Saturday, November 6, 2010

All Saint's Day

Last weekend was another holiday here, the third in six weeks (so not complaining).  This was kind of a dual one, both Halloween and All Saint's Day (Dia de los Muertos).  I think the Halloween festivities are mostly recent additions brought in to the country, and mostly for adults.  There were some kids dressed up trying to trick or treat, but not many and I think the ones that did had questionable success.

The following day is the real holiday here.  A tradition arose from a combination of Mayan and Catholics belief that the spirits of dead relatives can be reached or communicated with by kite.  So many people go stand on their families graves and fly kites.  One place where this is most popular Santiago Sacatepequez.  A long, stretched out city up in the highlands, the cemetery is on the side of a cliff on the edge of town, and the winds are ideal for kite-flying. 

Giant kite flying over the cemetery at Santiago

Becky's organization has lots of service teams that come down and do work for a week or so, but these groups also like to get out and see the sites.  Since it was a holiday and no work, we went with one of these groups and some of her co-workers out to Santiago to be a part of the celebration.  It was crowded, but really fun.  Many of the kites are so large, the laws of physics must lay down and weep as the kites defiantly find some way to take to the skies.  It was kind of weird to be walking in a crowd over dead peoples.  Many of the graves had stone or cement tombs, but many also were nothing more than a pile of dirt.  Those were the really weird ones.

 Walking past the family style masoleum-type graves.
 Marigolds spread over some of the dirt graves.

An above ground tomb makes a good spot to view or fly kites
Another kite waiting to take flight.

Later that afternoon we went to another nearby town, Sumpango.  Not nearly as much walking to get the action here (thankfully).  Instead of a cliff side cemetery, the activities here were located in a large open arena, kind of looked like a rodeo.  There were stands for an audience along one side, and food vendors lined up along the opposite.  Here it was more like an exposition.  The kites were enormous, many over ten meters in diameter.  Most were made by groups of people over the course of the year, mainly from bamboo and paper.  An announcer would say who made each kite as they sent it flying into the air.  When it landed they would put it up on bracers, creating a kind of kite-forest, which was really interesting to walk through.  This place was even more like a festival, something akin to a state fair in the mid-west.

The Kite Forest

An ornate kite exhibited in Sumpango

Lots of the kites had Mayan themes (modern-day people, not the ancient ancestors who built the step pyramids), and messages of indigenous pride.

A fun day!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Some of the Sights

Hi everyone,

It's been a couple of weeks since we posted last - we've been busy with work and errands but we've also been relaxing a lot. Still settling in... Ben's been playing poker with a group of ex-pats, we've been playing chess (I've never really played but I'm enjoying it), reading some books we've gotten around town at various bookstores.

I thought I'd posted some info about Antigua, the former capital city of Spain's Central American empire. The city was originally called Santiago, but when the seat of government moved to the next valley over (where Guatemala City is still located today) due to the continuing catastrophic combination of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and mudslides, the city became known as La Antigua, "the old one."

We went walking around some of the sights / sites from the early "Santiago" days. The city was always a big center of the Catholic faith, and was filled with churches, parishes, monasteries, convents, and a cathedral built by different Catholic orders. Me and Ben visited the remains of the Cathedral the other day:

Short history of the Cathedral.

The first Cathedral was built on the eastern edge of Parque Central (Central Park) in 1543. When that was demolished, a new one was constructed and opened for use in 1680. The domes of this building have long since crumbled down, and it went out of use after the great earthquakes in 1773.

A view from the front area (the left of the altar) back.

Most of the rubble from the earthquake has been cleared over the past couple of centuries(!), and archways and walls have been partially or totally reconstructed. They did let the pieces you see emerging from the left row of pillars remain. Weird to see the contrast and terrifying to imagine all of this crumbling suddenly to the ground in the quake!

Looking up, seeing the places where the domes would have been.

