Weekend Adventures in Nebaj

Weekend Fun
Some may wonder what I do with my free time and weekends here in small town Nebaj. Before I arrived, I imagined there would be plenty of quiet time to read, write, and sleep. Two and a half months later I’ve read maybe 10 pages, written just 3 short blog posts and slept late maybe twice. Believe it or not, I socialize more here than I did in New York. Somehow there is always something going on. It’s probably because we have a small community of friends and the small town makes it easier to meet up on the spur of the moment. It helps that everything is so much cheaper here – a full meal complete with drinks and dessert at Popi’s runs about $5.

Our weekends generally involve gathering people together for hiking, cooking or dancing, or as is often the case, all of the above. I’ve been learning how to cook with the local veggies: acelga, bleda, chipilin, and leaves of huisquil among others that are basically varieties of chard or spinach or mustard greens.

I was very surprised to learn there is also a basketball league in Nebaj. It’s not my favorite sport but I enjoy playing just about anything and it’s yet another way to socialize. My team is probably the favorite to win it all and I’m trying to contribute by being the Dennis Rodman of Guatemala – grabbing every rebound and blocking every shot. If you’ve never seen me, you might read that sentence and assume I’m at least 6’5″ (196 cm). But while I am taller than all but 4 or 5 people in the league, I’m only 5’9″ (175 cm). Finally I get to see how tall people feel.

Hikes

One of the main attractions of living in this area for me was the hiking. So I was very excited when I heard a group of 16 was heading to Chichel Falls one of my first Saturdays here. We first caught a micro (van) to Chajul then had to hike up and down dirt paths for 2 hours. A drunk guy accompanied us for most of the way. He wanted to be our guide and was even somehow leading the pack. A couple of times he lost energy and slowed down or even stopped but a few minutes later he’d be running up ahead again. It was impressive and I think he only eventually broke off from the group because he saw a bar nearby. Actually I don’t know why he left but he entertained us for a while and I think there are far worse things a drunk can do than “lead” a hike. Unfortunately there are quite a few guys like him that are serious alcoholics and just seem to be drinking at all times of day. They are referred to as “bolos”. The community frowns on drinking generally but as with most bad habits or addictions, repression or blaming is rarely helpful. Finding other enjoyable but healthier habits could help, and changing daily circumstances that trigger the habits also helps. But it’s an uphill battle. I saw a great TED talk on the subject of addiction arguing that it is mostly driven by lack of social connection: http://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong

That aside, after several uphill battles of our own, we finally reached the waterfall and jumped into the pool at the bottom to cool off. The falls were much taller than I expected and, along with the swimming, well worth the journey.

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Acul Cheese Farm is another attraction nearby. An Italian family moved to the village of Acul years ago and started producing some incredible cheese. Great motivation to spend an hour climbing the hills to get there. Apart from the farm the village is tiny with hardly anything else going on.

A few weeks later we had a respite from the rains that the Ixil region is famous for and we headed for the outlying aldea (village) of Cocop – this was an easy hike but still had pretty mountainside views along the way. We had lunch in a random lady’s house. Ok, maybe she wasn’t completely random but she has an unofficial unmarked diner right as you get into the village. I wondered who else frequents her establishment. After lunch we returned by a different route that took us to Rio Azul where we dipped our feet a little before getting to the road to hitch on a pickup truck.

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There is also plenty going on here that doesn’t require as much sweating. I’ve learned to play Settlers of Catan which I’m starting to get addicted to, we’ve had a few group dinners with various foods from around the world, and I’ve started practicing guitar again. I hope to always be learning and socializing no matter how old I get.

A Note on Water and Power

Water and electricity are things we generally take for granted in the richer countries. Here I’ve quickly had to adjust my expectations of these basic utilities.

In the mornings after 7 until the early afternoons, the water pressure is almost always very low or it’s not running at all. The electricity is often low in the evenings around 8pm which scared me at first because I thought my laptop just couldn’t hold a charge anymore. The issue with water is it lacks presure when everyone is using it early in the day. With the power the issue is not enough supply to meet demand in the evenings when everyone has their lights and possibly appliances on.

So it’s important to time your daily routines around those shortages as much as possible. It can be inconvenient but it may not be such a bad thing if it reduces usage and waste of resources.

