Life Among the Guatemalans

January 28, 2012

Dear Friends and Family,

This may be a good time to discuss the subject of the life style of the people here. I have been thinking about this subject a lot over the time of our visit and it is a difficult thing to try to represent fairly. I have no knowledge but what I have observed and heard about from others so this should not be considered a definitive concept of the facts for the country. Still, I would like to share my feelings and thoughts.

Let me start with education since that was my last log. We did receive donations from two generous people and with some added on by us, we were able to give scholarships to two students. They are being notified this weekend and hopefully they will begin school on Monday. We are already two weeks into class so they will have some catching up to do. There was enough to buy them uniforms as well, a hardship for many families.

Many adults in this country, especially among the indigenous population which is the most poor as a group, cannot read or write. They may also not always realize the value of an education, especially when it can be so difficult to have access. Often times, the young children need to work to help support the family so it can be a matter of education or starvation.

Students often have to paddle in their little boats a long distance to school and back. When the weather is unsettled, this can be uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous. Some villages don’t have a school and most on the river communities only have school until the 6th grade. That is the maximum many students can aspire to. School to that level is funded by the government but the funding for Jr. High with 7th to 9th grade is largely done by the people in the community and the parents. It makes that continuing process less likely.

The community where we are, started a Jr. High 3 years ago. This June was the graduation for their first class. Up to three years ago, the only option was to go to a major city, all of which are too far away for daily travel. There are no roads here for the river villages so all transportation is by boat. A large number of people have only small wooden boats that you must paddle. There is no such thing as a school boat that collects and returns the kids.

For high school, river village children must go to a boarding school or stay with relatives in the city. Locally, the the village is allowing children from the other villages near by to attend the Jr. High but of course they have to pay for tuition. What we were told was that there is funding for the early grades and there is a benefactor in the community that helps kids out with high school but that the Jr. High is the bigger struggle. That is where a lot of the kids are lost.

The school buildings are used for the elementary kids in the morning and the older kids in the afternoon so it does double duty. Recently, someone (we are unclear who or what agency) started to pay for the school’s electricity usage. They are trying to enclose the center courtyard as I mentioned before and funds are being donated for that purpose. Everyone in the village is asked to be involved since it is not just the school but the village meeting center and place to hold other events. Every family in the village will be required to provide someone to help with labor in the construction.

In larger towns, the situation is different and I am sure education is a little more accessible, yet there is still a cost and many families cannot afford it. I know that in some of the mountain communities, they have a lack of access as well. Home schooling is also not an option because if your parents are your teachers and they don’t read and write, what can you do?

When we talk about education, we talk about opportunity and options. However those who are not educated are not always doomed to poverty and a hard life. These people are smart in many ways. Certainly they learn many skills. If the world as we are used to living it was over and we had to make our way on our own skills and wits, I would want to hang out with these people. They have survival skills that the rest of us don’t.

What is lacking is an ability to think further than one day ahead, an ability to negotiate with people who may be able to take advantage of their lack of education, and lack of more advanced skills which make them more marketable. Of course you can have lots of skills but if there is no job, it is still difficult. When your main concern is not starving today, then all the thinking of the future is gone.

One also has to look at poverty and wealth a little differently than we do in the U.S.A. I see the houses here that would be considered uninhabitable in most of our country and it might be considered upper middle class housing here. Poverty is all relative.

Also, one aspires to different things. A launcha (boat) with a motor is a sign of real success. It might be like having a very expensive car in the U.S. Though a new launcha and motor might come to about $10,000 which is much less than a car, it is a huge amount for most people at the income they have. Once you have one though, it means better access to everything as you can safely go distances, you can fish better, or you can use it as a taxi to make money, take people on tours, or haul things for a price. Of course fuel here is expensive, so even after you pay the cost to own a launcha, maintaining and using it can be expensive.

Most people work on a daily wage and are used to being paid at the end of each day. It is primarily a cash society and most of the incomes in this country are not taxed and that means that nothing is being paid in to a pension fund for anyone either. It limits the income of the government too. A standard daily wage which is considered good for unskilled labor is about $12 per day. That can mean long hours of often very difficult and sometimes dangerous work.

In tourist areas, many of the women and young children are selling items on the street or in shops. They also entertain on the streets as you have seen in some of my pictures. Begging is also a way to earn an income and you see people every day begging in the same location. You don’t see that here in the village but in the bigger towns and cities where you find more wealthy people to solicit from.

Women have it very difficult in so many ways. They wake up first in the family, about 4 or 5 a.m. to grind the corn by hand and then make the corn tortillas so that their husband has something to eat when he goes out to work. Of course this includes starting the fire and getting the pan hot enough to cook them.

Laundry is often done in the river with a hard cake of soap, a brush and a rock with the water from the river or at a public laundry. There are some sinks that people use in some homes and there are public laundry areas where people can do their laundry in the same fashion only not standing in the river.

There are machine laundry facilities in the towns and of course some of the more wealthy people have laundry at home, usually done by the maids. Drying is almost always done by clothes line as utilities are expensive and a dryer costs a lot. What I see is that a everyone looks clean and neat. I don’t know how they manage.

