Sunday, June 30, 2013

blueberry pie

A couple weeks ago, at the end of that particularly excruciatingly sluggish week, my husband and I and a couple friends checked out a local, pick-your-own blueberry farm. Actually, it’s not really open to the public, but we know a person who knows everyone here, so with a little string pulling and name tossing, we got ourselves an appointment with the blueberry bushes.

Turns out, they weren’t the most loaded berry bushes. There were more loaded bushes elsewhere on the property, but they had been picked the day before. Really though, I didn’t much mind. I was picking organic blueberries in Guatemala and that was enough to make me squeal happy. My husband and I picked seven pounds between the two of us, and at US$1.30 a pound, it felt like a steal.

Ho, ho, ho! I'm gonna eat you!

Back home, I got the two pie pastry disks I had made earlier that morning out of the fridge and set about making pie. I almost never make blueberry pie since using up all that painstakingly picked fruit in one fell swoop feels obscenely extravagant. Instead, I usually opt to freeze my berries in one cup bags so that a few berries can flavor a whole bunch of food, such as oatmeal, granola, fruit salads, etc. But with no big freezer, all the berries had to be used up within a couple days, so pie it was. (I did freeze four 1-cup baggies; old habits die hard.)

Despite not being a blueberry pie expert, the pie was a smash hit. I used Elise’s recipe as my template and made adjustments as I went. I worried a little that the filling would be runny, but it was perfect: it held its shape while still being saucy juicy.

For dessert that night, we ate thick wedges of warm blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream. It was all I hoped it would be...and more.

Ps. The next day there was this blueberry cobbler and the rest of the ice cream. And the next day there was blueberry baked French toast. And in between there was granola and oatmeal with blueberries.

Blueberry Pie
Minimally adapted from Simply Recipes.

I have no food processor to simplify the pastry-making process, but a perfectly excellent pastry can made with just your own two hands and a bowl (and some measuring cups).

1 recipe (two disks) rich butter pastry
5-6 cups blueberries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup flour
½ generous cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
sugar and milk, for top crust

Roll out one of the pastry disks. Use it to line a 9-inch pie pan.

Put the berries in a large bowl. Add the juice and zest and gently toss. Add the flour, sugar, and cinnamon and toss together. Tumble the berries into the pastry-lined pie plate. Dot with the butter.

Roll out the remaining pastry disk. Cut slits in the top. Lid the pie with the pastry. Crimp edges. Brush the top crust with milk and sprinkle liberally with more white sugar.

Bake the pie at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Once the fruit juices begins to bubble over, place the pie on a baking pan to collect the drips. (Don’t do this earlier—you want the bottom crust to get as brown as possible). The pie is done when the crust is deep golden and the berries are bubbling madly. Cool to room temperate (or almost). Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


None of my children are particularly athletic. They’re active, yes, but they’ve never shown a propensity for organized sports. Which is perfectly fine with me. Sports aren’t my thing either. I’d rather watch the children run around the back forty with machetes and zero-turn mowers and bikes from the comfort of my cozy kitchen, cup of strong, homemade coffee in hand, than watch them from a hard-as-stone bleacher bench while whistles shrill and buzzers blare and kids beg for please a cup, just one cup! of toxic orange soda.

We did egg them on a little, back when they were wee-tots. My older son did one year of karate and my older daughter did a season of ballet. But neither of them wanted to continue, so I said pfttt and that was that.

But then we entered the soccer-crazed land otherwise known as Guatemala. The older children shied away from the sport, clumsy big oafs that they are, but my younger son, the biggest clumsy big oaf of them all (or so we thought), became obsessed.

We bought him a soccer ball for his February birthday, back before he knew what such a ball was for. Since then, he has developed an obsession for the sport. Actually, I’m not sure how much he understands the game—it’s the ball-and-foot action that he’s so in love with.

He is always kicking something. If his soccer ball isn’t around, it’s a basketball (until it went flat) or one of the hard plastic balls that cost Q3 each (being hard and plastic and cheap, they don’t have a long shelf life) or his lunch box or his pillow or a random shoe. Anything that can be kicked will be kicked.

We’ve made a no-kicking-balls-in-the-house rule, but it’s like he’s under some sort of compulsion: he. can. not. stop. Out of frustration, I’ve hurled the offending balls up into the farthest, rat-turd-ridden reaches of the ceiling corners. His father has booted them out of the house. We’ve sat the kid on time out. We’ve packed the balls up. We’ve confiscated them. We've explained and yelled and begged and reasoned. He’s doing a little better about carrying, not kicking, the balls through the house, but not much. Sigh.

