Next up: Jeffrey, my little brother! Jeff was my first family member to come visit me. He was also my youngest visitor (at 19) and, by far, the most entertaining visitor I had. We planned his trip to last 8 days in early January while he was still on winter break from American River College in Sacramento. He landed in Guatemala just a day or two after I had returned from my own Christmas vacation in Belize.
Jeffrey had never really traveled before coming down to see me, and it took a lot of convincing to get him to agree to it. I told him I would plan the trip based on a small budget, and I even let him borrow my big travel backpack. As his older sister, I held a small position of influence so despite his hesitation, he finally agreed to it. During the whole trip he told me and repeated to other people we met along the way that he had made a list of reasons of why he should and why he shouldn’t come to Guatemala and his list for why he shouldn’t come was significantly longer so he wasn’t sure why he had agreed to the trip. Oh, and I also found out that he was under the impression that all I did in Guatemala was build houses, climb volcanoes, and poop in holes. That paved the way for a shocking trip for the little brother!
Jeff arrived around noon on a Thursday and I met him at the airport. He was so relieved to see me! We headed straight Antigua, put down our stuff at the hostel, and went out for lunch. I took him to Saberico, a very nice, PCV-favorite restaurant and with organic food and fresh veggies and herbs, many from its own garden. Jeffrey ordered fettuccine alfredo with meat in it and raved about it; however, he skeptically eyeballed the side salad that came with it and decided not to touch it. Amused, I said, “Fine. If you won’t eat it, I will,” and I took it to go.
In the afternoon, I took him up to the cross on the hill, of course; a little fresh air and exercise never hurts after a full day stuck in airports and on airplanes and cars. Then, in the evening, we met up with a bunch of other PCVs, had dinner, and hung out for a little bit in Antigua. A lot of other volunteers were also either entertaining visitors or getting back from other vacations during that first week of January so Jeffrey was able to meet a wide variety of PCVs, plus some of their family members. A couple of the female PCVs from my group who were staying at the same hostel hung around a lot longer that night than they ever had around me before, and I am fully aware that it had everything to do my brother’s presence. I had never found myself in that situation before, and I was under the impression that it is usually little sisters whose friends try to go after their older brothers, but since Jeff looks a lot older (the general opinion was that he was around 30), I guess I can understand it. It was pretty funny to me, but poor Jeffrey just wanted to sleep!
Friday morning entailed the usual, a leisurely breakfast and strolling around Antigua, then in the afternoon, we hopped on the PC shuttle and a couple chicken buses until we arrived at Lago de Atitlán where we jumped on a boat that took us out to Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna. As night was falling, we settled into some chairs on the patio overlooking the lake and started chatting. Jeff told me that he loved everything so far! He said that he thought he was going to be really nervous, worried about getting robbed and expecting to be attacked by deadly bugs the whole time he was out here, but that he was actually very relaxed and a little surprised by it. He seemed very excited all of a sudden of what the rest of the week had in store for him, which made me do a triumphant backflip inside.
The big Saturday adventure I planned for us entailed a volcano hike. (I had to make sure his experience was at least partially congruent with his hike volcanoes/build houses/poop in holes theory.) We were taken to the park entrance where we joined a few others (making a group of seven) and set up with a tour guide. During the hike, Jeffrey was in great spirits, chattering on about the two cute 19-year-old girls at dinner the night before with their sexy British and Scottish accents. We learned a lot from our guide, and the hike was really nice because we were shaded most of the time by forest. I also thought it provided more brother/sister bonding time.
About halfway through the hike, Jeff was tired which was understandable since we were climbing vertically. Then, only half an hour away from the summit, he was so mad and swearing that he would never EVER torture himself with a volcano hike again. He had thought he was in better shape! Feeling slightly responsible and realizing I had probably made the mistake of planning this hike when he had only had less than two days to acclimate to the altitude, I decided to keep quiet and just keep moving…
He was about ready to throw in the towel, but he trudged on when I told him, “We’re almost there.” (But not before retorting, “You said that 20 minutes ago!” first.) Once we got to the top, though, everything changed. Suddenly it all seemed worth it to him as he gazed in awe at the amazing view of the panoramic landscape that stretched across the entire giant Lake Atitlán and the two other volcanoes and many small towns that border the lake. He changed his mind at that point saying he would climb a volcano again—but definitely not anytime soon.
