Expats

Expatriate Journeys Through the Land of Eternal Spring

 by Mark D. Walker

Most of the approximately 2,000 U.S. expatriates who live in Guatemala have distinct ways of appreciating and expressing their love for their second home. Some, like me, were introduced to the country as Peace Corps Volunteers, among the 5,200 who have served in Guatemala over the last sixty years. Others arrived as development experts, businesspeople, or tourists who never left. Most live in Guatemala City, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and Lake Atitlan.

My wife and children were born in Guatemala, and I set up a Guatemalan development agency in the highlands. Over the last fifty years, I have worked with several international organizations leading tours and raising money for projects in Guatemala. Thanks to my wife’s parents, we have a home in Guatemala and visit periodically. 

 I’m always looking for others with a passion for Guatemala, which is how I met Earl Vincent de Berge and his wife, Suzanne, over lunch in Phoenix to discuss fundraising strategies for Seeds for a Future, a non-governmental organization (NGO) they set up there.  I learned that we shared a love and appreciation for Guatemala and the U.S. Desert Southwest and soon became aware that Earl is also a writer, in his case, primarily poetry.

Earl is a native of Arizona. He studied at Antioch College (BA) and the University of Arizona (MA). A political scientist, he founded the Behavior Research Center and created the respected Rocky Mountain Poll, serving as its editor for 35 years.

He started writing as far back as 1959.  This summer, he is publishing A Finger of Land on an Old Man’s Hand, an autographical novel laced with poetry and photos about his adventures as a young man in the Sonoran deserts of Baja California, Mexico, and Arizona. As a high school senior, Earl came across one of the great Chinese poets, Li Po, noted for his elegant romantic verse, which Earl felt compelled to express to various women in his life. Earl wrote about nature, the environment, cities, and social issues. His travels through Central America, the Sonoran Desert, and the Andes fueled his imagination. “Everything I experience has potential for a poem—even the increasingly dreadful business of politics.” 

In Allegro to Life, Earl’s poems are divided into “Songs from my Life,” “Poems from Guatemala,” and “DesertSongs.”  From the Desert Southwest, the author transports the reader to the unique, ever-moist environs of the rainforest in Guatemala with his poem Chipi-Chipi:” 

It is raining/in the way of mist,/just heavy enough/to cling to plants/…too light to dimple the lake…

Chipi-Chipi is the name/Tzutujil speakers/ give to mist rain/ that neither/ starts nor stops/ yet accumulates/like dew/ to drip gently from/ palm fronds. /One senses eternity.

The author and his wife split their time between Guatemala and Arizona. They owned a home on Lake Atitlan but eventually were drawn to Antigua, so I wasn’t surprised to find this enchanting tale of life in the Central Plaza among his poems:

 

 

BLIND IN ANTIGUA

Girdled by ancient Spanish buildings, / their silent arches like eyes gazing with/ stern conqueror authority into Antigua’s / graceful Central Park where modern folks/ now stroll, dally, and relax beneath gnarled jacaranda trees in full lavender flower…

In slow waltz, the calm mix of humanity stirs/ in social mingling, a seamless stream that eddies / and pauses on benches where lovers giggle/ and women chat in clusters, their hands waving/ “Oh really!” as they rock back laughing in/ the glow of fresh neighborhood chin-wagging…

A man sits with sad slumped shoulders / one foot raised on the shoeshine boy’s box/ as he reads of war and butchery in the world. / Worried only about future family meals.

This poem about the arm-in-arm Sunday sauntering of “muchachas” brought back memories of my family’s participation in this local tradition. My Guatemalan father-in-law, Ricardo, would take the entire family to the Nevada Inn to enjoy typical “Chapin” (Guatemalan) dishes such as “pavesa “ (a heavy chicken broth with a poached egg on a slice of toasted bread with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese on top),” patitas a la vinagreta” (pickled pig feet) and chiles rellenos. After lunch, my wife and I headed for the Plaza Central, where we’d join the muchachas circling the plaza with our young daughter and eventually sit down and chat. 

