, Amigos!
We have been in Xela for two weeks now. It feels very familiar and I have learned more in two weeks than I have in the past 20 years….about life, people, the world, and love. We moved out of our homestay and into a little apartment. The apartment is located above a different school and we are surrounded by people from all over the world. We shop and cook and wake up and go to school and then hang with friends and classmates in the afternoon. We watch Spanish TV, run to the panaderia (bakery) for fresh bread every day($1 for 12 little buns and several beautiful pastry treats), take our laundry to the lavanderia ($1.50 to have it washed, dried, and folded) and basically carry on as we would at home. I am working from afar, and the internet is fine if a little slow, so I am building websites and doing social media marketing from my little apartment. Life is totally and miraculously different, yet very much the same.
This week we changed our schooling to one on one instruction. For five hours a day, I sit, nose to nose, with my maestro, Norma. We are about the same age. She is cute and funny and despite very different backgrounds, We are fast friends and so very similar. After two short weeks of intensive instruction, I can understand most all she says. We talk of parenting, our children, what we cooked for dinner, our childhood, finances, recipes, shopping, and cultural customs. We also talk of war, poverty, social injustice, political corruption, and hope for the future. I could sit here and write of it for days. In the tiniest of nutshells, and in the interest of publishing a post in the next hour or so, Guatemala is a country in recovery. They have just recently come out of a brutal civil war that lasted for 36 years. The war ended in 1996 and there was mass genocide of the indigenous people. Entire towns were destroyed in nazi-esque ways. Norma is amazed that I know so little about it. So am I. I tell her, in my broken Spanish, best as I can, that I knew of it vaguely and from a distance, but without feeling or connection. And that here and now, I am getting it, deeply.
By far our biggest expense on this adventure is our language school. There is no way to quantify the gain. Aside from learning Spanish, we are making connections that I can hardly put into words. When you spend more than 30 hours a week with a group of people you quickly become a unit. We share a common and unique bond....we all want to learn something that is difficult and very much outside ourselves. It's the polar opposite of my normal life, which seems distant and, unfortunately, self centered.
Our schoolmates are from all over. We have group discussions, solely in Spanish, on every topic you can imagine. My kids join in and contribute and are being pushed to express themselves and interact (in Spanish) at a very high level.
I can't tell you how much we laugh. Humor is exacerbated by the language barrier. The exchanges are almost always deeply intellectual and hysterically funny. Which is good., because it's a long hard week of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, comprehension and constant study and practice. We are all eager to go each morning. My kids have been in school their entire lives, but they are opening up to what is possible if they dig into deep learning.
The reward surrounds us....the people, both Guatemalans and fellow travelers, a gorgeous window to the world and true connection.
Yesterday (Friday) after school, Pablo took us to a neighboring pueblo call Salcaja. Pablo is Matt's maestro (teacher) and is a quiet and wickedly funny man. He is also a psychotherapist, so he and Matt are a perfect pair. Ben and Zoey, a darling couple from London came, too. We took a chicken bus to this small town about 20 minutes from Xela (shay-la) and stepped into a totally different world.
Salcaja is home to the oldest church in Meso-America. The church is over 500 years old and is a work of art. The walls are over four feet thick, which accounts for it's longevity in a country prone to earthquakes. All of the churches here are breath-taking and wildly unique. The art is profound. Yesterday was a special day in that it was the celebration of the Christo Negro, yes, the black Christ, and we awoke to more than the usual bombas in the morning. (More on that soon!) The church at Salcaja was preparing for a celebration later that night and the air was festive! What a church. What a refuge of peace and beauty. I loved the lace draping and the ancient candle lanterns.
On the flip side, Salcaja is also known for its fermented fruit liquor. It's the last town in Guatemala to retain the right to legally produce their own regional liquor. We crossed the street and visited a family who make it. We sampled both the liquor and the fermented fruit that produces it. Sweet liquor is low on my list, but we also learned that the fruit is a medicine for stomach problems caused by food poisoning or travel sickness. We bought a bit of the fruit to take home to Max, who has had a bout of yuckiness. (It's just a fact, that when you are traveling in Central America, you will, at some point, get sick. We knew this.) The fermented fruit has natural probiotics and also aids in sleeping.
