A collection of snippets from the field. Because lots of notably odd and hilarious things happen in my near vicinity.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

So I’m on a train coming back to NYC from a short business trip to Connecticut. The whole care reeks of feet. Some drunk guy almost started a fight when he stumbled into another man’s afro and then attempted to pet it admiringly. The rather emo-attired girl next to me is watching raunchy movies on her laptop and, after giving me a sideways look when a particularly x-rated scene came on, slid over to another seat to hunch down over her guilty pleasure. Some jerk’s phone keeps going off, belting a clip from a Three Day’s Grace song. And I’m pretty sure I’m sitting in the crumbled remains of someone’s chocolate croissant. I have to get up at 445am tomorrow morning.

They need a bar on this train.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Yesterday, I was driving down the interstate in the greater Chicago area on another business trip, when a drunk driver came careening up the left lane, weaving so badly that he swiped his side mirror on the neon orange construction barrier that just saved him from a full-on wreck. The mirror flew off in a shatter of glittering glass and soaring plastic pieces, skyrocketing 20 feet into the air, arching in slow motion over his car and into my lane, nearly landing on my windshield. All that glitters is not gold.

Then, this morning, the TSA agent thought it appropriate to address the three men in front of me in the pre-check line as “sir,” but promptly deteriorated to “girl” when it came my turn. Girl?! I’m in a damn blazer, you misogynistic prick. But I hadn’t had my coffee yet, so no feminist rage was in order. Now it’s off to Vegas, truly the apex of women’s empowerment and anti-objectification in this county.

At least I got my first free upgrade to first class. Who knew hot towels could be so enjoyable?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Just enjoyed a free dinner and drinks at the Mirage hotel in Vegas……..oh, because I found a HUMAN FINGERNAIL in my salad. The worst part was, I found it by … biting down on it. Yup. It made it all the way into my mouth.

Nutritious.

The waitress and manager were flabbergasted. I was as well – clearly not the fault of the restaurant itself, as the kitchen is right in the middle of the restaurants, all the food prep 100% visible from my seat, and every employee touching food was wearing gloves. Must have come from the distributer. Not the kind of luck I was looking for in Vegas.

However, I did quite serendipitously end up sitting next to a friend of an old friend! Really, of all the gin joints in all the world – or, all the burger joints on the Strip anyway (probably a comparable number) – I happen to have a spot next to someone I could enjoy conversing with about the fingernail.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Just watched a bedraggled, crazy homeless lady outside a Citi Bank assault a super-model in her Prada shoes because miss thang accidentally brushed her with her coat. Aaaah, New York City.

November 4, 2015

In Ohio on a business trip, by myself, per usual. Walked into a random bar in Sandusky (which is actually a really cute place) and just my luck, it’s trivia night. And hey, the first question I hear is about kid’s movie. So of course, I promptly force-invite myself onto a team of college kids and help them get the question right.

Bam.

Then the host of the trivia notices me rockin’ the party by myself, and asks me where I’m from. When I say New York, he gets super excited, and decides to announce my presence to the entire bar on the microphone. “Everyone welcome Holley! She’s come all the way from New York City!” Wow. Is this what it feels like to be a small-town celebrity? I think I’ll go bury myself in my french fries and wine now.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

So i’m walking to the farmer’s market on a Saturday afternoon in a baggy sweater, my hair unbrushed, it’s laundry day so i’m in my oldest pair of jeans, carrying a bag of smelly compost, when a mail truck stops in front of me – the mailman steps onto the stair of the truck, gives me the widest grin, and staring right at me, declares, “fabulous!” then sweeps off his hat and gives me a bow.

Mr. postman, i don’t know what you’re on about.

But you just made my day.

Cycling to work in a building without locker rooms or showers means that a full change of clothes is necessary to prevent being “that guy” at the office that no one wants to get quite close enough to shake hands with. Let’s be honest, perfume can only do so much; especially when even the early hours are hitting somewhere above the 80 degree mark. So, the night before, I stuff a backpack with appropriate attire, and – after racing myself through a proper cardio workout up 2nd Avenue – take over a stall in the women’s restroom for the daily metamorphosis into a pit-stain free employee. But some days are longer than others, and some nights you just forget one of the ingredients. The other day, I neglected to remember to pack a bra, which made for an interesting sort of day. I guess going commando topside fits in pretty well with the hippie image I’ve created by biking to work in the first place and asking that everyone recycle their used post-it notes. Honestly, it’s a little too “liberated” for my taste, and I sucked it up in a slightly damp sports bra for the rest of the day. But the event coincided well with the theme of April: we, the flower children, get to tree-hugging and bra-ditching in the name of the planet.

Seeing as how we recently celebrated (so I hope) Earth Day – the 45th anniversary of John Muir, flower-planting, litter-collecting, and feel-good posts about animals – I felt inspired to make a small tribute of my own, another tale spun from the MAVERIK Chronicles series – since cycling is about more than just getting a good sweat out of the morning commute. Galvanized largely by this fantastic post by fellow eco-feminist, @SaraAlcid, this meager monologue seeks simply to pay homage to what sustainability and equality look like on wheels. I am immeasurably fortunate to get to ride where I do. While New York City is a whole other kind of glory from long spins through magnificent, raw nature (I’m envisioning the landscapes framed by the handlebars of my friend Derick, who is currently cycling from Alaska to Argentina for charity on the 99%RIDE and how neighborhood streets must pale in comparison to sweeping views of the Andes), this city still provides a certain marvel of its own.

I bike everyday past one of the most dynamic and diverse stages on this beautiful earth: movie sets where filming is in progress (wave at the camera! hi, mom!); drum circles gathered in the park, the potent scent of patchouli floating over the heads of brightly-costumed bongo players; blaring horns and angry outbursts of cabbies and suits in their mid-town morning madness; street musicians serenading farmers’ market goers with banjos and fiddles next to rows of pansies and hyacinths for sale in little plastic pots; people of every sort gathered at little tables crammed onto stressed patios outside of bars and cafes, chatting beneath swinging string lights;  the glittering East River with the feat of soaring human architecture that is the Manhattan skyline.

New York has an advanced cycle system unparalleled by anything I have seen outside of Europe, with a comprehensive set of lanes and paths and – despite the irate taxi drivers and oblivious pedestrians around Canal Street and Times square – a relatively established bike culture and general awareness that is miles ahead of the antiquated and vehicle-dependent mindset of most of this country. And in a city of more than 8 million people, providing for velocipedes is not merely a luxury or a tourist attraction. Like the subway system, it is crucial to maintaining the momentum of the everyday murmuration of the masses. Unlike the selfishly expansive spread of most other cities in the US, the sheer density of New York City could never accommodate the automobile addiction so embedded in the cultures of cities like Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The big apple is something of a validation that population mass does not hinder the implementation or practice of sustainable initiatives – quite the contrary, it makes them vital. I’ve heard it argued that countries like New Zealand and Switzerland do so well in eco-friendly regulations because they are small and homogenous – but that is logical fallacy and a meager excuse. Perhaps for the giants – the world’s largest polluters – implementation and enforcement are more extensive and complex, but that could be said of any operation in such places. And yet we manage to run schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and highway construction. What is lacking is priority, not capacity.

