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Helga and The Kids – Our Family in Guatemala

This is a story of how two Couchsurfers met,
fell in love,
and became family…

Our CS Reference for Helga and the kids

The Meeting – A Fiasco Beetroot Dinner
When we wrote to Helga our couchsurfng request, we told her that “We love sharing stories over home-cooked meals; and certainly would love sharing our grandmother’s recipes with you and the family!

On our first day, Helga invited us to join the family for lunch, “My kids are quite picky sometimes.” We hardly had time to remember the names of the children; but we tried our best to make mental notes of what each child’s favorite food is, what he/she eats or doesn’t eat.

After much thought and debates between ourselves, we came up with a carefully thought-up menu for the dinner we were going to cook on Sunday:

Dinner for Helga and Kids

  • Beetroot Soup – we thought the funky bright pink color might get the kids interested to at least try a little bit
  • 鐵板豆腐 (tofu on sizzling hot pan) – Helga and Olguita like tofu; Olguita eats carrots so it’s a good opportunity to serve them together
  • Cheese-baked Broccoli – the children don’t take greens, but during the first lunch, the children ate their pasta with lots of cheese; perhaps they might try the broccoli if we added enough cheese to it

The end result?
A complete fiasco.

Olguita took one look at the soup and shrieked. We thought to ourselves, “Oh oh. Funky pink colored beetroot soup didn’t turn out to be very funky or appealing after all.” Helga tried to coax Olguita into trying the tofu dish; but she was too mortified by the soup to want to eat anything we served. She ended up making herself some toast for dinner.

Juan Miguel took a sip of the soup and announced it was quite enough. He didn’t like tofu and was going to try the brocoli when Tay said to him, “It’s got lots of cheese, so you will like it.” Juan Miguel put the broccoli back immediately . “He’s lactose-intolerant.” Helga explained.

We were quite ready to hide ourselves under the dining table when Maria-Sara said she wasn’t feeling well. She was in a really bad mood (her school mate and dear friend had just left the country) so she excused herself from dinner. It had got nothing to do with us.

Yet by that time, we were pretty much feeling responsible for everybody’s bad mood 🙁

“This soup is delicious! You have to share with me your recipe.” Helga said, while serving herself a second bowl. We thought she was trying to make us feel better.

We took a sip of the soup. It was good. So goooood. All of us (Helga included) had our seconds and thirds, and this huge pot of “Too Funky Beetroot Soup”…

Too-Funky Beetroot Soup

…was pretty much gone by the time we finished dinner. We saved one bowl though, Helga said that she wanted some for lunch tomorrow.

Perhaps it was how Helga effortlessly and gracefully turned the dinner situation around. Perhaps it was the “popcorn tea” she brought to our room after dinner that comforted us. Or perhaps it was Helga’s offer to take care of our bicycles while we did our “rounds” in the different towns around the lake. We didn’t really know. We just knew that we’d return again…

Connecting across the lake
One afternoon in on Isla Verde in Santa Cruz, Helga wrote us and introduced Lisa, a colleague at the university. She had shared our project with her and Lisa wanted to bring us to a school for a sharing session with the local children.

We took the opportunity to invite them to our sharing that following Sunday. At that time, we had thought to ourselves, “Who would wake up on a Sunday morning, cross the lake from Panajachel to Santa Cruz, just to listen to our stories?”

That Sunday morning, we saw Helga wave to us as she walked into the yoga studio where the sharing session was being held. She had brought Lisa…and even the children, too.

“The ferry fees weren’t cheap, especially if you multiply it by 4. The event was due to start at 11AM, which means the children had to get up early and get ready…on a Sunday morning. But they had such big big smiles on them when they arrived. And even though we’ve only connected briefly (and also badly because of that beetroot dinner), I was thrilled to see them. I was happy to see my little family. I was touched, they bothered to come… they cared enough to come.”Val

A couple of days before we were due to return to Panajachel, Helga wrote again, “I just want to remind you that we hope that you´re going to stay some more days with us, and maybe we´ll find some time so you can teach me, or better my maid some Asian cooking. We´re looking forward to see you soon.

And so were we…

A Warm Welcome
Helga and the kids greeted us with their familiar big smiles when we arrived. Helga said, “Welcome home. You’re having dinner with us tonight.”

Olguita yelled, “Spätzle!” and the other kids chimed in gleefully. Spätzle is a pasta from Helga’s hometown. Helga makes it herself for the children, and it never fails to bring them joy and comfort:

That night after the kids had gone to bed, the women (Helga and us) shared a pot of tea and exchanged stories. We chatted about our experiences around the lake while Helga told us about how she began her life in Guatemala 13 years ago… over 3 cups of tea, 3 women became fast friends.

