Welcome to Guatemala!

Welcome to Guatemala!  It’s February 2017, and I just passed my year anniversary of living here.  Despite my good intentions to keep in touch by writing a blog, it’s somehow taken a year to materialize.  (Better late than never?)  I have been lucky to meet many fantastic, inspiring people and see some incredible places, from volcano peaks to the lush Rio Dulce canyon, to the intense religious fervour that grips the town of Antigua during Easter.  Finally, I’m sharing some pictures and stories which I hope all of you wonderful friends and family back home, and in other exotic locations across the world, will enjoy.  I miss you all!

Moving to Guatemala: expectations vs. reality

Honestly, I expected relocating to Guatemala to be a much harder transition that it actually was.  I was off to work for an NGO which supports some of the poorest rural, indigenous communities in the country.  I expected poor infrastructure, unreliable internet, temperamental electricity and water, as I’d experienced elsewhere.  As soon as I arrived, though, I could tell it I was going to have it pretty cushty as a foreigner living in Panajachel.  

(Zoom in with the ‘+’ to see more)

Whilst there are parts of Guatemala which are still fairly off-limits to travellers, “Pana” and the other towns on the shores of the stunningly picturesque Lake Atitlan have been hippy havens for decades.  These days, Lake Atitlan is listed in Guatemala guidebooks as a ‘must see’ spot.  Lonely Planet says:

Today even seasoned travelers marvel at this incredible environment. Fishermen in rustic crafts ply the lake’s aquamarine surface, while indigenous women in multicolored outfits do their washing by the banks where trees burst into bloom. Fertile hills dot the landscape, and over everything loom the volcanoes, permeating the entire area with a mysterious beauty. It never looks the same twice. No wonder many outsiders have fallen in love with the place and made their homes here.”

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A view of Lake Atitlan, and hiking with friends above the town of San Antonio Palopó

Daily life in Panajachel

Is it any wonder that so many foreigners of the ‘savior’ variety (ahem, me) have also chosen the beautiful lake, with its hospitable warm climate, for their charitable endeavours?  There are hundreds of NGOs based on the shores of lake Atitlan, many foreign-owned.  It’s not just the poverty here that is staggering, although the bitterly unjust poverty levels suffered by the indigenous communities are evident wherever you go.  It’s poverty’s evil twin, inequality, which really bites.  Just like poverty, excessive wealth is also very visible; within the boundaries of the capital, there’s an entire town for the rich, where: the cheapest apartments cost about 70 times the average Guatemalan’s yearly wage.”   On a list of 145 countries, Guatemala ranks 13th in terms of income inequality. I’d witnessed this in other parts of Latin America, but it never fails to halt me in my tracks and preoccupy my mind.  I have spent hours considering the ethics of my being here at all.  A description of one of my oft-cycled routes may help paint a picture…

I drop my laundry off to be washed early, then hop on my mountain bike for a cycle along the beautiful lake coastline.  As I pump the pedals, trucks full of building materials roar up the hill past me, spluttering out fumes, and pickups full to the brim with people travelling to Pana for work or school, young men hanging off the back, career around blind bends.  Further on, indigenous women wash their family’s clothes in the lake, as their houses high in the hills above have no running water, and they don’t have the luxury of paying somebody else to do it, like I do. I pass barefoot young boys aged eight or nine carrying inexplicably heavy loads of firewood on their backs.  (I once tried to pick one up; the young boy it belonged to laughed as I struggled to lift it a few inches off the ground.)  Above the town, levelled agricultural fields create a beautiful patchwork for the eye, where day labourers earn $1-2 USD a day harvesting and washing vegetables ready for the market.  Once the boys deliver the firewood to their mothers, to fuel the stove which fills their home with harmful smoke, they’ll probably head to the fields themselves.  High gated, fenced-off luxury mansions owned by rich Guatemalans and foreigners line the roads between these villages, where one-room houses with laminate roofs cling desperately to hillsides, at risk of devastation anytime a storm looms or an earth tremor rocks their foundations.  

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A Saturday morning cycle in the ‘milpas’, (cornfields) high in the hills above the lake, and the same exact route a few months later, with the corn fully-grown.

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A peek down at the lake, from the endless cornfields above

Even within the towns which are home to indigenous families struggling to make ends meet, there are large, well-finished houses.  Such residences are usually an indicator of family members working abroad, generally in the United States.  In 2016, remittances sent into Guatemala from individuals living abroad exceeded $7 billion, 10% of Guatemala’s GDP.  In rural indigenous communities such as those around Lake Atitlan, these inflows from abroad can account for as much as 50% of the monthly household income.  In cases where it pays expensive medical bills (there is no public health system in Guatemala, and medical care doesn’t come cheap) it is quite literally, lifesaving.  Many people leave as economic migrants, hoping for a better future.  Others flee because their lives are at risk.  During Guatemala’s relatively recent 36 year civil war (1960-1996), indigenous communities rightly feared the Guatemalan military, who carried out massacres of indigenous populations equating to genocide.  Today, the threat of violence is still strong in some areas, where gangs and narco-traffickers, unseen by the cheerful tourist, maintain a terrifying grip on society.  President Trump’s promise to deport an ever-increasing number of foreign migrants is a great worry for many Guatemalans.

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The town of San Antonio Palopó, where houses rise up the steep hillside.  Click here to read a blog I wrote for work, about a teacher and her pupils growing up in San Antonio.

After working for an NGO here for the best part of a year, I am certain that it doesn’t matter how many shoes are given out, food parcels delivered, or houses built by foreign donors eager to help, there will still be children with bare feet, chronically empty stomachs and precarious housing.  But this is a vast and complex subject for another time.

The tourist and local communities here in Pana interact to varying degrees.  I’ve made some wonderful Guatemalan friends, and become a member of a very transient extranjero (foreigner) community.  Some ‘travellers’ have based themselves here for decades, others a couple of years, and many stay just a few months before moving on.

I know it’s a little late, but welcome to Guatemala, everybody! 

Please check out some of my blogs about places I’ve visited.  Thank you for reading 🙂

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