I just returned from Guatemala, and thought I’d share with you what a typical work trip is like there. To start with, every trip to Guatemala I am eaten up by insects. My whole body looks like this photo. During the day I try to stay as distracted from the itch as possible, but at night in bed I nearly go insane from the itch! Where they come from is a mystery. I never see an insect, so I am guessing it must be mites. I’m only bitten where I have clothes. My face is never bitten, and if I wear short sleeves my arms are bite-free. If I put on a long-sleeve shirt, however, then the bites appear on my arms. Each trip I test a new theory, and I think this trip I’ve narrowed the primary culprit to the casita where I prepare chicken coop materials. It is dark and damp and filled with misc items like wet cardboard boxes in addition to our chicken supplies.

Why would I keep going back to Guatemala when I know I am going to suffer like this? Part of the reason is because of Sandra, our project director, and her family. How could I NOT support such a lovely family, even if I must suffer? Part of the reason is that I stay a bit delusional – sure if I could just identify the source of the problem I can avoid the bites on a future trip.

On my last trip I decided that I must be getting the bites from my bed – despite the fact that the house I stay in is cleaner than my own. Dust mites in the mattress could explain why my face is never bitten (it isn’t under the covers), so I brought the best mattress cover money could buy – one that guarantees protection from mites and liquid spills and allergens and… and I enclosed the mattress and zipped it shut. No help! To add insult to my injury, a Dartmouth intern who accompanied me to Guatemala lived and worked with me 24/7 and she didn’t get a single bite despite being a white American like me! Someday I am going to win this battle…

Sandra loves surprises! Surprises can be fun, but… Throughout the year I try to get information from her about the program – Was she able to open savings accounts for the girls in the chicken program? How is the business doing that we funded to raise money for the programs? How many girls need chicken coops this year? etc. I get no answers. It is her way, I have decided, to ensure I visit each year.

She was full of surprises this year, and the whole family was grinning ear to ear as they shared good news after good news. The business is doing fabulously, and soon the programs will no longer rely on donations! All the girls have savings accounts and they are earning money for school with the chickens! A new, indigenous community, Cajola, has been added to the scholarship program, and 8 of the ten girls need chicken coops! What???? How are we going to build that many on this trip? The new community is a two-hour commute each way from Sandra’s house – first we must walk, then take a chicken bus to the terminal, then take another chicken bus to the town, then take a tuk tuk to each of the girls houses since they are very dispersed on the outskirts of the community. It is a four-hour round trip commute, and we must somehow manage to transport all the chicken coop materials on these vehicles! If I had known I would have made our trip longer, but the surprise was good.

I loved the new community. The language they spoke sounded a lot like Navajo, and the families were very welcoming. Marcela’s family took us to their bean fields and we helped them harvest their beans. We thought we were doing our good deed for the day, but when we left, they insisted we take all the beans with us. It was their gift to us!

They also taught us how to make fresh tortillas by hand – a task that Kylie, my intern, struggled with. Everyone was greatly entertained as she battled to keep her tortillas from tearing and developing holes and… It looks so easy when they do it!

On our first trip to Cajola, most of the girls gathered together at one house to meet us. Since these girls didn’t know us and were probably a bit nervous and unsure how to relate to us, we decided to quickly pass through the formalities and move to games. We brought balloons and string and tied balloons to their ankles – the goal is to pop everyone else’s balloon while keeping our own safe. It is a perfect game to use as an ice breaker, and the girls laughed and had a lot of fun. After that we alternated. Now they had to teach us a game. Then we taught them another. Back and forth we went until we were all tired. Then we sat down and we asked questions to get to know them better – a task that is much more successful after we have all laughed and played and walls have come down.

Our second and subsequent visits were devoted to building chicken coops for the middle school girls so they would have a means to earn money for high school. Tuition is not free for high school, so educational costs rise dramatically. They are required to contribute half the cost and we give the other half. Without a means to earn the money, however, it would be an impossible task.

Building the coops is an ongoing learning process. We are constantly trying to figure out ways to make them cheaper, better, easier. We learn from past mistakes. The chickens need to be protected from predators – primarily dogs which roam free and often in dangerous packs, but also hungry neighbors. They also need to be protected from each other, since the stronger chickens will peck the weaker ones to death or refuse to let them eat, even when there is ample room and food. They must be protected from the cold in winter, etc. Kylie and I were an efficient team by the end of the trip.

The long bus rides and working days sometimes posed problems, however. The families we work with are quite poor, and sometimes they don’t even have a latrine we can use. I tried to keep liquid consumption to a minimum, but even so my bladder can’t last 10 hours!

It is customary when you visit a family, no matter how poor they are, that they feed you. Atol is common (a drink of course-ground corn mixed with water), as are hard-boiled eggs, tortillas, tamales (just the masa – no filling), and sometimes beans. If you refuse to eat, it would be very offensive. That isn’t a problem when we visit just one family a day, but sometimes we visit two – building a coop at one home, then prepping for the next day at another. One day when we finished a coop we were served a big meal and we ate heartily to show our appreciation. We went to a second house, but the site wasn’t ready for us to begin, so we needed to go to a third house and would come back to the second the next day. Despite only being there about 5 minutes, and even though we had just completed a big meal at the first home, we were invited in to eat. We were given chuchitos – a large tamale filled with some meat. The grandmother insisted she made two for each of us! We each ate one, but when she wasn’t looking we slipped the others into my backpack. There was just no way our stomachs could handle so much! Then off to the third house where we were once again fed.

