Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Back to the Shelter!

Time flies, time crawls. It’s been almost five months since the Fuego Volcano erupted and uprooted the lives of thousands of people. Much has happened since, but many people still live in shelters and depend on handed-out meals every single day.

Shortly after the disaster struck I started, in collaboration with several volunteers and donations towards the supplies, conducting art workshops for children who were then accommodated in the public schools in the towns of Alotenango and Escuintla. Two months ago the residents were moved to a bigger and more permanent shelter, just outside of Alotenango, along the (now repaired) road to Escuintla. This was about the same time I traveled to Europe, so it was over two months since I had been to the shelter. I was eager to pick up the routine again, but not sure I’d be able to get permission. Or even where to start asking…
Wooden living quarters at the new Transition shelter
Luckily I quickly got the contact of one Sandra Barragán who works at the Municipalty of Alotenango. To my delight she immediately answered my messages and offered to take me the very next day to the ATU (Albergue de Transición Unifamiliar, or Family Unit Transition Shelter) and put me in contact with the person in charge of the agenda. If only I could bring a written proposal of what kind of activities I intended to do with the kids. No problem!
House Rules
Once at the shelter I got a short tour and information about the shelter: it accommodates 147 families (over 600 people in total), more than half of them children. The families live in wooden structures consisting of four one-room units. Each family has one or two units to live in, depending on the number of people. There are two areas with toilets, showers and pilas (sinks for laundry). Very much like any camping. The wooden structures are erected closely together, leaving but narrow open spaces. Open fire is absolutely forbidden because of the fire hazard. So no cooking, and that’s why the residents receive three meals a day in the dining area. There’s a fully equipped kitchen, but I’m not quite sure if that’s where the meals are being prepared, let alone by whom.

Next to the kitchen area are several wooden buildings that are being used as offices, both by the municipality and NGOs. 
The Centre of the Universe...
But to get back to the whole permission thing, I DID get permission! Not a small feat, because a group of psychologists was turned down right before me and apparently there are still many institutes that offer services and goods but are rejected. I don’t know why I did get permission where others didn’t, but it might have helped that the coordinator, Jorge, turned out to be someone I had seen many times before (and more importantly, he had seen me!), as well as the kids who came running up to me for a hello and a hug.
So I could get the Tuesday afternoons and even a (rather small, dark and unfurnished) work-space. With the promise that I would send the required detailed list of planned activities and that Jorge would arrange furniture, electricity and enroll participants, we agreed on two workshops a week for two different age groups. Now that the school year in Guatemala is ending, the only problem could be that there would be too many participants, because the work-space doesn’t allow for more than 20 kids per workshop and there are 251 kids between the ages of 10 and 17!
Henry at work with some of the little ones
That same afternoon, last Friday, I sent a detailed list of proposed activities. Art, crafts, yoga, mindfulness exercises and storytelling for kids 4-9 years old. For the older ones (10-17) painting, drawing and art history. The space is limited yes, but it does allow me for more intimate and better planned classes. The first workshop scheduled consists in decorating individual folders in which the participants can keep their art work.
On Monday I went shopping for supplies and hired my some-times-assistant Henry Calel to help out preparing and during the workshops. No reply yet on my detailed lesson plan, so I let Jorge know I was all set and would come the following day.

By the following mid-morning I had still no confirmation (those who live in Central America know that nothing gets done here without confirmation, re-confirmation and sometimes even re-re-confirmation). At noon I got a message back that all was set. Right on time.

But I had an inkling that not all would be set, So I already deviated from the schedule and prepared a low key art activity instead.

And surprise-surprise, our work-space was still dark and unfurnished. And there were no kids enrolled whatsoever. But if we wanted to, we could set up in the refectory. And so we did.

