Stories From Guatemala II
"Plan B" From Guatemala
by Marty Kelly,
In March, 1997 I returned to the Rio Dulce region of Guatemala bringing a group of five students (Rachel Bauer, Andrew Hoffman, Jessica O'Connell, Devon Strobel, Sarah Mascolo) and two teachers from El Molino High School in Forestville, CA. Working again with the international health and education organization, Ak'Tenamit, our group lived in the Mayan village of Lo de en Medio for five days. Each day we joined a group of villagers to repaint the school house.
Nate, an Ak'Tenamit volunteer, met us in Guatemala City and escorted us across the country. He's from the U.S. and about 22. Rachel Norwood, who is Ak'Tenamit's Education Director, made all the project arrangements and brought us to the village. She was only 24, and comes from England.
Lo de en Medio is on several high hills in the eastern corner of Guatemala, overlooking the Gulf of Honduras and the border with Belize. It is more spread out than El Cedro, the village we visited in 1995, and larger, with about 300 living there. To get there, our boat took us out of the Rio Dulce, north from Livingston along the coast. But our cayuco ran aground at the mouth of the river leading to the village-it was low tide and the silt at the mouth of the river blocked any passage. We were stuck in the boat, just 50 yards from shore, and had to entertain ourselves for two hours while our driver slogged through the mud and swam up the river to bring the villagers to help us. This natural event would cause us to resort to what I dubbed "Plan B" twice more during our stay
Each morning we would climb a steep hill to reach the school at the top of the village. It was the week after Easter and the kids were out of school for a few days, making it an ideal time for repainting. The two room schoolhouse was similar to the one we helped with in El Cedro, constructed of cinder block and concrete, all of which had been carried from the river on the backs and heads of the men and women of the village. Rachel N. asked us to bring stencils, for painting numbers and the Spanish alphabet on the walls, some educational posters and alphabet sets, as well as sports equipment, including jump ropes, soccer balls and a tether ball for the kids.
Painting with the men of the village was a curious experience. Our group was surprised that they had done little or no painting before, but realized that we were assuming unjustifiably that they should have a working knowledge of one of our common experiences. Yet the Mayans have few things to paint. Their homes are made of simple wood slats with dirt floors and thatched roofs, and contain little if any furniture beyond a bare wood table, hammocks for sleeping and a chair or two. Besides, paint is very expensive there. Realizing this, we gladly showed them the best way to use the brushes and do a good job.
In return, we displayed our ineptitude with their basic life skills. They had to help us hang our hammocks from the rafters. It was hard to get them tight enough so they wouldn't sag to the ground when we got in them, which was very important for a good night's sleep. Most of us also tried to make tortillas, their delicious, staple food, which we were pretty bad at.
For this trip, several other schools around the country were following our group on the Internet. We brought a laptop computer and digital camera to post our daily journal and photos to our web site while in the village. And the two teachers, Brenda Walker and Rick Massell, had incorporated this project into their class curriculum. Ironically though, after all that hightech preparation, we were stymied by that lowtech glitch: the silted up river mouth. The boat coming to take us from the village to Livingston, so we could upload our computer files over the phone, was once again stuck.
Meanwhile, we had hiked 45 minutes down from the village to meet the boat. All we could do was wait and engage "Plan B," playing an impromptu game of stick ball, and then returning to Lo de en Medio to cool off in the creek where we bathed every day. The journal had to wait for our return to California to get posted.
We were constantly entertained by the variety of animal life in the village, including free roaming cattle, several grunting pigs followed by little herds of squealing piglets, and roosters perched in a low tree. Many homes had turkeys nesting inside, their eggs hatching in front of us. Our guide, Rachel N, got stung by a tiny scorpion that had gotten into her back pack. Fortunately, they are generally only painful and not dangerous.
The youth of the village were very polite and shy. We asked them what village life was like. They typically arose about 4:30 am, the girls to help make tortillas, a never ending job, the boys to go out and chop the day's wood supply for the kitchen. School was split into two sessions, since there was only one teacher. The first to third grades were held in the morning, while the fourth through sixth grades met each afternoon. As in El Cedro, to go beyond sixth grade means leaving the village to attend a boarding school, something few could afford to do.
In making plans for our final departure, Rachel N. anticipated another river blockage. So she arranged an alternate way out, because we had to get to Puerto Barios on time for the ride back to Antigua. We hiked with full packs through the rain forest for three hours, up and down endless hills, sliding on our butts and fording shoesucking mud streams to reach a beach where the boat could land. Well, we made it and what was an ordeal for the adults was the most memorable accomplishment of the trip for the youth.
Both Rachel Norwood, and Nate impressed all of us. These two young people had been volunteering with Ak'Tenamit continuously in Guatemala for over a year. Each had a deep commitment to helping the Mayan people improve their lives, to the point of using their own money at times to help meet their expenses there. They were very positive role models, encouraging our youth to make a difference in the world.
And the youth have. We were the first group of Americans to come into Lo de en Medio, much less actually live with the people. They were grateful for our help with their school and were gracious hosts in return, teaching us much about their modest but honorable way of life.
Special thanks to Keeble & Shuchat Photography in Palo Alto, CA for loaning us a digital camera to use in Guatemala.
Keeble & Shuchat: 415-327-8515