David shares stories of his 2008 Guatemala adventure.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Guatemala Epilogue

As my Guatemala adventure was winding down, I made several attempts to create this last post, to keep everyone abreast of the situation at the La Pedrera project. I took a couple of weeks off from school over the holidays to travel with my family. My wife Diane and nephew, Alex arrived on Christmas day. They did a week of Spanish classes themselves while I managed meals and travel preparations. On New Year’s day, we took a bike trip on back-roads around the city and on January 2nd started on a whirlwind tour of Guatemala tourist stops. We flew to Tikal to witness the large group of Mayan ruins that made up this 1500 year old ancient city. We spent 3 beautiful days relaxing on Lake Atitlan and two nights in the colonial capital of Antigua before Diane had to catch a plane home.

Alex and I returned to Spanish school in Xelaju where I was fully expecting to engage again with the students at La Pedrera. Things changed. Over the holiday, the Guatemala government announced the postponement of the start of the school year for 3 weeks. The La Pedrera project was scheduled to start back up to coincide with the start of the new school year so they also delayed startup of the project. Pretty drastic action, you might think. But, not drastic in comparison to problems that the educational system here is facing.

Last year the president, Alvaro Colom, decreed that all primary education in Guatemala would be free. Previously it cost at least $250 a year to send kids to school, not counting the lost income to families that might otherwise send their kids to work. Consequently barely half of Guatemalan children go to school(1). As a result of the recent decree, enrollment in school increased by 47% (2) but the country does not even have the infrastructure to serve even the original students. Schools in rural areas often have no doors, roofs or even desks. Sometimes a chair and desk consist of a log and a cement block. I heard reports that some teachers cancel school 2 days a week so they can work other jobs to subsist. And the teachers are up in arms over the expected doubling of class sizes. Last weekend on a hike through a semi-remote area, we came upon a school without a roof. Since it rains daily here about 8 months of the year, I cannot imagine how they will conduct classes.
(1), The World Guide: 84% attend primary school, 25% attend secondary
(2), Prensa Libre, Jan 18 2009, "Schools open with Shortcomings"

So, while I was planning to volunteer for two more weeks with La Pedrera kids, I was only able to do a few small things such as working on the computers, getting the wireless internet working and updating student photos on the Casa Xelaju website. My last week in Quetzaltenango, I madly gave away anything I did not absolutely need, in order to travel lightly.

My last week in Guatemala, I spent a day traveling into the interior to the village of Nebaj. That was an incredible experience that I hope to highlight in my slide presentation. It is at the end of the paved road and very isolated from the normal tourist routes. During the civil war it was a center of Mayan resistance
to the military and large landowners. I found a 70 year old guide to take me on a “sacred sites walking tour”, visiting Mayan alters where traditional healers were performing rituals. These are practices that have survived 500 years of Spanish, Catholic and Pentecostal invasions. I felt quite blessed to have this opportunity in such and out-of-the-way region. My next stop was the market day in Chichicastenango for market day and then on to Lago Atitlan.

Lago Atitlan, one of the most beautiful places on earth, displays a sharp contrast of wealthy estates that dot the shoreline alongside dirt floor adobe huts where locals eke out a living. I spent one night in the tiny village of Jaibalito before a rendezvous with
my nephew Alex in San Marcos. Jaibalito was an amazing experience. The town has no roads leading to it which makes it slightly less developed than some of the other lakeside towns. It is only accessible by boat or footpath from other villages making it a bit more tranquil than some of the other tourist stops. Meeting up with Alex for my last evening, we stayed in a hilltop yoga retreat where a vegetarian dinner was served communal style. We sat on grass mats on a terrace looking out at the stunning volcanoes that line the lakeshore, in awe of a last beautiful sunset in Guatemala.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Festivities and Graduation at La Pedrera

This week at La Pedrera we had a fun week and accomplished some things that you can see for yourself on the links below where I published stories created by students. I have a few more pictures this week. Remember that you can click on the pictures to see the larger versions.