No publicity was given to our activity at all, so not one kid showed up at first. But luckily, we were in the area where cell phones can get charged, so there was quite a bit of traffic of mums who were happy to leave their little ones with us. Those kids could barely look over the edge of the table, but they had fun drawing nonetheless. One little girl in particular wouldn’t put down her crayon, but was so tired she fell asleep over her artwork several times.
So tired.... Waking up from a nap...
One by one kids started to drop by and join the group. It was great to see old friends back, there were only a few I hadn’t met before. It was a bit chaotic and messy, working in such an open space, offering an activity without a beginning or an end, but actually not very different from our previous workshops with those kids in the corridor of the school building they were then living in. All in all it was a lot of fun )and lots of volcano paintings) and all kids promised to join us next week. We even might have a furnished work-space!

Thanks to all who made this possible, too many to name every time, but your help is very much appreciated. More to follow soon!
Our great friend Yosselin!
As for the murals I hoped to paint? That’s not going to happen the way I hoped for because the central government doesn’t allow the wooden structures to be painted. But there are new plans in the making, so stay tuned….


Monday, August 20, 2018

Art, Rain and More Art in Alotenango

 Although I no longer post every week about our art workshops in the shelter in Alotenango, it doesn’t mean the workshops don’t continue. And things are finally changing…

Last week we actually didn’t go to Alotenango because the people in the shelter were being relocated to a transition shelter at the outskirts of Alotenango. Here the army has constructed wooden units, one for each family. I haven’t been there yet, but from what I understand it is rather cramped. The residents will have no opportunity to cook in those units, but there is a separate kitchen where they will receive (or cook?) their meals. There is an old school building where the kids will receive classes. A woman called Suzan is constructing a building for recreational purposes out of eco-blocks: plastic bottles filled with waste (chips bags and such). The students of the Carpentry Project are making the wooden frame for this structure. As soon as people are settled in we hope to continue our art classes here as well as some other activities.

In the meantime things start to look “normal”. The tents in the Central Park of Alotenango have been removed. Even the road to Escuintla (RN14) is accessible again thanks to a major effort by the government to clear away the debris. The same government still does not allow residents from the affected areas to keep searching for remains of their loved ones because it is “too dangerous” (and yes, body parts are still being found.) Experts keep saying that the dangerous thing is actually to reopen the road because it is more than likely that soon it will be covered up by millions of tons of debris from the flanks of the volcano. I guess we’ll just wait for the next disaster to happen.
Suzan and Yoselin
But back to the art classes.
On Thursday August 2nd I went to the shelter with Suzan Eleveld, director of the Carpentry Project (not to be confused with the Suzan I mentioned before). She had been away from just days before the eruption, so this was her first visit to the shelter. It was a happy encounter with her student Ermelinda who lives at the shelter with her whole extended family, as well as other acquaintances.
There was no activity going on this day, so all kids came running up to me, barely giving me the chance to set up the activity. I had expected about 15 kids, but there were more than 30 and most of them rather young. I had planned to make decorated paper bags, but that turned out to be a bit too much for so many kids. So we just drew and coloured and had plenty of fun. Later on a group of the older kids did get to work on their bags with some beautiful results.

In the meantime it had started to rain heavily and the little kids playing with their push cars on the patio moved up to the corridor where we had set up the art station. They were playing “ambulance”, mimicking sirens on top of their lungs while racing past the tables. All in all a crazy afternoon that left me pretty exhausted.

One moment that stood out for me was when a little boy, not even two years old I guess, climbed on a chair and grabbed a piece of paper. I gave him a crayon and with a very serious expression he drew a line on the paper. His whole face lit up when he saw the result (a blue line) and he looked up at me with an ecstatic look on his face. I gave him another crayon and he squeaked with pleasure when he drew a red line. This went on for quite a bit. Oh, the delights of making your first work of art…
Neftali and on the left the Youngest Artist
A week later, August 9th, we made it to the shelter despite yet another tropical downpour. Henry Navarijo and Rudy of the Carpentry Project joined me to help the kids make thread spinners. The things actually have a name here: chajaleles. Who knew!
There were some other activities going on so we had a slow start but ended up with about 25 kids. They all loved the thread spinners and some coloured more than one. All went smooth and well, very different form the chaos last week.The only short interruption we had was when we heard a funeral march coming by and all the kids ran out "to look at the dead".

