Books Worth a Look

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave - This book is a must read. Better than anything else I've read, it takes you vividly into the life of a person in the 3rd world who has no choice but to escape. It is brilliantly written & works well as an audio book. Often I've sent info about the wonderful refugees I've met in Europe. We know only so much of their plight as it is painful for them to recall much less live through again by recounting it. But over time it is clear what they've lived through. This book is excellent as you discover the horrors of their world. Somewhat how to me, it is like being in Europe near a Concentration Camp. One has an obligation to visit it. 'Never to Forget.' In this case, to have our eyes opened.
  • Garbage King by Eliz Laird - The book is set on the streets on Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia and here lives Mamo and his sister Tiggist. When Mamo's "uncle" offers a job, he soon sets out on a bus to work. Little does he know that he is actually being sold into slavery...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Leaving Antigua

This is the rainy season & it rains off & on most afternoons. Beginning around 8 or 9 p.m. it rains almost all night.

My room is in a simple addition to the main house. The addition has a wood roof covered by tin; the rain sounds like it does when you're camping. The walls are painted, as in white washed, in soft yellow.

One does not hand wash clothing as it would take days to dry. Often at night I've lain awake listening to the rain; occasionally going outside in the vernada to watch it late at night. Often after dinner & homework I lie in bed reading as there is little else to do. It's best to be in my around 9 p.m. You might recall that when I was in San Juan de Heredia in Costa Rica, one did not go out every alone. Ever!

Though I have not minded it, I started to feel last night like I'm ready to be done with camping in the rain - if you´ve had that experience.

The city itself is safe. There are tourist police with rifles on most corners. The tourist police go home around 9 or 9:30 p.m. All banks have their own guards with similar rifles. The guards on my way to school & I have developed a warm daily greeting. The federal or national police ride around in black jeeps. Creepy as it may sound, you get used to it. Everyone goes about their business. Sidewalks are very narrow. Surprisingly even though each street is cobblestone, it's fairly easy to negotiate.

Terms like banana republic seem insensitive, but on my hour walk around the city this morning, it occured to me that it refers more to the structure of a country: economic & political. People are people & actually the poor are most often gracious, helpful and giving.

So to me Mexico is perhaps a 3rd world country. Guatemala also, but in some senses a banana republic, keeping in mind the importance of being sensitive to the people & a wonderful culture.

I met a journalist who is working here for 6 months on a special project. He told me the government is like a Mafia monarchy.

¡Pobre Guatemaltecos!

Vahalla Experimental Station: Fighting Poverty & Global Warming

A school sponsored afternoon trip took us to a macadamia agribusiness. Below I provide some details, but the web site has much more on it. It is worth a visit.

We were met by Lorenzo (the magnificent?) the American Dueno who came here from San Francisco in 1978. Lorenzo is an amiable gentleman of 70 who talks with you easily. Part of the tour included getting a facial with macadamia nut oil!

Some highlights:

  • Each macadmaia nut tree removes 30 pounds of carbon monoxide a year from the atmosphere.
  • Lorenzo has donated & continues to plant many trees in the Department (simlar to state) of Sacatepequez, Guatemala.
  • Pancakes are served daily: 30% macadamia flower, macadmaia nuts inside & macadamia nut syrup!
  • Voluteers help on the farm. The two we met were building sustainable homes.
  • Lorenzo's work has received international recognition, yet he is a regular guy exhibiting no self-importance

At the Outdoor Market in Antigua

In the western end of Antigua (a small city about 10-12 blocks square) there is an outdoor market that rivals any I've seen. It has almost everything - well except large applicances like washing machines!

You can purchase: T shirts, soccer shirts, sports shirts, pants, blouses, dresses, socks, underwear (a nice pairt of socks goes for 63 cents. no you do not bargiain that!) shoes, umbrellas, nails, hardware, tools, watches, alarm clocks, fresh fruits, vegetables, freshly slaughtered chickens - no salted grasshoppers though as in Oaxaca, Mexico!

There is a constant buzz. Kids, older ladies & men walking with heavy bundles roving to sell - calling out. Individual booths line each aisle.

You are struck with how every available inch is used. If you've been to Lexington Market in Baltimore, you know the size of the aisles - well except some here are narrower.

Turning one corner, I stood next to neatly stacked home items: sponges, huggies :-) cleaners, & much more. It all was packed tightly & reached to about 6 feet in height.

