Monday, December 10, 2012

Reflections from home

What an adventure this past seven days has brought when Central America welcomed me with open arms. I went from traversing trash-filled alleyways in the edges of the dump and seeing armed guards everywhere to studying the majestic history of the capital city to exploring Antigua with cobblestone streets and remnants of centuries-old abandoned churches that retain their grandeur amid ruins. Last night I returned home. Phew!
Armed guards were a common sight, even in the back of a truck. When anything was
 delivered to a business, armed guards were at the ready, and we had our bags 
searched by armed guards when we entered the bank.

Guard at the parking lot to the shopping center for the supermarket.

How has this trip helped my manuscript? Because I didn’t visit one place only, I met Guatemalans from differing socio-economic backgrounds, all of whom were friendly and spoke in a lilting sing-song accent, unlike any Spanish accent I’ve heard before. Sensory details surrounding me ranged from a whiff of sour garbage on the dusty breeze, the squawk of a macaw just outside my window at 6 am, the savory flavor of chocolate mole on plantains, the view of a volcano spewing in the early morning, and an ever present gentle to gusty wind.  
Macaws outside our room in Antigua.

For my foodie friends, the meals were delectable! My favorites were the black bean pancakes served with crème fresh (which are fabulous, by the way!), chicken empanadas, fried bananas, thick corn tortillas mucho better than any available in the U.S., pastille con carne (a pastry baked with a meat paté filling), turkey roasted with amazing herbs, mashed potatoes that melt in your mouth with real butter, chorizo sausage, and so many more that I don’t have room to mention. Needless to say, I wasn’t surprised to step on the scales this morning and discover I’d gained 5 pounds!
From top, clockwise - watermelon, french toast with strawberry sauce, fried plantains, fried bananas, chicken empanada, and queso cheese = breakfast of champions. Yum!

Before going, one of my biggest concerns was the language barrier. Although I had a translator while in the dump, she didn’t stay with me all the time. However, a few words were easy to learn because of their frequent use:

- si
- muchas gracias
- buen dia (means “good morning” instead of the traditional buenos dias)
- ¿dónde está el baño? (means “where is the toilet?”)
- café con leche (means “coffee with milk” - necessitating another ¿dónde está el baño?)
- para ti (means “for you” - when giving candy to the children)
- no necessito (means “not necessary” - when a family in the dump felt they needed to give me a gift of bottled water)
- la vaquita hace moo (means “little cow says moo” - a song we sang with the kids of the dump)
- la paz (means “the peace” - the name of one of the neighborhoods near the dump)

I have a new insight beyond what books or online research can offer. I’ve experienced the beauty and the tragedy of a lovely people, the history of a powerful people conquered, colonized, exploited, and blended into a country that gently honors the past, the elderly, and the weak.
The Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua connected the Santa Catalina convent to a school, 
allowing the nuns to go from one building to the other without going out on the street.

And I’ve learned that the volcanoes aren’t located where I thought they were so my main character cannot watch the sun rise over a volcano that isn't located to the east of the city. Oy!  
I hope all these memories will stay alive, but I know without a doubt that my heart will remember the beautiful smiles, the warm hugs, sweet kisses to the right cheek, and the gentleness of the people from the dump. I’m grateful to have met these compassionate people who invited me into their lives. I’m grateful to Potter’s House for introducing me to them. And I’m grateful for the opportunity SCBWI gave me to expand my horizons. Thank you, SCBWI!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Antigua is spectacular!

Due to internet difficulties, Saturday’s post below was not posted until Sunday.
Only a 45 minute drive into the mountains south of Guatemala City, Antigua is a well-preserved colonial Spanish city and was the previous capital of Guatemala until the 1700s. After a series of earthquakes destroyed much of the city in 1773, the capital was moved 33 miles to the valley, to what is now Guatemala City. In order to make the mandatory evacuation of Antigua effective, much of the city was disassembled and reassembled in the new capital, including church relics, artwork, and even stone entryways at the doorways to individuals’ homes. Today’s entryways in Antigua are either stone reconstructions or cement with a stucco overlay. Antigua began to revive in the late 1800s, about the same time when coffee farming in the area started to flourish.

