Monday, November 9, 2009


My dictionary translates this all too often used word in Guatemala as "Just Imagine!" I think it is one of those words that defies translation. Typically when the conversation or even the sentence starts with "fijase" (or the familar "fijate") you know that whatever you were hoping to have happen has not and you are about to be told why. Did you go to the bank? Fijase, but the bank was closed. Did you do your homework? Fijase, but I couldn't find my books. Did you feed the starving people in your country? Fijase, but we can't find the money. "Just imagine" may not quite be strong enough but lacking another word with more than four letters it will have to do.

So, fijase, but Charlie quit going to school. As much as he seemed to want to go he apparently couldn't cope with being the oldest and the poorest in his third grade class. He stole a small bit of money from the classroom and the teacher contacted Estela (as neither of his parents care whether he goes to school or not). Estela paid the teacher the missing amount of money and her children have banished Charlie from their house until such time as he repays the money. Sadly, Charlie has lost his one shot at rising above his very humble beginnings and will probably either end up in the United States picking fruit or in a gang. Fijase, but his government doesn't care if he goes to school either.

Estela and Alex's kids, on the other hand, are thriving and take their studies very seriously. In October Denis who is 12 was the second in the family to receive his 6th grade "certificado." When the school year resumes in January he will go on to "basico" (middle school) like his older sister, Jackie, who will enter her last year of basico. Astrid remains determined to be a doctor, Denis wants to be an engineer and also a computer "tecnico" while Jackie is thinking about becoming a bilingual secretary. Next October Jackie will be the first in either family to graduate from basico. It will be quite an occasion.

Just back from my first return trip to India since Pan Am was the way to travel there, I found myself marveling at the progress made in that country while little or none has been made in Guatemala. The main difference is a great emphasis on education in India. There are schools, universities and "coaching" centers for the challenged everywhere and lots of children in neat, clean uniforms practicing their English every chance they get. On the Kerala coast we were asked "please, I would like one ball point pen," so many times that we decided that it was representative of their first full sentence in English.

Back in Guatemala I took Alex, Estela and their children to Guatemala City to see a movie in a real theater. The children had never been to the capital before and none, except Alex, had ever been on an escalator before. I proceeded up the escalator only to find them all standing at the bottom wondering what was happening. Popcorn and pop for all and we saw "Illuvia de Hamburgesas," (rain of hamburgers) or, in English, "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." It actually had a good message for Alex, the distant padre.

As in the US the holiday season seems to start earlier every year in Guatemala. With a friend I went to a nearby village that must grow most of the planet's poinsettias as we visited nurseries that had literally thousands, as far as one could see. Most were marked "vendido" or "sold." Soon they will be in Home Depot in the states and on the streets of Antigua for far more than we paid for a dozen or so. The Christmas season in Guatemala is a mix of religious and thanks to those of us in the developed world, consumerism. There is a Christmas market selling creche provisions and also a fireworks market which blew up a couple of years ago thus it is now in a different location. The law dictates that all workers receive an extra month of pay mid- December and a lot of that seems to go for cerveza and stronger along with fireworks. The trees in central park are all lighted and the "posadas" which are processions of children seeking lodging for Mary and Joseph start mid-month. Feliz Navidad to you and yours!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why Guatemala?

This is a question I am frequently asked and I always find it difficult to give the right answer in thirty words or less. Could be the perfect weather, could be the scenery, the restaurants, the $30 massages or the fun of running into people you know all over town, all involved in some sort of development project. But maybe it is the piles of fresh fruit and vegetables everywhere, mangos for a dime that you can scarcely lift, avocados by the dozen for a pittance. Or perhaps it is nothing more than the fact that the tension of living in the San Francisco Bay area just seems to melt away. It could be the friendly face waiting outside the customs hall. It could be waking up to a virtual symphony of birds just after dawn every morning or the friendly, smiling people with little more than the clothes on their back. As I write I am watching Fuego, the active volcano which is close but not too close, erupt. Fuego has been unusually busy today. One can only wonder why.

Today is Mothers' Day, here and there. It is always on May 10th in Central America and was actually started as a tribute to someone's mother rather than by a greeting card company. My friendly face spent this afternoon's earnings on flowers for his "Tia" (aunt) and the grave of his mother, who wasn't much of one. I hope that wherever she is, she appreciates the fact that he spent his last Qs on flowers for her grave rather than on food for his kids or gasoline for his taxi. Perhaps those of us have enough for both shouldn't judge or deny them a little frivolity now and then.

