Friday, November 27, 2015

Not So Sweet November

It must be said – November has not shown us its kindest face. To be perfectly honest, I (Katerina)
personally will remember it as the toughest and most challenging month of my stay in Nueva Mercedes ever since I came here in April.

Contrary to all expectations and weather forecasts based on previous years, it rained for three weeks non-stop. Apart from the obvious and banal consequences on our general mood and our enthusiasm for going outside, the intensity and duration of this “tropical depression” (caused by a hurricane coming to us from the north, somewhere in Mexico, it seems!) had quite some impact on our daily activities with the community of the village.

First of all, it clearly reduced overall attendance rates of the younger participants, especially in the mornings. If we were ready to climb out of bed and bravely march down to school despite the monsoon outside, it seems that the kids were not as eager to poke their little faces through the classroom door on those days. And who can really blame them? It's always funny to see those who do come laugh at us and our “rainproof armour” of waterproof trousers, raincoats and Wellington boots… Whereas they come dressed in their usual short-sleeved clothes and sometimes barefoot, trudging through the mud without blinking an eye.

Secondly, it is more than likely that the heavy downpours sabotaged the women's efforts to grow the first seeds that we planted in their home gardens only a few days before the rains began, as part of the Hortalizas project. It is not a tragedy in itself, but it brings about a general disappointment for us and for them, when every single woman participating in the project reported no results whatsoever. Not even a single sprout! “No salió nada” they tell us in Q'eqchi' when they don't know the words in Spanish. Only one of the 15 participants has seen the nascent beetroot plant peak out of the ground before the monsoon came and destroyed it but washing the earth away. Lesson to be learnt: the rainy season is perhaps not the best time to launch the vegetable garden project… Although, with the dry season having unbearably long periods of heat waves without so much as a drop of rain, it is always a challenge to find the right balance here.

The word of mouth is such a strong vector of communication in this tiny village, that the repercussion of projects results here often resembles a house of cards: one woman, unsatisfied with the results of the home garden, tells her neighbour that planting radish, cucumber and parsley was a waste of time. Whatever reason or explanation she may give for it, what sticks in the mind of the community was that this project was a failure. And it won't be long before the rest of the participants and potential participants will be demoralised too… That's the greatest harm of all these unfortunate events: an unlucky coincidence which does not depend on us, the volunteers, could easily topple all of the Lichutam's efforts and convince the participants that it's not worth trying again.

Last but not least, let's talk about the power cuts. We already mentioned it in the previous post, but since then it got much, much worse. Power failures due to heavy rainfall are neither infrequent nor abnormal here, and November has not spared us our rightful share. However, in the last week of November electricity cuts became a daily matter of course. And when I say “daily”, I really mean it.  As if by law of curfew, all lights in the house go out at exactly 6PM every night, since 10 days. Sometimes, electricity comes back in a couple of house. And others, unluckily, the power cut lasts the entire night and is returned to us between 5AM and 9AM the following morning, I spare you the obvious explanation of the impact this has on our capacity to do anything at home (apart from eating dinner and going to bed) after sunset.

The real problem is that these disturbances has been a heavy blow on our computer literacy classes with the men of the village. The 6PM-7:30PM computer lessons, scheduled at the only time that was doable for the participants (all full-time employees working on the plantation), have simply been interrupted by untimely power cuts of simply cancelled since the routine power cuts began for a total of 3 weeks in a row.

Despite the knowledge that this is by no means our fault, it is difficult for us volunteers to face up to such a drastic situation. Its at best frustrating, to say the least, to realise these three weeks of missed classes will have certainly made our male students forget more than they learnt with us in October, and that when the electricity situation will go back to normal (and goodness knows when that will be!!) we will have to start all over again.

This is especially heart-breaking for me, as the coordinator, but also for the simple reason that my time with Lichutam will end in the beginning of January. December, therefore, will be my last month as a volunteer and my last chance to to something meaningful and with long-lasting impact here in Mercedes.

However, I'm not a fan of dwelling on failures and simple complaining is just useless, so let us finish this post on a happy note by telling you some good news!

First of all, the attendance rates have been soaring every time its not pouring down with rain, and our star projects are more popular than ever, with as many as 20 to 30 kids rushing to make bracelets (“Pulseras”) with us on Mondays or chocolate on Fridays. At least their interest and attachement to Lichutam has not waned.

