Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fuentes Georginas

Right outside of Xela there are some natural hot springs called Fuentes Georginas. There are 3 pools heated by the activity of the nearby volcano, so there isn't a strong sulfur smell! The largest pool was extremely hot and most of us couldn't even get in it! While we were there, it started to rain.....imagine that. Actually it made for quite a nice cool off from the hot water! By the time we left there was so much steam, we could hardly get a photo.

Definitely worth a trip if you're ever passing by Xela!

2 hours to Totonicapan

In the nearby town of Totonicapan, there was a festival on Monday to celebrate the Arcangel San Migueal. Our school scheduled a trip in the morning and allowed us to switch our class to the afternoon so we could all attend. In reality Totonicapan is only about an hour away, but it ended up taking us 2 hours to get there.....on chicken bus. We stopped about 100 times to pick up others heading in the same direction. Once we arrived we walked into town, fighting our way through the massive crowd, with hopes of seeing some of the action at the church. The photos below show just how crowded it was, so we never quite made it to the church. We did get to spend a few hours wandering through the endless market though.

Just one example of the vendors lining the streets.

Students at play in a carnival-like arcade.

This is a photo of the inside of the chicken bus on the way home. Now imagine it with twice as many people. That is how it ended up!

The Best Coffee in the World

Over the weekend we took a overnight trip to visit a finca del cafe (coffee plantation). We heard about a group called Cafe Conciencia, a non-profit group that promotes fair trade coffee business in Guatemala. Since we´re all about fair trade, we thought we´d check it out.....plus it was near the coast and that means a warmer climate than Xela!

We traveled to Nueva Alianza, the first co-operative finca in Guatemala, with a group of 8 other students. 40 families live and work within the farm. There they have a sort of ¨Eco-resort¨(dormitory style beds with cold showers) that we stayed in. We learned all about the coffee processing business as well as other projects that they have started in the co-op, including macademia harvesting, bio-diesel, water purfication, and bamboo furniture.

We picked coffee off the trees on a hillside. Did you know coffee begins as red berries? When you suck on them they have a sweet flavor.

After picking the berries, we hiked into a nursery where they graft coffee plants together to ensure they will produce a plant that fits the Guatemalan terrain.

After the berries are picked they are hand sorted to make sure only the reddest berries are processed first. The green berries are stored in burlap bags for 8 days to ripen. The berries go through 3 processes to remove the 4 outer layers over the bean. These processes take a total of 86 hours to produce raw beans as shown in the photo below. What begins as 100 lbs. of red berries ends up with 19.5 lbs. of raw beans.

The beans are then sent to a nearby women´s co-op for removal of the final layer and roasting. At this time Nueva Alianza does not have these capabilities, but are hoping to change that in the future. This would allow them to create greater income upon sale of the coffee.

Most of the coffee from the finca, the 2nd to highest grade of coffee available, is exported to other countries. At this time, the Guatemalan coffee market is the best in the world, mainly due to small scale farming. Ironically enough, most Guatemalans drink instant coffee. Good thing we brought some of the good stuff home for our family!

We also did some rainforest-like hiking to nearby cascadas (waterfalls). We really enjoyed cooling off, after being eaten alive by mosquitos and ants!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Excursion to Salcaja

Along with making textiles, Salcaja is also know for an alcoholic drink they make, a sort of high ocatane sangria called caldo de frutas. It has a sweet wine taste made from rum, vanilla, suger and various fruits that are mixed together and fermented for 5 months. It is actually quite good in liquid form, but the fermented fruit is pretty potent - just look at Ben's reaction!

Salcaja is also home to the first church (Catholic) in Central America, Iglasia de San Jacinto. The church dates back to 1524. It wasn't open for us to tour the inside, but even from the outside it was interesting. Xela has the second church in Central America which is also Catholic. Considering Mexico is about 98% Catholic, we were actually surprised to learn that Guatemala has many religions, including Evangelical, Mormon, and Presbyterian. Catholicism is less than 60%.

Part of the adventure of this excursion was riding in the chicken buses and mini-buses. These are a few of our classmates from Switzerland, Iceland and America. We are actually embarrassed that we only speak 1 language fluently in comparison to the Europeans. Most of them are working on a 3rd or 4th language. They all speak English almost as well as we do. It is kind of cool that people from all these different countries can bond and converse through the use of English language. We tell ourselves everyday not to feel bad about our primary Spanish skills. At least we are here, trying to do our part in making a difference in the future of America.

The Making of Tradional Mayan Textiles

Last week we took a trip to the nearby town of Salcaja, known for the making of traditional ikat style Mayan textiles. Sorry we are a little slow on the blogs - the internet connections here are not always fast, so it takes forever to get things done! Salcaja is about a 30 minute chicken bus ride from Xela. Around here the town is also known as ¨Mini Miami¨ because the majority of the population that lives there has family living in Miami, who send back money to their family in Guatemala. The town has a lot of vacent homes since many people spend a lot of their time there.

Upon our arrival we walked to a field where workers were stretching and braiding the natural string (for lack of a more sophisticted term). The man in the blue shirt explained about the process of hand tying the threads used to allow color variation in the textiles.

We then visited a Tinteria where we watched 2 guys (both who looked like teenagers) dye the material. This tinteria was for the color black only. Each color has it´s own shop. 1 person literally stamps and dances on the material in a large metal bucket filled with natural dyes, scalding hot water, and chemicals for 20 minutes so that the color absorbs into the material.
After it has cooled, it is passed off to another guy (pictured below) who rinses and twists it to get out all the excess liquid. Can you imagine doing this all day long for something less than 50 Quetzales (like $7 USD), not to mention the affect on your health?

Below is an example of what it looks like when all the little ties that are removed from the rope. How about that job? Would you want that one?

