Guatemala, my second home, is a beautiful and diverse country. It has everything from the beautiful Lago Atitlan, the ancient pyramids of Tikal, the magnificent cascading waterfalls of Semuc Champey, the colonial cobbled streets of Antigua shaded by active Pacaya, and a proud and busy second city in Xela crowned by Volcan Santa Maria in the distance.
When I first came to Guatemala, I expected it’s natural beauty, but I’ve been continually surprised by Guatemala’s economic and educational gaps. About 69% of Guatemalans older than 15 are literate and according to the CIA world factbook 56% of Guatemalans live in poverty. In Guatemala the wealthy and educated are very wealthy and, as a teacher I may say this, fairly well educated, but they are in stark contrast to the poor that make up the rest of the country.
On any day in Xela I walk by members of the lower class. Typically dressed in tipicos (their traditional dress) chewing gum and smiling or laughing with a baby on her back and a basket of corn tortillas balanced perfectly on her head. She works hard, but is economically just above the handicapped beggars. Many beggars are missing legs, teeth, arms, or other essential body parts, and are forced to sit on street corners waiting for any change to fall toward them. Both the girl and the beggar have been forced to scrape the dust of the wealthy for a living, which has not given them the time to be educated. And without education a person can’t grow. They are forced to do menial jobs. One such job might be charging one quetzal (Guatemala’s currency 8 quetzals to 1 dollar) to use their bathroom on the side of the road.
Having lived in Guatemala for three years, I feel like I’ve seem most of her extremes; her natural beauty, her wealth, and her poverty, but often I don’t encounter them in one day. But that is just what happened during the first weekend of Holy Week. While on the bus to Guatemala City I saw poverty. Well, I wasn’t on the bus. I’d jumped off between Solola and the next town. My bladder was screaming, so I was thankful when the bus stopped so the driver could grab a snack. It was 8:30 am and the roadside was teaming with food vendors. I could tell I had time to empty my body of the Dr. Pepper I’d drunk. As I stepped off the bus, I saw a little boy in a plain t-shirt, no older than second grade, manning a table in front of what seemed to be a room for bathrooms. Growing up in the states I still dislike paying for restrooms, but I am sure this kid and his family are doing all that they can for a living, so I payed him the Q and walked past the table. What I found was not a bathroom, the floor was dirt and it didn’t have a complete roof (tin topped the stalls so at least if it was raining I could relieve myself and not get wet), but an unfinished section of the building with three old blue wooden doors with three 10 gallon barrels filled with water in front. Two of the doors were locked from the outside, I’m assuming the toilets behind those doors were broke beyond repair because a dirty toilet hasn’t stopped many Guatemalans from using them, and the third was occupied.
I glanced over my shoulder to see if the bus was still there. I could see the top of the bus from the natural skylight the boy’s family had designed into their building (it’s fun to look for the positives in these situations). As I waited in line I realized that the water in the barrels was for flushing (not all of Guatemala has running water). Each barrel contained a small bucket so the user could tote the water into the toilet and flush down their deposit. The first stall opened up and I wanted to bolt inside, but the man had to fill the toilet so he could flush. Ages passed and the line wasn’t getting shorter so I decided to pick a spot in the corner and moistened the dirt bellow my feet. After making water I turned to see the bus rolling away. Thank goodness for that skylight. I zipped up and ran. I was not the only one running, a few of the other patrons were dashing toward the bus as well. Fortunately the bus stopped and I climbed aboard and made it to Guatemala City. In the city I saw extravagance.
After an American breakfast at IHOP, the pancakes tasted refreshingly good, I made it to Oakland Mall. If my description of the roadside rest stop matched most of your pre-conceived notions of Guatemala, even my little sister asked me when I first moved down here if I was living in a hut, then let Oakland Mall completely destroy those notions. It is grand; home to an aquarium, a large food court and a beautiful movie theater. Seeing a movie was the whole reason why I went to Guatemala City. The VIP movie theater is outfitted with fully reclining leather seats and waiters ready to take your order from a complete menu all for only 68 Q (under 10 dollars), making it the fanciest movie theater I’ve ever watched a movie in. It felt like luxury meant for kings.
It’s funny how after three years in Guatemala a day like this has come to feel normal. Most people would experience culture shock. Maybe I can chalk it up to the dismissive phrase, “Only in Guatemala.” Yes Guatemala is beautifully diverse, and yes some if it’s extremes need to change, but for now I’m going to enjoy where I live.