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Volunteering in Guatemala – Blog 4 of 4

Last week Faith and I went to Honduras to visit Jen, another CAUSE intern, and to learn about CAUSE’s programs there. From Todos Santos we had to travel for three days to reach Ciriboya, the small Garifuna community where CAUSE works. We were absolutely exhausted from our journey, but thankfully people greeted us as soon as we stepped off the bus (bringing us umbrellas because it was pouring rain). Rosie, the program supervisor, Xiomara, the leadership promoter, and Paty, the business promoter, were incredibly friendly and made us feel right at home. Rosie had us over to her house several times so that we could try some delicious Garifuna dishes such as machuca (mashed plantains in fish soup with coconut milk).

It was really interesting to see the similarities and differences between CAUSE’s programs in Guatemala and Honduras. In general, the participants we met in Honduras were much more outgoing and open than those in Guatemala. The programs are fairly similar except there is no literacy program in Honduras because the majority of the women there can already read and write. The microfinance program for women is a new concept in Ciriboya and it is hard to expand the program because there are only seven Garifuna communities in the area and two of them can only be reached by boat.

We enjoyed a rather exciting meal in Ciriboya at the home of Cuban doctors. These doctors run the only hospital and are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During dinner, a man showed up with a very serious machete wound in his arm. Because there was no power at the hospital (it runs on solar power which had been used up) there was no point in the doctors going there so they jumped up from the table and went right to work stitching up the wound on their front porch. It was a bit difficult to finish our meal because the patient was moaning and the doctors kept running through the kitchen with needles and bloody gloves. It was quite the evening to say the least!

While I had a great time in Honduras and would love to go back for a longer visit, I have to say that it’s nice to be back home in Todos Santos!

Vacation with Mom

It had been fairly uneventful in Todos Santos lately but this changed with All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Foreign tourists and Guatemalans from across the country come to see the famous horse races and folkloric dancing. It is common to see locals passed out on the street from drinking too much and being thrown in jail for the night. Almost every year a man in the horse race dies because he is so intoxicated that he falls off his horse and gets trampled.

Last week my mom came to Guatemala to visit me and I had the chance to be a tourist for a few days. We stayed at a fancy hotel in Antigua, a colonial city that has developed into quite the tourist destination. My mom treated me to a pedicure/manicure, delicious meals and shuttle buses (which are a luxury compared to the local chicken buses). In return I translated for her while she bargained in the market for souvenirs to take home. After spending some time in Panajachel, a town on beautiful Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by volcanoes, we headed to Todos Santos for the All Saints’ Day celebrations.

Although I enjoyed touring around Antigua and Panajachel, I can’t help but think that travellers who just visit the tourist spots aren’t seeing the real Guatemala. I understand that many travellers are only here for a two week vacation and want to see all of the main attractions. However, I have to say that what I’ve enjoyed most about Guatemala has been getting to see how people live, having meaningful conversations about their hopes and challenges and building long-lasting friendships.

My mom has done a lot of travelling in the past, but in recent years she hasn’t visited places that are quite as far off the beaten path as Todos Santos. She has gracefully put up with hiking up and down huge hills, using an outhouse, having no running water and freezing cold temperatures (with no indoor heat of course). I was a little concerned about how she would react to the All Saints’ Day celebrations where the main event is drunken horse races, but I think she’s really enjoyed her time here. For myself, I’m happy that my mom got to see where I live, meet the people I work with and have a better understanding of my internship experience. It will make the transition back home easier knowing that I can talk to her about Guatemala and she will actually understand my experience.

Graduation Day!

Friday was graduation day for participants in the literacy, leadership and business programs. Although things tend to come together at the last minute here, the graduation was a great success. Over 200 people attended with many having to get up before dawn to travel in from remote communities. Each community was responsible for doing some kind of presentation or activity. Some did a dance, others showed how they make tortillas or weave the traditional dress, and another demonstrated the coffee production process. Women came up on the stage and asked Faith and me to dance marimba with them in front of the entire crowd. It was slightly embarrassing but pretty hilarious.

It was really nice to see the graduates receive their diplomas. They each had a big smile on their face. Many of their husbands and children participated in the ceremony as well. I just hope the women continue to learn, build confidence and participate in their community. Being here has certainly made me appreciate the quality and availability of the Canadian education system.

Final Days

I’m writing this blog with less than one week left in Guatemala. Faith and I have started saying our goodbyes and taking even more pictures than usual to remember our time here. It’s hard to believe that next week I will be in snowy, freezing cold Calgary where everyone will be speaking English and where I will be just a regular person rather than the ‘gringa’. Although I’m excited to go home to see my family and friends (and to have an indoor shower and toilet) I will miss the Guatemalan way of life and, in particular, the people I have met.

It feels like it was just yesterday when I was sitting in my mom’s house not knowing what to do with my life. I applied for a CAUSE internship not expecting to hear anything back, but was almost immediately contacted for an interview and less than three weeks later was on a plane bound for Guatemala. Although I was extraordinarily excited when I was offered the internship I was also pretty scared and had moments when I thought I was crazy to be going (or maybe it was more my family and friends who thought I was crazy).

