Category Archives: Central America

Key Lime Love Tree

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Key Lime Love Tree

Today is my parents’ 31st anniversary. They first met because of a key lime pie, which makes me a key lime pie baby – sweet and tart. The setting was Southern Belize, where my mother was living with a Catholic nun and teaching home economic skills to Mayan Indian women. My dad was living just one village away in Big Falls running crews at his parents’ saw mill. The first time she saw him, he was erecting a radio tower at the age of fourteen. No one could compare. He was so mature for his age, but still she was cautious because she’d had her heart broken before.

They finally interacted one day because my grandmother wanted to bake a key lime pie, so she sent my dad to the nun’s house to trade eggs for key limes from their tree. The nun wasn’t home, so my mother answered the door when he arrived. She wished he’d go away, but felt obligated to help him. As they picked the key limes together, he spoke to her and she laughed because he is a total ham. He eventually asked her to go with him to a dance at the community center that weekend, so she said yes. They have been together 37 years since.

At first, my mother didn’t want to pursue a relationship with my dad. He  would throw flowers at the car as she rode by, but still she wouldn’t budge. He even bought her a ring with a tiny diamond in it. Sister Marianne Joseph wanted my mother to become a nun, and she didn’t want her to have anything to do with my father. She made her return the ring. And even today, the Sister blatantly states, “This is one marriage I never expected to work out.” For a whole year, my father kissed the dimple on my mother’s cheek without the least bit of encouragement. And finally, she fell for him when she was about to leave for nursing school in Belize City.

For years, they dated long distance. He would ride along on sugar cane trucks, or any chance at transportation he got, to visit her in the city – on treacherous roads that were so primitive, they flooded between rivers in the rainy season. She gave him back his ring so many times, but still he persisted. Even when she tried to pawn him off on her friends, he always came back, and the ring always returned with him. When I was little, I would wear this ring whenever my mother would let me, just hoping that I would have a story like theirs someday.

When I graduated from college, I decided to move to Belize. Partly because I wanted to become a dive instructor, and partly because I had this romantic notion that I would meet someone in the jungle who would love me as much as my Dad loves my Mom, despite the hardships and pain. I thought that living in a developing country entailed hard work, and I might find someone with a work ethic like my Dad’s, his father’s, and his father’s before him. Obviously, it didn’t work out the way I had planned. But I still hope to find real Love, somewhere, someday.

Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad. I’m sorry that I couldn’t think of anything to give you, but hopefully one day your key lime love tree will have enough fruit to bake a pie.

Learning to Read

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On my first day of kindergarten, I came home from school crying because I didn’t how to read. When I had asked my parents when I would be able to read like my older sister, they had said ‘kindergarten’ and I thought that meant immediately, on the first day. I was so disappointed to know that there was no magical trick that enabled me to read by virtue of being in Kindergarten. But by Christmas of that school year, I knew how to read books. By 4th grade, I was reading at a 9th grade reading level and I still like to read novels when I have time. However, so many children never reach full proficiency in reading by 4th grade, and will never enjoy school because of this disadvantage.

On a recent Facebook post about adult illiteracy, a friend asked me why I think it is that so many children do no learn to read in school and need remedial tutoring. I told her that I think it’s because of the lack of resources to so many single mothers who are working so hard to support their families. In fact, when I was living in Central America, I had a friend who fit this exact mold. Her son Jared was in Standard 1 (about 3rd grade) and he had never mastered basic phonics. His mother managed a hotel, owned her own business, and had two other children to care for. Jared was lost in the chaos of her life, as are most middle children. His grandmother watched him after school, and the group tutoring sessions he went to simply weren’t enough.

I started tutoring Jared 3 times a week after work, because he had fallen so far behind that he might be held back. Some thought that he might be disabled, because he would just stare at his tests. But really, I’m pretty sure that it was because he just couldn’t read them. Word problems in math were impossible for him too, because he couldn’t read. Taking notes from the blackboard was a jumble of confusion. And reading comprehension was simply out of his league. We began working together using hooked on phonics. After taking time to go back to the basics, Jared eventually began to pass his spelling tests. We were reading small books together by the time I left in December, and it was so hard to leave knowing that his mother would not have time to continue his tutoring.

There are so many Jareds in the school system in the United States, with single mothers who struggle to keep their families housed. They may not receive child support, might be working three jobs, and have zero spare time. It seems impossible to prioritize reading with their kids,when they are struggling so hard to survive. And their children will most likely never excel in school, if they don’t have a basic understanding of phonics before they reach that decisive age. It’s literally sink or swim. As one teacher in Orlando puts it: “Lack of access to quality education – you might as well be drowning in a pool.” Now that is something to cry about.

Small Homes for Families

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Small Homes for Families

Last year there was a tiny house exhibit at Central Florida Earth Day 2015. Since I had just visited Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, I naturally wanted to visit. And I took my grandmother with me for a day of quality time strolling around Lake Eola. My preconceived notions led me to believe that the tiny homes would be ideal for chronically homeless individuals; but my grandmother’s stories changed my perspective. They led me to believe that small homes would be perfect for housing homeless families, victims of domestic abuse, single mothers with children, and especially to provide affordable housing for the working poor in general.

