Wednesday, June 3, 2009

After Holy Week, things started to settle back to normal in Chocola. Soon after, I attended a meeting of the Presbytery way up in the mountains in San Miguelito. I had been to a similar meeting back in November, but this time it was a little less painful. The Presbytery meetings last for two days, with members of the executive commitee, pastors from the Presbytery, and representatives from the local churches discussing various issues for hours on end. A lot of it is just administrative and budget stuff (very thrilling), and more than half of the discussion is in the local Quiche language. So you can imagine my frustration and boredom back in November, sitting in a two-day long meeting, half of which was in Quiche and the other half in Spanish (which I still didn't know very well), and having no idea how the churches here operate. This time the meeting was slightly less boring, although I still nodded off at intervals (especially when they started talking in Quiche and I couldn't follow). You start going a little crazy, sitting in one position, in a hot stuffy church, for hours on end, with breaks only for refacciones and meals (the best part of the experience). However, at the meeting I realized just how far I've come since November. For one thing, I actually understood most of what was going on, and I felt more engaged in the discussion because I have more knowledge of how the presbytery operates and have been participating in the lives of these churches for the past months. The people there were no longer unfamiliar faces but people I have relationships with, or at least have talked with at some point during my journeys. My old friends Eligio and Cesar were there, along with the pastor from our church, my host dad, Jose de la Cruz, and various others I have gotten to know over the past months. During the meeting, I was given a few minutes to talk about the work I have been doing with different church groups in the presbytery, and everyone seemed very grateful that I was there.

The best part of the two days was certainly eating meals together. The women from the church in San Miguelito lovingly prepared all the snacks and meals for us those two days, and everything was delicious. We had a lot of caldo (broth soups), tortillas, and chile (everyone is always surprised that I like hot chile sauce). I love just sitting and eating with people - that has been one of my favorite ways of getting to know people in Guatemala. Sometimes you chat and joke, and sometimes you just sit quietly and enjoy the meal together, but either way there is a sense of solidarity and of sharing life together. Plus, the food is delicious. :)

The first night, after the session meetings, there was a special worship service, and people from all the churches in the Presbytery arrived. During our meetings, my host dad was elected the new president of the prebytery executive commitee, and he received his nomination that night during the service. By the time the service ended, it was already late, so I decided to stay in San Miguelito for the night, rather than traveling all the way back to Chocola and having to wake up super early the next morning to travel back for the rest of the meeting. So I stayed with another woman named Angela, in the house of one of the hermanos of the church in San Miguelito. He led us there in the pitch dark and tried to screw tight a light bulb near the door so we could see. I was feeling a bit sick in the stomach and hoping I wouldn't have a bathroom emergency in the middle of the night, and have to stumble to the stone latrine in the pitch black. I was exhausted (why is it that so much sitting makes you tired?) and ready to pass out on the rock hard bed. But the guy who had offered us the space to stay came in to put on a cd of obnoxious worship music, at blasting volume, and he plugged in a wall hanging of the crucifixion, which had rays of neon lights radiating from Jesus' head. It was absurd. And then he proceeded to talk with Angela about the session meetings for another hour or more. I tried to sleep through it, and was tired enough that I was almost able to. Finally the buya (commotion) ceased, and we were able to sleep for a few hours before waking up for a morning devotion at 5:30 am. (I'm convinced that Guatemalans living in this region are perpetually sleep deprived - at least, I know I am.)

After the session meetings ended in the afternoon, I traveled back by pickup truck to Chocola with my host dad, just beating out the aftnoon rains. Yes, the rainy season has begun once again, and the choking dust of the dry season has been replaced by mud and rivers of water down the streets. It is usually clear in the mornings and the downpour begins sometime in the afternoon. One day it rained so hard that the water came pouring in the front door and flowing through the house. Sometimes, when it rains really hard and the wind is blowing toward the house, water leaks through the cracks around the wooden shutter in my room, flows down the wall and under my bed, and forms puddles on the floor. There was one day I was standing in the kitchen with my host sisters, and the rain started pouring in through the cracks in the sheet-metal roof. My host dad had recently replaced a piece of sheet metal in the roof and rearranged the remaining pieces, and I guess he didn't finish the job very well, because the water was pouring in by the buckets. My host sisters and I were scurrying to put big pots and pans under the leaks, and I was emptying the pots every minute or so into the pila. Meanwhile Franci was standing with a huge bamboo stalk and another metal pole, trying to jam them into the roof to stop the leak. I was joking that I was going to go get my soap and shampoo to take a shower in the kitchen, under the "faucets" of rainwater. We finally managed to get the water under control, and needless to say, my host dad had some repair work to do on the roof when he got home.

That Sunday, pastor Abraham gave a report to the congregation about the session meetings of the Presbytery. And he talked about how I was there with them, eating with them, sleeping over in San Miguelito, and participating in the entire meeting. I realized then that it's not so important what I'm doing or accomplishing - it just matters that I'm here, sharing life with people. They are grateful just for that - that I spend time with them and walk side by side with them in their everyday activities. And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do that and to learn from the beautiful examples of love and generosity that I have seen in the people here.

So things were back to "normal" in Chocola...that is, until the swine flu hit. My director Marcia called me that weekend to tell me that an unusually strong outbreak of the flu had hit in Mexico, and that she was coming up with a contigency plan in conjunction with the PCUSA. This was the first I had heard about the swine flu, and at the time I didn't think too much of it. She told me she wanted all the volunteers to get flu vaccines by that Monday and to buy surgical masks as precautions. I didn't really think that the issue was too pressing, until I talked to Marcia again a few days later and she was a lot more firm about going to get a flu vaccine. So I went to all the local health clinics, but none of them had the vaccine. Finally Marcia decided that I needed to go to Antigua to get the vaccine, and I went with her husband to get vaccinated at a private clinic. News of the swine flu was all over the radio and newspapers here, but it was hard to figure out what exactly was going on, since no one seemed to know how serious the outbreak was or if it had reached Guatemala yet (according to the news, there had been no confirmed cases of swine flu in Guatemala, but Marcia seemed to think that that was highly unlikely, since there is so much contact between Guatemala and Mexico, and that there had probably already been thousands of unreported or uncomfirmed cases in Guatemala). My host family found the whole flu panic (which now seems to be under control) hilarious. Their theory was that God would protect them if they trusted in him. And if it was their time to die, then so be it - besides, there was very little they could do to keep from getting the flu anyway. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala, however, sent out multiple emails with scary warnings. There was talk about all the YAVs leaving our communities to live in seclusion in Marcia's apartment until the outbreak passed, other talk of just not taking public transportation for a while...and Marcia even gave us the option of going home, if the outbreak were to get really serious here. All of this was very upseting and confusing to me, and it didn't help that my host family thought I was crazy going to every public health clinic in the area in search of a flu vaccine. It all seemed very unreal and like something out of a science fiction movie. Fortunately, after about a week, the flu panic seemed to die down and the situation seemed to be not as serious as we thought it could have been. Whew.

The following weekend, we celebrated the 24th anniversary of the church, and I dressed in my corte again for the occasion. There was a special marachi-style band consisting of a bass player and several guitarists, and I accompanied the hymns on the keyboard as usual. It was a joyful celebration, and it was wonderful to have the whole church together for the occasion.

Besides that, my activities have been continuing as usual. I love hanging out with Guatemalan women, and I've been continuing my bible study groups weekly. I've been learning so much from these women, who have given me a new perspective on many of the stories we've read together. I hope that I have offered something to them as well. One day when I was holding a bible study with the women in Ladrillera, we were reading a story about a woman who was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus by the Pharisees and Scribes to be stoned. Jesus replies to them, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," and everyone disperses until only Jesus is left with the woman, and he sets her free to start over again. I asked the women why the Pharisees had brought only the woman before Jesus, and not the man who also was guilty of the same sin (I was trying to get them to ask questions about how the law was often wrongly used to justify prejudices against women). One of the women, Ana, was discussing in her group, and commenting that no one had ever raised that question before - it was a bit of a revelation for her I think. I love seeing the women's faces when they realize something new about a story, or think about something they had never before considered. It is certainly a process of sharing and learning together - I find I am learning as much (if not more) from these women as they are from me. I expressed this feeling to one of my groups one day. After splitting up into groups to discuss some questions, the women returned to present their ideas. One of the women, Juana, asked me what I thought of the answers they had come up with, implying that I was looking for one correct answer to the question. I replied that I had given the same bible study to two other groups, and each group gave a different and beautiful response. I told them that I have been learning so much from them, because every person brings a different perspective to the group. Juana seemed surprised at the the notion that I was learning from them. I think it is important and empowering for these women to realize that - to realize that they have something to offer, that they have ideas and thoughts and perspectives that no one else in the world has, and that they can teach other people by sharing their experiences. I love being a part of that process, and I am learning right alongside them.

When I go to Ladrillera on Fridays with the women there, sometimes we have worship services and sometimes I'll give a bible study. We meet in a different woman's home each week, and afterward we share a refaccion together, usually a cup of coffee or atol - my favorite is arroz con chocolate (a warm chocolate and rice drink). There was one week when we were gathered in the home of Julia and Moises, and it was pouring so hard that we couldn't hear anything over the din of the rain on the metal roof. They had asked me to give a brief sermon during the worship service, and when I went up to speak, it was clear that no one was going to hear anything I was saying. I was practically shouting the bible reading. So I decided what I was going to do was sing some songs with them instead, and I taught them a few choruses that I usually sing with my Sunday school class (they are kids' songs, but I think they are fun for adults too). So we sang over the rain, and the women laughed at the silly songs, and it was quite fun. We were forced to stay there a little bit later, since we couldn't leave because of the downpour. That's one of the benefits of the rainy season - sometimes you are stuck somewhere with someone because of the rain, and you have an excuse to just sit and talk.

