A taste of Mother's Day abroad

The best gift was not the usual flowers and chocolates

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Mother's Day as a concept is a nice enough idea -- who could argue with honoring the moms who've loved, guarded and supported us all our lives? -- although the overly commercial and sappy aspects of the holiday make my teeth hurt.

Sure, I like flowers and chocolate as much as the next person. But most of all -- and I believe this is true for most mothers -- I like spending time with my offspring.

This year, I was lucky enough to get all three, but not in the usual way. Instead of roses or bonbons by mail from our faraway child, I got to visit exotic gardens with her and make our own chocolate the way the Mayans did in 600 BC.

There aren't many advantages to having one's kid live thousands of miles away, but traveling to see them does make visits that much more memorable -- which is what we did in late April, before the rainy season washed out the roads. And it was the best Mother's Day gift ever.

Our 22-year-old daughter is living 2,900 miles away in Panajachel, Guatemala, on the shore of Lake Atitlan, a huge fresh-water lake surrounded by volcanoes whose presence make it even more dramatically beautiful than Lake Como in Italy. The town's location and low cost of living also make it a haven for American retirees who can live much better there than at home, and it has become a sanctuary for "old hippies," in my daughter's words, who like the laid-back lifestyle. She's there working for a nonprofit agency, polishing her Spanish and having a great time. We did, too.

Somehow she found a lovely little house situated safely behind two locked gates, with several acres of lush gardens tended by a professional. In addition to the explosion of sweet-smelling tropical flowers, plants and vines, the garden boasted oranges, limes, blackberries and bananas. And all right outside her door. No wonder she loves it there.

My favorite form of transport in Pana was the ubiquitous tuk-tuks -- little red, three-wheeled conveyances that zoom around town carrying passengers for 5 quetzales each, or about 65 cents.

The lake is surrounded by other towns, so travel by motorboat from the public docks is common. We rode one to San Juan La Laguna, home of several cooperatives that make art, weaving and coffee and sell them directly to buyers.

Most amazing of these was Tejadores Mayas, Women Weavers of San Juan La Laguna (www.weavingwomensanjuan.org), who make gorgeous organic textiles using age-old methods done entirely by hand. They grow, beat and spin the cotton, dye the yarn with natural coloring from berries and plants, then immerse it in liquid made from boiled banana root. This keeps the color from running in the wash -- a claim I can now attest is absolutely true.

Then each woman weaves her wares at home -- scarves, placemats, bedspreads, wall hangings, table runners, clothing -- and brings them to the co-op for sale. The days and weeks invested in each piece are beyond comprehension in the modern age, but the outcomes are exquisite. Proceeds from each purchase go back to the weavers who made it, allowing them to support and educate their children. We came home with a wonderful bedspread, and I was never so happy to buy something so beautiful.

We also traveled by shuttle (the hairpin turns are a real challenge to the stomach) to Antigua, the Spanish colonial city located 14.5 miles from the capital of Guatemala City. Bigger and more expensive than Pana, Antigua was the country's capital until an earthquake leveled it in 1773. It has since been rebuilt -- one-story buildings only -- and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Antigua is the site of the Jade Maya Factory (www.jademaya.com), owned and operated by archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger and her husband Jay Ridinger, who discovered the mother lode of jadeite jade, a stone found only in Guatemala and Burma. Visitors can tour the factory and see workers creating the fine pieces for sale in the shop.

But the most fun was the chocolate-making class at the Choco Museo in Antigua (www.chocomuseo.com). We learned about the cacao plant and the history of chocolate, which was always more drink than candy to the native people who grew it. Then we did what the Mayans did: roasted the beans, peeled them, crushed and ground them into paste using stone implements, added boiling water and spices, and poured it back and forth between two beakers until it foamed. The result was thick and intense but not sweet -- added sugar came later, courtesy of the Spanish -- and nothing like the hot chocolate we know today.

Then the teacher made a bow to modern technology and mixed up a batch using more contemporary methods, which we poured into molds, sprinkled with coconut and other flavorings, and brought home.

So I have my chocolates for Mother's Day. But the best gift was seeing our daughter moving with comfort and assurance through another country and culture. After just a few months, she seemed completely at home. Neither of her parents was half as adventurous or confident at her age.

"Where does she get it?" my husband asked, watching in awe as she bartered in Spanish with a shop owner. "Not from me. I was clueless at her age."

"You didn't have the Internet," I reminded him. "Or a semester abroad. Neither of us did."

"It's more than that," he said.

"True, but that's a big factor. Who knows how we'd have turned out if we'd grown up in the information age?"

There's no telling what makes our kids turn out the way they do. But as long as we can be there to share what they've become, that's enough.


Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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