Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our Guatemalan Family

Its amazing that in a little more than 24 hours, we feel like we have extended our family so much. First, my cousin Naomi, who I am so proud to be related to. She is continually doing whatever she can for the children of the world. I adore her and look forward to spending more time with her to catch up on time that I never even knew that she existed. She has been busy this weekend dealing with paperwork which has left us time to get to know our other new Guatemalan family.

Gustavo, Ody, Amanda and Gustavito have truly become our new family. They have been so welcoming and we already feel a strong bond with them. Although they speak very little English and our Spanish is so limited, we have found ways to communicate. I dont feel like my Spanish is better but it must be improving because there are moments when it doesnt feel like there is a language barrier at all. Ody and Gustavo are the parents, Amanda is Gustavo's mother and Gustavito is their much loved son. Tragically, Gustavito has cancer but he is an amazingly sweet kid (18 years old). Of course, Gustavito and I have bonded over nintendo and computers. Rob and he have already friended each other on Facebook. This evening he showed us his lego men collection (no bricks, just the men). There are at least 200 of them. Actually Gustavo (the dad) and Rob spent the most time going playing with them all.

Gustavo is a volunteer firefighter (bombero). We have already learned a lot about the volunteer firefighters here. Everything they do is funded themselves. They are more medics than firefighters and actually have to supply everything themselves down to the gauze and bandaids. On the way to the school, we stopped at the volunteer fire station in the town that the school was built in and they showed us their ambulance which contains only a stretcher. Thankfully, Gustavo and Naomi are able to scrounge up some medical supplies to help fill their medic bags.

Ody and Amanda have kept us extremely well fed and we are grateful to be eating real home cooked food. As fun as it is to eat at restaurants at home, we are realizing that the "Guatemalan" restaurant food doesnt compare at all to the real thing. We have eaten foods that we have never seen in the whole time we have been here. For example, tonight we had some things resembling tamales but different and delicious. Plantains, beans and homemade cheese with every meal. Delicious hot sauce. Homemade tamarindo juice.

Yesterday, I happened to ask about the Semana Santa celebrations here and Gustavito, proudly told us that he would be marching in today's procession. Of course, we couldnt miss it. It felt way more huge than the one we saw last week in Antigua..probably because Guatemala City is so much more densely populated. I felt so proud that my new "cousin" helped carry the huge float. He told us that 154 men carried the float at a time, switching out a few times. That means that the parade had hundreds and hundreds of participants.

I cant say enough, how happy we are to be here. This is so different from traveling on the "Gringo" trail. Lots of travelers talk about how Antigua is not the "real" Guatemala but I wonder how many of them have really experienced what we are experiencing.


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Palencia School Celebration

This morning, we joined my cousin Naomi to celebrate the opening of the new school in Palencia that she helped create. It was a huge deal and we were very happy to be able to join her as family to celebrate. There were many, many speeches of which we understood very little except that everyone is very optimistic that this will help to improve the lives of the children of this town and that Doctor Naomi is very very respected in Guatemala...for good reason. It was a very special morning and we felt like honored guests. The children were beautiful and we really enjoyed watching the kids standing for 3 hours of speeches. They were adorable and fidgeting and playing the entire time. One this is for sure and that is that children are the same everywhere.



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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Guatemala City

Here we are in Guatemala City...the one place that we were just sure we would avoid like the plague. Thankfully, the family that we are staying with are as sweet as can be and are doing everything to make us feel very comfortable. Our room gives us privacy and we have a tv.

Guatemala City is amazingly huge and it is as charming as the guidebooks promised...which is not charming at all. It is divided into a bunch of zones...all numbered. The book says 15 zones but someone mentioned Zone 22 so I'm not sure. We are staying in zone 6 which isnt mentioned at all in the guidebook. We walked around this afternoon for a while. The streets are just packed with cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses and tuktuks. They are all honking and the traffic is terrible. There are huge plumes of exhaust coming out of many of them. The sidewalks are full of people going about their day. The city has all the usual fast food...McDonalds, Wendy's, Pollo Camparo, Taco Bell and Burger King (where we ate lunch today). They are huge...all with a playground, the McDonalds has a McCafe and most of them deliver.

