Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Duck! Duck! (Not Goose)
Today I am very busy. So, with apologies, as well as credit, to my son, I am going to reproduce an essay he wrote for a class project. The essay is a reflection on his FIRST trip to Guatemala - in 2007 - and is quite remarkable in it's observations and conclusions. He sums up a 'first-timer's vist' very well! Brad returned to Guatemala in 2008, and will probably go back, year after year, just like me. He got the "Guatemala Bug" - just like his Mom! Enjoy.
Forever Changed and Forever Drawn
Reflections of a 2007 Mission Trip to Guatemala – written for a class project
“Duck!” The shout was repeated amongst the fifteen people crammed into the back of a pick-up truck, and we all reflexively bent our knees, allowing the branch of the latest tree to soar harmlessly over our heads. The truck, meanwhile, continued its bouncy ascent up the narrow, winding, jungle track. I took a deep breath of the moist, foggy air. Rain drops from the wet branches frequently landed on my head, or fell harmlessly past to splash into the many puddles along the muddy track. Being in the highlands of Guatemala in the rainy season is in many respects similar to being underwater.
I didn’t want to come here. I liked my American conveniences. Showers, for one. Personal automobiles for all – or, if one had to resort to public transportation, at least it was a decent bus or subway. I liked being in a country where I could drink the water without essentially proclaiming “Open house!” to any and all intestinal parasites in the area. Nonetheless, Mom was adamant. It’d be a valuable learning experience, she said. I could practice the Spanish I’d been learning for the past four years. Besides, I’d love the people, living in dozens of small villages around Lake Atitlán, a massive lake formed in the crater of an even more massive, (fortunately) extinct volcano.
One village in particular was our destination. San Andreas, a small community of six hundred people, survived Hurricane Stan in 2005 only to be wiped out immediately after by one of the numerous mudslides to sweep through the region in the storm’s aftermath. In the intervening years, the survivors had struggled to re-establish their lives. They managed to negotiate with the government for a small plot of land, halfway up the slopes of Volcan Tolimán, one of the numerous volcanoes that overlook the lake, and were able to secure prefabricated government housing for most of the residents. My family was going to be part of a mission group, led by my mother, come to build a school to educate the dozens of children of the town.
And so, over my protests (and those of my younger brother), we packed everything it would take to survive in a Third World country for ten days – shampoo, soap, clothes, iPod, essentials only – and winged our way south. My first impression, upon leaving the airport, was how large all the cars were. Most vehicles that only came to head height in America were several feet above the heads of the nearest people, here. Then I realized with a jolt that most vehicles did indeed only come to head height – of Americans. The average Guatemalan stands only about 5’ tall.
My first bit of culture shock now past, the group, fifteen gringos strong, piled into the two vans – luxury transport, I was later to learn – and began the three hour drive to Lake Atitlán.
The first hour of which was spent getting out of Guatemala City.
Longtime residents of the country informed me that the Central American republic has a system of traffic laws fit to rival that of any European nation. During our ride through the capital, I attempted to deduce them. I managed several loose rules: Stop lights are not used, only stop signs. Stop signs are mere suggestions – rather, the accepted practice is to lean on your horn as you approach the intersection and pray the other fellow blinks first. Speed limits are mere guidelines. Lanes are not necessary, only a gap that it is possible to fit your vehicle through. If your mirrors can also fit through this gap, this is considered a happy bonus.
With these happy safeguards of our security, we soon arrived safe and snug at the mission building in San Lucas Tolimán, the headquarters for all volunteer groups around Lake Atitlán. The mission is a massive old Spanish church, run by Father Greg Schafer. Father Greg, as he is known, has been serving in Guatemala for nearly half a century. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could spend so long a time in this impoverished nation, when I first arrived.
The next day, I was even more certain that, while I wished the villagers every bit of luck with their reconstruction, Guatemala was not the place for me. For example, the showerhead was situated only 5’6” off the floor. While this provides a comfortable head room for a Guatemalan, I stand 6’0” tall. A minor inconvenience, save for one crucial fact – in Guatemala, hot water is provided by the simple expedient of running the pipes through an electric heater just before coming out of the showerhead. This delightful contraption was situated in approximately the same space my head was to occupy. Thus, each shower was an adventure in avoiding electrocution. I had barely been in the country 24 hours and I was ready to return home on the very next plane.
