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The little bus that could...eventually *warning: Its long and descriptive*

Written on: Monday January 26th, 2009

A journal entry from: Guatemala, mi amor.

Being on the cusp of turning 24, I found it ironic that I was reliving events of my childhood by going on a field trip in a Blue Bird school bus.  This field trip, however, was the only thing that reminded me that the days of my youth have passed.  Our first stop on our field trip was in Guatemala City where we visited the FAFG or the Forensics and Anthropological Foundation of Guatemala where we learned about and saw first hand the process of the exhumation of mass graves from the genocides that took place all over Guatemala.  Before we went in, we were told about the danger that was associated with the work of FAFG including death threats that were often received by the director of the organization to stop their work.  Indeed, their work enables (limited) justice to be carried out against the perpetrators, but their work is important for understanding and recognizing the country's history as well as enabling the surviving families and communities to bury their dead.  When we first went in, a British woman who explained the process of carrying out the exhumations greeted us.  Considering the prevalent corruption of the Guatemalan government, I was surprised to hear that the government appointed all of the FAFG's work after a formal complaint was filed by either family members or community members.  When we went inside the building, I hadn't contemplated that we would be face to face with skeletal remains.  There were around 10 tables of skeletal remains and many of them were made as anatomically correct as possible.  Many of the skeletons were missing bones, almost to symbolize that they would never again be whole.  One of the bodies we saw had to have its skull recreated as it was broken into pieces.  Due to the fragmentation of some parts, they were able to show us the entry and exit points of the bullets.  The second body they showed us was one of the most memorable.  The girl who was working on the body was an American and was thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with this particular body.  She explained to us that the body was over 21 and probably 24.  He had bullet fragments inside his head, where an entry point was visible, and some fragments inside his chest.  The shinbone, which was broken in pieces and had fragmentation that meant it was likely shot as well, had equally spaced parallel indentations supposedly made by a machete for torture (a tactic often used by the military at that time where the victim was probably tortured in front of members of his community).  The FAFG speak with the survivors to find the history and to understand events that occurred during the massacre.  If the stories matched the conjecture that people had been tortured, this young man was likely one of the victims.  I have the parallel indentations on his shinbone and the fact that he was only my age locked in my memory.  If clothes had been left behind, they would wash them and often use them as a tool of identification.  I'm sure it's easy to separate oneself from the fact that these people were once walking on this earth, but when the clothes of a man were laid out including his boots as if he were still wearing them, the weight of everything hit me.  
    The visit to FAFG was only the morning of day one.  We drove for 6 hours after the visit through the absolutely beautiful Guatemalan countryside.  Our bus, our beloved bus, was not destined to drive great distances, or uphill.  This trip, it magically did both.  It screamed and wailed the entire time, but it still managed to make it, one time with us walking beside it, but more on that later.  As we drove through the countryside I looked at the small towns and houses that lined the highway.  I began to question why it was people thought that Guatemalans were impoverished.  I questioned whether it was the western construct of what poverty was that made them appear poor.  I thought they were really beautiful.  The towns were vibrant with many people out working or visiting, shopping for goods or simply watching the world go by.  They appeared to be living within their means, which simply meant that they did not have all the visible excesses that most of us have in the West.  Their clothes were incredibly clean and white (cleaner than my clothes by the end of the trip) and they appeared well fed.  All that is not to discredit the likelihood that they were malnourished, that their kids often did not wear shoes and they likely didn't have sufficient social services like quality schools or medical services.  Indeed, individually they may have been living within their means, but in the bigger picture, certain aspects of their lives should have improved.  The tour leader Graham was a phenomenal man and said something that I think is important.  If you leave the rural people the way they are with their customs, traditions and land, they would happily survive and thrive off the land.  If you introduce 'development' to them and allow them to decide how much to incorporate into their lives on their own time, they would likely gladly accept it as many of them recognize that while life is good, it could still get better.  Their traditions would not be destroyed they would keep them alive according to what they felt necessary.  In a further digression, in comparing the lives of the indigenous here to the aboriginal people in Canada, their poverty is much the same.  Many of their needs and wants are similar, but in Canada, their traditions and livelihoods had been destroyed through things like residential schools and oppression.  It could be considered a cultural genocide.  I am now exasperated by the debate on what poverty is so I'm going to stop there.  
    We arrived in El Estor as the sun set and it was fascinating to see the stick houses along the roads outside of town.  It further fascinated me to see the glow of television sets through the small spaces of the house walls.  When we arrived in El Estor, I found out that I, and 9 others, were each going to get a room all to ourselves, which was great until I found out that girls from our group staying in the hotel beside us had a man enter their room in the middle of the night.  He was scared off when they discovered him and nothing was stolen. I knew it was unlikely that it should happen again at another hotel as the owners were obviously informed of the event and had thus locked up our little compound, but considering that I only had a push button lock on my doorknob, anything appears possible and I didn't sleep more than a couple hours.  Aside from that, the room was fantastic and had a space toilet that you could put toilet paper in – it was fantastic.  It was a wild and crazy toilet.  
