As I sit here scouring the internet for the best deal on the Patagonia Half Mass Bag, I reflect on my recent trip to Guatemala to visit Kyle, noting how materialism and consumerism has slow crept back into my life after a year here back in the United States. My trip with Jimmy to Guatemala was refreshing and pushed me out of my comfort zone, as I kept wondering if our chicken bus, our late night treks through the towns/cities, our hikes and our taxi and boat rides would contribute to the scary and violent statistics of crime in Guatemala. The mission in Guatemala was three-fold: 1) visit one of my good friends Kyle, making memories, 2) expand my knowledge on Latin America by visiting one of the Central American countries to experience an eyewitness account of Guatemala and 3)return to Brooke safely and free of any communicable diseases and/or parasites. With these three objectives, I commenced my journey expecting the worse but hoping for the best, and on the sixth and final day of our trip through Guatemala, I know longer had to expect the worst and by all accounts, Jimmy’s and my trip to a country the size of Kentucky was interesting, reflective and enjoyable. In this reflection I will elaborate on these three objectives and discuss how my time helped me to better understand myself. With this exegesis, I want to share with you all my experiences with Kyle.
As I discovered I had a week free some scholastic duties, I quickly turned to one of my favorite websites, www.sidestep.com to search for airfares. Lamenting previous years when I was currently enrolled in classes at Augustana and receiving e-mails regarding airfare sales in September, I was quick to look for a cheap flight outside of the US. I encountered cheap airfares to Guatemala and Costa Rica (~$400 to Guatemala and ~$285 to Costa Rica). Knowing full well I would be taking my chances with hurricane season, I booked my flight to Guatemala after consulting Kyle. It was settled, I would be going to Guatemala to visit Kyle, to see what exactly he is doing. Much to my pleasant surprise, my good friend Jimmy called four days before the trip to let me know he would be accompanying me to Guatemala. Recently returning from Argentina, I did not expect Jimmy to accept my invitation, but I am quite glad he did and must state that he is a perfect traveling companion.
Kyle in Guatemala
Upon landing in Guatemala, Kyle was there to greet us with chicken sandwiches from the Guatemalan fast food chain, Pollo Campero (Country Chicken). Amidst our excitement to see each other, we piled into a cab with negotiating a price. Upon arriving to our destination, Kyle asked what the cost of the 10-minute trip would be, and the taxi driver replied 70 Quetzales (~$10)—an exorbitant amount when obtaining travel in Guatemala. Kyle argued with the driver and after a heated exchanged that included Guatemalans from the street there in the middle of Zone 8 in Guatemala City, Kyle ceded his fight to obtain a lower price after the fellow Guatemalans started telling the cab driver that the price of the ride should be even higher. The cab driver won fair and square; we had forgotten to negotiate a price. Sadly, being an American, we would find price increases towards us Gringos to be common practice on our trips. This is not an isolated experience in my travels in Latin America, and furthermore, Lonely Planet does a terrific job emphasizing the importance of negotiating a price. This exchange between Kyle and cab driver helped elucidate Kyle’s comfort level and acclimation to Guatemala. Being comfortable enough to argue in Spanish with a cab driver in one of the most dangerous cities in the world demonstrated this to us. After a five-hour bus journey on a Pullman, a chicken bus and a microbus, we arrived to Kyle’s site, Las Marias—a small pueblo of two thousand people, equipped with electricity and running water. Jimmy and I were soon to note a trait that had developed in Kyle, his ability to talk aloud to himself in English. After seeing Kyle’s dwelling, we came to understand why Kyle would occasionally talk to himself. His two room concrete walled home with kitchen and porch was sufficient and in Guatemalan standards, an arguably nice place to live. Next to his porch, stood the outhouse, which included such amenities as a half functioning toilet, a cold water shower and a window giving view to the front gate. It is important to note that this window is not covered by anything nor has any glass. After the rains, dirt finds its way to the floor the shower, which made it quite difficult to feel zest fully clean. Later, Jimmy and I found out that even Kyle wears sandals in his shower, something Jimmy and I didn’t do . . . bring on the athlete’s foot and/or warts. Finally, concluding a description of Kyle’s place, one must mention that the roof is covered with tin laminate, that his sink is outside, that his property covered with fruit trees and that it is home to some wicked little bugs that give some itchy little bites. Kyle does have a stove that serves several purposes. If you want to know what those purposes are, ask him. He is quite ingenious.
