Monday, May 28, 2012

Slow Roast, Part I

Considering my undergraduate thesis was a rather large undertaking, and that it has not (yet) been formally published, I was thinking what a shame it would be if no one other than myself and my ever-supportive thesis advisors read it. After all, the piece did help me get into graduate school.

 So, I'll be posting a portion week by week until the all one hundred thirty-four pages have bled out onto my blog.


  Slow Roast: 
 The Coffee Supply Chain Seed to Cup 

Kelsey E. Kudak 

 “A coffee remembers where it came from, and how it was raised. 
 The soil, the weather, the processing and the roasting are all recorded in the bean. 
 And I think that’s magical.” 
 -Tim Castle- 
 The Perfect Cup

  Cast Of Characters 
(In Order of Appearance) 

  • Kelsey Kudak Author, Narrator 
  • Ramón Delgado Sánchez Manager, Cooperativa Río Azul 
  • Manuel Coffee Farmer, Guide, Cooperative Member 
  • Doña Elva Coffee Farmer, Cooperative Member 
  • Steve Bauer Coffee Trader, Paragon Coffee 
  • Bob Briante Veteran Coffee Trader, Paragon Coffee 
  • Michael Vlahos Coffee Grader, 39 Broadway 
  • Derek de la Paz Coffee Roaster, Peace Coffee 
  • Bob Vaseleski Master Roaster, Dunn Bros Coffee 


 The previous day’s sunburn was causing my nose to peel as I climbed the hill behind the William Botnan Learning Center in Santa Avelina, Quiche. I’d traveled to Guatemala on countless occasions, but my skin, white and snowy from the Minnesota winter, has always burned in highlands of the country. It was January, and as I reached the hill’s plateau, I met an Ixil woman raking coffee beans in the sun.

 Santa Avelina is located near Nebaj in the Ixil triangle of Guatemala. It was in this mountainous area that some of the gravest atrocities occurred during the Conflicto Armado, a 36-year civil war that ended officially just a decade ago. The area of the hill on which I stood was roughly the size of a soccer field, and half the space was filled with cerulean tarps containing piles of beige beans. Children from the school giggled and scattered as I crossed the field’s dry, brown grass. The woman set down her rake in surprise as I greeted and approached her. She had combined her own beans with those of her neighbors, and, she told me, they received seven Quetzales per pound of green coffee. Converting the price to dollars, I realized she was earning roughly 90 cents for every pound of her labor. Her clothing was rumpled and she wore a faded lavender blouse, whose color matched the purple in her plainly woven skirt. She was barefoot.

 She smiled as she handed me a fistful of green-gray beans, peeling away their tissue paper skin. “Smell them,” she said through crooked teeth. Unroasted, the aroma was faint but marvelous.

 While thrilling and unusual to me, the scene is mundane for others. For those who work within the coffee industry or live in one of the world’s coffee producing countries, coffee drives both the economy and daily life. These individuals understand that after oil, coffee stands as the second most traded commodity in the world. For businessmen who travel regularly to origin—the common term for coffee growing regions—the journey is an ordinary business trip. But these people also see that matters of sustainability are entwined with the production of a quality bean and aromatic cup of coffee. They know fair trade certification to be one option to remedy poverty among coffee farmers, but not necessarily the perfect or only option. In the most basic sense, they must understand these ideas in order to complete each business transaction, no matter how small or simple.

 The average consumer, however, rarely understands these details at all.

 Though Guatemala City has now become my literal home, the Mayan woman, her rake and her beans remain a vivid reminder of the colorful, amicable people of Guatemala’s countryside who are easily overlooked within the confines of my surrounding cityscape. As a high school teacher at a school for those counted among the socially elite, it is rare I have a student who doesn’t know that coffee grows on trees. Most of them, indeed, have their own farm, or are connected to one by friends or family.

 This phenomenon illustrates exactly how small the circle of control is here in Guatemala; the rich represent 10% of the population, and the rich consume 40% of the country’s resources annually. With the remaining 90% of Guatemala’s people left with 60% of all goods, it un-complicates things if the elite forget about the highlands. Or, in the least, they can turn a blind eye and reinforce the existing class system and unbalanced distribution of wealth. Though the city is still dingy and dangerous and you’re likely to get robbed in even the nicest parts of town, those areas are also filled with shops, relatively affordable fine dining, fountains and gelato. Certainly there are obvious differences in the architecture—which is created mostly from cement—and gardens and yards of residential areas are usually closed tightly behind iron gates and garages. But that aside, it is shockingly easy to forget that I live in a country in which 50% of children under five years old are chronically malnourished.

