Saturday, September 28, 2013

pointless and chatty

I’m sitting here in bed, sipping coffee and trying to decide if I’m well enough to get up. I can type, so I’m not too sick. But maybe this is only just the beginning?


Yesterday, the youngest was felled by a raging fever, chesty cough, and splitting headache. Upon talking to a friend, I learned that her family had been taken down one by one. The doctor said it’s a wicked virus, of some sort or another. So now I’m slightly paranoid.

We finished at Bezaleel yesterday (except now the teachers want us to come back next week so we’re not completely, completely done), and the focus of this weekend is Sorting and Packing. Monday is the last day of school for the children, cinnamon rolls to the teachers (maybe), and a date with my husband. Then Tuesday, my husband goes to Guatemala City to bring back the truck. Wednesday is a fun day (maybe a visit to some caves), or perhaps a last-minute errand day, and Thursday we load up and move to the city. Then meetings, a beach trip (we hope), and home.

So I’d really like to not get sick now.


About that Sorting and Packing. We came down with 11 or so suitcases (thanks to a university group that was traveling down around the same time), but we can only go back with six. This could be a problem. True, we’ve destroyed/outgrown mountains of clothes, but we also came down with way more winter clothes than we actually used. Which is kind of good. Because a lot of them still fit, so we won’t have to scramble for warm duds upon arriving in nippy Virginia. (We may end up paying to check a couple other suitcases. Forty dollars a bag seems really pricey, but when compared to what it would cost to buy the shoes, jeans, and sweaters that it’s hauling, it’s a savings. Or so says my husband.)

I’m rambling. I feel chatty, but in a pointless sort of way. Exactly what bloggers are not supposed to do. We’re supposed to be concise, witty, and pointed. This is not that post.

Remember all my angst about my kids not learning Spanish? And then remember the sudden (kind of) breakthrough? At that point, I said something like, “If only we had another year here...”

I take that back. At least for the youngest. Another three to six months of school and I think he’d be almost fluent. Here’s why:

*He’s a natural motormouth with zero fear of speaking.
*Proof: the other week when I was approaching his classroom, I could easily hear his foghorn voice above the classroom chatter. Alejandro blah-blah-blah-o...
*The other morning when he woke up, he said something to me that I couldn’t understand. He repeated it a couple times before switching to English, and then I was like, Oh! He was speaking to me in Spanish! Not exactly what I was expecting to hear first thing my early morning haze.
*He says he dreams in both English and Spanish.
*He easily flits between past, present, and future tenses.
*My older son reported that he’s heard him mix up his English, as in, “That’s my car blue.”


Making bows and arrows and talking, talking, talking.

I’m not sure how we’re going to keep up the Spanish once we return home. The children stage mini-revolts when we try to force Spanish conversation (I don’t really blame them because, well, it doesn’t feel natural), and there aren’t any Spanish-only speakers out in our neck of Virginian woods. I’m thinking I’ll read to the children from Spanish children’s books once a day, and we might do some Rosetta Stone, but aside from that, I’m kinda stymied. And sad. We have a good thing going. I don’t want it to end.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

the run around

Written a week or two ago (perhaps the 12th? or the 16th?) 
and then typed up today during the girls’ final exam.

Wednesday’s baking class didn’t happen. But before I launch into that sorry tale, let me back up and explain what happened the Wednesday before.

Class was to start at 7:30 am, as usual. I’ve drilled the girls on the importance of starting on time. When making yeast bread, an early start is imperative if we are to finish by lunch. Also, their grade is based on participation. Neglecting to show up on time results in point dockage.

The majority of time, the girls have been late to class, but last Wednesday it was 8 am before they swarmed into the panadería. I looked up from the book I was reading and rattled off instructions. When I finished, the class spokesperson said, “Sorry, teacher, but we came to tell you we can’t attend class today. We have too much homework to do.”

“Hm, really? Well then, bring me an excuse from the director, please. I don’t have the authority to release you from your assigned class.”

That threw them into a pissy tizz. After an angry conference, they all stomped off to the office. Soon they returned, the director in tow.

Director: Jennifer needs help baking. You can’t leave her to do it alone.

Me: I’m not here to bake for myself. I already know how. This class is for you.

Director: Get to work, girls. And Jennifer, if they are sullen and angry, let me know and we’ll put them to making tortillas.

It was a bumpy start, but they were soon working and laughing. See teacher? We don’t need to make tortillas! We’re laughing, ha-ha-ha!



final exam: butterhorns 
(or rather, margarinehorns)

Then there was the next Wednesday. Again the girls didn’t show. I asked the pastor to call up to the dorm to send them down. Nothing. Sick of wasting time, I went straight to the director. His call up to the dorm was more effective.

