Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
This past August, I was again privileged to travel down south with CHOICE Humanitarian and join a service expedition of 32 dedicated volunteers: doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, and small business professionals. Hot chocolate, soccer games, and altitude sickness united us all throughout the week. Oh, and did I mention a unique sense of humor that deteriorated over time due to exhaustion and cold weather?
We first met together in La Paz and explored this crowded capital that overflows with constant contrasts of colonialism and indigenous roots. First founded in 1548 under the ambitions of Spanish conquistadores, La Paz soon became a major stop in the trade route of silver and tin. Independence from Spain was at last declared in 1825 under the new presidential leadership of Simón Bolivar. Towering snow-capped peaks embrace Nuestra Señora de La Paz at 12,000 feet - creating a "bowl" of cobblestone streets, peaceful plazas, historic chapels, handicraft markets, and flickering lights of hillside slums at dusk. There is an anti-American sentiment among local politicians, but Bolivian citizens reflect a different attitude with their warm smiles and gentle handshakes. We spent our time hunting for bargain souvenirs, feasting on llama and quinoa, and researching the origins of cocaine at El Museo de Coca. Our time here concluded with a proper orientation and a few scoops of rich gelato. Next stop? Huancuyo!
We packed into our vans with a lop-sided tower of luggage balanced on top. We drove out of La Paz and through crowded boroughs where swarms of people congregated around sidewalk vendors selling blackened chicken and black-market accessories. Our interstate soon entered the open landscape, cutting through a redundant terrain of dirt and dead grass shrub. The staggering mountain range of the Andes accompanied our journey until we arrived to our final destination: Huancuyo.
Upon arrival, we shuffled into a quaint concrete building (the village social center) to set up camp for the week ahead. As we prepared our sleeping bags, the village elders seemed a bit apprehensive with our presence there. However, the local children were ecstatic to receive us, eager to touch our hands, hold our cameras, and discover the new entertainment we brought with us: bubbles and frisbees! As the sun descended, we bundled ourselves with warm hats and gloves to protect us from the crisp air. Despite the utter chill of the evening, we were treated with a canopy of brilliant stars that stretched across the sky. It was now time to get some much needed rest as all the service projects were scheduled to begin the next morning.
While numerous workshops and clinics were conducted in several villages across the Batallas district, I was "blessed" to work on another water project (flashback to Guatemala: June 2010). As dentists extracted teeth, I worked on the trenches. As doctors diagnosed arthritis among village women, I still worked on the trenches. And as select volunteers helped families herd their cattle, I was scooping up massive piles of cow dung for household fuel. Hmmm...still not sure how I lucked out on that one.
The village water project was the focus of this CHOICE expedition. Those of us selected to work on this project were assigned to fill the extensive trench that village residents had dug on their own prior to our arrival. As the CHOICE Model of Development explains, villagers are required to contribute their own resources and efforts to a given project when possible. Native families of Huancuyo had committed months to the back-breaking labor required to dig a water trench 2 feet deep into the Andean mountainside.
We had arrived for the next phase of work. We had been invited to Huancuyo to fill that same trench with rock and dirt. Yet, we never imagined what awaited us the first morning of our expedition project. With shovels in hand, we left the village and headed up the mountain. Two hours later into the thinning air, following several false summits up the mountainside, we found the water source and origin of the infamous trench...at 13, 500 feet...overlooking Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world). The actual trench was almost 3 miles long! We KNEW that we would NEVER finish filling this trench in just one week!
As village men placed meter upon meter of PVC pipe into the trench, we worked hard right behind them in shoveling large stones and piles of dirt into the open ground. But, we were not alone in our labors. Village men and women - and even small children - utilized handmade shovels to cover the pipe with dirt. Believe it or not, we couldn't keep up with the pace of determined village women...despite swaddled infants on their backs and newborn babies feeding from their breasts. Yes, that is the truth.
