Friday, December 16, 2011

Returning to Guatemala: Part 2

The time had come to deliver the food aid to the affected communities, and so we rose that morning with a sense of purpose, my new friend Fernando picking me up from my hotel exactly at the stated hour – an act unheard of in this part of the world. The sun was already bright in the sky as we cruised down towards the Pacific coast from the highlands of Chimaltenango. The cool air blew against my face as I took in the landscape of towering volcanoes and green hills. We quickly found ourselves on level ground, the hills transforming into yellow-dry plains and the hot, salty air invading our car. It was a welcome change.

The food deliveries were much how one might imagine them to be. The people had received word that we were coming and were all gathered and ready for us, anxious to finally get some relief. Some words were said with the occasional prayer and the lists were checked off. One by one people would carry their heavy food bags away. On bikes, motorcycles, or simply on their backs – they did what they had to in order to get the food to their homes.

The rest of the day was much the same, with the exception of the growing number of local boys joining the caravan on the back of the truck and helping to haul the heavy bags as we moved along. I finished the day feeling satisfied, yet discontent. I had spoken to many families and taken lots of photos, I was starting to conceive just what these people had gone through. The rations I was sure would make a difference in their lives, but that night as I ate my own dinner, I could only think about those numerous families that showed up to the distributions and asked me, the Canadian, why they were not on the list.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction, further up into the Guatemalan highlands. The early morning drives in this country are always stunning. We climbed higher and higher up winding roads through thick fog, until eventually we broke through and fierce orange beams of sunlight began to shoot through the dissipating clouds. I was getting used to driving with Fernando, we had begun to get to know each other quite well and developed an unspoken bond. He was an incredibly kind soul, and despite the seriousness of the work he did, he had a devilish sense of humour and was always down for a laugh. He would tell me his interesting stories from the past as we drove, and as he delivered his numerous punch-lines he would glance at me with a semi-smirk, waiting for my approval before we both broke into hysterics.

This part of the country had been hit even harder, the heavy rains causing unstoppable landslides that killed several people and carried away numerous homes. Every few kilometers along the highway we would see huge cliffs that had crumbled, the rubble of rocks and dirt only recently plowed off of the roads. The people in this region were predominantly indigenous Mayans who wore traditional clothing and who’s first language was K’ichi. They spoke Spanish slowly with a sense of uncertainty yet clarity that I was able to understand so well. I had learned my Spanish years back while living amongst other indigenous Guatemalans, and so I was at ease speaking with them.

They had lost so much over the last few years as a result of the rainy season. In Canada as the fall approaches and we all begin to dread the impending winter, I realize now how lucky we are, and I can’t imagine the anxiety that faces these communities before the rainy season begins for them. Yet they hide it so well. They are all smiles and kindness when we arrive, and they thank us and bless us with a sense of sincerity that is like nothing I’ve witnessed before.

Before we left the last community, the leaders insisted on treating us to a sandwich. I’ve become used to accepting offerings from the people here, despite the fact that I know they are struggling for money. That is their nature, to give as much as they possibly can, even if it means a greater struggle for them the next day.

We had finally finished the food aid distributions and I withdrew to Antigua to rest and gather my thoughts. The retrospection was valuable, and I was able to define exactly what it was that I had learned over the last few days. I had often challenged people back home in Canada who blindly gave their money to aid and development organizations without actually acting on their own or doing the research to know where their money was going. And although I’m still sure there are various negative exceptions, I believe that this was typically what humanitarian aid looked like on the ground. The necessity for this aid and for the funds that brought it about was obvious – the gratefulness alone of the recipients was enough evidence in itself. Although not a long-term solution to the problems here, this aid would give many people a chance to simply stop worrying about feeding their families, even if only for a few weeks.

I had a few days of work ahead of me, but I also had some time for myself, so I decided to hop over the border to my old stomping grounds in El Salvador for some sun and surf, and for what would become an eventful weekend on the coast.

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