Salcaja is also know for its thread production. Weaving is everything here and it takes thread. I have never seen so much thread. We went through a bustling family thread shop, through a small door into a warren of a warehouse. The rooms were divided by colors, Wild neons, primaries, natural colors, pastels, then whites and browns.
Oddly, in the midst of all this locally made thread, are huge German import businesses offering, you guessed it, brightly colored thread.
Our final stop was to wander the market, bustling on a late Friday afternoon and see the final product of all that thread. The weaving is beautiful and it’s hard to imagine the time that goes into a single item. We grabbed a bite of El Salvadorean street food (50 cents), bought a deck of cards($1), two second hand sweatshirts because it’s chilly here ($1), and caught the chicken bus back home. (30 cents each)
Hooray for the weekend! It's much welcome after a week of brain stretching study. If Max is better, we are hopping a chicken bus to the biggest water park in the world.. Who knew?!
We spent the first week in a home stay with a Guatemalan family, Noami and Carlos Ramirez and their grown children and their grandchildren, Carlitos (young Carlos), Sophia and Fernanda. Fernanda and Della are both ten and hit it right off. Carlitos and Lewis spent most their time trying to annoy the girls.
A typical day goes something like this. We wake up around 7am and get ready for school. Breakfast is served at 7:30 and is very simple but fortifying. We might have mushy mushy, which is similar to oatmeal, arroz con leche, pancakes, or beans and eggs.There is usually also a fruit, either papaya or boiled plantain and a pot of what I am affectionately calling coffee tea. Noami (pronounced No-ah-me) is a very good cook. She makes the most of very simple ingredients and everything is made from scratch. There is a wood fired stove in the tiny kitchen and on tortilla day, she soaks a huge bucket of dried corn, which she then grinds and makes in the best tortillas I’ve ever had, thick and chewy and filling. She also makes an odd corn concoction, very much like the our version of a tamales without any filling. These are served with every meal.
We walk the four blocks to school and begin our day. School starts at 8:00. The learning is very intense. We learn in one week what you would learn in a full school year. We have homework. We have to write and orate and speak only in Spanish while at school. If I take my eyes off the teacher for even five seconds I’m lost. It’s fascinating. Lewis sits beside me and soaks it all, no problema. It is so dang easy for him and I'm envious and proud! We took a test on Friday and I had to cheat off his paper. And then he told on me! Aye yi yi!
At 10:30 we get a break. We walk down the street a half block and sit on the sunny steps of the Claro building and wait for the fruit lady. And this is why a love to travel! For 5 quetzals (or a paltry fifty cents) we get a little fruit feast. The fruit is fresh and beautiful. If you like, and I like, she shakes salt and chili pepper into the bag and then squeezes half of a lime into it. It's the perfect morning snack! Next week, I'm going for the radish, cucumber, cabbage mix.
We all go back to school, work till noon and then head 'home'. Lunch is the big meal in Guatemala and the whole family is there.
We set up a piece of sheet metal on saw horses and cover it with table clothes. At night the table is broken down because the family car moves into the living room.
We eat at 1;00 and it's a simple but festive affair. Pasta with vegetables, spaghetti, potatoes, rice, beans, sometimes a vegetable salad and always bread and tortillas..Dinner is much more basic....eggs and beans, toast with eggs, ramen with black beans, alphabet soup, or tostadas with beans or a picante salsa. Dessert is always a frozen banana dipped in chocolate.
Our family has been hosting students for twenty years. They speak slowly and correct with kindness. We ask questions about their lives and customs and have learned more in one week than we could have any other way.
After lunch we relax and study for a bit. The kids do what kids do, play games, run around, go up on the roof and shoot off firecrackers and make numerous trips back and forth to the tienda down the street for bon bon bums and intensos. In Della's words, a bon bon bum is a lollipop inside a package. The package is full of crushed up sour pop rocks and you lick the pop and dip it. Inside the lollipop is a big ball of bubblegum and inside the package is a sticker. It's the perfect candy. It cost 1 quetzales which equals about a dime. Intensos are backwards oreos, but better.
