As I sit cozily in a funky coffee shop, sipping my fair trade certified coffee, I remember the arduous process of climbing up the slopes of a volcano to visit the coffee farms in San Miguel Escobar, Guatemala. There were a few brothers, who took on farming from their father and began their own fair trade coffee farming business. As I learned the tedious, meticulous process of reaping each fruit of the coffee plant to the fermenting and roasting, I remembered each time I drank coffee as comfortably as I drank water in Canada. I had no idea this was a plant, whose reaping wasn’t even mechanized yet. Each red fruit was picked by hand, then squished (sometimes by hand, sometimes by a mechanically powered bike) to give two wet, sweet beans.
The resulting two beans from the fruit is then fermented and dried in the sun, taking up most of the open areas of the verandas of the small coffee farmers. Because that is their home as well, their kids are playing hop scotch over these beans as they dry, trying not to touch any and still manage to have fun. Like people, coffee comes in many different sizes and colours, but to keep the bean looking good on our shelves, the farmers have to sieve out the “imperfect” ones for the good ones – just like in mechanized farming.
Back to the presence, my coffee reminds me of the daughter of one of the farmers in another small community that produced organic coffee in Santa Anita, Guatemala. She was my age or maybe older. She had the cutest pixie cut, something like what I had a few years ago & when I told her that, she said she couldn’t believe it, considering the long ponytail I had now. She wanted to be a journalist and a videographer, and was a graphic artist on her own, but her father lost a majority of his coffee crops last year due to a disease (the “rust) that spread to most of his crops and being an organic farmer, he couldn’t just spray with a pesticide, so he and his daughter remained patient. This makes me wonder, while we in the Western societies raise fear and fright from GMO crops and non-organic produce, but we rarely realize our impacts on those who work day and night for the food we eat, that is so readily available in aisles and aisles of our malls. Do we really pay enough for all that, I wonder? Of course, we don’t.
Throughout my stay in Guatemala for 8 weeks, I was fighting from within. Originally also from an agricultural country, Pakistan, where the farmer lives a similar life to that in Guatemala, I wondered, “How did I become so privileged?”. I spent a few days in the home of the farmer with his family. This particular farmer like many in Santa Anita had been in war – for as long as 14 years – in the forested mountains of Guatemala. I had the opportunity to climb up to one of these and could not consider doing it again, while these people had become of the mountains even in the state of war. They hid for years, fell in love, and some lost the loves of their lives, while some lost their lives altogether. After years and years of killing they dropped their weapons, and picked up the machete, used for farming.The Guatemalan people speak Spanish, but are originally Mayan. The Spanish conquerors had impacted their society greatly, changing the status quo of the country – even until now. I felt the Pakistani/Indian in me boil from within as I related their struggles to the struggles of the Indian Independence in 1947 and how the impacts of colonialism still existed very strongly in the place I call home.
While I saw beautiful scenic views everywhere I went in Guatemala, I couldn’t help but imagine the echoes of bullets, screams, and shrieks from those densely capped mountains everywhere I looked. If only mountains could speak, I wondered…they would tell many stories of what had happened when the civilians fought the military government for many, many years. Generations were lost, many migrated to the States to become second-class citizens, forced to forget their roots. My agony would have found respite if only I convinced myself that the suffering was over, but it wasn’t. It was happening all around the world, be it in Syria and Iraq or Afghanistan or Burma, Israel or Nigeria or South Sudan. Even the rural areas of North America aren’t safe from brutality, nor are the cities we live in. So many silent roads, with their cookie-cut layouts in our Western societies unfortunately hide secrets we wish we never know, until it shows up on the news the next morning.And as I peered my head through my window in our bus that whizzed us through the highlands and lowlands of Guatemala, I let the rain hit my face, felt the soothing cold make my skin dry out, and the heat soak into tan my skin. Who was I to complain of these altering weather conditions? Who was I to complain about the fact that the family’s home where I stayed did not have a door for the single bathroom in their home? Who was I to whine about the pollution? The hike I did up Volcan Zunil was an unexpected one – especially since I never even went beyond 15 minutes on my treadmill, but here I was climbing 8 km up and down a dormant volcano, and I complained. I cried, even at the end of it. But now I wonder, why? Did I cry because I knew I had a way out? What about those who never come out of the situations they are in? They don’t even know of a world better than the one they are in. Don’t we forget that often? The sense of privilege that we have almost makes us numb to the sacrifices and suffering of others…and that was the inconvenient truth I faced throughout those 8 days in Guatemala. It was that very realization that changed me to become who I am today.
While we go on living our monotonous lives, making ends meet, we forget that there is a loving parent somewhere on this planet, maybe not even too far, deciding whether his 4 year old should help him indulge in “child labour” or go to school. For our parents it was a no-brainer to make us go to school, because they could afford to, and we hated them for that, while a child in the home of a farmer decided in his mind that today it is better for me to make some profit for my tired father. Did you think you would need to make such a decision in your life? We meticulously fret over which phone to get after we get bored of one, while the decision of a small farm owner makes his daughter tear up as she has no other choice but to drop out of university that year – only because her father couldn’t afford to give her the $200 camera she needs for her work. And no, these are not stories I read about online or watched on a developmental organizations’ haunting video to ask me to sponsor a child. These are real stories of people just a few miles away. They are the inconvenient truth.
The fact that I can sit here and rant about my thoughts still makes me uncomfortable. This is a privilege very few of us have. Sure, we’re not the Kardashians nor the Bhuttos, but we are very able…and privileged. Each time we rant about an inconvenience in our lives on social media, we lose a chance to fight for the good fight. Each time we fight with one another over silly, nonsensical issues, we waste the chance to be the voice of the voiceless. Another inconvenient truth.But in all this “inconvenience” that exists in our privileged lives, the positivity within us is endless. Humanity in its truest form is resilient and is able to find hope again, and although I am not there yet, after the stories and experiences in the beautiful Guatemala, I have come with lessons that I won’t be forgetting for a long, long time: to keep close that you love, to make sure to be happy no matter what life throws at you, to use our privilege to help those that don’t have the voice that we have, and to remember: things can always get worse, so we might as well be grateful for what we have and bring the best from it.
Written By: Fatima Fasih, UTM Student, Global Experience: Guatemala 2015