The Posada.
On Tuesday evening (16 Diciembre), Casa Xelaju hosted a Posada for students and their families that included students, teachers and staff at Casa Xelahu. The Posada is a Christmas tradition that involves walking through neighborhoods with candles, blowing whistles and beating on tortous shells. Fireworks seem to be obligatory, as well as a float with Joseph and Mary kneeling in the manger. When the parade arrives at their destination, a special song is sung. A group on the outside sings the story of Joseph and Mary asking for entry at the inn. A group inside responds in song that they cannot open the door for strangers. The two groups respond back and forth in the song: “Para Pedir Posada” (To Ask for Lodging). Finally the group on the inside understand that Mary is carrying the child who is the son of God and of course open the door, welcoming everyone inside. Speeches, benedictions and traditional food complete the celebration. I was really impressed by the connection between the school and the families of La Pedrera and the enthusiasm with which the teachers and staff of Casa Xelaju welcomed and fed the crowd of nearly 50 people. It was quite an exciting evening.

Graduation and a Sad Goodbye at La Pedrera
As I mentioned in the last week's posting, I have been working with a group of kids, shooting photos, preparing them for the web and having the students write stories to accompany the photos. The stories are quite different from one another. The story of Heidy, celebrates the blessing of the generations of families. The story of Camilo is a ficional story of a young Guatemalan who dreams of playing professional soccer. The story of Eva and the story of Lilian tell of their experiences in the La Pedrera Project.

So at the end of the week, I presented diplomas to these four students who completed "Level One in Computer Graphics". I don't think they were expecting this so they were quite pleased. I was also pleased to get smiles, handshakes and farewell cards from many of the students. I hope to return to the project in January so that a few more students can get diplomas as well.

On Thursday, we also paid a sad farewell to a long term volunteer Chris Boegner. Before I arrived, Chris and his co-worker Brian were already hard at work on evaluating the computer lab and getting things ready for my arrival. Chris poured his heart into working with the kids. He and Brian played futbol daily with the boys and also counseled them continually on having respect for the girls. Even though he is on a very limited income, he made the decision to provide sponsorship for a la Pedrera student in the coming year. He hopes to make more regular visits to the school in the coming years as Xelaju (and a certain Guatemalan gal) have captured his heart.

Give the Gift of Education
Finally, I want to remind everyone that it is never to late to give the gift of education to a Guatemalan child. In the link below, you will find a PDF file that you can print and send to a friend announcing your gift to La Pedrera as a gift to them. If you are still looking for the perfect gift for a concerned and conscientious friend, donate to La Pedrera now!


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Computer Classes Get Serious

Hi all... Please click on the photos for a larger view.

Computer StudentsWe just finished our first week of serious classes. Up to this time, the students have been helping us with inventory and fixing computers. We had a few lessons on the parts of a computer system and took a couple apart to learn about what’s inside. It has been partly difficult because we don’t always get the same group of students and always difficult because of my weak language skills. On a good day, the students correct my Spanish. On a bad day, they act totally bored, like the day we had our discussion about computer safety and safe internet use. Some of the kids are very savvy and already have MySpace and Hi5 pages.

This week, we came in with a serious plan. First, we selected 6 students who were regulars. We asked the students if they would tell their own stories about la Pedrera project using photographs and text. Then we set them loose with digital cameras. Using their photos, we used GIMP to crop and resize the photos. I had a real difficult time because all the menus were in Spanish, but we managed to finish a lesson on preparing files for Students doing stitchworkthe Web.

I thought some of you might be interested in photos taken by the students to tell their la Pedrera stories. Because school is not currently in session, students are working on manual skills that teach patience and also touch on the Mayan cultural heritage of working with fabric. I am not sure, but the cross-stitch pieces they are working on may also be presents for their family for Navidad. When students return to school in January the main focus will be on homework and school related skills.

Students StitchingOur plan for next week is to bring up a second tier of students to involve them in the “story” project. I was hoping that the more advanced students could help the younger ones. I think we will need to pare down our expectations and may simply bring their photos into MS Word or PowerPoint rather than try to make actual web pages. Some of the more serious ones are already forging ahead with Web pages. When we are done I hope to publish some of the stories on the web, linked to this blog. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

La Pedrera In Action

Hi everyone.

