´I signed up for this?´ I ask myself. I´m sitting in the comedor after dinner. Almost everyone has left expect for a a few kids sweeping the floor. I´m staring at my dirty sandals making a circle in the unmopped floor, and once again a little one is crying in my arms.
These last few weeks has seen a lot of changes. Volunteers keep leaving and new faces keep taking their places in the house, in the classrooms or at the farm. My constantly shifting group of friends consists of men and women from a dozen or so countries around the world, each with their own reasons and motivations for being here. Some come to take photos with brown kids on their shoulders, some to chase monkeys in trees or to work in the farm with their shirt off, still others to learn Spanish, and a select few with a realization that our priority is not what we can take away from our short time here, but what we can give to the young ones who life has handed so little from day one.
It had been another normal day here at the Casa. The howling monkeys awoke me in the morning, fighting over who had the right to perch on the highest branch. Another sunrise over the still river paired with the teenager’s repeating playlist of 50 Cent, Pitbull and Justin Beiber was nothing new. School ended a few weeks ago and we saw many of our kids leave for the summer; staying with relatives to work or enjoy the Holidays. They boys who stayed merged levels in the house, so I find myself not in charge of 10 little boys, but 20 or so ranging from the ages of 4 up to 18. More of my time consists of making sure the youngest don’t get stepped on or picked up. While I used to be able to simply pick up and place in time out anyone misbehaving, now I actually have to communicate, scold, and punish a group of teenagers who are simply way too cool to be here.
As I haven’t had kids on my own, I can’t speak to the level of young kids crying just for crying’s sake, but it happens more often than I would like here. Anything can set it off: a mean word from an older kid, a punishment for not doing their chores, or literally, spilled milk. But with my young boys, sadness compliments sadness and the weight of the world can come out if the right button is pushed, as was the case today.
As I hold my little six year old in my arms, my friend from Canada is talking with my young one’s older sister. “Why is my brother crying”? she asks. “Because he is sad” my friend says. The conversation turns to the volunteer telling the orphan that it is her last night and she is leaving on the boat tomorrow to go back to North America. “De una vez?” she says. “Yes, for good,” she responds. The young girl looks at me and looks away and you can see the look of disappointment and sorrow build as she tries to avoid the now building tears in her eye ducts. As she begins to cry the volunteer picks her up in her arms, and there we are: two volunteers holding two sobbing kids, upset at what life has to offer for them, upset that their parents are no longer living and upset that the love that we give and relationships they build are as temporary as the changing seasons.
There is a big map of the world painted in the dining hall, so I’ve started a game with whoever I sit with during the meals that involves them guessing some trivia (Where is Africa? What country did the conquistadors come from? What is the oldest country in the world? Biggest? Smallest?) in exchange for a drop or two of my chile to mix with their rice and beans. When we get tired of the map we move to other trivia about the planets or animals or Guatemalan history. When the young ones really don’t want to eat we play the classic ‘airplane game’, where the young ones get to choose where the airplane is coming from and eat a spoonful of polar bears or giraffes, depending on the climate. Recently one of the youngest girls and I were laughing and playing… “This airplane is coming from….” She stopped and turned to her older brother: “Where does my mommy live again?” The tears, as they are now as I write, swelled up as I thought of what a heart-broken sentence that is for a girl of 7 to speak.
The first question any kid will ask you upon arrival at Casa Guatemala after your name and where you are from is: “How long are you staying?” It’s a defense mechanism of sorts. It’s a way of asking, ‘Can I get really close to you for a year, kind of close for a couple months, or can I just trust that for a week or so I can climb on your back and get some free candy?’ I’m three months in these days and the teenagers who wouldn’t look at me in September or October are coming around and giving me their trust. It has nothing, nothing to do with what American candy I bring them or what games we play together or anything like that. I think they, with very good reason, simply have their guard up for anyone who shows up to see if they will put in the time.
One of my closest friends here at the Casa left last week before the time he had committed to, due to some personal frustrations along with some language barriers, and he had invited me to leave with him. I had to think twice about it. There certainly are things about this place that I wish I could change. It is constantly frustrating seeing rural teachers who didn’t have the chance to get a proper education spinning and giving rural, less comprehensive education back to the next generation. Almost daily I have to remind myself when working with some of the volunteers that ‘you work with what you have, not what you wish you had’. And the initial novelty of living next to the pig house has quickly worn off, leaving only screams of pork being made and changing winds of mierda. But like I told my parting friend, my time here isn’t done yet. The relationships I have formed are at their peak and I am excited to see of what is to come of them.
Life moves slow around here. It is very easy to lose track of what day or week it is, and big events like Christmas or vacations are the only real reason to look at a calendar. Hours are lost (or used wisely) swinging on a hammock talking, reading, or staring at the water. This can be the death or life of a volunteer, depending on how you spend it. There is plenty of time to think about what the rest of the world is doing, or how productive you would be if you only had the internet. I just finished a book that had been sitting on my shelf since college: “Through Painted Deserts” by Donald Miller. His Christian version of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ left me challenged and satisfied, and I love the way he talks about his friend Paul. He says Paul is a simple guy who lives a simple life, who “is content to watch a pot of beans boil for an hour and not feel like he’s missing out on anything in the world.” To an extent, that’s how I want to spend my time here. The world keeps moving outside, but here in my corner of the jungle that I get to enjoy I want to live right here, in this moment, with these broken hearts, and not feel like I’m missing out on anything else.
“Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely. For many men do not have those moments at all, and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life.”
We must learn to love, learn to be kind, and this from earliest youth; if education or chance give us no opportunity to practice these feelings, your soul becomes dry and unsuited even to understanding the tender inventions of loving people.”
“But theirs is an existence under the weight and awareness of time, a place we are slowly escaping, a world growing fainter by the hour and the mile. Our letters will arrive like messages in bottles cast from the luminary of distant shores.”