Monday, February 26, 2007

"I never let my schooling get in the way of my education" - Mark Twain

If my purpose for being here seems a little indistinct, it’s probably because I’ve yet to mention it at any good length. So let me clarify. I am here to learn. I am taking classes in the traditional form at CIRMA (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamerica), as well as absorbing the informal education that presents itself to all travelers. I am taking four official classes: History of Central America, Archaeology of the Maya, Literature of Central America, and Conversational Spanish. In addition, there is a colloquium series where some of Guatemalan’s finest and most distinguished minds speak to us (eight incredibly lucky students) about their areas of specialty. Outside of these classes, I have been taking private Spanish lessons twice a week with the daughter of my host family (she previously worked at one of the numerous language schools here in Antigua). Needless to say, with all of this packed into three school days (Tuesday through Thursday), and the traveling nearly every other weekend – I am busy. The free time I do have is spent at the gym at salsa-aerobics or writing and drawing.
Instead of outlining details of each class, I will give you excerpts worth repeating:
This past weekend our archaeology class went on a trip to Takalik Abaj, a Maya site from the Preclassic period in Southern Guatemala. Our professor, Dr. Erick Ponciano (an archaeologist who is leading a project in the Peten) and another archaeologist leading the Takalik project site explained the significance of the details, which made it much more worthwhile. We were allowed to go behind the scenes because of Erick’s ties to the archaeology community, and were able to watch the excavation of newly discovered pottery and hold a few pottery shards in my hands (over 2,500 years old!). (After this we made for a quick trip to the beaches of Chiapas, Mexico.)
In our first colloquium meeting, Tani Adams, the director of CIRMA and head of CIRMA’s latest social awareness project called “¿Porqué estamos como estamos?” (Why are we the way we are?), spoke with us on perception of classes in Guatemala. Tani is a perfect of example of what this project is dedicated to – showcasing the vast diversity of the Guatemalan population and shattering preconceived notions of what it means to be “Guatemalan.” She is a blue eyed light skinned, fifth generation descendant of German farming settlers to Guatemala, was born in Guatemala, speaks Spanish, English and German and has U.S. citizenship (her father is American). She is a Guatemalan through and through, the product of an interesting part of the country’s history, and yet wherever she goes people assume she is a tourist. She is accustomed to having to defend her nationality on a daily basis, because there is no place for her in the national psyche’s conception of identity. Instead the Guatemalan world is divided into only two types of people: Ladinos (non-indians) and Indians. The racism which created this subdivision is continued today in subtle and not so subtle ways (there are elite Castellan families that to this day maintain blood charts, “proving” that they are untainted by indigenous blood). She explained this history of polarized thinking by asking us to list perceptions of “civilized” versus “uncivilized” peoples. This is what we came up with (and let me preface this list by saying that discussing perceptions of racism or even reasons, isn’t the same thing as condoning or accepting it, on the contrary it is to better understand and self-reflect on personal short-comings in order to change perceptions):
Ladinos /Indians
Civilized /Backwardness
sophisticated /barbaric
educated /uneducated
industrious /lazy
rich /poor
clean /dirty – untouchable
healthy /sick
rapid /temporal
science /magic
logic /intuition
progress /stagnant – traditional
leader /follower
adult /child
male /female
citizen /subject
Culture* /culture*
*Culture with a capital C is used to signify “high culture” (ballet, symphony, opera, etc.), whereas culture with a small c is used to signify “low culture” (basket weaving, tortilla making, etc.); the “culture” that tourists come for. These perceptions of culture (little c) combined with the other elements on the list help to create a nostalgia and sense of loss for the “uncivilized other.” Tani formerly worked in D.C. as a lobbyist and said that the three issues which people responded to most (when fliers were sent out) were saving the whales, forests and “Indians.” Take a minute to think about the disparate lumping of these three things together. This sense of needing to “save the Indians” (who in reality have defended their own rights, passed revolutionary legislation in Guatemala allowing self-governance, and recently made huge political advances – Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous woman, is running for president in this year’s upcoming election) is an idea created and perpetuated by the romanticizing of indigenous cultures. But in reality the profile or population that most needs help in Guatemala are young urban men with tattoos, because these men are the most likely to be discriminated, brought into the dark drug-world, and die early. But would people respond to a flyer asking for money to help this population? Probably not. It doesn’t fit within the prepackaged framework of who should be helped. This isn’t to say that discrimination of indigenous people and inequalities doesn’t exist, because they do (the changes recognized between the social imaginary and social consciousness are certainly different), but work combating racism is happening. Challenging people to think about race relations in these terms will hopefully reveal some uncomfortable truths and motivate changes. I am proud of the work CIRMA is doing.
