Guatemala – Land of trees and mountainous highlands. Although its interpretations are widespread, the most common explanation is derived from the k’iche Mayan word ‘many trees’. My favourite definition which, Manuel Garcia El Gueta (historian) related to the word Quauhtlimallán, is the rendition of a ‘captive eagle’.
To this, I assimilated the situations which we encountered within the remote villages we visited and also around the Guatemalta compound/hub, within Izabal, Puerto Barrios. The people here are confined with their sickness and aid brought to them, yet, no matter how fragile they are, they have faith that they will overcome any hurdle.
Ash Wednesday – was the day we first experienced Q’eqchi mass, which happened to fall on our second day of voluntary work. Here both Mayan and Roman Catholic believes have merged and integrated within one another. An example of the merging of both faiths and rituals occurs just before entering the church. A person is cleansed with incense in order to remove any bad spirits brought into their sacred space from the city; this is also done to Fr Anton.
Leaving Izabal, we entered the lush jungle towards one of the Mayan villages in Fr Anton’s maroon pickup truck (one of the few cars steering through the villages). These unfinished gravelled roads throw one back to a few decades to the state of the Maltese country roads.
Tweeting birds and colourful fluttering butterflies passed us by, as we sat in the pickup, glancing straight out of our windows to see clumps of trees and the Pacific Ocean, when in sight.
As we arrived, we were first cleansed with incense and the mass proceeded. The Q’eqchi melodic tunes caught our ears and note by note, it started to embed itself in our heads and we started humming along to the tune. We silently crept out of mass to join the swarm of smiling kids, who were eagerly and patiently waiting for us outside to entertain them with games.
Although there was a language barrier, we overcame this by gesticulations and using each other as dummies. It was an entire hour of laughs and ‘coconut games’. Since they hardly have any toys we used natural resources for games, hence the coconut games using coconuts shells which where found in abundance at our feet.
Following that, we set off to the second village which was also Q’eqchi (Mayan) for the second mass of the day. The same beautiful tunes were played (this time with a few over powering, high pitched, screeching voices and a three piece band). This village had fewer kids so we decided to sit in for the entire mass and take it all in. Everyone was in their ‘Sunday best’. In every village Mass is conducted throughout any day of the week as Fr Anton takes care of 25 villages which he gets to visit once a month. They all participated throughout the mass with pride. Parents enthusiastically held up their children so that the priest put ashes on their forehead. It was truly moving; one actually felt the joyous atmosphere.
When the mass ended the entire community gathered under a shaded area to feast on some food which consisted of mashed up corn, pegged in banana leaves, piled up and served out of a plastic wash hand basin. Starving brittle dogs, meandered between the people’s legs for scraps of food that fell on the dusty ground. Moreover, they also prepared a table for Fr Anton and his helpers which included us. The table was set up with bowls of rice and chicken and a bottle of coke for each person.
We made our way to the pickup truck to unload 3 bags of soft toys. The kids and adults cause a whirlwind and the toys were snatched and mauled right out of the bags. As we entered the pickup to leave, the man in charge of the village approached Fr Anton to ask him to visit a 15 year old boy who had been sick for the past two weeks. The men who take care of the villages ‘the catechist’ are usually those who are informed about what is going on in the village. This information is then passed on to Fr Anton for his assistance and aid.
Some individuals who needed a ride to the next village, hopped on the back of the pick up and we gradually crawled down the winding steep road to stop by the boys’ home. It was about 34 degrees celsius, both myself and Fr Anton went into the home to find the 15 year old boy immobile, wrapped in fleece blankets on the base of a crooked metal bed frame. Their home was no bigger than approx 7mx8m, made out of different sized pieces of wood, down at heel, hammered together and with bunched up palm leaves bound together used as a roof, along with some rusty corrugated metal sheets. The floors were of soil and dust, with chickens, dogs, chicks, insects and ducklings waddling around their home. A few wooden planks are used as shelving; their clothes are tightly squashed into garbage bags which are stowed upon them. Besides some beaten up beds there were some lightly soiled torn hammocks wrapped in cobwebs, which were pinned onto the wooden beams that held the hut together. The family sat and stood alongside the boy’s bed worrying and wondering if he would ever recover.
