Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A few years ago I started sponsoring Abelino, a Guatemalan boy, through Foster Parent´s Plan,, now called Plan. I got the idea from those long, sappy infomercials that can make you cry, usually early on a Sunday morning when you`re hungover and feeling emotional. I had been wondering about the real value of this program and others of the like for as long as I could remember and one morning CTV`s Rod Black was on it and he seemed so sincere and handsome so I decided to go ahead and order one up.

I`ve been kind of a lazy sponsor. I only sent a first letter last summer. Plan sends annual updates and photos which I appreciated, however, when I decided to come to Latin America, I wanted to check it all out for myself and it`s actually one of the reasons I chose Guatemala to study Spanish.

Despite communication issues with the Toronto office, I finally got the opportunity to meet Abelino and his family on my last day in Guatemala.

I met up with the Plan staff in Cobàn, located in central Guatemala, who were very welcoming and informative about the services they provide for over 12,000 families.

As far as tourism goes, Cobàn, a major coffee-growing area, is a stopping-off point for the Alta Verapz region which is filled with gorgeous scenery of mountains with orchids, waterfalls, and forests. The town itself is pretty uninteresting with a MacDonald`s and modern mall on the outskirts contrasting with the old street markets and a plain town square.

This office staffs 37 energetic people who work on a large number of projects, including santitation and water, human rights, inter-active school initiatives, etc. Since the area is still so undeveloped, they use dirt bikes and 4X4 Toyota trucks to travel around the communities. I was impressed by all they do and the challenges of working with the government and other NGO`s to actually get things done. .

What they failed to brief me on was the visit to Abelino`s school. His community of San Antonio IV is near Carcha, a small town about an hour outside of Cobàn. Apparently I was lucky since the previous visiting sponsors had to travel over 6 hours to visit their family.

I knew we were going to the school, but I had no idea that I`d be received like a celebrity. Each of the 50 children greeted me with Buenos Dias and warm smiles. They had laid fresh-cut grass and decorated the room. It smelled wonderful. There was a formal presentation of speeches, songs, and dancing, with a lot of thanking going on. The well-rehearsed spanish was impressive since they speak Q`eqchi and most have only learned a little Spanish so far. Some children were very shy with me but others were trying to catch my eye and when they did, would beam and laugh. It was actually quite embarrasing since I hadn`t brought them anything and it all seemed to be so much. I found out later that I was the first sponsor to ever visit this particular community, and possibly the only foreigner they had ever met.
Guatemala has about a 10-minute long national anthem. Nice though... and it gave me a chance to memorize `thank you` in Q`eqchi. Only a few of them were attempting to sing it, but they all seemed sincere.
I felt nervous when I was about to meet Abelino´s family. I only had my backpacking clothes to wear and I wasn´t sure what gifts would be appropriate.... I took a soccer ball, some books and school supplies, and a few kitchen things for the mom. I wondered what they expected of me.
Abelino´s sister, Aurora, was at the school and this beautiful girl was so shy she couldn´t even make eye contact with me at first. She came with us to their home, which is about a 15-minute walk through rugged terrain. The landscape was breathtaking.
Abelino actually completed the primary school we visited last year and now goes to middle school on a scholarship he received. Aurora is twelve and has the very important function of caring for her younger siblings. Like the other girls in her community, it is unlikely that she´ll have the opportunity to go any further with her education since it´s a long distance and the parents are concerned both for their daughters´ safety and finding suitable husbands.
It´s not my place to say that isn´t right, but Abelino´s mom, Juana, does attend some of Plan´s women´s programs which teaches them the benefits of education, as well as child care and women´s rights (spousal abuse is a major problem there). At the moment she is going to meetings regarding baby stimulation. Often the mothers are too busy in the fields or cooking and caring for so many other children so the babies are left in the care of older sisters, etc. and just end up sitting like little lumps.
Fourteen-year-old Abelino was waiting rather anxiously with his family. He was very shy and seemed uncomfortable, but he gave me a kiss when I hugged him.
Their 5-month old baby has some skin disease, which Juana says is seasonal. They have a Plan-supported health clinic in the community but apparently the cream that normally takes care of it can´t be used on him since he´s too young. I set him on my lap and he immediately shit his pants, causing a lot of laughter.
The house was similar to the ones in the other village where I did the stove project, but more isolated. They have a dirt floor and an open fire in the kitchen. It´s long and narrow, with partial walls separating two bedrooms and a sitting area where a table and lawn chairs were set out for us. The coffee was surprisingly good, although sweet... sugar is luxury apparently. They had decorated with palms inside and out and there were a few football (soccer) posters on the wall. The clothes were all hung together on a rack. It´s hot and usually humid during the days and can be very cold at night.