The struggle continues to try and get a wireless signal to the La Pedrera Community Building. We are now on hold while we wait for someone to bring cables and a new amplifier from the U.S.. Still, we are planning to further our computer graphics curriculum with a full project where the kids will make web pages about the la Pedrera project. We have installed shareware software to enhance the curriculum. "GIMP" is a very stripped down of Photoshop-like program and "NVU" is a very basic WYSIWYG Web Editor.

Last Friday I had a great experience with the students from the La Pedrera Project. A group of about 20 students from the project boarded a bus from Casa Xelaju to visit senior citizens at the "Hogar de Ancianitos de Maria Luisa de Marilar". They performed modern and traditional dances, put on a play, and then invited audience members out on the floor to dance. Then they served a delicious home-made pastel (cake) with tea. It was topped of by beautiful speeches from both sides expressing gratitude and joy at being able to be together for a short time.

I was really impressed by the good behavior of the kids, their gracious attitude and the fact that the Project Director, Teresa De Leon is doing such marvelous work with this group of kids, teaching them positive values, combining aspects of traditional Mayan heritage.

Also this week, one of the project volunteers, "Brian" left to return to work in the U.S. . While Brian was very new to the Spanish language, he spoke to the kids with his smile and projected a very positive role model for the kids. He worked very hard on the computer lab, testing computers and helping to clear them of viruses. He also stayed after school every day to play soccer with the neighborhood kids. On his last day, he received several touching letters from some of his young friends at the school.

Also this week, I discovered that there is a Yahoo Group for the La Pedrera Project. You'll I've added a link on the left side of this site. I Also posted a small photo album to the Yahoo La Pedrera Group site:

Enjoy the photos.

Finally, I am uploading a list of computer terms that I created for the La Pedrera kids. You should see the link below.

David Thomas
La Pedrera Volunteer


Monday, December 1, 2008

A Special Thank You!

A special Thank You to my colleagues at MATC from students in the La Pedrera Project

On Thanksgiving day, these students sent a special thanks to friends at MATC for $1000 in donations. These donations will insure that an additional 4 students will be able to attend at the start of the new school year in January.

A special thanks to the following people who donated money or materials for the program:
Anne Steineberg, Ay Moua, Bob Stocki, Diane Kercheck, Dorothy Sciammas, Francine Waldhart, Lucy Betz, Marcia Blackman, Margaret LaSalle, Stan Urbaniak, Susan Retzer and Tony Garza.

We are still seeking donations to the project. There are still close to 30 students in the community without sponsors. Here is a special holiday offer. If you would like to present a donation of $25 or more as a holiday gift to a friend or someone in your family, I will send you a beautiful card depicting hand-woven textiles from Guatemala (See attachment) that you can send to your loved-one.

We reached another milestone this week when we were finally able to establish a (weak but working) internet connection at the La Pedrera project building. Our first action was to try and download updates to the anti-virus software. One of my next lessons is going to be about SAFE internet use. It seems to be a serious problem here.

We had a pretty good week with our advanced students, getting them to assist us in installling software and testing share-ware typing tutors. Finally, we installed a printer in the lab that was generously donated by two volunteers.

Also this week, I attended a community Festival in the nearby town of Zunil. Here are my photos.

This week's report is a bit late because I took the weekend to travel to the rural community of Canton Vela to start hooking up a computer lab. It turns out that the community has the computers but not a secure building in which to keep them. They need to secure the windows and door a little better. They also need to restore electricity. But, using an old router, we cut and made connecting cables for the future computers. My hope is that the presence of the wiring will motivate someone to take the other steps.

If you've never stayed in a rural community where chickens and ducks roam the house along with all the grandchildren, it's pretty interesting. Here are a couple of photos. The first is just some kids and pigs playing where the "paved" road ends to Canton Vela. The second picture shows the community building in the background.

Here are links:
Direct link to the project site:
Link to Casa Xelaju project site:
Link to my Blog for updates:
Link to Photos of Zunil Festival:


David Thomas
Instructor, Visual Communications

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Week Two Report

After my second week of language classes my head seems so full of words, I can't recall even the English word that I'm looking for. Besides my English classes and trying to find time to explore, I am now engaged in several projects, some technical and other human. Everything progresses here poco a poco, little by little.

