Thursday, February 16, 2012

2012 January 20- February 16 Back in San Marcos

January 20

I'm back in San Marcos now and I couldn't be happier.  This place really is amazing.  I don't really relish the return to colder temperatures but I have to say, when I got off the bus and started walking to the café I really felt like I was coming “home”, or as close to “home” as I can get here, however many thousand miles away from Wyoming.

Feorella saw me coming from like a block away and immediately broke into a sprint, giving me a gigantic hug when she finally reached me and telling me how sad she had been for the past 10 days because I wasn't there.  ADORABLE.

I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to stay with Mimy (yet another person whose name I've been mis-spelling!) again or not but she said that of course I could stay and my room was “waiting for me”.  Patrick came by so we spent a couple hours catching up and sharing some laughs over what each other had been up to.

Marco also returned today (from work; here many people work 10-20 day stints, followed by a week of rest/vacation time) so for dinner Mimy made a special “welcome home” dinner for us.  I am sure I would have thought it was delicious no matter what but after 10 days of little besides bread and eggs, manicotti was like manna from heaven.   It was so nice to spend the evening talking and laughing with my Guatemalan family, to be back amongst people who make me feel like they actually want me around.  Although Fernando and his family were nice enough I felt more like I was being allowed to be someplace where I wasn't really wanted.  Though I was spending 10-12 hours a day at the school most of the time I didn't really feel at all appreciated by Fernando; it seemed to me like the only reason he wanted me around was because he thought I would help him make lots of money, being a white girl who spoke English.

Me and baby Adrian in our matching hats (that Mimy made)!
January 21

Earlier today there was a 6.2 earthquake!  The epicenter was somewhere off of the coast of southern Mexico.  I was sitting in the café with Pocho when it happened.  Even though the epicenter was further away I could feel that it was quite a bit stronger than the first one I was in; we moved to the door, along with everyone else in the café.  Silvia is really scared of earthquakes but she handled it really well; when I looked at her I could tell she was scared but she wasn't screaming, which I guess that she sometimes does.  I told her it would be ok, and a few seconds later it was because the quake stopped.  That makes my third earthquake in under one month, though the second one was (sometime around the 7th or so of January?) at like 5 am and even though it was somewhere around a 4.0 I totally slept through it!

January 24

Not much new to report...  I've been spending most of my time either studying Castellano, helping Diana or Pocho with their English, or just hanging out with the family or with Steven, who is moving to Mexico City at the end of the week.  We have been playing a lot of Bananagrams, which is a game I first played with Suzanne but the family here plays it too and we all love it.  The English speaking people have to play in Castellano and the Castellano speaking people have to play in English.  It's a lot like scrabble but much more fun.

There was another earthquake on the 22nd but it was really small and I barely even felt it.

January 25

I'm sitting here listening to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” filtering in from the store across the street and it occurred to me that I should write a bit about what life is like here.  I've done a lot of talking about what I do or what I think but I've talked very little about what daily life is like.

To start with, there is music everywhere.  If you walk down the block at least 3-4 stores will be playing music, which is usually something latin and current with a nice beat, sometimes electronic.  Occasionally though, there will be a store playing 80s music (Eye of the Tiger is playing now!).  In other words, I'm in heaven as far as the music is concerned!  Though, often the stores play the music WAY too loud so this aspect of life can be annoying (and headache producing!) at times.

There's also garbage everywhere.  San Marcos is actually really clean by Guatemalan standards; there is even a recycling program that some people participate in!  That definitely came as a surprise to me- the recycling program, not the trash- I'd read about that, though I wasn't fully prepared for it.  People discard garbage by just tossing it in the street or out the bus window.  On the plus side (I guess?) all the feral dogs roaming the streets eat anything that's even vaguely edible so there's little to contribute to any smell.

Speaking of the smell, I know I had mentioned this a bit before but the street level pollution is insane.  There's hardly any industrial pollution so the air above cities is crystal clear but as far as I know there are no laws (or if there are, they aren't enforced) regulating emissions by vehicles so nearly every bus or truck that passes you in the street coughs out thick clouds of diesel smoke.  Many of the rivers look beautiful but you can tell they are heavily polluted with sewage by the smell.

Going back to the feral dogs, they are much less of a big deal than I had originally thought.  I had read about them and thought they might be an issue but so far they are quite timid and content to avoid you if at all possible.  I feel so bad every time I see an emaciated bitch with swollen teats nosing through the trash in the streets, or worse, dead on the side of the road.  I can't help but think about the pups and wonder if they are old enough to survive on their own; my heart breaks at the idea of them slowly wasting away so I hope that they are old enough, even though it only adds to the problem.  I got my rabies shot largely due to fear of contact with feral dogs but I think I am much more likely to be bitten by a dog that is protecting someone's home than by one that is feral.  Also, rather than take their dogs out for exercise most people just let them out during the day so I think that there are less truly “feral” dogs than it seems.

