So based on my Instragram/Facebook/blog posts I’ve had a few people ask me if I’m actually doing research in Guatemala (lol). While this trip does feel like a vacation a lot of the time, I promise you, I am in fact actually helping out with a research study here.
Our project is part of an ongoing study focused on cardiovascular health education, and we are working with people in the small lakeside village of Santiago Atitlán (I’ll do another post on this beautiful town later, I promise). I’m working with one other student from my medical school (hey Laura), and a community health worker (hola Diego), and we are supervised by some physicians here in Guatemala and back in Virginia. Last week was our first week on the project, and we began at CAIMI (Centro de Atención Integral Materno Infantile). We had a pretty successful week there and got way more study participants than we were expecting. Go us.
This week we were planning to work at a small hospital, but that didn’t quite work out as planned. So instead, we are doing home visits, and educating participants in their homes. I’m really enjoying these home visits so far because we get to explore Santiago some more and get a glimpse into what life is like for its residents.
It’s been quite the experience working on a research project in foreign country. It can be especially hard at times because a lot of communication occurs in Tz’utujil (one of Guatemala’s 21 Mayan languages) and all I can understand are the words for “yes” and “no.” Laura and I are pretty good at communicating with our partners here in Guatemala in Spanish but even that can get tricky at times. However, it is pretty rewarding to be working in the community, learning more about Mayan culture, and being involved in teaching people about heart health.
And living in place so beautiful that I can take enough pictures to make you all think I’m not even working is a pretty big plus.
This past weekend marked my graduation from Spanish school and my transition to life at Lake Atitlán. But before getting down to business (i.e. research projects), we decided to take the weekend to enjoy all that el lago has to offer: breathtaking views, delicious food, great shopping, and good vibes all around. So what better way to do this than to rent a double-decker boat for the day and cruise around the lake?
We started in Panajachel (“Pana” for short), which is the largest lake town. It’s relatively lively and has its fair share of tourists and ex-pats. After a fabulous breakfast, we headed for the dock to get on our boat, praying that it wouldn’t rain.
With the music bumping, our boat headed for San Pedro La Laguna, but about halfway there our driver stopped in the middle of the lake so we could go swimming. And by “going swimming” I really mean jumping off of the boat into the lake, and then swimming back to the boat just to jump off again. The water was the perfect temperature, extremely clear, and this gorgeous dark turqouise color.
Once we got to San Pedro, we headed to this hipstery restaurant/bar/hostel called Zoola. This place had the coolest vibe–we sat on brightly colored pillows on the floor, ate amazing food, and then checked out the beautiful pool/bar area. Loved this place.
After San Pedro, we got back on the boat and headed to San Juan La Laguna. We made a quick stop at a weaving collective, Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botanico, where a woman gave us a demonstration of how cotton is cleaned and made into thread. She also showed us how the thread is dyed, and explained that they use all organic products (leaves, fruits, vegetables, etc) to dye the thread.
After that it was time to head back to Pana and chow down on some delicious tacos. Lake Atitlán, I love you and I’m so excited you’ll be my home for the next month.
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?