Monday, April 25, 2011

Scarf sale in Victoria - an Invitation

SATURDAY, MAY 7th, 10:30 TO 12:30
1648 ROCKLAND (corner of Terrace)
limited parking
Carole Sabiston, the artist, is co-hosting, along with the ICO Guatemalan Scarves-for-Stoves Team, a Scarf Sale in her heritage home. This is a great opportunity to buy yourself or any mothers in your lives a Mother’s Day gift that makes a difference!

Many of you, especially if you have been reading our blog, are already familiar with the work we’ve been doing in small impoverished Mayan villages, replacing open hearths (which are so bad for the health of families and for the planet) with clean-burning, made-in-Guatemala stoves. When you buy a handwoven Mayan scarf for $20 to $40, you help provide a living for a village weaver, and also contribute towards a stove. And every penny we make goes towards the project: we pay all our own travel costs.

Our goal for this sale is to raise enough for 20 stoves - $2,200. Please join us and pass this on to any interested friends.
Please pass this Internet URL on to any of your friends who you think may be able to come.

Mary Lynch


Monday, April 18, 2011

San Antonio Palopo - a volunteer's typical day

Today was another typical day here in San Antonio Palopo, so typical, that it is worth telling you about. This morning I walked up to the markets to buy my usual pan frances (unsweetened rolls) at the small tienda owned by Julio and Rosa, plus a few plump tomatoes, an avocado, and a couple of small onions from the various ladies who regularly spend their days in the markets. Lunch! I splurged today and added a can of apple juice.

I then walked down the hill (north) to take a closer look at the area that was devastated by the mud and rock slides in September. One can only try to imagine what the terror of that tragic night must have been.  On the way I was stopped by a couple of the women who I know from the cooking and sewing classes at the Centro Qawinak, just to say Hi. Oh, well, one did want to sell me chalinas (scarves), but she didn’t push it. 

I made a decision to go down past the  man who sits most days on the steps that lead down to the lakefront from the church, not my usual route. I had an inexplicable urge to talk to him. He told me his name was Santos Sicay, and that he had been blind for about twenty years. His sign read (in English): Please help me out to survive. I’m a blind person and can’t no longer make a living on my own. Thank you very much and God bless you on your way. He said he went blind poco a poco and that he could now no longer see anything. He explained how he lived close by, and how it was difficult for him to traverse the complex, maze-like paths that link the dwellings in San Antonio Palopo, so he rarely ventured from this area. We chatted for about ten minutes about this and that. I asked him how old he was. Sixty-five, was his answer. Oh, I said, I’m almost sixty-five too. He found this strangely amusing and laughed his head off. Maybe it was my Spanish! Anyway, I pressed a few coins into his hand and left thinking: well, if all I have done today is to give a blind man a good laugh, it’s been a day well spent.

Later, after lunch, I went to the Centro Qawinak to see if Felipa (our project Director) needed any help with her Spanish class. As usual, the little boys and one tiny little girl (Karina) were causing havoc, seemingly unnoticed by their mothers, nor by Felipa. The women were there to learn Spanish. They are some of the many unfortunate ones who missed school, because they had to work for their parents, or because their parents could not afford the school fees Guatemalans must pay. The Centre is helping them catch up, and they are taking precious time out of their days to take advantage of what the program offers. I took the kids outside to the adjoining room and brought a bundle of crayons and sheets of paper with me; there was much laughter, but each of them eagerly sat quietly on a step and drew some wonderful pictures.

These kids are typical of the indigenous kids throughout Guatemala. Only today in the Guatemala Times there was article about the possibility of the Guatemalan government enacting a national food emergency in Guatemala. It stated:  About 49 percent of children in Guatemala are chronically malnourished according to the World Food Program—the fourth highest rate in the world. In indigenous communities the rate is closer to 70 percent. 
Little Karina (left) fits the picture to a tee. She is way too small for her age,  has an almost blank stare about her, and is an obvious victim of poverty and deficient nutrition. All of these kids today had runny noses and needed a good bath. None had shoes. One can only wonder at their futures. 