When the girls came tromping down the hill, we—the girls, director, pastors, and I—met under the pavilion. The girls explained that they had a big assignment and were up until 4:00 that morning, and the morning before, too. (‘Tis true, they are newbies to the accounting program and have tons of catch up learning to do.) After a long discussion with the morose, exhausted girls, the director once again sent them off to bake. I stayed behind for a few minutes to confer with the director.

I could hear the wailing before I entered the bakery. At first I thought they were laughing. But no. The entire room was filled with such theatrics that you never did see. Disheveled hair, red eyes, tears and snot. My husband later told me that he had heard the crying the whole way down in the carpentry. “We have four kids at home,” he said to the guy he was working with. “That’s not going to go over very well with Jennifer.”

I walked into the room, leaned against a table, and crossed my arms. “What is going on.”

And they dished out an ample serving of the same old sob story, finishing with, “And we can’t even clean the bakery because Pascuala has the cloths and she’s still sleeping!”

I left them to their misery and went to talk to Natalia, another teacher who doubles as my right-hand cultural mediator.

“What do I do?” I asked. “Are they taking advantage of me? Do we bake? Should I let them go?” It was mid-morning by then. Starting that late was hardly worth it.

“They’re taking advantage of you, I think,” Natalia said. “But I’ll come talk to them.”


In a non-confrontational moment: Natalia, only observing.

So. Yet another group conference with sullen girls. In the end, I dismissed them, but with homework. For Friday, they were to write a three-pronged apology letter: what they did wrong, three things they could’ve done differently, and a list of what they’d commit to for the remaining two classes. Copying strictly forbidden. Worth ten points.


That day, the afternoon tutoring classes didn't go much better than the morning's nonexistent baking class. In the first period, only two kids showed. In the second, only one, and then a half hour later, the rest slunk in, all out of sorts. The last class was its normal self, but one guy asked to go get his laundry off the line and never came back.

When kids don’t attend class, there is nothing I can do to make it happen. The school is lacking such organization that enforcing classes is nearly an impossibility (but only for the extra-curricular ones—everyone shows on time for the academic classes, no problem). In fact, we were looking into partnering with a professional vo-tech as a way to strengthen the Saturday Vocational Arts program but have decided against it. It’s costly (though reasonable), but the risk of losing money because of delinquent kids just isn’t worth it.

But back to the girls. I never quite know how to handle their apathy and tardiness. Should I be North American hardnosed? Should I just lay back and go with the flow? Should I set the start time for 7:30 but then not take attendance until 8:30 (to honor the customary Hispanic buffer hour)?

Not that any of this matters anymore. As of today, the class is over. All but one passed, I think. Not with flying colors, but not just barely, either. So I guess it all worked out anyway. Don't ask me how. It's a mystery.

Friday, September 20, 2013

baking with teachers

This morning I held a baking class for the teachers and Doña Ana. The class was their idea. I was thrilled to oblige. Interested adult learners are The Best! says the I’m-fed-up-to-my-eyeballs-with-lazy-teenagers teacher (more on that later).


I charged them Q20 each (less than three US dollars) to cover the basic costs, but then I donated/provided a bunch of fancy ingredients because:

1) Why not?
2) I’m sick of cooking with limitations, both budgetary and ingredient-ary.
3) Eager learners deserve it.







We made four recipes each of Easy French Bread and Five-Minute Bread. We kneaded in raisins and cinnamon to half of the French bread, and the remaining half we turned into cinnamon rolls and plain rolls with sesame seeds on top. With the five-minute bread we made a giant pepperoni pizza, beirocks, and pepperoni rolls (kind of, but mostly not really). They shaped the last batch of five-minute bread as you would pizza and spread it with margarine and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. (Upon tasting it, we discovered that Osmar, the only male participant, had neglected to add the salt.)



The teachers caught on to the bread-making techniques super quick. They loved that we were making so many different kinds of breads—it drove home the point that bread is flexible. They had tons of questions and suggestions.

What about doing it this way?
Could we add fresh fruit? Why not?
What about adding basil and black pepper to the pizza crust?
Could we fill these with ham? Sausages?
We could make calzones!


I could tell that my answers were absorbed and then tucked away. Already one of the teachers is planning to make sweet rolls for her husband’s birthday on Sunday.


