Sunday, January 8, 2012

Guatemala...Still Counting our Blessings!

I was quickly reminded of the vastness and beauty of Guatemala as I spied several volcanos from 35,000 feet. As I peered out the window of the plane, I remembered our previous six trips in 2005/2006, each one unique and special in its own way, but somehow, this trip was filled with a different kind of anticipation and excitement. As I looked beside me, there was Michael, now six years old, sitting at my left, gazing out the same window, questions spewing from his mouth almost as rapidly as the vapor spewed out of Volcan Pacaya.

Finally, the day was upon us, the day where the boys would know, not only their birth country, but the wonderful Marquez-Lobo family that cared for them for eight months while we endured the adoption process back in Chicago. Michael and John, if not busy asking questions, were rapt in the "Ben Diez" cartoon which was playing on the new TV screen aback their seat . We enjoyed about a 75 minute flight from San Jose to Guatemala City in a new Taca plane which was only about two weeks old - we enjoyed great service, in-cabin hot snack and beverage service (no extra charge) and all the TV or movies you could ever want. Needless to say, we barely got above the clouds, when we started our descent into the city.

As of the 2002 census, the Guatemala City metropolitan area had a population of 2.3 million. However, it has grown in excessive amounts throughout recent years. Guatemalans have a diversity of origins, with Spanish and Mestizo descent being the most common. Guatemala City also has a sizeable Indigenous population and minority groups such as Germans and other Europeans, Jewish, Asians primarily Chinese and Korean, and many groups of other Latin American origins such as Peruvian, and Colombian amongst others.

Guatemala City's population has experienced drastic growth since the 1970s with the influx of indigenous migrants from the outlying departments as well as a large influx of foreign groups. For this reason along with several others, Guatemala City has experienced some growth problems such as transportation saturation, availability of safe potable water in some areas at certain times as well as increased crime. The infrastructure, although continuing to grow and improve, at times appears to be lagging in relation to the population explosion. In other words, Guatemala City faces problems common to many other rapidly expanding cities. (Wikipedia)

Note re: Water - We drank bottled water during our stay. Most, if not all houses in the city have a water bubbler, with frequent, scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs by your local 'Culligan Man'.

Wow, had the airport changed in five years, totally renovated and state-of-the-art - very impressive and easy to navigate. As we gathered our luggage and made our way around the corner into the pick-up area, we were greeted by scads of people, yet we found Braulio (Anabella and Rodolfo's son) with ease, waving his arms high above his head - ah, a friendly smile and soon we were hugging and kissing and being welcomed to this beautiful country by an old friend. You would have thought Michael and John had known Braulio for years...they ran right into his arms and gave him a huge hug and kiss. It was the first of many hugs and happy times during our visit.

Arriving at Mama Ana and Papa Rudo's was just like we remembered. More hugs and kisses, sweet embraces! Although the boys were a little skeptical at first of Papa Rudo. "Hey, this guy has a beard mom!" "Yep, he sure does", I replied, "he looks a little different in the pictures we have of him", I continued. Papa Rudo quickly remarked about his 'pirate eye-patch' which was perfect as I could see the boys remembering back when they had made their own eye patches out of black construction paper and elastic bands as they re-enacted their best portrayal of Pirates of the Caribbean in our living room. "Okay, matie," and all was good as I am sure they were concocting a mean game of Pirates, starring Papa Rudo! Second day, we arrived at their house, with clean shaven Rodolfo waiting at the gate. "Look guys, no more beard". What a sweet gesture!

Michael and John could not wait to share our scrapbook with them - we quickly huddled around the kitchen table and walked them through a sampling of their past 5 years.

From where I was at the end of the table, I could see how much the book meant to them and of course, the kids were giving them a 'play by play' of each many details! Perhaps the most endearing of all, was sitting back and listening to them converse in Spanish. "Este es mi casa"..."aqui, nosotros estabamos jugando con tisa", "y este es, y este es...". It was magical and something I will remember for as long as I live. The language and the connection between the boys and family even richer because they had acquired the language living here in Costa Rica and could so eloquently express themselves and participate in building relationships! Papa Rudo broke out his magnifying glass so he could see the photos on account of his poor eyesight but delighted in each and every one of them!

