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Travels in Alta Verapaz

Guatemala, May 24, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The landslide removed the face of this mountain and took 40 lives with it a year ago. Now, the bulldozer clears the makeshift road — built along this muddy grave — every morning and every evening during the rainy season. Photo: Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Walking through the overgrowth, making our way to visit farmers. Photo: Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A farmer chops off a bunch of plantains that are larger than the average banana, presenting them to us as a gift, but we make a purchase of them. Photo: Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A wooden shack spits smoke from its open doors, and we enter the small dirt-floor café where three women are preparing cassava root fries and ground cassava sweet cakes in grease over an open fire. Photo: Kevin Grubb/Mercy Corps

It's raining again in Coban, Guatemala. Driving out to visit some communities, we come upon the apparently eternal landslide bleeding from the rain the night before, and washing out the road with its rust-red mud and boulders.

Still tumbling down the bare mountain face, the rocks crash above, leaving puffs of dust, and we keep our eyes wide open for their trajectory. The initial landslide removed the face of this mountain and took 40 lives with it a year ago. Now, the bulldozer clears the makeshift road — built along this muddy grave — every morning and every evening during the rainy season. Several trucks carrying stones wait patiently but precariously on the road just before the wash-out.

After about an hour and a half, the road is more or less passable, but the trucks cannot maneuver their long and heavy cargo down the narrow slope, and the smaller vehicles weave between the trucks and the precipice which continues to erode before our eyes. As the buses and light trucks warily make their way onto the road, many stop to give the bulldozer operator a gift: a frozen chicken, mangoes, some cash. We take a break after successfully navigating the muddy obstacle course, stopping for a desayuno tipico, a typical local breakfast, at a roadside café — fried eggs, black beans and fresh tortillas, of course.

The leader of our small band is about nine years old. He carries a machete about half his height, slashing here and there at the overgrowth for effect. Mostly, the path is clear, though. Four of us are making our way to visit some farmers participating in Mercy Corps agricultural development programs in the Alta Verapaz region.

Natural and mostly man-made disasters have pounded the inhabitants of this area since it was settled almost 20,000 years ago by the richest civilization in the world. The poverty is crushing, as the farmers make pennies to the dollar on high-value crops such as coffee and cardamom.

We meet two farmers who are collecting yucca, or cassava stems, to sell on informal markets as seed. They show us how the stems are cut and placed in the ground from which both roots and a new plant grow quite easily, the stems for future plants and the roots for consumption and sales. Mercy Corps has helped to develop the cassava root cultivation in this region, facilitating the purchase of the original stems for planting here from the south of the country.

Traditionally, many farmers have grown cardamom here — which brings a decent price per pound, although a lot of labor goes into gathering that pound. More importantly, though, cardamom is not much in the way of nutritional sustenance. We pass fields of the cassava root in various stages of growth, and the farmers are proud to show off their crops. Even my rudimentary Spanish is of no use here, as the farmers all speak Qui’che, and all I got is “antioche” to every farmer we thank for their time.

The heat is oppressive — but I seem to be the only one suffering, praying for that rain of the previous morning, which could not have soaked my shirt through any more than it already was from my own sweat. We meander through pineapple groves with behemoth fruits, and the farmers are quick to boast of the superiority of their pineapples to their neighbors’, after they have implemented new plant care techniques learned with Mercy Corps.

Over the river and through the jungle, we meet up with a plantain farmer whose father had been a guerilla leader and had received over three manzanas (two hectares) of land from the government following the conclusion of the peace accords here in 1996. The plantains were also purchased with Mercy Corps support, and grow to full maturity in only nine months. He chops off a bunch of plantains that are larger than the average banana, presenting them to us as a gift, but we make a purchase of them.

A wooden shack spits smoke from its open doors, and we enter the small dirt-floor café where three women are preparing cassava root fries and ground cassava sweet cakes in grease over an open fire. The smoke is a grim reminder of the billions of others around the world cooking hour by hour over open fires without any system of ventilation. The smoke, like the heat, bothers no one but the gringo.

The women are all shy laughter and proud to present me with a plate of food and a cup of warm coffee. The cassava fries are a hot and crispy, sweet and salty mix, rivaling any sweet potato fries in Portland’s hip joints. There is a Gallo beer ad on a poster across the way and I’m tempted to order the splendid local ale to go with the steaming fries. Kids peek around the doorframes, giggling and darting away when I catch their glance. A few of the farmers join us for some cassava cakes and we share expressions of equal joy at the flavor. The women slide the branches deeper into the fire’s embers.

The rain returns later.