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!