Thursday, January 28, 2010

Five Second Rule

It has become tradition for me to help Seno Lili prepare lunch. It started by me telling her that I need to learn how to cook fish (i’ve always been a chicken cook) and it turned out she was more than delighted to oblige. The fish instruction led to shrimp instruction led to fish soup instruction and before I knew it I was pretty much taking Chef Lili cooking classes. The manner in which she shows me how to cook things even makes it feel like I am taking a cooking class. She relays instructions as if she were dictating a recipe. “First, wash the fish. Then descale it with a knife or fork. Make slits under the belly and remove the insides. Wash thoroughly. Make two more slits from the gills towards the tail and fill all openings with salt. Heat oil in the pan and fry fish 10 minutes on each side (the second side may be less). Serve with lime, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and tortillas (can’t forget the tortillas).”

About a month ago while I was receiving Sautéed Beef in Salsa Inglesa lessons Seno Lili dropped a tomato that she was chopping on the tile floor. I quickly picked it up and said, “regla de 5 segundos” or “5 second rule.” Everyone knows the five second rule right? Well, unfortunately this crucial little known “fact” hasn’t reached Guatemala because Seno Lili had no idea what I was talking about. I explained it to her: if you drop food on the floor as long as you pick it up before its been there for five seconds its still safe to eat.

Since that day, every time she drops something on the floor she says, “cinco segundos” “five seconds” and picks it up, gives me a smile and goes along with what she was doing. She uses the five second rule for everything, mango slices, onions, baby bottles. She absolutely loves it.

So, for the record, I'm considering the introduction of the five second rule to Guatemala as a Peace Corps goal #2 (help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served) success.

*For those of you with sanitation concerns, I’d like to reassure you that Seno Lili’s floors are very clean. They are tiled and moped regularly with disinfectant.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


At the behest of my editor, I have revised some phrasing in my last entry.

Also, I would like to post a correction:

At the wedding everyone was calling Eslin's sister Lady which I took to be the translation for maid-of-honor. Since then I have learned that, in fact, Lady is her first name. Foolish me.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Boda Blanca (White Wedding)

Eslin, the 21 year old shopgirl that manages the cooperative store, got married on Saturday. Eslin is the instant friend type. She is one of those bright, welcoming treasures anyone in a foreign place is lucky to find. We have become close over the past three months since we spend a good amount of time just hanging out together at the Cooperative’s store. What’s great is that she is patient with my Spanish. She translates for me when visitors to the store talk to fast or use words that I don’t know. And she has a knack for politely shooing bolos (the town drunks) which comes in handy on slow weekends.

For the past month the wedding plans have been all the gossip at the store. From the invitations to the wedding dress to the drama over dama (bridesmaids) dresses (her damas wanted to buy their own material after she had already picked out the “perfect” fuschia fabric in Chiquimulilla), etc. With each new description Eslin gave about her wedding I would get more and more giddy. Especially when she talked about her gown. She was going to have a 16 foot train (oh my!), a pouffy hoop skirt (yeees) and wear white netting gloves to her elbows (truly amazing).

We arrived at 3:30 to Eslin’s house. The wedding was taking place in her backyard and the invitation saide 3PM but when we walked in the palm tented space was nearly empty (standard Guatemalan tardiness). We took our seats and I entertained myself for the next hour by taking pictures. Pictures of the dove decorations cut from white paper plates hanging from the palm thatched roof. Pictures of the wedding cake, a five cake masterpiece composed of a three-tiered cake topped with plastic bride and groom connected to a second two-tiered cake by plastic staircase with plastic bridesmaids and groomsmen lined up on the steps a-la prom picture.

During my impromptu photo shoot the church band was doing a mic check (instead of “check, one-two, one-two” they used “Gloria Dios, Hallelujah”) and warmed up the crowd by singing church songs. The guests slowly filled the empty plastic chairs and by 4:30 the ceremony began.