Despite the heat, it was very comfortable being there. They didn´t fuss too much around me and didn´t even seem that curious at first. Although they, along with every other Guatemalan, can´t believe I´m not married. Overwhelmed and shocked were the words the translator used.
Juana, in particular, has a lovely nature. After she was finished cooking, which was almost the whole time we were there, we had a nice conversation, with the help of Herminia, the Q´eqchi translator/family case-worker, and the Spanish translator, Alma. Alma kept forgetting to translate as I wasn´t doing too bad with the Spanish at first, but as the day progressed... nada.
Juana married Abelino´s dad, Nicolas, at 14, which was arranged by their parents. Now she´s 28 and has five kids. I wondered why she kept trying to hide her mouth with her hands since she seemed to have a great set of teeth.. in fact, the only Mayan woman I´ve noticed with all of her teeth. She´s actually very beautiful, like Aurora, and funny. She said that if I lived with them, they´d have to raise their roof so I could walk inside the house. She said she wants to learn Spanish so that we can talk to eachother some day. I do too.

While waiting for lunch outside, Nicolas, who´s missing most of his teeth, went on several times about how much he appreciated my support. Embarrassing too. You know, it´s only $35 per month and I don´t even notice it. I mostly feel by how little I thought of it prior to my meeting the family.
For some reason they, too, felt embarrassed for what little they had to offer me. They kept saying that they wish they had something to give me.
This is their house from the road, with the small farm in front. They grow mainly coffee, corn, and the spice, carmadon. I had read that the Cobán area is the biggest exporter of carmadon in the world, mostly to the middle east. His crop hasn´t produced much lately, though.
Plan has been in the San Antonio IV community of 100 families for the past seven years. So far 67 are sponsored, while the rest are on a waiting list.

Seven-year-old Edgar, who is the most brazen of the bunch, is getting water from the barrel. He is sooo adorable and fun-loving. It´s amazing how one can be so happy with so little.
Their only water source is rain. They have gutters on the house and trees airmed at the top of it, but now it´s the dry season so they´re struggling. There´s a river 45-minutes away, but it´s very polluted. Plan is currently working with the community on a water project and, God-willing, one day that part will be easier on them.
The family goes to Carcha once a week to sell their products and they all take baths and do laundry after they´re done at the market.
In this photo is Alma, who grew up in the US, the driver, who also translated Q´eqchi, and Carola, another Plan worker.
The tortillas are on top of and fill the inside of the container which is actually a dried melon that I wasn´t familar with. It´s the traditional tortilla-warmer bowl. The big bowl of turkey soup in front was mine. I was told that I didn´t have to eat it all, but that I had to wrap what I couldn´t finish in a tortilla to take home. Being the guest of honour, I got to use one of the only two spoons.
This meal is reserved for special occasions, like weddings and funerals. The soup was quite tasty and even spicy, which isn´t typical in Guatemala. Me gusta! The leftovers were wrapped in banana leaves and Abelino presented me with a special cloth napkin to go with it.
Hermiana told us that Abelino had stopped going to school this year, but when he heard that I was coming to visit, he went back to his teacher and asked if he could return because he thought I´d stop sponsoring them.
After pressing Abelino, we discovered the reasons he didn´t want to go to school. It takes over an hour to walk there cross country. Plan had lent him an old bike to use for a while, but it kept having flat tires and he´d end up pushing it or changing the tire, then get there late. Another, more challenging, issue is that he finds it incredibly difficult. He misses weeks at a time to help harvest so he can never catch up, and most of his classes are in Spanish, which he barely understands. Most members of these communities believe that the eldest son should only have vocational training so he can farm. However, the one thing Abelino has going for him in regard to education is Juana´s belief that he can do something better with his life, like becoming a teacher.
The pressures must be great for Abelino. I could see it on his face. The odds are against him. I bought him a bike in Cobán before I left and the Herminia will deliver it to him, but he needs continual and postive motivation as his path, no matter his choice, will be difficult.

There wasn´t a lot of traffic in these parts, but we saw a few trucks such as this one, and a few picops, with about the same amount of people.

