Thursday, January 31, 2013

and just when you thought my life was all peaches

Transitioning to another culture is hard. Sometimes it’s brutally hard.

It's like this: not only do I have to manage my own emotions, but I also have to help four children (and a husband) manage theirs. I (we) have to navigate the ins and outs of having a maid, figure out how to get money out of a bank and get groceries to the house without a car, learn the ropes of the buses and taxis and the layout of several different towns, feed a family, stock and manage a household, pay the rent and water and gas, learn to use cell phones and text (I am texting!)...and all of this (or mostly all) while speaking another language.

The simplest things take superhuman effort, like finding vinegar (located yesterday! in a stall in the market! score!). Getting a store to fill our a receipt can take an extra 15 minutes. Just finding a grounded extension cord involves visiting about 20 different hardware stores.

All of the children are struggling in some way or another, but one in particular (the one we knew would have trouble) is crashing and burning right and left. Her anxiety (same stuff she deals with in the States) is through the roof. It manifests in atrocious amounts of defiance and monstrous tantrums. All the kids, in fact, are coping attitudes.

Part of the problem (and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or child psychologist, to figure this out) is that we haven't had a clear schedule for the last three weeks. Standard methods for discipline haven’t been an option. The children haven’t had regular chores or studies. Plus, they've been on overload from all the new things they are learning...

...Like how to smoosh into taxis and buses without fussing (too much).
...Like how to eat their food with tortillas.
...Like how to brush their teeth with a cup of water and take cold showers.
...Like how to put toilet paper in the trash can instead of the toilet.

It’s a lot of newness, and while often exciting and doable, new things all the time take a toll.

time out

In the thick of dealing with a tantruming child, my typical feelings of over-whelmedness are ten-fold. Our regular support system is no longer at hand. (Yes, we have tons of support in spirit—never the be underestimated!—and there are lots of people here who are watching out for us, but it's a far cry from the thick web of support we're used to.) We are going this alone. That’s the hard truth.

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, we had a regular afternoon rest time. Throughout the day, I had enough energy and resolve to follow through with discipline issues (and were there ever issues, hoo-boy). Perhaps we’re finally coming down a little bit, relaxing into this new place that is to be our home, and now, with the extra time and space, comes the payback for all the changes that we’ve gone through? Whatever the case, it’s emotionally exhausting.

The turmoil, stress, and angst is about to be increased, too (more on this soon), so we have a ways to go before we can truly settle and adjust.

But we will (I trust). And soon (I hope).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


These days, I get up earlier than I did in the other house. The brightening sky lights our bedroom through the single, large window. It’s still gray outside, but the birds are singing. It will be another gorgeous day.

I pull on a hoodie and tiptoe out to the kitchen. It’s cold. I can see my breath. I slide open the metal barn door and peek outside.

I can see the moon! I grab my camera, slip on my husband’s sneakers (I’ll apologize later) and head outside.

There are dew-drenched spider webs everywhere. The valley is thick with fog.

The ground is silvery and wet. It glimmers and shimmers in the sunlight.

The workers, machetes in hand, are tromping by in their rubber boots on their way to The Big House.

“Buenos dias!” I call quietly, and they singsong the greeting back to me. Suddenly, I am self-conscious of my pajamas—black leggings and long shirt—and fancy camera, so I scuttle back inside.

Coffee time! I fill my teapot with purified water and set it to boiling. While I stir the hot water into the coffee grounds and push the water through my aeropress, I heat some milk in a small saucepan. There is no half-and-half or cream here, so it’s café con leche every morning.

It’s time for the kids to be getting up, so I turn on lights and start clattering dishes, emptying the drainer and getting out the skillets. I chop up the potatoes that I baked last night (the hot oven helped make the house cozy) for the morning's fried potatoes and whisk a dozen eggs. There will be ketchup, too.

“Breakfast is almost ready! Get up, get dressed, make your beds, and come eat!” I holler at the children. They groan and burrow deeper into the covers. My husband joins me in urging them onward ho.

Soon Luvia will be arriving, and the day will be underway.

Monday, January 28, 2013

swimming in the sunshine

Good afternoon! The kids are outside playing with their friends.

My husband just set off for Chamelco in search of some electrical tape so he can fix the stove (so it will cease and desist in its shocking behavior, hopefully).

I finished mixing up a batch of five-minute bread for our supper. The house is quiet, all except for the tin roof—it makes crackling noises in the broiling sun.

