Tag Archives: Guatemala

What Is Two Days of Weaving Worth?

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Mayan typical clothing in a museum.

Her fingers work swiftly and deftly as the Mayan pattern takes shape in the weaving on her back-strap loom. I compliment her on her skill. She says her fingers have had much practice.

How long has she been doing this? I ask. She began when she was eight. Did someone teach her? Yes, her grandmother. Her mother died when she was very young, and she grew up in her grandmother’s care.

She wears the typical dress of Mayan women.  Her hair is graying, and her skin is beginning to be wrinkled and leathery. But she does not seem old in spirit. She seems cheerful about her work, and careful to do it in a manner that she can be proud of. She explains how one can tell the difference between quality handwork and pieces woven on a machine.

Weaver at her back-strap loom.

Weaver at her back-strap loom.

It may take her two or three days to finish one of the long, colorful weavings that tourists and other visitors prize as wall hangings or table runners. Her work will probably sell for less than $15 in the market.

I’m good at bargaining when I want to be. When I’m face to face with a merchant in the market, we both know that the first price they quote me is the tourist price. They can and will come down on the figure, especially when there are other vendors a few steps away, or standing there vying to get my attention. If I play things right, I can get this item for 30 to 40 percent off.

Artisan's handwork.

Artisan’s handwork.

But I can’t bring myself to do it. Somehow it seems brutal. Many of them will cut the price if I begin to walk away, but I rarely ask them to come down. Why should I think $7 is too much for a hand-woven, hand-sewn bag when the woven fabric in it may have cost someone two or three days to make? Much more cheaply made bags would cost $15 or $20 in Target or Kohl’s in the States. So why should I try to beat these weavers, sculptors, and jewelry makers down on the price of something that is already a bargain? I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I did it.

I am not trying to impute some nobility to all of these artisans just because their culture and their background is different than mine. As in any other culture, there are greedy and corrupt people among them who will cheat customers and who are not above manipulating potential buyers. “You’re rich. You can afford it,” one says. (She is wearing brand new typical clothing and seems particularly well fed.) Or, “Your church believes in helping people. You should help me out.”

But for the most part the people in the shops and market stalls seem to be honest, hard-working individuals trying to bring in a little income in the best way open to them. I hope God blesses them in their honest endeavors. I hope they and their descendants carry their skills on into coming centuries. And I will not ask them to cut their prices just because I’m clever and I can coerce them into doing it. I honor and respect their work, and truly, “the labourer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7).

A World away from Where I Live

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It was a quiet stretch of river, a side channel shaded by overhanging trees, and our boat idled slowly along so we could appreciate the greenery on each side. Then, suddenly, there were children standing by the boat, seemingly on the water, until I looked over the side and saw that they were standing in tiny canoes. Their small craft were just big enough to hold one or two children and a small pile of items to sell.

Rio 1Fb14_2846bThe children eagerly accepted candy from the purses of the women on our boat, grandmothers all. These little boys and girls were selling small, carved dugout canoes, like the ones that carried them, along with shell necklaces and bracelets, turtle shells, and a few other wood carvings.

Everything started at 50 quetzales—a little over $6.00 U.S.—but the price quickly dropped to 35, then 25, then less as our boat began to move away down the river.

Rio 1Fb14_2838bLooking to shore, I could see the wooden slab houses, on small stilts in the edge of the river, where these children lived, with small boats and dugout canoes tied to narrow docks. There are no roads to reach this place; all traffic is on the river.

Out in the main channel again, young boys and men fished from dugout canoes, finding food for an evening meal. And I thought about what I had just seen. The phrase “a world away from home” took on new meaning.

I have seen conditions just about as far removed from my comfortable home in Utah as one can get—desperate poverty in Egypt, stark aloneness on the steppes of Mongolia, crowded, wooden-shack slums in Africa and Latin America. The idea that I live a blessed and privileged life while many others struggle in far different conditions is not new to me.

