“Bloom Where You’re Planted”: Summer in DC!!

The other day I was thinking about the fact that this time last year I was making my final preparations to go to Tanzania. I can’t believe it has been a year already!

So you’re probably wondering what adventure I’m planning for this summer because obviously I can’t stay at home for an entire summer – my missionary spirit just simply won’t allow it. This past year I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about where God needs me to be right now. In the past year I’ve also had two people whom I admire tell me to “bloom where I’m planted”.

When I first returned from Tanzania I missed it so much that sometimes I didn’t want to think or talk about it. I felt like that was where I was supposed to be and couldn’t understand what God could possibly want me to do here in the States. It took me a while but I’ve finally begun taking that advice to heart and have realized that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

So this summer I will not be headed to any exotic foreign places. Rather, I will be spending my time in the heart of our nation, Washington D.C. Although its not Africa, I am extremely excited for this opportunity and all that I will learn there.

About two years ago I began looking into a program called The Washington Center, which combines an internship and academics into one incredible and life changing experience. Finally, I decided that this summer was the right time to participate in it. If I can’t live in a foreign country, my dream has always been to work in Washington D.C., where I can make a real difference in the lives of the poor nationally and internationally through organizations like the United Nations or USAID (United States Agency for International Development). This program will give me the chance to get my foot in the door.

The best part of this opportunity is where I’ll be interning…the Peace Corps! I was already planning on applying to join the Peace Corps after graduation and when they contacted me about an interview for an internship I nearly fell out of my chair. This could not have worked out more perfectly. Oddly enough, I will not be doing social work tasks, but rather research and writing. Many of you know that I’ve been struggling to figure out how my passion for writing fits into what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Anyway, I’ll be working with a program the Peace Corps runs called World Wise Schools. I had never heard of it before but its a neat program which provides an important service. Basically, they gather and organize information about other countries for teachers to use when teaching their students about countries around the world. As our world becomes more connected, it is more important than ever to be culturally competent and this program helps make students more aware of the world around them. Teachers can also request to have their class correspond with a current Peace Corps volunteer and their students can write letters to the volunteer with questions about their country. Returned volunteers also visit classes to talk about their experiences. The World Wise Schools not only creates cultural awareness but also promotes volunteerism. Since these are two things I am passionate about, I think it will be the perfect fit for me!

Going along with the writing theme, I’ll be taking a research and writing class, in which I’ll be concentrating on a research project of my choice throughout the summer. It’ll be a great chance to delve into something I’m passionate about.

As part of this program I also have to participate in a leadership forum, which is a kind of seminar that ensures the students make the most of their internships. We’ll work on career preparation, have speakers and other academic activities to supplement our internships.

So besides the incredible program itself just the fact that I’ll be in DC is amazing. There’s so much history and culture contained in one city, I know that there will be something new to discover every day. I’ve already started looking up lists like free things to do in DC and must see sights. I can’t wait to geek out at the Library of Congress and explore the Smithsonian.

From reading the blogs of current participants (found here) I know that this will be an incredible experience. I also now know that DC is really expensive so my skills for living frugally will really be tested… Like most academic programs this costs a considerable chunk of change so I’ll already be low on cash. However, I know that it will be more than worth it and the experience I will gain will pay off in the   future.

I’m looking forward to meeting new people, especially those from other countries, (apparently there’s a lot of foreign students) and living on my own for a few months. This summer will definitely be a taste of the real world and I expect it to be oh so sweet.

January 5th – “Making the road smoother”

On our last day in San Lucas we literally helped “make the road smoother”, as Fr. Greg pointed out was our job on the first day.  We also learned some patience and that there is little sense of a schedule or hurrying in Guatemala.

Originally we were scheduled to work at the women’s center again but were met with confusion upon arriving there.  Apparently we had been sent to the wrong place.  Laughing off the miscommunication, we waited patiently to hear where we would really be working.  Eventually we were taken to the road that is being built up to the coffee fields to make access to them easier.  Our task was to move rocks to create a foundation for the road, then cement would be poured over those.  We created an assembly line and got to work.  By the end of the day, we had barely made a dent in the work but I know it made a difference nonetheless.

Our last night in San Lucas was a bittersweet one.  We would miss the homemade tortillas and special green sauce that was served with every meal.  We were dreading leaving the wonderful coffee and laid back atmosphere.  Having already experienced leaving Africa, I knew the depression that would come with going home and braced myself for the feeling of loss.  We took one last walk around town and held on dearly to all we had learned.

I think the hardest part of coming home is implementing everything you have learned and spreading that knowledge to every one at home.  I’ve tried to hold onto the sense of peace and enjoying every day that I experienced in Guatemala. This experience reinforced and renewed many things that I learned in Africa, which I needed reminding of desperately.

Gracias a Dios (Thank God)

January 4th – Picking Coffee!!

I’m going to start putting dates on my posts so you have context as to when each thing happened.

