Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays, 2016

Another year has sped by and the Guatemalan holiday season was officially launched on the seventh of December with the burning of an effigy of the devil. This year mischief makers erected a rather voluptuous female devil, allegedly modeled after Antigua’s first ever female mayor. Yes, she is blonde. The new devil quickly disappeared after the local authorities put their heads together and reappeared sporting a bra and a baby. The devil, laced with fireworks and doused with gasoline was set afire, oddly between two gas stations. This year she was accompanied by several Donald Trump piñatas with devil horns. This event symbolizes clearing the bad spirits out of one's house in time for Christmas.

The she devil was burned along with piñatas of
Donald Trump on December 7th.

The highlight of this year's Christmas season was a packed to overflowing concert in the ruins of the cathedral. Midway through the concert there was a stunning display of fireworks visible through the never restored ceiling.

Site of the Christmas concert

On the afternoon of December 24th,  Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, Antigua starts to shut down and families visit the churches to see their nacimientos, manger scenes, often very elaborate. At midnight there is a full half hour of fireworks from every corner of the Panchoy Valley. The locals then party until dawn with tamales, fruit punch and gifts while the gringos take to their beds. Then it is fairly quiet until the New Year's festivities start with a procession of the Virgin of the New Year in nearby San Miguel Dueñas. Some sixty convites, dancers in very elaborate costumes representing Mayan gods and conquistadors, dance through the streets until late in the evening. On New Years' Eve the center of Antigua is closed off to traffic and the festivities start at four o'clock with marimba and indigenous dance competitions. Central Park is packed with people from all corners of the world, young and old. Vendors sell everything from noisemakers, candy cotton, inflatable airplanes and large paper lanterns that pepper the sky after being set adrift by a fire lit in the base. At midnight there is yet another half hour of fireworks welcoming in the New Year.

Convite dancer in San Miguel Dueñas

You would really think that the energy that goes into the holiday season was a once in a lifetime event like winning the World Cup. But it comes around annually with the same amount of enthusiasm each time. Partying is very serious business not to be taken lightly in Guatemala.

For those of you who might be wondering how the last blog report played out the three younger children returned to their aunt's home once I realized that the whole business was yet another ruse likely authored by the incarcerated Alex to attempt to get me to pay for housing for their mother, Marielos. From his not so lofty perch Alex apparently doesn't understand that the woman scarcely takes care of her children as it is. If she had her own place they would likely starve to death.

About the time they returned home Diego and Cristofer both participated in a graduation ceremony at school. Diego graduated from primary school and Cristofer from lower elementary (in the Montessori tradition) to upper elementary. Marielos and her sister (the very one who had allegedly thrown her and her children out on the street) made a huge fuss about the graduation taking Diego off to the market where they completely overdressed him for the occasional in a funereal black suit and tie. Then, quite expectedly, not one member of the family showed up in time for the graduation ceremony. Diego had been in tears behind the scene, his teachers reported, and it pained me to see him continue to glance around looking for his mother. She and the rest of the family showed up after the ceremony but on time for the free food.

Diego's primary school graduation. Moving up to middle school.

It has become an annual ritual to trek uphill for about an hour to a remote Christmas tree farm. A four wheel drive is necessary to navigate the seven off road kilometers into the facility which is surprisingly elegant. There is a small, shallow lake with plastic row boats. One year I had to roll up my pants and walk in and rescue the boaters who hadn't yet mastered the oars. A rugged vehicle takes you to the area where the desired size of trees are. Then there is a scattering of children as each one picks a different tree. Finally, there is a consensus and two men with a chainsaw take over. Back down to base camp while waiting for the tree to be delivered and secured to the car there is a feast of tortillas, chorizo, guacamole and hot chocolate (yes, it is cold up there).

Mishell, Liam, Jackie and Cristofer find the perfect tree.

This year Jackie's son, Liam, who is three and a half, went along for the first time along with his 21-year old mother, his thirty-nine year old grandmother, Estela, Cris, Mishell and Diego. Jackie continues working full time at the Antigua Green School while taking care of Liam and attending university classes all day on Saturdays.

Liam enjoying his first trip to the Christmas tree farm.