But this time hit home because I saw my grandchildren. I have several the same age as those little boys and girls on the river—Jenson and Ean and Marcus and Alexa and Talmage and Ivan and Abby—living lives that those Guatemalan children may never see. My grandchildren struggle with fifth grade reports on other countries and the foundations of algebra, with U.S. history and writing assignments. Their parents carefully chauffeur them to school because it might not be safe for them to walk by themselves. Parents living beside the Motagua River send their sons out in dugout canoes to help bring in supper, or their younger children out in canoes shorter than I am to bring in a little cash by selling a few trinkets to passing tourists.

As parents and grandparents at home, we tell our children the world is open before them. Those children living along the Motagua might someday have the hope of working in a store along the river, or a business in Rio Dulce or the small port of Livingston.

They did not appear to be unhealthy or unhappy, and for all I know, they may have a happy, wholesome family life. But I hope many of them have the opportunity to go farther, if they want. I wish I could open for them the kind of future that is open to my grandchildren. I pray for them that someday they may find opportunity they cannot begin to see now. I hope they will somehow be able to see the larger horizon beyond the thick jungle foliage that lines the edges of the river.

A Bus Named Jenifer

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Buses at a youth camp

This is not the first time I have noted that Guatemala is the land where old school buses from the U.S. come to die. But I have to say that they certainly live out colorful lives before they pass on to that Great Terminal in the Sky.

There was a line of buses blocking our turn onto Calle Roosevelt yesterday as we went to the office. The buses inched past as they disgorged passengers. And there she was, third in line, a converted school bus with the name Jenifer in large letters down the side.

It is not unusual for buses here to have names. Esmeralda seems to pop more often than expected; either that, or one distinctive bus gets around a lot. They may have names like “La Izalqueña”—“The Girl from Izalco.” There are variants on terms of endearment, like “Mi Chiquita” or “Mi Dulcita”—“My Little One” or “My Little Sweetie.” A lot of the buses bear slogans: “A Gift from God,” “Jesus Is My Lord,” or “God Is My Guide.” The way these buses are driven, we can only hope that the latter is true.

Bus horns_Dc13_1993Jenifer was a particularly good example of restoration. While some of the buses that come here retain their original yellow and black, complete with “Franklin County School District” down the side, many others get a makeover. Jenifer had a nicely done green, red, and yellow paint job with chrome pieces on the wheel hubs. Some buses have paint jobs that almost look like murals, along with a whole lot of chrome, big air horns, and occasionally Bus ornament_Dc13_1992mean-looking chrome hub pieces that remind me of the chariot wheel knives in Ben Hur.

There is a hierarchy of buses in Guatemala City. There are a few large, green new buses that run the routs to downtown and back. You can ride them for one quetzal—about twelve and a half cents U.S. There are guards on the platforms and the buses are clean and I would feel safe riding them. There are blue and white intra-urban buses that are older, more crowded, and more problematic. Then there are the red buses, many of them Mercedes—old, decaying hulks. The diesels often spill out toxic black clouds that make you hang back so you can see the Bus detail_Dc13_1997pedestrians that may be scurrying across the street behind them. People are packed in so tightly that it’s hard to exit. There will probably be people on the lowest step hanging out the door by one handhold. The security adviser for our mission area said that if you ride on one of the red buses you can plan on being robbed. One of the missionaries who served with us here called the red buses “zombie vehicles”—the walking dead of buses, held together by who-knows-what.

That’s the scary part.

The fascinating part is watching life go by when you’re stopped waiting to get onto Roosevelt and passengers begin to pile out of the buses. There may be people in business dress striding down the street to the office, students with mochilas—backpacks—on their shoulders, or a woman in Mayan typical dress with a basket or bag of goods to sell on the street corner. Knots of pedestrians wait at the edge of the street to dash and weave through the traffic because there is no crosswalk. At the curb, another woman in typical dress, having sold all of her homemade food for the day, loads her empty basket and folding table into one of the taxis that hangs around at the bus stops.

