Friday, April 12, 2013

Hello from Guatemala

4:06 PM 4/10/2013 - It's now April 10th.  I'm NOT going to be good, accurate, or precise about dates, primarily because .... dates and time don't seem to matter much, here ;-)

My flight from Denver to Houston was delayed by 4hrs, due to snow.  I eventually got to Houston, but missed my flight to Guatemala City.


I DID stay at a nearby Holiday Inn Express, that night.

The next day, I took the same 4pm flight into Guat City, arriving at about 7:05pm.  Taxi ride to the Stygian, post-apocalyptic Zona 1, near the government buildings, the stench of poverty, the uneasy tension of an obviously high violent crime rate, and ... the hotel where Donald was staying.

It was totally devoid of charm and creature comforts, but was absolutely fine.  Don said it was the acid test: he assumed I'd be high maintenance and burst an aneurysm.  He was wrong ;-)

We found a rather clean, bright, and upscale restaurant, and got dinner, in close proximity to a guard wielding an automatic rifle.

The next morning, we made our way to the airport where we waited a few hours for Frances Dixon to arrive.  We found our van driver about an hour before Frances arrived, and yakked with him for a bit.

When Frances arrived, we boarded our charter minivan, and headed out.

Hours of driving, punctuated with a stop at a wonderful roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  They served angus beef ... from ... Greeley, Colorado (about 35 minutes from where I once lived).

Odd.  You just have odd things happen, and see odd things, when you're on the road.  I don't specifically remember ever eating Guatemalan food, in Greeley, for example.

We overnighted at the Hotel Conquistador, in HueHuetenango, getting up early in the morning to continue on to Barillas.  From HueHuetenango to Barillas, we'd be driven by the Maya Jaguar (the school/institute that Frances built) driver, Yoni.

We piled into the back of their new/next-to-new diesel Toyota Land Cruiser pickup truck, replete with foam mattresses for us to sit on, comfortably.

Immediately out of Barillas, the formerly pristine road turned to a four hour rock crawling extravaganza of a "path."  The truck -- while very sturdy and relatively comfortable -- just bounced and bounced, shaking and agitating Donald and me through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery either of us had ever seen.

And -- collectively -- we've been nearly everywhere :-)

We eventually arrived at Maya Jaguar, now able to extract any of our teeth easily, and without dental tools.  Yeah: we shook and bounced THAT much.

We "checked into" our cabin, a 10x15 foot affair, perfectly (if simply) constructed and replete with a corrugated roof.  There were two twin beds snugged up inside it, leaving about a 12" passage between the two.  The kids had put two shop-made (tongue and groove joinery) tables in -- one inside, and one on our beautiful (maybe 8x6 foot) porch.

No bathroom.  No lighting.  Two blankets and a sheet, each.

This is where chronology goes to pot....

The school is a compound of buildings set on a fairly large piece of property in RUGGED terrain.  The kids -- part goat -- can, of course, get anywhere easily.  We struggled with the hills and rocky paths, but made it from place to place, over and over again.

To my recollection, here are the structures on the property:

 - a new chicken coop
 - an old (no longer in use) coop
 - a big building, housing the kitchen and the cafeteria.  Carved out of the kitchen is the girls' dormitory, which , for good and decent reasons, we never saw :-)
 - maybe 10 cabins identical to ours

That's the main area.  In the "school area," there are two buildings:

 - a 'bodega,' serving as the tool shed and workshop -- a cement block structure with a corrugated roof, steel doors and windows, and a "carved out" TINY room that serves as the residence of Pedro, the caretaker and guard for the compound.  In it was a fairly full woodshop, including a Wood Mizer sawmill;

 - the school, itself.  This is a beautiful thing -- a two-story structure with wood framing and sheathing, and tongue and groove paneling on the interior.  The lower floor houses two offices and four classrooms.  The upper floor is an open loft with a beautiful porch.

And a soccer field, where the kids -- in torrential rain and ever-deepening mud -- put on an impressive display of youthful, Latin American soccer prowess.  Well done, lads !

The school and the kitchen have electricity, inverters, and storage batteries.  The bodega has a 6.5Kw generator, used to power the appropriate tools.

