A Three-Charity Guatemalan Sampler
April 3-19, 2013
Ever since my sister adopted two children from Guatemala I have wanted to go there to learn about my niece and nephew's birth culture. Knowing that Guatemala is a developing nation recovering from years of brutal civil war, I hoped to contribute in some small way as a volunteer. I chose a one-week malnutrition project, and I also visited two other charities. In between I spent a few days each in Antigua and Panajachel. It was an amazing experience. This is a summary of my trip.
Guatemala is just south of Mexico.
I visited Antigua, Parramos, and several towns on Lake Atitlan.
In addition to my usual travel luggage of a small backpack and rolling suitcase, I also took a duffel bag with 50 pounds of school and medical supplies for one of the charities I visited.
Cathedral of San José in Antigua. I flew from Seattle to LAX and from there it was about four hours to Guatemala City, which has a very nice airport. You walk out the front door and shuttle busses are waiting to take you to Antigua for $10. It's a 45-minute drive.
Antigua's central park.
Santa Catalina arch, Antigua.
La Merced church, Antigua.
A typical Guatemalan restaurant breakfast of black beans, eggs, fried plantains, crema, cheese, fruit, and bread.
A typical cobblestone street in Antigua. The motorized rickshaws are called "tuk tuks" and are like cheap taxis.
Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its colonial architecture, some preserved, and some still in ruins.
Antigua means "old" and refers to the fact that the city was the capital of Guatemala until earthquakes damaged the buildings and drove the Spaniards to rebuild elsewhere.
Another beautiful ruin, Antigua.
Got milk? He does, and it doesn't get any fresher. Those are cups hanging around his neck. Get the idea?
The view of Antigua from "Cerro de la Cruz," a viewpoint you can climb to in about 15 minutes. A hazy volcano, one of three surrounding the city, is visible in the distance.
Local women wearing traditional handwoven clothing.
Each village in Guatemala has its own unique handwoven and embroidered clothing. Here are some women's outfits.
More examples of traditional women's clothing from several villages.
A mother and daughter in matching traditional dress from their village.
Women from the same village wearing matching outfits.
Traditional men's clothing.
Older men still wear handwoven, embroidered clothing.
Younger men do not.
This barefoot man is returning from his fields.
After two days exploring Antigua I boarded a shuttle to Panajachel (Pana). It cost $10 and took a little over two hours.
My first view of Lake Atitlan, a caldera that was formed by a megavolcano. Think Crater Lake, times two and a half.
Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes.
From Pana I took a mini bus (i.e., a beat up old van crammed full of people) to Godinez, 30 minutes away, and then a tuk tuk to the home of Will and Diane Boegel in the tiny town of Agua Escondida, high above Lake Atitlan.
Will, a podiatrist and surgeon, and his wife Diane, a nurse, quit their jobs, liquidated their assets, and moved to Guatemala about four years ago. They formed a charity called Opal House. Their goal is to do what they can to help the impoverished people in the area.
This building houses the Montessori school they opened this year.
About 14 pre-kindergarten kids from the local community attend the school. They are fed healthy meals, helping to combat malnutrition.
They hired Jackeline, a Guatemalan teacher. She is wonderful with the kids.
Will picks the kids up and drops them off each day in his little yellow tuk tuk "school bus."
I got to go along when Will dropped the kids off after school. It was a highlight of my trip.
After a lunch of delicious guacamole (Diane and Will have 70 acres of avocado and coffee trees), I went with Will to pick up these pre-teen girls for a Friday afternoon "Girl Time" class. Jackeline talks with the girls about things, such as menstruation, that are not discussed in traditional Mayan families. Her goal is to help prevent teen pregnancies through education and awareness.
I felt privileged to participate in the group, and I believe it will make a difference in the girls' lives. These girls are 10-12 years old. Typically, most would be pregnant by the time they are 14 or 15.
The view of Lake Atitlan from Diane and Will's home at 6200 feet (the lake is at 5000 feet elevation). They have converted the farm to organic. Overuse of subsized chemical fertilizers is causing a lot of environmental damage in Guatemala.
After a lovely two days with them, Will and Diane drove me to Pana, where I boarded a boat like this one for the half hour trip to San Pedro on the other side of the lake.
