“Go On, Git”

I’m excited about Juan Jose’ and Crystel growing up. Each milestone they have, I celebrate.

Sometimes, I’m ready before they are.

I couldn’t wait for Juan Jose’ to learn how to ride his bike without training wheels. Crystel had been riding for months. Finally, I convinced him to give it a try. We went to a grassy knoll at our nearby park. Along with his bike helmet, he insisted on wearing knee, elbow and wrist pads. If he could have figured out how to bungee a pillow around his waist, I’m sure that he would have.

With a push, I launched him. At high speed, he sailed down the rise, pedaled when he hit the flat field, and after he biked as far as he could, he fell.

From that moment, he had enough confidence to bike on his own.

Some parents lament time passing too quickly for their children. I’m loving it. It can’t come quick enough for me. Is this because I’m an older parent? I’m 58-years old with two 14-year olds. I want to be present for all of their firsts.

Or, is it because I was numb as a teenager? I thought I’d be dead by the time I was 25.

Through Juan Jose’ and Crystel, I experience their thrills, their excitement, and their fear. I get to see what being alive looks like.

Recently, Juan Jose’, Crystel, and a friend attended a moped driving class. I expected there to be other 14-year-olds in the classroom. When I opened the door, I was surprised. There were adults with tattoos, mustaches, beards, muscle shirts, and bulking biceps sitting at desks.

I pushed the children into the classroom without any protective gear. All of a sudden, they were surrounded by a classroom of grownups. They were launched.

I told the teacher, “I found these folks looking for the moped class.” Now, they are learning to drive.

 

Jumping into the Unknown

Ziplining to some would be the ultimate adrenaline rush, whooshing from point to point above the treeline attached to a cable.

Zach, Crystel, and Antonio on the launch

Zach was officially our guide on our zipline adventure at the Atitlan Nature Reserve. The 14-year-old and our two nine-year-olds had become comfortable with each other. They were bonded by the mutual experience of being adopted and meeting their birthmoms. During our launch from Santa Cruz la Laguna to the shore of Panajachel where we would start our trek through the jungle to the zipline, they talked about their visit.

Zach showed the necklace he received from his birthmom, Crystel showed her earrings, and Antonio described the weavings he received. All these gifts were very important to the children – a connection to their Guatemalan family.

The start of our trek

Just as their life is complicated, a crooked tree marked where our path started. We walked upwards on an ancient trail, stepped lightly over hanging bridges, and kept our eyes and ears open for spider monkeys.

The Ziptrek tour covers close to 35 acres of land. For 1 ½ hours we rode a total of eight ziplines ranging from 295 ft. to 1050 ft. along waterfalls, canyons, the valley and a coffee grove forest.

Zach, Antonio, Jody Crystel, Beth – ready to zipline

Ziplining took my breath away. Especially the first time that I let go and zipped above the valley, above the top of trees. If the cable breaks, it is a long ways down. A mother thinks of these things, even if she is just thinking of herself. True, after the first zipline it got less and less scary and I was more able to enjoy the view. Still, I was breathless.

Jumping off the cliff at San Marcos had been a warm-up for this. You take a leap into space without being hooked to a cable. You couldn’t see the water below before sprinting off of the platform. You had to assume the water was there to catch you.

Crystel on the zipline

After our zipline adventure Antonio was brave enough to ask the staff in Spanish to order us a tuk tuk to take us into the town of Panajachel.

Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel what was scariest, jumping off the cliff at San Marcos, ziplining, or meeting their birthmom? Without hesitation they both said meeting their birthmom. Ziplining came third.

For Antonio and Crystel, meeting their birthmom was jumping into the unknown. Will she like me? Will I like her? What will it be like to look into the eyes of the woman who gave me life? The mom who hasn’t raised me? Who hasn’t grown up with me? Who opened her arms and gave me to someone else?

Antonio loving the tuk tuk he ordered

Jody and I were there to catch our children if meeting their birthmom went awry. Yet, we couldn’t take that first step for them. They had to take that leap into the unknown all by themselves and trust that they could weather what came.

San Juan la Laguna

Leaving San Marcos la Laguna for San Juan la Laguna

After cliff jumping in San Marcos la Laguna, I was expecting to hike back down the trail to the dock of San Marcos instead Lee Beal motioned to where he was standing on a large outcropping of rock and a launch appeared.This happened throughout our six-day stay with Lee and Elaine Beal. Everything was taken care of from the moment we met Lee in the supermarket in Panajachel, helping us purchase needed groceries, to setting up weaving sessions for Antonio and Crystel in a Guatemalan casa, to Elaine popping corn for us in the evening after providing us with a relaxing massage.