That was before I met the people of San Andreas. The fifteen of us scrambled into the back of a pick-up truck, clinging to the rails that had been precariously welded on for that very purpose, and set off into the jungle. We wound through narrow, muddy tracks, wide enough only for our truck – people driving the other way frantically reversing to let us pass. We emerged from the jungle in an artificial clearing, full of prefabricated houses stretching along the mountain’s slopes. Children were all eager to greet the gringos, shouting friendly Holas! until we waved or shouted back.
I met a boy, Jirme. He was about five, and was always eager to see me each day. We would talk about our respective families, often with him sitting on my shoulders on our frequent walks around the village, waving to everyone we met, Jirme delightedly guiding my path.
I met a young man, Gregorio. Gregorio daily aided us in our work on the school. He was about 19, and the meager pay he received from the village for this work he was saving to study, to become an architect. We talked while we worked, about schools in our two countries, our plans for the future. We swapped hats – my SeaWorld hat for his battered old Miami Dolphins cap.
I met a middle aged woman. She was the mother of one of the elementary school-aged girls that watched us work every day. I went along with another group member to visit her home, as a translator. She showed us her dirt-floored kitchen, filled with dirty plates and flies, the only furniture besides the stove an extremely battered cupboard and a few old crates serving as a table. She showed us her concrete-floored home, with a living room and two bedrooms, and the most cherished possession in the house: A set of photographs of her entire family, enshrined in the center of the living room wall, so that it was impossible to enter either bedroom without seeing it. She reminded me of nothing so much as the celebrities on MTV’s show, Cribs, only she was far, far prouder of her palace than any of those stars could ever be.
And so it was that nine days later, I was once more in the rattling pick-up truck, winding its way through the rain and the mud, ducking the jungle trees, up the mountain to reach San Andreas one last time. The school had been finished the previous day, and now we were on our way to a day not of work, but of celebration with the villagers.
The entire community had turned out. There were banners decorating the concrete block walls, food set out on tables all throughout the one room interior (none of it actually edible for us gringos, sadly, unless we wanted to play host to a horde of intestinal parasites). There was even a marimba band of the local men, and so naturally we danced.
It was here that I met my last Guatemalan, an old woman. As a slow dance began, and the various couples in our group began making their way onto the floor, I suddenly saw the woman, in her 70s at least, gazing longingly at the dancers. Seized by a sudden impulse, and propelled by a treacherous push from my brother, I found myself slowly waltzing with her.
I assumed I would be doing her a favor – and that she’d soon grow tired of all this movement and once more retire to her place on the sidelines. Unfortunately, I forgot that the economies of many countries, including that of Guatemala, are driven by the working power of little old ladies. And so for the next hour or so we danced together through whatever the band gave us, me trying desperately to keep up with her increasingly impassioned movements. I glimpsed, then, the passion that animates even the oldest of Guatemala’s people, their love of life and joy amidst all their poverty.
Guatemala changed me. Before, I had placed all my happiness in material goods. That was before I met Jirme, the happiest person I’ve met, and he only owned a pair of dirty shorts and an old Atlanta Braves T-shirt. Before, I never really thought of my future plans. That was before I met Gregorio, who worked every day so that he could follow his dream of being an architect, and providing for his family. Before, I believed that to be comfortable and proud you needed comforts and fine things. That was before I met the schoolgirl’s mother, a queen in her small domain, proud of all that she had accomplished. And most of all I learned that true riches lie not in goods but in people, when I danced with the villagers of San Andreas that last day. In Guatemala, 18 families control 90% of the land. This fact we were told again and again during our stay there. However, by the end of the trip, I knew who the truly wealthy in that country were.
There is a legend, amongst the Maya of Lake Atitlán, that whoever drinks or even touches the waters of the lake will forever be drawn back to it. If that is true, then indeed a spell has been cast over me. For now, my heart will forever be drawn back to Guatemala, that country of contrasts, and the people of San Andreas.