Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mucho Progreso

A year ago Denis scarcely spoke, Jackie cried a lot and Astrid was quiet and sullen.  Last Friday Jackie, Denis and I made a round trip to Lake Átitlan to deliver books donated by a Reno Rotarian to the Riecken Library in San Juan La Laguna.  Jackie asked if she could also go as neither of them had ever seen a library before.  Jackie is working as a volunteer for the vacation program at Cris and Mishelle's school thus I told her that she would need to ask permission to be away.  One has to be cognizant of the fact that mom with her sub-standard sixth grade education has few social skills to offer her children.  Though both had seen the lake a few years ago we arrived this time using a more scenic route and stopped at a place where one could see the entire lake.

Denis, in particular seemed overwhelmed at the site of this beautiful lake.  He has recently shown a great interest in photography (the plus side of being so visually oriented that he struggles learning a second language) thus I have given him access to my camera.  He grabbed the camera and immediately understood that there are some things that the camera cannot fully replicate.

We parked the car and walked the books down to a dock where we all boarded a boat for the trip across the lake.  Q25 ($3) for unknown gringos, Q20 for known local gringos and Q15 for Guatemalans.  The books traveled for free.

Yes, there are some buildings sitting in the water in this picture.  Lake Átitlan, surrounded by volcanos and Mayan villages is full of mystery and legend.  The level of the lake, which was created millions of years ago by a presumed volcanic eruption, goes up and down dramatically over time.  Earlier in the last century there was a change of 15 meters (over 45 feet).  This is something that the locals understand and accept.  They simply move to higher ground as necessary and build new docks when the others become submerged.

Upon arrival at the dock in San Juan the books were loaded into a tuk tuk for a ride up the hill to the community center where the library is located.  Jackie and Denis got their first look at a library. Imagine finding out for the first time that there was a place you could go and get answers to all of your questions.

Denis, with his very recently acquired self-confidence plied library director, Israel Quic, with questions about the lake.  How deep is it, how big is it, how did it get here?  They talked about all of the Mayan legends about the lake and the changing levels.  Israel told Denis about the underground city found by divers and archeologists.  Denis was fascinated and Israel referred him to an Guatemalan university website where there is a video of the underwater exploration.  Both kids were surprised to hear people in the library speaking a language they didn't understand.  Israel talked to them about all the Mayan languages spoken around the lake.

Back across the lake we went and I believe the two had learned more about their country and its people in one day than they have so far in their "formal" education.  Denis continues daily tutoring in math. life and soccer with his favorite teacher from last year.  Jackie has flunked out of her bi-lingual secretary program (I fault the school) despite having been a good student in the past so she will join Denis in the home schooling program with the goal of gaining her "bachillerato" and eventually a teaching job. The addition of an inexpensive, "student" laptop to my house gives all of the kids (supervised) internet access.

Astrid is quickly becoming a star at the Antigua International School where last year she was sullen, even angry and pretty unhappy.  Today she is smiling, quickly gaining fluency in English and amazing the teachers who just a year ago had little hope for her.  I took her to a concert recently and told her that she could come to the house anytime she needed to use the internet for homework and to let me know anytime she needed a ride.  Astrid is the only student in her school who arrives and leaves via the "chicken bus."  There is no service from the school to her village in the evenings which means she cannot attend school related activities after dark without a safe transportation alternative.  She has two advocates at the school who let me know when she might need something that is not available at home.  Recently that was a bit of money for a Halloween costume and, soon, donations for a food drive for a nearby impoverished school.

The evening of the concert Astrid asked me, in English, if I could explain taxes to her as there was about to be a debate in her humanities class.  We talked about economics, revenues, spending, taxes, why Guatemala was so poor, why the Antigua mayor was in jail (expropriation of tax revenues) and more.  A few days later Astrid called from school and asked me if I could please pick her up at school as she needed to use the internet for some homework.

One day last week the following arrived in my email inbox.  "I just wanted to share with you a major accomplishment for Astrid today. While in her Social Studies class, she raised her hand to read in front of the class. This is the first time she's done this and is an absolute display of her developing self-confidence and comfort at school. Mrs. Nicholas stopped the class when she had finished reading and told the class why Astrid had just done such an amazing thing. The whole class applauded her and she came to the library and told me how 'very, very, very happy' she was and that she felt proud of herself. This is a major step for her!" The debate was a great success and her advocates tell me that she participated and was firm about her positions. Astrid asked her mother if they could get a newspaper.

Next weekend Astrid and I will participate in a caravan taking warm clothing and food to earthquake victims near Quezaltenango. The more affluent students are likely to visit family in the US over the Thanksgiving weekend.  Astrid will be able to report that she went on a humanitarian mission.

