Monday, February 28, 2011

Xinca Garden

Way back in December, the Guatemalan government began a two month state of siege against narco traffickers in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers from that region. Lucky for me, Alta (as the volunteers there call it) is on the opposite side of the country from Casas Viejas and, double lucky for me, my friend Kamille who lives there decided to take refuge in my site. Kamille is an agriculture volunteer too, but her part of the program involves food security, ie family gardens, nutrition classes etc. While she waited out the unrest we went to work on a Cooperativa Xinca garden.

We chose the site of the garden. It wasn't up for debate because our plan
was two fold. First, clean up the back yard of the tienda which, unfortunately, served as a not-so clandestine trash dump, slash, town eye soar. The previous renters decided that leaving half burnt, quasi buried trash in a heaping pile in their yard was adequate disposal. The space was decrepit and Kamille, with her green thumb, was the remedy. After the clean up the second step was to beautify it with a garden. A project we hoped would instil a sense of pride in the property that was previously lacking and also motivate the Cooperative to better maintain the land. It worked. We spent a handful of afternoons preparing the land and I was amazed at how willingly the socios labored- even when the time they put into the garden was on top of their already stressful work days.
We cleared, cleaned, aerated and fertilized the land, built a fence and planted watermelon and cantaloupe seeds. We also took the opportunity to extend the project into a local school by teaching students the life cycle of a plant and then enlisting their help in planting our tomato seedlings in egg cartons. Once the seedlings are ready to transplant we are going to put them in hanging pots. A project that is still about three weeks away and the socios are already eager to get started. I have to constantly remind them that we can't plant the tomatos until the pilones are strong enough. They can't believe tomato plants can be hung and have already decided to try the technique at home too.

All in all, February was an extremely rewarding month. We witnessed a camaraderie among the cooperative members that had been lacking since the coop went into debt last year. It gave me great pleasure to see the socios come together and work diligently on something positive and productive and I hope their determination and good spirit continues through to other projects we are working on.

Last week Kamille got the word that the siege is over and it is safe for her to go back home to Coban. Yesterday, much to my chagrin, was her last day in Casas Viejas. Hopefully, she can come back in a month or so too a blooming garden full of juicy melons. Fingers crossed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Esquipulas or Bust

Take a look at any Guatemalan tour book and you’ll find the section that covers the Pacific Coast is the thinnest of all regions. Sure, we’ve got the beaches of Monterrico and Autosafari Chapin but most of the write-ups are sugar coated and probably written just to meet some sort of publisher’s page quota. I once noticed that the “Rough Guide” has a blurb about Taxisco’s great leather goods. I’d never recommend to ever stop there. The only leather I’ve seen in that town is that on the boots of the drunks passed out in a puddle of their own urine in the gutter outside Bar Santa Rosa. That’s not “rough”, that’s disgraceful. If I wrote my own tour book to the Southern Pacific Coast it would start, “Most towns are best experienced through the window of your bus.” Instead of dotting the map with restaurants and hotels I’d star places where tourists could find clean restrooms.

Another good indicator that not many towns in the tour book are worth checking out is that Guatemalans avoid them at all cost. “Where then”, might you ask, “do people from your town vacation to?” The answer: “Esquipulas, of course”. Esquipulas isn’t near the Pacific, it’s in Chiquimula, half way to the Atlantic, but a trip there is a true Guatemalan’s excursion. How could it not be when the town is home to El Señor de Esquipulas, the famed Black Jesus that serves as a mecca for Latin American Catholics? It doesn’t hurt that there is shopping and a Pollo Campero there too.

