Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Day 3

Cayetana's daughter, Guadelupe, with her new mattress and bear
Early in September, I learned of the passing of sweet Cayetana, a 90 year old woman from San Jorge La Laguna who I had the honor to meet in March, 2010, when I visited Mayan Families for the first time. It was many months before that trip that I had seen a photo of Cayetana with her two disabled adult daughters, and I felt drawn to her story. At that time, she was the sole caregiver of Maria and Guadelupe, both blind and the latter with undiagnosed disabilities that prevented her from walking without support or effectively communicating with others. Each day, Cayetana would leave Guadelupe at home and lead Maria up the steep path out of San Jorge and then down the highly traveled mountain road to Panajachel where they would sit at the waterfall and allow toursists to take their photograph with the hope of earning a few quetzales before gathering firewood and beginning the trek home. Cayetana was their lifeline and, during her final days, she prayed that she would be spared so that she could continue to care for them. She feared not death but life for her daughters without her.

Surely tears were shed both near and far as word spread about Cayetana's passing. It is likely that she never traveled outside of a 10 mile radius of her home, and yet boxes of tissues were being plucked as far away as Boston, Massachusetts as she took her final breaths and made her way to heaven.

I admired Cayetana. On days when my kids were challenging, I imagined the strength that it took to care for children well into their 50s while living in dire poverty. Suddenly, my challenges felt like minor speedbumps. Cayetana provided perspective without ever intending to do so. By all accounts, she was the finest example of motherhood that I was ever blessed to witness.  And so, when today finally arrived, I traveled to San Jorge with both joy and sadness in my heart, to pay my respects to Maria and Guadelupe and to provide them with some comfort items in memory of their sweet mother.

Our day began with the final Mayan Families Christmas Party of 2012 for the sponsored students and ancianos (elderly) of the village. It was yesterday's El Barranco celebration reproduced in full for a group twice its size... clown, music, two Santas, toys, food, and fun. The women in the village kindly prepared a meal for the staff and volunteers which we quietly enjoyed behind the scenes. And, just like yesterday, the McFadyen kids quickly made new friends. The ability of young people to reach out to others and instantaneously connect is a pleasure to behold.

After the party, which was held on the grounds of the local school, we walked down the hill to the elderly feeding program where even more ancianos were awaiting small gift baskets of food from their sponsors. Even as a young child, I found great joy in gleaning wisdom from the elderly. When you hold hands with these seemingly ancient women and stare into their eyes, something truly magical happens. Language barriers no longer exist and they pass along to you, through the palms of their hands, the desire to become a better woman.

While Jay, Juliana and I enjoyed the reception of elderly women as they departed the feeding program, Kendra, Luke and Will began a game of street baseball with some local children. A boy who had received a baseball bat and ball at the party from Santa (and selected with great care by Kendra), was hoping for some batting practice and he wisely sensed that the McFadyen boys would be very interested in pitching to him. Little did he know, though, that Kendra would soon recruit the group of girls who were watching on the sidelines to form the first San Jorge Girls Softball Club. Jay and I were all smiles as we watched them race around to chase the ball in their ankle length skirts while laughing hysterically. Kendra was indeed very proud of her team.

We said our goodbyes, as children age six and under lit fireworks a bit too close for comfort, and made our way to Cayetana's house nearer to the entrance of the village. A steep climb down a narrow stairway of stones led the way to two small rooms with a small cement landing that they shared. Guadelupe sat in the corner of her doorway on the ground and Maria stood in hers as she keenly listened for our approach and then, through touch, carefully navigated her way to the two stairs at the top of the landing. Without a railing to hold, she reached way down to the top rim of the pila (outdoor sink) to guide her way. I couldn't help but imagine how frightening it must be to be without sight in a landscape with so many natural obstacles. The twenty or so stairs that I had just climbed down from the roadside were treacherous for my able-bodied self. To make that climb each day without sight is unimaginable, and yet it is part of everyday life here.

Just a few weeks ago, I had learned that Guadelupe had been sleeping on the same mattress upon which Cayetana had died. Sadly, Cayetana's blood and bodily fluids had soiled the mattress but, because the daughters had no money to spare, they simply flipped the mattress and Guadelupe slept on the other side. It seemed like an ideal gift to present both Guadelupe and Maria with new mattresses, new pillows and new blankets, and so we did just that. We also brought a new large stuffed bear for Guadelupe, as we had heard that, for days and days after her mom's passing, she clenched two small stuffed toys and banged them together over and over again while crying. For one brief but incredibly touching moment, Guadelupe held the bear close to her heart and offered us the most sweet smile. It was the highlight of my day.

