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!

Unclean

It was the sound of the crowd that made me aware of his arrival. Remaining at all times, as the law commands, outside of the town walls, I enjoy my days in silence with the sound of birds as my only company. The only break in my otherwise peaceful existence comes when I hear the shuffle of feet approaching. And, though I know what will follow, I call out, as the law dictates, “Unclean!” And I avert my eyes to avoid seeing the inevitable: the looks of terror or disgust. But I cannot block out the cries filled with equal parts fear and hatred, vitriol and curses for the day of my birth.

Over the years I have undertaken what few measures of defense remain available to me. Moving farther away from town was a defensive measure – yes, it meant removing myself from the relative safety provided by my proximity to others. But any wandering vagrants or even bandits under cover of darkness consistently fled as soon as they heard my warning cries. Yes, wild animals would not heed my warning… I had not yet stooped so low as to ask God for death, but the thought was never far from my mind that a swift death at the claws and teeth of a lion might be the best I could hope for. Especially if my tormentors were right, and my skins was a reflection of the judgment God was raining down on my life. Perhaps asking God for death was not so wise. Who knew what greater judgment might lie ahead of me yet.

It was in the heat of the day that I first heard the crowd’s approach. I was lying in the shade of my home, more a burrow than anything else. The first footsteps crunching in the gravel and sand made me cringe and shrink back against the tree roots. I lay still for a moment, gathering the strength to get up and warn whoever was coming. Not today, I thought. I don’t want to face anyone today.

But in addition to the footsteps, I heard the buzz of voices. More than just a few people coming my way. It was clearly a large group. What are they doing? I wondered. I almost never had “visitors”, passersby that I needed to chase away, and I never ever had large groups of people. I crawled out of my burrow as the first ones came into view. I heaved a sigh of relief as I saw that they weren’t actually headed close enough to me and I wouldn’t need to reveal my presence. I could stay hidden and unnoticed. I turned to crawl back under the branches that formed my door when I heard perhaps the only word that could bring me to a stop.

Jesus.

It rolled off the lips of some of the crowd nearest to me, carried to me on the breeze. The sound of the name buzzed around my head as if it were a bee and made me pause, one knee on the ground, one hand still holding up the branch. Jesus. Even I had heard his name before, heard of this man who preached and taught from the deck of a boat and the dais of a synagogue in equal measure. Who declared himself the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Who, it was said, had gone to the house of a fisherman and healed the man’s mother-in-law. Who had even cast demons out of people.

The second the idea flashed into my mind, I knew I would do it. Knew it was worth all the risk to ask this man for help. If he was who he said he was, then he was the only person who would be able to help me.

Before I could second guess my decision, before thinking too much stopped me in my tracks, I turned on my heel and marched down the gentle slope toward the crowd. I heard bits of conversations as I neared them. “…heard that he was baptized by John…” “… but he didn’t stay and talk to the Pharisees…” “… but then they caught so many fish that the boat almost sank…” Years of avoiding people was an ingrained habit, but I was not about to let this opportunity pass me by, and I marched directly into the crowd, weaving through people, aiming for the man at the front, talking with the people closest to him as he walked. I could catch the occasional glimpse of the teacher as the crowd shifted – his robe, his hair, his friendly laugh as the man nearest him said something apparently funny.

It was the sudden gasp of a woman as I passed by her that broke my focus on the man ahead. I turned and looked at her as her eyes flitted from my ragged clothing to my dirty hair, landing on the rough red skin of my hands and arms and face. Her eyes bulged out and her lips moved for a moment, but her mouth made no sound. “Un… un…” she gasped, finally taking in a deep breath and crying out in a piercing, shrill voice. “Unclean!” She lifted a trembling finger to point at me, even as she backed away, lifting her headscarf to cover her mouth.

The crowd around us gasped in equal measure and backed away. In a split second I had to decide whether to flee or continue marching forward, and the crowd helped me make my decision as they backed away and made space for me to keep moving forward through them. I lifted my chin, straightened my spine, and marched on.

The woman’s cries were picked up by others as I moved, each person in turn gasping and shrinking back. Hisses and jeers met my ears, but I marched on, resolute. I would let nothing get in the way of my goal. I was almost there, almost within reach of the teacher when the first stone hit me, square in the back. Instinctively I ducked, curling my arms around my head as if that would protect me. More stones pelted me, their sharp edges piercing and scraping. I fell to the ground and closed my eyes, hearing some skitter by and rolling around in the dust.

