I wasn't planning to write from Guatemala, but what I thought would be a "fun month" learning "a thing or two" has morphed quickly into something very different. As I type this, a fine ash is falling, settling in a thin layer of gray grit that is visible on the screens of my laptop and phone. El Volcan Sanguita, nearby, has been very active lately, my host abuela explains.
Upon arriving last Monday to mi escuela de Español, I was oriented with a brief history of Guatemala, which is a story of some 500 years of exploitation and abuse at the hands of foreigners, and more recently, a bloody civil war in which entire villages were massacred and razed -- acts that have only recently been recognized as genocide. (If you need a primer, I highly recommend the This American Life episode, What Happened at Dos Erres).
In the twelve days since I arrived here, I've had 50 hour of one-on-one Spanish instruction and though I have never studied Spanish I've flown through present tense and simple future and past predicate, but more meaningfully, found myself able to carry on conversations about police violence, intergenerational trauma, and how to get hot water in the shower at my homestay (as mi abuela Blanca explained, you must turn the knob slowly until the overhead light dims, which indicates the heater has turned on).
Last Saturday I woke up in the middle of the night for a 3 am departure to the Volcán Santa Maria with other students from mi escuela. Half asleep, we stumbled off the bus and up the trail in the dark, making a long snake of light with our headlamps and phone flashlights. The trail quickly turned from wide and grassy to steep and rocky, and in some parts, was frosted with white crystals where water was seeping from the earth and freezing. I'm the kind of hiker who likes to be at the front of the pack and bounding up the mountain, but by 5:00 am, after two hours of consistent uphill ass-hauling, this gave way to a mental and physical exhaustion I was afraid I wouldn't shake. I was quite literally reduced to crying and crawling -- a combination of the trail's vertical element, demanding all limbs on deck; the pre-dawn cold; and a deep cold well of doubt that I'd be able to make it to the top before the sun rose.
But with a little help from my friends (aka Babes de Volcán) I did, and just in time: soon after shooting a series of totally framable selfies, there was a rumbling, and just behind us, seemingly way to close to be safe, a plume of ash rose from below, rippling and unfolding as it stretched out in all directions, appearing like an atomic mushroom cloud though the locals assured us it was safe (and we wouldn't be eating ash for breakfast). "It's like we're collectively imagining this," someone said, and it was -- it was wrenching, moving, humbling.
But the real moment of reckoning came later, after we'd made our way down -- an excruciating and muddy couple of hours, passing by dozens of indigenous Mayan families on their way up, each of whom greeted us with buenos dias, many who wore only sandals and had babies or backpacks or bundles of flowers strapped to their backs. Near the base of the mountain, our guide, Armado gathered us into a circle and told us he had a story to tell.
Decades ago, he began in Español, the volcano we'd just climbed had been the site of a war between the government forces and the guerrilla fighters, and he himself had fought as a guerrilla, living for weeks in the elements with the constant threat of death at his back. His friends had died in these mountains, he'd told us, and the power of nature magnified to yet another degree.
Then, one evening at mi escuela, I gathered to watch a Guatemalan film, Las Cruces, about a village in a valley torn apart by war, its people pitted against themselves, and in the end, all but two massacred, the village burned to rubble. I cried, understanding better the pain that many of my teachers here carry with them; better understanding, too, what is referred to as "low-intensity conflict" by political scientists but is in extent of much greater magnitude than "high-intensity conflict:" the armed conflicts that make it to the history books. "Low-intensity conflicts" are the kind in which neighbors take up arms and kill each other; in which villages are quietly murdered because they are harboring guerrilleros; of bush fighting and "unconventional warfare" and "peacekeeping missions" and "counter-insurgencies." I forget the actual statistic, but I've learned that far, far more people are killed in these types of conflicts than in the types of wars we name. It's telling that the US Army defines low-intensity conflicts as "generally occurring in the third world:" these are wars that the privileged among us are able to ignore.
In short, I'm learning a lot more than Spanish. (Mi escuela, for the record, was founded by ex-communistas.)
In less than a month, the plan is to fly to Istanbul and then to Kurdistan, where I'll meet an old friend, now an eminent journalist; visit the American University and meet with some professors/tag along to my cousin's classes, and then celebrate Newroz (the Kurdish New Year) with family and lots of halparke Kurdi (Kurdish dancing). I am, I'll admit, afraid: although I'll be in safe areas and with people I trust, ISIS will be on the other side of the mountains, and a low-intensity conflict is quietly roiling through Turkey at the moment, which I've yet to hear about from US news, but have heard about through Kurdish sources, and first-hand from my Auntie who is there. So, I'm intentionally just flying through the country and not spending time there, though Istanbul has been in the past a treasured stop on the way to and from Kurdistan.
Today, I'm visiting a midwife's center in a nearby town, and tomorrow I leave to the mountain campus of mi escuela to spend a week away from the city.
I'll leave you with a poem which I wrote after a conferencia held by Armado, the same guide who took us up elvolcán, about his experience as a refugee in Mexico and later as a guerrilla fighter in Guatemala, living in the mountains.