Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 8 – Eve of Departure

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It is our last full day in Guatemala and we will be spending it primarily resting from the week and taking in some sights. Today is different than all our other days in that we will not be having breakfast at the River House but will be traveling by boat from Panajachel to have brunch at a hotel called La Casa del Mundo. Part of what makes La Casa del Mundo unique is that it is only reachable by boat or hiking trail. The hotel is literally built into the side of a steep hill overlooking Lake Atitlán. The food was excellent and it afforded an absolutely stunning view of the lake. After brunch we had some time to hang out. I immediately found a comfortable chair and enjoyed the view while reading a book – for me the definition of heaven! (The picture at the top of this post was my view for the morning.)

After brunch some of our group went back to Panajachel to go zip lining. About half of the combined group (St. Mark’s UMC & John’s Creek UMC) went to San Juan La Laguna for a demonstration of local dyeing and weaving techniques and some shopping. The small shop we visited was off the main street and was run by a co-op of women who joined together to sell their wares. The demonstration was interesting and we had an opportunity to buy some of their products after the demonstration.

I did have one item that I wanted to buy while we were in San Juan. It was a painting of the Last Supper. There were a couple of things that made the painting distinctive. One was that the painting was painted as if looking from above, a technique that is found in many of the local paintings, especially marketplace scenes. Secondly, each of the disciples are depicted wearing the characteristic dress from one of the twelve villages around Lake Atitlán. The villages are named after the twelve apostles, so the dress from the village named after a particular disciple is worn by the disciple in the painting. I am including a photo of the painting so you can see what I mean. There is a copy of the painting in the dining room at the River House and I was drawn to it immediately when I first saw it. Tom Heaton, the director of Mission Guatemala, had told me that it was available in a certain shop in San Juan and I was delighted to successfully purchase a copy!
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Tonight we will have our final dinner at River House. We will rise early in the morning and head to Guatemala City to catch our flight back to Atlanta and then Indianapolis.

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Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 7 – Farewells & Blessings

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Today was our last day on the worksite at Las Canoas Baja working on the playground. We made a significant amount of progress on the playground equipment. We also spent more time than usual playing with the children in the schoolyard – kicking balls, taking pictures, practicing our meager Spanish vocabulary, and delightedly listening to our small children companions as they tried out some new found English phrases. Shakespeare penned the line that “parting is such sweet sorrow” and we discovered the existential reality of that phrase today. I have been on many mission trips but I have never experienced the depth of farewell that we experienced with our local co-workers today. It was truly inspiring.

Rather than recount the day in this particular post I want to share a personal serendipity. Because there were two work teams at Mission Guatemala this week our main construction person, Elias, spent time at both sites making sure the work was being done properly. This meant that he left us today at midday to go to the other site where a team from John’s Creek UMC (outside of Atlanta, Georgia) was working. Elias said his farewell to our group through our local translator for the week, a wonderful young man named Diego. Through Diego’s voice in translating, he thanked us for our hard work and for being such a fun group to work with. And then I heard Diego say, “And may your future generations be blessed.”

These words really touched me for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that almost all of the work that we did this week was an effort to bless the future generations in the communities that we worked. Both of our projects were at schools and our hope is the children that are fed at the kitchen we worked on and the children who play on the playground we began constructing will indeed be blessed. In that moment of his blessing I hoped that we had been a blessing through our work and through our playing with Guatemala’s future leaders this week. It seemed as if I could almost hear the voice of God saying, “As you did it to the least of these, my children . . .”

His words also touched me at a very personal level. Being a parent who has watched two of his children die I know what a risky business parenting can be and I am grateful for any blessing on my progeny at any opportunity. I often worry about outliving all of my children, a worry that I have experienced as not uncommon among bereaved parents. My Guatemalan co-worker had no way to know the story of my life or the losses that I have experienced. As a matter of fact, his blessing was not even directed at me personally, but to our group as a whole. Nonetheless, I felt blessed.

When you lose a child there is an emptiness that is persistent and indescribable. There are, however, moments that call you back to life and hope and today I experienced one of those moments from the words of blessing in a language I couldn’t understand, translated by a friend I had met only a few days earlier.

When I remember this trip I will remember many things. I will remember the warm fellowship of our team. I will remember the kinship we have felt with our companion team from Georgia. I will remember the passion and competence of the leaders and staff of Mission Guatemala.

But I suspect my future remembering of this week will be defined by the reality that while my intention was to be a blessing to our neighbors in Guatemala I instead found myself the recipient of an indescribable moment of blessing – not just as a team member but as a father.

Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 6 – Wednesday & Thursday

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If Tuesday of this week was described by the word “concrete” then Wednesday could well be describe by the word “holes.”

After finishing the floor at the kitchen at Nueva Victoria we moved on to begin work on a playground at the school in Las Canoas Baja. This school has over 325 elementary students with fifteen teachers. When we arrived at the school they called a student assembly outside in the cement plaza. The principal introduced all the students and had each of us introduce ourselves. This has been the pattern everywhere we have been this week. There have been formal introductions and welcome rituals. It is heart warming to be welcomed with such joy and enthusiasm!

