Smoke related disease and fire related deaths are some of the major health problems in Guatemala, due to the fact that most indigenous families cook over a fire... inside their house.

It's really not very safe, or healthy at all, and time consuming because they're constantly collecting firewood so they can cook (can you imagine gathering wood every time you made a meal? Annoying!)

Today we are going to change (or at least improve) that situation for one family.

We leave the house around 8:40 a.m. and walk to the parada to catch a ride to Patanatic, a small aldea that's perched on the mountain above Panajachel.

Riding the microbus is always an adventure. Since kids ride for free, you have to make them fit where ever they can.

This is the very old man that I sat next to. I'm always awed by these venerable Guatemalans. They're tougher than I'll ever be. As I sit next to him in my jeans with my expensive camera, I think about how vastly different our lives are. He probably hikes these highlands everyday, planting and harvesting onions or corn until the day he dies.

Once we reach Patanatic, we start our climb. These stairs begin right off the highway.

Steep, soooo steep.

We pass houses like this, perched on the perpendicular mountainside. These people make the climb up and down these stairs and trails everyday, sometimes 3 or 4 times a day!

We keep climbing, now in the monte. I think we're lost.

It flattens out some when we reach a cornfield.

A beautiful view of Panajachel, and one of the volcanoes... Greg(s), you'll know which one, but not I.

We ask for directions, and are led back down the hill (on a different trail)...

through another cornfield...

another beautiful view...

finally we've found it!

Our friends are already here, and the installation of the ONIL stove is nearly complete. I guess getting lost spared us from carrying the heavy stove parts up the steep mountain. 😉

This is where our friends have cooked their meals for the past 25 years. There's no efficient way for the smoke to escape, so it just fills up the room, burning your throat and stinging your eyes. Smoke inhalation and other disease and injury from cooking over fires like this is one of the leading causes of death in Guatemala.

It also requires a large amount of leña to cook this way, meaning that the family has to go into the woods and collect firewood every few days.

With this uniquely engineered ONIL stove, the smoke is carried out of the house, and it burns more efficiently, usine 50-70% less leña than a traditional fire/stove.

All in place.

I love this lady!

Atlas has no interest in being held.

This pila is where they wash their dishes, laundry, bathe, etc.


The Cosejua family. They have two more children that are away from home serving missions for their church.

Flies. I have a thing against flies. At our house in Pana, I've become the fly nazi, walking around swatting them with ninja-like moves. There was a lot of flies. Like hundreds, maybe thousands. I think I handled it very well.

The kids think they will try and start the fire.

But finally the expert takes over.

Then she teaches the kids how to make tortillas. I still don't know how she can make them so round and thin and even. It's some type of magic.

You can tell which ones the kids made, a.k.a. - not so round.

But the new stove isn't getting hot enough. The tortillas aren't cooking fast enough. And she has two biggringo families to feed. So she goes back to what she knows and lights up the old stove, filling the 'kitchen' with smoke. Our eyes burn and we can't breath. She is accustomed to the smoke, and stands cooking tortillas for 45 minutes without a breath of fresh air.

Meanwhile, we're all a little nervous that the brand new stove is a fail. Too often, when humanitarian work is provided for 'poor', 'third world' countries, the result is that more trouble is caused than help is given. That's because, without knowledge of tradition, history and culture, we come in with some brand new solution to their problems that they never end up using.

It reminds me of the story about the expensive North Face coats that were sent to natural disaster victims in Tibet. Instead of being used to keep warm (as was intended), the Tibetans burned them to cook their food. They already knew how to stay warm in extreme weather, but they didn't have any fuel to prepare meals.

When trying to help, we have to be sure we're providing a solution that is actually needed and wanted.

These people have been cooking over open fires for generations. Will a new-fangled stove that requires a different technique and regular maintenance, actually be used? Or will it be to hard for the leopard to change it's spots, and the old way be religiously held to despite the negative health effects (that they may not be cognitive of anyway).

We'd already heard of these same stoves being dismantled and used for parts, while the owners return to cooking over a fire on the floor. Will this stove have the same fate?

I move out to the fresh air at the pila to cut my tomatoes.

Gregorio Uno and Gregorio Dos (Greg Jensen and Greg Denning) brave the smoke (and get emotional) to get the new stove working. The consensus on why it isn't functioning so well? The sand that is used to insulate and hold the heat is probably wet. It needs to dry out.

Finally it's hot enough that we can grill the meat.


The finished product. Delicioso!

Perhaps it was the Gregorios' perseverance, or maybe just the good food, but the family tells us they're committed to going 'cold turkey' on the other stove and figuring out how to use this. They also plan on re-educating others who also have an ONIL stove, but don't use it, to help get them back into operation again.

Atlas is ornery, and ready for a nap. I decide it's time to go.

Down the mountain we scale...

passing their 'bathroom' along the way. Maybe we'll have to do something about that next time.

Back onto the public transpo to Panajachel.

And then a tuk tuk ride to the house. All in a days work.



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20 Responses

  1. Carol Kaatz

    Good insight on humanitarian work…new ways are not always easy to adjust to, but with persistence and education, the transition can be made. Kudos to them for having two missionaries out! Wow!
    I loved how you took us step by step through the day.
    Love you all!

  2. Gregorio Uno

    I like the article, good insight into the idea of are we really improving someone else’s life, or are we just making ourselves feel better. By the way, the volcano in the picture is the San Pedro Volcano.

  3. tereza crump aka MyTreasuredCreations

    Here is my question: I wonder if instead of us trying to change what WE think would be an improvement on their lives, we asked them what THEY would like to be changed? I wonder if we wouldn’t be surprised at how small their request would be.

    PS: My daughter is waiting on Kyah’s email. She will write back and introduce herself, but for now you can check a bit about her by reading this post

  4. Nora

    I’d like to recommend two books:

    Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 day and

    When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor & Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

  5. Ward Luthi

    Love the work you’re doing. The ONIL stove is an excellent one. Keep up the great example you’re setting. My best, Ward

  6. Michael Wolfe

    My family and I will be traveling to HN in a few months. Our Chevy Express 3500 van has a GVW greater than allowed to permit in Mexico. I saw that you have a large Ford pick up with a GVW similar to our van. Did Mexico give you any problems?

      • Michael Wolfe

        Hate to keep bugging you, but assuming you had a fair amount of personal possesions with you, did you cross on a tourist visa or “transmigrante”? I’m having a very hard time getting a straight answer on all this, so thought it best to ask someone who’s done it. I love reading your blog. We’ll be in Siguatepeque, HN by New Year’s. If you come through there be sure to look us up.

      • Rachel

        Because we were passing through Mexico, we got a transmigrante vehicle permit. The biggest thing to remember with your vehicle permit is when you leave Mexico, you need to make sure to get your deposit back. When you enter the country, you have to pay a deposit, and when you leave, you need to remember to get it back by ‘canceling’ your permit.

  7. A King's Life

    When we stayed in the Mayan Village in Belize, open wood fires were used in the cooking house. But the construction of their houses was with really high ceilings, allowing the smoke to rise and saving our lungs.
    I hope this family uses the stove….great job.

  8. Melinda

    Great post! Do you guys just buy the stoves somewhere local, or do you have to have them shipped in? Do you personally fund the stoves or are they donated? Are you guys the ones that head this up or is it your friends? We would like to help fund one if possible. (We’ll let you do all the heavy lifting.) Haha!

    • Rachel

      Our friends bought the stove through a local non-profit – Mayan Families. This organization does a lot of stove installations, as well as elderly feeding programs, preschools, etc. If you want to fund one, we’ll be happy to install it for you. 😉


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