Truly, the need for environmentally-conscientious systems like a cycle culture is more dire in areas like those where the air is so heavily polluted that children have to strap on face masks when the leave the house. Yet, in this nation, we are deeply entrenched in our love affair with the vehicle. We have huge and profound socio-economic ties to our four-wheeled gas-guzzlers, associating everything from financial success, social status, and even manliness to the type of car we drive. We have structured the layout of our cities to require access to personal vehicles, soaking up square milage as if there was no correlation between resource consumption and distance. 1.9 billion gallons of fuel are wasted in US traffic jams annually, equating to roughly $715 lost per driver.* That’s not even to touch upon the rampant fitness crisis prevalent across the US, with nearly 70% of adults considered overweight or obese, and heart disease being the cause of every 1 in 4 deaths.** But I write not to scold or rant. Studies have proven that you can lob bad news at people all day long, but as a species, we are likely to tune out and go back to our cat videos, unless there is a positive alternative course of action presented. I can’t think of a more positive feeling – or productive solution – than coasting down smooth pavement on a spring afternoon from behind the handlebars of a bike.

The tunnel vision that leaves us strapped into our cars and raging at hours of immobile traffic jams day in and day out is a vicious cycle I hope someday to see shattered … by another type of cycle. Perhaps for New York, it was desperation more than conscientiousness (as is tragically typical for the human race) that bolstered infrastructure for and promotion of bike culture . But it’s done, and now the example is there to follow. I believe, with every spin of my pedals, that we are capable of breaking this nationwide bad habit – of ending the idolatry and gluttony that have defined our relationship with automobiles. It’s time to liberate ourselves by jumping astride the sweet escape of a bicycle – or at least providing opportunity to do so. And what better day to start than Earth Day? Or if you missed it, Arbor Day. Or even better, today. The bike is fitness, freedom, and full-responsibility for the planet entrusted to us, all on two wheels. I feel Mother Earth would fully endorse this message.

To take action and help bring bike lanes to your region, or to improve and expand existing infrastructure and awareness:

League of American Bicyclists: http://www.bikeleague.org

World Bicycle Relief: http://www.worldbicyclerelief.org/

People for Bikes: http://www.peopleforbikes.org

Bike Walk Alliance: http://www.bikewalkalliance.org

Or even better, get your kids, get your friends, leash up your dog, grab a helmet, and get out there. Happy cycling.

– Mishaps of A VelocEpedaleR In new yorK

velocipedaler

*http://www.nationwide.com/road-congestion-infographic.jsp **http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/WeightManagement/Obesity/Obesity-Information_UCM_307908_Article.jsp

Mostly I am excited to announce that I’ve just learned the word “velocipede” is a synonym for bicycle and now I have an excellent title for this series – one that simultaneously conjures images of badass female velociraptors taking over the city of New York with their two-wheeled shenanigans, and, well, my average escapades to work and back.

veloceRAR

So my first day cycling to work was a success!! Well, sort of. Mostly in the sense that I didn’t get my right arm taken off by a stray car door or my tires popped by hazardous debris in the road. It was a glorious and beautiful ride, worthy of a greater conclusion than was encountered at the end of my new route. The early morning sun spread a soft gold layer of simmering luminescence over the East River as I puffed up the south side of the Manhattan bridge, the cold of the air stinging my fingers and dousing the ragged breath I dragged into my lungs. Cripes, I am out of form. But soon! Fortunately the bridge, like most, is a lovely arc that provides a much welcome downhill coast on the second half, no matter which direction one may have the fortune of pedaling in. I coasted along, venerating at the glow of the midtown skyline – the Empire State Building glinting gold and pink in the growing crescendo of light, watching my wheels spin above the graffiti and rusty tubes strewn in the shipyard below as I sailed into Chinatown. The sharp right turn that spits you off the bridge and into the manic streets below snapped me out of my blissful stupor and into what I’ve come to call Walking-Dead mode, because anything that moves has the potential to kill you. It’s a state of heightened acuity that keeps me wound like a spring and ready to engage in invasive maneuvers until I reach my destination. It’s really even more effective than Turkish coffee.

I do actually tend to obey most traffic laws. I figure actually coming to a pause at red lights not only increases my odds of living through the day, but also potentially improves the delicately imposed symbiosis required if vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles hope to exist successfully together on the same slab of pavement. Though I will fully predicate that in certain situations, cyclists are actually safer when they cut corners and slide through red lights. Check out this fantastic snippet of literature as to the reason why.

I slid in between the shaded lanes between the ornate exterior of Grand Central Station and the soaring, windowed stories of the building that hosts our offices and circled around to the loading dock, knowing such a flashy establishment would never allow a hooligan like me to bring a bicycle across the immaculate marble floors of the main lobby. I figured I’d duck into the freight elevator, and stash my beloved Attix (that’s my baby, my Raleigh Cadent) in a corner of our office on the 16th floor.

But noooooo.

New York City must be the only place in the world where you need permission to bike to work. Well, maybe Singapore. I mean, you can’t even chew gum there.

Apparently NYC laws require that employees of major buildings in Manhattan require a permit to store their bikes at work. Supposedly it is meant to do a favor for enthusiasts wanting to cycle instead of commute – since in the days of “BDL” (before the DOT law), snobby building managers could flat out refuse to allow tenants and employees to bring bikes inside.

[Side note: to any parvenu that thinks seeing bicycles in an office space is “tacky” or “cluttered” – GTFO. You are an idiot.]

So I stood in the loading dock for half an hour while they figured out what the heck to do with me. Bonus! I got to meet the building’s Assistant General Manager, Floor Manager, Loading Dock Manager, and no less than 5 security personnel!

In the end, they issued me a stern lecture and told me not to bike to work again until my floor had received clearance and submitted a “formal letter, including proper letterhead” requesting that I be put on “the list” and allowed to stash my bike in some sad, pipe-riddled cave of a room on the ground floor.

Yeah. Sure.

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
― Susan B. Anthony

I’ve decided to start writing about maneuvering through the city that never sleeps from behind the handlebars of a Raleigh hybrid. While I’m hardly the first to weave words from the spinning wheels of a bicycle on the streets of New York, maybe I can at least provide some succor in the advocacy for and encouragement of other women to embark upon a two-wheeled liberation. Because ladies, right now, we are seriously underrepresented out there!

Why? Because it’s more socially acceptable for men to be a little sweaty and smelly in public than it is for women? Because it tends to be women that have to get the kids to school in the morning (difficult, but not impossible to do on bikes!)? Because it can be a harrowing experience that women have less propensity to tolerate? Because women’s clothing is generally more restrictive?

I don’t know, but I’m determined to find out, and to do so aloud. Because about half of the population is really missing out right now. And because of women like these:
https://nowthisnews.com/these-badass-women-cyclists-in-afghanistan-won-t-stop-biking

Now, I may not be risking my life and snubbing oppressive terrorist cells by riding my bike and making a fuss about it. Who knows, maybe I can light some small fires. But even if not, I enjoy the snot out of it. Biking through Manhattan is one of the greatest highs I’ve ever experienced. Right up there with coasting down a shoulder-lacking highway in Guatemala, competing with chicken buses, stray goats, and mac trucks for pavement space as the tug of gravity throws your wheels into flight down a mountain slope. The senses of the bike messengers and regular cyclist commuters have got to be on par with a fighter pilot – navigating heedless pedestrians, impatient cabbies, manic traffic, car doors swinging open, surprise construction sites, eight-lane intersections with three unique traffic light systems, dogs on leashes, slicks of mud and ice, scattered debris, disappearing lanes, and potholes large enough to swallow your front tire whole. And hot damn it is fantastic. The rush you feel is more than the cold breeze on your face. It’s a jailbreak from the sluggish daily commute, a surge of electricity through the muscles, a deliverance of the senses so dulled by computer screens and controlled airflow. It thrusts you into the vivacious mesh of moving people and things on the streets and sidewalks of the city. Ironically, in just 10 blocks on a bike, I spoke with more people than I had during the daily, six mile subway ride pressed against other human beings on the 4 train. Sure, some of that was me yelling at an oblivious cyclist that had decided to stop in the middle of the lane to check his phone, and at a thoughtless driver deciding to barrel through a left turn and nearly over 3 cyclists. But it also included a friendly garbage man who merrily jumped in his truck to move it out of my way as I came peddling up, waving as he wished me a nice day, and an elderly lady who thanked me as the shuffled across the street for actually stopping at the red light.

