martes, 26 de julio de 2011

Last days...

I woke up yesterday in Antigua, not fully able to comprehend that, that day  in fact, was my last day in Guatemala. It was not unlike many mornings spent there, scrambling to gather what I needed for visiting families in remote corners of the country. Raingear, camera, pen, paper, water, snacks and small bills for various bus rides. It was different, in that, I had a friend with me, Brittn, and we were going to help with the construction of a home I had found funding to build. I knew the materials had arrived and the construction had begun a day or two prior. To make it real, I had to go and see the family smile one last time and touch the block that would become their home. It just seemed a bit surreal to think that a home was actually being built by the effort I had made to see a project through.

We stepped outside our hotel at a quarter to seven and were greeted by the most awe inspiring rainbow cradling the town of Antigua in the early morning light. I flashed back to hearing the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” a couple of weeks prior and was immediately reminded how important it is to always keep searching and seeking, no matter where you are. The rainbow stayed with us as we walked to the bus stop and then just vanished. I knew it was going to be a wonderful day.

The first bus deposited us in Chimaltenango, a bustling transport hub that is gritty, chaotic, and 100% Guatemalan. I had it in my mind to have one last good, cheap, typical Guatemalan breakfast before my departure and we found just the right eatery. After checking that off the list, we boarded bus number two and let our food digest as our eyes feasted on the impressive spectrum of green that those hills and mountains produce in the form of corn, beans, cabbage, and other crops. Interrupted by swaths of dense pine forest and deep ravines, each curve left me buzzing with anticipation of what was to come. On a visual level, the mountains and farms surrounding Tecpan and Chimal are my favorite area in all of Guatemala. I spent hours and hours traversing this area making house visits and fell in love with the beauty from the back of the motorbike. It only made sense that somehow, serendipity had led me to this area I now loved, to make a deposit of kindness to a wonderful family, almost lost in one of its many pockets.

We arrived to Patzun to take bus number three, which runs twice a week, on market days. As we sat on the corner in Patzun, waiting for the bus, people stared (as they often do and why can be summed up in one word: BLONDE) and some stopped to talk. The bus grunted up to us and the driver seemed pretty certain we didn’t want on his bus but let us on after we muttered the name of a community on his route.  It was the first time I had gotten on a chicken bus in Guatemala with only women (except the driver). Their clothing was beautiful and glancing from one person to the next was like looking into a kaleidoscope. The women chatted in their native language after a morning at the market. The moment was special and half an hour later, we found ourselves at the church close to the family’s home.

We walked a few minutes and were greeted by huge stacks of concrete blocks. By the grin on my face, you would have thought we were old friends. I don’t think a person could be happier to see some blocks. The supplies were at the top of the hill so we wandered down to the site of the new house and found Josue (the owner of the home) and the mason hard at work, surrounded by more blocks, cement piles and other supplies. In that moment, it was real. The house was being built.

Over the course of the day, Brittn and I moved over 100 blocks (yep, I counted) down a slippery, slightly treacherous, newly made path in the hillside. On our breaks, we ate freshly prepared chicken soup and tortillas, played with the kids, and learned of the struggles and perseverance of this family. I talked to Josue about the education of his children and what he saw in their future. He barely reads but clearly sees the benefit of education and spoke very intelligently about wanting his children to have opportunities he or his wife never had. His eldest child is eleven and has two more years in the local school. After that (if not before) most children in the countryside stop attending because of cost and the fact that they need to work to supplement the family income. My hope is to maintain a friendship with this family and contribute to making continued education for the children a reality that will improve their quality of life.

block moving=good workout

These kids are sharp, talkative, creative, and funny. They have a mother and father who love them, show them affection, and are accepting of their children having more education than they do. In the countryside of Guatemala, rarely have I see the combination of those things in one family. There is something really special about this family and we are all certain that our paths crossed for all the right reasons.

