Posted by: geolocke | 2015/10/05

Guatemalan Journal Entry: Day #3

Day Three – Thursday, August 20, 2015

I arise at 5:30am, but the trucks and buses have been passing by since about 3:30. Today is market day and folks are either trying to bring their goods to market, or get past the town before many of the streets are closed for market. We have a simple breakfast and then chat for a bit before walking up to the market for a while. Sr. R has a quick introduction to all the hustle and bustle of the market, from all the various goods, crafts, and food for sale, as well as the sometimes aggressive sales pitches given by some of the sellers. The sudden pressure of it all can be overwhelming to the first-time visitor, but Sr. R made it through the barrage and we found ourselves at the foot of the ancient steps leading from the town square up to the main doors of the Church of Santo Tomas.

The Church of Santo Tomas was built in the 1500’s on top of the ruins of a Mayan temple. The steps radiate out in a semi-circle from the front doors of the church, up to 23 steps depending on which side of the square you approach them from. The steps are courses of rough-hewn stone, uneven in thickness, level, and depth, and worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims visiting the sanctuary. Mayan women are selling fresh flowers on the steps, to decorate homes, shops, and businesses, but especially used to offer as a sacrifice inside the church. We make our way up the stairs past the flower sellers and encounter a Mayan woman kneeling in prayer and supplication at the entrance to the church. Around her a Mayan Shaman burns candles and other offerings and swings a censer burning incense.

The censer is a simple metal can hung from twine. There is almost always a Mayan Shaman censing the entrance to the Church and the burning candles and offerings made of flowers. Just inside the Church entrance is an area on the floor where vigil candles are left burning. There are several more of these areas on the floor where vigil candles are burning as we approach the main Altar area. The Church is maybe 120 feet or more from entrance to Altar rail, about 40 feet wide and maybe 60 to 70 feet high.

There are large enclosures along both side walls containing statues of saints surrounded by ancient paintings and more of the same surrounding the altar area. Everything other than the statues is black from centuries of candle soot and incense smoke, but through the black soot, you can just make out the images of the paintings underneath. And there are places where a curious soul has cleaned a small part of the wooden enclosure to reveal hints of gold leaf coverings. This church must have been absolutely spectacular when it was new. I pause and wonder if any art historians or preservationists have ever visited this church.

We pause to take in all in, but soon are on our way back to the Internado. We have an appointment to interview one of the recent graduates of the school and we must return to the Internado to meet one of the girls who will be our guide to the graduate’s home which is in the countryside out of town. Arriving back at the Internado, we are greeted by A who has agreed to lead us to T-C’s home. We hail two tuk-tuks to carry us out to her home in the country and soon we were bouncing along the main paved road heading north out of town. After a mile, we leave the paved road and take a dirt track that soon leads us further out past woods and corn fields.

After another mile, we find the dirt foot-path that leads off the road down into the cornfield where T-C’s home is located. As we head down the steep path we are greeted half-way by T-C and her mother. They are both petite women, perhaps no more than 4 and a half feet tall with brown skin, black hair and dark eyes. With Sister D acting as our liaison, we exchange greetings and ask permission to talk with them about T-Ca’s experience at the school, and also if we might take some photographs so we can better share their story with our parishioners back home. They grant us permission and lead us to their home.

The main house is a low L-shaped building with two adjoining shelters on the open sides. One shelter contains an adobe oven and the other appears to be a bath house. A concrete courtyard in the center connects the several structures. Laundry is hung to dry on multiple clothes lines strung across the courtyard. Ducks wander across the courtyard while dogs sleep in the shade (keeping a wary eye on us strangers,) and several kittens scamper about the place. The main house appears to be constructed of mortar and is painted in earthen tones of yellow and rust, but the outer walls are also covered in dirt and various stains. Parts of the roofs are terracotta tile with the remainder covered with corrugated sheets of steel.

We sit down in the courtyard and listen to T-C’s story. She is 22 and lives here with her mother and 6 brothers. Her brothers are out working the fields this morning, but they will come home to clean up and have lunch before heading off to the local school for afternoon classes. T-C helps her mother and grandmother make and sell tortillas in the market in Chichi. Her father left the family several years before and has not returned.

T-C is a recent graduate of the teacher training program run by the school, La Annunciata. This program is just one of several that are now possible because of the generosity of individuals and families both in our parish and from outside our parish which resulted in the construction of the new classroom building at the school. T-C had originally tried to attend a teacher training program at another school, waiting in line to register all night long, only to find out that the enrollment roster had been filled by the time it was her turn to submit her application.

Afterward, T-C heard through word of mouth that La Annunciata had opened up a teacher training program and she applied and was accepted into the class. She completed her coursework and graduated and went on to pass her teacher license exam and earned her teacher’s certificate from the Guatemalan government. She pulls out a folder containing her certificates and licenses and shows them to us. She has not yet been hired as a teacher, but she is still applying for positions. Meanwhile, she continues to help her mother and her grandmother make and sell tortillas in the market at Chichi.

As T-C finishes her story, her brothers start to arrive at the house, having just come in from working in the fields. They begin to clean up and prepare for lunch before heading off to afternoon school, so we thank T-C and her mother for their time and their hospitality and prepare to call the tuk-tuk drivers to come pick us up. But T-C’s mother insists that we share some refreshment before we leave. She brings out plastic cups and a soft drink and some baked goods for us to share in. The baked goods look a little like a bagel on a diet, but it was crispy and tasted like a cross between a cake and a cookie.

