Sunday, October 9, 2016

Holy Moly, let's go get some cornflakes.

So, the baby's name is Baker Joseph, Joseph after my uncle with whom the baby shares a birthday and whom I credit with my return to Guatemala in 1998. I am not sure where the Baker part came from. At four months little Baker is a robust eighteen pounds and his mother has returned to the international school with even greater determination. The good news is that although sixteen for another month or so Astrid is no longer a teenager. I think we have found a cure for adolescence, albeit a complicated one.

Baker Joseph

Diego took a week off from school in July to go on a Mundo Posible road trip to the Ixil Triangle of Guatemala. With other team members he helped to install offline educational resources in rural schools and even go trail riding in the area's hills with the owner of the place where we stayed and a visiting World Possible board member.

Diego and his steed.

In the middle of September I returned from a couple of weeks on the west coast. My first inkling that something was amiss was when Diego asked if he could speak to Olga, the psychologist who had tried so hard to sort his family out a couple of years earlier. I told him that I would contact her and asked him what was wrong.

"Problems in the house again, my aunt told us that we have to leave," he told me. Knowing how fond of the children the extended family were I felt that this was just an idle threat and I told Diego just that. However, a few days later Mishelle arrived after school on the school bus and told me quite cheerfully "my mom says that we have to stay here for a while." Diego had gone to a friend's house for the weekend. I took a very deep breath and took Cristofer and Mishelle to the grocery store to buy some cornflakes and, as it turned out, an abundant supply of fresh fruit. Domino's pizza would do for dinner and tomorrow was to be another day.

Mishelle had some extra clothes in her backpack. Cristofer had the clothes on his back. I had some extra toothbrushes. Neither had ever spent the night in my house before nor had they, as far as I knew, ever spent a night away from their mother.

We made their beds and I showed them how their first ever hot shower worked. Cristofer immediately took a shower. Both seemed higher than kites as if they had just made a landing at Disney World. I had one children's book so after pizza we took turns reading about the antics of Clifford the dog. As they put their lights out I heard Mishelle ask her brother "are you afraid?" He answered "no, because I have Latte." Latte, one of my dogs, whose preferred to sleep on someone's bed.

A couple of days later their mother came by to see the children. Her younger sister was with her and after spending time with the children they took me aside and told me that the children would need to stay the week as Marielos was receiving threats from a "señora" against herself and the children.

As things go in this country, which is really a small town, the next morning I ran into a fellow who had done some finish work in my new house. I knew that he lived in the same community as the children and their family and that his wife knew their mother. I asked him what he knew and he told me that Marielos owed over $2,000 which is a huge amount of money here, equal to five or six months of salary, to a señora whose husband had just been released from prison and had indicated that he was looking for Marielos. My suspicion was that the "borrowed" funds had wound up in the hands of Alex in prison. He was very capable of working this woman for his own gain without a moment of remorse.

In the interest of being very careful I invited Aunt Gladys, to bring her parents, the children's grandparents, to see the children. We settled on a time and the entire family minus one who was working and another in the US showed up. It was Marielos's birthday and I had suggested a birthday party for the children's mother in the interest of keeping everyone happy. The children showed the family every inch of the house and then they sat. It was apparent that they were going to sit for a while so I offered juice, chips, pistachios. The psychologist was due and I thought it only fair to alert her to the fact that the entire family was present.

I took my dogs out for a walk and waited for Olga who quickly decided that she would work with Marielos for an hour then Diego then Aunt Gladys. I poured a large glass of wine into a coffee mug and went about turning a dinner for five into a dinner for eleven. We ended the evening with a birthday cake and on very pleasant terms. The grandfather blessed me as he always does. Diego asked if he could walk out to the gate with his family. When he came back he was beaming, gave me a big hug and said "thank you."

Family birthday party.

I felt that the extended family all then knew that the children were in a good place and being well cared for if not by their mother.

I had contacted my attorney as, in reality,  I was housing abandoned minor children and the Guatemalan government takes a dim view of white people with brown children. I had already been told that the law required that I report the situation to the courts and that they would come and take the children and put them into separate foster homes pending a lengthy and expensive process to determine their disposition. Even my attorney said this was not a good solution and suggested that I get the mother to come into her office and sign a power of attorney to protect not only myself but the children.

The psychologist also told the mother that this would be necessary if they were to stay any longer in my house. Marielos agreed and an appointment was made for the following Monday morning. The lawyer asked me what the plan was for the children and I deferred to Marielos. I expected her to say that her family had agreed to keep the kids and was very surprised to hear her say that the children were to live at my house during the week and visit the family on weekends. So be it. I had no other option but to put them outside the gate and tell the guards to not let them in or call the government.

Marielos told me that the previous night at the aunt's house Mishelle had cried and wanted to return to my house where it was quiet and she could sleep alone. While I had not seen their quarters in the aunt's home I guessed it was no different from the previous home where the four shared a nine foot square room and two beds.

That afternoon, after school, we went to their aunt's house and collected their worldly goods all of which fit quite nicely into their small backpacks. Over dinner we chatted about their school day and some time later I found the three scattered around the house each in their own space doing their own thing reveling, I guessed, in the space and in the peace and quiet.

