Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dulce Damas

About three weeks ago a woman from Holland arrived in Casas Viejas. Carolina Verhoeven was her name and she came for one week to teach the women of my town how to make jam from local fruit. Carolina is a Senior Expert in a Dutch organization called PUM. She was solicited by a Maria, a well-to-do native Guatemalan who now lives in Canada but migrates back to Guatemala during the northern winter months. From what I could gather, Maria and her husband are philanthropists during their Guatemalan “summer break”, traveling the country doing good deeds in hospitals, in schools and with women’s groups.

Maria told me that this project is her little brain child. She has a house in Casas Viejas and over the years has noticed an abundance of fruit going to waste in the area. Mangos rotting on the ground (what a shame), morros falling from trees only to be eaten by hungry pigs and mariñones, the fruit from cashew trees, being completely overlooked by the local population. She wanted to find a way to use these resources and boost the local economy and thus decided to teach women how to make jams from the fruit.

About a month before, I had heard of this woman from Don Edgar, “There is a foreign lady coming that only speaks English and wants to package fruit, here is her email and phone number, you should contact her.” I followed his directions, emailed the contact (who happened to be Maria not Carolina) but got no response. I forgot about the whole thing until three Wednesdays ago when Loyda, one of the female socios in my Cooperative, came by the tienda and invited me to go with her to meet the Holandesa (Dutch woman).

I walked with a group of women ushering their children while toting sun umbrellas to the outskirts of town. During the trip I received three comments on how fast I walk, “Annalisa likes to exercise, don’t you Annalisa?” We ended up at a house off a beaten path about 15 minutes from the town center. The house, belonging to Maria and her husband, was surrounded by bouganvilleas. I love bouganvilleas. The house itself was quaint with high ceilings allowing for cool airflow (airflow is a luxury here). The decor (for the few of you that care) was uniquely Guatemalan with a touch of the finer things, flowers in vases, stained shutters, cool ceramic floors, a tiled chair rail, etc. I was in heaven.

It was here that I met Maria and Carolina. Carolina didn’t speak a lick of Spanish so I was a comforting presence for her. Maria managed the ladies and served as translator. The previous day they had spent making jam, pineapple, noni with mariñon, mango, coconut, morro, orange. All the colorful jars filled with the fruit concoctions were lined up on the kitchen table. I quickly learned, to my delight, that I had arrived on taste test day. The group surrounded the table, Carolina, Maria, about thirteen local women and me. One by one we tasted the jams to see which recipes turned out the best and which needed adjusting. I, of course, liked the mango the best.

I had to leave early to work on inventory at the tienda but I promised the women I would accompany them on Saturday when they were going to learn how to make pastries.

Saturday at 2PM five of the women led by Loyda arrived unexpectedly at my house. I invited them into my courtyard where they gathered around me in my hammocks and plastic chairs. I had no idea what they wanted from me. Then Loyda started shooting off questions, “We were wondering if you could explain how the Holandesa came here, did Maria have to pay for her plane ticket? Where is she getting the €2,500 she said she could use to buy us equipment? Could you ask her to use the money to get us a stove? Can you work with us during your two years here? You are one of us now right?” I explained to them the nature of Carolina’s work, “She is with a foreign foundation that has funds for projects like the one here in Casas Viejas. No, Maria hasn’t paid to get Carolina here, but she did work on the solicitation. Yes, I will find out if Carolina can use some of the funds to purchase a stove for the group. And it would be my pleasure to work with this group during my two years here.” After I finished answering all their questions it was time to go make pastries. I began locking up my house, closed and bolted the back door and was locking the front door when Doña Mari (the wife of Don Simon the Coop’s treasurer) came up to me all schemey-like and pulled me aside, “Will you ask Carolina if I can have her computer?”

“What computer?”, I asked, a bit startled.

“She said she was leaving all of her equipment and I saw she has a nice computer. Can you ask her if I can have her computer for my kids? But don’t tell anyone else that you are asking.” She urged while peering past me into my house (I assume she was checking out my goods too.)

