Friday, August 30, 2013

the new bakery

I am loving my new panadería. There’s more space. There are benches so the girls can sit down to take notes. There’s not a mouse infestation (yet). There’s lots of air, thanks to a wall of windows. We’re closer to the main kitchens, and we don’t have to hike up a whole mountain (just half of one) to get to our room.

Then last week my husband put it over the top by installing a big blue pila (concrete sink). Running water in the bakery! It doesn't get much more wonderful than that!

(Except the pila leaks—oops—so we splash our way around the kitchen.)

(It’s gonna get fixed, he promises, but right now he’s absorbed in his next bakery project: a large, stainless steel table that he’s making from scratch. That man!)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

they're getting it!

About four months into our term, I wrote about the children’s language learning. Or lack thereof. The kids were picking things up, yes, but it was a lot slower than I expected.

The older two children still struggle. Their classmates speak enough English that my children aren’t fully immersed. Also, they’re timid about speaking in public and making fools of themselves.

Part of me is irked that they’re not chomping at the bit to acquire as much Spanish as possible, but the other part of me is like, Hey, they’re only kids! Lay off already, will you? It wasn’t their idea to pack up and ship out to another country for a year. Also, how come you are so take-it-or-leave-it regarding your own Spanish, huh? Huh?

Even if the older two don’t get much of the language, at least it (language and culture) is soaking into their systems. And if they decide to study Spanish in the future, the learning process will be (I hope) that much easier for the months of exposure they’ve had.

For the younger two children, however, it’s a whole different story. Right around the six month mark, their language learning took a sharp turn for the better. Suddenly they were busting out with complete sentences. It felt like nothing short of a miracle.

It still feels like a miracle, most days. They butcher the grammar something fierce, but Spanish-speakers tell me they have no accent. I have been learning Spanish for more than half of my life (some years more aggressively than others), so the fact that my children sound like the real deal after only a few months here is wow huge. (Also, HEY! NO FAIR.)

I like asking them how to say “dog” and “car” in Spanish just so I can hear them roll their r’s. They do it effortlessly—way better than I can. In the middle of a conversation in English, I enjoy telling them to repeat what they just said, but in Spanish—it's fascinating what they come up with! Also, I get a kick out of listening to my younger son and his Spanish-speaking friend play together. They chatter constantly, and sometimes their voices blend and I’m not sure which kid is speaking. I tell you, it’s music to my ears. Music to my ears.

Of course, there is a downside to all this: my husband and I no longer have our secret language. Even though the kids have a long way to go before becoming fluent (another year here would carry them over the hump, I bet), they get enough that we can no longer have conversations in Spanish with them present, boo-hiss.

In fact, the other night at the dinner table, I told the whole family a story in Spanish. It was a story we had read in one of my tutoring classes that day, about two men in a hospital room that just had one small window. Every day the patient whose bed was by the window would regale the other man with tales of life outside—the parks, kids on bikes, weather, etc. Then the man by the window died and the other man asked to be moved to the window bed. He was eager to see the bustling world outside. But when he raised himself up on his elbow to see out the window, all he saw was the brick wall of the neighboring building. He asked the nurse what it was all about and she said that there was never a park outside that window. His roommate had been blind.

That’s the story I told to my kids and they all understood it. My older daughter, the one for whom language learning is the hardest, recounted it in English, almost verbatim.

And then we all high-fived BECAUSE MY KIDS UNDERSTAND SPANISH.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

bezaleel scenes

Sometimes I worry that I’ve painted a bad picture of Bezaleel. True, I sometimes get terribly frustrated and bored, but I really do enjoy the place. The students are friendly, the teachers jolly, and the days that I have something to do, time flies and I leave work feeling both energized and whipped—an ideal combination.

So to prove that it’s not all walking through water, here are some pictures of how we spend our days.


