Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Posts Tagged ‘Guatemala’

Guatemala and Reverse Cultural Shock

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 23, 2011

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.

The GCN delegation heads back from the market with some members of the host community

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.

A Mayan woman demonstrates the weaving process

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.

Manuel performs a special Mayan ceremony just for the GCN delegation

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.

A Mayan family in their home

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?


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Finding charm in the country you visit

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 3, 2010

I ran across a blog posting by a woman who said she preferred the city of Xela in Guatemala to Antigua, which she compared to Diseneyland.   I have not been to Guatemala yet (I will be traveling there in a few months for the first time, and I will be passing through Antigua), but I think I understand where she is coming from, based on what I have read and heard about Antigua.  Antigua is often presented in guidebooks, and by people who have traveled there, as the antithesis of Guatemala City–a clean, beautiful, architectural wonder in comparison to the capital, which is presented as immense, ugly, sprawling, and extremely dangerous.  Antigua, a small city, also happens to be the home of many language schools; and, or at least so I hear, it is teeming with foreigners as a result.   Xela has many language schools as well, but is not so much overrun by foreigners and is offered as a hipper, more authentic place to take language classes than Antigua.

The comparison of Antigua with Disneyland reminds me a bit of my experience with the city of Bruges in Belgium (a city celebrated a few years ago by the film In Bruges).   Although obviously Belgium as a developed country is quite different from Guatemala, the idea of a country having a Disneyland city in contrast to one with more authentic charm does seem to be analogous in this case.  Bruges is highly a touristy city with at least some of its “ancient” charm largely a matter of artifice, since the city has been rebuilt several times over the years.     From my own experience, Ghent offered a more more authentic European charm than the Disneyland version that was Bruges.  But so far, no one that I know of has made a feature movie with the title In Ghent.

I think it is sometimes worth thinking about what one looks for when one wants to experience the “real” Guatemala (or Belgium, or Mexico, or France.)  Guatemala City, with all its danger, its slums, and its crime, is of course just as must “real” to the people who live there as Xela is.  I certainly think there is nothing wrong with being charmed by a particular part of the country, but it is useful to recognize that a nation can be comprised of many diverse elements, and there are many ways to be charmed.  One can be charmed not just by colonial architecture, but also by the customs, the culture, the music, the clothing, and the warmth of a nation’s people.   Those elements transcend the touristy elements and have less to do with sightseeing than with making a connection with the community one is visiting.  And I think that the value that is to be gained by that can be more lasting as a result.

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Fear and curiosity

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 23, 2010

Going to Guatemala has inspired me to do a lot of research into the country, its history, and its culture, and one thing that I find myself coming back to again and again is the problem of crime.  Guatemala City in particular has a terrible reputation as one of the most dangerous, if not the most crime-ridden, major cities in the world.  And yet, while guidebooks do mention this problem, they also give plenty of information about places to visit and things to do there, essentially presenting the city as a worthwhile tourist destination.  If you search the internet you find that a lot of people discuss the crime problem there, and you get a mixture of responses.  A frequent response is that if you use common sense, watch your surroundings, avoid the public buses, take taxis at night, and avoid dark alleys, you will be fine.  Some say they have gone to Zone 1 in the city without problem, and others say to avoid it like the plague.

I don’t expect that my travels to Guatemala City will actually take me into the city.  The plan is probably that I will just take a shuttle from the airport to Antigua.  But I still find myself strangely attracted to the idea of seeing Guatemala City for myself.  It is almost as if there is an exotic appeal about a place that is off the tourist radar.  I find myself looking in Youtube for videos of Guatemala.  For example, one video is taken by an American man as he walks through a market in Zone 1 of the city.  There isn’t much taking place in the video–just images of people doing things in the market, and it seems quite innocuous (although at the beginning the man points out that he is being discrete about filming), and it brings home the point that Guatemala City is a place where millions of people go about their everyday lives:

I you type things like Guatemala Crime into Youtube’s search engine, you will find a great number of videos that come back–news reports and documentaries that tell a tale of a society in which thousands are murdered each year, with only a tiny percentage of those murders ever resulting in a conviction in Guatemalan courts.

