Archive for July, 2008

News in Brief

Weather: Beautiful blue skies last week, followed by the aftermath of a new Carribbean hurricane.

Health: Intermittent nausea over the past two weeks, sharply increasing in intensity throughout today. You know something’s wrong when I don’t feel like eating. I am convinced it will dissipate.

Cats: Manchas and Mix are thriving: Manchas thanks to the attention of Maribel, and Mix thanks to the attention of the gringos. Both act like crazy kitens. Hooray!

K’iche’: Verb forms up the wa-zoo.  Xkos nujolom.

Books: Have discovered a renewed love of reading.  Hooray, it was not entirely quashed by the first year of grad school!  Oh, English, how I love thee. How easily understood and entertaining your sentences are, how vivid the pictures painted through your prose… how much my brain thanks you after 5 hours of non-indoeuropean language learning every day.

Family-stay: Pretty good… my 18-year-old host sister sold me a corte (skirt)  this morning, which I then found out was extremely over-priced. I know I shouldn’t begrudge the budding entreprenure in my host family, but I can’t help but feel that I was a bit taken advantage of… At least she helped me to put it on!

Sanity: Ebbing… making lists of things to do once I get home.  I miss my cats and my friends.  And vegetables.



My host family enjoys having me sing after dinner. Most of you sould react with shock and alarm to that statement, especially if you have ever heard me sing.  However, you must keep in mind that 1) my family is Evangelical and that 2) the Evangelical music aesthetic is… different… in Guatemala. They assked specifically for religious songs in English… Grasping at my feeble memory, I pulled out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Seriously, it was the best I could do. I translated bits of it into Spanish and K’iche’, and then adapted it for the little girl in the house (Maribel, “dueña” of the cat)

Mary Had a Little Lamb

María tenía una ovejita, ovejita, ovejita

Mari’y k’o nitz’ uchij, nitz’ uchij, nitz’ uchij

Maribel has a little cat, little cat, little cat

Maribel tiene un gatito, un gatito, un gatitio

Maribe’l k’o nitz’ ume’s, nitz’ ume’s, nitz’ ume’s


Served a big bowl of steaming “herbs” the other night, this song of joy popped into my head. Oh, vegetables, how I miss thee…

Ode to Ichaj (to the tune of “Have I Told You Lately”)

Have I told you lately that I love ichaj

Have I told you there’s no other veggie on my plate

Fill my stomach with nutrients

Take away the simple sugars

Ease my tummy that’s what you do

For the black beans served in all their glory
I greet the day with a stack of tortillas too
You fill my diet with variety
And somehow you make it better
Ease my tummy that’s what you do
There’s a food that’s divine
And its yours and its mine only sometimes
And at the end of the day
We should give thanks that today
Its for dinner, its for dinner

Have I told you lately that I love ichaj
Have I told you there’s no other veggie on my plate
Fill my stomach with nutrients

Take away the simple sugars
Ease my tummy that’s what you do
There’s a food that’s divine
And its yours and its mine only sometimes
And at the end of the day
We should give thanks that today
Its for dinner, its for dinner

And have I told you lately that I love ichaj
Have I told you there’s no other veggie on my plate
Fill my stomach with nutrients

Take the extra starches
Ease my tummy that’s what you do
Take away the simple sugars

Fill my stomach with nutrients

Ease my tummy that’s what you do
Take away the simple sugars
Fill my stomach with nutrients

Ease my tummy that’s what you do


And, as a nice little break after learning a particularly confusing verb form in class, we’ve been learning kids’ songs in K’iche’. You have to imagine the MIDI track in the background…

Oxib’ taq kej

Oxib’ tag kej kepixk’anik cho le taq’aj (x3)

Jun alaj saqa rij

Jun alaj k’eq rij

Are jun alaj kaq kej je’l upetik (x3)

(Three horses jumping in the medow

There’s a white one

There’s a black one

There’s one pretty red one.)

Ice Cream

Walking home from school today along the Panamerican Highway, my friends and I heard a familiar tune.  The nostalgic tinkle of the ice cream truck blared out behind us.  We all perked up, half-expecting, half-hoping to see a white conversion van with technicolor apliqués depicting different frozen treats plastered on its side.

Instead, we saw a beat-up old gray (metal-colored) sedan with a megaphone attached to the top using rusty wires.

I don’t think that vehicle had air-conditioning; I wonder if if had ice cream?

Oh, Guatemala.

Kib’anoj oxjib’ ri me’s

(The doings of three cats)

I wrote earlier of a kitten that turned up in my host family’s kitchen, and how I felt sorry for it because it was skinny and dirty and sat and meowed incessantly all day.  Manchas has, in the past couple of days, bulked up a little, likely because she became desperate enough to eat the old tortillas the family left for her.  She has also stopped meowing non-stop, now only meowing at mealtimes.

This kitten is called Manchas (Spots) by 4-year-old Maribel, who loves cats.  Manchas gets all of her cuddle-time with Maribel.

Manchas was purchased in order to solve the rat problem.  I can attest to existence of this rat problem: I hear them scurrying around in the attic above my bedroom every night, and it sounds like they’re gnawing their way in to my room. I’m sure this kitten will do her job splendidly.

