Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Guatemala: A Beauty that Hurts

            Upon arriving to Guatemala, I was not quite sure what to expect. There was the half of me expecting to see a similar sight to the ‘America’ I am used to and the other half of me expected the version of picture book version Guatemala I had seen when I had browsed the Internet. Both expectations were filled simultaneously.  From within the airport I could see familiarities of a ‘normal’ airport I am most used to, but the people found within the airport differed. Though there was a fair share of people in modern clothing, there were also many in traditional Guatemalan dress. There were also many people dressed as though they stepped off a ranch. The general feeling of the airport made me reminiscent of summers spent in Texas during my childhood.

            My first experience outside of the airport in Guatemala was another experience that I was entirely too familiar with. For lunch the first day we were treated to the an ‘authentic’ Guatemalan lunch, McDonalds. This would be just the beginning of the relationship for the duration of my stay. Though the foods were familiar, the experience was not. More than just the delivery scooters that sat outside the fast food establishment, the service was distinguishable from the typical fast food experience. For the entirety of our stay, the friendliness and courtesy of food service workers far surpassed that of what it is common in the United States.

            Though the cities share a very common thread of the ‘American’ experience with the United States, the drives through the country and smaller towns showed a side of Guatemala that was not completely manipulated by the ‘western’ influence. The lands in between towns were cultivated from the tops to the bottoms of hills and the animals grazed to the roads edges. There was no mistake that the people utilized whatever resources available and that they worked hard to survive. One distinct difference to the farmlands that I am most accustomed to seeing, other than the cultivation of steep hillsides, was the lack of machinery. The farming is done by hand. The beauty of the land seemed to be preserved by this. Within the towns, there was no lack of machinery. At times I felt as though I was in the town from the movie Cars, Radiator Falls, because the majority of the shops seemed dedicated to the maintenance of vehicles. Upon arriving in Huehuetenango, the vehicle of choice was no doubt the scooter.  I do not think I have ever seen so many scooters in one place, nor have I ever seen a family of four on a scooter before.

            Huehuetenango was more of a city than the suburban city I am used to, but definitely not on the same level as Guatemala City. Huehuetenango was to Guatemala City as an expansive ranch style home to a multistory mansion. The city held many people, but seemed more spread out. Though we were staying in the ‘city’, the expansive mountain range seemed to be just a step out the door from our hotel. One consistent theme to the hotels in Guatemala was the feeling of outside on the inside. Every hotel we went to had fountains and greenery on the inside as well as an outdoor courtyard within. Within the city square there were trees, including one tree that was traditionally used in the courting process. Ana, one of our translators, explained that back in the day, before text messages and Facebook, young women would go stand by this tree and wait to be ‘conquered’. The young men of the villages would come to this tree to court the women. Now the tree was just a tree to sit around and converse with others.  The town square of Huehue was very active and many people were selling goods from produce to phones.

            In Huehue, there was a very beautiful place that we were able to spend time at. The Fundación Salvación was a private orphanage in the town founded by a woman named Sandra. Here we were able to see the heart of Guatemala. The children here were some of the smartest, kindest and most beautiful children I have ever met. From my first steps off the bus, I knew that Guatemala would forever have a piece of my heart. Though the children’s situations differed, they all simply needed love and mas fotas. The children loved having their pictures taking doing silly things and showing off on the playground equipment. Our first Saturday in Guatemala we were able to have a pizza party with the children. One minuscule detail of the party was that it was held at the local Mayan ruins. It was quite a melding of worlds that day with Dominos pizza delivery, college students of a variety of ages from the United States, and Guatemalan children of various heritages all at a site of Ancient Mesoamerica. If this experience was not a multicultural experience, I do not know what is.  The ruins were beautiful as were the views from the top, though slightly terrifying. The children showed absolutely no fear as they ran around the tops of the pyramids just the same as if they were on solid ground. One day they performed dances for a volunteer who was leaving and they showed a great deal of pride in everything they did. Later in the trip, they performed more dances for us, including a traditional dance reflecting the market experience. Our last full day at the orphanage the children set up a mock market place and we played as though we were going through and purchasing goods with fake money and rocks. Some of the older kids even made some very delicious and fresh tortillas and black beans. This last day was a nice chance to experience Guatemalan culture from the children’s perspectives. No matter where you are in the world, children have the same fresh perspective on life and the world. This really helps one to see that no matter how different we all may think we are, we have similar origins in our humanity and childhoods.

            The lives of Guatemalans are very diverse. One of our last nights in Huehue, we were able to visit Sandra’s home, which was vastly different than what most loving conditions seemed to be. Though on the outside her home was standard to the city with concrete walls, the inside seemed very similar inside to what you would see in the United States, other than the large waterfall area with jungle-esque plants. There were even little dogs running around and baby toys making noises upstairs. A stark contrast to this was our visit to the mountain villages to pass out clothes. There were tiny children holding other children on their backs and the children’s cheeks were painfully chapped. The people seemed so desperate for the meager handouts we had to give them that they swamped our bus. Guatemala is many ways seemed to be a country of extremes. No matter how poor people may think they are in the United States, I have never seen such a disparity or need as a did in the mountains of Guatemala.

            The examples of desperation continued as our journey in Guatemala continued to other places, but in a different way. Upon arriving at our hotel in Panajachel on Lake Atitlán, we were for the first time on our trip swarmed by people trying to sell their goods. Lake Atitlán was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We were able to cross the lake on a massive boat to the Santiago Atitlán. Upon reaching Santiago Atitlán, we were once again surrounded by people with goods to sell. The town seemed to cater to tourism, as there were many booths set up with traditional Guatemalan souvenirs to sell and the people running the booths had memorized choice English phrases. “That looks very nice, you are so handsome my friend!”, “I remember you from yesterday!”, and “I will sell to you very cheap, five US dollars!” seemed popular phrases. One lesson learned by our group that day was to not pull out large amounts of money. Once one person in the group made this mistake, the word got around and we became very popular. Nearing the end of our visit in Santiago Atitlán, I was ready to go because I was feeling terrible for having to ignore and old woman and a child who would not let up on trying to sell Mickenzie and I bracelets.

            The next day we traveled to Antigua and the shopping experience was not nearly as intense. The market place was more organized and the people were not as pursuant. One experience within the market place that I did not really enjoy was bartering. Though part of me enjoys the thought of getting a bargaining, a larger part of me felt wrong trying to argue down a price. I felt as though I was putting a price on the value of the person’s time. Who I am to say their time isn’t as valuable as a few more quetzals?  There were many things in Guatemala that felt like a bargain, but at what point I am as a person deeming the worth of theses people’s time and energy less than mine?

            George Lovell wrote a book about Guatemala that was title A Beauty that Hurts. This title could not be a more accurate description of this country that seems worlds away from the United States, when in actuality the plane ride from Atlanta to Guatemala City is shorter than a plane ride to California. Guatemala is a lost world that is in many ways starving for love.  

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