Last week, Guatemala celebrated a holiday we seem to miss out on in the U.S. – Día del Niño, or Children’s Day. This day is celebrated on various dates in countries around the world, but here in Guatemala, it is celebrated on October 1st. To commemorate the holiday the Puerta Abierta Learning Center took a special field trip with the students and their parents to the Mariposario (butterfly garden) at the nearby Reserva Natural Atitlan (Atitlan Nature Reserve).
The day started out with a boat ride across the lake, on a large two-level (and extremely slow!) barco that the kids really enjoyed. It was beautiful and sunny and from the top deck, we could look out across the beauty of Lago Atitlan. Then we disembarked at the Nature Reserve, where we were confronted with a series of long and crickety cable-rope bridges, which the kids also loved (although some of the parents were less than thrilled). We eventually made our way to a large clearing that had zip-line swings for the kids to enjoy for a bit before we did some exercises, sang some songs, and then hiked up into nature! We got to cross some more bridges and see some spider monkeys, then headed to the butterfly garden where we saw a wide variety of butterflies and learned about their transition from caterpillar to butterfly, even seeing one emerge from its chrysalis!
To finish the day, we had a picnic lunch in the clearing and the children did a “Secret Santa” type gift exchange. Then back onto the boat for the long journey back to Santiago with a group of extremely tired kids.
Throughout the day, I got to “partner with” a group of students from a local orphanage, whose parents weren’t able to come along. Fernando, Nicolasa, Rosa, and Diego were my kids for the day, and they were a blast! Although being a mom to four children under the age of 6 is no easy task! By the end of our adventures, we were all pretty exhausted.
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!)
Time is precious. I’ve come to appreciate that more during the months I’ve spent here on Lago Atitlan. I experience the passing of time very differently here.
In contrast to the U.S. cultural norm of scheduling every minute of every day, time is a bit more fluid here, especially in my work life since I create my own schedule. I don’t have a time card, I don’t time my lunch hour. I don’t find myself checking my watch constantly, or rushing from one meeting to the next hoping to make it in time. I don’t wake up at the last possible minute, rush to arrive by a certain time, sit at a desk waiting for the clock to display 5:00pm.
And yet, every minute is precious, but I live it in a different way – a fuller, more authentic way, in which I experience the world around me, rather than fixating on the numbers of a clock. Instead of scheduling every minute of every day in advance, I enjoy all of the moments in between my scheduled activities. I revel in not knowing what time it is or how much time I’ve spent doing something, be it a swim in the lake or a meeting with my co-workers. I feel that I am free to take all the time I need, without having to rush or cut anything short.
And yet, I feel the time is passing quickly. And I wonder if twelve months is enough time to experience all that I want to while I’m here. I can hardly believe three months have passed already. And it seems every day I find out about some new activity, some curious marvel, some distant and beautiful location that I hope to do or see or visit before I say goodbye to this place.
With this in mind, I’ve been taking every opportunity to aprovechar my time here. I wake up early and stay out late. I fill my days with beautiful sights and sounds and people. I pour myself into my work, and I fully enjoy my days off. And I find it very difficult to say no – both to requests and invitations.
So, this past weekend, I took advantage of the opportunity to hike a mountain (called Nariz Maya or Indian Nose) at 4 in the morning in order to see the sun rise over Lago Atitlan from its peak. And, because we had to get to the mountain from the town of San Pedro across the lake, I also took advantage of the opportunity to experience San Pedro’s vibrant nightlife before hiking this mountain at 4 in the morning. I think it goes without saying that I was quite tired, but in the best possible way. Although at the moment of being woken to go on this hike, I second-guessed my decision, when we got to the top and the clouds cleared a bit as the sun made its way up into the sky and reflected off of the still water below, I knew there was no better way to be spending that time.
