By Daniel Bender
For many of us, this long quarantine has been socially trying. We are all longing to get back to a more “normal” state. Because of this, I wondered about how the lives of some ex-pat Chicagoans have been impacted by this pandemic. I reached out to Gavin Kern, the former manager of the Club International at the Drake Hotel, to ask how his world in Antigua, Guatemala has been changed by the virus. His response is quite impressive.
Over the years many of you have visited Guatemala and fallen in love with its humble and kind people, magnificent scenery, and spectacular Mayan ruins. Central to any tourist’s visit to this country is a stay in its cobblestoned 17th – 18th-century capital, Antigua. Famous for its colonial architecture, native markets and crafts, as well as beautiful hotels and fine dining, Antigua boasts a year-round temperate climate, magnificent views of the active volcanoes – Fuego and Agua and easy access to the native cultures surrounding the idyllic Lake Atitlán.
Kern moved to this paradisiacal city a few years ago and immediately became involved in supporting the artistic and educational communities there. He has supported classical music concerts for students, taken student groups to films and the opera, directed local plays and opened pop-up galleries for young Guatemalan artists. Recently Kern opened what has become one of Guatemala’s premier Thai restaurants, Thai Wow, in the center of Antigua. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has closed the restaurant for the time being but this has not stopped Kern from being active and involved in his community.
Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei M.D., closed Guatemala’s borders at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, acknowledging that his country did not have the financial or medical resources to fight this pandemic should it cross its borders. This closure brought the tourism industry to a standstill and deprived Guatemala of much needed US tourist dollars. The hospitality industry was devastated and hotels and restaurants were closed. Most of the indigenous workers were laid off and told to return to their villages to prevent the internal spread of the virus. Only recently was Thai Wow allowed to reopen with a reduced carry-out/delivery menu and skeleton staff.
The remain-in-place order during this pandemic has caused wide-scale unemployment throughout the county and especially in tourist centers such as Antigua and Lake Atitlan. Families completely without food or resources have taken to standing with white flags along the roadsides to signal their desperate need of aid of any kind in order to survive. Even with his restaurant temporally closed and still trying to pay his own employees, Gavin immediately responded to this need. Weekly, he and two Guatemalan helpers, Diego and Elias (a deaf student who Kern supports) assemble and deliver care packages of “essential food items” to families along the streets of Antigua. To the older and single women without husbands, he also gives a small financial gift for other household expenses. In true Chicago character, Gavin saw the needs of others and immediately responded.
Casa Palopó, an elegant small boutique hotel, is located in the village of Santa Catarina Palopó along the shores of Lake Atitlán. This lake basin today is home to 14 Mayan villages as well as several distinct Mayan languages. I found this wonderful picturesque refuge in the late sixties and have been returning almost yearly ever since. I discovered Casa Palopó the first month it opened and it has become the site of many happy reunions of Chicago friends and family over the years. On our yearly return, we always look forward to reacquainting ourselves with the staff from the surrounding Mayan villages and catching up on their lives and family. It is the wonderfully close and personal ambiance of this beautiful hotel that has made it a focal stop for all our Atlitlán visits. Sadly, the whole Atitlán basin has been economically devastated by the pandemic. Mayan villagers who once worked in the hotels or restaurants, or sold at markets can no longer make a living with the absence of the tourist trade. They are going hungry.
The Casa Palopó and other business establishments in the area have set up the Atitlán Fund (theatitlanfund.org) and contacted frequent visitors for support. Two projects are especially addressing the effects of the COVID virus: COVID-19 Response provides critical support to families suffering from loss of income and food insecurity during these times, and Pintando el Cambio, which employs locals to paint houses and public buildings using the communities’ traditional designs. The Mayans are proud hard-working people and providing “work support” is a great way to help them in a time of need. Many Chicagoans have heard this appeal and gotten involved in the Mayan community through their contributions.
I am proud of how so many Chicagoans have responded to the challenges both here and abroad brought on by this horrible pandemic. Whether it is caring for the sick, buying groceries for the aged, visiting those in isolation, making sandwiches for St. Chrysostom’s food distribution, or assembling essential food care packages in Antigua, Chicagoans are always there and at the forefront of the response to any crisis. It is good to know that this Chicago spirit carries on no matter where a Chicagoan lives!