Yes, I questioned, once again, my own sanity. I realized that this could be a ten year commitment. Maybe on some level I knew it was coming. I had always thought that Diego might end up here but never dreamed that all three would be more or less dropped off. Many had asked why I had built another house and I didn't really have a good answer. Now I do.

The younger two children told my housekeeper that they were very happy to be at my house because there was so much fighting and shouting in their aunt's house. Only then did I realize how much tension they must have been living with. The mother left them with the family. The family was angry that she wasn't taking responsibility for them. Often they were hungry. I guessed that often they thought of themselves as the cause of the strife in the home.

A friend who had once done social work told me that it wasn't unusual to see really well behaved children emerge from questionable situations and that often those kids went the other way once they were free of the oppressive situation. I decided to maintain the relationship with the psychologist and be vigilant.

Officially, the new arrangement was to be temporary until Marielos who had already demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to care for her children found a suitable apartment to rent. She told everyone that the incarcerated Alex was going to give her the equivalent of $200 a month from his questionable activities in prison yet, the first payment was diverted, not surprisingly, into something Alex needed for himself. I suspect the subsequent payments will go the same way. Alex knows very well that the children are better off in my house and no doubt he dreams of their successful futures and eventual contributions to his well being. And he had a history of never giving money to anyone, not even to the many mothers of his children.

So, there we are. I am learning to provide three meals a day. On Friday we went to a Paca (the Guatemalan equivalent of a thrift shop) and the three kids were given a cart and set loose to find some clothes for themselves. Most of all the children seem to enjoy the space and the quiet. I often find them scattered throughout the house doing their own thing. Slowly, we will introduce more reading and less screen time. More board games and less screen time. Earning screen time by reading and working with the Khan Academy.

Shopping for clothes

Their first morning I was surprised to find them up, smiling broadly, showered and dressed with their beds made ready for breakfast and school.  And quite obviously happy.


As the mother was once again using the psychologist to lobby for financial gain Olga and I decided together that no amount of therapy was going to turn her into a responsible parent thus the efforts of the psychologist going forward will be to help the children adjust to their new circumstances without feeling rejected by anyone in their family.

One day at a time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

His Hands are Bigger than Trump's

Early this morning Astrid had an emergency C-section probably because she was at risk due to a condition called "preeclampsia." She was being monitored pretty closely for high blood pressure which can lead to this condition. Sadly, Astrid and her mother were told that the baby might not survive because he was small, premature. They had a restless night. He did survive. He is fine and so is Astrid. And his hands are bigger than Donald Trump's.

He doesn't yet have a name as he wasn't due for another month. They will go home on Friday and Astrid will then face the music.

Grandma Estela, 39, getting rid of the hospital rags (free healthcare).

In a recent message to a mutual friend about her predictament Astrid said the following.

"Thank you so much for your support, I was the one who started all this so that's why I want to take the responsibility, is going to be difficult but no impossible. This can happen to anyone, and I want to finish school because that's the oly way of surviving Guatemala. Again thank you so much, I hope everything is going well with your girlfriend and remmember always becarful in Guatemala City is really dangerous for you and for her too. Thanks for the offer of bringing something but I feel that is incorrect ask for something and thanks for everything that you had help me out with."

He weighed in at four pounds, ten ounces and seems only to want to take a nap,
oblivious to the 25 or so people passing him around.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Another Baby Makes Eight

Everything had been going so well that I couldn't think of anything interesting to write about. Now I know to beware when it feels like nothing interesting is happening. The Guatemalan school year ended in October with Diego failing the sixth grade. I had told him that, if he didn't pass, he would go to the same school as his younger siblings, now called the Green School Antigua. He couldn't go there without failing the sixth grade so I was actually pleased that the other school hadn't worked out. As the Green School is growing with its students they were only up to sixth grade or "upper elementary" in the Montessori tradition. I dreaded having to tell Diego that he would be leaving his friends behind but, surprisingly, he didn't seem to mind. He has settled in, has three teachers who all adore him. Two of his teachers are men who are fluent English speakers and the other a Guatemalan woman. Throughout the school day the students are required to speak English with the English speakers and Spanish with the Spanish speakers. I had a message recently that one of his teachers wanted to speak to me. Oh no, here we go again. However, when I met with Maria she told me what a joy it was to have Diego as a student. She said that he was not only very intelligent but a leader in the classroom and extremely well-behaved. She reported that his mother had cried when she had told her the same thing.

I was in Mexico City when Diego made his way to my house to use the Internet so he could send me a message that he had gotten ninety-four percent on his math test. That was up from thirty-four percent at his previous school. Maria told me that he had gotten ninety-eight percent on the national math exam. Go Diego!

Diego's English has taken a huge jump forward. A few days ago he told me that his best friend at school is a girl named Emily who is from Denmark. He reported that they speak a mix of Spanish and English together. I suspect that Emily gets at least some of the credit for the improvement in his English. Go Emily!