Kyle’s community seems to adore him, especially the children. Working in the school, he spends a great deal of time with them, and the kids cannot seem to get enough of Kyle, sitting at his gate calling out, “Arturo, venga!” (Kyle goes by his middle name--or his alter-ego-- in Guatemala. Kyle is too difficult to pronounce in Spanish and is not a common name.) Everyone greets him as is common practice in Guatemala, and the children even play Hopscotch outside of this property. While he is not in school, Kyle has the awesome responsibility of monitoring the local volcano Santiaguito. Taking us on a three hour trek, we accompanied Kyle up to his observatory located in the Finca El Faro (The Lighthouse Plantation). This plantation is home to shade grown coffee, macadamia trees and banana trees. The plantation has its own coffee processing plant and eventually the coffee beans end up in the hands of Starbucks. The next time you are drinking Starbucks, as Kyle says, we may have urinated on the coffee beans you are drinking. So, if it tastes a little funky, you can blame us. At the observatory, which is staffed 24-hours a day, Kyle showed us the instruments they use to monitor the volcano’s activity. The volcano is active, and before the cloud cover set in, we were able to see it emit a cloud of ash and whatever the scientific vocabulary Kyle uses to describe the cloud’s composition. The volcano also discharges a volcanic ‘mud’ as Kyle explained, which often comes down the river and enters the finca. You are able to see how the banks of the river have been eroded by this hot mud and how dangerously close the finca workers live to the cliff’s edge down to the river. The finca’s owner has decided not to relocate the workers’ living quarters and prohibits Kyle from educating the workers on the dangers of the erosion. Hopefully some day the owner will set aside his ambitions toward profits and relocate the workers to safer ground where they will not slide into a river 100-feet below. When not observing the volcano Kyle is educating the village and the children about their active neighbor and developing evacuation plans for when the volcano becomes upset. Finally, is worth noting that the finca is incredibly well maintained, clean and even has its own attempt at recycling. A person caught throwing trash on the ground is fined when inside the finca. This is in sharp contrast with the rest of Guatemala as trash is found everyone. In Kyle’s village there is no garbage collection, and as we did one day, Kyle has to carry out his trash to the nearest big city to dispose of it there. Needless to say Kyle seems to be one of the only ambitious members of the community who try to dispose of their trash correctly. Kyle expressed to us his goal of implementing an effective way for the village to collect and rid themselves of their non-biodegradable trash. However, the infrastructure in his village is that of the rest of Guatemala: inefficient, insufficient, in disrepair and often absence.
Kyle has seemed to bond well with the other volunteers; though, it is not hard to like Kyle and enjoy his company. It was good to hear his laugh. While I know other volunteers may read this, I must acknowledge that the group Kyle associates with is a very diverse group of individuals who Kyle may or may not have been close friends with if he were in the United States. However, in Guatemala, they all seem close and function as support system for each other, discussing their frustrations and joys in Guatemala. Jimmy and I had the pleasure to spend three days with Joey, one of Kyle’s close friends in Guatemala, and he is definitely a ‘keeper.’ He is incredibly friendly and has a great sense of humor, providing the source for Kyle’s laughter.
Kyle’s attitude seems to be quite positive given the adversity that comes to living alone in a foreign country. He has established a good relationship with the community and has found ways to cope with his solitude by reading books, playing video games and going to bed early. He looks forward to the weekends he enjoys with his fellow Peace Corp friends, and the volcano seems to be a constant source of energy and excitement in his life. It is also very important to mention that Kyle has found positive ways to help cope with these stresses; he has avoided alcohol and other detrimental coping mechanisms. This is truly admirable and demonstrates the character Kyle has. He is a great representative and model citizen of the United States.
I must acknowledge Kyle’s spending habits because as a Peace Corp volunteer he is paid a livable Guatemalan wage, no more and no less. This has led Kyle to watch his finances closes, as evidenced by his argument with the cab driver in Guatemala City. However, other elements of his frugality surfaced in the course of our trip. When deciding on transportation, Kyle always opted for the chicken busses—the cheapest means of travel. Sitting three adults to a seat in these old former American school busses often still with stop sign, we bumped our way along the Guatemalan roads and highways. Even on my offers of covering their transportation costs on the more luxurious private microbusses, Kyle would retort, “Why would you waste our money on those when the chicken busses will take us there in about the same amount of time?” However, Kyle did splurge (and when I say splurge, he was willing to spend more that 5 quetzales ($.75)), he would use his money on food—a wise investment if I do say so myself. However, Kyle still could not escape his American consumer past as he bargain hunted for a leather messenger bag to hold his belongings and notebooks. For him, money and finances seemed tight, and he was constantly aware of his budget and meeting it. His monthly MS Excel spreadsheet acted as evidence as his frugality. His budgeting will serve him well as he returns back to the US and encounters the temptations of a consumer and materialistic society—something that I try to fight every day.
Jared List is currently a Masters Student studying Spanish Literature at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. We went to Augustana College together.