At the start of the second half of the year, there was a parent-teacher-staff-student conference.
The director presented information and the parents voiced complaints and concerns, mostly around the areas of food quality (it's poor) and cell phone usage. It's against school rules for students to have cell phones, and at that point in the year, the office already had a stash of 44 confiscated phones. Some of the parents wanted their kids to have phones and other parents were opposed to it as it will distract from their studying. No conclusions were reached, but it was interesting to see how people present (by standing up) and argue a point (with an excessive amount of words and lots of repetition).

After the meeting, the parents had to sign the notes. For legal purposes, or something.

Not everyone is literate, so there was also a ink pad for thumb prints.

Afterwards, the secretary wrote their names inside their print.

The disturbing number of thumb prints gives me the urge to quit my life in the States and travel around Guatemala teaching adult literacy.

Okay, not really actually quit my life. (You can stop freaking out now, Mom.) Just a little bit really. Literacy is so liberating and exciting. I want everyone to feel the reading rush, you know?


There are thirteen girls in my baking class, though only about eleven have been attending. (Hm, I wonder where the other ones went. Maybe I should be concerned?)

One day while we were waiting for the cakes to bake, I told them I wanted a photo. They were happy to oblige.

These girls aren't the most industrious group of workers, I admit. In fact, some days I'm ready to whack 'em over the head with a rolling pin. But for all our problems—their beligerence and my strictness—we're rather fond of each other.

I ordered them to scrunch closer together for the photo.
Now, look at Pascuala (green shirt) in the front left. See her? With her ankle poking out most fetchingly?

Well. Guess what happens when I say, "Oh-la-la! Look at those legs!"

They're lucky they didn't tumble down hill in their fit of glee.


This is Oscar. He's one of the maintenance guys. He's actually more of a janitor (he's not really a fixer-upper type of guy), but he's indispensable with his willingness to chip in and his positive attitude.

He's a friendly guy. Sometimes he calls my husband up, just to see how he's doing. It's sweet!

Also, like many Guatemalan men, he's touchy-feely with other men. He's fond of plopping down alongside my I-need-my-personal-space husband and draping an arm around his shoulders. It's pretty much hysterical to watch my husband struggle to maintain composure while internally wigging out.


This worker is taking a wheelbarrow load of grub up to the girls' dorm.

The girls don't eat with the guys, so the food gets shuttled.


Here's Mario hauling one of my ingredient boxes up the stairs to the bakery. (Stuff is always getting hauled: food, tools, books, picnic tables...)

I have to keep my supplies down in the workers' storage shed (my husband keeps an eye on it) because there's a mouse infestation up in the bakery.

Here, let me show you:

Not chocolate. 

When I open the doors in the morning, there's lots of scurrying.

The reason there is so much poo is because:

1) the bakery is right next to the woods and the windows aren't covered, and

2) the weekend bakers don't wash out the pans, sweep, or wipe off the tables.

(What's even worse, they scrape the dirty pans out onto the floor, and then wipe down the dirty baking trays—that have been sitting out for a week—with a greasy, filthy rag that's tossed in the corner somewhere. Shudder.)

So on the mornings when I come in, I have the girls sweep, wash all the pans, scrub the tables with soap and then disinfect them. One of my proudest teaching moments was the first time the girls did all that cleaning up without being told.

Here's my husband and Mario hauling a stove up to the baking room.

See, the baking room is no longer the bakery—it's the kitchen. The cooking instructor wanted a smaller room and I needed more space, so we flip-flopped. In the midst of the change, my husband discovered a perfectly good kitchen stove/oven (see above). The cooking instructor had been wanting one and here Bezaleel had one hiding out in some room the whole time.

(This is supposed to be a positive post, and it is, but I can't not say the truth: Bezaleel has a lot of stuff that's been donated, and then, because of all the worker turnaround (a K'ekchi' cultural thing), it gets forgotten. The stove is just one small example of this unfortunate pattern.)


My husband is all over the place, working on first one thing and then another. Here, he's welding a leaky pipe. Or something.

