Monday, January 31, 2011

Did we make a difference?

Before we began our trip I wondered if we could truly make a difference in two short weeks. What we found is that yes, we did make a difference. We came to Guatemala to build two homes, but we experienced so much more; we saw so much more.

We made a difference by hosting the medical clinic; people who don’t have access to medical care were assessed and provided with information, basic health care, and medications. People who can’t afford clothing were given clothes. People who are struggling to exist were shown that others care.

We made a difference to some of the prostitutes. They were provided with a meal and with care packages. These ladies who are often shunned, were shown love and acceptance.

We made a difference to the sponsor families. As we visited with them we took them clothing, linens and toys. Some came to the base to learn a craft and to pick up food packages. All were shown love and acceptance.

We made a difference to Maria and her family. Maria lived with her daughter, son-in-law and children; only days before we arrived in Guatemala Maria’s son-in-law was murdered. The team reached out and visited the family, taking supplies and toys. The porch on the home was ready to collapse; the men on the team tore it down and rebuilt a new one. On one home visit we brought the children back to the clinic and tended to their problems. The little boy had fallen and scabbed his knee – five days later it was very infected. The little girl’s nose was filled with dried blood and she had sores on her face that were becoming infected. Neither of the children were eating, their intestinal problems likely due to parasites. At a time when this family was grieving, and was unable to meet basic needs, food, clothing, shelter and health care was provided. This support meant so much to the family.

We made a difference to the Casa Esperanza children. We played with them, hugged them, and developed relationships with them. Sonja, one of the older girls gave us thank-you letters expressing her gratitude; the hugs from all the children as we said our good-byes touched our hearts.

We made a difference to the members of the community. Many thanked us for coming, for helping the community, for caring, for making a difference.

And we will make a difference to the lives of the families who will eventually move into the two homes that we raised money for and built. So yes, we did make a difference.

The trip also made a difference in each one of us. We came to Guatemala to build two homes, but the experiences we had touched our hearts. As we go back home, we have a choice to make. We can say “that was a good trip” and leave it at that, or we can say “we want to continue to make a difference”. I hope we don’t forget our experiences; I hope we continue to make a difference. I hope more people choose to make a difference in whatever way they can, for there is definitely no shortage of needs.

Snapshots of Antigua

Antigua, the oldest city in the Americas, is a city worth spending time in. With an elevation of 5000 feet, the temperature was mild, perfect for sightseeing and shopping in the open markets. One could spend an entire day just wandering through the various ruins and cathedrals scattered across the city. We saw the ruins of a cathedral originally built in 1545; the new cathedral, which was built to replace it, was built 100 years ago. An earthquake in 1773 destroyed many of the buildings; the last earthquake in 1976 created more devastation, causing 43 of the building’s arches to collapse.

Ruins from the Cathedral

The new Cathedral - 100 years old

Washing facilities in central Antigua - those people who still don't have running water come here to bath and to do laundry. Early mornings are a busy time.

The view from the hill, overlooking the city

Locals selling their produce in the market Local manning a booth in the artisans market

Our day in Antigua provided us with just a taste of it’s culture, it’s history and it’s beauty. We’d love to go back one day, perhaps to attend one of the language schools this area is famous for.

Arch Street

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Visiting a Family

Thursday was a hard day, but not because of physical work. We did work very hard in the morning painting the houses, the sweat running off of us, leaving us feeling like limp, wet dolls by lunch. But despite our aching arms, our sweaty, dirty bodies, and our tiredness, we felt a deep sense of accomplishment from our morning’s work. No, I didn’t mind the physical work at all.

The afternoon was the hard part; we travelled to an outlying area, about thirty minutes away, to visit with a sponsor family. It seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere when we turned off onto a very bumpy, dirt road. I thought this was a bizarre place for a family to live. What I didn’t realize is that there was an entire community tucked away in this remote area. This wasn’t a single family living in poverty; this was an entire community, about seven hundred families, all living in deplorable conditions.

We visited with Maria, one of the families sponsored by Fe Viva. Maria’s husband has passed away; she has four sons, two of who still live with her. Maria’s house is typical of many of the houses in the area; it has uneven dirt floors and walls that are made from either tin or wood or sticks, whatever is available. There is electricity for the single light-bulb hanging from the ceiling. Otherwise, there are no modern amenities.

Cooking is done over an open fire in a lean-to kitchen; water is hauled from a tap in the town center several blocks away. There is no refrigeration.

Chickens and dogs wander in and out of the home. There are no windows and the heat inside is stifling. While the gaps in the walls are large enough to let any type of critter enter in, they do nothing for air circulation.

