Posted by: Sanette | June 20, 2010

the way you move.

If you’re feeling a little down, nothing ups your confidence (or your aversion to sketchy men) like a dance floor in Guatemala.

Saturday night began with Sylvia, my host sister. Can I just say that she simply made my homestay experience. She teaches at El Centro Explorativo (a school run by my organization), and with her sweet, bubbly personality, it’s no wonder that all the kids (as well as her five close guy friends) are all in love with her. She’s also the black sheep of the family—she’s an Evangelist in her Catholic household, which means singing and dancing are off-limits (not that she listens to such dogma).

On Thursday, Sylvia asked me if I wanted to go to a dance with her, my host brother Enrique and host sister Olga. A local college was celebrating its anniversary with events every night this week, culminating in a dance on Saturday.

Unfortunately, after our final morning of work on Saturday, I caught a cold and felt terrible. I slept for the rest of the day, and when I woke up around 7 p.m., Sylvia informed me that her mother said we couldn’t go to the dance—she didn’t want me getting any sicker than I was.

“So this means we aren’t going?” I said in Spanish, disappointed.

“Of course we are,” she replied. “We’re just not going to tell my mom.”

So after my host mom went to sleep at 9, Sylvia and Olga traded their traditional tops for blouses (they kept the long, red skirts), and I slipped into my American Apparel skirt, and we ducked out of the house.

The dance was held in a large community center that was decked out with floodlights, speakers, disco balls, etc. When I first entered, I felt like I was in junior high again. Not a single person was dancing. People sat or stood in groups against the cement bleachers. For 30 minutes, I stared at an empty dance floor, reggaeton music pounding in my ears. Slowly, couples began to make their way to the floor. I noticed that groups of girls never danced by themselves; they waited until a guy asked them. Guys also never danced solo; instead, they stood in lines outside the dance floor, watching.

They’re also quite pushy. Often, I was dancing with Enrique when another guy would elbow his way in—literally shoving Enrique out of the way. In other instances, even when I said “No gracias” to dance requests, the guys would come back a second, third and even fourth time. Rejection doesn’t faze them, I guess.

Add that to a chorus of compliments, like bonita, guapa and linda. Just goes to show that even in the most rural of rural towns, some things in Guatemala never change.

We left around 12:30 a.m., and I was exhausted. Luckily, we snuck back into a dark house, and my host mom was never the wiser.

(Side note: Sylvia informed me that she was going to church this morning because of sins—aka, dancing—last night. God bless her.)

Posted by: Sanette | June 18, 2010

the BET diet.

I have eaten more tortillas, black beans and banana bread in my past four weeks here than I’ve eaten during my entire life.

Breakfast everyday is fairly standard: black beans, eggs, tortillas and a white oatmeal/rice mushy hot drink. Dinner is similar—though sometimes my family adds in a cup of soup to mix it up. For lunch, we’ll have pasta or rice mixed with a few vegetables and of course, a plentiful supply of tortillas. I also eat the Ixil favorite boxbole, which is a leafy green vegetable wrapped around mushy corn filling and topped with spicy red sauce. I usually supplement my meals with large slices of banana bread from the El Descanso restaurant here in Nebaj.

During my first few weeks here, I craved vegetables and fruits every meal. Guatemalans rarely eat fresh produce, and when they do, the vegetables are boiled and the fruit is cooked. They worry about getting sick. And with contaminated water all over the country, they have good reason.

Last night, though, as I sat down for dinner, I felt a little strange. I didn’t realize why until after I finished my traditional dinner. I was satisfied. Beans, eggs and tortillas are actually a filling, delicious meal. I didn’t bolt for my granola bars and trail mix from my suitcase. Instead, I sipped my tea and fell asleep content with dinner.

Of course, I eat plenty of meat, French fries, burritos and banana shakes when we go out to dinner. And I’m not saying I want to eat a BET diet for the rest of my life. I plan to devour my favorites like brownies, steak, mashed potatoes and Asian cuisine when I go home.

