Yesterday, the day started out beautifully — I found a yoga studio about 10 minutes from my homestay and the teacher was incredible. We practiced on straw mats (like those found at the beach) and in a small room, while listening to the local school band practice only blocks away. I stretched and soared unlike anything I am able to do when practicing on my own. I wish I had found this sooner, as I’m leaving tomorrow. And for only 10 qz a session ($1.50), you can’t beat the value! I met Heidi and Rene afterwards, ready for an afternoon of relaxation at Fuentes Georginas hot spring. We first stopped for breakfast, and as we sat down, I realized that I needed to change money before leaving Xela, as I wouldn’t know where and when next I would have the opportunity. So in deciding to do that, I quickly ran home to fetch my money. On the way home I ran into Daniel, a girl who lives in London, Ontario, only 30 minutes from my mother (small world). She was incredibly upset and I had to calm her down to hear her story. Before I describe to you what happened, I have to warn you, I will not hold back any details, and this/the details may disturb and horrify you, but I think it is incredibly important to tell this story, for the safety and education of women everywhere. For this reason solely do I recount the details and not as a means of creating hysteria about Guatemala itself or its people. Guatemala is definitely different from the world both you and I possibly know and live in. And there’s no doubt that violence against women (mostly local rather than foreign) is more prevalent here (see below note). But this violence can happen ANYWHERE in the world and it’s vitally important for me to distinguish this before you read further.
First of all, I’ll back up a bit … At my school, every Friday night there is a graduation party, for those students leaving and possibly for new students arriving, where everyone has the opportunity to meet up with the other students in a social atmosphere. Typically, the students who study Spanish at our and other Xela schools are in their early to mid-20’s, and it’s quite standard for many people to go out every evening during the week and party in some fashion. Of course this is a generalization, but the relevance behind the statement is that often the local travellers will be out late at night. Usually someone in a group from our school will accompany any lone female home late at night and tonight was no different. When after dancing at the ‘Kokoloco’, I left earlier than than closing of the dance bar at 1am. Heidi, Rene and Jeannie walked me home (my neighbourhood is a bit more darker and more secluded than some others, although very close to the school and to this bar). Anytime after 9pm I don’t usually go out, especially as I get up so early to do either my homework, my yoga and a walk up the mountain (or all of them combined). Tonight was an exception for me staying out; I am extremely grateful to have made friends who would look out for each other’s safety and to not let solo females walk home alone after dark, especially late in the evening. However, I am quick to realize that for my and other’s safety, taking a taxi home at night is the best and only option. From here, the story continues as told to me by Daniel. I will change the two students names for their own protection.
I was told that Caroline and Peter left the bar shortly after we did and Peter, being the gentleman that he is, walked Caroline home. It was only minutes from her home that they were kidnapped by 3 men with guns and machetes. They took them in a car to a house in another village where Peter was severely beaten and Caroline was brutally raped and violently assaulted with a gun. Afterwards the men called 2 other men + a child (between 10 and 12 years of age) to the house where further violence erupted. Because of the presence of a child, the Inguat (tourist police I believe?) think that perhaps it was gang related. I’m uncertain as to how many hours passed before they were (amazingly) returned to Xela, but not before being robbed of their belongings and forced to go to 4 separate Bank ATMs to withdraw money (2 of which only worked). Shaken, Caroline and Peter found their way back to Peter’s house, at about 4am, where extremely helpful roommates helped them as best as they could to calm them down and look at their options. Caroline went to 2 separate hospitals (where the wait was long, obtrusive and painful) and after only being offered the option of an exam by a male doctor, she opted out of waiting on a system that is painfully lacking in sensitivity and effectiveness. She was however given the morning-after pill, which is a blessing. What surprises me immensely is that the American Embassy in Guatemala would do NOTHING for her except list a few numbers that she could pursue in calling. How horrible to first experience what she did but also to have a system set up to support people in emergency, fail her miserably. The Inguat and Peter were the most helpful in Caroline’s need for returning home to the US, only a DAY after she arrived in the country. My heart goes out to the brave woman and to Peter for doing the best that he could in the most trying of situations where extreme violence and the threat of death was a foremost and terrifying realistic possibility.
The moral of this story is twofold.
As I mentioned before, education of the potential for violence ANYWHERE in the world is there for both men and women, especially late at night when out on the streets. The importance of taking a taxi can’t be stressed enough if you find yourself in the city late at night without a ride. Cost should never be a factor where safety is involved (and I’m not saying that it was for Caroline and Peter).
Secondly, this will help explain part of the reason for why I have temporarily decided to halt my trip short here in Guatemala and return home. On top of this reality check, there are serious health issues in both my and slaDE~s family that I need to attend to as well as be home where I can be there for my loved ones. The last week has been wrought with decisions and I have been torn back and forth by what I should and shouldn’t do, what is right and necessary for me, my loved ones and for the orphanage. But my decision is solid and has helped firm my plans in my mind about what is right and true, for me in this moment of my life. I didn’t think lightly about my decision, especially after feeling that I’ve let NPH and the orphans down (giving my word and commitment for a full year). But when my gut tells me that I need to go home, I have to listen to my gut …. it doesn’t speak to me often (except when I’m hungry and I fully understand it’s message then!), but when it does, I listen and take action. This will also give me an opportunity to re-evaluate my and my partners needs. I ( and slaDE~) still both very much want to volunteer in Central America (specifically with NPH, here in Guatemala or wherever is open) but the next time will be with him where we have the time and opportunity to plan it more fully, save and also learn more Spanish prior to such a commitment. On top of that, I don’t feel safe here in Guatemala at night, as a solo-travelling woman, spending another month learning Spanish before taking on my volunteer position with NPH. Xela is a relatively safe town in the Highlands compared to say Guatemala City and Antigua. But prudence and diligence can only take you so far.
nb: ‘What’s most perturbing here in Guatemala is a persistent rise in the numbers of women murdered, many dying the most gruesome of deaths for apparently motiveless reasons, a sadistic phenomenon known as femicide. It’s widely believed that these deaths are related to gang violence and territorial disputes.’ (Rough Guide to Guatemala, page 475). My theory of both Caroline and Peter remaining alive is the fact that perhaps such a motiveless crime (death) would draw further unnecessary attention to both the criminals (their gang?) and the country.
Continuing from my story about Fuentes Geoginas, this a natural hot spring that has the scent of sulphur and eucalyptus filling the air. The landscape along the road is very picturesque and there is a tremendous view of Zunil. I took many photos during our day, trying to vanquish from my thoughts of the horrors of last night. An early night was had and I made sure to be inside once it was dark …