Unknown Adventure

Juan Jose’, Ani, Rosa

“She needs a blood transfusion, and then if possible surgery. The hospital is so busy because of the volcano victims.”

As of June 6, 2018, At least 192 people are missing and 75 are dead as a result of the explosion of the Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala according to the BBC news.

“Her blood levels are very low. She has to be in the hospital. She did not know. It was a surprise.”

Jody, Juan Jose’, Crystel and I are traveling towards the Volcano of Fire. Before our trip is over, we will learn that entire villages on the slopes of Fuego volcano were buried in volcanic ash, mud and rocks. Hundreds of Guatemalans

San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala. photo credit, Juan Jose’

are dead. Some have lost entire families.

Eight years ago, Volcano Pacaya erupted. Juan Jose’ and Crystel were 7. When we

landed in Guatemala on that trip, their first visit to Guatemala, volcanic ash was being shoveled from the airline strip.

Crystel’s words were, “We are in my country now.”

This will be our fifth visit to Guatemala.

Alex Vicente Lopez, Guide Extraordinaire

Before every trip, as I do with all of our vacations, I researched extensively. This year, I had planned a sailing adventure, leaving from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, sailing into Lake Izabal, and then on to the Caribbean after our visit with Rosa, Juan Jose’s birth mom.

All trip planning stopped, and we cancelled the sailing trip when we received a message that Rosa had advanced cancer.

This unpredictable country is Juan Jose’s and Crystel’s birthplace. Devastation, poverty, and constant struggle is a reality in Guatemala. News of volcanic eruptions and the hardships of birth moms who have given their children up in adoption slice Jody and I to the core. We provide what help we can. Our message to Juan Jose’ and Crystel is to be proud of where they come from.

Kayak Guatemala, Los Elementos Our Happy Place

Crystel was born in Amatitlan, in the shadow of Volcano Pacaya. Juan Jose’ is from the mountains of Rabinal. His grandfather and great grandfather died in the Civil War.

Through the help of our village of friends in Guatemala: Lee and Elaine Beal of Los Elementos Adventure Center, Lesly Villatoro, of El Amor De Patricia, and the organization De Familia a Familia, we received assistance for Rosa. Lesly accompanied

Rosa to the doctor. Rosa learned that she didn’t have cancer but a large fibroid that needed to be removed. We would be able to visit with her on our last day in Guatemala with De Familia a Familia providing interpretation services.

As in our four previous trips, we would stay at Los Elementos and have Alex Vicente Lopez as our guide for our 5-day stay at Lake Atitlan. And we’d have many unknown

Crystel in native dress. A gift from Juanita, Alex’s wife.

adventures, because plans can suddenly change.

We would be vacationing in Crystel’s and Juan Jose’s ever-changing birth country – traveling towards 37 volcanoes, 3 of them active, and 1 erupting.

Amongst the poverty, devastation, and volcanoes we would find beauty. Guatemalans are strong, proud, and loving.

Their country beautiful.

 

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STRAIGHT TALK about TEENAGE BOYS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery week on Sunday, I receive an email alert about new nonfiction titles that are new to Hennepin County Library.That’s how I came to have in my hand the paperback STRAIGHT TALK with YOUR KIDS ABOUT SEX by Josh and Dottie McDowell.

Skimming the book, I stopped at page 127 and read: A young couple that lives near us always asks if there is an older brother in the family where their children have been invited. If there is, they have a family policy that the kids must play at their house, not at the neighbor’s. They also have a policy that no teenage boy will ever babysit their kids. This may seem strict, but it is simply for the safety of their children.

That’s when I knew that I had to write about my experience with teenage boys babysitting our children.

Antonio, Crystel and Charlie

Antonio, Crystel and Charlie

Ten years ago, with intention, Jody and I brought teenage boys into our home and into our lives.

We are lucky to have had teenage boys in charge of and responsible for our children.

Our family unit consists of two women, a boy, a girl, two dogs, two cats, two hamsters, and 10 fish.I can’t imagine the boy and the girl growing up without the experience of having other boys and men in their life. Well, maybe I can imagine, which is why we purposely have uncles that visit them on a regular basis and have had Charlie and Sam as their babysitter.

