Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas letter home

I really looking forward to seeing you all very soon.

This week has given me a lot to think about partly I've been visiting several communities and partly because it's Christmas season!  I want to share the stories of three people I've met here Guatemala.  

One of my friends, Ezequiel, who builds the LOLA stoves that MTI installs in the homes of families of the communities in which we work, is heading to the United States without documents.  He makes Q1000 a month here.  That's ~$150.  It's hardly enough to pay his rent and food, much less offering schooling for his 5 y/o daughter Jaclyn. Ezequiel is leaving Jaclyn behind, whose mother has abandoned her.  You might think he's abandoning her too, but he loves her so much and when we last hung out I could see the tears welling up in his eyes.  It's deep courage.  He's definitely not leaving anything on the table.  He's going to find work in the States because he wants to send his little daughter to school.  The schools in Cobán are terrible, not just bad, but like it's safer to keep your kid at home than to send them to school.  Unless, of course, you can pay Q1500/month to enroll in a private school, which is more than Ezequiel makes.  So Ezequiel is leaving, perhaps for good. . . and he doesn't know when he'll see his daughter again.  The risks of the journey are high.  He may not make it, or he may get killed or die along the way, or he may make it and send money home, but still be estranged.  Little Jacyln also, obviously, doesn't want her dad to leave, and she has no idea when he'll return.  Aye! Heartbreak.  In a season of waiting, this just speaks to my heart of the gravity of waiting for hope, waiting for the return...

Yesterday, I met two single mothers who are indigenous Mayan women who live miles up in the mountains.  One has a 9 year old son. This single mother, Sofia Josefina, is a Madre Monitora for MTI, which means she volunteers her time to attend MTI trainings to learn about everything from nutrition to pregnancy danger signs. They walk to these trainings in sandals and it takes all day - to go, attend, return home, and then to fix the fire/food/water.  After these women have been trained they are responsible for visiting 10 mothers/families who have children under 5.  Each Madre Monitora is assigned to and responsible for training 10 families.  So this single mother, Sofia Josefina, spends several days a month walking through the mountains, on dirt trails (the trails often times lead to beaaaaautiful views, but are often steep, muddy and wet) to teach 10 mothers what she has been trained.  She, and these women (Madre Monitoras), are the heart of our maternal health program.  We can do nothing without them.

So yesterday a few of us were sitting in her home, which was her parents who have now passed, and with a smile-a-mile-wide, she told us what she does to make money.  She buys produce at the local market and then transports it, by herself, into Cobán on the roof of a mini-bus to re-sell in the market there.  She leaves her home at 6am and returns by 6 or 7pm.  She does this as often as she can.  We then asked her how much she profits, because she has to pay for the produce and transport, and she told us she can profit Q5-10 a DAY!  That's 50 cents to $1.50 a DAAAAAY between her and her son.  A DAY!  WOW, talk about a dagger through my chest.  This woman is DOING the work that MTI needs her to do in order that the community is healthier, and everyday she volunteers with MTI is a day she isn't at the market trying to eeek out a life.  She is a single mother trying to raise her son and support her community.  

Before we left, she brought each of us a cup of hot atol, rice and oatmeal milk.  I couldn't help but think I was robbing calories from her little son with this gift.  And yet, there is something greater than calories at stake here...she is so proud to be a Madre Monitora, to be teaching and learning.  She is an empowered, strong woman.  And she honored us, and was honored herself, in giving us a gift of atol in her home.  There is something so dignifying and uplifting in giving a gift.  As I set my cup down before I left, I could not help myself, but to fold up Q10 tightly and hide it under the mug of atol.  As we were giving saludos on the way out the door, I saw out of the corner of my eye her little 9y/o son cleaning up...he had found the Q10. He saw me and I winked at him...and then, we left...

This last story is about a woman, Antonia, in the community of Campat.  I could get derailed right here in describing to you the beauty of Campat. It LIT-ER-ALLY is at the base of a backbone of mountains that jet straight up into the sky out of the great green highlands of Guatemala. Campat sits in a dramatic, deep, narrow valley. As I stood at the community center I looked up and could see the tippy-top of the hills/mountains across the valley and it taunted me...'bet you can't climb up here'.  So, Campat and I have unfinished business. Beautiful Campat.