The setting was heartbreaking. I too was suffering from indigestion somewhat similar to what the boy had (although his was viral) but I had the means to terminate it, on the other hand, before me stood a 15yr old boy who had been bed ridden for two weeks due to the escalation of this similar sickness. His family members had taken him to hospital a few days prior to only be given a prescription and the nurse administered him with a drip. They discharged him without giving him the medication needed. His family had no money to take him back home from hospital. Sick, frail and drained, these are instances we too have gone through and would never dream of being in such a terrible situation. By hook or by crook they managed to get him back home but had no money to get his medication so he then remained in bed crouched and in pain. Fr Anton, after consulting with them, gave them some money to buy the required medicine.
In these villages the main method of sustaining themselves is by trading and bartering their produce and animals leaving them with minimal amounts of money. The only method of transportation is on foot or by bus, that would pass only once a day. Their definition of an ambulance is a small beaten up van with just a metal bench at the back. It was clearly used only for transportation. Many villages are between 2-5hrs away and if it rains there is a high possibility that they cannot be reached due to the state of the roads. The rule of thumb here is, that if one gets sick, one goes to the ‘witch doctor’ who generally uses naturally herbs and Mayan rites which not always work on severe infections.
This is an example of a very common situation and simple illness which we tend to find ourselves in and take for granted that we will get over in no time due to the resources we have. However, for others across the pond from our little island, they tend to find themselves quite often in these same situations. Though they are limited in choices and resources and are usually left struggling between life and death.
There were other unpleasant situations of sick people we visited later on that week. As we entered a shack, we found a woman, in great discomfort, swaying lightly in her hammock breathlessly. She was a single mum, mother to a young deaf boy; she has been battling stomach cancer for the past three years. We could see that it had consumed most of her energy. She whispered to talk whilst pushing through the pain she felt down her throat and chest as she did so. I was amazed with her positivity, smiles and her will power. She looked frail but she had faith and was willing to fight through her illness.
While the helpers that were taking us round were talking to her in Spanish, I heard them mutter the word gatto (cat). I said to her that she could compare herself to a cat that has nine lives because of all the things she went through… Her eyes glistened and she smiled back with her fist clenched upwards to show that she was willing to pull through but added that she would leave her fate and strength in the hands of God.
To most like myself, I am sure that we are aware that these realities are found through various countries and societies around the world and even at home. Although every situation here is grim. What we see on TV and around us is a cushioned reality compared to what happens here.
The odds here seem to be constantly against them in their daily struggles. What we see as something impossible to occur actually occurs here. For example, night or day, rain or shine, a young partially blind woman needs to cross a bridge made out of small planks of wood in order to get home. It is already hard for anyone to get their footing right, let alone being partially blind and crossing over during pitch darkness and rain fall. Moreover the planks of wood stand a few meters high where anyone could just fall to their death. Thankfully, on a brighter note, Guatemalta managed to gather donations and donated a 5x5m cement home for her to live in although it had to be built in same area.
Even though the homes here are fully funded, by the donations given, other things that Guatemalta provide to those in need are not given for free. This is because here at Guatemalta, they do not believe in the paternal approach, where one is just gifted an item. They find that a person should still donate or do something in their means, whatever that may be, in order for them to appreciate and take care of what is given to them.
‘Nobody is so poor that he has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich that he has nothing to receive’. – Pope John Paul ll
It is obvious, that a lot has been done by Guatemalta, not only to aid many people from various walks of life in need but also through the uplifting moral, that the bountiful, jokester Fr Anton has put in the hearts and souls of the people and villages here. His aura is contagious and uplifting in the dire situations we are surrounded by.
BUT there is never enough that can be done.
Donations will go to the highest priority needs. Help fund the fight to their health by supporting both sick children and adults alike and any other projects GuateMalta need donations for!
Donations to Fr.Anton Grech
APS Bank Ltd 10, Main Gate Street, Victoria VCT1341 Gozo
Bank Account Number : 103 – 20000014528
IBAN Number : MT17 APSB 7703 5003 5854 2000 0014 528
Swift Code: APSBMTMT
YANA GRECH is currently backpacking Central and South America for 5 months.
Volunesia is that moment when you forget your volunteering to help change lifes, because it’s changing yours…