Sunday, April 29, 2012

So...what have we been up to lately??

The last few months in the valley have been very busy, and we like things busy around here. There have been lots of vistors from the States, and lots of good things going on in the valley. The down-side to all this is that we don't have as much time to sit down and blog like we want. Add to all this a computer that crashed on us in March, and we have been kinda out of the technological loop here lately. So, in case you've been wondering, here's what we've been up to the last several weeks.

DeeDee and I have begun Dental Health education in the schools around the valley. This has included us teaching the kids the proper way to brush their teeth (with the aid of our friend Marvin Mono) along with giving each kid their own toothbrush.

Although I feel that teaching proper dental health has much value, the most positive thing we've seen from this is a relationship forming between the communities and us. They like for us to come to their schools and we like being there too. It gives us a good feeling to walk into a village and here our names being called out by the kids ("DeeDee!!" and "Gingy!!!" Or in Kevin's case, "Kewin!!"). It's also lots of fun to hear them singing our toothbrushing song. When we hear it, we realize that we have made at least a tiny connection with them.

In mid-March we were happy to welcome the Lipscomb Medical Mission Team to the valley. A group of 30 doctors, dentists, and students spent the week with us pulling teeth, confirming pregnancies, treating wounds, and generally building a good rapport with several of the villages in the valley. The dentists were able to donate 1,000 flouride treatments for the children in the valley, and I was able to confirm that I have not missed my calling to be a hygenist in life. It was great though, to have the children hopping into our lawn/dental chairs and having a good first experience with something dental-related. You could tell by the beams on their faces that they were proud to be a part of what was going on in their communities, and the fact that they will have fewer cavities because of this is an added bonus.  I wish I had some pictures to add here, but as I said earlier, we've had computer problems and those haven't made it to the new computer yet.

Shortly after the medical team left, we got to enjoy some much-appreciated R&R in Antigua with the Links for Semana Santa (or Holy Week). Holy Week here is much like our Christmas in the States. They celebrate, and they celebrate big. Throughout the week in Antigua, there were processions of the stations of the cross as well as many alfombras, or carpets, that people made to go before the processions as a sacrifice. The pictures really don't do justice for how beautiful these carpets really were, but they can give you an idea of the work that went into each one. At 3:00 on Good Friday, the sentencing of Jesus was called out from the church in Antigua, and afterwards, a procession started that lasted all day long through the city. We were glad to be able to experience this celebration, and we loved having the Links down to enjoy it with us!

This is picture was taken fairly early on Friday morning, hence the long faces :)

Last week, we visited the school in our community for a story hour. Cata, a good friend to so many of you, read a book to two classes for one of the first times in her life. I think the smile on her face speaks volumes as to how this made her feel! We are very thankful to the 5th grde Wednesday night class at Otter Creek who sent us the book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and who provided the craft to go along with the book. The kids were so happy to have an activity like this to participate in as they don't have many opportunities such as these.

Over this past weekend, Kris, DeeDee, Cata and our family traveled a few short hours to Semuc Champey National Park where we enjoyed God's handiwork in the form of beautiful pools of crystal blue water.  We enjoyed swimming, sliding and exploring caves while we were there, and we wondered why it had taken such a long time for us to get to this paradise right next door to the valley.

As I'm writing this, we have welcomed a small construction team from Knox Pro Corps to build a water system in Sesalche I. We will leave for this village tomorrow and will spend most of our nights this week on a dirt floor in an annex of the school in this village. The village is eager to host us, and we are praying for a successful completion of this project by the end of the week.

As a family, we have the end of our time here in our sights. We will welcome only one more team as a family before the boys and I head home at the end of May with Kevin coming home the middle of June. Our final week in the valley will be spent with the Lipscomb engineering students who will be working on extending water systems, installing solar panels, and building bridges both literally and spiritually. I can't think of a better way to end our time here than to spend it with a group of students like these who are on fire to make this world a better place one hammer and nail at a time. We can't wait to be home and see the people we have missed, but we will leave with a Guatemalan-shaped hole in our hearts. So this, in a nutshell, is what's been going on in the valley. As I said, we've been busy, but we've been busy with some awfully good things.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Water Projects Update

