Thursday, July 18, 2013

The good, the bad and the unexpected

This should actually be "the bad, the good and the unexpected." As most travelers and most researchers know, one can only plan so much, and then one has to leave things to chance. In places like Guatemala -- like most of the Latin American countries I have visited -- one has to be patient, creative and resilient, since there are so many circumstances that can change or impede even the most carefully laid plans. The person with whom one has scheduled a meeting needs to go to the nearest big town or to Guatemala City because of some household, family or work emergency. One needs to have not only a plan B but a plan C and a plan D, at minimum, or at least one needs to be able to make up one's agenda on very short notice. And sometimes a very unfortunate occurrence -- in this case, my discovery this morning, when I was up in pretty remote area, that I had left my camera battery charger in Antigua, about 6 hours away and not where I was planning to go -- can lead to something more positive.

The past few days I have been in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the only fully operational gold mine, the Marlin Mine (or Mina Marlin), is located. The Mina Marlin is operated by Montana, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company Gold Corp; Montana's slogan is "Montana exploradora de Guatemala" (Montana the explorer of Guatemala). It should be "explotadora" (exploiter), but I'll leave the full discussion of mining and the havoc it has wrought in the local communities for another blog.  I was accompanying a  human rights attorney who has brought several cases on behalf of local residents who oppose mining (we'll call them "la resistencia" -- the resistance) and won important judgments from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. I had been to San Miguel Ixtahuacán before, but this time had a more specific mission. There were a couple of projects that the attorney, Carlos, and I had been discussing via internet, in the months since we last met up in January, involving an important woman resistance leader, Doña Crisanta, and this would be an opportunity for me to meet her and vice versa, and perhaps actually make some progress. Carlos and I had been in touch pretty regularly during the last few weeks before my trip trying to coordinate when we could go to SMI. First we were going to go on Sunday, because there was going to be a concentración (a rally), and would stay for a couple of days. Then the situation was too difficult because there was a blockade in one of the communities, Siete Platos, and the concentración was postponed until the 28th. So then I tried to figure out what I would do instead. And then Carlos said that there was a meeting on Tuesday the 16th that he needed to attend and that it would be good for me to observe, and we could stay for a few days. So we were back on. He would leave on Thursday, and I would probably stay for another day or two. Or so we thought. 

I will leave the details of the meetings for another entry as the point of this blog post is to look at unpredictability and serendipity.  We met with Doña Crisanta, and were hoping to have some time to discuss things in depth with her, but it turned out that she had made other plans and was leaving SMI to go to Chimaltenango, which is about 50 km outside of Guatemala City (and not far from Antigua, which will be relevant later on). So we couldn't have a follow up meeting with her. I was actually prepared to stay another couple of days to do some work with her, but since that wasn't going to happen, I decided to leave SMI with Carlos on Thursday. I thought that I would stop in Xela for a couple of reasons. The friend who had been taking care of my car, who lives in Olintepeque on the outskirts of  Xela, had forgotten to give me the spare rim and my cross-shaft lug wrench (never travel in Guatemala without a lug wrench) when he brought me the car on Saturday. So I needed to stop by his house and pick up the rim and the wrench. The Cultural Survival representative who works with community radio is based in Xela, and I thought I'd try to meet with her. And then I would figure out where to go next.

However, the universe had other plans for me. When packing up this morning at the parish house in San Miguel Ixtahuacán -- the Belgian priest who has held the position for 20 years is sympathetic to the resistance movement, and so it would be a safe place to stay -- I realized that I couldn't find the charger for my camera battery. As most of us know, traveling anywhere -- even from home to office -- involves making sure one has all the necessary cables and chargers for phones, computers, tablets, cameras and all of the other electronic paraphernalia. I checked all the pockets of all my bags and couldn't find it. I wracked my brain to try and remember when I had last used the charger -- in Antigua on Sunday night so that my camera battery would be charged for the trip to SMI. I got online and found the phone number for the hotel where I'd stayed in Antigua, and called the proprietor, Don Mario, to see if my charger had turned up. He went to look and didn't find it but then called the woman who comes in to clean and she said she had found it. So I knew that regardless of how long I spent in Xela I would have to pass through Antigua again to get the charger.

Carlos and I had intended to set off at 8:30 so I could make a meeting in Xela that had to finish up before 1:30 as the person had another appointment. However, it took him longer to get some papers he needed from the city hall and then one of the resistance leaders showed up at the parish and they needed to talk some matters over (when someone travels from a rural community into the town center to see you, you don't just rush out the door). So, we left over an hour later than we had intended, which meant that I probably wouldn't be able to make my appointment in Xela. I therefore decided I would just pick up the rim and the wrench (remember them?) and then head to Antigua, dropping Carlos off in Chimaltenango (Chimaltenango is along the main highway and therefore lots of buses to Guatemala City; Antigua is off on a side road and therefore less regular bus service to the capital).  I made a few calls in Xela and set up some appointments for tomorrow, and we stopped along the road to get a sandwich at Xelapan (a local chain bakery/restaurant), swung by Olintepeque to pick up the rim and the wrench and then set off for Chimaltenango and Antigua. However, as luck would have it, Doña Crisanta called us while we were on the highway heading southward, and said that she would have some time that afternoon, if we were going to be passing by Chimaltenango, where she was going to be for a few days. Carlos asked if I were available and interested; I said sure, I had no plans for the evening in Antigua; I was just going to stay over since I didn't want to drive all the way to Antigua and then back to Xela on the same day (I had made plans to visit CIRMA, the Center for Regional Research on Mesoamerica, an important research institution, which I have managed to never really visit in all my trips to Guatemala, but that would be tomorrow morning). 

So, we found our way to the place where Doña Crisanta was attending a meeting in Chimaltenango, and then I was able to sit down with her and spend a couple of hours recording some of her life story - mostly about her involvement in the anti-mining movement. I am very honored that she felt comfortable enough to talk with me, since we had only met once before. I will share some of her story separately, as it is very compelling. She is a mother of 7 children, who has a 4th grade education, and lives from cultivating the land (corn, some vegetables, and coffee on some land she owns on the coast), who found herself confronting the mining company because she removed some posts that the mining company had illegally installed on her land (she had agreed to allow them to run some cables but not to install posts).  We spent a couple of hours talking, and made plans to follow up via phone over the next week and then meet again when I go to SMI for the concentración on the 28th, 

So sometimes something that seems like a stupid mistake and a waste of time can have unexpectedly positive consequences.

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