Tuesday, April 30, 2013

a Monday list

This is a Monday list that I’m posting on Tuesday but since I wrote it on Monday I’m going to stick by my guns and call it a Monday list. Even though it’s Tuesday. I’m stubborn like that.

1. On Saturday my younger son got shocked enough to break the skin. The kids had found an old mixer and were happily blending up weeds and water. I gave them a big lecture about sticking their phalanges in the running beaters, but I never thought to check the cord. So when my son went to plug it in, or unplug it or something, he got one whammy of a zapper. He cried for a while, and when he cries for longer than ten seconds, I know he’s really hurt ‘cause he’s one tough cookie.

(And yes, the shocking mixer has been banished from the playing field.)

2. Then on Sunday afternoon, my older daughter jumped over the hammock, got her feet tangled up in it, and hit the concrete face-shoulder-arm first. Now she’s all sorts of stiff and she says it hurts to chew hard food.

Blowing on one of the ouchies.

I don’t know how much longer we can maintain our track record of zero broken bones. (I didn’t just jinx myself, did I?)

3. My older son sat in a chair and it broke. No injuries, except for the chair’s (but it was already almost done for anyway, so it doesn't count).


Interlude for Semi-Relevant Story

When my husband and I were getting ready to leave Nicaragua, oh, about 13 years ago, we decided we wanted to take some rocking chairs home with us. So we went to the market in Managua and found a rocking chair vendor. My husband circled the chairs, prodding them with his foot, testing the weave of the seats with his hand, and grilling the vendor on the price. And then, to test out the comfort level, he plunked his skinny behind down in a chair and CRASH!—the chair dissolved in a pile of pieces on the floor, and my husband found himself inelegantly sprawled across the hard concrete in the center of the bustling market. He leapt to his feet, eyes sparking rage, while the vendor flooded him with apologies and explanations and I tried not to pee my pants from laughing. The chairs, it turns out, weren’t fully assembled. They were just stuck together to show what they looked like. They were actually well-made and would not, under any circumstances, fall apart once properly assembled, the vendor promised in a rush. But my husband had already stalked off. I had to track him down and talk him off the ledge. Then we went back and bought two chairs.

End of Interlude


4. My younger daughter, unlike the rest of her siblings, had no mishaps to speak off. She did, however, magic marker her lips a startling red.

We call her Marilyn.

5. I am reading Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures to my older children. A week ago, some friends loaned us the book and I promptly devoured it, lightbulbs flickering on every step of the way. Then my husband read it, and now my children.

Author Sarah A. Lanier talks about the differences between hot cultures (usually poorer countries, hotter climates, more relationship-based) and cold cultures (industrialized countries, cooler climates, task-oriented).

My husband and I are often confused and baffled by all the "wrong" answers we get when asking Guatemalans for directions, opinions, and pointers. What's so hard about giving a straight answer? we wonder. We just want the facts! But! To the Guatemalans, it’s not about information—it’s about relationships.They don't want to hurt our feelings by giving us an answer we don't want to hear, or by telling us they simply don't know.

The book, while quite helpful, leaves me with lots of questions. Namely, how do I, a task-oriented person, go about communicating, living, and working with people who don't say what they think, or relay the facts accurately? I wish the author would give more how-tos, tips, and directives for dealing with this "problem" because I'm from Virginia and I want information.

6. My kids finally had a successful skype visit with their homies. The computer got carried around so the Virginia friends could take a tour of the house, meet the neighbor kids, and see the dogs.

Overheard: Aw, they’re so cute! I want to touch them but there’s this screen in the way!

Afterwards, my children were glowing. Even though they’re handling the seismic lifestyle changes with a stellar amount of grace and good humor, they miss their friends.

7. As I was working on this post, I came across a link to a youtube poetry slamming performance. While it loaded, I went out to the kitchen, made my coffee, and helped myself to a piece of chocolate cake. Back in my room, I clicked "play." And then I tweeted this: Poetry slammer Katie Makkai on "Pretty." Catching my breath, wiping my eyes, and reposting as fast as I can. WATCH IT.

