Published: February 17th 2011February 17th 2011
FOR SOME VARIETY THE MAN WITH A WAY WITH WORDS IS ADDING A DRAFT OF AN ARTICLE THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DOWN THE ROAD. JACKIE TO HIS OWN SURPRISE HAS RESURRECTED HIS SPANISH AND HAS BEEN A GREAT HELP TO ALL.
WE ARE IN SAN PEDRO LA LAGUNA (ELEVATION 1610 M )ON LAKE ATITLAN FOR THE BEGINNING OF A WEEK OF R&R. WE PLAN TO TAKE IT SLOW AND EXPLORE SOME OF THE VILLAGES ON THE LAKE. THE DESCENT TO THE LAKE WAS EXCITING. THE ROUGHED MOUNTAINS ARE MORE TREED THAN THE REGIONS WHERE WE HAVE BEEN TO DATE. SEEING THE LAKE EMERGE AROUND ONE OF THE HAIRPIN TURNS WAS A BEAUTIFUL SIGHT. THERE IS MORE TO IT THAN MEETS THE EYE. WISH I COULD SWIM HERE BUT THE WATER QUALITY SUFFERS, A CONSEQUENCE OF POOR SEPTIC PRACTICES AS WELL AS THE CONTINUING TRADITION OF WASHING CLOTHES AND THEMSELVES IN THE LAKE.
I AM APPRECIATING THE DAY OFF. I AM NURSING A MILD SPASM IN MY MID-BACK AND MET A HELPFUL MASSAGE THERAPIST WHO ADVICED AN EXERCISE AND POINTED OUT A SAUNA IN TOWN. THE REST OF THE GROUP SET OFF FOR CHICHICASTENAGO TO WANDER IN A BUSY MARKET...PURPORTED TO BE THE BIGGEST IN CENTRAL AMERICA. IT COMES WITH THE PRESSURE OF HOARDS OF PEOPLE CROWDING THE GRINGOS - SOMETHING I WASN'T UP FOR TODAY.
SO MUCH HAS HAPPENED TO DATE AND THE BUSYNESS AND DEMANDS OF THE STOVE BUILDING HAVE LEFT LITTLE ENERGY AND TIME FOR WRITING IN MY JOURNAL OR BLOGGING. THE FINALE AND UNDOUBTEDLY VERY POWERFUL EXPERIENCE BEFORE LEAVING XELA WAS OUR VISIT TO THE WOMEN'S SHELTER. WE HAVE MUCH IN COMMON AND YET THEIR STRUGGLE TO REMAIN OPEN IS FAR MORE COMPLEX THAN OUR SITUATION IN ONTARIO. I WAS FORTUNATE TO MEET WITH BOTH LILIAN, THE HEAD OF THE ASSOCIATION AND MARIA THE DIRECTOR OF THE SHELTER ALONG WITH A GREAT AUSSI TRANSLATOR - ONE OF THE COORDINATORS OF THE VOLUNTEER PROGRAM. THERE WERE TEARS WHEN I PRESENTED THE MANY DOLLARS CONTRIBUTED FROM OUR SHELTER. CURIOUSLY AND COINCIDENTALLY THEY ARE MOVING TO A NEW SHELTER IN A FEW MONTHS. AS WE TOURED THE MAIN FLOOR WE SAW THE FAULTY MASONRY COOKSTOVE IN THE KITCHEN AND DISCUSSED THE POSSIBILITY OF GSP BUILDING A STOVE OR TWO FOR THEM. BY THE WAY THEY HAVE 37 BEDS NOW AND WILL BE SERVING 100 !!! IN THEIR NEW DIGS. CAN'T WAIT TO SHARE THAT EXPERIENCE WITH THE WOMEN AT LCIH.
FOLKS, I HATE TO SAY GOODBYE BUT THERE IS A VILLAGE TO EXPLORE. THANKS TO ALL WHO HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING ALONG. IT'S WONDERFUL TO READ YOUR ENCOURAGING WORDS AND OF COURSE NEWS FROM HOME IS A BONUS. JONI OOX
A POTTER IN GUATEMALA
In February, 2011 I came to Guatemala with two dozen Canadian volunteers, mostly from the Ottawa Valley, under the auspices of The Guatemalan Stove Project, a Perth based NGO. In the last 12 years GSP, working with social agency partners and Guatemalan stonemasons, has raised funds for and built more than 4,000 masonry cookstoves in the kitchens of Mayan homes. These are almost invariably dark dirt floor spaces, very small, electrified if at all by a single dangling bulb or semi-lit by an unglazed opening in the wall. The homes themselves are located deep in the mountainous regions around the major city of Xela (or as it has been named officially since colonial time, Quetzeltenango.) The stoves are designed to replace the indoor, unvented open fires which for centuries have been the traditional norm. The tradition, unfortunately is attended by a host of deadly physical and health hazards mainly for the women and children of the family.