While we were looking at one tiny houses that looked like a doll house, Mamita surprised me by explaining that she had raised four children in a room half as small. She would swing two babies in hammocks, while two children slept in bed with her. Some of her children were already grown, and occasionally her drunken husband would come home to rape and impregnate her again. So, sometimes there would be as many as six people in this tiny shack. She would cook on a fire hearth stove in the corner of the room.

Mamita told me about the struggle that was her life – including some stories that I already knew, but still I always listen. She worked as a nanny for a little girl with Down’s syndrome during the day, and sold bus and boledo (lottery) tickets at the depot in the mornings and evenings. Then she would stay up until 12 am hand scrubbing sheets and laundry for a shilling ($0.25) a piece. She stayed up even later to cook food for her children to eat the next day, then woke up at 5:00 am to fold laundry and do it all again. I don’t think she even had days off.

Being the type of person who loves to sleep, I didn’t understand how she could even function on such little sleep. But this is how she raised ten children – in a tiny house, with an abusive alcoholic husband, who was only there some of the time and never helped. My perspective on small homes for the homeless was forever changed that day, as I realized that these structures needed to be so much more than just “better than being homeless.” They needed to be built so well that I would be happy for my grandmother to raise my mother there, and for other working mothers to be able to raise their children out of poverty. They should set a standard of excellence that people will want to see and replicate.

I’m really looking forward to my grandmother visiting again next month. I can’t wait to spend time with her and just listen to her stories. She is such a strong little lady. She will be 86 this year, and she continues to inspire me to be the woman I am today.  I am so blessed to have her in my life, and I can’t wait to show her the New Dignity Small Home that my team is building as an affordable housing model.

Mountain Village

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Mountain Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala and witnessed the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

We drove through the desert of Guatemala to Zacapa, and up a mountain ridge to a village called Pinalito. The only way to reach the village was through a dried up river bed. My hosts worried that we might not be able to make it, since we could get stuck if it started raining. Luckily, the rain held up, and we made it to the mission at the peak of the mountain in Pinalito.

I can honestly say that I have never seen such abject poverty in my entire life as I did in Pinalito. Like in Castulo, the residents of Pinalito eat primarily corn tortillas, which leaves them malnourished. Their children die of malnutrition, usually at a very young age. Maternal mortality in labor is also common, and the closest hospital is at the base of the mountain in Zacapa. The rough terrain on the mountain side, along with the subsistence-agriculture living of Pinalito’s residents, places each family at a fair distance from its closest neighbor.

The mission began as a clinic and school for the children of Pinalito, and children walk from all over the mountain, bare-footed through the jungle, to get an education in exchange for food. The feeding program rewards students for their school attendance each month with beans, rice, and sugar; or else they might not be allowed to attend. The clinic is equipped to provide basic medical attention (stitches, broken bones, etc.), give vitamins to new mothers/children, and distribute clothes to whomever needs them. Occasionally doctors or dentists visit with teams from the states, and volunteer their services in the clinic. Some teams of volunteers help with construction projects.

The missionaries teach the farmers new techniques to generate revenue for the village. They have learned how to grow completely organic coffee (using soapy water instead of insecticides to kill bugs.) There is a factory where they collectively roast the coffee. The missionaries use their network to connect the producers with buyers in the states, without collecting a profit. Macadamia nut trees shade the coffee plants, and will eventually be another cash crop for sale. While we were there, the mission hosted a session on how to graft citrus plants. They recently started to use earth worm composting, which I thought was great. The mission itself was solar and gas powered, since there is no electricity on the mountain. In general, it was very sustainable.

I woke up the next day at the mission house and walked into the kitchen to be greeted with “Hola!” by adorable little children with their faces pressed against the bars on the windows. Later, I met 2 little girls that were playing in the school yard. Their mom had died giving birth to their youngest sister. They were so tiny. The older one was 9, and she had to take care of her 3 younger siblings, including her new-born sister after her mom died. Their dad was an alcoholic. When their mom died, he went on a drinking binge and abandoned them without any resources at all. Now he is back and still spends all of their money on alcohol. We bribed her and her 5 year-old little sister with new clothes, so that they would take showers. They were filthy from walking barefoot on the muddy mountain paths. They ate candy and chattered happily while I brushed their hair. We sent them home with soap, shampoo, and underwear that they would most likely sell to buy food, unless their dad spent the money on alcohol.

My hosts and I hiked 30 minutes through the rain forest to visit two of the poorest families on the mountain. The first family we met was a young girl with 4 kids. She used to be the smartest student at the mission’s school, but her parents married her off to a man in the village when she was 14. Her first son lost his eye due to malnutrition. We gave her food and some toiletries, along with vitamins. The one thing that struck me while we were at their house was the dogs. A mother dog had 4 puppies and the family could hardly afford to feed themselves, much less the dogs. The bitch was bloated from starvation and her nipples were sagging from nursing her puppies, which were so skinny that I could see their ribs and bones.

