week 5: thoughts and recollections from Guatemala

The second week on the coffee co-op, we were knee-deep in course readings and papers.  Schoolwork took up the biggest chunk of time devoted to any one activity, even though my blogposts have so far not reflected that.  Nor will they (I’ll have you know that this August is my first break from 13 consecutive months of full-time classes).

At some point, we were given a tour of the coffee co-op’s processing plant.  The machines themselves were nearly a hundred years old, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that they had recently retrofitted them to make them more eco-friendly. Who would have thought that while UBC was building CIRS, the most sustainable building in North America, a Guatemalan coffee co-operative was significantly reducing their water usage?

I saw with my own eyes that every iced mocha frappuccino has its own extensive global history from planting to harvesting to processing to transporting to roasting to selling to buying (indeed, more).  And that this global chain is not merely financial but intensely political.  All of the first-grade coffee beans get shipped out to North America and Europe, and while I cannot remember the ratio, the profits reaped at the Guatemalan level compared to the price of a Starbucks coffee are so low it is jaw-dropping.  This is in large part because much of the value of coffee beans is created at the roasting stage, and most Guatemalans cannot afford roasting machines.

We were offered some opportunities to help around the coffee co-op including: cleaning out the bamboo shop, cooking in the kitchen, crafting bamboo shelves, clear-cutting forest paths with machetes, and handpicking macadamia nuts.

Now, despite what a certain unnamed relative of mine says (I quote, “she volunteered to build houses in Nicaragua”) the program’s primary focus was not on volunteering, but schoolwork.  Volunteering was non-obligatory to this program.  For whatever reason, I like to make this distinction when people ask me about it.

On the weekend, we took a van to Takalik Abaj, an archeological site featuring ancient Olmec and Mayan ruins dating back to the 9th century BCE.  Only a fraction of the ruins were not privately owned and thereby viewable to the public.  Many of the stone carvings were so faded that some in our group jokingly expressed doubt the that tour guide wasn’t just making everything up on the spot.  While we did endure much squinting and head tilting, walking up these stairs (with a little imagination) gave me a sense of the grandeur of these civilizations:

That, and the section on ancient astronomy.  This December 2012, the site will be celebrating the end of an era.  Can you imagine the party?  I’m still waiting for my invite.

After fawning over caged-in monkeys, wildcats, and cocoa trees, we took a pit stop at the city of Retalhuleu.  And what a blissful fifty minutes it was.  Students madly dashed through grocery aisles to grab chocolate bars and stock up on other comfort foods.  Before, nachos were coveted luxuries and frozen yogurt an unspoken of delicacy–then, we were well-armed with study snacks for exam week.

One of the toughest experiences of the trip for almost all of us was dropping  like flies with illnesses, sometimes multiple times.  We were all forewarned of the probability of getting sick when applying to the program, which is fine, but there was arguably some systematic food poisoning going on (or so I firmly believe!) at the coffee co-op, and that was just not cool.

I remember writing a reflection paper one evening while doubling over with digestive pains for hours on end—I really don’t know how I managed to write it.  A few days later, I took a bumpy bus ride down to Retalhuleu to get it checked out at a private clinic.  My professor kindly took upon herself the awkward task of translating (as did both professors, many many times for the other students).  It turned out I had an intestinal amoeba and/or parasite from the food or water, and so I was to take a fortnight of heavy antibiotics + pills to help regenerate my sure-to-be blasted out intestines.  I am proud of how I dealt with my illness from beginning to end;  one of the take-away points of the trip was learning how to take care of myself in tough situations (hint: it includes both being independent, and dependent, at the right times!)  Besides, we were lucky to have access to effective medicines, and are luckier still, never to have to deal with all of these illnesses that don’t even exist in most of Canada (except in neglected areas such as some Aboriginal reserves).

