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'Dear Foster Mother, I'd Like You to Visit Me'


At night, the narrow, twisting highway from Guatemala City east into the mountains fills with slow-moving trucks spewing clouds of road-obscuring exhaust as they labor uphill.

"Don't drive that road at night," Maria Olga Samayoa, a worker with Plan International, an aid agency, advised me over the phone while I was still in Mexico City.

But after delays at the Guatemala City airport and rush-hour traffic in town, I ended up on the road after dark, marveling at the bravado exhibited by the driver of a small truck ahead of me.

The back of the truck sagged under a load of electrical equipment, yet the driver zipped around curves and past semitrailers as if behind the wheel of a Corvette.

The next morning, I was startled to see the truck parked outside the Plan International office in Morazan, six men straining to lift one of five heavy transformers from the truck.

The truck's contents were part of yet another rural electrification project in an area still struggling to recover from the 1976 earthquake that killed 22,778.

For me, it was concrete proof that my $22 monthly check to the 54-year-old worldwide aid program would translate into help for impoverished families. While each contributor may correspond and establish a personal relationship with a child, the money goes to projects that benefit the communities where the children live.

The reason for my trip to Guatemala was to fulfill a promise made for the past seven years to Norma Janet Dubon, my Plan International "foster child."

"Dear Foster Mother, I would like you to come to visit me although we are very far away," went her letters. "But you can come over here to see what this place looks like, that will excite me very much. I will wait for you."

From the time she was 10 until she was 17, I promised to make that trip and never did. Finally, when Norma was discontinued from the program and I was given another child with whom to correspond, 10-year-old Olga Salazar, I decided to visit both.

The old-fashioned black-and-white photos sent to me each year showed solemn children dressed in ill-fitting clothes standing on a patch of weedy ground against a background of stark adobe walls or scrawny vegetation. I expected to see the girls living in primitive and rural isolation, impoverished and cut off from society.

Instead, I discovered that television, radio, cars and planes had eliminated everything but the poverty.

We reached Norma's family home after a torturous, hourlong drive into the mountains, a wade through the shallow Rio Los Achotes and a mile hike up a dirt road, past fields of corn.

As sweat trickled down my neck, I sought shade under the porch of the two-room house and eagerly accepted the cool glass of lemonade offered.

"We wanted to get a potable water system in here, but we ran out of money," said one of the Plan social workers who had accompanied me.

I noticed that the three social workers were smiling politely, their still-full glasses of lemonade in their hands. Only after the family told us they had filtered the river water through volcanic stone and boiled it as an extra precaution did we all gratefully drain our glasses.

So began my visit to El Progreso, a rural, mountainous area 45 miles east of the capital, Guatemala City.

Although the family has no safe water supply and no electricity, uses an outhouse in back of a two-room home and cooks over a wood fire in an adjoining kitchen, they possess a battery-powered boom box, radio and cassettes. Norma, a T-shirt and jeans-clad teen-ager, could pass for a shopper at the Beverly Center.

"Because people are born here, you live here," Norma's father, 78-year-old Vincente Dubon, said of his reasons for staying in the country.

Olga Salazar's connection to urban life is closer than Norma's. She lives in Agua Caliente, a half-hour from bustling Guatemala City. The tiny village has electricity, as evidenced by the plastic, black-and-white television set in Olga's home.

Still, Norma and Olga lack the aplomb and ease of urban girls. The visits were an awkward affair. The shy girls were brought forward and presented to me. After introductions, they had little to say and no questions to ask, even though I spoke Spanish and the Plan workers were there to translate, if my Spanish failed.

I was disappointed and saddened. After traveling all this way and after all the letters, we were strangers after all, the girls and I. I couldn't seem to truly communicate in the small amount of time I had with them.

This disappointment was soon erased by the warmth, hospitality and enthusiasm of both families.

Norma's parents had obviously prepared for my visit days ahead. Paper garlands were strung from the Dubon porch beams overhead. Norma's mother had prepared a lavish noon meal of vegetable soup, grilled chicken, potato salad, handmade tortillas and yams.

Olga's mother, though she daily feeds a family of nine, also prepared lunch to celebrate my visit. While she hovered in the kitchen over the pots and pans and her children ate in the front room, the three Plan workers and I took seats of honor at a small table under her porch.

"I really didn't expect this," I said, as I had at Norma's house.

"It's something they want to do because you came so far," replied one of the workers.

Sitting at these rough, wooden tables while the family stood in the background, I felt uncomfortable. For $22 monthly, less than the price of lunch for two at an average Los Angeles restaurant, I was being honored as if I had contributed so much more.

I had been sending the small check all these years, thinking it would benefit others. But as I embraced and waved goodby to Norma and Olga and their smiling families, I realized that I had been the real beneficiary, receiving a gift I could never pay back.

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