April 16, by Katja / FIRST DAY IN THE VILLAGE

First night

Finally sweaty heat turned into the fresh air. It was our first night in the village. For many of us it was probably one of the most unusual nights ever. We were sleeping in the traditional hand made hammocks in the village of Maya people near the largest biosphere reserve forest in Latin America. The night turned to be surprisingly chilly. From time to time we could hear dogs barking and around 5 am, we were woken up by the amazingly loud voices of hundreds of roosters, turkeys and some identified birds.

The sun started to arise and our host family members woke up too. I had a feeling that the team woke up a bit confused. Is this happening for real? Are we here? But normal morning routines took over and step by step we started our first day in El 20.

Early morning walk / photo credit Katja
Early morning walk / photo credit Katja

First day

Our Indian guy Anuj refused to give us yoga-classes saying that being Indian doesn’t actually yet mean you’re an expert on that. But we still managed to have few asanas with the guidance of our Vietnamese girl Trang.

Step into the warrior!
Step into the warrior!

And after the breakfast whole team gathered at the basketball field of the village for the first session together. Our mentors prepared a nice exercise for us. We were asked to describe and to draw the process of going to the toilet. Yes. In details. It was important to pay attention to every action and visualize them all. In the end each of us presented the story of this intimate process to all. Since this moment there were no more secrets within the team members!

This is how I do
This is how I do “it”. / photo © Jan Ahlstedt/ALM 2015

This exercise was important. We do a lot of things unconsciously and take many of them for granted. To be able to design something useful, you first need to be aware of the process and its complexity. Describing the process to somebody makes it more tangible and understandable to yourself too.


Ready to rock / photo credit Katja

After the exercise sanitation team started to prepare the interviews. We called this phase co-understanding. It’s when you build a common understanding of situation together with someone, you ask questions and you are asked questions, you go through the process step by step and you leave no assumptions.

With the interviews we aimed at getting answers on the main topics:

  • water usage
  • sanitation system
  • shower room facilities and practice

How do villagers use the water in general? What does water mean to them? Where do they take it. What about the sanitation? Are they satisfied with the toilets and showers they have? What would they change if they had a chance?

We had to think of how to approach the villagers, how to involve them into the interview process, how to make this sensitive subject of sanitation acceptable? So we started with the brainstorming session. “Throw your brains out!” – that was a suggestion from our mentors. Well, we decided to dance it out.

Toilet dance by Alan
Toilet dance by Alan

“Two steps to the left, two steps to the right, now shake your butt, shake your butt!!!” Alan gracefully danced out how you go to the toilet. By fooling around, having fun and dancing out the process we figured out that if we will be the first to share our experience with the villagers and if we make it fun, the whole subject will be less scary. In the end we all are humans.

After the fun part we did some serious brainstorming. With post-its. Each of us wrote down as many questions we thought we might ask as possible. Then we clustered them and chose the optimal ones. We also agreed on the process of the interviews and discussed what should we pay attention to. To be able to do as many interviews as we can we divided ourselves into the smaller groups and pairs. Each group had at least one Spanish speaking person who asked the questions and translated. Others wrote down the answers, took pictures and observed the environment for the intangible details.

Planning interviwes

Meanwhile the water team built field laboratory and prepared the equipment for the next day water testing. Empty bottles were collected and waiting to be filled with households concrete tank, Rotoplast-container or the well water. We divided the map of the village into sectors and assigned from where does each team take water samples.

Water team being serious /  photo credit Katja
Water team being serious / photo credit Katja
Field lab. +33C / photo credit Katja
Field lab. +33C / photo credit Katja

The kids

It seemed to be quite ready for the next working day, we just had to gather together and to go through the plan but at this point something unexpected happened. We run into the bunch of local kids. Next 3 hours we spent rushing around the football field with them, playing, shouting, sweating, laughing, eating candies and being so honestly happy as maybe last time in our own childhood.

Las Niñas / photo credit Katja
Las Niñas / photo credit Katja
Catch me if you can!  / photo credit Katja
Catch me if you can! / photo credit Katja
Running with the kids / photo credit Katja
Running with the kids / photo credit Katja
Who's the strongest? / photo credit Katja
Who’s the strongest? / photo credit Katja

When the sun started to set down, everyone got exhausted and photographers started to run out of the batteries in their cameras, we sat down on the grass and chat with kids. It was a mix of topics and languages. We were learning.

“Do you want to learn some Mayan?” – charismatic girl Keyla, who seemed to be the leader, asked us.

“Of course!” – we were excited.

“I teach you, say: “Macachi pal!” – Keyla shouted.

“Macachi pal?”

“Yes, Macachi pal ! – she shouted again laughing.

“Ok, what does it mean?”

“It means: Shut up, boy!”

We laughed.

Keyla / photo  © Jan Ahlstedt/ALM 2015
Keyla / photo © Jan Ahlstedt/ALM 2015
Learning Mayan language. / photo credit Katja
Learning Mayan language. / photo by local kids

We thought it’s very important to build this bind with the local kids. First of all they are just great. And it’s important to involve them into the process of understanding their own possibilities, because in the end they are the future of El20.

As people from different cultures, we think we are too different, when in reality we are so much alike. We had a unique opportunity to prove this to ourselves. Instead of being afraid of differences we should emphasize similarities and build more co-understanding and empathy. And that’s the beauty of our ALM project to me.

After the dinner, when all of us finally calmed down, it got quite. You could hear only the cicadas and random shouts of some night birds. And again hammocks slowly swinging sent us to sleep. Our first day in the village came to its end.

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