Suddenly the stones stopped, stopped hitting me, stopped pelting the ground around me. I stood, looking around wildly, now ready to run, run anywhere, just run away and be safe again. Instead, what I saw was the man Jesus. He must have heard the commotion and had turned and was walking back toward us. Toward me. I tried to swallow, but I had only the dust of the ground in my mouth, choking me. My hands were sweating. I wiped them on my tunic sides, and felt the grit of the ground on me. I must look crazy, I thought. He must think me demon possessed, covered in the dust of the road, unwashed, desperate. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat, sweat trickling down my temple, or perhaps blood from one of the stones that had met its mark. And still he kept walking, his eyes never wavering from mine. The sounds of the crowd fell away, as though they were backing away from us further, and maybe they were, or maybe it was just the way this man drew attention. I felt as though his eyes could see into my very soul, as though he were able to see each thought, each memory, each shortcoming.

He stopped in front of me. Close enough to touch me. Close enough to become unclean himself. But surely he could see on my face, my hands, my arms, the signs of my disease, of my judgment. The skin peeling away. The angry red welts. The signs to all that I was a man cursed by God.

He stayed completely still in front of me, and I stood frozen, forgetting all that I had set out to do. It was one of the men rushing up beside him that broke the spell. “Lord, surely you can see that this man–” But he held up his hand and silence fell again.

It was enough to stir me out of my inaction. I feel to my knees a second time, this time willingly. I placed my face on the ground where it had just lay moments ago, but this time in front of the sandals of the teacher.

“Lord,” I said in a weak voice. How will he hear me if I speak like this? I wondered. But the dust in my mouth and the pain in my heart conspired against me, and my throat tightened further. I heard clothing rustling and tilted my head enough to look up. He was squatting down above me, leaning down toward me.

The hope that had first fluttered in my heart when I heard the crowd speaking his name came welling back up inside. “Lord,” I said, louder this time, with more insistence. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Silence surrounded us. I did not even dare to breathe.

An unfamiliar weight settled on the back of my head and my eyes fluttered closed.  It was warm, and a glow began spreading through my body, like little tendrils of fire radiating, tingling through my scalp, down my neck, racing along my skin down my arms and hands. I breathed in deeply.

“I am willing,” I heard from above me. “Be clean.”

Something unknowable burst open in my heart. Tears flooded my eyes.

I opened my eyes, blinking away the tears. They streaked down my face, dripping on the dust beneath me, immediately forming little pools of mud. He was reaching down, one arm curving out of my field of vision, the other held out, waiting.

A sudden realization dawned. It was his hand. His hand on my head. I had not felt the comforting touch of another since… I knew not how long.

And still he stood waiting, holding out his other hand. I stared at it uncomprehendingly for seconds, until another realization slowly dawned. He was holding out his hand to help me up.

I watched his eyes as I reached for his hand. Watched for any sign of fear, any flinch of disgust as I grasped it. There was none. His steady gaze spoke only that same love and compassion and sense of seeing deep within that I had felt before. Only now I met his eyes without shame. He helped me to my feet, and I rose, stumbling a little, keeping my eyes on him.

It was the men with him that again broke the spell, that distracted as I saw one elbow another and mutter something under his breath. I reflexively pulled my hand away from the teacher, again realizing the state I must look. I lifted my hands to brush away the remnants of the tears and dust from my face, wiping under my eyes and down my cheeks. My skin felt smooth under my fingertips, and it did not sting as it usually did. My hands dropped from my face, and I stared at them, turning them first palm up and then palm down, taking in the unfamiliar look of the smooth skin, the healthy skin, the redness gone, the peeling skin disappeared. I ran my hands up and down my arms, not believing what I was feeling, not believing what I was seeing. I held my arms in front of me as a laugh bubbled up from deep within. The man standing behind the teacher met my eyes and nodded his head, smiling, as if to say, “Yes! It happened exactly as you think!”

I lifted my hands to the heavens, spun around in a circle, and cried out. “Lord! Surely you are who you say you are!” The feeling of lightness inside me spread, and I looked at all the faces around me as I spun again, faces that had formerly been covered in fear and disgust, now wearing expressions of curiosity, shock, or happiness, as if my own deep joy welling up inside were too contagious for them not to be affected by it as they had been worried about being affected by my earlier disease.

I opened my mouth to begin to speak to the crowd when I heard the teacher speak again from behind me. “Tell no one. Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices commanded by Moses.”

I spun around to look at him again. He said nothing more, just smiled, raised his arm, and rested his hand on my shoulder again. And then he stepped back, and he walked away, followed immediately by the men who had been with him at the front of the crowd. I stood still and watched. The crowd began to flow around me again as people began to follow after the teacher once more. This time, they did not step away. I heard no cries of disgust or horror. I was surrounded so closely by the crowd that I was jostled by elbows as they hurried by, no longer afraid to touch me. I stood until they had all passed by, until they followed the curve of the road between the hills and out of sight.

And then I turned and ran, heading for Jerusalem, heading to the temple, to find a priest.

