Thursday, April 30, 2009
You get so used to extremity...
I´ve been cooped up in the lab since my last post, but that doesn´t mean that I´ve been stuck in Guatemala City. My brother came to visit me for Holy Week (Easter Week), which is a huge event in this highly religious country. We went out to one of the most beautiful places I´ve ever been: a river gorge in the mountains where the river goes through a giant natural tunnel, called Semuc Champey. The little bit of water that passes over top of the tunnel has created dozens of natural swimming pools with crystal clear water. Needless to say, I was in heaven.
Also, two weekends ago I participated in a race with my friend Gabriela, with whom I run a few days a week at lunch time. We did a 10k (6.2 mile) race from the beautiful colonial town of Antigua up to a small town on the side of the Agua volcano. The farther we ran, the steeper it got! Gaby had convinced me to run the race with her, and I gave her a hard time afterward about the fact that the official name was the "Ascent to Santa Maria."
This really is all to say that although I am busy doing emotionally stressful work in a violent city, Guatemala is actually one of the most naturally beautiful places I´ve ever seen. I realized recently that I´ve failed to mention in my writing that I often escape to different corners of the country for a break. This, along with the strength and determination of so many Guatemalans in the face of this violence, is what makes me able to do the work that I do and want to continue doing it.
That said, I do want to share with you all a case that I just finished working on in the lab that has drawn my interest more than most. I analyzed the remains (bones) of a middle-aged couple, husband and wife, who were killed together in their home in the early 1980s. The husband´s bones were very eroded and for that reason I was not able to determine the trauma that caused his death. But the wife´s bones were slightly better preserved. I was able to see that she had a series of sharp trauma wounds on her collar bone and the back of her neck, most likely caused by a machete.
It was a compelling case, knowing that the victimizers (allegedly members of the Guatemalan army), broke into her home and hacked her to death along with her husband. This was, unfortunately, a common occurrence in rural Guatemalan during that time period. The bones, and the woman´s shirt which exhibited distinct cut marks that lined up with the cuts on the bones, were a startling reality check of what murder and genocide actually mean. This was a clear case of an individual´s rights being violated and justice being abused-- even if the couple were suspected of being involved in subversive political activities, they were clearly unarmed at the time of the attack and never given the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law.
I suppose that what makes me enjoy being here in Guatemala so much is the extremity of all that I am living through here. One moment its the heart-wrenching reality of mass murder, and the next it´s diving off a rock into a natural pool below, or being cheered on by a group of Guatemalan girls as I chug up the side of a volcano in a race/"Ascent."
And although I sometimes (often?!?) question why the hell I live in a place like Guatemala, where violence is rampant and respect for human life is extremely undervalued, I also think it will be difficult for me to transition back to life in the United States. Although I have come to deeply appreciate the sense of security with which we live in most of the U.S., in some sense, life is a lot more boring there! This doesn´t mean that I will be down here forever, don´t worry, but it does mean that coming home will pose quite a personal challenge.
"You get so used to extremity that suddenly nothing else will do."
- White Teeth, Zadie Smith