It was chilly at the top of the volcano, but we all set up our picnics and stayed up for about an hour enjoying the view and the break. I had packed 3 pieces of fruit each, plus sliced banana bread, peanuts and raisins, nearly a gallon of water, and beans-in-a-bag with some bread to spread the beans on for us to keep us going during the hike. Jeffrey looked at the beans-in-the-bag and made a grossed out face, claiming he wasn’t going to eat them because he didn’t like how it looked as I squeezed these packaged refried black beans out of a medium-sized circular opening onto the bread, but since we had already eaten a lot of the other stuff and he was hungry, so he gave in and decided that they weren’t so bad after all, and in fact, he reported that the beans were actually pretty tasty. (Beans-in-a-bag is a PCV favorite: inexpensive, easy to travel with, doesn’t spoil easily, and a great source of protein!)
After a 6-hour hiking trip including the descent, we headed back to Iguana Perdida where a bunch of my PCV friends were gathering for a get-together. As a group, we actually went on another hike over to a neighboring town where we were planning to spend the rest of the afternoon at a small restaurant with an infinity pool overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, the place was closed and I felt silly for leading everyone over there, but the hike was pretty at least!
I loved that my brother got to meet a lot of my Peace Corps friends, especially a couple of the people who I am very close to. Kathy came out to lake that weekend specifically to meet Jeff, and Kelly, Kathy’s site mate and also a good PC friend also came out. So did Chelsea and her boyfriend, Vénoni. Lastly, Pedro was still in Guatemala, making his rounds visiting friends after our trip to Belize so he didn’t want to miss the fun at the lake either! Pedro and Jeff really hit it off which I was happy to see; I think they both needed some good male bonding time. And that bonding continued throughout the night as Iguana Perdida’s infamous Saturday night “dress-up” party got under way. But I will say no more about that, for dignity’s sake…
On Sunday morning, as we were getting ready to check out, Jeffrey noticed that he was developing a rash of little pink dots all over his body. The consensus of the group was that it was an allergic reaction; Kelly knew for sure because she had had the same thing during her service already. (It was really funny that Jeff would get the allergy attack because he had been so careful with his food selection the night before at Iguana Perdida’s BBQ dinner, eating only his chicken and 2 of the 7 side salad dishes that were being offered.) I called Johanna, the PCMO who had already met Jeffrey and calmed his initial nerves by saying he could call her for anything, and she actually talked to Pedro to tell him what to give Jeffrey to calm the reaction (in addition to antihistamines).
Luckily for us, Pedro worked as a nurse at a hospital in Portland so he knew exactly how to handle the situation. As Jeffrey’s throat started itching and his hands, back, and neck continued to visibly speckle as we rode along the windy road in a chicken bus, we all became anxious. As soon as we stopped in the next big town, Pedro was off the bus and disappeared into a pharmacy. By the time we got there, he had already bought the medicine and was preparing a needle. Everything happened so quickly, which was good because that way Jeff didn’t have time to think about the needle. He grabbed his camera and asked me to take a picture. (Later, he told me he wasn’t sure if he wanted me to take a picture or hold his hand; that comment was so endearing to me as his sister.) Pedro had him stand by the counter and injected his upper arm so fast that Jeff hardly felt it. And then we all jumped on the next bus!
Jeffrey and I were on our way to my site that day and from the time he got his injection we still had almost 3 ½ hours to travel, three of those without the rest of the crew. The medicine was supposed to make him really sleepy so here I was traveling with this 6’ 3½” giant little man who couldn’t keep his eyes open on public transportation with both our backpacks. The Guatemalans on the buses probably still thought he was my bodyguard, though. Again, very entertaining. I wasn’t too worried, just glad he was going to get better. And right before the last leg of the trip, he woke up and we ate some ice cream together, which made him happy.
