“So what?” is the question, Ms. White, my Grade 9 English teacher, encouraged me to use to develop an idea for a riveting and thought-provoking three-paragraph essay. Now, much older than I was in Grade 9 and much too old to write a three-paragraph essay (sigh), I maintain that probe to guide my explorations and adventures throughout this world. Presently, this question leads my curiosity to seek out more stories about and from Guatemala.
Often, I forget how simple it is to discover more about the people you meet by asking one-worded questions like “how?” “why?” “when?”. Now, travelling in Guatemala, I am thrilled to be reminded that these one-worded questions allow me to dive further into my encounter of new cultures. These questions are a means of further informing myself about Guatemala and its people. Not only that, they allow me to put my 30-word Spanish vocabulary to other uses than just waving and saying “hola” in the most-obviously Gringo accent (which I still love doing, despite my accent; and in an extremely-friendly fashion of the Guatemalan people, they always say hola back).
Every person I have met here in Guatemala has a different story. In Quetzaltenango, better known by the Guatemaltecos as Xela (pronounced Sheyla), I met a wonderful woman who was part of an organization called Associacion de Mujeres del Altiplano (AMA). She was almost always with a smile, her expression lines spoke to the fact that when she is not smiling, she will probably burst into laughter within the next 20 seconds.
She invited our group to learn how to backstrap weave, the technique of weaving used by the majority of the women in Guatemala. She demonstrated and helped members of our group try our hands at weaving. She was wearing one of her homemade woven shirts. It was a typical style that we had already seen on the majority of women in the country and we were all a little curious about it. Someone asked, “Is that a bird on your shirt?” She explained that it was a Quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird. Not only the national bird, it was one of the two Mayan Gods that created the Earth and everything in it. Someone else asked, “How long did it take you to make your shirt?” “Two weeks,” she replied to the sound of us in awe. For most of us, dedicating more than an hour to an artisanal craft is something we have never done, and may never do in our lives.
In San Juan, a small and extremely friendly town on Lago Atitlan, we had the opportunity to meet many Guatemalans who live and work there. One man was working with Operation Groundswell on designing and creating a medicinal plant garden. Our program leaders had been joking that in Guatemala, you can tell how hard someone has been working by the number of tortillas they consume in a day. They both noted a mutual friend who is one of the hardest workers they know, whom accordingly devours tortillas like it’s his full-time job.
I asked the medicinal gardener out of curiosity how many tortillas he eats during an average day. His answer was short and simple, “four times a day.” At every meal, and then in between sometimes. We were all standing there taking a pause from our rock-moving and wall-building when he then asked us a question: “And do you know why tortillas are so important to Guatemaltecos? Do you know why we eat so many?” No one in our group had an answer, and before we knew it, we were immersed in a thirty-minute story about how the world was created according to the Mayan tradition, with corn being a very central part in this story. This conversation sparked several other subjects: “How many Mayan languages exist in Guatemala?” “Do you speak any?” “What is a nawal?” By the end of the afternoon, our bodies and minds were exhausted, leaving us all with lots to reflect on in our journals and with each other.
There are so many things to know. So many places to visit, so many people to meet, and so much food to eat. It is easy to travel and visit countries and “see” things without ever really seeing anything. However, what I have learned from this trip is to ask questions. If I had not asked myself “so what?”, I would have not learned why tortillas are eaten at every meal, or how much time it takes to weave a shirt. I would have not learned about the matrimonial and religious customs that my Spanish teacher in Xela told me. And I would still be ignorant about the civil war in Guatemala as I had been at the beginning of this trip.
The theme for this trip was fair trade and it was one of the main reasons that pulled me to Guatemala – to learn the other side of fair trade, first-hand from the producers. To learn about their daily lives, their working conditions, how they feel about the international markets, and where they fit into them. As this trip continues to unroll, my journal pages become fuller and the conversations with my peers become more complex. While the best methods to sustainably link small-scale coffee producers with the international markets remain debatable, one thing has become quite clear: What you know depends on how much you want to know and learn.
So, use your broken Spanish, and ask for their names. Remind yourself every day to ask questions. Keep searching and answering: “so what?”.