Sometimes water goes out for longer. Twice in the first 3 weeks power went out for almost 3 days each time. Normally it goes out here and there but comes back within a day. I’m getting used to it though. What I am not yet used to is the loudspeakers of the at least 10 political parties fighting to gain votes for September elections. More on that in the next post.

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 sin  – 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 buses  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).

Two weeks of winter break

Break

The past two weeks the kids were off from school for winter break. I used the time off to help at other organizations and learn what they did, while also taking time to explore some of the outskirts of Cochabamba.

Small Towns

My co-volunteer Ryan and I used one of our days off to just catch a trufi van to random towns about an hour outside Cochabamba. First stop was Sipe Sipe. We had some lunch which included a stew with a whole chicken foot. It tasted good but I’m not a big fan of the texture.
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The restaurant also had an old style toilet which is not actually a toilet but only a hole in the ground with porcelain foot rests. I’ve only ever seen that before years ago in India.
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After lunch we walked all over the town just observing and reflecting on the positives and negatives of “development”. Most of the houses we saw appeared to be constructed with everyday affordable materials such as trees, clay, rocks and old bricks. I wondered if most people built their own houses slowly expanding and improving as they found time and resources. I also wondered what (if any) development the people of the town would wish for.
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Parotani, a town with basically just one long street, was our next stop. There were a handful of restaurants most of which seemed to be in a family’s living room or backyard. Next to the town we passed a large field with several indigenous men and women working hard. We didn’t get a chance to interact with them although in hindsight I regret not trying.
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National Pride

Many products have this label prominently displayed on their packages. “Hecho en Bolivia – consume lo nuestro, emplea a los nuestros” which means “made in Bolivia consume our own, employ our own.” It’s a really interesting and cool idea. I think it will be good in the long run because it will allow Bolivian industry to develop and keep more profits in local pockets, but in the short run it probably means giving up better quality products that are also possibly cheaper. Time will tell.
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Aymara New Year, La Paz, Death Road and Cristo

Aymara New Year

June 21 was the solstice (summer in the north but winter here in the south). It was also Incan or Aymara New Year. We heard that the best place to celebrate the new year was in Tihuanaco, a town and the site of pre-Inca ruins including a small pyramid outside La Paz. So Thursday after work a few of us caught the late night flight from Cochabamba. We had heard it would be cold because of the altitude in La Paz – just under 4,000 meters or 12,000 feet – but still we assumed it was just cold by Cochabamba standards meaning slightly chilly so we were not prepared. I wore layers but I hadn’t brought any winter clothes at all.

There was ice on the ground as we made our way through the crowds huddled around bonfires at Tihuanaco. Using some dry brush and random objects laying around like old sweaters we started our own fire but with no wood it burned out very quickly.

We were freezing terribly from about 3 am to 7 am watching traditional music and dance performers parading by in the large open field outside the walls of the main site, and waiting for the sunrise above the ruins when there would be a llama sacrifice and a speech by the president, Evo Morales, to mark the occasion. By 7 we were still standing in line to get into the site of the ruins when one of our companions collapsed with hypothermia. At that point we realized she needed medical attention and the rest of us might too if we stayed any longer. So we decided to leave without having even seen any of the ruins, never mind the rituals. The sun was just rising as our hired vans left the town and hit the road back to La Paz. I couldn’t even take any pictures because my camera was “unable to use flash due to low temperature”. I at least got this poster as a memory.
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La Paz

Much bigger than Cochabamba, La Paz is the unofficial capital and is much more touristic which also means more expensive. The layout of the city is incredible though. Situated along mountainsides, it is one of the highest altitude cities in the world. (The highest, El Alto, is part of the metro area of La Paz). The air is thin and cold so you lose your breath very quickly and it takes a few days to get adjusted. Walking the city means going up and down hills much of the time – similar to San Francisco. Add in the cold thin air and you’re gasping for breath after just two blocks.

We slept all day Friday before checking out the nightlife; somehow we ended up in bars and clubs full of tourists. I had fun but after the freezing night, I was sick and didn’t have much energy for partying. But I do love to dance so I ended up even more exhausted and slept much of the next day as well.