In the final fifteen minutes that I sat with the whole family in their old house, Josue and his wife, Hilda, showered me their blessing and thanks. Blessings for my family and friends. Blessings on my upcoming journey. Blessings that I will easily find work. Blessings that I will return to see them. Thanks for giving them hope. Thanks for being someone that cared. Thanks for making a positive change in their life. In all their blessings and thanks, they spoke of God. For me that is just fine because after my time in Guatemala, I know that God is hope, no matter who your God is. As I gathered my things to leave, Josue told me that I have a home in Guatemala and the door will always be open. I can’t imagine anything better than one day walking through the door to their new home. It will happen. I just don’t know when.
Josue, building his home

The first two rows of block have been laid for the foundation and the house should be completed in two weeks. Brittn will be returning in a month or so to see the family in their new home and give an update with photos. I appreciate her willingness to get involved and am grateful to have been able to share something so special with someone I find to be such buena onda.

Brittn and I (taken by Dani)

some of the blocks we moved and the view from the new house

I shed a few tears on the way to the airport. I am happy for what is to come but sad to say goodbye to what has been. It is the end of an era, a moment in passing. I will be back but it will not be now. I am above the clouds, above all the rusted tin roofs and patchwork fields, flying like a bird towards an oasis. The most important thing is that I am happy and with that, I can do anything. I am happy.

I close my eyes and see and hear Dani, the only son in the family. He has a huge grin, is high up in a peach tree and yelling E-RAY-NAY, E-RAY-NAY. He is offering me peaches, asking when I am leaving today, and in the same breath, when I will be back. The smiles of the Catú family will forever warm me in a chilly moment. They are giving to me more than they will ever know.

Dani "the champion of the world"

jueves, 7 de julio de 2011

Cambio de Planes (Change of Plans)We're Building a Home

Where the family currently lives

Once the new house is built, this will beome the kitchen
With one week left, to the day, I finally took all the money raised (plus a good chunk of my own) and used it for a great cause. I was worried when the initial “project” fell through and stressed about what I was going to do and what I would tell all the people who donated money. What started out as an easy way to give back turned into a realistic look into the difficulties of helping someone I deemed in need. Edvin, the man whom I was going to pay to have the water hooked up for, declined the help for various reasons. In the end, all I can think is that everything happens for a reason and all the right reasons. As the days passed and I was mildly freaking out with a large sum of money sitting in a Paypal account, I decided to have a little faith that things would work out and the money and good energy would fall upon the right person. 

I had told Jose, my work mate from Habitat, to keep his ears open for a worthy cause. A few weeks passed and then he called to say he was sending photos and information about a family in need. The pictures showed a dilapidated looking home and the suggestion was that I pay to have a new roof and cement floor added to the existing structure. Immediately, I thought “How can I just put a new roof and floor onto this mud and wood home that may fall in the next earthquake or be destroyed in heavy rains?”  I had too much knowledge from my days making Habitat house visits to deem it a viable, long term solution. I mean, how much more could it really cost to just build a whole new house? 

I was involved in visiting around twenty homes that were donated to families who lost their homes during Hurricane Agatha and knew the two-roomed, concrete block homes well. They are super solid, warm at night and last for a long time. The benefits to health and security are abundant and so I decided to go meet the family, see their current home and make a decision. I made the three hour bus ride to Tecpan to go on the hour motorbike ride to where they live. 

I met the Catú family: Josue (32), his wife Hilda (32), and their five children, Yenny (11), Darmaris (10), Dani (8), Yohana (4) and Diana (2). They were all smiles, had an amazingly positive energy and within an hour of being there, a decision was made. Let’s build your family a new home and let’s start as soon as possible. As we sat inside, with the heavy rains leaking through their old, rusted roof, I explained that I had raised the money for another cause through the kindness of friends and family. It had fallen through and for all the right reasons, I was sitting in their home that very moment. I told them that the money raised was not sufficient and that I would be essentially borrowing the rest (from myself) to make the home happen. 

