Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Returning to Guatemala: Part 1

Just ten days ago I was sitting in my friend's warm coffee shop, thinking about my impending life on the west coast, preparing for the next few weeks of cold that was about to hit Toronto, when my phone rang and I was offered a job in Guatemala.  It was just contract work, five days or so, but I was being sent back to Latin America, something I had been longing for, and it was being paid for.  I really couldn’t believe my luck, because really that is what it was.  Sure, I’ve worked hard to gain experience in international development and to become fluent in Spanish, but ultimately me getting this job came down to who I knew and where I was.  That’s how international development works, I suppose that is how most careers work.

I was as tired as usual, that same fatigued and sleepless zombie like state that I always seem to find myself in before I get on a plane and head overseas.  The excitement had kept me up the last two nights, and then waking at 4:45am to catch my flight didn’t help at all.  The three hours from Toronto to Houston was no good for sleep, aisle seats just don’t cut it.  I had to rush to my connecting flight and thankfully I had a window seat and an empty aisle.  I was able to stretch out a bit and catch a few minutes of half-sleep, but nothing substantial enough to change my overall demeanor.  I had a window for my attempted nap, and when I decided to open the shutter as the captain announced our starting descent, the bright sun filled my empty row of seats and the green mountains of Guatemala rolled away beyond the horizon.  I was here, and the open landscape brought with it a flood of memories that warmed my body and left me as anxious as ever to get off the plane.

I was greeted at the exit to the airport by Mardo, my local contact, and his son.  Mardo had the token kindness typical of most Guatemalans, and I instantly felt at ease with him and without hesitation accepted his offer to join him at his grand daughter’s first birthday party.  We drove through the city to what seemed a relatively poor but organized barrio where Mardo’s family lived.  There I was introduced to a flora of characters, from the “Doctor” who was working on commercializing his own take on recycled rubber and readily admitted to his alcoholic tendencies, to the “Captain”, an old navy man that was quick to dismiss the legalization of drugs in the U.S. as a solution to the narco-trafficking problem in Guatemala.  The party was for Mardo’s grand daughter who was turning just one year old, and the whole barrio came over to celebrate in the cul-de-sac that we had commandeered for a few hours.  No one could pass as we sat around in a big circle and watched the children destroy two large piƱatas, each time candy fell the hordes of kids would surge to the middle in a mad dash, like seagulls fighting over food scraps.  I was tired and Mardo knew it, so after a few hours when the party had died down, he drove me downtown to a hotel where I quickly ate a snack and passed out to another restless sleep.

The next day we headed up to Chimaltenango, about an hour outside of the capital city, where the local organization that I would be working with was located.  My job was to observe an emergency food aid distribution for victims of the floodings, shoot photos, and write a story about it all.  So although I'll have to save the details for the official version, I'll try to share some of the more intimate moments.  That first day in Chimaltenango we visited the storage facilities where several people that were hired on for this project were bent over in the sun, counting and packing bags, then loading them onto the big truck to be transported the next morning to the various communities.  I took the photos that I needed then I jumped in, counting and hauling, but admittedly taking more breaks then the rest of them.  The work involved was exhausting, and I applaud the commitment of these people that were working to help others for what was likely very little remuneration.  The organization itself is a very progressive one, founded by Don Marco, a gentleman who I met that day and would later speak to at length.  He had lived through the civil war as an activist and supporter of the uprising against the oligarchic military government, he even played in integral role in the peace talks that ended the war.  The organization was originally created to assist victims of the war, but has since evolved into a diverse community development group of experts.  One employee that I spoke to told me that the name of the organization, Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), was named after the small pueblo where Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia.

That night I strolled through the Central Park tasting some of the different street foods and watching some local kids play soccer.  The cold of the night, the bustle of the park, and the smell of spiced meat brought me back to my early days in Guatemala, when I lived in a small town in the highlands.  It felt incredible to be back, and I was grateful that I was given such an opportunity.  The next few days would act as a stark reminder that as happy as I was with my life at that moment, there were people here simply struggling to live.

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