And that was it for now. We’ll see what will happen this week in the transition shelter.
Thanks to all of you who made these activities possible!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Of Ninja Turtles, a Balloon Animal Making Police Squad and an Erupting Volcano

By now the road to Escuintla is familiar and we no longer let Google Maps lure us into the maze that is the centre of Amatitlán. But it still took us more than twice as long as it would have before the eruption of the Fuego Volcano destroyed Route 14 on the 3rd of June. Not that no work is being done! COVIAL (Road Maintenance) is working hard to clear, repair and amplify the road!

In the meantime volunteers and survivors from the nearby communities of San Miguel los Lotes and El Rodeo keep searching for the remains of their loved ones, without any help (or permission) from the government. The public machinery that would be so helpful is being used to clear a road that according to experts will mostly likely be destroyed anyway by the millions of tons of volcanic debris that still needs to find its way down. Last week the heavy equipment illegally made way in between the houses in San Miguel Los Lotes in order to amplify the road. Human remains that were found were put in plastic bags and dumped on the side. This is only days after Sergio Cabañas, head of CONRED (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Disastres) talked down the find of likely 68 people as: “They’re not bodies, just pieces of people.”

Hundreds, if not thousands of people still lie buried on the flanks of the volcano and nothing is being done (except for efforts made by survivors from those communities and initiatives by volunteer groups such as Antigua al Rescate.)
If an archaeological excavation before the construction of a new building would reveal ancient human bones, they’d be treated with all the possible professional care and respect.
And here we’re talking about people who died LESS THAN TWO MONTHS AGO!!! It is as if the government can’t forget them soon enough. 

But back to Escuintla.
When Jessica Hoult and I arrived at the school, the kids were already being entertained. Four blond missionary children were performing a dance for them and afterwards there was for each a colouring sheet of Faith being the light that helps you to believe.
We set up our supplies and when the missionaries were winding up their activity, the kids started coming to our table. We had brought big sheets for free painting as well as materials to make masks. Just like last week, the kids went wild and created one piece of art after the other. Kitten and Ninja Turtle masks appeared as out of nowhere. Paintings were created collectively or individually. Or, as in the case of one boy and a girl, together without even realizing it. When they saw that their skies matched, they decided to continue working together on an erupting volcano. What a creative bunch!

We had a bit of a WTF moment when a group of about 20 police men and women walked into the shelter. Turns out they came to entertain the kids with balloon animals and a clown.
Although the kids were very concentrated painting, we cut the activity a bit short because the police were waiting for them. So no story telling this time, for which my throat was grateful.

While Jessica and I cleaned up after our activity, the clown was doing a great job entertaining the kids, including his colleagues in the show. The kids were interacting with the police in a fun way. But not all activities seemed to have been well thought through. Jessica and I were in shock when three police guys picked up three young adolescent girls to give them piggy back rides over the patio. “They’re groping their butts!” cried Jessica, appalled, while I mostly couldn’t get over the fact that the police guys were ARMED! But everybody else was laughing and having a great time. 

In Alotenango things seemed to be pretty much the same. Ringing bells summon people to a funeral mass. The stage in the central park is still being used for wakes for the ongoing stream of victims. This day it was Doña Vicenta López , a 65 year old resident from San Migiuel Los Lotes. A day later there would be a funeral for 7 members of the Pamal family.  

Accompanied by Henry Navarijo and Marlon of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango, we quickly set up shop at the shelter for a bit of mask making. Just like last week we had mostly younger kids who needed quite a bit of help so they kept us pretty busy. The same psychologists from last week were around with activities too, so we ended up with only about 15 kids.

