Saturday, November 12, 2016

Life in Guatemala

Guatemala: Week 1

Hiking Volcán de Agua -- En Route To Coffee Fields

Day 1

After a relaxing fall break spent with family and friends, the Gapsters were eager to meet up together again at the Milwaukee airport…even though it was at 4:00 in the morning. We had a successful trip through security and two very safe flights. We landed in Guatemala City, Guatemala at around 1 PM and were graciously picked up by the De La Gente Organization and driven to San Miguel Escobar, which would be our home for the next four weeks. De La Gente is a collective that works with coffee farmers in Guatemala to create economic opportunity that improves the quality of life for their families and communities. After settling in to the guest house we were given some rules and cultural guidelines about living in Central America, like the importance of not flushing the toilet paper, because of the sensitive plumbing system they have throughout Guatemala. That night we were warmly welcomed into the home of one of the farmers, Andreas, from the coffee cooperative to share dinner with his family. We had chicken with tomato, peppers, onion, and garlic as well as rice with corn and homemade tortillas. To drink we had a traditional, local homemade drink, made from hibiscus flowers. Muy delicioso!

Day 2

Monday morning we woke up to a homemade breakfast, prepared by Rosalina, and her mother, Amoria -- two local women who earn extra income by preparing food for locals traveling through the San Miguel area. We then began our day in the near city of Antigua. The first item on our agenda was to exchange money. Here we learned that about 7 quetzals are exchanged for 1 U.S. dollar. The Gapsters then began their walk to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). We walked through Santa Catalina, an arch, that the Catholic nuns in the late 1800's proceeded through to get from the convent to the monastic school.

Santa Catalina Arch Over the Cobblestone Road

It was a short but exhausting hike for most of us because of the altitude, but the view was worth it! Emmy, the director of Community Engagement at De La Gente, offered us some good background history of Antigua. We learned that the military is still somewhat of a daily presence throughout much of Guatemala, mostly a reminder of the country's tumultuous and violent past when the leftist guerrillas and the military were fighting over land rights. Hundreds of pictures were taken from the hill that gave you an amazing view of the whole city…but that wasn’t the only thing that was taken. A few students were shocked to find their bags missing during our time on the hill; devastated to find out all of the important information and items that were in them. Eventually, they were relieved… because Morgan and Dr. Fredrickson had their bags the whole time. We all learned a valuable lesson that day: how important it is to keep track of your things! We are in a foreign country and that could have been a very real harsh reality for any one of us had one of our bags been actually stolen.

Beautiful View From the San Francisco Ruins

After our hike, we made our way back down Cerro de la Cruz and were on our way to the San Francisco Ruins. Here, the Gapsters were allowed to freely roam the ruins and find what interested them the most. The ruins of the church were an interesting site to see. Most of us could not believe that the church was built in 1764 and parts of it were still standing. Next on the agenda was lunch at Sky City Café. Typical Guatemalan food, such as nachos and quesadillas, were a popular choice, as well as liquados (smoothies) made with fresh fruit. Afterwards, we enjoyed some free time to explore the city of Antigua. Lots of souvenirs, food, and gifts were bought. A few of us also encountered some of the vendors in the Parque Central (central park). Ask your student to share with you some of their stories! When our free time had come to an end we walked to a spot to get picked up by the 'chicken bus' that would take us back to San Miguel Escobar. Chicken buses are old school buses from the U.S. and Canada that are transformed by local tradesmen into brightly colored vehicles that are the central mode of transportation throughout the country. Although individually and privately owned, they are a rich addition to the colorful culture that makes up Guatemala. That evening we were invited to have dinner with another cooperative farmer and his family. Miguel and Amelia were so welcoming towards our group, and they were able to sit down at the table and have dinner with us: chicken in brown sauce, rice with corn and peppers, broccoli and carrot salad, homemade bread and tortillas, and homemade hibiscus drink. After our meal together, we were able to ask Miguel and Amelia some questions about De La Gente. We learned that we were speaking with one of the founders of De La Gente, who had been working with them for eleven years. It was heartwarming to hear about the opportunities that have been made available to the farmers. They have better living conditions and are even able to send their children to university, when most Guatemalans only receive a basic education.