Cris and Mishelle continue to be a delight. Both played recently in a municipal soccer tournament. Diego, being a year too old to compete, was given the role of assistant coach for the school. He took that role very seriously but also ministered to his younger siblings during half time making sure they had sufficient water. Cris's team only missed first place by a kickoff to settle a tie. During one game Cris scored four goals. His Japanese American pal, Jojo, scored the other four. Interestingly, Cris who is timid about a lot of other things, is a ruthless soccer player. He is also a math whiz and loves to be challenged with math questions. We routinely do math problems at the ice cream store. How much is one sandwich and two cones and how much change should you get?

Four goals each.

One day I heard Mishelle reading aloud from an interactive book on a tablet. She was able to answer successfully all of the comprehension questions at the end and then asked for books for her upcoming birthday. Books she got. It is sad that books are so hard to find in this country. When I was her age I lived at the public library. Recently, Mishelle's grandfather blessed me again and told me that Mishelle was reading to him. Quite a feat for a kid who knows that her grandfather can't read.

Diego, the assistant coach with Mishelle and Cris and a smile not often visible in years gone by.

Just about when I thought everyone was on track Estela, once again, asked to speak privately to me. I knew that everyone over the age of eight had an IUD so what could it be? Once again I wondered if Alex had been murdered in prison. Tears rolled down her face as she told me that our star student, Astrid, was four months pregnant despite having an IUD. Estela had become suspicious and had taken the child to the same clinic that had installed the IUD. They had confirmed the pregnancy and removed the still in place but failed IUD.

I was devastated, furious. Clearly, she thought she was protected but my concern was her apparent interest in casual, indiscriminate village sex after three months in the United States. As with her sister the father was a boy in the village. This one a candy seller who at least offered to take the baby. How could she return from the picking cherries in Oregon, the Golden Gate Bridge, Broadway and the top of the Washington monument to banging a local boy in the bushes somewhere. And at the same time she was volunteering as a youth counselor with a family planning NGO. Clearly, there was another side to Astrid and while I don't envy her the consequences I was kind of pleased that she got busted.

Fortunately, I had calmed down before I saw her. Her mother had reported that she was more afraid of me than she was of her classmates finding out which they inevitably would. She was examined by the NGO doctor and sent for an ultrasound which confirmed that she was four months pregnant. Astrid, aged sixteen, and not even fully grown will be having a baby at the end of June.

The first order of business was to deal with her school. On a Saturday I messaged Astrid's favorite teacher from the previous year. "Coffee today?" "Sure, everything OK?" "Nope, Astrid is four months pregnant." "Oh God." Over coffee we hashed out a plan to tell the school. Carmen called the Guatemalan principal and told her that she had been approached by a student who found herself pregnant and thought that the administrators would like a heads up. The principal contacted the American director who was in his first few months at the school, a school that had so far not experienced a student pregnancy.

The director's initial reaction was that Astrid should simply disappear after Holy Week because of "a health issue." The school would then continue to support her through home schooling. His approach was reminiscent of New England in the fifties I thought but since, as he repeatedly pointed out, I was not Astrid's legal guardian, I was not entitled to an opinion. However, as word leaked out it was the Guatemalan parents who raised a ruckus and came to Astrid's defense. No doubt someone also pointed out that in Guatemala it is a human rights violation to deny a child the right to attend school. Suddenly there was a shift in policy and Astrid was then welcome to stay in class as long as she wanted to.

I went off to Cuba for a week or so and when I returned Estela reported that the director had called her in and had her sign a letter along with Astrid. I asked her what it said and, being barely literate, she said she didn't know. She indicated that she had a copy and I asked her to bring it to the house. I emailed the director and asked him how I could help in supporting Astrid's home schooling. His rather curt response basically said that my help wasn't needed, that it was a private matter. He indicated that I should just come in if I wanted to discuss it any further so I set up a meeting for the next day. I asked him if I could see the letter that Astrid and her mother had signed. He told me no, that it was confidential. I reminded him that we were not in the US and that I had paid Astrid's bills since she was five years old. He told me that I should ask Estela for her copy. I pulled that copy out of my handbag and pointed out to him that it wasn't signed by anyone other than a support staff person and that her mother was now worried about what she had signed. He wasn't able to explain why the copy had not been signed as he had indicated.

If the copy is the same as the signed letter it was to relieve him of any responsibility for Astrid not attending class. It indicated that Astrid was welcome to attend class or be on campus at any time and that it was her decision to study at home and not attend class. As I pointed out to him she chose that path after being told by himself and the principal that she would be humiliated by other students and parents, that the school couldn't be responsible, etc., etc., etc.

Another parent, Doctor Oscar, told me to go to an attorney and get a power of attorney for educational decisions so that the administrators couldn't shut me out any further. The attorney told Estela to go to the school and ask if they would accept the power. Estela did that and explained that since I paid the bills and was in a better position to guide Astrid in her education she wanted to have an attorney draw up a power of attorney. Suddenly, that was not going to be necessary and the school had Estela sign their own document giving me the right to make decisions at the school for Astrid.

