Saturday, December 21, 2013


“Home” is a special word.  For me, it will always and forever conjure up images of my parents’ house in Wisconsin…the braided run and leather sofa in the living room, the lilac bush in the backyard.  My bedroom that stands as a time capsule of my life, small relics from my travels being added to its shelves as I grow older.  The warm yellow light of the kitchen and the 50s style kitchen table wedged in against the wall. 

But as I get older and find myself living in different places, my definition of “home” is also expanding.  For the two years that I lived in Puerto Rico, I called the yellow house in Guayama “home.”  For some reason, I thought that when I moved off of the island, it would stop being home.  But I was wrong.

This holiday season, I made a pit-stop (a 4 day pit-stop) in Puerto Rico before coming home to Wisconsin.  And though I didn’t step foot into the yellow house while I was there, it was undeniable that just being on the island, I was “home.”  It felt a bit like I’d never left.  The moment I stepped out the front door on my first morning there, the December breeze—filled with humidity, warmth, and the faint scent of flowers—caressed my skin.  The sounds on our street—of the occasional rooster crowing, a dog barking, and the bass of reggaeton booming out of some of the passing cars—were all familiar to me. 

When I stopped in to the school over lunch time on Friday, I was attack-hugged by students and spent the entire 45 minute lunch period surrounded by a ring of my former kids, talking about Guatemala, and The Hunger Games, and their new classes and current lives.  I know my kids and I had a strong relationship last year, yet a small part of me worried that when I came back, no one would be excited to see me.  But I left the building with my heart full to bursting. 

That first evening, I joined my friends on the beach for a bonfire, laughter, s’mores, and coquito (my favorite Puerto Rican holiday drink).  The next morning, Saturday, we drove to a beautiful beach and spent the day there, then stayed the night in Old San Juan.  We ate dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, stayed in the hotel where we “always” stay in OSJ, and while out salsa dancing that night, I even ran into someone I met the last time I was in the city, back in May!  The whole weekend was just like so many I had last year.  I was home, and it was as if I’d never been gone. 

My time to leave came just a little too quickly, and it was with a bit of reluctance that I bid the bright blue skies adieu and boarded the plane to go to my other home.

But as we came down through the clouds over Wisconsin, it was clear that, while Wisconsin winter may not be as beautiful from the air as the Caribbean is, the land is still mine.  I felt a fierce sense of pride looking upon the trees dotting the hillsides and the farm houses interspersed in the fields. 

When I left the plane, my mom was waiting for me.  After a big hug, she exclaimed, “It feels like it’s been forever.  You look good!  You’re still blond.”  (Yes, Mom…did we expect that to change??) 
We picked up my bags, and then, though it was only 3pm, we went out for Chinese food because I was starving, and then to a movie.  By the time that was finished, darkness had fallen, and we drove through our town’s Rotary Lights, where Riverside Park is lit up with over 2 million Christmas lights.  Mom opened her window so we could see more clearly, blasted the heat at me so I wouldn’t be cold, and we bopped along to the music outside and giggled like little girls. 

It feels good to be home.  I am loved.  I’m being babied (my mother did my laundry for me two days ago…for the first time since probably 5th grade).  And we’re getting ready for Christmas.  At home my first two days back, Mom and I worked on concocting the sweets—the same ones we make each year—fudge, salted nut rolls, nut goody bars, and her famous chocolate chip cookies.  On Monday, Mom and Liz and I will go to my grandma’s where we’ll bake the rest of the Christmas cookies.  Meanwhile, the Christmas village and the nativity scene were put up in the dining room when Liz got here to help, we’re studying the recipe for Swedish meatballs and calculating how many packets of lefse to buy for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and we’re all conspiring about who is buy which gifts for whom.   Christmas preparations are underway, and there’s no place I’d rather be than home.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Noche de Luces

At our school, Noche de Luces (Night of Lights) is the event of the year.  All teachers are required to work at one post or another, and kids and teachers alike talk about how fun the thing is months in advance.  Last Wednesday, I finally got to experience it.