As for the little kids life is good as they are still oblivious to the dark side of poverty that their (now) single mom has to endure.  Slowly but surely Marielos is coming to terms with the reality of Alex's situation and is starting to let him go. A typical day for her was yesterday. She walks to the bus with her kids then rode the bus to Antigua and then walked a mile to deposit her kids in their English class.  She then opened her shop in the market where she sells cheap earrings and hair things to a local clientele.  She is lucky if she makes $5 a day.  At noon she does the mile walk again to pick up her kids.  I visited in the afternoon and took Cris and Mishelle for ice cream. Diego was home sick.  Cris, 5, knows his way around the rabbit warren of a market the way most kids know their way around their block.  He led us to the ice cream store and back.

Thanks to their bi-lingual school what two weeks ago was "limone" was this week "green" as a preferred flavor.  Mom worked in the market until after dark.  I told her that I had some food for her and would give them a ride home to their village.  Upon arrival at the house that Marielos shares with her parents she indicated that no one was there and that her mother had the only key.  So, I was left with the choice of abandoning them on the sidewalk in pretty chilly and dark (and not terrible safe) conditions or coming up with an alternative.  So, we loaded everything back in the car and the kids took turns practicing driving with great enthusiasm.   Heaven knows where we might have ended up had I let Cris get his hand on the key.  Poverty really, really sucks.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bougainvillea Lane ... Poco a Poco

Curious that there is never a dull day here in Guatemala.  Perhaps, that is the "hook".  It might have to do with the small size of the community or the fact that those without resources or education circle around the gringos with interesting and innovative tales of woe.  Or that all of the ex-pats who choose to live here have the same loose screw.

I now officially have six children on the dole.  While Marielos does not miss a beat in terms of her children's schooling I noticed that she was walking a mile or so round-trip across town twice a day to the pre-school to deliver and fetch Cris and Mishelle.  That meant that she didn't have the $20 per month for the "busito" which delivered them back to the market at the end of the day.  I asked her about Diego (9) and she started crying.  It turns out that she has been paying for him to go to a private "colegio" (deemed better than a government school but sometimes only a profit center) since pre-school.  Education, which she never had, is obviously very important to her.  Since food and shoes come first she is four months behind and Diego is being denied passage to the fifth grade.  I gave her $100.00 so that Diego could finish the school year which ends next week (in time for children to help harvesting coffee).  Diego might well be the brightest of the bunch and he really likes school. Marielos's mother (who wouldn't let Marielos and her sisters attend school) told Marielos that she should just take him out of school. Can you imagine? His father was assassinated, his step-father is in prison (no longer in jail but prison), he is a nice, bright nine-year old who likes school. Take him out of school for lack of $25 a month?  Marielos told me that Diego asks her a lot of questions about his school work and it makes her sad that she can't help him because "I never studied." Between now and January we will be looking for the best school option for Diego who, like Denis, is now hooked on the Khan Academy math videos.

Mesmerized by Sal Khan's math
Denis is 15.  On his birthday in March I bought a birthday cake with a "15" candle on it.  The following day Estela reported that Denis was really 16.  Hmmm.  I asked her how it was possible that she had two children aged 16 who were not twins.  She was adamant and seemed surprised when I told her that if Jackie was born in November that there was no way that Denis could have been born in March of the following year.  She told me that he was early.  Not that early.  I suggested that she go home and look at Denis's birth certificate, that Denis deserved to know how old he was.  Denis is 15.  He was born in March of 1997.  His is a very difficult age without a father in prison, without having flunked out of a fancy international school, without possible learning disorders, without being a boy.

Perhaps because this small community is full of ex-pats with the same loose screw there are people willing to help Denis.  He worked with a tutor on both English and Spanish along with his younger sister, Astrid, during the summer months.  He continues daily tutoring sessions at the same school that Cris and Mishelle attend.  I quickly made the arrangement for him to walk Cris and Mishelle to the market after school saving Marielos the a mile a day.  Denis adores the two little ones and takes his responsibility very seriously.  Good for everybody.

Last week Denis and I met with an educational psychologist who is on the staff of a home schooling program.  I decided that they merited a visit because none of the materials that they sent me had a single spelling or grammatical error.  Almost unheard of in Guatemala because of the poor quality of the education. I liked the woman. Denis liked the woman. She said that she would like to see him once a week for the balance of the calendar year, that he could then start (again) the equivalent of the 8th grade in January (when the coffee has all been picked).  Walking out of that meeting Denis was almost teary eyed and he gave me a big hug and, in English, thanked me "for helping" him.

