My story of Livingston and Celso Nery

This page is about my trip to Livingston, Guatemala in 2013. I recently (2016) updated it. I am going back this year and am hoping people will read this and learn about my trip and want to give some money for the cause. I would love to take requests if someone is passionate about something in particular. Be it the kids, ocean, infrastructure and jobs, or helping out families. let me know. I want to go regardless of additional funding and spend my money, but possibly I will get more. I just wanted to share with you if nothing else.
My goal for this page is to share with you stories of my experiences in Livingston, Guatemala.
During my stay I was almost solely in Garifunan areas of Livingston. It is a small town with a wealthy class that owns Multiple acre properties with large fences around them. The middle class shop and business owners, and the poor many of whom are jobless. The Garifunans are the indigenous peoples whom descend from the Carib people who intermarried with Africans. (Coollink). They live throughout the Caribbean Coast, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras. The are almost no Garifunan men between the ages of 17 and 45 in Livingston. I only met a handful of men who did not join the military or leave to America or a city. I can’t recall anyone who did not have relatives in Brooklyn or L.A. About half the 16-17 year old girls I met were mothers, and children with different fathers was common. I met four Garifunan business owners, nightclub, hotel, cloths shop, and boat taxi serves. But everyone was a self employed entrepreneur. People who knew languages would be at the dock every hour when the taxi would come in trying help tourists. I even found myself getting a cut to a deal when I told a couple they had to choose one tour boat driver over the other. Most of the shops were owned by Guatemalans of Latin decent, and they typically live more inland off the coast and many were good friends to a lot of people I knew. The Garifunans are by far the majority of poor in livingston, but not long ago they were wealthy. The decline of fish and the loss of the beaches hit the two industries the Garifunans rely on.
I lived above the small home of a native rastaman, Celso Nery. I met his american born wife, Eva, in the U.S. earlier that year and decided to travel to guatemala. I rented celso’s room and told him I wanted to help out the best I could. I knew Celso was the “rastaman” to a bunch of people in a small town off the east coast of Guatemala, but I did not know what that really meant. Celso told me that a rastaman is a teacher and guide for a people.  Celso is a giant. I am 6,2 220 and he makes me look small. He was a world-class boxer and has been a spiritual leader for many years. He has read the Bible in 7 languages, full time, for 15 years. He is well educated and lived in Holland for three years. He awakes each day to run around the village and then read the bible for about an hour. He has been intrusted to hold the oral history of his people and is always active in the community. Celso founded APTG, (Asociacion de Pescadores Tradicional Garifuna), a Guatemalan non-profit trying to fight for Garifuna fishing rights and ocean conservation. Each morning he leads a before-school program to help the local Garifunan kids with their education and daily nutrition. He also is involved with construction projects and local politics.
I Lived with Celso, he was very passionate and had a honest fear of the future for his people. He is the president of Asociacion Pescadores Tradicional Garifuna. The fishermen use canoes and hooks on line, they fish the same way their ancestors did before them. They still hand weave small nets for catching bait fish in the pre dawn hours, and the large draw string nets they use to lasso the fish. They also make long nets they float with empty plastic containers and sink with rocks. But they have never used nets to bottom trawl. APTG is in a fight against the larger fish company’s almost daily use of bottom trawling right along the coast. Everyone is catching fewer and smaller fish than ever before due to pollution and overfishing from commercial bottom trawling…even the commercial fisherman. The commercial fishermen control the union and use nets that are smaller than an inch. Most the little baby fish are dead before they are thrown back into the ocean. The bottom trawling is also destroying the roots on the ocean floor causing erosion. The erosion is a large cause for the loss of the beach. The Garifunan fishermen say they never would catch a barracuda less than the length of their arm, but now they are lucky to catch one longer than a foot. They are forced further and further out to deeper and deeper water.
During the expansion of the United Fruit Company Guatemala underwent mass deforestation taking away the leaves that once filled the rivers and created new sediment. Not to mention the trees that once gave the natives their food and shelter for free. Also, the dams in Belize take away sediment from rivers that flow to the Guatemalan coast that would normally help make new sand and ocean soil. Combined with bottom trawling erosion and the rise of the sea level, Livingston’s beaches are leaving fast.
