Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Adios, Guatemala


As I prepare to leave Guatemala I want to record a few thoughts in what will probably be my last blog entry before I get on that plane for the United States in a few short weeks.

First, thanks to those of you who have followed this blog. It was originally suggested to me to start a blog by my friend Gayle. Although she never became a "follower" I nevertheless took her advice and I hope that some of you feel you have benefited from the entries and photos. With this blog I attempted to provide a medium in which friends and family could get a glimpse into my life and mindset as a Peace Corps volunteer here in this small Central American country. I enjoyed the little blogging I did and again thanks for reading and for your comments.


I'm going to miss certain people here in my little corner of the country. I've made a few good friends who are a beautiful representation of Guatemalan culture and her people. I already know that once I'm in the U.S. I'll long for simple dinners followed by a half hour in the adobe temazcal (mayan steam bath) where the weekly stresses drift away with the eucalyptus scented vapor. I'll miss the relatively quiet weekends dedicated to reading, sipping good coffee and smoking my briarwood Italian pipe. I'll miss conversations with my site mate RJ. I'll miss working alongside Guatemalans in the office, in the ditches, in the jungle. These are some of the hardest (and smallest!) workers and toughest people in the world; not to mention how nice and respectful many of them can be. The ones that make it out of here do not deserve to be treated like shit by xenophobic idiots in the U.S. who have a habit of blaming outsiders for our political follies and social misfortunes (Mao Zedong). Because of my new Guatemalan friends, my departure will be partly melancholic.

But certainly there is part of me ready to go. This is one of the most violent countries I've ever lived in and/or visited. With a 99% impunity rate, less than 1% of all crimes are ever solved and result in someone seeing a day in jail. In other words, if you have a problem and a gun you have a 99% chance of getting away with eliminating your problem. Thankfully I have not been the target of anyone's rage or random attacks on public transportation. I'm fortunately far from the epicenter of Guatemala's violence which is the capital, Guatemala City. But the towns where you'll likely bump into a Peace Corps volunteer can't be described as havens in this otherwise hotbed of violence and lawlessness.

The word to describe the local situation is tense. Grudges left over from the internal armed conflict, land disputes, lack of security, extreme poverty, guns (from the U.S.!!) and ignorance have created a dangerous situation and the tension can be felt in almost any small community you will find us. People here are not innocent until proven guilty. Rather if you are believed to have wronged someone or a group of people, despite the lack of reason and/or evidence against you, you might be the next person the news reports was thrown in a stack of old tires and lit on fire. I felt like I was walking on eggshells in almost any community where I had a project.

With virtually no trustworthy police there is no resolution to be found working with local authorities; in other words those responsible for dealing with crime and punishment. In fact many of them are involved in the very delinquency that plagues this country. This area has become a boiling pot of aggression where locals take the law into their own hands and it has been hard to live amongst such tension for 2 years. Although we, as Peace Corps volunteers, don't often see the violence since we are trained to avoid it, I imagine most of my colleagues would agree the tension can be felt. I have no other way of explaining the phenomenon of being able to feel something that is often not seen. Maybe it's the same phenomenon that has given birth to thousands of religions; past, present and future.

These people, and everyone in the world, deserve a country of laws, not of men. I believe John Adams said that. And it's sad that politicians on both the national and municipal level are ill equipped and reluctant to do something about it. The victims remain the poorest Guatemalans like villagers where I live. They are the victims of racism, classism, sexism, and many other human chauvinisms that prevent us from developing individually and as a community. This must stop. And that means the Guatemalan oligarchy must be dismantled. Human greed and political cowardice are the roots of the problem here and all over the world. One look at the wealth gap here in Guatemala will tell you same. In a country where up to 50% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished, Guatemala has at the same time some of the highest rates of obesity. It's very clear. If you're not rich then you're extremely poor. There's virtually no middle class or way of escaping poverty. The quality of education must be improved in the rural areas or these people will remain blind to what the wealthy 2% are doing to this nation of 14 million people.

Guatemala is a lawless country packed full of violent men and mountebanks bringing it treacherously close to the precipice of a truly failed state. I could go on and on about the environmental destruction, deforestation, and political cowardice but I choose not to go into that right now. With the slight apprehension of feeling guilty for being able to leave, I'm anxiously looking forward to my awaited departure for all the above reasons.

I want to use this space here at the end of my last blog entry to say, with all the ups and down, my time as a Peace Corps volunteer has been worth the last 27 months of my life. Christopher Hitchens in his impressive book Letters to a Young Contrarian said that living abroad was as important to one's education as a radical as the reading of any book. Had Peace Corps not existed it would have been difficult, but not impossible, to live in Guatemala for over two years and have had the type of international experience that many of us can only dream of -- an experience both of character building and humiliation. I've had some of the best organizational and medical support you can imagine. I warmly thank you for your tax dollars. Whereas some tax dollars go to starting despicable conflicts that only exist for the economic benefit of CEOs and shareholders of large U.S. companies, others go to supporting U.S. citizens who want to work hand in hand with our brothers and sisters in the developing world. I think we should be proud of the fact that we, with all of its faults as an organization, have a program like the Peace Corps. I hope you are as happy as I am that I'm returning to the United States a much more informed citizen with new passion and energy to be part of worthy struggles no matter where I find myself. After all, you're to thank.