loving each other. loving the earth. loving travel

One couple exploring the world, pursuing our passions to enjoy life and live eco-consciously, all while attempting to satiate our wanderlust one day at a time...

30 May, 2012

Supporting Women Weavers of Lake Atitlán

A woman weaving with a back-strap loom, San Antonio co-op

During our recent visit to Lake Atitlán, we made it a point to visit as many women's weaving cooperatives as possible. We stopped at four in San Juan La Laguna, which is well-known for the use of natural dyes and organic cotton, and we also visited the women's co-op of San Antonio. The work involved is absolutely incredible, and the products are quite beautiful. The Mayan women of San Juan cooperatives for example, actually grow their own cotton, harvest it by hand, spin it using ancient techniques, then they extract natural dyes from a variety of plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers, even certain insects, and ultimately dye the thread. After all that, they make these incredible, intricately designed weavings with either back-strap or foot looms that become traditional clothing, bags, pouches, scarves, hammocks, tablecloths, etc. using ancient techniques and meaningful designs passed down through generations. Several of these cooperatives give demonstrations, and we highly recommend paying them a visit. You'll be amazed at how industrious and skilled these women artisans are. 

Cooperative Weaving Women, San Juan

Most importantly, on this visit we were able to learn more about the story behind these cooperatives and why it is so important to support these amazing women. Well, Guatemala's Civil War of the 80's was particularly hard on the indigenous population and there were many government sanctioned massacres of the Mayans, which are the main inhabitants around the lake. These communities lost most of their men, so to this day, there are a lot of widows who have very few options for making money to support their children. We also came to find out that the women who do have husbands are still not provided for because their husbands are farmers (campesinos) who make no more than 35 to 40 Quetzales after working in the fields all day (about $5). This is not enough money to feed and clothe any family, and due to religious philosophy and/or lack of sex education, many of these women have several children - even eight or ten - and no way to support them. This is how the cooperatives were born. The women realized they could make enough money to support their families and feed their kids by banning together, getting organized, and using their talents to share these weavings with the world. This also allows them to keep their ancient cultural practices from going extinct.

Naturally dyed thread from boiling down different plants, fruits, vegetables, barks, even insects
Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico, San Juan

Buying direct from these cooperatives means the women are getting the most money possible for their work, and for doing a good deed, you receive in exchange a high-quality product that will last a lifetime. But the experience of supporting these women, helping keep their traditions alive, and learning about their culture is truly priceless. 

One of the many amazing textiles made with organic cotton and natural dyes
 from Cooperative Weaving Women in San Juan

Organic cotton and naturally dyed thread, San Juan La Laguna
Women's Co-ops To Visit & How To Get There: 
(If you visit any of these co-ops as a result of reading this post, please tell the women you heard about them from us!)

San Juan La Laguna - 

Getting there: San Juan is easiest to reach from San Pedro. It's the next village over. You can take a tuk tuk there for the same price as rides within San Pedro - Q5. You can easily catch one back for the same price.

Cooperative Weaving Women - You can watch a quick demo of the cotton spinning, and see all of the botanical sources of dyes they use. They have lovely goods for sale. Located 30 meters to the left of Hotel Maya. There's a high-up sign that points into the alley they're located in. 

Tel: (502) 5822-7541

Just down the street from that co-op toward the lake, pass the intersection and you will find two more great co-ops to visit. (After crossing the intersection, look for the orange sun on the white wall to the left and you'll know you're headed in the right direction. There's also a high-up sign on the corner directing you toward the Association of Women in Botanical Colors). 

Ayana with Dominga and her daughter Francisca

First, you'll see one that just looks like a humble storefront, with clothing and bags hanging in the doorway. Go inside! You'll meet Dominga who is 87 years old and has delightful wares to sell made by local women. She has done a lot to preserve these ancient cultural traditions, and her daughter Francisca is the president of the organization they are officially forming with 5 other women called the Cooperativa de Mujeres Tejedoras de San Juan La Laguna (Cooperative of Women Weavers of San Juan). It has another name in Tz'utujil (the main Mayan dialect of this area) that sounds like "Chej K'em". They don't have any contact info or an internet presence, but just visit and you'll feel like you've stumbled upon something special. It's like walking into a magical world of ancient textiles. They will give you a very good price too since they aren't as organized yet as some of the other co-ops. They can really use the help. 

