Greetings from the Summer Trip!
Day 9 has begun with a welcome respite from the rain. There will be sun this morning, time to dry the laundry that the students have learned to wash by hand, a chance to for the clouds to shift enough to reveal the tops of the tree covered volcanoes that surround San Miguel.
Our last few days have brought a lot of rain and dirty clothes. The kids are tired, but mostly healthy and cheerful. Yesterday was the Dia del Ejercito (Military Day), a national holiday, which meant there were as many bells ringing from the steeples of Catholic churches as there were fireworks exploding like cannons leaving tiny flashes of light in their wake. In the morning we all went to our work teams. I am working with the Hospital team this trip, so my group and I set off towards Antigua where we met up with our Guatemalan counterparts and played a few games before going to visit the patients.
The Hospital is a large, confusing building of white wall, garden courtyards and long hallways filled with people waiting to see doctors, to pick up medicine, or to visit sick relatives. We made our way past the two long rows of wooden benches and white plastic chairs filled with people waiting to check in. Beyond this things got quieter because where we work is the part of the Hospital where most people don’t leave.
There are several different wards where patients are separated into age groups. We visit them all. Only two volunteers are allowed to visit the babies, some of whom are here waiting for corrective surgeries on cleft palates or other various physical deformities. The babies are the ones most likely to go home, but the older patients, the teenage boys and girls with Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome, or other physical conditions that might garner them the label ‘disabled’ will most likely spend their lives inside those walls. The older men and women are also permanent residence, most without families, or with families who rarely visit.
The students pair off, one gringo and one chapin and make their way to the various wards armed with coloring books, crayons, fingernail polish and sometimes bubbles. We greet everyone we see with handshakes or kisses, ask them how their day is going, or if they aren’t able to speak sometimes we simply sit with them and hold their hands. Going to the hospital has been one of my biggest challenges as a leader, but it has also been an amazing opportunity to see the deep kindness and compassion held by these GV students.
We aren’t mixing cement, digging trenches or cutting rebar like the kids on the Construction work team, nor have we been hiking up hills and digging holes like the kids on the Reforestation work team. Our successes are harder to measure when compared to seeing 500 trees planted in one week or watching the walls of a new school rise up from the dust, but the Hospital work team can definitely claim they’ve made a difference. With every smile, with every kind word, the students have given a little piece of themselves and the patients are so very grateful for even those few moments of connection with someone who cares enough to touch their hand.
After work teams, students went home to their host family’s houses for lunch. Then we returned as a whole group to Antigua for language lessons at La Union. After school, since it was raining pretty steadily, we came back to San Miguel to the meeting hall (where my host sister will be married this February and where my host grandparents will celebrate their 50th anniversary) to have our first large group discussion. Once again I found myself in awe of just how much these kids are willing to share with one another and how amazingly transformative this trip can be. Here are some excerpts from their “leader of the day” journals:
“Meeting all the patients in the hospital was very bittersweet. I felt mixed emotions greeting each one-trying to refrain from feeling pity or sorrow and focusing on what made me smile. And boy could these faces make me smile. My initial shock of what I saw-from paralysis, cerebral palsy, muted tongues to simple and devastating abandonment-quickly washed away as I began to learn how capable some of these patients were. I worked with a man who could not use his hands, but like to color. So I would ask him which color to use for the “nariz”, “las manos” and “la cabeza”, and went to work transferring his creativity. For those who were even less physically able, I quickly noticed how incredible they were at conveying emotion. This one older woman couldn’t speak, but if you held her hand, she lit up like the sky on the 4th of July. I was also tremendously impressed by our group’s initiative today. We all just dove into meet and greets, following the lead of the chapines, showing our bravery and creativity.”
“Today we went to the construction site in Santiago Zamora. On the way there each gringo had to sit next to a chapin. During the ride Chris and Billy would ask us some questions to start the conversations. As I looked around the bus I noticed all of the gringos were talking and it seemed like they were enjoying talking to the chapines. When we got there we split into groups and did different jobs, such as twisting wire around rebar and making cement to fill in a ditch. It was really good to see the gringos and the chapines working together and the gringos were practicing their Spanish. Today I was put in the group that was making cement, which is the hardest task. It was labor intensive and since I am a smaller girl who doesn’t exercise a lot it was very tiring. For leader of the day prep we talked about leading by example. I knew that if I worked hard as this tiny girl that others would think ‘I can do this job too’.”
“Wow, today was an amazing day. Where do I start? We woke up and started on breakfast. This was the first actual meal GV had together. My hair looked crazy so I asked Sam to braid it. Sam and I haven’t really ever spoken, but she was so excited to braid my hair. I can honestly say it was our first connection. When she was done, my hair looked great and Sam received a lot of compliments. She’s usually really shy and timid, but all the praise brought out the best of her. When we arrived at the Maya Art Center, I received the honor of being the translator from the Mayan women to my GV companions. It was truly an honor because I was able to translate all the Mayan cultural info like the meaning of the attire, the thought behind patterns in clothing, how their customs are fading today, and how beautiful Mayan ceremonies are. As I looked around the room, everyone’s eyes were huge and focused on what the Mayan women were explaining. It was incredible to watch so many youth involved in someone else’s culture. They wore expressions that said ‘wow, that’s amazing’ and ‘oh my God, why don’t Americans do that?’ and even ‘when is this going to be over so we can shop for souvenirs?!?’. Whatever their thoughts, a group of high school students were absorbing the knowledge they would one day need to change the world. I’m blessed to say I was a part of that.”
“Well today was the first day of both work and school. I think that actually having to get down and dirty and sacrifice all sense of self-preservation when we were digging holes made a huge impact on everyone’s attitude and views of the trip. I was so impressed to see my whole work team trying to talk to and learn the names of the chapines, not just on the hike (that everyone, including the leaders, completely rallied for) or enduring the break, but as we were working I saw so many people go and choose a place to dig that was much closer to a chapin rather than a spot closer to a gringo. It is such a huge relief to see every person embracing exactly what this trip is supposed to be about. Our boundaries and barriers are crumbling faster than the roads here do-and based on our hike, that’s saying something. Everyone is trying so hard to speak Spanish, even the people who don’t know any. I’ve been trying so hard that even when I’m allowed to speak English, I slip into Spanglish. My thoughts are even in Spanglish.”
Our internet connection has not been able to support uploading videos, but I will try to send some pictures to the blog soon. Take