Monday, December 28, 2009

Day 21 - last full day

Lake Atitlan - the most beautiful lake in the world

As we prepare our suitcases, my heart is flooded with thoughts and emotions. I will need time to digest and reflect upon all the experiences we had here. Among other things it may be hard to reconcile our "cushioned" middle class american lifestyle with many of the things we have lived and witnessed here in Guatemala. In that regard, I want to remember what David Alvarez told us when we met him, the other day: "We could not do what we do here in Guatemala, without what you do for us up there in the United States." Surely, what we do is a drop in the ocean, but it still needs to be done. Its' interesting, because, in the end, this is the same message we felt was so appropriate when we adopted Paolo. You can read about that reflection here (click on DETAILS, under the slideshow):

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Day 20 - Climbing Volcano Pacaya - Wow!

part 1: riding up on a horse through the forest

Part 2: Climbing the old lava field with Alan

where is the lava?

flowing lava

What to do when you run out of numbers...
We did something really Guatemalan today. We climbed Vulcan Pacaya. It is not really like a national park in the US. There is very little organization and control. As soon as you park the car in a dusty parking lot, you get assaulted by various people, including children that want to sell you a hiking stick or a horse ride to the observation point, which is otherwise a good 45-min. hike and so difficult that many of us "gringos" will soon be happy to be riding a horse, regardless of the cost. We decided to take 2 horses from the start, so the kids could save their energy during the first part of the climb. We reached the obesrvation point and where sorrounded by clouds. So we decided to proceed on the old lava field. We were not sure how far we would get, but little by little we made it all the way to where the lava was flowing... wow!

Driving in Guatemala is an adventure on its own. We drove a lot during this vacation and we went from being really scared at first to start laughing about all the crazy things that happen and that you see along the way. Here are just a few of the things we saw during our 1 1/2 drive to the volcano and back.
1. The sign above at a gas station along the highway. Do you see anyting wrong with the numbers?
2. The same gas station accepted credit crad for payment, but only on pump 1 and 3... Not clear why.
3. We drove by the secondary garbage dump in Guatemala City. Vultures were flying all over and the smell was hard to describe.
4. In one of the villages we drove through cars destroyed during accidents were lined along the road. Our guide, Alan, explained to us that they were lined in front of the local police station. They will stay there during the investigation period or something... again, not clear.
5. We were driving up the highway on a steep road and there was a nice, tin-and-cinderblock wall. Just up the curve, we were surprised to see that a part of the wall was all smashed from a car driving through it...
6. There was an accident on the road. One truck was parked in Lane 1 and the accident was in Lane 3. We drove around it, but about 100 yards ahead were 2 black police trucks, watching traffic and doing absolutely nothing about the accident in their midst.
7. We were climbing down the volcano and there were some naive American tourist groups who were just starting their climb up. Apparently there are "night tours" where they climb up and see the lava in the dark. They are very dangerous because you can easily get lost in the fields of pumice and they do not tell you to carry flashlights or anything.
8. A pickup truck with 6 people covered with blankets in the bed of the truck. All driving home from work.
You can easily tell who the tourists are. There are the wealthy American middle-aged couples. The husband is jolly and jokes with everyone. He is rather large around the middle. He wears khaki shorts and Hawaiian-print shirts and has a fancy Nikon of Canon camera around his neck. The wife is also rather large and smiling, and wears stretch capris and sandals and T-shirts from previous vacations that read Puetro Vallarta or Alaska or something like that.
Then there are the wealthy American families with 2 kids: the teenage daughter who is always texting or listening to her iPod and the 9 or 10 year old boy who is always playing on a DS and asking "Are we there yet". The mother and father obviously have next to no knowledge about Guatemala and are reading from guidebooks. The mother wears perfect makeup and has huge stylish aviator sunglasses. The father keeps urging the family on. Of course, there are general stereotypes but they seem pretty relevant so that is what I will use.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Almost time to go home - Christmas Day and the day after

