Even though many of you haven’t been there, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Guatemala and Virginia are markedly different places and, as such, switching from one to the other brings with it a whole multitude of changes. Therefore, I’d like to share a few observations of the country.
First there is the weather. As Guatemala is far closer to the equator, the climate in general is much warmer. For example, while residents of Virginia worried about the prospect of more snow, Guatemala City routinely experienced temperatures in the 80s, 90s, and even hotter still. However, there are considerable variations, given that a fair chunk of Guatemala sits along the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In addition, Guatemala has a lot of changes in elevation. The capital of Guatemala City is very low in elevation while the highlands where we spent the bulk of our time, were typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler.
People complain about the militarization of the police in America, which is troubling, but the police in Guatemala are even more heavily armed. It was common to see them carrying weaponry typically reserved for soldiers. In addition, banks and some businesses employed armed security. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I find it disconcerting to see a man with a shotgun or sometimes two men standing vigil outside a bank.
Political signs were prevalent in Guatemala. You could find them on billboards, on the sides of buildings both commercial and residential, even painted on guardrails and rocks! Although I knew nothing of the various parties, each had a color and a hand gesture associated with it. Lider was far and away the most common.
Many of the basic facets of life that we take for granted in Virginia are rare or unheard of in Guatemala. Due to sanitary concerns, we did not drink the tap water anywhere, some communities still used outhouses and even in places where plumbing was available, you could not flush toilet tissue. Gutters were almost nonexistent. In the villages, many women still cook over open fires; stove construction was one of the motivations for our journey. Partially domesticated dogs were a common sight roaming the streets. I was told not to touch any animal due to the worry of fleas.
Communication wasn’t always easy. Although Spanish was the most prevalent language, others did not know it, speaking varieties of ancient Mayan. Then again, almost every time I tried to say something in Spanish, I could only remember German; from time to time I accidentally spoke German leaving everyone even more confused.
Some businesses accepted only quetzales, the national currency of Guatemala, while other took both quetzales and U.S. dollars. When I exchanged my money, I received Q763 for $100. Speaking of money, prices varied greatly on products, likely based upon tourism. For example, I saw signs for a bottle of Coke as low as Q3 ($.39) and as high as Q12 ($1.57). Nevertheless, the price of most goods in Guatemala was noticeably lower than in Virginia. In addition, unlike the United States, haggling was expected. The original asking price of the painting I bought was Q700; we later agreed upon Q300, a considerable difference.
Although one could find American fast food establishments like McDonalds, we enjoyed traditional Guatemalan cuisine at almost every meal. Reoccurring elements included: rice, tortillas, black beans, plantains, and coffee. However, we did have Dominos pizza one evening.
Soccer, or football as they call it, is a big deal in Guatemala. Fans get very animated, shouting curses at the other team and making gesture that I later discovered were quite rude. A sizable group of riot police were on hand at the game to make sure that no one stormed the field. When I purchased a Pepsi, it was poured into a plastic bag, presumably so I wouldn’t hurl the can at the players or the referees. I was glad the home team won as I didn’t want to see how the fans would react if they didn’t.
Yes, as Americans, it might be easy to look down upon Guatemalan society as backwards, dirty, and destitute. After all, they don’t enjoy many of the same facets of life that we often take for granted. I must confess that I greatly prefer my Virginia (except for the cold). Nevertheless, having witnessed many parts of their country firsthand, even in the poorest villages, the people generally seemed to be relatively happy and they promoted an ethic of hard work and friendliness. Aren’t these traits universally sought?
Overall, I would say Guatemala is an exceedingly interesting place to visit and I was grateful for the opportunity to join with my church at RISE in this adventure. It was fantastic to explore and learn about this country. In addition, I got to connect with a number of people I had only briefly seen on Sundays. I must confess that if you would have told me six months ago that I would travel to Guatemala, I would have thought the idea impossible. Therefore, my advice to you, dear reader, is to be open to the possibility of all sorts of new experiences. You never know where they might lead!