Posted by: janetwright2guatemala | 03/20/2013

Estufas para Chuiaj (Stoves for Chuiaj)

18 marzo 2013 lunes 

Village of Chuiaj

Village of Chuiaj

7:10am–  Hrrumph….My slumber reluctantly accepts its finale with the ringing of my Samsung teléfono. Gladis,  my neighbor’s 16 yr old muchacha, had tied their gallo (rooster) in my backyard patio within 10ft of my bedroom, so it was a night interrupted by his crowing and rather unkind thoughts on my part. Such is rural life, but I remind Gladis with a weary smile to please tie him elsewhere tonight. Plugging ears with fingers and music for white noise is not my idea of restful sleep. Still a mystery to me why my neighbor buys a gallo occasionally when her gallinas appear more plump and tasty. I will shed no tears when he turns up in the next caldo (stew), the sooner the better!


Oficina Municipal de la Mujer...Sonia and me

Oficina Municipal de la Mujer…Sonia and me

7:55am– Slathering on sunscreen, then with carrot bread in hand, I slam the metal patio door and trot the two blocks to the muni. Sure enough, Sonia found transport for us and waves from high up in the cab of the city’s dump truck. “ ¡Tere, apurese!” (Teri, hurry up!) Climbing up, I squeeze myself in with the other two occupants and shut the door. Our truck lurches forward and shudders as we head down the steep hill on the concrete pavers toward the river. Sonia and I exchange updates of our weekend activities. I share that I had enjoyed my time in Antigua, playing tour guide to two new volunteer trainees during their first “free day” since their arrival last month. “¿Cómo fue su fin de semana?”I ask her.  Answer, “calidad” (great) but still no discovery of her lost glasses. ¡Lastima! These will cost Q500 ($65) which Sonia really does not have to spend. So I offer to be her eyes for the day…last week she had cried “culebra” in alarm as we walked on a dirt path. Laughing, I told her it was just a stick, no snake after all. Yes, she really does need her glasses. Sure wish I could wave a magic wand to solve yet another problem seeking scarce financial resources.


Working in Chuiaj to assess homes and stoves

Working in Chuiaj to assess homes and stoves

8:30am– With care we climb down from the truck as it screeches to a halt, the end of the ride for us…hats against the bright sun, we trudge up and down the hills. After 20 minutes of passing dusty pine trees and the occasional adobe house, we reach the Aldea of Pachuchup with its concrete block schoolhouse and adjacent community salon. Women in traje hasten down the paved street to a meeting.  In response to our question of how much further they offer the discouraging “falta”(a distance ahead ).  Por suerte, a pickup truck stops, also heading to Chuiaj. Clamoring into the back, I claim the spare tire which offers some cushioning against the potholes of the dirt road. Dust and more dust. Rain is a longtime memory so everything is coated with the fine brown dirt. I plunk Q5 ($0.65) in the driver’s outstretched hand after our bumpy ride.  “Muchas  gracias.”


Dona Dominga and her stove

Dona Dominga and her stove

9:00am– Hiking down a winding path carved in the small dirt bank, we duck into the home of Doña Dominga, a tidy adobe house with several buildings. Drats!  We learn that today is a bad choice of meeting day; many women have gone to the Monday market day in Pologua to purchase their weekly food.  As we sort out our options, we are offered bananas, bread and a steaming atol de elote (corn drink). Si, we accept this welcome refacción after our morning trek. The intended topic for today gets shelved (how to write meeting minutes, create an agenda, etc.) and we choose to visit homes to assess their need for new cook stoves.

This year there will be 60 beneficiaries of this “mejoramiento de vivienda” (housing improvement ) project in 8 different communities, a reduction from the 117 cook stoves received by women in ten communities for the 2012 project. Our host points out that her stove is “demasiado chiquito”.  Sonia nods understandingly however, I chime in “pero está en buen estado” (it’s in good shape).


Definitely needing a stove

Definitely needing a stove

So begins the strategic game of group members trying to convince us of their need, especially those with the narrow stoves wanting three instead of their two burner spaces on their metal plancha (stovetop).  Yet just last week I visited the village of Chicorral where most women still cook on the ground, with pots balanced on a fire ring of stones. I feel this group today exhibits less need, and thus I play “bad cop” since Sonia is being rather conciliatory

Sadly, their narrow stoves and displeasure with them are so very typical of poorly designed projects here in Guatemala.  Someone, perhaps the planning director or random engineer, wrote up the specifications and project profile without consulting the recipients and thus, the less than successful result. Even more infuriating to me was the specification for 5 sq meters of pavimiento for the kitchen, which ends up being a token patch of concrete near the stove. With most of the kitchen still a dirt floor, it does not achieve the objective of improved hygiene in the kitchen. Sonia told the women, “¡Tere, se enojó!” (Teri got angry!) Darn right I did! I told Sonia that if we do a project we might as well do it right. Putting my anger and frustration into action, I made sure that the 2014 project profile was revised with a new specification of 5m x 5 m so that those 125 beneficiaries will have paved kitchens. So glad that I had the power and ability to effect this change…all to achieve a better project for the women of San Bartolo!


