The beauty of a jungled land is so compelling it would be easy to be captivated by it, convinced that the truth of this place is its beauty. Part of it is. I walk around on these beautiful stone streets, between these red, blue, and yellow buildings. The city of Antigua is literally nestled amongst green volcanos and hills on all sides. Visually it elicits a sense of ageless beauty and peace. I think this is the extent to which many people want to be inside of a culture when they travel. Maybe that is unfair of me to say… but in my travels I have come across people who want to see the sites, who want to have the typical cultural offerings to take home with them, they want pictures in front of ruins and churches and natural beauty, and even who are obsessed with the authentic, getting down to some cultural purity that does not exist any more in the way they think it does. I don’t want this to sound judgmental, but perhaps it is a judgement of mine. Its certainly an observation of the ways in which people seek to experience travel.
When I think about traveling to other towns and places too, I see tiled roof-tops, the soft edges of stones worn over time, the dark doorways with women standing just inside flattening tortillas on large metal heating plates. I see the potted plants, the feeling of verdant life. Yet these are the images of postcards, they are images in reality that reflect more about what we want to see, believe, and experience than what is actually there taking place in the lives lived under those tile roofes. We often valorize the primitive, ascribing it the value of purity, and wanting it to stay that way so we can come back and visit a place that retains a culture. Is it a relegation of our own desires to return to such a life? While there are others who we can imagine living like that we can satisfy the urge to live closer to the source?
Underneath the plumes of black I saw one of the volcanos spewing this morning, there are beautiful women and children selling their wares in beautiful garb and in a beautiful setting. And their poverty and need are real, present, and gnawing. Yet I am deeply torn on another level because poverty and need are far too simple a portrayal of what is going on here. Poverty is experienced more intensely where there is a relative disparity. For example, the places globally that experience the most cross border traffic are those where a first world country borders on a third world country. The imbalance, the disparity between them, leads to envy and what from a distant perspective could be seen as movement towards a balance of this wealth. Yet in places that we might consider impoverished, if they are surrounded by neighbors in around the same economic position, people tend to be happier and more content with what they have. Then there is the idea of wealth itself. What wealth of culture and natural beauty is here, yet everyone seems to focus on the poverty, the lack of hygiene, the water, etc. I don’t know what is important, I don’t know what is the right thing here for these people, where do desires for the wellbeing of people lead into the insidiousness of western hegemony, the western health discourse, what engenders victimhood in the people rather than empowerment and choice? Even the programs that Aliyya works on, and I support her with my whole heart, but I wonder about embracing the development paradigm. Our conceptions of life and death, do we want to pass them on? Is that really going to bring them more contentment? Who am I to say? The layers reveal themselves over each other and over and over to me, contradicting each other, supporting, negating, flowing, emerging, and struggling. The traditions and ways of seeing and being of the ancient societies, the lingering physical and psychological structures of colonialism, the influence of all changes modern, technology, globalization, the influence of foreigners interests and demands, the “altruism” of nonprofits and the Peace corp, all the meanings and assignation given what is going on, how the complex emerging reality of Guatemala is being described in all these differing dicourses. All these paths converging, overlapping. Need, want, desire, value, money, nature, native, indigenous, colonialism, disintegration, rot of time, the plants growing in the roof tiles, the subtle rounding of stone edges, modern clothes, the traditional ways, the new ways, the travelers with their loose fitting clothing, some walking with gaits of unknowing entitlement, layers, layers, layers, like an onion, all part of the same reality here where the sky meets the green earth, the stone, the brown smiling faces, and the sun shines yellow and orange through late rainy season clouds to light the park benches, the shoe shine box of the 5 year old sitting near by…
I am convinced that to truly know the reality of any culture in this era is to be comfortable with an undefined complexity that reveals itself over and over and over as an evolving, amorphous, living thing. Indeed a living thing that is evolving and changing at a speed that cannot be matched by our intellects, only by our willingness to disappear into the stream of time and be inside of it for a moment, experiencing, not seeking the security of knowing.