MicroMundo is back in the USA. Jess and I (Steph) flew in a few days before Christmas, and found both our families and a Baltimore winter waiting for us when we landed (needless to say, we were happier to see our families than to see the snow that was on the ground). Ronnie was a few days behind us coming from Petén, but she’s back home now, too.
For Jess, this marks the end of her Central American travels, at least for a while–she’ll be staying in the States and looking for a job in social marketing. For me, this is a slightly extended Christmas vacation. I’ll be returning to Guatemala at the end of the month to work with Mayan Families and the Family Aid program again. While I’m here, I’m going to try to organize some clothing/shoe drives, so stay tuned for more info on those, especially if you’re looking to clean out your closets for the new year. Though we still have some work left to do, this seems like a good time to send out a huge and heartfelt thanks for everything that you’ve done and all you’ve given over the course of this project. The generosity that we’ve seen in response to these stories has been incredible, and has made a real difference to a lot of people. We can’t thank you enough.
Our last few days in Panajachel were jam-packed. All of Mayan Families was in high gear trying to get Christmas gifts distributed and tamale baskets packed and ready to go, and preparing for two staff members to get married (to each other). On top of that, Jess and I were busy trying to finish up some Family Aid cases and bring Anna—the new employee who will continue working on the Family Aid and Elderly Care Programs—up to speed. In the middle of all that, we barely had time to think, much less write—that’s why the blog has been so quiet. Now that we’re home, though, and the initial rush of holidays and visits is over, I’ll try to do a little public reflection on the trip. Here goes.
It’s hard to really believe that one place is real when you’re in the other. When we were in Guatemala, the US seemed like a dream world. Sometimes it was a dream world like Disneyland—the kind of place you can’t wait to get to, because it seems infinitely better than where you are. Most of the time, though, it was just an idea that was almost impossible to really wrap my brain around: when you get into your car at 6am in Febuary and you’re sitting there shivering, waiting for the heat to kick in, can you really imagine what it’s like to lay on hot sand and get a sunburn in July? I can’t—everything I’m actually seeing and feeling is just too different, and too strong, to allow the beach to stay in my head for more than a few seconds at a time. That’s what it’s like to think about America when you’re in a place like Pana, with so much poverty and suffering, and institutions (like the police, healthcare system, and courts) that are completely unprepared to help. It’s just as hard to really imagine Guatemala while you’re sitting in The Green Turtle with a plate full of food, surrounded by 20 flatscreens all playing different sporting events.
I’m not saying that America is a day at the beach–life here has its own challenges–and I don’t mean to paint Guatemala as a miserable February morning–I love it there, and there is plenty that we would do well to learn from it.
One thing that I really admire in Guatemala is that, for reasons that are probably fairly obvious, people don’t tend to wait for experts. If not having the training to do something stopped people from doing it, then not much would get done in Solola (the departamento, or state, that Pana is in), where only 7.9% of students graduate from high school. If you need something done, or made, you usually do it yourself. Now, there are times when this is a very bad thing—removing surgical stitches is not a DIY activity—but, in moderation, this is an attitude that I really admire. If you need a step outside your front door, you don’t hire a contractor; you make one. If you need a place to keep your dishes, you don’t go buy cabinets and have them installed; you figure out a solution using what you’ve got, or what you can get easily. If you’ve got one motor scooter and a family of 5 in need of transportation, you make it work. Sure, it results in some slightly less than level carpentry, but exercising that kind of resourcefulness is also a form of empowerment in a place that really needs it.
No matter where you live, there will sometimes be things that make you feel powerless. In Guatemala, there are a lot of those things. Natural disasters strike vulnerable communities; medical treatment is out of reach for many; crime is rarely punished; the government is riddled with corruption; the job market is bad. I’ve seen many people experience this powerlessness, and on a few occasions I’ve felt it myself–it’s frustrating, depressing, maddening, and it can easily be paralyzing. Still, we didn’t often hear “Well, I can’t do that because…” or “I have to wait for X before I do that…” in Pana. In a place where so many big things are out of control, there is often a can-and-will-do, take-charge and get it done attitude about the little things. I’m going to do my best to adopt it myself. But more importantly, I think that that attitude can be a powerful resource, and I hope that over time, and with the help of broader access to education, it will be applied not just to everyday problems, but to creating real social and political change in Guatemala.