On the Trail of Blessed Stanley Rother: How a Trip to Learn Spanish Changed My Life!
Do you want to make God laugh? Then make a plan. That's what I did. I had recently retired from the full time work force. I studied French for nine years and learned German while I was stationed overseas in the Air Force. I was retired after 20 years in the Air Force and 20 years as a Counselor. I wasbadly in need of a project. It had been a lifelong dream to learn Spanish. But where to study? My criteria was simple. The location had to be safe. It had to be reasonably priced. It had to be a total immersion program with excellent instructors. It had to have community volunteer opportunities. It had to have a a host family within walking distance of the school. It needed to have few tourists. Finally, it needed to have nearby opportunities for sightseeing. After reviewing the criteria, the choice was simple. I decided on Jabel Tinamit. #Jabel Tinamit I had two families in Guatemala--my host family and my School family. From Left to Right: Alondra; Lukie; Angel; Ezras; Susan
My second Guatemala family--the teachers and staff at Jabel Tinamit.
The first three weeks of of the school experience was magical. I participated in after school sightseeing activities every single weekday. My favorite activity was cooking school on Tuesdays.
Under Julia's careful supervision students would slice, dice, peel, chop, blend, and mix. We learned how to make delicious foods from Guatemala such as Chicken Pepian, Chilie Rellenos, and homemade corn tortillas.
It was hard work, but as you can see, the results were well worth it. The beautiful molé sauces we learned to make were a beautiful combination of chilies, chocolate, cinnamon, and spices.
It was great language practice as we shared a meal together. ,
Other activities took us out to markets like the one at Chichicastenando.
Whether it was textiles or produce, tourists and locals alike found items to purchase.
I much preferred long hikes in the mountainside that took me to fascinating Mayan cave that is in actual use today for prayers and ancient Mayan ceremonies.
I especially loved volunteering to teach English to the young children.
These children are from Xejuyu.
Children would learn English by singing songs like "Hokie Pokie" or "Heads Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Knees and Toes."
Students at the school in San Antonio on Lake Atitlan
Teaching English at San Marcos, Guatemala
The mountainous terrain made for beautiful scenery. The higher I walked, the better.
This is a beautiful view on the road to Sololá looking down towards Panajachel. Every few miles around each ridge a new little village emerges. After Panajachel, Santa Catarina and then San Antonio Palopó.
On my first Saturday in Guatemala I took a lancha (small boat) from Panajachel and visited the villages in the other direction: San Marcos la Laguna; San Juan la Laguna; and Santiago Atitlan. Each of the villages had a distinct personality.
When I think of San Marcos, I think yoga, health foods, massage therapy, and hippie. When I think about San Juan I recall the single women who grow medicinal plants for healing. I think of weaving cooperatives and coffee.
When the lancha dropped me off at Santiago Atitlan, I thought I was going to just another small village.
The trip here started out with a ride on a Tuc Tuc. I asked the driver to take me to the main Catholic Church in the village. On the way uphill, my driver took me to an overlook with a view! Below the Mayan women were washing their clothes on the rocks just as they must have done decades ago.
From the same overlook was a beautiful view of Santiago Atitlan.
While this scenery was spectacular, I had no idea what awaited me -- the Cathedral of Santiago Atitlan. Every time I went into a village in Guatemala, I found the Catholic Church, but this church would
This particular church in Santiago Atitlan was like no other. As I was walking through the church with my driver, I was struck by something odd. There was a display of pictures and a bronze plaque and another monument dedicated to an American Priest from Oklahoma out here in rural Guatemala named Fr. Stanley Rother.
I was awe-struck by the beautiful tributes to this Oklahoma Priest. The people had gone out of their way to pay special tribute. Who was he? Why hadn't I heard of him? Why the
There was a plaque made of bronze which called him a Missionary and Martyr.
I loved the photo of Fr. Stanley blessing the little baby.
My driver explained that the people of Guatemala loved Fr. Stanley. He helped them on their farms. He visited their families, but most importantly, he spoke their native Mayan language fluently.
Not fully grasping the enormity of what I was seeing, as I walked slowly through the church and found myself becoming increasingly emotional. By the time I was leaving the church I began to cry. The tears flowed freely. It was a few minutes before I could stop. I don't cry in public...especially in front of a perfect stranger. I thanked him for telling me about Fr. Stanley and asked him to excuse my crying. I took a selfie with him, my face still red from tears.
Before we left he explained how Spanish was everyone's second language. He said everyone on Santiago Atitlan spoke one of 22 different Mayan dialects. He taught me how to say "thank you" in his language. It was "mal tioche." As I left him I gratefully said "Mal tioche!" and bid him goodbye.
