Saying goodbye to each individual student in 2011
I am forever inspired by the rally of support that comes from friends and family, from people we met five years ago and haven’t seen since, and from the droves of newcomers, those who just happen upon this little aldea (village) and want to help. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve witnessed people coming out from the deep recesses of Facebook to vote for Las Manos de Christine, trying to push us to the top of a grant contest, and I take it personally. So, I want to thank you all personally (via publicly-posted blog entry, of course).
Before we ever arrived here in 2010, we asked that people fulfill an Amazon wish list of supplies, books Emma dreamed she’d have at the school, and within three days people were asking us to extend the list. People bought so much (not just books, but art supplies and prizes and equipment) that my mother donated the money for us to check an extra bag, and then, when she came down a few months later, she had to bring the rest: We actually had to separate the need it now versus need it later. When the list ran dry, some folks just sent checks.
For the year we were here, family and friends continually came to our aid, making donations in honor of our birthdays, following our progress through newsletters, and rallying when we needed a rally. Our moms were instrumental in fundraising, supplying an end of the year celebration for the kids, supplying a new classroom. Drew and Bri at Earth Lodge gave us long leashes to conduct fundraising events, cornhole tournaments and charity concerts, selling spicy peanuts, pub quizzes, raffles—whatever new scheme we could come up with. Las Manos grew beyond…
When Emma and I agreed to pilot Las Manos @ El Hato, we didn’t know exactly what we were signing up for. We were excited about Earth Lodge being our home. We’d driven through the village before. We knew that one quetzal of every happy hour drink at the Lodge went to providing the children with healthier breakfasts. We knew that Las Manos was going to give us free range to create something, and it’s humbling to see what this—what began as English classes—has become: a network that lives and breathes and expands, into which we are welcomed back as guests.
Before we ever arrived here in 2012, we asked that people help us finance a three-month art program, GUPP, which will have El Hato’s sixth graders creating yarn-based art installations throughout their village. It took a couple of weeks to raise more money than we could spend on the project. We had to revise, come up with more activities, and eventually, we had to relent that the funding would probably dictate yet another return in 2013, or an extension this year. Every time we come up with something new, there is the pause between the announcing and the support in which we wonder if people have grown weary of it all. Then, the explosion occurs.
What’s more is that we keep gathering new people. It seems that those who work at Earth Lodge intrinsically migrate to the school, filling in gaps, assisting teachers, starting art classes, and rallying more. Guests volunteer. They drop donations into a jar at the bar. They remember us. They want to help, too. They travel and come back to work with the school. Our friends tell their friends, our families involve their co-workers and acquaintances, and as we once theorized, the pool swells. People from every edge of earth rally around this village, this tiny school.
I don’t know what El Hato ever did to warrant such love. I know now that, when we walk down the street or along trails high into the mountains here, people know us by name, children shout from trees, parents smile and nod and greet us like neighbors—even when we’ve been gone for over a year. I know the teachers were happy to see us back this year, that Drew and Bri trust us and count us without reservation (I said reservation when we are all at a hotel). I know that, via support, I’m in contact, even if just the occasional line, with more people than I would otherwise be. I know that being here feels right on so many levels.
From that first January back in 2010, you—whoever you are, whatever you did—believed in us, supported us, and took our word that El Hato could use a hand, that we’d deliver your dollars and care if you’d be willing. I don’t know what we ever did to warrant such love. I know that it feels familial to me, like you’ve all become relatives, forever connected to us and, in turn, to this community that has adopted us and, in turn, to a great global community of people who care beyond the confines of conversation. Thank you, sincerely, for your gift of participation.
It happened Thursday night because Bri’s brother was arriving late, so Drew and I, being gentlemen in the aid of his pregnant wife, stayed up to see lil bro got here safely, found a room to sleep in, maybe scored a morsel of food to hold him over until breakfast. And, if you are going to stay up playing backgammon to kill time, you might as well have a beer beside the board. And, if one beer tastes good, eases the burden of the wait, then a second . . . a fourth . . . And, after he’s gone to bed, cradled in safety and comfort behind locked doors, it’d be apathetic not crack open that sixth or seventh to make sure he’s not up again in need of something. We only wanted to be responsible, to help a pregnant lady welcome her brother from out-of-town.
It happened Friday night because it was Katie’s last night and because Bryant came up to see her off, so I couldn’t very well not play host to my old friend (Bryant) who’d ventured up the hill to have dinner with us, let alone neglect the departure of someone (Katie) I’ve known for a good three weeks, whose put in some good months of work at the school, and fancies herself preserver of the 90 proof Irish bloodline. And, if the guitar is slightly out of tune, even to a drunkard’s ear, then you might as well as have a beer within arm’s reach, something to quell the off-key ringing. And, if the guitar keeps making the rounds, then you can’t very well walk out on someone’s song, and how are you going to do that without a little pull of something nice.
