Monday, December 7, 2015

Across Guatemala and Back…

During our one week of travelling around Guatemala, I felt like I watched the whole world whiz by my bus window. As I’ve mentioned in other blog entries, I love car rides. I just love watching. I love the moments when you catch a kid laughing on the side of the street, or a couple embracing, or the beautiful views that suddenly appear when you turn a corner. I loved being stuck in traffic, but not the 401-kind of traffic in Toronto…I’m talking about hundreds of cows being herded down the street and just not being able to go anywhere until they’ve crossed.

Despite sometimes being too hot and a little bit claustrophobic, I loved seeing Guatemala the way we did. We covered so much distance in so little time, yet I still feel like I truly saw as much as possible. I even felt that because we saw so much, and we were in such diverse places that it was like being in multiple countries. After a month of living in Antigua, which by the way I am convinced has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it was exciting to get into the bus every morning and drive to a new and unknown area of Guatemala.

It felt like one minute I was driving in the highlands and winding through beautiful mountains, and then the next I was in the jungle ziplining and visiting Mayan ruins… only to end up suddenly back on the coast, enjoying the beach and the sound of salsa music drifting through the air.

I swam in limestone pools and tanned on the rocks like the hundreds of lizards in the jungle. I spent a beautiful and lazy afternoon tubing down a river with girls on my team who became the closest of friends. I met amazing backpackers at a great hotel in Coban called El Retiro. I saw monkeys. I stood at the very top of a Mayan Temple and felt like I was on top of the world, in every sense. I found a little known waterfall and jumped off with almost no hesitation, almost.

I could go on forever about the last week, but I think you get the point. I did so much in such a short period of time I left Guatemala with the feeling that I could do anything. And, I think I probably will.

Hasta Luego,


Guatemala: San Miguel Duenas: December 4, 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Duenas: December 4, 2015

Gallo! Gallo! Gallo!

All were on the bus en route for San Jose Calderas via San Miguel Duenas, with wheels rolling at 8 a.m. We're down one team member today. Rachann will be well rested and hopefully recovered by the time we get back. We missed her energy.

We arrived in Calderas around 9:20 a.m. and reorganized our groups. Donna and Suzanne went with Elizabeth and Teresa to interview the ladies for whom we had installed stoves the previous day. Rick and Scott went with Ventura (aka Ace, the stove detective) and inspected the stoves we had installed so far. It was really awesome to see that all of the stoves they inspected were in use. Super cool! 

Our team had to put out some of the fires in order to inspect the installed eco-stoves. So great to see the immediate change! The rest of the team was divided into two groups: group one was Marianne, Mark P, Sarah, Mike, and Al. Group two was Mark J, Michelle, Brett and Lisa. We reached our goal of installing the last seven eco-stoves from our goal of 39. SUCCESS. Yippee!

We had another incredible authentic lunch at Casa de Angel and then we had some finishing touches to do before we gathered with the ladies and their children for whom we had installed stoves. We exchanged our thoughts, hugs and thank-yous, then took a group photo. A 68-year-old woman spoke on behalf of the group and expressed her heartfelt appreciation for having a stove installed in her home. Her smile, amazing energy, contagious laugh and abundant love said it all. One young boy from the village was happier today than he was yesterday, as he was worried that we were "a bunch of gringos who were there to kidnap him." Now he knows better!

We dropped off Teresa and bought some amazing smelling coffee from Open Windows Foundation. As usual, it was a fun bus ride home! We are off for the last team dinner tonight, before part of the team leaves for much colder temperatures :(

Gallo! Gallo! Gallo! (Gallo is the national beer of Guatemala - and our team mantra!)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Duenas: December 1, 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Duenas: December 1, 2015

As first-time DWC volunteers, starting out this morning was incredibly exciting. Even though we'd been in Antigua for a couple of days and spent some time and bonded with our team members, we still anticipated that heading out into a village where we would be installing stoves would be an experience like no other.