Switching to my history class, Professor Jose Antonio who was a former guerilla fighter with the FMLN in El Salvador characterized the people’s reasons for the social revolutions of Central America in unforgettable way. Pacing in front of that class, speaking in first person, he takes on a persona and with an intensity glimmering in his eye he says: “I work hard. All week long and all day long I work hard. I work to feed my woman and the children. All week I work and at the end of the work day I need to have a few drinks to make the work disappear from my mind. So I drink and I drink. And when I start missing my wife, I go home to her.” At this point his voice gets dark and deep, flexing machismo in his voice, and he stops pacing, “And that stupid woman who has been doing nothing all day, nothing but staying at home with the children, she says she is tired and won’t come to bed with me… So I have to beat her.” He says this last point as though it is the only clear logical conclusion, and a chill runs up and down my spine. I begin to believe in the character that my professor has created (my professor who is infinitely sweet and righteous) and I am afraid of him, because I know that there are men who think like this all over the world and he convincingly portrays this man. I suddenly see the intensity that every ex-fighter holds within. He continues, “I have to beat her to show her that she will respect me. Because I am the one who provides for her and the children.” He bangs his fist on the table, “I am the one in charge of this house. I am the one who gives her money for food. I am the one who does everything. So I must beat that stupid woman to show her I am right.” Breaking out of character, he resumes his natural gentle manner and asks us, “And after night after night of this pattern, do you know what happens? It happens all the time. One night the woman waits quietly for her husband to go to sleep. And she sneaks into his bedroom and is very quite. She uses a knife from the kitchen and she slits his throat. She kills the man who beats and represses her.” He sits down, “This is the same with revolutions and dictatorial nations.” I understand his past history, and his countries rebellion against Romero. His characterization of subjugated citizens as the battered housewife and tyrannical governments as the abusive husband is both powerful and compelling. It speaks to the multiple levels of violence of these countries; the individual violence behind closed doors and the organized uprisings against cruel governments.
In my literature class I am reading “The Inhabited Woman,” by Gioconda Belli, which I suggest you read if you are at all interested in an honest portrayal of a woman’s emotional description of her world. It deals with the revolution in Nicaragua and her involvement in the movement. I wish I could write like her. I also read “One Day of Life” by Manlio Argueta, which is harrowing, but worth a read if you are interested in Central America.
Another speaker who came to our colloquium was Dr. Ricardo Stein, the brother of the Vice President of Guatemala who has a PhD. in Mathematics, works in politics and is quite possibly one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. He spoke with us about the 1996 Peace Accords that officially ended the war and established a new government in Guatemala. He was on the creation committee of the peace accords and discussed candidly the accomplishments and shortcomings of the document now that ten years have passed. The points that I took home from this living genius were his comments on corruption. He stated that corruption would not exist if it was not beneficial or functional to the system. He explained that corruption could be a positive an effective tool in the hands of the right people, or a destructive and regretful tool in the hands of the wrong people. He believes that true change comes from the individuals manning the institutions. I would have to agree.
As far as things that I have learned outside of class, the list goes on and on. I’ve learned to love thick corn tortillas. I’ve learned that I will never be fluent in Spanish, but that I can keep working on becoming functional. I’ve learned that it is more expensive to wear traditional clothing for indigenous people than imported clothing. I’ve relearned that children are truly the best way to break the cold ice that adults enclose themselves in. I’ve learned to appreciate the platonic friendships allowed between men and women in the U.S. And in turn, I’ve learned to hold my tongue and practice patience when talking to machos (which doesn’t mean I don’t despise it). I’ve learned that family is the most important value everywhere. And that Quetzaltenango, Guatemala makes the best hot chocolate in the entire world.
Until next time, Bonnie

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Que Tengo Miedo

For the first time since being here in Central America, I was scared for my life this weekend.

