This morning, we find Catarina beside her hearth. The sun’s rays beam through the cracks in the wooden walls’ planks, slicing the white smoke rising from the fire into dancing ribbons. She is cooking tortillas on a thick metal slab, blackened by the flames of time, set directly on the embers. Her youngest daughter appears in the doorway that separates the room, smiles at us, and chases away the dozens of baby chicks pecking for food. She sets down a few plates and a bowl of frijoles next to Catarina. Breakfast and lunch are identical: tortillas, frijoles. The sunlight floods the room with a sacred glow. The birds’ singing, the roosters’ crowing, the flapping wings of the hens, the crackling fire all fuse with the melodious intonations of the Ixhil language, their Mayan language, the only language Catarina, her daughter, and many villagers in Pal speak.
“How was Catarina chosen to become a solar engineer?”
“There are many communities involved in this solar electrification project: Santa Clara, Cheptul, and Pal,” answers Francisco. “When Semilla del Sol spoke to us about the solar panel project, when we saw the project’s success in Cheptul last year, we thought that, for us in Pal, it was the best opportunity. We chose Catarina, who represents Pal CPR, for the mission. Every family here has resisted the repression and the civil war. After the conflict, the surviving families returned to their land here. Still forgotten by the authorities.”
“But why Catarina and not another woman?”
“Other women also volunteered, but they weren’t eligible for the Barefoot program: either they were too young—a woman must be older than thirty-five to apply to Barefoot, or the women had too many children to support, or no one to take care of their children in their absence. Catarina is thirty-six years old. Separated from her husband, she lives with her brother, her sister-in-law, Cecilia, and her father, who will take care of Ana, her twelve-year-old daughter.”
“What do you expect from this training in India and this first journey so far from your home?”
“I’m not too afraid of living in India for six months. Once there, the days, the weeks, the months will go by… I’m more afraid of the time the trip will take than getting lost during the journey. Once I’m in India, everything will be fine if I have a roof over my head.”
“Everything will be just fine, I promise you. The Pal electrification project entrusts you with an immense responsibility. How do you feel about this?”
“I accept this responsibility with pride. Everything I will learn, I will put to use here to benefit my community. I only hope I will adapt successfully so I will be able to remember the tiniest detail of the training. My only worry is not understanding what they teach because I don’t speak the language.”
“What will change here in Pal with the arrival of light and electricity?”
“No more candles! We will finally be able to see what we cook; we will go to bed later and sleep a little longer. Now, we have to get up at dawn, around four or five in the morning, to take advantage of every ray of light in order to finish our day’s work. As for the children, they will be able to do their homework in the evening.”
Night falls quickly in the mountains of Pal. The first candles are lit around 6 pm. Their trembling flames mix with the glow from the hearth, rendering almost indistinguishable the immediate surroundings. If this lighting is magic for photographers, for these people, it is a symbol of the indifference to their plight. For the first time in my life, I discover life in total obscurity. The white light of Ana’s cellphone glows as a luminous reminder of the existence of a connected world. The more time I spend with Catarina and her daughter, the more I become aware of the momentous nature of what she will soon undertake. Her departure is in fifteen days.