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!)
La Feria de Santiago Atitlan has been in full swing for the past week – the streets are packed with people, fireworks go off at all hours of the day and night, marimba music fills the air in the mornings, while Latin pop hits blast in the plaza long into the night, and the central square and surrounding streets are crowded with rides, carnival games, trampolines, and food vendors. In addition to these ongoing festivities, there are scheduled events that have been taking place throughout the week – religious processions, competitions, beauty pageants, and a parade!
One of our partner organizations, the Puerta Abierta Learning Center, participated in the parade along with hosts of other organizations, schools, and businesses, and I had the opportunity to march along the parade route with the young students! It was a wonderful Santiago experience that I documented along the way…
Yesterday’s activities included learning about Guatemalan traje(traditional forms of dress in various parts of the country), English class (with Miss Isa who is fluent in Tzutujil, Spanish, and English!), and a birthday party for a precious little girl named Lolita who just turned 7.
I remember school birthday parties in the U.S. back when I was in elementary school, and more recently when I worked with elementary school students in Florida and Chicago. Usually the parents come and bring some kind of treat for the whole class, everyone sings happy birthday, maybe the birthday girl or boy gets to wear a crown of some sort for the day and be the line leader, and that’s about it, right? Well, there are some definite similarities between school-time birthday parties in the U.S. and Guatemala, but I have to say that Guatemalan birthday parties take the cake (yes, it IS a pun – I am making myself feel old!)
For Lolita’s birthday, all of the students gathered in the main room sitting at tables we had arranged for the party. In the center of all the tables stood Lolita, next to a small circular table on top of which was a HUGE cake. This cake was beautiful and delicious, and actually, there were two of them! Large round cakes layered with white cake, strawberries, mangoes, and a light whipped frosting, brought (and possibly made?) by Lolita’s mom. We put candles in one of the cakes for Lolita to blow out – which she did after we sang Happy Birthday, first in Spanish and then in English. Then, as she blows out the candles – and this is customary! – her teacher, Candelaria, gently shoves Lolita’s face into the cake! Lolita knew this was coming and took it with grace, she went and got cleaned up (her brother actually licked some of the remnants off her face after that) and sat down to enjoy the cake with her classmates. I also got to enjoy this cake, which was the first dessert item I’ve had since arriving in Santiago, and it was heavenly.
So, we all ate cake and drank some kind of red Kool-Aid like drink. Then came presents! About half the students had brought nicely wrapped gifts to school to give to Lolita for her birthday. Once again, Lolita stood in the middle of the classroom and Candelaria would call up the students one by one to bring their gifts to Lolita. They would set the gift down in a basket at her feet (which was overflowing by the end of this), and then each student would give Lolita un gran abrazo (a big hug!) This was pretty adorable to watch. Later on, Lolita opened all her presents, thanked all her friends, and the kids went outside to play for a while before returning to their regularly scheduled school activities.
On my way home, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to experience another Santiago custom – a funeral procession. Similar to many other Latin American countries’ customs, a funeral in Santiago is a community affair that includes the pall bearers carrying the coffin through the streets of the town, surrounded by a crowd of funeral attendees who chant and sing hymns as they walk. It just so happens that the main cemetery in town (which is quite beautiful and unlike any I’ve seen before) is located about midway between La Puerta Abierta and my house. So, I saw and heard this funeral procession passing by as I was just about to arrive at my front door.
The annual Santiago feria (basically, just a big party in the town?) is coming up next week, so I will have the opportunity to witness a lot more local customs then! I have heard it will include some tribal dances, a lot of parades, some sort of weird contest where people attempt to climb a pole that has been greased with butter, and the crowning of a queen!
As for me, I’ve started a few customs for my daily routine. One of them is swimming in Lago Atitlan in the morning, around 6:30am – out in the middle of the lake, surrounded by volcanoes, the moon descends on my left as the sun rises on my right. One of these days, I’ll take my waterproof camera out with me so you can share in the splendor.
Another new custom is taking my office to places of beauty. A lot of my work requires the computer/internet, and in an effort to save money, I do a lot of it from home, since I have a reliable internet connection there. But every now and again, it is quite nice to pay 10Q for a cup of Guatemalan coffee so that I can soak up the majesty of this place, even from behind my computer screen. This is my office today:
You can’t see it in the photo, but the lake is just beyond those sunlit plants.