Cultural Divides – An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Sect in a Traditional Catholic Mayan Pueblo

I recently posted about my trip to San Juan la Laguna – a small lakeside pueblo that is now receiving international attention due to the recent expulsion of the Lev Tahor community that had been living there. I saw quite a few of the Lev Tahor members during my visit to San Juan, and also – out of curiosity – talked with some of the local villagers about their thoughts on the Jewish sect’s presence in town. Most of what I heard was benevolent bewilderment.

Little did I know that only an hour or so later, I would walk through the Council of Elder’s town forum on this very topic. The day I was in San Juan, as we walked to the center of the town to take the pick-up track back to San Pedro, we passed through the town square that had a large stage set up with a banner that read “Consejos de los Ancianos.” The square was crowded with people seated and listening as a panel of people spoke into microphones from a stage. We didn’t linger long, just walked through to the truck stop, but noticed in passing that they seemed to be discussing a group of people who were no longer wanted in the town.

The next day, we learned that this council had decided to expel the Lev Tahor community from San Juan.

This is a complex issue that has been percolating for some time, and since I am not a member of either community, I am not making judgments or taking sides. But, I am able to empathize with all those involved, and I find this a very potent example of cultural differences and misunderstandings.


Inspiration in San Juan

My coworker, Dolores, and I are speaking to two Mayan midwives, as Dolores’ two sons, Juan Martin and Gaspar, take in the sights and scents of a medicinal herb garden with her husband, Juan. “You’ll notice that there are not many pharmacies in this town,” one of the midwives tells us, “This is because people here are more accustomed to using natural healing methods. They come here to our garden, or go to the midwife’s house, describe their ailment or illness, and ask for a natural remedy.”

These midwives are two women who make up the Qomaneel collective in San Juan La Laguna, and they are talking to us in their demonstration garden at the top of a hill. There are 18 other midwives in their collective, and each has her own medicinal herb garden at her home. They grow many different plants that they brew into teas, crush into powders, make into soaps and salves and oils. In the tienda attached to the garden, each item is labeled with a description of its health benefits, the types of pains and problems it can relieve, and directions for preparation and dosage. They have concoctions to treat everything from indigestion and sore throats to headaches and difficulties with lactation.

The midwives show us around the demonstration garden, encouraging us to smell and touch the traditional plants they are growing, allowing us to chew sweet stevia leaves that taste just like sugar, and breaking off for us a floriposa flower that helps you sleep when placed under your pillow. They are delighted to share their experiences and wisdom with us, and Dolores and I are glad to find that they are open to our idea of offering a training workshop to the 25 women in our fair-trade artisan collective.

Those 25 women are the reason we traveled across the lake to San Juan today – to seek inspiration and ideas for professional development and expanded economic opportunity for our collective. And San Juan was the right place to visit. In addition to the Qomaneel medicinal garden, we came with the purpose of talking to the women who make up San Juan’s many artisan collectives, which are distinguished from others around the lake by their unique colors made from traditional natural dyes, and their high level of organization as independent and collectively-owned and operated groups.

As we walk down the street out of the Qomaneel Center, we do notice a striking lack of pharmacies as compared to other towns around the lake. We stop to take in some of the town’s striking murals, and linger by the charming town square. But mostly, we cannot take our eyes off of the beautifully colored textiles hanging in store windows. We go in to many of these stores for a closer look, marveling at the soft, pastel colors, only achievable by the delicate and ancient process of dying one’s own thread. We have many conversations with the store attendants, usually one of the women who make up the collective – each one proud to tell us about her collective, its mission and purpose, how it was founded. We ask about their hand-dying process and are shown some examples of the natural materials used, we inquire about workshops or trainings and find some promising leads.

All in all, we spent only a few hours in this charming town, wandering the streets with Dolores’ beautiful family – her young sons’ laughter and playfulness making the day even brighter – but we left full of inspiration and ideas, happy to have spent the day together experiencing a new place, and ready to plan our next venture!


Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen!

This is a fantastic and humorous TedTalk from Italian aid worker Ernesto Sirolli. After a long conversation with one of my Guatemalan friends about my thoughts on the errors of many Western do-gooders who, though well-intentioned, go about international development work in all the wrong ways, he recommended I watch this. Sirolli is spot-on, and provides some excellent examples of what NOT to do, as well as a way forward for effective international aid work, based on participatory action, self-determination, and listening (all tenets of feminist research methodologies, by the way!)

All 17 minutes are worth watching, but the first 3 or so are especially recommended. Enjoy!

“Women need to know that they can reject the powerful’s definition of their reality — that they can do so even if they are poor, exploited, or trapped in oppressive circumstances. They need to know that the exercise of this basic personal power is an act of resistance and strength. Many poor and exploited women, especially non-white women, would have been unable to develop positive self-concepts if they had not exercised their power to reject the powerful’s definition of their reality.”

~bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

A Post About Food: Vegan/Vegetarian Eating in Lago Atitlan, Guatemala

When I chose to move to a somewhat remote village on Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, it wasn’t for the food. I was told there was an open-air market where I could find local produce, but not much else by way of grocery stores. We do have un montón de tiendas here, but these aren’t anything like the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods stores I would shop at as a vegan in Chicago. There are almost no refrigerated items, very few items available canned, and vegan/vegetarian staples like tofu, tempeh, and hummus, just aren’t stocked. When they found out I was moving, people were generally curious about what my diet would consist of, and so was I! But, I was prepared to make some changes (start eating dairy again) and/or  live on a diet of plantains, black beans, tortillas, and avocados (which, actually, is still appealing to me!), but I’ve had some very pleasant surprises! So, here is what a (mostly vegan) vegetarian in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala eats.

