Saturday, December 17, 2011

Feliz Navidad!

This blog hasn't been widely circulated for a while for reasons you will understand if you read through the postings of the last several months.  Now, however, there are lots of positive things to report although Alexander remains in jail and is likely to stay there for at least the foreseeable future due to his inability to convince anyone to pay almost $8,000 for his release.  As his interactions with all of his children were, at best, minimal and ambiguous everyone is adjusting reasonably well to his absence.

Denis (14) and Astrid (12) started in November at a new bi-lingual, international school ( just outside of Antigua. In its first year of operation it is small enough that both children are receiving all the attention and help that they need to catch up after suffering from the Guatemalan educational system.  Denis, whom you might imagine, has suffered the most from having a deadbeat dad is just thrilled with the new school and after six weeks is already using his newly learned English.  I am sure part of his thrill is about having some decent male role models (the director and the majority of his teachers are gringos) who care about him and his progress.  "Dad" may soon be a distant memory.  Astrid, too, has taken to the new school like a fish to water.  The teachers report that both are working very hard.  They have already been on a field trip to the zoo in Guatemala City to do research for a science project.  Both are stunned to find out that school can be fun.

Denis at the school Christmas Party
Astrid wants to be a doctor or veterinarian.
It is possible that Denis and Astrid are also smiling about the school itself which would make any of us want to start the education process over.

School for Denis and Astrid
One of several classrooms
Jackie (16) who is still in the Guatemalan educational trap is learning English if not much else.  It was her choice to attend a bi-lingual secretarial (sort of) high school.  As she is so good with small children and so interested in books and reading it is my hope that she will go on to become a teacher or work in a library.  After her unusual introduction (previous post) to her half-siblings during a car ride to visit her father in jail Jackie has quietly been in contact with their mother and has been spending her school vacation afternoons in the Antigua market taking care of Chris (4) and Michelle (3).

Jackie's only gift from "Papa," a new sister.
And a little brother too.
As you might imagine Estela has always been less than thrilled about the existence of this other family.  However, she too finds life much easier with Alexander locked away.  She now accepts the children maintaining that they are "innocentes."  Jackie has been permitted to go to visit her father with her "step-mother" and all five were recently busy decorating my Christmas tree, the first ever for Chris and Michelle.

Chris and Michelle just finished a vacation program at their bi-lingual, Montessori pre-school and are eager to return in January.  Both are thriving and speaking a mix of English and Spanish.  If only every child in the world was able to go to school, especially a decent school, things might be very different.  Let's keep our eyes on these five (all I can manage), especially little Michelle.

Happy Holidays and let's hope that the world becomes a better place for all in 2012!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Things Are Going to Be All Right

On Saturday last children who never dreamed of going to a jail visited their father.  My scheme worked and the two, Denis and Astrid, readily agreed to go with their previously unknown "step-mother," her sister and their half-sister.  The ride was very quiet needless to say.  The jail is in the middle of nowhere down a long and treacherous dirt road.  I felt physically ill at the sight of the grim, gray place and struggled to understand how it would feel to be confined there.  Vinicio, the driver, was clearly uncomfortable and more so when I got out of the car to help unload the bags of food, water, newspapers.  He told me it was a very dangerous place.  Jackie said "cuidado." Vinicio and I left fairly quickly leaving the group to stand in line for 3 or more hours in order to spend two hours with Alex.

Only time will tell whether Alex has actually learned anything or whether he remains caught up in his own, really quite stellar, performance.  If he has learned anything it may be a bit too late.  The children report that he has been to confession for the first time in his adult life (no reports on how many days it took for him to empty his conscience) and then attended mass and took communion.  While not wanting offend any believers I remain skeptical of this path as it only seems to give some  permission to do it all over again. 

Yet another letter from Alex describes his being overwhelmed with emotion seeing his older children enter the jail with "mi esposa" as he refers to the mother of his two youngest children.  All the reports indicate that it was a good encounter for all.  Denis and Jackie got to see and talk to their father for the first time since he was arrested.  Perhaps more importantly they seem to appreciate the trumped up meeting of their father's second "esposa" and, Marielos reports that Jackie entertained little Michelle the entire day.  Even Estela seemed to get over her anger in about 15 minutes.  Alex had gifts that he had made in a workshop where the  "residents" learn how to make gift items for family members out of empty chip bags.  I suppose it is a good thing that they are being entertained on some level.  