Annette and Joel and I arrived just after the doors were opened at 4pm and wandered around before the crowds arrived.  After we'd spent the previous Saturday in one of the poorest communities in the city, Annette commented to me, "It's hard not to see this as a huge waste of money.  But if you don't think about that, it's really pretty fun."  I think that sums it up well.  She's right; this event truly is a big deal.  My jaw kept dropping as we walked about.

Our entire basketball/volleyball/four-square court area and the small soccer field were covered with plastic tables and chairs.  There was a stage set up on the east end of the courts and a band was preparing to play.  Ringing the small soccer field was a food court comprised of probably 15 venues.  There were plenty of restaurant chains represented, but I think the most popular booth (among teachers, at least) was the Jewish Community’s tent serving up tasty falafel.  But there were also 2 sushi restaurants, Chinese food, Pollo Campero (Guatemala’s version of KFC), Subway, 2 coffee shops, a sandwich place, burgers, Korean food, and several other options.

Meandering away from the food court, though, we came to the carnival.  Oh. My. Goodness.

First of all, we saw that our gazebo had been turned into a princess palace.  Women dressed as the Disney princesses welcomed small girls in to put on princess dresses, have their hair and nails done, and get their pictures taken. 

Also in the carnival, we saw giant bouncy structures, actual carnival rides for small children, an inflatable bike-maze (I cannot explain it any other way), one of those bungee-bounce things, a rock climbing wall, those bubble-ball things (see picture) and…a zipline. 
Around every corner it seemed like there was another attraction.

Bike maze thing

Bungee bounce

The bubble-ball things

And a zipline.

In the auditorium, various artists performed songs and dances until 6pm. 

We got some food (mmm…falafel) and enjoyed the live music outside.  We greeted students right and left and mingled with other teachers.

At 7:30pm, the fireworks started.  I was behind the beverage counter selling drinks by that point, but I still had a pretty good view.

Our school definitely put on a good show.  The event was once again a success…and a great way to start off our winter break! 

Happy Holidays!  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I live in a home with three bedrooms.  Three showers.  A walk-in closet.  Five rooms that are completely empty because I don’t know what to do with them.  I literally have more space than I know what to do with.

Last Saturday I delivered food to families whose homes are probably no bigger than my bedroom.  Their entire home.  The walls are made of sheets of aluminum or metal signs found in the garbage dump.  Their floors are dirt and rock.  I don’t know whether there is electricity, or running water.

photo credit for all photos in this post goes to Annette and Joel

I assure you they are not thinking about things like when the gardener can come to cut the lawn, or whether the maid missed a spot while dusting. 

We live in different worlds.
In the same city.

Saturday morning, Annette took a group of our students and teachers to Zone 3 and the neighborhoods that have grown up around the city garbage dump.  For the past few years, before she started working at our school, Annette worked with a group called Young Life who helps young mothers in that community. 
That day, we packed food for 30 families into bags—about enough to last each family a week or so.  The bags were filled with rice, beans, sugar, coffee, butter, oil, oatmeal, soap, and a few other small things. 
Then, grabbing our bags, the 40 of us walked through the neighborhoods—led by local Young Life staff—and delivered the food to families who live there.

Assembling the care packages

Making Christmas cards to include

And taking to the streets! 

It was an eye-opening experience, not just for me, but for our students.  I was incredibly proud to see some of them really “getting it.”  Students opened up about how the experience made them feel thankful for everything they have, how they think we should be doing more, and how different their homes are from the ones we saw.  Some of them are eager to put together a slideshow of our experience and show the entire middle school at our next assembly.  Some of them are hoping we can have one of these weekends every month, at least. 

It’s wonderful what a true real-life experience can do to open up the eyes of students who have so much and have never known another life…can’t even imagine another life.
And for their teacher, too.

I’ve always been thankful for what I have.  I know I’m blessed in myriad ways, and I appreciate all the opportunities that have brought me here and all that I have.   But today, I feel like I have excess.  I feel a bit ashamed that after 4 months here, this is the first community service I’ve done.  We spent time today telling our kids that they should feel thankful—not guilty—for all that they have.