Imagine 4 phone booths arranged to make a square. Within that space (taking the phone booths away!) there are chairs with people happily sitting enjoying a freshly made fruit drink.

You can sit many places & enjoy freshly cooked food. It's best for us not to do so as food is likely not prepared with purified water.

The price of fresh food, nails & similar items is not negotiable, but ALL else is. You quickly learn how to negotiate. If a camisa (sports shirt) is selling for 95 Q almost $ 12, you begin with say 35 or 40Q = $4.50 - $5.00. Now some may refuse to pay more than one half the asking price. To me that's a tad greedy as these are not rich people, not even close. So perhaps a 95Q asking price for say from 55 - 65 depending. Negotiations are done in good faith - be prepared to walk away saying, no gracias. You'll always get another lower price. Oh yes, it is most important that you know well - how to say & understand spoken Spanish for numerals from 30 - 120 !

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Local Buses - reality & corruption

Today conversing totally in Spanish as always (total immersion) my teacher explained how the camionetas (buses) work.

All buses are privately owned. So I could purchase say 3 buses & obtain permission to run them on a specific route.
  • The fare is 3Q or 38 cents.
  • Buses legally have a capacity of 40 people.
  • For one day the driver is expected to return 300Q = $37.50 to the owner at night. Hopefully the driver will make about 50Q = $6.25.

That is the arrangement. The 300Q is not negotiable. So how then does a driver earn more money? ¡Mirele!

  • Drivers pack the bus three to a seat. These are school buses. When all seats are full, the drivers pack the aisles. Ellen & I had to get off a stop after ours because it took minutes to get through the mass of people in the aisle!
  • Drivers drive VERY fast trying to get to a stop before another bus.
  • At transfer points, buses often sit until enough people from other buses arrive.
  • The national police collect about 5-6Q per bus per day. This amounts to about 500Q which is turned into the chief. In turn the laws regarding capacity are not enforced.

This is a main reason why these buses continue to be referred to as chicken buses. Our version of people being treated as cattle.

An added bonus for us :-) There are callers who yell out (gritar) Guati, Guati, Guati (pronounced Whati) beginning at 5 a.m. This is done so people a block away will know the bus for Guatemala City has arrived.

So each morning you are greeted with a chorus of Guati, Guati, Guati!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Guatemalan Family Visits me from their Pueblo

Yesterday, Santiago's family came 5 hours to meet me in Antigua. Santiago, Davi(d), is a 12 year old Guatemalan I assist through CFCA. His family of 12 lives on $70 a month.

Upon meeting we went to my homestay so we could exchange gifts. The mother helps earn some money by making by hand beautiful clothes, scarves, table coverings, bags etc. She gave me a bag Latino men ususally carry plus a lovely small square table cover. Both she made.

When you sponsor a kid in Latin America, it is not possible to send anything that is more than one inch thick. If you do it will be stolen. So coming in person is an opportunity to bring larger items.

First of all it makes sense to bring a young person a soccer ball. They cost $ 10 or 80Q here, a lot of money for a poor family. Soccer shirts, esp. of Gautemalan teams, are reasonably priced. Plus it is customary to bargain - surprisingly I've become good at that. Not my favorite thing to do, but possibly because I'm using another language, it provides some distance - seems a tad less intense, possibly.

Davi immediately put his soccer shirt on! Of course I had other items for him. Fortunately my daughter had a large suitcase she no longer needed, so I could bring items & the family could take it with them.

Being a tad of a ham (!), I gave the gifts in 3 parts with lots of comraderie. All had a lot of fun. Many pictures were taken.

I offered to take them to McDonald's or Burger King as I'm told the kids like it. BUT the family has never had a hamburger. They preferred to eat in a local Guatemalan chain restuarant. In reality they never go out to eat.

While at the restaurant, the father spoke with me at length, inviting me to their home. That is not an easy thing to do as I know it has a dirt floor, mud walls and a tin roof. He was very thankful for the support & spoke movingly. It was of course a tad difficult as one does not want lots of thanks, but given their life, it's important for them.

I was also quite happy that I could understand him as we were talking alone. I could also speak so that he understood me - definitely improvement in my Spanish!

It is difficult, possibly impossbile to express how moving & wonderful the day was. It is so easy to help someone. Chou!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Soccer Balls for Pueblo Kids

On Thursday, I went with the McLaughlin family to a pueblo to distribute soccer balls (pelotas de futbol). Mom & dad collect used footballs from various clubs in Conneticut. They brought about 140. The 4 teens make daily sojourns into poor pueblos to inflate & distribute the soccer balls.

