We awoke early our first day after arriving, the sun was just creeping over the mountains surrounding the valley settlement where our house lay, the brisk cool of the night was still in the air. We threw on our packs and walked through the dusty roads to the edge of town where we hailed a pick up truck. We clung tightly as the truck made its ascent up bumpy mountain roads, stopping now and then to squeeze more people into the already full bed. Finally we arrived at our destination, a small indigenous community where the homes are spread along a mountain slope, each dwelling separated by winding paths through the woods, broken occasionally by a spectacular view of rolling mountains in the distance. We spend the day going from home to home, chatting with villagers about life both in the hopeful present and the darkened past. I ask one man how things are going here, he tells me that "things are good, things are normal, life is a struggle from day to day". He is probably quite old, but like most people here appears much younger. His face, with distinct wrinkles cutting through his smooth leathery skin and large kind eyes, displays a sense of experience and hardship that is impossible to understand. With his little girl messily eating her lunch in his lap he goes on to tell me how him and his brother are the only ones of his family that survived the massacre here, his eyes look as though they are near tears. He becomes silent, I don't know what to say to him. His family offers us some delicious food and after eating we move on. This is one of the many people and many communities that we have visited over the past couple weeks. Already its been an unforgettable experience, and I'll be here for at least another three months.
With traveling, as with all great things, comes a responsibility. I knew I couldn't just come out here and take advantage of the economic disparity between this region and my own, I knew I had to give something back. Thus, after four months of traveling and searching I've finally found an opportunity that I feel is worthwhile, beyond the realm of voluntourism, and an experience that will surely impact both myself and the people I interact with here. I've started working as an international human rights accompanier in Guatemala, a country where violence and impunity are pervasive and deeply rooted. Throughout the not so distant years of authoritarian rule, massacres, disappearances, and various other atrocities were common place. Today, many of the men behind these often planned and deliberate acts still roam free; some are even still a part of the government. However, there is still hope for justice and reconciliation thanks to the tremendously courageous actions of victims and survivors of the violence who are willing to come forward and testify against those in power, even in the face of threats against their lives. We, as international accompaniers, are here to provide a hopefully deterring presence and a show of moral support for these brave souls and their struggle.
I came back to Guatemala after being invited by the volunteer coordinator to come in for a meeting. The organization, called ACOGUATE, is a central body that coordinates various international groups who send accompaniers here. This means that the team here is comprised of a diverse group of people of all ages and nationalities, all here to show their support.
I've mentioned before that I was looking to be completely immersed in Spanish, well I've certainly gotten what I asked for. Both my initial meeting with the organization, my training, and everything that has followed has been entirely in Spanish. Needless to say its been a rewarding struggle, and I've already come along way in such a little amount of time. It's a great feeling being able to converse with so many different people from around the world whom, if it weren't for Spanish, I would not be able to communicate with at all. Language is a beautiful thing, I only wish I had such insight at an earlier age.
I spent about two weeks in Guatemala city preparing to begin working in the field, and after an intense period of training I finally got a sudden phone call from my partner telling me to get ready, we were leaving in an hour. Now here I am in an interesting town made up primarily of Indigenous Guatemalans who experienced the brutality of war first hand. I feel both saddened and at the same time privileged to be here. The town is centered around a square where a large church and a popular bustling market are found. I have been reading much about the atrocities that took place in this very square, about the brutal murders and abuses that were carried out as people flocked to this communal center of town. It invokes in me both a sense of eeriness and happiness when I find myself in that square; knowing that such atrocities were carried out in the setting before me, yet seeing all these people continuing to thrive and enjoy themselves.
I'm still in the process of understanding what happened here, and of understanding the mindset that the people now hold, but everyday it is becoming more clear. What is certain is that justice and recognition is a prerequisite that has yet to be met, and so the struggle continues.