Day 1: Guatemala

I sit in the wrong seat on the plane. I’m looking at my phone as I follow the slow progress of my fellow passengers down the aisle, and I sit in E12 instead of E13. When Mr. E12 comes he smiles and tells me to stay put. That’s how my journey to Guatemala begins.

On my left is a Hispanic woman, who I think is five years older than me, but turns out to have kids practically my age. She is slim and wears heels, a dark dress and an intricate sweater with purples and reds—I noticed her on the line to board and wondered who she dressed to meet in Guatemala City. The guy on my right wears an oversized baseball hat and light jeans. He smiles at me and I’m correct when I guess he’s a college kid.  He studies business at a school in Los Angeles, where he’s always lived.

She’s going to Guatemala because her grandmother has died. She’ll spend three days with her family in Guatemala City. He’s going—in fact he’s taken a semester off school just to go—because he wants to spend six weeks partying with his similarly aged cousins. He tells me he works for an organic coffee company, and before that he worked at a paint company with his dad, but now his dad’s gone—dead.

Me? To learn and see.

So on the plane, with chatter and a nap, I transition from my uncertainty about leaving the States to excitement for what’s to come.

When I walk out of the terminal, a warm breeze literally washes over me.  I’d pictured a chaotic airport scene, something like Cairo with endless men haggling, offering taxi rides, etc. Instead, there’s a small semicircle of people gathered behind the gate, in the sun. A friendly man offers a shuttle to Antigua for $10—I say ‘si’ and wait around a few minutes for him to find other passengers.

A guy in his early thirties whose girlfriend’s working with a hospital mission in Antigua (Don), and an expatriate who builds solar stoves are my companions in the shuttle(Gwen). I ask Gwen a lot of questions:

He’s lived in the same community in Northern Guatemala for 8 years, but only began the solar stoves within the last. It started with his home in California, where he still has a house but only lives a couple months a year. Last year a man in his community approached him, saying he’d heard Gwen knew about solar energy. He asked Gwen to teach him what he knew. Gwen hit his computer, only knowing the basics as a consumer, but soon he was attempting a solar stove as they’re created in Africa with cardboard boxes and foil. ‘But people wanted something more durable here,’ he explained. So working with the curious man, he created a model using a large stainless steel pot. Though the costs are higher, the model is durable. He’s only created a few and given them as gifts—‘No one funds me,’ he responded to my question. He hopes to create a business out of it, but it’s difficult because the people in the community don’t have the money for stainless-steal pots. The other guy, Don, said he had some friends who worked with non-profits who might be interested in working with him.

I ask him more questions about his life. About living in a community with no other gringos. There was another a few years ago, he says. He tells a horror story of a female teacher who was brutally raped and beaten in his community a number of years ago. “It wasn’t by locals and it wasn’t gang violence.’ When I ask more he talks about the normalization of violence and oppression in Guatemalan society, not to justify the violence but to understand. It reminds me how I think about kids who act out on the South Side of Chicago.

Thus when we arrive in Antigua, I am both inspired and wary. Eager to learn more on both accounts.

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