A Bumpy Road, Even for 'White Knights'


Under the unfamiliar hospital lights, Pantaleon Benitez sat expressionless, like a wrinkled, walnut-colored Buddha, holding his warped wooden leg.

It had been 42 years since a train sliced his leg off at the knee, and 20 since Benitez, who is "75, maybe older," carved himself a new one.

Now, some white-haired American was strapping a prosthesis on his aching stump. And it wasn't costing him a quetzal. He stood up, bobbed up and down, and grinned.

"Not so heavy," he said. "And soft."

Brad Farrow, the normally stoic owner of an Oakland-based artificial-limb company, smiled too.

"These people are grateful," he said. "The people here have no chance of getting anything unless someone comes down here and gives it to them. In the U.S., [some people] learn to work the system. They feel like [an artificial limb] is their right."

Such sentiments brought Farrow and 29 other volunteers, mostly from California, last month to the rugged highlands of Guatemala, where a battered and destitute people wait out Central America's last remaining civil war.

For many of the volunteers it started as a two-week humanitarian tour package, a chance to begin learning Spanish and at the same time help the needy as part of Xela Aid, an Orange County-based assistance group. After two weeks working among the country's rural poor, most of the group's preconceptions about doing good stood on end. More than a few of the volunteers found themselves hooked.

"I feel like I'm an ambassador from the U.S.," said Earl Broidy, 66, a Tarzana pharmacist who came with his wife, Susan, on the trip to Quetzaltenango, known locally by its Quiche Indian name, Xela (SHEY-la). "The people here are learning that there's lots of people in the U.S. that want to come here and want to help. . . . It's a mini Peace Corps, what we're doing."

From the start, the trip was not what many of the newest Xela Aid recruits expected.

It began with what sounded like a meeting of Humanitarians Anonymous.

In the courtyard of a Spanish language school, Xela Aid founder Leslie Baer stood before the recruits in their crisp REI hiking wear to confess to past humanitarian excesses.

There was the time, drunk on the spirit of helping, that Xela Aid volunteers gave $100,000 worth of birth control pills to women in the remote mountain village of San Jose El Mas Alla. The following year, they found partially empty packets of the pills littering the steep, three-mile mountain trail into the village.

"Our intentions were great," said a penitent Baer, 38, of Anaheim. "But a lot of women thought they were only to be taken after intercourse."

There was more.

Against the advice of village elders, indignant volunteers insisted on giving the poorest families in another village stoves to replace the smoky open fires they cooked on. The next year, they were found to be using the stoves as chicken coops.

The poor villagers had followed the example of the village leaders. If the leading families didn't have stoves, they didn't want them either, Baer said.

Then there were the toilets. That wasn't Xela Aid's screw-up, Baer said, but a lesson nonetheless. Another humanitarian group had installed outdoor toilets for an entire village. When they returned the next year, they were gone. The villagers didn't want them.

"I call it the White Knight tendency," Baer said. "You come into a place and feel like you're going to save everyone. You impose your cultural standards on them."

Wolfram Alderson, 38, mulled this dilemma as he hiked up a steep, muddy trail to San Jose El Mas Alla, an 8-year-old village carved out of the misty, tangled jungle by about 1,000 war refugees and homeless.

Just outside the cluster of tree branch and tarp-covered huts, the villagers have chain-sawed bare wide swaths of rain forest, using the wood for cooking fires and to boil drinking water collected from streams.

The surrounding mountainsides are a patchwork of verdant fields of maize and rectangles of barren earth, cleared for subsistence farming and eroded by the relentless afternoon rains.

At the current rate of destruction, the rain forests of Guatemala, the second-largest in the Northern Hemisphere, are predicted to vanish in 25 to 40 years. Environmentalists estimate that 70% of the Central American rain forest has been lost since 1950.

The village, built on government land, is so remote that the residents must pay a mozo or porter like Geronimo Ramirez, 56, to cart their crops or charcoal to the base of the hill. Ramirez, his splayed bare feet clutching the rocks, makes two or three trips a day down the mountain, with a 70-pound bag of goods suspended from a strap stretched across the top of his head.

Hiking up to the village one day to build a medicinal herb garden, Alderson found himself in an environmental dilemma.

