Tuesday, March 31, 2015


I like to travel quietly, never in large groups, and as much as possible to soak in the local culture. This is how I would prefer it to always be but I have to admit I am a tourist, especially in a country where just by the way I look (pale skin with blue eyes and a travel book) I stand out like a sore thumb. Anyway, I have been a true tourist sometimes on this trip. Last weekend was a good example. The whole Guatemala Casira team travelled to Lago Atitlan by bus to visit the area. The bus is actually a former school bus from Quebec, painted white and sporting the many bumps and dents that are required to be on the road in this country. It still wears the logo of La Maison du Père, the Montreal organisation(shelter) from whom it was purchased.

Pierre and I visited Lake Atitlan on out trip here in 1974. It has of coursed changed a lot, as has the rest of the country. But I remember the beach on the lake in Panajachel where we parked our van and camped. That area is now part gravel and part sand, but there is a parking lot above it where the buses and vans park. And outside the window of our simple hotel this time, there were two similar vans parked. They were from Argentina and were travelling from the southern time of South America, to the most northern of Central America. As they cooked their meal behind the van and then closed up so they could sleep inside, I was once again taken back to the when we did the same.

The beach at Panajachel (40 years later)

The little girls in their traditional Mayan skirts and blouses (huipil) still look the same. They follow any tourist that arrives in town, trying to sell bracelets or beaded quetzals. 40 years ago the birds were made of dried corn leaves but that is the only difference.

The towns throughout Guatemala are busy this time of year because of Holy week. Every village has streets lined with colourful carpets made from tinted sawdust or corn meal. This is a tradition here and we saw people working on the carpets in many places. They will only last until a procession carrying Jesus and Mary on heavy wooden platforms passes over them.
In the churches in San Antonio and Santa Caterina de Polopa as well as others we visited, the women were decorating the altars and the men were putting the final touches on the large figures that represent the Easter passion.

Float waiting for a procession

It is interesting to see the mixture of Mayan and Catholic traditions that are part of the religious culture here. We saw groups of women weaving large crosses for Palm Sunday. They add flowers and other things to these beautiful crosses, very different from the dried ones that are manufactured on a large scale for Palm Sunday at home.

Church steps in Chichicastenango: a mix of Mayan and Christian tradition

The church in Chichicastenango was full to the hilt on Sunday. There was no room even to squeeze in. Whole families were sitting or standing everywhere there was an inch to do so. Mass was celebrated in Spanish and Quetchi, the Mayan dialect spoken here.
Although this is a very Catholic country as is evident during this week of celebration, with long slow processions every day and night (right out of a Fellini movie), there are hundreds of evangelical churches scattered through the towns. They too appear to take part in the Easter celebrations, as does everyone here this week.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Work on the farm:

The house at Chacalté: built by Casira volunteers and opened 4 years ago. All materials used are local.

The roads in the area become washed out during the rains of the wet season. Driving over them reminded me of the drive to Tikal forty years ago. Today there are highways that allow for easier travelling between major towns but those in the country are still made from rocks and sand and driving is difficult.  We spent three days with pick and shovel, carrying rocks and earth in the truck and then unloading the load to fill up holes in the road. The larger rocks were  broken by the campesinos using a large mass. This was hot, hard work. Lots of blood, sweat, but no tears...only laughter!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Savez-vous plantez des choux?

Our two weeks at Chacalté, the cooperative farming venture in the hills between Tikal and Rio Dulce, was an experience I will not forget. The lovely stone building that houses the volunteers was built three years ago by Casira volunteers. It is made entirely from stones found on the property. All the wood is local. There are two dormitories, open to the air, where a total of twelve people can stay, in mixed quarters. The plan is that the 8 farmers in the coop will eventually be totally independent and not require the monetary and physical support they now get. For now they live in local villages and come by truck to the finca (farm) daily to work the fields, care for the chickens, and tend to the cardamom, pepper and cinnamon plants that are the main source of income at this point.

