Thursday, March 19, 2009
Thoughts from the field...
I was under the impression when I took this position that my role would be relatively limited, that because of my limited experience I would not be too involved in the some of the more immediate and pressing issues. In the grand picture, this remains to be the case. However, only a few weeks into my time things began to get very interesting here in Guatemala. The big news of late was that the government was finally ready to hand over four important military documents from the war that could potentially contain information which could inculpate several currently high ranking military men and politicians. However, on the very same day that the President of the country announced that the documents were ready to be disclosed, the Ministry of Defense claimed that two of the four documents had mysteriously disappeared and were likely destroyed. The audacity of the forces that be to think that they can get away with such deception almost makes me laugh, but alas this is the reality of Guatemala right now.
During this time my partner and I were given the task of accompanying someone who lives in our region who is deeply involved in the struggle for justice and the processes occurring right now. In all honesty I did not realize the magnitude of the task we were undertaking until it was pointed out to me. It's easy when accompanying to lose your perspective and to feel unimportant or useless, but this feeling is suddenly turned into a subtle surge of adrenaline when you see the name of the person you are accompanying and the issues he is involved in on the front page of the national newspaper.
Things have slowed down again and now we are back to a more routine schedule of accompaniment in our region. I've received a new partner for the remainder of my time, but the month that I had with my former partner was highlighted by some unforgettable experiences.
At one point there happened to be an exhumation in one of the communities that we were visiting; a local family had long awaited the day when they were allowed to relocate the remains of their murdered teenager. We were invited to the pre-exhumation "Mayan" ceremony which began at 4 am and continued for a few hours as the sun slowly rose. The entire ceremony was in the local language called "Achi", however I could often discern what was being said by the actions we carried out. We created a large circle around a fire and many words were spoken, then we took a moment to bow and venerate the four directions of N,E,S,W. This first part all seemed genuinely Mayan to me, or at least it verified my admittedly ignorant preconceptions of a belief system very much interconnected with nature. However as the ceremony dragged on things began to change, and I suddenly found myself in a curious situation that left me unsure of what was going on and why. We began taking turns throwing things in the fire including many whole candles, twigs, and some sort of food. Next the "sacerdote" or priest began throwing in the fire the following: water, honey, leaves, charcoal, liquor, beer, red soda, several eggs, and other odds and ends that I can't remember to describe but seemed strikingly wasteful. After more words were said a chemical composition was mixed together which smelled like some sort of hair treatment, it was carried around to each one of us and heavily applied over our entire bodies face and all. Finally near the end when I thought I could no longer be surprised by what would be next, everyone bowed their heads and thanked God almighty and Jesus Christ!... Upon later reflection I came to terms with the fact that this ceremony was the product of an ancient culture struggling to find itself in modernity after years of suppression and dilution. Further, that the significance of these practices are no different nor stranger than any of the religious practices carried out often with even more zealousness in North America.
Another more recent incident occurred after we attended a memorial ceremony in an isolated location in the mountains, a place where a horrific massacre had occurred during the war. The journey itself was exhausting, rising at 3:30 am we piled into the back of a large truck actually designed for cattle, but often converted into human transport. Standing the entire time, with a cold wind striking all exposed body parts, we crept along the poor quality road for more than four hours, finally arriving at a large river. Although the sun was high in the sky by this time, we were still freezing, so we basked in the sun for a few hours as we waited for the small boats to ferry us down the river. It was at this point that I took advantage of the large and relatively clean body of water that I had been longing for, having one of the most relaxing swims I've ever experienced. Finally we were dropped off at a spot downriver only to learn that we had a two hour hike up the mountain which would commence in the afternoon - when the sun was at its strongest. I carried only my backpack, as did the other foreigners I was with, and after many much needed breaks we finally reached our destination; everyone of us completely exhausted thinking we had just endured an epic journey. However, about an hour later a procession of locals casually strolled up the mountain pass, what an incredible sight this was. The men, women, and children all carried huge parcels of various things on their heads and backs and any where else they could fit them, a couple men even brought a "Marimba" - a large and seemingly heavy three person musical instrument. Here we were sprawled on the ground panting, wondering where we were going to find water or food, while these people casually unpacked and proceeded to prepare a giant feast for us all! I've never been so aware of my spoiled North American lifestyle as I was that day.
We camped out the night in the mountains and then made the exact same trip back, which for some reason seemed twice as long and exhausting. Although the entire expedition was quite memorable, the point that I will never forget happened the next day back in our community. Unpacking my bag without a thought of danger in my mind I found a good sized scorpion, still alive. I'm not sure where it was hiding the entire time but I found it sitting right on the part of my pack which rests above my back close to my neck. This scorpion almost surely came from the mountain location and therefore enjoyed a four hour trip on my back, I can only assume it was comfortable.
I feel inclined to end this post with some reflections on the situation here in Latin America, more specifically, the political situation. Among the many reasons I came to this part of the world was an interest in the leftist politics that have seemed to have survived the cold war and the apparent victory of free market capitalism. Albeit, some of the most atrocious neo-liberal far- right experiments in the world have been carried out in this region, which to me only makes the surviving and rising strength of the leftist movement here so fascinating.
A couple of months ago Hugo Chavez won a referendum in Venezuela allowing him to run for re-election without limit; other nations such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have steadily been pressing their left wing agendas; and only last week El Salvador, a nation until now considered one of the U.S.A's closest allies in Central America, voted into power an openly socialist government. The developments are happening rapidly and are undoubtedly instilling fear upon the multi-national corporations, the right wing politicians in the north, and the local rich. When I lived in Canada the only press coverage I heard regarding Chavez or other left wing movements were reports of violence or unrest or human rights atrocities, incidents which do unfortunately still occur. However, when I was traveling in El Salvador every single person that I talked to, save the rich Texan that brought me to his mansion of course, adamantly desired a change to the left. No large government is perfect, and no left-wing government is going to create a utopia - we've already dug a hole too deep for that. Any government though, that is willing to spread wealth more evenly and put power back into the hands of the people is surely a step in the right direction. Being out here amongst these developments and witnessing first hand the blatantly obvious disparity, has challenged many of my ideas and aspirations, but only for the better. Humanitarian and developmental assistance from the more wealthy nations is important, and I believe it is vital that people at least attempt to help if only by coming here and learning of the situation, but the roots of change however, can only grow from the seeds of a nation itself. The left is back, seemingly stronger than ever, and the potential that this poses for the future of not only Latin America but the entire world, is almost unthinkable.