These past nine months have been life changing and an experience that I will never forget. It has been my first real international development work experience and I feel like I have learned way more than I have been able to contribute, but that was to be expected really. I’ll admit that I’m a little bit worried about figuring out what to do with myself once I get back to Canada. I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with family and friends, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I soon feel restless and end up looking for opportunities abroad within a few months. Whatever I end up doing, I know this experience will stay with me always.

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Volunteering in Guatemala – Blog 3 of 4

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.

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Volunteering in Guatemala – Blog 2 of 4

The advancement of women certainly follows a different path here in Guatemala than in Canada. A way here to increase a woman’s confidence and make her feel valuable is to encourage her to take part in a beauty pageant. Beauty pageants are very popular and I have already been to three of them. Pageant contestants perform in front of an audience, which most local women are terrified to do. They must dance to traditional music, give a speech in Spanish and in their indigenous language, Mam, and demonstrate a custom that is particularly important to them, such as weaving.

Although some would argue that a beauty pageant is not the best way to improve the status of women, I think the local people would disagree. When visiting literacy, leadership or business development classes I’ve heard participants say time and time again “no puedo” (I can’t) or “no sé nada” (I don’t know anything). In the past, girls were more likely to spend their days washing clothes, cooking food and working around the house rather than going to school. If they don’t know how to read and write they can feel they have nothing to offer. Women are often too shy to even introduce themselves in front of a group and never want to draw any attention to themselves.

These feelings are deeply ingrained from years of being told, directly or indirectly, that women are not as good as men. I’ve spoken with many men here about this who tell me they believe strongly in women’s rights and gender equity. So although the situation is far from perfect perhaps the situation is improving.

These past few weeks I’ve really noticed the close relationship that women have with their children. I find it amazing how women do anything and everything with a baby on their back. They wash clothes, cook meals, work in the garden and do whatever else needs to be done with children around them. Many of the women come to the literacy and business classes with 1, 2 or 3 children. During class babies cry, mothers breast feed, children play and the women still get their work done. This would definitely not fly in a Canadian classroom, but I think it’s really neat to see how easily children are included in these everyday activities and aren’t seen as ‘getting in the way’.

Crazy Canadians

Perhaps eating street food immediately after arriving in Guatemala wasn’t the smartest thing to do because I’ve been sick off-and-on since I’ve been here. I first tried to cure it myself by taking antibiotics I had brought from home, but that didn’t work. The local doctor said it was a bacterial infection and put me on three different medications, but I still had zero energy and could hardly get out of bed. Finally I went to the hospital in Xela and was told I have a parasite (which I refer to as Bob). Good times. At least I’m (hopefully) on the mend!

Faith and I have been quite comfortable in our house and haven’t had any major issues – until last night. At 10:30 I was washing my hands in the bathroom when the tap broke off and water began shooting out with such force that it reached the ceiling. Faith ran to our landlord’s house yelling “¡Tenemos un GRAN problema!” (We have a BIG problem!). I just stood there in my pyjamas trying to prevent a full on flood. Our landlord and his entire family came to check it out and in the end had to cut the water supply off to everyone in the complex. The whole situation was ridiculous and I couldn’t stop laughing hysterically until long after it was over. Today we hear our landlord repeatedly talking to the neighbours about “the bathroom”, “water” and “the girls upstairs”. People around here already think of us as the crazy Canadians so this probably isn’t too out of character.

On being more patient

One thing I’ve learned since coming to Guatemala is the importance of patience. Most Guatemalans I meet have a smile on their face no matter what the situation. If something isn’t going as planned, they laugh about it instead of getting mad. It’s like they already know that things don’t always go smoothly and when there’s nothing you can do about it there’s no reason to get yourself all worked up.

In Canada, people seem to be constantly making plans and trying to achieve goals. When I ask program participants here to share their goals and dreams with me, they find it difficult to respond. Perhaps they feel like they have less control over their future because obstacles often get in their way. 

These differences struck me the other day when we took an eight hour tourist shuttle to the Mexican border. Shuttle vans are fast and comfortable, but that day I would have preferred being on a chicken bus because the tourists complained about EVERYTHING.  They thought the driver was reckless and said the speed bumps were disturbing their naps. They were angry when we actually had to get out of the van to get our passports stamped at the border. It was never-ending.

I just sat there thinking to myself: this is the safest driver I’ve had since being in Guatemala, and if they think speed bumps are bad wait until we drive onto unpaved roads. It made me embarrassed that foreigners were complaining this much. I think we could be a bit more like the Guatemalans and laugh at obstacles we have no control over – such as the bathroom tap breaking off or getting a flat tire when you’re already hours behind schedule, or standing for hours on the bus because every seat is overflowing with people.

© Jessica Sunter 2010

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Volunteering in Guatemala – Blog 1 of 4

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

First impressions

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

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