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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Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant

Jerome_foundation newJody met me at the end of the driveway. In her hand she held a yellow envelope addressed to me.

Notifications on two prior occasions from the Jerome Foundation came by email: We’re sorry to inform you….

This was an envelope. A large envelope. I opened it slowly and carefully which isn’t my nature. Rejections don’t come in such packaging. This could only mean one thing.

As I pulled out the contents I realized that I’ve been a beneficiary of much goodness: wonderful teachers, mentors, my writing group, peers, friends, and family.

In November of 2012, participating in Mary Carroll Moore’s weekend workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at the Loft Literary Center, I understood for the first time what my book was about: A Woman’s Search to Be Seen. Using her W-shaped Storyboard and Three-Act Structure, I left her workshop with an outline and edited structure for my near completed manuscript. That weekend, I revised several chapters and was able to reach a new depth in my writing.

More importantly, I was excited about my writing and my book, HOUSE OF FIRE. I had been working for ten years on finding the right structure to tell my story.

guatemala-map[1]After applying and receiving a Next Step Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, I attended a one-week writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore at the Madeline Island School of Arts, September 2013 and participated in two twelve-week online classes – “Your Book Starts Here: Part 3.

Since winning the Loft mentorship, I have been working closely with mentor, Mark Anthony Rolo.

Under his tutelage, I enhanced the structure of my book to weave in my present story with back story. For example, on our flight to adopt Antonio and Crystel the sun is setting when the plane descends into the airspace above Guatemala City. Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon and I ruminate how both me and the Guatemalans were literally running from fire in 1974 when I was 15-years old.

And now, receiving a Jerome Travel and Study Grant allows me to travel to Guatemala to research indigenous Mayans and Mayan heritage to inform my memoir. I’m truly blessed. This trip is critical to finishing my book.

The trip is detailed field research on the traditions and history of Antonio’s and Crystel’s homeland. Besides the powerful emotional content intended for the last chapters, my visit will also provide insights that will enrich the whole manuscript.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

Following Antonio and Crystel visit with their birthmothers we will travel by van to Panajachel and board a lancha to take us to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a small pueblo located on the northern coast of Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala.

Situated half a mile above the shore on the mountainside it is home to indigenous Mayans.

Accessible only by rocky footpaths and lanchas, Santa Cruz is a virtual island on the mountainside.

Because of its isolated nature and small size, Santa Cruz is a great home base for our stay. We will be employing indigenous Mayan guides to explore small, traditional Mayan villages around the lake. The guides will be much more than guides as Antonio and Crystel will daily be seeing their own rich café au lait skin.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

Santa Cruz la Laguna

During our travel I will create a record of the voices, landscapes, and villages of the indigenous Mayans. Following my return home I will be able to create prose that truly draws its inspiration from the specific natural setting.

I’m lucky and grateful to have won a Next Step, Loft Mentorship, and Jerome Travel and Study Grant. Receiving these grants will help me complete HOUSE OF FIRE.

Antonio and Crystel, of course, understood the nuances of winning the Jerome Travel and Study Grant but it was Jody and I who were doing the HAPPY THANKFUL DANCE in the driveway.

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.