Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
March 24th, 2005

Travels of the Great White Visitor

Journeying to the third world to meet my sponsored child.


“Noticeably fuller, sexier lips in 90 seconds,” read the subject line of the spam email. Interesting news, but not something I could focus on. I was leaving the next day for Guatemala, on a week-long “Mission Awareness Trip” to see the 12-year-old girl I’ve sponsored there for two years. The packing list suggested bug spray (to fend off malaria), Dramamine (the roads in Guatemala are windy and bumpy), and bottled water (Montezuma remains hostile). Sexier lip concoctions–and other must-have products the American media urged upon me–would have to take a back seat to the necessities of life. Nevertheless, I managed to stuff two bags full of clothes and goodies for the trip.

My arms ached as I lugged them down four flights of stairs, heaved them into a cab, and headed for JFK airport the next morning. On the flight, I reread my “godchild’s” letters–I’d received nearly twenty. For $20 a month, I’d “bought” what my friend calls my pagan baby.Theoretically, I had begun a relationship with her.

I’d communicated with Esperanza following careful guidelines: “Don’t write about possessions. Don’t focus on material goods. Talk about animals, your favorite color, things you share.” I knew Esperanza had seven brothers and sisters, and no electricity. I knew she liked mangoes, math, and the color red. I knew she was having trouble in Spanish class. But what did I really know about her life, or what she needed?

View of Lake Atitlan, a large crater lake formed by Guatemala’s (now mostly extinct, or barely sputtering) volcanoes. Our group of sponsors visited several poor villages around the lake.

Hours later I was on the ground in Guatemala City,
and soon was on a bus west to Lake Atitlan (pictured above), a volcanic crater lake in the highlands of the country. The lake is surrounded by a dozen dirt-poor villages named after saints. Our American group of 16 sponsors was staying near San Lucas Toliman, on a campus run by the sponsorship charity, Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA) . We were a parody of the American tourist–huge suitcases, polyester pants, moneybelts stashed inside our shirts. Dishevelled and wary, we set out in CFCA’s vans to see how our sponsored children lived.

Sponsors walk with children in the poor Atitlan village of Cerro de Oro.

The first day in the Atitlan region, we visited a vast shantytown (pictured above) strewn with astounding amounts of garbage–it seemed like every plastic bag ever made was now coated with the ashy dust of Guatemala’s extinct volcanoes, and piled up near huts made of cornstalk walls and corrugated tin roofs. No electricity or running water; seven people in one 10×10 room; choking woodsmoke; cement blocks to sleep on if you were lucky. Children collected wood into massive bundles they carried on their backs, brought water up the steep hill from the none-too-sanitary lake, and helped their mothers with the neverending work of tortilla-cooking.

Our life at the charity’s campus was cushy by comparison: bunk beds with mattresses, running water that could often be coaxed into warmth, toilets that flushed most of the time (don’t ask). And three square meals a day, albeit simple ones: tortillas, chicken, rice and vegetables. If we wanted dessert, the luxury of peanut butter and jelly was occasionally available.

Each day we went to a project supported in part by CFCA: a clinic, a reforestation program, a fair-trade coffee co-op, but mostly schools. The first few times we arrived at one, I cringed as the schoolchildren applauded our pudgy Caucasian group and unfurled Welcome Sponsors! banners. Any political correctness watchdog in the States would have had a stroke as the kids danced native dances in costume for their Great White Visitors (pictured at top of article). But gradually I began to realize that the children–sponsored by Americans not in our group–actually were glad to meet us, seeing us as stand-ins for their actual sponsors. “Do you know Donna?” They asked us through translators. “Have you met Ruth?” And hey, they were getting out of class for a precious hour as they entertained us.

And the Big Day came, we met our own sponsored kids. The morning they were due to arrive from their faraway homes, I fluttered nervously around the parking lot, watching for their vans and hoping for an early peek. CFCA workers shooed me back to an auditorium where our godchildren would be introduced to us beauty-pageant style. The Guatemalan families, dressed in Sponsor Best, “starred” on a stage as we sponsors sat in the audience. When each family was brought forward, a translator’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker: “And now, here’s Miguel, the sponsored child of Julie!” Clapping, hearty hugs, and sponsor (but not sponsoree) tears ensued.

I watched the festivities anxiously, trying to spot Esperanza as the other sponsors were called forward alphabetically. She was the last to emerge (the curse of my having a last name beginning with S). I recognized her and jumped up.

