Casa Guatemala is an orphanage located along the river in the jungle. They are very poor and funded only by donations and volunteers. 100 full time children live there and another 100-150 come to school there from the 3 outlying villages, ages 2-16. There is no electricity during the day, I'm not sure at night, and generally all they can afford to feed the children and volunteers is rice and beans, occasionally vegetables or fruit, sometimes they have meat donated to them on Fridays. There is a medical clinic on site but rarely does it have any trained staff, occasionally an MD will volunteer for a few weeks but that is rare. Last month we started working the clinic 2 days a week, we are all they have, and the villagers also come in. They have no other access to health care, most have little or no income and live at barely a subsistence level, it is very sad.
The clinic has some very basic equipment and a large variety of drugs donated to them, very little of what we use the most of, topical antibiotics, steroid creams, and anti itch medicines. We have an assortment of oral antibiotics but we are only nurses not trained to diagnose and prescribe and hesitant to do so. On the other hand we are all they have and they are very grateful for what ever we may be able to do for them.
Everything they have has been donated but unfortunately almost every medication name is in Spanish. All the brand names are in Spanish as well as the generic names, so I've been spending a lot of time on the computer translating their names to English and making a chart for us and who ever follows after us. The most common things we see are cuts, scrapes, skin infections, lacerations, and lots of head lice. They even asked us if we knew how to set broken bones. We may be in way over our heads. We won't give anybody injections without a doctors order, which we won't be able to get in any case. Nearest doctor is 6 miles away by boat.
Our second day at the orphanage we did see one boy Michelle thought had possible strep throat, and had been running a 102 fever on and off for days. We checked our reference books and what was recommended for an anti biotic was not in the clinic. It is something that needs refrigeration so there is no way they could keep in anyway. The disease can lead to scarlet fever if untreated so we took the child, along with one of the instructors, to the free clinic in town when we were finished for the day. I went with them hoping to speak with an English speaking doctor to see if something we had at the clinic would have been appropriate. Of course no doctor was on duty that day, but the nurse that saw him ended up giving him an injection of Penicillin, which is what our book said, then he got another injection of a different medication. I also went because I wanted to make sure he got an anti-biotic. Apparently one of the volunteers went to the free clinic for a possible eye infection and all they gave him was Visine. A few days later he went to a hospital in another town and was diagnosed with conjunctivitis and give anti-biotic eye drops. So the orphanage people aren't too confident in the care available at the free clinic.
While we were at the orphanage one of the older boys carried in a large trash bag full of various medications, mostly anti-biotics or anti-parasitics. They have tons of that kind of stuff but very short of topical medications, which we seem to be using the most. Creams and ointments like Benadryl (Benadryl pills too), triple anti-biotics creams, hydrocortisone, anti fungal creams and powders/sprays for athletes foot. If it gets to be too frustrating for me I can always make use of the large supply of codeine, valium, tranxene, and assortment of other benzodiazepines I am still translating. Why they even have these medications there I cannot guess. We are not very comfortable playing doctor but at least we know when to call for one.
Last week a True North medical mission team arrived at our marina, the director had heard of our work at the orphanage and came to our boat for introductions. His organization has been coming to the area for a decade and his first visit this trip was to be the orphanage. He brought a team of 5 doctors, 2 pediatricians, 2 anesthesiologists, and 1 ER doctor. They saw 185+ children and each child received medicine to de-worm them. Alan, the mission director, told us that every child they see gets the medication because intestinal parasites are very common among these people. The mission spent the next 4 days visiting remote villages before they sailed to Belize to give the volunteer docs some well earned R&R.
We were relieved to learn that we had been doing an effective job treating the few things that we thought did require antibiotics. We only have a few days left to work at the clinic and we have not heard of anyone taking our place anytime in the near future.
I have added a link to the Casa Guatemala web site but much of the information is out of date.
