Sunday, November 29, 2015

Who's Loves Music & Flying?

My awesome friend, Julio, who plays guitar in bars and restaurants all over Panajachel, decided to take his act a bit higher. :)

Xmas Baking Day in Guatemala

Yesterday was Xmas baking day! My friend, Nancy, invited me to her house to bake treats for Christmas since she heard that I no longer have an oven. Her kitchen is SWEET! She has marble countertops, a Kitchenaid stand mixer, a bazillion cookies pans, and parchment paper. Plus she is a smart lady and brought back ingredients from the States on her last trip up: REAL brown sugar, a giant bag of Costco Kirkland chocolate chips, and Wilton colours & flavours.
We baked and chatted for six hours! What a fun day. Recipes are at the bottom of the post for those who are interested.
This looks a lot like my little sister's baking cupboard back in Canada!
Crushing candy canes for truffles. A full-size candy cane costs Q2.75 or $0.48 at the import store.
Some of the ingredients arrayed out on the lovely marble countertops.
Most baking ingredients are available here in Panajachel, although sometimes only at the import store, called Sandra's. Nancy showed me some locally made molasses that she bought but it was really runny, so we went with a thicker molasses she got at a health food store in San Pedro. Baking powder is readily available, but I've only found baking soda at Sandra's (Arm & Hammer). Chalo's has a huge range of spices, and what you can't find there can be found at Sandra's. Butter is MEGA expensive, at least twice what it is back home. And I mentioned that Nancy had real brown sugar... they sell brown sugar here but it's really just white sugar that's brown! It's not thick and moist and flavourful like real brown sugar. :)
COOKIES! Ginger snaps in coloured sugars, gingerbread shapes, chocolate crinkles, and shortbread.
Nancy cooked us a delicious chicken chili in her slow cooker, which she got as a wedding gift 35 years ago. Vintage! Bert dropped by for lunch too and then helped me to decorate gingerbread men while Nancy made Mounds Bars (forgot to take a pic of those but they're awesome!)
Our decorated friends. :)
Bert had a lot of fun decorating.
I made Adam and Eve. Hee hee!
I call this "Blind Date." I made the lady and Bert  made the, um, man?
More of Bert's creativity shining through. He told me he has never decorated gingerbread men before.
My sloppy candy cane cookie dough truffles.
This is Choco-Mono. (Chocolate Monkey!) He got let into the kitchen to clean the floor. :D
Nancy was super generous and split all the cookies between the two of us, even though I hadn't bought nearly half of the ingredients! I was super happy to fill up my new Xmas cookie tin that I found in a second hand store right here Pana. :)
The funny thing? We didn't even get all the baking done that we wanted to, so we're going to have another round on Friday. MORE COOKIES!!

Now if only I can stop Bert from eating all the cookies before Xmas comes! :D

Gingerbread Men - bit spicy, might cut back on the cloves next time
Candy Cane Cookie Dough Truffles - divine but I'm bad at the chocolate coating part :)
Shortbread - my Nanny's recipe that we'll be doing on Friday, not the Scottish style shown above
Chocolate Crinkles - So easy and delicious
Mounds Bars - three ingredients, super simple and addictive

Friday, November 27, 2015

American Thanksgiving in Guatemala

Canadian Thanksgiving kinda passed by without much fanfare, but American Thanksgiving is a big deal here in Guatemala. There are many restaurants that offer full traditional Thanksgiving meals, and the import grocery stores are stocked up with cranberries, stuffing, and pumpkin pie filling.

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving feast with some amazing women: Jo-Lori, my good friend and doppelganger; Nicole, a lovely intelligent lady who works as an English/Spanish translator; Iva, a fellow Canadian who blogs over at Amazing Me; and a new friend, Texas Jan, who inspired me with her adventurous spirit!

We all went to La Iguana Perdida restaurant in Santa Cruz, just across the Lake from Pana in the little town of Santa Cruz. It's Jo-Lori's favourite place!

We were having too much fun and therefore not too many pictures were taken. But I'm posting what I got, including links to two videos on my YouTube channel.
The only picture I got of my friends! On a lancha heading from Pana to Santa Cruz.
 Man, I love the Lake! I love going on the boats and bouncing across the shining water. Bert keeps saying he wants to buy a motorcycle, but I want a boat! Of course, we can't do visa runs in a boat. :(
Arriving at the Santa Cruz dock, there is the restaurant in yellow with vines all over it.
The docks at Santa Cruz on Lake Atitlan, and the sign for the restaurant.
San Pedro volcano. What a gorgeous day!
This is the view from the patio of La Iguana Perdida.
Inside the restaurant. It was quite large and sprawling. The door on the far wall goes to the library/fireplace room.
I was amazed at the number of expats gathered in one place. So fascinating to see the wide range of nationalities and ages. Everyone was hugging and chatting, and we even met some Facebook friends in real life for the first time. :)
The food!
 For Q110, about $19.25 Canadian, we had a true feast! Turkey, pork, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, beans, snowpeas, carrots, and a crusty flatbread. Plus there was dessert of homemade pumpkin pie, strawberry ice cream, and peanut butter squares. They even had a vegetarian option.

