Our team of four touched down in Guatemala City just before dusk on Saturday. We made the 1+hour trek to the cobblestone streets of Antigua just in time to see the fiery glow of lava bubbling from atop Vulcan Fuego, a very large and very active volcano just a few miles from town. While in Antigua, we perused the city's colorful architecture, explored the quaint merchant shops on the steps of historic cathedrals, and looked upon the beauty of the three enormous volcanoes that frame the city - Fuego, Agua, and world-famous Pacaya.
Our next adventure took us through the winding roads of the Chimaltenango Province to the ancient mountain village of Chichicastenango, a couple hours north of Antigua by car. The village is lined with historic storefronts and churches, with a grand mercado (market) at its center. Seemingly, we were the only foreigners in town that day so we were somewhat of a focal point to the locals. Chichicastenango is a hotbed of Mayan culture and tradition, one of the most prominent sources of the colorful handmade items Guatemala is so well known for. On our way back to Antigua, we stopped by the eastern shores of famed Lake Atitlan for a late seafood lunch.
We set out Tuesday morning on our way to Puerto Barrios for what should have been a 5-6 hour drive. Because of a bridge closure in Guatemala City, we experienced worse traffic than even Los Angeles has to offer, and our drive turned into a whopping 10 hour commute. Through it all, we still made it to our destination in time to have dinner at a local favorite, Don Fabio's Restaurant, where the owner is the cook, cashier, and waitress, and they only have one thing on the menu: steak. After dinner, we joined our friends from Hotel Caribena under the roaring deluge of a tropical rainstorm. Later that evening, we toured the most desperate areas of the neighborhood, including a property where prostitutes solicit bar patrons just steps from where children run and play.
The next day, we had the opportunity to meet some of the children from the neighborhood, called Barrio Bans. These are the poorest of the poor, those whom we at Simple Love seek to help. Though they have nothing compared to our luxurious American standards, their smiling faces don't let on. Most memorable to us was the pair of siblings named Javier and Stefani. These two live in a broken-down shack just a few yards from the prostitution area mentioned above. They share a bed with three other siblings and in a home with no indoor plumbing. Their parents are away at work for 12 hours at a time and can only afford to give them bread and a small snack, like a bag of chips, to eat each day. Clearly, they lack the nutrients their growing bodies need and will be stunted mentally and physically without our intervention.
As the week progressed, we ventured north toward the borders of Mexico and Belize to tour the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Through torrential downpours, thunder, lightning, fog, and lots of potholes, we pressed onward toward our destination and finally arrived at its gates on the edge of the jungle. A long road took us deep into the lush, tropical jungle, one of the world's largest nature preserves. Inside, we met our guide who escorted us on a private tour of the ruins, some dating back as far as 900 B.C. From atop one of the temples, we gazed across the jungle canopy and confirmed it is, as the locals say, a green ocean from above. In addition to spying brilliant butterflies and a quati (a Latin American raccoon), we also saw a baby spider monkey and its mother swinging from the trees above us. What a sight to see!
Near the end of our trip, after our tours, meetings, discussions of future plans had concluded, we finally got to do what we came to do: be a blessing to the children of Barrios Bans. Just before joining about 40 children and several parents at a private reception hosted by Hotel Caribena, we went to the local soccer field and played kickball with a few neighborhood boys. We created memories that will not soon fade from our hearts.
At the reception, Simple Love was honored by members of the city council district for the neighborhood in which we work. After the children were given a message of encouragement by our local leadership partners, the team handed out bright red backpacks filled with personal hygiene items and treats to each one. With much excitement, the kids each picked out a new pair of sandals from our donated surplus of Old Navy flip-flops They went wild as we distributed candy throughout the crowd, a treat they don't get often. Even a few pieces of candy is better than Christmas to these little ones.
Finally, nine of the poorest boys from the after-school soccer team were presented with a pair of brand new soccer cleats, compliments of Simple Love. They were absolutely ecstatic as they stood in front of the applauding audience. While you may wonder how sandals, soccer shoes, and candy play a part in saving lives and changing an entire community for the better, rest assured that these small acts of kindness show the kids that we care, that we believe in them, and that we can be trusted. It's a delicate thing, gaining the trust of a foreign people who are not used to such attention and care. These small beginnings are building bridges between our two worlds, paving the way for our life-changing plans for the future of this community.