In the evening, I taught my English class to about 20 keeners. It’s such a delight to see the eagerness in these people – half of them adults, half of them kids of about 10 to 12 years old. The questions, the willingness to learn, it’s simply a wonderful experience. Tonight I decided to divert from the boring verbs we have been concentrating on lately (although they assured me that verbs are not boring) to do a class on food. I learned a few new words – for example, what I call a chayote (or choko in Australia) they call a guisquil (but with two dots over the “u” and sounding like whiskil). There was loads of laughter as they listened to me trying to pronounce it. To get back at them, I gave them the dreaded Homework! They have to write out a recipe using the new words they learned tonight – in English! Little Luis came to me after the class and asked if it would be all right if he just did the words in English, and did the description of how you make the recipe, in Spanish. He and his brother,  Alex, are two of my favourites. At the end of each class, they have the loudest voices when we all say: Are you ready? Yes! OK, let’s Go!, always causing the adults in the class to burst out laughing. And, as usual, before she slips out the door, lovely Reina hands me a note that always gives me such a warm feeling. Tonight’s note says: Tricia, te mando esta carta para ti, Tricia gracias porque estoy aprendiendo un poco Englesh. Reina, Buena amiga which translates, more or less: Tricia, I send this letter to you, Tricia, to thank you because I'm learning a little Englesh. Reina, your good friend. 

And so another day goes by in this enchanting little town.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Simple Pleasures

The Catholic Church above San Antonio Palopo
 Sometimes it’s the simple things that generate the greatest joys. Take, for instance, the trip I took to Sololá on Saturday with Francisco, the husband of our centre’s Director, Felipa. We were off to buy a whiteboard (pizarron blanco), which would be a teaching aid for programs in the Centre. Sololá (about 80 kilometres west of the Capital) is a mere 20 kilometres northwest of San Antonio Palopó – less as the crow flies. A trip that would be relatively easy in most countries is a little more complicated in Guatemala, especially in this tortuous, volcano-scattered, highland region. 
San Antonio from a lancha - note how the lake has risen!

To get to Sololá, Francisco and I first hopped into the back of a pick-up outside the large white Catholic Church overlooking San Antonio Palopó and Lake Atitlan, and, like Jack and Rose on The Titanic, we stood tall, with raised faces to the wind, taking in the sweet mountain air as we zipped past stunning lake views and crumbling cliffs, while thumbing our noses at the seat-belt laws of the western world. Seat-belt laws exist here in Guatemala, too, Francisco yelled in Spanish above the noisy gear-grinding of the “pick-op”, but it’s a bit of a joke. How else are we going to get there? And that was the truth. There are no buses to San Antonio Palopó, as the winding, treacherous roads are not exactly big-yellow-school-bus friendly. In Panajachel (Pana to the locals) we hopped on one such school bus and headed for Sololá. The buses pull up close to Sololá’s wide main plaza,
Main plaza, Sololá
where there’s a pleasant old park filled with families enjoying a pleasant weekend. I glued myself to Francisco’s heels as he hot-footed it through the maze of the busy, but relatively quiet market, down a steep back alley to a little libreria. We described what we were after to the owner, a humorous fellow, who proceeded to take us down a set of steps to a hideout under his shop. And there she stood – the most beautiful pizarron blanco in Guatemala! We bought it on the spot.
Francisco had a Calculus class to attend (he’s studying to be an engineer), so we parted, and I took off to explore Sololá. As well as its market, it’s full of farmacias and restaurantes, but what I was really looking for was a place to have a pedicure. I scampered up and down asking in sleepy tiendas where I could find a Salon de Belleza, and I did find a few, but being Saturday afternoon, most were closed – or they would return at 2.30PM, or some other such story. In the markets I found a little girl selling bright red nail polish, and another selling nail clippers, so that solved my glamour problem.

 Back to the libreria. Francisco arrived from his class, and we started the trek back home. He, being the gentleman that he is, insisted on lumping the huge board onto his back and heading uphill, through more precipitous backstreets to a pick-op privado. 
Francisco and our precious cargo
Our monster barely fitted, but it did, and after a little negotiating, off we sped to Pana, roller-coasting along while gripping the whiteboard for dear life as we turned this way and that, downhill the five kilometres to Panajachel, which sits 600 metres below, and where the temperature was a pleasant few degrees warmer. Another hike and another pick-op, but this one was not a privado! It was absolutely crammed with Kaqchikel  Mayan women dressed in their traditional San Antonio huipils which differentiate them from women in other communities. They had been selling their wares in Panajachel. They barely gave a glance towards the large whiteboard poised precariously between the passengers, and soon we were off on another winding, spectacular ride to San Antonio Palopó. Just outside Santa Catarina Palopó, we slowed down for a quarter-mile-long wedding party walking behind the veiled bride to a dramatic looking reception venue on the lake. We were soon back to the big white church that stands grandly overlooking the stunning lake. The whole trip there and back for the three of us (our monster had taken on its own personality) was a whole $6.50. But we weren’t finished yet. Francisco lumped our new friend on his back again (easier for one than two in the tiny alleys was his excuse for refusing help), and the gleaming whiteboard was soon standing in the ICO social centre, ready to be a teaching tool for the  many classes that will follow.  Last night, I christened the whiteboard when teaching my English class. Oh, the joy of the feel of those squeaky markers on the brilliant white surface.  It may seem an insignificant item to most, but in this part of the world where people have so little, our new whiteboard stands as one of life’s simple pleasures.
Another of life's simple pleasures!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Volunteering in paradise!