Upon arrival to my house, all the cats came out to meet Jeffrey. It was so odd because usually they are pretty shy or only one or two will poke around at a distance, but all four of the cats (all females) living in the house at the time surrounded him! They absolutely adored him. It sort of reminded me of how ALL women seem to be drawn to my brother, ever since he was little. As he was raised mostly with four sisters and Mom, I think he has learned a thing or two about how to treat the ladies!
Within a short time of getting to my place, Jeff passed out again for several hours. I took advantage of the time to settle back in to my home and put everything in its place since I had been gone for nearly three weeks by that point. During that time, I also schemed about making Jeffrey go outside and dig a hole to use as his poop spot while I used the porcelain toilet in my room so he could have the experience he was expecting, but I thought that with the allergy attack and everything, I’d give him a break. 🙂
I then prepared dinner and woke Jeffrey up to make sure he had something in his stomach. He finished up and was still hungry! I was used to cooking for only me, or me plus small people, so I didn’t know how to manage his big boy appetite! He poked around my kitchen for something more to eat and decided on cereal. But when he saw the powdered milk that I was about to prepare for him, he raised his eyebrows with a “you don’t really expect me to eat that stuff, do you?” look on his face. Ok. Let’s try again. Milk-in-a-box. “Really?” his face questioned. He asked when it expired so I read the box and said it didn’t. He didn’t trust it, but after I opened it and he sniffed it, he said it would do. It was kind of hard to feed my brother that week due to the sheer number of calories he needed. I couldn’t keep food on the table! Luckily, my chili con carne was a hit with him AND filled him up.
Unfortunately, Jeffrey wasn’t able to see or participate in the PC work that I did because it was holiday season and thus down time for everyone (and building houses was never part of the deal), but he still got the PCV living experience. During the few days we were in my site, I taught him a couple favorite recipes (boy loves to cook!), and he did his own laundry in the pila and then hung it up on the line. The best part by far was the bucket bath experience, though.
Apparently I didn’t explain very well how to go about it and probably should’ve stepped into the bathing area and briefly demonstrated; instead I just warmed up his water and told him which buckets served which purposes. I later found out that he literally stood INSIDE the bucket during his bathing experience! I was so surprised and couldn’t believe his size 18 feet actually FIT inside the bucket! He said he didn’t want to run out of water and that when he poured the water from the bucket onto himself, it fell right back down into the bucket so he was good to go. It made sense. LOL!!!
On Tuesday, like always, I planned a day out in Pajquiej. We had spent all of Monday at home, letting Jeffrey recuperate from his allergy attack (which we unfortunately never found the cause of; it could have been food or a bug bite or anything since it was all new and foreign to Jeff) so it was time to get out and get some fresh air. At the time we were leaving, there happened to be a micro headed out so we hitched a ride for part of the way. When the ayudante, or helper, of the micro saw Jeff, he told him to ride on the top of the van because he was too big and didn’t fit inside! That was something Jeffrey definitely doesn’t get to do on a daily basis back home…
In Pajquiej, we headed straight for Sandra’s house because she had invited us over for lunch. Jeffrey was again skeptical, but gracious of the caldo de pollo, or brothy chicken soup with vegetables and rice, that he was served. It was only after lunch that I told him this was the same family that had served me cow tongue, cow stomach, and cow kidney on three different prior occasions. The family and I all laughed about it and had joked before about feeding Jeffrey something “different and exciting.” For the rest of the afternoon, we played with the kids down by the river before walking back to town.
I could tell Jeff was starting to get bored so we talked about it. He just felt so far away from everything and had nothing to do. Now that he was healthy again, he seemed ready to leave and get active again; it reminded me a little bit of how I felt when I first moved to my site before creating a new life for myself there. I think experiencing the rural lifestyle and visiting a village family with very little was good for him. I like to think it provided him with a little perspective and a lot of appreciation for what he does have access to in the USA.
That evening, I pulled out a “goodie bag” filled with firecrackers and other pyro-technic knick-knacks and we headed over to Tayra’s house to set them all off after Tayra and I made dinner for everyone. Finally, Jeffrey was in his element. He had something that caught his interest! We set off flowers and whistlers and lit sparklers and smoke bombs. Then HE lit a couple bottle rockets before shoving the equivalent to half a stick of dynamite inside a thick plastic container and lighting it, effectively blowing the container to pieces. There are no laws against fireworks in Guatemala! He really had a great time that night.