I was working in Campat with a team that was building latrines a few weeks ago.  One day as I was working, Antonia and her cute, cute little daughter were standing near-by watching.  The daughter was hiding behind her mom's skirt, peeking her head around her mom's leg.  I was surprised when Antonia spoke Spanish because most of the women in Campat only speak Q'etchi because they only attend 3-6 years of school.  So we began talking.  

I learned that she is from a different region of Guatemala and that's why she spoke Spanish.  Her family and sisters live far away.  Eventually, she asked me if I could give her a latrine b/c her family didn't get selected by the Community Development Commission of Campat to receive one.  According to the criteria she qualified, so I was surprised she didn't get selected.  It turns out, that because she is from a different region and doesn't speak Q'etchi, the indigenous language of Campat, she is an outsider and the other women don't (aren't able to) talk to her.  Because of that she doesn't actively participate in MTI's health programs.  As I asked around, I learned that because she doesn't actively attend she is disqualified from receiving a latrine.   The MTI program is holistic, community members can't pick and chose what they want and don't want. 

The long and the short of it is, Margarita, an MTI tecnica - beautiful and amazing indigenous woman herself - and I made a visit to Antonia's home to see the sad state of her failing latrine.  We learned her story and discovered that she didn't know about the MTI requirements.  Margarita spoke with her and her spouse and they set up a plan to help their family become more integrated into the community and into MTI's programs.  Margarita, in her sweet, soft-spoken way, built a vital bridge, a life-line that would connect this family to the vibrancy and life within the Campat community.  Moments like this are the woman that spoke to Jesus at the well...I'm no Jesus, but Antonia had the chispa/courage to take a chance.  She knew she had to do something for herself and her family...and she did.  So much of the health and survival of these communities is dependent upon the maternal instinct and steadfast love of these women. Antonia's life in that community is changed, and her courage will improve her daughter's life forever.

I share these stories with you because while sometimes I feel sad that I'm not home or that my family is spread out, I have so much to be thankful for.  I have been so blessed and I really, really enjoy the work that I'm doing here in Guatemala.  I look forward to seeing you all very soon and my singular purpose for coming home is merely to give you each a big hug.

In hopeful anticipation,


To all Doubting Thomi


I work with a global health organization that places its projects in the heart of great need around the world.  This is something I’ve understood by reading Medical Teams International’s mission statement dozens of times, ‘to demonstrate the love of Christ to people affected by disaster, conflict, and poverty’. But it’s easy to miss the world of human beings entangled within those words.  If I read fast enough I can briskly step over their meaning and form a complete sentence, sounding-off a catchy mission statement, rather than trip into the profundity of what they mean.

Sometimes statistics help me grasp the disparity, inequality, and suffering of the people our programs attempt to help.  But even that only portrays a ray of the spectrum of life unfolding within those words.  Stories and pictures can help too, and so I offer some here. 

But for me, like some others, we just have to go see for ourselves, and get close.  We need to feel the warmth of the lives these words reference.  The experience of sharing time with them and witnessing our common humanity, especially theirs which is worn thin by the heavy burden of poverty, can somehow free me from my indifference.  Their lives are embroiled in a daily struggle for bread, and it burns my heart.  This is the category I find myself in.  I have to see for myself.

Unfortunately, I think that makes me a Doubting Thomas. I have to put my hands in the wounds of their suffering to know, to believe it’s real and that it matters.  Not until my heart burns do I get that it’s real and it matters that I do something.  Only then do these words of the MTI mission statement take on flesh and incarnate the call for me to love my neighbor.

Recently, I had the joy of traveling to San Miguel, a community approximately 2 hours from Cobán on gravel, muddy mountain roads.  San Miguel is the most remote community in which MTI works.  It hangs high in the mountain clouds, over a mile above sea-level.  Fortunately for me, that morning the clouds had cleared and we could see the knuckles of the mountain range below cascading into the valley in which Cobán lives.