First Marvin, the groom, walked down the aisle and took his place with his parents beside the priest. Then came the damas in their fuschia dresses accompanied by their respective caballero. Each couple carried two white staffs connected by a party streamer. The 9 couples lined up along the aisle making a tunnel with their staffs. Next came the “Lady” or maid-of-honor with a pair of scissors cutting the connecting streamers as she walked down the aisle. Then three sets of little kid couples. The first represented the bride and groom and were dressed in miniature bridal dress and tux, the second were the ring bearers and the third carried a bible and other representative trinkets. After the kids, came the flower girl who tossed tiny white styrofoam balls on the pine needle strewn dirt floor. Finally, the wedding march came over the speakers and down the aisle walked Eslin with her parents on either side followed by two girls holding her 16 foot train. She looked beautiful- radiating happiness. This was her moment to shine.

The actual wedding ceremony with vows, ring exchange and kiss took about 30 minutes. After the priest announced the couple husband and wife they were given two chairs to sit in- a sign that we weren’t going to be diving into that carne asada I could smell on the grille anytime soon. The sermon and singing were next on the agenda. The priest and his church ensemble must have come as a package deal. There was a full band at the makeshift alter, two back-up singers, two trumpeters, a keyboardist and a drummer. The priest intermixed his sermon with Evangelical Christian songs. Those in the audience that were Evangelical sang and clapped along, the Catholics just sat there.

An hour later I had exhausted my ability to distract myself from my growling stomach by taking pictures of my friends daughter Ruth who was sitting next to me. I spent the next 15 minutes staring at the flickering lightbulb hanging from the palm ceiling above the priest’s head. He was using so much energy that every time he became vocally animated the light would pulse in sync with the rise and fall of his voice.

When at last the church band had sung their last song, the bridal party marched back down the aisle in the order they had arrived and the crowd began grabbing plastic tables that were stacked on the perimeter of the yard. The backyard was transformed into the reception area in five minutes flat. At about 6:30 dinner was served; the standard party fare of carne asada (grilled beef), escavech (pickled vegetables), two tortillas and pasta salad. All elements of the “party” meal make sense to me except the pasta salad. Its reminiscent of they mayo ridden pasta salad dishes found on buffets in the states and every time its served I curse the person who introduced the recipe to Guatemalans.

The table we were sitting at was tucked away in a dark corner so we had the misfortune of being the last ones served. Luckily, however, my friend Kiera called my cell and was a welcoming distraction while I watched women pass through the sea of tables carrying trays of steaming food. After the meal we were among the few guests still around to watch the cutting of the cake. Its completely acceptable for people to skip the ceremony and just come to a wedding for the dinner and leave after they clean their plates- as long as they bring a gift.

At 8:00 we left the wedding in a tuk-tuk.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

6:00 PM

This evening Seño Lili, Fernando and I sat down to a dinner of shrimp salad (a new favorite of mine) and beans (because no meal is complete here without them). Mattihus came in late from hanging out with friends and announced that he was going to eat after us. He proceeded to plop down in front of the TV in the living room. Typical teenager, right? I was still pealing my shrimp (they cook them with the shells on) when Fernando and Lili had cleaned their plates. As soon as they were out of their seats Lili yelled to Mattihus, “venga mi hijo, come sus frijoles”, “Come eat your beans.” “No ha cebolla?”, “There aren’t onions are there?” was his response. Mattihus doesn’t like onions in his beans. “No mi hijo”, “No” she yelled back and then softly said to me, “Si hay”, “Yeah there are” and smiled. Mattihus came into the kitchen grabbed his plate and said, “There is a really good soccer game on between Mexico and Brazil” as he walked back into the living room with his dinner in hand.

Lili sat down in his place at the table and kept me company while I finished my dinner. After three minutes passed loud sappy telenovela music began blaring in the living room. “That doesn’t sound like a soccer game” I yelled to Mattihus. Lili giggled and yelled, “What’s the score?” You could hear static as the channels were changing in the living room and Mattihus yelled back, “Mexico is winning 1-0.” Mattihus is 15 and is obsessed with telenovelas but would never admit it to your face. He’ll be watching one and as soon as anyone walks in the room he will flip the channel to a soccer match. I’ve also caught him swinging in the hammock at Jenny’s house glued to the TV at the 6:00 telenovela hour. His latest poison, the telenovela Mañana. I’m pretty sure you all know what a telenovela is. The spanish version of a soap opera but with more sap. I’ll admit I’ve fallen victim to telenovela obsession. It was a short and sweet affair with Sortelegio. My addiction wasn’t to the plot but rather the lead character Alejandro played by the delicious Cuban actor William Levy. Google image him and you’ll see why. Smokin’ hot.

