Alex and I returned to Spanish school in Xelaju where I was fully expecting to engage again with the students at La Pedrera. Things changed. Over the holiday, the Guatemala government announced the postponement of the start of the school year for 3 weeks. The La Pedrera project was scheduled to start back up to coincide with the start of the new school year so they also delayed startup of the project. Pretty drastic action, you might think. But, not drastic in comparison to problems that the educational system here is facing.
Last year the president, Alvaro Colom, decreed that all primary education in Guatemala would be free. Previously it cost at least $250 a year to send kids to school, not counting the lost income to families that might otherwise send their kids to work. Consequently barely half of Guatemalan children go to school(1). As a result of the recent decree, enrollment in school increased by 47% (2) but the country does not even have the infrastructure to serve even the original students. Schools in rural areas often have no doors, roofs or even desks. Sometimes a chair and desk consist of a log and a cement block. I heard reports that some teachers cancel school 2 days a week so they can work other jobs to subsist. And the teachers are up in arms over the expected doubling of class sizes. Last weekend on a hike through a semi-remote area, we came upon a school without a roof. Since it rains daily here about 8 months of the year, I cannot imagine how they will conduct classes.
(1), The World Guide: 84% attend primary school, 25% attend secondary
(2), Prensa Libre, Jan 18 2009, "Schools open with Shortcomings"
So, while I was planning to volunteer for two more weeks with La Pedrera kids, I was only able to do a few small things such as working on the computers, getting the wireless internet working and updating student photos on the Casa Xelaju website. My last week in Quetzaltenango, I madly gave away anything I did not absolutely need, in order to travel lightly.
My last week in Guatemala, I spent a day traveling into the interior to the village of Nebaj. That was an incredible experience that I hope to highlight in my slide presentation. It is at the end of the paved road and very isolated from the normal tourist routes. During the civil war it was a center of Mayan resistance to the military and large landowners. I found a 70 year old guide to take me on a “sacred sites walking tour”, visiting Mayan alters where traditional healers were performing rituals. These are practices that have survived 500 years of Spanish, Catholic and Pentecostal invasions. I felt quite blessed to have this opportunity in such and out-of-the-way region. My next stop was the market day in Chichicastenango for market day and then on to Lago Atitlan.
Lago Atitlan, one of the most beautiful places on earth, displays a sharp contrast of wealthy estates that dot the shoreline alongside dirt floor adobe huts where locals eke out a living. I spent one night in the tiny village of Jaibalito before a rendezvous with my nephew Alex in San Marcos. Jaibalito was an amazing experience. The town has no roads leading to it which makes it slightly less developed than some of the other lakeside towns. It is only accessible by boat or footpath from other villages making it a bit more tranquil than some of the other tourist stops. Meeting up with Alex for my last evening, we stayed in a hilltop yoga retreat where a vegetarian dinner was served communal style. We sat on grass mats on a terrace looking out at the stunning volcanoes that line the lakeshore, in awe of a last beautiful sunset in Guatemala.