Guatemalan art

Christmas Midnight crazyness

Isabella distributing blankets on 12-26-2009

We are headed for the final stretch of our trip. Christmas time has brought a slow down to our service activities in order to take the time to celebrate and because the country practically shuts down here and everybody is on the roads, which makes them even more dangerous. We had a regular turkey dinner yesterday along with our friends' family and another missionary family. It is very refreshing to see so many peole serving in so many ministries here: feeding centers, bible translations, christian video and radio productions are just the latest we have learned about. Isabella and Gregory went back to the village today for another blanket distribution. The people that ca afford it, pay $2 for the blankets, the others are given out for free. In the meanwhile, Norinen and I and the other children met with David Alvarez and his wife. They head another ministry that we support. They provide breakfast, education and some medical care to children in their poor neiborhood in Guatemala City along with several remote villages (in the jungle with no water and electricity) located along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Guatemala for a total of about 1600 children. Yes 1600! Wow! All of this through donations from the USA and Europe. They also have a simple sponsorship program of $30 a month to suport one of the children direvctly. They have now started a school program in some of these remote village, with the goal to have local village teachers graduate by 2017. The goal is for these persons the be able to teach their own people and help break the cycle of poverty in these remote areas, by enpowering the locals. We love this concept. If you are interested to know more about their efforts, I can FW you their monthly email newsletter.
As for the firework picture you see above, well, Guatemala is very interesting. Along with all sorts of small and large fireworks, they sell "bombas" here, which are practically explosives wrapped in newspaper which sound like real bombs. Midnight on Christmas night felt like being under a bombing atack in Iraq. Another round happens at 12 noon on Christmas day. If you are taken by surprise by it, it is quite scary.
Thye kids are now quite ready to go home. Isabella is starting to miss her friends. Emanuela is missing Rosie (the dog). Pietro says he could stay, because going home means going back to school, while Paolo really does not care... Mommy and Daddy need some time to digest all these experiences and some prayer and quite time to try and understand what we are called to do next. In other words we need a vacation now :-)
Mission work and life is hard, not just physically, but also, and probably even more emotionally. So many questions and so few answers.
Here is a song we wrote for our friends for Christmas day: (jingle bells tune)
"Driving through the dust
in an open pick up truck
bumping over stones
and bracing our sore butts.
Patterned skirts and shirts
babies ties on backs
strapping food and clothes
ontop their aching heads
Oh... bang, bang, boom
bang, bang, boom
fireworks fill the sky
1 slap, 2 slap
3 slap, 4
mas tortillas por favor (repeat)
There are many babies here
without their moms and dads
faces without teeth
looking very sad.
The work the missions do
is vital to Mayan's lives
their presence like a light
shining in their eyes."

Shoe shining again (75 cents this time)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Day 16 - Christmas Eve

second visit to Amor del Nino orphanage (

drying bibs at Amor del Nino

We wish you all a very Merry and Holy Christmas from a place that has helped us to understand the mystery of His incarnation and the poverty God placed himself in.

Christ was born in a manger among animals and dung, on a cold winter night - without running water or light. We have seen the local Mayan people live just like this, in corrugated metal shacks, with chickens and pigs roaming, dirt floors, no water or food, heat or electricity. Never before had we experienced Christmas so closely.

Christ loved children, welcomed their presence and told us we need to become simple and pure like them if we want to be saved. There are scores of children in the Mayan villages we have visited. They are dirty, but also curious and have the nicest and purest smiles we have ever seen. These simple people welcome children, because they represent hope for a better future, help in the fields and support in their old age. Life is prized in the hearts of the poor.

Christ was rejected by the wise, wealthy and educated people of his time. It is not much different for the Mayan people, that are refused care and mistreated at the local hospitals.

