After doing some research in Coban, I found an organization that organizes hiking trips to remote villages in the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz. I arranged for a local guide, Manuel, who met me at the bus station in Coban to lead me to his home where I would meet his family, see his daily life and hike around in pristine forests. Manuel is a Keqchi speaking campesino who only comes to town several times a year to resupply. His occupation is to grow his milpa (corn and beans) among other odd jobs (now ecotourism!). Some years he cannot grow enough food for his family and must go to work for a month or two at a time on coffee, sugar cane or African palm plantations. As I spoke of in previous posts, the living conditions and wages on these plantations are horrible but lacking any formal education Manuel has no other options. He and his family must eat.
There were several bus transfers involved as the towns got progressively smaller and the method of travel more uncomfortable. Six hours later, what started in a comfortable bus with actual seats driving on paved roads finished in the back of pickup truck careening down winding, bumpy, dusty dirt roads. From the village center of Chicacnab (this term is used very loosely, basically a church and a single store selling soap and candles) we hiked for 45 minutes up into the mountains to reach Manuel’s two room wood and corrugated aluminum home. Manuel learned Spanish in the army but his family of seven children (ages 7-23) and his wife only spoke Keqchi and what little Spanish they had learned in school. I was housed for two nights in a little bungalow separate from the home. It was fascinating to watch the daily routines of the family as they went about their business, basically living as the Keqchi have been for hundreds of years, the only difference is that all the children had cell phones. There was no electricity though so the family had one solar panel to charge their radios and lights. There was no running water either, the family walked twenty minutes to collect water from a well that was shared with several other families.
Communication with words was limited but I used a lot of sign language and gestures to share experiences. By far the most social place in the home was the kitchen which consisted of a raised bed of dirt upon which sat an open fire, surrounded by blackened cooking pots and the odd chicken or young child running around. The ceiling and rafters were absolutely covered with a thick coating of black tar, from years and years of smoke from the cooking fire. The family and I would congregate in the kitchen before meal times to watch the process of cooking, as the master chef barked out orders to the younglings for more water, pass the salt or get the dog out of the kitchen. Of course this all happened for me in a world devoid of meaning as I could not understand a single word that was said. Therefore I had fun imagining the conversations and adding my own subtitles. Occasionally I would ask the words in Keqchi for household appliances and food items, of which we would all have a huge laugh as I horribly pronounced the words (keqchi is very difficult, consisting of sounds that we don’t have in English and requiring some lingual gymnastics to sound correct). I self-appointed myself the job of grinding the Maize in the hand turned grinder for each meals tortillas. This was hands down the best food I’ve eaten yet in Guatemala. Because of the altitude (around 5,000 ft.) a type of yellow maize is grown here. The yellow maize has a much richer texture, more fiber and a much heartier flavor. Contrast this with the lower elevation maize which is white in color and much lighter in taste and texture. Manuel´s wife varied every meal and over the course of the two days I had vegetable soup, stir fried vegetables (most of which grows locally wild), beans, eggs, bean and vegetable tamale and tayuyo (tortillas stuffed with beans), all of which was accompanied by fresh homemade spicy jalapeño tomato salsa.
Manuel had the typical campesino stoicism, but after some patience opened up quite nicely to share is point of view on a wide variety of issues. We talked about community life and his dreams for the future. He described how the community supports each other by helping to plant each other’s fields. There is a phrase here “hoy por ti, mañana por mi” which is “today for you, tomorrow for me”. The campesino men all gather and spend the day on one man´s field, then the next day on another, and so on until the whole community is sown. The host man´s responsibility is to feed his labor force. While exploring around the community I witnessed this tradition many times, much to the delight of the locals who all would stop working and wave to the long haired gringo walking around. A rare sight in these parts I am absolutely certain, given the amount of attention and wide eyed stares I received.
