Skipping Christmas

The holiday season and Christmas in Guatemala aren’t quite the same as they would be in the United States despite the occasional metallic garlands, strands of flashing lights, and American Christmas music that float around town. This was the very first time in my life I have spent Christmas out of the country and without my family. (Last year, I took vacation to go home for Christmas and New Years.) I tried—I really, really tried—to get into the Christmas spirit by decorating my living space, putting a big red bow on the door, and delivering baked goods to my favorite neighbors and friends in town. I even bought eggnog, but Guatemalan eggnog just didn’t do it for me…

My attempt to decorate for Christmas...

My attempt to decorate for Christmas…

Regardless of Bing Crosby, Celine Dion, and 98 Degrees serenading me with their Christmas tunes and flashing colored mini-bulbs blinking all around me, doing yoga in a tank top and stretchy pants on a mat in my room with all windows and doors open at nine o’clock at night threw me into thinking that it couldn’t possibly be December. No cold? No rain? No snow? No shopping rush? No Christmas cards? No hustle and bustle? No sipping hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows next to an open fire? No Starbucks dates with girl friends to exchange small holiday gifts? No family plans? Or family squabbles? No. Then it could not have been Christmas.

At least for me it wasn’t Christmas in the cultural sense that is forever ingrained in every American who is born and raised in the United States of America. The neat thing about it is that I had the opportunity to experience the Christmas season through Guatemalans’ eyes. First of all, many Guatemalans, like Americans, travel around during the holiday season to reunite and spend time with family members who live apart. Family is most important. Also, Christmas in Guatemala is not traditionally  “commercialized;” however the inescapable influence of “the States” is creating more of a trend in that direction. The customs I will share, though, are what I experienced in a rural, slower-paced part of the country. The people of the village where I often work, Pajquiej, invited me to participate with their community this year.

Probably the longest-standing Christmas tradition in Guatemala is the “Posada,” and it is practiced in other Latin American countries, including Mexico, as well. It is most common in the Catholic communities, but I noted that it is not exclusive because many rural-living Guatemalans are NOT Catholic but still implement posadas as a community event every December. Posada literally translates to “inn; home; shelter.” The Christmas Posada is a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s journey into Bethlehem in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth moving from inn to inn searching for a place to stay.

The "Posada" procession in Pajquiej arriving at the destination house for the evening and requesting entrance at the door.

The “Posada” procession in Pajquiej arriving at the destination house for the evening and requesting entrance at the door.

In Guatemala, the Posadas occur each night, usually starting on the 15th or 16th of December with the final one happening on Christmas Eve. Everyone who is going to participate arrives at the first “host” house to say some prayers, sing some songs, and in some rare cases even dance before collecting a candle and lining up for the procession. A figure of Mary and Joseph and possibly Baby Jesus in a manger are carried in front and another person is in charge of ringing the cow bell [throughout the procession, alerting others that they are passing by], then everyone falls into line behind them holding only their burning candles as they trek from the host house to the “destination” house each night, which can take anywhere from 15 minutes up to an hour, depending on the distance between houses. Walking up grassy hills in the dark, slipping through barbed-wire fences, and trying not to step in cow-pies really added a lot to the excitement of the evenings! Plus, the young boys would try to sneak up to all the girls to blow out their candles while the teenaged boys took up the rear of the procession so they could set off firecrackers all along the way…

When the procession arrives at the destination house, where the new hosts are waiting, there is a series of back-and-forth chants that occur at the door, imitating Mary and Joseph’s pleas while standing outside all of the inns. I believe that during the interchange the people at the new home do tell the “travelers” that there is no room. But that would be no fun if all the visitors were just sent away. So after the exchange, the new hosts open their doors to let everyone inside. Once gathered, there are more prayers or songs led by the hosts, and then everyone shares a refacción, or “snack,” usually sweet bread or tamale or tostada, and ponche, a warm drink. Other activities can include smashing a piñata or passing out small gifts to the children in attendance. When the festivities die down, all go back to their own homes and prepare for the following night’s posada. I only participated in two posadas (on the 18th and 20th) since Pajquiej is an hour on foot from my own home and it is not easy for me to find transportation at night, but those two nights were well worth the effort and will live in my memory forever.

My buddy, Jonathan, sipping his "ponche" and enjoying his "tamale" by the manger scene at the "Posada" host house after the procession and prayers.

My buddy, Jonathan, sipping his “ponche” and enjoying his “tamale” by the manger scene at the “Posada” host house after the procession and prayers.

