Three weeks ago, Jorge and I went with a group to Chiapas. He and I thought we would be “leading” the 44 people who had signed on, but as things turned out, we all “led” one another – on an adventure in Mexico – even more marvelous than anyone expected.
Most of us seemed to have some “health issue” or another: mobility – la turista – work fatigue – and even a serious kidney problem. But no one let their aches & pains get them down. I have rarely met a group of such diverse individuals (we hail from 7 different countries) that got along so well. I think that from March 20 – 27, we felt like a family.
On our first day, we drove so close to Campeche’s Gulf of Mexico beaches that we could almost feel the sand between our toes. Through the big bus windows, we watched pelicans dive-bombing for their dinner and dolphins jumping – just for the joy of it.
In Villahermosa, we piled out of bed an hour earlier than planned, so we could fit in a short visit to the La Venta Outdoor Museum. Frisky coatis ran across our path and the jaguars paced beside us (in their strong mesh enclosures) We marveled at the gigantic basalt sculptures made by the Olmec people – the oldest Mesoamerican civilization.
Our youngest participant, Kelton, told me the boat ride down the Usumacinta River was his favorite part of the trip. We saw crocodiles on the banks and 1,000 meter-high cliffs. “It’s like the Grand Canyon with a river running through it,” one awestruck group member said.
Our four days in San Cristobal de las Casas were fuller than most participants figured they’d be. There’s just so much to experience here seemed to be the general consensus. We would have been kept quite busy with shopping in the markets, spontaneous happy hours at our rustic hotel, climbing the cobblestone streets, photographing and sketching the highland architecture, and dining in the many ethnic restaurants; but several group members brought additional options to us each day.
Rebecca made contact with a healer named Sergio Castro who invited us to see his collection of regional Maya costumes – each wee town has a distinct one of its own. Sergio is a trained agronomist who encourages local people to grow vegetable gardens and plant fruit trees. He also builds safe water systems, schools and clinics. He told us about his work with burn victims – what an amazing, inspiring man!
Many group members had packed clothing, blankets, toys and school supplies to distribute at a day care center. I also had two suitcases full of donated items from New Brunswick Community College. But when we arrived at the Santo Domingo Market, we found that because of budget cuts, the daycare was gone.
Government cutbacks seem to hit the most needy first, don’t they?
Jill, Lisa, Valerie and I sat atop the Guadalupe Hill – pondering what to do. The serendipitous solution (that has been a part of every single day I have lived in Mexico) arrived in the form of two sincere young men. “Can you make a donation to help a children’s shelter?” they asked.
A shelter??? We were all ears.
They told us about the children they care for. Most of them are from the tiny hamlets around San Cristobal. Their parents have been killed in the fighting that still occurs between the government and indigenous groups.
Jorge, Jill and I visited the shelter before taking the donations over there, and what we saw both saddened and cheered us.
It distressed us to see the physical condition of the shelter. The space is small, the sanitation is rudimentary, sleeping quarters are cramped, the cooking facilities are improvised and unsafe – in short – all the tangible infrastructure is severely lacking.
These two guys have huge hearts and it is plain to see how much the children love them. But they have no training. They began their life’s work when a small boy knocked on their door one night. “Please give me something to eat,” he asked in the Tzotzil language. They brought him inside, fed him and found out that he had no idea where he came from, or what had happened to his parents. By his clothing and accent, the men figured he was from San Juan Chamula.
The next day, they took the little guy to the elders in San Juan Chamula, who confirmed that the boy was indeed from their town and that he was an orphan. “Why don’t you adopt him?” they suggested.
They were shocked, and said that would be impossible.
“But you have your own house – you could open a home for children like this one. We’ll help you set it up legally so you can officially ask for donations – and I have 3 more children you can take home with you right now.”
“We had no intention of ever doing any such thing, but somehow, we found ourselves starting the shelter,” the brothers told Jorge and me. “Before long, we had more and more children and the neighborhood ladies (most are extremely poor and without husbands) asked for assistance too.”
The two men agreed to assist the women, in exchange for help with the kids.
So as it stands now, the two brothers and the ladies in the adjacent houses, care for 84 children. Many arriving at the shelter’s door have no Spanish. The first necessity is to teach them the language so they can start school. I spoke to one girl (she didn’t know how old she is or where she comes from) She woke up on the edge of the market one morning – with her two small siblings – her parents were gone.
The shelter receives no public funding. The needs are met entirely by private donations that the brothers collect – mostly from the tourists. The children who speak Spanish go to school. All the kids are taken once a week to a nearby park, they eat something every day (beans and tortillas, and sometimes more) and they sleep somewhere (a straw mat on the floor).
Jorge and I came away wishing these children’s parents would miraculously appear and take them home. And if that can’t happen, we hope an engineer will build a proper kitchen, bathrooms, and dormitories. And they need a doctor and a nurse who will treat the parasites and scabies. Is there a psychologist who will soothe their fears, and a teacher who will help them learn how to get along in the world?
When we told the group about the refuge, located deep in the poorest area of town, they joined our efforts with open hearts. We didn’t ask for anything more, but many of them spontaneously set out to buy food, more little toys and clothing. We needed five taxis to transport the group volunteers who wanted to see the home, and all the donations we had – including the two suitcases from the Canadian college.
All the children received their own toy, some candy and an item of clothing. One little fellow named Augustin had a big black eye. “What happened to you?” I asked. He couldn’t explain (he spoke just a little Spanish) but his good eye was glued on a pair of sunglasses with the NBCC logo on the side. I picked the glasses out of the suitcases and he put them on – was he ever happy!
I think all of us would have enjoyed staying a few more days, but Palenque waited. 299 topes lie between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque (yes, we counted) and on the outskirts of Ocosingo, a big strip of rubber studded with spikes lay across one of those topes. The locals held our bus (and about 100 other vehicles) captive. They were protesting a government action (more correctly said – an inaction) So we waited, and after our guide, Sergio, negotiated for a while, we got on our way again, after just 2 hours of the projected 5 hour road closure.
Because of the road block, we only spent 1 hour at the spectacular Agua Azul waterfalls. Nonetheless, I managed to drop Betina’s camera in the water! (Fortunately it dried out after sitting in a bag of rice for several days!) She was so understanding – “I know you didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. I was astounded, but this was typical behavior for this group. Such nice people!
Palenque – quite simply – blew us away! The buildings are majestic, and set against the rainforest, they are even more so. We climbed and photographed, bought charms from the little kids selling on site, clambered along a path cut through the forest – AND – to my niece Jillian’s delight, we saw spider moneys swinging in the trees.
On the trip home, we wanted to stop in Campeche for a final meal together, but road work kept that from happening – Oh well! By this point, we felt like cows headed for the barn – we’d all had a spectacular time, but it was time to get home.
This trip raised 44,000 pesos for the IWC Scholarship fund. We made 84 children happy – at least for a day. And we gave one another the gift of friendship. The positive energy has stayed with me – I have more patience and enthusiasm – and Jorge says he feels the same way.
Shall we do it again? Jorge and I are game! If you are interested in joining us on a 9 day IWC fundraising trip in late February 2015, let us know. Where to? How about Guadalajara, Guanajuato and Mexico City?
As an aside – I am still working madly away on my new book, so frequent post are not possible – but I’ll update from time to time and will get back to blogging regularly – just as soon as I can.
Photo Credits: Aren’t the pictures taken at the shelter amazing? Thank you Ron Fry for being our “official” photographer and for sharing your work with us.