The water might have amoebas

All twelve of the DukeEngage students in Guatemala climbed on to a camioneta, a Guatemalan Chicken Bus. Parents who read the Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala told us that we should never set foot on one of these things, and yet on our first day in the country, we were squished together riding to a small village named Magdalena.

A Chicken Bus is like a reformed school bus that most of us used in elementary school, except that it is decked out with Latin music and people store their live chickens on the shelves above the seats. Locals bring all kinds of stuff onto this bus. In fact, just yesterday one of the DukeEngagers sat next to a man with a machete.

In the U.S., we generally sit at maximum two people per seat, and no one stands in the aisle. Guatemalans have no such concept of personal space-people sit together with at least three people per seat and there is no room in the aisle. It is a great place for pick-pocketing, because people are literally packed like sardines. Imagine how uncomfortable the bus is when everyone is soaking wet from Guatemalan tropical storms.

We each spent our first night with our homestay family, and the next morning we road the Chicken Bus back into work. I live with the Batista family, apparently one of the most prominent village families. My host mother, Doña Raquel is from a family of 10 children and my host father is one of six. And another one of the DukeEngagers met the Batista grandfather, who claims to have 53 grandchildren.

I am the only DukeEngager who did not know Spanish seven days ago, and that first night with my host family, none of whom speak English, was spent with a dictionary and lots of hand signals. I spent most of my time smiling and nodding.

Miscommunication is common. I learned yesterday that for the past week I have been saying "Yo tengo veinte anos," which literally means "I have twenty assholes," instead of the correct "Yo tengo veinte años," which translates to "I am twenty years old."

Our first two weeks in the program are spent studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, living with homestays and preparing for our fieldwork. We are members of Soluciones Comunitarias, a nonprofit company whose mission is to encourage a socially responsible business climate in Guatemala.

The program leaders use the famous Chinese proverb to describe the program: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Traditional "relief" and international aid can be compared to "giving of fish," whereas "teaching someone to fish" is "development" assistance.

Deciding when to use development and went to use relief can be a tough call. For instance, places devastated by Hurricane Katrina needed relief, and many rural environments in Guatemala need development.

Soluciones Comunitarias focuses primarily on development and trains local entrepreneurs to sell products that many people in the U.S. take for granted. The five main products sold by the entrepreneurs are water purifiers, reading glasses, vegetable seed, energy efficient light bulbs and wood stoves. In many villages, people have no access to these products, and the market opportunity is vast.

As Duke Engagers, we have a unique opportunity to be a combined student and consultant. We are learning the cultural differences, making mistakes in Spanish, and riding the Chicken Bus. We are also acquainted with some effective business practices and can provide labor for their projects.

Considering that I have already consumed an entire bottle of Pepto-Bismol in six days, perhaps I can start by introducing some of these products to my village. Food washed in the local water can carry amoebas and stomach-upsetting bacteria.

A water purifier would be a healthy addition to the households in Magdalena.

Andrea Coravos is a Trinity junior. Her column will run every other Thursday over the summer.


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