Most of us dream of becoming proficient at something. For me (Arden) that includes dancing salsa and speaking Spanish. The first dream was dashed about five years ago when while learning to dance salsa in Buena Vista, with the instructor twirling me in front of the class, I tripped and fell. With Spanish, while I can congate verbs until the cows come home, putting these verbs into a comprehensive sentence pretty much eludes me. I’m reduced to playing charades ~ “sounds like, looks like“, drawing stick
figures or gesturing wildly. I arrived in Antigua Guatemala two weeks ahead of Read to study one-on-one and live with a host family. At one point I jokingly told a teacher I spoke like a four-year-old. Choosing her words carefully, she responded, “Well, actually four-year-olds speak pretty well“, and changed the subject. Last Friday I took a cab home and tried to tell the cabbie he must drive a lot of drunks home on weekends. He spent the rest of the cab ride growing increasingly agitated and yelling, “No soy un borracho” (I am not a drunk). There is a great humbling life lesson in going from a job in management to stumbling through “See Spot Run” books. Antigua has great Spanish Schools including San Jose el Viejo where you learn Spanish one-on-one among beautiful gardens with an extremely patient (and, let’s face it, sometimes bored) “maestro”.
Mid-October brought two “tropical depressions” to Guatemala meaning solid rain. I don’t know if it made the news back home but there were 92 deaths in Central America due to flooding, and multiple mud slides closing major highways and remote roads alike . For Antiguans, the rain simply meant sloshing through big puddles, wet shoes and clothes, and prayers for “el sol”. I was in awe coming from dry Colorado. I don’t think I’ve ever seen nine days of solid rain.
Read arrived on Oct. 23rd, which meant Arden now has a security escort (as if that will help). As part of our mission on this journey, we toured a couple local nonprofits, including Wings, a women’s reproductive rights organization. You can imagine the challenges of empowering rural women in a machismo culuture with a very strong Catholic Church. Another local effort, Transtions, is a multi-faceted organization supporting Guatemalans with disabilities. Cobblestone streets with tall curbs and steep muddy rural roads are hard on wheelchairs, so Transitions manufactures their own heavy-duty chairs, employing clients and teaching skills in the process. Both of these organizations are inspirational in their ability to overcome intense challenges, all the while creating a powerful sense of empowerment and community.
The fun parts of our journey include learning Salsa, which will surely be the impossible endeavor. First, gringos just can’t dance. We’re missing a gene or something rhythmic and sensual. Our 4′-8” tall instructor kept trying to get Arden to stick her bum out and show off her legs (not a typical mid-western trait). Second, Teva’s are not dance shoes. Talcum powder sprinkled on the tile dance floor is a weak and slippery band-aid. Third, contrary to Arden’s intuition, the male must lead, and la chica must follow. Nothing more need be said there.
In a diversion from the comforts of Antigua, we hooked up with a young couple from Guatemala City (friends of Trish & Mike Bews), who drove us around to see the sights of the capital. Daniel is an attorney working as a homocide investigator/prosecutor (roles are combined here), Rosy is also an attorney practicing family law. Our tour included a visit to the Presidential Palace, built circa 1850, the Catholic Church, circa 1650, and a famous local bar El Portal where the seeds of the 1944 revolution were sewn by leftist writers and activists. Daniel pointed out the huge portrait of President Alberto Guzman hanging from the palace celebrating the anniversary of the revolution.
He was forcefully removed in a 1954 coup with the help of the CIA, then flown to Mexico where he was promptly assasinated. If the upcoming election puts candidate Perez Molina in office, Daniel joked that the portrait would quickly end up in the garbage. Perez, the former general known as “Mano Duro” or firm hand, could bring a hard turn to the right with tough repercussions for criminals who are currently running rampant. But Perez has been connected to extrajudicial killings in the 1980’s, raising fears of renewed human rights abuses. Ironically, Rosy supports Perez, in opposition to her husband. She grew up in a very small rural village, one of nine children raised by a single mom. Like many Guatemalans, she is tired of the insecurity and violence.
If anything, we’re learning from first hand accounts the plight of the developing world. We’ve heard many stories of unimaginable injustices, senseless violence, and yet a profound ability to carry on. The t-shirt slogan “got hope?” that we’ve seen in the U.S. is seemingly profane when you look at it in context of Guatemala.