You’d think that after all these years I’d be used to it, the process of getting from Connecticut to Guatemala. Finishing up the projects I’ve been working on, frantically tying up a million loose ends, packing 250 pounds of luggage (literally), the last minute running around, saying goodbye to everyone… wrapping up in one life to head off to the next. But my short term memory gets the best of me. When I’m in the thick of that frenzy, feeling like I’ll never get everything done, the heckler in the back of my head taunts me: “How could anything possibly be worth so much effort???” I arrive to the airport exhausted and it’s only just the beginning of the journey – I’ve still got to make it through two flights and a four hour drive. It seems absolutely colossal sometimes, and there are days I feel it in my bones way more than I’d like to admit.
But when the plane lands and I emerge through customs, my amazing friend Juan Diego is always waiting there to meet me, there to generously and gallantly take charge of the driving and the carrying of heavy things.
My load is immediately lighter. As we wind our way up the mountain roads I feel myself start to settle in, becoming familiar with my surroundings once again. I am always mesmerized by the beauty of the countryside, the lush green patchwork of crops. We ride eye-level with blankets of clouds. A string of volcanoes keep time with the highway.
This peaceful, pastoral charm is, of course, accompanied by jarring reminders of the poverty that engulfs Guatemala. The women in their trajes (traditional dress) marching single file up the side of the highway, gaze down as they steady the impossibly heavy loads of firewood strapped to their foreheads, their young children following behind carrying smaller bundles or whatever they can manage in their arm… Kids you know should be in school tending to cows or sheep by the side of the road, mindlessly watching the traffic speed by… Women doing their washing in community basins because they have no access to water in their homes, clothes simply spread out on the ground to dry… People of all ages crammed in the beds of pick up trucks, swallowing dust and breathing fumes from passing traffic… Tiny children precariously sandwiched between their parents on motorbikes…
And whatever distance there might have been between where I have been and where I am going starts to melt away. It doesn’t take much to return, to become fully present again, to remember what life is like here in Guatemala and in so many other places like it around the world. Any resistance that might have been conjured by my tired bones has now morphed into gratitude. It is an indescribable gift to live so close to these edges, confronted by the reality of extreme poverty on a daily basis. This reality encourages my daily awareness of all the great and ordinary blessings that I once took for granted (running water, food to eat, an education); a reality that inspires my life’s work ~ that these same blessings might one day also become ordinary for the poor of Guatemala. Suddenly the hundreds of pounds of luggage I have carried here no longer seem like a burden because the weight is made up of clothes and books and backpacks, and I can already feel the happiness the items will bring the recipients. Even the exhaustion feels fleeting as I witness the loads that others are carrying on a daily basis. Just a day ago life seemed so challenging, and now I wonder how it is that my life is so easy by comparison. I feel my breath start to slow, deepen. Grace floods in.
We finally round the last curve and arrive in the valley. Suddenly there are tails wagging, kids hugging, señoras tearing up, shrieks and laughter and a long line of people excited to greet me at Education and Hope. Rosenda hugs me so tightly I can feel her heart beating. My 22 year-old motherless daughter, a mother twice herself, clings to me fiercely and doesn’t let go. A palpable mixture of joy and relief seeps through her skin into mine. In that moment something within her releases; she remembers that she isn’t alone and she allows herself to be held. Almost breathless, she starts rambling: “All week I’ve been watching the door… watching and waiting… anxious for you to arrive… it felt like forever! I missed you so much! Sooooo much! I’m so, so, so happy you are here now! Te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho!”
Doña Carmencita, sitting at her post in the comedor, gasps when she sees me and then smiles brightly. She laughs out loud, shakes her finger admonishingly, then shouts: “It’s you!!! You’re back! What a wonderful surprise! This time I’m going to have to tie your knees together so you won’t be able to escape again. We need you here with us!” We all sit down at snack time and at any given time there are several children hovering over me, hands resting on my back, arms wrapped around my waist. I feel like the base in a game of tag: you’re safe as long as you’re making contact. That night when I get back to the cabin my dogs Kita and Kaya are just as elated as everyone else. Whole bodies writhing in a happy dance, their tails don’t stop wagging the rest of the night. The love fest continues. Heaven.
So much love, so much joy. It’s not always easy, but it’s always full, brimming over. I can’t imagine any other life.