My first month here, I lived with a local family and ate just about every meal in their home, since I didn’t yet have my own kitchen to cook for myself. They knew I was vegetarian and said – no problem, we’ll all be vegetarian while she’s here! – so our family meals for that month generally didn’t contain meat (or if they did have a bit of chicken, that wasn’t served to me). They were very accommodating in this regard, and everything I ate was quite delicious, most of it cooked by my dear friend and aspiring chef, Yanil, who is a domestic worker in the family’s home.

That first month was a great opportunity for me to get an idea of how locals (albeit, somewhat well-to-do locals) eat in their homes. Breakfast – oatmeal (with a lot more milk than I am used to, so it is more like a milk soup with a little bit of oatmeal in it), fresh fruits (bananas, papaya, pineapple, strawberries), pan frances (basically small rolls of bread) or tortillas, sometimes pancakes, sometimes eggs and beans, very often, fried plantains. Lunch is a larger meal, and sometimes the family would have fish, some form of soup or chicken, or tamales – I generally skipped lunch or ate out for lunch, so my meal usually consisted of something similar to what I had for breakfast (desayuno tipico). And for dinner, we often had eggs and black beans and fried plantains, once again, usually with a vegetable mixture with tomato sauce, sometimes a pasta dish, and generally some rice and more tortillas. So, all in all, not a huge variety of foods, but remember – foods aren’t imported from all parts of the world, so people here cook based on what is locally available/abundant.

Now that I have my own place with its own little kitchen (sadly, no oven), I’ve had the opportunity to venture to the market and the stores to see what I could come up with for cooking on my own. My first week, what I cooked was quite similar to what Yanil had cooked. But since then, I’ve discovered quite a few more options.20140801_074149

My first eye-opening, meal-changing, vegan-affirming discovery was the availability of ALMOND MILK.        That’s right – one store on our calle principal stocks almond milk, as well as quite a few other imported foods I thought I wouldn’t be seeing for at least a year. While these foods are quite a bit more expensive, and I’m 90% sure that when I’ve bought all of the boxes of almond milk currently in stock, I’ll never see it again, it is such a comfort to have these options available and offers me a much greater variety of delicious vegan/vegetarian foods I can cook. At this store in town, I’ve also been able to get lentils, chickpeas, pre-packaged tortillas (because the ones I buy off the street go bad in about a day), pasta and pasta sauce, canned coconut milk, and salad dressing.

In addition to this great find, there are two towns across the lake that have health food stores – there were so many products I didn’t think I would be seeing any time soon that I nearly squealed with joy! Most of these imported health foods are out of my price range, but I did buy some tempeh, good tea, dark chocolate, and freshly ground peanut butter. And I will definitely be back.

And finally, there are the restaurants! Here in Santiago, we don’t have many restaurants to choose from, and even less with vegetarian options. So far, I have eaten at

  • The Posada – probably our best, but also most expensive restaurant at the nice hotel in town, delicious food, and they always have vegetarian options.
  • Kathlyn’s Comedor – a little hole-in-the-wall place that has typical local food, and I generally would get something along the lines of desayuno tipico
  • Texas Burger – yep, that’s right. We have a little restaurant called Texas Burger, which is actually quite nice inside, and has some great Tex-Mex standards, like quesadillas and burritos, as well as burgers. You get a LOT of food for very little money.
  • Tacos Secretos – another local spot that’s, as the name suggests, kind of a secret as it is basically the front room of someone’s house. They specialize in tacos, which are all of the meat variety, but do offer pupusas de queso, which are more or less fried cheese with some stuff on it, and it’s really tasty and cheap.
  • Quila’s – kind of a Gringo hangout with typical cafe fare, I had a caprese panini that was good.

I have yet to try the restaurant at Hotel Bambu (which I hear is pretty good) and Las Lagartijas (which I am dying to try out, because they have vegan options and it smells delicious, but they have somewhat sporadic hours).

And around the lake, I’ve eaten at a few different places as well, mostly in Panajachel, where I have to go to mail our Just Apparel orders. The other day, I had the best falafel of my life (mmhmmm, best falafel ever in Guatemala, of all places!) at a little place called Cafe Kitsch. It was vegan, gigantic, spicy, and amazing.


Oh, and I had some chocolate peanut butter pie – duh!


On a previous trip, I found a place that offered tofu – breaded and fried, similar to tofu chicken nuggets, quite tasty!


And of course, there is San Pedro, which has a host of great restaurants, at least one of which is completely vegetarian. I’ll be hitting that up on an upcoming weekend for sure.

But usually, I just cook at home, with my newfound food products. Here are some highlights:

My usual breakfast – locally grown coffee and a smoothie


Salad for lunch – spinach, onion, apples, strawberry, and tomatoes


I don’t remember if this was lunch or breakfast – could be either here – but I cooked up a veggie omelet with some beans, avocado, and tortilla


Made curry one night! Pretty delicious over rice – my apartment’s previous tenant left a bit of curry powder, so I made this with coconut milk and a bunch of local veggies.



So, all in all, food (and life!) in Guatemala is good!