If you have ever read The Milagros Beanfield War and remember the character Herbie Platt, a white NYU student dropped in the middle of a completely Latino, New Mexican farming town to do research, you may understand how I feel. The past week has been a maelstrom of new culture, new ways of living and crazy dreaming. While the analogy is not perfect, the sleepy Mayan village of Peña Blanca has all the characters and history necessary in a magical realism novel.

Our short stay in our new home has been an amazing yet humbling experience. We were immediately befriended by the family that we rent our house from. Carlos, one of their ten children, has become our personal guide of Pena Blanca, its people and how to survive at the level that our meager budget permits us. He is barely four feet tall and is only thirteen but his knowledge of living in the mountains is a culmination of the hundreds of years that his Kaqchiquel ancestors have lived here. He is constantly smiling, which comes as no surprise considering the amount of times that we have made complete fools of ourselves.  Whenever we are almost ready to give up Carlos arrives with exactly what we need, be it a candle or a stick of acote (red pine, a natural fire starter). When we gave him a set of crayons to repay him for all of the help he has provided he immediately wrapped Chris and I in individual bear hugs. His lack of entitlement and the appreciation he showed was something that is so often missing in American culture and something I will try to learn from.

The generosity of the community has been one of the most difficult aspects to moderate. The willingness of the people to give us whatever they have has forced us to refuse and return gifts as politely as possible in order to follow our budget of one dollar a day. Finally I think we have reached an understanding that we will only accept gifts that we can return with something of equal value. Our evenings are now filled with mutual exchanges of Kaqchiquel lessons for English lessons. It is a great feeling having the community come to our own home while we cook our dinner of rice and beans on our fire.

Our adventures in cooking may be one of the reasons that I was left immobile on our earth floor on the first day, while everyone else worked tilling Don Carlos’ corn field. Luckily, I have completely recovered and our cooking has vastly improved. We now enjoy beans spiced by a little garlic, chili pepper or onions. The portions come nowhere near to filling me up but our first week will most likely be our poorest.

While the Mayan culture and our experiences thus far have reminded me of magical realism, the poverty here in the Guatemalan highlands is all together to real. Living at a similar level only makes it more apparent since we will get to return after eight weeks. The height of all of the children is more than telling of the lack of nutrition they receive. It is hard not to give to everyone that I see. This urge is impossible to suppress no matter how much I have studied the negative effects of charity in school or in microfinance books. Luckily, the few borrowers that we have met so far seem to be better off than their neighbors. I am eager to begin researching to find out if this is due to microfinance or if they were already ahead of the game before borrowing.

The women borrowers that we have met also are strikingly confident and have no problem talking to us. This is completely different than most of the Mayan women we have met in our time here. Again, this only reaffirms why I have come here and my desire to begin really start investigating. Hopefully in the future I will be able to provide more insight in both of the previously mentioned areas.

The only thing that I ask is that you send me delicious food thoughts, anything helps.
Emily
6/22/2010 07:01:07 am

Hi Zach!

Does your health remain strong?

Although you sound hungry, I am quite envious of your adventure and am currently living vicariously through you.

I'm curious...I know you have decided to accept gifts only if you can give back something equitable; however, despite being foreigners, if you were already an established member in their community and in need of a blanket or fire starter...would you be offered the same gifts? I think life has a balance and if you cannot give something in return at that moment in time, you will still be provided an opportunity to do so down the road.

On another note, Grandma is still doing well and her health remains strong. Oh...and I will still love you, even if you disown puppies. My mom actually thought you would not let a woman ("mother") and her puppies stay in your new abode.... :)

Love,
Your favorite cousin (you know it's true)

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Rosalie Beer
6/22/2010 02:37:34 pm

Hi Zach,
I am so proud of you guys and what you are doing. We all wait anxiously for your updates. Hang in there - you guys are the type of people that can change the world. We are all learning through you and the lessons are great - I am very proud of your journey.
Rose

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Brooke
6/25/2010 03:05:22 am

Zeek-
I am sitting at work and am really glad that they haven't figured out how to block your blog (they block everything else that has entertainment value, why don't they do this in college?!). What an exciting adventure you are on! You are an eloquent and captivating writer and I can't wait to hear about the things you encounter in the future. This is really an amazing project. Good luck to all of you!
-Brooke

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Zach
6/25/2010 04:32:49 am

Thanks all for the comments!

Emily, I couldn´t agree with you more on your insight on the gifts. We accepted the fire starter and the blanket with the intention of giving back later, which we did. Although, we also took the blankets out of our budget. Love you all and I hope you are enjoying the world cup as much as we are!

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6/27/2010 05:05:43 am

Zach. your dad sent me the link to your blog. he is bursting with pride. I salute your compassion and generosity.

ker

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6/28/2010 05:03:22 am

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Haley Priebe
6/28/2010 05:07:54 am

oops, I messed up my last post.

Zach, your time in Guatemala sounds SO incredible. I love all of the references to articles and books that you've made. The picture you've painted of Pena Blanca is incredible, and I have such a vivid image of you and Chris spicing your beans and rice with garlic and onions that I have to laugh.

xoxo

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5/10/2012 01:37:03 pm

The post is absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need! Also like to admire the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you offer! I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often.

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