Theodora Stamos posts her diary of the mission.
Theodora Stamos said she was with 14 others at Lake Atitlán.
“My mission this year was in the beautiful country of Guatemala. A country full of beautiful people, luscious vegetation, beautiful nature, and active volcanoes. A country so rich and yet so poor.This time we will be in a small Mayan village called Tzununa in Lake Atitilan.
It all sounded so foreign to me but I was still very excited to be able to go. For that again, I will be forever grateful to Dr. Jonas Stefani and Alderwood Family Dentistry for paying my way to this trip. My group of fellow travellers from all over the map met at Toronto Pearson Airport on Friday.. We had Judith and Tony from England (our most caring and loving physician), John and Katherine (probably the best couple ever) from Edmonton, Dr. Cheryl from Vancouver, Bam Bam and Jessica (our young ones) from Western University, Carol (our Spanish speaking translator) from Newfoundland, Nancy (our amazing powerhouse of a woman) from Huntsville, Laurie (our prayer director) from Cravenhurst, Mena (our group princess in training and most amazing human being) Burrell (my new best friend and John’s dad and Lun’s best friend) Haleh (my best friend in the world and my saviour), and our fearless leader Lun. This was a group of amazing individuals that became family during this mission!
We boarded our flight all excited to arrive and make a difference. Almost 5 hours later we arrived at St. Salvador Airport in El Salvador. We had a 40 minute wait before we boarded our 30 minute flight to Guatemala City. We arrived in Guatemala City at 9 pm. It probably took us 2 hours before we can clear customs (the medications always cause a stir in these countries even though we have all the clearances and paperwork.
Carlos and Karen was there waiting for us with our faithful 5 team security (man in black). One cleared we loaded the 20 some pieces of equipment on to the pick up trucks put our selves in the bus waiting for us and ready to get this mission started. By this time is after 11 am and we head to a lovely restaurant for a late dinner. Burrell still swears the “Best Steak I had in Guatemala”.
By the time we got to our hotel (Tikal Futura in Guatemala City) it was 1 pm by the time we checked in and went to sleep it was 2 am. A wake up call for 5 am is set and we are off to dream land for 3 hours. 5 am came a bit too fast… up we are packing again and getting ready to check out. We board our bus around 6 am and we are off on our 3-4 hour drive to Panajachel. Exhausted and anxious to get started, the trip seemed endless..
We stopped half way there to have breakfast in this outdoor indoor restaurant with huge wood burning fireplaces. Our surprise was that Mayor Edwin Escobar, and his lovely wife Gina Lopez, Phillipe, little Edwin and their cousin came and met us here for breakfast. The next part of the trip was not very pleasant. With full stomach we made the 2 hour drive up mountains and down mountains , winding trails…motion sickness affected the majority of our group and thankfully we approached Panajachel.. from the top of the mountain in looked like a beautiful little town in an ideal setting surrounded by lake Atitilan an the volcanoes.
We arrive at the dock. Cobble stone road and pathways everywhere. We unload all the luggage and load it to two rickety boats waiting for us. We all pile into the boats for a 30 minute ride to Tzununa, our Mayan village.
The scenery is breath taking, the ride is bumpy, Mena holding on for life, Lun cracking jokes, everyone excited to get to our destination. There are not words to describe the beauty of this place. I felt such calm and serenity, such peace here…It is called “The land of the Eternal Spring”
The boat comes to a slow approach 30 minutes later , we have arrived. The worn out dock is awaiting for us and behind that the so called taxis (three wheeled vehicles that are used as taxis) There are lots of stray dogs, young children and locals dressed in their traditional dress.The roads are rough and there is no pavements. You will cross a bridge and if you are lucky you will see women chatting and using the waters below to clean clothes and children using the water for their own enjoyment.
The simple things in life that we take for granted.. We opt out of the taxi ride instead we decide to walk to the medical/community centre where we are going to set up clinic. As we walk up the dirt/cobble stone road on the right we see children playing soccer and flying hand made kites laughing and running around. What impressed mostly on me was that some wore shoes , some did not, some had dirty ripped clothing, others wore traditional costume. As we approached the centre excitement was in the air… we unloaded the luggage, and the set up started.
