Before even crossing the border from Mexico, you’re already in another country—as if Mexico realized in advance that you’re leaving her for her less successful but more beautiful little sister and let’s you have a sneak preview of what quickly becomes your new love. We cross the border by boat, leaving behind our last 15 pesos, a steal for a view of the rainbow color-coordinated boats and the snaking shoreline lined with grazing water buffaloes.
Once on dry land and within seconds of the drive, you realize the jagged mountains ahead are smoother than these rocky roads. I know I’m riding in a van, but every tire rotation feels like I’m riding on an electric bull.
But these jolts and shaking may be influenced. Coincidentally, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake is literally rocking the south of Guatemala at the same time the rocky roads and struts are shaking our van. Maybe it has some impact. But definitely we are lucky. Guatemala has a history of being hit with international news headline-worthy disasters before. In 2005, Hurricane Stan left 1,500 dead. This time 36 are dead when we arrive. 48 will be dead by the time it’s over. For a 7.4 magnitude earthquake, we got off easy.
To the north at Mexico’s other border, there is a proposed $52-billion wall, including the projected $49 billion operating cost of maintaining and controlling the US-Mexican border. Here at Mexico’s other border, a $50 Quetzal bag of asphalt from a hardware store would be the biggest construction project this side of the border has seen in decades, despite the Mexican government’s efforts to keep Mexico Mexican.
Guatemala is to Mexico what Mexico is to the US. For every Mexican that illegally crosses into the US for work, there is a Central American illegally crossing through Guatemala into Mexico to take his place—some to continue onto the US, others to take backbreaking jobs in Mexico for wages that are low but higher than they could make in countries like Guatemala. Officially, the nation’s main exports are coffee and sugar cane. Really, its main export is poverty.
Guatemala is poor, but not the kind of poor you’re thinking of. You’re thinking of the 8-year-old dirt-brown-skinned child with flies and mosquitoes orbiting his head and flying into his cleft palette lip on a Catholic Charities commercial (I sometimes suspect that part of those charities’ budget costs are importing those flies for their commercials). Guatemala is the kind of poor where instead of having $2,000 a week but a only quarter acre of land to live on, you live off of $2 a day and are gifted 2,000 acres of farm land, mountains, fields, and untouched rainforests of God’s nature. 51% of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty and, not coincidentally, 51% are agricultural workers. If poverty was a publicly traded company, Guatemalans would be the majority shareholder.
Guatemala is the kind of poor where many can’t afford free public schooling. If a child in a mountain village attempted the 6-mile walk from the nearest school back to his home, up and down hills that look more dangerous than the journey to Mordor, by the the time he made it home, he would already be late to leave for school the next day.
But what it lacks in its economy (it has the highest GDP in Central America yet ranks as the third-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere thanks to staggeringly imbalanced wealth distribution), it makes up for in raw beauty—in its landscape and its people.