During Easter 2016 I travelled to El Salvador and Guatemala for a cheap yet culturally enriching adventure. My kids were away skiing in Whistler, and I took advantage of my freedom (woohoo) to participate in the well-celebrated religious processions of Santa Semana in Antigua, tour an ecological farm that educates indigenous Guatemalans on a sustainable seed-to-table lifestyle, and visit my Spanish tutor.
One reason I love travelling is the experience of learning about other cultures and touching certain individuals to gain a different perspective outside of my Canadian bubble. I love the grittiness and adventure of travelling solo, backpacking, volunteering, and living with the locals when possible.
Meeting Jose was an eye-opening experience after months of Spanish lessons via Skype.
When I met Jose on Easter Sunday, I felt an immediate kindred spirit, and wanting to support him as an aunt or parental-like figure. It was very easy to get along with him, similar to our video conferences except now he was physically in front of me. My tutor has an amicable fun personality…chatting away, making jokes. His congeniality was infectious.
Jose made an attempt to pay for his lunch, a delicious Guatemalan chicken soup with a refreshing Gallo cerveza, but I denied him. I was secretly relieved he tried as I was concerned he would try to scam me. I felt guilty for those thoughts, but it has happened.
I did not realize he had arranged with his boss to have the day off. No work = no pay. A North American business proprietor purposely hires cheap Central American workers to avoid benefits and taxes under employment law. I understood the significance and impact to my tutor for taking a vacay day. However, it delighted me to have a tour guide. We laughed in between slurps of broth. After our meal, we walked the dusty streets to Lago de Atitlan.
I learned more about his sad, yet empowering story. I knew a little from snippets of conversations in between Spanish verbs and nouns.
He was born in Honduras. I was surprised when he told me his mother had been a preacher. Mainly because he referred to her as Satan, not Mom, Mother, and certainly not Mommy. I know of some individuals who call their mother by their given name, but never Satan.
When he was a young boy, possibly 9-10 years old, he was hit tragically by a car.
He was shocked to learn he had been in a coma for a month when he finally awakened. He thought he had slept for only 1 evening.
His mother, who was regularly beaten by his step-father, gave him up to an orphanage when Jose was discharged from hospital. He often tried to protect his mother when she was physically abused, but who would help her now? His mother, Satan, promised to visit her eldest child frequently. Every month when all the other boys had family come to visit, Jose waited….and waited. He waited more, anxious and hopeful, but his mother never came.
Her grandmother sold his mother as a young girl; this was typical in their village. Older men buy younger women. As he explained, it was typical for brothers and sisters to have sex. Any sort of inter-family sexual relationship of all ages was common and accepted. To hear the vulnerability and emotion in his voice saddened me as he described the vile acts.
Jose grew hardened from his experiences while yearning for his mother’s love. The orphanage released him at 17 years old. He had graduated, and was ready for adulthood. From his perspective, he was sent away. Ousted from his home. He was too old to continue at the school orphanage. He had no idea of what to do next. He entered the orphanage with nothing, and left with nothing. Where to next? He entered a home for murderers, convicts, rapists. I was very comfortable with Jose, but at this point, I felt a chill run down my spine wondering if he had killed. I asked. He responded, “no.”
Jose was petrified he would be attacked and raped. His room was a locked jail cell with undesirables. After a month of living in fear, he ran away with only the clothes on his back. Although no walk in the park, he felt safer sleeping in the streets. I admire him, his hustle. Some may have given up, accepted their fate to live in a vicious cycle of poverty, and resort to crime. He never had strong mentors to set moral examples, to love, and provide TLC.
He found an unfurnished room. He used the bare ground as his bed, and his shirt as his blanket after sweeping the floor. He was a sweet talker. The Landlord allowed him to pay rent when he gained employment. He charmed “blatantly lied” his way through a cellular phone company interview. Apparently, he had much success and experience in that field. I would not doubt that he flirted with the interviewer, and I would bet money he became more successful than those already working in that position.
