Guate, Guate!

In an effort to begin the New Year with GK Chesterton’s advice “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered” I highly enjoyed my two days in luxury hotels in Washington DC.  This “inconvenience” of spacious hotel rooms, beds I hope to be able to be able to afford in two or three years, and breakfasts fit for queens occurred because of canceled flights to Logan Airport due to a blizzard on my return trip from Guatemala.

The disparity between Guatemala (occasionally categorized as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere) and the United States (usually categorized as the least poorest country in the Western Hemisphere) as my departure and arrival destinations seemed even greater because of my “shoestring” hospedaje travel in Guatemala and the providence of a “discounted” hotel opportunity given by United Airlines.  This Chesterton attitude, in addition to the juvenile embarrassment most reflective, intelligent, young Americans subject themselves to by standing on their blogboxes  and declaiming the problems of the American Society post-eye-opening travel experience, has told me this post should not be about social changes I think Guatemala/ the US could implement.

Instead, let’s talk about food.

This is the most accurate picture of a Guatemalan breakfast I can find.

This is an accurate picture of a Guatemalan dinner.

You will note, that the two of them are extremely similar.  I could do a similar picture display for lunch and dinner.  Many of the times I ate in Guatemala two of my meals of the day were exactly the same.  This held true within the enclaves of a host-family, an eco-resort, and revisiting several comedors.

Another surprise was the convenience of purchasing “streetfood.”  Here, I don’t refer to the food stalls surrounding the central parque where men and women cook bistec, tortillas, arroz, longaniza, or other items, but the vendors with their carts arrayed with streamers of bags of chips, pyramids of Fanta, and neat boxes of Chicle gum.  Weaving about them are youth hocking lollipops, gold-toothed men selling cashews or peanuts, and huipl-clad women with baskets of fresh cut papaya, pineapple, banana, and melons parceled into plastic bags.  As seems customary among the demure Guatemalans, they feel no need to catch your attention with more than a nod and a gesture to their product.  There is no sales pitch, merely accommodation to your purchase, “Necesita azucar o miel con las frutas?”

Finally, although it was a surprise to consume such regularity of food each day, there was delight at the variation on each plate.  Note that breakfast comes with beans, and eggs, and sauce, and cheese, and plantains, and (I’m sure though un-photographed) corn tortillas.  Lunches often contained soup, and rice, and salad, and chicken, and salsa, and tortillas, and a beverage.  This modestly-portioned buffet of foods on each plate is going to find it’s way into my own meal presentation in the very near future.

Travel In a Second Language

Despite my predeliction for defnitive statements, I have had time to think about the one I am about to make.  Though it sounds firm and irrevocable, I quaver on many of the intricate details if the journey is followed through to the end of the road. So, I will attempt only to unpack what has been resting in the forefront of my mind, the carry-on luggage. (if you continue to indulge my metaphors.)

The most important part of travel, for Westerners, is the potential of Inconvenience and Lack of Control.

Many people shoulder the blessing of travel with the predictable reasons of Broadening Horizons, Volunteering time/money/talent (Salvation mentality), experiencing Art and Historical Culture birthed from different epochs.  And I will grant, that seeing the discrepancies between standard of living can give pause for you to experience gratitude for your own material posession.  (But rarely does it cause one to renounce said material possessions, and the twinges of remembered gratitude fly faster than the 747 taken to the developing nation.)  And I will grant, there´s a vast difference between seeing (forgive this cliche) The Mona Lisa from a proximal position than from the glossy page of a magazine.  (Though whatever artwork, ruins, or wildlife you see will only ever be viewed in terms of what you are accustomed to seeing, lived through the remembered pictures of the place, you´re mind reflecting back on itself)  And I will grant that building a house, or teaching English may seem like noble endeavors, but they seem only a slippery slope away from micro-globalization, and the United States (or wherever) once again attempting to insert it´s hands into the lives of other cultures.

So, with these caveats stated, let´s get back to the premise.

American (Western) culture, as has been stated ad nauseum, is a culture build on individuality.  And this culture of individuality prizes above all its autonomy and self-actualization.  Ignore for a minute the debate about whether choosing between 10 different laundry detergents is a real choice, or a choice worth valuing.  In each of these trivial choices the individual asserts control.  And the longer we live, the more of these choices we have willingly walked ourself into, creating an environment of stultified personalization.

Despite the obvious decision of your vacation/volunteer location, and the choice of accomodations, you cannot choose the delayed plane.  You cannot choose the weather.  You cannot choose being stranded from some of the possessions you would normally have for some of the weather conditions encountered.  You are no longer free to choose the company you would have selected at your home, or the the ideas usually generated by those people.  Travelling throws you into an environment you haven´t navigated and chosen from a hundred times before.

And this, is a fairly good reason for choosing it.

Hospitality: It’s more than getting your own bed.

Hospitality seems to get the same rap as the Golden Rule: “What’s the big deal, you just be nice to people.”   And, if measured in terms of services, can be performed better by an impersonal hotel, which has brokered deals for better TV, better coffee, and a better air conditioning.

Yet, as I’ve been traveling through the Maritime provinces of Canada with my husband we’ve stayed at several campgrounds, and two WWOOF hosts getting a more intimate picture of hospitality.  WWOOFing stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms” and the deal is: For 5 to 6 hours of work per day, you stay at an organic farm with a host for an agreed upon duration with free room and board.  The farms aren’t conventional pastoral scenes envisioned by us urbanites, but range from CSA farms, to bakeries, vineyards, or (as our next destination) an artisanal tofu shop.

Here’s where Hospitality comes into play.  Every one of these hosts has agreed to open their home to strangers, in exchange for some work that is of nearly equal value.  The host has already agreed to the premise of hospitality, but what they do beyond clean sheets separates gratitude from grudge.  This is where I truly discovered that there is more to hospitality even than extra rooms in a home, lovingly prepared food, meals eaten as a group, and badminton groups available for joining.

Our first hosts knew how many siblings we each had (and their occupations) by the end of the third day, they suggested locations to visit around their area and tailored those suggestions to the type of people we readily present ourselves to be (bibliophile metropolitan hipsters with coffee cravings).  Upon hearing our religious affiliation they put their own disavowal of organized religion behind them, and accepted that we had made intentional choices regarding beliefs.

Our second hosts couldn’t have told you what city we lived near or the type of movies we liked watching.  They could tell you how three people own the entire American political machine, how evil precludes the existence of God, and cities are places where the Hell’s Angels roam militantly about seeking whom they might devour.  They weren’t prepared to allow us a single statement either in confirmation or denial of any of these things.  They lectured continually.

Between these two hosts, we noticed that the first had a doorway of transparency, and the second an obdurate wall of opinion.  The first respected us as people who had come to crossroad and made different decisions based on reason, the second couldn’t believe that we perceived tofu as a remotely appetizing.  (“If I want to eat bean protein, I’ll just eat beans.  Besides, Bison meat is the best source of protein and fat you can eat.”  – Yes, that is a REAL quote) The first were ready to inconvenience themselves, even mentally for us, the second unable to see beyond their own limited provincial experiences.

Hospitality, which is so much more than even this topsoil level scratching, has become a thing I want to examine more closely.  What more is there beyond the material comfort, the respect and transparency?  What can I find out, and how then can I embody it?