This is a field across the road from the family´s farm. You probably can´t zoom in enough, but you would see that all the labourers are women. Can´t imagine how hot and tired one would be after a day of work like that. We were there at least three hours and I never saw them take a break. Where are their husbands??

The impact of my visit to Abelino´s home didn´t really sink in until after I was in one of the many airports enroute to Chile from Guatemala the next day. It dawned on me while I was watching everyone go here and there that Abelino´s family would probably never in their lives see an airport. There´s so much I´ve experienced that their lives will never be part of. I don´t know if my life is better. They seem to be surrounded by great community and loving families. But I know mine is much easier and I have choices.

Entonces, it turns out those infomercials are pretty legit. I know that no organization is perfect, but I´ve learned that even a little really can go a long way. It´s also pretty hard to complain about an uncomfortable bed or a home away from the comforts of Canada when I know exactly where they´re sleeping

Keeping Abelino´s family in your prayers... Ilsa recommends.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

¡Feliz Dia Mama!

Hey Mom, wish I were there for you to cook for me and take care of me.... maybe next year!
Hope all you moms and mom-to-be´s are having a great day!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bus Rides and Mayan Ruins

I think variety is what makes Guatemala so interesting to me. Every region has something unique about it.

Rio Dulce, which heads in about 30 miles or so from the Carribean ocean, is filled with big, fancy sail boats. Many Americanos leave their boats here to keep them safe during Hurricane season. This was on our breakfast table in Rio Dulce town where a lot of the old `boaters` hang out... some of which end up with lovely young Guatemalan wives.

Sara and I parted ways that morning as she was going to meet her mom and I was headed to Flores in the North.

I waited in sweltering heat on the side of a urine-infested street for a bus that was over an hour late. The only other foreigners waiting were a Spanish couple who couldn`t speak English and weren`t really into communicating with me and my limited Spanish. I knew my adventure was really just beginning.

You can always see people in Guatemala sucking water or juice out of little bags. This one was filled with coconut and water, and when you`re sweating buckets a little foreign bacteria doesn`t seem all that bad... and it wasn`t.

The bus that finally came was packed full. I had to stand up in the front in the most uncomfortable postion(s) for 3 of the 5 hours it took to get there, with many stops of people getting on and off with all their bags. I`m always so curious about what`s in those bags. Lots of vegetables possibly.

I was also standing beside the seats of a family with a little boy who was seriously ill. He had dry heaves and was crying whenever he had energy enough to. I was less uncomfortable about my position than I was about the forecast of that little boy... God bless him. The father even offered me his seat at one point.

Flores is a pretty little town on an island where I stayed for a couple of nights. It`s about an hour from Tikal national park where an ancient Mayan civilization once existed. Ever see Apocalypto? Apparently a lot of the filming was done there and it was impossible not to think about Mel Gibson while wandering around.

I was excited to spot my first temple after a 20 minute stroll through a beautiful jungle. Although shortly afterward I met a worker who informed me that the trail I had just come off of was unsafe and that a woman was assulted and robbed the previous day. He said the rest of the trails were okay, but I was still pretty nervous. There are tourists, but not so many and it`s a big place.

I climbed the one behind me which sported a nice view beyond. I was scared to death though and didn`t even try to think about all the sacrifices of heads that were possibly thrown off of it in the past.

Here`s the veiw. To my left and right I could only see jungle.
Another fun aspect was seeing the wild animals. I heard what this animal is called but I can`t remember now. There were a few around.

And, finally, I spotted the monos. I had been hearing the spider monkeys all day long kept looking for them, but only came upon them at the end of a long, hot, sweaty day. They`re best seen in the wee hours of the morning and I had the chance to take a 3 AM shuttle to ensure sightings but opted out for obvious reasons. Anyway, voila, there they were. I saw at least a dozen eating berries in the trees and spitting them out. Now I know what the plunking sound is that I`d also been hearing.

Hard to snap them as they`re busy little creatures, swinging from tree to tree. One of them threw a branch at me, but I don`t think it was intentional since there were still berries on it.

Furry tree. I didn`t take a tour so don`t know anything else.

After Tikal I took a shuttle with other tourists to Cobàn. This photo shows a raft since there`s no bridge in one area. The cattle in the orange truck ended up beside us on the raft. Never in my life have I seen animals that packed together, solidifying my ideals that vegetarian is the way to go.