Picking coffee...yes those are my hands

Today we finally did what we had all been anxiously waiting for – picked coffee!  Coffee is the heart and soul of Guatemala and we were excited to get into the nitty gritty of that heart and soul.  We all became addicted to the stuff within 24 hours of being in San Lucas.  It was time to see where liquid sleep comes from.  This might surprise you but coffee does not start out looking like the beans we buy.  They look like cranberries to begin with and then are roasted and go through a complicated process before they get to the store shelf.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that coffee trees often grow on the side of a mountain, so picking it can be quite precarious.  People risk their lives everyday so you can have that delicious cup of joe that gets you through the day.  We balanced on rocks and against the trees and experienced the life of a coffee picker for a short three hours.  I have such an appreciation for coffee now!  We were exhausted after just three hours – I can’t imagine doing that for hours every day.

Between 12 of us we picked 75 pounds of coffee that morning.  Bringing the experience full circle, after lunch we worked in the garden where the coffee trees start out as baby plants.  We were weeding and for some reason this is where I started losing my sense of purpose.  I started getting really anxious about what God wanted me to do in Guatemala and why he had brought me there.  I think this is a sign of my lack of trust.  God has the bigger picture under control and to me the pieces might not fit together, but for Him they do.

Back in San Lucas…

Back in San Lucas, we finally got to get our hands dirty with some concrete service.  A wall was being built by the women’s center, so they put us to work helping with that.  We created columns to support the wall and all worked on different parts of that.  It was cool that we all created a part of something bigger.  That reminded me of the fact that we all have a role to play as part of the group and in the world in general.  As part of our reflection we’ve been talking about how we’re all connected as one human family.  We are all an essential part of this family and God needs each and every one of us to bring about his kingdom here on earth.  This is an idea I understand intellectually but haven’t quite accepted in my heart.  I’ve been struggling to figure out my role recently and where God is calling me.  For example, building those columns felt meaningless until you thought about the fact that it freed up the more skilled workers to do something more important and helped get that wall built a little faster and the women’s center opened sooner.  It’s all about perspective.

That afternoon we shifted gears and learned a little more about Guatemala’s people and it’s history.  A woman named Shona who helps run the parish programs talked to us about her experiences in San Lucas.  She has been living in San Lucas since before Fr. Greg came so she has experienced the incredible difference he has made first hand.  She talked about how poor and oppressed the people were before he came, especially the women.

The most heartwrenching thing she talked about was a period of violence in 1981.  There was a ton of guerrilla warfare in response to the severe oppression the people were experiencing.  The Mayan people were coerced into helping the guerilla fighters who offered them land, houses and money.  Once the government found this out they targeted the Mayan people as a whole and began killing anyone who was even remotely suspected of helping the guerrilla fighters.  The families of these targeted people were often killed also.  Shona’s husband was caught helping the guerrilla, was captured and presumably killed.  She never knew for sure what happened to him and has to live with that horror every day.  She must have told her story a hundred times but still teared up when talking about her husband.

After her husband was taken, Shona and her children became a target also.  Despite this danger, she helped countless mayans during this time.  She told one story about traveling to rescue 11 orphans who were hiding in a church a few hours from San Lucas.  They had to pass through three military checkpoints on the way back and convince the soldiers that all these children belonged to Shona.  She literally risked life and limb for these children she didn’t even know.  The thing about her story that amazed me the most was her complete trust in God throughout everything she went through.  She kept saying, “Gracias a Dios” – Thank God.  It would have been so easy to blame God for all of the terrible events of that year, but instead she leaned on him for hope and strength.  I long for the courage to trust that completely.

New Year’s Weekend in Chichicastenango

The City of Chichi

We traveled to a city called Chichicastenango (Chichi for short) to celebrate New Year’s Eve and do some service at a school there.  It sits 6,000 feet up a mountain and we spent a good two hours navigating precarious turns and cliffside roads.  Sometimes the road was so vertical that I was terrified we were going to start sliding backwards.  On the upside, the height offered a breathtaking view of Lake Atitlan and its surroundings.  We stopped a couple of times to take it in and marvel at the beauty of creation.  Finally we reached the town outside of the city were we were staying for the weekend.

We stayed at a school called Centro Educativo Anunciata, in the girl’s dormitory.  Upon arriving, we were given a tour of the school and grounds.  The students range from pre0schoolers to the equivalent of ninth graders.  There are about 600 students total, include the 200 girls who board.  The school is specifically for marginalized indigenous children and the sisters who run it will actually turn away students who do not fit this criteria.  All the students pay whatever they can based on their family’s income.  Some of the students do extra chores or work at the school to pay for their tuition.