All the food was amazingly delicious, but our one complaint was that they didn't proportion it very well. By the time we got up to the table with our plates, we were only given a tablespoon of stuffing because they were running out. What??? We all agreed that stuffing is the second-best thing about Tgiving, and were disappointed we didn't get more. They did bring out more later, but I missed it again! No matter. I ate more food at that one meal than I think I have since I've been to Guatemala.
My second trip up to the food table and there were lots of carrots left, so I loaded up! YAY, vitamin A!
Time flew by too quickly with lively conversation and laughter. At 5:30, we had to catch a boat back to Pana. The sun had already set and darkness was settling in over the lake.
Dusk on Lake Atitlan
Riding back on the boat with my friends, gazing out at the twilight, feeling the warm breeze in my hair, I felt truly blessed. Guatemala is such a gorgeous, welcoming country! And having such a vivacious expat community really helps with homesickness and the urge to speak English. :)

I have been so inspired and humbled by the people I've met here, including my lovely women friends. Many of these women are solo female travelers: audacious, sparkling, intelligent, compassionate women who are using the second half of their life to make a difference in their own lives and others'. You go, girls!!  :D

Video of the view of Lake Atitlan and the volcanoes from La Iguana Perdida. On my channel is also a very short video of the interior of the restaurant. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Post Office Run-Around & My First Chicken Bus Ride

I ordered a few things from Banggood in China several months ago. Like June 10th, actually. On July 17th, I was excited to receive a letter from the post office regarding my parcel, until I realized that it was telling me the parcel was held up at customs in Guatemala City.

Thus began the Post Office Run-Around!
First, I followed the instructions on the paper and emailed the customs office an authorization form and a copy of my passport.
I waited a few weeks, then went to the post office to ask. They said it could take three to four months. MONTHS.
I waited several more weeks, then emailed the customs office. They said to go to the post office again. I went there, and they said they couldn't help me, that they "don't do that anymore". At least that was my impression.
I emailed the customs office again, and they said to come to Guatemala City. I told them I couldn't, so they said go to the agency in Solola. I decided to try the SAT office here in Pana first, but after passing the letter around to everyone in the office, they also told me I had to go to Guatemala City. ARGH!

So finally yesterday I got around to going up to Solola as directed by the customs people to see if they could get me my parcel. Bert and I wanted to take a pickup truck because we thought it would be a nicer view, but after waiting at the stop for 10 minutes, we got bored and jumped on a chicken bus. My first chicken bus ride!
Chicken buses are so much more colourful than regular buses. :)
Important questions and answers about chicken buses:
1. How did we know which bus to take? The ayudante (helper) stands near the bus yelling out the destination. "Solola Solola SoloLA!" It's quite musical. :)
2. How much was it? Q3 per person each way.
3. When did we pay? We paid after the bus was moving. The ayudante collected the fares. 
Other things to remember about chicken buses:
First of all, school buses are NOT comfortable. They're built for children. So our knees were jammed up against the seat in front of us, and on the first bus it was solid metal. I have bruises. Owies. The ride back was a bit better as the seats were padded.

Second, they're not kidding when they say they pack the buses full! There was one woman and four children all piled into the seat in front of us! And people were sitting with half their butts in the aisle.

Third, yeah, it's a bit scary but we kinda just crossed our fingers, toes, and hearts that we would die quickly... or not at all preferably. I'm sure the bus drivers are quite experienced and competent, but they just are more... let's call it "bold" than most people are used to. Add to that a winding narrow road on the side of a cliff with few guardrails and oncoming traffic that isn't obeying laws either, and it seems a miracle that more accidents DON'T happen!
Before the bus left, this guy walked thru selling drinks, and another man walked thru selling fruit. 
Here's a three minute video of us going up the hill out of town. It's totally beautiful in real life, but the glare of the sun on the lens and the contrast between the dark interior of the bus and the bright exterior made for a crappy video. Oh well. I guess you'll just have to come down to Guatemala to experience a chicken bus first-hand!
(Jump to 2:53 to get a quick glimpse of a cascade and the lake!)

Arriving in Solola, we were dropped off at the main park. It was so lovely! Reminded me of the central parks in Antigua and San Cristobal. Bert was saying that Pana needs something like that. I agree! Although, actually we do have the lovely lakefront area to hang out at. Perhaps a bigger park down in that area would be nice, with benches and picnic tables crafted by Bert and NJP! :D
The Solola Museum at the central park.
Xmas tree sponsored by Gallo beer!
I had looked up on a map where the post office was in Solola, so we headed in what I thought was the right direction. A few minutes walk uphill, I asked a storekeeper just to be sure and he waved me on up the hill. We were considering taking a tuk-tuk but I felt like it would be more of an experience if we hoofed it. *puff puff wheeze wheeze* Solola is steep!