The neighbor kids have taken to playing rollicking games of soccer on our concrete patio. On the one end is a beautiful flowering bush that serves as a goal and that now looks rather beleaguered. On the other is the two-foot drop off. The playing field is small and hard, and the porch pillars get in the way, but no one seems to mind the limitations.

For yesterday’s game, my older son and his friend Joaquín (and later my older daughter) made up one team. The other team was comprised of my younger son and Fernando, with the oldest neighbor boy Jorge (who is brothers with Joaquín) as their goalie.

Of course, I cheered for the little boys. They held their own amazingly well. The big kids put the emphasis on power kicks while the littles thrilled in fancy footwork, passes, and team work.

So all that stuff I said in the beginning of the post about not having athletic kids? Turns out, I may have one after all.

‘Course, we could get back to the states and he might forget all about his love affair with fútbol.

the dirty results

But if he doesn’t, there’s a small chance, just a teeny-tiny wee one, that I might be willing to endure those hard-as-rock bleacher benches ... if it means getting to see this boy of mine have a good time.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

on slaying boredom

On Sunday evening the girls and I (mostly me) made two banana cakes. Monday morning (they didn’t have school), we stacked the pieces of cake between layers of wax paper and covered the pan with a towel. The girls dressed in their K’ekchi' skirts and blouses (my younger son begged to wear a skirt, too), and Jovita showed them how to carry the container on their heads. The children took turns carrying the cake all the way to town.

As we walked up the street to the market, my older daughter said, “I’m starting to feel nervous. Everyone is looking at me!”

We waded into the market and I snatched up the first empty spot I came to.

Suddenly stricken with bashfulness, the girls hung back, but my youngest stationed himself behind the cake and gamely called out, “Torta de banano! A dos quetzales!”

It took a minute, but as soon as the surrounding vendors realized what was going on, they started grinning from ear to ear (except for the ones who were staring, their chins scraping the ground).

And then a bit of magic happened: the locals took charge of my children and their cake-selling project.

One woman brought the children a stool to set the cake on, and then a few minutes later she switched it for a sturdier, wooden one.

Someone handed us plastic bags for packaging the bread. (We had brought napkins, but they were too awkward. When I asked, they pointed me in the direction of a store that sold bags—I bought a hundred.)

The first customer approached. He wanted five pieces of cake. He handed the kids the money, and then explained, his eyes twinkling, that the person managing the money should not be the person touching the cake.

For the next ten minutes, the children ran a brisk business.

After the initial setting up and some basic pointers, I faded into the background and snapped pictures. Besides, I couldn’t have gotten close to them if I had wanted to—they were completely surrounded by their customers.

I couldn’t stop grinning. The whole exchange was stunningly beautiful. The transformation from us as the onlookers (shoppers, takers, outsiders) to participants (included, welcomed, wanted) was astounding. It was like a switch had flipped. For that little bit of time, we weren’t just here visiting this culture, we were emulating it. Suddenly, instead of tolerating us, they were hosting us. It was delightful.

My husband and older son had been running errands on the other side of town, and when they heard we were in the market, they came over to visit.

When all the cake had been sold, we returned the stool.

“You need to go home and make more cake,” the neighboring vendor said. “Come back this afternoon!”

On the way out of the market, we paused to admire a basket of puppies.

One nipped at my daughter’s hand, causing her to jump back and making the women laugh.

I gave the children each two quetzales to spend on whatever they wanted. They loaded up on chips and soda and lollypops and then complained about feeling sick.

And thus ends the tale of how I nipped boredom in the bud by making my children sell cake.

The end.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

my ethical scapegoat

Sunday evening, this is what I posted on Facebook:

All the thoughtful comments on my "What to do about Jovita" post are wonderful....but now I'm more tied up in knots than ever! It's really not that big a deal, but as with any dilemma, there's a whole lot of garbage/history/truth to either side of the issue. For some reason, this is the conundrum on which I am dumping all my angst. My ethical scapegoat, maaaa-aaaaa.

I never came to a solid, this-is-the-answer solution. Instead, I decided on a two-pronged approach: pay Jovita half of Friday’s wages and inform her that I wouldn’t be paying for any more days off.

“But here it’s the custom for workers to be given a paid holiday,” she said.

“Actually,” I corrected, “that’s only in the case of salary workers, not part-time hourly workers.”

I went on to explain that she was welcome to take off for holidays, or to take a day off if she wanted to rest, but from here on out if she didn’t work she didn’t get paid. And then I pointed out the banana cake and sweet roll intended for her break, rounded up the kids, and headed to town.

