Epilogue Travels

By Rob Whiting, June 19, 2011

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Glimpse of Malnutrition through Life at the Mountain School

Following my round-the-country whirlwind travel, I found my way up to the Mountain School, one of two outposts run by Projecto Liguistico Quetzalteco. The school is a professionally-run Spanish school where the teachers are paid a fair wage, yet I had no idea it was very left leaning…pretty much Communist. Apparently this is the most difficult school to get into in Guatemala and people reserve months in advance…I just kind of lucked out, giving them a call a week before I got there, and had done no research on the school.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw the school walls adorned with pictures of Che, could see the anti-business slant in every conference we had, or when we sang “Bella Chao”, a communist/socialist resistance song, at the weekly graduation. But it’s probably fairer to say the school is very pro-labor, and if I’d been through the same civil war or was living in the same situation as them, I probably would be too.

The small school only has capacity for about 13 students at a time, and my study schedule fell in the morning for four hours, in which I’d receive one-on-one teaching in one of several little tiki huts set around the school (see above). We dorm with other students but take our meals with families nearby in the villages of Nuevo San Jose and Fatima, pictured below.

One of the most glaring problems of Guatemala is chronic malnutrition. Nearly half of Guate’s children are chronically malnourished, and the figure can climb as high as 80% in heavily indigenous Mayan areas. Unlike acute malnutrition in which you commonly see wasting (low weight for height…think sub-Saharan Africa), chronic malnutrition is characterized by stunting, or having low height for age.

In my first week in Guatemala, I hit my head three times in four days on low doorways. Asia is commonly thought to be where you can stick out like a giant, but having been to China and elsewhere in Asia several times, I can say it’s not even a contest. Even American females tower over everyone here (Sadly exemplary of this is my wonderful host mom Cellustiana, below).

Eating with different host mothers has made it pretty clear why this is happening. The quantity of food seems sufficient, but not the quality/variety. It’s a colorless diet. Lots of corn-based tortillas, potatoes, beans, and rice (in the next pic is a dinner of potatoes and tortillas). Heavy on the starches, less on the vegetables and meats, and almost non-existent on the fruits (as you can image, this makes for some awesome digestive experiences!). For example, we live in a village, or maybe even small town (paved road, mostly concrete block structures), and even here the closest place to buy fruit is 10 km away. After most every meal I feel like I’ve just had a feast of dinner rolls.

Thomas Davis, a good friend of mine and Vanderbilt Medicine student carrying out a nutrition study a few hours from where I’m based, explained to me how the problem extends to breast feeding. To save money and feed more mouths, mothers will breastfeed “until the child decides” it doesn’t want to breastfeed anymore, as Thomas explains the reasoning of the mothers. This could be until age two or beyond. Of course, the mothers are malnourished themselves, so the milk lacks nutrients, especially for a small child.

What’s sad is that Guatemala is a very resource-rich country, and could do a much better job. One idea is using programs like Mexico’s Oportunidades program, where cash transfers are given to improve health and eduction; Brazil has a similar program. Yet, security, security, and security seem to the banner cries of this year’s election in response to pervasive crime, and the government is extremely corrupt anyway. It seems the situation is unlikely to change soon. But for me, privelaged as I am, I recently moved to the city of Quetzaltenango (Xela) to continue my studies at the school’s other center, where fruits and vegetables are wonderfully bountiful.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Considering Travel Approaches

At the end of April, after 6 months’ respite, I accepted a job with a management consulting firm in Boston. Finding myself with several months of freedom before my start date in October (I chose the latest possible date), I booked a one-way ticket to Guatemala to tramp around Central America (the one-way ticket turned out to be a small problem, as I had no proof that I planned to leave the country).

Though Central/South America seemed like the obvious choice given that it was one of the main regions I missed on my Keegan travels, choosing where to travel and especially HOW to travel has become significantly more complicated for me after the fellowship.

Most people other than backpackers, I’m guessing, probably don’t think about this that intensively, as they either know someone in a certain country who is requesting they visit, are traveling for a short-term project – volunteering or paid, or are traveling with a friend. In any case, many of the decisions – how you’ll get there and around, where you’ll stay, and what you’ll do with whom – are already made for you.

I had none of this, and it was new to me as well. In the past I’d had things like study abroad or an Ingram Scholars project in China, or a spring break trip in Buenos Aires. Instead, I had 3-4 wide open months, a fair amount of money, and open season on any country willing to accept one of us arrogant Americans. I didn’t even have a fellowship as malleable as Keegan to at least give me a slight bit of direction.

Faced with this situation, I did a lot of thinking. On the one hand, I simply don’t think I have the energy to carry out large, involved studies on development akin to those on my Keegan Fellowship, mainly because of the enormous amounts of energy I expect to soon expend in my new job. I will do some investigation into the development situations of the countries I visit (Honduras and Haiti are tentatively on the docket) but not at the level of which my fellowship entailed. It takes a lot of energy to nose into people’s lives, sensatively.

On the other hand, I don’t want to be a volunteer. I don’t want to be staring at a computer screen and am now, following my travels, a bit more critical of how effective many types of volunteering for a month (maybe even too shorty) can actually be.

On the third hand, if there was one, I don’t want to be a stereotypical backpacker, hitting the gringo bars, making cursory relationships, and just dotting the country, alone,  to the tourist sites to which Lonely Planet so faithfully guides me.

So, given all that, it became increasingly obvious to me that two key things are important to me in travel. The first is being non-invasive, which means not looking to volunteer unless I’m committed to staying longer-term OR to working behind the scenes (usually involves an office). I was interested in neither of these.

Second, I need community which, difficultly enough, is hard to get traveling alone and without volunteering. Perhaps it is the relatively small percentage of people from my travels with whom I still keep in contact or eating alone in enough restaurants that has given me this outlook, but regardless, there is something very valuable about being part of a group and sharing experiences.

But despite all these requirements, a little more than two weeks in, I’ve had an amazing time. A friend from the US was amazing enough to come down and travel with me for nearly a week, during which we saw and slept in the park of Tikal (best Mayan ruins around) waking up to the howler monkeys, hired a police car as a taxi in Antigua Guatemla, hiked a volcano, and struggled (me) at salsa. Then, a Guatemalan friend invited me along for a week-long trip, including a stop at the picaresque Lake Atitlan, swimming in the turquoise pools of Semuc Champay, riding atop of packed microbuses through the mountains (and in the rain…perhaps not so smart), and hikes to small villages established by ex-guerillas from the civil war.

Now, I’ve settled in for a month Spanish study split between Xela (Quetzaltenango) and a small school of the same brand in a nearby community nestled up in the mountains. I’ve found community, without being invasive.

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