Learning how to be a Guatemalan communist

October 19, 2008

This post is long overdue. I should have written it the first week I was here, but, in true traveller style, everything takes longer than it´s meant to. The reason I first came to Guatemala was on the recommendation of a couple of acquaintances. Shamefully, I wasn´t aware of the country at all. The name was familiar, but I couldn´t have placed it on a map, or have told you anything about it. I only thought of Guatemala as a possible travel destination once I had been told about the Projecto Linguistico Quetzaltenango. The Projecto, or PLQ, was started in the Eighties in response to the ´disappearance´of two students from Xela. Their friends started the school for foreigners in order to raise money for their case.

In Guatemala, ser disapaereciendo, to be disappeared, is the word given to the political murders committed during the civil war here (1960-1996). Villagers, mostly indigenous people who were accused of being involved with the guerrillas, went missing. Sometimes their mutilated bodies were intentionally left where they could be found, sometimes they were never found. The two student activists, René Leiva Cayax and Danilo Alvarado, disappeared in 1987 for organising against the genocidal government. Only one of the two bodies was found.

The courtyard of PLQ. The students either study under the canopy or inside.

PLQ obviously has very political beginnings and it is now established as a bona-fide left-wing, but very well run (the lefties manage to organize themselves well here) organisation. As a non-hierarchy, decisions are made by the collective, a group of self-nominated teachers and a couple of permanent administrative positions, who nevertheless have an equal amount of power. Decisions are proposed to the rest of the teachers and the two groups go back and forth until they come to a decision. Ah, I love functional non-hierarchy! The students, too, are generally socially conscious, with a fair smattering of activists from North America (I´m the only Brit). We all live in homestays with Guatemalan familys with whom we eat three meals a day and have 5 hours one-on-one tuition a day with a different teacher each week.

Especially educative are the conferences we have each week on a variety of themes, such as children workers, contemporary Guatemalan politics, recent history, and the political importance of the Dia de la Revolucion, which, as I update this, was yesterday (20 October). Tomorrow is one of the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the school. Expect pictures of revolutionary teachers with guitars!

The pretty window in my bedroom at Laura´s casa; the dark and moody version

The main reason I love PLQ is because it feels like we, the students, are involved to some degree in Guatemalan society, not just freeloading off the currency exchange rate. Obviously we´re big, rich Gringos (even when we´re not American) and there are undeniable economic and cultural differences. But most of us are very kind people, and we´re not too gross with our privilege. One of the reasons I am slightly uneasy travelling in less rich countries is that it feels like a form of neocolonialism. I come here with all my money and if your country is pretty enough and you perform your ethnicity well enough then I will deign to give it to you. This hugely unequal exchange is disgusting. At the moment I´m staying in a Westernized resort at Lake Atitlan where the market women cook chocolate cakes and cookies to cater to the tourists´ tastes (the price of gas is such here that even well-off Guatemalans can´t afford to use the oven). It´s a backpackers´ paradise, with more-expensive-than-Guatemalan-but cheaper-than-our-own-countries´ Gringo food, freely available drugs, an amazing natural setting, and plenty of other people to get drunk and hook up with. Of course, I have chosen to be here because of all these reasons. It is amazingly relaxing to be able to chat with people freely in your own language, afford a room with a balcony (which most of us middle-class young ones can´t in our own countries) and eat good, familiar food while exploring the nature around us. But the economic disparity is still hugely wrong, as is our colonization of the Maya´s space.

This simultaneous enjoyment and guilt will definitely abate when I return to Xela for my last week. Living with Laura and Jose-Miguel I feel part of a community to some extent and I know I am contributing in a wholly positive way to Guatemala, rather than destroying and taking-over Guatemalan space. The money I pay to PLQ goes three ways. A third goes to the family for my board, a third to community organizations and a third to paying the teachers. The second third is my favourite. Xela has the only Women´s shelter in Guatemala to give a place to women and children who are fleeing from domestic violence. Organizations such as these (where you can also volunteer if you´re here for a month or more) wouldn´t exist without the PLQ.

Travelling back self-righteously on the chicken bus tomorrrow (Guatemalan rather than Gringo transport) my conscience will be appeased and I will recover from my weekend of gluttony here once I´m back with Laura and Jose-Miguel. However, I wonder how I will feel on the rest of my trip. This will be my last week at PLQ, and after another week studying at the rural mountain sister school, I´ll be off on a journey of no-holds-barred tourism. I do think it´s possible to be a ´good´ tourist, and I will do my best, but I will always know that the fact of my ability to travel here while no Guatemalan has the chance of doing the same in the UK is fundamentally wrong.


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