Though, Crystel has informed us that she is never, ever going to get married, how in the world would she learn to be at ease in the company of men if she didn’t have older males in her life? And, what message would we be sending Antonio about his worth as a male if we align ourselves with the belief that teenage boys are not safe?I agree that men are a different species. Antonio, our son, is one of those species. He needs to know how to navigate with his kind. He isn’t going to gain that knowledge secluded in a house full of women.

Antonio LOVED to eat snow. Here he had a whole snowman to eat!

Antonio LOVED to eat snow. Here he had a whole snowman to eat!

Down the street from us lived a house full of boys. I walked down to that house 10 years ago when Antonio and Crystel came home with us from Guatemala and asked their single mother if her sons would like a babysitting job. Charlie was 13-years-old when he started caring for Antonio and Crystel. Antonio and Crystel were still in diapers and not yet walking. And, yes, Charlie has changed their diapers a time or two. Charlie continued babysitting Antonio and Crystel right up until he was 17-years-old and then his brother Sam took over.

Sam was 12 going on 13 when he took over their care. Sam had a tough initiation with the children because they loved and adored Charlie.

Antonio, Charlie, and Crystel at Charlie's graduation party

Antonio, Charlie, and Crystel at Charlie’s graduation party

But you know what, in short order it became “Sam.” “Sam.” “Sam.”This isn’t to say that my children give their loyalty easily or to just anyone.

When we first took them to an in-house daycare at seven and eight months old, it was simple enough to slip off in the morning, but when I picked them up to bring them home in the afternoon they would sob so hard in the car that I would have to pull off the road onto a side street and take turns holding them until they felt safe outside of my arms. Only then could I drive again.

Leaving them in the care of someone else so traumatized them that Jody and I decided one of us would have to be a stay-at-home mom.But now, Antonio and Crystel would like us to have more dates so Sam can come over and babysit.

Crystel, Sam, Antonio

Crystel, Sam, Antonio

Saying that Sam is the children’s babysitter doesn’t do him justice. Instead I describe him as their adult male caregiver. He has been their fulltime caregiver for the last four years. During the summer he spends over eight hours with them every day from the time school lets out in June until it starts again in September.

Sam manages the children’s summer schedule which includes reading, writing, math, cooking, swimming lessons, dentist appointments, orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, engineering, exercise, and field trips.

Sam taught them to read

Sam taught them to read

This summer they worked their way through the books Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden and the Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.Antonio and Crystel have had options to do the park program, community activities, a season pool pass, Fun Club, etc…. but they choose Sam. They figure they have it all. And, they do. Most often in the afternoon I come home and all three of them are playing in our backyard swimming pool. They don’t feel like they are missing out on seeing their friends as Sam also watches them when playdates are scheduled.

During the summer Sam, Antonio, and Crystel bike all over Richfield. I often get compliments by people who have spotted them: Police Officers, Tae Kwon Do instructors, and friends. They are surprised how mobile and safe Antonio and Crystel are. The dentist remarked to me how Sam was definitely in-charge during their summer appointment but was struck by their affection for one another.

Sam has spent overnights with the children when Jody and I have gone on our own adventures. We were thankful that we had him to call when we were in Mexico and their Aunt and Uncle who were staying with them had to leave suddenly. Sam went over to our house, spent the night with Antonio and Crystel, and got them off to school the next morning before he himself went to school.

"We like playing with him the most."

“We like playing with him the most.”

I asked Sam what he liked most about babysitting Antonio and Crystel and he says it allows him to be a kid. I asked Antonio and Crystel what they like most about Sam and they said that he plays with them all the time. A good match.

This year at school conferences (4th grade) Antonio and Crystel’s teachers were impressed because they generally see a dip in reading because of no school during the summer. Antonio and Crystel’s reading level had actually increased and there was a steady incline in skill. Sam taught them how to read when they were five.