For all of them, this is normal, day-to-day life.

For us, it is an interesting cultural experience, one of the indicators that we’re not in Kansas anymore—even if the lettering on the bus says “Wichita Schools.”

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Barrio Santa Fe, south of the Guatemala City airport, with a bus coming up the street in the background.

Beautiful Flowers in Disguise?

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The photo was taken in September, but the scene is still the same in January.

Sister S. and I went walking in Guatemala City’s embassy district this morning, where the flowers blossom year round and we can listen to birds calling in the trees. They don’t call this the Land of Eternal Spring for nothing.

We agreed that next January, when we are back in the cold north country, we will probably look back fondly on these walks.

So rarely do we recognize today’s blessings as we occupy our minds with what is to come—what we expect, what we fear, what we long for. So rarely, it seems, do we live fully in the moment. (But perhaps I should speak only for myself.)

A French philosopher—typically, his name escapes me—once said that we rarely look at our wristwatches and clocks to find out what time it actually is. More often, we want to know “how long until”—how long until lunch, until the meeting, until I can go home to my spouse and family, etc. We are not so much concerned with this moment as we are with what we expect to happen in some dreaded or longed-for future moment.

The Savior, I think, was the master of living in the moment, the example of taking advantage of the blessings and opportunities that are before us right now. Jesus performed many mighty miracles—calming the sea, for example, and walking on the water (Matthew 8:23-27, 14:25-42). But He was the Master of the moment also in quiet, intimate actions—as He taught the Samaritan woman (John 4:55-26), as He bade the little children come to Him (Luke 18:15-17).

It may not be given to many of us to do miracles, but we, too, can be masters of our small moment when we take advantage of the opportunities before us and the blessings around us each day.

It takes wisdom and awareness to focus on the blessings and opportunities at hand. Sometimes it takes wisdom and awareness beyond what I possess.

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Flowers bloom year-round in the neighborhood where we’re living.

It is a blessing to be able to walk among blooming flowers and calling birds here on a January day when there is severe winter weather in the area we call home. Because I look forward to going home, it took me a while to see that.

It is a blessing to be able to bring good into other lives. But it takes awareness to realize that this person standing in front of you is a child of God with hopes and dreams and challenges, and that you possess what is needed to help him or her with some of the challenges. Sister S. is better at perceiving this than I. She is especially good at knowing how to help children. It comes intuitively to her. Perhaps that results from living more fully according to the Savior’s example.

It is a blessing sometimes to face challenges—a truth I acknowledge only grudgingly.  And yet the growth that comes from these challenges is undeniable.

I have not yet arrived at the point where I can embrace the challenges in the same way I enjoy the flowers along our way on the morning walks. But perhaps someday that will come too.

 

Where Is safety? Where Is Peace?

Just when I think fear is making me exaggerate the dangers of this place, something happens to change my mind.

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Walking in the embassy district.

Two weeks ago, two friends of ours, another missionary couple, were working in their offices across the city when they heard a series of explosions outside. Fireworks, they thought. It happens all the time. But when they were ready to leave, they learned that three women had been shot down in the street just outside the gates of the church building where their offices are located. Gang violence, the police said. Somehow gang violence seems to involve women a lot more in Guatemala than it usually does where we live in the United States.

I haven’t written in my blog for a while. I think I have been avoiding it, because every time I tried to think of something to write about, this came to mind. I didn’t want to write about it. I try to keep things uplifting in my posts. But maybe there is a lesson to be learned in confronting my feelings.