Astrid retreated becoming a recluse at their little home in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. I suspected that she was so full of self-loathing that she couldn't cope with anyone being nice to her. She alienated both myself and Carmen, her former teacher. Carmen was able to persuade her mother to take Astrid to the National (free, public, sketchy) Hospital as the child had disturbingly high blood pressure. As luck would have it the first doctor she saw there spoke English and Astrid told him, in English, all about her trip to the United States. He told her about another patient he had had in similar circumstances whose family wanted her to give the baby up for adoption. She insisted on keeping the baby and was, at the present time, studying at a university in the US and the baby had become the favorite grandchild of her parents who were raising it. I suspect that doctor gave Astrid a ray of hope, an idea for her future.

Carmen and I both backed off each weary of the abuse from Astrid. Carmen greeted her at school one day when she arrived to take some tests and Astrid didn't acknowledge her. Astrid had told me not to come and collect her from a class, that she would rather walk home. After a couple of months realizing how isolated Astrid was, dangerously so, I started emailing some idle chatter. It was fairly obvious that she was getting little support at home. Her mother had told me of a single woman she knew who had twins. She sold bread on the street during the day and studied at night. I guessed that was Estela's plan for Astrid. She did not have the skills to understand what Astrid would be losing by selling bread and not returning to the international school. Eventually Astrid responded to my emails, at first, reminiscing about blueberry pies in Oregon. Then she asked me for all the photos from her trip to the states.

While Estela didn't often offer any information without being asked when asked one needed to set aside an hour. She told me that Astrid was being seen weekly at the National Hospital because of elevated blood pressure. And probably also because of her youth and small size. Perhaps thanks to that first doctor who recognized that Astrid was not the usual pregnant teen the staff had apparently taken up Astrid's cause. Estela had been referred to a psychologist who had hammered in the notion that she needed to support her daughter, that she was exceptional with tremendous potential and, given the failure of her IUD, pregnant quite unexpectedly.

Thanks to that psychologist Estela and Jackie decided that together they could help Astrid raise the baby. For some reason, despite pleadings from many Astrid, who doesn't even like to take care of her nephew, refused to consider adoption. Her mother and sister both tried to convince Astrid that adoption would be best for all. I told her that she needed to do what was right for the baby. Back doors adoptions with known families who would let her have a relationship with the child were of no interest either. Estela fretted that Astrid, because of her temper, would not be a good mother. We all knew that she is bound to resent the child for interfering with her plans. Her mother expressed fear of her daughter's temper at a later time if she forced the issue, any issue. Estela understands that she will be raising the child.

So, in another month Astrid is having a baby by Cesarian section due to her small size and the size of the baby. Amazing what nutrition can do that wasn't done before and after Astrid's birth. She has emailed me that she plans to keep the baby. "It is a personal decision." Further, she explains that her mother and sister are going to help her and that she is desperate to go back to school. So, with a bit of hesitation I sent the first check to enroll her in the tenth grade started August 29th. Estela reports that Astrid is now much calmer and happy. I suggested that she contact Carmen and apologize to her and she responded that they had been in contact and the two had a plan to get together. I have no such plans as seeing her older sister pregnant was disturbing enough and Astrid is even younger. I will discuss conditions for continuing school attendance and only pay monthly until I am sure Astrid can meet those conditions. And yes, one is no further pregnancies.

Liam says "I don't have a father, I have Uncle Denis."

Denis, or Tío Denis, as he is known to toddler Liam, is now nineteen and will graduate from high school in October. I suggested that he should think about attending university full-time in the city getting an apartment with some other students. Needless to say he jumped on that idea and his school is helping him with entrance exams and the admission process. Interestingly, the enormous public university which is actually quite good schedules classes either in the morning, afternoon or evening allowing students to choose based on the work they find to support themselves and pay their school fees. US, please take note.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

It Continues to Be Unbelievable

It has been too long and there is lots of news. So much news that there hasn't been much time to update this blog. Starting with the most recent, Alex has finally been "condenado" (condemned) or sentenced, as it would be in English. He has officially received a sentence of sixty-two years not counting the five already served. Recently he sent a letter to Estela and her children pleading with them to come and visit him (the expectation, of course, is that they would come laden with food, clothing and money) in the jail in nearby Chimaltenango before he was to be transferred to the long-term prison in the western part of the country.

The only one who showed any interest was Denis, now eighteen, who likely needed to see his father to have some closure. On the way to school one day he told me about the letter and I encouraged him to visit his father and, more or less, have it out with him. He admitted to being "confused" about Alex. At eighteen with his own national ID Denis no longer needed his mother to go with him to the nearby jail. I told him that his father was going to tell him that he was innocent, it was all a big mistake and that he was a victim. Don't they all say that? I suggested to Denis that he tell his father that he was not a victim, rather it was all of his many children and his victims who were victims.

A few days later Estela reported that Denis had gone to the jail in Chimaltenango and had returned quite quickly after being told that his father had been transferred two days earlier to Pavon, the infamous prison in Guatemala City and possibly one of the worst in the world. I was sorry that Denis did not have the opportunity to confront his father and encouraged him to go one day to Pavon, as scary as that prospect was.

