Monday, March 30, 2015

Daytrip: Volcan Ipala

It’s the first weekend of our spring break, and Annette dreamed up the idea of a day trip to Volcan Ipala, an extinct volcano with a lake in the crater.  With very little planning, five of us were on our way Sunday morning.  

Internet research told us to expect an easy, well-marked hike from the parking lot to the crater at the top of the volcano.  The hike was predicted to take 1-2 hours, and at the top there were camping areas and green space to relax.  The internet also said the temperature is warm all year round, but the crater and lake stay breezy and cooler.  We still decided to pack bathing suits in the hopes of a swim. 

Annette’s friend who recently went to Ipala told her that it was possible to drive all the way to the top and skip hiking altogether.  We opted for this plan since Carrie is still not really supposed to be walking much or climbing things at the moment per doctor’s orders. 

The drive was easy and straightforward, and we made good time.  No dirt roads or serious potholes on this adventure! 

As we followed all the signs for Ipala, the road eventually dead-ended in a parking lot from which the hiking path began.  So much for being able to drive all the way to the top…

The hike was much different than I had imagined.  For some reason, in my head, it closely resembled the walk into Laguna Lacha: an “easy hike,” to me meant, “pretty flat,” and “warm all year round,” I interpreted to mean, “lush tropical foliage.”  Actually, not the case.  While the hike was relatively short (it took us 45 minutes), and I suppose that could contribute to its “easy” rating, it was definitely a climb up the hill.  The landscape was also much more barren and rocky than I had envisioned.  We had great views of the surrounding fields and mountains, of course, but it was certainly not tree-covered, green, or lush. 

Upon arriving at the top, it was as if we’d stepped into another climate entirely.  Inside the crater, it was chilly and a cool wind blew continuously.  We decided against a swim more or less immediately. 

Instead, we relaxed and enjoyed the view (between patches of gray clouds that threatened rain), watched a “horse gang,” of cowboys who had all decided to ride their horses up the mountain in order to get a picture of all of them together at the lake (good eavesdropping by Joel to figure that out), and purchased fresh and hot pupusas from a woman making them on her grill. 

The horse gang taking their group photo

Once we were feeling relaxed and refreshed, we trotted back down the mountain and on towards home. 

View of Laguna Ipala from the mirador (lookout point)

I think we all would agree that the day could have been improved by warmer weather at the lake and fewer clouds at the top, but even factoring in those details, I would easily consider the day a success.  Our trip was affordable (about US $2 per person to park and enter the reserve), we were able to do it all on our own without hiring a guide, and it’s always good to get out of the city and into the countryside.  It’s even better when you travel with great company, as I was so fortunate to do.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

One of "Those Weeks"

Last week was definitely one of “those weeks.” I feel like I tried to take on everything. And, I sort of accomplished it…but some days it didn’t quite seem worth the effort (and some days it did).

Last week, I:

-Organized and ran3 days of bake sales and pizza sales to raise money for a young girls’ orphanage in Guatemala with a group of amazing 7th grade girls. We raised a whopping Q2975 (about $400) so that was definitely worth it.
-Supervised 8 hours of DI practices after school as our team got ready for the National competition, which was on Saturday.
-Hosted a dinner party at my house, went out to eat, attended book club, picked up my race packet for the City 10K Night Run, went to the movies, and spent one night baking for those bake sales I mentioned. (You do the math…I was busy).
-Ran a total of 10 miles over the course of 3 days in order to prepare for aforementioned race.
-Visited a Children’s Hospital with a few other teachers.
-Submitted my application to graduate from my masters program. (Yay!)

By Thursday night (when I went to book club after having taught and run bake sales all day and then supervising a rather non-productive 2 hour DI practice) I was so exhausted that I almost fell asleep in the car on the 10 minute drive, and then I was rather useless as far as conversation went.

My classroom has been converted to DI prop storage.
On Friday, I felt like I was being pulled in too many directions at once. And, perhaps I was. Friday morning at short recess, I was supposed to be supervising detentions, supervising a bake sale, and getting on a bus to visit the Children’s Hospital all at the same time. Thankfully, I have the best teaching team in the world. Kelly Anne covered detentions and Annette manned the bake sale (and switched periods with me so that I would not miss a class to leave school). 

Popcorn bars and cookies on sticks
for the bake sale
The Children’s Hospital visit was the highlight of my week. The trip was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. UNOP (Unidad Nacional De Oncología Pediátrica) is a free program to any child with a pre-existing cancer diagnosis. It’s such a well-run program. One of the things I found really amazing is the changes they have made to the program to work within the society of poverty that prevails in this country. It’s not enough to simply treat a child’s cancer. For years, the cancer survival rates were low, not because the treatment was ineffective, but because even paying for bus fare to come to the city for chemo-therapy treatments was too much of a burden for some families; they would pull their child from the program in order to have enough money to feed their other children. Now, UNOP pays for the family’s bus fare and provides housing for those families who live very far away. 


