Friday, April 23, 2010

How Goes April

Week of Sunday 5th of April:
Life has been busy here in my mountain ridge-top community. I’ve gotten to work with Eduardo in the lombricompost operation where I played with worms for half a day. Red coquettes, they’re called and we shoveled the fruit pulp (the discarded skins of the coffee beans from this year’s harvest) to the pileras (big troughs) to mix with the worms, presenting them their feast. After a week, you stir; this is making sure the upper layer is incorporated down below so the worms get at every bit of the fruit waste in order to convert it to pure fertilizer, abono. The worms like to stay below where it is moist and comfy, so this ensures all of the waste gets processed. They eat the pulp and poop out rich, homogenized abono..pure dirt full of nutrients that we then bagged in costales (large nylon bags) that are then sold for 25 or 30 quetzales to the community. The coffee production cooperative is divided into the families that decided to go conventional and those that decided to produce purely organic coffee, using chemicals in neither their fertilizer nor their forms of pest control. The fertilizer they buy is what we are producing here with our worms and their pest control are bottles with one side cut out and, inside, hangs a smaller bottle of aguardiente (alcohol) with a strong sweet smell. The big bottle was painted red and that, along with the sweet odor, attracts the brocas, the coffee pests. They fly into the bottle and when they are inside, looking for the source of the smell, they fall to the bottom where lies a bit of water with soap that they then drown in. Pretty nifty device, and I’m told it traps countless brocas, which burrow into the coffee berries and feast on the granitas, or coffee beans.
Been having various meetings and lots of talk with Rosa, Pascual and the rest of the gang on ideas for what I will be doing to keep busy for the next two years. So far we are boiling up some ideas including that one day a week I’ll go out with a different tour guide and we’ll go birding for the day. The guides, Claudio, Keller, Eduardo, are in the very beginning stages of being capable of hosting bird tours. They know only a handful of the species found here and know them only by their local names. The problem is that all they have are 2 pair of practically useless secondhand binoculars and not a bird guide(or any nature guides, for that matter) to speak of (yes this would be me unabashedly hinting: donations are much appreciated! Or if anyone has any connections or suggestions to a means of obtaining this much-needed equipment..). For now though, my job is to teach them how to find and identify species and how to go about conducting a successful bird tour. Another of my duties will be to work with my counterpart Claudio on constructing interperative materials for the trails, signs that identify the trails and give interesting and useful information as well as informative pamphlets , what species visitors should encounter on their hike. I’m going to be working very in-depth on finding and obtaining grants with Pascual, to which one day each week will be dedicated. We don’t have the best access to internet at the moment, despite the newly raised internet “cafe”..the reception here on our ridge is quite lacking. Sin embargo, we (being the association) are working on installing a different device that has proven to work and we are hoping to be affordable. Vamos a ver. Another duty of mine will be..English classes! Pascual has the idea of me teaching 0-7yr olds (hopefully more on the 7yr side than the 0yr side..!) since that’s when the brain is most accommodating in learning a language, once you reach 7 years, the brain is full, as declared Pascual, after proclaiming himself a psychologist. I am de acuerdo that teaching youngsters yields better result but I think we can be more flexible on the range. So far that’s what we have for filling my weeks, I think another day will be dedicated to working with the tour guide group on projects they’ve devised but that will depend on what time they have since every day working for ASODILL is a day lost of working their parcels which they depend on for income. This is why we are working so hard at this, though, to provide this community with another source of income.
In other news, we’ve had another visitor: Luisa from Canada. She is a slightly older woman full of energy and love for this community. She originally met Pascual and Rosa through her work with EntreMundos, the NGO that promotes community development and human rights. After she left that organization, she lived here for 3 months and contributed a great deal of time and effort in obtaining money through grant applications. They were successful and much of that money went toward building the albergue (4 room hotel with a kitchen up by the church) where visiting volunteers stay. She came back and spent a week with us and we spent several nights going over the funds we still have and how they should be delegated. Additionally, we spent a day hiking up to the community reserve, a 35 hectare parcel of land owned by the community that is solely left for nature. The land is restricted for cultivation and we were interested in visiting it to get an idea of the terrain and see how it differs from the rest of the land which is all plantation. It was about a 3-4hr hike (turned 5hrs for our interest in the birds and plants along the way) to “la cruz” which marks the community limit. Well, I have to say, I was disappointed! As soon as we crossed into the boundry of the reserve, we discovered the entire understory to be packed with some wildly invasive species of bamboo. This was so disheartening because I had imagined primary growth forest and instead was wrestling my way through this monoculture landscape that was only peppered with a handful of larger trees. Now, we didn’t get around to view the entire 35 hectares so I can’t say it all was this way but I had to explain to Rosa and Pascual that night how this was not a natural landscape and that it would be necessary and difficult to remove. I don’t know what species of bamboo this is but I am sure it is an exotic species, not