IMAG0013Crystel is looking forward to the day when she can start babysitting. After she turns 11 and takes the community babysitting class she will be ready. She has had Charlie and Sam as excellent role models in being a great babysitter.

Sam is 17. Antonio and Crystel are 10. In taking the baton from Charlie, Sam has been big brother, friend, teacher, and guide to our children.The straight talk about teenage boys is that our family has been blessed to have had two teenage boys tending too, caring for, and loving Antonio and Crystel.

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.

Day 2: San Pedro la Laguna

I wake up to the cluck, cluck of chickens. The patio door is open to the outside and their fussing is distinct. I feel safe enough to leave the door ajar each night and let the breeze waft in off of Lake Atitlan. I can’t explain why or how it feels safe … but it does. It is the same knowing as when I know that something isn’t safe.

I wouldn’t keep my door open in my hometown of Richfield, Minnesota.

Soon Jody is frying fresh eggs from these same chickens and Antonio is urging Crystel to catch one. She does. Antonio finds enjoyment in Crystel doing what he himself won’t do.

After breakfast we meet our guide Sam who by the end of the day will feel like family.

Because of our experience with Sam, Jody and I know we will always request a guide when visiting Lake Atitlan. Sam is knowledgeable and bilingual, but even more than that, he knows how to relate to two nine-year-olds. He becomes their companion. For Antonio and Crystel, it is the slow melding of being around another Guatemalan. Antonio and

Sam

Crystel can think, when I am older maybe I will be a little like him.

Being around a person of the same ethnic origin, someone who they like, allows Antonio and Crystel to intuit that being Guatemalan is a good thing. This is something Jody and I can’t give them. All the words that we have can’t compare to spending time with others of their own culture.

Los Elementos dock being worked on

Antonio and Crystel are around many Hispanics in Minnesota and the Spanish dual language school that they attend in Richfield. They never have to feel alone or at odds with their skin tone. Still, there is a difference in being in your birth country and knowing that everyone you see is Guatemalan and not Mexican, El Salvadoran, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, or a mix of the former.

In the days to come Jody and I will witness our children’s growing sense of pride in their ethnicity.

Antonio at home in his kayak

Sam helps us carry our kayaks down to the water. Los Elementos Adventure Center has kayaks that fit the children. All of us are happy that we can each have our own. This is the first time I have ever seen Antonio and Crystel navigate on the water under their own power. They don’t have any hesitancy jumping into their kayaks and pushing off.

Included in our lodging at Los Elementos is access to the kayaks during our stay. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel will take them out again. I am content to sit and look at the volcanos from the patio, but I also know that I am missing out on that special feeling of being in the water surrounded by vast outcroppings.

Lunch

After our morning we head off to San Pedro la Laguna in a launch for a horse ride. Once we arrive at San Pedro, we decide that we are hungry. Sam assures us that the restaurant Shanti Shanti is open even though it is still early. This sets the tone for our day. We don’t have set times that we have to be any place. Horseback riding will come but not quite yet.

Having Sam with us makes Jody and me more adventurous in choosing our lunch and more inclined to say ‘yes’ to milk shakes and other drinks.

Lake Atitlan and Mayan Indian Nose out our window

When our family traveled to Guatemala in 2010 we didn’t try a lot of things because we didn’t want to become ill. In 2003 when we had brought Antonio and Crystel home we all got terribly sick with a gastrointestinal bug. Not the homecoming any of us wanted.

Sam, Jody and I order curry, Antonio orders his regular staple of pasta with just butter and Crystel has a cheese quesadilla.

Our view from the restaurant looks right out over Lake Atitlan and Indian Nose, a unique mountain formation that resembles the face of a Mayan Indian in repose.

Choosing handicrafts to bring home. See woman’s head dress. Crystel will soon be wearing one.

A Mayan woman and her son approach us while we are waiting for lunch. She is from San Antonio la Laguna but comes to San Pedro every day to sell her handicrafts.It is nice to be able to ask Sam if her asking price is good and to have his help in negotiating.

In 2010 when we traveled to Guatemala, Antonio and Crystel hated when I did any bargaining. Especially, if it was children with whom I was haggling. Even though I explained to them that that is the way it was. “Just give them the money,” they insisted. Now, I wanted to poke them and say, See?

