The Four-Month Mark

On Thanksgiving morning, as I listened to the Chipmunk’s version of “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and wrote, “I am thankful for so many things, not the least of which is the box of chocolate truffles one of my students brought to me yesterday,” a small earthquake shook the house. Like many other things in Guatemala that have ceased to be of too much concern, minor tremors are part of living near tectonic plates that have created massive volcanoes across the Sierra Madre mountain range. From walking past bougainvillea and poinsettia trees hanging over from behind someone’s walled home, to the normalcy of sidewalks cracked, uneven and so narrow only one person at a time can walk on them, to the unconcern over earthquakes, I am learning how quickly a place can become ordinary. It is no longer strange to walk past the brightly painted houses or listen to Spanish being spoken everywhere. I now hardly give a thought to the things that once caused me to stop and stare, like goats being herded down the street among the cars. In many ways I am thankful for this, and I wrote in my Thankful Journal: “I am thankful the city is no longer a strange beast I don’t understand. While I am still baffled that in all of Xela there is not refrigerated crescent roll dough, I am thankful for the homemade meals. I am thankful that the bright houses are no longer hideous and an overwhelming assault to my eyes. I’m thankful that the houses have become places where people live, and the city, too. I am thankful for the familiarity of the streets and Wal-Mart.”

While many things have become more normal here, there are still things I am not used to and things I have realized that I took for granted in the States. Like trash. In Texas, I put my trash in a trash bin at the end of the road, the truck came and took it away, and it went to a landfill or sanitation facility. Not here. There are no fifty-gallon trash bins at the end of the driveway. On Wednesdays, trash goes to the street sidewalks. There will be piles of trash bags and things that don’t fit in trash bags like bougainvillea tree limbs and mattresses. Dogs dig through the trash and scatter it. The smell of rotting vegetables and meat is overwhelming. I haven’t seen landfills.  What I have seen is that the trash goes over the side of the mountain in a river of white plastic bags and the wind carries off candy wrappers and plastic cups to be strewn through the trees and down the highway. There are few recycle facilities. I’ve never seen the trash burned. There are no trashcans among the light posts in the city and as a result, the trash is tossed on the street. It is dirty. There was a trash strike not long ago and the trash piled up in places several feet high. There would be spots along the streets where people would dump their trash and it would be in torn-apart bags where dogs would be ripping up trash bags. Last month, there was a man digging through the trash in the street. Even though I am still dismayed, I am no longer shocked. Even this seems more normal than it did four months ago.

Into this budding sense of familiarity, came Dia de los Santos, a holiday new and completely foreign in this foreign country that has become my home. November 1st is Dia de los Santos, the day after Dia de Muertos, the day of the dead. Dia de Muertos is full of skulls and spooks, but Dia de los Santos is full of family and fiambre.

 The tradition is to go to the cemetery for Dia de Santos and repaint and arrange flowers at the crypts of the family member who has passed away. After spending hours at the cemetery, while the children play hide and seek among the graves and fly kites from the tops of the tallest crypts, the families gather for a huge meal of fiambre.

Everyone says, “Oh, you will love my family’s fiambre!” And everyone’s family makes it the best and you are sure to love their version of it. Some fiambre is white, some is pink with beet juice. It is made in a huge pot. All kinds of vegetables and meats are cooked separately and then put together and mixed with beet juice. It is like a cold salad. This base is piled high on a plate and cold meat—sausages of every kind, including blood sausages and chorizo—and cheese and onions and tomatoes and pickled asparagus and pickles and olives and lettuce and radishes are all put on top to make it like a volcano of cold meats and vegetables. It is eaten with a tostada. The normally small Guatemalan portions are nowhere to be found, and the plates are filled to overflowing. Most people have seconds along with the huge portions.

Autumn and I went with Ana Maria and Manuel to Ana Maria’s husband’s family’s house in Acetanengo. Ana Maria told us we were leaving at 6am, but then changed it to breakfast was at 6, but when Autumn and I were up at 5:30 and ready to go by 6 and no one else was stirring, we both realized it was Guatemalan time. We left at 7:30. Acetanengo was very small and the people were even less used to foreigners than here in Xela. They stared at two tall American girls walking around with a group of short Guatemalans. The whole group we were with hardly came to our shoulders.