Keyboard lessons have been a bit frustrating lately, since a lot of times my students just don't show up. Many of them have to work or have repsonsibilities in the household, taking care of younger siblings or helping cook meals. So it is difficult sometimes for them to be able to come to their lessons. I think some of them have also been discouraged lately, because learning the keyboard takes a lot more time and practice than they had thought. Out of my ten students, only a few show up regularly, and it is slow because most of them can't practice during the week. Plus, the rain often prevents people from coming (especially those who live farther away) because it is hard for them to navigate through the rivers of mud and driving rain on foot. Sometimes if no one shows up for their lessons, I'll help some women who are there sweeping and mopping the floors of the church. As long as I can spend time with someone, it is worthwhile. Or if someone is in the church kitchen cooking, I'll go in to talk to them. One day, I sat in the kitchen with my friends Paula, Celia, and Dina, laughing and eating a pico de gallo of green mangos. (Guatemalans like to eat unripe, green mangos from the trees, with salt and lime - sounds weird, but it's actually delicious, if it doesn't make you sick). Another day I went with Paula and Glatis to deliver a letter to someone in Camache. We wove through the forest groves and coffee fields, with Paula joking that her skirt was going to fall because she had forgotten to wear a belt. After delivering the letter, we sat with hermana Candelaria in Camache for a bit and chatted, and then returned, winding our way over the rocky paths.

I'm also enjoying my Sunday school class with the kids in Santo Tomas - we usually read a story, sing songs (with the percussion instruments that were donated), play games, or draw pictures together. I like just hanging out with the kids and being silly. One day, when we were up on the second floor of the newly-renovated church, there was a big earthquake. We've been having lots of small tremors lately (it is really weird to feel the earth moving under your feet), but this was the biggest one I've felt. It lasted for a good ten seconds, and you could feel the building swaying and the windows shaking. We all ran out of the room to the patio area, and everyone was a bit shaken. I think I was probably more scared than the kids were. :)

Another perk of going to Santo Tomas on Sunday mornings is that I get to weave through the huge market and delight in all the colors, sounds, and smells. Sunday is the big market day, and people from Solola and regions farther away come to sell their produce, fabrics, crafts, and goods. I love looking at all the different cortes that the women wear, and the brightly colored, striped tops and checkered blankets that the men wear, wrapped around the waist almost like a kilt. Sometimes I'll treat myself to a coconut or ripe mango, complete with pepita (crushed pumpkin seeds) and lime. I'm trying to appreciate mango season while it lasts. :) Lately, the season of ciruelas (tiny, tart plums) and lychee has begun, plus all kinds of other new tropical fruits that I had never tried before. Walking through the market is an overwhelming experience - so many beautiful colored threads and fabrics, foods, fruits, pots and pans, hygeine products, boot-leg DVDs, you name it. I usually take a swing through the market on the way back from my Sunday school class, to marvel at all the commotion.

I have realized lately that I don't have very much time left here, and so I have been trying to soak in every moment and appreciate spending time with my host family and the people I have come to know in the community here. It is going to be a big change coming back home, and very difficult to say goodbye to my host family and the people here. But I am also looking forward to being able to share my experiences with you all, more than just through a blog. There is so much that goes on in my heart, so many emotions I experience, ways that I am growing and changing, that are hard to express via computer. I hope I find the perpective, wisdom, and words to be able to express these things when I return home. Until then, ¡que les vaya bien y se cuiden!

Friday, May 22, 2009

I haven't updated in a while, and there's so much to report! Time seems to be flying here lately, and I 'm trying to soak in every moment, as I'm realizing that I only have about 2 more months left in my community. After the marathon birthday weekend, the party seemed to continue for another few weeks. At the end of March, we celebrated the anniversary of the women's society at the church with a special service, and all the churches in the area were invited as well. The women's group had asked me several weeks before if I could preach for the service, and I accepted. So I was spending my free moments preparing a sermon and going over it out loud in my room, since I knew there was going to be a big crowd there.

That week, I went with my sister Franci to Mazate to buy a corte (the traditional Mayan skirt). I had been thinking about buying one for a while, and saving up some money. So Franci took me one day to Mazate, which is a pretty big city about a half an hour from Chocola, where there is a huge, colorful market. I was so thankful that Franci was with me, because I had no idea what I was doing, what the difference is between the different kinds of cortes, how much they should cost, what length the corte should be, etc. I would have just wandered around the market aimlessly, mesmorized by all the pretty colors. Really, the cortes that the women wear here are the most beautiful clothing I've ever seen, in all different colors and paterns, with each design having its own origin and meaning. It was so hard to make a decision, because all of the cortes are so beautiful in their own way. With Franci's help, I finally decided on a corte - it is a beautiful burgundy color, with green, blue, turquoise, and gold patterned stripes. I also bought some fabric to make the traditional guipil (the blouse), and we took the fabric to one of our neighbors to sew for me.

The first time I wore my traje (the guipil and corte together are called the traje tipico) was for the anniversary of the women's society at the church. Franci helped me wrap the corte around myself and even lent me her faja (the belt), which she pulled so tight I could barely breathe the whole night. She braided my hair in pigtails (it is traditional for women to braid their hair when they wear the full traje) and my sister Vivi lent me her necklace that she wore for her Quinceaños. Of course, it was pouring and muddy that night, and I shuffled out of the house, holding up my corte so it wouldn't be covered in mud by the time I made it to the church (My host mom thought that the way I was walking in my corte was absolutely hilarious). My host brother managed to find a mototaxi to take us to the church, so we wouldn't be soaked. When we arrived at the church, I was very nervous and uncomfortable, dressed for the first time in traje and preparing to preach yet another sermon in front of lots and lots of people. I shuffled into the church shyly, not really sure how to walk in the corte and wondering what people's reactions were going to be. And a group of women who had come from the church in Ladrillera turned around, and at first yelped and laughed a bit. And then they gave me a round of applause...because there I was, a tall lanky white girl (and let me tell you, the corte makes you look even taller...) walking up to the front altar in a corte and guipil. I think they were all a bit surprised, but also delighted that I had put on the traditional traje. Looking back on it, the whole night seemed very magical and sureal. I remember sitting up at the keyboard, playing along with the hymns as everyone lifted up their voices, and looking out over the sea of people. My sermon went by in the flash of an eye. I preached on the passage in Exodus where Moses tells God that he is not an eloquent speaker and that He should pick someone else to be a leader of the people. I tried to relate the story to the women there, and talked about how we are often scared to do things God calls us to do - we think that we are not qualified, or gifted, or brave enough to do them. But God calls ordinary people to do things anyway, people with doubts, fears, insecurites, and flaws. And God speaks through us, even when we think we don't have the words. (Needless to say, I needed to hear this sermon myself, and I also shared some of the inner struggles I have felt this year in Guatemala). After I finished, the new president of the women's society came up to continue leading the service. And she asked the people there if they had understood the message I gave, and everyone shouted ¨Amen!¨. She said how grateful they were to have a volunteer that can express herself so well in Spanish, and that maybe they should all try to learn English so they can preach at my church. I thought it was a very nice compliment, and after the service, many more people came up to me to congratulate me on my sermon and my new corte. I was just thankful that I had spoken something that resonated with the people there, and that God spoke through me even though sometimes I feel like a tongue-tied bumbler. And I was so thankful that God has given me the opportunity to be a part of this community and share in the experiences and lives of these women.

The following Sunday night, Jeff was scheduled to arrive in Guatemala City. I left in the afternoon, with a bag of mangoes and avocadoes for a snack, planning on hanging out in the hostel there and waiting for Jeff to come in later that night. I was feeling so many emotions all at once, and it was a little nerve-wracking sitting around in the hostel, waiting for him to arrive. I had said goodbye to my host family, and my host parents and little sister Mindy had prayed for me in my room, that I would be safe traveling to Guatemala City, meeting up with Jeff, and traveling back to Chocola the next day. My host mom started crying and telling me that she always feels it in her heart when I travel, and that she loves me like one of her daughters. I started tearing up too, especially when little Mindy came into the room and said she wanted to pray for me to. I have realized this year the power of prayer for the people here; it is all they can do sometimes - they have no other choice but to trust in God's grace. There is a lot of violence and crime, especially in the capital city and on the buses, and the people don't have the option to take safer transportation or avoid dangerous routes, because they need to travel to work or don't have the money to take a safer bus. And when someone is sick, and there is no medical insurance or money for medicine, the only option they have is to pray. Needless to say, my host family is REALLY good at praying, and I have learned so much from their constant trust and faith in God's goodness and His response to prayer. So of course, my host parents had to huddle in my room to pray for safety on my journey to the capital city. With all this in my heart, and the excitement/nervousness/uncertainty of what things were going to be like when Jeff and I saw each other, I had set off to Guate.

I met Jeff that night, dressed in my corte and guipil, and prepared with a snack of tortillas, avocado, and a huge mango. A real Guatemalan princess...haha. It was so strange to be able to look into each other's eyes again, after not seeing each other for about 7 months. We had tons to talk about, and it was so wonderful to have conversations that weren't cut off by an automated voice over the phone saying "you have one minute left." And it was also nice to just be able to spend time with each other and have FUN. The next morning, after talking for hours over coffee at the hostel, we traveled together back to Chocola by camioneta. Jeff got the real Guatemalan travel experience - smushed for hours on a crowded chicken bus, making lots of stops to pack on more people and to allow vendedores (or as I affectionately call them, the "snack ladies") to pass through. Anyone traveling through Guatemala will quickly realize that bus rides here are just as much about the food as the actual traveling. At every stop, venders pass through the bus, selling sodas, water, agua de coco (a favorite, for just 1 quetzal), plantain chips, mango, watermelon, chuchitos, tortillas con carne, chile rellenos, the works...Not to mention the evangelizing Christians who come on the buses to shout sermons over their Bibles, the guys selling stickers and school supplies, and others who try to sell miracle medicines which they claim cure everything from dehydration to cancer (I'm not kidding!). Yes, bus rides are almost always a whirlwind of smells, food, venders who shout in sing-song voices, and interesting characters. After several bus transfers and a long, 5 and a half hour ride, we finally arrived in Chocola.