These men (campesinos) live a meagre existence with their families. The oldest, Jose, is 71 and the youngest Jobani is 23. In between there are Santos, Miguel, Venizio, Abraham, Herman, and Juan, two of whom are in their late 60s. The finca is their way of perhaps providing a better life for the future. They live without running water or electricity, on a diet of beans and tortillas. It is inspiring to see how hard they work. Every evening one of the campesinos, the one whose turn it is to sleep overnight in the workers shack as a night guardian, is our guest for dinner. It was a pleasure to sit at the same table as these quiet men, who get to enjoy a generous meal each his turn. Some of them are more outgoing than others, seeming to appreciate the good food, a glass of beer or wine, and some company other than that of the chickens. One evening we had a complete family, mother, father and two children, come for dinner because the father was the watchman for the night. A real treat. The children were shy at first, but then enjoyed making paper boats, garlands of dolls, and paper hats.
The food at the finca is cooked by a local Guatemaltec women. Meals are simple but delicious. Fresh juice made daily from  the limes that we picked was a treat after the hard work done in the heat of mid day. The finca has a large lemon grove and I learned how to use the long perch with the wire basket attached in order to pull down the limes. All food grown and taken for use in the kitchen is bought from the campesinos. If we took a banana from the farm, we paid a quetzal. The chickens are slaughtered twice a week and sold locally or bought for the kitchen. Tuesdays and Thursdays are when the chickens are slaughtered. Two local women chop off their heads, pluck the feathers and prepare them for market. Once a week a man arrives on his motorcycle, buys a few chickens that he places in the old cooler on the back of his bike, and drives back on a terrible gravel road, up into the mountains to the town of Guitarra, where they are sold.

The chicken coops, with bananas

Our jobs varied from day to day depending on the needs. We spent a few days cutting long weeds under the cinnamon plants, using machetes. This was arduous work, bending and cutting for several hours at a time. My job for the first few days was to plant seeds that were donated by one of our volunteers who had owned a nursery. I planted beets, radishes, carrots, onions, melon,  and Cuban chilis.The ground is very dry and it is hard to believe that anything can grow in the blazing sun. The seeds were appreciated because it is very costly to buy them in Guatemala. By the time we left I could see small radishes poking through the earth, as well as some beets. But without rain, I wonder if they stand a chance.
Others worked in the makeshift nursery, trying to get tomatoes to grow. There is always cinnamon to grind and bag, herbs to dry, gravel to be spread on the roads around the area, palms to cut for the thatched roof of the chicken coop, etc. etc.

Planting beets

Manaca leaves cut for thatch roof

Friday, March 27, 2015

celestial connections

Two years ago when we visited Ankor Wat we were struck by the similarities between some of the temples there, mostly Hindu and later a combination of Hindu and Buddhist, and those we remembered at Tikal from our visit in 1974. We wondered how the same type of structure with some of the same shapes and carvings, could be possible. Tikal was built over many years beginning in the last years BC and continuing for hundreds of years afterwards. The temples in Cambodia date from a much later time AD.
I had the same feeling this year as I walked through the many temples here at Tikal. Was there some kind of celestial connection that influenced two very different ancient cultures, many thousands of miles from each other, and separated by hundreds of years in time? This is most likely not possible but an active imagination can account for the eerie feeling one has that great minds and builders were somehow connected through time and space!

Our drive back from Tikal was shortened for those of us who had the privilege of spending two weeks at Finca Chacalte, an hours drive from Rio Dulce. We were dropped off at Rio Dulce, the town of the same name as the long river that winds through mangroves and forest to connect Lago Itzabal, the largest lake in Guatemala, to the Atlantic Ocean. We were taken by boat through a series of lagoons that branch off from the river. Along the river there are many homes and we saw people swimming and fishing with nets along the way. The river ends at Livingston, a Garafuno community on the Caribbean Ocean, and the only such community in Guatemala. The only way to access this town is by water. These people are similar to those that settled the coast as far up as Costa Rica. They are the descendants of former slaves who fled from British colonies to the south, coming north and eventually settling and working the sugar cane. Reggae music blares, and the culture is quite different from the rest of this country. Spanish and Creole are spoken. As we strolled through the streets I was reminded of Bocas del Toro in Panama, but on a smaller scale.

Rio Dulce

Fish drying in Livingston

Thursday, March 26, 2015

connected again

Since my last blog, we have travelled miles to the North and then spent 2 weeks out of contact at a farm in the area near Rio Dulce, not far from Belize. Back to the Ciudad  Guatemala today after a 7 hour bus ride. Lots of catching up to do!
The drive to Tikal 2 weeks ago brought back many memories. We had driven there in 1974 in our Bell Canada van, driving from Mexico (San Cristobal de las Casas) in Chiapas, and I remember the terrible condition of the road through the jungle, in a van full of holes and therefore dust. The black man we had travelled with was white by the time we arrive in Flores to get the suspension repaired before continuing. Today we drove from the south and the road is in good shape. It is a major autoroute connecting Guatemala Ciudad with Tikal and then onto Belize.
My memory of Flores is of a small town that welcomes you as you arrive cross over the lake Tikal Belen. I remember Pierre swimming in the lake seeing raw sewage float past him as he swam. Today it is a pretty town, with a pleasant board walk along the edge of the lake. There are many tourists but the roads remain small and narrow and the children playing in the park never change.

