Guatemala: An introduction

La Primera Semana (The First Week)

We arrived on Jan. 9, and now it’s Jan. 19.  10 days feel more like 30 days.  Highlights and low-lights have included me coming down with tonsillitis for the 3rd time in 2 months, quickly getting antibiotics thanks to Peyton’s “host” cousin who is a doctor, hiking Pacaya Volcano (about an hour south of Guatemala City), students going to host families (they were mostly terrified, but the family-student matches were very well-made, which helped a lot), my kids and EMU students beginning Spanish classes last Monday, a guest speaker, Israel Ortiz, who gave a fantastic introductory overview of Guatemalan Culture and Context, field trip to Zone 1 (City Central Plaza, Palacio National – el Guacemelon, National Cathedral, Central Market, 6th Avenue pedestrian zone) on Wednesday, to El Mercado La Terminal in Zone 4 on Thursday, and to Cayala on Friday.

The contrasts between La Terminal and Cayala were overwhelming.  In La Terminal, people live in one-room “apartments” with 7-10 people.  They pay to use the restroom and more to shower.  We all felt extremely conspicuous walking through there, but our guides (from Puerta de Esperanza) wanted us to meet the families they work with, and the families smiled and welcomed us.  They were proud to have us visit.  I was moved to tears while walking down a dark hallway to reach one of their “homes.”  The stench of urine and trash was overwhelming.  The walls felt too close together.  How can people live in a place like this?  How can they thrive?  The answer is, they have no other choice, but they are not really thriving — they are only surviving.  Their smiles melted my heart.  I felt honored to be able to get a tiny glimpse into their lives — but I also felt anger, shame, horror, at their living conditions.  Empathy and sympathy combined.  We need both to make this world a better place.  Empathy to understand the other and sympathy to motivate us to take action where we can.

Many students and I felt overwhelmed.  How can anyone or anything make a difference here?  How can anyone or anything help? — The Good News was apparent through the work of volunteers and staff of Puerta de Esperanza, an organization that provides education for kids growing up at La Terminal as well as training on prevention of drug use/abuse, prostitution, domestic/relationship violence, and human trafficking.

What a week. I’m grateful for every moment.

-Laura Glick Yoder