Lower on the property sits an unused 'residence' and Francis's current cabin -- a lovely ... maybe 12 x 25 foot affair, framed and sheathed in wood and T&G paneling, inside and out.  While she has no electricty, she DOES have a gas, four-burner combination oven-stove, and a gas-powered compact refrigerator.  Also, a wood-burning stove.

One bedroom.  One living area/kitchen.  Beautiful porch.

Tanks filled by rain water provide water throughout the compound.  Similarly, an open-air 'shower area' has a few tanks.  The boys and girls shower there.  We pretty much showered via the plastic wash tub where dishes are done.

There are MORE than a few small structures throughout, including a building in which the 12HP mill (used to mill corn, for making tortillas -- a staple of the diet there) sit, a kitchen for Pedro, and several little huts used to store cement mixers, scrap lumber, and miscellaneous supplies.

It rained for three straight days while we were there -- unusual for this time of year.  It truly LOOKS like a rain forest, but absent MOST of the sounds by which a rain forest is usually marked.  Not a problem.  Very quiet nights.

Early in the trip, Yoni, Frances, Donald, and I, along with a wonderful student (Diego) headed into Mexico.  Three stops in total: Palenque (Mayan Ruins), Ojocosingo, and Comitan, all in the State of Chiapas.

We crossed the Guatemalan-Mexican border at a crossing where a big border control station was being built -- all solar powered -- but where NO border patrol was working.  Eerie.  A seamless and uneventful passage from a Central American country into Mexico.

Hmmmm.  Too easy.   Made us all uncomfortable.

It was hot -- I mean DAMNED hot -- in Palenque, but ... worse things have happened.  Not my first Mayan ruins, but ... breathtaking.  Imagining the work involved, and the motivation behind it ... as always ... eluded me.

Frances's back -- historically problematic -- was being slowly destroyed on the trip, though she occupied the rather commodious cab of the truck as Yoni capably piloted us across this little chunk of the globe.  Though she was using a cane, she began to need more and more help to move.  It was pretty heartbreaking to watch, throughout our entire stay.

On our way TO Palenque, we were caught in stopped traffic, due to several accidents.  Eventually, night fell, putting us behind schedule, and forcing us to ask where to stay.  Good/bad move.  We wound up at a luxurious hotel/resort with exceptionally opulent rooms, air conditioning, satellite TV, immaculate grounds, and a fabulous restaurant.

We ate like kings.  I had a couple of Corona beers.  It was, after all, Mexico, you know ;-)

From Palenque, we headed off TOWARD San Cristobal de las Casas.

But never made it.

The first stop was a military drug checkpoint where three men armed with automatic rifles stood eerily close to .... ME ... while they tore through our luggage, and asked us no end of questions.

I have a "men with guns" problem ... where I never did before.

But it went okay.  We were left to go about our merry way, unmolested.

But ... a few hours later ... the Federales -- the Mexican Mafia incarnate.

They gave us/Yoni no end of hassle, allegedly about some slight imperfection in the paperwork for our truck.  Eerie, worrisome, and stressful.  Eventually, USD$50 got HIM to go away.

But nightfall was coming, we were an hour out of San Cristobal de las Casas, and we needed to be OFF the road.  Donald was getting pretty tense.

We checked into a hotel about 100 yards from the Federales' reverse ATM.  It was expensive, clean, and spartan.  Frances -- to get secure parking for the indefatigable Land Cruiser -- took a room next door, at the even MORE expensive (but allegedly beautiful) hotel next door.

Don and I ate quite well for ridiculously little money, down the street.

In the morning, we all headed out early, but ... Frances had heard Don to say that he did NOT want to go to San Cristobal de las Casas.

So ... we didn't.

We took a secondary (read: bouncy) road to Comitan, the fourth largest city (whatever that means) in Chiapas province.

Comitan is charming, but not much else.  It's off the gringo trail, so far as we could tell, but offered nice restaurants, hotels, and rudimentary shopping.

I was sad to have missed the allegedly charming San Cristobal, but ... it's not going anywhere.

Our hotel in Comitan was beautiful, and reasonably priced for what it offered, including a Wi-Fi connection that was both functioning AND impressively high-speed.

By this time, Frances wasn't doing well.  She (fluent in Spanish) met with a USD$3.00 doctor ... failed to find a chiropractor, was given wrong directions to an American massage therapist (failed to ever find this person), and eventually went to a "huesero --" a Mexican bone-breaker.

