On my one year anniversary of landing in Guatemala, I am in my new house and town in Nebaj, Quiche. So today I reflect on lessons learned since February 12, 2014. Something that I have learned about abrupt change is that it will be weird until it is not. I walk laps in my new streets and wait it out. My stomach is tougher now and so is my skin.
Here in Guatemala, life is slower. Guatemala asks us to be resilient and adaptable, and we must slow down to meet it. And so I have learned to find my joy. My social life here is fulfilling; I am busy with work and visiting schools, I drink wine and shoot the shit with the other dozen or so volunteers in the Ixil Triangle, we learn to cook with new friends in the community, and my host family is big enough that there is almost always a birthday to celebrate. A baby was born yesterday and I was asked to consider how truly awe-inspiring human beings can be. How did our cells know to create that entirely new little person? I have learned that our shared moments are our greatest triumphs.
I am lucky to be moving into a site during the transition period for two other volunteers in my project who are on their way out, so my first visits to schools are with other people. During these introductions, I cannot help but wonder if the teachers and health centers here are exhausted by the constantly shifting initiatives and expectations sparked by the excess of development organizations in Guatemala. I cannot help but wonder if they are exhausted by foreigners entering their communities and telling them that they are doing their jobs and living their lives the wrong way. So yes, I have my doubts when it comes to my work. People at home will ask us, under the assumption that we are inherently good people, “how many people did you save today?” We are some days wondering, on the other hand, if we are doing more harm than good. So it goes. We learn that negativity is contagious, but even more so is hope. There may be unequal access to education and resources, but in many ways, volunteers learn more from their communities than what they provide. And so, we learn to laugh more and not take ourselves so seriously.
The people we serve here are not helpless; I believe in change, but the nature of change is slow. Change requires education, it requires exchange, and it requires desire and real inspiration. In a very real sense we are here to provide trainings so that if those who participate choose to, they have the capacity to help themselves. The littlest of victories fuel each fresh attempt to engage community members in health topics in the field: the awestruck eyes when we say that diarrhea is not a normal daily occurrence where we are from, the mother who hangs training materials in her kitchen to plan a more balanced diet for her family, the one person in the audience who stays lucid for the entire presentation and even asks questions about project design and management… I believe in the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he said, “For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others.” I have found myself here challenged in every way, and in turn, inspired, to write, to move, to seek, and to create.
I have learned how socially irresponsible it is to exoticize and appropriate the experiences of the people around me, as well as reflect on and recognize it. I used to wish for danger and unpredictability in stepping in and out of the lives of others, without knowing what I was asking for. Today, I see the value of safety and of trust and of promises, which I had always taken for granted. I will never lose my curiosity or thirst for adventure. The greatest joys of my life have been abetted by the intense adrenaline rushes of landing in parts unknown, but I no longer crave a full-time nomadic lifestyle. While I have lost all enchantment with humanitarian aid and international development, I at the same time believe that my first year has been successful, nay, critical, but in small and often incalculable ways. What’s more, I have learned that I could never be content in my work if it does not in some way include a social justice component.
Dry and dusty becomes floods becomes dry and dusty. Avocados appear in the market. Hair grows. Our clothes fall apart at the seams and holes appear in our tennis shoes and we forget what it meant to dress in business casual. When the bus breaks down, we don’t even blink. A year has all but evaporated before my eyes.
I have found some of the best friends of my lifetime and a long detailed list of lessons, and there’s no place I’d rather be.