It’s no secret that America is the queen of affluence, if not the self-proclaimed queen of all she knows. Affluence is one sin, but far worse is ignorance, and narrow mindedness. It is this nature that makes one a true ‘Gringo’, not simply our blanched skin. And unfortunately by the time we’re adults this nature is cemented.
Last summer, I traveled to Guatemala through a University of Washington program. I signed up for the trip desiring a cultural experience, determined not to be another naÃ¯ve American. Yet ironically, it is this desire that epitomizes the gringo nature. I thought that after 6 years of Spanish I’d gotten past societal bias. But thinking back, every teacher was blond and blue eyed.
Outside a Guatemala airport, I was stuffed into a pick-up truck with 2 others in the program. The Guatemalan driver blasted marimba music as we drove 45 minutes through Guatemala City to the beautiful Antigua. I was dropped off at the house of Margarita Perez, an older woman living with a few other boarders and her family. With money from boarders, Margarita is barely scraping enough money together to pay for her daughter’s education. In the mornings I was greeted by Carlota, her parrot, as well as fresh cut fruit and bread. We all ate together, conversing in English, Spanish, Dutch, or a mixture of the three- (although I ought to add there was a great deal of charades). Following breakfast, I ‘d march off to school, a few blocks away.
This Spanish school, Probigua, is an incredible institution. The founder, Don Rigoberto, works to raise money through the school to fund education and eliminate illiteracy in Guatemala. The institution has two “Bibliobuses”; old, colorfully painted school buses with seats removed to make room for book shelves packed with every subject and reading level imaginable. Sometimes students take trips to local sites in these buses. But for most of the 2 weeks, I was working on becoming fluent in Spanish.
Studying with Ingrid Lopez, my tutor, was done through long, intriguing conversations. We’d take breaks to play Scrabble, or look up unfamiliar words. Talking with a middle class Guatemalan mother and wife in her own language is a very different experience. We spoke of economics, history, politics, daily-life, anything that came to mind. We shared stories, thoughts and troubles.
I went ‘home’ in the early afternoon for lunch. I ate nearly everything served, despite different, unfamiliar flavors and textures. After years of vegetarianism, I forced myself to eat meat so as not to waste it or miss part of the culture. The sensation of eating such different food is indescribable. We’ve all gone to Americanized Mexican and Indian restaurants, but this food was traditional Guatemalan cuisine; some of which date back to the rule of the Mayas.
It is in the cuisine that our affluence is manifested most clearly. Lunch, although proclaimed the largest meal of the day, is still a moderate to modest sized plate by American standards. Cutlery and dishes were mismatched, chipped, and old. Chairs were plastic. My pillow was moldy, and my room was small, yet bare. But who says this is a bad thing? Why must we be stuffed with food and things? What does it add to our lives, or culture? What does it replace?
I could give a sermon on our affluence. But honestly I was relieved to have material comforts upon return. Cultural traveling is not meant to inflict guilt. Traveling as a teenager is valuable because it gives perspective that makes us educated citizens before we become people blanched of perspective.
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