Goodbye, Guatemala!

We arrived back home in Baltimore late Thursday night, and yes, the cold weather was a shock to our systems after two weeks of shorts and flip flops in Guatemala! But it was really nice to be home.

The trip was wonderful. We all learned a lot, and we learned it profoundly. Being in Guatemala gave us all a chance to apply what we’ve learned about Latin American history and politics and the Spanish language in real time. For instance, we read about La Violencia and how horrific it was. But then we heard first-hand the story of an indigenous woman who lost her husband but managed to save eleven orphans. We met with a human rights organization whose goal is to find people who were taken away from their families. We also talked to a person who supported the military during that time, a position that had been hard for us to fathom. Now our understanding of this terrible period in Guatemalan history is so much richer than it would have been.

As one of the girls put it, “The people leave a mark on you.” It’s true — they were warm and welcoming, and their stories and struggles seared our hearts. Life is hard in Guatemala. We spent time with college-age girls who sanded down wooden spoons for a living. We talked to domestic workers, young women who despite being abused by their bosses and paid very little were pursuing education and learning to exercise their rights as workers. These meetings reminded us how privileged we are to have the opportunity to get an education and have a fighting chance to achieve our dreams.

We also heard inspirational words from Father Giron, a former guerrilla fighter who is now a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. On a hot and humid afternoon, we sat with him on the side porch of his house and took in his impassioned advice. “Change the world not by law but by example,” he said. “Think independently. That is the true revolution.” I know that for at least one of the girls, his words were life-changing. 

Despite the seriousness of many of our activities, we had a joyful two weeks. The girls laughed and joked constantly and sang songs together on the van and while we worked in San Lucas. They were perfect examples of Notre Dame women: Young women who respect intelligence, honesty, and talent in themselves and others. It was my pleasure to spend time with them, and with Leonor and Dr. Anne Henderson, who wowed us all with their vast knowledge of and passion for political science and history and their appetite for international travel.

Thanks so much for reading! I’ll try to post a few more photos here in the next week or so — there’s so much more I didn’t have time to cover.

Until next time — adios, que les vaya bien.

Last night in Guatemala

We spent our last day in Guatemala City. We visited with Grupo de Apoyo Mutual, which works to find victims of La Violencia and bring their killers to justice, among other things, and Catholic Relief Services, which provides Guatemalans with a variety of services, from agriculture diversification to microfinance. Then we visited a CRS project that provides housing, support, and training to women who are domestic workers. Finally, we had a lovely dinner with Sr. Linda Wanner at the Pan American Hotel.

Tomorrow morning we leave the lovely Antigua and set off for home! No one’s looking forward to the cold weather in Baltimore, and I know the girls are sad to leave this amazing place. But, as they say, there’s no place like home.

Now, with comments!

Last night I realized there was no way for anyone to comment on the blog - sorry about that! I’ve fixed it now. Just click on “0 comments” to leave a comment.

Some of the girls played soccer with the kids at an HIV orphanage we visited this afternoon. The kids were shy at first, but we charmed them with Starburst candy and our futbol skills, and by the end of our stay we had a bunch of new buddies.

Some of the girls played soccer with the kids at an HIV orphanage we visited this afternoon. The kids were shy at first, but we charmed them with Starburst candy and our futbol skills, and by the end of our stay we had a bunch of new buddies.

The best kind of lecture: outdoors, in a beautiful garden, surrounded by the ruins of a convent in Antigua

The best kind of lecture: outdoors, in a beautiful garden, surrounded by the ruins of a convent in Antigua

Back in Antigua

We’ve arrived in Antigua again, and we’re definitely happy to be back in this beautiful place. Our last few days in San Lucas gave us a lot to think about, and there were some very emotional moments.

We visited a colonia that Father Greg had built called San Andres, which provided homes and land to people whose livelihoods were destroyed by Hurricane Stan in 2005. We talked with Andres, an indigenous man with strong opinions about how the indigenous people of Guatemala have been systematically disenfranchised by the government. 

Later that day, we heard an indigenous woman named Chona speak about La Violencia, the Guatemalan civil war that spanned 1960 to 1996, when the peace accords were signed. She shared her own experiences of that terrible time in Guatemala. She lost her husband to the violence but ended up helping widows and other people in her community. She even rescued orphaned children, whose parents had been killed, and took them to San Lucas to live in Casa Feliz, an orphanage. 