Yes, the sun, oh joy! It hasn’t rained for two days and the chill and damp is finally (perhaps momentarily, but that’s okay) gone.

We are still living out of suitcases, but our made-to-order dressers and some tables arrived this morning. However, since they were made out of wet wood (much to my husband’s dismay), we have to let them dry in the sun for a couple days before using them. One of the tables went into the kitchen so now I have some actual counter space to work with and not just a tile ledge. Another carpentry shop is making us some simple chairs, a bench, and another bed stand, and once my husband gets some wood, we’ll have shelves on the walls. Bit by bit, we’re settling in.

I have so much to write about that I’m not sure where to start. Maybe a list?

*The first night in our new home, our older daughter sat at the supper table, nervously eyeing the gap that runs the whole way around the house between the walls and ceilings, her hands over her ears (her trademark “I’m scared” gesture), watching for strange animals slithering in and dropping on our heads. I, too, was/am wary of rats, mice, and possums crawling through the cracks, but I’ve made no mention of that to the children, of course. (The mouse that slipped in under the door last night is no longer of this world, glory be.)

*We are surrounded by boys. The owner’s grandsons live in The Big House: José is 12 and Fernando is 7. José speaks a little English. Both are very friendly and eager to share bikes, ping-pong table, etc.

One of the other families that lives on the farm, some long-term missionaries, have four boys that they homeschool. Their names are Jorge, Joaquin, Andrés, and Marcos. Their ages range from 9-13, I think. The boys are adopted and speak both Spanish and English. Their family runs the fish farm and they just gave us a frozen crab. I’ll boil it for supper...I guess?

*The 10-15 minute walk to Chamelco is peaceful and beautiful. First we have to walk down our long, curving, dirt/mud/rock/pothole-filled driveway, and then out through the bougainvillea covered gates. The main road is paved and lined with hedges and flowers. People are constantly walking by. Most of them are cheerful—actually, "jolly" is a better adjective—which surprises me. I expected that they would be more reserved and somber.

When I was writing, the kids came bursting through the door, wanting to go swimming. They said the pond was shallow and that the boys’ father was down there. I gave them permission and then, camera in hand, followed them down. (So much for my list.)

They—eight boys and two girls—were out on the water, boating, paddling, swimming, and yelling.

The entire pond was only a couple feet deep, thick mud lining the bottom. It’s one huge water-filled playground.

The pond has tilapia in it (and the neighbors gave us some!)—when the kids swim, the fish just hide in the reeds.

Some of the boys went to the far side and climbed the tree to jump in.

After an hour of racing, splashing, and dumping each other, the kids climbed out of the water, shivering and begging for towels. Now, back at our house, they’ve had showers.

showered, in fresh clothes, soaking up the setting sun

As soon as my husband finishes fixing the oven, I’ll try my hand at some homemade pizza.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

and then we moved into a barn

Wow. It’s been a whirlwind couple days. We found a place out in the country, talked about it for a few hours, decided to move, and then, a few hours later, there we were, living in our new digs. Amazing.

mint from our backyard

To tell the truth, I am so excited I can hardly slow down enough to type the story, the gist of which is:


Okay, so it’s not actually a barn barn. There aren’t animals in it (thought there was that mouse that made an appearance tonight—the girls and I were screaming so loudly my husband thought a stranger walked into the house waving a machete) (and the dogs sometimes sneak in) and it’s not at all haymow-y. It’s more of a big storage shed that has had some bedrooms built into it. It suits us perfectly.

Our new home is located on a large finca (farm). There are about seven other homes on the property—some family and some rented. The finca—Rancho de la Santa Fe—is located a short walk out of Chamelco, a small, friendly, family-centered town. (Carcha was more industrialized.) Bezaleel is a five minute bus ride from Chamelco, so now we are a bit closer to the school. And that’s it for the geography lesson.

There is so much green. So much. We are more isolated than we were in the city, and security is excellent. I can walk around outside with my camera!

the view from the back door

At first we were a little concerned that we will be too isolated. That we won’t have neighbors to visit with. That the kids won’t have neighbor kids to run around with. So far, that is not the case. There are two boys who live up at The Big House, the same ages as my boys. All day long, the kids have been back and forth between houses. Many times during the day I paused what I was doing and realized that I didn’t know exactly where the kids were and it was okay. After not being able to let them even open the door without permission, the freedom is over-the-top glorious.

the rope swing at one of the rented houses

And even if we are more isolated, we will be going to town for errands and church, and to Bezaleel for work. If anything, I think it will be nice to have a place to get away from it all. Having a safe haven is so important.

