My next visitors, Maricela and Russell, came in mid-June (2012), only two and a half weeks after Krista left. I got a 2-for-1 deal since they are a couple!
Russell, Mari, and I all attended St. Mary’s College of California together (but each of us graduated at a different time). We all met each other for the first time during a January term school trip to Ecuador in 2007. Several months after that, Mari and Russell started dating, and they eventually married in December 2011. During my service, my first trip to visit home was around the same time so I was able to attend their beautiful wedding.
They had originally planned to visit me the August before, but since I didn’t have a site assignment and I was still so new to Guatemala, we decided to postpone their trip until the following summer, after Mari finished her second year of law school and when Russell could take some time away from the business he was starting up. So although they were not my first visitors, if I had to give them a prize it would definitely be for being the Easiest Visitors.
Russell and Mari both had plenty of travel experience and backpacking under their belts and Russell is like an REI master so packing for them was a breeze. In fact, Mari packed so lightly that when she shoved all the goodies that they were bringing for me into her bag, it nearly doubled the weight! They spent a total of 13 days with me in Guatemala and I hardly felt the time go by because it was so enjoyable and the three of us moved rather seamlessly. I had created an itinerary for them as well and gave it to them ahead of time so everyone was aware of the plan—although subject to change, of course. I would always give them a heads up on what time we needed to head out and what we needed to bring, and we would always be ready to go and help out with preparation details such as cooking and cleaning up. No complaints, no problems. Just simple, easy, and fun.
Another advantage to traveling with them was that they are a married couple so they functioned like a well-oiled machine. They already knew each other so well that if any kinks (such as injuries) came up, they were practically undetectable because they were solved or dealt with immediately and without making a big deal about anything. Some of my single visitors were just as laidback, however, the difference is that when I had only one visitor, I felt like I had to keep him or her entertained; one the other hand, I didn’t worry about Mari and Russell because they could entertain each other. I also knew that if I needed some time to myself to work or just be alone, I felt comfortable enough communicating that to them, knowing they wouldn’t be offended in the least.
One really neat thing about their visit as well was that I had them completely to myself for almost two whole weeks. I felt lucky because I know how busy they both are and I know that no one gets that much of their time in such big blocks—not even them! Since their honeymoon, I don’t think that they had had the opportunity to slow down, so I know they really enjoyed the time away, relaxing, exploring, and getting to know Guatemala and the life of PCV a little bit.
They arrived in Guatemala in the evening on a Thursday and I met them at the airport. We had a great car ride back to Antigua, and everyone got a good night’s sleep. On Friday, the day after their big travel day, we just hung around Antigua. Antigua is usually a first tourist stop in Guatemala because it is the closest touristy town to the airport, only a 45-minute drive away. Hiking to the Cross on the Hill is always a nice activity because it includes exercise and culminates in a rewarding view of the city so of course we went there after a leisurely breakfast. The rest of the day was just spent getting familiar with the town, stopping into churches, enjoying meals together, and catching up in this comfortable little town run mostly by foreigners.
In late afternoon, we hopped on a chicken bus for Alotenango to spend some time with my host family from training, and that evening, we went out with Fluvia, another host sister, to participate in a Catholic celebration of San Juan (the saint of Alotenango) at another family member’s home. It was sort of a big deal—one woman, the hostess of the celebration, was so overcome with emotion that it made her sick and she had to be taken to the hospital! Talk about an off-the-beaten-path cultural experience for Russell and Mari! That night, we stayed with my family in Alotenango.
On Saturday morning after breakfast we left with one of my host sisters, Helen, to accompany her to the filming of her 2-hour weekly program for kids on a local TV channel in Alotenango, called “Jesus TV.” She had been running this program every Saturday since January, accompanied by her little helper, Sofie; it is focused toward children’s learning, will sometimes cover topics like friendship or roles in the family, and usually always includes some special song or art project (recorded live) that the viewers can learn and do themselves at home.
This particular day, guess who made a guest appearance? All three of us!!! It was a Fathers’ Day focused program, but there was a special section for the American visitors, during which we were interrogated and then focused the discussion on Mari and Russell’s relationship, how long they had dated before marriage, and what some of the dating customs are like in the United States. Mari encouraged the young viewers to take their time, but noted that every courtship is unique and some couples do get married after less time dating.
The whole situation was pretty funny because we knew we were going to appear on Helen’s show, but we didn’t know what to expect. The show was filmed in a small, narrow room with terrible ventilation so it was hot and stuffy. Plus there was no script so we didn’t know what Helen would be asking us or how we should respond. Oh, yes, and it was LIVE! No pressure or anything. We had a great time and laughed a lot, then helped Helen with her DIY craft for the day: a box made out of popsicle sticks that could be used to store jewelry, keys, photos, etc. It was meant to give the kids an idea for a Fathers’ Day present for their dads.
