Discovering Guatemala

By Paige Smith, international correspondent for the CEC Experience

Fifteen Miami CEC students, including myself, arrived in Guatemala on January 2, flying into Guatemala City and being quickly whisked away to the city of Antigua. Antigua became our home base for our first week as the first group of Miami engineers and computer scientists to take part in a Social Entrepreneurship Corps program. Guatemala is a country with a rich history and very diverse people, still trying to modernize and recover from genocides perpetrated by the government in the 1980s during what is called the Internal Conflict. The mountain region surrounding Nabaj—where my classmates and I will spend most of our time—was the region most affected by the war, and many people there are illiterate, have irregular access to water and electricity, and cook on open fires (no stoves). These are the people—and the challenges—that we will work with during our time here by developing appropriate technologies.

Living in Guatemalan homes

GuatemalaWhile still in Antigua, we spent four nights living with homestay families. Each homestay family took one or two students into their homes. I stayed with a woman and her three daughters, aged 13, 18, and 20. The twenty-year-old spoke a little English, which I appreciated since my Spanish is no bueno. For the four days I spent with them, I really appreciated how friendly they were with me, and how much they tried to include me, even though our verbal communications were limited. I watched movies with them, walked around the local park with them, played Uno with them, ate breakfast and dinner with them, and the mother would pack me a lunch every day. Most of the food was some mix and match of eggs, beans, and chicken, and everything was put on bread. I also drank a lot of Guatemalan coffee, which is basically a cup of sugar with some coffee in it.

Learning to understand Guatemalan life

Guatemalan homes

During the day my classmates and I spent most of our time getting our bearings. Our first full day we were given 20 quetzals (less than $3) to buy enough at the open-air market to (theoretically) survive in a rural community for a month. My group bought a hammer and some tape, to try and fix things for food or money. Other groups bought living necessities like food or water, or tools for a trade like manicure equipment or art supplies. One girl from a group of New York City students who were with us asked a vendor for a job, and she was “hired”. I thought that was clever. We also developed surveys in small teams that we could ask the locals. My group developed ours on cook stoves; other topics included solar lamps and living expenses. We then asked locals (in Spanish) our questions, to begin to formulate where the areas of perceived need were in the community for further innovation. My group discovered that people without stoves usually wanted one but couldn’t afford it, and people with stoves spent a lot of money on wood and gas. We also learned that people who had stoves often wished to move them somewhere else, either to rearrange their kitchens, expand their houses, to clean around them, or to create more room for parties. They could not, however, because the stoves are too heavy to move (one woman had moved her stove before, and it took eight people to carry it).

Climbing an active volcano

volcanoWe also climbed the active volcano Pacaya. It is about 2,400 meters above sea level and very steep. On the way down, we stopped by the lava store, where locals carved holes in coconut shells and filled those holes with volcanic rock to make jewelry. The store has been roughly in the same place for seven years, but it has been destroyed by lava five or six times and the locals have kept rebuilding it. After the lava store, we roasted marshmallows in an underground vent.

Embracing the next stage

Paige SmithThe first week in Guatemala was all about becoming comfortable in a country much different than the United States, and navigating cultural and language barriers to prepare ourselves to build relationships with the people in the communities we would be working in. But Antigua was just our first stop—the meat of our work will be in Nebaj, a six-hour drive from Antigua, high in the mountains. Here, we will begin designing prototypes for our technologies, as well as working closely with the local people to determine what they want and need.