He traumatized her, but didn't fix her.

From Comitan, we took a long journey back to the Guatemalan border, crossing over in the quaint little town of Gracias A Dios (thanks to God).

We know how it got its name ;-)

More hours-and-hours-of-unimaginably-beautiful-if-destructively-bouncy roads and driving.  Yoni never missed a shift, never takes a faulty line, knows when to check before fording a river, and when to hump clear through.  We drove across soccer fields, through the front yards of residents, and ... essentially ... wherever locals told us to, in order to find the new (USD$203,000,000 InterAmericano roadway).

[He also takes absolutely me-TIC-u-lous care of the truck]

And it was good.  Pavement.  It's the little things you learn to appreciate, in traveling.

Yoni -- about 23 y/o, married, and with a 2-1/2 year old, cute-as-can-be son, is the quintessential Latino male -- terse, stoic, and -- despite a good sense of humor, as serious as you'd want your driver (of an ostensibly USD$40,000 vehicle) to be -- just grows on you.  Solid as a man could be.

He's building their house on his in-laws' property in Victoria, halfway between Maya Jaguar and Finca Tres Ranchos, the site of Frances's original house and property.

He and Diego take remarkably good care of Frances, too, tending to her every need.

The day after we returned to Maya Jaguar, Yoni did his "milk run," picking up all the 15 students who attend the "high school."

Before Yoni and the Land Cruiser, kids -- literally -- walked from two to TEN hours, each way, over BRUTAL trails, to attend.  This is your benchmark for motivated learners.  It's rather astounding to be in their presence.  They are the antithesis of the stereotypical, ingrateful, spoiled, American teen.

The kids ... would be hard to describe.

They are the children of the Guatemalan Civil War survivors or deceased or ... disappeared.

They are Mayan.

They are indescribably cute.  They speak X'anjob'al (Mayan dialect), but have an average of six to eight years of formal Spanish schooling (meaning ... they all speak Spanish WAY better than I do).

They are from large families.  Their work is needed in their homes, but they are the children of parents who value education, want more for their children, and make HUGE sacrifices in order to see that their children are educated.

It's beautiful.

They're all also pretty good rudimentary carpenters.  Part of their cirriculum was building a "palapa" (Champa, up here) in the open area between all of the cabins.  What I can do with a scroll saw ... they can do with machetes.  They can expertly drive nails, chop wood, and carry more cargo than a Ford diesel F350 with the trailer towing package.

And their smiles are infectious.

The staff includes Osmond, the director of the school.  He's 25 y/o.  His wife, Elma, is a fascinating creature -- beautiful, speaks a mile a minute, extremely type A, and a font of information.

Merna is the cook.  God bless Merna.  The school runs 18 days on, then 12 days off.  While those 18 days are going, we got three hots and a cot.

And the hots were delicious.  Fresh tortillas at every meal.  Guatemalan coffee on tap.

There's another Yoni, too.  His background is in radio and communications.  He was a DJ for Radio Santa Cruz Barillas, and covered soccer games live.  His father is a fall-down alcoholic.  Yoni switched careers, going into agriculture.  He worked for Oxfam for a spell, and then -- I didn't get the story -- encountered either Frances or Maya Jaguar and signed up.

Aside from teaching the students agriculture (there are 18 "tablones --" project gardens) -- one for each kid, and a BIG greenhouse.  Everything they grow on property is grown organically, served in their kitchen, and unimaginably delicious.

It's also all vegetarian.  Bless Donald's heart.  He ate it, loved it, and never complained.

Although there may have been a chicken disappearance, while we were there ;-)

Yeah.  Fresh eggs, daily.

Pedro is the caretaker.  His son, Manuel, filled in for him while Pedro got eight days off to go home to his family.

Don and I sat in on a Language (Spanish) class.  I read along, and did my homework (list unfamiliar vocabulary words, look them up, discuss).  The kids were smart, engaged, and enthusiastic.

Frances asked me to repair a set of stairs on TWO cabins.  The first one went well.  The second one was a comedy of errors.  They used a verrrrry strange method to construct the original stairs, and -- despite my better judgment -- I decided to retain the consistency with the other cabins.

