It’s been a week since I returned home from Guatemala, and it feels about right to take a week to absorb, process, and reflect on the entire experience.
Spoiler alert: It was awesome and life-changing and challenging and inspiring.
I’ve been on this trip before, in 2008, so one would assume that a second time around the same place with some of the same people wouldn’t be as deserving of so many superlatives. I traveled to Guatemala with an organization called Xela Aid, an organization founded 20 years ago when volunteers set up medical clinics in the fields of San Martin, a village in the Guatemalan highlands. During that time, Guatemala was engaged in what is now called the “Internal Armed Conflict,” and people already living in impoverished areas were facing a bloody civil war. Today, that violence has ended, and Xela Aid has constructed a health clinic and study center in San Martin Chiquito.
Volunteers with Xela Aid travel to San Martin Chiquito to help in various ways; some trips are medical aid trips, and ours was education-centered. The village has four education centers: La Guardaria, which is like a preschool/ daycare, Primeria, which is like an elementary school, Basico, which is sort of like junior high, and the study center, located inside the clinic, which is for Primeria kids to engage in extra-curricular activities, receive help in their studies, and to encourage their Spanish and Mam fluency.
An important detail to know about Guatemala is that while Spanish is the official language, there are 21 different Mayan languages spoken throughout the nation; in San Martin, the Mayan language is Mam. In order to earn an education and conduct business throughout Guatemala, it is important to know Spanish. However, by emphasizing Spanish-only education, you risk a language dying out within generations. Thus, the study center and Basico have lessons in both Spanish and Mam, which I think is really, really awesome.
Each morning for the week I (along with two Sarahs, Amber, and Coraline) worked with the youngest kids at La Guardaria. Let me just say, teaching preschoolers is hard work. Teaching preschoolers when you don’t speak the same language as them is ridiculously challenging. I have been working on my Spanish little by little, and had a Spanish tutor there, but nothing describes futility like when you’re trying to figure out why one little girl is crying (asking “Que pasa?” works, but it doesn’t help when you can’t understand the answer) or trying to keep two little boys from running around and pushing the other kids (“Sea sympatico!” isn’t as articulate as I needed it to be).
Some things are universal, though. Namely, sidewalk chalk and bubbles!
Also, birthday cake.
In the afternoons some of us helped Terry give his presentation on first aid to the Basico kids. Terry is an awesome ER nurse in Long Beach, and don’t believe him when he says his Spanish is awful. He put together first aid kits for the classes, and gave a presentation on basic first aid. If my Spanish didn’t quite work when trying to communicate at preschool-level vocabulary, you can bet that I wasn’t as useful as I’d like to be when teaching young teenagers how to tie a sling. Somehow it worked though, or at least I hope. They might end up treating cuts and burns with a sling, but at least those kids know how to tie them! The timing worked out well, since San Martin had an earthquake drill at the Primeria and some sort of municipal center that week. They may not have been as over-organized as the drills like the Great California Shake Out we have here, but I was impressed with their potato sack/ broom handle stretchers. Hey, when it comes to saving lives, whatever works, right? Their resourcefulness is one of my favorite traits about the people in Guatemala.
On one of the evenings, our group was lucky to have a local speaker come and give a lecture about the history of Guatemala and the Mayan people. I’d known already that it was pretty awful, but I learned even more about what a dark history they have had, and even typing about it makes me want to cry. So instead, if you’re interested (and prepared to become very angry) I suggest reading Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala.
A fter learning about the plight of Mayan people, I think we all felt especially honored to hike with the kids from Basico to Laguna Chicabal, which is a sacred lake in the crater of a volcano. In fact, it is the center of the Mam-Mayan Cosmovision, which if you ask me, is seriously legit. Some of the kids were so excited to take us there, even offering a hand when the trail got steep or slippery. Walking the final stretch to the lake hand in hand with Katya is one of those memories that I know will forever mean to me more than I can describe. Her patience, friendliness, and generosity were so inspiring to me, and it was just so amazing to get to experience this lake that has so much meaning.
This is us as we got to the lake (note that the hike wasn’t exactly an easy one):
On Saturday, the kids from the study center met us at the zoo, and we had a picnic and played games. I looked at animals with a girl named Juana, who read all the signs to me, since she could tell my Spanish wasn’t so great and assumed I couldn’t read the signs either. 🙂 The sad part about that is that it might also be indicative of the low levels of adult literacy that the kids are accustomed to…
I’ve left out so many of the fun details and stories that come to mind when I think of that trip. I realize, though, that I run the risk of too many “You had to be there” moments, and yeah, you really had to be there. So you should go some time. But really, I understand that I was incredibly lucky to get to have this experience, and because of it, the one thing that I wish for people who know me is that some of you learn more about the history of the Guatemala and its wonderful people, or that you find a way to help out other people who don’t share the same fortune as you do. Or maybe just show some compassion, in general, to anyone. Compassion and understanding lead to some of the most beautiful moments in life.
*To be clear, I actually really admire Anthony Bourdain. It’s just that this experience was legit and made me feel cool like that.