Rising water in San Juan

Jody and I were able to unwind in a country where English isn’t the first, second or third language and more than a dozen Mayan dialects are spoken.It was with this feeling of being taken care of that we stepped onto the shores of San Juan la Laguna, a traditional, Tzutuhil village, of approximately 8000 inhabitants.

Water is rising in Lake Atitlan, swallowing homes and restaurants that are close to the lake. Author, Joyce Maynard, who has a home in San Marcos wrote an article for the New York Times describing how it personally affected her.

Rising waters are apparent in San Juan as you approach the dock. The level of the lake has reportedly risen 18 feet since Tropical Storm Agatha leaving many structures near the shore underwater.

The streets of San Juan are remarkably clean and well maintained. Street murals painted by local artists can be viewed at every street corner. The village is full of local artists and small galleries. Lee walked into a gallery and introduced us to an artist. Jody and I eyed the artwork on the wall . We knew before leaving Minnesota that we wanted to bring paintings home with us. This was a perfect opportunity. By buying the art, it felt like we were directly helping the artist and the cooperative.

Walter Mendoza artist. Two paintings that came home with us. The top painting, a common sight – women carrying a basket on their head. The second painting – three women are wearing the dress of their village and weaving colors that signify the village they come from.

Kitty-corner from the art gallery was another gallery that was highlighting student’s art. Antonio and Crystel each picked an art piece that a child their age had painted.

Our destination was lunch at Comedor Elenita.

  

The Menu “Del Dia” (menu of the day) was written on a greaseboard. After placing our order, we left Antonio and Crystel with Zach. You can easily walk to any part of San Juan within minutes. Antonio, Crystel, and Zach were playing a game of table football when we returned. Jody and I could see how bonded Antonio and Crystel were becoming to Zach whose story was similar to theirs. The three of them were starting to share information about meeting their birthmoms and their Guatemalan traits. Zach commented to Antonio how he would like to be able to do his hair just like him. A simple and powerful statement to a nine-year-old boy!

Learning how yarn is made

After lunch we visited a women’s textile cooperative, learning how yarn was made and dyed with local natural plant materials. We were also shown weaving on the traditional back-strap loom which Antonio and Crystel were practicing first hand in Santa Cruz. In fact, that afternoon, they would continue their weaving lesson when we returned.

Crystel and Zach tried on traditional dress. The older generations, in their 60’s and 70’s still wear the traditional dress of San Juan. We purchased the blouse that Crystel is wearing with a skirt. She had her own wish list – she told us before leaving Minnesota that she would like to return with traditional Mayan clothes.

Women wear their traje (complete outfit) with a corte (skirt) and huipil (shirt) and a faja (belt) while the men wear the hand-woven pants, a colorful shirt, and a cloth belt.

Visiting a local museum, we saw portraits of daily life, customs and traditions of San Juan. I especially enjoyed the photographs on the wall. In this photo Lee was explaining the artifacts and how they are used.

After leaving the museum we headed to a tienda to purchase candles for a Mayan Fire Bowl Ceremony and ran into masked locals dancing. Masked dances are a Maya tradition in Guatemala for the festival of each town. There are around thirty different dances performed in the Maya villages of Guatemala.

Traditional masked dancing.

After returning to Santa Cruz Antonio and Crystel had their weaving lesson in the village while Jody and I relaxed at Los Elementos. Zach headed out with Antonio and Crystel to do a little cliff jumping (now that they were professionals) off the rocks of Santa Cruz. Antonio kayaked by himself and Crystel caught a ride with Zach.The children were growing up right in front of our eyes.

Surprises in San Marcos la Laguna

Every morning I took a photo from our patio of what the novelist, Aldous Huxley, described as, “…really too much of a good thing.” Lake Atitlan takes its name from the Mayan word, “atitlan,” which translates to, “the place where the rainbow gets it’s colors.”

Volcano and lake, height and depth, pointed and vast, cradled me for five nights and six days. I felt taken care of regardless of what was or what would be. 2,895.3 miles from Minnesota, my family and I were home. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel were perceptibly at peace as well.

Antonio and Elizabeth waiting for launch

Across the lake from our suite at Los Elementos, Volcano Toliman rose up with Volcano Atitlan behind it.  Owners, Lee Beal and his wife, Elaine, reinvented their lives in Guatemala. They have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz la Laguna on Lake Atitlan for the past five years. They came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. They originally started working with a local nonprofit Amigo de Santa Cruz. Lee now serves on the board of directors. As he and others learned more about the people of Santa Cruz, they realized there was a need for jobs. The CECAP vocational training center run by Amigos helps fulfill that need.

