“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” – Buddha
There comes a time in our lives where we find ourselves challenged by the opportunities that we come across, a moment in which we are finally called upon to put all those plans, dreams, and ideas into practice. When those moments present themselves we find ourselves with two options: we can discard the plan and continue leaving a comfortable, nothing out of the ordinary lifestyle, or, we can take on the challenge and give our dreams a shot. The tools to act upon such dreams and ideas are within us; however, it is easier to let those tools oxidize instead of putting them to use and polishing them. Such was the challenge we both embarked upon working with FUNCEDESCRI, Guatemala.
The experience in Guatemala has definitely changed us and has without question impacted our career goals and aspirations. When we go to another place whether it’d be country, city, town, etc., with the purpose to help we tend to think of ourselves as the “heroes” of the story. What Guatemala taught us was that the heroes of the story are not us, but the people we help…they are the true heroes. Such concept changed us in a way that it made us more humble in certain areas of our lives, more open minded, and it definitely taught to not underestimate the situation at hand. It taught us that in order to achieve a goal we have to work together, listen to one another, consider different ideas, talk and come to an agreement, make a decision and go through with it. Helping is not just giving but also receiving, it is a contribution, or a collaboration between both parties. The experience in Guatemala also showed that truly live here in the US is like a bubble; in other words, lifestyle in the States is full of privileges, but also filled with a vast amount of things that we undoubtedly take for granted. For example, the simplicity of standing up, going to the kitchen and getting a glass of water. In many of the indigenous communities we worked in, water was one of the main issues. There was a community in which the people had to walk miles and miles (around 30 kilometers) down a mountain in order to get access to this small waterfall…and then carry it all the way back up. We plus the other student volunteers walked with the “village council” which were five older men and the FUNCEDESCRI worker, Pedro, and brainstorm a technique to get the water pumping all the way up the mountain where the village was located…and here in the States water is consumed in an incredible amount and easily accessible. Here in the US society consumes so much while at the same time wastes so much, while in those communities nothing is wasted: like our trip motto says, “not even our own waste goes to waste.”
The experience with FUNCEDESCRI and Guatemala reaffirmed the believe an individual is formed at home and childhood plays an immense role in the molding of that individual; if we can aid and work with children who have faced rough times, who have been victims of human rights violations, if we can establish a friendship and make a contribution, then those positive grains of sand that others have instilled upon us plus the experiences we’ve had and will have, can be passed to others and provide a sense of hope. At the same time, those children and families will give teach us life lessons, an appreciation for what we tend to forget, and be thankful for the blessings God has given.
This is probably one of my favorite topics. Indigenous Guatemalan women are like super heroes, they take care of the household, about six children, cleaning, cooking, helping their husband out, and all while carrying a baby on their back, in a skirt, and looking absolutely beautiful. The indigenous women here still were their typical outfits, a long colorful skirt, an embroided bright colored blouse and sandals. They are usually seen walking carrying some sort of huge jug of water, sack of something, or something on their heads (usually rather heavy, I tried carrying something a woman had on her head, and all I got was a migrane), and they’ll usually have a baby wrapped on their backs. And let me say one thing about Guatemalan babies, they’re perfect. They usually spend all day on their mother’s back being with them no matter what they’re doing, and they NEVER cry, and they’re usually happy and smiling and laughing! Anyway, back to the women. Usually the girls get married at around 16, 17, 18 years of age (apparently I am already too old to be single). After getting married the girl usually has to stay with her husbands family for about a year, serving them, and helping out in the house, until her and her husband can leave and have their own home with their own land. To me this is shocking, but to them it is absolutely normal. But this doesn’t stop this women from being awesome. We have met many of the women that are involved in the work of FUNCEDESCRI, Dona Lucia (Don Francisco’s wife), and Dona Maria (Don Virjilio’s wife) are the ones we have become closest to. They are health promotors for FUNCEDESCRI, their work is to get trained and capacitated by FUNCEDESCRI on their crops and how to take advantage of them and to reach out to other women that live near their communities so that their work keeps growing. They are also midwifes and assist in all the births of their communities, and doctors, since they know every medicinal function of every plant found in their areas. Dona Lucia was the first one we met, and the first family we worked with. She recieved us in her household with open arms and her lovely smile. We were working with her husband on the field, helping him build a sheep house. When she came out and surprised us with tea and cookies. We all sat down drinking the tea and the cookies with her as she tried to teach us some Quiche, and tried to convince Caro to stay as her daughter in law (very funny moment for us, not so funny for Caro). Dona Maria we met about two weeks later. She is a very old lady with the cutest softest voice I’ve ever heard. It is almost hard to listen to what she says. We were all working out in the crop field with Don Virjilio helping him fertilize the soil and prepare it to plant more crops. Dona Maria came out in her lovely colorful outfit and told me to help her out planting seeds, I must say that one of the most wonderful and unique moments I’ve had in Guatemala was sharing that time with Dona Maria talking to her, and sharing cultures while planting seeds. Later that day Don Virjilio asked Dona Maria to tell us how she got involved in FUNCEDESCRI, this story is very important to Don Virjilio because he admires his wife so much, that her work is what got him involved with FUNCEDESCRI and gave him the strength to better their lives. 20 years ago Dona Maria was invited by a neighbor of hers to a capacitation on medicinal plants, at first she was very nervous to attend because she didn’t know how to read or write, and she didn’t think that it would do anything for her. Everything that she learned about medicinal plants she learned by memory, no reading books, no taking notes, no writting down the name of the plant with the disease it cures, she simply knows every plant and every disease. She also learned how to diagnose people on what they have and how to cure them. She told us at first it was very hard because she wasn’t convinced she could do anything and it terrified her to have to lives of people in her hands, but with time and experience she grew to love the feeling of curing people and making them better. Dona Maria and Dona Lucia are only two examples of the hardworking women that live in Guatemala, and that are to be admired for their courage and strength.
