Guatemala: Where the Free Market Reigns

Antigua, Guatemala, morning

Yesterday I left Panajachel for Chichicastenango, a small pueblo in the mountains of Guatemala where every Thursday and Sunday campesinos gather from the surrounding hills to sell their wares in what my guidebook calls the biggest such market in Guatemala.  And big it is, occupying the entire heart of the town, radiating out from the central plaza, so dense that it subsumes the plaza within a chaos of Guatemalans dressed in traditional attire offering garments, blankets and trinkets for sale.  Men wind their way through the assembled crowds and shout at regular intervals, “Matamoscas, llévese matamoscas para el depiel,” imploring the throngs to protect themselves with mosquito repellant, purchasable for one Quetzal.  An ambulating newspaperman repeats calmly and robotically in Spanish, “Snake-woman, snake-woman.  She has the face of an old woman and the body of a snake.”  Tourists are oblivious but the locals flock toward him to purchase a newspaper for a Quetzal.

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Chichicastenango, Guatemala

There’s so much energy in this tumult of buyers and sellers, beggars, cripples, sad faces, smiling women, women of all ages carrying babies on their backs wrapped in colorful blankets, women balancing baskets on their heads filled with corn, fruits, and nuts.  “No, gracias,” the few Gringos say over and over with such regularity that you might set their words to a rap beat.  They fend off entrepreneurial vendors.  They pause every ten paces to admire a multi-colored weaving and commence negotiations to purchase it.  The market fascinates me, the way one can lose oneself in the sea of colors, the murmur of the throngs punctuated by the shouts of the man peddling newspapers.  The Guatemalan sun bathes the scene in its harsh light and throws shadows all around at impossible angles.  The market is fascinating but overwhelming.  It’s too big, too dense, too stimulating.  The mind can’t contain it all—the scene encompasses too much sadness, pain, boredom, joy, desperation, peace, anger, indifference, warmth, vigor, triumph, surrender.  There’s too much humanity here, there are too many interwoven realities and fates, too many contradictions.  The world can’t be this complicated, this raw, this awful and wonderful all that the same time, can it?

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Antigua, Guatemala, morning.

We rarely see all of these things in the same place in the U.S., where the poor live among the poor, the rich among the rich, the lucky and the unlucky each reside in their own separate kingdoms.  Usually, when these disparate tribes meet, it means that something has gone wrong, some natural law has been breached, order has been broken.  Yet even on those rare occasions when these different worlds share a common space for a moment—say, at a baseball game—they remain separate.  Each group sits with its own kind, in its own seats, its own skyboxes.  Not so here, in the Chichicasteango market, where a poor Maya woman living on a few dollars a day sells a blanket to a New Yorker ten thousand times richer.  The woman speaks several dialects of her indigenous language, plus Spanish; the New Yorker speaks English and a select set of useful Spanish phrases, some numbers, “por favor,” “gracias,” and clutches at a dictionary in his pocket.  Nearby stands an elderly man with a sun-cracked face, wearing clothes soaked through and stained yellow with sweat.  He may be forty or he may be eighty.  Who can know in this place that ages people so quickly?  He has no arms.  He stands there in the market beside the Maya woman and the New Yorker and he sells what he has: his disability, his incapacity to lay brick, to sow crops, to harvest corn, to labor in the fields.  He wears a cloth bag around his neck into which passersby may drop coins and bills.  He smiles, he chats with his fellow vendors, jokes, laughs, shakes hands with the nub of his arm which ends just above where his elbow should be.