We reached the top of the hill and found the market. So big! We gawked around there for a bit and then I asked a french fry vendor where the post office was. He said, "Down the hill at the park." What? I didn't want to believe him, so I asked someone else and they said the same thing! We had walked to the top of Solola for nothing. *sigh* At least it was a cool place to visit and view the volcanoes.
See the museum tower waaaaaay down the hill? That's where we started.
The huge market in Solola. Cars and trucks were driving through here. It was massive and all covered and organized, not like our crazy blankets-on-the-ground market in Pana!
We walked all the way back down to the park and strolled around the perimeter, snapping photos. Three-quarters of the way around the square, I asked for directions again. "The other side of the park."
So guess where we ended up? About 10 feet away from where the bus dropped us off! Yeah, if we had just turned left instead of right, we probably would have seen it.

Having finally reached our destination, I went inside with high hopes... that were totally shattered within two seconds! I could barely understand a word the young guy behind the counter was saying! A group of Mayan women were giggling at my ineptitude. Eventually, I realized that he was telling me to come back in a few minutes when another lady returned to work. Ah! Okay!

She did arrive shortly and I have to say, she was the most helpful person I've met so far! She listened patiently to my bad Spanish and read the wrinkled letter I had brought with me. Then she called the number on the form and talked to them for several minutes about what to do. They gave her another number to call, but by that time it was past 4pm and no one was answering. Foiled again!

So what she said to me was that any post office should have done what she was doing for me. (What??? I could have done this in Pana?? Grrrr....)
She also said that my package may or may not still be in Guatemala. (I didn't quite understand that part. Where would it go?)

Because the second office was closed and she couldn't proceed further, she asked if I could come back tomorrow. I told her I couldn't, so she said I should go to the post office in Pana and tell them to call her directly to work this out. How nice! She was genuinely trying to help me solve my problem. Amazing!

So at that point, there we nothing else we could do, so we just hopped on the next chicken bus outta town and went home. After a very speedy, very jerky, and very brief ride back down the mountain to Pana, we treated ourselves to gringas and ice cream to celebrate our safe return!
(Honestly, it was fine and I would totally take a chicken bus again. Cheap and easy.)
Big church in Solola.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pachi's Trip to the Vet

Poor Miss Pachi ran into a stick or something and injured her right eye a few days ago. Bert woke me up early Tuesday morning to show me.
Not even the worst of it! This was the first day.  By the second day, her third eyelid swelled up so much it covered three-quarters of her eye. :(
I inspected it, flushed it with water, and asked the advice of my friends and Google. It didn't appear that the cornea was scratched, but her entire conjunctiva was swollen up so much that I started calling her "zombie dog"! I was really hoping that it would just heal up on its own, but it got progressively worse over two days, so this morning I decided to find a vet.

The Panajachel Facebook group recommended a vet named Cristina so I mustered up my courage and gave her a call. Courage? Why courage? Because I don't speak Spanish very well. Plus I've always been one of these people that gets nervous talking on the phone, so even when I'm speaking English, I rehearse what I'm going to say beforehand. This time, I practiced some Spanish phrases and had open to translate whatever she responded with.

Unfortunately, Dr. Cristina was out of town and wouldn't be able to see me until the next night. I asked her for another vet I could see today and she said to go to Zoo Mazcota. I had seen this vet's office on our walks near the market, so I knew it wasn't far. I had heard it was expensive though, but I figured at least Pachi and I could walk up there and get treatment right away.

We arrived at the office and the secretary told me that the vet was out on a housecall and would be back around noon. So we decided to wait the 45 minutes sitting on the sidewalk outside. Almost right on the dot at noon, a red car pulled up and bunch of young people dressed in scrubs got out. They walked into the clinic, so I followed. Was one of these 20-somethings the vet?

One of the young women, very pretty, spoke to me in English and told me the secretary would take some information and then she would see me. I told the secretary my first name, easy, Cristal is how they spell it here, but then I blanked on how to spell my last name in Spanish. I ended up just writing it in the book for her.

We sat in the waiting room for less than two minutes before another woman came out to take us into the exam room. The room was the same as a vet exam room back home: a steel table, a cabinet full of medical stuff, and a person sitting at a computer at a desk. It turned out to be the nice young woman who spoke English that was going to examine Pachi. But she couldn't be the vet? His name was Miguel. It knew that because it was plastered all over the walls on countless certificates. (Like seriously, at least 30 certificates.)