On weekends I continued to acquaint myself with nearby communities such as Sololá where it was the place to change buses to catch the one for Panajachel.
Spanish classes continued and as we approached Independence Day in Central America, school-age children in costumes put on impressive pagents with music and dancing.
These beautiful children took their responsibilities very seriously!
I also took my responsibilities as a student seriously as well. I even got into the culture of Guatemala as I enjoyed their traditional dress called a traje. I felt like a giant in this country as I towered over these lovely women.
The classes were going great. I was walking six miles a day and enjoying healthy food. and my Spanish was improving daily . Sunday evening on September 10th, I began having extreme debilitating pain in my abdomen. It did not feel like food poisoning. It felt like diverticulitis, but I couldn't be sure. I delayed going to the doctor for one day becase I had some mediction and wanted to make sure it just wasn't a stomach virus. When I went to the doctor on Tuesday afternoon, she couldn't conclusively decide what was wrong. She prescribed an antibiotic and pain medication. She sent me to the lab to rule out parasites which were negative. As the days moved on the pain remained and worsened. I was bedridden and unable to attend classes. By Friday I returned in absolute agony. The doctor wanted to try one more test because she had a suspicion about what was wrong. She said there was a visiting Doctor who happened to be in the building. It was only the second time in the past year he had visited. She went downstairs and moments later she returned with Dr. Estrada. The doctor entered and after introducing himself, he thumped on my appendix. I winced in pain. He thumped again and the pain was excruciating. Dr. Estrada turned to me and said I needed surgery immediately and he could do it. My host family helped me get a taxi that would take me to the tiny hospital in Solola. Dr. Estrada wrote out a letter of introduction in Spanish for me to give to the receptionist.
Before the surgery could begin I needed a hospital gown and an IV started. Before long, the young attendant who was bringing me the gown was joined by six other young women who looked to be 16 or younger. I towered over everyone at 5 feet 6 inches, and it must must have been quite a sight. No one spoke English, so thankfully my three weeks of Spanish language studies had paid off. Fortunately, I understood the medical team and responded appropriately. Her first instruction to me was, "Take off all of your clothes and put on this gown so it opened in the back." When I saw that not one of the six young girls were leaving, I joked in Spanish, "Just remember, you can't un-see this!" At least I turned my back to everyone and managed to get on the gown. I excused myself myself to use the restroom before they put in the IV. As I stepped up to enter the small bathroom I balanced myself on the pedestal sink and realized it asn't anchored to the floor. I caught the sink just before it came crashing into the wall. I took a deep breath as I sat down and prayed quietly to myself that the toilet was anchored down. Fortunately I did not go "airborne." I walked to the operating room and got on the table by myself. I must have been a handful getting back to my room. I later learned that the head of the Spanish school, Jabel Tinamit, had assisted everyone in getting me back to my bed. He and his wife Candelaria came to see me at the hospital only to find me in surgery. It was so kind of them. Pictured below is Gregorio, my rescuer.
Photo of Dr. Estrada below making a house call. I am a little worse for wear but feeling better.
Later the next day I was discharged and Dr. Estrada gave me my appendix in a jar to take home with me. What an odd souvenir of Guatemala! What was almost more painful than the appendicitis was paying for the appendectomy You see, Dr. Estrada failed to mention that he expected payment in full following the surgery. He didn't take credit cards, checks, or paypal. He needed cash now and plenty of it $10,000 QTZ worth (over $1,000 US Dollars)...and even if I could walk to an ATM, it would take more than a week to pull out that kind of funding! I felt sick. How could I pay this Doctor? I was tired and weak from the surgery but promised Dr. Estrada I would get him his money! I just had no idea how to do that. Our banks were closed. I had no bank information from the doctor, so wiring the money was impossible. The next morning at 7:30AM a very angry Dr. Estrada woke me up demanding to know where his money was. I explained that our banks weren't open yet, and he replied saying that the anesthesiologist needed to be paid. I felt totally frustrated. I didn't feel well and what little research I had been able to complete took days not hours to transmit money. I felt really stuck. At my wits end, Gregorio telephoned to check up on me. He told me about how a money-gram worked and explained how it would be the fastest way to have the Doctor's money by that afternoon. I called my beloved husband , and he immediately found out what he had to do in order to wire the money. The problem was that I had to ride by Tuc Tuc across cobblestone streets and dirt roads to the bank. It was going to be excruciating. By the grace of God everything worked out. Dr. Estrada showed up an hour later and had his money.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of my problems. A week later, the night before I was to get my stitches removed, Dr. Estrada telephoned saying that he was going to Honduras and would not be able to remove my stitches. He said he had arranged for my original doctor to do the work. So the next day I managed to take a Tuc Tuc down to the original doctor's office. When I arrived, the office was closed and no one was there. The docctor had apparently telephoned after I had already left saying that she had too many patients up in Solola and had to cancel. Not feeling confident with this doctor, I located another option-- Dr. Luis Peña at the free clinic in downtown Panajachel. I If you are looking for a worthy charity, I highly recommend Dr. Luis Peña and his clinic. They provide free pre-natal care for women and other important health-related services. It was first-come, first-serve, but I decided to take my chances and the clinic did not disappoint. It was clean with modern equipment and a friendly, professional staff. Within minutes my stitches came out. Dr. Peña was a wonder-worker. I needed these stiches out now because 10 days later I would be returning home. The night before I had to catch my 5AM shuttle to the airport in Guatemala City, I woke up in the middle of the night with my bed sheets sopping wet with a mixture of blood and water. Apparently the end of my incision had sprung a leak and was shooting out fluid while I slept. What a mess! Worse yet, my mattress was stained. So I dragged myself up and stripped the bed and found my towel and began scrubbing the mattress with soapy water. An hour later it was cleaned to my satisfaction. I padded my wound and decided to stay awake and prepare for the long shuttle ride ahead.
