Challenges facing my new home in Guatemala


December 17, 2009

Current(Cross-posted from the Current TV News Blog) Read on Current HERE

My first impression of Guatemala was that the place I was living in was not “rural” as I had expected because everything in the little town in which I live is concrete and cinder block. There’s an internet café, and buses thundering past all the time. Also one thing that struck me the very first night was that they’re much more tolerant of noise here– there was music blaring until at least 2 am that Saturday. But now I don’t even notice it, so I guess it’s just what they’re used to.

My house here is not really like my home in the US in many ways. Here, there’s no central air, so having a window or door that isn’t perfectly sealed doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We have no washing machine, so we wash our clothes by hand and line dry them. The weirdest thing to me though, was that they have a TV (with cable, so lucky) and a TV watching area, but no comfy couch to lounge on while watching. They just have plastic chairs. By now though I don’t even notice these physical differences, I consider my house here to be very comfortable.

So that’s my “house”, but my “home” here, my family and the daily activities of the household, is very much like my home in the US, if not more functional. My host-mom is a housewife, and she makes three meals a day for me and the rest of the family, we always have dinner together at 7. She is so thoughtful and has said things to me that my own mother would have. My host-father drives a water truck to fill people’s water tanks and also has land where he grows leeks (which we’ve had in meals and are very good. They get trucked to the US for sale apparently.) I have three brothers who are all in college including one for a business degree, and one who wants to become a heart surgeon. The youngest is 16, the oldest 23, and none of them are married because they want to get good jobs first. I see that as a kind of rare thing here, but I really think its good. They go to church all the time and are always visiting their family who live close by.

In the town I work in, Pastores, one huge problem I see is deforestation. The hills are all but bare of trees, because the public is uneducated about the dangers of deforestation–even though several years ago a tropical storm dumped enough rain on the area to cause a devastating mudslide of the eroded soil. The mothers chop down trees for firewood because it’s their only source of fuel.

In the town I live in, Santo Tomas, Pastores, and Guatemala in general, I see a huge lack of diversification in businesses. In Pastores, there are 8 boot stores in a row on two sides of the street. Every corner Tienda sells exactly the same products, and they are located within feet of each other. It boggles me how anyone can make any money that way!

Clearly deforestation is a factor of global warming. It’s not to say that they don’t care about the environment, for example the “alcalde” or governor of Pastores considers deforestation to be a big issue in the area soit’s not totally unnoticed, but their priorities are just a little different. You can’t live unless you have firewood to cook your food, it’s that simple. But there are more sustainable ways to do it, and that’s what they don’t know about. As far as the lack of diversification goes, I don’t know what global issue that’s indicative of. I know it’s indicative of the relatively poor education system here, and I don’t think it makes for a very strong economy either…

The economy of Guatemala is hugely dependent on that of the US. Just focusing on the aid organizations who function here mainly through donation based funding, they are now seriously struggling, which is a sad thing for the Guatemala when aid organizations who were doing really excellent and empowering work, as was the Reicken Foundation. This foundation was funded by one donor who essentially pulled his funding due to the economic down turn. The Reicken Foundation’s work consisted of creating community libraries and simple community spaces for the people to use a resource in personal and education development. (Guatemala has very few libraries, and of the ones it does have, most are not lending-libraries.) Now the scope and expansion opportunities of their work are much more limited. Just in general, the economic downturn in the US and the world at large have decreased revenues in Guatemala because people aren’t travelling or spending as much. This money really means a lot to the Guatemalan government because most people don’t generally pay taxes so a big chunk of their funding comes from tourism.

As to how what’s going on here affects the US, the most striking thing to me is I guess kind of an inconsequential thing. I have spent a lot of time here visiting my host-family’s family members and lot of them have farms (even my host dad has a small farm) and most of them sell these vegetables in the US. First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever seen lettuce actually growing in the ground before, or eaten oranges straight off the tree– but I’ve never ever gone hungry. And it seems as though it’s very possible that these were the people growing the food that fed me. Maybe that’s a big stretch, but I just never thought of my food as coming from somewhere other than American soil. Which is so silly.

Oh and another more personal example of how the US connects to Guatemala is through clothes. My host-mom runs a “paca” or a store that sells American clothes out of our house. She goes into Guatemala City to buy huge bags of shoes, and clothes that have been cast-off by the American fashion forward. It’s basically a grab-bag system, you don’t really pick what you buy, you just buy a huge bag and you get what you get. As a person who has always donated my unwanted clothes to GoodWill or something, rather than just throwing them away, I now see where it’s possible that a lot of them have ended up. At the supply store in Guatemala City I saw bags of toys that included a Hannah Montana sing-a-long guitar, and I truly wondered where it came from– who had bought it and for whom, and how quickly they must have tired of it, since Hannah Montana is still pretty big (I think.). But really, isn’t it kind of amazing to think that the Christmas sweater you wore once, and hated, and then gave away, might now be proudly worn by a child in Guatemala? It doesn’t just disappear– it all goes somewhere.