Featured Essay: Emily Ruth McElhaney, Guatemala 2011. ~El Conocimiento le Abrirá Todos las Puertas (Knowledge Will Open All Doors)
As I arrive in the Guatemalan airport, I am surrounded by new voices in a language that I usually only hear during a fifty minute Spanish class five days a week. My senses are quickly overwhelmed. I am in a completely new country, alone. Making it through customs, with help from strangers, I emerge into a crowded parking lot, looking for someone else in a red shirt; that is what we were told to wear so we could find each other; I don’t know if the GLA staff realized that all Mayan clothing is extremely colorful and entire families wait at the airports for long-awaited loved ones. I, however, have two strangers in very Americanized clothing awaiting me. Fredy, a taxi driver in the city of Antigua, spots me first. We quickly become close friends, talking about life, differences in our cultures, and tons of jokes including: illegal driving, “jus keeding” about everything, and my soccer skills. Although Fredy informs me about situations and customs of his country, it does not prepare me for what I am about to see.
Driving through rural Guatemala, I understand why Fredy wanted to prepare me. The conglomerations of houses resemble a junk yard as I look at them from our quickly moving van. They are made from old, rusty, corrugated metal. The roofs leak, turning the dirt floors into mud. Massive mudslides cover much of the road; there is a cross honoring those who died when a bus fell through a pothole where the earth had been washed away from the torrential downpours of the rainy season. Dogs roam the streets in packs, searching for food scraps, trying to feed their puppies milk with some nutrients in them. I see the hardships of those in a developing country that I couldn’t fathom from pictures; I have yet to see the people’s gracious and loving spirits a camera cannot capture.
I arrive at La Escuela Rural Pueblo Viejoin Tecpán and am greeted by over a hundred kids from the ages of six to thirteen. I can’t believe those are their ages; they are much too small. José, one of our leaders, confirms that indeed those are their ages, many suffering from malnutrition along with the already small stature of Latinos. Boys are dressed in traditional American clothing, some wearing tennis shoes, others wearing rainboots, but the girls wear brightly colored Mayan clothing with either Mary Janes or sandals. I learn that boys or men who wear traditional Mayan clothing are discriminated against when looking for a job. The rainboots set apart the children who have been up since the rooster crowed, working with their parents on the fields before school. The Spanish voices take over my thoughts. I don’t mind, however. All of this excitement and confusion translates into my acceptance by the children. José says something to the kids and they grow silent. Marcantionio, Rosita, and other children hold on tight to my fingers; they have already decided that we will become friends. I am surrounded by love and compassion from strangers, children who don’t speak my language, some who don’t speak at all.
On the second day at our hotel in the mountains, we notice a group of neighbor children that have begun waiting for us on the driveway. It is rainy and cold, but that doesn’t stop the older children. As we are running into the hotel, Kevin, at the front of the pack, stops by the kitchen. We get hot chocolate and lunch to take to the five kids on the driveway; the baby is inside. They invite us in the house to eat on the makeshift table and we begin sharing the modest meal that has been prepared for us. Laughing and playing with the kids, it is the most fun I’ve had in awhile. Their mother hands us the baby, Julio, so she can tend to the children’s clothes. Our differences evaporate into thin air. For a moment, we are all kids having fun, not judging each other.
Life has grown simpler. For these few days, I am free from the technological dependency I know so well at home. I am relating to people one on one, getting to know individual children. There is one deaf boy, my baby, who cannot express his feelings through words. He shows affection through small, silent, tender gestures; his fingers are running through my hair; he sits in my lap while we paint. He cannot say a word, but I know exactly what he is telling me.
This is the third day in a row that I am playing soccer with the older boys. Our field, a muddy, partly concrete patch of land, is much different from the perfectly manicured field I am used to at home. The ball is flat and has next to no shape; we don’t wear shoes because most of the players only have one pair. We all share lukewarm water out of my water bottle, playing through the scorching heat and the pouring rain. Many of the boys wear the same clothes they wore the days before. The first day they treated me like the privileged American they know I am, but today, covered in mud and sweat, I am just another kid trying to get away from the grind of everyday life.
Both at the hotel and the school, we learn about ourselves, the other people on the trip, and the kids whose school we have improved. We adapt to a new culture and language with minimal help from translators. Thousands of miles from home, my eyes are opened to a new world, one where food in your belly, clothes on your back, and the ability to go to school constitute a good day, a world where color, social status, and money don’t matter, a place where a smile and small gestures substitute for verbal communication. I am here to live like they do, to laugh, smile, love, and play soccer. In this back-to-basics community, my immune system is strengthened, my smile is broadened, my heart and soul are broken into two parts, one in Mobile, Alabama; one on the dirt patch at La Escuela Rural Pueblo Viejoin Tecpán, the most alive place I know.