During the day I also hiked around in the forests that surround the village. Unfortunately I witnessed severe deforestation in many areas, with the majority of land cleared to plant milpa. The campesinos on the whole do not understand the biological value of these forests in terms of biodiversity and climate control. I explained to Manuel and another farmer who I ran into in the town how forests control climate by producing moisture through transpiration, which then falls back as rain in cycle. When you deforest a region, the moisture is not produced by the trees and the climate gradually dries up. This is already being observed in this region which is currently in a drought. Coincidentally this phenomenon of local climate change in response to deforestation is credited with playing a huge factor in the collapse of the Mayan civilization after the year 800 AD. The program that organizes the family home stays is trying to persuade the campesinos to save the forest by demonstrating that an intact forest can attract eco-tourism opportunities. Manuel has about 10 guests per year, I am not sure he is convinced. But aside from this, the forests here are amazing, characterized by humid tropical cloud forest teeming with mosses and a plethora of air plants, orchids and flowering trees and bushes. It was surprisingly cold here as well with temperatures dipping into the 40’s at night. Additionally I saw 7 quetzals! The quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird and is a huge icon in the country. They are actually quite rare now, due to deforestation and human activity they are confined to several small forest reserves and scattered forest plots. I was so lucky to have seen them, they are amazingly beautiful birds and the historical and cultural significance adds to their grandeur.
On the bus Manuel mentioned that he knew a man from a community nearby that had lived in the United States and spoke English quite well. Of course fate would have it that while wondering around the community I ran into this man. After speaking basically nothing but Spanish for weeks it was interesting to see someone fumbling around with the English language. This is how I must appear with Spanish at times! Anyway, this man was extremely friendly and we talked for a long time about his experience (in English, so he could practice). For his privacy I will call him Lucas, and he shared with me his entire story which was extremely humbling to hear. Like many Latino Americans, He had crossed illegally in the desert from Mexico to Arizona in pursuit of better economic opportunities. He crossed with a group of 20 others, which took 5 days of walking, day and night with only enough food and water for one day. Lucas was caught by US immigration in Phoenix, from where he was returned to Mexico. Not to be deterred he crossed again, this time successfully reaching Chicago from where after several jobs he ended up in Alabama working for a doctor on a horse farm. His brother was also with him and found employment in a chicken production factory. Both were in debt to pay the fee for the help they received to cross (around $5,000 US), but they paid their debts quickly and began sending money back to Guatemala to support their families. Lucas learned English by taking classes and stayed for 4 years before the pain of missing his family pulled him back to Guatemala. With the money he earned he was able to buy a sizable piece of land for his family to farm in addition to starting a local transportation business running a collective taxi between communities surrounding Coban. The reason for wanting to go to the US in the first place is because here in Guatemala there are simply very few opportunities for employment. This is the number one complaint I have heard here. No employment. And due to this people are forced to rob, kill or deliver black market goods, as they literally are left with no other options. If you are landless and unemployed here, your best option is to go to the US illegally and work a minimum wage job in agriculture. Before my trip here I didn’t understand this. Now, after seeing the level of dissatisfaction and the levels of unemployment and economic disparity between the rich and the poor it is plainly obvious to me that to work an agriculture job in the US is a hundred times better than scrounging for work here. For example, Lucas told me that he could go to work on a plantation and after living expenses (monopolized by the plantations) earn twenty five quetzals a day. This is approximately $3.50 per day! In Alabama he was making $8 an hour! The choice is obvious and now I totally understand his situation.
The most humbling aspect of my time talking to Lucas was how he told me of the racism and discrimination he received from Americans. I thought of all the spoiled, jaded, racist and ignorant people who put up their noses at Latino agricultural workers and treat them like some sort of sub human workforce. Of course these people do not understand that the US agricultural system absolutely, 100 percent depends in immigrant labor. Immigrant labor fills a sector of the US economy that is considered too low for the majority of US citizens to consider working in, when in reality this opportunity to work is an absolute godsend for millions of people. I felt deeply for Lucas’ story, as he was a wonderful human being who just happened to be have been born on a different side of an imaginary line drawn in the sand. It pained me deeply to hear of the abuses he and his fellow workmates had been the victims of, mostly at the hands of police and business owners who exploit immigrant labor knowing that their workforce is illegal. With immigrant policy a hot topic in American politics right now, I know that I am going to start paying a lot more attention as we are talking about living, feeling, loving human beings just like you and me. And the next time you go to the grocery store and select that piece of fruit or vegetable, remember that there is a 99 percent chance it was picked by hands of an immigrant laborer, so please give thanks to this underrepresented and taken for granted aspect of our culture.
That’s all the raving I can do for the moment. I am on to the Caribbean now for a short jaunt to Honduras where I will learn how to scuba dive! Then the cultural critique will recommence as I head up into the mountain Highlands of Guatemala.