Viviendo el Sueño

Santiago Atitlan to San Cristobal de las Casas, San Cris to Oaxaca, Oaxaca to Mazunte, Mazunte to Tapachula to Ciudad Hidalgo to Tecun Unam to Cocales to Santiago Atitlan. I’ve been on a beautiful whirlwind of a trip that included astonishing surprises every day. I couldn’t possibly capture it all in words or images, but here are some highlights.

The trip included many, many bus rides, which actually provided some of my favorite memories. My traveling companion, Neal and I, had a rule that we could only speak Spanish until 6pm every day. We were fairly good about abiding by this rule. The first leg of the trip, some of our other Santiago friends were with us, including Siara from Spain, and for the rest of the trip, we got a lot of good Spanish practice in by watching at least 6 terrible movies (dubbed in Spanish) played on Mexico’s highly luxurious (and I truly mean that, compared to Guatemala) second-class tourist bus system. We also did a lot of sleeping and messily eating our pre-prepared bus meals.

In San Cristobal, I met with my inspiringly creative boss (Natik’s executive director) and her partner and we visited the indigenous village of Zinacantan for Dia de los Muertos. At the top of the cemetery adorned in flowers and fruit offerings, we chatted with some of the locals (one of them invited my friend Neal to try on his beautiful traje), then went down to the pueblo to drink some hot atol and eat some freshly made blue corn tortillas with one of the families we work with.

The next day, we walked over an hour across the city, seeing the stark contrast the further we got from the tourist center, to arrive at a little piece of utopia – La Universidad de la Tierra, a stunning 200 hectare campus located on the outskirts of San Cris. We were invited into the director’s office – a magical space, immacuately decorated and full of color, kind of like Frida Kahlo’s aesthetic imported into a Tim Burton film. There, we talked for a bit with Dr. Raymundo Sanchez Barraza and then one of the students gave us a tour of the campus and answered our questions as we wandered around. What this autonomous indigenous-led project is doing is astoundingly remarkable – they provide free courses, usually about 2 years in length, to the surrounding indigenous communities, allowing them to live and eat on campus during their studies and giving them opportunity to learn a valuable skill they can take back to their communities. Courses include auto-mechanics, carpentry/construction, sewing, baking/cooking, art, communication systems and repair, farming, music, and probably many more I’m forgetting. One of the things I loved most is the inclusion of music and the arts, with state of the art tools, supplies, and instruments, placing just as high a value on these skills and talents as on more traditional trades.

Onward to Oaxaca, a city full of visual stimulation. It was a beautiful blend of big city atmosphere, with a Latin American pace, a colonial charm, and a tangible feeling of resistance, rebellion, revolution. I was eager to explore as soon as we arrived and climbed up the Escaleras de Fortín for an amazing view of the city beneath. We ate delicious street food – tlayunas are especially tasty – enjoyed Oaxacan craft beers and locally made Mezcal, Oaxacan nieves (ice cream) and coffee, and meandered through the city streets. Our time in Oaxaca included a two-hour interview with Gustavo Esteva – an amazingly profound, insightful, articulate, and inspiring man, and I had the privilege of recording the whole thing! Much more on that to come. Neal posed some excellent and critical questions and Gustavo’s responses did not disappoint. I asked a few questions of my own at the end, on a more personal note, and Gustavo’s answers are a true source of inspiration for me – things that I needed to hear, that reassured me of my path in life and assuaged my doubts and fears.

We also had the chance to visit the Arbol del Tule – one of the oldest and largest trees in the world, and a sight I’ve always wanted to see. The girth of this tree was truly incredible, and its history and its own story of resistance and survival amaze me. What a beautiful part of nature that in its 2,000 – 6,000 years has seen and experienced so much and shared with so many. There was a gorgeous almost full moon that night over the church in Santa Maria del Tule, and all of it was such a sight to behold.