The Cathedral used to have over 50 domes or cupolas. Very impressive! There are also several crypts still beneath the floors. We walked down to see some empty rooms (not sure if these used to house bodies or?) and you could walk down under the main altar to see some stone figures of what I think was Jesus and Mary, covered by decades of soot from the candles that you can still light and leave to burn there. Supposedly, some of Guatemala's most famous personages, including Francisco Marroquin (founder of Antigua) and Bernal Diaz de Castillo (a famous chronicler of the Spanish "conquest" of the New World) are also buried beneath the floors.

Some of the old blocks that crumbled from the Archbishop's Palace next to the Cathedral. You can see the painted tiles and revealed red bricks (the entire building was locally-made brick covered with plaster and sometimes stucco detailing and tile).

Well, time to run out to the sports bar for the Packers game!
-Becky (& Ben)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Field Trips!

Hi Everyone!

This past week we went on two field trips: one to a local coffee farm called La Azotea and the other to Monterico, a small Pacific coast resort town.


On Wednesday afternoon, Ben’s Spanish teacher escorted the two of us and two other Spanish students to La Azotea, which is located outside of Jocotenango on the western edge of the Panchoy Valley (where Antigua and several other towns and villages are located).

Valle de Panchoy

Azotea is a five (?) generation coffee farm, and the owners have also developed several museums, including a Museum of Coffee, a Museum of the History of Guatemalan Music, an arboretum and garden with local flowering plants and trees , and an open-air “museum” showcasing different styles of housing indigenous to Guatemala’s different regions (coastal, highland, the area around Lake Atitlan, etc). The museums, of course, exist in addition to coffee production. Coffee beans (not really beans) are grown, harvested, de-pulped, dried, shelled, and finally roasted to perfection.

The road to the farm. There's a place that does horse therapy for handicapped children.

First, we took tours of all of the museums. Because this was a “Spanish class” field trip (Becky got the afternoon off from work to go along), Ben’s teacher had the guides give Spanish language tours. They spoke very slowly and between them, Becky and Ben caught most of everything that was said.

The Museum of the History of Guatemalan Music included examples of pre-conquest Mayan instruments (flutes, drums and other rhythmic instruments like notched gourds, and conch shell trumpets) and post-conquest instruments (including guitars and other string instruments, which had been unknown to the Mayans before the Spanish arrived). There was a display showing the evolution of the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument. Some historians think that the marimba was actually introduced by West African slaves brought to work New World plantations. True marimbas always have wooden keys, but more modern version have multiple levels (like an organ) and are tuned to the Western scale, which makes playing in ensembles with other instruments easier.

At the Museum of Coffee, we learned that Guatemalan coffee is of the third best quality in the world, after Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees. All three are Arabica bean shade-grown coffees, more labor-intensive and more flavorful. Antiguan coffee is prized because it is grown in soil rich with volcanic ash. Yum? We saw the journey of the bean beginning with ripe sweet-tasting red “cherries” to roasted beans. We learned that the only difference between coffee roasts is timing, and that the darker the roast, the less caffeine the coffee ultimately contains. We also got to crunch on beans fresh from the roaster and have a cup of brew.

Coffee plant with homemade insect killer. A bottle filled with alcohol and kerosene. Supposedly, the insects are attracted by the alcohol and then drown in the kerosene. Drunko bugs!

Becky and Ben in the coffee fields

An explanation of coffee roasting. Bean tasting followed!

After the coffee tour, we wandered around the gardens and Mayan village area. And before we left, Ben bought something resembling a Mayan oboe. Fun afternoon all around.

Traditional Lake Atitlan region dwelling

This waist-high little structure isn't a doghouse. It's a traditional Mayan bathhouse and.. birthing house!

I think this flower eats people.


This past weekend, we also had our first real trip outside of Antigua to Monterrico on the Pacific coast. We took a shuttle bus early Saturday morning and arrived at our hotel, El Delfin, around 11 AM.

Hotel El Delfin

Looking in from the beach.

We grabbed a quick lunch on the little boardwalk and spent the late morning and afternoon playing in the very strong waves, swimming in the hotel swimming pool, relaxing in hammocks, and playing volleyball at the expat bar, Johnny’s.