"Here's the deforestation you always hear about," said Alderson, the head of Xela Aid's garden team and senior horticulturist at Cal Poly Pomona's LandLab. "Here's the people doing it, and they're not evil. I've had people at Cal Poly say to me, 'Why are you helping them? Why don't you let nature take its course?' I tell them the best thing we can do is be engaged."

Three years ago, Xela Aid adopted the tiny village, running a medical clinic and starting work on a system to provide drinking water. One of the leading causes of death here is amoebic dysentery. Alderson believes a medicinal garden also will help the people treat themselves.

Since his first Xela Aid trip in July 1995, the Anaheim resident has returned five times and fallen in love with Baer, the group's founder. In the jungle, he wears a brown felt hat, jeans and Mayan vests and looks like Indiana Jones.

"I've always been in social work. But in social work in the U.S., people don't see what you do. They don't appreciate it," said Alderson, who spent six years working with Cuban refugees. "Here you can see your potential unfolding. . . . This whole experience is a solution for me, a solution for my life."

But Alderson learned that here, too, his efforts may not be appreciated.

Community representatives met Alderson at the base of their mountain to say they would prefer a water purification system to his planned medicinal garden. Alderson explained that it would cost $28,000 to bring potable water to their village. It's money that Xela Aid doesn't have.

"We want to give you all the solutions, but like I said, we're not rich people," Alderson told them. "We're simple people and we're trying the best we can. . . . Sometimes you have to start a small fire to build a bigger fire."

An hour's drive away, Farrow, the prosthesis manufacturer, worried that the solutions he brought from the U.S. addressed only half the equation in Guatemala.

Farrow, 49, hooked up with Xela Aid last summer. This year he brought his 15-year-old daughter, Becky, to get a taste of humanitarian aid and to go to Spanish school. On the flight down, Becky feigned a limp to help her father get a wheelchair on the plane and into the country for a Guatemalan teenager who had lost her legs.

The plight of Ingrim Maldonaldo, 15, had obsessed Farrow since he first saw her last year. But once he had managed to give her the wheelchair, he quickly became frustrated: "That girl thinks I'm a miracle worker. I'm not. I can't make her walk. I can't. The best I can do is give her a wheelchair. You look at the sidewalks and roads out there. Where's she going to use that chair? In her home. There's no place here for somebody like that."

Farrow met Baer's secretary on a plane ride early last year. When she found out what he did for a living, she told him about Xela Aid. Two days later, Baer was on the phone, cajoling him into helping out. Now, Farrow said, he finds himself unable to stop.

He initially planned to bring just 10 arms and legs. He already has fitted 26, worth about $20,000, and left in July with a dozen more casts.

For Farrow, Xela Aid answers a need he discovered in himself three years ago on a West Africa safari. "The people were so poor. You'd drive along the road and throw clothes out at them," he said.

Farrow plans to travel the world after he retires, teaching others to make artificial limbs. But he doesn't believe it will be with Xela Aid. The group is too new, he said, too unstable, too dependent upon Baer to survive.

"I'm looking for that group that I'm going to stay with," he said. "Xela Aid is not it."

Up until this year, Baer, too, worried that Xela Aid could not survive without her. She started the group with the help of friends in December 1992. Today, it is thought to be the largest private provider of humanitarian aid to Guatemala.

The group has brought about $5 million in donated medical supplies into the country since 1993. Medical volunteers have examined more than 2,500 people. About 3,500 more have had their eyes examined, some being fitted with glasses. And a school was built in San Martin Chiquito.

In a world of large-scale efforts, such as that of World Vision, Baer works to remain small.

"There would be a very large price to pay [for] working with a big backer," she said. "We would lose our ability to react quickly. We can respond right now, in a second, to people's needs."

Baer keeps her project going with a core group of about a dozen volunteers: Bob Rook, a regional manager for Panasonic Corp., coordinates logistics. Bob Rhein of Fullerton handles publicity.

Yorba Linda resident James Mramor, an intensive care nurse, and his wife, Gina, head the medical team, with Huntington Beach nurse Delia Itanen. Jim Ehlers, one of Baer's co-workers at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, where she is director of college relations, heads up the fund-raising. Yorba Linda builder Bruce Riley leads the construction team, and Alderson handles the environmental projects.