To the collective shock of our expedition group, the entire trench was filled and completed...in 3.5 days! I was speechless. And no, the completion was not due to our unique participation. The project was completed due to the collaborative efforts of both sides...laboring together in an inter-cultural exchange of work ethic and mutual support. This is the essence of a true CHOICE expedition.
Now that the trench had been filled, it was time to connect the pipe with the schoolhouse spicket which had been placed weeks in advance. This was to be the site of the official inauguration of the water project...a moment that would celebrate the arrival of potable water to the village of Huancuyo for the first time. We had underestimated the importance of such a celebration. Village women wore their finest - and most vibrant - Bolivian attire...spinning and twirling in a cultural dance that often included our own volunteers! Village leaders gave messages of gratitude, shedding tears for the simple gift of water. And village children, waiting in anticipation, partook of the feast that was placed before them: a complete spread of 15 different potatoes and sauces.
These dear people had waited such a long time for this sacred occasion - to have drinkable water near their homes. The excitement was overwhelming as toddlers splashed in the running water that poured from the spicket. Joy was evident in the weathered faces of villages elders, worn and cracked as a result of the brisk Altiplano air. I could not help but admire such wonderful people. After all, I had served a volunteer mission among the same communities 10 years before.
As a group, we found ourselves on a memorable excursion (post-expedition) to the sacred ruins of Tiahuanaco. First discovered in 1549, this UNESCO World Heritage Site continues to be uncovered through vast excavations. The stone walls and sculpted heads of the temple speak of a pre-Incan empire that dates back to 1500 BC. Once a pilgrimage center centuries before the construction of Machu Picchu, Tiahuanaco is most recognized for its revered Sun Gate - a massive stone portal distinguished for its religious and astronomical symbols sculpted into the arch overhead.
*Prior to embarking on this rewarding expedition, I sailed across Lake Titicaca from the tourist town of Copacabana to the enchanting Isla del Sol (birthplace of Inti - the Incan Sun God). This sacred piece of land hosts several ancient ruins and sacred sites that date back centuries. Quaint hostels and intimate restaurants welcome international guests with roasted llama and red wine. I was soon roaming the rugged trails with a Czech couple, discussing the highlights of Andean culture with thick accents and cameras in hand. We were treated with an enchanting sunset that extended from the Peruvian limits into western Bolivia...then an awe-inspiring sunrise the next morning that illuminated the turquoise waters of Titicaca. A 2-hour return navigation brought me back to the shores of Copacabana, where overzealous street market vendors sold dried potatoes, silver earrings, and a plethora of vibrant Catholic saints and virgins. The entire cost of this brief trip? Just U$30. Based on these pictures? Priceless.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Sunday, July 11, 2010
We departed our hotel and ventured more than 10 hours into the scenic jungles and verdant cloud forests of eastern Guatemala. Our valiant van carried us across the tranquil waters of , through the flea markets of El Estor, and up winding roads that wrapped around lush hills dotted with coffee plantations.
Thus begun our CHOICE expedition on June 13th. Our group consisted of 18 service-minded volunteers: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, students, and co-workers. We left behind our laptops, cell phones, and watches...thus abandoning the constraints of pressing deadlines and strict schedules. This was going to be a week of selfless service and personal reflection thousands of miles from home.
The paved road became a gradual path of rugged terrain as we ascended toward the villages of the Polochic region. Gravel soon replaced the ease of asphalt just as intermittent rainfall turned roadside dust into unforgiving mud. Cheerful families waved to us from the windows of their humble homes as we continued up the hill before coming to a final stop.
We stepped out of our van and stretched our fatigued bodies. A small group of curious villagers had gathered to greet us upon arrival, though the village itself was still a 1-hour walking distance uphill. Without hesitation, village men with smiling faces grabbed our backpacks and hurried up the hillside as sunlight began to fade. We followed—far behind—along a broken stone path lined with oversized palm leaves and towering banana trees. At last, the vegetation cleared and revealed a gleeful crowd of giggling women and children gathered in the dark. Welcome to Chirixquitzac.
