Thursday, April 23, 2009

Moving On...

The season began its swift change in my last few weeks here in Guatemala, and an almost daily darkness arrived. The heavy clouds brought bouts of torrential downpours, brilliant dry lightning storms, and sweeping winds that flailed the sandy roads into the eyes of those braving the elements. The change was a welcome one, ending the dry and desert-like atmosphere, liberating us from the almost unbearably hot afternoons. It was as though one day the fog rose around our pueblo to reveal surrounding mountains that had suddenly become vibrantly green, you could almost smell the refreshing difference in the air. I'm in the capital of Guatemala now, debriefing and preparing for my departure. Thoughts of the last month are fresh in my mind...

Conspiracy Theories
I just wanted to illustrate further the political situation here in Guatemala, and the kind of issues one has to work around while involved in human rights work here. A few days ago a high profile lawyer, a man that was Harvard educated and considered reliable and legitimate, was "apparently" assasinated in the streets while exercising on his bicycle. The next day a long video was released of that very lawyer standing in front of a podium, clearly speaking passionately and from his heart, saying that if he was found dead and we are viewing this video it is because he was killed by the President of the Republic of Guatemala. This of course caused an uproar, and the last few days have been marked by large and very active protests from both sides of the political spectrum. The really interesting development is that information has come to light that this lawyer was financed largely by a company with close relations to the President, and many people are now rumoring the theory that the lawyer was not actually killed but was helicoptered out of the country to a secret location and is now sitting on a pile of money - all of this part of a plot to overthrow the government. Often when I read the newspapers here I feel as though I'm reading about the next hollywood political thriller, but this is just something the people have learned to live with. (watch the video with English subtitles here)

This may be a generalization, but I think its fair to say that a good majority of the people here in Central America hold strong Christian beliefs. It's easy to understand the enthusiasm and conviction of the people here towards Christianity, as it seemed to be the only thing that wasn't blatantly exploitative brought by the Spanish Conquistadors centuries ago. Christianity came to be seen as a liberating and unifying force representing peace and goodwill in a time of violence and inequality. After all, when the entire indigenous population was enslaved in the early days of the conquest, the one path to freedom, as a result of a Papal decree, was for one to become Christian.
Easter week here in Guatemala, known as "Semana Santa", is a highly important time of the year marked by huge processions and celebrations in the streets. The location where I was situated seemed to be a sort of religious centre for the people; hundreds if not thousands flocked there to take part in the festivities. The Easter celebrations in Guatemala are much different than anything I've seen before. The children and young people maintain an intense sense of excitement, as though they are about to go on a hunt for chocolate eggs, but they are not, and the excitement is something else that is admitedly unbeknownst to me. The streets are decorated in highly detailed sand designs, and many people dress for the occasion. There were hordes of children dressed as Roman legionaries, and others walking around bloodstained and shirtless as they hauled crosses over their shoulders. I even witnessed a reenactment of the final judgement of Jesus put on by youths in the market, complete with a torture seen of eerily realistic whipping and beating.
I couldn't quite believe the time and resources put into these celebrations; I suppose that with more poverty and desperation comes more fervor towards the one thing that seems to offer hope and salvation. A constant struggle to survive and a feeling of hopelessness is a life I've never experienced, and thus I've never felt the need to cling to something like Christianity. However, I couldn't help but think about what tangible positive results could possibly be found if only such energy and resources were aimed towards, or perhaps derived from, something more tangible in the first place...

Road Rage
More than a year ago now a couple of friends and I went on a surf trip to Mexico where we rented a jeep to drive around to various breaks. I was warned at the time about the danger of this, especially of the police if they stop you. I ignored such warnings at the time and that trip passed by more or less without incedent. I still maintain that driving around Mexico or Central America can be safe and fun, however it wasn't until recently that I understood why driving here can be so dangerous. It isn't only the poor quality roads or the constant danger of landslides, and it certainly isn't the Police that one has to worry about - but rather a lack thereof.
I had to make a long bus journey back to Mexico to renew my Visa for another three months, so my new accompaniment partner and I decided to take a series of chicken buses along a stretch of the country that neither of us had yet to see. As soon as we reached the city of Huehuetenango we were rushed onto a bus that was headed to the border town of La Mesilla, and immediately the bus sped off with a sense of urgency, which of course is normal here. We raced along the highway for about an hour, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic in order to pass "slow" moving vehicles, stopping here and there to load or unload brave passengers. It was at one of these stops that it happened.
We stopped suddenly as usual, the driver slamming on the breaks and cranking the huge vehicle on to the gravel, only this time it was too sudden and a speeding big-rig coming up behind us sideswiped our bus. It wasn't anything serious, some people didn't even realize what happened until they later saw the minimal damage on the side of the bus, however it was enough to set off our driver and several passengers into fits of rage. Of course without consulting the rest of us on the bus as to what measures to take the driver took off after the truck - which had no intention of stopping. We sped down the winding highway faster then I ever thought one of those old school buses could go, barely slowing down for the random speed bumps that are scattered all over the place in Guatemala. Finally we caught up to the truck and our bus forced it off the road blocking its way. Out jumped the driver and his newly formed possee of hooligans wielding machetes and large rocks. I was sitting near the back so I stuck my head out the window to hear what was happening. The poor truck driver was terrified and refused to get out of the truck, understandably fearing for his life. The thugs, of whom I now felt an unwilling association with because they came from my bus, were busily threatening the driver, trying to open all of the doors of the truck to get at him. When they realized that this wouldn't work one of them finally smashed one of the windows of the truck with a rock. Eventually, it seeemed that they were satisfied with this and off we went again. Of course it wasn't until some time later that we were all forced to get off the bus and wait for another, as a phone call was received by the driver saying that the Police were looking for them. As far as they were concerned though, justice had already been carried out.
I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if it had been me who side-swiped the bus. Something tells me that there wouldn't be a polite exchange of insurance information...

Moving On
My departure from the accompaniment project here in Guatemala is bittersweet: it's hard to be leaving so many incredible people behind, yet I'm excited to continue traveling. I'm going to miss the spectacular mountain views; the loaded pick-up truck rides and the kind hospitality of the Guatemalan families of whom I got to know so well here. On the other hand, I'm not going to miss the rampant pollution; the sound of whimpering, dying, abused dogs or the noisy cars blasting sickening music over loudspeakers on their roofs. I'm certainly going to miss the random farm animals roaming the country side, the authentic smile and "buenas dias" I received from almost every person I passed on the road, and even the angry neighboring dog who seemed to bark only at me and other gringos. However I won't miss the long, death-defying chicken bus rides; the obnoxious roosters in the morning or the visible desperation of so many people.
The fact is, being here in Guatemala and working as an international human rights accompanier has been an incredible and unforgettable experience that I'm sure has changed my perceptions, and thus my life, in ways that I have not yet even realized. It was exactly the kind of experience I sought when I came here, and despite the often hard times I think it was exactly what I needed. As much as this work did for me, I can only hope the results were the same for those people I was here to support. Even though my role here was minimal, the many genuine thanks I recieved from the people I accompanied made my work feel accomplishing and succesful. I can only hope that the struggle of the people here eases over time, and that the future brings them justice and peace.

And so off I go again, back to the open road, back to the freedom of indefinite travel. I don't know where exactly I'm going or what I'm going to do, but heading south and finding some surf sounds about right. I've been away from the ocean long enough for the many wounds on my feet to heal and scar - too long. It feels good to move on, to seek out once again new and fresh experiences and perspectives. I'm not sure what I will find, but I'll let you all know when I do...

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