Saturday, October 17, 2015

It Continues to Be Unbelievable

It has been too long and there is lots of news. So much news that there hasn't been much time to update this blog. Starting with the most recent, Alex has finally been "condenado" (condemned) or sentenced, as it would be in English. He has officially received a sentence of sixty-two years not counting the five already served. Recently he sent a letter to Estela and her children pleading with them to come and visit him (the expectation, of course, is that they would come laden with food, clothing and money) in the jail in nearby Chimaltenango before he was to be transferred to the long-term prison in the western part of the country.

The only one who showed any interest was Denis, now eighteen, who likely needed to see his father to have some closure. On the way to school one day he told me about the letter and I encouraged him to visit his father and, more or less, have it out with him. He admitted to being "confused" about Alex. At eighteen with his own national ID Denis no longer needed his mother to go with him to the nearby jail. I told him that his father was going to tell him that he was innocent, it was all a big mistake and that he was a victim. Don't they all say that? I suggested to Denis that he tell his father that he was not a victim, rather it was all of his many children and his victims who were victims.

A few days later Estela reported that Denis had gone to the jail in Chimaltenango and had returned quite quickly after being told that his father had been transferred two days earlier to Pavon, the infamous prison in Guatemala City and possibly one of the worst in the world. I was sorry that Denis did not have the opportunity to confront his father and encouraged him to go one day to Pavon, as scary as that prospect was.

As it turned out Alex had court dates on two recent Mondays in Antigua regarding his transfer to Pavon. Denis went the first week and had to witness a grand performance by Marielos (who has been seen around town with other men on motorcycles and in various stores with the same hombres buying beer) who was dressed to the nines and hanging on to Alex sobbing telling him much the little children (who scarcely remember Alex) miss him. And she wants him to do what about that? She often whines that she doesn't have money for food for her children and apparently no longer works anywhere but arrived laden with bags of food and other amenities for Alex. I am quite certain that he trades it for other favors once he arrives "home."

When Denis had a chance to talk to his father he told him that Marielos was stepping out and reminded him that her last pregnancy was not, as she claimed, the result of a conjugal visit. Alex seemed non plussed and is likely only interested in the bags of food and future conjugal visits in some filthy closet at Pavon.

Denis went again the following Monday hoping to have a bit more time with his father. Alex was sporting brand new jeans and shoes which he said were delivered to Pavon by "Silvia." Silvia is the first cousin of Marielos and has a pre-teen son named Alex for the obvious reason. Silvia is also his legal wife according to Renap, the government entity in charge of vital statistics. Now, do you really think that I could make that up?

Alex asked Denis if his mother was going to visit him in prison and Denis told him "no," that she wasn't interested. And why would she be? Clearly Estela is the only one of all these women with any brains.  As I predicted Alex told Denis that it was all a big mistake, that he was innocent. He asked Denis if he would come and see him in the big, bad prison and Denis politely declined saying that he needed to study and work and help his mother. If he had any extra money it would go to help his mother who wanted to paint their house and not to Pavon. After five years Denis was quite obviously disgusted with this person who has never been more than a sperm donor to him. He told his father that if anything happened to me, Tía Joan, that "I will kill you." Let's hope it doesn't come to that for all concerned. I think that now Denis is in a much better position to dispense with Alex and move forward as the serious, considerate, kind and sensitive young man that he has become.

In June I accompanied Denis on a long promised trip to Perú to visit a couple of teachers who had befriended him the year his father was arrested. We went to Ariquipa, the Colca Canyon where we photographed condors in flight and then on to Cusco and Macchu Pichu. I am not sure the Denis will wander very far in the future but he took all of the newness in stride.

Denis and Alex Marcon in Ariquipa, Peru

Jackie's son, Liam is twenty-six months old, attending school with his mother and chattering in both Spanish and English. Recently, he had surgery to rectify an undescended testicle and also a hernia. While in the local charity hospital his pediatric surgeon was a young, attractive visiting Columbian. Apparently when the young doctor met Liam's equally young and attractive mother he asked the boy "where is your father?" Liam reportedly grinned and say "no hay" (there isn't one).

Liam, 2, on his first Skype call with Tía Astrid.

