Vista al Valle

What. A. Day.

The story really begins last night at dinner, during a torrential downpour so loud that we had to yell at each other to be heard. Lucy, our fearless World Renew coordinator, took a phone call, talked briefly with her colleague Adolfo, and then called us to attention.

“Guys, we have a… well, a situation,” she told us. Guatemalans all over the country set up blockades today in political protest, and there was one planned for the town we’re staying in. But that meant no way to get out to get to the community we were supposed to visit.

“I’ve talked to Adolfo. We are going to get up early, leave at 5 am, and drive to La Tinta. We’ll have breakfast there.”

There was some minor groaning and a few jokes about the early hour, but mostly we were excited about the adventure.

So: up early this morning. Breakfast in La Tinta. A quick stop at ADIP offices (ADIP is the World Renew partner here in the Polochic region). And then we changed buses, because our regular van apparently wasn’t going to make it up the mountain. (That’s really saying something, considering what we’ve already made it through in that van.)

Our bus left the town and started driving straight up the mountain edge. And I do mean straight up, and I also mean mountain edge. The road wound back and forth, continually climbing in altitude, winding around and around the mountain’s curves. It was more or less a one lane road, so meeting anyone else along the way really necessitated one driver pulling over as far as possible and the other one squeezing by. A Guatemalan bus is practically required to have one guy who stands in the doorway and can hop out and tell the driver how close to the other vehicles he is. (On a chicken bus, this will also be the guy who yells out the destination and collects money from passengers.)

Eventually we left the gravel and sometimes concrete road and hit the dirt road. That was a whole new level… Remember last night’s torrential downpour? (Actually happening again as I write this!) On a mountainside, all that rain has only one way to go. And factor in dirt roads…. well. There were some washouts. Sometimes that meant rocks on the road that had fallen from higher up and meant driving carefully around. Sometimes that meant driving over a waterfall that made its way over the road. And sometimes that meant driving next to a washout from the down side of the road – making the road uncomfortably narrow.

I was sitting across from the door (open, with a guy hanging out, remember!), and at times there was no road beside us, only a drop off. It was a little scary! Even better, the guy hopping out to rearrange the giant rocks on the road so we could drive over them. And then the time that the guys all got out to push us up – at the most narrow, most washed out place!!!

Finally arriving in the community was a bit of a relief because it meant death no longer felt imminent. We were introduced to the community members, we had a sort of opening welcome to the whole day, and then the women came up to do a presentation for us. It began with two songs, and then proceeded to explain and dramatize the Village Savings and Loan program. (A really superb program that you should learn about if you haven’t heard of it, but too long for tonight’s explanation.)

Then we were invited up to a community member’s house. I should mention that areas like these are called communities because they are not towns, not villages, not even hamlets. Most people are subsistence farmers, so they live a little walk away from each other with just enough room to farm in between.

We headed directly up the hill behind the community centre, up a dirt path that was just wide enough for one person to walk up. And I do mean directly up – at least as steep as stairs, but without the convenient steps to help you up. Plus remember that torrential downpour again? That washes down the mountainside in a ditch like the one we climbed, so it was rather muddy and quite slippery. AND, if you know what my lungs are like, you know how much they HATE climbing! (Only stopped once for my inhaler, and I survived!) Plus our host Eduardo did that whole climb with plastic chairs from the community centre so that we’d have a place to sit when we got inside his house. He proudly toured us through his coffee, yuca, cardamom, and banana plants that were on the way to his house. It felt like an accomplishment just not falling down the mud on the hill. I can’t imagine climbing that multiple times a day – I would just stay home and never go out!!! Eduardo also toured us around his home garden, chicken coop, latrine, and then house. His wife had prepared lemonade, huisquil, and malanga for us to enjoy.

Our trek back down the mountainside wasn’t as hard on the lungs, but it was maybe more treacherous because of the mud. But then we were back in the community centre, enjoying soup prepared for us by some of the women. (I love Guatemalan food, and this soup reminded me of Home Away from Home!)

