Sunday, September 26, 2010

"What's the food like there?"

This post goes out to my Grandma Marge. It is hard being apart, but the daily lesson of "appreciate the small stuff" is never lost on me, and there is lots of joy in the Peace Corps experience that I want to share with her.

Food is definitely a joyful part of life - whether for the novelty, simple satisfaction of hunger, or the sheer taste of something delicious. Something Grams always likes to ask me is, "What's the food like there?", so in the spirit of celebrating the small stuff, and answering her question, I've thrown together some pictures.

This was an on-the-spot idea, so the dishes are mostly from special occasions when I thought to take pictures and not really representative of what local folks typically eat nor what I typically eat - notably missing are eggs (scrambled or fried), boiled potatoes, and boiled herbs. But you'll get a general idea!

Local Food

Potato paches with white bread and a hot pineapple drink! Paches are typically served for birthdays (like on the above occasion) or other special events such as good-bye or welcome parties. Paches always have a big chunk of chicken inside, typically slaughtered that day.

Churrasco (steak), refried beans, rice, green onion, and tamalito (boiled corn dough wrapped in a leaf). Refried beans and rice are a staple in my diet, as are tamalitos, which my family makes every day. To avoid offense, I will make a good-faith effort to eat churrasco when it's given to me at events, but I still consider myself vegetarian. (That will be another post for another day!)

These are chuchitos ("little dogs") made of blue corn dough with a filling of chicken and pepper sauce. Often served on the Sabbath.

This is a typical dish my family would make for lunch or dinner: pasta with tomato, onion, and chicken feet for flavoring. This is not one I have been adventurous enough to try!

It's the corn harvest, and so a few weeks ago we boiled corn-on-the-cob (elote) and had a wonderful snack with everyone from the muni (kind of like town hall). Being from central New York, I felt right at home.

Desperation Dinners

A desperation lunch made of my mish-mash leftovers: broccoli, chow mein noodles, pancake.

This is an amazing vegetable curry with whole grain rice. This is a beloved recipe I learned from a JICA (Japanese) volunteer in my site. We can get a great variety of vegetables on market day in my site: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, and of course onion, tomato, potato, plus many others.

I've been battling a sinus infection all this weekend, and happened to have half a pineapple left, so it occurred to me that would be a great lunch yesterday. There is tons of tropical fruit available here from Guatemala's coastal plantations. I also had a little brown rice left over and figured some whole grain couldn't hurt, either.

Special Occasions

Lasagna is a favorite of my host dad's from when he was an immigrant in the United States, and the family asked if we could make it sometime. We went all out with real mozzarella and ricotta cheese from Xela. It was reallly good.

I love love love macaroni and cheese, because it is one of my mom's special home-made dishes. She always serves it with apple sauce and some sort of green veggie, so when apple season came around, I invited my host family to make mac and cheese and fresh apple sauce together. Delicious!

There are several birthday cake shops in my town. It was admittedly nice to have a US-style cake on my birthday! (At a cost of about $9.)

Apple crisp! (Well, sort of, it kind of ended up more like apple cake. But it was delicious, and it got the stamp of approval from my little host siblings!) I try not to bake too much, though, 'cause it drains the gas tank like crazy.

And finally, a very special treat - this is my favorite dish from a great Indian restaurant in Xela! I didn't expect to find Indian food in Guatemala, but Xela is quite cosmopolitan when you get down to it, to the luck of Peace Corps volunteers, tourists, and adventurously-palated people everywhere. It's a great change-up after weeks of the same food in site.

I count myself lucky to live in such a place of abundance, keeping in mind that there are many who are not able to take full advantage of that abundance as I am. Gotta be thankful for each meal!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Communities

This weekend I went to visit a friend from my training town to see her site and help her give an environmental education workshop to the teachers of her community. Of all the 16 (?) of us from our training group, Tara's and my communities are physically closest as the crow flies – about 20 km - despite this, to get between the two the standard method is a 100-or-so km, 3-hour tour in bus or pick-up on established roads. If you were accustomed to the terrain, you could probably get between the two in a half day's walk. In terms of characteristics, however, the communities could practically be on different sides of the country.

One of the beautiful views out into the sub-tropical jungle!

