Thursday, January 10, 2013

Day 4 - Journey to a Beautiful Land

The road to Tierra Linda with the McFadyen Family in view
It had been nearly three years (March, 2010) since I had visited the village of Tierra Linda for the very first time, and I could hardly wait to introduce my family to the place that I had often compared to Walnut Grove (from Little House on the Prairie).  There's a certain kind of brightness about it, and - like its name clearly states - it is indeed beautiful land. A small hub in the center of the village contains a school, church, tienda and a smattering of adobe brick houses.  And on the fringes of town, often right through the center of a cornfield, you'll find footpath upon footpath of passageways that lead to small parcels of property upon which modest homes stand and Mayan lives are built.  A fifteen minute hike down one of these paths will lead you to Florinda Ben Ben's house, and that's exactly where we were headed.

Due to mudslides and road closures during my last trip (October, 2011), I was not able to make the 30 minute drive in the pick-up truck or to safely hike one hour up the narrow dirt path from Panajachel to visit Florinda.  I remember the heartbreak I felt realizing that I was so close and yet still so far away, with only nature's elements to blame.  Today, on this absolutely glorious weather day, my family delighted in riding in the back of the truck all the way up the mountain. And, because Florinda has been a sponsored student of our church for the past five years, our kids were super excited to meet her in the flesh.

Luke enjoying the scenic vista of Tierra Linda
When we were first introduced to Florinda's family many years ago, we learned that her parents could not afford the nominal fees to send all of their eight children to school, so they chose to send only their eldest son, hoping that he would be educated and could eventually help to provide for the family. Years later and thanks to the Mayan Families School Sponosorship Program, the Ben Ben family was able to send the girls to school as well, but - even with sponsorship assistance - all of them have quit school upon completion of 6th grade to begin working. Fourteen year old Florinda is enrolled in 6th grade for the upcoming (Jan-Oct) school year, and we are most definitely concerned that this will indeed be her final year of schooling. All of the interest and encouragement and desire in the world cannot keep you in school when your family is struggling to survive.
Luke and Will on the trail to Florinda's house
We arrived at the edge of a cornfield with hospitality gifts in hand and were reminded to use caution as we walked the narrow path. Just like three years ago, I carefully navigated the switchback trail with steep drops on one side and a mountaintop above and wondered how it was possible to safely travel during the six month rainy season. For gosh sakes... I drive my kids to the bus stop on cold and rainy days and the Ben Ben children hike through mud and rain for 15 minutes just to get to the edge of the cornfield. I'm guessing that it's a second 15 minute walk to school from there, and - though we send umbrellas and ponchos and raincoats - there are certainly never enough for each member of the household. I am reminded of my mother's stories of walking to school through snow and storm from her cottage home in the grove of South Tewksbury back in the 1950s, and I'm realizing that - for much of the planet - time has stood still.

We were entirely grateful to the Mayan Families staff members who carried 100lb. bags of corn and beans on their backs plus a new water filtration system, so that we could make it to Florinda's house without incident. Every piece of furniture or building supply or bulk food purchase that this family has made has arrived at its final destination in arms, atop heads or across the strong backs of this family. Even the residents of Walnut Grove had wagons and horses to help carry their loads. With each step, we are reminded that the Ben Ben's are a resilient family.

With open arms, Florinda's mother, Juana, welcomed us to her home. Although her Spanish seems even stronger than during my visit several years ago, she quickly moved toward the comfort of her native Mayan language, Kakchiquel, when speaking through translator, Sergio. She expressed her family's deep gratitude to our church for continued sponsorship of Florinda and for gifts of food and clothing and furniture over the years, and we promised to carry her message of thanks home with us.

After asking permission to take photos to share with our church family upon our return, I quickly captured images of life on the mountainside. It was wonderful to see their outdoor sink,a pila, which our family had commissioned for them after my last visit. Although just a trickle of water flows from a hose with unknown origins, it is now possible for them to wash and bathe in a proper basin. Prior years' gifts from our church, including beds and an armoir, could be seen as we stood in the doorways of three small rooms, connected by a narrow front stoop. The bathroom remains as it was... a simple tarp (which looks much like one that we sent in a care package to them many years ago) hung over some high tree branches about 50 feet away from the house. And electricity? None. But, the space that I most wished to capture in photos was the kitchen. More than anything else, it speaks volumes of life in rural Guatemala.
I can't recall who it was... perhaps a staff member or intern or other volunteer... but someone once told me to look for food when I was "in the field" on home visits. They said that I would likely only find enough food for that single day.  And so, I snapped this photo of some bits and pieces of vegetables that, according to our guides, would be simmered for hours and transformed into a broth. These simple shelves serve as pantry and refrigerator all in one, and what you see here is all that will sustain this family of eight today. It was a great relief to remember that we had brought corn which could be made into tortillas to accompany the soup and beans and eggs that would provide much needed protein. Tonight, they would feast.

After a wonderful visit, we returned to the trucks and continued on to the Mayan Families Community Center in the center of town. With authorization from the Department of Solola (one of 22 "states" in Guatemala), Mayan Families runs a certified Junior High School for Tierra Linda in a building that they constructed several years ago to be used as a pre-school and for other training purposes. Realizing that most children in the village would quit school after 6th grade because of the time and expense required to travel outside the village in order to attend Junior High School, Mayan Families thought that they could use several rooms within the building for classrooms and see just how many children might continue their studies. Through the grace of God, dozens of children in Tierra Linda are now enrolled in 7th and 8th grade.

