Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Miracles in Guatemala

Christmas in Guatemala is a delightful melange of sounds, colors and smells. Fireworks, the kind that are very illegal in the US and only available to fire departments, are very popular and used for every kind of celebration. At Christmas time there is an entire market that sells nothing but "bombas" (the big ones) along with "cohetes." Last year a fire started and the entire market blew up within a few minutes. No one was hurt and the vendors were all back in business the next morning.

The official start of the season is a procession of children from the La Merced church. The children all wear "traje" or indigenous clothing. Astrid and Denis participated.

There are signs everywhere that say "Hay tamales" (we have tamales). Some are better than others but the locals celebrate the birth of Christ with tamales and fruit "ponche" (a little rum helps). Alex and Estela's children have decorated a potted pine tree hauled in from my garden. With some friends from California we went to the Christmas market which sells figures for "nacimientos" (nativity scenes), colored sawdust to embellish the nacimientos with roads, rivers and more and pine needles to put on the ground to welcome guests in the Mayan tradition. Though these kids have never had their own nacimiento before they knew exactly what they needed from Maria and Jose to the burro and the brick wrapping paper for the backing. Astrid kept looking longingly at the pitiful selection of Christmas trees. I, of course, capitulated. It was actually a nice, fresh looking and smelling tree with a good shape. On closer inspection we discovered that it had been "built" with the branches being nailed to the trunk. The kids didn't care and quickly picked out really tacky lights that play Jingle Bells and ornaments all the way from China. They couldn't wait to go home and set up their first Christmas tree which I understand is in the center of their tiny living room in all its glory.

This particular blog format does not allow for an easy integration of text and photos so I have just uploaded the photos in random order and will let them be where they lie. I trust that you can match up the text and the photos. The first of the Christmas miracles happened while driving through the pueblo of San Antonio Aguas Calientes where the house of Alex and Estela is. Alex and I were taking a donor to see the house. We were making our way down a crowded, narrow village street when I heard Alex say "look, the mother is dead." I looked and there was a tiny puppy sitting patiently next to the body of its mother who had very recently been hit by a car. Without another word Alex stopped the car, handed me a rag and I got out and picked up the pitiful pup who was otherwise being ignored by the locals because she was a female. At this writing "Tonya" (for San Antonio) is flourishing in my house and will soon have her immigration documents for travel to the US where she will be adopted. She will be living every Guatemalan's dream, that of flying to the US with papers.

Another miracle was that of getting the street gate changed at the house in San Antonio so that Alexander could secure his car at night. Out of concern for his only and most valuable asset Alexander has, for the last several months, been sleeping in his car in front of Pollo Campero (considered relatively safe as they have all night guards). He was only held up once at gunpoint but smiled his engaging, dimpled smile and told the would be robber that he had nothing, that he was just sleeping. The robber moved on in the hope of greener pastures. After his first full night sleeping at the new house Alexander grinned and said that he had slept until 8am. He was clearly pleased with himself and for the first time in his life, in from the street in his own home. He assured me that he was accustomed to living on the street but admitted that it was nice to have a place to call home. This, especially in view of a recent rash of violent attacks on taxis. Alex himself narrowly escaped an encounter with potential robbers (or worse) who had barricaded the road with rocks. Alex accelerated and drove over the rocks damaging the under carriage of his car and the would be assailants pelted the car with rocks breaking both the windshield and rear window. He has given up working at night except when called by someone he knows.

When I arrived early in December Alexander was doing a lot of work for a young man who was renting a house a few doors down. He was visiting with a friend and his disabled father from Cuernavaca, Mexico. Sergio had found Alex when he saw his car in front of my house with an "Obama Biden" bumper sticker on it. Alex has had a big grin most of this month because of multiple trips to the capital and also to Antigua restaurants with Sergio and company. When they returned to Mexico Sergio's friend who is the current president of the Rotary Club in Cuernavaca rewarded Alex with a bicycle for his children. Needless to say Alex was stunned and the children overjoyed.

Christmas Eve Estela brought me three tamales handmade by her mother. The children opened their gifts, tried out the bicycle and decided that "gringa" ponche was pretty good. They then went home to spend their first Noche Buena in their own home. Estela had enough tamales and ponche for the poor neighbors. I had contributed 5 pound bags of rice, beans, coffee, sugar and some Christmas goodies as "el senor" has no work, no way to feed all his kids. Estela contributed Incapurina (a nutritional supplement for malnourished children) and some of the children's vitamins I had given her and had wrapped some toys I had bought for the younger children. Sergio had provided Alex with bombas so they had a pretty perfect Christmas Eve. Estela reported that she hadn't gone to bed until 5am.