Jeff and I spent the next two days at the house (he stayed in my room and I snuggled up with my host sisters), and my host family fell in love with him. Jeff brought a frisbee, bubbles for Mindy and Armando, and chocolate Easter bunnies for the family, and they were thrilled. Of course, my host siblings had to take us just about everywhere in town to play. Tony, Armando, Tito, Mindy, Jeff, and I went to the soccer field one afternoon to throw around the frisbee. We also went to the cerro in town, to go "sledding" down the hill on a piece of bark from a banana plant. We flew down the hill...feet first, head first, standing up, in pairs - you name it. And we threw around the frisbee some more, laughing and joking around for hours.

During his visit, I took Jeff to see the market, walk around town, and take a bus ride to Santo Tomas, where we sat in the central park and climbed the tower (which gives a scenic view of the mountains). We swung through the market on the way back and bought two pineapples to share with the family. Jeff even had the chance to attempt to make a tortilla or two later in the day. We ate meals together with the family behind the house, and my host mom thought it was great that Jeff was such a good eater (and he didn't even get sick while he was here!). Everyone enjoyed each other's company and laughed a lot, despite the language barrier, and I tried my best to translate in between (Jeff doesn't speak any Spanish and my host family doesn't know any English). Every time I would leave Jeff alone with my host family for a moment, I would hear my host brothers yelling "ALEJANDRA!!" minutes later, calling me to come translate, because they couldn't understand each other. The second day, I left Jeff to take a shower, and a few minutes later my host sisters were yelling "ALEJANDRA!!". The water had shut off on Jeff while he was in the middle of his shower. (Recently, the water has been shutting off during the middle of the day, and so we fill up these huge barrels in the mornings so that we will have water available during the day.) So I had to come hand him buckets of water through the door, and my host mom thought it was hilarious.

That night, Jeff came to a service at the church; I introduced him in front of the church, and the pastor welcomed him, and then we sang a hymn together for everyone. We had managed to borrow a guitar from someone, so Jeff played guitar and I played keyboard, and we sang "Come Thou Fount" in harmony. It was very special and beautiful. Everyone loved it, and few of the hermanos came up to my host dad afterward to ask for a copy of the photo he took of the two of us singing in the church.

The next morning, as we were packing up to leave, Jeff got to see his first scorpion. We were moving our bags when I noticed the critter scuttling across the floor. So I quickly grabbed a spare shoe and smashed it (I've gotten used to dealing with scary bugs). I think Jeff was impressed - he told me that when he saw me killing that scorpion, he thought, "Man, there goes my little warrior princess." haha :) My host sisters were upset that they didn't get to see us sing in church the night before (they were busy helping cook dinner), and so we decided to sing them a few songs before we left. We sat in the front patio area, and Jeff played the guitar we had borrowed while we sang a few hymns together. My host siblings kept asking us to play more songs - I think they wanted a mini concert. It was very fun and joyful - we had a little serenade for our "despedida" (farewell). My host sister Sonya and little Mindy were about to cry when Jeff left. And of course, my very emotional host mom was teary-eyed too. They had gotten accustomed to having Jeff around the house (after just a few days), and were very sad to see him leave. I was so grateful for the way they offered their house and welcomed Jeff to stay with us. I have learned a lot about what it means to be generous and hospitable from the example of my host parents - they are always giving and doing things for their children and for me, even though they don't have very much. But they are some of the most generous and giving people I have known. After we said goodbye and left down the dirt path, Tony came running after us to help Jeff carry his suitcase up to where we could catch the bus.

We had another long journey ahead. I had wanted to take Jeff to see Lake Atitlan, but the direct road from Chocola to the lake has been very dangerous lately and there have been some brutal attacks on the buses and even private vehicles that have been stopped. So we decided to avoid that route and go directly to Antigua instead. In Antigua, we stayed in a cheap hostel, where the other volunteers had also made arrangements to stay and see the Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities there. I had experienced a little of the Lent celebrations in Chocola, but in Antigua the festivities were very different. While the evangelical church does very little to celebrate Holy Week or even Easter, the Catholic church in Guatemala celebrates with parades, processions, colorful costumes, flowers, and candles. In Chocola, every Friday night during Lent, groups of "Centurions" and "Jews" crowd the streets. The "Jews" wear colorful costumes, which to me looked like jester suits, complete with shiny cone-hats topped with pompoms. They also wear a piece of sheer cloth over their faces or some type of animal mask (some of them looked like Halloween monster masks), and the anonymity makes it easy for them to harass people on the streets. A group of people process down the streets, carrying a float that holds a figure of Jesus bearing His cross. Apparently the groups do something like a "re-enactment" of the crucifixion, electing someone to be tied up, beaten, and hung with ropes from a cross on Good Friday. It all seemed very bizarre to me. I went out one Friday night to see the hubbub in Chocola, and I had to ask my host parents' permission to go with Vivi, Pablo, and Maria. I'm pretty sure they would not have been allowed to go watch the processions if it weren't for me. Many evangelicals believe it is a sin to go watch the processions and partake in the Catholic church's Semana Santa festivities (I'm not sure exactly why), but I had wanted to go see part of the culture, and so my host siblings were allowed to come along with me.

The festivities in Antigua were very different - there were no scary masks or clown hats, and the whole thing felt a lot more reverent and worshipful. People who live in Antigua can sign up to make "carpets" on the streets, over which the processions walk. They spend hours making the intricately patterned carpets out of colored sawdust and flowers, only for them to be destroyed when the procession walks over them later in the day. It seemed to me like a very beautiful offering to God. It was amazing to see the people working so diligently and carefully, spooning brightly-colored sawdust through wooden stencils to create these incredible carpets on the cobblestone streets. We went out both of our mornings in Antigua to watch the carpet-making and processions. In the processions, people marched in purple hooded robes and centurion garb, while others carried the huge floats on the their shoulders. The floats had scenes of Jesus and mother Mary, in beautiful detail and color. Bands of trumpet, horn, and tuba players processed with the floats, playing solemn music that crescendoed over the crowds. After watching one of the processions, we followed a float depicting Jesus carrying his cross; we processed over the already-destroyed sawdust carpet and picked up some handfuls of colored sawdust as a recuerdo. It was all very solemn and beautiful, and crowds of people filled the streets. After the procession passed, people came out selling icecream, cotton candy, noisemakers, balloons, and all kinds of recuerdos, which at first seemed kind of strange, since we had just watched suffering Jesus carrying His cross through the crowds...but it didn't seem irreverent or inappropriate - more like a joyful response to and celebration of the love that God has for us.
So Jeff and I got to watch all the Semana Santa festivities, hang out with the other volunteers in the hostel, and tour some of my favorite places in Antigua (and by favorite places, I mean favorite places to eat...haha.) We ate nachos at a place called the Sky Cafe, where you can sit on the roof and look out over the buildings of Antigua with the volcanoes in the backdrop. And we went to my favorite place - La Peña del Sol - with a candlelit atmosphere and an awesome Peruvian band that plays every night. It was definitely a completely different experience from our time in Chocola. There are many different sides to Guatemala.
On Friday, after a wonderful week, lots of emotions, exploring, talking, and enjoying each other's company, it was time to say goodbye. I left Jeff in Antigua with the other girls (he was scheduled to fly out the next day) and headed back to Chocola, so that I could join my host family on our trip to the beach the next morning. The buses were not running, because it was Good Friday, and so I hitched a ride with my director Marcia and her husband Migde, who were going to visit Migde's family in Santo Domingo (which is not too far from Chocola). I arrived to the house, emotionally and physically exhausted, only for a sleepless night to follow. We were scheduled to leave for the beach at 2 in the morning, on a bus driven by one of my host dad's relatives. Guatemalans flock to the beaches for Semana Santa, since most people have off from work, and the weather is perfect for the beach. When I arrived home, everyone in the family was excitedly packing their things and preparing the food, dishes, firewood, and supplies we would be taking with us. I helped pack some of the huge baskets with dishes, cups, the comal (to make tortillas of course) and tamalitos for the first day. After helping pack for a bit, I managed to catch a few hours of sleep. I fell asleep around 11 and then we all were up again at 2 to board the bus and load all of our supplies on top. The bus left around 3, in the dark, and I tried to sleep for some of the ride, but it's pretty much impossible to sleep on a camioneta speeding over bumpy roads. We arrived at the beach before the sun rose (I'm not sure why we had to leave so early in the morning to get there at such a rude hour) and staked out a spot near the lagoon.
We spent the next two days on the beach, Sabado de Gloria (the Saturday before Easter) and Easter day. We cooked over a fire on the beach, slept on blankets in the sand, took a ride in a wooden boat over the lagoon, and swam in the ocean most of the day. The water was really rough, so we couldn't go in very deep at all, but it was fun to stand and have the waves come crashing over us. We brought Jeff's frisbee with us to play in the water, but unfortunately, the ocean sucked it away, never to be seen again. We threw ocean foam at each other, splashed around, ran away from waves, and buried Mindy in the sand, making her a long mermaid tail. It was so much fun! I went out later in the day, just with my host dad, to swim in the ocean, and it was a lot rougher and kind of scary. I got knocked over by one wave and scraped up my leg in the sand. Meanwhile, the younger kids swam in the lagoon (which I tried my best to avoid, since it was filled with lots of trash and who knows what else, although my little host siblings later coaxed me into coming in with them, and I finally gave in). The next morning (Easter), we were up with the sunrise and my host mom was already making the tortillas. It was definitely a new way to celebrate the resurrection of Christ - enjoying God's creation, seeing the power of the ocean, and watching a sunrise over the lagoon. It was an exciting (and exhausting) trip, and we spent most of Easter day on the beach before heading back later in the afternoon. Needless to say, I was definitely ready for a nap when we got back. I was sick all the following week, and so were my host dad and oldest sister (probably something we caught from swimming in the dirty lagoon, or from the not-so-sanitary conditions at the beach - an out-house for a bathroom, a cement wall to stand behind and buckets of water for showers, and dishes washed in water from a random person's well). But it was certainly an experience, and soon after, I settled back into the everyday swing of life in Chocola.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