We entered Chirixquitzac as the first international volunteers since 1997. Still, village toddlers felt comfortable enough to hold our hands and stare at their gleaming portraits taken with our digital cameras. A small percentage of the 500 village residents spoke basic Spanish, though all others communicated in the native Q’eqchi dialect. Despite the assumed cultural differences between North American volunteers and indigenous Mayan families, nothing seemed to be lost in translation. We were delighted to be in Chirixquitzac…and Chirixquitzac was ecstatic to receive us.
Our entire week would consist of hard work, recreation, and friendships. We did not just bond within our group of CHOICE volunteers, but we reached out and unified ourselves with the endearing villagers of Chirixquitzac. We even shared a common passion for soccer during afternoon pick-up games. The villagers no longer seemed to notice the twisting ravine that divided the field, though I almost collided with a team of wallowing pigs and ducks as I ran toward a makeshift goal of tree branches!
At first, our project appeared simple: we would dig the initial trenches of a village-identified water project. For generations, village women have scaled the mountain trails in search of fresh spring water located at higher elevations. Such time-consuming trips allowed mothers and wives to fill their ceramic jugs with just enough water to heat a pot of vegetables or wash a small pile of clothes. The villagers had invited us to work hand-in-hand with them to bring water to the village for the first time. What a humbling honor and opportunity.
Each morning, with a stomach full of corn tortillas and fresh mango, we grabbed our handmade picks and shovels before trekking further up the mountain to our project site. While some groups had the pleasure of working in the shade, I struggled to avoid the suffocating heat from the sun overhead. While others were blessed with damp soil, I was blessed with solid bedrock…and a pile of broken picks due to poor gringo technique! Our group of dedicated volunteers took frequent breaks, with water bottles in hand, and watched in amazement as village men removed boulders and “cleaned up” our trenches—all without breaking a sweat!
The water project allowed us to better understand the trials and obstacles others often face in seeking the basic needs of life. Further perspective was given as we ventured on a midweek “ecological tour” up a surrounding mountain peak. The climb was tiresome, resembling a vertical staircase of mud with miniature footholds. The humid climate and enormous insects made the hike more interesting. As we reached the summit and overlooked the village far below, we posed the question amongst ourselves: “What is their poverty?” The general consensus was clear. The people of Chirixquitzac did not have luxurious homes, expensive cars, or lucrative bank accounts. Yet, these same people did have something much greater: happiness, camaraderie, hope, an astounding work ethic, a deep appreciation for life, and a profound connection with nature.
An eruption of thunder and torrential rain disrupted our group discussion and forced us back down the mountain. A handful of shoeless children led us down to safety—the same children that assigned me the nickname of “Rambo” earlier in the week.
That evening, we returned to the village church to rest (with inquiring onlookers peeking through the windows). As we stretched our tired bodies across foam pads and sleeping bags, the humming of the gas generator came to an abrupt stop, turning off the few dangling light bulbs overhead. All was black—except for the intermittent flickering of fireflies in transit from one window to another. I drifted off to sleep that night as I pondered the question: “What is my poverty?” What a thought-provoking subject for us all.
Our CHOICE expedition concluded the final night with a festive village celebration as hesitant mothers and children joined us in dancing to the piercing rhythms of a nearby marimba. Afterward, village elders wept and expressed their gratitude to CHOICE for our commitment to help others rise above the constraints of impoverished conditions. I was honored to translate those words for the volunteers of our group. A sacred Mayan ritual soon followed before we retired to the village church one last time.
I joined CHOICE in September 2009 as the new Director of Expeditions. This was my first CHOICE expedition to Guatemala. Years of international business and travel had prepared me for the job responsibilities ahead, though I never imagined such a powerful and meaningful experience in . This past trip renewed a personal connection with the simpler things of life—similar to what I first learned a decade ago while serving a humanitarian mission in . I invite you to join us in the field, share these experiences with us, and witness the powerful effect of combining the thrills of adventure with the rewards of service!