But for the time being? Pass the plate, please.

Posted by: Sanette | June 17, 2010

love game.

Since my host brother in Antigua and I managed to bond over music, I tried similar tactics with my host sister, Silvia, here in Nebaj.

After dinner Tuesday, I asked her what kind of music she liked. “Romantica,” she said. For the next hour, I listened to her extended playlist on her phone with hits from Bryan Adams and Celine Dion, as well as a generous selection of Spanish love songs.

Instead of talking about which singer was hot, as I did with Vinicio, Silvia and I settled into a slumber party type of chat. She told me about her five best guy friends, each of which had tried to ask her out in the past year (and three of which called her to say hello during that single hour). Still, she never felt that thump thump thump with any of them, she said, gesturing to her heart.

I told her she was fine; she was young, anyway, at 23-years-old. She raised her eyebrows and mentioned her other sister, Veronica, who was 19 and already had a 1-year-old baby (who is absolutely adorable).

True, I said. It was too late for both of us then—after all, I’m 20. She agreed and told me to marry a Guatemalan quickly, while I still can. Una broma, I think.

The next night, I played her my favorites from my computer. We laughed as I struggled to translate the meaning of the words, and she sang along regardless. Even though she didn’t know the exact translation of the lyrics, she understood the general idea—be it love lost, love found, love forgiven, love never had.

As I said before, my family here speaks Ixil, which is the primary indigenous language spoken in Nebaj (there are more than 22 languages in Guatemala). I had thought that speaking in Spanish with my family in Antigua was difficult, but communications become even more strained when we both try to speak in second languages. On my first night, I spent nearly 10 minutes trying to explain that I wanted a second (thick) blanket for my bed.

But care and communication can be shown in other ways. My host mother packed bread in my bag yesterday so I wouldn’t be hungry during our morning work. Juana sat with me while I ate dinner to keep me company. A hand touch here, a warm smile there. Little actions that seem to mean little but convey a lot.

And even though physically, conditions have been hardest here (as my friend who stayed here the week before told me: the family has “very little economically, substantially, in all ways materially”), I’m doing okay. Words are incredibly important to me (hence, the blog), and I rely on them to express myself and express love. If anything, living in this Ixil household has taught me that once in a while, words fall short. And when that happens, you just got to be creative.

Posted by: Sanette | June 15, 2010

homestay part dos.

We arrived in Nebaj yesterday and immediately settled in with our host families. My family is indigenous–wears the traditional garb and speaks Ixil.

Last night was probably my hardest since I’ve been here. I struggled to speak with the family, found myself at a loss of what to do once the family went to bed around 8 p.m. and struggled to work the bathroom, which was truly Guatemalan in style.

On top of that, I’m going through a hard time with some people from home. I see why Nebaj can be a semi-lonely place.

But today, we spent the morning and afternoon at the program’s school, El Centro Explorativo. We paper-mached the walls and decorated them with flowers. The kids got a kick out of counting how many novios and novias we had. I’m up to 100, at last count.

So sad to leave!

Posted by: Sanette | June 13, 2010

“It’s only an ant hill.”

…said Luke, our site leader.

Actually, it’s La Torre, or The Tower—the highest non-volcanic point in central America and more than 3,800 meters high. I climbed it today. Nbd.

4:30 a.m.: Roll out of bed. Pull on leggings, shorts, sneakers, beater, hoodie, hat. Meet my group and Luke and take three different buses for three hours to the outskirts of the city.

8:00 a.m.: Begin the hike, nearly all uphill. My legs were on fire, but the scenery was beautiful. Guatemala is seriously one of the prettiest countries I’ve ever been in. It was a little cloudy, so the trees and hills were enveloped in a thick, hazy fog. My friend called it an enchanted forest.

10:00 a.m.: Reached the top.

10:30 a.m.: Began the descent for our “extended hike,” as Luke called it.

10:31 a.m.: Slip in the mud on the way down. The path we followed was rugged and foreign. Luke had worked as a guide, taking visitors along the trail, but the last time he hiked was a year ago. I didn’t have proper shoes and kept slipping and sliding in the mist.

