Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What you can learn from a guide

This is like digging through the trash bin: My blog is full of unfinished posts as I never have enough time, it seems, to write what needs to be written. I return from a trip to Guatemala and have, usually, at least 4 or 5 unfinished posts -- some just notes, others with only a title as a memory-marker, and some that are at least partially written.  And then, back into the swing, the grind, I put the blog aside, mentally, and then one day I decide to look through and see what I have.  So, a word to the wise and the not-so-wise, like myself -- be more vigilant. More than half of whatever I wanted to write here has been lost, as I didn't take notes on the conversation with the guide who took us up the volcano; I was presuming that I would write it up in the blog, and then didn't.

As we walked up San Pedro, going obviously much slower than the guide was capable of walking, I had the chance to talk to him a lot about life in the communities around the lake, specifically San Pedro. Our guide was a man in his early 50s, with a slight physique and a sun-creased face. It was hard to tell his age until he told me; he could have been anywhere from his early 40s to early 60s, for all I could tell, as people who work outdoors have weathered faces, and people whose lives are spent doing hard physical work tend to be thin and wiry.  He was illiterate, he told me, not in a shameful manner, but matter of fact, although somewhat regretful. This was after he had asked me what I did, and when I told him I was a college professor and that I was in Guatemala doing research, he told me that he had had no schooling. He said that many parents didn't want their children to go to school; that when the teachers came around, parents would tell them that there were no children there and that the teachers wouldn't usually press the point. It wasn't that parents wanted their children to remain ignorant, but that the families were poor and they needed all hands to be put to some productive use. He had started to work very young and helped his parents out, and had continued working his entire life. He was a coffee farmer, but he was very proud that some of his children had been able to get schooling - he had determined that he wanted to give them some of the education he had been denied. As we walked he told me about the coffee industry, about the price fluctuations, about the formation of the cooperative that ran the ecological park where we were hiking. I regret heartily that I left this blog entry -- it is now June, and our hike was in January -- as I have now forgotten much of our conversation. But it was an interesting opportunity to learn about the inside, or the underside, of this lovely little town of San Pedro, how it is situated in the local and world economy (as most of the coffee produced in Guatemala is for export). So what you can learn from a guide is not so much about the mountain and the plants and hiking and the scenery -- although I did get to learn about that as well. I heard about local landowners and petty and not-so-petty disputes over land and its use. About what happens to local economies when the price shifts in a commodity like coffee. About the use of the mountain for ceremonies. A little bit about the war and its aftermath.  There are two lessons: first, nearly everyone in Guatemala has a story that illuminates something about the country's history and present, if one can be patient and attentive. And second, write it down right away. 

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