We picked up our sponsor host, Theresa, and a couple of helping hands and made our way up a washed-out dirt road into the village of Calderas. We passed a garbage dump located up in the mountains that was a combination of burning garbage and salvagers looking for anything of value. It was disturbing and heartbreaking at the same time. The trip took about an hour but that was only because the last passage of road was washed out and eroded from the rainy season and a wrong turn would have put us about 1,000 feet down into nowhere.

We were greeted in Calderas by a host from the village, Angel, who was partnering with Open Windows, and the families in whose homes we would be installing stoves. Angel opened his house to us and guided us around the village. Each family for whom we would be installing stoves had the parts already delivered, which made a huge difference (heavy concrete and clay pieces and bags of gravel). We went right to work, splitting into three groups of four and walking to our first homes.

In our specific case, we first met a mother of six who was living in a small space, approx. 20 feet by 20 feet, with three small buildings. One building had the kitchen with a dirt floor, two corn-stalk-walled rooms and an old tin roof that was falling apart. But the woman happily welcomed us in and proudly showed us how carefully she had stored the new eco-stove parts in her bedroom. They were neatly tucked away under her dresser and beside her bed. The dirt floors posed a challenge for us. Levelling the floor for a stable foundation proved incredibly difficult as we only had a machete, tin snips and the parts for the stove. Like the locals, we had to use what was available to complete our installations.

The woman's children were beautiful and bright eyed, spilling with curiosity about what four strangers would be doing in their home. When we ran into a minor setback with a missing stove part, they were happy have our attention and play while we waited for a missing piece to be found. The extra few minutes allowed us to learn more of the family's story, take in more of our surroundings and reflect on how we were making a positive impact.

The second family we met included a young mother with a new baby. She told us she had managed to avoid doing most of the cooking and hadn't spent a lot of time in heavy smoke. Despite those claims, she still tested very poorly - a product of her upbringing and surroundings, we were told. The family makes 40 quetzals a day. When asked how long it takes to collect firewood,t she said they spend four hours, three times a week to collect wood (two hours there and two hours back). We were told that this is because they 'trespass' on properties in another areas or towns so that they are not recognized or not known.

In the third house, we installed two stoves for a gentleman's two daughters in-law. There were three houses in the compound they shared. We were given warmth and genuine thanks from the whole family for the work we did, which warmed our souls. We returned to Angel's house on a high note, feeling we really made a difference in others' lives. It's a feeling that puts you on such a high that all you want to do is keep giving of yourself to help others.

Thank you Rick, Marianne and DWC for allowing us to take this journey with you, the families of Calderas and our extended team here in Guatemala!

Michelle L. Downey
DWC Volunteer

Monday, November 30, 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Dueñas: November 27 2015

Friday: Last day in Guatemala!

Well here it is our last day and it has been a great experience spending our time in Guatemala in Antigua with our board members. Today was a busy day, starting with an early departure to the Open Windows project and working on concreting the new kitchen bringing it to near completion. We finished up all we could do by lunchtime.

For lunch, we went to a bakery restaurant owned by one of the Open Windows board members. It was quite hot today, at least 25C and humid. We did a little shopping to take home souvenirs for our families then got an hour's rest. Then we met up for dinner with Rick Kurzac and Lisa Wiesner, two of 14 volunteers from the next DWC group working in Guatemala. We went to an amazing lookout up on a hill overlooking the city and three volcanoes. Back to the hotel, we packed and readied ourselves for the 2 a.m. flight back to Kamloops.
This has been a great trip and we feel very privileged to be able to come here to really make a difference in the lives of the people we have helped.

Theresa, Open Windows organizer

Bonnie still shoveling gravel.

More concrete for the wall.

Steady teamwork on the last day.

Developing World Connections board.

