THE ELDER


She’s so tiny, barely reaching to my shoulder. Her clothes are worn and dirty, the colours

muted with age. Carrying a large bundle of woven textiles, she approaches every tourist that

passes. They brush her away. They look with disdain at this old woman, face worn by life. Her

feet are bare; her hands gnarly; fingernails dirty. She rests on the edge of the street, ignored,

passed over, alone.


I have seen this woman on every visit to Panajachel. She walks up and down the street trying to

sell something, anything so that she can eat that day. Painfully, she moves from block to block.

Tourists generally engage with the younger, pretty women enchanted by the bright colours of

their traditional clothing and their cheery chatter. They have no time for an elderly woman

with weariness in her eyes that speaks of struggle and loss. When I’ve witnessed anyone

buying from her, they tend to bargain hard making the most of her vulnerability. They do not

realize most of the time they are haggling over $1 or $2 dollars. Dollars that would make a

world of difference for a quota that must be met before she has money for food. They do not

understand.


The majority of indigenous families earn very little and struggle to put daily food on the table

for their children. They will help their elders if they can but too often, they have nothing to

give. There is no social safety net here. If you cannot work; you do not eat.


I too spent a couple of years passing by Manuela and not really seeing her. I too initially

recoiled from the dirty hand on my sleeve. As my association deepened with Fundación Familia

Maya and I matured from tourist to guest, I learned more about the difficult lives of many

indigenous in the highlands and especially about the destitution of the elderly. I’ve visited

homes and seen grubby, holey blankets on cement or dirt floors that constitutes the bed. If

they are fortunate, they may have a chair, perhaps a table. Cardboard boxes or plastic bins

hold what few possessions they have. There is no comfort here. I know what Manuela goes

home to - if she has a home.


One of my greatest pleasures on my first time as a volunteer was visiting an Elder Care Program

in San Jorge where sponsored elders meet 5 days a week. It provides the opportunity to

socialize, sometimes playing a game; sometimes doing a craft. Lively chatter fills the room as

they visit over a hot meal. They carefully package any leftovers to take home for this would

otherwise be their only meal for the day. They laugh; tease; and rejoice at community.


When I began to really see Manuela, I knew she would not have the advantage of such a

program unless she had a sponsor. It is, however, much easier to find someone to sponsor a

child or an animal than an elderly lady. I was already stretched sponsoring three students and

another senior. I could at best offer infrequent support and a referral to Fundamaya.


There are many elders like Manuela struggling to earn a little so that they can feed themselves.

More often than not, there is no work available or they are just not able to work. A

sponsorship of $51 per month Canadian will buy them food and let them know that someone

cares. It will also give them a connection with Fundamaya and the opportunity to seek other

forms of support to make their life much easier.


Lois B. Reimer

(Note: Manuela is an alias for privacy)