Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day 3 ~ La Lancha a San Juan

Francesca Explaining Natural Dye Technique

With all roads out of Pana closed and rain continuing to fall, our Mission Team decided to travel across Lake Atitlan by boat to the village of San Juan to visit the Women's Cooperative and learn about their ancient natural dye technique. Above, you see Francesa giving a presentation to our group as a woman from her co-op group demonstrates backstrap weaving and as a pot of dye is prepared over an open fire.

This fascinating process of creating natural dyes involves the use of materials such as bark, heartwood, plants, and even insects to create gorgeous shades of blue, green, pink, purple, and beige. Fransecsa explained that the tradition was lost for many years, but they have since returned to their "roots" (so to speak) with hopes of preserving yet another piece of their Mayan culture. I was thrilled to watch it and bought quite a few treats to remind myself of the experience.

Like in Pana, the people of San Juan have been dramatically affected by the storm and continued rain. Lake Atitlan's water level is currently 7 feet higher than its normal state, and our lancha (boat) sadly needed to navigate around a rooftop as we approached the dock. As we neared, we noticed nearly a dozen men working on the dock, and we learned that they had raised it last week only to discover that it would need raising yet again.

The men working on the dock were volunteers who were motivated to help knowing that the dock was indeed the only way that tourists could enter their village and contribute to their economy. They gently lifted each of us up and down and across some balance-beam-like planks to make it safely to the shore. Upon our departure, we offered them each 10Q (quetzales) for their kindness and they cheered as we began our journey back across the lake.

Our luck with transportation this week has not been good (landslides, flat tires), so it should be no surprise that our boat stalled in the middle of Lake Atitlan on a rainy and cloudy day. Thanks to great cell phone coverage (believe it or not), we were able to call for assistance and eventually made our way back to shore with a great story to tell.

The highlight of my day was meeting Dilson, an 11 year old boy with kidney disease. Due to the prohibitive cost of dialysis plus the cost of transportation to go to and from Guatemala City twice weekly to receive treatments, Dilson's health was deteriorating rapidly. My brother, David, learned about Dilson and offered a helping hand. He has made it possible for Dilson to begin receiving dialysis at home within the next couple of weeks and has been funding medicine and transporation to the city since learning about Dilson's needs.

As a sister, it was heartwarming to stand alongside David as he met Dilson and his family for the very first time. Dilson offered David a firetruck that he had made from popsicle sticks, and Dilson's mother and grandmother presented David with several handcrafted gifts. They served us tea and cookies and we had a lovely visit where we learned that David and Dilson share many of the same interests. As we were about to leave, Dilson gave me a small toy. I could see the care and kindness in his eyes as he wanted me too to understand the depth of his gratitude. Surely, Dilson would not be alive at this very moment if it were not for the help provided by his Padrino (Godfather), David. What a blessing it was to witness their very special connection.

The rain continues to pour and we're living life day-by-day with hopes to make a difference, despite the storm. And, you know what? Even in torrential downpours or rain or mist, Panajachel is still one of the brightest places on Earth.

Until tomorrow,


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Day 2 ~ El Barranco Pre-School

In Need of New Shoes

I started today, knowing full well that it would be an emotional one. On the agenda was a trip to the village of El Barranco to visit the new pre-school, conduct an eye glasses clinic, distribute donations, and build a couple of Onil stoves. I checked my backpack for tissues and hopped in the van.

El Barranco has special meaning to our family, because Jay and I pledged our support to fund the rental of the compound that is used for the school and for other Mayan Families business. Because of our pledge, and the promise of others to fund the teaching positions, the school opened in March and has been a blessing to this wonderful village.

After distributing toothbrushes and toothpastes to the 30 children in the program, we stepped outside for a gathering with our Team, Mayan Families Staff, and lots and lots of mothers, many with infants and toddlers strapped to their strong frames in slings.

I was touched beyond words when a student presented me with the gift of a woven tablecloth from the mothers of the village. It truly wasn't until that very moment that I realized how much impact our small monthly contribution was making each and every day in a village far away from home. In a matter of seconds, I could feel my heartstrings tightening.

Together with my new Mission Team friends, I then went on to distribute clothing and shoe donations to each student and their older and younger siblings. They were each so very grateful, but none perhaps was more thankful than the little boy in the photo above. Imagine walking around in these sole bare shoes during the storms of this past week. I'm happy to report that he now has new walking shoes.

Our day ended with another great dinner. I've quickly formed friendships with members of our Team and am thrilled to be sharing this experience with them.

Because of the weather and the road access, our plans for the week will be made on a day-by-day basis, which proves for sure that this trip is not like the last. It's always an adventure here in Guatemala.

Until tomorrow,


Day 1 ~ The Journey to Pana

View From The Van Window

I started my day knowing exactly what to expect on our journey to Panajachel, as we had made our first trip here - by car, then plane, then van - in March, 2010, but nothing truly prepared us for the bumpy road ahead.

Last week's tropical storm devastated Guatemala and specifically the Department of Solola which was hit by landslides, mudslides, and raging rivers. Many roads remain impassable and others are just plain scary to navigate.