Learning English is not something that I had thought would be very popular in San Antonio Palopo, after all, many of the people, especially the older ones, speak limited Spanish and are often illiterate. Their mother tongue is Kaqchiquel (pronounced catchikell). But how wrong I was. I have been pleasantly surprised with the numbers arriving at the Centro door for lessons. To date, I’ve taught ten lessons, and with twenty lessons left before I leave on April 30, what a wonderful experience it is turning out to be. I teach for an hour and a bit every week night at 6PM.  There is palpable enthusiasm among the students, who range in age from 8 to about 48. My first class consisted of 9 students, for the second there were 19, and for the third, it was standing room only. The average, after two weeks, is about 17 students. I’m teaching conversational English – often simply things that they ask me to teach them, and things that I feel would benefit them in their daily work and lives. Julian, whose rooms we rent for the Social Centre, is one of my keenest students.  This is handy, as he has the keys! I see him most days outside of the lesson times, and he always tries to greet me in a different salutation in English. Luciano (the colectivo driver) comes when he can as well. He was delighted to learn: “Are you ready? OK, let’s go!” I have no doubt these words will be heard by tourists arriving in Panajachel anytime soon.  A wonderful side-effect of teaching English is that it has improved my Spanish. This week I am pricing an 8 x 4 whiteboard, as it would be a useful addition to the English classes, and to all the classes that are held in the centre. 

The English lessons are but a small part of my experience in San Antonio Palopo. Last Sunday night, I sat in on the Directivo's Board meeting. They're a group of local volunteers who oversee the running of the Social Centre. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours at the basico school, helping to fix some of the computers that were non-functional.  The days are full and varied, and always interesting. 

Felipa and Angelica, our two employees, do a stellar job in keeping things running smoothly. On Mondays, Felipa holds a clase de alfabetización en español  (Spanish literacy class) which runs for three hours. Angelica runs a similar class on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, Isabel from CONALFA, the government organization responsible for literacy programs, has a three-hour Spanish class, while Felipa holds a sewing class for women. Lately it has been embroidery and crochet lessons, but soon they are going to start a project (using the electric serger) where we will be teaching women to make washable sanitary pads. We are sharing fabric (and hopefully machines) with the school. Some of the impermeable fabric was generously donated by Fabricland at the Tillicum Shopping Centre in Victoria (250- 475-7501). The manager there was moved when I told her about San Antonio’s 2010 disasters, and what the fabric would be used for, and  she gave a substantial discount. Another regular project involves a class for mothers with toddlers, where they are taught good nutritional practices, and more. That’s the Thursday morning group, and then in the afternoon there are cooking and Spanish classes.

One of the most delightful days is Fridays, when the group lovingly referred to as the ancianas or, in English, the elderly ladies, come to the centre. They are given a healthy meal and do small sewing projects. Presently they’re making monkeys out of socks! There’s much infectious giggling filling the room as they try on various pairs of glasses (at times, upside down) till they find a pair that actually help with needle threading. Before their meal, they pray fervently, eyes closed, with profound sincerity. How I would love to have an entry into those minds as they pray, as they have no doubt experienced many sorrows throughout their tough lives.

On Saturdays, it’s a lively time at the centre, when the nine-to-thirteen-year-olds appear on the scene. Yesterday they were making fabric art pieces out of scrap material. There’s much hilarity as they dive into the mound of fabric on the floor, searching for the perfect piece for their artistry. Sadly,  many of their pictures are of the terrible mudslides that so recently changed this little town forever.

I had hoped to be blogging more regularly, but somehow the days are so full, that by the time the English lessons are over, the tropical tiredness sets in, and, well, you know how it goes.

Hasta pronto .... Tricia