natural to Guatemala. The degree to which it was taking over the understory leaves no room for the native species to grow and create a diverse and natural habitat with a wide variety of sources of food for the birds and animals of the area. I told Rosa that I’d like to go back and explore more. I discussed the possibility of going up and spending a night there so I could explore early the next morning and get an idea of the surrounding birdlife (we arrived too late in the day so it was very quiet). This would also be my change to get an idea of the extent of growth of the bamboo. Oh but I was sad! This is the plot of land they are so proud to be protecting and they are initiating efforts in which to governmentally declare it a Protected Area and they had no idea of the predicament it is in! To their credit, it is a long way away and therefore rarely visited. I am now curious to identify the species of bamboo and get an idea of what kind of situation we are faced with. There are possibilities of using the bamboo, as we already have been offered by FUNDAP, a Guatemalan agency that supports small community in ecotourism development, classes in construction with bamboo. Well we have our ravenously renewable resource right there up on the mountain!
Other fun things I’ve done include an evening hike with Claudio and Luis to a nearby waterfall. This was my first visit to this particular falls and wow, what a treasure! It is basically a large wall of chipped, dark rock and while the falls at the moment are greatly reduced, a month from now that will all change with the beginning of the rainy season. We watched emerald toucanets and chased some frogs. Claudio caught one and I got some pictures. We were trying to find out what was about as Luisa has a great interest in amphibian life. The volcano, while out of site, was sending up cloud castles that were lovely in the evening light.
Another day I worked with Claudio behind the albergue digging out the mud that had compacted up against the back wall after the heavy rains. We dug a trench to direct the water away so as to keep the hotel safe and the kitchen from being inundated (again!). Three hours of lifting a heavy pickaxe to break up the encrusted dirt and I was spent! Had to drag myself home.
Spent an afternoon in a meeting with members of ASODILL to construct an ecotourism diagnostic which evaluates the “what we have and what we lack” in the program. I went through the form provided to me by Peace Corps and the group helped me fill in the blanks. It was a fun and interesting activity and I feel like I’m getting more comfortable with the members as I interact with them.
Week of 11th of April
This week will be forever known as “the constantly sitting in a microbus, never to escape as we travel on every last windy bumpy road of Guatemala to destinations unknown” week. Despite my aching back, it was a very interesting and fun experience and I learned a little more each day about Guatemalans themselves. So here’s how it all began. ASODILL, which is the Asociacion for Sustainable Development here in our little community. Rosa is the president, Pascual the coordinator and the idea is to provide the community with other means of income and employment since the coffee production they rely so heavily on isn’t sufficient nor sustainable. By starting an ecotourism program, they hope to better the economy here in an environmentally friendly way. So here comes FUNDAP, a Guatemalan-run foundation for the development of socio-economic programs, they have a branch that specifically assists communities that want to start ecotourism programs and FUNDAP has been assisting this aldea for the past two years. Their main assistance is to provide trainings and workshops, almost always paid-for. This is fantastic and they’ve already had capacitaciones for the tour guides, as well as provided opportunities for members of ASODILL to go to other communities to learn about lombricompost and organic gardening. They’ve also provided ASODILL with a lawyer at a reduced cost to help them become a legally recognized NGO. Pretty amazing, huh? So here comes little Sally Peace Corps thinking she’s gonna save the world and she finds out it’s already being done! Well, I can’t say I’m disappointed because my job certainly doesn’t suddenly become meaningless. There is still much to be done, much that I can help with with a focus more on the personal things, like what I listed before as my duties: bird guide training, helping with interpretive trail development, English classes..and besides, little Sally can’t save the world all by her lonesome, right? Ademas, I also realized this week that my being here already has helped direct some thoughts in a more reasonable direction, not because I’m Miss. Know-All, but solely because I have a background in biology and just as Rosa always tells me, she doesn’t know anything in this area. But more on that later.
So back to the story of my week: FUNDAP offered an opportunity for Rosa and 2 other members of ASODILL to attend a trip to several ecotourism sites in Alta Vera Paz this past week and I managed to squirm my way into the deal! Some of the other communities that were to attend backed out and so there was space for an extra little gringa! So on Tuesday we hopped onto a camioneta to Xela and FUNDAP headquarters, 3-4hrs away, and spent the night in a hotel to leave at 4:30am the following morning in a FUNDAP microbus with 17 others like us, eager to see a different land and learn some more about ecotourism. Only thing we didn’t know was that the trip was going to take 17 hours! We did stop for meals (which the organization graciously covered for me) but man it was a long, long day. We were on our way to Laguna Lachua (look it up!) and turned out the time it took to get there was much longer than anyone imagined. But let me say, the group in that bus, despite how tired, despite how every time we asked someone on the road how much longer and they said mediahora and it turned into 3, they continued to remain in high spirits, rowdy and laughing, turning a frustrating situation into jokes and good humor. It was pretty darn great. Haha, best part was, we get there at 9:00 in the night