A recap of my experience traveling to Guatemala on a philanthropic expedition with CHOICE Humanitarian. Click Here for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5. The following is my journal entry from Day 6.
This day has been BANANAS! Or should I say PLATANOS! Seriously. Best day I’ve had in … who knows?!
We skipped digging in the pit today and instead went for a “walk”–a friendly way to say “really steep hike”–to one of the neighboring villages, Mercedes.
I wasn’t sure if I could do it; those Guatemala roads are mountainous–so steep and winding. Almost halfway up the hill out of Chimaxyat, I turned around. I didn’t want to hold anyone up and I really didn’t know if I could do it. That one hill alone just about kills me. But Mitch and Allison both convinced me I could do it.
It was hard. And long. (An hour and a half or two, maybe?) And so so hot. And so so humid. Aside from my worry that I physically couldn’t handle the inclines, I had lingering memories of that first day when I was so dehydrated and sick.
So I walked and drank and walked and drank, the whole time, ever-so-slowly. And. It. Was. Amazing. We would round a bend and, like a crazy dream, there were these VIEWS–so vast and so green and so gorgeous–and I would catch myself (and my breath): I am in Guatemala! I am in Guatemala. And this is real. I am hiking along a dusty, dirt path in Guatemala. Me. In a jungle. In Guatemala. It’s still hard to believe.
About 20 minutes from the village, a man named Santiago came by on his motorcycle and asked if I wanted a ride. ?!?!?! At first, I thought, Heck, yes! I’m so tired and so hot. And then I thought, Heck, no! That’s so dangerous! And then I thought, Krista–do. it. Get on that moto and ride through Guatamala with Santi. Live. Live!
And so I did. And I can’t even write about this without smiling. The wind! The sun! The gorgeous Guatemalan landscape! All those mountains and all that green and all that sky and all that blue. Seriously, it was like a dream. Up and down and around on these gravelly, dirt roads, holding onto this adorable little Guatemalan man who didn’t speak a lick of English–it was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done in my life.
Santi took me the rest of the way to Mercedes and once we got there, we were greeted by all the children in the village, smiling and cheering as they ran up the hill to meet us. There were dozens–all so happy to see us. Immediately, they were holding on to my hands and arms, any piece of skin they could touch–much less shy than the children of Chimaxyat. Perhaps because this village is a little more developed? I think they see “gringos” more often, whereas I’m told the children of Chimaxyat haven’t seen white people for nearly four years.
I sat with the children at the school until the rest of the group arrives. It was a two-room, wooden building with a small porch and a ramp leading up. Their teacher found me a chair. This seems to always happen–villagers here are always seeking ways to make us feel comfortable and welcome, no matter what community we were in or how long we were there for.
The children in Mercedes didn’t know much Spanish so we weren’t able to communicate verbally, but between holding hands and trading songs–I sang “You Are My Sunshine” in exchange for one they’d recently learned in school–we did just fine and became fast friends.
Once the rest of my group arrived, we all went to see the new brick school CHOICE was helping to build and the children jockeyed for positions next to us. Those who didn’t get “right next” to one of us would take hold of their friend’s hand, as though the connections flowed through each person in the chain. I think we each walked up the hill four to six abroad, two or three children on each side.
Near the school was a big field where the older class was having physical education time. We walked around a bit and looked at the school before heading back down to the wooden school, where we just relaxed and did nothing really–except play catch with the kids and hold as many as would fit in our laps.
Doc and Allison went to the “store” where they picked up eight Cokes and 8 bags of chips for $2. After an hour or so, it was time to go back, but there was no way we’d make it back ourselves. Mercedes is located much lower on the mountain and the last hour into the village was downhill, meaning it was at least an hour uphill to get out. So we hitched a ride on a chicken bus, those crazy work trucks you hear about in Central/South America that haul people and animals–as many people and animals as possible.
We piled in with a bunch of other Guatemalans, standing, i.e. holding on for dear life, and went home. Did I say this was a great day?! A chicken bus! We were all laughing our heads off, smiling as wide as our mouths would stretch. Not more than two hours before, I was on the back of a motorcycle, and now here I was on a chicken bus…speeding again through the jungles and mountains of Guatemala.
On the bus with us was an older couple–much older, like in their 80s or 90s. They were both carrying heavy bags and at one point the abeulo’s bag slid and his corn scattered. Not all of it–maybe just a couple handfuls.
