Taking Liberties: Life & Love in Upper Middle Age

Monday, January 23, 2006

Guatemala: Partners, Projects & Parasites

Sabbatical Letter #5: Guatemala
January 8, 2006-01-08

The highlights:
Two delightful weeks with Chuck;
Sunrise at the Mayan ruins of Tikal;
Globo-futbal with Luis;
Getting started on my service project.

The lowlights:
Amoebas, bacteria, & “dolor de estomago”;
Missing the ocean, warm water and “Pura Vida”;
Guatemala makes me SAD!

Dear Sabbatical Penpals,
I´ve had a bitch of a time getting motivated to write from Guatemala. As you know from my last letter of December 17 (on my blog at http//www.leahfisher.blogspot.com, in case you haven´t received it…), I left Playa Samara and Costa Rica with some reluctance. At first I was occupied with getting relocated in Guatemala, then over the holidays I was sweetly engrossed with my two week reunion with Chuck, and throughout much of the time, I didn’t feel very well.

I arrived in Antigua a few days before Chuck's arrival. He had arranged for me to be picked up at the airport and driven to Quinta de las Flores, an exquisite and very romantic colonial estate with a multitude of fountains, gardens and spacious rooms decorated with Guatemalan textiles and furnishings. It was ethnic elegant and quite a change from my budget student-traveler's accommodations before and after.

I returned with the same shuttle driver from Antigua to meet Chuck at the airport in Guatemala City. I made a sign like the ones shuttle drivers hold up so arriving passengers can identify them. Only mine said "Carlitos Fisher," and I drew big hearts all over it. I stood in line with all the other shuttle drivers, holding my sign high above my head. I was rewarded with a fantastic grin when Chuck spotted me. Our reunion was delightful. (Like a tasteful movie, the picture fades out here.... no details.)

Chuck and I travel well and happily together. I loved showing him favorite places from my Guatemala travels of 35 years ago - Lake Atitlan and the Sunday market at Chichicastenango. In addition, we explored new places together. In Tikal we got up at 5AM to hike and climb a pyramid in the dark. From the top of the pyramid we listened to birds and howler monkeys waking up, and through swirling clouds of mist, we witnessed an unforgettable jungle sunrise.

When I got felled by “Monteczuma's revenge” in Chichicastenango, Chuck graciously scuttled other plans and we hunkered down in a hotel until I recovered. He alternated between taking short excursions on his own and returning to the room to read aloud from The Kite Runner. Looking back, this was perhaps the sweetest part of his visit for me.

I´ve now had three different intestinal infections in the past month. The first time, I ate a bad seafood soup in Costa Rica. (My kosher relatives are entitled to an “I told you so.”) The second and third times, I don´t even know what got me. But by now I know as soon as the churning begins in my stomach, that I am in for 3 days of hell. Antibiotics eventually knocked out the first two bouts, but after the second episode I continued to feel moderately miserable for two weeks. I was finally diagnosed with amoebas and got the appropriate medicine.

So, while I have not been a very happy camper, I certainly have been properly enraged and politicized! I am now a “mujer with a mission.” I am committed to the cause of clean drinking water as a basic human right. On a day when I was still feeling lousy, Chuck climbed a volcano near Antigua. On the hike, he met and invited to dinner the CDC´s Chief for Foodborne and Diarhheal Diseases. (Now, how is that for a hero husband?!) Anyway, this physican explained that an important reason the Mayan people are so small is because, from the moment babies are weaned, they are subjected to one parasite or bacterial infection after another. Hence, during their formative years they suffer cramps and diarrhea and fail to get the nutritional benefit from their food. I can hardly bear to imagine a tiny child repeatedly experiencing the pain I went through. It makes me immensely proud that our Mischa has chosen environmental engineering and specifically water chemistry for his profession. Anything he can do to help make potable water more accessible and affordable in the developing world will be a blessing.

It took me a surprisingly long time to get happy in Guatemala. Along with not feeling well, there were other contributing factors. I adored being with Chuck. Nevertheless, it took effort to transition out of solo-travel-mode to be part of a couple again, and then it was even more difficult to transition back into solo-travel-mode after such a delicious visit with my husband. Traveling around Guatemala as a tourist turned out to be a holding action; I couldn’t really settle into Guatemala until I resumed Spanish classes and began working on a project. However, the largest and subtlest factor was something about Guatemala itself. This is a gorgeous country with breathtaking volcanoes and lakes, with gentle people and vibrant, colorful clothing and textiles. Yet, there is a pervading sadness here which I absorbed without initially being clear that it was coming from outside and not from inside. I felt sad and I missed the joyfulness of Costa Ricans and the playfulness of my language school.