Dominga @ the Cooperativa de Mujeres Tejedoras de San Juan La Laguna,
We stumbled upon this hidden gem last year when we were in town for Semana Santa

Walk down a door or two and then make a right to find the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico (Association of Women in Botanical Colors). They've been there since 1971, and have been an official organization since 2002. 33 women are involved on a daily basis, and another 15 women work with the cooperative part time. They had to flee from Guatemala City where they faced extortion and death threats. In addition to using organic cotton, they also have amazing scarves they make from silk they harvest by hand. Each of these scarves takes them 3 months to produce. They have an onsite museum, illustrating their processes of extracting natural dyes. Ask for Socoro.

Email: Cooperativabotanica@yahoo.com.mx

Amazing scarf made from hand-harvested silk, dyed naturally,
Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico, San Juan

Another one that's well organized and easy to find strolling around San Juan is the Asociación de Autoayuda Chinimayá (ASOAC) - Association of Self-sufficient Chinimayá. They have 29 active members and are one of the more successful co-ops. They have demos and also offer local, wild-crafted honey. Look for this golden building with purple accents. 

Tel: (502) 7823-7770/71
(502) 4188-2970

San Antonio Palopó - The view from this small village is one of the most breath-taking on the lake. These women are extremely talented, organized, and very open to visitors. The first time we visited with our family and one of the women named Candelaria offered to dress us in traditional clothing just for fun. Ask for her or her daughter Vivian if you want to learn more about what they do. There are 15 women who work together in this cooperative.

Ruslan with Candelaria and her daughter Vivian, San Antonio Co-op

Getting there: San Antonio is two villages away from Panajachel (the most populated and touristy town on the lake) yet not many know about it. For an interesting cultural experience and a great view, find out from a local where to catch the pickup truck in Panajachel that goes to San Antonio. It will go through another small village called Santa Catarina, and should only cost you Q5. Takes about a half hour. Since this town is so far off the beaten track, it is not on the route of public boats, but you can easily book a private boat ride from Panajachel or San Pedro. 

A Solid Recommendation ~

For a private boat to San Antonio or a tour around the lake to other remote villages call Rolando at (502)5467-9084 or his brother Victor at (502) 5687-8932. They offered to take our family around when they visited Guatemala, and we all loved it. We really got to see a different, more authentic side of the lake. These brothers are very good people who grew up in San Pedro and they can also set you up with a well-priced room in their hotel there called Casa Rolando. They will treat you like family. Rolando is also a scholar who has studied all over Guatemala and has a wealth of information to share about the lake, its villages, and Mayan culture. 

Our Photo of the Day

A church in Granada, Nicaragua
We absolutely LOVE Nicaragua! Spent 2 whole months there last year and can't wait to get back. More info on this amazing country to come!

27 May, 2012

Our Photo of The Day

View from San Antonio Palopó, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Lago Atitlán is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is one of the main attractions and not to be missed while visiting Guatemala. The lake is surrounded by three large volcanos, Atitlán, Toliman and San Pedro. There are more than fifteen traditional Mayan villages around the lake. Each of the villages has its own charm, character, and  beautiful original native dress. There are many things to do and to see around the lake. Visiting women's cooperatives to learn about their traditional weaving techniques, hiking, and kayaking are popular activities just to name a few. You can stay in some of the smaller, less-traveled towns for quiet, retreat-style accommodations in all price ranges, or you can opt to visit villages upon the beaten path to find the party if you like. Opportunities for eye-opening cultural experiences with locals abound, and wherever you go you are sure to find a beautiful view.   

