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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Guatemala Day Eleven - Thirteen

Day Eleven Wednesday morning we headed back the Scheel center (the short route) and met the Psychologist there who offered to take us to the poorest families on the mountain. He had three female long term volunteers that were to come with us to document life on the mountain and because they had not been able to go up the mountain yet. We parked at the Scheel Center at the base of the mountain called Vista Hermosa which means beautiful view. And the view was to be beautiful but nothing on the mountain was beautiful. It took us two hours to climb the mountain and visit 10 families. The climb was exhausting, slippery, dangerous and often disgusting. The path was very steep and very narrow in places. There were many places where only one person could pass and there would be a hundred foot drop off at the edge. The path was at times crossed or bordered by small streams of water and raw sewage and garbage. Some families had make shift outhouses but many didn’t. There was garbage everywhere and feces strewn throughout the pathway. The smells varied from feces, rotting garbage, death and smoke from burning wood and charcoal used for cooking. The families lived in small shacks, normally one room, made of sheet metal, bamboo and other vegetation. Some of the rooms had beds but others did not. One family we visited had one bed for four people. Most of the families consisted of at least 5 people. There are many tales to be told but two I want to highlight right now. One woman we visited was very glad we came and she was willing to answer a lot of questions. She was actually living in a one room house that was built by volunteers from the Scheel Center. She had an outdoor concrete washing basin, access to water, and a separate outhouse (which was simply a hole surrounded by a wood framed, sheet metal roofed structure whose walls were just tarps tied together). But what she told us was that she was so grateful for the food we brought because that day she had run out of food, so her and her 5 children would have not had anything to eat that day or maybe even for several days. When we left that home the reality of their situation set in for me and it was very difficult to deal with. Then there was a family we had stopped to see on the way up and we passed by them again only a few minutes later on our long trek back down the mountain and they came running out to greet us. They were all smiling brightly and I immediately spotted the reason why. Each of the children and the mother as well had a candy sucker in their mouth and they were so happy and excited. Those were the last thing we purchased the night before and it was kind of a spur of the moment thing. We had spent a lot of time developing healthy staples to provide them the most we could and at the last moment I the thought came to my mind that it might be nice to give them something that was sweet to break up the monotony of the beans, rice and tortillas they exist on daily. So we found the suckers. And at that moment on the mountain I felt like we gave them something a little more than just sustenance. Something that made them a little more human. We are not meant just to live. Humans were created to live life abundantly and it is the creative things, the beautiful things and the sweet things that make us so very different than the animals, the way God intended. And in an extremely small and brief way I think we brought a moment of that to the lives of these families. We all wish we could have done it to the full for every family on that mountain and we pray that God will bring that about someday, in this life. After arriving at the bottom of the mountain, we thanked those from the Scheel Center who helped us and headed back to the house. It seemed odd this time, as I sat parked in front of a beautiful and secure villa that was worth a lot of money here in Antigua and lifted my head to the mountain directly above me which had become a monument to human suffering and poverty. Often times I hear peple come back from missions trips to third world countries and they tell us that though these people had nothing they still had such a happiness about them. Maybe that is true. But the two places that I have been where severe poverty was the norm, there was little happiness. The people of Vista Hermosa were not happy. In fact, one of the women related how sad she was that she could not provide for her family. There is no happiness on that mountain, only misery accented by fleeting moments of relief brought about by small things like a piece of hard candy on a stick. We cleaned up, packed up and headed to eat and hit the market one more time before we left. After we finished at the market, we dropped off our friends from Guatemala City near the bus stop and made our way out of Antigua to our next adventure on our way to Panajachel. The first part of this 3 hour drive went pretty smoothly in terms of driving in Guatemala at least. I have become almost used to the style of driving here. Or lack thereof. We had some issues getting through Chimaltenango. The city was constructing a new road through the city center and so it was down to one lane. This meant that one direction of traffic had to wait for the other direction to go for a while until the police let us go. Thankfully we hit it at just the right time and didn’t have to wait too long. But as dusk set in, we began the ascent up the mountain and the higher we got, the thicker the clouds became. I would call this fog but it really isn’t fog, it was the actual clouds. That is how high we were. We were passing through the first level of clouds. The road was two lanes each direction but had a turn every 100 meters or so and the turns were often extremely sharp. The incline was trying for our over packed car and there were many places where there were fresh landslides that at time blocked both of our lanes so we