Charlotte Newell Guatemala Diary -- Day 4

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IMG_0219So I spent most of the day yesterday playing with the little kids, wandering around San Pedro, and talking to Calixto and his family. All I got pictures of the day before was the scenery, which meant that today was my day to take pictures. I've been working with my good friend Travis on making a new promotional video for First Things Foundation but we needed more B roll, which was one of the reasons that I went to San Pedro. Our main goal was to get video and pictures of people working and in empowering situations. As a Foundation, we very strongly do not believe that people in villages like San Pedro are helpless poor people who can't do anything without us, the white person, leading the charge. As such, we wanted to make sure we got pictures and video that reflected that. After a bit of a struggle, I was able to. In the morning, Javier and his friend left, so I asked Maria who I should talk to who could take me around and talk to the people I wanted to photograph. I didn't want to just wander around on my own and take pictures of people. Not because I didn't feel safe on my own, but because I didn't want to just be some bumbling gringa taking pictures of the poor Guatemalan people, you know? I didn't want to fall into that stereotype. I also wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything people would consider rude.

So she sent me to go talk to one of the guys on the committee, but he wasn't home. I talked to his wife and she said he'd be back at 2pm, so I asked her to let him know what I wanted to do and that I'd be waiting at Calixto's house whenever he got back. She said she'd tell him so I went back and waited. This, of course, was at 10am, so I had quite a wait. I read and played with the little kids some more.

While I was waiting, I also helped Maria make tortillas. Or, as they'd say in Spanish, 'tortillar.' Yes, tortillar is, in fact, a fabulous verb that means to make tortillas. Being the five-year-old that I really am, when I would think it in my head, I translated it as 'to tortilla' instead of 'to make tortillas' because that sounds so much more fun.

Estoy tortillando = I am tortilla-ing Tortillé = I tortilla-ed Both of those sound like so much more fun than 'I'm making tortillas' or 'I made tortillas.' Like I said, I'm actually a little child.

Regardless of how much fun the verb was, I was actually pretty terrible at tortilla-ing. In the time it took Maria to make three or four perfectly smooth, circular tortillas I was able to make one malformed not-even-slightly-geometric blob of dough that was cracking at the edges. I also had a hard time because she tortilla-ed on a large ceramic plate heated by fire. That fire was in a tiny little room which ended up being filled to the brim with smoke. Any time I walked into a kitchen I immediately started crying because there was so much smoke and my weak eyes couldn't handle it. Maria got a good laugh out of that.

Then 2pm came and passed, and eventually it was 3pm and I figured 'huh. He doesn't seem to be likely to come around anytime soon. So I talked to Maria again and she told me to go talk to the President. Alejandra, one of the little girls, showed me where his house was because I had no clue. He said he wasn't free until 4, which was fine with me. I'd already waited 5 hours, so what's one more? (And that wasn't sarcasm, it honestly didn't matter. Everyone is much more relaxed about time here than in the US where on time means five minutes early.)

The president arrived around 4:30, which in the grand scheme of things really isn't that late. We spent a while talking about what First Things Foundation does, because he wasn't familiar with it. He'd only been president for 20 days when I got there. That was hard. My Spanish is decent, and I can express complex ideas. I just can't express those ideas as well as I'd like to be able to. After a while, I think he was finally able to understand my rambling and we headed off to visit people and take some pictures.

At the first house we went to, he explained to them that I wanted to take some pictures to take back to the US, and immediately she grabbed her daughter and they posed outside their house with sad, forlorn faces.

I didn't want to take pictures like that, because that's such a stereotypical image that we see in America. And that image says 'look at me, I'm so poor and I need you dynamic, intelligent foreigners to come do stuff for me or donate money because I can't do it myself.' That's exactly the ideology that we don't want to propagate. So the president and I explained to her what the point of the video was and then she smiled and said we could take pictures of her washing the dishes. She was a little thrown, but happy to do so and the camera was able to capture the hardworking, competent woman she really was instead of a helpless poor person.

To me, those are two drastically different photos. The first furthers this notion that poor people in foreign countries are just sad and can't do anything to help themselves. The second one says to us in America that 'Hey, yeah, I live a simple life. I don't have a lot of luxuries and my main source of running water is in my outdoor sink. But I'm willing to work and I'm much more than just a sad face.'

And that second picture is what we want you to see. We want you to see that their lives are drastically different from ours, so how would we know what's best for them? We want you to see that these are people with daily lives and hopes and dreams, not just another sad face with dark skin. Yes, we can help, but we don't know everything and we need to follow their lead.

When I travel, I really don't like to take a ton of pictures. I feel like it separates you from the experience and makes everything much less personal. So the fact that I was going to Guatemala almost solely to take pictures was a real struggle for me to get over. I was really nervous to start taking these pictures, but I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't make things more impersonal at all. In fact, it helped break that barrier between me and everyone else, because most people were really excited about getting their picture taken and then were much more willing to talk to me about their lives.

I feel like my experience was drastically better as a result of taking these pictures, and those experiences signified a true exit from the highway. I was now “alone” in this village. I was not literally alone, there were plenty of people in the village too. But I was alone in that once Javier had left, there was nobody else in that village who spoke English. There was nobody else there who had really lived and understood life on the highway or the life I came from, which was great. The fact that I was alone, that I was the odd one out, allowed me to connect with everyone else much better. I had to, or I would have remained alone. It's not real traveling unless you're forced out of your comfort zone – unless you leave the highway. Otherwise it's just visiting. Maybe it's semantics, but I think there's a difference and I think that's expressed in Song of the Open Road.