25 May, 2012

Going with the Flow All the Way to Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán

Often times our expectations of how, when and in what manner things need to be done can be very different. Traveling through Central America has proved to be not only a very humbling experience but also one requiring flexibility and constant readjustment of our standards. Every day is a potential for a new level of openness, letting go and going with the flow. If we were to give any piece of advice about traveling in general this would probably be the most important one. To illustrate, we will share our own experience traveling to Lake Atitlán this week. 

After having spent two weeks in Antigua, we were ready to go to another one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, and one of our favorites, Lago de Atitlán. Lake Atitlán is easily accessible by shuttle, which are offered by tour agencies all around Antigua for $10-12 per person (a decent price). The ride usually takes about 3 1/2 hours. (You can also take a "chicken bus" which some people find more adventurous, but it is less timely and less comfortable. Not only do they stop at every single stop, but they drive at breakneck speeds in Guatemala and have no limit to how many people they will fit in, including in your seat!)

Famous Guatemala "Chicken Busses" 

So we decided to book our shuttle several days in advance. The night before we were scheduled to go, our travel agent called us explaining that we would not be able to travel in the morning because part of the road had collapsed due to heavy rain. (If this happens on the first day of rainy season, you can imagine what challenges Guatemalans face for the rest of the rainy six months of the year…) To make sure the road was definitely fixed and ready for travel, we decided to wait a few days before going. (The benefit of having extra time and a flexible schedule.) 

Traveling in Guatemala may also sometimes present other unexpected challenges. For example, pretty much every shuttle is equipped with two to three small auxiliary seats that pivot and flip open when extras are needed. They are clearly only meant to be used occasionally if someone is to be squeezed in. However, these seats are actually sold on a regular basis along with the normal seats, at the same price. They have no real back support - because they are not meant for long-distance travel (which is something to consider if you are traveling for more then several hours because you will constantly need to readjust and your back and neck will undoubtedly be sore by the time you arrive). Drivers here also happen to drive notoriously fast along the curvy roads of Guatemala and this makes it a real challenge to remain comfortably seated in any seat for that matter. The tricky part about getting a better seat is that there is never a guarantee which one you are going to get. If, for example, there are fifteen people going in a shuttle and you are the one getting picked up last, you guessed it - you are getting the extra flip open seat. Or "baby seats" as we call them. 

Although we asked our travel agent to be picked up first so that we could make sure we got normal seats, on the day of the travel we actually ended up waiting 45 minutes for our shuttle. Three phone calls later we found out that our shuttle driver could not find our address and therefore he went ahead to collect other travelers before coming back for us later. We both thought, "Uh-oh. The baby seats." When the driver finally arrived, rushing us of course, all the seats on the shuttle were indeed taken except the two little baby seats… No surprise there. Though we were disappointed, and had wanted to reach the lake to get situated before the afternoon downpour, we chose to remain flexible. So we just decided to go with a later shuttle that day - and with a different agency altogether. 

Luckily, the shuttle that we ended up taking picked us up first. Phew! We had the choice of our seats and there were only six travelers total, including us. (Yes, our strategy works! Well, sometimes:)). As it poured rain all the way to the lake, 3 1/2 hours later we arrived to a town called Panajachel, which is the main entry point to the lake and the most touristy destination. From Panajachel we took a 30 minute lancha (boat) ride to our final destination, a town that we absolutely love, called San Pedro La Laguna. (Note: You can book a direct shuttle from Antigua all the way to San Pedro, but we prefer hands down to take the peaceful scenic boat ride across the water versus going through more hills. The direct lancha shouldn't cost more than Q25 or about $3. Know the price ahead of time.) 

Another thing to be aware of is that when you get on a boat you have to wait until the boat is full before going. That's 10-15 people. Sometimes you luck out and get there just in time for it to leave, but this time, we were the third and fourth person on, so while it was raining cats and dogs, we patiently waited on the boat for about 40 minutes for it to fill up. 