The Catu family
I made it clear that I was not rich and had worked hard over the years as an educator. I also thought it important that they be involved in paying a small part of the home and asked them if they would be willing to commit to paying 100 quetzales per month for 15 months, a total of 1500 quetzales (around $200.00). I know that it will be a challenge for them to make the payments on Josue’s wages as a farmer but I have also learned in my time here that getting people to be apart of their own success gives them an investment in what they are receiving. It is not just a handout but a form of assistance. I spent a couple of hours with the family talking, as the rains were too strong for motorbike travel, and showed the children how to use my massive camera while we all grinned and laughed. I left with the feeling that the project I started had found the right place. It just needed time and a little faith.  

The details were ironed out and the decision to build the home made last week. Today, I stuffed the two checks my good friend Judy gave me and a few hundred dollars into my bra and set off for Tepan via chicken bus to pay the building supplies, windows, door and mason. Jose picked me up and we made the proper stops and by noon all was paid in full. Getting to that moment was a process, full of learning, confusion, disappointment and then finally ended with an easy success. Supplies should arrive tomorrow or the next day and construction should start on Friday. My hope is to help build at the site next Tuesday and fly to Memphis, Tennessee the following day. I am bummed I will not see the house complete but it gives good reason for a return trip to this country that has wedged itself well into my heart and soul. The house should be completed by the end of the month.  

I raised $1,033.00 from friends and family to help with the water project (double what I needed). All the money raised is finally going to a grand cause and I can only speculate that those involved will be perfectly happy with where it is going. The total cost of the house build is $1,906.00 so I am taking a loan from myself with hopes of raising more money over the next few months, either from generous folks or possibly in a photography exhibit. I am also content knowing that I may have just paid $900.00 to build a family a home.  

As I debated on spending the money, I kept thinking that I could so easily make that amount of money in the States (if I did in fact have a job) and also that I have the resources, here and now, to get the house built cheaply, efficiently, and to a high standard through my contacts with Habitat. I am certain that the house would have cost as least a third more, if I had just been anyone trying to build a house, so I decided to seize the moment and put to use what I learned the last six months. I want to say a huge thank you to Jose, from Habitat, because this project never would have happened without him and I also want to thank the friends and family who trusted that I would use their generosity to really make a difference.  Together we're building a home.
Jose, my workmate, with the kiddos


For some reason I waited. I couldn’t face her until I knew I wouldn’t be too sad to leave her. It is like seeing a good friend who for all the right reasons stepped out of your life for a bit. Upon being reunited, you know that it is time to make the effort to get close again. She is the mighty Pacific Ocean. From my home in Xela, she has always been a mere four hours away. I am glad I let her be because I knew I would long for her all the days I lived in the city. My journey to be more permanently reunited has begun. I plunged into her salty goodness for three days this past week and let the sound of the waves recharge my step. I always knew that I needed her but I pushed myself to embrace my current circumstances. 

I wouldn’t change the last six months for anything but its time to stop pretending I am a big city girl. I want to trade the smell of exhaust for an ocean breeze. I want to feel the sand in my toes any day I please. I want to watch the sunset into the Pacific Ocean with old friends, cold beer in hand. It is time. We have some catching up to do. People often say the beaches of Guatemala are not very nice or beautiful but if you love the ocean like I do, her embrace is always kind and satisfying. I am,however, ready to go home.

Somewhere over the rainbow….

There is always something wonderful waiting to be found. I think you just have to look hard and not forget to keep looking if it seems to be eluding you. I was not sure what I was looking for when I decided to move to Guatemala for six months but I am certain I was seeking wonderful. My time here has been nothing short of that and I have found it in the people that I have met, the job I worked, the food, the scenery, the motorbike rides, lasting friendships, the seemingly endless bus rides, the confusion, and within my own heart and mind. 

As I rode through the drizzling rain on a backhoe tractor, down the main highway, I was thinking of how in the blink of the eye, I will find myself on a plane and POOF! I zoned back in to my co-worker asking me if I had ever taken a ride of the sort before. It blasted me back to the days of roaming the Caterpillar Tractor Dealership my family owned in Mississippi. We used to go for short rides in the parking lot, but not down the highway with buses and trucks zooming past. In so many situations, Guatemala just takes it to the next level. 

