In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala to bare witness to the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.
I flew into Guatemala City on a Monday, and a missionary couple picked me up. Within an hour of being in the country, we drove over a bridge with armed policemen guarding each end of it. This didn’t seem abnormal until someone pointed out that in the previous two weeks, three different people had stopped cars in the middle of the bridge and jumped over the guard rail into the ravine below. The police were there to prevent another incident, or maybe just to move any empty cars that might cause traffic jams.
We drove out of the capitol, winding around S-curved mountain roads and suddenly I saw a crippled man using his arms to pull himself into the road. I shrieked, and the driver managed to swerve around him. His skin was darkly tanned, and it was obvious that he had spent most of his life in the sun. I couldn’t believe that anyone would hope to die like that.
We ended up in a town called Rio Dulce, and stayed overnight near the river. The next day we took a two hour boat ride up a tributary to visit a rural village near Castulo Creek. A decrepit wooden house sat in the middle of a farm yard on the bank, while turkeys, chickens and horses roamed around. Across the yard, a wooden bridge stretched over a swamp and into a cow pasture, where a herd of bulls grazed at the bottom of a steep hill. It was still the dry season, but there was already muddy water at both ends of the bridge from an early rain. I learned that the first time my hosts visited this village; they had to wade waist-deep through these swampy grasses to reach the hills. They built the bridge not too long before, with the help of a team of volunteers.
We hiked up the hill and 20 minutes into the jungle before reaching a village named Castulo, where the residents lived the same way that Mayan villagers have for centuries. The first time my missionary friends arrived in Castulo in the 1990s, the villagers had never seen anyone as pale as them. At that point in time, the death rate was 50% because the villagers were dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water. My hosts showed them how to clean the water to make it drinkable, and helped them re-hydrate with a sugar-saline mixture. No one died after that.
The village was centrally planned around a soccer field in front of a school house that a missionary team built. The children learned their own Mayan dialect, as well as some Spanish. Education is their only chance to improve their livelihoods, possibly move away someday, or make a better life for future generations. Everyone in the village gathered to meet us at the 2-room school house. The students were so excited to take a break and play, and some of the kids brought us baby Amazon yellow-head parrots to hold.
Families live in thatched roof huts made with cahoon palm tree frons for roofs and bamboo as walls. The floors are dirt, and the typical ‘stove’ is an open-fire hearth in the middle of the hut. Their diets consist primarily of corn tortillas, which is not enough to sustain a person. Women use a metate (mealing stone) to grind corn into flour that they use for dough. Tortillas are flattened and baked over the hearth on a flat piece of aluminum. The village has no electricity, but a team of volunteers had built a new hand-pump well.
Idealistically, I thought that if I were Guatemalan, I would be more content to grow up insulated in Castulo than in the smoggy, over-crowded capitol. It seemed to me that without electricity, TV, or radio; people must be happier there. Surely, no one committed suicide in Castulo? Of course, I was wrong and my host told me that 2 people had chosen to take their lives since he had been to Castulo. One was a girl who drank plant fertilizer after fighting with her boyfriend. The other was a heart-broken boy. Before the end of the trip, I received notice that my cousin had killed himself and his ex wife had been found dead. I started summer school the day after I returned, and went to the funeral the following weekend.