Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guatemalan Cuisine: Corn

Seed corn hanging outside my door; ready for the next cycle of planting in April.

Virtually every meal I have been served in Guatemala has been accompanied by tortillas.  In my training host family there were rare exceptions (maybe 2-3 times a month) for either hot or cold cereal breakfasts, and I’ve had a few meals out at a food court without them as well.  Tortillas can be used as a wrap, in place of utensils, and as a napkin.  I still manage to get oil all over my hands and face when we eat, but the rest of my Sumpango family manages to be neat and tidy with tortillas on hand.  My site family actually uses no utensils at all, simply relying on fingers and tortillas to scoop the selection du jour more or less directly (less, in the case of the toddler of the house) to their mouths.  

All meals have a basket of hot tortillas wrapped in cloth in the center of the table.
Tortillas come in white (generally bought cornmeal), yellow (more often ground at home or at a nearby mollinera), and black (also ground at home, and it actually looks purplish).  These tortillas are made by hand, and are made of cornmeal and water.  No oil, no salt.  The ones I had in Sumpango came out thicker than tortillas I’ve encountered in the states (perhaps to accommodate the dental situation of my grandmother).  They are soft right after their initial batch, but get increasingly crispy as they are reheated on the comal for successive meals.  At my site we eat slightly tortillas with a wider diameter, but I’m told that’s just the style of my household, not the town.

My Sumpango abuela reheats some tortillas for our next meal.
Once in a great while we substitute tamalitos for tortillas, which are like small tamales without any filling, or sometimes with a fresh herb like chipilin mixed in with the masa.  These are often used just as tortillas would be alongside the meal.

In snacking situations or at a party, tostadas sometimes make an appearance.  This goes back to my first meal in Guatemala (see here), and they can come with beans, guacamole, a tomato based sauce, shredded radish salad with lime, meat, onions, tomatoes… you name it.  This is my new favorite snack (or perhaps just a favorite meal).  Even the plain tostada shell is pretty tasty to munch on, if you ask me.

If Guatemalan Cuisine were a soap opera or a telenovela, Corn would be the Martriarch of the cast.  Always present, but generally not the focus; a foil for whatever else is going on in the meal / episode. Guatemalans (well, Mayans) consider themselves to be People of the Corn.  The Mayan creation story holds that the gods created humans out of corn (after a few attempts with other materials that didn’t go so well).  For many Guatemalans, it’s not a meal if corn isn’t involved.  They may have eaten a fair bit of food, but if there wasn’t a corn based staple, it was just a refracción (snack).  Corn is the starting and ending point, it gave birth to this civilization.  It is ever present, and the basis from which the rest of the meal builds. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

By any other name…

I have begun the process of meeting the women in the women’s group with whom I’ll do the majority of my work in the next two years.  It turns out about ¼ of the women in town (or at least in my group) are named Catarina, and another third of the town is named Isabel, Manuela, or Ana.  Literally.  I crunched the numbers in Excel (no comments from the peanut gallery on my dorkiness, thank you).  Of the remaining 30 women, only 11 have unique names.

One recent evening Aunt Isabel asked me to go drop gifts off at two graduation parties.  When we went to the first house, Isabel introduced me to the lucky graduate, Isabel.  Upon arriving at the second house I asked the name of the graduate.  “Isabel,” replied Isabel.  At my confused face, she explained, “they’re cousins.”  My expression only deepened.  “Their grandmother is named Isabel.  We call the second one Isabel Maria to keep things clear.”  Indeed.

I guess I better get good at making nick names.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Big Friendly Giant

I have a new identity, or at least one I’m striving to take on as I integrate into my site.  I have no say over that fact that I’m a big/giant figure in town.  What I’m going for is a friendly instead of scary impression.

My first day at market in a neighboring town I found that most of the awnings were strung comfortably above the height of the Guatemalans I was accompanying, but that my head ended up sliding along the ceiling of the stands where we walked.  I ended up being like a wandering tent pole, raising the roof wherever I went under the tarps strung flat above stalls and walkways. Every so often I wouldn’t watch where I was going and would end up knocking into the occasional stand using a parasol, sending it spinning with my forehead (or shoulder). 