There were a few days in Chocola when it was super windy, and I was a little scared the roof of my room was going to blow off.  There is a gap where the concrete wall of my room meets the sheet-metal roof, and so the wind gets underneath the roof , and the sheet-metal rumbles and it sounds like the roof is going to blow right off. During those few windy days, I woke up each morning with dirt and leaves strewn all over my bed, carried in by the gusts of wind. The table in my room and all of my books and things were covered in a thick film of grime. Some of our neighbors' houses suffered damage, as the wind tore off pieces of their sheet-metal rooves. There is one poor lady down the hill from us, whose entire house is made of sheet metal; the wind tore apart her house, and she was scrambling to gather the pieces and reassemble her home in the wind. One night during all this, I went with my host mom to the church. We rushed down the road to the church, with my host mom carrying a chicken in a basket to bring to one of the women (also named Juana) at the church.  We had traded Juana one of our chickens for two tiny puppies, and my host mom was bringing the chicken to the church for the exchange. We left the chicken, tied up in its basket, at the back of the church and went to take our seats. And as we sat in the church service, the gusts of wind were so strong that we really thought the roof over our heads was going to be lifted up into the heavens. Hermano Isaias was preaching that night, and we could barely hear his voice over the microphone because of the rumbling roof. He was preaching an absurd sermon that I was trying to tune out, about how we know when the end of the world is coming. And it was just so ironic and funny to me. At one point, a piece of the metal roof snapped, and was flapping above us in the wind.  The front door of the church kept blowing open, and the metal stands holding fake flowers at the front of the church would tumble over and crash to the ground with a bang.  Then someone would have to run to bolt the door shut again and rearrange the flower stands, only for the door to fly open again and knock down the flowers a few minutes later. Meanwhile, the chicken in the back of the church kept squawking and flapping its way out of the basket, trying to escape. And through all of this, Isaias kept preaching as if nothing were happening.  Then, the lights went out. But Hermano Isaias kept going - he pulled a flashlight out of his back pocket and shone it on his Bible, as he continued to preach without skipping a beat. My host mom, who had also brought a flashlight with her, shone her light on Isaias' face, so he could continue his sermon in the dark.  One of the elders of the church ran behind the church to start up the emergency generator, and soon the lights were back on, but the wind was still roaring and howling as fierce as ever. I was glad that the lights went out, so that no one could see how hard I was cracking up because of the absurdity of it all. I just thought it was so ironic how Isaias was preaching about the end of the world, and there we were, seemingly in the midst of it.  The lights had gone out, the roof was flying off, the decorations in the church were crashing over, a chicken was squawking in the back, and Isaias kept preaching without flinching once. Meanwhile, I kept looking over at my host mom and another woman Marta who was sitting next to me, and exchanging smiles and laughs.  I still laugh when I think about the absurdity of the whole night.  And I realized in that moment that only in Guatemala could I experience such an absurd church service.  And I thanked God for the laughter. 
When we returned to the house that night, I was scared to stay alone in my room because of the wind.  My room is in the front of the house, and slightly higher than the rest of the house, so it gets hit hardest by the wind.  I kept having images of lying in my bed at night, and waking up to the sound of the roof flying off, leaving me exposed to the open air. So my host sisters and I decided that I should stay with them in their room, in the back of the house.  My host parents and little sister Mindy slept in the back of the house, too, with blankets laid over the dirt floor.  I slept with Franci in her bed.  My host family had warned me that she was a crazy sleeper (sometimes she wakes up with her head at the foot of the bed and her feet on her pillow), but I decided to take my chances with Franci rather than be left alone in my room under the rumbling roof. Part way through the night, I woke up gasping for air, because Franci was hugging me so tight that I could barely breathe.  She had snuggled up to me and thrown her arms around my waist. At other points during the night, her feet were on top of me, and I was pushed up against the concrete wall, because Franci was sprawled out across the rest of the bed.  It was quite a ridiculous few nights, and I was glad when the wind finally calmed and I was able to return to my own room.  
Soon after what I like to call the ''windy nights,'' it was time once again for a retreat with the other volunteers.  This time, we had to leave the country, since our 6-month visas were expiring and we had to leave from Guatemala in order to renew them. So, our March retreat was in sunny Plancencia, Belize! We all gathered at Marcia's house in Antigua, and from there, we took a long, long bus ride up through the Coban region and towards Puerto Barrios, picking up one of the volunteers from Coban on the way.  We spent a night in Puerto Barrios, although we really didn't get to see much there, since we were told to stay inside the motel compound after dark because the streets were dangerous. The next morning, we mounted a ''ferry'' (it was more like a small motorboat) across the bay to Belize, and it was a beautiful ride.  We passed through customs on the other side, which seemed way too easy, and boarded a van to make the trip to the pennisula of Plancencia. On the way,  we stopped at a home-style restaurant for some rice and beans, the national dish, which is cooked in coconut milk and served with fried chicken. It was strange to not have to speak Spanish (Belize is an English-speaking country), and we had to restrain ourselves from saying ''Buenos dias'' and ''gracias'' to the people on the streets and the waiters in the restaurant. After lunch, we continued our trip, making a brief stop at a small Mayan ruin to explore and take pictures.  We finally arrived to Placencia in the afternoon, and it was beautiful.  Placencia is a long penninsula, surrounded by bright blue waters and mangrove trees.  In contrast to Monterrico, where the mangrove trees are protected under the law, in Placencia, the mangroves are quickly being destroyed as developers buy up the land.  As we drove in, we could see areas where the sand from the lagoon is being dredged up to create more land on which to build houses.  There was one huge mansion we saw, on its own private, man-made island, that one of the locals told us had been built by a wealthy government minister. It made me so angry. There are parts of the pennisula that are so narrow that you can take a few steps from one side to the other, and there are houses built up on sticks that emerge from the water. I imagine that when a hurricane comes, everything goes under water. Mangrove forests help protect against flooding during hurricane season, but the mangrove trees there are quickly disappearing, gobbled up by developing companies and rich government officials who selfishly want to build mansions on their own private islands, at the expense of everyone else who lives there.  
The other volunteers and I stayed in a beautiful rented house on the pennisula, and the owner had a shed filled with bicycles and canoes, so we kept very active on our retreat.  We went snorkeling one day, and took a motorboat ride with guide out to a tiny island, with our rented snorkels and colorful flippers. It was incredible. From that tiny island (which is a world heritage site), we walked out into the Caribbean and plunged our faces under the water. Through our clunky goggles, we could see all kinds of beautiful fish, swimming through corals in deep red, orange, and rust color. At one point, our guide went down to the bottom to pick up a sea cucumber (a fat, blobby-like animal the shape of a cucumber) and we got to touch it.  It was amazing! We saw huge lobsters, coral fish in bright blues and yellows and greens, baracuda, trumpetfish, and even a striped moray eel. Another day, we saw a huge stingray swim by in the lagoon. We spent most of our time swimming in the beautiful, turquoise Caribbean, walking the beach, collecting coconuts (although Celeste and I didn't know how to judge when a coconut is ripe), biking, and canoeing in the lagoon.  For meals, we ate beans and rice, fish and chips, and fish tacos, and we were all excited to eat some seafood for a change. It was certainly a relaxing retreat - more like an exciting vacation - and I think we all would have liked to stay for another day or two.  But we had to travel back soon, because we had a long trip ahead of us back to Guatemala.  The ferry ride back to Guatemala was not quite as pleasant as the ride to Belize.  A storm was approaching, and the ferry conductor handed out huge black tarps at the beginning of the ride.  We were wondering what the tarps were for, until the water started spraying over the side of the boat and into our faces.  The bay was really rough, and we hurtled over the waves in our lancha.  Anna and I were huddled under the black plastic tarp we had been given, as buckets of water poured on top of us.  It was a fun ride. :)
After the long trip back to Guatemala, and a night staying over at Marcia's in Antigua, I returned back to Chocola once again.  The week I got back to Chocola was like a whirlwind, since the following Saturday was the Quinceaños (15th birthday) of my host sister Vivi and we were all frantically working to prepare for the party.  I had agreed to make the piñata for the party, a decision I was soon to regret.  Every spare minute I had that week I spent working on the nearly-life-size piñata, which was in the shape of a birthday girl (really, the piñata was huge - it was the size of my host brother Armando).  I made a frame out of wire, which we covered with paper mache and then with colorful tissue paper.  That weekend, we hand-wrote all the invitations for the party and set out to deliver them.  I went out with Franci to deliver a few invitations one night, and we took a detour to climb the cerro at the edge of town and enjoy the view from the top.  We sat down to rest for a bit at the top of the hill, and Franci started telling me all kinds of stories from her past.  She shared how her parents used to hit them when they were younger, but that they have changed and stopped hitting.  And she shared about how hard it was to grow up in such a huge family, how sometimes she wished for more attention that she received.  She also told me about a boy from Xela she had dated several years ago, whom she thought she really loved. After dating for three months, both he and her parents had decided that it was time for them to get married, but she wasn't ready.  Her parents had reprimanded her and pressured her to marry him, but she thought that the whole thing was too fast, too precipitous - she felt like she was being pressured into it.  When she told the boy that she wasn't ready to get married, he broke it off, and he later went on to date another girl and get married.  Franci said that she was just confused and heartbroken, because she thought she really loved him, but she wasn't ready to get married so soon. She shared a lot of things with me up on that hill, as we looked out over all of Chocola. And when she finished talking, she told me that she was telling me all these things in confidence, because she trusted me, because I am her friend, and because she doesn't really have many other friends. I felt so privileged to hear her story.  On the walk back home, I told her that sometimes I have so much that I want to say, but I can't, because of the language barrier. Maybe it's better, I told her, that I just listen. Franci told me that she has ears too, and that if I ever want to talk about something, she can listen.  It was a very beautiful moment, and I smiled the whole way home, walking through the streets together with my sister Franci.
That Friday, the serious party preparations began.  I was scrambling to finish my piñata (which at that point looked like a mummy), while my host mom lugged bundles and bundles of banana leaves into the kitchen for the tamales we were about to make.  I went to the church with my host brothers Roky and Tony to help decorate for the special service the following night.  We glued up a sign in the front of the church, made of styrofoam and painted pink with glitter around the edges, that said ''Bienvenidos a Mis Quinceaños.''  A bunch of the men from the church were gathered there, having been assigned the task of climbing one of the coconut trees behind the church in order to cut down palm branches for the decorations. We all watched in suspense as my friend Emilio shuffled up the coconut tree, secured a makeshift harness out of rope, and hung precariously from the rope, with machete in hand, whacking down huge palm branches from the tree. The palm branches would fall with a crash, as we scurried to gather them up and drag them off toward the church. While Emilio was up in the tree, he decided to cut down some coconuts for us as well, and they came crashing down, some of them exploding and spraying out coconut water.  After Emilio made it down from the tree, we all sat for a while, enjoying the delicious coconuts. All the men, including my host brothers, had machetes with them, and were hacking away at the coconut shells to get to the flesh inside. We sipped the coconut water straight from the shells, and then feasted on the meat of the coconut too.  It was delicious - I could have eaten about twenty.  After fueling up on coconuts, we lugged the palm branches into the church to start decorating.  We made beautiful archways out of the branches, down the center aisle of the church, and we later hung crepe paper and pink balloons from the branches.  
A few hours of decorating later, we returned to the house to find about ten other women from the church gathered in the kitchen, amid piles of banana leaves. I helped them sort pepita (dried pumpkin seeds) for the tamale sauce, and then we started wiping clean the banana leaves, which were to be used to wrap up the tamales. We sat in a circle in the kitchen, surrounded by mounds and mounds of leaves, lost in a sea of green. In the next 24 hours, we made about 650 tamales - it was the most food I have ever seen be made in my life.  All the women from the church were there helping, working tirelessly all Friday afternoon, and then returning early in the morning on Saturday to start cooking once again. After helping clean banana leaves for a few hours, I scarfed down a quick dinner and returned to the church with my host sisters to continue decorating.  We had planned to be out of the house that night, because the pig was to be slaughtered at 10pm, sacrificed for the tamales.  I was so sad all that week, because against my better judgement, I had gotten attached to our fat, innocent little pig Chita. All week, I kept going up to her and giving her pats or holding up her ears lovingly.  My host family thought it was pretty funny that I was so sentimentally attached to the pig, although they told me that the year before, when they killed a pig, the whole family was in the street crying. I took my last photo shoot with Chita on Friday afternoon and gave her a pat goodbye. I didn't want to be at the house to hear the screeches when the pig was being slaughtered.  My host sisters, with the same idea, decided that we would go to the church to help the other kids from the youth group finish decorating. So we sat in the church, blocks away from the house, with music blasting, and helped blow up balloons and fold crepe paper to hang from the archways and ceiling. At one point, I went outside to go to the kitchen behind the church, and I could hear the screeches of the pig, which carried all the way to the church. It made me cry to hear the poor thing screeching so, and I decided it would be better if I went back into the church where the music would drown out the sound.   We returned to the house later that night, and I went straight to my room.  The man who had come to slaughter the pig was skinning her in the backyard and preparing the meat.  I brushed my teeth that night in the kitchen, instead of going to the pila in the backyard like I usually do.  I really had to use the bathroom, but I just held it in, so I wouldn't have to go out to the bathroom behind the house. I knew that if I saw the pig there, dead and being cut into pieces, I probably would never be able to erase the horrible image from my mind for the rest of my life.  So I went straight to my room to go to sleep, to the sound of hushed voices and knives being sharpened .  It was all very dreamlike, and the next morning, I woke up to find our beautiful pig converted into buckets and buckets of meat and chicharones. I cried.  
I only was able to sleep a few restless hours that night, since the kids from the youth group had planned to arrive at 3 in the morning to serenade my host sister Vivi.  It was supposed to be a surprise, but I'm pretty sure she knew about it, since we were all so obvious and not good at keeping the secret.  I fell asleep around 11:30, and set my alarm for 2:30, just in case I didn't wake up when the singing started.  At around 3am, the whole youth group arrived, singing the traditional Quinceaños songs to wake Vivi from her slumber.  We stood in the front of the house for a while, singing to Vivi, praying, and conducting a short worship service.  Then, amid all the sleepiness, we played a few games, directed by my friend Juanita.  My host mom had stayed up to make hot chocolate for the youth group, and we handed out pan (from a huge basket which we had hidden away in my room) and mugs of hot chocolate to everyone (Guatemalans can never have any sort of event without providing a meal, or at least pan and a warm cup of cafe). The youth group left around 4:30 or 5 in the morning, and I retired to bed for another hour of sleep, before having to wake up at 6 to start making tamales once again.
The mext morning was spent frantically decorating the house with balloons, filling the piñata with candy, cleaning the house, and of course, making the hundreds and hundreds of tamales.  The women from the church arrived bright and early to start making the sauce and to take the maiz to the mill to grind it up into masa (a dough of ground corn and water).  The sauce is made out of tomato, a special type of pepper, ground pepita, bread soaked in water, and spices, all mushed together and put through the mill as well. After preparing the masa and sauce, we started filling the banana leaves.  There were four enormous pots, the circumference of hula-hoops and a few feet deep, filled with masa, plus all the huge pots of sauce and buckets of pig meat.  (We had to borrow lots of cooking equipment from the church.) The women worked in pairs, one scooping a glob of masa, a ladle of sauce, and a hunk of meat into the banana leaf, and the other carefully folding the leaf into a pouch and placing the tamale in another huge pot to be cooked.  The women worked tirelessly all day - I only helped for a few hours here and there, in between decorating and cleaning and helping with other preparations - and it was a miracle that we finished all the tamales for the church service that night. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done - I love cooking with the people here, and it was like a huge community effort, with everyone working together and sharing in the special event. 
The young people started arriving at 2 in the afternoon for the piñata and cake celebration at the house.  We had bought a huge, three-tier cake, with pink frosting and flowers, for the party.  Teenagers were seated all around the yard, waiting for the activities to begin.  Myra and Pati (two leaders in the youth group) led a few games, and soon it was time to break the piñata. I was actually pretty happy to see my muñeca, as I liked to call her, be smashed into pieces and torn apart. I even got to give my own piñata a few good whacks before it met its tragic fate.  It took many good whacks before the piñata finally broke open.  One girl ended up tearing apart my muñeca at the waist, and everyone swarmed to gather up the candy and peanuts that fell to the ground.  After the piñatas and more singing, we passed out plates of cake and cups of fresco (a cool drink made of rice and cinnamon).   Soon the afternoon celebration was over, and everyone piled out, leaving behind a wreck of plates, torn crepe paper, piñata pieces, and chairs strewn about the yard.
But the celebration was only just beginning.  The service at the church was to take place at 7, and the tamales were to be handed out afterward.  My host sisters and I helped dress Vivi in her pink, frilly quinceaños dress (which she had borrowed from a neighbor who had recently celebrated her quinceaños) for the ceremony. My little sister Mindy, the neighbor's little girl Mishel, and another girl in the family, dressed in tiny pink dresses and frilly white socks, and hurriedly went across the road to have their hair fixed by Mishel's mom.   The service at the church was like a wedding ceremony - I'm telling you, Guatemalans take their quinceaños parties seriously.  It is a special birthday because it is supposed to represent a girl's coming-of-age, like a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. We arrived at the church, late as usual, and Vivi prepared to walk down the aisle arm-in-arm with her brother Roky.  Hermano Timoteo was directing the service over the microphone, and we had a CD of traditional quinceaños music for Vivi's procession into the church.  First came little Mishel, throwing flower petals from a tiny basket, and then adorable Mindy carrying a pink pillow with a quinceaños ring on it to the front altar. Last came Vivi and Roky, walking through the palm archways and pink crepe paper, to the front of the church.  I was up front, running back and forth from the keyboard to the front row of seats (I was accompanying the hymns for the service, but was also in charge of taking pictures of Vivi's procession and presentation).  The whole ceremony was fit for a wedding, and Vivi looked so beautiful in her pink girly dress.  After the service ended, it was time to hand out the tamales, and they were well worth the work and the wait.  I was quite satisfied to sit in the church, eating my delicious tamale (minus the pig meat) after such a long day. We only had about 50 to 100 tamales left over, after handing them out to everyone at the service and sending baskets home with family members and friends.  We were eating re-heated tamales for every meal for the next couple of days, and they were delicious.
We returned home late that night, and woke up the next morning with a messy house and lots of leftovers. And the birthday celebration continued, because the next day was MY birthday.  When I woke up, my host mom gave me a big hug and told me she loved me, and then everyone else in the family gave me a big hug too.  We ate re-heated tamales for breakfast, and then I headed off to Santo Tomas to teach my weekly Sunday school class.  I hadn't planned anything for the class, so I just read a story to the kids and we played games, and it was really fun.  I mentioned at the beginning of the class that we had had a huge birthday party at the house the day before, and that now it was my birthday.  So Dina (the woman who teaches Sunday school with me) and one of the kids snuck out at one point, and they returned with a small cake and a bottle of soda to share in celebration of my birthday.  It was so sweet, and I really hadn't expected anything - I was happy just to have celebrated the day before.  The kids made me close my eyes as they brought in the cake, and they sang ''Happy Birthday'' and we divided it up.  I asked Dina to take a picture of me with the kids (who smeared cake all over their faces), and it is adorable.
On my way back home, I swung through the market to buy myself a coconut, which I enjoyed as I walked back. When I returned to the house, my little host siblings had nailed a bunch of yellow balloons to the wall in my room.  Mindy kept asking me for balloons throughout the day, and I kept taking them down, one by one, to give to her.  She would play with them for a little while and then pop them with a bang. She kept asking for more balloons, until all the balloons in my room we gone.  I told her that I didn't have anymore, because she had stolen them all, and we laughed.
That afternoon, we went to church, and all the decorations were still up, since everyone knew it that was my birthday too. The pastor made a presentation, and made me stand up front sothat everyone could give me birthday greetings.  The kids came in first, each giving me a hug and then standing off to the side. Pati led the kids in singing a few songs, and when they finished, they shouted ''¡Feliz Cumpeaños, Alejandra!'' in unison.  It was precious. Next, everyone came up to the front, filing in a line down the aisle, to give hugs and wish me a happy birthday.  Some of the older ladies slipped money into my hand after giving me a hug, and it was really cute.  I also  received a few cheesy ''Guatemalan'' birthday gifts - tacky ornaments and ''recuerdos'' that everyone here seems to love, but are the ugliest things I have ever seen. One of the gifts, for instance, was a snow-globe with a marlin fish inside, mounted on a plastic base with another huge marlin fish diving out from the top.  I don't mean to sound ungrateful - I was very touched by the outpouring of love I received from everyone at the church - but typical Guatemalan gifts are pretty cheesy and ugly.  I cried, as I was received hugs from everyone, because I was just so touched by the kindness everyone has shown me, and I was thinking about how sad it is going to be when I have to leave this community.   I was so thankful for such a fun and exciting weekend with my host family and community. And I thought about how I am building up such wonderful memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.  
So ended the marathon birthday weekend, and we were finally able to sleep that night and get some rest.  Festivities for Semana Santa (Holy Week) have already begun, so I guess the party continues.  Jeff is coming to visit (he's arriving in a few days!) for Semana Santa, and I'm really excited! We are going to spend some time here in Chocola and then head to Antigua to see some of the Semana Santa celebrations and parades there...I'm sure there will be more to write about soon!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I didn´t get to mention in my last post, but toward the end of January, I was able to participate in a convencion de los jovenes (a convention of all the youth groups in the area, with games, activities, workshops, and of course, food!).  We started out at the Igelsia Belen in Ladrillera, where everyone gathered to receive name tags and prepare for the annual torch run.  After a brief opening worship at the church, we hoared outside to light the torches (sticks with tin cans strapped to the top, and fuel for the fire inside the cans).  Most of the girls were gathered in their gym shorts and tennis shoes, having changed out of their cortes (the traditional Mayan skirts) and caites (sandals).  But a few ran in their cortes and flimsy sandals nevertheless.  With two pickup trucks following close behind, packed with more jovenes who didn´t want to run with the torches, we set out from Ladrillera to Chocola by way of Santo Tomas. The first pickup truck had a bullhorn and speaker strapped to the top, and my friend Rigo made obnoxiously loud announcements and commentary over the loudspeaker, as the group ran on ahead with the torches. The road from Ladrillera to Santo Tomas is pretty much a steady uphill climb, with some serious hills and a few steep drops, and then its mostly downhill to Chocola from there. The black smog from buses and burning trash along the side of the road, plus the smell of the kerosene from the torches, which blew back in our faces, added an extra challenging dimension to the run. I started out trying to keep a steady pace, but apparently no one else had any concept of pacing; everyone would sprint as fast as they could on the downhill slopes, and then tire themselves out and end up walking the uphill stretches.  And we had to continually stop to wait for people who were lagging behind, to make sure we didn´t lose anyone. I got the chance to meet one of pastor Manuel´s daughters, Rutilia, who is just about as sweet and joyful as her father. She befriended me at the Iglesia Belen, and we ran most of the torch run together.  We all laughed a lot, in between the panting and sweating, and we finally arrived proudly at Horeb Presbyterian Church in Chocola, where the annual convention was held this year. After quickly running back to the house to take a refreshing ice cold shower, I returned to the church to spend the afternoon with the other jovenes, playing games, joking, laughing, and eating together. 

