Being a Tourist Again

When you’ve lived in a place for so long, it becomes pretty normal. Even when that place is as exotic as Guatemala. While I enjoy new experiences and checking out new restaurants and such, I really don’t consider myself a tourist anymore. Well, didn’t. That’s changed a bit now.

My friend Claudia and I recently set up a new website, Into Guatemala, to put our knowledge of the area to good use. At first, I was just writing the usual stuff, based on  my years of experience from living here, filled in with a few tidbits from Irving on cultural stuff. But, we set up a Facebook page and an Instagram account and suddenly I found myself in the bizarre position of being a tourist again.

Mayan girls

Walking through the market, I see things with new eyes. I’m looking at the piles of tomatoes and limes and then taking photos of them. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken photos in the market!

It’s interesting, after all these years, to look around with fresh eyes, snapping pictures and writing descriptions for those who may never have been here before. It’s exciting and fun and something I am thoroughly enjoying. While we do hope to eventually make money off this blog, for now, it’s enough that it is reawakening my passion for Guatemala.

Cornfields and School Supplies

Last week, my friend, Annalisa, invited me to go with her to distribute school supplies for her organization, Eduacion con Esperanza. I jumped at the chance, of course. It was just a short, overnight trip, but I was excited to A) check out her project, B) travel a little bit and C) hang out with her.

We left on Sunday afternoon with our backpacks and a bag of supplies that hadn’t gone up with a friend the day before. I haven’t traveled longer distances on a chicken bus in many years now, so it brought back memories, climbing aboard the bus and wedging myself into the tight seats. All part of the adventure!

On the first day, we arrived at Pujijil II and were picked up by Manuel, the project leader in Solola (yep, back to the lake!). We headed to interview one of three families in a rural area where we had to walk quite a ways through cornfields. That wasn’t a problem, but the terrain was up and down. Despite living on the side of a volcano, I’m not used to hiking up and down and up and down!

After about 20 minutes, it became obvious to me that my legs weren’t going to hold out much longer. They were on the verge of collapsing and my eyesight was pretty much narrowed to directly in front of me. After passing a couple of houses with rather aggressive dogs (nothing like a bunch of snarling dogs to make those legs work!), I stopped to rest, waving everyone else on. Of course, they waited for me, but it was getting late and I didn’t want to hold everyone up.

Once we reached the top of the hill we were climbing, the guide, a local woman, pointed out the house. It was downhill and then back up again. I told them I’d stay put and wait. So I sat down, accompanied by Edgar, Manuel’s teenaged son, and we talked chickens and corn and education while we waited. It was incredibly beautiful up there, with the cornfields stretching down around us, no sounds but the occasional distant shout of a child floating up the hill and the chortling of the chickens scratching around us.

When everyone returned, we headed back to the truck. Manuel was nice enough to take pity on me and bring the truck closer so I didn’t have to walk up the last hill, which, quite frankly, may have been the death of me.

We saw two other families (thankfully much closer to the road) and headed to Manuel’s house in Solola to have dinner with his family and sort school supplies. He has four sons and a daughter, all really neat kids. His wife made a huge amount of tortillas to go with the chicken soup she served us and later left the remaining tortillas on the wood stove to crisp when she went up to bed. I had to laugh when the kids came bouncing back down the stairs and gobbled up the crispy tortillas around 10 pm. That is EXACTLY what Dorian would do!

In the morning, this was the view that met us. Amazing!

volcano

We met up with the women in Annalisa’s project. The meeting place was at the top of a steep path and I once again struggled up it, my legs not fully recovered. Word of my weak legs had preceded me, I realized, when everyone was chuckling at me as I finally made it up. Our guide from the day before was animatedly telling the story of how I’d stumbled my way up the hills the day before.

Annalisa and Manuel began to sort out the supplies and give them to the women while the children played. I particularly liked this one idea . . . a Pepsi box turned into a swing!

20160125_111522

School supplies distributed, we were ready to head home, but first, I had to use the bathroom. When I asked where it was, one of the women called out, “Half a kilometer!” and they all started laughing again. Well, it wasn’t half a kilometer, but it was down a steep path! I made it safely there and back and we were ready to jump on the bus and go home to where the boys were eagerly awaiting my return.