 Guatemala’s first Starbucks opened a few months ago, and though I imagined the novelty would eventually wear off, the sheer number of people filtering through the store is remarkable and the line at the new store continues to snake out the door at 3:00 on Sunday afternoons.

 The building is beautiful and large, but unremarkable as far as a Starbucks is concerned. The condiment bar is identical to any other of the company’s chains—right down to the wooden swizzle sticks perched on its surface. Display shelves are stocked with travel mugs, Tazo tea and lemon bars. Antique light bulbs dangle on wires from the ceilings, and photographs of the coffee supply chain are wallpapered in black and white. Jazz music hums gently through the stereo system. Sitting within the store, the only apparent difference between this Starbucks and any other within the United States is that a “tall” beverage is made to order as an “alto.” That, and the armed security guard hanging out by the door.

 In April of 2009 I heard Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds, say he was like a mascot for the coffee industry. He was speaking at the annual conference for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in Atlanta with several other coffee authors. He said he couldn’t possibly know as much about coffee as the people who surrounded him then, but they were happy to let him come along and ask questions. He chuckled as he spoke, noting that everyone in the industry was “very nice” to him. “This book happened all by accident,” he said, and proceeded to tell its history, mentioning that his writing, research, and contacts had transpired in a sort of serendipitous manner.

 Sometimes I think I’m a mascot, too. The individuals I’ve met while working on this project have aptly offered their knowledge, connected me with their friends, and fielded my endless inquiries with graciousness and a spirit I’ve seen only in those who work in this special industry.

 I am not a coffee expert versed in the coffee trade, nor do I grow coffee trees or am I intimately familiar with the craft of roasting coffee beans. I am a journalist and observer rather than an expert. Yet I believe my position as consumer rather than connoisseur is both ideal and unique. This sets me apart from these other, more technical writers, and I have learned new vocabulary and context with every interview and conversation. As an outsider, I am able to recognize what information the consumer lacks. I am able to clearly see the gaping holes between the average consumer’s idea of coffee and its reality as a valuable agricultural commodity. And I am able to see that the consumer’s ideas do not often reach past the roasted, and ground coffee they purchase from the grocery store.

 But unlike many consumers, I have had the rare opportunity to converse with both coffee producers in rural Guatemala and some of the highest leaders of the Specialty Coffee Industry alike. I have seen and documented the way coffee—a delicate berry of fiery red—grows and is processed and passed through an intricate system of machinery and human hands.

 Others have documented this supply chain, but I aim to complicate the way in which it has typically been represented: a sunny scene of serene farmers on a hillside. Other authors put a nicely packaged bow on their trips to origin—appreciating the work of the farmers, but not truly engaging the details of the labor—thus presenting a romanticized view of these “difficult but happy lives.” These authors subject the complexities of the coffee supply chain to a few concluding statements but make no real aim to educate consumers on what they are drinking or how it got into their cup, aside from a few moments in a hand-held grinder and French Press.

 I also believe that the power to alter the supply chain toward a more balanced trade lies in the hands of consumers. But they cannot make educated demands about coffee without first knowing the way in which it is processed and what makes a particular cup of coffee special from its bargain counterparts. In line with this idea, Michael Pollan and others have contributed to a surge in what might be called “food narratives.” These authors have admirably traveled deeply into our nation’s food industry to uncover the real-life stakeholders. They have allowed the farmers and processors to tell their own stories as characters in their narratives. Coffee lends itself to this journalistic genre in countless ways. The delicate nature of the coffee plant requires it be hand picked; within each berry are two coffee beans within individual characteristics. By the time our coffee actually lands in its cup, hundreds, if not thousands of human hands have touched each coffee bean.

 While I’m not in search of the “right” version of the supply chain, I am in search of a good one, one that honestly portrays the real work involved in the coffee harvest. From their work, stems the work of exporters, brokers and the constant ebb of market prices. Then, there is the art of roasting, and the consumer’s personal preference.

