I spent a couple of weeks in Antigua, Guatemala last week. My primary purpose was an intensive language immersion experience (which it certainly was), but it was also a good reminder of the many contradictions in any society.
On the one hand, I heard daily about the challenges of Guatemala: an alarmingly high rate of murders each day; the drug trafficking that occurs as a result of being part of the corridor between Colombia and Mexico; the inability and unwillingness of the government (and the Catholic church) to promote any kind of sex education in schools; a drought that has caused severe hunger in parts of the country; a nearly non-existent health care system; the lack of access to affordable capital; and the list goes on.
On the other hand, I heard about the reasons for hope: a fierce entrepreneurial spirit; a deep commitment to family; a growing workforce of women; projects that target the needs of rural populations; an artistic community committed to excellence; a culture that values its history; and the list goes on.
Sure, there were more traditional highlights of my time there -- a lovely host family, roasting marshmallows on an active volcano, attending world-class Baroque concerts, chuckling that Paris Hilton was helicoptered into Antigua from the capital (just an hour away), singing at an open mic, and the like -- but the big picture was that of reflection. Reflection that challenged any simple generalizations that one might hope to have about a country. And I guess that's the kind of reflection that I like.
Note: One reader asked me to provide an update on my Spanish language skills. While I went there with reasonably good Spanish-speaking skills, this experience provided me about 70-80 hours of one-on-one conversation that is bound to improve anyone's foreign language skills. Since returning from this trip, I continue to use Spanish regularly.