It was a fun trip. I have to admit that I miss traveling like I used to do, so this was a great way to get out for a bit, even just for a one night trip. Though, in the future, I will be making more trips to the area, because I’ll be working as a translator for some upcoming tours!

Six Additions

Those who know me fairly well know that I’m a back-to-the-land kinda girl at heart. I’m not ready to live 100% off the grid, but I do want to grow my own food and be more self-sufficient. That’s easier said than done when living on a tiny bit of land that is mostly house!

However, a couple of weeks ago, we took a giant leap forward in this regard. We got six chicks that will grow up to be laying hens.

I’ve wanted chickens for years, but Irving was a little iffy on the whole idea. We had super limited space and he was worried they’d stink. But I had something on him this time, since he brought home three rabbits for the boys recently! When I found the chicks in the market, I told him that we needed to take some home and he was going to have to build an enclosure that very afternoon. He reluctantly agreed, I purchased my chickens and off we went.

Irving quickly rigged up a chicken run and we were in business! Dominic loves to sit on a chair and watch the chicks peck around in the dirt. He says, “This is the best movie ever!”

Apparently Macroft agrees, since he sits for hours outside the fence watching the chicks, too!

These little girls have grown quickly and started to fly the coop pretty fast! After we had one go missing (she decided to visit the neighbors for the afternoon), I had to go ahead and clip their wings. That was nervewracking, but they didn’t seem to mind too much, especially since they had lots of snuggles first and food after.

More on the Panajachel trip coming. I’ve been a bad blogger since I’m rushing to finish up my Pitch Challenge and getting several projects off the ground!

Niños con Bendicion

One of my blog readers that I know fairly well came down this month and asked if I would be interested in accompanying her to the lake and a nearby foundation that helps children stay in school. Of course, I was interested, especially since it would give me a chance to get a closer look at how other organizations are doing things. I’ll be writing on each of these in a separate post, so today we’ll start with the first place we went, in San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

Niños con Bendiciòn was started by a husband and wife team, Tino and Lesbi. The place is a little tough to find since there is no sign and it looks pretty unassuming from the outside. Once we found it, however, we were warmly welcomed inside and found ourselves in a rather large space with a dirt floor. This area functions as the shop for the project, play area and also the space where they do performances.

Before the performance began, we were told more about the project. Tino and Lesbi started it with just Q300 or around $40 US. They have two children of their own and wanted to help others do well in school. The foundation helps children with scholarships for school, but it’s far more than that. They also have the kids (31 of them!) come over after school to learn things, get help with their homework and to give back to the project. The couple feels very strongly that the children shouldn’t be just given things, so they insist that they learn and return something to the project.

This is where the performance comes in. Part of the project is teaching children traditional Mayan dances. They then perform these for visitors who donate to the foundation. The kids are so popular, though, that they now perform at weddings and such, as well! Their mothers weave the items that are found in the store, as well, beautiful tapetes and huipiles, as well as bags made from tipico cloth.

We were ushered in and given plastic stools to sit on. Each of the children from the day’s performance came forward to introduce themselves and thank us for being there. They were dressed in traditional clothing or traje from different areas in Guatemala, though they’re all from San Antonio, so they explained where their clothes were from, as well. The students range in age from 6 to 15. The older ones went to play marimba in the back of the room while the little ones danced for us. They were so adorable!

I brought the kids along, at Caroline’s request and they really enjoyed the performance. They understood the meaning behind the dances and at the end, when the children pulled us up to dance with them, Dominic nearly flew off his chair, he was so eager to try it. After a breathless laughing dance with the kids, they dispersed while we washed our hands in the pila and had a demonstration of how tortillas are traditionally made.

Of course, I’m familiar with all of this, but it was still a lot of fun. The boys each tried using the traditional piedra de moler with the dough. Then we each made our own tortillas and cooked them on a huge comal over a wood fire. The kids were thrilled with this process! I ended up finishing up a lot of tortillas for Dominic, though, since his little hands couldn’t flatten the tortillas enough.

Once the tortillas were cooked, we enjoyed them with some beans and green sauce. Delicious! Lesbi makes all the food from scratch and fresh each day so that no one will get sick. Everything is very carefully cleaned by the older girls in the project, as well.