The photo above was taken from the van window as we (slowly and carefully) crossed a section of a cliffside road that had experienced a massive slide and was now faced with the constant flow of erosion causing rainwater. This is not a bridge that exudes confidence. We recall, last year, on a perfectly clear weather day, being asked by the policia to get out of our vehicle and cross on foot for fear that the road could not withstand the weight of a passenger full van. Needless to say, we all held our breath as we crossed.

Thanks to our wonderful driver and our faith, we arrived safely in Panajachel and then the magic began. There are few places on Earth that feel like home to me, but Pana is one of them.

Our group of 14 ladies and 1 man (David) enjoyed a lovely evening at the home of Sharon and Dwight Poage, two of the three founding members of Mayan Families, the organization that we are serving this week. We were treated to a tortilla making lesson by Gloria, using an Onil wood burning stove, and we were touched by slide show presentations and welcome speeches made by members of the staff. Before we even lifted a finger, we felt like we were already making a difference.

I can hardly wait to get to know my Mission Team this week. Each person has such an interesting story as to how they came to know Mayan Families. We span many decades with teammates in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and - after just a few hours together - I know for sure that the week will be full of laughter and fun.

Mission work really doesn't feel like work at all. It's all about human interaction... working together and helping others.

And so, the first leg of our travels is over but the true journey is just now beginning. The road to Pana tells me that I may indeed be in for new experiences this time. I am ready. I am excited. My heart is open... and it is singing (in Spanish).

Hasta manana,


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why did the turtle cross the road?

Yesterday was a crazy day. In the space of two and a half hours, we needed to do homework (for four), eat dinner, shuttle two of them back and forth to a Girl Scouts meeting and then race to get dressed for a Band Concert. There truly wasn’t a moment to spare, but then we saw Snap.

Just two minutes from home, on the drive between Girl Scouts pick-up and Concert drop-off, we spied Snap already a couple of feet into the road and in the direct path of oncoming traffic. Snap didn’t have his catchy name at that moment. He was simply (according to Luke): “Look at that huge snapping turtle trying to cross the road!” We immediately pulled over, as we have a history in turtle rescue, but we had absolutely no clue what to do.

Snap was indeed huge. I would now describe him as the size of a basketball, and I truly don’t believe that I have seen a turtle that large outside of a zoo or a nature preserve. We’re accustomed to small turtles and we most definitely prefer the friendly ones. Snap was neither small nor friendly.

Thanks to a recent car cleaning, we were left with nothing to use to help us direct Snap to safety. Juliana’s clipboard received an aggressive bite and communicated Snap’s agitation with our rescue efforts. A neighbor stopped and helped us search for side-of-the-road items that would do the trick, but branches and sticks were simply not strong enough to prod him along. With our next event looming, we were beginning to feel the pressure of the moment, but our love of creatures and desire to save this obviously decades old turtle kept us focused on the task at hand. And then, help arrived.

A blue pick-up truck, over-filled with what some might call treasures and others might call trash, pulled over to lend a helping hand. I shouted out: “You don’t happen to have a big shovel on the back of that truck, do you?” And, sure enough, they did.

This was no ordinary shovel. It was a turtle relocation device, if ever there was such a thing. I think I’ve seen something like it at the hardware store during the winter months, but this particular tool was clearly an antique. Made of wood that posed a major threat for splinters, it had a super-size square base and a bar for pushing. After some hissing, combined with full head and neck extension, Snap found himself in the center of this contraption and was transported to safety on the opposite side of the road. Mission accomplished.

We said our goodbyes and hurried on our way, and I was left thinking that this experience was a metaphor for positive living. There are times when we feel flustered and we don’t feel like we have what it takes to make a difference in the world (or in a turtle’s life), but then God sends help to get the job done. Those who are not outfitted with the proper tool belt are sometimes placed in that specific moment to serve as inspiration instead. We don’t know for sure if the couple in the blue truck would have stopped on their own to help the turtle or if they might have otherwise experienced a tragic collision, but what we do know for sure is that we have all been blessed with different gifts and, when we share them with each other, we make the world a better place.

Why did the turtle cross the road? He had a story to tell.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Mother of Four... in Guatemala

Mountain Path from Panajachel to Tierra Linda
Photo by, my brother, David Patterson, March, 2010

Not a week goes by when I don't get a comment like this one: "Wow! You have four kids? How do you do it?" Or, "You certainly have your hands full." Over time, I have come to wear it as a badge of honor. Indeed, I can sit smack dab in the middle of pure chaos for extended periods of time and still function without the assistance of alcohol and drugs. And I oftentimes surround myself with even larger crowds of kids as if I'm participating in a "how many marshmallows can you fit inside your mouth" contest. It's crazy, I know, but I'm privileged to live the life that I live.

When I consider what I worry about, it's the easy stuff. Is Juliana turning into a teenager too quickly? Is Kendra unnaturally afraid of the dark? Is Luke going to get caught kissing a girl in second grade? Will Will's speech issues be resolved in the next few years? There are moments when these questions weigh heavy on my heart, and then I read an email like the one below and realize that my life as the mother of four in the United States of America is a cake walk.