There were coffee bushes everywhere, even on the edge of the cemetery. Fields of coffee plants would stretch down into the valleys atop freshly weeded rows or in vast green swathes that looked like a wild part of the mountain, save for the green and red seeds hanging in clusters from the taller, nearly-tree bushes. We went with Ana Maria’s family to arrange flowers on her husband’s crypt. It took hours and Autumn and I were not very helpful. We had reached the point of counter-productivity with so many people wanting to help and after we plucked off wilting rose petals from five bunches of roses, Autumn and I walked around the cemetery. There was a poinsettia tree growing from a low grave. Much of the cement of the crypts had been freshly painted a brighter shade of whatever had been underneath. The graves that were not covered in cement had been freshly weeded and the raw earth stacked back on top of the grave to remake a grassless mound. Many had been covered in pine needles. On the far edge of the cemetery, over the wall, there must have been a trash dump. Vultures flew in large circles overhead and the smell was nearly unbearable. Autumn and I quickly retreated from that end of the cemetery and back to the smell of fresh paint and fresh dirt. Small children and older children stood on the roof of the cemetery entrance and flew kites, careful not to get them in the tree nearby or the electric lines overhead. A frizzled kite was in the electric line already, and another already in the tree. After the ladies had finished flower arranging, we all went back to the family’s house for fiambre.

The doors to the driveway opened to a courtyard in Ana Maria’s family’s home. Around the courtyard were rooms—all with the doors open and lace curtains creating privacy without stifling the breeze. The rooms were painted in mint green with Christmas tree green painted on baseboards. There were three kitchens. The first we went into was a pantry and two stoves with a small table where Ana Maria and Manuel had a second breakfast of banana leaf wrapped tamales. The second one that we saw had an old scale that looked like it might fall apart at the next use, a thick cement table which Ana Maria explained was for butchering pigs, a wood-burning stove in the corner and huge furnace-looking contraption. The next kitchen was light and airy. The mint-green walls were decorated with rooster clocks and Holstein cow ornaments. There was a long table and chairs next to a china cabinet. This was the room that seemed to be the heart of the home and this was where we ate fiambre. Autumn and I went first, and it was only after everyone else went through the line that we realized we didn’t make our fiambre properly volcano-like or nearly tall enough. We just put meats and cheeses on the side and not on top. After fiambre—and seconds—they served nisperos, which are small orange and fuzzy fruits like apricots, only smaller. We peeled them and spit out the seed. They also had jocotes (another small orange fruit) cooked in honey, and it was really good. The nisperos were addicting and everyone around the table had piles of peels and seeds around their plates. Everyone sat around and chatted and laughed, except I couldn’t understand what they were saying since it was all in Spanish. We left around six and arrived back in Xela around nine.

Cynthia, the music teacher, told us that the reason why it is a tradition to fly kites was because of an old Mayan legend where evil spirits had haunted a town and the town’s people consulted a Mayan oracle on how to get rid of the spirits. The oracle told them, “The spirits leave happy.” They decided to fly kites and make the spirits happy—I suppose they fly with the kites—so they would leave. Someone else told us that it is just good weather for kite flying and it didn’t have any significance.  I don’t know which one is true, but kites were everywhere for Dia de los Santos.

A few weeks ago, the kindergarten class’s letter of the week was “Z” and the theme was the zoo. Sharde and I decided to take the two kinder classes on a field trip around Xela and end up at the zoo. I was a bit disappointed in the Xela zoo. It was tiny, which was not bad, but the thing I didn’t like was that they had a raccoon in a huge enclosure all by itself and the jaguar was in a tiny little cage. I wanted to tell them they just needed to let the raccoon go and let the jaguar have its pen. There were plenty of raccoons in the world, they didn’t need this one to live like a king! They had a huge sign up to see “SIMBA!” but when we got there, there was no lion. I don’t know what happened to the lion, but I am suspecting it died. One of my students wanted to know where the zebras were and I had to explain that some zoos don’t have zebras, but look! aren’t these rabbits cute?

We took a trolley around the city and went the natural history museum in Parque Central, which was filled with poorly mounted animals like lions with popped out glass eyes, red felt tongues and cracking noses, a two-headed calf, and two-bodied lamb. The kids loved seeing the stuffed peacock and snakes, though. The kids got to feed pigeons among the huge trees near the park’s central pillar.  We went to the library, too, and the librarian gave a lecture on the importance of reading books—and I think she was saying that teachers like to use the Internet, but a good book is better, but since I don’t speak Spanish well, I don’t really know what she was saying. After the zoo, it was off to MacDonald’s, where the kids played in a huge indoor playground while the moms that came with us ordered twenty Happy Meals.

I tried to make Connelle Peace’s Apple Dew rolls for the staff meeting at school this past month, and had quite the adventure trying to gather ingredients to make them. The recipe calls for crescent rolls, but I could not find refrigerated crescent rolls anywhere. I was told you can’t find things like that here.

