Thursday, December 8, 2011

Looking Back On Guatemala

When I find myself looking up during my two years in Guatemala, I see a stunningly beautiful place. In my time here I have climbed the region’s highest volcanoes and taken in views that I will never forget. I’ve jumped off of a warm springs waterfall into a jungle river. I’ve roasted marshmallows over flowing lava. I’ve seen the sunrise while sitting atop ancient Mayan ruins with the screams of howler monkeys greeting the bourgeoning day.

Looking down is a much different story. Then you see trash covered streets with emaciated dogs digging for their dinner. On most days I see a bolo (a drunk) passed out in the street as adults and children step around and over them as if they don’t even exist. Worse, I see countless, unsupervised children with swollen bellies going in and out of small houses with billowing smoke that eats away at their lungs and their lives. When I look down I not only see the burning garbage or the urine-drenched drunk, I smell them.

This dichotomy has troubled me every day of the two years that I have lived among Guatemala’s beauty and its squalor. I’ve learned that few things in Guatemala can be easily defined or understood and Guatemala itself is the paramount example of that. The factors that lead to this polarity are myriad and complex. Centuries of racism and discrimination, a genocidal civil war spanning over three decades, and foreign manipulation are only a few of the seemingly innumerable dynamics that have contributed mightily to Guatemala’s complications.

I constantly find myself asking questions about how Guatemala arrived at its current state. How can this place be two opposite things at the same time? How can a place with such a vibrant cultural history have such a bitterly depressing present? How is it the 99 percent of the Guatemalans I know are good- natured, respectable people or that its inhabitants all unanimously believe in the same loving, peaceful God yet the country is one of the most ruthlessly violent places on Earth? How can a place with such plentiful fertile coastal plains be one of the world’s most malnourished countries?

In searching for answers, I often recalled reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in a European History course in college. A passage in Orwell’s account of living and writing about the poor coal miners in Northern England in 1937 has stuck with me to this day and I often found myself thinking about it here in Guatemala:

For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us. Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led to - to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long.

It has proved horribly difficult for me to look up at the natural beauty around me, at “civilization,” at thousands of years of proud history only to look down at this: swollen bellied children guiding their drunk, stumbling fathers home; a poverty so complex, so ubiquitous, and so seemingly insurmountable; to a culture so depressed, so confused. I’ve thought many times that if Guatemala were a Greek play, it would unequivocally be a tragedy.

But we cannot disregard this place if we accept the civilization that created it.

If that is one of the hardest things about Guatemala then the absolute hardest thing—to me at least—is deciding where I fit into all of this, or rather, where my service fits into my understanding of looking up and looking down.

I didn’t come here to be an observer; I’m not a tourist or an anthropologist: I came here to live it, not just look at it. One thing my service has taught me is that living it is different from looking up and looking down. Living it is experiencing it. Living it is knowing that there is so much more to Guatemala than one can read in the papers about crooked politicians, tourism, malnutrition, or violence. Living it is getting past looking up and looking down and seeing something that exists in the middle, something that is right in front of you but overshadowed by the beauty and the squalor at the fringes.

When you experience Guatemala you see in the middle a mass of people, millions of them, encompassed by an ocean, a sea and a few imaginary lines who are given the title “Guatemalans” and whose trials and tribulations don’t make it onto the cover of the newspapers or websites the way that of a murdered Guatemalan millionaire or disgraced ex-president do.

Instead they are the silent majority, underrepresented or repressed in almost every imaginable way: politically, culturally, monetarily, geographically. They are all right there for us to see “so hidden in plain sight all around us” yet despite their prevalence they are completely overshadowed in the idea of Guatemala. They are, in masse, people who will welcome someone from a foreign land into their homes for coffee and a snack, who will stop a stranger on a street with questions to satiate their curiosity and who offer a simple greeting of “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening” not out of habit but kindness.

This majority’s inability to shape the definition of Guatemala adds to the tragedy. Yet with seemingly every imaginable factor stacked against it, Guatemala is full of these gracious and sympathetic people who are its greatest hope.

It is easy to get distracted by the extremes of Guatemala, either by external sensory factors or by some sort of dialogue in your head trying to rationalize Guatemala’s dichotomy as if it is some evil experiment in equilibrium in which one balances out the other. But if you really experience Guatemala, you are likely to realize that neither looking up nor looking down is the true Guatemala and that these extremes, while certainly much more visceral, only make up part of the whole of Guatemala and that if you allow yourself to truly experience Guatemala you will be able to look straight ahead at the nuanced beauty of millions of human faces of the silent majority.


Tricia said...

Stephen Oliver. I've never read your blog before today, but I'm so glad I caught the last one. So true and so well written. Definitely made me tear up (although I do admit that this is a common occurrence as I'm trying to get through my last week in site). I hope the readjustment is going well. Abrazos de Guate!

Adrian R. Ortega said...

Mr. Oliver, very well said man. While reading this i was able to picture everything perfectly. Miss it and ecstatic that i am back. Hope your time back is going well. if you make it to down south, such as, California or Guadalajara let me know cabron! te cuidas.

Bill Hankel said...

It strikes me how pervasive this scenario is throughout the world. Even in our country, some believe that somehow the poor did this to themselves, by being ignorant and lazy. I hear people say: "I worked hard for my money, why don't they just get a job and do the same." Yet, not much is said about how uneven the playing field is or the plight of those that are born into poverty. There aren't enough people running for Congress these days, to do something about this issue either, because they know that our political process is too gridlocked. We need more people like you, with passion, that are not worried about being re-elected, to break the gridlock, and raise the consciousness of the world, by advocating for the poor.