No matter who she was, she was an excellent doctor. She spoke better English than I spoke Spanish and was excited to learn new words like "eyelid" when she stumbled over them and I corrected her. I had done a lot of Googling before going to the vet, so I knew what to expect. First they asked all the regular questions about Pachi: age (who knows?), fixed (yes), vaccinated (yes, thanks to Ayuda), and what had happened. They weighed Pachi but I didn't catch the number. Pachi is chubby though! :)

She and the other woman inspected Pachi's eye, looked at her teeth, then put fluorescence in the eye to check for a scratch. The vet explained everything as she went along, and even showed me Pachi's eye with the fluorescence in it to show there was no "ulcer", as she called it.

After it was all done and Pachi was back on the floor happily wagging her tail and getting pets from the assistant, the vet-lady told me that Pachi would need surgery under anaesthetic to repair the third eyelid. Uh-oh! I stammered out, "¿Es posible no?" (Is it possible no?) I was panicking because I was worried about the cost. I just got paid but I really wasn't prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for vet bills! We talked back and forth a bit in mixed English and Spanish. She said that we can try antibiotics for a week and see if it helps. She was happy to do that, and said that most doctors would rush to surgery but she wasn't like that.

She lifted Pachi back up on the table and gave her a shot of Ketofen for pain and inflammation, then wrote a prescription up for two other drugs: Ofloxacin, and antibiotic drop for her eyes, and Rimadyl for pain. She noticed Pachi's dew claws were very long so she cut them for me. How nice!

At this point I finally asked her name. It was Debbie. She handed me a prescription for the drugs, and I had to ask, embarrassed for not understanding, "Where do I get these?" She said to just show it to the front desk girl. I thanked her profusely, said goodbye, and took Pachi out to the front.

The secretary checked the prescription and went in the back to get the drugs. Then she rang up my bill and typed the total into a calculator so I could see the numbers. (This is a cool thing they do here sometimes for gringos who can't quite get Spanish numbers correct. It's ingenious and very helpful!)

The grand total for the consult and drugs? Q391. That's about $68 Canadian. Holy cheapness, Batman!
Pachi's vet bill.
So a vet consult costs around $13 Canadian or a bit less than $10 U.S at today's exchange rates. Wow. I walked into the vet's expecting to pay WAY more. It's a huge relief that it was not as much as I was fearing, as I only had Q600 in my purse. But I am sooooooo hoping that these antibiotics work and we don't have to do the surgery. Vet bills are not something that I think anybody is really prepared to pay for, especially with Xmas and birthdays approaching. But Pachi's health is important, and she is such a good dog, she deserves to be happy and pain-free. :)

I have to say that that was one of the best experiences I've had with a vet anywhere in the world. Debbie was kind, efficient, and explained everything. She listened to my concerns. She was sincerely worried about Pachi's pain, and took the extra time to clip her dew claws. I don't know anything about the "real" vet who runs Zoo Mazcota, but I would be happy to return there with Pachi or another pet just to see Debbie!

I also want to say something about this experience that may not have come across in my writing. It was very stressful. I'm normally not one to get freaked out about vet trips. In fact, having studied zoology in university, veterinarian visits are fascinating to me. But the big thing that caused me so much stress was the language barrier. I was worried that I wouldn't understand what the vet was saying, or that I couldn't communicate properly the information they needed about Pachi's health and lifestyle, or I wouldn't be able to tell them my feelings or concerns properly in Spanish. I couldn't ask about the drugs, the side effects, what to look for. I couldn't even make jokes about Pachi being a silly pooch! And in the end, I couldn't properly express my gratitude for their help and compassion.

This is a big thing that I seem to be struggling with here in Guatemala. I've always prided myself on being an intelligent and articulate person. But in Spanish, I'm an idiot. Plus my tendency to get flustered in social situations doesn't help! I can practice my Spanish phrases at home until they're flawless, but put me in front of someone who's looking me in the eyes and I screw everything up!

Bert has been so supportive of me in this aspect of adjusting to life in Guatemala. He insists that I'm doing great, but I know that I would say so much more, and say it much more eloquently, if only I was speaking English. I study Spanish almost every night but I still feel like I'm not learning as quickly as I would like. And being put in a very specific situation like a vet visit only serves to clarify how little Spanish I know. *sigh*  Oh well. I suppose it will come in time. And I was extremely grateful for the vet's English skills, as it made it so much easier and relieved some of my stress.

