I am going to do things a little differently the next time I come to Central America. Even though I’ve complained about it often, my standard of living here is far out of reach for the vast majority of Guatemalans. I live on a safe street inside a house that, despite its lack of insulation and the ever-present black mold blossoming on the walls, is equipped with all the comforts to which I’m accustomed (electricity, indoor plumbing, gas for cooking, a relatively hot shower). Because I can’t be bothered to hike the 20 minutes uptown to the sprawling Mercado Democracia in Zona 3–or take the colectivo to the even cheaper, more chaotic Mercado Minerva by the chicken bus terminal–I buy my vegetables and spices at the most expensive, centrally located market in town, a convenient three blocks from my house. For the most part, my weekends have been filled with fun activities exploring the country that many of its countrypeople cannot afford to enjoy, like hikes and hot springs soaks. I consistently drink the best beer available, go out whenever I want and take taxis home after midnight ’cause it’s only Q25 and you can usually bargain the guy down. Almost everything I do is tailored for maximum convenience, which is a luxury so many people around me cannot afford. The biggest hypocrisy of all is that the people at the community center where I’ve been volunteering for the past seven months think I’m the good person for coming here to work for free.
And the reality is that I’m not. I’m here because I can afford to be here, even though someone else has been paying for the bulk of my stay (thanks, InterExchange Foundation!). The ways I can afford it extend far beyond simple monetary privileges. I have the benefit of an education and freedom from responsibilities–my student loans are deferred, I don’t have children, I do have a family and an amazing network of supportive friends who can bail me out of any trouble, financial or otherwise–and as such can afford to take months or a year out of the workforce to go and Do Good in Central America. For instance, the woman who cleans the community center, who works six days per week at the minimum wage technically allowable under Guatemalan law (which is just as laughable for supporting a family here as it is in the States), is a good person. After working every day, she goes home to two demanding children and a house full of relatives who look down on her because her husband left her. Even though she’s constantly strapped for cash, she gives food and clothes to people on her street less fortunate and has been known to come to work in tears when she sees an obviously impoverished little kid running around the streets, unsupervised and shoeless, begging for centavos. She volunteers at her church every weekend. She’s only 41 and hasn’t been out on a date, out for a drink with friends, or just out to see a movie, for five years. If I had her life, I can’t imagine how bitter I would be. But this is what reality is like for such a large segment of the population–especially the female segment–and lately I wonder what this woman actually thinks when I breeze in on Monday morning making small talk about my weekend plans. I think she must be jealous at times, but because she doens’t have a malicious bone in her body, she just smiles and comments on how much fun I must’ve had, how she would like to visit Antigua and the lake and Tikal some day as well, etc.
It feels like my very presence rubs nothing but privilege in the faces of many people, yet I have never experienced anything remotely approaching rudeness or even well-deserved criticism on the part of Guatemaltecos toward my nationality, the huge Northern neighbor that has basically done nothing but shit on Mexico and Central America for two hundred years, training death squads and goading dictators into power for little reason other than to keep banana prices low. I’ve found that Europeans are very quick to judge the U.S. for its Central American policies (and everything else, from sock color to the word “soccer”–rightly so, in many cases). Yet the people who are actually affected by these policies seem better able than most to look past the sins of the U.S. as a whole and afford the individual the benefit of the doubt. It’s a trait possessed by few in the U.S., even though we supposedly exalt the individual above all else. The Guatemalans I’ve met rarely have a bad word about anyone unless they’re discussing football and are almost always unfailingly gracious and polite, interested in what life is like in the States and far more understanding about the limits of our so-called democracy than they probably should be.
All I can think about right now is when I can come back here. And when I do, I want to do things a little diferently, but I don’t know how, exactly. Use less, assume less, listen more? Be as forgiving of others’ flaws as Guatemalans are? It’s easier said than done, of course. Although I thought I lived fairly simply in the U.S., coming to Guatemala has reassured me that, in fact, I consume far more than I should. When people ask me what I’m going to do when I go back to the States, what I’ve missed and so forth, I automatically think of material things and the luxuries of convenience afforded by life in my big rich country which maintains most of its wealth by standing on the backs of 2/3 of the rest of the world. I want to shun these impulses, but I also want an iPhone. It’s perhaps too maudlin and trite to mention that life is full of such contradictions, the push and pull between what we really need and what we’re greedy enough to think we need, but lately I’ve realized that those contradictions are only there in the first place for the privileged few.