Touching down in Guatemala City, you’ll be surprised to see how modern the airport is. I was expecting it to be really rugged since Guatemala is a “developing country,” but it’s not – the airport anyway.
Oh, look! A mariachi band is waiting for us! You can see the glimmering floors, the drop ceiling and recessed lighting, the very modern arrivals area in the below video.
We are going to have a real adventure and take a chicken bus to a more rural part of Guatemala, mostly because I just love saying chicken bus and because, well, look at it! The chicken bus is a retired yellow school bus that migrated from the United States to Guatemala where it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a means of public transportation. Pile on. No number of passengers is too many for the chicken bus! Did you take your dramamine? It’s a long, windy route to get where we are headed.
Notice as we leave Guatemala City heading West toward Solola and Lake Atitlan all of the U.S. influence here. Papa Gino’s, Starbucks, and Domino’s abound.
Outside the dirty bus window, you can watch the stunning Guatemala countryside whiz by as we navigate the chaotic and crowded roads at an uncomfortable clip. The weather is perennially spring-time – 75 degrees or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, the bright pinks and yellows of tropical flowers adorning the roadside even in the most barren places. In the distance, Volcan del Fuego perpetually puffs wisps of smoke into the air. The smells of cooking, wood burning, and exhaust permeate the air. There is rarely a moment of quiet between the honking cars, chirping birds, and barking dogs.
Everywhere you look you will see women in their traditional dress, the traje. The Mayan culture remains strong, despite the Spanish colonial and American influences. The cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors remain guiding pillars of life here, especially in rural communities. Twenty-one (21) different Mayan languages are still the primary languages used in Guatemala’s Mayan communities.
Which is where we run headlong into an issue with the Coronavirus. This virus has the potential to be a crisis on an epic scale in developing countries like Guatemala. The health system here was already one of the weakest in the hemisphere. All of the government information – and it is abundant (Guatemala has closed its borders and has been incredibly restrictive and proactive about isolating the virus) – is in Spanish.
Most rural communities here are remote, have no internet access, do not speak Spanish, and typically do not read or write. Radio remains the primary form of communication. Which is why it’s all the more stunning and impressive to see the MAIA Impact School, based in Solola, immediately begin to assess where their skills and relationships can be most helpful and take proactive action. In this space of limited resources, MAIA leads with ingenuity and heart.
As a school for rural, poor, indigenous girls run by indigenous women, MAIA works with some of the most vulnerable populations in this part of the world. MAIA has worked hard to build relationships with families and to gain the trust of community councils in the region they serve. Family engagement is an enormous part of each student’s education (as this video shows).
As soon as Coronavirus began creeping its way across the world, MAIA realized it was uniquely positioned to assist the rural villages and address some of the issues that the they will face. The first thing they did was to quickly compile home school packets for all of the students. Without access to the internet, this pause in school could prove to be a major setback for learners who already had substantial obstacles in their way. These home school materials aim to keep the girls connected to their MAIA community and persevering through this pause on the path toward their educational goals.
The second initiative they undertook was to begin to address the major information gap facing rural villages. They created videos that translate the government’s Spanish information into the Mayan languages of the rural villages and posted those videos on MAIA’s social media pages. The videos quickly became the most viewed and shared content on their pages ever. You can watch them here. Better, though, for the state of our souls currently, are the bloopers. They exude humanity and love and light even if you don’t understand the words.
MAIA continues to explore ways to reach the rural villages, but also is trying to figure out how best to report out from the villages to media outlets. The plight of rural villages will be profoundly difficult and there is a real risk that it will go unnoticed since there is no movement in or out of these places.
As we move along in our virtual travels and in our individual worlds, in this moment of profound quiet, how can we be proactive? How are we each uniquely positioned to make a meaningful difference, now and going forward? What’s next when we get through this period of “new normal”? Back to normal? Is that good enough?
I am wondering how we can galvanize this moment of extreme slowing down and re-evaluating to shepherd in a new paradigm; how we can look to a future that does things differently, more equitably, a world that engages more people more completely. MAIA models a different way of doing things, and a respectful and bold approach to change. This is our collective moment to rise up, not only to get through this social isolation but to fundamentally change business as usual.
You will be all right. WE will be all right. And, in fact, we can be better.
Stay well, stay home.
I am currently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.
Specific reading to Guatemala:
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala” – Daniel Wilkinson
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?” – Francisco Goldman
A Beauty that Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala” – W. George Lovell
When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep: This is a beautiful novel that will give you a sense of time, place, and history—all woven together into a compelling narrative that makes it endlessly readable.
Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Kindle Edition): If Maya history is your thing, then this is the definitive guide. It gives the backstory you need to fully enjoy the numerous Maya temples you’ll visit while traveling Central America.
A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya: Descend into the Mayan culture throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in this travel narrative that dives deep into the regional culture, ancient Mayan beliefs about time, as well as a look at modern Mayan culture.
Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya: A fascinating tale chronicling the two men who traveled through the Yucatán and Central America in search of the Maya Kingdom, and brought this ancient civilization back to the world.