About the farm: the owner’s daughter is getting her degree in forestry engineering. She is reforesting with lots of pine trees, and she’s working at taking down the wire fences and putting up natural fences. There is a creek and a whole bunch of ponds—one of the renters is using them to raise Tilapia and trout. There are fruit trees and banana plants and flowers everywhere. There is a ping-pong table up at The Big House and a (currently drained) in-ground swimming pool. One of the renters has a horse.

There are three mild-mannered, intelligent dogs. Amarillo, especially, is extremely pliable.

The house is rather cavernous, but we have some ideas for how to make it cozier, and—get this—it has windows with see-through glass and big barn doors (but of course!) that open wide. Luvia came out to work today, even though it was Saturday.

She scrubbed the bathroom from top to bottom, and I scrubbed the metal barn doors, inside and out. We washed windows and scrubbed floors and did (a little) laundry. Some workers have been painting the house, and the gardener has been cleaning up around the place and “mowed” the yard with a machete.

My husband and older son went to Coban today and came back with a TIGO stick—a do-hickey that you put in the USB port so that you can get internet anywhere. So now I am sitting in my bed, drinking tea, and hanging out on the web.

This place feels so, so right.

It’s even crossed my mind that I might not want to go home.

Friday, January 25, 2013

first day of classes

Last Saturday we went out to Bezaleel for the first day of vocational arts classes. The Saturday program is the main reason we are here. We are supposed to be giving support to the instructors and helping out where needed. There is a lot of other work we can be (and will be, no doubt) doing, but for now, this is our focus.

part of the campus, as viewed from the carpentry shop/porch

When we arrived, a general assembly was in full swing. We walked in and took seats. Before long, we were called to the stage to introduce ourselves. I did most of the talking into the echo-y microphone. Afterwards, the students were excused to go to their classes.

the kitchen (up top) and one dining room (below), as viewed from the carpentry shop/porch

I sat in on the cooking class. For the first hour, the teacher, Iris, dictated notes to the students. Someone loaned me a pen and paper and I took notes, too. The lesson was on good hygiene. After the break, the class headed up to the kitchen and set about making a “salad,”—a hot vegetable stir-fry that they topped with a squirt of mayonnaise and sold to the other students at lunch time.

peeling carrots

Between the 16 students, there were three knives and three cutting boards. While they took turns painstakingly chopping the vegetables, I wandered around the campus observing the other classes, checking in on the kids (who were hanging out with Wilmer), and meeting people.

some of the younger boys in the class: checking their notes

In one of the kitchens, a group of teenage girls were patting out the tortillas. I asked them to teach me, so they did. We stood there, patting tortillas (most of mine fell apart, but a few turned out okay!), and visiting.

The carpentry instructor didn’t show, so my husband ended up teaching his first class.

The shop is located on the downstairs porch across from the kitchens and consists of a couple of wooden work benches and several dull handsaws. When I stopped by, my husband had them cutting up wood to make a toolbox (for the tools they don’t have...yet). The boys seemed to be having a grand time.

At lunch time, the students appear in the serving room, a bowl and cup in their hand. Lunch that Saturday was a scoop of greens in broth (I didn’t get to try it), a stack of tortillas, and coffee. There’s always a bowl of saucy hot peppers sitting out for them to scoop onto their food. Lots of kids opted to pay the 35 cents to get a serving of the salad. (The cooking class students were instructed to hawk it and about died from embarrassment—the money they earn will go back towards buying more supplies for the class). Afterwards, the students wash their own bowls and take them back to their rooms where they store them with their personal possessions.

the head cook and her daughter: they have four big stoves like that

A couple days before when we first visited the school, lunch was rice, a piece of chicken, and tortillas (always tortillas). My younger son adored the rice. He kept begging for more. We told him that there was no more. I explained that if he eats more than his share than other children can’t eat. It’s a simple concept, yet a hard one to grasp. In the States, when I say there is no more food and we’re done eating now, there is always more food somewhere, in some form.

We stopped by the school yesterday to talk with Virginia, the program director, and Manuel, the accountant. We discussed tools for the classes and the schedule. We plan to arrive again tomorrow to, once again, observe and learn to know more. But, we explained, our focus right now is in setting up the house and learning out to go about the daily task of living. As soon as we’re settled, we’ll be much more available.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

what you can do

Dear Readers,

Lots of you have been asking about care packages. Can you send them and how long will it take and what happens when they come through customs. Your concern and care, just in the asking, is hugely encouraging and supportive of us. Thank you!