This wonderful center also serves as home to the Gabby Lewis Memorial Library. Eight year old Gabby's beautiful life on Earth was tragically cut short when she passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident in her home state of Tennessee. Her parents, Becky and Shane, generously directed all memorial gift contributions to Mayan Families so that they could build a library in Gabby's name and establish a legacy of light and learning in the country of her birth. Our family was absolutely honored to visit this very special space and make a contribution of our own. 

Realizing that, unlike Gabby and our Will, so many children in this village will never travel outside of their homeland, we thought that it would be wonderfully exciting for them to experience the adventures found in the Magic Tree House literature series, so we purchased all 20 books in Spanish and added them to the shelves.  Although I was never blessed to meet Gabby, I most certainly felt her spirit in Tierra Linda today as I witnessed toddlers playing in the loft and teenagers studying at the computers. These resources were made possible in celebration of her remarkable life.

The Gabby Lewis Library, Tierra Linda
After visiting Gabby's Library and touring the Community Center, our boys were absolutely itching to join an informal soccer game that was happening in the courtyard. Although the Tierra Linda boys matched them in size, they absolutely crushed them with their fancy footwork. As we sat on the sidelines, we were in awe of how masterfully they could maneuver that small plastic ball (not a genuine soccer ball, of course) on the cement surface. Luke and Will enjoyed every second of the challenge and showed us some great moves as well. By the look on their faces, there is no doubt that this will be one of the highlights of their trip.

Will and Luke (in red) playing soccer at the MF Community Center
The return trip to Mayan Families headquarters in Panajachel brought us through the village of Pena Blanca where the documentary Living on One was recently filmed. In an effort to bring attention to the issue of global poverty, four university students survived on just one dollar a day while living in the highlands of Guatemala.  If you have a moment, visit their website and watch the trailer for the movie. Not only will it inspire you, but it will introduce you to the landscape that we call home this week. The more time I spend here in Guatemala, the more connected I feel with the universe and the more certain I am of my calling in this life.

When we returned to the office, we were greeted by families who had been summoned to receive their Christmas Eve Tamale Basket. Over the next three days, over 1000 baskets filled with enough ingredients to prepare a tradional meal for a family of ten will be distributed thanks to the generosity of sponsors all over the globe. These $40 baskets contain a whole chicken, pineapple, carrots, pasta, bread, oil, rice, beans, sugar, mosh, chocolate, marshmallows and cookies, all in a reuable container. Our gang was excited to help assemble the baskets (called canastas) that we had been talking about for months.

It wasn't long before excitement started brewing about tonight's Christmas parade through the streets of Panajachel. The truck decorating had begun and the Santa and elf hats and reindeer noses that we had brought from home were being donned.  As if our family wasn't excited enough to drive in the back of a pick-up truck, tonight they would be expected to throw handfuls of candy to people on the street as well. Luke and Will's response: "Seriously? Awesome!"

Joining us on the truck were sisters Karina (16), Fabiola (13), and Olivia (8), and their story is a sad one. After their father recently died due to complications from alcoholism, their mother abandoned them and disappeared with their four year old brother. The girls' grandparents initially took them in, but the grandfather, who was the father of their father, told them that they were all destined to become prostitutes and alcoholics, like their mother, and he didn't want to have anything to do with them. Similarly, their uncle denied them as his nieces.  Having no where to turn, the girls found their way to the doorstep of Mayan Families where they are now being looked after pending decisions from the courts. Just a few days ago, these three girls climbed their way into an empty room above an occupied house and huddled together through the night, with no blanket to keep them warm, until the sun rose. It's hard to imagine that they will have the capacity to feel the joy that my children feel tonight as all seven of them toss candy to the crowds, but I pray that - even for this hour - they can experience the wonder and awe that every child deserves at Christmastime.
Karina (16), Fabiola (13) and Olivia (8) at the Christmas Parade
There was certainly no better way to end today than to actually be "in" this parade. The crowds had gathered and both young and old shouted "dulces" (candy) from the streets as we tossed candy canes and starlight mints to the masses. The tuk tuk ahead of us in the procession was marked Jo! Jo! Jo! (rather than Ho! Ho! Ho!) which only served to make us smile as we remembered one of our favorite friends back home. And, I couldn't get over the truck just two behind ours, upon which sat a genuine baby Santa. Yup. Here in Guatemala, the land of no car seats and seemingly few driving regulations, a Dad sat his santa-suited infant on the roof of the cab as we drove through the streets. 

It's hard to imagine all that we have accomplished in these first three full days, but I'm certain that tonight's celebration captures all that we are feeling. I have been witness to joy and kindness beyond measure, and the usual stress of Christmas preparations is nowhere in sight. Those around us are not caught up in gift purchasing and wrapping. Like us this year, they are simply preparing to share a holiday meal with their families. That freedom gives each one of us the time to blast Christmas music into the streets, dance a jig with Santa, taste the sweetness of peppermint, wear silly hats, and spread true holiday cheer. The people of Guatemala may be among the poorest and most malnourished in the world, but their spirit is as rich as rich can be.

Can you spot the candy flying through the air?

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