My indigenous agrarian community of several thousand is somewhat dry and temperate trending to cold; Tara's ladino agrarian community of a few hundred people is quite humid and temperate trending to hot. Tara's got jungle, tropical diseases, and tarantulas; we've got temperate deciduous and coniferous forest, and I think I once saw a spider that was about the size of a nickel. Her closest market is about an hour away, there is only one bus a day out of town and one back in; in comparison, within my town I can get almost everything I reasonably need, and I can hop a micro every 30 or so minutes, to arrive in under an hour at the nearest big city where I can find some store carrying almost whatever I could want. In a quick daytrip – fairly standard for many volunteers in my region - I can even choose to shop at Hiper-Paiz - the local Wal-Mart branch - or any number of other chain stores in the local mall. (Not that I have the urge much.)

The teachers hard at work listening. Note the hammock (!)

This is all just to say that Guatemala is a country of unbelievable diversity, which makes the Peace Corps experience quite diverse as well. For me, this weekend was an interesting time to be thrust in a completely different environment, resulting in some hard personal reflection in a short amount of time. I had a great time: we drank the cooperative's delicious coffee (and I never enjoy drinking coffee!), feasted on the food Tara valiantly trekked home from town, watched her community win in the local soccer finals, hashed and re-hashed our experiences and reflections, and took in the humid air (which reminded me of summer at home in New York), expansive views of jungle and plantation, and peaceful sense of isolation. I also hung out in a hammock reading while the afternoon rains pounded down, which has made me realize I would like a hammock. Oh yeah, and we worked a little bit, too!

Something I am beginning to come to terms with is my initial disappointment to be assigned to a larger town, with few physical challenges, close to a large city. Through my visit to Tara's site I had time to process and to put to words the idea that it is in a small isolated community that I feel most energized, where I naturally recharge myself, where I feel I can work most effectively. Tara on the other hand really craves the city life sometimes. So I think we came to the conclusion that sometimes by nature people can work best, especially under stress, in one particular environment over another, and perhaps Peace Corps ought to assess this a little more rigorously.

While I see room for improvement in the assignment process, especially as a professional development organization, at the end of the day, you sometimes just have to just live it to know how it will be and how you will react. Perhaps this is the prime lesson Peace Corps can offer us as a personal growth experience, of taking what we have in every moment for what it is and not wishing it were something else. Just easier said than done. Which is why, I suppose, you just gotta do it.

Thanks to Tara for a great weekend!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Would they ever have imagined 189 years ago...?

This week we celebrated Guatemala's independence from Spain in 1821. This meant that for the past 1-2 weeks nearly every schoolchild in Guatemala devoted him or herself exclusively to drum core and gymnastics practice, pageant preparations, and making quetzal birds and ceiba trees out of tissue paper and cardstock. Here in my region, it also means the Feria de Independencia in the city of Xela, the highlights of which are a big 4-hour parade of high school marching bands and an enormous fair with carnival rides, food, and vendors.

On Tuesday, we the employees of the muni cooked and ate a huge pot of corn-on-the-cob on an open fire on the roof of the muni (remind me to write about that sometime). That was more to celebrate the start of the corn harvest more than independence, but it was awesome. I love corn-on-the-cob! Aside from that nothing really special happened with the muni this week. They did give us the holiday off and also hung some obligatory plastic flag-banners and strings of balloons, which disappointedly deflated within 12 hours. Within the schools there were some interesting events, however. Many Peace Corps Guatemala bloggers note the school pageant festivities one encounters this time of year, and I was no less impressed when we had the fortune to stumble upon one, foolishly having planned to do the tourism diagnostic with a group of school teachers this week.

In summary, you haven't lived until you see a bunch of 4-11 year-olds from a remote aldea where the average adult can barely write and the school doesn't have running water shimmy and sway their hips around in prom hairdos and pristine evening wear, the type of absurd adult-dress one buys their daughter in the US only to be a flower girl or perhaps be Bat Mitzvahed or have their quincenera. It goes to show a lot about priorities. But to each their own. I was also highly amused by the question-answer period, in which they asked the 4-year-old contestant, “Name some of the patriotic symbols of our country.” Brutal! She probably barely even speaks Spanish. But glad we're emphasizing brains and beauty equally (right).

