We knew coming to Guatemala would be a risk. I'm talking about the danger. It was in the job description. We were warned. We knew things like Guatemala has one of the top homicide rates in the world and that burglaries are common. But we didn't really know, not more than what we could read online. We dove in, aware but not.
Recently Michael and I agreed that in the average day-to-day mundanities of our life here, things feel "normal." That is to say, it feels like we could still be living in Fresno or in some town in the States. Except for the armed guards we pass standing in front of almost every business along our street. They, of course, remind us of where we are. But in general, we don't feel threatened. Maybe I should say: we forget to feel threatened. We walk the streets pushing our girls in the stroller, nodding and greeting the guards with a "Buenos Dias," and we're on our merry way.
Except when we do feel the danger. Because, we've heard stories. Stories of past MCC workers or partners who've been assaulted, robbed, and worse. Since we've arrived we haven't had anything noteworthy happen to us specifically, but a couple of our staff have been the victims of petty theft. It happens. We're aware. But honestly, we're in a bubble.
I've been waiting for something to happen to snap me back to the reality of, "Oh yeah, we're not in Kansas anymore."
Today we had two such reminders that things are different here. One dealt with the hoops we have to jump through on a daily basis just to get our job done, and the other reminded us that feeling safe is a matter of perspective.
Reminder Number One
The immigration/bank/legal systems here are a pain. Royally. Because of the high incidents of trafficking the systems are tight. The other day the teller at the bank told me my signature on a document that I signed right in front of her didn't match my passport, which I was holding right in front of her, and didn't match my signature in their system. Are you kidding? I'm standing right here! Michael often has paperwork denied because he didn't dot the right i or cross the right t. Literally. In the States if we make a mistake writing a check we just cross it out and initial it. Here, they wouldn't blink before denying it. They seemed horrified that banks in the US would accept a scribbled initial.
So, granted, we're aware of the systems and how we have to pander to them. This is just one example.
We were supposed to go to El Salvador this week with a group of youth for a week of service. A couple days ago we realized we couldn't go because of issues with the girls' visas. We were aware of a potential problem with two of our workers' visas, but were told by the immigration office that we could pay a fine and all would be well at the border. We should have known better.
This morning we got a call from the group of 19 crammed in the MCC van at the border. Our two workers were being denied. I'll skip all the details of why and just say we had to send a driver to pick them up two hours away at the border. We're bummed that they'll be missing this event, and now we have to send them to Mexico on the opposite border to get new visa stamps.
To add to that, the border suddenly put in a height restriction pole for vehicles which apparently our van broke while trying to pass through. As I write this our van and the passengers are on the side of the road at the border, hours later, waiting to see if they will be able to pass through. Grrrr. The systems here.
Reminder Number Two
Twenty minutes after getting the above situation figured out, Michael left the office to head to the bank. He returned after a few minutes. As he was walking towards the large iron gate he noticed people standing around, seemingly a bit shaken.
We learned that just a couple minutes before, a few people who work at an NGO down the street and use our parking lot were assaulted. One of the workers stood at the opened gate waiting for another to retrieve the car and drive through. While he was waiting, three men with a gun grabbed the man at the gate. They took his laptop bag which was on his shoulder, and asked for cell phones and keys to the car. I'm unclear of what happened next, but somehow they didn't end up with the car, as seemed to be their plan. They had their own car and drove away.
This was unsettling for so many reasons.
First, had Michael left our office just a few minutes earlier, he could have either witnessed this incident, or been a victim himself. (Maybe I should be grateful for Reason Number One). He was on the way to the bank and was carrying passports and cash. It could have been bad.
Second, our office is in a building we rent from a local Mennonite church. This week is VBS so there are children running all over the property, some mere yards from the gate. I'm unclear on the details, but one version of the story was that the robbers came inside the gate. Regardless, there were children very close to this incident, and I couldn't help but be glad we had decided not to bring the girls this morning.
Third, with the girls in swim lessons and with my half-day work schedule, I often walk along these streets alone. Usually, without much thought beyond keeping aware of my surroundings. I've been in a bit of a bubble. What hit me hardest this morning was my realization that as I'm pushing the girls in their stroller I have a false sense of security that somehow, because I'm pushing my two young girls, I'm somehow more safe. I think this would be true in the US, but here, I think having the girls could actually put a target on us. I've repeatedly been told the story of the previous rep walking with her young girls alone and being assaulted. I put that story aside in my mind. I tell myself it was a different time and maybe a fluke. But the truth is it could happen to me. People are watching. They know our routines. We're at risk every day which means I'm putting my girls at risk every day.
Fourth, the type of pick-up truck we have is very common and in high demand. Something as simple as keeping the keys in the ignition while we hop out and unlock the gate could actually be an invitation to a potential thief. We were reminded today to be careful. It has been stolen (before our time), but thanks to a GPS system the truck was quickly recovered. I'm not sure if driving or walking is safer. (Mom, THIS is why we may have seemed a bit paranoid during your visit about keeping our doors locked while driving through town).
This afternoon I left the office to walk the few blocks to get the girls. My heart was racing and I was looking around at every person suspiciously, holding my purse close to my side. I was on edge. I got home and didn't realize Michael was in the house and he made me jump. We both feel anxious.
We're definitely NOT in Fresno anymore. Though we know these types of incidents could happen anywhere in the States, and do every day, there's an unspoken sense of lawlessness here that just feels, well, different.
It's been quite a morning. Just another day in Guatemala.