Friday, May 31, 2013

a bunch of stuff

I made a list of a bunch of stuff to tell you—odds and ends, nothing big enough to warrant its own post—but then I lost it and had to remake it and now the list is shorter and I can’t remember what I’m forgetting. Naturally.

1. Maseca Cornbread, Updated

I made it again, but this time I omitted all white flour and used roughly 1½ cups maseca and ½ cup cornmeal. The resulting bread turned out less cake-like and more cornbready—flatter and heavier—and delicious. I actually think I might prefer it this way.

And then the other night I made it yet again, this time with about half maseca and a quarter each cornmeal and whole wheat flour. So good.

Ps. Guess who linked to my cornbread post. I know! I nearly peed my pants.

2. Chocolate Icing

I want to make this (because you can never have too many chocolate icing recipes) and I fully intend to...when I get home.

3. Vanilla Beans

I can’t get real vanilla out here. I already told you that. But lately, I haven’t even been able to get artificial vanilla flavoring in our grocery store. I finally decided to ask a market lady, one of the women presiding over a bonafide stall.

“You mean the bean or the liquid?” she said.

“The liquid,” I said, and then I paused, speechless. “Do you have vanilla beans?”

“I don’t, but the lady over there does.”

I bought a bottle of the fake stuff for fifty cents and hustled across the aisle.

“Do you have vanilla beans?” I asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Sure,” the woman said. She dug around on the shelf behind her and pulled out a tied-shut, green plastic bag.

“A Chinese man bought all the big ones this morning,” she apologized. “I only have small beans, but I’ll be getting more tomorrow.”

I bought three, about 24 US cents per bean. I felt like dancing.

And now I’m wondering: is it legal to import vanilla beans? I read online that I might have to declare them. What does that mean exactly? Anyone have any experience bringing a suitcase full of vanilla beans into the US? I'd rather not invest my life savings and then have them thrown in the garbage.

4. Language Learning

In my last newsletter, I wrote a little bit about language learning and how it’s going. Here’s what I said..


Spanish hasn’t come as easily to the children as I had hoped. Enough of their classmates speak some English that they aren’t forced to articulate themselves. They are understanding more, and the younger ones are starting to string together simple sentences. Maybe we have unreasonable expectations? Maybe this is how learning another language, via semi-immersion, progresses?  (Something funny: the younger two children equate speaking Spanish with speaking English with a Spanish accent. This drives us absolutely batty. We’re forever yelling, “Speak Spanish! Or speak proper English so the other kids can learn!”)

Language has been a struggle for my husband and me, too. We forgot a lot of our Spanish over the last thirteen years, and jumping right in without any Spanish lessons, while doable, is kind of starting to trip us up now. We’re ready to move beyond the superficial chatter and plunge into deeper conversations, but our lack of vocab and correct verb usage keeps getting in the way. We’re looking into getting some brush-up Spanish tutoring for us (and concentrated one-on-one time for the children), but we’re still not sure if this will be a possibility or not. In the meantime, we bumble along...


In response to my letter, a friend from church sent me this article: Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning.

In the article, the author debunks the myths that children are natural language learners, that it’s easier for them than for adults, that complete immersion is as wonderful as we think it is. He concludes that, “Second language learning by school-aged children takes longer, is harder, and involves more effort than many teachers realize.”

You guys, you have no idea how happy this article made me. My kids are normal! Struggling is normal! Learning another language is hard work, for everyone and maybe even more so for children!

As soon as I finished reading the article, I picked up the phone and made arrangements for a language teacher to come to the house for an interview. (She's teaching the children as I type this.) And MCC has generously agreed to let us—all six of us—have one full week of language study at a school in Cobán, go us! 

5. Why all the trash?

When I wrote about the trash situation, some of you asked, Why? Why is there such a littering problem? Why don’t they throw stuff away instead of down?

I have the same questions. I always assumed it had something to do with poverty and a lack of education. But for some reason, that pat answer didn’t sit well with me. So I googled it and found this article.

To sum up: after ruling out the poverty and lack of education reasons, the author said that he believes people litter because of a lack of belonging. Except for in their houses, which they claim as their own and keep spotless, they don’t feel like they belong. The two foreign countries I know the best, Nicaragua and Guatemala, have both been ravaged by wars funded/egged-on by outside, domineering governments (hello, United States) and the people have been repeatedly stripped of their dignity. Also, both countries are full of trash. 

