Saturday, September 5, 2009
About a week after we arrived in Guatemala and a few days after settling into our three month stint in Alotenango we were informed that during training we would be working with local artisans to help them sell their products. The artisan group is a formal association comprised of about 30 craftsmen and women whose specialties range from candle making to weaving to cooking dulces tipicos (local sweets) to whittling wooden owls (that look eerily similar to the ones my dad puts on our dock in California to keep the ducks away). For the last few weeks we have been meeting with the artisan group to get a feel for how we can support them. It has been eye opening to see what they struggle with, keeping invoices, looking for new markets, researching competition, counting their own labor as a part of their cost of production etc. This past week we went around and began visiting the artisans in their homes or shops to build good report and see their products first hand.
Shaila and I had the opportunity to meet up with Don Luis at his house where he weaves everything from pillow cases to large blankets. When we arrived he greeted us with his adorable pint size wife and their youngest of five sons Wilber (age 11). They sat us on their porch and we began chatting about their products and Don Luis showed us pictures of some of the rugs and hammocks he had woven and brought out some samples of pillow cases and table runners (don’t worry mom, already thinking xmas gifts) that he had woven and napkin holders his wife had hand made. We talked and talked... about the weather, about the volcanos, about US immigration (Shaila’s favorite topic), about airport security in the states. One thing led to another and before we knew it we were off the porch and in the garden where Luis and his family were pulling tangerines, jocotes, nispero (loquat) off their trees left and right and handing them to us to eat. Most of what was handed to me i’d never heard of or seen before but I just put it in my mouth and complimented Don Luis on how delicious it was “Que rico!” as juices ran down my chin. At one point I did turn to Shaila and ask if it was kosher to be eating right off the trees without washing the fruit- she shrugged an “uh, sure” so we continued to munch away. We were finishing up a handful of nisperos when Don Luis pointed out his sugar cane growing near a fence and I was naive enough to say, “I’ve never tried sugar cane before.” This of course triggered a, “Wilber get the machete” Wilber ran back into the house and before we knew it Don Luis was chopping down a stalk of sugar cane with his machete, peeling off the outer bark and breaking the stalk into portions for us all to begin gnawing on. We all stood around a pile of the bark debris, talked as we chewed on the sugar cane (more juices running down my chin) and spit out the fibers like a bunch of pura Chapinas. I learned that it took a year to grow the sugar cane and, apparently when hosting two gringas, only minutes to chop it down. Don Luis’ hospitality is not uncommon here in Guatemala and we spent about two hours just shooting the shit. There is a saying that my spanish teacher uses: American’s think time is money, Guatemalans think time is life. This couldn’t be more true.
After promising a second visit to his house, including a soccer match with all five sons, we parted ways with Don Luis and headed to another artisan’s house, Dona Mercedes’, were we were to taste her dulces tipicos. Another chat on the porch, this time with all four of us Alotenango volunteers, more sharing of food- this time honeyed yams and sweetened figs, more “Muy ricos!” and more promises to visit again. By the time we were finished with our rounds my shirt was stained with at least three different colored juices and my stomach was fully satisfied. Just in time for lunch.
Later that afternoon Shaila and I made a trip to the gym then ran home to change for a fiesta. Amanda’s host mother had invited all of the volunteers and our host families to a joint birthday party in honor of her 28-year and 22-year-old sons’ and 90-year-old mother-in-law. This would be my second birthday party in Guatemala and I was so excited to have something fun to do on a Friday night that I actually blow dried my hair for the occasion (only after asking Lidia if the electric system could handle it). I wasn’t the only one to go to great lengths to prepare for the event. Don Miguel had washed the family’s red Nissan pickup and parked it outside for the journey across town (which we normally just walked). Shaila ended up coming over to go to the party with my family because hers had prior commitments. At 7:30 Don Miguel closed the molino business for the night and we all piled into the pick-up. Eswen, wearing his “Relax, I’m a massage therapist” shirt, was ordained the chauffeur. Most hopped into the cab but Silvia and I sat in the bed, ok, so I sat in the bed and Silvia stood up holding the support bars like the “king of the world” as we rode a half mile to Dona Ana and Don Manuel’s house. When we entered the house there were about 50 white plastic chairs set up in the courtyard/driveway and my family immediately took their seats. Shaila and I decided to look for Amanda and Pati. We found them upstairs (the house is a two story palace by my Guatemala standards) with Melanie, a Peace Corps volunteer that had done her training in Alotenango and keeps in touch with Dona Ana’s family. Melanie told us that the white chairs were set up for the bible study of sorts that would take place before we say our happy birthdays and dive into the tamales and coffee. And sure enough, thirty minutes later we were all sitting in the white chairs listening to an energetic woman preach, “God here are my hands, here are my feet, here is my body” I looked around and noticed girls across the isle painting each others fingernails pink. The woman continued, “the worst thing you could do is have doubt, don’t doubt because with god everything is possible”, The guy in front of me was nodding his head and listening intensely as the woman sitting to his left was cradling and bouncing a 40 day old baby on her lap. About 20 minutes into the preaching it hit me that I was starting to get hungry. I thought to myself, “Maybe I should have eaten a little something, something before leaving my house”. The sermon continued but the woman stopped talking and instead put some christian music on (which my family knew all the words to thank you very much). Shaila got up to go to the bathroom and didn’t come back. My stomach started to growl. After three songs it was back to the preaching and this time the woman asked if anyone wanted to stand up and say something, “any youngsters, or teenagers”, but not a soul stirred. “Thats ok” she said, “just remember that if you have something to say to God, you should say it, life is short, very short...” And I was thinking, “tell that to the woman in the front row turning 90”. The preaching continued for another 15 minutes and after everyone said their last amens I got up and walked over to where Shaila and Amanda were helping Dona Ana unwrap tamales and put them all on styrofoam plates with a fork and bread. When in doubt, help in the kitchen right? We set up an assembly line and as I unwrapped tamales I was sizing each of them up, literally, I wanted to find the biggest one to save for myself. We kept unwrapping and I kept choosing “my” tamale, only to see it swept up from under my nose and trotted off to some awaiting lap over in the mass of people in white chairs. After unwrapping a good 75 tamales we were rewarded with our own plate and I told Dona Ana that I would prefer a shovel to a fork cause the tamales were “tan ricos!” I could eat ten of them. I ended up scarfing down two- they were heaven in my mouth. Shortly after we finished our tamales and cafe my family said it was time to leave so we all piled back into the pick-up. This time Shaila opted to take the adventure in the back with Silvia and me and at 10PM we bounced along back home.
When we pulled into the driveway Eswen had to back the truck into the driveway. Don Miguel threw our dog Spike into the bed of the truck then directed Eswen into the spot. It took 5 minutes but everyone stayed in the car, even Silvia kept standing in the bed of the truck as he maneuvered back and forth, straightened up and backed into the spot. When the car was finally parked, everyone jumped out of the truck but Spike who was stuck cause he was afraid to jump over the side. I said my goodnights as Spike was wagging and whimpering trying to find a way out of the truck. I asked if anyone was going to help him out and as they walked away Lidia said, “In the morning” and everyone went to bed. All night long Spike joined in the standard neighborhood barkfest from the bed of the red Nissan truck.