My wife, Marlene, and I weren’t on a mission trip when we visited Guatemala June 18-26, though we brought two suitcases with items Marlene packed for an elementary school. It is in the town of San Pedro La Laguna, where our daughter, Bailey, has been enrolled in a Spanish immersion school this summer, and the elementary school is where she has volunteered part time.
You could say we contributed to the economy of this poor country, spending on sightseeing, lodging, food and buying some things the poor were selling.
Guatemala, which is smaller in size than Tennessee and is the most populous country in Central America at close to 14.4 million, borders southern Mexico and its cultural heritage is steeped in the Mayan civilization. But going there, we learned more about this country that means “land of many trees” and which has volcanoes that simmer below the rim. More than half the Guatemalans are direct descendants of Mayans. It is also a country that endured a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
One thing I pondered as a visitor from a wealthy country is how many of us can feel entitled to things we are accustomed to.
Our first stop in Guatemala brought that immediately to light. We’re used to having toilet seats in the United States. Looking around for a restroom after picking up our baggage at the airport in the Guatemalan capital of Guatemala City, I learned there was a restroom in a restaurant on the other side of the wall that separated the baggage area from the street. I was already prepared to not find toilet tissue, but didn’t expect what else I found: no seat on the toilet.
I found the same situation in a bus station we were at later, and it was a long wait for access.
It was mostly quiet at the station, except for the man at the doorway giving people information on buses and a baby crying mostly nonstop. Looking around I wondered what all the people did for a living, doubting anyone would want to answer such inquiries. One older man with a cowboy hat and big belt buckle, looked like he could be a farm worker. He was genteel about letting me know when the men’s restroom was unoccupied.
Riding in the little three-wheeled motorized vehicles called tut tuts to go between villages around Lake Atitlan where Bailey has been residing gave a glimpse into how bad some roads can be. A tut tut with its motorcycle engine is probably the best way to drive on those stretches because of their maneuverability.
Among our experiences in Guatemala were horseback riding into the hills of San Pedro La Laguna and a long and rocking bus ride overnight from Antigua to Tikal National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Guatemala. The park has some of the world’s best Mayan ruins complete with howler monkeys in the trees. We also hiked in a beautiful forested national park at Panajachel one day called Reserva National Atitlan. One day we visited a small building in the village of San Juan La Laguna that holds a women’s weaving cooperative. There, we listened to a woman give a talk on weaving and how woven materials are dyed the many brilliant colors found in the outfits of Guatemalan women.
Also memorable was seeing life in the villages, including a marketplace where there was hanging fresh meat. Also prominent wherever we went were policia, armed with some fairly big firepower. Blasts that sounded like cannons were frequently heard in and around the towns, one of the ways Guatemalans celebrate annual events.
One sight I will not forget was of an older man with a bundle of wood stacked about a yard high on his back standing beside his bicycle in drenching rain at the bottom of a steep hill he was headed up. It was a lesson on perseverance under a heavy burden.
One day while walking on a street in San Juan La Laguna, I could hear a lone trumpet player in a small masonry dwelling with open windows playing notes from the 1960s rock song, “Sunshine Of Your Love.” Was he preparing for a music festival? I wondered, as I heard there were some city celebrations coming up in the area. The player turned out to be an older man, sitting alone with his trumpet.
Agriculture, tourism, textile manufacturing, Spanish immersion schools and some mining are among the country’s industries. Guatemala mines some of the world’s finest jade, and a fine jade shop is in Antigua, the original capital of Guatemala until a major earthquake. Coffee, bananas, sugar and avocados are produced in large quantities in Guatemala.
Despite the beauty of the mountains in Guatemala, of which some are active volcanoes, poverty is very prevalent and it’s best not to display valuables. Many informed us that Guatemala City is a place to especially be careful in because of its crime rate.
Returning home we noted the crisis at the U.S. border with Mexico that has deservedly generated much discussion. I looked at a copy of the daily, Prensa Libre, one day in Guatemala that covered the visit of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala on June 20. He was there to confer with Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina about the border problem which is this: Thousands of children, mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, have of late been arriving alone at the southern U.S. border seeking entry into the U.S. Some of these children have suffered from the trip’s rigors – one Guatemalan boy who had been trying to join his brother in Chicago was found dead in June in the desert near the border with Texas. Criminals have been charging families of Central American children high amounts of money to send their children up to the American border with the false promise the children will be allowed into the U.S. The facts are that U.S. courts have to find certain circumstances such as persecution before they will warrant a child’s to stay, which is in a small minority of cases. Also, the wait to be heard in court is lengthening from the overload of cases. Part of the problem is the failure of some Central American governments to control their countries’ drug-related violence. Can you blame children for wanting to flee those conditions?
People in the U.S. consuming controlled substances from Central America and Mexico only fuel the drug cartel business. Congress and the president are meanwhile fighting over what to do about the immigrant children crisis.
My lasting and most cherished impression of Guatemala from our visit, though, will be the many friendly, gentle people who greeted those they met each day with either a “hola” or “buenos dias.” I hope that aspect of Guatemala never changes.