I felt okay about the exchange. Not completely okay, but okay enough.

I loved getting all your responses. There was such a range of approaches and beliefs, and as I pondered each suggestion, I began to get a clearer sense of why this is such a sticking point for me.

These are the two voices I had warring in my head:

1. generosity is Jesus mandated so JUST DO IT.
2. there is more to the picture; be cautious, be careful, because exploitation, both being exploited and exploiting, does no one any good.

All my life, the importance of generously helping the less fortunate was drilled into me. But then I came to Central America and began to understand that “giving freely,” as we in North America think of doing so, isn’t always all that helpful. In fact, it can be harmful, dangerous, and flat-out irresponsible. Erring on the side of generosity can actually be an error. Using words like “kindness” and “generosity” as cover-ups doesn’t make that error any righter, nor do they make us less responsible for committing that mistake. With the power to give comes the responsibility to act wisely. This requires that we be informed, that we really, truly, deeply know who we are helping and why and what the goal is. It requires accountability on both sides, time together, and lots of listening. It requires research and contemplation and hard thinking. It’s work.

So I was struggling to reconcile these two voices in my head and then all YOUR voices chimed in and intensified the battle. It felt like both sides were equally right. It felt either/or. I was stumped.

I believe that the two sides can be, need to be, reconciled—but it means that my understanding of both truths has to be expanded and deepened. Being generous might not always feel very generous. Being kind doesn’t necessarily feel rosy and sweet all the time. And on the flip side, it's a given that I'll be exploited at times. Plus, I could benefit from learning to let things go and ease up on my justice-oriented soapboxing. The idea is that somehow, with lots of sweat and wrangling, the two sides will eventually arrive at a clumsy sort of peace. Just maybe.

If I’m lucky.

Take, for instance, the concept of parenting—

(Which is a really bad analogy because the notion of parent/child nations is taboo since we’re all supposed to be equals. However, we haven’t exactly treated Guatemala as our equal, and now they tend to think of the US as The Milk Cow, The Money Tree, The Sugar Daddy. So maybe it is a good analogy after all?)

Good parenting doesn’t mean smiley children (or parents) all the time. It means looking at the big picture and helping the kids to do the same. It means towing the line and not always being adored. It means teaching and loving and working your butt off and demanding that they work their butts off, too, sometimes.

It does not mean doling out candy and plastic toys to keep the peace.

Any halfway competent parent knows this, and yet when we think of helping poor people, our gut reaction is to do just that.

The more I spend time in Guatemala (or Nicaragua, or working in the foster care system, or involving myself in church politics or soup kitchens), the more I start to understand the complexity of the issues. The lines blur and I lose my footing. I start to understand more than just my side of the picture. Stuff gets messy. However, only then, when the lines blur and the complexities abound, can true helpfulness take place. Funny thing is, true helpfulness often ends up looking a lot different from what I imagined it would look like when I started out.

Which leads me to wonder: how much of a right do I have to involve myself in situations on the other side of the globe? The other side of the country? The other side of my town? Unless I am willing to go there, to be inconvenienced, to pour my time and energy (let’s forget about money for awhile), then maybe I have no business trying to help?


All this talk of helping reminds me of a children’s poem I memorized when I was little. That three out of the four children’s names in the poem corresponded to me and my brothers (we don’t have an Agatha, thank you Mom and Dad), tickled my fancy to no end. It's the last stanza that keeps running through my head.

Agatha Fry, she made a pie
And Christopher John helped bake it
Christopher John, he mowed the lawn
And Agatha Fry helped rake it

Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it

Some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping’s all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without

-Shel Silverstein

Saturday, June 22, 2013

weigh in, please

So here’s the sitchy aiy shun. Remember all that stuff I told you about Jovita asking for money? Without doing anything beyond what I reported, she stopped asking. For weeks now, there have been zero requests. It’s been lovely.

But then on Wednesday when we were saying goodbye, she informed me she wouldn’t be coming on Friday (because it’s Chamelco Official Birthday holiday) and would I please pay her for her day off. Sure, take the day off, I said, but I’ll have to talk to my husband about the pay. Her request caught me off guard, and playing the subservient (snort) wife was the fastest way out.

After she left, I stomped around the house, grumbling and mumbling. I'm your classic, uptight North American so I fall to pieces when people pull last minute plan changes on me. (You ought to see what happens when taxis stand us up, ha. It sends my non-scheduled husband into a freakout tailspin, so you can only imagine what it does to me.) Plus, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being had.