Jackie, who had been very upset when Alex was arrested, declined the recent opportunity to visit her father. Estela told me that she had finally gone to Renap to register Liam's birth. There was much deliberation about whether or not to add the child's birth father's name giving him legal rights. The cons out weighed the pros and Jackie had to say that she didn't know who the father was in order to get a birth certificate with a blank space. When she provided Alex's surname "Turuy" as part of the boy's four part name the young woman in Renap indicated there were more "Turuy" children in the area. While Jackie knows of Cris and Mishelle she did not know that her father remains legally married to "Silvia." This new piece of information apparently provided a final reason for Jackie to dispatch Alex from her life as well. Quite obviously her father was not whom she had thought he was.

Astrid, soon to be sixteen, just started the ninth grade at the Antigua International School after spending three months of her summer vacation in the United States mostly working on her English but also absorbing lots of reasons to return to school with new determination. She spent six weeks in Portland, Oregon and also visited San Francisco, Reno (where she attended an all day Mexican wedding), New York and Washington, DC. She doesn't even want to hear her father's name much less visit him. Done.

Astrid with her host siblings, Tai and Zahra, in Portland, OR.

Astrid's school moved this year into a newly built facility where there is no public transportation which means that I had to figure out how to get her to and from school. After considering a number of options an underpowered motorcycle was purchased in Estela's name for Denis, who is of an age that allows him to get a license. He now drives his sister to and fro. The deal is helmets for both and no night driving or other passengers. The two have to buy the gas which limits their travels. So far so good and an unexpected bonus is that Denis has given up the hair gel which doesn't do well inside of a helmet.

Diego will officially become a teen-ager in a few weeks time. Thankfully, the hormones have not shown up yet but could any day now. He has had a rough year mostly because he and his mother remain at odds for good reasons and his family of thirteen are all now living in one house. The other house was sold to pay debts that I had declined to cover.

Diego visiting Astrid's little orphan pal, Carlitos.

Probably as a result of having no educational support at home Diego is going to have to repeat the sixth grade which is somewhat odd for a twelve-year old who can train adults on how to use technology. In January he will go to the same bi-lingual, Montessori and now "green" school that his younger siblings attend. I am confident that this move will be the answer to bringing his academic skills up to the same level as his tech skills. In addition, he will gain the sense of family that this school offers and the opportunity to purse the IB curriculum for high school. He has been invited to join his future classmates on a camping trip next week to celebrate the end of the school year.

Cristofer and Mishelle continue to thrive and, so far, remain fairly oblivious to things like poverty, sociopaths and Pavon. They love school and often one or the other of them will thrust a birthday party invitation at me. Without my help they wouldn't participate in the birthday parties of their classmates. They too will be going camping next week albeit on the grounds of the school which is located inside a coffee farm.

Cris, Mishelle and Jojo running a small business at school. Jojo is fluent in
English, Spanish and Japanese at age six.

The Guatemalan schools are finished for the year this month. Diego, Cris and Mishelle will attend "Green Camp" at the coffee farm where their school is located for six weeks of their school vacation. All three have opted for horse back riding as part of their camp curriculum.

If you follow the news about Guatemala you will know that there have been some startling political developments. Both the president and vice-president have been deposed and are in prison on corruption charges. Another ex-president is on trial for genocide. Judges and prominent business people involved in the corruption scandal are falling daily. The prisons are filling up fast. On the 25th of October there is a runoff election for president. While neither candidate is fabulous whoever wins will have to cope with the groups that are determined to bring forth positive change in Guatemala.

Following the political events is better than anything on television. It has been long rumored that the ex-president and vice-president have had a long standing affair. She is not handling well the women's prison and feigned illness in order to spend a month in a military hospital (after being run out of the well respected Centro Medico). She has been ordered back to prison by a judge. The same judge is demanding to know who delivered a computer, exercise machine, stove and refrigerator to the ex-president and he has ordered them all removed. The ex-president is implicated in all sorts of nastiness here going back to the "disappearance" of some 200,000 during the civil war. His trial on corruption charges is scheduled to start on December 21st.

On a more positive note for Guatemala a very moving film has been submitted to the Academy Awards for consideration as best foreign language film. The film "Ixcanul" is the first ever Guatemalan submission for an Oscar. Many of us have seen it in private screenings but it should be widely available soon. While not uplifting it is an accurate portrayal of what life is often like for many young women in rural Guatemala. The two female leads live in a village about twenty minutes drive from Antigua where there is no running water. The woman who plays the mother is illiterate and I hope to see both of them on the stage in Los Angeles accepting an Oscar early next year.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

No Más Corrupción!