I think I may have turned red with embarrassment for her. Carolina had come on her free time to teach the women how to make jam, she was bringing knowledge and start-up funds to get the project off the ground and now Mari wanted her personal computer? Was she going to ask for the shirt off her back too? How greedy. “I’ve gotta keep my eye on this one”, I thought to myself. Luckily, the other women in the group don’t have the same mentality. I told Mari I would ask about the computer but never did.

Aside from this small uncomfortable incident I left my house with the women overwhelmed with excitement for this new endeavor. What gave me the most pleasure was the fact that this group of women had just come to me to ask “secret” questions about Carolina. It showed me that they would rather come to me to clarify their doubts instead of asking Maria. They trusted me more because they saw me as one of them and this was a huge accomplishment for me as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Fast forward two weeks to yesterday. I met with the group for the first time since we made pastries. Six of the original thirteen had decided to move forward with the venture. We convened at Loyda’s house to make our first batch of jam without Carolina. The idea was to make product to sell locally during the Semana Santa holiday when the area is flush with tourists and Guatemalans from the city. Coconut jam, pineapple jam, mango jam, noni and marinon jam, orange jelly and tamarindo jam. We started at 2PM. The steps are as follows: cut up and blend the fruit, add the sugar and pectin, boil the mixture, fill sanitized jars and repeat. The women worked swiftly in their aprons and hair nets (Carolina taught them some sanitary practices too). By 5:30PM we had 72 jars of jam. During the process I had worked with them to get costs down- how much the fruit, sugar, pectin cost, how much each jar cost, how much wood and gas was used, how many hours of labor etc. After doing all the calculations each jar of jam cost about Q8.50 (approx. $1) to produce. They agreed to sell them each jar for Q13.

After clean-up the women decided to make their group official by voting in the directors. They first asked if i’d be president. Flattering yes, but I gladly declined, saying that I couldn’t be on the board but that I will be their “volunteer”. They chose Loyda as president. There were five of them left and they still needed to appoint vice president, secretary and treasurer. No one else wanted a position. They had to draw titles out of a hat to fill the remaining seats. I cautioned them that they should elect someone who understands math to be the treasurer and someone that can write to be the secretary. Some titles were traded and the board was finalized. As their volunteer, I have been tasked with making the labels before their first sales route on Saturday. So I taught myself how to use indesign and whipped up the above label last night (notice the bouganvilleas- little personal touch).

As I was leaving Loyda’s house I told the women that I wanted to buy a jar of mango, one of tamarindo and another of coconut jam. I explained with a smile, “ Not only will I be your volunteer but I’ll also be your best customer.”

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pollitos, Gripe and Bananas

I have ever increasingly begun to feel at home in Casas Viejas. It started with the little things. Walking alone to Eslin’s wedding and having a group of my soccer teammates run up and invite me to sit with them at the ceremony, the woman I buy cheese from asking me why I haven’t gone running recently, Tawnya’s daughter Melissa giving me a big hug every time she passes the tienda or my friend Erika wanting to “hacer un vuelta” (walk around) with me at the town ferria. Now that I have my own house, my own private space, I feel even more like i’ve grown roots here. The daily interactions I have with my neighbors solidify this feeling. Let me give you a few examples.

My next door neighbors are being terrorized by a cat. Over the last two weeks the cat has been sneaking into their yard in the darkness of night and stealing away with their pollitos (baby chickens). The chicks are an easy meal for the cat. Chickens, like all other animals in Casas Viejas, roam free all over town. Mama pigs leading her baby piglets through the street and chickens scurrying along dirt paths is just the backdrop to my everyday life. I didn’t realize how desensitized I had become to random animal meandering until my parents came to my site (my first visitors from the states- love you mom and dad!). My mom was so fascinated by the pigs in the street that she had to take pictures. And at my soccer practice, when a pig roamed on the field she smiled and yelled out to me, “looks like you have a new friend that wants to play.” To most people coming from the states, the abundance of roaming farm animals would seem peculiar and maybe even surreal, but to me, a soccer practice without the interruption of pigs or chickens would seem strange.