La Pedrera Wireless Internet.
Much internet access here is via wireless connections. I have been working for an hour or so each day, trying to resolve the internet connection for the La Pedrera project. The Casa Xelaju language institute has a rooftop antenna where they are attempting to broadcast a wireless signal to the La Pedrera community building about ½ a mile away. (Photo - You can see the antenna on the roof). We met with some success early in the week when we were able to get the wireless equipment working on both ends. Still the signal doesn't quite reach, though we are assured that at one time it did.

La Pedrera Computer Lab.
With help from two other volunteers we have managed to clean up most of the virus laden computers and connect them to a common file server. We still have two printers that do not work. One is so old we cannot find drivers and the other is out of ink and the heads potentially dried out. I may use a small part of the donated funds for a printer so that students can take samples of their work home. Already I decided to invest $30 of your donations for a white-board and markers for the computer lab. A good printer and supplies
would cost us $50-60.

Other projects.
My skills are much in demand here and I've agreed to travel to the nearby village of Canton Vela on a weekend to help set up a community computer center. I was also offered volunteer opportunities at a school near Antigua Guatemala where ex-Peace Corp volunteers are engaged in local development projects. I will probably have to decline that invitation but hope to visit them in January. I was also asked to help update the Casa Xelaju La Pedrera pages. Due to non-profit rules protecting the privacy and security of children, we have to remove information that would identify the children by last name. I've been updating these pages to remove that information. The information about the students in the program is also badly outdated so our long-term goal is to work with the project coordinator to collect new photos and update the pages. Along those lines, I inquired to the project director if donors who take on full sponsorship can correspond with children whom they sponsor. They can, but due to privacy protections any correspondence would have to go through the project director. If you would like to correspond with children in the program, contact the project coordinator, Teresa De Leon at

Teaching at La Pedrera community center.
Though I don't feel ready, I was pressured by other volunteers to start teaching at the project. I asked if we could start working with a small group of 3-5 of the more experienced kids. I hope to enlist them as team leaders so that when we take in a larger group of students we can rely on student team leaders to assist with those less experienced. So on Wednesday, we started working with three students. On the first day I tried to engage them in a discussion about the parts internal to the computer and about input and output devices. It was interesting and I had prepared my vocabulary on the new whiteboard. On Thursday, we passed out digital cameras to the kids and showed them how to put their own photos on their desktops. With a little time remaining, I decided to give them a quick demo on some of the features of Photoshop. They thought it was pretty funny that I could quickly move the face of one student to the head of another. Still the biggest obstacle is the language. We have one volunteer whose skills are only slightly more advanced and another volunteer who is very quick with a Spanish-English dictionary. Next week we hope to take things a bit further. Possibly by the 3rd week, we will be ready to take in a larger group. My hope before I leave is that we'll have the Internet working and they can make their own web pages.

In closing, I thought I would share another little sound-clip. This is a song titled "Bonito" by the group Jarabe De Palo. It's a song my teacher gave me to introduce vocabulary. It's more or less the Spanish version of "Everything is Beautiful". One really beautiful thing is that MATC associates, with a matching donor, now are very close to $1000 in contributions for el Proyecto la Pedrera. I hope to have a ceremony to mark the occasion and pass the contributions to the school.

Hasta Luego, David


Saturday, November 15, 2008

The First Week.

A week in a strange place seems like a month. Every experience is unique and new, truly an adventure. The bus up into the mountains and meeting my host family was exhausting and full of little stories. But, I'll stick to a few highlights.

My host family is pretty wonderful and really makes an effort to engage me in family activities and conversations. Already they've invited me to a family birthday and a soccer game. Sandra and Sergio Catalan have three boys 12, 16 and 19. They enjoy sitting in the kitchen talking and laughing together until early in the morning. Thanks to ear plugs and and a very busy schedule I've had no problem sleeping through all the noise, morning roosters and dogs.