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Lago Atitlán, Guatemala

At the old man’s knees a little boy darts through the crowded street, through the forest of legs.  In a squeaky voice he exhorts tourists to purchase a stuffed elephant, a bracelet, a handmade leather wallet.  He follows some of them, usually the solitary travelers, for entire blocks, trying out different prices, offering different bargains, persisting, persisting.  It’s incredible the tenacity of these street kids.  I sometimes think that if capitalism exists anywhere in total purity, it is in markets like this one, where the market literally dictates prices, wages, the allocation of labor, destinies, and lifestyles—where the state has little say over who can work, at what age, in what capacity, for what compensation.  In this market a trinket that in the States would sell for $20 goes for a mere quarter.  In this free market, where labor laws either don’t exist or aren’t enforced, the value of everything is relative and intrinsic worth is almost meaningless.  Here, where building codes are scant, houses stand half-finished, buildings are missing floors, rebar twists into the sky from unfinished concrete pillars awaiting new floors that will appear when needed or when time and money allow.  Pollution hangs in the air, obscuring mountains that are barely a mile distant.  The haze drifts across dozens of miles of mountains and valleys from Guatemala City and from forests being cleared for farmland.  It works its way into your lungs.  You can smell it with each inhalation, the mix of car exhaust, burning trees, industrial pollutants.  “Here it’s every man, woman, and child for himself,” an ambitious Guatemalan guide told me.

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Chichicastenango, Guatemala

In the absence of a web of social safeguards and laws that ensure the common good, it makes sense for a farmer to burn his forest for more cropland.  It makes sense for industry to dump its waste into rivers and lakes.  It makes sense for the elite to live in urban castles without giving a thought to the poor and the destitute in the countryside—because in such a world each person must fend for himself.  To do otherwise would be to repudiate life itself.  For the destitute, today and tomorrow matter.  The future beyond that does not exist and hardly bears thinking about.

I saw capitalism in its most frenetic form not in the United States, but rather in a tiny country in Central America.

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Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

Rhyolite's school building

A few miles east of Death Valley National Park there stand the ruins of a mining town that at its peak numbered more than 3,000 people.  In a span of two years, beginning in 1905, the people of Rhyolite erected a three-story bank, a hospital, an eight-room school, a railroad station, an opera house, and an assortment of other buildings intended to accommodate a vibrant community of miners and their families who had come from far and wide in hopes of striking gold in the parched deserts of Nevada and California.  Within a mere five years the boom ended, Rhyolite’s residents began to flee, and the town began to die.  By 1920, time and the elements had set to work dismantling what thousands of people had so carefully built.

All that remains of Rhyolite are crumbling buildings and the detritus of the people who inhabited them. Old, rusted beer cans lie strewn about on the ground.   Gusts of wind blow them around like autumn leaves.  Defunct mineshafts watch the town from the surrounding hills.  Rattlesnakes seek shelter from the heat of summer and the chill of winter in the rubble of collapsed walls.  Jackrabbits bound through desert shrubs clinging to existence.  The only sounds are the howl of the wind and the scraping of beer cans against hard white sand.

The ruins of Rhyolite speak to a million deliberate decisions, vestiges of thoughts and intentions and hopes and dreams.  “Here we’ll erect a two-story school house so that our kids can grow up in this town.  There, across the wide main street, we’ll build a bank so that we may deposit our earnings and draw on them in the future.  We’ll pipe water into town, build an electrical grid, lay railroad tracks, and construct a train station so that people can come and go.”  Everything about Rhyolite assumes a future, a sustained presence, the persistence of a way of life that we know came to an end but that the town’s inhabitants saw as everlasting.

The Cook Bank of Rhyolite

The ruins of recent history are more haunting than those of the deep past.  Machu Picchu is sublime.  To lay eyes on its green terraces, its crumbling stone walls, and the towering Andes Mountains that protected it from the destructive hands of the conquering Spaniards is to experience transcendence.  Machu Picchu is a celebration of human achievement and audacity.  It doesn’t matter that in the end the civilization that built it fell and nature reclaimed it.  What matters is that people dared to build the city in the first place.