Antigua's New Year's Eve festivities start near the arch on 5th Avenida at about 4pm with multiple marimba bands followed by indigenous dancing and a lot more culminating with thirty minutes of fireworks at midnight. Let's hope that they signal the end to what has been a very dreary year and the start of something new. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

November 2008 Photos


Here I am again in Antigua on the 5th of November, 2008. Last night we had a Obama Victory celebration in the neighborhood complete with serious fireworks (witnessed from a neighboring community), Obamanos t-shirts and a lot of hope for the future of the United States which has, it seems, been on a slippery slope for far too long. Estela and Alex's three children complete with Obama face paint were the greeters for the fiesta. Estela and my neighbor's housekeeper, who is a fabulous cook, cooked in my kitchen for two days. The host of the party sent me food as I couldn't even get into my own kitchen. Alexander was on hand as the "Obama taxi" to see that those who didn't want to walk or shouldn't drive got home safely. Today there has been a sense of exhaustion, quiet and wonder about what the future will bring.

Today Estela showed up on time as usual and helped Gloria clean up at my neighbor's house before coming to my house. While they had been cooking I talked to the two women about starting a little catering business together, perhaps just starting out in my neighborhood. They could do dinners for people on the weekends. Both love to cook and, as any of you know who have stayed in my house, Estela loves to clean as well. By midday we were all dragging and I found myself sitting in the "sala" talking with Estela. While Alexander can be charming he is, at the end of the day, a Guatemalan hombre. He conributes very little to the family emotionally or financially, both of which I believe are a function of his growing up as an orphan sleeping on the floor of his school. Estela and I talked about the fact that he is perhaps giving them all that he can but we both tire of his more or less constant whining about not having any money. I see new paint on his car, new seat covers and new dark windows as well but nada for his family. Estela got weepy when she talked about her terror of getting sick and not being able to work and wondering what would happen to her children. Her children are wonderful and soon they will be able to take care of their mother who lives for them. On a brighter note we talked about the future for her children. Jackie, who is almost 13, says she wants to be a blilingual secretary (which is not a bad job here), Denis (God bless him) says that he wants to be an engineer who build big buildings. He loves math and says he is going to study really hard so that he can have a big house like mine and take care of his mother. Astrid, almost 9, has gone recently from aspiring to being a teacher to wanting to be a doctor. It is such a shame that the schools here are not up to their aspirations. Astrid was once again the star student in her class which ended mid-October. School vacation happens here during the coffee picking season so the kids can work. The new school year starts in January. In order to "graduate" from "basico" which is 9th grade the kids need to pass a typing test (on a real typewriter not a computer keyboard as they might cheat and, of course, no one never cheats in this country, least of all its presidents) but the schools don't offer typing classes. A real Guatemalan "catch 22" so Estela is on the lookout for typing classes for Jackie starting in January. Guatemala has some real issues when it comes to education. I guess that is why they are ranked the lowest in this part of the world.

The other day Estela told me that she had gotten a 95 on her final exam for the first year of her cooking school. She was very proud and I joked that soon she would be going to the university. I asked her what she would study and she quickly said that she would like to be a lawyer who helps women. Sadly she needs junior high school and high school first.

I have made arrangements for Estela to volunteer one day soon with WINGS, a local NGO that works with the really poor women in rural communites in the areas of reproductive health, family planning and cervical cancer. ( Estela is very excited at the prospect of spending a day helping women less fortunate than herself and also gaining some knowledge that she can use to help women in her community. Estela really is a star and never asks me for anything. She is thrilled with her new house and on Sunday I was included in the family Sunday lunch. She did ask me if she could borrow some forks from an extra set of cutlery stored in my garage which made me realize why her children struggle with knives and forks when they eat at my house.

Estela and I are also working on a plan to have her "administer" the funds to insure that the four poor children who live behind their new house get to school in January. The two youngest need to go to kindergarten and the other two need to continue. While the lousy government schools are free (and well they should be) families such as this one do not have the funds for the required school supplies. I will find the minimal number of dollars involved and Estela will see that the kids go to school and get help with their homework. Saint Estela.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

At Home in "Casa Broccoli"

At last the little house is occupied by a very grateful family. The town's mayor has yet to give in and hand out any water permits but Alex and Estela are hooked up to the water supply of the desperately poor neighbors who can definitely use the $20 that will be paid monthly until the mayor relents or gets thrown out of office. Rumor has it that some 400 families are now waiting for water in this town.