We spoke with Maria and extended our sympathies for their great loss. She tearfully told us how hard life had been since September and how thankful she was for our gifts. We offered our promise of monthly sponsorship which would ensure that she would have access to the feeding program in the village and we also noticed the condition of the bed in her room (a broken metal cot upon which her new mattress would not fit) and arranged to have a new bed delivered to her by the end of the week. As food is always needed, we also ordered a 100 lb. bag of corn to be delivered so that Maria could make tortillas for the coming month. What a blessing it was to our family to meet these women and provide them with comfort and care at a time when they needed it most. There's no doubt that Cayetana was smiling down upon us all today.

Our day had been full but was not yet done as we then traveled to the village of El Tablon to visit our sponsored student, Daniel Pablo, and his brother, Victor Antonio, who is the sponsored student of my parents. When we arrived, it appeared that no one was home, but - sure enough - both boys (who seem to be as tightly connected as our Luke and Will) came walking around the corner to our delight. My enthusiasm may have overwhelmed these shy boys, now ages 14 and 12, as I quickly moved in for hellos and hugs. Thankfully, their teenage sister and niece were full of smiles and stories and took the spotlight off of the boys for a bit so that they could adjust to our arrival.

In addition to the practical gifts, we brought some fun things this time too, including a Monopoly game in Spanish and the ever appreciated soccer ball. While we were reviewing the items in the care package with the boys, Mayan Families' Julio set up their new ten year water filter and table and provided instruction on how to use it. We also had brought 100 lb. bags of corn and beans and 30 eggs as a special treat.

On behalf of their mother, Alejandra, who was caring for her own ill mother not too far away, the teenage girls presented us with a lovely tapestry in appreciation of our continued sponsorship and support of the family.  We look forward to passing it along to my parents in recognition of their many gifts to Alejandra and her children. My mother, in particular, has always felt a special connection to this family, as Alejandra's husband died many years ago when the boys were just toddlers, and my mom lost her own dear dad when she was just five years old. She remembers her own mother struggling to keep her large family afloat as a single parent and feels blessed to be in a position to make life easier for this mother, many miles away. I hope, with all my heart, that someday my mom will meet Alejandra so that she too can experience this family's generosity of spirit and affection. Forever intertwined, we are indeed!

It was after 6pm and the mountain road from Solola to Panajachel was dark and windy as we returned to home base at the hotel. Exhausted from a day overflowing with activity, we will rest well tonight knowing that the gifts that we've offered in these two days alone have been life changing ones. As I close this blog entry, my thoughts can't help but wander to sweet Guadelupe, snuggling her new teddy bear in her cozy new bed. Oh how I pray that Cayetana will visit her in her dreams tonight and offer her the comfort and joy that she provided for each of her more than fifty years. Buenas noches, queridas amigas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Day 2

Will and his new friends on the Rockopotomus in El Barranco

Although exhausted from the long travel day yesterday, I could hardly wait for the sun to rise so that I could look out of our window and share the spectacular view of Lago Atitlan with my family. It's simply magical... gorgeous blue water set against a backdrop of volcanoes and mountains with a topper of blue sky and billowy clouds. There's good reason that the lake is always included among the Top 10 most beautiful in the world, yet it is unfathomable that along its shores live a people who suffer with such dire poverty and malnutrition. The landscape, perhaps, is a gift from God to show that He smiles among them.

Settled into adjacent, yet not adjoining, rooms, both the boys and girls stepped out onto their balconies in awe of the view. How blessed we were to awaken to an absolutely glorious weather day after driving through thick fog last night. It was a wonderful welcome to the place that we will call home for the coming week.

A delightful breakfast, complete with beans and plantains, was enjoyed in the hotel restaurant before Dwight, one of the three founders of Mayan Families, picked us up in his 1991 Trooper. The kids were thrilled to sit on the floor in the "way back," something clearly not allowed by US driving standards. A quick stop at the bank to change dollars into Quetzales brought a welcome sight. Willy and Robin, the leaders of the local soccer league to which our town of Tewksbury had donated gently used uniforms and cleats two years prior, were inside transacting business. What a joy it was to hear Willy talk about how those very uniforms - worn game after sweaty game - catapulted their local team to compete on the national level. He told me that the uniforms arrived at the perfect time and were more valuable than a check for $100,000. Jay immediately turned to me to watch my eyes fill with tears, as he knew it was inevitable. This story is proof that the simplest gifts - something that might otherwise be discarded - can alter the future of children in the Third World. (OK... And let's all agree that it was super cool, on my first day in Pana, to bump into people I knew at the bank. Perhaps a sign that I've found my home away from home.)

Our journey continuted to the new Mayan Families headquarters, called El Rostero, to load the pick-up trucks full of Christmas Party supplies, including decorations, hundreds of toys, two Santas, and three boxes of Cedar Works Rockopotomus building materials. Our first full day in Guatemala would be spent hosting a Christmas Party in the agricultural village of El Barranco. We hit the ground running.