Back to the stolen pollitos. Last night at 10:30 p.m. I was seemingly the only one in my neighborhood still awake. The culto preacher had finished his last sermon on the loudspeaker an hour earlier and everyone had retired to their respective cinderblock houses leaving the neighborhood completely still. I stood brushing my teeth under the lone lightbulb above my pila. It was so quite that I was extra careful not to scrape my plastic guaquil against the cement pila as I scooped water to rinse my toothbrush. I finished brushing and as I was knocking the access water from my toothbrush the night silence was pierced by a sudden and frantic “Turn the lights on, turn the lights on”. The voice cut through the cinderblock wall that separates my backyard from my neighbors house/tienda. Two seconds later Dona Mirna appears at my back chain link fence with a flashlight sweeping light through her yard and mine. “Where is that damn animal? Annalisa, did you see a cat?”

“No, I haven’t seen anything” I replied.

She continued, shining the light in all directions, “Oh where did that cat go, I heard it jump from our roof.” More unsuccessful searching with the flashlight and then she turns to me, “Can I come over and check your backyard?”

“Of course, come on over.”

Two seconds later she is at my front gate in her white nightgown with flashlight in hand.

“Pasa adelante.” Come in, I say.

As she scours my yard and outdoor kitchen she tells me in her quick, punchy voice, “This cat has been eating my pollitos, Two weeks ago we had 15 pollitos and now we only have three. Yesterday we had four and this morning we woke up and there was only three. The cat is eating them whole, can you believe that?” Fifteen and now only three. I swear I heard it on the roof, are you sure you didn’t see it here?”

“No I haven’t seen the cat since this afternoon. So, wait, that cat isn’t your cat?”

“No, saber (who knows) whose cat it is but it keeps eating my pollitos. Have you seen any pollito feathers?”

“Not today but come to think of it, I have seen feathers in my yard before. That cat ate tortillas I left out overnight in a plastic bag a week ago.” (At first I thought it may have been rats but my Mom reassured me that my Aunt Colleen’s cats eat through plastic bags filled with food left out on her counter too.)

“See that damn animal is eating everything. Ok well I don’t see it here.” She began walking back to my front gate murmuring to herself “That animal is giving me a headache... Fifteen pollitos and now only three.”

“What a shame.” I said to her as she was showing herself out the gate.

“Yes it is a shame.” She said goodnight and closed my gate behind her as she walked back to her house.

I love that my neighbor feels comfortable coming over to my house in the middle of the night in her nightgown to hunt a mischievous cat. But there is more.

This past week I have been sick, coughing uncontrollably. Wednesday in hopes of beating the gripe (flu), I spent most of the afternoon resting in my hammock and watching episodes of Glee (thanks mom) on my laptop. My constant coughing fits must have worried Mirna because she sent Milbia over with the three kids. Milbia didn’t even ask permission to come into my yard, all of the sudden she just appeared with the kids.

She began, “Did you shower today?”

The kids scurried off, quickly making my backyard their new playground as she stood above my hammock with an earnest look on her face. Strange question you may think but I was prepared for this. In Guatemala people don’t shower when they are sick. It supposedly prolongs the sickness.

“Yes, I showered today.” I replied from my cocoon position in the hammock.

She continued, “My mom told me you shouldn’t shower and you can’t use your fan. The fan will make your cough worse.”

I started laughing. It is so hot here the only escapes I have from the scorching sun are cold showers and my fan. I couldn’t imagine my life here without them. Being sick was bad enough but now I was supposed to be sick and uncomfortably hot and sweaty? That wasn’t going to fly.

“Why are you laughing?” She asked.

“I’ll try not to shower” I said through giggles, “but its so hot and I have to work and I don’t want to walk around all sweaty and smelly.”

My response was not well received. She had come over for an intervention and I wasn’t cooperating. After she insisted I change my habits a few more times she herded up the kids and left. I didn’t know what to do about her suggestions. I knew that she was genuinely concerned with my health and I didn’t want to disrespect her advice and beliefs. I couldn’t lie to them and tell them that I’m not showering or using my fan because they can HEAR for themselves if I do either. (yes, we live that close- they know EVERYTHING that goes on my side of the fence).