That day five of us were visiting a group of Mayan indigenous mothers to demonstrate for them how to build a huerto, a vegetable garden, for their families.  As we unloaded the truck we were greeted by a gaggle of short indigenous women in their traditional garb, a lacy, colorful top called a huipil and a long skirt, with their dark, thick long hair pulled back.  None of them were more than 5’ tall, some didn’t wear shoes, all had deep crow’s feet smile-marks creased into their skin from a life of high-altitude sun exposure, and the youngest half of the group totted their babies and toddlers in slings across their back that suspended from their foreheads. These women had been waiting for us all morning and were eager to learn.

I’ll let the photos below tell the story, but you can see a group of beautiful women laughing and toiling together to build this vegetable garden. You might be surprised to see some mothers clearing the ground and working the soil, with baby in tow.  

They sling their children over their backs suspended from their foreheads.  This is the local Mayan way.  The Mayan men and women haul large, heavy loads using a mecapal, which is a strap that goes across the forehead and is secured there by the weight of the load which hangs down their back – a baby, a sack of corn, a table.  The MTI medical brigades that visit these communities often get complaints of neck and back pain, and it’s because these people haul very heavy, large loads in this manner, suspended from their foreheads. 

All that to say, these are strong women with big hearts, bright eyes, and enduring smiles.  And they carry a heavy burden.  I hope these photos relay something of the strain and hope these mothers carry. 

As I was watching the women till the thick clay-soil, it occurred to me that God gave life and gives life through the soil. God breathed life into clay and brought forth the richness and dignity of human life.  And so it might be that there is something about our nature as humans, created in the image and likeness of One greater than ourselves, that tries to ply the material with the immaterial, the human and the divine, and bring forth life from earth.  

These women and this community struggle with the seemingly simple task of putting enough calories, protein, and nutrients into their mouths to feed their bodies and their children. According to the World Food Programme, 69.7% of children under 5 in this region of Guatemala are chronically malnourished. SIXTY-NINE POINT SEVEN PERCENT. Wow, my heart sinks.

San Miguel is not aspirating to nobly meld the material with the divine; they are simply struggling with the essential metabolic task of plying the material with the material, of putting food in their children’s stomachs. Poverty threatens my deepest can this be?

On that crisp morning in San Miguel, Medical Teams técnicos taught a group of women how to build a huerto. They taught these women how to grow life from the dirt so that they can simply feed their community.  And yet, in this effort and activity of teaching and learning and sharing, something of the divine was plied with the material. These women learned to breathe life into dirt.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

School Supplies in Mayan community of Chitepey

A tenacious spirit to learn

What a funny photo?! At first glance you might think this little pencil was victim to a 4thgrade boy who was trying to waste time during his detention.  But it’s not that at all.  It’s interesting how I came upon this littlepencil.  It’s actually, literally, anartifact from the remote, indigenous Mayan community of Chitepey, circa 2012, andupon further reflection it reveals a lot about a lot in this rural, remoteregion of Guatemala.

Chitepey is a small indigenous communityhidden in one of the steep, narrow valleys of the highland mountain range surroundingChamelco.  As you descend into the valleythere are great expansive views of the highlands and you can see cornfields andsmall huts just across the way.  Thevalley is almost a ravine.  It’s steepenough and the walls are almost close enough to tempt a crazy gringo to run azip-line from one side to the other.  Atthe base of the descent, the two valley walls meet at an acute angle and you discoverthe noisy, tenacious little river that carved this impressive naturalcathedral.  This river is Chitepey’sprimary source of water.

Descending into Chitepey valley

Recently, I was in Chitepey with a group ofnorte americanos who were working alongside the families to build improvedventilated cook stoves.  The stoves burnhotter and cleaner than their traditional open fires.  They are safer too because by removing the three-stoneopen fire from the home children can’t fall into the fire and burnthemselves.  And these stoves burn lesswood, decreasing the amount of wood a woman has to purchase and haul back toher house, thereby decreasing deforestation too.