While Denis had been offered the chance to return to the international school for their "extra-curricular" program (after all he was their star soccer player) Denis told me that he did not want to go.  Done.  I understand.  His favorite teacher was his math teacher who had made a real effort to move Denis forward.  Oddly enough this man is also called Alex.  Alex and his wife (who was the second grade teacher) are Canadians and wander the world teaching.  Three years in Columbia, three years in Libya among their most recent adventures.  At the end of the school year Alex offered to help me with a math program for Denis.  We had a tentative plan to meet this past Wednesday.  On Monday morning I received an email from Alex indicating that he and his wife had both resigned from the international school the previous Friday over what sounds like a ridiculous issue with the new director.  Alex said that he was now free to help Denis.

Alex and his wife will be around until Christmas and he now comes to my house several days a week in the afternoons to spend time with Denis and tutor him in both math and life.  They go to the market and do math problems with bananas and avocados.  They walk and they talk in Spanglish. Alex's Spanish is about the same as Denis's English.  Soon I will ask Alex if he wouldn't mind working condoms into a math problem for Denis. Denis cannot believe that so many people want to help him.  I have told him "no peace until there is a high school (big deal here) graduation."  He and Alex use the Khan Academy website (check it out if you haven't and materials that Alex has.  The real value is that he is teaching Denis that there are people who care whether or nor he succeeds.  He is also teaching him to understand the concepts behind math and to reason and, heaven knows, he has way more patience than I have.

After all the school work I give Denis Facebook time (I set up his account and made sure that all of the privacy settings were on).  Yesterday he ran the battery out on my laptop but in order to do that he had to read, write and type.  Go Facebook!

Astrid is back at the international school along with her determination to graduate.  She was somewhat dismayed to find out that she would have to repeat the 6th grade having lost most of last year to learning English.  On the first day of school, however, after a year's time she finally found a friend, another girl who is being sponsored, whose mother is a maid and who is also struggling with English.  Not only does Astrid have a friend but she now gets to be a mentor to the kid she was a year ago.  She is smiling.  She is happy.  School is hard.  Last Friday there were no classes so she came to my house and worked on the school math website for five hours doing over 500 problems.  She is studying the solar system in science, her hardest class.  Sal Khan to the rescue with his videos on the solar system.

Jackie is in a rotten school which she originally picked, I suspect, because the only career she had ever heard of besides maid was bi-lingual secretary.  She is a diligent student who loves to read and who should be a teacher.  Her only B is in English.  She is flunking most other subjects (silly things like shorthand, typing, nothing academic) which means that she will not graduate next year (I suspect that this is a sustainability program on the part of her rotten school).  If diligent students are flunking out then there is something wrong with the school.  It is quite likely that she too will be enrolled in home schooling with Denis come January.  I have already told Estela that I will not give this school another centavo. Not exactly what I thought that retirement would be about but I suppose it should be about something.  During the coffee picking school break Jackie will be working as a volunteer at the bi-lingual Montessori  that her younger siblings attend.

The "chiquitos" (little ones) are flourishing, mixing English with Spanish.  They are both such happy kids.  I credit their mother and extended family full of doting grandparents and aunts for that. Cristopher takes one look at me and pleads for my iPhone.  Mishelle just grins showing dimples inherited from her father who isn't around to see them.

Mishelle (r) and friend getting down and dirty at school.
Speaking of their father Alex (the felon not the cherished teacher) has been transferred from the local jail to one of the nastiest prisons in the world, Pavon, on the other side of Guatemala City.  It is out of reach for any of his many families thus he likely hasn't had a visitor in the four months he has been there.  Still no trial, no sentence.  A Guatemalan friend has suggested that the reason that his case has taken so long to make its way through the shabby justice system is, perhaps, because it is a very big and involved case.  Just today he called the house pleading for food. When I asked him where he was he answered "zone 18." I gave the phone to Denis who seemed under-impressed   Once again Alex expects his case to be resolved in November (there was last November too).  He has yet another new lawyer. Of course, despite evidence and witnesses to the contrary he maintains his innocence.  Vamos a ver.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


In spite of their father's incarceration (or perhaps because they don't have to worry anymore about what he is up to) the children seem to be thriving.  Denis and Astrid are facing the challenge of their new international school with smiles.  They are starting to understand and even speak English.  The school asked me to come in for a meeting and confirmed what I had long suspected about Denis, that he may have some learning disabilities.  One of the delights about Antigua is how easy it is to find a solution to most anything.  Two days later I met a American woman with a Masters' degree in Special Education.  She has already started to work with Denis twice a week. Denis is just a delightful boy who will be 15 by the time you read this.  He comes every weekend and washes cars in the neighbor making the staggering amount of $13.00 most weekends which gives him some pocket change and the chance to feel that he is helping his mother by contributing.  I have talked to him about saving money.  He wants to, one day, buy a moto (which I hope is far off).  He knows that he needs to pay me $10.00 for his next jug of car wash liquid.