Livingston was once the location of Guatemala’s beautiful ambassadors homes, and it had one of Guatemala’s first movie theaters. It was filled with wealthy tourists who fueled the economy. But now most people skip over this forgotten paradise. During my stay, I met several tourists. Most would only stay for a day or two and no one knew what to expect. The vast majority expressed disappointment. Complaints ranged from lack of services, fear of safety, seeing too much garbage, and only few good beaches. But everyone was enchanted by the culture and the Caribbean vibe, and the more the tourists emerged themselves in the culture, the more they enjoyed their stay. Many beaches were more dirt than sand and had garbage on the edges of the water. I was told the beaches used to be two football fields long. Now the water is just shallow with muddy sand. I learned where the nicer beaches were but I still typically had to rake my patch of sand of trash before I would put my towel down.
But I did not travel as a turorist. I was there to see what I could do to help the youngins. Everyday a teacher, paid by Celso, would show up to the building in the corner of town called. From nine to twelve the kids would get homework done for the day, breakfast,  get traditional Garifunan culture lessons  typically 20 min of music, language, or history. He struggled every week to get the money for the teacher, rent, and food. But as he said, “Jah (god) will provide.”
I would show up early and play ball, music, or join in whatever game was the kids were playing in the street before the building was opened. The building with ‘Escuela Garifuna’ on it; had a bookshelf on one whole wall, half full of books, two long tables, a chalk board, and a laptop. About 16 kids would show up each day, but there were typically a couple we would have to turn away a few each day. The more the kids came the more likely they were included. There were no forms, sign ups, members, government, or non-profit funding. This is all happened because one man started to help his nieces and nephews with homework everyday. He stated to invite their friends and soon everyone knew to show up at his place for help with homework. I tried to help out where I could. The part I felt I could do easily was buy some food. Five dollars could feed all 16 kids. In my life five dollars a day for coffee is good budgeting.
The kids would go to school in the afternoons to accommodate the fisherman’s life style. During that time I’d help Celso with a building project or write grant proposals and try to find us money. Almost every Garifunan I talked to had at least one direct experience with a non-profit. Most had a few and typically they would get something from the situation, but probably ten percent of what was offered.  All around me I saw people who had jobs doing the same thing they had done for as long as they knew, but now there is not enough fish to support them all. No alternative work is there because the local tourist economy is also gone. Most nonprofits would not help the Garifunans, because compared to the other Mayan peoples they are doing alright, a lot of the stats are old and there has been a ten year exodus of Garifunans which helps the earnings per person stat. Looking globally they are do ‘well.’ Global non-profits like to help people who make less than 1 dollar a day. Most average earnings stats I could find were around 2 dollars a day for Garifunans. Until recently Guatemala did not seen them as Natives to America. Now they are an officially recognised part of the indigenous tribe.  They are Black non-African or Black Caribs and I had a lot of trouble finding funds and organisations that would work with us. I found tons of grants and organisations who work with black people of Africa or a specific set of Mayan tribes. But none who were will to help kids.
Everyday I was pulled away right after dinner to watch the kids show me their gymnastics skills, go swimming, go on a hike, or go get a sweet. But when I got back I would put up a sign that said “aprender para juegos” (learn for games). I got the idea fast, all anyone wanted to do was play my cell phone, so I made it educational. Up to three kids could play, my computer, my cell phone, and my tablet and the others could learn or watch. If a kid finished a page of work they would get 10 min on a game. I’d make the pages myself at night and would make different levels of math or english. I also pause all games and make everyone listen to my english lecture every hour or so. This went on most weekdays for two hours or so until night. A lot of times weekends games were free, if there was no homework.
