Organic Guatemalan Picnic in a Garden!

One of my absolute favorite ways to spend my mornings here in Santiago Atitlan is with La Puerta Abierta library and learning center. La Puerta Abierta was founded by an inspiring friend of mine named Amanda, who first came to Santiago as a Peace Corps volunteer about ten years ago. During that time, she met the man who is now her husband and the two of them have lived here ever since. With the Peace Corps, Amanda’s work centered on nutrition and health education in local schools, which gave her great exposure to the failings of the Guatemalan school system and the great community need for early education and literature. Eventually, she opened a small library which has since evolved into what the Puerta Abierta is today – a learning center staffed, attended, and embraced by community members offering preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, early education classes, a traveling library program, and a youth book club. The center also partners with Natik on our scholarship program, allowing our 25 students to meet there on Sundays.

Because La Puerta Abierta is already so established and thriving, my work here is more heavily focused on our scholarship program and fair trade women’s artisan collective. But, I enjoy supporting La Puerta Abierta’s work whenever I am able to, so for the past month or so, I have been spending at least two mornings a week helping out at the school in any capacity needed, primarily assisting with English instruction for the young students. Which has been wonderful!

Stepping into the little yellow building at the top of a hill overlooking the lake and volcanoes of this glorious region, I immediately feel a wave of warmth and positivity as I’m greeted by the many passionate and dynamic teachers and volunteers. I greet Miss Isa, one of the preschool teachers, with a kiss on the cheek and we catch up on each other’s weekends. I wave to profesor Gaspar as he plays guitar and sings with the children seated in a circle on the carpet. I wander outside to the playground where the older students are having recreation time and say hello to Candelaria, the lead first grade teacher who is also my coworker at Natik for our scholarship program. I check in with Juanita, the newly appointed assistant director, to find out what’s going on for the week and how I can help. I chat with Isais, the traveling library coordinator, as I prepare materials for the class and he works on his lesson plan for the week.

When the time for English class arrives, Amanda and I head to the carpet with the children, who cheer when they hear that the time for English class has arrived. They are so happy to learn English with us, which we do through song and movement and art. Amanda leads the class with a bright smile and the children listen quite attentively for their age. Amaya and Nuria might come sit on my lap as we talk about our new vocabulary words. Alvin eagerly raises his hand to answer every question. Sharlin and Junior respond with near perfect pronunciation. Harrison and Pedro get so excited when we practice words with movement – walking, running, and jumping about the room. This is, more or less, a typical day for me at La Puerta Abierta. Being with kids never fails to lift my spirits, and these kids especially put me in a great mood, always welcoming me with hugs and smiles.

Last week, La Puerta Abierta had a special event to coincide with a curriculum on nutrition and healthy eating – an organic picnic in the nearby learning garden with the kids’ families! Amanda invited me to help out for the event and I gladly accepted.

The day started at 8am in Amanda’s kitchen where she and the mother of two of La Puerta Abierta’s staff were preparing food: mint tea, celery with peanut butter and raisins, a leek and broccoli soup. It smelled absolutely wonderful! Amanda put me to work creating an educational poster we would use for a game during the picnic. It consisted of a chart with a vegetable or fruit on one side and it’s main health benefits on the other. With the help of Amanda’s youngest daughter Chloe, who is also a student at the school, I drew pictures for each one, which would be beneficial for the younger students still learning to read and the parents who don’t have strong Spanish skills, since their primarily language is Tzutujil. When I finished, it was time to head to the garden carrying as many things as we could from Amanda’s house just up the hill.

At the garden, the parents and children flooded in and we divided into two groups. One group went with the gardening instructor, Felipe, for a tour of the garden and explanation of what the kids had been working on and learning. The other group stayed with Amanda to learn the health benefits of the various garden foods and go on a scavenger hunt for them. After the groups switched, it was time to eat! Families laid out blankets and unpacked their food from home to eat and share. Everyone was able to try the foods made that morning from the garden. The soup was a big hit!

While any day with La Puerta Abierta is sure to put a smile on my face, this one was especially memorable (and delicious!)

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.

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

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

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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

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

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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

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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.

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

Daycation in San Pedro La Laguna

Around the lake are many pueblos, each with their own unique vibe/atmosphere. The pueblo I live in, Santiago, is mostly known for being the most traditional, a place where you can truly immerse yourself in the Tzu’tujil Mayan culture, observe ancient religious celebrations, art forms, and other customs, and…that’s about it. It’s not really much of a tourist destination or adventure site. But, that’s what I love about it – it hasn’t been gringo-fied yet, and it’s a great place to work and truly live amongst the locals.

Some of the other towns, however, are known for their nightlife, attractions, restaurants, etc, and it is nice to have some options just a boat ride away! So, yesterday, my friend Katie and I went to explore San Pedro la Laguna. Here is what I had heard about San Pedro before visiting:

  • weird old hippies live there
  • they have a notable nightlife
  • certain substances are highly available
  • tons of gringos live there and have taken over the lakefront

After visiting, I can confirm that most of these things are quite accurate. But, we also discovered a lot more!

San Pedro definitely has a very different feel to it than Santiago, which was first notable when people began speaking to us in English as soon as we disembarked from the boat. And all of the restaurant menus were in English. And all of the people walking the streets were speaking English. And we went to a bookstore and all of the books were in English (actually, they had some variety of other languages as well, but shockingly, no Spanish). Basically, being in San Pedro feels like you’re in some beautiful tropical location that ISN’T Guatemala.

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But, it’s pretty charming. From the Santiago dock, you walk a winding path that is closed in by fences and trees, so it feels like a sort of neighborhood back alley road, but is crowded with restaurants and hotels. We arrived around lunch time and were pretty excited about the overwhelming number of restaurant options compared to Santiago, so after popping into the bookstore, we decided to eat. One of the first places we came upon, El Barrio, had a killer brunch special so we ate there. A mimosa, all you can eat waffles, pancakes, hash browns, breakfast potatoes, granola, yogurt, and fruit, PLUS an omelet cooked with whatever you want PLUS a side for 40Q (around $5!) They had a nice outdoor seating area, excellent service, and the food was just delicious, and certainly the largest quantity of food I’ve eaten in one sitting since arriving in Guatemala.

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We continued wandering, checking out stores and restaurant menus, just to have some knowledge of what was available for return trips! I had seen a few signs for a health food store that I was curious about, so we tracked that down, and I was like Leslie Knope in a waffle shop. They had tea (high quality teas in a variety of flavors), brands of dark chocolate bars that I hadn’t seen since Whole Foods, freshly ground peanut butter and cashew butter, granola, nutritional yeast, soy burgers and fake chicken nuggets and hummus and TEMPEH. I had to restrain myself (but I did buy some tea, chocolate, peanut butter, and tempeh.) And I will definitely be back.

We made our way onto the main street by the dock to Panajachel and decided to get some French press coffee at a cafe looking out over the water. We also indulged in a cinnamon roll purchased from a woman off the street, and the chocolate I bought at the health food store.

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We felt like tourists, but we also enjoyed that feeling for a while…before getting the boat back to sweet home Santiago.