After breakfast at our hotel, we boarded the boat again at the hotel’s private dock and sailed across Lake Atitlan again, this time in a little bit of a different direction, landing in Santa Cruz la Laguna. The town is literally only accessible by boat or by foot, the once existent mountain road now being impassable. Our boat ride was again, so glorious, soaking in the morning sun and breeze on the lake.

Morning comes to the lake.

Santa Cruz la Laguna is built in between two mountain ridges, but it would be very generous to say it’s built in a valley. There’s a little edge of flat land close to the lake, but then the town rises above on the steep front of the mountain. Instead of walking up the road, we got into tuk tuks and were carted up the mountain side. A tuk tuk is a three wheeled vehicle that’s sort of a makeshift taxi. There are no seat belts. There are bars to hold on to, and hold on I did as my companion and I headed up the mountain. The road was inbelievably steep, and at each turn in the road I expected to see the town, but instead saw yet another switchback. There were no guardrails beside the road, just a very sheer drop-off. Because of the steepness of the road, we couldn’t head up too quickly, and I tried to concentrate on the incredible view instead of the apparent danger. We did make it up safely in the end!

Your typical Tuk Tuk.

Upon our arrival at the school – a middle school where we were celebrating the CoEd Technology Program – we were greeted by students who put a friendship bracelet around each of our wrists. (Side note: it melted my heart when, at the end of the day, I noticed that one of our security guards still had his friendship bracelet on!)

Once again, we had an opening program at the school – Guatemala’s national anthem, speeches from the school director and a CoEd representative, a traditional dance by the grade 8 students, and the presentation of a few gifts from CoEd to the school. The director spoke about all of the ways that the technology centre is used – by the middle school, by other teachers whose only access to computers is generally through the computer centre, by the primary school students, by primary students from the next village who literally make the half hour hike one day a week to use be able to have access to computers, by the vocational students of CECAP, and by adults in night classes. Then the students headed back to class while our CoEd people split into two groups.

Grade 8 students perform a traditional dance for us.

My group got a tour of the CECAP vocational school first. CECAP stands for Centro de Capacitation, and it’s run by another non-profit that works exclusively in Santa Cruz, called Amigos de Santa Cruz. CECAP runs vocational classes on carpentry, beading, weaving, culinary skills – anything that people will be able to use to ensure employment in their future. Their store sells artisan goods at a fair wage, instead of the prices you might be able to barter for from street vendors that don’t recognize the artisan’s time or talent. The non-profit works in a number of ways to better the lives of people from the town, and is run with an almost all local board of directors and staff. Santa Cruz was able to celebrate the first woman university graduate from their town last November.  The vocational school building was built in cinder blocks, and each person from the town helped to carry at least one block up the hill to the building site, some mamas carrying blocks while their babies were strapped to their backs. In short, I loved everything about what this non-profit is doing.

CECAP’s cafe is on the top floor and overlooks the lake. I can’t imagine a better lunch location!

Pictures of villagers carrying cinder blocks for the building of the school.

A weaving class for women.

A carpentry class for middle school students.

After our tour, we swapped with the other group and sat in a class with high school students at the computers in the technology centre. Students demonstrated their tech skills while creating and personalizing letters they had written, telling a little about the Santa Cruz and Atitlan area, including details like their favourite sport, favourite music, favourite colour, etc. A CoEd staffer came around and took pictures of each set of partners, and soon the students pulled the photos up from the server, added them to the doc, and printed out the keepsake for us.

Again, I was so happy that I had a foundation of Spanish to use as I spoke to my student about her life and her hopes and dreams. She told me that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and I was able to tell her to work hard and pursue her dream, and that I have faith that she can become a teacher and love it just like I love it.

In the computer lab, listening to instructions.

All too soon it was time for us to head back down to the boat (after a little shopping in the school’s store, of course!) CoEd staffer Elizabeth was directing traffic – both tuk tuk and people – at the school door. When I got to the front of the line, she said to me, “Why don’t you go get in that tuk tuk, Bethany?” I looked at the one she was pointing to. “That one with the ten-year-old driver?” I asked. Despite his young age, our driver did take us down the mountain safely, although our downhill journey meant it was a little faster than I would have taken it myself!

Our boat ride back to Panajachel was relatively short, but again in beautiful sunshine. After lunch at a hotel in Pana, we were back on winding, steep mountain roads. After a bit of a drive (it’s always hard to estimate distance actually travelled when you’re on winding mountain roads and back dirt roads instead of my more typical trips on paved North American highways), we arrived at our next school. No one was waiting for us at this school – a bit of an unusual turn of events, so we hung out in their gym while they suddenly ran over and got ready.