I'm not sure what happened to the farming, fish farm, or chicken ranch but they no longer exist. They still raise pigs which are sold in their shop in town to help support the orphanage.
September 15th was Guatemala's independence day and we helped celebrate with a pig roast and party. About 50 people showed up and we all had a great time. The marina staff were invited to attend, at our expense, but we were told they always spend holidays with family whenever possible. The cost of the meal was less than $10 but that is as much as some of them earn in a day. This is a very poor country with per capita income reported to be between $2000 and $4500 per year. Many people live at the subsistence level, one room shacks, no running water or electricity, and barely enough food to eat. Education is free up to 6th grade but students have to have shoes, a school uniform, and buy their own school supplies. Many children never get the chance to attend school because the family has no money for those things. There is a well to do upper-class but their riches rarely filter down to the poor of the nation.
Since our last post we have been exploring two of the excellent Mayan ruins in the nearby countryside. There are dozens of sites within a few hundred kilometers of our marina but Tikal and Copan are the most famous.
Tikal National Park in the Northern Highlands encompasses 575 square kilometers of primary tropical rainforest. Originally inhabited between 900 and 700 BC the village grew to an empire that was one the richest and most powerful Mayan city-states. At it's height Tikal covered 30 square kilometers of land and had a population of at least 100,000. Tikal's influence was felt as far away as Copan, over 300 km to the South in Honduras.
By the mid 800's AD the decline of the Mayan cities began, and by the end of the 10th century most had been completely abandoned, including Tikal. The Mayans had become the experts of their era in mathematics, construction, astronomy ( they discovered 2 planets ), and engineering. Archeologists are not certain what ultimately led to the Mayan decline who's numbers once reached 10 million. Further discoveries lead authorities to believe the citizenry tired of the rule of dynasties and revolted, leaving a hodge podge of warring clans and villages with no central ruling body. There is a general agreement that rapid growth of their cities led to deforestation and loss of wood for cooking and construction as well as local climate changes. Also the population growth often outpaced the ability to provide food for the citizens. Sounds like us doesn't it?
Three couples from our marina went to Copan Ruinas in Honduras so we could get our Guatemalan visas renewed, taking advantage to explore the nearby ruins. The town is small and surprising tidy with many excellent restaurants to choose from. An excellent meal for 2 can be had for under $30, or you can dine in a "local's" place for under $10.
At the ruins we were told by our guide Fidel that the Mayan ruins in Copan were like the Paris of the Mayan empire while Tikal was more like New York. With an estimated population of 25,000 it's craftsmen and sculptors carved monuments that far surpassed those in Tikal for intricacy and design. It is believed the Mayans lived here from 100AD until the early 800's AD when the citizens grew tired of being ruled by a Dynasty and dis-empowered the king. With colorful names like 18 Monkey, Smoke Imix, and Yax Pac, the long line of ancestral kings was ended with the ouster of U Cit Tok'
This is a rather long post but we are so enthusiastic about Guatemala I just could not shut up. The photo's tell it better than I can.
We arrived in Livingston, Guatemala June 4th to clear in thru customs and immigration, then proceeded into the Rio Dulce. Less than a mile from Livingston you enter the "gorge", where the 400 foot tall canyon walls, lush with tropical vegetation, close to within a hundred yards of you. After a few miles of awesome scenery the river opens up where the surrounding mountains can be seen nudging the clouds. 17 miles up the river we found our summer home, Mario's Marina. Located about 15 minutes by boat from Fronteras , or 2 ½ hours by trail and road, , the closest town. According to other cruisers that come here every year this season is slower than usual, same number of boats on the river but more people left their boats in marinas and flew home for the summer. Each morning on the vhf/marine radio marinas announce any special meal deals, movie nights, swap meets, or other things of interest to keep you busy and out of trouble.
