My Guatemalan Immersion: The First of Many Posts

At the end of this past May, I went down to Guatemala.

I was excited for this trip. It was obvious because I began counting down the days until we left once school let out for the summer at the beginning of May. When people asked me what I was going to do that summer, I would immediately tell them that I was going to Guatemala for nine days. I was really looking forward to what awaited me. I’d never been out of the United States before, so this was an adventure for me.

I was scared out of my mind. I don’t know what to expect, I thought. I had a Spanish-English Dictionary, and other review materials with me on the plane, and I went through them, frantically, searching for answers.

It was a long day of traveling for me. We flew from Cleveland to Houston. And then from Houston, we flew to Guatemala City. The time zones changed, and I kept losing hours. My body clock kept trying to catch up.

Once I walked out of the airport in Guatemala City, my feet had barely hit the concrete when I was immediately given a culture shock. I was suddenly in a completely different world, thousands of miles away from home, and somewhere that definitely wasn’t my comfort zone. Outside the airport, I was surrounded by people trying to sell me things, people asking for donations to a specific cause, and people who were begging. The policemen in Guatemala City were armed with massive guns, which served as a reminder to me that things are not as safe as they seem. The fact that the policemen were armed so heavily definitely intimidated me. I realize now that they were intimidating to me because it was different than what I was accustomed to. It’s not about me; it’s about them, I thought to myself for the first time that week. I needed to fully enter into a world that I knew very little about. I took a deep breath, and took the plunge, headfirst. There was no turning back.

From the airport, we drove to Panajachel, a town on the shore of Lake Atitlan. The further away from the capital I got, the more and more immersed in the culture I got. I didn’t have cell service, or my phone when I was there, but I was content to just look out the window during the drive. Guatemala was so beautiful. The countryside there looks like the country in the US sometimes, but most of the time, it doesn’t. The colors were so vivid, almost as if they really meant it. And the air was so fresh.

In Panajachel, I got a little frustrated. Spanish felt so awkward coming from my mouth. I stumbled over words a lot that first night. I was nervous about my speaking abilities, because I was a little rusty with speaking. I put my Spanish-English dictionary in my backpack and carried it with me, and it got a lot of usage from me that first night. The next morning, my brain was in complete overdrive. I was completely immersed in a world of people who knew little English to people who knew no English at all. All that translating of my thoughts in English to Spanish really did it for me. But I was happy- my Spanish was coming back to me, when I thought I had lost it completely. While shopping in Panajachel that morning, I learned that I have a secret talent for bargaining prices in a market. I managed to negotiate the price to one so much lower than the original price, and all the negotiating was done in complete Spanish. I was also complimented several times on my Spanish. My Spanish-English dictionary stayed in my bag that day, and did not make another appearance when I was speaking to someone for the entire week. I had somehow scaled the language barrier.

San Juan La Laguna- a little town filled with big love. We crossed Lake Atitlan to go to San Juan in a motorboat. I was not looking forward to it. This was a very rough boat ride. I thought that the boat would capsize several times on the trip across the lake. Once we reached San Juan, we rolled our luggage up a very steep hill to our hotel, and after we got settled in, I met some people who lived in San Juan. They were the happiest people I have ever met. They were happy to be where they were, and happy to have what they have. I remember thinking that I wanted the joy that they had. We talked to Francisco, the pastor at the Christian Church, who is also in charge of the Christian school we were working with, if there was anything we could do to help/teach in the school. I wanted to do something in my field of study, so I volunteered to do devotionals with students at the beginning of the school day. We also got to observe an English class taught at the school, which was, honestly, really cool for me to see. I had always wanted to observe an English class in another country, so this was my dream come true. I was living in the moment.

It struck me the first morning I was in San Juan that these people had an immense faith in God, because I observed a devotional in the 5th grade class that day. The teacher, who didn’t look like she was any older than I was, taught from experience. She instructed from faith. I was completely floored, and the kids paid complete attention to her. Later that day, while we were starting to paint the wall surrounding the school yard, I was still thinking about that. I did paint some, but then I ended up playing with the kids in the schoolyard (they asked me to, and I couldn’t resist.). After a shower and lunch, we headed to the cancha to spend time with the kids there until dinner. I started a basketball with 2 little girls, and it took off from there, becoming a game of twelve children against one- me. For some reason, the little ones absolutely adored me. I played that tickling game with them, the one that my own Papi had played with me when I was that young. This is what earned me the nickname “Ana La Arana” and it stuck.

Again, the immense faith the people of San Juan struck me as we walked up the hill to go to the church on Saturday, finding that it was closed, but that there was a Perpetual Adoration chapel nearby. It was truly amazing to me that people could have so much devotion to Our Lord, and I felt such a deep longing for that in my heart that day. Firecrackers were set off regularly in San Juan. I didn’t know why they set them off. Some said that it was to ward off evil spirits, some said it was for a celebration of some kind. But someone was setting them off during the wedding we attended later that Saturday, as well as during Mass that Sunday, and the firecrackers went off right in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer. To have that joy when at Mass!

There is so much more that I could say, but my fingers are getting tired from typing so much. But I will say this, because it’s important: despite the bug bites, bruises, my farmer’s tan, and stepping out of my comfort zone the entire time, Guatemala has my heart, and I will go back again if I am able to.

Here’s why: The people of San Juan taught me 3 very important things.

  1. Trust others and show that you have a big heart. I honestly did not expect a little girl to come up to me and loop her arm in mine when I was walking to her classroom. So many little ones would take my hand when they were walking with me, trusting that I knew where I was going, and that I would keep them safe. In America, we are conditioned to be more reserved with trust. As someone with Latin American blood, it was still a shock for a little one, not knowing me, but knowing one of our group facilitators, come up to me and take my hand. Being in Guatemala has definitely expanded my big heart, and now I understand why St. Therese said that she would do little things with great love. The children of Guatemala have shown me how to treat others while I am working at Wendy’s in the drive thru, and I am about to lose my patience. I just have to love everyone, even if they aren’t particularly likable.
  2. Have joy in your faith and hold fast to it. Seeing these people during Mass, fully participating, was incredibly moving, so moving that it brought me to tears when I went to Sunday Mass on Pentecost. They were dressed up, even if they didn’t live in the best of conditions. And there were firecrackers being set off during Mass, most frequently during the Eucharistic Prayer. In San Juan, there is a Perpetual Adoration chapel, and it’s open all the time, at all hours, and people will go in, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to worship, even at three in the morning. I was told that there have never been any murders in San Juan La Laguna because this chapel is because Christ is so present in the village. Their devotion is so beautiful, and I wish more of us could take away from that.
  3. Never take anything for granted. This is a big lesson that I learned. Now that I’m home, I think about Guatemala when I turn on the faucet and drink the water coming from it, thanking God for the clean water. I think about how fortunate I am when doing even the smallest of things, like looking at my pillows on my bed. As for hot showers, I don’t know yet. I haven’t taken a hot shower since my return to the United States. At this point, I am thankful for the water than I can use to be clean again.

You have my heart, Guatemala.

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