Recently all of the children received their grades and Diego's were among the worst, which was quite a surprise as there is no question that he is quite bright. The teacher delivering the grades reported that he did not do his homework, did not participate in class and did not ask questions. Diego reported that he got very nervous when taking the exams, most of which he failed. Diego's math tutor, who found him an enthusiastic math student, was as puzzled as I was.

Diego, better at soccer than academics?

As I had, in the past, seen Diego have a meltdown when it was suggested that he was not performing to standard, rather than get stern with him I probed a bit. I suspected that feeling responsible for his mother and siblings at the tender age of twelve had left him with a fear of failure that was getting in his way. I called in the psychologist who had, a year or so ago, tried to work with Diego's mother, Marielos. That relationship had ended when we all realized that Marielos was constantly lying to the psychologist in an attempt to manipulate things in her favor.

It took Olga, the psychologist only two sessions to discover that Diego was having trouble concentrating at school because he had been told that his grandmother who owned the home that nine of them live in was going to sell it to pay debts. Probably in an attempt to manipulate me Diego had been told that they would have to live in the street. Once Marielos discovered that Olga was working with Diego she started calling Olga in yet another attempt to twist things into economic gain for herself. Olga and I quickly concluded that Marielos, likely directed by Alex in prison, would stop at nothing and was using her own child in yet another attempt to get money out of me.

Olga and I both assured Diego that he was not ever going to live on the streets, that if the family home was sold we would then deal with the problem. I reminded him that Estela had offered to take the children if it came to that. A text message conversation with Gladys, Marielos's older sister, confirmed that the house would be sold to pay debts. Gladly, she said that this was not my problem and the family was grateful for the help I was giving the children. She added that they would all likely move into her house.

The ugly truth is that, as long as Alex lives, he will continue to scheme and use Marielos as his messenger. She is not smart enough to see what he is doing. When one scheme fails he simply develops a new one. She denies that there is an ongoing relationship but this country being a small town she has been seen at the prison on a regular basis on Wednesdays when her kids are at school and have been told that she is working in the market.

No doubt Alex has convinced her that he can go free only if she succeeds in extracting funds from me. After all this is Guatemala. Thus she holds me responsible for this lovely fellow convicted of kidnapping, rape, extortion and murder remaining in prison. If she were to succeed in stockpiling enough money for him to buy his freedom I have no doubt that this now very hardened felon would be gone from her life forever. I suspect that she is turning whatever paltry earnings she makes over to Alex rather than supporting her own children.

Most recently she talked her younger sister into trying to extract money from me ostensibly to help pay the mortgage payment for the about to be sold house. I declined as one must here or it will never, ever end. Only school expenses. Nothing more. Gladly, the sister whom I quite like apologized profusely for asking and said that she understood. Maybe she does but probably not.

So, plot they may, there will be no funds forthcoming. But I do need to be aware that Marielos has already shown that she is willing to compromise at least one of her children so I need to make sure that the children are not only supported but protected. I would not put it past either Alex or Marielos to arrange for a kidnapping if all their other schemes fail.

Demonstration in front of the National Palace May 16, 2015

Speaking of kidnapping on a more upbeat note a recent corruption scheme involving the highest levels of the Guatemalan government led to massive demonstrations yesterday around the country and even around the world against the ongoing corruption and lack of justice in the country. The vice-president has already resigned and the demonstrations yesterday called for the president to also resign. An estimated 60,000 turned out for the demonstration in Guatemala City undeterred by pouring rain. I made some signs and explained corruption to everyone at lunch and the younger kids agreed to go and participate in the Antigua demonstration. Today there is a lot of hope in Guatemala.

Soon they will know what they were demonstrating against.

And even more upbeat news is that Astrid, along with Tia Joan, flies to San Francisco on June 7th for what will be not only her first plane ride but an almost three-month stay in the United States. She has a very expensive passport as it was necessary to make a "contribution" to the now shaky government as her father, whose rights were paramount, was unavailable to grant his permission. Getting a ten-year visa to visit the United States was a walk in the park in comparison. The embassy didn't even ask about her father. 

Astrid will spend six weeks with a family in Portland, Oregon who rented my Antigua house some years ago and have a daughter the same age whom Astrid used to play with. She will then move on to my family in Reno, Nevada and mid-August I will collect her and bring her back to Guatemala via New York City and Washington, DC in time to start the ninth grade at the Antigua International School. She wants to go to the beach, ride in an elevator, visit the World Trade Center museum and a whole lot more.

