Diagram of the human stomach.Among friends and family I’m known for an especially healthy appetite; my brother even chuckles out the nickname “tapeworm” when he sees me in front of an elephant-sized bowl of cereal or a third helping at dinner (as in “hey, tapeworm, slow down there”). So one of the hardest things for me to adjust to, when Lacey and I arrived in Guatemala, was the sudden, drastic reduction in food intake.

The first meal of the day is usually my favorite, but during our first two weeks in Guatemala, our economical, middle-class host family served just one of two breakfasts at the metal table in their small kitchen: a bowl of very watery oatmeal (called “mosh”) or a pair of (tasty but small) pancakes. I bought a carton of whole milk each week and left it in the refrigerator at our Spanish school, chugging at it like a desperate newborn before class started every morning. Still, by the time our 10:30 break rolled around and fried-food vending Indigena women coasted into the courtyard in saintly procession, I was ready to fall at their feet. Three hours later, lunchtime came too late to avoid sharp stomach pains, and the dent made by almuerzo was usually temporary. By the time dinner rolled around (typically smaller than lunch here) I was feeling lightheaded and sometimes dizzy. It’s important to note that this wasn’t all due to my appetite; we were also adjusting to life above 8,000 feet, attending brain-bursting one-on-one Spanish lessons for 5 hours each morning, trekking uphill on foot and bicycle for an hour most afternoons to teach small rowdy children in a different language, and hiking in the hills or trekking around the city on the weekends (and yes, in retrospect we should have attempted only about half of this for the first week or two). Still, for two weeks, hunger was a more frequent companion than I can ever remember it being in my life. And this without accounting for thirst, which mounted its attack more subtly; early on, our host family quietly warned us away from the water jug with any kind of bottle or screw-top receptacle, since the potable water (agua pura) was too expensive to drink outside meals and bedtime.

A typical rural tienda, usually selling soda, candy, chips, and further behind the counter, milk and eggs.But if my hunger (and thirst) taught me one thing, it was to keep my mouth shut and be deeply thankful for the privilege of my appetite. Malnutrition here is pervasive, especially among children. An estimated 50% of children under 5 in Guatemala are under-height for their age, and a tragic 70% of indigenous children suffer from malnutrition, accounting for a large part of the 24% of the country’s overall population who are malnourished. Many rural kids especially are simply too poor to get enough food; closer to urban centers, children in poverty are given small food allowances by overworked parents, which the kids spend quickly on the chips and candy that are a staple of local stalls and tiendas (shops). Many of the children Lacey and I teach — sweet, crazy, and very bright kids — have visible rot at the roots of their teeth. Not a single one is overweight. The water problem doesn’t help, either; those too poor to buy agua pura or enough gas to boil must bombard their bodies with unhealthy bacteria from the tap.

Luis spins yarn.Just over a week ago, the day after we left our homestay, Lacey and I visited a family outside Momostenango, a rural pueblo and major center of wool production about an hour and a half by bus from Xela. We had scheduled the visit to get a firsthand look at the family’s small fourth-generation weaving business and, presumably, to buy something. In order to meet us at 8 a.m., Alma rode the bus an hour and a half into the city before riding right back with us to her house. There we were treated to a comprehensive look at the family’s all-natural weaving business, now in its third generation: four looms under a large tin awning, basic, well-worn carding and spinning tools nearby, spools of colorful wool hanging from the wall,Lacey works the loom (slowly). a display of the berries, bark, leaves and other natural materials used to dye the yarn (unlike some others, the Alvarados use no chemical dyes), and several healthy-looking children working the looms. Luis proudly explained that half the children went to school in the morning and the others in the afternoons; although he can read and write little, he is determined to put all his children through school (and two are now about to enter high school, not a common feat here).

When we had gotten to spin a little wool, try the looms, take pictures of each other, and buy a gorgeous rug and wall hanging, we were treated to lunch. I wasn’t used to this kind of meal: served in a cozy kitchen of mud bricks and cooked over a small wood fire, I was encouraged to take second, third, and fourth helpings. Our offer to pay for the food was waved away; in fact, we were subsequently treated to a tour of town, Tortillas on the fire.invited to come back and stay for a weekend, and loaded onto the bus with smiles and waves by Luis and two of his sons. It’s hard to know what our purchases accounted for, but there is no doubt that the kindness of the Alvarados was genuine.

