Friday, July 30, 2010

Greetings from the Center of the World

Hola from Quito, Ecuador!

We arrived last night and came straight to our boutique hotel, the beautiful and charming Casa Aliso. We were greeted by the friendly and helpful Patrick, who gave us some coca tea and cookies. After a day of plane travel, we pretty much went straight to bed.

Breakfast at Casa Aliso 

Casa Aliso

This morning we had a delicious breakfast at the hotel, and then we were picked up by Gerardo, who would be our driver and companion for the day. We drove out of the city and our first stop was Pululahua Volcano. We had a nice view of the crater, where people now have farms. The volcano last erupted 2400 years ago.  This is the 5th largest crater in the world, with a 6km diameter. Inca stonework was dismantled from the crater and used by the Spanish to build the San Francisco and La Compañia churches in Old Town Quito (which we visited last time we were in Quito).

 Pululahua Crater

After that we went to Museo Inti Ñan, which is located on the equator (verified via GPS). We had a guide there and we did many scientific demonstrations. We saw that on the equator line, water goes straight down a drain, whereas to the south it moves counterclockwise, and to the north it goes clockwise. We got to try to balance an egg on a nail on the equator line. I was not able to do it, but Craig was successful on his first attempt, and got a certificate for his awesomeness (his words)  :^) We also saw some exhibits about native tribes such as the Huaorani, whom we will meet later in the trip.  We also saw a real live shrunken head - creepy!

At the GPS-verified Equator at Museo Inti Ñan

After that we went to the La Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), a tourist complex where there is a large monolithic monument signifying the equator´s position as calculated by the French  in the1730's.  It is only 215 meters away from the actual GPS-verified equator line at the Museo Inti Ñan, quite a feat for 18th century geography. 

La Mitad del Mundo (215 meters away from Equator)


After that,  Gerardo dropped us back at the hotel. We freshened up and then headed out for a walk. We walked to the Mariscal district. Two years ago, we had seen some very surreal paintings for sale, depicting a train in the sky raining down apples (or balloons or balls or eggs) on Quito. We have been thinking of them ever since then, and kicked ourselves for not having purchased one. Craig spotted one hanging outside a small gallery in Mariscal. We went inside and purchased a small one for $10. What a deal!

Surreal Painting

We continued walking around and stopped at La Boca del Lobo for dinner. It is a trendy, quirky restaurant with avant garde decor and delicious food. We had eaten here two years ago and it was my favorite restaurant on that trip.  Craig had a local Club beer and I had a Vainilla Sunrise. We split two appetizers as our meals: the provocatively named  F Word,  which was a puff pastry covering a small casserole dish filled with calamari in a wine and black pepper sauce that was unlike anything we had ever tasted before. We also had Kong Sweet Plantain Tortillas, which were like pancakes made of plantains, cheese, and sweet onions served with peanut sauce. It was very much fusion Ecuadorian cuisine, and it was fantastic. Can't recommend that restaurant enough!
La Boca del Lobo

After a brisk walk, we are now back at Casa Aliso. We need to get our luggage together as tomorrow we will be meeting our guide Felipe and heading to Otavalo, where we wll stay for five nights with a local family. Tomorrow is market day in Otavalo, and we are looking forward to seeing a new place.

Blogging at Casa Aliso

We may have a chance to blog again when we return to Quito before heading to Archidona and  the Amazon basin.

Buenos Noches!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Visiting Guatemala with Mukul

On June 30, we left our house at 3 a.m. for the airport. It was a rough start, as Continental Airlines’ computer system was down and they had to (literally) hand-write boarding passes. After 2 hours in line, we were able to board our flight, but it took off quite late and we missed our connection in Houston. Luckily we were re-booked on a second flight, and we only ended up being about 2 hours late arriving in Guatemala City.

Vanesa, Eddy, and Yasmin

Paulina, Paola, and Vanesa
Yoselin and Craig

Humberto met us at the airport and we drove the approximately 3 hour ride to Panajachel. At the house, we were greeted by Paulina and the kids. The kids are all getting so big!  Aracely, who was a toddler when we first met her, is now coming up on 5 years old and will be starting kindergarten in the fall. Eddy, at almost 2 years old, is now talking a lot more than he was when we saw him in January.  The kids took to Mukul immediately, as we knew they would. Humberto showed us around the property at the construction projects he has underway. Two of the guest rooms were now totally complete (we would be staying in our usual room and Mukul would be in the room next door). The other two rooms are nearing completion, and he has even built a staircase and set the stage for adding a second floor. This was Humberto’s birthday, and we celebrated with a nice family dinner.