As an extranjera living in Guatemala, a frequent getting-to-know-you question is, of course, where are you from? It’s a pretty standard question, usually easily answered, though it does give me some trouble because I’ve lived in quite a few places in the U.S. and at this point, I’m not sure which place to call home. I was born in Texas and my Dad still lives there, but I also lived in New Orleans, where my mom, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins now live. I spent some time in Florida, but I was living in Chicago for the past five years before coming to Guatemala. And when I return to the U.S., I’m not sure where I’ll go.
The place that makes me the most excited to talk about is Chicago – it’s my most recent home, the place I find myself comparing all other places to, where memories are freshest. When I am asked to explain how things are at home (transportation, grocery stores, houses, the weather), I generally find myself describing Chicago. But here in Guatemala, the place that most people are familiar with is Texas. I’ve found that most Guatemalans who have visited the U.S. have gone to Texas – it’s more or less the closest state, many Guatemalans have family members there, and of course, there is a large Latino and Spanish-speaking population. It’s also the place I lived the longest, and it is certainly interesting to hear the perspectives of Guatemalans for whom Texas is their only experience of the U.S. And when I think of flying back to the U.S. to visit “home” during my time in Guatemala, I think of New Orleans – not only because so many of my beloved family members are there, but it is a city I love, and where I always have a place to stay. So sometimes, I just say I’m from los Estados.
Recently Natalia, one of the Tzutujil women in our fair trade embroidery collective, asked me, through a translator, “Where is your pueblo?” Which basically elicits the same information as “where are you from?” but I found her phrasing very indicative of her experience, and that of many of the atitecos from Santiago Atitlan. This is their pueblo. They were born in Santiago, raised in Santiago, many married and have families in Santiago, and an astounding amount have never left Santiago. This pueblo is their world. And, perhaps because they are members of the indigenous population, they don’t readily identify as Guatemalan, but as Atitecos – a word centered around the town they’re from, rather than the country. And looking at the world from this perspective, living in a place where your experience is common, one would assume that most other people identify with a pueblo as well. Natalia probably would never have imagined that at my age, I’ve already lived in and traveled to so many places. That I don’t feel I have a pueblo to call home. And that any of the cities I might have mentioned are far from pueblos, compared to Santiago Atitlan.
On a recent trip to Mexico with one of my dearest friends from Chicago, we began discussing why traveling is so exhausting. The trip to Mexico was a bit rushed, and the drive, which includes at least one transfer, was about 12 hours. But we spent that time sitting in a van, sleeping on each other, gazing out the window, chatting – none of which are tiresome activities, yet when we finally arrived, both of us felt well spent. He mentioned to me something he had read recently – that humans were not meant to travel such great distances in so little time. The technologies of modern travel allow us to speed over ground and water and fly through the air at high velocities, allowing us to traverse previously unimaginable distances in only a few hours. This means of transport stands in stark contrast to the human body’s capability and the traveling of old, when a person walked to each destination, the distance traveled limited by the speed and capability of physical exertion. Now, in our planes and trains, and even buses, we are traveling through time – an exhausting activity.
I spent the last few days in New York City, a whirlwind trip that allowed me to be a part of some unforgettable experiences in the lives of my loved ones. Traveling back, I took a plane to Fort Lauderdale, then on to Guatemala City, a cab to the bus station, and a bus to my town. Sixteen hours after departing my friends’ house in NYC, I stepped foot on the stone paths of Santiago Atitlan, hauling my luggage to my apartment near the town center. As I made the last turn onto my familiar street, I looked down at my feet on this path in awe – here I was, on solid ground in a completely different country, back home in time for dinner, when I’d eaten an airport breakfast across two national borders. It is amazing, overwhelming, exhausting.
It is a great privilege to be able to travel the world, to live in new places, to experience different countries and cultures, to explore and adventure. But I imagine there is also great comfort in feeling rooted to a place, in knowing it from your first days on earth, in remaining in place and experiencing and appreciating the life around you. For now, this is my pueblo. And while I wasn’t born here, and I’ve lived many other places, and I don’t think I’ll be here for too long, it feels like home.
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.
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!