Friday, Feb. 27 was the end of language school. That day we had a Clausura in which each Spanish class did a presentation highlighting their progress from the past 8 weeks. There were a variety of presentations, all showing tremendous improvement in the students’ capabilities. That same afternoon we boarded a small plane for Flores, an island in Lake Petén Itza and stayed the night in a small hotel on the shore of the lake. Saturday morning we traveled to Tikal and enjoyed a tour and significant free time to explore the ancient pyramids in the jungle.
Sunday the group split up. Jared and Addie Leaman, Peyton Erb, Yvonne Stauffer, and Rachel and Ann Hershberger returned to Guatemala City. Jared and Addie were heading back to the States on Monday and the other 4 were headed to San Marcos, Guatemala, bordering Mexico for their week of community learning. The rest of us 18 students and Jim took a boat ride on the lake to visit a zoo and some water slides in the morning before heading to Semesche in Alta Vera Paz province for our community learning.
The group in San Marcos spent their week visiting a number of MCC projects there in a food security program as part of the local catholic dioceses. They were working with MCCer, Nate Howard and his local partners, Juan Pablo and Osmar. They visited two different villages, at altitudes between 8 and 9,000 feet! The first community was Nuevas Maravillas where they attended a meeting to discuss the mushroom project the community is starting. They also have flower projects. These are an attempt to increase income and food supply for the people to avoid the necessity to migrate. The produce from their projects is sold in Mexico, several KMs away.
The next morning the group was in the school interacting with the children and Peyton was able to teach the preschool class for an hour while the teacher was not there! That same day they caught a bus back to the central town, Sibinal. There they were able to walk around the market in the morning and attend a meeting of the project treasurers from 4 communities. The second village they visited was La Vega, a community working with trout farming projects. The group attended more meetings and was able to relax by playing some soccer with the locals. After another cold night sleeping on hard boards, they woke up Friday to ice on the ground. Friday was the day of a large community celebration as well as the inauguration of about 25 houses in 5 communities built after Hurricane Stan. The group was able to share in these exciting community events and projects and learn more about what MCC and the local communities are doing in the region of San Marcos.
This past week in Alta Vera Paz was one of joys, struggles, and most of all growth for me. We first traveled to Semesche by cattle truck on Monday. That was interesting because it was raining and I´m not sure you could call the path we drove on a ¨road¨ at least in comparison to what we´re used to back in the states. So there was lots of jerking and bouncing, kind of like a country rollercoaster. Then we finally arrived and were welcomed with warm smiles, giggles, and stares from the community. We were divided up into our families and left to settle.
The first half of our week was spent living with our host families and enjoying communication that consisted of ¨oos¨ (good), ¨bantiox¨(thank you) and of course lots of smiles when we didn´t understand. During the day we also spent time planting trees at different houses in order to help the people of this community gain rights to their land. It was very rewarding to be filling bags with dirt while wearing 24 feet of fabric around my waist, strung up by a string into the native dress they wear called a corte. We often walked home with dirty hands and nails waiting for the fire to start up in the evening for warmth. Those moments around the fire were some of the most meaningful to me because it was there that I felt the overwhelming feeling of being welcomed into my host family. Although it was present throughout the community, it was here that I saw the beautiful spirit of these people.
On Thursday we set out for a three hour hike to our second community, Sesalche. I don´t know that I have ever had to push myself so hard before. Some of our paths seemed to go up forever and there were certainly times when I wanted just stop. But when we would arrive at the top to see the view, it was more than worth it. I have never seen anything like it. The endless mountains with the clouds draped across them… I felt like this was God´s way of giving me encouragement to keep going, and after some time we finally arrived.
Once we had finished our first meal at Sesalche, we all headed to the church that was to be our home for the next couple nights. We immediately began pushing the benches together to create our beds and then headed off to the school for an art camp with the kids. Again this was a fun experience because most of us only knew about two words to use to communicate with the kids, but we found that we could learn a lot of new words just by drawing pictures and then pointing as the kids told us the names in K´kchi, their native language. After the art camp we discovered that the kids were not going to let us just walk back to the church. They wanted to play. So we spent the next bit of time playing ¨you´re it!¨ in K´kchi.
The next couple of days were probably some of our hardest. I felt pretty drained from the hike, lack of sleep due to hard wooden boards for beds, and I stopped eating a lot because I wasn´t feeling very good. But despite some of these conditions that we were all experiencing, we were still able to help some of the families with building cages for rabbits and also composting bens. These were a part of the Heffer Project that had been taking place in different communities. In this project families are given different things like animals with the notion that when their animals reproduce, they will then pass the gift on to five more families, and those families to others until everyone that wants to participate is included. It´s a really neat concept and helps the people of these communities take ownership of these movements rather than it being an outsider´s project. So I think we all appreciated being a part of that.
On Saturday we set out for our three hour hike back to Semesche and even planted some trees on the way when we stopped for lunch. When we returned, we were glad to be able to sit and rest for a little bit, even if it was wooden benches that we were sitting on.
The next morning we all went up to the church to attend a wedding that we were invited to. It was definitely a time to see cultural differences. For one, within this culture the men and women are separate which meant that the bride and groom did not know each other before the wedding. This probably would explain why we did not see them smile at each other. The wedding was also the church service and a baby dedication all in one. So we were there for about three hours. But it was definitely a gift to be able to be a part of this sacred tradition, and another example of how welcoming this community was to invite us to this event. After the ceremony we gathered our things and got back on the cattle truck to start our bumpy journey back to Guatemala City.
As I said before, this week of service was one of great growth for me. I got to experience a way of life that was very foreign to me. I was able to learn some new words and repeat some others more times than I would like…Bantiox. I even arrived at a point where Spanish had the comfort of a native language to me! Though it was hard and possibly the farthest from my comfort zone I have ever been, it was an experience that I, and I´m sure the rest of our group would agree, would not change for the world.