We went on to a lazy beach town on the Oaxacan coast called Mazunte where we slept in hanging beds with mosquito nets that, in their simplicity seemed like they’d be bare and uncomfortable, but were actually like sleeping in a cloud. We went for frequent swims, soaked in the bright, bright sun, walked through the hot sand, napped, read, relaxed, and went to a full moon party. We hiked up to an ancient Mayan look out point called Punto Cometa and saw the most breathtaking sunset I’ve ever in my life witnessed (the photos don’t do it justice). We visited a tiny completed uninhabited and closed off stretch of beach where we were the only people in sight and swam in the crashing waves and climbed on the rocks and watched blue crabs scatter as the waves crashed up and the ocean stretched before us and the fregata birds circled overhead and the sun shone down on us like a divine light.


After nearly 24 hours of non-stop travel (which, of course, included an intriguing border-crossing experience and many, many bus transfers), I arrived back home to Santiago Atitlan, full of inspiration and joy, but glad to be home and back to work. I slept quite heavily the first night back, a peaceful night in my own bed. And now I’ve resumed some semblance of daily routine.

First thing Monday morning was a meeting/brainstorming/planning session over breakfast with Neal about a project we plan to collaborate on…keeping it mostly under wraps for now until things are a bit more solidified, but it is something I’m very, very excited about and will throw myself into whole-heartedly.

Then, a long walk to the Hospitalito to buy a water refill, where, while waiting, I chatted with a friendly older man. After getting his water refills, he left in his car, but circled back around 5 minutes later to offer me a ride home with my heavy garrafone. These small acts of kindness touch me daily here, constantly reminding me of the goodness in everyone.

Following that, a skype conversation with one of my bosses, Donna (founder and creator of Unlocking Silent Histories, which I still need to write an update about eventually, I’m just so excited about it, it is hard to find the words), which sent me into a flurry of work for our upcoming fundraiser video and other future projects, some conversations with the youth leaders I work with, and a plan for the week.

After a quick lunch, off to my co-worker Dolores’ house, where we knocked out our accounting for the month of October, planned out our activities for the next month, and generally just chatted and got caught up on each other’s lives.

Back home to send off a few work emails and then out for a long bike ride (oh yes, I have a bike!) Glorious bike ride around the lake as the sun went down. On my return journey, I ran into three of my friends going for a run, cycled alongside them and chatted for an hour or so, since it had been a while since we’d last seen each other. Exciting things are going on in the lives of everyone I know and I’m so, so happy for them.

After the cycling, a quick yoga session with two friends at my neighbor’s house – a much needed stretch and time to focus on my breathing and my inner world. More catching up, taking advantage of the time I have with these beautiful people.

And finally, home to make dinner, some time to just be alone and enjoy that feeling, a bit of tidying up, a cup of tea while I stayed up audio-correcting and editing the Gustavo Esteva videos until midnight, some church marimba music blasting down the street, a late-night conversation with my best friends in New York that provided a lot of laughs. And then sleep, which came quickly and heavily – as (supposedly) one might say in Ireland, I slept like a donkey.

Today is mostly a work from home day – wrapping up administrative tasks, doing some online research and preparation, probably more editing if I ever finish this post, and also a shower if my water decides to come back on. I woke up, ate a delicious bowl of pineapple, papaya, and banana with lime juice, read some world news in La Jornada while drinking coffee from Chiapas. I will mostly likely take the opportunity to spend as much time as possible in my little apartment today being productive from behind the scenes.

Tomorrow, I meet with the director of the school we support, La Puerta Abierta, to work on grant writing, fund raising, and donor relations. Then I jet across the lake to Panajachel to collect the video equipment for Unlocking Silent Histories, meet with the director of our partner there, Maya Traditions Foundation, and then get together with two of our youth leaders to do a little filming and assign/explain their next project. From there, I’ll go to my co-worker Jim’s beautiful lakeside house in Tzununa for the night, have a Skype chat with a client interested in working with Just Apparel, and do some weekend planning with Jim. He and I will head to Guatemala City on Thursday for the Icaro Film festival –  a showcase of Central American cinema, where we hope to be discover what’s going on in the Guatemalan film industry and make connections to be more involved.