Denis and his mother ordering school uniforms.

With or without (more likely) Alex, life will go on.  Denis and Astrid went to their new school for uniform fittings.  They are very excited about the opportunities that the Antigua International School ( will give them.  Late yesterday I attended a Dr. Seuss production of the "Cat in the Hat" for the school year end at Christopher and Michelle's pre-school. Marielos and her sister coveted the printed "diplomas" that each child received as neither one was able to go to school past the second grade.

Life in the market was never like this.

Michelle "graduates"at 3 from pre-school but forgets
her diploma.

Estela reports that Denis and Jackie want to go again to see their father.  I trust that they have figured out that they can meet up with Marielos and her sister and gain access to the jail with them as the sponsoring adults.  Alex has shown interest in my idea that he should write his life story in his leisure time.  He does seem to have access to paper and pen which is considered an unnecessary luxury in most poor homes.  I have promised him "fame and fortune" if he writes it all down.  I am quite certain that if he stars in his own life story that he will win an Oscar for his acting ability.

Yesterday as I was walking towards an ATM I saw a taxi then heard someone say "Hola, Tia Joan." It was one of Alex's friends, one who had been on last year's soccer team.  He gave me a lift to the ATM and questioned like all the rest of us how Alex could have been so stupid.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Letters from Jail

Today I received my second letter from Alex by way of Marielos.  As in the first he talks little about his predicament other than "excuse me for that which has happened."  Spanish speakers, even in jail, are ever so much more polite than gringos.  Surprisingly, he reminisces about places that we have been to before when he was a paid driver.  The restaurant by the lake in Panajachel, the boat ride (his first) on Lake Atitlan.  The times when I was angry with him (often) and the times that I gave him a hug.  In this latest letter he talks about how much he misses his children.  Tomorrow I am sending Estela's two oldest to the jail with Marielos and hope that I will survive Estela's wrath.  I told her today that the children need to see their father to decide how they are going to see him going forward.  I had hoped that my new driver,Vinicio, would be able to accompany Denis and Jackie but he has another commitment.  They are not allowed in without an adult.  In the morning I will explain to them that Vinicio cannot stay so I asked Marielos to go with them.  And I hope it works.  I think the presence of little Michelle will warm everyone up.

Estela and I had a good talk today.  She told me about an incident a couple of months ago when Jackie was unable to go to school for two weeks as there had been a threat against the director of the school.  When she returned to school Jackie was told not to wear her uniform for a period of time.  Estela asked me if things were the same in the US.  I told her that, never before in my life, had I known a person in jail.  I explained to her that (for the most part) the police were respected and that people tried to do the right thing and always tell the truth.  She was surprised to find out that people seldom got away with doing bad things to other people, that most people behaved and respected other people's rights.

I guess only time will tell whether Alex has really learned anything or not.  If he gets out there is nothing out there for him.  No job.  No car.  Nobody who is going to help him.  Perhaps he is better off where he is.  There is a roof ... just a roof.  He has to buy his food.  He has no money.  He has to buy clean water.  He has no money.  He has to pay three times the going rate to make a phone call to ask for food, water, clothes, shoes and money.  Marielos has no money.  Estela has no money.  Estela wouldn't give him any if she did have money.  Marielos gives him what she has and then her kids miss school because she doesn't have bus fare.  Where will it all end?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Between a Rock and a Very Hard Place

Yesterday was Estela's day to visit the attorney and the attorney reports that Alex knows a lot about a lot and that he seems willing to sing to get out of jail.  And of course the jailers are willing to put others at risk in order to get the goods on a whole lot of bad guys including one case that goes back to 1994.  The attorney warned Estela that she and her children could be at risk as, if Alex does sing to gain his freedom, there are those who are likely to seek revenge.  Nice, huh?  Guatemalan justice.  I suppose the same thing happens in the US but I doubt if there is a witness protection plan available to Alex and all of his families.  The attorney reports that Alex is severely depressed which isn't surprising given his options right now.  Too bad he never learned to think about consequences.  It seems that his options are to stay in jail or to risk something terrible happening to one of his kids.  I would be severely depressed too.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mudslides and Jailbirds

Last week found me taking a break from the dramas of Bougainvillea Lane in favor of accompanying a Canadian journalist, David Mercer, to Honduras for the filming of video for the Riecken Foundation.  We visited villages only accessible by serious four-wheel drive vehicles, even horseback where the indigenous locals talked to us about how important books were to their communities.   We visited a remote rural kindergarten where the children have story hours given by Riecken volunteers.  In another community we participated in the delivery of the first books the community has ever received.

