This blog typically is directed at all things Costa Rica however I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Guatemala (a neighboring Central American country to the north of Costa Rica). This is part two of a series of posts that will cover my week long trip. You can read part one here.
One thing that can’t be denied in Guatemala is that it is a relatively poor nation. The main reason I’d traveled here was to help the poor people. When most people think of third world poverty they think of lack of food, money, clothes and shelter. Guatemala has all that and more when it comes to poverty.
Poverty. It exists all over the world and Central America is not the exception however Costa Rica is better off than Guatemala. Costa Rica has not had to endure civil wars, genocides, hurricanes, droughts, nor ancient civilizations that have chosen some of the most remote places to live in the country.
In Guatemala to visit the most needy villages we had to ride in the back of a pick up truck over an hour up a mountain on a dirt road (that is impassable during the rainy season). I
was soo curious as to why someone would live so far away from everything. Were they forced to flee to the mountains? Was the soil better? I was so puzzled that in one of the villages I straight up asked the Pastor why he lived so isolated. His response was quite simple in that this is where he grew up and this is where his parents, grandparents, great grandparents etc all grew up. So at some point many centuries ago this was prime real estate???…
Costa Rica doesn’t have an ancient civilization history. The country was often avoided because it was so jungly that early settlers avoided it at all costs. In Costa Rica if a place is too isolated nobody lives there. Granted people do live in rural areas but they have electricity, water, plumbing, and an access road to their homes. In rural Guatemala none of this is true. It is common for people to access their homes on foot, collect water from the stream, no electricity whatsoever, and a bathroom is literally unheard of and not well understood.
One of the projects on the mission part of my visit to Guatemala was to help build homes for low income families. The “homes” are more like storage sheds about the size of my bedroom. One feature not included in any of the homes was a bathroom. I asked about this and I was told that the people don’t make good use of them. They are so used to peeing and pooping whenever and wherever (literally like animals) that they didn’t see a use for them. I was told they once built some outhouses for the families but they ended using them as a storage room. This rocked my world and gave poverty a whole new meaning for me.
The villages are so isolated from everything that they don’t even realize the importance of a bathroom. There was no knowledge, no education. Parasite infections are so common here that people need to take medicine every six months because the water is so contaminated and hygiene is bad. What seemed so obvious to me was knowledge that simply hadn’t occurred to the local population. I’m sure if everyone peed and pooped in an outhouse and washed their hands there would be a significant improvement in the overall health of the villages. Knowledge is power and I hope efforts are made again to introduce bathrooms into the villages. Once bathrooms are a commonplace the next issue to tackle would be trash disposal.
Everyone knows it is bad to litter and you are likely to get a ticket if you are caught doing it. Whenever I see someone litter I know that they know they are damaging the environment. In some parts of Guatemala trash is strewn so freely it will make you sick to your stomach. In the remote areas there is no trash collection however almost nobody burns their trash either. Some homes I visited it almost seemed like the trash was laid out in the yard as if they were trying to grow a garden or something. This was so prevalent that I couldn’t imagine people were doing this on purpose, they just didn’t know better.
With the remoteness of these villages you have to think that it wasn’t too long ago that trash began arriving to their communities. Probably not until aid groups started coming trash was mostly organic. Even talking to the Pastor he said he might go into the main town once or twice a month (a place where you could buy things that would produce non-organic trash). There they have trash cans and campaigns to keep the town clean.
In Costa Rica the worst thing I have seen is people driving out into the country to dump construction garbage or old appliances and that is mostly because the government will not readily collect that kind of waste. Besides that the big cultural change that is trying to be made here is to get people to recycle. So in that sense they are one step ahead of Guatemala.
The sanitation issues in Guatemala are alarming but the solution is not that difficult to solve. It may take time but what the villages are lacking is education. They could really improve their health and quality of life by improving just these two things. One thing that has been really beneficial to Costa Rica is not having to fund an army. Instead they have been able to invest in education and that has had a lot to do with the fact you can drink the water and find bathrooms in everyone’s homes.
It’s likely that some of these cases still exist in Costa Rica but with all the traveling and volunteering I’ve done in the country I have yet to come across anything like the remote villages of Guatemala. To speculate, maybe in Guatemala for every 5,000 families living in this kind of poverty you might have one in Costa Rica. That’s why you don’t see a lot of poverty alleviating organizations in Costa Rica as there are other Central American countries that could really use the aid.
Stay tuned for part three of this series which will conclude the differences between Guatemala and Costa Rica.