Astrid, front and center, spending a few days translating for visiting students.

Denis, 18, will go with Tia Joan to visit a former math teacher in Peru during his mid-year vacation at the end of June. Several days in Arequipa and, of course, on to Cusco and Macchu Pichu before returning to Guatemala. 

So earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, brilliant sunshine, occasional torrential rains, manipulative parents, corruption and all. There isn't anything I would trade it for. Look at that smile on Cristofer's face and that after losing a soccer game.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Average Day

I was awakened by the sound of a harp. It was still dark and I realized that the harp was the ringtone on my cellphone. It was just after six in the morning and Estela was calling to alert me to the fact that Denis would not be going to school because he had mucho fiebre, high fever, a symptom of every ailment in Guatemala whether or not infection is involved. I already knew this as I had sat on a stool in a doctor’s office for several hours the previous afternoon waiting for Denis to be seen about an allergic reaction to something. He had been given two prescriptions by a reputable doctor so I wasn't concerned. Estela further asked if she could work the next day instead of the current day as she needed to go into Guatemala City with Jackie regarding the girl’s enrollment in university.

Coffee speeded up the process of greeting the day. An hour or so later after finishing a nice hot latté I heard the harp again. This time it was Marielos who had failed to get Cris and Mishelle to the school bus in time and had only enough money to get them two–thirds of the way to school on the chicken bus. Or so she said. She told me where they were. I pulled on yesterday’s clothes, grabbed my car key and found them in San Sebastian park. Marielos pushed the two children into my car and headed for her stall in the market on foot. I succeeded in getting Cris and Mishelle to school more or less on time.

After a shower and change of clothes I walked to the bank with forty dollars to be deposited into the account of a shipping company so that I might receive a package from the states. Then I went on to the office of a lawyer doing the documentation to register in Guatemala an American non-profit. The secretary wrote the check for me to avoid errors and I signed it. On my way out I bought six large, perfect mangos for two dollars from an indigenous woman sitting on the sidewalk outside the office. I then headed for the office of an accountant who was going to complete the registration of the non-profit. I stopped at central park and ordered a latte. I had a view of the blooming jacaranda trees, which turn the whole town into a spectacle of purple during the Lenten season. 

After a visit to the office of the accountant I drove to the local organic farm where, much to my dismay, they were out of my two regular purchases, kale and arugula. One of the fellows in charge of the shop asked me if I could wait a few minutes and he summoned someone who went out to the fields and picked two pounds of kale and one pound of arugula. On my way home I stopped by one of several pickups in town laden with fresh fruit of every variety. One is handed samples cut with a machete to encourage purchases. I bought some more mangos, a large papaya, bananas and a very sweet smelling pineapple.

After leaving my purchases at home I drove to a school that looks after sixty-four children with special needs. My plan was to take the founder and director, a Guatemalan woman, to observe the Montessori kindergarten class at the school that Cris and Mishelle attend. Fairly quickly I could see that it was going to be difficult to extract her as one mother of two of her students was sitting at her desk and the mother of a nine-year old who had been rejected by a number of schools was expected. 

Letty was talking to the mother at her desk and from where I was standing I thought the mother was in tears but then she started making some odd physical movements. I heard Letty say “I don’t know what is wrong with her” and very quickly we realized that the woman was having a grand mal seizure. Several people grabbed a limb and got her down on to the floor. Drawing on my airline first aid training I looked around for something that could be put between her teeth to protect her tongue. I handed someone a small notepad and asked them to put it between her teeth. Then it was a matter of waiting for the seizure to finish. I suggested calling the bomberos, firemen and paramedics, who handle the most dismal work of dealing with the dead and dying in Guatemala. Letty pointed to one man saying that he was a bombero. I knew that it was also likely that the woman thrashing on the floor didn’t have the spare change that the bomberos would want to transport her to the public hospital where probably nothing would be done for her. 

After about fifteen minutes the woman stopped seizing, was conscious again and very confused. Her student son, who gladly had not witnessed the incident, reported that she had never had a seizure before. Letty decided, quite understandably, that she couldn’t leave the school with a semi-conscious woman lying on the floor of her office so we rescheduled our kindergarten visit. The mother of two special needs children would likely be sent to the local health center where little or nothing would be done for her. I hoped that the next time she experienced a seizure that she would again be in an environment where she could be kept safe and not be in front of her young children. I wondered if she might have a brain tumor or had she suffered abuse at the hands of a family member? Perhaps she had treatable epilepsy but would she ever get the care she obviously needed?