If you have a moment, please read the message that my Mayan Families Connection group received last night from the Director of the non-profit organization in Guatemala.

From Sharon Smart-Poage
Friday, January 14, 2011
Panajachel, Guatemala

Hi everyone,

Today was the end of a very long week for us. We have been distributing school supplies to over 1,600 children....the lawn at the new office will never be the same. It will probably never be able to revive...we have had 1,600 students plus their mothers and siblings there every day. We have been working from 8am till 8pm.

We have had 5 people trying to update the student blogs, interviewing as many students and their families as they can, translating from Kakchiquel, Tzutihil to Spanish and then to English.

We have had the Tierra Linda Jr. High school officially open and we are registering students. We had the parent meeting yesterday, 50 parents anxious and hopeful that their children will be able to have an education and a better future than they have ever dreamed of.

We have organized the opening of the new pre-school in San Andres in partnership with Tom Heaton....Mission Guatemala.

We have held teacher meetings about the re-opening of the five Mayan Families pre-school/feeding programs: Panajachel, San Jorge, Tierra Linda, San Antonio and San Andres.

We have negotiated to open the 6th Mayan Families Pre-school/feeding program/community center in El Barranco. This will also be the home to the Folkloric dance troupe and we hope the beginning of many exciting opportunities for this community.

We have organized the opening of the new Elderly Care and Orphan Care center in San Jorge this coming Monday.

This evening at 7pm I was still in the office, trying to get out to join my husband, Dwight and daughter, Zoe at a restaurant for a Friday night pizza. I was feeling pressured and irritable. All I wanted to do was go home and relax.

I came out to the main room and saw Joaquin who was still working and still cheery, even though it was his birthday and he was working late. He was working with a family who came from Tierra Linda. The mother was painfully thin and carrying a little baby on her side and had a son who is about 10yrs old, a little girl who is going into our pre-school probably around 4-5yrs old, and a little boy around 3yrs old.

It was the little 3yr old who stopped me in my tracks. He was wearing a t-shirt that was full of holes and a pair of pants that were torn. He had no shoes on. It is very cold at this time of the year and the wind is howling. He was pulling at his mother and trying to get her to go to the door. I asked if he was cold and his mother said yes, he is tired, he is asking to go home.

Now to go home, this little boy would have to walk, barefoot for at least 20 mins to get to the now dark mountain path to Tierra Linda. It would then be an hour walk up the mountain to their village and I don't know how much further to their home.

I could see that the little boy was very tired. This is before he starts this mammoth trip home. I asked the mother when she had last eaten....she said ...."oh we haven't eaten yet"...meaning all day. I could not help but think how my 6 yr old would be reacting...cold, hungry, barefoot and a good hour an a half walk up a dark, mountain trail.

I had brought a bag of jackets down to the office just in case there were children without jackets in this cold weather. I went and got these children jackets that thankfully you all had donated. The 3yr old was sitting on a chair when I came back with his jacket. I put the jacket on him and he looked up and gave me the sweetest smile. I felt his feet and they were ice cold and hard from walking barefoot all the time.

I sent for juice and snacks for each child and I arranged for the little boy to pass by my house. Berta would put shoes and socks on his feet and give the family a few bags of incaparina (a cereal) sugar so that they had something warm to drink when they got home. I heard the mother talking to another woman about how some days she doesn't even have corn to make tortillas for the children.

I felt humbled by the life this mother lives. She has four children that I know of. She sees these children hungry and suffering nearly every day. She walks long distances with them to try and get help. She was not complaining, she was smiling and grateful, thanking me for the help that they were receiving.

Me...who was feeling irritable because my computer connection was slow and I couldn't answer all the waiting emails, pressured because my husband and daughter were waiting to eat pizza with me....tired because I had been working long hours this week could I even compare my life to this woman....who in the face of all that she has to endure, was smiling and gracious, her children were not whining even though they were cold, hungry and had at least an hour and a half walk to go home. This woman and her family renewed my desire to do as much good as we can here in Guatemala. I felt very fortunate that we are able to help her as much as we can. It is not perfect, but at least her children can go to school, two of her children will go to the preschool so for at least 5 days a week they will not go hungry. Tonight they all have jackets and a 3yr old is not walking up the mountain barefoot. If we are lucky, someone will sponsor this family for food.

Thanks to all of you for providing the help for this family and for the families like this in the future.

My relationship with Mayan Families and all of the local organizations that I support grounds me. It reminds me, almost daily, that I am one of the lucky ones. I was born, by chance, into a family that could provide for me and in a country that would pick up the slack if they couldn't. I have never known what it was like to not have shoes or food or a sense of security. And, more important to me than anything else, I have never seen my children suffer and been powerless to help. Can you even imagine?

So, after a long absence from blog writing, Sharon's email inspired me to start tapping the keys. It called out to me and said, "Scream from the rooftops that all is not ok in the world. Share the stories. Touch people's hearts. Inspire others to give or to begin to think about giving. Be the change you want to see in the world."

And so, I hope I have done just that.

Your long lost (but now found) friend,

Just Beth