On Saturday, a rare thing happened in that, as a collective, without conference, we all seemed to take the night off, at least light, subdued our thirsts with cups of tea as we lumbered off to bed before nine, shrugging at the fact of a Saturday, that usually it can happen simply because it is a Saturday. And, when it doesn’t happen, something feels askew, the hostel work more like work, with the deadened drone of tasks done clear-headedly. And, not to excuse a night off, but we don’t need a Saturday because we aren’t normal people: We are encouraged, behooved even, to drink on the job, such that, when we do, others will, and when others do, business is good. Taking a Saturday off seemed to kill the party for everyone else, as if we needed the added temptation.
It started again Sunday, mostly, I think, because it hadn’t on Saturday, but then it went down easy like we remembered, and despite Heather’s vow of three-day sobriety, she “only had a little wine”; and when the basketball game was on, Emma didn’t want to ignore the occasion; and when Louis and Kerry (the new guys on staff) realized they were failing in their duty, the sense of obligation equated to “gin-in-a-mug”, and I had already started around four in the afternoon, a beer and a smoke, a sort of ritualistic build-up before going into the kitchen to prepare dinner for our vacationing guests, enjoying “long” weekends, romantic getaways, and benders abroad. And, while you cook, you might as well have a libation beside the pot.
At Earth Lodge, the call to happy hour happens at five, and if you haven’t caved by then, the announcement seems to trigger an internal alarm that . . . that you haven’t caved yet, that surely something must be done about that, perhaps before the guests clatter around the bar for drink specials which still pale in comparison to the staff discount you live with daily, hourly, from breakfast to breakfast. Sometimes, I question such an existence, wonder if life should consist of more, if more should consist of . . . and that’s where I get to. Most of the world works five days a week to get to Saturday to blow off steam, so they can recover on Sunday before they do it again. This past Saturday, I took a break . . . from “blowing off steam”.
It’s a funny thing seeing Emma disappear up that hill again, bag of goodies in hand, a contented focus in her eyes as she sets off to work with the kids of El Hato. The GUPP (Guatemala Unfinished Picture Project) summer art program in El Hato has officially kicked off and already seems destined for success. There are sixteen very enthusiastic sixth graders who have devoted two afternoons a week to create yarnbombs, something that fueled their fire much more than the thought of making sweaters and baby boots.
Coming into the project, I had a couple of concerns: That maybe there wouldn’t be enough participants (kids tend to have very adult duties to attend to after school and lack free time) and that maybe they wouldn’t be super hip to crochet, a rather granny-esque undertaking. Both concerns got squashed pretty quickly when Emma and I visited the school to meet with the kids who were to be involved with the program. They had already negotiated their schedules, and they were ready to stitch.
So, Emma started a quickly as she could. She learned that a few of the students already knew how to crochet and picked up the new stitches quickly. Others, less skillful but equally inspired, created what Emma describes affectionately as “a big ball of knots”. Whatever the case, in a rather telling moment, on Thursday, they opened a shipment of yarn from the states, discovered a knitted patch of fabric in the box, and one of the students immediately grabbed it and sewed it onto one of the classroom posts. The first yarnbomb in El Hato!
As for the lodge, Emma has taken to the crochet hook pretty hard, spending much of the downtime during her shifts, much of her free time, much of her drinking time, creating yarnbombs for one of the Earth Lodge hammock areas. I have even made a rather stirring return to the world of stitch, spending several hours working on a plarn (plastic yarn) piece to add to the hammock bombing. Needless to say, the creative spirit is ripe. Guests and staff alike are curious about what it’s all about, yet another great success of the project thus far.
Don’t forget to follow us (GUPP) on Facebook and to join our blog on Ning. Pictures will be posted in the next couple of days, and the kids will soon write their first blog entries, providing us with some of their thoughts about the project. Additionally, we’ll keep you in the loop via this blog and e-newsletters. For all of those who were interested in pitching in with the Flower B(l)ooms, please let this reinvigorate your motivation and, if this your introduction to the project, please don’t hesitate to join. We’d really like to have some international support to show the kids:
Yarn-bombing & Flower B(l)ooms
If you’ve ever wanted to be a flower child, or have since longed to be again, get out those bell-bottoms because, this May, the chance is coming. As many of you know and the rest of you are soon to find out, Emmathon is headed back to Guatemala this summer, and this time we’ll be armed with yarn. On behalf of UPP (http://unfinishedpictureproject.org/), we will be conducting a three-month public art venture with the kids in El Hato.
Yarn-bombing (http://www.buzzfeed.com/melismashable/25-amazing-yarn-bombs), for those of you not in the knitting know, is the use of crochet and knit to create art installations in public spaces, kind of like granny graffiti, only done by the hip and happening. Anywho—summer 2012, the village of El Hato will bear witness to its own explosions: GUPP, i.e. us, will be leading the kids on a crusade to beautify the aldea (village) with crocheted flower art. Check out our UPP page: (http://unfinishedpictureproject.org/upp-branches/guatemala).
So, flower b(l)ooms: What we want is for you—maybe your friends, your parents, your children—to crochet, knit, or create your own flower chains. Make them as long as you like. Use an afternoon or use the whole month of May. Throw a crochet-cocktail party, warm up cozy in front of your favorite trilogy, whatever twists your hook—there will be no judgment from us if you are half-drunk and dropping stitches. It’s meant to be fun for all.
