Antigua is even more beautiful than I remember. I’m sat on the rooftop balcony of my accommodation, in the sun and with full view of the ancient city of Antigua, overlooked by the extinct Volcán de Agua. There’s a brass band playing in the distance that manages to cut through the noise of the traffic on the busy road below. I’m enjoying the Guatemalan food – black beans, egg and rice. I’m also really enjoying reading C.S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy”, but I can’t get past a few pages without putting it down and having a good long think.
Sadly, my rather glorious experience here is hardly a true reflection of life for many Guatemalans. Last week my language teacher’s son had his motorbike stolen at gunpoint. Another teacher was driving from Antigua to Guatemala City and was in the outside lane. A pickup zoomed up behind her flashing its lights. She moved out the way immediately, but the van in front of her didn’t. It eventually veered right to the inside lane, and as the pickup sped past the driver pointed a pistol at the van driver and killed him there and then, it seems for seemingly not moving out of the way.
I don’t want to say too much about the dangers here as my mum will be reading this letter! But it really is a reality of life. You have to be sensible with the times you travel, and in what mode you travel. Luckily I’ve never experienced anything like this first hand, but pretty much everyone I speak to has.
I am very pleased with the progress I’ve made in Spanish. I’ve been studying six hours a day with Betty in the mornings and Cristy in the afternoons. We’ve spent the last few weeks completely reviewing all tenses and other grammar. My brain isn’t built for this stuff, but I’m getting there! We are now going through the “perfect present” tense, which for the non- linguists like me is “I have been to the shop” or “I have closed the door”. It’s such a simple thing to be able to say, but to get to this point you need a lot of foundations.
I had a fantastic visit to Honduras, with a morning in AFE (Amor, Fe Y Esperanza), a ministry aiming to break the cycle of poverty for the families that live and work in and around the Tegucigalpa garbage dump. They do this by meeting the holistic needs of our students and their families. I also spent a day at Project Manuelito, a ministry to children who have lived in and on the streets.
Honduras ranks as the second poorest country in Central America and is in the top 15 worldwide with an estimated 60 per cent of the population currently living beneath the poverty line. Just outside of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, a community of roughly 1,500 adults and 300 children fight to survive by rummaging through a mountain of garbage in order to make a living. Their goal is to find anything that can be used and/or recycled. On average, one adult working 12-15 hours a day can earn $3-$5 and a child can earn $1-$2.
It continues to be a privilege but equally heartbreaking and humbling to hang out with the children and young people. Just yesterday I was chatting with Jimmy, aged 18, who is studying in his final year of secondary school at AFE. I’ve known him since he was 12, so it’s a proud moment to hear of his graduation. His mum works on the rubbish dump in Tegucigalpa where he grew up until he joined AFE. Whilst talking about the holidays in December, he said he’d no choice but to spend the month working with his mum. But he finished the conversation saying that he had faith he could get himself and his family out of that situation with the help of God.
A visit was made recently by Duncan, the director of Mi Arca (a Christian organisation that has a passion for children and young people who live at high-risk and/ or live on the streets of the major cities in Guatemala) and Ben, a volunteer. They had gone to visit a brother and sister, aged seven and ten, whose mother was shot dead earlier in the year. They were placed with their grandparents but it turns out that they were sadly being physically abused and severely neglected in their new home.
Just after the two workers left, there was a shoot-out between the local gang and police. The boy was spotted by a gang member and threatened, and was told “if you tell anyone about me I’ll come back, cut you into pieces and leave you all over this street”. Understandably the boy was extremely disturbed by this so he and his sister didn’t go home that night. They spent the night on the streets as they felt safer there. The girl did not return in the morning but by the afternoon she was found. The boy returned in the morning but he was covered in bruises as he had been abused whilst on the streets.
Almost everywhere I go, I come across such stories, of terror and abuse. There is a large amount of latent fear in this place. Even the police never patrol alone and it’s a place very much of opposites. The amazing natural beauty contrasts with the danger faced daily by the people here. The brand new, shiny malls full of the rich, middle classes contrasts with the slums and shacks that are just next door where people struggle to survive.
I very much fall into the comfortable and rich category here. I’m often referred to as Canche, meaning blondie. It is clear that most people think being rich is better than being poor. And in some ways I tend to agree. You have access to a decent education, better chances in life and have people you can fall back on if necessary. But is it all it seems? I’d be interested to learn the percentage of the population of the UK that suffers from depression compared to that in Guatemala. Maybe your likelihood of suffering from depression has nothing to do with your socio-economic status. But if you have more, you also have more to lose.
When you give children food at the mentoring centre, despite it usually being their first meal of the day, rarely do they finish it. When I asked why, a little boy of ten explained that he was saving the rest to give to his brothers and sisters. Those who have less often seem to be the most generous. Although a friend of mine recently invited me for a coffee and insisted on paying, only later did I discover that the place we went was called “Café Gratis”, which means “free coffee”!
I’ve learnt to be more thankful over the past weeks, not least because I now rely totally on a group of generous friends who are sponsoring me through their hard earned cash (thanks, by the way!). I am so thankful for the amazing experience to be in Guatemala, where I can admire the natural beauty and receive the hospitality of so many people (here and in the UK) and for the opportunity to learn more through serving.
I’ve learned that if you stray outside the simple, imposed boundaries here, you’re potentially risking your life. And it’s the same when it comes to your spiritual life. We should be content with what God has for us. Actually, we should be over the moon with what God has for us!
So looking to the future, which will be the present or even the past by the time you read this, I return to the UK on 24 November to help run Radio Christmas in order to raise funds for Street Kids Direct (more info at www.radiochristmas.co.uk). I am looking forward to seeing my friends and family but not so much the cold! In January I move to Oxford to begin mission partner training.
Thank you for your prayers and continued support, it really is amazing. I am taking these few months to prepare properly for the real work that begins in early April. God bless and merry Christmas!