 “Oh, I’ll just make some, then,” I decided and set off to Pias, the grocery store that would most likely have what I would need.  I began by searching high and low for yeast, but to no avail. I asked the lady in the store if she had yeast and after having to repeat what I wanted, she said, “No.” I looked up substitutes for yeast while standing in the baking aisle that should have had it, and found a recipe for baking soda and lemons. I got baking soda—which I had to look up what I was buying because it was in Spanish. But Pias did not have lemons. They have limes but no lemons. And no lemon juice. I thought maybe limes would work and got a bag of limes. And then I read that I could possibly use lemon/lime soda and got some of that, and also found that I could even possibly make my own yeast with yogurt, so I got some of that, too. I got home and did the next best thing to having yeast: I called my mother and told her all of these things I had gotten and what did she think?

“Why don’t you just make pie crust?” She wanted to know. “It’s flour, salt, and Crisco.”


Since I had already bought a pound of butter (nearly), I substituted the Crisco for butter and made pie crust while eating the yogurt I had bought and wondering what I could use a bag of limes for. Ana Maria did not have a pastry blender or rolling pin that I could find, and she was gone to work when I was cooking, so I used a fork and knife to cut the butter into the flour and rolled the dough out with a Mountain Dew can. I couldn’t find a cutting board or measuring cups or measuring spoons, either and I used a teacup for my one-cup measurer and an actual teaspoon for my teaspoon measurer.  After school on the meeting day, I went to the middle school building and made the sauce of sugar and butter and vanilla and cinnamon and Mountain Dew and baked it in the middle school building (the building with an oven). I put it in at 11:50 and set my timer for 40 mins, ran up the hill to the administration building to grab dish towels to use as hot pads right off the towel rack and made it just in time for the staff meeting at 12:00. I hoped desperately it went for only 30 mins like it was supposed to, because my timer was set to go off at 12:30 and I didn’t want to have to leave the meeting and be like, “Sorry, I have to go check on some apple rolls at middle school…” I hardly heard a word of what was said. The meeting ended at 12:28 and I shot out the door and back down the hill. Sharde came with me and we made it down the hill in two minutes. The apple rolls were not quite done and I put them in for another ten minutes and we decided that we needed to bring the car down so we made it up the hill, got the car, and made it back down in six minutes. I sat in the back seat with the apple rolls like I had a child and Sharde drove slowly up the hill. I ended up holding one side of the pan up the whole time because the hill was so steep. It was a revised version of Connelle’s Apple Dew, the Guatemalan version with pie crust instead of crescent rolls, but it turned out just fine, and the revised recipe has now been passed around to teachers at school and my Spanish teacher.

My kids constantly surprise me and make me laugh with the things they say. This week in class we’ve been talking about planets. The biggest planet in our solar system, Jupiter, is 2.5x bigger than all the other planets combined, according to the book we read in class. As I was telling my kids this, one of my students wanted to know how big that actually is. I told him to hold out his hands and make them into a circle like he was holding a ball, “If earth and Venus and Uranus and Saturn and Mercury and Neptune and Mars and even Pluto is inside your hands,” and I put my hands around his and held them out twice as big, “This how much bigger Jupiter is.” On Friday, he told his 5th-grade reading-buddy about Jupiter and held out his hands just like I did, “If all the planets were in here, Jupiter would be this much bigger!” And he held his hands out twice as wide. I was surprised he remembered, and it made me laugh. As did when I walked by a group of pre-K and 1st-graders during recess last week. “Ms. Cowan,” one of the 1st-graders told me, “I am faster than all the pre-K-ers.”

“You are also older and bigger,” I informed him.

“Yeah, and faster!” he exclaimed and ran off.

In two weeks, I will be home for Christmas break. It is hard to believe it has been four months since I boarded a plane to Guatemala City. Many things have changed and I have learned much. Four months is not long to get to know a place, but I am thankful for the journey so far and the growing familiarity of this city and these people.


One thought on “The Four-Month Mark

  1. Stacy Prestridge says:

    I’m VERY impressed by your culinary efforts, and very glad it all worked out! Your students sound so cute and I hope you can share pics of them and your classroom with us. Fiambre seems interesting – I think I’d try it, but with no olives. As always, your descriptive writing made me feel as if I were there with you on Dia de los Santos and at the zoo. I wish I had actually been there and we could have figured out a way to get that jaguar into a proper pen! I look forward to seeing your smiling face very soon!


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