After the program, we spent some time with the family who lived in the house where the studio was. The mom was making tortillas, Guatemalan style on a hot comal and invited each of us to take a shot at it. Making perfectly round tortillas without holes in them proved to be a difficult task! Then we returned to my host family’s home to have a big lunch, everyone together as a family. Russell loved my host dad, Papa Julio, and the epic stories he told as he gave Russell the customary rooftop tour of the town. And Mari had a great opportunity to use her Spanish with the rest of the family.
From there, we said our goodbyes and took off for a place called Earth Lodge, an eco-friendly lodge set on an avocado farm in the hills about half an hour outside of Antigua. They have tree cabins and A-frame cabins as well as dorms and even tent-camping available. It is so peaceful up there, and I could tell that Russell and Mari both enjoyed being so close to nature. It was like camping out in the woods, only in nice little cabins with real beds, blankets, and pillows, plus great family-style dinners instead. We were only there for one night, which definitely wasn’t enough, but we had to get back to my site for the workweek.
Mari and Russell fit right in at my place and quickly picked up on my methodology for dishwashing, pantry set-up, bathroom use, and bucket bathing. They were even so tolerant of the small space that I called mine—one room with a bathroom; the garden area, hammock, and kitchen set-up in the corridor provided extra space to prevent anyone from feeling locked up. Just as Krista did, Russell and Mari both renamed my cat during the week. Russell’s nickname for her was “Relámpago Loco,” or Crazy Lightning, and Mari dubbed her “Preggers” after we decided my poor little kitten was definitely already pregnant at only 8 ½ months old.
On Monday, Russell and Mari accompanied me to my Mujeres de Vida Saludable charla, this time the nutrition theme was carbohydrates with the accompanying carb recipe for dulce de leche in the form of a warm drink served with pan dulce. On Tuesday, we headed out for my usual visits to Pajquiej, but that Tuesday I only scheduled a visit to Carmen’s house because she was excited to teach them how to make tamales de arroz, which is a lengthy process. They both loved Carmen, although since she speaks Spanish faster than the typical Guatemalan (Guate Spanish is usually extremely slow) it was a little difficult to keep up with her! We had a fantastic lunch, chowing down on food we had just prepared together, and then we hitched a ride back to town from the main road.
On Wednesday, we took a day at home to rest, do laundry, recuperate, and relax. When we got restless in the afternoon, we decided to take a hike up to the big hill in San Andrés that overlooks the entire town. Ten minutes into our hike, a storm rolled in and it started pouring on us, but since we were geared up with raincoats, ponchos, and umbrellas, we carried on, periodically stopping to crouch down on the side of the mountain under our protection during particularly heavy bouts of rain. It was very refreshing and great exercise! In the early evening, I took them over to introduce them to Tayra and family, but we didn’t stay long because supposedly Tayra was going to be busy that week so we hadn’t made any plans.
On Thursday, we went out to Pajquiej again for my Health Promoter training. Again, it was exciting for everyone to have visitors. Mari and Russell thought it was neat to “see me in action” with my PC work, and my ladies were definitely on their best behavior, although some were a little timid. The little ones were not the least bit shy and wanted to show off what they had learned as much as possible, asking me if they could sing the “wash your hands” song for Russell and Mari. The kids loved having an audience that was new and different form their normal family and community members.
That afternoon we walked all the way back home from the village and had a nice little Guatemalan-style dinner with Victoria, one of the health center educators, joining us. Mari and Russell shared that some of their favorite characters they had met along the way were Carmen for her go-getter attitude and friendly personality, Victoria for her calmness and attentiveness, Papa Julio (in Alotenango) for his epic story-telling, and Rosa, my counterpart, for her lightheartedness, constant laughter, and gigantic beautiful smile.
It was great having them in my house. First of all, it was really important bonding time for Mari and me since it had been awhile since we had spent some serious quality time together. Additionally, Russell and Mari learned my system, took charge of cooking some meals, shared ideas with me, and provided great company. When I needed to work, they managed themselves and even went for a stroll around town and through the market. They were very comfortable there, and I was so happy to be able to share my PC life with them. I was impressed by how easily they fit in as well!