As planned, my first week has been very focused on getting my language skills up to speed so I can start contributing to "el Proyecto la Pedrera", the project to assist children in the community outside the town. With my use of the language I have a lot of bad habits to break. My personal demons are trying to coin everything in present tense and making up words when I don't know the right ones. Adding -ar to English verbs when I don't know the right one just gets me into trouble. On the other hand, people here seem to have a lot of patience, correcting me and helping me to get through. But I'd like to keep the focus of this site on La Pedrera.

Some background on the project: The language institute, Casa Xelaju, has been building this program for about 15 years. They provide sponsorship so that students can attend school. The public schools are "free" but provide only a desk and a teacher. the student's families must purchase uniforms, books and school supplies as well as pay fees for class materials. In impoverished areas, many parents cannot afford even this basic part. As a result, kids often do not attend school and are put to work in the family business, selling things on the street or even possibly working in sweatshops. El Proyecto La Pedrera provides all of these things and more. Students who are sponsored also attend an afternoon program where they get supplemental math and reading instruction as well as other skills when there are volunteers to teach them. Students who are not sponsored are also able to attend. The program also provides a snack, vitamins when available, and support for good hygiene practices. As part of the support provided by MATC staff and faculty, I was able to bring about a months supply of vitamins as well as toothbrushes and toothpaste for every child.

On my first day at Casa Xelaju, Sandra, the Institute's volunteer director filled me in on some of the details. There are currently 3 other students working with the la Pedrera community. Morgan is working teaching literacy 1-on-1 with an older woman. Brian and Chris are two energetic young men who have started a computer inventory and are getting the lab ready for our students. They are also taking time to play soccer with the kids and get to know them better. For example, they had a talk with the boys about behavior and the need to show respect towards women. Teresa de Leon is the tireless full-time teacher in the program.

Though I had originally planned to spend the first week exclusively on my own language skills, I was prodded and went up to the community on Wednesday and Thursday to meet Teresa, see the facility and look over the computer lab. I really only got a cursory look. There are about 20 computers of various types, sizes and operating systems. There has been an attempt to connect the computer to a wireless internet connection but without success. There will be many more details to come. On Thursday and Friday, I coaxed my teacher into helping get a handle on basic camera and computer terms, as well as finding additional learning materials.
I did manage one purely cultural excursion one afternoon. I went into the central market to explore see what was there. I thought this little family playing in the street was typical of joyful experiences you can find on the street in unexpected places. I purchased their CD for about $2.50 and they allowed me to take this photo for you. If I can manage to upload the sound clip, you'll get the full experience.
Hasta Luego,


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Welcome and Intro

Hi and welcome to the blog for my 2008 Guatemala trip. I am traveling to attend language school in Quetzaltenango (place of the Quetzal). Located in the central highlands, it is known for it's traditional connections to the ancient Mayan culture. Its traditional name is Xelaju (Pronounced "Shay-la-hoo'), or just Xela for short.

The language institute I am attending, Casa Xelaju, has adopted a poor Mayan barrio on a rocky outcrop on the edge of town, known as La Pedrera. This gives visiting students an opportunity to participate in community service as part of their language training.

While reserving my stay at the school, I asked them for assistance in arranging some occupational experience in my field of multimedia and Web design. They suggested that I work in the school at La Pedrera, sharing my skills with those students. My experience in 3rd world travel, tells me that I am going to encounter very severe poverty, with its related lack of education and health care. When I asked what I might bring to assist there, the suggestions were basic school supplies, vitamins and toothbrushes.

The fact is, that there is a fairly well established "La Pedrera School Project" to support the school. The project recently gained non-profit status to aid it in raising sponsorship for students at the school. In 1995, they were able to raise funds for 45 students to attend the school. the unfortunate side is that there are currently 36 children without sponsors. This would be a good time to click the "donate" button and start helping to sponsor a child at La Pedrera

This site will keep you up to date on my travel and the status of our efforts to support the school at La Pedrera. If you want to subscribe to updates or find out how to contribute to sponsor students at the school, please send me email to


David Thomas

[photo is from my1991 trip to Quetzaltenango and an early morning climb to watch the sun rise atop El Volcan Santa Maria]

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