Today Pedro asked us to go with him to a community called Aldea cecilia in San Juan Xehul. We went mainly as observers of FUNCEDESCRI’s work and Pedro in action. First we stopped by Don Virjilio’s home to drop off a couple of bags of cement that we are going to use later this week to help Don Virjilio build a fountain used to raise tilapia. We arrived at Aldea Cecilia, a small town high up in the mountains. We were waiting for Pedro, for he was looking for his community partners, when we noticed five little boys playing soccer. We decided to have a little fun and join the little kids. Us, the giant gringos vs. the five little Guatemalans. Not five minutes passed when al lof a sudden it seemed as though five boys became ten, and ten became twenty, I look up and realize that there about 30 or 40 little boys playing soccer with us, or should I say against us, plus about twenty little girls around th efield, gossiping, cheering, and laughing. If I learned anyything about this kids is that they’re extremely proud, and soccer is a very serious thing in lating America. They were determined and focused on beating us, I don’t know what they were so worried about, the score was like 20-1. Another thing I learned about this kid’s decelopment was how early the machismo culture is learned. We invited the little girls to play as well, because they seemed like they wanted to. When we suggested this the boys laughed and rejected the offer, as though we were being ridiculous. we invigted them anyway, and they were very happy to play, unfortunately when we had to leave, the girls were kicked off the field. “Adios gringos!” the little kids waved at us. We went off to a lower part of the same mountain, to check out a water stream. The community needed for Pedro to evaluate the stream and decide whether it was a good source of water for the community, measure the liability of the water with the population, and brainstorm ideas on how to get the water from the source of the comuntiy. The topic of water is crucial in all our partner communities, because it is extremely hard to get purified water to the different indigenous populations that live in isolated places. This lack of pure water is a huge contributor to the rate of malnutrition in Guatemala.
Think back ot the movie Apocalypto by Mel Gibson, with the gigantic pyramids and the mayan man running through the jungle. Well, that mayan man running through the jungle was us. this weekend we decided to visit Tikal, a very famous Mayan archeological site. Apocalypto’s scenery was based on this Mayan site. First off, getting to Tikal was quite the challenge and adventure because of the destroyed roads and transportation in Guatemala. In order to get from Cunen to Tikal we had to take a “microbus” from Cunen to Quiche, a chicken bus from Quiche to Guatemala city, another chicken bus from Guatemala city to Antigua, a shuttle from Antigua to Flores, and finally a microbus from Flores to Tikal. Total travel time = 16 hours. Tikal was absolutely breathtaking. The hotel were we stayed, Tikal Inn, is inside the natural reserve were the ruins are found. We got a great price through a series of phone calls Maki had with the hotel manager, Ricardo (an important character to this chapter). As soon as we got there he offered us a tour (which he gives) at 3:30pm, through the ruins with its stories and its historical background. We decided to go on hte tour with three other volunteer students and a man and a woman from San Francisco. Sure, why not?! whats the worst thing that could happen?! I’ll tell you. Everything was going well, we covered about half of the ruins and the tour ended with us at the top of one of the tallest pyramids watching ythe sunset. It was oneo f the most perfect moments we have experienced so far. We had to get down from the pyramid at 6:00pm because it is dangerous to stay on the site past that time. Ricardo asked us whether we wanted to go back through the “grand plaza” (where the two tallest pyramids meet) or through “his shortcut”, he called it the “hunt through the jungle”, we all voted against the shortcut but he decided to take us through there anyway. “No pasar” Do not cross, said a sign infront of the path through which he took us, but hey this man gives tours here all the time, he must know where to go. We walked through this path surrounded by jungle and hunted by noises of the howling monkeys. The sound of the howling monkeys, I cannot describe, it is like a large angry animal that is coming after you and wants to get you. After about thirty minutes of walking, less and less light every minute, we started to worry a little and wondered if we were going through the right path. After an hour it was complete darkness, we were using cell phones and a couple of flashlights Ricardo had to illumate our steps. Shortly after nightfall began we reached the end of our path. Because it was blocked by palm trees! We had been going towards a dead end path the entire