Janet reading with some students.
Bonnie Flanagan (photos) 
Bonnie and Neville (blog) DWC board members
Guatemala: November 2015

Friday, November 27, 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Dueñas: November 26 2015


Well it's Thursday and our second-to-last day on the job - so to speak - in Guatemala. But before I start for today, I just want to say how impressed I am with what we do as an organization. This trip has been great so far and as our leader Joshua Trudeau er, I mean Molsberry, said yesterday "Sunny ways, Dan, sunny ways" in preparation for today. (Some people think he resembles our new prime minister...)

Anyway, today is stove day where we are going to install up to five new eco-stoves in homes as part of the Light Up Guatemala project. We hit the road right after breakfast, stopping at Open Windows to pick up Theresa along with a representative from the stove company named Ventura, but I'll just call him Ace from here.

We travelled the same bumpy, winding dirt road up to the village. We met up with Angel and headed for our first job to do an install/demonstration. The home we visited clearly had been been prepared for us to attend as they had removed their old stove and painted and prepared the site for us. Ace took us through the installation process. It seemed like Richard said, "Putting Lego together," but with knife and a hammer. We finished this job and the woman was ecstatic, she had a very young child and having the stove would aid in the entire family's health.

At this point we broke into two separate teams to do the other four stoves, with Kym and Richard as leaders. Another team documented the stories of the people receiving the stoves.

Off we went, heading to our first home - and they weren't home! We're all thinking "What's with that?" and headed off to our second home, where we begin to install the stove and quickly realized Ace, with his tools, was with Richard's team. We had to wait for Ace to finish the other install and head to our location.

In the meantime, we got to spend time within the family compound, watching the kids play (and argue). It was fun watching the kids. Ace showed up, helped us with carving the cinder block assembly so it would fit and we finished the stove. Once again the mother was very, very happy and very gracious. We headed for lunch and met up with the rest of the crew

After lunch, we went back to the first home and found them still away. Lo and behold, we check with the neighbour and find out we were supposed to be at their home. Like duh!

This family was an elderly couple who had their grandson living with them. It was pretty evident that they were not financially well off, even in this community. So we got to work in their kitchen area which was encased in creosote from their on-the-ground stove. Fortunately, we had Ace with us and we were able to install the stove in short order. I was also able to employ the services of the grandson to take over the role of climbing onto the roof to finish the stack. Once again, the family was very happy.

On a side note, it was impressive what this work hardened grandfather was able to do, chopping wood, carting bricks, etc., and the grandmother, who had work on the floor to cook. They had been together for 56 years.

We headed off to where the other team was and couldn't find them. Ace thought he knew where they were. Well, they weren't where he thought they were. But there was a stove there and before we could say anything, the equipment was coming, so we installed another stove. At first, the mother was very pessimistic. She couldn't believe this contraption could do what she needed it to. Once Ace showed her, she was impressed. By the way, this place had so much creosote on the walls and ceiling I'm surprised it had not caught fire. It was a delight watching the mother's face as she saw how it all worked. At this family compound, there was another young family that still had the old-style stove burning; hanging the centre of their kitchen was a bassinet with a child in it listening to music on a cell phone and drifting off to smokey dreams. Ugh! The family was very happy and we were rewarded with fresh bottled water - but somehow Ace managed to score a beer, which he downed in about 20 seconds.

We then went off to catch up with the rest of the group and head back to Dueñas and of course had the record for most installs.

I will end by saying once again that we are having a profound effect on people's lives and we should be very proud of what we do. And, I'm just saying, "this is the best directors' team ever." 

Richard and Joshua installing a new stove.

New stoves, ready to be installed

Neville and Kym installing a new stove

Up onto the roof to finish the chimney.

Happy mom with newly installed stove.

Less wood, less smoke and more cooking surface!

Rubia with her family and new stove.