We left my site the next day and headed back to Antigua. It took us over 5 hours to get there, but upon arrival, Jeffrey exclaimed, “Oh, I am SO happy to be back to Antigua! We were like out in the middle of nowhere and I was scared that if something happened, we would be too far away from anything to get help. I LOVE Antigua!” Funny because he hadn’t said anything while we were in my site; I didn’t know he had been feeling THAT isolated. So we headed to the spiffy McDonald’s ice cream-only shop [next door to the nicest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, complete with top-notch service, a huge kid’s play place, an expansive garden, and even its very own McCafé with hot drinks and treats ready to order; I actually took all my visitors there since I regard it as a must-see tourist attraction] to get some cool treats before moving on.
The next stop for us was Earth Lodge so we piled into the back of the pick-up and headed up into the hills! This was a relaxing spot, of course, because it is set among an avocado farm a little ways off from a hillside village. It was so nice to settle in to the lodge after a full day of traveling! Jeffrey felt the same way so after dropping our stuff off in our cabin we scooted into some chairs on the hill and chatted as we watched the sunset. It was perfect.
Earth Lodge always serves family style, vegetarian dinners (unless you request meat) which means that you have to mingle with the other guests. Jeffrey thought a bunch of the other travelers were weirdos and wasn’t really interested in talking with any of them. It just so happened that I was sitting next to the only older gentlemen at the table (and at the lodge) and we got to talking. It turned out that he, Henry, was an RPCV who served Peace Corps, Brazil from ’66-’68! We shared stories and ideas about service, volunteerism, communities, government, and economics. Henry was so smart and Jeffrey was intrigued. And I was amazed at how connected two PC people can become just upon meeting each other. It was as if the three of us were in our own little world and no one else was around. We talked until we were the last ones in the dining room and finally had to go to bed. Great conversation!
Jeff and I went to our cabin and starting winding down. When it was time to brush teeth, Jeff didn’t want to walk through the forest by himself so I told him to just spit over the balcony. But it was dark and we were up in the woods so he tapped into the special sister-duty requests which meant I had the honor of stepping a couple feet outside the glass door onto the balcony first to show him it was safe, and then he followed and stayed out to brush his teeth. When he had to go to the bathroom, it was a similar thing. I asked him, “What are you going to do? Hold it all night? Just go pee off the balcony.” But that was a no-go because he thought something might jump out of the trees while he was taking a leak. He finally took a flashlight down to the bathrooms outside.
On Thursday when we went back down the hill into Antigua, we spent a couple hours managing the details of Jeffrey’s end-of-trip, including the usual souvenir shopping, airport transportation arrangements, and a couple other things. We had a fun time haggling our way through the markets! Then in the late afternoon, we walked over to the Choco Museo where our 2-hour chocolate workshop was about to begin with Pablo, the charismatic tour leader.
The chocolate workshop was so interesting because we learned about how cacao grows and is harvested, the history of chocolate and the different ways the Maya used the cacao beans (for example, as part of a hot drink and also as money/currency in trading), and the evolution of the chocolate drink based on where in the world it was being consumed. We also learned how chocolate got to Europe and then how milk chocolate came into existence. Lastly, Pablo explained the benefits and uses of the cacao butter (beauty products, chap sticks, white chocolate, etc.), and as he was explaining to our group how cocoa butter can help get rid of stretch marks and elaborating on a story of how Jeffrey could rub it all my belly during a post-baby romantic beach getaway to Cancún, I had to stop him: “Puh-lease don’t go any further with this story. This is my little brother, NOT my husband!” Poor Jeffrey.
On that note, I should mention that the whole week sort of went like that. People thought Jeffrey was either my husband or my boyfriend, and everyone thought he was a lot older than me. It was kind of nice in the sense that men left me alone when Jeffrey was with me. I mean, he is like double the size of the average Guatemalan so people were correct to be intimidated by him. It was like he was my bodyguard for the week—the facial hair, the black sunglasses, and the fake spike-earrings he was wearing really had an effect. It was great to have him with me, and it wasn’t until after he left and I tensed up again that I realized how I had actually been able to let my own guard down some and relax a little when he was around.