The centre had a resident doctor, dentist and pharmacist but it looked as if it was not used as much as it should be.. The clinic was set up, medical, dental, hygiene, pharmacy, and people started to arrive. I was impressed and the short stature of these people. True Mayan costumes, children carrying babies, elderly with home made canes made from tree branches, old men with huge hats, and children everywhere. What moved me most was that the majority of them looked undernourished, unhealthy and anaemic (they had that very pale colouring)
After set up we started seen patients…believe it or not we took pictures with every single patient we saw. Both young and old were all very proud people…they did not flinch or complain, was grateful and thankful for what we were giing them. We got lots of hugs and god bless, we got lots of smiles. What impressed me was at around 4 pm this overpowering smell of burning wood was all over the air. At first I did not understand it but as the days passed, I realised that that was the women of the village preparing a fire so they can cook their dinner which usually consisted of tortilla’s, beans, corn and carrots. Their diet is very limited to what they have, not a lot of nutrients, meat or vegetables available.
As the first day came to an end we packed up and headed down the path to the boats. After the boat ride we boarded the bus, exhausted by this time, and rode to our hotel in Panajachel called Porta Hotel del Lago in Panajachel. We saw Tourist vendors everywhere, little shops full of handmade items, pedlars (a lot of them children) pestering you to buy something handmade and trust me they do not take “No” for an answer. Mena knows this best than any of us! She always made these deals for them to return upon our return to the hotel.
We checked in and had 30 minutes for a quick shower before we headed to dinner Exhausted from the day all I could think of is going to bed. We went to a local eatery/bar. The music started to blast and Marc Anthony songs playing loudly..people started to sing and others got up to dance..oh where did they get the energy? After a while the group got up and headed to the bus for the so awaited ride back to the hotel.
What I neglected to mention is that our “Men in Black” are with us every second of every day. The are up before us waiting outside the hotel, and they go to sleep after we are all in our beds. The are an amazing group of men, they are guiding us, helping us, protecting us, ensuring that we are all safe and stay together as a group..We have a pick up that drives ahead of the bus and a pick up that is behind the bus full of security detail all the time…The bus is nestled in between with Fernando in the bus with us…He is not shy about showing his gun to whomever seems threatening..
The rest was so amazing. It had been such a very long day. The morning came only too fast and the wake up call rang in the room. Its time for our next day adventure. Breakfast everyday is at the hotel, then we all gather in the bus for our 10 minute ride to the boat and 30 minutes later we are in the clinic… This was our daily routine
We received another wonderful surprise, Diego, my adopted El Salvadorian son came from El Salvador to be part of this mission and he surprised us at breakfast. He has been in all three of the missions I have been on and we have gotten very close. The rest of the local team is not with us, Pablo (the physician that is normally with us) is taking care of his ill wife, Roberto (the oral surgeon ) is out of the country, however Hector (the local dentist) is with us. All three of these individuals are usually with us in all the missions giving back as we do. They were all missed! Many of our other Guatemalan friends are missed as well, it is just not the same without everyone. I guess at this time we are all thankful we had the opportunity to be here.
As I woke up this morning and opened the curtains of the hotel window I was engulfed with the breathtaking landscape, the beauty of this place is unlike any other. I can see the lake and the little villages all around the foot of the mountains, I can see the volcanoes covered by white fluffy clouds, I can hear the birds singing their beautiful morning songs and I am thinking to myself i am so grateful that I can experience this, so thankful that I am here.