John quickly found Mama Ana's cat and Michael wasted little time walking across the street with Papa Rudo to grab a quick snack! He certainly knows how to work the system!

Their house was just as we had left it in August 2006, with the addition of a bookstore in the front hall/salon which offers everything from wrapping paper, used books, q-tips, etc.

We then headed toward Emilia and Juan's house, just a stones throw away. Emilia (their daughter), Juan (husband) and 2 year old son, Adrian, were gracious hosts and opened their home up to us and welcomed us into their lives for a week. (We especially loved the WELCOME sign which was hung in the living room (decorated no less with bugs)!

They live in a neighborhood which offers security 24/7, an entrance gate and pretty much everything one might need inside its confines (pulperias, panaderias, salon de belleza). I took a walk with Mama Ana the first night to buy fixins for dinner and boy did I have trouble with the conversion to the Guataleman quetzal(heck, I am just now getting the Colones down after almost three years in CR and now I have to figure out yet another country's monetary system YIKES)- Where is my science/mathmetician husband when I need him! It was lovely staying with the family and experiencing the local culture first hand. The boys enjoyed playing Mario games on the tele (their first experience - is there any turning back now?). We just finished making our Thank You Cards to the family and will get them off in the mail this week. Of course the cards to Emilia and family were riddled with mention of "Gracias por Mario, Mario and more Mario".

Juan and Emilia are a busy, working couple so we tried to cook and launder as much as we could during our stay. There was no washing machine at the house, so Emilia gave me a quick tutorial on how to do laundry the 'old fashion' way in the wash sink outside, a bar of laundry soap and a lot of elbow grease. What a work out - my muscles thank you!

New Year's Eve found us heading towards the Capital, to Anabella's sister's house (Gladys). We hopped out of the car and opened the gate to a pile of fire-crackers just begging to be lit. The boys were not shy and stepped right up to fire a few up into the already smoked filled sky. Gladys had set a lovely table and cooked enough to feed an army. Leg of pork and a full turkey....yum! We settled down for the meal around 11 p.m., put the boys down on coaches/chairs, tucked them in, and welcomed in the New Year with hugs and kisses for all. About 2 a.m., we picked up the kids and headed back to Emilia's to sleep the rest of the morning away.

We decided to rent a car while we were there to take advantage of doing some local day trips. Braulio had several days off from work and was gracious enough to chauffer us around to different regions of the country so that we may no more than just the city and its surroundings. We will be forever grateful for these experiences and adventures. So interesting and culturally rich. Braulio is a great guy, very knowledgeable about the country, history, politics, etc. I don't think there was ever an idol moment in conversation between he and Mike - match made in heaven, from a talk-a-matic perspective that is!

We headed to Playa Monterrico on Sunday with Braulio at the wheel, his wife Beatriz, 5 month old son, Esteban and 10 year old boy, Fernando. Ana and Rodolfo too!

The town of Monterrico is situated on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Known for its volcanic black sand beaches and annual influx of sea turtles, the town also serves as a major weekend beach resort for citizens of Guatemala City. The town is growing more popular with foreign tourists largely because of the local sea turtle conservation efforts as well as the laid-back atmosphere of the area. (Wikipedia)

What fun - the beach had black sand however was filthy, litter everywhere! I convinced myself that the sad shape of the beachfront was due to the all-night partying the night before, New Years Eve! I had to tactfully explain to the boys walking through the town on the way to the beach that the folks they saw laying over the sidewalk and stumbling out of bars was because they had a little too much fun the night before! "Ah, I get it mom, too much beer right?"! "Is nothing sacred anymore"?, I thought to myself.

We found a place to anchor ourselves which had bathrooms, showers and a pool to enjoy if you were not a beach or sand person. Honestly, I had all I could do to hold onto Michael, John and sometimes, Mama Ana too. The wind was fierce and the waves plenty strong as well. We headed to the restaurant for a smoothie and a shower before heading back to Villa Nueva. Thanks to the rough surf, I had mounds of sand in my bathing suit, I felt like I was wearing a dirty diaper most of the day...YUCK!

The sweetest thing about our beach trip occurred on the way home, listening to Mama Ana and John sing Christmas carols together in Spanish - she knew all the songs they had learned in Kinder and it was indeed special listening to them make beautiful music together. I wore a smile the entire ride home.

