11.26.2008 - 11.30.2008 70 °F
So, I’m going back to Guatemala after a crazy and fun month in the states, so ready for my old, slow and steady but wobbly schedule. I’m ready to go find more families, more treasures, more artisans, sit with them, learn from them…
My first few days are spent in picturesque Antigua. A town so cute, it almost looks like a movie set. It is considered the prettiest city in Central America. I immediately love it here. Its narrow cobble stone streets, its churches in every corner, each more beautiful than the last, its zocalo, always filled with musicians and fresh fruit vendors. The backdrop is comprised of three active volcanoes that puff out smoke that make every picture seem like a postcard. This place looks like they had someone brought in just to make it picture perfect. They did a great job I might add.
Streets of Antigua
My stay at the Black Cat hostel is comfortable and fun. I am in a dorm with five guys who are all friendly, sarcastic and entertaining. I spend days with Dan from Canada, a super nice guy and a stud of a guy, walking around town, taking pictures, eating and talking. We get along fabulously.
One of the many churches in Antigua
Picturesque Zocalo in Antigua
After a few days in Antigua, I am dying to get back to Lake Atitlan. On my 3 hour bus ride there, I look at the pretty landscape and start getting all dreamy. Then, just like that, I come to a realization that I may have made Guatemala and specially Lake Atitlan, sound like la-la land. Although I understand that in my own little corner of it, it was. But for most indigenous people of Guatemala, life is hard, life is a struggle, life is figuring out where your next meal will come from. This is their reality.
“In Guatemala, indigenous Mayan people have been driven from their land due to years of civil war and are now struggling to secure their most basic needs and rights. Mayan women face even greater hurdles than men in satisfying basic survival needs for themselves and their children. These women are typically undernourished, uneducated, and occupied with the care of young children. In some cases, they are confronted with domestic violence or abandoned by husbands who leave to seek work or new lives elsewhere. Forty percent of Guatemalan women are illiterate, and this rate is even higher among indigenous women, 93% of whom live in poverty”. Let me repeat that, 93 % live in poverty. Take a moment to take that in.
So, just like that, I have come to realize that I need to deconstruct my love for the landscapes of Guatemala. I have been projecting things onto the place. Things that I feel my own culture is missing. The pre-industrialized world, the communion with nature, the simple life…but in that moment of dumb shock, I realized that these people are poor. Duh! Yes, they are content with what they have, but it’s because what they have is all they know. How deep do those values go? Their lifestyle is not a matter of choice but a function of their environment. If they could have cars and refrigerators, iPods and DVD players, they would. I want this place to keep all those consumer goods out just because they ruin my quaint notion of an untouched magical little world.
Next time I stop to watch a family carrying firewood on their heads up a steep slope, or planting vegetables on 45 degree angles on the base of a volcano, I feel some of my sentimental attachment has gone away. The family stands oddly downhill, backs bent as they pick corn, beans, potatoes, their hands fast and unerring. Down a ways from the sloped field, a girl of about three carries a baby wrapped on her back with a broad hand-woven cloth. Standing there with my Eagle Creek backpack I am aware of two possible versions: A postcard picture named Rural Farms, Guatemala, or I can see a family bent over the earth in aching, backbreaking labor, the ghost of two children dead of some easily preventable disease, and not enough money for all the surviving children to buy shoes. It is too easy to romanticize and get dreamy in this place. The landscape cannot answer back, cannot say, no you are wrong, life here is different but all of it added up it is not any better. You can love this landscape because your life does not depend on it. It is merely a pretty backdrop for the other life you can always return to, a life in which you will not be a farmer barely scraping a living out of difficult terrain. I realize, I love the view, but I would not want the life.
Sometimes when describing Guatemala or Laos or Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam, people sigh and say oh how lovely. They want to believe in these places I used to believe in, a simple life, a Shangri-La, the fair-tale places I imagined for so many years. But fairy-tales don’t have villages filled with trash and without a clean water supply, or four-year-olds dying of dysentery or some other easily preventable and treatable disease. People don’t want to hear this, no, no, no. Nor do they want to hear my criticisms of life in America. Everyone wants cleaner, simpler, safer, saner world but no one wants to give up anything. No one wants to take the bus.