Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Fifth Element: Money in Guatemala

      Three volcanoes strike Antigua’s skyline with their pointy tips, grand bodies set starkly against the blue. Tall green peaks envelope the town, but in the streets the colors are red and yellow, taking turns. If a house is yellow, its neighbor is red, and they go down the block like that, a bright white or a thick blue coming into the mix on occasion. A vibrant settlement with paved streets, ghostly church ruins, and preserved colonial style, Antigua is the country’s most visited destination, equipped to accommodate the daily infusion of tourists.
Antigua, Guatemala
    My room in a tiny, low-cost hotel has access to a roof terrace and a breathtaking view of the volcanoes. Without too many others guests, for most of the day I’m alone, only the housekeeper Elena doing her quiet bouts of scrubbing and hand-washing. She, like most guatemaltecas, is very petite, no taller than five feet, a round woman with a dark, youthful face. Quiet and shy at first, she quickly makes friends when I offer her a cup of coffee from the freshly ground beans bought at the market. Coffee is the country’s top export, but seems to be a delicatessen for Elena. Too expensive, she says.
     By the end of the first cup, I learn that she has 5 children waiting for her at home, and a sixth growing in her belly. Her oldest daughter, born when Elena was fifteen, watches over the rest of the children, including her own babies. The fathers aren’t in the family portrait. “When the new baby comes, la dueña will give me two weeks off,” Elena says. Otherwise, the only keeper at the hotel, she works twelve-hour days, six days a week. The monthly reward is 800 quetzales–a hundred dollars– a striking mismatch in a town where the price of living is determined by those who make living in dollars.
Antigua, Guatemala
    This brings back a feeling– and it comes with a clenching of the heart– that I have already felt in places like Cuzco and Lima, in towns on the Costa Rican Pacific, or on the islands of lake Titicaca. It is all so irreversibly predictable. The Latin America’s continent most special places have been claimed by travelers and owners from well-to-do countries, predominantly the English speaking. In Antigua too, the first-class parts, those of architectural or historical value, have been sold out to the more affluent Guatemalans mestizos with a paler skin color, or, more often, to foreigners who have turned them into hostels, retreat centers, and private lodges. The native people with chocolate-colored skin are pushed to the outskirts of town, and are otherwise busy with small jobs serving the gringos– driving shuttle buses, cleaning rooms, guiding volcano tours, selling tostadas. The young travelers who come to study Spanish, do yoga, surf, and most of all– party, seemingly make very little attempt to engage in the culture, or spend time with the locals.
Lake Atitlan
    It is not too different even in small, remote villages like San Marcos on the shores of beautiful lake Atitlan. The villagers here still speak Kaqchikel, a Mayan language, and make their own clothes. Umberto, a man of about 50 who I meet in the village, points towards the shoreline occupied by guesthouses and wellness centers. “Not too long ago, all of these lands were ours." These were the terrains that we planted with tomato, avocado, and cucumber. Then the foreigners started wanting to buy and we thought it would be a good thing to sell them the land, so our children can go to school.” And after a pause: “We didn’t know what would happen.”
    Not to say that there aren’t spiritually aware and generous proprietors in the village. They organize responsible travel, green volunteering, and programs with the kids, only some of great activities  in San Marcos. But up in the hilly, tall parts where the villagers have been slowly entirely pushed to, there is no more room to grow crops; only the coffee bush grows everywhere and a few streaks of corn. The villagers have to buy most of their food, something they had never had to do in the past. And once again, the native peoples of peaceful and pristine lands have been hired by newcomers– building their houses and hotels, selling them bananas, taking them across the lakes in boats an canoes, a disturbing replica of the colonial times.
    The dynamics of buyer-and-seller, of entitled ones and those who serve them, has permeated the social life, the conversations between guests and locals; it sets the tone. Money is like one of the elements: it shows up in everything. Both grandmothers and kids offer themselves as guides, pose for pictures, and they know their price well.
In the hills of the village of San Marcos
    On a late afternoon walk in the steep parts of San Marcos where a foreigner stands out like an alien, I make friends with a flock of village kids. We chat in Spanish, play and talk, they follow me up the hill and back, I show them my hula-hoop, they are exuberant. Before we part, I ask to take them a picture. “But you’ll pay us!” they yell, and something in their eyes, their postures, immediately shifts.
“I thought we’re friends,” I offer with a touch of offense, “What’s with you all? Everyone asking money. Isn’t there friendship?”
    They look embarrassed for a moment, consult each other in Kaqchikel, the oldest one insists on something, then she turns to me: “What is your name?” I tell her. “It's fine, you can take a picture,” she says, and they assemble quietly for a priceless shot.
    As the night falls over the peaceful lake, I stand on the porch of my spacious private cabin on the water, with windows opening to magical vistas of the volcanoes rising out of the lake. I have rented it for a mere $15 per night, but no local would ever be able to afford it. I think of my new “friends” up in the hills, and I realize that the friendship story I got them to agree on isn’t true. I may be spending most of my time with locals, learning about their ways with genuine respect, and even entertain the idea of renting a small local house up in the hills to live nearer them. But at the end we don’t eat on the same table, my bed is not like theirs, and we don’t worry over the same kind of life. I have come from a privilege not to be undermined. I will take my pictures, do my observations, write my stories, and one day I will sail away in one of the motorboats, leaving my village friends behind. They will wave me off-– two worlds departing from one another– and then disappear into the land that has always been theirs, but where so little is up to them.


  1. Stefana, will you travel on this trip to Lima?

  2. you completely nailed the situation in much of latin america for the traveller. i find it a little creepy, having watched it change over the past 25 years. but that said, it's not just there: it's all over the world, including here in the developed world! it's a global trend, the consequence of all the various forces of globalization combined with an appreciation for the cute old town and beautiful landscape aesthetic.

  3. Es cierto, es un fenómeno planetario, hemos cambiado nuestra verdadera riqueza, nuestros valores, nuestros paisajes, cultura, la importancia de cada ser humano en tanto que persona multidimensional y lo hemos reducido todo al valor del dinero, que se acumula en las manos de unos pocos ricos y poderosos mientras las grandes mayorías quedan marginadas y empobrecidas en todas partes del mundo. Es por ello que es tan importante que consolidemos todas las iniciativas que existen en pro de otro tipo de sociedad solidaria en la que el dinero no nos impida ser verdaderos amigos y no existan las desigualdades e injusticias tan grandes que existen actualmente

  4. Thank you for speaking the truth, beautiful one. These realities are heart breaking. The commodification of microcultures that sucks them into the arteries of global capitalism. Most wealth in the world comes at the price of keeping others in poverty. Globalization has allowed the rich to subjugate people on the opposite side of the planet without having met, seen, or even knowing of their existence. Individual nations need to stand up for their own people, but forces such as the World Trade Organization limit the rights of individual nations to filter their economic borders through calling it protectionism. Well, protectionism can be a good thing when there are human- and other resources to be protected. We'll see what becomes of global capitalism. Hopefully a meltdown of the rich countries can somehow give land back to those who wish to work it. How exactly that would come about, I don't know.