Notre Dame de Paris

I was tired and jet lagged, and I was unimpressed at the number of people waiting in line to enter the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I had arrived in France from an overnight flight, stowed my backpack in a locker in the train station, and immediately headed over to the island that I have considered one of my favourite places in the world since first visiting at 20 years old. As I meandered down crowded sidewalks from the train station to Île de la Cité, the first glimpse of the familiar flying buttresses made my heart sing with joy. But the lack of sleep from the flight, the greater fatigue from leaving for a trip the day after my school year finished, and the claustrophobia of jostling crowds waiting outside was taking the shine off of visiting the site of beloved memories.

I eventually shuffled along with the rest of the line through the front door of the cathedral, passing a sign reminding people that this was a place of worship and to be respectful. But almost everyone around me seemed to be taking in the church through a camera lens. Annoyed, I stepped out of the flow of traffic moving down the aisle around the edges of the cathedral and sat in a chair near the back of the nave.

I thought of this cathedral being built to the glory of God over two centuries, finally being finished some six centuries earlier. I thought of how many people had worshipped there, how each part of the cathedral was crafted with symbolism to remind people of God, from the floor plan being laid out in the shape of a cross to the pictures of Bible stories in the stained glass windows. I thought of the medieval townspeople who must have entered its hallowed walls with an overwhelming sense of God’s grandeur and their own smallness in comparison.

And now, I thought rather self-righteously, the cathedral was nothing more than a tourist trap, filled with people more interested in taking Instagram-worthy pictures than being inspired by God in this space. It’s finished its work as a place of worship, I thought sadly.

After a few minutes of feeling sorry for the current state of the cathedral, I got back up and continued down the aisle, stopping to light a candle and to admire Notre Dame’s famous rose windows in the transepts. Then I wandered back through the ambulatory, around behind the choir at the very front of the cathedral. There I stumbled on a series of panels which outlined the history of the cathedral, starting from the first stone being laid in the 12th century and continuing through the cathedral’s use today. I followed along, reading about the cathedral being built over a 200 year span, and then the work of the church through the medieval period, the Renaissance, and all the way around the choir, until I came to a panel that talked about the work of the church in the 2000s. To my surprise, it listed numerous outreach programs and ministries that the cathedral undertakes. And then there was this quote from a recent Arch-Priest: …the cathedral is more than an historic monument: it is above all else the house of God and the house of people, alive with faith and prayer… the cathedral is the witness to the life of the people of God, of the radiance of their love, of their fervent hope.

I continued out of the back and turned the corner to face the altar, and there, hanging directly in front of me, was a banner that read Saint Esprit, Holy Spirit, imploring people to be listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

And as I stood staring at this banner that I hadn’t been able to see from the back of the cathedral, the Holy Spirit whispered to me, I’m here. I’m at work. You don’t know where I’m working and where I’m not. My work is not done in this place. Even if it looks like I’m not there, I’m still at work. Especially then, I’m still at work.

 

Our lives can be messy and painful. Loss, loneliness, broken families, disease, crises of mental health, political uncertainty, poverty, food insecurity, war. As individuals we see and experience these things, we see the brokenness in the world around us, and even as the church we see and experience this same brokenness in a place where we long to experience God’s goodness. But the Holy Spirit whispers to us, I’m here. I’m at work. You don’t know where I’m working and where I’m not. My work is not done in this place. Even if it looks like I’m not there, I’m still at work. Especially then, I’m still at work.

 

King David knew this same truth. He experienced incredible times of tumult and trouble, uncertainty, even the threat of death, and yet he wrote,

Lord, even when your path takes me through
   the valley of deepest darkness,
   fear will never conquer me, for you already have!
   You remain close to me and lead me through it all the way.
   Your authority is my strength and my peace.
   The comfort of your love takes away my fear.
   I’ll never be lonely, for you are near.
You become my delicious feast
   even when my enemies dare to fight.
   You anoint me with the fragrance of your Holy Spirit;
   you give me all I can drink of you until my heart overflows.

So why would I fear the future?
   For your goodness and love pursue me all the days of my life.
   Then afterward, when my life is through,
   I’ll return to your glorious presence to be forever with you!

Psalm 23 (The Passion Translation)

 

adventure-ancient-architecture-705766

The Light Is Already Growing

Advent

Earth grown old, yet still so green,

Deep beneath her crust of cold

Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:

Earth grown old.

 

We who live are quickly told:

Millions more lie hid between

Inner swathings of her fold.

 

When will fire break up her screen?

When will life burst through her mould?

Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,

Earth grown old.

~Christina Rossetti

 

Sun rises, and sun sets. We live our broken lives, enduring the aches and pains, groaning along with creation as it waits. And we wait. We live the drudgery of our everyday normal lives. We live lives that feel stuck or purposeless or endless. We complete our work and we go about our lives, but we long for joy and vibrancy. Amidst a world at war around us, we long for peace only the Prince of Peace can give.