I've already mentioned the showers but the other thing that's kind-of interesting and a little funny is that the water stops running here in San Marcos around 11pm, meaning I can't flush the toilet unless I lug a bucket of water from the big tub near the sink in the gardin/patio area (which is always full, thankfully!) to the bathroom.  Considering that that's the last thing I want to do in the middle of the night it means that I REALLY hope I don't have to “go number 2” anytime after about 11!  Most of the time that's not a problem, thankfully, but my digestion hasn't been what I would call completely normal since I left the US so it's always a possibility!

Staple foods here are tamales (of which there are many varieties- I'll go into more depth in a minute), eggs, black beans and tortillas.  Beverages are primarily instant coffee, hot chocolate, liquados and “mosh” which is basically a very liquid-y oatmeal.  As for tamales, it's probably impossible to imagine what they are like unless you've had one but they are basically little leaf-wrapped “loafs”, made primarily from pureed, cooked corn, sometimes with some sauce or meat inside, sometimes not, sometimes the corn mixture is sweetened, and sometimes the loaf is made from potatoes (or probably tons of other things).  “Loafs” isn't the right word but “cakes” gives the wrong impression too!  If you try to imagine what you would get if, instead of making corn tortillas you just took the dough and packed it into a little loaf you'll have a pretty good idea of what tamales are like.  I'm sure there are about a million different varieties but here at Mimy's there are:

Tamales de carne salado:  Large tamales with meat and sauce.  The corn paste is slightly salty, as is the sauce, which is tomato-based.  Mimy usually puts chicken in hers.  They also have a giant raisin on both ends.  Wrapped in Machan leaves.  Thanks to Marina for allowing me to take photos!

Tamales de carne dulce:  Also large tamales with meat and sauce but both the paste and the sauce (mole!) are a little sweet.  Again, Mimy uses chicken in hers and they also have a raisin tucked into both ends.  These are one of my favorites.  Mole is one of the best things I've been introduced to here.  So delicious.  : d  Wrapped in Machan leaves.

Paches:  Another one of my favorites, paches are made with rice flour instead of corn flour and have potatoes, meat and butter inside them.  Yum.  Wrapped in Machan leaves.  Forgot to take a photo of these.  :o(

Chuchitos:  Another of my favorites.  Chuchitos are medium-sized tamales that have chicken and a tomato-based sauce on the inside.  I guess they are similar to Tamales de carne salado but I like the chuchitos better.  Chuchitos are wrapped in corn husks.
Cambrayes:  “Dessert” type tamales.  Cambrays are medium-sized sweet tamales that have a raisin at one end and a bit of pink coloring (roseclare) at the other end.  These are also wrapped in corn husks.
The last type of tortilla Mimy has here pretty regularly are Tamalitos, which are small tamales that have no meat and no sauce and fulfill a tortilla-like function; that is to say, they aren't eaten alone but, rather, are used to sop up juices from the main meal or to supplement soups and such.  I think they are also wrapped in portions of Machan leaves.  I also forgot to take a pic of these but they're kind-of boring.  :D

There are two other types of tortillas that Mimy told me about that I hope to try someday.  One is called a Tayuyu that has cheese and frijoles inside, and the other is called Tamales de chipilín, which is similar to a Tayuyu but instead of the frijoles they have chipilín inside, which is legume of some sort (that I haven't tried yet.. I don't think!).  Tamales de chipilín can have a sauce that is either salty (salado) or sweet (dulce).

I eat most of my meals in the café but food isn't as cheap here as I had thought it would be.  The cheapest are the street vendors, which there aren't a ton of here in San Marcos but in the larger cities they are everywhere so competition keeps prices low.  For 5 Q (about 65 cents) you can get a bag of fresh fruit that's about as much as you could fit into ziplock sandwich bag, or a “quesadilla”- cheese sandwiched between two thick disks of corn “tortilla” dough then cooked right in front of you- fresh, but much less tasty than the Mexican version.  10 Q ($1.25) will get you three small tacos (you would need 6 to make a proper meal) and it's about 15-20 Q ($2-2.50) for a meal consisting of a piece of meat, some beans and rice, and tortillas.  In a restaurant snacks are 10-15 Q ($1.25-2) and meals are 15 – 40 Q, ($2-5) depending on what you order and how fancy the place is.  Liquados (blended fruit with a consistency somewhere between juice and smoothie) are 8-15 Q ($1-2), coffee/chocolate/tea is usually around 6-8 Q ($0.65-1) and cappuccinos are usually between 15-20 Q $2-2.50).  The best thing though?  Street vendors come on the bus and sell all sorts of things but the best I've found is these little chocolate-covered ice cream sandwiches that are made from two cookies for 1 Q ($.12!)!  Pretty sure I could make them a new food group if they were more readily available.  Of course the cheapest option for food is to go to the mercado and cook your own food, if you are lucky enough to have kitchen access wherever you are staying.  Veggies there run from about 2 Q - 10 Q per pound- about $.25-$1.25 so they are actually pretty reasonable but meat is quite expensive (well, comparatively!  It runs anywhere from about 12-30 Q (~ $1.75- $3.75) depending on what it is, where you buy it and if there are bones in it).