Another plus: we hopped onto a  a “Tuk-Tuk” like the above photographed to get to the doctor’s office.  We also met an elderly lady (a “pharmacist”) who seemed to think it hellish that in Canada, all sorts of religious beliefs are accepted.  Speaking of citizens on the street, a popular question posed of me now that I’m back is “what are Guatemalans like?”  Reader, I cannot tell you what a whole country’s people are like as I don’t believe in grand sweeping statements about whole groups of people. But I can share a most peculiar impression I felt:  beneath obvious conservative influences such as the Church, there seemed to me a certain liberal attitude I cannot fully explain.  I am not just saying that I felt  a political split between very conservative and very liberal factions (although I have read there to be in its history); but that I felt a sort of quiet tolerance and an openness of human spirit…A silly example, but I couldn’t help but feel that the people on the street pointing out at the Chinese-Canadians in our group and so very helpfully reminding them that they were Chinese did not mean any harm—if anything, they had a knack for falling in  love with them.

Somewhere in the midst of pill-popping and paper shuffling, a gecko or two appeared on our bedroom wall.  So it wasn’t a bird we heard every night over our bunk beds making unpleasant noises.  Rachyl and Niles, table climbing, and five minutes later, a still-pulsating gecko tail was squirming on my nightstand table.  Grossness.  Let’s just say that we did not need constant access to the Internet to find ourselves plenty distracted.

Not to forget the fact that we were virtually imprisoned in a farmhouse-like motel, everyone to a room of at least three (a far cry from UBC’s vast and isolated spaces).  While this sounds like a recipe for social disaster, on the whole, I think we did a pretty good job in making sure that no lasting frictions divided our group—I’d give us an A-.  Still, considering I have worn an invisible anti-drama magnet strapped to my body my entire life, even a little drama taking away from that A+ was very distracting for me and my studies.  I learned a lot, socially, though.   Really, I think I learned more about the human heart by spending time with my group than I did from the actual humanities courses we were taking.

Next week we say goodbye to the coffee co-op in 80′s music style, and visit our picturesque final destination.

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week 4: thoughts and recollections from Guatemala

We said our farewells to beautiful Nebaj and bussed down, down from the mountains and into the coastal city of Panajachel.  This was to be our special weekend break, a couple of days in a tourist city, where we could access the internet whenever we wanted and the pizza and hot showers we so desperately missed.  Despite the homey amenities and the abundance of colourful shop stalls, or perhaps because of them, some of us were unhappy with Panajachel. This could have been the curious case of Western tourists seeking the “authentic” in others—“be as you were, pretend we never came!”…but I don’t think that explains it for me.  Nebaj was just genuinely more interesting to me than Panajachel in the same way that, in Vancouver, a hiking trail is more interesting to me than a shopping mall.  I am all for the success of the locals, but the bright lights at roadside diners made me think of Vegas.

After finishing up and handing in our essays, we ventured out on a daytrip in the heavy rain.  We blazed across a lake surrounded by three volcanoes in a sketchy motorboat for twenty.

The first village we visited on the cusp of the lake has a successful history of negotiating a peace treaty with the government before the civil war was officially over, by rallying together as a community after a massacre.  But the village is situated in a natural disaster zone.  Homes are half-deep in the lake.  Hurricanes have passed through, causing mudslides which have destroyed much of the village and the people living in it.  Our tour guide was very sceptical of the ability of the government to help, doing more damage than good.

What fascinates me is that, contrary to what anti-immigrationists think, people very rarely just want to migrate.  Sure there are a few wandering souls, but most have a deep connection to the land they grew up in.  They will refuse to leave even when they are in a natural disaster zone, even when there is war.  It is only when things really get unbearable, when they need to leave, that they migrate.  At least, for natives.

The sun broke out at some point, and I experienced an epic ride on the back of a truck along a coastal road.  I felt like the happiest dog in the world.  Below that, is a great photo of my philosophy professor.

We also met with a women’s weaving co-operative .  They work only with natural dyes, relearning and sometimes reinventing traditional native knowledges of dyeing.   I think our professors have a selective bias of scheduling visits to co-operatives and villages with inspiring grassroots development stories.  It could lead one to mistakenly think that all of Guatemala is like this.  No, I think, it is meant to be a hope.  It makes me wonder, what co-operatives exist in Canada? Do they work as a model for profitable enterprises?

Anyway, we had Aly take some clothes to the laundromat while she was deathly ill (OK, that makes us sound like horrible people but I swear she offered while we were out on the daytrip) and we laughed ourselves to sleep by watching Spanish dubbed Twilight on our hotel T.V.  I am hard pressed to believe that that stuff is not meant to be comedy.

