1st June, 2010

Mud-covered and aching (Black Cat Hostel, Antigua)

OK, so let’s get serious for a moment. Feck. Over the past few days Guatemala has been devastated by Tropical Storm Agatha. The catastrophe has received almost no international press beyond the evidently more dramatic sinkhole in the city. Apparently people prefer to know what kinds of chocolate bars “Brits Prefer!”

People are dying and more rain is in the forecast.

Been out all day digging. Exhausted.

●  June 15th, 2010

Parque Central, Antigua

I’m despondent. If you’d have asked me when I first got to Antigua how I felt about Guatemala, I would have told you that I’d found heaven on earth. For the first two months, the sun shone, I learnt the present tense in Spanish. I drank Moza on the roof of Café Sky. I climbed volcanoes, swam in a few lakes and generally “did some good.” But things have changed.

It’s been pretty hairy since the hurricane. The clean-up effort has been impressive. Dozens to hundreds of people I know, Guatemalan and extranjero, have been going out every day to dig in San Miguel Escobar. In Cuidad Vieja. It has been impressive but is also hugely frustrating. For the first week it felt like the hordes of us descending on San Miguel (with our shovels, tins of beans and lashing of good will) might be able to make it all alright. But we’ve barely made a dent. There’s little machinery and it is so needed. The sewage systems are still devastated. People are starting to get sick. I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to shift a mountain of mud by hand is pretty damn difficult no matter how many hands you have.

They still don’t have the figures for how many people died or are still missing, but the statistics fade into insignificance when you’re raking through the remains of people’s lives, as if participating in some viciously warped version of The Generation Game: “Look! Here’s a mud-stained text book! An abandoned cuddly toy! A half-made loaf of bread which will now never be finished!

I. Am. Knackered.

● June 25th, 2010

5am, shuttle bus to the Honduran Border:

I need a bloody break from the rain.

Somebody once said to me:  “Guatemala: It’s wonderful, it’s terrible, it will capture you and it will break your heart.”

I had no idea how absolutely and completely this statement would resonate with me.

● 20th November 2010

Front Bar, Café No Sé, Antigua

Just got back from Guatemala City and am drinking mezcal at No Sé. I think it’s been almost six months since I started with Camino Seguro. I haven’t written much since Agatha. Seemed more important to work, and working with the kids at the project is intense. The kids’ parents are guajeros, harvesters of the largest landfill in Central America, where, for over half a century, thousands of tons of waste have been dumped daily. Methane seeps from the waste constantly. The smell of rot and decay is consistent and oppressive.

There aren’t many days that go past without a shooting/rape/robbery/horrendously-terrifying incident in the neighborhood, yet, within the inoffensively pastel-tinted walls of the organization, it is possible to forget exactly where the children are coming from and how young they really are. It’s all “¿que onda vos this?” and “hey sexy that.” They can give you enough crap to make you doubt your ability to execute some of the most basic of human functions, let alone feel capable of imparting any sort of usable information to anybody else.

Then you see them ambling their way homeward, through a post-apocalyptic landscape of grey concrete and carefully sifted garbage; or sitting on the side of the road next to a father who just downed his second bottle of Quetzalteca of the afternoon; or turning to hide the recurring black eye that just refuses to be masked under a layer of crudely applied make-up, and you remember their vulnerability.

Youth is rudely stolen.

● 3rd December, 2010

Staff room at Camino Seguro, Guatemala City

I feel like pulling my hair out. Looking back on the class, it now seems glaringly obvious things weren’t going to work out. We’d planned a university-style seminar-type shebang: get the kids to talk openly about their feelings in relation to music. Fabulous! I’m not quite sure what the hell we were expecting: cups of tea and socks off?

“So, what do you think of XXX song?

Silence. Long, silent silence.

“Has anyone ever written a song?”

Longer, silenter silence.

“What’s your favorite musician?”

Bored silence. Angry silence.

This cycle of questioning and aggressive non-answering went on for 20 minutes before we finally aborted it in favor of fashioning maracas out of plastic cups.

Lesson learned. By me, anyway.

● 13th December 2010

My apartment: Antigua, Guatemala

Frustrated with trying to pack for the trip home. Decided to visit the family. Coming back in three weeks. Can’t get the luggage shut. Is there any point in packing shorts for a brief foray into English winter? No. Clearly not. Why, then, have they been packed? Packing is rubbish.

● 14th December, 2010

Departure hall of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston, Texas

I can see at least seven television screens, each of them flickering between The Situation Room and trailers for other apparently important shows on CNN: There  is a clip of Hugh Jackman hitting his head on Oprah Winfrey. On my way to the loo I caught an interview with some pie-faced woman talking about her experience of being “stranded” on a cruise liner for three hours longer than scheduled. “Scary Stuff!” exclaimed the polyester anchorwoman.

I feel like I am watching everything through a layer of clingfilm.

Frosty the Snowman is playing over the buzz of TV chatter. A blond lady in the studio is telling me that a middle-aged celebrity knocking his forehead on a chat show is something I should be concerned about.

I just checked Facebook. A number of friends have sent me premature welcomes back to civilization. I feel like I’m hurtling the wrong-way back through the looking glass. The world seems upside-down in this synthetic womb of an airport, with its smothering of safety announcements and Christmas shopping countdowns. A voice informs me that Continental Airways flight, direct to London Heathrow, is now boarding. I’m choking. It’s an overwhelming sense of not being able to breathe.

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About the Author

Hannah Wallace Bowman first knocked our socks off several years ago when she lived in Antigua and wrote a couple of genius pieces for La Cuadra. Then, pursuing journalistic and storytelling opportunities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, she headed out into the wider world. Now she's come home and we're on pins to start collaborating with her again in the coming months and years. Welcome home, beautiful and brainy, we've missed you terribly.