The beach is black sand, very beautiful, clean, and not crowded at all, but very dangerous with the undertow so that hardly anyone swims. Hard to convey how big and powerful these waves really were.

Afternoon Nap

Later in the evening, we played cards at the hotel with Becky’s colleagues, Andrea and her friend Jacob who was visiting from the States and Luke and his girlfriend Vera, before we all went back out to party at Johnny’s disco.

We were drinking a late afternoon tropical sangria on Johnny's beach-view terrace

Sunday morning was more of the same: waves, hammocks, and some food. We left at 4 PM. Our hotel cost only $5 per person per nigh, and the ride from Antigua takes only a little over 2 hours. But, we think we’ll probably take a long weekend and spend two nights next time we visit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Very Nice Weekend

Hi All!

It's been a great weekend (the Packers could have played better but can't complain too much about a win!) and hard to believe it's almost Monday again. Friday was "Dia de los Ninos" or Day of the Children, so I spent my morning playing games with the kids at our school. Myself and the other female Americans (there are a handful of Americans working for my organization, the other 50 or so employees are Guatemalan) dug a mud pit in the school yard and had the kids playing tug of war on either side of it. A fun and messy game enjoyed by the boys especially, and after the games all the kids in the school got to smash five HUGE (people-sized!) candy-filled pinatas.

Friday evening, Ben and I went out for soup and sandwiches with a new friend, John, an expat who is living out his retirement here in the Antigua area and doing some non-profit work. I'm going to be starting some grants research (on top of my regular job) for an organization he supports called The MESSAGE Program, which collects medical and fire fighting supplies from central Minnesoa, ships them to Central America, and distributes them to local hospitals, clinics, and fire stations. Later we grabbed drinks at Ocelot, a jazz bar where a colleague of mine, Ron, plays sax on Friday nights. There's a chance they'll spring for a piano soon and Ben will see if he can't get in there too.

Saturday morning, we woke up and went to eat at our favorite breakfast spot, "Colonial Cafe." We had locally-grown coffee, pancakes with a side of fruit, and spicy eggs with bread, fresh cheese and cream, black beans, and fried plantains. Yum! Then we visited a great bookstore and yet another cafe (this one makes and sells chocolate). We bought a box of dark chocolate-covered marzipan and found some great wall decor too.


After our relaxing morning, we ran errands. I took some pictures of our trip to the Antigua market. It's a huge, covered area the size of several city blocks where you can theoretically purchase pretty much anything you're looking for. Except, its so big that if you need something specific - a crock pot or a washcloth or an extension cord - it's almost impossible to find it! Lot's of asking where to go and lots of getting turned around.

First we stopped at the "paca," an area where vendors sell second-hand clothing and shoes. Ben needed to upgrade his old pair of sandals because they were really stinky, and he found a good new pair for 60 Quetzales, the equivalent of about $8.

The Paca

Then, we headed over to get some veggies and other foods that we'll use to cook with during this coming week. We have a book of Guatemalan recipes from Ben's Spanish teacher so we're trying to utilize all of the delicious and fresh local ingredients.

Fresh veggies. There must be hundreds of different stands set up.

Dry ingredients: corn flour, rice, black beans, and tostada shells!

Market trips are always a bit stressful, all that stuff is just very overwhelming! So we were happy to get out of there and enjoy our walk back across town to our apartment. On the way, we spotted a traditional band playing in the streets...

(The kids looked kind of bored)

and I took a surprise picture of Ben too!

(Love you honey!)

The rest of Saturday was making dinner and more drinks out with my colleagues. Today, we went down to a local sports bar to see the Packers game and later this afternoon Ben played ultimate frisbee with a group (mostly ex-pats) that plays every Sunday. There's always something going on here.