Monday we headed to Xela by way of the Mayan Ruins of Iximche. Mama Ana warned me to dress warmly and now I know why. BRRR! We took a quick detour through the town where Ana lived as a younger adult with her family. She and Braulio spoke of the war and stories of how they hid from gun fire under their beds at night. Certainly puts things in perspective, as I can't even wrap my mind around that kind of terror.

Oh how the Costa Rica Transit police would be in hog heaven in Guatemala handing out the tickets right and left. I was quick to find out that the preferred mode of transportation for a lot of folks is by way of the back of pick-up trucks. No Gracias - I'm quite cozy in the car with the seat belt tightly around my hips.

Iximche, a pre-Columbian Mayan site in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, is not as well-known as the major archaeological sites of the Classic Period, but remains a popular site to visit because of its easy accessibility and pleasant setting.

Iximche was founded by the Kaqchikel Maya in 1470 after a prolonged conflict with the Kiche Maya forced them to abandon their previous capital Chaviar (present-day Chichicastenango). The new capital did well in its first decades, but was severely damaged by a fire in 1514. In 1519-20 a major epidemic struck Iximche, killing many inhabitants and prompting many others to flee to the countryside.

Thus weakened, the Kaqchikel welcomed the Spanish conquerers under Pedro de Alvarado with open arms when they arrived in April of 1524 and allowed them to found their own capital nearby. However, the relationship with the Spanish, who at first promised to be a valuable ally against their long-time enemies, the Kiche, soon deteriorated.

The conquerers' incessant demands for gold and the inability of the Kaqchikel to provide it in sufficient quantity quickly led to hostilities that culminated in several Spanish attacks on Iximche.

In September of the same year the Kaqchikel abandoned their capital and took to the surrounding mountains, from where they waged a guerrilla war against the Spanish. The conquerers burned Iximche to the ground in 1526 and were able to defend their own capital for a while, but the raids took their toll. In 1527 the Spanish abandoned their first capital and founded a new one in the Almolonga valley (present-day Ciudad Vieja near Antigua Guatemala).

Undisturbed for several centuries and largely buried under lush vegetation, the ruins of Iximche were finally explored and partially excavated by Guatemalan archaeologist Jorge Guillemin from 1960 to 1972. The ruins of Iximche were declared a Guatemalan National Monument in the 1960s.

Iximche's core is bounded on three sides by ravine walls and separated from the main residential area by an artificial creek. The center consists of four large and two small plazas surrounded by temples, palaces and ceremonial platforms.

In 1980, during the Guatemalan Civil War, a meeting took place at the ruins between guerillas and Maya leaders that resulted in the guerillas stating that they would defend indigenous rights. A ritual was carried out at the site in 1989 in order to reestablish the ruins as a sacred place for Maya ceremonies. United States President George W. Bush visited the site in 2007, and in the same year Iximche was the venue for the III Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala. (Wikipedia)

It was cold, cold, cold! As you can see by my dress, fashion goes out the window! The boys enjoyed helping Ana collect acorns for which she uses in her Christmas decorations. It was humbling to learn about this region and these people - Braulio is a wealth of knowledge on Guatemalan history, so you can imagine the conversations he had with Mike!

Driving out of ruins, we snapped a pic of a family hauling firewood and other wares up the hill on the side of the road. Boys, just a little older than Michael and John, hauling huge loads of firewood and other items on their backs - makes the boy's Saturday chores of cleaning sinks and toilets pale in comparison. It was a great conversation piece and lesson in family contributions as we continued our journey toward Xela/Quetzaltenango!

Quetzaltenango, also commonly known by its indigenous name, Xelajú, or more commonly, Xela, is the second largest city of Guatemala.

It has an estimated population of 224,703. The population is about 61% indigenous or Amerindian, 34% Mestizo or ladino and 5% European. Quetzaltenango is located in a mountain valley at an elevation of 2,330 meters (7,655 ft) above sea level at its lowest part. It may reach above 2,400 meters within the city.

