On the second last day of the trip, we visited the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala City. The Canadian officials seemed eager for us to go home and share our stories, for it would “help.” I had to wonder, what was that supposed to mean? I could not quite envision it in positive terms, but in negative terms, I thought: what would happen if I did not share–if I came back home, tagged myself in some photos online, and kept my thoughts and recollections to myself? That, I could not see myself doing. I do not know if there is some responsibility of the traveler to share stories, but I know I choose to blog about this because it cannot hurt more to blog than to not. I plan 6 blogposts for the following 6 Thursdays, more or less scrapping together the occupation of this particular consciousness, ending here in the red:
Before I move on, you might find this information I have compiled from the CIA World Factbook useful:
Population: 14,099,032 (July 2011 est.)
Comparative Size: slightly smaller than Tennessee
Languages: Spanish (official) 60%, Amerindian languages 40%
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs
Urban population: 49% of total population (2010)
Climate: tropical; hot, humid in lowlands; cooler in highlands
Natural Resources: petroleum, nickel, rare woods, fish, chicle, hydropower
Natural Hazards: numerous volcanoes in mountains, with occasional violent earthquakes; Caribbean coast extremely susceptible to hurricanes and other tropical storms
Life expectancy at birth: total population: 71.17 years
Total fertility rate: 3.18 children born/woman (2011 est.)
Literacy Rate: 69.1%
Population below Poverty Line: 54% (2011 est.)
Brief History: “The Mayan civilization flourished in Guatemala and surrounding regions during the first millennium A.D. After almost three centuries as a Spanish colony, Guatemala won its independence in 1821. During the second half of the 20th century, it experienced a variety of military and civilian governments, as well as a 36-year guerrilla war. In 1996, the government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict, which had left more than 200,000 people dead and had created, by some estimates, some 1 million refugees.”
My travel experience prior to this trip more or less consisted of places like Kelowna, the suburbs around Seattle, and (through luck) Paris. In what I believe to be a natural consequence of this fact, I was biting back tears as I stuffed my shoes into the plastic bin at the security check at YVR. What was I doing shipping myself off to a developing country for six weeks (and to study philosophy and sociology with two profs and twenty students whom I did not know)?
The next forty-eight hours, I was still clench-fisted: I endured the uncomfortable realities of human transit; we were brought to a motel surrounded by barbed wire in Guatemala City that apparently offered limitless vacancies for mosquitos; as in most developing countries, we had to throw our used toilet paper in the trash can because the toilets cannot handle it; and worst of all, as a fairly introverted person, I bunked with six other women in a room. SIX HUMAN BEINGS INVADING MY SPACE! Needless to say, I did not sleep a wink.
I was not without first impressions, though. We landed around 7 p.m. to a dark city illuminated by strange orange fluorescent lights, almost like glowing specks of lava instead of the twinkling yellow in Vancouver. As I stepped out of the boxy and humid airport into the night street crowded with copper faces, I swear my skin seemed several tones whiter. Which was rather apt; whatever class, cultural, ideological, and other differences existed between our student group an hour before, dissipated away as I took on the identity of a first-worlder. I was almost forcibly rich, white, Western, and like everyone else…
On the last day of class in Guatemala, I believe Mo commented that much of what we learned during our time here centered around, not so much Guatemalans, but us. We were daily confronted with our “gringo” (foreigner) status, with our multiple identities, with our relationships with others. I was definitely self-centric in that first moment in Guatemala. But this is not necessarily a narcissistic, individualistic method of travel; if I learned anything from the course readings, it is that we cannot learn about Guatemalans without learning about ourselves. Alison Jaggar (2006) says we cannot talk about women’s oppression around the globe without recognizing the Western historical forces that have subtly or directly influenced it. For example, how can we talk about women’s poverty in developing countries without recognizing the springing up of informal economies, like women vendors on street corners, in the face of global agricultural competition? Iris Marion Young (2003) likewise draws the connection between our everyday North American conventions of consumption, and the harrassment of women in sweatshops. If we want to understand their struggles, sometimes we need to examine our sneakers.
The moment we hopped into our van and began our six hour bus trip to the second largest city, Quetzaltenango (commonly referred to as “Xela”), I began to relax.
We drove winding roads around mountainous fields or fieldish mountains, I could not tell. Vertical agriculture is a thing there. When you spend six hours driving past green and brown lands dotted with unassuming human figures, you cannot help but relax. We hurriedly flipped through our papers, looking over some Spanish words in anticipation of meeting with our host families. At a pit stop, I experienced corn tortillas for the first time—tasteless, flabby little things which I will never come to understand.
Somewhere along the way, we spent a couple of hours at the ruins of Iximche. Iximche was a major site of confrontation between the indigenous and the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s.
I was to learn much more about Spanish colonialism in the coming weeks, but for the moment, I was mostly preoccupied with the collision between my 30-second, entertainment-wired attention span and the traditional Mayan wedding ceremony taking place before me. I was also very fascinated to hear that the couple were to have a wedding in Church in October in addition to the Mayan ceremony. Did someone just say religious fusion, multiplicity, and ambiguity?
We eventually plopped down, luggage and all, in a city that my words cannot describe.
Moments later, Chloe and I were following our host brother down the cobbled street to our new home. We were literally speechless, neither of us knowing any Spanish, although we desperately wished to communicate with him. After several awkward exchanges with our host mother and family (it took at least three tries to communicate which beds we would have), we settled into our rooms.
For the rest of the week, I was tutored basic Spanish from a young woman at a local community development organization, Pop Wuj.