As I was walking out of a meager 12’x20’ home ofa single mother and her child, I stepped over this silly little pencil. It washalf-way buried into the ground, as if a dozen other feet had already unwittinglystepped on it.  I was with a group ofgringos and I laughed to myself as I saw it, but I didn’t stop.  To me it was just the last remains of a kid’spencil.  As we approached the center of thecommunity where the concrete school building meets the soccer field it occurredto me that this little pencil represented a great lack, a lack of schoolsupplies in this remote region, a lack of education, and  a historic neglect on the part of theGuatemalan government of these people, among other things.

Three little girls of Chitepey: Erica, Sandra, and Lidia

But that’s not why I turned around to retrieveit.  I turned around because I realizedthat this little pencil also represents the great tenacity of some little girlwho wants to learn.  Like the tenacious riverthat ground this incredible valley into an altar beneath the heavens, thisground pencil represents the tenacious spirit of a child and her mother clingingon to any chance they might have to rise up and live a vibrant life in this hidden valley.

These are an incredible people.  I’m humbled when I’m with them.  It’s something to think, that all of this is happening, completely hidden, in the folds of Guatemala’s beautiful highland mountains.

Shameless for a cause:, designate to Guatemala Maternal and Child Health Program.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

a birthday reflection: 34 down, 66 to go...

 full of life.

Tree of life growing out of a concrete wall...attaboy!  I want to be more like that.

Last week I had my birthday.  I turned 34.

Yowzers, thirty-FOUR? That’s almost 35, which is practically 40, which is half-way to 80, which is when most people die.  I’m almost DEAD.  

When I was teaching at Jesuit High School in Portland, I had a student tell me I was almost extinct because I was 28…hahaha.  So you see, if you’re over 18 you’re practically dead.

I’d be lying if I told you that this ‘race-to-the-bottom’ train of thought didn’t go through my head.  But, you know, it’s not really helpful to dwell on that kind of stuff.  You can’t live life without time passing, and so be it…I welcome the opportunity. 

On my birthday, a different perspective about turning 34 occurred to me.  The program I work with aims to improve the health of children under 5 who die of chronic illnesses that shouldn’t kill them, diseases like diarrhea, malnutrition, and pneumonia.  But due to their poor nutrition, exposure to the elements, lack of proper shelter and clothing, poor sanitation and water quality and all the other challenges to life that are endemic to poverty, these children never make it to their 5th birthday.  They don’t make it.  They die because they drank shitty water, literally, and didn’t have enough strength to beat it.  

little boy under 5 - full of life

5 year old boy radiating joy

As I was walking home from work here in Cobán it struck me, “I made it to 34 years!”  I won’t lie to you, I choked up a little bit.  I made it, and yet so many others don’t.  So, I am grateful to be 34 and look forward to being 35 – God-willing.

I made it to 34.

Expo 86...Brigette L, Nici G, me, Cath, Bruce G - knee high to grasshoppers!

Giddy up!  Lez git us some sweets! Halloween circa late 1980s.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Un día soleado en Cobán

Sabado, 18 agosto 2012

The celestial coronation from el Templo Calvario

Today has been the first sunny day since I arrived in Cobán, Guatemala two weeks ago.  This is the rainy season and I think Cobán receives the tangential rains from the hot hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico.  By the time they reach us, up here in the mountains, they've cooled, but their rains don't seem to relent.  The rain is intense.  I'm from the Pacific Northwest where it's rainy, but this rain is different.  It's torrential.  When it rains here, the thunder cracks and the sky opens up.  Most houses and buildings here have corrugated tin roofs so if I am enjoying a conversation before the rain arrives, I either shout to the other, comically recognizing how rude the rain is being, or just put it on hold until the rain stops. It's LOUD.

But today is a bit of a reprieve. Today, things are drying out a bit. The clouds have cleared and the brilliant, blue sky is crowning everything. The celestial coronation is in the air.  People's spirits are elevated and joyful.  It seems like everyone is out-and-about, happy.  Today, I saw several mothers walking their young children, who seemed to be taking their first steps, and grandparents returning from the market with their nietos y nietas, ice cream in hand.  There is music is in the air, the flowers are Crayola, and the vegetation is lush, rich spring-green.  And to magnify and stretch the brilliance of this pocket of the Garden of Eden, there are billowing, white clouds hanging in the arch of the cielo, just above the distant green hilltops.