 In the least, I seek to offer my own historia de café—to give those who will never see the sun come up over Guatemalan mountains or pick coffee for themselves a few of the sounds that surround these scenes and an understanding of the personal stories that touch each bean. For coffee is, and will remain at its best, a hand picked crop and a hand picked cup. Coffee is delicate and requires humanity to proliferate, and eventually percolate. And while a percolator isn’t the best device for brewing coffee, it provides a familiar metaphor for its social structures. Societal and global stories have been embedded into the beans required to produce our brew. In turn, these beans create the coffee that surrounds endless conversations and occasions. Certainly, the beans are an integral commodity, but they are not merely commodity. They are a fulcrum of human exchange.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Though a little outdated, I stumbled upon an audio-recording I'd made of this piece today, and, nearly three years later, still find it poignant.


I used to believe I wasn’t naïve.

But falling in love with a 28 year old Republican has somehow proven me wrong.

My father tells me I think the world is kinder than it really is, and that sometimes I need to respect its danger.

My independence tells me that I shouldn’t be afraid of walking down the street my whole life. If something bad is going to happen to me, it won’t happen under my pretense.

But my independence has begun to fail; I used to spend Sunday afternoons on a whimsical jaunt through campus or along the river road, finding whatever I might find in old buildings and in river-muck. No one to keep time, I’d drop schedules and deadlines aside for a while and turn to my shuttered craft of focal length and light. But those other kinds of Sundays were years ago, and Sundays now mean the couch. We sit curled, vegged, and wedged. Between his chest and the furniture's brown, leather skin I pass time without a thought.


The light this morning is shut out by a gray filter; clouds and dotted precipitation slow traffic as I dive through a hole in it toward the Hennepin and Uptown. I don’t usually turn here from 394, but the hunt for breakfast and wi-fi has my stomach pulled in several directions. After a meandering drive through the morning’s dimness, I park both my Corolla and myself at the Longfellow Grill. An americano and a breakfast of oatmeal pancakes and fruit wait while I write here in a pensive calm as rain patters outside the window. As the earth cleanses itself, I’ve found my own moment to breathe.

The question was posed to me yesterday: “Have you found that you’re missing the weekend?” Though missing the weekend doesn’t mean I was so drunk I don’t remember it, I’ve begun to book myself with events that would normally take place during the week. I schedule them in and around my work schedule because the week brings my thesis and midterms and essays, and I feel like my blue papermate pen will never leave my hand.

It follows me to work where I take orders in its script; it’s responsible for filling my calendar; it writes assignments and my to-do lists that rival the length of a library catalog. Yet I cannot seem to separate myself from it. It is my favorite thing, this blue pen. Sometimes, when I write with it, all slows for my thoughts to collect, but usually its ballpoint can’t scribble fast enough. I have a box of 64—which reminds me—I started to write this because I fell in love with a 28-year-old who thinks I’m naïve.

After dating a week, he had wrapped that box of pens in brown paper. “Happy Knowing for a week,” he said, handing me the smallish box as I sat across from him on the couch. As I tore the sturdy wrapping, I realized he’d paid attention and noticed my favorite and only kind of pen and I had sort of melted right there. Well, I would have melted save for the fact that his apartment—a drafty, converted stable house with its original 1911 windows—was particularly cold that November evening. Playing dumb and pretending he hadn’t intentionally turned down the heat, we made a fire in its space and spent the evening as close to its flame as we could get without burning ourselves. The pens watched us from the coffee table.

It was yesterday afternoon we’d fought. Not in a screaming and yelling sense, but a frustrated confusion. He called me naïve for buying a solo ticket to Atlanta that landed at 10:00 PM. I didn’t understand the problem. “You don’t wear a bullet proof vest you know,” he said and furiously ended the call.


With wet eyes and my defenses alert, I demanded a second opinion on the matter.
And after no one else picked up, I called my father—a 54-year-old Republican—to find that he sort of agreed.

He was laughing when he answered, knowing the question’s premise before I could even pose it to him. “You know you’re not supposed to call your father when these things happen,” he chuckled. I defiantly asked him not to get too excited, reporting that he was the only one in the moment who’d answered the phone.