Machu Picchu doesn’t haunt me because I can’t imagine having lived there.  I have no relationship to the people who built it.  Their traditions and way of life are foreign to me.  Rhyolite is different.  I can imagine my great grandparents having worked in its gold mines, sought medical care in its hospital, deposited money in its bank.  I belong to the civilization that built Rhyolite.  It is part of my story.

About a hundred years ago a critical mass of people chose to establish an autonomous town here in the driest, most desolate desert in North America where everything on the surface—the howling wind, the dust, the cracked ground, the snakes, and the relentless sun—warned them away.  All for something shiny that lay buried in the surrounding hills.  I like to think that the works of my time will endure where those of the past crumbled to the ground.  Rhyolite dispels this notion.  Nature makes no exceptions.

A piece of art placed on the outskirts of town in the 1980s.

The Cook Bank

Inside an old train car.

The school.

In the Valley of Death: Death Valley National Park

When describing a desolate landscape, it’s always best to start with the names people have applied to it: Death Valley, Badwater, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, the Devil’s Golf Course.  Pictures say something about the surface of the land.  Names tell its story and speak to relationships between the place and the people who have lived and died in its environs.

Nothing about Death Valley is hospitable, yet it is one of my favorite places on earth.  Scorching hot during the summer, cold and windy during winter, always dry, on a scale that shrinks one to nonexistence—Death Valley neither needs nor asks for an audience, yet people flock to it by the thousands every year.   Yosemite and Yellowstone seem vain by comparison.  Their waterfalls roar.  Their fertile green meadows beckon.  These parks speak the language of life.  Life courses through Death Valley, too, but the desert makes no show of it.  It doesn’t care to do so.  Death Valley neither invites nor rejects onlookers.  It is content with simply being.

At dawn the sun throws a sliver of orange light on sharp mountain ridges a hundred miles to the west.  A sea of black shadows recedes, revealing still more orange ridges, each one closer than the last, so that it’s as if a tsunami of light were rushing across the landscape, pulverizing the last remnants of darkest night until it spills into a valley more than one hundred miles long.  The new light settles on undulating sand dunes and blinding white salt pans that sink hundreds of feet below sea level.  It’s as if God were leafing through a photo album of creation and happened to turn to the page that includes you.

Dante's View. From here you can see mountains that are two hundred miles away.

From Aguereberry Point, almost 7,000 ft above the valley.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

From Augereberry Point

From near Aguereberry Point

Old gold mining operation.

That's my dad.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Family of three forming a nice triangle.

Photographer at work at Dante's View.

From Dante's View. You can see about one hundred miles down the valley from here. The most distant mountains are about two hundred miles away. The valley itself is over a mile below.

From Aguereberry Point.

From Aguereberry Point.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Photographers at Zabriskie Point.

Near Zabriskie Point.

Badwater, the lowest point in North America (282 ft. below sea level).

Teachers Are Lazy, Hard-Working, Stupid, Brilliant, Indifferent, Caring, Rich, Poor, Should Probably Be Fired and Also Given a Raise… (Where Did All the Teachers Go?)

Imagine that you’re standing at the center of a room so large that you can’t see the walls and that 180 school desks radiate out from you in concentric circles.  At each desk sits a teenager.  You’re a high school teacher, and the teenagers arrayed around you are your students.  Behind each student there stand two parents.  Behind each parent stand grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of the family.  Behind them, as far as the eye can see, swells an army of journalists, bloggers, educational policy experts, politicians, school administrators, superintendents, business owners, university professors, police officers, prison wardens and prison guards.

You turn in a circle and gaze in wonder at the masses of people gathered around you, watching you, judging your every move.  About twenty of your students lean forward in their desks and look up at you with bright smiles.  These students will delight in anything you might say to them.  They love every one of your lessons and you can always count on them to raise their hands to answer and ask questions.  Others, say about fifty or so, stare at you with blank expressions.  They’re bored with your lesson, but they’re calm and polite.  Still other students, perhaps ninety of them, are doing whatever they can think of to distract themselves from the learning task at hand.  These students tap their pencils, pass notes, sneak peeks at their cell phones, whisper and chuckle at the boy who is launching spit wads at you when you aren’t looking.  They may be apathetic and distracted, but for the most part these students remain under control.  A group of perhaps twenty students bicker with each other, verbally spar, curse, wail about how much they hate school, hate your lesson, hate you.  Some of them become physically violent with each other.  A few may even threaten you with bodily harm.