From the "be careful what you wish for" files....last Fall, after we moved to the mountains of Guatemala, it took quite a while to get things moving regarding water projects.  Now, there's more going on than we can do, which is a good thing, but has contributed to some tiredness.  What many people don't realize is that when they ask "how long does it take to build a water system for a village?" is that the actual construction is the easiest (and most fun) part of the whole thing.  But it's only the short middle phase in between the planning and engineering on one end and training and operations on the other.  There are lots of opportunities to "go build stuff" or "write a check to build a ____" in the world, but the acts of getting villagers' buy-in on the system layout and then their commitment to maintain it once it's built can take a long time, and it's not the sort of thing that can be done remotely - it involves meetings and relationships and trust.  And sometimes frustration.

But all the sweat and work and often-tiresome meetings pays off a thousand times over when you see a system built and see it working and see villagers take pride in something that they:
  1. Had direct input on (not all organizations do that)
  2. Worked hard for (not all communities do that), and
  3. See as "theirs".
In January, a team of professionals from Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon engineers in Nashville came down to build a water system for the village of Sesalche II, one of the two largest villages in the Valley, with close to 1,000 people.  Their previous water sources were muddy pools in the middle of town and were very polluted with runoff from the market and with the daily chores of washing clothes and bodies in the water supply.  We identified a very high spring that had more than ample flow in it and designed a system to feed essentially the entire village.  It's as good a system as you'll find anywhere.

There are several aspects of this project that are exceptionally rewarding to me.  Having people tell you that they believe this will save their lives is a good feeling.  Working alongside former co-workers and friends is also a very good feeling, as is hearing them say how much they want to be involved in future projects.  Here are a couple of pictures of the project:

This is a group of men moving a 350-pound concrete pila up to a church in the middle of town, they have since constructed a house around the pila and use it many times a day.  Sometimes, during construction, we had as many as 50 men at a time working with us.

I just thought this little guy was cute.  When I walked up, he and another kid were playing in the pila near their home.  Technically they were wasting water, but my kids play in the sprinkler sometimes too...

We actually do some engineering as well.  This is Kris checking the level of another tank on a different hillside to make sure the two are level.  I mean, what sort of missionaries would we be if we didn't make sure that the hydraulic grade line between two reservoirs maintained a steady hydrostatic pressure, anyway?

This was a trenching crew I'd put up against any mechanized crew in the US.  The first four guys were digging a trench, the next two were placing the pipe into the trench and the last three were covering the pipe.  They went about 2,000 feet in one afternoon.

My favorite memory of the "work" in Sesalche II.  We routed a waterline from a tank (the one Kris is looking at in the photo above) down to the school, and in the process came across this tiny house in the woods with an elderly woman in it.  Because the most direct line from the tank to the school was literally underneath her porch, I made up some garbage story about how, in exchange for running the line by her house, we needed to add a water spigot at her house (the other sources in Sesalche II were "community" pilas).  This wasn't entirely true, but it just sort of seemed like the right thing to do, so for the first time in 80 years this woman can get water at her house, rather than walking 1/2 hour in mud down to a polluted spring.

We have other projects going on right now - a couple of them very large.  I'll post some good pictures of a water tank we are building in Sesalche I (not adjacent to Sesalche II - go figure) and of some upcoming projects in Semesche (the other large community in the Valley) and Sequixpur, where there is enough water in one spring to supply virtually everyone in the Valley with water.  Exciting stuff.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I Think I'll Be a Gypsy