This theory fascinates me. I don’t know if it’s true, but it might actually make sense. What do you think?


On a similar note (contamination in the form of chemical pollution), Guatemalan farmers make some crazy-heavy use of pesticides. Fruits and veggies in the states get some pretty heavy pesticides coat-age, but in Guatemala there isn’t the same level of supervision and regulation. It's so bad that, if I think about it for more than two seconds, I get twitchy feelings about feeding produce to my children. This may be ridiculous, but not too ridiculous, I don't think. Get this: at Bezaleel, the gardener (not the volunteer from the states) sprayed the green beans every single day up until the day they were picked. So if I come back with a third eye, you’ll know why.

6. Cabbage Is Good For You

I said that cabbage is pallid and devoid of nutrients. My friend commented to tell me I was wrong. I cheered, and made round two of spicy cabbage, this time with a whole head (head?) (and it was a small, half dead one) of celery stalks and leaves, plus a bunch of squash leaves (puntos de guisquil).

7. Fake phone calls

The Bloggess wins, hands down, when it comes to writing made-up (though she says they're real) phone conversations. The best line? Fire-proof orphans.

8. Friday Link-Ups

Savvy bloggers do this thing on Fridays where they link to the interesting, profound, useful, and silly. I am not savvy so I don't do them. But still, I enjoy them and I thought you might, too. Of a Friday, if you're in the mood for some good, old-fashioned internet trolling, hit up these link-up queens: Mama Congo, Motley Mama, The Wednesday Chef, Cup of Jo.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

the race we saw

On Sunday we watched a half marathon. It was like watching ten thousand people trying not to unison.

Guatemalans like to run. We don’t remember anyone running in Nicaragua, so this came as a surprise. The attitude is so different from what I see in the states (and from mine). There’s no “oh I should run but don’t want to” attitude and hardly any “I’m going to run two miles every day no matter what” and not a bit of “I run to lose weight.” People simply like to run and so they do.

So the Cobán half marathon is a really big deal. The runners starts in Cobán, run to Carchá and then turn around and head back.

Because we go to church in Carchá, we decided to watch the race at its halfway point. We got there late (it’s hard to get a taxi on Sunday morning, plus it was pouring rain up until we left, plus our family has a fierce and proud tradition of falling apart every Sunday morning), so we missed seeing the Kenyans come through. (An Ethiopian won.)

However, it takes a long time for ten thousand people to run by. We stationed ourselves across from a mariachi band and watched. There was a lot to see.


There was runner in a bull uniform and another in a leopard suit. There were runners with dogs. There were children. There were people in wheelchairs. There were mamas who took time to kiss their cheering children. There were runners who stopped to take photos of the musicians. We even saw the very last runner—a frail old man, shuffling along,  grinning broadly, and completely ignoring the cluster of police escorts protecting him from being run over by the backed-up line of irritated drivers.

The end.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

spicy cabbage

I don’t think of cabbage as a vegetable, at least not a very good one, for three reasons:

1. Its white color implies a pallid, leached-out nutritive state, and in its most commonly eaten form—coleslaw—it's usually drowned in mayonnaise which cancels out any vitamins it might possibly have.

2. Kids balk at the tough crunch and occasional bite.

3. It’s a heavy lug of a thing which I interpret to means it’s probably mostly just water anyway.

So I avoid the lunky cabbage with its myriad problems. It’s just not worth the struggle.

Except I kind of love the vegetable—its bite! its crunch! its versatility!—so I don't completely avoid it. This ends up being a bittersweet affair, kind of like poking a sore tooth (if poking a sore tooth is bittersweet). What I mean is, what happens is this: I tentatively cook up some cabbage to test if my family may have matured in their tastebuds and the cabbage is fabulous and I fall in love with it all over again while my loved ones (though their rotten attitudes cause me to question whether or not I should use that adjective) renew their avowed hatred of the lowly cabbage. And then I mourn, dump buckets of ashes on my head, and beat my chest with my fists. Oh those cabbage-hating beasts!

Though this time was a little different. I made spicy cabbage and my family revolted and I fell passionately in love (with the cabbage, not my family), but after feeling sad and bitter for a two full days, I went back to the market and bought another cabbage because I wanted to so there.