After finally taking off, 35 minutes later we reached San Pedro almost without a hitch - our boat stopped in the middle of the lake for about 5 minutes without explanation. We figured something was wrong with the engine because the motor suddenly went dead. The boat driver also looked surprised and confused, but never said a word. The locals didn't seem to react at all… Most importantly, the driver was able to fix the problem and we continued on. So again, no need to panic. 

Lancha to San Pedro La Laguna

For many, not being able to plan and control every step of the way may feel really uncomfortable. However, the more flexible and open we allow ourselves to be to whatever circumstances arise, the more opportunities we have to grow, and to enjoy our travels.

A Piece of Advice … 

Remember, when booking a shuttle make sure to ask your travel agent to be picked up first. Doing so will increase your chances of getting a better seat but unfortunately still will not guarantee one, because of other mysterious Central American circumstances at play. It is not unusual for shuttle drivers to make unpredictable stops or detours before and during your scheduled journey. They could be business or personal, but you'll never know for sure… On the way here the driver actually took 15 minute detour and stopped at his house to drop something off to his wife and chat with his son! We adopted an attitude of curiosity about the whole thing. Surprisingly, we still got to the lake pretty much on time. A perfect example of how going with the flow instead of freaking out will make it a smoother travel experience. Learn to expect the unexpected! 

15 May, 2012

Getting Our Hands Dirty...

We've decided to contribute some of our time and energy to helping out at a local Organic farm called Caoba Farms while we are here in Antigua, Guatemala. Why? Well, we are of the opinion that Organic farming (and more specifically the implementation of Permaculture techniques) is more important now than ever in a world that is heavily dependent on toxic chemicals and is functioning (dysfunctionally) completely out of ecological balance. So we want to do our part, wherever we visit, to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty to support the farmers who are doing it right. Folks who are using Sustainable and Regenerative Farming methods that nourish the soil and grow more topsoil, as nature does, thereby replenishing the water table, instead of polluting the soil with chemicals, stripping it of nutrients, eventually causing desertification and leaving it barren for future generations - which is the inevitable result of Industrial Agriculture

We weeded this entire bed of organic radicchio @ Caoba Farms

More and more, we are beginning to see the signs of distress on our ecological systems, our societal systems, and our own bodies - for there truly is no separation between any of these. There is no end to the toxic chemicals in the air, water, or soil that we human beings continue to deposit on a daily basis. Every thing we do and everything we have done continues to effect other people, other species, other ecosystems, and future generations... It is a common awareness among First Nations people for example that what we do today will impact at least the next seven generations. How would our present-day globalized capitalistic society be different if we all held this ethos and brought consciousness to the future repercussions of our actions for ourselves as well as others?

Ruslan feeding the weeds we pulled to chickens and ducks

It is undeniable, and just plain common sense, that spraying toxic chemicals on food people will consume is not a healthy practice - for the consumer, the soil it seeps in to, the water it flows away in, the air that circulates it beyond that farm, or for the farmers themselves who spray them. In fact, many of the pesticides and fertilizers used today to increase the productivity of industrial crops in the US (and therefore the profits) are made from leftover chemicals used in WWII to make explosives, or to make poisonous gases for the murder of millions during the Holocaust. These chemicals that were manufactured with death in mind now cover the mainstream food supply of the United States of America... Coincidence?

Caoba Farms provides a variety of high-quality organic lettuces for the community of Antigua

So as a radical step beyond even 'buying Organic' is actually supporting Sustainable Agriculture. Don't get us wrong, buying power is important, but the word 'Organic' has become so misappropriated and commodified that it does not necessarily ensure a healthy or ethically produced product these days. As we know, in the US, any word can show up on the packaging to sell a product. Whether or not it has been officially certified by a third-party organization is another story all-together. It is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and green-washing is rampant while everyone tries to cash in on the lucrative consumer craze. Even the world's largest retailer we all know, the dirty "W" word, who consistently put Mom-and-Pop places out of business with their global monopoly, and are constantly sued for unfair labor practices and discrimination against employees, are now offering more "organic" products than ever. As substantial evidence suggests, it is safe to say that their bottom line is definitively more important to them than the world's needs for ecological balance or social justice, so consumers need to be more informed and savvy than ever to avoid contributing their hard-earned money to corporations like these that do not ultimately have our collective best interest at heart. 

