Day of the Dead

November 3, 2015

IMG_0165Frank tells me the word is syncretism — the perfect combination of two religious traditions.  November 1 — All Saints Day — in Mayan belief is the day that the dead return to this world for 24 hours.  Families go to the cemetery, decorate the graves of their loved ones with flowers, candles, pine needles, have a picnic, and commune with the dead — asking for advice,  sharing the news, and generally celebrating the family.

This  tradition is very different from Day of the Dead in Mexico, where skeletons abound amid a sense that “this will happen to us all.”  Rather, in Guatemala, November 1 is a family day, when  the whole family — including those no longer with us — have a chance to be together.  Sort of a combination of our Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, rolled into one.

Also on this day — in the indigenous regions, I mean —  kids (of all ages)  fly kites, symbolizing the connection between this world and the heavenly world.  What is unique about the rites in Sumpango, however, are the size of the kites!

The really, really big ones are as large as 40 foot in diameter, made of paper mounted on bamboo sticks, and no way they can fly! They are constructed by confrades — fraternal, semi-religious groups — and the planning and execution can take all year.  Sumpango is on a major crossroads, so it’s no surprise that it has become a hotbed of activity of people who come to share, and to gawk, to picnic, and to take part in the activities.

What was fun for us was that it was a celebration for the local people.  Everyone  was there — grandmothers bringing the picnic; fathers and mothers overseeing the grave decorations, and children running around, flying kites and eating.  The meal du jour is fiambre, a sort of pickled salad, which makes sense in a cemetery but I had tried it in a restaurant several days previously, and let’s just say that fiambre is an acquired taste.

Then on to the really big kites on the futbal field. Frank went for a seat on the bleachers in the shade, while I watched one of the confrades trying to set up their kite.  The problem is that the kite is constructed of small (8.5 by 11) sheets of colored paper, held together with tape, laid on a frame of bamboo poles that are themselves several poles lashed together to get the necessary height.  All this needs to be lifted up — and if the wind is wrong or the physics not entirely correct, the kite will tear away before it is even on display.

The crowd watched breathlessly — and in the end, cheered as the confrade men and women erected their kite!

A hot day, a celebratory day, and an exhausting day. Day of the Dead.

A Day off in Antigua

November 1, 2015

IMG_0039We’ve been to Antigua (almost) every time we’ve been to Guatemala, which is to say (almost) annually since 2005, but I can’t remember ever being in this World Heritage UNESCO city during a “lay day.”  We started off with a leisurely breakfast at Cafe Condessa, a gringo hangout on the main square — Frank had not been enjoying the breakfasts at the Radisson in Guatemala City, so he was due.

Then we looked obvious until we found a tour guide, who we hired to take us up to the Cross above the city.  It’s a popular attraction — great views — and although the danger of street crime is probably over stated, we preferred to be safe than sorry.  Our guide, Jose, took us seriously when we said we wanted to walk slowly, and took the opportunity to point out lots of stuff without making up much history.  I quickly discovered that his English was not as good as first seemed — the answer to all questions was “yes,” and further explanations were of the “pizza is cold” variety after we had asked why the sky was blue.  Still, he got us there and back in one piece, and that was the point!

The view from the top was worth the effort, and even better, the area was replete with local families — lots of kids — flying their kites in anticipation of tomorrow’s holiday — November 1, the Day of the Dead.  More on that tomorrow.

Back on terra firma, Frank took a nap while I did some shopping, followed by lunch and a more serious nap.  The weather is warm — quite warm for late October — and all the more enjoyable since we know what we will be returning to New England only too soon. But for now, I write this from the balcony of our room, looking out over the rooftops of Antigua and an idyllic evening.

Low-Cost Labor

October 31, 2015

IMG_0028From our hotel room in downtown Guatemala City we’ve been watching a construction project across the street — typical of Guatemala, the construction site is a bee-hive of activity — 50 or more workers are in evidence at any one time, all using pre-Industrial-Age tools to build the new building.

So it was fascinating to join high-school age scholarship students from Cooperative for Education as they visited the factory for the Guatemalan Domino’s Pizza franchise, to learn about job opportunities for them after they graduate, and to visit the assembly line.

