From International Retreats

An 8 Minute Write from Susan Collins


We wrote together in Culebra this year.  Here she is with Sophy Craze:

Sue Collins and Sophy Craze Culebra 2015 by Sue Collins



Cell phone set to buzz in 8 minutes. How much I’d like it to be the gentle ding of sweet Patricia’s bell but the sun is shining in London. I’m sitting on my balcony and can feel its heat on my face. So good. ‘Mouth up’ good. The 18 hour journey is behind me, fading nicely like the pain of childbirth. The warmth is transporting me back to that circle of new friends. People I didn’t expect to like. Why was that? My arrogance? My Englishness? Fear of exposure? Fear that words wouldn’t flow from my pen? But they did and all my negativity blew away on peerless skies and lapping waves. Home to my own bed. What a glorious luxury. Clean white sheets, favorite pillows and a broader mind. Some post to open – the tax man telling me I owe him. I don’t. My payment and his letter crossed so I’m filled with smugness. Huh! It’s my birthday! Texts from my gorgeous children. My grandchild is kicking, saying ‘Happy Birthday’ to its grandmother. Now the 8 minutes are up. Too soon. But I have to stop. Patricia rules.



Our First English Class for Adults – What Do You Want To Learn?

Everyone in Santa Cruz works hard, so it wasn’t easy to find a time for our 3-week English class for adults. But we finally settled on 4:00 – 5:30 pm, Monday through Thursday afternoons, and invited a lively, motivated group of six students to join us:

Juan, Juana and Rosalea look for words to describe families

CECAP’s staff: Rosalia Hernandez Pérez, administrative assistant and law student; Noë Raphael, director; and Juan Pérez, who heads up the computer lab and attends university in Quetzaltenango. Lucas Sajcuy, is a 3rd year law student and is a guardian (property caretaker); Juana Hernandez, has finished secretarial school and works at Villa Sumaya; and Guadalupe, the medical center’s nurse and women’s health educator.

We (Linda Fry, Patricia Vogel, Susan Webber, Elizabeth Stauder and I) wanted to find out what these students already knew and what they wanted to learn, so we began with introductions that included our favorite food. It’s a testament to how small the world is becoming, that lasagna, falafel, spaghetti and chocolate brownies beat out tamales—by a long shot.

The "small world" comes to Santa Cruz by boat and pickup truck

And to the question, what do you want to learn in this 3-week class, everyone agreed that they wanted to speak in English about their families, by which they meant their community, to outsiders. They wanted to learn to read and write English more easily, to master the verb TO BE, and to get the ABC’s down cold.

Lucas, Noë and Elizabeth find words that begin with "J"

So, to see how well they could speak and write, we told a chain story, beginning with “We went to Africa…,” to hear how students used the past tense, in which each person repeated the sentence of the person before and added a sentence. We wrote the sentences down and compared with each other to see if we wrote the same thing. Linda wrote them on the board for us, and we corrected our own work.

We did some pretty funny things in Africa.

And finally, we learned to sing the very same ABC song you probably learned in kindergarten, first pointing to the letters on cards and saying them aloud many times. What a wonderful way to practice those most difficult letters, i and h and j—and the difference between b and v. We were all in it together, singing away, when 5:30 came–too soon, really, on this very first day.

A Visit to the Co-operatives of San Juan

san juan shore
former San Juan dock and thatched roof shop

February 9 dawned clear and calm, meaning the lake was free of whitecaps – propitious for any boat trips on Lake Atitlan. Embarking and disembarking can be trecherous otherwise. A merry group  – Patricia, Susan Webber, Linda Fry and Trisha Vogel – met at the pier at Santa Cruz for a trip to the village of San Juan, approximately a half hour trip, with our intrepid boatman, Ramos. We arrived at a pier that had been inundated by last year’s storm, seeing what had been small shops and a dock surrounded by water hyacinth and water fowl.