I left my site early on the 21st to meet up with Chelsea to go to the Maya ruins in Quiché for the 13 Bak’tun celebration (which I already wrote about), then I headed to Kathy’s site, which is located a short distance outside of the big city, Xela, and spent the night with her, preparing for an exciting event the following day. Kathy has an impressive ability to not only start up but also maintain strong friendships with all sorts of really cool Guatemalans. One such friend of hers, José Carlos, owns a restaurant in one of the larger cities in Guatemala where he invites local artists to perform live on Saturday nights. Back in August, Kathy, José Carlos, and our other PC friend, Ana, got the idea that I should sing one Saturday night there and so I debuted in an unexpectedly solo show with part-time piano accompaniment in September. (That’s a whole other story for another time, though…) After that, José said that he would like to have me perform again so we scheduled a Christmas show for December 22nd.

During my performance at the restaurant, singing to pre-recorded tracks as my background music (1st set).

During my performance at the restaurant, singing to pre-recorded tracks as my background music (1st set).

I had been preparing a set list under the impression that I would be singing along with the same pianist who accompanied me the first time, but three days before the show, he revealed that he had another commitment on the same night so wouldn’t be able to play this time around. Good thing for back-up plans! José Carlos immediately found another musician—this time a 19-year-old guitarist—to learn as much of my music [from a 24-song set list] as possible and play with me that Saturday. The only time we practiced together was the afternoon on the day of the show, but we immediately clicked and found the groove we needed to pull off a successful show. I was amazed at how quickly we connected—two people from different countries, ingrained with different cultures, and speaking different native languages—over our love for music.

During the 2nd set, I was accompanied by Jose on guitar...

During the 2nd set, I was accompanied by Jose on guitar…

I felt so lucky to have the chance to sing and perform in Guatemala! The preparation, the adrenaline, and my support system, which consisted of Kathy (my Peace Corps best friend, partner-in-crime, and designated “agent” for these shows), a couple other PC friends, and a handful of Guatemalan friends, all contributed to my temporary escape into another dimension—the type of time-and-space travel that one can only feel when he or she is entirely “in the zone.” After including a variety of classic Jazz, popular hits, and some Spanish songs in the first two sets, I concluded with only Christmas numbers in the final set. As I sang Barbara Streisand’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” I couldn’t help but picture my family around the Christmas tree without me this year, but they knew I was there in spirit, and I appreciate them for supporting me and allowing me to be right where I need to be at this time in my life (without making me feel like I am missing out on too much at home). Being so far away instills a deep sense of appreciation for the love and warmth one finds at home.

So although I had no snow or mistletoe, I had Kathy, who is now like a sister to me, singing along from the front of the audience (and making certain that I didn’t forget the lyrics during a couple tough songs!), and I am pretty sure that we were both home for a moment or two, if only in our dreams… Throughout the years I have been performing (usually singing), I have learned that the presence of a special friend or loved one can make all the difference in regards to the quality that is delivered. Kathy has been that person for me here, and I wouldn’t have been able to pull off either show without her brains, finesse, and enthusiasm. I have learned a lot about teamwork from her and am so grateful for our friendship!

Kathy and I, post-show.

Kathy and I, post-show.

After making a quick trip back to site to drop off valuables and pack for “vacation,” I headed to Antigua on Christmas Eve in the morning (on the last reliable transportation out of my site until the 26th). In Antigua, where some Peace Corps friends were going to meet up with me the following afternoon, I found myself quite alone and so I sought out a coffee shop where I could do some writing and people watching. Another Guatemalan tradition that occurs on midnight every year between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is setting off a variety of firecrackers and fireworks in the streets so I stayed up to watch the sky light up that night. In many homes, families spend the entire day on the 24th making (and eating) tamales and sometimes other special Christmas foods, like sweet black bean-stuffed pastry sort of things, as well.

Christmas Day was not much different. I hadn’t bought a single Christmas present for anyone and my family was nowhere to be seen so it was just like any other day in Guatemala, only with a man dressed up as Santa wandering around Antigua’s Central Park. On the bright side, it was the first Christmas I can remember where I wasn’t driving or being transported from my mom’s house to my dad’s house, or vice versa. I felt like I should have made a couple Christmas phone calls, but I wasn’t feeling great physically, and, psychologically, I am pretty sure I was thinking that if I didn’t make the calls, I could continue pretending that it wasn’t a holiday and thus avoid feeling sad. (Of course, my wonderful family and friends wouldn’t let me get away with that and I did receive some lovely phone calls from home!)

