Thursday, April 28, 2011

Would You Rather

In my site, the water supply and electricity are both fairly unpredictable. They come, they go, always without warning. When I first moved out here, the power was more of a problem, probably because November and December are notoriously windy. As the dry season wore on, the water started going out more and more frequently, for longer periods of time. One day I mentioned the inconsistency of these services to my dad, and he asked which was worse.

I thought about it.

There are no water bills in my town. If there is water, everyone can use as much as they want. As soon as the water is used, we all have to wait for the water deposit to fill back up. At the beginning of the dry season this wasn't such a big deal because water was still plentiful. The second faucet up at my cottage dripped incessantly. The faucet down at the main house broke and had to be turned on and off at the water main. That meant that it would sometimes run on low for a day or two without stopping. It certainly was a waste of water, but the family didn't have to pay any more for using more water, and the neighbors didn't care because they still had water. After a few months both faucets got fixed.

In my aldea, we have three separate water sources (springs up the mountain), fed through town in PVC pipes. I have access to two of these springs with chorros / water faucets near my cottage. The one by my pila is the goes out most often, but most of the time I can just cart water from the second faucet across the patio in my black bucket and get my dishes done that way. I usually wait for a morning when the water is on at the pila to tackle clothes washing, since that goes through a lot of gallons. The water source down at the shower I rent from the aunt down in the family compound rarely goes out, so my showers are only affected once and awhile.

So, water is really important for washing dishes, clothing, and myself. It's also really helpful for cooking, although I do have big bottled water jugs that I can use in a pinch (I prefer to use chorro water in cases where I need to boil it anyway.... rice, pasta, tea...). The most annoying thing about it is that there is no schedule. I know other volunteers who have water only two days a week, but they always know which two days those will be. They invest in a few big containers, and just know they need to refill them on the requisite days. It's the randomness that bothers me. When my water goes off it might come back on in two hours, or it might come back on in five days. There's just no way of knowing.

On the other hand.

The electricity can be out for most of a day and I won't notice. I don't use overhead lights during the day, my refrigerator stays pretty cool so long as I don't open and close it much, and my laptop has pretty good battery power, since I mostly just play music on it while I move around cleaning or reading or gardening.

Once the evening rolls around, and it gets very dark in my house, I definitely notice the lack of electricity. Happily, my stove is gas powered, so I can still cook just fine. I actually spent most of two months living by candlelight because the wiring to my overhead lights was faulty, but that's beside the point. The main thing I miss when the power goes out is my forms of entertainment. It's hard on the eyes to read by candlelight.  Once my computer battery goes out, I can't watch movies or listen to my much beloved podcasts (all hail NPR and PBS).

But, I'll admit, the big thing is the internet. If the power goes out where I am, so does my internet. If the power goes out across the valley but stays on where I am, out goes my internet. I get a wireless signal from another town, so I'm doubly affected by electrical blips. Now, when I entered the Peace Corps, I didn't know if I would have internet more than maybe once a week or a few times a month. I was prepared for that. I was able to get online once or twice a week during training and coped just fine.

But now I'm spoiled. Now I have internet just about all the time anytime, and it's pretty fast, too. Now I live alone, so I don't have a host family to talk with at night. Or a host family's TV to watch with them. When the internet is gone, I miss my news. I miss my podcasts. I miss my email. I miss Skype.

On balance...

...the reality is that I'm able to get by well with both of these amenities being a bit unpredictable. It's lovely that we can count on both of these things day or night in all but the strangest of circumstances in the U.S. If our utilities go out, it's usually a short phone call to find out why, and to know when they will be back.

Here, that's definitely not the case. They come and go and we are subject to them. It's inconvenient, but it doesn't stop the world. It does mean I build up a day or two of dishes at a time, or have to wait an extra week to do laundry now and again. It means I miss Skype dates, or they get cut short. Since I'm not working on a computer for my job and I don't have a tightly packed schedule like the one I kept in the states... mostly it reminds me that I don't control things, and that's okay.

In the end, I think I'd go for losing power over losing water if we're talking about a long term thing. For two weeks, I could get used to going to bed with the sun, writing letters by hand, and getting my guitar out to play a little more often. I do not want to go two weeks without bathing, without washing dishes, or without being able to mop my floor. On a bad day, a call home makes me feel better than scrubbing the laundry (usually), but water? Water is essential to life.

