Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Place of Hope and Love

Tulum was a dream, but I'd like to skip ahead 5 months to real life in El Salvador. I just kind of, maybe, sort of, somewhat bypassed a few stories and experiences between Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. I hope to touch on a few of them at some point in the future.

Situated on a steep hill overlooking the dirty and sprawling city of San Salvador sits a giant concrete house. This is not just any house, though. It is a place like few others in Central America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It is a place of second chances. It is a refuge for orphaned, abused, abandoned, underprivileged, disabled, and neglected children. Founded on Biblical principles and overflowing with the love of God, it's a place where lives are changed. It is a house full of hope and love, it's walls cannot contain the smiles or the laughter. It's not just a house, it's a home. And it is properly named Love and Hope Children's Home.

Irene, Eric, and I

I had no intention or plan of coming here because I didn't even know it existed. However, a good friend back home (thanks Matthew, you're awesome) mentioned that he had a good friend (thanks Eric, you're awesome too) who was working at an orphanage somewhere in El Salvador. Four days later I found myself in the midst of organized chaos. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was the smiles and laughter of the children. I immediately knew that this was a house full of joy. And the more time I spent there only confirmed my initial impressions. The children of Love and Hope truly are happy. Regardless of where they came from, they now have a family and a place to call home.

Dinner time!

It is the people who run Love and Hope that have created such a nurturing environment. Not only do the administration keep the machine running, but they also spend almost all their spare time loving on the kids. They are extremely involved on all levels. There are a few paid Salvadorian employees called 'Tias' and 'Tios' (Aunts and Uncles) who live with the kids 24 hours a day. They are able to attend to any needs, come what may, day or night. In addition, there are also a number of volunteers that spend their days playing, hanging out, and working with the kids as well as helping out wherever needed (many hours are spent driving the kids to and from school and other extracurricular activities).

The staff is very important, but the heart and soul of the entire operation, the glue that holds it all together, is Rachel, the house mom. Rachel is an amazing woman, and let me tell you why. Rachel started coming down to San Salvador on yearly mission trips with her local church when she was 14. Before she graduated high school, she knew her heart was to help the children of El Salvador. Shortly after graduating, she moved to San Salvador and started the children's home. She gave up everything (or what many of us might consider everything) and moved to San Salvador (not exactly my city of choice) to follow the voice, the calling, the passion deep within her heart. And not only did she follow her heart, but she has, without a doubt, changed the lives numerous children who would have otherwise never had such a chance. I tried to talk with her a number of times, but we never actually finished a conversation because she was constantly tending to the children she loves so dearly, and that's cool.

Broken pipe + torrential rains = massive sink hole

Back when it all began, it was just a small house with very limited resources and funding. But that didn't matter because there were children to help, there were needs to meet. As the years went on, the house grew as did the support coming in from her home community. A few years ago, they were able sell the old house and move in to the mansion (I use that term very loosely) on the mountain. There were only 4 children when she started the home. They now comfortably house 17 kids, but have had up to 28 at one time! Some have been with her from the beginning, others have shown up recently. Every single one of them has a story to tell. In my short time at the house I was not able to hear all of their stories or get to know many them on a more personal level. However, I did connect with a few kids and I would like to share a little bit about them.

Brenda is one of older girls and she has been with the home for 8 years. She is not the oldest, but is definitely looked up to and respected by the others. I was immediately stuck by how smart and mature she is. I felt like we related from the beginning because she could carry on a real and honest conversation, something difficult for many 12 year olds. She was just so easy to talk to while some of the other teenagers expressed little interest in talking to me. I guess that's life, one connects with some and will forever be distant from others. Or maybe my red beard scared them off? Who knows... As with many of the kids in the house, she speaks excellent English. I was hoping for a private Spanish lesson, but we never got around to it. One day, she asked about my middle name, Rand, which to her sounded like rana or 'frog' in Spanish. From that day on, she called me Mr. Froggy. Brenda is one of those I simply enjoyed being around. She is a kind soul with a great energy about her. I am thankful I got to know her and I wish her the very best for the future. I get the feeling that she will be successful in whatever she does and I hope to hear great stories about her one day.