One thing that I’ve noticed about baking with Guatemalans (and maybe Nicaraguans, too?) is that they don’t sample the finished product first thing. I am always super eager to cut into a cake and see how it turned out (and have a permanently burnt tongue to show for it), or I immediately tear open a roll to see if it is baked all the way through. But not these women. They wait until everything is done baking and then they divide it out between them and only then do they start tasting. I’m not sure what they thought of me when I scarfed a fresh cinnamon bun. Greedy barbarian, probably.

Monday, September 16, 2013

the quotidian (9.16.13)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
everyday; ordinary; commonplace


Nispero fruit: sweet, juicy, tangy.


Getting dirty: it's his special talent.


Farewell to the language tutor. 
She did a great job, and the children enjoyed the classes, 
but they were happy to be done.
 

A requisite thank you note.


A school project: making something out of soap.


She's grown a wee-bit, eh?



This is not some creative punishment on my part. 
They willing tied themselves together and then tried to eat oranges.


Soggy Soccer. 


Shadow creature, courtesy of a power outage and boredom.

Friday, September 13, 2013

chile cobanero (hot sauce)

The K’ekchi’ are known for their passionate love affair with hot sauce. It's on the table for every meal, and they call it “the angry one.” Spoon with caution.


At Bezaleel, there are two common hot sauces in particular: green and red. I love them both. The green, made from fresh chiles, adds a vibrant, nasal-clearing bite, and the red, from dried chiles, is smoky, deep, and packed with flavor. I have long wanted to learn how to make the sauces, but it wasn’t until several weeks ago that I got serious and wandered up to the kitchen to do some culinary investigating.


About the kitchen. Bezaleel has two cooks. Both are K’ekchi’, but only one speaks Spanish. They alternate days, arriving at school at 8 am and staying 24 hours before heading home for their off day. Each woman single-handedly preps and serves three meals on her shift, serving well over a hundred hungry teenagers at each. (The female students pat out the tortillas, but the cook is responsible for cooking the daily 100 pounds of corn of which the tortillas are made.)


The weekly menu is limited, thanks to bare bones funds and no time. Breakfast and supper consist of beans, and the lunches, the main meal of the day, follow a basic schedule:

Monday: a single scoop of potatoes (in any form: mashed, in broth, etc.)
Tuesday: one spoonful of green beans with a few bits of scrambled egg
Wednesday: chow mein (noodles with bits of chicken, carrots, and guisquil)
Thursday: a piece of fried chicken with a scoop of soupy, spicy salsa
Friday: Tuesday’s meal, again, or maybe a brothy soup with greens

After being served the allotted portion by the cook, students walk to the next table to get their tortillas, dress up their meal from the communal bowl of hot sauce, and get a cup of some sort of grain drink. (There’s also a mid-morning snack of corn/wheat/rice drink and a mid afternoon snack of fruit.)


When I wandered up to the kitchen several weeks ago, Doña Ana, the Spanish-speaking cook, was on duty. While she julianned carrots for the chow mein, I quizzed her on the intricacies of chile making. And then I asked for a knife and cutting board and joined in on the julianning. Thirty minutes later, I had an inch-long blister on my finger and a new friend.

I like to visit Doña Ana when I can. Conversation with her is always easy and thoughtful. She’s merry and interested, and there’s always something for me to do. Earlier this week when I visited, we sat on low stools and peeled potatoes.


Doña Ana (she has five children and one grandchild and is only one year younger than me) absolutely, positively adores cooking. She took a cooking class at the vo-tech school in Cobán. She has worked as cook for a couple of Cuban doctors (and will be returning to them after this school year is up). One time they took her with them when they went on vacation to Belize.

“We ate garlic bread,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “When they said we’d be having garlic bread, I thought, ‘What? I wonder what that is like!’” And then she ate it and fell head over heels in love.

Also, “In Cobán there’s this place that makes a delicious Chinese rice. I tried to replicate it at home, and I almost got it right!”

And a question, “Have you ever had orange rice?” is followed with fascinating, step-by-step instructions.


People, I do believe I have encountered my first Guatemalan foodie!

Now. For the chile sauce and this fabulous food that we have here: chile cobán.


Chile Cobán’s smoky flavor is similar to the chipotle chile, but hotter. Baskets of the dark red, wrinkled beauties are everywhere in the market—an ounce costs less than fifty US cents. In my efforts to find a source for the dried chile in the states, I have searched the web backwards and forwards, but to no avail. This distresses me. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I can import a personal, lifelong supply. (The dry powder—which we use for our sweet and spicy popcorn—can be purchased here. Or here.)