Even our American/western wealthy society is now distancing itself from the meaning of the mystery of Christmas and God's design to reign among the poor and rejected. Merry Christmas has assumed a whole new meaning, and.... Happy Holidays tastes like vinegar, because, in our secular world, this time of year is no longer about Christ and  his humble origins. If Christ had not come, there would be no hope amidst these brutal conditions. Our Faith is bonified and a small layer of the mystery of God has been peeled away this trip. Our prayer is that more of humanity will discover that God wants us to love one another as HE HAS LOVED US.

Some of us will be distributing blankets at one of the villages todays, while Norine will be here at home preparing the Christmas dinner. It's an interesting and somewhat uncomfortable dicothomy.
They tell us there will be hundreds of fireworks here tonight - like being in a war zone... Norine and I are not so sure how we feels about all of this. How do we bridge such vast inequities about how securely and happily we live when all of God's suffering children surround us? More layers of the the mysterious "onion of faith" needs to be peeled away. To be continued in the years to come...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Day 14 - Various degrees of poverty

In front of San Lucas Toliman Parish

Water pipes. We don't drink the water from the tap here for obvious reasons... see what Emma said below about one certain man...

Second house we visited today (more like a tin shack) - our clubhouse is better!!! :(

on the way to the first house- the roads were TERRIBLE.

This morning we spent a couple of hours delivering a little food (eggs, oil, flour) to three poor families. It's was painful and very humbling. I don't cry very often at all, but I did shed some tears today. The three familes all had big needs but the same time suffer from different degrees of poverty. (Enrico)
One family lives in a cinderblock house with 2 rooms which they rent for a little money. She was a woman with five children. The lady cannot work anymore because her arthritis has caused her hands to be "shriveled". Her oldest daughter is 19 and our friend Anita has paid for her to go to school for the past 3 years so that she could learn to be a teacher. She does not work yet, though. The lady's skin is so sensitive that it can get bruised by a very light grasp. Her right arm was all red from that, so we will buy her some antibiotic cream and bandages today. It made me feel so sad to see all of these things. This was the one house that was somewhat nice. It had five beds in one tiny room, a kitchen with a hotel-sized refrigerator, a blender, and the smallest oven that you could ever imagine.
Another of these houses was a one in a little compound of a lot of little shacks. It was sad because the woman was blind and they only had 2 beds. One bed for the parents and one for the children: 4 girls + 2 boys. They were filthy. It was also sad because they had absolutely no food so we gave them some eggs and a few other goods for Christams. Oh yeah, there is no running water so this famiy wears their clothes until they are so dirty that they burn them. The husband works unloading buses - one of those men we saw while in Chimaltenango who was climbing onto the bus roof while the vehicle was moving. Because his wife is blind, she cannot work. (Emma)
The last house we went to was again, a shack with two rooms. The elderly mother can hardly see. She goes to the market almost every morning and sits on the street begging for money. Anything helps! The money for the food we gave today came from a family in, TX.
For some of these families it is hard to know what to do. The children of the blind lady cannot go to school, because the family does not have a physical address and they have to move often. So, even if we sponsored one of the children, they could not go to school, until they have a permanent or semi-permanent address. Even if you gave every poor person in the country some firewood and food, they would use it all and be in the same predicament again. What can we do for this kind of situation? Any idea, Blog readers? We really feel small and numb. The needs are so overwhelming.
It is hard for me to know what to say other than what my parents have already stated.
It was all very saddening for sure. Our dog Rosie lives better than many of these people. She always has food in her bowl, a warm place to sleep at night, attention and love... I can't describe it all here. The only way that you will ever know what this is like is to come here yourselves. And I can't help saying that this has been a wonderful experience for all of us. And that anybody and everybody who lives in the U.S. or any other wealthy country would benefit from a trip like this. It makes you realize how very much we have and how very wealthy we are as Americans, or gringoes as they call us white people here. You could not imagine all the different levels of poverty there are. It is... well, it is... It's up to you to fill in the ____________.
(Isabella Marie Contolini)
Age almost 12
Oh, another thought from Isabella: Our names change a little bit here. I am not Isabella, I am Isabel Maria.
Emma is not Emanuela , she is Manuela Maria.
Pietro is Pedro.
Paolo is Pablito, which means Little Pablo.
Emma: --> Also when we were going to the first lady's house we saw a guy pee by the road! Gross!
Yesterday we came back to San Lucas Sacatepequez. It was a three hour drive because of bad road conditions. It would have taken an hour and a half back in the U.S. Before we left, Pietro got his shoes shined by two boys which was only two queztals which is twenty five cents in American money. That's really cheap compared to the US. Mom and dad felt a little uncomfortable because everyone was crowding around us waching. But, they were quite good. It is also very cheap compared to DIA services because over there it costs forty dollars.

