This morning felt like a transitional morning for us students of Haverford-Guate 2008. After one last night under the clear sky of rural Guatemala we were up early to leave Santiago De Atitlan. After four days of traveling together we had our routine down and had all of our gear packed onto the boats in no time. These trim boats are much smaller and quicker than their larger counterparts we used on our first crossing of lake Atitlan; instead of a relaxed, panoramic view from the roof we experienced the thrill of being right on the water, watching it rush by just like our few short days in Santiago. The sky was perfectly clear and the view of the surrounding mountains simply astounding. But leaving this little town we came to know so well seemed unreal. The connection we experienced in Santiago was exactly what we had come here for, and parting with that sense of community felt counterintuitive. Our itinerary for the day was brief: a cultural day at Iximche, lunch at the ruins, and a free afternoon to relax and reflect in Antigua. Yet in the end it was by no means merely transitional, but rather a powerful beginning to a new chapter of our trip. Upon arriving at the other side of lake Anita struck up a conversation with some local police officers that soon became a lesson in field research. We learned about the Guatemalan Police in class, how after the 1996 peace accords they had been given responsibility for domestic security in an effort to diminish the role of the military. General Viagran had told us about the complexities involved in the transfer of power to what he saw as an ineffective organization, but talking with the local police chief gave us a new perspective on these difficulties. He proudly asserted his unit’s control over the local situation and emphasized their efforts to protect all classes of people, yet was eager to tell us about their lack of equipment and support: “It’s easy to come and see all the riches of Guatemala,” he told us, “but we, the Guatemalan Police, are poor.” There are only 8 officers in the region, and while they try to pool resources with neighboring departments it’s not always enough. He said that people like himself are not corrupt because they don’t have access to any money in the first place, but that the officials higher up who approve the budget can do what they want with it. Within a few hours we arrived at Iximche and it was absolutely gorgeous – exactly what you would expect from such a sacred place. Gentle paths of well-trodden grass meandered through the ruins. Yet despite the worn down rock the ruins still stood with a solid sense of place, and each individual tree stood out in its own uniqueness. At the end of the bluff lay a circle of stone in front of an ancient alter. Members of the widow’s association were waiting for us along with don Juan, a Mayan spiritual guide. Don Juan explained to us the nature of the ritual we were about to participate in. The red candles represented red corn, the blood of one’s ancestors, and the heat of the sun. The black represented black corn, the night, and one’s hair, all of which are part of one’s self and one’s body. White represents white corn and the air of clouds, and the yellow was for life and the yellow corn of every day sustenance. He spoke of the three spirits that reside in each of us: one in our head, one in our chest, and one in our feet. We went around in a circle multiple times, putting incense, candles, and water in the fire. Flames came together and drew apart and don Juan explained the significance and was quick to point out the connections with other religions.We went back to the busses to share a modest lunch of tortillas and cheese with the widows, and what followed was by far the hardest to describe of the days events. Our conversation began with a more general discussion about the widow’s association and the types of experiences these women have been through. Yet before long it delved into a much deeper sharing of personal stories that became one of the most touching moments of our trip so far. One woman spoke publicly of her husband’s forced disappearance for the first time in over twenty years. Her grief was so strong that she could barely get the words out through the tears – a grief that she told us killed two of her children who couldn’t understand why their father never came back. This is a woman who had to run into the mountains every time she suspected either the army or the guerillas, sometimes so quickly that she couldn’t even bring along food for her children. The amount these people have had to suffer was simply overwhelming. In a way, then, it was a transitional day. We’ve taken a step back from our intimate involvement with Santiago to personally explore the deep, lasting wounds of the armed conflict in Guatemala. This connection with the widows, too, is exactly what we came here for. In a way we’re here just to listen and to truly hear and absorb these experiences. It became clear to us today that while we may sometimes feel helpless in the wake of all of this violence, poverty, and hardship, our presence can indeed give a small sense of empowerment. On the bus ride back to Antigua we reflected on another emotional day. “I’ve been through this for a decade now” Anita told us, referring to the collection of survivor’s testimonies, “and I couldn’t even take it this afternoon.” Later she told us that the most moving moment for her was not the stories themselves or the obvious pain the widows felt, but the fact that as she looked around the park both Mayans and Americans were crying and that everyone was deeply touched by these moments.
Ahmad and Evan
Monday, March 10, 2008