It wasn’t until I went to evening Mass at the Cathedral that I really felt the Christmas spirit seep into my veins. I felt at home and surrounded by wonderful people who I made friends with in the short time we spent together at Mass and immediately after. Listening to the homily and singing Christmas hymns was just what I needed! The Cathedral was decorated so beautifully, and it was just such a peaceful place to be. By the time I walked out of the Cathedral, I felt like a new person, happy and refreshed. I then met up with a small group of PC friends to get dessert crepes before turning in for the night. I am glad I know what it feels like to spend Christmas without my family but, God willing, I hope I never have to do that again.

The beautiful nativity set-up behind the altar at the Cathedral in Antigua.

The beautiful nativity set-up behind the altar at the Cathedral in Antigua.

The feeling of “skipping Christmas” continued throughout New Years since I ran off to Belize for six days immediately after Navidad! Early on the 26th, Kathy, her boyfriend Frank (also a PCV), and I hopped on a bus headed for the Caribbean coast of Guatemala where we took a boat over to Belize and stayed in Punta Gorda, a border town, for a night before bussing up to Belize City the next day in order to catch a water taxi to Caye Caulker, one of Belize’s many islands. Because we were tight on time, we decided to stick to more of the popular, touristy places and did not get off the beaten path very much; however, I still believe that I got a really good feel of the country. (Unfortunately, all the pictures I had of Belize were accidentally deleted from the memory card in my camera on our fourth day of vacation so I won’t be able to share the country as I saw it, but some things are meant to be olvidable (forgettable), I suppose, or at least only live in our memories. Special thanks to Kathy, Pedro, and Frank for sharing their photos with me; about two-thirds of the Belize pictures in this post are from their cameras.) The entire time I was there I couldn’t help but think of what it would have been like if I had done my Peace Corps service in Belize. It is such a neat country!

Caye Caulker in Belize.

Caye Caulker in Belize.

For starters, let me rave about the people. The majority of Belizeans I met were extremely friendly and self-assured. It made me realize how timid most Guatemalans are; that makes sense since they live in a culture of fear. In Belize, I felt very safe. I also didn’t feel like people were constantly trying to take advantage of me in some way or another. Dealing with “straight-shooters” was a nice break from the society in which everyone is trying to survive and get ahead of whomever is next to them. Belize didn’t even seem like a developing nation. Even the some of the public transportation busses we rode in were air-conditioned with a mixture of Christmas songs put to a reggae beat, classis Motown hits, and a couple Boyz II Men favorites playing over the speakers. Everyone respected each others’ space (only 2 to a seat), the bus ayudantes (helpers) didn’t try to overcharge anyone, and there were even people singing along, OUT LOUD, to the songs on the radio—something that is a rare occurrence in Guatemala.

Belize has such a laid back feel to it that I don’t know how anything ever gets done there. But who cares? People really just enjoy life. The Caribbean influence dominates the country, but the population consists of many different races: black, Asian, Latino, and white. Most of the country’s citizens are trilingual, fluently speaking English, Spanish, AND Creole. Belize used to be under British rule, and although it was finally granted independence in 1981, Belize is still on very good terms with the United Kingdom, and Queen Elizabeth the Second is featured on all Belizean currency. One really cool thing about Belize is that the country doesn’t allow big-chain businesses to infiltrate its economy so no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Wal-Mart and no corporate monopolies—just small, personal, local businesses.

Some typical Belizean foods include rice ‘n beans, meat stews, Johnnycakes, and seafood, as well as the variety of tropical fruits that are available at varying times throughout the year. (Johnnycakes are small, whole-grain biscuits that they use to make small sandwiches and often sell on the busses.) I wasn’t afraid of buying or eating “street food” in Belize, and it was refreshing to not have to worry about disinfecting every piece of fruit and vegetable I got my hands on because Belize has clean water. And as far as seafood goes, we were spoiled with practically the freshest seafood possible—fish, lobster, shrimp, conch, you name it!—straight from the sea.

Just as we boarded the water taxi headed for Caye Caulker, our friend Pedro—who started PC service with Kathy and me in April 2011, was part my Spanish group and training town (Alotenango), became Kathy’s site mate in Huehuetenango, then left Peace Corps in November 2011 to continue working as a Registered Nurse—flew in to Belize City and met up with us for our Belizean escapades. Even though Pedro had been away from us and Guatemala for over a year, it was as if we all picked up right where we had left off; friendships created during one’s PC service are apparently pretty durable. Anyway, the four of us together made a great little travel group and a functional team, and I am so pleased that I got to explore a place I’ve had my eye on for over 10 years with such great company!

While on Caye Caulker, we rented a 4-person bicycle and rode all around the island!