Another area they had to make a change was in the nutritional needs of the children. In order to undergo treatment, a person needs to be well nourished. In the past, the children would meet with a nutritionist, probably get a balanced meal, and then be sent home for 2 weeks. When they came back for their treatment, they would be malnourished again, though. So then the hospital would send home a nutritional supplement for the kids. But what did some parents do? They may have had six or seven children—and the one with cancer wasn’t the only malnourished one. So rather than give the whole can of Ensure (or whatever supplement) to just the sick child, they were dividing it evenly between all of the children. And the child with cancer would still be undernourished and not able to take cancer treatment. Now, the entire family’s basic nutritional needs are met by UNOP once a child is admitted into the program.

The visit to the hospital was great. But it did run long, and I realized before we even boarded the bus again that I would be late for lunch (when I was supposed to be running another bake sale). Thankfully, my principal was on the bus with us, and he called teachers until one picked up their phone. Bill took over the bake sale until I arrived, 15 minutes late.

That final bake sale didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. The chocolate fountain wasn’t working. One girl had brought crepes, but no one had brought anything to top them with, so they didn’t sell. We had ordered pizza to sell, but instead of arriving at the beginning of the lunch period, it arrived at the very end of it. I was frazzled by the time I returned to my classroom to teach 4th period.

Of course, it all worked out. Even the late pizza got sold—some to the teachers, and some we sold at the end of the day while the students played their intramurals. After school, Sandra volunteered to stay and sell from 3-4pm to the kids still at school for extracurricular activities. (Another example of why my teaching team is so great!) I, meanwhile, was taking care of last minute details with my DI team.

By Friday evening I was again dizzy and over-exhausted. So much so that I picked up my packet for Saturday’s race and then went home rather than joining my friends for dinner. I was in bed by 8pm, and I slept 11 hours that night. It helped.

Saturday was redemption for the week. My DI team, an amazing bunch of kids who take responsibility and work well together, even if they are sometimes loud and hard to focus (like all 6th graders), did really well in their challenge. In a category with 7 teams (huge competition for a group used to going up against maybe 1 or 2 teams maximum), they tied for first place, and all of us will be headed once again to Global Finals in Tennessee at the end of May. I couldn’t be more proud.

Tears and cheers after earning 1st place.

Saturday night was the 10K City Night Run. A group of 8 of us met up there, ran, and then met up at the end. Somehow, despite the fact that I hadn’t really been training lately, I managed to set a new PR for myself in the race. I was extremely pleased.

And Sunday? Today my plans include going out to breakfast and then relaxing my afternoon away from a certain rooftop pool I haven’t had the chance to visit in much too long. My friend Chris is finally back in town after pretty much a month and a half of nonstop traveling.
After today, I am pretty sure everything from the last week will be worth it.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Puerto Rican Feast in Guate

Last week while I was grocery shopping, I noted with glee that the plantains on sale were green.  This weekend, a few were still green, and I bought them.

These looked greener in the store.  They were a
tiny bit too ripe, actually.  

What’s the big deal with green plantains?  Plantains are a staple of Guatemalan cuisine.  However, here they sell and eat them exclusively ripe.  I have seen nothing but bright yellow/black plantains in stores and at markets since I moved here.  Ripe (yellow) plantains are great for making sweet fried plantains, which are very popular here. 

But to make my Puerto Rican favorites—namely mofongo and tostones—one needs green, unripe plantains.  They need to be starchy (almost like a potato) rather than sweet. 

So, back to this past weekend.  A plan formed in my head, and along with the plantains, I picked up red beans and mentally verified that at home I had Sazon, Sofrito, garlic, tomato sauce, and the other seasonings that go into my staple make-at-home Puerto Rican meals.  

Once the groceries were purchased, I sent out invitations, and on Monday night, I whipped up chicken alá Kezia (seasoned the way she taught me, back in the day), white rice and red beans, and, with the help of three friends who were eager to learn, a mountain of tostones. 

I wasn’t sure how many people who be coming to dine with us, so I opted to make tostones rather than mofongo to ensure that I had enough plantains.  Tostones are fried plantains.  They taste a bit like a French fry, I guess, but they have a very different shape. 

When Kenra, Jestina, and Nadine arrived, they all jumped in to learn the process needed to make tostones, and we formed a bit of an assembly line.  Kenra patted the plantain pieces dry after their saltwater soak to ensure they wouldn’t send hot oil flying.  I manned the fry pan.  Everyone took turns smooshing the plantains flat after they’d been fried the first time, and then Jestina passed them back to the pan for their 2nd frying. 

Turns out we had a few too many plantains.  We had enough tostones to feed about 4 more people. 

Nevertheless, we ended up with a well-rounded Puerto Rican meal I could be proud of.  I was so happy to be able to share a bit of my background with my Guatemalan friends—even if PR is only my adopted 2nd culture.    

And the best part of the night?  My friends insisted on doing the dishes before leaving!  Life doesn’t get better.    