There is a kitten that comes before little Manchas, however, and her name is Mix (pronounced “Mish”).  She is the kitten belonging to the owners of our school-building, and gets absolutely spoiled by the gringos.  Doc even purchased a bag of Kitten Advantage food for little Mix, and plans to stock the family with a giant bag of Kitten Chow before leaving Nahualá.

Mix is adorable. She is a teeny-tiny and has developed a healthy amount of spunk now that she’s receiving proper nutrition. In her tiny little head she has a pair of owl eyes that just make you (or at least, all of the cat-crazy gringos that seem to populate our K’iche’ class) melt. Her meow is pretty pathetic, barely a squeak, but this makes her even more endearing.  Mix is even allowed to sit in on class once in a while. Everyone loves Mix, including her owners.

There is a third cat, that I have yet to mention, because he turned up just on Sunday.  This little guy, about the same age as Manchas and Mix, looked just like my childhood cat Emily. He was orange tiger-striped with white spots on his belly and legs.  He was significantly chubbier than Manchas and Mix, and better- groomed.  I called him Moe.

Moe turned up in my host family’s courtyard around dinner time. We all ran out to see the newcomer. My host mother promptly declared that they did not need another cat, that we should leave this one to the German Sheppherd or put it out on the street. I chimed in and suggested that I take it to school the next day (to be with Mix).

The family thought that I had said I’d like to take it to the States with me… once we cleared that up, they said that I should keep him in my room for the night.  The neighbors might come by if they had lost a cat. 

The poor little thing had quite the meow, and used it liberally but not incessantly.  I made him a little nest out of my already flea-ridden sleeping bag, but he would have none of it.  He started out curled up at the foot of my bed, and gradually made his way up to my neck, where he was sleeping when I woke up in the morning. 

I woke up once to the sound of retching at 3 am– poor little guy tossed the contents of his tummy all over my floor.

He looked so happy all curled in a ball when I woke up. He stretched and kept sleeping.  I carried him to school in my bag, hoping that perhaps one of my classmates’ families would want a kitten.  I also harbored a secret fantasy that I’d be able to get him de-wormed and de-fleaed and then take him back to the States, where I’d force him on an unsuspecting friend…

Moe was not so welcome at school.  He threw up the bread and milk we gave him.  He wouldn’t eat bread or tortillas.  His meow became more incessant and more obnoxious as the day went on, and I had to leave him with the family next door for safe keeping at one point. It should also be noted that Moe did not get along with Mix.

I carried him home, meowing all the way.  I was determined to find his owners, even if it meant that I had to go door-to-door.  My host father, however, insisted that I should not bother the neighbors.  They’d stop by if they wanted their lost cat.  Meanwhile, I should lock him in the room where the family stores the cortes they sell in the market.

Hesitantly, I agreed.  I put little Moe on the floor amongst the piles and piles of cortes and gave him one last pat before my host dad locked the door.

At dinner, my host sister asked where Moe was.  I started to say that he was in the corte room, but my host father interrupted.  “He left. He escaped.” He bluntly replied.

Escaped? From a windowless, locked room?

I cried on the phone to my mom last night.  I don’t want to imagine what happened to little Moe, if he was simply released onto the street (in the pouring rain, with dogs running wild) or… worse.  I realize that the system works differently here.  There is a very complex set of sociocultural circumstances that leads to dogs and cats being treated “cruely” by US standards.  My family already had a cat to catch mice, and didn’t want to have to feed another.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t feel a pang for poor Moe and his miserable little life.

Xintij ri xpan… jun mul chik

I redeemed myself, the night after I wrote about my failure to develop an adventurous palate.

Arriving home from school, I smelled something delicious cooking on the stove: my favorite pulverized tomato, onion, and pepper sauce. Hooray vegetables!!

The sister-in-law (who’s relationship, I should point out, is now in question– I can’t figure out who she’s married to!! or if she’s even a relative…) drained something on the stove. Potatoes? Mmm, more vegetables. Hopefully with some beans?

Julia placed a dish of tomato sauce with unidentifiable white objects floating in it in front of me. The objects were small, roughly quarter-sized, and did not strike me as animal.  On the side were tamalitos and ichaj (herbs).

Learning from my previous mistake, I did not ask a question that I would rather not have answered. Instead, I readied a tamalito to ease my gag reflex in the event that the first bite was wretched.  I mixed the ichaj into the tomato sauce, and carefully proportioned one piece of herbage to one unidentifiable piece of… something.

Not bad! I didn’t even need the tamalito! I quickly consumed the entire contents of the bowl.

While I was eating, I couldn’t help but try to guess what it was I was shoving down my gullet. I heard the word “camarones” several times during dinner conversation– yeah, that means shrimp, and this definitely wasn’t shrimp.  Maybe they were using it to mean seafood?  I didn’t immediately recognize the texture of the product, although I had the sneaking suspicion that I had encountered it in a previous meal. It was slightly rubbery, and looked like very dense carpet on one side (the other side was smooth). I strategically positioned each bite on my spoon so the carpeted side wouldn’t touch my tongue.

