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Coming Home

22 Aug

I think this is going to be my last entry.  I’ve been back in the States for over a month, but between visiting Ana and other folks in Portland, Seattle, and New York and hosting my Guadalajaran friend Oscar here for two weeks, this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to to think back over the last 10 months in Mexico and Guatemala.  Now that I’m alone, it’s really tempting to try to sum everything up, to take stock.  I want to try to figure out what it all meant, how I’ve changed, what I’ve accomplished.  Plus, I’m gonna need a pat answer when someone asks me, “So, how was your trip?”  And I think I want that answer for myself, too.

But I don’t think things work that way.  We don’t experience new things — different as they may be from our past experiences or our routines — in discrete, digestible chunks, ready to be processed and turned into a list of triumphs.  Life is less linear, less intentional than that, even in hindsight.   Now that I’ve finally got the time and space to think about the last 10 months, I still have a hard time holding the whole thing in my head.  It’s the classic participant-observer paradox: you have no fixed point from which to view an experience that changes you profoundly, because you’re moving too.  It’s like hopping on a bullet train in a place you’ve never been to  in your life, catching wind with your huge grin as you lean out the window and love the ride, and then trying to sit down afterwords and draw a map of the strange country you’ve crossed.  There’s no way your map does justice to the actual ride.  It’s more like a cliff-notes guide that, if you’re not careful, eventually takes the place of the original novel in your mind.

Maybe it’s best to just think of this trip as a series of moments.  Insane moments —  “what am I doing here, on top of this very tall Aztec pyramid in the middle of a lightning storm” moments.  Self-congratulatory, “here I am with these two Dutch tourists in the middle of the jaguar and snake-filled Guatemalan jungle, bribing these machine-gun-toting security guards to get into the country’s most treasured archeological site at 4am to watch the sun rise from that temple that’s in the first Star Wars!” moments.  Moments of self-doubt.  Scared moments.  And, of course, bored moments (which never make it into the stories I tell my friends, though they’re no less a part of the experience than that crap-my-pants ”is that guy following me?” moment on a dark street in Xela at 4:00am, or the “that’s the most beautiful sunset of my life!” moments on the roof of old apartment building in Guadalajara).

I guess that’s what this blog, and the personal journal I’ve been keeping along side it, are for; a place to go to relive the disparate, discombobulated, juicy collection of moments that, when squashed together, made up the last ten months of my life.  My gambit is that that collection, well-preserved, will last a lifetime.  I owe it to myself to hang on to them because, ultimately, they’re worth far more than any Cliff Notes version I could come up with.   So how was my trip?  It’s complicated…


