Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jackie Sprouts Wings

Today marks the fifteenth birthday of Jaquelin, Estela and Alexander's eldest.  Last year during her "summer" school vacation (summer in Guatemala for some strange reason occurs in November and December despite being in the northern hemisphere) Jackie, on her own, started a reading program for the younger children in her village.  I donated some plastic chairs to accommodate the 20 or so children who would come to listen to stories and answer questions about what they had heard.  A friend who is the director of Child Aid ( donated books.

This "summer" (as in the US the school calendar was originally designed around harvest time, in this case coffee) the friend with Child Aid offered to have Jackie work as a volunteer at a reading program in Chimaltenango which is a double chicken bus ride from Casa Broccoli in San Antonio Aquas Calientes.  Jackie would need to ride the bus alone to Chimaltenango and back.  Both parents objected strenuously thus the first day Estela who has only ever been once to Chimaltenango herself went along as did a Child Aid employee.  Once Estela discovered that the bus stopped right in front on the school where Jackie needed to go she gave up her objections.  Once Alexander saw how delighted Jackie was to be doing something useful he drove her to Antigua to get the bus to Chimaltenango though he remains mystified as to why anyone would work for free.  While I am giving Jackie the $2 per day bus fare there is no other compensation but Estela understands that she is gaining experience and future job skills and that there is no turning back for Jackie.

So, Jackie leaves home each morning at 6:30am to spend about three hours a day on the bus so that she can read stories to kids and play educational games with them for three hours a day.  Yesterday she was invited to attend an all-adult librarian/teacher training workshop and spent the day learning skills that she can not only use but pass on to others.   There is a childrens'  library in the village of Casa Broccoli, about 1/2 block away.  Jackie and her siblings had never been there as, for the most part in Guatemala, children are locked away in their houses when there parents are working.  Jackie has been introduced to the man who tends this library two hours every afternoon and has been invited to help him with the younger children and to bring some more little ones around.  This is something that she will be able to continue when school starts again in January.

Last month Jackie became the first in her family (on either side) to finish "basico" (middle school, 9th grade).  Her choice at this point is to pursue a bilingual secretarial program for "diversicado" (high school).  She will learn English and computer skills and could choose to go on to university.  With her loves of books and reading I can certainly see her being sought after as a librarian by several organizations when she has finished her education.  Last week we registered her at her new school and I was pleased to see a "No Spanish" sign on the office door.  The director allowed as how it did not apply to me, however.  The school has a good feel to it and is conveniently a five minute walk from my house.

A fifteenth birthday is a big affair for a Hispanic girl and frequently money that is needed for essentials is squandered on a ridiculously expensive party.  I am slowing learning how to manage the expectations in Guatemala and each time I was told how much a party would cost I ignored it.  Finally I said that I was not paying for any parties but that I would take anyone who finished basico with a grade average of more than 75% on a trip anywhere they wanted to go within Guatemala.  The mention of an airplane ride to get to Tikal gave that location a very obvious edge.

Last Saturday Jackie and I were picked up at the ungodly hour of 4am for that airplane ride to Tikal.  We stayed in a hotel, climbed up Mayan ruins, saw monkeys and other jungle creatures, learned about her ancestors, talked about safe sex and not getting pregnant when the time comes that she has a boyfriend (thankfully, she has no interest at the moment which may be partly about the shenanigans of her father).   On our 45 minute flight back to Guatemala City we had a "meal" service (take that, American Airlines) which consisted of choice of potato chips and soft drinks.  By then Jackie had mastered my camera and was taking some pretty interesting photos of her own.

Estela and Astrid were waiting by the gate when we got back to Antigua.  Estela reported that tears of excitement were rolling down Jackie's cheeks as she told her family about her trip.  Estela's brother, who was also at the gate, said that for him it was a dream to go to Tikal.