But the truth is I call my father for advice a lot. As the old saying goes, your parents become your friends as you age, and so far I’m fitting the bill like every other twenty-something on the planet. Allowing the other man in my life to do so, my father doesn’t take me on dates to dinner and the theater like he used to when I was in my teens, and our relationships has taken on another kind of form. He’s removed much of the say-so and control he once had… allowing me to figure out my own agenda, and call on him when I need a little support in my endeavors.

Nevertheless, he will always be the person I seek for gentle reassurance, and all the right words when I’m upset or discouraged or in a general disarray with my life’s plan. He speaks softly when he explains matters to me—the words come almost under his breath, as if he’s reserved them only for my ears. But as his own ears age, I’ve found that my own volume requires increase. It's nice, though, to have the option to speak up, to own up, and to explore my own words as they exists in the lives of those who surround me. And so I turn the volume up when ears become deaf or I must match the volume presented to me. But when it comes to my father, I tend to turn my own volume to a bare minimum—catching the bumbles and mutters of his speech. He is not an old man, but as he ages, I realize just how carefully and intently I must place myself within his life and his advice.

But as the volume of my naivety has become lowered, it has not disappeared.

I used to think I wasn’t naïve at all.

But I also used to think I knew everything at 13.
Once I hit 16, of course, then I knew better.
And then, there was 18 and college.

And at 22? I used to think I’d be past all that.

March 8, 2009

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just a Note...

For the moment I'm blogging with my students on another site. So if you'd like to keep up, click here.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Frankly, this piece of writing is long overdue, and to be truthful, it has been sitting in my draft box for quite some time now. However, the time has really come to catch up with you. The difficult part is that I feel we've been out of touch for so long I'm not really sure where to start.

Currently, I am teaching American literature at Colegio Internacional de Guatemala. To say the least, the job has really been an eye-opener in terms of understanding just how profound the divide between the wealthy and poor here really is. Getting blackberry-obsessed sixteen year olds remotely interested in English literature has been a challenge to say the least. Perhaps it's just that they are sixteen, but more often, these sixteen year olds have never been exposed to their own countryside--the one in which infant mortality and respiratory diseases are among the highest in the Central America and the rest of the world, because open cooking fires pollute homes. Certainly, my students have seen the beaches, tourist attractions and grandiose Mayan ruins located in Tikal. (If you're interested, this is the incredible jungle where Episode VI of Star Wars was filmed with the Ewoks). But understanding just how cyclic the poverty in their country remains, or how desperately lacking the access is to healthcare in the highlands, is another concept entirely.

I have had the opportunity to enlighten a few of my 150 students by chaperoning their chance to work as medical translators with HELPS International--the nonprofit I have always been a part of with here. In March, I completed my 14th medical team, the last three of which were accompanied by my students. It is encouraging to sit back and allow them to experience their people in an entirely new way. They return to school enlivened, and determined to create change. They make me hopeful for Guatemala, knowing that they, quite literally, are the future. While adolescents now, they will become the country's stakeholders--those who eventually take over the family business and control the circles of money among the elite.

Really, my school has a variety of families; some kids are picked up in Toyota Corollas with the hub caps missing, others jump into Escalades with their armed body guards following behind in a Volkswagen Jetta. Fortunately, none of the kids at my school are sent there with body guards during the day, but it is not an uncommon practice at many other schools with other families. What most homes and schools do have, however, are small armies of housekeepers, gardeners or janitors. Experiencing the country's lower class serve the elite in friends homes still makes me uncomfortable. I suppose the discomfort comes from either my midwestern work ethic or my inevitable and unavoidable theories of the American dream, but it is different than having a cleaning lady come to help once a week. My boyfriend has a housekeep who came from the area in which their coffee farm is located, and who lives in the house with them. Sabina has her own room, but it is a humble space. She laughs and feels like the grandmother of the family, but having someone tell me "my breakfast was served" while I was living with them for the first month or so was strange. It is a constant reminder of the class divide here. And, of course, I am a de facto member of the upper class because I am both American and in a relationship with someone who comes from a wealthy family.