had to pass on the oncoming lanes. These were all marked by arrows and cones so there was not danger for the most part but as the night grew darker and the clouds grew thicker, the ability to see was at times down to a few feet. I had drawn close to a car in front of me and decided to stay close to him in order to better make my way through the clouds since I couldn’t see anything really. We passed another landslide that sent us into the opposite lanes and we slowely made our way up the steep incline. Suddenly, the car in front of me pulled all the way to the left into the far lane of the oncoming traffic and there was nothing for me to do than to follow him because I couldn’t see what he was driving around or why he had made that move. So I did. But as we moved farther along, I came to the realization that what he had moved over for was the sign that told us that we needed to go back to our lanes. The clouds were so thick that I didn’t even see them. What this meant was that we were now traveling the wrong way on the highway and the cars coming down the mountain had no warning that there would be cars coming the opposite direction in their lanes. Panic set in but there was nothing that could be done as there was a large cement curb that prevented me from returning to our lanes. As we rounded a curve I realized what had happened. There were two semis who were directly ahead of us traveling the same direction as us. The first semi must have not seen the return in the clouds and continued when he should have crossed back over and the truck and cars that followed, not being able to see either just followed the one in front of them, resulting in two semis and about five cars driving the wrong way on a mountain pass, at night, in the clouds. I felt a little safer knowing that someone would have to plow through two semis and tow cars before they got to us but I wanted desperately to get back on the right side of the road. After several miles we came to a return and we were able to all cross safely to the proper lanes. What a relief. Little did I know this was just the beginning. As we reached the peak of the mountain I recalled that what goes up, must come down. And so we did. I had been on many steep roads on this trip but never had there been a warning sign. All of the sudden we were barraged with signs warning of extremely steep inclines and warnings to downshift. So we began the descent. It was so steep that at one point I had my brakes fully on and there was no way we were stopping. We wound around sharp curves and giant waterfalls, occasionally catching glimpses of the cities far below us and even lightning. The lightening was below us. It was a very strange feeling being on the ground yet looking at a thunderstorm from above. The steepest portion of the road down to the lake was only 6 miles but it took us a very long time. We traveled an average of about 5 miles an hour all the way. So after over 4 hours we finally pulled into Panajachel. It was packed with people and cars and street side food carts. I was a bit surprised because in both Guatemala City and even Antigua things closed very early and once it was dark the streets emptied rather quickly. Not so in Panajachel. I would describe the city as a more trashy Guatemala City by a lake. We had a hotel that we were planning to stay at which however we did not know where it was in the city. We passed by the city center that was absolutely packed with people, and cars and motorcycles. I felt that we might be in trouble when a guy came running up to our window and began shouting and pointing toward a hotel that was in front of us. After we had moved away from him I asked what he wanted and it turned out he was a guy from that hotel whose job it was to get people to stay there. The troubling part was that part of his effort to draw us in was highlighting the fact that this hotel (unlike others?) had hot running water. That was disconcerting. Asking directions from strangers is a normal way of getting around any city in Guatemala but the results can be iffy. And Panajachel was worse than normal. After being sent in every direction multiple time, we finally found the hotel. It looked nice enough from the outside. They came out and directed us to their “parking garage” which turned out to be more of cellar large enough to park cars. From there we went up to our rooms. They were concrete and tile just as everywhere else we had been. They looked nice enough though the entire room was lit by a single light bulb and the lights went from dim to bright and back to dim every few minutes. There was no air conditioning and no heat and it was vented to the hallway and to the alley out the back of the hotel. The hallway was really a covered but open balcony. So this hotel kept the theme of very open construction that you find throughout the cities we had been. One other interesting item was a sign above the toilet asking to please not throw toilet paper in the toilet. The alternative was not very pleasant. We had not eaten supper yet so after disqualifying the hotel restaurant we went out to the street to find a suitable restaurant. Most of what we found were food vendor carts. They had raw meats piled onto an upright skewer from which they would carve a piece when ordered, grill it and place it in a tortilla. We decided against any of those. We did find a restaurant that had a number of foreigners leaving it so we thought it may be safe but as we tried to enter, we were told they were just closing. After commenting on the beauty of the girls in our group, asking them how old they were and if they wanted to come back for a party later (men here are much more aggressive in showing attraction to women in public, this sort of thing was more the norm than an exception everywhere we went) they directed us to a good restaurant down the street. However after arriving and seeing 3 stray dogs lying about the floor of the dining area we decided to buy some chips and cookies from a small convenience