Her hair was tied up and she sat somewhat stiffly on the wood bench. She reached into her shirt and from some unseen pocket took out a small notepad and long pencil, with a medium point. She began writing.
Meanwhile, I chatted away with her dad and my husband. Her dad had taken us to a few spots around Lake Atitlan as our private guide. He had come over to our bungalow that afternoon so I could practice speaking Spanish, and he unexpectedly brought his only daughter. I made salsa and guacamole, and spread out chips, veggies, cheddar cheese, fruit, bread with marmalade. They were too shy to eat much, despite my insistence.
After some time, the teen was done writing. She ripped a page out of her notepad and handed it to me. She knew it’s easier for me to read Spanish than to speak it.
The literal translation to English:
Thank you for giving my dad the confidence to be your guide. And know that I am very grateful to see you are very friendly people. Also my dad is grateful for you and I am studying but my dad costs to pay for my study.
That this girl could write at all is a miraculous thing. Guatemala struggles to get a literacy rate over 75 percent. The World Factbook puts the poverty rate here at 59.3%. Other estimates have the rate even higher in rural areas. The literacy rate is lower among Maya girls, who often are married and pregnant earlier than other Guatemalan girls who continue their education. Rural areas have big trouble attracting top-notch teachers.
School is not free beyond primary school. In addition to tuition fees for secondary and high schools, families must cover costs for transportation, supplies, and uniforms. Girls are more likely to drop out because families would rather spend the money on a son to attend school – if they have the money.
I can’t help but wonder how this young lady might see me. I’m a woman on a continuous travel journey in early retirement with my husband. We are culturally so different. All I can do is be a good ambassador American and show her that we all are not conceited and greedy. Different human experiences – keyword human.
Despite my horrendous Spanish, I think she understood my basic story. I came from an American family not as well-off as many others, but education until college was free (not counting taxes). I worked, got a student loan, went to college. That enabled me to work, pay debts, save money. Now, with no children and no home, travel. Just travel. Yea. So culturally different.
This teen’s story just started. She’s ahead of the curve because she is literate. So what does she want to study? What is her favorite subject?
She wants to be bi-lingual with English. She even tried to say “bi-lingual” in English. That’s an interesting answer, especially since she already is bi-lingual. As a Maya girl, she already speaks Tz’utujil – one of many Mayan languages – and Spanish. She is off to an excellent start because her brain already is bi-lingual. If only she had access to funds.
I asked how much it would cost to continue her education. Her dad said tuition for one month is 300 quetzales, or about $42 USD. It’s a 10-month calendar, so yearly tuition would be about $425 USD – not including transportation, supplies and uniforms. The school is outside of their Mayan village. With those costs added in, her dad estimated the cost to be about $1,300 USD a year. It may as well be a million dollars.
The girl’s dad, our friend Juan, is one of the lucky men in town. He has work on a family farm. It’s hard work, but he said it is much better than one alternative: rock pounding. Even that work is hard to come by. Men go into the hills and smash rocks into smaller bits so the rock can be used for construction jobs. It’s a full, difficult day for little pay. I’ve seen men coming back from a day’s work in the evening, carrying their hand tools. They look utterly exhausted.
I wish I had a gazillion dollars. I’d gift it to Juan’s daughter’s education. On the off-chance anyone reading this wants to contribute, reach out to me and I’ll put you in direct contact with her family.
Meantime, we helped Juan the best we could on our budget. We appreciated his help as a guide to the area, and his patience with our Spanish. He enjoyed showing us places where locals go – vistas that show off this fabulous place on earth. A magnificent crater lake, volcanoes, mountain ridges, waterfalls – where kind Maya people simply live, and try to make the best life possible with the options available.