The world as a bicycle sees it is unlike anything else I can describe. Navigating infrastructure that mostly forgets to consider you – something in limbo between pedestrians and motor vehicles – allows you to see and experience the layout of a place with crisp, radical perspective. And I have witnessed only a handful of things as beautiful as the glistening New York City skyline at sunset from the bike lane of the Manhattan bridge, the buildings shimmering on the surface of the inky East River, the torch born aloft by the Statue of Liberty aflame with the pinks and golds and oranges of the sky overhead.

So, I dunno, I’m just going to start telling stories gleaned from the narrow green strip that cuts up 1st Ave. and down 2nd. Maybe it will convince someone to keep a better eye out for cyclists. Maybe it will get someone else out there on a bike of their own. Or maybe, I’ll just enjoy spinning tales.

Pun intended.

http://momentummag.com/three-women-changed-course-history-bicycle/?utm_source=Momentum+Newsletter&utm_campaign=7d363c59d4-Weekly_Newsletter_3_10_20153_10_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_534c982c98-7d363c59d4-163643101

More than once, I’ve had someone tell me that I seem to live my life in extremes. I guess moving from rural Guatemala to New York City certainly qualifies. This planet is an immense, multifarious place; why stick to just the happy middle of the spectrum? Especially when you can get a patchwork conglomerate of that whole spectrum, all in one hectic, thriving, variegated pocket called the Big Apple.

This has been remarked a million and one times, I’m sure, but New York City is pretty amazing. An explosive kaleidoscope of every color, texture, aroma, melody, and hope of the human race. For a gregarious, extroverted sponge like myself that seemingly cannot absorb enough of the magnificent diversity of humankind, this city is the closest I have ever felt to saturated. Something coded into my DNA sparks when I get packed into that early morning C-train car and can hear a dozen different languages, appreciate a hundred different shades of skin and hair and eye color, observe every style and composure conceived in the modern age, and deliberate the tangled knot their footsteps create, sending a thousand worlds silently colliding every minute.

Much of my wonderment is undoubtedly due to the novelty of exposure, but a part of me thrives in the teeming dynamics. It doesn’t mean ‘they’ weren’t right when they cautioned to live in NYC once, but to “leave before it makes you hard.” The sensory overload can definitely get exhausting. And sometimes you just want to walk up a damn flight of stairs in Grand Central without getting shoved sideways, the smell of a million feet and the frantic jostling, or the metallic squeal of rusty subway tracks.

Which is why one impromptu quintet left me choking back elated tears one ugly Tuesday morning, as the rush hour stampede funneled me along the grimy curve of the 43rd street tunnel.

The sky had been an unforgiving grey that morning as I had crunched over the blackening slick of ice clutching the sidewalks – a beautiful snowfall turned bitter and foul upon alighting to earth – and down into the bowls of the metro. The train had reeked of sweaty socks and someone’s morning farts, trapping the crammed occupants in a stew that bubbled bad moods. I hadn’t yet imbibed in my daily coffee, which somehow made the permanent stench of urine and mold in the exit tunnel more unbearable.

And then, suddenly, echoing off the smutty tiles and concrete floors, a sweet and lifting euphony that snapped me out of my pre-caffine grouch and swept my consciousness along gentle melodies, up the stairs, and around a bend into sight of a string quintet, propped up on their folding chairs with their eyes brushing over sheet music, and an open cello case inviting the spare change of passerby to tumble on in. I pressed myself into a corner and just stood soaking in the glorious sound – somehow a perfect soundtrack to the rush of the subway, keeping time with the rythem of thousands of figures pounding by. Inexplicably, a lump formed in the thick of my throat and I found myself blinking in rapid succession. It was just magnificent. A hymn of pause.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of subway performers in this city. They have their regular stages – the open enclaves between the pillars or larger, busier stations like Union Square or Fulton. They sometimes pop up unexpectedly, whipping out an instrument in the middle of a crowded platform. They are a remarkable sampling of the variety of the city itself, representing many races, cultures, art forms, ages, talent levels, and tastes. But they all have a certain boldness to them that I admire, even if I do not particularly enjoy the fare they have to offer, and I love the incongruity – the dark alcoves of the underground cobweb that they light up with their musical gifts, planting small miscellany in the daily commute pattern. Rarely, however, do they bring me to a standstill in the hurry of the workday, and certainly never have I been choked up by one. I’m not sure if it was simply the combination of weary morning, gorgeous cannon, and frame of mind that made this particular symphony so powerful, but I was grateful for their music. The crumpled dollar bills I drew from my pockets and tossed into the black, velvety interior of the open case seemed a meager thanks, but the smile the bass player gave said he knew – somehow – that I was about to be downright skipping through the main concourse and into my office that day.

I did not mark the gentle slip from the close of September by the browning of the edges of golden cornstalks where they stood drying into withered stems in their fields, nor by the towering grey thunderheads that rolled in over the mountains each afternoon to darken the skies and dampen the ground. Rather, I was alerted to October’s gentle presence by the sight of hexagonal paper kites once more taking to the skies. In grassy fields and graveled lots in the rosy glow of autumn mornings they rose, dancing unsure of themselves in the breeze, wielded from the end of long string by children of varied ages who gazed up at the fluttering spots of color with mesmerized hope. They were back, soaring testaments to the pending festival de barriletes that marks the traditional Mayan means by which to celebrate Día de Todos Santos: kites, floating bridges between the spirit world and ours.

Even seeing them there – waving banners to acknowledge the passage of time – I can hardly wrap my head around the fact that another October has come. Marking exactly a year and a half here in Guatemala, this tumultuous month will also mark the closure of a chapter.

It was already shaping up to be a whirlwind of an exit.

My mother had come down for a second visit at the end of September, and we were determined to hit up some more of the “must-see” spots that we hadn’t managed to check off during her last venture in January. After a hellacious arrival on a rain-blown Tuesday night, where her plane had to make four attempts at landing and was nearly re-routed to El Salvador due to the vicious storm, we took off early the next morning for the legendary Semuc Champey. Having been informed by dozens of folk – friend and stranger alike – that Semuc was quite possibly the most beautiful place in the whole of Guatemala, I had been eager to squeeze it into my remaining weeks. But part of what makes the place so illustrious is its remoteness, and the site is not easy to get to. We withstood a less than pleasant bus ride for nearly seven hours, bouncing and winding over hair-pin dirt roads that surely wash out regularly in the seasonal downpours, transitioning at one point into the back of an old pickup truck to finally arrive at our destination: Utopia.

Hostel Utopia

While its name is a bit of a stretch, Utopia hostal – nestled along the riverbank in the gloriously lush woodland of the stunning countryside that is the department of Coban – was certainly a joyous escape into the beautiful wilds. Hummingbirds and warblers darted through groves of cacao groves, their bizarre pods striking an array of beautiful colors against broad green leaves, as the swollen river rumbled below the giant wooden deck comprising the hostel’s open-air lobby. While I could have easily spent a number of days just vegging on that deck – watching birds flit between palm and ceiba trees and listening to the movement of the river – time was short, and big things were coming down the pipeline. So we spent just one full day at Semuc – but what a day it was. It’s not every vacation that I make my momma cry.

