A simple life

Pedro is a 74-year-old Ixil Mayan Indian living in a village high in the Cuchumatanes mountains of Guatemala. I met him while on a photography assignment in 2019. His warmth and charm and the generosity of his family will stay with me for a long time. When we met, he was on his way back from his twice-daily, two hours round-trip walk into the forest to collect firewood for his family. In this part of the world without firewood, everything grinds to a halt—no firewood = no food, warmth or safe drinking water.

It was difficult to determine how heavy the bundle of sticks was so I offered to carry it back to his house for the remaining 500 yards or so. Despite being twenty or so years younger and almost twice his size, I struggled to carry the wood even 100 yards. You need incredibly strong neck muscles for this work.

That night we were invited to stay in Pedro’s family home. After taking a few more shots around the village, and having a go at coffee de-husking, we settled down for a meal together. It’s a story you’ll hear all around the world from people in rural communities in a similar situation, that despite having so little, as a guest you’ll get everything they have. At times on this journey, I was fortunate to get an egg in my food, perhaps a vegetable or two, occasionally one of the chickens in the yard would disappear and end up on my plate.

It’s hard to imagine, with all the work that Pedro had done that day, from walking to and from the forest for firewood and all the other tasks, the kind of basic food he survives on. A meal may consist of two or three tortillas and a mug of hot water with green leaves. This is food without much sustenance, and I don’t know how people can survive on this.

In the photograph, it’s very dark and you can hardly see anything. But that’s how life is lived. Once the sun has gone down, the only visible light is from the fire or stove. Without electricity or a solar-powered light, there are only candles to light your way, but even candle wax is a valuable commodity.

That was my first night sleeping in a village home in Guatemala. It’s a challenging life. The family each had or shared a bare wooden bed (no mattress). With just a few blankets to spare, most sleep in their clothes for warmth. Although I had a sleeping bag, being on the hard dirt floor with the mice, cockroaches, and chickens was not an easy experience for me, despite my initial thoughts that I could endure anything. After eight p.m., it was dark. From then on, the dogs outside barked and howled the night away, only falling silent in the early hours to be replaced by the roosters. Pedro got up at 3 a.m. the next to go to work…

Mark Davies for Photographers without Borders and The Ripple Effect