I can understand, however, just how easy it is to forget the realities of the country's poor. Aside from the dingy, dirty and dangerous half, the portion of Guatemala City in which I live is filled with restaurants and coffee shops and many of the houses mimic the beauty of Spanish architecture. I live in a fully furnished apartment with its own parking space. But the difference between my neighborhood and, say, Uptown Minneapolis is that I use three separate keys to enter my apartment, and its door lies behind two, tall security gates. Oh, and I can't walk to any coffee shops nor would I ever imagine biking or taking the city bus. The only time I walk anywhere is in the morning on my way to the school bus stop around six (that's right, I take the school bus with my students to school). Even then, there isn't a morning that I don't hear more than one car horn or that I am unaware of just who is walking within my vicinity. I don't have a fancy cell phone, nor do I wear jewelry that even appears expensive on my way to school. And this is the nicest part of town.

I love to escape to what I call "my Guatemala"--the highlands. I relate to those in the highlands in a simple, but more human way. There, people are more concerned about tortillas and firewood than the latest deal on iPods and Blackberrys; though frustrating and tragic, the simplicity is also refreshing. These experiences remind me to maintain my humility and remember where I come from. While I am sometimes discouraged by my students apparent lack of interest in my class, I go the highlands to remember that my life isn't so terrible. I don't plant corn by hand. I don't pick coffee for a living. Working as a medical translator makes my effort feel worthwhile and like I am part of a true change.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Morning Stroll.

During my seven minute walk to the school bus stop this morning, I was honked at by a truck-full (and I mean overflowing) of men, a pickup filled with vegetables, three cars spitting black smoke, and two motorcycles. I was "shht"-ed by three other men waiting for the city bus, and solicited for chocolate by a woman with missing teeth.

With the sheer quantity of men in the back of the pickup, that's nearly six men a minute.


Sunday, January 16, 2011


While in Spain over New Years, Daniel and I made enough traveling plans to las us a decade. We also spent time deciding on an object we can look for in every country to which we travel. Something, a commemorative object of sorts, that we can hang in our someday home that we can tell our someday children about...

"That clock is from this beautiful artisan market outside the Royal Palace in Madrid," we might say to them someday.

"...See the green one with the swinging ticker?"
That's from Brazil when we went to watch the World Cup Soccer tournament. Or from Poland or Portugal or wherever it is we end up next.

But amidst the sickeningly-sweet, lovey-dovey planning of our new traveling collection, I've only been able to think one thing:
"Oh. No. We've become a clock collecting couple. We are now officially that cheesy couple that appears so in love it sort of makes everyone else around them a little queasy from all the love juices oozing between the two like goo." And I can't seem to get over the idea.

My God. We've started a clock collection.

A collection to show our grandkids.
A collection to fill a special wall when we have a house.


But even still, amidst all of that, the idea of our clock sort of enlivens me. I can't quite ignore the fact that I am completely embracing the idea that we, as a couple, have become clock collectors over these last weeks, commencing the hunt for a new clock with every new trip we take. That it is absolutely cheesy and I love it.

That we did find an incredible little ticker made of clay and fired in a kiln not unlike my grandmother's. That clocks, in themselves are representative of it all: the timespan of beginnings and endings, of certain eras in our lives, of live and death- of endlessness and the cyclical nature of all things.

While the analytical portion of my literary mind would perhaps like to continue with these muses, the socially conscious side of me knows quite well the threshold that an audience has for such things. So I'll stop there with the clock metaphors, but do brace yourself, because there's more.

"Think of the clock like our relationship. So, if it breaks on our way home, we know now that we're not going to make it. You just have to trust that I've packed it well enough."

That's what Daniel said to me as we entered the airport in Madrid.

I laughed and shook my head; as if we are uncertain of where we're going or wether we'll end up together.

But through this realization that we are now proud owners of a 25€ clock, it was hardly shocking or frightening in an "I don't want to be married anymore"/Eat Pray Love kind of way. If anything, it made me embrace the solidity of my relationship even more than the six months and various weeks we have spent apart from one another.