So what can we do? The way we see it, these are the steps we can all benefit from taking in order to do our part in restoring the balance:

All Our Actions Make a Difference!

  • Buy Certified Organic or from farmers using natural traditional sustainable agricultural techniques in countries where certification is not the norm - no chemical pesticides or fertilizers! 
  • Get to know your local Organic farmers, befriend and appreciate the folks growing your food, and support them by buying directly or joining their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). If they haven't set up a CSA yet, start one in your community!
  • Shop at Farmer's Markets instead of Big Chain grocery stores. Your produce will be fresher and more vibrant, therefore having more vitamins, enzymes etc., and will be tastier too! You can also get more bang for your buck and the farmers earn more by cutting out the middle man and paying them directly. Another plus is you find new kinds of fruit and veggies you've never tried. We visit markets where ever we go. They are so alive with different colors, noises, and smells... a great way to get to know a place better is by experiencing their market.
  • Learn about the local Organic, Sustainable, and Permaculture Farms in your community, take some time to visit, go on a tour, or even volunteer. These kinds of farms can always use an extra pair of hands!
  • Buy as local as possible, thereby reducing your Carbon Footprint (the non-renewable fuel used to transport your food and other products).
  • Flex your Consumer Power and buy from Small Businesses as much as possible to allow fair competition, support your neighbors who are keeping it small and local, who value their workers, and avoid monopolizing Multi-National corporations as much as possible because they value profits above all else. You might think you are getting a good deal because you are paying less, but the True Cost is passed on to someone else, exploited workers, or people who live in the polluted environments your food and other products come from.
  • GROW YOUR OWN! Start at least one crop of your own this season and realize the pride of beginning to sustain yourself. Using organic techniques, like easy worm composting, your Carbon Footprint cannot get any smaller than this, and it doesn't get any more local than your own backyard, balcony, or window box. You might be surprised how easy and gratifying it can be! 

Organic Heirloom Cherokee tomatoes

"We're still eating the leftovers of World War II." - Dr. Vandana Shiva, Activist & Scholar 

Some Great Links to Learn More:

Read this excellent article on corn, America's most mass-produced crop for better or worse, the background and consequences of synthetic fertilizers, and the twisted history of war technology and chemicals showing up in the mainstream food supply. It is written by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, one of the books we most highly recommend:

"What's Eating America"

Calculate your own Carbon Footprint Here (the amount of the Earth's non-renewable energy you currently consume)

Watch this quick eye-opening video on Consumerism and its True Costs here:
The Story of Stuff 
It's fun and informative, a must-see!

Check out the Permaculture Media Blog for tons of Free Documentaries, eBooks, Videos, etc. all about Permaculture (beyond sustainable into design that mimics nature for ongoing systemic regeneration and balance). We will go into explaining this more in future posts. 

12 May, 2012

Our Photo of the Day

Iglesia del Carmen, Antigua, Guatemala
The old colonial town of Antigua has a lot of beautiful ruins within walking distance. This incredibly stunning church ruin never ceases to amaze us. It is nearly 300 years old. After a major earthquake in the late 1700's, only the intricately designed facade remains. Traditional Mayan arts and crafts can be found at this market out front every Saturday. 

03 May, 2012

Hola Guatemala! and Happy Spring!

Mosaic mural @ Gracias Madre, delicious vegan Mexican restaurant in SF

We're back in Antigua, Guatemala! We just spent almost 4 months in the San Francisco Bay Area, visiting friends, sorting and selling our belongings, and trying to soak up all the natural beauty and culinary goodness the area has to offer before heading off on indefinite travels again. Though the work of lightening our load and handling business within the bureaucracy of the US wasn't always pleasant (especially having wicked culture shock that now seems inevitable after a year in Central America), we had an incredible time nonetheless! Our last week included eating around at several great restaurants, table dancing at a San Francisco club, attending a Pagan handfasting (wedding) ceremony, and me participating in my first ever Maypole dance! So much fun! 