Regarding the vegetable garden project, the war is not lost yet! Last weekend we bought an entirely new set of seeds from Coban which we gave out to all the participating women in order to encourage them to plant again. The other issue is that the seeds we gave out initially were the leftovers from last year's garden project, and might not have grown simply because they were too old… But this we will never know. In any case, to our pleasant surprise, all but one of the women were eager to try a second time, and their bright and grateful smiles and “Bantiox!” were enough to give us hope also.

As for the computer classes with the men, the continual power cuts remain a real obstacle. Some problems have an obvious solution and others do not. The power of Mother Nature here is so overwhelming, that we have even less control over our environment than what we are used to having back at home. But if there's one thing that life in the Polochic has taught us, it's that survival is all about adaptation.

If things don't go according to plan, we will find a way around it. But one thing is sure: we will not give up!

Written by: Katerina

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Gardens, bracelets and chocolate: highlights from November's Summer School in Nueva Mercedes

Another exciting week in Nueva Mercedes has come to an end and I (Georgia) am happy to be the one that has to write about it since many things have happened; new things, new difficulties, and new achievements.

I think the most important thing of the week was our vegetable garden project. The purpose of this project is to gather the women of the village in order to teach them to plant different fruits and vegetables in their home gardens. Of course this would not be feasible without the help of Edwin, the agronomist of the plantation who helps us as a volunteer. He and the previous Lichutam team started this project and we are very glad that we are able to continue with it since we already had some satisfying results from the first week. We went around the village informing the women and inviting them to our project. We had our first meeting a few days later and around 13 of them joined which is a quite satisfying number. We provided them with the seeds and Edwin informed them on how to prepare the land and to protect their garden patches from animals.

After 3 days we started our tour around the houses to see what the women did. It was a pleasant surprise for us to see that the women who we visited did a great job preparing their little gardens. Doing the planting demonstrations took around half an hour for each house. The willingness and the work of the women motivated us to continue the project further.

This motivation was needed especially after a week of low levels of participation from the older kids from high school. Each day we had activities such as literacy, computer classes, chocolate workshop but the attendance rate was unfortunately very low. While trying to find out why, a girl informed us that next week the ones who failed some classes at school had to attend their resit exams and thus, had to study. So the week ended again with hope that we will continue our projects with many more kids. Of course this only applies for the older kids since the afternoon activities with the younger ones are not included. There, they support us  fully by participating in our maths treasure-hunt, our computer lessons, our bracelet making and so on.

For me especially the last project is a personal achievement because, of course with the help of the team, it was an activity that kids from all ages loved. I showed them different ways of making bracelets so that the little ones can make something simpler while the older ones something more complicated. By using any available materials from the market and even though the choices are limited, the kids did a great job! We used  different color threads, wooden and plastic beads, and also strings and loom. The most worthwhile part is the fact that they could take something at home with them, show it to their families, and give it as a gift to their mothers and sisters.

Last but not least I have to say that there are some hard moments here in Nueva Mercedes; with continuous and long-lasting power and water cuts which have consequences not only in our everyday (and mostly evening) life but also in our projects. Unfortunately, two days we couldn’t use the computers at school since there was no electricity. However, even those little obstacles didn’t bring us down. We just need to adapt, be flexible, and use our creativity in order to find other educational activities; something that so far worked well and made us stronger as a team.

Written by: Georgia

Friday, November 13, 2015

It’s raining, man!

The view in the sky during the last two weeks can be described as “grau in grau” (“grey in grey“). The usually bright and sunny Polochic valley turned into a rainy, stormy and uncomfortable place. Together with the thunderstorms came daily difficulties. One of them was the continuous absence of electricity. That means living without light and electrical appliances like computers, phones or fridge for a while. Unfortunately, the “electricity cuts“ occurred mostly when we wanted to go to school for computer lessons with the kids...

 Also the weekly market tour to Teleman was cancelled during that time. The lasting rain flooded the river on the way to Teleman, in other words crossing the bridge was impossible. We ould have been happy to swim trough it, but even that was not an option. At the end the locals told us, that it is  dangerous to risk it and the story of an accident which happened a few years ago was not really encouraging. For us it meant being locked up in the village for 3 weeks. Luckily, a lot of people in Nueva Mercedes have a self-sufficient way of life. And generous as they are, these lovely people shared tortillas, frijoles (black beans), coconuts, papayas and some traditional meals with us. A big thank you to our knights in shining armour!