The days grow shorter; the nights grow longer. A chill enters the air. Advent begins, and we remember our waiting as a spiritual practice. We celebrate it. We lean into it. We talk about our waiting together, and we wait for hope and peace, love and joy. We long for the coming of the Messiah who will make all things new. Who will bring the hope and peace and love and joy that we so desperately long for.

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, comes, and still we wait. Shivering. Hopeful. We turn our eyes to the horizon and watch for the coming of the sun, for its return. For the return of the light that will signal that change is coming.

For three more days after the solstice, we wait. Our eyes cannot perceive anything new. We live in the darkness, hoping for the light. We await the resurrection of the sun.

And though our eyes cannot perceive it, the sun is at work. The light is already growing. Resurrection is underway. It bursts out on Christmas Day, with our joyful celebrations, the end of the Advent season. Our hearts overflow with joy as we celebrate the coming of the Messiah, new life come into the world as Emmanuel, God With Us.

Winter is a time of rest, hunkering down inside, cozying up to the fire. The world outside appears dormant. But the sun is at work. The light is already growing. And in due time, it will bring to life all creation. Snow will melt. Trees will spring into leaf. New life will come. Each leaf mundane and yet reason for celebration. Each new bird completely ordinary and yet equally extraordinary.

In the winter of your soul, you may feel hunkered down. You may feel like you need to stay inside, that beside the fire is the only safe place. You may feel dormant and empty, void of growth. But the Son is at work. The light is already growing. And in due time, He will bring new life to your soul. You will spring into leaf, into vibrancy and joy.  Each new day mundane routine and yet reason for celebration. Each task, each moment, each breath completely ordinary and yet equally extraordinary.

You can’t see it, but the sun is at work. The light is already growing. Resurrection is coming.

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

Sunrise

The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hillside’s dew-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His Heaven;

All’s right with the world!

~Robert Browning

I get to the lake while it is still dark. The sky is a velvety blue-black overhead, and the stars are all visible. Soon there is a soft glow on the horizon, which begins as a faint orange and grows ever more intense. The colour of the water near my feet reflects the oranges and pinks of the sky above, and in the distance it is impossible to tell where sky ends and lake begins. Suddenly a burst of light appears as the sun peeks over the horizon. I watch it rise above the lake, the sound of waves lapping at the shore and the calls of birds the only sounds to break the silence around me. In the first few moments after sunrise, the movement of the sun is visible, degree by degree, and it only takes a few moments for the whole sun to rise above the horizon, to hover above the lake, and then for the magic of dawn to disappear into regular day.

It’s hard to express just how much I love watching the sunrise, and my favourite place to do it is at Lake Ontario, listening to the waves and the birds and looking out over the seemingly endless waters. I’ve always been a morning person, but watching a sunrise is more than just about liking getting up early. It’s God’s artistry painted across the sky. Each sunrise is different, and the opportunity to pause and observe it feels like a gift. The hues ranging from pinks to oranges to yellows to vibrant reds. The light reflecting off of clouds. The colours reflecting in the waters of the lake. Even in a cloudless sky, the sunrise is different, as the seasons change and the sun is rising in a different direction, as the birds migrate north or south overhead, as the boats move off to work in the distance.

The sunrise is a reminder that a new day is a big deal. It’s a pause in what easily otherwise becomes the humdrum of life, the rush off to work, the focus on accomplishing all that is on my to do list. The pause at a sunrise is a reminder to me that we are, first and foremost, human beings, and not human doings. I do not have to do anything, and yet the sun rises. Another day dawns. I’m at restl, but the world continues to function around me. I’m not responsible for bringing the new day into existence. Sunrise puts life into perspective for me – I’m not as important as I think. If things are difficult, I remember that this too shall pass. If I am disappointed in myself, I receive the gift of a new day. My problems or frustrations fade away in the glory of a new day dawning.

In Lamentations, Jeremiah says,

I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,

The taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.

I remember it all – oh, how well I remember –

The feeling of hitting the bottom.

But there’s one other thing I remember,

And remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,

His merciful love couldn’t have dried up.

They’re created new every morning.

How great is your faithfulness!

I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).

He’s all I’ve got left.

Lamentations 3:22-23 (The Message)

 

I couldn’t say it better myself.

 

 

Amid hundreds of sunrises that I’ve seen that all feel special, this is an extra special sunrise – in Spain as I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2014. 

CoEd Tour Day 2

After breakfast at our hotel, we boarded the boat again at the hotel’s private dock and sailed across Lake Atitlan again, this time in a little bit of a different direction, landing in Santa Cruz la Laguna. The town is literally only accessible by boat or by foot, the once existent mountain road now being impassable. Our boat ride was again, so glorious, soaking in the morning sun and breeze on the lake.

Morning comes to the lake.