Mario's is a great little marina and has a good social group. The mix of people changes every few days as new arrivals appear and others take inland tours for days or weeks. A typical day for us is to get up @ 8am, sunrise is around 5am, no daylight savings time here. Piddle around the boat until late morning then probably take the dinghy into town to pick up fresh fruits and veggies, all which must be washed in bleach water to kill the germs that may cause dysentery or travelers diarrhea. You will see in the photo section what shopping is like in Fronteras, a true frontier town. Every day at 3pm is an hour of volley ball, which we usually attend, followed by happy hour drinks by the small pool. Around 6pm the bugs may start to feed on us and most head back to their boats for the evening. No such thing as cable TV here but the bar/restaurant has a big screen TV and satellite dish. Mondays are pot luck dinner in the restaurant and the marina supplies a dish also. My Swedish cardamom meatballs where a crowd pleaser with many requests for the recipe. Sundays we got hooked on the dominoes games, guess we will be ready for the nursing homes when we get back.
The country is beautiful with all the mountains, volcanoes, lush forests, waterfalls, Spanish colonial buildings, and the beautiful traditional dresses most of the women wear. Knowledgeable people can tell where a woman is from by the design of her dress. We spent 2 weeks in the city of Xela taking a total immersion Spanish class while living in the home of a Guatemalan family. I'm not sure how much I actually learned but I can now butcher the Spanish language at a higher level J. The family we stayed with were wonderful and welcoming and tried to help us as much as they could. We ate most of our meals with them and even learned to cook a few traditional meals. They eat very little meat, or fruits, Replaced with lots of beans, soups, and corn products. But we liked most of it and never went hungry. Most afternoons they would take us on a field trip to a museum or old church, hiking the hills, hot water springs, etc. It was a great experience and Xela has few tourists so we saw the way typical Guatemalan families live, work, and shop. Xela also happens to be the coldest city in Guatemala, which we discovered our first night there, with temperatures in the fifties. Most homes don't have heat so lots of heavy blankets are the norm. It is also the rainy season and the only 100% reliable weather forecast is "it will rain today".
Our oldest son and grandson flew down to spend a month with us and we have spent the last 10 days exploring the Western Highlands area with them. This is about 250 miles West of the Rio Dulce and our boat. Most women wear the traditional dresses and many of the men in smaller villages still dress in traditional garb. Antigua is a popular tourist city with numerous Spanish colonial buildings still in excellent condition. We spent 5 days here exploring the town and visiting the old ruins and exquisite churches, Even if you are not religious, the design and architecture of these old structures, many dating to the 1500's, are awesome.
We next spent a day going to Chichicastanaga to see the largest outdoor market, (mercado) in Guatemala. Except for the church it was a waste of time. Highly touted as a must see, it was mostly set up for tourists. The Sunday's mercado Democratica in Xela was almost as big and much better because it was authentic and where the people in town actually went to shop. You could find anything from dragon fruit (excellent) to cow eyeballs (did not try) for sale. The church is Catholic but is still a place of worship for the Mayans, which often intermingle Christian and Mayan deities and worship practices.
Our next stop was Lake Atitlan, deepest lake in Guatemala. Surrounded by volcanoes and dotted with small towns and villages it is truly breath taking. Many of the towns are accessible only by boat and the "launcha" business on the lake is booming. We stayed in a village named Santa Cruz at a hostel called La Inagua Perdida and cannot speak highly enough about the place. Situated on the waterfront and originally a simple backpacker hostel, they slowly expanded and added electricity 4 years ago to most rooms. We had the "deluxe" rooms with a private bath and small balcony for $37/day. They have rooms as low as $15/day, and beds for $3/day. If you are willing to volunteer for a least 3 weeks you can get a free dorm bed, free meals, and half priced drinks. It seemed like half the staff were on the volunteer program. But it was the staff that made it a special place. They were all very laid back and casual, warm and welcoming. We felt like part of the group from day one and we got lots of hugs when we left. Mostly a younger crowd in their 20's and 30's , along with an occasional family, passed through while we were there. Food was excellent, inexpensive, and dinners were served family style. Surprising was how many British accents we heard, by far the majority. Three of the staff are planning to be in Columbia and Panama around the same time we are and with luck we will run into them.
