Thanksgiving 2012- Lake Atitlan, Guatemala…
Over Thanksgiving 2012, a group of adventurous yoga students from around the United States ventured with us down to Guatemala for a relaxing, blissful and beautiful retreat. We had the time of our lives on this yoga vacation. From kayaking on the lake, to blissing out in a hammock, hiking up volcanoes and enjoying a Shamanic ceremony, our days were filled with beauty and bliss. Not to mention the delicious gourmet meals served every day at Villa Sumaya, our yoga retreat center nestled right on the lake at Lake Atitilan. Every morning waking up and enjoying an invigorating yoga class, and ending our days with a relaxing, mellow yoga session.
My favorite part of the trip was our work with Amigos de Santa Cruz. This organization is dedicated to bringing education to the remote communities in Lake Atitlan. Before coming down, we contacted Amigos, and asked if there were any supplies we could bring to them. Their request was for school supplies, as well as prenatal vitamins. Our team was more than happy to comply. We ended up bringing extra duffel bags and suitcases full of supplies.
We arranged a visit to Amigos de Santa Cruz headquarters in the charming town of Santa Cruz, on the Lake Atitlan shorefront. The village of Santa Cruz la Laguna is unique in that it is the only village in this area that is accessible only by foot or by boat. There is no road access to or from the village due to its dramatic location surrounded by jagged mountains. Lack of accessibility to the outside world has greatly limited the progress of this community of 2,500. With no commercial center, villagers must travel by boat to shop, or to access resources of any kind.
In order to access boat transport in Atitlan, we headed down our pier at Villa Sumaya and started waving our hands, signaling to the public boat driver that we needed a ride. We loaded up the boat with our supplies and headed a short distance to Santa Cruz. Once there, we then negotiated with a pickup truck driver to take us up the hill to deliver ourselves and our goods.. Its always so liberating to climb onto the back of our truck- and with views of Lake Atitilan, the surrounding volcanoes, and the quaint village opening up with every turn of the car, it was a remarkable drive up the hill.
Visiting Cecap: Headquarter of Amigos de Santa Cruz
Patricia Torpie, Executive Director of Amigos de Santa Cruz, welcomed us outside of Cecap, (Centro de Capacitacion), the vocational center that they created for and with the help of the Guatemalan community. Before giving us a tour, Patricia was so excited to see all of the supplies we brought, and we were excited to share. She brought us to an area, and we unloaded all of our supplies. Patricia was beyond delighted and amazed with the amount of donations we brought! She was overjoyed, knowing that the school supplies will be put to great use in the future. We sorted through the supplies, and gathered all items pertaining to nursery school aged kids, as we were scheduled to visit a Montessori-esque school the following day.
Patricia then gave us a tour of Cecap, the vocational center, which opened its doors in 2010. Programs were designed for and by the local Guatemalans, to learn new skills that can lead to meaningful work and a more prosperous community. Programs for students and adults include sewing, computer education, carpentry and foot loom weaving. The room we sorted our supplies had 9 beautiful sewing machines, and 2 foot loom weaving devices.
Whats unique about Cecap is that is has always been community-driven, and not a government or outside project. The residents in San Juan worked with Patricia and designed the programs on their own initiative. After touring the facility, Patricia brought us to the Cecap store, which featured handmade items created by the students at Cecap. From beaded products to handwoven scarves, the products are beautiful and intricate. In 2011, Cecap established this store as a local product development initiative, which focuses on training students to gain the necessary skills to create products to be marketed locally and internationally.
Patricia brought us out into the town square, adjacent to San Juan, so that we could enjoy fresh air as we learned more about the programs she initiated. As we learned more about how the local community helped to build Cecap, brick by brick, we were interrupted by the Mayor of the town on loudspeaker. We looked up to the second story of a building, to see the Mayor speaking passionately into a microphone . Patricia explained that is how communication is done throughout the town of San Juan. Quite often throughout the day, announcements will be made to the residents, and quite a bit is achieved in this way!
Before dining at Cecap, Patricia brought us to the roof of Cecap. What a view of Lake Atitlan and the impressive volcanoes dotting the lake! Next to the solar panels, we learned that quite a bit of our lunch came from the well-tended roof top vegetable garden. We were then brought downstairs and into their charming restaurant, which has a beautiful dining area overlooking Lake Atitlan. This café opened this very year in 2012, to feature the Culinary Arts program that trains young people for successful employment in tourism.