Day 3

Tuesday morning again began with a delicious breakfast, homemade pancakes, made by Amoria and her daughter Rosalina. Emmy then got us acquainted with San Miguel Escobar and its history. She showed us were some important buildings were such as cooperative farmer’s houses, pharmacies, stores, and the central plaza. The story of how San Miguel Escobar got its name is something that Emmy shared with us. When a crater on top of the Volcan de Agua filled with water, the pressure was too great and a chunk fell off and took out the entire community. San Miguel Escobar was the man who helped to rebuild the city. Before this disaster, the city was the first capital of Guatemala, but because of the damage, the capital had to be moved to what is now Guatemala City. Our group walked through the 6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd zones of Cuidad Vieja into the heart of the city. Here, we were allowed to venture around a bit before showing Emmy our directional skills by leading her back to our guest house in zone 6.

Cuidad Vieja Cathedral

For lunch, we were invited to eat with another cooperative farmer, Mercedes, where we enjoyed beans and rice, which are staples in many Latin American diets. We learned about the increasing opportunities that arise when these farmers join the co-op. Mercedes told us how it was possible for him to send his daughter to school, in fact, one of his daughters is now a teacher! Once we finished our lunch and conversation with the family, we were on our way to the market in Antigua for a scavenger hunt! The Gapsters split into three groups to try and find the ingredients for nachos, guacamole, liquados, and plantains y chocolate, which was to become that night's dinner. We were all successful and can’t wait to revisit the market again. Before we prepared dinner, we learned a little more about the coffee making process. Emmy shared some facts with us: roughly 10 million people depend on coffee for their livelihood, and the coffee trade originated in Ethiopia. Then we completed an activity where we learned all of the different steps involved in the global coffee trade. We were split up into 5 different groups, and each group was to take on the role of each link in the supply chain for the coffee trade. For example, one group represented the coffee exporters, another group represented the coffee roasters, while yet another group represented the coffee farmers themselves.The remaining two groups represented coffee retailers and the other, the actual shippers. Each group was then asked to justify why they felt they deserved a specific dollar amount for the job they were fulfilling within the coffee supply chain. The groups had to negotiate a dollar amount for their specific labors to bring the price to a set price of $2.75 per pound. After some friendly bickering, we finally came to a consensus, only to learn that sadly, the coffee farmers themselves only earn about .05 cents to the dollar for their labors. Emmy then explained the level of risk that is involved for the coffee farmers themselves, being subject to the ravages of natural disasters and price fluctuations in the global coffee market. This realization brought us back to a conversation we had at VOBS about perceived fear and actual fear. We tied this idea back to perceived risk and actual risk and how it relates to the coffee trade – and that most people at the retail and corporate end of the supply chain deal more with perceived risk, while most people at the opposite end of the supply chain, such as the farmers, deal with actual risk (such as an earthquake, drought, or natural pest).

Making The Ascent To Eduardo's Plot

Day 4

After another homemade breakfast this beautiful Wednesday morning, the Gapsters set out on a hike up to Eduardo’s coffee farm! It saddened us to hear that a fungus called Royo is affecting many of the coffee plants throughout Guatemala. Royo is a rust that infects the leaves of the plant, limiting its ability to carry out the vital process of photosynthesis, which will eventually lead to the plants' death. In some instances the coffee farmers are forced to use synthetic pesticides because the fungus can be so devastating. After learning a lot about the growing of the plants we hiked back down to Eduardo’s home to see and learn more about the processing of coffee. Here we learned that the beans must be de-pulped in a machine, fermented, washed, dried, and then a fine parchment like skin is removed from the actual bean (which is really a seed), then the beans are sorted by size and those that are defective (i.e. too small or cracked or discolored) are removed from the batch. Once each of these steps are performed, the beans are finally ready to roast. As a group, we washed and sorted some beans and then were able to see, and smell, them being roasted. After roasting, the beans were then ground down by a volcanic rock slate and a cylinder (also made of volcanic rock). Finally, we saw the grounds being mixed with boiling water. When mixed, if the water starts to foam that means its good quality coffee! After the grounds were strained, the coffee was ready to drink -- and it surely was delicious.  Manuel and his family then prepared lunch for us, which is another way they generate income for their families. We had a good time playing with the children and all of the cats they had.

