Monday, January 28, 2008

Reality Checks...

...never fail to humble you. Stop hoping for things and you'll never be disappointed.

Friday, January 25, 2008

And The Plot Thickens

A sore left cheek and a slight burning from the after-effects of mace, isn’t the most desirable feeling to wake up to. Last Wednesday night, Sergio and I got into an altercation with the MS gang-members that have been bothering us for the past month. Well, more like just me getting punched and maced in the face rather than a full fledged fight.

What started it was innocent enough. We had just finished another night of dancing and were on our way to pick up some cheveres (hot-dogs), as we typically do every evening. On our way there, we passed by a Salvatrucha from Honduras, and being that Sergio had just witnessed someone getting robbed some 90 minutes ago, we couldn’t help but be precautious. I guess our glances to make sure nothing was going to be attempted translated into a direct, physical challenge. I’m not sure who started yelling first, but I soon was surrounded by shouts of “¿Qué putas?”, pretty much the Spanish equivalent of “What the fuck bitch?”. I quickly grabbed my host-brother and began shouting “¡No no, esta bien! ¡Todo esta bien! (No, no, it’s good! Everything is good!). We continued to satisfy our mid-night cravings, but we also noticed he began following us.

With some excitement, we were deciding which size chevere to purchase, as my new Minnesotan friend Jenny, offered to buy me one with the promise that I’d eat it in front of her to entertain her paranoia about Guatemalan street food. Being that I ate them nearly every night, I didn’t see the big deal, but also wasn’t about to turn down a free dog. Suddenly the person we had passed appeared with that same Nicaraguan guy that had smashed a bottle over Pablo’s head roughly a month prior. Immediately, he began asking threateningly, “¿Tienes un problema?” (Do you have a problem?), while simultaneously shoving Sergio and winding up his fist for a punch.

Maybe it was instinct, but I grabbed his arm and put my hand on the shoulder of the Nicaraguan. Now I could have sworn I yelled “¡No, esta bien! ¡No pelea! (No, it’s good! Don’t fight!), but Sergio can only recall hearing “What the fuck!?”, a reaction to the blow landed to the left side of my face. Before I could gather myself, I felt a burning sensation in my right eye and I quickly realized I had been in the crossfire of the mace Sergio had always carried for situations, I guess like this. The first two minutes I felt uncomfortable, still able to joke about him spraying the wrong guy, but after a few more seconds it felt as if my pupils were being grounded with sand. As we stumbled into the house, I quickly drenched and flushed my eyes until the water pressure of the house weakened to a trickle. Finally, the burning began to subside, but for the next three hours it felt as if I had gone apple bobbing in a tank of hot sauce. And damn, I really wanted that hot-dog.

When I arrived here four months ago, one of the biggest injustices I found were the untried murders by police death squads, of people that were once gang affiliated, or believed to be, for simply having tattoos. After reporting the incident, Sergio told me that more than likely these two were either going to be executed or deported. Last night there was a confirmed option of execution. The feeling is a lot different when it’s placed right in front of you rather than reading it on a newspaper headline.

I tried to plead with Sergio that it wasn’t worth it, that violence only begets violence and blood like this couldn't be washed. I explained that I almost empathized with the guy for hitting me in the face. Looking back on it, my actions could have been construed as wanting to fight since I grabbed both guys and just said “What the fuck!?”. I probably would have reacted the same way. He rebutted saying that with these people, it was either their lives or ours. I couldn’t help but think that there had to be an option where none of us would have to die.

But then I thought about my position in this entire situation and realized how little my opinion mattered.

Sergio had sprayed the mace directly into the Nicaraguan’s eyes, nose and mouth. If the agony I felt last night was only a fraction of that, I can only estimate that his pain has to be at least ten times as much, perhaps permanently damaging. There is no question him and his friends, which amount to about 15 now, will come looking for us. For me, I can freely choose to flee this situation, tomorrow if I want, but for Sergio and his family, this is a constant reality that they have to deal with. This is his home, not mine. It is again how I feel about traveling in general. How global trekkers can enter into a reality, affect it, negatively or positively, and then leave without suffering any consequences.

Inevitably, I have to leave due to the Bonderman stipulations, so I realize that well, this isn’t really my battle to be fought, and therefore I don’t have much of a right to say what is or isn't the better decision. I try to stay firm on saying that I don’t believe these two should be killed, but really, I don’t know what would be best. In all honesty, I would feel safer if this problem just went away, for both myself and his family, but damn, it goes completely against my beliefs and ideals.

And that is what I feel this whole incident has put to the test. I feel that some of my past blogs have been about calling people out to being true to what they say and I feel this is my time to be true to my words. Being that I am quite heavily tattooed and that I grew up with and worked closely with active and former gang members, I can’t help but believe that in the end, despite what people look like or have done in the past, they are still people; that they shouldn’t be judged without being given a chance. I still believe that people are not born evil, that somewhere along the line something in life turned them bitter and it is those injustices that need to be fought against, not the by-products.

