The children and the colors of Guatemala |

The children and the colors of Guatemala

Larry Ladin

Last June, looking to find Deputy Sheriff Marie Munday, I stepped down into the basement of the Pitkin County Courthouse and walked a long narrow corridor filled with humming offices. I found Marie seated in a back office wearing her summer uniform – a white polo shirt and dark shorts with a pistol, handcuffs and a police radio strapped around her waist. Marie’s husband Chip joined us so I could hear about their adventures in the mountains and jungles of Guatemala, a country rarely visited by Americans. I particularly wanted to hear about their mission to the Mayan and Latino children in that poverty-stricken country. Marie is the specialist for Latino affairs in the Pitkin County Sheriff’s office and is past president of the Aspen Rotary Club. Like so many other locals, she visited Aspen as a ski bum, then put down roots and built a career here. Chip came here in 1982 as an environmental volunteer for John Denver’s Windstar Foundation. He, too, got hooked on ourvalley, and became president of the Carbondale Rotary and a busy local business owner.Larry: Marie, what led the two of you to go to Guatemala?

Marie: We had two goals – we wanted the adventure of exploring Guatemala, and more seriously, to join with our Aspen Rotary Club’s mission to the desperately poor Mayan Indian and Latino children. Our mission was to bring books to schools that had absolutely no textbooks. With us were Aspen Rotary members John and Linda Keleher (who’ve been on many such missions), young Andy Modell, George Hart, and Bill and Alice Meehan, aged 83 and 80. Chip: I have to tell you that we can’t speak about those kids without tears in our eyes. It was a very emotional experience for us.Larry: Well then, start by telling me about your exploration of the countryside. When I was there a long time ago, Guatemala was a fascinating and spectacularly beautiful place, and I’m curious about how it looks today after their terrible civil war. Marie: We took our Guatemala tour on our own, apart from the Aspen Rotary mission. First we landed in Guatemala City, but we spent zero time there.Larry: Yes, much as I liked Guatemala, I found Guatemala City to be a typical Third World capital – full of shabby concrete buildings, slums, heavy traffic, neon – the less said about it, the better.Marie: We flew from Guatemala City to see the ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal, deep in the jungle. Magnificent ruins of a long-lost civilization.

Larry: Yes, when I was in Tikal I felt that the ancient Mayans must have been a very great and very mysterious people. But tell me about the other places you went to. Lake AtitlanMarie: We went up to Lake Atitlan- a beautiful deep blue lake surrounded by mountains and three volcanoes. We stayed in a little Indian village called Santa Catarina in a very nice hotel right on the water. Nearby was Panajachel, also known as Gringo-tenango [tenango is Mayan for “the place of”], because so many gringo ex-pats live there by the lake. Panajachel has a huge marketplace where you can get just about any kind of craft that is made in Guatemala. Larry: I remember Lake Atitlan with its volcanoes as just gorgeous, and the local people were fascinating. When I was there each village wore a different costume, and you could tell where people came from just by looking at them. Chip: Yep, still true, and there are something like 12 villages around the lake. You get to them on Toyota trucks. You pay a couple of quetzals, you pile in with about 22 people, and you just hang on riding to the next village. Some villages have no roads, so it’s by burro or boat – there’s no other way to get there

A Mayan godMarie: We went to see Maximón. You pay a few quetzals to get into a little room where they have the statue of an idol. They have a lighted cigarette in his mouth, and they have a bottle of rum next to him, and they make offerings to him. There’s candles lit all around the room, a guy on his knees, and a family off to the side praying to Maximón and relighting his cigarette when it goes out.Larry: Is he a Catholic saint?Marie: No, he’s Maam, a Mayan underworld god, and Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador, and Saint Simon Peter – three persons all combined. You can see a statue of Christ on the cross there, too, and see regular Christianity – it was all mixed up together. This blending of the indigenous culture with the Spanish you see where ever you go. Around Lake AtitlanChip: The area around Lake Atitlan struck us so strongly that it’s on our short list of places to retire to. Guatemala is known as the land of eternal spring – the people are very friendly and, no matter what their lot in life, most of them seem joyful. They work very hard for a bare existence, but when you talk with them they want to help you any way they can.

Marie: Then we went to see San Pedro, which is another famous gringo hippie town. You could smell pot everywhere you walked. It’s a party town.Chip: Guatemalan coffee is very rich in flavor and they’re very proud of it, but the world crisis in the coffee market has hit Guatemala very hard. You see coffee beans growing on the trees, then the beans being dried, processed and finally packed in burlap bags to ship. All that work happens only through the sweat of someone’s brow. The working people are very poor and live very simply.Larry: Yes, it’s almost like looking backward 400 years to a life much as it was lived soon after the Spanish conquest.Antigua and ChichicastenangoChip: Let us tell you about Antigua and Chichicastenango. Antigua is just as it was in early Spanish days with bougainvillea flowers, fountains, squares, all very colonial and colorful with well-maintained old buildings in the Spanish style. A very romantic city, stunningly beautiful and a world apart. There’s another volcano there – altogether 33 volcanoes in Guatemala. And yet Antigua’s high-tech, too, with Internet cafes and dozens of language schools. Wealthy Guatemalans and gringos from all over the world go there to retire.Marie: And then we went to Chichicastenango with its famous Sunday market, where vendors come from all over Guatemala. We didn’t go to shop, just to see the spectacle. It’s amazing, with all the different colorful outfits that the women coming from all over the country wear. There’s blocks of kiosks, and anything you’d want to buy that’s Guatemalan is there. The inner part of the market is where they’re cooking the food and making tortillas by hand, and the smells are just wonderful.