The scenery on the way to Guatemala City featured rural areas with beautiful small farms and rolling hills.
As the miles rolled on, the scenery became increasingly urban. My driver was kind and we spoke Spanish together on the three hour trip.
Thankfully we rode in a comfortable van and not this approaching "Chicken Bus!"
The "Chicken Bus" is a retired US school bus that was "retired" due to high mileage. They were often painted bright colors and served as an important mode of transportation from village to village. A person could travel many miles for about 50 cents. They carried produce and live chickens, hence the name "Chicken Bus."
The trip to the Guatemala airport went well. In fact, everything was going smoothly until our plane landed in Guadalajara, Mexico. As we began to deplane an official came running over with a clipboard and ordered everyone to get back on board. Next we saw our flight attendant with something that looked like a can of Lysol spraying the interior of the airplane with us in it. He was spraying each overhead baggage compartment. The air was thick with fumes. We were all coughing and shaking our heads in disbelief. Did the Mexican authorities think we were diseased and needed to be disinfected because we had come from Guatemala? We never did get an explanation. Somehow I managed to retrieve my bags from the belt and get in the proper line to go through customs where a stern Mexican woman began asking me questions speaking very rapidly in Spanish. After about five minutes she eventually let me pass. By the grace of God I somehow got my two suitcases onto the conveyer belt and onto the X-ray machine. Then I gingerly rolled them to the baggage transfer belt and found my gate. One more leg and I would be home. My incision was still intact. Thanks be to God the rest of the trip went smoothly and I had no problem at the Tijuana airport finding the CBX signs which allowed me to literally walk from Tijuana to US soil.
It was September 23, 2017. I was so happy to be home. I decided to turn on the TV to unwind for a few minutes before going to bed. What I saw was absolutely shocking--my husband had recorded the beatification ceremony of Father Stanley Rother that very same day. It was as if God had hit me with a two by four!
I honestly believe that it was through the intervention of Fr. Stanley Rother that I am alive today:
1) My appendix should have ruptured after going days without the right diagnosis.
2) Dr. Julio Estrada , a surgeon, just "happened" to be in the building at the same time and just "happened" to have availability to not only see me but to operate.
3) When Dr. Estrada had to leave the country suddenly, Dr. Louis Peña stepped in and kindly gave me a vitamin B shot when he took out my stitches--it gave me energy.
4) I had no business traveling only 10 days after surgery but had no ill effects and got home safely without a ruptured incision.
5) I find out the day I traveled home, the priest who had touched my heart at Santiago Atitlan welcomed me home with his beautiful beatification ceremony.
Sometimes miracles are just as much about what DIDN'T happen as much as instantaneous cures. In my particular situation my appendix didn't rupture. I didn't develop sepsis. My incision didn't rupture. I suffered no ill effects other than an ugly scar.
Most importantly, I AM ALIVE!
So moved by this experience, I wrote my first novel, "Come to Poppa" in only 30 days. It was accepted for publication immediately by Covenant Books and is coming out in June 2018. I wrote its sequel, "Come to Momma" and will soon begin a third book in the series, "Come to Me." Each of these books feature Blessed Stanley Rother in the historical fiction genre. The first book is set in 1973 to 1978, the second book 1978-1979, and the third book from 1979-1981. Each book tackles an important social justice issue...but more about that in my next blog.
Just know that this writer is on a mission from God, thanks to inspiration from Blessed Stanley Rother. To learn more about his life and martyrdom please read his bio: The Shepherd Who Didn't Run.