Our visit attracted a number of the neighborhood children, and while initially shy they soon felt comfortable posing for the camera, wanting to see a replay of their photograph on the screen. There were no tricycles, game-boys, computers or televisions for these children. In fact, I saw no toys at all. The children entertained themselves playing with rocks and sticks.

A coffee plantation surrounds the community, and many of the adults find seasonal employment picking coffee beans. We were told that the original owner built the facilities we saw in the center of the village: the water pumps, schools and churches. He treated the villagers well and helped them meet their basic needs. When he passed away his son-in-law took over the management of the company; apparently he does not care about the people, only about making a profit from the coffee.

Knowing about the poverty that exists in this country is saddening, but actually seeing it on such a large scale across this entire community was overwhelming. I thought that we can help one or two families, maybe even ten or a hundred families, but how can we possibly help so many? And communities like this exist across the country. It was heart wrenching to see, knowing that while we try to make a difference, the needs are so great.

On our way back home we stopped at the garbage dump. A family of fifteen lives there, including children of various ages. The family makes their living by scavenging through the garbage to collect bottles that they sell. They have no permanent shelter, only tarps strung up over uneven ground in an attempt to provide some protection from the elements. The garbage is burning and a thick, choking smoke fills the air, overpowering the stench coming from the rotting debris. Vultures are in the trees all around, waiting for their turn to swoop down and feast on the smorgasbord of garbage.

Yes, it was a hard day emotionally, but unlike the people we saw, we got to leave it all behind.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hosting a Medical Clinic

One of the activities on our agenda was to host a day-long medical clinic on base. Because the clinic was planned for a Friday, rather than the usual Saturday, we expected less than the usual numbers. There is no formal advertising here; a sign announcing that the clinic would be occurring was posted on the Fe Viva gates, and word spread the old fashioned way - by word of mouth.

Stations were set up: a registration area where families were given a number; a waiting area; two nursing stations and a physician station; a pharmacy, and a boutique blessing area where people were assisted with choosing two clothing items.

Waiting area

Nursing station: sheets hung on a wire with clothespins provided some privacy for the patients.

Over two hundred people attended the clinic. Frequent complaints were headaches (often associated with a lack of proper hydration), stomach problems (often associated with poor nutrition and poor hygiene practices, leading to parasites) and respiratory problems (from allergies and poor air quality from cooking over fires). De-worming medication was given to most of the attendees. Multivitamins, tylenol, advil, antihistamines, fungal crème and antibiotics were distributed for free as required and as availability permitted. Some of the prescriptions could not be filled and people were referred to the pharmacy in town; it is doubtful that any of these ever made it to the local pharmacy, as most of these people do not have money for basic necessities, let alone medication.

We saw one teenaged girl who had a very noticeable skin pigmentation condition covering her entire body. The local doctor who assisted with the clinic indicated that this condition is curable, and that it is treated for free in Guatemala City. However, this family is so poor that a trip to Guatemala City, with the associated costs, is unattainable.

Young boy being weighed

Pharmacy area of the clinic

Local physician explains prescription to patient

What We Take for Granted

When we arrived in Guatemala I suspected that our accommodations at Fe Viva would seem like a five star resort compared to how many Guatemalans live, and I was right. And yet, even here, I recognize how much we take for granted back home in Canada. Viewing how many of the people here live can do nothing but illuminate the vast disparity in the standard of living between the majority of people in each of the two countries.
laundry / wash basin

Doing laundry here makes me appreciate my washer and dryer back home. While we are fortunate to have the use of an automatic washer in Guatemala, the water pressure is almost non-existent so we have to fill the machine by bucket each time it needs water. Drying is done on clothes-lines. And yet this is luxury. The best the other homes in the area have is an outdoor washbasin they use. I suspect most people do not have the funds to purchase laundry soap.
cooking facilities

Kitchen appliances are mostly non-existent in this area. When we first arrived I assumed the smoke in the air was from burning sugar cane. I’ve since realized that the smoke comes from cooking that is done on open fires in the outdoors. In this very poor part of Guatemala stoves are not used, and many families do not have fridges.
water well

At home we take easy access to clean drinking water and to nutritious food for granted. Here we heard numerous times that a common drink for children is sweetened coffee; this is provided to children at school and even to babies in baby bottles. Milk is often not affordable for the children, and vegetables and fruit are not staple items.

We take access to dental and medical care for granted; indeed, we see them as a right, not a privilege and we complain loudly about the state of our health care system. Many of the people we saw only have access to dental and medical care if various teams or professionals are willing to provide this for free. Similar to the woman pictured here, many people are missing teeth or have tooth decay, even the young children.

