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Homestays in the Coffee Lands, by Nancy Banks
Nancy Banks, of Acton, Mass., is one of the participants in the Fair Trade JustWorks camp in Guatemala.
A baby cries "mama, mama," dogs bark in the distance, children laugh, kids play tag, children beg their mom for sweets, three boys head off for an afternoon of fishing in the local stream, and a mother dog nurses her pups in the corner. But I am not in Acton, Mass. I am in Pueblo Nuevo, Tajamulco, Dept. of San Marcos, Guatemala.
The house is two rooms, a bedroom and kitchen sitting on cement slabs, the walls made of wooden slats, a woodburning stove on one of the kitchen walls. Martina gets up at 5 a.m., to bring her corn to the grinding mill so she can make tortillas for the family breakfast.
I am conflicted as I watch their daily lives. The family is loving and respectful in ways I seldom see at home. We are having dinner of rice and vegetables. Juan has two spoons -- Juanito, his 18- month-old son, shares. His sister Magnolia soon comes over to join in the feast. Juan patiently allows Juanito to experiment with the spoon, even when it means some of the food lands on his pants, and waits for Magnolia to have her turn.
Veronica, the 10-year-old daughter, responds to numerous calls for help throughout the day from her mother with none of the lip I might hear from my own daughter. We are visitors and so like us they may be on their best behavior when guests are in the house.
We wake to a brilliant blue sky. The house overlooks a beautiful valley that stretches for miles. The air is clean, the work neverending, but the pace slow. The chickens share the kitchen with us and join us for breakfast. The pig plays on the same side yard as the children.
The conflict: Martina, many years younger than my 55 years, has lost all her upper teeth. Veronica will probably attend her last year of school this year. Juanito has clearly been ill. The kitchen fills with smoke each night as the doors are closed to keep out the cold night air and all the children cough up the smoke as they fall asleep.
It is highly unlikely the children will ever have the opportunity to make the choices I make in my life -- the choice to leave Acton, fly to Guatemala, and take a harrowing jeep ride up the side of a mountain (not recommended for the faint of heart) to visit a coffee farm. They will not have the choice to go down their mountain, fly to Massachusetts, and take the highways to Acton. (Although they may find our highways and speeds as harrowing as we did the mountain road.) They may not even have the choice to finish school. My choices are limited only by my fears and lack of dreams. Their choices are limited by poverty.
And how can I -- one person -- make a difference? That is the real challenge of this trip. I do not have the answer. And that is the conflict. Do we send money? Hold some fundraisers? Raise awareness in the United States about the benefits of fair trade and the challenges of the Central American economy? What I do know is that new doors were opened to me and it is now my challenge to walk through those doors.