Astrid, who turned seventeen in November, is astounding everyone at her international school where she is a sophomore. She is on target to receive mostly As, some Bs, while taking excellent care of her six-month old son. She has an A- in an AP economics class given in English by the director of the school who was one of the first to say that she could never return to that school while raising a baby. Go Astrid!

Astrid has a lot on her plate for a seventeen-year old.

Denis has graduated from high school and becomes one of the 25% of Guatemalans with a high school education and graduating from a private program gives him an advantage over many in that group. He has secured a decent job with possibilities so it remains to be seem whether or not he will see the advantages of continuing his education. Perhaps, in time, but right now he is working six days a week and the boss likes him. He plans to ask for Saturdays off to pursue university classes. Attending university all day on Saturday is common for those who need to work during the week. 

Astrid, Baiker, Mishell, Denis, Liam Jackie, Cristofer and Diego

Diego, now fourteen, has jumped into adolescence, but gladly his obsessions right now include chess, Rubik's cubes and long sessions of Dungeons and Dragons with classmates. He has announced his intention to learn Java script by watching YouTube videos.

Cristofer and Mishell are now fairly fluent in English, proficient in the board game Rumikube and are looking forward to returning to school. Mishell loves to read and was very excited about a pile of books that she received for Christmas. Cristofer is a born comedian who loves school, math and being helpful.

Cristofer, ten in January, enjoys playing Santa

We had another good sized eruption from the volcano, Fuego, to close out the year and remind us how unimportant we are in the overall scheme of things.

Fuego celebrating the end of 2016.

2017 brings another trip to Cuba in January with a pre-school classmate in the hope that travel to that island won't soon be restricted by the new administration. Shoulder surgery in February will probably send me back to Spanish school for six weeks since I won't be able to do much else. I also look forward to some more road trips with Mundo Posible ( to very rural parts of Guatemala where we distribute educational resources to schools that have little or none.

Teachers seeing Wikipedia and the Khan Academy for the first time.

All the best to you and yours in 2017. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Holy Moly, let's go get some cornflakes.

So, the baby's name is Baker Joseph, Joseph after my uncle with whom the baby shares a birthday and whom I credit with my return to Guatemala in 1998. I am not sure where the Baker part came from. At four months little Baker is a robust eighteen pounds and his mother has returned to the international school with even greater determination. The good news is that although sixteen for another month or so Astrid is no longer a teenager. I think we have found a cure for adolescence, albeit a complicated one.

Baker Joseph

Diego took a week off from school in July to go on a Mundo Posible road trip to the Ixil Triangle of Guatemala. With other team members he helped to install offline educational resources in rural schools and even go trail riding in the area's hills with the owner of the place where we stayed and a visiting World Possible board member.

Diego and his steed.

In the middle of September I returned from a couple of weeks on the west coast. My first inkling that something was amiss was when Diego asked if he could speak to Olga, the psychologist who had tried so hard to sort his family out a couple of years earlier. I told him that I would contact her and asked him what was wrong.

"Problems in the house again, my aunt told us that we have to leave," he told me. Knowing how fond of the children the extended family were I felt that this was just an idle threat and I told Diego just that. However, a few days later Mishelle arrived after school on the school bus and told me quite cheerfully "my mom says that we have to stay here for a while." Diego had gone to a friend's house for the weekend. I took a very deep breath and took Cristofer and Mishelle to the grocery store to buy some cornflakes and, as it turned out, an abundant supply of fresh fruit. Domino's pizza would do for dinner and tomorrow was to be another day.

Mishelle had some extra clothes in her backpack. Cristofer had the clothes on his back. I had some extra toothbrushes. Neither had ever spent the night in my house before nor had they, as far as I knew, ever spent a night away from their mother.

We made their beds and I showed them how their first ever hot shower worked. Cristofer immediately took a shower. Both seemed higher than kites as if they had just made a landing at Disney World. I had one children's book so after pizza we took turns reading about the antics of Clifford the dog. As they put their lights out I heard Mishelle ask her brother "are you afraid?" He answered "no, because I have Latte." Latte, one of my dogs, whose preferred to sleep on someone's bed.

A couple of days later their mother came by to see the children. Her younger sister was with her and after spending time with the children they took me aside and told me that the children would need to stay the week as Marielos was receiving threats from a "señora" against herself and the children.

