Cooking With Myra: Try hearts of palm salad
By Myra Starkey
Nov. 5, 2013 at 5:05 a.m.
I was standing in the center of about 40 men and women and so many children that I could not count them all. This was about three weeks ago in the very remote and rural village of St. Ines in Guatemala.
Our Living Water team had just arrived where we would spend one week digging a water well and teaching the village about hygiene and prevention of disease. Everyone was excited.
We were thrilled to be able to give these folks a dependable source of clean water. Most of the locals had probably not seen Americans in several years. There were lots of laughter and smiles. I had been smiling all morning or at least since 5:45 a.m.
Each day I sat in the front seat of the van with Rudy, our driver. It wasn't that I could read road maps to navigate or speak Spanish to translate. It is simply that I get car sick if I sit in the back. This cherished spot in our vehicle requires the person to smile a lot, particularly when Rudy is the driver because he taps his horn anytime he sees someone on the road.
The horn is not used as a warning device but is more like a happy wave to the men and women on the dusty roads. No matter their method of transportation, Rudy honks, which, in turn, causes them to grin and stare and then wave. I became aware of my waving responsibility on the first morning. I looked over at Rudy and he tilted his head upward after the honk as if to say, "OK, now that they are staring, smile and wave," and so I did.
I was happy to be at our destination as the mayor of the village finished his speech and the real work began for the day. We split into teams.
Kim, Miles, Doug, Susan R., Dorothy and Mark were on the drilling team. They began to set up the well site, hauling pond water, digging and setting the drilling rig in place. The remainder of the group - me, Janet, Susan O., Laura K., Sarah and Patti - were on the hygiene team, and it was our responsibility to teach the children and women about personal hygiene since they would soon have clean water.
We take for granted that everyone has a toothbrush and toothpaste. We think that everyone washes their hands before they eat or after going to the restroom.
We assume that people know what germs are and how they are spread. None of this was the case in St. Ines.
We had our work cut out for us. Combine the language problems and 108 degrees in a cinder block schoolroom, and it becomes a challenge. I forgot to mention that there are no flushing toilets. We used a newly built latrine or outhouse. Actually, it did not smell all that new.
On the first day, the hygiene team walked to almost every house in the village to invite the women and children to our classes. I figured that these shy villagers would not want us in their yards, but the opposite was true. As we walked down the dusty road, they came to the edge and waved us into their yards. Many of them set out plastic chairs for us to sit. They told our translator what an honor it was for us to visit their homes. We felt honored that they were so accepting of us.
The children are taught their schoolwork in Spanish, so they were easier to communicate with. Slowly, the mothers warmed to us and attended our classes and told their stories. They were amused by trying to teach us words in Mam. Once during a question-and-answer session, they asked how many meals we got to eat a day in the United States. Their questions broke my heart.Each day, the women of the village fed us lunch. They donated their time in the kitchen, which was an open-air, cinder block structure with a dirt floor on which they would build the fire. Pots were placed in the fire to make the stews. Every day, they prepared corn masa tamales. Tortillas were made once as an accompaniment to the stew.
They slaughtered their chickens for us, and on one day, we had beef. It may come as no surprise to any of my friends, but I cleaned my plate each day knowing what a sacrifice they made. At the end of our meals, the men of the village would sit down after we left the table and eat the leftovers. I know they were disappointed at my plate.
Each day, we told them a story from the Bible. It was two days into the trip before we realized that they had no idea of who this Jesus character was that we kept referring to. One of the little girls asked the interpreter if he lived in the U.S., and once again my heart was broken. I asked the children if any of them owned Bibles, and no one did.
The drillers struck water Wednesday and then had some sort of problem, which meant all the pipe had to be removed and redone. I know the muddy drilling team was worn out, and I felt guilty as we simply taught the children songs. They were able to mimic our speech on easier words remarkably well, even though they did not know what the words meant. Another special thing happened on Wednesday. We had repeatedly expressed to the women of the village how incredible we thought their colorful woven and embroidered clothes were. They must have decided that if their clothes were the best thing they had then that would be exactly what they would share with us! They wanted to dress us in their native outfits.
Each of us was taken to a home and loaned their best skirt, belt and blouse. They carefully wrapped our hair in the decorative weavings and then presented us to the others. They were beaming. They had let us use their very best. My friend Laura said it would be like one of us finding a stranger to try on our wedding dress before the wedding and wear it in a sauna for the whole day and then give it back.
Surprising to all of us was how beautiful their garments were. Each of the women had made them for special occasions like festivals or weddings and that was the only time they wore them.
Our experiences left us amazed at the generosity of these people whose lives were a struggle every day. They have to grow almost everything they eat. They don't have the money to educate their children past eighth grade. Many villages don't have clean water or indoor plumbing. They have few possessions of any value. Their treasure and their identity was their festive clothes and what they shared.
Sarah was a 16-year-old who had come on the trip with her dad, Mark. At the beginning she was a typical teenager, wearing dark sunglasses and not too keen on sweating all day or running around with a group of women the age of her mother.
She was listening to her music with her ear buds. Halfway through the trip, she had shed her dark glasses and music and was being tickled by the village children as they played chase together.
She was fair-skinned with blonde hair, a sort of princess in this land of dark-eyed people. I watched her change day by day as her heart softened. Near the end of the trip, Sarah asked our guide, a native Guatemalan, why we got to live the privileged life of Americans while these kind people suffered. It did not seem fair.
The guide thoughtfully replied that perhaps the purpose was so that those who had been greatly blessed could reach out and help those in need. Doing that would bring great fulfillment. There are times when the needy neighbor that God puts in our path is in a small village far away, and other times, that the person is only next door. To those who are given much, much is expected.
The last day was the dedication of the well, and a preacher came from a village about half an hour from St. Ines. We all sang songs and thanked God for the clean water. The villagers had one more surprise for us. They had sewn us tote bags of Guatemalan fabric.
I will never forget the people of St. Inez. The stories of their lives have been written on my heart forever.
Each woman who made the bag came and placed it around our necks. I looked at my fellow team members and all of us were crying, having been touched again by those who had so little but shared so much.
We traveled back to Antigua for our last night before flying home. Jaime decided to take us to a restaurant. We had been warned against eating raw vegetables during the trip, and I was in the mood for a salad. I ordered a typical salad of tomatoes, hearts of palm and corn. It was delicious.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.