A few people gathered to watch, but within minutes the group had turned into a minor multitude.

It's not like my husband is that interesting to watch. He's quiet and looks angry all the time. But in spite of this, people seem to pretty much adore him.


Feast your eyes, people!

These five students are the results of weeks of pleading, cajoling, and, at the very end, lecturing (the director, no less).

This group of first-year students struggle the most with reading. (I'm not even sure that one of them yet knows how to speak Spanish.) Until they came to Bezaleel in January, they probably only ever spoke K'ekchi'. In other words, they're at about the same place my children are in school, in terms of second language acquisition.

We spend our class periods working on reading, vocabulary, and comprehension, but they're begging to do math, too. I think I'll start them on basic subtraction tomorrow.

Monday, August 26, 2013

atop the ruins

Remember that family that brought us all that food when we first moved here? The ones that knocked themselves out stocking our kitchen? Well, that family has been living here in Guatemala for the last twelve years (six of those as volunteers at Bezaleel with MCC). They have a house in Cobán and are building an ecological educational type place a few kilometers from our house. On Friday night, we went out to the farm for supper.

Actually, my husband and son had already been there a couple times. This past week they spent two days on the farm, helping to put up the beams on one of the two big buildings that is going up. Several guys were down from Pennsylvania for the week, and my husband does love him a good work crew.

On Friday, my husband took the two older kids out for the day and I stayed home and baked cakes for the evening meal: a double batch of banana bread and a chocolate layer cake with vanilla frosting. Our friend picked us and the cakes up after school and we headed out to the farm.

The farm is on top of buried Mayan ruins. In different spots, the ground rises up in big swells where there are temples. There’s an enormous flat field that used to be the plaza, and a sacrificial stone set-up. There’s even a chicken head that they built into the foundation. (I didn’t see it while we were out there [because I don't usually look for chicken heads in my foundations], but when my husband told me about it later, I scrolled back through my photos and found it.) With all that history underfoot, the place has an eerie, sacred feel to it, but in a not unpleasant way.

See the chicken head poking out of the foundation? And the sacrifice stones?

My kids were pretty much in heaven. There were dogs, horses, sheep, caves, rivers, and mud puddles. There was a bicycle grinder for the corn and a giant cumal and a grinding stone (so after the supper tortillas were made, they set about making their own tortillas). There was orange fruit (naranjilla) with prickly skin that is like a mix between a tomato and an orange, in both appearance and taste.

While the men worked and the children played, I sat in the outdoor kitchen and visited with our host’s mother who was visiting from the states. She, the grandmother, speaks Arabic and French and told me stories about teaching the royalty over in some Mediterranean country. The grandfather (also present, though I never visited with him) is an archeologist and speaks Dutch, German, and Arabic. Sometimes it blows me away how fascinating people are, you know?

Our friends have four children. Although they are in high school and college, the two younger ones graciously hosted my children, showing, explaining, and answering a multitude of questions. My kids pretty much adore them, of course. And they copied their every move.

For example, they shucked their shoes and went everywhere barefoot (It’s easier to clean off the mud that way, the girl explained), and my older daughter even let her hair down so she’d “look just like her” hero.

Supper was a feast: grilled potatoes and spicy sausages, beans, sweet potatoes, salad, pineapple, bread, and tortillas, plus the cakes for dessert. The meal for twenty was prepared and served in a campground-like setting—all the food cooked over fire and no electricity.

Questions: how can you spot a former MCC worker (and/or a Mennonite)? 
Answer: look for the drying plastic bags!

Pulling off a culinary feat of that magnitude would’ve had me tizzied for days in advance, but not this family. They were as cool as cucumbers. To them, I tip my hat, repeatedly.

And then they loaded us up with a variety of homemade preserves—two kinds of salsa and plum jelly—before sending us off down the dark trail and to the waiting pick-up truck and their chauffeuring son.