Posted by: Project MicroMundo | September 26, 2010

The Small Picture: Daily Details from Life in San Andres

We’ve been in Panajachel, near Lago Atitlan, for almost a week now, and we’re getting started on some really cool projects with Mayan Families, which you’ll hear about soon.  Before we get too far from San Andres, though, I want to try to give you some of the little details that make life there great, not so great, or just different from what we were used to in the US.

My neighbors' pigs, and their laundry, as seen from my doorway.

One of the biggest little differences was that, while American farm animals tend to stay on farms, San Andres’ critters are right in the middle of daily life, even in town.  Pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and roosters are all common, even though the layout of the town is fairly urban (especially where we lived, abajo, on the steep hills close to the lake), with many properties consisting only of a house/living area and a small outdoor courtyard space.  All these animals living in such tight quarters means that they’re always in sight, either in the house, like at Jess and Ronnie’s homestay, or in the road, in the median, on the soccer field, etc.  Even horses are frequently left free to wander the streets, and there was a group of three or four—including a mare and foal—that were frequent visitors to the library parking lot.

Days in San Andres usually start with roosters, and I don’t always mean at dawn.  It’s a nice myth that roosters go off like alarm clocks at dawn, but—in Guatemala at least—it isn’t true at all.  Sometimes they’d start at 2 or 3 in the morning, or even midnight.  Other days they were closer to accurate, but they almost always had us up before the alarms we set (except for Ronnie, who could sleep through artillery fire).

Ronnie’s ability to sleep through the sounds of battle served her well in San Andres, and not just because of the roosters.  In many parts of Guatemala, it’s customary to throw fireworks at a person’s door on his birthday.  For reasons we could never quite understand, this always took place in the wee hours of the morning, causing Jess and I to leap out of bed and take cover.

A beautiful Lago Peten sunrise

Nights were anything but peaceful (barking dogs and squealing pigs often accompanied the roosters and fireworks), but there aren’t too many things as beautiful and calm as the sun rising over Lago Petén.  Most days, I got to watch it as I ate breakfast, since the table was outside and my house had a clear view of the lake.  Most houses in rural Guatemala are set up a bit differently than homes in the US—almost all include a space that’s only partially covered or enclosed, allowing for air flow while providing shade.  Sometimes everything but the pila (a large concrete ‘sink’ with 3 basins, the middle one filled with water, which is used for dishes, laundry, brushing teeth, etc.) is indoors, and sometimes a larger portion of the house is open to the elements–it depends on the house. In ‘my’ house, the pila was under a corrugated steel roof, but not sheltered by any walls, while the table was sheltered by a roof and one wall. When it rained, the table got wet.  The only rooms that were really ‘inside’ were the bedrooms and a small family room.  The building containing those rooms was made of cement blocks (the building material of choice; if you can’t afford them, you use wood).  It had two doors (which locked from the inside at night with 2x4s) and no windows.  The walls dividing the bedrooms didn’t reach to the ceiling, allowing for some airflow, but it was still HOT (did we mention how hot it is in Petén?), so my host family spent most of their time in the breezier parts of the house during the day.

This open layout is great for beating the Guatemalan heat, but, for a gringa, it requires a little adjustment of expectations.  When a large part of the house is essentially outside, there are certain things that just can’t be kept out, no matter how often you clean (and my host family cleaned often).  Ants, for instance.  My host mom didn’t think any more about ants on the table or in the kitchen than my real mom would about ants in the yard—it would be equally impractical to keep them out of either place.

Ronnie and Jess' host mom, Marcelena, in front of her traditional stove. Her kitchen is covered by a roof and two sides, but the other two sides are open.

Guatemalan kitchens usually include some kind of traditional stove—a concrete or cinderblock fire pit with a large, flat piece of metal placed on top—which is heated with wood and used to make tortillas (an activity so common that they have a verb for it: tortillar).  Many people also have a gas stove (usually the countertop kind), which they use for other types of cooking.  In Peten, the most common foods are huevos, frijoles, y tortilla (eggs, beans, and tortilla).  This combo, maybe with a side of avocado or fried bananas, was dinner almost every night.  Lunch, the day’s biggest meal, had a more variable menu.  Hot soup was common, and once I got used to the feeling of eating steaming soup while sweating profusely, it became one of my favorite meals.  My host mom put a fried egg in chicken broth with pieces of tomato, onion, and sometimes potato or wiskil (a veggie that I don’t think we have in the states–somewhere between zucchini and potato–it’s really good), and then squeezed a lime into it.  Delicious.