It wasn’t from the numerous bulges in the small of men’s backs (which I realized were guns) as we loaded ourselves onto the bus to Río Dulce like cattle. I just rationalize that this is a natural reaction of people for their own safety from gangs in light of the fact that 80% of all drugs in the U.S. pass through Guatemala first. (How unjust is that? An entire poor nation lives in a volatile brew of gang violence and local retaliation so that a few drug dealers can get fat, while rich Americans bored of their sober existence and unaware of the consequences can dabble or satiate their drug addictions.)

I wasn’t scared for my life from the cell-phone sized black scorpion we found hiding under a magazine on our jungle bungalow nightstand. I knew that creepy crawlies were to be expected when sleeping in a hut made only of palm leaves and a few wooden posts in the middle of a tropical and humid jungle (God how I sweated!). Our room was directly next to a system of swinging wooden bridges over the jungle creek (complete with iguanas and otters) which led to another part of the hotel away from Lake Izabal. To get to our hotel from the small and uneventful town of Río Dulce we took a ferry across the channel to the 400 acre farm with horse back riding, canopy tours, and kayaking.

I wasn’t scared for my life from the eerie sounds of howler monkey calls that woke me from a dead sleep at the jungle hotel. (They are so loud the sound can carry for three miles!)

It wasn’t from the itchy bites of (possibly malaria-carrying) mosquitoes INSIDE my holey mosquito net.

It wasn’t from the horse which I lost control of and nearly bounced me off as it ran unevenly at full pace over a steep hill on the 500 acre finca (farm). I got a hold of him and pulled back hard on the reins, and readjusted the uneven saddle. We gave the horses (and ourselves) a break and walked through part of the jungle canopy tour on elevated bridges a hundred feet above the creek. Then we climbed the stairs to the top of a tower that looked out over the lake and vast farm.

I wasn’t scared for my life from the two hour motor boat ride from Lake Izabal to the mouth of the Caribbean without life-preservers. I figured that I could swim to the other side of the jungle lined river if need be. On our way we passed the Maya river-dwelling people of Quiche. These people live completely from the river, without electricity, running water, or even roads, but somehow - as always - with Christianity (we passed a church on the water banks full of Sunday worshipers). It made me wonder how much more remote this area must have been when the first missionaries came through, and also how long it took for these people to accept and adapt the Christian beliefs to their own needs.

It wasn’t scared for my life from being completely unable to understand the new language of Garífuna spoken by the African-slave descendants in the Caribbean town of Lívingston (which was my favorite place that I have visited so far).

It wasn’t from the washed-up four feet long snake which I nearly inadvertently stepped on at the beach or the dead sea-turtle and numerous jellyfish. The beach at Lívingston was littered and dirty, but still beautiful. And our trip to Siete Altares, a series of seven waterfall pools did not disappoint. There were tons of locals cliff diving into the biggest pool, and after the long humid walk to the spot, I didn’t care that I had no swimsuit and jumped in with jeans and bra. The cold water was fantastic and the sunlight was beautiful as it filtered through the trees and sliced a few beams of light through the water. As we got out of the pool to dry off, we (Laura, Chrissy, Kendal and I) couldn’t help but laugh at the prepubescent machismo of a group of five 12 or 13 year old boys. So far the four of us have all experienced enough cat-calling, whistling and hissing to fill Santa’s goodie bag three times, but not from children! One boy swam over to us and asked me where I was from, and then commented that my physique didn’t look like I was from America, more like I was from Australia - as if he was an expert in the female form! As he and his friends blew us a parting kisses, I caught one, looked at it, and let it slip out of my fingers into the stream and they all burst out laughing. At least at this age, they can laugh at rejection – I’ve gotten a few angry stares from men when I react with anything but passive ignorance (which BELIEVE me is a test to my will-power every time).