Speaking of frivolity the celebratory fireworks (another good way to use up what little money you have) are still ongoing for this three day weekend dedicated to the mothers of this country who get very little respect the other 362 days. Friday was a school holiday in anticipation of Mothers' Day (and what better excuse not to teach?). Astrid (9) told her teacher for the second year in a row that she had two mothers and, therefore, needed two invitations for the school festivities. Estela and I went together and sat in the front row to see Astrid and her cousin, Brenda, in a dance routine. The older boys in suits played the (of course) drums and marimbas. Interesting to see that among them was a severely disabled lad who was wheeled in by his classmates and a set of small drums was propped in his useless left arm. He joined in vigorously with his one good limb, his right arm. There was a lottery for "canastas" (baskets) put together by each grade filled with nutritious items like liters of Coca Cola, chips and marshmallows. Thankfully I did not win one. Estela got chosen by one of the older boys to go out on the dance floor and looked pretty good despite admitting to being mortified.

With the exception of Astrid who remains determined to be a doctor the other children including Charlie are still being challenged by school. They are good kids who are up to the challenge who do their homework but having parents with only a 6th grade education leaves them lacking guidance though they seem intrigued by the idea that with education they will have choices. Denis's current choice is computer technician. Astrid recently lectured Charlie about his reluctance to do his homework telling him that if he didn't do it I would not be paying for another year of school for him. Actually my Rotary Club paid his fees this year but he got right down to work.

The global recession has taken its toll in Guatemala. The Spanish schools are fairly empty as are the hotel and restaurants. The local newspapers tell us that remittances from families working outside the country are down significantly. Tourism and remittances are the two most important components of GDP here. As a result for the first time ever my beat up old, burlap coffee bag purse was slashed in the mercado. Surprisingly to me the perpetrators were all women. Several blocked my way and therefore succeeded in distracting me. Ha ha, they got nada as I had nada in my bag. Yesterday when purchasing a very fresh cauliflower and a bunch of giant carrots for Q4 (52 cents) in the same market I told the seller to keep the extra Q1 and to make sure that people in the market knew that if the slashing didn't stop (I showed her my bag which had been "repaired" with duct tape and was now serving as a badge of courage) that the gringos might stop shopping there. I have been told that the vendors understand this and don't like the thieves ever better than the rest of us.

On my way to the market yesterday a police car went screeching by me with its sirens blaring. It turned the corner that I was about to turn. I saw a number of people staring wide-eyed in the direction where I needed to go. I wondered what horrible scene I was going to encounter. I turned the corner and saw the remains of a motorcycle mostly under the front end of a mini-van. Both vehicles were on the wrong side of the street. I looked around not once but twice and there was neither a victim nor a driver of the mini-van. Clearly, this accident happened all by itself. No doubt the motorcycle driver had stolen the motorcycle and the driver of the mini van did not have a license. We pay dearly for insurance. They take off on foot. When I returned from the market a tow truck was preparing to tow away the undamaged but uninhabited mini van waiting for its owner to call and say, no doubt, that it had been stolen just that morning.

Estela and my neighbor's maid, Gloria, started taking computer classes on Saturday mornings. Last Saturday they did the unthinkable after their two hour class, abandoning their children and endless labor by taking the bus to Chimaltenango. This is sort of akin to taking a junket to Detroit in February. Such chatter. The men were furious, the children intrigued yet supportive. I encouraged them to make it a regular thing but suggested they stay in Antigua which is a lot safer than "Chimalt."

A couple of days ago Alexander came upstairs to where I was working. He was carrying my duffle bag from the garage and asked, with a silly grin on his face, if he could borrow it for an hour. When I questioned why, he reminded me of his friend who had found his wife a couple of days earlier in a compromising situation. As the couple and their three children lived with her parents this fellow had quite literally found himself on the street with his worldly possessions (mostly clothes) all of which fit into my duffel bag. The wronged taxista has moved into Casa Broccoli for the time being and Estela is happy to have a paying tenant. I tried to point out the irony of the Hispanic double standard to Alexander but I am pretty sure he didn't get it. Or chose not to.

So, why Guatemala? It is rarely dull, often frustrating. There is always something to do, something to be done. The Guatemalans are incredibly hard workers. They think nothing of working 12-hour days, six days a week for very little money. They often laugh when they have virtually no money. They eat when food turns up or they find an avocado tree. They talk about going to the United States but I suspect they are not sure why. They don't want to go but they want a better life for their kids. The old women reduced to begging on the street after a life of hard labor and childbearing bless you when you give them a few coins. Such is a day in Guatemala.