The children are thrilled about having their own beds and Denis his own room. Estela has reported that Denis woke her one morning at 5:00 ready to go to school. She said that had never happened before as none of them had ever gotten a decent night's sleep all in a heap in one bed, and with Alex coming and going as his work requires.

Alexander has some work cut out for him as the yard has to be cleared and grass planted on what is going to be a soccer field for himself and the kids. He is talking about finding his way to Solola at Lake Atitlan where it is possible to buy large cartouches (calla lillis). One corner of the yard will be devoted to fruit trees to accompany the nicely recovering (and very full of fruit) Jocote tree. The water was hooked up a couple of days ago and the children all promptly had their first ever shower at home. With hot water, no less, thanks to a solar water system installed on the roof (keeps their electricity bill at a manageable level).

The computer that Denis can't keep his hands off is a aged laptop donated by my nephew as he left to work for PDI Dreamworks in Bangelore, India. The laptop has been made like new by a "tecnico" here in this country, where our trash becomes their treasures, for the unlikely sum of $63. For now Denis can only dream about internet access as there is none in their town but he can do a lot of "investigaciones" using the Spanish language version of Microsoft Student.

Estela likes the green. Alexander wanted the green to be the same dark green as my house. Estela won so it is "Casa Broccoli." Estela's father cried when they moved the last of their meager supply of possesions from the room that had been home in the family commune some 15-20 minutes away.

Alex and Estela will both be foregoing an increase in pay which will be contributed to ConstruCasa ( towards the building of another house for a needy family. Hopefully, their money will go towards a house (somewhat less modest) for the family in the back with the beautiful little girls. They are a very nice family with nothing. Four adults shares two rooms made of cornstalks with lamina roofs and two kitchens also of corn stalks with eight children. Estela was horrified to find out that they sleep on the ground and have only a latrine as a bathroom. The men and older boys pick corn and beans when in season; the mother and her daughter-in-law sit for hours weaving with their backstrap looms. They have been given two water filters and a donor provided the funds for two fuel efficient wood stoves for which they are very grateful. One of the younger children (a 4-year old grandson) was born with (how do I say this delicately?) redundancy involving his lower intestine. He is a happy bright little boy too young to understand. ConstruCasa director, Caroline, paid for the family to go to the capital to seek medical help. It was a journey that terrifed this family that had never before travelled that far. The ex-patriate community in Antigua has rallied their connections and the child is going to be made right on September 8th by a visiting surgical team at the Obras de Sociales de Hermano Pedro. Estela brought me (who else?) the bill for the surgery. Q500 (US $67) which I guess I can handle. Estela, who is still stunned by her good fortune, is taking this family under her wing and has accompanied them to Hermano Pedro and will go again for the child's surgery. She has even talked to the boy's mother (who looks about 15) about family planning.

So, what's next? After the neighbor boy's medical issues have been resolved Caroline is going to talk to the family about putting the younger two children in "kinder"as they call the government pre-school. That and family planning for the daughter-in-law will provide for further conversations about building them a halfway decent housing. Alex and Estela will be contributing and a Guatemalan friend in the SF Bay area has offered to hold a fundraiser in her restaurant. Give people a chance to help and they will I have found.

Estela and I (and many others) both want to see a Riecken Foundation ( community library in San Antonio Aguas Calientes not only for her kids but for the benefit of the entire community. Gladly, there is forward movement in that direction. The mayor who doesn't give water permits thinks it is a good idea. The town has a perfect building that just happens to be vacant (former police station) except for a "municipal" library with about 150 books, most of them moldy math books. The Riecken Foundation requires that a town that wants a library form a board ("junta") of community members to oversee the library. I took several teachers from my Spanish school over to see the model library at the offices of The Riecken Foundation and would suspect that by sometime this week the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes will have their junta and the mayor will start to feel some pressure to move forward with The Riecken Foundation. Poco a poco.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Gringa and the Mayor

So, the wonderful little house is for the most part finished. There is sewer, electricity, plaster, a toilet and tile (and "a shower" Alexander reported excitedly) but no water (and what good is a shower without water?) thanks to the newly elected mayor of the town. Guatemalan politicians may be no worse than our own but they are a bit more obvious. "Why is there a gringa on the escrituras (deed for the land)?" asked the mayor of Estela some months ago. The obvious conclusion after multiple inquiries by multiple interested parties is that this gentleman is waiting for some monetary persuasion from "the gringa." Little does he know that "the gringa" is far away trying to earn the money to get these things done.

