Saturday, March 29, 2014

Deviation and Cultivation / Desviación y cultivo

Note: the best way to view this is to scroll down while reading, and afterwards click on the photos to get a larger view)

The news is my entertainment here. Following a particular crisis is like watching a movie; it recedes from memory from one day to the next — plotlines are forgotten, people have character with no beginning or end. 

There is a major crisis going on in the world at any given moment affecting dozens or thousands of people. News photos take on the look of noir or new wave. The bloody battles in Kiev become paintings from the Renaissance, bathed in warm lights of fire fading into blackness. How could something this deadly be so beautiful? 

I watch with extreme interest — it's like a new TV series — then forget about it, gone from consciousness. People die, buildings collapse, refugees starve, all in a movie.

Nature is solace here. But even that is politically fraught. As an urban dweller hip to the new DIY farming and back to nature movement, I view rural landscape with awe. Then I find out that even that has its problems. In Guatemala, “it is speculated that among the reasons for the Classic Mayan collapse is widespread drought caused by the overwhelming deforestation of the tropical lowlands the Mayans inhabited."(

The forests have been turned into coffee, sugarcane and banana plantations. The highlands, where I am located, have been cultivated since pre-conquest times, with step or "terrace" planting widespread. There are, however, "jungles" in remote areas of Guatemala.

Forests near the border of Guatemala and Mexico have recently been appropriated to serve the drug trade, with huge swaths being cleared for backstairs landing strips servicing planes from South America. The narcos infiltrate what they can, and an absence of law enforcement and the need to make extra cash among the locals doesn’t bode well for an ecological safety net.

How can we compare that with the United States? The continued government sanctioning of fracking, oil drilling, clearcut mining et al., is no better. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sweet Dreams / Sueños Dulces

“What is it that you think about before going to sleep at night?” This was a question from a friend who I recently skyped with. Luckily for me, I don’t think about much, I drift off easily with images of an elongated neck, slowly dropping into the mattress as my body twitches.

She rephrased it. “Has being in Guatemala offered you any openings for deeper thoughts about anything in particular?”

After some (deep) thought, I spoke about the line I walk between the joy of personal abundance and (relative) prosperity living in a country that offers so much beauty, and the reality of how many others live here on the edge, mostly without hope of moving beyond (or out of) it.

An American family I met here employs a cook six days a week, 4 hours a day. The cook shops for food, makes a main meal, helps them learn Spanish by conversing with them, and is paid 50Q per day, which right now is worth about $6.50. I watch my own thinking as I look forward to hiring her myself. Better yet, hire a friend, spread the wealth. If I want a housecleaner, I pay 70Q, or a little over $9 for the day. But I’m too caught up in my own sense of propriety to do so. After all, I’m a worker among workers.

Lately, I’ve signed a number of online petitions from the U.S. supporting a higher minimum wage. How is someone in New York able to live on $8/hour? How does someone live on $6.50/day?

But these questions don’t keep me awake at night. I learned long ago that I could never be a social worker (even though I’m a passionate advocate of social issues), a political activist (despite the fact that I want to lay my life on the line for certain issues), a journalist (embedded in revolutionary change?), or any profession that puts me on the front lines. I once did camerawork for a roaming news crew. After three weeks I quit, but it took me another 4 months to crawl out of bed with self-dignity.

That said, I like to travel to developing countries, which is as close as I get to those fantasies. I see people walking barefoot, like me, the intrepid bohemian.

 But I struggle with my entitlements (and I’m not talking about social security or Medicare, people!). My whiteness. My privilege. I grew up in a poor family, but my parents acted like they weren’t. My mother never went to college and my father didn’t earn a degree, but I was taught that we were an educated class, a condition that I was born into as sure as I was born a WASP. Perhaps it was the fact that we were a creative class, and that trumps economics. To be creative is to be intelligent, regardless of formal education. Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time making art down here.