One job was insufficient. He found an ad for a bartender position. Although he had no clue what a bartender did, he applied. When he spoke to the owner, he hustled his way into the role. Jose was an extraordinaire cocktail concoction-ist. The interview included testing. The owner asked Jose to create a drink with fire. He asked for a moment to visit the bathroom to research tequila drinks online (3 tequilas and a lighter). Voila!
His future boss asked at what point should the beverage be consumed, “whenever you are ready to decide whether tequila vs fire burns more!” The proprietor was impressed that the drink lit his stomach on fire. Who knew an internal burning sensation is a good reason to hire someone?
During that period, Jose methodically searched the official name directory for his mother at every free opportunity. He was diligent in his goal to reunite with her no matter how long it took.
When his dream finally came to fruition, he was unsure if it was even his parent. He shared no resemblance to his mother nor siblings. He asked the most impactful question that had occupied his heavy heart and mind for years, “Why did she give him up all those years ago? Why did she not visit him as she promised? Why? Why? Why?”
My heart hurt for him, and my stomach fills with knots thinking about his pain. Although he did not say it, I saw his hurt, his rejection, the pain.
He was very open about his excessive drug and alcohol consumption to numb his pain. At first, I tried to discourage his abusive ways although not really my place to lecture. There is a time and place for everything. If he wants, he will stop, and only he can make that decision. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to stand by to watch. After further discussion, learning the full extent of his life, I truly understand why he continues to abuse substances. They are his crutch, a coping mechanism. I am not saying it is right, but I am not going to condone nor judge him. If his mother is Satan, Jose claims he is the Devil.
He shared the dark story of his 2 younger brothers.
Satan repeatedly told his siblings that their elder brother could not be trusted. Jose was NO good. One brother joined a gang. Gangsters kill, and more than likely will be killed. A vicious cycle. As retaliation, the opposing gangsters came after the young man. The family, petrified, hid under the bed. The other brother experienced a superhero moment trying to save his sibling. Both his mother and younger sister witnessed the brutality of their loved ones executed brutally in succession by gunshot. Everything one may imagine and stereotype about Honduran crime and poverty runs through the blood lines of Jose’s heritage. He is determined not to allow it to run through his veins.
I wondered how Jose has not only survived, but how he manages each day…to be. He is relatively normal on surface level, and has attributes (family values, hard work, perseverance) that I admire.
Despite his mother trying to push him away, he moved his mom and extended family to Guatemala. He conscientiously and diligently works to provide financial sustenance for his family, and has been an advocate in helping them find work.
He sees the significance of education despite the strong opposition of family members. He expressed disappointment that his teenage sister, a single mother, quit school, to work physically arduous tasks in the river. He supports his younger 8-year sister with her education. His young brother has down syndrome and does not receive appropriate care. Jose is constantly exasperated wanting them to plan out their future, but they only know survival. Today. Not tomorrow, never mind the future. That is unimaginable.
I witnessed his interactions with his daughter. Playful, loving, yet stern when needed.
We said our temporary goodbyes after a long, yet memorable day. In the morning, he would escort me to Volcan San Pedro. At the peak, he would give me a Spanish lesson where I would describe my hike in español.
I admire Jose’s strength & generosity to uphold his family unit. He has the tenacity to achieve his aspirations, BUT his biggest obstacle is himself. His mother is right, he has demons. She fuelled them. The next day was filled with disappointment.
I chose to rest early while Jose partied the night away abusing whatever horrible substances he ingested.
When I awoke, my phone had blown up with texts throughout the evening. “Drinking at the pub, back home, can’t sleep, still drinking, postpone to a later time, very dd rrrunnkk.”
We stopped to purchase snacks and water for the trek after a long delay. His beverage of choice…beer.
His partying (self-affliction) had not finished. He smelled like a drunk tank. I did not realize the extent of his illness. Alcoholism is a debilitating disease. When we approached his home, quatezeles fell out of his pocket in addition to the lost 100Q from the evening before. That did not sit well with me. I gave him 500Q ($85 US) although we originally agreed to a lower amount. I did not want to cheat him for his time knowing his situation, and had planned to provide a generous tip at the end. The money was to pay for his time, the park’s entrance fee, snacks, and it would have left him with plenty of extra cash. I did not expect it to be wasted.