However, it did, for some reason seem more of a committed gesture than an engagement ring. In today's era, jewelry comes and goes and is significant only in the representation of a marriage or an engagement; and it seems that so many fall apart. A clock collection, however, is something you add to over time, that changes the landscape of your walls. It moves, not only circularly as the collection's ticking hands, but also outward as the collection grows, creeping along the walls of our eventual house. Though we bought the clock in a covered artisan booth in a row of similar shops, near a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it was somehow intimate and romantic and significant. Though it wasn't a ring, it interestingly felt like we took some kind of unspoken oath, or made some sort of silent promise to each other as our clock was being bound in brown packing tape and bubble wrap. Covered safely in red paper and stored carefully in Danny's computer bag for the flight home, it feels like we made some other kind of journey over the last ten days.

From my drunken crying on New Years Eve, to the patience it took my dear boyfriend to trudge up and down the streets of Bilbao searching for the perfect New Year's getup because the dresses I brought were still packed away somewhere in my suitcase that remained somewhere between the airports of New York, Madrid and Bilbao.

If taking four hours with your (for the moment) vain, crazed girlfriend to go shopping while your friends polish off four bottles of wine and several rounds of beer along the ocean isn't love, then I'm not quite sure what is.

There are some days, like the morning of New Years Eve, where I am positively sure Daniel loves me more than I could possibly love him back, and sometimes, I think he loves me more than I even love myself.

But he does this, because he knows that I'll eventually come to my senses several hours later, and I'll apologize over cappuccinos for the selfishness that usurped what was supposed to be a lofty, sweetly drunken afternoon. We'll join our friends in our new clothes, and drink Calimochos to ring in the new year until the sun comes up around seven o'clock and we ride the metro home in the clouds.

And then, after several days, several drinks and twenty-some hours of travel, we'll go home and hang the clock in the stairwell of my apartment. It's burnt, brown, clay face will clash with the rest of the vintage decor already posted around the place, but it will stand proudly as a swirling reminder of what we believe in and why we believe in one another.

And certainly, the who idea remains a cheesy scheme, but it's really of no importance to us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Letter to my family on Thanksgiving

The clock in Danny’s Dad’s car says it’s 6:47, but I’ve already been awake for two hours. Luckily, Danny was the one to get up at 4:15 to turn the water heater on this morning for a shower. A little old fashioned, the device takes half an hour at a minimum for our water to be lukewarm, but forty minutes is optimal for the production of a steamy stream from the showerhead.

Early as always in HELPS good fashion, we were slated to leave the office on a construction project today at 6:00. Of course in Guatemalan good fashion, we left at 6:40 and then stopped to fill the coaster, trucks, and our car with diesel at the gas station adjacent to the office. It’s now 7:08 and we finally hit the winding road to Antigua. As the four lane mountain highway twists upward, I’m bracing my computer into my knees to prevent it from slipping into the lap of Danny’s sister who is next to me beneath a blanket and a pillow and waking up just enough to worry about the stray dogs darting from the dusty ditch and into the road.

As this morning’s story goes, there are 120 families participating in HELPS’ preventative health program in Santa Clara this year. The idea is to combine all aspects of HELPS work together, and track the tangible differences made. So each family combines ONIL products (stoves and heat retaining cookers and water filters) with access to a monthly medical clinic (run by Danny), basic health and nutrition courses (to teach treatments for the common cold, flu, dehydration, etc.), and referrals to the larger medical teams if hernia surgery, etc. is required. Each family has made a Q200, or $25 contribution for their stove, and makes a Q10 ($1.25) contribution for every medical consult made. The money garnered in the clinic, then, is used to purchase medication for the patients who are working to keep their blood-pressure, diabetes, and so forth under control. In this way, Danny is able to manage many of the chronic problems the regular medical teams encounter. It’s really incredible to see the difference made when people are saving money, saving their lungs with a clean stove, and learning how to keep themselves healthy by washing their vegetables and hands.

The year is ending, and ten families in the program remain stove-less. To solve the problem, Richard Grinnell, HELPS Vice President, suggested the members of the office go and install the remaining stoves themselves. He also requested they also invite their families to come along.

The beautiful part of it is that everyone volunteered, which explains the caravan of people—mothers, sisters, in-laws and children—we’re following this morning. There are 30 people packed into the HELPS coaster and three other SUVs are in line with the bus. Normally a stove takes four people to construct and a team of 12 people usually completes 10 stoves in a day, but this is sort of a special opportunity for those who work in the office to share their work with their families.