As things go in this country, which is really a small town, the next morning I ran into a fellow who had done some finish work in my new house. I knew that he lived in the same community as the children and their family and that his wife knew their mother. I asked him what he knew and he told me that Marielos owed over $2,000 which is a huge amount of money here, equal to five or six months of salary, to a señora whose husband had just been released from prison and had indicated that he was looking for Marielos. My suspicion was that the "borrowed" funds had wound up in the hands of Alex in prison. He was very capable of working this woman for his own gain without a moment of remorse.

In the interest of being very careful I invited Aunt Gladys, to bring her parents, the children's grandparents, to see the children. We settled on a time and the entire family minus one who was working and another in the US showed up. It was Marielos's birthday and I had suggested a birthday party for the children's mother in the interest of keeping everyone happy. The children showed the family every inch of the house and then they sat. It was apparent that they were going to sit for a while so I offered juice, chips, pistachios. The psychologist was due and I thought it only fair to alert her to the fact that the entire family was present.

I took my dogs out for a walk and waited for Olga who quickly decided that she would work with Marielos for an hour then Diego then Aunt Gladys. I poured a large glass of wine into a coffee mug and went about turning a dinner for five into a dinner for eleven. We ended the evening with a birthday cake and on very pleasant terms. The grandfather blessed me as he always does. Diego asked if he could walk out to the gate with his family. When he came back he was beaming, gave me a big hug and said "thank you."

Family birthday party.

I felt that the extended family all then knew that the children were in a good place and being well cared for if not by their mother.

I had contacted my attorney as, in reality,  I was housing abandoned minor children and the Guatemalan government takes a dim view of white people with brown children. I had already been told that the law required that I report the situation to the courts and that they would come and take the children and put them into separate foster homes pending a lengthy and expensive process to determine their disposition. Even my attorney said this was not a good solution and suggested that I get the mother to come into her office and sign a power of attorney to protect not only myself but the children.

The psychologist also told the mother that this would be necessary if they were to stay any longer in my house. Marielos agreed and an appointment was made for the following Monday morning. The lawyer asked me what the plan was for the children and I deferred to Marielos. I expected her to say that her family had agreed to keep the kids and was very surprised to hear her say that the children were to live at my house during the week and visit the family on weekends. So be it. I had no other option but to put them outside the gate and tell the guards to not let them in or call the government.

Marielos told me that the previous night at the aunt's house Mishelle had cried and wanted to return to my house where it was quiet and she could sleep alone. While I had not seen their quarters in the aunt's home I guessed it was no different from the previous home where the four shared a nine foot square room and two beds.

That afternoon, after school, we went to their aunt's house and collected their worldly goods all of which fit quite nicely into their small backpacks. Over dinner we chatted about their school day and some time later I found the three scattered around the house each in their own space doing their own thing reveling, I guessed, in the space and in the peace and quiet.

Yes, I questioned, once again, my own sanity. I realized that this could be a ten year commitment. Maybe on some level I knew it was coming. I had always thought that Diego might end up here but never dreamed that all three would be more or less dropped off. Many had asked why I had built another house and I didn't really have a good answer. Now I do.

The younger two children told my housekeeper that they were very happy to be at my house because there was so much fighting and shouting in their aunt's house. Only then did I realize how much tension they must have been living with. The mother left them with the family. The family was angry that she wasn't taking responsibility for them. Often they were hungry. I guessed that often they thought of themselves as the cause of the strife in the home.

A friend who had once done social work told me that it wasn't unusual to see really well behaved children emerge from questionable situations and that often those kids went the other way once they were free of the oppressive situation. I decided to maintain the relationship with the psychologist and be vigilant.

Officially, the new arrangement was to be temporary until Marielos who had already demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to care for her children found a suitable apartment to rent. She told everyone that the incarcerated Alex was going to give her the equivalent of $200 a month from his questionable activities in prison yet, the first payment was diverted, not surprisingly, into something Alex needed for himself. I suspect the subsequent payments will go the same way. Alex knows very well that the children are better off in my house and no doubt he dreams of their successful futures and eventual contributions to his well being. And he had a history of never giving money to anyone, not even to the many mothers of his children.

