Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The refrigerator-less life

So if you’ve seen photos of my house here, you may have noticed the lack of a fridge.  Nope, not even a mini-fridge.  In other words, my kitchen is less well-furnished than most college dorm rooms.  It also uses a lot less electricity…part of the reason why I haven’t invested in something I’d previous taken for granted is that I pay for electricity apart from my rent and I’m just cheap.  (In my defense, my Q800 monthly rent – a whopping $100 – is quite a drain on my meager paycheck!)  Fridges themselves are also kind of expensive.

But honestly, although my parents cannot comprehend why their spoiled child would choose to live without this marker of civilized life, I really just don't need it.  My host family had a refrigerator and I barely ever used it.  It would be really awesome to have a place to store cheese (I love the expensive “Swiss” cheese from Nebaj and maybe sometimes I find myself daydreaming about cream cheese…totally normal…), but that’s really the only thing I miss.  I drink powdered milk, cook small portions, go market shopping frequently enough and buy only what I need, and being 2 hours from the closest supermarket kind of limits bringing back perishable foods that might just perish on the journey home.  I’ve also learned quite a bit in my situation, such as:

Eggs do not need to be refrigerated.  I’m not sure how long they last, but all the stores have stacks of cartons of them, so I’m assuming a while.

Broccoli starts turning an…interesting…yellow after being left at room temperature for more than a couple of days.

Once opened, homemade jam will last 1-2 weeks outside of a fridge before the inevitable mold starts to grow.

Unrefrigerated left-overs must be re-cooked over high heat for 3-4 minutes.  If not, you run the risk of allowing the bacteria that naturally grows on cooked foods (but not on unnaturally chilled foods) to do some funky things to your stomach.  I didn’t know this at first and just thought my newfound addiction to lentils was taking its toll on my body; my health-worker sitemates soon clarified the issue lol.  Luckily I don’t cook meat, so I think I’m safe from food poisoning.  Even so, the re-heating thing is kind of a bitch because you unwillingly end up frying your left-overs.  That’s fine for say, tonight’s fried rice that could potentially benefit from some more frying to be eaten for lunch tomorrow.  Pasta, however, is a very different story!

Anyway, I’m not complaining; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately and I figured life without a refrigerator was probably a foreign concept (haha!) to most of you.  My sitemate Melissa lives 2 blocks away from me and I could always use her fridge.  And I’ve been told that placing a smaller clay pot within a larger one, filling the space between them with sand, and always keeping the sand wet serves the same role of keeping food chilled.  I still have to try that one out and then maybe I can start stocking up on cream cheese!

I clearly don’t have much going on right now if this is the most pressing topic for a life update lol.  (Then again, food has always been a central theme in my mind.)  Work’s been its usual off and on…I actually had a surprisingly good turnout at a meeting yesterday about how to do a market study, I planted an herb garden with a women’s group last week, and tomorrow I’ll be making cucumber salad with my school group.  I may soon have a new women’s group to do cooking classes/demonstrations with, and Stephen and I are starting to plan potential SPA (Small Project Assistance? USAID-funded) projects with our green-bean growing groups.  And really, the non-busy days are also pretty great for Foreign Service studying – I’m all registered to take the test in Guate on October 4th!  My social life has been far more fun: the weekend at the lake with my sitemates was such a fantastic time (plus I got to restock my coffers of American foodstuffs!) and the weekend after was equally great with a classy jazz benefit concert in Antigua with my friend Allie, where we were hanging out for a GAD meeting :)  Now I just need to get through the rest of the week and we’re off to Xela for the weekend, to celebrate Melissa’s birthday in style at the famed Xocomil waterpark! (probably in the rain, but we’ll already be wet, right?)

I’m going to forgo photos this time as all my new ones are on facebook, and instead leave you to ponder what your life would be like without a refrigerator.  Could you do it??  Haha please don’t think too hard about it; you’ll probably never be in my situation!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

12 months down, 15 more to go!

Wow, tomorrow marks one entire year of being in Guatemala and today is the very first day here for the new batch of ag trainees.  (Just 10 food security newbies, no marketing or municipal development, as those programs were deemed unnecessary…just kidding…kind of lol.)  Looking back to when I was in their current position seems like both yesterday and a million years ago.  It makes me question how much I’ve accomplished in the last year (a fairly trivial amount) and how much I’ve learned (quite a bit).  I’m about to get all self-introspective, so you can stop reading here if you’d like!

First of all, I’d be lying if I say I haven’t changed at all.  I wouldn’t say it’s due to living in tough developing-country conditions, because honestly my greatest hardship is how freaking far I live from everything.  Which maybe is part of it; living in a somewhat isolated small town 2 hours away from the closest supermarket will get you used to a slower and simpler way of life.  But really, I think I’m now just a more mature person.  No worries, I’m still the same sarcastic, opinionated, attention-seeking girl who’ll laugh at the drop of a hat!  But I’m also more realistic and slightly less idealistic, more serious about life rather than treating it as a continuous joke, and most importantly, financially independent for the first time in my life.  Granted, it’s on less than $400 a month so I’m not exactly saving up for the future, but it’s a step towards adulthood…that dreaded word!  I also just have an incredible amount of time to sit around and ponder/over-analyze my life, which should be fairly obvious in the rest of this update lol.

