Sunday, January 11, 2015

Green Guatemala

Written for Healthy Indoors Magazine - July 2014

I’ve made it a favorite pastime to have adventures in cooler climates during the 115+ degree days that are all too common in Phoenix, Arizona during the summer months. Like many people, I have a bucket list of places I want to visit and things I want to do. Guatemala has been on that list for many years.

Mexico and Central America have always intrigued me. I love the history, the ruins, the people and the simplicity of day to day living. My last trip to Costa Rica five years ago was amazing, so when a friend told me at brunch she had some friends with a vacation rental house on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, I was hooked. Serendipity.

We booked the trip within several days of talking about it, and planned a dinner with Earl and Suzanne, the owners of the house who split their time between Phoenix and Antigua, Guatemala. I was even more drawn to this house and these people because Earl and Suzanne have a non-profit in Guatemala called Seeds for a Future.

Guatemala is home to 13 million people, approximately 75% of whom live in poverty.  The country has the highest malnutrition rate in Latin America, and the fourth highest in the world. Ironic, as much of the produce we consume in the U.S., along with the coffee we drink, is grown and harvested in Guatemala. (On a side note, I was reading a sign while in Guatemala about coffee, and it said by the time the coffee is grown, harvested, processed, shipped and consumed as a $5 latte in the U.S., only about 3 cents makes its way back to Guatemala.) Even more reason to pay attention to buying fair trade.

PBS recently did a segment on the child malnutrition problem in Guatemala.

“In the Americas, the situation is most dire in Guatemala, where roughly 50 percent of the children are so malnourished they’re stunted, physically and developmentally, for life.”

Seeds for a Future is working to combat this heartbreaking crisis. In rural Guatemala, adults on average have less than a 6th grade education. The program takes a holistic approach by offering both hands-on education with regard to community and family gardening, harvesting and nutrition instruction, as well as a community library where computer training, adult education, women's health education and much needed pre-school programs are taught. Nearly 500 families are currently taking part in the various programs.  I encourage you to check out the Seeds for a Future website to learn more and follow them on Facebook too!

Now back to the adventure…

We flew into Guatemala City, where we were greeted by our driver David, who drove us to a lovely B & B in Antigua, about a 45 minute drive. I’ll also add that I was traveling with two other women, Mara and Michelle, so we were the three amigas.

Antigua, Guatemala is a beautiful city full of Spanish colonial architecture, fountains, ruins, markets (mercados) and brightly colored buildings- a treat after living in the land of beige for so long.

The streets are cobblestone, the sidewalks narrow, the people friendly and we spent hours just walking and exploring, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells.  Ornate wooden gates with small, decorative openings stand out amid the blue, yellow and red walls, beckoning you to come in and explore the lush interiors.

One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life was Casa Santo Domingo. It was the largest monastery in Antigua and was founded by Dominican friars in 1542. Three 18th century earthquakes wreaked their havoc on the monastery along with pillaging of materials. It was taken over as a private residence by an American archeologist in 1970, then converted to a 5 star hotel and museum, which is what it currently is today.

To say the grounds are breathtaking, especially after dark when lit by candlelight, is truly an understatement. Mara and I wandered the estate one evening for several hours. The way they’ve incorporated modern conveniences such as a large shade structure to blend into the surroundings aesthetically was very inspiring.  You can read more about it here and if you’re ever in Antigua, put it on your not to miss list.

The following morning we traveled by car to Panajchel, also known as Pana which is about a 2 hour ride and located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala on Lake Atitlán.  The lake, renowned as one of the most beautiful in the world, is the deepest in Central America, measuring depths of over 1000 feet. It’s surrounded by three volcanoes (San Pedro, Atitlan, and Toliman) and is ringed with many indigenous Mayan villages, Pana being the main village for port of entry.

A boat ride from Pana delivered us to the dock of the house which would be our home for the next five days. Nicholas and his family, the caretakers of the property, welcomed us and gave us a tour.  We fell in love with the warmth and hospitality of this local family. Wife Rosa, who prepared us delicious local food and freshly caught tilapia from the lake. Joanna, their vibrant 4 year old who would teach me words in Spanish and always start my day with a big hug. The teenaged children who we briefly met but who always seemed to be helping their parents and always had a smile. Even Rocky the dog and the two adopted puppies were friendly and lovely. Clothes would be hanging out on the line in the morning, and there was a conscious effort to reuse and not waste, which was apparent daily.

The house is nearest to SanMarcos La Laguna, which is a small village and only accessible from the house by trekking up a picturesque flight of stone steps to the main road or by taking the boat to the village dock. Many of the sidewalks in the village are simple dirt paths, and local women line these streets with fruit and vegetable stands. We met many expats in San Marcos who had come to the lake on holiday, and simply decided to stay. I can’t say that I blamed them…

Water cisterns are everywhere and many of the walls are made with recycled bottles. We also saw bottles used to separate garden beds and other creative uses. This is a place that was built around nature, versus on top of it. Many of the roads and sidewalks are pervious to allow the rainwater to go back into the ground easily. Composting is done everywhere. People walk and use their bodies and it’s not uncommon to see local women with a baby in a sling, a basket on their head and a bag in their hand.

For all of Guatemala’s beauty, it certainly isn’t without its environmental and sustainability challenges, including poverty and malnourished children. There has been an ongoing effort to clean up Lake Atitlan which has been on the decline from raw sewage, fertilizers and trash either being dumped into, or making its way into the lake.  You can read more about it here. In 2009, Global Nature Fund listed Atitlán its “Threatened Lake of the Year.” We noticed in our travels throughout Guatemala that there were very few, if any, trash cans in sight. Progress has been made, and I can only hope it continues to save such a magical gem of a place.

Other issues, which commonly plague developing and third-world countries in general, include:
·         Lack of access to potable water (especially in rural areas)
·         Poor air quality
·         Tropical deforestation
·         Soil erosion
·         Natural resource extraction issues (mining, petroleum, etc.)

I’m encouraged by the number of public/private partnerships I’ve seen to address many of these problems, and it appears there is increasing awareness of these concerns worldwide, which gives me hope.

If you’ve ever thought about visiting Guatemala, I would highly encourage you to make the trip.  I’m planning to escape the commercialism of the holidays and take my children, so they too can experience this captivating country and have their eyes opened to a different reality.

Stepping outside of our comfort zone to see how others live in different parts of the world is important. After watching Nicholas make the journey into the village just to bring us five gallons of clean water to drink, I came home with a renewed appreciation for the tap I’d been taking for granted. This is just one of many examples I could give.

Green Guatemala is in my dreams for now…

Love and Laughter,
Ms. Champion

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

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