The kids were remarkably attentive, and the Domino’s representatives did a good job, but did not leave any opportunity for questions.  That’s the expectation in Guatemala — most kids are not trained (and certainly not expected) to question authority by so much as asking a question of a teacher or elder.  But the CoEd students have been taught differently — and next time, the Dominos people need to be asked to expect questions.

IMG_0017Then, it was face mask and hair net time, and we went down to the assembly line to watch the pizza dough go from dried mix to frozen dough each the size of a future pizza, and ready to be trucked in refrigerated trucks to  Domino’s stores throughout the country.

It was fascinating to see an assembly line in a country where manual labor is so inexpensive.

And it was something like watching the old “Lucy” episode where she and Ethel gets jobs on the candy assembly line.

Because the assembly line was there — but jobs that could easily have been done by a robot were being done by hand.  In the United States, I am sure the same jobs are performed by one person watching a CADCAM device.  Here, workers took trays on and off the assembly line by hand — one poor guy lifted the big bags of dry mix to empty them into the mixer, then ran the mixer under the machine that mixed it, then ran it to the next machine that poured it into the machine that made it into small balls.  Make sense?  I didn’t think so.  There were also people working in the freezer room, wearing heavy overcoats with their face masks, and all I could think of was the freezer warehouse  Tom Wolfe describes so visually in “A Man in Full.”

But I am sure these are good jobs.  Although not for the young people who will soon have their HS diplomas which will entitle them to work in an office, rather than with their muscle.

IMG_0032We also visited a brand-new computer lab in a rural basico (junior-high school).  The government is requiring all kids to have computer training now — and old computers are apparently not that hard for the municipalities to purchase.  The problem is finding teachers who are trained to teach, and a curriculum that is useful to the kids.  CoEd has a problem-solving curriculum and teacher training program — as well as IT guys on hand to solve technical glitches — which the schools buy into when they acquire the machines from CoEd.

The day (talk about busy!) was rounded out by meeting staff including Ronnie, CoEd’s new country director, and watching construction of CoEd’s new headquarters in San Lucas, half-way between Guatemala City and Antigua.  A great location.

And then Howard brought us to our hotel in Antigua, and the opportunity for a “free” day in this UNESCO heritage city.


A Dream Fulfilled

October 30, 2015

IMG_0006When Hanley Denning started Safe Passage, her goal was to get 30 kids through basico, which is junior high school.

This year that many young adults will walk away with their high school diplomas.

They will join around 70 other graduates — Safe Passage has about 100 high school graduates to its credit. And these are all students who started school late in terms of their biological age.

The program now serves around 500 families.  Approximately 30 two- and three-year-olds start the preschool program in the escualita each year, and that number will soon double if the current fundraising campaign — and concurrent building program — meets its goals.

We spent the morning at the escualita, watching the little kids learn numbers and colors in English, and watching them play with Legos and dance with Shannon, their long time volunteer.

When the escualita was first opened in 2007, these little kids –the older siblings of the current crop, of course — had spent all their time on their mother’s backs or in a cardboard box.  They had extremely poor motor skills, poor hand-eye coordination, and zero socialization skills.  Today, the situation is completely different.

What a difference enriched education — and ten years — can make. Hanley would be remarkably proud.

Graduation Day

October 29, 2015

IMG_0005Graduation days are always exciting.  Something completed, something beginning — always exciting.  But some graduations are over-the-top wonderful.  This was one of them.

Jose was already 15 when Safe Passage came to the neighborhood.  He had had several years of schooling by then — the godmother who raised him had seen to that.  Because of his age, he was already expected to help work, and that led to work-study part time school.

When it came time for high school, he chose a program that allowed him to continue to work, while he studied computers and accounting.  With all this part-time study amid part-time work, it’s not remarkable that he is graduating from high school at age 27.  What is remarkable is that he stuck with it all these years, when I am sure other options — including gangs and emigration — offered quicker alternatives.

There he was in the hotel lobby, in his school uniform and slicked back hair, looking like a million dollars. And there were his 200 or so classmates, plus their families — from younger siblings dressed to the nines to frail grandmothers.  Everyone had turned out — because you see, high school graduation in Guatemala is a Really Big Deal — only 10 percent or so of all Guatemalans reach this pinnacle.