Delivering books to villages only
 accessible by horseback.
A leader of the community hopes that the arrival of books
will "open minds" in Carrizalon, Honduras. 

Nice place to film a video

Getting back from Honduras proved to be a bit challenging as heavy rains the night before our departure closed the main road at the border with a mudslide.  Gladly, our car to Guatemala was stranded on the other side of the mudslide so we had only to find transportation to the border and then walk over the mudslide with all of our paraphernalia to get to our car.

Muddy walk from Honduras to Guatemala
thanks to mudslide and truck full of bananas.

As for the "jailbird," Alex, he is still in there but apparently is facing greatly reduced charges involving his phone call demanding ransom.  He has a team of public defenders (three) who, I am told, are very interested in his case.  Perhaps, that level of interest has to do with all of the women and all of the children.  Marielos, mother of the younger two who ARE returning to school on Monday, met with the attorney the other day.  Estela is meeting with her on Tuesday.  I feel quite certain that the group of attorneys are having a good laugh about this fellow with no means whatsoever and all the women and children.  I wonder how many other women have meetings with the attorneys.  Yesterday I wrote a letter at the request of the attorney indicating that the three older children receive scholarships (from my Rotary Club not me, of course) for school. Apparently, they are trying to confirm Alex's claim that he is penniless.  I gave that letter to Estela who will deliver it to the attorney on Tuesday.  Late yesterday Marielos came by and she also needs a similar letter.  Denis saw his father for a few minutes last weekend but is playing in a band concert this weekend.  Marielos doesn't seem inclined to go (good for her) despite the fact that today is Dia del Nino and the jail is celebrating with a pinata for all of the children who show up. Apparently the lawyers are also looking for one more "letter of good character."  Marielos laughs.  So do I.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Frijole Keeps Turning

Two days ago I met with the directors of the pre-school from which little Michelle and Christopher have been suspended due to the alleged antics of their father, or perhaps more to the point, concerns about the company he keeps. The school plans to discuss the matter with the parents at a meeting next week and tell the parents that they like the children and their mother and would like to bring them back.  Anyone with concerns will be asked to speak to the director privately.  They anticipate problems with one or two Guatemalan families but are willing to call in one of the most prominent and influential Guatemalans around (who has just accepted Denis and Astrid into a new school that she is starting in November) to talk some sense into them.  So, hopefully the two will be able to return to school next week.  The school has hired an armed security guard which they said was something they needed to do anyway.  

After the meeting I met with Marielos, the mother of the younger two.  She told me that the kidnapped woman who was in the other car at the time of the arrest has indicated that Alex was NOT involved in either her kidnap nor the rape which was done by one of the bad brothers.  After much thought I decided to throw away Q1500 ($200) to stop the daily beatings that he has been receiving.  Marielos and her mother had put Q2000 into the account of the jail bosses (the inmates run the asylums here) which was only enough to keep the other inmates from stealing his food.  

Quite unbelievable that he can be in jail for phoning someone and demanding ransom and then people on the outside have to pay ransom to keep him from being beaten and starved to death in jail.  Clearly the government has to know that this is going on, even condoning and probably participating in it.  I actually think that Marielos and her mother are refreshingly honest.  When I offered to pay the balance they easily could have just taken it and told me that were going to use it for Alex.  Instead they walked me to the bank and gave me the account number and then went and had a copy of the receipt made for me as they needed the information to send a text message that the money had been paid.  Marielos's mother will go again on Saturday and I will send a bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with her.  The school director told me today that it is very important that no one anywhere near the jail know that he even knows a gringa otherwise the price of his release skyrockets to the point where he will never get out.  Marielos and her mother knew that as well so "mum" is the word.  I like these two women.  They are straight shooters - very refreshing.  The three bad brothers had Q11000 on their "comfort" account the day after their arrest (and who are they working for?) and they are being kept away from Alex.  His father thinks that, if he gets out, he should be sent off to cut sugar cane for a few years and learn to work.  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

As the Frijole Turns .....