As it stands now, Pachi is sleeping soundly on her blanket, probably without pain for the first time in two days, and I am going to finish up this blog and then Google all her medications before giving any of them to her, just to be safe. Cross your fingers that all will be well in a few days!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Portable Reminders of Home

When I packed to move from Canada to Guatemala in April 2015, I made sure to bring a few little things that reminded me of my home.
I thought I had shared this picture before but I searched the blog and didn't see it. So here it is!
The nightshirt that my sisters, nieces, nephew, and I coloured before I left Canada.
I had this idea before I moved away to have my family paint a t-shirt for me to wear. I bought some fabric crayons, which were CRAP actually, and luckily had a chance to see my family and get it done before I left.
I outlined the eight black hearts and put the initials on the shirt before I let them loose on it. The top two hearts are my sisters, S&A (you remember from their trip here in July), the middle heart is me, and the five lower hearts are my nephew and four nieces who are: D&J twins age 14; I. age 6; and M&P twins age 4. (Yes, two sets of twins!) Things got a bit carried away and I got some bonus designs on the bottom as well. :D
It is a little bit worse for wear now.
Faded, torn, stretched out... and I still wear it almost every night!
I love that shirt. It's so comfy and I can always look down and be reminded of my loving family back in Canada.
I also brought along this little fella that my younger sister gave me.
Lucky Pony loves Guatemala!
I don't remember if there was a specific reason I got Lucky Pony. Probably just cuz my sister is awesome and Lucky Pony is awesome and he and I were meant to be together! He sits on my desk and supervises my work. (P.S. He's not a giant. He's only 3 inches tall. It's just a zoomed in picture to show his cuteness.)
Here is what I brought from my older sister, plus a new-ish addition as well.
Dragonfly suncatcher and Guatemalan hummingbird.
The pale purple beaded suncatcher on the left was a gift from my big sister. I think it's from a shop that we used to stop at on the long drive down from our home town to ... wherever. You can't really see it but there is a silver dragonfly near the small purple beads. I love it and made sure to pack it. Unfortunately, it doesn't catch any sun where it's hanging now but I do get to look at it all the time.
Next to it is the hummingbird I bought here in Pana because it reminded me of my niece and nephew. We had a joke last summer that we were the Hummingbird Gang. We had hand signs and everything! When my sisters came to visit, I made sure they went back with beaded hummingbirds as gifts for everyone!

The thing that I brought with me that reminds me of my parents is my lovely camera! They spoiled me a few years ago and bought me a very sturdy, very fun little camera plus a huge memory card for it and a pretty carrying case. I'm grateful every day for that camera -- and I'm sure YOU are too! It's what makes this blog so colourful and fun to look at. :)

I'm looking forward to the day when I have enough money saved to go back to Canada to visit. I'm going to stuff my suitcases full of gifts to take home... and then re-stuff it with gifts to take back to Guatemala!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I Ate At Pollo Campero

The guard at Pollo Campero
Yes, I finally did it. I ate at the infamous fast food chain, Pollo Campero, here in Panajachel, Guatemala. And it was bad. I was hoping for face-melting, tongue-tingling, high-five-inducing awesomeness but instead got cold, limp, unsalted fries, a 7-Up that I think the counter guy tasted first, and a slightly above average chicken sandwich.

To start off, I screwed up the ordering process. How can you screw up fast food? Well, let me tell ya. Pollo Campero is fancy! Only I assumed it was like Burger King or McDonald's and acted as such.

I walked in, as the guard held the door open for me, and -- wait, what? Yes, there is a guard inside the door of Pollo Campero. I snuck his picture.  :)

Anyway, I walked in and went to the counter to order. I noticed a sign near the cash that said "Para Llevar", meaning "To Go". I shrugged it off and stared up at the menu board. The guy behind the counter was counting change in his till and ignored me. I felt a bit lost.

Then a lovely young woman came up and said, "Would you like me to help you order?" I was stunned and blurted out, "Why? Is it hard?" I didn't mean to be rude but I think she was a bit taken aback! Still, she persevered and helped me decipher the menu, which seemed to me to have no combo numbers or even names of the food. I told her I wanted a chicken sandwich and she pointed out the options. Then she said, "Do you want a menu?" I was more stunned. Isn't the menu up there? I stammered, "No, I just want a sandwich and fries and drink." She told the man what I wanted and I thanked her before she walked back to her friends. So nice! Thanks, random stranger!  :)

The counter dude was totally slow and took forever to punch in my simple order. When he returned my change, he proudly said, "sixty-two" in English. I smiled and took my receipt and then went to sit with Bert at a booth to wait for the food. On the way across the restaurant, I grabbed a menu from where the nice woman had pointed and give it to Bert to peruse.
Inside Pollo Campero in Panajachel, Guatemala.
That's when I started figuring out that I had done everything wrong. There was a waitress in orange circling the tables, presumably to take people's orders, although there was only one other customer sitting down. She asked us if we wanted anything else when she saw Bert reading the menu, but he declined. (He wasn't hungry.) People were coming in to order at the counter, but then sitting on the bench near the front window to take their food out. So I guess we were supposed to sit first? Or wait for the waitress to seat us? Maybe it's like the newer Swiss Chalet restaurants back home where you have a choice to either sit down or take out? Who knows? (Guatemalans know, actually. Ha!)