This afternoon we are going to meet with the lawyer that helped with Paolo's adoption 4 years ago... We are going to Pollo Campero, the local fast food chain. They have a play area there. Joy. More dirt.

Monday, December 21, 2009

day 13 - travel day

San Lucas Toliman Church


working in the fields

Lago Atitlan

our kids with the shoe-shiners and other local passerbys

We made it back to our friends' house near Guatemala City. Even a travel day can be an interesting day in Guatemala. While waiting for our ride to pick us up, two small children wanted us to let them shine our shoes, we said no several times but finally agreed to have Pietro's shined. It costed 25 cents, but by the time they were done about 15 children were surrounding us asking for money. Considering that and considering the expensive (for Guatemala) hotel where we stayed by Lake Atitlan for the past 4 days, we really felt like British colonists in India. Last night we ate at the hotel's restaurant. For the 6 of us and a lot of food (vegetable properly sanitized, they assured us) we spent $50 dollars. Not so many Guatemalans could afford that, but still the hotel has a heliport. Apparently wealthy Guatemalans come over from Guatemala City o weekends to eat here in helicopter...
On the way back today we had a great TIG (see earlier posts) moment. Looking for a bathroom we stopped in a small town. The only small restaurant we could find does not have a bathroom. We found one behind the main square but, ... you have to pay to use it. And... the price depends on what you need it for: number 1 or number 2? Number 2 costs more because you have to buy the toilet paper... There is more, but this is enough information for the blog. :)
Then in the middle of Chimaltenango, a typical chicken bus is in front of us. The helper is on the roof while the bus is moving and while we film him, we notice he is stealing two pieces of fruit from a basket of one of the passangers... This will end up on YOUTUBE, when we get back to a faster computer.
To top the day, when we arrive home our friend Anita had to leave on an international trip due to a family emergency. She won't be here for Christmas and won't be back until after we return to the States. It will surely be a different Christmas and without Anita, and away from home it may feel somewhat sad. One thing for sure. It will be the simplest Christmas we have ever had and because of that it may actually be the most meaninful Christmas of all. It will make us feel closer to the very first Christmas. We don't have gifts, the Christmas tree is a small fake tree and the house is cold without heat. It is usually 75 degrees this time of year in Guatemala, but this year it has been cold and rainy. It will be a time of sharing and reflecting about the reality of what Christmas is for so many people.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Day 12 - Sunday, miscellaneous short thoughts

As we celebrate the 4th Sunday of Advent, several thoughts crowd my mind this Sunday morning. It has been a wonderful and, at the same time, tough experience here in Guatemala so far. It is difficult to transmit the emotions that fill our minds and the things we see. Here are a few scattered thoughts from the last few days.

1. There are Christmas lights and (fake) Christmas trees here. Even if their abodes are humble and often very poor, people hang some Christmas lights and small lit Christmas trees or wreaths. We saw one that was hung between two windows over a street and held up with two ropes...

2. A great Christmas tradition in Central America during Chritmas time is Las Posadas. People gather on the street with candles and guitars (and fireworks) and a statue of the nativity which they carry from house to house looking for a place to stay, remembering what Mary and Joseph did on their way to Bethelem. They do this every nights for ten days before Christmas. We participated for a bit, last night.

