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Uphill from Here

The thing that everyone warns you about when you come to Guatemala is safety. This week, I’m feeling really lucky for those warnings and the training I received in how to respond when things go awry.

Antigua is surrounded by three breathtaking volcanoes. If they’re beautiful from down here, I couldn’t stop imagining what they must be like from the top. Plus, I love to hike and be outdoors. So, I jumped at the chance to climb Volcán de Agua with some friends. There were six of us set to climb it on Saturday – a mix of men and women, one man was Guatemalan, all pretty fit and not small by any means (I haven’t been the shortest in a group in a long while). We even brought two large dogs, one a German Shepherd. Everyone I told that I was going warned me not to bring anything with me. They all said it was really dangerous (the most dangerous volcano, in fact), but we kindly smiled and resolved to go anyway.

I was nervous at first climbing the volcano, but after an hour or two, we got into a rhythm and I forgot all of the fear. Luckily, it was overcast so it wasn’t too hot, and eventually we climbed above the clouds. When we reached the top, our motley crew shared snacks and stories. I really connected with these people, and I felt a sense of security around me. On the way down, I was more worried about the rain than anything.

Then, it happened. They robbed us with “lethal weapons” as the officer wrote on the police report. Our valuables were the only targets, our bodies and other belongings were never threatened. My camera, binoculars and some cash were taken, but all of those things can be easily replaced. Everything important was left alone.

After the initial 30 seconds of shock, I never actually felt in danger. I already knew what they wanted. That’s why, when I turned around and saw one of the guys running at me, I instinctively took off my backpack and remained outwardly calm (although I didn’t feel quite so calm on the inside). I was trained well in how to respond. It’s empowering to know that, when faced with a scenario that can potentially be very bad, I responded in the best way possible.

But, that wasn’t it for the week. I felt so relieved after the volcano that I had left my work phone at home that day. Three days later, it was gone, taken off of my desk at work. There’s no way of knowing exactly what happened to it, but it is very likely that one of the kids took it. I’m really upset, and it has nothing to do with losing the phone. I’m upset about what it symbolizes, and about why it would happen in the first place.

I personally was not a target. Neither incident was about me. It was about getting a hold of valuables in a country of very little. The camera and such are easily sold, and I could probably go find them at the market in Antigua if I wanted. I don’t even regret the day spent on the volcano – I had a wonderful time, and I choose to believe that several people were able to feed their families as a result of our things being gone. As for the phone, it may have been sold, but, likely, somebody just really wanted a phone.

If it was one of our students who took the phone, I’m not mad at them. In fact, it makes me love them more. Yes, we all have individual choice, and whoever ended up with the phone made the decision to take that action. But, I can’t necessarily say I blame them. The culture in Guatemala supports and reinforces these types of actions.

The problem, I think, is a combination of apathy and scarcity. Stemming from the conquest, Guatemala is a country rich in resources, but poor monetarily. The Civil War sought to combat this, and it resulted in over 200,000 deaths and mass displacements. There there is a long-held feeling of injustice here, and I think Guatemalans carry the Civil War in their hearts as a prime example. There’s such a feeling of being wronged, that I personally think people feel that they’re owed something. A lot has gone wrong in this country, a lot has kept people down and impoverished, and if they can do something to get a little bit back they do. The income distribution here is one of the most unequal in the world. The reason people don’t have access to money and goods is not because they don’t work hard. And, because resources have been commanded by such a small group for so long and reforms in the way of redistribution have been fairly unsuccessful, the average Guatemalan sees that the only way to get something is to take it. I don’t agree with the response, but I understand where it comes from. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have the same reaction. I think Guatemalan culture supports such things because generally people’s problems are brushed over. It’s not often that someone with the authority to address wrongdoing listens and follows up on making things right. I get a sense that people often feel uncared for and forgotten. Of course there’s no sense of personal or social responsibility when you feel that you’re not getting much responsibility or commitment back.

These students are never going to learn to eschew these particular parts of their culture if we just tell them not to steal or castigate them when they do something bad. We have to lead by example. We have to lead through love. I can’t parade in as a foreigner and just tell them that it’s not okay. Sometimes here, stealing is a matter of survival. Instead, I have to love my students even when they do things that hurt me. I have to show them that I care and that I will continue to work with them and advocate for them. I have to find ways to lead by example and show them that education can make a difference in their world. Most of all, I need to lead by example in showing them that if someone hurts you, it only proliferates the hurt to react in kind. Instead, react with being kind. As Mother Theresa famously said, “if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only love.”

This incident is just another example of why my work is so important. When things like this happen, it would be easy to conclude that our work isn’t making a difference. But it is! The students are in school instead of hanging out on the volcano robbing people. Students come into my office every day asking for help, and they come because they know they’ll get it. They say, “hi teacher!” when they see me. They’re learning English, slowly but surely. They’re even respecting new systems and rules (like the materials sign out sheet) that I’ve created. Systems and rules aren’t too often heeded in Guatemala. They are learning, and they do care. However, it’s such an uphill battle with all the things these students have going against them. But, that also means they have no where to go but uphill from here.

This week I saw peace in going up the hill.


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