However, what that means is that it will be another six weeks before I can personally deal with the water situation. Hopefully, in the meantime the people who are working on it will succeed in intervening with "el alcalde." Perhaps it is all a ploy by Alexander and Estela to put off their move until I am there in the middle of August. If so, watch this space for photos and commentary of what will likely be a life-changing event. In the meantime the donated furnishings for their house reside in my garage which fortunately is not needed for a car.

Last week guests in my house had Alexander drive them to Lake Atitlan. As it is now less expensive (gas is even more expensive there than here) to pay a driver's expenses than to pay two round trips Alexander was invited to spend two nights at a hotel at Lake Atitlan and to bring Estela along with him. Estela had only ever dreamed of seeing Lake Atitlan which is a 2.5 hour drive from her home. She was curious. We had looked at it on Google Earth along with Chicago, which I suspect was the only city name she knew on the planet outside of Guatemala. I received an email indicating that the two of them had taken the local boat (big, slow, cheap) across the lake in the morning to Panajachel for the day and Alex had reported "aye ... mas o menos" when asked about the boat trip. He phoned me Monday (he always calls when the cell phone companies are offering triple or better minutes) and told me that they had missed the last local boat leaving "Pana" in the evening. Together they did not have the Q300 ($40) for a tourist launch. Ever enterprising, Alexander found a friend who is a tourist guide in Pana and that fellow had a friend who drove a tourist launch who got them a ride back across the lake for Q50 with a bunch of gringos headed for one of the two hotels. Now I know why there are always a few extras in the boats and God bless them for taking care of their own. It was dark, there were waves which the two 90 HP outboard motors attack with a vengeance and it was also pouring rain. I suggested to Alex that Estela may never want to go on vacation with him again. Alexander was in his middle twenties before he ever saw Lake Atitlan (he is only 31 now) and thanks to various gringos he has made several trips there now. Delightful that he could play the tour guide for Estela on his second ever boat ride and I am glad that they both survived the "vacation."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thank you ... my house.

The house in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala is coming together though needs a couple more weeks for completion. On May 18, 2008 approximately 50 people including the construction crew and their familes, family members of Estela's, the indigenous neighbors and several donors from the United States participated in a (premature, as it turned out) housewarming party. One of the donors brought sidewalk chalk and encouraged the children to write and draw on the unfinished walls. There was a trash collection contest and, with the inducement of prizes, the children filled 12 large trash bags in about 15 minutes. Some of the rooms had been plastered and had concrete floors (tile is coming). In one of the almost completed rooms Alexander was stunned to find a local painting of his favorite flower, cartouches or calla lillies. The plaster, the paint (also coming), the concrete roof, the windows, the shower, the six rooms are all very, very new to this family. When Alexander was told that a particular visitor from the US had donated money for the house he turned to her and said very carefully in English "thank you ... my house."

Estela still can't believe her good fortune and is regularly reduced to tears during her meal time prayers. Her father pictured below couldn't stop saying "gracias" at the fiesta. Astrid does gymnastics in the yet unplanted garden and the children have already made friends with the indigenous neighbors. Those neighbors live in a house of cane with a dirt floor. They sleep on the ground, have municipal water (not drinkable) but neither electricity nor sewer service. They do send their children to school. They boil their drinking water and do all their cooking over a camp fire on the ground in a smoke-filled room. Mom spends her days weaving with a backstrap loom hoping to sell a piece of textile goods; Dad picks corn and beans when they are in season and has yet to travel to Antigua, some 15 minutes away. We brought them two water filters and it was quite remarkable to watch Estela who has only had her own water filter for about six months teach the neighbors how to use their filters and explain how easy it was going to be have clean drinking water. Estela and Alexander (who had a vasectomy in March) talked with the neighbors about the need to limit their family which currently numbers seven children. It turns out that mom is beyond that age. A US donor has just provided the funds to buy two fuel-efficient, safe stoves with outside ventilation for the neighbors. They will be installed early in June.

Bunk beds have been purchased for Jackie, Astrid and Denis each with their names on them ("Amigos" on the spare bed) in colorful letters. An artist friend has made study desks for the childrens' rooms. Estela will have a real stove for the first time.