That night, each youth group was supposed to give a brief presentation for the group - a short drama or song or whatever the group had planned. I had been asked to participate in a drama with the youth group from the church...or rather, I was assigned a part in the drama one day when I wasn´t there. And the role they had decided I would play was the role of Jesus. We had had several rehearsals in the weeks before to prepare for the convention. I had arrived at the first rehearsal, quite unaware of what I was getting myself into and the role I was expected to play. And when I heard the script of the play, I didn´t want to be in it. The drama had a very evangelizing message: it was a story of two construction workers, one of whom is a Christian.  The Christian talks to his friend one day about Jesus, and then his friend, who is quite rapidly convinced, decides to give his life over to Jesus, and then suddenly the house that they are building at the construction site topples on top of them and they die.  They wake up in heaven, to be greeted by an angel who holds the Book of Life, with all the names of those people who will be allowed entrance into heaven.  Jesus stands off to the side, surrounded by a crowd of adoring angels. And the one friend, who has just decided to give his life over to Jesus, is worried that his name won´t be written in the Book of Life, and that he might have to be sent down to Hell instead. Yet sure enough, his name is written in the book, and the two friends rejoice and walk off with Jesus and his angels into heaven. The whole message of the play was counter to the way I think about God and faith and the concepts of heaven and hell; I felt that it was a caricature of faith, which is so much more complicated than that. And I just tend to cringe in general when people try to evangelize in such a way, saying that if you don´t believe what we believe, you are going to be damned to hell, but if you do believe you will be rewarded with a perfect heaven of joy and bright lights and singing angels. I think that this type of evangelizing alienates people and inspires fear. People´s hearts don´t change in that way, and things are not so simple, so black and white. And I didn´t want to be in the play, but I didn´t know how to back out of it without offending the other jovenes in the group or having to enter into a deep theological discussion with everyone (I don´t always know how to talk about the complexities of my faith in English, let alone in Spanish). I tried to graciously back out of the part, saying that I wanted to give someone else the opportunity to be part of the drama. But then, some of the leaders of the group just thought that I didn´t want to play the part of Jesus, so they switched my role to the angel who holds the Book of Life (slightly better than playing Jesus, but not least it was a silent part - all I had to do was nod). I felt a lot of turmoil in my heart for a few weeks, and had several discussions with my director Marcia about it.  I didn´t agree with the message of the play and I felt like I would be insincere if I didn´t say what I believed. But I also didn´t want the youth group to think that I didn´t want to be involved in an activity with them.  I didn´t want to jeopordize any of my newly-forming relationships with some of the jovenes.  So I decided to stay in the drama, partly because I don´t like confrontation, and partly because I felt that it would be more effective to have conversations about the complexities of faith with individuals throughout the year, rather than making a big scene in front of the entire youth group.  