There is no denying that Guatemala is a dangerous place. Statistics, we have been told, show that Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are the most dangerous countries in the world for violent crime. Killings are frequent, cruel, and malicious, often blatantly sending a message to someone. Drug gangs seem to have no fear of the police. Robbery is a fact of life in many areas, and robbers don’t hesitate to hurt or kill victims who resist. And the traffic here still amazes me and raises my blood pressure every day because of its dangers. I shudder when I see father, mother, and one or two children on a motorcycle weaving through traffic. I fear driving at night, hoping not to run onto someone—literally—on a motorcycle without headlights.

It takes conscious effort not to let fear rule your actions here.

Sometimes it helps to step back and change my point of view. I am a news junkie, because news was my career, and so I check the headlines from home every day. In tonight’s headlines there are stories about two men charged with murdering another over a drug debt, another armed robbery at a credit union, a woman killed while trying to run through freeway traffic, a family seeking justice because of a loved one killed in a hit-and-run accident, four women forced into prostitution. It’s not that we are completely safe at home in the United States either. Our neighborhood has changed over the 29 years we have had a home there, and now we sometimes hear of gang crime nibbling around the edges of it.

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Apartment buildings in our neighborhood.

It helps also to be grateful for what we have here. Last spring the local municipality staged a concert in the street in front of our apartment building. The government wanted to demonstrate that there was indeed a zone in the city where it could safely be done. Sister S. and I go walking every morning in the embassy district a couple of blocks east of here. It is a gated community with guards at the entrance and in front of many of the houses. People come from all over the surrounding areas to walk, jog, or ride. (One biker comes with his companion/guard pacing him on a motorcycle.)

We have the opportunity to enjoy many wonderful things here. Last night we saw a performance of The Nutcracker in the beautiful, comfortable, and architecturally intriguing national theater. Hundreds of people came to watch a skilled ballet corps and enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music. I haven’t seen a better job anywhere else—and the tickets cost us about $2.75 apiece. It was a very enjoyable experience, one that could not be had for that price at home. We have seen so many beautiful places in Guatemala. The drive from Quetzaltenango, up in the mountains, down to Retalhuleu, on the coastal plain, reminds me of the road to Hana on Maui.

Today I was discussing my feelings about the dangers here with someone I respect who reminded me that we cannot live as prisoners; we must simply trust in the Lord and be careful. He is right.

Sister S. and I never go to work the same way twice. We try not to look wealthy or conspicuous. (That isn’t easy when we are obviously North American and a high percentage of the men are about the same height as her.) We keep alert to what is going on around us. We never follow closely in traffic, and if we have to brake suddenly, we hope the driver behind has also been paying attention so we won’t get rear-ended—again.

We’ve found prayer essential to this aspect of daily life. We pray for protection every day before going out. We know it helps—we have seen it—and we are grateful. We are grateful enough that we are also getting good at thankful prayers when we come home safely once again.

What Would Life Be without Work?

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Your brand new tuk-tuk.

Want to be your own boss? To avoid having to give part of the money you make to wholesalers, employees, suppliers, etc.? You could become a tuk-tuk taxi driver. Scrape together about $1,100 and you could be the proud owner of a new two-seater three-wheel taxi that looks a little like a golf cart with a cab and put-puts along like this: tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk.

You’d be out on the streets early carrying fares for pennies, and you’d probably stay out late taking in as much money as possible.  As a driver, you’d have to be quick, adept at staying out of the way of cement trucks, loaded buses, SUVs, and other vehicles that could easily flatten your little taxi. You don’t have much protection. But at least you’re not pedaling, like some drivers in Asia. And hey, it’s work.

Early each morning as we go out walking, there are men sitting on the curb or leaning against walls across the street from the new high-rise building that’s going up a block away. Early in the day, those men look anxious and expectant at the same time, hoping for a day’s labor. By midmorning, those who are left look dejected: no work again today. No income, no sense of accomplishment, no sense of worth.

We all need to work, whether we like to admit it or not. Life is not satisfying without work, and without work it slips away while we are not watching. (An observation: I have never known anyone that retired in order to enjoy idleness who then lived very long.)