We had a surprisingly delayed start to the adventure, as the tour didn’t leave until 10am – shockingly late for any activity daring to venture forth in the Guatemalan rainy season, as there are few precious hours of sunshine before the regular afternoon deluge. We enjoyed a lazy breakfast overlooking the opulent forest canopy, and then took off in the back of another bouncing pickup with a handful of other tourists, and headed to the entrance of the park. The first stop was the caves. I had heard about the caves and seen photos from a few friends – but I had failed to make the connection that the postcards and the happy-smiling faces were braving the cave during the tranquility of the dry season. After a month of consistent rains, the cave was a whole new beast. It didn’t help that, well, this is Guatemala after all, and notions of consumer well-being and client safety are as obscure as the liabilities entailed in the experience, so the most preparation we were afforded was not to wear flip flops and don’t be afraid of small spaces. Having met those two basic criteria, my mother and I ventured forth with our group, following our impatient young guide (who whispered out the side of his mouth to me that he was still very much hung over from the night before) into the mouth of the cave, wading thigh-deep in cold, flowing water and gripping our lights. Most people just held stubby candles that flickered pitifully in the yawning cavern of the cave. I found myself utterly grateful I had thought to bring along a military-grade flashlight instead.

The cave was a scene suitable for a harrying chase scene from an Indiana Jones film: a nutty labyrinth of winding narrow chutes, uneven dangling ladders held together with electrical tape and frayed rope, sharp stalagmites submerged in the river that banged roughly against knees and toes, slippery handholds, deep pools that required swimming through, and a large, roaring waterfall that our guide swung us through – one at a time – by grabbing around the waist and swinging from one ledge to the next, Tarzan style. Candles were frequently doused in the rushing water as we plunged from pool to pool or skittered along damp walls, bats occasionally swooping past our ears with frustrated squeaks. It was at the top of the waterfall that my poor mum nearly lost it, wading through the incredibly fast gush of the water being forcefully funneled into the top of the falls, nearly ripping the shoes right off our feet. I looked back at my mother’s frightened face and felt like a terrible daughter for having dragged her into this. But with the help of a tall, handsome young Israeli man and promises of wine and chocolate after the excursion, my valiant mother continued on, and actually made it to the end point of the foray into the cave, where a few crazy boys jumped from a high, jutting ledge into a narrow hole of water below no more than 3x the width of a man and with absolutely no room for error.

Upon emergence from the cave of doom, my mum and I breathed exasperated sighs of relief and bounded back down the stone staircase from the entrance to the muddy, churning river below, where we were all too happy to collect our things and head to a picnic lunch, prior to jumping once more in the back of the truck and trundling into the area of the park where a tiered limestone bridge cradles the famous aquamarine pools of Semuc Champey.

We survived the caves!

The guide wanted to take the rest of the group on a hike up to an overlook first, as was on par with the “tourist package” we had signed on to, but keeping up our façade of being the trouble makers in the crew, I took one look at the sky and told him thanks, but no thanks. It was rainy season, and anticipating the pending downpour, I reckoned we had about an hour before the darkening skies started leaking. The guide disagreed, adamant that the rain would hold out until 6pm that evening. I gave him a look. Please, I said, raising an eyebrow, I’ve lived here long enough to know that the rain hits by 3pm every afternoon like clockwork. And as a Guatemalan, you must know that too. But he insisted, and led the group up and away to the rising trail above the pools where they would all be afforded that postcard-famous birds-eye photo of the terraces – if the clouds held. Meanwhile, my mother and I – determined to get some time in the pools while the sun was still out to maximize their glorious colors – headed down the path to finally see this place I had heard so many people gush over.

We were not disappointed. Glistening in the last, grey-gold rays of the afternoon sunlight, stunningly crystalline water bubbled over the textured staircase of limestone, winding through a maze of rivulets and collecting in half-moon shaped tarns of aquamarine. Naturally carved by the centuries, the rock bridge suspends the tranquil pools in a deceptive peace above the violently rushing torrent concealed below. Making our way to the top end of the bridge, mum and I felt our jaws drop at the sight of the river gushing at millions of gallons a minute into a gaping abyss that dropped ferociously down into the cave system below. The sheer power of the water flow was awesome.

The Furious Flow

the pools of Semuc Champey

Wandering down the path to the other end of the bridge, we marveled in turn at the river as it made its exit from beneath the limestone bridge, broad waterfalls churning white, muddy water out at intimidating speeds and into the greater river below. We enjoyed the serenity of paddling around in the glorious pools for a good half hour, before large raindrops began making circular ripples on the smooth surface of the water. There was something downright enchanting about gliding through the stunningly blue water on my own as the rain began; leaving silver droplets on the long, graceful ferns that lined the pool’s edges and adding music to the sweet symphony of the falls.

semuc champey

Sure enough, by 3pm it was a downpour. Mum and I took shelter at the half-finished visitor’s center and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. That evening, we capped off the adventure with a bottle of wine and homemade chocolates from the hostel’s own cacao grove, enjoying a family-style dinner by candlelight and watching lightning roll in the distance.
The next morning, we jumped aboard a most misfortunate shuttle to take us from Lanquin to Rio Dulce, towards the Caribbean coast, hoping to get a couple days in on the beach. The ride was one of the more miserable I’ve ever had – and with the number of chicken buses I’ve been on down rural, dirt roads in this country, that’s saying a lot. The driver had two speeds: flooring it, and breaking. When he wasn’t trying to crush the floor beneath the accelerator, he was riding the ass of any vehicle that dared to end up in front of us, filling the cabin with exhaust fumes and giving all of us passengers whiplash each time he hit a pothole or decided to suddenly break. The upside of the trip was that we met a rather remarkable Australian family – all flaxen blonde hair and big blue eyes – who live something of a fantasy life, Swiss Family Robison style, traveling the whole world with their two small, gorgeous children on their trusty sailboat, which had recently been struck by lightning. I found myself profoundly curious about what such a lifestyle for this family looked like, and what those two little globetrotters would grow up to be like.

By early afternoon, we reached Rio Dulce, remarkably in one piece, and jumped a lancha (water taxi) down the beautiful estuary and out to Livingston – a muggy, Rasta-tinged town known for Garifuna and coconuts. Guatemala has very little beach on the Caribbean side of the country, and Livingston claims access to one of the rare white sand stretches between Belize and Honduras. My mother had been determined to see it since before arriving, and though our first day was one of heavy thunderstorms that sent rain cascading over the white-flowering vines and kept us in the hotel reading for most of the day, the weather was generous enough to break and we were afforded a fully gorgeous, sunny Sunday to jump a boat and hit la Playa Blanca. We lounged on the soft sand, sipping intermittently from a cool, fresh-cut coconut (just because you kind of have to) and cold beers that sweated dew drops in the shade of palm trees. Finishing our evening at a little restaurant on the bay with a bottle of wine and a bar of chocolate concluded what made for a near-perfect day. I’m certain it’s an attribute being so easily contented.

Playa Blanca

Coco!

sunset at Casa Rosada

We took the lengthy bus ride back West that following morning, still glowing with the previous day’s sun. It would have been more difficult taking that plunge from vacation adventure-land and back to Antigua and work and responsibilities, had there not been so many exciting projects coming up with the job that very same week – an international conference with the Inter-American Development Bank hosting other inclusive social development organizations, a collaboration with MIT’s D-Lab, a visit from our partners at Deloitte consultancy and more. Hoping for more exciting stories to come soon!

