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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Holyoak

Christmas in Sepamac

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

I've always loved the quote, "service is the rent you pay for living in this world." During the past twenty years, our family has participated in many humanitarian trips around the world. One that was especially meaningful was during Christmas vacation. At the time, we had two college-aged daughters who were anxious to participate with Choice Humanitarian for a trip to Guatemala. That year we didn't put up a Christmas tree or buy presents because all our funds and efforts were focused on helping the people of Guatemala. Our good friends, the Steenbliks, along with a few other volunteers, joined in the adventure and for the next couple of weeks we offered free dentistry, conducted women's education classes, planted gardens, built stoves with vents, worked on building a school and experienced life in a third-world country.

We flew into Guatemala City loaded with bags stuffed to the hilt with dental equipment, seeds to plant, items to distribute and supplemental food to use during our stay.

Guatemala City (the capital of Guatemala) is located in the south-central part of the country nestled in the Hermitage Valley. As of 2019, the population was about one million.

Landing in Guatemala City.

Guatemala City is the site of the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu, founded around 1500 BC. During the Guatemalan Civil War, terror attacks began with the burning of the Spanish Embassy and in 1980 led to massive destruction and loss of life in the city. In May 2010, two disasters struck: the eruption of the Pacaya volcano and then two days later the Tropical Storm, Agatha.

The cart barely held all our bags.

We arrived Christmas Eve and had a short time to explore the town center before embarking the bus to Sepamac, the remote village where we would be working. Music from street musicians filled the air along with the scent of barbecues and traditional food for sale by vendors. A large Christmas tree and nativity were also on display. It was an evening of excitement and we were excited about what we were yet to experience.

Candied apples, corn on the cob, pork sausages along with red chicken and pork tamales were for sale. This was certainly a Christmas Eve we would never forget!

Looking at this photo, I can almost smell the meat on the grill.

With great anticipation, we boarded the bus and were told it would take twelve hours to reach our destination. As we drove out of the city, the lights soon faded and it became dark due to a power outage. The two-laned paved highway became a single unpaved road full of pot holes. As we continued to climb in elevation, the roads were getting windy so I knew I'd better get my meclazine out for motion sickness and a good thing I did because some passengers started throwing up out the bus windows.

By the time we arrived at Sepamac, an elevation of 11,000 feet, we were exhausted! It was midnight and heavy rain had been falling. As we stepped off the bus, we were greeted by some very happy natives who had been waiting all day for us to arrive. (How I wish I had a photo of their smiles!) They were eager to help us and immediately began assisting us with our luggage. Our bags were heavy and cumbersome but the men were strong. A small jeep was loaded with the larger duffle bags and the natives placed the other bags on their heads as they guided us down a dark and rocky mud path. We couldn't see where to step and our small flashlights weren't much help. However, our biggest challenge was walking down the steep path as we slid in mud up to our ankles. It took about 30+ minutes to walk to the place where we would be staying.

In the distance, we could hear drums and marimba music and before we knew it, we were at the base of a jungle. By now it was early morning but despite the time, adults and children were waiting and making music to welcome us. Some of us also joined in to dance with the natives to show them our appreciation for their wonderful welcome.

After about an hour of music and dancing, we were taken to an old abandoned coffee plantation factory that had once been occupied by the Germans during the war. We had permission to sleep there but the natives were only alowed to go inside to help us get settled. (The building, called a finka, now belongs to the refugees of Guatamala.) With only small flashlights, we attempted to clear cobwebs and sweep a layer of thick dust and debris to clean an area big enough to put down a plastic tarp, sleeping bags and mosquito nets to sleep for the night. We literally dropped from exhaustion as we crawled into our sleeping bags.

Exhausted! Zzzzzzzzzz . . .

A few chose to sleep on the porch outside the finka and the next morning we were awakened at 4 AM by the crowing of roosters! Wild turkeys roamed the area and I was lucky to snap this photo as they perched on a branch.

A company of turkeys and a rooster alarm clock!!

As we looked out the unpaned windows, we realized we were surrounded by the most amazing jungle!

Sleeping in an abandoned coffee plantation building in sleeping bags under mosquito nets made us really appreciate our modern day conveniences at home.

The red roofed large building was the finka where we stayed.

With no electricity or running water and no bathrooms, we really learned how to rough it. It was a great learning experience for our teenage children. We learned to pee in a cup, use a candle for our only source of light and go to bed early because there was nothing else to do.

The Holyoak girls and Steenblik kids.

A typical family dwelling

After a quick breakfast of dried cereal and granola bars we brought from home, the Holyoak and Steenblik kids ventured out to explore the area. The scenery was breathtaking beautiful and we were in such a remote area I thought it would have been impossible to find us if we had become lost. Looking back, we were so trusting. Our expedition could have been hijacked and after the fact, we better understood why our bus was escorted to Sepamac by police. (It's a good thing we didn't know that a bus had been previously attacked by gorilla bandits where people were forced out of the bus, robbed, and made to lie down in the jungle.)

Holyoak and Steenblik kids.

The jungle was dense and you couldn't see the huts until you were right upon them.

A typical hut where a family would live. Wild turkeys were everywhere.

Families lived together in one room huts with dirt floors covered with woven mats. The room was just big enough to accomodate to sleep and a place to store dried cobs of corn, their staple food. Some bigger huts had a makeshift stove but with no ventilation it was very unhealthy.

Photo below: This woman had made some corn cakes, similar to tortillas. Because corn and beans were their main staples, they had many health problems as they lacked nutrients in their diets to combat disease. The focus of our trip was to help educate the Mayans about achieving better diets, planting gardens with the seeds we had brought and building stoves with proper ventilation.

Getting water from a make shift fountain.
The fabric of the girl's skirt indicates the village where she lives. She carries a jug of water on her head.

Photo below: These women were doing laundry at a water hole. They rubbed their clothes on the rocks then hung them to dry on the branches of trees and bushes.

After a little exploring, it was time to get started setting up shop for dentistry on the lower level of the finka. Others in our group were assigned specific jobs and everyone focused on the needs of the natives in the area.

When natives heard we were offering free dental care, they came on foot from surrounding villages. Garth had a portable dental unit so he could provide some basic dental needs and a lawn chair for them to sit on and lean back. We gasped when we saw dozens of people lined up outside by 8 AM. They had never been to a dentist and some of their teeth were literally flapping in the breeze!

We needed interpreters for two languages (Spanish and Ki'che) so we could make charts and dental records. Ki'che, a different dialect spoken by natives in the central highlands, was the language spoken in this area. The main language in Guatemala is Spanish and there are twenty-one Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala.

Say, "Ahhhh".
Floss the teeth you want to keep!

The natives didn't have toothbrushes and with such poor hygiene, their teeth were literally falling out of their mouths. It was sad and some only have a few teeth left. Most of the dental work consisted of pulling out rotten teeth.

We distributed toothbrushes and tried to explain the importance of daily brushing, but the next day found them lying all over the ground as they had dropped or thrown them away. So sad but true!

Prospective patients lined up for dental care.
Women were identified by the pattern of their woven skirts as each village had a different color and design.

The natives were so curious and always watching us. I took this photo when I was inside the finka.

Good thing I was already dressed!

Above: Karisa helped to build a school. With only a few days to work, it could not be completed before we left. However, future Choice trips took place and eventually it was completed and still stands to this day.

Photo below: Keri trained natives about health care, how to make sutures on chicken skin and how to give shots and immunizations.

Classes were held to train women about better hygiene and birth control. It was shocking to see young girls at the age of eleven toting around their own babies when they should be enjoying life as a child and not a mother. Life was hard in the jungle and it really opened the eyes of our daughters.

Classes were taught about the importance of proper nutrition. They didn't realize that the lack of nutrients in food could cause stunting, rickets and scurvy.

Guatemala has the third-highest rate of stunting or chronic malnutrition. About 50% of all Guatemalan children are under-nourished and up to 70% are in rural, indigenous areas.

Because corn is one of their main food staples, they lacked vitamins C & D. Children need vitamin D to absorb calcium and phosphorus from food and when they don't get enough, they get rickets. Planting gardens would certainly help them have more balanced diets.

Other micronutrient deficiencies were common such as deficiency in iodine because families didn't use iodized salt. Living in a third-world country and in such an isolated area of the jungle, they didn't know any better. There was so much to teach them and not nearly the time to help them understand, but we did the best we could under the circumstances. Like my mother would say, "You can't eat the elephant in one bite!"

Planting gardens

With no education, the illiterate natives were taught to write their names. This gave them a sense of pride and they beamed with excitement.

Judy Steenblik took a globe to help them understand where we lived in relationship to the United States.

One evening we had a talent show and all of the Choice volunteers participated. I took aluminum pipes cut to play tones of the scale and natives enjoyed experimenting. Language was a huge barrier but we did our best to communicate in other ways.

On New Year's day, Mayan dancers came to peform their traditional dance which represented the struggle between good and evil. Dancers acted out the story which literally took all day. After about 8 hours, we were all ready for the music to stop!

Proud father with his daughter.

We celebrated in many ways with the natives for New Years. We had a fish pond where they fished for trinkets and candy. When we ran out of items, we gave away some folding stools and natives ran off screaming with excitement. Our daughters and other teenage volunteers painted the fingernails of young girls; we popped corn to share, blew up ballons to make animals and spent the entire day celebrating with them.