Let me fast forward to say that I’m now quite content and I am enjoying not one, but two very fulfilling life-styles, one in the city of Antigua and one in the Mayan community of Santiago Atitlan on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

After Chuck left Guatemala, I checked out of Quinta de las Flores and feeling rather fragile and forlorn, I carried my backpack and carefully rolled my suitcase along the cobblestones to a hostel I had noticed about two blocks from our hotel.

Boy, did I land on my feet! I had planned on staying for just a night or two, but the hostel was so immaculate and beautiful, the bed was so comfortable and I made such a warm connection with the manager, Lettie - a single mother - and her 9 year old son, Luis, that I ended up staying with them the whole time I was in Antigua.

Here’s how my friendship with Luis began. He joined me the first night in the upstairs lounge, and started making action figures out of modeling clay. I asked if I could join him in working with the clay. I started by making a Christmas tree. My first attempt looked like a dinosaur. My second attempt was more successful. I noticed that Luis had made a clever little sword and hilt for his action figure. I gestured to ask if he’d like to have a duel and he replied, “Small or large?” We agreed on large, and after we crafted big old swords, we danced around the large sitting room, thrusting and parrying and circling the furniture. Soon, both swords looked a lot like bananas and we ended up breathless and laughing. Luis is a delightful child, imaginative and energetic, able to get excited without escalating or getting out of control. Next we moved on to “pistolas” and had a shoot-out which grew more technical when Luis made us each 4 clay bullets. The noise from the thud of wounded bodies crashing to the floor brought Lettie upstairs. She sat in an overstuffed chair which was kind of at the center of the shoot-out and smiled warmly, even while clay balls hit the walls and left oily imprints on her immaculate windows. When I was worn out from diving behind sofas or dying a miserable death on the hardwood floor, I suggested reading a kids’ book I’d brought from home. Herman the Helper was a favorite children’s book in our family and I thought to bring it along when I realized that, like the little octopus Herman, I too like being helpful. Luis is learning English in 3rd grade and was eager to read with me. First we looked at the illustrations together and I explained the story to him in my dreadful Spanish. Then I read it in English. And finally, Luis read it with me in English. On another evening, I brought out the plastic inflatable globe I’d brought along, and I helped Luis locate Guatemala and California. (“Mama, Guatemala is small!”) Guatemalans adore the game of soccer (futbal) and “globo-futbal” became a regular evening activity for us in the upstairs lounge. I was tickled by a compliment I received from Dona Lettie. I was playing globo-futball with Luis one night, when the hostel’s owner called on the phone. She asked, “What’s that racket upstairs?” and Lettie explained that Luis and I were playing. Afterwards, she asked me how old I was. I told her I was about to turn 62. Now, it annoys me when people say I don’t look my age, since obviously this is what my age looks like. But I was utterly delighted when Lettie replied with astonishment, “You certainly don’t act your age!”

My life in Antigua consists of breakfast and dinner with Lettie and Luis, language classes, salsa classes, and visits to the internet cafe. Antigua is a small colonial city, with upscale restaurants, expensive jewelry stores, interesting architecture and to-die-for dulcerias (sweets shops.) That’s one life. The other is in Santiago Atitlan, where my volunteer project takes place. Let me explain.

About the time Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans, Hurricane Stan took its toll on Guatemala. Coming at the end of the rainy season as it did, the ground was already thoroughly saturated and the steep slopes of the volcanoes were especially vulnerable to mudslides and collapse. Four days of rain around the area of Lake Atitlan washed out the main bridge connecting the pueblos around the lake with the rest of the world and led to countless deslaves (mudslides). It culminated in a killer mudslide in the middle of the night which literally buried 3 pueblitos around Santiago Atitlan. I read the news about this with great sadness, having previously visited and loved the area around Lake Atitlan.

Shortly before I left for my travels, Chuck mentioned to me that his colleague Gil Kliman, whose specialty is preventive mental health with children, had developed a workbook to help the children traumatized by Katrina. What is unique about this workbook is that it is designed to be filled out collaboratively with a caring, involved adult. I called Dr. Kliman and proposed that I translate the workbook into Spanish and make it available to the children of Lake Atitlan. He has agreed, pending his approval of the finished product.