I like to imagine the R&D lab at NASA (if they even have one of those, in such a sense) to be some sort of entrepreneurial engineer’s playground – a big, open space, brightly-lit, with large flat surfaces, a full array of tools and toys, the tabletops spread with all manner of bizarre, shiny objects – strips of pliable metals, washers and bolts, copper wires and microchips, parts from the interior of a hard drive, plate glass and rubber tubing, compasses and plastic molds, maybe even a laser printer. There, any number of brilliant minds mill around, chatting excitedly over prototypes and bits and bobs, pointing to simulations on open laptop screens and practically illuminating the room with their sparks of thought, dreaming up solutions to some of the world’s most difficult, interesting, and in-depth challenges. The microwave, Velcro, and other such marvels were born here, and the euphoria the developers must have felt – that glorious moment of “eureka” – as audience to the first operative models of these revolutionary devices, witnessing their functionality for the first time.

During a brief visit from the founder of Community Enterprise Solutions, Greg Van Kirk, in the first week of August, I got to experience just a taste of what I fantasize life on the cutting edge to comprise. What it just might feel like to disrupt the world as we know it.
Greg landed at 11am on a Monday morning, and, as is to be expected with creative brilliance, the next three days were a whirlwind – a whirlwind on top of a tidal wave – of intense, formative activity. Most of our mission for those three days centered on a handheld camera-sized device that Greg had in his carry-on bag, carefully encased in one of those Pelican lock-boxes that would survive a bomb. It was the only prototype of its kind. Of course. That’s the most exciting part about working with someone like Greg.

We popped in to a Subway shortly after swinging by the airport to grab a quick working lunch with the Soluciones Comunitarias president, Miguel Brito, while Greg briefed us on the small black device. Essentially the first ever portable aberrometer (or laser-based device for measuring a patient’s eye prescription), the object was developed by Smart Vision Labs as the first change to this optical technology in decades. Called a Smart Autorefractor, the device clips neatly on to a smart phone, where it connects to a highly-specialized app. The patient simply peers into a laser emitted from within the device, such that a red-light image is projected on to the screen of the smart phone, which the app then captures in a series of photos of the retina. The app then processes the graphics of the image via software that translates the image into exact numbers – the first time this process has been precise, rather than subjective. It can be carried anywhere – making it revolutionary in the medical world. Suddenly, lack of access to an eye clinic or an optician is no longer a barrier to clear vision for millions of people in the developing world – meaning people in even the most remote areas can be reached and can gain improved productivity, safety, and quality of life. What’s more, a student graduating with an optometrist degree, who would otherwise not be able to afford to open a clinic due to the prohibitive costs of the equipment, now has an opportunity to practice. It is estimated that “more than 500 million people around the globe suffer vision loss due to uncorrected refractive errors. 90% of these people are in developing countries with a lack of trained vision specialists. Rwanda, for example, has a population of 10.5M people and only 14 trained vision specialists.”

Testing out Smart Vision Lab's 'Smart Auto-refractor' technology

Testing out Smart Vision Lab’s ‘Smart Auto-refractor’ technology

We were to spend the next three days field testing the device – presenting it to vision clinics, the Soluciones Comunitarias staff, clients, schools, friends, and business partners – attempting to get a feel for the on-the-ground practicality of the device and to work out the kinks in application. It was a grueling schedule, but an incredible experience. The awe and excitement on the faces of the optometrist and CEO at the first lab we visited after lunch on that Monday, Visualiza, confirmed my inkling that this was spearheading something truly game-changing. We discussed a partnership with the lab once the technology was up and running – leveraging Soluciones Comunitarias’s existing client network and entrepreneurs to take the device out into otherwise isolated communities and diagnose patients that may otherwise never have received an eye exam, and, in conjunction with the expertise and broad array of glasses offerings from Visualiza, provide prescriptions and access to glasses, and to double the impact of both entities in the areas where eye care is needed most.

Greg presents the new auto-refractor device to optometrists at the Visualiza eye clinic

Greg presents the new auto-refractor device to optometrists at the Visualiza eye clinic

MIT is working on a similar technology, which you can read about here.

Very early the next morning, Miguel, Greg and I took off for Nebaj – the home base of Soluciones Comunitarias (SolCom) and an ideal testing ground for the device. We hit up a variety of potential, target client groups, including children at a local school, friends and associates within SolCom, and two different communities where entrepreneurs were hosting vision campaigns that week. We visited with people who already knew their eye prescription to compare the numbers generated by the device, as well as with school children having their eyes examined for the first time. It was mind-blowing to see how many children had vision issues and hadn’t known it – being to young or having no frame of reference to understand why they couldn’t read the board in school, unaware their education and future were being compromised already by lack of such a simple thing as a pair of glasses. Our days began as early as 5am, and meetings to brainstorm strategy didn’t conclude until 11pm. We learned a ton – particularly in regards to the accuracy of the software, the ergonomics of the device itself, and the humongous potential of the device. Everyone was intrigued, impressed, and thrilled by the device. As the world has evolved to be more technology-based, and as SolCom’s entrepreneurs have endeavored to be more professional and to improve relationships and trust in the regions where they work, there has been an increasing demand for computerized eye exams in the field as even the poorest communities recognize the advantages and glamor of a high-tech device over the paper eye chart. Poverty does not negate consumer dignity, and this new solution is an elegant and effective means by which to empower individuals and improve lives.

Greg tests the device at a local school

Greg tests the device at a local school


SolCom regional coordinator, Ricardo, gives the device a go

SolCom regional coordinator, Ricardo, gives the device a go


some curious faces at an eye campaign in the Quiche region, where we were testing the device

some curious faces at an eye campaign in the Quiche region, where we were testing the device

After a packed two days in the Quiche region, we returned to Antigua, exhausted but inspired at the outcome of the field trials. We had all taken copious notes on the use and application of the aberrometer, and Greg flew out on a Thursday morning with plenty to do prior to his return in September, when we hope to have a number of improved prototypes to really begin implementing within our organization’s development work. It was remarkable, the brief but affecting ride along the cutting edge. I’m sure we have much to look forward to come September.

I wonder if the Pope ever sits at the window of his room in the Vatican and wonders what it must be like to live in Italy. Or if the ex-pat community living in Antigua ever wonder what Guatemala must be like beyond the quaint pastels, cobblestone plazas, and the curtain wall of volcanoes guarding the edges of the valley like ancient sentries. Even in just a few short months of living in that lovely but encapsulated city, I found it disturbingly easy to forget the expanse of the country around me – the ugly realities that pervade so much of daily life Guatemala; poverty, violence, oppression, weak education, poor healthcare, lack of opportunity, corruption, and fear. Antigua is much more a mirror of Guatemala than a window into it – reflecting back only that which we temporary residents wish to see in it, hiding the rest on the backing.

So it was with a sense of relief that the 2014 internship season started up, drawing me from the middle of my cushioned seat and returning me to those initial aspirations which brought me down in the first place – dreams of throwing even just one starfish back into the sea – all those things that make us feel meaning and purpose and make us a part of humanity.

After a week of orientation and Spanish classes in Xela, we loaded our brave students into a rickety mini-bus and took them up to Todos Santos – a remote, mountain village with a primarily Mam (Mayan) population.  Nestled in a lush, forested valley of soaring cliffsides and crystalline rivers,  the adobe houses here are famous for their brightly painted doors. It remains one of the few villages where both men and women wear the traditional traje, though it is a custom fast fading into the grey ambiguity of a tumultuous past and an uncertain future – stamped out more each year in an onslaught of wide-screen TVs and FCB jerseys. Todos Santos is picturesque, but like most of the developing world, life is ever interwoven with the challenges of impoverishment and lacking infrastructure. We had come with the students, not out of some vendetta to get them to experience the gritty realities of third world life, but with the hopes that, as a team, we could perhaps – just perhaps – build a springboard for opportunity.