At least it is impressive to see how strong mother nature is. For me, living in close communion with nature is, despite some inconveniences, the best feeling ever. And like the old saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining“. Finally, we had some sunny hours between all the rain and our activities like the vegetable and chocolate projects did not have to plunge into water!

Written by: Anne


Friday, November 6, 2015

Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory Comes to Nueva Mercedes

I (Katerina) have been dreaming of this project ever since August, when Marta and I went on a
chocolate-making tour with a local Mayan family in Lanquin. As some of you may already know,
the cacao bean grows marvellously in the tropics of Central America and the chocolate drink is
native to the precolumbian Maya culture of Mesoamerica. And indeed, its heritage is long-lasting:
every Maya family in the village, and most probably in the region, knows how to make delicious
hot chocolate out of the cacao pods that grow by the dozen in their home gardens. However, the
strangest of all is that good quality dark chocolate that fills up the supermarket shelves back in
Europe (Lindtt, Nestlé, Cote d'Or, etc.) is almost impossible to find in Guatemalan supermarkets or markets, especially in rural areas (like Teleman).

We have been pondering over this paradox for quite some time now: how can one of the top cacao producers in the world lack locally produced good quality chocolate bars? If we can't solve the
riddle on a national level (our guess is that all cacao goes out for export to Occidental countries, and
there is no processing industries in Guatemala), we can at least try to do something on a local level.
This was the initial inspiration behind the chocolate-making workshop aiming to teach the
community how to prepare artisanal chocolate bars and sweets “from scratch“, using raw cacao
beans, in home conditions.

Our first trial session was in the 2nd week of November. And I have to say, considering the lack of
(professional) equipment at our limited resources, it probably went as well as it could have! The 15
participants we had spanned all age categories and came from all over the village: young children,
basico students, the owner of the local shop, and a couple of mothers who came with their
children, curious to see the action.

We were very lucky to receive the support of a local woman, Angela, who welcomed us in
her house and lent us her tools without which the chocolate-making would have been impossible.
The most important of these, of course, are the comal (a sort of large toasting pan typical in Maya
culture) and her manual mill (actually, a simple meat-grinder). The overarching idea behind the
workshop was to combine the traditional chocolate-making art of the Mayas and modern
techniques to perfection the process and turn an ancestral drink into a solid chocolate-bar. For this
reason, we insisted on following the traditional cooking process and using the traditional tools
(such as the comal) as much as possible. Also, the presence in itself of a local woman who has been
preparing chocolate for as long as she can remember is, of course, invaluable!

The recipe we followed was as simple as can be: toasting the cacao beans on the comal for half an
hour until they “cracked” and popped, grinding them in the mill, adding cinnamon, milk, sugar and
vanilla to give it the initial form. The consistency appeared to be perfect: liquid enough to pour
into the ice-trays that we used as moulds, and to turn solid there.

The amount of participants also turned out to be very appropriate: not too many to create
unnecessary hassle, but not too few either. Each one of them had a specific task to do and was
happy to concentrate on it. Shelling the peanuts, cutting the raisins, getting the vanilla dust out of
the vanilla pods, toasting, grinding the cacao beans, adding milk, sugar, mixing… and so on!
As this was our first session, a bit of experimentation by the “trial and error” method was
inevitable! The fun part was to do in the most democratic way possible: everyone was allowed to
dip their spoon in the chocolate mass in the bowl and was asked their opinion: too bitter? Too
sweet? Do we add more milk? Can you taste the vanilla and the cinnamon?

And a dozen of overexcited voices filled the room, each one giving a different advice!..

Let's be fair on ourselves: the chocolate that we ended up carrying home to freeze for a few days in
our refrigerator, after decorating it with raisins and peanuts, had a rather rough and sandy texture.
It left a bitter aftertaste, despite the copious amounts of sugar that we put in, and most
disappointing of all – it melted within the five minutes after we took it out of the freezer to share
with the children the following week!

Well, disappointing for us, maybe, but not for the children! They were just as delighted to receive a
liquid version of the fruit that we achieved with the help of their labour, and they always came
back for a second and third round. In the end, even if we are not entirely satisfied with the final
product, the participants' joy is what really matters.

And next time, well refine the recipe and consult professional sources to try and figure out how we
could improve our chocolate to make it as mouthwatering as the one that Roal Dahl describes in
Charlie's adventures at Willy Wonka's famous factory!