When we arrived at the El Barranco pre-school compound, which we rent each month on behalf of Mayan Families, we were warmly greeted by the students in the sponsorship program. The Staff quickly assembled the party gear, well-practiced after several days of similar parties in other villages, and the Christmas Music soon started to play. At the start of the program, an elderly woman who is a leader in El Barranco's women's group, knelt before a makeshift altar comprised of a small table with Mayan tapestry covering and offered a prayer of thanks. Although she spoke in Kakchikel, a native dialect, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion, realizing that I was witnessing gratitude in its purest form. As I closed my eyes and bowed my head in prayer, I too thanked God for this glorious day.

In our seats of honor upon the threshold of the school building, we were treated to two traditional dances by the children's dance group.  The first was the corn dance which felt like an expression of Thanksgiving, and the second was the monkey dance.  Although I had seen both twice before, I enjoyed watching this new troop of children, as young as four and as old as 14, as they performed these rituals with heart and soul. The McFadyen kids enjoyed the monkey dance, in which the dancers are smeared with ash to resemble monkeys, and jump around pretending to pick bugs off of each other for food. I, of course, imagine the poor mothers trying to wash all of that ash off of their sweet children at the end of the day.

When the dances were done, a clown appeared not only to entertain the growing crowd, but also - later - to provide the role of master of ceremonies by calling families forward to accept a ticket to receive a tamale basket later in the week.  If you thought that the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket was valuable, you'd be amazed to see how treasured these little slips of paper were to the mothers who were fortunate to receive them. Without it, they would likely not be able to afford the ingredients to produce a traditional Christmas Eve feast of tamales, chocolate and breads for their families.

In this land, the tradition of tamales at midnight is truly the only thing that differentiates Christmas from any other day. There are no funds for decorations or trees or gifts. The meal, complete with a chicken which is only afforded on holidays, is the sign that Jesus was indeed born on Christmas Day. How hard it will be later this week to deny so many impoverished families that simple yet so deeply meaningful tradition.

Mayan Families received funding from generous sponsors last year to provide 1600 tamale baskets to those in need.  We had hoped that the 147 McFadyen baskets would mean that, this year, no one would be turned away, but the count now stands at a mere 1250, so the donations of our family and friends will indeed be incredibly valuable but will not provide for new mouths to be fed. We rejoice in the difference we have made by asking for tamale baskets in lieu of gifts, but we can't help but feel a sense of sadness for those who will not enjoy the Christmas tradition this year.

While the tickets for "canastas" were being carefully distributed, two Santas arrived in all their bell ringing glory to greet the children and provide them with a small gift.  Those who are familiar with our Boston Packing Parties remember that thousands of small toys, including stuffed animals, action figures and matchbox cars, are sent to Mayan Families for these Christmas Parties each year. For most children, it is the only gift they receive during the year, as birthdays are rarely celebrated and sometimes not even known. Juliana, Will and I stood alongside Santa and selected the appropriate gift for each child.  I was touched when, time after time, Will would pull a toy out of my hand in favor of another that he was certain the child would enjoy more. He and Juliana were awesome.

On the other side of the compound, Jay performed heavy labor in the hot sun as he, Luke and Kendra (with help from MF volunteers and staff) began construction of the Rockopotomus which was kindly donated by our friends at Cedar Works of Maine. Even though the assembly instructions had been misplaced in transit, the motivation to create this fun piece of playground equipment was surged by the exceptionally sweet faces of Mayan children who watched and wondered what this unusual structure would eventually become. It all came together just as lunch was served to the crowd of 300+, so Jay quickly turned it on its side until everyone had been fed. We funded the purchase of chuchitos for each parent and child associated with the sponosorship program and, let me tell you, it was more satisfying than hosting any kind of party back home. Gratitude was shown by hugs from the children and their mamas and smears of masa on their happy and nourished faces.

When lunch was done, Jay was excited to put the Rockopotomus into play. We asked the teacher of the pre-school where she would like it to be placed, and we moved it near a small orange tree in the courtyard. Within seconds of being set down, sixteen children jumped on and began to ride. Jay laughed with a Santa kind of chuckle as he renamed the piece the ChickenBusOPotomus. We can't wait to share the photos and video of the children shouting "Tank OO Ceedare Vork." What a moment! Jay was in his glory as he watched them rock higher and higher and, eventually, take turns on the Rockopotomus. But, what really choked us up was when the children riding waved Will on to join them. Our kids made lots of friends today.

Clean-up soon began and Luke was masterful in helping to load the trucks with the remaining toys which will be distributed at the final Christmas Party in the village of San Jorge La Laguna tomorrow. And, as if the day wasn't already sheer perfection, the kids and Jay asked to ride, standing up, in the back of the pick-up truck all the way back to Pana. Well, most of them were standing. Will promptly fell asleep across bags of stuffed toys and didn't seem to notice a single bump as we drove for thirty minutes down to the shoreline.