The next family was probably the poorest family on the entire mountain. A single mother and her 3 sons lived in a 15’ x 10’ hut made out of sticks and a tin roof. She didn’t have a husband, and her oldest son left the mountain to find migrant work when he was just 14. I was told that when the missionaries first visited the family’s home, they only had 10 sticks for “walls” and half a tin roof. During the rainy season, their house was washed down the side of the hill, and they would have to rebuild every time it rained. They weren’t home, but we hid a bag of food and other things under their (only) blanket in the tiny shanty.

It started pouring down rain as soon as we returned to the mission, and we had to leave immediately. The stream in the previously dried up river bed quickly turned into a creek, but we were still able to drive through it. We thought we might have to hike down the mountain, but we made it down only having to walk a little while. The rest of the trip was a blur. I got home on a Sunday, and started summer classes the next day. I learned about “Culture & World Politics,” and wondered how many more mountains existed with villages like Pinalito sitting on top of them – in the U.S. and all over the world. How many of them were lucky enough to have a mission? And how many more did not?

Mayan Village

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Mayan Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala to bare witness to the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

I flew into Guatemala City on a Monday, and a missionary couple picked me up. Within an hour of being in the country, we drove over a bridge with armed policemen guarding each end of it. This didn’t seem abnormal until someone pointed out that in the previous two weeks, three different people had stopped cars in the middle of the bridge and jumped over the guard rail into the ravine below. The police were there to prevent another incident, or maybe just to move any empty cars that might cause traffic jams.

We drove out of the capitol, winding around S-curved mountain roads and suddenly I saw a crippled man using his arms to pull himself into the road. I shrieked, and the driver managed to swerve around him. His skin was darkly tanned, and it was obvious that he had spent most of his life in the sun. I couldn’t believe that anyone would hope to die like that.

We ended up in a town called Rio Dulce, and stayed overnight near the river. The next day we took a two hour boat ride up a tributary to visit a rural village near Castulo Creek. A decrepit wooden house sat in the middle of a farm yard on the bank, while turkeys, chickens and horses roamed around. Across the yard, a wooden bridge stretched over a swamp and into a cow pasture, where a herd of bulls grazed at the bottom of a steep hill. It was still the dry season, but there was already muddy water at both ends of the bridge from an early rain. I learned that the first time my hosts visited this village; they had to wade waist-deep through these swampy grasses to reach the hills. They built the bridge not too long before, with the help of a team of volunteers.

We hiked up the hill and 20 minutes into the jungle before reaching a village named Castulo, where the residents lived the same way that Mayan villagers have for centuries. The first time my missionary friends arrived in Castulo in the 1990s, the villagers had never seen anyone as pale as them. At that point in time, the death rate was 50% because the villagers were dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water. My hosts showed them how to clean the water to make it drinkable, and helped them re-hydrate with a sugar-saline mixture. No one died after that.

The village was centrally planned around a soccer field in front of a school house that a missionary team built. The children learned their own Mayan dialect, as well as some Spanish. Education is their only chance to improve their livelihoods, possibly move away someday, or make a better life for future generations. Everyone in the village gathered to meet us at the 2-room school house. The students were so excited to take a break and play, and some of the kids brought us baby Amazon yellow-head parrots to hold.

Families live in thatched roof huts made with cahoon palm tree frons for roofs and bamboo as walls. The floors are dirt, and the typical ‘stove’ is an open-fire hearth in the middle of the hut. Their diets consist primarily of corn tortillas, which is not enough to sustain a person. Women use a metate (mealing stone) to grind corn into flour that they use for dough. Tortillas are flattened and baked over the hearth on a flat piece of aluminum. The village has no electricity, but a team of volunteers had built a new hand-pump well.

Idealistically, I thought that if I were Guatemalan, I would be more content to grow up insulated in Castulo than in the smoggy, over-crowded capitol. It seemed to me that without electricity, TV, or radio; people must be happier there. Surely, no one committed suicide in Castulo? Of course, I was wrong and my host told me that 2 people had chosen to take their lives since he had been to Castulo. One was a girl who drank plant fertilizer after fighting with her boyfriend. The other was a heart-broken boy. Before the end of the trip, I received notice that my cousin had killed himself and his ex wife had been found dead. I started summer school the day after I returned, and went to the funeral the following weekend.

Snap Shot of a Third World Country

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Snap Shot of a Third World Country

This morning, my dad and I traveled to the sketchy part of Belize City to get some of the BEST meat pies in the country. I had just rolled up my window after taking this picture – to juxtapose my normal shots of beautiful reefs and islands – when a man walked up to my car door. He yanked on the door handle and spun around after finding it locked, then ripped his shorts off before pacing by the car, naked and cursing. Two police officers watched from the shop door and shook their heads, knowing it would be too much hassle to reprimand the crazy man and that I wasn’t in any real danger. I just wanted to post this to raise awareness for the adversity that up-and-coming entrepreneurs must overcome in lesser developed countries like Belize. The rule of law is the only thing that makes it possible for business owners like Dario to sell their products and contribute to the economy, while law enforcement is tenuous at best. This is why we should be grateful to the people who risk their lives every day to make sure that things like this don’t happen in our countries. Meanwhile, police officers in Belize must pick their battles… By the way, the meat pies were worth it!