If you would like to watch a 45 second Youtube video, click the photo above to see then ancestral dance of the Maya.

This adorable young boy was positioned on the wall overlooking the Mayan dancers and I couldn't resist getting out my camea.

Dr. Garth watches from the balcony of the finka. Dozens of natives came from surrounding areas to watch.
Attorney Gerrit Steenblik was intriqued by the event.

I have described the services the Choice volunteers offered but I haven't yet mentioned anything about the food. That was an experience in itself! First of all, keep in mind the natives live off the land. Their diet consists mainly of ground corn made into flat cakes, beans, rice, fruit, chilies and wild game. Banana trees grow in abundance as well as mangos, papaya, pineapple and rambutan. Wild turkeys and chickens fly in and out of the trees and perch on the branches, probably worried about being captured for the next meal. They used no milk nor red meat but periodically slaughterd a pig for a celebration.

The girls were peeling potatoes to put in some soup. Walfred (in the yellow apron) was the head chef who organized and took over most of the meals. She and her husband, Javier, lived in Guatemala City but donated their time to be the directors for this Choice Humaniataian trip and others to come. Their leadership and enthusiasm was inspiring and they sacrificed to help others.

Photo below: These lovely ladies were making soup from a pig that was slaughtered. They put everything in the pot and didn't waste any body parts. When given my serving, I politely took it so they wouldn't be offended but nearly gagged when I saw at least an inch layer of fat floating on the top. Others felt the same way so we descretely found some place to discard it and pulled out granola bars we had brought from home.

For breakfast, we enjoyed fresh bananas and fried potato cakes along with granola bars we had brought with us.

Because we had no running water, the natives rigged up this shower outside. However, I wasn't brave enough to take one because the natives lined up watching our every move from behind a wall above. Karisa was apparently desperate for a quick rinse off in her swimming suit.

Our daughter screamed, "Don't take my picture." (Too late, Karisa)

Before we knew it, it was time to return home. Our family had an amazing experience serving the Mayan people. I took hundreds of photos and I could include a lot more but this entry is getting rather lengthy.

The hills were alive . . .

We bade goodbye to Javier and Walfred's family and sadly that was the last time we ever saw them. In August of 2008, Javier and Walfred were killed in a tragic plane crash while flying to Sepamac to join Choice in another project. If they had only driven, they would still be alive. All 14 members on the plane died.

The Holyoaks with Javier and Walfred and their family.

From the Choice website:

"Their loss created an incredible hardship on CHOICE. Javier and Walfred were the heart of CHOICE in Guatemala and were loved by all the villagers. After their death, there was a time of uncertainty for the Choice organization in Guatemala. Rebounding from this accident was not easy, but their memory and their work were not in vain. CHOICE resolved to continue their work and to search for a new Director.

It has taken CHOICE a number of years to learn how to be effective, how to work with village leadership, how to partner with other organizations, and how to effectively mobilize local resources. This has prompted Jorge to recently proclaim, “We have a model, we have a history, and we have the tools to eradicate poverty in these rural communities, which are waiting for an opportunity to develop sustainably.”

This was one of my most favorite photos. However, it would have been perfect if she didn't have that piece of popcorn on her forehead.

After more than 18 years, the schoolhouse is still standing, operating, and fulfilling the purpose of that first expedition. CHOICE then expanded its operation to two additional villages: Seamay and Sepamac. A school and a small health post were built in Seamay and three classrooms were constructed in Sepamac. The project in Sepamac introduced CHOICE to a number of very impoverished villages in this very remote and rural region of Guatemala.

From the Choice website:

“The objective of the expedition was peaceful coexistence, cultural inter-change, and the construction of a school. This is to be done in a joint venture with CHOICE volunteers through community work and instruction of new construction techniques.”

The minutes also record that the hope and desire of the joint effort would be for the “community to implement other similar and future projects without the direct leadership of CHOICE, but by what the community would learn as a result of this collaboration.”

These are the last photos taken as we were getting ready to leave and walk up the hill to the road where we would be picked up Fortunately this time it wasn't raining and we could look out on the amazing jungle and realize where had just come from.

We couldn't wait for a hot shower but our hearts were full of gratitude for an experience we would never forget.

Last look at Sepamac!

Traveling to new places is the best education we can give ourselves as we get into action to save and improve the lives of our fellowmen. The more we travel, the more we become aware of how little we know about this world. It was hard to imagine living and growing up in a jungle of a third-world country with little knowledge of the outside world that has modern day technologies, the opportunity for education along with many other opportunities to grow and learn.

I love this quote by Anthony Bourdain: “Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.”

Our trip to Sepamac certainly left a mark on our hearts!

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