The minimum wage here is like $7.50 (appx 50 Q)  per DAY, so the cost of food takes a sizable chunk out of the money people earn in their jobs.  Just eating (at a restaurant) a decent meal three times a day, not splurging at all, means spending close to 100% of what a person has earned that day.  Even purchasing food at a grocery store or at the mercado (where most people purchase their fresh fruit and veg), it's difficult to make something balanced and filling for less than probably 5 Q, and that's taking into account purchasing larger quantities (because in the mercado it's often not possible to purchase less of something than say, half a pound) of meat and veg and using it for several meals.  Throwing in a few Q for beverages means that means that even a pretty thrifty (meat-eating) person spends around 20 Q a day for food, when they're only making 50 Q!  Even if they are making 100 Q per day that's still 20% of their income going to food.  Insane.  Super-thrifty me can eat totally balanced, filling meals in the US for around $1-2 per meal, or less than $5 per day (buying in bulk, making large portions and freezing for later consumption), which was about 5% of my income (before taxes) when I was “making the big bucks” (lol).  I could have eaten every single meal at a nice restaurant and not spent much more than 30% of my daily income.

I was thinking the other day about all of the misconceptions I had about Guatemala/Central America before arriving here.  I wasn't expecting the level of technology I have seen here.  Everyone has a cell phone, and most people have nice ones too.  I left my ipod at home because I thought it would make me a target and now I realize how silly that was!  Many people have computers and even laptops.  I removed all of my jewelery and did all this work, like scuffing up my brand new bag, making sure I didn't bring clothes that had English writing on them, etc..., to make myself be less of a target, thinking that every other person would be looking at me with evil intent.  Now that I'm here I realize that:

1) I'm a “target” simply for being white.  If I get robbed it will be because someone assumes I have money simply because I am white, regardless of what I look like or what my things look like.

2) Every other gringo/gringa out there is WAY more of a target than I am.  I have the smallest pack (by a LOT) of any other traveler I've met yet.  Most other travelers are lugging around 65-75 L packs while mine is 35 L.  I still look like a gringa but I hope that my smaller pack makes me less appealing!

3) The people here are so nice!!!  On the bus or walking in the street, people who take notice of me generally do so because they want to talk to me.  I know that doesn't rule out the possibility of being mugged while I'm here but even if it happens I know without a doubt that someone would help me- maybe not stop it from happening but take me into their home, give me food, let me use their cell phone- the people here are so nice that I KNOW someone would do this.

Most people wear clothing just like you would expect to see in the US; in fact, there are stores that sell nothing but America clothing.  Another thing I didn't really expect is how incredibly friendly everyone is.  Here in San Marcos it is more common to greet people you pass on the street than to walk past and avoid eye contact.  Everyone is very polite and smile-y.  Even in Coatepeque, which was larger and had more of a “city” type of feel to it, many people greet each other in passing.  A phrase you often hear people say to each other in the street is “Gusto en saludarlo”, which means something like “it gives me pleasure to greet you”.  It's common to greet other people when you enter a café or restaurant and after meals people say “Gracias” to the entire room and other diners respond with “Buen provecho” (basically, “enjoy your meal”, though it's a little silly that you say it after the person has finished eating!).  When you enter someone's house you say “Con permiso” (with your permission) and they say “Pase adelante” (go ahead); people often say “Con permiso” when they enter the café and other diners (often me!) say “Pase adelante” if Silvia, Mariana, Diana or Mimy don't hear them.

Schooling here is supposed to be mandatory until the age of 14 but in reality only about 75% of kids reach 5th grade and I would guess that only about 25% of people actually graduate “secondary school” (high-school), and the level of education they have upon graduating is more like what most students in the US achieve by about 7th or 8th grade.  Primary school is focused largely on arts and crafts and band is a big deal in secondary school; the schools earn prestige in the community by how good their band is and how elaborate their floats (for holidays) are.  From what I've heard the parades are a big deal; students and members of the band dress up in fancy costumes and some even roller-blade through the streets.  The day Patrick and I left for Cucho we saw a bit of the preparations for a parade at one of the schools that was near the bus stop and I was sad to miss the parade because it looked amazing.