The beautiful valley of Todos Santos

The beautiful valley of Todos Santos

Our project was, per usual, more complex than anything the students had ever been handed in a classroom. We had set up some micro-consulting gigs with women’s groups in the valley, intending to support them to identify and seize new business opportunities. We wanted the students to get to know the women, to gauge real and felt needs, and provide some direction in supporting them to pursue a new habit, trade, or craft that could generate income, provide dignity through participation, and improve quality of life. It was more than just conducting a needs analysis and presenting ideas. It was about empowerment – breaking down generations of misogynistic oppression and the stifling weight of poverty to spark something resembling entrepreneurial spirit.

On the day of our first visit to the community, we bounced along a gravel road, skirting stray sheep in the road and potholes big enough to swallow a bicycle. The familiar sites of rural Huehue – which had faded like scenes on an old tapestry into my memories – stood stark against the deceptive beauty of the mountains: adobe villages where women walk for miles with plastic jars on their heads to fetch water; the runny-nosed, barefoot children chasing turkey hens around in the dirt; the campesinos swinging broad spades as they till long stretches of loamy earth to plant corn; skinny mongrels digging through plastic wrappers in piles of litter along the roadside; a shed buried under a seasonal landslide that no one had cleared away. I found myself nervous, cynical, already frustrated, so sure that – as in so many of the communities where we bring the students – that the people would make flash judgments that we were there to give them handouts, or to provide medical services, and would wander away disinterested when they discovered otherwise. I wondered if the students would really be able to connect with the women’s groups; accurately be able to identify and address needs in the community; truly be able to make a sustainable impact in such a short amount of time. Even after a year and some, I still often doubt if I am capable of any of these things – and the interns had just one week. I had gotten good at pitching the starfish analogy – but did I even believe it myself anymore?

I’ll just go ahead and say, both the students and the women blew my mind that week. In self-inflicted pessimism, I had let layers of failures and confusion and misdirection bury how incredible our work can really be.

The interns displayed incredible creativity, tenacity, and just enough pragmatism mingled with starry-eyed optimism in cogitating potential business concepts for the women’s groups. While we did indeed encounter some of the preconceptions I had dreaded, the women were beautifully open-minded and even proved to be giggly, eager participants in each activity. After our first meeting in the villages, the students contrived five different small business opportunities to present to the women – and what’s more, taught themselves to do each one in just two days, so as to better instruct their clients.

Scraps of cloth, bundles of herbs, scribbles on paper, cups of hot chocolate, pens, needles, cuts of ginger root, and yarn spread across the expanse of the tables in the only bakery in Todos Santos, where the students had taken over in order to perfect their presentations. They craftily constructed drawstring backpacks out of tela típica, all-natural hand creams from olive oil and beeswax, brightly-patterned shoes from old tires, and a recipe for healthy smoothies. It was fantastic.

The interns hard at work on their business concepts

The interns hard at work on their business concepts

I hope we always remember the reaction the group of women in Tres Cruces had as the students presented the business ideas at the following visit. We could barely raise our voices above the excited titter that rose from the curious crowd as they passed around the shoes, backpacks, and hand creams. One woman bent down to try the shoe on. Several immediately dumped the crumbs out of chip bags they had been snacking from and lined up in order to take a sample of the lotion home with them. They opened and closed the drawstring bag, admiring at the simple yet novel technique. The owner of the small house where we were meeting immediately began wiping out plastic cups to pass out samples of the ginger-papaya smoothie that helps prevent stomach illnesses. Every eye in the room was wide wonder – the women marveling at the neat little trinkets in their hands, the students marveling at having successfully incited such enthusiasm. While, in the end, the women decided they were somewhat intimidated by the process of making and finding a market for the typical-fabric shoes, they jumped on the ideas for making drawstring bags, and were significantly interested in the hand cream and in making healthy, medicinal smoothies to sell from home.

Presenting business concepts and craft ideas to the women

Presenting business concepts and craft ideas to the women

We were fortunate enough in this particular instance to have an initial market base provided for us, with which we hoped to motivate the women to truly and actually pursue these income-generating ideas. The feria de Huehue was the following Friday, and a contact of ours was willing to bring any products the women could put together by then to try and sell at her booth.

So on our third session in the village, we sat with the women to work through the manufacturing of each of the items, and to talk about pricing and distribution. It was remarkable to watch the women take ownership of the ideas and get so enthusiastic about each project they seemed to forget we were even there – which is precisely everything we could have hoped for. They were critical of the cheap rope the students had hastily used as the material for the drawstrings on the bags, and jumped in with creative flair of their own. Two women emerged from the crowd holding golf ball-sized lumps of colorful yarn, from which they began to twist and braid their own much artsier versions of rope for the bags.

The women jump right in and start improving the drawstring bag designs all on their own!

The women jump right in and start improving the drawstring bag designs all on their own!

In a culture where most of their gender has to ask permission from their husbands to hold a job outside of the home, where a meager 12.6 percent of adult women have reached a secondary level of education compared to 17.4 percent of their male counterparts, where female participation in the labor market is 49 percent compared to 88.3 for men, and in a country that ranks 114 out of 148 countries in the Gender Equality Index as of 2012* – it was incredibly prodigious to see these women OWN it.

Within the week, the women had churned out 21 unique, drawstring bags of various sizes for sale at the Huehue feria that following Friday. On their very first day in business, 12 bags were sold in the bustling artisan market.

The students of U21 model some of the drawstring bags made by the Todos Santos women's groups at the feria in the city of Huehue

The students of U21 model some of the drawstring bags made by the Todos Santos women’s groups at the feria in the city of Huehue

I can’t guarantee that the women will continue to pursue these business opportunities – that they will maintain the motivation to seek out markets and improve the design and quality of the products or be bold enough to strike out on some new venture now that the embers have been lighted. But I sure hope that off-the-bat sales in their first week serve as sufficient encouragement to, if nothing else, reveal to a handful of starfish that (as those motivational posters in school hallways so often remind us) we can be something greater than what we have been given, if we allow ourselves to be pushed a little bit in the right direction.

So my congratulations – and my utmost gratitude – to the students of U21 2014 and the women of ConALFA Todos Santos for their unparalleled zeal and fortitude in one remarkable summer program; for reminding one weary soul that, when we commit ourselves and come together as a community, we truly can build a better path forward.

The brilliant students of U21 and women of Tres Cruces

The brilliant students of U21 and women of Tres Cruces

*source: United Nations Human Development Report, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/Country-Profiles/GTM.pdf

Amazing friends and family!

Muchos salduos to you all from Guatemala on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. I hope you are all well and wonderful and enjoying your weekend.

As you know, yesterday Glenda had her appointment with maxillofacial surgery expert, Dr. Roman Carlos at the Hermano Pedro hospital in Antigua, thanks to our friends at Faith in Practice. It was an incredibly revealing appointment, and it has taken me a little while to process all that Glenda and I learned about her condition and our potential options going forward.

The journey in itself was a remarkable one for what it meant to Glenda and me.

When I first met Glenda in May of 2013, she was a small presence in the world around her. Quiet and reserved, her eyes were ever downcast. Her father confided in me her battle to face each day – that she never left the house, had little or no prospects for work, friendships, or marriage. She had even expressed a resignation for life itself, saying “solo quiero morir, papa, solo dejame a morir.” I remember taking her with me to sit and watch the parade at the Feria de Chiantla last fall, pointing to the children in brightly-colored costumes of paper maché and homemade pinwheels on plastic straws, asking her about the parades of years past. She told me she didn’t usually attend, choosing to stay at home while the rest of the family set out. She couldn’t stand the way people stared, their faces twisted in morbid fascination, oblivious to the human beneath the port wine-colored mask.