 Steph and goddaughter Aracely

Rocio and Craig


The next day we did a cultural tour of three villages on Lake Atitlan. Humberto was our guide, and there was a couple from Canada with a toddler daughter on the tour as well. We took a boat from Panajachel to San Marcos. This was our first time in this village, and it was really quaint. We pulled up at the dock where there were porous rocks floating on the water. Mukul took a sample to bring back to his garden in Agra. We walked through a storybook labyrinth of narrow wooded footpaths past picturesque hotels and spas. We walked to the center of town and passed Blind Lemon's, a blues club named after Blind Lemon Jefferson. This was certainly the kind of town where one could spend a few days to be seriously pampered with massages, yoga, etc. We saw where the river cuts through the center of town, and a lot of erosion had happened as a result of Tropical Storm Agatha.

We then got back into the boat and headed to San Juan la Laguna. We visited some arts cooperatives, including a gallery of paintings and some spinning and weaving workshops. As we walked through the town we came across people finishing up an alfombra (a carpet made of colored sawdust on the cobblestone street). Today was the feast of San Juan Batista, (John the Baptist), patron saint of this town. We were lucky enough to see a procession where locals were marching, playing drums and a clarinet,  carrying flags, crucifixes, and an effigy of John the Baptist through the streets of town. It reminded us of the Easter processions we had seen in Antigua in 2004.They were burning pine resin incense and tossing flower petals at the effigy. Women were wearing white veils and carrying candles.

Dock at San Marcos

Lake Atitlan

Alfombra in San Juan la Laguna

 San Juan Batista Procession

  San Juan Batista Procession

Then we returned to the boat and went to Santiago Atitlan, the only one of today's three villages which we had visited on past trips. We enjoyed a nice lunch at a restaurant and then headed to the church, Iglesia Parrochial Santiago Apostol. We were planning to pay a visit to local folk saint Maximon, but it started to pour and we needed to get back to Panajachel.

When we got back to the house we were welcomed by the kids and we enjoyed playing tag and blind man's bluff with them. We had a nice family dinner. Paola played some mp3's on Humberto's phone, and Eddy and Aracely danced around the dining room. Eddy can say Craig's name, and it was obvious that he had been practicing. He has a cute habit of leaving the first syllable off of many words, so zapatos become "patos", bananos are "nanos", etc. Paulina tried to get him to say "Stephania" , so he started to call me "Nia." It was very cute. Yoselin asked me to sing Rock a Bye Baby. Eddy was immediately transfixed and stopped what he was doing to stare at me. Aracely is fully adept with the camera now, and enjoyed watching videos that she had taken.

Solola Market (under a red tarp)

Cemetery in Solola

 Alex and Minos

 Nimaj Ay (the Great House Cave) San Jorge

Friday is market day in neighboring Solola, so in the morning we rode a “chicken bus” for the first time to get there. These are decommissioned U.S. School buses, some of which still bear the name of their former school districts, which are often festively painted and which transport locals for a cheap fare. They get their nickname due to the fact that on market days, locals can transport just about anything on these buses, including chickens. Solola is not a tourist market. It is a market where locals buy and sell food and other necessities of life. We only saw a handful of other gringos there. It was a bustling hive of activity. The locals were all extremely friendly and returned our smiles and greetings of “Buenas dias”. We walked through a section of the market where nice pieces of wood furniture were for sale. A man walked by carrying a huge bureau by hanging it from his head. The people here are just amazingly hard workers.

We then took a walk down a hill to the local cemetery. We wandered around the brightly painted above-ground tombs, some of which were bedecked with flowers. From here there was a gorgeous view of the lake and the volcanoes, and we couldn't help thinking that this wasn't too shabby a place to spend eternity.

After spending the morning at the market, we caught a ride in the back of a pick-up truck to a roadside overlook in San Jorge. There were benches here where we had a picnic of fruit, chips, and Gatorade. Two brothers who lived on the hillside below (Minos age 12, and Alex age 5) talked with us and we shared our snacks wit them. They led us down the path toward a Mayan ceremonial cave. On the way, they showed us their small home. We walked down a path to Nimaj Ay ("The Great House"), a large cave whose mouth overlooks Panajachel and the lake. There was a Mayan shaman here performing a ceremony with a client. It was a large cave with a wide mouth, and we walked inside and could easily stand up.Small stone altars were set up in various places. Lighted candles stood next to crosses carved out of the black volcanic stone. Flowers stood on top of small cairns. One special rock looks like a skull. It is believed to be the god of the underworld, Pascual. Humberto explained to us how the Mayans believe that caves are the entrance to the underworld. If someone is sick or in need of guidance, people will hire a shaman and come to this cave, and perform a ceremony.

