Monday, January 16, 2012

A Warm Welcome Indeed

Our journey continued last Tuesday as we flew into Nueva Mercedes on a four-person “avioncito.” The plane was rather tail heavy for comfort sake, but we managed to lift-off none the less and soon had a bird’s eye view of Guatemala City.  A few hot air currents and nervous laughs later we crossed over a large mountain range and found ourselves overlooking the vast Polochic Valley, our home for the next 6 months. This valley is one of the most fertile areas in Guatemala, consisting of many a snaking river buffeted by rich, green plots of farmland and forest laid between parallel mountain ranges. The plane’s captain and nephew of our host, Beto, got us to Nueva Mercedes in just 45 minutes; not bad considering the micro-bus would have taken 6 hours and no doubt been packed like a can of sardines. A smooth landing on a grass airstrip at the “Constancia” farmhouse meant we had reached our final destination where our host Klaus awaited us. He gave us a brief history of the farm and surrounding areas as he drove us to his house to meet his wife. the farm’s matriarch, Sylvia. Klaus and Sylvia are part of an old community of German farmers in the Polochic Valley. They have been here for generations and are responsible for much of the infrastructure and the towns that have sprung up over the years. Klaus explained the local indigenous farmers’ way of life and their connections to the valley and region as a whole. Our history lesson made it quite apparent that ties between the people and the land run as deep as its winding rivers and are as old as the mountains themselves.
The next day Dave and I ventured to Teleman bright and early hoping to expel some of the energy we had built up in months of excited anticipation over our arrival here in Nueva Mercedes. Teleman is a neighboring, larger village just a quick hitchhike down the road from Nueva Mercedes. We were determined to explore the open-air market that occurs every Wednesday. We had no intention of paying “gringo-price” for the goods being sold, actually we had no intention of paying any price at all for that matter; we were more interested in the free culture lesson being offered by the families of buyers and sellers. As expected, we were stared at without restraint for the 3 hours that we stumbled through the crowds of indigenous Guatemalans like 2 drunken giraffes. What we learned was well worth the price. Apparently on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning all of the farmers in the surrounding mountain ranges and foothills descend to the Marketplace and gather to buy and sell some of the highest quality fruits and vegetables on the planet. We passed by innumerable, unnamable objects we had never seen, larger than life carrots, yams the size of small children, and a vast array of counterfeit soccer jerseys, showerheads, cell phone accessories and dozens of other small trinkets. It was quite the Wednesday to say the least and a remarkable introduction to the humble and collective nature of the Polochic inhabitants.
Nueva Mercedes welcomed us home after our little excursion that morning. It has roughly 75 families, a few small corner stores, one primary school, and a soccer pitch. Running water and electricity are a given in our freshly constructed volunteer house fit for kings, but most residents lack 1 or both of these amenities in their own homes. Imagine the average family here of 9 people living on a dirt floor, with nothing to protect them from the relentless swarms of Mosquitos that have been known to plague the valley. As the average household has 7 children you would think that there would be many more students enrolled in the school, but this is something that Li Ch’utam is focusing on in the coming months. Our plan is to implement an after school program to provide an extracurricular backdrop to the meager education system and encourage more children to want to come to school.
In the meantime we have been building relationships with the school’s five teachers and school director, who made it clear that the vision for the school’s development is optimistic and limitless. but the lack of manpower and resources has been a crippling handicap. However, little by little we are making advancements. Along with several volunteer parents from the community we gave the school a fresh paint job and took a machete to the overgrown schoolyard. Needless to say these kids were welcomed into their first day of class with a crisp message of new beginnings. We will be strengthening our relationships with the teachers as David and I begin to work with the 1st and 2nd graders this upcoming week. We hope to harness the drive of the children in their yearning to learn along with the vision of the enthusiastic director and hopefully reflect all of this positive energy outward to the parents who are largely indifferent toward their kids’ education. In any case our objectives are clear and now the path to accomplishing them is steadily manifesting itself. Each day we have been playing soccer with the children and then the adults of the village after they finish their work shifts and becoming closer friends with many of them. While at times we still may appear as albino giraffes who stumbled into the wrong village one day, we are determined to learn from this community and share any support we can offer to these wonderful people. One way we have been building trust and taking in our surroundings here is by working the fields with the men of the village.

The first such man was named Norberto. He took us around to see how coffee and vanilla were grown and harvested. We then were invited by to attend a village meeting. We were informed, after building rapport throughout the workday with Norberto, that this would be our time of formal introduction to the community by Norberto himself. With excitement we attended the meeting and watched as family after family poured into the courtyard of the schoolhouse and the meeting began. The leader of the town committee began speaking softly in Q’eqchi (the local indigenous dialect) as the town sat in a wide circle around him in the grass listening and swatting mosquitos in silence. The meeting continued like this for about an hour without a single word being under stood by either David or myself. Then, all of the sudden, we heard our names and we looked up as 100 pairs of eyes stared back at us. In that uncertain moment the next 6 months of work seemed to hang in the balance, we breathed a sigh of relief as the entire circle erupted into applause and then laughter as we failed to sit down when the meeting continued. Like I said, we really had no idea what Norberto was telling these people, but it seemed to be important. Dave and I both knew that we had our work cut out for us; not only through Li Ch’ utam empowering these people to lead themselves to a brighter future, but also simply to repay the kindness and hospitality that the families of Nueva Mercedes have already shown us in the first days of our journey.

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