On most days we have a school activity in the afternoon. We almost always walk.
On this particular day we walked to a nearby business making artisanal chocolate. The Guatemalans love their sweets, and they are typically much sweeter than we are used to. Cacao nut grows naturally here and we saw the process, from pod to chocolate bar. The ingredients are simple....cacao nut and sugar. The roasted beans are put through a heated grinder into a small mountain of sugar. Mix and repeat. That's it!
They are patted into little trays, which then dry overnight and are packaged. We sampled the raw cacao, the warm processed cacao and sugar, a cup of chocolate liquado, and then the ubiquitous frozen banana dipped in chocolate.
We go home, study some more, eat dinner at 7 on the dot and wind down for the night. Max watches Guatemalan netflix. The kids play till bedtime (Carlos will never stop moving for a photo!) and then we go to sleep.
It's amazing how quickly your life can make a sea change, if you want it to....that's the take away for today! Big Love from beautiful Guatemala!
Because we found a hot springs paradise hugging the side of an active volcano.
Here's what Lonely Planet has to say.....
"A superb natural spa in a spectacular setting, Fuentes Georginas is an 8km drive uphill from Zunil. It's named after the wife of 'benevolent dictator' Jorge Ubico, who customarily comandeered the installations on weekends for his personal use. Four pools of varying temperatures are fed by hot sulfur springs and framed by a steep, high wall of tropical vines, ferns and flowers. Though the setting is intensely tropical, the mountain air currents keep it deliciously cool through the day. There is a little 500m walk starting from beside the pool, worth doing to check out the birds and orchids. Bring a bathing suit; towels are available (Q10 plus deposit). Lockers cost Q5. Hurricane Agatha ripped through the spa in 2010, all but destroying the installations. Fortunately, it's been completely rebuilt and restored, though patches of the road in remain perilously damaged.
Besides the restaurant/bar, which serves great grilled steaks, sausage and papas, there are three sheltered picnic tables with cooking grills. Big-time soakers will want to spend the night: down the valley a bit are nine rustic but cozy cottages, each with a hot tub and cold shower, barbecue and a fireplace to ward off the mountain chill at night (wood and matches provided). Included in the price of the cottages is access to the pools all day and all night, when rules are relaxed.
Trails lead to two nearby volcanoes: Volcán Zunil (15km, about three hours one way) and Volcán Santo Tomás (25km, about five hours one way). Guides (essential) are available for either trip. Ask at the restaurant."
Oh my, It was lovely.
We went with our new friend, Sheryl, a woman from Calgary who is on an eight month journey through Central America. She took a trip to Africa a few years ago and came back to her job, sat down at her desk, looked around and ten minutes later informed her company that she was taking early retirement to travel the world. My kind of gal. As enriching as the cultural experience are the people you meet along the way. There is an immediate bond and camaraderie that cares not one whit about age or status or past.
One of the reasons for our trip was to learn Spanish. We are in a Spanish immersion program for five hours a day. At the moment we are learning in a group class, but next week we will be in one on one classes with a teacher that asesses your level and then attacks! Intensivo is the word that gets thrown around. It is. The mornings have flown by so far. Conjugating and rules and irregularities, months, days, seasons, numbers, masculine, feminine, it goes on and on. Our teacher speaks very little English, everything is en espanol, so there is no moment to relax the brain. It’s the same at home with the host family….all Spanish. In the afternoons there are scheduled activities that we attend. Yesterday we watched a movie, today we went to a salsa class, tomorrow a chocolate making class, and later a trip to a hot spring. After we are a bit more proficient, we will be volunteering with local organizations.
I feel like an idiot. I have a million questions and am tongue tied. I oddly lapse into French, which I hardly know at all, but apparently some of it sank in during high school and college. I don't like 'not knowing'.
It is highly amusing being in a class with your kids when they are light years ahead.of you It's quite fun having them lean in and explain something, a refreshing dynamic that I wouldn't have experienced otherwise!
I'm signing off because my brain is mush.
(It's another post, but I've also been eating lots of mush.)