If I could sum up the months of January and February into one word, it would be SUITCASES.  I have packed and unpacked my family more in these two months than I believe I ever have before between our comings and, more often, goings from the valley.  And so, it was a relief to finally make it back to the valley a couple of weeks ago for the long-term.  We were instantly busy visiting communities to talk about water and to teach dental health, and we were glad to finally be home.  So naturally, three nights after we arrived at our home in the valley, we decided to take a family trip to the ancient ruins of Tikal in the Peten region of Guatemala (why not pack up the suitcases again??)!  I’m beginning to think that I’ve found my true calling in life…gypsy.
Our family trip began as most do: with a child who threw up and a Visa card that was denied at the car rental company (“We placed a stop on your card because we noticed unusual activity in the country of Guatemala.”  “For the ten-thousandth time:  WE LIVE HERE!!”).  But, we made it into the truck before noon and were off!  Here in Guatemala, the journey to your destination can be almost as exciting, if not more, than the destination itself.  We were stopped at several military check-points where scary looking guys with automatic weapons over their shoulders stuck their heads in the car and turned out to be very friendly when all was said and done.  We found out that my husband has a very hard time seeing speed bumps that are unmarked, and we are all recovering from a massive case of whiplash even now.  We also discovered that in order to get to Tikal from Coban, you need to cross a teeny river in a tiny town by ferry.  As you can see in the picture below, we even got to ride this ferry with a gas truck!  This concerned our youngest child, Ben, but we are happy to report that all parties made it across safely.  After only a couple of speed bumps more, we arrived at Tikal.

The ancient city of Tikal is found smack-dab in the middle of undisturbed jungle.  It is one of the most beautiful and most frightening places I’ve seen in my life.  Our hotel, appropriately called the Jungle Inn, was located right in the heart of this jungle, and the beds had mosquito nets and spiders that were uncomfortably large.  There were howler monkeys in the trees along with spider monkeys, and I also saw, for the first time in the wild, a Toucan.  As luck would have it, there are also lots of animals of the serpent variety in Tikal, and I happened to be the only one who saw these beastly things ( 2 in fact).  I think this is because I was the one looking out for them the most.  I saw more species of birds and wildlife than I ever have or probably ever will see again in the wild.
You can, Toucan!

A Spider Monkey swinging down to take a look

Our bungalow

All these things pale in comparison, however, with the main attractions in Tikal: The Pyramids!  There is a unique feeling that comes over you when you climb a pyramid that you know was built by hand 1500 years ago, and we got the opportunity to climb several of these structures before our day was done in the park.  It was also priceless to see the look on Cata’s face, a descendant of the Mayan Empire, as she climbed the pyramids that her forefathers built.  My children, because they are Star Wars aficionados, discovered shortly before we went to Tikal that the rebel base in A New Hope was filmed in Tikal.  Therefore, their favorite structure was pyramid 4 where you could look out and picture the Star Wars battleships landing at the base at the end of a long day (look for it the next time you watch A New Hope).  My favorite place was sitting just below an ancient throne and looking out at The Grand Plaza as the sun was beginning to set.  To say the least, we are counting what we learned at Tikal as a field trip of a lifetime for our boys and at least 1 week’s worth of homeschooling (we’re getting kinda liberal on what we call school).  The experience was more than what I can put into words.

Picture Star Wars ships landing here

Three good-looking kiddos in their happy place

Great shot of a temple through the jungle

The Grand Plaza

The Jaguar Temple

Cata standing where her forefathers once stood

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and it was time for us to get back to the valley and the projects that are in full swing here.  We bumped our way back through the Peten and even found a Pizza Hut on the way which tasted like a slice of our home in the States.  And when we finally made it back, we found the sight of the bodega and our home here in the valley to be a sweet and inviting one.  Perhaps I’m not destined to be a gypsy after all, but it sure is fun to pretend sometimes J.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Holding Pattern

We are almost a month into the year 2012, and this is our very first post after our return to Guatemala.  Why the silence, you ask?  I think it can all be summed up best by saying that we are in a "holding pattern" at this time in our adventures.  Allow me to explain.

On our return to Coban on January 4th, we learned that there had been some robberies in the Ulpan Valley while we were away.  Our home had not been touched, but the news was that the robbers were targeting people who have money.  As the only people from the states residing in this area, we were somewhat concerned that we might be one of those targets.  To add to our concern, it was discovered that these robbers were armed with guns.  After much discussion with our trusted friends and colleagues, Christian Aponte and Steve Sherman, we made the decision to stay out of the valley at night until more could be determined about the safety of living in our home.  The kids and I spent over a week in a hotel in Coban catching up on some of our homeschooling goals while Kris, DeeDee and Kevin traveled to the valley to accomplish our work there (This is not a sustainable model, I might add.  It's like being in a cage with wild animals to be trapped in a hotel room long-term with my children.).

