It is our second week here in Guatemala City and I think I’m finally starting to become accustomed to Guatemalan life. The Frijoles (beans) and eggs at least once a day, the crazy packed buses and their routes, the men with firearms that you can find on every street and the coffee at every time of the day, especially supper.
We have Spanish language classes in the morning but in the afternoons we either have someone come in to teach us more about the culture we have been immersed in, or we go out to see sights around the city. On Friday last week we had the chance to go to the national cemetery and the landfill which was located just behind the cemetery.
When I was told we would be visiting the cemetery I was picturing one a lot like the Arlington cemetery in D.C. with rows of white tombstones. What we saw instead were rows and rows of small plots of land where people had built very elaborate and artistic family mausoleums. Some of them were the size of small houses and decorated like palaces. Further on into the cemetery we came to a wall of graves that are rented out for 14 years, most of them decorated beautifully. At the cemetery we got to walk around and look at the memorials of different groups that impacted Guatemala in major ways (Teachers, Germans, Chinese…)
We walked to the end of the cemetery then to a place where we could overlook the landfill. It was filled with people who go through the trash when it comes in and scavenge for anything they think could be of any value, such as metals or things they could fix. The people working there typically just don’t have the skills or the education to acquire other jobs. Our guide from CASAS pointed out that from the landfill those working could see the top of the big mall, but most of the people in the mall didn’t even know that people were working down there in such rough conditions. Not a happy thought.
Guatemala is teaching all of us a lot and who could ask for a better place to absorb that information? The people here are gracious and welcoming, and the weather is in the 70’s and perfect just about every day. All of your thoughts and prayers are appreciated as we continue to experience this culture that is very different from what we are accustomed to back in the states.
It is hard to believe that our first week in Guatemala is over, but it was a week of many experiences. Spanish classes started, we began learning more about the history of Guatemala, a routine was set, and more time was spent with our host families. One interesting thing we did was go to the palace of the President, aka the White House of Guatemala, and were given a tour. Inside the palace there were giant murals of the Mayans and Spaniards, ballrooms, courtyards, and statues. One statue that stood out was the intervention of left hands on top of more hands representing the people of the nation. The two giant hands represented the government of the nation coming together to end the civil war. Every day a freshly cut white rose is placed within these hands to represent the peace of the country. After the palace we had a scavenger hunt within the historical part of the city. The objective was to get a greater sense of the everyday lives of the people, and to learn more history of the area.
Also during this week it seems that most have blended into city life well. Most have begun navigating the city without the help of our host families, and also don’t feel like such strangers anymore. It is impressive to see how the progress of communicating in Spanish has improved in the one week of being here. Twice now my host family has taken me to the supermarket and has gone over everything in the store, giving me its name in Spanish. One day we must have been there for 2 hours and gone over at least 200 items. It is truly impressive to see how grateful each family is to have us and their willingness to help us learn.
My Guatemala experience thus far has been one filled with contrasts. As our Cross-cultural group continues to meet with speakers and engage in conversation, we are each given more materials to shuffle through and reflect on.
One of the largest contrasts I have experienced thus far was our trip to the local basudero (dump). As we walked to the edge of the cemetery, we were greeted by a strong smell that reminded me of fast food that had gone bad, as well as flocks of vulture like birds that dispersed as we neared the cliff’s edge. From the edge we saw below us in a large valley piles of trash and waste debris pushed into mounds by large garbage trucks. Within the piles of trash you could see men and women sifting through the debris, searching for something of worth. I saw one man heaving a bag that was twice as large as himself on his back through the trash. On the edge of the ravine, gray and white cinder-block homes lined the gorge, giving us a view into a different reality.
Over the tree line from the dump, we could see the top of one of Guatemala’s ritziest shopping malls, Miraflores. Earlier that week, I had actually been there with my host family to visit the clean, expensive, high class location. But from Miraflores I was unable to see the dump. The thought of life near the dump did not even cross my mind.
As we left the dump, my mind was filled with the thoughts of two realities. One, like that of my host family and my own life in the United States, filled with ‘security’ and comfort. Another filled with a possible insecure future and discomfort.
When I arrived home for the day, I explained what I had seen to my host family’s house help, Epep. After listening intently, she pointed out that though our lives and the opportunities we are offered differ here on earth, what really matters is having God in our hearts. What happens in this life will happen, but in the end we will all have the same choice. She reminded me that we all have the choice to invite God into our lives and have eternal life. Epep’s comment to me was extra powerful because she herself works long hours and comes from a hard life. But despite what life has sent her way, she continues to praise God in every circumstance.
So with these thoughts I was left to ponder the contrasts of Guatemala that I have seen and will continue to see. I was challenged to find God in everything around me, just like my friend Epep.
- Rose Jantzi