Approaching San Pedro.
From San Pedro I took a tuk tuk about two miles to a smaller nearby town called San Juan.
San Juan la Laguna, where I lived for eight days with a Mayan family.
The San Juan waterfront. Fishermen use these wooden boats to check their nets.
Coots and fishermen near San Juan. No one is completely sure why, but the lake level has been rising over the past few years, drowning trees and houses.
The entrance to the family compound.
The Bizarro family's front door. Rising Minds, the organization I volunteered with, has developed a homestay program as a way for local families to earn additional income while giving visitors an unparalleled cultural immersion experience.
My room had a large, comfortable bed and armoir.
To my surprise it also had a large TV and a dvd player. I suspect the room doubles as the living room when they don't have a homestay guest. I'm not sure how the family got the money for the TV.
All homes in this part of Guatemala have electricity and running water. (To reduce costs, most families use lights sparingly.) The water is not safe to drink so Rising Minds provided a filter. This is a typical sink. The right side is for dishes, the left side is for washing clothes (by hand), and, because water is apparently not available 24/7, the center serves as a water storage tank. You dip bowls in to get water for washing.
On the left is a toilet (one for about 10 people), on the right is a shower (cold water only - the family heated water for me and I took bucket baths). Although the house was a bit messy, it was hygienic, and I never got sick.
Guatemalan families eat a LOT of tortillas - no meal is complete without them. They boil their homegrown corn with calcium hydroxide (lime) and let it soak overnight (this does several things, including making the nutrients easier to absorb). In the morning they take this soaked corn to the mill. Here my host sister (Micaela) is working the dough before shaping the tortillas.
Guatemalan tortillas are smaller and fluffier than Mexican tortillas. They have a smoky taste from being cooked over a wood fire. Three times a day you can hear the slap-slap sound of women making tortillas. It's not as easy as it looks...
The family eats and cooks at this tile counter. The kitchen has a traditional wood stove (comal), a propane stove, and a dish cupboard. Although the comal has a chimney, the house was often a bit smoky.
People usually live in extended-family compounds. Here are cousins Domingo and Hedy in the compound courtyard heading off for school at 7:15 am. That's a tarp-covered chicken coop behind them.
On my first day in San Juan, two of the children took me on a tour of town. This sign displays the traditional outfits of the village (men's on the left, women's on the right) and says "Welcome to San Juan" in Tz'utujil, the Mayan language in this part of Guatemala. Mayans form the vast majority of the Guatemalan population, and there are very few mixed-blood (Spanish-Mayan) people. There are about 25 Mayan languages.
Hedy, the adorably precocious 6-year-old grandson, lives with his mom and dad in his dad's family compound. Here he is with his dad and his puppy.
My hosts, Maria and Lucas (age 48), have eight children aged 11-30. Six of them still live at home.
Micaela (left) is the oldest daughter. Her daughter Juanita (right) is 11. Everyone in the family speaks Spanish.
The two youngest children (right) with Hedy, their cousin.
Gloria, one of the daughters, with her husband. Hedy is their son.
Micaela started a women's weaving cooperative eight years ago to help women sell more woven items. There are now 24 members. They share the cost of renting this shop. One of my projects was to interview and photograph the members for use in marketing materials.
Micaela weaving a shawl on a backstrap loom. Traditionally women kneel to weave, but some use chairs (easier on the knees).
A woman weaving in the traditional kneeling position.
The women dye their own thread using natural plant dyes. Here Maria washes white thread before dyeing it.
Chopping beets and greens to boil for dye.
After about an hour the hot beet liquid is strained.
The thread is soaked for a few minutes, then washed and dried.
Thread in a rainbow of natural plant dye colors.
The thread pattern is laid out on a warping frame.
Weaving is more complicated than it looks!
This all-white scarf will be "tie-dyed" to create a swirly pattern.
San Juan is a small town of about 11,000 people, yet has a surprising number of amenities, including this popular library with computers.
The town has two stadiums - this is the small one.
It also has a swimming pool and rec center.
Perhaps most important, it has regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Alcoholism is a primary contributor to poverty.