In Canada we take education for granted. While most children do attend school in this part of Guatemala, there are still some who don’t. If they are one of the fortunate ones, and don’t need to work to help their family survive, children attend school until grade nine. For those who stay in school until grade twelve, the last three years are considered the equivalent of college. In fact, when students graduate from high school they are qualified to teach school themselves.

I take my quiet nights at home for granted; nights without dogs barking, roosters crowing, or mangos banging onto the tin roof as they drop from overhead branches. And while this sounds odd, we take our sewer systems for granted. I for one, will be very thankful to be able to dispose of used toilet paper in the toilet, rather than in the garbage can.

The list of what we take for granted could go on a very long time (I haven’t even mentioned good paved roads without potholes, proper working tools, good mattresses or hot running water). Living without some of the creature comforts from home, and seeing the conditions that these people live in and their struggle to meet their basic needs, has made me aware of all that I take for granted.

House of a family in the area; the team assisted the family by rebuilding the roof on their kitchen area (before picture). The man of the house was murdered several days prior. They insisted the team take a chicken as they wanted to demonstrate their gratitude for the work done.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Trip to the Beach

They say it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important, and that was very true for our trip to the beach on our first day off. Our team was like a group of kids on their way to the candy store – everyone was excited to get “off base” and just have a day to play and relax. We piled into the vans and headed out onto the highway. Much of the way was paved and fairly smooth; however there were sections with either large, difficult to see speed bumps or deep, rugged potholes. Anything faster than a snails pace was too fast for these sections of road, and contributed to either heads connecting with the roof of the van, or backs being realigned.

After a twenty minute van ride we pulled up to the river. Here we got to experience a “Guatemalan ferry” firsthand. After unloading passengers, both vans were driven down onto the wooden barge. I assumed, quite wrongly, that the team would go in a separate boat – you know, one that actually has seats. But in Guatemala that is not how things are done; I’m sure safety regulations are a very foreign concept here. We did jokingly say that we did have life jackets; the loose wooden planks on the barge could be used for us to float on if anything untoward were to happen.

The forty minute trip ride down the river was spectacular. We were thoroughly entertained by nature’s extravaganza. Cranes were in abundance, standing tall and elegant at the water’s edge; perched peacefully on a branch alert to their surroundings; or soaring gracefully through the air.

Four-eyed fish occasionally skittered quickly across the top of the water. Colorful foliage in and out of the water provided a fitting backdrop for the scene. The quiet hum of the motor and the gentle lapping of water against the barge provided the musical score. This was a production that could command a top dollar fee, and it was just a part of our trip to the beach.

At the beach, nature once again provided our entertainment – huge waves that could be played in, glorious sun that could be roasted in, and shade to cool in. Nature was assisted here with a pool, waterslide and restaurant at Don Carlos’s resort. After a wonderful day at the beach we all looked forward to the journey back along the river.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


We all make choices every day: some are small – what to eat, what to wear, what to do for our leisure activities. Some are larger – who to marry, where to live, what career to have. I have always believed that I have choices; that I can make decisions, both small and large. Don’t like where I live; I can change that. Don’t like my job; I can work to change that as well. Not every choice is easy – some require lots of hard work, and sometimes they turn out differently than I planned. But I believe I can set a goal and work towards it.

But what about those who believe they have no choices. These people exist in every society – one doesn’t have to travel to Guatemala to find them. But we did meet some of these people in Chiqimulilla when we spent an evening visiting the bars and the brothels.

We invited the prostitutes to a free breakfast the following morning at the House of Refuge. There were ladies from Nicaragua, from El Salvador and from Guatemala. In speaking with the ladies, they are no different from you and I. They love their families – their children, their parents, their siblings and cousins. They look out for their friends, other prostitutes. Many are hardened from the experiences they’ve had; they have to be to survive. But when treated with love, kindness and respect, their hard veneer began to soften and their kind hearts began to shine through.

I don’t know the stories of all the ladies. Some came from other countries with the promise that they could make enough money in one year to be free; to move to a country such as Canada where they could live the good life that we lead. But they were lied to and now they are trapped. They are fined for every simple infraction, either real or fake, so that many owe their bosses more money than they can ever make. They believe they have no choices.

Fe Viva reaches out to these women and I felt privileged to have met them, to have eaten a meal with them, to have been able to give them a few gifts that we take so much for granted: soap, toothbrush and paste, shampoos and lotions.

The visits with these ladies made me realize how much I have taken freedom of choice for granted, rather than appreciating it for the privilege it is.