Earl then deftly takes us from the enchanting world of Antigua to Guatemala’s troubled, violent past during the civil war in the 1980s.

#3 More than 200,000 Guatemalans were displaced or killed during the violent civil war. 

CESSPOOL BRAIN

Imagine, /if you can, the cesspool brain/ of the Guatemalan army colonel/ who ordered the murder/ of hundreds of indigenous/ civilians and their burial/ in his army’s latrine pits.

 

Imagine again/ if you can, / him walking away. /Whistling of a job well done. / Time will fade victims’ names/ and the pain of personal loss/ but the Maya have not forgotten the / meaning of their agony. / Genocide is the mother of the next war. 

Earl uses the plain language “my Texas mother can understand.” He uses metaphors and rhyming sparingly. No matter where the poem takes place, it is underscored with a clear idea, image, and emotion, which paints a picture that will set the reader adrift on their journey.

One astute reader says: His economy of words–reminiscent of Asian and Native American poetry–thrusts the reader directly into the subject, whether it be the blessing of rain on a thirsty desert cactus or the grief of a soul destroyed by Guatemala’s Civil War. 

Suzanne de Berge is an elegant woman with deep blue eyes. She’s the driving force and president of Seeds for a Future. A graduate of Antioch College, Suzanne combined her liberal arts education with interests in science, native cultures, and the natural world.

In 2004, Suzanne and Earl volunteered at a Pre-Classic Mayan archaeology site beneath the village of Chocolá, on the south coast of Guatemala. Working side-by-side with people from the modern-day town kindled their interest in helping their new friends have healthier and more prosperous lives.

Joined by other archaeology volunteers, in 2007, they formed Seeds for a Future, a U.S. non-profit.  “Seeds” provides affordable and sustainable training to impoverished rural women in and around Chocolá to improve family access to food and nutrition. According to Suzanne, “We knew that we wanted a self-help program for families. They could build their futures and create success using the skills and confidence gained through knowledge and experience.” 

As Seeds approaches the 15-year mark, it is supported by contributions from individuals across the U.S.  and draws attention from health and nutrition organizations in Central America. I found the food security component of the work timely since 47% of Guatemalan children are malnourished, with malnutrition increasing since 2015, according to the UN’s World Food Program. If that’s not bad enough, “stunting” among Guatemalan children is at one of the highest rates in the world.

 Enchanted by these gentle people, their culture, and a spectacular natural environment, Earl and Suzanne created a program that helps rural Guatemala families build better lives for themselves and their children. Earl’s poetry let him pleasantly express his insights on Guatemala, while Suzanne expressed her compassion for local women and children through her community-based program. 

As a growing number of Guatemala’s ex-pats retire, some like Earl and I begin to ponder what our legacy will be, as expressed in Earl’s poem: 

ALL JOYOUS FRIENDS 

All joyous friends we know in life

will fade, for who can outpace 

the extinction mortals must face? 

Death is a sequel to elude in pursuit

of selfless works in life that we cherish 

until the knot of life unravels. 

How can we help protect God’s exposition 

that is life in nature? 

 

How can we make ourselves one with God? 

Selfless charity without command are 

the joyous deeds not undone by death. 

When we become one, our faults

are nothing against the virtue of true

charity in protecting nature. 

Sharing that legacy includes inviting one’s inner circle of friends and family to see Guatemala. In our case, we invited our children to see the wonders of Antigua, Panjalachel on the Lake of Atitlan, and the Mayan marvels in Tikal since they hadn’t returned since they were children.  The next step is to invite our grandchildren to come to improve their Spanish and see the Land of the Eternal Spring first-hand. 


 BIO: Walker’s two books are Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond and, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road.  

You can find out more on his member’s page via the menu. Or simply click here for his website. Thanks!


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