Not your average routine, but for me, this is living the dream.




In my self-directed studies of international development, I’ve been introduced to Gustavo Esteva – a “post-development” theorist and practitioner from Mexico who has worked with the Zapatista movement and describes himself as a “grassroots activist and deprofessionalized intellectual.” I find his writing poignant, his ideas original, and his message inspiring. In a few weeks, I will be going to Oaxaca to visit Unitierra –  the “university” he has helped to create – and possibly even meet Gustavo himself!

Here’s an article he wrote describing the idea behind Unitierra:

Measures of Love

My inspiring friend, Neal Hegarty, reflects on what international development means to him.

“For me, actually the most amazing thing about humans is that we have an infinite capacity to love. And that’s what makes love, I think, the best natural resource we have. It can’t be commodified, or traded, or land-grabbed…I think development is a measure of the amount of love in a person’s heart or in a society as a whole. And I think my job as a development practitioner going forward will be to try and share that love.”

Amigos del mundo


I’ve been really fortunate (and pleasantly surprised) to meet an absolutely wonderful group of people volunteering and working in various NGOs here in Santiago Atitlan. Before I came, I was expecting to be one of the only extranjeros in town, but there are actually quite a few of us, and we’ve all become fast friends. Making friends when traveling or living in a different country naturally happens much easier and more rapidly, I think because a common love of adventure already exists. And in this case, we all have a common desire to work toward the benefit of others – supporting the indigenous community, fighting against oppression, serving those in more vulnerable social locations. These understandings have created a bond between us that forms the foundation of our friendship.

Additionally, we have a lot of fun together. On weekends, we generally take a boat across the lake or a bus to a nearby city to experience new places and enjoy our time here to its fullest. Last weekend, we all hopped on a boat to San Pedro to indulge in a Sunday evening BBQ after some of our friends broke fast from Yom Kippur.

While on this boat, a Guatemalan girl next to me asked where we were from, assuming that we had all come to Guatemala together from the same place, probably because of how cohesive our group is. I began explaining to her where we all came from and what we’re all doing here, and it made me realize what a diverse, worldly, and amazing group of people this is. As I told her:

There is Eoghan, from Ireland. He is a physical therapist who works with people with disabilities in Santiago and the surrounding communities. He’s been here since February and will be here until at least March 2015.

Rebecca from Sweden lives across the lake in Panajachel, studied social work, and is here on a fellowship program for 4 months working at a school.

Becky, from England, and Jillian, from Ohio, who are interning for three months at a local development NGO called Pueblo a Pueblo. Becky has her master’s in international development and has been traveling the world volunteering for the last year. Jillian spent the year before coming working in community organizing in Illinois, like me.

Edurne, from Northern Spain, and Siara, from the country of Basque, who both work in special education at ADISA, the organization my old host family founded. Before coming to Guatemala, they both worked with people with disabilities for many years. Edu will be here six months, but wants to stay longer. Siara will be here three months to complete a practicum for her master’s in international development.

And Madeleine, from Sweden, here on the same fellowship program as Rebecca, for four months, also working at ADISA, but more focused on non profit administration and development. She is hoping to come back for a longer stretch of time in April.

And that’s not at all! Not pictured above are some friends who couldn’t make it that weekend or were already there waiting to meet us:

Jake and Michelle, from New York state and California, respectively, who both work at Pueblo a Pueblo, have been here for a year already, and will be here at least another. Katie from Illinois who is on a fellowship program working at a fair trade weaving collective, museum, and store. Jenna, from Louisiana, who is the development coordinator at our local private hospital. Mike, from Boston, a Fulbright scholar here doing research on diabetes prevention and working at the Hospitalito. Neal, from Ireland, who is here doing his master’s thesis on permaculture and indigenous communities, and volunteers at the nearby international mesoamericana permaculture center. Two other participants in the Swedish fellowship program, Maria and Gabriella, working at NGOs in Panajachel. Plus several local friends from Santiago that we’ve met along the way.