We spent most of the day just resting, while my cousin took care of some important paperwork that we did not want to distract her from. We watched endless footage about the earthquake in Chile. I knew that Central America is a big earthquake zone, I mean, there are a ton of volcanos but it has been getting very "real". I'm not someone to worry about natural disasters. I've always secretly wanted to be involved in something crazy like that. I know, I'm terrified of heights but secretly hoping to be in a hurricane or earthquake..sorry mom. I have been thinking a lot about the reality of the amount of earthquakes that have been happening in the past few months and its pretty strange. Then we climbed Pacaya which is so active. I'm thankful that Chile's buildings were better built and that it wasnt another Haiti and I pray that the buildings here are well built because I know that eventually a big one will hit here and its just different when something happens to real people that you have met instead of just people on TV. I would like to get a better understanding of if there really is an unusual amount of seismic activity lately or if this is normal and the world didnt start paying attention until the huge tragedy of Haiti happened.

Thankfully, we have the ability to change the channel and stop obsessing about this. Tomorrow will be a day of hope for the future. We will wake up early to go to the opening of the school. We will meet children whose futures have been changed by the actions of some selfless people. I'm really looking forward to it and plan on taking a lot of pictures.

Friday, February 26, 2010

My New Cousin Naomi

So it turns out that I have a cousin in Guatemala and she is fascinating. My cousin Naomi has been working over the last 40 years to save children all over the world. I never knew that she existed but my parents, who hadn't seen her in years, got a hold of her and we all went out to lunch today. Currently, she has a bus which she takes trips with doctor volunteers to remote villages to help sick children. Over lunch, she told us stories, not only about the amazing things that she is doing here in Guatemala but stories that go back as far as the late 60's. She rescued children from Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam war. She has saved over 100,000 children. I am so proud to be related to this amazing woman and we left, completely inspired. She is not working within a huge organization, this is something that she organizes by herself out of sheer determination.

Rob and I walked away from the restaurant inspired. We actually each have skills that would help her. I was feeling emotional and had this feeling that I would not be able to stop thinking about her. We first discussed maybe coming back to Guatemala to volunteer in a few months. Within minutes, we knew that we met her at this time for a reason. We have been planning to move on to El Salvador for a few weeks until we meet our friends in Honduras. In a split second we both agreed that we should stick around in Guatemala for a little while longer to help Naomi. One of the benefits of this kind of trip the being able to change plans at a moments notice and this feels like the right thing.

Tomorrow we will head to Guatemala City to figure out what we can do to help her cause. Rob's mechanical and electrical skills will be very helpful with the bus. Naomi mentioned that she doesn't have a website so I am going to devote my time to getting something online for her. I'm hoping that I can also lend a hand with my organizational skills and anything else that I can do to help. Sunday we will join her for the opening of a school that she built for a group of children whose closest school was too far and dangerous for them to attend.

We will be staying with a family that she is close with. This will be our first homestay and I am a little nervous about it. Until now, we have constantly been surrounded by English speaking travelers. In the touristy spots, even the restaurants employ travelers. This will be a real Spanish immersion and I am hopeful that our Spanish will greatly improve.

At this point, I have no idea what to expect and I really hope that we are able to help out and make at least a little difference. At the very least, it will be a chance to work on our Spanish and to get to know a very interesting cousin.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pacaya Lava Flow Video

I hope this works. Its the first video that I've posted. Every time we watch it we laugh. Keep in mind it was about 1000 degrees up there next to the lava and we thought our skin was going to melt off.


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Reflections on our visit in Antigua

This is Anna (Debbie's Mom) sharing reflections on this visit with "travelers" Debbie and Rob (or Roberto as we occasionally call him this week).
First of all, the difference between "travelers" and "tourists". Irwin and I are tourists. When we visit a city we often pride ourselves at being able to "put that place under our feet in 2 - 3 days".  We can search out the highlights, find the good restaurants etc....fairly quickly and then are ready to move on.  I love to talk to the "locals' when I have a chance and am not shy about asking questions about life, politics etc....probably often to the embarrassment of my children.  Debbie and Rob are travelers.  They have a loose itinerary...go with the flow, stay in places I never would, and explore a lot of the nature opportunities and off the beaten path sights.

