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Thoughts of Guatemala

March 20, 2012

I have just returned from three weeks in Antigua, Guatemala. The purpose was to study Spanish which I did in spades, however, have returned with the realization I have so much more to do before I achieve a measure of fluency. People have asked me “how was it”, “was it fun”, the typical questions after a holiday. The answer: Antigua and the Guatemalan people affected me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated and, for me, it wasn’t a typical holiday.

Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is surprisingly small. It has a population of about 35,000 and its core is easily walkable in a day. Its physical beauty lies in its cobblestone streets, the simplicity of the majority of its buildings, and a few magnificent examples of Spanish baroque and colonial architecture all dominated by the imposing Volcano de Agua (Volcano of Water) which acts as a signpost for lost tourists. Every few blocks appears yet another grand stone building, missing walls or roof, testaments to the terrible earthquakes in 1717 and 1773 that devastated the city. Antigua courts tourists from around the world: decked out in their capris and sun hats, grey-haired mix with dreadlocked and post-hippy characters, students of Spanish and students of life. Three-wheeled tuk tuks, bicycles and motorcycles, and the odd pack of ‘callejeros’ – the pathetic groups of feral dogs, mange-scarred and often missing a leg – vie for space with new-model Jaguars, Infinities & Audis. And peatones (pedestrians) must yield to all, the saving grace being that vehicles don’t generally move at great speed over the rough cobblestones.

Shuttle vans and buses discharge the thousands of volunteers who come to Guatemala each year, some to work in Antigua and for others merely a stop before they head into other areas of the country to provide education and health care, build schools and housing, train people for jobs and teach women about their basic human rights. The volunteers pay to volunteer, contributing to their travel, food and lodging. In the case of the medical teams that serve in the hospital in Antigua known as Santo Hermano Pedro, they bring all of their own equipment and medicines except narcotics and IV solutions. The hospital is staffed year-round by rotating tours of doctors and nurses from the United States, Canada and Spain. I had the opportunity to connect with some people in Antigua who work with a White Rock-based organization, Health for Humanity, which will be the subject of another blog. There is something truly amazing about the number of volunteers that give so freely of their time and money.

The citizens of Antiguena are a proud and hard-working, determined people. While always ready with a warm smile and “buenos dias”, they tend to be quiet and reserved, not given to the open laughter or joyous celebrations of other latin countries. Unlike neighbouring Mexico, there are no trucks with loudspeakers blaring out announcements, few roaming bands of musicians, few groups of people gathered around a food stand chatting and laughing late into the night.

Antigua is intensely catholic; the Lent and Easter celebrations are notably solemn. We were lucky to be in Antigua during the “Cuaresma” (Lent) and saw processions each weekend. A large wooden platform, on which Christ, his disciples and other religious images are mounted, is carried on the shoulders of ‘cucuruchos’ who are male members of nearby churches. A second, smaller platform is reserved for the Virgin and is shouldered by women and young girls. The pain of their effort can be seen in their faces and, each block, a new group of cucuruchos takes their place. Men or boys in traditional tunics swing smoking vessels of incense in front of the procession, swathing the scene in a dense fog, and, behind, one or more marching bands play. The processions wend their way through Antigua and neighbouring areas, passing through throngs of devoted watchers and sometimes taking more than 24 hours to complete their journey. A special treat is the carpets made of coloured sawdust, flowers, vegetables and small sculptures that appear in the churches and along the roads where the processions pass.

We were in Antigua for International Women’s Day on March 8. This date had particular resonance for me. So many single mothers trying to eke out a living, trudging with their huge bundles to their daily post where they  spend 12 or more hours each day selling their handicrafts for pennies to tourists. So many women subject to spousal abuse and, particularly for the indigenous women, discrimination in terms of education and jobs. I was struck by the many parallels to our own indigenous population. I have attached a link to an article (written in Spanish) about the issues for women in Guatemala. For those of you who would like to read the English version of this impassioned article, please click here. The piece was written by Carolina Vásquez Araya, a journalist, for International Women’s Day and I spotted it on a notice board in the hospital Santo Hermano Pedro. I would like to thank Ms Araya for her kindness in allowing me to use the article and I also apologize for any errors as I have translated it to English using my own inadequate Spanish.

One Saturday morning, my friends and I were eating breakfast at a restaurant. A petite indigenous lady entered with her five or six-year-old son, went to an alcove behind us, and began to bring out the various handmade items that were tucked behind a small curtain. After she had arranged them around the restaurant, she returned and  huddled in the alcove. She gave her son a few coins and sent him away, presumably to buy some small item. As soon as he was gone, she began to cry, silently, her shoulders shaking. Seeing this and thinking that perhaps she was very short of money, my friends and I got up and went to look at her products. She came over, brushing away the tears. We purchased a number of items and I started talking to her. Her husband had just announced that he was going to leave her for another woman and she was overwhelmed with sadness, anger and fear. With three children under ten years of age and one more a teenager, she didn’t know how she would be able to feed them and keep them in school. She didn’t know where she could live. Her weaving was not enough to support them and she could scarcely work as her shoulders ached from the repetitive stress. We were both in tears.

I left the restaurant, went back to my house to get some cash to give to her and some crayons and colouring books for her son. But when I returned to the restaurant 15 minutes later, she was gone. For the next week and a half until we left Antigua, I checked the restaurant. She never returned and the people in the restaurant did not know where she was. Normally she was there every day because this was her livelihood. Where was she, was she okay, how would she manage? Just the questions remain. Although I have travelled a reasonable amount, consider myself to be relatively aware of the issues and difficulties experienced in third world countries and knew before I went to Guatemala that life there is difficult, it seemed with every turn we learned of some other tragedy. It was impossible not to relate my experiences in Guatemala to my own life and think of how lucky we are and to know that, but for the accident of birth, that could be me… or you.

If you are interested in seeing more pictures of Antigua and some videos of the processions, check back in a few days and click on the Flickr link.

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