I asked another gringo if Friday is a paid holiday, and he said it is, but only for salaried workers. Then I asked our landlord. She confirmed what the gringo friend told us, and then said that some of their workers showed up and others didn’t. Only the ones that came to work got paid, but choosing to take the day off was acceptable, too. Such is the life of the hourly worker. (Whether or not those hourly workers ought to get salary benefits is a whole other issue.)

I want to be generous with our house help. I try to treat Jovita respectfully and to give her some extra benefits that she might not get at another house. But at the same time, I want to follow local customs.

Part of me says, “Good grief, what’s the big deal? It’s only forty quetzales! She has seven children, her husband got laid off, she does a fabulous job, she’s reliable, and she never (at least for the last month) asks for anything. Cut the woman some slack, will you?”

But another part of me says, “But this isn’t about me. It’s about how Guatemalans perceive North Americans as money-throw-abouts. Sticking by my guns and following local customs will be one for the Humanity Home Team. Because this is about dignity. By upholding the guidelines and being generous within them, I’m demonstrating that I am not to be taken advantage of. And by expecting her to hold up her end of the deal, I am showing that I respect her.”

But maybe that’s cold?

Maybe it’s better to give her the money so that we have The Good Feeling Thing that is so important in this culture?

But maybe that Good Feeling comes at the expense of True Good Feelings that come from treating each other with dignity? Maybe I’m the one who has to play the toughie in order to bring our relationship to a deeper level, one in which we both respect each other as people?

Maybe I’m full of crap and it doesn’t matter what I do?

And what about all those bothersome Jesus teachings about Giving It All Away and Helping Anyone Who Asks?

Please, what do you make of this? My husband is exhausted by my on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand hashing out and is no help whatsoever. Maybe your Sunday school class could give this a go-over and arrive at some brilliant solution?

Jovita comes at eight o’clock Monday morning. I need to have a response by then.

Friday, June 21, 2013

three things

Thing One
It’s the rainy season and my husband, a situational asthmatic, has taken to using his rescue inhaler multiple times each day. He says his chest hurts, and he’s forever collapsing on the bed and moaning. He walks around like an old man. And at night he dreads going to sleep because laying down makes him feel like he’s drowning.

The whole things was starting to feel out of hand, so we made tentative plans to find someone with a stethoscope within the next few days, but then last night he spent four hours hacking up his lungs. Not cool.

This morning over breakfast, I said, “Um, maybe you should see a doctor today?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“I know!” I shouted, spying a bright opportunity. “Let’s go to the local clinic! All you need is someone to listen to your lungs—it doesn’t have to be anyone fancy. It’ll be a cultural studies outing! You’ll be the perfect specimen. It’ll be fun!”

I wasn’t joking when I said I was desperate for something to do.

In the end, we didn’t stop at the little clinic in Chamelco. We had errands to run in Cobán anyway, so it made sense to go to the same place where they treated our daughter’s dog bite.

Turns out, my husband’s lungs are full of mucus (which is just a fancy word for SNOT). The doctor gave him scripts for a couple different meds, including an antibiotic and a number to call if his calves start to hurt (apparently a rare but dangerous side effect of one of the drugs). Maybe their motto should be: We’ll heal you if we don’t kill you.

(Kidding. The clinic is really very nice.)

Clarifying Note: the series of Exhausted Husband pictures are culled from the archives and not just from this last week. 

Thing Two
It’s fair week.

Think I should let the kids ride the Ferris wheel?

(It blew over last year.)

(And yes, there are seats. Fair goers aren't expected to dangle by their hands, though that would give the ride a unique element of adventure...)

Thing Three
My daughter loves bugs and animals, so when our neighbor kid showed her his collection of insects, she was thrilled. When her teacher tasked the class with a bug identification project, she was excited. And when the neighbor boy said she could borrow his collection, she was over the moon.

She spent hours making a display board, identifying the insects, carefully penciling in their names.

Her passionate absorption is beautiful to watch.

It's fun to ponder where this interest might lead...

Thursday, June 20, 2013

walking through water

Last week when we arrived in Cobán for language study, my younger son stumbled off the bus, grabbed my hand and groaned, “I almost fell asleep. I feel like I’m walking through water.”

Which made me laugh because 1) that’s exactly what feeling tired at on a sunny afternoon feels like, and 2) he arrived at the common analogy—tiredness and walking through water—himself, thus verifying its authenticity.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m walking through water all day long, but not because I’m tired from working so hard. To the contrary, I’m bored to the point of exhaustion.

