New Homes, New Lessons

By Abby Willms

Hello all!

The second week in Guatemala was one that stretched and pushed our group – each in unique ways. It was a week of unknowns and with that came understandable anxieties, questions and uncertainties. As we have all become well aware of (and I’m sure many of you at home have as well), Outtatown is not a program that shies away from encouraging each and every student to push themselves and to look for opportunities that inspire growth or present opportunity to learn – whether it be personal growth, spiritual growth or the growth of our worldviews (or, as so often happens on Outtatown, all three in one!).

As Sunday rolled around and we left our gracious hosts at Semilla, there was much excitement in the air, however, there was also a distinct presence of anxiety that accompanied leaving both a comfortable place and the comfort of the group setting we had grown so accustomed to – both in first semester and the first week in Guatemala. This was a time where we were invited to sit in the inevitable awkwardness and discombobulation that would ensue both from the absence of the group and the presence of a new family – a family we knew little about except that they would speak only Spanish. As we gathered at the Mundo Spanish school in San Juan del Obispo and saw the smiling faces of 25 kind, welcoming host families, the muddled anxious/excited feeling turned to one of mostly excitement. We sat down in the grass, and one by one were called to meet our host families. We were all so grateful for the friendly smiles, hugs and photos that greeted us.IMG_4194

My host mom, host sister and her cousin had come to meet me and walk me home. They insisted on carrying my monstrosity of a bag – which gave us much reason for laughter on the way home (thank goodness laughter is a universal language!). While I struggled immensely to come up with even one coherent sentence on the walk home, they were incredibly gracious and even without being able to communicate verbally, I felt comfortable and at home. That evening as I settled into my new room and met the rest of the family – including several aunts and uncles, two grandparents, three cousins, my host brother and sister, host parents and their dog – I was overwhelmed and so incredibly thankful for their hospitality, something I will never forget.

The next morning we met back at the school and exchanged stories of the previous night – most of which included embarrassing Spanish mistakes, laughter, yummy food and the overarching theme of generosity and incredible hospitality. Following the quick exchange of stories, it was time to meet our Spanish teachers and start orientation – which included fun games, introduction to some basic phrases and an interview that helped them sort us into learning groups for subsequent days.

The following days were ones of adjustment and exploration. Each morning we met at the school for four hours of Spanish instruction and each afternoon we partook in activities that helped us learn more about both San Juan and Antigua and practice the Spanish we were learning in class– both through formal tours and through simply walking the cobblestone streets and returning the welcoming smiles and “buenos tardes” that others so willingly shared with us. I think I can speak for the group when I say this was a week that stretched us but also provided immense opportunity to be grateful and to celebrate the gift of relationship and community.

First Week in Guatemala

By Ryan Hopko and Elaina Wagenman

Hola friends and family!

After many flights, both the Toronto and Winnipeg groups reconnected in Atlanta, and arrived in Guatemala City! We collected our luggage and piled onto our big yellow school bus and began driving to San Pedro, a suburb of Antigua. Our hosts at Luis Carlos’ ministry centre provided us with a lovely snack, and we all went to sleep. We woke up and finally saw our surroundings in daylight. Three volcanoes surrounded us and the garden was filled with orange trees, avocado trees, and beautiful blooming flowers. At 6:30 am I had already fallen in love with the beauty of Guatemala. We ate breakfast all together in the garden and then gathered to share our breaks and reconnect as a group. After lunch we explored the city of San Pedro, visited our first tienda, explored the church and city square, and walked the cobblestone calles and aviendas.

On Tuesday afternoon we visited an exotic animal rescue centre in Antigua where we had the opportunity to hold several snakes! When I heard “exotic animals” I pictured something slightly different, maybe involving some pretty birds or a sloth even. Although, it was a very rewarding experience to come in contact with an animal I had always been taught to be afraid of. After more orientation sessions preparing us for the culture of Guatemala, we had an entertaining evening playing board games and hanging around in the hammocks.

Early Thursday morning we left for Guatemala City in the school bus. We arrived at the Anabaptist Seminary where we stayed for the rest of the week. We began with an introduction to Semilla’s ministry. Then we had a session with Hector Castaneda who spoke about Guatemalan history and culture. We visited the National Palace, Cathedral, and markets around Zone 1 of Guatemala City. In the evening we watched a documentary titled “Recycled Life” about the garbage dump that we would visit the next day. On Friday morning we began with a panel session about the religious demographics in Guatemala. We heard from a Mennonite, Pentecostal, Catholic, and Mayan spiritual leader. Afterwards we visited an exhibition titled “Why We Are the Way We Are” that discussed racial discrimination, some significant historical events which shaped the current political situation, and information about the Mayan people groups in Guatemala. After enjoying a delicious lunch at Café Imeri, we visited the necropolis and garbage dump.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

What stood out to me most was seeing the elaborate Castillo family grave in the necropolis, a family which owns a large percentage of Guatemala’s wealth and owns entire industries within the country. The grave was made of massive stone blocks in the form of a pyramid, engraved in an ancient Egyptian style, meant to portray this family as pharaohs. Just metres away was the largest garbage dump in Central America, where hundreds of “guajaros” (or garbage dump workers) spent hours everyday sifting through mountains of the city’s waste to make a living. They collected and sold the objects that were discarded as trash by the 6 million people of Guatemala City. The dump was so dangerous that we were not permitted to enter, and instead looked from above. Hundreds of huge black vultures filled the sky and circled the commotion going on down below, smoke billowed from the trash as the gas it emitted caught on fire, garbage dump trucks came and went, even an ambulance came to help a worker who was injured in the dump. We watched the many workers climb, sort, and collect the garbage below. Later we visited a shopping metropolis area called Calaya. The contrast between these areas was shocking. Calaya was saturated with consumerism, luxury, and complete extravagance. We toured luxury apartments, browsed ridiculously expensive clothing stores, and bought fancy gelato.Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

The level of visible economic disparity between these two areas was unsettling. It made me think about a statistic that Hector Castaneda shared; that only 20% of Guatemala’s population live in what is defined as “economic stability”, while 60% live in poverty earning approximately $2 USD a day, and the other 20% live in “extreme poverty” earning less than $1 USD a day. I thought about families like the Castillo family, the 10% of the population who owns 86% of the country’s wealth and land. What sort of corruption allows this inequality? And most importantly how do the choices we make as a society and as consumers allow such a difference between the rich and the poor. Many of us realized that the issues we learned about this week in Guatemala are not unique to this country. Especially the issues of the treatment of indigenous people and the systemic issue of poverty within marginalized communities were familiar to what we learned in first semester. On Sunday, we travel to San Juan del Obispo, near Antigua to meet our homestay families and begin Spanish school!