Santa Cruz la Laguna is built in between two mountain ridges, but it would be very generous to say it’s built in a valley. There’s a little edge of flat land close to the lake, but then the town rises above on the steep front of the mountain. Instead of walking up the road, we got into tuk tuks and were carted up the mountain side. A tuk tuk is a three wheeled vehicle that’s sort of a makeshift taxi. There are no seat belts. There are bars to hold on to, and hold on I did as my companion and I headed up the mountain. The road was inbelievably steep, and at each turn in the road I expected to see the town, but instead saw yet another switchback. There were no guardrails beside the road, just a very sheer drop-off. Because of the steepness of the road, we couldn’t head up too quickly, and I tried to concentrate on the incredible view instead of the apparent danger. We did make it up safely in the end!

Your typical Tuk Tuk.

Upon our arrival at the school – a middle school where we were celebrating the CoEd Technology Program – we were greeted by students who put a friendship bracelet around each of our wrists. (Side note: it melted my heart when, at the end of the day, I noticed that one of our security guards still had his friendship bracelet on!)

Once again, we had an opening program at the school – Guatemala’s national anthem, speeches from the school director and a CoEd representative, a traditional dance by the grade 8 students, and the presentation of a few gifts from CoEd to the school. The director spoke about all of the ways that the technology centre is used – by the middle school, by other teachers whose only access to computers is generally through the computer centre, by the primary school students, by primary students from the next village who literally make the half hour hike one day a week to use be able to have access to computers, by the vocational students of CECAP, and by adults in night classes. Then the students headed back to class while our CoEd people split into two groups.

Grade 8 students perform a traditional dance for us.

My group got a tour of the CECAP vocational school first. CECAP stands for Centro de Capacitation, and it’s run by another non-profit that works exclusively in Santa Cruz, called Amigos de Santa Cruz. CECAP runs vocational classes on carpentry, beading, weaving, culinary skills – anything that people will be able to use to ensure employment in their future. Their store sells artisan goods at a fair wage, instead of the prices you might be able to barter for from street vendors that don’t recognize the artisan’s time or talent. The non-profit works in a number of ways to better the lives of people from the town, and is run with an almost all local board of directors and staff. Santa Cruz was able to celebrate the first woman university graduate from their town last November.  The vocational school building was built in cinder blocks, and each person from the town helped to carry at least one block up the hill to the building site, some mamas carrying blocks while their babies were strapped to their backs. In short, I loved everything about what this non-profit is doing.

CECAP’s cafe is on the top floor and overlooks the lake. I can’t imagine a better lunch location!

Pictures of villagers carrying cinder blocks for the building of the school.

A weaving class for women.

A carpentry class for middle school students.

After our tour, we swapped with the other group and sat in a class with high school students at the computers in the technology centre. Students demonstrated their tech skills while creating and personalizing letters they had written, telling a little about the Santa Cruz and Atitlan area, including details like their favourite sport, favourite music, favourite colour, etc. A CoEd staffer came around and took pictures of each set of partners, and soon the students pulled the photos up from the server, added them to the doc, and printed out the keepsake for us.

Again, I was so happy that I had a foundation of Spanish to use as I spoke to my student about her life and her hopes and dreams. She told me that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and I was able to tell her to work hard and pursue her dream, and that I have faith that she can become a teacher and love it just like I love it.

In the computer lab, listening to instructions.

All too soon it was time for us to head back down to the boat (after a little shopping in the school’s store, of course!) CoEd staffer Elizabeth was directing traffic – both tuk tuk and people – at the school door. When I got to the front of the line, she said to me, “Why don’t you go get in that tuk tuk, Bethany?” I looked at the one she was pointing to. “That one with the ten-year-old driver?” I asked. Despite his young age, our driver did take us down the mountain safely, although our downhill journey meant it was a little faster than I would have taken it myself!

Our boat ride back to Panajachel was relatively short, but again in beautiful sunshine. After lunch at a hotel in Pana, we were back on winding, steep mountain roads. After a bit of a drive (it’s always hard to estimate distance actually travelled when you’re on winding mountain roads and back dirt roads instead of my more typical trips on paved North American highways), we arrived at our next school. No one was waiting for us at this school – a bit of an unusual turn of events, so we hung out in their gym while they suddenly ran over and got ready.

The middle school was celebrating the renewal of their textbook program. Research has shown that two critical things for the success of students is a good teacher and good textbook for students and teachers. I can’t remember how much education a middle school teacher is supposed to have, but a primary teacher only needs to have graduated from high school (in a special program to become a teacher, but certainly not the university degree plus teaching certificate program that we’re used to in North America). That means that teachers without a set curriculum will struggle to know exactly what they are supposed to cover and what material is grade level appropriate for their students. CoEd’s textbook program starts with seed money from a donor (or multiple donors) to buy textbooks (really more like workbooks) for the school in math, natural sciences, social studies, and Spanish language. Families pay a nominal monthly fee to cover the cost of using the textbook, and these fees are saved in a special account. At the end of five years, the school can buy new textbooks to replace the well-worn books of the past five years. After the initial injection of funding, the school is self-sufficient and doesn’t need to rely on donors for their next textbooks. Of course, there are families who just cannot afford textbook fees. These students may use the books in school, but don’t take them home to study. That way they are allowed to access the information and are not held back in their school progress. Other schools know that their families might not be able to afford the regular textbook fee – usually around $1.75 US per month (about 12 Quetzales). These schools might opt to lower the monthly fee and have a textbook turn around time of six or seven years instead.