The Tz'utujil people are known for their oil paintings. Many brightly-colored murals depicting aspects of Mayan culture adorn the town walls.
Marie and her niece, Lola, in front of a mural.
This mural depicts the devastating effects of Hurricane Stan in 2005. The heavy rains caused extensive landslides and flooding.
My host family took out a loan to build two small houses they hope to rent to tourists. This is the path to the houses.
As soon as they get electric service and finish the garden, the houses will be ready to rent.
Marie carries a heavy load of firewood back to the house, about half a mile away.
Junk food has invaded Guatemala. Shops are stuffed with chips and soda.
Happily, fresh vegetables are available on market days.
This bean seller is wearing the traditional headscarf of her village.
Unfortunately these tempting packages of fresh, tropical fruit are off-limits to cautious travelers, due to the likelihood of contamination from unclean water and hands.
The corn leaves in the foreground are used to wrap tamales.
Furniture for sale at the twice-weekly market in San Juan.
Fish of all sizes abound in Lake Atitlan.
These fish and crabs were still alive, having been pulled from the lake just moments before. The fish had a wonderful flavor but were hard to eat because of all the bones.
Market day in San Juan.
A typical breakfast of atol (a tasty gruel beverage made from corn, rice, or wheat), and a soft tamal (there are several kinds of tamales).
In eight days my host family never fed me the same dinner twice. This is chow mein with vegetables and chicken.
One day lunch was guacamole, cucumbers, radishes, onions, and tortillas. Note the colorful handwoven kitchen cloths (made from chemically-dyed thread, which comes in brighter colors).
Plucking wild greens to boil or saute. I found them quite bitter.
If I was gone all day the family packed me a lunch wrapped in a colorful cloth: tortillas, black beans, eggs, and a banana - delicious.
Orange vendors peel the zest, cut the orange in half, and sprinkle on your choice of flavoring. My favorite was pinol (a sweetened flour made from toasted corn; the family served me pinol tea every evening and it was delicious).
My host father, Lucas, spends mornings and evenings working in his corn and coffee fields, and days working as a tour guide for his coffee cooperative.
The coffee harvest ended in March, so the equipment was idle. This machine removes the outer pulp of the coffee fruit, leaving behind the seeds, or beans.
The pulp makes wonderful compost. Here, cooperative members load up 100-pound bags to carry to their fields.
Coffee beans drying. There are many steps in the process of getting coffee from the plant to your cup.
Most coffee is shipped green, but the cooperative roasts some of their beans for local sale. I recommend taking a coffee tour if you visit Guatemala, but go during harvest season.
It was a 30-minute walk to nearby San Pedro. It was foggy almost every day I was there. Normally these rainy season coastal fogs don't roll in until May.
The entrance to San Pedro's central park and Catholic church. (Although Catholicism has been the dominant religion since colonial times, evangelical churches are gaining in popularity. In a nutshell, the U.S. government introduced evangelism some years ago in an effort to destabilize the country, and let's just say that it succeeded. The repercussions are still being felt. Head for Google if you'd like to know more.)
San Pedro's beautiful central park is a delightful place to while away a warm afternoon.
Fields along the lakeshore near San Pedro.
Each of the lake towns has its own flavor, and downtown San Pedro is favored by the hippie party crowd. Think dreadlocks, tattoos, ankle bracelets, and beer.
There are also oases of quiet, like this vegetarian restaurant where I took a break from Guatemalan food and had a wonderful salad
with whole wheat bread and hummus while using their free internet to do research on my volunteer project.
Before telling you about my volunteer project, here's a brief overview of Guatemalan transportation.
To get from place to place you can take a colorful chicken bus (so-called either because passengers
are packed in like chickens, or because the busses play chicken with other vehicles, dodging through traffic and up and down steep, curvy mountain roads like race cars). Other transportation options include micro busses (beat up old vans packed tight with people), or pickups (passengers stand up in the back, holding onto bars at chest level).
Inside a chicken bus it is often standing-room only, with three or more people to a seat.
For shorter distances you can take a tuk tuk. Owners add personal touches. I especially liked this Spider Man windshield decal.
