Jessica Sunter lived and worked in two indigenous communities in the western highlands of Guatemala – Comitancillo, San Marcos and Todos Santos, Huehuetenango – for eight months in 2010 on an internship with CAUSE Canada funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.
CAUSE Canada is an international development and relief organization that has been operational since 1984. Their current program in Guatemala, the Women’s Integral Empowerment Program, provides literacy and numeracy courses, leadership classes, and business development support classes to enhance women’s capacity to manage small businesses. Business support participants are then eligible to receive small loans from microcredit providers.
Jessica kept a blog throughout her stay and highlights from these blogs will be posted weekly over the next month.
Blog 1 of 4: Comitancillo
I have only been in Guatemala for two weeks and already so much has happened. I am with another Canadian intern whose name is Faith and the Director of CAUSE Guatemala picked us up at the Guatemala City airport and brought us to Comitancillo, the town where we’ll be living and working for the next four months.
Comitancillo is a very small place. There are three streets in all and we refer to them as our street, the main street and the other street. There are few foreigners, mainly just us and three Americans who are with the Peace Corps. Faith and I have two rooms, one a bedroom that we share and the other the kitchen. It’s very simple but meets our needs. The landlord and his wife and five children live in the apartment below us.
There are many comedores (family-run restaurants) here where we can buy a meal for less than $2, which always includes rice or potatoes, some kind of meat and some vegetables. There are two market days a week. We don’t have a refrigerator and therefore can’t keep perishables for long. Alcohol abuse seems to be a problem because every day we see people passed out and lying on the street. Few seem to have a steady job and most make money by raising and selling pigs, selling produce from their crops or by working as field hands. The women do a lot of physical labour, carrying firewood and working in the fields. There appears to be a real interest in education.
The local CAUSE staff gave us an orientation on the program we will be working on. My main role is to support the business development classes and help with the distribution of small loans. The staff speaks Mam, the local indigenous language, as well as Spanish. Mam is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. There is so much to learn and it is challenging to keep all of this new information in my brain. My Spanish is still rusty but that should change soon since no one speaks English!
Faith and I are obviously newcomers and when we walk down the street we stick out. But the locals are pretty good at staring at us out of the corner of their eyes or waiting until we pass before they start giggling. Guatemala doesn’t feel like some Latin American countries I’ve been to where men constantly whistle and yell out “gringa”. Everyone I have met so far has been incredibly kind and has gone out of their way to help us feel at home.
Who knew saying hello could be so complicated
In Comitancillo, when you pass someone on the street you always take the time to say hello. This wonderful custom is not always easy to follow for there are many different greetings such as:
- The basic handshake which is the most common greeting among non-locals
- The exaggerated head nod accompanied by “Buenos dias”
- The shoulder or arm pat
- The “Comitancillo handshake” where people gently touch fingers with one another and then raise their right hand to their forehead
I still have to think quickly about what I should do when I see someone coming down the street towards me—the shoulder pat, head nod, regular handshake or “Comitancillo handshake”. I suspect I just look like a crazy foreigner.
The business programs
I’ve already had a chance to see the business development and microcredit programs unfold and to chat with some of the women about their goals. I and two local staff helped participants complete their investment plans and a couple of days later two of the women’s groups came to the CAUSE office to receive their loans. One group was receiving a loan for the first time and the other is renewing their loan for the third time.
Most of the women here invest their loans into buying and raising pigs which they later sell. A few women have invested in a small store, others weave huipiles (women’s traditional blouses), and some buy and sell vegetables or other products in the local market. Many rural families are very poor and live on only $2 a day, yet the women tell me their lives are improving and will only continue to get better.
We received a special invitation to visit the home of one of the literacy teachers, Don Cornelio, who is also with CAUSE. After driving for an hour along winding dirt roads and then walking through farmer’s fields and across rivers we reached the home he shares with his wife and five young children. I was struck by how happy the kids seemed for they had huge smiles on their faces. Their home is simple and I suspect their lives can be difficult at times. Before we left they filled our bags and pockets with as many perfectly ripe plums as we could carry. Don Cornelio told us he’ll never forget our visit to his home for as long as he lives. It was very moving.
I woke up at 7:30 this morning because my bed was shaking. At first I thought people were running up and down the stairs outside, but then I realized what was really happening—EARTHQUAKE! It wasn’t serious and apparently there are tremors quite often in Guatemala, but it was definitely a new experience for me!
Faith and I decided to spend the weekend in Xela, the closest big city to our town. Finding our way from Comitancillo to Xela was an adventure in itself since the main way to travel around Guatemala is by chicken bus. These are extremely colourful old school buses from Canada and United States. The fare is dirt cheap and the ride incredibly uncomfortable. Seeing as the buses were built for school children, there is very little leg room and it gets even worse because the driver keeps picking up passengers until there are at least three adults in every seat. You spend the entire ride trying to keep yourself from being thrown into the aisle and checking to see that your wallet hasn’t mysteriously vanished. But hey, it’s all part of the cultural experience!
The trip was worth it, however, for it was Semana Santa and the streets in Xela were filled with people watching the Easter processions. Most of the women wore their traditional clothes which are so colourful. There were also lots of delightful children about (eating heaps of cotton candy). We got to indulge in such luxuries as authentic Indian food, lattes and soft chocolate chip cookies. I did end up getting bed bugs from the place where we were staying and hopefully they won’t make a new home in my bed in Comitanicillo…time will tell.
That’s it for now…
© Jessica Sunter 2010
Filed under: Guatemala, Guatemala blog, Travel itinerary, Volunteer abroad · Tags: Adventure travel, Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, Slow travel, Spanish, Todos Santos, Travel abroad, Volunteer abroad, Xela