Agreeing to have these two killed or severely punished would be like believing in your ideals only when the consequences don't apply to you rather than taking it in its entirety: pain, discomfort and sacrifice included. It would be like "human rights activists" comparing poor finca kids who stole a camera to monkeys in a zoo. It would be a complete lack of integrity. I don’t think I could live with myself if I sunk to that level.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Communicative Combat

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at The Yoga House, I find myself exchanging fighting techniques with a myriad of fighters, all from different combative backgrounds. A composed mix of Muay Thai, Wing Chun, Jiu Jitsu, Turkish stick fighting, and the new addition of American Boxing, courtesy of yours truly.

The way one throws a punch, holds their block or moves their feet, tells a story of where that fighter has been and what they’ve endured. Each right cross, Muay Thai knee, arm bar, or Wing Chun block is only a different dialect of a common tongue.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Cuz We'll Put a Boot in Your Ass."

Last Saturday I was up until 3AM singing Toby Keith's " Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue (The Angry American)" with a German traveler in the coastal city of Mazatenango, Guatemala. Five years ago if you would have told me I'd be doing that in half a decade, I wouldn't have any clue what you were talking about.

Monday, January 14, 2008

"You Might be a Guatemalan If…"

1. The only safety devices on your car are a horn and a "Dios Me Guia" sticker.

2. You’re 34 and still live with your mother, who still lives with her mother, who still lives with her mother.

3. You’d rather decline a sale than make change for a Q100 note.

4. You use the Guatemalan 5-0-0 (5 forwards, zero midfielders, zero defenders) alignment in your papifutbol matches.

5. You drive a low-rider. Not because you’re into the whole early ‘90s L.A. style, but because 15 of your friends are riding in the back.

6. Your national tree is sponsored by Gallo.

7. Your kid’s lemonade stand has an armed guard with a shotgun outside of it.

8. Your reserve firecrackers for special events, such as birthdays, Mother’s Day, when your half cousins twice removed graduate from colegio, that time you found a good parking space, etc.

9. Like an ant, you can carry twice your body weight without breaking a sweat. We’re assuming ants don’t sweat. But who really knows?

10. In lieu of a period, you end every sentence with the word "serote".

"The top ten symptoms of whether or not you might be Guatemalan" according to the latest edition of "XelaWho", probably the most culturally insensitive culture guide here in Quetzaltenango. Another section of the same issue stages a mock debate between a white foreign traveler and a fabricated indigenous woman. The traveler’s argument is mediocre at best, but the counterargument depicts the Mayan woman as unintelligent with a childlike dependency, and speaking with simple and nearly illiterate Spanish (though the irony lies in that the Spanish must be simply written for us foreigners to understand). Commonly in each issue are travel information, essays of the "gringo experience", and volunteer opportunities, all embedded in the context of "harmless" jokes. Yet if you found absolutely nothing wrong with the list above or found it funny, then these following words are probably meant for you.

Of course almost all the writers of XelaWho are white travelers, completely oblivious to their offensive writings, such as jesting that a white person, or any foreigner, can be Guatemalan through a list of 10 things that are after-effects of poverty or long cultural tradition, disrespectfully diminishing its significance for their comedic enjoyment. Or the unawareness of continuing the dichotomy of “educated” white society dictating 'what's best' for the dispossessed third world, and simultaneously speaking for, and reducing the oppressed population to sub-human simpletons without a trace of validity. To me, XelaWho is a microcosm of white liberalism and/or white activism. While most political and social infrastructures are more or less understood, they are culturally ignorant, unaware of how offensive their comments and ungrounded assumptions can be.

Social oppression has been historically justified in the racist belief that the oppressed are of lesser intelligence and/or animal like. It amazes me how many "activists" can read it, memorize it, recite it, but still not understand and practice it. It is as if people just etch "anti-racist" into their personal pedagogy, make sure they don’t call someone a racist epithet, or befriend a best friend who’s black and suddenly they are absolved from perpetuating racism. Yet it is in times of raw emotions like sadness, frustration, hurt or anger, that you find out who you really are. These emotions trap you in a corner and you lash out with whatever you have left; perhaps a part that lays dormant during times of composure, but a still a part of you nonetheless.

For white liberals it is a check mark on a long laundry list of things to be and not to be, not a reality forced to be faced everyday. However that is simply a fact, not a criticism, as my male and heterosexual privilege shields me from other equally oppressive systems. But it is the arrogance of some people who think they are doing nothing wrong, the complete irresponsibility of their words and actions and treating talks about race as if they are only relevant three times a week for ninety minutes a session, that upsets me. Racism is a major component in human rights violations, a key perpetuating factor of a struggle originating from conflicts of class. If you treat its comprehension as if it is only to satisfy some "angry people of color", or don’t question your own role in the system, find another place to be infatuated with.