Now for the big move.  We were about to spend two and a half weeks at this mysterious “coffee co-operative” we kept on hearing so much about: “Nueva Alianza”, an hour drive from the town of Retalhuleu.   It was humid and hot as we drove past new sights: coffee trees, bamboo, and tropical things, down what must be at least a one hundred year old cobble-stone road (which I swear, if were paved, would take a quarter of the time to traverse).  The day passed quickly as we lugged our bags into rooms of four to six in a farm-like motel, and I nearly fell asleep during our welcoming/the let-me-tell-you-our-organizations’-entire-history speech, much to the chagrin of my professors.

But seriously, the history of the group is really something.  The other students can probably recall it better, but the group is basically a co-operative of local workers who were totally screwed over to starving point by a bankrupt owner.  They took over the farm for themselves, fought a legal battle, took out a loan, and are paying it back with the help of the eco-tourist hotel we were staying in.  We watched a documentary some tourists made about the history of the co-op and I was really interested to hear these self-proclaimed “peasants” use the hefty language of “rights.”  I want to know where that discourse of rights comes from, and I have a sneaking suspicion it does not come from international human rights regimes…but who knows?

The basic setup was this, then: wake up at 6 a.m. by either Sara or the sound of the cooks preparing breakfast on a biofuel stove.  Take a “military shower” i.e. starting the freezing cold water on and off again as you bathe.  Yes, it does reduce the number of showers one chooses to take, since you asked. Then, chill out on one of the hammocks in the deck/main-room until breakfast.  Help set up the table.  Eat food impressively prepared without a refrigerator at the long-table with everyone; the food was decent and homey but I was very whiny about the runny bean and eggs breakfast by the end.  Help clean up the table.  Visit the store located in the neighbour’s home for some absolutely necessary cookies, or in Aly’s case, macadamia nuts.  Go swim in a waterfall if you’re not Miriam, chase chickens if you’re mean, and laugh.  Do your readings for class, in your bunkbed or in the media room or the roof overlooking the volcano studded tropical rainforest.

Carbohydrate-stuffed lunch—pass over the evil corn tortillas every single time.  Then participate in a three hour class at the long-table.  Commence, at mid-afternoon, a tropical thunderstorm with crackling lightning and massive thunder, forcing the professor to shout.  After class, fiddle around on a guitar, watch Kevin (practically the only male in the town we ever saw) chop wood or gather fresh coconuts for us, and then go to dinner.  Do homework.  Hang out around a bonfire.  Start a secret civil association with your roommates that has its own made-up religion/s, and conspire against the world.  Do more homework by candlelight or with your flashlight on.  Tuck your ironically pink bednet around the bedpost sometime after 10 p.m.  Cue falling fast asleep.

So the courses really took off those two and a half weeks in the coffee co-op.  I will write about them in my summer course review, but let’s just say that I ended up really enjoying my philosophy class.  I was especially interested by the section on theories of global justice.  My mind opened the primly shut national cage and welcomed in the 7 billion who are just as in need of justice as anyone in Canada.  It seems like a relatively new field of thought in philosophy and it has had a great impact on me now that I am back in Vancouver—this is a story for another blogpost!  The sociology course was…new.  Never had I taken a sociology course, and while I enjoyed most of the readings, I wasn’t sure what was expected of me or what we were trying to do.  Both professors were fabulous people though and I enjoyed seeing them enjoy their time in Guatemala like, you know, human beings.

I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina after I came back from Guatemala and I really sympathized with the spiritual crisis the character, Levin, was going through.  When I was on the roof of Nueva Alianza, I would look out at the big leafy trees and the neighbour’s house spilling out with brown-skinned children.  7 billion…I cannot fathom, I even despise, the idea that we are fully fleshed memory-bots and that life is a series of memories, or experiences, or a bucket list.  Was my visiting Guatemala on this roof going to be just another memory to be forgotten when I’m dead?  Why care so much?  What is this befuddling thing called consciousness?  I am sorry to say that I do not have an answer.