Eduardo Explains The Intricacies of Coffee Farming

After lunch we headed back to the guest house and had a conversation with Andy, the Executive Director of De La Gente, about the coffee trade. He shared with us how coffee has been a part of the Guatemalan economy since the 1870’s. Over time, coffee became a prime export crop, but problems arose in the 1940's when big plantations -- who were often owned by foreigners -- were forcing indigenous peoples to work on the plantations. In effect, this was a form of forced labor, which the government knew about, but tacitly turned a blind eye to for many years. In an effort to empower those who have historically been oppressed and marginalized,  De La Gente (DLG) is an organization that is helping indigenous farmers become more economically stable by cutting out the role of the middle-man. First, by encouraging other farmers to join the coffee collective, which empowers them to engage in collective bargaining, because this increases the overall scale of their production, which then allows them to be more competitive when selling their coffee. DLG also invests in the farmers by offering professional development skills and working with them to establish quality-control measures. DLG also offers year-round cultural tours, which generates an additional sources of income for the farmers. Our visit to Guatemala will allow us to share with family and friends what we learned about the economic injustices in the global coffee trade. We ended our night with dinner at Froilan‘s house. It was another great meal to end another great day.

Day 5

After starting out Thursday with another homemade breakfast, this time crepes and fresh fruit, we dove into our first activity of the day: a cooking class! We learned how to make a traditional Guatemalan dish: Pepian from scratch, which is a traditional meal that is prepared for special celebrations. This included killing and plucking a live chicken, which taught us a valuable lesson about where our food comes from. So often in the U.S. we take for granted our food, being so far removed from the actual raising and cultivating of crops and livestock. Thursday was also our first class here in Guatemala! We had some great discussions about the more theoretical aspects of our experience here, such as: preferential option for the poor, cultural imperialism, bearing witness and accompaniment. After class we had some free time before meeting with a farmer for dinner again. We ended the night with some delicious cake in celebration of John's birthday! 

Students Preparing For Their First Class at El Sitio

Day 6 

The Gapsters started the day off right with a well-needed energizing breakfast before our hike to San Juan de Obispo. The views were amazing the whole way there. We ended the hike in the center of San Juan de Obispo with a picnic lunch and a visit to a small scale chocolate production facility. We learned about the process of making chocolate from cacao, where the individual seeds are removed from the pod, left to ferment, then are dried and roasted. After roasting the cacao nibs are melted into disc shaped forms that they then sell for hot chocolate or nibbling on directly. We had some free time in Antigua before it was time to pack up to prepare for our homestays. In groups of 3 or 4 we left the guest house at De La Gente to have a once in a lifetime experience living with a family from Guatemala. 

All Eyes On The Cacao

Friendly Reminder At Valhalla Macadamia Farm

Day 7

The Gapsters were not separated long before we came together again for a bike tour of the San Miguel valley and surrounding towns. It was about a 15-mile ride and was very challenging, but the views were worth it. It was also very interesting to learn that each town center has a church, a cross, a park, and a fountain -- all remnants from Guatemala's colonial Spanish past. Can't wait to see what next week will bring!


1 comment:

  1. Gapsters! I'm so excited to read about your stay in Guatemala. I'm an SNC Alum and I've been to that community and worked with DLG four times. They are great people and I'm confident you will enjoy your stay there. When you're in Antigua be sure to check out the cafe, Y Tu Pina Tambien, it's my favorite! And when you meet Timoteo, ask him how he earned the nickname, "El Tigre." It's a great story!!! Say hello to everyone at DLG for me. Hasta Luego! -Mike