With my newly gained free time I went for my twice-weekly swim in a friend’s lap pool. With a panoramic view of the volcano Agua and the sun warming the surface of the water, once again, I wondered why anyone would want to live anywhere else. Except perhaps the impoverished woman with special needs kids who had just had a seizure that no one was going to do anything about.

Mid-afternoon I collected Diego at school. He asked me if I could give his friend a ride to the bus. His friend’s name was Marvin and he seemed like a very nice boy. As was our routine we stopped at the ice cream store and I bought the two boys ice cream. Marvin indicated that he too spoke English and thanked me for the ice cream. Diego wanted to go to my house because he had left behind the charger for his tablet. I heard him chattering away at his tablet and asked him whom he was talking to and he responded “my friends.” I asked him “how” knowing that he did not have a Skype account. “With messenger,” he replied. At the age of twelve Diego had already outgrown his mother in so many ways. I asked Diego if he would be willing to go to the special needs school with me the following Monday and teach the teachers how to use the Khan Academy videos and website in their classrooms. He said that he would. And he did.

Sometime later I drove Diego and his heavy backpack over to the mercado, market, to meet up with his family. Returning home just as the sun started to set behind the ever puffing volcano, Fuego, I poured myself a glass of wine and went up on the terrace to watch the setting sun create artistic renditions with the clouds and the volcanic eruptions. I had made it through another day and everyone was safely home. I could feed the dogs and cats, including the three feral cats waiting by my living room window, walk the dogs, perhaps get five dollars worth of fish tacos with a friend and read my book for an hour or so before falling into bed.

“Ping,” went my phone and there was a message from Diego’s aunt, Chaito, pleading with me to help the family pay Q4000, or $520, for a colonoscopy for her mother who is suspected of having colon cancer. I responded that we could talk about it and was able to learn that Dr. Oscar, who had once intervened on Mishelle's behalf, could arrange for a Q2000 colonoscopy at the local private hospital. Feliz Noche!

As for the children Jackie, 19, is working as an assistant in the kindergarten classroom at the bi-lingual, Montessori school that Cris and Mishelle attend. She has started university classes, which take place all day Saturday, towards becoming a certified teacher. Jackie is pictured below with one of her students.

Liam, 19 months, is the youngest student in the same school. He receives a scholarship as part of his mother's employment and reportedly loves school. In his backpack are diapers and his food. In his first week he definitely learned to shriek.

Denis just turned eighteen which makes him eligible for a national ID card, a driver's license and a passport. He is still washing neighborhood cars on Saturdays and does light maintenance around my house one day a week. In another year when he graduates from high school he will have to find a real job. Denis and Diego climbed the Tolliman volcano at Lake Átitlan on New Year's Day and following is one of Denis's photos from the 10,000 foot top.

Astrid, 15, is thriving in the eighth grade at the international school where her team took first place in a recent science fair. Yesterday her science class climbed the spewing Pacaya volcano as part of a geology project. A friend who is working at the school told me recently that other students have started approaching Astrid for answers.

Diego, 12, is a kid on a mission. He attempts to communicate first in English and only resorts to Spanish if he gets frustrated. He has an illegal (as he is only 12) Facebook account which he accesses using an internet connection shared with a neighbor in his village. As I set up his account I am able to monitor his use of Facebook. He is working with a math tutor to help him overcome his dubious math beginnings and talks repeatedly about becoming an architect.

Cristofer, 8, remains passionate about math. "Á mi, me gusta por, I prefer multiplication," he says. All of the kids know that they can earn money for points earned on the Khan Academy website. One centavo for every point. Cris earned Q6 on Saturday. He didn't know what to do with it so he gave it to Diego. Cris's favorite food is broccoli which we have every Saturday for lunch.

Mishelle, 6, translates for Cris when he doesn't understand my English. She adores her nephew, Liam, and has started going to music classes on Saturdays with Astrid and Diego. She likes to cook so Estela taught her how to cook broccoli at home for her brother. She is also an eager participant in face painting at birthday parties. 

Otherwise, the volcano, Fuego, that dumped ash all over town last month continues to provide some dramatic scenery not to mention endless work for those cleaning up the ash. While the ash causes respiratory issues in both humans and animals it also provides fertilizer for plants so we expect amazing things once the rains start again in May.