Faith and I are officially half way through our internship. I can’t believe how fast the time is flying by – it feels like I arrived in Guatemala just yesterday. Since CAUSE works in two different communities in Guatemala, interns spend half of their time working in Comitancillo and the other half working in Todos Santos. Faith and I recently hit the four month mark and moved to Todos Santos last week. We were feeling a bit sad because we were leaving our friends, staff and the program participants who we had grown quite close to in Comitancillo.
I must say that although we’ve only been in Todos Santos for a couple of days, I already know that I’m really going to like this place. Faith and I are staying in a beautiful house that is owned by Roman and Cristina. Roman is originally from Switzerland, but fell in love (with Cristina and with Todos Santos) when he was here working with Doctors Without Borders and decided to make it his home. They have two lovely daughters who speak Mam, German, Spanish and English. They earn a living by renting out rooms in their house as well as rooms above the store in town where Cristina also sells traditional weavings. Roman spends his days fixing up the house, tending to the corn crops, apple trees and the many other fruits and vegetables they grow, and taking tourists on walks through the gorgeous Cuchumatanes mountains which are right at our doorstep. After all of this he still has time to help Cristina with the store and to spend time with his children. Although they barely know us, Roman and Cristina have already opened up their home and their hearts to us.
The people of Todos Santos are very friendly and much more open than the people of Comitancillo. This could have to do with the fact that groups of tourists visit the market on Saturdays and therefore the locals are more accustomed to seeing foreigners. One of the reasons tourists come to Todos Santos is because it is one of the few places in Guatemala where the men still wear the traditional dress – red and white striped pants and blue and white striped shirts with large embroidered collars.
So far my experience working with the staff in Todos Santos has been very different from working with the staff in Comitancillo. In Comitancillo I spent a lot more time in the CAUSE office working on improving the curriculum whereas in Todos Santos I have gone out to communities almost every day to visit the business and microcredit participants. I must say that I prefer spending my time in the communities because that’s when I’m able to really get to know the women and to see how people live.
The Guatemalan staff who I mainly work with are Plásido and Sonia, the two business promoters. They both started working with CAUSE just this year, but I am very impressed with how motivated they are and the fact that they take a lot of initiative. Sonia is only 19 years old but is one of the most confident and outspoken women I’ve met in Guatemala. She believes that the business classes need to be as practical and hands-on as possible and is full of ideas of how to improve them. Plásido, as well, will go to great lengths to visit his women’s business groups on a regular basis. I know this because in the last week I have spent hours walking down mountain paths through the pouring rain with him. Some of his participants live in communities far away from the town of Todos Santos and where there is little public transportation. Just yesterday I met Plásido at 5am so that we could catch the once daily bus to Chimil. After the 1 ½ hour bus ride we had to walk close to 2 hours to get to Chalhuitz. Although Chalhuitz is a very isolated community where few foreigners have gone, the people were warm and welcoming to me.
Lots of work…with a little fun thrown in
Last weekend Faith and I went to the “big city” of Huehuetenango to have a change of scenery. Huehue, as it is more commonly called, is not exactly a tourist destination, but it is the closest city to Todos Santos as well as the capital of the department of Huehuetenango. After spending the day running errands and going to the grocery store to buy luxuries such as body wash, yogurt and peanut butter, we wandered around to see the sites. Although we were some of the only foreigners in the entire city, people generally ignored us and walked right past us. Before heading back to Todos Santos I managed to fit in a soccer match – Huehuetenango vs. Suchitepequez. I even purchased a team jersey to show my support. The energy at the game was incredible and the place was packed with fans playing drums and yelling team cheers while yellow smoke filled the stadium and fireworks were constantly set off. Although it was a pretty close game, Huehue won 1-0 by scoring a goal during the last minute. It was quite the experience!
This week has been exceptionally busy at work. It was time to evaluate the literacy participants again to see how they are progressing and to see what they need to review before the final exam. The evaluations take quite a bit of time to do because they have to be done one on one so I went with Faith almost every day this week to help her complete these. Although my focus is the business program, I find it very inspiring to sit with the women who have never been to school in their lives and watch them sound out words and add and subtract.
On top of the literacy evaluations, the majority of the microcredit participants are renewing their loans this month. The business promoters, Plásido and Sonia, as well as our boss Pedro and I have been having meetings to discuss how we can improve the business classes. I am also working away to finish up the business curriculum for Comitancillo. We are certainly keeping ourselves busy in Todos Santos and I’m enjoying every minute of it!
Happy 189th Guatemala!!
September 15th is Guatemala`s Independence Day and on this day the roads were full of cars with drivers beeping their horns and people proudly waving flags and singing the national anthem to celebrate 189 years of independence. The party was not just a one day affair – during the evenings leading up to Independence Day there were the usual beauty pageants and dances in the town’s community centre. On the big day, there was a (very long) parade with all of the children from the local schools putting on different performances. Although it was fairly tame compared to the celebration in neighbouring Mexico (which has the same Independence Day), it was nice to see so much patriotism and pride from the Guatemalan people.
Something I found interesting is the number of American flags being flown right next to Guatemalan flags. This isn’t something that you just see on Independence Day either. In fact, you are more likely to see American flags in Todos Santos than Guatemalan flags. This is because the majority of men in their 20s and 30s have spent some time working (usually illegally) in the United States. When they return home they build big houses with the money they made in the USA and paint American flags on all four corners of the house to give their thanks to United States as well as to let all of their neighbours know that not only did they survive the life-threatening walk through the Mexican desert, but they were able to send back a significant amount of money to their family. Women show their support by wearing beaded necklaces and bracelets with American flags and by weaving American flags into their huipiles (traditional blouses). American flags can be seen in pickup truck windows and the United States is mentioned in restaurant and store names, for instance, the Hollywood Restaurant and Mojado dos veces (meaning the owner has worked illegally in the States two times).
In Comitancillo, people were much more private about whether or not they worked illegally in the US, but they were more private about everything in general. People in Todos Santos, however, want everyone to know they survived the trip and want to compare notes with others who have done the same thing. Often the first conversation that takes place between two men who meet for the first time is about their journey to work in the US, the struggle to find a job under the table that doesn`t require them to speak any English, and finally how they were caught and sent back home.