While waiting for everyone to arrive for a drama rehearsal one night, I got to have a really good conversation with one of the young people; our conversation made me feel a little better about my decision to be in the play, because my participation in the drama at least gave me an opportunity to get to know some people whom I otherwise might not have gotten to know.  And I really enjoy spending time with the youth group and talking and laughing with everyone. The evangelical-ness of the church here is overwhelming at times, but I am continually looking for ways to encourage people to question what they are taught and explore some of the complexities of their faith. So, I was an angel in the drama after all, and my host siblings helped me make my angel wings out of metal wire and tissue paper.  The night of the convention, the drama went by like the flash of an eye.  I only vaguely remember standing in the bright lights with my angel wings and white garb, flipping through my book of names...

After the drama presentations at the convention, we had dinner together and sang around a bonfire.  I slept in the church that night, along with about 30 or so others, on the hard concrete floor, with just a blanket.  We stayed up until around 1 or 2 in the morning, and then woke up at 6 for a morning devotional and breakfast cooked by some of the women from the church. 
The next day was packed with more activities and games, but I was definitely exhausted from the lack of sleep. And about halfway through the day, after a very unfortunate incident with my camera, I was ready to go home. At one point during the day, I lent my camera to one of my friends in the youth group to take a picture - he only had it in his possession for about two minutes - and when he returned the camera to me, all of my pictures that were saved on the memory card had been erased! I had pictures on my camera from my first days in Guatemala up through January, and I stupidly hadn´t yet saved them to a computer or memory drive. All those pictures - pictures of my first host family in San Juan, my teacher at the Spanish school, Christmas with my host family, the choir that I directed, the women´s convention, pictures that I couldn´t just take over again- were gone! I cried when I realized that, although I had to try to put myself together so I could spend the rest of the day with the jovenes at the convention. I didn´t say anything to my friend who had accidently erased the pictures, because I didn´t want to make him feel bad about it.  So I just swallowed it, and later I cried to my family over the phone, and I cried to my host family too and told them what had happened. Fortunately, a few weeks later, when I met with the other volunteers for a retreat, I was able to take my camera to a photo shop.  Apparently you can sometimes recover deleted photos from a memory card.  So I took my camera to a shop and they were able to recover a good portion, if not all, of my photos. Needless to say, I was definitely ready for a retreat with the other volunteers after all the commotion of the convention...

Our end-of-January retreat was at the beach, in sunny Monterrico, Guatemala.  It was beautiful.  We stayed in a bungalow-style house, a block from the long, black-sand beach there.  We got to swim, see the amazing sunsets over the water, and collect shells from the beach. In Monterrico, there is also a tortugeria - a place where people are working to protect the sea turtles that live there.  During breeding season, baby sea turtles are released a few times a week, to plunge into the deep, scary sea. You can pay a few quetzals to release your own baby sea turtle.  The tiny black turtles, so small that they fit in your hand, race from a line drawn in the sand to the edge of the ocean, where they are tossed about and swept away by the ferocious waves. They seem to know instinctively that this is their destiny - the ocean. They flap their little fins in a slow crawl to the edge of the water, until they are swept up in the current to face ocean life head-on. It is amazing to watch.