Grandpa and grandson walking down the sidewalk 

una calle colorida

I knew I had to take advantage of this beautiful weather because it'll most likely start raining again later today.  I decided to take a 'running' tour of the city.  Before I left my hostal, I identified a few spots from The Lonely Planet: Parque Nacional Las Victorias, Templo El Calvario, Casa D'Acuña, Hostal Jam Bamboo.

Hostal Misterio Verde

Flowers in the garden

Flowers in the garden

El parque is a quick jog from my hostal - El Hostal Misterio Verde - so that was my first stop.  It's very similar to Forest Park in Portland.  There are lots of relatively well-maintained trails and the forest is dense, in its original state.  I was aware of the warning that violent crime occurs here de vez en cuando (from time to time), but I felt pretty sure I'd be safe, Aly because it was a sunny Saturday morning and who would want to hang out in the woods?; Bly, because there was a parade on the main streets for Guatemalan Olympic silver medalist, Erick Barrondo, so thieves and hoodlums would want to rob the easy targets in the crowds instead of a solo trekker; Cly, because I'm intimidating and nearly 2x the size of most Guatemalans; Dly, because I think I would take anyone in those woods by surprise - gringo running deep in the woods - creepy?.  So I proceeded cautiously.  The trails were slightly muddy but awesome.  These trails are a treasure and I will definitely be returning.  I ran for 30 minutes on the trails, free from diesel fumes and gawking Guatemalans. At the end of my run I  got spit out right next to the futbol stadium of Cobán, where I rested and stretched.  So Parque Nacional - check...and will return.

At the stadium, I took a seat next to the field and watch a couple kids shoot hoops on a court nearby.  After I caught my breath and stopped sweating like a pig (or a scary, bald gringo who just shot out of the woods), I challenged them to a game of HORSE or "caballo".   I lost.  Not sore about it; I'm pretty comfortable with my lack of bb skilz.  But I think the Guatemaltecitos thought they were gonna get schooled by the giant gringo wearing cool Nike gear.  Nope. Click HERE for video footage: El estadio de Cobán

On the way home I took a brief detour UP (arriba, as in "up") 300 or 1000 steps to El Templo Calvario.  Beautiful. It was on the top of a loma (hill) and I could see the valley and lush green highlands that surround Cobán, as well as much of the city.  Inside, the church was dark and cool, but the light from outside poured in through the windows and doors. The church was filled with lit votive candles, holding vigil to people's prayers. It was serene. The church is cared for by brothers and priests of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

the 300 or 1000 stairs to Templo El Calvario
votive candles at El Calvario
Looking out the front doors of El Templo Calvario 
Templo El Calvario
Looking out main doors of El Templo Calvario 

On the way down the stairs I ducked into a little tienda that sold candles. I wanted to know how much they cost because I plan to return to do my own petitioning.  El dueno (owner), René, spoke excellent English because he had spent many years in California.  I asked him about the candles and he explained that all the different colored candles are for different genre of petitions - money, studies, peace and health, relationship, etc.  So, he gifted me a local guatemalan, flavored cigar, and I bought some candles.  Now I have a friend.  Cool.

Feeling like I had absorbed more than my share of pure elixir, I decided to head home, shower, grab some food and head out for round two.  I had gotten an excellent morning of exercise, some radiant (almost) equatorial sun, a beating from the kids...I was good.  On my way home,  I spotted a sweet little café - De Epocas.  It had double garage-doors entrance and folks were sitting at tables enjoying the passer-byers, granitas and treats, and the shade.  So I stopped and had me una cappuccino latino...pretty much a coffee-flavored milkshake.  Delish.    That was my morning.  Now out for round two.

una cappuccino latino de la cafteria De Epocas

The celestial coronation from el Templo Calvario