But I have to admit.  As an adult, I’m feeling a little guilty.  Not too much.  Just the right amount, I think.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

White Water River...Tubing?!

As we floated down the green river on our inner tubes Saturday, basking in the warm sunlight and cheerfully calling out to each other to “Stay in ze middle!!” to avoid hanging branches, I turned to a friend and said, “You know, Semuc Champey yesterday was great, but I think this is really what I’m going to remember from this weekend.  This is so much fun!”

I was right.  That trip is what I’ll remember.  But I wish I were wrong. 

The beginning of our river tubing expedition was idyllic.  The current kept us moving just quickly enough for our liking, the sun kept us warm, and passing clouds kept us from frying.  The water felt cool and refreshing as opposed to icy and chilling.  We expertly paddled away from hanging obstacles like fallen trees and trailing branches.  We passed over a few baby rapids, yelling “dip!”  “Bigger dip!” as we coasted over the waves made by rocks in the river. 

And then at some point, the dips and waves started becoming rapids.  I think I heard something say something about losing their tube right before I hit the rapid that lost me mine.  When I surfaced (after what felt like a long time of swimming in a direction I hoped was “up”) my tube was behind me.  Another girl, still in her tube, grabbed mine for me.  The current was moving too fast, though, for me to attempt to swim upriver to it, and was too powerful for her to get the inner-tube back to me.  And soon enough, I was going over another rapid and concentrating more on keeping my head above water than I was on grabbing a tube. 

After a few more dips and tumbles and rapids, I surfaced near a girl who was in one tube and dragging another behind her.  I don’t know whether it was my original tube or not, but I latched onto it.  As we hit another rapid, she lost her grip on the back tube and we sailed away from each other. 

For what felt like I long time, I sailed down river, legs trailing below me, clinging onto the back of the tube, unable even to flip it around me.  Eventually I did get the tube centered on my body.  I saw Michelle and Hyung sharing a tube briefly, then a wave knocked Hyung away and Michelle was left tube-less near a rock on the shore.  I couldn’t stop for her as the current carried me away and around the bend. 

The water got a little calmer then, and as it calmed a little more, I started hearing calls of “Stop!!  Stop!!”  I think that was the first instant I had time for the thought to dawn on me that we’d missed our exit and the rapids weren’t supposed to have been part of our tour.  (I think my first thought was that the guides hadn’t bothered to scout the river that day and what had normally been part of the calm float trip had turned into rapids after recent rains or something). 

I paddled myself to the shore as the guide shot by me, going after the 3 people from our group who were still ahead of me. 
And then I sat there—alone—catching my breath on the edge of my inner-tube. 

As I started to wonder what to do next, 4 small Guatemalan children emerged from the forest and cautiously approached me, asking in Spanish what had happened.  I tried to explain that our group had gone too far, and that I thought some were downriver and some were upriver from me.  The girl, the spokesperson for the group, told me with some concern that my arm was bleeding.  I looked down but only saw growing bruises—on the back of my wrist, my knee, the tops of my feet, all up and down both legs—and  tiny cuts on my toes.  I shrugged it off, wondering if I’d misheard her.  (It was hours later that I finally saw the blood on my left elbow and realized what she’d been talking about).  The older 2 children motioned that we should go a little upriver along the shore and see if we could find my friends.  Still shaky from my run in the river, I followed a little behind.  The kids looked around a corner and came back nodding that “everyone” was there.  (Later, she asked how many had been in my group, and I told her 18.  I could tell by the look on her face that she had not seen “everyone” after all.)   

The next problem: we couldn’t stay close to shore because of rocks and rapid waters, so we’d have to go up and around to get to my friends.  I asked the girl if there was a path higher up that would get me there.  She nodded.  “Si, una carretera.”  I groaned inwardly.  A highway?  And me in a bathing suit and with no shoes.  Wonderful.  But what other choice did I have? 

