Making gender equality a reality.

Dollar a Day 2009 Diary: Guatemala

Posted on January 1, 2009 by Women Thrive

I decided to try living on a dollar a day last year when I was in Nicaragua.  There are about 1.4 billion people worldwide, most of whom are moms and kids, in extreme poverty, defined as living on approximately one dollar per day or less.  Often, that dollar has to pay not just one person’s needs, but for a whole family.

As President and Co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, I spend my days advocating on behalf of the worlds most impoverished women in Washington, D.C. I wanted to see how far a dollar would go and to feel, if even in a small way, what it is like to be that poor. I can never fully understand how the world looks through the eyes of a woman living in poverty, but if I can have a small window into her experience, I think I can be a more empathetic advocate on her behalf.

This year, for four days, I lived in the municipality (county) of Tactic (pronounced “tack – TEEK”) in the area of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, a lush and mountainous region that contains some of the most desperate poverty in Latin America. I wore the same clothes, ate only what one dollar would buy me, and spent as much time as possible with three incredible Mayan women – Margarita, Dorotea, and Eluvia – who live on a dollar or less every day of their lives. The following is my diary of the experience.

My Dollar-a-Day Diary: Tuesday, September 22 - Friday, September 25, 2009

DAY ONE: A Badly Timed Cough | Breakfast | What Can $1 Buy in Transportation? | Day 1 Menu

DAY TWO:(Smaller) Breakfast | Meet Margarita | "Girls Play Soccer Right Along with The Boys" | Food Crisis Hits Hard | A Surreal Moment | What Can a Dollar Buy at the Market? | Day 2 Menu

DAY THREE: Medicine or Meals? | Dorotea, Healthcare, & Hunger | Eluvia: Weaving & Trade | Going to Bed Hungry | Day 3 Menu

DAY FOUR: The Power of Women's Organizing | Shower (At Last!) & Reflections | Day 4 Menu | Epilogue: What You Can Do


September 22, 2009 - Day 1
5am - A Badly Timed Cough

I wake up today nervous – I’ve been anxious about this trip for a while, mentally trying to figure out how I'm going to possibly live on $1 a day (or 8.3 Quetzales (Q), the currency in Guatemala) for four days.

I’ve allowed myself a few logistical, health and sanitation exceptions: a bus ride to get from Guatemala City to Tactic, transport to the homes of the women I’ll meet, clean water, prescription medicine, a hairbrush, toothpaste and soap (for my hands only), and an emergency first aid kit.  Other than these things, if I want it, I have to buy it with my dollar.
As luck would have it, I developed a sore throat last night and am having fits of sneezing and chills. Last week was a frenzy of speaking events about microfinance and violence against women, meetings at the State Department and White House on how to update the U.S. international aid system and better help women and girls, a constant parade of staff in my office wanting “one last thing” before I left, a call with the Board, a little boy who needed extra attention to stop sucking his thumb, and the first Cub Scout Pack meeting for the year. It’s no wonder I’m sick.


7am - Breakfast


I enjoy a delicious breakfast of a small portion of beans, a scrambled egg, 2 tortillas, 1/8 of a fried plantain and a cup of tea (see my food diary for a breakdown of what a dollar a day can buy in food). After tallying up the cost, I realize I’ll have to live with the memory of this breakfast for a while: I’ve already spent 4Q (or 48 cents), half my budget for the day!

I am desperate for some tissues for my runny nose and some cold medicine. To my horror I discover that tissues are 2Q for a small packet and cold medicine runs at about 1Q per tablet!  Already I have to choose between eating and medicine. I start thinking about what I would do if my two boys (5 and 10) needed medicine; I think I’d make the same choice most poor mothers make: I wouldn’t eat that day.

10am - What Can $1 Buy in Transportation?


