Hello everyone! We’re sorry that this is a little late but internet has been on and off.
This morning we had breakfast at 7:30 on the patio of Hotel Uxlabil in Antigua. We had a wonderful home-cooked meal of organic fruit, eggs, bread, and coffee. The patio is an open air courtyard with a fountain, bright flowers, and birds chirping. We then loaded the bus and headed off for Santiago de Atitlan.
Due to road work, we were delayed on our way to Santiago and spent half an hour in Tecpan, an area between Antigua and our destination. We took an impromptu walk down a nearby dirt road past men plowing a field. Laura and Jen, two Haverford alums accompanying us on our trip, started a conversation with Renee, a member of the community and a participant in a local house building project. Renee explained that many houses on the hillside were destroyed in a mudslide caused by rain from Hurricane Stan in October 2005. With money from the government, the community is now preparing plots of land on which to build houses for 107 families whose homes were destroyed in the disaster. The survivors of the mudslide are currently living in nearby shantytowns. This was our first experience with community development at a grassroots level so far on our trip.
Once the road opened again, we continued to the docks at Panjachel where we met Heidi, another Haverford alum, who currently lives in Santiago. We then went to El Bistro for a lunch of spaghetti. After lunch, we departed by boat for Santiago de Atitlan. On the hour long boat ride across Lake Atitlan we talked to Lucia, Jorge’s mother-in-law, about her experiences as a Mayan woman. We also took many pictures of the beautiful view from the boat.
We arrived in Santiago de Atitlan and were greeted by a group of local children. Together we then embarked on our first of many rides in the back of a Guatemalan pick-up truck. All 23 of us squeezed into the back of the pickup and stood holding on to a wooden bar running the length of the back while the driver maneuvered the truck through the streets and traffic of Santiago. Later we joked that the class was capped at 19 in order that everyone would be able to fit in the back.
The truck took us to the office of Manuel, the mayor of Santiago, who greeted us to the municipality. Anita explained Manuel’s role as more of the “godfather” than the mayor. In addition to working for the betterment of the community, he addresses the concerns of community members who line up outside of his office to ask him questions and raise issues. It was an honor to be welcomed to the community in his office. In our conversations with Manuel, we discussed the importance of local government and some of the problems they face, such as domestic violence and sanitation issues, like trash collection. Before checking in at the hotel, local children preformed songs for us.
After checking in at the hotel, we walked to the Peace Park, which commemorates the thirteen civilians killed in the 1990 massacre. Manuel spoke to us about the history of the military occupation in Atitlan during the civil war. He discussed the events leading up to the massacre, explaining that after a local woman was raped, many community members went to the military barracks with the hope of starting a peaceful dialogue with military leaders about their actions in Santiago. The military opened fire on the civilians, killing thirteen and wounding many others. Two children were among the dead. Manuel explained that the community of Atitlan has been hit twice: first by the civil war and then by Hurricane Stan.
After finishing our conversation at the Peace Park, we walked farther into the village and saw the damage from a mudslide caused by Hurricane Stan in 2005. Hundreds of people were killed and many homes were destroyed. Despite the fact that it has been over two years since the mudslide, little has been done to alleviate the suffering, physical and psychological, of the victims. Gaspar, the current second advisor to the mayor and former village teacher, educated us on both the events and effects of the mudslide on the village. You can still see the level the mud had reached by the marks it left on the sides of buildings. In addition, many displaced by the mudslide are still, two years later, living in tent shelters, that offer little protection from the upcoming rainy season. We took a detour and walked up a street of houses. Though Manuel had told us that 97% of the people in Santiago live in extreme poverty (less than $1 US per day) we were not prepared for the living conditions we were confronted with. Though we would like to convey to you the poverty we saw, we feel that words would not do justice. Additionally, amongst the homes of the villagers sits the USAID-funded courthouse. One of the things that we found particularly shocking was that while the population of the community lives in conditions of extreme poverty and without adequate housing, USAID built the community a new courthouse, which is now empty and unused.
We headed back to the hotel for an amazing dinner before attending our last event of the day, a presentation at Atitlan’s radio station. At the radio station, we were given a presentation by a youth group which highlighted the events of the military occupation. It was particularly interesting that we were given such a presentation in the radio station. Atitlan is quite revolutionary because, as articulated in the video and by Manuel at Peace Park, after the massacre, the community literally kicked out the military from the area. In addition, they are one of the only municipalities with a radio station that they control. Both the radio station and youth presentation reflected the importance of self-representation in the community as well as the importance of honoring past generations. After the youth group sang us two songs, Manuel and many members of the local government spoke with us. Manuel presented us with the government plan which included, among other things, increased health facilities, economic development, education, and gender equality.
After a long and busy day, we returned, by way of pickup truck, back to our hotel. For all the worried parents, we are all healthy and having a great time. Adios!
Holly Simpson and Rebecca Kuperberg