Deep Thoughts with Mike: Guatemala

I am wordier and less funny than Jack Handy, so please bear with me.

Until spending a month in Guatemala, the only place I had ever been that mixed natural beauty with a foreign culture so well was Utah. Sorry, Utah, but Guatemala has you whipped on both counts. This is not, however, to say that Guatemala is a great country. On the plus side is the unbelievable natural beauty we shared in several of our photos and even more that photos wouldn’t have adequately captured. Volcanic mountains (some active), rolling green hills, and lakes surrounded by both make for an almost overwhelming landscape. And we didn’t even have the chance to see Semuc Champey or the ruins in Tikal and around northern Guatemala, both of which are spoken of glowingly. The Guatemalan people we had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with were warm, generous and welcoming; opening their doors to us and educating us about their lives, their country, and much more. So most of the people are another plus. Also, as we documented in our last post about San Pedro la Laguna, the food in Guatemala was much better than I remembered it and far exceeded the fairly meager expectations I came with.

Yet, there is a 500 pound gorilla tapping me on the shoulder that undermines an awful lot of the good: poverty. This is a deeply poor country. A shockingly high percentage of the people live below the poverty line (we heard numbers, but they were Guatemalan government numbers, so those are worthless). As a result of years of government corruption and failed foreign aid (yep, those two are related), among other factors, many basic services have been neglected or outright abandoned. Trash pickup in Xela, for example, was shockingly bad. It doesn’t even happen in many parts of the city, and I am not exaggerating when I say that there is trash everywhere. This doesn’t help the roaming dog problem, as the local dogs eat the leftover trash from the various outdoor markets and impromptu roadside trash dumps. Also due to a lack of funds, many street lights are either not functioning or non-existent, and the roads are deplorable.

The public education system is a debacle. Alcoholism and its ugly cousin, domestic violence, are major problems. Among the most corrupt officials in the country are lawyers, police, and politicians. Not exactly the three positions you want to trust the least should you find yourself in a vulnerable position, as many of the poor and indigenous people do. With poverty comes crime, and Guatemala has its problems in that department, too. Guatemala City is notorious worldwide for its crime problem, even among Guatemalans, and we didn’t hear a single good word spoken about the capital the entire time we were in the country. Even Xela, which is relatively tranquil during the day, was not a place to wander the streets after dark.

Neither one is the “real” Guatemala – they both are. And so are many other parts of Guatemalan society that we didn’t get exposed to and/or are better left to people far more fluent in the country than we are. We met some big-hearted people both Guatemalan and foreign sincerely trying to make Guatemala a better, more equitable society; but it appears nearly impossible to accomplish within that corrupt system. I wish them the best, because there is too much wasted intelligence, creativity, bounty, and beauty in Guatemala.

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