We eat and drink and talk and laugh at the antics of the kittens chasing bugs around the courtyard, but soon we hear the tuk-tuk drivers up on the road and it is time for us to leave. Once more we thank T-C and her mother for their generous hospitality and we take our leave, walking back up the path to the dirt road where we climb back into the tuk-tuks for the ride back to Chichi. On the ride back the drivers try their best to be the first to pick out the good path among the ruts in the dirt road and to not be the one always following in the other’s dust.

Soon enough we are back to the paved road and back in traffic with “chicken buses” trucks, cars motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and other tuk-tuks all moving in an un-choreographed dance of speeding up, passing, slowing down, dodging pedestrians and blowing horns. We arrive back at the Internado and climb out of the tuk-tuks, thanking our drivers for a safe journey, and proceed inside to wash a little of the road dust off of our faces. We then have lunch with the sisters and then settle down for a short siesta. We have another appointment to meet one of La Annunciata’s teachers at her home later this afternoon. So after a short rest, once the girls have returned to the Annunciata for afternoon classes, we make a concerted effort to finish assembling the gift bags for the girls and the Sisters before we leave to meet this teacher.

We meet the teacher, E, at the front gate a little after 5pm once classes have finished. She leads us by the road around to the back of the school where we take another road that begins climbing a hill. The pavement soon turns from concrete to paving stones and then to dirt before winding up as a well rutted dirt path. Small houses and a store are on the right side of the road behind fences made of dried corn-stalks. On the left side the road runs right along the edge of a 200 foot drop-off into a densely forested canyon. There is no curbing or guard rail. I think to myself that if you don’t know the drop-off is there, then you have no business driving on this road.

After walking about a half mile behind the school, E turns onto a path leading back into the corn on the right side of the road. Her house is situated about 30 feet off the road, but it can’t be seen because of the thickness and the height of the corn. We come to a mud-brick compound with a metal door set in a concrete frame. E’s mother greets us at the door. The compound walls look to be about eight feet high and the door seven feet, and E’s mother who looks to be just four and a half feet tall barely fills half the entrance. She is a petite Maya woman with dark hair just beginning to show gray. Her face is marked with care lines and she holds her hands in front of her, perhaps not knowing what to expect from her visitors. The compound is about 15 feet square and contains one room in the corner with a roof made of sheets of corrugated steel which also cover part of the compound next to the room. The remainder of the compound is open to the sky above.

E tells us her mother does not speak any Spanish, only her native Quiche (Key-Chey) language, one of the 21 unique Languages of the Maya. For most of the Maya we meet on this trip, Spanish is a second language and English a rare third language (except in the market.) E begins telling us her and her mother’s story speaking to us in Spanish and to her mother in Quiche, which is a sometimes guttural sound with some words formed on the back of the tongue and others made by ‘clicking’ the front of the tongue. Some of the words also sound like they may be influenced by Spanish, but it is hard to tell from my untrained ear.

E and her mother’s story begins on the streets of Chichi where they lived homeless and begged. When E was about four years old, a local mission priest took pity on them and raised the funds to build their house. When E was about six or seven she was admitted into La Annunciata and began receiving her education. She graduated from La Annunciata and went on to get her teacher’s certification. She then returned to La Annunciata to teach there. Then several years ago she had a burst appendix and barely made it to the hospital in time. Actually, she did not make it in time and the doctors had given her up for dead. But she survived much to the surprise of everyone at the hospital, and she is certain that her survival was a direct result of the prayers that were offered up on her behalf that day.

This near-death experience awakened in her a deep desire to help others as a way of giving thanks to God for the mercy that was shown to her that day. She began by attending to a local man who needed help managing his health. That experience, and her previous experience in the hospital awakened a desire to learn nursing. So E began attending classes on the weekends and earned a nursing certificate. E volunteers now with the local Bomberos unit (EMT/Fire service). She also travels to the Capital city on some weekends and volunteers in a women’s clinic which serves women living on the streets, much like she and her mother once did.

The flood of information and emotion is almost too much for me to take in. This young woman has already lived and experienced more in her 26 years of life than many women or men that I know. Starting out homeless and living on the streets, she now teaches school and volunteers as a nurse and takes care of her mother who no longer has to beg. And all of this started with one priest taking pity on her situation and building them a home. She was then nurtured and given an education, supported in part by donations from our parish community. All I can think of is that the investment made in this one child has certainly paid dividends that are being reinvested in her community. I would like to stay and hear more, but the sun is starting to head toward the horizon and E wants to see us safely back to the school in time so she can return and care for her mother.

We give our heart-felt thanks to E and her mother for their time and for welcoming us into their home. E walks with us back toward the Internado. As we walk along the dirt path/road a tuk-tuk comes by carrying a passenger. When it returns empty a few minutes later, we flag it down and, saying farewell to E, we catch a ride back to the Internado, arriving just as the sun is setting. The sounds of the girls singing in the chapel at the close of their evening prayer welcomes us back as we enter the gates of the compound. We take a few minutes to wash up and then meet the sisters for a light supper. Afterwards there is some time for talk in the common area and then I head off for my room where I write down my journal notes, then pray my evening prayers. As I turn off the light, my mind is still racing with everything I experienced today. As I drift off to sleep, I dream of corn fields.



  1. George this journal entry is phenomenal! This sweet teacher was a student in the school when we visited so many years ago! What joy to hear of her beautiful life! Now I will happily dream of cornfields!! Margarita >


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