Laundry, cooking and daily marketing, plus child rearing take a lot of a woman’s time. She is usually on foot, rowing a small boat, or in a crowded bus to run her errands. Some women have jobs but it is rare to see a woman in any position of power.

The men not only put in a full days work when they can get it, but they must also find fire wood for the cooking and water must be brought in. Mostly it is boiled before drinking as it is not very clean. With most cooking by lower income people done with open fires, smoke inhalation is a real health issue. Oddly enough though, you don’t hear about fires burning up the buildings, even with the thatched roofs.

On the upside of chores, they don’t have a lot of furniture or things to take care of, clean or dust or vacuum. They likely live on a plank floor if above the water as in this area, or on a packed dirt floor in the city if their house is on dry land. They may sleep or sit on a woven mat or perhaps a hammock. The dwelling may not have full walls or doors.

On the other hand, a dwelling may be humble but some have furniture, a soft bed and even TV. Still, it is small for a family the size that many people have here. It is a trend that the size of families is decreasing as many see this as a way to provide better for fewer children rather than not being able to take care of the family you create.

The people here face real challenges but their needs and desires are more in line with what they are able to accomplish. When the community is all living in a similar way, it is easier but even in this village there is a vast difference in level of life.

What I find here though is that people still help each other out in the community. When things become too unbearable to stand by and watch, people will do something. There was a women with several children who’s husband left her. The house they were living in looked abandoned and was in terrible shape. The town got together and in one day, built her a new home. Now, it was not large or luxurious but it was something to protect her and her children.

The community spirit both supports and sometimes represses the residents. What I like is that all the problems of the area are brought up to the town meetings and the community determines how things should be handled. When help is needed for others, the community gets involved. The community supports the school and maintains security in the area.

The problem is that they can also be restrictive. This community is pretty open to gringos which has been a financial help at the very least. Some communities are closed, even to other local people. In this community, if you wish to marry someone or move in here, you have to have permission from the town. It is easier to bring in a woman from someplace else because they don’t take jobs away. If you wish to bring in a man to marry, it is more difficult. If you have a trouble maker in the family, they can force your whole family to move out of the community. I mentioned that other students from other villages can come here to Jr. High but they are only allowed here during school hours. This is one way that the community deals with security.

One of the less expensive things here are cell phones and minutes of time. All the phones are on a pay as you go basis and on certain days, you get triple minutes. Cost of calls in Guatemala are very reasonable. Getting minutes is pretty easy to do. If you don’t have money, you may not be able to afford minutes this week or month but unlike in the U.S. where you are tied in to a contract, you have the option of using the phone or not. In countries where the land lines were never installed, cell phones have made a great inroad and communication affords many opportunities.

I heard from someone else that while Guatemala is one of the more poor countries in the Caribbean, they are better off than Nicaragua and Haiti, which is probably the poorest.

There are many charitable organizations working in Guatemala, some private and many recognized such as the Peace Corps. They are doing a big job but are still overwhelmed by what remains to be done.

Nutrition is a big issue. The main diet is corn, beans and rice. They don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables or dairy. Milk is very expensive. Often because of poor diet, mothers lose their milk and the accepted substitute in some of the poor and uneducated communities is to give the baby weak coffee with lots of sugar. They don’t seem to have another option. Some of the problems with diet are being addressed but income and generations of doing things the same way make change difficult.

I mentioned, when there are no taxes coming in, the government doesn’t have funds to deal with all the issues. Unfortunately, as is common in so many of these countries, there is serious corruption in all levels of government so not sending them more tax money may not be so bad. As I said, without the educational tools to stand up to people who wish to take advantage of you, the control of the wealth remains with about 10 families in this country. Drug problems are becoming even greater. As Colombia is cleaning up it’s act in that way, the problem is being shifted to Honduras and Guatemala as well as what we already know about Mexico. The newly elected president won on a platform to bring greater security in this area of concern. We will see what he may be able to do.

The following comes from THE LONELY PLANET book on Guatemala:

More than half of the population lives in poverty. 25%of the population lives in or around the capital city. About half of the population is indigenous Maya. There are 25 different groups of Maya all with their own language. Most grow up speaking their indigenous tongue so Spanish is a second language and some don’t speak it at all. About half of the population is under 15. The national minimum wage is $235 a month for an urban worker and $173 per month for a rural worker but not everyone is entitled to this. The typical school teacher earns around $192 per month and they have gone through a college education.

The country has a lot of issues they are dealing with but so many of the people we met still seem happy, friendly and generous and that says a lot. When I start to get down or feel as though my life is not going as I would like it too, I just have to think of their smiling faces and realize that I always have whatever I will need. I must remember that all I need is a loving and generous spirit and it only takes me to make that happen. The people here in many ways seem to have learned that lesson already.

Here are some of the pictures of the school – (captions below).

One is taken during a Mothers Day Fiesta we attended there last May. You can see how they use the middle section for school and community events.

A new computer lab has been set up in part with help from Chris. The computers and printers have all been donated but the school pays for the teacher.

