I didn’t see this coming.
Pat and I went by boat this week to San Juan, the small neighboring town of artisans–weavers, predominately. Throughout town, in houses-turned-stores, women gather in collectives to sell wares they make at home. They pick the cotton which grows on the hillside, spin it into yarn, dye it with a variety of scavenged plants and flowers into every imaginable color, and then weave it into fabric. The fabric is turned into handbags, shirts and blouses, and scarves.
The woman who waited on us in one guild spoke perfect English. Pat asked if all the women in the town weave. “Of course,” she replied, as though the process of making your own cloth from cotton is the most natural act in the world.
We bought a blue and white shirt with an intricate design and pattern. It cost 40 dollars, a fortune by local standards, but when I consider the hours invested into this beautiful shirt, it is a bargain.
From the store, we went to an artisan school for disabled children. We had wandered past the school on Monday and spontaneously stopped in to see if we could tour it. Pat and I had talked about making a contribution to a children’s based organization in the region as a thank you to the Mayan people for the warm welcome they have given us. This seemed like a potential option.
A woman in the office motioned us to stay put while she went in search of an English speaker. Moments later, a young woman returned. “Would it be possible for you to come any other day this week? Today is a special day; there are no teachers here.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Promise me you’ll come back?”
We assured her we would return by the end of the week. She touched her heart and sighed with relief.
At that point, we had no choice; we would return.
Two days later, a formal tour was just starting for a group of Americans when we entered the school. The leader invited us to join. For an hour, we heard about the school’s mission and watched the children working in the classroom. The organization is called Alma de Colores. They receive private contributions in addition to money from governments around the world: The United States, Canada, and several countries in Europe. Their mission is basically to do whatever they must to advance the welfare of sick and disabled children in this region of the lake.
In addition to the school, they own and tend an organic farm outside of town and run a vegetarian restaurant and bakery in San Juan. The farm and bakery provide goods to the restaurant, and the older children work with supervision across the three enterprises–learning to grow healthy vegetables and to bake whole grain bread.
Social services, our guide explained, are limited in Guatemala. The Lake Atitlan villages, although tourist destinations from my perspective, are in fact remote and poor indigenous communities with limited services and little money. The need here is overwhelming.
Our tour guide described one boy who is new to the school. He lives in squalor in a very poor family in San Pedro. His mother, father, grandmother, and siblings share a single room. She mapped off the dimensions, not more than a twelve-foot square. The boy has a severe skin rash, intestinal parasites, and impeding blindness due to malnutrition. He is developmentally impaired. The school has interceded with the family—teaching them better hygiene practices, supporting stronger nutritional content in their diet, and bringing the boy into the school for training.
Families work hard on Lake Atitlan. Not in the way I worked hard, conference-calls-at-8PM-while-sipping-a-glass-of-wine hard. Every day, we pass older women, grandmothers no doubt, chopping wood from the hillsides around our house with two foot machetes. They pile the sticks on their heads and trudge up into the hills towards home. This is their cooking wood. As we head into San Marcos, we pass women washing their clothes and sheets in a public sink. These same women parade into town early in the morning with baskets on their heads: avocados, pineapples, banana bread. They sell it on the path that leads to the dock. “Hola. Banana bread. Very good banana bread.”
I walk the 200-yard path responding to a row of vendors, “No gracias, no gracias,” frustrated I can’t buy something from each of them.
The young Mayan girls play in traditional blouses and skirts with fancy slip-on shoes. They never have a spot of dirt on their clothes nor a scuff on their shoes. Their mothers weave, cook, care for multi-generational families, sell wares in the village. Dirt is everywhere—including on the floors of some of the homes in the barrio, yet the children here are spotless.
Of course, these women struggle when they have a disabled child. The child is often put to the side. There is little time for interaction and limited government support for care. The mother is already taking care of her extended family and aided by no modern conveniences. A disabled child is the breaking point. Nonprofits like Alma de Colores fill in this gap.
Since leaving the school, I have thought about my own reactions to Guatemala: My frustration that I lack the diversity of ingredients to really leverage my six-burner stove every night when I make dinner. I can’t drink my tap water and instead need to drink the bottled water that my gardener delivers to our doorstep. I wash my clothes by hand in my indoor kitchen sink and then place them to dry on a rack set up on our huge deck which overlooks the lake.
I live in a two story house with two stories of glass walls framing the massive San Pedro volcano, described by explorers as the most beautiful spot in the world. Yet during the last two months, I have managed to pity myself.
I think I needed perspective. This week, I got it.
Categories: Central America