Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Prepping for Christmas

It is insane to me the amount of preparation goes into the Christmas holiday.  I had never stopped to think about it until this year, but when you compare Christmas to the other holidays we celebrate, it is absolutely mind-boggling how much prep there is before Christmas day.

Think about it.  For example:
Halloween: You create (or buy) a costume.  Buy some candy for the trick-or-treaters.  Maybe go to a party to show off your costume (and when you were young, you went trick-or-treating).  The preparation  and celebration takes no more than a few hours.
Birthday: You plan a party, buy a gift, make some food, celebrate.  Again, totally possible to prepare in an afternoon.
Thanksgiving: You could argue this one takes more than 1 day to prepare for, depending on the type and amount of food you’re making if you are hosting.  But still…you spend a solid day making food, cleaning the house and maybe decorating, and then you spend a day eating and relaxing with family and friends.

Then think about Christmas.  How many hours do you spend shopping for gifts for everyone you care about?  Then you wrap them.  And there are decorations to go up, and holiday baking to be done, and traditional events leading up to and after Christmas Day.  At my house, at least, it’s a month long event.  It’s crazy

Every year, my mom takes a week of vacation in December in order to prepare for Christmas.  When I got home last week, we spent her vacation days together throwing ourselves into the Christmas frenzy.  She had already set up the tree and put lights on it, but we spent an hour or two putting on ornaments.  Then we hauled down six boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic (and I’m talking big boxes—like the size of full-size suitcases) and transformed the living room, dining room, and kitchen into Christmas wonderlands.  We cleared all of the normal trinkets off of the shelves and replaced them with the collection of Christmas music boxes, the Nativity scene Mom bought herself when she moved into her own apartment for the first time, the Christmas village, and a collection of dozens of other decorations she’s accumulated over the years.  It, again, took hours. 

Christmas village

Nativity scene and table of snowmen figurines
We spent 3 hours one day and 5 the next shopping, running all over town to pick up gifts for those people she hadn’t finished buying for yet (and most of her shopping was done before I got back from Guatemala!).  Each night, we made one or two Christmas goodies: fudge, nut goodie bars, salted nut rolls, Great-Grandma’s famous chocolate chip cookies.  And on Saturday, Mom and Liz and I spent five hours at Grandma’s house for our annual baking extravaganza where we whipped up 8 more varieties of Christmas treats. 

By the evening of December 23rd, most of the presents were wrapped and under the tree.  The house was almost clean.  The food preparations had begun.  By Christmas Eve, we were finally prepared and ready to begin our traditions. 

On Christmas Eve, we made Swedish meatballs to be eaten with lefse and mashed potatoes before the Christmas Eve service at church.  We opened presents as a family when we get home.  Christmas day, our home was full as we hosted the Rosendale Christmas for the first time.  We ate a huge noon meal, opened presents one at a time, around in a circle, until each of the 12 of us had opened everything, and we munched on Christmas cookies until dinnertime.  

Christmas day dinner

Our cookies got their own table.  

Lotsa presents
On Sunday, the celebration continued as we headed out to Grandma’s for Christmas with Mom’s side of the family.  Last night, we opened presents with the California cousins, laughed ourselves sore over a game of Telestrations, and once again had a mini-feast and multiple cookies. 

Drawing for the game Telestrations

This is a drawing of...

And in a few days, too soon, I’ll be on a plane back to Guatemala, leaving my family to take down all of the decorations and shuffle the tree outside (which probably won’t happen until late January…because what is the point of all that work if you can’t enjoy it for at least a month?!). 

I love Christmas.  It’s my favorite holiday of the year.  And a big part of the reason is the preparation, the amount of work that goes in to make every year’s celebration perfect. The fact that we put so much love and energy into getting ready for it makes it mean that much more.  There’s a reason we start playing Christmas music as soon as possible, a reason we love the sweet treats and decorations and presents.   But it still boggles my mind the amount of time, effort, and money that we put into it each and every year!      

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Honduran Roadtrip

The last weekend before I left to go home for Christmas, I took a trip to Honduras, checking my fifth Central American country off the list.  Chris and I left at sunrise on Saturday morning in what would be my car’s first international trip. Gas tank full, passports in hand, and Chris’s machete in the trunk for good measure, we were off.  The plan?  Drive to the small colonial town of Copan Ruinas (just over the Honduran border), find a place to stay, and wing the rest. 

The drive should have taken us 3 ½ to 4 hours, but because a landslide dropped traffic to one lane at one point of the drive (and I am not the type of person to swing into the left lane and pass 50 stopped cars), we were halted on the road for nearly 45 minutes.  The one good thing about this stop was that it is the reason we have a soundtrack to our trip. 