We truly couldn't have asked for a more fulfilling experience than we were blessed with today. The spirit of giving touched every hour and every deed, and the McFadyen4 were naturals. The fears that I had yesterday aboard the flight from Miami to Guatemala City were gently lifted as I watched a family that embraced their roles here fully and unconditionally. I am not an anxious mama today. I am simply full of joy.

Matching McFadyen shirts with Santa.

Day 1

View From The Plane
  It started out like any other day that begins at 3:30am after just a couple hours of sleep.  Misplaced tickets to Tikal created a spike in a certain someone's stress level (that would be me), and the mad rush to pack six people for two weeks away from home, plus care packages for our sponsored students, plus gifts for our hosting organization, plus donations for general distribution made for a restless slumber.  Although I always promise the incredibly patient Jay that I will be ready well in advance of big events, I inevitably get caught up in the distractions of everyday life at McFadyen Central.  And, of course, this was the case yet again.

But, when the alarm sounded in the early morning hours, we jumped out of bed with excitement in anticipation of the long but life changing journey ahead; first a three hour flight to Miami, followed by a two and a half hour flight to Guatemala City and ending with a three hour van ride to Panajachel.  It would be a long day, for sure, but we had been planning it for months and talking about it for a year, and we were ready to roll.

As we drove out of Captain Circle, we shouted Feliz Navidad to our dear neighbors as they slept, and we enjoyed a van ride from Tewksbury to Boston with nary an oncoming headlight in sight. It was eerily peaceful but did not prepare us well for the chaos that would soon ensue.

Upon reaching the American Airlines check-in desk, we were promptly told that the three Rubbermaid totes that we had carefully packed full of donations were banned due to a Christmastime embargo on boxes, bins and anything that did not resemble true luggage. I locked eyes with Jay, hoping that - with his near million miles of travel on American - he would know how to navigate the system and use awards or points or cold hard cash to magically get those bins on the plane. Sadly, all of his valiant efforts failed, and we were forced to use Plan B.

As this was my fifth trip to Guatemala, I had the forethought to pack two empty duffle bags, just in case our purchases overflowed our original baggage. I reminded Jay that they were in the very bottom of the largest suitcase, and he quickly dropped to the ground and dug through the clothing and raincoats to find them.  At this point, we had just a few minutes before boarding was to begin, and we had yet to pass security. The American Airlines representative scolded us as we scrambled to shove as many donations as possible into the two duffles and every open crevice of our backpacks and suitcases.  We were mostly successful and only left three quarters of one bin behind... shoes and stuffed animals that we could later send in a humanitarian aid shipment, thanks to a quick airport pick-up trip by Jay's wonderfully accommodating Mother.

Our Christmas spirit was feeling quite low as we raced through the priority security line (Jay's only perk that day) and asked a couple of twenty somethings if we could step ahead of them because we were running late.  Scrooge himself emerged as the young man denied us, but a kind security officer held them back so that we could pass. Thankfully, it would be smooth sailing ahead.

The flight to Miami was, thankfully, uneventful, and our greatest challenge while awaiting our connecting flight was finding a mutually acceptable place to enjoy lunch. Boarding the full flight to Guatemala City was the childrens' first sign that we were indeed heading to a foreign land.  Spanish speakers surrounded us and the majority of passengers were most certainly Guatemalans.  As we sat and awaited departure, I had a nervous feeling in my stomach. Would the kids be ok? Would they be nervous and afraid? Would they feel guilt and sadness? Would their increased stress spiral them into constant melt-downs? There was no turning back. This trip was founded on faith, and faith I must have. "Flight Attendents and anxious Mamas: Prepare for take-off."

Another smooth yet shorter flight brought us over the spectacular highlands of Guatemala where we easily spied volcano after volcano. And, although the airport itself was recently renovated, the runway views of dilapidated hangers and broken down planes is like a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. We arrived at the gate, hit a brief paperwork speedbump at Customs, and moved on to gather the myriad of luggage, original and unplanned, before heading outside the airport doors to find a very familiar face.  Mayan Families had sent Charlie, a young man I had met on my previous two trips to Pana, to retrieve us from the chaos at the arrival doors. Along with driver, Philoberto, we began the three hour van drive to our hotel.

The sights and sounds and smells of Guatemala are all new to the other McFadyens; lots of buildings made with lamina tin sheeting, the constant honking of horns and the smell of chicken bus exhaust.  As we drove out of the city and into the more rural areas, we saw tiny children playing streetside without parental supervision, and we viewed field upon field of monster sized corn. The sun had set not long before we reached the mountain road down from Solola to Panajachel, so the lake view would remain a mystery until morning.  Safely and happily, we arrived at Porta Del Lago and were greeted with warm hospitality and comfortable accommodations. We had arrived... in more ways than one.