Your students make up a representative sampling of America’s school children.  A few of them are rich and live in mansions.  About 130 of them fall somewhere in what society terms “the middle class,” though this designation encompasses such a broad range of economic and social circumstances that it is almost useless.  Students in this category may come from families who are one lost job, financial catastrophe or medical emergency away from descending into poverty.  Others are pushing up against the boundary that separates “upper-middle class” from “rich.”  About forty of your students come from abject poverty.  Many of them enter the doors of your school not having eaten breakfast.  For some, the only food they will eat on a given day is the meal they receive in the cafeteria lunch line.  Many of these students come from parts of the city that are infested with crime.  They fall asleep at night to the sound of gunshots.  They live in apartments and houses that are falling apart.  When they’re sick they may not see a doctor because their family can’t afford it, and a working parent forgoes a day’s pay to stay home and care for them.

Whatever their socioeconomic status, many of your students come from broken homes and tense, even dangerous, family situations.  They live in fear and they bring this baggage with them to your classroom.  Some of your students are depressed, lonely and insecure. In this group of 180 students some can read at an advanced college level, others are getting by at grade level and still others can’t read at all.  Each student has a particular set of learning needs, and your district, your principal and the entire education apparatus have told you that you must tailor every lesson to each student and that you must prepare the entire group for college.  These are worthy goals.

While you try to teach your students a lesson about, say, the quadratic formula, you notice that the volume level in the room is steadily rising.  The students are making noise, of course, but it is the adults thronging behind them who are the loudest.  Some of the parents and family members are applauding you and giving you a “thumbs up.” Others are shouting obscenities.  You can read the hatred on their faces.  Every few seconds a random comment drifts over to you: “Incompetent,” shouts someone.  “Stupid,” says another.  “Lazy,” “Failing our kids,” “Doesn’t care,” you hear over the din.  Mixed in with the invective are words of encouragement: “God bless you,” “Bravo,” “Inspiring.”  Behind the parents the reporters, experts, university professors, politicians and other members of the community shout their own views.  “Pay them more,” say some.  “Pay them less,” say others.  “Education is broken,” screams one expert.  “I know exactly how to fix it,” cries another.  “Fire them all,” says a politician.  “Protect them,” insists another.  Words and catch phrases rain down on you: vouchers, charter schools, accountability, standardized testing, performance pay, school choice, home schooling, private schooling, virtual classrooms, differentiation, learning styles, class size—the deluge never ends.  The quieter parents look around in confusion and distress over the chaos they see growing around them.  Meanwhile one police officer turns to another and says, “If this teacher can’t save these kids, we’re in trouble.”

On a normal day you teach your students for about six hours, thirty students per hour.  You spend three to four hours at school planning and preparing lessons, creating PowerPoint presentations, cutting out manipulatives, making copies, writing rubrics, rearranging desks, organizing papers and records, attending meetings with administrators and other teachers, responding to e-mails, contacting parents, supervising the halls before and after school. . . After nine to ten hours at work, you return home, grab something to eat, kiss your spouse and play with your kids.  Then, after about an hour of family time, you sit down and you grade papers for a couple of hours.  Since students benefit most from specific, constructive feedback, you write helpful notes in the margins of their papers.  You write a short paragraph at the end of each paper in which you explain the grade you’ve given and offer suggestions for improvement on the next assignment.  By the time you’ve finished grading papers for the night, you have concluded an eleven or twelve hour work day.