In most towns it's common knowledge who the narco-trafficers are but of course no-one messes with them and Patrick told me that many people even appreciate them for “keeping down the local riff-raff”.  The cops have little authority or respect within the community and even if they have the desire they have nowhere near the manpower needed to make a real difference.  I can't say that I blame them.  Nearly every day there are reports of vendetta killings; it seems impossible to do anything about the problem without endangering yourself and anyone you care about.  I read that for every 1 agent of the National Civil Police there are 6 private guards, over half of which aren't licensed.  Apparently people in the drug trade have submarines, which they build somewhere along the coast of Columbia.  It costs 1 million dollars to build one but apparently they make 20 million in one run so it's easy to justify the expense.  CRAZY.  

January 28

Steven left for Mexico City today.  He likes the bigger cities and San Marcos just isn't large enough for him so when he visited some friends in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago he decided to move there.  I've spent much of the last week hanging out with him, when I wasn't working on my Castellano.  He was kind enough to give me some movies (on the computer) that are in Castellano so now I have another aid in my quest for fluency.  I have been feeling increasingly better about my Castellano over the past week or so.  I am still far far away from being fluent but for the most part I can understand people if they want me to (which means speaking slowly and giving me descriptions of words I don't know).  If people are talking around me and I'm just listening I can usually get a pretty good idea about what they are talking about, though I still can't understand the full context.  There is also a lot of slang and there are ways that people speak with each other that I can't learn in any text book- sayings where the literal translation is nothing like the meaning of the words in the phrase.

On Thursday night I made pasta for a “going away dinner” for Steven here at the café.  I also baked (burned) a pastry made with a thick pie crust, pineapple marmalade and a topping of brown sugar and chopped almonds.  It was pretty good even though I burned it.  The family gave Steven a card and he cried when he told them how much he had enjoyed getting to know them.  Machisimo (being “manly”) is a big thing here so I'm not sure if everyone really knew what to think with a guy crying at the dinner table!  I found out later that it was because the way everyone was so welcoming to him and the whole going away dinner thing made him think about his mother and grandmother, who he lost about 3 years ago within like 24 hours of each other.  I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for him.

It's fun that Steven is moving to Mexico City; even though it's not high on my priority lists as far as places to visit go, I think I will end up going through there on my way back to the US; I now have two reasons to go there as Alberto (the guy I met on Holbox) also lives there.

After dinner we went out to a place called the Antigua café to have a couple of beers and send Steven off in style.  Patrick and Luis were there, as well as a couple of Luis's friends that we went to the parque with a couple weeks ago and 4-5 other of Steven's friends who I hadn't met before.  After Antigua café we went to Longe café so we could see Steven dance.  :D  I stayed up much later than I should have and even though I didn't drink (hence, smoke) much I'm not feeling super hot today; I actually think I might be getting sick AGAIN.  Not that I've actually recovered from the previous cold...

January 30th

Yesterday I went to church with Mimy.  I wanted to go once mostly because I knew it would mean a lot to her.  And, I admit I was also a little curious about the ceremony.  Diana had a training in Xela for her new job so she didn't come.  There wasn't as much singing as I had thought but we arrived pretty late so I think we missed most of the singing.  It was less formal than I had been expecting, though I couldn't really understand a ton of what the guy was saying so that probably doesn't help!  There was a projector that they used to display the verses he wanted us to read, though Mimy had brought a second bible for me to use.  Also, it turned out that the church was also Leivy's church, as I found out later when she and Patrick stopped by the café.

After the service Mimy and I went to visit her friend Hania's and all of her family, including her daughter Carmen who may start coming here for English classes.  We ate lunch there and talked with them, and all the other many people who were coming in and out of the house.  Hania's house and patio are beautiful and she has a lime/lemon tree that has a passionfruit vine growing on it.  When I noticed it and asked her about it we went outside to look at it and when I pointed out two ripe fruits at the top she had one of the guys (one of her sons?) climb the tree and get the fruits for me!  I haven't had passionfruit since I was in Hawaii so it was a real treat.  Mimy and I shared one while we walked home and I haven't eaten the second one yet.  I was surprised to see it growing in this climate, which, though warmer than Wyoming, is far from tropical!  I wouldn't be surprised if it reaches freezing here some nights in “invierno” (“winter”, or more accurately, the dry season- incidentally, the season we are in now).  I am fairly certain that passionfruit would survive in Portland and am even tempted to send some seeds to Mom to grow in her sun-room, though I am guessing she would need to put it outside in the summer in order to get fruit.