Credit: Ritu Sharma                                         Photo Album
We spend most of the day on a bus making the winding ride from Guatemala City to Tactic. Affordable transportation – a basic building block for economic mobility – is a huge issue for poor families in Guatemala. A “chicken bus” (crammed with three people per seat, goats, chickens and whatever else will fit) from Guatemala City to Tactic costs 25Q ($3), three full days worth of food! Women who live in the mountains of Tactic have two options for getting to the town center (where there is running water, a market and a doctor): pay 10Q ($1.20) to ride in the back of an old pickup truck or walk three hours by foot.

Back to Top

Dollar-a-Day Menu: Day 1

4 oz refried black beans       1.50Q (18 cents)
1 egg                                     0.75Q (9 cents)
1 corn tortilla                        0.50Q (6 cents)
1/8 fried plantain                  0.25Q  (3 cents)
Tea                                       1.00Q (12 cents)
TOTAL                                4.00Q (48 cents)

6 oz refried black beans        2.00Q (24 cents)
2 corn tortillas                       1.00Q (12 cents)
TOTAL                                 3.00Q (36 cents)

DAY 1 TOTAL:         
7.00Q (84 Cents) (1Q leftover for tomorrow)

September 23, 2009 - Day 2

7am - (Smaller) Breakfast

I am much more frugal with today’s breakfast: a dollop of beans and two tortillas for 2.50Q (30 cents). That’s it.

 Back to Top

8am - Meet Margarita

Isabel, Margarita's daughter-in-law,
and Angela (seven months)
                             Photo Album
After a bumpy trip up the mountains, we arrive in the community of Bempec, a small village of 32 homes and approximately 150 people. We are warmly greeted by Margarita, a sixty-four year-old mother of eleven, outside her one-room, 6X20 ft home, which I would call more of a shelter. The walls are made from slats of wood cut from local trees and the floor is made of dirt pressed flat by bare feet.  If a family can afford the 3000Q ($360), which Margarita was able to save for over several months, the roof is corrugated tin, which provides a modicum of protection from wind and rain.  If not, it is made from grasses and leaves woven into a basket-like covering.

We take our seats inside the “kitchen” area  (a fire pit and a few old cups hanging from the wall) and begin chatting. Margarita and her young daughter-in-law, Isabel, are shucking kernels of corn off the cobs and into a basket (which they will grind and make into tortillas, the staple food).  They invite me to join and Margarita jokes that I could be her daughter.

A few moments later, Isabel lovingly lifts an infant out of a plastic sack strung like a hammock behind her.  I hadn’t even noticed the “crib,” it looked like a bunch of plastic bags rumpled up together.  The baby, Angela Marcela, is seven months old, though she is about the size of a healthy 3-month old baby. Seeing such a beautiful, innocent baby in such desperate poverty hits me hard. This is where poverty takes its real toll.

Back to Top

9am - "Girls Play Soccer Right Along with the Boys"

Victor teaching his students in Bempec's new and only school

            Photo Album
We walk (slide) down a muddy rut of a path to the school where Margarita’s two littlest daughters and son are registering for classes in Bempec’s only primary school. The school is Bempec’s first– a two room shack with a corrugated roof - that was built by the community after families got tired of sending their children on a dangerous 60 minute walk to a nearby community to attend classes.
The teacher, Victor, proudly introduces his class to us and shares his enlightened (and extremely rare) philosophy of education: he is teaching these children more than letters and numbers, he is teaching them that girls and boys are equals, that, in school, the girls play soccer right along with the boys. He tells us that the gorgeous Mayan girls in his class face three levels of discrimination—they are girls, they are indigenous people, and they are poor.  He knows the enormous challenges they will face in their lives. Despite their energy and drive, most will never make it to secondary school, will marry young, and will never be able to produce enough food to fully feed their children, simply because they have not been given opportunities.

Back to Top

11am - The Food Crisis Hits Hard


              Photo Album

Back at Margarita’s home we talk to her about her life. Because of a poor economy, there are no formal jobs in Tactic, so, like most women, Margarita supports her family selling vegetables that she grows with her husband. However, they can barely produce enough food to feed their family, let alone enough to sell. Hence, their income is extremely low – combined they earn about 50 Quetzales a day ($6.02), which they must split among 13 people.

