Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Our Hosts By The Lake-Santiago Atitlan

We drove to Lake Atitlan while Nick and Lindsay were here. We needed to visit our partner there and it gave them an opportunity to explore another part of Guatemala.
 We stayed with a host family, the director of our partner organization.
Tortillas made by hand and cooked over a fire in the kitchen.
We ate dinner at about 7:00 that night, but the rest of the family wasn't planning on eating until at least 9 or 10 o'clock, which is much more typical for them. They are accustomed to hosting North Americans and thankfully made us dinner much earlier than they themselves eat. 
For some reason, fried chicken is very popular in this area. 
It was probably the best fried chicken I've ever had. 
(I haven't had fried chicken since my one moment of non-vegetarian craving when I was pregnant with Ellie. So, also, it's been awhile since I've had fried chicken. It was finger lickin' good.)
My girls had fun playing with the children of our hosts.
It seemed Ellie brought the girls out of their shells.
She taught them how to play "Ring Around the Rosie."
(The "dining room" is behind them.)
Most of the families in this area speak their local Mayan language. Spanish, if it's spoken, is a second language. I really like that here because it means I can understand the Spanish better. It seems to be a generational divide. These girls are learning Spanish in school. Their parents speak decent Spanish and their grandmother speaks none. 
Kids playing near the house.
This was our host mother. She is making jewelry as part of a women's co-op in the community. 
This co-op is part of the work our partner does, which I'm hoping to write more about in my next post.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas in Guatemala

I read a blog post before Christmas and it definitely tugged at my heart. It's about a family living in the Congo and how depressing holidays are when you are far away from home and family and Christmas traditions. It doesn't feel much like Christmas when it's shorts weather outside and you're surrounded by a different culture full of different holiday traditions.
Christmas is normally my favorite time of year. I love the chill in the air in the Pacific Northwest that requires scarves and gloves, the Christmas lights, the smell of Christmas trees, the magic of Christmastime. I love the cookies and the warm drinks and the spending time with family and friends. 

I knew that I would be missing family, but I wasn't expecting to feel so sad about it not feeling like, well, Christmas. It's warm here. We had no tree. We didn't do much in the way of gifts for ourselves or family, just a couple small things for the girls. I'd like to say that was intentional. Over the past several years we have intentionally decreased our consumption and excessive gift giving at Christmas and focused on family time and gifts with a purpose.

But if I'm being totally honest, this year, it had more to do with a lack of spirit. A lack of realization that Christmas was here. I just didn't feel like doing much.
I tried to do what I could in the 70-degree weather to make it feel festive, with homemade Christmas decorations. It helped, a little.
I missed a Christmas tree a lot more than I thought I would. This was our substitute. (Thanks, Pinterest).

We were blessed to have Michael's brother and his wife here for two weeks over Christmas.
Having them here made Christmas so much more bearable. They helped make things feel festive, and it helped me forget about all the parts that were "missing."
Making paper chains with Uncle Nick. 
One of the highlights was making Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve. This was when it finally felt like Christmas to me.

 Nothing says traditional American Christmas like rolled out sugar cookies.
It was fun to start thinking of traditions that we might want to create as a family, especially for the next several Christmases we will spend here in Guatemala.  
Reading a pop-up Nativity story.
Christmas morning is always more fun with little ones.
(These socks were very exciting.)

Grandma and Grandpa left Christmas presents when they were here in October.
 Fun new trucks from Buela and Buelo.
Seriously, these trucks are awesome, and I love how much my girls love these.
 Playing with the new play kitchen from Grandma and Grandpa.

 The girls were part of a small Christmas play at their school.
 Ellie was a shepherd and Hazel a wise king (queen!), pictured without her crown. 
We came up with the costumes about an hour before it started.
Thanks to Uncle Nick, who created Ellie's costume, sewing together two pillowcases.
A shepherd with sparkle shoes.

A new Christmas experience was the 20-30 minutes of fireworks that went off like crazy all around us at midnight on Christmas Eve. It was quite a thunderous show.
We had a wonderful visit with Nick and Lindsay. The girls felt loved and we created fun memories for Christmas. It was a good first Christmas here in Guatemala, despite my lack of energy beforehand. Maybe by our fifth Christmas here it will feel strange to go somewhere cold for the holidays. But if family is there, it won't really matter.

