Monday, June 29, 2009

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

A huge blast of thunder just pounded over my head and now the rain is coming down in buckets. The lighting storm hit just over an hour ago, around 6:30pm, just after we got into Barillas. It has been a long two days and I am ready for a shower and a nap. But before that, let me recap the past two days of my trip.

So, my first flight headed for Texas left at 1 in the morning and I was thankfully able to sleep for most of it, if that’s what you call it on an airplane. I laid in the Houston airport terminal with a borrowed Continental travel blanket keeping me warm (Don’t think too bad of me, I’ll return it on my way home) and a face mask blocking the light. However, as airports can be somewhat noisy, I didn’t really “sleep.” I did more of that airplane resting on From Houston, Texas I departed for Guatemala City and arrived at 11 am, a surprisingly short, 2 hour flight.

After proceeding through customs and passing the H1N1 Medical station (there were multiple medical personnel wearing masks and stopping those entering the country who recorded a high temperature on their infa-red TV, and picking up my luggage, I walked outside into the Guatemalan air to be greeted by about 100 of my closest Guatemalan friends. The group ranged from families to taxi drivers to others holding signs for designated arrivals (students, tourists, people like me). Sure enough, Marco Tulio Maldonado, the field director for HFPF, was there to greet me with a smile and a hug. I was also introduced to his brother, William, William’s wife, May, and their two sons, Alejandro and Sebastian. We all piled into a big, white off-road SUV and headed out of the airport to grab lunch, at a Chinese restaurant (of all places!!) in Guatemala City. Well, we just happened to arrive at the beginning of the US vs. Brazil Final game of the Confederations Cup. So, with much gusto I cheered on my team to 2-0 start within the first 35 minutes. However, I didn’t yell “gooooool!!” too loud because there was a Guatemala family sitting next to us that was clearly made up of Brazil supporters. (I didn’t want to cast my fate as an obnoxious gringo on my first day in Guatemala…) I realized later that I should have yelled louder because the family didn’t seem to notice me or think of my feelings when they roared after the next 3 goals scored by Brazil. So, a little disheartened, I left the restaurant thoroughly enjoying my first dining experience in Guatemala. After that I headed for a hotel to take a much needed siesta after my long night of traveling.

This morning I woke up at 5:15 to leave for Barillas. Marco and I were able to hit the road before most everybody else in Guatemala City. As we left the city I saw one man climb up a ladder on the back of a chicken bus (what they call the brightly colored recycled school buses used all over Guatemala) and secure bundles, bags, and luggage on top of the bus, then climb back down the ladder and hold on for rest of the ride. The bus never slowed from its 70 kilometers an hour speed the entire time. I wish I had gotten a picture, but didn’t have my camera close to me. An hour or so outside of Guatemala City we passed Lake Atitlan. Big and beautiful, the lake is surrounded by volcanoes, including one which was enveloped in clouds like someone had covered an ice cream sundae with whipped cream. Again, no photo. After breakfast I got out my camera. The breakfast food was great! I especially enjoyed “El mush” which is like oatmeal, only mostly a sweet, milky liquid with a few, small oats at the bottom. And, the café was similar to my experience in El Salvador, it needed 3 spoonfuls of sugar. It’s not very strong, but bitter. That’s not an insult to the coffee or the country, everyone I’ve seen enjoyed coffee with lots of added sugar to their cups as well, just an observation. (I remember hearing something in El Salvador about how most of the farmers there who grew café did not earn enough to buy their own refined product, but instead had to enjoy instant coffee. Anyone who has been to El Salvador with the Casa program, can you verify this?)

After breakfast we headed back out to the highway and had an adventurous day. The roads in Guatemala are very windy, always. From the plane, I looked down and saw the brown seams in the green slopes and thought, couldn’t they have straightened those out? Nope, the country is just that hilly. Many of the turns are very tight and there is often a chicken bus coming around the corner in the opposite direction at the same time. The buses are the common form of transportation in the country but can also be very dangerous. One bus passed a few cars on one of these blind corners. Luckily, there was no one coming on the other side. Marco is a great driver and handled the roads with a display of skill and experience. Plus, the truck HFPF owns handles the terrain great, which for the last hour consisted entirely of gravel, rocks and potholes, not just pavement, rocks, and potholes.