Most eat a large lunch before the kids go to school. The leftovers are typically eaten for dinner, but it is not always much, maybe some rice and beans. There were several nights that kids would seek me out to get a meal. I had to be careful not to be “the gringo that has unlimited money.” I lived with them and I felt like I knew when the kids were just trying to get a sweet or if they were actually sneaking out and finding me. I found out who was coming to me because they couldn’t go to sleep because their tummy hurt too much. This pulled at my heart most. We would walk to the local tienda and grab some chips and a banana or something.
On days off we could travel to a river, ocean, or swimming hole. I come from teaching kids how to swim by profession, so this is something I knew I could better than seeking grants. I showed Celso and two other village moms how to teach correct breathing and water safety. Also I helped everyone, even the older who thought they were good swimmers. Most water is shallow so most people just knew how to push off the bottom. I left all of my swimming supplies for the kids. I tried my best to share first aid and safety advice.
Celso had several projects, but no funding at the time. There were two on hold and a third he wanted to start. He was always trying to use his influence to get public money somehome. He then used this to build new roofs, upgrade homes from log huts to cement walls, build water towers, repair roads, or fix bridges. He felt that funding the school and helping the kids with grants and funding was great and all, but he wanted roads, jobs, and an earnings for the parents, not just a bandage of money. Livingston is cut off by road and is hard to start a business there. He tried his best to keep people working at home, during my stay three 18 year old men who finished helping Celso with a concrete project joined the army for a steady job.  Celso wants to build and bring back the beaches. He lived in the Netherlands for several years and has seen what infrastructure and proper seawalls can do. His vision is that one day they can rebuild and be a great paradise once again.
It was hard to leave and say goodbye, but I feel the best thing I could do is come home work hard where money and prosperity exist, send money direct to celso if he expressed a need and I had it, and save for my next trip. Next time I go I want to bring enough money to feed every hungry kid. Last time I needed to make a small budget last a long time. It was hard to not give a bandage out because I did not have enough money to get more and I did not think the cut was bad enough. A part of me just wants to give money to celso instead of paying for a flight, but I saw what I could do there and just to be there and be a good role model and person in the kid’s life. I chat with them on facebook often and the kids alway ask when will I come back.
I think I got along with everyone I meet because I listened to what they had to say and I wasn’t there to fix anything. I was just there as a friend. Everyone one there was always friendly and lively. No one pulled me to the side and asked me to photograph of their kid when they were in their normal old riped used cloths. But I was pulled aside and demanded to take a photo when they would dress in their sunday’s finest or when a new outfit was received from a birthday. The parents, mostly mothers, I talked to would never beg to me. They were ashamed they could not feed and clothe their children. They are awesome people and I feel like my awesome friends are in too deep. I have pictures of children crying, but I don’t like to see pictures of friends crying and I definitely would not publish a picture of a friend crying. Even if my friend is going through a fight to the end. I still would not show my friend crying.
I was told by a non-profit representative the people look too happy in my photos. I know people give to what they feel passion for. I don’t know why I feel such a connection with the Garifunans, but know I want to keep traveling there and spending my money on their local economy to help the Garifunans. I will always feed a hungry child, but my dream would be to help people get a job. Even $400 could get a home converted from corrugated walls put together by rope and sticks to a cement wall home. The $400 home project would keep three men working for a month and they money they get as pay and they money for the materials stays in livingston. That is just an example of how i’d rather pay the parents for work then just feed the kids, but that takes more money.
I plan on traveling with two friends and stopping into livingston for a week on a vacation. I want to be a tourist and put some money into their market. I feel the best thing to do is to bring money in. If i go there and buy fresh fruit, bread, and meat for the kids it helps every shop owner and the whole local economy. I wanna be able to buy things that are beyond basic necessities; like, mosquito nets, clothes, shoes, school supplies, toys, tools, books, meat instead of rice, instruments, and just some stuff that’s not just enough to get by. It is by far best to bring money. Taking these items there is not cost effective and is a burden.  Also the money in Livingston stays in the local economy a long time, my ten dollars will bounce around a lot before someone makes the trip to Guatemala city with it.
To find out more or to support Celso’s work contact him at or me at
Also this is Celso’s youtube channel : HERE