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Traveler's Journal

A Language of Compassion

In Guatemala, a child of the material world learns much more than just a new tongue.


ANTIGUA, Guatemala — I don't know when it first occurred to me to take my 7-year-old daughter, Sydney, to Guatemala for a month. It might have been after the holidays, when she informed me that her friend Brittany had "a radio and a CD player and a VCR and a TV and a telephone in her room, and she's only 6. When can I get my own telephone, Mommy?"

Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a year spent listening to Sydney and her fellow first-graders measure their worth in Powerpuff Girls and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and all things Barbie. Or perhaps it was after taking a good look at the overindulged children of my middle-class friends and thinking, "Look at these fragile children, with their underdeveloped sense of self-reliance and overdeveloped sense of entitlement."

I had come here for a three-week Spanish immersion program in 1999. It was the first time I had spent a significant amount of time abroad, and the trip seared my mind with harsh, beautiful contrasts, scenes of panoramic beauty and grinding squalor.

A trip to a well-traveled locale in Central America would be a great way to teach Spanish to Sydney and to expand her frame of reference gently, I thought. A way, I hoped, to dematerialize my material girl.

We touched down in Guatemala City on an early June evening, and city lights colored the night sky. Sydney looked out the airplane window and exclaimed loudly, "Look at all the buildings, Mommy!" Then she looked at me accusingly and added, "You said there weren't any buildings in Guatemala."

I refused to make eye contact with any of the other passengers. I had not said that, but in trying to prepare her, perhaps I had overemphasized the whole developing-country thing. Tact was to be a frequent casualty of our trip.

The head of the English department at the bilingual school Sydney would attend had taken care of the logistics. We would stay with a family in Antigua, the destination of nearly 70% of all visitors to Guatemala. It is an evocatively beautiful, ancient city, a place where Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone streets are set against a backdrop of great, looming volcanoes. In a country scarred by 36 years of civil war--it ended in 1996--Antigua has held fiercely to its Old World soul while catering to a robust tourist industry.

Syd had not been looking forward to the trip, complaining that she would be forced to live without TV and English. Our first night, she was tired and close to meltdown about the "clubhouse on the roof," a small, spare one-room roof addition that was our living quarters. But early the next morning she rushed out to play with the roosters, which had begun crowing, impossibly, at 3 in the morning.

"Mommy, I fed the chickens," she exclaimed. "I love it here!" She hated-loved just about every day we spent in Guatemala.

For $65 a week we received our room and three meals every day except Sunday. The house was about a five-block walk from the main gathering place, Parque Central, and its nearby banks, restaurants and shops. Our typical colonial abode featured an uncovered indoor patio and eight rooms of varying sizes, with the front room used as a small tienda, a store selling toiletries, snacks and liquor. The spare room was reserved for foreign visitors.

I spoke limited Spanish; Senora Lorena and her husband, their two children and the more than half-dozen extended family members who lived with them spoke no English. But nothing focuses the mind like having to negotiate food and bathroom issues. Everyone in the house made concessions for our limited vocabulary except the matriarch and family cook, Dona Olivia. At 71, the tiny, wizened woman could not be bothered to interrupt her flow just so her foreign visitors could translate. While Senora Lorena and her father ran the family store, and her husband worked in the city as a security guard, Dona Oli ran the house and cared for the foreign guests.

She clucked, fretted and worried, grandmother-like, over Sydney's eating, bathroom and outerwear habits.

"Te gusta la sopa, mi amor?" she asked one day after serving a steaming bowl of black bean soup. "Do you like the soup, my love?"

Sydney just stared at the old woman, while I smiled and apologized and assured the senora that the soup was fine. "Sydney, you're being rude," I told her.

Within a few days, Syd got with the program. Her attempts to count in Spanish improved, and "uno, dose, crayes, tacos" turned into a well-accented count to 10.

"Tienes que comer, nina," the senora admonished my daughter one day at lunch, frowning at her half-eaten plate. "You have to eat, child."

"Si," Sydney replied, smiling at the senora before turning to me. "Mommy, do you like how I just say 'si'? That way the senora thinks I know what she's talking about."

Our days fell into a routine. We were up by 5:30 to avoid the bathroom rush and the prospect of being mostly nude in the courtyard, which was just off the bathroom. At breakfast, Syd and I would run through a checklist of our day.

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