17 May 2007

Another Day in the Life

I was recently told that I don't put much about myself in the blogs lately, so I thought I'd give a personal account. Lately, I've been invited to be part of a project by the health team of my host organization. They are working in roughly 25 rural communities around Tecpán. While the health workers offer inexpensive medical consultations and give classes on how to improve family nutrition to women, an agriculture technician and I work with the husbands on various topics. For the most part, the men were offered help making an experimental field where they can try out new crops. As most projects don't work quite as they are originally designed, I was invited along to facilitate talks on commercialization.
This has given me a great chance to see the dozens of rural communities of my area that I otherwise would have no invitation to visit. It lets me drum up business to find groups that need my help but don't live as close to a major municipality (and therefore are overlooked by most groups offering support).

I recently went out to a community roughly two hours away from my town (and any other significant town). We rode out for about 45 minutes on paved road, and then completely left any familiar civilization. We rode on this one-lane path for a while, where I fell asleep. I thoroughly enjoy my time with those of the health workers. They kid me about cooking my own food and I kid them about having a dozen children. All and all, I've learned how strong of an impact you make on people through idle conversation. We pass through beautiful countryside, and we pass a point that has became familiar on these trips: where concrete houses end. Concrete, the most common building material in Guatemala, is not used by the poor. The poor likely live in houses made of sod and stone (not unlike those of homesteaders in the United States) and of wood. The wood houses concern me even more than the dirt houses, because they are usually so sparsely covered that the light and smoke from their kitchen fires stream out between the cracks at night so that you can see them preparing dinner or children playing on the dirt floor. I don't know how anyone in these houses can sleep on the cold, windy nights. In these areas, children have little black spots on their faces and arms, a disease simply caused by not washing enough. While you can't help but feel sympathy, I admit it makes me happy to be reminded that I am lucky enough to be able to help people in such a situation.

Once we arrived in the tiny town, we parked the pickup, with its six passengers and bed full of medical supplies, we park at the three-room school. There we meet up with two other compatriots that arrived on motorcycle before us. We all help prepare the school's office as the doctor's office. Meanwhile we met the head teacher, chat for a few minutes and shared the requisite morning snack (today, a hot corn drink and sweetbread). We find chairs to set up outside as a waiting area, and bring a few groceries to the school's kitchen where the women meet and learn a new recipe. Today we're working in a community that grows a lot of lettuce, so they are teaching how to make a salad with mangos, peanuts, sweet peppers and mustard. The other agricultural technician and I scope out an area that we can use to work with the men. We usually find some form of small office. Today we find a small wooden building that has a light inside, but we find out halfway through the talk that it also has a lot of africanized (killer) bees. No one gets stung, but it is undoubtedly distracting. I give my standard workshop, which has the main point of convincing farmers that good products mean nothing if you sell all of your product to the only guy in the area with a pickup. You're still going to get lousy prices if you're at the mercy of one buyer.
My charla went extremely well and the group decides to talk over the ideas of organizing into a cooperative or finding a way to rent a pickup themselves. I'm always excited when people begin with these prospects, because they sometimes think this the window of how to get out of the viscous cycle of being a poor farmer. Of course, it's only a part of it, but it's a good start. Sometimes they think they're putting the cart before the horse by worrying about selling a product before having their panacea product (broccoli if you're a lettuce farmer, lettuce if you're a carrot farmer, carrots if your a broccoli farmer, etc.), but sometimes not.

After we all finished up our work in the community, we packed the pickup and went to a tienda. After buying corn chips and sodas, we joke about our project designed to help poor families eat better. The doctor of the group says he wants to stop at a church we drove by on the way. After about 20 minutes of driving, we pull off the road near an nondescript house. We all get out of the pickup and chat with the woman of the house, who is sifting stones and leaves out of a bag of corn that was obviously the family's harvest and primary food. Just beyond the house is a concrete shack of roughly 15 x 15 feet inside. The floor, we notice, is an odd-looking old orange square tile. We realize that this is be beginnings of the remains of a small compound for the church. Just past the shack is a small white chapel.

The chapel has beautiful cedar woodwork inside, and a small altar with various pictures of
the Virgin Mary and Jesus pasted on the walls behind it. A small piece of twine hangs down from a bell just above the entry to the church.

Turns out the chapel was built four or five centuries ago. We suddenly notice the strangely ornate pila (concrete reservoir used for keeping water) The pila is obviously part of the colonial ruins. It was likely part of a large Spanish colony on the land.

Someone mentions that in the past, Spanish colonists built churches near or on top of important Mayan sites to ¨compete¨ against Mayan visitations and to encourage another way. We look around and notice various ruins of houses on the field in front of the church, now enjoyed by two grazing mules. They appear markedly different from the Spanish ruins, and we notice several retaining walls made out of a familiar rectangular rock. It looks very similar to the stone used in Iximché, the ruins of a Mayan city near where I live. As we left, we noticed several other ruins of one civilization or another, including a few other pilas in the middle of fields of corn.

Indigenous Guatemalans have something only a handful of people in the Western Hemisphere have: the ability to trace their history for centuries, and know where they, as a people have come from.

1 comment:

Sarah Evans said...

Hi Andrew,
I love reading your blog! Also loved seeing the latest pictures! Glad Laura was able to come see you. The volcano looks amazing! I feel like I am learning a lot from your life in Guatemala. The mayan culture is so interesting. Good luck to you and know that you are in our daily thoughts and prayers. God speed. love,
Aunt Sarah

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.