by Lynn V. Foster
So throughout the course of my life, I have visited Guatemala three times, for about a week each time. I realize that that isn’t nearly enough time to really learn about and experience a culture (especially in a country with as rich of a heritage as Guatemala), but it has left me with a love for that country so profound that it borders on homesickness. Two of the three trips were in the mountains around Lake Atitlan. We would drive over the mountains from Guatemala City to Panajachel, then take a little boat across the lake to Santiago Atitlan. To get up every morning and sit on the shore of the lake, watching San Pedro (my favorite volcano)… such a vibrant, beautiful country. Color, everywhere! Thousands of shades of green as a background, then flowers and fruits and butterflies of all colors. The traditional clothes of the native people from the area are also bright and wonderful – you see all the different colors, in stripes and patterns and think that somehow it ought to clash, but instead it’s beautiful.
I went for the first time in 2001, only a few years after the end of Guatemala’s long and bitter civil war. We were partnering with a local church to help build some houses for widows (of which there were, tragically, many). Small houses of cinder blocks with tin roofs, and they spoke so admiringly of them, as a luxury in an area where many homes were built of cornstalks. Coffee plants everywhere in the highlands, tall, green bushes, undergrowth to giant trees. Many of the people there didn’t speak Spanish, but only their native language – there are many different dialects and languages throughout Central America, and even just within Guatemala. We learned one song in the native language for the area, and how the children laughed when we sang it.
It was amazing to me at how the inability to speak the same language really wasn’t that much of a barrier. We built all sorts of things together, everyone chattering in his own language, gesturing extravagantly, drawing pictures in the dirt, and laughing. The church there, when someone was leading prayer, instead of everyone else sitting silently listening to him pray, everyone in the congregation began praying, too, out loud. A hundred people or more, all earnestly seeking God, and at first it was strange, and then it was suddenly incredibly beautiful and freeing, the realization that even though I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said around me, God heard it all the same.
Sunday afternoon the pastor would visit home-bound members of his congregation, and some of us went with him. A young man home for the summer from seminary led our group, he spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (and sadly, I think we knew the same words in each other’s languages, lol), but we somehow managed to understand the gist of the story behind each family we visited – sickness and alcoholism and old age are the same in every language, too.
Anyway, wow, sorry for the rambling. The point is, I have a thing about Guatemala and am always on the lookout for more material to read about that beautiful country and its history. So, quite seriously, if you have any recommendations on Central American reads about culture, heritage, history, or politics, do let me know.
I enjoyed Foster’s book. She (he? I guess Lynn could be a guy) did an excellent job taking a really BIG thing and condensing it down into a manageable amount of reading without compromising too much. Sometimes it was difficult to keep various big players straight (I don’t know why more history books don’t include just a few pages in the back listing key people; it’s SO helpful when they do; all I need is a little reminder!) but it flowed well and kept me interested throughout.
The book was published in 2000, and it would be amazing if I could find a book that had some more recent history, because a LOT has changed in the last decade in that area; Foster touches on the impending changes – there was a great deal of political turnover in the 1990’s throughout that region.
Once again, reading a book about another area of the world made me despise our country. How terribly we used that region! Sometimes I am ashamed to be from the United States.
But yes, an overall good read, college textbook style.