Lots of queries are coming in thus I thought it best to update the blog.  Most who know Alexander don't believe that he could be guilty as charged (by the media anyway).  I am troubled by my "gut instincts" having failed me, or is it not as it seems?  The stories abound.  I look at the mug shot of Alex on the internet and just cannot get my head around the fact that this fellow who has done many kind things for me in the past, often keeping me out of danger is where is he. Perfect, no. Devious, yes but I don't believe he is a hardened criminal.  It all makes one try to get inside the mind of someone who has had to struggle to survive every single day of their lives.  Might we be any different in the same circumstances?

Today I went to "Family Day" with Estela and kids at the new Antigua International School.  They have agreed to take Astrid and Denis which will be a game changer for them.  I have spoken to the director and he knows the whole ugly story and doesn't care.  This is the fourth such school that he has been involved in in four different countries.  He and Denis have already made a connection.  The teachers are an interesting group of dedicated American teachers who travel the world and work in such schools.  Many like Jim, the director, have lived and worked in a number of countries and speak multiple languages.

While the kids were playing soccer with their new school mates Estela told me that Alexander's sister had come to the house yesterday.  She had been to the jail to see Alex and reports that he is very, very upset and asking to see his children.  It was news to me that he had family as he had always told me that he was "solito."  Marielos, the mother of his two youngest children, told me last week that his father has driven a chicken bus for 25 years, that he has two brothers and two sisters and some half siblings.  Despite his tales of being "solito" his family has come forward and are doing what they can to help.  His sister reports that his attorney (government appointed) says that he is being named as an "accomplice" in the most recent caper which resulted in his arrest.   He has no previous criminal record and he is apparently not being named as being involved in any previous "delitos" of the three brothers also arrested. He is also being held in a different part of the jail from the three bad brothers which may or may not be significant.

Marielos told me that Alex had called her the day of the arrest saying that he was leaving San Antonio Aguas Calientes (where Estela and her children live) and that he would be at Marielos's place in about 15 minutes.  He never arrived and later that evening she saw him being arrested on television. When arrested the three brothers were in Alex's car which he reported as having been stolen last month.  I recognize that car as Alex's from the photos on the internet.  In the car with the bad brothers was the woman they had kidnapped the day before and a pistol (no ammunition).  Alex was alone in another car with two cell phones, one of them an old Blackberry that I had given him in May thinking he would sell it.  One or the other of Alex's phones holds the evidence that he had made calls negotiating the ransom for the woman in the other car.  Those of us who have known Alex for a number of years feel certain that he would be far more likely to be involved in negotiating for money than in rape.  That simply does not compute for a guy who has been so protective of his children.  Or does it?

I am sure, that in time, justice such as it is in Guatemala, will be done.  Clearly Alex got mixed up with a very bad lot, probably (likely) he borrowed some money from these guys who had money from their previous bad deeds.  Alex was never very interested in re-paying debts which is why I cut him off.  "Borrow" does not have the same meaning to Guatemalans as it does to gringos.  But, in this country if you borrow from the wrong people and don't pay it back you can be in big trouble, even dead.  Perhaps he was told that he could have his car back if he made the ransom calls.  While he has a gentle, kind side to him Alex also has a serious credibility issue thus it is very hard to know what to think.

Alex's sister reports that he is a very changed person and that she feels that he has finally learned a very hard lesson.  His family has given him Q1000 ($130) which allows him to pay the "boss" to sleep on a cot with a blanket.  Previously he was sleeping on the concrete floor without a blanket.  Denis has decided that he wants to see his father so his aunt is going to take him next Saturday.  Apparently one is encouraged to send food or they often don't eat.  I haven't spent much time in jails anywhere but can imagine that the Guatemalan ones are pretty grim.  I thought I might send some photos of all the kids with Denis and perhaps some good old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which offer a bit of nutrition and a long shelf life.   Funny where this life leads us.