As for my priorities, since nothing much was going on here in town on the “mero dia” I went into Xela to meet up with a friend's family, see the parade and fish for something different to do. We ended up watching a bit of the parade and then going to this amazing Italian restaurant, Cardinelli's, on 14th Avenue near Parque Central, for 4-cheese pizza and white wine! It was great, I hadn't had wine or good cheese in quite some time. My taste buds were going wild. The restaurant is a little expensive but they import all of their ingredients from Italy, excepting vegetables of course.

I felt a little guilty eating so ridiculously well to celebrate the supposed independence day when so many people in Guatemala would never think of dropping so much on a meal ($12 per person), and in reality, Guatemala is far from independent in the sense of everything we like to associate with that word. (That will be a whole other post for another day.) But man, the food was delicious! And we all need a good excuse to celebrate now and again, even though just what exactly we're celebrating might be slightly vague. And I can't really feel too bad about supporting independent, creative cuisine with amazing service.

We finished the evening off with a viewing of Back to the Future. I barely watch TV or movies these days, but at times it is really nice to watch stuff that reminds me of home - “comfort TV” I guess you could call it. I must have watched that movie no less than 50 times as a kid! Overall the day was a pretty great mish-mash of celebration and rest. And Saturday I'm headed off to a friend's community to help out with an environmental education workshop, so it was nice to have a little mini-weekend before the big trip.

So all-in-all it has been an interesting week, a time of that celebration and break from routine that I think every human being secretly craves and cherishes. Or, at least I know I do, even if it is an unfamiliar celebration in an unfamiliar place! And we did actually manage a tiny bit of work, too, but more on that later.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Life on the rollercoaster

What to report of late? It's interesting, but in these past two weeks since my vacation I am really getting back into the “life here is so worthwhile” and I dare say, on occasion, “I love it here!” frame of mind, which is great. It is so interesting to note my own mood swings and the “rollercoaster” of emotion as my good friend from my training town commented on her blog. It is fascinating to me how we humans are able to adapt ourselves to different situations, and the processes we go through during that adaptation - how different my feelings can be from week to week and day to day.

Things are looking up primarily for the fact that the new environmental educator has started in my office, and coincidentally a whole pile of potential work and collaborations have started showing up. My counterpart also recently suggested monthly planning meetings - which I have mentioned a few times and have been fantasizing about for months - and I am really psyched. In this month's planning meeting we already planned October's planning meeting. I am sure it will actually happen, too, +/-7 days from its scheduled date. Amazing! My philosophy in these past nearly six months has been that for sustainability's sake there is only so much you can exert yourself if local counterparts don't take initiative. So when they do, it is a real eureka moment! It just requires a lot of patience... perhaps 24 months of patience...

In the months before summer vacation sets in we're primarily doing a survey on local opinions about tourism, as well as some activities with local schools and young people, including promoting the park and recreation center as a good location for the sixth-graders' farewell party. I feel good about this work. It's important in my view to make the community aspect of “community tourism” actually happen, and not leave it as a half-baked idea. (Of which there are unfortunately many in my municipality and in my office, specifically.) We also are starting a project with local Mayan priests to name and “label” the 20-something altars in the protected areas of the muni with wood signs, assuming the priests give it the OK. I am thinking this collaboration could lead to some cool projects later on, too. Not to mention everything else we'd like to do in November and December...

So at this point we have a ton of work to do and it constantly feels like herding cats. Or at times, juggling them. Efficiency is a whole other concept here and keeping track of all the loose ends requires a lot of organization and patience. I am kind of hoping I don't adapt too much – could make reverse-adaptation to the US work-world a real shock!

A recent downturn of events is that Mishi has gone on the lamb, presumably in hunt of a nice sexy lady friend, or several nice sexy lady friends. He took off three days ago, disappointingly the day before I got a package of toys and catnip for him from my parents. (Heaven help my future children from the spoiling they are going to get!) The package is a whole other cultural commentary for another day...

The downturn is mostly because he had been acting out-of-character and aggressive lately, and gave me a good bite or two in the last two weeks. Per standard protocol I had been keeping an eye on him since the last bite to be sure the aggression was behavioral and not medical (rabies, for instance) – but since he took off, you can't say for sure. So, rabies prophylaxis it is; I get the final shot on Monday. I really doubt he had rabies, but nevertheless, the idea scares the hell out of me, so I called in. The Peace Corps Medical Officer was really understanding on the phone, although clearly not too excited I'd adopted a quasi-feral street cat. Fair enough.