At school you look around at your colleagues and notice that every year a few don’t return and a fresh new crop of college grads shows up to eagerly take their place in the classroom.  You know that five years from now about half of the school’s faculty will have abandoned the teaching profession entirely, and you wonder what would happen if every five years half of all doctors hung up their white coats, or if half of all civil engineers decided to stop designing bridges.  What would American technology and industry look like if every five years half of the country’s engineers, software designers and scientists left their professions and never returned?  If any of these disasters were to occur, would we question the competence of the people leaving their respective professions, or would we wonder if something about the professions themselves drove them away?

The vast majority of teachers care about their students.  They take every kind of kid from every slice of society and work their butts off to give them a good education.  Clearly, most of them don’t last for long.  They love teaching, most of them make enough money to live comfortably, yet within five years about half of them leave the thing they love.  They need society’s help, not its scorn.

Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Quiet Heroes: Scooping Ice Cream and Saving the World

There are in this world quiet heroes who do their good deeds in places so ubiquitous that we take them for granted.  They stock shelves.  They deliver packages.  They serve ice cream.  At home they feed and clothe their kids, care for aging parents, and pay their monthly bills.  They complain about nothing and they perform even the most banal tasks with dedication and diligence. 

Pedro was one of these people.  He was in his late thirties when I worked with him serving ice cream at Baskin Robbins.  I was sixteen, working my first real job.  Pedro had two ailing parents whom he supported with the money he earned at the ice cream shop.  I remember overhearing phone calls he would make to his parents in which he would speak in Spanish about health care costs, miscellaneous household maintenance that needed taking care of, and groceries he would pick up on the way home from work.  Pedro was a good guy.  He loved Elvis and Frank Sinatra, worked nonstop ten to twelve hours a day, and loved to say, “That’s not funny,” after every joke he told.

Pedro suffered from chronic back pain.  When he thought no one was looking he would sometimes wince, sigh and stare at the floor as if searching for something precious he had lost.  If you missed these subtle signs you would never know the pain he was in when he bent over more than a thousand times a day to scoop rocky road and mint chocolate chip into chocolate covered waffle cones, or when he hauled six hundred pounds of ice cream from the storage freezer to the display freezers in under half an hour–because he never complained. 

Though Pedro was not book smart, he had an answer for every problem or complaint a customer might raise.  Not only did he have an answer; he knew how to calm someone when they were flustered, furious or vulnerable.  I think this sort of skill derives from a kind of intelligence that isn’t highly valued in monetary terms but that keeps our society functioning from the bottom up and prevents us from ripping each other apart. 

Teenagers, college students and seasonal employees passed in and out of Pedro’s life by the dozens each year.  Many of them would start work at the shop one week and then, for a variety of reasons, leave two weeks later.  For them (for me), the ice cream shop was one brief stop on the road toward bigger or at least different things in the future.  For Pedro, it was life. 

In the summer of my sophomore year in college I left Baskin Robbins to fly out to Yosemite National Park and work as a front desk clerk at a lodge there.  While I embarked on what at the time was the grandest of adventures, Pedro remained at the ice cream shop and persisted in the sort of work he had done for most of his life.  I didn’t see him again until several years later, in a grocery store parking lot.    He smiled at me.  His mustache curved up just like it did when I worked with him.  We hugged each other and Pedro asked if I remembered giving him a mix CD once for Christmas.  “I still listen to that every day Nick,” he said.  “Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Elvis. . . It’s scratched up, but I still listen to it.”  I had no idea that CD meant so much to him. 

I miss Pedro.  He influenced me more than almost any adult aside from my parents, though I’m not sure he knew that.  He was the kind of man nobody talks about but everyone notices at some point in their life.  Pedro performed a thousand little heroic acts every day and asked for no thanks in return.  People like him keep the gears of civilization turning.  As Voltaire might say, they cultivate their gardens.

Halloween

From the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, in 2009.

 

Also from the Bellagio Hotel.

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