It wasn’t scared for my life from eating a fish with eyes gills and fins still attached. This was quite possibly the simplest and best fish I have ever had in my life. It was at a family’s makeshift private-kitchen-turned-restaurant to the occasional visitor, at the beginning of the waterfall trail. The man that greeted us at the entrance was bare-chested with sea-shell necklace, streaks of gray in his fro, and smiling ear to ear as Bob Marley and the sounds of the ocean played in the background. This bear-sized man led us to a patio and introduced us to his Garífuna family who all had equally joyous and relaxed demeanors. He explained, as chickens pecked around his feet, that they served fish, wild pig or plantains. Chrissy and I looked at each other and both followed him into the “kitchen” (a grill in the corner of the center area), and ordered fish with plantains. The whole feel of the place with the ocean breeze blowing, Garífuna language and the easy laughter of the family reminded me of Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. In short, I fell in love with it.

It wasn’t from following the overly-gregarious and slightly-shady man who led us to “da-best dance-club-on-da-beach-don-worry-I-show-you.” It turned out to be a legit club right on the beach with locals, Guatemalan travelers, one other Gringo and traditional punta dancing (think hips and knees). The shady man of course wouldn’t leave until we fulfilled his demands of payment for his services, but it was an incredible experience. In the middle of the dance floor a local guy grabbed a glass coca-cola bottle (Laura said it right: You can count of taxes, death and coca-cola) and spun it as the entire club circled around and individuals were picked to dance alone in the center. Everyone participated and danced regardless of who they were, male or female, and everyone was immediately shuffled from their groups – blacks standing next to indios standing next to ladinos standing next to gringos. Everyone watched and laughed and no one was made to feel better or worse than the last who danced (and let me tell you that this is remarkable seeing that white-man syndrome seems exist everywhere – Not to perpetuate a false stereotype, but - why do white men have no rhythm? And why do black men have it so naturally?).

I wasn’t scared for my life from the packs of dogs which snarled threateningly at us as we walked home in the deserted night streets after dancing my feet into oblivion.

It wasn’t from visiting five different ATMs in three different towns in the ever continuing pursuit of Guatemalan quetzals. We finally found a small roadside ATM with money in it (although it was out of 100 and 50 bills and was dispensing 20s). I took out enough to pay my way home and for the next few weeks. I think there will come a day when there is just no money left in the banks, and this will destroy the tourism and economy of the country. I don’t blame the Guatemaltecos though; two large banks have closed and thousands lost all of their money. Everyday the newspapers show pictures of people on their hands and knees outside the main offices begging for something back, and everyone else has closed their accounts and opted for mattresses.

I wasn’t even scared for my life from the remains of three completely decimated semi trucks that we passed as we barreled and dodged cars along the windy cliff-lined roads back to Antigua (although maybe I should have been). We chose to get a private shuttle, because our experience on the public bus to Río Dulce took a 5 hour trip and turned it into an 11 hour trip. We stopped every half hour to stockpile more bodies into the main isle (we were incredibly lucky to have assigned seats) and to refuel by holding the gas can with funnel higher than the tank. The family that drove us back in our private shuttle was adorable. I don’t know how the husband was able to put up with the crazy antics of the drivers around him knowing that his young wife and year and a half old son were sitting in the seat next to him. I commend anyone who is able to safely drive in a third world country, and even more I commend the small children who so patiently sit there against their will without crying or fussing. The little boy was adorable. His sweet face and smile reminded me of my cousin Dillon, only with light brown eyes instead of piercing blue ones.

None of these things are what scared me to the core.

No, it was after the incredible weekend to the river town of Río Dulce and the Caribbean city of Lívingston. It was back in Antigua, where I lay safely in my bed - fed, clean and sheltered - about to fall asleep after a weekend so full of experiences that it had prevented any substantial amount sleep. As I lay there I was filled with incredible fear as I suddenly felt the ground raise and lower on its own accord underneath me. The squeak of my rickety old bed and the low rumble of the earth confirmed the moving waves of ground beneath me. I knew immediately what it was even though it was the first earthquake I had experienced. Immediately after the 30-second quake stopped I was released from my paralyzed prostration and I jumped out of bed and into the courtyard where Victoria stood looking up at the night sky, listening to the sounds of the entire neighborhood (people and animals) simultaneously making noise. I asked her “¿Un terremoto?” To which she sheepishly replied, “Sí.” She was there for the great quake of ‘76 in Guatemala, and her voice conveyed the memories of the destruction and death of tens of thousands of people. Two smaller tremors followed and shook the house, and I tried to calm myself enough to go to sleep, but packed a small backpack and put it next to my door – just in case.