Juan's tuc-tuc
Juan’s tuc-tuc

After arriving at the pier, we hired a tuk-tuk driver, Juan, who is a huge fan of FC Barcelona, to drive us up and down the winding, steep  lanes and by-ways of San Juan. Our first stop was the Co-operativa de café, which is formally named “La Voz que clama en el desierto” the voice crying in the desert.  Coffee plants flower somewhere around May 1- May 5 and the village of  San Juan collectively climbs a steep mountain across the way to give thanks, their “Dia de la Cruz”.
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Measuring Smiles

measuring smiles
measuring smiles
Arriving at CECAP Center Santa Cruz, Guatemala February 2, 2011

ancient young faces
perched on blue chairs
like colorful birds on a wire

8 sewing machines hum
measuring tape cravats
and scissors wait for instructions

do you measure a smile
like the length of a sleeve
shoulder to elbow, armpit to wrist?

do you measure pride
like a pant leg inseam
or the waistband for a skirt?

smiles measure from ear to ear
and pride, from head to toe
whether in inches or centimeters

tailor children for life
teach them a craft
then watch them grow

dock at Tsununa
dock at Tsununa
February 3: the dock at Tsununa – it is the only one there, the old one having been destroyed by storm. Everywhere I look, people are patient and take pride in small things like serving food to an amiga.

This is an adventure and a learning experience that will color the rest of my life – moving, exciting, challenging and very worthwhile. Come join us!!! If you haven’t noticed, colors are very important here. The Nutrition Center at Tzanjomel, high above Tsununa, is decorated.


We Begin to Teach English

So, by boat on Sunday, January 30,  amid the lake’s rough afternoon waves, Susan Webber and I arrived in Santa Cruz laden with teaching materials, our clothes soaked. We were very happy. At 8:00 am Monday, we met Jeanne Mendez and her class of ten culinary students at CECAP.

Jeremias, Servando, Loida, Juan Carlos, Pedro, Rebeca, Julia, Jeanne, Tomasa, Juana, Julia
Jeremias, Servando, Loida, Juan Carlos, Pedro, Rebeca, Julia, Jeanne, Tomasa, Juana, Julia

The students are learning at the moment to wait tables–in English. They have opened the Café Sabor Cruzania on the top floor of the CECAP building where the view is most fabulous. They welcome guests in English or Spanish orKek’chikel, depending.

Juan Carlos about to wait on his first customers in the café
Juan Carlos about to wait on his first customers in the café
And with varying degrees of success ask, “How may I help you,” as they offer licuados (a lovelier word than “smoothie”) in pineapple, strawberry, mango, and banana, with yogurt, milk or water—a lot of vocabulary to learn in just a few days—and coffee: do you want milk and sugar with that?

Jeanne asked Trish Vogel and me to give her a hand with the class and  today we spent a lot of time answering the question, “Where is the bathroom?” –something we had forgotten to teach before the café opened–which led us into consideration of the differences between there and here and where.  And by the end, we could all see why it’s important to keep them straight.

The culinary program began a couple of weeks ago and runs for 10 months. I’ve already spoken with two restaurateurs here in Santa Cruz who are anxious to hire some of the graduates. It’s my guess that with good teamwork and support from us in the bleachers, CECAP, teachers and students have hit a home run with this program.

Jeanne with culinary class
Jeanne with culinary class
The immediate reward of course, besides the great fun we’re having with ten bright, motivated students, is going to the café after our class. If you plan to visit, I can recommend the licuado with mango, banana and yogurt. And the fresh pineapple upside-down cake is–well, you’ll really have to try it.

Speaking of which—if you are TESOL-trained and can lead a class, or if you have the gift of teaching and want to tutor individual learners, I hope you’ll consider giving part of yourself to the people of Santa Cruz la Laguna. We need teachers who can come in for ten weeks to a year (or more!–it’s a fascinating, beautiful place to live), to work within the English program. Then you can have all the licuados you can drink. Would you like chocolate with that?

Arriving in Guatemala

Buying a beautiful weaving by my new friend Sonia
Buying a beautiful weaving by my new friend Sonia
What a journey from the snows of Massachusetts to the warm days and cool nights of beautiful Lake Atitlan! Patricia and I arrived in Guatemala City on Wednesday and spent a few days in Antigua, sightseeing & practicing Spanish with her amazing teacher Hugo Arriola.

