San Andres: Staying with Elviz's Family
Trip Start Jun 27, 2011
14Trip End Aug 17, 2011
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Where I stayed
Elviz's Mom's House
(At the time of writing, 1 USD = ~8 Quetzals)
The Strength of Family is the Greatest Wealth of All
I became pretty close with my El Mirador trek guide, Elviz, and in one of our conversations on the trail he invited me to come stay with his family when we got back. The chance to meet his family and see the everyday life of chapins was too much to pass up. The day after the hike, Elviz met me at my hostel (Los Amigos) in Flores and we relaxed listening to music, drinking a few beers and watching sick nature videos on YouTube (Elviz showed me an Aquila Arpia grabbing a monkey and a goat and I showed him the Battle at Kruger amongst other things)
As soon as we arrived, I met Elviz's mother and felt like I had walked into my Patti’s (grandmother) home in Chennai, India. The mom was very welcoming with a big smile, not letting me lift a finger and nicely setting up a guest room for me. Elviz is one of 8 children (4 boys and 4 girls). His father, who was also a guide and spent some time living in New York, was murdered when Elviz was 10. His other brother’s father died from an illness. As a result of these tragedies, it is clear that this family is run by a very dominant and doting matriarch. Elviz, his older brother Adolfo and his younger brother Dadi, all live with their mom. Elviz’s sisters live either up the street or in the next town. However, the mom’s kids and grandkids are all constantly at their mom’s place, eating food, bringing their kids over, hanging out or doing their laundry. It is clear that she has a dominant presence in their lives and none of them take their mother’s love or care for granted.
While the family does not have a lot of material possessions, they are wealthy when it comes to their inter-connectedness and community
Just Like Patti’s Home
Their home is a concrete-block house that was partially built with the USD that Elviz’s dad sent back home when he worked in NY
Elviz and Adolfo share a small side room with a couple of twin beds and a simple dresser (and many pinup posters of Guatemaltecas to the chagrine of their mother), with a sheet as a door
The kitchen outside is contructed from wood walls and corrugate sheet metal roofing. It is simple, but effective with a wood-fired stove for grilling and making tortillas and a propane-fueled burner. Also in the kitchen, which has as dirt floor, is the dining table with three chairs. Elviz and Adolfo, both excellent and earnest students always looking to improve their English, have affixed a cheat sheet of common food names on the side of the fridge (huevo = egg, etc.). It’s pretty much the exact opposite of the cheat sheet that I am constantly adding to in my journal. They have running water that is fed from an oversized black tank that collects rain water and that feeds into the standard Guatemalan sink: the middle basin is for collecting clean water that hasn’t been used, the left basin is for cleaning dishes and the right basin is for cleaning clothes. Both the sink and the black tank are ubiquitous throughout the country. There is consistent electricity that powers several lights and fans throughout the house
While they had a simple home, it was a fairly nice one on a relative basis. Across the street was a home that was made out of wood and that had very little furniture: a couple of hammocks, a TV and a couple of plastic chairs. There were several kids in that family and I observed their mom performing lice checks on all of them before allowing them to go out and play. I had taken a few pictures of Suani and Dadi and shown them how to use my camera and take videos. This was the greatest thing they have ever seen as they and the kids on the block spent a couple of hours taking pictures and video of everything possible: each other, people motorcycling or driving by, the homes and store, me, dirt, their hands, the sky, walls, etc. There were some cute ones, but they didn’t exactly seem to understand the concepts of focusing on an object or letting the video run for more than a second.
The Power of Education
While the walls are mostly bare, there are several old photos of Elviz’s mom when she was 15-years old and with her mother
Three of Elviz’s sisters are K-5 teachers (or maestras as his mom called them). I met one of his sisters (and her incredible 4-year old daughter Suani who is Dadi’s partner-in-crime) and we enjoyed talking about education. In fact, the entire family had tremendous respect for my profession and was very keen to here details of my students, class sizes, the subjects I teach, how my school is etc. This, also, was very similar to the sentiments of my immediate and extended family.
Just as with my Pattis (and frankly my parents when either my sister or me are home), the mom’s life revolves around feeding her children
Cross-Cultural Exchange with Elviz and Adolfo
From a young age, both Elviz and Adolfo, had to find work. Given their dad worked in tourism, both Elviz and Adolfo earned certificates in flora and fauna and Elviz works as a guide. Adolfo, who is a few years older than Elviz, now works directly with the archaeologists and excavates Mayan ruins (he has worked at El Mirador and Quirogoa amongst other sites). Given their professions and also because they have a thirst for knowledge, we engaged in a wonderful cross-cultural and language exchange.
I had already been doing so with Elviz for our 5 days on the trail, writing down every new Spanish word I learned and writing down all of the English expressions/slang/colloquialisms that I had taught him (his favorite by far was “that’s awesome”, since I exclaimed that about a million times in the jungle)
San Andres is a fairly small and very sleepy town at night. The one place available for all youth is the local library, which is free for everyone, open to 9pm and kept running by volunteers. Students looking to learn Spanish in an off-the-beaten-path way come to San Andres. So, the library was full of local petenos learning English from some westerners. It was a safe and well-lit place where kids could play board games and read anything they wanted (there was a decent and eclectic collection of books and newspapers) in a poor town.
The following day I got to ride Elviz’s motorcycle (yeah!) as he let me drive his brother and then him to the neighboring town of San Jose where we chilled on a dock on the beautiful Lago Peten Itza. I was reminded of standing on the side of the road in darkness with Ankit in Tashiding, Sikkim and meeting Chris, an Indian who was a victim of police brutality, and explaining the meaning of “Get Up, Stand Up” to him. Bob Marley is THE universal artist and his message is clear to everyone. Jah, Rastafari!
While munching on chips and swimming, the boys asked me how you ask a girl out in the US. Not that I am any sort of expert, but I explained how dating works in the US and was reminded of riding on back of my cousin, Preet’s motorcycle in 2004 and having a conversation of east vs. west and love-based vs. arranged systems. This area of the lake was gorgeous and super clean. Elviz was wearing a shirt that said "No soy perfecto" and on the back, "soy Chapin!", which means I'm not perfect, I'm Guatemalan
Hello, Moto; Goodbye, Elviz’s Fam (for now)
When we returned home, we ate lunch and I met Elviz’s nephews (see what I mean the extended family is always congregating at mom’s house). Before leaving, Adolfo proudly showed me photos of him excavating (he was wearing of University of Illinois t-shirt and a Pittsburgh Pirates ballcap in many pics) and gave me a few of his photos as a gift. I played “Nothing Else Matters” on my iPod, one of Elviz’s favorite songs, and wished he had a guitar I could teach him to play it on. An Australian named Reuben had stayed with them once and played “Redemption Song” on his traveling guitar; the family repeatedly mentioned Reuben’s visit and I hope they refer to me in the same positive manner in the future. I took a bunch of family photos and was asked to be in the all-family photo as well (since I was basically the mom’s adopted 5th son) and then I gave everyone big hugs and said my goodbyes. His Mom gave me an amazing and long blessing for safe travels, which was so genuine and full of love. I told mom that I would come stay with them again as I need to pass back through the area as I make my way back to Cancun to fly out in mid-August (and this time I better come with gifts!).
As Elviz realized my love of driving motos, he let me drive his motorcycle (with him on back) back to Flores instead of taking the collectivo
What an honor and privilege it was to be welcomed into their family and their home. They have so little, but were so generous and full of love. Just as with Samith in Cambodia and Rakesh in India, I will never forget Elviz and his family and I will cherish this experience forever.