I had a few things on my mind during this time.
Our class was treated to three lectures by anthropology professor Ronney Alvarado of Universidad de San Carlos. Ronney explained to me why I was staring at the hand-sized hole in the wooden planked floor of our classroom and listening to car honks punctuating the gaps between his words and the English translation. He explained to us why were here, as animate particles of broader historical forces making us “volunteers” and Guatemalans “beneficiaries”. In three brief lectures, he opened our minds to the concept of colonialism–what it meant, and still means in the lives of present-day Guatemalans. Niles expressed a healthy dash of skepticism, reminding us that we must not lose sight of free will in a sweeping, self-determining narrative where every person’s choices are explained by Colonialism. While this an important point, I do believe that Ronney was merely situating our free choices within an incredibly influential, social structural context.
One of the many other interesting ideas he shared with us was transcribed by Sara as such:
“This is the cost that Latin America paid for North American democracy. The East paid for the foundation of North American freedom. The ones who pay for …democracy don’t have it.” -Alvarado, Translated by Nick or Sylvia (?)
(This is not to take away from the democratic project, and the many courageous Western figures that fought for it.) His point depends on the contested theory that democracies cannot fully develop without the foundation of a stable and growing economy. It just so happens that modern Western democratic thought and action flourished on the foundation of economies growing through their global colonial reach. The implication of this idea is that we, democratic nations, owe something to the non-democratic nations who funded us. Interesting to consider a democratic twist to colonial effect.
Pop Wuj is involved with development projects, which meant we had the opportunity to volunteer building safe stoves in people’s homes. Around 3 billion people in the world are daily exposed to air pollution in the form of smoke inhalation from fuel they use to cook their meals (like wood or animal dung) (World Health Organization, 2012). It’s ridiculous.
So we hopped on a chicken bus (old American school buses, repainted and plastered with “Jesus” stickers, which served as transit) and landed here:
I know some people find enjoyment in occasionally doing hard labour, but I do not. That is okay, but I wondered if experiencing labour of that sort is beneficial to self-development, morally obligatory, both, or neither? My blistered hands hoped neither.
While I took breaks between softening bricks in water and pulling them out , I thought about the poverty surrounding me. We were working in a yard of maybe 5 x 5 metres, and in the corner stood a shack of 5 x 3 metres. This was the home of the family we were building for. We met a very short woman with a heavily lined face who could barely speak Spanish. I imagine she was much younger than she appeared. Taking all this in, I was very…underwhelmed. That is to say, there is something so dull about poverty. It was not breathtaking and it did not particularly move me.
I would interpret that feeling as possibly occurring for three reasons. First, third world poverty has almost been packaged as a sort of travel product. Who does not know of well-intentioned students taking global volunteer trips? I think it might be the case that this new sort of travel sells moral rejuvenation or life-inspiration or some other such junk. This is just speculation. Personally, the two other possibilities are more likely for me. Second, I was a ethics/philosophy student experiencing the empirical manifestation of that theoretical “moral wrong” (we did not specifically study the ethics of poverty in our courses, so I have my doubts about if, why, and how much global poverty is a wrong–but I’ll assume it is wrong for now). Observing that empirical manifestation was underwhelming: physically speaking, poverty was the mere lack of brain neuroplasticity; lack of a body supplied with sufficient nutrients; lack of metres to move around in. And yet, there is a non-physical level, some moral level, at which we perceive something much more extraordinary going on. And so I marvelled at, and questioned, that gap in levels. Third, poverty is an unsexy and quotidian condition. It is not a bomb exploding or a sword through a back. Hence, dullness.
[I also had some time to reflect on universalisms (for instance, the Kantian notion that we all have access to moral understanding, or the notion that there are globally acceptable human rights). Critics of such universalism emphasize cultural, gender, epistemic and other differences that refute such "Western" concepts of universalism. Seeing as I was in the home of one of those apparent non-Westerners, I thought about that a little but I have rambled enough for today, and will perhaps get back to this in the future.]
Speaking of the physical, I went through the ordeals of a digestinve illness a few days into the trip. I successfully jumped over those first few hurdles: teaching myself how to swallow pills, visiting a medical lab on my own, and having to skip out on my host mother’s delicious meals. I encountered both a hideous person (in character, of course) and a beautiful (kind) person during this time. Which made me realize that no matter what lofty moral ideals I might have, what motivates me to do good is not the rational following through with a justified moral theory, but the feeling I get observing good people in action. It is so impressionable. I suppose it is like Alcibiades seeing Socrates embody his ideals. Anyway, I would have a much more painful illness to come, as would most of the rest of our group.
As a result of my illness, I skipped out on a exploring the city beyond an afternoon gander in the oddly European Parque Central with Sara (foreshadowing our friendship to come). I think I still owe you 3 Quetzals for that museum, Sara.
However, I have heard Xela to be Guatemala’s acclaimed “cultural capital.” After having visited Guatemalan cities both big and small, I can safely say that it is relatively devoid of hegemonic Pepsi influence, and is indeed a beautiful city lying at the foot of a volcano. The food, as accurately or inaccurately represented through my host mother’s meals, was hearty and enjoyable. The people I met, good-humoured, kind, and surprisingly open (although I may have only encountered the ones in frequent contact with foreigners). I slowly began to relax and feel safe in this country. True friends, I had yet to make, but things were looking up by the end of the week.
Next time, we visit my favourite city in Guatemala, we begin our coursework, we make friends, and we plot plans to kill roosters.
Go Global Group Study Program Weblink.
Arts Research Course Abroad Award Program Weblink.