June 2008 I volunteered to work with young children in the Central American country of Guatemala. I joined a United States based program called Cross Cultural Solutions. It was a colorful time chocked full of new experiences and long-lasting memories.
I arrived in Guatemala City on time, watched people find their luggage, and leave. I was among the last waiting with no luggage, watching an empty conveyor belt go round-and-round. My luggage had been mistakenly sent to “Guam,” not “Guat.” Thankfully it would be delivered in the next several days. I am glad my mom taught me to bring an extra pair of clothes in my carry-on just for this type of problem. I was also glad the driver waited the extra two hours for me to exit the airport. I climbed in the van with the other volunteers and traveled to Quetzaltenango (which means place of the quetzal, the country’s spectacular bird—Google it!).
My adventure began with four hours of driving on treacherous, windy mountain roads in varying weather, with people and livestock on the road. The agricultural work I saw on the steep mountains was remarkable. I could not understand how the natives managed to climb those steep slopes, or how the roots of the crops took hold. The men and women were garbed in their colorful, hand-woven clothing. The fruits and vegetables sold on the roadside were the brightest colors I have ever seen. Our supermarket produce back home was drab in comparison. Noticing the proud, smiling people made me brim with pride. For you see, I am Mayan Indian, adopted from Guatemala.
I arrived at the home which was shared by twenty volunteers. It became the place to regroup emotionally and physically after exhausting days volunteering. At night, we ate incredible meals and danced in the living room to local music along with the cooks and help. During the day, I worked with fifteen children, ages 4-7, which were provided long hours of day care by a wonderful old woman.
We spent most of our days in a small, damp, cold building with a cement floor and a tin roof. It was the rainy season, so we were in that room a good portion of the day. Some children came with rags for clothes and dirty faces, yet each came with a hunger to learn and receive hugs. In Quetzaltenango, I made the trek to a local store to buy books, art supplies and candies for the children. The kids loved to be read to and often pretended they were reading to the class. When it was not raining, we would go outside and act out the stories or do “exercises” in the small dirt area which required us to do things like run in place and stretch to the sky.
I took many pictures of the children. Before my stay ended, I developed the pictures and made a collage. Self-photographs are uncommon to these kids. They were thrilled to have the collage decorate their classroom, along with art work they had done in the two weeks. As going away presents, I put a special photo of each child in frames they decorated.
Going to Guatemala to volunteer was a wonderful experience. On my last day, I realized that despite seemingly meager conditions, the people were happy and proud. People and countries should not be judged by our material standards. Guatemala is a beautiful country, made even more so by the people. I was ready to go home, but I know that I will return.
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