Alexander plans to plant grass in the garden so he and Denis can play soccer together. Once the house is completed Estela and Alexander will be asked to contribute monthly a nomimal amount to Constru Casa for four years to facilitate the building of yet another home for people like themselves (perhaps even their own neighbors).

The Jocote tree has been seriously pruned to make way for the house but it is prospering and bearing fruit and still provides entertainment for young children who have never before had a safe place to play.

"All that is required to get poor people out of poverty is for us to create an enabling environment for them. If I could make so many people happy with a tiny amount of money, why not do more of it?" Mohammad Yunus, author of Creating a World without Poverty, founder of The Grameen Bank and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Casa Increible!

As you can see from the photo the Jocote tree is starting to bloom as is the little house in San Antonio Aquas Calientes, Sacatapequez, Guatemala. A multitude of volunteers have shown up wanting to be a part of the experience of creating a home for a family who has never had one. Gringo, gringa, child, adult, even a young neighbor who could haul more cinder blocks on his back than any one us. Those not up to hauling 1200 cinderblocks 30 yards from the street turned up at midday with lunch for the whole crew. The children wandered up the street to a “tienda” and bought five pounds of Puppy Chow for the obviously starving puppy belonging to the only neighbors who live in a “casa tipica” of bamboo walls and dirt floors. They thanked us profusely and the little puppy quickly figured that his or hers ship had come in and ate himself or herself into a near coma.

When I arrived in Guatemala in early March Alexander picked me up at the airport and en route to Antigua we talked about the imminent start of the first real home he has ever known. He told me that he didn’t have the words to describe how he felt about it. I suggested that we might call the house “Casa de Milagros” (house of miracles) and he laughed a bit and said “Casa Increible.” Ground breaking was on schedule Monday, March 10th. Three hombres with three shovels. The first load of cinder blocks arrived. Alexander, myself, his 12-year old daughter, Jackie, and one hombre unloaded and stacked 400 cinder blocks. We had a friendly greeting from the “casa tipica” neighbors. The women and female children (of which there are many) were dressed in “traje,” the hand-woven, indigenous dress. Grandma works much of the time at her backstrap loom weaving away in the hope of selling a few pieces for a few quetzals at the town artisans’ market. We needed to gain permission to remove some trees on the property lines that had already been topped off by the neighbor for firewood. In a short time all the neighbors showed up, introduced themselves and readily agreed to all of the requests. I was amazed at how easy it was. Alexander who has lived for years in a somewhat hostile environment of in-laws and petty criminals was equally amazed and he quickly became the man of the (almost) house negotiating with the neighbors on various issues.

This is also the season of Semana Santa (Holy Week). Work on the house will stop for most of the week as will most other work. During Lent there are “velaciones” on Friday evenings in the local churches and processions on Sundays, each grander than the last. Various churches sponsor the processions which frequently last in excess of twelve hours. The men wear purple, the women black. Each church has a “float” (made of mahogany and weighing several thousand pounds) for Jesus and a smaller one for Mary. In most cases the Jesus and Mary figures are several hundred years old with stories of their own. People who live along the route of the processions spend the previous night making carpets of colored sawdust, flowers and fruit. Alexander tells of being hungry as a child and running along behind the processions picking up the fruit. The "alfombra" (carpet) pictured is one created by Alexander and two friends in front of Pollo Campero on the Alameda for the Palm Sunday La Merced procession. It is a wonderful time to be in Antigua to appreciate the passion of the people and enjoy the endless festivities. Even the most jaded non-believer can't help but get caught up in it.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Jocote Tree

Jocotes are a treasured fruit in the highlands of Guatemala, small, round, yellow or green and red. They are very sweet and about the size of a small plum. Too small to interest most gringos but to have a jocote tree is a good thing to a Guatemalan, especially to a child.

Purchasing a small lot in Guatemala fell into place as things do when they are meant to happen. The lot, that in the eyes of Alexander and Estela fell from heaven, quickly became a reality after engaging a Guatemalan attorney to handle the transaction. A lovely Dutch woman turned up; she is an engineer and runs a non-profit that builds decent houses for the poor. Caroline agreed to share her resources in the building of the house. We decided to build around the jocote tree.