As we sat down to lunch, we each had a fresh flower resting atop our colorfully woven napkin and placemat. The meal was exquisite. Juan, our 21 year old chef, was all smiles as he served our refreshing and colorful hibiscus tea. He then served our first course, a salad so beautifully presented, nobody wanted to ruin it with a fork! Once we started eating, there was no turning back. The first and second course were so beautiful. Dessert beyond delicious.
During the meal, Patricia shared more about the Culinary Arts program. The dining area and kitchen are where students come for their culinary training. Since the program’s inception, they have had over … graduates.. And about to have .. more complete the program. The group of participants I brought were inquisitive and engaged with Patricia, asking questions about the Cecap programs, and how they can get involved. We had a lovely time, and learned about our visit the following day to visit the more remote villages. We bid Patricia farewell, with happy bellies and excitement for the next day’s visit.
Amigos De Santa Cruz School & Nutritional Center Visits- Seva Yoga Service
The following day, we enjoyed an early morning walk along the Lake Atitlan shoreline, from Villa Sumaya over to Santa Cruz. The walk is quite an adventure, as you walk on unsteady and uneven narrow boards over water, hop onto grass, scramble over rocks, all the while sharing cheerful “Holas! and Buenos Dias!” with locals passing by. After our brisk and scenic walk, we arrived at our meeting spot. Patricia brought down the bags we had assembled for the children at the nursery school we were visiting.
After negotiating the price of a private boat, about $12, split between 8 of us, we were off. What a majestic journey, with steep rock cliffs adorned with vibrant flowers and plants, lakefront homes nestled among carefully tended gardens, and the volcanoes dotting the landscape. After a 30 minute boat ride, we arrived in Tzanjomel. We gathered our bags for the kids, and headed up into the hill. Just after we left the dock, Patricia pointed out an open-air building, which she explained was a Women’s Nutritional Center, a program of Amigos de Santa Cruz.
Guatemala has the 4th highest rate of chronic child malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America. The communities Amigos serves are among the highest in malnutrition among children. Amigos has helped establish women’s nutrition centers in four remote villages where groups of 50 to 60 women plus their children ages 6 months to 5 years gather to prepare and receive healthy nutritional meals, vitamins and training on subjects that include family planning , health and hygiene. They work with a total of 200 women and 200 young children. Women are not only learning to prepare nutritional meals, but also to how to establish and maintain sustainable community and family gardens.
Patricia mentioned that the kids were waiting for us at the top, and we could visit the Nutrition Center at the end of our visit. We then ascended up the mountain, about a 45 minute strenuous hike. As we crossed a modern, sturdy bridge, Patricia explained it was relatively new, only a few years old. Prior to the bridge being built, there would be months of the year during the rainy season of those living above the bridge would be in total isolation, with no outside access.
The hike was beautiful. Wildflowers adorning the hills, deep green hues of the valleys. We passed many women on the way, wearing the colorful traditional clothing and smiling shyly at us as we passed. Before we arrived at the school, we could hear the laughter and merriment of children at the nursery school. A sweet vegetable garden marked the entrance to the most charming and welcoming school center, which consisted of the Nutrition Program and Nursery School.
Patricia first brought us into the Hilltop Nutrition Center, which consisted of 2 immaculate rooms. The first room was filled with colorful posters, all in Spanish, addressing nutrition, as well as women and children’s rights. Juanita, the manager of the center, proudly showed us around the center. Born and raised in the Lake Atitilan area, Juanita cares so much about the children and women in the community. She spoke in Spanish, and was very animated as she described everything the program does. A priority is educating the women on their rights, birth control, feminine issues, domestic peace, and raising healthy children.
What amazed me the most was the spotless kitchen!. Right as you walked inside the kitchen, where three women were preparing the meal of the day, over a fire burning stove. Dressed in their traditional clothing, the women were shy, yet very proud of their work. Above the stove, Juanita had created an impressive 3-month chart for the 27 mothers whose children attended the school. Each mother was accountable for bringing up firewood once a week. She felt delegating responsibility to each of the women serves the purpose of both furthering the women’s education as well as empowering them. After carrying up heavy school supplies for the children, I can only imagine how weighty the firewood must get!
