Thursday, April 9, 2015

Border Crossing

By: Sarah Degraff

The journey to La Vega de Volcan was two days in duration – an eight hour drive from Guatemala City into the northwestern mountains to the town of Sibinal, where we spent the night, then a 20 minute pickup truck ride out of Sibinal, followed by a four hour hike over the steep hill that separates Sibinal from the small village of La Vega.

Walking down into the verdant valley in which the village is nestled, with trickling streams running through the center amidst boulder-strewn grazing fields, white lilies growing on the banks, I imagine I felt awe and wonder to almost the same degree as those who gain access to Machu Pichu by way of the longer, four-day route, but with one difference: instead of viewing ancient tribal ruins of the dead Inca, these people were the living, breathing remnants of an ancient Maya society.

Walking into La Vega from Sibinal.
Walking into La Vega from Sibinal.

By no means to I intend to trivialize or romanticize the Maya culture or way of life in my description of the beauty, splendor, and tranquility in which they live here on the outskirts of the country. Daily life for these Mam people is insufferably difficult: This is a subsistence farming community in which families suffer malnutrition, starvation, few opportunities for economic advancement beyond sending family members to the US or Canada illegally to send back remittances, racism and injustices on the part of the Guatemalan government and ladino culture, and lack of education and medical treatment.
Into this juxtaposition of beauty and suffering I was thrown by way of assisting my coworker, Nancy, as she led a service-learning group of high schoolers from Canada. I was also there to meet MCC partner staff for the first time and to learn about our current projects in person.

Nancy and me on our hike to La Vega.
Nancy and me on our hike to La Vega.

The next two days focused on learning about two topics: immigration as it relates to the community, and the various farming projects carried out by our partners. I write two, but truly they are inherently intertwined.
These lovely streams provide a source of running water for the community to use in their homes.
These lovely streams provide a source of running water for the community to use in their homes.

One of our partner staff shared the story of his journey from this tiny village on the border near Chiapas, Mexico, to the US. I won’t share the specifics of his story because I haven’t asked his permission to, but I do want to share something he said that has stuck with me:
“We’re not immigrating because we want the American dream,” he said of himself and his fellow community members, “we’re going because we’re forced to go.” What is the driving force behind illegal immigration here? Hunger. Not just hunger, but starvation and lack of resources to the point of death. Desperation. Currently, 95% of families in La Vega have at least one member in the US who sends back remittances so they can purchase medicine when their children are sick and get a ride on the bus into Sibinal so they can actually make that purchase; to send their kids to school; to have enough to eat each day.

8km to Mexico.
8km to the Mexican border.

This isn’t a sustainable solution, however, and can even fly in the face of Mam culture, which dictates that there should be a use for everything one owns. A house with unused rooms, for example, (like our guest bedrooms in North America),  or extra clothing that isn’t worn often, is considered negative to a person’s overall health and well being. The point is to have enough, not too little and not too much, in order to live well and be whole as a person, as a family, and as a community.
That being said, the current projects in the community include diversifying crops in small gardens using permaculture techniques and teaching participants why a diet of variety is important for nutrition and how to prepare foods with these new additions. Traditional foods include corn, beans, and squash, but even if one has these in abundance, one can still easily become malnourished.

The garden of a participant family using permaculture techniques learned through the program. Here they have planted radishes, cilantro, and Maya medicinal herbs.
The garden of a participant family using permaculture techniques learned through the program. Here they have planted radishes, cilantro, and Maya medicinal herbs.

The project includes training in animal husbandry and trout farming as well. With a total of 25 participant families, the trout project has in the last two years been able to raise its own fingerlings by fertilizing trout eggs by hand from mature, healthy trout specifically selected for this purpose. The trout they sell weighs between five and seven pounds and is sold in markets as far as five hours away. The group was served this trout fried up whole for lunch on the first day, (before we saw the tanks, of course), to emphatic gustatory reviews.


A lamb having lunch as the fog rolled into the valley, giving the village a surreal, ethereal feel.
A lamb having lunch as the fog rolled into the valley, giving the village a surreal, ethereal feel.

On our last day in La Vega we woke up at 4:30 AM and piled into the back of an old pick up truck for a grueling hour up a road so bumpy and rutted it was hardly worthy of the name, to the trail head of the second tallest volcano in Central America – Tacaná. The volcano is dormant and is 4,092 meters above sea level (13,425 ft).

Almost to our breakfasting spot!
Almost to our breakfasting spot!

On this particular morning we began hiking at 6 AM, before breakfast, accompanied by two Mam guides from La Vega and a dense fog that enshrouded the mountains. Nancy stayed back to take a personal rest day and I got to lead and translate for the group. I had no idea I would be doing any such thing at the beginning of the trip, but there I was, hiking up a steep mountain in the fog while translating between languages and following on the heels of our guide.

When we made it to the top of the volcano, (only five of us went to the top while the others stayed below to rest before lunch), the fog was still with us, and we had crossed in and out of Mexico several times.  The irony of crossing between borders unhindered and without a passport was not exactly subtle. Instead of reflecting on this, however, I was simply glad to have made it, and thought only of lunch and that after our long journey down from the volcano, out of La Vega and Sibinal to the town of San Marcos, there would be hot showers and a warm bed.

It is hard to sum up all of these experiences while I am still learning from them. Living in the capital, I live a life relatively isolated from our partners and from subsistence farming communities. Entering into daily life with them is difficult and eye-opening, and both professionally and personally, doing this helps to remind me why I am here in Guatemala; that the sometimes mundane work I do at the office really does play a part in coming alongside others in order to learn their stories and work with them to affect positive, sustainable change. I remain humbled by these exchanges of knowledge, experiences, and stories and hope to continue to learn from them as I form relationships with the people in these communities.

6 comments:

Find Handmade said...

Loving your pictures and the creative and gorgeous way you have put your story across - you're an inspiration and I am following your journey - awesome work!

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