Anyway, moving on: Guatemalans.  I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand them, and part of that, maybe most of it, is the language barrier, be it my still limited Spanish or nonexistent K’iche.  I have some very good Guatemalan friends – in town, host family, co-workers – who I continue to learn so much from.  Even so, I remained surprised by how people I don’t know receive me, varying between acceptance and dismissal, delighted with me and judgmental of me (I probably deserve the latter!).  It’s always interesting to see which one I will get and from whom.  Men are so different from women, indigenous people from ladinos (non-indigenous), younger from older, rural-dwellers from urban-dwellers, villagers from people from the center of town.  Each exchange is instructive and meaningful, and I think that the more people who know me, the better.  I may never be fully integrated into the community (how could I be?  It’s a small town, but not that small), but I’m convinced that individual relationships are what count.  And so I rejoice with every conversation on the street, every lunch or party invitation, every gifted tayuyo (tortilla stuffed with refried beans, so good!), handful of peaches or apples, or popsicle that may or may not later give me intestinal problems!

Guatemalan politics are equally as confusing…the presidential elections are coming up on September 11th and I literally cannot wait.  There is a huge multitude of political parties and each one of them promotes themselves with so much propaganda it’s ridiculous.  I really should take photos of all the painted rocks on the sides of the highways and the posters in town, some of which are really entertaining!  My absolute LEAST favorite part are the political songs continuously blasted through town by megaphones propped up on pick-up trucks; I live close to the municipal headquarters of 2 of the major parties, so I luckily get the full blast of it.  I would really love to know if politicians in any other country also change the words to pop, reggaeton, and marimba songs, and what sounds like funeral dirges.  I’m also extremely curious about whether or not copyright laws were considered when using the songs; probably not, given the abundance of bootleg CDs and DVDs and the freely painted logos and Disney characters painted on walls everywhere!  Anyway, I’m super curious to see who becomes the next president – the top candidates are a former general responsible for much of the civil war violence, a former Protestant preacher, and until recently, the current president’s ex-wife…a president cannot run for re-election, but neither can a family member run in the following race.  To “solve” the problem, they got a divorce earlier this year.  However, it turns out that they would’ve had to be divorced for 4 years so not only is she barred from running, 4 years from now she won’t have to be divorced to run.  But by then she’ll probably have lost the steam from her controversial, but definitely vote-amounting, state social program Mi Familia Progresa (My Family Progresses).  Ohhh well, who knows what will happen?  I just hope no riots break out in town.

Hmmm what else?  I’ve discovered many foods here that I’d never even considered in the States – lentils, cauliflower, snow peas.  Local güicoyes are an excellent substitute for zucchini and eggplant, two of my favorite veggies and which are extremely hard to find here.  Certain fruits, like pineapple and pears, are just so much tastier here, right off the tree.  I doubt market Sundays will ever become an uneventful experience for me, but it is very easy to get used to how cheap fresh produce is here – Q1 for a pound of onions, Q3 for an expensive bag of tomatoes, Q2 for a head of broccoli, all this with an exchange rate of about $1=Q7.75!  And I have fallen in love with comida típica (typical foods) – rellenitos (fried plantains stuffed with refried beans and topped with sugar), chiles rellenos (as best as I can describe, these are a fried pancake of shredded chicken and veggies, with a hot pepper), papusas (really Salvadorian – tortillas stuffed with gooey cheese), chuchitos and tamalitos (tortilla dough stuffed with pork or beans)…yummm :)

And finally, work.  I don’t really know where I stand on that subject.  The Save the Children evaluations are coming up at the end of the month, so I guess we’ll see in which areas we’ll continue and in which we won’t.  Either way, I want to get so much more accomplished in the next 15 months here.  The question, of course, is how!  There’s talk of legalizing some of our groups, getting them various certifications that demand higher prices for products, finding buyers and fixed markets for those that still lack them.  I hope I can play a role in these.  And as exhausting as they can be, I do love working with the kids and their school garden :)  This morning the 4th-graders and I harvested their Swiss chard and cooked it up for a nutritious snack…even though I’d never even previously touched Swiss chard!  A good recipe and a smart and hard-working group of kids helped (we all know I have no idea how to build a fire to cook over!) and a good time was had by all!  Also work-wise-ish is my new additional position on the GAD (Gender and Development) committee as the Sustainable Ag Project Representative…it was kind of by default because my boss is convinced that only 1 person per project can be on the committee and therefore wouldn’t let anyone else run, but I’m still excited!

Okay, I think that’s definitely enough rambling and reflection for now!  To celebrate my 1-year anniversary in Guatemala, my sitemates and I are going to Lake Atitlán, my favorite place to let loose :)  It will also end my longest stretch of time spent continuously in Cunen…while I may have given off the impression in my last update that I was depressed, I’m really just kind of bored!  And it’s really not that bad – 2 weekends ago I attended a wedding lunch and a lunch and party (on the same day…) for my host brother’s 4th birthday, which was way fun and awesome how I was included as part of the family.  And this past weekend I finally constructed a mini garden and proper compost pile in my backyard, killing my body and somehow managing to split my sturdy hoe pole in two…clearly I was not made for swinging a hoe around.  I have nothing but major respect for my dad, who does that shit every summer and is always rewarded with a great harvest.  I’m just praying my eggplant, squash, and pepper seeds actually germinate and grow and that my sprouting herb garden matures into usable plants!