Reflecting on Guatemala

Right now I’m taking the train into Philadelphia to a doctor’s appointment. I’ve put off writing this for a while, but I figured that now, when I have nothing else to do, I have to start thinking about the end of my study abroad experience. Part of why I have avoided writing this blog is that I’ve been adjusting and catching up on sleep. I’ve also been meeting with friends from home and preparing my things in this quick turn around between Guatemala and returning to school.

Part of it, I won’t lie, is because I’ve picked up watching The Office and I had to get to the point where Jim and Pam become a couple. But behind all of that is my want to avoid thinking about what just happened. I feel like I’m in sixth grade, adjusting to waking up early for school for the first time, refusing to open my eyes or move my body even though I’m awake just because I know that I have three more minutes until 6:30 a.m. and maybe I’m not ready to face a return to real life yet. For a week I found myself giving vague responses like “it was amazing,” so that I don’t have to start synthesizing my adventures. Once you catch yourself in your own tricks on yourself, how can you let yourself keep playing them?

So now I’m thinking about the question my friend asked me three weeks into my study abroad: “Is it everything you thought it would be??” Wow. Fantastic question, Meg. You really nailed me to the wall on that one, making me stop saying superlatives and start thinking. Geez, I don’t know, I thought. For the most part, before this summer I just knew I would have “experiences” with no real idea of what kind they would be. I decided I would wait to answer that question until I had lived every part of my experience. I kept waiting because I didn’t want to say that it was over.

Well, was it everything I thought it would be? Heck no. Is it too cliché to say to say that it was better and more than I thought it would be? Probably, but that’s the truth. How could I have predicted anything that I did or saw this summer? Disney got one thing spot on when it said, “You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” In my last week alone, I found out more tangible examples of what I want to be than in two years at college.

When my last week in Guatemala started, I was on a redeye bus from Tikal to Guatemala City, coming back from the oldest, most expansive, and most impressive site of Mayan ruins in the world. At the same time, my friends, Taylor and Risa, and I realized it was the end.

“We go home next Saturday,” Taylor said.

All I could think of to say back was “yeah.” To be fair, what else can you communicate in a whisper in the middle of a red-eye bus? I sat up and leaned my head against the window while I tried to make out familiar shapes from the unfamiliar shadows on the highway. No, the fact that we were leaving so soon hadn’t sunk in. I couldn’t feel anything. I don’t think it had fully hit any of us. None of us felt like saying things like, “I can’t believe we’re leaving in a week,” or “I know, right?” We felt numb but not so much that we didn’t know it would be cheap to say things we didn’t really understand yet.


On my last Monday I acted out a skit in Spanish class with my friend Aiza of our first real weekend when we went to the less-than-safe, more-than-fear-inducing-and-dangerous caves in Semuc Champey. I recalled how scared and cold I had been, how I had heard a choir of children singing “Will I Lose My Dignity” from RENT in my head, and how I had said I never wanted to go in those caves again. All I wanted now was to be back in that state of fear with a whole summer of adventure still in front of me. I watched as Nory, my lovable Spanish teacher, for the seven hundredth time encouraged us to learn through laughter and real life, and I thought, “Man, I’d love to be like her.”


Later we went to a Mayan ceremony that asked for blessings for workers and students, where the priest asked for safety, health, and success for each of us by name. We had a barbecue with one of our professors, Ricardo Lima-Soto, at his house.


See, the thing is that Ricardo is one of the most intelligent, funniest, and nicest professors I’ve ever had. He’s had more adventures than Leonardo DiCaprio in all of his movies combined. Ricardo could spark incredible debates and conversations about subalternism, post-colonialism, and racism in Guatemala with respect to the scores of different identities and nationalities in Guatemala, but somehow got us to draw just as many parallels about the intricacies and social-racial dynamics in our own country. What left the biggest impression on me was how at peace he seemed to be with himself and the world. It was not that Ricardo underestimates the problems in the world or the problems he faces; instead I think he has a perfect understanding of both and still he has a calmness, happiness, and sense of stability. As malleable, young twenty-somethings who lack this peace and clear sense of direction, my classmates and I marveled at our teacher who could talk about systemic oppression and then Minions without missing a beat or seeming like he didn’t understand the actual level of gravity or levity of the two, respectfully. We all decided at one point or another, “I want to be like him.”

On Tuesday night I had my last night with the teens and young adults in the English class at Los Patojos. I silently admired at how openly determined they were. Even if you’ve thought otherwise, the truth is that I’ve always been a little shy about saying, “this is what I want to do with my life and I am working on it right now.” But these people had the bravery to say, “These are our dreams and we’re putting them in action.” Again, as I talked to the other teachers and the students, “I thought to myself, I want to be like them.”


