Thursday, 27 March 2008

Babies and Bangles.

We have been using our time in the city to catch up with the consumer developments that have passed us by over the cruising years – fashion, technology have all moved on apace.

We checked in to the Biltmore Express Hotel, the economy arm of the rather more luxurious Westin Hotel that adjoins its premises. It has suited us well as we spent the first few days running from Embassy to Shopping Malls and back again. Yesterday to fill in some time TBH announced that we should go and investigate the facilities of the posh part. Asking at the reception desk we were directed to an unobtrusive, unmarked door in the corner which we could open with our room key.

‘Go through the door, take two lefts and a right…’ they said.

Following hot on the trail of a well dressed young woman with two small children in tow, we went through the door….

Just when you least expect it culture shock leaps out and swipes you on the side of the head. It was like going down the rabbit hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or finding yourself in a bizarre Matrix-style futuristic storyline.

Suddenly we were surrounded by women wearing babies strapped to their chest like some badge of honour or club membership insignia. Little dark-haired Guatemalan babies, sturdy brown-eyed toddlers, all shepherded by saccharine-voiced, caring, US, ‘Apple Pie’ Moms.

You know I’ve had quite a lot of shocks and unexpected moments since TBH took me off around the world but this one truly knocked me for six. Initially I thought maybe I was mistaken. We strolled along the sumptuous corridors of the hotel towards the main reception. Not really thinking just enjoying a companionable chat and some window shopping. My eye was drawn to the store selling Jade pieces and we wandered in to have a closer look. My attention though was claimed by the young couple with the strap-on baby choosing a memento of the occasion for a souvenir. A baby and a bangle. One up on a T-shirt! Unique trophies of the trip to Guatemala.

I really wasn’t looking for a profound cultural moment as we studied the menus for the three on-site restaurants. TBH decided he fancied a Wiener Schnitzel, so we seated ourselves in the Viennese style restaurant…

Babies everywhere. Highchairs. Pushchairs. Baby carriers. Appalled and shocked TBH and I sat silently taking in this extraordinary sight.

Yes I’ve read about the massive rate of adoptions from here in Guatemala, looked at the figures involved, written about it but the evidence of child trafficking on such a large scale ( I can think of no other description) shook me rigid.

Snippets of neighbouring conversations;
‘Yes. This is my second time you know…’
‘We’ve not had a very good day…’
‘Well the Mother already had older daughters…’
‘You put your life on hold really…’
‘It’s worth it all…’

Young couples, older couples, single women. All here buying what Nature or circumstances wouldn’t provide.

What must the Guatemalan staff think and feel? How exploited can you be? Seeing the wealthy gringos help themselves to your nation, your children, your future.

It seems to me worse than slavery. To dislocate these infants in every sense: geographically, culturally, physically, emotionally. Taken from all they know like a puppy from the litter. Sold to the highest bidder.

And don’t tell me these kids didn’t know. If an Emperor Penguin can return after six months apart and find its mate and chick amongst hundreds of thousands of others, why shouldn’t we believe that a human child also instinctively knows that these are not its parents?

Two families caught my attention.

One was an older woman from Boston. She looked tired, affluent, confused as she poked spoonfuls of food toward the unresponsive tiny child. Treating it as you would a lap dog. Waiting for the unconditional gratitude of a puppy and bewildered by the evident anguish and hostility of the child.

The young father, in another party, bemoaned his frustration with his job, his sense of responsibility. I perceived his evident struggle with some deep personal issues while his partner ignored him, focusing on the new child, an 11-month old girl.

‘If you reject him, you have to cuddle me’ she said to the child as it pushed her away time and time again.

What are these people doing here? What is the US Government doing issuing thousands of visas so these children can be taken away?

My gut reaction was so intense it filled my eyes with tears. I’m no ‘bleeding heart’ liberal. As a Mum with three kids, I have no delusions about children or motherhood. But I knew for sure that what was going on here could not be right.

There were too many supporting signs to doubt my verdict. All the babies were particularly light skinned. All the mothers fashionably dressed. Acquiring a multi-cultural family is the latest in celebrity chic. And Guatemala is the place to do it.

I thought of the one Central American adoption that I had experienced personally. A friend’s daughter, recently married and stunningly beautiful, decided to adopt a cute baby girl. All the joys of motherhood without the pain and lasting physical effects on her body. Three years later as the divorce became final neither party wanted the child, who was passed from relative to friend to boarding school and so on.

I prayed that none of these children would suffer such a fate. But their unhappy cries and their new parents’ uncomprehending cooing made my heart sink. I saw the look in the waiter’s eye as he cleaned up the spilt food and debris and was ashamed.

To complete the bizarre unreality of the scene, a bored young man appeared, plugged his electric violin into a laptop and stated to serenade us with an mp3 of Guantanamera. The underground anthem of the Latin American oppressed.

1 comment:

Second Summit said...

Sounds amazing. Bizarre must be the right word. Along, maybe, with heartbreaking.

Sorry to miss your return to the Rio. I'm heading out in the morning, back to NJ via CA. It's been a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to continuing to read about your adventures.

Bill's still here, though, so I hope you'll see him when you're back.

--Maggie of Second Summit