So, there we are. I am learning to provide three meals a day. On Friday we went to a Paca (the Guatemalan equivalent of a thrift shop) and the three kids were given a cart and set loose to find some clothes for themselves. Most of all the children seem to enjoy the space and the quiet. I often find them scattered throughout the house doing their own thing. Slowly, we will introduce more reading and less screen time. More board games and less screen time. Earning screen time by reading and working with the Khan Academy.

Shopping for clothes

Their first morning I was surprised to find them up, smiling broadly, showered and dressed with their beds made ready for breakfast and school.  And quite obviously happy.


As the mother was once again using the psychologist to lobby for financial gain Olga and I decided together that no amount of therapy was going to turn her into a responsible parent thus the efforts of the psychologist going forward will be to help the children adjust to their new circumstances without feeling rejected by anyone in their family.

One day at a time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

His Hands are Bigger than Trump's

Early this morning Astrid had an emergency C-section probably because she was at risk due to a condition called "preeclampsia." She was being monitored pretty closely for high blood pressure which can lead to this condition. Sadly, Astrid and her mother were told that the baby might not survive because he was small, premature. They had a restless night. He did survive. He is fine and so is Astrid. And his hands are bigger than Donald Trump's.

He doesn't yet have a name as he wasn't due for another month. They will go home on Friday and Astrid will then face the music.

Grandma Estela, 39, getting rid of the hospital rags (free healthcare).

In a recent message to a mutual friend about her predictament Astrid said the following.

"Thank you so much for your support, I was the one who started all this so that's why I want to take the responsibility, is going to be difficult but no impossible. This can happen to anyone, and I want to finish school because that's the oly way of surviving Guatemala. Again thank you so much, I hope everything is going well with your girlfriend and remmember always becarful in Guatemala City is really dangerous for you and for her too. Thanks for the offer of bringing something but I feel that is incorrect ask for something and thanks for everything that you had help me out with."

He weighed in at four pounds, ten ounces and seems only to want to take a nap,
oblivious to the 25 or so people passing him around.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Another Baby Makes Eight

Everything had been going so well that I couldn't think of anything interesting to write about. Now I know to beware when it feels like nothing interesting is happening. The Guatemalan school year ended in October with Diego failing the sixth grade. I had told him that, if he didn't pass, he would go to the same school as his younger siblings, now called the Green School Antigua. He couldn't go there without failing the sixth grade so I was actually pleased that the other school hadn't worked out. As the Green School is growing with its students they were only up to sixth grade or "upper elementary" in the Montessori tradition. I dreaded having to tell Diego that he would be leaving his friends behind but, surprisingly, he didn't seem to mind. He has settled in, has three teachers who all adore him. Two of his teachers are men who are fluent English speakers and the other a Guatemalan woman. Throughout the school day the students are required to speak English with the English speakers and Spanish with the Spanish speakers. I had a message recently that one of his teachers wanted to speak to me. Oh no, here we go again. However, when I met with Maria she told me what a joy it was to have Diego as a student. She said that he was not only very intelligent but a leader in the classroom and extremely well-behaved. She reported that his mother had cried when she had told her the same thing.

I was in Mexico City when Diego made his way to my house to use the Internet so he could send me a message that he had gotten ninety-four percent on his math test. That was up from thirty-four percent at his previous school. Maria told me that he had gotten ninety-eight percent on the national math exam. Go Diego!

Diego's English has taken a huge jump forward. A few days ago he told me that his best friend at school is a girl named Emily who is from Denmark. He reported that they speak a mix of Spanish and English together. I suspect that Emily gets at least some of the credit for the improvement in his English. Go Emily!

Cris and Mishelle continue to be a delight. Both played recently in a municipal soccer tournament. Diego, being a year too old to compete, was given the role of assistant coach for the school. He took that role very seriously but also ministered to his younger siblings during half time making sure they had sufficient water. Cris's team only missed first place by a kickoff to settle a tie. During one game Cris scored four goals. His Japanese American pal, Jojo, scored the other four. Interestingly, Cris who is timid about a lot of other things, is a ruthless soccer player. He is also a math whiz and loves to be challenged with math questions. We routinely do math problems at the ice cream store. How much is one sandwich and two cones and how much change should you get?