3. It is not easy to stay relaxed here, when you need/want to remind your children to wash their hands and/or use hand sanitizer every 10 minutes and not drink tap water or water from bottles once the cap has fallen on the ground... I may be a little too concerned about it, but at the same time we still hope to avoid any major "intestinal problems". Everybody has warned us about them very strongly. For my friends at work: " we can only use bottles with crew-type caps here, which reminds me of the importance of the tortous path concept :-) "
Oh, you also need to watch for cars. There are no pedestrian crossings here and cars do NOT yield to pedestrians....

4. We are learning more patience. People are not in a hurry and they hang out by the church, on the street, on the steps on their small houses. It seems like everytime someone goes by, somebody peeks out and checks out what is going on.

5. It´s pouring rain now. Very unsual for december/dry season. The street we are on is a river with water flowing toward the lake. Clearly there is not much of a drainage system. In fact, as I look out the window, I cannot locate any water drains on the street.... There are also no trash cans, which means a lot of the garbage gets thrown on the ground, making for a dirty mess. Still, S. Lucas Toliman seems cleaner than the capital city, the other San Lucas where we have been and the poor villages in the mountains where the clinic is. Trash collection happens in the main towns, but enviromental concerns are surely NOT on the top of the priorities of central american countries. People here struggle to feed themselves...

6. The atmosphere at church was wonderfully simple and humble this morning. The church is an old stucco structure with sad looking statues along the aisle. Emma says they are scary looking. I tend to agree. Father walks down the aisle shaking hands with everybody and hugging chidren. A marimba, two guitars, a bass and a mandolin play church latin music. Father sits in the first row with the people, not on the altar. People are dressed in simple clothes, women in their Mayan outfits with babies strapped around their backs.

7. They had a piƱata "party" in front of church yesterday afternoon. Dozens of children tried to break it, then attached it... Wrapped and unwrapped candies poured out. They disappear from the ground in a few seconds, even the unwrapped ones.

8. People stare timidly at us when we walk by. We clearly stand out. Apparently the local indegenous people feel white people are superior to them. "How wrong they are", I think. If you smile at them, the smile back and greet you. They are very warm and the sense of community is visible here, far from Guatemala City. It´s a community that revolves around the parish life and the many projects that the church offers. Overall, the projects employs about 400 people.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Day 11

Reforestation program supervisor in S. Lucas Toliman


Tuk-Tuk time

We are enjoying our time in San Lucas Toliman. Fr. Greg is all set up for visitors-volunteers from all over. He is a happy priest who loves children, community and the Guatemalans, themselves, very much. He has empowered the people here, making them the leaders of the programs he guided into existence. He is a special, humble, servant of the Lord - a real gift, whom we are privileged to meet.

We also had the opportunity to meet the founder of the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA). This is a child and aging sponsorship program that promotes interpersonal relationship betweem the children and their sponsors. Touring CFCA headquarters here in San Lucas was great. Hopefully, it will open an opportunity for Enrico and I to work more closely with those value FAMILY and the social teachings of the Catholic Church. A great aside for the kids was cages of animals: Huge county fair sized pigs, goats, turkeys, bunnys and donkeys with velvety noses.

It was a petting zoo experience!

On the lighter side, we all crammed into a tuk-tuk, which is the public mode of transportation here in SL-Toliman... Something like being stuffed into a moving photo booth. The kids were squealing with laughter.

The three volcanoes surrounding Lake Atilan have been shrouded in clouds. We have not seen much of the mountains here, but we hear the crowing and chirping of the birds every morning at 5AM. Also, the roosters serve as an alarm clock, actually worse than an alarm clock ringing on a Monday morning. Norine

Friday, December 18, 2009

Day 9 and 10 - We are in San Lucas Toliman

This town is located on lake Atitlan which is considered the most wonderful lake in the world. There are 7 vulcanos around it. We are visiting a catholic mission church where Fr. Gregory from MN has lived and served since 1963. They have started incredible projects for the community: reforestation, a small hospital, a women center, a water project to eventually provide clean water to the town, a garden, a coffee plantation, honey production. Wow! it is an amazing place. All these projects are managed by Guatemalans. The objective of the mission is to enpower and teach to the locals how tro sustain themselves.
We washed dishes... we pulled weeds...
pictures tomorrow. Hotel computer is slow

