From Dumb Expat in Guatemala to Active Citizen in Colombia

General Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide in Guatemala 12 days ago shocked me, far more than the annulment of his sentence just two days ago. It’s a sign of how my interpretations and maturity process the reality of life in Latin America from the perspective of an expat enjoying a privileged existence.

The Guatemala and Colombia flag

The Guatemala and Colombia flag

On a British Council scholarship I moved to Guatemala in 1998 for my third year of university. Knowing relatively little about the country I fit into the expat lifestyle comfortably. I like to think I partied like a rock star, but my prowess was probably limited to tiresome drunken rants and lunges at other expat teachers. Someone correct me if I’m doing myself a disservice.

Within my expat bubble, I lived with two Canadian teachers and my partner in crime was another Canadian teacher who lived all of a 10 minute walk from me. His place was a permanent fridge full of beer and unhinged entertainment of excess.  Despite living my weekends between the ubiquitous fug of a hangover, trips to the beach and occasional hookups, I did start to read about the terrible history of Guatemala. Before long the despairingly yet accurately entitled history book, Shattered Hope appeared on my shelf, followed by the more whimsically named The Long Night of White Chickens.

Shattered Hope and the Long Night of White Chickens

Shattered Hope and the Long Night of White Chickens

Despite wishing to learn more, it was alien to me. I would be picked up before 7am by another teacher and driven from my comfortable apartment to the school where I worked. Grouped with other expat teachers, we made it through each day battling with the cultural nuances of Latin America and the inevitable bureaucracy.

But, recalling it all, we were, as a group privy to some terrible things there. However, as it was a one year jaunt, it was all in the spirit of adventure and new experiences. At some point or another we all saw the inherent and virulent racism of the upper classes towards the indigenous population, the rampant corruption (within a few weeks of my arrival we had bribed the traffic police), Hurricane Mitch, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, car jackings and attempted robberies.

One night on the beach at Monterrico some tattooed gangbangers jumped me and my friend and tried to beat me up. I really feared that she was going to be raped. Beer super powers kept me alive and my friend was able to flee. It was a dangerous place to be, but again seen through the beer goggles of a 22 year old, nothing really mattered.

being an expat in Guatemala

being an expat in Guatemala

My year was of course fundamental to who I am now and was a life changing experience. I am loathe to put it in these terms, but, had I not spent the year in Guatemala, through the vagaries of life I probably wouldn’t be here today in Colombia.

I was not a backpacker in Guatemala; I think you could say that I fell into a different category since I was living and working. But, my participation in Guatemalan society – aside from educating the children of the rich and famous – was essentially nil. Reflecting on this and writing this cathartic blog makes me think that I was dangerously aloof to the reality of life in Guatemala. It was only 1998; two years after the peace accords were signed bringing a written end to the long civil war.

Is it a certain maturity that allows me these ruminations? I presume so. But, I never really ever thought of the consequences of my actions and the dangerous yet incredibly enviable lifestyle I was enjoying. A great friend of mine from the Guate era in response to my idea of writing this blog shared this with me: “It was a super special experience to have in our 20s. Fear sat in my stomach as a murmur every day of those 5 years.” And this is a perfect description.

And so now, living in Colombia, married, working, starting a business and getting by, I feel that I pay far more attention to what is going on around me. My life does not revolve around expat poker nights and Irish Pubs, but, keeping in touch with my Anglophone heritage is important though not essential to my existence. It’s simply a reminder of my culture when perhaps the Colombian reality becomes too biting.

I shudder at the thought of how impressed I was when some Guate friends swept me away in the jeep to go off surfing and then from there we headed to their Atitlan lake-side finca. The next day they opened the boat shed to reveal a speed boat and we went waterskiing on a lake sacred to the Mayan people. How incongruous it must have looked I remember thinking. But, how disrespectful to the lakeside Mayans as they tried to catch a daily livelihood of fish as we disturbed the waters.

Curious times.

And now, I am studying Conflict Resolutions here in Bogota and my mind keeps getting cast back to Guatemala. Rios Montt was found guilty and it seemed as if the country had moved forward. Then, ten days later a tribunal annulled the decision. I travelled the lands where this genocide took place; my hikes were through their lands, possibly over the sites of mass graves, past indigenous villages that had suffered so much. Gazing out of the bus window and snapping clandestine photos of unsmiling villagers toiling on unyielding terrain bears a different meaning altogether to me today.

You won’t find me jet-skiing on the Magdalena River or quad biking in the Guajira desert, my priorities are different. You will find me pouring over the local newspapers and speaking to local people about life. I don’t want to miss out, I don’t want to gloss over the fine print and watch from the balcony here in Colombia. I want to be active and involved.

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