The Words of the Chandler Family


Yebuny Chandler
October 16, 2006

Perspective-changing, self-awakening, eye-opening, mind-blowing, thought-provoking, concept-challenging, confidence-boosting, ego-shattering, awe-inspiring, smile-locking, life-changing … words just cannot come close to portraying the intense beauty of everything I have just experienced during my past 3 months in Guatemala. I would need to include body movements, facial expressions, sound effects, hand gestures, photographs and words, if I was to try to convey anything even close to how I actually experienced it. But despite the limitations of words, I really would like to take this opportunity of trying to share my adventures.

Upon my very first glance at the stunning beauty of Lake Atitlan, my heart skipped three beats and my smile broadened from cheek to cheek. And from that moment, I don’t think my smile ever faded. How could it have? I was volunteering at a school, which had a garden leading directly to one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. And if that wasn’t already enough, we were also surrounded by three magnificent volcanoes (one of which actually erupted during my stay!). Several afternoons I would spend relaxing at my favorite spot by the lake, swimming, reading and listening to music on the comforting thick grass that was so soft and bouncy to walk on. And whenever I had the chance I would hop on the back of a pick-up truck (their public transport) and hold on to take a ride racing through the mountains, along the lake, passing so many corn fields and forests on our way to one of the local villages. Those afternoons allowed me to feel so close to God, marveling and continuously thanking him for His creation that people rarely take the chance to really look at. Tears often escaped my eyes due to the immense happiness and love I experienced on the 45-minute rides through the Mayan Land of eternal spring. And just to wake up to that view every morning, smelling and feeling that fresh, crisp air with the sun dancing on the rippling waves left me feeling so inspired and full of life that I was ready for any challenge that was waiting for me. And believe me, I had my share of them!

My bedroom was in the old school building with an en-suite bathroom and a kitchen downstairs and in the mornings I could watch the children in the mornings out of my window, cleaning their playground or preparing themselves for school. From previous warnings to expect fleas, the moment I witnessed the first little beast biting my stomach and leaving a bloody red mark as a memoir, I took no chances and immediately paid the gardener to buy all the necessary equipment to rid me of the unwelcome visitors that were rudely trying to find comfort in my bed. But, in complete contrast to the ill-mannered, blood-sucking parasites, Don Felipe (the gardener) was one of the most kind-hearted and genuine men I had ever come across. He showed such devotion to the school garden, which he cultivated so beautifully, and within my first week there, he had hand-made me a rug, tablemat and a wall hanging out of plants from the lake, and had caught me five crabs to photograph and eat for dinner! He introduced me to the serving and humble character of the Guatemaltekos that I would learn so much about, yet I was right not to expect the same kindness from everyone!

I remember the morning I arrived at the school, ‘Santiaguito’ with Jini Bessell. I felt so ill and tense because of the anxiety that had been brewing up inside me as we were approaching. What if the students wouldn’t like me? What if no one would be able to understand the limited Spanish I could speak? What if I hated teaching? What if … what if…? But as soon as my smile saw the lake and I was introduced to the classes and toured around the town, I knew I would settle in just fine. And there were 3 other volunteers from England and Ireland there already who were staying for 2 weeks on another teaching project. From the very first day, there were always new volunteers every 2 weeks to work with and I even got the chance to teach with another BC from America for the last 2 weeks of my stay. We were instructed to give English classes from 8 am until 12 noon teaching children from 6 to 16. And these classes were not small! The school had two floors with a total of around 150 students, averaging at 25 in each class.

We would enter the classes in the morning to hugs from the girls and hand-shakes from the boys, to a bright ‘Good-morning’ and a happy bustling of students searching in their bags for their English books. But we soon learned that they all had a mind of their own, and a way of their own, and there was no use in trying to install a European way of doing things with European expectations into their culture. I decided that I would learn to do things their way with the goal of experiencing, accepting and learning from their way of life rather than trying to implement the standards and methods of England. And, once I stopped comparing the children to the English children I taught music to in my village, and just loved them for who they were, my mornings with them just became more and more fun, with more and more surprises and challenges. We had a ‘World-cup’ themed week towards the end of June, taught them clothes by using real washing lines as game props, learnt about food by setting up a shop scenario in the classroom (with real food to buy and fake money to buy it with!) and sung a lot of English songs. But their all-time favorite was playing games such as Bingo (using the English vocabulary from the lesson of course!) and listening to mini presentations of England, marveling at the pictures of London and the Queen. That was the only time they were really silent actually! The girls from the classes loved to pretend to be Queens with me, with our noses high and our hips swiveling from side to side as we walked down to the lake!

I soon found it very difficult to walk from one end of the school to the other without being in the centre of a moving hug or without having to respond to the countless callings of, ‘Yebuny! Yebuny!’ coming out of the classrooms from the children who simultaneously sent waves out of the windows as I quickly pulled a face at them. I really appreciated the relationship that rather quickly developed between the children and I, and soon couldn’t even walk to the market or my daily restaurant for lunch without being accompanied by one of my student’s little hand in mine. It was so heart-warming. They are such loving people! My favorite experiences were definitely the trips with the 4th class to the lake in the afternoons, singing Spanish and English songs non-stop all the way there and back. But surprisingly, only 3 out of 33 could swim! So at the top of the agenda was swimming lessons, which all the kids were desperate for. But a lot of the boys just settled for tortoise rides, hanging on to my back as I did my best to carry them to shore. And they also enjoyed using me as a jumping board, springing off my shoulders or legs into the water. I also had frequent meals out with the teachers and played numerous games of basketball with them, which was pretty easy for me as I had the ‘slight’ height advantage! They never stopped joking around, and I never knew whether to take them seriously or not. I cooked meals with some of them, went to church with others and the Secretary even taught me how to make the beaded jewelry that earned the women of the Atitlan villages their daily living wages. As opposed to the materialistic things it would take for children in my English neighborhood to be entertained, it is such a simple life for these Guatemalteko children. Yet, somehow, despite their poverty and limited possessions I truly feel they have the better deal, as they never have the option of hiding behind or chasing the superficial accessories that the media glorify here in the UK.