THIS is how you learn a language!!  We spent 4 hours a day wandering the streets of beautiful warm (the people and the weather) Antigua, visiting museums, buying textiles, changing money at the bank, breakfasting at wonderful local cafes– we even had a field trip to a macadamia farm. All the while Hugo gave a narrative–ALL in Spanish. It was delightful conversation, paused now and then for gentle correction & instruction.

Macadamia farm
Macadamia farm field trip
Early Sunday morning we boarded the shuttle for the 3 hour winding ride to Lake Atitlán–a place I had read about and seen photos in Spanish classes for so many years.  The first sight of it took my breath away, and continues to do so as I look at it out the door of my cabin (which faces east so I can watch the sunset from my bed!)

Next post: off to school!

En Route to Guatemala

Prayer to Ixchel While Boarding the Plane for Guatemala

Ixchel, Maya Goddess of Moon & Weaving

Oh let the synapses reconnect

Lo siento, olvidarme todas de español

Let the words of my mouth be in Spanish

Cuando llego en Guatemala

Let the world I carry in English

Be safe and beautiful

Mis hijos y hijas, mis nietas

Y nietos, mi esposo y amigos.

May I open to the people and colors

And smells of Antigua, ciudad vieja,

Con una cabeza y corazon de español.

Patricia Lee Lewis

Santa Cruz on Lake Atitlán Calls for English

Sunrise over Lago de Atitlan
View from Santa Cruz, sunrise over Lago de Atitlan

How can it be, in what looks like paradise, that strong, resourceful Maya people want to spend their time learning English? They have a rich culture and speak Kaqchikel, the complex language of their own—-and many also speak and read Spanish; but in the pueblo of Santa Cruz la Laguna high on a mountain above Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, where women weave exquisite textiles on looms strapped around their waists and carry heavy loads of firewood on their heads; where men fish the unfathomed waters of the lake of legends in hand-carved wooden boats and work their way up and down steep paths, backs bent under stones weighing sometimes 200 pounds, poverty is an everyday experience.

Young student
Young student
Other communities around Lake Atitlan rest on its shores within easy reach by tourists. Until lately, with the advent of a road fit for trucks and tuk-tuks, few visitors braved the steep, long paths to the heart of Santa Cruz, and there was little to entice them. The economy and everything based on it withered. These days, thanks to the inspired leadership and support of Amigos de Santa Cruz, most children in school finish sixth grade, many go through ninth grade, and a few move on to higher education in nearby Panajachel or Solola.
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The Sacred Isle of Iona

By Patricia Lee Lewis.
Published in the LA Times.

There is a Gaelic prediction that whoever goes to Iona will go not once, but three times. It is a tiny island, barely 1½ miles by 3 miles, set across a narrow sound from the large island of Mull in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. But the richness of its landscapes, its ancient history, and something mysterious and ineffable in its spirit, call the traveler to return.

When you approach Iona for the first time, it’s likely to be by ferry from the small port of Fionnphort on Mull, or from the north by private boat. You will see a small village, its front row of stone houses neatly lined along a street facing the Sound, and behind them, gentle hills holding stone buildings, farmland and sheep.
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A Pilgrim in Wales

By Patricia Lee Lewis.
Published in Hampshire Life Magazine.

In the ancient Celtic tradition of pilgrimage to sacred places, Erna Evans is going to Skomer Island.

We sit across a table on the train from Cardiff, strangers speeding along Wales’ south coast. As she talks about surviving the Holocaust, marrying an English doctor, becoming a widow, her eyes are as keen as a herring gull’s.

She calls herself a traveling housewife, and goes by train or bus every day to the cliff-walk along Wales’ edges, or to one of the small British islands, exploring as she can. Her swollen legs are made worse by Wales’ wet weather, so walking is hard; but she says the secret to life is not to mind the rain-and then every day is a good day. As I say goodbye and get off the train in Tenby, it begins to drizzle.

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