In addition to the textbook renewal, this school was celebrating a special anniversary, so they had their band playing, another high school band visiting, and a local adult band joining them – complete with a sousaphone player. We also got to witness another traditional dance by (I think) grade 8 students.

Students perform a dance.

Marching bands.

After some festivities out in the hot sun, we walked to the edge of the village, split into two groups, and had the pleasure of a home visit. This was a wonderful and heartbreaking experience. The family invited us into their home with such warmth and hospitality. As with most buildings I experienced in Guatemala, things were built around a courtyard – although in the case of the house, it was really just an open space with different buildings on most sides. One building held the very utilitarian bedrooms. One building held a kitchen with a small dining area. The mother invited us to learn how to hand pat corn tortillas. In order to be able to cook them quickly, she added some more wood to the open stove,and the kitchen quickly filled with smoke.

Once we were back in the courtyard, Mario, our Guatemalan CoEd staffer (and translator from Quiche to Spanish), told us that many women have trouble with lung disease and stunted growth because of their constant exposure to smoke. The young children have issues, too, since so much time is spent in the kitchen before they begin school.

Baby spends most of her day on her mama’s back.

We were happy to have Mario with us to translate, because our family was Maya and only the father and school-aged sons spoke Spanish. The family spoke Quiche at home, so grandma, mother, and younger girls didn’t speak any Spanish. This of course means that students are also disadvantaged starting school in a language that they don’t speak, a story that is so common in Guatemala.

We also got to see the family’s chickens and pigs, as well as the edge of their corn field. The father earns money through subsistence farming. The pig would not be destined eventually for the family’s table, but for the market where it could earn additional funds. The father told us how difficult it was to earn money and how he wasn’t sure he would be able to afford high school education for his two sons who were partway through middle school. We could do nothing to help except encourage him to do whatever he could to ensure education for his sons.

As a way of saying thank you for their hospitality, we brought a gift of a water filter to the family. Water in Guatemala may be chlorinated in cities (although it still might not be the best to drink). However, in rural areas, families are often not using running water and almost certainly don’t have filtered water coming out of taps that do have running water. While visitors to Guatemala may have the luxury of sticking to bottled water for the duration of their visit, rural residents can rarely afford the bottled water that would be necessary for regular life. The Eco Filter we gave would provide clean and safe water for the family for the foreseeable future. It was such an important gift, but it felt so small in the face of all the family needed – or at least that we perceived as their needs. After assembling it and taking a group photo, we walked out of their house, and I just cried the whole walk back to the bus, thinking about the difference in our lives and our inability to do more for this family in that moment.

Filtered water – I definitely take my safe tap water for granted as a part of daily life in Canada.

Our drive to our hotel for the night was quite a drive. If you’ve driven through the Rockies or Appalachians in North America, you have a good idea of what it’s like to drive on winding mountain roads. If you’ve driven on rough rural roads, particularly in other countries, you can imagine what condition our back roads were like as we left the school. And finally, if you combine those two and add in the rain that we drove through, you have an inkling of the conditions of the drive to our hotel for the evening in Tecpan.

To be fair, winding mountain roads can give some pretty amazing views, even if they’re hard to take pictures of from a moving vehicle. The memory of shafts of sunlight filtering through the clouds into the valley is something I will remember without a photo.

At the hotel, we enjoyed some exploring around the hotel’s very cute grounds, some social time in a bar that was a cross between a cave and someone’s basement apartment, and a great conversation at dinner. I’m sure that all the other tour occupants fell into bed as exhausted as I that evening.

Cute gardens…

…fancy and fun bridges over little creeks…

…flower lined paths…

…and cute climbing structures for kids! A great little hotel!

The Story of Macadamias

Today my teacher and I took another field trip to a local Macadamia estate. 

Valhalla Macadamias

Naturally, we took a chicken bus to get there. 


This isn’t the actual bus we were on, but this will give you the feeling. Imagine a million people packed inside – generally 3 to a seat. 

Macadamia trees grow incredibly quickly and begin producing within just a few years. From babies… 


…to saplings… 

… to nut-bearing trees in about four years. 


Macadamia trees absorb a lot of carbon dioxide and produce a lot of oxygen, so they’re very good for the environment. 