Each village and town around the lake is different and easily reached by launcha. With all the trails , waterfalls, and volcanoes to be hiked you could spend a month here and not see it all. The photo's will show you what a magical place this can be.
As I sit here typing this we are in Panajachel, still on the lake, until morning. We will be catching a 6am shuttle to Guatemala city to connect to a bus that will take us back to the Rio Dulce and our boat, probably 8-10 hours of adventure on the highways of Guatemala. Michelle and I will have been away from the boat for a month by the time we get back and despite the great time we have had it will feel good to be "back home".
Our trip from Jamaica to San Pedro, Belize was 700 miles and took just under 5 days. This is the longest offshore passage we have done by ourselves and it was uneventful. As I write this we have sailed over 3000 miles since leaving Baltimore. The route map in the photo section shows our general course. San Pedro is a major tourist area and scuba diving center with the worlds second largest barrier reef less than a mile off the coast. The town population is @ 12-15000, all very friendly and accommodating. The streets are small and can be congested and most people use bikes or golf carts to get around. Carts outnumber autos at least 5 to 1. Eating at local places can be very cheap, fish dinner for 2 with 2 soft drinks for $10 or less, best way to find them is ask a local where he eats. The beaches are clean, water clear, and the diving and snorkeling excellent. We arrived the first week of April and worked our way S to Placentia, mostly a fishing village but tourism is growing. As many locals come here for vacation as do foreigners. Around a thousand people live here and there are several small grocery stores and always many fresh produce venders on the street with anything you could want at very cheap prices by US standards. Just across the bay is Big Creek, second largest commercial port in Belize.
We decided to leave our boat at a private dock for safety while we explored inland. We felt uncomfortable leaving it alone for 4-5 days out in the anchorage but have never heard of anyone having and theft problems. It was a wise decision because the day before we moved it a charter boat dragged his anchor across 300 yards of harbor and just hit us a glancing blow as we were coming back to our boat. Luckily we managed to get our dinghy between the two boats before he did more damage. We only suffered a bent anchor part and the captain of the charter boat did not believe their boat did the damage. I guess he figured we dragged his boat the 300 yards just to try and rip his company off.
Local bus service is very reliable and cheap. They are mostly old school buses that the drivers cram as many riders in as possible. At times we had at least 120 people in buses designed for 85 capacity. But it is interesting and a good way to meet the locals. Our 3 bus 5 hour ride took us to San Ignacio, about 6 miles from the Guatemala border. We stayed at a great little guest house in the middle of town and it was luxurious to have air conditioning for those 4 days as well as daily news on the TV. I do miss my morning news casts. We visited Cahal Pech, just short walk from our hotel, the oldest Mayan ruins in Belize dating back to 600 B. C. It is still being slowly excavated as funds become available. Caracol, a 3 hour rough drive along near wilderness roads, is the largest known Mayan ceremonial center in Belize. At its height, around 650 A.D. it had over 30,000 structures, 140,000+ inhabitants, and covered nearly 70 square miles. The tallest temple is 442 feet high. The road passes within a few miles of the Guatemalan jungle. Three years ago Guatemalan banditos were stopping cars along the road and robbing them at gunpoint, hiding passengers and their cars in the jungle until the day was over, then leaving the prisoners go while the robbers slipped back across the border. Now you can get an army escort through this area if you arrive at their outpost at a specified time.