Kevincito, literally “Little Kevin,” is one of the smallest 8 year olds in the world. His weight fluctuates somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds! He is tiny and very fragile. His arms are approximately 1 inch in diameter, his legs almost 1.5. He can hold up his head on his own, but only for a short time. The only noises I heard him make were the occasional grunts when he is not happy. He also grinds his teeth often, a very uncomfortable sound to me. He requires around the clock care, for he is not able to function on his own. Kevincito suffers from cerebral palsy, in the most severe degree.

I spent some time observing the little guy, and I tried to imagine what was going through his head. What did he think? What did he feel? How did he see the world? I tried to put myself in his situation. What would it be like not being able to communicate with the rest of the world? Being completely dependent on those around you? Not being able to walk? Even able to hold up my own head? I tried and tried and tried, and I never could quite put myself in his tiny, little shoes. All that said, he is still a part of this wonderful family. There is a family in the States who is trying to adopt him, but the paperwork is taking forever (standard for all of Central America). The hope is that Kevincito will be able to move north within the next year, fingers crossed.

Ahhh, yes, and there's Tonio. Tonio is another 8 year old boy who suffers from cerebral palsy, but his is not as severe as Kevincito. At first, I was very hesitant to interact with him because he was different than the rest of the kids. I had never been around special needs children before, especially those with CP. What do I do? What do I say? How do I act? I need to treat him different than the other kids, right? Those are just a few of the thoughts that passed through my mind as a result of my ignorance and lack of experience. The answer is simple, just be yourself and treat them like the others. True, they may need a little more patience and understanding and special needs, but they're just kids. There is no question that Tonio is different than the others, but he doesn't let this slow him down. He has trouble walking because his legs are malformed and they just don't to want to work properly. However, his upper body is incredibly strong and he goes wherever he wants with determination (and crutches). Mentally, he is also in a different place than the others. However, he is still very sharp and observant. He is passionate about music, he loves to listen as well as sing. He always has a smile on his face, and he emits a certain joy and peace I felt when I was near him.

I can't help but smile when I see that toothless grin :)
Tonio is also a clever little monkey. One evening during dinner, one of the young boys (who I named “The Biter,” never did actually learn his name...) started to chew on my shirt and eventually bit a hole in the back of it. I was a bit perturbed because it was one of those old shirts that is so soft and comfortable from many years of use. Anyway, after dealing with said The Biter, I had resumed to my eating of beans and rice when I noticed that Tonio was listening to music on an iPhone. I thought it was quite strange that Tonio had an iPhone. Where the heck did he get an iPhone? Suddenly it struck me that it was not his, it was mine. Apparently, as I was being attacked by Snaggletooth, Tonio had pick pocketed my iPhone from my shorts and figured out how to open my music library. Side note: no cell phone is safe in this house, from even the sweetest and kindest of the kids. If they want to play games on your phone, they will find a way. Almost every time Tonio and I hung out in the days that followed, he begged to listen to the music on my phone. I was going to post on Facebook that I had my iPhone pick pocketed by an 8 year old child with cerebral palsy, but some might find that a bit insensitive. I think it's hilarious. The point is that Tonio is a very special kid who has a lot of potential. He needs a lot of love and guidance, but that is exactly what he's getting. I never expected this, but in just a few short days, he worked his way into my heart and I can't help but smile when I think of him. I sure do miss that little man.

Hauling sand to fill in the giant sink hole.

There are a number of others that I only got to know briefly. Chamba, unfortunately, is suspected of having fetal alcohol syndrome. He is intellectually very different than the others and needs a bit more supervision than the rest, for he is 100% energy, 100% of the time. But he's a good guy. He is a extremely musical, excellent at keeping the beat. I think it would be great if he ended up in a band one day. Ali is the smallest 8 year old girl I've ever seen, but she has more spunk, fire, and attitude than anyone twice her size. She will be a force to be reckoned with when she grows up. Don't even think of messing with her favorite umbrella or she will mess you up! At the age of 3, Cheyo is always on the move, always doing something, always off in his own little world, and often getting into some kind of trouble. For some reason I really liked the little guy, maybe it's because he reminded me of myself when I was younger. Leo is one of the teenage girls, but has more courage than most twice her age. Recently, she stood in front of an intimidating committee at child services and passionately explained that she did not want to return to the custody of her parents. She loves her life at Love and Hope and does not want to leave. At the home she has a family and a promising future, at her parents house she has neither. That takes strength and courage, and I wish her the very best. Irene is a sweetheart who is deathly afraid of dogs. Kevin is the older brother who many look up to and appears to be filling those shoes quite well. There are so many more kids, each one a very special and unique person with their own story to tell, and they each have a very promising future awaiting them.  

