A solo hike. A thunderstorm. A search for shelter that landed me with E’qchi’ Mayans in Guatemala.
I travel for new experiences and to understand different cultures. After 4 months of backpacking Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala I decided I wanted to go somewhere no tourist has gone before. It took some debilitating food poisoning the day prior in order to reflect and motivate myself enough to venture out.
As I started hiking the rural mountainsides of Guatemala by Semuc Champey, I was unsure of what to expect, and had little idea where I was going. I was anxious, but excited by the possibilities.
Ideally, I hoped to experience authentic local culture. I imagined there would be the excitement of discovery, the oddly scary but gratifying feeling of being outside my comfort zone, and maybe a whole new perspective on their way of life.
What I found, was also a new perspective on my life.
After 2 hours of hiking, a thunderstorm came, and a family that saw me walking by graciously welcomed me in. They offered me food as we spoke in broken Spanish. Spanish was not their first language and it was certainly not mine.
As we talked, they expressed that they wanted to learn English and offered me to stay so I could teach them. I was more than happy, and thus began my time there.
In this video you see a lot of the tortilla making process. Tortillas filled the stomach and was important for their survival. Therefore, a large part of time was spent on turning corn to tortilla. It took 90 minutes, 3 times a day before breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day. I helped grind the corn before each meal and that was a WORKOUT. The women had amazingly strong arms and did the cooking. The boys went to school and helped with the father in harvesting corn. Since the surrounding farmers also grew corn, there was no market for it. They were self-sufficient.
The rest of the hours in the day were often spent gazing serenely at the mountains. Almost meditatively. Sometimes they would turn the old radio on– their only connection to the outside world. There was no internet, TV, or cell phone service. There were no electrical outlets. Running water came from a stream a 10 minute hike downhill. That’s where they showered, washed their laundry, and carried drinking water from.
What they lacked in materialism, they made up for in human values. It seemed that the lack of technology brought more emphasis to the importance of family and connection. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a family of 12 so close, especially not in NY.
Time also took new meaning. They lived in the present and were very patient in their communication – even in broken Spanish, conversation felt deeper than small talk elsewhere.
After about 4 days I had to leave to catch a plane. The mother said regrettably that she could not pay me for the English classes. I humbly told her I should be thanking her. Each family member then gave me a hug or a handshake, and later waved goodbye. It was a goodbye more emotional than any others in my travels. The boys took their bikes and followed me on the 90 minute hike back to civilization before the path back became impossible to ride.
The experience helped redefine my privilege, what wealth meant, and it gave a refreshing look at what the important things in life are. It showed me that “travel” can be anywhere.