Published: December 18th 2006December 18th 2006
In October of 2005, Hurricane Stan ripped by the Guatemalan coast leaving torrential rainfall in its wake. Guatemala received as much rainfall in three days as they would normally get in a two-year span. As a result, mudslides and flooding wreaked havoc across the countryside. The region most affected by the rainfall was the area around Lago de Atitlan. The village once known as Panabáj was buried under 40 feet of mud and rock when the side of the volcano shadowing it collapsed. Many lives (over 600) were lost and the site is now a cemetery standing in their remembrance. Other communities around the lake were also hit hard. The one in particular I would like to tell you about is the town of San Juan La Laguna. This is home of the firefighters I met, worked with, and befriended during my travels.
This unforgiving time after the passing of Hurricane Stan, left this small community cut-off from the outside world. Swelling rivers destroyed many bridges throughout Guatemala and mudslides made many of the roads impassible. There was no access for relief aid for weeks and food supplies ran short. Fifty-two families in San Juan lost their homes, leaving them
The Firefighters of San Juan
All are sporting their new shades and firefighting goodies.
with no shelter, clothing or personal belongings. There were many people injured from the slides, but no emergency services existed in the town. The firefighters I have come to know were merely civilians at that time. This group of family members (yeah that’s right, their almost all related) stepped up and became heroes. You all know my buddy Abel (see Taking Things For Granted
if you don't), well, his uncle Joel is the closest thing to a doctor (has a degree in nursing) in town. The nearest medical facility with trained professionals had been cut-off by a mudslide, which left the people of San Juan to fend for themselves. So, the two of them (Abel and Joel) and their relatives Marcos, Samuel, Diego, Ivan, Mario, Andres and some of their friends (Miguel, Eliseo, and Jacoba) banded together to help those in need. Temporary shelter was provided at the local school and church while the men treated the injured to the best of their abilities.
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming it.
Soon after, the San Juan Fire and Emergency Services was born (officially in February 2006) and the Perez family was at its core.
As most of you know from my previous journals (Lending a Helping Hand
and Taking Things For Granted
) that I
Feliz Navidad chicitas!!!
Maria and Adelena (Abel's daughters)
spent two weeks living with and training these guys how to drive a car (automatic and manual). I also showed them some basic firefighting techniques, but had no equipment to work with. They had recently acquired two vehicles, some medical products to treat patients, but didn't have one single tool or any personal protective equipment for firefighting. If a building was on fire, they simply ran into the structure in civilian clothing (no helmet, gloves, nada!) and pulled the occupants out, leaving the building to burn to the ground. Even though a large fire is very rare and the buildings here are tiny, it still amazed me that they didn't even have a fire extinguisher or an axe. Now, they have been promised by Guatemala City that a new firehouse and some equipment will be provided in the future, but no one knows for certain when that will be. For now, they continue to help their community (voluntarily- yeah that's right- no paycheck) with the little that they have.
During my first visit with the crew (March of 2006), I had them workout with me on several occasions. We did push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, ran some stairs, and I even
Abel and his hijas
Notice the Lance Armstrong USPS biking jersey Abel is wearing. Road biking is Abel's favorite sport and Lance is of course his hero, so we got him a new riding shirt to sport.
pulled out my workout band that I had brought along. The guys really enjoyed using the band because they had never seen anything like it. One of them asked me "If you ever come back to see us, could you bring us one of these bands from the states. We would really love that!"- Now, obviously he said that all in Spanish, but that's what I loosely translated. So, of course the first thing I thought to bring with me when I knew that I was returning was a workout band (more than one of course), but with the help of my friends they are getting much more.