People manage to prepare all this food without a dispensa (grocery store) in town. Though you could get a microbus to Santa Elena for just 7 Quetzales (less than 1 dollar) and visit the dispensa there, you and your groceries would have to share that 15-seat van with 26 fellow travelers, and whatever they happen to be carrying.  And there is no air conditioning, so you’d better hope for a window seat.

The inside of a microbus. Yes, those four men are standing in the tiny space between the back seat and the rear hatch.

If you (and your groceries) would rather not make that trip, you have a few different shopping options within San Andres.  There are a few produce shops that are open every day, and twice a week there is a small produce market along the main road.  Meat can be purchased from local butchers.  There’s no mystery meat here–pigs are slaughtered in clear view of a main road, about a block from the biblioteca. Small tiendas (stores), which are often just a room in someone’s house, are everywhere–it would be hard to walk more than a block or two in town without passing at least one.  They all sell almost exactly the same things, at almost exactly the same prices: Tortrix, which are off-brand Doritos in a smaller bag, cost 1Q (~13 cents).  Actual Doritos go for 5Q.  Packets of cookies, crackers, twinkie-like substances, Coke (or the cheaper option, Super Cola), juices, water, beer and popsicles round out the standard selection (though some places sell cooking supplies like sugar, eggs, and oil, too).

A horse grazes near the center of town. There's a trash can behind the bush on the left, but you can see the litter on the ground anyway.

Unfortunately, all this packaged food comes in…packages.  In a place where the government can’t perform even the most vital functions, public garbage collection is mostly a joke, so people deal with trash in the only ways they know how: they throw it on the ground, or they burn it.  That contributes to two major features of San Andres–the smell of burning garbage, and the constant presence of litter.  Though there are some trash cans in public places in the center of town, I almost never saw anyone go a step out of his way to use one, even if that meant dropping a wrapper a few feet from the trash can.  Even when the garbage does make it into the can, it’s often taken out again by a stray dog, so the areas around the cans are always covered in trash.

Though public spaces are without exception covered with litter, they are the setting for some great community activities.  One of the most popular is fútbol. Even the smallest towns we’ve driven through in Guatemala have public soccer fields, and San Andres is no exception.  A large field, complete with goals and covered bleachers, sits right in the middle of town, and there’s almost always someone there.  There’s a basketball court right next to it, but it’s usually also being used to play soccer.  There are organized teams, with uniforms (though I haven’t seen shin guards yet), coaches and recorded scoring.  Then there are the pickup games, which were my favorite to watch.  These are unofficially divided by age/size, but other than that they’re mostly a free for all.  Some of the players are incredibly skilled, and the spectacle is made even better by the fact that many play barefoot (on the concrete basketball court), or in European-style dress shoes, which are the norm with school uniforms, even for little boys.

The soccer field, almost deserted for once because it's about to storm.

We had an amazing time in San Andres and, for the most part, we loved all of the little things about it that I’ve mentioned so far (not the trash, obviously).  But the best difference between College Park and here–sorry, College Park, but it is a big difference–is that when you walk down the street in San Andres, you are consistently met with not just genuine friendliness, but genuine interaction.  Everyone, old ladies to little toddlers and everyone in between, will greet you with “adios,” “buenos dias,” or just “buenas.” People often sit on their doorsteps and greet every passer-by, and it’s not unusual to here  “buenas” from inside an open door or window as you pass.  But it’s more than just greetings; people actually stop and talk.  Whether it’s to ask where you’re going, where you’ve been, or if the library will be open tomorrow, walking down the street is a way of getting news, and staying connected to your neighbors.

I hope that gives you a sense of San Andres–it’s an incredible place.  If there’s anything that you’re still curious about, leave a comment!



  1. You forgot to mention the whole water thing! Showers, or lack thereof.

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