And then there’s me. Jenn, from Chicago or sometimes Texas, working as the Guatemalan Project Coordination Fellow at Natik, and also as the Unlocking Silent Histories Ambassador with Mayan Traditions Foundation, a social worker, who will be here for at least a year, who is living her dreams every day and can’t believe her amazing good fortune.

I really do love my life and the people, places, and opportunities in it.

As my beautiful friend Edurne kept repeating the other night as she looked out on our group of friends: “tenemos una familia muy bonita.”


Inspiration in San Juan

My coworker, Dolores, and I are speaking to two Mayan midwives, as Dolores’ two sons, Juan Martin and Gaspar, take in the sights and scents of a medicinal herb garden with her husband, Juan. “You’ll notice that there are not many pharmacies in this town,” one of the midwives tells us, “This is because people here are more accustomed to using natural healing methods. They come here to our garden, or go to the midwife’s house, describe their ailment or illness, and ask for a natural remedy.”

These midwives are two women who make up the Qomaneel collective in San Juan La Laguna, and they are talking to us in their demonstration garden at the top of a hill. There are 18 other midwives in their collective, and each has her own medicinal herb garden at her home. They grow many different plants that they brew into teas, crush into powders, make into soaps and salves and oils. In the tienda attached to the garden, each item is labeled with a description of its health benefits, the types of pains and problems it can relieve, and directions for preparation and dosage. They have concoctions to treat everything from indigestion and sore throats to headaches and difficulties with lactation.

The midwives show us around the demonstration garden, encouraging us to smell and touch the traditional plants they are growing, allowing us to chew sweet stevia leaves that taste just like sugar, and breaking off for us a floriposa flower that helps you sleep when placed under your pillow. They are delighted to share their experiences and wisdom with us, and Dolores and I are glad to find that they are open to our idea of offering a training workshop to the 25 women in our fair-trade artisan collective.

Those 25 women are the reason we traveled across the lake to San Juan today – to seek inspiration and ideas for professional development and expanded economic opportunity for our collective. And San Juan was the right place to visit. In addition to the Qomaneel medicinal garden, we came with the purpose of talking to the women who make up San Juan’s many artisan collectives, which are distinguished from others around the lake by their unique colors made from traditional natural dyes, and their high level of organization as independent and collectively-owned and operated groups.

As we walk down the street out of the Qomaneel Center, we do notice a striking lack of pharmacies as compared to other towns around the lake. We stop to take in some of the town’s striking murals, and linger by the charming town square. But mostly, we cannot take our eyes off of the beautifully colored textiles hanging in store windows. We go in to many of these stores for a closer look, marveling at the soft, pastel colors, only achievable by the delicate and ancient process of dying one’s own thread. We have many conversations with the store attendants, usually one of the women who make up the collective – each one proud to tell us about her collective, its mission and purpose, how it was founded. We ask about their hand-dying process and are shown some examples of the natural materials used, we inquire about workshops or trainings and find some promising leads.

All in all, we spent only a few hours in this charming town, wandering the streets with Dolores’ beautiful family – her young sons’ laughter and playfulness making the day even brighter – but we left full of inspiration and ideas, happy to have spent the day together experiencing a new place, and ready to plan our next venture!


Want to Help Someone? Shut up and Listen!

This is a fantastic and humorous TedTalk from Italian aid worker Ernesto Sirolli. After a long conversation with one of my Guatemalan friends about my thoughts on the errors of many Western do-gooders who, though well-intentioned, go about international development work in all the wrong ways, he recommended I watch this. Sirolli is spot-on, and provides some excellent examples of what NOT to do, as well as a way forward for effective international aid work, based on participatory action, self-determination, and listening (all tenets of feminist research methodologies, by the way!)

All 17 minutes are worth watching, but the first 3 or so are especially recommended. Enjoy!