and the wildly cheerful tour guide gaily informs us that we have an hour hike in to where the sleeping cabins are! And I was once again heartened to watch this awesome group of folk grab their things and get walking. The guide said the women should have brought boots when she saw them all wearing fancy sandals (which is all I’ve seen any of the women in my community don). What made me doubly heartened and pleased and proud was that when she told the group that the women could stay behind and enjoy a comfortable night here and not wear themselves with the hike, the 5 ladies took to the trail and, in all honesty, with their fancy sandals, ran the men into the ground! Rock on. The hike was great, I was in between people with flashlights and happy to be moving and not sitting (17hrs on my butt in one day is more than sufficient, thanks). Too bad it wasn’t light to enjoy the bosque silvestre but I was able to enjoy the sound of the insects and the feel of the rain on my skin. The lodge was impressive-2 floors, comfortable beds, a dining salon. Despite how tired we were, after downing some ready-made tamales we followed the guide down the trail that opened to a boardwalk that went out onto the edge of the laguna. The night rang with the sound of frog chirrups. We shined our flashlights into the clear waters and saw fish and a teeny tiny crocodile! I didn’t look at the clock as I crawled into my mosquito net-adorned bed.
Next morning I rose with the sun and walked about to take in the birdlife. I was surrounded by my North American family: wood thrushes, catbirds, Baltimore oriole, magnolia warbler, american redstart, spotted sandpipers..they’ll all be gone in a month. I’ll be sending my love with them so when you see one of these buggers come May, listen carefully! We breakfasted on tamales and I almost resisted the temptation to join the ladies for a dip in the laguna after the men had had their loud fun and calander pictures in their bathing suits, posing on the rocks. They all left and we stripped down and hopped in to the warm, clear waters (from what I could understand from the guide, there’s no worry of crocodiles in the daytime, don’t ask me why). It was deeeelightful! We paddled around, climbed onto the rocks and dove in, took pictures, felt clean again after the sweaty day before packed in a microbus. We packed up afterwards and took to a trail that looped back to the visitors center. On our way I wasn’t able to birdwatch since we were behind schedule but we did stop under a tree with two howler monkeys which peered down upon us as we peered up. Big momma and a lil’ baby. Ain’t no monkeys where I live. Sigh. But we have quetzals! Which you need to be up in the mountains for, so ha. We drove around some more to 2 different farms, one that has it’s own lagoons on the property which we hiked to. This area has petroleum underground and luckily this community has their natural areas protected so they don’t drill here as they do in some of the surrounding territories. This farm, Finca Salinas, is where Chad works, my old buddy from San Antonio who is one lucky bugger for getting this as his sight! Unfortunately we didn’t get to reunite since he was otherwise occupied that day but I got to tell him on the phone of my envy! It was interesting, the guides showed us the second lagoon which was, and I cross my heart, pepto bismol pink. And the guides told us that the color changes, one will be pink and then go greenish or normal and another will turn. Chad told me that’s one of the things he wants to figure out right away. Right? We figured it was for the petroleum underground, maybe some kind of chemical effect, but man! Didn’t see any wildlife in the pink one but the other had turtles and waterbirds. Weird, weird, weird. Chad has his own blog, btw, I think you can find it on Peace Corps Journals. And anyone who wants to report back on if this is found in other locales, feel free to comment here because I’ll probably forget when I go into town and get on the net. We also visited a finca where they were in the beekeeping business. This is something that would be cool to start here, something I want to look in to because Rosa is gung ho. We have bees. We have flowers. Honey tastes good. The day was warm and, unfortunately we had to book, once again. Back into the microbus for a 5hr ride back to Coban. It was a shame that we spent more time in the bus than learning and exploring but it was definitely a great time had at the laguna. We reached the city around 9pm after winding curving bumping swerving up and down the dirt roads that seem to go on forever through the hilly country. Rosa and I were suffering, our backs and necks and tailbones not too happy with the condition of the road, not to mention the microbus was a low rider and therefore had it’s share of suffering as well. We slept in Coban and woke up early the next morning to hit the road again (not again!) for the 8hr (I think..maybe 9?) trip (these all seem quite long but it helps that I’m not mentioning that part of the time is spent eating and on pee breaks..) to Xela. We then walked across the city, the ASODILL crew to where we were to meet the son of a neighbor or Rosa’s who drives his microbus to visit his family every Friday at 6pm. So back into another (not so crowded!! though shock absorbers were not included in the construction of this clunker..) microbus. So! 2 ½ hrs later we were Hooooome!! Whuddaweek. One to remember.

Over and out.
PS. Yes, this is turning into my journal. My apologies to those who were bored and if you totally just skimmed the whole thing I sure don’t blame ya.


  1. anyone who would be bored by your post would have to be a moron...
    i may be slightly biased, but i savor every word you write and i'm always hungry for are bringing a whole new culture into our lives with each beautifully written post...
    missyouloveyousoproudofyou! yr (original) mom

  2. Hey Estacey! Sue and I were just talking about you today and wondering when there would be an update to your blog and I just checked, and there's your update! Never boring...always entertaining and as your mom said, very beautiful. Pam


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