12:00 a.m.: Peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

1:00 p.m.: Finished! I was so happy to finally touch ground again. Definitely tested my physical limits, but so worth it.

Afterwards, we waited around for a bus. After about 15 minutes, Luke ran down to the road and hitchhiked a ride for all of us (“Do you hitchhike often?” I asked him. He answered, in his British accent, “Why yes. Is it not normal?”).

We climbed into the back of a pickup truck that took us halfway back to Huehue. We microbussed the second half, and now, I’m ready to shower and sleep.

A great end to Huehue. Tomorrow, 8 a.m.: Nebaj!

Posted by: Sanette | June 10, 2010

the most dangerous game.

I rode in the back of a pickup truck today, wind and smoky car exhaust in my hair.

It was amazing.

We visited the Ruinas de Zaculeu (“white earth”), a collection of late post-classic Mayan structures. The Mayans used the site for sacrifices, sporting games (in which the winner was sacrificed as an honor) and rituals until the siege of Gonzalo de Alvarado in 1525.

After my group and I paid the admission (10Q for Guatemalans, 50Q for us gringos), we spent the next few hours climbing the white pyramid edifices and laying in the sun. The view was unbelievable—trees and mountains and little villages dotting the hills.

mayan ruins

Afterwards, we had lunch at a place called Abuelita’s. There was no menu, no waitress—only one grandmother serving up whatever happened to be in her kitchen that day. Today featured chicken, pasta, beans, tortillas and soup, which is a pretty traditional Guatemalan lunch.

I write a lot about the culture here and interesting things that strike me, so I suppose I ought to focus on the work for a bit.

Each participant works under the U.S.-based Social Entrepreneur Corps, which also works in tandem with the Guatemalan Soluciones Comunitarias organization. We have local Guatemalan asesoras who serve as entrepreneurs in their communities.

Along with visiting the ruins Thursday, we also met with the couple running the Santos Tomas project. Nelson and his wife showed us the land they received from the government and explained their vision of creating schools and recreational centers and planting trees all over the 200 acre space. We spent the next several hours working out the kinks in their mission and vision statements. We also assisted in their creation of a strategy plan.

The day before, my smaller group of five met with two women who wanted to start a business of selling peanut butter. More than anything, we simply bounced ideas off of them, asking questions about their competition, clients, market, etc. Afterwards, we made peanut butter out of peanuts, salt, honey, sugar and oil. It tasted better than Jif by far.

I’m excited to move onto a new city with new projects, but I really wish I could see the current ones through. The program is structured to allow the next set of students to continue the work where we left off. I just wish I could stick around to see it happen.

Posted by: Sanette | June 8, 2010

hihi huehue.

Our larger group of 35 students split into four smaller teams, each traveling to different cities starting Monday morning.

Six bumpy hours later, my group (Team Impacto!) reached its destination: Huehuetenango.

Huehuetenango reminded me a lot of the small, crowded streets of Japan and Korea—lots of markets, shops and vendors. Drivers obeyed their own rules of traffic, and unlike the neat, grid-like street pattern of Antigua, the roads of Huehuetenango could easily have been scribbled by a child.

We spent the first night getting familiar with the city and our work. This week, we will give a series of charlas (presentations) to groups of people to help them craft vision and mission statements for their organizations. We will also survey different people in various communities to assess their towns’ need for products like reading glasses and heated stoves.

I crawled out of bed Tuesday morning around 7:30 a.m. to work on our charla. We prepared icebreakers, lessons, questionnaires and discussion questions. After lunch, we boarded a packed microbus and traveled to Santo Tomas, a rural city outside of Huehuetenango. Nearly ten people—who represented groups of women, farmers and young people—arrived to hear our speeches. Afterwards, we wandered the streets and surveyed people for information about problems in their communities (like diabetes, pure water, etc.)

Since we seemed like solicitors, I expected a lot of closed minds and shut doors. But I was amazed at the people’s openness despite my broken Spanish.