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Day 8 - feeding center and orphanage

Helping to serve lunch

We went to visit a feeding center today, located 3 miles past the clinic, but due to the dirt road conditions it takes an additional 20 minutes to get there. This center was also built by an american couple with the support of their church in Washington state. About 250 children are fed for lunch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

In the afternoon we visited an orphanage we regularly suport that hosts about 55 children. It was heart breaking to think about these children and their future. They are in good hands and well treated, but what will their future be now that adoptions in Guatemala are closed? There are 200 recognized orphanages in Guatemala.

Life is tough here. Poverty, poor government control, broken down roads, disorganization, dirt, etc. are continous reminders that life is not easy for those that live here.

sorry we did not write much today, but we are really tired tonight. Please keep praying for us.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Day 7 - clinic day, sad stories, TIG (this is Guatemala)

waiting at the door of the clinic

Front desk "staff"

Wiped out at the end of the day

Paolo delivering antibiotics

A full house

It was a clinic day today and so many things happened that it is hard to write them all down. Isabella helps in her own words.

When we were about to leave this morning the newer of the three trucks did not start. After several attempts we called Darby (Maria's son). He is another Guatemalan who helps Gregory and Anita when a need arises. He is not employed full time but he is available without notice to drive people places, go buy tools, do minor repairs, etc. To work for Americans here means higher wages, and better treatment... Guatemalan's are habituated to this kind of life. The Americans call with a need and they jump. It did take G&A many years to find reliable people that would actually work hard and not steal.

Going to the city to get the truck repaired is not an option today, since government workers have blocked streets in protest this morning (TIG). So Darby will try to repair it here.

So, we cram in Darby's small honda to get to the clinic. When we arrive, there are about 70 patients lined outside, not including the children who come along with their mothers. It is busy. Within the first 30 minutes an emergency shows up. A 21 year-old mom has a 4 year old that she holds on her back. The mother walked 3 miles to come to the clinic. The girl only weighs 18 pounds. They have nicknamed her Crystal because her bones are so fragile they break very very easily. Her real name is Olga. She appears to have a genetic disease that causes early osteoperosis. Gregory takes the mother, the daughter, the 2 year-old sister and the 2 weeks-old sister to the hospital in Antigua. They will be back at the end of the day. The doctor thinks she won't live long. She also has scoliosis and the doctor believes her bones will eventually crush her lungs.

In the meanwhile, Norine is grossed out by some severe lice cases. A boy has scabbed eggs and sores all over his head. It takes two hours to wash, cut and pick out his and his brother's heads...We also applied antibiotic cream all over the scalp. In the end, we just shaved their heads. We tried to explain to the mother that they need to wash hair every day, but they have no running water. The mother seems somewhat overwhelmed by it all and not very responsive.
Today's lesson: mission work also means cleaning dirty floors, chairs, counters, washing hands every 5 minutes and driving a beat-up truck without a guatemalan license ("just speak English if they stop you")

Today, I tried to help with the lice, but I was too grossed out. I wasn't supposed to make any faces on account of that would hurt the kid's feelings but ooooooooooo, eeeeeeeewwwwwwww!!!!! So I did nebulizers and "popped pills" and made crafts and helped Anita in the prenatal room all day. Oh, and I also sanitized my hands, washed them a MILLION BAZILLION times, ate lunch... you get the picture. Being in the prenatal room with Anita is my FAVORITE thing to do at the clinic. It is AMAZING!!!!! Today, I got to do 2 pregnancy tests, both negative:(, use the ultrasound... it was soooooooo COOL!!!!!! Anita said that if I was a little older she would let me give a shot but today she taught me how to do it. I am SO PROUD to be helping these people who really need it. It feels amazingly GOOD.