The sauce is easy to make. The process goes like so:

*toast the dried chiles.
*saute an onion and some garlic in a bit of oil.
*puree chiles and aromatics in a blender with a bunch of tomatoes.
*simmer the sauce to cook through and reduce to the desired consistancy.
*add a glug of vinegar and salt to taste.
*store in the refrigerator.


toasted









For a green chile sauce, first cook the fresh chiles in water until very soft before pureeing them in the blender along with the cooking water, salt, and the sauteed onion and garlic, no tomatoes.


in the Bezaleel kitchen

I made this version once and scorched my nasal cavities, esophagus, and lungs when I lifted the lid of the blender after whizzing it smooth and took a sniff. The burn is hot and swift, but there's not much flavor. (I think I used a fiercer chile than they normally use at school.)

The variations for a homemade chile sauce are endless. Aside from the plethora of dried and fresh chiles, each with their distinct flavor, you can add different amounts or varieties of tomatoes (or ground tomatoes or tomatillos) as well as vinegars, salts, and aromatics. And, of course, the level of heat is completely up to you.

As for what to do with it, I like to add a couple scoops to a pot of cooked dried beans. (I’m slowly—and successfully!—building up my family’s tolerance for heat.) The chile disappears into the broth and the deep, smokey flavors elevate the whole dish. When the MCC team came for supper, I seasoned the sloppy joe meat with my homemade sauce instead of the dried stuff I’d imported from the states. (Well, I did add a couple teaspoons before I realized that I had a better option available to me.)

This most recent batch turned out a bit angrier than I wanted. (I used a whole ounce of chiles to one-and-a-half pounds of tomatoes.) My husband walked in the door just as I was bottling it for the fridge.

"Here," I said. "Have a taste of this spaghetti sauce."

So he did. And then he made a beeline for some cold, soothing milk.


Chile Cobanero (Hot Sauce)

½ to 1 ounce dried, whole chile cobán
1 large onion, sliced into rings
4-8 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 tablespoons flavorless oil
1-2 pounds paste tomatoes, such as Roma
1-2 tablespoons vinegar
1-2 teaspoons salt

Put the chiles into a skillet or saucepan and cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes, shaking the pan every few minutes. The goal is to dry out the chiles completely, not brown them (though a little of that will happen, too).

In a separate skillet, saute the garlic and onion until translucent and soft, but not blackened.

Wash and roughly dice the tomatoes.

Put all three components—chiles, aromatics, tomatoes—into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. Pour the contents into the still greasy skillet (or another sauce pan, your call), add vinegar and salt, and simmer on low heat until the desired consistency, about 20-30 minutes. Taste to correct seasonings—don’t skimp on the salt!

Store in a glass jar in the fridge (once back in Virginia, I plan to freeze the extra in ice cube trays before storing in glass jars in the freezer) and add to everything.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

the good things that happen

My younger daughter has taken to crying that she doesn’t want to leave.


“This is why I didn’t want to come in the first place,” she sobs. “Because I knew I’d have to leave all my friends here. Why did you have to do this to meeeee!”

I pat her back and tsk-tsk, but inside I smile at her edited memory (That's not why you didn't want to come, dearie) and because she is actually, oh joy, sad to leave! We had hoped the children, at least some of them, would connect enough that leaving would be hard, so, Yay success, and, Pass the tissues.

Last week, one of our teammates asked her which place she liked best, Virginia or Guatemala, and she said Guatemala.

All this, coming from the child who was the most resistant. Wonders never cease.

***

In the past two days:

*I spent both mornings visiting with the teachers in the teachers’ room. Topics covered: Syria, how pregnant/menstruating women (or simply anyone who is sweaty hot) has the ability to break the set on a pudding, census counting, the separation (or lack thereof) between Catholics and Evangelicals, polygamy, recipes, etc. We laughed a lot.
*The new neighbors came up to the house to invite us to their little boys’ birthday party on Sunday.
*Walking into town, another neighbor’s green Mercedes slowed instead of passing us, the window rolled down, and the woman, the mother of one of my older son’s classmates, offered us a ride. We accepted, of course.
*This morning, the school director greeted me with a warm, two-armed hug and a firm kiss on the check.
*Shop owners call out to me by name. Taxi drivers ask after “Mister John.” A teacher from my children’s school interrupts a cell phone conversation to toss a greeting my way.
*Walking back from town, three K’ekchi’ women asked me to walk with them. We talked about pregnancy, mostly. The young-looking mother had 10 children. (The youngest was 11. She was 40. Oof.)

***

In the beginning, no one knew us. We were just people from The Rich North. I felt that people only viewed us as Money Bags. It made my skin crawl.