After an hour’s drive north of Xela, along twisted and unbarriered cobble stoned mountain roads more suited to pedestrians than to vehicles, we arrived in the tiny and utterly impoverished village of Chirrenox (pronounced “Cheerynosh”). We immediately divided into five teams, each lead by a Guatemalan mason. We located our assigned home, greeted the family, verified with the mother the preferred location of the stove in the kitchen and began to level the ground for the foundation. By 3:00 in the afternoon the stove would be completed and this family’s life would begin to change forever.
This was our last day of construction. The family, Juan, 19 years old, his wife Juana, 17, and their hija of 14 months , was the youngest, poorest and by far the most helpful and engaged that we had yet worked with.
In most kitchens, or cocinas, I had noticed clusters of grimy handmade pots strung together with twine or plastic hanging precariously from nails driven into the adopbe walls. As a potter these were a point of interest. I was looking for something special but so far I had only seen unexciting vessels begrimed with years or decades of accumulated soot. In fact, every surface of everything was blackened. It was impossible not to think of what the lungs of this very young mother and daughter would be like in a few years.
I photographed the charred vessels, then noticed a jug which I untied and held. I tingled. I walked over to the tub where we were soaking the terracotta liner bricks for the stove and began to carefully remove the soot from the neck and shoulders of the pot. This was it. I was gobsmacked! Though it was charred and cracked this little pot already had become an object of unreasonable desire. Although it properly belonged here I wanted to take it home.
Over lunch I broached the subject with Juan. I told him about my work as a potter in Canada, told him how much I was taken with the jug, and finally asked if he would take my request to his wife. He came back later in the afternoon as we were putting the finishing touches on the stove. The pot was actually his mother’s, had been around unused for many years but unfortunately was cracked. He pointed out the flaw. It would be useless, he said.
“I know,” I said, “pero es la forma que me gusta”. No problem, he said. You can take it. He did not want to consider money for an object that was so flawed but in the end, with some embarrassment on both sides, I left him with a sum which must have seemed to him inappropriate if not insane for a dirty old cracked pot.
That week our motley crew of Canadians built 28 stoves in 6 days, a number significant to us but otherwise negligible. World wide more children die from the smoke of open cooking fires than from malaria. The carbon footprint alone from billions of such fires every day has made a cheap, efficient, durable and culturally appropriate cooking stove an engineering holy grail in the world of social development and climate change technology.
The stove we built that day in Chirrenox cost the Guatemala Stove Project about $225. This very small investment means that Juan and Juana, their first daughter and all their future children (I think you can count on that!) will live longer lives free of the lung disease that might have meant premature death; they will likely avoid the related assault of eye and skin disease; Juana will no longer have to bend down to ground level with a child on her back thus saving herself lifelong pain from spinal stress; and Juan will have to collect or buy barely half the fuel he once did, freeing up time and funds to help his family in other ways.
And I have my prize too, nestled safely in my carry on. As a production potter I try to remain attentive to each vessel I make but in general remain unsentimental about the vast majority. I have a very small personal collection of pots I admire, usually attached to the context of memories and friendships. Those by well known potters such as Jack Troy, Tam Irving, John Leach, Jane Hamlyn and a few others are no doubt quite valuable; my little Guatemalan friend, on the other hand, would hardly fetch a farthing at auction but is surely no less precious and in every possible way an equal.
More to the point, this anonymous small jug speaks with eloquence and feeling about what the Guatemala Stove Project has accomplished for Mayan families. Its charred, encrusted surface has been cleaned to reveal a glow hidden during years of abuse caused by the deadly effects of smoke from an open fire in a ridiculously confined space. It has a new life. For me it was a small miracle to have discovered and rescued it. We cannot rescue this family from poverty but we can bring them a different and better future just by building them a stove!