Thursday, February 23, 2012

Last Thoughts on Guatemala

I've tried to write this final blog post a few times. "What I Won't Miss About Guatemala" was my first attempt, which was intended on being the first of a two part series that would have ended in a sentimental post-service reflection titled something to the tune of "What I Definitely Miss About Guatemala." The things I won't miss list turned into a pages long venting of frustrations which, while funny when shared with a few close Peace Corps friends, would have been misunderstood and frankly insensitive to the people and actual complexities that make this place what it is. Another attempt started off pretty solid but quickly transformed into a quagmire of unorganized free-associative thought that read like the end of a bad amphetamine-induced Kerouac writing binge. I have been completely unable to collect my thoughts, perhaps because there are so many. Tomorrow marks three months since I closed my service, and today I hopped on my last bus from Xela back to the tourist hub of Antigua in preparation to leave behind "The Land of Eternal Spring" for at least a long while. As the mountainsides and trees glided past my window, I was inspired by something my good friend, Stephen Oliver, wrote. To paraphrase, he talked about the Guatemala he got to know in his service, and how its so different and so much deeper than it seems. While you can look up and see wondrous monuments and ruins, look down and see the trash, poverty, and violence, it takes a real vision (or a couple of years in Peace Corps) to see what's in the middle. When you finally see beneath the surface, it's... Well, to steal from Bob Dylan, it's like what you find "in the Grand Canyon at sundown". On the bus today thinking about the middle, my thoughts poured out of me, and I want to share my last thoughts on Guatemala here:

The highways are littered with garbage.
The sides of the mountains are littered with towns.
The cities are littered with people and sounds,
Lots of noise, Lots of howls.
The dogs are quenched down to their bones.
They wander the streets ‘cause they ain't got a home,
As they hunt for their meals they dodge a few stones;
Just a peg down from the bolos,
Who wake on the sidewalk again,
And stumble around as they look for old friends,
‘Til the bottle is empty, then lay down their heads,
In front of the Muni on their concrete beds,
Where the mayor goes in for the day,
And makes sure his people shoe bolos away,
And opens his pockets when it's time to get paid,
Then says, "Thanks for the milk money,"
Like a bully who roams through the halls,
But, in these small classroom there's no one to rob,
Of course, if they never get chances at all,
They rarely have books, barely soccer balls,
-But they play their games anyway.
  They flick their marbles, they spin their tops,
They pretend they’re on lava and looking to hop
To a safe plot of land, a refuge, a rock,
Not even the teacher would want them to stop,
‘Cause reading and writing won’t teach them a lot,
‘Bout surviving one day when they’ve been forgot,
And when they’re alone to tend to their flock,
Who’ll have their backs when trouble is brought,
It certainly isn't the cops,
Who sit on their bums in their cars;
Keep driving all day, don't care where they are,
Don't really have power, they only bear arms,
Don’t know where to aim when they hear alarms
That sound when the shooting is done.
Where bodies are scattered like nobodies, no ones,
‘Cause the maras traded love for money and guns,
To shoot them all off just for fun,

At the people that live in between,
The temples, and mountains, and rivers that bleed,
With gray soapy garbage and smell like latrines.
That work 'til the harvest and pray that the rains,
This year won't be too heavy or won't be too lame,
So they can buy quintals on market day.
They know how it feels, but not what to say.
  To the city freaks and bolos in the street,
  To the mayor on top, the man in his seat,
  To the teachers who care and the teachers who don't,
  To the maras, politicians, and police who won't
Even try to pretend like they understand,
Like they've been exactly where these people have been,
'Cause they've never had to work like a slave
To the rock laden fields for a dollar a day,
To put food on the table for a family of eight,
Who split it all up on their small plastic plates,
While they try to forget ‘bout their bellies that ache,
'Cause just like today, tomorrow's the same.
They go to the fields and shepherd the sheep,
'Til a sister, or brother, or daughter relieve,
So they can fetch water from a dribbling spring,
And carry it home on their heads as they dream
Of heading up north to the land of the free
That doesn't want them to be in it's dream,
But as they head home for tortillas and beans,
All these things happen that only they see,
  That only they feel, they only they know,
  That only they give, that only they show.
They send out their smiles and salutates
To make sure their aunts and their uncles are great.
They give all their friends and their families their time,
'Cause as long as they're there, they're all the same kind.
If you'll lend them an ear and return them a smile,
If you sit down to talk and stay for a while,
  They'll give you some coffee and last piece of bread,
They'll split up their beans, and make sure you're fed,
And you’ll be insisting they eat it instead,
They won’t take a no, it’s never been said,
They’ll add on a blanket and sliver of bed.
Then you'll toss and you'll turn and you'll roll in your sleep,
Wondering, "How could they possibly be so sweet?"
  So you give them a hand to harvest their wheat,
And you keep on going when the work's got you beat,
When your blisters bust open and hands start to bleed,
When your back aches so bad it buckles your knees,
And the drizzle comes down and you think you might freeze,
And you can’t feel your hands, your nose, or your feet,
And it feels like you gave, it feels like a bunch,
-But soon you realize it's not nearly enough.

Because they've given you something they don't give out often.
-Not because they don't want to, they just don't know yet
  That they have a secret that you wouldn’t get.
The hardest truths to find may be those which are small,
They haven't got much, but they've got it all.
They've got each other, they've got a friend,
They've got a world that's only for them.

They are the artists of life,
  Who take nothing and make it beautiful.

-Barrett Bumpas