Once we stopped to get off, he and his wife got off too, but not before he bent to gather the spilled corn. We all began to help gather the bigger mounds, but soon realized he wasn’t going to stop until every single kernel of corn had been reclaimed. So we continued, on our knees, picking up little, single bits with our fingers. I think that image and lesson will stay with me for always.
Had it been me, I probably would’ve just left it. But every single kernel was important and had value to him. And his worn, brown, wrinkled hands were going to pick each one up. No waste. Not even one kernel thrown away.
After lunch, a few of us laid down to rest while the women of Chimaxyat set up their handmades for a little “pop-up” market. Jorge had told us beforehand that we needed to haggle with them–that they couldn’t just play the “I’m poor” card with us and that even though we knew them and loved them and could totally pay whatever they asked, it would do them no service. They had to learn how to compete in the real market in Guatemala City where it was cutthroat.
This was incredibly difficult to say the least. I first found a hand-woven towel I loved and asked the price. Q.25–the equivalent of $3.50ish and a more than reasonable price for a handmade item. But I had to talk her down. I started at Q.15 ($2ish). We went back and forth until we landed on Q.19 ($2.80). It was the same for every item I wanted to buy, and I hated it (and I always gave in more than I should have, Jorge said) and I could see the wisdom in what he was asking us to do. However, it was difficult none-the-less. I have so much. They have so little. And it seemed absurd to pay so little for something so dear.
After the market, as if this day couldn’t get any better, it was time for “shadowing.” This was where we split into groups and visited the homes of the villagers and learned about their daily life. My group was going to Benjamin’s home. Benjamin was one of “my” students–and so so sweet. You could see the happiness in his eyes when he learned I was coming to see where he lived. He was so proud to show me.
His older brother led the way and talked with the other members of my group. There were five of us and I was the only girl. The paths were, as usual, quite slippery and deep with mud, but Benjamin stayed back with me (slow poke), almost as if he was watching over me to make sure I got there safely. First, we stopped at the brother’s house–a small structure with bamboo stalk walls, no bigger than 10’x10′.
The fire stove was in one corner, across from which was a wooden slat bench, where his wife slept. A hammock was strung from one wall to the other and that was where he slept. Their baby slept in a blanket tied like a little cocoon hammock which hung from a hook on the wall.
While Mitch, our translator talked and explained their daily routine, Benjamin tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to see his house. He was so timid, yet so proud, and so excitedly antsy for me to get there. “Por supuesto! Estoy emocionado.”
He led me through the mud path to the house next door. This house was much larger, but not by much. It too had dirt floors, bamboo walls, with a dividing wall between the “entry/living” area and the “bedrooms.” Chickens, roosters, and ducks, came in and out and roamed the house as there were no doors.
Benjamin was so excited to introduce me to his mother and father and I even took a family picture of them. His sister, Gertrudis, was making tortillas and his other sister was holding her baby. Again, they had hammocks and wood-slat beds, although Benjamin had a separate “room” with a “door.” Everything was made of bamboo shoots and his room was no bigger than the 5’x3′ wood table he slept on. But–so proud.
Gertrudis let me help make a couple tortillas and she got quite a kick out of watching me trying to flatten the tortilla by hand. They, as a community, share the corn crop. It’s all subsistence farming, meaning the village eats everything they grow; there are no leftovers to sell.
After a bit of chit chat, we went outside to where Benjamin’s father showed us how he “mows the lawn”–with a machete. You bend over and just swipe the machete through the grass, just above the dirt, parallel to the ground. We all got to try it and it’s much harder than you think. I just seemed to chop a lot of dirt.
After learning how to cut the grass, it was time to go back for dinner, but on the way we passed their tienda (store). There were a few odds and ends: soda, a few snacks, and of course the boys couldn’t leave without buying machetes–they cleaned the whole store of their stock.
On my way again, I heard, “Kreeesta!” being called through the trees. It was Josephina, another one of my students. She was in front of a house, so I asked, “es tu casa?” “Si!” “Puedo visitar?” (Can I visit?) “Si!”
