¡Hasta luego, Guatemala!

I have been back and forth from Arizona to Guatemala for three years now. Each time I think I’m returning to the states for good, Guatemala always finds a way of pulling me back. It’s that feeling of home, of comfort, of joy, much like the one I felt arriving at Spanish camp each summer as a camper. I arrive at the LAX airport and begin hearing Spanish being spoken by the family sitting across from me, and I feel excitement. I pass customs and find Carlos, the sweet man who is always there to pick me up, and I feel safe. I drive through Guatemala City and down windy roads until we pull onto the cobblestone streets of Antigua, and I feel comfort. I open up the squeaky, old wooden door of La Casa de Paco and am greeted with a big hug and a smile from my host mother, and I’m home.

In January, I will drive cross country from Arizona to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and start a full time job with Language South as their year round Program Director. I am so eager and grateful to have the opportunity to live and work in Chattanooga, and continue to develop Language South. And, as my time in Guatemala comes to an end, I have been reflecting on my experiences here over the past 3 years. What will I miss most? What were the challenges of living and working in a foreign country? How have I grown?

What will I miss most?

I could come up with an endless list of what I will miss about Guatemala, and I won’t be the first person to say that Guatemala is pure magic. Its energy is magnetic, and its beauty is unforgettable. I will miss the colorful rows of houses, and the rustic doors that lead into mysterious, unique homes, each different from the next in size, design, and shape. I will miss the indigenous women walking around in their beautiful traditional huipiles, effortlessly carrying giant baskets over their heads as if they were full of feathers, not fruit. I will miss the picturesque views of volcanoes in the distance, with red lava dripping down their side at night. I will miss refried black beans and fresh tortillas, and sharing each meal at the table with family, chatting and laughing about Guatemala’s quirks, traditions, and culture. I will miss passing by crumbling ruins, and bartering for a lower price from the tuk-tuk driver or the woman in the market selling vegetables. I will miss my students greeting me cheerfully each morning with a big smile and a hug, hope and desire filling their eyes and their hearts. I will miss a curly-headed boy in 5th grade with a challenging homelife, who is brilliant, charming, and resilient. I will miss a sassy girl in 4th grade, who seeks out attention because she may not be getting enough of it at home.

What were the challenges of living and working in a foreign country?

Although it is easy to paint a picture of a perfect life living in a foreign country, and though most days are incredible and fascinating, there have been things that have challenged me, disappointed me, and frustrated me along the way.

Cultural Norms. It is challenging to live in a country where your customs and cultural norms are foreign to those around you. I have learned to adapt to day-to-day life in Guatemala; to never enter a room without greeting first, to always say goodbye and thank you before leaving the table after a meal, how to politely communicate a problem with a coworker. Communicating through different cultural norms than what I’m used to can be draining, and something that takes a long time to adjust to.

Language Barriers. Though I think I have strong Spanish skills for a non-native speaker, it was challenging to express myself in a second language every day while living in Guatemala. I was able to communicate in most, if not all, situations, but often felt that I couldn’t portray myself in Spanish as well as I can in English, meaning that I often felt people weren’t able to see my full personality or understand completely what I was trying to say. Saying something I often express in English might come off as more rude, or just doesn’t make sense altogether, in Spanish, and I had to adapt to how to adjust my language in order to communicate ideas.

Poverty. For part of my time in Guatemala I taught English for an NGO, and worked with students in extreme poverty. Along with working with a high-risk population, comes a lot of rewarding moments, as well as many moments of sadness, frustration, and anger. I felt well-equipped to support my students, and we developed strong relationships over the course of the year, even still it never got easier to hear about a new abuse case, or to run into my 4th graders shining shoes or selling gum around town after school. My students are living in difficult worlds, and the biggest challenge is knowing that, though teachers can have some influence, I will not be able to change their lives or their circumstances in one year, nor am I the correct person to do so. So as I return to the states, I will remember how my students are growing up in the world, and remind myself of the economic and social privileges I walk with, and so, remain humble to the challenges I face, as many people around the world have much, much less.

How have I grown?

To simply say Guatemala has impacted me is to understate the immensity of my experience and growth over the past 3 years. I am different than I was before I went, having undergone personal and professional growth incomparable to any other experience I’ve had.

Empathy. In Guatemala, I have come into contact with many different types of people with circumstances and privileges wildly different from my own. I have had the opportunity to learn from and get to know people with different interests, passions, and values, and have been able to find common ground anyway. I have learned from every new interaction, and found curiosity in getting to know new people and cultures. Living in a foreign country has given me the opportunity to really learn and see in depth a completely different worldview and lens from my own, and has created within me a huge interest to continue to learn about things I don’t understand in order to understand them and myself better.

Reflection. Through my experiences in Guatemala I have realized the importance of reflection. As a teacher of students in difficult circumstances, and as a foreigner in a country I was unfamiliar with, I had to take the time to reflect upon and process all that I was experiencing on a day-to-day basis. There is a lot to take in when moving to a new country, learning to listen to others and hear new perspectives, and later reflecting on those interactions helped me enjoy my time in Guatemala more. Through reflection I am able to better understand myself and be more purposeful through my interactions.

Passion. Living and working in Guatemala has also helped me understand and develop a stronger passion for learning, seeing the world, and educating. Being here has inspired a greater desire for being a learner than I had ever felt before. I now feel not only a desire, but a responsibility to learn, be informed, and remain involved in what is happening in the world. And through being a learner (#aprendicesyamantes), I find traveling and experiencing the world is a great window into knowledge and understanding other perspectives. As I continue to learn, I realize more and more my passion for education, and its importance to change, growth, and unity.

As I move forward in my journey to the next big adventure in Tennessee, I will take what I have learned and I will carry it with me in who I am and how I take on the world. Guatemala will always have been a big piece of who I have become and how I have grown, and I will walk with those experiences and moments of growth as I move into this next chapter.