We waited for my food while I snapped pictures, totally feeling like a dorky tourist. I noticed an employee behind the counter looking around a bit lost, and then the waitress waved him towards us. I jumped up and went up to collect my food, that was in a takeout bag of course! :)

I decided to sit in to eat, even though I felt dumb to take my takeout bag to a table. (All this while, Bert is very patiently tolerating my blunders and babbling embarrassment.)
Here is a photo of my thrilling meal.
Extra Crispy Chicken sandwich combo from Pollo Campero.
For Q38, or about $6.62 Canadian, I got that. Blah. Like I said above, cold shoestring fries, normal 7-Up, and an okay sandwich that didn't seem all the extra crispy to me. Not impressed. Honestly, I've had amazing chicken and fries for half the price from a street vendor! Why do Guatemalans and other Latin Americans go crazy for this place? I truly don't know. Maybe I just picked the wrong menu item? I might be willing to give it another try but thinking about it now, why would I? It was nothing special and it was overpriced. Oh well! At least I tried it. My curiosity is satiated, even if my desire for an awesome chicken sandwich isn't.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Busted Myths About Panajachel and Guatemala

I did a lot of research before deciding to move to Guatemala. I mean A LOT. I've always loved planning trips, and sometimes have even planned trips for my friends and family, and planning this move was kinda similar. Way back when I started thinking about moving from Canada to Guatemala, it comforted me to think that it was just a looooong working vacation. :)

In my research about Guatemala and Panajachel in particular, I discovered a lot of misinformation. In no particular order, here are some myths that I've disproven or clarified in the seven months I've been here.
Oooh, dark and brooding volcano. 
Myth 1 -- You can't find anything from "back home".
BUSTED -- Sandra's on Santander in Panajachel has all sorts of gringo food, from Pringles to Cocoa Puffs to English muffins to Old El Paso taco spice mix. (Why??) However, gringo stuff is waaaay overpriced. A bottle of spray-on sunscreen costs $19. Peanut butter is $10. But if you don't care about the brand name, many stores here are stocked with Doritos-like chips, copycat Frosted Flakes, and even Ramen noodles. Yummy! Plus, it's not that far to get to a larger cities where there are fully stocked Walmarts, Price Marts, and Home Depots to satisfy all your needs. :)
Bert says he remembers thinking he would never get to drink chocolate milk again. Happily, there is chocolate milk here and even strawberry milk!

Myth 2 -- It's really unsafe. You're going to get robbed, kidnapped, stabbed, etc.
Kinda Busted -- Yes, there is crime but most of it is not directed towards gringos. There is a lot of gang violence in the larger cities, which one of the main reasons I don't live there. In Panajachel, there are cops and tourist police all over, especially on weekends, and I've never really felt unsafe while in town. However, pickpockets are attracted to the large gatherings during festivals where distracted tourists are an easy mark. Plus, a friend experienced a bus robbery while on a chicken bus coming back at night from Chichicastenango. Armed men boarded the bus and robbed all the passengers. So I have to say, yes, there is crime here, but that's true in all countries, isn't it? Just use extra caution when traveling smaller roads and also when out after dark. As in all of life, use your smarts!

Myth 3 -- No three-pronged power outlets.
Kinda Busted -- Our lake apartment had been renovated to upgrade the wiring and install three-pronged grounded plugs. Our current casita has three-pronged plugs but they aren't grounded, so technically they're no good. However, the main power source from the street has a grounding rod, so we're working on getting a grounding wire from there to at least one plug in the house. We've seen quite a few places with three-pronged outlets, including local restaurants that offer free WiFi. The trick is: are they really grounded? Extension cords at the 3Q store have the third prong ripped out, but the hardware store has real three-pronged cords. Bottom line: yes, many places only have two-pronged power outlets but it's not as widespread as I was led to believe.

Myth 4 -- Lake Atitlan is polluted/Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful lake in the world.
Hard to bust or confirm a myth that has both sides to it! The answer is: both are true. Sections of the lake are pristine and gorgeous. Other parts are clogged with plastic refuse and smell like sewage.

Myth 5 -- You need quetzales before you arrive.
BUSTED -- American dollars are fine to change in many places, although rates vary. We changed our last American dollars at Guipil's on Santander. He usually puts out a pylon with a sign in English that says they change money. In several other stores, we've also seen signs to change British pounds and euros, plus there are many banks in town.

