Cooking With Myra: Arriving in Guatemala

By Myra Starkey
Oct. 22, 2013 at 5:22 a.m.

Market in Guatemala.

Market in Guatemala.

Two years ago, I took a trip to Guatemala to drill a water well in a small village. My friend, Janet, and I traveled with a team from a church in Rockport.

Living Water International brings teams of volunteers to developing countries to drill wells so that these poor people in remote places will have clean water to drink.

In Guatemala, the rural villagers dig shallow wells by hand. They are about 30 feet deep and provide water for drinking and cooking. In the same way, they dig deep holes to use as latrines.

During the rainy season, which lasts from May to October, the wells and latrines all overflow, as there is standing water everywhere in this flat landscape. Their water source becomes contaminated, and the people get sick.

In 2011, I witnessed their need for clean water and believe that one of the most memorable moments in my life was seeing water flow from the pure aquifer 180 feet below from the well we drilled. I wept when I saw the children and old women joyfully bring buckets to fill to quench their thirst.

Two weeks ago, I left with a team on a mission to make a difference. A bunch of us were from Victoria with others from near and far: Laura and Doug, of Shiner; Patti, of Temple; and two other friends from Delaware. Most of our group decided to go a few days early to explore Antigua.

We flew out Wednesday full of excitement and chattering constantly as women do when they are together. Doug was the only guy on this first part of the trip, and he did his best to keep an eye on us. I think one of the women mentioned that his experience was similar to herding cats.

The streets of Antigua are cobblestone with elevated, narrow sidewalks. Tourists from all countries come to visit the historic city in Guatemala. It was established in 1540 and was almost destroyed in 1778 by a terrible earthquake. Many of the churches were never rebuilt.

Over the years, moss, vines and other foliage have covered these massive structures, making them a ruin of their previous splendor. We crept beneath the floors to discover crypts and crematoriums uncovered by archeologists in recent years. We shopped, ate out, went to a chocolate factory and took lots of pictures of this colorful place.

On another day, we traveled with a guide to remote villages. We visited a local school and watched elementary-aged children during their physical education class.

I closed my eyes and listened to them playing and laughing, realizing the sound of children is universal. Only the extreme poverty made it evident that I was not at home. Just across from the school was a farmers market where women brought the bounty of their gardens. The cabbages were larger than basketballs and the radishes the size of tennis balls. I snapped pictures of the women making corn tortillas on a clay griddle, a comal, which was heated by piles of burning branches.

They spoke in a language I did not recognize, a mixture of Mam, a rare native dialect, and Spanish. The colors of the market were bold and bright, matching the huilpiles worn by the women. A huilpile is a shirt usually handwoven and embellished with flowers, animals, birds or geometric designs.

Each village has their own design, and the women can recognize the origin of each. Hungry dogs darted about, nibbling on discarded vegetables. Some women had their babies strapped to their backs with large sections of brightly colored fabric. They went about their work seemingly oblivious to their live cargo. The market was almost absent of men vendors. They were likely busy in the fields.

I walked the perimeter with Laura, Janet, Susan and Patti, absorbing this different world where we were the strangers. We seemed to be the only Americans in this tiny village, so as the day grew longer, the word must have spread because some of the townspeople came out to look at us. We smiled and waved a lot, and I made a feeble attempt at communicating in Spanish, but because my words drew laughter from our guide I stopped, fearful of what I might be saying.

Fausto, our guide, told us the story that all Mayan children are born with a birthmark or dark patch on their lower back, as he pointed to his own back and continued to talk. I looked over at Janet, and she mouthed the word "No" emphatically, knowing that I was dying to ask him to see the mark.

He continued, telling us the legend that mothers used to scrub the mark, hoping it would go away or lighten. In reality, this Mayan mark eventually disappears before the children turn 5 years old. The same dark area is also prevalent in the Polynesian population and is referred to as a Mongolian mark. I thought Fausto was teasing us, as tour guides often do, but I eventually saw a small child in the village with the bluish-gray mark.

A few people in our group climbed close to the mostly dormant Pacaya volcano, which is several thousand feet high and looms over Antigua. The village tour seemed easier for the rest of us. The hikers were the die-hard exercisers. While we were perusing the markets, they were climbing the trail to the volcano.

In the end, they could see the summit in the distance, but the trail ended far before the heat melted their hiking boots. They said it was easy, but I had read the guides, and I doubted them. I think that someone may have been complaining about something because when they returned they were quoting Doug as saying, "just let it go," which became something that we all repeated frequently during the next week.

Miles, my son, and Mark and Sarah (from Delaware) arrived Saturday to start the mission trip. The team picked us up at our hotel, which we were sad to leave. We had made friends with the hostess and staff and had started our Spanish lessons early every morning at breakfast.

We waved goodbye, promising to return before too long. With the van loaded, we headed to the team house for one night before traveling to Champerico.

Jaime was our team leader and chief driller. He is a native Guatemalan. His mother prepared dobladas for us, which are like small empanadas made of corn flour crust. They were delicious. I prepared these once I arrived home. They can be stuffed with meat also. The slaw was served alongside them as a salad and keeps well refrigerated.

Next week: drilling for clean water

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email



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