As usual, I am trying to get my bearings after having returned from a volunteer trip in Latin America. It is the phenomenon of reverse cultural shock. Apparently you never get over it, no matter how many times you take trips like these.
I have found that by the time these trips are nearly over, I am ready to return home to the comforts of home. There is a certain level of stress that accompanies going on volunteer and cultural exchange trips, at least for me. There is the stress of adjusting to a lifestyle that is so different from what I am used to. There is the stress of worrying about where my passport is. There is the stress of worrying about the safety of the food I eat and the water I drink. There is the stress of finding toilets that have seats on them. On top of all that, there is the stress of air travel itself, from the cramped airplane seats to the rude TSA agents barking orders at you.
You might wonder, with all that stress, what are the rewards in going on trips like these. But in fact the rewards are many, and so profound that they make it worth all the stress that I endure.
On the trip to Guatemala, I probably did the least amount of what might be called “volunteer work” of any volunteer trip I have done. And I was okay with that. Global Citizens Network describes its trips in terms of cultural exchange, with a view towards partnering with a local community. The volunteer project serves the goal of cultural exchange, rather than being the goal in and of itself. On this trip, I spent a lot of time with many Mayans in a village in the Western Highlands, and supported in some small way the work of the Mayan Center for Peace. I got to know several people who came to feel like family.
One of the most remarkable people I met during the trip was Marta, whose family had been persecuted by the military during the civil war, who had fled much of her life from government repression. She now has settled down into a home, and has committed her self to helping Mayan women in her community. She heads up a women’s cooperative that is involved with teaching women the craft of traditional Mayan weaving, as well as teaching illiterate women to read and write. The people of this community are taking matters into their own hands to try to build a better life. I was deeply touched when our delegation met women from that cooperative. They pleaded with our delegation to help them. I nearly cried.
Guatemala is a country that has suffered a terrible history, and much of that can be laid at the feet of the United States government. The 1954 coup, engineered by the CIA, overthrew a democratically elected government and set the stage for decades of military lawlessness, the legacy of which remains even to this day. The brutal civil war of the 1980s brought untold atrocities by the right wing backed military that had the support of the Reagan administration, and much of the violence and atrocities were directed against indigenous people. And, unfortunately, one of the war criminals from that time, a retired general named Oscar Perez Molina (who has also been linked to narcotics trafficking), is the favorite to win the Presidential election this year. Guatemala is ostensibly a democracy, and its electoral process seems vibrant, with many political parties and with billboards and signs and trucks with bullhorns everywhere. However, in a country where an oligarchy of several families controls the vast majority of the land and wealth, money plays a significant role the electoral process. The Broad Front of the Left, for example, lacks the financial resources to compete against these well-financed forces. That being said, the people do take their politics seriously. The day our delegation arrived at the Mayan Center for Peace, we watched a forum in which eight candidates for the mayor of Cantel answered questions and presented their views on women’s health issues. The room was filled with people who were very interested in the political process.
There is no easy solution to the problems that Guatemala faces, and our job as a cultural exchange delegation was certainly not to fix them or to take sides in the elections. Our relationship was not based on dependence, but instead was one of partnership. The Mayan Center for Peace is part of an effort for the people of the Cantel community to self-organize and take steps towards promoting Mayan culture and helping people improve their lives. The executive director of the center, Arcadio, is a man with incredible energy, charm, and vision. We supplied video equipment and external hard drives to the center that the Center could embark on a project of recording traditional Mayan weaving practices, and we also supplied yarn so that looms in the Center could be used towards expanding the weaving as an economic project.
There was a bit of irony in this. One day, we went on a trip to the nearby city of Xela (Quetzaltenango) to make some purchases for the Center. We needed to buy a lock box so that the hard drives and video equipment could be safely stored. Where did we go to make this purchase? The answer, I am afraid, is that we went to Wal*Mart, a symbol as great as any of the extensive reach of multi-national corporations, and an inescapable part of life in the developing world.
Throughout this experience, what really moved me was the hospitality of the people we met. Manuel was kind enough to perform a special Mayan ceremony just for our delegation. Most of the ceremony was in the K’iche’ language, which of course we did not understand, but like many religious ceremonies that are about sights and smells and sensations, it wasn’t really necessary to know what he was saying.
We experienced hospitality and generosity many times during this trip. It was very common for people we visited to offer us bread with tea or coffee, or to offer us some gift. I found the hospitality of the people very touching, and it was one of the things that inspired me to feel such affection for the people of that community.
After spending time with a people you care about who are struggling to make their lives better in the face of such difficult odds, the return home forces you to deal with a lot of difficult feelings. You want to make a difference, and your everyday life may be comfortable in certain ways, but there is also the tremendous discomfort and wistful sadness that the world is so screwed up. You wonder if you are doing all you can.
I have a high tech job that may be interesting and economically useful, but it is also provides no profound emotional satisfaction. And yet it is my high-tech job that affords me the resources and vacation time to take trips like these. Ultimately, eventually, I will settle back into the routine life that I had before I took this trip, and the reverse cultural shock I am experiencing will fade away, but there is a part of me that doesn’t want to lose what I am feeling now. I want to be spurred on to make more of a difference. The only question is what can I do that I am not already doing?