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As I Leave Guatemala, I Want You To Know…

In Guatemala, I had eye opening experiences, lived in a totally different way than I did at home, had less things, but lived more, ate a lot of ice cream, learned much about myself and the world, had real independence.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that I’ve changed the way that I look at my life, though I still feel like the same person; though it might be hard for me to be home, I also can’t wait to see you.

In Guatemala, I learned so much about different cultures and the ways that people live.  I also experienced how people communicate without speaking the same language.  I never knew what the power of one’s smile was until that was what I could do.  That everyone says “Hola” on the street when they pass each other.  People sit quite close to you on the chicken bus.  I have had the time of my life here and don’t want to go back (that much)!

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that I have a whole different perspective on privilege and my way of life.  We live with so much but yet almost every conversation I have with my friends at home is about getting more material things and spending money.  I also want you to know that I have made life-long friendships that I want to nurture forever.  We have all become so close in the last months, and I can’t imagine the trip without them.

In Guatemala, I learned more about myself and the world than I ever thought that I would.  I traveled through bustling cities and ramshackle towns, meeting bakers and weavers and travelers and guides.  I ground Ishtamal with little Rosalinda, who is no older than eight years old, gulped down sweet coffee and bread before rushing off to class, flipped tortillas with burnt fingers on the iron griddle stove, waving smoke from my eyes.  I laughed and cried and I ate and sang and I loved and I learned.  For while I chose this trip to learn and to grow, I never expected the sort of education that I ended up receiving.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that every day is a lesson that they can’t teach you in school.  If you come to Guatemala, know that you only need to open your eyes, heart and mind to come back that much wiser, smarter and kinder than when you left.  Remember that words are only one way to communicate, and that every stranger on the street has a unique story.  Reach out to the people around you, throw yourself into everything you do with the vigor of a child.  Pack less, listen more.  Be open to new things and learn to love challenge.  Laugh lots, then laugh some more.  Spend only what you need, but know that kindness costs nothing.  And above all, live life as an adventure.  The world is bold and big, and you should be too, as you step out into it.

In Guatemala, I spent time with different types of local people, grew into a better person, I became a leader and a follower too.  I laughed with my friends and host family, and felt homesick at times.  I had fun.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that I loved it here.  I learned so much, and it changed my mind on things, like how I think about poverty.

In Guatemala, I learned to immerse myself in a different culture, to live in the moment and absorb as much learning as I possibly could.  I hiked to San Juan and chatted with our bus driver on the way to Pachaj.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that you should seek out the privilege in your life and work to be grateful for what you have.  That experiential learning is just as valuable if not more valuable than what you learn in school.

In Guatemala, I learned the difference between Bridge and Picnic Waffers, I discovered Tortrix, and Sarita (ice cream).  I learned about Mountain Mamas, Men and girls, and of the diarrhea twins.  I learned that some people in fact think the towel is closed, when it actually is not.  I learned that you can fit seven people in a tuk-tuk if you try real hard, and at least ten in a temascal (a traditional Mayan sauna).  That six ice creams in a day is possible to consume, and that laughing can be a work out.  That tortillas every meal is just the usual, and saying “hola” on the street is the norm.  I learned that money does not necessarily mean happiness, but friends and family does.  That I have the privilege of independence and the freedom to walk the streets feeling secure in my own country.  I learned that love does not require language, but many times it is actually just a silence.  I learned that the people I am put can be the truest of friends, those that I will always love in my memory.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that I am the same person but with a changed perspective.  Although I don’t know anywhere close to everything during 30 days of travel in Guatemala, I have experienced moments of challenge with my full heart, even wearing it sometimes on my sleeve.  I will cherish these moments and hold on to them as long as I can.  I may forget some memories and moments, but hopefully not those moments in which I laughed harder than ever before in my life.  I already feel nostalgia tugging at my heart.  More than anything, you will be missed, Guatemala.  Your bright colors; even on the gravestones in the cemetery and the crystal blue lake that held my body as I went swimming and listened to the silence of life below the surface, and the sun on my face.  The poverty that tugged tears to waterfall from my eyes, which then halted at the baby’s giggles.  The world of memories, and living such a different life, which was so sweet and full of laughter and love.

In Guatemala, I met amazing people from different places, of different personalities and views, I was able to improve my Spanish, and learn more about Guatemala culture, like Mayan cosmovision, food, festivals, politics, and the civil war.  I observed how the indigenous people live and I was able to experience it firsthand too. I learned about myself and connected with diverse people.  I had personal time and was able to experience gratitude for my life in the U.S. and realized the fact that I don’t need a lot in order to be happy.  I practiced service like planting trees and beans.  And I experienced firsthand many of the reasons that push local people to migrate to the U.S. for work.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that I feel content about making the most of the trip and the ways that I have changed.  How lucky I feel to be living the lives that we live.  How each one of us is privileged, and very, very fortunate.  I want to be more grateful for all that I have been given because many people don’t have as much as we do nor can they travel to different places like us.  That you can experience happiness in even the simplest of lives.