While in Monterrico, we also got to take a boat ride with a guide through the protected mangrove forests there.  There are several different kinds of mangrove trees that grow there, with roots that spring up out of the water and branches that support a multitude of wildlife.  Mangrove forests are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the earth, supporting hundreds of species of birds, fish, and vegetation. They are extremely important in helping prevent flooding and providing other natural ecosystem services. Yet due to environmental degradation, mangrove forests are quickly disappearing from the earth.  In Monterrico, the mangrove forests are protected by preservation laws, but in many places, mangrove trees are quickly being bulldozed over, as the land is taken over by developers. We had the opportunity to go with a guide on a boat ride through the mangroves, and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. We left just before sunrise, and got to see the sun come up over the water and trees, as birds swarmed overhead in their majesty. We saw hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of birds, waterlilies, and even a fish that has FOUR eyes and skims over the water like a flash of lightening. There we were, just drifting over the water, as beautiful white cranes and egrets flocked overhead and perched in the mangrove trees. It was incredible.

After a weekend of relaxing on the beach, exploring Monterrico, and debriefing with the other volunteers, I returned to Chocola, refreshed and ready to face the challenges once again. Things have been really busy here lately, but I am really enjoying what I am doing, and it helps the time go by quickly. I have started teaching two days a week at the school in Xojola (pronuciation almost exactly like Chocola), and it has certainly been challenging. The days when I go to the school, I have to wake up at about 5:30 in the morning, so I can leave the house by about 6:30 for Santo Tomas.  My dear host mother has been waking up early to make me a hot breakfast that she packs in a tupperware, so that I can eat it at the school when the kids have recess. She sends me off early in the morning, and I mount a bus to Santo Tomas, where I have to walk a few blocks to catch a pickup truck the rest of the way to Xojola. The ride to the school is beautiful, through fields of corn stalks, coffee, and banana trees.  The craggy mountains sit in the backdrop, smoky dark blue against the light early-morning sky. It is pretty breathtaking, from the back of a pickup truck, with the cool morning air blowing in your face. The ride would be quite refreshing if it weren´t for the fact that you have to hold onto a metal bar for dear life, as the truck makes its way over dusty roads covered with rocks and holes.  Plus, the dirt whips up into your eyes (it has been so dusty here lately, because it hasn´t rained in so can´t take five steps out of the house without your feet being covering in a thick brown film).  But I still enjoy having time to think and take in the beauty of the mountains from the back of a pickup.  

The school is in an area that is even more rural than Chocola, where the people speak primarily Quiche.  Nearly all the women and girls are dressed in the traditional corte, which in that area is a deep navy blue, with a single horizontal stripe and vertical stripe of brightly colored embroidery. Sometimes the navy backdrop of the fabric is interwoven with faded gray or silver patterns, and it is beautiful. The language barrier makes teaching difficult, since some of the students don´t speak very much Spanish at all - their first language is Quiche.  And I am supposed to be teaching English, which is a third language for these kids.  I have started out teaching two sections each of fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, and it is exhausting.  I spend an hour with each section, teaching songs and games and English vocabulary.  I am currently trying to work out a new schedule with the director, in which I can concentrate maybe on just one grade level, so that I can get to know my students better.  Each section has about 25 to 30 kids, and so I have been working with hundreds of students.  I am hoping to be able to concentrate just on sixth grade (these students need to learn English more that the younger students, because they will have to study the language if they go on to junior high school). I am also hoping to get a group of students together to teach music, using some of the instruments that were donated by my church.  I am learning a lot at the school, and the kids all seem to be very excited that I am there.  I am still figuring out how to teach and interact with the students in a meaningful way; it has definitely been exhausting and challenging, but I´m hoping it will get easier as I gain more experience there. 

I am now also leading three different women´s bible studies, and it has been one of the most rewarding things that I have been doing.  I mostly ask a lot of questions, and sometimes there is awkward silence for a long time, because no one knows what to say, or they are afraid to say it.  But it is all worth it, when you can see someone´s face light up, as she gathers the courage to share an idea or thought, or talk about an experience of God working in her life. I am learning so much from these women, and it has been such a blessing.  Sometimes someone will say something that I´ve never even thought of before, and it´s awesome. I was giving a bible study with a group in Santo Tomas one week, and we were reading a story about Martha and Mary.  In the story, Jesus comes to visit at the house of Martha and Mary, and Martha is busy in the kitchen cooking and cleaning, preparing food for their guest, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him speak. Martha starts to get angry that she is doing all the work, while her sister Mary is just sitting there, and so she tells Jesus this.  But Jesus replies, ¨Martha, you are worried and occupied by many things, but there is only one thing that is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.¨  I was trying to ask the women in the group how they thought Jesus was freeing Martha from her worry, and what he was freeing her to do. One of the women responded that Jesus had freed Martha to be able to listen to the word of God and to speak about all the miracles that He has done. And I thought that that was just amazing.  Later during our bible study, one of the women thanked me for giving them a break from the worries of housework and caring for their children, for giving them an opportunity each week to study, think, and speak about the miracles that God has done.  She was so grateful, and I was so grateful for the women in the group that I nearly cried. These women work so hard, and their work is never finished - they are always cooking, cleaning, making more tortillas, caring for their children, and attending to their husbands.  They work continuously and selflessly for their families. And some of them have never had the opportunity to go to school or learn to read.  Many of them have never had the opportunity to do anything for themselves, and they´ve had to sacrifice their lives and dreams for their families. So I am very happy to be able to sit with these women each week and hear their stories, and to give them a break from housework. There is one older woman in the group, Lorenza, who can´t read, and doesn´t speak very much Spanish (she speaks mostly Quiche), but she is there mostly every week.  Sometimes she falls asleep while we are talking, but I don´t mind or take offense, because at least my bible study gives her a chance to rest for a few hours.

This past week, we studied a story about a woman with a blood disease, who came up behind Jesus in a crowd to touch his robes and be healed. I asked the women what types of diseases and sicknesses (not just physical, but also things like sadness, desperation, worry...) that they face in their own lives. One woman responded that she is continually worrying about how she is going to put her young children through school, how she and her husband are going to find the resources to support her children´s education.   Another woman named Berta began talking, saying that she´s had so many diseases and problems in her life that it would take days to recount.  And she started sharing about how she was so in love with her husband when she was younger, but that he was unfaithful and cheated on her repeatedly.  She suffered heartache for many years. Her husband didn´t like her going to church, so she gave up her faith for him, because she was so in love. When her husband would return to the house late, she used to ask him where he had come from, and he would get angry with her and not respond.  So eventually she just stopped asking, and she suffered quietly, knowing that her husband was cheating on her but that there was no way out. Yet one day, after coming home to find her husband in the house with another woman, she had the courage to leave, taking her children with her.  Berta shared how God transformed her mess of a life, and gave her hope and worth and a sense of value.   She found support in women from the church, and they helped her gain her dignity and confidence back.  She left behind her troubles and pain, and traded them in for the hope that God had given her.   And now she is a leader in the church, president of the feminil (the women´s society) and a representative in the synod (a larger governing body of the church). Berta talked for about a half an hour straight, sharing her story, and it was amazing.  I saw her face change from anguished, teary eyes and trembling lips, as she talked about the pain her husband caused her, to a glowing smile and bright eyes, as she spoke about the newfound hope she now has in her life.  I was so thankful that she had the courage to share her story like that.  She just kept talking and talking, bursting over with stories about the amazing ways in which God has transformed her life.  It was a moment when I was sure that I was exactly where I was meant to be.  I´m not sure exactly why, but I think that a huge reason I am here is to hear stories like this, told from the voices of Guatemalans. I believe that it is important for these stories to be told out loud, and it is important for me to hear them and learn from them. I have made some wonderful friendships with many women, and I am looking forward to spending more time with them each week.

I still haven´t caught up on the last few weeks, but I will save that for my next blog, which I hope to post soon.  This weekend we celebrated my host sister´s quinceaños (15th birthday) with a party that was fit for a wedding, and my birthday followed the next day.  The marathon birthday weekend deserves a post in and of itself...  Hope to update again next week!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Continuing from my last post...

With the new year has come a lot of new opportunities to get to know people. I returned back to Chocola after my family´s visit, and time seemed to pick up a little bit. A week after, I had the opportunity to preach at the convention of the Prebiterial (the women´s governing body of the churches in our Presbytery). The convention was a two-day event, with women from all the different churches in the area attending. I have found so much joy in working with women here - I have found that they are so strong and tough, hardworking and compassionate, so in touch with the simple joys of life, and quick to laugh. I was given the opportunity to preach the first morning of the convention, for the opening worship, and I was pretty terrified beforehand. The theme of the convention was ¨The Integral Growth of the Christian Woman¨(I´m not really sure what they were going for with that...), so I talked about the passage in the Bible where Jesus says that He is the vine and we are the branches. I used the metaphor to talk about how we need to be connected to the right source in order to grow, and how often times, we need to be pruned and cut in order to bear fruit, and sometimes it hurts. I was able to talk a little bit about my experience so far in Guatemala - how it was a very difficult decision for me to make to leave my home and my family, to come to a place where everything is new and unfamiliar. I talked about the difficulties of adjusting and learning Spanish, and how sometimes I feel sad and lost and unsure of myself. But I also told the women that I knew that if I didn´t come to Guatemala, I wouldn´t grow in the ways that God was inviting me to grow. Even though it has been hard at times (or perhaps because of the hardships), I have already learned so much from the faith and love that I have seen among the people of Guatemala. Sometimes God needs to prune and cut some branches so that we can grow. So, I was able to share a little of my story with the women there. And I encouraged the women to accept challenges, and do things that maybe they are afraid to do, because it is when we step out of our comfort zones that we grow.

