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 sali√≥ 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