So, Friday I bought a car totally in Spanish, Saturday I bought a toilet all in Spanish and today I rode the chicken bus to and from "Family Day" which was a couple of miles outside of Antigua. Tuesday I hope to talk some sense into the Montessori School that suspended Christopher and Michelle.  I saw them a couple of days ago and even at 3 and 4 they are very eager to go back to school and they recited the names of all their teachers for me.  I may have to offer to sit out front armed with a pepper spray until they come to realize that none of the bad guys even know where Alex's kids are or even that he has any.  I am certain he probably has a few more that even I do not know about and that is OK as I am up to my ears in tuition payments as it is.  If I can just get these five educated I will feel that I have done my part.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Truly a Scoundrel

This is going to be very hard to write for a number of reasons.  On August 27th 2011 Alexander was arrested along with three other members of (apparently) his gang.  He is, at this writing, in jail (where he probably belongs) in Chimaltenango.  The four are charged with kidnapping Guatemalan women and rape.  As you might imagine the fallout has been tremendous.  Alex has been labelled as the "boss."  Just two days prior to his arrest Alex's oldest son, Denis, achieved the best report card that he has ever had.  Now the fourteen year old is quite simply, devastated, as are his sisters.  Gladly the two little ones are too young to know or understand though, because of the news, they have been "suspended" from their pre-school out of safety concerns for the other children.

Whatever help that many gave to Alexander it was never enough and, quite obviously, it never would have been.  Those who know him are shocked that he could be what he apparently is. Perhaps it is just not possible for a street kid to grow up in good order.  It always surprised me that Alex was not (apparently) violent and not involved with either drugs or alcohol.  It seemed to me that he had a gentle nature but that was the only side that I saw quite obviously. A very sad ending for a probably unwanted and uncared for infant born 35 years ago.  Just three months ago he was strapping the youngest two into their seatbelts for a journey to the zoo and holding the hand of his youngest son.  I guess I should have seen more into his disconnectedness from his children. There was a glimmer of caring about Jackie and Denis but obviously not enough.  Astrid who will be 12 in November never seemed to care much for him and the youngest two call him "Alex." He called Denis the other night from his jail cell professing his innocence and saying that he needed money.  He always needed money and now he probably really does but I don't know anyone who is going to give him any.  It is a good thing that Denis had only very recently come to terms with the fact that his dad rarely spoke the truth.  Likely a sociopath.

The challenge now will be to get the little ones back into school and to help the three older kids come to terms with who their father is.  Gladly, in their world probably few have made the connection between them and the news reports which were many.  Estela has already made contact with the local psychologist that is available to them and my Spanish is likely to get a real workout when I return to Antigua.  New vocabulary words that I never expected to have to know.  If the kids want to see their dad I will take them as no one else will.  I would hope to see on his face all of the pain that he is causing his children.  However, at the same time I realize that he never really had a chance.  For so many this world is a really ugly place.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Real Scoundrel!

I guess it was inevitable that one day Alexander wouldn't show up at the airport in Guatemala City. I called to tell him that I would be out front.  He said he would be right over and he never showed up.  I called him back and he told me that he was having car trouble.  I took an airport taxi, nice fellow, nice car, good driver, nice price.  Done!  No more Alexander.  However, as I write he has been telling anyone who would listen (and many who don't want to) that the car that I helped him "buy" had been stolen.  He has even offered up imaginary rope burns on his arms to try to prove that he had been tied up.  Funny they didn't take his cell phone, the most commonly stolen item in Guatemala.  He calls and calls and I tell him "not my problem, no more cars."  I don't believe for a minute that the car was stolen, rather it has been returned to the person he supposedly bought it from with my money because he was really renting it and didn't make his payments.  He is clever. He will find another sucker very soon.  That is all he knows, sadly.

Michelle participating in English

That brings up the dilemma of his youngest two children whom I am sponsoring to go to school.  A friend who lives here got wind of the fact that the mother borrowed Q2000 from me last year, signed a note and never paid the money back.  The word "loan" has a very different meaning in Guatemala.  I was always suspicious that Alex had put her up to it.  Today Nina and I went into the market where the mother works and, after asking several people, found her sister and then the mother herself.  Alex had told me that she was afraid of me because of the loan and wouldn't come near me.  Yet when she saw Tia Joan who is making it possible for her kids to go to school she smiled broadly and greeted me.  Hmmmm

Christopher learning important skills.