Crystel’s new head piece.

Sam let us know that negotiating also puts him in an uncomfortable spot because he understands that the woman is trying to make a living and yet he knows what a good price would be.

San Antonio is named after Saint Antonio, Sam says. We smile at Antonio. He lets us know that he wants San Antonio to be a destination on our next trip to Guatemala.

San Pedro la Laguna

San Antonio is known for their hair ribbons. The Mayan woman demonstrates how to put a ribbon on Crystel. It seems fairly complex and we ask if we can video her doing it.

We aren’t planning on buying handicrafts but it feels good to do so. It seems as if the money will go directly to her and her family.

Making our way to the horses

Lee Beal had told us in the morning that we could have Sam go horseback riding with us or we could go alone. We opted for Sam to join us especially, when we found out that he had never been on a horse before.

Horseback riding seems like the thing to do in Guatemala. It has become one of our must-do things.

An interesting trek to the horses

We took a horse ride in 2010 and it was a remarkable way to see a village. You go slowly, you are up high, you can observe your surroundings, and there is excitement involved because you don’t know what your horse is going to do. Invariably, at some point in your trek the horse will start trotting, which leads to uncontrollable, scared, excited laughing.

Getting to the horses in itself is an adventure in San Pedro. We were led down narrow paths, past people working in small plots, and in-between buildings. Finally when we arrive it’s like the farm moved to the city.

Added to the excitement is an occasional BOOM.  San Pedro is celebrating their Festival of San Pedro with fireworks, carnival, and games.

After our horse ride we stopped for lunch again. There are many Spanish language schools in San Pedro, so we stopped at a restaurant frequented by students.  Jody and I had very good nachos with fresh tomatoes.

Before taking a Tuk Tuk to the dock, which Saint Antonio was all for, we walked through the main part of the village where the carnival was set up.

Riding horses in Guatemala. The thing to do!

Sam called Lee and told him that our first weaving class would need to be delayed by one day. We weren’t quite ready to leave San Pedro.

What A Day We Had with the Indigenous Mayans of Lake Atitlan

CECAP Training Center and Cafe Sabor Cruzeno

I walked into Cafe Sabor Cruzeno in Santa Cruz la Laguna, Lake Atitlan with trepidation. Not because it was recently opened. Not because it wasn’t yet rated on Trip Advisor or that it was a student-run café. And not because it was part of an NGO, Non-Government Organization.

Café Sabor Cruzeno was the result of the CECAP (Centro de Capacitacion) Culinary Arts program of Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation. The goal of the program is to train young people for successful employment in the restaurant and tourist business.

No, it was because I had my doubts that the culinary arts program would be successful with Antonio. I had a suitcase of dried pasta betting on it. Some people might pack extra clothes and shoes to match each outfit. I was more concerned that we have a food supply tucked away. When we traveled to Guatemala in 2010 I had forgotten to pack Crystel’s swimsuit. She ended up swimming in her Hello Kitty pajamas. But, I didn’t forget emergency rations for my son.

View from Café Sabor Cruzeno

Antonio is a healthy ten-year-old. He will eat a salad. Just don’t make a pyramid out of the raw vegetables. Instead, imagine a horizontal sundial and align the fixings uniformly around his plate. No dressing wanted or required. When Antonio and Crystel were in highchairs Jody and I would put food on each tray and what one toddler didn’t eat the other would. Being low maintenance, Crystel’s sundial can be any shape: cylindrical, conical, or vertical with a dab of ranch dressing. She’s satisfied with a ham sandwich. Antonio came to us waving a chicken leg in the air. He has never eaten a sandwich in his life. But give him a Sweet Hawaiian bun in one hand and a slice of salami in the other and he will happily eat them separately.

Our table waiting for us

We cater to Antonio and Crystel because we can, though sometimes I remind him that he was born in Guatemala.  Tamales made of corn and filled with beans are eaten with nearly every meal.