There are no pictures. There are hardly words. I knew Guatemala was going to be rough around the edges. I knew that there would be deep poverty. I worried a bit for my children and jarring culture shock, and then I thought that culture shock is an odd problem to worry about. The guidebooks don't say it all. If they did they'd put themselves out of business. I was also aware that our first, and brief stop in Antigua was a bit like going to Disneyland before your stay in Watts or South Central L.A..
The drive from Antigua to Quetzeltanango was, to be blunt, awful. I sat in the back of the van and cried to myself. I couldn't even wrap clear thoughts around what I was seeing. I hesitate to describe it, because it feels disingenuous. Along a very busy highway, akin to our interstates, toddlers held babies in mountains of trash or slept, virtually in the road. There were children everywhere along the road just waving at the speeding cars. To stop? To help? To feed them? To pick them up and take them away? More than anything I am a mother, and the mother in me howled.
We arrived in Quetzeltanango, car sick from the wildest mountain ride I've ever experienced (and I live in some very serious mountains) and heart sick. from the poverty. What a word. I have seen what it means now. I don't profess to know what it means, anymore.
As I sat in my hired van, separated from the massive need around me, it felt a thin line. Over and over and over the same word kept spinning in my head. There is no rhyme or reason for the difference between my children and those beautiful children on the side of the road. It's nothing they asked for or can control. It all boils down to the cosmic whim of birthright.
It was a bad day. I felt it all. My kids felt it all. They were homesick and freaked. We went to bed sad and wiped out. But I am nothing if not practical. I knew it would get better. That there would be a calibrating. I waited a few days to write this, because some things have to be processed.
We are living with a host family, hard working Guatemalans. They are feeding us and sharing their home with us.. Right this minute, my children are laughing like wild hyenas with six precious kids, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and neighbors of our host family. They are shrieking and playing clapping games, listing friends, eating nerds, and making gross noises. We started school today. We are living amongst it and it's lovely. My big extended family is no different from this big extended family. Hardworking, kind, attractive, hospitable, generous, smart..............
Birthright. I'll be stewing on it for a long time.
At 5 am, after a very late night, all hell broke loose, A bell started ringing. At first somber and stately, I imagined an ancient bell in a stone cathedral, and then wildly frantic, as if the ringer had lost all patience and thrown dignity out the belfry. And then the chickens. There were some dogs involved. A dang cat even chimed in. Meowing. Seriously. There was a gunshot and then the birds started. Were you aware that car alarms in the US are based on the sounds of Guatemalan birds? I wasn't either. I don't favor the term OMG, but O.M.G. I lay in my bed, eyes closed, bathed in sound.
Our neighbor behind paper thin walls had a coughing fit and turned on a lighthouse beacon of some sort that shown through an oddly placed window into our room. He then started packing a bag with a thousand zippers.....indecisively. Zip zip zip zip zip zip. That's how thin the walls are. Someone scraped a file cabinet down the cobblestone street and then it got really quiet again.
And because I like to worry, sometimes I worry about going blind and how awful that would be. I'm a visual person. Trapped behind my own black lids would be a dismal fate. But I'm not scared any more, If and when I go blind, I know just where to come and not miss one single sensory beat. Room 6, Hostel Antigueno, Antigua,Guatemala.
My kids slept through it all. I got up, wandered outside to the tables in the courtyard and drank lovely black coffee with a family from Australia and another from Seattle (they are teachers in Costa Rica with 13 year old twins). We ate pancakes and eggs , potatoes, fruit and the best refried black beans I've ever had. My kids stumbled out eventually and settled a Harry Potter wager with the twins, played a quick game of table tennis and then we set out. After a day of wandering and awe, we returned to our little hostal and did some drawing and writing. A lovely Dutch lady challenged Lewis to game of table tennis. They were nicely matched and played with zesto. I'm not sure how or why national anthems came up, but we heard a few, sincere if a little out of tune, and to Max's (our 16 year old) horror, Matt sang the Star Spangled Banner. And because he watches too much hockey, he then burst into 'Oh Canada', because it's a song that begs singing.
Two German girls cut up a bazillion unidentified vegetables and started a soup that filled the courtyard with the aroma of curry and spice and inside of a day we are changed people.
I am on point for 5 am, folks. Ready and waiting.