When the macadamias are harvested, they have a green skin over them. A machine is used to separate the skin from the nut. The skin is saved and used as an organic fertilizer. 


Then nuts get spread out in drying trays and are dried for about 20 days. 


Finally, nuts get separated by hand using a simple machine that sorts them by size using the help of gravity. 


Ever wonder why macadamias are so expensive? It’s because a lot has to happen before you enjoy them! 

Of course, we got to sample some roasted macadamias and chocolate covered macadamias at the end of our tour. 


Macadamia oil is supposed to be really good for your skin. The tour ended with an offer of a free macadamia facial. The other students who did the tour with me (from another language school) didn’t want one, but I wasn’t about to pass up a free facial!!! My teacher told me afterward that I looked young enough to be celebrating my quinceañera! 😂


What do you do when you’re in Guatemala’s most photographed bathroom? You take a picture, of course!!! 


If you know me well, you can imagine what happened during the bus ride back to Antigua, being stuck in a crowded bus seat not next to the window, with a bus in front of us belching black clouds of diesel and smoke. Ahhhh… memories of being motion sick around the world. Thankfully a nap after classes cured me of what ails me.

Being a Tourist in Antigua

Today I finally got the opportunity to be a tourist in Antigua! I had seen information on tours in Antigua hosted by a tour company created by Elizabeth Bell, an American woman who came to Guatemala at the age of 14 and who has more or less lived here the last 40+ years. 

The tour was exactly what I was hoping for – excellent insight into Guatemalan history, the cultural life in Antigua, and sights around the city I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. I can’t even cover all the stuff we saw and learned, but here are some of the highlights…


These pictures are ruins of the old cathedral behind the main church off Parque Central (which my housemates and I affectionately refer to as Central Park, a reference that makes me laugh a little inside each time I hear it because this Central Park is tiny).  

I had been into the church already, and I was confused about it not being a typical cathedral – like not in the layout of a cross, for example. Entering the ruins behind explained that to me. They were your very typical cathedral – cross layout, way bigger than the church (but smaller than the typical European cathedral). 

This also finally helped me realize why Antigua has so many ruins. When you know why, it’s obvious, but otherwise it seems weird that you can turn a corner and stumble onto ruins basically anywhere in the city. The big earthquake of 1776 took out churches across the city. Any columns and arches basically fell. You can see the column left where it fell in the one photo above. The ruins are being preserved (not restored, just strengthened), but that column is left as an example. 

Before the earthquake there were 36 churches in Antigua. Now there are just 16. The earthquake took out churches and houses, and the Spanish decided to move the capital from Antigua to Guatemala City. Antigua was sort of abandoned, except by the people who were too poor to move. They stayed, moving into houses of rich people who had left and taken all of their goods. Buildings were left to fall into even greater disrepair. Some of the churches and monasteries had crops cultivated in their open spaces. This is when Antigua also got its new name. Antigua means former, as in the former capital. 


From the cathedral ruins, we got to visit a jade store and museum and find out about the jade industry in the Ancient Mayan civilization and now.  Then we went to a former monastery that was abandoned and filled in with dirt and garbage. In the 1980s and 1990s it was bought and restored into a hotel. More and more land was purchased around the monastery, and the hotel has grown to include more archaeological sites, including a former church that now hosts destination weddings. The weddings pay for an amazing art collection that was stunning and fascinating to walk through. The Santo Domingo ruins are the pictures above. Here are just a couple of photos of the art collections. 


After lunch, some of my housemates went for a hike up a volcano. That’s not my idea of a good time, so I went off to explore other ruins. I know that all my ruins pictures look sort of similar, but here are just a couple more. This was the convent Santa Clara. 


Finally, I capped the day off with some souvenir shopping. For me, that meant finding a bookstore. #nerdforlife 🤓


It also meant picking up a beautiful scarf at less than half the asking price. My bartering technique was super effective: I only had 74 quetzales in my pocket. That took the guy down from his original 180 asking. It also gave a very clear idea of the actual value of the scarf!

All right. I’m off to read some El Principito, which will be both amusing and educational! 🤓

School

It does not feel like I’ve been in classes for a week. On the other hand, it feels like I’ve been doing this for months. Although time has absolutely flown by, I feel exhausted by the work of the past week.  35 hours of Spanish in one week is no joke! But I am showing the results of it – I’m growing more and more confident in my abilities to communicate, I look for opportunities to speak Spanish with others instead of trying to avoid them, I’m actually using verb tenses other than present, and my ability to understand oral Spanish is growing rapidly. 

Today at the end of class, I reviewed the week with my teacher. I’m so happy with what I’ve learned. He said next week we’ll cover imperfect, future, conditional, and maybe subjunctive. Oh, is that all? 😆

So here’s my regular routine. I wake up each morning around 4:30. I’m not kidding!  I’m not trying to – my alarm is set for 6!!! (I can’t tell if it’s still jet lag, or if it’s because I’m so exhausted by the end of the day that I generally fall into bed by 8:30 or 9, or if it’s the fact that it’s dark by 6:30 so my body can’t shift time zones effectively.)

