Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Janet Bein, Young at Heart Diva

When Guatemalans mention the gringos who have come to live in their country, they usually point to American expats who have mansions, servants and fancy cars. Deet Lewis, who has lived in Guatemala for almost 16 years, is a completely different type of gringo.

A psychological counselor, massage therapist and award-winning grassroots fundraiser, Deet doesn’t own a mansion or even a house. She doesn’t have a servant. At 70, she still rides her bicycle to the outdoor market to buy groceries and attracts friends young enough to be her grandchildren.

I received Deet’s name and phone number from a fellow Spanish student in Antigua. “Only $15 for an hour massage and she’s really good!” I booked an appointment for the next day.

Deet arranged to meet me at a café near her home, because her landlord has recently started locking the front gate. She led me to a small, whitewashed stucco cottage within a compound of similar cottages surrounded by grass and trees.

“It reminds me of a kibbutz,” I said. “That’s why I liked it.” Born and raised in Chicago, Deet had been attracted to the idealistic, Israeli kibbutz lifestyle and tried living there three times. While there, she adapted and shortened her name from Judith (“Ye-hu-deet” in Hebrew) to Deet.

Inside the cottage is a single large room. There is a kitchenette at one end that is curtained off. The rest of the room is divided into different areas by its modest furnishings—a desk with chairs, a massage table, shelves lined with books and souvenirs from around the world, and a double bed covered with an Indian print spread.

While giving me my massage, Deet doesn’t talk much except to encourage deep, long breaths and mellow thoughts. Afterwards she invites me for tea. We sit around her desk by the side window and she tells me more about her life.

Deet got the taste for travel with her first trip to Israel when she was fifteen. She loved Israel and the kibbutz and went back only four years later, already married and pregnant with her first child. But her husband could not adjust to the lifestyle. They left the kibbutz and moved back to Chicago when their daughter was only four months old.

While raising her two children, Deet went to college, and eventually got a Master’s degree in counseling. During those years, she became involved with an international organization called Servas (www.servas.org), which operates a network of Servas hosts and Servas travelers. Servas strives to promote peace and understanding by having people in different countries open the doors of their homes to one another. Deet became a Servas host inviting travelers into her home when her children were teenagers. “My kids loved showing our guests around Chicago.”

When her son graduated from high school, Deet made a series of dramatic changes in her life. She divorced her husband, tried once again to live in Israel, then went to Esalen Institute near Big Sur, California, to study massage for almost 2 years before embarking on a round-the-world trip. Within the next twenty years, she traveled to 36 countries—25 of them as a Servas traveler. Traveling with Servas is much more affordable than staying in hotels and it has the additional benefit of allowing you to experience the country is a way that is deeper than the typical tourist experience.

She also used Servas on numerous trips across the USA, “Being city-born and raised, I found staying on ranches in Montana and Wyoming almost as exotic as visiting foreign countries.”

“How did you happen to settle down in Guatemala?” I asked. “I came in October 1992 to study Spanish and then decided to stay. Guatemala is a blessing—no heating or air-conditioning bills, no need for winter clothes, no snow to shovel, no car to maintain, and fresher, cheaper food.”

Deet finds that living in Antigua allows her to support herself comfortably on her small Social Security check.

But just as important as the practical considerations is the fact that Deet feels she can make a difference in people’s lives by living here.

In the beginning, Deet worked for Common Hope (www.commonhope.org), which focuses primarily on education. “It’s a fine project, but I found out that jobs aren’t readily available even for those children who did manage to get some sort of education. It was like pushing against the tide.”

About eight years ago, she heard that one of her massage clients, Sue Patterson, had started a nonprofit organization called WINGS (www.wingsguate.org), to address the problem of family planning and other reproductive health issues, such as cervical cancer detection and treatment programs, in Guatemala.

“I became involved by buying a tubal ligation ($16) for a 40-year-old woman who already had 11 children. Now that woman’s baby has finished first grade and one of her children has graduated from high school (a first for the family). Also, the woman looks better now than she did 8 years ago!”

Since then, Deet has continued to give donations from her own small income and has become a fund-raiser. Almost every summer, she travels to the United States to give talks on behalf of WINGS, gathering additional donations. “Small donations from ordinary people. I don’t have access to rich people.” In May 2008, Deet received an award for her efforts on behalf of WINGS.

On her wall, she proudly displays the award she got from WINGS. Next to it is a stack of brochures about WINGS. She encouraged me to take one. The brochure cover shows a photo of a small girl, probably no more than 5 years old, holding her baby brother. It explains the purpose of the organization, quoting some disturbing statistics:

• Nearly 60% of the population in Guatemala lives below the poverty line, with high illiteracy and low access to health care.

• Only 43% of women use any form of birth control, including natural methods. This falls to 21% among indigenous women.

• The average woman has four to five children and 42% of the population is under the age of 15.

• Cervical cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women of reproductive age.

• A woman is 15 times more likely to die in childbirth in Guatemala than in the USA.

• Almost of one-third of women report an unmet desire for family planning.

WINGS is helping by providing education and training in family planning and birth control methods, as well as the funds necessary to subsidize methods for those who cannot afford them.

Deet asked me to do what I could to spread the word. Please contact info@wingsguate.org for additional information on how you can help or visit their website (www.wingsguate.org).

About the Author

After twenty years of working as a technical writer for the software industry, Janet Lipkin Bein declared herself a “free woman” in January. Although she had squeezed in travel vacations even while working full-time, Janet is now enjoying the ability to travel for longer periods of time. In the past several months, she took a three-week eco-adventure trip to Peru, lived in Israel for two months, and spent a month traveling through Italy and Austria. She also took a short trip to Alaska this summer. Janet finds that one of the best things about traveling is the people she meets along the way.

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