Tikal by Jaquelin
I had offered to put a book in Spanish on my Kindle for Jackie as I wanted to see if she would take to the electronic book.  She picked a 500 page biography of Queen Isabella of Spain.  When she finished it I told her if she would write a book review on the book I would let her choose another Kindle book.  The next day she turned up with a well written book report.  It is the norm in Guatemala to find unbelievably bad spelling so I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of Jackie's writing.  She has now decided that she is going to write a book, the story of her life.  Yes, Alexander is worried and with good reason.  This could be a best seller in the US of A.  So, yesterday I gave her as a birthday present a very thick spiral notebook and six pens to get her launched.  If she pursues it perhaps we can do something jointly - my perspective and then her perspective.  She went home with Pride and Prejudice and Robinson Crusoe on the "borrowed" Kindle which I do intend to give her as a Christmas present.  Poco a poco.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Rags and Riches

A week or so ago I was enjoying a swim in a friend's lap pool in Antigua in fairly perfect weather.  The pool offers unparalleled, commanding views of Agua, the inactive volcano due south of Antigua.  I couldn't help but think of the people I had seen earlier in the day crammed into a village church at the base of that volcano.  The village of San Miguel Escobar where many live, in very basic houses of cinder blocks with corrugated metal roofs, is a ten minute drive from Antigua.  More than 200 people, forty families who have lost their homes, are now living in the church and church yard.  Another 1,000 or so who have lost their businesses and/or cooking facilities are being fed at the church.  There is a certain amount of guilt in participating in disaster tourism but clearly the Guatemalans know that each disaster tourist might mean a bit more help so they talk and agree to be photographed.  Two of us went to have a look at what we had only seen on world news and we ran into my friend's carpenter in the church. "Don Julio" showed us both around the church and the area of the town where forty homes and six residents were lost.

Many bridges were lost throughout Guatemala during Tropical Storm Agatha.  The one in this village, sadly, held and was blocked by enormous trees and rocks that came down from the top of the volcano.  As a result the water rose from what is normally a lazy stream and flooded the land.  Portions of the stronger buildings still stood but for the most part what we saw was a wasteland of mud with little evidence that a month earlier people had lived there.  A bit further down the hill where some buildings still stood the mud line was half way up the walls and mud had washed through the houses taking of all the contents with it.  One of Guatemala's charms is that it is a "small town" where everybody seems to know somebody if not everybody.  Don Julio asked one woman whom he obviously knew if we could walk through her house which was vacant and actually quite grand but was missing its back wall.  The woman had an overwhelmed look on her face no doubt due from a couple of weeks of cleaning mud out of her house and the shop that once gave her a source of income.  Behind the house a man was making a feeble attempt to get a car that had obviously been covered with mud running again.  Beyond the car there was another wasteland where houses once had stood.  The only evidence was water bottles stuck on protruding pieces of rebar which marked where the columns of a house once where.  Piled in a heap was a "pila" the molded sink that is a required part of every Guatemalan home. 

As we approached the cheerfully colored yellow church we first saw a man who was organizing a group of children and playing games with them.  In front of the church was a huge pile of downed trees that had no doubt been hauled there to provide fuel for cooking for twelve hundred people.  There was also a long line of portable toilets.  Inside the church courtyard one was immediately struck by the number of people and piles of supplies as well as by the upbeat, organized atmosphere.  One corner had been closed off by sheets and was marked as the medical center.  Next to that area a number of women were making tortillas.  Another group of women lined a long table and on the wood fire was one of the largest cooking pots I have ever seen.  Amidst the piles of water bottles and other supplies the children (who were not in school as it was a Sunday) were lined up to get their lunch.  A couple of rooms were devoted to piles and piles of beans, sugar, rice, oil, milk, incaparina, toilet paper, diapers and more.  There was one television and several men were watching the World Cup.  In back of the church in a shed was a huge pile of foam and other mattresses.  Don Julio told us that the mattresses were put on the floor in the church sanctuary at night so that the residents could sleep.  Many children had found themselves a quiet corner to share their lunch.  For more photos follow the link below.

Estela reported that she and her children had gone through all their clothes and taken a quantity of clothing to the church for the "damnificados," are the victims are called in Guatemala.  