Hola Antigua! After months of anticipation and logistical arrangements on the front end, we are here! Leaving was a bear. I won't go into the details. But there were times when it didn't seem possible or even fun. The comfort zone is well... comfortable. Traveling in Central America, until today, has just been an enormous question mark. But let's just jump right in.
We landed in Guatamala City around midnight. after a day of easy travel. If you've ever glanced at a travel guide, you're fairly warned. It might as well say that you will be knifed upon arrival. I was happy to see a very small man holding a sign that said 'Ivey Patton" outside the doors of customs. We jumped in his van, and sped into the night city. It looked not unlike any other city, except for an extraordinary abundance of Burger King's. Sometimes even across the street from each other. We left the city and into the dark countryside and began to wind up and around on progressively smaller roads. Suddenly our driver slammed on the brakes and pulled over. Because I like to worry, I assumed that he had called in a posse and we were soon to be robbed and slaughtered. He was frantically pointing into the night sky ahead of us.
"Volcano! Volcano! he shouted.
And yes, straight ahead, were fireworks from Mother Nature and a hot lava carpet suspended on a dark mountain.
Della grabbed my leg. "We have been here for 45 minutes and I have seen a volcano erupting."
And then the road tuned to cobble and we bounced into Antigua and made our way to our hostel. We were starving and pleasantly electrified so we decided to wander the night streets looking for a late night snack. The town was shutting down, the street vendors loading their wares and large families into the backs of ancient pick-up trucks. We tucked into a brightly lit tienda. We grabbed an odd assortment of Guatemalan crackers, chips, bright bottled drinks and a brick of cheese product, paid a darling small child who was minding the store, and made our way back to the room....giddy with travel and fatigue.
In a room too small to for all of our luggage, with a burlap ceiling, fluorescent lights, a concrete floor, and an outdoor bathroom we ate the first of many, I'm sure, oddball meals and wondered over our day. We did it. Our cozy beds are a million miles away. We sat in a tight little circle and laughed and joked and it all finally feels real.
We are a family afar.
I'm always interested in the details. What makes a person tick. What they love, what they hate. Here is a more 'real' bio. So hello. It's nice to meet you. I have always considered my readers as friends. Thanks for showing up. If you were in my kitchen, I'd fix you some coffee...
First and foremost, I am Mom to my three sprites – Max, Lewis and Della and wife to my best friend and biggest crush, Matt. I was born in the Deep South and was raised to be very polite and well groomed. I am now a Westerner by choice and am still very polite. We live in Durango, Colorado.
I love reading and writing, art and design, ethnic food, antique swimming pools, trail running, swimming in wild water, cooking on a wood stove, libraries, leggy plants in odd containers, and blue jeans. I want to retire to a teepee. I will beat you at hop scotch and only own 21 articles of clothing.. Coffee is an integral part of my day. I tend to look on the bright side of things and often have an irreverent view point that keeps me smiling. Each and every day I choose Joy. I'm guessing that I'm a prime candidate for Meditation.
I have some strong opinions, but don’t much care for controversy. For years, I wrote a 'mommy blog' but very quickly got tired of the deep, muddy, opinionated rabbit hole of parenting philosophies. In general, I think that there are several thousand right ways to parent and that it's all personal. I think that the most important job I have as a mom is to believe in my kids and empower them to work hard toward their heart's desire.
I teach reading and art and think that those two things alone, pretty much, can make us successful, vibrant, and joyful human beings! I also have a small marketing boutique and I love to help people see their highest business potential. I am big on manners and am sometimes horribly shocked by my own children. I don't sweat the details. Not much in my life is perfect. Nothing really. I struggle. I have bad days. Nay, I have bad weeks. I worry about the future. I try not to worry. I keep on keeping on.
Nice to meet you. Feel free to stick around and see what happens next.....
Note: I wrote this years ago, but it might shed some light as to frame of mind. We have turned into a fairly average family over the past 16 years, but I still believe in that other 'account' and know that it could use a deposit.