For fun, a look at Christmas a year ago. Less than a week before we had just interviewed for and been offered the position of Country Representatives of Guatemala and El Salvador for MCC. 
Blessings on you in 2014!

Friday, December 27, 2013

New Camera Lens. New Year.

 I had a birthday a few weeks ago. 
Michael got me a new camera lens.

 I took a photography class in high school, and I remember focusing more on developing film in the dark room than learning about how to use my camera. 
 I don't know much about how to take good pictures, but I'm hoping to learn.
Also, it's fun to practice taking pictures with such adorable subjects.  

Here are a few of my first shots with the new lens, which is designed for taking close-ups:

Behind our house.
 My montage of Hazel:

Don't be surprised if I post more pictures now.
My biggest problem will be choosing which ones NOT to post. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ellie's Spanish Mishap

Every day after school I ask Ellie about her day. I don't get a report about what she did. Instead, I get a list of who was there.

Me: "Ellie, how was school today?"

Ellie: "Sofia. Isabella. No Mia. My friend Mio."

For months Ellie has been telling us about her friend "Mio" (pronounced Me-Yo).

We have been confused because we don't know anyone at school with that name, but she always insists that she has a friend named Mio, along with her best little buddy, Mia. We asked her teacher who confirmed that there's no boy with that name at school. We shrugged it off. We figured it must be something lost in translation.
A couple mornings ago we were talking about Ellie's friend, Jose Carlos. Ellie told us, "Jose Carlos is my friend. He always says 'mio.'"

Mio means mine.

And suddenly, it clicked. Jose Carlos IS "Mio!"

Michael and I had a really good laugh because we've been confused about this for months.

Mystery solved.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Popping Our Safety Bubble

We knew coming to Guatemala would be a risk. I'm talking about the danger. It was in the job description. We were warned. We knew things like Guatemala has one of the top homicide rates in the world and that burglaries are common. But we didn't really know, not more than what we could read online. We dove in, aware but not.

Recently Michael and I agreed that in the average day-to-day mundanities of our life here, things feel "normal." That is to say, it feels like we could still be living in Fresno or in some town in the States. Except for the armed guards we pass standing in front of almost every business along our street. They, of course, remind us of where we are. But in general, we don't feel threatened. Maybe I should say: we forget to feel threatened. We walk the streets pushing our girls in the stroller, nodding and greeting the guards with a "Buenos Dias," and we're on our merry way.

Except when we do feel the danger. Because, we've heard stories. Stories of past MCC workers or partners who've been assaulted, robbed, and worse. Since we've arrived we haven't had anything noteworthy happen to us specifically, but  a couple of our staff have been the victims of petty theft. It happens. We're aware. But honestly, we're in a bubble.

I've been waiting for something to happen to snap me back to the reality of, "Oh yeah, we're not in Kansas anymore." 

Today we had two such reminders that things are different here. One dealt with the hoops we have to jump through on a daily basis just to get our job done, and the other reminded us that feeling safe is a matter of perspective.

Reminder Number One
The immigration/bank/legal systems here are a pain. Royally. Because of the high incidents of trafficking the systems are tight. The other day the teller at the bank told me my signature on a document that I signed right in front of her didn't match my passport, which I was holding right in front of her, and didn't match my signature in their system. Are you kidding? I'm standing right here! Michael often has paperwork denied because he didn't dot the right i or cross the right t. Literally. In the States if we make a mistake writing a check we just cross it out and initial it. Here, they wouldn't blink before denying it. They seemed horrified that banks in the US would accept a scribbled initial. 

So, granted, we're aware of the systems and how we have to pander to them. This is just one example.

 We were supposed to go to El Salvador this week with a group of youth for a week of service. A couple days ago we realized we couldn't go because of issues with the girls' visas. We were aware of a potential problem with two of our workers' visas, but were told by the immigration office that we could pay a fine and all would be well at the border. We should have known better.

This morning we got a call from the group of 19 crammed in the MCC van at the border. Our two workers were being denied. I'll skip all the details of why and just say we had to send a driver to pick them up two hours away at the border. We're bummed that they'll be missing this event, and now we have to send them to Mexico on the opposite border to get new visa stamps.

To add to that, the border suddenly put in a height restriction pole for vehicles which apparently our van broke while trying to pass through. As I write this our van and the passengers are on the side of the road at the border, hours later, waiting to see if they will be able to pass through. Grrrr. The systems here.