Monday, April 29, 2013

the quotidian (4.29.13)

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

Of a misty morning: the Bezaleel kitchen chimneys.

Ready to sell: sweet raisin biscuits.

Sweet raisin biscuits: a close up.
It's this recipe, but with shortening (in the States it would be butter, of course) instead of lard, 
plus with the addition of 1/4 cup each of sugar and finely chopped raisins. 
Before baking, brush the biscuit tops with milk and sprinkle with more sugar.

He thinks I'm funny.

By one of the school's maintenance men: two new chairs 

On loan from friends: we have music!
(Fact: too many, as in dozens and dozens, of consecutive listening of Country Roads
will drive this mama batty.)

Speaking of batty...
What we thought were exuberant crickets living in the eaves of our house have turned out to be bats. The occasional (fast becoming ever present), foul stench of what we thought was an old mouse nest 
has turned out to be a couple piles of guano. 
The conclusion? I am now, officially, batshit crazy.
Also, any advice as to how to get rid of them?
My husband just pointed out that half of the family is suffering
from nasty allergies: um, might it be because of the bats?

On loan from neighbors: The Hobbit. 
The two older kids and my husband stayed up late a couple nights in a row 
to watch the whole thing, unbeknownst to the two youngers. 
(As for me, I went to bed. I am not a Hobbit fan.)

Fire-starting: with magnifying glass and paper.

Oh, and gun powder
(I'm a little slow on the uptake sometimes.)

Frogs eggs. Or something.

With glorious abandon: how the bougainvillea flaunts its colors.
I can not, nor do I want to, get over this spectacular plant.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

church of the Sunday sofa

One of my girlfriends has been faithfully collecting and sending our church’s CDs, but we’ve never gotten around to listening to them...until today.

I had thought the children might groan and moan about having to sit through a church service at home, but to the contrary. They were thrilled.


“I don’t have to get dressed up!”
“In English!”
“We can stay home!”

I handed out helados (this time, frozen smoothies in little cups with sticks stuck in them for holding), poured myself a cup of decaf, and we gathered around the computer with blankets and pillows.

The kids leaned in close, trying to figure out who was leading music, reading scripture, saying the prayer. (Actually, they argued quite loudly over these things. There was much loud shushing.) They sang along with the music. There was a little hand clapping. When the leader asked the congregation for a show of hands affirming a new person for one of the job positions, all six of our hands waved vigorously. And when our dear pastor started talking, the children shouted, “That’s Jennifer!” All the familiar, sweet voices were like a hug.

We started out sitting up, but as the service wore on, some in our gathering tipped over sideways.

I sat at a little table and messed around with some watercolors (a gift from a sweet reader), and before long, a couple children joined me in splashing the browns, reds, and blues onto little squares of thick, white paper.

And, because no (CMC) church service would be complete without them, there were Harry Candies for sucking on.

Every Sunday, Harry, an older gentlemen and fellow sitter-up-front-er, slips pink mints to my children. It’s as much a part of their church service experience as the offering and children’s story. So a couple weeks ago when we received a package from Harry, we all guessed what it was right away: a whole container of pink mints, but of course.

When it came time to rise for the benediction, some of the kids popped reflexively to their feet. And thus concluded our visit to the Church of the Sunday Sofa.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

mango banana helados

In these here parts, a popular treat is helados, little baggies of frozen fruit beverages. I don’t let my children buy the helados they sell on the streets for fear of all things bacterial (goodness, I sound like my mother!), and, oddly enough, they don’t fuss about their deprivation, probably because I pronounce Doom and Gloom whenever they suggestively point out a cooler of frozen treats.

I did, however, buy a bunch of little baggies in the market so that we could make them ourselves. Below is my most recent concoction—

Hang on. I just interrupted our house help’s industrious sweeping of our floors to ask how the people here make helados. 