A number of organizations are doing what they can to help.  One such organization is ConstruCasa which, as many of you may remember, built Casa Broccoli.  They have built a number of homes in San Miguel Escobar and are currently trying to raise additional funds to aid those who have lost all or most of what little they had to start with.  For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation please visit their website at:

I must admit that it troubles me to see such enormous need and such deserving people with engaging smiles who take it all in stride and then to return to the Silicon Valley and be assaulted by the entitled.  The cost of one Ferrari could rebuild all 40 homes in San Miguel Escobar.   The cost of one bag of groceries at Whole Foods could feed everyone in that church for a couple of weeks.  The homeless children in San Miguel Escobar laugh and play hide and seek behind the wood pile.  The entitled children in the Silicon Valley whine when their iPhones don't work.  What in the world is it going to take to level the playing field?  When are the entitled going to understand that poverty is everyone's problem?  Alex's youngest, little Michelle who lives in San Miguel Escobar but only lost the roof of the humble room that she shares with her mother and brother, is no less deserving than a kid in California with a wonky iPhone.

Speaking of Alex, father of many children, a month of so ago he thought he had cut a deal to upgrade his car.  He had a cash buyer for his existing car and a bit of spare change to add so I encouraged him to go forward.  When he went to do the paperwork on the new car the police turned up and took the car as it had been reported stolen so Alex wound up with no car, no money and no way to earn a living.  Yes, the bandito went to jail but Alex's money went somewhere else.  Another reason not to be poor and uneducated in Guatemala.  So, Tia Joan had to decide what to do.  Help him out again, or let him loose his sense of identity, his way to earn a living and to fail in the eyes of his children.  Fortunately, the perfect car was sort of waiting for this event and Alex is once again rolling and once again has some debt payments hanging over his head.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's Very Complicated!

More than once I have said "I am doing it for the kids" and the kids are great.  Actually even greater now that I have gotten to meet two other, previously only rumored, children that belong to Alexander.  Unlike politicians in the US there was never any denial involved but it does sort of explain the decline in the relationship between Estela and Alexander.  Or was it the other way around?  It is definitely complicated but who are we to judge the poor with limited education, limited resources and not too many other ways to have a good time?  Certainly none of these excuses would apply to one time presidential hopefuls in the USA.

The reality is that "it is what it is," the children are here and Tia Joan has two more to help educate.  Gladly, a couple of years ago I made one of my all time best investments and thanks to counseling from WINGS ( and my $40 Alexander had a vasectomy.   Santa Estela (mother of the first three) has been one of the first to say that the children are innocent.  Christopher, 3, has his Dad's charisma and Michelle, 2, her Dad's dimples.  Both appear to be clean, well-nourished and well cared for.  They both know what books are for as Mom reads to them which is a rarity in Guatemala.  So, I guess we can give Alex credit for picking good mothers and for taking some responsibility for all five children.  Now we all know the answer to the question of where all his money goes. And go it does.

As for those who don't belong to Alexander there are five in the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes in school this year thanks to a donation from a womens' club in Southern California.  School is technically free and technically compulsory.  Neither are close to the truth.  Uniforms are often required along with gym clothing and school supplies as in the US.  Many families simply do not have the funds for school supplies or uniforms thus their kids just don't go to school.  Interestingly, two of the sponsored children, Veronica and Elmer, are siblings of "Charlie" who received a Rotary scholarship last year and apparently couldn't cope with being the oldest and the tallest at age 13 in the third grade. He dropped out and is, probably, up to no good.  His sister, Veronica, is 12 and very happy to be in the second grade and their brother, Elmer, 6, is also in the second grade though in a different class.  I explained to the two of them that there were able to go to school because some ladies in the United States were making it possible.  Elmer assured me that he could read.  The school year ends in October in Guatemala so if their grades are good they will be able to continue with financial assistance.

