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.

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