The middle school was celebrating the renewal of their textbook program. Research has shown that two critical things for the success of students is a good teacher and good textbook for students and teachers. I can’t remember how much education a middle school teacher is supposed to have, but a primary teacher only needs to have graduated from high school (in a special program to become a teacher, but certainly not the university degree plus teaching certificate program that we’re used to in North America). That means that teachers without a set curriculum will struggle to know exactly what they are supposed to cover and what material is grade level appropriate for their students. CoEd’s textbook program starts with seed money from a donor (or multiple donors) to buy textbooks (really more like workbooks) for the school in math, natural sciences, social studies, and Spanish language. Families pay a nominal monthly fee to cover the cost of using the textbook, and these fees are saved in a special account. At the end of five years, the school can buy new textbooks to replace the well-worn books of the past five years. After the initial injection of funding, the school is self-sufficient and doesn’t need to rely on donors for their next textbooks. Of course, there are families who just cannot afford textbook fees. These students may use the books in school, but don’t take them home to study. That way they are allowed to access the information and are not held back in their school progress. Other schools know that their families might not be able to afford the regular textbook fee – usually around $1.75 US per month (about 12 Quetzales). These schools might opt to lower the monthly fee and have a textbook turn around time of six or seven years instead.

In addition to the textbook renewal, this school was celebrating a special anniversary, so they had their band playing, another high school band visiting, and a local adult band joining them – complete with a sousaphone player. We also got to witness another traditional dance by (I think) grade 8 students.

Students perform a dance.

Marching bands.

After some festivities out in the hot sun, we walked to the edge of the village, split into two groups, and had the pleasure of a home visit. This was a wonderful and heartbreaking experience. The family invited us into their home with such warmth and hospitality. As with most buildings I experienced in Guatemala, things were built around a courtyard – although in the case of the house, it was really just an open space with different buildings on most sides. One building held the very utilitarian bedrooms. One building held a kitchen with a small dining area. The mother invited us to learn how to hand pat corn tortillas. In order to be able to cook them quickly, she added some more wood to the open stove,and the kitchen quickly filled with smoke.

Once we were back in the courtyard, Mario, our Guatemalan CoEd staffer (and translator from Quiche to Spanish), told us that many women have trouble with lung disease and stunted growth because of their constant exposure to smoke. The young children have issues, too, since so much time is spent in the kitchen before they begin school.

Baby spends most of her day on her mama’s back.

We were happy to have Mario with us to translate, because our family was Maya and only the father and school-aged sons spoke Spanish. The family spoke Quiche at home, so grandma, mother, and younger girls didn’t speak any Spanish. This of course means that students are also disadvantaged starting school in a language that they don’t speak, a story that is so common in Guatemala.

We also got to see the family’s chickens and pigs, as well as the edge of their corn field. The father earns money through subsistence farming. The pig would not be destined eventually for the family’s table, but for the market where it could earn additional funds. The father told us how difficult it was to earn money and how he wasn’t sure he would be able to afford high school education for his two sons who were partway through middle school. We could do nothing to help except encourage him to do whatever he could to ensure education for his sons.

As a way of saying thank you for their hospitality, we brought a gift of a water filter to the family. Water in Guatemala may be chlorinated in cities (although it still might not be the best to drink). However, in rural areas, families are often not using running water and almost certainly don’t have filtered water coming out of taps that do have running water. While visitors to Guatemala may have the luxury of sticking to bottled water for the duration of their visit, rural residents can rarely afford the bottled water that would be necessary for regular life. The Eco Filter we gave would provide clean and safe water for the family for the foreseeable future. It was such an important gift, but it felt so small in the face of all the family needed – or at least that we perceived as their needs. After assembling it and taking a group photo, we walked out of their house, and I just cried the whole walk back to the bus, thinking about the difference in our lives and our inability to do more for this family in that moment.

Filtered water – I definitely take my safe tap water for granted as a part of daily life in Canada.

Our drive to our hotel for the night was quite a drive. If you’ve driven through the Rockies or Appalachians in North America, you have a good idea of what it’s like to drive on winding mountain roads. If you’ve driven on rough rural roads, particularly in other countries, you can imagine what condition our back roads were like as we left the school. And finally, if you combine those two and add in the rain that we drove through, you have an inkling of the conditions of the drive to our hotel for the evening in Tecpan.

To be fair, winding mountain roads can give some pretty amazing views, even if they’re hard to take pictures of from a moving vehicle. The memory of shafts of sunlight filtering through the clouds into the valley is something I will remember without a photo.

At the hotel, we enjoyed some exploring around the hotel’s very cute grounds, some social time in a bar that was a cross between a cave and someone’s basement apartment, and a great conversation at dinner. I’m sure that all the other tour occupants fell into bed as exhausted as I that evening.

Cute gardens…

…fancy and fun bridges over little creeks…

…flower lined paths…

…and cute climbing structures for kids! A great little hotel!

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