Life in Happy Ignorance

7 Apr

In an earlier blog Bec posted this question: Will people ever understand?

It made me think because I did experience something very similar. People don’t seem to get it, but before I got home something happened that made me a little more prepared. Sorry for this ridiculously long blog, I got kind of caught by writing. Enjoy reading 🙂

It’s already two years ago when I worked as a volunteer in Guatemala. While being there I kept in touch with my friends and one of them managed to get a medical internship at Harvard. So I decided to go to Continental Airlines to see if I could change my return flight to Amsterdam and make a stop-over in Boston. I could.

Two days before I left Guatemala I ran into some friends who were talking to a local NGO person. I forgot his name, but he invited us to have a look at the project he was working on in Guatemala City. Earlier I denied an invite to visit a mental hospital, because after people told me about the horrible living conditions. After all you wouldn’t go to help, but more like going to the zoo to have a look at the rare ‘monkeys’. But this guy said it was really important to have westerners visit, because one: it would raise the status of the project and two: we could carry the message out, so I decided to tag along.

The project was bizarre. I lived in Guatemala for almost three months, travelled across the country, had seen poor people, bad living conditions, but nothing like this. The project is called Safe Passage and tries to create a ‘passage’ to a better world for the people who live on Guatemala City’s garbage dump. A place where you as a foreigner shouldn’t go and are actually not allowed to go by government edict. Funny thing is that what is promoted as the least safe place of Guatemala is in reality the safest place to be, since the only white people that go there are there to help and seen as such. What’s the point if robbing if the people you rob are there to give you help (and money) anyways?

These people, mostly Maya’s, live and work on the dump by collecting Coca-Cola-cans or going in to prostitution. The going rates are something like this: $0.10 – $0.50 for a day of can-collecting (government working license not included) and around $0.50 for the sale of your body (condoms not included). Housing is for free, since you live on the dump, but food isn’t, so most people end up eating what comes out of the garbage trucks. The trick is to put lemon on it, the acid kills the most harmful bacteria. These people are stuck in a so-called poverty trap, no skills to get a job, discrimination against an ethnic minority and no money to start any business themselves. Safe Passage is there trying to help them with schooling and setting up jewelry business, but the amount of people living on the dump is increasing rather than decreasing.

A day later I flew out of the country. And there I was, walking around in a goatskin jacket, long hair and a beard. I couldn’t feel less at home between Boston’s skyscrapers. Sipping a beer in some Irish pub while waiting for my friend my eyes got drawn to a television which screened a turkey-bowling competition somewhere in the States, it’s almost Christmas you know? I remember how much it upset me, are people really that ignorant of ‘their others’ a bit more South? What’s that message of Christmas again?

And that was Boston in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis which put thousands of people out of work and on the street. And here I am writing this story, because you know, I might win an I-pad! That I-pad is hell of a lot more relevant to my life than Guatemala City dump’s residents. I probably haven’t thought about them for a year, they got out of sight, but somewhere I know, they are still there. It’s the same with all the people I told this story, they will laugh, it probably is a funny story, but what does it say about us? After feeling pity for a minute or five, listening to your story, everybody continues life in the comfort zone of happy ignorance. You’re five minutes fame are over, welcome back, life goes on. And really, before you know it, you will start caring more about an I-pad than about those people far away who would have to work for 200 years to be able to afford one. Safe Passage made a short movie about the only things these people have: a history, a life and hope: La Pluma.

After my ‘trip’ I spent a couple of sundays putting a photo-book together, somewhere in it are these two pictures. Can you see the difference? No, I mean really? Do you understand?

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