|I first went to Guatemala in December of 2006 and rung in the New Year salsa dancing the night away with several short, drunk Mayans and a group of friends from school (I also learned to jitterbug this night..that's for you grandma!) In my first few months at college I felt out of place. I had moved to a new city and knew absolutely no one so, I was trying to find a niche and I joined Christian Campus House. I laugh at this now because anyone who knows me well enough knows this is absolutely the wrong group for me to join (I am thinking of Anna and Monica and Gina and...haha) however, it was absolutely the best choice I ever made because without having joined CCH I would not have ever found my calling in this world.
I traveled with 23 other students from my college campus with no idea what was in store for me. Guatemala is definately a third world country and there was nothing anyone could tell me that would prepare me for the types of things I would see. I remember my Dad saying I would come back a changed person and I think he was even worried about how the experience would affect me emotionally. He's traveled the world and I've heard the stories a thousand times over (Jamie, Josh, Ryan, Jason..any of this sound familiar? haha) about how he ate with a poor family who could barely feed themselves and a whole bunch of other details that make you wonder if people actually live in huts with tin roofs and eat bugs just to survive...well, they do. Honestly, I don't remember what my expectations were of what I would see there, but what I did end up seeing is vivid in my head to this day.
First thing I noticed, trash. Everywhere. They don't have a trash system so they just throw their trash down the sides of the mountains. Guatemala is so beautiful, but it's sad to realize that an entire country doesn't have a pulic works system and by not having a system they pretty much just destroy their environment and their habitat. On top of not having a trash system, most places outside of the major cities don't have a sewage system either. Soooo, yes. People throw their shit down the side of the mountain too. Thankfully, though, it doesn't really smell if I remember right. The water is pretty much how it is in Mexico. Don't drink it, but from what I hear of others who have stayed awhile in Guatemala it doesn't do much harm. I think it was Keith who told me, "It gives you the runs for a few days, but then you're all set." I think I'll stick with my bottled water, though. :)
Seeing the trash and hearing about the lack of public works in the area was a shocker for me because I had just never seen that before. I remember thinking how lucky I was and how much I take for granted the simple things in life...like being able to flush the toilet or being able to drink the tap water without a second thought. The biggest shocker though was seeing how poor the people were, how they lived, and definately the devastation Hurricane Stan had on the area.
The immensity of how poor the people of Guatemala truly are still fathoms me today. I still can't wrap my head around it. People make on average $2 a day. They wash their clothes in the lake, they have tin roofs and plastic bags as their walls and many live in crumbling, abandoned 3 sided buildings. The streets are dirty, the people are dirty, everything is dirty...but they are by far the happiest people I have ever met, especially considering I came shortly after the devastation Hurricane Stan left on the region.
This comes from the organization I worked with: Pueblo a Pueblo. "This community of more than 40,000 indigenous Maya suffered some of the worst mudslides as a result of Hurricane Stan. The Panabaj mudslides alone buried hundreds of people and left more than 5000 homeless and destitute. The Hospitalito Atitlan, the only ER, inpatient and surgical care facility in the area was closed – a victim of the disaster."
The first emotional shocker I experienced was witnessing the effects a mudslide has on a community. Our first day in Santiago we traveled about 3 miles outside of the area to a town called Panabaj where the original Hospitalito Atitlan was located. What once was a town was buried under mud. There were archaeologists digging up sections of the mud and sifting through bones in the building next to where we were viewing the ruins of the hospital. A year later they were still trying to identify missing people by jewelery, etc. I've put up some pictures so you can get a taste for how massive the devastation was. While we were viewing the wreckage the only thing I kept thinking about was the amount of people who were buried alive and what that must have felt like. It was just shocking, I was speechless...I think everyone was speechless. And then, I met a little boy who I ended up sharing a close bond with by the end of the trip.
Spending time with this little boy and having to leave him was the hardest part of the trip for me. Diego was 11 at the time and he was a survivor of the Panabaj mudslides. His parents, his brothers, his aunts, his uncles, and most of his cousins were all buried alive. I still don't know how he escaped because of the language barrier at the time, but I found out that only him and his sister survived. His sister is younger and he was taking care of them. Our group offered him and 4 of his friends a job by working with us at the new hospital site to clear the ground and also to plant flowers in the town square. We gave them each $4 a day and they worked very hard. The same day we were viewing the old hospitalito he had identified his parents bodies by the jewelery left on the bones. I didn't find this out until I had talked with a doctor a few days later about the boy, but knowing Diego's story really touched me. It made me think of my little brother and how would he possibly survive on his own if all of us died. I was proud of Diego and we were inseparable from there on out. He taught me cuss words and slang in Spanish and I taught him English in return. The funniest thing EVER! His face lit up when he found out how to say sock. I guess it sounds really weird, but he laughed his ass off.
I sure as heck did cry when I had to leave him. "Te quiero mucho mucho." That was what Diego said to me when I hugged him bye which means I love you a lot. He was a great kid and by far working with him made me realize doing community projects was what I wanted to do with my life. If I could have adopted him, I would have. Mom said no.
I have tried to keep up with the happenings of Diego since I've left. Dr. Gil in Springfield, who I went down with, goes to Guatemala about 6 times a year and has become Diego's surrogate Dad, sort of. On the occasions I get to talk to him, which are rare, he always says Diego is doing great. Last time I heard he was working at the construction site of the new hospitalito and watering the flowers him and I and his 4 friends planted in the town center. Dr. Gil pays the boys out of his own pocket. I am so excited to get back down there and see if I can catch up with him. I really do admire him for being so strong and brave. He is just super awesome!
So, that is my story in a very, very, very small nutshell. But, this time around I am flying solo and will be staying in Antigua. I visited Antigua for a day the last time I was down there and it is a safer place to stay since I am by myself and I am also going to be taking some language courses while I'm down there. I'm staying for 6 weeks and the majority of the time I will be staying with a host family. I havn't found out who they are yet, but I should be finding out soon enough. In the mornings I will go to school, the afternoons I'll be volunteering, and on the weekends I'll be traveling..to Santiago, to Honduras, to Tikal, etc. It's going to be amazing! Anyway, check out the pictures I've posted and until my next post..