Bonding Over Shared Meals
Despite the fiasco of the first dinner we cooked for Helga and the kids, we were given plenty of opportunities to bond with the family over various shared meals. Knowing that the kids had strong suspicions of our culinary skills, we contributed in what ways we can:

At the same time, Helga also made sure that we got to try “tipico” Guatemalan dishes. Every Thursday when Udi (Helga’s helper) comes, Helga would “pre-order” a specific Guatemalan dish for lunch and invite us to join them:

One day, we hesitantly approached Helga if we could cook for the family once more. It was Lisa’s birthday and knowing that she’s alone in a foreign land, we’d really liked to surprise her with a birthday dinner. “We promise to cook something child-proof.”

Child-proof = something with meat. Something with some sort of pasta (remember Spätzle?). No cheese. No funky coloured stuff. And very importantly, no veggies.

We came up with a “Happy Meal” for the kids; and they enjoyed it thoroughly. They even shared their food with their friends and asked for more! (Click here to read about Lisa’s Birthday Dinner) Needless to say, we were very pleased indeed 🙂

More than Sharing Food – Sharing Stories, Sharing Wisdom, too
“Do you want to eat with me?” A sentence we often hear from Helga. Maybe it was because we share similar tastes in food. Maybe it was because the kids don’t like veggies and we’re the only ones she can share “her kind of food” with. Maybe it was for the good company.

Helga liked eating with us. And we liked it just as much, too.

"I will be very offended if you do not take a picture of it!" Helga said to us with a grin

"I will be very offended if you do not take a picture of it!" Helga said to us with a grin

So here it is, Helga – the photo of the Mango Avocado Salad with Basil and Pumpkin Seed Powder:

Mango Avocado Salad with Basil and Pumpkin Seed Powder - a dish that became a "comfort"

Mango Avocado Salad with Basil and Pumpkin Seed Powder - a dish that became a "comfort"

You know how we like certain dishes not just because of the taste; but more for the circumstances during which we first tasted the food? Like how Val loves fried rice because it reminds her of her father’s teachings as he taught her how to fry her first plate of rice…Like how Tay loves steamed egg with minced meat because it’s something her mum will put on the table every time she’s home for dinner…

Mango Avocado Salad with Basil and Pumpkin Seed Powder has grown on us to become one of the comfort foods we make when the journey turns a little rough, when we want to feel healthy, or simply to reminisce the many heartfelt conversations we’ve shared with Helga over a plate of salad.

What else bonds women together?

The one indulgence that makes all women put aside their differences and conspire together so as to savour that sinfully sweet moment.

Our indulgence with Helga was the “Helguita’s AWESOME home-made cake”. Helga, being the good mother that she is would insist on baking cakes herself for the children’s birthdays. And each time she bakes a cake; she’d make an extra or two… for the “adults”.

We’d find ourselves excuses to visit someone – and bring a cake. Someone’s coming over for dinner – we’d serve cake. It was a conspiracy that sweet-toothed Val and pastry-lover Tay were totally delighted to partake in.

When Helga knew that Uncle Robert (whom she had introduced us to over tea with…you guessed it – cake!) had agreed to help us organise a sharing session at Casa Cakchiquel, she offered to bake her special two-layered “Helguita’s AWESOME home-made cake” as something to offer to the attendees.

We offered to pay for the baking ingredients because Helga was already hosting us, feeding us etc.; we wanted to give something back. Instead, Helga said, “Why don’t you help me with the baking, and learn how to bake at the same time?”

Click on the thumbnails to read the entire process:

As Helga brought us through the steps of baking a cake, she shared with us stories of how she secretly baked behind her mother’s back; how she invented her own recipes; and how now her daughters – Maria-Sara and Olguita are “learning the ropes” in the kitchen and inventing their own recipes. “There’s a lot of wisdom in a mother’s kitchen you know?” Helga said.

Dear Helga, thank you – for more than just sharing food, desserts and recipes…you’ve shared with us many stories, which imparted invaluable wisdom for us as young women, too.

"Helguita's AWESOME home-made cake"

"Helguita's AWESOME home-made cake"

“Helguita’s AWESOME home-made cake”

One night, we went home and found a rather distraught Helga. We guessed that she’d had a rough day with the kids. Tay put some water to boil and made tea. The three women sat at the dining table wordlessly. Just as Helga got up to leave, Val blurted out, “Helga, you’re a magnificent Mum.”

“Mami Helga”, the following photos are for you to remember, “You are a MAGNIFICENT Mum!” (Click on the thumbnails to view the full images):

The Kids – Becoming the mothers we never thought we could be
“Are you girls going out tonight?” Helga asked. She wanted to ask if we could babysit the kids for her while she went out that night. “I don’t often get to go out; and since you are here, I’d like to take advantage of the opportunity.”

We’ve never been mothers ourselves; and can only imagine the trials and tribulations of bringing up three children single-handedly. And if us taking on three kids can free a couple of nights for Helga to take time-out for herself; why not? It’s always a pleasure to be able to “give back” something to our hosts. Besides, how hard can it get?

Well… A piece of chewing gum on Tay’s slippers and super-glue on Val’s slipper later, we managed to find “common grounds” with the kids, established relationships… and even grew fond of each other.

