Recently I accompanied a group of twenty one to Guatemala. Covering a yawn, I nodded in the appropriate places as our group leader reviewed the rules. Don’t wonder off. Stay together. Don’t let go of your luggage, and so forth. These were the standard rules of a youth trip. But as we stepped outside the protection of the airport we faced a different environment. People of Guatemala grabbed for your bags, pushed their wares at you while others stared blankly at the Americans. I breathed a sigh of relief as the last youth entered the old school bus. After we exited the airport and its barbed wire walls, I leaned into the seat.
Guatemala City overflowed with trash. Beggars lined the streets. Traffic laws were merely suggestions at the absence of law enforcement. Private security guards carried shotguns and automatic weapons at their sides. Harsh reality set in. The biggest gun ruled. The weak didn’t survive. As we left the city and climbed into the mountains, tin shacks paralleled the road. A thin cow was tied near a particular shack. One youth commented, “That cow’s so poor it’d take nine of ‘em to make one hamburger.” Laughter followed, then silence. A group of children walked on the other side of a raw sewage ditch. Their dirty garments hung to thin shoulders. I had never seen a more pitiful sight. Until, we went to Rio Bravo.
Our bus pulled in front of a cinder block church. Scraggly children lined up outside the door. Pastor Freddy greeted us and led us through a plastic-table- filled sanctuary to the open kitchen hidden in the back. Five Guatemalan ladies prepared a breakfast consisting of black beans, scrambled eggs, a tortilla and coffee. No complaints were heard as we served three hundred and fifty children the meager fare. No one noticed the absence of silver ware and napkins. The children ate with their hands. I’ll never forget the way their eyes lit up when we handed out Christmas party bags filled with miniature toys and candy. But as the news of our gifts spread through the village, we became overwhelmed by the crowd and sadly it became too dangerous to hand out the candy. We boarded the bus. A little girl relieved herself in the middle of the street, while a mother nursed her baby in the open. It’s not hard to understand why the life expectancy in this town is forty-seven.
On the way back to the orphanage, we passed miles of sugar cane fields. The laborers earn a meager wage of 56 quetzals per day, the equivalent of seven American dollars. We stopped at a restaurant. A private security guarded the door, armed with a shotgun. Inside, the waitress filled our drinks with ice, a luxury in Guatemala. IPod and smartphone users checked email and Facebook with the rare Wi-Fi signal. But the delicious fried shrimp turned to paste, as I thought of hungry children an hour away.