Russell, the ultimate outdoorsy handyman and the guy responsible for the majority of my REI collection, was totally in his element in my rural town. Not only did he make a pair of sandals for me using only a flat piece or rubber and shoestrings, but he also created a natural candle with a can, oil, and a paper napkin as a wick to ward off the crazy flying worm-ants that were invading our space during that time. Russell has always been like a big brother figure to me so it was really fun to share more adventures together. While with me in Guatemala, it seemed that Russell was relishing the opportunity to have his very own mini-PC experience. He used the time to gain a better understanding of the Peace Corps model of sustainability in development work, and he decided to incorporate this inspiration into the business model for the start-up he had been working on. (More on that later.)
In addition to being with me, Mari and Russell interacted with locals often as well. Mari has Mexican in her blood and had studied abroad in Mexico several years back so her Spanish was good and she enjoyed the practice. Russell had studied Spanish before, but hadn’t had as much exposure to the language as his wife, so the fluidity wasn’t quite there but the fact that he was trying and was friendly to everyone and curious about everyone really made a difference. On the flip side, Guatemalans also had their own language barrier issues: whereas Maricela’s Mexican-rooted name was a breeze to pronounce, Russell’s name was absolutely butchered. The pronunciation came out in various forms, including Brazo, Ruso, and Reginald.
On Friday, we left my town to continue our tour. I planned to take them to a fantastic place on the lake for lunch that day: a restaurant in San Juan La Laguna called El Artesano that offers the best wine and cheese experience in the whole country. On our way out there, we found out that our 8 AM shuttle to Semuc Champey for the following day was moved to a 2 PM departure so we made a spontaneous decision to spend the night on the lake at Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz La Laguna that night which took off all time pressure to hurry through lunch, leaving us to enjoy the most lovely and relaxed afternoon.
On Saturday afternoon, we started the long, bumpy journey for Lanquín, the town we stay in to have access to Semuc Champey. Learning from my trip with Krista, I planned for us to stay three nights there with Mari and Russell so as not to feel rushed. (And since they had the flexibility in their schedule with a longer stay in Guatemala, they had the time.) Since we arrived late that evening, we just checked in to El Retiro and settled down for the night in our thatched hut by the river. The next morning was extremely leisurely and included a delicious breakfast, lounging around, and yoga on the dock. It was a perfect start to the last leg of the trip.
After lunch we signed up for a 2-hour inter-tubing trip down the river, which was good fun, but the really cool part of the day was the bat cave tour we did at dusk. The guide drove us out to the limestone caves before dusk and we hiked around inside the caves for about 45 minutes observing the various formations, exploring, and even holding a giant cave spider by its leg (for just long enough to get snap a photo and pass the spider on!). Just as dusk was approaching, we stood around the cave entrance and witnessed thousands of bats flying overhead and around us to exit the cave in search of their dinner and other nightly activities. Because of the way they use their sonar radar based on echolocation and the vibration of sound waves, they would not fly into us or touch us even though they were so close to us. It was amazing!
On our next full day, we went on the Semuc Champey tour (the same one I did with Krista). We started in the morning with the candlelight cave tour where we were had only a candle and our bathing suits to swim, climb, jump, and explore inside. While Mari was descending a waterfall with the aid of a rope and rock “steps,” the pressure of the waterfall on her back aggravated a prior injury and sent her back into a spasm, putting her out for the rest of the day. So unfortunately Russell and Mari didn’t have the chance to hike or to the Mirador to see the Semuc Champey pools nor did they get to play in them, however, it turned out to be a good thing that they went back to the lodge because Russell spotted and killed a scorpion that was crawling around our hut, earning the name, “Reginald, the scorpion-slayer” for the remainder of the trip.
As is characteristic of most trips outside of a person’s comfort zone and daily routine, people have the chance to clear their head, get focused, and make space for new ideas. As Russell was getting inspired for his business, Mari’s mind was going, too. Right in the middle of law school, she was preparing papers on various subjects. She was very passionate about one particular topic—that of women and the time-old discussion of how to balance career and family, and I was the lucky one who got to listen to her theories, ideas, and plans and occasionally contribute to the idea bouncing. It was always fun for me to see how excited my visitors would get over their plans for their returns back home. Every single visitor left refreshed.
During the last afternoon in Antigua, we did the usual end of the trip errands—arranging airport transportation, checking in for flights, last-minute souvenir shopping, etc. We were also able to squeeze in a visit to the San Francisco church where the remains of Hermano Pedro, Guatemala’s very own saint, are located. In the late afternoon, we stopped by Hotel Santo Domingo, a former convent and now the only 5-star hotel in Guatemala, to tour the grounds and decided that if there would be any way to convince Mari’s parents (mainly her dad was the one who needed convincing) to visit Guatemala someday, it would only be possible using this hotel as bait!
