I abandoned my blog starting in the beginning of November, adventuring during a week of free travel and then moving to the beautiful town of Santiago Atitlán. I didn’t have much internet access, and suspecting as much back in the city, chose to leave my laptop in my locker at Semilla. I settled in for a month of few distractions and lots of reflection.
During my month in Santiago, I worked for an organization called ANADESA that works towards community development and environmental sustainability through programs for children, youth, and women. ANADESA and my host home are both located in the cantón (small village) of Panabaj, which is a 20 minute walk from the center of Santiago. My home was just a 2 minute walk from work which was an incredible blessing after the laborious commute I had in the capital.
My host family was a family of 9 (7 children, most of who are adults) and they really only spoke Tz’utujil, which is the local language. The municipality of Santiago is still very indigenous, having preserved many Tz’utujil Maya traditions including the language and traditional dress for both men and women. My 4 host sisters understood more Spanish than they could speak, so our conversations were fairly one sided as they listened to me talk in Spanish. I talked the most with my youngest host sibling, 9 year old Gregorio who is learning Spanish in school and was always readily available to chat with me, or play games on my phone, or write random Spanish and Tz’utujil words in my journal.
My work at ANADESA varied day to day, but I did a lot of translating for English speaking visitors, translating web pages for the new website, roasting coffee, learning to do beadwork, and hiking a ways up the Atitlán Volcano to help with projects in ANADESA’s ecological park located on the slopes.
I spent the weekends exploring Santiago and some of the other lake towns with two other Bluffton students who also had placements around Lake Atitlán. We spent one weekend in San Juan la Laguna, the lake town that we had visisted more than 2 months earlier as a group while still living in the capital. That Sunday morning, we hiked Rostro Maya, a cliff with probably one of the most incredible sunrise views in the world. We got to the top while it was still dark, so not only did we get to see the sunrise, but also the very first stretches of light across the sky and lake.
Santiago charmed me, with its peaceful and dependable rhythm. Unlike the city, I could walk around after dark, and in Santiago, I could breathe deeply without choking on car exhaust. I had the time and freedom to do whatever I wanted outside of work, and I spent hours journaling, reading, and crocheting (with a hook and floss I bought in the market) to pass the time. The lack of pressure and stress felt as though it was unwinding tension from every part of my life.
But my time in Santiago wasn’t without challenges. My communication barriers were unexpected. I didn’t have any trouble communicating or expressing myself in Spanish, but I hadn’t been expecting to hear so much Tz’utujil, both at home and at work. I was closed out of a lot of conversations I would have liked to be engaged with, not on purpose, but just because I could only speak Spanish. That was a surprise to me.
It was also really tiring to function in my second language from 8 to 5 every day at work. Sometimes when I got home, I didn’t have the energy to spend as much time with my host family as I would have liked. Spanish is the second language for them and for me, which means that middle ground has a lot of grace, but also requires more effort.
The culture in Santiago was completely different than anything I had experienced before. Indigenous culture in Guatemala is pretty reserved, and though I felt welcomed, it was completely unfamiliar to me. A month is not nearly enough time to unpack and learn hundreds of years of history, so I had to be content with knowing that I could only observe. Not fully understand.
There were times when I felt at peace and slightly overwhelmed, comfortable and confused, motivated and exhausted- sometimes at the very same time in the strangest juxtaposition. But I wanted everything that Santiago had to give me, and almost every night before falling asleep, I thought to myself, “I’m glad that I’m here.”
I never fell in love with Guatemala City. We had a civil relationship that will just be seasoned with nostalgia for people and experiences. But I was enamored by Santiago. I loved it more than any of the other lake towns we visited, and possibly more than any place I’ve been in Guatemala. I think pueblo life suited me, in ways the city didn’t and I adored the smooth pace of each day, like the slow, consistent flow of honey, the sounds of the market, the cool air blowing across the lake. I enjoyed watching my sisters do needlework on a huipil (the traditional blouse for Tz’utujil women), and waking up to the sound of them making tortillas early in the morning. I’ve never really cared for corn tortillas, but discovered that they somehow taste better in Santiago than anywhere else and I still can’t say I really like them, but they became the staple in my diet just like the locals. It’s amazing how quickly the body can physically adapt to change. It’s the mind that requires more work!
One month added a completely new dimension to my prior two months of experiences, and I look forward to how my reflections and perceptions will change as time goes on. Someone told me recently that the end of a journey is actually the start of the next one, and as my semester in Guatemala comes to an end, I hope that this semester will follow me into whatever comes next 🙂