Michaela is one of the girls in Cajola. She lives there just with her mother – a woman who lost her hair from some sort of disease so now she keeps her head covered. Her only cash income comes from working as a laborer during harvest for other farmers. Until a few months ago, they slept on the dirt in a hut made from scrap lumber (the parts with bark that normally are thrown away). The irregular wood did not keep out the rain, so the floor they slept on was filled with water and mud in the rainy season. Recently a church built them a tiny, one-room house out of cinder blocks and even gave them a bed made of hard planks of wood so they can sleep off the ground. The bed is as hard as a rock with no mattress, yet they are so happy! Michaela always has a huge smile on her face and is very animated as she speaks. This is a photo of her returning home with firewood.

I love the attention I get from the girls I visit. There is no better proof for me that my efforts are indeed making a difference in their lives. Sandra typically doesn’t tell the families we are coming for a visit. She just shows up at their houses. After all, she loves surprises! One evening we visited Ingrid and her mother Carmen – a woman who is almost completely blind. When they opened the door and Ingrid saw Sandra she started running to her to give her a hug. Halfway to Sandra she saw me and she stopped in her tracks. She completely changed directions and ran to me instead, hugging me and not letting go of me our whole visit! Sandra feigned disappointment, but the big smile on her face told otherwise.

Maria Carolina is one of my favorite girls there – the first girl featured in the video I made. She started school at age 12 when she received a scholarship – too poor to attend school before. We made a surprise visit to see her, and she embraced me our whole visit! She is still doing well, her chickens still yielding money, and she still hopes to be a doctor someday.

The affection the girls show me came in handy when we visited the open pit gravel mine. The trail to some of our scholarship girls passes by the mine, and ever since my first visit to Guatemala my heart has been heavy for the great poverty and hard lives of the families that work there. It is illegal for women and children to be in the mines, so when we pass, the women and children scuttle under tarps for fear we might take a photo. The income workers earn from the mines is so low that survival requires women and children to help also. I had a camera on my first visit 2 ½ years ago, not understanding the situation, which caused a lot of fear among the workers. Now I am careful to not use or show a camera when I am around the mines. This is a photo of gravel mine children from 2 ½ years ago.

It has been my desire to expand the scholarship program to interested children from the gravel mines, but people in the mines are very suspicious. Sandra has tried to build trust, but it is difficult. On this trip I had a chance to speak with the representative of the mining families. We had just finished visiting the scholarship girls who live nearby, and they were walking us back to the road. They were hugging me and happy, so when I explained about the scholarship program and told him these girls were part of the program, their obvious affection for me broke down the walls of distrust. The man said he would talk to the other mining families, and Sandra will go back to visit them before Christmas. I am hoping we might finally be able to add some mining children to the program and give these families a more hopeful future.

We also made a little headway with families that scavenge garbage dumps to survive. There is a large dump that serves Xela about an hour from town, and an entire community and culture have developed around the dump. Sandra is particularly drawn to help those children, but the dump and its community are completely closed to outsiders. Sandra tried to get permission to visit while we were there, but was unsuccessful. We were, however, able to visit families who work in the small garbage dumps right in Xela. Those are temporary garbage deposits in the market areas – places garbage is collected before they are transferred to the big dump.

Families are only allowed to scavenge at night, so we had to wait until after sundown to visit. We took cake and juice to share with the families, and they seemed open to discussing scholarships, so Sandra will visit again. If we benefit the families in these small dumps, we should build trust with their owners who indirectly work with the big dump. Perhaps, in time, they will help us open doors with the larger garbage community.

Surprises aren’t just important to Sandra. Her son, Xavier, also had a surprise for us. With the money he is earning from working the business we helped arrange, he is buying chuchitos ingredients each month to feed the poor. He invited us to join him on his rounds while we were there. His grandmother began cooking at 4:00am. She was beaming as she told us how much she enjoys doing this each month. Normally by 6:00am Xavier takes the chuchitos out to the streets, feeding homeless alcoholics and families camped outside a hospital that serves the poor.

Despite having worked with this family for several years, I was taken aback when Carlos, Sandra’s husband, asked to speak with me. He told me that with his income going up, he wants to use his own money to open a comedor – a place where he can feed homeless orphans a meal each morning. They are always dirty from sleeping in the streets, he said, and they are so hungry that they eat ravenously when they are given some food. He wants to turn the casita into the comedor. His heart is clearly heavy for these children.

I told him I thought it was a wonderful idea! Privately, however, I wondered how much more time I would now spend in the mite-infested casita. Can I transport insect foggers on an airplane?

I asked him what Sandra thought of the idea. Oh, he hasn’t told her yet, he said. It is going to be a surprise!