Finally, after our snack, the kids ran off to play and Caroline and I looked around the shop at the lovely woven items and coffee in huipil bags. They had some lovely things, all produced right there in San Antonio.

By the end of three hours, we were all great friends and Lesbi invited the boys to come back for Thursdays, when the kids in the project get together to play futbol or head to the pool. I think we’ll be taking her up on that! Everyone had so much fun and Tino and Lesbi are truly wonderful people and very open and genuine. They didn’t complain or go on and on about how terrible things are. Instead, they were very thankful that the project has done so well and were very happy about how many children are going to school. Their first students are getting ready to graduate and that’s an exciting thing in a country where apparently only 12% of students graduate from high school.

Guatemala’s Hospital Crisis and What We Can Do About It

18 women wait for C-sections in Antigua's national hospital . . . but there are no supplies to operate. Image via La Noticia en Guatemala.

I’ve written previously about Guatemala’s public hospitals, but it’s something that has been weighing on me heavily lately. Last week, my niece, Sofia 3, was admitted to the hospital for pneumonia and we had yet another chance to see what the public hospital is like. While they were surprisingly well equipped for children, the very basic items had to be purchased. Her father, Irving’s youngest brother, had to go out to buy the supplies for an IV to be run. Oxygen and medication were supplied, but the actual supplies were unavailable.

Irving went to visit the little munchkin (who is recovering nicely and should be home today) and I asked him to talk to the hospital about donations. He talked to the Chief of Pediatrics and discovered that they need just about everything, but are particularly interested in the following items:

  • Gloves
  • Syringes
  • IV supplies
  • Suturing supplies
  • Gowns and clothes for children
  • Diapers
  • Towels

This was for the Pediatrics floor only. In Maternity, they are in desperate need of supplies for C-sections. Families are being asked to find the supplies while their pregnant loved ones wait and labor in the hospital. Doctors are weary of the complete lack of supplies to treat their patients with, though they do the best they can with what they have and what families can bring.

I’m just one person. But this crisis is being reported everywhere. Here are some links that may help shed more light on the situation.

English

Daryl Fulp, a missionary who lives in a town near us, wrote this sad post about his own experiences with the hospitals. He also blogged about desperate parents pleading for help for their children, often just a few dollars for medicine or supplies.

Spanish

This article in El Periodico shows that hospitals across the nation are in trouble.

This short report gives more info on how things came to pass . . . the money was stolen by the government.

The following is a video that shows some of the difficulties that the hospitals are faced with, including a woman who had to find the money to buy surgical supplies for her daughter who needed an emergency C-section.

How We Can Help

I often feel helpless when I read these stories of families desperate to help their children survive, or women trying to have their baby. I’m not rich enough to help many people and sometimes it feels pointless to help just one, though it’s really not!

There are few things that can be done and every bit helps. While I hope the government steps up and the new president will work on fixing this problem, people are suffering and even dying in the meantime. We can do something about that for one or two people . . . maybe more.

1. You can donate money to Daryl Fulp’s mission fund. He lists it in his blog posts. He has a proper organization, so that may be the simplest method for many. If not there, you may find another organization that you trust in Guatemala and ask if they can do donations.

2. You can donate directly to the hospital. If you’re in Guatemala, or visiting, you can drop off medical supplies and clothing for the hospital yourself or contact me and I’ll meet up with you to collect and deliver them.

3. Donate materials. Irving and I eventually want to set up a small clinic here where families will be able to come when they need specific supplies for their loved ones, but at this point, the need is too great and we are not equipped to handle that. So, for now our solution is to start small and take the items directly to the hospital. Here’s what we’re working on right now:

  • C-section kits: Small kits that include the syringes, gloves, IV items and stitching supplies for a C-section. 
  • Hospital gowns: I love sewing and so it makes sense to create some hospital gowns. I’m already doing small burial outfits for preemies, but am expanding to hospital gowns for both adults and children. These can be made from sheets, which are easily found in the pacas and come in some pretty cute designs, as well as flannel.
  •  ER kits: Stitching equipment and thread, gauze and gloves are just a few of the things we’ll be collecting as we can to donate to the ER.
I’m still debating whether or not to open a GoFundMe to help out with this, but of course, we’re happy to accept physical donations of fabric and other supplies to take in. Contact me for more information or leave a comment with your thoughts.

