The first thing I learned about Guatemala was a piece of economic data that changed my entire perspective on things. 98% of the Guatemalan population lives in extreme poverty, and a majority of school-age kids has no access to education — young girls especially, as they are mostly trained to be good wives and daughters, and they usually marry at about the age of 13. The remaining 2% of the population is extremely rich, and among this 2%, there are also people who try to help others with charity and fundraising projects, by raising awareness and attracting the world’s attention, in order to change things. Francesca and Alessa are among those who are trying to help, the founders of IX Style and Alessa Design respectively, two Guatemalan fashion brands that often join forces to organize events and charity projects. They were the ones who introduced me to the country’s actual reality, helping me understand what the main issues are, and what is currently being done to help people get out of this situation.
We got to Antigua after a trip that felt very long, and right when we set foot in our accommodation, we were left completely awestruck by Guatemala’s beautiful nature. Our 100% green home, solely built with recycled material, among which old containers, and entirely powered by sustainable energy, was surrounded by the forest, and located in the middle of a valley of active volcanoes, which erupt every day. Imagine, I could see this beautiful natural performance every morning, from my bed!
We spent the first day exploring Antigua, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The town is a little crumbling and very colorful, and it features lots of shops that sell local fabrics: I bought one of their beautiful, colorful cotton pillows and I also got the chance to hone my weaving skills, trying to use one of the manual looms that local artisans use to produce their fabrics. It takes a lot of precision and manual skill, it’s all about pulling the right thread at the right time! I also tried spinning yarn around a spindle, which is actually surprisingly hard, and can also hurt, because the yarn heats up in the process! What struck me the most is that some of the tools we used were self-built, using recovered pieces from other objects, such as a bicycle, because local artisans cannot afford to buy ready-made tools, or buy replacement parts when anything breaks. This was also day one from the food perspective for me: I ate insects for the first time in my life… And I liked them, too!
READ MORE AFTER THE GALLERY
On the second day, we made our way to Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in Guatemala, which is actually experiencing an environmental crisis. The inhabitants throw all sorts of waste into the lake, and experts predict that it will become unsuitable for swimming over the next 3 years… Which would be a shame! The government is trying to help the population see their lake as a resource that they should protect, but there isn’t a culture of environmentalism yet, and the government’s efforts have not brought any results yet. Education is an issue in Guatemala: children from poorer families only go to school as long as the families can afford it, and girls usually don’t attend school beyond year 3 elementary. In Panajachel we found a school that was started to try to counter this phenomenon, to welcome pupils who perform well, and try to support them, allowing them to go on to higher grades, and possibly move on to studying abroad. In the beginning, this initiative was not very warmly welcomed by families, as they were not able to see any immediate benefits, a good reason or any advantages in offering an education to their kids: slowly, though, things are changing, thanks to the children’s enthusiasm for learning. The students who attend the school in Panajachel often share their knowledge at home, helping their friends and younger siblings, which is why the school is actually managing to have a wider impact, beyond its walls.
This was a very intense experience for me, as it made me realize that what we take for granted, what we sometimes even reject, like going to school, on those days we feel like skipping classes because we are so lazy, is actually a dream for others. Some of the school kids told us their stories, and I was really struck by these young people’s strength and character: I will never forget about the young 11-year-old girl who told me of how she worked on her own in the city for three years, to raise the money she needed to study, and become a doctor, one day. Next year, she will move to the US to follow her dreams, and I am sure she will accomplish everything she has in mind.
On the last day, we visited another small town, Santa Caterina Palopo, where a not-for-profit organization is trying to create something unique, to attract tourism and place the area on the tourist radar, helping the local population and the environment in the process. Here is a group of people that invites artists from all over the world, to paint the homes with beautiful, bold colors and traditional designs, to turn the town into a place you cannot miss. We had a chance to contribute, too: we were given an apron, natural paint and brushes, and we were invited to leave our trace in one of the streets, painting a heart over the Guatemalan flag: it was our way to leave a small part of us here, and our thoughts with these people who fight each and every day, to change their fate, and that of their people.