Sunday, January 18, 2009


I was expecting a difficult journey, one fraught with long waits and confusing chicken-bus transfers. Instead we made our way to Xecaguic, a small village of two hundred, without a hitch. The ease of our transit made me entertain the notion of abandoning the tiny embassy (myself and three others), and returning the the lakeside paradise of San Marcos de Laguna so I could play and relax along with the majority of TEMA; however, once our group actually arrived at the home of Isabelle Tum, relative of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum, and met her family, I knew that I'd made the right decision in going to Xecaguic.

We rounded the corner to her house and were greeted by a small woman in traditional Guatemalan dress with a beach towel wrapped around her head. We'd arrived on Saturday, bath day, and Isabella and her family were bathing. The grandchildren were shy at first, but Isabella greeted us like we were family, despite having never met us. Her face was deeply winkled, but once she unwrapped the towel on her head revealing over three feet of beautiful hair, her actual ago of fifty-eight seemed more believable; she'd never cut it in her life, and it was jet-black all the way down to the roots. We put our packs down, and while Isabella combed her luxurious hair, we started talking.

We communicated exclusively in Spanish – a second language to everyone (their native tongue being Kekchi Maya). Most of the adults in Xecaguic had received no formal schooling in Spanish; it was mostly a business language, used when negotiating prices or buying things in town, but we all understood each other well enough to get our points across. Katie (the trip's leader) knew two of Isabella's sons, Diego and Enrique, who fled to the US during the war. They sought political asylum, and Katie helped them plead their cases, successfully.

We were served lunch: a single egg, tomato sauce, and fresh made tortillas (from home-grown corn). The meal was meager even by TEMA standards, but the way the family watched us eat, the way their eyes attentively followed every bite as it traveled from our bowls to our mouths, told me that eggs at lunch time was an offering of hospitality. I expressed resounding approval but declined more food when it was offered. I was satisfied, not by the food itself, but by the way I felt while eating it.

The eight grandchildren, aged fifteen years to seven months, quickly warmed up to us – the younger ones figuring out that I make a particularly good human jungle-gym. For the rest of my time at the house, I had at least one, but often as many as four children climbing on me. If any of you have ever been to a Johnson family gathering you'll know, as the eldest of nine cousins, I was right at home.

After lunch we toured the new clinic with Baltizar, Isabelle's third son. He was a bright-eyed, intelligent man. I needed only to shake Baltizar's hand to know he was a respected man, a leader of his community. He'd built most of the clinic himself. The building was over a year old, but looked like it had seen little use since its completion. Boxes of medicine and supplies were stacked, often unopened, in shelves in the main entryway, waiting for someone who knew what to do with them (the clinic was only recently able to attract a nurse for bi-weekly visits). The two large side-rooms were completely empty, save a stack of wooden crates covered in cardboard that served as an exam table. Our group's arrival served as a good occasion for a meeting of the clinic's board of directors: Isabelle and Baltizar Tum, and three other men from the village. We exchanged greetings, unpacked our donation toys and clothes, and discussed what we were there to do.

They wanted a fence around the clinic. We brought with us $200 US dollars, roughly a fifth of what was needed to buy the cinder blocks and fencing. Besides, we arrived on a Saturday afternoon; businesses that sold building materials wouldn't be open until the following Monday, and by then we'd be on our way back Lago Atitlan to reunite with the rest of TEMA. Through lack of organization and preparation, our original goal of fence-building was snuffed. Feeling frustrated and impotent, the TEMA group and the board members walked down the hill to the nearby town of Chicaman where, after a quick brainstorm, we bought paint for the clinic's unpainted roof – it wasn't a fence, but it would be an improvement. We gave the rest of the money to the clinic board, hiked back up the hill to the village, and started painting the roof.

Around 7:00 PM that night, with the first coat of bright yellow paint drying, people started to gather at the clinic for an impromptu meeting. We didn't really know what to expect; we just realized that we were unable to provide the help we'd wanted to, and hoped to gain a clearer picture of what was actually needed in Xecaguic by hearing first-hand from the villagers themselves. We also hoped capture on video a few testimonies of what happened during the war, illuminating for those back home some of the reasons why this community needed help.

Most of the village's residents had lived on that same hillside all their lives, except for a few years when everyone was forced to scatter into hiding during the war. The Guatemalan Civil War is complicated, but essentially, battles between a guerrilla insurgency and the national army careened into the highlands. For several years during the late 70's and early 80's, the Mayan villagers in Xecaguic were caught in the crossfire. They were (like many other small villages in the region) brutally massacred by forces on both sides of the conflict. When we asked if anyone wanted to tell their story for the camera, we did not expect the response we got: one by one, nearly every single person the packed room told their stories of loss and survival. Many of them had the same basic elements:

"They killed my parents, they killed my brothers and sisters, they killed our animals. They burned our house, they burned our fields, they burned everything. I escaped into the forest."

The people in the room never showed the slightest sign of emotion while they told or listened to each other's stories about the massacres. An old women speaking through a translator (she only spoke Mayan) described the murders of her children. Baltizar spoke about getting captured, about getting tied up and beaten, and about the constant back pain he still suffers as a result. A woman in her thirties told us about witnessing her whole family's execution. She was the lone survivor. She was four years old.

In the years following the war, the remaining residents of Xecaguic slowly trickled back to their shattered village. The post-war government listened to the plight of the villagers with deaf ears, largely ignoring their requests for land, for roads, for better schools, or for healthcare. Now most of the residents of Xecaguic scratch out an existence as subsistence farmers – the local job-market unable to provide more than $30 Quetzals (under $4 US dollars) per day, hardly enough to feed a family. When we innocently asked what they wanted to make their lives better, or what could be done to bring justice to their situation, our question was met with another: what can you and your organization do to help? It hurt to explain that TEMA's resources were limited, that we weren't really an aid organization, that couldn't do much, that we are basically just a bunch of tourists who want to lessen the impact of our tourism.

When Katie's videotape filled up, I practically leapt at the opportunity to walk back to Isabella's house to retrieve a fresh one. I spent the rest of the meeting outside, entertaining the twenty or so children who gathered outside; nothing brings a smile to Guatemalan children's faces like a goofy, tall gringo man with a cool headlamp. As a middle-class American, I don't have much experience with atrocities – well-made movies about the holocaust being the closest thing I can think of. That these people could have suffered so much loss, and yet maintain such warm, generous, welcoming hearts was as confusing to me as it was inspiring.

After the meeting, we returned to Isabella's house for dinner. This time, instead of being served by the Tums, everyone ate together. Fifteen of us packed into their simple cinder-block kitchen, a 20'X20' windowless box with a mud floor. Most of us sat on the ground. Earlier the TEMA crew purchased some ingredients at the market, so we contributed mashed-potatoes and guacamole to their meal of chicken soup, beans, and of course tortillas. The mood was celebratory. The food was salty. We received lessons in Mayan, which is filled with guttural, back-of-the-throat sounds that were difficult to reproduce.

"I love you," in Mayan is pronounced "Kwaa-Pa-Waatch".

We finished the meal with a round of sweet coffee. At last, much to the disappointment of the children, we went to bed. As we brushed our teeth and changed our clothes, we overheard Isabelle and her daughter singing to the children in the room next door. Musically, it was unlike anything I've ever heard; the voices of Isabella and her daughter intertwined and overlapped, independently singing, chanting almost, the same verse over and over. Either a prayer or a lullaby, the song was haunting, charming, beautiful and exotic.

I fell asleep before they finished.


Juicey said...

Eloquently written. Thanks for sharing.

Perhaps a Parrot said...

Thanks for reading.