Written by: Katerina

Monday, October 26, 2015

Full speed ahead! New Projects are in the house

This week we planned out the schedule for the next 3 months to come.  We are keeping some and adding on other new projects to our list. The aime is to widen our spectrum of participants, by including not only básico and primary school kids but also by making the adults into a target audience as well! The idea is for Li Ch’utam to take as wide a community as possible under their wings.

Check out our new “Summer School” schedule (although of course, here it's autumn...):

·         Daily activities: The afternoon extracurricular activities with the primary school children are still a big item on our list. We will diversify the offer by including, on top of the usual classes to teach them maths, Spanish, arts&crafts and sports, other new specialised workshops based on our volunteers' personal talents! One of our specials is Georgia's jewellery-making class, where we show the kids how to make bracelets out of different materials we find locally. The back-bone of all those activities is a combination of teaching basic skills and spending a fun time with our youngest participants.

·         Computer classes for basico kids: Once a week we offer the básico kids the chance to learn basic computer skills based on their school curriculum. Word, Excel or PowerPoint are the name of the game!

·         Computer classes for men: Computer classes again, but this time it is all about the adults in the village, and mainly men. Similar to the computer courses for básico, the point is to give them a chance to learn and practice basic computer skills necessary for working or studying and to give them a chance to apply them in their daily life, ultimately enhacing their livelihoods.

·         English lessons: After one thousand questions in the likes of “Qué es en inglés?” we decided to start an English course aimed at middle school students from Mercedes and La Constancia. At the end it is always helpful to have a fundamental knowledge of English. That makes the difference in their studying and work life and offers them great opportunities for a open-minded future.

·         One-on-one Literacy tutoring project: Or how to “learn how to teach“ aimed at training the middle-school students to teach literacy to the younger kids who are still struggling with basic reading and writing skills.  It's a nice way to give something back to the community: we train a handful of students, who could then start by helping their younger brothers and sisters at home…

·         Chocolate-making-project: “Mmmmmhm, qué rico!“. If your hear people in Nueva Mercedes say this in the next weeks, then our chocolate-making-project was a success! Our plan is to harvest cacao beans buying them in the houses of the local villagers, toast them, grind them and produce delicious chocolate with various flavours (vanilla, cardamomo, raisins, milk chocolate, peanuts, chile, rice...and many more!) The participants will simultaneously acquire a practical skill and learn about their own ancestral traditions (Mesoamerica and Maya culture in particular is the cradle of chocolate, as we know it today!)

·         Vegetable Garden Project: With any luck, soon we will hopefully see a variety of fruit and vegetables sprouting up in the gardens of local families of Nueva Mercedes. We decided to re-kick-start the project which was conducted last year with our previous team of volunteers (Ewa and her team), in collaboration with Edwin, the agronomer of the local finca. The ultimate aim is to help families, and especially the mothers, to supplement family income and give them tools for a healthy and balanced nutrition.
To inform our target audience, we did a village round to broadcast our schedule and make sure that everybody gets the message: we are here for you, to work with you and help you improve your future! It seems that everyone, including the volunteers, are excited and looking forward to the weeks to come!

1,2,3 – he, ho let's go!

Written by: Anne

Friday, October 16, 2015

From Pirates to Explorers: end-of-year school trip to Semuc Champey

Last year (2014), it was a pirate-disguised treasure hunt through the dungeons of Castillo San Felipe
on the lakeside of the splendid Lago Izabal. This year, Lichutam decided to celebrate the end of the
school year in mid-October by taking the older students (from 5th and 6th grades) on a breathtaking
hike and swim around the natural reserve of Semuc Champey.

Situated on the Lanquin river some two hours from Coban, this pearl of the natural heritage of
Guatemala has the most awe-inspiring giant “staircase” of turquoise cascades and crystalline waters
lying amidst the impenetrable vines of the tropical rainforest. The choice of the location came
down to a combination of factors: the cultural value and practicality. First and foremost, none of the
children from Nueva Mercedes have ever been to Semuc Champey. More surprisingly, hardly any
of them have ever heard of the place before we mentioned it. Considering that Semuc features on
the top of the list for tourist destinations of Guatemala and has several hundreds of thousands of
visitors per year, it is rather sad to think that the natives living in remote rural areas may never get a
chance to see it.