While on Caye Caulker, we rented a 4-person bicycle and rode all around the island!

We spent two nights on Caye Caulker, one of Belize’s best-known islands among tourists, where we found quite a lot to do regardless of being on a tiny, isolated island. On our first morning there, the boys went out and impulsively rented a 4-person bicycle that we took all the way down to the edge of the island and back exploring the different paths and homes staggered along the way. It was quite an adventure trying to get all four of us pedaling in sync while attempting not to crash! Shortly after our bike ride, we hopped on an all day snorkeling tour and spent the entire afternoon out on a boat that made three different stops where we could jump in and swim around. One of the snorkel spots was called “Shark Alley” so we were treated to a swim with a bunch of nurse sharks and stingrays, as well as various other types of fish and a handful of sea turtles. Our tour included all gear, a delicious seafood curry for lunch, and ceviche and special punch served to us on the way back to the island.

Kathy and Pedro snorkeling in the Caribbean.

Kathy and Pedro snorkeling in the Caribbean.

A snapshot of the underwater world off the shores of Belize.

A snapshot of the underwater world off the shores of Belize.

A stingray coasting along the sandy ocean bottom.

A stingray coasting along the sandy ocean bottom.

Despite the fact that our day had been full of high-exertion physical activity, we still decided to go out dancing that night since it was our last night in this spot. When we were all ready to dance, the nightlife on the island hadn’t quite ignited, but after one attempt at a small club toward the end of the island, we decided to get the party started ourselves a little closer to where we were staying. Kathy’s, Pedro’s, and my combined love for both dancing and Latino music made another great night! Before sleeping, though, we just had to get our feet in the warm, still, Caribbean ocean while the shining moon was reflecting down upon us. Couldn’t resist it! (And I can almost guarantee that you wouldn’t have resisted either had you been there…)

The Caye Caulker shore at night...

The Caye Caulker shore at night…

The next morning, we set off for the next destination in our vacation plans: Placencia, another well-known town on a peninsula at the southern end of Belize. For our stay in Placencia, Kathy had arranged for us to rent a condo type of set-up for the three nights we planned to be there that included a kitchen and dining room area so we could cook most of our meals ourselves and have a place that felt like a little home. It was pretty cool because we split the cost among the four of us, and Kathy and I discussed how we actually felt like REAL “grown-ups” organizing and paying for our vacation at a place that wasn’t just a hotel or hostel. Included with the condo rental were nice beach cruisers for each of us that we took out for our entire second day in Placencia, riding 10 miles up the peninsula, making short stops along the way to explore beaches and snap some photos, spending most of the afternoon at a restaurant right on the water relaxing, chatting, swimming, and munching, then turning around and making the 10-mile trip back, racing the setting sun. Frank cooked us up a fantastic dinner that evening, and we topped off our night at a karaoke place we found up the street, Kathy, Pedro, and I each taking turns with the microphone, riling up the Placencia regulars and encouraging passers-by to join in on our fun until they pulled the plug on the karaoke machine at midnight.

Sunset on the peninsula in Placencia, Belize.

Sunset on the peninsula in Placencia, Belize.

Kathy on one of the beach cruisers we took out for a whole day in search of the best relaxation spots and beaches in Placencia, Belize.

Kathy on one of the beach cruisers we took out for a whole day in search of the best relaxation spots and beaches in Placencia, Belize.

Kathy, Pedro, and I posing against a wall at an abandoned building along the beach.

Kathy, Pedro, and I posing against a wall at an abandoned building along the beach.

Me, Pedro, and Kathy after the first 10 miles on our beach cruisers, finally having arrived at our destination restaurant.

Me, Pedro, and Kathy after the first 10 miles on our beach cruisers, finally having arrived at our destination restaurant.

A tropical plumeria flower found in Placencia.

A tropical plumeria flower found in Placencia.

Kathy standing on the dock a few feet from the restaurant in Placencia, where we spent an entire afternoon.

Kathy standing on the dock a few feet from the restaurant in Placencia, where we spent an entire afternoon.

Pedro and Kathy jumping off the dock. When we are together, there is never a lack of entertainment and fun!

Pedro and Kathy jumping off the dock. When we are together, there is never a lack of entertainment and fun!

The following day, we used some connections to get hooked up with a private snorkel/fishing trip. With our guide, we set out in search of something to eat for lunch that day and ended up with two bags full of fresh lobsters! None of us had ever been lobster hunting before so it made for another first time and unique experience for all of us. After a couple hours of that, our guide took us to a seemingly private island, Frigate Caye, where he prepared a BBQ-style lunch for us that included our catch-of-the-day, cheesy roasted potatoes, and a coleslaw salad. It was an exclusive little party of five! We enjoyed each others’ company and lots of music and food and drink there, then we loaded back into the boat and headed “home,” but not before stopping into Placencia’s famous Tutti-Frutti ice cream shop for a scoop!