When you have children, you know that they will take your life in unexpected directions.....but I never expected to find myself climbing a volcano.  Below you will read Debbie's excellent description of the actual experience.  Let me share just some of my feelings.  We began talking about this shortly after our arrival here in Antigua....did a lot of research on various postings on line and read all the travel guides available to us.  Also spoke to the various tour guides and drivers that we met and also to some other travelers/tourists that we met along the way.  I was terrified about the whole thing and was prepared to wait at the bottom of the hill.  The other alternative was to take a horse up.  Not sure what was going to be better....walk, stay back...or take a horse (I am not very comfortable around horses).  As you can read below the horse won..
The challenging part was on the hardened lava climb. That had to be on foot.  The photos that Debbie posted tell it all.  We did it and the experience was exhilarating....a great feeling of accomplishment and thrill at succeeding at something a bit dangerous.
Guatemala....I don't think Irwin and I would ever have thought of coming here, except for the chance to spend time with Debbie and Rob. This trip has certainly opened our minds to visiting more of Central America.  The scenery is beautiful, people friendly and the pace is relaxing.....we have found good food and comfortable accommodations. What else do we need?
This is clearly a country in development, lacking a lot of the resources we are accustomed to.There is poverty and the needs for aid are great but the country seems to be moving in the right direction.Amazingly enough, almost everyone...locals, rich and poor...have cell phones.  Such communication will certainly change their world.There are a lot of untapped resources here and potential for a vibrant tourist trade.  We feel welcomed. Antigua may not be the "real" Guatemala, but it works for me.

Volcan Pacaya

Yesterday was our big trek to see the lava flows on Volcano Pacaya. This is THE thing to do in Antigua. Rob and I had planned on doing it and I was a little surprised when mom said that her and dad would be joining us. Honestly, I was a little relieved because I had been a bit nervous about it but knowing that they were coming put me at ease that we would definately be slow and that I might even be the most fit person in the group. Mom will be posting later with her own point of view, which I'm sure is very different than mine.

We were picked up in the morning by Blake, a great guide and nice Texas boy. We drove to the volcano which took about an hour. At the bottom of the hill, I decided that I wanted to hike the whole thing. We were followed by guys with horses yelling "Taxi" and after about a minute, mom said "I think I'll take the horse", dad immediately followed and the Rob shortly after. The hike was pretty steep and we were at a high altitude so I was immediately out of breath but confident that I could do it. Not too far up, I stopped for a break and realized that although I could make it all the way up, with everyone else on horseback, it would take me much longer than them so finally, I gave up and hopped on a horse. Boy was I glad that I did. We easily rode up to the lava fields which was as far as the horses would take us.

I found the rest of the way really enjoyable but mom and dad really struggled. It wasnt that it was so steep, it was difficult to get footing on the lava rock which is so light that it kind of crumbles beneath your feet. We went nice and slow with our wonderful local guide, Carlito, literally pulling mom up the volcano. Every few minutes, the volcano would...as Blake so eloquently described it...Sneeze! A few times we would hear the sound and look up and see rocks flying through the air. He said that they would find rocks from Pacaya as far as Mexico.

Blake had explained to us that the volcano was more active than it had been in a long time and that we would see some great lava flows. All of a sudden, it got super hot...almost too hot to take. I immediately grabbed the marshmallow stick and the marshmallows and started roasting. It was so hot that I knew that I didnt want to hang out for long. I barely glanced at the river of lava flowing about 30 feet from us. Once the marshmallows were properly roasted, we gobbled them up and all turned around, practically pushing each other to get out of the intense heat.

We made our way down the lava fields happy that none of our shoes melted and hoping that neither mom or dad would lose their footing. We really accomplished something yesterday. Everyone who knows my parents should be really impressed at this trek. This was not some little hike...we climbed what is officially (as of January) the 2nd most active volcano in the world. It was not easy and many people are injured on this trek. We owe Blake and Carlito a lot for making sure that we all survived in tact. I'm so impressed with my parents, though.





While researching the Pacaya climb online, I discovered that there is a spa on the way back to Antigua that someone had recommended.  What a brilliant recommendation.  After a really tough day, we pulled into Santa Teresita Banos Termales.  We were presented a menu of options and chose the "Thermal Circuit" and a 25 minute massage for each of us.  The thermal circuit had us spending a specific amount of time in 4 different pools of 4 different temperatures.  The first was hot hot hot.  The next was really really cold.  The third was pleasantly warm and then the 4th was perfectly cool.  Then...I think just to watch us suffer...she had us get back into the hot hot pool and then back into the freezing cold pool.  It was pretty funny and we followed her directions hoping that there was some sort of scientific benefit to the torture.  Eventually, we were brought inside, asked to choose our scented oil and taken for a wonderful and skillful massage.  The place was gorgeous and a perfect end to a very challenging day.


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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Monterrico

Yesterday, we went to the beach. It was absolutely stunning. We were told that this beach is packed on the weekends but yesterday we had it all almost completely to ourselves. It was perfect beach weather. The sand is black, the sky was blue. The surf was very strong but we enjoyed walking on the beach and getting wet. We hadnt realized how spoiled we had been with the climate in Antigua. Here, we are at a high elevation and even for the few hours a day that it is "hot" its really not very hot and when its not hot, its the perfect cool and dry. At the beach it was very hot and humid. I got eaten by mosquitos for the first time in weeks which I am really not enjoying today. I had forgotten how hot and humid it can get....not to rub it in for all you folks that are still experiencing winter. Its a reminder that you are experiencing what you dream about in August when you are sweating and scratching mosquito bites. But I'm not complaining...the pictures say it all.