When I go on house visits be introduced to the women in the group where I will be working, I must duck to make it through many doorways, and some ceilings are uncomfortably close to my head as well.  Walking with my counterpart is a pretty leisurely affair for me, as I take measured tiny steps and still outstrip her.  To be fair, this is as much because we are pacing the 2½ year old as because she’s small, but it leaves me feeling a giantess all the same.  On the other hand, her sister in law keeps a pace that’s comfortably quick to me despite being close to a foot shorter than I am.

Overall, I’ve found that lots of nodding and smiling is getting me through alright.  Most of the people (especially women) in my town are pretty timid; they often will not respond to my “good morning/afternoon/night” greetings, with more than a smile or sometimes will speak from behind a hand over their mouth.  Still, as long as I smile broadly they will usually smile back.  If I can manage to do something silly and laugh at myself (like getting lost trying to leave a compound that only has one entrance), they will happily laugh with me.

The one exception to all this friendly success occurred last week.  I entered a family compound with my counterpart and did my usual broadcast smile to the children as she launched the usual spiel (in Ki’che’ inviting them to a meeting on Saturday).  I smiled particularly warmly at a barely walking little rug rat who was watching me with big eyes.  Far from the desired answering smile, she immediately sprouted tears and began to wail.  It was that particular variety of wail where there’s a period of silence every time she pauses for breath to wind up anew.  Although I tried to not take it personally, I was still pretty sure I had been the trigger to her dismay.  As confirmation I later learned that she associates strangers in pants with imminent vaccination.  Ah well, at least it was my pants and not my smile that struck fear in her heart.

Not to self; it’s easier to cultivate a friendly image in a skirt.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ch ch ch changes!

Three weeks and two days ago, I was on pins and needles awaiting my site assignment with my three fellow Sumpango Food Security Trainees. I didn’t know quite what I was hoping for, and I was desperately trying not to figure it out, in case that wasn’t what came my way. Upon entering the room I could see which four sites remained to be assigned and despite myself, I knew exactly which one I wanted (despite knowing very little about it). Happily, that’s exactly the folder my APCD handed me! I knew my destiny at last; my home for the next two years was to be an aldea (village) in the department of Sololá!

Two weeks ago I was wrapping up my site visit. I’d met my new host family (who is also my “counterpart” which is my official connection to my host agency in the community) and worked out living arrangements for the immediate future. I’d managed to scrape up a shin on rebar while falling in love with the view from the family’s roof. I was feeling nearly equal parts overwhelmed and hopeful. I was determined to find a teacher for the local language, K’iche’ ASAP. I also realized just how comfortable I’d become with my previous host family… it was time to mentally prepare for a new adjustment period.

One week and a day ago I went to the U.S. Ambassador’s home in Guatemala City, raised my hand, and took the oath that transformed me from Peace Corps Trainee into Peace Corps Volunteer. We scarfed down refreshments, hitched a ride to Antigua, and settled into the Hostel as home base for a day/evening of celebrations… several birthdays, the fact that we’re volunteers, and a bon voyage as we headed to our many new homes. Unfortunately, I came down with some food poisoning midafternoon and got to know the bathroom of my Hostel much better than any restaurants or bars around town that evening. So I spent Saturday in Sumpango to recover and then headed to my site early Sunday morning.

Today I am wrapping up my first “work week” in site. I arrived over the Day of the Dead celebrations, so the start to meeting the community has been slow since everyone was focused on their personal family traditions. I did manage to buy a bed off the back of a pickup truck for less than half the asking price in local stores (hopefully it wasn’t a lemon purchase). I’ve spent many hours sweeping mouse poop and spiders out of the place where I’m hoping to move later this month (I’m safely in a room of the family’s house in the meantime).

We held our first meeting with the women’s group “as a whole” this morning, set to begin at 8:00. The first woman arrived at 8:25 and additional women were arriving until after 9:00. Of the 72 women listed as part of the group, perhaps 25 arrived, and Ela was pleased with the turnout. I have to say, it was a windy morning in the high 40s, so I don’t blame some women for wanting to stay home. I did my best to introduce myself and seem eager to work while managing expectations for just what projects we’ll get going on and when. I was striving for eloquence in Spanish (with middling results) and who knows how I sounded once Ela translated me to Ki’che’ for the women. Regardless, it’s a start!