Walking in Guatemala should be considered an extreme sport. Except extreme sports aren’t nearly as life threatening. Every time I stepped into the street this last week while in Xela (aka Quetzaltenango), Guatemala on a mission trip, my life flashed before my eyes–along with several speeding motorcycles, microbuses, cars, trucks, and Chicken Buses. The only exception to this was early Sunday morning when mainly church goers are out and they are unlikely to hit you because that would make them even later to church.
But seriously, two years ago on his birthday my son, Brendan, was hit by a car that was going the wrong way on an “Una Via.” Brendan did not look both ways before stepping into the street. The car bowled him over and didn’t stop. Thankfully he’s ok.
Therefore, when I was out, I paid close attention. And when I wasn’t dodging careering vehicles, I noticed something.
There are few smooth, straight roads in Guatemala.
In Xela, even city streets are rugged, at best cobblestone, sometimes dirt. Alley narrow and full of potholes, the streets wind and twist through Xela, the second largest city in the country.
This has economic roots. They don’t have the money to repair every road. Even the Pan American Highway has dirt sections and whole stretches that have collapsed down the mountainside and have only white painted stones as warning.
Still, even if Guatemala had the funds, I’m not sure they would spend them repairing roads. In the U.S. we believe every pothole, every headache, every problem has a solution. And the solution is money.
Not so in Guatemala. Bumps and curves are part of life’s terrain and are incorporated into life. There seems to be an unspoken acceptance here that not all roads (both real and metaphorical) need to be straight and smooth. Does this make some Guatemalans more adaptable or tough? There’s a gaping hole in the sidewalk? Step over it.
It made me wonder. Do my often smooth, straight roads (both real and metaphorical) make me less tough and adaptable, more apt to complain? Do I then expect more provision from God than God ever intended for me? As if God is the Concierge of some five star hotel I call my life?
In other words, life in reality has few smooth, straight roads, Eugene. Get over it.
Few Guatemalans go anywhere alone.
I also noticed that those speeding cars, taxis, microbuses, and Chicken Buses one needs to watch out for are always stuffed full of people. The good news is if you are unfortunate enough to be struck and killed by one of these vehicles, there will probably be plenty of witnesses.
Obviously this also is an economic issue. Most Guatemalans have even less money for cars than they do for roads.
But I think there is more to it than that. They, Quetzaltecos, even walk arm and arm. Sometimes whole families strung together totter down the narrow, cracked sidewalks. Almost anytime of day you will see people standing in groups in parks and on corners, or in front of tiendas, talking and laughing, maybe arguing too, though I’m not sure. I don’t speak Spanish.
It seems to me Guatemalans live life together. And they seem to like it.
Economically many may have to live and work close to each other. Whatever the reason, Guatemalans seem to be “together people.” They are not isolated from each other. They do not embark on a solitary commute to work only to be re-entombed by an electric garage door opener when returning home. Our wealth and ubiquitous technology lets us live with a false security and facade of self-dependence. The rugged individualism so prevalent, and detrimental, in North America seems not to have taken hold in this part of Central America.
Could this be why all roads need not be smooth and straight? Life’s potholes are easier to climb out of with a helping hand.
Ten days in Guatemala is not enough to even scratch the surface of its culture. And Guatemala has serious problems with poverty, government corruption, poor education, and severe prejudice.
Even so, Guatemalans are fascinating, hardy people in a beautiful country. And these are the insights that struck me as I walked the streets of Xela (pun intended).
I would like to be more rugged and yet less individual; more willing to use my own God-given strength but also more willing to bear burdens with and for others. I would like to be less apt to depend on governments, programs, and pretty promises for my well being yet more dependent on God and interdependent with the people and things God has given me.
I don’t want life to be safe but rather a walk with God that can be considered the most extreme of sports.
Eugene C. Scott has been to Guatemala twice. His son, Brendan, lived and taught there for three years. You can join the Living Spiritually community by following that blog and clicking here and liking the page. He is also co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church.