Saturday, December 8, 2012

Of how a last minute decision radically changes an experience - Versión en Inglés del post "De como una decisión..."

It may be the heat, or the fact that I’m lying in a stunning beach in El Salvador full of surfers and girls with bodies painfully sculpted in gyms, but I’m not feeling very inspired today. Nevertheless, I have to write about the last few days and I apologize upfront if this post is not as entertaining as usual.

The expectations one has when traveling are directly proportional to the positive experiences you’ve had throughout the trip. As everyone knows: the higher the expectation, the bigger the disappointment, and this applies to trips, romantic relationships and high-end restaurants, of course. After everything I had seen in Mexico it was very probable that Guatemala would be disappointing, and it was.
It was nighttime when I arrived in Santiago de Atitlán. I decided to splurge and spend the night in a nice place: some cabins that would have been fit for Heidi and the goats, with chimney and hammock included. I woke up the next day and was dazzled by the gorgeous view of the lake surrounded by volcanoes.
Arriving to Atitlan

The view from my cabin.
 My joy didn’t last long, for that was just the beginning of a long day spent in pain and with frequent visits to the toilet in my beautiful mountain cabin. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best mood.

Feeling a little better the next morning, I decided to continue my route around the volcano towards San Pedro. This is when I rode a few miles of horrid ´terracería´, a rough dirt road plagued with bandits and thugs, and fell twice on the bike, which did nothing to better my mood (Read the November post: “The problem is the ‘terracería”, for more details). I thought things would be better once I reached San Pedro. Fat chance. San Pedro is a kind of theme park for people studying Spanish, and narcotic lovers. If I was fifteen years younger I could have probably enjoyed myself, but after the tenth well-dressed kid with tiny eyes and a hoarse voice politely invited me to join his private esoteric world (“wanna smoke a joint with us, bro?”), I just had to pack-up, spur Roro and ride for my life.

The road to Antigua was dangerous but fascinating. Antigua Guatemala, (literally “Ancient”), was the old Capital city of Guatemala and it was practically destroyed by an earthquake sometime in the 18th Century. It was such a wreck that its inhabitants decided to move and founded a new Guatemala a few kilometers Northeast, building what is Guatemala City today.

The road from San Pedro to Antigua.
 But Antigua didn’t die. Those who decided to stay reconstructed the city and made it into a place that’s considered now to have the highest quality of life in the country, or at least that’s what foreigners and American/European expatriates think. This is precisely what drove me crazy by the second day I was there: the presence of foreigners in this town is so overwhelming that the primary language is practically English. Another theme park – I thought – with Gringos getting their shoes shined by hungry kids, Germans hopping from travel agency to travel agency, Canadians in shorts and flip-flops buying handmade flutes, and English backpackers in the search for volunteer work at a non-profit to soothe their first-world guilt. I even had a bagel for breakfast at a Coffee Shop that seemed to teleport me directly to the West Village in New York.

Shoeshine, sir?
 As if this wasn't already upsetting enough, I had arranged to film an interview at the non-profit “Las Manos de Christine” (Christine’s hands), an organization that teaches English to kids from rural areas, and even though they had agreed to let me make a story about them, they cancelled on me at the last minute arguing that they doubted my motives and weren’t sure if maybe I just wanted to abduct some children. I got notice of this when I was already on my way there, with camera and all the necessary equipment. You must know that I stayed an extra day in this town just so I could do this story, so when they cancelled the only thought in my mind was “kill!”. But unfortunately killing is not one of my skills and I lack the proper tools for it, so I just went back to the Hostel to cool down and gather my thoughts. “I’m out of luck in this country”, I felt. I was sick of everything, and spending lots of money as well (Antigua is not precisely cheap). Guatemala seemed to turn into ‘Guaterrible’, and I just wanted to go to El Salvador the next day.
This is when the Universe, god, human energies or plain coincidence conspired so I wouldn’t leave the country with a bitter taste in my mouth. A simple decision: to grab dinner at a restaurant that was close-by and had good reviews on, made my experience of Guatemala take a 180-degree turn.

