Guatemala in the Rear View Mirror

Rusty bus sits in a dirt field in Pachaj, Guatemala. School buses from the United States are often used for public transportation in Guatemala, known to locals as "chicken buses."

Over the last week, I have slept on airport floors, careened down perilous mountain highways, laid my hands on the stones of Mayan ruins and gotten lost in a bustling market in a country three thousand miles from home. I was disoriented, culture-shocked and a little queasy, but the experience of traveling to Guatemala was incredible.

For me, traveling outside of my comfort zone (literally) has always excited my imagination. How could a writer resist the exotic allure of such a mysterious place? In less than seven days, I wrote three short stories, took 11 pages of notes and snapped nearly 800 photographs. In the creativity department, I was on fire for the first time in months.

(Side note: One of my new friends also tried to get me to marry his daughter, but that’s a story for another blog.)

Advertisement for Gallo Beer on the side of a building in Xela, Guatemala.

Still, inspiration wasn’t the only thing I found there. I also found a place bursting with untold stories. I heard stories of a 36-year war, of people who disappeared without a trace, of the specter of colonialism, of racism toward the indigenous Maya, of crushing poverty, of corporate oppression, of community, of the fight for women’s rights, of risking everything for a better life, of horrific violence and of spectacular beauty. I heard enough stories to fill fifty novels — and I intend to write them.

The author stands in an archway in the ruins of a Spanish mission monastery in Antigua, Guatemala.

But memory is an imperfect thing and for the past two days, I’ve been busy trying to capture my thoughts and observations in words before these vivid, visceral feelings crumble like the cathedrals of Antigua or the pyramids of Iximche. I want to tell these stories; I have to tell these stories. I have to tell them because Guatemala desperately needs to be listened to and because the written word is such a powerful agent of change.

Guatemala’s struggles are the struggles of humanity and maybe the right words can wake a few people up to the continuing injustices there.

I want to amplify the voice of a nation that has been silenced for too long. And maybe I’m naive to think a few well-turned phrases can bring an end to five hundred years of human rights violations and domination by foreign powers, but when you’re faced with a place so breathtaking and a people so warm and gracious, you can’t help but want to join their fight.

I am not a powerful man. I can’t force multinational corporations to pay Guatemalans a fair wage for their work, nor can I bring about land reform or single handedly change a machismo culture that doesn’t value women. But I have a keyboard and a knack for wordsmithing and that has to count for something.

Guatemala changed me. Now, it’s time to return the favor.

P.S. – Some great resources to learn more about human rights issues in Guatemala:
Nuevos Horizontes
Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM)
Voice of a Mountain
The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman

A faith-perspective on my trip, complete with more photos than you can shake an tamalito at, and
My Flickr Photostream, with more Guatemala photos.

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If you’re into the whole Twitter thing, you might consider following me at @jonnyeberle, where I am occasionally witty and always opinionated.

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