Back to chocolate. The second part of the workshop included hands-on work with chocolate, roasting and shelling cacao pods, grinding them into a paste, and trying three different types of beverages based on cacao and a mixture of various other ingredients including sugar, spices, and water or milk. Lastly, we each had a little workspace with a bowl of liquid chocolate and a spread of spices and other goodies—dried oranges, almonds, macadamia nuts, coconut, cardamom, cinnamon, chili, coffee beans, sprinkles, sea salt, Oreo cookies, powdered milk—to mix together and drop in molds, thus creating our very own unique chocolates to take home with us at the end of the day.
Jeffrey had a great time with this workshop and was really interested in all of it. He also loved Pablo and was talking to him afterward for a while about the housing market and buying strategies. Our friend, Henry, from Earth Lodge the night before also stopped by as we were finishing up to touch base with us again. Jeffrey’s two favorite people from those couple of days! It was cool to see him get so excited talking with both Pablo and Henry and being interested in learning from them.
That night, Jeff and I cleaned up and went out to Frida’s, a top-notch Mexican restaurant in Antigua, for our last dinner together. We talked about how nice it had been to spend so much time together that week. Sometimes siblings or other family members don’t spend enough time together and fall out of touch or lose track of what is going on with their loved ones so it was really nice to get a full week of brother/sister bonding time. We talked a lot about our family and laughed at all the different personalities and which traits certain siblings inherited from mom and why certain members of our family get along better with each other or why they don’t. We were both really enjoying the family member personality analysis as well as making plans for the future holidays and get-togethers and a bunch of stuff. Jeffrey and I had always had a nice relationship, but him coming out to Guatemala deepened our involvement with each other’s lives and made our relationship even stronger.
The next morning after breakfast, Jeffrey was feeling stomach-sick so I left him in the hostel to rest while I finished up his errands. I met up with Henry again who wanted to say goodbye to Jeff in person so he walked back with me to the hostel and we both saw Jeffrey off together. Henry really liked us and the feeling from us was mutual toward him as well. He said he could see what a great brother-sister team we made and he could tell that we would always be close. That was special to hear.
I was sad to see my little brother go, but so proud of him for gaining the courage to make this trip in the first place, despite all his reasons against it. I really enjoyed watching him explore and learn a little about traveling during the week. I loved how he got excited when he found someone interesting to talk to, and I was very entertained by his thought processes and ideas. It was like he was a different person at the end of his trip than he was at the beginning. His initial timidity was replaced with a new confidence and excitement, and he couldn’t wait to get back home to put his new ideas into action (and go to the gym and eat a lot again—haha!). The only bummer was that I wasn’t going home with him. But that was okay because I know that time won’t come between us.
Jeff flew back to California on a Friday so I waited until Saturday to call and check in on him and see how his flight went. I got some one-word answers and short sentences so I just assumed he was tired from traveling, but actually he was patiently waiting for me to finish because as soon as I stopped talking, to my surprise, he started raving about what a great time he had with me and how cool it was to meet so many people from all over the world. Then he goes, “Alex, I know you’re going to have your own plans and stuff you have to do when you get back, but I just wanted to let you know that I want to travel the world with you so if we could work that in somewhere, that’d be great. We can go to some crazy places and who cares if we die, at least we’ll die together.” He made my day. Not only that, it was clear to me now that my little brother got the travel bug!
Jeffrey transferred to Sacramento State University this fall and is studying Economics. He’s been working in restaurant business for a couple years, but recently got out of that and is looking for a new line of work so he can take his lovely girlfriend, Tanya, out on dates every now and then. 🙂
I am currently in Costa Rica, on the upswing of nearly a week-long run with dengue fever (which I most likely picked up in Nicaragua), which had me down for the count and passed out for a good portion of several days, but I’m slowly coming back around now. I’m ready to start seeing Costa Rica after being here for a week already.