Friday, December 13, 2013

Life as a Pop Wuj Student and Volunteer

Text and Photos by Travis McMullen 

My time studying at Pop Wuj was incredibly enjoyable and left with me with a range of treasured memories. Apart from learning Spanish, the main reason I chose Pop Wuj was their reputation for their projects which assist the local community. 

Life at the school follows a general formula – class in the morning or afternoon. I studied in the mornings from 8:00am to 1:00pm, Monday to Friday. As I came with zero Spanish, my first few weeks were filled with learning the practical theory behind the Spanish language, as well as useful and common phrases and words. This then progressed to looking at the different tenses, to free range conversation – focusing on the areas and interests that I had. Learning took the form of a variety of different methods, to keep things constantly fresh, interesting and active. A sample includes:
  • Free range conversation to practice speaking and listening – and in my case – also learning to speak without a heavy Australian accent
  • Going on a trip to the market, to discuss foods, cultures and practice Spanish when purchasing food for the weekly school dinner or event
  •  Reading newspaper articles – to practice comprehension and articulation – then to discuss the article and learn more about Guatemalan news, politics, history and culture
  • Reading a short story in Spanish, then reading the English translation, making notes, then repeating the story back in Spanish – a great way to learn new vocab, or use existing words in a way which describes the story
  • Traditional text book style learning
Originally I planned to study for four weeks. However, I was having too much fun and really wanted to get a firm grasp on the language. Xela is a fantastic place to learn and my stay turned into nine weeks. 
Apart from traditional studying, the school also offers additional activities most days, which are a mixture of learning, adventuring, and spending time with fellow students and teachers. Movies, lectures, stove building, visits to the Family Support Center, and weekly excursions. The weekly lectures provided a great way to learn more about Guatemalan culture and the teachers told personal stories about each of the topics – always leaving you with much to think about. Pop Wuj also offers many interesting excursions and I was lucky enough to partake in a hike up Chicabal and down into the lake, and a visit to the glassblowing factory. The weekly dinners provide much entertainment and a change to interact with students and teachers outside of a learning environment. You can also help cook dinner – which was probably the most amount of stress, in a fun way, that I experienced in Xela.

Volunteer Projects
Pop Wuj is responsible for several projects in Xela and the surrounding area. Students have the opportunity to participate in these projects if they so choose. During my studies, I assisted in the Safe Stove Building Project and at the Family Support Center.

Safe Stove Building Project
As described on the Pop Wuj site, the Safe Stove Project was developed in order to combat the serious issues facing households who rely on an indoor open fire for their cooking needs.  These problems include deforestation due to increased consumption of firewood, severe respiratory problems attributable to heavy smoke and poor ventilation in one-room homes, back pain due to cooking over an open fire on the floor, and frequent accidental burns.
Travis and machete
The stove is built over three separate phases. During the construction period, I became addicted to the machete and discovered the variety of different ways it can be used – from carving and shaping stone and bricks, through to cutting concrete blocks into smaller pieces. It does require concentration though, as if you get too eager and hack away, you won’t shape the brick to the required standard. Or, if you are trying to cut a block into two equal pieces – cut too hard or fast and you risk shattering the block. Patience and persistence were some skills that were refined during the building, as I had to resist the temptation to hack away, or to try and cut the block in one motion, “Kung Fu” style. 

Stage 1
When you complete the stove, it is a feeling of immense achievement and reward. By volunteering a small amount of your time, you have helped to construct a safe stove for a family – one which will greatly improve their daily living.

A Completed Stove

The best part? My response to it all.  As we walked out of the house, the lady told us all “Muchas Gracias.”  My reply, without even thinking about it, as a big smile showed on my face, was “De Nada.” It was never about the thanks or gratitude – it was about providing a safe stove for a family, making a difference, one step (or stove) at a time.