Edited to add: We’ve created a GoFundMe account for those interested in donating. You can follow the progress on the new Healing Hearts Guatemala site.

That Doesn’t Need Refrigerating!

There are so many cultural differences when you visit a new country, but here, my biggest challenges have always been food. I’ve always been a picky eater and I think most people figured I’d starve in Guatemala! Over time, I’ve overcome many of my food issues, but there are a few things that I still don’t get. One of these is the lack of refrigeration for things that I have always been taught to keep cold.

So, without further adieu, here are some of the items that are regularly NOT refrigerated in Guatemala.

Mayonnaise: Everyone knows that mayonnaise needs to be kept cold, right? Growing up, I heard horror stories of people who left their sandwiches with mayo in their lunchboxes for a few hours and got horribly sick or even died. So, when I started working in a cafe here and they kept their mayo in a squeeze bottle on the counter, I was horrified.
Fast forward a decade and while I do keep mayo in the fridge, it’s not a big stressor for me anymore. There are no eggs in the mayonnaise that we buy, and I’ve never gotten sick, so I’m going with “it’s okay.”

Yogurt: A few days ago, I was walking through the supermarket in Antigua and there in the dairy section was a stacked display of drinkable yogurt. Just sitting out in the aisle, no effort made to chill. If you head to the market, many stalls sell little cups of yogurt, which are stored in boxes sitting in the sun. I’ve never tested these and I never plan to. However, technically yogurt is cultured milk, so maybe it just keeps culturing instead of going bad? I really don’t know.

Meat: At the same supermarket, we went to buy some ham. There were displays of ham sitting on top of the display case and a big plate of pork chops. In the market, again, you’ll regularly see stalls in the meat section with slabs of beef and chicken carcasses laying out on the tiles or hanging from bars over the counter. This grosses me out no end . . .but again, there is a precedent for this. When you hunt or butcher an animal, you can let it hang for a bit to age. Personally, I prefer fresh meat that is frozen right away, but I’m also not a huge meat fan.

meat in the Guatemalan market

Eggs: Another thing I always figured you needed to keep cold was an egg. Take a stroll through the market in Antigua, though, and you’ll see bags and cartons of eggs sitting out. I did some research on this and it turns out that you don’t need to refrigerate eggs . . . as long as they aren’t washed. Also, if you DO put them in the fridge, they have to stay there or they will spoil when taken out.

Milk: This one is cheating, since the milk here comes in tetra packs very often. These can be left out and will stay “good” though if you ask me, packaged milk is extra gross (I’m not a milk fan anyway). I tasted it once and it was horrible, but certainly not rotten. If you’ve never seen this, though, the thought of boxes of milk sitting out is very odd.

Seafood: “Camarones! Camarones grandes!” is a shout you may hear near a speed bump in Antigua, while men with buckets of prawns wave handfuls of the smelly seafood at passing cars. In the market, you’ll find piles of shrimp heaped over little mountains of melting ice on slabs of wood. I don’t eat seafood, but even if I did I would be very, very careful about purchasing warmed raw shrimp.

 

 

Good and Evil

One of the things you just don’t think about before having children is how you’re going to explain the bad things in the world to them. The past month or two, we’ve had a lot of sad talks in our house.

First, Dante is obsessed with the Titanic at the moment. He has studied it extensively, watched multiple documentaries and built models of it. He’s recreated the ship in Minecraft and done experiments with toy boats and sinking. He’s learned about hypothermia and life boats and drowning, as well as icebergs. But all of that studying and learning can’t tell him the WHY. “Why did these people have to die?” “Why didn’t they have enough life boats?” “WHY do bad things happen?”

ISIS and Syria were the next issue. We’ve been studying World War II and when the older boys read about ISIS, they immediately compared the group to Nazis. We have had many discussions about this, but after we watched a news story on ISIS and then read some of the stories on Humans of New York (Brandon is currently doing a series on refugees) of refugees fleeing the civil war, Dorian turned to me and said, “I didn’t realize there was so much evil in the world. I really thought it was better now.” Then he said, “I’m so lucky to live here in Guatemala. I’m so lucky to have medical care when I’m sick and to have a house.” I don’t think it had ever clicked for him before.

