Finding joy in Guatemala

by Debra Des Vignes, Common Hope Partner and recent volunteer in Guatemala


Debra (left), Maria, Cesar junior, and Cesar senior

Tucked away in a cubicle, stacked high with papers and looming deadlines, I glance at a 5×7 photo. It seems so long ago, distant.

In the photo is a stack of plywood. I am inside a small, run down shack in Guatemala, me and two smiling kids. The children wear old, oversized clothes splashed with logos from the United States of America. They have never been to America. They have never been on an airplane. They don’t own shoes. Their mother prepares lunch by gutting and scaling a fish while the father joins in for lunch before returning to work at the factory. We walk several blocks for water. I watch, learn, and help, but I feel as if they are the ones helping me. I look up at the sweltering sun, and I see everything in a different light.

I traveled to Central America after seeing the Haitian earthquake unfold on national TV. The story of long-term volunteers who lost their lives had caused my heart to ache — similar to the intense feeling of ending a relationship, but worse. I had walked around feeling gloomy for several weeks, depressed.

I reminded myself that in a world full of iPhones, iPods, and cable TV, true learning comes from impulses, interaction and getting out of my comfort zone. I unclutter my mind and make room in my heart. I planned a trip to Guatemala.

The first day in-country, I hid my tears behind sunglasses. I had seen poverty before but nothing quite like that. No electricity, no bathroom; the majority of the homes sat on gravel, concrete if lucky. Strikingly, everyone seemed happy. How could they be happy? I tried to mask my American way of thinking and felt ashamed, embarrassed.

I spent a large part of my time working with other volunteers to build a house for a family. But as the sun went down, we volunteers headed to hotel rooms where there was excess food and more than enough closet space. I was reminded of all the unused space back home, a dining room table and couch, a leather chair. These items were nowhere to be seen in any of the homes I visited in Guatemala, but I was just as comfortable in those Guatemalan homes knowing that the small space was being used.

In the following days, we finished building the house — a slightly bigger home with two rooms instead of one. We celebrated at a blessing ceremony where we eagerly asked about the future of the family. We wondered how they would use their old house that sat on dirt just five feet away from their new house. I thought I knew the answer, that the children would sleep there, or the family would convert the old house into a kitchen or sitting area. Instead, they told us they would sell or rent out the space.

As I packed my outfits, designer shoes, and an array of jewelry, it all seemed quite frivolous. Everything was different, my mind was racing. I felt heartache once again, but it was a much different pain than before.

The pain of joy caused tears to trickle down my face. I held onto my boarding pass tightly and boarded the airplane back to the States.

In my cubicle I once again look at the 5×7 photo of the Guatemalan family, remembering the strong sense of purpose I felt in building their two-room house and providing them with opportunity. I had been moved to do something good for this country, and my time in Guatemala reminded me to be humble. I met some of the world’s most determined people with whom I could work to accomplish something amazing.

In my heart, I am still in Guatemala. The sun shines bright there – and so do the people.

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2 Responses to Finding joy in Guatemala

  1. Janet Swanson June 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    Debra has recaptured my feelings of intensity, and awe I felt in Guatemala. I am so much more aware of the waste and wasted worry in our lives … and how I wish the joy the people of Guatemala have would be shared in this world … thanks Debra, you surely are a literary delight.

  2. Hal Havens July 20, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your experience in Guatemala. I visited the country two years ago and also found it to be a very emotional experience. Driving thru small towns with extreme poverty made my stomach hurt. The fun part of the trip was meeting people in their homes, talking in broken English/Spanish, and feeling like we were more alike than different. It was a life changing experience.

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