But maybe I’m making too big of a deal about this whole race thing. There are plenty of minorities that can get along with white folk and think race is "just not a big deal". Maybe I’m making assumptions of those whom I claim are making assumptions, (although mine are more thoroughly based in past experiences and observations than I’m sure theirs are, but which is, of course, another assumption). Yet if this post made you stop and think, perhaps there is some truth to my words. But again maybe this whole entry is just taking the world way too seriously and we all just need to relax. After all, like XelaWho says, they’re all just "harmless" jokes anyways, right?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Our Sincerest Apologies

Sorry we stole from you, sorry we took something that didn't belong to us, sorry we violated your personal property, sorry we misbehaved. Sorry we were selfish, we wanted to have something we never had and probably never will have. Sorry we come from the depths of poverty, we weren't born with much and didn't get the long end of the stick. Sorry we couldn't be more like you, we didn't have "privilege" and "opportunity" to satisfy our curiosities. Sorry we couldn't do, the "right" thing. But that doesn't make us monkeys.

Friday, January 4, 2008

"One Person's Trash is Another Person's Treasure"

A common saying that doesn’t always translate into reality, especially when the trash is quite literally, trash. This morning the family asked me to accompany them to help dispose of junk that commonly piles up in households. Well some, as I was soon to find out. A bit perturbed, I wondered why I was always doing chores for the family when I wasn’t obligated to, but we had long ago blurred the lines between “paying guest” and “visiting friend”, that I wouldn’t suddenly refocus that boundary when it was something not acting in my favor.

We drove for about ten minutes where the concrete road soon dissolved into a dirt path. Lost, we asked numerous gas station attendants and random road travelers for the location. None of them knew. Finally, after asking a Mayan road traveler, we were directed to a side trail roughly ten meters ahead and were told to follow the path to the dump. Not seeing any trace of garbage, we sought for reassurance, which she gave us with seeming eagerness. Given our already numerous failed attempts at finding the site, we gladly complied.

As we drove, a large group of children, aged probably from six to nine years old, began running towards, and then following our truck, as if we were throwing out free ice cream on an unforgivably hot summer day. They proceeded to climb into the back of the vehicle, yelping in excitement. I was wondering if it was from the bumpy ride in a truck bed like most people would enjoy, but no, it was from the discovery of a discarded ball.

We pulled to a stop and I soon realized that this was no dump at all. It was someone’s home. Immediately crowds of people began unloading the truck, closely inspecting what items were still usable. People were trying on worn-out shoes. Kids were fighting over sticks. The contents were emptied in about 2 minutes. I barely had to lift a finger, and to think, I was complaining earlier about me doing work that I shouldn’t have to.

The little work I did was between me and this scruffy-haired little girl wearing tattered clothes. And God. I actually hesitated; haunted by frequent complaints from members of my "human rights" study abroad group contracting scabies from a volunteer at a dump who was constantly referred to as “dumpster girl”. I wanted to strangle myself for thinking that.

As we left I hugged the girl who was helping me, shook hands with the owners of the home, thanking them for letting us dispose our junk, trying desperately to make an inadequate apology for an insult they had no idea I made. But nothing could make up for that. Nothing as simple as a handshake and a hug.

We drove away, fleeing through that door of “choice”, shamefully silent at our ability to briefly visit into someone else's reality. In a melancholy tone, Pablo explained that most Mayan communities live in similar poverty and expressed his incomprehension of why such things exist. Sergio began devising a plan to collect his sister’s old toys and coming back; maybe even buying some cheap gifts to hand out, but the short-lived proposition soon trailed off at the realization of his own family’s financial difficulties and in defeat he simply concluded by sighing, "Ah, I wish I was a millionaire". Then me, the foreign traveler, who two days ago was upset at everyone and himself for overspending on his frugal budget, sat wordless, disgusted with himself and where he comes from.

I come from a land of over consumption, a place where people throw away enough shit that an industry has been made out of it. A place where getting the newest and "hottest" release is justification enough for throwing away something perfectly functional. You come from that to seeing people scrounging for broken plywood to heat and feed their homes, to shoeless children rejoicing over any tangible item to play make-believe that maybe they had more, and suddenly your mundane concerns become nothing. Instead you hang your head in tears and confusion, struggling to comprehend why the world chose to model itself after unbalanced scales. It was like a scene out of a charity infomercial, only the solution wasn’t as simple as donating 25 cents a day. It wasn’t a problem that could be extinguished by money. It was a much needed inquiry into oneself, an urgent demand for reform, an ugly reflection of the society you come from.

It’s strange how much you can learn about yourself in the most unexpected places, sometimes in things as simple as taking out "the trash".