Guatemala – Rich, but mostly Poor

I just completed my second week here in Guatemala, and I would like to begin this entry by sharing a few stories about my experiences here in Xela.

It is hard to know for certain what a place is like until you actually visit it, and in my own life there have been times that my pre-conceived notion about a particular place ultimately proved to be completely mistaken. For example, for some odd reason when I was already in my early twenties I still thought of Canada as a vast wilderness with cute little villages sprinkled throughout. And then one day some of my buddies and I crossed into Canada at Windsor (near Detroit), and we drove the highway for several hours until we dropped back into the U.S. at upstate New York. Along the way we passed through Toronto, and seeing that huge, metropolitan, city for the first time completely and forever shifted my perspective on Canada.

Last night here in Xela I began my night by having dinner at Sabor de la India … and the food there was every bit as authentic and delicious as any Indian food I´ve had in the United States. Last week I had yummy Chinese food. There are many people here of German descent, in fact there are large sections of the main cemetery where only bodies of German descent are buried. In my school alone (and there are at least 35 Spanish language schools here) recently there have been people from Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Canada, United States, and various other countries of the world. And maybe I should not tell you this, but Wendy´s is here, as well as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Dominos Pizza, the Wal-Mart owned Paíz chain of stores, and of course McDonalds has a prime location here in Xela in a historic building right beside Central Park. Perhaps this picture of Guatemala is different than the one you´ve had.

After dinner last night I went to the grand Municipal Theater in downtown, a gorgeous (albeit aging) classic theater with two levels of balcony seating that wrap around both sides of the stage, where people sit at tables in little booths in the balcony and look down at the show and at those seated on the main floor. We were treated to a concert by a renowned classical guitarist by the name of Thisbault Cauvin, who hails from France, and though he is only 25 years old, he has already performed in Beijing, San Francisco, London, Paris, Hong Kong, and who knows where else. Yep, he performed right here in supposedly backward, unsophisticated, isolated, Guatemala … he is headed to Costa Rica next, and then to famous cities in South America.

After the concert I went to see the local professional soccer team Xelajú play in the downtown stadium. The whole stadium was ringed by vendors hawking merchandise, food, beer, and various other trinkets … just like you find at the stadiums in the U.S. In thrilling fashion, the goalie for Xelajú blocked a penalty kick in the 85th minute, thus preserving a win for the home team. The stadium was packed, although small by U.S: standards, it holds only about 10,000 people. But it is not small in spirit, for the end zone fiesta with all the fireworks, music, dancing, and banner waving by ravenous fans was about three times the size of the end zone fiesta at Real Salt Lake soccer games. By the way, this is the original fútbol … a sport far more popular throughout the world than American football.

However, Guatemala is indeed a nation of contrasts. The reality is that the majority of the people here live in poverty, and even the small middle class population here does not enjoy nearly as many creaturely comforts as we do in the United States. Unfortunately, our country has benefited greatly to the detriment of many who live here, you can read for yourself about the history of our stealing of resources from here, about the misuse both of the lands but also the mistreatment of the people. I´m not sure that much of anything will ever be done to change or fix that, but at the very least we can support organizations that provide assistance here, and each of us can do little things to help … such as support fair-trade organizations, buy authentic Guatemalan handicrafts, or even come here on a trip and infuse some tourist dollars into the economy. Here is a link to pictures of one little thing I participated in recently,, I spent a few hours helping to build a stove for an indigenous family. I twinge a little when I say the word “family” because many of these homes that are chosen to receive a brick stove (to replace the open pit fire used for cooking meals) are headed by single mothers with several kids, their husbands have either left to try and immigrate illegally to the United States, or the mother suffers from domestic abuse at the hands of an alcoholic husband. It must be said that there are many normal, happy, family clans living here, however the poverty is extreme … and you can see the collective burden in the faces of many here on a daily basis.

I hate to end this post on a sad note, but that is the reality in Guatemala. May we always be grateful for the opportunities that we enjoy, and may we always help those less fortunate.