Don't mind the glare or the waterstains on the mirror...
I still like the photo.

Anytime traffic backs up in Central America, locals magically show up selling snacks, drinks, and other random useful items along the road.  Chris spotted a guy with compact discs and jumped out to ask him if any were music cds.  Turns out all of them were.  Chris requested reggaeton  and selected 6 cds for us.  We spent the rest of the trip listening to the music.  There turned out to be very little actual reggaeton,  but plenty of bachata and something we classified as “Latin pop.”  Just as we were pulling into Copan, we started listening to our only English music cd—something titled “Romantics Volume 6.”  The disc launched into a groan-worthy barrage of classic love songs from the 70s and 80s which eventually, thankfully, gave way to a host of Queen’s greatest hits.  We picked up where we had left off and surprisingly ended up listening to that cd for the entire drive home, too.  We were on track 140-something when we arrived in Guatemala City again, and had made our way through Queen, Bob Marley, Rod Stewart, Creedence, a few artists we didn’t recognize (like Gary Glitter?), and Madonna.  Who would have thought our roadside stop would yield such a treasure? 

The border crossing at Honduras went as smoothly as could be.  No trouble, no bribes, stamps from both countries…in and out in less than ten minutes.  After hearing a few horror stories about the Honduras crossing, I breathed a sigh of relief as they waved us through.

It was just about lunch time when we finally reached the town of Copan Ruinas.  We were coasting through the center square when I looked over and saw…Russell?  And David?  Sure enough, two teachers from my school were striding along the cobblestones.  We rolled down the window and waved them over.  They gave us the name of their hotel, and we decided to check it out.  Recommendations are always welcome, and their hotel turned out to be a good choice.

View of the hotel room/balcony from outside my room

Saturday afternoon, after checking into our hotel and having lunch at a somewhat sketchy pupuseria, we headed to the Maya ruins that the town is famous for.  It would appear that mid-December is not high tourist season, and we had the ruins mostly to ourselves.  We wandered around without a guide, enjoying the ruins and reading the signs near several temples to educate ourselves.  Our favorite part, though?  The tunnels.  Archeologists built them to allow tourists a chance to see the temples which were eventually covered with bigger temples.  (Apparently every 52 years the Mayas just added new temples right on top of their old ones).  Chris and I felt like “real” explorers in the empty tunnels, wandering this way and that, finding an alternate way out, and marveling at the “Court of the Jaguar Drain!” 

Imitating the stela

Court of the Jaguar

Residential plaza

On Sunday morning, we chatted with Russell and David at breakfast (included in the hotel stay) and decided to go together on a tour of a nearby coffee plantation. 
The four of us missed the 9am departure from the city, but it turned out we were the only interested parties, so when we called the company, then turned the van back around and came to collect us at 9:30am. 

The drive to the coffee finca was stunning.  We got out of the tourist-land of Copan and into the true Honduran countryside, which is quite beautiful.  We passed through misty, bright green mountains, farmland, and small towns. 

Once we arrived at the Welchez Finca, we paid our ticket price and hopped aboard a wagon pulled by a tractor to travel to the top of the hill where the coffee is grown.  Our guide, Edgar, began his explanation of the type of coffee (shade-grown Arabica) in Spanish.  After Chris stopped him and translated for Russell, Edgar surprised us all by saying, (still in Spanish), “You know, it’s a requirement for me and the rest of the crew here to speak English.  I thought maybe you wanted me to speak Spanish so you could practice, since you live in Guatemala.  Would you prefer I speak in English?”  Turns out his English was perfect, and he easily switched to our native language for the rest of the tour.  He told us all about how the coffee is grown and harvested, and we took a leisurely walk down through the picturesque plant.  

We paused at a treehouse restaurant overlooking a pretty waterfall in the midst of the undeveloped part of the farm (kept that way to maintain the farm’s Rainforest Alliance status) for lunch.

After a delicious, relaxed 3 course meal topped off with a cup of black coffee prepared with dedication by Edgar, we finished the tour talking about the cleaning and drying process. 

The tour ran a little longer than expected, and it was nearly 3pm by the time Chris and I got on the road back to the city. Thankfully traffic was light (and I was perhaps more assertive with the possibility of driving after dark on the poorly lit/signed Central American highways looming over me), and we made it back to the city in just under 4 ½ hours.  The Pollo Campero fireworks lit up the sky, visible from the city limits all the way to my condo, welcomed us back. 

It was a good trip. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Burning our Devils

My life is good.  I am supremely blessed to have the opportunities, lifestyle, and friends that I possess.  But sometimes it’s easy to forget that and get caught up in life’s petty issues. 
This weekend, many activities and thoughts culminated in that reminder.