So I followed Carolina (the girl) and her brothers up the muddy path, between small Maya houses, to a hard-packed dirt path.  (Carolina’s “carretera”?)  If my life were a movie, this would have been the opening scene—me, in a pink and purple bikini, barefoot, inner-tube on my shoulder, escorted by 4 small and skinny children through their village.  There’d be a flashback later to explain how I’d gotten there. 

Soon enough, we left the dirt track and clambered down the hillside toward the river.  There was really not a path through the undergrowth, and the ground was muddy where there were no plants.  After I half-slipped once, Carolina made me pass the inner-tube to her oldest brother, then took my hand and wouldn’t let me take a step without her support.  What an angel…seriously.  I didn’t slip once with her help.

As we came to the bottom of the hill, I was hugely relieved to see Carmen standing there, and then Michelle and Rob as well, and a girl named Annie who we didn’t know but was part of the tubing group.  4 more people from our tour were a bit upriver, but making their way down towards us.  But the real problem lay in the middle of the river.

There, on a rocky tree-grown outcrop, 4 people from our group crouched, stranded between rushing waters. 

Our view from the shore of the island.  The guy standing in the river
is a local who jumped in to help get the rope to them.

Locals started coming out of the woodwork then, bringing rope to help, stripping down to their skivvies and jumping into the water to rig up rope to get to our friends.  One man—a carpenter—was the first to swim to the middle of the river, bracing himself against a rock and getting a rope to our friends.  Of course, we needed more rope in order to reach the shore, and until that came, our heroic carpenter was stuck in the water.

locals watching from the shore

It was quite a process to get our friends out, and with no clear leadership, it took a lot longer than it should have.  Thankfully, Rob kept a level head and kept most people from doing something stupid.  Eventually, reinforcements came from the hostel.  And then ziplining gear and life-vests from the hostel arrived, as well as 2 of our friends who hadn’t come on the float trip, and Jordan (who’d been one of the 3 to go even farther downriver, and was thankfully no more battered than the rest of us).  Towels and dry blankets and lanterns and water were brought down, and finally we were set to get them out.

There's a rope set up! 
The guys got one guide-rope strung up from the island to the shore, then attached a 2nd rope to be used to pull people along.  Each person on the island donned a life vest (brought over to them with the rope) and using a ziplining harness, was attached to both ropes.  The first person pulled himself across the guide-rope, those on shore pulling in the rope, but not really pulling him along.  The next person, though, was a girl named Sabrina (not from our group) who broke her collar bone 6 months ago and has no upper body strength anymore.  She tried pulling herself across, but the water was too strong.  Because she wouldn’t let go of the rope, our guys on shore couldn’t just haul her in, so she spent what seemed like an eternity in the middle of the river, water rushing over her head.  Watching was every bit as stressful as my own unprotected ride down the river.  But she made it across safely, and Paolo (our friend the medic) took charge of her care, wrapping her in blankets and checking for signs of shock.  Next across was Carrie, who followed instructions to NOT hold onto the guide rope and just be pulled across, and emerged on the shore assuring us that she was fine, did not need to be checked over by Paolo, and would be staying to watch and make sure her friends all got safely across.  When Hyung was pulled across next, the karabiner attaching him to the guide rope broke, and suddenly he was washed several meters downriver.  Thank God for that secondary rope; the guys pulled him in as quickly as possible.  Hyung got out of the water spluttering and shaken.  But the worst was over, and everyone else got back safely.  (We started out with just 4 people in the island, and ended up with 8 as more and more people went over to either bring supplies or try to “help”).  At least 3 hours after our trip should have ended, everyone was safe. 