I’ve included some other captivating pictures of the day, but I want to finish with an image of my favorite part of the day. We stopped at “La Mirada,” a vista overlooking the valley below and were quickly met by six, cheerful little girls. Marco told me they used to bring flowers to visitors of the high point, but this time they offered “12 poemas.” They had memorized 12 short poems engraved on the posts surrounding a piece of art at the stop. I wish I had understood the words that flowed from their small mouths, but the beauty of the scene did not lay in the meaning of the poem. Instead, I was captivated by their smiles, their humorous antics and jabs at each other (2 were obviously sisters). Afterwards, Marco asked them to all line up in order to receive their prize, 1 quetzal each. It was my first encounter with the Guatemala people and a pure and unobstructed interaction of humanity. After rereading this paragraph, it seems that I haven’t quite captured the beauty of these few short minutes. But, I think why they struck me so was because while these girls were obviously much poorer than I, and experienced hardships I knew not (you may be able to notice in the photos that some of the girls have burns on their cheeks and lips from the altitude), immediately there was a connection between us. They wanted to share a poem and I wanted to have it shared with me. I couldn’t understand anything they recited (though I did hear the “gringito” whispered behind my ear as I was showing them the photos I took), but we still had a simple human connection. Beautiful.

Ok, that’s all for now cuz I have to get to bed. Tomorrow morning at 8 am I'm meeting Dr. Gonzalez, who I'll be working with in the clinic. One last thing, my new word for the day, popcorn = poporoz.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Art of Political Murder?

I've been doing some background reading to get a better sense of Guatemala and thought I would offer a few books if you want to learn more about Guatemala, too.

A cousin (Emily Freeburg) recommended:
I, Rigoberta Menchú, a collection of translated interviews with the Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous Guatemalan woman. It's very compelling and impacting. I have noticed a lot of parallels between the history of Guatemala and that of El Salvador. Both countries experienced horrific massacres of poor and/or indigenous people simply due to their fight for human dignity.

Another cousin (Alex Freeburg) recommended:
The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman. While I haven't started it just yet, it looks like an interesting read. It's about the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala City in 1998 (it makes me think of the 1980 assassination of Monsenor Romero in El Salvador)

For the "cinematically" inclined, I recommend:
When the Mountains Tremble directed by Newton Thomas Sigel and Pamela Yates. This too, captures the life of Rigoberta Menchú. I've seen a portion of it in a Spanish class.

Lastly, I suggest reading a book given to me from a friend (Britt Williams):
The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novgratz. This colorful life story depicts primarily women-driven economic development enterprises in Africa. While the novel doesn't relate directly to Guatemala, I have found it very insightful into the challenges of working amidst language and cultural barriers. I think it will be very helpful to prepare myself for the unknown experiences I will have in Guatemala.

So, I'm off to Guatemala...

So, I think it would be appropriate to begin with a little background information as to what I'll be doing the next few weeks. I leave Sunday, June 28th at 12:55 am (as in, the morning) for El Paso and then onto Guatemala City. I'll eventually get in around 6am and get picked up by Marco Tulio Maldonado, the Field Director for Hands For Peacemaking Foundation (HFPF), an Everett, Wa-based nonprofit started by the late Dr. Aller, who worked at Snohomish Family Practice. From there, we will travel by car/truck/bush plane??? depending on the weather...

HFPF has been in Guatemala for over 20 years and has since established a clinic in Barillas (north of Huehuetenango) in the NW highlands. The foundation is also involved in other development work; building schools, clean water and sanitation projects, and installing clean, wood burning stoves. Most indigenous families cook over open fires in their homes, which is both very dirty and unhealthy. HFPF often brings large, Wa-area (usually Rotary) groups down to work on these development projects with the villagers. All of their work is in collaboration with the indigenous villages, only after a need has been identified by the Guatemalan people and they have organized as a community to support the successful completion of the project does HFPF begin to search for donors and volunteers to come down to Guatemala.

My time in Guatemala will include work with the HFPF development projects, as well as experience in the Bethesda Clinic (where Dr. Allen first initiated his work) with Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez and English instruction with Willy, Marco's assistant. He works with the groups who come down to Guatemala, so his mastery of English is important. The experiences in the clinic will be especially interesting. I remember a family friend who worked for some time in a clinic in Bolivia as a nurse recount stories of all the medical needs she witnessed. Anything and everything could happen...

I have to admit, I am a little anxious. For the first four weeks I will be with HFPF, but then I will travel the country on my own for a week to take in the rest of the country. I may even trek over to Honduras for a few days to see some Mayan ruins as the infamous Tikal ruins are just too far away. This is the first time I have ever traveled abroad on my own, or really just ever. And, I have only ever been out of the country for two weeks at a time. However, I am confident I can get by conversationally with my Spanish and Guatemala is good country to start my travels in; the indigenous people speak slowly as Spanish is also their second language.

If you want to know more about HFPF, check out their website:

And, this link has information about the Donovan Fellowship. I am traveling to Guate as a Donovan Fellow: