Thursday, September 22, 2016:
Mercy at its best
It has been more than three weeks now that the missionary group from our parish has arrived from Guatemala. It has been a great experience once again for those who, with Fr Anton Grech, have gone through a very deep and profound experience. Guatemala has been described by many of the volunteers as a land of hope. In fact, a land of hope, but which also implies a land which is still developing and where disparities are still evident. The work in Guatmala was divided by manual work – the embellishment of the Guatemalta Arena ground, and numerous visits to Fr Anton’s parishes – 26 in all. The parish group was composed of Andrew Formosa, Maria Formosa, Lorriane Micallef, Noel Micallef, Jeannette Tabone, George Francis Vella and Antonella Zammit. Fr Mark Bonello, who hails from the parish of Xaghra, was also present during the group’s visit, helping Fr Anton in his missionary work. Jeannette Tabone, one of the persons who was with the group has written her experience below.
It's has been eleven days since we left Malta and started our two day trek to Guatemala. 48 hours and 10,236km later, we arrived to what is possibly one of the most beautiful (albeit the hottest and most humid places) we have ever seen. Nine days into our work, we have already got a novel of stories to tell.
We arrived at 5.30am, after a six-hour car drive from Guatemala City and by 8.30am we were at a local prison. A prison which has space for two hundred inmates, but houses 850! The conditions were far from acceptable and we learned that the prisoners have to buy their own water to wash themselves - a basic human need. After Father Anton celebrated Mass, we walked around where the inmates tried to sell their wares for pocket money; hammocks, bags, pouches, all made of nylon thread.
The next day we started on with what would have been our main project in Guatemala, painting the GuateMalta arena which Fr Anton opens up to all local kids to play and have a safe place to meet. In this arena at times there are 700 spectators watching a competitive match. We started painting the walls and getting ourselves organised.
In the afternoon we visited the village, and whilst Fr Anton celebrated mass, we met the kids and made friendship bracelets with them. The people there have a hard shell, and the kids were a little weary when we first arrived. However, they soon gave us big smiles and opened up to us as soon as the toys came out :).
On Saturday we all went to an Ordination of a young local priest. We were given lunch with the hundreds of people who attended this celebration.
On Sunday we celebrated the Sunday Mass at the Santo Hermano Pedro parish church and enjoyed lunch at Tamarindal village. It's always fun trying new food and the locals also offered us Lychee. Sunday was also baking day! We all decided to treat Fr Anton for Santa Marija (the feast was the day after), so two of the girls whisked and baked whilst the rest of the group prepared a surprise for Fr Anton in their rooms. The group finished preparing the surprise - a six feet print on canvas of the statue of Santa Marija venerated at the Gozo Cathedral. Fr Anton's reaction was priceless. The evening was then wrapped up with a Pizza night. We got sopping wet getting there and back, but it was totally worth it!
The following morning, we were waken up, at 5.30 am with Fr Anton letting off petards. His idea of a practical joke, since the majority of the group are die hard San Ġorġ followers. We then visited more villages, did crafts with more children and had a feast supper including home-made cake and ice cream.
The following day was tourist day. We visited Lake Izabal and Rio Dulce, with lunch on the lake.
We continued painting the arena in the afternoon, but we had to stop because of the rain... this happens a lot there. All in all, it was another great day! We continued painting early the following morning till lunch time. Unfortunately our afternoon plans of visiting villages by boat got cancelled due to heavy rain...another tropical weather perk.
Thursday was Container day! Before leaving for Guatemala, the Gozitan group and the group from Qormi both managed to fill a container filled to the brim with donations - chairs, tables, mattresses, clothes, toys, kitchen wear and much more were stuffed into every corner of the 40 foot containers. Both happened to arrive at the same time, and were released on the same day. We woke up by 4.15am and by 6.00am we were unpacking and organising. The first container took us all but two and a half hours thanks to the help of the locals. We took an hour break before beginnin to unload the second container. Boxes, tens of boxes were carried and stacked and passed along a human chain of approximate eight of us. This one took us approximate two hours, once again thanks to the invaluable help of a few strong locals. By that time it was around 2.00pm and we were hungry. A quick lunch and we decided to have a quick nap... but everyone woke up from their coma 2 hours later!! Oops hehe. We then went to the house for supper as usual.