Tomorrow, we will climb Volcan Pacaya. Its an active volcano and at the top we will see real lava flows. We are all pretty nervous since we have heard many reports about how the climb is 2 miles straight up and once you finish that you get to the real hard part...the lava fields. The lava hardens into rough, rocky patches that are difficult to walk on and will cut your legs. If you stand on the wrong spot, you can melt your shoes. Tons of people make the trek everyday so we know it cant be that bad. We have also heard that you can take horses up through the 2 mile hike part so that you are fresh when you get to the lava fields and have decided that we have nothing to prove to anyone and will probably opt for the horses right from the start. Everyone think about us and pray that we dont melt our shoes and that we all make it all the way up to see the lava.
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Another little tremor?

I just finished my last post and was still sitting here surfing the internet and felt another little tremor or quake.  It was much smaller and shorter than the last but I have to say...a little freakier during the day when I'm aware enough to know whats going on.  The house shook again and all of the windchimes were singing.  I think I'm here by myself since Rob is dropping my mom off for a walking tour of Antigua...they probably didnt even feel it since they were in the car.  Not sure if dad went with them or not.

Wow, mom and dad have really been getting the full Guatemalan experience.

Earthquake!

Well, we all experienced our first Central American earthquake last night.  We awoke to about 15 seconds of rumbling...the bed shook and the doors rattled.   Then it stopped.  That was it.  It did seem to wake the roosters, who got pretty worked up...I could hear them crowing and crowing until I fell back asleep a few minutes later.

Reuters said that it was a 5.6 centered in another part of the country.  I'm pretty sure that this is pretty regular business around here and for Rob and I it will be the first of many.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Antigua Lent Part 4

Almost as amazing as the rugs and the procession was the cleanup. Following immediately behind the procession was the cleanup crew. Within minutes, all of the hard word of the rugs was gone. Before the parade, Rob spoke to some of the guys making the rugs and they said that they spent 6 days preparing and then anywhere from 6 - 10 hours building the rugs. The parade lasted about 20 minutes and the road was back open to traffic as soon as the cleanup crew was done.


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Antigua Lent Part 3

Next came the big floats. They looked very, very heavy. It was amazing. You could tell that most of the people had been moved to tears and even I could feel the emotion.



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Antigua Lent Part 2

Here is a family taking a family picture moments before the procession started.

There was a huge parade. We are not Catholic so not as familiar with the Easter story as we should be. The parade was very somber. A band was playing sad and slow music. There were Romans and others and it was obviously commemorating the crucifixion.  They were very careful not to walk on the rugs.



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Antigua Lent

Today was really amazing. We decided to split up today to take a day off from each other. Mom and dad wanted to see the market and the church at their own pace. Rob and I went for some crepes for breakfast. It was really hot outside and we were very tired and wanted to spend the day napping. We hopped in the car to head back to the house and saw that the streets were closed and something was definately happening. We parked the car and headed off on foot and saw these wonderful rugs. We really had no idea what was going on but sat and watched the families creating these wonderful creations. They are made of completely natural materials...wood shavings, sand and flowers all colored with natural materials.



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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Antigua Pics

This is the view from mom's balcony at the house. Yes, that is a volcano...I have no idea which one but its not Pacaya...which is the active volcano that the 4 of us will climb this week....even mom. I bet you guys cant wait for those pictures.

We stopped at the market to buy a bunch of fruits. Again, this picture makes it seem a lot calmer and more sterile than it really is. The market is crazy and bustling. We kept asking this poor lady, "Que es?"...what is this? what is that? We still had to come home and look them up online.