Motorcyles often carry whole families, including children. Women ride sidesaddle due to their skirts.
Those who can't afford wheeled modes of transport use their feet. It's common to see people carrying 100-pound loads using a trump line across their forehead.
If you resent having to get your car smogged, come to Guatemala and you will be grateful for emissions control. Between the clouds of black smoke belching from vehicles, the wood smoke, and the fields being burned, the air quality can be terrible.
As a volunteer with Rising Minds, I researched ways to increase the consumption of vegetables, to help decrease childhood malnutrition in some of the smaller villages. I interviewed health care workers, daycare workers, and village women. This is the Rising Minds office in San Pedro. The upstairs provides lodging for the volunteer coordinator.
This nurse and her helper run the health center in Palestina, a village of about 1700 people. It took me an hour to get there via two different busses.
This is the exam room. The staff also make house calls. They mainly care for pregnant women and children. They keep detailed records of children up to age 6, monitoring their height, weight, vaccinations, and nutrition. They also teach the women about hygiene and nutrition. I was told that diarrheal dehydration, once a leading killer of young children, is now uncommon here. Educational campaigns work.
A series of daycare centers is supported by a German charity called "Aldeas Infantiles."
Each center employs a cook to provide healthy meals and snacks to the children who attend.
The daycare centers provide educational programs.
Cecilia, one of the daycare workers, picks up kindergarteners after school, and brings them to the center.
Walking back to the daycare center.
I visited a vegetable garden at this home.
Dinora and her mother are growing vegetables from seeds given to them by Rising Minds. Unfortunately, the seeds are hybrid, so the women can't harvest ripe seeds to grow new plants--they either have to buy more seeds (which they can't afford) or depend on being given more seeds. I suggested that Rising Minds only distribute heirloom seeds and teach the women how to save seeds from the plants they grow.
Dinora's front yard.
The chicken coop Dinora built using funds from a microloan. The chickens provide eggs and meat for her family, and manure for her garden.
Dinora's mother with a granddaughter. While Dinora's mother has nine children, so far each of her children only has one. I saw this pattern repeatedly on my trip.
A corn field in Palestina.
Coffee plants covered in dust (I was there at the end of the dry season).
Ripe coffee berries. Because it is a cash crop, coffee has replaced vegetables in many areas. This is one reason that many people eat few vegetables. The resulting vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause illness and make it harder for children to do well in school.
The volcanic highlands of Guatemala can be challenging to farm because of the steep hillsides.
I arrived in the village of Panyebar just as a parade was about to start, and joined the children from the daycare center for the festivities.
Children from the daycare center watching the parade.
The parade celebrated the 10th anniversary of the private high school, which had been founded by a group of villagers concerned that their children had to travel to a neighboring town to continue their education.
Guatemalan people know how to throw community events!
Many villagers turned out for the parade.
There were bands.
And princesses handing out candy.
One of the Rising Minds volunteers helped build this room at the daycare center, using bottles covered with adobe, greatly reducing construction costs.
Children at the Panyebar daycare center.
Another group of kids at the daycare center.
The village of Panyebar.
These children begged me to take their picture so they could see themselves on my camera display.
I was happy to comply!
As part of my research, I also visited a medicinal plant garden.
Cassy, another volunteer, and I sorted through the seeds donated to Rising Minds, separating them into hybrid and heirloom. Rising Minds volunteers will grow a demonstration garden they can use to train women how to harvest seeds. These women can then go back to their villages to train other women.
After eight days I said sad goodbyes to San Juan and the Bizarro family and took a boat across the lake to Panajachel (Pana), where I stayed at this lovely hotel for $15 a night.
My room had a private bathroom with hot water. It felt like a 5-star palace after living with the family.
Pana has much to recommend it: a relative absence of garbage and dog poop, a beautiful lakefront, and a variety of delicious restaurants and other amenities due to years of foreigners traveling and living here. The drawbacks are that it is packed with trinket kiosks and swarming with persistent vendors begging you to buy their wares, often with well-practiced and not-always-truthful stories of want and woe. You don't understand Spanish? No problem, they can tell their story in English!