Here’s the deal: right now we are going through culture shock. Everything is new and different and it all (or a lot of it, anyway) rubs the wrong way. This is normal. It is not something to run away from but something to work through. In order to do this, we have to slow way down, be flexible, and focus on the heart of what matters, i.e. being together, bed time read alouds, eating healthy, getting good sleep.

Perhaps this is one of the drawbacks of blogging. You get to see the hard stuff much more quickly and closer up than you would if I were corresponding via snail mail. (And if I was doing snail mail, I’d be sharing these details with only a handful of close friends and family.) So there’s that.

Also, maybe I am being too honest? I want to tell it like it is, but I don’t want to come across as a complainer. Transitions are hard for me, and they are super hard for at least one of our children (the one who just woke up and is informing me that she’s not going anywhere today).

What we are going through affects you—I need to be aware of that. No one likes to watch someone else flounder about like a fish, and for those of you who know us well, listening and watching without being able to do is a yucky place to be.

Which brings me to the point of this post: what you can do.

By far, the most important thing you can do is just listen and offer encouragement. Your emails and Facebook/blog/twitter comments are HUGELY encouraging. Knowing that you’re following along on our journey gives us strength, more so than I thought possible.

practicing new skills while reading emails

But some of you want to do more than that, something concrete, like care packages. I adore care packages, but in the name of honesty, let me be perfectly clear: we don’t need anything. Almost everything can be found in this country (if you’re willing to pay). I mean, Walmart is here (not that we intend the shop there). People live here all their lives and manage just fine. There are Twix bars and excellent coffee and rolling pins and whole wheat flour. There are drills and shoes and clocks and detergent.

True, at first glance many things are hard to find, things like baking soda, cocoa powder, forks (I found some and I bought a whole pack of 36 [they didn't have smaller quantities]—let’s have a party!), long ignitors, easy-to-light matches, sturdy clothespins, floor mats, good DVDs, lactaid pills, etc. But that doesn’t mean those things aren’t here!

Still, if you want to send care packages (and I have no idea how long they will take or what will happen in customs or how much they cost), we will jump all over them.

Our mailing address is:

c/o Comite Central Menonita
19 Avenida 5-94 Zona 11
Colonia Miraflores
Ciudad de Guatemala

(Keep in mind that all our mail goes to the capital, and once it arrives, it might sit there for a couple more weeks until we get into the capital.)

Another option is that MCC has opened a personal drawing account (PDA)for us. This account is for our personal expenses like vacation, ice cream, clothing—all things we need to pay for ourselves. You can write checks to MCC and put our names in the memo line and the money will go into our PDA. Contact MCC to confirm the procedure. Also, money gifts (in this format) are not tax deductible.

Yet another option is that you can just give money to our church (Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia) with “Guatemala Project” in the memo line. This money will help cover unanticipated expenses, give us some funds to work with at Bezaleel school, help pay for child care and Spanish studies for the children, cover our medical costs, etc. This money is tax deductible.

And yet another option is to donate directly to MCC. This will not help us outright, but it will help the agency we work for. And it might be a healthy outlet for your care and concern for the people here and in many other countries where MCC does relief and development work.

Much love to you all. You guys rock.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

rocks in my granola, and other tales

Taking her lunch on the front step.

It's 2:30 in the afternoon. Luvia just left. The chairs are sitting upside down on the table and the floors are still damp from her vigorous and repeated moppings.

My husband and all four kids just left to do some errands. They have to go get more minutes for the phone, stop by a sewing shop and drop off some fabric to be made into curtains. The children are also expecting a treat. Maybe they’ll bring home some sweet bread for a bedtime snack.

There is granola in the oven and some potatoes. We’ll have fried potatoes and eggs for supper.

I am sitting in my bed, propped up by two pillows, the computer on my lap. Next door (on the other side of the wall), the carpenters are tapping away on their project (an addition to this house, but not for us). A bus just roared down the road. The fan in the far room is whirring loudly as it attempts the impossible—to dry some clothes. I am eating Wilbur Buds and fighting to keep my eyes open.

He hung the fan up on the line so the wind would hit the clothing directly. 
Unintended bonus: the fan oscillates! 

This is the second time I’ve made granola. The first time I used oatmeal that I got out of a bin in an upscale grocery. There were a few dried beans in the oatmeal (from the bins next to the oatmeal), but I thought nothing of it and just picked them out before proceeding with the recipe. However, when we sat down to eat our much anticipated meal of regular granola mixed with cornflakes, we kept biting down on something hard.