I told Denis that I had had a meeting with some of his teachers and that they were concerned that he was getting frustrated at school.  He responded, "I can't write."  The teachers told me that Denis was doing very well socially as a result of the fact that he is the best soccer player in the school and there is a lot of competition for Denis's talents.  They also told me that Astrid is not doing well socially, doesn't yet have a friend.  The school is small and the majority of the girls in her class have formed one of those dreadful cliques.  I have suspected that Astrid engages in reverse discrimination against gringos.  I decided to talk to her to make certain that she wasn't rejecting classmates because they were "gringos."  Ironically, the day of that conversation Denis and Astrid came into the house and told me "Oscar sends his greetings."  Somehow they had gotten a ride with none other than Dr. Oscar whose two daughters attend the same school.  I took the opportunity to point out to the aspiring doctor or veterinarian, Astrid, that Oscar was not a gringo but a Guatemalan and yes, he is a doctor, drives a car and sends his kids to a good school. We had a conversation about the differences between gringos and Guatemalans and I hope that the boundaries got blurred.  Denis said that gringos were more intelligent and I jumped all over him and told him that that was not true.  I told him that what was true was that Guatemala had a horrible education system and many people did not get a decent education as a result.  I pointed out that the main difference between gringos and Guatemalans was one of opportunity and that, by attending the new school they were being given the same opportunity if not a better one than most kids in the US.

Friday, March 30, 2012

$1116 to Save a Little Girl's Life

Shortly after the holidays three-year old Michelle was taken for the second time to the National (public) Hospital with a severe case of chicken pox.  Right, no vaccination. The 27 pound child had about given up, was put into isolation and set up with an IV and feeding tube.  Every day at 2pm the entire family (minus Alex of course) would report for the visiting hour and, though seeing the child was not an option, they would all sit quietly in plastic chairs until the announcement came that the visiting hour (singular) was over.  Michelle's grandfather always came over and shook my hand and thanked me for coming. Michelle's mother, Marielos, was expected to stay and no one in the family was permitted to give her a break.  For three weeks she sat in a plastic chair by Michelle's bedside 24/7.  A sister moved in to look after her other children. The chicken pox eased but Michelle developed a terrible fever and several very painful skin infections. She refused to get out of bed or walk for days and days and days.  One day I challenged the guard at the entrance and brought her a Guatemalan "happy meal" (fried chicken and fries) which brought a smile to her face.  Progress was laboriously slow.  Her only signs of enthusiasm were when I arrived for the visiting hour with my iPad loaded with toddler apps.

Out of isolation but still poxie.
I called a private physician who went to the hospital to check on Michelle and he was refused admission.  So much for the Hippocratic Oath. A few days later Michelle and her mother were released from the hospital after more than three weeks.  I called "Dr. Oscar" who came to my house and what he found were four life threatening abscesses that had gone under the skin and a high temperature.  Oscar put on gloves and took some swabs from the abscesses.  The following morning he called quite concerned and asked me how long it would take me to bring the child to a nearby private hospital.  Thirty minutes later Oscar was waiting outside the hospital when I drove up with most of the family in my car.  There was, Oscar said, a very real risk of blood poisoning, septicemia, even death.  Amidst lots of screaming more samples were taken for more lab tests and another IV was inserted and Michelle was started on a new, much stronger antibiotic. The directors of her pre-school came to see what support they could offer.  Oscar warned me that the private hospital (private room, intensive care) might cost as much as $2000.00 for the expected ten days.

Books from school.
The private hospital had unlimited visiting hours and allowed the Michelle's aunts to stay with her so that Marielos could have a break and see her other children. Cousins and friends came. Nutritious meals and even sheets were provided. There was much more time with the iPad. Five days later the lab results showed no systemic infection nor organ damage so Oscar and a pediatrician friend, who came twice a day while Oscar was out of town on a medical mission, determined that Michelle could go home and finish her course of antibiotics orally.

On the mend in the private hospital.  Sheets provided.
A week later, though a little lacking in strength, down to 24 pounds and a bit disoriented, she was back in school after missing the first month of classes.  The bill for five days of a private room and all the medications and hospital care was $632.  The bill for two doctors who came twice a day to the hospital was $417 including their lab work.  An ultrasound of the child's liver was $20 and the antibiotics $47.00 Where else could you save a child's life for a bit over $1,000?  How many didn't make it because they didn't know anyone with $1,000?

On her way home with flowers from school.
While Michelle remains concerned whenever she sees me that a doctor will show up she had a great time just a few days after leaving the hospital at a picnic at a nearby finca.  When Dr. Oscar came over with his family to say "hola" Michelle would neither look at him nor speak to him. After all she is not yet four.

Alive and well after one month in hospitals.
Imagine being able to pay for decent health care out of pocket!