    Our first night in El Estor included a discussion from the local priest who also had a development organization for the local indigenous people.  It was a great organization that fought for the rights of the local population that were adversely affected by the Canadian nickel mine.  When I said adversely affected, I meant they had been killed, their land stolen and their homes burned.  To see what I mean, watch the documentary that you can find on YouTube.  Search El Estor Evictions.  Yes, that's a Canadian mine and yes, lives have been destroyed.  The priest has had death threats on his life as the mining company refuses to allow anyone to challenge their operation.  The following day we all hopped onto the back of pick-up trucks and drove a good 2 hours to a community known as Lot 9.  They're called Lot 9 because the government divided the land into sections and that was the land they received.  That in itself shows how damaging and forced this whole thing has been.  There is not a recognized indigenous name for their town (even though they do have one) their town is known by the government-appropriated name.  That discussion was another incredibly memorable experience.  We got to see the faces of the people whose lives were being threatened by outside forces that were beyond their control.  They do not get to hear much about this so not only did they tell us about their lives, but we told them from the outsiders perspective what they were likely to expect.  To begin, little children greeted us as we hopped off our pick up trucks and climbed a little hill to the small town.  We were led to their little school where we sat among some of the interested locals.  The school had Spanish words on the wall despite their language being K'iche and they had a little 'white board' made out of a white plastic bag pinned to the front wall.  The meeting was conducted in K'iche, Spanish and English with translators for each.  They began by telling us about how they were moved to their present location in 1985 (the same year I was born) and were given a provisional land title.  They were told that if they paid a certain amount, they would receive ownership of the land.  They did pay it off in 15 by having some men go off to work for the plantations for weeks at a time (and receiving hideously low pay) and for selling cardamom in the market.  At one point their permanent and full title of the land had been ripped out of the record books enabling the mining company to acquire their land if they saw fit.  One community member said he saw a rep from a mining company driving by the area (and trust me, 'just in the area' would have been an impossible excuse as Lot 9 is on top of a freakin mountain).  They asked us if this would end, if in 20 years they won't be worrying about this any longer.  The only response we could offer them was that yes, guaranteed, they will be dealing with this.  If not a Canadian company, then it will be American, Chinese, or German.  None of this is run by human compassion, it is run by the economic value of nickel.  Nickel isn't worth anything right now so mining has ceased as it isn't profitable, but it will be again soon and they'll be fighting a system of impunity as long as companies say the land underneath their feet has value.  The thing that impacted me the most about this experience was seeing their faces.  When we told them that no, things weren't going to change so just brace themselves, people left or looked upset.  This is a difficult struggle that will never end for them.  They will always have to wonder whether that day or the next was the last day they would have their land.  Indeed, companies have admitted their wrongs, but the willingness of the government to comply with everything the mine wanted and will want will likely prevent any human care in the future.  
    The next day we went on an environmental tour of the region through Lake Izabel and saw Howler Monkeys.  My camera died so I don't have any photos of them!  This day was relatively quiet as we mostly just wandered the area and drove to Rabinal.  In Rabinal and surrounding area, there were people who lost their land due to the development of the hydroelectric dam in the area.  Further, there were massacres at a place called Plan de Sanchez related to the belief that there were guerrilla forces in the area.  We were supposed to go to Plan de Sanchez on the backs of pick-up trucks like we had to go to Lot 9, but someone decided that we should take the bus instead.  That was a huge mistake as it was a cliff-side, muddy road where we would stall halfway up and begin to roll backwards down.  That was incredibly frightening so luckily they opted to have us walk alongside the bus.  It barely made it the rest of the way up though!  I asked Kali our coordinator if we consulted with him if he could do it and she just laughed at me.  Considering that it was a legitimate question I felt it was unfair to him that he should go through that.  After we walked up to the town of Plan de Sanchez, we went to a church that acted as a memorial for the 80 people who were ushered into a small home and were burned alive.  It happened on the Sunday after they went to the market and so many were just walking home.  Their town had been surrounded by the military and the area had been bombed.  Only 18 people survived out of just over 300.  
    Anyway, the visit to Plan de Sanchez happened on my birthday and was one of the most memorable birthdays I'd ever had.  It was adventurous as I climbed down a hill and near-fell 3 times.  I got a really fantastic sleep on my last night of being 23 and finally feel rested.  I really loved this trip and shared these stories with you because I felt they were important.  There is still TONS of stuff I left out so feel free to email me for any extra information you would like.  I hope you're all well!  Things are still good here!
Love Always,


From Brie Young on Jan 29th, 2009

I'll write on your blog! Wow this is a long entry... but very interesting nonetheless. I'm glad you're having a good time and I'm happy that we've become friends! Hasta Luego

From Cheryl Briggs on Jan 30th, 2009

Wow Meggs thankyou for your descriptive blog I was mesmerized and shamed by it. We in the West have got a lot to learn. When is compassion to our fellow man going to mean more than money.