Juan Miguel – “With great powers, come great responsibilities”
“He has so much anger in him. Sometime I don’t know where to help him direct all that energy.” Helga was talking about Juan Miguel.

We gifted Juan Miguel a ciclista T-shirt with Benito Juarez’s face on it. Coincidentally, Juan Miguel had asked everyone to give him money for a bicycle as his birthday present.

So the shirt was a “perfect fit”; but more importantly, we wanted to share with him the story of Benito Juarez –  an intelligent boy who went on to become a great man, the president of Mexico. We told Juan Miguel that he has the same intelligence, and will grow up to be a fine young man – just like Benito Juarez.

"No abrazo (hug)?"

"No abrazo (hug)?"

“I recognized the anger in Jual Miguel because it is the same anger I see within myself, the anger that had brought phases of self-destruction in the past. The night before we left Helga’s home, I said to Juan Miguel in earnest, “Anger is an energy that is powerful enough to destroy but it is also an energy powerful enough to see you through great things. And we always have a choice.” That night, I saw the look in Juan Miguel’s eyes, and I knew he’d understood what I meant.”Tay

Maria-Sara – “You’re already the beautiful woman you want to be”
Val had noticed that the girls were staring wistfully at all the attention given to Juan during his birthday party. One afternoon, she asked Helga, “I’d like to share something with the girls. I can teach them make-up, nails, hair, anything… ” and before Val could complete her sentence, Helga exclaimed, “I was just telling my friends I need to look for someone to teach Maria-Sara all of these, and then you offered! I’m not very good at these things you know?”

Val and a beautifully confident Maria-Sara

Val and a beautifully confident Maria-Sara

Dear Maria-Sara,

In that one afternoon
You girls giggled and Ooh-ed and Ahh-ed over
“Tricks” and “Secrets” of beauty

And if there’s anything we wished that you’d always remember
Is that the greatest trick –  is to be thankful for our assets
And that the greatest secret –  is that your greatest asset lies within

Precious one,
You are already the beautiful woman you want to be

Olguita – “Stars appear tiny in the skies, but they are awfully bright.”
“I think she wants your attention.” Val said to Helga after Olguita yelled really loudly for the third time, “Mami escúchame! (Mummy listen to me)!” We were having a conversation, and perhaps Olguita had felt left out.

Being the youngest of the three kids, it was easy to feel that way; and Olguita often made sure she gets “attended to” in various ways.

On her birthday, we picked a postcard that had a picture of a starfish and a pretty girl on the beach; and wrote her a note:

Our birthday note to Olguita

Our birthday note to Olguita

We had no idea how to tell Olguita know that she is very special indeed; that just like the stars in the sky which appear so tiny, each of them are actually brilliantly bright, and she’s always shining…with a light that’s uniquely hers.

We chose to let the glass star filled with our love that accompanied the postcard to help her feel that instead.

Home – a place where we begin…and end our day
Over our 2 months in Guatemala, as we travelled around the lake and to Xela, Momos etc.; we were always glad to “come home” to Helga’s house. The place has become a “base” of sorts, one where we begin our mornings refreshed, rejuvenated and ready for the work ahead…

…and one where we end our day, grateful for the safe and warm abode.

Nothing more homely like a pot of on the fire

Nothing more homely like a pot of on the fire

"回家吃飯 (come home for dinner)"

"回家吃飯 (come home for dinner)"

“回家吃飯 (come home for dinner).” A familiar phrase often repeated by our (grand)mothers. A phrase that brings warm to not just the bodies, but the very core of our souls. A phrase that family members say to each other to express their love.

Family – people who open their hearts and share their lives with you
Every time we walked through an opened door, we marveled at how many doors have been opened to us on this journey – how people readily share their homes, their cultures, and even their dinners with us.

Every time we reach out and connect with an opened heart, we stand in awe at how much love there is in these hearts – how they unselfishly and authentically share their lives, their stories, their hopes, and even their vulnerabilities with us.

Every time we asked, “What is your dream?” , we sit in humbled silence at the miracles happening right in front of our very eyes – how each soul takes a leap of faith and announce its desire, its passion, its very reason for existence… its dream with us.

And no, we do not take any of these for granted. We constantly remind ourselves to be grateful – for the door that opened, the heart that connected, and the soul that leapt.

Helga's CS Reference for us

For it is for these reasons, all of the above reasons; that we are not just collecting dreams, but also collecting humanity, and even “families”, too – that we keep going on this journey, that we keep living the way we live.

Some one mentioned in passing, “You must have a lot of friends in all the places you’ve been to huh?”
We answered, “We have families.”

"I want you to keep this key. This is your home. It will always be."

"I want you to keep this key. This is your home. It will always be."

Dear Helga, Maria-Sara, Juan Miguel, Olguita, Lobo (the dog), Charlie and Mishita (the cats),

You are our family in Guatemala.
And will always be.

Tay and Val

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