That night miraculously it rained. We are in the dry season- it hasn’t rained since December and it isn’t supposed to rain until May but that night it rained. The precipitation cooled the night and I was able to sleep comfortably without my fan on. The next day I told Milbia through the fence that I listened to her and didn’t sleep with my fan on and I felt better. Which was actually true. Although I’m no longer feeling sick I still have been coughing and I know they hear it. It hasn’t kept me from showering though.

When I say you can hear everything through the walls I mean everything. Constantly I hear Mirna yell, “Milbia” and Milbia’s response, “Que manda?” What do you want?. I hear the kids laughing and crying and Milbia yelling, “ Te voy a pegar” “I’m going to hit you.” Which mostly is just a common empty threat used by all Guatemalan parents. But the thing I hear most through that cinderblock wall is blaring banda music. It starts about 10 am and runs through to 6 pm. Its the boys of the house that put the music on loud. I know this because Mirna has confessed to me that she doesn’t like the “noise”. I’ve learned to accept it and even enjoy it a bit. When my parents were here my Dad asked. “Do they always play music that loud? Doesn’t it bother you?” I guess its another thing I have become desensitized to.

During my parents stay in Casas Viejas I brought them over to meet Dona Mirna and her daughter Milbia and the three grandkids. We sat in their courtyard on plastic chairs as the kids swung in hammocks and ran around dragging an alarm clock by its plug. The kids are always running around with their faces and clothes streaked with dust Benicio, the youngest, normally without bottoms. I could tell Mirna and Milbia were so excited to meet my parents. Their presence reassured my neighbors that I, in fact am not an outcast or orphan and that I do have parents in the states that love me. They told my parents how, as neighbors, we watch out for each other and how when I leave the kids miss me and say, “Lisa isn’t at home mom, Lisa still isn’t there.” Milbia asked my parents how many kids they have and how old their youngest is. This was a common question my parents got on their visit. I also took them to one of the Basico (High School) English classes that I help Jenny with. There my parent’s successfully performed a dialogue in English. At first, my dad was so enthusiastic about performing he began improvising or “enhancing” the script. The script that the kids in class were following line by line. This of course caused for some confusion and forced my dad to put on his glasses so he could properly read the dialogue. After the performance Jenny allowed the kids to ask my parents questions. What countries have you visited? Do kids in the states have tattoos and wear jewelry to school?, How many kids do you have? What are your names? What do you do for a living? Do you like Guatemala? How old are you? My parents thoroughly enjoyed the kids curiosity.

Everyone in town wanted to meet my parents. I had random women vendors come into my backyard asking if I’d like to buy shrimp so she could get a peak at my parents. My parents met my soccer team, my coop socios, my counterpart, Eslin and Selvin and Brenda at the tienda, my post man, my tortilla lady... But my two worlds really came together when Don Fernando prepared a special seafood soup and my host parents shared lunch and a conversation with my real parents.

Hospitality pulses through the veins of the townspeople of Casas Viejas. Everywhere I took my parents they were offered little candies or cold beverages and even Milbia passed us six bananas through the chain link fence that divides our properties. I enjoyed showing my parents off to everyone in town. I reassured them, “My parents like Guatemala so much that they are coming back for Christmas, oh and just wait till you meet my sister in April, she can speak Spanish.”

Sadly, my parent’s visit did have to come to an end. On the bus ride back to my site after my parents spoiled me with a weekend in Antigua at a nice hotel and big delicious dinners with my Peace Corps friends I was worried that I would have family withdrawals. To my delight, my post parents visit depression worries were washed away when, as I was waiting on the side of the road for the last leg of my bus trip, a familiar family from Casas Viejas stopped their pick-up truck and offered me a ride back to my house. I swung my backpack into the bed and hopped in after it. As we bumped down the road toward home the daughter of the couple was leaning out the window and yelling “Annalisa, Annalisa...”.

As I walked home I passed Renato, (he is my “primo” that jokingly says “I love you” in accented english every time he passes by my window at night) and he said, “I haven’t seen you in a few days.” When I was unlocking my door my neighbor Julietta, Oscar Ruben’s mom, said, “You just getting back from Antigua? Welcome home.” That evening Milbia passed me bananas through the fence. I did feel at home.