When we first began our journey in Guatemala a week ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. In a room illuminated by a single candle, surrounded by partial strangers, I wrote,”this month in Guatemala was the best experience of my life because I opened my mind and my heart to the stories of others.” Desperate to escape my own personal bubble, meet new people, and explore Guatemalan culture, I held my Spanish dictionary as though it was the key to opening a door of understanding. Truthfully, I’ve only opened this little yellow book a few times since my arrival because stories I’ve heard over the past 12 days cannot be defined by a string of foreign words and phrases. They are better understood through the passion and emotion with which they are told.
As we moved from San Lucas Toliman to Pachaj, the elevation rose, the amount of trees dwindled, and we entered a new community with its own stories to tell. We began at the Chico Mendes reforestation project where its founder, Armando Lopez, told us the intrinsically linked stories of the land and his own personal journey. He filled our minds with images of genetically modified seeds and mining exploration permits. He filled our hearts with the story of Chico Mendes, a pacifist who died trying to protect the environment. He closed with a simple, yet thought provoking, story of a father, a son, and an avocado tree, reminding us that we must preserve the environment for future generations.
After an afternoon of work, we met our homestay families. Within the span of a few hours, our host mom and dad, Ángela and Félix, transformed from strangers to open books filled with endless questions and answers. While sipping corn tea, Ángela told us about her dream as a young woman to leave the country devote her life to religion. As she sat beside her husband and 14 month old baby, perfectly content, she explained how God’s plan for her changed. While indulging in tamales and hot chocolate, we listened to Félix tell us about how difficult and dangerous life was in the capital, how he moved here 3 years ago, built his house in two months, and mastered his weaving craft in six.
Although we spend most of our time in Pachaj with our host families, we also take part in one-on-one Spanish lessons. What began as a traditional Spanish class, turned into a beautiful hike to the top of a sacred mountain. As I followed the deceivingly long trail, I listened to my teacher, Carina, fill my mind with names of Mayan rituals. She explained the significance of the land and how it connected to her own relationship with religion. She told me about her father’s time in the US, her complex family dynamic, and her own experiences as a teenager. She shared her hopes and dreams for the future and eventually asked me about my own. I could barely answer this question in English, let alone in Spanish; however, I finally pieced together something both she and I could understand. In this moment, I felt the most connected to my journey. Before, the people of Guatemala had given me their stories. Now, I was finally able to give one back. When our time on the mountain ended, she gave me a homework assignment: write a story about the journey we took today. I realized in this moment that even though I came to Guatemala with the intention of listening to others’ stories, I was also writing one myself. The stories I so intently listened to were now weaved into the fabric of my own. I know that long after this trip is over I’ll remember the stories I collected in Guatemala and will use them as key moments in the story that I tell someday (in both English and Spanish).