Friday, September 4, 2009

Stoves in Pacaxjoj: a Typical Day

For the past six weeks I've been making the trek out to Pacaxjoj to work on the safe stoves project. For those of you interested in volunteering, I'll give you an idea of a typical day. It starts at 8AM at the Pop-Wuj school. After downing a cup or two of much needed coffee, the group of students and teachers takes off for the bus stop about 6 blocks from the school. We board the "chicken bus" (an adventure in itself), pass through Cuatro Caminos and San Francisco el Alto, and with any luck arrive at our stop on the side of road somewhere in the mountains around Momostenango around 10AM. A short walk through the woods and over a small stream takes us to a schoolbuilding/store where we meet our local guide, Don Nicholas. From the store it is another 20-30 minute hike to the house of the family for whom we are building the stove.

A bit of background information about the safe stoves, or "estufas", we are constructing. The materials for each stove costs $145, and is funded entirely by the generous donations of the school's students and those of their friends and family. The stoves are made in three phases during the same number of visits to the home over the course of a few weeks. In the first phase we construct the base of the stove from concrete blocks and cement. In the second phase we build the stove's fire chamber which will one day house the wood needed to heat the stove. In the final phase we complete the fire chamber, set the "Plancha" ( the pre-cut metal stove top) in place, and construct the chimney.

Building stoves is important for a number of different reasons. Not only are the stoves more efficient than open fires in burning wood (thus helping to save the family money as well as help prevent deforestation), but are also important in reducing indoor air pollution. Many women use traditional three-stone open fires to cook food inside their homes. The women and their children constantly breathe in the smoke from these fires, and consequently are at much greater risk for respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia. The stoves we build divert this smoke outside home and help alleviate the indoor air pollution. Occasionally we have worked in the same room as the women cooking over an open fire. These few instances were more than enough to hammer home the importance of our work. To the left is an image of what years of smoke accumulation will do to a kitchen ceiling.

But back to the typical day. Once we arrive at the home of the family we quickly get started. After working for a couple hours, we break for a delicious lunch prepared by the family. The food is rarely the same, but the homemade tortillas and salsa picante are always amazing. After lunch we finish up our the phase we are working on, clean up the tools and job site, and return to our meeting spot at the schoolbuilding. A short hike from there takes us to the highway where we wait, exhausted, for our colorful chicken bus to take us home. For the student who have Spanish classes at the school in the afternoon, we're usually back in time for the 4:30 break.

That's about it! I've enjoyed doing the stove project over the past two months for the opportunity it has given me to work hands-on and to be able to see, tangibly, the difference our group has made in the life of one family. Furthermore, I think it's wonderful to get away from the city for a while, and be able to see and experience a part of Guatemala that otherwise you might not get the chance to.

If you have any other questions about the safe stove project, or are interested in donating your time or money to the project, please don't hesitate to contact me at Or, feel free to contact the Pop Wuj school at

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