It was a cold, wintry morning when my alarm clock sounded declaring it time to “rise and shine.” Blinking, looking twice and realizing it was 4:30 a.m. all I could think of was the chilly room and the covers that were so warm and toasty. After complaining to my husband for a short while, I slowly crawled out of the bed, touched my bare feet onto the carpet and made a dash to turn the heat up. Next and extremely important was coffee!
I made my way into the kitchen, turned the faucet on to fill the coffee pot, might I add still grumbling about the chill in the house. Now waiting impatiently for the coffee to brew, all the while knowing that it was time to get moving, as my flight to Mexico was scheduled for 7:30 am but the coffee pot seemed to be moving in slow motion. Having packed the night before, all that was needed was a quick shower, to throw on some clothes and get on the road.
Finally, after two flights and a two hour drive into the mountains, I arrived in the mystical city of San Cristobal de la Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Exhausted after a long day of travel and knowing the next morning was also going to be an early call, I was delighted to grab a quick dinner and get some sleep.
After a good night’s rest and thrilled to be in a warmer place, it was time to made my way up to get ready for the day. Today, I would meet with clients of our microfinance partner that worked in Chiapas. As CEO of a nonprofit funding small loans to women, I traveled often to meet the clients. It was a rewarding career and I felt good to bring “opportunity” to women. Many of whom live on less than a dollar or two a day.
Right on time, the driver pulled up to the hotel and I began my journey back into time. Clients living in the Highlands of Chiapas were indigenous people of Maya descent. Many still live much as their ancestors had lived 5,000 years ago. Their homes are built with mud and straw, floors of dirt, with no running water. They have open fire pits inside providing heat as well as a place to cook their food.
After many turns and constantly climbing higher into the mountains, we arrived at the first meeting for the day. It was there I would meet a shy woman named Ana Maria. We gathered to visit and wait for the other women to arrive.
She began offering small cups of what appeared to be a strong coffee. Knowing that they had no access to clean water, I was hesitant to accept, thinking of how to politely decline. Then, our translator began to explain, “It is very rare to be offered anything as they have so little. For Ana Maria to be able to offer you this small cup, she had to rise at 5:00. She then had to walk several miles to gather water. Then she had to walk back those miles carrying the heavy buckets. She would then gather wood, build a fire , and boil water to make her small pot of coffee. Finally, with great pride, she offers you this small gift…but a gift of sacrifice”.
Thinking back to the day before and how I had complained about the early morning and the chill in the room, I was ashamed and humbled by Ana Maria. Soon the other women arrived and we began the meeting where they would make payments on their small loans. As the roll was called, one woman, Enriquetta did not answer. Ana Maria quickly explained that she was absent today because her baby had passed away. Enriqueta’s child had died from something very simple that back home could have been easily treated, so tragic.
Next a woman named Itzel was called but did not answer. Someone in the corner whispered that Itzel was too ashamed to attend because she sold her daughter to an older woman who had no children. When asked why…her friend replied “She had nothing else to sell to feed her other children”. The room suddenly became silent. There were many languages spoken in this group, English, Spanish, Tzotzil, Jacaltec and others…but no one spoke a word. Our hearts were simply broken. If I had ever wondered if our small loans could really make life better for these women, that day my question was answered. It was aloud and clear “yes” and we must do much more. Two more days, many more stories and it was time to leave.
On the flight home I thought of Ana Maria, Enriquetta and Itzel and their lives. If not but for an accident of birth…their life could have been my life. I wondered if I could be the strong woman that each of them became given all of their challenges, could I do what they do…the answer was not clear at all. Suddenly, the title of “CEO” had little meaning compared to what these women had accomplished. Most were wives and mothers by 14 or 15, living extremely difficult lives. They were raising children and working from before dawn to dusk. The most amazing thing of all…in spite of the hardships, they still had joy.
Merriam-Webster defines strength as “the ability to resist being moved or broken by a force”. I am not all sure I would be strong enough to live their lives. They made me treasure every little detail of mine. I traveled to the mountains to bring them opportunity…but I was the one on the receiving end. Recalling my reluctance to take that small cup of coffee made with unclean water, I am now so thankful that I accepted her small gift of sacrifice. I know now that it may have been the best cup of morning coffee I ever had…sweetened with gratitude.
Photos are of Chiapas home & microfinance clients in the Highlands of Chiapas