But I don’t feel that way anymore (or at least not nearly as much). Little by little, we have woven ourselves into the fabric of this community. We are becoming known for who we are: neighbors, co-workers, friends, market customers, and the parents of four very different children who each have their own friends, classmates, and teachers.

Our web of connection has grown steadily thicker and stronger. Given more time, it would no doubt transform into a sturdy safety net.


But soon we will extricate ourselves from our baby web and fly back to Virginia, the sticky tendrils still clinging to our feet.

Monday, September 9, 2013

retreating

 
As anyone who has worked with a relief agency in a foreign country will attest to, team cohesion (or the absence of) is a big deal. To some degree, this is probably true of all work situations, but when living far away from home and all that’s familiar, the importance of the team carries a bit more weight. When it’s good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid. Or something like that.

This past week, we hosted our team retreat here in Alta Verapaz. They traveled; we cleaned, cooked, and arranged lodging for nineteen. (I am a homebody. We clearly had the better end of the deal.)

(Side note: I met my first detail-oriented, stressed-out Hispanic. They exist!!! Because Latinos are so super laid back, I didn't think it was possible, but the hotel manager, a very kind, gentle man, proved me wrong. Very wrong. He was flat-out obsessed with the details. He fretted and called me and fretted some more. I only caught on to how bad it was when I asked him for a whole carafe of coffee for the Thursday morning meeting. The dismayed look on his face told me I had gone too far. I backpeddled real quick. Never mind, just serve juice with all meals, I said, and then I packed up my coffee pot.)

When we worked in Nicaragua, all the team members were white, from the US or Canada, and spoke English. Our current team is very different. Checking in last week (because teams are always in flux, what with all the comings and goings) were:

2 Canadians
1 Michigonian
1 Kentuckian
1 Salvadoranean
6 Virginians (guess who!)
2 Columbians
4 Californians
1 Paraguayan
1 Honduranean

Some people spoke only English. Some people spoke only Spanish. There was a lot of translating going on.

People always feel so sorry for us when they hear that our team meetings are in Spanish (this is the first time the meetings were partly in English, too, and that’s just because of the new Spanish learners—next meeting will probably be in only Spanish). It does change the feeling of the meetings, it’s true, when you’re limited to sharing in your second language. But when issues got emotional, it was perfectly acceptable to slip into the mother tongue and let others fill in the gaps.

It only makes sense, I think, that we conduct our meetings in Spanish since we’re in a Spanish-speaking country. Doing so makes me feel like we’re just that much less foreign (not like anyone’s fooled). Also, team meetings are where I learn tons of Spanish. The conversations are deeper—more feeling-oriented—so I pick up on ways to better express myself. Plus, it’s easier to understand English speakers who are more fluent in Spanish; we express ourselves similarly so bridging the language gap is easier.

Confession: next to other Spanish language learners, I used to (and sometimes still do) feel inferior. I didn’t measure up. I’d imagine everyone listening to my mistakes and rolling their eyes. She still makes THAT mistake? Pul-eeze!

I don’t feel nearly as insecure now. Maybe it’s because I’m more mature, or maybe my Spanish is improved (not that much really), but I think the real reason is the team's added native Spanish speakers. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but I never, ever, ever feel judged by a native Spanish speaker. They are patient, generous, and warm. When I pop up with questions like, “What’s the difference between dispuesto and disponible,” they simply explain. The point is not how we’re communicating, just that we’re communicating. It takes the pressure off.

Our new team leaders are bravely climbing an excruciatingly steep learning curve (the country
rep position is said to be the most difficult position in all of MCC) yet are still managing to be helpful to the rest of us. What amazes me most is their ability to tackle mountains of work, parent two little girls, and be fully present to the team. What gems.

Actually, the whole team is bundle of fun. There’s a wealth of stories and talents. I find myself grasping for more time, more conversations. I want to know everyone better, learn more about what it is they do and why they do it and how. (This is becoming my refrain.) It’s better to leave wanting more than craving an escape, right?

Photo Captions
*Cobán, the view from the hotel.
*Pancakes and fruit.
*My lifeline: cheap and stress-free.
*Current read. Sugar, no cream.
*Push. *A pick-up game.
*One of the people I want to know more about.
*Morning: misty and magical.
*Go team!
*Lookout spots.
*We have a guitar player!
*And we like it!
*Reps.
*Worms. They travel like geese, but instead of V-formation, it's heap-formation.
*Cobán, again.
*Eating a snack of boiled pumpkin at the farm.
*Transportation.
*Mudpuddles and friends.
*At our house: sloppy joes and birthday cake. (Slow down, David! There's a whole bunch more in the kitchen!)

PS. Here's another perspective on the retreat...and another.