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A Bumpy Road, Even for 'White Knights'

Aid: In Guatemala, O.C.'s Leslie Baer is determined to learn from miscues.

August 19, 1996|TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala — 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.

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