Morales16Ap13_609When I was younger, there was a common stereotype of the lazy Latino. Anyone who would accept that stereotype does not know the people. I have never seen anyone who works harder than the Guatemalan laborer, or the 16-hours-a-day tuk-tuk driver, or the Mayan woman selling her tortillas, made at home well before daybreak, on the street corner from seven in the morning until her supply runs out. I know men in their 80s who still jump at the chance for a day’s work because they do not enjoy the income or opportunities that are available to retirees in the U.S. Life for some is very hard.

And yet few of us could ever be truly satisfied with doing nothing. Almost all of us feel the need to make some impact, some contribution in this world. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”

It was rather easy for me to walk away from regular office hours and meetings when I retired. It was harder to walk away from friends, so I still try to keep in contact. But what I could not give up was the opportunity to contribute somehow, so I still try to give my time to activities that will make a difference in someone else’s life.

Is it work? Yes, of course. But what else is there? What would life be without it?

 

Lake Atitlan: Damaged Beauty

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My love and I spent our forty-fifth wedding anniversary at one of the more beautiful spots I know on earth—Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala’s Maya heartland. I first saw the place in my early 20s, loved it then, and wanted her to have the chance to see it.

We came away awed by the place, and yet disturbed by signs of its abuse.

The setting is magnificent. From the manicured grounds of the Hotel Atitlán, with its sculpted shrubs and colorful flowers of every kind, you look across the blue waters of the lake at three volcanoes rising like sentinels on the other side. At sunrise, they are etched against the horizon, with green lawns and flowers of every hue in the foreground.

Atotlan21Jun13_0907Visitors have only to look around this place to appreciate the handiwork of God, and the generous use of space around the hotel for flower gardens shows the owners’ appreciation for beauty.

And yet there are signs that the lake is not as healthy as it once was.

My memory is that in 1966 I could walk several yards out on the dock, look down into the water, and see stones on the bottom. Not so now. The water is murky. Sister S. read that raw sewage is being dumped into the lake from a sewer plant that failed. We took a hike in woods on the nearby mountainside (all right, yes, she had to make me do it!) and found there were heaps of trash and junk in the small waterways that empty into the lake. Disappointingly, trash can be seen around its edges.

I don’t know how long the ecosystem of this lake may be able to withstand the damage, but if nothing is done to reverse it, Guatemalans may be in danger of losing a treasured part of their heritage—a generous gift from our Creator.

Atitlan22Jun13_0971The hotel is a place to be pampered, if you want. It offers special services such as massages, fine food, and comfortable rooms with a beautiful view from the balcony. It’s located in an area with limited telephone and Internet accessibility, but thanks to modern technology, it has TV via satellite.

We haven’t had TV for eight months. I surfed all 60-plus channels looking for something to enjoy—and found nothing. (Well, there was the last few minutes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, dubbed in Spanish. That changes the cultural experience.) There were a lot of things I might have watched—action movies, fútbol (soccer), novelas (the Spanish soap operas), endless news. But in the end, there was nothing to which I wanted to devote any large slice of time.

That is unusual for me. I am a child of the TV generation. I grew up when classics like I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Perry Mason dominated television. I watched the original Star Trek throughout its run, and M*A*S*H faithfully for 11 years. As my brother-in-law once said, all you have to do is hear the beginning of the M*A*S*H theme and you’re hooked. And in my case, I’m also a news junkie. But it doesn’t take very long listening to news channels these days to realize that some fairly trivial things get way too much play.

Atitlan22Jun13_0997I wondered, after surfing all those channels and finding nothing that engaged my mind, how often I have let it be filled with useless things in front of the television or in browsing magazines, etc. How often have I let my mind be filled with what is essentially trash?

If I were to go on doing that, how long would it take before lasting or irreversible damage is done? If I do mindless things long enough, will my ability to ponder important things—great ideas—be lessened or damaged?

And what should I be doing now to avoid letting more trash build up?