Saturnina also had a stove installed.
Dan Miller (blog)
DWC board chairperson
Guatemala: November 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Dueñas: November 25 2015


Today is our fourth day in Guatemala and what a day it was. After our typical great coffee and breakfast start at Fernando's Cafe next door, we made a quick stop to pick up tables at Open Windows before we drove, it seemed straight up, on a pretty rough gravel road, to the village of Calderas

This is the day we do vision testing and providing of readers and sun glasses donated by our partner Clearly, to the residents of this mountain village of about 400 farming families. As we arrive at the community center at 9 a.m., there are about 40 people lined up outside waiting with anticipation of being able to read and sew again. Within minutes we are set up with an intake table, three vision testing tables and an inventory table - all according to the previous day's plan.

I am fortunate, because I speak a little Spanish, to be at the intake table where I will meet all of the recipients of the glasses.

From the very first lady to arrive at intake, it is abundantly clear that they're not here just because there is something free, but rather because their lives are severely hampered because they cannot see well enough to easily conduct daily tasks that most of us take for granted. Their ages range from 35 to 85, there is roughly an equal number of men and women and with the exception of a pastor and a handicraft worker, all are farmers or housewives. Typical of Mayan people, a few do not speak Spanish and have younger family members to translate for them, and then I have 18 year old Fransesca to assist with the Spanish conversation, so I can then complete the intake form in English.

Although I don't really know what is going on behind me at the vision-testing tables, I do know that lives are being improved. After most of the 50-plus who've come with the hope of being able to read or sew again have gone through to the testing tables, I watch the last few who are trying to either read, thread a needle or use testing hand signals to determine the strength of glasses required.

It's a moving experience to see the smiles when they've received glasses that will literally change their lives and I ponder what it would mean to me if I had been unable to read for many years and suddenly, a book or a magazine, or the ability to mend is again an option. A delightfully impactful experience.

We didn't have as many people come out for glasses as we had hoped, but two people from our partner Open Windows are fully capable of administering the reader and sunglasses program and have an inventory of several hundred pair that will make a great difference in the lives of another several hundred very poor Guatemalan recipients. I feel so much gratitude for our partners Open Windows Foundation and Clearly and, of course, all of the board of directors of DWC, that they continue to make such a difference in the lives of the worlds' less fortunate.

Wayne McRann (photos)
DWC board member
Wayne McRann (blog) 
DWC board treasurer
Guatemala: November 2015

Guatemala: San Miguel Dueñas: November 24 2015


I wasn't sure what to expect, leading a team of board members who have extensive travel and team-leading experience. They were either going to be easy going, able to role with the inevitable hiccups while working in the developing world, or an absolute pain in the butt.

Luckily, they have been great. No hand holding required. When I go on trips, I have to try to squeeze in so many meetings while not working with the group. What that has meant on this trip is that I drop in on the gang periodically, between meetings. I give them a hard time, taunting them that nothing has been accomplished since I was there last. They, inevitably, make jokes about me being a young punk and looking like Justin Trudeau. Jerks!

The cloud cover finally broke up today and we were able to see the top of the volcano that San Miguel Duenas sits under. It is absolutely stunning.

Progress on the kitchen is coming along, slow but sure. When Teresa and I first talked about DWC building a kitchen, I asked her the value of it. More than 200 kids are attending Open Windows Foundation each day. Many of them come from underprivileged families and struggle with challenges like malnutrition, undereducation, etc. Teresa wants to be able to provide the kids with a hardy, healthy meal each day and teach the kids' mothers how to cook nutritious meals. In Guatemala, poor families' diets consist primarily of tortillas and beans, with very little fruit or vegetables. And Teresa tells me that for some reason, many are under the impression that drinks with high sugar content, such as Coca Cola, are healthy. As a result, rates of diabetes are also high.

Tomorrow we are running a glasses clinic up in the mountains. I can't wait.

Clear skies and view of the mountain.

Family life.

Farmer selling his produce.

Open burning "old style" stove - a wood fire between two bricks.

The view.

A farmer trying to raise a family on his meagre income.

A Guatemalan mom.

Another mom with child.

Joshua Molsberry and Hagan Ainsworth (photos)
DWC board member
Joshua Molsberry (blog) 
DWC executive director and team leader
Guatemala: November 2015