As it turned out Alex had court dates on two recent Mondays in Antigua regarding his transfer to Pavon. Denis went the first week and had to witness a grand performance by Marielos (who has been seen around town with other men on motorcycles and in various stores with the same hombres buying beer) who was dressed to the nines and hanging on to Alex sobbing telling him much the little children (who scarcely remember Alex) miss him. And she wants him to do what about that? She often whines that she doesn't have money for food for her children and apparently no longer works anywhere but arrived laden with bags of food and other amenities for Alex. I am quite certain that he trades it for other favors once he arrives "home."

When Denis had a chance to talk to his father he told him that Marielos was stepping out and reminded him that her last pregnancy was not, as she claimed, the result of a conjugal visit. Alex seemed non plussed and is likely only interested in the bags of food and future conjugal visits in some filthy closet at Pavon.

Denis went again the following Monday hoping to have a bit more time with his father. Alex was sporting brand new jeans and shoes which he said were delivered to Pavon by "Silvia." Silvia is the first cousin of Marielos and has a pre-teen son named Alex for the obvious reason. Silvia is also his legal wife according to Renap, the government entity in charge of vital statistics. Now, do you really think that I could make that up?

Alex asked Denis if his mother was going to visit him in prison and Denis told him "no," that she wasn't interested. And why would she be? Clearly Estela is the only one of all these women with any brains.  As I predicted Alex told Denis that it was all a big mistake, that he was innocent. He asked Denis if he would come and see him in the big, bad prison and Denis politely declined saying that he needed to study and work and help his mother. If he had any extra money it would go to help his mother who wanted to paint their house and not to Pavon. After five years Denis was quite obviously disgusted with this person who has never been more than a sperm donor to him. He told his father that if anything happened to me, Tía Joan, that "I will kill you." Let's hope it doesn't come to that for all concerned. I think that now Denis is in a much better position to dispense with Alex and move forward as the serious, considerate, kind and sensitive young man that he has become.

In June I accompanied Denis on a long promised trip to Perú to visit a couple of teachers who had befriended him the year his father was arrested. We went to Ariquipa, the Colca Canyon where we photographed condors in flight and then on to Cusco and Macchu Pichu. I am not sure the Denis will wander very far in the future but he took all of the newness in stride.

Denis and Alex Marcon in Ariquipa, Peru

Jackie's son, Liam is twenty-six months old, attending school with his mother and chattering in both Spanish and English. Recently, he had surgery to rectify an undescended testicle and also a hernia. While in the local charity hospital his pediatric surgeon was a young, attractive visiting Columbian. Apparently when the young doctor met Liam's equally young and attractive mother he asked the boy "where is your father?" Liam reportedly grinned and say "no hay" (there isn't one).

Liam, 2, on his first Skype call with Tía Astrid.

Jackie, who had been very upset when Alex was arrested, declined the recent opportunity to visit her father. Estela told me that she had finally gone to Renap to register Liam's birth. There was much deliberation about whether or not to add the child's birth father's name giving him legal rights. The cons out weighed the pros and Jackie had to say that she didn't know who the father was in order to get a birth certificate with a blank space. When she provided Alex's surname "Turuy" as part of the boy's four part name the young woman in Renap indicated there were more "Turuy" children in the area. While Jackie knows of Cris and Mishelle she did not know that her father remains legally married to "Silvia." This new piece of information apparently provided a final reason for Jackie to dispatch Alex from her life as well. Quite obviously her father was not whom she had thought he was.

Astrid, soon to be sixteen, just started the ninth grade at the Antigua International School after spending three months of her summer vacation in the United States mostly working on her English but also absorbing lots of reasons to return to school with new determination. She spent six weeks in Portland, Oregon and also visited San Francisco, Reno (where she attended an all day Mexican wedding), New York and Washington, DC. She doesn't even want to hear her father's name much less visit him. Done.

Astrid with her host siblings, Tai and Zahra, in Portland, OR.

Astrid's school moved this year into a newly built facility where there is no public transportation which means that I had to figure out how to get her to and from school. After considering a number of options an underpowered motorcycle was purchased in Estela's name for Denis, who is of an age that allows him to get a license. He now drives his sister to and fro. The deal is helmets for both and no night driving or other passengers. The two have to buy the gas which limits their travels. So far so good and an unexpected bonus is that Denis has given up the hair gel which doesn't do well inside of a helmet.

Diego will officially become a teen-ager in a few weeks time. Thankfully, the hormones have not shown up yet but could any day now. He has had a rough year mostly because he and his mother remain at odds for good reasons and his family of thirteen are all now living in one house. The other house was sold to pay debts that I had declined to cover.

Diego visiting Astrid's little orphan pal, Carlitos.

Probably as a result of having no educational support at home Diego is going to have to repeat the sixth grade which is somewhat odd for a twelve-year old who can train adults on how to use technology. In January he will go to the same bi-lingual, Montessori and now "green" school that his younger siblings attend. I am confident that this move will be the answer to bringing his academic skills up to the same level as his tech skills. In addition, he will gain the sense of family that this school offers and the opportunity to purse the IB curriculum for high school. He has been invited to join his future classmates on a camping trip next week to celebrate the end of the school year.