It's really quite simple. The 4 teens are quite sensitive to the kids & readily incorporate me into their work. We climb high off roads onto paths to reach kids. Word spreads fast & soon we have to suggest that perhaps one ball per family or pair of friends will have to suffice.

A man comes over to me asking for a ball. I reply: "Senior, no eres un chico." Sir, you're not a kid. Behind me a whole row of kids break into laughter. It is a very good feeling that I am finally beginning to speak Spanish in a manner that locals can readily understand. Believe me, in prior trips, even a "Como estas?" was met with a puzzled look!

The afternoon ends with a discussion among the 5 of us about what it means to give & to look beyond any acquisitiveness they experience from the poor youth here. After all, doesn't everyone want to receive their own? Seamus, Aislyn, Joey, and Jordan are wonderful young people to spend the afternoon with in a poor Guatemalan pueblo.

What a Weekend !

Completing my first week of study with a terrific teacher I set off for Lake Atitlan. In Mexico one travels easily by 1st class bus. Sadly not here. You can go either by chicken bus - not advisable - or in mini vans. For a 2 1/2 trip that should be a problem. Ahem!

Actually the going was much better. We were crammed into a van - 14 of us - but everyone was affable so it was bearable. The roads are an experience.

Arriving in Panajachel I found the dock. The adventure begins! There are 8 or 10 slips with no indication as to what is what. Instantly you are deluged with offers of boat trips. (One must go in a boat to get anywhere on the lake.) The first offer was for 200Q, a mere $25 ! The actual fare is 10Q about $1.25.

Arriving at Santa Cruz de Laguna, again no signs. The hotel is pleasant, simple and amid lush vegetation. There is one choice for dinner, grilled chicken. No problem. After dinner, they have first musical chairs & then the limbo. No, I passed! This part of the trip was fun as I met several interesting people from Australia and South Africa. People dressed up in readily available costumes. The next day I told a group of guys from Kent, England that they looked great in their dresses the prior night! Again, boring, I passed and kept my own clothes, thanks!

Toward the end of the evening I spoke for about 40 minutes with a local man & youth. I realized I had been conversing without too much difficulty. That was a good feeling.

The rain from Antigua caught up with us. It rained & rained. Oh well. Es la vida! A man from NY reminded me I was in a banana republic. I don't particularly care for the term, but it does indicate a bit of the experience.

There was no Sunday Mass available. I went up to the pueblo & was stunned by how much was not there. A school, a very poor church with only 1 Mass a month, and no store to purchase food. People have to bring it in, via boat,.

So imagine going out to Safeway, except you first have to go down a very steep hill, wait for a boat - basically a small fishing boat - and shop. You haul back your groceries via boat, and this day in pouring rain. Then you can hike up a very steep hill that takes about 30 minutes to walk.

OR, you can take a tuc tuc (motorized 3 tiny wheeled vehicle that can accomodate 3 people up to the pueblo for 5Q, 65 cents.) or climb into a pick up & ride up, again for 5Q.

Before I walked back down from the pueblo, I stopped for a soda. I bought a can and discovered the top was rusted. I tossed the can. The church I visited was probably the poorest, most basic I've ever seen. Even the vigil light was electric. Clearly candles are just too expensive. I'm reminded just how poor many people are & how fortunate we westerners are.

By now it is really raining hard. Oh well, I have to get back to Pana to catch the mini van. Now I readily admit that my agility has lessened considerbably since beginning my 6th decade. So getting into & out of the fishing boat which has no step or anything to step into - except the hull several feet below - can be a challenge. In this case it is raining hard & the boat is rocking & moving to & fro the dock. A so easy to slip!

Ok, aboard, I'm ready. Well, imagine moving at a good clip in pouring rain and the boat slams hard every 3 seconds. I was not fearful though I'll admit I did review things like recalling that they say the water temp is 72 degrees. Also questions like: "If we sink, do I really have to take my shoes off in the water?" to "Just how long do we have to tread water before help arrives?"

Interrupted thoughts: The flap on the side keeps coming loose & rain comes & every 45 seconds water drips above my head!

Well, we've arrived back in Pana! Phew. Woo, not so fast! Once on the pier I notice that with umbrella & small suitcase I am to negotiate two boards onto the beach & then tip toe across beach and rivulets!