Family Support Center
El Centro de Apoyo Familiar, or Family Support Center, serves the families of single working mothers in a rural community just south of Xela at the foot of the Santa Maria volcano. The Center is located in Llanos del Pinal, a short bus ride from Xela. In addition to the wonderful staff, the Family Support Center relies heavily on the presence of volunteers to help the children - who range in age from toddler to high school - complete their homework, and of course to play with them during free periods.

Helping to fill the piƱata

The children welcome you with open arms each time you visit, always eager to play, ask for help with homework, or to get you to draw with them. One day, the craze was the snail Turbo from the movie Turbo – so lot of drawing and coloring in of Turbo was required. My first attempt at drawing the snail failed and I was given an already completed color copy to replicate. Luckily, attempt two passed and one of the children ran off delighted to color it in.

Regular activities are also run at the Center, including an Olympics, a water activity, and a birthday and end of school year celebration. All provided unique experiences which will be mentioned in future blog posts. The Olympics report can be read here.  Of course, the main reason to visit is for the smiles of the children, and the joy and entertainment that the interactions provide.

Water Games
For me, Pop Wuj has been a perfect blend between Spanish studies and community involvement. I was sad to say goodbye at the end of my nine weeks.  Check out Pop Wuj's website for more information about the school and to register for classes!
Hiking Volcan Candelaria

Monday, December 9, 2013

Safe Stoves: Interviewing and Building in November and December 2013

Text and Photos by Danny and Julie Rhoton.  

Danny and Julie are students in the Social Work Spanish Program at Pop Wuj.  

For the last 3 weeks at Pop Wuj, we’ve been completing the construction of some safe and efficient stoves for Mayan families, who we hope will be able to enjoy the holidays a little more this year.  Christmas, after all, should be about families and stuffing oneself with tamales.  It should not involve smoke inhalation and lung disease!  My husband and I enjoy things like remodeling and building, so it has been a rewarding project, as we take “before” pics of indoor fire pits in the dirt, and “after” shots of smiling faces with a stove fit for cooking for a large family.

Before picture

Before picture of another kitchen
Once we had finished the stoves, it was time to interview 10-15 more families who hope they will be next.  Once or twice a week we travel to a village where I get to practice my Spanish by interviewing the mother of the home, with the help of Roney and Carmelina who translate when needed. We are mainly there to take photos of the condition of the home and family, to see how in need they really are, and to let them know how the project works.  We ask questions like “Why do you want a stove?” which is actually a little humorous on occasion, like the day we were standing in a cloud of smoke, choking, eyes watering, and wondering how people live like this!  No wonder respiratory problems are the number one cause of death in children in Guatemala.

Stage 2

Danny and Julie working on Stage 3

That day we all laughed, but sometimes the conditions are no laughing matter.  There was the day we had just arrived at a “home” and our group leader asked me to take a “before” photo of the kitchen.  I aimed the camera in the general direction he pointed, thinking surely this isn’t a kitchen… where?  It looked more like a metal chicken coop/storage shed, with no roof, just plastic, and a small fire pit hidden in the clutter. My husband’s contractor instincts took over.  He was talking about building them a whole new house to put the stove in.   One reason they mentioned for needing a new stove was because they have no money to buy wood, and the husband often spends 8 hours in a day hiking in the mountains to find scarce wood.  One of these stoves, they had heard, meant they would use 70% less wood!  And, maybe then they could stop burning plastic so their kids could have better health.

A completed stove and its proud owners
After our first week of interviews, we had a Thanksgiving turkey with other students and teachers here at Pop Wuj.  We thought about our wood stove back home, which we used to heat the home.  (A heated home in the winter, what is that?) We thought about our beautifully remodeled kitchen with… yes, counter space for preparing food.  I wondered how it would be to sit in the dirt and make tortillas in my lap, while trying to keep the babies from falling in the fire.  We wondered how we can take so many things for granted, how anyone could not appreciate the luxury in which we all live in the USA and other developed countries.  We ate our turkey this year with more awareness of our blessings than ever before, and it was tasty too.  And, we felt a little guilty for how much we ate, and that our meal did not include rice and beans.