She said they are simply fruits blended up with sugar and water or milk, depending on the type of fruit and the desired flavor. For example, strawberries are blended with water and sugar, while bananas and coconuts are blended with milk and sugar. Mangos and pineapple don’t have any liquid added to them, just sugar. And then there are plain milk helados that are made with just sugar and vanilla.

...um, wait. I just stuck my head out of my room to ask her a couple more questions, and this time around she said that strawberries, cantaloupes, watermelon, etc, are blended with milk and sugar. I guess this means there is no set-in-stone formula?

Okay then! So here’s what you do, says I. Just make a runny fruit smoothie of your choosing, pour it into little bags, tie them shut, and then freeze for the next day’s after-school snack.

tearing a hole in the bag

Note: eating them is half the fun. Bite a little hole in one of the bottom corners of the bag and suck, slurp, and chew until gone.

Mango Banana Helados

2 very ripe bananas
1½ cups chopped mango (the equivalent of one large, juicy-sweet mango)
1 pint peach yogurt
1-2 cups milk

Whirl it together in the blender. Pour 1/4-1/3 cup portions into long, skinny baggies. Tie baggies shut as you do a balloon (this is where a helper comes in handy—one to fill bags and the other to tie them shut). Freeze.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

out and about

I've been getting braver with my camera! Some days, I wrap it in a towel, tuck it in my backpack, and then, if my mood (and the lighting and the social setting) is right, I whip it out and shyly snap a few. I never take as many photos as I'd like, and I don't circle my subjects like I do in the privacy of my home, but still, it's something.

(I've noticed that the photos, even the clear ones, end up looking fuzzy on the blog. Anyone else—readers? bloggers?—having this problem? Probably, blogger has it out for me.)


The car-and-bus graveyard:

We pass this dump on our way out of Cobán. Oddly enough, I find trash to be quite an interesting subject to photograph. I'm fascinated by what people throw out, and how and where—it says so much about a culture. Maybe I'm a garbologist at heart? 


Our transportation:

I've said it before, but I'll say it again (and again and again): these microbuses are meant to hold 12-15 people, but they actually hold between 25 and 30. In the US, we're taught that travel should be a luxurious event with spacious, comfy seats, ideal temps, and entertainment options. However, for the majority of the rest of the world, travel is simply a means of getting from point A to point B, never mind comfort. Having a place to rest your behind isn't even necessary.

Also, contrary to the Central American saying, "There's always room for one more," the drivers do eventually turn people away (thank goodness).


A typical storefront:

Little stores (called tiendas) are everywhere. It seems like everyone and their aunt Tilda wants to slap a sign out front and sell cokes and chips. I still don't understand how they make a profit.
Also, storefronts are often barred off. The customer simply stands on the street and asks for whatever she wants, and the vender fetches and bags it.

Note the bowl of dry corn (for making tortillas) sitting out front and, beside that, a bowl of tomatoes. Also, the chips. Lots and lots of teensy bags of chips that are empty before you even know what you're eating. (I miss plunging my hand into a big, greasy bag of salty chips and eating my fill without fear of running out.)


Meet (the back of) our street sweeper!

This guy spends his entire day sweeping our street, up one side and down the other.


(Except for Sunday.) (I think.)

We always greet him, and he usually mumbles a reply, his head ducked low. However, just a couple days ago, he stopped me, asked about my camera (and I thought I was doing such a good job of being discreet when taking photos, ha!). His name is Enrique.

Enrique said he thought we (me and my husband? all six of us?) were siblings. Riiiight, six siblings just bumming around Guatemala together. Still, his shock and awe upon learning that I was the mother of four ("I thought you were a teenager!") gave me a happy buzz for a couple hours.


Bulk shopping:

Some stores showcase big sacks of grains. Once, I made a vendor tell me what each thing was. Among the choices: popcorn, sesame seeds, bay leaves, flour, peanuts, spicy peanuts, bird seed, beans, incense, etc.