Obviously, that statement led to discussion of Guatemala’s civil war, which was something they knew vaguely about, but didn’t realize that it had happened just a short time ago.

And then the mudslide in El Cambray happened and they were faced with images and videos of people desperate to find their loved ones. It’s now been five days. Any hope people had is dashed and the mission is now body retrieval. Dante asked, after seeing images of the slide, “Are their souls free now?” And then, “Which is sadder, the Titanic or the mudslide? I feel like this might be sadder.”

I feel like my children are just starting to see the world more clearly now. We’ve never gone out of our way to protect them from knowledge that bad things happen, but it seems like they just reached the point where they can understand it now and it’s shocking to them. On one hand, it breaks my heart that they are realizing that the world does still have evil in it. On the other, they are making me so proud as they process the information and talk about solutions.

Both boys wanted to go help dig in the mudslide. “Maybe there are still children trapped in there and afraid,” they said. “We should help.” When I explained that they wouldn’t be allowed to dig and that it’s really no place for children, Dante sat down with a pen and paper. “I’m going to design a house that will stay safe in a mudslide.” He created a home design that has multiple walls and steel posts so that it won’t collapse if there’s a slide.

I can’t explain to my children why bad things happen. I can’t tell them that it will never happen to them or that the world will magically be perfect for them. It won’t. But here’s what I can tell them:

“There’s evil in the world, but there’s also good. You choose whether you’re part of the evil or part of the good. If you look at everything that is happening, there’s always good. In the mudslide, people are coming from around the country to dig and Guatemalans have donated so much food, they’ve asked them to stop giving food, because there’s so much they need to use it first. In Europe, people are feeding the refugees, giving them shelter and medical attention. They’re helping.”

Wherever you see evil, you will also see good and it will shine even more because of the darkness. In the end, that’s all I can tell my children and show them how to be the good.

El Cambray

The heavy rains at the tail end of the rainy season have taken their toll on some areas. In a town near the capital, nestled in a valley between two hills, the rain caused death and destruction.

Half a mountain of mud and clay slid down on top of an estimated 150 houses around 9 pm, Friday night. Estimates of the missing range from 300-600, but no one really knows. The valley was so narrow that there are meters and meters of mud and dirt on top of the houses, many of which did not collapse completely, leaving people alive inside the ruins. We know this because they are texting their friends and family from under the mud.

Despite this, bodies are being pulled out. One woman told cameras that her son had been found with his head wedged between the wall and the bed, while her husband was found under tree. Both were taken to the hospital, but she stayed on site, because one of her sons was still missing.

One of the things I really love about Guatemala is how quickly people organized to help those left homeless. There are bottles of water, food, blankets and clothing being donated, not all from NGOs or foreigners, but by the Guatemalan people themselves. They know what it’s like to be without and they hurry to help.

As of last night, 55 survivors had been pulled out of the mudslide and taken to the hospital. This is another worry, because the hospitals here are in a downward spiral. I wrote about my MIL’s issues but we’ve been learning that it is far, far worse. I’ll write a post on this in the future, but basically, the public hospitals are out of supplies. They don’t have gloves, IV kits, or even basic medicines to bring down fevers. I’m not sure how they are going to handle this sudden rush of landslide victims . . . unless people also donate the items necessary for surgeries and basic medical treatment.

For now, the nation watches anxiously, cheering for each survivor pulled out and feeling saddened with every lifeless body that appears.

What On Earth is Going On in Guatemala?

The kids and I have been ridiculously ill the past couple of weeks and while the boys are doing fine now, I’m still feverish and not doing a lot, hence the severe lack of posts here. However, some of you may have noticed that something is going on in Guatemala. Something big.

I’m not going to go into it all here, but you can read about what is happening in this Buzzfeed article. It gives a very good overview of things.

What I am going to talk about is my thoughts on this whole thing. I’m proud of Guatemala. This may not be my natal country, but it is most definitely my country now and I have never, in 13 years, seen the people of this country pull together like this. It’s amazing and beautiful.

Guatemala has a bad reputation for being violent. There have been many, many protests in the past, but never have I seen this many people involved, from every social level in this country, protesting . . . not just together, but peacefully! Millions of  people in cities across Guatemala are coming together, sick of the corruption and ready for change. Will it change? Will Guatemala become the country it has the potential to become? Maybe . . . maybe not. I don’t think it will happen all at once, but this, the people of Guatemala getting upset and taking a stand against corruption is what is needed here.