Now that the kids go to school and other groups are working with them too, I don’t think there’s much need for us to keep coming to the shelter for some art and fun, but we have decided to continue anyway. Because, well, why not? The kids are having fun, so do we and it can’t hurt to keep this thing warm until the people are settled in transition shelters where we could plan a bit more elaborate art projects or art therapy sessions. For now we’ll just keep going!

Thank you Wendy, Ineke, Will, Jenneca, Colour4Kids, Debbie, Judy and Maureen for your support. And of course Abi, Jessica, Henry, Otoniel and Marlon for coming along.  

Friday, July 20, 2018

More Art Relief in Alotenango and Escuintla

Weird how even a disaster eventually runs into a routine… People in the shelters are well settled by now, as if they never lived anywhere else. But there’s also a growing sense of boredom and depression. So it’s a real good thing that since this week in Alotenango kids are going back to school!!! Both the children from the shelters (which are public schools) and all the other kids from Alotenango are now receiving classes in El Calvario, another school building in town. No idea how they all fit in, but I’m very glad about this development.

Last week I went to Alotenango with Sharan Gainor, Henry Navarijo and Otoniel of the Carpentry Project. Upon arrival in the Municipality we were told we couldn’t go to our regular spot, the smaller shelter, because “The Government” was there to talk to the people (Again or still? See previous post). But we could go to the main shelter. It was a pity we wouldn’t get to see “our” kids, but since we were already there, we went to the main shelter. We set up in the smaller of two patios, surrounded by 14 classrooms, just to give you an idea how huge this school is. The activity of the day was making puppets out of paper bags, which the 25 participants seemed to enjoy. After that I read some stories and then it was lunchtime and the kids ran off to eat. It was an okay experience, but the children weren’t as enthusiastic as the ones in the smaller centre. (Or maybe I’m being judgmental because I’ve grown to like “our” kids so much.)

On Saturday the 14th Jessica Hoult and I set off for Escuintla. The shelter we had visited previously (a Catholic Church) has been evacuated with its residents reassigned to other shelters. The one we visited this time was in a public school and we were welcomed by its director who runs the shelter. The ambience was pretty relaxed. We repeated the same art activity, this time with much more success. The kids we’re really into it and made one puppet after the other. Then they started making all kinds of other stuff too, such as handbags out of the paper bags. It was really nice to see the kids so emerged in their art work. Going back tomorrow!

Yesterday we returned to the smaller shelter in Alotenango. Now that the kids go to school we had to change our schedule from morning to the afternoon. We didn’t have that many kids, only 15 or so, because some other volunteers were doing activities too, such as washing hands with the little ones and board games. Deducting from the volunteers’ T-shirts they’re psychologists, sponsored by a long list of the biggest organizations (Save the Children, UNICEF etc.) They’re coming in a few times a week now. And since the kids are also going back to school now, I have to rethink our weekly visits. Especially the ones to Escuintla are rather gruesome. Last week it took us three hours to get back to Antigua!

But as long as kids want us to come, I’ll be going, even though I go through my art supplies rather fast. For the first time ever in my experience I have trouble controlling the supplies and almost every time we lose a pack of markers or a few scissors. I think it’s because the kids receive so many donations, they just assume everything is for free. Last week we even lost a favourite (and borrowed! Sorry Sarah Peller!!!) book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. A little girl ran off to her dorm with two books. When we asked for the books back (“because we still had to read it”), the mom told us the kid had said we had given them to her. In the end we only retrieved one of the books and The Very Hungry Caterpillar stayed behind. I hope they enjoy it.

Thanks again to anyone who made this possible, volunteering or donating towards art supplies!
To be continued!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Month After the Eruption in Alotenango

It’s been over a month now since the eruption of the volcano and things are turning back to “normal” in the town of Alotenango. Although cars and busses are still not allowed into the centre and the shelters are still open, there’s a lot less going on in the Central Park. The three yellow Scientology tents have been abandoned and while the main tent over the centre stage is still up, the chairs, banners and flowers on stage are all gone.