But you had to know him. What a great cat. I hope he comes home.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Adventures in Guatemalan food: Paches

At the basis of many a Guatemalan adventure in food is the phenomenon of being “tortillar-ed”. Not to be confused with the action of “tortillar” in the sense: “The masa was tortillared into tortillas,” “tortillar-ed” refers to the rather passive phenomenon of being offered significant quantities of food no less than three times between your house and your final destination (generally involving significant quantities of tortillas, as implied by the verb). And here in Guatemala, being offered food is as good as eating it, so more appropriately, to be tortillar-ed implies being force-fed a large quantity of food within a short time via the Guatemalan ethic of hospitality and sharing.

I do not have to preoccupy myself much about being tortillar-ed. There are other things that occupy the prime worrying slots: the well-being of my wandering street cat in a land of rabies, vicious dogs, apathetic people, and assorted diseases; making friends and fitting in; trying to understand what people really mean to say or not say; avoiding spending more than 10% of my week in church; pick-pockets on the bus; attempting work of some value; among others. Now and again, however, I am tortillar-ed. And I mean hard.

Here I would be referring to my experience with one of the most popular typical foods of this region of Guatemala: paches. Paches are a mushy porridge of starch (either rice or potato) with a pepper sauce and large chunk of chicken in the center (bone optional) wrapped in a big green leaf and then boiled. They're good-sized and inevitably the meal of choice at every special event in my town (goodbye parties, birthdays, lo que sea), served on a styrofoam tray with two slices of Wonder-bread style white bread, which no one here eats under any other circumstances whatsoever. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around this particular tradition.) In some towns of this region the folks with economic means to do so make them every Saturday, although I assume they forgo the styrofoam tray and probably even the white bread- I get the sense that's a special touch for events.

Paches de papa (potato), served with white bread and a warm pineapple drink.

While I inevitably feel wonderful about being included in whatever special event warrants the paches - even if most of the conversation is in Mam and I'm left nodding and smiling - I have very divergent opinions about them depending on what they're made of. I'm always fairly anti-white bread and anti-styrofoam, but aside from that... Paches of potato are delicious. I could eat maybe 3 or 4 of them in one sitting. To me they taste something like curry. Whenever I eat them I always finish feeling more connected to my local community members and somehow happier to be alive. Definitely my favorite local tipico food. End of story.

Paches of rice are bad news. About five bites into my first one I'm remembering how awful they are and my stomach begins to feel as though it is full of sawdust. Nevertheless you have to smile and act extremely excited, because paches of rice are many people's very favorite food here, associated with happy memories of community and family and celebration.

It is common to give two paches here, as a type of snack or small meal, and typically I can manage one paches of rice just fine, and fake my way through the second. The striking beauty of paches is that they come wrapped in a huge leaf, so if you're sneaky, you can actually give the impression you've eaten everything, even when you feel another bite would possibly cause you to explode. I don't mean to come off as ungrateful or wasteful of food, and anyone who knows me knows I almost religiously subscribe to the clean-plate club. But man, you have to be there. There is only so much flavorless twice-boiled rice one can fit inside oneself. You get to be pretty thankful for that leaf.

The worst was when I was invited to the birthday lunch for the 1-year-old daughter of the coordinador of the Office of Municipal Planning. It was actually also the best, because the coordinador invited everyone from the muni a week ahead of time with printed, hand-addressed invitations, made a special arrangement with a local microbus driver to take us all to his aldea, paid for all our bus fares, was clearly so proud to present lunch to all of us in honor of his baby girl. It was really touching to be part of, if kind of comical. All of the characters from the muni traipsing out to this party was undeniably a bit reminiscent of an episode of The Office - if The Office were titled “The Muni” and 95% of the dialogue was in Mam.

At any rate: THREE PACHES for each person! Wow. It was incredible. The family pride was palpable; they certainly must have spent a fair chunk of change to make three paches for something like 40 people (as well as buying THREE professional cakes). I ended up taking my third paches away in a little plastic bag, as is socially acceptable here, since I couldn't even fake that I had touched it. No aguanté, pues. It's so weird, too. I usually can eat so much, and even immediately following the two paches I ate an enormous slice of cake.

But another rice paches, no. They're my kryptonite.