Dock at San Marcos–homemade signs telling us where to go

Lee’s background as an entrepreneur in the horticultural field gave him the experience and basis to introduce a new cash crop to the area. He has developed a Vetiver Grass program, which is a good fit with the agricultural culture of the local people. This is a multi-year program that will not yield profits for 3-5 years, but will make an impact in the long-term. Lee and Elaine wanted to expand on the idea of creating new jobs, and from this idea grew Los Elementos Day Spa and Los Elementos Adventure Center.

Classes available on San Marcos

Elaine has trained over a dozen local women to do manicures and pedicures and has trained three women as massage therapists. Each of these training programs offers the women employment opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise.

Lee developed a series of tours, hikes, kayak excursions, rock climbing, and cultural sharing opportunities through Los Elementos Adventure Center. He has been employing two local guides trained through INGUAT on some of the tours and have been training a dozen local youth to develop the skill sets needed to be a guide.

Medicinal and curative garden

Accompanying us to San Marcos la Laguna was Zach, a 14-year-old adventure “guide in training” who was staying with Lee and Elaine. Zach’s personal story is similar to Antonio and Crystel’s. He was born in and adopted from Guatemala, he met his birth family for the first time last year, and he returned to Lake Atitlan and Los Elementos as an intern. It was our good fortune that Zach would be our guide for much of our stay. Antonio and Crystel had someone ‘just like them’ to hang with.

Lee had arranged our day for us. We were picked up at his dock and ferried twenty minutes to San Marcos. The waters were calm on Lake Atitlan as they usually are in the morning. They don’t kick up until noon. This surprising turn-around is known as the Xocomil winds.

Medicinal and curative garden

Stepping onto the shores of San Marcos is walking into New Age. Signs greeted us touting Astral Traveling, Metaphysics, Kabbalah, Tarot reading, Reiki and more. The village has several meditation, yoga, and massage centers. Walking up the foot path to the main center, Lee pointed out medicinal and curative plants and elaborated on their use and origin. Banana, coffee, and avocado trees blended with the landscape.

Mayan calendar

Next to the walkway was a wall with beautiful colorful paintings including a Mayan calendar.

We came to a wall on our right made of plastic bottles. Project Pura Vida or what I call the bottle project finally made sense to me. The evening before in their home, Elaine had shown me how she was putting plastic trash in a bottle. She had a stick she used to compress the waste. But it was the moment that I saw the wall in San Marcos that I understood what she was doing.

The bottle project – Pura Vida

The bottle of trash would be joined with other bottles and become a wall for a home. In more technical terms, the construction technique consists of stacking thousands of bottles between a shelter’s wooden supports, holding them in place with chicken wire, then applying concrete to create what looks like a typical concrete wall.

Close-up of construction

The walls are cheaper than those built with cement blocks, which is the material typically used in low-cost construction in Guatemala. The plastic core also makes the walls more flexible—and thus less dangerous—than block walls in the event of an earthquake.

Pura Vida began in January 2004 as a pilot project in San Marcos to solve the local problems of garbage.

Walking towards path that will lead us to cliff jumping

One of Lake Atitlan’s greatest attractions is the cliffs of San Marcos. Our group headed towards a dirt path that led up the side of the mountain when a very large sack fell out of the sky and hit me on my head. After I straightened up and shook off the shock, Lee explained that the locals unloading a truck were looking at me and not where they were throwing. I have often told people I need to be hit on the head to get the message, so it was kind of funny in a spiritual sort of way. Still, I missed the esoteric message that was divined for me.

Zach, preparing to jump

The sack incident was not on anyone’s mind a short while later when we were standing on a diving platform three stories above the cool waters of Lake Atitlan. We quickly determined that Zach should be first to jump. 

Sometimes all it takes is one. If that first person can make it safely through an adventure, then we figure it will be okay for the rest of us. I wasn’t any stranger to cliff jumping, having jumped and dived off the cliff at Spring Valley dam in Wisconsin when I was a teenager. Still, it was frightening. My heart went up, my body went down and that feeling didn’t dissipate on any of my next jumps. The kids kept telling me to do a pencil dive. I screamed and waved my arms crazily instead. Lee pointed out a tree that hung out over the water to Antonio. Without hesitation, just like at home, Antonio scampered up the trunk, inched out on a limb, and swung off into the water. He did this over and over and over.

Elizabeth not doing a pencil dive

Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel which was scarier, meeting their birth moms, or jumping three stories off of a cliff. In unison, they said, meeting their birth moms. The bar was set. Their world had opened up. From the moment they met their greatest fear, they leaped beyond their nine years.