Tag Archives: Guatemala City

On the Road Again: Sensory Overload

Five hours of driving from Quetzaltenango to Guatemala City today via the Pacific Coast route left us awestruck, grateful, curious, a little dazed, and a lot stressed.

QuetzReu3My13_489This is a beautiful country, with many hardy, industrious people. We enjoyed seeing some of its more beautiful parts today, and admired the efforts of some of its people. We were left wanting to see more. And yet, if I have to do it behind the wheel, I’m not sure I could stand it. The term “traffic control” in Guatemala is an oxymoron; I shake my head and wonder, after observing the way otherwise kind, pleasant, intelligent people behave on the roads, why more of them do not die there.

Sorry. I wasn’t going to harp on that theme again. But here are some random observations of the day.


Roadside fruit stand, with bananas fresh off the trees.

–I don’t know a farmer in my country that would try to take a steep, rocky hillside and turn it into a neat, productive farm plot. But those plots are all over the mountainsides here, and the evidence of their bounty hangs in roadside produce stands.

–God’s green earth is lush and productive and often breathtaking as you go from mountain highlands down to low, coastal plains, and I wish there were places to pull off the road and explore so I could capture some of the beauty with my camera.

–So many of God’s children live in less than ideal circumstances, and I wish there were a way to draw all of them to higher ground economically, socially, and educationally. And yet, there is ample evidence of their industry, ingenuity, and intelligence. (Example: the pvc pipe networks that snake across the top of road cuts to water hillside farm plots below.) I have to wonder if I would be able to do so well if we exchanged places.

QuetzReu3My13_494–Along extended stretches of the major Pacific Coast highway in this country, traffic crawls at the pace of a double trailer semi rig loaded with sugar cane bound for the mill—about 15-20 miles per hour. Hence, it takes 1 ½ to 2 hours more to drive to the capital via a route that is only 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) longer.


En route to Quetzaltenango.

–There is no shortage of fools willing to risk their own lives and the lives of others to gain a little advantage in traffic. Case in point: the driver of one of those dilapidated, secondhand school buses full of passengers who came tearing around a long line of traffic that was trying to move through a one-lane choke point. Faced suddenly with an oncoming semi that had squeezed through the blockade, he forced his way into the traffic up ahead and forced another vehicle off the road.

–Anyone with an empty space in his truck bed could earn a little extra as a taxi driver. Examples: 8 or 10 people sitting the bed of a pickup; two guys standing on top of a load of stacked lumber, clinging to side frames; two guys standing up in the back of a Coke delivery truck between stacks of empty bottle racks (Remember soft drinks in bottles?); a cargo van, its cargo delivered, hauling people on the return trip.

–I don’t know how motorcycle riders here live to get old. Example: The guy with his girlfriend on the back of his moto (no helmet) who cuts through a line of freeway traffic and bumps over a small barrier to get to the exit ramp he missed.

–There appears to be enough industry and development in this country to support many of the people who struggle to find work. How to match jobs with people who are willing and able to learn the skills? I have no clue.  I know that LDS Employment Services is making a dent. But there is so much more to be done.

There must be good lessons to be drawn from all of these experiences. Maybe if I play with photos for a while, to relieve the stress, and then get a good night’s rest, I’ll see them with a clearer perspective tomorrow.

Heaven to Hell in 72 Hours

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Oakland Mall

We spent Wednesday evening at the nicest mall we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There are touches of luxury everywhere, beginning with the red or green lights above the underground parking spaces to show empty stalls.

Name a brand of expensive wristwatch or sportswear and you can probably find it here. Models in off-the- shoulder mini-dresses distribute samples of expensive perfumes or gourmet chocolate. People who are used to shopping at Saks 5th Avenue or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills could feel at home in this place. It is a palace of conspicuous consumption.

In the movie theater, there are plush recliner seats similar to those in first class on an airliner. The popcorn is cheaper than in theaters at home—but we order from our seats, and it is delivered by a dark-suited waiter.

If your life were dedicated to acquiring things or treating yourself to pleasant experiences, it would be easy to think that heaven ought to be like this.

In contrast, on Saturday, Sister S. and I had the privilege of joining a group of evangelical Christians as they distributed clothing, blankets, children’s toys, and food to people who live in the Guatemala City landfill, a ravine below the city cemetery.

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Guatemala City landfill

Each day these people dig through heaps of garbage to eke out their subsistence by salvaging repairable or recyclable items from the trash. The largest flock of buzzards I have ever seen circles overhead like seagulls over a hoard of picnickers at the beach. The scene reminds me of one of Dante’s circles of hell—but it is all too real, all too concrete. No words or photos can capture the unrelenting stench of decay or the feel of grit in your teeth from the fine dust that swirls in the winds of this ravine.

Some 1,500 people lined up to receive gifts and a light lunch of a roll, a Guatemalan tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, and a glass of punch.

The visitors who brought the gifts were mostly Guatemalans, but they also included a visiting family from Iowa and a handful of LDS senior missionaries from all over the United States, with visiting family members in tow. Gifts were donated by both businesses and individuals; several hundred of the blankets were provided by LDS missionaries.

Guat landfill_460bThe group brought along a generator, portable sound system, and keyboard. A talented musician spent the hours in the landfill singing Christian pop music, trying to spread a bit of the word about Jesus. At the edge of the crowd, a man in tattered clothing and what might have been dreadlocks (or maybe only matted hair) danced along.

My wife and I went home to enjoy long showers—and felt a little guilty just for having the privilege.

We have to admire people so dedicated to helping the least fortunate among us. Members of the Guatemalan group sponsoring the activity, la Asociación del Cinco, have pledged to donate five percent of their income to helping the poor.

