My Spanish school provided us an opportunity to observe a traditional Mayan ceremony, which was quite beautiful. I’d hate to lie to you all and tell you I remember exactly what all the symbolism used in the ceremony meant, so I will mainly share some of the pictures I took. There was a lot going on during the ceremony, but I’ll try to share the bits and pieces that I remember.
The Mayan priest began by forming a circle with sugar, then layering various offerings, including coals made from pine sap, chocolate, tobacco/cigars, and herbs. Everything placed in the circle has a meaning, such as sugar for the sweetness of life and the cigars for the memory of the ancestors.
The different colored candles are placed with the wicks towards the center, and each color is associated with a cardinal direction. Red is the east and the sunrise, black is the west and the sunset, white is the north and the air, and yellow is the south and the earth/material things. (Notice how those four colors are also the four colors of corn.) Blue and green candles are also added to the center.
Next, a student helped the priest light the candles.
During the ceremony, the priest honored the ancestors, the 260 Nawales (spirits), the elements and nature. He invited other students and teachers to add more candles and seeds to the fire. Towards the end of the ceremony he added honey and liquor to the flame.
As a neutral observer I found the ceremony to be quite relaxing and peaceful. Definitely a cultural experience I’m happy I was able to witness.
Ok so I love fried plantains. And I love black beans. So I was destined to love rellenitos, which are basically fried plantains stuffed with black beans. Honestly it doesn’t get much better than that.
This week my Spanish school offered a cooking class, where we learned how to make rellenitos, and they were surprisingly easy to make. Basically you boil the (ripe) plantains until they are soft, then peel and mash them, then add powdered cinnamon.
Next you grab a chunk of the mashed plantains, and flatten it in your hands. Then in the center of your bed of plantain, put some pureed black beans (which here in Guatemala you can buy in a bag from the grocery store, but I guess if you can’t find that in the States you’d have to mash up your own black beans, sorry guys). Then, fold the flat plantain together so that the black beans are on the inside. Roll the plantain around in your hands and shape it into a ball.
Now all you gotta do is fry those bad boys until they get nice and golden-crispy on the outside and there you have it: rellenitos. Top them with a little crema and sugar and you are good to go. Qué rico.
I’ll for sure be making these when I get back to the States–if I can ever find ripe plantains in the grocery store.
(PS: Shouts to Grant for being my personal photographer while my hands were covered in mashed plantains–that’s real friendship.)
On Sunday, I embarked on what would be one of my most interesting trips in Guatemala so far–a trip to the Sunday market in Chichicastenango.
*I’m warning you in advance this is a long post, because it was a long day.
At 6am, five other students from my Spanish school, led by one of our teachers, made our way across Xela to the bus station (which was really more like a street corner), to catch a camioneta. These buses, which serve as public transportation in Guatemala, are actually old school buses (like those big yellow ones you rode in elementary school), with a brand new colorful paint job. Apparently, once upon a time a foreigner visiting Guatemala saw a chicken on one of these camionetas, and ever since tourists have referred to the buses as “chicken buses.” (Nope, I didn’t see any chickens–or any other animals for that matter–on any buses during my trip this weekend.)
The chicken buses are usually pretty crowded, with three people usually squeezed into the seats of the bus that are made for two. This means that the people in the aisle are awkwardly sitting halfway on their seats (one cheek on and one cheek off) and pretty much blocking the entire aisle. People enter and exit the bus through the front doors or by jumping out the emergency exit in the rear. It was a wild ride but I actually enjoyed the experience.
After a couple of hours of riding in a chicken bus that was going about 60 mph (Snapchat verified) on the highway, we arrived in Chichicastenango. First we headed to Cafe Popol Vuh, where I had a big breakfast complete with fried eggs, black beans, fruit, queso fresco and fried plantains (all time fave).
Then, our teacher/guide took us on a short historical tour of Chichi. We walked through the cemetery, which was a stunning array of brightly colored tombstones and above-ground graves.