We took our landlord's suggestion and found Hugo the ceviche street vendor. We werent sure about street ceviche inland and found out that it wasnt even Hugo but the ceviche was delicious...Here we are in the central park trying to eat the ceviche without making a complete mess...we were not too successful at the mess part


This is the cathedral off the central park. We saw people coming in and out and decided to see what was going on. It turns out that this is the time leading up to Semana Santa (Easter). On the floor of the church is this "rug" created from bits of flower and who knows what color bits. It was surrounded by fruit offerings...pineapples and melons.
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Guest Post from Anna in Antigua

So here we are in Antigua Guatemala....our first step into Central America.
Thursday we arrived at Guatemala City Airport pleasantly surprised. The airport, barely one year old,was very efficient and organized.It was good to have Carlos, our driver, waiting for us so that we did not have to navigate the sea of taxi drivers and then explain that we were going to la casa de Gregorio in Jardaines des Antigua. Our driver knew where to take us.
As we drove through Guatemala City to get to Antigua, it became clear why Debbie and Rob stay out of the big cities..traffic was horrible (it was rush hour), smoggy and not very pretty or interesting.
Once we hit the road outside the city, as the road moved into the countryside on decent divided road towards Antigua, the air cleared up and we were surrounded by lush green mountains,and views of volcanos and locals on scooters, bikes,and on foot along the side of the road. Lots of winding roads with s shaped curves.
Arriving at the house was great. Debbie and Rob greeted us at the gates of our home for the week .....homey, warm, comfortable with all the amenities .....Debbie and Rob look great,suntanned and happy.
Once we got settled, the four of us headed to town for true Guatemala dinner...what a taste treat.  Sorry no camera.... so no photos of that meal.
Today (Friday) we explored the center of Antigua, visited the mercado and put the area under our feet.

Impressions....this is Sante Fe, New Mexico "only realler". Has the Spanish Colonial architecture and colors but also alot of ruins from the earthquakes.  Antigua has not been recreated (yet) so one it does not feel as touristy...yet.Locals may disagree. The place is filled with restaurants, shops, boutiques,local street vendors and of course the huge market.
You can find everything want in the market....trinkets.souveniers, pirated CDs and DVDs,fresh produce,meat and on and on....a total maze of sights, sounds and smells.

People......all walks of life.....tourists (like Irwin and I), travellers and backpackers(like Debbie and Rob), expats  (from all over America, Europe) and locals that are those of Spanish descent and Mayans.


Antigua with my parents

Here we are in Antigua, Guatemala.  My parents arrived on Thursday and rented us an amazingly beautiful house.  Rob and I are enjoying a big bed with fluffy blankets and our choice of 5 bathrooms.  We've also been enjoying the car that came with the house.  For the first time, we are finally mobile can go wherever we want.  Even though Antigua is the biggest town that we've been in, its actually pretty small.  We are a short drive from the town but in town, it doesnt really make sense to drive because everything is really in walking distance and the town is so beautiful to walk around in.  I've decided that when people come to visit, I am going to let them make some guest posts so that people can get a different perspective on the experiences.  The next post will be from my mom.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Santiago Atitlan

This morning, we went to another town on the lake. Santiago is a very interesting place. Its much less touristy than the other towns that we have seen. Its very mayan, with very few spanish speakers. We first went to the big catholic church...actually the first church that we have visited on this trip. It was beautiful and has a lot of history from the recent civil war. In 1981, the town was attacked by the military. The priest, an Oklahoman, allowed locals to sleep in the church at night where they thought it was safe. He was killed for protecting the people and the church has a memorial for him. Its amazing how recently this all occured.

We then hopped in the back of a truck to go see Maximon, an important Mayan god. What you cant see in this picture is that besides Rob and I, the truck was packed with Mayan women. I easily stood a full head taller than all of them. For all you short girls out there....Jamie..Nikki...come to Guatemala, you will never feel taller. I mean it, these arent children that I am taller than but full grown women.

This is Maximon. Every year he moves to a different house. People come and pray to him. They bring cigarettes, alcohol and money. He lives in a room that is thick with the smoke of incense. He always has a lit cigarette in his mouth.


Santiago had a nice big market. Its so hard to truly capture that atmosphere of the markets in pictures. They are bustling and the smells are incredible.


Tomorrow we go back to Antigua to meet my parents.
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Dogs

Everyone knows how much I love dogs. I've been wanting to do a post about dogs for awhile. Guatemala is crawling with dogs and there are a few distinct kinds. There are the poor, skinny stray dogs that we consider the local dogs. Then, in the toursist areas are the ones that we call the tourist dogs. They may or may not live on the street but they are very social and well fed. We've been here long enough to know them well...the little black dog and the big rottweiler live at zoola but we see them all over town. There is a whole group of puppies that hang out on the street that our hotel is on. Even in the coffee shop that we are in right now, there is a huge doberman snoozing on a couch. We often see a dog just sitting in the middle of the road, casually licking himself until a tuktuk comes speeding up and the dog casually gets up and wanders out of the way just in time.



This is Lulu's guatemalan cousin...actually she is on vacation from Florida but we just had to stop and chat with her owner in San Marcos. Lulu's cousin's name is Tootsie Roll
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