A glimpse of Frigate Caye, a tiny island where we enjoyed a private BBQ-style lunch after a morning of boating, snorkeling, and lobster-hunting.

A glimpse of Frigate Caye, a tiny island where we enjoyed a private BBQ-style lunch after a morning of boating, snorkeling, and lobster-hunting.

Fresh lobster catches-of-the-day!

Fresh lobster catches-of-the-day!

Straight from the sea, passed onto the grill, and landed directly on our plates, this was the freshest lobster I think I have ever eaten. So satisfying to catch your own food! (Although I didn't catch anything; I just toted the lobster bag around...)

Straight from the sea, passed onto the grill, and landed directly on our plates, this was the freshest lobster I think I have ever eaten. So satisfying to catch your own food! (Although I didn’t catch anything; I just toted the lobster bag around…)

Kathy and I with fresh coconuts that the boys opened for us.

Kathy and I with fresh coconuts that the boys opened for us.

A storm rolling in on the Caribbean...

A storm rolling in on the Caribbean…

That was New Years Eve so we planned on celebrating together in style. It was fun to actually be in a place where I could actually get dressed up a little bit because dressing up just isn’t practical in Guatemala so I have slipped into a “drudge clothing” lifestyle and don’t often where make-up, high heels, or dresses in my little isolated rural town. (I also have avoided trying to look nice all the time so as to deflect and perhaps lower the amount of unwanted attention/harassment I, as well as many other female PCVs, receive on a regular basis in Guatemala. This trip to Belize, interestingly enough, made me realize that I have been repressing and locking up many aspects of my femininity simply to deter the attention.) In fact, it had been so long since I had really done myself up that I hardly recognized the girl staring back at me in the mirror! The best part was being with one of my best friends and “prettifying” ourselves together.

Kathy and I all "done up" and ready to go out for New Years Eve.

Kathy and I all “done up” and ready to go out for New Years Eve.

We had a blast that night, ringing in the New Year together. We bounced from place to place, staying a little while here and a little while there for the music, dancing, and some late night street food, being goofballs together, laughing, and even meeting some interesting people along the way. We brought in 2013 in Belize with celebratory sparklers I had with me from Guatemala and later got caught in a tropical rainstorm before calling it a night.

Pedro, Kathy, me, & Frank, wandering around and entertaining ourselves just after ringing in 2013 on our last night in Belize. What a fun night!

Pedro, Kathy, me, & Frank, wandering around and entertaining ourselves just after ringing in 2013 on our last night in Belize. What a fun night!

I have a feeling 2013 is going to be a great year. For me, it will be another transitional year, but there is so much promise for success and joy in store: completing my Peace Corps service, making the most of the time I have left with my amazing PC friends, traveling around a little bit more, reuniting with my friends and family at home, tackling a couple personal projects, and possibly even focusing in on the next steps toward my career. There is so much opportunity ahead—I just can’t wait to get my hands on it! So spending NYE in Belize was awesome because we were able to go out of 2012 with a bang and start 2013 with a fresh outlook and new energy. All four of us bussed back into Guatemala together on New Years Day, determined that we had just had a completely wonderful, activity-filled, yet relaxed vacation.

So much has happened since then, but I’ll save those stories for upcoming chapters…

Love,

Alexandra

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cynthia Peterson
    Feb 20, 2013 @ 20:20:04

    Wow! What a fun read, Alex. I love the way you write; it’s like being right there with you! I’m going to have Wes take me out to the Red Lobster or some other seafood restaurant — I know it’ll be nothing like what you’ve described, but I’m so now in the mood! Certainly wouldn’t mind a trip to Belize either…! ;0)

    Hey, you know that I must have your set list — Yes, all 24 songs. We’ll have to do a few tunes together when you’re back home.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    Love ya much and God bless,

    Cynthia

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Feb 24, 2013 @ 22:54:10

      Did you get your lobster yet?! Didjya? Didjya? Hehe. I hope your craving was curbed. And Belize isn’t TOO far away… Lol! After performing a couple times down here, I realize how much I miss it. I will totally take you up on tune-time-together when I get back! Ooh–I’m excited for that!! I know it was a little bit ago, but I hope you are all recovered from the cold/flu thing you had. I miss you and think of you often. Thanks for keeping up with me!

      Love ya back!

      Alex

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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