It is ironic that Guatemala is reputed to be the fourth happiest country on earth. There are few countries that have so many problems, both natural and man made. It is located at the collision point between the North American, Caribbean, and Pacific tectonic plates and has earthquakes every day. It is on the main flight path for hurricanes. It has active volcanoes that are often threatening to erupt and sometimes do. The locals have cut down too many of the trees on the volcanoes’s slopes so mud slides are common every time it rains too much. It has little in the way of natural resources except fertile soil and plenty of water. It has a civil war from 1960 to 1996 and by the end of it the median age of its residents was 20. The single largest source of income for the country is the remittances sent back home by the 1.5 million emigrants who live abroad. The literacy rate is only 83%. The tourist brochure we were handed at the port warned us not to have sex with underaged children and to travel in groups for safety. No one saves money in banks because they collapse regularly and there are no safeguards in place to protect funds invested.
There is a wealthy ruling class that manages to make things go their way no matter who is in power. On our tour today we stopped for lunch at a La Reunion resort that has a golf resort on the flanks of a volcano that is world famous and only costs $150 to play. The average Guatemalan lives on $500/year. However, such figures can be misleading since about 30% live off the books, avoiding both taxes and the benefits that can come from an official job such as health insurance.
Nevertheless Guatemalans have a pride and an optimism that is commendable in light of all the strikes against them. Over half of them are descendants of the Mayans that left behind many ruins that offer tantalizing glimpses of how advanced their civilization was back in the day. In contrast to the mestizos who have a mix of European and native blood, today’s Maya have a “live for today” philosophy that must be a factor in the happiness rating of the country. It is common for workers to stop before the job is done if they have earned enough money to feed themselves that day.
We toured a Mayan town to see daily life and culture. The Mayan have a distinct “indian” look and I’m afraid that we have seen so many of them begging, selling packs of Chiclets by the side of the road in Mexico, that it was really hard to imagine them feeling any joy at all. However, in this town, we could see relaxed, congenial people enjoying each other’s company. A group of women gathered at the public laundry area just across from the church and were washing clothes by rubbing them against the volcanic rocks in the tubs. One lady agreed that she could easily do this job at home where she also had access to running water, but she came to the square to catch up on gossip. Flower vendors gathered and groups and chatted so long, their flowers began to look a bit wilted.
The Mayan women still wear the colorful blouses and dresses that were traditional in their culture, although the men have been dressing modern for generations. The women use the same weaving skills that they use to make their own clothing, to made textile items to sell to tourists like us. We went to a traditional market and a co-op where the profits of the sales are shared. While the women vend, they nurse their babies, chat, and weave new projects in a relaxed sort of way. We were amazed how many of the items we have seen in Mexico and thought were made there, must have been imported from these crafty people.
We have never been to Guatemala before, probably because of that long civil war, but there were more things worth seeing than we had time for today. The colonial town of Antigua is a picturesque UNESCO world heritage site and Tikal in the north is famous well restored Mayan ruin. It would be good to come back to see those areas and see how that optimism and some time spent living in peace has improved conditions here. You've got to love a country that names its currency the quetzal after a bird whose tail is three times as long as its body.