...Mark Horwedel...
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Out of The Comfort Zone

Editor's note: Brian Holden (left) tells of his visit to Guatemala and Chiapas. Each year, the company where he works, Carris Reels in Vermont, USA, offers to send employees overseas for a couple of weeks so they can experience different cultures and ways of life. For more information on how your company can provide the same, click on "more info." Carris Reels recently won an award for "Employee Empowerment" from the Council on Economic Priorities.

Most of the people I met had nothing. Just to meet us, to visit with us, made their day. They lack the most basic freedoms, yet they persevere. We lose track of the more important things in this world. I was never one to worry too much about having a big house or having a better car. Of course, I want to better myself – but now my focus will be on helping others as a way to better myself, not just on material gain.

A special highlight of my trip was visiting the women's coffee cooperative in Pocolum, 15 women representing five different communities. Some of them walked six hours roundtrip to meet with us, getting up at 4 a.m. They showed us such respect and reverence – when, really, they were more deserving of us showing reverence to them. They were so happy to talk to us.

These women are really breaking down the social structure – their husbands are upset that they are working here, when they should be at home cooking.

Some of the women pay for their disobedience with beatings by their husbands, and others did not attend all of the organizational meetings, just to keep peace in their households. Despite these obstacles, and with the support of a local priest, the cooperative prevailed. Now, they face other problems.

They don't have a way to transport their beans to the market and have to depend on a middleman. This middleman comes to them, takes their beans, and then drives down the price. Last year, they made $500 total for their entire harvest. Spread out over several families, this amounts to a mere pittance to live on.

We were overwhelmed by the collective's generosity. They gave each of us – 20 people – a 1-lb. bag of coffee and corn. This was symbolic of the fruits of their labors, and it would have been rude if we refused, but in light of what we knew of their hardship and the value that each bag represented, the gift really astonished us. Later, our group talked about this during "reflection" time. For us, the value of these bags of coffee and corn would be equivalent to us giving away, say, a $500 bottle of wine. And, we wouldn't have been so generous to complete strangers – we probably wouldn't even give a $500 bottle of wine to close friends. It was just so incredibly amazing.

Another highlight of my trip was the Mayan ceremony that was conducted by the priestess, Calixta Gabriel. It was so spiritual, and the source of another personal insight. I don't go to church, but this ceremony got me thinking about my own beliefs. I realized that I do have a faith. The Mayan priestess, such an interesting person, conducted the ceremony outside, as nature plays an important part in the celebration. Different colors are used to represent different aspects of life. The ceremony celebrates and thanks nature; it's about belief in something higher – that basically, everything will be O.K. as long as we believe.

Some people were living at the bottom of a ravine in shacks with make-shift tarps – to be closer to the city to work. I was there when it rained, and I was thinking about their homes being washed away. Still, the children played happily. The people were so proud of their make-shift church. This was their home, their community, El Tuerto. They have faith and were happy just being together. Every once in a while, when it rains, I still think of these people coping with the mud. I'm glad I'm thinking of that.

Every place we went, the people were so happy for us to listen to them in the hopes that we'd "spread the word." They didn't want pity – they don't want anyone to feel sorry for them. They just want what everyone is entitled to: to live on the land, to work the land, to have religious freedom, to have an education. They want the same rights as any other citizen in Guatemala and Chiapas.

We learned about the emotional torture of "civil patrols," ordinary people who the government has forced to patrol on horseback with orders to "protect" the village – sometimes they are forced to kill their own neighbors or relatives, people who the government selected – innocent people whose only "crime" was that they were indigenous. One woman told us about her husband whose own brother was forced to kill him on one of these rides. She sees this man, her brother-in-law, in the street, in the marketplace, and she has prayed every day for the strength to forgive him for what he did, murdering her husband. This is a strength that most of us will never have to have. This is the overwhelming reality -- it happens all the time to so many people.

The women of the country seem to be the ones pushing for changes. They were more apt to wear the traditional garb also. Most of the men seem to be more accepting of the situation and are letting go of their customs and history. They wear western clothing, cowboy boots and jeans. The men of the communities we visited were not available to meet with us, either.

The day that I got back to Vermont, I sat in my yard and looked around. I enjoyed the great beauty, of course, but I felt and appreciated my freedom more than anything. We have great freedom. I appreciated my crime & poverty-free neighborhood, and I chose to live here. I had to go somewhere else to appreciate what I have.