The church in Flores

Tikal, the Mayan cultural centre, was just opening to tourists in 1974 when we came here. We camped at the foot of the ruins and were able to scamper over them with no restrictions. Today much has changed. It is just as impressive, as it rises from the jungle. There are a lot more sites opened and of course it is protected and is a Unesco site. It was a privilege to be able to see again these important ruins and to learn the culture of the Mayan people who were here for hundreds of year prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. Today 65% of Guatamalans are Mayan descendants and proud of their heritage.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Over the weekend we were able to visit the city and then on the next day go to the seaside..San Jose. Guatamala has little access on the Atlantic, other than a small area south of Belize. So the majority of the beaches are on the Pacific Ocean. As expected, the sand is dark grey, volcanic sand, and the waves are uneven and the undertow very strong. For security reasons we were taken to a water park that includes pools and slides, but that gives access to the ocean. It was uplifting to be surrounded by Guatamalan families enjoying the sun and sea. These are of course families with the means to get out of the city. Obviously not the majority of people here.
The sand was burning hot, even at 10am, so walking the distance from the pool to the water (about 500 metres,) was a feat and required good shoes, as  the hot sand covered our feet. The water is very warm and felt great. Just to be in the sun and water after our wickedly cold Canadian winter was a treat. We ate fresh fish (corvina) under a thatched roof that covered tables set up in the sand. The local rooster pecked around looking for scraps as we ate.
Getting a bit of local colour was worth the slow, hot trip back to the CASA.
Our little group of six is back at the school and trying to finish the windows before we move on to new projects next week. The silicone used to glue the panes of plexiglass is very sticky. The result is that each pane has finger marks which we then remove with varsol. Supplies are limited...today I went again to buy more silicone with Sister Clara Luz. And I bought a gallon of Varsol myself at Walmart (like McDonalds and Burger King they are everywhere!). We had been using the same last little drop of Varsol for a week and there did not seem to be any forthcoming, so that is my contribution to the project.
There are two washrooms on the second and third floor that are ready for fixtures or full of old building materials. They had been used as storage rooms, one of them full of old computers waiting to be updated. We have now cleared them out, painted the walls and tomorrow we will find another place to store the computers that are presently on top of the urinal!  At least that washroom can be used if the carpenter puts on doors. We will not be able to put in any fixtures in the third floor washroom, as it seems Sister Clara believes in divine providence and perhaps the hope that they will fall from the sky.
A special treat last night was attending the Guatamala National Ballet. Five of us were able to "escape" from the compound and attend this event. It was certainly very different to be surrounded by beautiful people, perfume scented and dressed to the nines. There really are two worlds here.We are very fortunate to be able to experience both.

Thursday, March 11.
We finished the windows with the plexiglass, with the two remaining being either too high to reach, or needing soldering first. So next week, three classes will move upstairs and out of their cramped quarters downstairs. The project will be put on hold waiting for washroom doors and fixtures.
Tomorrow we are off to Tikal, ( 40 years after our first visit) and then two weeks at Chaquelte where I will be doing outdoor work at the farm coop. No internet so news will continue later.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Work continues

Casa Casira: Guatemala Ciudad

I am now the official driver to and from the Pinula work site. It is one hour from the Casa Casira. So we leave at 6 am to be able to begin work at about 7:30. The children are already there, the younger ones starting at 7am and the older ones at 8. The drive is frenetic but I am getting used to it.Today I had a smaller van which made it a little easier to turn and get in and out of of tight spots. I am getting used to the clutch and other than a minor detour today after missing a tunnel, we arrived on time. Thankfully I can speak Spanish and ask directions.
A solution has been found and the plexiglass is ready to be placed in the steel frames. The men have spent the last two days cutting the panels and  glueing them with silicone. Tomorrow we will begin replacing the windows and by the end of next week all three classrooms will be completed.

Gym class in school yard...ready for crunches

You can see the high building that we are working on at the back of the picture. This building has     been a Casira project for several years. All supplies are provided by the community. Casira provides volunteers from September until April. Progress is slow because of the lack of supplies and money.