Chip: There’s two churches, one for the sun and one for the moon, one for the living and one for the dead.Marie: Families have their own worshiping centers with candles and with Mayan rituals intermingling with Catholic. Outside, the church steps were just covered with people, some burning incense, some selling flowers, food and firewood. Chip: There’s no four-lane highways there, just two lanes. A constant game of chicken is played between the cars, the trucks and the chicken buses (so-called because the Indians carry chickens in them) – they’re refurbished old school buses from the United States. With their diesel engines, they are powerful. They climb these 12,000-foot mountain passes with ease and they pass where they shouldn’t. There’s this chicken bus coming right at you on a narrow, twisting mountain road, not one inch of road space left, the roof crammed with bundles, tires and whatever things people are taking – it’s an experience I’ll never forget. Larry: Now, tell me about your mission to the Mayan and Latino school kids.

Meeting the kidsMarie: On this trip we had about 25 Rotarians from all over the world, with 10 from our valley. The Guatemalan welcome wagon would really be out for us gringos. The locals would set up an inauguration ceremony on a stage with us Rotarians as dignitaries. We’d be taken to the stage with boys escorting the ladies and girls escorting the men. They’ll perform, sing and dance for you, play musical instruments, anything they can to give back in whatever way they can. They treated us as royalty. Chip: We all took turns organizing our presentation. Someone gave away a plaque, someone gave a speech for us, someone did the book giveaways. We gave four different kinds of books – usually math, sciences, social studies, and languages – then pens and pencils.Marie: After that, the kids would do a presentation for us, which would be the treat of the whole day. They dressed up in their traditional outfits, and they would sing and dance. One time they had a band and parade, and at one school the mayor was there and the whole town council; there were vendors selling cotton candy and trinkets, and it was just tremendous.Chip: We’d bring pictures of our homes, because these kids surround you and want you to talk to them, want to know where you’re from, and what kind of life you have back home. Most of us speak little or no Spanish, though Marie is fluent in the language, but we can all show them our pictures. We also brought them soccer balls, basketballs, Frisbees and a football. They had no idea what an American football was, so George Hart and John Keleher had to show them how to throw it.Marie: Andy was sternly criticized by a Dutch member of the trip for dressing like a vagrant. Andy’s polo shirt had holes in it, most of his clothes had stains, and his jeans were all tattered. Andy had read that we should dress down to blend in, but he took that to mean he should look like a street urchin. Anyway, Andy and the Dutch guy became very good friends before the trip was over.

How did this mission come about?Larry: Books aren’t that expensive, so how come Guatemala can’t afford ordinary schoolbooks?Chip: This country can’t afford anything. Ninety-three percent of rural Guatemalans are poor, 64 percent live on $2 a day, and they have the second-highest infant mortality rate in the hemisphere. Most schools don’t have books, the teachers write on the chalkboard, and the kids write all the lessons in their notebooks (if they have workbooks) so there isn’t a lot of interaction with the teachers. The books give the teachers time to teach, and studies show that the level of education rises 70 percent because of the textbooks. Larry: Was it always this bad, or was it due to their civil war?Chip: Their civil war went from 1960 to ’96 – 36 years and hundreds of thousands of people were killed, so you had generational illiteracy. When these books are introduced, the attendance level goes up, because the parents see that the kids at last are getting a real education. So instead of keeping them to work in the fields, they send them to school. It’s a very successful program.

Larry: Is this exclusively a Rotary project?Marie: Rotary is a major supporter, but there are other supporters for the project organizer, which is the “Cooperative for Education,” based in Cincinnati. There are over a thousand schools where they want to do this project, especially rural schools where illiteracy is so high … They’re also working with the new government, but in the past, the old government didn’t care what they did.A great way to travelLarry: Beside the great work that this Rotary mission is doing, it sounds like a wonderful way to travel, much more fun than an ordinary tour. Can I hear from a couple of other people on the mission?Marie: Sure!Later on …

John Keleher: It was a good group. Each day we’d have sort of a happy hour, which was a little unusual for a book tour- two of the leaders were Mormons- but the Aspen bunch sort of set the tone. George Hart kept us laughing, danced with some very pretty young girls at the festivities, and became a fan of Guatemalan rum.On a regular vacation you do a lot of touristy things – boating, beaching, see famous sights – all nice enough things to do – but the only locals you can meet are vendors, waiters and taxi drivers; you don’t really learn anything about their lives or the life of the country. But on these Rotary missions, we’d see places you’d never otherwise see in your life. We’d meet their children, visit with them and their parents. You might say you wouldn’t want to spend your vacation dollars distributing books in Guatemala, but what do you want to do on a vacation – just relax or expand your horizons? These trips beat sitting on the beach all day and drinking margaritas. Bill Meehan: My wife and I have traveled a lot in our 58 years of marriage, and I want to say that this trip was one of the most rewarding that we’ve ever made. The people were just dirt poor, but so clean, and it was hard to forget how they were struggling from day to day. It was so satisfying to hear these young children so sincere in their thanks, so loving that they’d hug us. They treated us like royalty; I’ll never forget that.Marie: It’s not like this country, where you give a short hug and an air kiss and leave. Down there, you realize that they’re still hanging on. They’ll sing and dance for you, play musical instruments, anything to give back in whatever way they can. Chip: We had a good time playing sports with the kids; we can do that without knowing Spanish. One kid just kept trying to tell me the same thing over and over again, and I couldn’t understand what this little person was trying to say. So I got one of the staff who speaks Spanish, and this kid was trying to tell me that I was a gift from God. It was overwhelming and just takes your breath away. And then the parents would come up and hug you and thank God for sending us to them.Larry: You guys did a wonderful job. I sure wish now that I’d gone with you.