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.