 By 10 we are ready for a snack that we eat in the schoolyard surrounded by the children who are by then eating their lunch, as start classes at 7am and finish at 1pm. We then work until 12:30, eating a packed lunch before leaving. It takes another hour to drive back through traffic. By 2:30 we are back and exhausted. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

first week completed

Today was our fourth day at el Centro Educativo del Socorro Perpetua (education centre of perpetual succour). I have spent a lot of time with Clara Luz, a 60 year old nun who founded the school 15 years ago. She depends on donations from various organizations to make improvements to the school. It has been interesting driving around with her to pick up supplies.The first thing she asked me was how old I am. This seems to be a common question and people are not shy about sharing this information. This has allowed me to talk to her about what we are doing, about the children attending the school, and about her present life that began as a noviciate at age 14 in El Salvador. That would mean that she was witness to much of the war and disruption during the years of guerilla wars in both countries. Those years have taken a toll on the social and economic structures in Guatemala.
Although there is now a supposed democratically elected president, there remain huge inequalities in the country, with education and health at the bottom of the heap and the army much higher up when it comes to government subsidies.

Our resident magician

We have completed one classroom with windows installed.  There are two others left. Cutting and glueing the plexiglass is a slow process. Thankfully we have a volunteer here who knows how to do it and has taken the time to figure out how to use the means available to do the job. The last piece of the project that will stop at the end of April when CASIRA finishes the season for this year, is the washroom. Next week we will be going to purchase what is needed to do that. I may learn how to do some plumbing, given that next week we will be four women and one man to get the job started.

I am getting used to communal living. The kitchen is staffed by a Guatemalan cook supported by Casira volunteers who do the prep work, etc. We each have responsabilities, including dishes nightly, gardening, washing sheets and towels, caring for the garden and more. This week I am on nightly kitchen floor duty so by 8:30 everyone must leave the area while we wash up. Lots of laughs as we go about these chores together.
Today we visited Guatamala City. I remember so much of this from our time here in 1974. The old colonial area in the center of the city is similar to many cities that were originally part of Spain's empire. But the more modern government buildings are built along more modern lines, with beautiful Mayan influenced art on most of them. As always, I love seeing and hearing the noises and colourful sights of these places.

Clara Luz and our group at Pinula

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

First day

We arrived at 16h yesterday (Monday) after a long wait in Miami while they changed planes due to a broken door. Of course there were no complaints knowing that we would be hopefully on a safer and fully functioning plane.
The Casa in Guatamala City is on the outskirts of town in Mizco. We are about 25 here at this point but it can accommodate up to 60. All volunteers  come here for varying lengths of time to work on the projects that CASIRA has started in the area and further away. This is communal living, helping prepare and serve meals, wash up ( I am on dish duty tonight) keep the place clean, and participate in the workings of the CASA. I am in a room with four women, on the edge of a pretty courtyard. I sleep on a top bunk which is a new experience. We all wake and leave at various times depending on the projects we are assigned to. So today I had to be up at about 5 and leave by 6 with four others in order to cross the city and get to the school where CASIRA is building a third story for new classrooms. 350 students from ages 4-17 attend the school. It costs $25 per month. There are government schools but they are quite rudimentary and only are for primary level. Considering that only 1.6% of the GNP goes to education, it is not surprising that many families make the sacrifice of sending their children to private schools run by nuns. I will be at this work site all this week and then move onto another project next Monday.
Today we painted the 2 foot high skirting boards around the new classrooms, using oil paint that had the consistency of chocolate fondu. I was glad to have my knee pads. Meanwhile the three men with us were plastering and painting new walls,  and trying to put plexiglass squares into metal windows. The children were in the classrooms around us squished into tiny classes, with the noise from our work site in their ears the whole time. It was a pleasure eating our lunch in the school yard  and having them race around us, playing hide and seek, screaming and laughing like children everywhere.
All materials are donated so quality is sometimes an issue. Today the plexiglass kept breaking as they tried to cut it. The tools used are pretty basic so the men are now trying out new ways of cutting the plexiglass. We will see tomorrow!

Today was my first experience of driving in Guatamala City. The CASA has several Toyota/Hyundai vans with manual stick shift. This is a very busy city but after Asia and India, I was pleasantly surprised. I had to take the elderly sister from the school (Santa Clara) to the local hardware ( a real hole in  a wall) to buy silicone for the windows. It was lots of fun, chatting in Spanish and trying to following her vague directions to the store. We made it safely perhaps with some divine intervention given the special passenger I had with me.