Speaking of books I was recently able to visit the Riecken Foundation library in Xolsacmalja, Totonicapan to which many of you have contributed.  The 100% indigenous village is about a 20-minute 4-wheel drive ride off of the paved, main road (3-4 hours west of Antigua) yet the progress in this library in scarcely a year was quite remarkable.  We were there to discuss an internet connection that is being partially funded by The Rotary Club of Woodside/Portola Valley (CA) and also to deliver two boxes of Spanish language childrens' books donated by a young girl named Quincy from Napa, California.  Quincy asked her friends to bring the books as gifts for her birthday party.  In the photo above Juana, who is the president of the library board, looks over the new books with her 3-year old niece, Elena.  Elena now has the very new prospect of growing up with books and computers in her life.  Despite, currently, having to travel by bus to another community for internet access the library staff managed to send Quincy a digital "thank you" for her book donation.

While at the library three young boys cornered me as "gringas" are a rarity in their community.  First, they eagerly posed for a photo so that they could see themselves on the back of the camera.  Then, they plied me with questions.  "Why are gringos tall?" was one of their first.  Since I wasn't sure of the answer I mentioned that gringos eat different food.  Then they wanted to know what gringos ate, what I ate when I was in Guatemala, how did I get there, how long did it take, what did it cost and why was my hair short.  I finally escaped the questions by asking them to get books and read so that I could take some photos.  All three read aloud in unison endlessly.  It was quite clear that they all were good readers and they were happy to show off their skills.  Bingo! Library

If you would like to read a bit more about the Riecken Guatemala libraries and see more photos just follow this link:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Real Food, Real Life

It is March. The jacarandas are turning the town purple. Mangos are in season and everywhere in great abundance. The Lenten festivities are in full swing. Fuego is spewing away and many are whining about all the dust. Organic "pollution" that is good for the gardens and also provides full employment for the muchachas. Unless you go to Hiper Paiz (Walmart) or Pricesmart (Costco) in the capital it is pretty easy to maintain a diet of "slow" and very fresh food by wandering through the mercado on market days. A chicken might even be "fresher" than you want to cope with. The carrots are enormous and very tasty, nothing like those that come from ten pound plastic bags in the states. Mushrooms smell like mushrooms when they are cooking. Strawberries look and taste like those from your childhood. Pineapples picked locally when ripe make the whole house smell good. Eggs have deep orange yolks because the chickens eat what they are supposed to and nothing that they are not supposed to.

This past week I had the good fortune to meet with the staff and some of the board members of the Riecken Foundation library in Xolsacmalja, Totonicapan. The library is flourishing after scarcely a year mostly due to the motivation of the members of the totally indigenous community who worked for five years to have a library. It has attracted international attention and is receiving funding from the Finnish Embassy in Guatemala City to pursue programs designed to keep the indigenous culture and their language of Quiche alive. Amazingly, a woman is now the president of the board and she has asked me for my email address despite the fact that the community does not have internet. Her name is Juana (second from left in the photo) and she wanted to know what I did for a living, how old I was, was I married. She too has a niece named Elena. She rides a bus to Totonicapan to use the internet in a cyber cafe. I expect that I will hear from Juana.

My Rotary Club (Woodside/Portola Valley California) has just approved the funds to install an internet connection in the library but on advice of the Riecken country director we asked them to submit a proposal including a budget and how the community would plan to pay the ongoing monthly costs. The expectation is that their proposal will show up very soon and we will then tell them that the funds are available. Their next dilemma is how to add to the three computers they currently have which are in constant use even without internet. It might have to involve another Rotary project.

Gladly, the tourists are returning to Antigua thus the locals who are dependent on the tourist trade for a living are breathing a sigh of relief. Antigua is definitely cheaper than London or Paris and the weather is way better, especially in March.

Life with Estela and Alexander is better than anything I have seen on television of late. At the moment they are not speaking so Alexander comes around on the weekend when Estela is not here to tend the garden. Yesterday he pleaded with me to let him run his laundry through the washing machine while he worked. When things are bad on the home front his biggest dilemma is how to get his laundry done. Despite the ongoing domestic dramas (I have lost total track of who is or is not doing what to or with whom) the children seem to be flourishing and are both enjoying and doing well in school. Denis turned 13 the other day and, oh dear, his voice has changed since I was last here. Can the hormones be too far behind? He does seem to be a sensible, sensitive kid but only time will tell. Heaven knows Alexander, who can be utterly charming but is really about ten at heart, is certainly not the best role model.