Nebulizing is when someone has a bad cough from sleeping on the dirt floor or something and you put on a special mask with medicine in it for them to breathe. For babies, the mothers just hold a little spray gun type thing in front of the sleeping babies' noses. I got to see some REALLY cute babies this way. Oooooooooooooo, they were sooooooo CUTE!!!!!!! My heart just MELTED when I saw them! Isabella M. Contolini, age almost 12. (Do NOT!!!! forget the "almost"!!!! Because that IS my REAL age.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Day 6 - quite/rest day

Market colors

We were supposed to climb Vulcan Pacaya today, but we decided for a quiet day at home instead. It is an hour away + a 2 hours climb and we thought it would be too hard and strenuous for the children. I think it was the right decision. It gave everybody an opportunity to rest and to reflect on our first week in Guatemala.

We went to the local market in San Lucas and bought vegetable and fruits. Then we stopped at the more contemporary, local grocery store. Going to a store and even a market here makes us realize how fortunate and spoiled we are as Americans. Both Norine and I feel guilty that we can fill our cart with food and products we need, practically without having to worry about it. It is not our fault, of course, that we are so well off, but the difference between how well we live vs. everybody around us is painful... Maria, who cooks and cleans for Gregory and Anita, instead pauses and thinks everytime she needs to buy something for the house, even when spending 50 cents for a couple of apples.

So, my realization for today is that being on a mission trip is not just handing out green bananas to the poor or building a woodenbed frame, but also observing the differences in all the small daily things we do and how dramatically differently people function here. We had a choice of two grocery stores in town, and Maria adviced us to go to "La Torre", because you don't have to pay for plastic bags there. Back from the store, we started unpacking. A plastic bag had a knot tight and I could not open it easily, so I ripped it. Maria was quick to repremand me. "Why did you do that? We reuse everything here!" We ate tostadas with guacamole for lunch. We paid 70 cents for 3 avocados. Maria told us that most Guatemalans only eat guacamole on special occasions, because it is expensive. She also told us she has to bring some food to a family with 6 children. The wife is blind. The husband and 2 boys (16 and 14) have no education and work at a bus stop helping to unload the freight packed on top of the roofs. A whole day's labor is worth about 30 Q or about $5 per day IF they are lucky enough to even find work on a given day. One sad story follows another here. Suffering is woven into everyday of their lives.

Also,being here exposes us to how different we are from most people in the world. Here, if the children are naughty, their mother whaps them over the head with a plate. This is pretty much the only way they can keep 7+ children in line in the midst of their poverty, but even seeing this does not make me disrespect the people. Rather, I have great respect for how they survive the brutal conditions.

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" for the rest of the trip. And here, everything is a LOT cheaper. 1 Quetzal is about $0.13 in America. I am glad about this because it means I can buy more, but at the same time it is also part of the reason for all this poverty. It think it would be a good experience for any 1st world person to do a trip like this. No words or National Geographic article, or documentary, for that matter can really reveal how priveledged we are, or, ironically, how dignified the poor are.

Another thing that amazes us is the juxtaposition of the poor and the rich in Guatemala. Today, for example, we went to the large shopping center in town, definitely directed toward the wealthy, and standing right there, was a ragged little boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old, asking to shine shine people's shoes.

These are all such sad, but meaningful messages. Isabella Contolini

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day 5 - Antigua

Enrico with Gregory and Anita

Isabella and Norine dressed in their Guatemalan outfits. Isabella bought a flute which she is playing in the picture.

Volcan Agua. It is called that because there is a lake at the top of the mountain and it exploded water and drowned the whole town.

Ronald McDonald with Emma, Pietro, Paolo, and Isabella. Emma and Isabella on
the right, Paolo and Pietro on the left.