Little Cheyo up top

If you would like to get to know more about Love and Hope Children's Home, they have an excellent website: You may be asking, 'What can I do to help?' Their greatest need right now is financial support. As you may know, many large NGO's put 25-50% of donations toward administrative and advertizing costs. At Love and Hope, however, all of the money goes to meet the needs of the kids and keep the house running. The greatest expenses are the salaries of the employees (only the Tias and Tios and security guards), food, rent, utilities, and gasoline. I can imagine it takes a lot of funds to keep this machine running. If you are willing and able, you can even sponsor a child. This Christmas, rather than spending your money on material things for friends and family, you may consider donating to an organization such as this in honor of your loved ones. Donations can be made directly on the website via PayPal, all are tax deductible.

For those of you interested in making a more direct impact on the lives of the kids, you may consider coming down to El Salvador to volunteer. They accept short term volunteers such as myself, but they prefer a commitment of 3 months or more. This increases the involvement in the home and lets one get to know the kids on a much more personal level. Long term volunteers are also able to fill specific needs, such as a driving the kids to and fro. Teams are especially welcomed. Say you are a junior or senior in high school (or anyone else for that matter) who has never left the comforts of home and is looking for something special to do next summer, you should think about coming down for a few months. Not only would it be an eye-opening experience filled with culture shock and lots of Spanish, but it may also plant a seed in your heart, or even better, change your life forever. You may come with intentions of touching the lives of the children, but don't be surprised if you are the one who goes away a changed person.

I cannot say enough good things about this place. The time I spent there was too short, but it truly made and impact on me. I feel blessed and fortunate to have met so many great kids and volunteers and I am excited for each and every one of them.

Love and Hope is truly a place of hope and love!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tulum, Mexico

(May of 2011)

To the north


The Mayan Ruins of Tulum, worth the day trip.

Words cannot describe...

Oh, how I miss you!

To the south

Tulum is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Please take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine that you are in a Corona commercial. You are relaxing in a hammock under the shade of a palm tree, gorgeous beaches stretching in either direction, the soft, white sand still sticking between your toes, the most beautiful emerald green to deep blue water glimmers in front of you, the sound of waves lapping at the shore is music to your ears, a gentle sea breeze blows across your face, sea birds soar overhead, and, of course, there is a cold Corona with lime in hand... Yeah, life is pretty darn good.

I spent my first day walking the beaches of Tulum, taking in all the goodness and feeling as if I were in a Corona commercial. Late afternoon, I leisurely approached a beachfront restaurant to get an ice cream and guess who I bumped into, my favorite Swiss couple from Glover's resort! I knew they were in the area, but didn't expect to see them there. Of course, we picked up right where we left off in Belize. This included, but is not limited to the following: playing cards, talking about life, eating good food, taking naps, reading, playing some more cards, drinking rum drinks, enjoying the sun, walking along the know, doing what we do best. 

Tim, Steph, and I

Where many cards were played.

As wonderful as it was, I was a bit beached out after a few days. Sadly, we said out goodbyes again and I proceeded north to Playa del Carmen and then on to Cancun, neither of which did I enjoy in the least bit. They are over build, over priced, over Americanized, and over rated. Take my advice and don't bother with either.

On a return trip through Tulum, I stopped off at Dos Ojos for my first cenote scuba dive. Cenotes are giant sinkholes formed by collapsed limestone bedrock and are often filled with fresh water. The Yucatan peninsula is riddled with cenotes, many of which are interconnected by underground cave systems. I did 2 dives with Hidden Worlds dive center.  It was a bit pricy, but one of the coolest things I've done on this trip. Although I was never more than 50m from surface air, I felt like I was diving in a cave. It was such an amazing experience. There are so few places in the world to do this, so I would highly recommend making the effort to go cenote diving if you find yourself in the Yucatan.

Gran Cenote, Tulum

Ok, that's enough of me. Enjoy the photos and go to Tulum!

Sunset from my bungalow

The beach at the Mayan ruins


Monday, October 3, 2011

Belize some more of it!

