Personal Journey in the Highlands of Guatemala

Hank Mattimore
Reproduced with Permission

Deep in the mountainous region of western Guatemala, where tourists rarely wander, I find myself shaking hands with a seven-year-old Mayan kid named Alex. We are not exactly strangers to one another. Alex and I have exchanged photos and letters over the past 18 months, ever since my wife and I decided to sponsor him through a non-profit agency in the United States. But this is my first face to face meeting with Alex and I'm a little nervous because my Spanish language skills are of the mui poco variety and, wouldn't you know it, the interpreter we were supposed to have is late.

I smile at Alex and his Mom and little sister and say "Buenos dias and "como estas." I know how to say "Donde Esta el bano?" too, but I'm thinking I'd better hold on to that phrase for an emergency. I get them some chairs and we sit down together. I smile again at them and they smile back. Then I smile and say something in spanglish, which draws a blank from all three of them. Oh, well. At least we are all still smiling.

At last, the interpreter shows up and things lighten up a bit. I show them pictures of my grandchildren, a sure fire icebreaker. Then I dip into my stash of Christmas presents, a solar powered calculator I bought at the Dollar Store and some pens and pencils and crayons, a little doll for his little sister. Alex is especially intrigued by a bottle of blowing bubbles solution. His face lights up with that special wonder reserved to angels and children as he blows magical bubbles into the air. Who needs video games?

I look around me and see that the other American sponsors are also meeting with their kids. There are 35 of us here at the CFCA (Christian Foundation for Children and Aging) Center. Our donation of $30 per month helps to pay for the education and health care of our "kids," all of whom live in circumstances that would touch the heart of Scrooge himself.

For a week we tour the highland villages, visit the dirt-floored, tin roofed shacks that these families call home. Few houses have electricity or running water or indoor toilet facilities. The families of the kids we sponsor invite us into their homes and we see first hand the face of third world poverty, poverty but not despair.

I was impressed by the quiet dignity of the people. The Mayans are a proud people. Many of our group comment that, although their living quarters are mere shacks by our standards, they are kept neat and clean. The preparation of meals, for the most part, takes place outside the homes, although we notice one woman cooking a pot of beans indoors on a make shift fire place.

Most of the indigenous people work in the coffee plantations for about $2.50 a day. During harvest time (November through February) many of the kids work alongside Mom or Dad. The money we contribute makes sure that sponsored kids get to stay in school. While, theoretically, public education through the sixth grade is available in Guatemala, students must provide their own uniforms and pay for their own school supplies. For most of the indigenous kids, this is not possible, so they stay home.

We do a tour of a hospital and dental clinic, staffed mostly by medical professionals who were at one time sponsored through the CFCA program. A local Catholic Parish built and helps support the hospital along with help from the government and a number of relief agencies. We stop at some schools where a large number of the kids are also being sponsored. Glad to have an excuse to get out of school, they crowd around the Americans and pose for pictures. In their traditional Mayan dress, the kids make great models for our pictures.

We had come to the highlands of Guatemala, not so much to see the scenery but rather to meet the children we sponsor. However we are not blind to the spectacular beauty of this country. The guidebooks call Guatemala "The Land of Eternal Springtime." They get no argument from me. The countryside is greener than Ireland with over 500 species of orchids and gorgeous splashes of bougainvillea dotting the mountains. The temperature while we were there in late December and early January was a balmy 75o Fahrenheit during the day. There is a long rainy season (mid-May through October) but locals tell us that the rains come only in the late afternoons and the temperature is almost the same all year.

Maybe, some day, I'll return to Guatemala to do some sightseeing, buy souvenirs, that kind of stuff. This was more a personal journey. I didn't climb any volcanoes or explore the ancient Mayan ruins or eyeball many of the 16th. Century remains of Spanish colonial grandeur in Guatemala. I didn't go near a gift shop except to purchase a little Guatemalan doll for my grand daughter. This trip was all about making the acquaintance of a little kid named Alex.

When the time came to bid farewell to Alex and his family, I was surprised by how moved I was. Heck, all we did is kick a soccer ball around, shoot some basketball and take some pictures but something else had happened. Alex had become flesh and blood to me now, the seven year old with a smile that didn't quit. Somehow, despite differences in age and culture and language, the old white guy from Northern Californa and the Mayan boy had connected. Through the interpreter, I told him to be a good boy and obey his Mom and help her take care of his little sister. Then I gave him a hug and promised I would be pulling for him. As he walked off into the dusk, I knew that I had been blessed with a new grandson.

If you would like further information on the CFCA Program, you can call them at 800-875-6564 or send them an e-mail request for information at