three volcanoes, that author Aldous Huxley once called “too
much of a good thing” — Pana is both a hot spot for tourist
trade, with many locals selling their wares along its narrow
lanes, and the home of one of Habitat Guatemala’s 17 branch
offices. After checking into the surprisingly luxe Cacique
Inn (“If this is volunteering, then vacationing is obsolete,”
was my immediate reaction) our group paid a visit to the
much more modest Habitat office to meet Oscar, Jorge, Jose,
the other Jose and Lilliana. Oscar partners with a few local
Maya women to find families, often located deep in the surrounding mountains, that qualify for Healthy Home Kits,
which is what our group was there to provide.
The housing deficit in Guatemala is estimated at 1.7
million. And while Habitat houses are certainly more finan-
cially accessible than traditional dwellings, they are still
houses, and not within the budget of most Maya families.
In 2010, Habitat introduced Healthy Home Kits, affordable
supplements to existing spaces, consisting of a water filter,
a smokeless stove and a latrine, additions that allow families to avoid two leading causes of death in the country’s
rural areas: respiratory disease and waterborne illnesses.
Given that most rural households have no toilet (cornfields
often serve as substitute), unfiltered groundwater and
open cooking fires that blacken walls and lungs alike, these
enhancements are both welcome and life-changing.
BEFORE OUR REAL WORK BEGAN, WE BOARDED A BOAT —
a very exciting prospect, as we had been staring longingly at
the lake since our arrival the previous day — for an excursion
to Lucho’s hometown of San Juan la Laguna. The ride across
Lake Atitlán was nothing short of epic: calm, cerulean waters
gave way to lush and rugged landscapes sprinkled here and
there with minuscule (and colorful) lakeside villages, while
towering volcanoes oversaw the scene. Docking at San Juan
was like arriving in another country altogether, with thin
layers of moss coating the shallow waters like a wooly throw.
Rickety wooden boats lined the shore, where women and chil-
dren soaked laundry while men languidly tossed out fishing
lines. Ahead, the hilltop town hovered in exotic, welcoming
and unassuming fashion.
We were there to visit Lucho’s childhood friend Miriam
at Casa Flor Ixcaco Tejedoras Mayas Weaving Cooperative,
a women’s weaving co-op. Women partaking in paid work of
any sort are a relatively new sight in Guatemala — traditionally, females tend to stay home, rising early to take care of the
children and begin making tortillas. They clean the house,
wash dishes and clothes, prepare three meals a day, feed their
families, go to sleep, wake up and do it all again. But more
recently, certain women have found ways to do even more.
Weaving brings wages, and the work can be done both away
from and at home, and weaving co-ops take it a step further,
allowing women to be entrepreneurs and control their own
finances, some even saving to send their children to college.
Products include ponchos, blankets, scarves, bedspreads and
much more, and of every 100 Quetzales (Guatemalan currency) earned, 95 go to the workers and five to sustain the
shop. I purchased a poncho that took two weeks to weave and
cost 225 Quetzales — just $30.
There is just one requirement for those wishing to join the
co-op, which currently has 19 members: women must grow
their own organic cotton. From it, the weavers pull and spin
to make string by hand, then drench spools in natural dyes in
a wealth of vivid colors. The walls of the co-op were lined with
a rainbow of thread, each hue born from naturally occurring
charcoal, hibiscus, avocado, bark, coffee, cinnamon or other
substances. Miriam demonstrated the process, introducing
us to three naturally occurring colors of cotton — white, nude
and ixcaco, which comes from the Maya word ixoq’, meaning
women, and caco, the color of their skin.
We broke into small groups and visited weavers in their
homes — some abodes consisting of dirt floors and barely any
walls — to watch them at work. The craft is time-honored, and
A member of Casa
Flor Ixcaco weaves
a bedspread in her