During our week clinic, we all worked hard and saw as many people as we could, we hugged and joked, we ate lunch together, we fed the stray dogs (this was a group effort by the whole group and especially Mena that had a faithful gathering of dogs every day) My favourite were the children and the elders, I looked at them with fascination and wanted to bring all of them home with me. The triple translation from Mayan to Spanish to English was challenging at times but we survived…with the help of the young kids of the village
There are a few things that will forever stay in my memory about this trip. The family we created as a group,the compassion we all felt for the people we helped, the hard work we all put in, the stray dogs in the medical centre that were so thin you could count their ribs, the small underdeveloped, malnutrition children, and in contrast the beauty of this country, the love i felt for my group, the pride in every single one of us, doctors, dentists, or general volunteers, the children all groomed to the best of their ability with their dirty ripped clothing, shoe-less or with worn beaten up shoes, children caring for children, the smell of wood burning at 4 pm, the children carrying wood to school so they can start a fire for their lunch, the tin roof shacks without, windows, doors or floors, no electricity or running water the poverty that was so very evident, children washing clothes by the stream, children playing with empty tin cans tied on a string, a boy washing his hair in a muddy creek, Edwin guiding a drone surrounded by children, Karen, Gina and Phillipe working just as hard as us in the kitchen cooking, helping with patients translating, and the babies; undernourished, underdeveloped with huge smiles on their faces. I will never forget this place and those faces, I will never forget those people, I will never forget the children.
The week came and went very quickly, some of the group battled with nausea and diarrhoea, others with exhaustion but one thing i know for sure, we were all grateful to be together as a group. The last day on the village was bitter sweet.. as we were packing up I looked at this place and realised I was going to miss it. I was going to miss the toothless smiles of the elderly in the village, the bright smiles of the children, the warm smiles of the women. We were treated to a meal cooked by the village women on their community centre.
We made the trek up the steep hills, the cobble stone pathways to gather in this place. The view from up here was breath taking the lake and volcanoes in the back drop the clear blue skies, the beauty of the lake. Once our meal was done we headed back to the boats for the trip back to the hotel and dinner.
The next day we charted a boat and took a tour around Atitilan Lake and some of the local villages and local flavour. We visited a place where local women gather cotton weave it colour it by vegetables and make it into beautiful handmade woven scarves, table runners, blankets etc.. we had coffee at a local coffee shop that was so primitive and yes the coffee was so delicious, we bought herbal remedies at the herbalist of the village and bought local art from the local artists.
Then we went to the town of Santiago de Atitilan,more crafts stores, more to look at and buy. Had one of the best meals ever at this local fish eatery and headed back to the boat for our trip back to the hotel. There we packed the luggage and drove 3 hours back to one of the prettiest little towns in Guatemala called Antigua.
This is a combination of luxury and poverty, of exceptional restaurants and local markets, beautiful churches and town square, coffee houses and jade factories. I truly love this place. One of my most favourite restaurants is here it is called San Domingo. It used to be an old nunnery and now is turned into a restaurant. It is a very mystical place lit by hundreds and hundreds of candles and has the best creme brule ever. When I am here I feel at peace and I feel the spirits of the nuns all around me.
We had dinner here (a late one if I might add) and then headed to our amazing hotel called Porta Antigua. This place was stunning with outdoor/indoor beauty, underground tunnels, luscious vegetation, trees and plants. It was like we were in a different world! After check in we went to bed.. Exhaustion took over and the next thing I know is wake up call came way too fast.
This is our last day here. Some of the group are doing a local tour and a select few will be going to the Pacaya Volcano. We are meeting for lunch at the Reunion Hotel and golf club at the foot hills of Fuego Volcano. Stunning place excellent food… We head back to hotel for a few hours of rest before going to the mountain top restaurant for dinner.
Stunning place stunning surroundings, lots of art all over, amazing views of Antigua and a huge surprise for the night.. One of the volcanoes decided to give us a show on our last night here. From a distance we can see the volcano spitting up fire and then the lava trickling down its sides. This was once in a life time view. We were all in awe.
The group heads back to hotel to catch a couple of hours sleep before we are up at 1:30 to leave for the airport for out trip back home. 1:30 once again came way to fast and the group was piled back in the bus for the trek to Guatemala City and the airport. At this point our trip was coming to a fast close.
What we got out of our group of 16 volunteers is a bond unlike any other. We created a new family in our group we were filled with a sense of friendship, love, compassion, loyalty, and caring for each other , our world, and the universe. I am looking forward to my next mission, to been able to give back to help those less fortunate, to make a difference. I will be posting soon for donations. I want to gather children’s clothing and shoes, vitamins, skin lotions, toys for next year so that I can go back to Tzununa and help those children.”