Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guatemala: Cisterns at 10,000 ft

Up here on the outskirts of the village of Papel, once the dry season arrives, there is no water source. Thus, you can only grow crops during the rainy season from about May through the harvest around October. An exciting new development since my last visit in November 2007 is the installation of three cisterns in the town center of Papel. The cisterns serve the health clinic, the school and the marketplace every Saturday (which also inlcudes the municipal building and the church). Water is collected from the rooftops during the rainy season and funneled into the cisterns. Here's a view down into one in March. The cisterns hold 30,000 litres each.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Corn and Coffee In & Out of Guatemala

In college, I remember reading a poem by Erica Jong about eggplant (one of my favorite foods). In the poem, a Middle-Eastern bride gets returned to her father because her dowry was insufficient. The groom was promised his new wife could cook eggplant a 100 ways, but she could only produce 99.

This versatility with one food source reminds me of how corn fits into the Mayan existence. Not only can they cook it infinite ways (including the best tortillas & tamales I've sampled), but corn remains their spiritual staple as well. It's the crux of the Mayan Creation stories and as befitting its stellar place in the culture, numerous words define corn's substance. There are words for its different parts, as well as for various stage in the growing process. People's little corn growing spots are called "milpa." As a former poet, I relish the way the word forms in my mouth, rolls around like a smooth stone and emerges with the soft feminine ending, appropriately as corn comes from Mother Earth.

Below you can see coffee drying on top of a cistern. Since water is the source of life, we will focus on cisterns later, but for now, look at the subtle beauty of the beans colored by late afternoon light. These days, most of the coffee is grown in Mexico where the men in these Guatemalan villages migrate half the year, following work in crops or construction.

Remembering Food in Guatemala

Just behind the post you can see two of the food sources during the dry season high up in the mountainous villages where AFOPADI works in community. The project silos can help keep people from starving as they store nutritious, non-contaminated corn. The big squash is chilacayote; people boil it and add sugar. Sugar and corn syrup, just as in the States, comprise a large food group. Even in the tiniest village, sweets, soda and cookies comprise the main food group commercially available in makeshift tiendas. Many people evidence rotten teeth, lack teeth or sport metal-ringed teeth...a dental solution largely out of fashion in the States.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Greetings from Guatemala...

I´m writing from the little village of San Marcos de la Leguna on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. It´s an alternative experience far from the AFOPADI project in the mountainous Northwest where I´ve just spent most of the last week...you can read about my previous trip in November 2007 on this blog or other info on my website homepage. There is so much to process that I imagine I will need the perspective of returning to the States to be able to write coherently, but that won´t stop me now from trying.
In the year and a half since I visited the AFOPADI project where I work with the agricultural arm of the project, on balance things have progressed. One of the realities of a third world country is that progress is not a straight line. Events that would be traumatic but survivable for us, can completely alter the direction of somebody´s life.
As everywhere, water dictates life´s possibilities for humankind. This trip I saw more new cisterns (expensive but a lifeline for subsistence villages) that catch rainwater that make our rainbarrels at home seem a tiny part of the bigger sustainable picture. I learned that the organic compost that AFOPADI teaches the campesinos how to make, is only used for trees and corn, but not on the vegetable gardens. This time I met more people who understand the benefits of the corn silos for which we help raise money. The silos not only protect the corn in terms of quantity, but as well they keep out many of the unsanitary effects of rats & insects. In communities where medical care is rare and no income exists for medicine, it´s so important to have a more stable and clean food source. It´s hard to overemphasize the importance of corn in the Mayan culture. Not only is the milpa at the crux of nutrition, but the corn remains the spiritual sustenance of the indigenous communities as well.
For a flatlander from Chicago, the altitude is always a challenge. We have been traveling to places between 5000 and 10,000 feet. Even though one of the highest spots is the most deforested, an incredibly sustaining energy exists there and we felt lucky to partake. I usually travel alone, but this time I had a wonderful traveling companion, my friend, Judette. It was her first trip to Guatemala and the third world. But her ancestors hail from Guatemala & Mexico and it was very moving to see her profound connection to the places, the people, the culture and the project.
For me, the people I have become priviledged to know in these comunities and in AFOPADI nurture my soul. As I´ve told friends, I don´t believe I can assist in sustainability in any large way. In my landscape design business in Chicago, I am lucky to have great clients who are interested in connecting with their land and connecting their landscape to more meaning than just decoration. Here in Guatemala I also feel graced to help affect people in small positive ways....perhaps having silos, reforesting & organic agriculrure will allow a few more children to survive, enable a community to learn more solidarity through the process, grant a woman a moment or two of peace amidst her life of child-rearing, cooking and clothes washing. I am an unbearable idealist and also know that I receive more than I give.
The sustainable methods AFOPADI is committed to here (Medical, Educational, Agricultural) teach me so much about what is possible with next to nothing. In turn, this informs my work at home where possibilities of land and lifestyles are pretty much endless. During these hard global times, I feel sustained by the gift of a broader perspective. Rough times are very real at home in the States, my husband and I feel them just as much as everybody else personally & vicariously, so I feel this trip is an especially welcome opportunity to focus on what we do have: each other of course AND water, food, shelter (including heat & air conditioning), work, friends, family, education, art, communities with hospitals & grocery stores & nurseries with healthy plants. In short, we have a healthy support system & choices, what a marvelous life!
When I return, I will post photos and hope that each picture will be worth a 1000 words...