When life threw us a curveball at the beginning of the summer, Christopher took a solo retreat and came back saying, “I really feel like now is the time to volunteer for Common Hope.” In fact, traveling to Guatemala as part of a Common Hope Vision Team is something we've both wanted to do since we became affiliated with the organization back in 2000. I saw the longing in his eyes and heard the passion in his voice, and I said, “OK, you go.” It seemed impossible to me for us both to be so far from Noemi for a week. But as the days ticked by and Christopher began planning the trip, I recognized the bitter martyr in me raising her head and realized that not going wasn't going to serve anyone, least of all my family. So Christopher's “me” turned into “we” and I chose to entrust our precious daughter to the capable hands of those who love her dearly (and spoil her rotten!).
I started bawling at first sight of the volcanoes, their cones black against the setting sun. It was like I was being torn apart. On one hand, I was overcome by returning to a place that houses my heart. On the other, I was saddened that Noemi couldn't be with me to see the beauty of the country where she was born. But even as I had those thoughts I realized that Noemi would have her own reactions to Guatemala, in her own time.
The following day, our driver Luis picked us up in Guatemala City and took us to the small highland village of Pachay las Lomas. Mayra, who we've been helping get a college degree in social work for the past five years, lives in Pachay with her husband and son, Dimas Sr. and Jr. We've met Mayra's mother, Ana Maria, three times before here in the States on cultural exchanges with Slow Food, but we'd never met Mayra, and had never been up to their village. The main highway, which we'd driven back in 2000, peeled off to a secondary highway at Chimaltenango, and then to a mostly dirt road spiraling up a steep mountain after an unmarked bridge. Breathtaking is probably the best word to describe the scenery in the Guatemalan highlands. The mountains are lush, woodsy and so steep they make you dizzy. Small swaths of cultivated fields cover the hillsides like a quilt; some plots ripe with corn, others with beans, still others with squash. And rising above all of this are the volcanoes. Huge, 13,000 foot cones that feel to me like Mount Olympus. This is where Mayra and Ana Maria live.
It's testament to their characters that when we arrived, both of them were in different civic meetings. Instead, we were greeted by board members of the AMIDI foundation that Ana Maria founded in 2000 to improve the lives of indigenous women in Pachay (and beyond) while guarding their culture and traditions. We've helped the community from afar in many ways, including contributing to their scholarship fund to educate both children and adults, but nothing comes close to seeing what they've accomplished first hand. We saw flipcharts with agendas on how to achieve the goals they're striving for hanging in the meeting house they built; we saw the coffee crops they had to replant following a devastating mudslide in 2010; we got a tour of the medicinal plants they're growing, harvesting and drying. Then about a dozen board members (and as many kids) gathered with us up at Mayra's house to share a traditional chicken stew called ‘pulique'. Our Spanish was terribly feeble, and most of the table was speaking their native Katchiquel tongue anyway, but somehow we all managed to express and receive what needed to be said. It's amazing what hugs, looking in one another's eyes, hand squeezing and a beach ball can do to transcend language. We ended the day at our favorite inn in the whole wide world (Meson Panza Verde), in one of our favorite city's in the whole wide world (Antigua).
And that was just our first 24 hours.
The following day, after yoga at Panza Verde and breakfast in the middle of an organic nursery, we met up with the rest of our team at Common Hope headquarters, about 5 minutes out of town. I'll admit, I was reticent. Christopher and I are not really “group” travel people, and I wasn't so sure about sharing what was shaping up to be a very emotional trip with total strangers. But from the get-go, we were in lock-step in terms of faith, in terms of outlook, and in terms of how much we respected the people we were serving. From morning coffee sessions on the rooftop that rooted us in the right perspective, to belly laughs on the worksite and always being eager to lend a hand, to evening conversations that plumbed the depth of all we were taking in, I cannot tell you how much richer our experience was because of these six. Debbie, Jesse, Melissa, Joel, Bob and Carrie, you are incredible people. Thank you.
As for the next seven days? We built a house from scratch for a very sweet woman–who had earned it by working over 300 hours on the Common Hope campus–and her four children. One especially moving moment for me was when I was on my knees leveling cement tiles for the floor, watching the kids watching me and praying for each one, picturing each of them thriving on the floor I was laying, in the house we were building. Another was the blessing at the end of the week, once the house was built. Melissa had orchestrated a lovely ceremony which moved the mom to tears, and the traditional gifts of bread (so the house may never know hunger) and salt (so it may always have flavor and life) that I bestowed took on a depth of meaning I'd never encountered before.
Another highlight was visiting with our Godson, Rene Antonio, and his family. Rene has worked hard and been an exemplary student the entire twelve years we've sponsored him, and now he's full of hope and excitement for the future. He even shared a team presentation he'd done for school on helping the environment; he wants to study communication in college to get the word out about how to make his community and country a better place. His mother continues to be an inspiration too. She recently “adopted” three terrific teenagers who were essentially living on the street. Now they all live in the one room house that she and Rene's grandmother had worked to earn five years ago … and that we happened to be at on the day of the blessing the last time we were in Antigua … the day before we met Noemi for the first time. Talk about full circle.
An aspect of the trip that took me off guard was how much all I do here with NOURISH Evolution would come into play. Our fabulous coordinator, Kelan (bless him), saw my skill set and passion on paper and ran with it. He asked me to teach a cooking class for our team, and another for a dozen at-risk Guatemalan teenagers, and to cook a “snack” (chicken stew) for 50 kids in a poorer than poor village. The experiences were enlightening in and of themselves, but even more illuminating was the pattern that emerged through them all. Low and behold, up popped barriers to eating nourishing foods that don't differ a whole lot from the barriers I encounter in the U.S. I heard, “There's not enough time in the day,” “I can't afford fresh foods,” and my personal favorite, “the kids won't like vegetables.”
I was curious how the barriers would hold in a culture and economic situation so different from my own. I can't answer definitely on time and money–I'll need to do more research–but I can on kids not liking vegetables. The little ones woofed down bowls of my veggie-laden chicken stew chanting “rico quiskil!” (translated, “yummy squash!”) The teenagers in my cooking class followed me attentively through mini sermons on being mindful (“do you feel energized after you eat a bag of chips?”) and on basic nutrition (“the micronutrients that make vegetables look so beautiful and smell so strong and taste so wonderful are exactly what make them so good for you too”). And they polished off every last bit of our caramelized squash and onions, and sauteed Swiss chard with toasted garlic.
The following day, our last, one of the boys who was clearly a leader gave a moving speech as he thanked me at the farewell ceremony. And another girl from the class who had been quite shy with me (although quite flirtatious with the boys) came up to me and proudly declared she used her new knife skills cutting potatoes that morning. I beamed and hugged her and caught the scent of woodsmoke in her hair from the fire over which she'd cooked those potatoes. That moment captured all that I love about Guatemala. Our worlds may be vastly different, but we can still be close as people.