Learning Journey 2014: Guatemala’s Two Realities (Day 1)

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Day 1

I am most grounded in flight. Heading from somewhere I know well into the depths of a place about which I know very little. I am most at ease, most myself, when I know the least about the place around me, when on the brink of the unknown. It’s strange, I know. But it’s true.

It was with eager anticipation, then, that I touched down in Guatemala yesterday – a country I’m not completely unfamiliar with and yet only beginning to learn. It’s one of these places that the more you know about the more confused you are. How well we will come to realize that.

Today was the first day of our 2014 Learning Journey. After arriving at all hours of yesterday, we stumbled out of slumber and into the stunning Antigua sunshine first thing this morning. An international town with both wealth and poverty, historic architecture and modern amenities, Antigua was our gateway to Guatemala. The cobblestone streets and painted plaster create a charming façade for what is otherwise a sorted and complex story.

There is no one better to tell that story than the lovely Sue Patterson, founder of Wings and a retired diplomat who has spent the past 20 years in a volatile love-hate relationship with Guatemala. Over lattes in the rose garden she spoke of the country’s complex realities. On the one hand the country receives more than $14 million every day sent back from families living overseas and yet it has some of the worst socioeconomic indicators in the Western Hemisphere. It’s people are both malnourished and yet obese, access to education has improved over the years but the quality thereof remains stagnant. There are good laws but poor enforcement. There is robust population growth and yet inadequate capacity to provide even basic resources for the country’s people. Sue’s story was one of despair. The country is poor. Its people are dying and its government is corrupt.  But that is only one of Guatemala’s realities.

Despite the despair and amidst the poverty, this country is full to the brim with survivors who are interested in fighting for a better future. If you look hard enough, there is beauty here but you have to want to see it.

After our heart wrenching conversation we packed up and shipped out. We quite literally headed for the hills, heading north west for the Department of Sololá where we sought to find some of this alluding beauty. Along the way we explored the ancient ruins of Iximché. Beside the crumbling rock of homes and forts long since past, we met school children and worshippers, tourists and shamans alike. The perseverance and preservation of such a spiritual and significant Mayan capital set the tone for us to push forward to Sololá where the indigenous families we will meet in the coming days exemplify a similar sort of resiliency. They, too, refuse to be lost to the passing of time and the trials of unimaginable hardship. It is all we can do to stand beside them and try to help.

We’re in the Department of Sololá, now, nestled under an open air thatch roof hut in the town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The lattes have been traded for fresh squeezed juice, the conversation has shifted from one of despair to something a bit more curious. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know there was hope to be had. Some of us have seen it, lived it. Others will find out for the first time tomorrow that Guatemala holds tightly to two realities: one of poverty and despair, another of beauty and opportunity. The world is as we see it, the unknown waits to be made familiar. Let’s go bear witness, shall we?

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