Myth 6 -- The bank machines/ATM/ABMs will rip you off.
Kinda BUSTED -- I wanted to say this was busted but in September I actually DID get ripped off by the BI bank machine on Santander near the computer store. I tried to withdraw Q2,000, about $350 Canadian, and it froze. I eventually got tired of waiting and cancelled the transaction. However, my account was debited the money!
I went into the bank branch next door and told them. They informed me that that particular bank machine doesn't work for international cards. Apparently, there's usually a sign up that says that but it had been torn down. I have since seen that sign up and have warned others away from that machine. I'm still waiting for the banks to work it out and refund me the cash.
That being said, I have also used many ATMs with no troubles at all. I've used both machines in the Despensa Familiar without problems. Different banks charge different fees, so try a few machines before you decide which one is for you. Getting a local bank account is a difficult process for foreigners, so you just gotta suck it up and take your chances. Or follow the advice of some American friends and use an alternative service like Western Union or Xoom.

Myth 7 -- There is no bread in Guatemala.
SO BUSTED! -- Not sure where I heard this rumour but I remember thinking before I came here, "How will I do without bread?" There are panaderĂ­as all over the place here, and loafs of bread sold in the Despensa, Chalo's, and Sandra's. For your regular white sandwich bread, it's best to buy at the Despensa. Homebaked full-sized loaves are a bit hard to come by, so it's usually best to go early in the morning before they sell out. There are lots of fresh buns and smaller loaves for sale all day long at the local bread shops. Cheap too!

Myth 8 -- It's hard to find shoes that fit larger feet. (Bert's contribution.)
BUSTED -- We had read on forums before we came here that finding large shoes would be very difficult as Guatemalans are very small and stores don't carry bigger sizes. Totally absolutely completely not true! Guatemalans have an obsession with shoes. There are shoe stores every 10 feet, both new and second-hand. And Bert says it's actually easier to find bigger shoes because mostly only the gringos buy them. What a weird myth!
Amazing embroidered shoes for sale on Santander in Panajachel.
Myth 9 -- Guatemala is stuck in the past. 
BUSTED -- Bert and I both remember feeling that we were going to some remote, backwards, third-world country that had no modern conveniences, electronics, and infrastructure. I worried about not finding computer supplies. I also remember thinking there wouldn't be paved streets and the kids wouldn't have toys, like they would be playing with sticks or something. Bert remembers thinking about bringing down school supplies and other donations to help the poor.
Well, weren't we naive?? They have everything here: computer stores, Internet cafes, hair salons, pet stores, and cell phones galore! I distinctly recall arriving in Panajachel and staring at a Mayan woman in full traje (traditional clothes) talking on an iPhone as she walked down the street.
Yes, there are very poor people here, and yes, we do live in Pana which is a very touristy town with lots of modern stuff, but I do honestly feel like a bit of a dork for thinking I'd be living with some sort of jungle natives with no concept of the Internet. (Cringing as I write this!)
However, it is true that Guatemala is a third-world country with rampant poverty, injustice, gender inequality, and civil unrest, but it is also a country that is moving towards a better life for its citizens. Things can only get better here!

Anyhoo, I hope these clarifications are helpful to those of you considering a visiting or relocating to Guatemala. I wanted to write them down before I forgot all my preconceptions! We've lived here now for over half a year so things are becoming routine. I had almost forgotten all the strange things I fretted about before arriving at this lovely place. :)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Another Power-Free Day

Saw a notice late on Tuesday night that the power was going to be out all day Wednesday. The last time a notice was posted, it didn't happen, so of course I was a bit skeptical. But sure 'nuff, 8am, BAM, lights out! So no work for me.

Bert came home from his main job too, since he couldn't use any of the powered woodworking equipment to finish the big wardrobe they'd just built. He got a call from a friend to come walk her dogs, which he usually does Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I decided to go with him to get outta the house and enjoy some sunshine.
A giant poinsettia tree we pass in "our" alley.
There's this really cool winding alley that goes from our street up towards the market. It's my favourite way to get into town cuz I don't have to navigate the chicken bus stop that's at the end of our street and the mad traffic at the corner of Principal and Santander. I tried to take a video of the alley once but it didn't really convey how twisty and narrow it is. It's totally fun to walk thru! And the little kids who live along the way have gotten to know us, and our dogs too. One little boy always laughs and says, "Chucho!" when Pachi goes by. (Chucho, in case you've forgotten, basically means "mutt" or "street dog".)

We stopped at the market for some breakfast before we picked up the dogs. We bought these warm cornbread things from an old lady who has a little charcoal barbecue. They're ... okay tasting. It's like one bite it's delicious cornbread and the next bite it's awful corn HUSKS! Ha ha! Bert says they would be better with butter, which really applies to most things, doesn't it? :)
Cheap breakfast! Can of juice, Q3.50 and a corn thingy from a street vendor, Q3. 
Cookie and Chiquita! These are two of our friend's dogs that Bert walks. I forgot to take pics of the other two.
After walking the dogs and chatting with some friends, I went home to try to have a nap. I was feeling sore and cranky, but sleep was not to be had. Our neighbours were hammering at some concrete or something, and a ton of mosquitos had found their way into the bedroom and were pestering me. Don't you just hate that high-pitched whine of a mosquito near your ear? ARGH!

