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¿ Behind the walls...?

Anne Dalke's picture
How much is hidden behind these walls in Antigua?

We have begun to buy newspapers regularly (makes for lots of hilarity on the street corner, since our Spanish is quite terrible). This week we read in the newspaper that Antigua was hosting a conference for indigenous delegates from the governments of 23 countries. The next day, the delegates published a proclamation in the newspaper. But we had seen no evidence of their activity anywhere in the city, in the streets ….

Of course a good portion of our sense that we are shut out from most of what is happening here is because we are shut out—by virtue of nationality, and by our lack of facility in the language, and by our recent arrival in the country. But I am also beginning to get a sense that we have stepped into a culture of secrecy.

For instance: we went yesterday on a wild all-day excursion with our daughter Marian’s extended host family. There were 11 people in one van, of 3 different generations, 3 different languages, 5 different nationalities. What a complicated mix we were: a driver who was doing his best to negotiate the deep ruts in the road—and arrange future jaunts with some of us; a Guatemalean teenager who wasn’t much interested in talking w/ any of us; two little boys who were speaking Spanish with their Australian father, and English with their Guatemalean mother; two East Europeans—one from the Czech Republic, one from Germany—who spoke German with one another. Then there was Marian, who was switching effortlessly from English to Spanish; and Jeff and me, who took in what we could, while putting out very little….

Eventually (after many wrong turns; the signage here is nearly non-existent) we arrived @ our goal: Mixco Viejo, a re-constructed post-classic Poqomam Mayan ruin. On the one hand, it was wonderful to get out of the walled city of Antigua, to feel the largeness that comes of standing atop the world. On the other hand, Mixco Viejo was itself a fortified city, surrounded by rock walls, hidden deep between crevasses (there’s only one way in and one way out, which is why it took so long for the Spanish to hunt ‘em out…)

At the end of that exhausting day, I felt that there was nowhere & no way, in this country, to get away from walls: the walls that line the streets of Antigua, as well as the fortresses of the Mayans; the walled silences of an unhappy teenager, of a Ladino working woman, of Mayans who maintain an intense reserve in public spaces. (I’m reading, this week, I, Rigoberto Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which has, as a leit-motif, the insistent keeping of cultural secrets, as a means of self-protection).

So: what role might I play in such a place? (I doubt it will be the ferreting-out of secrets….) Ann asked what Guatemalans need from me: Is my role to be a consumer of their culture, contributing my dollars to their economy? Can I offer something more interactive? Switching from Ann’s questions to my own (which hers provoked): might my attempts @ interactive dialogue serve only my needs, while obstructing the needs of those who live here?

Marian began working this week with an organization called Project Safe Passage (Camina Seguro), which offers support and education to the street children of Guatemala City. The packet of information they’ve prepared for their volunteers concludes with the caution that an experience “which enriches you may rob another." It also asks the question, “If you want a home away from home, why travel?”

Why indeed?

And why travel in particular to a country where the generative text, Popol Vuh, proclaims

“We have always lived here: we have the right to go on living where we are happy and where we want to die. Only here can we feel whole: nowhere else would we ever feel complete and our pain would be eternal.” In such fastnesses, in such sacred mountain spaces, what place is there for a foreigner who seeks to know and understand the different ways of others?

Indeed, what role does such a traveler play in more settled places, those that have actually evolved to serve the needs of tourists? Par examplar: the school where we’re studying this month, San Jose en Viejo, offers the option of having a new teacher each week. Marian (always the good question-asker) observed that my own decision to switch to a new teacher was “like prostitution”: “You get to say, ‘I like you; I want you again,” or “I don’t like you; I want to try someone different next week.’” Is that the role I’m playing here, as consumer of a performance—not a sexual, but a linguistic one? Am I looking for what will most entertain, most enlighten, most enrich me? At what cost? To whom?