First Days: Chajul and Nebaj

The family I’m renting a room from has been very helpful in my transition to a new land, lifestyle, culture and language. They’re both teachers so they’ll usually explain different customs from the region and they make sure I never make the same mistake twice in my Spanish. Their four kids – 1 girl & 3 boys all between 7 and 13 – are great company and also force me to sharpen my Spanish while answering all their questions. I taught them to play baseball in their yard and now they want to play with me whenever I’m around. I’ve also translated Tom & Jerry videos for them, compared the housing & transportation of Guatemala to that of New York and India, and showed them how to use my Kindle. They in turn have given me tours of the yard pointing out plants for eating and plants for medicine, explained local kids customs including all the cool handshakes and useful slang, and shared the movie Big Hero 6 in Spanish (Grandes Heroes Seis). There are also two dogs, Scooby, a German Shepherd mix, and Chata, a poodle mix (I think), who enjoy following me around the yard until I scratch their backs. I appreciate the attention as much as they do. The other animals that complete the household are Diana, the pig who will eat anything and has something to oink about everything, and several chickens, including 1 particular rooster who ensures that I get up bright and early to start the day – even if that day is Sunday.

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I used my first Thursday and Friday for a quick orientation to Limitless Horizons Ixil, the organization where I’ll be working, and Chajul, the town where it’s located, before having a weekend to explore Nebaj, where I’ll be living. About three days a week I’ll be working in Chajul which means I have to get out of the house by 7 AM to catch a 45 minute micro (local van transportation) to the office. Luckily I keep my cellphone on NY time to feel better about when I wake up – 8AM is a bit less disheartening than 6 AM.

Some Initial Cultural Learnings

On my first day at work we went to lunch with a few people who work at Fundacion Ixil – a local non-profit that supports girls’ education. I got my first taste of pepian de pollo which is chicken in a sauce made with ground squash seeds, pureed tomatos and some local varieties of chile. So far it’s my favorite chicken dish I’ve tried here. Maybe I like it because it looks somewhat like homemade chicken curry although a lot milder. While in that comedor (diner), I also got my first taste of local tradition when the people at another table got up to leave. They declared out loud to no one in particular, “Gracias” and everyone else replied “Provecho”. I learned it’s customary when leaving a table after a meal to thank everyone and to get this reply. Actually if it’s around lunchtime you greet people practically anywhere you see them by saying “Provecho”. I think it’s a great social ritual. I’m not so sure how I feel about another ritual – greeting or bidding farewell to women by kissing them on the cheek regardless of whether you know them or it’s your first time meeting them. I think it’s great that strangers are so open and sociable with each other, but I imagine it can lead to a bit of confusion at the end of a first date.

My first Saturday, my host mother prepared a local dish called boxbol. These are thin strips of corn dough wrapped in the leaves of huisquil (a local squash), boiled and then covered in two sauces: one of tomatos and ground squash seeds and one of chiles. (Note: Although it sounds the same I don’t think these are the same squash seeds or the same chiles as the pepian dish mentioned earlier). (Further note: I could be wrong). I really liked the boxbol and not only because otherwise I had noticed a lack of greens in the daily diet. The sauces are rich and blend together very well on the leaves with the corn adding a bit of starchy texture. Although they are served in a bowl with some broth, they are meant to be eaten with the hands not with spoons as I discovered when my host family laughed at me.

Out and About In The Streets of Nebaj

Before the weekend ended I had to get to know more about my new hometown of Nebaj so I went exploring. The town is roughly shaped like an oval with one main street down the middle the long way, a few parallel avenidas (avenues) and several smaller calles (streets) crossing the avenidas. I walked from one end of the main street to the other in less than half an hour. Seeing as I had a whole afternoon left I decided to try wandering the side streets taking note of interesting places for future visits. I saw a few local restaurants, a non-profit or two, a cafe-bar and even a museum of archaeology. Even more interestingly I saw a whole section of town with several stores advertising “American clothing”. Not interesting because I want American clothing, but interesting that this is such a popular thing in a small town in rural Guatemala. Alas, my weekend was over and my further exploration of museums, restaurants, cafe-bars and global fashion would have to wait until next time. I also was looking forward to a week of firsthand experience of the Ixil culture in Chajul and my first full week of work with LHI.

A New Chapter: Guatemala

Several emotions took hold of me early this morning at the departure gate in La Guardia airport – excitement, anxiety, ambition, nostalgia, loneliness and so on. I’m about to spend the first night of possibly 2 years in the tiny town of Nebaj, Guatemala. The trip to get here was an 18 hour adventure – partly by choice since I enjoy long trips which offer much needed meditation and reflection time. That’s why I chose to take “chicken” buses from the airport to Nebaj, the town where I’ll be living. The buses are old school buses from the US.

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They’re called chicken buses because apparently passengers often bring their chickens along for the ride. I did not plan for a 45 min flight delay in Florida though. I also did not think banks in Guatemala city would refuse to change US dollars without an account, forcing me to wander through much of the mall with my 50 lb suitcase, 30 lb duffel bag and 10 lb backpack searching for any place that would buy my dollars. That plus lunch accounted for 2 hours in the city.

I made a friend on the flight though. Pablo works on preserving indigenous (Maya) history and disseminating information on indigenous rights. He was kind enough to accompany me on my fruitless hunt to exchange dollars and had lunch with me before showing me to the bus stop and then taking his leave while running alongside his bus to Antigua. The buses don’t often stop if there are only 1 or 2 people; they slow down just enough for you to run and jump on. I had to do the same a few minutes later when I spotted a bus going to Quiche although the ayudante (assistant) kindly took my suitcase for me.

Then just 3 weeks after experiencing a Megabus breakdown delay on my way back from DC, I enjoyed a chicken bus breakdown about two hours into my 6 hour journey from the capital to Nebaj. I say enjoyed because for me the breakdown was a blessing in disguise. I had committed an egregious traveler’s sinĀ  – I forgot to use the bathroom beforehand. Almost immediately on boarding the bus I needed to pee, so 2 hours later when I realized the bus would be stopped for a while to get fixed, I gratefully hurried to the side of the road and relieved my bladder. It was only a 30 min setback before we resumed wildly swerving around curves along mountainside roads at top speed.

Everyone was calmly holding on for dear life. One guy was fast asleep but still had the windowsill firmly in his grasp. Every couple of hours, the bus was graced with a well dressed man loudly professing his religion for all to hear. Other busesĀ  get salesmen hawking miracle drugs. Eventually we reached Quiche where I asked around and found a micro (passenger van) to Nebaj. The van picked up more people along the way so that at one point we had 20 adults and a couple of kids huddled together tightly. We climbed higher into the mountains and it was getting to be a beautiful view.

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I arrived in Nebaj around 8 pm in darkness and made my way to Popi’s to meet Alice (my coworker at Limitless Horizons). I ended up meeting several other people there as well because Popi’s is Nebaj’s foreigner headquarters and for good reason – great food, long hours, and most of all free Wi-Fi. Some locals, usually younger and more liberal, also frequent Popi’s. After dinner, Alice passed me off to my homestay parents: Domingo and Maria. It was past 10 so we didn’t talk too much. We just exchanged some basic introductions, took a quick house tour and then they showed me the standalone room where I would stay. They are both teachers and seem really nice. My room was spacious and came with a twin bed, a table & chair, and a dresser. I just unpacked a few things I needed for the next day and then I crashed (after setting my alarm for 6 am…ouch).