Last week, we were blessed by the arrival of a very talented and fun group of engineers who installed a water system in the village of Sesalche II.  During this time, we returned to what appeared to be a quiet and, once again, peaceful valley.  News of robberies had all but disappeared, and we felt at ease in entering our home again on a permanent basis.  However, the last night of the engineering team's trip, robbers were spotted once again not far from our house.  Again, it was reported that they were armed.  Upon these findings, we moved the team out early the next morning as well as our families.

So where does this leave us right now??  Because we don't know much factual information about this group of robbers (most of what we hear has come through the grapevine), we have made the decision that the boys and I along with Cata and DeeDee will be staying out of the valley for the next month.  This has come after many prayers, after much advice, and after many tears as well.  Our hearts are in the valley and with the people who call it home.  That is where we feel that we have been called to help God's people, and it is frustrating to find ourselves in a holding pattern.  Kevin and I also realize that our number one priority no matter where we are is to keep our children as reasonably safe as is within our power.

During this month, Kevin and Kris will travel to the valley to continue working on projects already started while we stay in Antigua.  We are hoping to make the most of this waiting period by taking some more language classes as well as continuing in our home school studies.  Also, on a happy note, my parents will be coming to see us in a few days and will be spending an extended period of time with us here.  Our hope is that we will be able to show them many parts of this beautiful country including the valley where we most want to be! 

Please understand that we in no way feel that our safety is threatened at this time...even in the valley!  We also understand that being cautious is the best practice in this situation.  Hopefully, over the next month, we will be able to get a factual perspective on what is actually going on in the communities in Ulpan.  Our sincere hope is that we will be able to move back by the end of February, but we are taking things one day at a time right now.  Please lift this situation up in your prayers.  Pray for the people who are there who don't have the luxury of picking up and moving their families out.  Pray for the work that Kevin and Kris will be continuing and for their safety as they travel back and forth.  Pray for the perpetrators as well.  Pray that God will soften their hearts and that they could have a "Damascus Road" moment in their lives.

We are continually reminded that we are not doing our work here alone.  The prayers that you offer us are felt daily, and rest assured that we could not be here without your love and support.  We'll try to keep you posted as we know more, but right now that is simply not much.  We love you all and miss you!  I'll leave you with a breath-taking shot taken from our home this past week.  As this picture beautifully demonstrates, we are hopeful for good things to come in the Ulpan Valley.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's a Great Place to Visit, But I Wouldn't Want to Get Sick There

Starting in January, Project Ulpan will have a full-time doctor living in the Valley, bringing medical care to the 7,500 people there closer than they have ever had it.  Turns out that last weekend I had the honor of being the doctor's first patient.  But first, a little backstory:

Ginger and the boys left last week to head back to Nashville for Christmas.  My plan was to hang around for about another 10 days to finish up some water things and help out with several meetings and trainings we had going in the Valley.  My error here was actually making a plan in the first place (see my extensive research on this topic filed under: PLANS, nothing here goes according to).  The day Ginger and the boys left, I did what any healthy man would do - I drove to visit some nuns.  And it only took 6 hours - a speed record for a nun run.  These amazing women have run a health promotion and training program in southwestern Guatemala for about 40 years, and it was very impressive.  In truth, I was along because Kris and DeeDee and Christian were my ride back to the Valley.  So, the 4 of us and the new doctor went to visit to see what we could learn.  The road was crowded and bumpy and full of sugarcane trucks because it's harvest time right now.  Also, there were a few stops where we were searched to make sure we didn't have fruit or other things that might infest the crops there (I didn't mind that necessarily - it makes sense, but I wish that governments put as much effort into addressing the trafficking of humans as they do the trafficking of fruit flies).

Throughout the visit, it became clear to everyone that I didn't know very much about medicine (more on that later), but thankfully I was able to work in some of my best nun jokes ("dressing as a nun is easy once you get into the habit", "you must think we're as fun as a barrel full of monks", "I assume you're Cardinals fans", and so on).  They actually weren't Cardinals fans, though, but they really liked the Detroit Tigers from the 1960's and were pleasantly surprised to talk with someone who could recount Denny McClain's amazing 1968 season and how Al Kaline is one of the most underrated players ever.  They also said that they are working in one community in particular where they have a desperate need for water, and it looks like next spring we are going to "trade" some water work for some medicines and health promotion work.  It's always interesting to me how things get intertwined for the good.