Nina, who has been in Guatemala long enough to know exactly what is going on, told Marielos that if she wanted her kids to continue in school that she would need to pay me Q1000 (US $130) before I leave in three days time.   I offered my phone number and she indicated that she had it.  I told her that I wanted to keep her kids in school but that we needed to clear up this matter of the debt.  No es corecto.

I feared that I would never see the money and would have to stop sponsoring her kids who are doing really well in their bi-lingual Montessori pre-school.  Much to my surprise about 6pm my phone rang and Marielos asked if it was OK to come by and pay me the money.  I told her "yes" and phoned the guards to tell them to let her and the children in.  I hear the voice of Nina cautioning me not to be too gullible but Marielos was extremely apologetic and told me that Alexander had told her that he had paid back the money last year.  She promised to return next month when I am next here to pay the remaining Q1000.

Michelle is happy that she gets to stay in school.

It was dark when she left to take the "chicken bus" back to her village where she lives in one room with her three children (yep, there is another one by some other guy).  Some of them work so hard and for so little.  I will listen to Nina and remain cautious but I am hopeful that this woman, like Estela, won't let me down.  One does wonder where Latin men got the idea that they are so wonderful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Giraffes in Guatemala

As I have expected both Alexander and Estela have adjusted to being "divorced."  I use the quotes because most often the poor in Guatemala simply say "I do" or "I don't" and fairly quickly change partners. A much less onerous arrangement than in the developed world and clearly there is little property to squabble over.  The kids stay with mom but feelings get hurt all the same.

So, while there is still a certain amount of finger pointing and tearful (Estela) tales, true or maybe not, I have learned to ignore the tales and walk right down the middle. I focus on the children and their education. Alex and Estela have both been told that they get paid for the work they do, that the Bank of Joan has closed permanently and that education is the limit of what Tia Joan will fund.

I have learned that, while "no" only means that they will wait a while before coming around again one seems to gain a certain amount of respect by defining the limits. Too bad it took me so long to figure that out.
Michelle, 3 and Christopher, 4 and girafas
So, after six months or so of not mentioning Alex's youngest two children he told me (true or not, I will never know) that Michelle, 3, had been asking for "Tia Joan."  So, the four of us (Mom was working in the market) went off to the zoo on a Sunday and what little it cost was worth every quetzal to watch Alex schlepping the Mickey Mouse diaper bag (which was not needed, only for emergencies) through the Guatemala City zoo.
The two children were absolutely thrilled (a trip to the zoo is only a dream for most of the many poor children in Guatemala) and, interestingly, they were far better behaved that many of the more affluent children in the zoo. They quite literally ran from one exhibit to the other and knew the names of most of the animals. Christopher quickly picked up "please" and "thank you" in English in order to get cookies from Tia Joan. After "happy meals" at Pollo Campero which resulted in ketchup and grease all over the place Alex, el machismo, rolled his eyes at the mess as he started cleaning up. I suspect that he is now doing more parenting than he ever did with the first three. It is very entertaining to watch him in the single parent role. El SeƱor Mom.
Hard day at the zoo

Diaper bag came in handy.

School. Of course they have to go to school.  As those things go a friend told me about a bi-lingual, Montessori pre-school run by a American woman.  I rode my bicycle over to have a look and the next day was the first day of pre-school for Christopher and Michelle.  Both were very excited to go but the reality was a little scary especially for Christopher.
Michelle was wide-eyed and very curious.  She reported to her mother at the end of the first day that she had a new friend.  Christopher, normally very outgoing, dissolved into tears more than once.

After a couple of hours they were both laughing and going down the slide that they didn't want to go near a bit earlier.  Two weeks later both have had a very positive report from the school director who says they have made remarkable progress and Alex reports that Michelle's new favorite word is "OK" and that she wants to wear her Hannah Montana backpack all day long.
I surprised them at school the one day and I could see Michelle's eyes widen as she said "Tia Joan" from inside the school. At the age of 37 months she has quite obviously figured out who is the key to her future.  The two came running out holding the little books that each day have a comment about them from the teachers.  Both had excellent reports.