Lee Beal, our guide, originally from Texas, has lived around the world over the years, with Colorado being his home base. His wife, Elaine, and he have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz for the past 5 years. The couple came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. Lee originally started working with Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation and now serves on the board of directors. As he learned more about the people of Santa Cruz he realized there was a need for jobs creation. A part of this is now being fulfilled through the CECAP vocational training center.

The kitchen

Walking into the restaurant, I was surprised how open, clean and fresh it was. I felt as if we were on top of a mountain and we were. Two graduates of the culinary arts program were busy in the kitchen completing our authentic Guatemalan meal. They would also be serving us.

I don’t out Antonio unless I have too. Usually I just take him aside and remind him that we have food at home and simply be polite and say, “No thank you” if he doesn’t like what’s served. No funny noises or grotesque looks necessary.

After snapping a picture of our seating area, I took a deep breath and sat down. We had our choice of freshly made cold tea, several sauces, mashed potatoes, and a mixture of glazed vegetables and chicken with pulique sauce. At first glance, there wasn’t anything that I thought Antonio would try. Pulique is a common dish of the Guatemalan highlands. It is often served at holidays, anniversaries, and yearly fairs. Alex, our Guatemalan guide, explained how special it was that our chef had made the pulique for us. (Lee has been employing local guides trained through INGUAT. His goal is to create well-paying jobs that fit with the Mayan culture.)

Antonio with Alex paying our bill

The pulique sauce was mild, gentle, and creamy. I watched Antonio as he scraped a bit of it off his chicken.He tried a bite, finished his chicken, and asked for more.

Antonio had proven that CECAP’s culinary arts program was headed for success.

The café is located in the vocational center which houses carpentry, welding, computer education, sewing and weaving. The training center was buzzing with students sewing on Singer sewing machines and students welding on the rooftop.

What makes CECAP unique is that it has always been a community-driven vision and not a government project. Amigos is helping CECAP become self-sufficient.

Singer sewing machines. Girls and boys sewing.

Touring the vocational education center, watching students sew and weld, and dining at the café were some of the many highlights of our trip. We were getting a glimpse into the future of Santa Cruz la Laguna. Santa Cruz is one of the 45 poorest townships in all of Guatemala with illiteracy and malnutrition among the highest in the country. Amigos believes that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty for the indigenous people of Guatemala. Their primary focus has been on education both at the primary and secondary level. We were fortunate to see it at work.

Before we left Minnesota, Crystel had told us that she wanted to learn how to weave while in Guatemala. Lee contacted a local Guatemalan and set up a time for us to meet with her in her home. Both Antonio and Crystel quickly became engaged in learning to weave. They returned to her home several afternoons to complete their projects.

While Antonio and Crystel were weaving, Lee took Jody and me on a tour of the town church and also to Casa Milagro. Casa Milagro (since 1992) is an NGO that supports widows and children. Thilda Zorn, founder and manager of the project, focuses on providing an environment for creativity, joy, and freedom. Jody and I purchased handicrafts that the children had made.

Casa Milagro – children learning to weave

By the time Jody and I returned to our children, Antonio had left with Alex and Zach to play soccer in the village square, and Crystel was making fast friends with the girl of the house.

Antonio rushed in breathless and excited. He was poking fun at Alex and Zach, “Those kids were smaller than me,” he laughed. “We lost 10-7. It cost us 3 quetzales (50 cents).” Apparently, there was a side bet and the local children came away the winners. “Alex, they blew right by you,” Antonio added. “And, Zach he couldn’t stop anything.”

Antonio and Crystel learning to weave

Antonio and Crystel were being changed. And, it had nothing to do with their parents and everything to do with their parents. We had brought them here – to their birth country to have an opportunity to connect with other Guatemalans.

The boy who wouldn’t look at the kids in the square the first night was now facing off with them in a soccer match and for a short time he had two older Guatemalans, Alex and Zach, that could brother him.


Antonio’s bud’s – Zach and Alex

Crystel’s new friend

This very fine day would finish in a hot tub and swimming pool in the next village, El Jaibalito. A ten-minute launch from Los Elementos.