Living the Good Life in Antigua

December 26, 2011

(See photos below)

Dear Friends and Family,

Rob and I didn’t get out an official Christmas letter this year but we hope you had a wonderful weekend and that you have wonderful plans to enter in to a new year with renewed purpose and enthusiasm for whatever is to come.

May we have heard from many of you who ask us about what it was like in a Guatemala Christmas so I will comment primarily on that in this letter.

Our host family is wonderful and probably middle to upper middle class in this area.  They are financially comfortable but I don’t think they are in the top % in the country.  They are educated and sophisticated and that is a real plus.  They are also warm and welcoming.  Still, they are used to students going in and out and being a host so they are used to people who are struggling with the language and are very supportive.

Our host has two sons and a daughter.  Her husband died 5 years ago and she is still emotional about that at times.  She misses him as does all the family.  His death came 4 months after being told he had kidney cancer.  By the time they found it, it was all over his body.

The oldest son is married and has 3 boys and one girl with the girl being the youngest.  The boys are about 17, 15, 8 and the girl about 5.  Her younger son lives with her since his divorce 1 ½ years ago and his two girls, 5 and 7, live here during the week.  Now is their long school vacation which runs from October through sometime in January.  Carmen, the person who is our host, and I talk about how much we love our grandchildren but it takes a great deal of energy!

Carmen’s daughter is a long story.  She was born normal but because of a medication mistake when she was still in the hospital, she is permanently disabled to the point where she cannot move purposely and cannot speak.  She is 30 years old now and she needs constant attention.  I don’t know if they know if she is intelligent because there has been no way to communicate with her.  She reacts emotionally and gives and receives love and sadness but that is about all.  Carmen has domestic help; most people who can afford it here do because it is so inexpensive.  One of the girls is a big help with the daughter but Carmen says you cannot leave the daughter alone with anyone but a family member.  While it takes a lot of energy to have her grandchildren in the house, it is a blessing that her son can help with his sister.  Sometimes the other son comes so that Carmen can get out and do what she needs to do.  It is a limiting proposition but she handles it with great grace and loving acceptance.  It is an amazing example for everyone.  The daughter doesn’t come in to the public part of the house, partially because it is difficult with the way things are set up and maybe they wish to protect her.

Now that you know a little about the family, I will tell you about the holiday.  I have to go back to the beginning of the month as from that early time; fireworks are a clear indication of some sort of celebration!  There is the burning of the devil early in the month as a symbol of cleaning one’s spirit.  Fireworks (the noisy kind) are used a lot then.  Every day though we have heard one or several go off all through the day and evening.

Leading up to the holiday are spontaneous parades, some just a few people carrying a small platform with the holy family on it or trucks go by with all kinds of things on them, like the cars from the Disney movie or the Smurfs.  Most have some connection with the holy family or Santa Clause.  One never knows when a parade will pass, though they are always at night.  You hear music and you run to the door in the gate as there are no windows to the outside of the wall.  Sometimes you see things and sometimes they are passed before you get there.

Another custom that they do is to put pine needles on the sidewalk in front of homes or stores and sometimes inside as well.  People walk on them and it causes the fragrance of pine to come up.  It really is a nice effect although I am sure that in the states they would worry about people slipping and suing so it would never be done.

People decorate with trees and other things, similar to what we do.  Our family is Catholic and they have a pretty good sized nativity in the dining room complete with twinkling lights.  I think the one they have is large but they used to have a larger one in years past.  At midnight, our family knelt in front of the nativity and prayed.  That is the time the baby is put in the manger.  It is different in this family in that there are 4 baby Jesus figures in the manger and their size is not complimentary to the figures of Mary and Joseph.  One figure is carved out of wood and painted and belonged to the great grandfather.  It is about 130 years old and quite valuable.  Two others are ceramic and one more modern and painted soft plastic, actually, the most natural of them all.  They were gifts of other members of the family and all are included.

They children are not allowed to have sweets before midnight on Christmas.  There are no great meals or parties like we have in the U.S.  I know some offices have parties.  Our boat yard in Rio Dulce was planning one before Christmas and employees receive gifts and bonuses like we do but excessive food doesn’t seem to be part of it.  The tradition is to serve tamale’s at midnight with a drink called puncha which is sort of like a sweet hot fruit soup.  You have ½ liquid and the other is chunks of fruit so you drink it and also use a spoon.  That is in total what is served for Christmas dinner at midnight and most common among all the population, rich or poor.  Of course cookies were passed too but not much emphasis was placed on sweets.  Chocolates though are a popular gift.

The family opened gifts before midnight when they first arrived.  They received only one gift from each person but it totaled to many gifts.  The elaborateness and quantity of gifts is different than what we experience in our family.   The gifts are simpler.

I said that at midnight they prayed but you could hardly hear the prayers because of the fireworks going off again only this time it was thunderous and they were the kind that make beautiful color in the sky.  After the prayers, we went up on top of the flat roof and watched the fireworks go off around the city as well as from the villages in the hills surrounding this place.  It was a lot like 4th of July only cold up on the roof.

The family didn’t stay at the table too long after the tamales and in fact hoped up from the table to greet other relatives who live next door and came to give best wishes.  Many family members speak fluent English so we didn’t have to completely struggle with our Spanish.  Maybe not as good for learning but much better for human connection and that is the main reason we are here.