This is why Lichutam decided to give that chance to the students of Nueva Mercedes primary

On the practical side, Semuc is one of the closest and most accessible attraction sights to us in the
region of Alta Verapaz. Taking into consideration our limited financial resources, the time constraint
to organise the trip and the availability of transport, this was really the perfect destination from all
perspectives. The cherry on the top was the fact that due to recent political manifestations of the
local villagers in Semuc Champey, the site had been closed down for the better part of September. It
has been reopened in October and – luckily for us, when we went there the
entrance fee was...0! This alleviated strongly our financial charge and allowed us to take the
children on the trip and to feed all the 4 volunteers in the house for the rest of the month!

We would be lying to you if we said that this trip actually taking place and going according to plan
wasn't a total miracle. The initial plan was to organise the end-of-year trip to the biosphere reserve
of La Sierra de las Minas, with the support of a local environmental NGO. But when the NGO in
question told us that they would struggle to find the time to fit us into their busy schedule, we had to
improvise a plan B at the very last minute! Thankfully, plan B turned out be unarguably better!
It was literally a matter of hours before we put the whole thing into place. Getting the consent of the
teachers, calling the bus driver to reserve the vehicle, and doing a last minute village round to
inform the parents' of the partipating children and obtain their written permission to take the kids on
the school trip.

To our great amazement, we had a 100% turnout – perhaps for the first time in Lichutam history!
Every child who said they would come, was there in the bus at 2:30 in the morning, waving
goodbye to their parents who had brought them there with their packed lunches. It was very
touching to watch them see their children off. Of course they were scared and nervous, and praying
for the road trip to go well… Most of them had never heard of the place we were taking their
children to, and sadly, most of them had never travelled beyond Teleman. The only thing they asked
of us is that we bring them back home safe and sound.

But on that front, there were no problems, and thank god for that!

We arrived in Lanquin in the early hours of dawn, yawning and stretching in our seats from the oh-so-
painful 5 hour bus ride.

Everything was perfect. But the balance of forces of good and evil in the world cannot be
maintained for too long: something had to go wrong! Surprise, surprise! It rained…

Although it may seem like a banal detail, the rain meant that our bus driver, Fidel, could not go up
the steep and hilly road which turned far too slippery under the rain, in order to take us from
Lanquin to the heart of Semuc Champey itself. We had to rent a pick-up truck and squeeze in 30
people inside it for this half and hour journey under the pouring rain.

How disappointing it was to find out that only the day before there was such a bright sun shining
over Semuc that you could get a suntan in a matter of minutes!

But the rain did not stop us from enjoying the trip to the full. We still jumped in the (slightly
freezing) water, played water games, taught the children a few swimming strokes, played mermaids
and pirates, and explored the cascades one by one with them. The funnest part for them was of
course to slide down from one swimming pool (or “pozo”) of the cascade to the next, like on a reallife
natural playground!

After a few great moments in the water, we finally got out to wrap ourselves in our towels and dry
as much as the rain (still pouring) would allow it. Next mission: hiking through the thick vines and
the slippery stone staircase of the forest to reach el Mirador! All students, but more impressively, all
the teachers, set out on this adventure and arrived to destination. Believe us when we say it was no
piece of cake to walk up a steep mountain by stepping on giant stone stairs awkwardly peaking out
of the mud, holding onto a thin railing hanging over an abyss. And all of this, in the pouring rain
which made us shiver with cold, and keep our eyes on the ground at all times.

However difficult the journey, the destination was well worth it. When we finally reached the
highest peak of the mountain, after half an hour of rapid ascent, we gasped with awe: a
mesmerizingly beautiful turquoise snake slithered through the lush green forests wrapped in fog
some several hundred feet below. The sight made us catch our breath, fall silent, and stare in
wonder for a few timeless moments.

Even the headteacher, Elda, who was at first not too convinced with the idea of going to Semuc,
thanked us so heartily and said that she didn't expect to see such ravishing beauty…

What else is left to say? It was a truly perfect end to the school year.

We headed back to the pick-up straight after lunchtime, in order to get back to Lanquin and find
Don Fidel, our loyal bus driver, waiting for us to take us home. The bus ride back seemed much
faster, perhaps because we were all so exhausted from our active and dynamic day out… In any case, we
kept out promise to the parents, bringing 25 sleepy and happy children back into their arms to the
joy of all.

Written by: Katerina