The question is, which would you rather?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Semana Santa

For Holy Week, my aldea got all dressed up. 

The catholic church had an arco, palm fronds, and fruit decorating its whole front.

The interior got rainbow banners.

The arcos had string lights, fruits, and exotic branches off interesting plants.

The archways were put in over the main road all around town.
Why does this one have U.S. flags on top?
Your guess is as good as mine.

Decorations went up around the home front, too.
I woke up one morning to find that Don Juan (my landlord/host grandfather) had spiffed up my water faucet.

In the pueblo nearby they had parade / processions on a daily basis (sometimes twice) in which the floats were large religious images (statues with regalia) carried on the shoulders of 20 or more people, walking along at a slow pace along the route. Every so often other people switch in to help carry. There are also alfombras (carpets) laid on the ground which are actually just artfully places sawdust and flower petals. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of those, as the rain washed them away before I made it into town this weekend.

On Thursday I had the traditional holy week breakfast with my host family -- sweet bread dipped in honey with hot chocolate to drink and fruit cooked in honey sauce. It was tasty, but a bit over the top on sweets for me that early in the day. Apparently the sweets are to commemorate Jesus' last week in Jerusalem. For Easter I went to the house of a U.S. born nun who has been living here in Guatemala for over 30 years. She invited my site mate and me over for a delicious chicken and vegetable roast/stew/something that really hit the spot. It was a quiet holiday for me, punctuated by the bombas (firecrackers that sound like a cannon) that someone kept lighting off in the center of town.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Crunchings and Munchings

Women in my town have a time-consuming trifecta of tasks that take up the bulk of their day: cooking, cleaning, and weaving. These are in addition to ongoing childcare, which is no small thing in any family, and is particularly impressive where families with upwards of 10 children are not uncommon.  In this post I'll tackle Cooking.  


One of the "estufas mejoradas" that many international aid organizations help to get into communities around Guatemala.
Since I've already spent some time on food in other posts, I won't delve into what the women in my town cook, but I thought I'd look a bit at how they cook it. First of all, the majority of cooking happens over wood fired stoves here in my site. My host family has a gas stove they use as well as fire, but most families have just a wood stove. 

In other areas of the country there are families cook over an open fire, which is terribly inefficient as far as wood usage goes, and leads to loads of respiratory illness in families, particularly in infants strapped to their mothers' backs while the daily cooking gets done. Most families in my town have an estufa mejorada (improved stove), which really increased the burning efficiency of the stove, and decreases the amount of smoke and pollution inside the house.  

Grilling outdoors, more for tradition than taste, in this case.  This was a soup for Day of the Dead and so even though it was in a pot and probably didn't absorb much flavor from the flame, it just couldn't be done indoors on a gas range.
Just like in the U.S., there are opinions over what method of cooking tastes best, and sometimes people choose to grill over an open fire anyway. Who doesn't want barbecue now and again? There are plenty of people who could cook on a gas stove and choose not to because they think it changes the flavor of what they're cooking.

This is one of the places that sells firewood in town... this pile gets brought in and then mostly decimated on a weekly basis. Notice the wheelbarrow in front of the stack... it might help give a sense of scale.  
Even with the estufas mejoradas in town, cooking meals over flames three times a day leads to using a lot of firewood.  Deforestation is definitely a problem.  When I went for a hike up the ridge with my host family a while back, it was clear that all the remaining trees had been limbed up far above the height of a Guatemalan.  Any lower branches had long since been cut off for firewood.  The majority of the firewood sold in my town doesn't come from anywhere nearby -- it's cut down up in Quiche, which is two departments away (like states in the US) and brought in.  There really aren't any native forests left to speak of where I am. There are some trees up on the ridge lines and clinging to the very steepest of hillsides where farming is impossible.

So, I'd say that cooking is time intensive for the women, health intensive for the families, and resource intensive for the land. Obviously there are downsides to cooking with natural gas or electricity as well, but it seems that the forests in Guatemala have not been managed with sustainability in mind. My knowledge of land use policies in Guatemala is very limited, so I'm speaking strictly from my own observations. However, it appears that what could be a renewable resource here is being used faster than it can be replenished.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scrubbings and Drubbings

Women in my town have a time-consuming trifecta of tasks that take up the bulk of their day: cooking, cleaning, and weaving. These are in addition to ongoing childcare, which is no small thing in any family, and is particularly impressive where families with upwards of 10 children are not uncommon. In this post I'll tackle Cleaning.


