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Encountering Guatemala at the age of ten


“But mom, I don’t wanna go!”

I didn’t want to leave my home. As a young child, I had everything a ten-year-old could ever want – my friends, TV, and videogames. The prospect of leaving all of these comforts for Guatemala did not appeal to me in any way. I suspect my older brother Paul felt the same way.

“That’s why we’re going. You need to learn to appreciate what you have.” she said, as if reading my mind.

“No use in fighting it.” I thought. We were headed to Guatemala.

“Time to go!” Mom yelled.

I begrudgingly dragged myself out of bed and got dressed. My brother and mother were already ready and waiting for me, it seemed. I clumsily hurried my way downstairs with my luggage. I went outside and saw the taxi waiting to take us to the airport.

“Great.” I thought to myself. Time to go.

I fell asleep on my way to the airport, and before I knew it I was at LaGuardia Airport boarding my plane.

Flying into Guatemala, I couldn’t help but be enamored by the sights offered by the seemingly endless expanse of countryside. Never before had I seen so much green grass and open space – a rarity in the suburbs of New York. However, I couldn’t savor this image for long as our plane made its final approach into Guatemala City International Airport. Back on the ground, the familiar sight of the New York “urban jungle” reared its ugly head, albeit on a much smaller scale. However, soon I would learn that this urban environment only comprised the tiniest part of Guatemala– the image of the serene green countryside was the true essence of Guatemala and its history.

My uncle, Tio Tono, greeted us warmly at the airport and offered to drive us wherever we needed to go. My mother’s entire family still lived in Guatemala. Unfortunately, her family didn’t live in Guatemala City, but much further – in the city of Quetzaltenango and the surrounding countryside about 100 miles away. We would have to make our way there – I discovered this journey was much easier said than done in Guatemala.

In the outskirts of Guatemala City, concrete roads were almost unheard of. Dirt paths prevailed outside of the comparative metropolis that was Guatemala City – whatever driving we did would have to be done slowly and carefully. A certain degree of lawlessness and uncertainty governed these paths. It was not uncommon for tourists to be abducted, as police protection waned as one made their way through the countryside. My mom assured me that these abductions were only “stories.” Her assurances did nothing to lessen my anxieties.

As we made our trek from the metropolis of Guatemala City to the rural countryside, my mother stopped us to take in the scenery – large open green fields sprinkled with stone structures and flowers. It was at this point that my mom explained to us that the land we were looking at was previously inhabited by the Mayan civilization – the natives called it “Tikal.” The magnificent stone structures contrasted with the green purity of the surrounding land. Despite this contrast, the structures didn’t interfere with the tranquility of the scene. It was evident that the Mayans treasured the land as did the native Guatemalans. A beautiful thing, really – and totally different than the American mindset. Today, I can imagine that such land would only be seen by many as prime “real estate” by many Americans.

My anxieties melted away as I stared at the beautiful landscape in front of me. After what seemed like an eternity, my mother beckoned us to return to the car and keep moving forward.

After 6 hours of painfully slow driving, we finally arrived in Quetzaltenango. The city of Quetzaltenango stands tall amongst the other cities in Guatemala yet still has that “small town” feel to it. As in New York City, I walked down the street and encountered several street performers and vendors. However, they worked for themselves out on those small, congested, dingy, sun-stricken streets – no licenses or permits were needed or expected, as this was what many had to resort to as their primary means of income. My mother explained that earning even only a few quetzals would be considered an incredibly productive day – such earnings only amounted to about a dollar every week or so. Opening my wallet and seeing multiple dollar bills inside, I was astounded – what I had previously thought as a mostly-empty wallet would feed one of these families for weeks. In a city unmistakably stricken by poverty, the inhabitants of Xela (as the natives call it) persevere.

As my mother, my brother, and I made our way through the busy, bustling streets, we were mobbed by a swarm of people – no doubt seeing my brother and I as Americans and hoping to swoon us out of any meager sum they could. Even if we had much money, it would have been a difficult affair. The sheer size of the mob made any goods or services they wanted to sell nearly incomprehensible or redundant. We eventually made our way through the mass of people, the sight of which almost brought my mother to tears. “The poverty these people live in is something most people in the United States just can’t comprehend.” she said. “Even giving just a dollar would feed one of these families for at least a week. Dios mio, es terrible.” My God. It’s terrible.

The spectacle of all these people was truly astounding, even to a young child such as myself. The combination of the sights and natives had a profound impact on me – it made me truly appreciative of what I had. When I came back, I wasn’t able to look at my videogames or modern-day comforts in the same way. I began to think – every hour I was playing videogames or watching TV or spending my money frivolously, the people I saw in Guatemala were probably working to feed their families. From then on, I resolved to work as hard as I could in everything I do and to appreciate everything I have just a bit more. My story isn’t over, but I would like to think that my experiences in Guatemala have helped to shape the person I am today.

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