We have seen the colorful painted school buses a.k.a. chicken buses all through our travels; they are typically jammed with people and merchandise piled on top; this morning we ride one into Jocotenango, “sin pollos”.
Antigua’s “transit center” is near the market and early in the morning it is a chaotic scene with people scurrying to find their bus, loaded buses pulling forward or backing up, narrowly missing one another, throw in a few pedestrians and bicycles and my advice – be alert.
In Jocotenango we visit a school located on land leased from a large coffee plantation; across from the rather dreary entrance is a beautiful grassy field where horses graze, quite beautiful.
The noise and energy levels are high, this is the last day of school and the kids are at recess when we enter. The students come from a very poor hillside farming community, about a 45-minute walk away. Their homes have no running water, have dirt floors – I can only imagine what that might be like during Guatemala’s long rainy season.
The school serves about 500 children, grades 1-12 and a few graduates attending university who return here in the evenings to use the computers. Without support these children would not be in school. While education is free students still have top pay for books and supplies, an extra cost many families just cannot afford. The kids also receive vitamins, two nutritious meals and showers in addition to an education. While they are lucky to be here it still breaks my heart to know that even with this step up their futures are still very uncertain. Our own children and grandchildren have no idea how difficult life can be.
George and I go into a 2nd grade classroom where the teacher introduces us and then divides her class into groups; we each join a group, on the floor. George’s group of boys is working on a puzzle and my group of girls is working with flash cards, practicing their English. They are familiar with the cards and we quickly invent a game, counting and then matching like items, all in English and with lots of giggles.
I look over and see that George is patiently working a puzzle with them. The children are engaged and receptive as you would expect 7 year olds to be, they are adorable. After about 40 minutes their attention spans drift off and it is time for us to go.
It was interesting to me to see the difference between this school and the one in Guatemala City; the first with a 1.6 million dollar annual budget and this one with about one-half million dollar annual budget, both serving between 400-600 children. I can’t say enough good things about the young people who work and volunteer here, they make such a huge difference in the lives of these children and emerge changed themselves.
Shifting gears . . . from Jocotenango we drive a short distance to San Felipe to visit the workshop of artist, Cruz Enrique Espana, renowned for his ceramic birds. The son of potters, he taught himself how to work with clay at the age of 6. He begins with the clay gathered at the traditional site of El Tejar, Chimaltenango and as we watch he deftly molded the perfect likeness of a bird in a matter of minutes. To complete the process the bird are baked and then painted with bright acrylic paints.
His small studio is filled with his beautiful creations, photos and posters from exhibitions all over the world. We brought home a few small birds for the Christmas tree.
Continuing on, Hector stops in front of a nearby market and explains that we are going on a treasure hunt – we were each given some money and a piece of paper with the name of a product written on it in Spanish. Our mission is to go into the market, find the item and purchase it for the family who will be providing our lunch this afternoon. The vendors do not speak English.
This was a fun exercise, forcing everyone out of his or her comfort zone just a little, interacting with vendors who did not speak English but were more than helpful, sometimes taking us around to another stall if they did not have what we were looking for; everyone emerged from the market with their item and Hector explained what each item was and how it would be used in preparation of the lunch. We had things like dried hibiscus to make a tea-like drink, kindling for the cooking fire, cilantro for the soup and a white powder to make a nutritious probiotic drink among other things.
One more stop before lunch to pick up Andy, Hector’s 10-year-old grandson; we had been pestering Hector about meeting his family so now that the school term has ended he arranged for Andy to join for lunch and he is adorable.
The host, an evangelical minister, and his family are raising money to build a new church by preparing and serving meals on Sundays after church. We greet the family, present them with our contributions from the market and are seated at tables set in the courtyard while the kids play in the courtyard; Andy get the nod from Hector and quickly joins in.
The first course was an amazing soup and the fun thing was the ingredients were all beautifully displayed in baskets on the buffet table. Now we only need to figure out the proportions.
At the end of the meal the wife went inside for a minute and came back with a beautiful little bundle of joy, her granddaughter just a couple of months old, so sweet.
WOW, such a fun day but wait, there’s more . . . Valhalla farm on the outskirts of Antigua raises macadamia trees, the nuts are harvested and used in food, cosmetics, and a variety of organic products. http://www.exvalhalla.com/index.htm
The owner, Lorenzo Gottschamer, a 74-year-old retired fireman for northern California greets us. As he talks about his farm he shows his passion for the environment, his farm and his dream to help reverse global warming through the development of sustainable agriculture and education. He has developed an ungrafted Macadamia tree capable of surviving in the changing environmental conditions and is educating indigenous communities about the nutritional benefits of growing these in their backyards, showing them how to prune them as a source of firewood and as an alternative to slash and burn agriculture.
Sorry, no photos except for this one of the outdoor restroom, too busy have arms and legs massaged with oils, facials were also offered, very nice.
We returned to Antigua with time for a little time to explore before happy hour and dinner. Another incredible day.