I'm pleased to introduce you to the pila. It is the main water source in any home or family compound, and thus the hub of cleanliness. A pila is usually made of concrete, has one large, deep basin in the middle where water is stored and two shallow basins on the sides. Often times one will be ribbed to form a washboard texture for scrubbing laundry, while the other will remain smooth to be used for dishes. In practice, the sides don't remain segregated for their intended tasks, however.

My site family has their pila out in the middle of the patio.
Dishwashing here is generally done with the cold water straight from the tap. The water out of the middle basin is accessed with a (relatively) clean guacal or palangana, which is a plastic bowl-like container with a lip around the edge for easy gripping without getting fingers in the water. The dish soap I usually see is a green bar that gets scraped at with a scrubbie of some kind, which is then applied to clean up the dishes. At the end the guacal gives the soapy dishes a quick rinse in the chorro water. Used water drains out the side basin. Since the water we use to clean with isn't pure, I make sure the dishes are fully dry before using them again. 

My training family had a tarp shelter over and around the pila, to help keep debris from falling into the water.
Since indoor plumbing is all rare to nonexistant where I am, children are sent outside to the pila to wash their hands before meals. With the latrine being outdoors as well, it's a quick stop off by the pila on the way back in.

Many homes where I've used latrines don't store their toilet paper out in the out house, so I've developed a skill of washing my hands with a roll of t.p. under my arm, then placing the roll safely on its designated table without wetting the paper with my still dripping hands. The things I'm learning here, I tell you. I've actually adopted the same practice with my latrine in anticipation of a leaky outhouse in the rainy season (also there's not a good storage location out there, and I don't want to be worried about stowaway bugs in my t.p., thank you).

I have a mini pila, with just one side for washing.  My guacal is sitting in the washing basin in this shot.  You can see the whole thing is balanced a bit precariously on rocks.  There are cracks in the main basin, so I can't store water in it.  I use a big black plastic bucket to keep water handy.
Clothes washing is a variation on the dishwashing routine. Clothes are usually soaked in a large basin of some kind to get them wet. My site family dissolves a powdered soap in with theirs, but my training family used liquid soap. After letting the clothes sit a little, they are taken out one by one to be scrubbed by hand along the washboard. We have round balls of soap that are then scrubbed into particularly dirty clothing, often cleaning both the exterior and interior of thick clothing (like jeans or the traditional clothing which is quite durable). Then, the guacal comes back out to use clean water to rinse out the item of clothing... along with a bunch of squeezing and wringing.  Finally we turn the clothing inside out and hang it to dry, after doing our best to remove the excess moisture.

My grandparents have assured me that we in Guatemala are crazy for not having any crank wringers like those they used back in their pre-clothes washer and dryer days. Such things matter less at the moment while I'm in the dry season and I can allow clothing to hang out for as long as it takes to dry all the way through.  Once afternoon rainstorms start becoming regular again I may have to try to improvise something along those lines, though. During training I would have to put out and take down my laundry several times over the course of a few days to get the bulkier items like sweaters and jeans completely dry.


For me, doing my laundry has developed into being a pretty enjoyable task. It's satisfying to see things go from dirty to clean, and I've loved that fresh, sunny smell when I take the clothes down off the line since childhood. The process can be pretty cathartic on days I'm frustrated about something. One particular day that backfired, however, when upon reaching my last item of clothing the wooden pole holding up my laundry line broke and dropped the bulk of my fresh clean wet clothing down into the dust, leaving it far dirtier than it had begun. There was nothing to do but to pick it all up and restart the soaking and scrubbing.

In my time here I've seen people wash their shoes at the pila, their hair, bedspreads, even a dog once (the only dog I've seen cleaned in this country). But of course, cleaning does happen inside the house, too. The floors get swept, if they are packed earth. If they are cement or tile and can withstand mopping, a wet towel is wrapped around the end of the broom. Colorful disinfectant (that perhaps has more coloring than cleaning product inside it) is splashed on the floor and the whole area is wiped down.