There were two earthquakes this morning, though I only really felt the second one.  Silvia said there was one at 5:40 and the one I felt was at about 6:20 or 6:30.  It felt pretty strong but it was probably just that I was laying down; I think it was less than a 4.5, though I was barely awake so I really shouldn't make guesses as to what strength it was!

February 2nd

There was another earthquake yesterday morning... or was it the day before?  The novelty of earthquakes is starting to wear off!  It wasn't very big- maybe around a 4?  I was sleeping and I had to ask Diana if there really had been an earthquake since I thought I might have dreamed it!

I forgot to mention that I've decided to stick around a bit because Sean, who I met in Progresso with Suzanne, is coming here!  I haven't actually emailed with him directly about when he will be arriving; several weeks ago when we were chatting on FB he had asked me if I could recommend anyplace to learn Castellano and I recommended the school.  I didn't realize he was seriously considering it until the other day when Patrick was eating dinner here at the café and mentioned that there was a new student coming and started describing what he looked like!  So, I'm hanging out a bit.  It's a little frustrating though because I have no idea when he is arriving!  If I knew it would be another week or more I might be tempted to move on to Xela, mostly because the more I look at the calendar and things I don't want to miss (namely, the whale sharks and manta rays in Honduras, where I am thinking I will get certified to dive) I feel a pull to push on through Guatemala.  Though, I can always save Flores for another time, really...

Besides that, not much else is new- more studying Castellano- big surprise!  It's strange how variable my attitude is.  Some days I feel super-positive and like I understand 90% of what is said around me.  Other days I feel like I'm not learning a damn thing and I can hardly understand a single thing people say, even if they are speaking slowly and trying to help me to understand.  I know I'm getting better but I'm constantly frustrated by not being more fluent.  I was just thinking about how I went to Chichi with Otto and how I felt pretty comfortable speaking with him then, and that was like a month and a half ago!  If I compare how I felt then and how I feel now I don't feel like I've made much progress, though I know that a lot of my progress recently has been with conjugations so it doesn't feel like much because I am not learning a lot of new words- I'm basically learning how to sound a little less like a 3 year-old... I know it's an unrealistic expectation to achieve fluency in such a small amount of time but I had thought I would feel a little more comfortable in conversation by now.

The most confusing word: “ya”.  Depending on the context and other words you use with it, this word can mean “already”, “now”, “later”, “immediately”, “soon”, “of course”, “since”, “no longer” and “oh yes, all right!”

One of the funniest things I have come across so far is “Perdona me para molestarte”.  The verb “molestar” means “bother”, so you are basically saying “forgive me for bothering you” but the fact that it bears a striking resemblance to the English word “molest” which almost always has a sexual connotation, guarantees lots of laughter from any English-speaking person attempting to learn Castellano, especially if there are other English-speaking individuals around.  I still haven't managed to really integrate this phrase into my daily conversation.

February 4th

Today has been a great day so far.  I woke up early, even though I had stayed up late listening to a Castellano tutorial and then reading a book (in English, for pure enjoyment).  The sun was shining and there were very few clouds in the sky, and I was feeling very positive and happy- maybe due to the fact that I felt like I'd done quite well with understanding the tutorial I had listened to the night before.  I went to the café, where the kitchen was in pristine condition because Mimy and Diana had been up very late cooking Turkey relleno and had decided to organize all the cupboards and drawers.  I decided to finally fix the cupboard doors as I had been intending to do for a couple weeks, which was very easy as I only had to re-secure the latches.  Before I fixed it the right-most cupboard door was particularly funny because it would be shut and then suddenly just pop open, like there was a ghost in the cupboard.  But it was a little dangerous because it was very close to the stove and thus totally possible to really crack your head if you weren't aware that it had opened.

After fixing the cupboard Feorella tried to help me roll my r's.  It's ridiculous how difficult it is.  I know I shouldn't be frustrated because it's a new movement my tongue has never had to know how to do but it's difficult not to get frustrated, especially when people laugh.  I know I sound funny but it's actually pretty annoying to be laughed at.  I don't laugh at any native Castellano speakers when they have difficulties with some of the letter combinations we have in English, like “thr”.  The only time I can roll my r's with any real success is when I've been drinking.  Awesome.

Then Diana and I went to the market and bought a ton of stuff.  I've gone to various markets with her several times during my time in San Marcos, and I enjoy it very much because we talk a lot and I feel like it's good for my Castellano, plus she knows how much stuff should cost so I don't get ripped off.  Though, most of the time that I have gone to the market by myself I haven't actually gotten ripped off.  Occasionally someone will try to charge me more than something should cost and I just walk away when that happens.  Which might be rude but I think it's rude to try to rip me off just because I'm white!  :D  Anyway.  We walked, which was nice because it meant I got a LITTLE exercise, which is something seriously lacking in my life right now.

