To The World Inc.
by Linda Parkinson
Look at a map and try to locate a place called Panajachel, Guatemala.
It is more than two hours outside of Guatemala City across winding mountain switch backs that put Colorado roads to shame. Dirt lanes and ripped up pavement greet us as we see the gorgeous view of Lake Atitlan framed by two looming volcanoes, Atitlan and Toliman. We have just arrived at one of the most beautiful places in the world.
It is also one of the poorest places in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti. Add to that the fact that Guatemala has more volcanoes per square mile than any other place in the world. Throw into the mix that it has had the longest civil war in Central America and it is clear this country has difficulties on top of difficulties.
But these are facts I have only read about.
Soon, however, my traveling companion and I would meet people who have been on the front lines of Guatemala's problems for twenty years. They run an organization called Mayan Families. Their names are Dwight Poage, his wife Sharon Smart Poage from San Diego, and their partner Patti Mont, and they have tried to feed, shelter, educate, and heal the people of Panajachel.
In hindsight I am glad that Panajachel's charm and beauty, and not it's pain are the first things that greeted us. I knew I was some place different when Sharon told me on the phone I didn't need to know her address in order to find her.
No, just tell the driver that you want to go to Casa De Sharon.
That's it? I ask skeptically. I am more than a little worried I will get lost. Getting lost is what I do.
Don't worry, trust me you'll be fine, Sharon laughs as she hangs up.
Sure enough, when we caught our first tuk tuk the driver did indeed know where we were going. For those unfamiliar with a tuk tuk, it is a three-wheeled vehicle, usually red and white, tiny, with the charm of a ladybug. It costs a person 5 quetzals or about 50 cents to ride it one way anywhere in Panajachel or Pana, as the locals say. The tuk tuks are a hoot. Walk out any door, wait a few minutes, and before you know it you are off. New York taxi drivers, eat your hearts out.
As it turns out, everyone knows Sharon of Casa de Sharon. She is famous for the best of reasons. She has been officially and unofficially helping the poorest of the poor here for a long time. Maybe everyone knows her because almost everyone needs her, or so it seems to us as we spend the next two weeks with her and her organization.
During that time, every day, Mayan women waited outside and inside the compound of Mayan Families dressed in their beautiful traditional outfits called Traje. In long plaid skirts, with ornate beaded belts cinching blouses often completely covered with beautiful embroidery they came there for help. Beautiful and beautifully dressed, they came in serious need.
One day we made 350 food baskets to be given away for Mother's Day. Word spread through the village. People flocked to the Mayan Families gate hoping for food. They waited hours and even when they were told we had no more baskets they continued to wait. Somehow it must have seemed better for them, many of them mothers with children in tow, to wait in line hoping for something good to come their way. It took a long time for them to give up and go home.
Sharon and her partners clearly love the Mayan people. But in a country where 38% of the population lives in poverty on less than $2 a day and 15% in extreme poverty on less than $1a day, there is never enough; not enough food, not enough housing, not enough schools, not enough help, and always, always not enough time.
They take us to meet a young mother they would like us to help. She has less than not enough. She has nothing. Her parents have love to give her but little else. Because of a crisis she has moved back home. Her name is Ana Marie and she has three children, one nursing. Seven people already live in a space smaller than my modest kitchen. With Ana Marie that makes 11. She sleeps on a damp concrete floor.
Our community was able to help finance the building of a small one room house for her, a bed and mattress, a table and one chair, a water filter so she can have clean water, and a microloan so she go into business selling aprons.
We know these are all small things really, but they are not small to Ana Marie.
Not small at all.
We are both exhausted by the end of our second week. Abject poverty is dreadful to see. I realize that for me it has been only an abstraction up until now. Now it is painful. It is also empowering, in a surprisingly embarrassing way.
We have so much. You have so little.
We have so much. You have so little.
I have so much . . .
Let's do something. Let's do something . . . how about more than one thing?
On our flight home I think about bringing my daughter next time. I want her to learn first hand what caring people have always known: giving a helping hand enriches us all.
Thank you, Guatemala.