Pana has a nice waterfront promenade. Due to the fog, I did not get to enjoy its famous volcano view or "phantasmagorical" sunsets.
Workers building rock walls along the river that runs through Pana, to prevent destruction caused by the tropical storms that have been raging through this area with increasing frequency.
This father, mother, and children are in the river bed sorting rocks, gravel, and sand to sell. Many people make their living this way in the dry season.
Pana's expatriot community has introduced recycling.
Pana's streets are lined with garbage cans. Sometimes people use them. It's a start. Garbage is a big problem in Guatemala. Drifts of plastic carpet many towns and fields.
One day I took a boat to Santiago Atitlan.
Women shopping at the market in Santiago Atitlan, a town where few women wear Western clothes.
In Santiago Atitlan I visited the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated by Mayan people in several towns in the highlands of Western Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlan is known for its blouses (huipiles) embroidered with colorful birds and flowers.
Handwoven huipiles for sale, ready to be embroidered.
An embroidery thread shop.
Embroidered huipiles for sale at a market stall. Women who don't weave or embroider increasingly wear Western clothes, partly because they're cheaper than the traditional handmade clothes.
Embroidered wall hangings sold to tourists.
I bought this huipil from an old woman on the street. I like that it is old and worn.
I bought this traditional huipil from one of the weavers in San Juan. The squiggly embroidery represents waves on the lake; the embroidered squares represent the days of the Mayan calendar.
I fell in love with the vibrantly-colored oil paintings and had to bring one home. They rolled it in a cardboard tube for easy transport.
After two days in Pana I took a bus to Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, a home for orphaned, abandoned, and disadvantaged children in Parramos, about two hours west of Guatemala City. My parents and my sister sponsor children here, and I wanted to meet them.
Volunteers and visitors stay in guest houses, which have common rooms with kitchens.
I had this room with private bath all to myself.
Vilma, the sponsor coordinator, helps the kids write letters to their sponsors, and makes sure that each child gets a special food package on their birthday.
High school kids choose an after school vocational training program (baking, sewing, welding, handicrafts, or carpentry). Here is the sewing workshop where kids make clothes and other items for use at the home, and sometimes to sell.
Kids in the bakery workshop make white and whole wheat bread.
There are more girls than boys in the carpentry workshop.
My sister sponsors 15-year-old Mynor. I spent the afternoon talking with him and gave him the gifts my sister had sent (he especially loved the Dallas Cowboys t-shirt and Texas baseball cap).
About 300 kids live at the home. They wash their own clothes and bedding by hand in these sinks.
My parents sponsor 10-year-old Pedro. I spent my second day with him. Here we are eating a typical meal of rice, beans, and bread. Although there is a large dining hall, the kids like to eat outside when they can.
The kids get up about 5:30 am. Breakfast is at 6 and school starts at 7. Here the kids are lining up to go into their classrooms.
The kids attend classes until 1 pm, with two recess breaks, one of which includes a snack.
Pedro sleeps in this dormitory with 18 other boys his age.
This is their bathroom. The kids are responsible for cleaning. Four "house uncles" take care of the kids in shifts. Some of them are volunteers from abroad who come for a minimum of one year.
Meals are served assembly line-style. Older kids help serve. The kids seem happy here and there is a palpable sense of community. Some kids have family they see once or twice a year, but many do not.
I took Pedro and his older brother out for dinner one night. They especially loved the strawberry banana chocolate crepe with ice cream!
The kids eat meals with their housemates.
After meals they wash their own dishes and brush their teeth.
I really loved spending time with Pedro and it was hard to say goodbye! For a small fee, NPH staff drove me to the airport in Guatemala City. In only 2.5 hours I was in Houston, so although Guatemala seems far away, it really isn't.
If you'd like to help:
Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos
If you go:
Round trip flights from Seattle to Guatemala City cost around $600.
Homestays cost $100-$200 a week.
Budget hotels cost $10-$15 per person per night.
Meals cost $2-$10 per person.
The best time to go is probably March.
There are many Spanish immersion schools in Guatemala, and most of them offer volunteer opportunities.
Much of Guatemala is hot and humid, but the Highlands (around Lake Atitlan) has pleasant weather year round (the rainy season is May-September).