“There are rocks in this granola!” my older daughter exclaimed. She spit out a piece into her hand and we studied it.

Rice! Bits of rock-hard rice were all through the granola! I had to throw it out, much to my dismay. I’m not used to ever throwing food directly into a trash can, but here there are no chickens to feed...yet.

Combing and braiding my daughter's hair.
She braids it to the very tip and ties it off in a knot, no hair bands necessary.

I mixed up a second batch of granola today and then burned a small bit of it. I’m still working out the kinks of the oven. It has some pretty violent hot spots. Luvia asked permission to take home the burnt parts.

“Do you have chickens?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I’ll grind it up and turn it into a drink.”

Cutting potatoes for the fried rice (that I let burn when she was out buying tortillas). 
She loves my knife, and with good reason - the knives here are TERRIBLE!

She also took two of our empty milk jugs home with her. For carrying coffee, she said. I’m glad things aren’t going to waste, but it’s awkward, having our trash be someone else’s treasure.

The rainy, cloudy, cold weather continues. Someone told me that here the cloudy days aren’t as oppressive as they are in the states, but I beg to differ. Here, they are equally oppressive. The difference is that here the streets are crowded with people walking everywhere, regardless of the weather.

To buy a little peace and quiet, we let the kids play games on our cell phones.

I am so glad I brought my twinkle lights (yet to be strung up), little lamps, and votives. Also, we bought two lamps to reduce the strain on our eyes—the bare, overhead light bulbs don’t provide sufficient lighting and we’re constantly squinting.

The corner of our bedroom. 
See the outline of the blocks? 
That's the moisture showing through.

The inside of our house is very wet. Water seeps in through the concrete walls and runs down. They are wet to the touch. We can’t hang anything on the outside walls because of the moisture. I asked Luvia if this is how all the houses are and she said no. This house wasn’t built properly. Houses are supposed to be dry inside. Which is both encouraging and discouraging.

She spent three hours bonding with the toilet via puking and diarrhea. She's fine now.

(Note: I said that we can see our breath and that is true. However, I’m figuring out that it’s not because of cold—though that may be true sometimes—but because of the wetness. It’s so wet that in the act of exhaling, steam is created. At least that’s what I think might be happening.)

The constant fighting is interspersed with periods of pleasantness.
The are distraught over their lack of toys. 
I tell them they'll adjust. 
They don't believe me. 

We are looking for another house to live in. I actually really like this house—the size and layout is quite nice—but the lack of outside space, privacy, and natural light, not to mention the leakiness and mold, constitute some pretty big drawbacks. We are going about fixing this place up, buying furniture, putting hooks in the (inside) wall, though, because it may be a little while before we can find another place (if we can find another place).

The front of our house: a one foot strip of grass (actual grass!) and a two foot strip of concrete. 
(I can't wait  until the rose bush blooms.) 

A couple days we walked into town to do some more shopping. We do this almost every day. We buy what we can carry, get some groceries, discover a few more shops (oh, they sell chicks here! here’s a carpenter’s shop—let’s order some chairs! here’s where I can get flats of eggs! here’s the ATM machine! forks! I found forks! etc.) Some kids had to go to the bathroom so we stopped at a hotel.

While we were waiting, I suggested to my younger son that he burn off some of his energy by racing to the far end of the courtyard and back. So he did...several times. And then when the littlest one was at the far end, my older son asked if he could run, too.

“Fine,” I said, “just keep your head up and watch where you’re going.”

The boys took off, running at breakneck speed towards each other with their heads down. At the last minute, they realized they were going to crash, so they both swerved. But, oh horror, they swerved not around each other but into each other—BAM, they hit head on and both went down. My younger son bounced off his brother, spun around and smacked the pavement, nose first. My older son landed beside him, gasping for air and whimpering.

The older boy was fine, but the younger one had a bloody nose. The bridge of his nose had a red-purple mark, and at first we wondered if it might be broken. (It’s not, we don’t think, and though it was still a little swollen and sore in the morning, he didn’t complain about it anymore.) What a fiasco! (But at least I got to meet the hotel owners and learn the prices—it’s a nice place to stay. Visitors, anyone?) (Actually, if you come visit us, we won't put you in a hotel. We'll hold you hostage in our house and show you all our crazy and never let you go.)

PS. The granola turned out perfectly. No rocks. Yay.