What’s going to happen now is still very confusing. The government is building transition shelters near Escuintla so the people who are in the current shelters (many of them public schools) can move there soon. Last week we were told it would take another two weeks. Today we heard it will take at least another month.
In the mean time UNICEF has launched a campaign, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and other organizations, to start classes for the children who have now missed already more than a month of school on July 9th. UNICEF has donated 20 tents (for 61 shelters) to be used as temporary schools. But what happens to the children who are now living in schools where there is no space for those tents and classrooms have been converted in dorms? And the students who normally attend those schools? In the case of Alotenango there are a few hundred kids taking shelter in schools and a couple of thousand children from the town itself, none of which have received classes since June 4th.

Even more confusing is the number of victims. The official number of deaths is 113 and 332 people still missing, presumed death. However, a non-governmental group called Antigua al Rescate held a press conference yesterday declaring that there are most likely 2900 people still missing, based on interviews with 700 survivors from San Miguel los Lotes who are now living divided over 21 temporary shelters. And this number makes much more sense.
First of all, the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses, let’s say the national morgue, says 188 bodies have been brought in from Zone 0 (of which only 85 have been identified). That’s already substantially more than the government’s number of 113 victims.
Secondly, if you look at Google Earth and count the houses, as some people have done, and assume that each house was home to an average of 6 people, then the numbers are the following:
            El Rodeo                                  800 Houses      4800 Inhabitants
            San Jancito El Rodeo                70 Houses        420 Inhabitants
San Miguel los Lotes                80 Houses        480 Inhabitants

That makes a total of 4800 people, not counting all small villages and hamlets that have been devastated. Anyway, the number is much higher than the 3600 people now in shelters, although there are of course also people who are not staying in shelters.
The problem is that the government bases its counts on a census done in 2001, if I recall the year correctly, and it is safe to assume that those communities have grown substantially over the last 17 years. Also, there appear to have been three parties going on in one of the communities, which could make the number even higher. And if entire families have perished, entire communities have disappeared, who is left to report he missing?

In the meantime the search for bodies has officially stopped. Many people from the affected area as well as volunteers continue to look for loved ones, armed with shovels and picks, even though the police try to stop them from entering Zone 0. But people are desperate to bury their death, to know for sure what happened to those left behind. With or without help from the government, the recovery still goes on.

As does life in the shelter.
This time there was no line to enter the shelter and within a few minutes we had our permission and name tags. No need to sign an agreement this time, we didn’t even have to show or leave our ID. But once I entered the shelter with Abi and Otto, the administrative assistant and a student of the Carpentry Project, we were stopped and told quite rudely by yet another coordinator that we couldn’t do our workshop, despite our appointment and permission. Because “The Government” was coming by to talk to the people, so no other activities were allowed. But thanks to Abi’s magic and her many contacts and my argument that “The Government” could talk to the kids while they were painting, we were finally allowed in.

A church group was wrapping up some activities for the kids. They were well prepared with many games and gifts (books, notebooks and pencils) and a translator. They were also kind enough to help us set up. Quite a difference with the church group from last week that immediately took over the tables and started drawing themselves so that we ended up with more grown-ups at the table than kids.

The kids were happy to see us again and enjoyed the activity. They made beautiful drawings with oil pastels that they later painted over with temperas. Of course I had to read stories, a few new ones and the old favourite ones. Then it was time for lunch and for us to leave. We will be back next week. And no, we didn’t see “The Government”.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

More Art in Alotenango!

