I initially thought writing this blog would be so much easier. I have been back in America a little over three weeks and while I am happy to have hot showers and air conditioning back in my life, I cannot get Guatemala off my mind. I wrote about the non-profit, More Than Compassion back in December but the organization took on a whole new meaning seeing it firsthand. Everyone keeps asking me how my nine-day adventure was and I find myself having trouble putting into words everything I saw and experienced. While I still feel like I have yet to comprehend all of it, this is my attempt to share my experience. One that I am calling the most inspiring yet craziest experience of my life.
Oh my God…it is so hot! Why isn’t the air conditioning on? How in the world do you open this window? Isn’t anyone else sweating as much as me? All these thoughts are running through my head as I began my eight hour (originally estimated for five) bus journey from Guatemala City to Huehuetenango, the town where my sister Elise teaches 3rd and 4th grade through More Than Compassion. The bus stops every five to ten minutes letting local vendors wander through the aisle selling everything from bibles to watches to chicken tacos. A man loudly preaches for thirty minutes about God’s love and the evils of the world. I don’t understand a word he is saying but my sister Elise is saying it is for the best (I take her word for it). The bus is twisting and turning around the mountains so fast I have to stop looking out the window in fear I may throw up or witness our potential death. But when I do look out the window, it is insanely gorgeous.
We finally arrive in Huehue and all I can think is how thankful I am to get off this bus, use the bathroom (haven’t seen one in eight hours) and how I am about to meet Nancy! Nancy is the little eight-year-old girl I sponsor at the Fundacion Salvacion, an orphanage in Huehuetenango that partners with More Than Compassion. She has been writing letters, drawing pictures and Facetiming me for the past year. I can’t even believe I am actually going to see her smiling face in person!
The second I see her, she runs to her bedroom door screaming for someone to open it. She immediately jumps into my arms and is as adorable as I had imagined. She tells me she loves me and then runs away to come back with Carlos, the little boy that my sister, Jenna, sponsors. He gives Jenna a big hug and yells something about “zapatos.”
I am overwhelmed by how much Nancy immediately loved me. She takes my hand and shows me around introducing me to all her friends. All the kids wanted to know how old Jenna and I were.
“28 and 26 but you are older than Elise! And she is taller than you. How is that possible?” They would shout “Tres Elisa’s” or “Solo Elisa’s” meaning there are three Elise’s or only Elise’s around. So funny.
The Guatemalan culture.
Everyone at the Fundacion was extremely welcoming and excited for us to be there. There were so many personalities and names to learn. Anderson, a 3-year-old boy who was recently released from the baby room, loved his newly found freedom and a good hug. Valesca, the 4th grader in Elise’s class would steal my phone and take endless selfies. Krystal, who is in kindergarten, would wink and wave at me every day during snacktime. Maria, the 4th grade perfectionist whose smile and laugh were contagious. Jonathan, the eight-year-old boy who cut his own hair down the center of his head had endless energy. And then there was Mari, the young mom of two kids who worked at the tienda (local store) attached to the Fundacion, and would hug me every day. Although she didn’t speak any English, and I spoke no Spanish, she loved me because I was Elise’s sister. I looked forward to seeing her smile every day.
Hugs were a common theme among these kids. I heard many of their stories; I learned they have strength I never knew was possible. With all of their struggles, they informed us that many of the classes had been praying for Jenna and I. Here were these little kids with nothing, but yet they were praying for me. Their hearts are bigger than anyone’s I had ever met.
When we arrived in Guatemala City, a friend of Elise’s picked us up at the airport and gave us his second family home to stay in for the night. The family was overwhelmingly welcoming saying “what is ours is yours.” Knowing limited Spanish, it was hard to express how thankful I was.
This to me sums up the Guatemalan culture. Strength, happiness despite struggle, constant giving, and most of all endless love.
One of my favorite moments was taking Nancy and Carlos zapato [shoe] shopping. After eating chocolate covered rainbow ice cream, we went to a shoe store down the street. They both were so excited looking at all the brand new shoes. No one had ever taken them to choose their own shoes before.
Nancy immediately chose the sparkly pink and purple sneakers. I tried to make sure she saw all the other options but she held strong with her decision and had a permanent smile on her face.
Carlos, on the other hand, was all over the place and screaming with joy. “Vamanos!” [Let’s go!] he yelled as he threw his old shoes across the store. He was so excited, it took him a few minutes to calm down and actually try on any shoes.
It made me realize just how important brands like TOMS truly are, providing shoes for those in need. When you have one pair of shoes, they are easily (and quickly) worn down. I held back my tears as Nancy hugged me tightly saying thank you. It was the best $30 I have ever spent. And it was in that moment that I realized what pure happiness looks like.
Brand of love.
As I look back, the biggest thing that stands out to me, is the love I witnessed. The love they have for one another is truly visible. How the American teachers look out for their kids and each other. My favorite time of day was sitting down for “family dinner” with all of the teachers and hearing about everyone’s day. How they spent all of their extra time playing with the kids. How all the students hugged and prayed for me every day.
Love and kindness are the true brand of Guatemala. And it seems they have a little luck on their side too. Where else do you find not one, but a full patch of four leaf clovers?
The truth is I was the lucky one to have the experience of getting to know them.