And that night? Half the group ate at a sketchy Chinese place that served complimentary sliced Wonder bread with ketchup (regrets all around). The other half (myself included) ate at a Mexican restaurant called Taco Contento.

My sentiments matched the name exactly. Win for us.

Posted by: Sanette | June 6, 2010

megan fox es muy caliente.

Fergie is hot when she’s all dolled up. But true, Beyonce’s got those hips. And en serio, Lady Gaga? She resembles a girlified man.

Next song please.

My host brother Vinicio and I bond by critiquing the women in his music videos. I discovered his love for music the first night I was here, when he blasted reggaeton and rap from the time he arrived home from work to the time he went to sleep at night. The cycle started again in the morning at 6:30 a.m. After a few mornings of waking up to pounding notes, I soon learned that his favorite was “Mujeres in the Club.”

He has an impressive collection of dvds stock full of videos. The first time I heard an American song—maybe my second or third night here—I burst into his room and started singing along. He loved that I knew the words and asked what they meant. Explaining “Rude Boy” by Rihanna in Spanish was more than a struggle.

Yet there, our conversations would usually end. His Spanish is quick and slurred, and unlike his older sister and mother, he isn’t crazy about sitting down for an hour as we plow through a third-grade level conversation.

But Saturday night, June 5, we made some progress.

It started off with me asking which singer was his favorite, and he answered Fergie—because she was the hottest. I countered with Megan Fox for looks—he disputed her legitimacy because she was not a singer.

From there, we talked about everything from the equality of women (definitely not equal, according to Vinicio) to our personal love lives to our futures—a pretty deep conversation for third-grade Spanish.

Honestly, I struggled with some of his answers, which simply reflect the broader ideas of Guatemalan culture. I hate that guys feel it’s appropriate to ch-ch-ch and gawk at women—and that women are satisfied and okay with that. I know the U.S. isn’t a perfect example of equality, but in my own, American-centered perspective, the lack of awareness in this aspect of Guatemala gets to me.

Vinicio did give me some nice, brotherly advice, though—the next time I hear a guy ch-ch-ch-ing, turn around. Fingers outstretched, hand by my ear and cut swiftly through the air. Ask me later what it means.

Posted by: Sanette | June 5, 2010

two weeks in antigua–done.

Everything has calmed down some. We finished the second week of orientation with little incident. I went to my Spanish lessons in the morning and listened to lectures about our work in the field in the afternoons. We practiced giving charlas (speeches) in Spanish about good business practices, such as “How to Start a Business.”

On Tuesday, we shoveled city streets in Ciudad Vieja. Longer blog entry on this particular day to come.

Most of the students in the program spent Friday night staying over in Antigua, and I came back to my homestay around 6 p.m. by chicken bus Saturday. I’ve created a pattern with my family—I arrive home, drop off my things, exchange a few words with my host mom’s daughter Ingrid and two sons Samuel and Denis (who live in the complex behind us), grab my computer or running clothes and race outside to meet my friends until 7:30. I eat dinner with the family, chat a bit afterwards and then usually type up emails, study or go to sleep (early, remember?).

I really like my host mom Maria and her 23-year-old son Vinicio, but I haven’t built up the kind of strong relationships like some of my friends have. My family lets me have my space, and I gladly take it. The knowledge that I’ll only be here for four weeks total also holds me back—why build connections that will soon be broken?

I think I’ll put that to the test.

Posted by: Sanette | May 31, 2010


The owner/driver of a chicken bus company was shot and killed early Monday morning for reasons unknown (probably gang-related).

Three of the students in the program are staying with families who are related to the driver. We spent several hours discussing what to do as a group. Greg Van Kirk of SEC finally decided to move the three affected students to different homestays outside of the driver’s home city of Magdalena and also transferred two other students to homestays in Antigua. The rest of us are staying where we are, though chicken bus transportation is now out of the question for us.

There is nothing I can really say to alleviate this situation, but know that my thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

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