by Lois Hardt

BioEsfera Project Essays


 				   Que lindo se ve de noche
				   Mi Petén está encantado
				   Parece su perla un broche
				   En un cristal desencantado

				   How beautiful it looks at night
				   My Petén is enchanted
				   Its pearl resembles a brooch
				   In a disenchanted crystal.
					Traditional song of the Petén
This was the setting, but not the whole picture. For the thirteen members of the Bio-Esfera Project, home away for close to a week did lie on a hillside overlooking sparkling aquamarine waters. The sky was beauti ful and the stars at night were too numerous to count. Yet, this was not "home" and we had a lot to learn, about ourselves as well as what we'd come to see.

How lovely and quaint, we thought, as our "lancha" (launch) approached the northern shore of Lake Petén Itza. As we closed in on our destination, we found smiling people on the dock waiting to greet us. We were the naive western spectators come to interact with the Guatemalans on their home turf. We'd come to learn their language and become more cognizant of the dangers facing the world's rainforests.

Very quickly did we come to know that the beauty of rustic living is frought with discomfort in such a place as San Andres, a topographically multi-leveled village of several hundred modest families with livestock: chickens, pigs, dogs, and an occasional horse. "Travel light," we were told, and by our standards we had. Yet moving uphill lugging two heavy bags and a knapsack was quite a feat for middle-aged women out of shape. Cars? didn't see a one that day. "You might be faced with less than ideal l iving conditions," people said. I could handle that. Flashlights in outhouses were o.k. by me. I was a camper. However, I was not ready for M*A*S*H style showers in public. I'd rather stay dirty or wash in the lake. As for the roosters crowing and t he dogs conversing at 4:20 each morning, I was taken completely off guard.

As the week sped past, I came to realize that these little inconveniences were nothing . What was important was the sharing of experiences with those around us, with members of our group as well as with our Guatemalan neighbors. That's the way you buil d ties and they promote understanding and friendship on all fronts.

Here is an Andrés as I experienced it.

Each day was tortillas and smiles, pig families lying in the dust, Lake Petén Itza, Spanish talk, Mirinda soft drinks, choco-bananas, and "Yankee" the dog... Juanita's boyfriend was on the porch visiting again last night, sweet young man... W e washed our hair in the lake today... A cockroach visited me in the outhouse... "My" families' children liked the fast-food toys I brought from Houston, and one almost cried when he lost his to the lake...The chicleros must have been through here because there were machete cross-hatchings on a tree. Their life is hard. Senor Chi, my "father" for the week, was a chiclero until he had an operation...Gloria took Juanita's place today at the table with me. The food is always good and never too much. They don't "stuff" here... Marcela gave me a seed necklace from Ixchel, a women's center that is working hard to preserve a section of the rainforest. How generous of her...The members of our Bio-Esfera group have much to offer and want so much to do their best for our Rice School kids...The lig hts went off for a while this evening, something wrong with "la planta," they said. Sometimes the water goes out, too, and is only on anyway from around 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We get running water at our school, Eco-Escuela, where we study Spanish four hours a day, but not at the Chis', except for a garden hose hooked to the town supply...Three chickens live in my backyard, but I never see them at night...Mrs. Esther Chi spends many hours making different kinds of tortillas in the tortilla shed... Life is sim ple here, but follows a strict routine: Esther is up at 4:30 to start the wood fire. Juanita wakes at 6:30. The children head down to school around 7 a.m. All are in bed by 9 p.m...I don't know when the others eat at the Chis'; I always eat separately with Juanita, who doesn't say much. I initiate the conversations in my "best" Spanish, asking her questions. She always answers succinctly and corrects my words. She'd make a precise, although taciturn, school marm, and she's only 18... For an unusual ly short time today Carlos, Marcela and I tried our hand at manoeuvering a Mayan dugout canoe. We failed miserably to the great delight of the spectators on shore... Telma, my language teacher, took me to see the "montículo" down the hill from the school just above the lake. It is a high mound of earth that was formed through the centuries over a stone pedestal that was once the base of a thatched home belonging to a Mayan family... Rosamaria got sick. Saundra took her to a hotel in Flores so th at she could get well for the return flight... Señora Chi and Juanita came to the dock at 5:30 a.m. to wave me back to Texas our last morning in the Petén Tikal was a tourist thing; San Andres is life.

For me the most important result of the trip, over and above the improvement of language and increased knowledge about rainforests, was the friendships formed, in particular with my 12 colleagues from the Rice School. When you have experienced a uniqu e camaraderie with a special group of people for nine days, it is impossible to let it go and say it's over. So many hours spent together working, sharing, worrying, laughing, picture-taking, studying, eating, traveling, sleeping, shopping, talking, wait ing, walking (always up?) together. We will always be part of the Bio-Esfera Project, thanks to "el jefe" Carlos Solís.

Postscript: Not until I was back secure in my house in Houston did I learn that less than two weeks before our arrival in Guatemala, an American doctor had been murdered about 12 kilometers from where we stayed in San Andres. I'm glad I didn't know tha t at the time.

Edited by Carlos R. Solís