(May of 2011)

Well, I had written the original version of this post and had it ready for the blog well over a month ago, but somehow I misplaced the thumb drive and lost everything. I know, I should have backed it up somewhere, stupid me. Sometimes one must learn the hard way. So here it is, the second, delayed, and abridged version:

The Hopkins Humane Society

The blood and guts didn't bother this owner.
While in Hopkins I also had the opportunity to play doctor again. Thanks to a few animal-loving foreigners who now reside in Hopkins, there is an excellent humane society at the end of town where the gravel roads meet. I was pleasantly surprised the first time I walked in the doors. The clinic is small, but it is probably one of the best equipped clinics in all of Central America. There is a significant amount of foreign funding, but the key to the success of the clinic is the people who run it. These are people who have dedicated so much of their time, money, heart, and collaboration to help the animals of Hopkins. I met a number of great folks who each do their part to keep the machine running. I must say a very special thank you to Nancy and Les and Micheal. You guys are awesome! I cannot thank you enough for your kindness and hospitality. They also have a local Belizean named Joe who is an essential connection to the villagers. Whenever someone has a problem or concern with an animal, they just call Joe. The locals trust Joe and he makes sure each animal gets the care it needs. The great thing is that the clinic is run solely on donations, so the people give whatever they can to help. This enables so many who cannot even afford health care for their children the opportunity to provide basic care to their animals. 

My surgery suite.
Surgery prep, treatment and
everything else.
Each week, I would take a day off from the dive shop and help out at the clinic. Not only was it a pleasant change to be out of the water for a day, but it was nice to get my hands dirty again. I would do surgeries in the morning, then see walk-ins in the afternoon. I saw some cool stuff I rarely see in the States, I especially loved the tropical parasitology. One of my favorite things to do was extract bot fly larvae. These cute, wiggly, and sometimes not-so-little guys bury under the skin of their host to set up camp until they grow to maturity. When the time is right, they wiggle their way out of their breathing hole in the skin and fall to the ground to continue their life cycle. Most bot flies don't do much damage in domestic animals, but they aren't very aesthetically pleasing. The most I found on one dog was 20+. Heck, I even squeezed one out of the chest of some Canadian guy at a restaurant! Deep down inside, I kind of wanted to have my own little bot fly larva, maybe in an arm or leg or somewhere on my back. You know, a little friend to join me in my travels. However, even after all my time in Central America, I have not been fortunate enough to acquire said friend. I guess some are more fortunate than others.
Bot fly larva I extracted, about
the size of a quarter.

It has taken a few years of hard work and education, but the people of Hopkins are now starting to take responsibility for the local cats and dogs. The children especially are discovering the joy that comes with having a pet. The village used to be riddled with strays wandering the streets. It is now fairly uncommon to see a homeless street dog scrounging for food. Those who have been there for a number of years told me that the overall health, image, and well-being of the village has improved drastically since the humane society began it's work. This is one of the few examples I have seen where a small group of people are changing a place for the better by helping the local animals. It takes a lot of time, effort, money, passion, and hard work to make a change like this, but it's encouraging to know that it can be done.

That's Joe, prepping a dog for surgery.

I can honestly say that it was a pleasure to be a part of this good work. Not only do I feel like I helped out a few of our furry, four-legged friends, but I also met some great clients. One of these clients runs a resort on an island just off the coast of Belize. After taking care of her dogs, she kindly invited me to come hang out on the island for the week. Seriously, how could anyone say no to that?

Glover's Atoll from afar

The water was SOOOO amazingly blue!
After a 3 hour boat ride, I found myself at Glover's Reef Resort.  If you are looking for a tropical getaway that won't break the bank (as will almost every other resort in Belize), I would definitely recommend this place. Don't expect all the amenities of a fancy resort. Accommodations are basic, even a bit rustic, but they are quite comfortable.

My bungalow with 2 hammocks!

I highly recommend the bungalows over the ocean. There is nothing quite like waking up in the morning and watching the sunrise from your deck. If you're too lazy to get out of bed and walk the 5 steps to your deck, you can even stay in bed and watch the sunrise through the open doors. Once you do crawl out of bed, there is a long list of things to do. You can go deep sea fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving, or you can do nothing more than kick back in a hammock for hours upon hours. The diving is actually quite spectacular just off the atoll (much better than most of the dive sites that Hamanasi would visit, and at a fraction of the cost). What I'm trying to say is that there is plenty to do on the island, don't worry about that.