We spent most of Wednesday afternoon digging post holes in preparation for the construction of a wooden playground structure – slide, swings and jungle gym. As per usual, by the end of the day we were tired and dirty but we did get a lot of holes dug.

I spent most of the morning in a truck with Dave Burns who, along with Tom Heaton, is one of the primary forces behind Mission Guatemala. We spent the morning getting a small cement mixer to the our companion work site (yes, they got a small electric mixer making us a little jealous) and picking up a truck full of lumber to be used for the playground equipment. After we arrived back at Las Canoas Baja our team unloaded the lumber and moved it to a second story room at the school where it would be stored until we needed it.

On Wednesday night we had an evening shopping in Panajachel and then a nice dinner at a restaurant where we enjoyed great food but also some wonderful cultural entertainment. The entertainment was provided by the owner of the restaurant and his family. His three daughters played marimbas with renditions of traditional Guatemalan tunes. We had a hands on course in tortilla making which included a tortilla making contest. Then the owner shared some history of Guatemala along with some stories about faith and traditions in Guatemalan culture. It was an entertaining and satisfying evening.

On Thursday morning we began with a little adventure by walking across a suspension footbridge that crosses a beautiful ravine. It was absolutely gorgeous.

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In the morning we finished digging holes and then began constructing our first section of playground equipment. It was in the construction of this equipment that we encountered a developing world problem. Although we had a nice power drill at some point someone had lost the chuck key which allows you to tighten the drill bit. In America replacing this would require a five minute trip to the hardware store for a part that would cost a couple of dollars. However, we weren’t near a hardware store and even if we were it is not likely that their meager inventory would include what we needed. So a job that could have taken a lot less time and had a lot less frustration was stifled because of the lack of a chuck key.

We were able to set the first section of the playground which involved mixing more concrete. It was gratifying to see some visible progress and we look forward to tomorrow’s work. We have a constant parade of onlookers from the children at the school and several of our younger team members have enjoyed playing schoolyard games with them. A particular favorite is “The Hokey Pokey” which one of our team knew in Spanish. It is a joy to watch!

There are many details I am sure that I am omitting but suffice it to say that we continue to find God’s presence manifest wherever we go and have found the people of Guatemala to be warm and welcoming.

Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 5 – Tuesday

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In a lot of ways it is easy to describe today in one word – concrete! We spent most of the day mixing it and pouring it as we completed the floor in the kitchen at Nueva Victoria today. We still have to complete a section of sidewalk/porch for the kitchen in the morning but we did a lot of work today and we were all really dirty and tired at the end of the day.

Just so you know what mixing cement is like in a developing area, let me describe the process which I have experienced in Mexico, Peru, and now Guatemala. Concrete contains four ingredients – cement mix, sand, gravel, and water. In our world these would all be combined in a mixer and poured into the space where we want it to be. Our day started by moving twelve wheelbarrows of sand, combining it with four bags of mix into a big pile. We then moved that pile six feet away and back several times to mix the sand and cement mix. Then you create a volcano like pile and put the gravel in the middle. You then mix water with shovels and hoes. After the mix is right, and this is where we rely on our local expert, the concrete is then shoveled into five gallon buckets and then carried thirty feet to the room where it is poured onto the floor and smoothed by hand using a trowel. Imagine doing this for a 10×20 foot room and you have the idea. (Once, when I was working in the Mexican Yucatan we did the same thing on a second floor room which involved passing the buckets up a ladder!)

Needless to say, by the end of the day we had concrete from head to toe and we were very tired. However, we were also very satisfied with the job we had done!

We began our day today by passing out coloring books and crayons that we had brought with us from Indiana to the students at the school where we are working on the kitchen. The children were thrilled with their gifts and several of the classes sang for us. Our translator and guide from Mission Guatemala, a young man named Diego, introduced us and played games with a couple of the classes and we all thought that watching Diego interact with the children was a real treat. We are really enjoying our time with Diego and we all think he is a blessing to us and we are grateful that Mission Guatemala has him as one of their staff members.

I want to say that I have been so inspired by the rest of the team from St. Mark’s. Today was a really long work day and from start to finish every team member was willing to chip in where needed and did it with a sense of joy and good humor. There was a lot of laughter throughout the day as well as on the van ride home which made the trip seem shorter. (I won’t mention the singing along with popular songs on the way home which had one of our local coworkers laughing and dancing in his seat!)

It was a productive and joyful day!

As a final note I want to mention that I will not be blogging tomorrow night. On Wednesday nights the work teams here at Mission Guatemala go into Panajachel, the town in which we are staying, and have dinner at a nice restaurant.

Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 4 – Monday

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Today was a busy day for us. We met for prayer before breakfast and after breakfast we traveled to the medical clinic for a short tour of the clinic and the preschool there. The clinic includes a pharmacy, a dental clinic and a general medicine clinic. We met the doctor enjoyed hearing about the many ways Mission Guatemala is able to impact people’s lives through healthcare ministries.

Personally, it was fun to see several hundred boxes of food from Kids Against Hunger since our church is part of a big packing day with Kids Against Hunger every year.

As always, though, it was the children who stole our hearts. During our brief visit at the preschool adjoining the medical clinic we enjoyed interacting with the kids. I was a big hero with one little boy when I took his picture and then showed him the picture. He wanted to swipe the screen so I loaded a game and he immediately started playing the game. I was obviously not the first person to introduce him to a smart phone!

Our group from St. Mark’s traveled about 45 minutes into the mountains to work at a small village that had been displaced a few years ago by hurricane damage and had moved en masse to the mountains. To get there we had to travel by a gravel road up one mountain, down another, and back up again to a height of over 8,000 feet.

A couple of people in our group worked with a dentist who was there for the day to do tooth extractions. We were all impressed by the courage of the kids and the support of the families as the kids had their examination with the dentist. Many of them had very poor dental hygiene which is sad. As part of the examination each patient was given a toothbrush and a large tube of toothpaste.

The majority of our group worked on finishing a new kitchen for the school. The old kitchen is basically a fragile wood and tin structure with an open fire inside. The new kitchen consists of a sink with running water, a large preparation table, and two wood burning stoves in a cement block structure. Our job today was to plaster the outsides of the stoves and preparation table and to prepare the dirt floor for a new cement floor as well as preparing an area in front of the kitchen for a sidewalk/porch. We finished most of the plastering and preparation and hope that we will be able to pour the concrete floor and porch tomorrow.

The drive to and from the village was a little adventurous as it involved a lot of switch backs on gravel roads with no guard rails. We are very thankful for our driver who navigated the roads with a lot of experience and confidence.

Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 3 – Sunday

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Today we spent the day learning about Guatemala which included a trip to nearby Chichicastenango, which most locals simply call “ChiChi.” This involved driving up a winding mountain road that overlooks Lake Atitlán. The photo at the top of this blog pictures the team from St. Mark’s at an overlook above the lake. There are three inactive volcanoes on the other side of the lake. It is absolutely stunning.

Once we arrived in Chichicastenango we exchanged currency, had a very nice lunch at a local restaurant, and then got to experience one of the largest outdoor marketplaces in Central America. It is sometimes overwhelming dealing with the pleas of people to buy their goods and I think it was especially difficult for some in our group who were new to the experience. We also visited a couple of Roman Catholic Churches, one of which was constructed in the sixteenth century. Several of us also toured a small museum on the local history. Overall, it was a great way to start our week in getting to know a little more about the local culture.

When we began lunch in the restaurant the final match of the World Cup between Argentina and Germany was just starting. We watched the first half of the match with a very animated Argentina fan at the next table. Throughout the afternoon wherever we went there were television screens with people watching the match – even at the little history museum. It was amazing!

After our time in the marketplace we attended a worship service at a United Methodist Church in ChiChi. Even though we could not understand everything that was sung or said, the spirit of worship was universal. The pastor was warm in his welcome of us and we were energized by the time of worship. It got particularly exciting when someone a few houses away began setting off fireworks at the beginning of the sermon. The preacher for the evening was a bilingual pastor from California and she did a great job of carrying on through the booms and pops of the fireworks.

We ended the day with a great meal back at River House when we received our work assignments for the week. Tomorrow we will be traveling to a rural village to help with a school kitchen project that is near completion. Looking forward to the new day here in Guatemala!

Thoughts about 2014 Guatemala Mission Trip – Part 2 – Arrival

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When you haven’t made a trip like this in awhile you forget how exhausting it is to travel this far. Today was an exciting day as we arrived in Guatemala. It was also a very tiring day as we got up very early to make it to the airport for our 8:45 AM departure time. This meant that we met at the airport to check in at 6:30 AM.

Our team arrived in Guatemala City early in the afternoon and then had a three hour bus ride to Panajachel where we will spend tonight before moving to the River House tomorrow. River House is the dormitory created by Mission Guatemala to house the work teams. Because of flight schedules there is a slight overlap of teams – the workers from this past week are still at the River House. They will leave early tomorrow morning for Guatemala City and we will take their place. Tom Heaton and his team really have this down to a science and everything has gone perfectly to schedule.

There is another team here this week from the north side of Atlanta, Georgia. The photo with this blog post is from dinner where we are all sharing a meal and getting to know each other better.

We really have a great team representing St. Mark’s UMC. Six of our ten team members are in their teens and it is exciting to see their enthusiasm for the country and for the work being done here. What a great group of young travelers!

Tomorrow we attend worship and also learn more about the area and Mission Guatemala but for tonight I think we are all looking forward to a good night’s sleep after sharing such a great meal.

¡Buenas noches, amigos!