And, because this was a work-study school, I suspect there were 200 stories of hard work despite the odds.  The festivities began with “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” (the theme to 2001 Space Oddysey) and continued through to “We are the Champions of the World” with brief segues to the Guatemalan National Anthem and “Ode to Joy” sung by the graduates in Spanish (which was disconcerting).  The laughter — the excitement — the pride was palpable.

We sat in the front row.  I’m not sure how that transpired, but Sabrina, our Safe Passage translator, arranged it, and I suspect the fact that we were the only two gringos in the place had something to do with it.  There were other Safe Passage students in Jose’s class, who Sabrina pointed out to Frank and me, but no other sponsors.  Those sponsors don’t know what they were missing.

Finally, it was Jose’s turn to cross the stage (I suspect if your last name is “Yos” you are accustomed to being last.  He received his certificate, his mortarboard, his medal, and we received a great big smile.  Jose doesn’t smile easily, but this time he made up for it.

When it was all over, we headed outside and reconnected with the proud graduate.  We met Alicia, his young lady, and just about then his brother Juan Carlos arrived, which Brenda and their baby.  Brenda is another Safe Passage student, and she had also graduated from high school yesterday; Juan Carlos could only be at one event, so he had been with Brenda.  Their baby, Genesis Patricia, is six months old and at the bubble stage.  A real cutie!

We all headed to dinner — Frank and Marty, Jose and Alicia, Juan Carlos and Brenda, Genesis, and of course Sabrina.  And a chance for me to reminisce about how far Jose and Juan Carlos have come since Frank and I first met them nine years ago.  Then, they and their godmother made up a family of the working poor on the dump.  Now, they and their ladies are all high school graduates, job-ready, with their lives and their futures ahead of them, poised and ready to take on the world.




October 28, 2015

Frank and I first came to Guatemala back in 2005.  The idea was to spend a few days volunteering at Safe Passage/Camino Seguro, the weekend at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and then move along to whatever the next adventure might be.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. But that’s another story.

Frank had rented a satellite phone for that trip, and I remember climbing to the roof of our hotel to get a good signal, and using a phone that looked just like a phone — only about five times larger.

Within a few years Frank had transitioned to a Blackberry.  By that time cell phones were beginning to be used by people in the travel business.  Today, of course, every street beggar has a smart phone …

This came home to me today because Frank left his phone at home.  At the mall, we bought a cheapie, and guessed how many minutes we might need, and voila!

The elections are just over here in Guatemala, and Jimmy Morales is the new president.  Jimmy Morales has no previous political experience — he’s a TV comedian.  He was also the only major candidate who wasn’t (a) in jail; (b) on his way to jail; or (c) daughter of a former military dictator/human rights violator.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump is not a uniquely American phenomenon.


On our way to Guatemala

October 27, 2015

As I’ve mentioned (complained?) previously, this blog was not intended as a travel blog.  But two disconnected factors have turned it into one.  First, we travel a great deal, and second, I never seem to have time to write while at home.

So I write this at Logan, on our way to Guatemala, on AeroMexico (Frank got a good fare with a  transfer through Mexico City).

We had stayed at a budget hotel last night, and woke up at oh-dark-hundred to take the airport shuttle to Logan.  There were four groups of travelers on the shuttle, and we got to talking after the driver asked us our airlines … the couple sitting behind us asked if we were on our way to Mexico City on vacation, or whether we were going on to one of the beach resorts.

It’s always good to remember that some people travel to warm climates to enjoy the resorts.  Not us, I am afraid.

This is actually a very special trip. One of our Safe Passage sponsor students,  Jose, is graduating from high school, and so of course we have to be there for the ceremony.

I’ll write more about Jose as the week progresses.  For now, I’ll just say that as Americans, we can spend all the millions of dollars we want building a wall along our southern border and coming up with judicial restraints.  Or we can spend a fraction of that amount of money giving young people the leg-up they need  right at home.  One solution is punitive.  The other asks the recipients to work to create their own futures.  Hopefully, the folks who want to run our country will figure out which is more appropriate.


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