Luisa’s recipe calls for sambal oelek but I knew I’d have as much hope finding that in Chamelco as I would a piece of the moon. I would improvise, I decided! But then in the midst of the mad supper dash, I tweeted Luisa just to see what she might recommend as a substitute.

Considering she lives in Germany and it was the middle of the night there, I wasn't surprised that a response wasn't forthcoming. So I proceeded along, willy-nilly, following my own instincts. I added chili cobán for heat, paprika for color, curry for punch, and soy sauce just for anyhow. I topped the whole mess with fresh cilantro and served it over rice with a fried egg on top. It was make-your-heart-go-pitter-patter good.

The next day Luisa tweeted back: garlic and chilis! Which would be fab, I’m sure, but my little creation had already made me so happy that I no longer had any desire to tamper with the ingredients whatsoever.

In this dish, the crunchy veggies are transformed into something so tender soft (and slicked with oil without any trace of greasiness) that they are nearly succulent. In some ways the dish reminds me of pasta with its long and thin, soft and smooth strips of cabbage. Comfort food at its best.

Can I get an amen? (Because my family sure won't give me one.)

Spicy Cabbage
Adapted from Luisa of The Wednesday Chef (her book was one of the select few chosen to travel with us to Guatemala). In turn, Luisa got the recipe brainchild from Molly.

I used chili cobán for my chili powder. It’s hot and smokey (and quite different from the chili-soup chili powder I use at home) and I’ll be bringing some back to the states with me. You can use any chili that you like: fresh and green, dried and fiery, saucy, powdered, etc. Whatever you have in your cupboards.

Luisa’s recipe called for bacon and shrimp of which I had neither. I did, however, have some bacon grease in my fridge—a great addition. But you can omit all meat and just stick with olive oil, if you prefer. (I think some spicy sausages would work well here, too.)

2-4 tablespoons olive oil, canola oil, or bacon grease
1 medium head cabbage, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 carrots, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced.
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon (less, maybe) chili coban powder
1 teaspoon paprika (smoked would be nice)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
3-4 roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
fresh cilantro, chopped

In a large pot, heat the fat over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage, onions, and carrots. Simmer/saute until the vegetables have lost their rigid reserve. Reduce the heat, clap on the lid, and cook for another 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender through and through. Add the curry, chili, paprika, soy sauce, and tomatoes. Cook for a bit longer to meld flavors and soften the tomatoes. Add salt and pepper as needed.

Serve the spicy cabbage over rice with lots of fresh cilantro.

Monday, May 27, 2013

the quotidian (5.27.13)

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

 Morning sun.

Fairy garden art.

View from the hammock.

 The rainy season has begun.
While I was making a cake in my kitchen, I got rained on.
(Instead of, "Someone left the cake out in the rain..." it's "Someone made a ca-ake in the rain.")

  A homemade gift from our landlord: guayava galette with butter crust, swoon!

Fresh honey in an old whiskey bottle.
One of our taxi drivers raises bees and recently harvested an enormous quantity of honey.
I think it tastes a little off (rotten?) but the kids love it.


Cake delivery: upon request, I made a birthday cake for one of the teachers.

 A Saturday afternoon experiment: beaver tails
 (I like donuts better.)

Kids climbing in my kitchen window to see what I'm cooking.
(The aforementioned beaver tails. It was very exciting.)

 End of workday crash.

The cake that I had no self control against, and that I got rained on while making. 
Chocolate icing between two layers of dark chocolate cake with vanilla icing 
and a heavy shower of sprinkles.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

down to the river to play

Last Sunday we met up with some friends for lunch in the park. Our friends said, in an off-handed sort of way, that the park had a stream with some waterfalls and the kids could bring their swimming suits if they wanted to get wet. I was expecting a trickle of dirty water and a few rocks. When I rounded a corner in the dirt path, I was not at all prepared to see a semi-natural waterpark.

While the adults visited, the children played in the spring fed—i.e. icy—water. For lunch we feasted on tuna salad, chili, braided bread, muffins, cookies, and cucumber-tomato salad. After a bit I wandered down to the water with my camera.

The admission price is low while still being high enough to keep out the lollygaggers (about six dollars for our whole family). The park is within walking distance of our church and very close to where we were living when we first arrived here. Now I’m left to wonder what other gems are lurking just outside my awareness zone.