Every year, there is also a fresh crop of volunteers, recruited mostly through word-of-mouth and the advertised package tour that includes a week of Spanish language school in Xela and a week of humanitarian work.

Unlike most humanitarian groups, Baer plans to stay in one area to help. She made a silent pact with the lush mountains around Xela, a few hours' drive from the southern border of Mexico, after witnessing a child's funeral while attending Spanish school in 1992.

Today, Xela Aid's efforts center largely on a feisty second-generation comadrona, or midwife, named Amalia Vasquez de Garcia. Baer believes that Vasquez, a master weaver who heads a group of about 40 local comadronas, is one of the keys to Xela Aid's success.

One of the group's main projects has been to build a medicinal garden and a retaining wall in the backyard of Vasquez's cement-block home. It is a project that some of the team members don't quite understand.

Baer said the herbs in the garden put medicine at the fingertips of 40 midwives. "These people cannot afford to . . . buy an aspirin," Baer said. "They have to be empowered with alternative medicine."

Vasquez seems astonished that Baer and Xela Aid keep coming back.

"The truth is, there have been other groups that have come here and said they were going to come back, but never did," she said. "This is the first time, and many people are surprised."

The villagers' puzzlement with the Americans carried over to the four-day optical clinic.

Each day, hundreds of villagers squashed themselves in two lines outside a five-room schoolhouse just up the street from Vasquez's home. A truck with a loudspeaker strapped to its roof had been announcing the arrival of the volunteers for weeks.

Few of the villagers had seen an eye doctor before. The village women's eyes were bloodshot and raw from cooking over open fires in poorly ventilated homes.

Santa Monica optometrist David Krasnow, head of VOSH California, a volunteer group of globe-trotting eye doctors, turned a dusty stoop into a triage area. The fast-talking veteran of 20 years of worldwide aid missions, Krasnow knows there are many people here he cannot help.

The left eye of Fabiana Lopez, 55, had been infected for three years. Over and over she rubbed it with the edge of a dirty towel wrapped around her head. Eight years ago, doctors removed her lenses during cataract surgeries. Since then she hasn't been able to see.

"What she's actually done is rubbed part of the cornea off," said Krasnow, 48, who brought four VOSH volunteers along as a favor to Baer. "They do cataract surgery, then they don't give them glasses, so they have no vision."

A few feet away, Diego Lopez Guzman, 89, stood like a statue in brimmed hat, oversized shoes and ragged layers of traditional Mayan clothes. Dr. Andrew Lorand, 40, an optometrist from Canyon Country, shined a penlight into Lopez's gauzy left eye.

"It's like a wedge of marble," he said quietly. "I can't even see through it. I will never, ever complain about my cushy life again."

In the dispensing room, Murphy Tammaro, 47, a Santa Ana High School social science teacher, slipped a pair of oversized Cheryl Tiegs frames beneath the brilliant red and pink head wrap of a 65-year-old grandmother, one of hundreds to receive eyeglasses last month.

The woman blinked her eyes and looked at the crisp new edges to her family. Then they all dissolved in giggles.

"It's like Christ healing the blind sometimes," said Tammaro, who runs a group that distributes clothing to the homeless in Santa Ana. Baer later had to ask Tammaro not to give the villagers the impression that the glasses had come from God.

But some villagers questioned where the glasses came from. More than one suggested that there must be something wrong with the glasses for them to be given away.

"Many people don't trust them," said Elvira de Gomez, 32, as she scrubbed her clothes with soap. "When they put on their glasses their heads hurt and their eyes swell."

At her tiny shop down the street, Graciela Mendez, 50, said when people put on the free glasses, "they felt dizzy and couldn't walk. . . . That's why no one is using them. Those glasses they're giving away are for people who read."

Mendez said people were wondering what Guatemala had to give the U.S. in exchange for the glasses. Then her eyes mist over. "Here in Central America, it is very poor, and maybe that's why they give it for free," she said, then paused. "I hope they give aid to the places where they are really poor, where the children have no clothes, shaved heads and are so skinny."

For Xela Aid, this is another lesson. "Philanthropy isn't always understood in other countries," said Baer, upon whom the lesson wasn't wasted and who plans to charge a minimal fee at next year's clinic.

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