What I thought strange was that there is all this lead in to Christmas and then the celebration is in the middle of the night and the little ones are very tired or fast asleep.   It seems too bad that they don’t get more fun out if it when awake!

The family was very pleased with the gifts we got for them and I was pleased to see their appreciation.  We were presented with a bottle of French wine and I received a neck scarf.  I really have appreciated it and had thought to buy one but couldn’t make up my mind on the color.  They have so many styles here and they are commonly worn as when the wind blows, it really feels cold on the neck.  I am really enjoying it.  The wine will be used some time on the boat.

We had spent most of the 24th doing some sightseeing I will write about on another log. We came home about 3:30, exhausted from walking so much that day so we slept in preparation for being up late.  After a light dinner at 7, we went back to bed and woke in time to shower and dress for the evening.  From 11 to about 1:30 we celebrated and then back to bed.  I woke up the following morning refreshed!

We went to church with Carmen at 10:00.  It was a nice mass in a very old church.  They are all old here and really elaborate!  Then we were on our own for lunch.  Nothing much happens on Christmas Day except to recover from the late night before.  At noon, the noisy fireworks went off in force again but I think it will diminish now, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they have them for New Year’s Eve.

The first night we were in Antigua, we had gone to a restaurant that had been recommended to us.  The owners live here now and are retired boaters, although she still uses her boat which is in the Rio and does chartering for charity a few times a year.  We met the owners and within 5 minutes, they invited us to a Christmas dinner at their house.  Unfortunately, there won’t be pictures since we forgot our camera but we took a Tuc Tuc (remember from an earlier log) and went there about 4 p.m.  They had invited a total of 24 people!  It was a good sized house and she had tables complete with real dishes and flatware, table clothes and beautiful centerpieces for all 24.  I guess it helps to own a restaurant.  Other people who are friends brought some of the food but there was no comparison between humble tamale and what we had.  Elegant gourmet appetizers of many kinds, wine, beer, etc.  The main course had about 12 or more options.  There was turkey, lamb, sausages, several types of potatoes including the traditional mashed with gravy.  There was cranberry sauce a corn pudding type dish, cooked carrots and brussel sprouts, several varieties of dressing and rolls.  For desert, they had egg know and you could add rum and of course coffee.  Then there were choices of at least 6 kinds of cookies, bars or other deserts to try.

The food was amazing but the company was very stimulating.  One of the people there told Rob that every fourth gringo she meets works in the country for some charity or another and the number of those at this party was more than I have encountered in one place before.  In a later log, I will write what we are discovering about the poverty in this country but these people are doing something about the hard life these people live.  It is difficult and slow work but when it comes together, it is such a reward.  One woman who is doing some Peace Corps work was talking about the drug cartels, the lack of safety, the corrupt government, etc.  Yet she is considering moving to this country.  We asked her why and she smiled and said, it is the people.  They are so loving and generous of spirit.  Antigua is relatively safe, at least at this time, and it is a charming city located close to Guatemala City and so convenient to what might not be available here.  I have a feel for what they are talking about.  If I were searching for a place outside the U.S., I might look harder at Antiqua and Guatemala.  Certainly, I have fallen in love with the heart of my teacher and it will be difficult to leave her.

We got a ride home with one of the local Gringos and now we are up to today.  I am afraid that we will come home very happy to have been here but secure in the knowledge that being an excellent language student is not one of our accomplishments!  Too many other things to do than study.  Writing this for example.

So when I don’t want to study again, you will get another log from me, probably soon!  Time to start making plans for next week though I don’t want this one to pass too quickly.  There is still so much to see and be part of.  We have New Year’s Eve to look forward to.  I will be thinking of our friends on their boats at our favorite local anchorage in Punta Gourda at home and wishing to be there as well but we expect to experience a new tradition here and that is always a plus.

Living the good life in Antigua

Sue and Rob

Here is one of the floats that came by the door at night. This one has a religious message. It was part of a bigger parade but even then only a few floats.

Pine needles cover the sidewalk in front of this store. When you walk on them, it makes things smell like fresh pine.

Presents under the tree like many other homes all over the world.

Rob and I got presents too.

See my new scarf? I am getting a hug from Alex for passing our presents. The family is very friendly and we got lots of Christmas hugs.

The family kneels for prayers when Bebe Jessu is put in the manger.

Can you see all four of the baby Jesus figures? The one closest to Joseph and Mary is the antique one. The yellow is a string of some kind of mountain fruit that you can buy in the store by the meter.

After prayers we go to the roof of the house to see the fireworks from around the city.

Our simple meal at midnight. Not everyone ate the tamales.

Here is what the tamale looked like. Delicious!

We bought our host family this fruit cake. It had the nuts and fruits on top but the inside is a moist cinnamon flavored cake. Very pretty and traditional here and in the U.S.

When Christmas is celebrated in the middle of the night, the kids don't really have much fun. Antrea is out for the count!

Here is the oldest brother with his family. Andrea is asleep. Our host mother is in the red sweater.

Here is Carmen with her younger son Carlos and his daughters Ann Inez and Anna Jose.

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