Friday, May 24, 2013

rosa de jamaica tea

Alternate title: The Tea That Made Me Drunk

Hibiscus tea—known in Guatemala as rosa de jamaica—is a popular beverage here. It’s like cranberry juice, tart, red, and fruity, but in a tea format. Here they sell packets of the drink a la koolaid, as well as in bottles of syrupy concentrate. However, I prefer to buy the real deal, the dried flowers themselves.

I first got hooked on the tea when a friend served it for lunch one Sunday. She explained the process, which was super practical and doable, so the next week I told my husband to stop by the “bulk food store” on his way home and pick me up a couple ounces worth.

I made a concentrate by steeping a couple handfuls of leaves in simmering water and adding sugar and fresh lime juice. We all loved it. (The second time around I tried honey instead of sugar, but the honey flavor over-powdered the fruity tea-ness.)

Now. For the getting drunk part.

One afternoon I arrived home from school tired, hot, sweaty, and very dehydrated. It was four in the afternoon and I hadn’t drunk anything all day except my morning coffee, stupidmeIknow. So I drank a glass of water chased by about six glasses of tea. It wasn’t full-strength tea, though. I like to fill my glass about 1/4 full (maybe less) of tea (or juice) and then top it off with water. In total, I probably drank two full glasses of tea.

And then I got dizzy. And light-headed. And woozy.

At first I thought it was the shock of rehydration (is there even such a thing?), but when the feelings didn’t subside and I couldn’t even do my email/office work for lack of an ability to think straight, I started to wonder. And then I remembered what I had read about hibiscus tea.

Health benefits: the tea contains high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants, and it can help to reduce high blood pressure and inflammation.

Side effects/warnings: do not drink the tea if taking acetaminophen, hormone replacement therapy, or pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have low blood pressure. And it said that “Some individuals have experienced an hallucinogenic effect from drinking hibiscus tea or a sensation of feeling intoxicated.” (source)

Now I don’t think I was actually tipsy—what kind of a fruitcake gets drunk on tea!—though I suppose it’s possible. However, I believe it’s more likely that I have low blood pressure (I think this is true), and the tea just knocked it down a notch.

I admit I am tempted to drink several glasses and see if anything happens—you know, in the name of scientific study—but I’m slightly spooked by the brew. For one, I don’t like feeling loopy. And two, low blood pressure, I’ve read, leads to heart and brain damage and I’m rather fond of both my heart and brain.

Which really is too bad because it’s such an intoxicatingly (ha!) delicious drink.

(Any health gurus out there, feel free to weigh in! 
Am I out of my everloving mind to think the tea effected me that much? )

Rosa de Jamaica Tea with Lime

This tea would be fabulous with any number of additions, such as cinnamon, fresh ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mint, and even rum. The tea can be drunk cold or hot—I like it iced.

I have no idea where to get rosa de jamaica in the states. Perhaps all the health food stores carry it? If you can't find it, there's always amazon.

Proceed with caution.

1 quart water
½ - 1 cup sugar
juice of 2-3 limes
1 cup rosa de jamaica (hibiscus) leaves

Bring the water to a boil. Add the leaves, put a lid on the kettle, reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes.

Pour the liquid through a strainer, and discard the leaves. Pour the tea into a pitcher and add the lime and sugar and stir well.

Makes enough concentrate for ½ gallon to one full gallon of iced tea, depending on how strong you like it.

Do not drink all at once.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

more on trash

Like I said before, trash is everywhere.

It lines gutters, clutters yards, and peppers the roads. It covers cornfields like mulch.

When we first arrived, pre-corn season, we noticed empty, trash-filled lots on our walks through town. Time passed and we noticed farmers planting corn in the lots. They didn’t clean the lots before planting—rather, they simply pushed the trash to one side, poked holes in the ground, and dropped in the seeds.
And the corn grew, tall, strong, and brilliant green, right up through its blanket of plastic mulch.


in a non-littering moment

At a gorgeous local park, the kids found a Styrofoam plate at the water’s edge. So they set it afloat and off it whooshed. I had a minor hissy fit and made the main culprit pick up and appropriately dispose of five pieces of trash as penance. It felt like an inane activity, but I refuse to participate in the littering customs.


While hitching a ride in a friend’s private car, we zipped by the dump.

the workers' houses

do you see the workers? the vultures?
I still want to go back some early morning and get more than just a handful of blurry drive bys.