But the supporting wooden blocks were made of some intensely hard wood, and dozens of nails were trashed in the hammering process.  First, by me, to the hilarity of all who watched.

But then -- when I did the ol' "Let's see YOU do it" bit -- they all destroyed the nails, too.  As I said ... the hardwood was hard wood.

I decided to tear it down and rebuild it, on the table and band saws.  I found a drill press, and decided to predrill the mounts so that I could drive screws instead of nails.  I got two holes drilled before the (neglected Black & Decker) drill press died.  The (DeWalt) cordless screw gun stripped out the Phillips screw heads.


Hard wood + cheap fasteners.

Found a Bosch hammer drill, lit up the generator, and finished predrilling.  Again ... still ... we bent a bag of nails.  Grrrrrrrr !!!!

But ... eventually ... I finished, and it was good.  Found some old, ratty cement blocks, and sledged them into gravel to form a ground-level step that could endure the rainy season.

Frances didn't get a lot better, and was genuinely badly bruised from her "huesero" trauma.  When we left her, at Maya Jaguar, she was considering a flight back to the States for care -- a brutal journey under the best of conditions; a misery with a brutally bad back.

Oh.  By the way ... Frances started building her dream home, on the property, in January.  It's 48 x 32 feet, a single story, with an open, pitched ceiling, one bedroom, a large bathroom, the aforementioned wood-burning stove, a galley kitchen, a large living room, and ... a view of the mountains ... that is of enormous value.  I mean ... it's just an absolutely phenomenal view.

Don and I talked to her about a couple of construction issues -- some fundamental and critical, some aesthetic/design and very well received.

I hope she can live out her life there, as she plans.  It's hell getting old.

I need to take a moment, here, and hawk for the foundation: Adopt-A-Village In Guatemala (they have a website; Google it, por favor).

This (Frances) is a lady who has done a remarkable amount of good over these last 23+ years.  I can unreservedly recommend that -- for those so inclined -- you make a donation to her charity.  She's moving kids from zero to one; giving hope to those where hope was hopeless.

But money -- as with all charities -- is an ongoing concern.

Think about it.

Don and I helped her in every way we could -- with business strategy, organizational decisions, facilities issues, ongoing maintenance suggestions, and a succession plan.  Frances is now about 71 years old.

I also listed a number of organizations she should reach out to, directly, and helped her more broadly with a marketing plan.  She needs to bring on a stateside development person, and an "in-country" business/finance person, allowing HER to focus on the strategic imperatives of a charity like hers: fundraising, cultivating connections, breaking down barriers, problem solving, management, and networking with her charity and NGO peers.

I also helped her take a very basic Excel spreadsheet and make it a functional and 'database savvy' inventory management sheet, allowing them to get a better handle on their assets, both for their Board of Directors, internal use, a future 'accountant' type, and any potential donors sophisticated enough to ask the sort of questions that an Inventory should help to answer.

Yeah: I use Excel just for fun ;-)

We caught the 9am Yoni out of town, on Monday 4/8.  This trip, Yoni picked up Barillas-bound passengers -- old Mayan people with huge bundles of firewood and sacks of who-knows what.  Don -- the elder (ha-ha) rode in the cab this time.  I stood the entire way, in the back, and -- again -- drank in the majestic view.

So we got to Barillas, checked BACK into the Hotel La Estancia (Almica and his wife -- two of the nicest, friendliest people I have EVER met), and ... have done nearly nothing for going on three days.  Between Don's back (and ... er ... a GI issue) and the two of us being just exhausted ... we've walked around town, been stared at by innumerable Guatemalan locals, approached by a few (two of whom KNEW Frances !), and ... rested up.

Physically ....

I've been doing some very rudimentary yoga/stretching, to help stave off the aches and pains.  Daily aspirin, too.  Fought off a handful of sinus infections, probably helped by the high humidity.

But there HAS been an epiphany, already:

I'm traveling with my constant companion: my temperature and humidity gauge.  I sought/seek to know what temperature/humidity might do for my burned eyes.

And ... so far ... the humidity has been brutal -- 60% to (consistently) well over 70, and even over 90%.  No heating.  No air conditioning.  No fans.

Just humidity.

And the difference in "ocular surface" pain has been enormous.