On that note, I have somehow managed to mess up my left shoulder, most likely from having used it for basically NOTHING over the course of the past couple of months.  I really need to start an exercise regime.  Incidentally, that was actually how I discovered that something was wrong with my shoulder.  I did a little sunbathing on the patio yesterday afternoon and after that I thought I would do some judo pushups in my room and I basically couldn't even do one.  Not that I particularly HATE having an excuse to not do judo pushups but it's pretty uncool.

February 7th

Sunday morning I went to the mercado here in San Marcos, which I had walked through a couple of times before with Diana but it was nice to go by myself so I could take my time and look through everything.  I've decided that Sunday mornings are my favorite time to go to the market because it's very quiet and tranquil, in comparison to the usual frenetic hustle and bustle.  I purchased some Pericon (I can't remember if I've mentioned it or not but Diana and Mimy have been teaching me about different herbs and their medicinal value and my favorite so far is Pericon, which is used for stomach problems and as a stimulant/antidepressant, though I've been drinking it just because it tastes good!), a pound of faava beans and a coconut for pie and banana bread I planned to make that day.

San Pedro Mercado
In the early afternoon Feorrella helped me make banana bread; we were busy with that for a couple of hours as we made three different types.  I don't actually have a favorite banana bread recipe that I always use so I had just found a couple on that I wanted to try- one called “best ever banana bread” and another that was made with pineapple.

I wanted to see how the one with pineapple would taste with coconut, and the recipe was large enough to make two loaves so we split the batter at the end and added finely chopped coconut to one of them.  All three turned out good but I have to admit that I think the “best banana bread” IS the best.  :D  Though, I think the one with coconut would have been better if I had blended the coconut instead of just finely chopping it...

Feorella didn't want nuts in hers so we got creative with the tinfoil!
After making banana bread and taking a bit of a break for lunch, Feorella and I (and one of her friend who came over for a while) made two frozen cream pies, one following a recipe I had found on called Frozen Mocha Torte and another basically following the same recipe but using a can of coconut milk instead of the condensed evaporated milk and omitting the coffee while adding one cup of blended coconut and 2 tsp almond extract.

It was interesting finding space in the freezer for the tortes!  It's better now that they have frozen and stuff can be put on top of them but the freezer was pretty dangerous for a day or so while they froze.  :D

Yesterday Patrick and I took a trip to Tapachula, Mexico, to get our passports stamped.  Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador are the four countries in the “C4” visa agreement.  When citizens of a country other than those four enters one of those countries they automatically get a tourists visa good for three months.  During that time you can travel freely through any of those four countries, but before the time is up you have to leave the region (either go to Mexico or Belize) and get your visa renewed, or you can pay like 150 or 200 Q (maybe more?  I'm still not clear on exactly how much it costs...) and fill out a ton of paperwork to get an extension, which I think is only good for another three months.  Also, I think you have to go to Guatemala city for that.  Since the paperwork route is a hastel and Belize has an exit fee that is somewhere around 150 or 200 Q so the cheapest/easiest route is just to go to Mexico, and many people make a mini-vacation of it.  Some people have been living here for years and have to do this every three months.  You are supposed to spend at least three days outside of the country in order to get your visa renewed so I was prepared for that possibility, though I was sincerely hoping it wouldn't come to that since the price of a hotel room for three nights would have brought the total cost to well over 200Q!  I actually had my sleeping bag liner with me and was somewhat prepared to just camp out at the boarder for three days if I had to, though Patrick told me he wouldn't allow me to do that!

In any case it was totally fine.  We even asked the guy at the boarder if we could come back the same day and he said it was fine, though I admit I was still a little concerned until the moment we were walking away from the Guatemalan immigration window, freshly stamped passports in hand!

So, yeah.  Patrick had gone to the highlands the day before to watch the superbowl (the patriots lost, which probably was pretty upsetting to many people in the highlands, which have a pretty tight connection with some small town in Massachusetts because many of the residents of the highlands go there to work, and send money home to their family) so he rode his bike down pretty early and had asked me to make lunch for us both, which I had done the night before- “sandwiches” from an egg and black bean mash sandwiched between two tortillas, carrot sticks, toasted faava beans, a piece of banana bread, a little bit of coconut and pineapple, an orange, a banana and a starfruit.  We met at the bus station around 8:30 and grabbed the next bus to Malacaton.  We had been hoping to catch the direct bus to Tizamin, which would have saved us 4 Q (the cost of the collectivo from Malacaton to Tizamin) but we didn't see it and preferred to pay the extra 4 Q than to wait around for it.