The 5-hour scenic ride is a bit more expensive than a bus, but filled with tourists and much more comfortable. The down side is the fact that there are frequent highway robberies on this stretch of road. I heard a few personal accounts even. Safety or comfort? I took a risk as per usual. This shuttle also has extra locks on the doors.
Speaking of animals. The driver gave a ride to some kids (they`re always doing that on the side... glad tourists are good for efficiency sake) who got off prior to our destination. The family who had seen them off had put some oddly-shaped bags on top and we discovered when they were coming off that one such bag had a pig inside. It had been riding on top all that way. It wasn`t moving much so not sure if it survived. Never eating pork again.

Anyway, no robberies or anything THAT exciting has happened to me. Call me lucky. And I wouldn`t take away that uncomfortable bus ride either. It was far too interesting and great Spanish practice for me.

This butterfly was in the bathroom in my hostel in Cobàn. A giant cockroach also flew out of my backpack.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

En la Camino de Guatemala

It´s not going to be easy to write tonight. I just discovered that I lost my flashcard with all my travel photos on it. I erased my camera memory card already because I´m stupid. There were some fab shots on there so I´m going to have to start writing extra special stuff to make up for the lack of visual aids. I had already put on a couple of photos and the rest I pilfered from the blog of my friend, Sara from Seattle,, who I´ve been traveling with this week.

After 4 weeks of spanish classes, I was ready to see more of Guatemala. This crater lake, formed 85 thousand years ago, is surrounded by three volcanoes and a few small villages, some only accessible via lancha (12-seater boats). I started out in San Pedro, famous for cheap language schools, hippies, and buddhas meditating by the lake, however the $5 room also came with a strong odour of manure which was drying across the street and a continuously-barking dog. Without much contemplating I changed direction and went to another village on the lake.

Jaibalito was super fabuloso. The photo shows how it`s built into the side of the mountain. Lots of stairs to climb, although I didn`t complain when I saw how they have women labourors hiking up and down the 100 or so stairs, with bags of sand for a solar-energy system they`re putting in, all day long. I guess the men are `skilled workers` so the important jobs are saved for them.

Despite the other tourists, all American couples... some of which were quite loud & obnoxious, I was able to get some quality time reading in hammocks, kayaking, and swimming. It really was a piece of heaven with great food. It reminded me a bit of the Shushwaps in British Columbia, but without the loud boats and jet skis. You should see my photo of the humming bird.... ay yai yai.

I came across this Mayan women and young girl on a hike to another village near where I was staying, and again upon my return with yet, other stacks of wood. She`s just so little and I wanted to help her carry some. I asked her in Spanish and she replied in whatever Mayan language (I think) with a tooth-less laugh. It all sounded like blah blah blah... I guess to her as well

After a few days in paradise... one can really lose track of time there... I went to Antigua, the once capital city of Guatemala until it was flattened by an earthquake. Anitgua, which actually means old, couldn´t be more different than the rest of the Guatemala I´ve seen so far. It´s got a European feel, with cobble-stoned streets, old churches, ruins to wander in, colonial buildings, restaurants and tiendas (stores or shops) that actually have permits displayed and didn´t seem like you were in someone´s house, and not once did I see a stray dog. It´s also more expensive, but still affordable for a rica Canadian.

Most restaurants and hotels/hostels open up to beautiful court yards and gardens inside. I stayed in an old convent because I liked the idea of living where the nuns live. I bet they didn´t have to deal with a noisy disco next door though. This arch was built for them so they could cross the street without being seen. I would have loved that part, particularly before my morning coffee. Antigua hosts a lot of tourists and there are Spanish schools all around, surrounding a well-used central parque. All in all a cool place to hang out and eat well.

Near Antigua I went on a guided-hike up to Volcano Pacaya, looking ravishing while sweating to death. Pacaya`s been erupting slowly for the past two years. At the top, the heat coming from below my feet was hard to bear. One stupid girl, more stupid than me, wore plastic `crocs` which subsequently melted. A smarter French-Canadian guy brought angelitos (marshmellows) to roast. On the descent, one over-zealous tourist (need I say the nationality?) got a bit close to some huge rocks and they came falling down on him.

I met Sara from Seattle in Guatemala City. We took a first-class bus, which would put Greyhound to shame, to Livingston on the Carribean coast where it meets the Rio Dulce, in the hopes of ´getting our Garfuna on´. We managed to find a nice hotel with the best banana pancakes in the world. I had them three days in a row. Unfortunately, that was the upside to Livingston. I had anticipated African drums and happy, colourful people smiling and dancing all around. In truth, the people were indifferent except for the agressive ones trying to sell us lanchas or their handi-crafts.