Yesterday was a “typical Saturday” in the city, inasmuch as there can be such a thing.  Amy, Carrie, Michelle and I hit the trails for a run in the morning.  The day was glorious—bright blue skies, a slight chill in the air that made running comfortable, and not a hint of rain.  Still, there were moments in our run that Amy and I wished it was simply over.  As we chugged up a hill, Amy chanted, “I’m thankful for my body, I’m thankful for my health, I’m thankful that I can run.”  It’s a simple thing, but one we have to remember: there are people in this world who wish they had the ability to run.  Or walk, for that matter.  And there are people in this world who don’t have the luxury of a day off to do something as inane as running just for exercise.  And so we reminded ourselves to be thankful.

The run was followed by breakfast at San Martin, where our waitress brought us 3 baskets of bread when one is standard.  We ate leisurely and chatted away—about travel, and friends, and life in general.

Saturday afternoon, I blasted Christmas music through my house while I baked cookies and whipped up a batch of coquito, my favorite Puerto Rican holiday beverage.  In the evening, we celebrated the Christmas season.

That night, I found myself surrounded by my very closest friends here…the people who have become my Guatemala family.  We reclined on Annette and Joel’s comfy couches and sipped real hot cocoa (the kind made by melting chocolate on the stove with milk or water) while we watched Elf and The Santa Claus and sang along to every Christmas song in each movie (Chris commented under his breath during one such serenade: “Yup, I’m in a room full of teachers…”).  We exchanged the cookies each of us had made towards the end of the night.  And we went home tired, full, and happy.

On Sunday morning, a group of us went to La Alianza, a home for girls who are survivors of human trafficking and sexual abuse.  It’s a place where no photos are allowed because many of the girls are in hiding, with horrific situations to return to if they are found.  A place where girls in their early teens hold their babies on their hips.  At La Alianza, these girls receive healthcare, social work, therapy, and love.  I didn’t exactly know what to expect when we went.  But the day was…incredible.  We did crafts and played games with the girls, laughed our way through a sweaty hour of Zumba, ate lunch, and ultimately gave each girl a Christmas present—a backpack filled with school supplies. 

La Alianza, at least during our short visit, seemed like a very happy place.  Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.  The girls, despite whatever is in their pasts, are learning to love themselves and view themselves as worthy of loving.  The house is bright and colorful, the girls had big smiles for us, and everyone seemed to help everyone else without being asked to.  The girls looked healthy and happy.  Of course our purpose today was to celebrate, and I’m sure these girls fight their pasts on the inside day in and day out, but we didn’t try to think about that with them today.  Still… seeing the strength of the girls and hearing from their own voices how thankful they were to us for spending time with them put things into perspective.

Tonight, I was sitting on my couch, watching a movie, forgetting completely that December 7th is the day Guatemalans celebrate La Quema del Diablo (the Burning of the Devil).  But exactly when 6pm hit, fireworks went off in all directions as people set off piñatas shaped like red devils, firecrackers, and burned garbage.  The idea of the holiday is that you burn away all of the bad stuff from the previous year and start again fresh.  And Guatemalans love their fireworks, so I suppose that naturally became part of the celebration along the way.  The devil piñatas are often stuffed with them.

I didn’t burn a devil this year (though Carrie had one and we just neglected to make plans to be together at 6pm to dispose of it), but as I stood at an upstairs window where I could see one of the bonfires going on just down the street, I thought about what a good symbolic gesture it is.  I have a good life.  My problems and complaints (which I generally keep out of this blog) are so minor and trifling in comparison to what the girls at La Alianza have gone through.  So, even though I had no diablo to burn, I sent all of my quejas, all of my complaints and annoyances and frustrations, to that bonfire down the street.  I don’t need them anymore; I’m starting again fresh.  And I am embracing all of the good that I’ve been blessed with.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pura Vida... Thanksgiving Style

I was talked into going to Costa Rica over our 4 day Thanksgiving break.  Not that I needed all that much convincing, of course; I think Amy said something to the effect of, “I’m going to Costa Rica.  You should come too.  Here’s the flight I booked.”  It was just more of that peer pressure business from my last post again. 

I don’t have anything against Costa Rica.  Yet given the short nature of our break and my frugal mindset, without the prodding from friends, my first choice for the weekend’s travel plans probably would have included going somewhere that I haven’t been yet in Guatemala. 