The worst of this is clearly found in Guatemala City itself.  Antigua, I am told, is light years apart from the violence found in the capital, although I also am aware that Antigua is hardly crime-free either.  Since I don’t expect to be spending time in Guatemala City, this is all a moot point anyway.  Still, there is a part of me that is strangely intrigued by Guatemala City.  It is a place that inspires in me both a sense of fear and a strange sort of curiosity.

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Voluntourism and Latin American history

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 5, 2010

I recently had a chance to view the 1996 Ken Loach film “Carla’s Song”, which uses the vehicle of love triangle (of a sort) to look back on life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution. I appreciated the politics of the film, and I felt that the story had a lot of the right elements for a good story, but as a feature film I found it unsatisfying.  The Scottish bus driver was clearly meant to be portrayed as a passionate and impulsive rebel against the uncaring bureaucracy in his own country before taking off to Nicaragua, but I found his behavior a little over the top and his relationship to Carla while in Scotland struck me as more than a little like stalking.  The American Witness for Peace volunteer who was in Nicaragua, played by Scott Glenn, also seemed over the top and as much as I wanted to be moved by his own story of transformation I just couldn’t feel any connection to his character.

Despite all of that, the images of the Sandinista revolution itself (the film took place in 1987) were somehow inspiring.  I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in Nicaragua during those heady days of optimism when the people had banded together to build a better society.  The images of Contra violence in the film were also a stark reminder of all the forces that exist in the world who will use any means necessary to sabotage efforts to strive for justice.  This has especially been true throughout much of Latin America’s history.

Alas, the United States has played a very unfortunate role in the history of this region.  In 1954, for example, the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically elected government in Guatemala.  The legacy of this horrible history of intervention lingers on there, as a recent story in the New York Times reveals:

Guatemala’s criminal networks extend deep into the institutions of state. Even the language of Guatemala’s agreement with the United Nations refers to “illegal security groups and clandestine security organizations” with the ability to “avoid investigation or punishment.”

When the democratic political fabric is destroyed and when aid is given to death squads and military dictators, is it any surprise that even once a country is at “peace” after a protracted civil war that it is a long way from the normality of civil society?  I often ponder how different things would be today in Guatemala had the events of 1954 not taken place; or how Chile would have been different had the events of 1973 been different; or how Nicaragua would have been different had the US not armed the Contras to terrorize the country into submitting to the aims of Washington policymakers.

I used to own a vinyl copy of the Clash’s 1980 album “Sandinista”.  The song “Washington Bullets”, published just a year after the Sandinista revolution, celebrated the events in Nicaragua with this hopeful but (in retrospect) clearly naive lyric:

For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America

Of course, that was 1980, and we all know what happened later.  There was plenty of interference.

Fast forward many years later, and in 2009 we saw a coup in Honduras, in which a democratically elected government was overthrown by the military.  Deja vu all over again.   Honduras was expelled from the OAS, but the US government refused to take part in any sanctions against the new military backed regime.  And just last month, the Obama administration came out publicly in favor of re-admitting Honduras back into the OAS.  As one writer describes it:

The Organization of American States suspended Honduras and has continued to resist efforts of Secretary of State Clinton to pressure them into readmitting Honduras. However, the US pushed for and was able to secure the formation of a high-level OAS panel to “study” the re-entry of Honduras at its recent meeting in Peru. We may well start to see the international community beginning to normalize relations with this illegitimate government.

As it stands now the coup government of Honduras’ biggest ally is the United States….

Once again the US is on the wrong side in Latin America.

Once again, the US government is undermining democracy and actively supporting a government that is murdering its own people.

Once again, the US has sided with anti-democracy forces and is trying to bully the world into rubber-stamp approval of our mistakes.

Because this is par for the course, my response to this is angry and yet in some ways muted. I am just not surprised by any of this.   It does remind me of why I invest so much personal energy into the concept of volunteering overseas.  If I have no faith in the political establishment to do the right thing with respect to Latin America, then I instead put my faith and hope in the efforts of impoverished and indigenous peoples of this region (and elsewhere) to organize themselves, and my efforts at voluntourism are directed with this sense of solidarity in mind.   As people struggle to survive financially in the face of the powerful forces of neo-liberalism, globalization, and free markets, not to mention racism and government repression, then the volunteer work that we do can express our support in their struggles for economic self-determination.

This gets back to a point I have raised earlier in this blog.  I think that volunteering abroad is not about solving other people’s problems, but rather assisting and participating in the basic work that a people are engaged in to make their lives better.

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