Sunday, March 15, 2015

Guatemala- Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

I'm writing this entry with "pensamientos encontrados" - conflicting thoughts: happy to be going home to America but incredibly sad to be leaving such a meaningful and inspiring country. The last two days have been surreal for us and I keep remarking "vale la pena" to the LWH staff: it was worth the pain of working hard for four days at the construction site to visit Lake Atitlan which is such an amazing place.

It took us about 4 hours to get to the lake from Comalapa and the roads were bumpy and curvy the entire way. We stopped an hour away from Lake Atitlan and saw our first glimpses of the gorgeous vistas that would be our backdrop for the next two days. 

When we arrived we got to explore the town San Pedro and bargain with the local vendors for souvenirs. Then it was time for Shabbat at the Chabad house in San Pedro. The dinner was enormous and delicious, and we had fun singing songs and discussing Tikkun Olam and tzedekh. It was empowering to witness the strength and warmth of the Jewish community in a place like Guatemala.

After Shabbat dinner we got to experience the nightlife in San Pedro and by far my favorite part was meeting all the travelers here and hearing their stories. I got back to my hotel at 2 am, but Lauren, Alexis and I were awake again at 3:30 am to go on our sunrise hike up "Indian Nose," a mountain that looks like the face of a Mayan. We hiked for an hour by the light of the moon, the stars, and our iPhone flashlights.

 We climbed steep slopes and crawled through barbed wire to reach the peak of the mountain at 5:30 am. During the hike, our guide showed us coffee plants and we got to suck on raw espresso beans to experience the sweet, mild taste of the plant. 

When we reached the peak, we had a 360 degree view of the lake, the mountains, the 5 towns, and the Pacific Ocean. As the sun rose before us, one of the volcanoes erupted, spilling smoke into the incredible skyline of clouds, fog, and sunlight. We hiked back down for an hour just in time to catch up with more of the group to go kayaking from 8 am to 9 am.

 We were the only visitors on the lake, and it was serene to travel through the fog in kayaks while surrounded by mountains on all sides. After kayaking, we returned to Chabad for a traditional Shabbat breakfast of "ג׳חנון".

After breakfast, we split into groups for excursions. My group rode a water taxi to another town, San Marco, for the day. We all bought fresh coconuts and the vendor cut them open for us so we could drink the milk. 

Then we hiked through a park full of Mayan ruins to relax in the sun and swim in the lake. It was a new experience to swim in a large body of freshwater off of cliffs instead of a beach. 

Then we got lunch at MoonFish, including a variety of burritos, sandwiches and other dishes made from local Guatemalan ingredients. I also had my first cup of Guatemalan coffee and a brownie made from Guatemalan chocolate. We engaged in wonderful conversation with Robin and Dory, the Long Way Home staff who served as our guides for the day. After lunch, we shopped in San Marco and returned to the park. Allison S, Allison L, Sivan, Julia and Harley were brave souls who dove over 80 feet off of cliffs into the lake.

No amount of pictures or blog post descriptions could do justice to the views that surrounded us.

We returned to San Pedro in time to spend the last of our quetzales on jewelry, souvenirs, and dinner.  We finished the trip with an intimate and sentimental Havdalah ceremony on the balcony of our hotel - it was such a special Shabbat for all of us and I'm so glad we got to share so many memories and experiences together on this trip.

As I write this, we are driving back out of Lake Atitlan, back up the switchback roads to Comalapa and then to Guatemala City and the airport. No more count-offs, no more gassy incidents, no more tortillas and rice and beans with every meal, no more bargaining in Spanish, no more dust in every corner and crevice, no more cold showers. It has been a spiritual, powerful, sentimental few days.

Thank you so much to Hillel, Lauren, Ortal, Feliciano y su familia, the Long Way Home staff, and everyone on the trip with me for making this "la semana más alegre de mi vida" - the happiest week of my life.

*Kudos to Bethany, Julia and Allison S. for contributing to the ASB GUATEMLA blog posts!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Guatemala Day 5

Today was our final day of work. It was our last chance to practice our Spanish with the workers and stuff ourselves with doblados at snack time. 

The work has gotten increasingly easier over the past few days. Today we were split into groups to either stuff bottles with trash, clean glass bottles on a roof, or clear a cornfield. 

Lunch was another delicious Guatemalan meal of chard, rice and vegetables for the vegetarians and chicken over rice otherwise. A hefty stack of tortillas accompanied each meal. 
After lunch, we went back to work for our final afternoon. Rachel, Sarah and I were lucky enough to snag the job of blow torching bamboo that had been cut the day before. Dory, an Israeli staff member of Long Way Home, set us up with a homemade blowtorch (yes, even this was homemade) and showed us how to properly "cure" the wood. The bamboo was going to be used as a roof for an outdoor walkway, and we needed to take the water out of the wood so that it doesn't rot in the future.
After saying our thank you's and good-bye's to the courteous Long Way Home staff, we made the final trek back to Feliciano's home. Along the way, we stopped at various super markets and shops, picking up final souvenirs and bites of sweet bread. 

When we arrived back at Feliciano's, we all showered and got ready for the "cultural night" that was being set up for us on the terrace. Many of the staff and volunteers of Long Way Home came over to the hotel and shared a delicious meal of rice, beans, guacamole, salsa and potatoes. Stuffed, we listened to traditional Guatemalan Marimba music and danced along with all of the staff, enjoying our final night in beautiful Comalapa. 
The night ended with Feliciano recounting the Guatemalan Civil War for us, which only occurred in the past two decades. Many many citizens were killed, as the rebels didn't have uniforms and the police openly fired on anyone. Because it was so recent, the effects of the war can still be seen today on many communities around Guatemala. Along the streets, various political parties campaign through street paintings and posters. In many political elections, there still exists violence, and the political system is still fraught with corruption. 

Finally, we got ready for bed and our trip to Lake Atitlan the next day!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Guatemala Day 4

Guatemala Day 4: Field Day!

We got the morning off of work because today we planned a field day for the kids at the school. We walked about a half mile to the park (which was the original Long Way Home project) with about 70 kids in tow. At the park, we split into groups to play games like "congelado" (freeze tag), "pato pato gonzo" (duck duck goose), dancing, soccer, frisbee, and more. Some of the kids also walked over to the playground to play on slides, seesaws, and a giant rope swing. Even though they were shy at first, we all had fun interacting with the kids. At the end of the morning, the kids sang us a song and thanked us for the day.
 After lunch, it was back to work. Some of us cleaned cement off of glass bottles on the roofs to make skylights for the buildings; some of us continued stuffing trash into bottles or cutting plastic into shingles; some of us sifted more sand; some of us sorted bottles from the giant trash pile. 
After the work day, some of us got to visit "Alpha Omega" which is an English academy in Comalapa. It was really impactful to interact with Comalapans in that context and we were so inspired by their enthusiasm and their English skills. 
After dinner, we got to go to the night market! We got delicious tacos, doughnuts, "gringas", and queso-stuffed tortillas. It was exciting to see what a typical evening is like for Comalapans, and we can happily report that no one got sick from the food!