I had eagerly anticipated the visit to Volcan San Pedro. We had discussed the tour often during tutoring sessions by practicing Spanish phrases describing the Volcan and topography. The highlight would be a Spanish tutorial at the peak. Yo subu a la volcan.
This was not the blissful experience I imagined. Hiking brings freedom, and a breather from my own stressful life #firstworldissues. If I had known, I would have arranged for a true professional guide. He suggested I head to the top myself because he was ill.
There was no one in sight. I was uncomfortable hiking myself after reading reports of tourists hijacked for ransom money and I did not want to leave him behind. His face looked ashen. At his insistence, he walked behind me to heave on various occasions. He drank a beer at the beginning, but that was not enough. He rummaged through his wallet, and relieved to find coke in his wallet. It was devastating to watch. I was sad, upset, angry. I did not come to Pana for this shit. NO! I came to visit a tutor and friend. I could have remained in El Salvador. Instead, I went through many obstacles to depart Antigua during Semana Santa. Transport vehicles leaving Easter celebrations during the biggest religious ceremonial processions of the year were extremely uncommon. I went through hoops to ensure I got to Jose before I departed.
As we continued to climb, I stopped to soak in some amazing viewpoints. The blueness is Lake Atitlan and Pana, although further and further away were picturesque from above. Local farmers were attending to their crops and coffee plantations. Some engaged in conversation assuming I was local. No hablo espanol. When we encountered a Netherlands tourist heading down the rugged mountain with his guide, Jose sulked. I was envious this man had reached the top. We were very close, only 45 mins away. Jose clearly showed his displeasure as we chatted at length. Well, mainly he conversed as I eagerly hung on to every word in awe. Jose declared the man was gay ending the rest. Awkward. As the morning progressed, Jose asked if I would pay for more Spanish lessons while I was in Central America. An advance. My answer was simply, no. I was not giving him more money until I finished the lessons I had already paid for. Tough love. If someone shows the desire, then they earn goodness. I would have chose a different ending if he fulfilled his promise. I am not paying for self-destruction. That was a difficult decision adding guilt to my conscience.
We never reached the peak, and re-traced our steps back down to the ferry docks. The boat ride was eerily quiet and we awkwardly split back in town so that Jose could nurse his hangover.
We met before I left Guatemala to continue our discussions from our first meeting.
I asked some pointed questions that he could ponder. Is it possible, his mother thought she was giving him the best possible life by leaving him? If he examines his life, he is leading the most productive and fruitful one compared to his family members. Both his brothers were brutally murdered, his baby brother has down syndrome, and a lack of caregiving. His 16 year old sister would be living the same cycle of poverty following her mother and grandmother as a teenage single mother without any inclination to educate herself. His mother was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by many vicious men. Why have him live in these unhealthy situations? He voiced his anger for the devil. Why did she not come? I wanted for her? Why did she not speak up? She witnessed many horrible crimes in town. Being a witness is just as bad as being a perpetrator. Is it possible, FEAR? Fear of rape, fear of being beaten again, fear of her family being beaten, sexually assaulted, being crucified. His mom is a stereotypical uneducated Honduran village woman. How could she know what’s right or wrong. How could she make the best parenting decisions for Jose’s if she could not care for herself. All she knows is survival instincts, breathing, food. I played devils advocate. Maybe this tactic would help him decrease his pain.
One cannot have hope, think of tomorrow, only now, today in this circumstance. As we went back and forth sharing our stories, Jose would say, “you are right, Brenda.” I would respond, “I am not. I do not know the answer, I wish I did, but I do want you to let go of your hurt and sadness.”
He may drink and dilute his emotions with drugs and alcohol wasting his brightness.
There is no reason Jose cannot live a productive quality life despite the demons lingering. He is smart, nice looking, funny, a good heart, and family values.
I admire Jose’s strength & generosity to uphold his family unit. I know sobriety is a struggle that he continues to focus on. He’s still my dear friend. One day I’ll return and hope he will accompany when I finally hike about the clouds to reach Volcan San Pedro.