Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: A Candelight Dinner

Just up a little bit on the steep road from La Iguana Perdido is a second-floor café of the mom and pop variety. I drew an arrow to point it out in the photo below:

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

A Santa Cruz travel buddy - Jane -  and I entered to have dinner there. It was getting dark and we weren't sure the restaurant would be open, but it was.

The señora we'd spoken to earlier in the day wasn't at the café, but a young girl, maybe between 10 and 12, was present. Another little girl appeared. They took Jane's and my order, then hustled into the tiny kitchen on the other side of the ordering counter, which was behind our table.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. April 2016.

There was no electricity in the cafe, and one of the girls lit the candles on our table. I don't remember what either of us ordered, but it did require cooking. We could hear the young girls talking and moving around in the petite kitchen, and working with a gas oven.

I expected the café matron to appear, but no, these little girls were both our servers and cooks. Well, some of the food had been prepared previously, so some of the work involved heating it up.

Nevertheless, the level of responsibility at play here --> Greeting us, seating us, setting the table, lighting the candles, taking our orders, preparing our dinners, serving them, accepting payment. The quiet discussions and occasional giggling behind the counter.

The señora arrived as we were preparing to leave the restaurant. She explained that one of the girls was her granddaughter. If I remember correctly, the other little girl was the señora's hired helper.

The food was tasty - neither superior nor inferior to the food I ate at La Iguana Perdida.

When encountering children who work - and who maybe go to school and maybe not - it sets up debates in my mind.

My Spanish teacher and I had a conversation about the young kids who worked at the market in Antigua. I wondered if they weren't required to attend school? Theoretically, education is mandatory between ages 7 and 14. But setting aside the theoretical requirement, my Spanish teacher countered my indirect judgmentalism with this argument: By working every day in the market, don't the children gain an education? Such as learning about real-world math in their money-handling transactions? Communication skills via salesmanship, networking, and negotiations?

On one level, sure. And there are centuries of history in many cultures, in which children have matured into educated, skilled adult artisans and merchants who live very well by dint of apprenticeship.

And it is not intrinsically bad or harmful for children to work, assuming the work is safe and does not compromise other quality of life issues.

On another level - well, my Spanish teacher's daughter is going to school. Private school. With an expectation, I believe, of going on to university after she completes high school.

And speaking of girls: Research shows a strong correlation between girls' number of years in school and girls' age at first pregnancy. In other words, the longer a girl stays in school, the older she is before she becomes pregnant the first time. Education also has ramifications for the girls' lifetime health, the health of their children, and by extension the overall economic welfare of the girls'-to-women's families.

When it comes to questions in which it is difficult for me to see the line that divides mere cultural differences and cultural dysfunctions, I ask myself if the tradition supports or denies an individual's right to self-determination. Some definitions of self-determination below: 
  • The free choice of one's acts without compulsion. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • The individual’s right to live his life as he chooses, as long as he does not violate any other person’s right to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. (Foundation for Economic Education)
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (Declaration of Independence)

So. These two young girls in the mom-and-pop restaurant in Santa Cruz. And for that matter, the señora.

What are their stories?

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