And, along the way, it occurred to me that I wasn't eating or drinking much at all.  By the time we returned to Guatemala City, I was feeling pretty rotten and really just wanted to sleep.  I looked up my symptoms on WebMD and it said definitively that I had a kidney infection.  That is probably not fun anywhere, but in the mountains of Guatemala it's especially un-fun.  The combination of bouncing along the "roads", the drizzle, the cold (it's surprisingly cold right now), the real discomfort in my back and side, and the fact that whenever I went to the bathroom it sounded like I was sending a Morse code message made it pretty miserable.  Thankfully, of the past 144 hours in the Valley, I slept about 120 of those hours.  One of the few clear decisions I made was to move my flight back from next week to today.  Feeling better and sitting here in the airport gave me some time to reflect on another event that occurred around me in the last few days.

One (evening?) Kris came in to where I was sleeping and said "Sorry, but this guy's got a broken arm and this is the best place to help him".  I really don't remember much else from that time, but the story was that he had fallen and had a severe break that needed immediate medical attention, but before getting him to he hospital for setting / surgery he needed to have the break immobilized.  Kris (who could probably use a nap by this time as well) was able to put to use some wilderness training and apply a splint.  The family was distraught.  He was a new father and needed to support the family.  Bear in mind that this sort of injury is often a death sentence in places like this, and even in the best case scenario he wouldn't be able to work for several months, if ever again, and most of the people here live day to day.

The next day, a group of friends and family came and asked Kris if he could take them to the hospital to visit their friend, who by this time had been informed that he needed treatment costing 1,500 Quetzales (which he didn't have) or they would need to amputate his arm.  More of the story came to light as well - that the man had in fact been intoxicated and got into a fight with his father-in-law over the fact that he'd been unkind to his wife and threats were made and punches thrown and just a general sad situation on the family front.  I really don't know any more than that, but I suspect that the story, like all stories, goes back several years and possibly generations.  I guess we have the option to pay attention to the sweet story of a family rallying around a loved one who is hurt and we have the option to pay attention to the story of a man who made some exceptionally poor choices in exceptionally trying circumstances.  Or, we could pay attention to both stories, for they are part of a larger story.  The Ulpan

So here I am - we're about to board the plane.  I get to come and go.  I get sick and can make a few calls and change a plane reservation and a few hours later be finishing up a drink and typing away on a computer.  Another man my age gets sick and faces selling all his property or losing his arm.  However, even given his grievous mistakes he's made with his family, he is currently surrounded by his family.  That's what I want to be as well.  Thank you, God, for a kidney infection because it pushed me to do what I should've done in the first place: stay with my family who is that light in my life.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On Babies

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" John 1:14

People have lots of babies in the valley.  Our family of five is considered a slightly small family compared to many in Guatemala.  Over the past few months, DeeDee and I have been helping with a baseline study of the valley.  Questionnaires are filled out by a random sampling of families in each village on basic health and education.  Questions are asked such as "When do you wash your hands?" and "What do you do when you wash your hands?" (ie: Do you use soap).  Among the questions are also "How many times have you given birth?" and "How many of these children are living?".  These questions are the hard questions to enter into the computer at times.  Some families have six children and all are living.  Others are more difficult.  There are women who have given birth four times and none are living. When asked "Who helped you give birth?", most women answer that the local mid-wife or their mother helped.  One particular woman, however, answered that no one helped her give birth to her children.  As a woman who has given birth, this is difficult for me to understand.

Even closer to home, our friend and employee in Project Ulpan, Julio, asked for time off about a month ago because he needed to help a friend build a tiny casket for their 8 month-old baby.  Only a few days after, Kevin and my boys witnessed a village digging a grave for another tiny casket.  It is telling and sad that the newborn we visited last week doesn't yet have a name.  Maybe that's just the custom in the valley, but why?  Is it because so many die that names are not given until later?