Ok, I'm up on the street. Now where? Similar to London I get conflicting directions to Calle Santander. I walk on & mercifully a tuc tuc comes my way. I get in & we set off for Aeterna Primavera - how ironic! But where the ---- is it? I am truly blest at this point. my young Guatemalan tuc tuc driver will not give up. After many streets & stops to ask for help, he finds it. A fine tip he earned!

An hour later I'm off in a much more comfortable looking mini van. Ah, appearances!

As we head out of town, I see a motorcyle coming straight for us. The van driver steering to not kill the cyclist has to drive into the ditch. Yep! While everyone is seriously inspecting & concerned with the panel dammage, I get out to suggest looking closely at the axle. I recall well the hairpin turns on steep hills coming our way.

Now the driver with help has to drive out of the ditch. He does it! Later he feels a need to stop to rinse the mud off of the fender. Hmm. it's pouring & why I wonder is this a priority now?

Now, recall the comfortable van? It is except my fine driver chooses to take hairpin, snaking turns sharply. I spend an hour hanging on & bracing myself against gravity. Fun? It gets better! There are two basic groups on this ride of 15 people: an Israeli family & a Dutch group. So?

Dutch like German to me is not a melodious language. Problem is the Dutch youth need now to talk non-stop - not a second of silence. Add to the fun, the mother & daughter sit in the front & dad plus two sons sit all the way back. I get to pass muffins, money back & forth etc. My every genial disposition is getting sorely tested as I pass, hold on or brace for dear life & listen to non stop Dutch & Hebrew.

Not to worry. We hit a major traffic jam and sit amidst these melodious tones for about 40 minutes!

Back finally, Quite a Weekend!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More on Antigua

After several days here I can provide more specific info. This city is well worth a visit. Sadly Guatemala is the 2nd poorest country in Central America. A haircut for example is $ 1.50.

So that the local economy can exist, there are tourist police on many corners from the morning until about 10 p.m. Like other Latin countries & England, most places are closed by 11 p.m.

98% of the streets are cobble stone. People often use tuc tucs (little 3 wheel motorized vehicles with very small wheels) as taxis. Buses are old school buses from the U.S. brightly painted but too often belching exhaust. Nice of us to recycle!

Antigua has suffered from many volcanoes in the past. Consequently the city has many ruins throughout, possibly like Athens! Walking is very pleasant though it's important to be careful lest one twists an ankle etc. Sidewalks are narrow & each window is protected by iron grating that protrudes about 4 inches. Consequently, when using a large umbrella - recommended as the rain can be heavy - you will encounted a lot of hurdles!

Finding a place is interesting as 90% or more of buildings painted with different but repeating colors all look the same. My homestay is lovely but behind a wall similar to others. There might be a house, a store, and then a bank in a row. So you have to look closely especially when coming back after dark.

As in Mexico, the local people are very nice, easily smiling and helping out when asked.

This is the beginning of the rainy season. It rains each afternoon. Last night it rained hard for hours. To me it's fine. Cloudy mostly but it is so lovely out.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hola de Antigua, Guatemala

What a wonderful first 24 hours!

Upon arriving in Guatemala City, I rode to Antigua with a family from Connecticut. It's a blended family: mom with two sons, 16 & 14 and dad with a daughter 17 and son 16. Dad's a patent attorney & mom is an anesthesiologist. They are very inclusive & I spent a delightful evening out to dinner with them. The teens are delightful, at least I think so - so far! We are at the same homestay so it's company & insight into what to see & do.

The family brings used soccer balls - about 150- each summer & goes out to poor villages to donate them. I'm going with them one afternoon this week.

I had my first morning of classes. Taking the advice of a former student, I was able to request a specific teacher. Based on the first day, I'd say he may be one of the best I've had in Latin America & at 1/2 the cost of Mexico! He's been at the school for 21 years, married with two children, a girl 13 & a boy 4.

The school building is relatively small but fine. The city of Antigua is the smallest Latin American city I've been in - the size makes for lovely panoramic views in all directions, including 3 volcanoes - two of which are still active.

The homestay is pleasant & has a lovely inner garden. My room overlooks the veranda. After amuerzo (lunch - main meal) I'm taking the school sponsored walking tour.

And gratefully as I see it's about 90 at home, it's in the mid 70's here & cooler at night! Mercifully low humidity.

Off to Lake Atitlan Saturday. Monday, the young man & his parents I sponsor through CFCA come for a visit.


Thoughts on the amazing people I get to meet.

Rich, my 19 year old friend, soon to be Franciscan and recent community member at Haley House in Boston. An article he wrote.