Rob being pulled across (he'd gone over to bring live vests and harnesses)

We’re still not exactly sure what happened, why no one told us where the “get-off point” of the tubing adventure was, or warned us that if we went too far we’d hit rapids (and eventually, had we gone 1km further, class 6 rapids and a waterfall).  What we did hear is that the guide was new to the company.  And a lot of excuses as to why the guides weren’t better prepared for an emergency.  I am thankful, at the end of the day, for Rob’s leadership skills, the overwhelming generosity of locals who came out to help, for Paolo’s medic training, and for all of my friends who kept a level head.  That night at dinner at the hostel, all 11 of us from CAG sat squeezed in at the same picnic table.  I think we all just wanted to be close to one another, reassuring ourselves that everyone came out of this okay and things could have turned out a lot worse.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

If Everyone Jumped off a Bridge--Yeah, I Did it Too.

To fully experience Semuc Champey, you need an adventurous spirit. 

I’d heard a lot about the place from other teachers before 11 of us set off to stay at the National Monument.  A natural limestone bridge over a rushing river forms turquoise blue pools of calm water over the top of the “bridge” and underground, a system of caves stretches nearly 11km.  Semuc Champey is often described as one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, and I was eager to experience it.

Friday morning, we took a tour through our hostel that, for roughly $25US included transportation to the park, lunch, a 1.5 hour tour of the caves, and a guide to see the pool and hike up to the lookout point. 

Transportation was standing in the back of a pick-up truck.  I first experienced this Guatemalan form of transportation in September, after rafting.  I loved it then, and despite the fact that it’s certainly not the most secure of ways to travel, I will choose standing behind the cab of a pick-up any day over sitting up front. 

Our first point of interest in Semuc Champey was the cave tour. 
Now, I have taken a lot of cave tours before.  I’ve held my own light, and I’ve gone swimming in caves, and jumped off cliffs into dark water in caves, and I’ve explored small caves with no guide to lead me.
But I have never taken a tour like this one.

For one thing, the lights we were given were nothing more than 18” wax candles.  And then we waded into the waters of the cave…no life vests (except for our 3 non-swimmers), no helmets, no instruction about what we were about to experience.  In some parts we found ourselves swimming, holding the candles above water-level.  At one point we climbed a ladder loosely attached to the rock face and strapped together with electrical tape.  I won’t lie…I didn’t feel 100% safe in parts of the tour.  When we were given the chance to climb a 10ft waterfall with a knotted rope to aid or climb up the ladder next to it, I chose ladder without a second thought.  Later though, when given the chance to climb up a rock face and jump from a height of maybe 15ft into a dark pool of water, I wavered.  Originally I thought no, not worth it.  The climb up looked precarious, and I do not have the grace of a rock climber.  But as all my friends did it, I found myself changing my mind and making the climb.  I did it.  And no injuries as a result of the trek.

Our whole group, right after the guides gave us tribal-looking face
paint with candle soot.

Eventually, we emerged unscathed from the caves and moved to a giant swing strung out over the river.  The first time I jumped off of it, I did a total belly flop.  My stomach is bruised still, 3 days later.  (Though I can’t be 100% sure whether those bruises are from the swing or the next day’s excitement…but more on that later.)  I jumped a 2nd time as a redemption, and landed a bit more gracefully.  Not much.  But no belly flop.

From there, we moved to the rickety yellow bridge over the rushing water.  You know the old saying, “Well, if everyone else were jumping off a bridge, would you too?”  Seems applicable here.  Carrie didn’t make the jump the last time she visited, so this time Carmen and I jumped with her at the same time.  What a rush!  It was the highest jump I’ve ever made.  I would have psyched myself out looking down, so instead I looked over at Carmen and Carrie until we were ready to jump.  And then we just…fell. 
That time I tilted slightly as I fell and ended up landing on my right thigh.  I’ve got the bruise to prove that, too. 

The bridge

Preparing to jump! 

From there, we hiked up to the mirador (lookout point) for our first view of the turquoise pools.  

Then it was a hike down so we could go and play in them.  The sun graced us with its presence as we got there, making the chilly water much more enjoyable. 

There was one more jump offered—from the edge of the pools down maybe 50ft to where the water rushed back out from under ground.  It just looked like a way to die to me, so I opted out without a second thought, but 3 guys made the jump, as well as both our guides.  They survived, so all was well. 

Adventure spirit in tact, we returned victorious to the hostel for the night.