April 20, 2020

What a place Guatemala is!

The locals greet you with a glowing smile and are quick to help guide tourists. Guatemalans have immense pride and love to talk about their amazing country. They are friendly and are always interested in meeting new people. An old friend of mine from Calgary, AB actually used to live and work in Guatemala and he connected me with Francis; a HR manager for Ingenio La Union (ILU). ILU scales sugar plantation farms in rural Guatemalan communities and employs over 6000 locals — talk about community representation! They also bring infrastructure, education, and aid to their communities. While in Guatemala, I met with Karen from ILU. Karen was affable and acted as my local tour-guide as we travelled together to Antigua, a must-see destination for tourists visiting the country. Antigua is an older town with an abundance of bright, vibrant, and cultural architecture. The thick walls, thin cobblestone roads, pleasant locals, and breathtaking volcanoes that border the city all make it a remarkable experience.

Start your morning off with a traditional breakfast consisting of beans, freshly baked bread, and a cup of coffee. You can then spend the day exploring the local street markets, engaging in the daily hustle and bustle, and buying souvenirs, amongst other hand-crafted goods. Enjoy the rich, flavorful Central American cuisine at a beautiful local restaurant rooftop and end your day watching the sunset behind volcanoes. It is truly a sight to see.

After touring Antigua, Karen and I drove South from Guatemala City to Santa Lucia. I met a few more members of ILU and spent an enjoyable evening there with my new friends. I soon learned that a recent natural disaster destroyed a few surrounding communities. A rainstorm combined with an erupted volcano left hundreds of families displaced and in need of basic supplies and shelter.

The next day, members of ILU and I drove out to one of the affected communities. In this particular community, 75 homes were unrecognizable and most infrastructure was destroyed and severely damaged. Families were seeking refuge at a local school that was converted to a relief center to support displaced families. There were no showers, beds, cooking supplies, clean clothing, or functional washrooms. I was speechless and surprised by the living conditions. Karen asked if I was doing okay, but I was just in shock and disbelief. I couldn’t imagine losing my home, watching my home wither away before my eyes, seeing my family in despair and grief, and essentially being homeless. I felt immense empathy and a call to action to support these families, especially those with young children. Local disaster relief organizations were at the school organizing essentials care-packages for the families. While children played in the school yard, support workers were busy converting classrooms to living spaces and bedrooms. On average, there were 3-5 families packed into each room, no larger than your typical classroom, and privacy was non-existent. I felt immense empathy and a call to action to support these families, especially those with young children. I asked Karen what the solution would be. She explained that it would not be possible for the families to return to their homes as they were heavily contaminated with ash from the volcano. Instead, they would have to build a new community, pending government land allocation.

Shortly after visiting the school, we drove off into the devastated region which was about 3.5 kms from the school. Upon arriving, my jaw dropped. All that remained was pieces of framing from the homes, half-standing roofs, and palm tree leaves. I was expecting flooded homes, but the ash completely covered the community and elevated the landscape by 5 meters. I did not know how to react, I had troubles truly accepting and believing the devastation that surrounded me. I repeatedly asked the locals if there was any way the government could intervene and provide heavy equipment so that families could recover their belongings. I saw some locals digging up bikes and trying to salvage anything they could. Following our shocking tour, we drove to the nearest supermarket which was about half an hour away. We decided to collect goods and essential needs for the communities and planned on distributing them the following day.

That evening I called friends and family and attempted to explain my experiences. It was truly heart-wrenching and witnessing everything made me realize how lucky so many of us are, to not live near disaster prone areas. My new-found self-awareness will be forever treasured. The following morning, we delivered the goods to the communities and they were beyond grateful. I played soccer with the kids on the grassless playing field and met with volunteers that were aiding the disaster relief team.

As we said our goodbyes, I left with an eerie feeling and wondered if the community would ever recover. How will they rebuild? Where will they rebuild? Who is going to fund it? These were the questions that were circling my mind as I boarded my flight back to Canada.

My stay in Guatemala was only for 6 days, but I left with a lifetime of memories and hope that the communities I visited will rebuild and one day resume a normal lifestyle!