I could empathize to an extent – being the only Caucasian in the region, I have been stared at, pointed at, laughed at, whispered about. Hell, I even made a little kid cry once just by smiling at him. But I have ever the foundational knowledge that there are millions of people who look like me all over the world, that back where I come from I am “normal,” and that the ogling is generally more out of curiosity, rather than grotesque captivation. My heart hurt for her.

But as our adventures began together, and as Christ began to work in her heart and those of the people we encountered on the journey, Glenda began to renew. After our trip to Honduras – and even more so after the birth of her first child, Daniel Isaiahs in July – Glenda began to unfold like a frost-encrusted blossom hit by the first rays of spring sunshine. She began to talk to me, to smile, to ask questions. She is assertive, attentive, and doting on Daniel – who may be the only person who can gaze upon her with unconditional and unaffected love and adoration without his eyes sliding involuntarily over the raised hemogioma on her face, even if just for a second.

Almost a year later, Glenda is a different person, and – I believe – the incredible young woman God intended her to be. In Antigua, I was blessed with a glimpse of that person. Even after our 6 hour trip down from Chiantla, Glenda was eager to get out and explore the beautiful colonial city. I remember we were headed down towards Parque Central from the hotel and rounded a corner on to one of the avenues that faces the magnificent, looming slopes of the volcano Agua, which stands like a mighty, green guardian over the cobblestone streets of the city – Glenda, upon catching sight of the majestic mountain ahead, took a small step back, catching her breath, and smiled.

Our afternoon exploring was fantastic. We went by the Chocolate Museum, and Glenda was thrilled – passing around all the different exhibits and asking me to explain to her how chocolate was made. I had never seen her exhibit such engagement or curiosity – and it filled my soul to bursting with joy and camaraderie. We sat in the lovely courtyard behind the museum and drank hot chocolate, letting Daniel try some for the first time, which was absolutely precious. We talked about the beautiful, vibrantly patterned güipiles for sale by the Mayan women by the stone fountain and about our favorite foods. We then took on the rest of the city, strolling through Parque Central under flowering trees and listening to a live band play music, climbing up into the ruins of La Merced church to see the famous fountain housed there, sitting under palm trees by the communal pilas and watching Fuego spew ash into a golden sunset. The most striking and wonderful moment for me was when Glenda asked me to take her and Daniel’s picture. Gone was the girl who had hid her face under a blanket on the bus ride to Honduras, the girl who would run her hand conscientiously over the lump on her cheek whenever we walked anywhere in public, who was afraid to voice her opinions. When I showed her the photo of her and her baby boy in the park, she smiled to herself.

Image

That night we ate crepes for dinner. Glenda had never tried pancakes, let alone heard of the strange, thin French version. Over dinner, she gave Daniel sips of her limeade, and watching his face as he discovered the surprises and pleasures of sweet and sour was just darling. Our two young waiters were quite taken with him, and I downright loved watching Glenda get to introduce her pride and joy to adoring fans. The restaurant ended up giving us our dinner for free. I almost cried.

We woke up early the next morning to head to the hospital, where we joined dozens of other people in the hustle of the disordered lines that plague any public healthcare system, particularly in developing countries. The hallways were packed with the ill and infirm, displaying a broad array of maladies and conditions, many of which I could only imagine attempting to live with in a country where there is just so little support for disability and misfortune. We waited several hours before we could be seen – an inconvenience that would spark indignity in us Westerners, but a circumstance that is simply a part of any given public service sector in the third world.

Dr. Carlos has seen a number of Sturge-Weber syndrome cases like Glenda’s before, and in fact, that morning there was another young man waiting in line with us in the Orthopedic Clinic. That, in itself, was something of a marvelous moment for Glenda. It was the first time she had ever seen anyone else in with a similar condition to hers – the first time she had realized that she was not alone in this boat. I like to believe that was something of encouragement and consolation for her. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”’”

I have still not yet decided what I make of the doctor. Assertive and confident, he does many good works for his people – spending every Friday here at the public hospital to provide care and treatment to those who could not otherwise afford the regular price tag. His manner was … unique. He began by immediately telling me that the copies of the scans of Glenda’s malformation that I had brought from our previous appointments were “useless” and he wouldn’t let me complete a single sentence in trying to explain our circumstances. He went on a short rant about how so many American doctors come down from the States with good intentions but terrible practices – making promises they can’t keep and not ever truly understanding the systemic needs of the Guatemalan people. He told me that much of the treatment options we had discussed with the doctors from the Austin Smiles team in November were “lies” and that, blatantly, there was “no cure in the world” for a Sturge-Weber vascular malformation.

I was taken aback. I could see Glenda deflating before my eyes. While no doctor we’d seen had made any promises, and while we already knew that it is impossible to ever completely remove a vascular malformation like Glenda’s, we had certainly come to hope for – at least – improvements. Dr. Carlos shot down the idea of cauterizing the veins feeding the tumor to reduce its size, saying the body would simply redirect blood flow through others and that it would return to size. He declared again and again that there was no surgery to significantly remove the offensive tissue, and kept challenging me to try and find someone who could do it, calling it an unnecessary risk and expense.

While an honest and realistic prognosis was unarguably vital and important in our quest, I wasn’t particularly crazy about Dr. Carlos’s delivery, nor could I completely believe everything he was saying. I will be the first to grant that I am no doctor and have no idea what I’m talking about, but the research I have done on Glenda’s condition and the thoughts shared by other doctors makes believe that there is something that can be done to at least reduce the tumor – though not remove it completely. I will continue to look into this and work with any doctors that are willing to see what our options are.

However, Dr. Carlos also had some really good news to share. When I first met Glenda, she and her family had been extremely concerned about the malformation because it had been growing larger and had begun to take over more of her mouth. We all feared that it would continue to grow, and eventually inhibit her ability to take in food. Dr. Carlos informed us, though, that the growth of the tumor had been spurred by Glenda’s pregnancy – which would have begun around November of 2012 – and currently by the fact that she is breastfeeding Daniel, as the condition is always exacerbated by hormone inducement. He assured us that it would not continue to grow, and would, in fact, shrink down back to its original size about 3 weeks after she stops breastfeeding. This was, obviously, very welcome news.

But Sturge-Weber syndrome does create a risk of glycoma (and therefore seizures) due to a buildup of the vascular tissue in the brain, and we were recommended to see a radiologist as soon as possible to check for angiomas.

He also informed us that we could, indeed, reduce the tissue of the tumor a little bit, as well as provide a topical medication that would diminish the veins feeding the malformation and shrink it back, but only by about 15% maximum. I know that Glenda envisions that whole thing gone completely, and to hear just 15% was not what she – or I, to be honest – were hoping for. Still, that would be something – particularly in regards to allowing Glenda to eat more normally and to reducing the throbbing pain the tumor sometimes gives her.

Most of all, Dr. Carlos did seem genuinely compassionate and interested in helping Glenda. He gave Glenda a load of a special mouthwash that will help ensure healthy gums and teeth, as the tumor prevents her from brushing or flossing. He set another appointment for us in June, for a follow-up once Glenda is able to stop breastfeeding. He said a surgeon could perform the operation there in the hospital as soon as August, if Glenda was determined to try it and we could get together the funds. If this treatment was really the most that could be done and Glenda’s best option, it would negate our need to travel to the States, which could be huge. We will have to have a good pray about it, and a sit-down with her and her family, in order to decide.