But -- there was also a very prominent unappreciative culture amongst them that I often found very difficult to deal with. Children, even my students, would constantly beg or rather expect me to buy them food, give them money or at least have something for them whenever I had bought a choco-banana or a pineapple. They would never offer me a ‘Please’ or ‘thank you’ and at times I just couldn’t give, give, give anymore. It was as if, we as foreigners owed them everything, and therefore the stealing that went on behind my back was not actually stealing at all, as I owed it to them in the first place. I would find food gone from the kitchen weekly, such as whole jars of peanut butter, sausages, kitchen knifes and washing utensils. But the funniest had to be when I found my coco-pops and milk completely empty with the culprit leaving behind the bowl and spoon, which he used to finish them with! I also had my digital camera stolen, an equivalent of £70 taken from my supposedly ‘locked’ room and my bag containing clothes burnt because somebody left a burning candle on top it (but that was an accident during the RYS project). Yet, it really was from these rather unfortunate experiences that I gained the most. I realized how important it is to live independent and detached from these materialistic belongings and possessions such as cameras and clothes as they all leave you to experience such an unfulfilling life and stunt the growth of the heart and spirit big time!

I was even fortunate enough to participate in the RYS project organized by Daniel Bessell in the first 2 weeks of July. We were a group of 35 participants from Honduras, Guatemala, Europe and America and gosh did we experience a lot in that project! We worked on several sites at the school, helping to build new bathrooms and a teacher’s office and tried to develop the irrigation system further in one of the local villages that had severely been affected by Hurricane Stan last year. We also enjoyed several cultural activities such as witnessing a typical Mayan ceremony, visiting local churches and Mayan ruins and having a bonfire night in which I was finally introduced to ‘smors’ (a traditional American cuisine in which a roasted marshmallow and melted chocolate are sandwiched between 2 sweet crackers)! There was even a ‘Cultural night’ held on our behalf at the school at which the students performed some dances and songs, as well as us performing various skits and songs in our teams. But as well as experiencing the culture of Santiago first hand, the program also included talks about the current education system and government in Guatemala by very important guest speakers, which really awakened me to the problems the Guatemaltekos will have to deal with in their near future.

I also have to mention some of the beautiful weekends us volunteers had, traveling all over the country, which really made my time there unforgettable. One of the most memorable experiences was my 3 am tour through the rainforest to see the sunrise on one of the Mayan temples, with the view over the treetops covering the whole rainforest that surrounded us. It was such a spiritual experience with the fog drifting across the ruins with the sun behind it trying to break through, and I just remember feeling so fresh and pure, breathing in that morning air. But then all of a sudden, an incredibly powerful roaring started to encircle us all, with echoes building up through the jungle. I thought herds of jaguars and tigers were approaching us! But in fact, it was the howling monkey wake-up call!! I’m sure you can imagine what an incredibly powerful and spine-tingling spectacle that was!

And another amazing tour was when we went to ‘Semuc Champey’, a natural bridge in a valley enclosed by two forested mountains with river rapids flowing underneath, exiting as a beautiful waterfall at the bottom. Yet, the real spectacle is the actual natural bridge itself – it’s composed of 24 lagoons, interconnected by softly flowing waterfalls in which you can swim in, with the view of the whole mountain range surrounding you. And there were even little fish that kissed your legs as they swam by! And just below the bridge there were bat infested caves, which we ventured through with one hand high in the air holding the candle, leaving the other frantically paddling to keep us afloat as we swam through the ice cold water. I nearly drowned myself from my hysterics at witnessing one of our Guatemalan guides trying to ‘swim’! Splashing so much that his candle was continuously going out, we organized several rescue missions for him when he was left to swim in complete darkness in total panic shouting, ‘Light! Light! I need light!’ Not only did his puppy-dog-swimming-style also cause our candlelight to go out consistently, he also managed to kick us and hit us (as we were swimming behind him) due to his tunnel vision focus, also causing him to just about crash into every rock we were cautioned about!

We walked up waterfalls, jumped off underground cliffs and somehow managed to scramble through holes in the walls without being taken away by the rushing current. But we sure were rewarded! We finished the day with the most relaxing, peaceful and enchanting ride down the river in rubber rings … floating past the jungle canopy and hanging vines, turning softly with the lazy current, I felt like the Queen of the Nile on the glistening surface of the river, which sparkled like liquid gold. At that moment, feeling God’s comforting smiling presence so strongly, I just couldn’t understand how there could be such conflict, worry and depression in the world when we were surrounded by such heavenly beauty. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that weekend.

Guatemala has instilled in me such a desire to serve our world, and has helped me re-evaluate the important things in my life. I truly realized every day, how incredibly wonderful our life is, with so many lessons to be learnt, things to appreciate and love to receive and give. I will be forever grateful for the confidence I gained in my abilities and my beliefs during these past 3 months and cannot wait to offer this year to God with such enthusiasm, joy and love as I felt in Guatemala. I would just like to finish with this quote, which I really understood and put into practice in Guatemala as I overcame my challenges of teaching and fitting into the community:

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same’

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