We caught a chicken bus back to Pana. It was very crowded this time, and we wound up standing up crushed between people. We were pleasantly surprised to notice Paulina's father sitting in the front seat of the bus.  When we got back to the house, we enjoyed playing with the kids. We played blind man's bluff again, gave piggy-back and horsie rides, and even had chicken fights. When we got tired, Rocio, Yoselin, and Aracely got into the wonderful habit of massaging our necks and backs. We have always (since our very firsty visit) played a little game with the girls where we poke their noses and say "Beep". This afternoon, Eddy spontaneously came over to me, poked my nose, and said "Beak!" It was so cute. Aracely had a toothache, and occasionally she would accidentally aggravate it and we could tell that it was really hurting her. Poor thing! For dinner we had beet and cabbage enchiladas. By the end of the meal, Eddy's entire face was purple.

 Godchildren Eddy and Aracely

Mukul with Eddy and Aracely at the lake

Saturday was a free day, which we spent at home playing with the kids. We watched the World Cup with Humberto while eating breakfast. Yasmin wanted to go for a walk, so she, Yoselin, Paola, Aracely, Eddy, Mukul, Craig and I walked down to the lake. It was a beautiful morning and we enjoyed walking along the shore. On the walk back to the house we bought the kids ice cream. Aracely got frozen chocolate covered strawberries on a stick, Yasmin and Yoselin got home-made popsicles in little plastic cups, and Paola got a creamsicle. She gave Eddy a bite and he liked it so much that he ended up eating the whole thing. Paola is always really generous like that with the younger kids, and Craig rewarded her by buying her another ice cream all her own. When we got back to the house, Rocio and Josue came over. Craig offered to buy them ice creams too, and he and Rocio walked to the nearby store. Josue was too shy to go with them, but they bought him one and brought it back to him.

Steph, Paola, and Craig

 Caballito - Yasmin, Aracely, and Yoselin with Steph

 Rocio, Mukul, and Eddy

 Steph, Mukul, Josue, and Craig

Paulina made us a delicious lunch of beans, hamburg, fresh garlic veggies and rice, with fresh smoothies to drink. Eddy still sits in his little cubby in the TV stand, just like on our last visit.  Paola and I played volleyball with a small, soft ball, using the clothesline as a net. Paulina served us flan as a snack. Mukul wrote the girls' names in Hindi and the girls were transfixed. He's also a good artist, and they each asked him to draw different things in their notebooks.

Later in the afternoon we had tea and bread. The girls were watching Hannah Montana on TV when a thunderstorm blew through. We saw a flash and a loud popping sound, and all of a sudden the TV blew out! We heard a large clap of thunder. No more World Cup for Humberto!

When the rain stopped, Paola and Vanesa played volleyball against Yoselin and myself. After a while, Yasmin took Yoselin's place. It was fun. Eddy watched us through Humberto and Paulina's bedroom window. We had spaghetti in a garlic alfredo sauce for dinner and banana bread for dessert.

Chichicastenango Market

Flower vendors on the steps of the Santo Tomas church in Chichi

Sunday was market day in Chichicastenengo, an hour’s ride from Panajachel. This market is about half tourist market (selling regional handicrafts) and half local market. We took a shuttle van to Chichi, as it’s known, and were let off at the Hotel Santo Tomas. We walked through the market, first looking at some of the more touristy items for sale, and then wandering into the area that is mostly for locals, where they were selling traditional clothing, brightly colored threads, brightly colored candles for making offerings, incense, etc. Humberto took us up to the second floor of a building so that we could look down on the market, a hive of activity. We went into the Calvary church, which is a church more devoted to Mayan traditions. Candles were flickering so much that it gave things a bit of a strobe effect. Then we crossed the market and went into Santo Tomas church, the Catholic church where we had experienced Palm Sunday Mass in 2004. We sat in a pew and  absorbed the atmosphere while locals lit candles and made offerings in the center aisle and in front of the altar. It was disappointing that a lot of the tourists were dressed inappropriately (in the Mayan culture, adults should not show bare legs or bare shoulders). We always try to dress appropriately with the proper respect.