In Guatemala, I explored the culture differences within that country while learning about myself and the world around me.  I planted trees for hours in the fields at Chico Mendes in Pachaj, and trekked through the cloud forests and mountains, I developed a deeper connection with nature and gained an understanding of how my actions and lifestyle affects the environment.  I worked to meaningfully immerse myself in the Mayan indigenous culture; I washed my clothes in the pila, I flipped hand-made corn tortillas, and rode on chicken buses and tuk-tuks.  I improved my Spanish, bought Tortrix and vanilla Picnic Wafers from tiendas and talked with local people.  I did three homestays, each one different than the last, and learned about the great diversity that exists in even a little country like Guatemala.  I bonded with young, wide-eyed children over cards and competition, as well as with traditional grandmas by means of serious conversations about their livelihood and machismo culture.  I practiced being open and vulnerable during our daily check-ins, and maintained a positive attitude during bumpy and nauseating camioneta rides.  I learned that happiness and success stems from the strength to keep moving forward, even after a setback.  I learned to forgive, but not to forget while learning about the Civil War in Guatemala and its affects in San Juan Cotzal, and to always show your gratitude for the little things in life.  I learned that it is important to create something bigger than just yourself while in Pachaj, and that I am physically capable of much more than I could have ever imagined while on the trek.  I learned about the daily struggles that many Guatemalans face, but also the colorful lives they make by filling it with hand-made goods and expressive, beautiful families.  In Guatemala, I made forever friends, had in-depth conversations, and shared unforgettable experiences.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know that I have a terrible memory.  I am scared because I know that in one year most of this trip will be a blur.  However, this fear is overrides by the one thing that I could never forget: this group.  I might forget the colorful tiendas that line the streets but I could never forget the diarrhea twins and how helpful Neil is to everyone.  I might forget my homestay family’s faces but I will never forget Rory and Rose’s when Harry walked in naked.  I may forget what it feels like to take a bucket shower but I will never forget what it feels like to fistbump Seth.  I may forget the Spanish-Speaking voices around me but I will never forget Max’s voice calling me a loser.  I may forget what the cloud forest looks like but I will always have Sofia and Anja’s amazing photographs to remind me.  I may forget the rides on the chicken buses, the tuk-tuks, and private buses but I will never forget the never ending conversations Monica and I shared.  I may forget the activities we did during our flexible itinerary but I will never forget the instructors guiding us through every point.  As I leave Guatemala, I want you to know that I will never forget this group and all the people in it.

In Guatemala, I saw things beyond my imagination.  More beautiful than anything ever created.  More majestic that a lion standing on a rock above its territory in the wild.  I laid below the stars listening to the sweet chorus of animals still awake and restless.  I stared in awe as Lake Atitlán reflected the pale moon.  I observed cultures that blew my mind.  It was unfathomable to see the amount of joy and excitement in peoples’ faces despite their poor economic situation.

I lived with different families, all unique in their own ways, but they were all happy.  They all had young energetic children.  The first was a silly little baby Angel that loved to play.  The next still loved to play, but he had moved onto sports like soccer.  All we did was play soccer from the moment I returned from classes to the time that I had to go to bed.  It didn’t matter whether we were inside or outside, or if it was only the two of us or all of his cousins, from the youngest to the oldest.  I my next house I had three siblings who didn’t care what we played, as long as we had fun.  We spent our hours together paying with a make shift ball, playing tag blindfolded, and building houses of cards only to be destroyed by their tiny feet.  All of their parents loved me like I was their own child.  They gave me teas when I was sick to help with my cold or diarrhea.  They made sure I was well fed.  Most of the time, I would have to cover my plate so they couldn’t put more food there for me to eat.

I ate food that I never knew existed.  I had so many different spices on one plate.  I had never tasted so much flavor.  I consumed many different flavors of Sarita’s ice cream.  I visited many street vendors, who sold delicious tacos, papusas, and plantains.  I ate meals for less that three U.S. dollars.  I tried so many new foods like boxbole and pepian.  No meal that I had was bad or served without tortillas.  I have consumed so many tortillas in the past thirty days, and I still love them.  They go with every meal.  They can even be a nice snack with a tea.  I also drank so many cups of tea.  I have learned that natural teas, like tea de Maria Luisa, are so much better than the trash teabags we often get in the U.S.

I have done so many new things.  I stepped outside my comfort zone, and was squeezed in between Guatemaltecos on a chicken bus.  I squished into the back of a pickup truck with fourteen bags and sixteen people.  I rode in a small tuk-tuk with seven of my friends.  I rode in a boat on the azure blue surface of Lake Atitlán.  I swam and jumped and slack-lined above the lake.  I explored different cities, for example, Xela, San Juan La Laguna, San Juan Cotzal, Nebaj, and Pachaj.  I learned about deforestation at Chico Mendes, and permaculture at IMAP.  I learned about Guatemala’s history and culture.

I played with many dogs and puppies, and even slept with fleas.  I met very interesting people, and made thirteen lifelong friends that I will never forget.  I shared laughter, and even sometimes pain with them.  We have been through so much in such a small amount of time.  I will never forget all the funny quotes, and our never ending debate about which wafer is better, Bridge or Picnic.

As I leave Guatemala, I want you to know that I am not the same person that I used to be, nor will I ever be again.  After a month in Guatemala, I have changed for the better, I think.  Although my name might still be Neil, the meaning of that four letter world has changed.  I know that you will ask to hear stories, and I will tell them, but know that the words I speak will never compare to the real experience.

In Guatemala, I improved my Spanish, something I’ve always been told I should because of my heritage, I lived with and was surrounded by poverty and loved it,  I learned about an amazing and diverse culture.  I made great friends, and met amazing people.  I saw things I’ll never forget.  I had tough times, I was fascinated.  I was challenged over the course of the month.  I thought.  I had ups and downs.  I let my hair grow out.  I made jokes.  I laughed.  I swam.  I am not the same person I was before.

As I leave Guatemala I want you to know, I am not the same, but I am not different.  I’ve had great times and bad times.  I’ve made connections and friends.  Stayed in stranger’s houses.  But honestly, I don’t know what to say.  I can say that I loved this trip.  And so much more.  And maybe that’s enough for now.