Four goals each.

One day I heard Mishelle reading aloud from an interactive book on a tablet. She was able to answer successfully all of the comprehension questions at the end and then asked for books for her upcoming birthday. Books she got. It is sad that books are so hard to find in this country. When I was her age I lived at the public library. Recently, Mishelle's grandfather blessed me again and told me that Mishelle was reading to him. Quite a feat for a kid who knows that her grandfather can't read.

Diego, the assistant coach with Mishelle and Cris and a smile not often visible in years gone by.

Just about when I thought everyone was on track Estela, once again, asked to speak privately to me. I knew that everyone over the age of eight had an IUD so what could it be? Once again I wondered if Alex had been murdered in prison. Tears rolled down her face as she told me that our star student, Astrid, was four months pregnant despite having an IUD. Estela had become suspicious and had taken the child to the same clinic that had installed the IUD. They had confirmed the pregnancy and removed the still in place but failed IUD.

I was devastated, furious. Clearly, she thought she was protected but my concern was her apparent interest in casual, indiscriminate village sex after three months in the United States. As with her sister the father was a boy in the village. This one a candy seller who at least offered to take the baby. How could she return from the picking cherries in Oregon, the Golden Gate Bridge, Broadway and the top of the Washington monument to banging a local boy in the bushes somewhere. And at the same time she was volunteering as a youth counselor with a family planning NGO. Clearly, there was another side to Astrid and while I don't envy her the consequences I was kind of pleased that she got busted.

Fortunately, I had calmed down before I saw her. Her mother had reported that she was more afraid of me than she was of her classmates finding out which they inevitably would. She was examined by the NGO doctor and sent for an ultrasound which confirmed that she was four months pregnant. Astrid, aged sixteen, and not even fully grown will be having a baby at the end of June.

The first order of business was to deal with her school. On a Saturday I messaged Astrid's favorite teacher from the previous year. "Coffee today?" "Sure, everything OK?" "Nope, Astrid is four months pregnant." "Oh God." Over coffee we hashed out a plan to tell the school. Carmen called the Guatemalan principal and told her that she had been approached by a student who found herself pregnant and thought that the administrators would like a heads up. The principal contacted the American director who was in his first few months at the school, a school that had so far not experienced a student pregnancy.

The director's initial reaction was that Astrid should simply disappear after Holy Week because of "a health issue." The school would then continue to support her through home schooling. His approach was reminiscent of New England in the fifties I thought but since, as he repeatedly pointed out, I was not Astrid's legal guardian, I was not entitled to an opinion. However, as word leaked out it was the Guatemalan parents who raised a ruckus and came to Astrid's defense. No doubt someone also pointed out that in Guatemala it is a human rights violation to deny a child the right to attend school. Suddenly there was a shift in policy and Astrid was then welcome to stay in class as long as she wanted to.

I went off to Cuba for a week or so and when I returned Estela reported that the director had called her in and had her sign a letter along with Astrid. I asked her what it said and, being barely literate, she said she didn't know. She indicated that she had a copy and I asked her to bring it to the house. I emailed the director and asked him how I could help in supporting Astrid's home schooling. His rather curt response basically said that my help wasn't needed, that it was a private matter. He indicated that I should just come in if I wanted to discuss it any further so I set up a meeting for the next day. I asked him if I could see the letter that Astrid and her mother had signed. He told me no, that it was confidential. I reminded him that we were not in the US and that I had paid Astrid's bills since she was five years old. He told me that I should ask Estela for her copy. I pulled that copy out of my handbag and pointed out to him that it wasn't signed by anyone other than a support staff person and that her mother was now worried about what she had signed. He wasn't able to explain why the copy had not been signed as he had indicated.

If the copy is the same as the signed letter it was to relieve him of any responsibility for Astrid not attending class. It indicated that Astrid was welcome to attend class or be on campus at any time and that it was her decision to study at home and not attend class. As I pointed out to him she chose that path after being told by himself and the principal that she would be humiliated by other students and parents, that the school couldn't be responsible, etc., etc., etc.