There was a baby born a little over 2,000 years ago who we celebrate at this time of year.  In the birth of this baby lies all our hopes.  The hope that His light will break through the darkness of babies dying and people hurting.  I find that the Christmas songs that mean the most to me this year are the ones that talk of the hope we have with the birth of Jesus.  One particularly poignant song to me this year is Point of Grace's "Emmanuel".  If you've heard it, the melody is beautiful, but the words are what convict me most (If you've not heard it, find it and listen to it).  The last line of the chorus says, "Emmanuel, be God in us".  Jesus came to be God with us.  But He didn't leave us empty-handed when He returned to His father.  He gave us His spirit, and with it, the ability to continue to be "God with us" to a world lost in darkness.  He paved the way for us by His perfect example and then said, "Now, go be my light to those you find in need".

So, I celebrate Christmas this year with extra spaces in my heart for the people in the Ulpan Valley and with the hope that our presence there will be a light in the darkness for them as their lives have been a light in my darkness.  I celebrate with thankfulness overflowing that God's perfect plan doesn't leave us alone but gives us His presence forevermore.  I celebrate that God is with us.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dry-erase Boards: A Love Story

The past several years have seen some remarkable improvements in technology, especially in the area of communication.  The fact that I can sit at a computer and talk to people anywhere in the world for free by way of Skype, all from a place that's an hour from the nearest electrical service, is amazing to me.  Think about it - cell phones, iPhones, the internet, satellites, GPS, and countless other devices are all so commonplace that we barely even notice them, except for maybe when watching re-runs of TV shows from the 1990s and notice that most of their issues could have been solved by mobile phones.  None of these inventions, however, can even approach the importance of the dry-erase board and the contributions it has made to humankind.

I know there are some old-fashioned chalkboard apologists out there, and to those people I just have to say that all you are is chalkdust in the wind.  Dry-erase boards use markers that, while not quite as tasty as chalk, come in a wide variety of bright colors as diverse as "green" and "blue", and for extra emphasis when underlining something important, even "red".  Black dry-erase markers are so 2005.   Go to any office building and inspect the dry erase boards in individual offices - that's how you can tell who is the brains of the outfit and who does all the work.  I used to work with a man (and friend) named George Garden, whose marker board was epic.  It was always full of engineering formulas and complicated things like "process and instrumentation diagrams" and other things that looked like the washing instructions you find on the tag of your shirt.  And for any of you who drink water in Brentwood Tennessee, rest assured that the only reason that water ever got to your house was because there was a note on Travis Lankford's dry-erase board to build something or fix something or "ignore what that geeky engineer down the hall just said".

So what, one might ask, does this have to do with mission work in Guatemala?

Our work here has gotten busy enough that we now use a white marker board in our planning and designing so much that even men like George and Travis would be impressed.  Here is a photo I took a couple of days ago after a minutes-long planning session:

Aside from noticing that I don't know how to turn the flash off on my camera, you'll notice there are references on here to water projects in places like:
  • Sesalche I, where people don't have water 3 months out of the year because their source goes dry and for whom we are building a reservoir and extra lines to augment their system
  • Sesalche II, where the 800 people there obtain water every day from the same location where they wash their clothes and themselves, and where not surprisingly there are high rates of sickness
  • Sequixpur, where 400 people drink out of a river when we can get safe water much closer to their houses than the polluted river for about $10 a person.
  • Benitzul, where we live and where many people, especially on one end of the village, still have to look for water.
  • Don Bosco Setex, where we've designed a new spring box for them that will double their supply and are looking to construct later this month.
  • Semesche, where a very simple project can get water to about 200 people.
  • Santo Tomas, where someone built part of a system 12 years ago and never taught them how to maintain it, so it hasn't worked since.
It's wonderful and humbling that we are getting so busy with what we are doing.  Water isn't the answer to the problems in these communities, but it's a start.  It really helps, when dealing with the 17 communities here, to accomplish something with water or bridges or other things along those lines, because it seems that they are much more receptive to what we say about health or education.  I think that's maybe the point of Jesus's conversation with Nicodemus - that if people can't trust us with what we do and say about earthly things, they're not very likely to trust anything we say about heavenly things either.  And there's a part of me that truly believes, through some supernatural occurrence, that Jesus used a dry erase board when trying to explain it all to Nicodemus.  Maybe a dry-erase scroll.