It is true that amazing jobs often pay little. In fact, mine has paid none at all but the experiences of a lifetime have no monetary value. I couldn’t be more pleased with my final days of work as a Habitat Profiles Volunteer. I visited nine houses and dealt with all sorts of obstacles and moments of frustration in the final two days. Some say that when things are not going your way in this country, it just simply can be stated as “Guatemala” or that one word can be used to take your blame. I frequently found myself thinking, “oh Guatemala!” and “are you really going to do me like this on my last days?” After a few house visits and wanting to scream Guatemala at the top of my lungs, I came back to the beauty of it all. I had an amazing interview with a family who for the first time ever has a safe, secure, warm, dry home. They were all smiles and made me feel silly for getting so worked up and frustrated. 

With two interviews left (that had to be done that day), I squeezed into an over packed minibus to start towards finding the homes. I stared dreamily at the clouds shrouding the mountains all around us. I thought back to my first week in Guatemala when I took my first chicken bus ride down the same road. I was legitimately scared and thinking, maybe I am not cut out for this and how will I survive to tell the tales if all the roads are this bad? After months of travel around Guatemala, I now know that it is actually a pretty sketchy section to travel and of course I quickly became desensitized to the impending dangers lurking around the bend of most Guatemalan roads. I actually grew to love the jerky, shall I say “unique” bus rides that carried me in all directions and the motorbike rides that made my butt numb but let me be a part of the landscape. I can’t seem to get enough but soon it will have to enough, at least for now.   

I like memorable endings or happy lasts. It leaves more to be desired and that is the best time to go. The last house we visited made me truly appreciate the work I have been doing. Being 45 minutes walking from the main road into the ever entrancing highlands, I was hopeful to make it out before dark and a torrential downpour. Of course the road that never has traffic had a truck pass by and give us a ride. I seem to get picked up at just the right moments, at least by fast moving wheeled objects. Better than nothing I suppose. 

The next ten minutes in the back of that truck was a moment I want to remember and summon when needed. There was an elderly woman, around 70, with a physically deformed man, about the size of a ten year old, swaddled to her back, like a baby. She smiled, asked where we were headed and thought nothing of her circumstances. She got a ride a few miles down the road and waved us goodbye. She was going to walk all that way and probably does most days. For the second time that day, I felt silly for stressing over the inconveniences of my day. Sometimes you just have to open you eyes and change your perspective to realize that life is not bad or even that difficult. It is actually quite wonderful and around so many unlikely corners is that reminder of how good it is. 

At the final house, the family hardly spoke any Spanish so my co-worker translated the interview from Quiche to Spanish.  They were radiating the joy and happiness that their few days in their new home had brought them. I felt blessed. Blessed to have seen and known so many families all over Guatemala (around 100). Blessed to be apart of an organization that is truly doing great things.  It makes me want to find ways to keep giving to others, always. It has filled me with a love that is bubbling over and made me realize the human spirit is an amazing force and I am infected with its beauty and kindness.

old house
new house

As we walked the 45 minutes back to the main road, I was blissed out in my borrowed, highland terrain. I said a prayer of thanks to the highlands for all the beauty cradled in its nooks. I said thank you for showing me light and giving me hope and bringing me back to a life filled with love that is truly wonderful. My days of travel through the highlands have often made things seem so clear or just so perfectly fine.  I will always carry gratitude for them like one does for a close friend that lets them confide. 

Upon getting close to the main road, I heard music coming from a house and stopped. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing and at that moment, everything made sense. By that, I mean, I was certain that I had found wonderful and everything I was looking for without even knowing it.   The journey had been successful. We hopped on a back hoe tractor and started the two hour travel back to my hotel. It was dusk and the rains had held all day. There was a light drizzle that started to fall. It was a memorable ending for sure.

lunes, 4 de julio de 2011

Cafecito con Leche

I have been travelling and exploring for the last ten years. I was twenty-one when I left the States for the first time. I never knew then that the next decade would see me spending around four years combined in other countries. It is a little hard to believe. I tasted the unknown on a trip to Costa Rica in the summer of 2001 to study Spanish. My eyes were so wide and it was hard to believe that so much was going on outside the small reality I had known for the previous twenty-one years.