The only real activity we could find was a 5 km beach walk to Seven Altars Waterfalls. Not sure I´ve ever seen a beach this dirty, with pampers washing ashore, pigs and chickens roaming about, and the locals going on about their business and ignoring the gringas despite our warm ´Buenas Dias´ greetings. Possibly they only speak Garifuna? And, damn, it was hot! The waterfalls at the end weren´t actually falling due to it being the dry season, but there was a nice refreshing pool to cool off in. On the way back we stopped at the only nice part of the beach with a hotel and restaurant where and had the best margarita of my life. I like the palapas... most contain hammocks. Me gusta hammocks.

Livingston wasn´t all that bad. Had a couple of good meals, including Tapada, made with shrimp, white fish, plaintains, coconut milk, and other spices that make it delicious. I didn`t like that they kept the fish heads on though. Also enjoyed cena (dinner) at a backpackers place next door where we met some cool, worldly people. I had a French/Spanish/English all mixed up conversation with a couple from the South of France after a few beer. They now think I`m stupid, too. The owner had just been electrocuted so there was also the excitement of his hospital(s) experience. I don´t recommend needing medical attention in Guatemala. Good news as I last heard he´s on the mend.

Thirty minutes from Livingston via lancha we went to a hostel in a real jungle, Finca Tatin, along the Rio Dulce. Nice atmosphere with a big common room to play games or lay around in hammocks. I`m in love with the swing chairs. The best part was the family-style cena where we were served a family-style, delicious meal. It´s a great way to meet the other guests. The accomodations were quite rustic... we had to patrol for spiders and other enormous insects, which I`ve never seen the likes of, in our bungalow prior to using the bathroom or going to bed. A girl the day we arrived got stung by a scorpion. Someone took a picture and it had baby scorpions on it`s back. My nephews would LOVE it there. We went on a night walk to a cave where I somehow managed to find myself at the end of the line on the way back, turning around I couldn`t see a thing but I FELT eyes upon me. Not scared at all.

I actually surprised myself by not being too freaked out by all the bugs, but, seriously, did you know cockroaches could fly? One was so big and flying around that some of us (not only me) actually thought it was a humming bird.

Sara, not quite as brave as me, made me tuck her net in when she went to bed. It sucked when we had to get up to go pee.

A day of kayaking with some guys staying Fincan Tatin took us on a beautiful nature journey to a Biotopo reserve which has several lagunitas in which to float around the mangrove forest. I was trying to spot a crocodile or an endangered manatee, which a woman we met said were plentiful in the area, but no luck.

Fishing is the pretty much the only source of income for the 19 families of the Centro Cultural Mayan Qèqchi community where we stopped for lunch, which by the way only served cerveza and agua. There are also eco-tourism programs going on as well. They have a church and a one-room school for 50 children.

We spoke to these niños and their mom who was working at the restaurant. They learned Spanish in school and were quite happy to share as much as our bad spanish could comprehend, while showing off a book they had. They love school and go every day except for Sunday when they go to church.

There are several like communities in the area. Most were displaced in the 40`s and 50's when they were forced to move there by the government. It`s no wonder they are struggling so much, but it`s nice to see the efforts of all the NGO`s helping them self-sustain with arts and crafts, agriculture, and even paper made from banana leaves or corn husks.

The many varieties of birds, frogs, and plants, particularly all the water lilies, made for an interesting and serene trip. I love immersing myself in nature this way, although the peace wore off a bit on the way home since we ended up going against the current and wind.

Seven hours hours and badly burnt knees later we made it back, stopping for a dip in the natural hot springs along the way. My arms felt like they were going to fall off. A sauna and river swim helped with the pain and I appreciated the hammocks all the next day even more.

GOOD NEWS! A guy just came by and gave me my flashdrive which must have dropped out of my bag earlier. Phew!

Something I couldn`t get enough of was watching the locals go by on their cayukos, skinny wooden boats. They make rowing look so easy and how can the edge be so close to the water? Sometimes they`re fishing or it`s a mom with her kids, and some are commuting to school or work. I could just sit in a swing chair and watch all day long. In fact, I did.

Here`s my humming bird.

These chicos in their cayuko encouraged me to take a photo then gave me the finger, laughing hysterically as they floated by. Boys will be boys!

Volcanoes, lagoons, and Rio Dulce national park... Ilsa recommends.