time! The looks on everyone’s faces when this happened were of frustration, anger, desperation and exhaustion. Me, personally, I was just pissed and hungry. We turned around and walked right back the way we came. As I was walking through the dark with my cellphone functioning as flash light I stepped on a piece of log that I didn’t see, this caused the log to jump up and fall on my knee somehow, so there I go with my bleeding knee. Shorty after, Maki accidentally stepped on an anthill of fire ants. Her poor foot was covered with antbiteshat were burning her foot. We continued to talk as fast as possible becase we all started to feel an extreme desperation to get out of there. We were all walking quickly with our eyes fixed on the ground to make sure not to step on anthills, logs, or poison ivy, and attempting to ignore the noises of the howling monkeys the grew louder and louder. “Everybody! STOP!” said Ricardo “and please look up”. We suddenly found ourselves in themiddle of the “grand plaza” and in between the two giant pyramids, with a bedo f the brightest stars above us. At that moment we all felt unique and mesmerized. Because I am sure that other than the Mayans and some archeologists, we have been the only ones to experience the Mayan ruins at night.
I can’t concentrate trying to write this chapter because there is too much going on in our dormitory. Hailey, our co-volunteer from Princeton has her headphones way too loud. Holly is talking to her parents over skype, more like yelling because the internet is very weak up here. Finally…. oh and there go the lights. They keep coming and going because of the rain outside. Well if you haven’t guessed already we’re finally up in Cunen, Quiche, the very small town where we will be working for the next three weeks. We were brought up here by Pedro. Pedro is our “boss”. He is in charge of the communities in Cunen, of assigning our tasks, and helping us feel as comfortable as possible with our work. We woke up bright and early, well not so bright, but definitely early. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, which made the 7 hours with six people in a pick up truck not so bad. Cunen is way up in a mountain, therefore to get there, we had to drive around the mountains and then up. Before describing the scenery i must mention the damage Agatha left on the road (pictures to come). There are landslides all through the road, chunks of mountain that were brought down by the rain. It is terrifying to drive through this road because as we were driving we would take a curve and all of a sudden giant logs of trees and rocks would appear taking up an entire lane, which meant driving onto oncoming traffic until the lane was clear. Altogether the trip wasn’t that bad, the scenery made it completely worth it. Our dormitory in Cunen is very similar to the hostel in Antigua. Three bunkbeds for all of us, in one big room with a sink and a table. Gives us lots of bonding time!
Pedro is definitely a character we should all learn from and try to be more like. Pedro is in charge of taking of FUNCEDESCRI’s partner communities in the region of Quiche. He is also in charge of us, assigning our tasks, educating us on Guatemalan culture, and serves as our translator for Quiche (the dialect spoken where we work). We work together in a collaboration with him in order to find solutions to any problem any community has. Pedro is currently 27 years old, and has a degree in agriculture. Typically the average indigenous person in Guatemala doesn’t go past 6th grade. Pedro is an exception to this. He earned his degree by working very hard during the weekdays for money for school, and then going down to Guatemala city (5 hours away) to go to school on the weekends. Pedro does absolutely everything for FUNCEDESCRI, we have seen him as an engineer, trying to find new building technologies appropriate for the conditions of the communities. An architect, designing homes for the animals from the different farms. An agriculturer, and farmer, always knowing the correct method to use with each different crop, tree, plant, etc. A teacher, as gives capacitations on different important topics, water, recycling, health, nutrition, medicinal plants. And a business man, as FUNCEDESCRI is constantly partnering up with different organizations and communities. You might probably feel a sense of admiration coming from this blog, but that is exactly what we feel for Pedro. He admire the way he feels about his work. He is absolutely devoted and feels an obligation to help each and everyone of the families that work with FUNCE, and he admires their hard work as much as we admire him. He is always telling us about how each family is a success story, and how each and every family has an enormous potential, all they need is a little helping hand. If we all cared about the other people, as much as Pedro cares about his work, there is no doubt in my mind that we would live in a much better place.