With limited income and limited crops, come limited diets. In the morning, children in Bempec will usually have a cup of coffee with sugar and two tortillas. At school they will receive a cup of Atol de Elote (ah-TOLL day eh-LOW-tay) a thin corn-based porridge, followed by herbs cooked in water after school.  Mothers often have to send their kids to bed as early as 4pm just to keep them from feeling hungry for dinner.

I look around at the lush landscape and think about how much food Margarita could grow if we could get U.S. development assistance programs to reach women like her. You wouldn’t know it in the States, but much of the developing world, including Guatemala, is experiencing an extreme food crisis.

Yet women, who produce the majority of the world’s food supply, receive scant credit going to small farmers. It strikes me that growing food in the fertile Western region and selling it to the Eastern region, where there is a famine, could be a path out of poverty for these farmers. But that can’t happen until development programs get serious about helping agricultural communities like Bempec - and women like Margarita. Read more about women & food security.

Back to Top

2pm - A Surreal Moment


Inside the church
above Margarita's house

After a lunch of red beans, two tortillas, and a cup Atol de Elote (4Q, or 48 cents, total), we sit in the cool darkness of the one-room church the family has built on a hill just above the house and I lie down on a bench to rest my stuffy, aching head. 

Not five minutes later, the cell phone rings and it’s one of the Women Thrive staff needing me to call another CEO on an urgent matter. We make a three-way call and I am able to leave a message.  This is nuts.  I am at the top of a mountain in Guatemala, in a speck of a village, taking refuge in a church, and they can still find me!  It never ceases to amaze me that whenever I’m in the poorest places on Earth where they don’t have water, food or the very basics of a decent life, they always have one thing—cell phone coverage. Never mind that the poor can't afford cell phones.

Back to Top

5pm - What Can a Dollar Buy in the Market?

We decide to make a trip to the market to see what a dollar will buy. The answer? Not much. See for yourself:

In Guatemala, $1 can't buy enough to adequately feed one person, let alone a whole family.

                                                                                                                                         Photo Album

Dollar-a-Day Menu: Day 2

1 corn tortilla                                  0.50Q (6 cents)
1 cup bean soup                             2.00Q (24 cents)
1 banana                                         0.25Q (3 cents) 
TOTAL                                         2.75Q (33 cents)

1 banana                                         0.25Q (3 cents)

Lunch (at Margarita’s home):
1 ear roasted corn                           0.25Q (3 cents)
1 cup red bean soup                       2.00Q (24 cents)
2 corn tortillas                                1.00Q (12 cents)
Atol de Elote                                  0.50Q (6 cents) 
TOTAL                                         3.75Q (45 cents)

½ cup black bean soup                  1.00Q (12 cents)
1 cup rice                                       1.25Q (15 cents)
TOTAL                                         2.25Q (27 cents)

DAY 2 TOTAL:          
9.00Q ($1.09) (used 1.00Q leftover from yesterday)

September 24, 2009 - Day 3

7am - Medicine or Meals?

After a breakfast of ½ cup of beans and 2 small tortillas, I’m tired of being sick and stuffed up.  So I throw caution to the wind and take two “Panadol Antigripal” (anti-fever Acetaminophen) tablets, burning 2Q in one swallow.  I may pay for it later, but I just can’t go any longer without medicine.


Back to Top

9am - Dorotea, Healthcare, & Hunger

Dorotea with greens she just picked from the field

                     Photo Album
Following a bumpy ride in the back of a pickup truck we arrive in the community of Tzalem, about an hour from Tactic's town center. We walk up a steep mountain of corn stalks to the house of Dorotea.  Meeting Dorotea is an entirely different experience: Her eyes are pale, her skin is sallow, and she is clearly tired. She explains to us that she has been feeling very sick, but because she and her husband make only 20Q ($2.40), which they must divide among their four young children, she simply does not have the money to pay for both food and medicine. The only doctor is in the town of Tactic, a 10Q ($1.20) truck ride away, and costs 100Q ($12) for one consultation, not including medicine. Like most women in Tzalem, Dorotea uses local herbs to try to treat her illness.

