I write this entry from the familiar surroundings of Quetzaltenango (which I refer to as Xela, in reference to the original Mayan name of the city). The smell of coffee and fresh tortillas, colorful families wrapped in traditional textiles, the lively background music of cumbia and conversations in Spanish as well as the daily afternoon showers of the rainy season are my reality once again… it’s good to be back. I returned just over a week ago and have been busy traveling from place to place, visiting old friends and now settling back into life in Xela.
Being back here again I am struck by the stark contrast of the Guatemala that is in the news and the Guatemala that I know. Guatemala has gotten a lot of negative attention lately with the arrival of the Mexican gang ‘the Zetas’ and news about corrupt politicians with the Presidential election looming in September. In the midst of all of the bad news that surrounds current events in this country I am constantly thinking of how genuinely good and generous the huge majority of the Guatemalan people are that I meet. The locals say that ‘the people’ (the bad ones I guess, wherever they are) are sick and have forgotten their relationship to each other and their land. It is true there are many ‘sick’ people here (and everywhere) but so far I have received nothing but kindness, openness and helpfulness from strangers. There is a true atmosphere of community here which is a factor that pulled me to return. I have noticed once again how my Guatemalan friends here share everything with each other. The people here who don’t have ‘a lot’ are quick to give you some of whatever they do have. Food, shelter, the shirt off of their back, etc. When we pass old men begging on the street with their hands cupped or women huddled in corners surrounded by hungry children, it is my Guatemalan friends who are the first to give them a few coins. It is embarrassing to see them do this right away when unfortunately my impulse is to avoid eye-contact and ignore most of them because that is what people do in the United States. Obviously giving a homeless person a few Quetzales (the local currency) is not going to lift them out of poverty or create any sustainable change, but I think the point is a show of solidarity and that’s important.
I am happy to be back in this beautiful country; risks, inconveniences and all. I don’t mean to oversimplify the people of Guatemala or proclaim this “The Land of Saints.” However it is still “The Land of Smiles” and not “The Land of Impending Doom Around Every Corner” as the US Government’s Travel Advisory website might lead you to believe. I look forward to seeing where this new adventure takes me, soaking in as much as I can along the way.