I visited the current home of Alex and Estela where the five of them share a room that is approximately 12’ by 16’. The children proudly called out their numbers in English as I paced off the room which contains two double beds, the refrigerator I had bought last year for Estela’s birthday, the television, a small table for the children to do their homework and a bookshelf containing pots, pans, the convection oven that was a Christmas present a year ago, kitty litter (also a gift) and more. The television sat on a table under which the children’s books (almost unknown in the average Guatemalan home) were neatly lined up. There was only one light in the ceiling and only one window that opened into a small room up a few steps that held the “pila” (Guatemalan sink used for bathing, laundry, washing dishes), a hot plate for cooking, an Ecofilter for filtering their drinking water and two large, falling apart wall units that held the clothing, dishes and other assorted paraphernalia for five people, one dog and one kitten. It was clean and neat but it was full. There was no bedding other than a thin cover on the beds and no pillows. It was all bare concrete, dark and the few windows had bars over them but no glass. The bathroom that Estela had borrowed Q3000 (US $400) to build contained only a toilet and was outside somewhere. Alex showed me the one photo he had of his deceased mother working in a stall in the Antigua market. He had a few photos of himself as a “solito” teen but no baby pictures. He had five or six photos of Estela and the children and one baby photo of Denis. The cinderblock walls were “decorated” with a collection of quite obviously free calendars and there were a few electrical cords strung around to connect appliances. Alex proudly showed me the bicycle that he had bought for his son’s last birthday. It had cost him a month’s earnings

I told the family that their mother and I were meeting with the Dutch lady about the design of the house. I asked “who wants hot water for the shower (they have never had a shower before)?” Eight-year old Astrid, who has enjoyed the occasional hot shower at my house) shot up her hand followed by the hands of the two older children. Alex and Estela, neither of whom have ever had a hot shower in their lives would only say “whatever you think.” I asked nine-year old Denis, who has never slept alone in his life, if he wanted to have his own room and got a big grin and a big “si” in response. In my mind I added three desks, three chairs and three reading lights to the list of minimal necessities. It boggled my mind that these three children could be excelling in school with neither a place to do their homework nor any light to do it by. They were doing their homework anyway because they wanted to. As the front door of their house opens directly onto the street the only place the children can play is in the street.

It is easy to think that the poor don’t yearn for the things that they have never had nor experienced or that somehow we all adapt to our circumstances. I spent several hours talking with Alexander. For the first time I was able to understand the pain of poverty. Not just poverty of things but poverty of dignity, poverty of opportunity, poverty of spirit and poverty of hope. He showed me a photo of himself receiving his sixth grade (and only) diploma. He was wearing a white shirt and tie but there was no one there to witness his achievement. He had liked school, especially math and history and, he said with a grin, “We got to play basketball.” Alex spoke sadly about the fact that his only possessions consisted of an old television that a gringo was tossing out and the DVD player that I had bought him three years before. We talked about the prospects of positive changes in his relationship with Estela in the new house where there would be some private space for everyone. We talked about Alex feeling like he had a home for the first time in his 31 years. I wondered if he would be able to truly come in from the street.

I had also taken time to talk with Estela. Alex and Estela have been together for 13 years and seem to really like each other but poverty has made their relationship fairly rocky. I had them each tell me the good things and bad things about each other. Estela told me how it had felt when her kids were hungry and she had nothing to feed them and no money. She spoke glowingly of how Alexander had borrowed money to buy medicine when the children were sick. Alex talked about what a wonderful mother Estela was but that he worries about her strong character (which may be necessary to keep him in line).

With some friends I went to Lake Atitlan for a few days. Alex drove. We paid him for the ride and for his time and had him stay with us. It made him nervous that he couldn’t work but I had bought him a gardening book and he spent an entire afternoon reading not only the gardening book but also a book about speaking English. With some others we took a boat to a small Mayan village and visited a community library, a project of the Riecken Foundation ( where twenty or so of us sat around a table. Gringo, Guatemalteco, indigenous, educated, not. Alex sat next to me and when it was his turn to introduce himself he very self-assuredly talked about how wonderful the library was and how excited he was to meet so many people who were trying to help the people of Guatemala. I was rendered speechless by his remarks.

Thanks to ConstruCasa we have a design that will not only save the Jocote tree, its sweet fruit and potential for a tree house, but it will also have a view of the ever erupting Fuego volcano. The construction costs will be greatly minimized by the discounted building supplies available to ConstruCasa. In a few short weeks I am confident that I can find $17,000 of tax deductible donations for ConstruCasa so that the house with a bedroom for everyone can be started in March and completed in May. Volunteers are welcome the first half of May to help with the finish work, including the tree house, and to join in for the housewarming party and witness the transformation of one family who has never even dared to dream about having a refrigerator much less a decent home.