One Year in Guatemala -  Two Happy Left Feet
 
January 7th, 2010 marked exactly one year since I set foot on Guatemalan soil for the first time and started my adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  This past year has been the most challenging and rewarding year of my life.  I have grown tremendously and in ways that I never expected, and I thought that I would share a few of the lessons I have learned in the past 365 days.

1. Learning a language is a long and difficult process, but it is well worth every mistake, and you will make lots of mistakes.  My Spanish has understandably improved in leaps and bounds in the year that I have been using it almost 24/7.  I still manage to embarrass myself now and then, but laughing with people about my mistakes is another way to make friends.  A language represents another way of approaching the world, and people's perspective of me changes when they realize that I can express myself and understand them in their language (or, many times, their second language since many Guatemalans where I work speak Kaqchikel as their first language).  As a child, learning English opened doors to a universe of relationships and knowledge.  Learning a second language is equally rewarding.

2. Where you are is never as important as who you are with.  I know that this expression is common -place, but it has been a poignant phrase for me this past year.  There are two sides to this.  First, there is nothing that I miss as much as my family. While it is more fun to complain about the lack of hot showers or cheese, when I have a hard day water temperature and dairy don't matter.  I am very blessed with a diverse, growing and nurturing family and there is no replacement or filler.  On the other side are all of the wonderful people that I have met here.  Everywhere I have gone I have met caring and inspired people.  Sometimes it has taken searching and humility on my part, but I know that anywhere I may go there will be someone who has a lesson to teach me.

3. Planning is important, haste makes waste, and sometimes you just have to keep pushing forward.  There is no doubt about it, I am a planner.  Anyone who was in speech with me knows how important I think highlighters are.  There is no replacement for a solid action plan, especially when working on community projects.  It can also be a useful personal tool.  A mission statement is a solid reminder of direction for individuals and groups.  A well thought-out and elaborated plan makes sure that things get done on time, and that a group is working towards a common goal.  However, on days when the members of the planning committee have gone to their corners or are nowhere to be found, on days when the materials don't show up or didn't get ordered, on the days when all that planning temporarily falls apart, it can sometimes be just as important to keep moving.  Brainstorming a list of supplementary projects, entering data, filing papers, stuffing garbage in bottles, cutting up old tires to make gardens and washing your laundry by hand may not change the world, but it sure feels good!

4. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it also would have made him or her a darn good traveler.  My pride often gets the best of me here.  I am reluctant to look like an ignorant gringa, so I often nod my head and go along.  It took a visit from my aunt over the holidays to help me realize how much I am missing when I do this.  There are plenty of foods (mainly fruits) here I had no idea how to eat, and traditions I couldn't explain.  Speaking one of the languages spoken here opens up plenty of doors, but not nearly as many if I don't use it.  I am never going to look like anything but a gringa, but  appearing ignorant and being ignorant are two very different things.

5. Some manners matter.  In classes throughout high school and college I was taught which fork to use for my salad, how to pass salt and pepper properly (always as a pair), and to put my napkin on my lap.  I won't say here that those manners aren't important, and you won't find me drinking soup directly from the bowl at a business lunch.  However, I will say that there is something missing there.  The manners that matter are the gestures that we make to other people as a show of respect.  Saying good morning to coworkers on your way to your desk, asking permission to enter a room or a home, always saying please and thank you, much more than table manners, can form images and relationships.

6. Dance... in public if possible.  I don't mean in clubs.  They have their place, but the light is too dim and sporadic to really see people's faces and the music is far too loud to hear what they are saying.  I mean dance.  Dance swing, waltzes, salsa, jazz, tango, foxtrot or chachacha.  I have not yet been to a wedding here where I didn't spend hours dancing to marimba music with a partner.  As a result, I have learned a lot about people and my community at weddings (something that never happened in a club).  I have also squeezed in a salsa lesson or two during vacations, and it is challenging both mentally and physically.  Practicing new salsa steps in my room in the evening is also pretty fun and therapeutic.  Bring back ballroom dancing!

To all of you, I wish you a very happy and satisfying new year filled with good lessons, good people, new discoveries and plenty of dancing.
Ivan
4/7/2010 19:11:06

Yes, my dear friend. Of all people, perhaps I can understand more clearly what you feel where you found yourself in another country and language. Few people have the courage to face a challegne like this. As you now know, it is simply wonderful; the simplicity of life is the most important lesson. Ahh, how increible it is to find human love in a place that it isn't even on a map. I love to get to know people's differences. Life is incomplete is one never learns that. Bravo y arriba my brave gringa. Congrats.

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