A Third World Hospital

Just what is a third world hospital like? It all depends on where you go. I’ve had quite a few experiences with the public hospitals in Guatemala, but most of those were years ago, when I miscarried our early babies and when the two older boys were born. Dorian’s later surgeries and Dominic’s birth were in private hospitals, so dealing with my mother-in-law being in a public hospital was a return to a familiar world.

Most people know that third world hospitals aren’t going to be that great, but what other option do people have if they don’t have money? Something I’ve learned is that the system has gotten far, far worse than when I was giving birth in San Felipe’s hospital. Or perhaps it was simply because I was there for something natural and normal, rather than needing special help. Either way, here’s a look at what a public hospital in Guatemala is like these days.

1. Bring Your Own _____

The hospital will give you food and a bed. That’s pretty much it. The food is very basic, as is to be expected. There’s no fancy JELLO here! You’ll be served a spoonful of beans, a piece of bread and a melamine cup of atol (a thick drink, like gruel). If you’re lucky, you’ll get a side of veggies or a piece of plantain. It’s not filling, but it will keep you alive. Let me just say that this tiny amount of food is NOTHING when you’ve just had a baby and haven’t eaten in 12+ hours!

Now, while this is provided, there is NO water offered in the hospital. You will need someone to bring you a bottle of water or you will have to drink from the unfiltered taps in the bathroom. Which I’ve seen many women do, since there is only one visiting hour in the day. If you have your baby or go in early in the morning, you’re kinda hooped until 2pm.

2. Call Buttons, Shmall Buttons

Don’t expect to be able to call a nurse when you need one! There are no call buttons here and if you do get up to find a nurse, you’ll most likely be scolded and sent back to bed without any real help. I suspect the nurses are jaded and underpaid here and are tired of being unable to tell a patient that a doctor is on his way or give out any concrete information.

3. What to Wear

You can’t take anything into the hospital with you. When you arrive at the ER, one person may accompany you and that person will be given everything you have on you in a plastic bag, including earrings, underwear, and shoes and socks. You will be given a gown that may be in pretty poor condition (my MIL wore one with a huge tear in the side and no ties).

During the visiting hour, family or friends can bring you flip flops and such. Until then, you get to show off your assets. ?

4. Need Meds? Buy Them Yourself

The hospitals here work on a very limited budget and have virtually no supplies. When Dante had to go into the ER a couple of years back, there was a child brought in who had drowned in a well. They were trying desperately to resuscitate this little boy and one of the doctors was pacing the hall, calling every resource she could think of to try and find a ventilator so they could try and save this little one. They were bagging by hand until they could get hold of one. Can you imagine? That’s a vital piece of equipment for a hospital that serves at least a dozen towns!

My MIL needs a metal plate in her shoulder. The hospital does not provide this. Instead, they give you a prescription for it, should you be lucky enough to get a surgical consult, and it’s up to you to go and buy it. If you don’t have the money, your loved one remains in limbo, waiting until the family can get the pieces and the medications they need. The blood tests she required were also extra out of pocket costs.

As Irving put it, “This is basically a public hospital now, because you have to pay for everything except the bed!” This makes it extremely difficult for families who are unable to raise the money for a necessary operation.

 5. Doctors Off Call

When I had Dorian, there were no doctors in the hospital. Since the hospital in San Felipe is a teaching one, it’s full of interns and residents who seem really resentful of their need to be there. When things go wrong, there isn’t always a doctor around to step in and that can be dangerous. Fortunately, I never had an issue with that, but there are people who have.

All that being said . . .

I am very grateful that there ARE public hospitals here. They aren’t the best and they have many, many faults, but they also provide medical care to those who can’t afford it elsewhere. There are some doctors, like Dorian’s surgeon, who are true to their oaths and are willing to help their patients and make life better for them.

While most of my experiences have been bad, Dante’s birth was a wonderful experience with the help of two amazing female doctors in the same hospital where I had such a terrible experience with Dorian’s birth. So, I think there are a number of people working in these poor conditions, trying their best to help, but without the necessary resources to do so. That’s sad, but it gives me hope that things can get better.