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Library for Xolsacmalja

On March 26, 2009 I made a long, tedious journey to the remote, Mayan village of Xolsacmalja (closest Google Earth point is Totonicapan) for the inauguration of a Riecken Foundation ( community library. The inauguration was the culmination of five years of work on the part of the community to be able to offer free access to information to the residents, 100% of whom are indigenous. After festivities that included speeches, certificates of recognition for community leaders who had shepherded the process and indigenous dancing by some of the school children the ribbon was cut and people literally poured through the doors to see what a library looked like. At first they all wandered around with their hands at their sides but with the encouragement of Riecken staff members the children started playing with educational games in the children’s corner, chess games were started, the computers were swamped and soon there was a crowd around the sex education book that was prominently displayed. In another corner older children were using the telescope and doing a solar system puzzle. The teenagers were encouraged to visit the separate room designed for them to meet and learn how to debate and talk through their issues together. The women then asked if they could meet there as well and were told “yes” by the director.

One of the guests was the director of a nearby Riecken Foundation library in San Juan La Laguna who has been providing training to the new director in Xolsacmalja. The next step in the process is for the community to establish a fundraising program to earn enough money to pay the monthly cost of internet access. Once they have raised six months of internet access Riecken will pay for the internet installation. Since internet access seemed to be of interest to all age groups I would expect that they will have it soon. Thank you to all of you who have contributed to The Riecken Foundation including The Rotary Club of Woodside/Portola Valley as your donations will totally change the lives of the men, women and children of Xolsacmalja for generations to come. There are more photos below and even more photos at the website: Click on “Photo Album.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Photos Worth Thousands of Words

Charlie in his Uniform

As you can see Charlie is still a bit awkward in his school uniform and, as it turns out, in his new life. His school is a 3 minute walk from Alex and Estela's house so when he forgets his shoes he can make a quick trip back to the house for them.

Estela reports that he did not go to school at all last year so he has to make many adjustments in his routine and to the discipline of his Catholic school. One day last week he did not go to school for reasons that are still not clear to me. Something about his uniform pants being wet. Alex reports that Charlie fell out of the top bunk (his first real bed) a couple of times so Denis has changed places with him. Alex also thinks that Charlie is starting to grow a bit with regular meals. Since he is all "skin and bones" I have suggested to Estela that she get some (readily available here) parasite medication for him. Alex, Estela and I have discussed that Charlie is having to deal with a lot of changes and that it may be a while before he settles in. Estela has met with his teacher who finds him very intelligent and a good student.

Charlie grew up with a crazy father ("loco en la cabeza" or "crazy in the head" is the only diagnosis I have been able to get) and a mother who has been pregnant for most of Charlie's life and would rather he babysit than go to school. His parents seem unconcerned that he is living elsewhere and he is struggling academically with the transition from the government school to no school and on to private school. Estela reports that all three of her children are helping Charlie with his school work and explain things that he doesn't understand. Denis worries when Charlie doesn't want to do his homework. I gave Charlie a copy of Charlie y la Fabrica de Chocolate and I was quite impressed with his ability to read after only two years of one of the worst school systems in the western hemisphere. It remains to be seen whether he can comprehend what he reads but perhaps that will come. I brought some math flash cards and the children were quick to show Charlie how to count on his fingers to find the answers. It is fun to watch Alexander (perhaps he is finally growing up himself) assume the father role with Charlie and also to watch the kids doing what they can to bring him up to speed. Thanks to the Rotary Club of Woodside/Portola Valley for funding a scholarship that is making it possible for Charlie to go to school.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Charlie Goes to School

Just this morning I spoke to Estela and she reports that Charlie, aged 12, started the third grade yesterday at the "colegio" (private school) that just a few weeks ago he was only able to dream about. As his family felt that the school in Antigua where Estela's children go was "too far," (it's about three miles away but his father has never been that far) Alexander and Estela negotiated with his parents to allow him to go to the colegio in the town where they all live. Charlie's mother resisted as she wanted Charlie to babysit but she finally relented and Estela says that Charlie is thrilled. Estela is still in the process of getting everything that Charlie needs. Tomorrow she will go to the market in Antigua to get shoes and socks for Charlie who had none. This week he has gone to school wearing old shoes that belong to her son, Denis. Estela further reports that Charlie takes all his meals at their house now (maybe he will start to grow a bit) and that all the children are helping him with his school work. Funding for all of Charlie's expenses for the year come to somewhat less than $600 which, pending expected approval, will come from The Rotary Club of Woodside/Portola Valley (CA). Watch this space for a photo of Charlie in his new school uniform.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Charlie and Santa Estela