The most powerful part of the tour was seeing the chapel.  There were a bunch of beautiful murals painted by the

Chapel Murals Painted by the Students

students.  The main one, by the altar, depicted people from many different villages connected through the Eucharist and was a very powerful image.  The others showed the events between the Assumption and the Crucifixion.  While we were in the chapel, our chaperon began telling us about the most recent period of civil war in Guatemala. Religious men and women were being martyred left and right during this time.  They eventually had to close the school and it was occupied by the army.  The building that is now the chapel was used as a torture chamber.  As soon as I heard this, my stomach turned over and I was horrified just thinking about what had happened there.  But then I realized that something beautiful had been made out of this tragedy and that it is somehow appropriate for a church to be built on the blood of martyrs, sacrificed in imitation of Jesus.

My mind and heart full of what I had experienced, next we we took a walk into town, which slowly turned into a hike up the rest of the mountain.  As if we weren’t high enough already, we proceeded to climb to the highest point in Chichi called Pascal Abaj.  There is a Mayan altar there and we happened to come down upon a Mayan Priest performing a ritual.  The ritual was in thanksgiving for the old year and to welcome the new one.  I felt awkward, like I was invading his privacy, but it was interesting to see.  We were all standing reverently, when suddenly the priest’s cellphone rang.  We were all shocked and tried our hardest not to laugh.  To our surprise, he answered it! This broke the magical atmosphere and showed how much modern technology has invaded our world.  It was a perfect, ironic picture of the meeting of traditions and the modern world.

Our first night in Chichi was New Year’s Eve and the Guatemalans definitely know how to celebrate.  We had a traditional meal of tomales and a really thick, delicious hot chocolate.  After this we went to Mass, which I was happy to be able to experience.  We were literally the only white people in the church and a lot of people stared and pointed at us.  Since Spanish is not the first language of the indigenous people, sometimes the priest would randomly switch to Quiche, the indigenous language, during Mass, which made it all the more confusing.

After mass, the sisters at the school, treated us to some fruit and dessert.  We had another traditional New Year’s food – a hot punch with fruit such as pineapple, apple, coconut and raisins.  It was good, but definitely took some getting used to.  We sat around playing games and talking to the sisters as we waited for midnight to arrive.

As the hour approached, we crowded onto a small balcony to watch the fireworks that were already starting.  Of course, there are no laws regulating the use of fireworks so everyone sets off their own, which I’m sure is perfectly safe.  In Guatemala, it is a tradition to eat twelve grapes at midnight, which I think has to do with the twelve months of the year.  So at midnight, we all embraced, celebrated and ate our grapes, as fireworks went off from every which direction.

I need to add a note here that the fireworks lasted for at least the next two days – apparently celebrations are dragged out as long as possible in Guatemala and everyone looks for the littlest excuse to party.

The next day we woke up to a new year and finally got our hands dirty doing service.  Our task in Chichi was to paint the school’s two basketball courts which were becoming faded.  It seems like something small, but I’m sure the students spend a lot of time of the courts and will definitely be grateful that we freshened them up.

While we were painting the first court a family came and played soccer in the field next to us.  It was yet another example of how people here celebrate life and just enjoy every day.  They came over to talk to us and offered us a fruit called Nispera which came from their own backyard.  Later we found out that they had brought the fruit for themselves but gave it all to us, because they knew they could always get more.  The generosity of the poor is just so beautiful!  They are generally willing to share what little they have, especially if you are a guest.  Their attitude is completely countercultural in this world of greed, yet they are happier than most of us.  I just think we have so much to learn from the poor, about humanity and what’s really important in life.

We also tried another new fruit called Anona.  It tasted like Rastifari, which I had in Tanzania.  Trying new foods, especially fruit, is one of my favorite parts of traveling.

That night we went out on the town and visited El Hotel Santo Tomas where a group of marimba players were performing.  The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala and very popular – the performance was excellent.  The hotel itself was something to see and like its own mini museum.  The original owners collected statues, paintings and artifacts from 13th and 14th century churches.  All of these items covered the walls of the hotel and were incredible to look at.  There was also an outdoor courtyard in the middle of the hotel which contained a garden overflowing with beautiful foliage.  We sat down amidst this beauty to share some chips and guacamole then headed back to the school for bed.

Our last day in Chichi was a Sunday, so we headed to Church in the morning.  We had been warned that some people might be performing Mayan rituals during Mass and they did indeed.  It was slightly distracting but they were very subtle about it.  There were slabs of stone in the aisle and about half way through mass an old lady went to kneel by them and start the ritual.  I’m still not sure how I feel about this being done during mass but I think it is good that they are able to combine Mayan traditions with the Catholic faith.  It says a lot about starting where people are at and not forcing a people to abandon all of their traditions when they convert to Christianity.

The town of Chichi becomes one huge market every Sunday so as soon as Mass was over we got lost in the crowds for a couple of hours.  As in Tanzania, this kind of environment overwhelms me and is not really my favorite thing.  Everyone is begging to make a living and its hard not to feel bad for all of them.  The children begging you to buy their wares was especially heartbreaking, especially the disabled ones.  I bought a few things and then headed back to pack up for the drive back to San Lucas.

Looking back, I think the weekend in Chichicastenango was my favorite part of the trip.  I felt at one with the people – especially during mass and rubbing elbows with them in the market.