After this we went to the Moreria Santo Tomas. Chichicastenango is famous for its wooden masks, and we had purchased one here in 2004. We looked around at the various masks and then saw a dance performance depicting a bullfight.  Marimba music accompanied the dance, whereby several kids were dressed up as Spaniards, and smaller boy was dressed as a bull. In a subversive turn of events, the bull kills the Spaniard rather than the other way around.

We took a short hike up a mountain to see the Pascua Abaj idol. It was very hot and oppressive as we climbed up the mountain, but as soon as we got to the top there was a very strong cool breeze. It seemed almost supernatural. Male and female Mayan shamans were performing rituals around the idol. The idol itself was part of a larger statue that was repurposed after an earthquake in 1976 to help rebuild the church. Candles were laid on their sides in circles and were burning, and the Mayan priests doused the idol with cane sugar alcohol and soda. We walked back to the market and ate a very quick lunch before catching the 2pm shuttle back to Pana.



 Craig with goddaughter Aracely

Paulina and Humberto
When we arrived back at the house, Paola and Vanesa were working on art projects for school. Eddy rode his tricycle in circles through the house.  We played with the girls and Eddy in their bedroom, tossing them on the beds, holding them upside down, giving piggy back rides, etc. Everyone got dressed for church, and we
headed to church at the Iglesia San Francisco Asis. It was raining, so we took two tuk-tuks to get there.

After Mass, Mukul took us all out for the girls’ favorite meal: pizza! We tried a new restaurant, Ricassoli Pizza Steak House and everyone had their fill of pizza and soda. It was a nice evening out.

Vanesa and Paulina out for pizza


On Monday morning we woke up at 7 to say goodbye to the girls before they went to school. Yasmin came into our room and asked us to get up and walk with her and Yoselin to school. Craig and I happily agreed. We walked them to school, and on the way home we stopped at Paulina's father's juice stand and bought two big glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice from him.

While the older kids were at school, we went for a walk with Humberto, Paulina, Aracely, and Eddy to take a look at some of the kindergarten programs in the area. We went to the Hotel Los Angeles, which is the future home of the Atitlan Multicultural Academy (it is in the process of moving from its current location to this new one). There wasn’t a whole lot to see, but we called and spoke to the founder of the school later in the day to get information about kindergarten registration. Then we went to the LIFE School, a little storybook school close to the lake.Both of these schools go by the U.S. school calendar, so Aracely will be ready to start school in September. After visiting the schools, we looked at the nearby river and saw some of the devastation that floods of Tropical Storm Agatha had wrought. Humberto took us to visit a colleague of his at the nearby Hotel Porto del Lago. It was the first time we had been into this nice hotel and conference center which has a nice pool overlooking the lake. Eddy sat in a comfortable chair in the lobby and didn't want to leave. I got a funny picture of him with arms crossed in defiance. It was the only time we had seen him act defiant on the entire trip.
Eddy, acting defiant

Aracely, Yesmy, And Eddy

Paola and her baby cousin

 Rocio, Loren, Craig, Aracely, and Eddy

 Steph with Loren and Aracely


When we got back to the house, Paulina's sisters Olga and Estella came over to help Paulina to make a lunch for the entire family. We were very happy to see them, as well as Estela's daughters Laisa, Yesmy, and Loren and Olga's children Pamela, toddler Isidro (who was less afraid of us than he was last time), and baby Hatzebeh. We had a nice lunch of grilled chicken and rice with fresh guacamole and salsa. Paulina's father and Humberto's mother also joined us for lunch. We played with all of the kids and had a wonderful time. There is just so much love in this family!

Paulina made pupusas for dinner, and afterwards Juana and Rocio came by to say goodbye to us. We would be leaving before they would be awake in the morning. They gave us and Mukul some lovely woven placemats and coasters. Humberto presented Mukul with a copy of the Popol Vuh, the Mayan "bible" so that he can continue to hone his newfound interest in Mayan culture. We said goodbye to everyone and thanked them all for their warm hospitality. It is always bittersweet to leave, as we wish we could spend even more time with them.

