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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Xela and Volunteering with the Mayan Stove Project

GUATEMALA | Saturday, 4 April 2009 | Views [2849]

Mayan fabrics at the Mercado

Mayan fabrics at the Mercado

After surviving our chicken bus challenges (I now see why most tourists travel by private microbus in Guatemala – its still pretty manic, but its this side of hair-raising) we arrived in Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced ´Shela´) in Quiché Mayan.  This is Guatemala´s second biggest city, more a large town.  Its up in the highlands, so still chilly at night, but nice and warm during the day.  We had some time to kill, so we spent a good few days just bumming around the town.  Although Xela doesn´t have much in the way of nice architecture (most of it got flattened in various earthquakes), its a lively, bustling university town, with lots of nice cafés and restaurants and a great, diverse market.

We spent a day looking for more fabric like we´d bought in Chichicas´, but found that none of the numerous fabric shops had the same design or colour – it appears the fabrics are hand-made on a small loom, and they don´t make enough to export to other areas of the country.  Besides, other areas have their own specific traditional designs.  Eh well, we´ll have to hope that the half bolt we have will be enough to cover our sofa.  We also investigated sending back the rather large bag of Guatemalan textiles that we´d accumulated over the last few weeks – all eight kilos of it!  Turned out that it was going to cost us 240 quid by DHL and 120 quid by standard post!  We decided not to send it, but to lug it around some more and try our luck in Mexico....

Yum!  Little mangoes at the mercado

We also used the time to start applying for jobs back home.  Slightly depressing, but it has to be done, as at some point we have to start earning money again!  Still, it´s quite surreal that you can now apply for a job half way around the world.  Interviews might be interesting, but we´ll just have to see how telephone lines are in Mexico!

Our trusty Olympus Miu digital camera also took the opportunity in Xela to die on us.  Well, let´s say it may be terminally ill anyway, as the LCD screen has stopped working, which is kinda important without a separate viewfinder.  Despite Rachel clutching her poor baby camera to her chest and talking softly to it,  there was nothing for it but to scour the local electronics stores for a new one.  Luckily, there was a good line in mainly old models, although there were rather alarming discrepancies in pricing between shops (eg: more than a hundred quid for the same camera).  We plumped for a two-year old Canon – its the size of a small brick, but it does the job.  We´ll see whether Miu can be fixed when we get home, in which case we´ll sell the Canon.

Café Baviara, our hangout in Xela

Rachel wanted to do some volunteering with a local community while we were here, and she found out about a stove project that could take volunteers for a day at a time.  This project builds wood-efficient stoves for poor mayan families who can´t afford the capital to build their own.  These stoves help by reducing the amount of wood required to make meals – so reducing the rate of deforestation on the hills, whilst also reducing the back-breaking task of collecting wood.  Just as importantly, the stoves burn efficiently, with a built-in chimney.  This stops the women and children of the house having to breath in loads of woodsmoke, which in the long-run leads to lots of respiratory problems and diseases.  It was a subject I remember doing an essay on back in my undergrad days in the mid ´90´s.

We turned up at the language school which runs various social projects in the mountain villages surrounding Xela.  We were joined by a couple from Canada who´d been volunteering on the project since February.  Along with a couple more volunteers we headed off for the chicken bus up to Los Pinos, a Quiché mayan village far up in the mountains, beyond San Francisco del Alto.  The latter was having its weekly market, so our bus was jammed full of shoppers – we stood, or sat on the edge of a seat as more and more people were squeezed on.  It reminded me a bit of the record-breaking attempts to see how many people you can stick in a mini, or a telephone booth.

Eventually we got off at an un-assuming sign by the side of the road.  Sure enough, the area is dominated by pine forest.  The village was a large, low density sprawl over the hilside.  Each household had a milpa around the house to grow corn and vegetables.  Two of us picked up a load of cooking pots that a lady had carried off the bus and staggered down the hill with them to our rendevous point with the local project co-ordinator.  Once we got there, she thanked us, hoisted all of them onto our head, and bounded off, leaving us feeling rather inadequate.