Time for lightheartedness.  Bugs–we were, after all, in the middle of a tropical rainforest.    While we passed through the initial phase of attempting to pre-emptively kill them all (by the end: a fly in your cup of tea? Just spoon it out), everyone still had a very unsolicited bug encounter story. Cockroaches jumping in your bed, giant beetles the size of your palm whirring with a mechanical-sounding buzz, centipedes in the shower, and suicidal moths that would spiral down madly from the ceiling at night.  I recall one particular study session in the evening on the deck.  I was in the middle of summarizing Marcuse when a moth decided to commit suicide from the ceiling by burrowing into my blouse.  Worst of all was the night of hell.

I woke up after midnight to the dreaded sound of a buzzing giant beetle…you wouldn’t guess where it was coming from: inside my bednet.  I frantically jumped out of bed and inadvertently woke up Sara.  Before I could address the very pressing issue of the giant beetle, a yellow moth literally began chasing me around the room.  I apologize to everyone for the screaming, but then again, I don’t, because it was horrific.   The moth managed to successfully cling onto my back twice—Sara had to bravely slap away at it from her top bunk.  All the while, the giant beetle buzzed and whirred and I was panicking about the noise I heard from the bathroom nearby—the garbage can was knocked over by a stray dog again—what if it traipsed into the room while all this was happening!? In the mad hustle and bustle, Anna heard us from outside, walked in, and saved us all.  She narrowly kept another moth from coming in, this time the size of a bird, and she dealt with my bugs. And in fact, pretty much every bug we encountered in our room.   Now that I’m back in Vancouver, I scoff when people point out a tiny spider or a harmless moth.  I am a battle-hardened veteran.

The tale of the gecko, next week.  And more about living in a small motel with twenty other people.  And becoming really ill.

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week 3: thoughts and recollections from Guatemala

I believe I am currently in the state one would call “completely and utterly burnt out.”  As such, today’s will have to be a shorter, snappier, and less edited travel blog with a smattering of photos.

Evening set upon the village as we filed into a one-roomed building and took seats on plastic chairs.  The Hilary Clinton of Nebaj sat before us: a confident woman in traditional clothing, her gleaming beaded necklace catching what dim light there was in the room.  We knew her to be the “mayor” of the local indigenous group—an ambiguous position caught in between the “occidental” (Western) government, as she called the Guatemalan government, and the locals.  I was fascinated to hear if and how First Nations’ self-government functioned in Guatemala in comparison to Canada—especially from a woman who could, perhaps, vocalize issues differently than a man would.

There were a number of impressionable moments.

Dona Anna, hands folded in front of her and head held aloft, seemed nonchalantly interested to hear where we were from and what we thought of First Nations.  Well, Aly mentioned that the Enbridge pipeline plans to plough through several resisting Aboriginal roups, and we were learning, increasingly, that Canadian mining corporations affected the First Nations all the way down in Guatemala.  My professors bickered over beer later on about what kind of interaction this was–was it cosmopolitan, this brief exchange of thoughts between Canadian students and a Guatemalan indigenous leader?   The program is named “Arts Term Abroad in Global Citizenship” after all, and we spent a lot of time thinking about cosmopolitanism during the trip; especially asking if  we are cosmopolitans of the fashionable, elite “frequent flyer” variety, and if cosmopolitanism is inherently one-sided.

This poli sci junkie found the electoral process for local leaders quite interesting.  The mayor said that you would not take it upon yourself to run for leadership positions and to run campaigns, but you would be chosen by community vote.  You would have to accept the duty if the community chose you.  Hmmm…

Furthermore (a perfectly decent word to use in essays, Professor K.), their judicial punishments were different.  Serious offenses would incur traditional, so-called “symbolic”,  beatings.  While a freely wandering mind may compare and contrast this with Foucault’s depiction of non-violent prisions being, in some way, incredibly violent upon the mind….it was nonetheless an image that raised all sorts of speculation in me from  ”uh, really? to “how do pluralistic judicial systems work, jurisdictionally?–do indigenous people really have a choice in which courts they were to choose?”…and finally, “who am I, to judge these judges?”