Bus ride uneventful, managed to leave my delicious lunch on the bus upon exiting.  Unbelievable.  Of course I didn't realize this until we were in the collectivo headed to Tizamin.  Theoretically we could have just hung out on the other side of the boarder for an hour or so and then crossed back over but we went to Tapachula to walk around a bit in the central square area.  Patrick had some shopping he was thinking about doing but then decided against it because he didn't want to add any complications to the process of crossing back over the boarder.  We ate lunch (Patrick graciously shared with me) in the central square and watched a group of Garifunas (?) play some music and dance a bit.  I took a little video but stopped when they started trying to get me to go dance with them- something I might have been a little more ok with if there hadn't been like 50 people standing around watching!  :D  After that Patrick and I found a little restaurant and he ordered some green chili chicken enchiladas and I got some guacamole, which contained entirely too much raw onion, a fact I dealt with for the rest of the day (stinky breath).

Then we headed back to Tizamin, or whatever the little town on the Mexican side of the boarder is called.  Just before crossing back over I bought Patrick and I each a mango ice cream cone (all home-made, even the cone, I think!) with a dollop of grinadine (? I think?) on top- which was funny because afterward Patrick had really pink lips and it looked like he was wearing lipstick!  :D

Eating mango ice cream at the Mexico / Guatemala boarder.
People smuggling stuff across the boarder!  :D  This picture was taken where Patrick and I were standing in the previous picture (on the bridge, in full site of the authorities!  :D
We were disappointed to learn that we had just missed the direct bus back to San Marcos (damn my sweet tooth- if only we hadn't stopped for ice cream!) but it just meant that the whole journey cost a little more than $1 more than it could have.  Oh well.  The ice cream was worth it!

When I arrived at the café Mimy asked me if I wanted to go out to eat with the family at , a little restaurant that serves “carnecitas”- grilled meat.  Of course that sounded great to me!  Marco picked us up and we drove to the restaurant, and then he went and picked up Leo and his family.  The food was delicious- I had one steak and one pork, each of which came with several tortillas.  After dinner all 8 of us piled into Marco's car (!) and after we dropped off Leo's family the four of us returned to the café and tried the “almond joy” torte.  It was pretty delicious, I have to say, despite the fact that the cream here always seems right on the verge of going bad to me- it always tastes just slightly sour to me...

Yesterday was a great day for Spanish, for all that I didn't really “study” any.  Understanding and speaking both seemed pretty successful to me.

And now I'm pretty-much caught up.  Haven't done much today except for getting this journal up-to-date, though now I'm headed to the mercado (haven't decided yet if I'll go to the one in San Marcos, the one in San Pedro or the one in between!) to buy a couple of avocados and (maybe) some coriander for dinner.  I'm making pork and pineapple tacos for the family tonight, after which we will eat the mocha torte!  :o)

Still no word from Sean...

February 8th

Sean is coming today, apparently.  I had a message from him when I checked my email yesterday but he didn't say when he was arriving but then when I saw Patrick last night he told me that Sean is planning to come here today.

I cooked the pork and pineapple tacos with avocado crema last night for the family and they were a big success.  I thought they were a little bland but Patrick said they were one of the best things he's ever had.  He wants to pay me to make him a container full of it!  :D

Marco's birthday is on the ...13th, I think?  It's a few days away.  However, he is leaving today to go back to Guatemala City for work so we celebrated his B-day last night.  Mimy also cooked some turkey and a casserole, which was a good thing since there ended up not being enough of what I made to have filled us all sufficiently.  The turkey was delicious- I ate two (small!) pieces and still wanted more, and that was after two tacos!
It was Variela's B-day a couple weeks ago but we weren't able to celebrate it because Leo was away at work so she got to blow out the candles on Marco's cake after he had.  :D
I had hoped to serve the other torte but for some reason it didn't set up!  I don't understand because that was the one that followed the recipe!  I turned the temperature down on the freezer so hopefully we can have it tonight...

February 16, early in the morning

I've been horrible about writing in my journal this past week.  Let's see... Sean did show up on the 8th and has been studying for a week.  He's been sick with a cold that seems a lot like the one I had for forever so his lessons have been less helpful than he had thought and he has decided to stay on here for another week.  There is a girl named Anna here helping Patrick with the school's website.  She has come to the café to hang out with us a few times and we've all had fun playing Bananagrams.
Sean and Feorrella
Most days Sean and I have walked around San Marcos or San Pedro, and one time we went to the mercado in El Mosquito, which is the one I have usually gone to with Diana.  It's my favorite because there are only locals there- not that I see many travelers around here at all but the mercado in San Pedro has a lot more a “touristy” feel to it, and so does the one in San Marcos, though not so much as San Pedro.  Patrick, Anna, Sean and I walked there last week and then caught the little yellow bus back to San Marcos.  Though it's my least favorite of all the mercados, it is the largest and it's fun to look down on all the stalls from the second floor of this building that's right in the center of things.

