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Project Ulpan initiative begins in Guatemala

On February 5th, 2010 I hopped off a plane in Guatemala City. As our team of eight loaded into our rental trucks only a few things were certain – The air was warm, I was hungry, and we were definitely not in Nashville anymore.

After grabbing our first traditional Guatemalan meal at Burger King (“Rey de Hamburguesa” for our Spanish speaking readers), we began our four-hour trek northbound across the country to reach the mountain city of Coban. From what little I understood we would be spending the next two days working with the Kechi Mayans in the heart of Guatemala’s Ulpan Valley. As our caravan pushed further north, the landscape quickly changed from rolling hills to dry desert to the towering mountains of the Baja Vera Pas. If you’ve never driven in Guatemala, it’s hard to comprehend this ride is like. Basically, picture the worst mountain road you’ve ever experienced. Then, cut it down to a two-lane highway loaded with semis and logging trucks. Oh, and from my understanding, it takes at least seven policemen to issue a speeding ticket in Guatemala. This translates to all rationality of a speed limit going right out the window. So, here we are, driving at breakneck speeds down this winding two-lane highway, passing semi trucks while praying no one comes darting around the next corner. Consider it a religious experience.

After somehow arriving safely in Coban, we took advantage of our quick journey and got a good night’s rest. The next day we would make the journey into the Ulpan Valley, also known as “The Corridor of Death.”

When I had been asked to join this mission team just two weeks prior, I didn’t really know what I was jumping into. Kris Hatchell from Lipscomb Missions had contacted me in an effort to explain “Project Ulpan”, an initiative he was leading. The Ulpan Valley has earned the title of “The Corridor of Death” because it is home to one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. When you take that fact that there is very little clean drinking water available and combine it with the concept that people have to walk up to four miles a day through treacherous mountain terrain just to reach the water, it’s easy to understand the dark nickname.

Here’s where Project Ulpan comes in. This $800,000 initiative is designed to attack the problems of this valley on several levels

1. To implement clean water systems for the villagers

2. To provide a high quality education to replace the system that only provides, at best, a 6th grade education

3. To increase economic development of the area, including ecotourism and cell phone recharging stations

4. To take on human rights issues in the Valley like slavery and abuse

I was asked to accompany Kris and his team on a five-day trip to take a look at the situation from multiple angles in hopes of formulating a way to capture this issue in a documentary. So, with little hesitation, I jumped in full speed and never looked back. Little did I know what experiences awaited in the heart of the Ulpan Valley.

We awoke early the next morning to make the hour long drive up into the mountains. Kris explained that the roads would be rough.

Wrong. Rough is a severe understatement.

Let’s use our imaginations again. First, picture the worst rural road in the states. Then, multiply the number of potholes ten fold and scatter large rocks throughout the path. This may go without saying, but the luxury of pavement disappeared miles ago. So, here we are, bouncing ourselves sick up and down these winding, pothole-congested roads. Just when you think you’re about to lose it, the mountains open up and you can see down into the deep rolling valleys. I asked Kris if we had arrived. He calmly responded, “You haven’t seen anything yet.” He was right.

I spent another fifteen minutes in awe of my surroundings until our truck stopped at a site we learned would soon become base camp. From this vantage point I began to the see into the heart of the Ulpan Valley. This is the kind of view you can’t imagine unless you see with it your own eyes. So, I had the idea to pull out my flip video cam and ride in the truck bed to film our descent.

Once we reached the floor of the valley a local Kechi man greeted us. Thankfully, he spoke a bit of Spanish so I was able to distinguish that his name was Juan. As I continued filming, I noticed a man holding a machete was waving at our truck. He quickly came sprinting at our truck and jumped in the back to catch a ride. His intentions seemed harmless, but you always have to be on guard when someone wielding a two-foot blade boards your ship.

Just over the next ridge we reached the first village of the valley, Ulpan 2. As we approached, our new Keche friends immediately greeted us. I was thrown for a loop as the children gathered around. One little girl would even poke my arm, then giggle and run away. I guess those kids don’t see too many people with my white Tennessean winter skin tone. They were also amazed with our cameras. Dr. Steve Joiner became an instant hit when he took out his digital camera and began showing it off. Kris, who had been speaking with the village leaders, called over to us. He said, “Hey guys, come over here. They have something for us to drink.” Steve and I looked directly at one another. I could see a look a fear in his eyes, and I’m sure I shared the same face. We walked into a small, enclosed structure that served as the school of Ulpan 2. On the table was a basket tightly wrapped in brightly covered cloths. Expecting to find a questionable beverage, I was introduced to hamburgeusa Maya, the Mayan hamburger. This spicy corn tortilla was stuffed with black beans and some sort of hot spice. Within minutes of biting into this tasty Mayan treat, I noticed that tiny red spots began popping up along my arm. With a look of distress I held my arm up to Professor Steve Sherman, who calmly said, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” So, with a meal in our bellies, we began the uphill hike from Ulpan 2 to the village of Secaj.