Reminder Number Two
Twenty minutes after getting the above situation figured out, Michael left the office to head to the bank. He returned after a few minutes. As he was walking towards the large iron gate he noticed people standing around, seemingly a bit shaken.

We learned that just a couple minutes before, a few people who work at an NGO down the street and use our parking lot were assaulted. One of the workers stood at the opened gate waiting for another to retrieve the car and drive through. While he was waiting, three men with a gun grabbed the man at the gate. They took his laptop bag which was on his shoulder, and asked for cell phones and keys to the car. I'm unclear of what happened next, but somehow they didn't end up with the car, as seemed to be their plan. They had their own car and drove away.

This was unsettling for so many reasons. 

First, had Michael left our office just a few minutes earlier, he could have either witnessed this incident, or been a victim himself. (Maybe I should be grateful for Reason Number One). He was on the way to the bank and was carrying passports and cash. It could have been bad.

Second, our office is in a building we rent from a local Mennonite church. This week is VBS so there are children running all over the property, some mere yards from the gate. I'm unclear on the details, but one version of the story was that the robbers came inside the gate. Regardless, there were children very close to this incident, and I couldn't help but be glad we had decided not to bring the girls this morning.

Third, with the girls in swim lessons and with my half-day work schedule, I often walk along these streets alone. Usually, without much thought beyond keeping aware of my surroundings. I've been in a bit of a bubble. What hit me hardest this morning was my realization that as I'm pushing the girls in their stroller I have a false sense of security that somehow, because I'm pushing my two young girls, I'm somehow more safe. I think this would be true in the US, but here, I think having the girls could actually put a target on us. I've repeatedly been told the story of the previous rep walking with her young girls alone and being assaulted. I put that story aside in my mind. I tell myself it was a different time and maybe a fluke. But the truth is it could happen to me. People are watching. They know our routines. We're at risk every day which means I'm putting my girls at risk every day. 

Fourth, the type of pick-up truck we have is very common and in high demand. Something as simple as keeping the keys in the ignition while we hop out and unlock the gate could actually be an invitation to a potential thief. We were reminded today to be careful. It has been stolen (before our time), but thanks to a GPS system the truck was quickly recovered. I'm not sure if driving or walking is safer. (Mom, THIS is why we may have seemed a bit paranoid during your visit about keeping our doors locked while driving through town).

This afternoon I left the office to walk the few blocks to get the girls. My heart was racing and I was looking around at every person suspiciously, holding my purse close to my side. I was on edge. I got home and didn't realize Michael was in the house and he made me jump. We both feel anxious.

We're definitely NOT in Fresno anymore. Though we know these types of incidents could happen anywhere in the States, and do every day, there's an unspoken sense of lawlessness here that just feels, well, different. 

It's been quite a morning. Just another day in Guatemala. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


We had our second team retreat. I love retreats! I like having an excuse to make special treats (muddy buddies, brownies, cookies), and I just love creating space for bonding and forming connections.
We rented a house in Antigua for a time of relaxing, planning, hearing about each others' work, and a Thanksgiving Dinner.
We had childcare for some of our meetings, and for other parts, Hazel helped with our meetings.
Chillin' and retreatin'. 
While out to eat one morning, we passed a race. The country's big beer company was sponsoring it. I don't know what the details were, but the racers walked by with a tray with food and drink items, like waiters/waitresses. Oh, Antigua.
We hiked as a group up to this cross. It's a quick 20-minute hike. 
I definitely recommend it if you ever visit Antigua.
Team MCC Guatemala/El Salvador
The view from the cross overlooking Antigua.
I can't help it, they're too cute. 
Ellie is getting good at taking pictures of me with Hazel.
On the roof of our rental.
Our team meets about every 3 months, so we like to celebrate the birthdays we've missed since our last time together. 
We enjoyed a delicious Thanksgiving meal, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, salads, ponche (a hot fruit drink prepared in Guatemala for special occasions and on Christmas), and even pumpkin pie! This is definitely going to be a tradition we continue every year. It was fun to have everyone contribute to the meal.
One of our North American staff explained the wishbone tradition. 
It was Honduras vs. Columbia, but in the end, Honduras prevailed.
We are thankful for the opportunity to hang out with our staff to do some work, have some fun, and meld as a team. Each retreat is slightly different as staff members come and go (we lost a family of six since our last retreat). I'm already looking forward to the next one in March.