After I finished my dinner Lili went through the living room to the bedroom and I sat down next to Mattihus to watch the soccer game. It wasn’t long before he grabbed the remote and switched the channel to Mañana. Loud sappy music ensued once again and on the screen the scene switched back and forth between a flashback montage with children running through green pastures laughing merrily and a sad woman crying in a lonely barren old farmhouse. Lili opened the bedroom door, just a crack, and yelled to Mattihus, “How’s the soccer game?” He quickly changed the channel back to FoxSports, got up off the couch and walked out of the house. He couldn’t take our teasing. I presume he went to Jenny’s to watch Mañana in peace from her living room hammock.

p.s. update on my soccer team. We recently won a quadrangular tournament and took home the Q400 ($50) prize. We then lost a game at the Ahumado feria but redeemed ourselves on Sunday with a 7-1 win over the Gomera women’s team. I'll leave you with a few pics from the Ahumado feria, a team shot from Sunday's match... and a photo of two of my teammates kids giving kisses during the 3 hour van ride to the game. So cute.

Marimba Band at the Ahumado Feria- A Guatemalan tradition.

Feria Ride at Ahumado- not much fair traffic in the morning.

My soccer team. Half the girls played barefoot this game.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Telephone Talk

Talking on the phone in Guatemala is always an awkward exchange. You can be confident that the person on the other line will answer the phone by saying “aló” which sounds like “hello” with a spanish accent. I have two theories on the word “aló.” Since the word means hello but is exclusively used when answering the phone I'm convinced that either A.) Spanish speakers made-up the word after the invention of the telephone for the sole purpose of answering calls like the American inventors demonstrated OR B.) they started using it later, mimicking the word they heard in movies or on television when english speaking actors picked up the telephone. One way or the other, “aló” must be the spanish phonetic for “hello”. (Please enlighten me if you know otherwise.) Glad that is settled, now moving on...

I have chosen to blog about Guatemalan telephone etiquette because I have recently been subject to an alarming number of awkward phone conversations. Let me explain. One of the main projects I have with my Cooperative is helping them package and sell their salt on the market. However, before we do anything with the product we must first determine if packaging and selling salt to the consumer has more profit potential then just selling the it to a middle man (which they currently do now). To determine profitability we have begun a cost analysis. How much does it cost to rent the salinas, how much do they pay for labor, how much do they spend on gas for the water pump etc, etc. Since we need to include packaging costs in this cost analysis I now spend a good amount of time on the phone calling up printers and packaging contacts to get price quotes.

Now let me try to explain how one of these phone calls plays out. We’ve already reviewed the prevailing telephone introduction word: “aló”. Not too complicated. Where the exchange starts to get slightly uncomfortable is during what I call the “body paragraphs” of the conversation. If you haven’t noticed, I equate my phone conversations to a standard five paragraph essay because I feel like I need to prepare for them as such. The body paragraphs, or meat of the conversation, prove to be difficult simply due to my restricted knowledge of spanish printing and packaging technical terms and my inability to demonstrate my needs with good old fashioned hand gestures through the phone.

But, the telephone awkwardness hits its apex at the conclusion of the conversation. In Guatemala there is no common way to hang-up the phone. They don’t use “good-bye”. Instead there is “bueno pues”, “adios pues” and “vaya pues”. Each meaning something along the lines of “alright then”, “good-bye then” and “go then”. A Guatemalan will repeat these words numerous times to signal he/she is ready to get off the phone. With each repetition the voice on the other end of the line gets fainter and fainter, sounding more and more distant, as if they were actually turning around and walking away from the conversation. What gets confusing is after a handful of “vaya pueses” or “adios pueses” I’m stuck trying to decide how many more times I need to say goodbye before the conversation is going to end. To demonstrate, hanging-up goes a little something like this:

Anna: Bueno, gracias por su ayuda
Packaging Contact: bueno pues, adios
Anna: Adios
Packaging Contact: adios pues
Annalisa: Adios.
Packaging Contact: bueno pues, vaya pues, vaya pu...
Annalisa hangs up

Anna: Well, thanks for your help.
Packaging Contact: alright then, goodbye
Anna: Goodbye
Packaging Contact: goodbye then
Annalisa: Goodbye
Packaging Contact: alright then, go then, go the...
Annalisa hangs up.

See, awkward.