The one thing on this trip that had me slightly concerned was traveling to San Juan La Laguna lugging three bags packed full of donations. The journey consisted of a shuttle ride from Guate city to Antigua, changing shuttles and proceeding on to Panajachel (the main lakeside village), then catching a small public boat across the lake to San Pedro, and finally hopping a pick-up truck (packed full of locals) to the neighboring village of San Juan. Well, let's just say that things couldn't have worked out any better. The second
I stepped from the shuttle in Pana I heard someone shout "Jeremias" from across the way. To my surprise, it was my good friend Marcos, the captain of the bomberos
(firefighters), that just so happened to be passing through on his way to Solola for the day. Marcos assisted me with all of my baggage down to the docks and then called ahead to the firehouse to alert them of my arrival. Then to beat all, I was greeted in San Pedro by my buddy Abel and his cousin Ivan, and then escorted by emergency vehicle to the fire station in San Juan. As for finding a hotel, there was no need. The bomberos
had prepared me a spot in the back of the firehouse, the very place I had stayed before (the captain's room). The warm greeting and hospitality was great, although I sure was going to miss the comforts of the Rice's house. The first creature I encountered during my stay was a big, creepy spider in my sheets. That surely was the end of my eight-legged friend, but not the jitters that stayed with me throughout the night. I awoke off and on from sleep to kick
and smack about, just incase his family came crawling around.
Besides creepy crawlers and insect bites, my time in San Juan was amazing. I made daily visits to Abel's house and spent hours playing with his daughters (Maria and Adelena), talking with his parents, and eating up all of the tortillas
in site. Watching the girls go through all of the gifts that we gotten for them was great, I wish you all could have been here. They tried on their new clothes, draped themselves in plastic jewelry, slung their new purses over their shoulders and held tight to their stuffed animals. I'm sure it was the biggest Christmas they'd ever had and one they'll never forget.
Back at the firehouse, the guys all packed in and I brought them out their new toys one by one. I think that they even more excited than the kids. Speaking of, I had the guys bring their children by later and I gave them each gifts as well. It sure was a delightful sight to see the kids leaving the firehouse with their arms packed full with coloring books, plastic jewelry, slinkies, matchbox cars, barbies, and a big
Maria sure loves her Bunny
She named it Estrella (Star) and Adelena named her little bear Luna (Moon).
smile across their faces. As for the soccer balls, football, battle balls, frisbees, and jump ropes, I had the firefighters mark, inventory and set-up a checkout list, so all of the village kids could share and enjoy. After giving the guys all of the things you all helped me to pull together, I explained to them all that we hoped that they would see more than just a bunch of things here, but rather that they would see the "Love of Jesus" through our giving. This is when I handed each guy his own personal Spanish Bible. Then following this I explained to them that even though they may not have all of the things and comforts that they hear so much about in the U.S. (and ask me about on a regular basis), that they have something much more valuable- the love of family, friends, and most importantly the love Jesus Christ.
The best things in life aren't things.
- and that's a fact.
Now as I had said before, I ate most of my meals at Abel's house - lunch and dinner each day. His wife and mother pampered me with handmade tortillas
, bananas from the tree in the yard, and fresh Guatemalan coffee
The Most Important Gift
Each firefighter got his own copy of a Spanish Bible.
from the fields behind their house. And as for my living arrangements, after Samuel (Abel's other uncle) heard about my run-in with the spiders, he insisted that I come stay in the spare room at his family's house. My new room and bed (the old one was an actual hospital gurney) were much nicer than before and I got to hangout (great Spanish practice) with Samuel's children (Samuel Jr. and Andrea) and father (Diego -poor guy was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, and wore glasses with lenses so thick they could harness the sun's rays and burn a whole through the wall- jolly great fella though). In April of this year, Samuel's children lost their mom to cancer and were taking it pretty hard; especially with Christmas drawing near. He wanted me to let you all know that the gifts we gave really cheered them up - especially Andrea with her new Barbie. I made sure to give a portion of the money donations to Samuel, so he could make this a big Christmas despite their loss. And speaking of donations, Abel's entire family was nearly put into shock by all that things we gave them ($1050
in total - 7,875 Quetzales - most going to Abel's immediate family and some to his uncles/cousins) and that's probably why they kept shoveling tortillas
down my throat. I talked with Abel about using the money to help put his children through school (university that is) and taking some English classes on the side - so they can call me in the future. Abel was very excited for his girls and thanks you all very much for all that you did for his family.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
The one thing I had to do before I left was teach these guys how to rappel or they were libel to kill themselves with all these new toys. Saturday, after lunch, seven of us hiked up into the mountains and searched out a spot for rappelling. After an hour or so, we finally found a dried-up waterfall that was perfect. Now, before I let these guys simply jump of a cliff, I made sure they knew their stuff. I had them practice for a couple of hours on some small inclines nearby and I went over some techniques and knots. Everyone did a great job until we got to the big cliff. Three
The Shores of San Juan La Laguna
If you look to the mountain you will notice the horizontal image of a face with a giant nose. The mountain is called Naríz de la Maya (Nose of the Maya).