Monday, March 9, 2015

Volcan Santa Maria: Hidden from the Full Moon

If you read this blog at all, you know I tend to put a positive spin on just about everything in my life.  Getting lost is an adventure.  A punctured gas filter is a chance to get to know a part of Guatemala I would normally never have stopped in.  A stormy day makes it that much easier to enjoy the company of those around you. 

It’s strange, then, that I have been having such a hard time finding the positive side to my hike up Volcan Santa Maria last weekend. 

It was a pretty epic plan that Amy and I had.  After school on Thursday, we hopped on a bus bound for Xela, arriving there at around 8pm.  After a meal, we were to meet at the Quetzaltrekkers office by 10:00pm.  The plan was to start hiking the volcano at around midnight, under the luminous glow of the full moon.  We would summit shortly before sunrise and make a temporary camp at the top of the volcano to await an awe-inspiring view as the sun poked out, turning the sky into a watercolor painting and illuminating the smaller, but much more active, Volcan Santiaguito below us.  And then under a bright blue sky, we’d head down the mountain and return to the office by about noon on Friday, ready to take a nice long nap.

Up until about 1:00am, all was going exactly according to that wonderful plan.  The sky was clear, the moon was bright, and the hike was pleasant.  I didn’t even need to turn on my headlamp during that first hour (and the flashing of lights from people behind me actually really annoyed me; I wanted to enjoy the moonlight. 

Shortly after we turned onto the steep section of the path, though, the clouds obscured the moon’s glow.  One by one, we flicked on our headlamps.  The higher we got, the closer to the clouds we came.  Soon we were hiking through one, the fog so thick we couldn’t see much past the trees around us.  Then, it began to rain. 

March is the height of the dry season, and Amy and I had thrown rain jackets into our packs as an afterthought, not once thinking we’d need to use them.  For that same reason, I had taken no precautions to make sure the items in my pack (including clean clothes for the next 2 days) would stay dry in the case of rain.  This thought tickled at my brain as we climbed higher and the wind picked up speed.

It’s an interesting experience to start a volcano hike at midnight, after a full day of teaching and traveling, when your normal bedtime is around 9:00pm.  At first, we didn’t feel tired.  I suppose the adrenaline and physical activity powered us forward.  Around about 3:00am, though, during a pause to allow the rest of the group to catch up, both Amy and I felt our eyes close for longer than we had planned on.  Shaking ourselves a bit, we kept moving.  At about that time as well, I felt my hamstrings and calves burn with every step I took.  We began to appreciate the frequent breaks our guide insisted upon. 

Near the summit, though, that exhaustion disappeared.  The last 45 minutes of the climb seemed easy, while not enjoyable.

The wind had whipped up to a frenzy and the rain continued.  Our guide estimated the wind speed at 80kph.  The temperature had dropped as we had gained altitude.  And the moon was still completely obscured by a thick layer of cloud. 

At the summit, we crossed over to the other side of the mountain and nestled ourselves behind rocks that blocked most of the wind.  We set up our sleeping bags and snuggled down into them.  Most of us managed to get an hour or two of uncomfortable sleep.

At 6:00am, people started moving, and the guides began boiling water for hot drinks and breakfast.  “Sunrise” consisted of a slight yellowing of the massive white cloud blanketing the sky. 

My view at sunrise

It was clear we would see nothing from the summit, so after eating breakfast, we packed up and headed down the mountain, eager to be out of the cold and wind. 

Switchbacks on the summit.  Still in the clouds.

As we descended, we left the cloud above us and moved into sunshine once more.  It was quite a beautiful day, and had it not been 3 hours of steep downhill hiking (never all that fun), I would have really enjoyed that part of the hike. 

Looking back at Santa Maria from the bottom.  The peak was
still covered in cloud.  

We returned to the Quetzaltrekkers office around noon and returned our borrowed gear.  Then, it was off to find lunch, check into our hotel, enjoy a nice hot shower, and take a 4 ½ hour nap.  We got up for dinner—at Sabor de la India, of course; they have the best Indian food in Guatemala—in the hopes of keeping our sleep schedule mainly on track.  It worked; we both slept through the night and spent our last few hours in Xela on Saturday morning having a great breakfast at a darling hotel that served an amazing amount of food for the equivalent of about US $4.00. 

Breakfast!  They brought us glasses of water without us
having to request it--the sign of a great place.

The trip to Xela was pleasant and enjoyable, and maybe that’s my bright spot to this trip.  It’s just hard to think of the hike as much more than a waste of time.  The point was to hike under the light of the full moon, watch the sunrise, see the countryside sprawled out below us, view Santiaguito spewing lava…and I didn’t get to do any of those things, really.    

There’s always another time.  I’ve got a whole year left to conquer Santa Maria again—hopefully under clear skies the second time around.      

View of Santa Maria as we left the city.
Not a cloud in the sky.
Cue bitterness.