After touring the facility, we headed to the classroom. There were 12 of the most adorable local children, sitting in circle, with a Montessori School Teacher, an assistant, and a mother of one of the children. Laughing and bouncing up and down, the children were deeply excited and involved in an alphabet-learning, bubble-blowing activity. Susan, the teacher was teaching them the A,B,C’s in Spanish, and each time one of the children got the answer correct, she would blow bubbles with her wand,
andthat child jumped up, and went chasing after the bubbles and popped as many as the could. The children loved the game, and were having so much fun!
After practicing the ABC’s, and ensuring each child ample bubble-popping time, Susan announced it was painting time! The kids rushed over to grab their smocks, and brought chairs over to the 3 tables. We divided our group between the tables, and helped Susan distribute the Paints, brushes and wine corks. After Susan showed us the picture she painted, it was time for the kids to create their own version of Susan’s masterpiece: a cluster of grapes. The kids had so much fun! The wine corks were for the grapes themselves, and the kids loved mashing their corks into the paint and stamping away on their paper. Most of the drawings ended up looking more like purple and green monsters than grapes, and the kids loved every minute of it.
After completing their drawing, each child went over to the sink and washed and dried their hands. Just next to the sink, perched on a window sill, were plastic cups, each with the children’s name on them. Inside the cup was the child’s toothbrush. The teacher works hand-in-hand with the nutrition center to emphasize hygiene. And the kids just make it all part of a game.
The high energy Montessori teacher then brought our her guitar, and led us all into a cozy nook in the “library” section of the schoolroom. We gathered around her in chairs and on the floor. After we were all situated, she started strumming a song, and the kids all joined in Spanish. They loved singing, and especially enjoyed the songs with hand motions. We sang a few songs back and forth with them, which the kids loved. After about 6 songs, it was lunch time.
The kids shuffled into a single file line, first heading to the outside faucet. The teachers helped them to scrub their hands and towel dry, before headed into the adjacent nutrition center. Their moms were already in the room, and joined in line with their child. Both were given a tamale and a cupful of warm, hearty and creamy liquid oatmeal. Absolutely delicious and the creamy drink is my new favorite! After being served, they sat down to eat their meal together. The room was quiet, and you could tell how much everyone appreciated their meal.
After eating, the children said goodbye to their moms, and went outside to play. Juanita
then gathered the mothers together in a circle, and they sang songs together. After singing, they sat down, and Juanita spoke with them about the Nutrition Center topic of the day. The moms were engaged and excited to be a part of it, asking questions and eager to learn.
Once they began their lesson in Spanish, we waved goodbye , and headed outside. My group of volunteers played with the kids, as I showed Susan the supplies we brought. She was so grateful, and explained to me how challenging it was to get items for the kids. She was especially appreciative of the playdough, explaining that her kids have nothing like it, and will love that activity! She expressed how much she loves to provide children with a proper childhood, as most of the kids in the afternoon will do physical labor alongside their mom in the steep hills. We brought stickers out for all the kids, and in no time, the kid’s faces were adorned with sticker art. After playing a little longer with the kids, Patricia let us know it was time to go. We hugged the kids goodbye and were on our way.
Retreating down the mountain without school supplies was a much easier route. We had all of these empty bags, so we ended up picking up trash the entire way down. Unfortunately, the locals do not have any kind of recycling program, so trash is often thrown to the ground. Patricia was appreciative of our trash collecting. Amongst the many programs of Amigos de Santa Cruz, educating locals on garbage, and keeping things clean was an upcoming priority.
We returned to the Nutrition Center at the bottom of the hill, near the lakeshore. The program was almost finished for the day, but a moms and toddlers were there, enjoying their lunch time meal. There was a scale and tape measure next to the tables, and Patricia explained that this was the day that the children were measured and weighed. Due to malnutrition in this area, the program keeps track of the children to ensure their healthy growth. Patricia explained that since the program’s inception, the children are thriving, moms are learning, and its been a great success.
We then headed back to the dock, hearts happy. What a wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving Day!