I´m not sure how my Spanish came out, or how well people understood what I was saying, but I think enough of it came through so that I could share something meaningful. I got a lot of shouts of ¨Amen!¨ (which is usually a good way to tell how well a sermon is going), so I think it went okay. And after that, I was able to relax a little bit, and just spend time with the women at the conference. The day mostly consisted of a session meeting - discussing budgets, planning upcoming events, etc. - interspersed with meal time and chatting with the other women there. We had a worship service that night, and so many people came, that there weren´t enough seats and people were packed in the doorway. My old friend Manuel, who is the pastor at the church there, preached that night. He is about 90-something years old, and his health is deteriorating, but he is the most joyful and spirited man you will ever meet. He is always singing and praising God. That night, Manuel presented all the women from the previous Presbiterial board (the President, Vice, Secretary, etc.), as well as the incoming board members that had been voted to serve for the next year. As he called the names, the women came up to stand in the front of the church. He called me to stand with the group, too, since I will be working with these women and attending their meetings during the year. Except Manuel called me Berta by mistake, and I just laughed (he has trouble getting names right, and usually calls me AlejanDRINA instead of Alejandra, but it is really very cute and endearing).

I ended up staying over night in the Belen church, which is where the convention took place; I shared a room in the pastoral house behind the church with 5 other women, Noehmi, Cecilia, Paula, and Maria, from the church in Chocola, and another woman, Flor de Maria, who is a representive from the national church. I had met Flor on several other occasions, and she is wonderful. Sharing a room with all those women was so much fun! We didn´t get much sleep, because we were up late laughing, and had to wake up at 6 for the morning devotional the next day (which, we incidentally missed, because we were chatting and taking too long to get ready). Plus, the bed I slept on was as hard as a rock (I´m pretty sure it was just made out of concrete)...but it didn´t matter, because I got to share a fun experience with a wonderful group of women, and we LAUGHED a lot.

Actually, the women´s convention was not the only opportunity I´ve had to preach in the past month. On two other occasions, I was asked to preach a sermon, on the spot! (Guatemalan churches are famous for this, so I´m learning that it´s always good to have something prepared, just in case...) The first occasion was earlier that week, at a meeting in the church in Chocola. Manuel Pastor was as that meeting too, and while we were waiting for the meeting to start, he started leading everyone in songs, and then asked if anyone could give a brief Bible reflection. He looked at my host dad, who was sitting behind me, but my host dad regretfully informed us that he hadn´t brought his Bible to the meeting. So I made the mistake of reaching into my purse and pulling out my Bible to hand to my host dad. But, of course, he had also forgotten to bring his glasses, and therefore couldn´t see to read. So, Manuel Pastor decided it would be best if I gave the Bible reflection instead, since I was already prepared with my Bible. So I quickly searched for one of my favorite passages, and gave about a two-minute reflection. Next time, I´ll know not to whip out my Bible so fast. :)

The other occasion was a visit to the Canaan church in Xoajij, where I had been invited to talk with the church about giving an English class to some of the members. My host dad had warned me that I should prepare a brief sermon, just in case, but I was convinced that they would never ask me to preach on my first visit to their church, and if they did, they would at least notify me in advance, so I could prepare something. But my host dad was right, and luckily, I had at least picked out a passage and thought for five minutes about what I could say. In the past weeks, I think I´ve done enough preaching on the spot (in another language which is not my own!) to satisfy me for the rest of my life.

But anyways, I´ve had lots of new opportunities recently to get to know more and more people. I´ve been continuing to teach keyboard lessons, and my 10 or so students are slowly learning to read music. I´ve started teaching two Sunday school classes of young children, one in the church in Chocola and another in Santo Tomas (the next town over). I´ve really enjoyed teaching and playing and drawing with the kids. I´ve been teaching the kids some new songs, and we´ve been playing the little percussion instruments that my parents brought. The kids love it!

In addition, I´ve started getting involved with some women´s groups at the different churches. I´ve been attending a special weekly women´s service in the Iglesia Galilea (Galilee Church) in Ladrillera, and I just started leading a women´s bible study group in Santo Tomas as well. I´m hoping to use these spaces to encourage the women to think and express their opinions and feelings freely, without fear. In many of the Presbyterian (read: Evangelical) churches in the area, most of the sermons and bible readings (which aren´t the responsibility of the pastor, but rather are rotated responsibilities that church members share the burden of) are given by men. Often the interpretations and messages are through the eyes of a man. Women do share responsibilities in the church, such as leading the singing or directing the service from the pulpit, and there are even a few women who sometimes preach. But there are also many older women who don´t know how to read or write; these women are denied privileges such as delivering a sermon or reading a lectura, because they weren´t given the same educational opportunities. In many traditional homes, the women are responsible for cooking, making tortillas, cleaning, and caring for the children, while the men work in the fields or other manual labor jobs. While this trend is changing in Guatemala, it is still pervasive in some of the more rural areas. Many women end up getting married at a very young age, and consequently are not able to complete even a middle school education. There are some women in the church in Chocola who seem interested and excited about learning how to read and write, and I am trying to get together a group to teach. I think that would be very beautiful. Meanwhile, I am hoping, through my involvement with these women´s groups, to empower and encourage women to express their opinions more, to ask questions and to challenge what they are taught. In general, in the Guatemalan Evangelical church, people are not taught to question what they learn; rather, they simply accept what they are told about faith and God. I´m looking for spaces, within the youth group and women´s groups and church in general, to be able to have conversations with people, who maybe have questions, or aren´t sure why things are a certain way, or don´t agree with something that is being said in a church service. And maybe I can even stir some of these important questions in people´s hearts. With my bible study group, I am planning to read stories about women in the Bible who were important in God´s work in the world. And I am planning to ask a lot of questions, and to wait, however awkwardly, until someone bravely responds, and to LISTEN.

Yesterday, I also started teaching an English class at the Canaan church in Xoajij. The Canaan church, along with several other churches in the area, has a partnership with a church in Baltimore, Maryland, and sometimes receives visitors from the Baltimore church. Many of the church members are very interested in learning English, so that they can communicate better with their English-speaking partners. I had a really fun time with the class, although it was very difficult. Some of the people there did not speak much Spanish even (they speak in the native Mayan langauge Quiche), so I had to get some help translating. Elijio and his wife Isabel, who both teach at the school where I will be working, were both there, and helped a lot with translations. We ended up singing songs together at the end. I was trying to teach them the song ¨I´ve got joy¨ in English. I´ve learned the song in both Spanish and Quiche, and so we attempted to sing together in all three languages. It was very beautiful to be able to sing a song together in three different languages - what a wonderful cultural exchange! I´m hoping to learn more Quiche as I teach the group some English...

I am scheduled to start teaching at the school next week, but who knows, since the date keeps getting pushed back. I did get to visit the school again with Elijio (this time, not in the pouring rain) and I met some of the other teachers with whom I will be working. They were all so welcoming and friendly, and I can´t wait to start soon!

In other news, I now have a new family member living in the house. My 18-year-old host brother Pablo had gotten engaged with his girlfriend Denise about two months ago, and they were planning to have the wedding six months from now. But they decided that they didn´t want to wait that long, and so Denise came over one night and never left. We had to rearrange the whole house again, to make a room for the two of them. I didn´t realize it at the time, but Denise is only 15 years old. I can´t even imagine getting married at that age, and the whole thing seemed pretty rash and immature to me. I didn´t really understand how you could just move in, and that´s it - you´re married. Apparently it is not so uncommon for that to happen in a lot of rural areas of Guatemala. Denise hasn´t completed primary school, and she doesn´t want to, although she only has to complete one more year to get her 6th grade certificate, and my host parents even offered to help pay for her books and supplies. I feel sad that she is forfeiting the opportunity to go to school, but I don´t think there is anything I could have said to change her mind. I was also surprised at my host parents´ reaction to the whole situation. There was a big commotion the night that Denise decided to move in, and my host parents had to go talk to Denise´s parents to let them know that she wasn´t coming back to live with them. She went back her house a few days later to collect her things. Despite my host parents´ very conservative views, they have welcomed Denise into the house as their daughter, and she is now one of the family. It doesn´t really feel much different in the house with an extra person (there were already 12 of us!), except that I now have another host sister. I am not sure if Pablo and Denise are still going to have a low-key wedding ceremony or not, but the whole family and community already considers them married, although illegitimately. I´m not sure what to do with the whole thing - Denise is so young, and I feel sad that she is giving up her education, but at the same time, it is what she is choosing to do. I just wonder about all the factors that influence people to make such choices, and I am trying to understand. In the meantime, the only thing I can do is be a friend to her and listen.

I have been so thankful for the love of my host family in the past few weeks, and I´m starting to feel like I am really part of the family. I joke and laugh with my host siblings, and we sometimes annoy each other and get on each other´s nerves, but that´s how things are with family. Everything´s not always perfect. It´s nice that I can just be real, and be myself around them. One night, my host siblings and I were all crowded into my sisters´ room, and we were throwing pillows at each other, and it was so much fun. I laughed so hard that I gave myself a sore throat and I could barely talk afterward. Another day, we went together to Chichoy (spelling?), a nearby river, to take a swim; we walked back through town soaking wet. The younger kids, as well as my host sister Sonya (who is in vocational school studying to become a teacher), have all started school again. So it is a little quieter in the house during the day. We are all busier doing things, but it is nice to come back to the house and feel at home.
Meanwhile, one of the turkeys at our house has taken a liking to making her nesting place in my bed. I came into my room one day to find an egg lying next to my pillow. So I carefully carried it out to show my host mom, with a big smile on my face. The next day I found another egg. And the next day, I caught the turkey in the act, nestled on my blanket next to my pillow. Since then, the turkey has laid about 5 more eggs in my bed - apparently she won´t lay them anywhere else. Sometimes I´ll be sitting in my room, on my bed, and the turkey will come and peek into the doorway to see if I´m there, and I´ll shoo the turkey away, and she´ll come back two seconds later and try to dodge past me and flutter onto my bed. It is really quite absurd. I have given up trying to shoo the turkey away, because she simply refuses to lay her eggs anywhere else. So sometimes I find a surprise next to my pillow when I go into my room.

Anyways, this post is already getting really long, even though I feel like I´ve missed so much that has happened in the past weeks. It´s hard to sum up everything that has been going on in life and in my heart in just a few paragraphs. Hopefully I can update again soon!