July 17, 2014 | 118 13

Seeking lessons in last trip to Guatemala, for now

Write to the Point

Next Wednesday, July 23, I leave again on a mission trip to Guatemala. It will be my third consecutive trip, fourth overall, and likely my last for a while — at least a year.

It’s an amazing adventure to be in that country, to travel and experience the culture, to see a different society in action, and to interact on many levels with its people. But believe me, it’s no vacation.

It’s exhausting frankly. Not just being country, traveling for long stretches on bad roads, traversing washed out areas, sometimes standing in the back of a pickup truck en route to hard to access villages. That’s not even mentioning the heat and humidity coupled with periodic torrential rainfall.

Just getting there is difficult. This trip requires four flight changes, landing in Guatemala City at 10:20 a.m. — their time — Thursday morning, ready for an 8-10 hour ride north to our starting point in Coban.

And it’s somewhat exhausting getting ready to go, at least it has been this year. Mainly with fundraising since these trips are not cheap.

Those are the reasons I wish to take a break after I return Aug. 4. I’ll be back in the office Aug. 5, so if you need to submit something for publication, please do so through our cfp.cheneyfreepress.com email address.

The people we visit in Guatemala’s Polochic River Valley are the Q’eqchi Maya, one of 23 indigenous Mayan groups in the country, each with their own dialect. Yes, those Maya. They didn’t vanish from existence over 1,100 years ago, only the most advanced civilization in the Americas and possibly the world did.

Or then again, maybe they did vanish. In Guatemalan society, the Maya are on or near the bottom of the social and economic ladder — and it’s their homeland.

Their representation in government isn’t very strong. In many issues, their government doesn’t care.

They were the primary victims of a 30-year long civil war — actually a Latin America genocide campaign — that ended in 1996 with an armistice after over 250,000 people, mostly Mayans and many Q’eqchi, had been killed or “disappeared.”

Our country, or rather our government, directly and the rest of us through complacency, played a part in that. We still play a part in the problems of Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

It’s estimated over 15,000 of the 57,000 or so unaccompanied children illegally entering the U.S. since last October are from Guatemala. They are fleeing overwhelming poverty and gang violence in their country, hoping for a new beginning in the land that has billed itself — at least in the past — as the land of new beginnings, of new hope.

I’ve seen the poverty. It’s nothing like you have seen here or can imagine.

I haven’t seen the gang violence. It’s perpetuated by the increase in the drug trade, which again we are responsible for.

Guatemala, along with Honduras and El Salvador immediately to the south and southwest are key routes for the cocaine and marijuana traffic heading north from Columbia. I have seen a noticeable escalation in the presence of the military in the Guatemalan countryside the last two years in response to this traffic and violence.

How would you feel if you began seeing squads of soldiers on patrol through the streets of Cheney, Medical Lake, Airway Heights and Spokane because of increasing crime? Would you feel safer, or be on constant edge in anticipation of getting caught in the crossfire of a potential gun battle?

Each year that I have traveled to the Central American country I have tried to do more to gain understanding about their society, their culture and their challenges. Each year, more of the reporter in me has come out.

Last year I learned a lot. This year I hope to build on that, and maybe, I can bring something home for you to learn too.

Wish me luck.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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