Entryway to La Merced Church 

Cathedral Santiago ruins

My husband Greg joined me a few days ago in Guatemala City and spent the past couple of days with me in the dump and now here in Antigua. We hired a local tour guide to show us the ruins in Antigua and explain the history. He was a lot of fun, but during the tour, we wondered at some of his data. Although we’ve never studied Spanish or Guatemalan history, we recognized that his dates weren’t adding up, and we suspected a slight fabrication of history. But even though his information wasn’t always so accurate, he was very entertaining, and we enjoyed our time with him!
 The Palace of the Captains General

We savored our strolls through the scenic cobblestone streets (which kill your feet if you don’t wear supportive shoes!), viewing ruins of Baroque style churches, and even entering a crypt under Santiago Cathedral. The crypt was important for me to see because my manuscript includes a crypt that is essential to the plot. (How’s that for a teaser?) There were 63 churches in Antigua, including convents and monasteries, and seven are still active today.
 Crypt under Santiago Cathedral

In the center of the city, at their Central Park, market vendors sell souvenirs. Horses stand by for anyone wishing to buy a ride. A large fountain in the center of the square park includes carvings of mermaids and bulls’ heads because the early locals in Antigua participated in a running of the bulls through the city center. At least that’s what our tour guide said … 
Ride a horse from Central Park

Surrounded by three volcanoes, Volcán Fuego is the most active, and we were thrilled to see smoke rising from it.

Because today is the holiday known here for the conception of the Virgin Mary (which is why the burning of the devil took place the night before), it is a lucky day to get married. We witnessed four weddings during our walks around the city.
 Wedding preparations at San Jose’ el Viejo

One of the advantages to visiting a place over researching online and with books is that I could not only hear, smell, and see it in person, I learned that one of the trees I wanted to mention in the manuscript aren’t as plentiful as I’d thought. My main character likes to climb trees, and my research indicated an abundance of one specific tree in the Guatemala highlands. However, I didn’t see a one. When I asked the tour guide in Antigua about it, he’d never even heard of that tree. Thinking that the name must be different, I described it for him. He gave me a blank look and said he’d like to see one. So that answers that!
With a sigh of regret, I will leave this Central American wonderland tomorrow. I’ll post my overall reflections in the next day or two, after I’ve had a few hours to decompress. I hope you’ll return!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

La Quema del Diablo in Guatemala

Today was dedicated to seeing the historical sites of Guatemala City, and along the way to the historical center of the city, I kept noticing vendors with piñata devils for sale on the street corners. Why? Today is Quema del Diablo, and at 6 pm today, people here performed a ritual of cleansing by burning all those devils, which represent evil spirits that are eradicated when burned. Between the burnings and the fireworks that follow, the city is filled with black smoke and soot. We watched the burnings and fireworks from our hotel's tenth floor panoramic plate glass window overlooking downtown and this valley surrounded by 37 volcanoes. What a site!
Because my pictures of the burnings didn't turn out too well, you might want to search for images of Quema del Diablo. Very interesting, and perhaps a bit creepy. 
Back to this morning ... Our first stop was Kaminaljuyu (pronounced kam-in-al'-hu-yu) Archaelogical Park, the ancient Mayan city (from 1000 BC to 1000 AD). This park with many temple mounds is only a portion of the city that once housed about 50,000 people and had thirteen ball courts with many large temple mounds. I was surprised to discover what we call Spanish Moss in the U.S. Here it’s called Musgo, and it’s used to decorate homes during Christmas.
 The Acropolis of Kaminaljuyu contained a ball court, many tunnels, 
hieroglyphics, and burial statues.

Next, we visited the Museo Miraflores, a museum a few miles away from the previous park that only exists because of Mayan artifacts discovered during construction of a modern mall, and the artifacts are now housed in the museum inside the mall. Outside are three temple mounds kept intact.
Afterwards we headed to zone one of the twenty-two zones in the city, to tour the historical city center. Atop a high hill, we were enchanted by the Iglesia Cerrito del Carmen, constructed in the 1600s.

We toured the National Palace of Culture, full of symbolic artwork displaying the cultural conflicts of the Spanish conquistadors and the Maya peoples and where the Guatemalan president still entertains dignitaries. 
My friend Laura told the tour guide she would translate for me. When we reached the drawing room, from where all Guatemalan roads originate at kilometre zero, the tour guide asked questions, and the ones who correctly answered were allowed to walk around the ropes to enter the room. Because Laura is a smart one, she entered, and I was allowed to go with her. We were told that the dome above the center of the room allowed for perfect acoustics for voices to be heard, and as you can imagine, those of us in the center of the room were instructed to stand and speak from that spot. Laura had no problem speaking to the crowd of onlookers. I panicked about what to say, and all I could come up with was ¡Hola! ¡Gracias!” Believe it or not, I received applause!
Laura is translating the tour guide's words and pointing to the spot where he stands, which
 is where we each had to stand and speak to the crowd watching from outside the room.

