Guatemala: El Peten

A brief summary of events:

I arrived in San Jose, El Peten on Monday evening, flying from Guatemala City. I met the family that I am staying with, a woman and her two sons ages 15 and 20. They are friendly and nice, although a bit strange, quiet and with interesting habits of activity. I can only imagine what they think of me. On Tuesday morning I awoke early and walked around the small community of San Jose. Nestled right on the lshore of Lago Peten Itza, San Jose is a community of Itza Mayan people. The only indigenous group left in the region. In the morning I met the director, Paula, of the Spanish School that I am affiliated with, Escuela Casa Nikte. Paula is extremely involved in her community; she manages a local women´s organization that works to provide economic opportunities to empower local women in the area, organizes health talks at local schools and through the school employs members of the community. Through talking with Paula it is clear to me that she is very intelligent and understands how the local politics work, she understands the corruption that seems to be present here on many levels of administration and she is working diligently to empower her community to better themselves. My Spanish language training has basically consisted of me following Paula around as she goes to various committees and meetings. With her I have attended a talk at a local elementary school about the spread of infectious diseases, I participated in a march to celebrate international women´s day, I met with the director of a local Mayan Itza language school that works to teach Maya Itza (an indigenous Mayan language that is in sever danger of extinction) to children in the local school system, I visited a cooperative community of ex-guerrillas who have returned to civilian life following the signing of the 1996 peace pact, among other various visits to local community members who are involved in various projects. I also visited a minor Mayan Ruin that was an 8km walk from the village through patches of pristine forest. The ruin, Motul, consists of 4 pyramids and plazas, mostly unexcavated and reclaimed by the jungle, but quite impressive nonetheless. I have been very busy exploring, speaking nothing but Spanish, eating tortillas eggs and beans for every meal, taking photos and more exploring and talking to locals. I have plans to go to Tikal this weekend and visit a forest reserve on the way back. Then I plan to stay a few more days in San Jose, improving my Spanish with formal tutoring and staying to witness an annual community Itza Mayan festival held here that has its roots in ancient Mayan traditions. After that I am going to head north to do some jungle trekking to see El Mirador and other very remote Mayan cities.

A topic I would like to address is the issue of language. It feels quite strange to be doing all this thinking and writing in English. It has been absolutely incredible to watch my mind wrap itself around the Spanish language. What started out as incomprehensible jibberish has evolved to contain actual meaning and intention. At times speaking and understanding can be quite laborious and I must concentrate very hard to communicate at all with humans in my surroundings. Words must be chosen carefully and searched for in the crevices of my mind and memory. At other times, words and ideas just flow out of me in this foreign tongue, I don’t even think, I just react. Occasionally I look around and see if anyone notices that I am speaking something so strange and foreign to myself, but then quickly realize that everyone is speaking it, and that it is expected here. It is so much fun and quite satisfying to realize that I now have this power to communicate with this other world that having not been able to speak their tongue, would have been totally closed off to me. Languages are doorways to having a more thorough understanding of a regions´ people and culture. Encapsulated within a language is an entire culture and world view that can only be understood through interpreting the world through that linguistic filter, with its limitations and capabilities for description. Of course it has not been easy. At times I have been completely humbled by my inability to share my profoundest thoughts and feelings with the beings around me. For example being at the cooperative for the ex soldiers and hearing the horrific stories of these people who had been living in the forests for years without proper food, clothing or shelter, constantly in fear and with very little hope or future. I wanted to tell them how deeply I felt their story and experiences, how so badly I wanted to understand their pain and way of life, but simply could not, from having the stable upbringing that I had. This is where languages fail, and the foreign tongue becomes molasses in my mouth and mind. Only when we are deeply humbled by our own inadequacies speaking a foreign cultures tongue can we fully appreciate the often taken for granted facilities of communication afforded to us by our own native language. The prior sentence being a case in point. That sentence would be impossible for me to translate into Spanish.

I have observed many interesting phenomena within the Latino culture here in Guatemala. I feel that at this time it is too much to write about and is best saved for a later date when my ideas will be better shaped and formed by time and experience into coherent impressions. To say the least, life flows very differently here. Priorities are different, expectations different, traditions different etc. This is not big news here, I realize. However coming fresh from the US and I am sure for people who have never seen abject poverty and despair, it can be quite shocking. There is so much to write about now that I feel I must wait, let the pot simmer a bit and see what motifs and themes are left over when the culture shock wears off and I can see more clearly the world that I have jumped into.

I will update again soon! Espero que te vaya bien.

Evan

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