I once wrote, “I’ve always wanted to be someone who wants to go to India,” because I didn’t actually want to go to India. I didn’t think I had it in me, but having finally ventured outside of my comfort zone and into the developing world, I’ve changed my mind. (India’s officially next on my list.)
If you’re an experienced traveler, you probably won’t relate to this. But if you’re someone who, like me, has never been brave enough to backpack the world — someone who would sooner give yourself a bladder infection than pee in a dirty bathroom — perhaps you will.
In February, I went to Guatemala.
Jenn, a well-traveled friend of a friend (who spends several months of the year down there), organized a jam-packed trip for a group of nine women.
I would never have ventured there alone, but Jenn’s experience, guidance, and nurturing ways assured me that I’d be in safe hands — an ideal scenario for a first-world princess.
We spent most of our nights in a scenic lakeside home in San Marcos La Laguna, complete with a king-sized bed that I shared with Laura (my best-ever travel buddy), an ensuite bathroom with hot running water, and daily breakfasts prepared by the property’s groundskeeper Mariano and his wife Petrona.
Each day, we’d stroll into the village at least once or twice. Picture narrow cobblestone lanes (the potential for a twisted ankle awaiting your every step) flanked by Mayan-run stores bursting with colour, expat-run businesses offering spiritual healing of all sorts, and squatting hippies selling their hippy-dippy wares.
We wandered in and out of coffee shops and stores, ate out at restaurants twice a day, and made frequent boat trips around the lake, taking in the culture and quirks of neighbouring villages.
It was glorious, but it wasn’t all roses.
For example, the path that took us from the main village towards our luxury abode was literally lined with garbage. Discarded plastic bags, cans, the occasional condom, rotting coconut shells, rubble. And feces, so much feces, because those street dogs need to do their business somewhere, right?
Cries of “POO!” became the norm on our daily outings, as did dodging said poo while nattering away, focusing not on the mess beneath our feet but on the nature reserve, boat ride, massage, guided tour, cooking class, or evening meal that we were destined for.
The public restrooms were no treat either (and I like a nice loo).
The first one I visited was at a ‘restaurant’ (air quotes required) in Chichicastenango. It wasn’t pretty but nature was calling after our two-hour bus ride, so I assumed a squat, being careful not to let my clothes fall into the puddle of whatever-the-heck-that-was on the floor and voila.
As insignificant as these hurdles turned out to be, they played on my mind before leaving for my trip. However, there’s nothing like a little poverty to put dirty streets and nasty washrooms into perspective.
In Guatemala, I was a have in a land of have nots.
While I was only exposed to a fraction of the country’s poverty, I’ve never been so aware of the privileges I take for granted in my everyday life.
Guatemala is a predominantly poor country and poverty is most apparent among the country’s Indigenous people. Here’s a quick snapshot of what they’re up against. (Source: The Borgen Project)
According to the World Bank, 59.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In addition, 23 percent live in extreme poverty.
The indigenous people in Guatemala are most affected by poverty. In fact, 79 percent of them live in poverty, while 40 percent of them live in extreme poverty.
Eight in ten indigenous children suffer from chronic malnutrition, a condition that weakens their immune system and does not allow their bodies to fully develop.
We spent the first night of our trip in beautiful Antigua.
Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In and among the tourists, scores of basket-carrying Mayans asserted their avocados, beaded hummingbirds, and weavings upon us as if their lives depended on it – because they do.
When we moved from Antigua to San Marcos (a town with far fewer tourists), I felt the gap between the haves and the have nots widen, especially when we met Imelda and her daughters, otherwise known as Jenn’s chosen (Mayan) family.
Imelda (who is my age) shares a two-bedroom home with 11 others spanning four generations. I visited her house and watched as she and Jenn sat on stools knotting and combing tassels on some of the hand-woven treasures that Imelda makes and Jenn markets on her behalf to her North American friends.
This initiative of Jenn’s is essential to Imelda and her family. The income Jenn generates from sales (none of which she keeps for herself) is far superior to the earnings Imelda and her daughters would make if they were selling to haggling tourists; tourists who choose to take the ‘$5 is a lot to them so why worry about fair trade’ approach to shopping, rather than considering the hours of work that go into making the colourful keepsakes they want purchase.
Imelda’s home has no shower.
On the afternoon that I visited Imelda’s house, I saw her niece washing her hair under an outdoor faucet. And so, it’s not surprising that on three of Imelda’s daily visits to our vacation home she asked if she could take a bath.
We led her into our ensuite. Jenn explained the workings of the various taps and nobs, and pointed out that the bidet was just that; a bidet, not a second toilet.
A place to wash your bum, not drop a deuce (Jenn’s wording, not mine).
Imelda spent a good hour in there each time. What an absolute joy that must have been for her. Meanwhile, her daughters relaxed in the backyard as their children ran around, enjoying the vast green lawn — a luxurious playground when compared to the tiny courtyard in their concrete compound.
I came to adore this family. While I cannot claim to truly know them (our visit was short and language barriers ruled the day) I spent enough time with these wonderful people to know this:
They care for their families as much as I care for mine.
They have goals and dreams, albeit humbler ones than my own. They’re as generous as people with plenty, if not more so. And even Mayan women sometimes wish their husbands wouldn’t let their children have so much screen time. (Maria told me so.)
In other words, their circumstances may be different but they are not.
Intellectually, I knew this going in but still, it felt like a revelation. I went from having a sense of me and them, to them and me, and eventually, to just us. We’re all just people.
I found my comfort zone. I slipped into it with ease. It makes me wonder what I was so afraid of before. Still, better late than never I suppose.
Next stop: India.
Before I sign off, a word of thanks to Jenn.
Jenn’s partnerships and friendships with both locals and expats gave us a unique window into the lives of people we would otherwise never have had the chance to meet. Thank you, friend.
Jenn is wise, wonderful, and fun. She’s also a talented writer. If you subscribe to my blog and enjoy my newsletters, I highly recommend you sign up for her Monday Love Letter here. You won’t be disappointed. Just trust me on this.
And now, back to my first-world life.
Client demands must be met, the house must be tidied, and dinner must be made — because I have gainful employment, a comfortable home, an unlimited supply of nutritious food, and so many other things I wish for my new Guatemalan friends.
Viv for today xo
P.S. If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy this post I wrote in anticipation of my trip: 5 excellent reasons to step outside your comfort zone
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