Only after every scrap of food was gone from my bowl did I venture a question at the youngest daughter.  “How is this called?” I politely inquired. “Xpan ruk’ pix.” She replied. I asked her what that was in Spanish, and my host dad chipped in, “Panza! Panza de una vaca!”

Good god, I had just finished a bowl of cow stomach. I spent the rest of the evening trying to erase from my brain the morbid thoughts of my stomach digesting the stomach of another animal…

Lost & Found

Lost & Found

Last weekend in Xela, I very stupidly left my towel, my one and only towel, in the hostel my friends and I stayed at.  In my defense, one of my friends had moved it from its drying place on the bunk beds out to the balcony, thinking that it was a loaner from the hostel.  I was just too absent-minded to realize that it was missing, and didn’t think to go look for it.

I borrowed a towel this week, and figured I’d have to buy a new one in Xela this weekend.

So, my friend and I went back to the same hostel last night to stay.  We got two loaner towels, having neither of our own.  Guess which towel was handed to me? Just guess! MY towel!! The very same towel that I had left here last week!

What are the chances, of all the loaner towels they have at the hotel, and of all the guests staying there and using loaner towels, that I would get my very same towel back as a loaner?

My friend and I explained the situation to the girl working check-out this morning, and she was like, “So… that makes it yours! Keep it!”


Kaqatij k’i uwach qawa’

(We eat all kinds of food)

We were warned by our professors that if anyone in town started asking about our family-stays, it was probably out of jealousy.  Therefore, we should be as vague as possible in our replies.  Questions about how much we pay them should be answered “Not very much;” questions about what we eat should be answered, “We eat all kinds of food.”

I generally consider myself to have a strong stomach.  I’m not afraid of street food, and I’ll try just about anything once.  Aside from my unfortunate bout with parasites last time I was in Guatemala (due to, I believe, brushing my teeth with tap water that came from dangerously near the human sewage dump), I haven’t been ill while traveling.

That said, dinners in my family’s house have been fairly predictable: beans and eggs and sometimes some queso fresco; bright-orange squash soup with cilantro and a hard-boiled egg; fried chicken; ichaj (“herbs”– basically collard greens) in their own broth; and the ubiquitous tortillas. I’m pretty fond of the food: it’s simple, more or less nutritious (the fried chicken being “less”) and it tastes pretty good.

The other night, my oldest host sister presented me with a bowl of the bright orange squash soup. It’s the same orange sauce/ broth that they use in chuchito filling, but slightly thinner.  In the middle of the soup floated an unidentifiable, pale object.  It had the texture of chicken skin, and I thought that it was simply a piece of skin on a breast/ leg of chicken.

I went to remove the chicken skin and found that it was actually a bundle of chicken skin-like objects. It looked like a little booklet of chicken skin.  I was unsure whether it was plant or animal.  The puckered texture and bundled form made me think that perhaps it was a vegetable I had never seen before, but the composition (slightly rubbery) suggested otherwise.  I couldn’t cut it with the spoon they had provided me. Hm.

Turning to Julia, my oldest host sister, I asked, “Um… what is this?” And then, trying to soften my inquiry, “We don’t have this in the United States, and I’m just curious.”

“It’s panza!” She replied. Ohhh, right! Panza!

… What the hell is panza?!

Trying to figure it out without looking like a complete moron (and still having no idea whether it was vegetal or animal), I politely continued, “I see, and how do you prepare it?”

She looked at me quizzically (which is the nice way of saying that she looked at me like I was a complete moron), “You just cut it up and cook it.”


At that moment, my host father looked at me and said with his standard big grin, “It’s panza! Panza from a cow!”

Oh god.

I still didn’t have any idea what the hell panza was, but I knew that it was some unidentified part of a cow.  I knew that it couldn’t be tongue (lengua), or liver (hígado) and wracking my brain for other edible cow- parts, all I could come up with were stomach and intestine. Oh god.

I suddenly felt dizzy, no joke, and thought I might end up face-flat in my bowl of cow-part soup.

“Is it good?” My host sister asked.  “Yeah,” I replied, lying through my teeth and choking back my gag reflex, “it’s delicious.”

I couldn’t even take a bite. Every time I looked at the pale, puckered mass in the middle of the bright orange broth, I felt the bile rise in my throat.  Even the smell was making me feel nauseous.

Chatij! Chatij!” My family took turns encouraging me to eat.  I carefully dabbed at the broth with tortillas from the enormous stack next to my plate. “Chatij! Chatij!” They said, until all the tortillas were gone. A meal isn’t finished until your tortillas are gone.

I failed. I didn’t try the cow- part in my soup (later confirmed as cow stomach in my Spanish- English dictionary).  I felt even worse when I found out that the vegetarian girl who is staying in a house that does not understand what vegetarianism is was served and successfully consumed cow stomach a couple of nights later.

I have found the frontier of my culinary adventurousness, and it is sadly limited. Perhaps I will have another chance to prove my mettle, and be served fried larvae or grasshoppers or some similarly exotic Guatemalan special-occasion dish.  For now, it looks like it’s eggs and beans for me.  And I’m alright with that.