In the afternoon, we “participated” in activities that ADIP and World Renew were running. Today’s was dividing by women and men and then filling out a clock according to the activities done every hour. The women generally get up between four and five and are working generally until ten at night. The amount of things that they do is insane! I should also mention, because they speak the Mayan language Q’eqchi, that got translated into Spanish, which was then translated into English for us. Everything was a PROCESS. After the women and men were done, we rejoined and compared notes. While the men get up earlier than the women at 3, their hours of work generally totalled 9 while the women all agreed they generally work 18. Pretty eye opening!!!

Finally after lots of picture taking, some playing with kids, and saying good byes, we were on our way. We had some extra passengers on the way – we dropped off a couple of families on the way down, because they would otherwise need to walk the way we were driving to make it to their farms. And a couple of people came all the way to La Tinta with us.

One of these girls sat right in front of me, and Eduardo, our host from earlier, sat beside me. I provided them with a lot of entertainment at my terror over the narrow road sections – but the thing was, the drop off was now on the same side of the bus as me, and if I looked out the window, I wouldn’t see road but just a several hundred … thousand… foot drop! (I don’t know how far it was – just way more than I wanted to go!!!)

Thankfully Eduardo was great at distracting me by asking all sorts of questions and giving me a chance to practice Spanish. (He’d lived in the capital city briefly and did a stint in the army, so he is fluent in Spanish.)

Ever so thankfully, by the time that we made it back to ADIP offices, changed into our familiar old van, and drove all the way back to our hotel in Telemán, the road blocks from this morning were done, and we could actually stumble right on home. And now time for me to stumble right on into bed!!!

Hello, Old Friend!

I have some kind of wanderlust deep in my bones.

I love traveling and exploring, seeing beautiful places around the world. I especially love the minutiae of day-to-day life – witnessing little old ladies coming out of their houses in Spain as the bread delivery truck honks its horn through the winding streets; buying farm fresh eggs still covered with feathers at a road-side market in Tanzania; living with a host family in Guatemala and telling jokes with Carlos over lunch, or hearing snippets of Gladys’s life story over tea after dinner.

For a long time, I only traveled to new places. What can I say – I’m totally a checklist kind of a person! And if a trip didn’t let me scratch off at least one new country on my scratch off world map (because of course I have one of those!), well… I would still love the trip but might be a teensy bit disappointed!

But over the last two summers, I’ve gotten to experience the delight of going back to a place already visited. I’m discovering what it’s like to anticipate a trip while already being confident about what I’ll experience while I’m there. Returning to Guatemala for a second time last summer and again for a third time this summer meant knowing what I was looking forward to. It meant pulling my old quetzales out of my drawer to spend. It meant sleeping all afternoon after a red-eye flight and still knowing exactly where I wanted to go for dinner, and not needing to change any money or stop at an ATM before doing so. It meant getting to see things that I missed the first time. It turns out you really can’t see it all in one short trip! It’s been trying new foods while still getting to visit my favourite ice cream shop.

It’s meant going deeper, not just broader.

Coming back to Antigua this morning felt like coming home. I was so excited for my new friends to see all of the places that I love! And each landmark was like a familiar friend, with old friends scattered throughout the city to check in on. (Special thanks to my new friends for taking a detour just so we could walk past my favourite ruins!)

Stopping by the Cerro de la cruz this morning made me smile, because I couldn’t help but remember the last time I was there. I had said goodbye to my fellow student housemates before they left for school, knowing I would never see them again. Only to walk down the hill at the cross and hear someone say “Bethany?!” and to turn and see Jess, who had just happened to go up to the cross with a friend that afternoon.

And even a short one day visit to the city provided the opportunity to see things I’ve missed before – this morning’s visit to Finca Filadelfia coffee plantation was something I skipped both summers I’ve been here before in favour of a much needed Saturday afternoon nap.

And then a visit to the Capuchinas ruins included a holy experience that will be treasured by all of us forever – descending into a round basement and singing hymns in the most vibrant acoustics. It was a moment that words cannot adequately express.

My heart is so full of contentment and joy to have been able to return to my old home away from home. To see my old familiar friends. To be here with new friends. To be learning and growing and discussing hard but beautiful things.

Hello, old friend! I’ve missed you! I’m so glad I got to see you today, however briefly!