Later, we entered the Metropolitan Cathedral across the plaza from the National Palace of Culture, and a hush fell over us. With arched ceilings, beautiful stone floors, and numerous altars and paintings, this historical monument from 1815 houses artwork that was originally in the Cathedral of Antigua, Guatemala, including the Virgen del Perpetua Socorro, brought to the country in 1522.
Tomorrow we’ll visit more cathedrals and historical buildings in nearby Antigua, the previous capital of the country until numerous earthquakes necessitated moving the capital to Guatemala City in 1776. Check back to see what I learn!

Friday, December 7, 2012

An exchange of blessings

On Thursday, I visited a group of 50 kids at a VBS in an old park at the edges of the dump. The leaders were grateful that a policeman stood nearby all morning, in case of any problems. This is one of the dangerous areas, and we were even told to not use the nearby public toilets because of the drug dealers and glue sniffers who operate there. Although it is only a few blocks from Potter’s House, we were driven there because of the crime. Some of the younger teen boys at the VBS have been approached recently by area gangs pressuring them to join. One boy in particular is struggling with this decision because his father, who had been the leader of a gang, was murdered two years ago by a rival gang.

The most adorable children danced and sang around me with sweet smiling faces. They are full of love and enjoy giving hugs. I cannot imagine the horrors they face on a daily basis. One of the leaders explained to them that like David and Goliath, they all have giants lurking over them: fear, hatred, pain, loneliness while their parents are in the dump all day, drugs, and alcoholism. How sad that these young children must face those issues. Yet the dump isn’t the source of those issues.
One of the metal homes in the nearby neighborhood.

A group of the people who work in the dump explained, “The dump is a blessing to us because we don’t have to be in the streets, begging for money. We don’t have an education. We don’t have another way to make a living.” One older lady said she was able to raise her kids and provide them with an education because of the garbage dump. So the garbage dump provides them with an opportunity even though they have to work hard. Sometimes they don’t make much money, but they are getting what they need to feed their families because of the dump. They are thankful.
(right to left) Anna, her daughter Michelle, and me in her home.

“Many people think we are the waste of society,” said one young man who rummages for valuables in the trash. “And they think of us like poor people. But I think we are the luckiest ones. We are really blessed to be here. Many people come, willing to help us and give us a helping hand, without us having to ask for it.”
These gracious people are teaching me that it’s all a matter of perspective, not about getting rich or even escaping the dump. It’s about an exchange of blessings.
Tomorrow I leave the dump to study the history of this vibrant and picturesque land with magnificent eternal springlike weather. I’ll start in Guatemala City and will post my findings here if the internet allows. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Gratitude in Guatemala

Due to internet connection difficulties, this post is from my experiences on Wednesday. If possible, I'll post today's activities within the next few hours. Cross your fingers and read on ...

The communities near Potter’s House appear to be in the dump because of the trash lying around, but these homes are on the fringes, not in the dump itself. 

Berta thanks God for her concrete house.

            Potter’s House helps many people build concrete block homes with metal doors, which keep out the rain. Today I met Berta who was thrilled to show me her house built by volunteers this past summer. About fifteen by fifteen feet square, and with one bed, Berta’s clean and tidy house is home to five people: her daughter and three grandchildren plus herself. Her previous house in the same location had been built of sticks. Berta worked in the dump for thirty-five years but stopped three years ago because of multiple deaths associated with trash slides during the rainy season. Now she classifies glass from the dump by color and shape for recyclers.
Rosita and Remedios are community leaders who petition the municipality for improvements in their neighborhood. They pose with Carol, their friend from Potter's House.

Carolina lives in a lovely corrugated metal home with a dirt floor, a TV, stereo, and curtains that separate the sleeping area from her kitchen area. She thanks God for allowing her children to study through the Safe Passage NGO program after one of her daughters witnessed a murder in a previous school. Carolina prays every time she enters the dump to work because cries for help from last summer’s trash slide haunt her as she remembers seeing people sink into the trash where no one could rescue them. Their families hunted for the bodies but never found them. She told us that just yesterday there were two accidents in the dump - one woman was run over by a garbage truck and killed, and a man’s leg was crushed by another truck.