After nearly 18 months in country I fancy myself part Chapina and therefore, jumped at the opportunity to join the Catholic church group in a day excursion to Esquipulas. The adventure started at 1:26 am when my neighbor Mirna yelled through my bedroom window, “Annalisa, Annalisa, ya es la hora (it’s time).” I jumped out of bed, opened the door and told her i’d be ready shortly. At 1:45 am I was outside of their house waiting with a handful of people for the chartered school bus that was to take all 60 or so excursionists. We were supposed to leave at 2:00 am, the bus arrived at 2:15 am, we waited for stragglers until our 3:00 am departure (hora Chapina). I’ve decided that the habitual tardiness that afflicts this country is a hinderance to it’s overall development. It breeds complacency, a lack of motivation, responsibility etc, etc. but that is another blogpost.

I half-slept during the 4-hour bus ride to our destination. I shared a seat with my neighbors Milbia (age 26) and her kids Benicio (age 2) and Lesli (age 4). When we arrived we ate a packed breakfast on the bus. I brought an apple, my neighbors had chicken salad sandwiches. I took interest in analyzing how the different generations ate their sandwiches. Luis (age 8) spread the chicken salad between two slices of bread and ate it how most Americans would eat a typical sandwich. Mirna, his mom, put the filling on the bread and folded it in half, like a taco. Regina, his grandmother, put the chicken salad in a bowl and used the bread as an edible utensil to scoop it up. Full from breakfast, we set out to see Jesus.

El Señor can be found in the huge white Catholic church in the center of town. At 7:30 am there was already a long line of devotees snaking out of the church along the perimeter and into the plaza in front. During our winding stop-and-go pilgrimage to see El Señor I was tricked by two fake-out Jesus statues. The first was a black Jesus housed in a tent to the left of the church. Everyone was lighting candles in front of him so I thought he was the one. Turned out to just be a replica. The second occurred when we finally entered into the side of the church and came upon another Jesus. The woman I was standing next to grabbed my arm and said, “Nuestro Señor, Jesus Cristo.” She said it so passionately that I thought the encased statue of christ crawling was the one. I had already taken a picture when I realized he was painted white and couldn’t possibly be the black Jesus. Third time’s a charm. Shortly thereafter we curved around the white Jesus, walked up a small ramp and were face to profile with the real El Señor de Esquipulas. We circled around the encased statue directly behind the church pulpit. As we made the loop we overlooked the mass that was taking place in the church. We then backed down the ramp- so as to not “dar la espalda” give the back to El Señor. Our pilgrimage was complete.

Outside of the church we decided to take a tuk-tuk ride la Piedra de Los Compadres. The explanation sheet I bought for Q1 states that the site “consists of two enormous rocks that throughout time and earthquakes, one has stayed on top of the other keeping a mysterious and strange equilibrium... with three or four points of contact.” As the legend goes, 300 years ago the
rocks encased the bodies of two compadres, a man and a woman, making love while on their journey to Esquipulas. I also paid another Q1 to buy a leafy branch and candle. We walked around the rock and hit it with the branch. Everyone I was with kept crouching down in between the two rocks looking for the “breasts” but I couldn’t discern anything that looked like a woman’s chest. the woman who sold us the branch said to do it 7 times but we only did it twice. When I asked my accomplice why we didn’t finish the seven she simply said, “Two is enough.” Then I lit the candle and placed it under the top rock as all the others had done. I think I was supposed to make a wish but was too caught up in the moment and forgot.

Pollo Campero was our third destination. Then we did some shopping in the market and were back on the bus by 3:30 pm. We were supposed to leave at 4 pm but waited for stragglers until our 4:30 pm departure. As we pulled out of the parking lot I could already feel my back begin to ache and my legs begin to cramp. Then I looked over to the seat next to me at an 80-year-old woman with a cane shaking feebly and wondered, “if I am pained by the discomfort of this journey, what does she feel like right now?” On the 4-hour ride back home I reveled in my day of Guatemalan integration. I had paid tribute to El Señor, ate Pollo Campero, shopped for dulces with the ladies, got my fortune told by little birds and even contemplated asking the bus driver to make me a copy of the CD he was blasting. At 9:30 pm we arrived in Casas Viejas and as I caught myself admiring the bus ayudante’s bulging bicep muscles I realized my integration had gone too far. It was time for bed.