In Pre-Columbian times Quetzaltenango was a city of the Mam Maya people called Xelajú, although by the time of the Spanish Conquest it had become part of the K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj. The name may be derived from "Xe laju' noj" meaning "under ten mountains". The city was said to have already been over 300 years old when the Spanish first arrived. With the help of his allies, Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated and killed the Maya ruler Tecún Umán here. When Alvarado conquered the city for Spain in the 1520s, he called it by the Nahuatl name used by his Central Mexican Indian allies, "Quetzaltenango", generally considered to mean "the place of the quetzal bird" (although see note on etymology below). Quetzaltenango became the city's official name in colonial times. However, many people (especially, but not only, the indigenous population) continue to call the city "Xelajú" (pronounced shay-lah-WHO) or more commonly Xela for short, and some proudly, but unofficially, consider it the "capital of the Mayas".

In the 19th century, coffee was introduced as a major crop in the area and the economy of Xela prospered. Much fine Belle Époque architecture can still be found in the city.

We enjoyed walking around the town, the boys tried desperately to catch pigeons in the plaza, to no avail. The village resembles a town you might see in Europe, with its narrow, cobblestone streets, European architecture, beautiful churches, etc. We observed a funeral procession where the women were carrying the casket overhead and the men followed behind. The women wore their local dress - Braulio tells me that each Maya village has its own style of weaving and dress so you can usually tell which village a women is from the style of her dress. Another full day spent exploring the country. We arrived back at Emilia's about 9:30 p.m. with two tired boys and parents too!

Our final day (Tuesday) was spent local in the city. Mike made good on his promise to make a picnic lunch so as he busied himself in the kitchen making chicken salad, I again tried my hand at washing more clothes. The winds were brisk and constant, so clothes dried in no time. We came to find out that the wind was so strong that it overturned the toll-booths we passed through 2 days prior on our way to the beach! And we thought Monteverde was windy!

We headed to Parque Naciones Unidas, just 15 minutes away from Mama Ana and Papa Rudo's house. Another breezy and cool day, but so enjoyable. This park has a lot to offer, several miniature replicas of different regions of the country, (a mini Antigua), (a mini-Tical), trails, playground, picnic area, bike rentals and great views of the Pacaya and Agua volcanoes which tower over Lake Amatitlan. The kids had fun climbing on the ruins and exploring the trails. We had a great lunch so everyone left with full bellies!

We then headed into the city to take a peek at THE MAP! Mike was eager to get a glimpse of it as he was intrigued by what Rodolfo had explained about it upon our arrival.
El Mapa en Relieve de Guatemala, the largest Relief Map in the world, and the only one of its kind. The 2,000-square-meter Relief Map is built to 1:10,000 scale and was created in 1905, well before the invention of Google Earth. It gives you a good idea of the country’s mountain topography and the contrasting flatness of Petén and neighboring Belize, which, of course, is included as part of Guatemala in accord with the long-standing Guatemala-Belize border dispute. The scale of the mountains is somewhat exaggerated, with the volcanoes and peaks looking steep and pointy. There are observation towers from which you can get a better vantage point. The rivers and lakes are sometimes filled with water from built-in taps, making for an even more authentic experience. (Wikipedia).

John told me he wants to come back for months so he can know all the places on the map "Mom, I want to fish, swim, horseback ride, camp in all the parts of the country". Now that's a tall order for a vacation!

We then walked across the boulevard to a playground to have the boys expend their last little bit of energy (yes, they still had some stored up). They quickly showed off their skills on the monkey bars! Braulio commented, "wow, you can tell a city boy from a country boy" as he encouraged his 10 year old to try the monkey bars as J and M made it look easy. We enjoyed hot chocolate at Braulio and Beatriz' house later than evening and had some good belly laughs over different phrases and their meanings in Costa Rica vs. Guatemala.

Braulio's house is very close to the huge sink hole that opened up in the city after torrential rains in May 2010. We found out that "hueco" in Guatemala has a completely different meaning than in Costa Rica. In CR, hueco is a "hole", however,in Guatemala, "hueco" refers to being Gay! Mike had used the word hueco in a previous conversation with Beatriz, so you can imagine what she must have thought of him...great first impression Mike!

Our time drew short and we returned to pack our bags and ready ourselves for our 8 a.m. flight back to Costa Rica. What a memorable trip - I am eager to return to spend more time in this beautiful country. We are blessed to have had this chance to spend time with the family and know that the boys will carry fond memories of the trip with them as they grow old. Hoping that we can return again soon so that they may feel connected to their past as we march forward with our lives, still counting our blessings!

Signed: S