Twenty five days after the eruption of the volcano and the situation is still unreal. Hundreds of people are still in the shelters in Alotenango in the public elementary school buildings, so no classes for the kids in the shelters nor for the ones who normally attend this school. The government is working on plans to provide more permanent shelters, but that may take a while.
In the mean time, official recovery efforts have stalled, but inhabitants of the affected villages continue to search for the remains of their loved ones, with the sparse tools that are available to them. The big machinery is occupied to clean up the highway to Escuintla, a road that according to many experts shouldn’t be repaired at all (see my previous post).
Busses still don’t go al the way in to Alotenango. The central park remains in the same state with a space on stage for wakes. The yellow Scientology tents are still up and a sign notifies people can sign up for help. World Central Kitchen has moved out of the tent and into a building on one side of the park.
Upon arrival a funeral procession was just leaving the park. One small coffin covered in white satin followed by three adult ones. No funeral band and but a small amount of mourners following the caskets. A strong contrast against the thousands of people who buried the first victims of the eruption. It’s all very unsettling.

By know we know the drill and Abi and I went straight to the municipality for our required piece of paper and nametags that would get us into the shelter. Previously our confirmed and reconfirmed appointments had turned out to be non existent, but this time we were actually double booked. From 11am-12m in Shelter II and from 11.30 to 12.30pm in the first and bigger shelter. Not helpful. We decided to stick to the second, smaller shelter where we have been twice already and were we know the kids.

We had to wait in line to sign up. Twenty visitors of Scientology were ahead of us. Once everyone was signed in (they now have three lists, for collaborators, visitors and, in our case, “activities”, by far the shortest list.) The sign-up was in the same room as last week, now with noticeably less donations stocked up. Then we had to pass on to yet another table where we received a tag after handing over our ID. We had to sign and then hand over an agreement with rules for visitation. The three page leaflet had some good information and guidelines, but I doubt many people actually read what they sign. I asked for a copy and did get one.

On our way to the shelter a truck full of donations was being unloaded and the stuff brought into the main shelter. A bus from some church was parked in front of the second shelter, surrounded by people. Waiting for donations maybe? I have no idea. But we did get in immediately, waving our piece of paper and name-tags.

Throughout this whole process I was really doubting of being here was a good idea at all. Help is needed, it’s great to see people get together, but this whole circus is definitely leaving a nasty taste in my mouth. But when we entered the shelter, the kids recognized us and ran to us to help set up our work station. By now I know some of their names and they know ours. A relationship has been established and I think that’s a valuable thing.

Several people from Save the Children in bright red vests were around, cleaning up after apparently having played games with the kids, all filmed with professional video equipment. A fancy camera was still standing in the centre, so we set up our table on the very edge of the patio. Within a few minutes are tables were filled with kids and I started to explain the activity of the day, making origami animals and then colouring them to their liking. In the middle of my explanation I was asked by the videographer of Save the Children if I could shut up for just one minute, because they were filming an interview with their representative. I was so baffled that I actually did shut up, but when after four minutes they were still filming, which they could have done anywhere else, I continued my work with the kids.

The kids had a lot of fun and my doubts were gone about whether this was worth it or not. I let them take pictures with my camera and the results were hilarious. Then they asked me to read stories on the storytelling sheet (their words), so we did. While Abi continued drawing with some of the older kids, the younger ones listened to stories and were very vocal about which ones they wanted to hear (again).
While I read the poop story for the umpteenth time, the Scientology visitors came in. Several of them immediately set down at “our” tables and started drawing so in the end we had more adults than kids at the table. Afterward they talked to the kids (“hola”) and then they left. They looked very happy.

We rounded up our activity at noon and promised the kids to be back next week. We made sure we reconfirmed our time slot for next week (a good thing, we again had disappeared from the list). Then off to the bus, heading home. Back next week. In the meantime, we’ll do some more need assessment for art activities in Escuintla this weekend.

Thanks for all who donated towards art supplies, we need it! Today we had, quite strange actually, some more collateral damage and were short a box of oil pastels and a pack of coloured pencils. I hope they will be used well, although I doubt it, because unsupervised art activities tend to get rather messy, as we observed here too. Anyway, thank you all for your interest and support! If you wan to help, you can donate through PayPal (carinsteen at or my Dutch bank account NL95 ABNA 02540313 74.