Just in case you weren’t aware of this, Guatemala has extremely bad public transportation system, and being foreign volunteers we depend on the public transportation system. Our first morning in Antigua (Carolina and I at this point) we were taken to San Lucas (which is 30mins away from our hostel) by chicken bus. “Feliz primer chicken bus!” Janine said. A chicken bus is an old American school bus modified to work as a public bus, which is filled with people until not one more person fits. Three to a seat (seats NOT made for three people). Also, I might add, that there are no concrete bus stops, only guesses and signs like “en el puente rojo” (in the red bridge). I would also like to add that the bus drivers are VERY bad drivers, I have to say even worse than me (and we all know I’m pretty bad). So, there we went on our 30 min. drive in a bus full of chickens, I mean people, in the worst road conditions with the most careless drivers. One must hold on tight to the seat infront to prevent from sliding off the seat when passing through the curves (the entire road is curves). Getting on and off the bus is also quite challenging since bus drivers seem to think that one on the bus (when getting on) and one foot on the ground (when getting off) is good enough for them to keep going. We finally arrived to the center in San Lucas after our first chicken bus experience, where we were put to work right away. Since it was only Carolina and I we only helped around here and there were help was needed, yet still hard labor for us. One of the things we did was cover a long hole (collapsed by the storm) along the edge of the road, which kept being a hazard. The way we covered the hole was by going up the hill, getting fallen trunks of trees, and bringing them down and putting them in the hole which will then be covered by dirt in order to ensure consistency. At the beginning of our task we were very energized and excited to help out. By the third time we went up the short but steep hill, we were breathing a lot faster and heavier and moving a lot slower. In one of our trips up the hill we both look at our arms and realize that they are completely red and covered with small bumps, a couple of them with a tiny hint of blood. “What the…?!” Carolina said “is that…a rash?!” Oh no! I thought, the last thing we need is to be allergic to Guatemalan plants. After washing the dirt out of our arms we realized that this “rash” was actually small little cuts we got from wrapping our arms around the tree branches in order to carry them. I really hope we don’t get any more wounds because we can’t even tell the difference between a cut and a rash.
I have finally seen the infamous FUNCEDESCRI headquarters in San Lucas, Guatemala. After being picked up at the airport by Janine she took me to San Lucas, home of CEDESCRI (center of FUNCEEDESCRI). CEDESCRI is found in a natural reserve up in a mountain. While going up on the rocky, curvy, road to get to the center I couldn’t help but feel mesmerized by the beauty that was going on around me. Beautiful, tall, green trees all around, and flowers of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The infrastructure of the center is also amazing, there’s buildings for dormitories, office spaces, conference rooms, houses for the onsite workers, chemistry labs for the fabrication of natural products, and the famous compostine letrines. For those of you that don’t know what a compostine letrine is, I will describe it for you. It is a relatively normal toilet we are all accostumed to except that it was a build in division in it, so that the ummm let’s call it human waste becomes separated among umm let’s call them “#1” and “#2”. “#2” is then used as a fertilizer for the ground and the crops and “#1” is used to water the gardens. I never thought that the simple act of me going to the bathroom would ever make an important contribution to anything.
Eventhough I begin to write this the day I am on the plane on my way to Guatemala, I must start this story with the day the volcano, Payaca, erupted, because it was the day that all our efforts were put into jeopardy and all our passion into a test. Pacaya erupted exactly 5 days before our departure day, I can easily say it was the most stressful and frustrating day of my life. We no longer had a departure date, nerves were raised to a maximum about our safety and it seemed as though eight months of effort for this project collapsed within minutes. I must confess that my biggest worry wasnt “are we going to be safe?” but “how in the world are going to get to Guatemala if the airport is closed?!” The following days I dedicated myself to try to find a solution (because naively enough I thought I could find a solution to an erupting volcano). The following days were spent on the phone with Continental airlines, Nourish head office in North Carolina, Janine (our partner) in Guatemala, the volunteers and our parents in Houston, El Paso, and Washington D.C. and attached to the news because the situation in Guatemala was changing minute by minute. Not two days had passed from the volcano disaster when Agatha came, the tropical storm that threatened our project with an even stronger force. All of a sudden it was as though fighting for this project was like swimming against the current. I called my mom immediately to tell her that I was cancelling everything because it wasnt worth all the trouble. She said to me “Melissa stop! You are the leader of this project, therefore you must stand stronger than anybody else, you need to be the last one to give up..” somtimes a little motivation is all we need to keep passion and spirit strong. Step by step and day by day we all analyzed the situation in Guatemala to determine whether it was safe or not to go on the trip. Well, since I’m writing from the plane to Guatemala you can guess what the final decision was. We felt like now more than ever people need us, and that fear should not be a major obstacle. The great leader Nelson Mandela once said “I learned that courage was not the absense of fear, but the triumph over it. The brace man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”. I must say we are all learning that as well.
“We are the travelers, we are the leaders who have a duty driven by passion to serve and make our dreams and ideas into a reality…letś let that passion grow”- by Maki Camacho and Melissa Saucedo