Hobbit Adventures in Guatemala, Part 2
My vote for most memorable experience: Steph’s birthday party, attended by approximately 100 of her friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It was an overwhelming, exhilarating and Monty Python-esque introduction to her town, including:
-- Steph’s posse of energetic and enthusiastic neighborhood kids, who appeared en masse the moment we arrived and who unloaded rental chairs, swept the floors, and made decorations for the walls.
-- Our introduction to Oliver the cat: the “gifts” he left strategically placed around the house, apparently as a token of his displeasure at being left alone for several days.
-- The thick cloud of smoke that filled the house when Steph’s friends decided to heat a large pot of water for tea on the woodstove (never before used by Steph), and discovered too late that the flue was not working properly.
-- Awkward but wonderful conversations in a mix of beginner English and phrase book Spanish.
-- Songs and speeches - a standard feature of any Guatemalan party. Don and I were called upon to make remarks, which Steph appropriately embellished while translating.
-- The ladies who, with no advance plan, seamlessly fed 100 people (including an inebriated fellow who wandered in off the street) in a room the size of a one car garage.
-- The hospitality and generosity of Steph’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues, who greeted us so warmly and who brought many gifts.
o- Remembering not to use the tap water for teeth brushing.
o- Remembering not to eat raw/undercooked veggies (and the consequences of ignoring this rule).
o- The unavailability/unreliability of hot water, even in the fancier hotels.
o- It’s a noisy place! Traffic, thin walls, loud parrots/roosters/music
o- It’s a crowded place! People are used to cramming into small spaces – chicken busses, pickup trucks, markets, sidewalks, etc. North American concepts of personal space do not apply.
o- It’s a traffic free-for-all! As Mario pointed out, Guatemalans do what they want when they want, without much regard for traffic rules and the personal safety or comfort of others. There is no hostility or malice involved, no yelling at other drivers or pedestrians; it’s just an accepted fact of life.
-- Cleanliness is a relative concept. I now understand what Steph meant when she arrived home at Christmas and announced that she would eat off our kitchen floor.
-- Time to start studying Spanish! I had forgotten how frustrating it is not to have the words to express oneself. Communication is the key to understanding each other, and having the right words is the first step.
-- Having more options and more amenities does not necessarily translate into having more happiness. The people we met in Steph’s hometown seem very content and fulfilled, even though they live in what most Americans would consider “Third World” conditions. Since arriving home I have been struck by how the proliferation of choices and “conveniences” seems to increase stress, rather than reducing it.
-- It was humbling to realize how much I have taken for granted and how little I have understood about the lives of people in other countries. Experiencing another culture (even in the limited way that we did) opens the door to real understanding.
Thank you, dear Steph, for creating this amazing experience, and for your endless patience in guiding us through our Guatemalan adventure. As any true adventure should, this experience has changed the way we think and feel. My heart and my head are full of Guatemala, and I will never be the same.
Editor's final note: Seeing the impact it has on my parents, I see how direct, personal, human exchange between people of different cultures is crucial for the future of our increasingly connected species. It's true you have to be careful as a tourist in a country like Guatemala not to get over your head - but when you push yourself just a little bit out of your comfort zone, the lessons can be profound.
So take a day or a week or a month. Get to know the world from another culture's point of view. The lessons will almost certainly linger long after the adventure's finished!