Normally, in Colorado, I can't be in a moving car with the window even cracked.  Here, I've been able to abandon my goggles and be out in the back of a pickup truck with what I would have to call "mild discomfort" that quickly settles after we stop.

That part ... has been amazing.

Of course, the underlying "accommodative and ocular alignment" issues, there since birth, are still there.  I'm significantly limited, and definitely getting too darned old to be in perpetual motion -- a lesson I learned in the marathon 2007 Europe trip.

During down time, Don reads endlessly on his Kindle, which holds an enormous number of books, many of which would be of interest to me.

I think -- when we hit the City -- I may have to revisit the issue of audio books on MP3, a gizmo to play them, and supraauricular (over the ear) headphones.  I have odd-shaped ear canals, or whatever, and ear buds don't stay in them.  Ever.

So ... downtime is tough for me, even when we have 99 channels of Spanish TV to frustrate and bore us ;-)  There simply ... isn't much that I can do, leaving me stuck with the question of ... what could I DO, even if I believed I'd be in significantly less pain living in this kind of environment.

And sleep ... is still a very elusive thing.  I've tried all the combinations of Ambien, Clonazepam, herbal tea, and Benadryl, but ... I'm still hoping it just gets better the longer I'm on the proverbial road.

I packed just right.  Yeah.  I really did.  Nothing superfluous, and forgot nothing.  Donald was genuinely impressed with what I DID and did NOT bring.  He really didn't know that this was NOT my first rodeo.  Feeling pret-ty proud of that ;-)

My Spanish is functional, too.  Not much more, but ... functional is pretty darned good !

Today, I got a haircut (USD$1.00), used the internet for half an hour (USD$0.20), and ate wonderful Mexican food (!) -- USD$1.90 for a HUGE veggie burrito and a Coke.

Yeah.  It's pretty cheap here.

Tomorrow, we head out, bound for the gringo trail.  The buses from here really only go up into the mountains or down to HueHuetenango (don't you love that name ?).

We came here through HueHue.  We'll go back through there, too.  We'll probably spend two days there (it's not a particularly exciting town), and then head toward Quetzaltenango (ibid), Chichicastenango (ibid), Panajachel, and .... my beloved (eh.  I vaguely remember it from 20yrs ago) Antigua.

Thence, most likely to Livingston (check it out), Belize, and Honduras.

And we've found stops and places to visit, in the guide book.  Very cool places to visit, actually.

I loved Guatemala, before.  I love it still.  It's also a more beautiful country, visually, then I remember.  Just ... extraordinary.

Stay tuned.

7:37 PM 4/12/2013 - After another day spent in Barillas (er ... Donald's stomach was problematic), we spent 7+ hours on a microbus, today, heading for HueHuetenango.

Where we are, now ... at a lovely hotel called Zaculeu.

Tomorrow, we'll take a 90 minute microbus ride to Quetzaltenango.

Today ... we're tired ;-)


  1. As usual your writing is easy to read snd muy interesante. It did take me a considerable time to read, which I did like a book you can't put down. When I was done, it left me with two main thoights. 1. How clearly I was understanding your trip, and 2. How long itust have taken to write it (usingy keyboard speed as a reference).

  2. Your soul is coming back, I can feel it. What a glorious description of the place and time, the dangers and the joys. As usual, your uncle is right: a compelling read [but you'd have nothing less] and imagining how long it took to write this. I have a ton of questions, but mostly about the children and how they related to you. While you were in the mountains, I was in New York City; an abundance of stimuli but couldn't be more different from where you are. Thank you for bringing us along on your fascinating journey. Stay safe. Love you for all the world who reads this to know too :-)

  3. Great to read -- I found myself scrolling down ahead a bit, to make sure nothing bad happened and that the story wasn't ending soon -- and then go back and read the details. Keep it coming!
    Good luck procuring an mp3 player and let me know if you need help somehow. Not sure how or what, but I would imagine you could buy a cheap Chinese knockoff for $10-$20 that would also have the benefit of being inconspicuous and have a better battery life than an ipod or something.
    How does exercise (working, hiking, etc.) feel for you in the heat and humidity?

  4. Copied this and sent it to Sherie to read at her leisure. I am sure I will keep up with your entries. So, you always have an audience.........(-:

    Jim Bertelson