The good stories continue. A few weeks ago I had an email request from former Antigua house tenants who were eager to reconnect with his one-time Spanish teacher. The man had had a streak of bad luck which culminated with his medical student son being hit by a bus in the capital, Guatemala City. I made some inquiries and was told that Julio was a good man who had suffered a lot. The tenants asked me to give him some money on their behalf. I went to the Spanish school and gave Julio a check explaining that it was from "Doctor Jaimie." Julio immediately told me that he was going to use the money to return to his studies to become a physical therapist, that because of the medical bills for his son he had had to stop going to school. I offered to connect him with an American physical therapist in Antigua who might well be looking for help in her very busy practice here.

Brenda, who clearly likes, puppies recently lost her educational sponsor. She had been attending a private school in Antigua with Estela's children, her cousins. As Brenda's father is seriously ill with complications from diabetes the family is not able to pay the fees to keep her in the school. Brenda had been told that she would have to return to her neighborhood government (very substandard) school and was quite dismayed. As it had become apparent to me that Brenda was flourishing in the private school I was determined to find her another sponsor. By the way, private primary school costs here including fees, books, uniform and supplies run about $600 a year. A friend from California who already knew Brenda has offered to take over the responsibility of her education. Brenda is delighted and the two already have a date to stand in line together with Brenda's list and purchase
everything she needs for a successful year in third grade. Brenda will be 9 in May and is in the same class as her cousin, Astrid. In Guatemala the school year starts on the 19th of January.

Enter Charlie. More donors wanted to have a look at Alex and Estela's new house. We quickly noticed that there was an extra child there. Estela explained that his father (brother of "la senora," the neighbor in the back) was "sick in the head, crazy" (that's the most specific diagnosis I have gotten) and that Carlos was spending all his time at her house with her son, Denis. She further said that Carlos was crazy about the computer, that he and Denis spent hours playing games on the computer (no internet in their village, thankfully). He seemed like an usually bright and polite fellow especially considering his circumstances which involve far too many siblings all living on the ground together under plastic sheeting supported by cane. When his father goes off (I have since found that alcohol plays a role) he beats his wife and kids and once tried to hang himself in front of the children. Carlos who is very small for his age told me that he was 12 which makes him a year older but smaller (probably due to early malnutrition) than Denis. He also told me that he was in the third grade but that his family had told him that he could not return to school because the family only had enough money for food (and apparently alcohol). Carlos said he loved school and that he had no books at home. Needless to say Carlos will be going back to school this month and Astrid will be loaning him some books. Saint Estela who welcomes all children into her home and I will see that he has the necessary supplies to return to school. In this case, we are probably talking about $25 or so. It would be wonderful to get a bright, motivated child like Carlos to a private school but it might be too big of a jump, culturally, at this juncture. Perhaps next year. He speaks the Mayan language, Kachikel, and of course, Spanish. Carlos came along with all the rest of the group for dinner at my house. He had only ever been to Antigua once before to the mercado and once inside my house kept telling me what a beautiful house I had. We told him that his name was "Charlie" in English and he then insisted on being called Charlie. Denis took him upstairs to introduce him to the internet and Charlie's eyes glazed over as the kids zoomed around the planet with Google Earth. Charlie confessed to Denis that he never dreamed that he would ever be inside the house of a gringa.

Charlie was given a seat at the head of the table where he reveled in all the attention. He consumed a full plate of Estela's cooking and, with the other kids, asked for seconds of ice cream. In the background Denis coached Charlie as the evening progressed and Charlie even had his napkin in his lap. I did cut his meat for him as cutlery in his world is a tortilla. Everyone present got a big hug and a "gracias" from Charlie upon their departure. He is very excited about the chance to return to school and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if he doesn't end up living on the top bunk in Denis's room. Estela has room in her heart for every needy child she sees. This morning Estela reported that Charlie had spent the night and when he went to see his family this morning announced that his name was now "Charlie, no more Carlos" and that he had a big dinner with gringos. Estela will see that he gets a haircut and gets back to school. Stay tuned for Charlie's progress.