Cristofer and Mishelle continue to thrive and, so far, remain fairly oblivious to things like poverty, sociopaths and Pavon. They love school and often one or the other of them will thrust a birthday party invitation at me. Without my help they wouldn't participate in the birthday parties of their classmates. They too will be going camping next week albeit on the grounds of the school which is located inside a coffee farm.

Cris, Mishelle and Jojo running a small business at school. Jojo is fluent in
English, Spanish and Japanese at age six.

The Guatemalan schools are finished for the year this month. Diego, Cris and Mishelle will attend "Green Camp" at the coffee farm where their school is located for six weeks of their school vacation. All three have opted for horse back riding as part of their camp curriculum.

If you follow the news about Guatemala you will know that there have been some startling political developments. Both the president and vice-president have been deposed and are in prison on corruption charges. Another ex-president is on trial for genocide. Judges and prominent business people involved in the corruption scandal are falling daily. The prisons are filling up fast. On the 25th of October there is a runoff election for president. While neither candidate is fabulous whoever wins will have to cope with the groups that are determined to bring forth positive change in Guatemala.

Following the political events is better than anything on television. It has been long rumored that the ex-president and vice-president have had a long standing affair. She is not handling well the women's prison and feigned illness in order to spend a month in a military hospital (after being run out of the well respected Centro Medico). She has been ordered back to prison by a judge. The same judge is demanding to know who delivered a computer, exercise machine, stove and refrigerator to the ex-president and he has ordered them all removed. The ex-president is implicated in all sorts of nastiness here going back to the "disappearance" of some 200,000 during the civil war. His trial on corruption charges is scheduled to start on December 21st.

On a more positive note for Guatemala a very moving film has been submitted to the Academy Awards for consideration as best foreign language film. The film "Ixcanul" is the first ever Guatemalan submission for an Oscar. Many of us have seen it in private screenings but it should be widely available soon. While not uplifting it is an accurate portrayal of what life is often like for many young women in rural Guatemala. The two female leads live in a village about twenty minutes drive from Antigua where there is no running water. The woman who plays the mother is illiterate and I hope to see both of them on the stage in Los Angeles accepting an Oscar early next year.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

No Más Corrupción!

Recently all of the children received their grades and Diego's were among the worst, which was quite a surprise as there is no question that he is quite bright. The teacher delivering the grades reported that he did not do his homework, did not participate in class and did not ask questions. Diego reported that he got very nervous when taking the exams, most of which he failed. Diego's math tutor, who found him an enthusiastic math student, was as puzzled as I was.

Diego, better at soccer than academics?

As I had, in the past, seen Diego have a meltdown when it was suggested that he was not performing to standard, rather than get stern with him I probed a bit. I suspected that feeling responsible for his mother and siblings at the tender age of twelve had left him with a fear of failure that was getting in his way. I called in the psychologist who had, a year or so ago, tried to work with Diego's mother, Marielos. That relationship had ended when we all realized that Marielos was constantly lying to the psychologist in an attempt to manipulate things in her favor.

It took Olga, the psychologist only two sessions to discover that Diego was having trouble concentrating at school because he had been told that his grandmother who owned the home that nine of them live in was going to sell it to pay debts. Probably in an attempt to manipulate me Diego had been told that they would have to live in the street. Once Marielos discovered that Olga was working with Diego she started calling Olga in yet another attempt to twist things into economic gain for herself. Olga and I quickly concluded that Marielos, likely directed by Alex in prison, would stop at nothing and was using her own child in yet another attempt to get money out of me.

Olga and I both assured Diego that he was not ever going to live on the streets, that if the family home was sold we would then deal with the problem. I reminded him that Estela had offered to take the children if it came to that. A text message conversation with Gladys, Marielos's older sister, confirmed that the house would be sold to pay debts. Gladly, she said that this was not my problem and the family was grateful for the help I was giving the children. She added that they would all likely move into her house.

The ugly truth is that, as long as Alex lives, he will continue to scheme and use Marielos as his messenger. She is not smart enough to see what he is doing. When one scheme fails he simply develops a new one. She denies that there is an ongoing relationship but this country being a small town she has been seen at the prison on a regular basis on Wednesdays when her kids are at school and have been told that she is working in the market.

No doubt Alex has convinced her that he can go free only if she succeeds in extracting funds from me. After all this is Guatemala. Thus she holds me responsible for this lovely fellow convicted of kidnapping, rape, extortion and murder remaining in prison. If she were to succeed in stockpiling enough money for him to buy his freedom I have no doubt that this now very hardened felon would be gone from her life forever. I suspect that she is turning whatever paltry earnings she makes over to Alex rather than supporting her own children.

Most recently she talked her younger sister into trying to extract money from me ostensibly to help pay the mortgage payment for the about to be sold house. I declined as one must here or it will never, ever end. Only school expenses. Nothing more. Gladly, the sister whom I quite like apologized profusely for asking and said that she understood. Maybe she does but probably not.

So, plot they may, there will be no funds forthcoming. But I do need to be aware that Marielos has already shown that she is willing to compromise at least one of her children so I need to make sure that the children are not only supported but protected. I would not put it past either Alex or Marielos to arrange for a kidnapping if all their other schemes fail.

