Born in the town of Salama, southern Guatemala, Joel is now a local of Poptún. Against adversity, Joel has made a success of his local tuk-tuk business that ferries visitors around the locality.
Originally one of twelve, six of Joel’s brothers and sisters passed away before adulthood – a striking example of his family’s access to healthcare at the time – he tells me. One of the lucky ones, he completed school and began his working life at eighteen.
He landed a job as a driver with Fuente Del Norte, a national bus service that saw him travelling country-wide from Guatemela City, north to Flores and across to Rio Dulce in the east. Joel tells me that when the next generation took over the running of the buses, the wages dropped and workers became profit margins for the bosses. He met his future wife and it was time for him to settle. He bought a house and they had a son, who’s now eighteen years old.
I was privileged on two occasions to be invited into Joel’s home to meet his family. He’s a wonderful, kind man. His conversation is informed and passionate, and he’s open to talking on any subject from the his favourite fish stew to religion. I respected his honesty regarding his country and its current affairs and loved his warm manner.
Having battled with alcoholism in his younger years, Joel has now come out the other side and his main focus is helping his son through university so that he can have a prosperous career managing the rich local farmland. During my house visits and weekly tuk-tuk rides into town, we discussed his thoughts on everything, from what makes him happy to his country’s future.
What is happiness for you?
“I think that happiness has different meanings to different people throughout the world, but personally it’s the security I now have with my family. For many years I drank too much and in hindsight I had a problem with drugs and alcohol. While I was working on the buses I drank every day.
These days, life has changed a great deal for me and I own my house and have a wonderful family (my wife and son). With my tuk-tuk business, I like that my days have routine and things in my life are fixed. Having money to feed my family and eating with them at home makes me happy.”
What has changed in Guatemala over the past five years?
“In my opinion, the biggest changes have been the increase in tourism to this area and the recent change in the government. People say the last president was a thief, because a lot of money changed hands at the top so that things could happen. There are still many problems in our communities and corruption at the highest levels, however I believe that the government should encourage more visitors, because the tourists have brought more money to the area, and me and my family in particular. When more people come, they start business, they employ people and the town has more money.”
The personal change for me was that I started to go to church and look to god for help. I grew up in a religious family but hadn’t given it time while I was drinking. Now I am religious and go to church regularly, although I still don’t think it should be a reason to criticise others’ lives. It is a very personal thing for me.”
What will change in Guatemala in the next five years?
I hope that Jimmy Morales (the new president) will make changes from the highest level. The people like him but he needs to prove himself. He should encourage trade by lowering taxes and this would mean less business for contraband goods. His government should encourage more people to visit remote regions of the country so that the people can benefit from the visitors.
Education is the most important thing right now in the country and public schools need more regulation and funding from the government. I pay $90 per month so that my son can study agricultural engineering and have a career. However it’s a lot of money for a family on my wage. I want him to be able to have a good job and for my grandchildren not to have to worry so much about being able to study hard at school. Improving the education system through major changes will lead to a better economy and in turn, more visitors.”
*With his agreement, I put the above questions to Joel as part of our wider discussions and have translated his words from Spanish to English. These opinions are not my own and all words, although not always verbatim, are Joel’s.