This project is unfolding in the most amazing way. First I discovered that the owner of the hostel in Antigua, who lives in Guatemala City, was human resources director for Save the Children. She informed me they had a program in Santiago Atitlan and gave me contacts there. While traveling with Chuck, we ran into a Peace Corps volunteer who was friends with another volunteer in Santiago Atitlan. That volunteer knew a Mayan family I could live with and introduced me to other disaster workers in the community. The most amazing stroke of luck was that, just as I arrived in Santiago Atitlan, the half dozen mental health workers who serve that community decided to meet in order to coordinate their efforts. So, I have been a participant in the “Comision por la Salud Mental de Santiago Atitlan.” since its inception. For a few weeks, I commuted back and forth between Antigua and the Lake (a 6 hour shuttle each way), spending a week in each place and sometimes even going back and forth during the week for meetings. In Antigua, I would attend Spanish school and work with my teachers on the Spanish translation of the workbook. In Santiago Atitlan, I’ve distributed handwritten copies to the mental health people to review it for language, length, content and cultural sensitivity. I’ve also networked with as many organizations as possible - government, community, NGO’s - to help insure “buy in” and implementation of the workbook once it’s completed. It has been a wonderful way to get to know people in the community, and they are supportive and enthusiastic. This includes the guy at the photocopy shop, the guy who sells paper, the guy at the internet cafe, the other psychologists, the home visitors in the shelter, and my family in Santiago Atitlan. (Part of why this has been so easy is the high regard Central Americans have for professionals from the US. Whatever they think of our politics or whatever resentment they have for our fabulous wealth relative to theirs, they respect our ability to get things done. This opens doors which enable us to, in fact, get things done. It’s a heady experience to hit so little bureaucracy, to be so warmly accepted and assisted. Of course, I’ve been told that any dealings with the government are a totally different matter – an exercise in futility.) More about that later.

The contrasts between Antigua and Santiago Atitlan are dramatic. Antigua is a city of Ladinos (people primarily of Spanish descent). Santiago Atitlan is a Mayan pueblo. The people of Santiago Atitlan wear the vivid traditional indigenous clothing and speak Tzutujil, one of 22 Mayan dialects. Spanish is their second language and many of the women do not speak Spanish at all. My family in Santiago Atitlan consists of two middle aged sisters, their elderly parents (who turned out to be the same age as me…) and a total of 3 foreign boarders – a Peace Corps volunteer from the US, a midwife from Germany, and myself. The entrance to the house is a little tienda, from which they sell junk food, soda pop, pan dulce (the slightly sweet, freshly baked rolls that will be my undoing), and “choco-bananos”- bananas frozen on a stick and then dipped in hot milk chocolate. In addition to minding the tienda, the two sisters embroider huipiles, the traditional blouses worn by Mayan women. Lolita does exquisite hand embroidery, while Chonita sits at a humming sewing machine and turns out incredibly intricate tropical birds and flowers. Every morning, I awaken to the rhythmic music of Mama Mercedes slapping her palms together as she makes tortillas and cooks them on a large piece of metal over a wood fire. I love coming into the toasty warm kitchen (which is about the size of a suburban bathroom). I tease Mercedes about “la musica de las tortillas” and I massage her left shoulder which is always sore. Although our lives are very different, we have a lot of fun together. Lolita and Chonita expressed a wish to learn a little English and I taught them how to say, “Hi, Honey, I’m home” and “Bye, Honey.” We get a chance to practice every time I leave for the day and return. At sundown, small children troupe into the tienda clutching coins for a choco-banano or a bag of chips. Morning and evening, the streets fill with smoke from the fires on which women cook their food. I wash my laundry in the outdoor cement sink and hang it on a line to dry in the courtyard. When I slip on my nightshirt at bedtime, instead of smelling like fresh air and sunshine, it always smells like a campfire! When I have to pee at night, it means putting on my shoes to stumble outside in the dark to the courtyard bathroom which all of us share. Yet, when my Spanish teacher from Antigua looked at photos of this family (in which I tower over the three Mayan women), she pointed out their leather shoes, the metal griddle on their wood-burning stove, and she informed me that I am living with an upper middle class Mayan family.

The poverty and oppression among the Mayan population in Guatemala is staggering. This oppression extends back to the Conquistadors and was viciously reinforced during the 36 year civil war which officially ended in 1997. The war was essentially between the Ladino government, the army and the wealthy landowners on the one hand and the Maya campesinos on the other. The book, I Rigoberta Menchu, tells the story of this history of oppression in searing detail. Here is a quote from her book: “What hurts Indians most is that our costumes are considered beautiful, but it’s as if the person wearing it didn’t exist.”