The restaurant that saved me.
Hector’s Bistro is the restaurant and Hector is its owner. They say that Guatemalans are not very good hosts, but there’s always an exception to the rule and Hector is that exception. He’s the chef of one of the most valued restaurants in Antigua, serious and professional at work, while charming and something of a party animal at home. A lover of good wine, empathetic, noble, clever and funny, but specially someone who enjoys giving. He liked me and promptly – after a few glasses of wine, that is – invited me to stay in the guest-room in his house for as long as I needed. My plans were to run out in the morning, but something inside me said to wait, that it was important to give it at least another day. A day turned into a week. Hector introduced me to his friends, wonderful people: Andrés, Paola, Lex, Elizar… He even invited me to spend Thanksgiving with his family, where I tried one of the best turkeys of my life. He didn’t even kick me out when his lovely Paola came to visit.

Buying groceries for Thanksgiving dinner.
 He showed me the real Antigua, the city that exists parallel to the Antigua for tourists, the one invisible to the naked eye. He also introduced me to Jorge, another one of those anonymous angels, who takes care of people who’ve had the bad fortune to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Jorge took me to the Help Center he runs and I got to see a darker side of Antigua, one that is left out of the many tours advertised by hundreds of tourist agencies. Jorge was himself an addict and didn’t have the luck of getting the kind of help he now offers others. He doesn’t charge a dime for this, and is like a father to those under his care. I saw his patients share their experiences with each other, showing incredible courage and sending shivers down my spine.

Jorge in a meeting with his patients.

My search for human beings who do something extraordinary for other human beings took me to one of the poorest regions of rural Guatemala: Patzun. Its population is mainly indigenous, descendants from Mayans, and many of them don’t speak Spanish. Because there is no money to go to a Hospital, most women have their babies at home, assisted by local midwives, many without formal training. The great photographer Rodrigo Abd introduced me to one of them, Francisca Raquec. She’s 70 years old and has been bringing babies into this world for more than 30. Sometimes she gets paid something, but most of the time she gets nothing, because they have nothing. If her services are required at 3 am, she’ll get up and go wherever she’s needed.

Francisca taking care of a woman who’s 6-months pregnant.
Her eyes and hands are testament of the hard work and dedication of this woman, small in size but with a heart so huge it can barely be contained inside her chest. When I interviewed her she was serious and concise: Her work is necessary because there’s no money and women still need to give birth. These regions are poor, but Guatemala is rich in resources and there is plenty of “pisto” (dough). The problem is always the same: it’s all in the hands of a few. I’ve heard this country has the highest number of helicopters for private-use in the world. I believe it. There’s mansions, luxurious cars and a lot of money… very badly distributed. This won’t change, because for a society to change you need good education, and poor people obviously don’t have access to it. Class struggles and their vicious circles are nothing new. Francisca lives with her family and has, let’s say, enough to eat. Sometimes she doesn’t eat but it’s because she has no time, she has to work. The paradox of the workers: Those who are better paid at work retire sooner and get a better retirement-pension. Those who are paid less, retire later and have less to live on in their old age. And then there’s those who are paid nothing and never retire. These last ones are like the eternal fighters Bertolt Brecht talks about: the indispensable ones.

But there are those that fight their whole lives…
I left Antigua with a knot in my stomach. I didn’t want to abandon a place where I was made to feel right at home, better even. A place where I made great friends and witnessed the deeds of noble and humble people who give without expecting anything in return.
But a traveler who doesn’t travel is like a garden without flowers, and I have to move on, there’s a lot of miles until the end of my journey. When I said goodbye to Hector I thought of Father Solalinde’s words to me, and felt them as true as ever (read the November post: “Leaving Mexico behind me” if you’re curious).

Guatemala became ‘Guatamazing’, thanks to a last minute decision.

Don Solaris thinking about what to write in his blog.
Hector cooking.
Sharing your experience is mandatory at the Help Center for Addicts run by Jorge.
My Roro in Patzun.
With Héctor y Paola
Like Tifas would say: Garotas from Antigua.

Antigua, across the Park.

Jorge talking to his patients.

With Francisca.

I’ll come back soon.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your experience and your contributions. I know Guatemalan reality. That is why I thank you your impressions and points of view.
    Greetings from Spain, in a very cold morning