Countryside experiences

November 7, 2008

First of all, apologies for having abandoned this website for so long. I have several very good reasons for my failure to update, as you will see. Over the next few days I will do my best to catch up with the several posts I have planned, but, as I will also be travelling during this time don´t be mad if I am still a little slow.

Last week (it feels like a month ago) I studied Spanish (for the last time) at PLQ´s sister school, La Escuela de la Montana. Surprisingly enough, this school is located in the mountains. It offers the same tuition as PLQ and is similary structured as a not-for-profit which splits its income three ways: the upkeep of the school including payment to teachers, payment to the families who feed the students, creation and support of organisations to aid the local communities. A little different to PLQ, the school only has a capacity of 14, and all the students sleep in dorm-like rooms in the house where the lessons also take place (in the garden). It´s beautiful complex. It has a chuc (Maya sauna), a hut with a view, teaching huts, a herb garden which the gardener Jorge uses to cook up herbal remedies for the locals and students (he cured my toothache – thanks Jorge!), a composting toilet and is a generally wild and beautiful place to study. My favourite hangout during the stay was the hammocks on the front porch where I would doze my afternoons away.

My time here was wonderful and I really really didn´t want to leave. But, in a way, my favourite aspect of it, its situation, was also the most hard. The school was started about 11 years ago and is based in an old farmhouse next to two small communities (think one dirt track each), Fatima and Nueva San Jose. These communities resettled there about 8 years ago having fled starvation and terrible working conditions in two different coffee farms, or fincas. The workers decided to move together, and thus the two, highly competitive, communities were born. Similar to PLQ, each student is assigned a family, although we only eat with these families, not sleep. Unlike the fairly middle-class family I stayed with in Xela, these communities are literally fighting against starvation. They live in concrete huts, without water and electricity until recently (the two are vicarious anyway and tend to cut out) and cannot house any posh traveller.

mountain-school-2008-2-5

Making tortillas, very ineptly, in my family´s house on the wood fire.

On my first full day at the school my mother, Lesvia, said that her husband had left the house at 3am to look for work the day before and hadn´t found any. All the teenage boys (about 15 or over) and men leave at 3.30 every morning to look for contruction work in a nearby town, or coffee picking at plantations and often don´t return until 10pm. They generally find one or two days work a week. On top of this situation is the amount of money they get paid. The minimum pay for the countryside is 45 quetzals a day ($6 or 4 pounds) but owing to the excess of workers they often only get paid 15-30Q. A maximum of 60Q a week does not feed a whole family. I got the impression that they often couldn´t afford to eat and many of the children have malnutrition, their stomachs bloated in the way that has been portrayed at the symbol of starvation in Western media. I particularly noticed the malnutrition of one of the girls in my family. I think the girls are often given less to eat than the boys, and unlike her cousins she look very underfed. She was also the sweetest, shyest girl and so easy to please. She always had something in her mouth, a sweet or a marble, just as I did when little. I just don´t think the adults have the time to spend with the children when they are fighting to feed them. The money that having a student for a week every month (the families are on rotation, and students are scarce now, owing to the economic crisis in the US) makes a huge difference.

mountain-school-2008-2-10Reading with one of Lesvia´s grandchildren. Embarrassingly I couldn´t remember any of their names. She was excited about having her picture taken and so ran home to put it up. She´s very beautiful.

Some of my favourite moments were reading (in Spanish) with the children. They don´t have any books so when I went to eat in the village the children would yell out ´Ella tiene un libro! Libro!´and the girls would hold my hand and walk with me. They would study the book intensively while I was eating and then I would read to them, sometimes avoiding death by wavy candle which a girl would hold near my hair and the book during a power cut. I think they understood my Spanish.

mountain-school-2008-2-8Three lovely people. The boy graduated from primary school that week.

Having a photo taken was also a big deal to them, and I felt a little awkward about not being able to give them a copy. As the nearest phone and town was a half hour ride away, I didn´t get the opportunity to print them.

Other major cultural differences were the closeness of families, several generations living together and next door to each other, and how young everyone gets married. It makes sense for economic reasons and you have to be an adult and work very young here (girls start helping in the house around age 10 and therefore are not often allowed to attend play events such as the ´Noche Cultural´ at my school. (Basically, we´re the culture in this night, and the kids get to throw water at us, run around and laugh at our Spanish.)

mountain-school-2008-4My first volcanic eruption, as seen from the finca. The view I should have had from Santa Maria.

I also visited a coffee finca during this week and learnt how coffee is made (far more complicated than I thought). Most striking is the amount the workers have to pick to earn a day´s (crap) pay – 100lbs! Ridiculous.

mountain-school-2008-13Dried, best quality coffee beans. Apparently they´re this colour before they´re roasted.

Freshly armed with my fair trade coffee, I learnt a lot this week and I got to see a side of Guatemalan life that many tourists are blind to, and don´t have the opportunity to explore. Witnessing the depth of their poverty and how hard they have to work on the fincas, I felt shocked and determined to never buy non-fair trade coffee again. I feel more uncomfortable with my wealth now than ever, as I know it is based on the subjugation of people such as these. But I also know that I contributed a little and can also educate others so that we can start to change.

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