Santiago Atitlan suffered hideously during the war. Long ignored by the Guatemalan government, they made the strategic error of asking for and receiving development assistance from Cuba. Embarrassed in its relationship to the US, the Guatemalan government sent in the army which occupied the pueblo for 11 years, terrorizing the people until an unprovoked massacre of children brought international protest and the army finally withdrew. In certain respects, however, Santiago Atitlan is typical of other Mayan pueblos. One gets the impression that half the population is under age 5. Until they are about 2 ½, babies live attached to their mothers like little kangaroos. The mother hoists her baby onto her back, then she bends far forward, tosses a woven shawl over the baby and ties it onto her back. Alternatively, she drapes the shawl like a sling and carries the child on her front. All day long, while the mother is working or walking in the street, the child quietly rides along, sucking on the exposed breast and using it like a pacifier.
Mothers of babies have milk in their breasts, but some mothers of toddlers did not actually appear to have milk. I’m unclear whether this extended period of suckling is a way of keeping the child quiet, or an effort at birth control, or simply a way to protect their youngest children from the ground and food borne diseases. As a form of birth control, it’s obviously not been very effective. Eight and ten children are not uncommon among the poorest families. Once the child climbs down from the mothers’ breast, (perhaps superseded by another baby), life becomes very different. Dusty and dirty, very young children run freely in the street. With luck, they may be carried around by an older sibling, often a child of 5 or 6. Otherwise, they play near their home, pretty much unsupervised.

Beyond the poverty, beyond the overpopulation, is a pervasive sense of quiet resignation.
And the resignation is not limited to the Maya. Here are two examples of things that left me filled with indignation, but merely brought sighs and shrugs from Guatemaltecos.

Supposedly, the civil war has been over for 8 years. The military, while currently having nothing to do, has retained its power and continues to draw salaries, sucking up vast amounts of the country’s revenue. President Berger is far better than his predecessor, by he is not about to cross swords with the military. So in spite of 8 years of peace, little progress has been made in health care, sanitation, infrastructure, social services or education. Education is supposedly free; however families must pay for books and uniforms. (Uniforms?!) As a result, many poor families are unable to send their children to school, thus guaranteeing those children a future of poverty.

This other example left me speechless with outrage. Apparently flooding from Hurricane Stan destroyed crops in many parts of the country. As a result, there is widespread hunger and malnutrition at this time in Guatemala. I personally observed a small child near Santiago Atitlan with the telltale pregnant-looking belly and reddish hair. After the hurricane, millions and millions and millions of dollars were donated to the Guatemalan government by other countries, including Japan, Argentina, the U.S., Germany, and Holland among others. Yet somehow all the donated money has mysteriously disappeared. The government says it has no money for relief. Those among my mental health colleagues who work for government agencies have not been paid in four months. Interestingly, those contributions made directly to NGO’s (non-government organizations) are reaching the affected populations. The contributions made to the government seem to end up in the pockets of government officials.

No one here is particularly surprised. No one here thinks much can be done about it. (People who make waves have an unpleasant habit of ending up disappeared or dead.) When I see the stranglehold the wealthy have on the poor and oppressed, I feel doubly sad knowing that Guatemala did succeed in electing a progressive president in the 1950’s only to have him overthrown by our CIA.

I will have finished translating the workbook by early next week. A well known artist in Santiago Atitlan has agreed to do the illustrations for it. At this point we need funds to pay the artist and to make photocopies of the book once Gil Kliman has approved it. If any of you would care to participate in this project, here’s how you can help. Write a tax deductible check to CPHC (Children’s Psychological Health Center.) Even a $10 contribution can make a difference in this country. Please mail it to Chuck at 108 Ardith Drive, Orinda, CA 94563. He will let me know how much I have to work with, and I will indeed get to work.

I will be coming home from this leg of my journey in exactly a month. If I am lucky enough to finish the book project in time, I hope to head for a warm river or ocean for a few days and do some swimming. Meanwhile, I send my love,


At 8:00 AM, Anonymous Margie Merkin Elsberg said...

You and your blog are part of the amazing renewal of Camp Wenonah. Karen's found more than 200 of us--campers and counselors--and you're an important part of our re-connection. You bring Luis, his mom, and the Mayan peoples' terrible dilemma into our hearts. Thank you.


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