For Mari and Russell’s last morning in Guatemala, we went to breakfast at Tenedor del Cerro, a restaurant run through Hotel Santo Domingo that is set up on a hill with a beautiful view overlooking Antigua. After that, it was time for them to head to the airport. I actually had a really hard time saying goodbye to them because we had had the best time together and the trip was so pleasant. I had gotten used to having them around and having the in-person support. Thinking that I was going to be very alone again was what got to me, but knowing that they were going home relaxed and that they were taking a piece of Guatemala with them made me content.
Guess what? They came back!!! During their first trip, Russell had made a connection with another PCV and friend of mine, Jesse, and for months, they were collaborating together on one aspect of Russell’s business. Part of Jesse’s PC service involved working with small indigenous co-ops in order to form smooth-running businesses of their own. Russell was interested in working with co-ops that make their own fabric-based products using natural dyes; Jesse and Russell were hoping to help develop this co-op to the point where they could produce their products (specifically bags) in bulk and sell to bigger businesses.
So in January 2013, Russell, Mari, and her brother, Stuart, planned a one-week trip back to Guatemala with a work focus. They were going to be meeting the founder of the co-op, interviewing him, selecting fabrics, and approving the design and quality of the bags that the co-op was producing for them.
It just so happened that they were here for my 26th birthday! Although they weren’t staying with me this time around (all three of them stayed the whole week in Jesse’s one-big-room apartment with him near Xela) and I had nothing to do with the agenda, planning, or guiding of their trip, I still managed to get across the country and spend some time with them while they were here. We celebrated my birthday at Jesse’s place and ended up having a big group of my other PCV friends over to join in. It was a fun night, however, I realized after the fact that being surrounded by so many big PC personalities all at once in a small space might have been just a bit overwhelming for the non-PC bodies present, especially since they were exhausted from the work and all the running around they had done that day.
The next day I accompanied them to their work activity in an outlying village where they were going to meet with Juan Vicente, the man in charge of the co-operation where the bags were being produced. We met the family, drank atol made from maize (corn), examined the bags, and even helped the mom and little girl remove dried corn kernels from their cobs. I think Mari’s brother, Stuart, particularly enjoyed the interaction with a local family since he hadn’t had much prior experience in rural towns of developing countries. Stuart and Russell set up the video equipment and Jesse translated as Russell conducted the interview, asking Juan various questions about the history of the business, the techniques used in weaving, and how the co-op functions. It was an eventful and productive day.
I wasn’t with them during the other parts of the trip, but from what I heard, they seemed to get around and get a lot done for the business. Unfortunately with the small amount of time they had, the trip felt rushed and was a little stressful. They realized that there was a lot more they needed to do than they had expected and that things took a lot longer. So although it may not have been the most organized or relaxing trip to Guatemala, they learned a lot that will help make the business even better.
Now, finally, on to the business! Russell’s company is called GAD Equation. GAD stands for “give a day” because for every item sold, a portion of the profit is donated to buy a day of education for a child or teenager at a school in Ecuador. It is based on the Teach A Man to Fish model. The unique fair trade products are made at co-ops around the world (India and Guatemala are two examples). The “equation” aspect is that Russell’s business is employing small, local business in nations with struggling economies to make these products, and every item sold purchases a day of school for youth in another developing nation, thus giving back to society via education so in essence, buyers are supporting international development in two forms. If you are interested, the link to his business site is http://www.gadequation.com.
Some of the products offered include purses, bags, iPad cases, jewelry, and scarves, to name a couple. (The bag that was in production while they were here in January is the “Pajarita” bag and it is beautiful! Check it out here: http://www.gadequation.com/Pajarita_p/pa-0001.htm!)
Since their second trip, Russell has focused much of his attention on his business while Mari was busy finishing law school at Phoenix School of Law. She graduated in May and was invited to present papers at conferences in both Ireland and Amsterdam during the past few months. She is currently working with Russell’s dad in his insurance business until she disappears in a couple months to start studying for the Bar Exam (in order to be qualified to practice law). Stuart is taking his college courses, but last I heard, his trip to Guatemala might have him pointed in a different direction than he was before. He got a lot out of the visit!
I’m looking forward to spending more time with Russell & Mari when I get back before Mari goes into hiding. 🙂 They are flexible and always up for an adventure! It was such a pleasure to have them in Guatemala with me—twice!
I am still traveling (currently in Nicaragua) and still writing, making new friends, and enjoying this special time. A review of my trip to Honduras is up next!