I think the most frightening thing about being here isn’t the dangers posed by people, nor animals nor diseases, but mighty Mother Nature. The active volcanoes loom in the distance (one minorly erupted the day before I arrived in Guatemala) and the fault line which Guatemala precariously props itself are all things completely out of my control. Earthquakes are common (I was woken by another small one this morning), but it has been a while since a big one. Mortality is always more imminent with fear.

And what’s more frightening, and this sounds absolutely terrible in every possible way, but if something like this were to happen and I did survive, I would be reduced to the same level of helplessness and immobility as the people here. I would not receive special medical attention, the American embassy would not come and save me, and my money wouldn’t even help me. The bubble of safety which my skin tone, nationality and wealth quite normally afford me would disappear and I would truly know what it is like to be in an impoverished state. But even this would be temporary, because I would be able to return to the security and wealth of my homeland and leave the desolation behind me. I understand now why 1/5 of the Guatemalan population lives in the United States.

Just to give you a picture of what I am referring to, my guide book summarizes the grim facts saying; “A Guatemalan maya can expect to live a life of 48 years, and a ladino to live to 66.” What is the difference between a maya and a ladino? Skin tone and language. Maya are indians speaking Mayan languages and a landino is everyone else. To give you a face to this statistic, my host mother Victoria (a ladino) is 57, and like I wrote before, her body is that of a 70 year old; she went yesterday to the dentist and had five teeth pulled that were falling out of her jaw. According to this statistic, she has 9 years left. The book goes on to say, “these statistics are some of the very lowest in the world, rivaling only those of AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan. By the Guatemalan government’s own estimates, 81% of Maya live in poverty and 75% are illiterate.” I didn’t know that there was an entire nation of people so close to the United States (the flight from Houston is only 5 hours long) that were so impoverished, before I came here, but it is clear to me now.

I am acutely aware that I am always separate from these people. I can only look into their lives from an outside perspective and never really understand what it is like to be in their shoes. After traveling to some of the most impoverished countries in the world, I sort of feel like all travelers to third world countries are spectators to a sort of poverty zoo. We go to see the culture (*with a little c), people and places not realizing how separated we are from the people we are standing right next to. For example, after only four weeks in Guatemala I have seen more of their country than Victoria and Luiz have over their entire lives. The people zoo consists of tourists walking into the invisible cage of poverty and into the lives of the people on the inside. We take pictures, write stories and create anecdotes about our experiences that make us feel special or enlightened, and we are able to walk out of the binds whenever we want; never truly experiencing the desolation of those around us. The people inside fight eachother to be released from their poverty (which explains most of the violence, genocide and wars), but they can’t ever break free because they are the main attractions of the zoo. It’s not that the people who travel want them there in poverty, but they don’t know how to help and don’t want to have to compromise their own resources to find a solution.

In Lívingston, I had a two hour conversation with Ignacio, a guy my age who worked at the hotel. I asked him if he had ever been to Antigua, and he laughed and shook his head. He explained with clearness that his territory was Río Dulce and Lívingston. He had never been outside these two cities and never would be. “You, however,” he said in Spanish, “your territory is the entire world.” His words struck me. He drew out the invisible boundaries of his territory or cage, and then he showed me the limitlessness of my own territory in a way I had never perceived. He filled me with a sense of responsibility; to him, and to all the others confined to impoverished territories. So few people can boast that the entire world is their domain, and those who are able have a duty and obligation to try to better and loosen the binds of poverty for those who are unable to help themselves. I don’t think there is an easy solution, or even one that I will see in my lifetime, but I do believe that it is worth struggling for.

I guess that is where I am right now. I feel the weight of all those around me and it isn’t a load that a single person can lift on her own. I feel the internal pressure of wanting to DO something, but what can one person possibly do that hasn’t already been thought of by the people who live here everyday? I suppose that writing these anecdotes and sharing my experiences with you all could help in some minute way. Ultimately, I guess it comes down to the fact that their will always be suffering in the world, and conversely there will always be joy. Like I said before, these people have nothing but eachother throughout their short lives and yet maintain a sense of appreciation, hope and gladness. Or so I perceive. I just wish that those who have so much more time and wealth would realize their gifts and fully appreciate the auspiciousness of their bounty; because the rest of the world surely does.