From the Ground in Guatemala

Saludos desde Guatemala (Greetings from Guatemala),

After months of the Seattle rain and cold, the blast of heat and sun was a welcome relief as we arrived in Guatemala City and began loading up the chicken bus with our luggage and supply drive boxes. Though we were all exhausted from the trip, it was hard not to be excited that at long last after culture nights and coffee selling and everything we’ve shared until this point we’d reached the day we’d been waiting for, the start of the Spring Trip.

We arrived on Sabado Santo…the Holy Saturday before Easter, so in Guatemala City all the stores were closed and traffic was light, but everywhere there were remnants of the festivities of the week before. Purple banners hung from walls, colored sawdust still littered the street. The bus took us directly to the cemetery which also seemed eerily quiet as we silently made our pilgrimage between the stone mausoleums to the cliff overlooking the largest garbage dump in Guatemala.

Though it was my fourth time visiting the dump, it was no less impactful. The smell hit us immediately and the sky was filled with circling vultures. Due to Semana Santa there were no long lines of yellow trucks, nor were there the hordes of people scavenging for recyclables from each truck, but yes, as we looked over the edge, there were still people and animals foraging through the refuse. A myriad of emotions played on each participant’s face, some were stoic, some near tears.

Checha, one of our GV Guatemala Staff, spoke to us about what we were seeing, not simply the culmination of years of daily dumping, but something even more sinister. He spoke about the systems of oppression present in Guatemala, that have made it so difficult for some indigenous people to find jobs, that they have been forced to move to the city to work in the dump simply to survive.

“Wait, you mean people live here?” One participant asked.

And everyone grew quiet, perhaps realizing this would be a far cry from a typical tourist trip to Antigua. This would be a journey where we would actually have to do some thinking. And there was time to think as we rode through the hilly countryside and finally through the cobblestone streets of Antigua to arrive in San Miguel Escobar, home to the GV Guatemala Office. At the office, after unloading everything, students met their homestay families and went home for dinner and much needed rest.

Easter began with a bang, literally. In addition to singing and bell ringing at 5:00am, we awoke to the sounds of fireworks like cannon shots and of course the local roosters singing along.  And then it was time for breakfast as a group, black beans, bread, and ham omelets. On Sundays we give the Homestay families a rest and eat as a group at the office, so everyone pitched in, setting up tables, and pulling out the plastic bins of plates and cutlery donated by previous groups.

After cleaning up, we hopped on the bus to San Antonio Aguas Calientes to the home of Sandra Ordonez, the Program Manager here in Guatemala. You might have met her during our recruiting season when she came to Seattle. Sandra, like many Guatemalans, comes from a Mayan family. So there we were introduced to some traditional Mayan handicrafts and weaving. Jessica and Mitchell were married in a traditional Mayan Ceremony (not sure if that was binding) while Mitchell’s pretend parents Nava and Steve danced in celebration. Afterwards we feasted on Pepian, a spicy brown gravy served with chicken, rice, and homemade tortillas, which many participants got to help make. Throughout the day Lupe, Helen, Ismael, Lindsey, and Janet took turns translating.

After lunch we did a little shopping and then headed to Segunda Cruz where GV built a school in 2007. There we met with the families whose children attend the school and everyone had the opportunity to share a snack of banana bread and horchata and to converse with the families. At the end of our time, one family enjoyed Janet so much that they gifted her with a live baby chicken. Though she would really like to keep it, I am skeptical that we can smuggle it through customs so “el pollito” is going to live with Aurelio, our Country Coordinator, until he finds a better home.

Today was our first day of work. I am working with the Coffee work team this trip. Ilana was our leader of the day and lead an awesome reflection. Everyone worked so hard and we didn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to get the gringos and the chapines to talk, because both parties were ready. It was Don Antonio’s first time working with gringos. He was the farmer in charge of teaching us about café, and by the days end he seemed impressed with what we were able to accomplish; which consisted of marking the coffee fields and beginning to dig holes for new plants. This is a task that requires a lot of patience and measurement, so during the down time, gringos and chapines taught each other games and songs.

The following are some excerpts from the leader of the day journals, so you can hear from the participants themselves. We will try to load some pictures and video on the blog, but not until tomorrow. Take care, Reagan.

“After I got on the bus I was so excited! The heat was killer. The music on the bus was great. Guadalupe was singing along and that was funny. I was feeling sick all day but all the people around me made me feel so much better! Meeting my family was awkward. They are the kindest people ever, but I don’t understand any Spanish, so my roommate did all the talking. I’m excited for the next few days though!”

“In Guatemala, I’ve found the people to be more friendly and though I don’t speak Spanish very well, not complaining, just grateful and happy for what they have and don’t have. I wish I was more like that…The most challenging thing I faced today was stepping outside of my comfort zone, I wish I was more brave and that this wasn’t an issue for me, but tis something I’m working on.”

“Whew, what a day! The trip finally feels real, after all our anticipation and preparation. Today we arrived in Guatemala, visited the dump of Guate City, and met our host families. Seeing the dump was a really powerful, moving experience. When I saw a person actually sorting through the trash, I really hated myself for just standing and watching him work from above. I felt a deep, human connection to this stranger.”

“When we drove down the streets of Guatemala City with supplies overhead, we drove fast through the colorful streets with bright white lettering against the reds, blues, and yellows of the small buildings’ walls. People on motorcycles, buses, foot were everywhere and I felt keenly aware of being watched just as any traveler is, and I understood the dress code and hearing cultural explanations: we are the front for a country, a culture, a program, and whatever we do, wrong or right is observed. The further we drove, the more the buildings morphed into small unit shacks with crosses on the doorways, crumbling stone and garbage outlining the graves. We had reached the dump. I was struck by the heavy contrast between the quiet and beauty of the grave sights and the putrid smell and the garbage strewn around. We walked through the graves, some took pictures, some just walked and all of us were silent. We reached the overhang of land jutting over the ravine toward the wasteland. Birds with giant wing spans flocked overhead, diving to feed, hundreds of them. People below us walked, bending down every now and then to pck up a piece of garbage and death seemed endless. “If you are born poor, you die poor,” is the Guatemalan saying.

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One thought on “From the Ground in Guatemala”

  1. Que increible! Gracias, Reagan! =) Such compelling testimony and insight. Looking forward to hearing more. Suerte con todo, amiga. Que les vaya muy bien. Cuidanse.

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