It is hard to shed the layers upon layers to find myself naked of the experiences; difficult to remember what it was like that first month in an unknown land.It has become so much a part of who I am and the very rhythm that I step to. Who would I be or where would I be if I hadn’t hopped on that flight from Memphis, Tennessee to San Jose, Costa Rica in 2001? The thoughts flood me as I am in the midst of opening the eyes of a dear friend who is twenty-one. She is out of the States for the first time and I want her to be infected by the magic that new experiences in foreign lands can bring.
Julissa was a student of mine in Montana on a 25 day adventure education program in the summer of 2007. She had just graduated high school and I quickly learned of the harsh family life she was coming from. Poverty, alcohol and drugs, homelessness, hunger, the death of her father three weeks before, were all things she had endured. Over the couse of the program, there were many firsts: backpacking, canoeing, horse riding, rock climbing, living with 11 other, pretty crazy, strangers (me and my best friend Ally included). On the high peaks of Yellowstone National Park and canoeing down the Yellowstone River I like to think she had moments of clarity and I am certain at the end, she had a little more faith in herself and her world was opened in a positive direction. We connected and over the last four years kept in touch. I have tried to be a supportive friend and an admiring mentor as she persevered through college against the odds.  When I decided to come to Guatemala, I knew she had to come. It never was a question. It just was. I don’t know why really. Since she was graduating college this next fall, my gift to her would be to help make travel abroad a reality. Not just anywhere, but where her father was from. Julissa’s father was from Guatemalan and her mother is from El Salvador but she had never left the USA. It was time. 

She arrived to a land where people look like her and have the same dialect as her father had. I can only imagine what it feels like. She is learning the sad realities of a country overrun with problems- a country she is half from. Through cultural classes with my Spanish teacher and cooking time with my former host mom, she is learning about her roots and identifying with a culture she knows almost nothing about. I wonder sometimes who she will be when she leaves here.

I have been waiting five months for Julissa to arrive and she is here now. Her eyes are so wide and that makes me feel really content and proud. I am struggling with my role in her journey. I want her to have all the wonderful, sometimes painful, experiences that a newcomer has in a foreign land. I want her to make choices, discover, process, be confused, look silly; but I am ten years in. It is hard to just let those things happen without stepping in or saying something. That is my challenge to myself. She is learning how to use a Lonely Planet guide book, bargain, pick a destination because it sounds amazing, and just travel.

Her reality is so different from anything I have experienced and this whole concept of travel is surely somewhat mind boggling. She lives in a one roomed apartment in a bad part of Los Angeles with her boyfriend. It is a busy, loud street that breathes violence, prostitution and drugs. They don’t have a fridge or stove and usually can only afford to eat once a day because money is tight and they are limited in the cooking department. She hopes he will have bought both items upon her return and she can start cooking.

As the layers of her life unfold before me, I listen and hope my words are valid or useful. Her life has been tough, is tough, but no matter what, I love her and will always be proud of her.  Sometimes it makes me sad because I just want it to be easier or less complicated. I want to take some of her struggle, make a trade, anything. We make each other laugh, in fact we always have, and laughter it seems can be the cure for whatever ails you. As we walk arm in arm on the streets of Xela, Guatemala or down from a volcano, I am reminded that for some reason, our paths crossed. Being with her makes me happy and happiness is life.

Julissa and I climbed her first volcano and swam in its crater lagoon. We slept aboard a friend’s sailboat at anchor and jumped from its deck into the Rio Dulce and spent hours swimming in its waters. It makes me really happy how much she enjoys the water. She only learned how to swim five or so years ago after joining a swim team because she wanted to learn. I look forward to more plunges in the days to come. We will journey towards the ruins of Tikal tomorrow.
Cafecito con Leche