Volunteering at Loma Linda

5 Jul
I just made it back home to VT, after a long day of travelling from Mexico to Portland, a few job interviews in the Pacific Northwest, 10 fantastic days in Seattle with Ana, 5 days in New York with Tom (a friend from Vassar) and Oscar (a friend from Guadalajara), and a long, green train ride through Connecticut and Massachussets.  Phew!  I´m starting a new chapter now, trying to focus on being here mentally and soaking up all that´s great about being home — the food, the outdoors, and most of all being around people who´ve known me my whole life.  It´s comforting, and I hope that feeling doesn´t turn into claustraphobia, and the itching of the ever-present travel bug, too soon!  This will be my last entry (from this trip, at least); thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts and comments over the last 10 months.  And, most of all, keep in touch!
I just got back from a hike through the Guatemalan selva at dusk.  Me and Moses, my trusty guide, hacked our way through a disused trail (in all honesty Moses did all of the hacking), past a city of various colored and sized plants and vines, to make it to the local watefall before night fell.  Wet, misty, muddy, rain-foresty…we finally climbed back on to the established trail as the crickets (I think) started whining and the sky went from dark periwinkle to satiny purple.
I´ve been here in Loma Linda, a tiny town of 1,200 3 hours and two buses from Xela, since Monday afternoon.  Tropical storm Alex has been dumping rain since I got here, and today was the first break in the action, long enough for us to venture out for a quick hike and make it back in time for dinner.  I´m staying in a little hotelito the town´s newly organized tourism/development organization built last year, and taking all my meals at Rosalia´s house, with her four brothers, parents, and multiple (maybe 6?) kids.  Wonderful mayhem!  Beans at every meal, eggs with two out of every three, but the super-sweet, steaming coffee and the fantastic company more than make up for the lack of culinary variety.  I got to watch Rosalia´s two-year old daughter catapult herself across the room and back into the arms of a slightly older daughter on a swing they improvised and hung from one of the ceiling beams today. Also, Rosalia´s  incredibly sweet, very puckered mother still giggles when someone brings up the fact that I put too much chile on my veggies at lunch two days ago, and went quiet and sour-faced for ten minutes until the pain subsided.
I came here to get a glimpse into rural life in Guatemala, to see how the other half lives here, away from the smoke-burping buses, cobbled streets, and coffee shops of Xela, where I´d been taking Spanish classes for the previous two weeks.  Since I got off the chicken bus at the bottom of Loma Linda´s long sloping street in the Monday afternoon rain, I´ve been so astounded, and humbled, by the incredible warmth and generosity of the people here.  Generosity isn´t even the right word…generosity is something you show towards a stranger.  Pascual and Rosa, the husband and wife leaders of the development committee, Rosalina, Moses, and everyone else I´ve spent more than 5 minutes talking to has treated me like a member of their family, invited me up for more super-sweet coffee or an afternoon snack, or to come by and watch a world cup match.
My first night here, Rosa and I talked for what seemed like hours after dinner, and she told me about all the other tourist/volunteers that have spent a few days, weeks, or even months here.  She remembers all their names, and funny stories about each of them, and talks about them like children who´ve left the house to go make their way in the world.  She told me that I should come down to their house to visit whenever I want, without knocking, and that I could ask them for absolutely anything I needed; that I was now a member of the family. I know this is going to sound weird in writing, but I almost broke down into tears in the face of her incredible warmth, and ended up giving her a good, long hug.
Something we miss traveling, maybe without realizing it, is being part of a family, of belonging somewhere,of having a place where people are happy to see you.  Or having somewhere you can go, and someone who willlook after you if you have a problem or just a bad day.  I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I have that here, and I just rolled in two days ago!  It fills some fundamental need that goes unmet on the road, fills a part of you that doesn´t get filled up after months of hanging out and meeting interesting new people from around the world or visiting ancient and beautiful places.  It´s something we often reject when we do have it, to get a little indepence from our folks, to live in a more exciting place or to go to that college that´s perfect for us, but so far away we only visit home during vacations.  It may be a cliché to say that Americans tend to not value their family as much as people from other cultures, but there really is something lost when we live our lives in the pursuit of careers, or adventures, rather than in enjoying and cultivating the warmth and sense of belonging that comes with staying home (most of my Mexican friends don´t understand why I wanted to go to college 5 hours from home, and much less why I´m planning to move to the West Coast this fall).  Sometimes, it takes going to the other end of the hemisphere to realize what you´re missing back in the States, and I think I´m going to live  my life differently back home because of it.
Note:  Loma Linda´s ecotourism program, run by Pascual, Rosa, Moses, and other community members, is an important source of revenue for the town.  Volunteers contribute in a variety of ways, from teaching English at the local school to helping renovate their small eco-tourist hostel and harvest coffee.  If you´re in or near Xela and want a unique experience off the tourist trail, please consider getting in touch with these great folks and scheduling a visit!
You can visit the new facebook page for more information and photos, e-mail (checked once a week) or call Pascual (from Guatemala) at 57.246.035 or 49.962.110 , or e-mail or call Eleazar, who lives in Xela and is happy to meet to share more information about Loma Linda and schedule a visit, at 40.010.101 or 43.452.253 (Eleazer speaks a bit of english, too).  Loma Linda is about 3.5 hours from Xela by chicken bus, and you can stay for a day or two, or a month or two!