About three weeks ago a woman from Holland arrived in Casas Viejas. Carolina Verhoeven was her name and she came for one week to teach the women of my town how to make jam from local fruit. Carolina is a Senior Expert in a Dutch organization called PUM. She was solicited by a Maria, a well-to-do native Guatemalan who now lives in Canada but migrates back to Guatemala during the northern winter months. From what I could gather, Maria and her husband are philanthropists during their Guatemalan “summer break”, traveling the country doing good deeds in hospitals, in schools and with women’s groups.
Maria told me that this project is her little brain child. She has a house in Casas Viejas and over the years has noticed an abundance of fruit going to waste in the area. Mangos rotting on the ground (what a shame), morros falling from trees only to be eaten by hungry pigs and mariñones, the fruit from cashew trees, being completely overlooked by the local population. She wanted to find a way to use these resources and boost the local economy and thus decided to teach women how to make jams from the fruit.
About a month before, I had heard of this woman from Don Edgar, “There is a foreign lady coming that only speaks English and wants to package fruit, here is her email and phone number, you should contact her.” I followed his directions, emailed the contact (who happened to be Maria not Carolina) but got no response. I forgot about the whole thing until three Wednesdays ago when Loyda, one of the female socios in my Cooperative, came by the tienda and invited me to go with her to meet the Holandesa (Dutch woman).
I walked with a group of women ushering their children while toting sun umbrellas to the outskirts of town. During the trip I received three comments on how fast I walk, “Annalisa likes to exercise, don’t you Annalisa?” We ended up at a house off a beaten path about 15 minutes from the town center. The house, belonging to Maria and her husband, was surrounded by bouganvilleas. I love bouganvilleas. The house itself was quaint with high ceilings allowing for cool airflow (airflow is a luxury here). The decor (for the few of you that care) was uniquely Guatemalan with a touch of the finer things, flowers in vases, stained shutters, cool ceramic floors, a tiled chair rail, etc. I was in heaven.
It was here that I met Maria and Carolina. Carolina didn’t speak a lick of Spanish so I was a comforting presence for her. Maria managed the ladies and served as translator. The previous day they had spent making jam, pineapple, noni with mariñon, mango, coconut, morro, orange. All the colorful jars filled with the fruit concoctions were lined up on the kitchen table. I quickly learned, to my delight, that I had arrived on taste test day. The group surrounded the table, Carolina, Maria, about thirteen local women and me. One by one we tasted the jams to see which recipes turned out the best and which needed adjusting. I, of course, liked the mango the best.
I had to leave early to work on inventory at the tienda but I promised the women I would accompany them on Saturday when they were going to learn how to make pastries.
Saturday at 2PM five of the women led by Loyda arrived unexpectedly at my house. I invited them into my courtyard where they gathered around me in my hammocks and plastic chairs. I had no idea what they wanted from me. Then Loyda started shooting off questions, “We were wondering if you could explain how the Holandesa came here, did Maria have to pay for her plane ticket? Where is she getting the €2,500 she said she could use to buy us equipment? Could you ask her to use the money to get us a stove? Can you work with us during your two years here? You are one of us now right?” I explained to them the nature of Carolina’s work, “She is with a foreign foundation that has funds for projects like the one here in Casas Viejas. No, Maria hasn’t paid to get Carolina here, but she did work on the solicitation. Yes, I will find out if Carolina can use some of the funds to purchase a stove for the group. And it would be my pleasure to work with this group during my two years here.” After I finished answering all their questions it was time to go make pastries. I began locking up my house, closed and bolted the back door and was locking the front door when Doña Mari (the wife of Don Simon the Coop’s treasurer) came up to me all schemey-like and pulled me aside, “Will you ask Carolina if I can have her computer?”
“What computer?”, I asked, a bit startled.
“She said she was leaving all of her equipment and I saw she has a nice computer. Can you ask her if I can have her computer for my kids? But don’t tell anyone else that you are asking.” She urged while peering past me into my house (I assume she was checking out my goods too.)
I think I may have turned red with embarrassment for her. Carolina had come on her free time to teach the women how to make jam, she was bringing knowledge and start-up funds to get the project off the ground and now Mari wanted her personal computer? Was she going to ask for the shirt off her back too? How greedy. “I’ve gotta keep my eye on this one”, I thought to myself. Luckily, the other women in the group don’t have the same mentality. I told Mari I would ask about the computer but never did.
Aside from this small uncomfortable incident I left my house with the women overwhelmed with excitement for this new endeavor. What gave me the most pleasure was the fact that this group of women had just come to me to ask “secret” questions about Carolina. It showed me that they would rather come to me to clarify their doubts instead of asking Maria. They trusted me more because they saw me as one of them and this was a huge accomplishment for me as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Fast forward two weeks to yesterday. I met with the group for the first time since we made pastries. Six of the original thirteen had decided to move forward with the venture. We convened at Loyda’s house to make our first batch of jam without Carolina. The idea was to make product to sell locally during the Semana Santa holiday when the area is flush with tourists and Guatemalans from the city. Coconut jam, pineapple jam, mango jam, noni and marinon jam, orange jelly and tamarindo jam. We started at 2PM. The steps are as follows: cut up and blend the fruit, add the sugar and pectin, boil the mixture, fill sanitized jars and repeat. The women worked swiftly in their aprons and hair nets (Carolina taught them some sanitary practices too). By 5:30PM we had 72 jars of jam. During the process I had worked with them to get costs down- how much the fruit, sugar, pectin cost, how much each jar cost, how much wood and gas was used, how many hours of labor etc. After doing all the calculations each jar of jam cost about Q8.50 (approx. $1) to produce. They agreed to sell them each jar for Q13.
After clean-up the women decided to make their group official by voting in the directors. They first asked if i’d be president. Flattering yes, but I gladly declined, saying that I couldn’t be on the board but that I will be their “volunteer”. They chose Loyda as president. There were five of them left and they still needed to appoint vice president, secretary and treasurer. No one else wanted a position. They had to draw titles out of a hat to fill the remaining seats. I cautioned them that they should elect someone who understands math to be the treasurer and someone that can write to be the secretary. Some titles were traded and the board was finalized. As their volunteer, I have been tasked with making the labels before their first sales route on Saturday. So I taught myself how to use indesign and whipped up the above label last night (notice the bouganvilleas- little personal touch).
As I was leaving Loyda’s house I told the women that I wanted to buy a jar of mango, one of tamarindo and another of coconut jam. I explained with a smile, “ Not only will I be your volunteer but I’ll also be your best customer.”