For the remainder of our day in the Ulpan, Hatchell and Sherman met with many Keche villagers to discuss Project Ulpan and the water crisis. Meanwhile, I, along with students Luke Burris and Eric Heath, scurried along the mountainsides with equipment to measure altitude, GPS, and cell phone signal. While gathering data on a steep ridge, I looked down the vast hill to one of Secaj’s watering holes. I couldn’t help but notice a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old. I was stunned as she carried a bulky, heavy vase of water on her back all the way up this steep hill. I continued to watch in disbelief as she made her way to the top and around the ridge. This is when I began to realize the value of clean water. It was still hard to imagine than some people have to walk over four miles in this terrain just to reach water. More shockingly, I realized that not only adults have to make this daily journey, but children as well.

After a hard days work, we packed up and made our way back through the mountains.  Our team could truly see the majesty of God’s creation as sunset changed the valley into a vibrant canvas. This was definitely one of the most beautiful sights of my life.

The following day we made the bumpy journey back into the valley. This day was certainly not like the first. After suffering major sunburn on day 1, I knew I couldn’t take much more. Thankfully, God answered my prayer and gave us a wonderfully misty day. The Kechi call this sort of weather “chipi chipi.” We used our time wisely on our last day in the valley to survey the base camp, take soil samples, and check on the water lines Lipscomb Missions installed last May. During our task filled day, one of the Kechi families invited us into their home for lunch. I was once again on the edge of my seat, having no idea what was about to hit the table. Thankfully, it was a tasty chicken soup with my new favorite, black corn tortillas. After a questionable rice beverage from the previous day, our team was in utopia. Afterward, we said our farewells, packed up the surveying equipment, and made our way back to Coban. Two long days at mile high altitude had really done a number on my body. The comforts of home were really starting to call my name.

Our last day was spent in the Guatemalan city of Antigua. It was nice to unwind in the beautiful colonial city in the center of a volcanic valley.

Looking back at my time in Guatemala, there are several things to reflect on.

First, I’ve seen what true third-world poverty looks like. Working with the Kechi people of the Ulpan Valley really made me appreciate the things I typically take for granted. The most of important of these is clean drinking water. You truly can’t appreciate the value of clean drinking water until you have to go without it.

Second. I’ve seen how much pain the acts of the few can cause for the many. In this case, the Guatemalan government has laws in place that allow longstanding farm owners to own all aspects of their land, including the trees and water. Project Ulpan wants to provide clean water systems to every village in the Valley, but a local landowner owns the key water source. Until a deal can be arranged for water access, it will be very difficult to help the villagers.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that you must always watch what you eat when traveling abroad. On the final day of our trip, the team came down with a terrible spell of stomach sickness. I managed to hold my food down, but my trip home was made absolutely miserable by a high fever and sharp stomach pains. I distinctly remember walking through the Guatemala City airport kicking my backpack because I was too light headed to pick it up. Another member of our team sprawled out on the floor of the food court to regain his composure. I’m thankful I never had to use my airsickness bag on the flight, but I definitely knew where to find it if the need arose.

Over spring break, Lipscomb Missions sent it’s first medical missions team to the Ulpan Valley under the leadership of Professor Steve Sherman. Then, in May, a mission team of Lipscomb engineering students will make the journey to install nine clean water systems for our brothers and sisters in need. During my time in the Ulpan, I saw the impact a clean water system was having on a community. Instead of making an intense journey for water, families can now just step outside their homes and turn a knob. It’s a beautiful thing.

While it can be discouraging to see the suffering our brothers and sisters have to endure, it’s uplifting to know there are students, missionaries, and organizations like Project Ulpan who are working to make a difference. We may not be able to give everyone clean drinking water today, but for every community we help along the way, the impact is unimaginable.

To learn how you can help communities in the Ulpan Valley, contact Kris Hatchell at kristopher.hatchell@lipscomb.edu or visit Lipscomb Missions at http://missions.lipscomb.edu/page.asp?SID=62&Page=6378