My Host Family is Amazing!

For my first month here, I am staying in the house of a couple who are of age to be my parents – Argentina and Francisco. I didn’t know anything about them when I moved in, aside from the fact that they rent rooms to volunteers, travelers, and other foreigners coming through. They have been exceptionally kind and welcoming, always willing to help out with whatever I might need. Staying with them, thus far, has been a real pleasure.

As I have mentioned before, there are quite a few others staying in this sort of boarding house right now as well. One of them is a physical therapist from Ireland who is here working for an organization founded by Argentina and Francisco. It’s called ADISA – which stands for (in Spanish) the Association for Parents and Friends of People with Disabilities in Santiago Atitlan.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that these two amazing people I have the good fortune to know are doing amazing work in their community. In fact, the two of them are very well-recognized community members who have been working for the rights and well-being of disabled persons for many years. More than 20 years ago, Francisco and Argentina had their third child, Nila Eliza. She  was born with developmental disabilities, and there were no resources in the area available to help Francisco and Argentina in raising and caring for a special needs child. Although Nila, sadly, passed away when she was just 9 years old, Francisco and Argentina (and their oldest daughter, Andrea) have dedicated their lives to ensuring that disabled people and their parents have adequate care and resources right here in Santiago. Actually, even the family dog, Mos, is involved in the organization as a trained therapy dog who goes to work 5 days a week!

ADISA is a special education school, but they do more than that as well. In addition to educators, they hire physical therapists, occupational therapists, and social workers who provide individual attention to the ADISA students every day. They also make home visits for children too young to attend school, provide interpreters for parents who don’t speak Spanish, teach the art of turning recycled materials into jewelry and other crafts that are sold to benefit the organization, and donate games and tools to families who have disabled children. It’s truly a labor of love, and I am fortunate to know such a caring and committed family!

Because she knows I am a social worker, Argentina invited me to come along with her today on a home visit to the family of a 3-year old girl named Cecilia who was born blind and with developmental disabilities. So, Argentina and I went with Maria, a Tzu’tujil-Spanish interpreter, to the community of Chuk-Muk – a large area of government housing that was built for families who lost their homes in the mudslide of 2005. There, we met with Ceci, her mother, and her older sister, and I was able to observe Argentina’s work with the family.

She began by doing some tactile exercises with Cecilia, to establish trust and promote her sensory motor skills. I got to do a bit of this with Ceci as well – she responds well to toys that make noise and was quite playful! Argentina brought toys for Ceci that she left for the family to keep, and explained what other objects would be suitable for her – things that were practical and not expensive, since this family does not have a lot of resources.

Then, Argentina talked with Ceci’s mother and sister (through the interpreter) to create a visual social history of sorts for Cecilia. This is basically a way to situate Cecilia in her environment in a visual format – it is a creative way to involve the family in a conversation about Cecilia’s strengths and needs. Argentina called this a “mapeo,” and from my own social work perspective, it is an excellent tool for capturing family information and creating a basic service plan in collaboration with the client. This tool contains all of Cecilia’s basic information – her family, her housing situation, her medicines and physical health and abilities, her caretakers and other support systems – as well as some deeper personal information for the whole family – what Cecilia likes and dislikes, what her family’s short and long term goals are for her, and the recommended service plan to help her advance  along that path.

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(I was playing with Cecilia while Argentina drew this mapeo with the family).

This experience really illuminated for me the work that Francisco and Argentina do, the great need that exists in this community for these services, and the tremendous fortune I have to be living with such big-hearted people.

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Arrival

Yesterday, after a leisurely morning at my hotel in Guatemala City, I began what was to be a somewhat arduous journey to the town where I am now living for the next year, Santiago Atitlan.

Things started off pretty well… a driver with a van picked me up from the hotel, we swung by the airport to pick up another passenger, and were on our way! That’s when I found out he was not taking me directly to Santiago (as I was told by the hotel staff) but to a larger more touristy town across the lake called Panajachel. I expected a few kinks in the plan along the way, so this wasn’t a major setback. I knew I could take a boat across the lake once I got to Pana.

We began our drive and made one stop in Antigua, which reminded me a lot of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico (where I lived for a summer). As we waited for our new van with other passengers to arrive, I learned that there was a protest against the mayor of the state of Solola (where Panajachel and Santiago are located), and this protest was blocking the one major highway that goes to the lake. So…another delay. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to make the trip that day at all, but in the end, the driver decided he would probably be ok taking an alternate/back-roads route.

So, we were off!

And saw some pretty lovely views of Guatemalan countryside along the way…

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We actually made it to Panajachel with relative ease, and that’s when the real fun began! So, since I am staying here for a year, and clothing and personal hygiene items aren’t exactly readily available, plus I had lots of camera equipment and other electronics to bring, my luggage consisted of a 50-pound large roller suitcase, a 40-pound hiking backpack, and a 25-pound smaller bag containing my camera, laptop, wallet, passport, external hard drive – basically, my life. And with all of this heavy/bulky stuff, I had to walk across town to the dock, over some very shoddy boards leading out to the water, and into a small water taxi type boat. I ended up paying some random guy to help me with my bags, got on the very shaky boat, and across the lake we went! It had just rained so the water was pretty choppy, but the boat ride was still quite nice…aside from the fact that when we arrived, I heard the “captain” charging other passengers 15 quetzales, when he had charged me 60. *sigh*

Then came getting out of the boat. I had thought that the dock in Panajachel was bad, but that’s because I hadn’t yet experienced the one in Santiago. I was having nightmare visions of dropping my “life bag” in the water and watching my most precious possessions sink straight to the bottom of Lago Atitlan. Luckily, two nice gentlemen who were fellow boat passengers helped me get all my bags out of the boat (they were shocked that I had two big bags and at how heavy they were, and they joked that I must have packed my boyfriend in one of them!) Then, standing on this very delicate-seeming dock, I strapped on my backpack, carried my “life bag” in one hand, and attempted to roll the large suitcase, but the boards were so uneven and there were such large gaps between them (leading straight down to the water!) that I ended up having to carry it, very slowly because of how heavy it was, most of the way.