We left the hospital in something of a hurry to catch a bus, wanting to make the 6-hour trip back up to Huehue and arrive before dark, as Glenda lives a ways outside of the village and we didn’t want to miss the last micro that could take her up to her home. We had little time to absorb or discuss all that we had learned, and the loud, rattling tin can of the chicken bus was hardly space for processing. We both sat mostly in silence on the trip back up, thoughts and information swirling around the inside of my head like angry ants in a mound that’s just been trampled on. I am doing my best to trust everything to God and to find peace. He has already worked great miracles in both Glenda’s life and mine, and I know He will continue to guide us through whatever the next steps may be.

Thank you all so incredibly much for your continued support, prayers, love, and compassion. You have really made all the difference for us both. We will continue to update everyone as this odessey unfolds! Muchos abrazos fuertes de Guatemala, and have a brilliant week ahead.

I’ve heard public transportation in Guatemala described as “challenging.” Ridiculous, unpredictable, and dangerous are other adjectives that tend to come up. I realize that a number of my more memorable experiences revolve around adventures had during a quest to get myself from point A to B on any given day. There are many a time and place when I’ve been downright grateful for any sort of creature on wheels to roll by and take me along – whether it meant clamoring into the overcrowded cabin of a meat truck, clinging on to the back bumper of a pickup stuffed so full of hay that it towered a full body length over me, or squeezing myself into the boot of a hatchback taxicab to escape irate protesters. There’s nothing like living in a rural area of a developing country to make one turly appreciate the abundance of vehicles and the smooth, wide roads of the USA’s transportation infrastructure. Shivering on the side of a remote stretch of highway in the altiplano, watching the gap between the sun and the horizon slide closed like your chances of making it the three hour journey back home, does not leave one picky for how they might get there.

Sunday afternoon, I found myself on a curvy stretch of the Pan-American, in the rolling highlands above Lake Atitlan, where I’d spent the weekend celebrating International Women’s Day with a couple of girlfriends. We’d enjoyed sunshine by the pool, movies and popcorn, barbeque and glasses of wine. Marking the occasion had been a smashing success, but now I was eager to get a move on back to Huehue for the start of the work week. As I waited, peering down the road for one of the brightly-colored chicken buses that could get me there, the sun slunk away behind misty grey thunderheads, threatening to drench me in an unseasonably early rainstorm. I began to fret, calculating the hours until dark and knowing quite assuredly I did not want to have to navigate the sketchy Huehue terminal at night.

A big red bus – one of the pulmans – came around the bend with the glorious words “GUATE – HUEHUE” plastered across the top. I waggled my arm and attempted to make eye contact with the driver to get them to stop. Success! I jogged up to the open door (knowing full well that if you’re not fast enough to jump on, they’re oft inclined to leave you behind), feeling somewhat thrilled with my luck. A pulman! Much more comfortable than the chicken buses, and they tend to travel at a safer velocity. I bounded aboard.

The old clunker was packed. Not only was every seat full, but a number of patrons were perched atop plastic stools in the aisles as well. A couple were even just standing near the front. The ayudante shuffled me in and shoved a bucket over next to the driver, who motioned I should sit down as he threw the beast into gear. Having already learned full well to not be particular about what gets you home or how, I plopped my little self down on the bucket, much to the amusement of the other passengers. A gringa on a bucket. How odd!

Despite the fact that 4 hours atop the overturned bucket left what felt like a permanent round impression in my backside, it was an remarkable adventure. I’m fairly certain a conversation about monkeys with the driver, ayudante, and nice Honduran man stuck standing at the front lasted more than half an hour and left all three grown men giggling like boys in school.

At some point, somebody at or near the front let out a horrendously smelly fart, and all reacted appropriately – pulling shirts up over noses and pointing fingers at everyone else nearby. The auydante ended up opening the front door and we all hung out the side of the bus, letting the fresh air send a rush of cold across our faces, carrying away the foul odor.

I’d never witnessed quite so interactive a vehicular experience. If the driver wasn’t leaning out the window to holler at friends behind the wheel of other passing buses and trucks, he was answering a constantly ringing cell phone. Everyone was affectionately a “payaso,” and there seemed to be a running joke between him and each of his buddies in the industry. “¡Oye! ¡Señor Loro!” he bellowed at a passing camion, which gave a series of toots on the horn in response. “¿Por qué es ‘loro’?” asked the ayudante. “Porque tiene un enorme pico grande y ganchuda como un loro,” shrugged the driver, as if it were obvious.

It was a whole new carpet ride getting to sit up in the front of the cabin. The wide expanse of the windshield and tall windows of the door provided a unique 180 degree view not usually available while squashed 6 to a row in a speeding chicken bus. We came around a bend and found ourselves staring directly into the low-hanging afternoon sun, temporarily blinded. From out of the white glare emerged suddenly the black silhouette of a large truck, barreling towards us on our side of the highway as it passed a slower-moving rig on the curve. I gasped and clung to the back of the driver’s seat as he leaned on the horn, the truck sliding in front of the rig and out of our path at the last second. The ayudante never even flinched.

It being a Sunday, the roadside was littered with the bodies of last night’s drunks that had flopped over during their attempted stumble home the previous evening. Like a scene from a zombie flick, they lay draped over rocks or curled up in patches of grass, limbs splayed in all directions, with a crooked grin still jagged across their limpid faces. Twice we had to swerve around ones that had found their way back into the middle of the road and were staggering down the middle of the highway, oblivious to oncoming 4-ton mack trucks that could have splattered them into particulate matter. The crew in the bus laughed heartily at their sorry plight, but I felt a familiar ache in my heart – the same I feel when stepping around inanimate forms sprawled across the sidewalks on any given Sunday morning in Chiantla, curdling in their own urine or vomit, slipping in and out of the current of life – their pockets emptied in exchange for the square bottles of Quetzalteca rum that leave their foul stench on clothes and breath in a ugly reminder of that gaping chasm which has swallowed so many, and left behind too many broken families. I’ve lost count of the number of women I’ve spoken with over the course of my work who were beaten, abandoned, robbed, or heartbroken once that beast that is alcoholism dug its claws into fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.

I watched the familiar hills of Quetzaltenango roll by, the grass under the pine trees a dusty gold color from the fourth month into the dry season. As if in response to the parched look of the land, dark grey bands began to gather overhead, and large drops began to splatter against the windshield. Soon it was a proper shower, and the driver leaned further over the huge steering wheel, muttering about how dangerous the first rains made the roads after weeks of collecting slick oil and diesel. Suddenly, above us blazed what may be the most complete and vivid double-rainbow I have ever seen in my life. The group of men in the front of the bus seemed to take an affectionate delight in my wide-eyed enchantment, and took to pointing out moments when the trees would part and reveal a particularly impressive stretch of the color prism for me to aim my camera at. And for the first time, I got to see the end of a rainbow. It shimmered through the glistening branches of the pine trees in a dip between the hills just off the right side of the highway, dancing in and out of finite existence as the light shifted angles. It was utterly wondrous.

We passed out of the storm as the bus crossed into Huehuetenango, and the sky draped itself in silks of rose and violet lined with gold ribbon, as if to congratulate itself on such a job well done. A troupe of three children with bundles of firewood as tall and heavy as their own bent bodies hurried home in the fading light, and men from the fields threw their spades over their shoulders and headed out through the long rows of hand-tilled earth.

I was relieved to roll into the smoggy terminal of Huehue in time to catch the second-to-last bus back up to Chiantla, climbing aboard and stretching out a cramp in my back. A man offered me a space to sit on one of the benches. I politely declined, smiling a little bit to myself and thinking of an upturned bucket in an old red bus.

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