of the six made it down (a little shaky) and the other three died - kidding, couldn't get themselves to go over the edge. This was no surprise though, none of these guys had ever done anything like this before in their life - especially up this high. All in all, they all learned a lot and had a blast in the process (a lot of laughs). I know these guys will continue to practice and soon be cruising down the cliffs like professionals. I must say I really enjoyed working with these guys. They are always eager to learn and so very appreciative.
The last day rolled around way too soon and was just as eventful as the rest. I awoke to some fresh coffee with Samuel and enjoyed some pan
and bananas from the market, which is just outside my doorstep. After lunch, I attended the San Juan semi-final fútbol game at the el campo
and got the pleasure of standing on the sidelines to work as EMT with the bomberos
. Of course, I was the only gringo in attendance and definitely stuck out a little. About halfway through the game, we were called to an emergencia
and had to make a quick exit (I was the lanky gringo running down the field carrying the backboard, having no clue where we were going or why we were running). It turned out that a pregnant lady, whom was in labor (most women deliver in the home here), had some complications and needed immediate transport to the hospital. This would usually be no problem except here the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away down a bumpy mountain road - poor lady. I got to ride shotgun and watch as this tough lady fought off pain that I couldn’t even imagine (although I did stub my toe pretty hard the other day). The women never once screamed out as we bounced down the road at God knows how fast. She simply squeezed tightly to her husband and whimpered occasionally as tears ran down her face - for an hour and a half!!! We finally made it to the hospital in Solola and handed our weary patient over to some doctors. Then we turned around and retraced our long journey, but much slower this time. We reached the village after dark and just in time for dinner. I
enjoyed my last meal with Abel and his family and said my goodbyes. Before leaving, the family surprised me with gifts that Abel's wife had made by hand. They girls presented me with a multi-colored tablecloth that had taken her 15 days to weave and also a colorful hand woven shoulder bag (like a purse - and yes guys I will be carrying a male purse from here on out and if I hear one word I will be punching you I promise). The surprises didn't end there. After leaving Abel's, I returned to my house to find Joel and Samuel there with their entire family. They all said their farewells (lots and lots of hugs) and they gave me a hand-woven cloth (made by Joel's wife), which is used to wrap your food at the market in and carry home on your head. They all got a lot of laughs watching me attempt to balance stuff on mi cabeza
(that's my head - mother). There is a definite disadvantage having no hair and a head the size of a small child, but I will eventually get it down.
Wow, what a blessing this trip has been. It will
be a Christmas season I'll never forget. There have been a lot of new friends made and old friends reunited. I would like thank the Rices for giving me a roof over my head and food in my tummy, and of course Vine International for sending me on this amazing trip. Secondly, I would like to thank everyone who helped give a little something back to these brave firefighters of San Juan who give so much. They all send their love and hope you all can come visit them some day. Well, that wraps up this trip, but I'm sure there is much more to come in the future. So, keep a smile on your face, love in your heart, and don't worry so much about the future - because God is already there. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and I'll see you all soon! Make sure and check out the rest of the photos on the second page (I got a little out of hand this time) and also there are two videos I attached at the top (yeah, that's right- travelblog now has video capabilities -sweet!). Se cuida y Dios los bendiga!
The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
There are more photos below