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Camping Out

Anne Dalke's picture
We went on two amazing trips the past two days, both high in the mountains. The first was to San Franciso, where the whole town turns into a mercado, in fact, into the largest market in Latin America: there were cows, goats, sheep, pigs, turkeys, chickens, cats for sale—along with sewing machines (the era of our grandmothers) and pirated CDs. In front of the church there was a drummer of the old-fashioned kind; seeing all the penitents lighting candles, to the sound of that drummer—I wasn’t sure what religion/what era I was in. (My family had warned me against taking ANYthing that could be stolen, so these photos of the market are thanks to Erik, another student on the trip.)

Then this morning we got up @ 5 to travel high on another mountain, to a town called “La Cumbre de Esperanza"--The Summit of Hope. Our school organized this trip, and we were told that it was a “medium hike.” Medium, maybe, for the other 20-years-olds who were with us; I wasn’t sure I would make it (I expect the very high altitude had something to do with this…)

What we made it to, finally, was a Mayan shrine (where our guide told us how the Mayans believe that all is energy—shades of quantum physics!), that this place was chosen because it was full of energy. We went on to another site, which had served as an encampment for the guerillas. Our guide had himself become a guerilla @ the age of 14, after his father had been tortured. He told us stories for well over an hour (and we were freezing; we were above the clouds, and before he was done, the clouds had swept in and covered us). These were stories about sleeping on the ground in wet clothes, going without food for days, hiking up and down mountains with 100-pound packs…trying to bring about change in his country—a change that consists now of what he called “a small space for peace and freedom.” ( Here are photos of this excursion.)

You know, living in Guatemala—even in this very comfortable middle-class home where we are staying—is nothing like those stories, but it is sort of like camping out. For instance, water and electricity are very expensive, and must be conserved. We shower—quickly! in not-very-warm water—once a week. We use bottled water—sparingly!—to brush our teeth. We only flush the toilet when there’s something solid to flush. And we never put used toilet paper in the toilet; it goes in a trash can nearby. Doing laundry is also difficult, so we wear our clothes several days running.

What we’re finding, of course, is how little we really need to live on; how much simpler our lives might be; how little of what we think of as essential we really need (an example: our bed is short on pillows; but our laundry bags of dirty clothes work just fine). We’re getting around quite a bit without a car; we walk a lot, and public transportation is plentiful and frequent (it largely takes the form called “chicken buses” by gringos: the chickens go outside, on top, along w/ bicycles and all luggage). Of course you have to be an insider to know where to pick up the bus, and where to get off; on several recent trips we’ve been amazed by the varied combinations of how-we-got-somewhere and how-we-returned.

OTOH, along with—really, as a deep compliment to--realizing how simply we can live—how simple life really is—we are just beginning to get a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg, concerning the complexities of life and history in this country. Not quite visible in this picture are the leopards @ the top of this Catholic façade. Another great example of syncretism, of the incorporation of one culture into another. Earlier this week we attended a conference conducted by two Nicaraguan community activists, whose pueblo has a new initiative called Hijos de Maize (Children of the Corn). They told us the history leading up to the Sandinista revolution and counter-revolution. As just one example of how complicated this story is, they explained that the contra-revolution was actually begun by the Sandinistas themselves, who attacked their own leaders for “becoming the new rich,” for taking a great deal of wealth to themselves, and forgetting the poor for whom they’d led the struggle in the first place. (Then, of course, the US took advantage of this situation, to sponsor an anti-communist campaign that had disastrous results. But) the beginnings of the contra-movement were clearly good ones.

Ditto the complexities underlying any plans for progress in this region of the world. There are such strong traditions here—especially around preserving conventional ways of farming—that really can not contribute to an escape from poverty. Yet all the progressive movements want to hold on to these traditions. “Children of the Corn” is a prime example: maize has always been important to the indigenous people here (one of the speakers said, “corn represents us”). This group chose their name to signal their intention to hold on to that connection. As the speaker said (roughly translating here), “I am glad I am educated. I have the clarity to analyze the situation in the world, and can attend political assemblies. But there is a struggle: it is tempting to leave the land, to do educated work. We address this by calling ourselves “Hijos de Maiz”: it’s a new project, but we do not want to forget our traditions. Life is moving forward, but we do not want to take this opportunity to abandon the cultivation of the land.”

But I’m just not seeing how the forms of sustainable agriculture that are practiced in pueblos around here can help this country move out of poverty. Is this problem—and its answer--simple or complex ?

Ann wrote about how the security of something familiar gives her toddler the ability to go farther afield: “An anchor, and then a metaphorical string to find the way back to the anchor.” And she suggested that “purity” might serve, for some, as such an anchor. Her really interesting question was what to do if such an anchor isn’t available, if you can’t be pure (because you are of mixed blood), or can’t feel safe (because your home or community life doesn’t allow it). Those are certainly the conditions in which the indigenous here live. One answer (for us? For them?) might be that, since neither absolute purity or safety is possible, we all learn to live more comfortably with the fact that we are mixed. And can never ever really be safe.


Anonymous's picture

In what senses are you seeing the country and its inhabitants as impoverished? What is it you want them to have, or more appropriately they want for themselves, that they don't currently have? And, what do they already have that they are not willing to give up? Then the questions become, can the new be brought into their lives without disrupting what they want to keep, and if so, how? The Amish community has been in the news here recently, and clearly while they say "no" to many of the so-called riches of this culture, they have something important and valuable that many Americans lack. I greatly admire people who, like the person you quote, maintain their clarity in the presence of all the distractions education and culture provide. Finally, I believe security and its anchors, such as purity and safety, exist within us. Our attempts to ensure security externally (something the USA is wildly focused on at the moment) require a tremendous expenditure of energy without guarantee of result. are *energy hugs* allowed in your journal? //^_^\\ Shaye