When you observe a gardener or a hotel maid working, what thoughts cross your mind? Do you feel bad that they don’t have a better job? Or do you respect them for doing what needs to be done to pay the bills? Has the thought about how fortunate they are for having a job in the formal sector that pays them a stable and reliable income ever come to mind? Until yesterday, I know that I had never had that thought before. We spent the day shadowing the heads of two of our diary families, Anthony and Augustin, as they went about a typical day of work. 

            We left with Augustin at around 7 AM, beginning the hour and a half walk down the mountainside to the town of Panajachel where he works as a gardener. While stunningly beautiful, the walk was challenging, steep, and frequented by barely passable mud-slid sections. We discussed Augustine’s past as we walked, learning even more about his troubled past and hardships. In passing, he motioned towards a black cross on the hillside, belonging to his sister who was shot three times, once in the stomach and twice in the head, while walking this same path to work 4 years before. He explained that she had owned a store in town so the criminal had anticipated her having some money on her. The police never followed up and the culprit still lives undisturbed in the town nearby. He turned and continued to walk down the mountain, leaving us wide-eyed in disbelief. After some silent walking, we ask him a question about when he first started to work. At 12 years old he said, his father passed away from a snake bite, leaving him with more responsibility to bring in income for his family. Without ever attending a day of school, he left for the coast to find work on the Fincas or cotton plantations, the conditions of which were disturbing in nature. Working an average of 9 hours, he would make only 1 centavo (one eight-hundredth of a dollar) a day for his efforts. (This was in the past so must adjust for currency appreciation) Moreover, his daily sustenance consisted of three tortillas, one for every meal; an amount that doesn’t even seem possible to me. Until he was 27 years old, he remained at the plantation, bringing back what little he could to his mother once a month. I was not even intending to write about this history, but it left me stunned and triggered such a deep sadness for my friends past struggle that I wanted to share the story.

                   Reminding me of a movie set, we eventually arrived at a gated community in which Augustine gardens for a wage of 1,200 Quetzales a month. Although not a large wage, the job is secure, pays reliably and helps ease the stressful challenges of money management for his family. As we said our goodbyes to go visit Anthony working at his hotel, Augustine commented on how fortunate Anthony was to have a job as a hotel cleaner. My perspective was thrown upside-down. I had never before considered a job as a gardener or hotel cleaner one to be strived for, but comparatively in their communities, these jobs have allowed Augustin and Anthony to ease the struggles of poverty for their families. We spent the afternoon getting footage of Anthony cleaning room after room and making bed after bed in a hotel that charges 50 dollars (400 Quetzales) a night to stay at.

           While Augustine and Anthony are fortunate to have the stable jobs that they do, they spend every day tending to the wants and desires of their wealthier patrons in a tourist town full of luxury beyond their means. For me, it was a personal struggle to see the plates of uneaten food in the restaurants, the lavish beds in the hotels, and the smells and sounds of consumerism all around. As we walked past the nicest hotel on the main strip, we overheard a couple saying “That was the worst cheeseburger I have ever eaten, and the fish was hardly edible.” It awakened and doubled my desires for meat and seafood and western comforts, but all I could do was listen and watch. Next time I am travelling, and a guest in someone else country, I will try to be more aware and respectful of my actions and appearance. Although seemingly insignificant, the simple act of being aware of my consumption may lessen the struggle of others like Augustine and Anthony who are forced to observe our habits day in and day out before making the long walk back home.
1/25/2016 12:20:01 am

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