Long before kids came along I had a life. It was a very different life and I can't even begin to compare the two except to say that the first, unbeknownst to me at the time, was preparing me for the second. After I graduated from college I was only clear on one thing; I was free. I loved to travel and I loved change, but I wasn't sure where that would lead. Along the way, I met a cute guy. We spent ten years 'on the road'. I know my parents were beside themselves. I was a sorority girl from a nice Southern family. Those don't, typically, morph into gypsies. And while my friends were building careers and families and homes and fortunes and dutifully contributing to their retirement plans, I was, well, just all over the map.
I was making pottery with a group of amazing women in Athens. I was tending voodoo lilies at a rare plant nursery in Michigan. I was waiting tables and eating well all over the country. I was living in a tent by a creek in Jackson Hole, in a flop house in Portland a block away from the best bookstore in the world. We would criss cross the country for any reason at all and when that got old, we would hop on a plane and do the same in Europe. Along the way we worked hard and made friends and found our way. And while our bank accounts were never flush and we would push them to the brink of zilch in our travels, we were making serious deposits in another account.
What account is that? I'm not sure what it's called. The 'unflapppable' account? The 'I can go anywhere and do anything at anytime' account. The first hand 'isn't this world amazing' account. The 'wow! we are all so different, but wonderful' account. The 'I'm scared, but let's dive in head first' account. The 'oh, I get it, there's nothing to be scared of' account. The 'a stranger might just be your next best friend' account. There is really no explaining it and not everyone thrives in the face of uncertainty, but in our travels we found joy around every bend in the road. We met extraordinary people. We lost the fear that is usually associated with the unknown and found in its place excitement.
At times, I was worried that this wouldn't translate in the real world. That we would come up short. What fool takes their retirement first. These were the grindstone years. The dues paying years. We had nothing of monetary value to show for any of it.
The hardest I have ever laughed was in a hotel in Tangier, where Matt and I shared a room with a fellow traveler. The whole town shut down at 6:00 PM, and by shutting down I mean that the power grid is offed. No lights. No running water. Decidedly un-American, it was. We were hungry and tired. I have no idea what got us started, but I will never forget the dark room, the thick stone walls, the uncomfortable beds, that man chanting in the alley, the toilet that wouldn't flush, and the laughter so insane that it hurt. As soon as we would calm down, someone would utter some foolishness and it would start all over.
It was late late late... after a shift at a very authentic Italian restaurant in a tiny western town. A fellow I worked with, as all American as my brother, sat across from me as we ate our employee meal and said, out of the blue, through tears, that he thought he was gay. The Gin Blossoms were playing on the radio. Allison Road. He couldn't tell anyone else. We hugged and cried. 'It doesn't feel like it right now, but it's going to be fine.' Or something like that. I don't remember what I said exactly. That night I drove toward the mountains and stopped at the river. I threw my sleeping bag down on the bank of The Snake and fell asleep, worried for my friend. I woke up in the night and there were three moose just feet away from me. I could have touched them.
Thousands of beautiful 'snapshots' spread out across the years.
They pulled into Port Townsend, WA. They knew not a soul. It was as quaint as it gets. They had their cat, Ruby, a frantic yellow dog named Wilma (who would drink her weight in salt water AND get hit by a car the next day...but be fine) and about $600 dollars in the bank. They were staying in a cute boarding house on the beach, and would look for a place to live the next day, after a visit to the vet, of course. It should be interesting. A cat, a dog, next to no money, no jobs....and the girl six months pregnant on top of it all.
That other account was full. We saw only the Excitement and Joy of our situation, that others might have called a predicament. We found a precious house for $500 a month. How could the landlady turn away this couple bursting with hope. She couldn't. Matt went to work. They furnished the tiny house with yard sale finds and lots of candles. They kept the wood stove burning and hunkered down for the nastiest winter in Washington history. With the promise of spring, a due date approached.
Words can't express. On a gray day in May a red headed little boy was born. Never have I known such a love.
And with a storehouse of laughter and tears, the three of us set out on the next great adventure. Every toothless grin was as fascinating as the medina in Fez. His fat warm baby body in bed between us was sweeter than all the pastries in Paris.
What's crazy, is that every day I am still in TOTAL awe and three kids later that account is bursting.
Cashmoney? Not so much.
Wide eyed wonder? I can loan you some.