So I got up and drank a giant cup of coffee. (Yay for gas stoves! We can cook when there's no power.) Bert had been out walking Pachi and Calvin -- with Calvin's new choke chain making things soooo much more peaceful -- but he agreed to walk even more and accompanied me to the 3Q Store.

It's funny but most of the stores are open even if there is no power. The 3Q Store simply put up some battery operated lights in the dark corners, while the rest of the place was lit from the windows. Still, Bert and I had to get out our cellphones to use the flashlight function to look closer at some things in the shadows. Kinda silly! We bought a few knick knacks and treats, and meandered back home.
Blackberry wafer cookies! Yum.
Bought this purple hair dye cuz it says at the bottom "Permeant Smartness". Awesome!
Photos to follow. Going to do it tomorrow.
The power was scheduled to come back on at 4pm, so I thought I'd get some chores done. No-power days are perfect for that stuff! I cleaned the stove, emptied the garbages, swept and mopped a bit, changed the kitty litter, had a shower (yay, solar heated water!), cleaned my keyboard and monitor, sewed up a pillowcase, and washed Bert's sweater. Whew!

After all that, it was almost 4pm so I twiddled my thumbs for a few minutes waiting for the power. Go-time came and went. No power. So I decided to climb up the mountain to see the vista before it got too dark and/or the rain came.
Stormy day in Panajachel.
I like how the clouds get snagged on the volcano top. :)
I took a video too, just blabbing about stuff. You can view it on my Youtube channel here.

Came back down pretty quickly as there were a TON of biting insects up at the platform. Still no power. I sat at the red table to wait. And wait and wait and wait! Bert wasn't having success with his nap, so he came out to the porch and we had an interesting chat about the pyramids while it got darker and darker. Still no lights! He got bored again and went to lie down while I simply sat at the table and listened to the world -- kids playing soccer, men hammering, birds chirping, crickets cricketing, and Pachi making little woofing sounds in her sleep. :D

I was just lighting candles at 5:25 pm when the lights came on. YAY! I blew out the candles, rushed in to the computer, powered it up, posted a Facebook status, and -- BAM, lights out! Awwwww. Bummer. Relit the candles and sat for a while in the semi-dark. The power came back on and off and on again a few more times before finally settling down and staying on.

So another fun power-free day with some adventures and productivity. I don't mind them so much. I only wish I had more notice! I hate having to ditch work without giving my bosses more advance warning. I'm lucky they are so understanding.

Until next time! ¡Nos vemos!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Ayote Soup

For Halloween I bought five green "pumpkins", actually ayotes, at Q10 each. (About $1.70 Canadian.) We used them for decorations and then weren't quite sure what to do with them afterwards. So we left one in the kitchen at Gringos Locos for the chef, left one on the bar for whoever wanted it, and put two out on the railing by the street with a FREE sign, in Spanish of course -- GRATIS. Within five minutes, a lady came and took one away and I'm sure the other one got picked up not long after. Why? Because they're food, that's why!

I had kept one misfigured ayote at home and decided to cook it today. I Googled some recipes for ayote and came up with a lot of soups. So I decided to base my soup loosely off of a pumpkin soup recipe from Jamie Oliver and substitute my lovely green Guatemalan squash. :)

I hacked open the beast and it was greeeeeeeen inside! 
I used my biggest kitchen knife and tried to cut the squash but it was super hard. I ended up slashing my knife into it, then bashing the entire thing against the side of the cement pila until it split. Kinda like chopping really hard firewood!  :)
I don't have an oven so I boiled it for 20 minutes. I had to do several batches cuz my pot wasn't big enough.
It was very strange to be preparing such a vibrantly green food. I kept having to shove my notions of green=yucky to the back of my mind. Truthfully, it was several lovely shades of green that were quite pretty!
Once it was boiled and soft, I carved the flesh off the skin. Ewwwww! Sounds gross! 
At this point, I dared to taste a piece of the green mush...and it actually did taste like pumpkin! That made me feel more encouraged to keep going.
Frying red onion, garlic, and fresh rosemary from my garden. Mmmmmmm.
I put all the boiled squash and the onion mixture in a big pot with chicken stock and salt and pepper. Cooked it for about another 15 minutes until it was nice and mushy, then blended it with my hand blender.
Ta-dah! Ayote soup. It looks like pea soup, doesn't it? 
It was actually quite delicious! So warm and thick and comforting, and a lovely flavour of squash and rosemary. Bert and I both ate a big bowl and there's tons left over for tomorrow.
Now if only I could have made Jamie's parmesan croutons to go with it! Maybe next time. :)