Currently Listening To: Where Have All The Flowers Gone? – Joan Baez
“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
This past Saturday, I had a impromptu meeting (along with my parents and little Aubrie) with one of the two missionaries we used to work with in Guatemala. The husband, John, was sick and unable to make it, but we spent a good three hours with his wife, Sharon Harvey. She is originally from New Jersey, and this is their year to travel (every two years they make their rounds to various states in the Midwest and the East Coast), but I was not expecting (at all!) to meet with her for lunch. It’s been at least 6-7 years since I last saw the Harvey’s, and it was in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. I traveled with my family for seven trips in ten years (my parents beat me and my sister for ten trips in ten years), before we stopped going. But after meeting with Sharon, it seems that there is a possibility for another trip to Chichi. I am excited about this prospect, because it will be a different dynamic, now that my sister is a nurse (as well as my mom being one), and I will be finished by Masters program in public health, so I will have more to offer in that realm.
When we traveled to Guatemala in previous years, my sister ran the pharmacy while my Dad and Mom (and the other nurses) saw patients. During these trips, I was in charge of the children’s ministry, which means that I was in charge of anywhere between 50-300 kids in a given day. There were various activities, from games such as red light-green light, duck duck goose (you’d be surprised how popular that one was!), and plain old soccer to activities such as puppet making (either the brown paper bag kind or the yarn dolls), coloring, face painting, song singing, and some Bible stories and lessons. I wasn’t the only one who ran the children’s ministry – whoever was “younger” and amongst the team usually was assigned this post with me. This position evolved as I grew up working in Guatemala. The first trip I was on was when I actually turned 13 years old. My mom had to convince the organization we went with (Gospel Outbound) that I was not only old enough (I believe the cut-off was fourteen), but that I was mature enough to go on this trip. Somehow, they believed my Mom – much to their regret. Haha. Joking aside, I can understand in retrospect what the hesitation would be to take someone that young along on an experience such as this. And I am extremely grateful that they let me go; that first trip had such a profound impact on me that it is difficult to explain. Not to lessen the influence of the subsequent trips on my psyche and world perspective. But that first trip – I remember so many details because I think the culture shock and the sheer reality of how so many people (I think seeing kids my own age made it hit home) live – how drastically different it is than how I grew up – that first trip changed my life.
Imagine yourself at thirteen. What was important to you? What your newest outfit was? What boy or girl liked you that week? What boy or girl you liked that week? Whether or not you did well on your Social Studies or Math test? Whose house you were having a sleepover at that next weekend? Basically, the normal preoccupations of most thirteen-year-olds in this country. Now, try to envision living in a one-room hut/shack that is made of mud bricks (not so much more evolved from more ancient times) and roofing made of tin, or terra cotta tiles, if you have money for that. There is one room for your entire family – parents and multiple siblings. There is a single light bulb, but it may not be working because the light bulb may have broken, and buying a new one is too expensive. Water for bathing is gathered from a cistern in the dirt yard behind your house. There is no running water to speak of – and outhouse as a bathroom that can double as a “shower,” with a bucket to fill and dump over your head. But bathing is infrequent, especially during the dry season; because water is much more scarce and needed for more pressing things, such as cooking. The clothes you have on may be the only set you own; if you’re lucky, you own a pair of shoes. Most kids your age go barefoot. If you’re a girl, you are considered by age thirteen to be a “sister-mother,” and help Mom care for the younger children. You most likely did not finish school past the 3rd grade, despite government laws requiring enrollment to 3rd grade. You spend much of your days either with your parents in the field growing what little crops you have, or walking hours to market to sell your wares. Or, if your family is really hard-pressed, you are sent into the streets to beg.
It’s difficult to imagine, isn’t it? Does it feel impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a child such as that, in a place such as that? At an impressionable age, I was exposed to the harsh reality that everything I had at home; even the things I complained about, I was damn lucky to have. I was lucky to even have the opportunity to even travel to Guatemala to experience what I did.
That first year, we visited the city dump on the outskirts of Guatemala City. It was most definitely not for sight-seeing purposes. Rather, a few thousand families made their homes in a slum on the side of the dump.** There was raw sewage, one main water pump for numerous families to share, and no indoor (or outdoor) plumbing for bathrooms. It was such a raw, harsh scene it was difficult to take it all in. I remember the smell. It was a mix of rancid sewage, the smell of fire from cooking, and body odor of some of the “villagers.” It put the final touch on a portrait of poverty, at least in my perspective. Some of the kids were unruly, and when we went to pass out some little gifts we had, I ended up getting backed against a wall with nowhere to go, with at least thirty kids pressed up against me grabbing for what I had in my hands. Finally, John had to break them up and get them in an orderly line to continue.
Overall, though, on that first clinic, on that first trip, what impressed me most was the level of happiness these people exhibited. This would continue to be observed in every village we went to, and almost every individual I interacted with. These people could express the most heart-wrenching story that may have left some of us in tears, and they would tell it with a smile on their face. Their live are difficult, unrelenting, and unforgiving in the poverty they endure. But the grace and determination exhibited by the Guatemalans is unparalleled when compared to many in “First World” countries.
So, we met with Sharon on Saturday. And the notion of traveling again to Guatemala was briefly discussed. And while time has passed since we last were there, the need has not diminished, and my family’s desire to give back and serve others has not either. So, time will tell if it works out for us to go. I certainly hope so. And if I never make it back their again, I will forever carry every trip, and every smiling face, and every story shared -both happy and sad – with me .And I will forever have a grateful heart for all the wonderful people of Guatemala that I have had the opportunity to meet, however briefly our exchange may have been.
“Experience life in all possible ways —
good-bad, bitter-sweet, dark-light,
summer-winter. Experience all the dualities.
Don’t be afraid of experience, because
the more experience you have, the more
mature you become.”
**A few years ago Hurricane Agatha caused massive mudslides in Guatemala, and part of the area affected was the Guatemala City dump and the slum that sat atop it.