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.