I will evaluate the two courses, PHIL 335 (Power and Oppression) and SOCI 430 (Civil Society in Theory and Practice), as I would any other course at the end of this blog series.  In the meantime, I will say that we had our first couple of assignments those two weeks in Nebaj.  One assignment was a short paper that caused a contagious fever of nerves that spread among the students living in close quarters.  All of that perfectionism for something we would have typed up in a couple of hours or less in Vancouver, alone in our rooms.  As for myself, I decided early on that I would focus mostly on comprehension, not assignments or grades.  Besides, I could not physically do more than that–I could not think creatively and thoroughly without private space and extended periods of time for reflection.  The physical demands of being around people at all times, listening to others, or being ready to hop into a conversation, sucked up energy out of this introvert.  It reminded me a little bit of this poem by Franz Kafka, although obviously with a much more diluted meaning:

The Street Window
by Franz Kafka
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere, whoever, according to changes in the time of day, the weather, the state of his business, and the like, suddenly wishes to see any arm at all to which he might cling – he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.

One school night, we returned to our classroom in the cafe after dark to listen to a man standing at the front of the room as if giving a lecture.  I found this choice of location odd, as those who regularly lecture me at university do not teach us about their personal stories.  He called himself a “survivor” of the civil war (he was optimistic) and he shared with us memories that should have never been.  I do not think I will ever forget the experience of listening to Guatemalans speak after dark.   I mean, not just what they said, but how they said it.  So many of these personal stories were spoken in Spanish, rehashed and rephrased in English by a translator, tossed into the humid night air, past my drooping eyelids, into my consciousness.  Anyway, he tied everything back to the Mayan Calendar.  As many will have heard via pop culture, 2012 is an important year for the Mayans; it is the end of an era in time.  He expressed the sincere hope for a brighter, harmonious, flourishing future for Guatemalans and the world.  Amen to that.

Next time: less crappy writing, living on the Coffee Co-op, and more.

Dragon of False Consciousness tattoo, anyone?

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week 1: thoughts and recollections from Guatemala

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.

Credit: Anna

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.  

back from Guatemala

Just a quick post to let you all know I’m safely back from Guatemala and brimming with thoughts to share  and stories to tell (I think.  Even if I’m not, I feel obligated to share the little I do know with those unfamiliar with Guatemala.)  I’m aiming for 1 post a week, for the 6 weeks I was there.  I’ll get started once the other students’ cameras take a dump on Facebook, seeing as it’s easier to narrate with photos.

Marketplace in Xela (Photo: Chloe)

Until then,  I’m  back on campus! *cue theme song*
See you in POLI 346 and 375?

Those 11 days between Term 2 and a Go Global summer trip

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of packing my dormitory belongings yesterday, I paused and took a look at my beautiful (but I’m biased) plant, Dionysus.  The red squiggle indicates where the leaves hung at the beginning of this school year.   It grew remarkably during this time with just a cup of water every few days, sunshine as often as Vancouver could afford it, and a pinch of me proudly fawning over it.  I had to wonder:  did I grow half as much?

The reality is that while I may not have smiled throughout, I think I did.  Not that I could draw red squiggly markers indicating how and when and what and who and why—would that I were a poet or a storyteller so that I could weave my tales these last few months together into a story!  But I think I did.  It was not in the manner in which I had wished…but the aches of becoming wise sometimes resemble the pangs of a certain set of teeth breaking through the gums, yes?

Despite this, I’m afraid everything has become a little stale here, a little bitter, and it’s time to get re-energized.  I’ll be spending 6 weeks with 19 other UBC Vancouver & Okanagan students and 2 professors, studying in multiple regions in Guatemala (inshallah!)  Thanks to generous ARCAAP funding applicable to the Arts Term Abroad in Global Citizenship program through UBC Go Global.  What’s a humanities education without travel?  I think travelling makes you humble, and humility makes you wise.  Particularly when you know next to nothing about Central America…I will be largely unplugged from the Internet starting May 5th, but if it’s not too inconvenient, I’ll try to blog on paper and then type it up quickly at an internet cafe.

And now I have 11 days between what was and what will be.  My plans include learning a handful of words in Spanish, reading some good ol’ political theory, being with close family and friends, and breathing (I highly recommend it.)