I’ve been in Xela, Guatemala for the last 5 days. I got upgraded to first class on the flight here. It was the first time I wanted a flight to last longer. I got through customs and met someone from my school who drove another student and I to the bus station. I was happy not to have to try to navigate the city. Guatemala City is big, dirty, confusing, and not completely safe. It also isn’t easy to blend in as a 6’1”, Caucasian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed gringo.
I took the bus to Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) with Kate, another student at Pop-Wuj. The 4 hour bus ride wound back and forth through the mountains until getting in to a rainy, dark downtown Xela. Luckliy, the school was right around the corner. I got picked up by my host mom and got my first Guatemalan meal of eggs, beans, and tortillas (a meal that I am beginning to know very well). I started classes the next morning at 8. We started with a 4 hour lecture on the culture and contemporary problems in Guatemala and their historical basis. I went home for lunch and came back for 4 hours of 1 on 1 Spanish instruction with my teacher Alberto. This has been my schedule for the week. This morning is my first chance to explore the city, so there will be more soon.
I had yesterday morning off and was able to volunteer on the stove project run by Pop-Wuj. The goal is to install safe, ventilated cooking stoves in rural Guatemalan homes. Most people currently cook over a open flame in a small, enclosed kitchen. This makes smoke inhalation and resulting respiratory problems the second leading cause of death for all age groups in Guatemala. The house we worked at was a small, dirty court yard, one shack with a bed for a mother, grandmother, and 3 children, and another small enclosed shack to cook in.
I was unaware of how pervasive poverty is in Guatemala until I got here. It has the highest rates of malnutrition of any country in the Western hemisphere. There are areas with 80% chronic childhood malnutrition. Many of the people are of Mayan descent and are very short. However, it’s evident that much of their short stature comes from chronic malnutrition. Many children appear half their age because they are so small. A lack of access to dental hygiene is apparent in all age groups.
While I have seen and helped people in poverty, I have never seen poverty that is so utterly devastating for an entire group of people. A successful, educated person in Guatemala can make about $2500 a year. And the disparity between this and the poorest, mostly rural indigenous population is vast. It helps one keep perspective.