Next, a progress report on the young students
in San Antonio Aguas Calientes who are receiving school scholarships from readers of this blog.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A 14-year old teacher in Guatemala

When I built my house and hired Estela and Alexander to look after things I never dreamed how it might all unfold. Four years ago I heard about their living situation then saw it for myself. Fortunately, then the "Dow" was a lot higher then it is now and thanks to many of you, they now have a house and a garden which has, more or less, catapulted them into the wobbly middle class of Guatemala. The result has been that they have all been extending the acts of kindness to the less fortunate around them. Estela has had to receive treatment for cervical cancer, which is the most common killer cancer among women in Guatemala. Fortunately, because she has regular checkups hers was caught early and treatable.

Recently, while at the Cancer Center in Guatemala City for a check up Estela met a 22-year old woman with an infant and a toddler. Fifteen days earlier her husband, a bus driver, had been murdered by would be extortionists. While they were talking a doctor came out and told the young woman that her cancer was advanced and incurable. Alexander drove the distraught woman and her two children home to their ramshackle house in a very poor neighborhood and they both pondered what would become of her children. I was grateful that Estela hadn't offered to take them as I know that thought passed through her mind.

As a write Estela is overseeing the purchase of school supplies for little Sonia and her two sisters and two siblings of Charlie who continue to go to school. Thanks to a California womens' group for providing these funds which will pay for their books, school supplies and uniforms. Sonia is very excited to be starting school and with a uniform too. NY Times columnist and co-author of Half the Sky (a must read about the benefits of educating girls), Nicholas Kristof indicates that if a girl has a uniform she will stay in school longer.

Estela and Alex's daughter, Jackie, who turned 14 in November and who is a passionate reader, started reading stories to young children in their village during their school vacation. When I visited Casa Broccoli before Christmas the number had multiplied to 15 children all of whom sat in rapt attention and then participated in a question and answer session about the story. Thanks to Child Aid ( I was able to supply Jackie and her "students" with a supply of books that will last them for some time. Child Aid also supplied pamphlets so that each child could either draw or write answers to questions about the stories to encourage creative thinking, something not normally included in the government schools of Guatemala. Many of these children had never handled a book before.

This Christmas season it was Jackie and Astrid's turn to see a lake, stay in a hotel and ride in a boat for the first time. They also learned how to play Rummikub.

Julio, the Spanish teacher of former visitors to my house, who is a single father of three and in his second year of studies to become a physical therapist, received another contribution from his benefactors. Only with these contributions is he able to continue his studies. His 16-year old daughter is also starting university this month and she wants to pursue studies in human rights, badly needed in Guatemala.

The Guatemalan school year starts this month and Jackie will start her last year of basico (middle school) and next year will be the first one in her family to start high school. She wants to pursue a career as a bilingual secretary thus will go to a secondary school that will head her down that path. Denis, who starts basico this month, continues to spend all his spare time on the computer. Santa Claus brought the family a Level 1 Rosetta Stone English program and Denis has been charged with seeing that the whole family pursues it. ("There will be a test in March.") Estela has "graduated" from her cooking school and now has a certificate as a professional chef. She starts English classes at the same school this month. Astrid is starting the fourth grade, continues to be the top of her class and also reads whatever she can get her hands on. Alex remains Alex. Charming, stubborn, caring, dramatic, always yearning for another car ("sure Alex, when you have saved half"). As much of his business is by phone these days over the holidays he exchanged cars with a friend who just finished law school and needs to make money in order to take the bar exam. Sergio was the taxista and Alex the private driver and they split the proceeds. So, he has some business sense just but no sense of saving money to fund his dreams.

More Photos December 2009