We went to Antigua for Mass. This beautiful old town used to be the capital, until it was destroyed by an earthquake. It is most of a tourist town with regular stores and a craft market. Robbers know it's where rich people tour so they go there. You have to be really careful not to leave anything in the car that is valuble to you like money, necklaces and bracelets. It was really fun there. We went out to eat in Antigua and we went to McDonald and it was so beautiful. There was a courtyard and a beautiful view. Some of the pictures that are on this blog day are from McDonald. We went to get some ice cream and the ice cream was sooooo good. Emma

It is striking to note the great desparities in this central american country. In Antigua you can see people dying of starvation, right next to a fancy hotel. The McDonald there is considered the most beautiful in the world, with a court yard with a fountain and flowers, internet, coffee shop, etc. People save money to go eat there. Still, at the local market, you can buy souvenirs and handcrafted clothing (worth dozens of hours of work) for just a few $. Crazy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Day 4 - at the zoo for the first time

local colors

Emma at school

Our room. Two kids down, two kids up and us parents on the other bed

"Puedo tocar una foto?"

Police/military patrolling the streets. Many stores (like McDonald's) also have their own private armed guard.

Crowded central american town streets. I wish you could hear the noise and smell the pollution...

Guatemala City main artery

At the zoo

Public restroom at the zoo. The sign says: "Urinate here". Water flows down the wall to flush

It is a first class zoo (Pepsi sponsored)

American school buses turned into public transportation. There are thousands, everywhere...

getting ready to leave the house in the morning

Today is the first day I have the brain power for writing and not just for absorbing... The impact of the poverty is indescribeable, particularly in the village where Gregory and Anita have their clinic. The clinic itself is like an oasis of white walls and tile amidst a forsaken village. Hands of Hope (the name of the clinic) is such an appropriate name. For surely that spot brings dignity to the tragic lives of these Mayan Indians - God's poorest of the poor.

As I was attempting to sleep last night, I kept scrolling through the filth and dirt and horses stall like conditions these people live in, wondering how God can stand it, how they can stand it, how generations have gone on and on like this. My heart ached, and at the same time I felt numb over the impact of it all. I knew there was no answer or way of understanding God's wisdom amidst such horrid conditions. And then, a reflection passed over my thoughts, like a gossamer, and I realized that Christ, our Lord, was actually born in filth, near a horses stall and set in a trough instead of a cradle, with no heat, running water or a "proper roof", much like one little Mayan baby we saw rolled around in a rusted, broken down wheel barrow, or the newborn baby we visited in one of the many shacks. WOW. He dwelt among us! He dwells among "them/us" even in our most wretched states. I thought, "If our Savior and Lord chose that to be his entry into this world, then he does intimately love the poorest of the poor." In other words, they are not forgotten or forsaken, no matter how bad it looks. They're dignified by the way Christ became incarnate and chose to live His life - by the Christmas story itself.

The next day, day #4, I was able to look at the Mayan men, woman and children in a different light. I felt less pain. I was able to observe their individuality, their smiles and simplicity as we bumped along together on a crammed school bus going to the Guatemala City Zoo. Norine
(more about that tomorrow)

In fact, our friends organized this bus trip for 56 children, who had never left their remote village. Guatemala City is surrounded by mountains. It is loaded with roars of old engines and bus horns and crowded streets. You can see and smell the smog very distintively.
Our friends live in San Lucas, 45 minutes away (when there is no traffic). This is the last town, on this side of the city with regular stores and some acceptable houses. Our friends' clinic is in a village about 30 minutes from there. Until last year it took an hour or more, but the road has been paved most of the way there now. The roads go up and down hills which are probably 20% incline. The population is completely Mayan. Latinos consider them like 3rd class citizens, so most people are scared to leave their village. Apart from having clothing, a light bulb in their shack and possibly running (cold) water that reaches one faucet, they are really still living like their ancestors did 1000 years ago: muddy streets, ceramic pots, cooking on wood, often sleeping on the floor etc.

Norine's reflection's above about the similarities of their circumstances with how Jesus was born 2000 years ago is surely the most important lesson we have learned so far and one that, at least for me, has never really been possible to grasp. We have never felt so close to Bethlehem.