Michelle wears her school backpack all day long.
For all of his shortcomings Alex does seem to know that school is the key for all of his progeny. He now sees that all five get to school on time and home again.  The director of the pre-school has told him that he needs

an email address as they communicate with the parents by email.  I told her that I would work on that the next time I was in Guatemala.  In the meantime they are printing the emails and giving them to him to share with the children's mother.

Does Estela know?  Yes, she does and, as she once told me, "the children are innocent."  I told her that I was putting the two "chiquitos" (small ones) in school as well.  She took that in stride.  A new private international school is soon opening in Antigua and I am hoping to get Estela's two youngest into this school which will be based on the US system and mostly in English. Astrid will likely be admitted without any problems but Denis at 14 is suffering from having a kid as his father.  He desperately needs a good male role model.  He remains a nice boy but his grades are lousy despite everyone's reports that he does all his school work.

However, in a place like Guatemala where there are so many good people working for a song trying to make a difference the director of the new school has offered to work with Denis to see if "I can help him to help himself."  Denis has had a couple of meetings with Jim who has offered to review his homework for him.  He has asked Denis if he thinks he might bring his grades up so that he might be able to go to the new school thus putting the decision on Denis. Jim has asked both Astrid and Denis if they are willing to study English and, at this writing, they are both doing a minimum of an hour a day on the Rosetta Stone Level 1 English program on their computer. (The computer, which is not connected to the internet, needed a new hard drive thus I made sure that very little apart from Rosetta Stone was reinstalled.)

Denis finally has something to strive for and a fellow in his life who cares whether or not he makes it.  Astrid has lectured her older brother about what a great opportunity the new school would be and has told him that, if he blows it, he will be relegated to a government school where he won't learn anything.  So there!

Jackie, too, has less than ideal grades from the first quarter in her new school. However, it is a new school and her classes are all in English so I am sure they will improve with time. In her school uniform she looks like a rising young executive.  Given her love or reading and passion for school
I am optimistic about Jackie.

Stay tuned for education updates.  I now have six (Astrid's cousin,
Brenda too) in private school and three more in government schools
thanks to some of my blog readers. Changing a few lives is what it
is about.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Along Came Diego

Happy New Year from Guatemala!  After hours of fireworks last night I am certain that the Chinese economy is doing better this morning.  Odd how people who can't feed their kids and tourists set free from legal restrictions on fireworks will drop hundreds of dollars on Chinese made fireworks.  The first day of 2011 will be about cleaning up the debris on the terrace and getting the dog to go outside again.

Veronica, 13,  lacks confidence, could use a tutor
Another year has passed and "poco a poco" there is progress in Guatemala.  I visited Casa Broccoli to see the two indigenous children who are being sponsored to attend school in San Antonio Aguas Caliente.  Interestingly they are siblings of Charlie's whom you may remember from earlier blog postings couldn't cope with being the oldest in the third grade.  He dropped out of school in the middle of the third grade at 13 and, his siblings report that, a year later, he is working.  Picking vegetables no doubt..

I was expecting to see Veronica, 13, and Elmer, 8, but there was a third child with them.  Diego is 6 and indicated that he is very eager to go to school so he will.  Elmer and Veronica both demonstrated their reading skills.  They are both in the same grade despite their age difference.  They will enter fourth grade in January.  Elmer is an excellent reader while Veronica is coming along (Jackie needed to help her).  She is perhaps inhibited by a lack of confidence not uncommon in girls in this country, sadly.  I gave each of them a package of educational games, one math based and the other language based. I found myself wishing I had the time and the patience to tutor Veronica.

Diego, 6, wants to go to school

Elmer, 8, reads like a champ

Which 8-year old grew up in the US?
Casa Broccoli was neat and tidy and it was a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours sitting in the garden taking in their million dollar (by US standards) view.   Estela served us something dry and starchy with fruit for a visiting friend who is a vegetarian.  My vegetarian friend and his wife have a son adopted shortly after birth from Guatemala.  Ruben is the same age as Elmer so having seen the recent 20/20 report on malnutrition and stunting in Guatemala we photographed the two 8-year olds who did have the same exact dental configuration (missing the same teeth).  Can you guess which one has grown up in the US?