An early start on Friday and we started painting the Gautemalta Arena by 7.30 am. We covered a substantial amount of ground in just 2 hours. Father Anton asked us to stop by about 10.00am after which we headed to 'Garbage Village'. We are in 2016 and there are still people who live, literally, in garbage. This was by far the poorest place we visited so far. It was also the only place that, together with Father Anton, we gave out food and clothes. What struck us most, apart from the awful living conditions, was how grateful and yet gentle these people were. They all thanked us and chatted with us, and were almost shy to approach us. A little kindness goes a long way.
After a quick lunch we headed to another of one of Father Anton's twenty-seven villages. This one however, was poorer than the rest, and apart from the sweets and crafts we did with the kids, we also gave out items of clothing. We were thanked with bag full of plantanes and a few sugar canes. Grateful as always. :)
Saturday morning, Fr Anton attended another ordination, this time in Quirigua. Whilst Fr Anton and Fr Mark attended, the rest of the group visited the Maya ruins very close by. We had a taste of the Gran Plazas, massive upright stone structures, worship altars and many other sites. That same afternoon we visited a number of families which have fallen upon very hard times. Many of them were very sick or had disabilities with virtually no one to rely on. The visit was merely one to give hope, and reminded them there are still people thinking of them and praying for them. We were greeted with songs, love and gratitude.
Sunday Mass was at 8.00am as usual. After mass, Fr Anton prefered that we do not work and we visited a village with him. Crafts, balloon games and friendship bracelets went down a treat with the children. We were given lunch there, traditional Empanadas. Delicious!
Monday morning was an early start. The group left at 2.00am to get to the Tikal- Maya ruins. A six hour drive and we were there. They were breathtaking, and it was worth every minute. Standing on top of a 65 metre structure, looking over the top of the temples was incredible. A four and a half hour guided tour explained the ins and outs of the traditional Maya ruins. Although the six hour drive back home was difficult, the memories of the views and stunning structures are what we took back with us.
On Tuesday we made up for our day off, and worked from 7.30 am to 7.30pm on the GuateMalta Arena.
The following day was one of the most memorable days, and probably the most difficult. The rain started early but decided to head out anyway. A one-hour boat ride (still raining) and we got to the furthest point we could get to. From there, we had a three and a half hour trek, in the rain, in the middle of the rainforest, in mud till our knees, all to get to a remote Queqchi village so that Fr Anton could celebrate mass with them. We did crafts and played games with many kids. We were also given lunch there before we started heading back. Thank goodness the rain had stopped by then and the sun dried most of the mud, which means that our trek back, only took us one and a half hours. Important to note, that Fr Anton does this every month!! An exhausting, unforgettable day.
Thursday was prison day again. After mass, we bought some of the goods that the inmates make for some extra money - hammocks, bags, purses, all at bargain prices. We then worked all afternoon.
Friday morning, we were taken to another village, up on the top of a mountain. It took us around two and a half hours up a winding mountain road. The weather started to change substantially about half way up and we were thankful for the slightly cooler temperature. Once we got there, we were on top of the clouds, on top of the rainforest. Here we gave out soft toys and clothes to the villagers. Once again, we were given lunch. It's incredible that such poor villages are so generous. The outstanding views really made this day all the better. We then finished the GuateMalta Arena all evening.
On Saturday Fr Anton re-opened the GuateMalta Arena to the locals. We played sport games and did crafts and spent the morning playing with the kids. The arena is open to the locals so that they could have a safe place to hang out.
Our last full day with Fr Anton was Sunday. Once again another surprise for Fr Anton - this time a six foot print on canvas of San Ġorġ, topped off with petards as Fr Anton arrived from 8.00am mass. We then visited what was our last village. We then went to 4.00pm mass, and then we went out for supper with Fr Anton and Fr Mark. The perfect end to such a wonderful, eye opening, stunning three weeks.
Thank you Fr Anton for all you did for us and for making us feel so welcome in your home.
This write-up was written during the group's stay in Guatemala.
More photos: Guatemala: land of hope, land in anguish.