Demonstration in front of the National Palace May 16, 2015

Speaking of kidnapping on a more upbeat note a recent corruption scheme involving the highest levels of the Guatemalan government led to massive demonstrations yesterday around the country and even around the world against the ongoing corruption and lack of justice in the country. The vice-president has already resigned and the demonstrations yesterday called for the president to also resign. An estimated 60,000 turned out for the demonstration in Guatemala City undeterred by pouring rain. I made some signs and explained corruption to everyone at lunch and the younger kids agreed to go and participate in the Antigua demonstration. Today there is a lot of hope in Guatemala.

Soon they will know what they were demonstrating against.

And even more upbeat news is that Astrid, along with Tia Joan, flies to San Francisco on June 7th for what will be not only her first plane ride but an almost three-month stay in the United States. She has a very expensive passport as it was necessary to make a "contribution" to the now shaky government as her father, whose rights were paramount, was unavailable to grant his permission. Getting a ten-year visa to visit the United States was a walk in the park in comparison. The embassy didn't even ask about her father. 

Astrid will spend six weeks with a family in Portland, Oregon who rented my Antigua house some years ago and have a daughter the same age whom Astrid used to play with. She will then move on to my family in Reno, Nevada and mid-August I will collect her and bring her back to Guatemala via New York City and Washington, DC in time to start the ninth grade at the Antigua International School. She wants to go to the beach, ride in an elevator, visit the World Trade Center museum and a whole lot more.

Astrid, front and center, spending a few days translating for visiting students.

Denis, 18, will go with Tia Joan to visit a former math teacher in Peru during his mid-year vacation at the end of June. Several days in Arequipa and, of course, on to Cusco and Macchu Pichu before returning to Guatemala. 

So earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, brilliant sunshine, occasional torrential rains, manipulative parents, corruption and all. There isn't anything I would trade it for. Look at that smile on Cristofer's face and that after losing a soccer game.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Average Day

I was awakened by the sound of a harp. It was still dark and I realized that the harp was the ringtone on my cellphone. It was just after six in the morning and Estela was calling to alert me to the fact that Denis would not be going to school because he had mucho fiebre, high fever, a symptom of every ailment in Guatemala whether or not infection is involved. I already knew this as I had sat on a stool in a doctor’s office for several hours the previous afternoon waiting for Denis to be seen about an allergic reaction to something. He had been given two prescriptions by a reputable doctor so I wasn't concerned. Estela further asked if she could work the next day instead of the current day as she needed to go into Guatemala City with Jackie regarding the girl’s enrollment in university.

Coffee speeded up the process of greeting the day. An hour or so later after finishing a nice hot latté I heard the harp again. This time it was Marielos who had failed to get Cris and Mishelle to the school bus in time and had only enough money to get them two–thirds of the way to school on the chicken bus. Or so she said. She told me where they were. I pulled on yesterday’s clothes, grabbed my car key and found them in San Sebastian park. Marielos pushed the two children into my car and headed for her stall in the market on foot. I succeeded in getting Cris and Mishelle to school more or less on time.

After a shower and change of clothes I walked to the bank with forty dollars to be deposited into the account of a shipping company so that I might receive a package from the states. Then I went on to the office of a lawyer doing the documentation to register in Guatemala an American non-profit. The secretary wrote the check for me to avoid errors and I signed it. On my way out I bought six large, perfect mangos for two dollars from an indigenous woman sitting on the sidewalk outside the office. I then headed for the office of an accountant who was going to complete the registration of the non-profit. I stopped at central park and ordered a latte. I had a view of the blooming jacaranda trees, which turn the whole town into a spectacle of purple during the Lenten season. 

After a visit to the office of the accountant I drove to the local organic farm where, much to my dismay, they were out of my two regular purchases, kale and arugula. One of the fellows in charge of the shop asked me if I could wait a few minutes and he summoned someone who went out to the fields and picked two pounds of kale and one pound of arugula. On my way home I stopped by one of several pickups in town laden with fresh fruit of every variety. One is handed samples cut with a machete to encourage purchases. I bought some more mangos, a large papaya, bananas and a very sweet smelling pineapple.

After leaving my purchases at home I drove to a school that looks after sixty-four children with special needs. My plan was to take the founder and director, a Guatemalan woman, to observe the Montessori kindergarten class at the school that Cris and Mishelle attend. Fairly quickly I could see that it was going to be difficult to extract her as one mother of two of her students was sitting at her desk and the mother of a nine-year old who had been rejected by a number of schools was expected. 

Letty was talking to the mother at her desk and from where I was standing I thought the mother was in tears but then she started making some odd physical movements. I heard Letty say “I don’t know what is wrong with her” and very quickly we realized that the woman was having a grand mal seizure. Several people grabbed a limb and got her down on to the floor. Drawing on my airline first aid training I looked around for something that could be put between her teeth to protect her tongue. I handed someone a small notepad and asked them to put it between her teeth. Then it was a matter of waiting for the seizure to finish. I suggested calling the bomberos, firemen and paramedics, who handle the most dismal work of dealing with the dead and dying in Guatemala. Letty pointed to one man saying that he was a bombero. I knew that it was also likely that the woman thrashing on the floor didn’t have the spare change that the bomberos would want to transport her to the public hospital where probably nothing would be done for her. 

