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.