Another parent, Doctor Oscar, told me to go to an attorney and get a power of attorney for educational decisions so that the administrators couldn't shut me out any further. The attorney told Estela to go to the school and ask if they would accept the power. Estela did that and explained that since I paid the bills and was in a better position to guide Astrid in her education she wanted to have an attorney draw up a power of attorney. Suddenly, that was not going to be necessary and the school had Estela sign their own document giving me the right to make decisions at the school for Astrid.

Astrid retreated becoming a recluse at their little home in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. I suspected that she was so full of self-loathing that she couldn't cope with anyone being nice to her. She alienated both myself and Carmen, her former teacher. Carmen was able to persuade her mother to take Astrid to the National (free, public, sketchy) Hospital as the child had disturbingly high blood pressure. As luck would have it the first doctor she saw there spoke English and Astrid told him, in English, all about her trip to the United States. He told her about another patient he had had in similar circumstances whose family wanted her to give the baby up for adoption. She insisted on keeping the baby and was, at the present time, studying at a university in the US and the baby had become the favorite grandchild of her parents who were raising it. I suspect that doctor gave Astrid a ray of hope, an idea for her future.

Carmen and I both backed off each weary of the abuse from Astrid. Carmen greeted her at school one day when she arrived to take some tests and Astrid didn't acknowledge her. Astrid had told me not to come and collect her from a class, that she would rather walk home. After a couple of months realizing how isolated Astrid was, dangerously so, I started emailing some idle chatter. It was fairly obvious that she was getting little support at home. Her mother had told me of a single woman she knew who had twins. She sold bread on the street during the day and studied at night. I guessed that was Estela's plan for Astrid. She did not have the skills to understand what Astrid would be losing by selling bread and not returning to the international school. Eventually Astrid responded to my emails, at first, reminiscing about blueberry pies in Oregon. Then she asked me for all the photos from her trip to the states.

While Estela didn't often offer any information without being asked when asked one needed to set aside an hour. She told me that Astrid was being seen weekly at the National Hospital because of elevated blood pressure. And probably also because of her youth and small size. Perhaps thanks to that first doctor who recognized that Astrid was not the usual pregnant teen the staff had apparently taken up Astrid's cause. Estela had been referred to a psychologist who had hammered in the notion that she needed to support her daughter, that she was exceptional with tremendous potential and, given the failure of her IUD, pregnant quite unexpectedly.

Thanks to that psychologist Estela and Jackie decided that together they could help Astrid raise the baby. For some reason, despite pleadings from many Astrid, who doesn't even like to take care of her nephew, refused to consider adoption. Her mother and sister both tried to convince Astrid that adoption would be best for all. I told her that she needed to do what was right for the baby. Back doors adoptions with known families who would let her have a relationship with the child were of no interest either. Estela fretted that Astrid, because of her temper, would not be a good mother. We all knew that she is bound to resent the child for interfering with her plans. Her mother expressed fear of her daughter's temper at a later time if she forced the issue, any issue. Estela understands that she will be raising the child.

So, in another month Astrid is having a baby by Cesarian section due to her small size and the size of the baby. Amazing what nutrition can do that wasn't done before and after Astrid's birth. She has emailed me that she plans to keep the baby. "It is a personal decision." Further, she explains that her mother and sister are going to help her and that she is desperate to go back to school. So, with a bit of hesitation I sent the first check to enroll her in the tenth grade started August 29th. Estela reports that Astrid is now much calmer and happy. I suggested that she contact Carmen and apologize to her and she responded that they had been in contact and the two had a plan to get together. I have no such plans as seeing her older sister pregnant was disturbing enough and Astrid is even younger. I will discuss conditions for continuing school attendance and only pay monthly until I am sure Astrid can meet those conditions. And yes, one is no further pregnancies.

Liam says "I don't have a father, I have Uncle Denis."

Denis, or Tío Denis, as he is known to toddler Liam, is now nineteen and will graduate from high school in October. I suggested that he should think about attending university full-time in the city getting an apartment with some other students. Needless to say he jumped on that idea and his school is helping him with entrance exams and the admission process. Interestingly, the enormous public university which is actually quite good schedules classes either in the morning, afternoon or evening allowing students to choose based on the work they find to support themselves and pay their school fees. US, please take note.