"La época de miel" (honey season):

The Wednesday before Good Friday, I went to market and was surprised to see honey everywhere I looked. Every other vendor had a five-gallon bucket, and, in her free time, was pouring the honey into old soda and whiskey bottles. "What's up with all the honey?" I asked a woman. She just smiled and said, "Es la época de miel," as though that explained everything. I never saw any honey before and I haven't noticed it since.



I've seen these playpens on more than one occasion. The table (er, baby stocks?) sits on runners. The kid gets stuffed through the hole and then spends his day running back and forth in his little cage. It's actually a rather brilliant set-up, though something tells me that it wouldn't meet the safety standards of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I took one picture of the kid's face (with his parents' permission), but the poor dear immediately burst into tears. I had to finish take the rest of the pictures from behind, out of his line of vision.

Monday, April 22, 2013


This boy has been having quite the go-round with weird ailments.

at Tikal, after soaking his head in the bathroom sink: hot and flushed (and healthy), 
and very proud of his self-styled hair

First, he ran bare-legged through some sort of plant that leaves welts and burns like the dickens for an hour or two. We gave him a bath and then drugged him with an antihistamine, and the agony eventually faded.

Second, there was the stomach bug. A little puking, a little diarrhea, a little staying home from school and laying around. (Central America is The Place To Be if you’re going to suffer the stomach bug. His recuperation diet included mango, watermelon, pineapple, and banana, how lucky is he?)

He’s still not completely himself. Last night we had hotdogs (the first time since we came here so this was A Big Deal) and he only ate one. (His older brother, however, ate nine.)

And third, his allergies are giving him grief. He was on daily allergy meds, but then we ran out and, because he was always snuffling and sniffling even on the meds, we decided to give it a go without. He’s just as snuffly as before, but now there’s the eye problem—they swell up somewhat regularly. We put drops in as soon as we detect a problem and the inflammation subsides immediately, but still...it’s uncomfortable.  Is it because he’s not on a pill now? Or is it because of something in the air? Like, all the smoke from the field burning? It’s hard to know.

We bought a hammock! (Two, actually, but the second one isn't up just yet.)

The other kids have been dealing with stomach stuff, too. Not enough to knock them down, but enough to keep them from eating much. (Except for, obviously, my older son.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

loose ends

It’s Friday afternoon. I just made myself a cup of iced coffee, grabbed two cookies, and drug one of the semi soft chairs out onto the porch. It’s hot, but there’s a kicky breeze, so no complaints.

We kept our younger daughter home from school today—she threw up during the night—but then she seemed to perk up enough that we took her along to Bezaleel with us. Walking down the driveway, we first passed the neighbors’ maid and then a hired hand. Both greeted us with the usual Buenos dias, but they greeted our daughter by name. When we take her out in public, it always amazes us how everyone seems to know her. She’s forever wandering off and smiling at little kids, so she makes friends quickly. And with her blond hair, she turns heads. This morning I had the distinct feeling I was walking with a celebrity.

finger combing on the go

Once at Bezaleel, I dropped off my ingredient list for the next week’s baking project (sweet raisin biscuits), visited with the librarian, checked in with a teacher who is helping me set up a twice-a-week tutoring program, signed out some children’s books (in Spanish) to prepare for said tutoring program, and interviewed a student. I’ve made up a general student interview and am attempting to interview about 30 students in hopes of getting a better understanding of the student body, their perceptions of the school, and their struggles and dreams. Also, the interviews provide me an in to the (what often feels like) impenetrable school.

When I was ready to leave, my daughter opted to stay at Bezaleel with her papa, so late morning I headed back into town solo, made a couple purchases, and then walked home. Upon arriving, I was pleased to discover I still had nearly three whole hours before the kids barged through the door. I ate some cornflakes, typed the interviews into the computer, chopped up a giant mango, and then headed outside to the hammock for some reading.