On Wednesday afternoon my friends and I went to Earth Lodge on top of a mountain ridge, where we talked about our summer experiences while we watched the sun set over Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes below. Then our professor, Jennifer Casolo, told us her story. Jenn became my hero probably less than two minutes into the story: she had worked for peace in El Salvador in the 1980s, been mistakenly arrested by the military, interrogated and tortured for days despite refusing to lie and name innocents as subversives, and then eventually released thanks to nation-wide support back in the United States. As I sat there, feeling like a preschooler with my hands motionless and my head tilted up to watch her without blinking, I realized I was listening to a hero. Even now on the train, I can still see Jenn, her hair tucked behind her ears, wearing colorful clothes, standing instead of sitting as if she was about to sprint with all of her excess energy, her hands alternating between motions and clasps together, and her eyes trying to reassure us as we listen in panic. Jenn was calm as she told a story more harrowing than our worst nightmares. She told us of how she had felt at the time like she would somehow be okay, and we sat there like cub scouts listening to our first ghost story, in awe and mystification at how she could be so courageous. It grew dark and we all had to go home for dinner (I know, how cute and great is that?), but we begged Jenn to meet us at a café afterwards to continue her story. We sipped our tea by candles and leaned in down the table to listen. There was a room-wide warm-golden-fuzzy-happy feeling as we heard about her adventures. This time I thought to myself, “I wonder if it’s even possible to ever be like her.”

On Thursday I went to Los Patojos and saw part of the Poetry Exposition that they hosted for all of the schools in the area. Fourth graders recited and performed poems written by current Guatemalan poets, some of who attended the event. I felt like the kids were singing songs in front of rock stars. If these kids wanted to go to the moon, I think the teachers at Los Patojos would contact the X Prize competitors and make it happen. Seeing their commitment made me want to be like them.


On Friday I said goodbye to my teachers, my roommates, and my friends and students at Los Patojos. When I started to realize it would be years before I saw these people again, I felt duped. For two months, I’ve been trying my best to acclimate myself in Guatemala and to feel and learn everything possible. I sewed my heart to this place and these people. And as I left, I felt someone pulling at the seams. I don’t think I write enough to explain how much I love this school or how Juan Pablo is my role model.


This summer I got to have real adventures, the kind I always watched in movies and assumed that I’d never get enough bravery or coolness to leave my warm couch and blanket to have. I clung to the bars of an open truck bed as we drove through the jungle of Alto Verapáz on our way to climb up waterfalls. I found out that I’m afraid of caving and bats, but I climbed and swam through caves of Semuc Champey and I walked through the Bat Palace of Tikal. I jumped off a rope swing, took a boat to a zoo in the middle of a lake, walked through an ancient Mayan ball court with a little girl in Mixco Viejo, kayaked in a lake surrounded by volcanoes in Panahajel, climbed volcanoes in Pacaya, made new friends and danced on the regular. I got to study in the peace of the most beautiful and expansive social science library in Central America, listen to speakers who have actually changed the world, have some of the best conversations, and joke with my host parents daily. Guys, I got to see a volcano every morning when I woke up. Can’t stress that one enough. But the adventures can’t compare to the people who taught me what I want to be when I grow up. (I’ve still got plenty of time before I cook my own Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s the standard of adulthood that I’m sticking to.)


So what’s next? Well I’ll go back to school at Penn State and work to earn enough to return to Guatemala as soon as I can. I’ll keep wearing the bracelets my kids gave me. I’ll take small steps as I try to get used to walking down College Ave instead of Segunda Avenida Sur. I won’t even be mad when I have to explain that I went to Guatemala and not Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or even Thailand. I’ll wish my friends back in Guatemala happy birthdays and think of them every time I see them on Facebook. I’ll do my best to not cry as I work on compiling all of the work of the kids at Los Patojos into the final book. I’ll write more of my novel. At the risk of another cliché—but hey, third time’s the charm—I promise I won’t forget this summer in Guatemala. I mean, really, how could I? I might’ve known that I wanted to be a writer and a teacher before this summer, but I never could have known the mindset and personality I wanted to have without Guatemala.


There’s just one more thing I’d like to clear up. Lucky and José, I wanted to explain to you what I couldn’t before. Whenever I’d ask for a packed lunch, you’d always play a joke on me and pretend to be inconvenienced, and I’d always get worried that you weren’t kidding. We’d laugh about it, José would say “Tranquila,” (Calm down) and then we’d move on to the next joke. Here’s the thing: Ninety-eight percent of me knew that you were kidding. How could you not be kidding? You two are the nicest, funniest, most interesting, and most welcoming host parents I could have asked for. But that two-percent possibility that I was upsetting you made me freeze because the last thing in the world I wanted was upset two of my new favorite people in the world. Man, José, I can hear you teasing me and asking me if I’m going to cry. Pretend you can hear me saying “no” unconvincingly. Lucky, I can hear you laughing. Pretend I’m saying good afternoon after class. Pretend I’m smiling because you just called me your rose or baby (sin pampers, so almost close to an adult but not—I never did acknowledge how true that is). Pretend I’m a minute late after the dinner bell and tease me about it. Anyhow, I just wanted you guys to know that I love you both and that I’ve always wanted to be like you. I promise I’ll be back soon. Jose, help a gringa out and translate this for Lucky.

Forgive me if any/all of this seemed scattered—that’s sort of how I feel. I guess it’s better to say it all like this than to not say anything. I know that there are a bunch of things I’ll wish I had written later on. But the summer’s got to end and I have to pack my dorm furniture, so count up your points, my friends, and maybe you can take away one last thing from all of this. The best I can do is to tell you that I thoroughly loved all of my life-changing fifty-six days in Guatemala, from the unbelievable adventures to the everyday chores. Que te vaya bien, hasta pronto.

1 Comment

Filed under Abby in Guatemala, Central America

One response to “Reflecting on Guatemala

  1. Inequality is a severe issue that involves us as society.

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