The very poor neighbors next door have been discovered by an aid agency that is building them a very small cinder block house and is now sponsoring the girls to continue in school.  Every December I send them replacements for their two water filters filled with staple food items.  There are seven children in this family.  The eldest son is married and I was dismayed to see his young wife cradling her third child.  Estela reported that she had tried to get her to go to the WINGS ( office in Antigua for some family planning assistance but that she was not interested.   Perhaps this family will only ever understand the hazards of 7 children bearing 7 children and so on when they run out of space on their tiny little plot of land.  If we can just keep the girls in school there is a chance that they won't all have seven.

The Guatemalans do seem to enjoy a party more than their gringo neighbors.  Central Park is all lighted up for the holidays and musicians just show up serenading the whole park in Christmas carols.  A brown Santa hangs around the fountain and earns his tortillas by posing for photos and doling out hugs.  The shoe shine boys and peddlers are in abundance.  One evening a little boy named "Amadeo" tried to sell me some silly Christmas light thing.  We had a chat and I gave him Q50 ($6) and told him "Feliz Navidad."  He willingly posed for a photo as the going rate for a photo is Q1.  He told me he was six and when asked where he lived he rattled off his complete address including the apartment number in Solola near Lake Atitlan.  At six he is a master salesman.  I encountered him again on New Years' Eve as well when he was selling scarves.  The advantage of speaking Spanish is that you can engage beyond the "I need money so I can go to school" dialogue.  A friend and I chatted a bit with Amadeo and told him we didn't need any scarves at which point he dropped the price by 50%.  (By the way there are gringos who teach them phrases in English, French, German designed to earn them a few more quetzales from unsuspecting tourists.) I gave Amadeo some spare change so he wouldn't get in trouble with his mother and told him we would catch him later and he said "OK."  The good news is that he did know how to spell his name so perhaps he is going to school.  I didn't ask because I knew I would get the answer that he thought I wanted to hear but not necessarily the truth. I expect I will see Amadeo again as he will always keep an eye out for the gringa who gave him Q50.  How does a six-year old become such a ruthless salesman?  Aren't there a zillion companies who would want such a salesperson?

Estela and children came on Christmas Eve without Alex for the first time.  Alex comes and goes from his bachelor pad at the far end of Casa Broccoli but is pretty much out of favor with Estela and the children as well who are tiring of his steady stream of untruths.  One wonders if becoming a sociopath is always the end result of a child growing up alone on the street struggling to survive.  Sad to think that Amadeo might become Alex though Amadeo does have a mother at age 6.  Alex did not.  Denis at 13 is obviously conflicted about his father and is desperately in need of a good male role model (they are in short supply in Guatemala).  He lacks self-confidence and is not doing as well as his sisters in school.  I suspect that he might be suffering from dyslexia which no one here is equipped to deal with.  A gringo friend is spending the occasional Saturday with Denis in the hope of bolstering his self-confidence and giving him the idea that he doesn't have to follow in his father's footsteps/missteps.

What does 2011 bring for Guatemala?

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, is recommending that everyone study Spanish which could help the Spanish schools and teachers in Guatemala.

CNN recommends Guatemala as the #8 out of 9 places one should visit in 2011.

Elmer and Veronica can read and Diego will get to go to school   Hopefully, Amadeo too.  Jackie starts a bi-lingual "diversificado" (high school) this month and spends most of her free time with my old Kindle that I loaded up with books in Spanish for Christmas.  Denis is using iTunes to put music on a Nano for his mother.

Two well qualified women gained high government posts based on merit over male contenders.

The Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas, has moved into the Coban area and has declared war on Guatemala.

Although the tourist areas are quite well patrolled the average Guatemalan suffers daily from a lack of security and corruption at all levels of government.

ABC News launched a year long series called "Be the Change, Save a Life" with a piece on malnutrition and stunting  in Guatemala anchored by Christiane Amanpour.  Look for the December 17th piece entitled "Tortillas and Coffee as Baby Food."

The first North American producer of Plumpy Nut, a highly acclaimed nutritional supplement, Edesia, is seeing that their products get to some of the neediest in Guatemala.

Riecken Guatemala has received a donation to build a new community discovery center in nearby Jocotenango which will not only change the community but be conveniently accessible to visitors to Antigua.

So, it is still a muddle but a pleasant, always entertaining muddle.  Where else can you experience perfect weather, stunning views, $15 gourmet meals, devastating poverty, AK-47s, talented craftsmen and happy smiling people on any given day?