My husband and I have been feeling a little at loose ends with our work here. The only specific tasks and jobs we have are the ones we create for ourselves. On one hand, this is great. We are in complete control over how we manage our time and where we put our energy. But on the other hand, it’s exhausting to constantly be fishing around for meaningful work, and I often end up feeling guilty.

Guilty that I’m not putting in more hours at school.
Guilty that I’m not hanging out with the Guatemalans more.
Guilty that I’m not making lots of creative meals with all the local produce.
Guilty that I’m not spending more time tutoring my own children.
Guilty that I’m not reading more books.
Guilty that I’m not doing more to improve my Spanish.
Guilty, even, that I’m opting to go to bed early instead of staying up late watching movies.

Work harder! Do more! Be productive! Relate! Push! Struggle! Stretch! Grow! Relax! Have fun! shriek the voices in my head.

So I try to pace myself. I try to make some food from scratch to counterbalance all the white bakery bread. I do a little recipe testing and then tell myself that’s enough for one day. I send some emails and try not to feel bad about the ones I haven’t sent. I focus hard for 15 minutes of Spanish study with one child before releasing him to go play. I lay down in the hammock and make myself read eight pages of an interesting, but definitely not light, book because it will make me a better person and I need to be disciplined, dagnabbit.

I think what’s bugging me most is my lack of friends. There are lots of friendly people, lots of good people, lots of people who, by all appearances, seem to respect and enjoy us. But we haven't found people like us. I don’t have Guatemalan girlfriends. We don’t have other families with which to get together and feel at ease. We are by ourselves here.

Which makes sense, really. I mean we’ve only been here three months. But we only have six more months to go, yikes! I gotta get cracking!

And then, naturally, I beat myself up. I should reach out more. Invite people over. Work harder. Be more carefree. And for crying out loud, lighten up already.

And so it goes. 

The rational part of my mind tells me that while I certainly could improve in some areas and it’s always a good thing to try to better one’s self, it’s better to start slow (maybe stay slow, too) and keep things in balance then to throw all caution to the wind and burn out in no time flat. We can be helpful and do little bits of good here and there, but honestly? How much can we really do in nine months? We can give our time, share our skills, offer encouragement, and that’s about it. It’s not like we’re going to swoop in here and blast the place full of earth-shattering good deeds. I had no illusions that we would do that, but being here and experiencing The Not Doing It feels a bit awkward.

“What’s the point?” we frequently ask ourselves. “Why are we here? What purpose does our bulky, foreign presence serve?

These are hard questions, and I worry them over, some days more than others.

But the answer, perhaps, is no different whether I am in sitting in front of the wood stove on my down-filled, Ralph Lauren (secondhand) sofa or sitting on a rat-chewed, saggy chair in the tropics. The answer is to care for those I love, learn new things, treat people kindly and gently, listen and watch and ask questions and smile.

Is it enough? I really don’t know, but here’s to hoping!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

nutmeg coffee cake

After many discussions and much gentle prodding, the school has finally agreed to let me teach a baking class to the 10th grade girls! (!!!!)

Every Tuesday morning, the twelve girls and I meet for two hours in the panaderia (bakery), a little room at the top of the outdoor stairs above the kitchen.

The main idea is this: I teach them a recipe and then they sell the product to the other students and teachers. With the money that we earn, we buy the next week’s ingredients. This isn’t how it goes exactly—sometimes the cakes burn or come out undercooked—but so far we’ve managed to cover the ingredient costs. With a bit of practice, there is the potential for some substantial, or at least satisfactory, earnings.

Last week I taught them how to make banana cake. This week, it was nutmeg coffee cake. My husband came along and played the role of paparazzi. (He teaches carpentry to the 10th grade boys on Wednesdays—this way he’s freed up on Tuesdays to be my number one assistant.)

the metal pans: handmade by my husband's carpentry students

The morning proceeds like so:
1. We arrive early to open up the panaderia. We scrub the tables—the room is infested with mice and flies, so we disinfect everything at the last minute, work quickly, and then clean up ASAP. (Starting next week, I’ve asked the girls to come at 7:30 so they can do the prep work and we can get started sooner.)

that's the oven over yonder 

2. We hunt down the ingredients. This can get sort of tricky because even though I submit my ingredient list ahead of time, I never know if I’ll get exactly what I asked for. There is always a moment of panic when I first arrive and no one seems to have any clue where the ingredients are stored and whether or not anyone actually purchased them. But then, somehow, miraculously, everything comes together.

