Guatemala City has an emotional and historical pull, remaining a centre of things social, spiritual and impoverished. Today, it's still the largest city in Central America and a kind of twilight zone of informal housing and work.
With a population of nearly 13 million, Guatemala is among the 10 poorest countries in Latin America, according to the United Nations. The 1996 peace accords that ended the decades-long civil war paved the way for foreign investment. Tourism is growing. But many Guatemalans - whether they're white, mestizo (mixed Amerindian and Spanish) or Garifuna (descended from escaped African slaves) - cannot access proper health care and education.
In a world where half of humanity will soon live in cities, the forces at play in Guatemala City serve as a looking glass not only to the future of Guatemala's burgeoning cities, but to urban spaces all over.
Here, they say that if you're born poor, you die poor. For more than 60 years, the Guatemala City Dump - or El Basurero - has been home to the guajeros, the men and women who informally recycle a million pounds of waste per day. About 80 percent of these workers are Indigenous.
Castaways of the global economy, many of these workers migrated to the Guatemala City from coffee-growing communities during Guatemala's long and brutal civil war.
The Guatemala City Dump is Central America's most toxic and disease-filled 16 hectares. Here, the stench is overwhelming and the spectacle of waste is mind-numbing.
Unskilled and unable to find adequate food or shelter, workers rummage through the dump from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and make a total of 15 quetzales, barely $2.
Every day, big yellow trucks line up to tip their loads - mainly restaurant leftovers, old furniture, glass and aluminum - as residents of nearby slums crowd around and vultures circle overhead.
In January 2005, a cloud of methane gas that hovered over the dump ignited and caused a massive fire. After the explosion, the city built a wall around the dump and stationed armed guards to keep people out between dusk and dawn. Children were barred altogether.
It's not just trash that ends up here. Decaying shrines and old coffins from the neighbouring Guatemala City Cemetery also pile up at the dump's edge. Some of the coffins have corpses inside. It's what happens when families can't pay the $12 annual cemetery fee.
It's hard to tell where the basurero ends and the workers' homes begin. Just outside the city dump, families as big as eight or more - plus their animals - live in shanties made of corrugated steel, cardboard and nylon. Recyclables spill out the windows and garbage that can't be sold lines the neighbourhood.
Safe Passage, known locally as Camino Seguro, offers a respite for at-risk children living around the Guatemala City Dump. The organization began educating and caring for children in 1999.
What started with 40 children ages two to 19 now numbers 500. Local staff, together with volunteers from around the world - including The United Church of Canada - teach the children the skills they need to be self-sufficient and to obtain the stable jobs that will lead their families out of poverty.
Formal education is often beyond the reach of the poor in Guatemala. Only 55 percent of the population is literate, the UN says. Although school attendance is compulsory for six years, only 41 percent of school-aged children attend classes.
"The everyday reality for Guatemalans raises profound questions about Third-World governments and the ongoing cycle of poverty," says Fredy Maldonado, special projects co-ordinator for Safe Passage. "It's no exaggeration to say that these people, especially the kids, are in crisis."
In addition to education, Safe Passage provides nutritional support and medical care, as well as the uniforms and supplies needed for half-day lessons in Guatemalan public schools.
Inside the group's rainbow-coloured compound, kids are rambunctious and seemingly happy. There's a peacefulness here - the kind that's almost always absent outside Safe Passage's walls.
A 2006 mission trip to Safe Passage "opened the eyes" of members of the United Church's Gander (Nfld.) pastoral charge. "The ones we went to serve ended up serving us," remembers Rev. Stephanie McClellan (Not in the photo), who led the 15-member team from Fraser Road United and First United.
Says McClellan: "When asked previously what they wanted to do when they grew up, the children would have expected to work in the dump as their parents and grandparents did. Now they answer, 'Maybe a doctor, social worker, singer or dancer.' Their struggles make their joy even more satisfying; that fulfilled promise of education and renewal even more brilliant."