I desperately read the signs posted around the Newark Liberty International Airport as I tried to navigate to the gate I was supposed to be waiting at. My parents had said their good-byes before sending me through security, leaving me to survive on my own in the vast, unfamiliar territory. Having never flown before, I was unsure of a few things and anxious about many. I was traveling to Guatemala; however, it was not only the country that was foreign to me. The experience of flying was both new and exotic.
Fortunately, I quickly discovered that I would not have to go through the seemingly alien process alone. When I arrived at my gate, I met three teenage girls wearing red t-shirts with the phrase “Be the Change” stamped across the front, t-shirts that matched my own. We were all part of a volunteer and cultural immersion program known as Global Leadership Adventures (GLA).
As part of our experience with GLA, we were to fly to Guatemala City where we would meet our international director. After making introductions, we realized that aside from knowing that we would be volunteering at a school, we had no idea what to expect when we landed. I was relieved to find out that I was not the only one who felt clueless, and I was excited to see where our journey would take us.
Upon landing in Guatemala City, a teenage Guatemalan boy who had been on our flight turned to us, smiled, and said, “Welcome to my country!” Although I was a stranger in a foreign land, the boy’s amiability made me feel at home. I soon realized that the welcoming attitude was only a small sample of the wonderful hospitality I would encounter.
I felt the warmth of the Guatemalans everywhere we went, especially in Quetzaltenango, the town where we resided for the duration of our trip. In Quetzaltenango (called Xela by the locals), we stayed at a GLA home base that was surrounded by a beautiful, mountainous landscape. The locals who worked at the home base always offered me a friendly smile and a polite “¡Buenas dias!” whenever we passed in the hallways. On occasion, a teenage worker would hang out with us after her shift was over. This gave me the opportunity to practice my Spanish and to better understand the local culture.
Albeit I was able to practice speaking Spanish at the home base and with my peers, it was much more difficult while participating in our service project. In the mornings, we volunteered at the Centro Educativo Para Niños Sordos y Ciegos (The Education Center for Deaf and Blind Children). At the Education Center, the GLA group built benches and a labyrinth for the students to utilize. In addition, we were given the opportunity to play with the deaf students when they had recess.
Before meeting the students, I felt uneasy at the idea of communicating with students who not only didn’t speak, but also didn’t understand English. I was afraid that trying to communicate with the students would be difficult, and I was fearful that I would accidentally offend someone. Despite my apprehension, I introduced myself as best I could, and I lined up to be chosen for a soccer team.
After spending time with the students, I realized that though there seemed to be many degrees of separation between us, we really weren’t that different from each other. I learned so much about myself and the world by spending time with those deaf students. Most importantly, I learned that a smile truly is universal.
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