Adobe home underway

Adobe home underway

The next few hours our group of seven women, one husband, us two, and a few dogs hike to the various homes scattered in the meadows of the pine forest. Quickly we appreciate the distance women trek to attend our meetings. Lack of exercise is NOT a problem here. Adobe homes all, despite the general realization that concrete block homes reinforced with rebar are much safer for resisting earthquakes. “Aren’t adobe homes outlawed now?” someone asks as we walk by an adobe home under construction with the woman setting down the 60lb adobe brick. THAT is a law without any chance of enforcement because most rural homes are adobe.


Damaged stove and health risk from smoke

Damaged stove and health risk from smoke

Final tally from house visits: one woman without a cook stove and two with damaged ones, so these all merit a new stove…I await a private moment with Sonia to question the need of the others. The husband buys us water bottles and jokes, “for my new stove” (he already has one), dispensing with any subtlety in his small bribe…I smile and add, “if you don’t get a stove there are other projects, such as, chickens to raise and fruit trees”.  I want to keep harmony within the group and to offer hope for other projects.

11:20am – Time to head back so we trudge up a huge hill with protesting legs. “No aguanto” (I can’t make it) groans Sonia and a woman takes her bag filled with papers. Finally we arrive at the cruce (crossroads) and a pickup with ice cream cart tied in the back lets us hop aboard. “Helados, un quetzal!” ($0.15) his megaphone sings as we bump along. Shy children appear from doorways waving their money. Packaged ice cream cones are handed over. One woman buys seven for her family; a sweet treat on this warm day. I bang on the side of the truck several times with my hand, the signal to disembark. Still far from the center of town we chase down the few shadows on the dirt road, me worrying that my sunscreen has now been sweated off. More conversation, and some gossip (chisme) from Sonia about our workmates …Guatemalans relish the latter to spice up the day.

11:45am– No cars or pickups pass us, so we walk the roller coaster road from Pachuchup to the small community of Pacuntze for the next forty minutes. Sadly, there are no blackberries along the road despite being in season. Fortunately, the shiny white micro (van) arrives on time at 12:25pm and we sink into the luxurious cushioned seats sheltered from the merciless sun. At 12:45pm we arrive at the muni (city hall). I rush into the office to print up the afternoon attendance list for Sonia, which she seeks later on her way to her group.


Trekking from one home to another

Trekking from one home to another

1:15pm– Relishing my vegetable soup, grilled cheese sandwich with avocado and a moment of calm in my darkened room. My thoughts drift to the homes we visited, with some anguish I review that two women we visited had received new stoves from the 2012 project despite already having cook stoves (albeit small ones). I am always writing my own job description here, and one responsibility I have chosen is to act as project advisor to Sonia, to help her critically evaluate how projects are developed and allocated.  Hopefully she will carry these lessons forward after I have left. Just today in a moment of appreciating my support, she implored, “Tere, no se vaya!” (Teri, don’t leave!)  I smile and remind her that I still have 8 months left.

9:00pm– I am star-gazing as I press up against the cool concrete pila (outdoor sink). Dipping my tattered scrubbie into the dish with hard soap, I absentmindedly wash away the remnants of my meals. Fireflies flit about, attracted by the humidity gifted by the brief afternoon rain. Blessed silence. The rooster has been shut away in the chicken house. I am very thankful for small favors such as this. Goodnight Moon. Goodnight Everyone.


  1. ;-)) I think I enjoyed this one the most……loved the authentic voice and adventures of Teri of the Peace Corps.

  2. Thanks for a day in the life – looking forward to it!

  3. I thoroughly enjoy your reports from afar. I suppose the adobe bricks are made from local mud and therefore much cheaper than concreete. The stoves appear to be cinder blocks stacked up. That one broken stove appears to need just one block replaced. It was probably damaged from a too-big fire. Here, I rarely use two burners on my stove. Those women who need three must be cooking for a large family. They are truly admirable.

  4. Yes, these women are indeed cooking for large families, anywhere 6 – 10 people. As I mentioned I want to push for giving stoves only to those without existing stoves…for health reasons and to use less firewood. I can understand the desire to have the latest greatest item, but we need to look at true need and be fair. Unfortunately, we don’t have funds for repairs…so it is either a new stove or nothing.

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