           In the midst of the sadness that permeates this area, hope shines in the eyes of these beautiful people. Not hope for escape from this lifestyle but hope for a better future for their children. Anna told me her priority is for her kids to go to school, unlike many of her neighbors who want their children to work in the dump alongside them. Anna does odd jobs, ironing and laundry and cleaning when it’s available. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Guatemala is lush and lovely!

Long story short, I was in NYC this past weekend and traveled from there to Guatemala today. That required a 2:30 am wake up in order to arrive at 3:30 am at LaGuardia. No one told me LaGuardia security doesn’t open until 4:30 am. Really? In the city that never sleeps?

My flight connected in Houston, TX, and I enjoyed the next leg to Guate City where I sat next to the most delightful older gentleman who spoke very little English but had fun trying to talk with me. Unfortunately my French and Russian studies were of no help. Every now and then we struck common ground. We discussed the beautiful lush landscape of Guatemala as we neared the ground - amazing rough territory with steep mountains, ridges, and sharp ravines. I cannot imagine traveling that land on foot.

I figured out customs and met the two people from Potter's House who were waiting for me. We went to lunch at a lovely café downtown where I had Tortilla Soup that rivals my favorite from Baja Fresh. I'd love to go back for that soup every day while I'm here! 

Then we went to Potter's House where I took a tour of their amazing facility that feeds 200 kids from the dump every school day. Since students only attend school in the mornings, Potter’s House prepares lunch for them. I met many of the 60 staff members and finally met Yasmina (pronounced Jasmina) who had stayed at our house with her husband Douglas 9 years ago when they were in Memphis learning English. So fun to see her and catch up! Yasmina took me to the overlook to see the dump from the distant vantage point of the ancient national cemetery. 

No outsiders are allowed in the main part of the dump due to safety issues, but 3000 Guatemalans are issued work IDs to forage through garbage every day. That number doesn't include their children who technically aren't allowed in the dump but walk around the outside of the gates to find a way in. Our driver was a young man who had grown up working in the dump with his family and who now works at Potter’s House, helping others.

Vultures swarm the dump and watch the arriving garbage trucks below. 

Venders sell food at the tents, but few can afford it so they work from 
dawn to dusk and return to eat at their homes.

From this distance, it's difficult to make out the dozens of people surrounding the trucks, hoping to be the first to rummage for valuables (like metal, plastic, and glass) among the trash. Some are run over by the trucks. After all the trash has been gleaned, it'll be pushed over the edge of the ravine and covered with dirt, waiting for the next fill of refuse. 

When we returned to Potter's House, I met a high school senior who lives in the edge of the dump and whose father died when she was 4. She started going to Potter's House when she was 8. Her mom and 2 older sisters worked the dump while she cared for her 2 younger siblings who were also admitted into the after school program. Through their program of encouragement and nurturing, she stated at the age of 10 that she wanted to learn to speak English. So Potter's House began to teach her. She has studied hard and worked academically and this year has applied for the Walton Scholarship to send her to college in Arkansas. She's anxiously waiting with high hopes. 

But she is not the norm among Guatemalan students. On average, most children here only attend about 4 years of school. It’s worse in the dump where many children help their parents earn money for the family.

Tomorrow I’ll travel to the fringes of the dump and meet others whose lives have been changed for the better. They will invite me in their homes to see the prizes they found in the dump - rugs, furniture, dishes, and even TVs. Tune back in to see what I learn.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Only one more day ...

Tomorrow I fly to Guatemala City! I’ve studied and researched and am prepared to see it in person. This dump is situated in a ravine that occupies 40 acres of land and has few, if any, health and safety restrictions limiting what can be disposed of there. Human and animal corpses even deteriorate amid the waste that is home to thousands of people. They work to scour the garbage for anything of value: bits of plastic, metal, glass, etc. for up to 14 hour long work days and share their workplace with rats, snakes, and vultures. The locals call these people scavengers, an insult.

I’ll be working with Potter’s House Association, a local NGO situated next to the dump. These scavengers are more than statistics to the volunteers of Potter’s House who see them as real and beautiful treasures. They explain that each of them is precious in the sight of God and that each deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Their efforts are transforming the Guatemala City dump into a place of hope. I want to be a part of that hope.

Join me again Tuesday evening when I’ll hopefully post pictures.