For us the most interesting site was ATM ( Actun Tunichil Muknal ) a must see sight if you are not claustrophobic. Discovered 5-6 years ago by loggers was this cave with an underground river flowing out it's mouth. Further exploration by geologists found Mayan artifacts and human remains. This site was used from about 500 A.D. to 1000 A.D. as a ceremonial grounds. The cave was essentially dry during that time as evidenced by stalactites seen in the flooded portions of the cave lower down. It is about a 1/2 mile excursion into the cave with no lights other than those on your head. Short parts of it has to be swam but mostly you are wading thru water until you get half way in. Then the ground rises and you come upon old pottery shards and bowls, over 2000 of them, plus skeletal remains of previous residents. The archeologists chose to leave the majority of artifacts in place for the enjoyment and wonderment of the people who visit the site. There are currently only a dozen or so guides that are licensed to escort tours into this cave.
As I write this we are anchored in Glovers Reef, one of 3 atolls off the coast of Belize. It is also one of only a few true atolls in the Northern hemisphere. We think this is the nicest of the three and as of now we are the only boat here. We've been here a week already and decided to stay another week just because we like it so much. The entire area is a national undersea preservation area and the diving and snorkeling are fantastic. There is a small all rustic resort on the island and the owner of the resort and the island lives here. The atmosphere is very laid back and casual. If we want to dive we just let them know and they will pick us up at our boat when they take their guests out. They have a small bar open to anyone and it's essentially an 'honor bar' when the bartender Angie is not around. You take your drinks and mark it on your tab, same with the diving we have done. Pay before you leave the island, which surprised us since we are just 'drop ins' that could disappear. But they said only one person ever tried to leave without paying and that was a resort guest. I suppose we have honest faces. We have not been to the mainland in over 2 weeks and have run out of all fresh produce and are short on dingy fuel. Eddie, the owner, said we can ride into the mainland on their shuttle boat tomorrow to reprovision while they pick up new guests from the airport. Hospitality does not get much better than that. We could also eat buffet style in their dining room if we give them advance notice so they can prepare enough extra, not for free of course. Literally everything has to be brought out here by boat except fresh water, a 30 mile boat trip each way. The resort gets 50% of it's electricity from solar power and the owner plans to double capacity in the near future to provide substantially all of his electricity. When it is finished he will have almost $100k invested in the system and will reduce his current fuel cost for running his generator from $9000/month down to less than $1000/month.
Addendum: We will be leaving Belize in 3 days for the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, about 50 miles away. We will spend about 5 months there waiting for hurricane season to end before continuing S to Columbia and Panama.
After leaving Thompson Bay, Bahamas we arrived in Port Antonio, Jamaica 72 hours later. It was mostly a motor sail due to minimal wind conditions. We heard that Port Antonio was a safe area with easy check in and navigational approach. We had not planned on going to Jamaica but our weather guru advised not going to Columbia until late fall due to squally weather this time of year in that area. Jamaica was a nice change from the Bahamas, high mountains, lush vegetation, inexpensive food, rivers. We stayed in the Errol Flynn marina for the week we were there which made trips into town easy. Errol Flynn lost his sailboat here but loved the place so much he bought the island just across the harbor, now called Navy Island. It is still owned by his family and his widow runs a large cattle ranch outside the city. He married a very young girl and died from his habituation to morphine. The marina manager said Ms Flynn still comes around once in a while to chat. The outside bar frequently shows Flynn movies at night next to the pool. Another boat at anchor had their dinghy stolen so we were glad to be in the marina with security. Your dinghy is usually the only the way to get back and forth to shore, carry groceries, etc. They are expensive, easily costing $3-5000 and generally are stolen for the motor. They are also very difficult to replace here in the islands.
Port Antonio is a very run down city of about 20,000, many of which seem to have nothing to do but lounge around the streets not doing anything visibly productive. The street hustlers got very tiresome by the second day, someone is always trying to get money from you. If you asked someone where the post office was located they would most likely walk you the 1 or 2 blocks then hold out their hand for a tip. We got to the point where we hesitated asking anyone for anything. We enjoyed our tours inland to the rivers and mountains. Overall we enjoyed our stay but were also happy to leave. It is a beautiful country marred by a high crime rate, high unemployment, and a 'hustle the tourist' attitude by many.