For the past week I’ve been staying with a Mayan family in the small fishing village of San José on El Lago Petén Itzá in El Petén. Doris, Samuel and their two boys, Fredi and Rene, are part of La Danta Project, a very new, still patchy programme run by a gringo who provides travellers like me the chance to learn about the Mayan community whilst giving back to the families who are living in minor poverty. The family have welcomed me with open arms and the experience has been enriching for both parties in numerous ways.
Doris (27) has always lived without electricity, so not financially having the option to pay a monthly cost for electricity hasn’t been a problem. She was brought up to use the sun as a natural clock, meaning days here for the family are pushed forward in comparison to what we as Westeners are used to. The cockerels in their garden start screaming at around 4AM, about the time that Doris wakes up to start making tortillas (using a comal and a proper wood fire) for her husband to take to work. Samuel’s job at a finca isn’t stable. His job depends on the season and his boss who doesn’t always require his skills. Therefore, financial security within the family is virtually unheard of.
To stay with the family, La Danta requires that we pay our host families 20 quetzales (Q) for the night and 15Q per meal, so in a day that adds up to 65Q (around £6). While they receive this money – extremely humbly I might add – I’m lucky enough to see how this family lives on a daily basis. Helping Doris in the kitchen making tortillas, playing with the tiny kittens and the two boys, and learning about the array of fresh produce they proudly grow in their garden from chaya to papayas. Doris and I have exchanged a lot of stories, her curiosity leading me to reminisce about life in Mexico and back home. I’ve heard about her childhood, her lack of education due to a drunk, abusive teacher which led her to quit at a very young age, her falling off the wagon slightly but then finding God again, the struggles of not knowing if you’ll have enough money to buy the week’s groceries, and her determination to progress and succeed in a free adult education course run by the Guatemalan government. (Whenever she speaks about her studies or tells me something new she has learnt and put into practice, her face lights up. It’s wonderful.)
Doris kindly invited me to church one evening and the morning after I was sat with the sisters helping them make tamales which they then sold to people around the town. Unfortunately they’d used chicken so I didn’t get a taste, but dios mio they smelt great. The money they’ve raised selling these fluffy parcels of corn dough will go towards reconstructing the church which is currently a set of benches outside under a corrugated roof. Her belief in God is strong and enlightening. Even though I don’t consider myself religious, nor believe in the Christian concept of God, the thought of having a symbol there to guide you, to make a path for you and help you in your struggles seems kinda nice. When she fell ill a few times she restrained against medicine and let God do the work, so to speak. She strongly believes that God decides your fate, and you have to let Him do so, and not curb the path.
My time with Doris and her family has given me a lot of food for thought. Sustainability, family, education, religion and spirituality have been on my mind and they’re aspects of my life that I’m going to pay more attention to, respect more, and educate myself about.