I get bored easily and quickly. This is a well-known fact, and I’ve learned to accept it, more or less. (Lie! I hate it! I fight it! I wish it weren’t so!) That’s why it came as such a delightful surprise to not be bored for even one single minute for the first three months after we arrived here. Seriously. I was keeping track. I was fully aware that I was the opposite of bored and I relished my newfound non-bored-ness.

But then Mr. Boredom raised his stodgy head. At first it was just for an hour here, a few minutes there, but then he started sticking around longer. And longer and longer and longer. Now, five months in, I’m on the verge of suffocation by boredom.

Regular tasks like shopping and cooking supper have become elevated to Sanity Savors. I’ve invited myself to other people’s houses (and now am now trying [unsuccessfully] to not hope too much for the text message that’s my golden ticket to a Morning of Cooking with Amada’s Abuela). I’ve willingly attended K’ekchi’-only meetings because at least then I’m not sitting at home by myself. I circle the web hopelessly, randomly, frantically, searching for connection and inspiration. In fact, it’s so bad that I’m seriously toying with the idea of baking something, carrying it to town on my head, and selling it at market. (When I explained to my husband that I’m going to fall off the deep end if I don’t have something to do NOW, that was the idea he came up with to get me off his back.)

The women's retreat.

Like I said, I battle boredom in the states, too. And there I have great swaths of family and friends and Netflix and a whole huge house and garden and all sorts of things to help me cope. Here, I’m kind of on my own.

It’s way better than it was in Nicaragua, though. In Nicaragua we lived in a one room house in a community of 35 families and there was no internet, no phone, no taxis, no market, no nothing. I didn’t fare so well, either. Depression crept in and set up camp. It was dark.

I am not depressed here. Not yet, and hopefully not ever. I’m diligent about getting my exercise, my sleep, my vegetables. I get out, even if it’s just to cruise the market or to sit in the teachers’ room and write sentences using the subjunctive.

The entrance to Chamelco, as viewed from the plaza. 

Also, it helps that here we are living close to real, lots-of-people-live-in-them towns. There are schools and churches and internet cafes and bakeries. There are opportunities for connections galore. One would think I should be hopping with wall-to-wall busyness! But I’m not. Because the same rule that dictated our lives in Nicaragua exists here: if I’m going to be busy, I have to create my busy. However, I keep bumping up against this one little fact: I can push myself to put out only so much before I start to feel depleted.

Watching a volleyball game: Bezaleel students.

But how am I to create my Busy, my work, when I'm the odd-one out? Not only am I the giant white lady standing in a corner with no one to talk to, slow on the uptake and hard to understand, but everyone was managing just fine before I came. Which begs the question: how much do I even have a right to carve out a space for myself here? What does the ever elusive Accompaniment and Support look like in our situation?

I want to place blame somewhere—on the school, MCC, the K’ekchi’ people, my husband, myself. I wonder if this boredom is because we are here for a short time and can’t invest ourselves as deeply. If we were here for three to five years, we’d be spending a lot more energy claiming this space, making the house ours, putting in a garden, etc. We can only skim the surface in nine months. Also, we’re not the only ones holding back—why should the locals want to invest in us when we’ll soon be gone?

But even if we were here longer, I still think I’d be struggling with these same issues because the fact is this: gaining trust and building relationships takes time and lots of waiting and standing around in corners, watching, listening, and twiddling our thumbs. That’s just how this business is. There are no short cuts.

White hair: an unusual sight.

So why are we only here for nine months? Good question! The reasons are as follows:

1. MCC/Bezaleel didn’t want anyone for longer.
2. We wouldn’t have taken a longer term (though we did say we were available for one year) because long-term overseas commitment scares the living daylights out of us.
3. After a history of heavy MCC involvement at the school followed by a few years of hardly any involvement, we are kind of testing the waters, looking around, feeling the situation out. It wouldn’t make sense to send someone into a “feeling out” position for three years.
4. Our previous three years with MCC count for something; we’re not coming in cold. Chilly yes, but not cold.

So I slog through my days. Sometimes the pace picks up. If I’m lucky, I get twinges of purposefulness. Some days are even productive! I set goals—little ones, like go to church, kiss every woman you meet on the cheek, smile, ask a question. And minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, time moves forward.

Despite the dull, daily drudge, valuable (I hope!) Big Picture work is happening. It's Stuff I Can't Talk About (sorry) and it doesn't meet my needy-needy-neediness for daily connections, but there is Behind The Scenes Purpose. However, knowing the whole picture doesn't do much to alleviate the nagging “should we do more” and “how should we do more” questions. I'm still crawling out of my skin with boredom.

I'm also still glad we're here.