Saturday I got up briefly to explore the neighborhood around my hostel. There were at least ten different travel and adventure agencies within a couple of blocks including the one we would go to for the Death Road. I enjoyed some coca tea at a small cafe before going back to bed.

Death Road

Sunday we got up bright and early  to take on Death Road. The agency took us in 2 vans to the start of the trail. Most of us were a little hungover from the night before especially me but the anticipation of speeding down a winding mountain path on a bike outweighed anything else I was feeling. Our first ride was mainly a warm-up. For about 15 minutes, we rode along an asphalt road; we were going fast but nothing too crazy except for the dense fog below us making it difficult to see very far down the mountain. Probably that was better since we couldn´t see how far a fall would take us. After the asphalt ride, we loaded the bikes back on the vans and drove further down the mountain to the real trail.

I was not feeling well at all – except when I was on the bike just flying down the rock-strewn dirt and mud path. All along the way as the fog lifted we got beautiful views of the valley and rivers beneath us. For about four hours we went on with a few minor crashes but nothing serious. I skidded a few times but that´s about it. We had a few stops every so often and every time we stopped I remembered how bad I felt and I would go off to the side to puke. I just  needed to stay in motion to feel better. My only close call was towards the end – I was going as fast as I could when suddenly a car approached from around a turn. We both hit our brakes and I shifted to the left hand side of the trail which was the side you could fall off if you went too far. Luckily, the car stopped  completely and I safely swerved by it and kept going. Besides that the Death Road was not as dangerous as it sounds. It´s just a thrill to go that fast knowing that if you do lose control, you will practically be skydiving without a parachute.

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Cristo

After one weekend hiking in Toro Toro and then the weekend in La Paz, most of us wanted to take it easy this past weekend. So we threw a house party at Casa Bolivar (our house) on Friday night complete with a bonfire and beer pong. On Sunday we decided to get our adventure fix by hiking up to the Cristo statue. Even though I have been here for over a month and I live only a 15 minute walk away, I had not yet gone up the hill to the Cristo. So it was about time I climbed the 2,000 steps to the statue. Going on Sunday also meant we could climb up the spiral stairs within the statue up to about his neck. Inside there were holes all throughout from which we could see the city below  – I was even able to fit my head through one of them. It was a fun hike and it was cool trying to identify landmarks from so high above the city.

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Kids Mural

I also took a couple of days this week to help out with a mural outside one of our partner organizations which is a day care center. The kids and adults at the center made paintings on large tiles which we put up on the wall outside with cement. We surrounded the paintings with broken colored tiles to fill in the space. It came out really nice and while we were making it many neighbors passing by told us how beautiful it was. Some even  thought they would do one outside their own workplaces. For me it was just nice to do some work outdoors in the sun.
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Almuerzo, Eco-festival and Dia del Maestro

Almuerzo Completo

I finally got to try an “almuerzo completo” or “complete lunch” last week. For between 10 to 20 bolivianos, you get a salad bar, soup, main course with 2 or 3 sides and a small dessert. A full meal for less than $3! I had spinach soup, fried trout, rice and 2 kinds of potatoes. Several people had told me potatoes were a big part of the cochabamba diet but it’s not just your typical potatoes. There are so many different varieties: brown, red, blue, large, small, potatoes that look like smooth round stones and potatoes that look like ginger roots. I’ll probably never want to eat potatoes again once I leave here but for now I’m loving every bite. My hope now is to become a regular at two or three lunch spots.

Eco-festival

On Tuesday, I went to work early but there were no students at the center. It turned out they were at an environmental fair instead. I ventured off to the fair at Plaza Bolivar. There were several exhibits put on by students from primary and secondary schools in the area – everything from ideas to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to a guide on composting, tips for saving water and even a miniature working model of a drip irrigation system. Each exhibit was accompanied by a presentation by the students. I left thoroughly impressed with how well these kids understood the issues of sustainability. (More photos to come when I get my camera working)
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Dia del Maestro

Last Thursday was Teacher’s Day. Schools and many other organizations got the day off and many of them have performances to celebrate teachers. How awesome is that! Teachers should definitely be valued and appreciated for the important roles they play in the lives of our youth.

Last week in my exploring, I also learned that while La Cancha is the largest and most famous of them, there are smaller markets everywhere in Cochabamba and Quillacolla. I see many people in traditional dress at these markets.
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