3. I start the class by briefly explaining the recipe and then we jump right in. Once the cakes are in the oven, we clean up and then gather around the tables to talk. The girls copy down the recipe in their notebooks, we calculate the costs and how much we need to sell the cake for in order to make a small profit, and I drill them on measurements and fractions (something they are deplorably weak in.  If anyone has links to some good fractiony worksheety websites—basic addition, multiplication, division, etc—I’m all ears).

4. When the cake comes out of the oven, we cut them up and the girls take trays downstairs where they promptly get mobbed by all the students having their mid-morning break and looking for something to eat along with their corn drink (or whatever beverage the kitchen is serving that day).

Except this week, the girls never even made it downstairs to sell. As we were pulling the cakes out of the oven, the teachers flooded the room. They bought entire pans. Within minutes, all the cake was sold. My husband didn’t even get a taste.

eager teachers

I’m a little surprised by all the cake-loving enthusiasm. I figured people would be happy about it, but to snap it right up? That I did not expect.

This eagerness is good, wonderful even, but I have to figure out how to handle it.

*Maybe we should raise the price? (But I don’t want to exclude the poorer students...)

*Make more cake and make it more often? (I’d love to have another class with a different group of students, but that all depends on the director...)

*Limit purchasing power? (But I hate withholding cake from anyone!) (I think one student bought an entire pan with the intention of selling it at an increased rate to make a profit. That, while admirably entrepreneurial, will not be happening again.)

And now, for all you bakers, a request. I’m looking for simple recipes with the following limitations:

*Must not call for butter. Or if it does, it must taste good with a margarine, vegetable shortening, oil, or lard substitute.
*Does not call for cream or any fancy ingredients such as chocolate, cheese, or nuts.
*From start to finish, the recipe must take no more than two hours.
*The finished product must be easy to divide up and eat out of hand.

cleaning up at the outdoor pila

The ingredients that are abundant and which I’d like to incorporate include: cardamom, cinnamon, limes, mangoes, pineapple, bananas, corn, mayonnaise, powdered milk, etc.

Some ideas that I’m already mulling over:
*mango-cardamom coffee cake
*cardamom-lime scones (I’m a little nervous about working with cardamom as I’ve heard that no one likes it or eats it, despite the fact that it is everywhere here, raised for export)
*cornbread made with maseca flour (or better yet, their homemade corn masa)
*a cake made with mayonnaise in place of some of the shortening (because it worked so well with this recipe)
*cinnamon cookies (made these tonight with margarine instead of butter; they were a hit)
*a good icing using shortening and a somewhat grainy confectioner’s sugar

Nutmeg Coffee Cake
Adapted from the More-With-Less Cookbook (I think).

This nutmeg coffee cake (torta de nuez moscada) is something I taught to the Nicaraguan women that I worked with many years back. It’s super simple to make and pairs very well with a cup of coffee. To fancy it up, serve it with sweetened fresh fruit and a bit of whipped cream. (Here, we make it with vegetable shortening, not butter, sob.)

4 cups four
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour milk
2 eggs, beaten
nutmeg, freshly grated, if possible

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, sugar, and butter until the mixture resembles pebbly sand. (I use my fingers, but you could use a food processor.) Remove 2/3 cup of the mixture and set aside.

Add the baking soda, milk, and eggs. Mix lightly to combine.

Pour the batter into a greased 9x12-inch pan. Sprinkle the reserved crumbs over the batter. Sprinkle the whole thing with lots of freshly ground nutmeg.

Bake the cake in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown and puffy.