Knowing that not everyone is a crochet fiend, we’ve included some free links for beginner’s lessons on YouTube!, as well as some patterns for easy flowers. There are also links where you can follow along as someone makes a flower. Then, afterwards, if you aren’t interested in pursuing crochet as a hobby or public voice, we can also help you arrange to donate your hooks and such to the children, possibly contribute your actual flower chain to the final display (if you’re willing to pay for some postage fees).
Beginner’s Lessons: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8wkt2e83Bs
Easy Patterns for Flowers: http://www.crochetpatterncentral.com/directory/flowers.php
Follow Along Flowers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6sW_nNpp14
In the past, we’ve come to you with book wish lists, supply drives, and fund-raising birthdays, now we’re asking for flower b(l)ooms. You see, one of the principle goals of UPP, other than facilitating self-expression, is instigating cross-cultural dialogue. Usually this conversation occurs between partnered groups in different cities, but as is the case with team Emmathon, we wanted to include everyone we know in the do-goodery.
At the end, we’d like you to take a photo of the chain, stretching it across either a backdrop of some identifiable local sight and/or the chain contributors, each end reaching out of the image, in effect creating an unfinished flower chain around the world. When the project culminates with an art show in August, we’ll make a piece in which all of these photos and bits of actual flower chains are connected.
So, when you send your jpegs to firstname.lastname@example.org, we’d like you to attach messages from the participants. In turn, we’ll be putting out a regular newsletter on the project’s progress, as well as helping the children maintain blog, where you (our partner participants) can post your thoughts and encouragement. Imagine the sense of pride and identity these kids will get from knowing that people all over the world wanted to be part of their project.
Note: Although the USA and the UK use the same stitches in crochet, they are called different things. If you are already a crocheter, this will not be a problem. However, if you are new to this, know that it makes no difference which one you use. Just try to be aware of whether the pattern is a US or British one, so you make the correct stitch. Here is a link to a conversion chart! (http://www.yarnfwd.com/main/crochet.html)
Thirty-five hours of travel time: We handed the keys to the landlord at nine o’clock on Tuesday night, strapped on front and backpacks, and began our walk to the Moscow Metro. We “slept” in the airport, too early a flight to bother with anything else. At four a.m., we checked in—going to Dusseldorf first (friendliest airport I’ve ever been to—even the money changer was charming), on to Miami, and arriving in Guatemala City at just past eight o’clock in the evening.
Flying in over the city, probably one of the most dangerous places I care to imagine, a strange sense of calm, of familiarity, even of home sunk into my sleep-deprived eyes, unwashed armpits, unkempt beard. We had worried about getting out of Russia, awaited the unforeseen visa problem or next twist of the bureaucratic knife. We’d fretted about the American customs nightmare. We’d gotten through it all unscathed.
At the airport, Mario the driver was waiting for us with a sign and a smile, and we put our luggage into the back of his SUV, buckling in for the last leg of our journey. Driving through Guatemala City, I found that I was muddling the signs, reading the Spanish as if it were Cyrillic, exchanging Ps and Ns and Rs. It was as if I were working the last lingering remnants of the last nine months out of my head.
And, we finally turned the corner near the basketball court in Antigua, a spot where Emma and used to sit watching skateboarders as we waited for the chicken bus. We made it onto the road leading up to Aldea El Hato, where the journey ends, turns to dirt and mud, pieced and held together with earth bag road repairs. Of all the places we’ve lived and been, I’m not sure anywhere else feels like home. Mario finally reached the pila, where village women wash clothes, and we got out like second-nature.
There was just the hill left. The hill is giant and winding. In rainy season, it distorts and becomes awash with mud, oozing out over the cliff edge. The steps are planks of wood struggling to keep packed dirt from seeping into a smooth slope. At the top, one must cross a small stream of water drainage coming from the higher mountain. In the dark, sandwich between heavy rucksacks, one flashlight between us, Emma and I took the path in shifts, me leading the way about twenty feet at a time then turning back to shine the light for her.
It had taken us thirty-five hours, door to door, to walk back into Earth Lodge again, and our great friend Drew, whom the workers refer to as Don Drew, had stayed up to greet us, despite being blood-shot and stinky, with hugs, with beer and shots. So, we lasted another four or five hours just letting the place get back into our bones and livers. Finally, at about two, I tried to help get Emma’s bag down to our room, drunkenly turned and fell down a concrete stairway. We were back.
I’m a week removed from writing my last blog, one in which I recounted the great exploits of life in Moscow, and now I’m sitting in armchair in the corner window of Earth Lodge, a place that has me back in Guatemala for the third time, because of this view, these people, this village, these avocados, this simplicity. We’ve come to help. We’ve come to be taken in again. I can’t wait to see what the next four months has to offer.
This blog occurs once a week, the entries being thematically mixed between expat life in Guatemala and life as an NGO groupie. The photos for this blog, website, and my life are all provided by my beautiful wife Emma.