"Spring Awakening" dessert @ Maverick:
Pistachio panna cotta, strawberry confit, rhubarb, & whipped coffee cream. Yum!

Insanely delicious custard French toast
with lavender honey glazed strawberries and lemon butter @ Nopa

Hand-pulled Chinese noodles, braised cabbage & chili oil@ Imperial Tea Court, Berkeley
Broccoli rabe pizzetta @ the famed Chez Panisse Café in Berkeley
Poached eggs, grilled asparagus, snap peas, wild rice,
sage garlic sausage for brunch @ Nopa

Dancing on speaker tables @ Vessel in San Francisco and doing yoga with Stephanie...

Maypole dance at Amie & Todd's handfasting ceremony,
last day before leaving SF

The famous Antigua arch
it is a tradition here to walk through at New 
Year's to signify a new beginning

Now that we're back in Antigua (where we spent 9 months last year), we feel quite at home. It is amazing walking the streets in a different country yet seeing so many familiar faces and places. While we deeply miss our friends in the Bay we just left, it feels great to reunite with all the characters in Antigua that we stayed to get to know last year. Our first night back we went to The Ocelot Bar (of course!) and got back to our old shenanigans with the owner Shaun and all the usual suspects.

What a great cosmopolitan town! Antigua has organically created a tight-knit community of expatriates and retirees, folks from all over the world, all ages, all backgrounds, all converging here to live a fun, laid-back, and simple yet rich lifestyle. A unique blend is created as the ethnically, religiously, and economically diverse population of Guatemalans graciously welcomes visitors of all kinds to explore their own little paradise, and their multi-faceted culture is a pleasure to get to know. A constant flow of backpackers passing through and vacationing families complete the recipe, making it all the more an interesting, eclectic mix. One could spend years exploring, enjoying, and learning in Guatemala, the culture and history is so rich, and we already feel that we are reaping a valuable reward just by having invested some of our time and energy here, while maintaining an air of gratitude for what we have been able to experience, and by acting out of genuine respect for established communities here of all kinds. We both look forward to deepening our relationships in Guatemala with people, land, and culture for many years to come.

Three sassy sisters in San Pedro

Nuestra amiga chapina cariña, Xiomara

While we are here this time (for just 3 and a half weeks), we plan to volunteer several times at Caoba Farms, a local organic farm just outside Antigua that provides the only local CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) and delivers its organic produce to local shops and restaurants. We will also go on some other tours of farms nearby, visit San Pedro La Laguna at Lake Atitlán to relax for a week, and of course continue enjoying the company of our dear friends in Antigua...

Lake Atitlán

We are still confirming details for our next destination, and if all goes as planned, we'll have an exciting post next time about where our travels will take us next, so stay tuned!


A Recommendation and a Story... 

We had a great experience flying with Taca Airlines again! Any airline that serves free 7 year aged Flor de Caña (delicious Nicaraguan rum) is aces in our book. However, they are also super helpful and don't fuss about silly things like us not having return tickets to the US - unlike Spirit Airlines (thumbs down) who didn't let us fly out of Chicago to Nicaragua, despite the fact that we explained that our plans to bus from country to country in Central America, and that we didn't know for sure which country we'd end up flying back from. They refused to let us fly even though it's impossible to buy bus tickets online (for "proof of onward travel"), so we ended up flying out three days later - and to Costa Rica instead because it was sooner than the next flight to Nicaragua. This changed our entire trip plans from the beginning! Spirit also charges $25 per checked bag and the seats have very little leg room. With Taca, two checked bags up to 50 lbs. are included in the price of your ticket, and seating is spacious. They also provide polite and attentive service. We can't speak more highly of them.