What Can $1 Buy in Health Care? Go Here to find out.

Dorotea invites us into her house where she is cooking a stew of water, “herbs” (which are essentially garden weeds that grow wild on the hillside), and spices, a substitute for soup, with her six-year-old daughter, Elvira. Spices are the key to managing hunger.  They calm the appetite when there is no real food.  The very poor will have a tortilla with a spread made from chilies and lard sprinkled with salt. Often, water and “herbs” substitute as soup. I love cooking and to me spices are small fragrant things you add to your dish using more intuition than recipe. I had never thought of them as a staple food. Still, today I am grateful to have something for lunch that is "free" (picked from the countryside).

Dorotea and her husband are share croppers – they do not own their house or land but “rent” it in exchange for half of their corn crops, a fact that, ironically, lowers their yield because they do not have the land collateral needed to receive a loan for seeds or fertilizers. I know from all of Women Thrive’s work helping women get property rights, that just owning her own land would probably give Dorotea the boost she needed to escape poverty.

Back to Top

11am - Eluvia: Weaving & Trade

Eluvia weaving a huipil

Buying a huipil

                                            Photo Album

We arrive at the house of Eluvia, where she and her husband, Fernando, are sitting together under a grass canopy, while her two daughters Maria (13) and Olivia (5) play in the dirt compound that is their home. 

Eluvia is weaving and he is shucking corn kernels they recently picked from the field. She is making a traditional huipil (pronounced xhui-PEEL), a colorful hand-woven fabric, for a child’s clothes. Though they take many hours to make, she sells them in Tactic for only 30Q ($3.60). While the price of yarn has gone up the price of huipiles have collapsed, making it difficult for her to earn a living from her trade. Talented weavers like Eluvia do not have the transportation, capital, or marketing skills they need to expand their weaving into a larger business. Eluvia’s family of six must typically subsist on the meager 20Q ($2.40) she and her husband bring in each day from farming. I decide to buy one for 50Q to display in our office.  She can barely contain her smile and pretty soon it’s cheek-to-cheek.

I know that there are thousands of other women like me in the States who would buy Eluvia’s fabric. This is exactly why we need to make trade work for women – to help women like Eluvia access willing markets and use their art to escape poverty. Read more about women and trade.

When I ask Eluvia what makes her happy, her features soften as she thinks for a while and then she says simply, “flowers.”  She grows flowers whenever she can and wherever she can make space for them.  Once in a while she’ll cut them and walk three hours into Tactic to sell them for a few Quetzales per dozen.

Back to Top

3pm - Going to Bed Hungry

We have returned from Tzalem and I am still hungry.  I’m running through a mental list of what I could eat.  Fruit—too expensive.  Soup—out of the question.  Chicken—dream on.  So, once again, I have my staple-of-the-world beans and rice.

This is my last meal of the day, having taken the much-needed medicine at breakfast.  Guess it’s time to pay the piper.  I’ll be going to bed hungry tonight.

Dollar-a-Day Menu: Day 3

2 Panadol pills:                        2Q (24 cents)

2 corn tortillas                         1.00Q (12 cents)
¼ cup black bean soup            0.50Q (6 cents)
1 egg scrambled                      0.75Q (9 cents)
TOTAL                                  2.25Q (27 cents)

1 banana                                 0.25Q (3 cents)
1 cup “herb” soup                   0.00Q (0 cents)
(gathered from mountains)
2 corn tortillas                         1.00Q (12 cents)
TOTAL                                  1.25Q (15 cents)

½ cup rice with black beans    1.00Q (12 cents)

1 small apple                           0.10Q (1 cent)

Dinner (at 3 pm):
½ cup rice                               0.75Q (9 cents)
½ cup black bean soup           1.00Q (12 cents)
TOTAL:                                 1.75Q (21 cents)

8.35Q ($1)