On the charity’s
campus, sharing Pepsis with my sponsored child, Esperanza, and her parents.

We hugged awkwardly, and I shook hands with her parents, who accompanied her. Esperanza (pictured above with ther parents) was quiet and shy, overwhelmed by the bustling campus and new experiences (her family had never before left their marine region in the northeast of Guatemala, hundreds of miles away). We started speaking through a translator, Esperanza looking a little dazed, her father concentrating hard to catch the words (they speak a Mayan dialect; Spanish is their second language). The iffy English of our translator, who spent the day with us, didn’t help our attempts at speech. By evening, I realized not only that many of my questions hadn’t gotten through–I hadn’t even known the right questions to ask. I still knew pitifully little about Esperanza’s life, or what her family was up against.

But sharing photos, drawing pictures about our lives, and exchanging gifts bridged the gap to some extent. I showed Esperanza how my toddler nephew has grown; Esperanza illustrated her family tree. The children put on a talent show, dancing, singing, or reciting poems. We played basketball and soccer, drank Pepsis together (another luxury for the kids), and explored the on-site farm and garden. During our broken conversations, I didn’t get answers. But, with hindsight, I got enough clues to formulate questions for my next letter to Esperanza.

After the kids returned to their homes, our group continued to travel to Atitlan villages, past tiny cornstalk shacks and old women laboring up the ashy hills. As the days wore on and we saw more squalor (and more reasons for hope), superfluities seem to drop away from our group.

We were worried about food and water–jonesing for chocolate, concerned about cooties in the tap water–and staying warm at night in our chilly bunks. That was it. Clothes, souvenirs, sexier lips–the whole calvacade of stuff that consumed us at home–just fell off the radar. At nights, the only entertainment available was conversation. Our sponsor group sat outside, some bundled in blankets, and talked about the beauty of the people, the poverty of the country, and the grisly Guatemalan history we were learning. One older man—the sponsors were mostly couples over 50—kept shaking his head in disbelief, saying “the people at home won’t even be able to imagine this.”

Curiously—perhaps because I’ve traveled in poor countries before, perhaps because I am callous—I felt less troubled and more optimistic than I’d imagined. The poverty and lack of opportunity were profoundly dispiriting, true. Yet, as we’d seen, it was possible to do something about it; I didn’t feel helpless.

And the escape from a luxury-based society into a necessity-based
one was a welcome relief. What the pope said a yearago about materialism (see link at bottom of article) rang especially true while I was in Guatemala. When you’re surrounded by ads for things you’re “supposed” to have—whether sexy lips, a good education, a house–life becomes one endless, wearying round of “gotta get that.” Based on an admittedly short sojourn to the Third World, John Paul II’s linkage of consumerism and depression seemed right on target.

A supermarket in a Guatemalan city…giving a whole new meaning to the term “white bread.”

On the last day, my packing took little time. I’d given many items to Esperanza and her family. I left most of my clothes and toiletries in San Lucas, since–as we’d seen–even modest objects made a huge difference in the lives of the Guatemalans we’d met. As I shouldered my pleasantly lightweight bag, I remembered words of St. Augustine I had fruitlessly pasted in my checkbook years ago:

“Go on making use of your special, expensive foods, because you have got into the habit of them, because if you change your habits you get sick. Go on making use of your superfluities, but give the poor their necessities. …You have found yourselves companions, walking along the same road; he’s carrying nothing, you have an excessive load. You are overloaded; give him some of what you’ve got. At a stroke, you feed him and lessen your load. So give to the poor; I’m begging you, I’m warning you, I’m commanding you, I’m ordering you. Give to the poor.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 389,5-6)

Back in America, I settled too quickly into my usual routine. But I knew I was bound more tightly to Esperanza and her future; my mind’s eye image of her was no longer limited to a photo on my refrigerator. What had started as a check in the mail had become a soul-stretching experience.

And because of the lingering shantytown memories, I wasn’t completely subsumed by excess after returning to the States. When, in my email box, I saw the subject line “Is your dog’s food good enough?” I just laughed. I may still be in the land of Material Girls, but my load has been lightened.

The Author : Laura Sheahen
Laura Sheahen is Catholic Relief Services’ Regional Information Officer for Asia. CRS is the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. It works to help impoverished people in nearly 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality.
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