Monday, June 6, 2011


I feel as though the dam has broken on my enthusiasm. What I thought had drained away in a drought, I had actually carefully walled away in a big cistern. When I saw no natural spring in my Sololá community, I bottled up my own motivation and eagerness in anticipation of rationing it out to bolster my resilience for the next year and a half. I did so out of fear and in response to a situation that seemed impervious to all my attempts to plant seeds of relationships, knowledge, development, and community.

I feel reborn. I feel refreshed. I feel renewed.

My first two days in site were spent with Wendy (as my site mate is known in our community), learning the ropes of local transit, checking out my housing options, and being introduced to a few key friendly faces. The next two days I was flying solo, as Wendy had to travel to Guatemala City to pick up a friend from the U.S. I arranged my things in my temporary quaters, I went with my counterpart Andres to his house to meet his family and admire his crops, and I successfully navigated getting to Coban and back for my first Q’eqchi’ class.

Tuesday, my fifth day, was shaping up to leave me at loose ends. Irma is Wendy’s counterpart, an impressive translator, and currently in the running for Guatemalan I most want to be like when I grow up. On Monday evening, she was looking at my calendar for June and asked where I would be for the last day of May. I had no answer. She mentioned she wouldn’t be coming in to the office (where I am living) because she and the other members of the cooperative would be out at a project packing bolsas (bags) to plant coffee. I asked to tag along, and she immediately arranged for Filomena me to walk out to the community where the work would happen. Filomena was among the first people I had met upon arrival, was the first to greet me in Spanish, and her calm broad smile made me categorize her immediately as a good egg. I felt I was in good hands.

After breakfast with my future host family (starting in July, after the construction project to give me a room gets completed), I was walking toward Filomena’s house and she met me on the path as she came in search of me. We chatted comfortably in Spanish for about half an hour on the walk out to the other community, as my eyes darted between admiring the scenery, dodging hitting my head on cardamom and coffee branches, and trying not to trip on the uneven path.

Immediately on reaching our destination, I was drawn into Irma’s house and given a place to leave my things. Next thing I knew I was sitting on a small flattish rock shoulder to shoulder with a group of women crouched around a pile of sifted dirt as we stuffed small black plastic bags to be used as containers for coffee plant seedlings. Around us there were boys, perhaps 10 year-olds, shuttling the filled bags from the circles of women to young men working on a shallow trench to hold the bags upright in lines running across the hillside. The older men worked further up the hill to transplant seedlings into the bags and water the ones already transplanted. The older boys were kept busy shoveling dirt onto a wooden frame with screen on it to sift the soil, which two other boys would shake back and forth while chatting idly.

The whole process threw my thoughts back to the fall semester in 2005 that I spent in Oaxaca, Mexico. Some of my favorite memories from the whole experience surrounded very similar bags, which we were using for a reforestation project. The language was different, the purpose was different, but my experience of it was the same in all the important ways.

We worked together companionably, smiling and laughing over the repetitive and mindless work. Few of them speak any Spanish (and fewer speak it well) and I know only a few words in Q’eqchi’. Still, I felt included. When we took a mid-morning break, Filomena made sure to bring me a mug of fresca (a sweet fruit drink… in this case probably mixed from a powder) and also passed along a banana that another woman wanted to give me. One girl kept an eye out for me any time we broke the circle to move to a new pile of freshly sifted soil. If I hesitated even a moment she’d catch my eye, smile, and pat my designated rock in an invitation to join back in. After lunch the women who had shared my circle stopped by Irma’s kitchen door to collect me as we walked back to the workspace.

I heard my name mentioned several times in any given five minute period, as people tried to remember how to pronounce it, and commented on my bag filling skills. Often my name was followed by peals of laughter, and I just chose to take it as inclusion without needing to know what the joke was. At some point I’m pretty sure two women were commenting on my lack of love handles (after one tried to grab for them), and when Irma and I took a turn at the sifting station there was laughter about how we looked shaking the wooden frame about. When it threatened to rain, they were concerned for me (I had forgotten my rain coat, but then, none of them had any rain protection either) and suggested I go take shelter. When I refused, we all giggled as we scrambled to fill as many final bags as we could before the rain really set in and the dirt turned to mud.

We waited out the rain, sipping on more drinks, and they thoughtfully provided me with more fresca, knowing I don’t drink coffee. When there seemed to be a break in the weather, the crowd dispersed and eventually Filomena and I took our leave of Irma to make our way back. Halfway there the rain started up again, harder than before. I made it home wet through to the skin, my back sore from hunching over a dirt pile all day and with streaks of dirt and mud all over me. But I was perfectly content.

It was not a day in which I taught anyone anything important. It was not a needs assessment or a community action survey. It was just a group of people coming together to get something done, working with each other, talking with each other, laughing with each other. I learned some new friendly faces, and many of them learned my name. Perhaps this seems a small victory, hardly worth commenting upon. But I have spent months feeling acutely how lonely it can be to be in a crowd, how it is possible to work in the same space as someone yet not work with one another, how two can eat at the same table but not be sharing a meal. I have travelled the same space without travelling with those around me.

The months ahead will have challenges. I will search for purpose; I will be confused by the language; I will be short of patience with myself and those around me. There will be days that I am exhausted by being watched by all and wish for the anonymity of living in a city or at least being an unremarkable community member. For now, all I want to do is to unleash my flow of enthusiasm to meet the hospitality I have been offered. They are small gestures, yes, but I am deeply grateful for each and every one.

I feel welcomed. I feel wanted. At last, I feel I am with.