With the number of people coming along, each group will have the chance to install one stove, but this will also give us the opportunity to spend time with the families receiving the stoves. We plan to have lunch with them, and take some time to understand the way they live in their drafty, usually dirt-floored dwellings. I always say your life changes when you’re invited into a family’s home in the highlands.

Mario, Danny’s dad volunteered for the project right away, and is this morning’s driver. The picking season at the coffee farm is in full swing, and so he is accustomed to traveling into the mountains twice a month. As I write here and the others two are curled up in sleep together, Danny and his dad are collapsing in laughter.

What’s astonishing to me, though, is that we were able to coerce Danny’s diva-sister, Adriana, and her docile boyfriend, Sebas, to come along. For me, who was introduced to the highlands at an early age—this trip is old hat, but it’s interesting to hear Danny explain to his little sister where we are, and to Sebas, what difference stove makes for the people and the environment.

Both at nineteen, they’re the kind of kids who rarely get out of the city and into the highlands. When you don’t take time to leave the comforts of the waiter-filled VIP movie theater where we saw Harry Potter last night, or the beautiful restaurants and comfortable western-like homes in the city, it’s easy to forget the humbling means of the people across the larger part of this country. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Of course, the other beautiful part about today is that it is Thanksgiving.

And it is a beautiful day. The rainy season ended a month ago, and the countryside is blooming. As we pass hillsides of pines and periwinkle flowers, this morning’s sun is streaming gold and casting shadows in incredible patterns across the limestone walls of the highway. Many of these walls have collapsed and spilled into the road as mudslides that have dried and now cast extra dust into the air when the wind picks up. Sun flowers, daisies and black-eyed susans are sweeping yellow flames between a patchwork of crops cut into the mountainside. If you look carefully enough, coffee plants sometimes peek through the cover of shade that blankets their careful growth and now, their berries will soon ripen red, lining their branches like the cranberry garland of a Christmas tree. The sky is absolutely blue, and volcanoes peak above the tree line of corn on the road ahead as a chicken bus cuts out in front of us and whizzes by.

But as I gaze across this terrain the never ceases to amaze, my heart is with all of you at home.

It seems to me that I could be spending today in no better way than I would be at home; because working on the stove project in the highlands is a way I can give of myself. Though family surrounds me here and we are stopping on our way home for a proper Thanksgiving dinner in Antigua, I miss all of you—you humor and your smiles and your jokes—because there really is nothing like our family.

But I have a much to be grateful for today. In addition to a proper and competitive education, I’m bilingual, have managed to secure a good job with higher pay than I thought I would originally earn, and I get to take high school kids into the highlands as translators with that job. Geeking out as an American Literature teacher and letting kids experience the highlands as I did when I was seventeen? The way I figure it, I’ve got the best of both worlds.

I have a beautiful apartment, have been able to navigate the unintelligible twists and turns of Guatemala City, and will be dressing up like a prom date—huge dress, hair, nails and all—at a fancy wedding this weekend. Not to mention the fact that I get to attend that wedding with my best friend instead of an awkward classmate who asked me to the dance because “I am nice.”

It is wonderful to spend my time every day with the one person I connect with on all levels, and who loves me for exactly who I am, and the way that I am. Danny has been an incredible blessing to me. He is a gentleman always. He holds himself at high esteem and expects the same from the people who surround him. He encourages me, and pushes me to be better, and is unafraid to tell me when I’m in a funk or being selfish. He keeps me grounded, and as I’m sure you all know, I need that sometimes. And sometimes I need that a lot.

I won’t pretend like these three months of adjustment have been easy. There have been breakdowns—one of which just happened to fall on the week that Gram and Mom arrived in the country. For me, there is sometimes a lot of self-induced pressure to fit in… to wear and say the right thing, to cook the right kind of food the right way. There are protocols in the social circles here to which I am still adjusting: what color ties are appropriate for a daytime suit or a nighttime suit and so on and so forth. “But it matches my dress,” is my argument, and his response is, “but you can’t wear a black tie for lunch, and cuff links are only appropriate if I’m wearing a tuxedo.” Guatemalan slang is like learning another language, and in a loud club it’s impossible to follow conversations—especially of the women. Also, I’ve finally been healthy in the last three weeks after battling giardia for the same amount of time. I’ll just say it was miserable and leave out all the pukey details.