Diana and I went for about a 40 minute run the other day.  I was amazed at how good I felt during it, considering how inactive I've been the past couple of months.  It was a good 20 minutes into the run before I started feeling really out of breath, and I really only felt like that when we were running uphill.  I was surprised because the elevation here is the highest I've ever ran at and I expected that to really affect me, especially after not having done much in the exercise department lately.  But, it was great!  My calves were sore for two days afterward though!

Other than that I've just been studying!  I'm at the point now where I really think I'm not going to improve much unless I'm talking to people all the time in Castellano.  Which, unfortunately, is something that's unlikely to happen since I'm headed into areas with more travelers.

Today I went to the school so Anna could take some photos and videos with more than one student in them (Sean is currently the only student at the school), and after playing a game on the terrace with Sean, Leivy and the secretory at the school (whose name I can't remember, of course!) I went to the carnacaria near the bus terminal and purchased three pounds of beef (60 Q) for the stew I planned to make for dinner.  I have made stew tons of times before in my life but I don't really have a “favorite recipe” so I just decided to make it up as I went!  On the way I stopped at the store and grabbed some bacon (14 Q for about ½ lb) to add a smokey flavor, since it's not possible to find liquid smoke (one of my favorite “kitchen essentials”!) here.  Then I was off to the mercado in "El Mosquito" (I think that's the name!) for veggies!  Veggies really are cheap in the mercado.  I got 2 lbs of potatoes (2 Q), 2 lb tomatoes (2 Q), 12 carrots (2 Q), 1 lb faava beans (4 Q), ½ lb peas (4 Q), three ears of corn (3 Q) and a bunch of parsley (1 Q).  Total- 18 Q (a little over $2).  I returned to the café and cut up the beef, blended the tomatoes and got the stew started and then Sean and I walked to San Pedro to get bread from a panararia that Mimy had recommended.  We ended up not being able to find the one she had told us about but after asking a couple of people where that one was we just decided to go to another one, which a lady in a clothing store recommended.  I wasn't sure how many people would be coming for dinner so I got 30 rolls, which cost 15 Q.  So, total for my dinner: 107 Q- about $14.  Pretty good, considering that it made enough for probably 20 people!
El Mosquito (?) Mercado
It ended up only being Mimy, Diana, me, Sean, Anna, Leivy and Evar, and Patrick and his girlfriend, who I only just met tonight.  The stew turned out fantastic.  More frozen tortes for desserts- leftovers from the batch I made a while ago.  The recipe had made twice as much filling as I needed so I had frozen the leftovers and the other day I made the second round.  The second mocha torte was much better than the first, which never really set up properly and had a really weird consistency.  I added a bunch of milk and it was 100 x better the second time, though the coconut one still is my favorite, and Mimy and Diana's as well.

So.  It's now 1:30 am on February 16 and I'm leaving San Marcos in less than 12 hours.  The family is going to go see Otto in Guatemala City and I've decided to go with them.  I can't believe I'm leaving here!  The connections I have made here are ones I hope to maintain for the rest of my life.  I don't know what the future has in store for me but I can imagine returning again and again to San Marcos.  Mimy told me that I will always be welcome here and this will always be my home.  It's so hard to move on!  I will miss Bananagrams and Chinese Checkers with my “family” and friends here.  Pocho telling me how much he loves chocolate and cookies, and listening to him and Feorella say “awesome”.  Feorella's hugs.  Helping Diana and Mimi in the kitchen, especially when it's late at night and it's just the three of us.  Laughing with Diana about the fact that one of us has showered.  Asking Mimy to spell something in Castellano and having her spell it in English (and the uncontrollable laughter that always follows.  H-O-M-E!).  Hearing Mimy say “¡Aye, Mariela!” whenever Diana says something she thinks is inappropriate.  And 100 other things I'm not thinking of right now.  I know I will have other amazing experiences and meet other amazing people but this is going to be a hard goodbye.

Later the same day...

Lol sike!  As I was finishing packing my bag, minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive, Diana came into my room and told me that there was no bus!  Yay!  I was feeling pretty rushed and REALLY not ready to leave quite yet so it's like the universe answered my unspoken prayers.  Now I have time to upload this blog post and do a few other things I had been thinking about doing, like write up some sort of a thank you letter to Mimy and Diana, though I'm not sure it's even possible to convey how I feel in any words, let alone my limited Castellano...

Off to upload this post... Thanks for reading the longest blog post ever!  : D

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