But what is the best way for us to help people so poor?

Discussions about the problem too often are polarized. On one side are those who say, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Let them do the same. That way they’ll appreciate what they get.” Others may answer, “These people are so far down they’ll never get out of their hole, and society owes it to them to help. We’ve got to take from those who have in order to give to those who have not.”

What’s the right answer? I don’t know. But surely there has to be some viable middle ground.

Those who work most closely with people at this level of poverty say the answer isn’t simply to give them money. It’s spent too fast, with no lasting result.

Education may well be the answer—in the long run. There’s a public school perched on the edge of the ravine that serves the children of the area. By law children and teens are no longer allowed to work in the landfill with their parents; they should be in school. La Asociación del Cinco also has a school to help some of the children eight to 12 years old.

Human nature being what it is, there are undoubtedly some at the dump who would not take advantage of an offer of help if it required long-term commitment. But could there not be some system worked out to help those willing to train for viable jobs? Perhaps instead of paying back the aid they receive, they could pay it forward, helping finance retraining for others. It seems like an idea worth a try. I for one would support it.

In the meantime, those who are sacrificing every day to help people trapped in poverty—people condemned to live in the dump—have all my respect.

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Food for the hungry.

The Land of Eternal Spring

Rose Dc0612 381BGuatemalans call their country the Land of Eternal Spring because the climate is like that—at least in Guatemala City.

It would be unusual for the temperature to rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit or fall below 60 and hover there for very long. Guatemalan residential buildings don’t have central heating, and few would have air conditioning. Chilly at night? Put on a light blanket. Is it stuffy or warm inside? Crank open the louvered windows, as we have for the past several days. (That way you can hear the heavy duty fireworks better in the early morning when someone sets them off to say Happy Birthday to a friend. Rise and shine!)Gaut Dc1212_01b

One of the blessings of the land of eternal spring is beautiful greenery and flowers all year. images can show the beauty better than I can describe it.

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Guatemala Revisited

Guatemala City looking west, early morning

For weeks I’ve been speculating about what Guatemala would be like when I visited it again. Would it be more progressive? Would the downturn in the world’s economy over the past few years have hurt the country badly? Would so many of the members of my church still be struggling economically? Would it look and feel like the same country?

Now that I am here, I find that much of my speculation was right—and it was wrong.

I first came here almost exactly 48 years ago—November 4, 1964. I spent two years as a missionary in Central America, and 12 months of that time in Guatemala City. I have returned twice for 10-day visits, in 1985 and 2000, so I was aware of some of the changes that have taken place. But I wondered how the country had fared over the past decade-plus.

So, does it look and feel like the same country? Yes—the geography, the climate, the culture all still feel familiar. And no—there is something about the people that is different, for the better.

By early morning light, green, forested hills still surround the city, and I can still feel that this is the “land of eternal spring,” where the temperature is almost always pleasant and it’s possible to live without central heating or air conditioning.

But the vista of those hills is punctuated now by many glass, steel, and brick high-rises, and streets that once seemed broad avenues are choked with rush-hour traffic. The city has undoubtedly more than quadrupled in population since that period when I lived here. While many families did not have a telephone in the home back then, I read recently that Guatemala has more cell phones than people, meaning that many Guatemaltecos have more than one phone. When you walk through a shopping mall here, that’s easy to believe. Many teens have gtheir own phones. Guatemalans eat at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King. Pizza Hut delivery motorcycles zip through traffic. They have Walmart; Paiz grocery stores associated with Walmart;Office Depot; and the Guatemalan equivalent of Costco. (Membership here was cheaper than in Salt Lake City.) In exclusive stores and malls, people can buy the latest fashions not only from North America, but also from Brazil and Europe.

I can feel a change in the people. More of them are well educated, the middle class seems much larger, and they have higher expectations.

This holds true for the members of my church as well. Last night we went to a meeting in a big new building in a poorer area of town. Some 200 teens and their leaders were in attendance. They represented several LDS stakes, meaning that they and their families would add up to thousands of members. I admit I shed a tear or two as I looked around me and thought about the meaning of what I was seeing. When I was a missionary in 1964-66, I worked in this area of the city. One small, struggling branch covered the whole northeastern part of town, and its meetinghouse, like almost all the others in the country, was a rented home adapted for use as a church. Sunday attendance of adults, children, visitors, and members might have reached 200 on a good day.

Perhaps the best measure of church growth in the country is seen in a video Sister Searle and I watched a couple of days ago. It was a recording of the cultural celebration that took place the night before the recent dedication of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple. Hundreds of youth from the western part of Guatemala danced folk numbers, sang, and performed in a tribute to their largely Mayan heritage. The production was a well-choreographed, well-rehearsed, well-executed show that was the equal of anything that could be offered anywhere else in the Church. The young people obviously enjoyed themselves. One young woman who sang should be recording CDs commercially.

As we watched, the impression came: “You were part of this.” I thought: “No, surely not I. Others I knew, yes. But I never had the opportunity to serve in this area.” But the impression persisted: “You and all of the missionaries who served with you were part of making this possible.” If so, it is an honor to be included.

Children waiting for parents outside the Guatemala City Temple.

After the end of my mission in 1966, there was an opportunity to tour some of the famous ruins of Central America and Mexico on my way home. At Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, I stretched my legs after a long day of travel by climbing up one of the pyramids as fast as I could. I was wearing a Guatemalan typical shirt that surely marked me as a tourist, but as I reached the top, a young Mexican I had passed called out behind me: “Gana Guatemala!” (“Guatemala wins!”)

Guatemala is winning because of the growth of the Church in this country, and I am grateful to have another opportunity to help.