Be sure to check Ben's last post as I'm adding photos of our apartment to it now. Goodnight everyone!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

La Casa

So I'm doing my very first blog post.  Becky actually wrote the last one.  Hopefully it won't be too hard to figure out how to put up pictures.  I thought I'd give some details about our where we live.  Our little apartment is in the back of a very nice family's house.  It seems all the houses here have little courtyards in the middle of them, as if the house were a square with a hollow middle.  This family cleared out the back three rooms and turned them into a small apartment.  I don't think it was too tricky, the stove isn't connected to a gas line.  It works off a propane tank, which really isn't too bad of an arrangement.  Plus I get to light a match every time I want to cook something.  There's no running water in the kitchen, but we have a huge jug of drinking water that gets delivered twice a week.

There's running water in the bathroom so we can wash our hands, and there's a shower, though there doesn't seem to be hot water.  Its been cold the last couple of days, so that's been kind of hard, but otherwise its really not a problem.  

We have the back half of the courtyard (its fenced off to give us some security).  Everything here is pretty big on security.  All windows facing outside of the house have bars on them.  In our little courtyard is a big...thingy.  Its concrete or something, and on the right its a very deep tank sealed with tile.  On the left is a shallow corrugated bit.  Both have drains.  There's a faucet above the tank which we fill with water, and then use to dump over the dishes or clothes that we wash on the other side.

 The courtyard, the "thingy," our hand-washed laundry hanging out to dry!

We have two other rooms, a bedroom and a living room.  The bed is big, plenty of room for us both.

Our Bedroom

The living room has a couch, chair, and desk, as well as a tv with cable.  We don't use the tv too much, but sometimes we get worn out and just need to veg in front of it. 

The TV is to the left facing our very-not-comfortable couch. Also we named the overly friendly looking character in that painting "Ernesto"

Our place is just at the foot of a big hill that overlooks Antigua.  I think we posted a picture from there last time, there's a big cross there.  We walk up there sometimes.  There's a really nice path through the forest, everything is green and quiet.  I really like it.  Its kind of steep, so its a good workout for my calves and butt.  About a block down the hill from us is a fresh fruit stand where we can buy pineapples and bananas.  Its amazing how cheap the fresh produce is.  I bought a pineapple yesterday for what would be about 35 cents.  There's also a bakery where we buy fresh bread every day or so (they have this delicious bread that is just the perfect amount of sweetness) and a convenience store where we can get stuff if we need it quick.  Most of our shopping is done at the market, but that's another post.  Let's see if I can't find how to put some pictures up now...

The little park just outside our place.  There's at lest two or three couples making out in it at any given moment.

Our apartment is through that little door, down a hallway, and in the back of the courtyard.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First Week in Guatemala

It's been one week since our arrival in Antigua, and we can't believe how much we have accomplished!

1. Becky started Monday and worked a full week (well, almost full, besides the national holiday) at her organization, Nuestros Ahijados.

2. Ben found two steady piano gigs, one at Cafe Flor (a Thai restaurant owned by a Salvadorian) where he played Thursday night and the second at Cafe No Se, where he starts this coming Wednesday.

3. Ben signed up for a three-week intensive Spanish language class with the Guatebuena language school, where he starts four-hour days this Monday.

4. Ben and Becky found a great little apartment and moved out of their host family's house and into their new space on Saturday.

5. We celebrated Guatemalan Independence Day (Tuesday, Wednesday, the parades might have gone on even through Thursday...)!

There will be plenty of time to tell you all about our new city in more detail. For now, a few pictures from this very busy whirlwind of a first week.

Dropped off at the airport in Milwaukee... no turning back now!

The view from La Cruz de someone we can't remember. You hike up stairs through gorgeous green forest and get a great view of Antigua, looking south towards Volcan de Agua ("Water Volcano").

A school band (mostly drums and xylophones) during the children's Independence Day parade on Tuesday.

HUGE crowds (including many who made the trip from Guatemala City) watching the day-long parades and festivities on Wednesday, Guatemala's Dia de la Independencia or Independence Day. 

The sign outside Ben's "first international music gig." Some Nuestros Ahijados volunteers showed up and we ended the night with a great rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. Afterward, the owner played some piano pieces he wrote and some latin duets with his wife on vocals. Another perk: free drinks and meal for Ben and half-price drinks for Becky courtesy of the owner. Hurray!