But the other day, Danny asked that I stop comparing the way things are here to what is familiar at home; and I think he’s right. The onset of Thanksgiving, and his lack of empathy or understanding for the holiday had put me out of sorts. I had been trying to think of how to share the holiday with his family, but knowing we had this trip planned, had no idea how to cook a turkey and simultaneously work on stoves in Santa Clara. I had the idea to make Thanksgiving tomorrow, but no one would have been home to spend time experiencing the day. As a result, I was sort of feeling forgotten and like my boyfriend was making little effort to make the holiday significant. I felt like he forgot I was far away from the people I love on one of the most important days of the year.

However, after a short stint with my journal I realized that none of you would want me to feel that way today, and that you, as my family have taught me more than that. You expect me recognize and understand what I have in my life, and to share both my blessings and customs with those around me. You wouldn’t want me to be soured by my absence at dinner today.

But if I am really honest with myself, the only things currently missing in my life here—aside from fall weather and the change of the seasons—are all of you.

I have this great memory of the Sunday before I left for Guatemala in September. We were all standing around the kitchen like we usually do on family gatherings, and Thomas was being passed from person to person. Food was laid out, and the carrot cake was to be cut in a little while. I hooked up my computer to the boose radio in the kitchen and fired up the play list I had been feeding on in the weeks before I left.

So Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” rings into the background, and I turn up the volume. And suddenly I look over at Nick and he’s singing.
All the lyrics.
Though Lori is shocked at her son, Anna chimes in with the lyrics and there we were—together, singing and dancing in the kitchen like I used to do when I was kid.

And it was just a beautiful moment. Simple and pure, like our family and the way we treat one another. Full of joy and laughter and an embrace of our ever-changing paths. I’ve thought a lot about that moment since I’ve left, and it floods my mind each time the song comes on and I hear,

“ … I’ll be giving it my bestest, and nothing’s going to stop me but divine intervention,
I recon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some,
But I won’t hesitate no more, no more, it cannot wait, I’m yours….

Well open up your mind and see like me,
Open up your plans and damn your free,
Look into your heart and you’ll find love, love, love, love, love,

Listen to the music of the moment, people dance and sing,
We’re just one big family,
And it’s our Godforsaken right to be, loved, loved, loved, loved, loved…”

And if there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that I am loved by all of you, even though we are what sometimes feels like worlds apart.

I recently watched a pirated version (bought in the best market in Guate) of Julia Robert’s new movie Eat, Pray Love. The story is Robert’s quest to find herself after a failed marriage, but foremost how to navigate a relationship with herself. There is a scene, where after four months in Italy, she arrives in India for another stretch of time, and is discussing her past with a Texan who has also arrived to meditate and practice yoga there.

In her moment of loneliness he says to her, “I know you feel awful, but your life’s changing… That’s not a bad thing, and you’re in a perfect place for it—surrounded by grace.” She replies, “But I really miss him,” and he says, “So miss him. Send him some light and love every time you think of him, and then drop it.” What he’s implying is that you’re never going to keep your life moving if your mind dwells in another place than where you are. And I decided I needed to stop dwelling in my own loneliness, and recognize my blessings instead. Because missing all of you is wasted energy; I would rather send you my love.

Texas man continues on, saying, “You know, if you could clear out all that space in your mind that you’re using to obsess over this, you’d have a vacuum and a doorway. And you know what the universe would do with that doorway?

He answers his own question.
“FROOM! Rush in,” he says. “God would rush in… fill you with more love than you ever dreamed of. I think you have the capacity, someday, to love the whole world.

But you have to do the work.

So that’s what I’m doing now. From day to day, I’m doing the work: throwing myself into conversations and situations outside of even my own comfort level. Outside of the Guatemala that I already know. I have an incredible partner to help me along, but I’m trying not to rely on him too much because I know I need to do the work of adjusting on my own. Foremost, though, I really am sending all of you my light and love at a constant. When any of you come to mind, when I wake up in the morning, when I am folded into the highlands of this beautiful country, but especially today, when I know you are celebrating together and full of joy.

Happy Thanksgiving.