Near the small chapel in the back of the cemetery, an older man approached our group and offered to lead us to a newly built monument in remembrance of the 2012 completion of a cycle of the Mayan calendar (remember, December 21, 2012, when the world was supposed to end?). The monument is a circular arrangement of Mayan statues, representing the Mayan belief that “Todo inicia donde todo termina y todo termina donde todo inicia” (“Everything begins where everything ends, and everything ends where everything begins”).
Next we went to two cathedrals, which actually face each other, with the market plaza in between. When we went in the larger of the two, Iglesia de Santo Tomás, I was in awe of how huge it was, and our teacher/guide explained how the Catholic church incorporated Mayan rituals such as candle burning and bringing flowers to worship, which we could still see in the cathedral. I couldn’t take any pictures inside, but I managed to capture how lively the steps of the church are, with women selling beautiful flowers and people mingling in front of the church.
Finally, it was market time. One of my best friends and I broke off from the group to do our own shopping, and we had quite the market experience. There were so many gorgeous hand-made table cloths, blankets, huipils (traditional Mayan blouses) wood carvings, jade statues, purses, belts, painted skulls, and more. One part of the market had live animals: chickens, roosters, dogs, and kittens (so cute). Another part had all the food: fresh cut fruit, fried chicken, french fries, fruit smoothies, tacos….
We wanted to look at everything. But the thing about markets is that the vendors can be a little, um, aggressive. Vendors followed us showing all the different blankets they had. We would ask how much their items were, they would say something that seemed far too expensive, so we would say no thank you and walk away. And then they would continue to follow us, asking us to name a price instead, and we would still say no. Now you gotta love determination and perseverance but at the same time it was a little exhausting trying to shop when people are literally following you trying to convince you to buy their wares. But my friend and I, due to our pretty impressive negotiation skills, were able to find some good products for decent prices.
Overall, I enjoyed the market at Chichi. I was expecting the vendors to be a little pushy, and to have to haggle a lot, and those expectations were met. I was also expecting to find beautiful, unique handicrafts at the market, which I saw plenty of, but I also noticed that some items looked mass-produced and catered to tourists. But altogether, the market plus the tour of the cemetery and churches in Chichi was a fabulous way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And I didn’t spend all of my money (go me!).
My Spanish school encourages its students and teachers to use one half of a class period every week to venture outside of the school and practice Spanish out in the real world. This week, two of my best friends from medical school (who are doing the same summer program as me, ayyy) and I decided to take full advantage of our field trip time. First we went with our teachers across town to a Mennonite bakery (random, right?) called Bake Shop.
This place is delicious. They sell basically any carb you could ever want: everything from bread to cookies to muffins to donuts to pastries and more. I got a huge blackberry-filled donut, some banana bread to take home to my host family, and we brought back more donuts to share with some classmates. My stomach was happy.
Then, we strolled through the market on our way back to pick up some ingredients to make a black bean and mango salad, which we brought to the school graduation/potluck dinner. (The salad turned out amazing by the way.)
Finally, we made our way back to school to finish our lessons and deliver our baked goods to our friends. What a happy happy Friday.
After class last Thursday, we took a trip to Fuentes Georginas–hot springs located in a secluded, forest covered mountain just outside of Xela. We took a windy, foggy road up the mountain, driving past radish and lettuce farms. Suddenly, we got a strong smell of sulfur, and we knew we were close to the springs. Once we got there, our bus driver parked in a small lot at the entrance and we walked down a misty path to the pools.
It was pretty eerie, but in a beautiful way, and was one of the most surreal places I’ve been. We got into the pool–which felt ah-mazing–and waded around. It was soooo incredibly relaxing.
Later we hiked about 10 minutes down from the main pools to an even more secluded pool that was extremely hot. The rocks and plants around the pool made me feel like we were in the jungle, but because we were actually high up on a mountain, the air was cool and crisp. There was a small waterfall nearby the pool, making the area one of the most serene places I’ve been. It felt completely removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, almost like we had traveled back in time.
Can I find a way to transport these hot springs back to USA?
So I’m almost done with my first week of Spanish classes! And my brain is a mushy overload of Spanish medical vocabulary and idiomatic phrases. Every morning, I have one-on-one classes with my teacher, Jessica for 5 hours. Five longggg hours of Spanish grammar, vocab, listening exercises, and just general chit-chat. So by the time class is over I’m mentally exhausted. But I really feel like I’m getting a lot better at speaking “con fluidez.”