Chona and several other people who live in San Lucas spoke very highly of Father Greg and were moved to tears when recounting his generosity and spirit. We also heard the sad story of Father Stan Rother, a beloved priest who was stationed at the nearby Santiago Atitlan and was assassinated in 1983.

Amid all of this sadness, we’ve had a lot of fun and done some good work. We picked coffee and were very proud to have picked nearly 100 pounds of coffee in one morning — not too bad for first-timers! We also went shopping at market towns Panajachel and Chichicastenango, where we witnessed a religious ceremony atop Chicken Hill that blended Catholic and indigenous beliefs. And, one afternoon, Leonor took us to get some delicious ice cream as a treat.

Next up are visits to Catholic Relief Services and an orphanage, as well as a meeting with Sister Linda Wanner SSND, who worked at San Lucas Toliman in the 1980s. For now, we’re ending the day full and happy after a delicious dinner at an Italian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel.

Our boat trip to Panajachel was fun! Some of us got splashed by the waves, but it was worth it. And the scenery was beautiful.

Here we are at the end of our morning picking coffee! We were definitely not as fast as the experienced coffee pickers, but we were pretty proud of our haul.

Here we are at the end of our morning picking coffee! We were definitely not as fast as the experienced coffee pickers, but we were pretty proud of our haul.

Colonia San Andres, and the crowd of adorable children who followed us around

An update from San Lucas Toliman

I’ve been posting photos from last week, to catch everyone up on where we’ve been. Here is an update on where we are now — I’ll be able to post photos of San Lucas once we return to Antigua early next week, as our hotel there has wireless.

Since Monday we’ve been in San Lucas Toliman, a town in the mountains on the beautiful (but very polluted, we hear) Lake Atitlan. We’re a few hours outside of Guatemala City. Father Greg Schaffer came here in the 1960s from a diocese in Minnesota and made a huge difference in the lives of the people here before his death last year. Here is an excerpt from his obituary on the Catholic Relief Services website that nicely sums up his life’s work:

During nearly a half-century of committed ministry, Fr. Greg accompanied the mostly indigenous community of San Lucas Tolimán through a painful civil war, countless natural disasters and the persistent violence that characterizes present-day Guatemala.  He also devoted himself with loving generosity to building community in the broadest sense: among the Kaqchiquel and Spanish-speaking people of San Lucas, between his community in Guatemala and his community in Minnesota, and between the people he loved and served in Guatemala and the countless people whose spirit of solidarity led them into to the welcoming embrace of the San Lucas Mission.  He was an extraordinary pastoral agent who ministered to his people’s sacramental needs without ever losing sight of their acute material ones.  His legacy includes more than 50 ongoing projects in and around San Lucas, including the Juan Ana Coffee Project.

Unfortunately, since Father Greg’s death, there is no strong leadership here, so there are a lot of discussions happening about how to keep the worthy work of the parish going. I’m very sorry that we missed the opportunity to meet him, as I hear he was a very inspirational person. 

Father Greg’s guiding philosophy was to walk with the people, not try to lead them or show them how we think things should be done. All the groups that come to serve at the parish try to emulate that, by being humble in our approach to our volunteer work and being friendly and open with the indigenous people we meet.

Our volunteer work has taken place at the parish’s projects around town. It’s included picking and sorting coffee, helping fill bags with dirt (so seeds can be planted in them) and sanding down spoons that are sold to visitors at the reforestation project, and weeding at the vegetable garden. Each night, we gather at the house where Leonor always stays for a lecture, discussion, and reflection. Our days are very full — we hardly have a moment free!

We eat at the parish three times a day. The kitchen ladies make big pots of food — scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, black beans, beef stew, potatoes, oatmeal — and we all pitch in to serve the food and then wash everything up afterward.

Because there are bacteria in the water we have to be careful to eat only off dishware that has dried (the bacteria apparently don´t survive without water). We also don’t drink the water or even brush our teeth with it, just to be on the safe side. Luckily, so far no one has gotten sick, although we have had a few upset stomachs, since the food is so different. We noticed this morning, for instance, that we’ve eaten hardly any vegetables since we arrived!

Everyone seems to be learning a lot and thinking quite a bit about the differences between our lives and the lives of those who live here in San Lucas. We have spent time with some indigenous people and learned a bit about their lives, and we’ve also visited a couple of houses that have showed us in stark detail how desperately poor some of the people are. We are only here for two short weeks, but I think this trip will continue to make an impact on the rest of the students’ education and their lives.