After about fifteen minutes the woman stopped seizing, was conscious again and very confused. Her student son, who gladly had not witnessed the incident, reported that she had never had a seizure before. Letty decided, quite understandably, that she couldn’t leave the school with a semi-conscious woman lying on the floor of her office so we rescheduled our kindergarten visit. The mother of two special needs children would likely be sent to the local health center where little or nothing would be done for her. I hoped that the next time she experienced a seizure that she would again be in an environment where she could be kept safe and not be in front of her young children. I wondered if she might have a brain tumor or had she suffered abuse at the hands of a family member? Perhaps she had treatable epilepsy but would she ever get the care she obviously needed?

With my newly gained free time I went for my twice-weekly swim in a friend’s lap pool. With a panoramic view of the volcano Agua and the sun warming the surface of the water, once again, I wondered why anyone would want to live anywhere else. Except perhaps the impoverished woman with special needs kids who had just had a seizure that no one was going to do anything about.

Mid-afternoon I collected Diego at school. He asked me if I could give his friend a ride to the bus. His friend’s name was Marvin and he seemed like a very nice boy. As was our routine we stopped at the ice cream store and I bought the two boys ice cream. Marvin indicated that he too spoke English and thanked me for the ice cream. Diego wanted to go to my house because he had left behind the charger for his tablet. I heard him chattering away at his tablet and asked him whom he was talking to and he responded “my friends.” I asked him “how” knowing that he did not have a Skype account. “With messenger,” he replied. At the age of twelve Diego had already outgrown his mother in so many ways. I asked Diego if he would be willing to go to the special needs school with me the following Monday and teach the teachers how to use the Khan Academy videos and website in their classrooms. He said that he would. And he did.

Sometime later I drove Diego and his heavy backpack over to the mercado, market, to meet up with his family. Returning home just as the sun started to set behind the ever puffing volcano, Fuego, I poured myself a glass of wine and went up on the terrace to watch the setting sun create artistic renditions with the clouds and the volcanic eruptions. I had made it through another day and everyone was safely home. I could feed the dogs and cats, including the three feral cats waiting by my living room window, walk the dogs, perhaps get five dollars worth of fish tacos with a friend and read my book for an hour or so before falling into bed.

“Ping,” went my phone and there was a message from Diego’s aunt, Chaito, pleading with me to help the family pay Q4000, or $520, for a colonoscopy for her mother who is suspected of having colon cancer. I responded that we could talk about it and was able to learn that Dr. Oscar, who had once intervened on Mishelle's behalf, could arrange for a Q2000 colonoscopy at the local private hospital. Feliz Noche!

As for the children Jackie, 19, is working as an assistant in the kindergarten classroom at the bi-lingual, Montessori school that Cris and Mishelle attend. She has started university classes, which take place all day Saturday, towards becoming a certified teacher. Jackie is pictured below with one of her students.

Liam, 19 months, is the youngest student in the same school. He receives a scholarship as part of his mother's employment and reportedly loves school. In his backpack are diapers and his food. In his first week he definitely learned to shriek.

Denis just turned eighteen which makes him eligible for a national ID card, a driver's license and a passport. He is still washing neighborhood cars on Saturdays and does light maintenance around my house one day a week. In another year when he graduates from high school he will have to find a real job. Denis and Diego climbed the Tolliman volcano at Lake Átitlan on New Year's Day and following is one of Denis's photos from the 10,000 foot top.

Astrid, 15, is thriving in the eighth grade at the international school where her team took first place in a recent science fair. Yesterday her science class climbed the spewing Pacaya volcano as part of a geology project. A friend who is working at the school told me recently that other students have started approaching Astrid for answers.

Diego, 12, is a kid on a mission. He attempts to communicate first in English and only resorts to Spanish if he gets frustrated. He has an illegal (as he is only 12) Facebook account which he accesses using an internet connection shared with a neighbor in his village. As I set up his account I am able to monitor his use of Facebook. He is working with a math tutor to help him overcome his dubious math beginnings and talks repeatedly about becoming an architect.

Cristofer, 8, remains passionate about math. "Á mi, me gusta por, I prefer multiplication," he says. All of the kids know that they can earn money for points earned on the Khan Academy website. One centavo for every point. Cris earned Q6 on Saturday. He didn't know what to do with it so he gave it to Diego. Cris's favorite food is broccoli which we have every Saturday for lunch.

Mishelle, 6, translates for Cris when he doesn't understand my English. She adores her nephew, Liam, and has started going to music classes on Saturdays with Astrid and Diego. She likes to cook so Estela taught her how to cook broccoli at home for her brother. She is also an eager participant in face painting at birthday parties. 

Otherwise, the volcano, Fuego, that dumped ash all over town last month continues to provide some dramatic scenery not to mention endless work for those cleaning up the ash. While the ash causes respiratory issues in both humans and animals it also provides fertilizer for plants so we expect amazing things once the rains start again in May.