shop we had passed and turn in for the night. Day Twelve The morning came quickly and we showered and packed, retrieved our car and headed down to the lake front to acquire a restaurant for breakfast. We found a paid parking spot and were immediately accosted by men and women shoving menus in our faces and assuring us that their restaurant was the best. We decided on one that one of the members of our group had eaten at the previous year. The view was breathtaking. A very large lake surrounded by green mountains, three of which were volcanoes. The sky was clear but the volcanoes create their own clouds so the tops of each were covered. There was much activity along the lake with tour boats and fishing boats. There was a small concrete soccer field right next to the lake where some guys were shooting a small, plastic soccer ball. On wrong kick and the ball would be in the lake. One wrong challenge and you could be flying off a 25 foot concrete wall. We sat down for a wonderful Guatemalan breakfast with fresh papaya juice, plantains, eggs, chorizo, tortillas, frijoles and a spicy sauce full of flavor. After breakfast we were asked if we wanted a boat tour. The full day tour was too much money for us and we did not have the time either. So we chose a short, one hour tour that would take us to a hot springs on the side of the lake and to one of the lake villages where we could buy crafts from the actual people who make them. We pulled into the dock made of two simple planks hovering just above the water. We balanced along the planks, to another set of planks that crossed in front of a flooded restaurant a tree stump, across a small sandy area and up a mud bank to a mud and concrete littered lot next to a muddy soccer field strewn with trash where kids from the local school were just finishing recess. We aimlessly wandered down a narrow ally way and finally emptied out onto a street with some shops. We were able to watch a lady actually making a scarf which would take forever. It increased my appreciation of the items they had. We passed five native ladies who were making hand-made tortillas and we asked if we could take a photo but they sternly said no. Then we asked if we could purchase some fresh tortillas, and again we were met with a glare and another stern no. So we put our collective tails between our legs and sulked away down the street. After the village experience we went back to Panajachel and spent a little time in the market there and then made our way out of town. I was very concerned that we would not make it out but there was not much traffic and I was able to accelerate enough on the lighter inclines to make it up the steeper one. We stopped to take pictures of an amazing waterfall and to take picture of the city and lake from high above. The rest of the trip back was uneventful aside from the construction mentioned before. This time it took a very long time to get through which was annoying. We arrived back in Guatemala City with time to spare for once and made our way to a restaurant where we would be dining with the Guatemalan relatives. It was a beautiful restaurant serving true Guatemalan cuisine to the sounds of a Marimba band hired specifically for our dinner. We enjoyed classic Guatemalan dishes and desserts. It was a wonderful night. We turned in early, ready for our second free day of the trip and our last full day in Guatemala. Day Thirteen We awoke on our last full day in Guatemala and headed out to the Nazarene School to take photos with the children. We arrived pretty quickly and it was amazing getting to spend time with the kids. They were so excited and it was difficult to leave them. We then went and got the food that I was the most excited to try. Shukos. It is a small hotdog or Chorizo on a grilled hoagie bun with cabbage, mayo, mustard, Guacamole and a variety of sauces and onions and cilantro. We went to a cross street that that had about 15 Shukos restaurants. There was only one lane to drive on the four streets that converged at this intersection. And there were guys running everywhere to the cars driving through asking them how many shukos they wanted. It was a rudimentary drive through system. There were small areas to sit inside each restaurant but most people simply drove through, ordered from the street and waited for the guys to bring the sandwiches back to them. We wanted to eat inside so we found a guy that said he would clear a table for us and we parked about a block away and walked back to his locale. It was a small concrete room, open to the street with a small cooking area in the corner and the remainder of the room filled with plastic tables and chairs. We ordered and I enjoyed the shukos. Most of the others did not. I think they were really more concerned with the sanitary situation so it colored their opinions. I would have liked more meat because it was a bit like eating a cabbage sandwich due to the very small size of Guatemalan hotdogs. When we paid, we were shocked to find that eat sandwich was only seventy cents. So with our drinks we each spent just little over one dollar. We then got the car we had borrowed, serviced and then stopped at a very large mall to meet some other friends. I met with some fans of my band from Guatemala City and it was absolutely wonderful to sit with them for about an hour and a half and just talk. They presented me with some great gifts from Guatemala and I signed some autographs and we took some pictures. After that our other friends arrived and we went to eat at a favorite restaurant called Friends which was like a Hard Rock CafĂ© but with a movie theme. It was pretty good and a great way to end our trip, saying thanks to the guys that really helped us out in the services. It was a sad departing. Tomorrow we leave Guatemala and fly back to Chicago where I will take a nap and then we will drive back to Bismarck. My last updates will be from home. Thanks for following our trip Pray for us.

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