My Experience in Guatemala

(Amistad Newsletter.)


Things are different in Guatemala, starting with the water.  They do not have clean drinking water from the tap, and in the part of the city where we were staying, the water only ran for a few hours very early in the morning each day.  Even something as simple as washing dishes was not the same because, since the water wasn’t completely clean, you always had to be careful to wipe off your cup a second time before using it.  It was also surprising to see that, almost everywhere you went, there were at least  four soldiers standing on every corner, guarding something.

I am Justin Colville, and I have a pretty easy life.  I know that there are people who grow up without even having a house to live in, and that is partly why I wanted to go to Guatemala.  I wanted to help people more than I already do. I also thought it would be fun to see how people live in a different country. My two sisters made trips to Colombia with my parents when they were my age (12), and I always wanted to share in a similar experience.

I went to Guatemala with my Dad, our neighbor Herb, my friend Ammon and his Mom from the Hartford Catholic Worker, and a new friend named Cristina whom I’d not met before.  One of our main work projects while in Guatemala was rebuilding Casa Juan Gerardi, the new Catholic Worker community house in a poor neighborhood called Zona Diez, or Zone 10.  We spent many hours breaking stone, mixing and pouring cement, repairing the roof, refinishing wooden furniture, cleaning and painting.  We worked side by side with about twenty five Guatemalan friends and neighbors.  It was hot when the sun was out, and it also rained quite a bit, but we had a great time and got a lot of work done.  Usually by the end of the day somebody would take out a soccer ball and all the kids would play in the street.  Father Tom would celebrate mass with everyone at the dining room table, and then we’d have a dinner of rice and beans and tortillas.

We visited many places in Guatemala, but the one that had the biggest impact on me was the city dump.  This is a huge place where poor families build their homes out of trash and things that others had thrown away.  They survive there by scavenging in the dump, finding things to recycle or sell or use in some way. In the sky right above them were many vultures, just lurking.  We spent some time talking to them and we brought some candy and rubber balls to give out.  The strange thing about it was that the people who lived there seemed happy, or at least happier than people I know who seem to have everything they want.

Also in Guatemala City we visited a school called Monte Maria, which is Spanish for Maryknoll.  This is an all-girls school, and the students are very involved in service work like we were doing.  We painted a large mural there with the theme of empowerment of women.  Father Tom told us that almost all of the women in Guatemala who are changing the system for the better are graduates of that school.

Later, we took some trips outside the city and into the beautiful countryside of Guatemala.  We swam in the Pacific Ocean, and while we were on the beach there, we experienced an earthquake.  Some of us were scared by this at first, but the people we were with said that earthquakes happen all the time.

Then we traveled to a famous lake called Atitlan.  Atitlan is located next to a town called San Lucas, which is Spanish for St. Luke.  We seemed to arrive there at just the right time because it was during the feast of St. Luke.  The whole town was closed to cars for the festival, and there was a huge carnival going on.  The priest in the church there, Father Gregorio, is from Minnesota, and he told us that he had been in Guatemala for the past 45 years.  Father Gregorio shared some stories about his earlier days there, when he began to realize that the thing the people needed most, but did not have, was land.  So he spent several years raising money in the United States, and used it to buy enough land for over six hundred families to have a small plot for growing coffee.  Today, in the hills surrounding San Lucas, these families harvest their coffee and sell it to a coffee cooperative set up by the parish.  The farmers get a better price for their coffee beans than they can get anywhere else, and this makes it possible for them to feed and clothe and educate their children.  So, with the help of Father Gregorio and the leaders of the church there, many families have been able to get out of poverty.

The food in Guatemala is mostly rice and beans and tortillas, but they also have other things such as tacos and McDonalds.  The difference about McDonalds in Guatemala, however, is that poor people can’t afford to eat there!  Meat is considered a luxury for most families.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, and I had a great time and made many friends there.  I hope to go back again some day.

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