Posted from Solola, Guatemala.
Guatemala – Our House
Here is a little post (and pictures – click here) of our abode here in Guatemala. The school arranged for us to reside with a local family with Mayan roots. It is a youngish couple, the husband in his thirties and the wife in her twenties. They are really wonderful and treat us very well. The wife is usually giggling and the husband is often cracking jokes and attempting a few phrases in heavily-accented English (“How you are?”) The husband works very hard outside the house: he has a good job at a bank but he has to take a boat across the lake (about 25 minutes) and then other transportation on land (about 15 minutes) to get to the bank. Everyday. Just this week he spent two nights in a hotel closer to the bank because he works extremely long days at the ends of months. The family also owns a couple of tuk-tuks, and every once in a while he spends a weekend day driving the tuk-tuk around town, probably in order to give the regular driver a day off.
The wife works very hard inside the house. Very hard. Truthfully, she very rarely leaves the house. Except to shop, to go church, or maybe a very rare special occasion, she is here. She does all the shopping, prepares the foods, makes all the meals, does the dishes, cleans the house, washes clothes, etc. But let’s pause and explain what that really entails.
Shopping is mainly accomplished at a mercado (see this post for pics of mercados), which means the food in always fresh so she has to do this several times per week.
Preparing the food includes preparing the maiz – the dried corn – so that it can be processed into masa, from which she makes the tortillas that we eat everyday. After taking the maiz (which has been soaked) to the machine which processes it, she hand-makes every single tortilla. Pepe never eats more than three in one meal; Erik has been known to eat 5; but the men of Guatemala typically eat around 7-10 (or more) per meal. In other words, for every lunch and dinner, she cranks out dozens of tortillas. Just imagine (as is not uncommon in Guatemala) a household with many children, – for instance, a household with several teenaged boys. Are you doing the math? We’re talking dozens and dozens (more than 50 is not unusual for many families) of hand-shaped and -patted tortillas every meal. And where are they cooked? Why, on the outdoor wood-burning stove, of course, which she lights every day.
Making the meals takes a little more time when 1) virtually everything is made from scratch, 2) there are tortillas to be made, 3) there is no oven, 4) the stove is a small countertop three-burner gas unit. She does have a microwave but only uses it to reheat coffee or tortillas – never to cook, a coffee maker, and a blender. The blender gets used everyday, either to make salsas from the tomatoes that were charred on the outdoor stove, to puree the black beans for frijoles colados, or to make our lunch beverage which is always pureed fruits, such as orange, cantaloupe, watermelon, or pineapple.
Occasionally breakfast could be something simple like Corn Flakes, toast with jam, or simply chopped fresh fruit, but often they are cooked: fried egg on potato pancakes, pancakes, french toast, etc. Lunches are the main meal of the day and our “madre” is a very talented cook; she says that she learned everything from her mother. There are no cookbooks in the house, and there is nothing prepackaged. Suppers are lighter and often feature beans (sometime refried, sometimes not) and tortillas with either cheese or scrambled eggs. Recently she made platanos fritos (fried plantains) which are Erik’s favorite. Tea is served with every breakfast and dinner; purified water is always available but milk is never offered. (But it comes in a box with a shelf life of many months, so we wouldn’t ask for it anyway.) She would love an oven someday so that she could learn how to make cake and pizza. We’ve been loving the opportunities that we get to help her in the kitchen. Pepe has helped make frijoles colados, guacamole, scrambled eggs, and other things and is careful to do things the way she instructs. It is her kitchen, after all.
The dishes are obviously washed by hand in the outdoor sink. Oh, and did we mention always in cold water? The plates and cutlery of five adults and the occasional nephew or niece, and then the kitchen hardware including the blender, pots and pans, cutting boards, etc., etc., etc.
Cleaning the house needs to be done regularly because so much time is spent walking back and forth from the outdoor cooktop, which is in the backyard, which is unpaved. And in general there is much dust around. She sweeps and mops the floors regularly.
Laundry: Done. By. Hand. In the kitchen (the only) sink. In cold water. She does not do our laundry although she most likely would if we asked her. We just decided that she already has enough work to do, so we take our clothes to dreaded Gringolandia, where we pay a nice local woman about $5 for a load. She uses a washing machine and folds them for us. Laundromats do not exist here (nor, really, in Mexico).
The house we live in is, truth be told, a nice house. They are not rich but neither are they poor. There are four bedrooms but no real living room area or dining room. There is one bathroom with a shower (although no shower curtain so the entire bathroom gets wet when one showers), but the only functional sink is the outdoor kitchen sink. We do have access to hot water in the shower, which is very nice. One of the cool things about the house is that it was a gift from the husband’s father. The house next door is owned by the husband’s brother, the house next to that is owned by the husband’s sister, and then the one after that is where the husband’s parents live. Inheritances are usually as such – land or houses – much more often than money. It’s nice. His young nephews and niece are over all the time, and they like to correct our grammar but they speak so fast it’s usually challenging to understand them.
Frankly, we feel we got very lucky when we were assigned this couple. The house is nice, clean, a 30-second walk to school, and they are very patient and helpful with our learning Spanish. Outside of Spanish classes, we always look forward to meal times. It’s fun to talk to the wife about food, although it took her awhile to open up about it. We assume that was because she didn’t understand why two guys would want to know where in this area she is able to buy basil, how long she soaks the black beans before cooking them (in a special pot called an olla de barro on the wood stove), or what kind of plantains work best to fry. But after days of our correctly guessing the fruits in the lunch drink, the vegetables in her risotto de papas (risotto made with potatoes instead of rice), and the herbs in her almost-pesto (no nuts or cheese), she caught on that we can be a little food-obsessed. Now she lets us help out in the kitchen and occasionally schools us.
Like the time when Pepe was responsible for scrambled eggs (huevos revueltos): he took them as far as he normally would have cooked them at home but then took them a little farther knowing that she would prefer them more done. (All meat is cooked until it is fairly blackened.) When he thought they were approaching the point of no return, he took them off the heat and presented them to her. She was noticeably very impressed with how they looked. Then she tasted them and declared, “Un poquito mas.” (A little longer.) Ah, still much to learn…