I usually stay in bed until 5:30, lazing around, doing some reading. Then I get up and get ready for the day. Breakfast is served around 7. Usually I can squeeze in around ten or fifteen minutes of studying before breakfast. That helps me impress my teacher when I get quizzed on the work or vocabulary from the day before! 🤓

After breakfast, my classmates and I head out to our 8:00 classes. Every student has one-on-one classes with their own teacher, so just before 8, there are a lot of teachers and students streaming into the school.


The front of the school. 

The school is built in the colonial style. Like so many buildings here, it’s got a big courtyard/garden, and everything is more or less open air. I sit upstairs with my teacher. If we stand up, we can see the peak of Volcán de Agua, and often birds fly into the climbing plants that line the balcony. 


View from my seat. 

My teacher and I generally spend the first hour or so of class in general conversation about whatever comes up. This is exactly what I need – the opportunity to practice using Spanish, developing my listening skills, and learning random vocabulary along the way. Often our conversations take us into territory that I’m very happy to talk about, but partway through an explanation or a story I will think, I do not have the vocabulary for this conversation!!! Then there’s a lot of creative explanation by me to use he vocabulary that I do have, or a lot of “¿Cómo se dice…?” to learn out what I need to know. 


I jot down vocabulary words as I learn them to hopefully commit to memory. 

I’m not kidding when I say that we have talked about incredibly diverse and far-reaching topics. Here’s a small taste:

  • Lots and lots about Canada, Ontario, and Mississauga – geography, culture, politics
  • What it was like to live through the Guatemalan civil war
  • How maple syrup is made
  • The Safe Third Country Agreement
  • The story of my family’s immigration to Canada
  • The educational system in Canada vs the educational system in Guatemala
  • My hike along the Niagara recreational trail earlier this spring
  • What it’s like to walk out on the ice on a frozen Great Lake
  • Ice fishing 
  • How I use Google Classroom and technology in my classes
  • The Guatemalan social services system

Sometimes those conversations actually last longer than an hour. Today my teacher and I just talked for two hours, all the way until break! At 10:00, music is played over speakers, signalling break time. I head downstairs and talk with friends for a bit. Break is a quick fifteen minutes, and then we’re back to work. 

Often after break, my teacher and I will go over my homework from the night before. Then we’ll spend time learning/reviewing grammar concepts, doing activities to practice the grammar, practicing oral work (like a list of 20 or 30 questions he asks that I answer), reading exercises, and written work. I studiously take notes for any grammar concept so I can review it later on. 


Gotta study hard! 🤓

At 12:00, music signals the end of classes again. My housemates and I head home together. My housemates are finished classes for the day at lunch, so they’ll often begin homework before we eat so they have lots of free time. I’ll often sit with them and study. Today I took a nap before lunch instead. 😴

We eat at one, and then I head back out for class, which begins at 2:00. My housemates, meanwhile, go off to explore. They visit ruins, take buses to little villages, or find cute cafés to sit in. I was worried about feeling left out, but the truth is that I’m happy to spend time in class. (Yes = 🤓.) My purpose in being here is to learn Spanish, and classes are the way to reach that goal. My host was skeptical that 7 hours is necessary or helpful. She told us on our first day of classes that four hours is best. After that you’re too tired and you just need to practice what you’ve learned as you shop or explore. Maybe that’s true for many people, but I think I’m a different case. I know so much scattered and random vocabulary and grammar, and classes are the way for me to put all of that into context. As my housemate Hanna said, “Your work here is to connect the dots. I’m just looking for a dot – any dot.” 


In the courtyard. Those tables get used for classes in the morning. I took this pic in the afternoon after it rained, so they’re covered and umbrellas and chairs have been put away. 

Morning classes generally follow the same pattern as afternoon classes – conversation for as long as we sustain it, and then grammar or verb work, practice, oral work, listening work, written work. I finish classes at five and head toward home. I usually take a different route so that I can walk past something new and see a little something of the city on my way back home. 


This is the church I visited on my way home yesterday. 

Once home, I begin my homework. Early in the week, my head was so full and homework was hard. I realized today that yesterday was different – much clearer still after seven hour of classes. I’m hoping that means I’m over the tough first learning curve. After dinner, my housemates and I often spend time studying, talking, or maybe even squeezing in a little reading. Then I fall into bed exhausted to begin the cycle anew the next day. 

So, I’m down 35 hours of Spanish. 35 hours of classes to go. Bring it on! In the meantime, I’m very happy to have a weekend in order to take a break from classes, rest my brain, see the city a little, and be a tourist.