Like our host family in Xela, the Alvarados aren’t wealthy, and clearly they also think carefully about food. But in the rural setting outside Momostenango, this care took on a different aspect: ten or fifteen years ago the Alvarados had to build a new house further down the hill from the road, because their chickens (now running through the yard and in and out of the kitchen) were being killed by buses careening into town. The whole family and some extended family pitched in to help build, and the new house is really a small complex that includes a couple bedrooms, a family room, the weaving pavilion, an outdoor courtyard, and the kitchen. And this, as much as anything, may explain why we were able to eat so heartily here: the Alvarados’ generosity seemed to come from a sense of family, from the assumption that those in the house were meant to be provided for, first and foremost.

Ultimately, the urban and rural families who took us in are much better off than most, which makes my own hunger all the more telling. In Guatemala, malnutrition and poverty (the latter sometimes unofficially estimated closer to 80% than the official 60% figure I mentioned in a previous post) go hand in hand. Those who do not have land to farm, chickens to raise, or city work that puts food on the table are hurt further by the rising price of corn, a critical staple here that is now being exported more and more frequently to “green” western nations eager to meet emissions targets. Markets like the giant San Francisco El Alto, located halfway between Xela and Momostenango, are a gorgeous press of smell, sound, and color, but they also reveal the hunger problem in new ways: mothers and barefoot children ride buses for hours to set up camp between the larger stalls and sell from two or three baskets of dusty peaches or peppers, or from cartons of candy and cigarettes, while many of the animals for sale in the livestock area display their bones at sharp angles through their skin.

Still, it is in these markets, and in tiny businesses like the Alvarados’, that some feel the hopes of Guatemala’s rural poor and malnourished lie: fair trade co-ops, fincas (shared farms) and exporting businesses could bypass profit-hungry middlemen and better connect Guatemalan tradespeople both to the outside world and to each other. This hope is visionary, especially in the context of rule by a wealthy minority, but among the Maya especially there is a conviction that eventual progress will come only from below. For now, there is a sense of urgency to this dream: if a tipping point can be reached before another decade goes by, the children of Guatemala’s children may no longer have to go hungry.

4 thoughts on “Hungry

  • September 19, 2007 at 6:31 pm
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    This is a wonder piece, Ethan! It gives me at least an inkling of the desperate and beautiful country you’re in. I wish I could see it with the two of you; hey, I’m never hungry these days! (Chemo and radiation are the cause of this; I can’t claim any virtue on this point.) I’d love to do photography there, though I think this would bring it’s own set of problems, as the camera gear would look a bit, ah, ostentatious. Your prose is the lens for your readers. Let us see more.

    Much love,
    Uncle Rob

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  • September 20, 2007 at 9:10 am
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    Hi Ethan,

    Great stuff! I like the photos. More people should have this kind of experience – especially Americans. I suspect just a very few of us have ever had to spend the day with gnawing hunger pangs, which gradually crowd out every other preoccupation and cripple the mind.

    I’d be interested if you are getting a feel for the kind of agriculture that exists in Guatemala. It must be conditioned by the mountains – I didn’t realize the country was so high in elevation, at least the part where you are. There are poor countries where most people get enough to eat (although not necessarily the right balance of nutrients) simply because the land is very productive, like Thailand or Indonesia, and even Egypt, which has a lot of poverty. But this definitely doesn’t seem to be the case where you are.

    Keep up the good work. Obviously you are getting a whole different kind of education!

    Rgds Peter K

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  • September 20, 2007 at 8:48 pm
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    Great to hear from the uncles! And Peter, you reminded me: I keep meaning to mention somewhere that it is common to see corn growing over 10 or 12 feet high here! In fact, rural land in this area is heavily farmed, but I have yet to see anything in the way of farming machinery, including irrigation (although I have seen a couple old tractor engines running cement mixers at the edge of town). And the mountains do restrict agricultural production; while some fields seem to defy physics against steep slopes, most of the mountainsides remain uncultivated and are simply logged by hand for firewood.

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