The school is close to Xela’s central park, and is a quaint spot with a beautiful courtyard. From 8am- 1pm the students and their teachers sit at tables throughout the school and have their Spanish lessons. They have free coffee for students and teachers (#blessed), and bread during our 30 minute break.
I love love love my Spanish teacher. Jessica and I talk about anything and everything, and she is a fantastic teacher. I’ve learned so much about Guatemala and Mayan culture from her. Even though the days seem incredibly long, I can’t believe I’m almost halfway done with Spanish school. I’ll miss my chats with Jessica once I leave Xela!
Jessica, me, and Sarah (another UVA student)
Hopefully soon I’ll get used to the long classes and my brain won’t feel as dead once 1pm hits. (No, but I actually need that to happen pretty quickly, because some afternoons I feel like I can’t even speak proper English let alone Spanish.) Until then, I’ll just keep on taking these afternoon siestas to get me through.
Two days ago, after the longest day of my life I finally landed in Guatemala City. The trip here was pretty exhausting (largely due to the fact I had to be at the airport at 4am) but also incredibly fun (because we decided to turn our 9 hour layover in Miami into an adventure to get breakfast in Little Havana and a day trip to South Beach). It was great to travel with some of the other students in my research program, and although tiring, the trip was exciting.
We spent our first night at a small hostel in Guatemala City, and then the next morning, after a breakfast of pancakes and fruit, all 14 of us piled into a van. With our luggage tightly strapped down on top of the van, we headed for Quetzaltenango (Xela). The trip was about a 4-hour drive on a windy highway up into the highlands, with beautiful scenery. It was a cloudy day, and the clouds hung low over the mountains—absolutely breathtaking.
In Xela we had lunch at La Chatia Artesana, a restaurant with delicious sandwiches. The in-country coordinator for our program gave us the run-down of our first couple of weeks, and then we headed out to walk through the city for a bit. It was raining. Pouring, actually. But in the midst of jumping puddles I was still able to take in some of the beauty of the city and its European architecture. However, because “packing lightly” is something that just isn’t in my DNA, I had to leave my rainboots at home, so of course my poor feet were completely wet and sliding around in my sandals. Yuck.
Finally, we waited in the lounge area of our Spanish school for our host mothers to come pick us up, which felt pretty much like back in the day when you had to wait for your parents to get you from your after school program. My host mother is so incredibly nice. Already, she has cooked a delicious dinner of mushroom soup, chicken and tortillas and walked me through Xela to show me how to get to my Spanish school. We bonded over our love of OPI nail polishes. Love her already.
I’m excited to start Spanish lessons tomorrow and explore more of Xela over the next two weeks. But high on my priority list is finding a pair of rainboots because this rain is something serious.
So, now that I’m done struggling to “pack lightly” (as suggested by our program directors, and loosely interpreted by me) and finally coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to binge-watch season 4 of Orange is the New Black when it comes out on Netflix, I’m getting more and more excited for my trip to Guatemala this summer, where I’ll be working on a research project. And in this brief and fleeting moment where I am free of any responsibilities (except for getting myself to the airport in time), I am feeling a little reflective.
It seems like yesterday I was walking across the stage at my college graduation (nope, that was actually over a year ago), and the year ever since has been a complete whirlwind. I started medical school in August, met some amazing people who have become some of my closest friends, spent hours in anatomy lab, even more hours in the library, went to my first music festival, took a girls trip to Vegas, and watched my alma mater (almost) win the NCAA March Madness tournament.
And now it’s June. And a week ago I passed my last exam of my first year of medical school. And tomorrow I leave the country to do research for the summer. (What?!)
All that just to say that I want to do a better job of chronicling my experiences–both scholarly and, um, *extracurricular*–as I go through medical school. And what better time to start now, as I embark on a 7-week trip to Guatemala!
I’ll try my best to keep this blog updated and share some highlights of my first time to Central America with you! Here we go!