I trekked over to meet Josephina’s familia and see her home. Theirs seemed to be a bit bigger and less impoverished. Josephina and her immediate family had one structure for sleeping and another for cooking and her grandparents had the same. There were a bunch of aunts and uncles there too, so I’m not sure how many people actually lived in those four “buildings,” but it looked like a fairly large piece of land. Maybe a 1/2 acre for all of them.
After leaving Josephina’s, I headed again towards the sleeping quarters, when I heard, “Kreeesta!” coming from up the hill. This time it was Luki, not one of my students, but one of the little girls I had played with. (Luki was probably about 5 or 6, Josephina and Benjamin were 13 or 14?) Anyway, Luki was waving from her house and then I saw her brother Eric, another one of my students and I again, asked if I could visit.
Their house (compound) was much bigger–they seemed to be one of the more wealthy families in the village. Raul, the new dad we visited earlier in the week and owner of the most expensive house in the village, said they were his cousins. At each of the homes I was sure to tell the parents how smart their kids were–such good students–and you could tell they were all so pleased.
Finally, I was on my way, although I stopped for a quick minute to meet the parents of more students: Julio, Norma, and Karmin.
At dusk, the village and religious leaders walked in a line through the village and around a central fire surrounded by palms. They carried torches and incense, and chanted quietly to a beating drum. Then they gathered everyone around the fire and gave all the expeditioners a candle, which they lit from the main fire.
They thanked us for coming and then began offering prayers for our safety and protection. All of them were vocally praying different words simultaneously, just like the first day, as we stood, huddled with our lit candles. Then one by one, they asked us to put our candles in the fire. This symbolized us all being of one spirit, they said. We learned that they did this exact ceremony 15 days before we arrived to begin the prayers for our safe journey to their village.
It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of. To think–their planning, their thought, their prayers–for days before we came. I wish we had more traditions and ceremonies and rituals like this. It makes me think a bit more about how I care after the friends and strangers I come in contact with, and the prayers I offer on behalf of others.
After the candles, they put on a fireworks show. Ca-ra-zy! A man put on a wooden structure, kind of like the skeleton of a cow and along the beams were the fireworks. He danced while they went off. It was insane. Then a man in a diablo costume, with wings as tall and wide as the man, began dancing as his pyrotechnics (attached to the wings) went off. It was seriously one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.
Once the cow and the devil stopped dancing (and didn’t die as explosions were going off from their costumes), they lit more fireworks (about 10 feet away from us) that exploded in the sky, over the village. To be gathered all together, under the stars and a full moon (the clouds cleared!), while fireworks went off straight over our heads–well, I just can’t even explain it.
Arnulfo, another student of maybe 14 years?, came to stand by me. He was shy and timid about it, but I put my arm around him and there we stood as the light exploded in the sky. I told him, “No quiero salir manana. Me amo Chimaxyat y yo necesito la gente de esta comunidad en my vida toda dia.” (I don’t want to leave tomorrow. I love Chimaxyat and I need the people of this community in my life every day.)
He looked at me, eye to eye and said, “Te gusta Chimaxyat?” (You like Chimaxyat?) “Si, me amo.” (Yes, I love.)
He simply beamed. And my heart broke a little. It hit me–I would have to leave. I have to leave.
Once the fireworks were over, we all just danced and danced and danced to the marimbas. The ground was a muddy mess and we slipped and slip and laughed and danced.
Eventually they needed to turn off the generator and we needed to pack. And this meant we had to say goodbye. One by one we hugged and I found my students. “No quiero salir. Tu eres en mi corazon siempre.” (I don’t want to leave. You’re in my heart forever.)
Maria was particularly hard to say goodbye to. I’m not sure why, but when we looked at each other, every time during the week, we were … connected. Something different lingered, existed between us. I hugged her and squeezed her hand so tightly.
Delia was another one. She followed me as I hugged each person, yet hung back, soon becoming brave enough to come over and hug me too. I cried through most of it (of course #weeper). I just love these people–their children especially. All I can think about is how to get back here. How do I get back to Chimaxyat? How do I keep these beautiful people in my life?
This week has made me step back and look at what really matters? What do I want? I don’t know that I really have any answers, but an experience like this forces you to ask a lot of questions.
After a million “adios” “muchas gracias” and “Bantiox” (thank you, in Q’eqchi), we began to pack. The villagers lingered and watched and stayed till the lights went out. Although the marimbas continued long into the dark of night.
And now we sleep.
After the best. day. ever.