But I’m glad I made the decision (and shelled out the cash) to go to Costa Rica.  There ended up being four of us in our group, which is really almost the perfect number to travel with.  Amy, Shannon, Analisa, and I got along well the entire trip and complemented each other’s styles too, I think.  I feel like we packed a lot into our four days, so rather than going into detail about all that we did, I’ll give the highlights.

Day One: I milked my first cow.
Now, you would think that given that I grew up in Wisconsin and frequently visited my uncle’s dairy farm, I would have had the chance to milk a cow before my 27th year.  But though I fed cows (and calves) and hung out in the barn, my uncle had milking machines, so there was really never any reason for me to milk a cow. 

Our first hotel in Costa Rica, near Arenal Volcano, had a small farm of egg-producing chickens and cheese-producing cows.  Every morning and afternoon, they encourage hotel guests to try their hands at milking.  So, on our first afternoon there, we four girls were eagerly waiting as the milking cows were led up to the little barn. 

All four of us tried milking, and Analisa and Amy really started to get the hang of it and enjoy the task.  The cowhand I am sure did not expect us to stick around for almost 45 minutes of giggling and slow milking (he told us it usually takes him about 10 minutes to milk each cow; we were nowhere near as fast as him). 

To top off our experience, he asked if we wanted to try the milk.  We said yes, of course.  Then he surprised us all by dumping a packet of hot chocolate mix into a cup and milking directly into the cup.  The result was warm, frothy, bubbly hot chocolate—delicious! 

Day Two: Amy and I ran to a waterfall.
While Analisa and Shannon embarked on their own zipline adventure, Amy and I looked for cheaper options.  A run sounded good to both of us, so we asked our hotel’s front desk worker whether it would be possible and practical to run to a nearby landmark.  His response?  “Oh, no.  It’s too far.”  Well, after some questioning and information searching, we deduced that it was probably about 6-7 miles to the Catarata (waterfall), which may be too far for most people, but sounded perfectly reasonable to both of us.  The waterfall was deemed to be the best option out of several other tourist landmarks because 1) it was the closest, 2) it had the cheapest entry fee at $10 per person, 3) Amy had never been there before, and 4) It was a cloudy/rainy day, so our hopes were not high of seeing the volcano even if we ran to Arenal National Park. 

So, the front desk guy probably thought we were crazy, but we took off, in the rain, in the direction of the waterfall, on foot. 

We missed one turn, but otherwise made it there without getting lost.  It was a peaceful run (despite one section of the road with no shoulder or sidewalk which made passing cars a little treacherous), with beautiful scenery.  We arrived at the waterfall with just enough time to hike down, take some pictures, slip off our shoes and stand in the calm waters at the base of a secondary falls, hike back up, and call a taxi back to the hotel in time for checkout. 

Our arrival at the park--wet from the rain and very happy! 

Day Three: We went on a sunset catamaran tour.
We all agreed that it would be worth it to spend the money on a sunset catamaran trip at Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.  The price included dinner and drinks, and the boat had 2 jacuzzis, 2 waterslides, and snorkeling equipment, as well as plenty of space to dance or sunbathe and the promise of a dolphin sighting. 

Despite a late start to the trip (standing around baking in the sun on the pier for half an hour makes everyone a little grouchy), it was completely worth it.  The views from the boat were fantastic (and our late start ensured we saw sunset from the water, not from the dock at the end of the trip).  We saw our dolphins, and we danced up a storm.

View of the boat from the front

When the boat stopped for an hour of “play time”, we tried out the waterslide, and a crew member took a liking to us and let all four of us go down in a train.  We also jumped off the 2nd level of the boat into the water…repeatedly.  It was past prime snorkeling time by that hour, so the water was murky, but we spent our time playing instead and didn’t mind at all.  I think all four of us would agree the catamaran was a highlight of the entire trip.


Day Four: I saw four sloths and a bunch’a monkeys. 
Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest park in Costa Rica, but also one of the most beautiful, and it is filled with amazing biodiversity.  On our last morning, Analisa and I hired a guide for a tour of the park, and we were consequently treated with views of animals there is no way we would have found on our own.  Our guide, Katia, had a great eye, and she pointed out sloths, monkeys, camouflaged lizards, giant spiders, sleeping bats, and leaf cutter ants.  Using her scope in combination with our digital cameras, we were able to get great pictures of the animals high in the treetops. 

Could this guy get any cuter?!

Our tour ended at the beach, and Analisa and I had only 20 minutes to enjoy the pristine waters before heading back to our hotel to be ready for check-out.  It wasn’t enough time; but even in the few minutes we were in the water, 4 raccoons tried to make off with my backpack (which didn’t even have food in it!).  Thankfully we were alerted by another beachgoer and shooed them away. 

All in all?  A very successful four day weekend.