Still, all of that was okay, until I saw the very end of the dock. Apparently, some time ago, all of the boards had submerged well below the water so they had built a sort of make-shift pathway of small stones. These were literally like stepping stones, not big enough to stand on with both feet at one time, and about a foot apart each. Soon, I will go back and take a photo of this just to demonstrate how harrowing it was! Crossing those stones was a true feat, since I was loaded down with luggage, moving my large suitcase one stone at a time, balancing carefully, wearing way too much clothing, trying not to pee (more on that later), and praying that I wouldn’t just fall into the lake with all my stuff, while a bunch of locals on land watched (hopefully, they were at least amused). I still don’t know how I made it across that thing. Lucky for me, I was wearing my heavy duty rain/snow boots (because they were too bulky to pack), so I was able to step in the water a few times without having to worry.

Whew! Ok, so I made it onto dry land. But, at this point, I had to pee for the last 4 hours. Yes, since we left Antigua, I had been holding it. There was no bathroom to use anywhere along the way, and I had to keep making these transportation transfers fairly quickly, which didn’t give me time to look for a restroom. So, all I could think about was having to pee. When it comes down to it, bodily functions really are our most pressing needs. And speaking of pressing,  my hiking backpack has straps across the hips that were basically pressing right into my bladder, so that wasn’t helping.

So I had arrived on land, but then I was faced with was a giant cobblestone hill. Could not even see the top of it, and I knew that dragging my suitcase up it while weighed down with all the other stuff was not going to be easy. But hallelujah! there was a sign for “sanitarios” – bathrooms! – halfway up the hill. I paid 3 quetzales (like, 40 cents) to use a pretty gross bathroom, but it was possibly my most wonderful bathroom experience ever.

THEN, onward up the hill. It was pretty daunting. I made it about three quarters of the way, took a break to remove my jacket and relieve my back, and a guy came and “helped me.” I knew full well that he would expect payment for this service, but at that moment, frugality was not important.

ALSO, keep in mind, I had no idea where I was going! I had tried emailing all of my contacts in Guatemala (2 people) since the day before to find out the address of the place where I was staying, or where I should go to meet them, or what I should do, and didn’t receive any response (until much later when it didn’t matter anymore). All I knew was that I had housing arrangements at some place referred to as “la casa de Argentina” and I actually had no idea what that even was!

So, I asked my luggage helper if he knew where la casa de Argentina was, and thank god – he did! He got me a tuk-tuk (little golf cart type taxi), got in with me, and off we went! We showed up outside of a house and a woman named Argentina was there to greet me, and actually knew who I was! So, that was a huge relief! Then the luggage helper and tuk-tuk driver swindled way more money out of me than I should have paid, but such is the life of a gringa in Guatemala…

She was extremely nice and welcoming and ushered me into the house. That’s when things got interesting, again. So, Argentina and Francisco are this couple who live in a pretty big house near the city center. They rent rooms in the upstairs of their house to travelers who are usually staying a few months, or sometimes longer. They also have two apartments they rent out, one that is upstairs with the other rooms, and another next door. All of this sounded great! Argentina was telling me about the people who were currently staying there – a guy from Ireland, two girls from Penn, a Japanese nurse, a Belgian girl – all of whom are here working or volunteering, most of them only for the summer.

But, Argentina had kind of forgotten when I was going to be arriving…she apologized for this profusely. But basically, she had no rooms available. Not only are all the upstairs rooms occupied, the Irish guy has his brother and a friend visiting him (and sleeping on the couch up there) for a month. So…where does this leave me?

I’m still not really sure. Argentina has given me a room downstairs, in the part of the house that is really her house. It’s nice, comfortable, has a bed to sleep in and I can use the communal bathroom, so that’s really everything I need. But, I think that either Argentina or her husband usually sleeps in this room? Unlike the rooms upstairs that are meant for renting, this one is full of stuff. Mostly creepy dolls. This disabled/wheelchair Barbie is probably my favorite.

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Anyway, I am able to stay here (which is really very nice of Argentina and her husband) for the time being. And then when someone moves out of one of the upstairs rooms, which I am told will be in about two weeks, I will move up there. And then, on August 1st, when the current occupant of the apartment next door leaves, I will move in there! So, I’m kind of bouncing around and living out of my suitcases this first month, but it gives me something to look forward to!

I went out last night with most of the upstairs residents to a little bar down the way, and they’re all very nice and seem to get along really well, and have been very friendly with me. Argentina cooks meals for us, which thus far have been vegetarian and very tasty. And I got to walk around the town a bit today! I am still waiting to meet Dolores, the woman I will be working with here in Natik’s various programs, so on the work end of things, it’s kind of a slow start…gearing up, if you will. But that’s just kind of the Latin American way, in my experience. And this first month is really about me getting oriented to the place, the programs, the organization, the people. So, I’m sure work will be underway soon!