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Sunshine Interviews: Danielle Huffaker

Guatemala - Photo by Danielle Huffaker
Mother from Limitless Horizons Ixil artisan program with daughter in the town of Chajul
We'd like to introduce y'all to Danielle.  She has been our partner in Guatemala for Sunshine Tienda.   Although we've only met through Skype & WhatsApp we feel like we know her so well! She journeyed through Guatemalan Villages to hand pick the huipils in our shop and she took us along with her! (through whatsapp)  
We asked her to share her exciting personal journey to how she is where she is now.  
 

It takes a lot of guts to uproot a life you are so comfortable with in the US and move to a new country – so first off, we’re impressed. Tell us what motivated you to move to Guatemala?

Well, it's interesting you should ask, because I've been reflecting a lot about that moment in my life in recent weeks. It's hard to believe it's been 3 years already. I was working in marketing for a tech company in Silicon Valley, living in San Francisco with my boyfriend at the time. I had everything I needed but I felt stagnant in my life and wanted to be making a difference and learning to live in a very different culture from my own. I was antsy for a full year while I contemplated my move and gathered the inner resources to make it happen. When an opportunity popped up in my life to apply to work with a small nonprofit doing educational programs in a village in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, I felt it was my moment. Within a few weeks, I quit my job, my relationship, and my life in San Francisco, and started over in a place that was very foreign to me. It was a very dramatic transition for me.
Photography by Danielle Huffaker
 Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala's second-largest city

Describe how you were feeling the first day you arrived to Guatemala.

I left the States on January 1, 2013. It turned out my brother and his girlfriend at the time were visiting her family in El Salvador. So I went there first and we spent a few days in their family village. January 6 was the day I was supposed to meet my new coworkers in Antigua, Guatemala. we left El Salvador in a pickup truck to make the voyage, and we were stupid enough to rely on the time estimate Google Maps gave us of the trip—3 hours or something like that. It was an incredible trip, seeing the landscape change from the tropical El Salvador climate to the cooler Guatemalan highlands. We finally arrived at Antigua at 10 PM. I was exhausted and excited. We had a delicious Guatemalan dinner, I hugged my brother and other companions goodbye and met my new colleagues.  I actually got sick to my stomach that night, so my first few hours in Guatemala were pretty miserable. Stomach issues are a constant issue for expats in Guatemala—but it's all been worth it!
Photography by Danielle Huffaker
Youth scholar from Limitless Horizons Ixil in traditional dress from Chajul, Guatemala 

What has been your biggest challenge since you arrived to your new home?

Some of the biggest challenges are material things—obviously, I am used to having certain comforts in my life that are not available here. Food is really important to me, and I've had to learn how to eat healthily with the things that are available here. But it means I'm cooking all the time, and I have to disinfect everything. In the first town I lived in, it was also really cold and central heating exists nowhere. But I live in a warmer part of the country now. 
On a personal level, it can also be difficult to form intimate relationships here. I really value immersing myself in local culture, local ways of life, and forging friendships with people from here. And its nice to have some friends who share more of a similar history and culture, and can speak to me in my native language. Unfortunately, foreigners are always coming and going so I've had to say "goodbye" to a lot of people I care about. Actually, I met my current boyfriend here in Guatemala and his companionship has really improved my life.

 

Describe a typical day in your Guatemalan life.

 Every day is different! It's one thing I love about life here—people are always doing different things, and they really go with the flow. I try to start every day with a few minutes of yoga and meditation, and then my boyfriend and I cook breakfast of eggs with veggies and coffee. From there, its always different. Usually at some point I go into town to buy things, and end up chatting with friends I run into on the street. Often I'll drop by TinteMaya, the women's weaving cooperative I work with, to check in on a customer order or just see what's going on, and I spend a few hours working from my computer most days. The house we just moved to has a fire-burning sauna, which is a traditional Maya way of bathing, so we've started to do that most nights before we go to bed.

Photography by Danielle Huffaker

Woman from sunny Sacapulas, Guatemala 

Where do you live in Guatemala? Any specific communities you would recommend for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I live in San Juan, la Laguna, which I love because it is on the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlán and the community is really organized at the grassroots level to promote social welfare. For example, it is full of cooperatives of women weavers. There are a ton of NGO's in Guatemala, so people looking to do service work can find lots of opportunities. Most are around Antigua, around the lake (where I am), or in Xela, which is also a great spot—a very cool cosmopolitan city, but not a huge city. It's the second biggest in Guatemala. I think if I didn't live here, I would want to live there.

What would be your advice to someone who is considering a move to a new country?

People often say things to me like, "I wish I could do that!" and I just want to tell them, "you can!" I had a lot of things holding me back but I knew it was the right move for me. If its right for you, nothing should hold you back. And if it's not right for you, stop daydreaming and be present for your life. I know that's easier said than done, and it's hard to be patient with yourself when things are unclear, but it's a practice—life is all about learning how to live.an done, and it's hard to be patient with yourself when things are unclear, but it's a practice—life is all about learning how to live.

Photography by Danielle Huffaker

Weaver in TinteMaya cooperative, San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala

 Describe your favorite day since you moved to Guatemala.

The first nonprofit I worked for here provided scholarships to youth in a small village. Every year they take a field trip in a big chicken bus—which is a school bus from the U.S. that gets taken to Guatemalan and painted in bright colors, souped up with a big new engine and tires for mountain roads, and used for public transportation. The year I worked for them, all the youth and our entire team piled into a rented chicken bus (we were so many people we had to put little benches all up and down the aisle), and rode 2 hours down the mountain to a little town with hot weather called "Sacapulas", to a center with swimming pools and sports courts. Our team worked so hard all year, and so did the kids—they came from poor families and had to struggle to help their families while fulfilling school responsibilities—but that day, everyone let loose and played like we were all little kids.

Is it expensive to live in Guatemala?

Not at all. At my highest earning period during my time here, I was making $1000 a month and spending all of that, but I was also living in Antigua, which is an expensive tourist town. Now I maybe spend half of that a month, unless I travel or splurge. 

Photography by Danielle Huffaker

View of Lake Atitlán from San Marcos la Laguna

What do you to make a living and afford your life? 

Well, having a low cost of living and my savings in USD helps a lot. It means I don't have a ton of financial pressure in my life and can work freelance even if that means the income is inconsistent. At the moment I'm doing a combination of communications work for local NGO's and fair trade sourcing for customers like Sunshine Tienda that want to be able to offer unique goods direct from artisans—I've worked with several artisan organizations during my time here. I also help TinteMaya, the weaving cooperative in San Juan I've worked closely with for two years, publicize their products and workshops, which overlaps nicely with the sourcing work. 

If you do something from your computer you can do remotely, living in a place like Guatemala with a low cost of living and making even a modest income in USD is a pretty great set up—I've known a few people who do that. I've also known a lot of people who do the Peace Corps or take a job with a non-profit that offers a stipend commensurate to a Guatemalan salary (like I did my first year here). You can live that way, but it helps to have some savings so you can travel and splurge every once in awhile.

Danielle, thank you for sharing your incredible life with us! We are excited to see where our partnership take us!

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