We didn´t get to see these things in action, but Ben was enamored with them. They use these bicycle wheels to wind the finished product.

After a stroll through town we were off to a another house where we watched a man doing the actual ikat weaving on a loom. He told us he works 8 hoursa day making about 7 meters of material. He makes 50Q a day as well.

Throughout Salcaja there were many tiendas selling the dyed string for weaving as well as the final product. The weavings are part of the traditional Mayan dress. It is typical for the women to wear the fabric wrapped around them like a skirt with another fabric that looks like an apron over top. Often their tops are heavily embroidered and layered under a matching cardigan. We´ll probably get pictures of the dress sooner or later, but out of respect for their beliefs (most don´t want to be photographed) we don´t have any yet.

This excursion was planned by our school and definitely worth the trip. We woudn´t have been able to do this tour ourselves as many of the places we visited were in private homes or businesses.

Life with the Roesch Familia

We arrived in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala (or Xela as most people call it) late Saturday afternoon, after a 5 hour ride on a economy bus with a seat that wouldn't recline and a rough road most of the trip. We were dropped off at the Minerva terminal with our bags, among a plethora of "chicken buses" (old US school buses, painted wild colors) and stray dogs. Dragging our suitcases along, we look and look for a terminal building and soon find out that no actual building exists. Ben spotted a payphone and with a little help we call our contact from ICA (our language school), who speaks very little English. He directs us to meet him at a Pizza Hut that turns out to be quite an uphill hike from the terminal. We must have been quite a site - 2 gringos, 4 suitcases, and 1 guide book among 20 or so chicken buses!

After a few phone calls to find out where to take us, our driver drops us off at the home of Lillian, Elvira & Isabel Roesch, 3 sisters who live in their family home with a teenage boy, Eric, the son of Elvira. The Roesch home is small, but has a room for students in the back with 2 beds....and that's about it. While the accommodations aren't really very pleasing to us (we're sleeping in a saggy double bed and have a cold shower), the family is great. Lillian seems to spend the entire day in the kitchen preparing meals. Ben absolutely loves the Guatemalan cuisine. I don't think it is all that bad either, but I seem to have gotten a stomach bug, so eating isn't all that pleasant for me.

A lot of other extended family members come and go, including an older son, grandson, other sisters, cousins and neighbors. One night this week we (like 10 of us) were all sitting around the table for cena (dinner around 8pm) when Jose (the older son) jumps up and flicks off the lights. Apparently he saw the overhead light short out. So we found a candle and a flashlight and dined in the dark. It was kind of nice. After dinner Jose crawled up into the ceiling and wearing my headlamp (that I brought just in case of an electricity outage) repaired the short. It was a funny family bonding experience.

So far these are our only photos of the family, but stay tuned for more.

Green Gardens and Tummies!

Ridicuously huge and amazingly georgous, Casa Santo Domingo is a converted colonial convent where the rooms and corridors are decorated in art from that era. We spent some time strolling around the beautiful gardens and discussing our return trip to Antigua.....when we WILL be saying here!

Speaking of hotels, we also changed hotels for our last night in Antigua. Posada Lazos Fuertes, where we stayed the first 2 nights was decent, but was right on a busy, loud street. It supports a good cause - Safe Passage - an organization that aides in the education of children whose parents scavenge in a Guatemala City dump. I also wasn't too thrilled about the bathroom - I'm very particular about cleanliness in my showers! So we did a little research and found Hotel Aurora - and we highly recommend it. It's no Casa Santo Domingo, but still quite nice.

So once again, thanks to Horacio & Nicole we had another good experience. Our second night in Antigua we dined at Panza Verde (traslation - Green Tummy). Nicole told us this restaurant was really good and she was right! Antigua is know for growing avacados and it is said that the people have a green tummy from eating so many. Although we had a little difficultly finding the restaurant, it was worth the search. The atmosphere inside was amazing. There was a beautiful courtyard and live music.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Treasure Hunt in Antigua

For a few hours, we went on a treasure hunt via directions from our friends Horacio & Nicole, who lived in Guatemala City a few years ago. We were looking for a "tienda" owned by an "hombre de Alamania" (a man from Germany) who sells "adornos para el árbol de Navidad" (Christmas tree ornaments). Our directions from Nicole were something like "with the cathedral behind you, standing in the main park, cross the park, the shop is through a cafe....and maybe there is a bookstore with a wooden bench outside" It tooks us 2 days to find (mainly because the store was closed the first day), but alas.....we struck gold...or should I say a haven of beaded adornments! The best part is....this is for you Horacio & Nicole....as soon as we told him we had friends who lived in Guatemala City a while back, he knew you! He remember that you guys worked for some water project and would visit every few weeks, looking for new ornaments! So thanks for giving us a adventure to look forward too!

Our 1st stop in Guatemala

To help us adjust to our new home, we planned our first stop in Guatemala to be Antigua. The old capital of Guatemala, Antigua is a colonial town that is home to many language schools, cathedrals, markets and muchas touristicas! It was definitely a good way for us to become accustomed to the lifestyle. We spent most of our time walking around town on the cobblestone streets, browsing markets, and dodging rain storms.

This arch was used to allow nuns to cross the street without being seen.

Learning about the art of Mayan textiles.

Browsing the fresh produce in the busy market.

Iglesia De Nuestra Señora De La Merced

Monday, September 15, 2008


Hello, Hola! Welcome to our blog!

We're about to make a big life change by leaving our lives on Colfax Avenue and traveling to Xela, Guatemala. If you've ever dreamed of leaving it all behind and running away to another country to embrace the culture, learn the language and lend a hand to humankind, this is the place for you. We invite you to follow us to Guatemala and share in our experiences - the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

Buckle up and get ready for the ride of our lives!