Juana, Steph, Craig, and Rocio


We went to bed, setting our alarm for 4:30 a.m. We took showers and finished packing. At 5:30 Paulina already had toast and coffee waiting for us. Paola and Yasmin both got up to say goodbye, which was really sweet of them. The van arrived 10 minutes early, at 5:50, and after a few more rounds of hugs and teary goodbyes, we were on our way back to Guatemala City and the airport.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mukul's Visit

When we spent time with Mukul and his family in India last October, we spoke often of our "family" in Guatemala. Mukul had never been to Central America and didn't know very much about MesoAmerican history. We told him that he should accompany us some time on a trip to visit Humberto, Paulina, and the kids. We knew that he would enjoy their company and that he could learn a lot about Mayan culture from Humberto.

Mukul and Craig in front of Motif # 1, Rockport

We had planned a trip over the Fourth of July, and Mukul was able to join us. He arrived in Boston on June 25 and spent a few days at our place before we all headed to Guatemala together on June 30.

Steph at Front Beach, Rockport

On Saturday the 26th, we took him around the North Shore. We went to Ipswich, Rockport, and Gloucester. It was a lovely summer day and we enjoyed wandering around seeing the sights. We got mocha frappes at Zumi's in Ipswich and walked around town. We walked around an old cemetery which had many graves from the colonial period. Then we drove to Rockport. We were lucky enough to find a parking spot with two hours still on the parking meter. We walked along Bearskin Neck, stopping to get fresh fudge and salt water taffy. We took some pictures of Motif # 1 and then walked along the beach, dipping our toes in the cold Atlantic at Front Beach. We learned that defacing money isn't illegal if you totally deface it, and pressed a penny into Motif #1 as a souvenir for Mukul.  Then we stopped in for an unannounced visit at Craig's grandmother's apartment. It was wonderful to see her and to introduce her to Mukul. On the way home we drove through Gloucester and saw a bunch of spectators on a hill side. We would learn later that the greasy pole contest was going on for St. Peter's Fiesta. Then we stopped in at Craig's parents' house and chatted with them for a while. Mukul enjoyed looking at Craig's mother's garden, and was intrigued by her solar garden lights. We sat by the pool and had a very nice conversation.

Nana and Craig

The next morning, we headed into Boston for a Duck Tour. Craig and I had never been on one before, but had heard good things, and we thought it would be a nice way to show Mukul the city. It was another gorgeous summer day and we rode in the back of the Duck in the open air. Our "con-duck-tor" claimed to be descended from Shakespeare, and he was dressed as if he were from Elizabethan England. He was quite amusing and told us various facts as we drove through the city. He told bad jokes at red lights, and told us that if we wanted him to stop, we could make the light turn green. He was really entertaining. We started the tour at the Museum of Science, and drove through Charlestown, up toward the North End, Beacon Hill, the Back was a great overview of the city. Near the end of the tour we felt a little refreshing splash as we drove right into the Charles River  not far from the Craigie Drawbridge. We even saw a pair of geese swimming with two goslings. Our con-duck-tor let some of the kids on board steer for a while in the water. We then drove back up onto dry land and made our way back to the Museum of Science to disembark.

Our Duck Boat

Our con-duck-tor

Zakim Bridge

State House

A Duck Boat on the Charles River

After that we headed to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see their glass flower exhibit. The first time we had ever met Mukul, he said "You're from near Boston? Have you seen the glass flowers?" Being an avid gardener himself, and having led a tour group of Harvard alumni who had told him about the glass flowers, he had been very eager to see them for years.

Mukul at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

The "glass flowers" are over 3,000 scientifically accurate models of flowers and plants made by glass artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. The father and son team from Germany made these models between 1887 and 1936. They are accurate enough that they can be studied by horticulturists when an actual plant sample is unavailable. Looking at the models, it is hard to believe that they are made of glass. They are incredibly delicate and life-like. There are some larger-than-life magnifications of various plant organs. It was fascinating.

Mukul studying the glass flowers

After we were done at the museum, we wandered around Harvard Square and stopped in for a nice Indian buffet brunch at Tanjore. Craig and I found their chicken tikka masala to be especially tasty. We then walked back to the car and headed for home. A little while after we arrived home, Mukul's friend Abhishek came to pick him up. Mukul spent the evening at their house with Abhishek, his wife Tina, and their nearly one year old baby Darika. They only live about 15 minutes from us, what a small world.

Mukul and Craig in Harvard Yard

On Monday, Craig and I got out of work early and we took Mukul out to visit my parents. We showed him around the house and yard and then went out for dinner. Mom then invited us back to the house for tea and dessert, and she went a little bit overboard making delicious desserts. We had fun chatting until it was time to go, as we'd have to go to work again in the morning.

Out to eat with Steph's parents

To Be Continued...