The project co-ordinator, one of the village elders, took us up to the family who we´d be building a stove for.  After saying hello to the family - a mum & dad slightly younger than us, and their five lovely young kids (eldest about seven), we were shown into the plank and corrugated iron hut that was going to serve as their kitchen.  Volunteers at the project had already built the breeze-block and brick base the previous week, so we now set about lining the inside of the stove body with sand before putting in a brick oven-bed.  We then sealed the joints with a mud-mix before mixing some concrete and tiling the outer-edge of the stove.  The hob-plate was then placed on top (much like that which we used at MMRF in Belize), sealed with more mud mix, and then the chimney box and chimney concreted in place.  After about two hours of work it was completed – and very nice it looked too.

photo to come!

Rachel had tried to talk to the younger kids, but they didn´t speak spanish – they only learn this when they go to school.  After we´d cleaned up, the lady of the house gave us a nice meal of freshly made tortillas (made on a hot plate over an outside fire), beans, eggs, tamales and fresh lemonade.  They weren´t going to be able to use their new oven for a month to allow the mud sealant to dry properly – very frustrating I´m sure!

After, we went up to another house where our other team was doing the finishing touches to another stove – this house was bigger, but still very basic.  Neither of the houses had electricity, and water was from a nearby stand-pipe with an intermittent, not especially clean supply.  All the rooms had dirt floors, and the families really didn´t have much in the way of furniture, let alone luxury items – the kids were filthy (there´s no-where really to get washed properly), and were dressed in ragged clothes.  While we were waiting, Rachel started to feed a half-eaten bread roll to one of the local, hungry-looking dogs.  The project co-ordinator told us that the kids at the house we´d built the stove for would probably be glad of it instead, which really took us aback.

We went back via our first family and gave a bag of snacks and biscuits that we´d brought with us to the kids.  It brought a lump to the throat to see how happy the kids were to recieve the gift.

We were so glad that we´d volunteered for the day.  Although we didn´t achieve much in the small time we put aside, it really did bring home to us what privileged lives we lead, and the small mountain of problems that people in these remote areas face.  Getting basic infrastructure will really help them – there´s a project to get a decent water supply just starting up, and preventative projects like the stoves will make a significant difference in the long term.

But we couldn`t really see a way out for the kids.  There really isn´t any work in the area except for subsistence farming – the men have to go away and work as itinerant farm labourers if they´re going to get any money.  The school is very basic, with poor teaching, and most of the kids only attend for two or three years – after this their parents can´t afford the uniforms and books required, and besides, they need the kids to help out at home or in the fields.

Its this lack of opportunity that really gets to you in the end.  There are always going to be poor people in the world, but it is unjust that these kids are not going to have any opportunity to make their lives better, and that they´ll most likely follow on in their parent´s footsteps in grinding poverty.  Rachel and I will be looking to support the project more when we get home.

Yes, it was hot, and steamy.

The only other outing we took from Xela was to visit the hot springs at Fuentas Georginas, in the neighbouring hills.  Our bus wound up a narrow hill road through thick cloud.  We passed large fields of vegetables – this area grows most of the greens for the surrounding countries, until we arrived at the busy springs.  We went on a weekend so there were lots of locals having a day out.  The springs are pooled – the top one is really hot, and as the water drains into the lower pools it gradually gets cooler.  The air, of course, is incredibly humid, and the sides of the hill above the springs are covered in lush ferns and tree-ferns looming out of the warm mists.

The next day we said goodbye to Guatemala and took a bus up the mountains, past Huehuetenango (yes, they have fantastic names here), and over to the Mexican border.

The hot pools lit up as evening draws in...

To see more photos of Xela, the stove project and Fuentas Georginas, click here.

Tags: fuertas georginas, mayan stove project, quetzaltenango, xela


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