Epic sunrise from my deck.

Tim, Steph, and I
I met a number of interesting folk on the island. My favorite was a young couple from Switzerland, Tim and Steph. They were on a trip similar to myself, but needed a week of intense beach time. We got along great from the start and actually ended up spending a lot of time playing cards, cooking, talking about the mysteries of life, and simply hanging out. Many rum drinks were enjoyed in their presence, for rum drinks taste better on the beach when one is with cool people. Tim and I even went on a night snorkel adventure (which I highly recommend). They were just so darn cool. Miss them I do.

It'th a thea thtar.

Glover's from the boat.
There were a few other couples on the island, but the group that really stands out was 10 young men from the East Coast of the US. They came to Glovers to partake in a bachelor party of most epic proportions, and that is exactly what they did. How cool of an idea is this: take a week off of work and travel to a secluded tropical island with your brothers and closest friends to celebrate the final days of singleness! I would love to partake in such a trip for my bachelor party. In the beginning, they were extremely exclusive, but by mid-week they had included the Swiss and I in the celebrations.

I like fire, a lot.


They came down to party, and party they did. You would think 20 cases of beer would be a bit excessive, but it only works out to about 3 beers a person per day. What was impressive was the volume of vodka, 'magic' mushrooms, home-made 'magic' mushroom vodka, and the 1.5 gallon bucket of pot packed to the brim. There was rarely a dull moment on their end of the island. Crazy guys + secluded island + lots of fishing + good weather + a bit of alcohol + illicit substances + fire dancing + music = epic bachelor party. All factors added up to an unforgettable week which got better as the week went on. What I enjoyed the most were the fire shows. Every night, Darin (a member of the bachelor party) would put on an incredible fire show. He was of the very musical and creative type, and he was one of the best fire dancers I have ever seen. The best show was the night we heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed and disposed of. Darin started off by whispering “Obama got Osama, Obama got Osama” as he danced around the fire. Soon enough, this crescendoed into everyone screaming “OBAMA GOT OSAMA!!! OBAMA GOT OSAMA!!!” at the top of their lungs while wildly making noise with a bunch of random musical instruments. While all this was happening, Darin twirled his flaming baton at incredible speeds, repeatedly throwing it 20-30 feet in the air and catching it while continuing his crazy fire dance. It was awesomeness.

Hermit crabs everywhere!
Sadly, all good things must come to an end and the week was soon over. Tim, Steph, and I had such a good time on the island that we decided to stick around for another week. It was very sad to see the bachelor party leave that last morning (most of whom were completely wasted and hung over. What better way to travel hung over than on a boat, eh?). However, we were hopeful we'd meet some cool new people the following week. Au contraire! We quickly discovered that the group of newcomers were not at all pleasant to be around. Many fit into the category of 'not cool' and there were even a few that classified as 'douche bags'. We were thoroughly disappointed, so we spent most of our time at Tim and Steph's place and played cards and talked life and read books and played cards and snorkeled and played more cards and drank rum drinks on the beach. Those were very difficult times, but at least we had each other.

So hard to say goodbye to such
wonderful people.
It's amazing how fast time flew on the island. Two weeks of doing nothing went by so fast, but I was ready to leave the island by the end. After we said our goodbyes, Tim and Steph headed for Guatemala while I spent a few days wrapping things up in Hopkins. I soon found myself on a chicken bus headed for the Mexican border, and that concludes my time in Belize.

Did some more lion fish spearing, I just couldn't get enough.
Belize is beautiful and amazing. If you are searching for spectacular beaches or wild jungle, Belize may be your place. The problem is that Belize is so darn expensive. The bulk of the tourist industry comes down for a week or two to relax at the over-abundance of all-inclusive resorts. They are amazing and wonderful and beautiful and spectaculr, but insanely expensive. There is very little for the budget traveler. I feel like I was able to enjoy some of the best of Belize has to offer on a backpacker's budget, but it took a lot of work and few strokes of good luck. I'm glad I saw the country, but have no plans on going back anytime soon. Since leaving Belize, I have found breathtakingly beautiful beaches with better diving, better food, and more cultural diversity at a fraction of the cost. In my opinion, Belize is nice, but overrated. You, however, may have a different experience. You won't know until you go!