September 25, 2009 - Day 4

9 am - The Power of Women's Organizing

Margarita, Dorotea and Eluvia are the poorest women I have ever visited.  I have seen poverty in various forms, but there is something about their isolation in small inaccessible mountain hamlets that feels different.  I can’t put my finger on it.  Then I realize that in other countries we normally arrange our visits through our local partners that are women’s associations or cooperatives.  We always visit their members.  Those women—who are organized, pool their resources, give each other loans, share food, advice, dreams and homes—are better off.  None of the three we met this time mentioned anything about a women’s group they are a part of.  I remember in Honduras our local partner was telling us that there are some women they cannot reach, women who can’t come out and be part of an association for whatever reason, these women are the poorest of the poor.

Back to Top

5pm - Shower (At Last!) and Reflections

     Photo Album
After a day of traveling, we have returned to Guatemala City, all of us a little bleary eyed from this latest adventure.  As soon I cross the threshold to the home of one of our Guatemalan friends, we declare the “Dollar-a-Day” experience officially over and my colleagues give me a big hug and congratulations.  I did it.  I survived without keeling over, going crazy, melting down, or biting someone’s head off.

Reflecting on the four days, I’m surprised that I was not bothered by things that I thought would drive me crazy. I’ve now been in the same clothes for 96 hours and it hasn’t fazed me until now. Throwing my bags on the floor, I grab my shampoo and jump into the shower.  I’m thinking: Wow, shampoo!  Towels!  Clean clothes!  How luxurious!  Though it is only a developing-country trickle, it is the BEST shower I have ever had. 

What was upsetting me is how focused I became on food and how unsettling it is was not knowing when, where, or how much I was going eat for my next meal.
After four full days, it also became apparent to me that one person can barely squeak by on a dollar if they spend it all, every day, only on food.  This is, of course, not possible in reality.  Some of the dollar has to be saved for shelter, clothing, soap, or school supplies. So my guess is that about a quarter to a half of that dollar (2-4Q, or 24 to 48 cents) can be spent on food each day. 

I cannot fathom feeding a family on that amount of money.  My littlest one is a great eater and he’s still a twig of a boy.  There’s no way he would survive.  My older one would never touch the herb soup that Margarita has to feed her family when it’s all they have.

Back to Top

Dollar-a-Day Menu: Day 4 (Ends at 5pm)

2 corn tortillas                       1.00Q (12 cents)
1 teaspoon strawberry jam    1.00Q (12 cents)
1 cup tea                               1.00Q (12 cents)
TOTAL                                3.00Q (36 cents)

1 cup rice                              1.25Q (15 cents)

DAY 4 TOTAL:          
4.25Q (51 cents, half of day’s income)

Back to Top

Photo Credits: Mckenzie Lock, Women Thrive Worldwide

Epilogue: What You Can Do

What can we do for women like Margarita, Dorotea, Eluvia and the 829 million women like them who live on a dollar a day or less?

The answer is a lot and it doesn’t necessarily have to cost much. While programs that help individual women are important, they aren’t enough to achieve transformational change for all the women that need it. The only way to do that is through assistance policies that, often through a few words on a piece of legislation, spread opportunity to millions of women at a time. Policies like the GROWTH Act, a bill now in Congress that would give millions of women like Margarita micro-credit so they can buy seeds or fertilizers, women like Dorotea property rights so they don’t have fear being kicked out of their home, or women like Eluvia access to trade so they can sell their huipils in larger markets.
Everyday Women Thrive Worldwide creates and advocate for policies like the GROWTH Act that will have a ripple effect on millions women and children around the globe. But doing it takes more than dedication – it takes time and money, and we need help to make it happen.

Please help us make bills like the GROWTH Act a reality by joining our Dollar-a-Day Circle: your gift of just $1 a day will literally have a ripple effect on millions of women around the world who only need a chance to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty.

As a special thank you, our
Dollar-a-Day Circle members will receive a beautiful handwoven scarf produced by The Association of San Jose Craftswomen for Maya Botanika, a free trade collection made by women artisans in Guatemala! Click here to join the Dollar-a-Day Circle!