The group of children are elementary students showing off the school bags and supplies that were donated .

Here is an example of a home. This is actually quite a nice one and you can see the launcha in front so this family has some financial stability. It doesn’t leave much room for a large family and there is no place to spread out on land, just docks or wooden raised walk ways.

This is half of the kitchen in a house with a family with 5 children. They are doing quite well. You can see that they have a gas cook top and covered are a microwave, and blender. They also have some food stores and many pots for cooking. On the other side of the kitchen is a platform for a wood fire which is used most commonly.

How fires don’t start and spread is something I don’t understand but this is common in most homes. At the least the fires may be in the open but under a thatched room. There is no running water in the houses.

I took this picture of a public laundry in Antigua. One brings your piles of laundry (difficult by itself) and then used the rounded stone area to scrub the clothes and the pool of water is used to wash and rinse. Then you have to carry the wet clothes home and hang them to dry.

In other places they take the clothes to the river to wash them on rocks set up for that purpose. You stand about mid thigh deep in water while you wash the clothes. I have seen people here stand in the water just outside their home and wash the laundry on a rock. It is hard labor but they do get the clothes very clean and every one usually looks nice. I think many clothes come from the states through things like Good Will as people are wearing things with U.S. Logos and a lot of sorority clothes that are from fund raisers etc. Most people don’t know what the words on their clothes mean.

Children are often pressed in to work at an early age. You may not be able to see it but the child has a head strap attached to the frame holding the wood in order to help him carry it and balance it on his back. This child looks quite young but if he has not been fed well, as is common, he may be as old as 8 or more. You learn early that hard work is your lot in life. The woman holding the items for sale is also carrying an older baby on her back. It is common to see women selling on the street with their children tied to their side or back or if old enough to sell, they too try to entice people to buy their items. This woman is not carrying much in the way of inventory but women often have very large bundles of items that they carry around to sell. Small babies are often held in the arms of begging mothers.

We saw this man while out with Chris one day in the launcha. He was in a small wooden cayuka. Chris said that he had probably walked down from the mountains to sell the baskets. They were cute and we paid about $3 for this one. It was his smallest. All day was spent walking and paddling in hopes of selling his baskets and bring money back to his family. Doubt minimum wage was made this day.

This man and his son came by our boat. He had a note in Spanish, probably written by someone else. We couldn’t understand all of it but Rob thought it said he was from Livingston, 6 miles down the river and was a poor man with a large family. He had very little to sell. We bought some very small bananas for about 60 cents.

They work very hard for very little reward. It is hard when you don’t have anything worth selling!

Here is Chris and Kelli’s partner Carlos. We have hired him to do some work for us. He took our dinghy, which Chris had done some fiberglass work on, and made a frame and cover for him to paint the inside of it. He did a really great job. You can see his little house behind him. He is trying to save every penny he earns to build a new house which will be used as a place to be the security guard for docks Chris and Kelli are building soon.

Here is the house he is building under construction. He is paying the people who help him build and buying the materials. The part already framed will be the living quarters and the part yet unframed will be the kitchen area. It is already much bigger than where he lives now. They then have to make wooden walk ways to connect to the house and docks. Kelli and Chris want to put solar panels on the roof to create energy for Carlos but also the docks. That will be unique to people here.

I want to tell you a little more about Carlos and his family. He is only 26 and this is the second house he is building. He is saving every penny they can to build it. There is a big 15th birthday party today. The whole village is invited. Kelli and Chris have gotten us an invitation as well. You will see more about it soon as I want to write about the fun things we do here too. Anyway, I just found out that Carlos and Elizabeth are not going because they didn’t want to spend the money on a gift but put it toward the house. It would have been appropriate to spend as little as $6 on a gift but that is too much of their income. It may not seem like much to miss the party but with social opportunities limited, it is a big sacrifice to miss out.

Today Carlos is here working on woodwork on the interior of our boat. It is just a small job on certain trim areas but we are happy to get the work done on that and the painting of the dinghy and in this way contribute to the building of their house. He has a third grade education and there is so much he needs to learn but Kelli and Chris have taken him on in business and are helping him learn new skills and a way of thinking that he would not have learned otherwise. Chris and Kelli are being helpful but not giving handouts. This is a way of certain disruption of the relationship. They have seen that happen way too often. They admire Carlos for wanting to be an equal partner in the business and to learn and do right by Elizabeth and baby Carlos. He was very poor when this all started and he is now moving up to a higher standard of living and building a future. This would not have been the case without Kelli and Chris and they hope his success will be their legacy when they move on from here eventually. There is a lot that needs to be done for the people here but one at a time may be the only way it can be managed. At least that much is happening.

Counting ourselves very fortunate,

Sue and Rob

Aboard Catalyst in Guatemala

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One Response to Life Among the Guatemalans

  1. Sabine says:

    really enjoying your travel diary! Looks like you are enjoying it. The Guatemalans seem to have similar life conditions as most people in this world, and those conditions are not easy. Like you, I believe education of kids is the answer, and I admire your involvement.
    Sabine, enjoying a winter in Portland, OR.

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