“To inspire others to notice and appreciate the miracle of life.” That’s my noble goal, and right now I want to bring it into the present moment by sharing a couple stories about little miracles that happened on my recent trip to Guatemala.
The miracle of life can be seen in so many ways, and this is about the miracle of human connection.
Noble Goals and Little Miracles in Guatemala
The little miracles of empathy and human kindness
The miracle of life is all around us, but we have to be open to it in order to recognize it. I remember taking a meditation class a couple years ago and the instructor led us through this meditation of appreciation throughout our body – thanking our hands, arms, and legs, our heart and our organs, our tongue and teeth. I remember getting done and thinking, “Wow, it really is a miracle that my heart keeps beating every day for so many years, and that my organs work without me telling them what to do.” It’s always been a miracle, but I couldn’t really appreciate it until I focused my awareness on it.
In a similar way, there is something about traveling that opens me up to the miracle of human connection. Maybe it’s the fact that I feel, and I am, more vulnerable. Maybe it’s the fact that talking is suddenly difficult, so other forms of communicating, and connecting, become more prominent and necessary. Even though little miracles like these happen in my life in some form every day, when they happen abroad I have a tendency to notice and really cherish them. Isn’t empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and intuit how they are feeling, pretty miraculous?
This first story turned my emotional state upside down, in the best possible way.
#1 Ya pagó el tuyo.
It was like my 3rd day in Guatemala, and I was already feeling a little homesick. That particular morning I missed the ease of waking up in my own culture, of not having to order breakfast in another language. I went for a walk to find a breakfast place along the main square of the city. I passed a couple crowded breakfast stalls, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to sit down and greet everybody in my sleepy, broken Spanish. But I was hungry, so I found an open seat, sat down, and greeted everyone with a “Buenos días.” The guy across from me introduced himself, and we started chatting. I was reluctant to really engage at first, but when I told him I lived and worked on a farm, his eyes lit up. He was studying agriculture at the local university. We talked about what we grew and what we knew, and what our farming dreams were in the future. He was patient with my broken Spanish, and before he left we agreed to meet up later, and connected on Facebook.
A while later I finished my breakfast and got up to pay. The woman said, “Ya pagó el tuyo,” He already paid for yours, motioning to the empty seat of my new friend.
And suddenly, I felt right at home.
The little miracle of human kindness.
#2 Some everyday market madness
Markets in Guatemala are normally pretty rowdy. Jam packed, loud, colorful, and full of animated debates about the prices of pineapples and tomatoes. The busiest ones are like mazes that you wade through with hundreds of strangers. Growing up in the neat, orderly world of Shop n’ Save and Safeway, Guatemalan markets are quite shocking. While I have gotten used to – and now love – a lot of it, there’s one part in particular that I still struggle with – the total lack of personal space.
You see, personal space is pretty sacred where I grew up. You never bump into a stranger or nudge them out of your way, and if you do, you apologize profusely. Comparatively, Guatemalan markets feel more like a beehive. Physical contact is simply part of the experience. But nudging elderly women out of my way – even gently – still doesn’t come naturally, so I am often standing there, ready to take an opening that rarely comes.
That was the case one day in Totonícapan, a small town in western Guatemala that doesn’t see many tourists. I was walking through the market to get to the bus stop, and getting passed by great-grandmothers left and right – the only person not flowing naturally with everybody else. I looked up and made eye contact with a young woman about my age. She broke into a big smile that made me break into a big smile. It seemed to say many things at once:
Welcome. What are you doing here? You look overwhelmed. Everything will be great – just keep movin’.
The miracle of empathy in one smile.
#3 1 American, 2 Guatemalans, and 3 Japanese Hike Down a Mountain
It sounds like the start of a bad joke, right? We were all on a chicken bus headed to the town of San Pedro on the shores of Lake Atitlan. When we got on, the ayudante (driver’s helper who collects the money) told us that the last leg of the road was closed because of construction, but that he would walk with us to our destination from where we had to stop. I chuckled. The part of the road that was closed was a steep descent, so the hike down would be super steep, though with stunning views of the lake. The Japanese tourists hadn’t ever been to the lake, but they were happy that we could get to the destination, even if it meant walking a part of it.
When we got off the bus, I realized the Japanese tourists were really loaded down with backpacker backpacks, smaller packs, and random bags. The hike would be really difficult with so much luggage. In addition to the ayudante, there was another young Guatemalan with us, who happened to be mute. We started the hike and after about 15 minutes or so, we stopped to rest. We had been going down switchbacks and the 3 Japanese tourists were already exhausted. The Guatemalans and I offered to help since we weren’t carrying much, and they accepted. We took a few of the smaller packs for them and kept on going. The mute guy’s name was Marcos, and he and I really connected. I told him I was a writer, and it turns out, he’s a painter. The ayudante and I also got to talking, about many topics including fútbol, family, immigration, and the differences between the United States and Guatemala.
When we sat down for another break, I saw the ayudante signal that he was hungry to Marcos. I pulled out some pumpkin bread I had bought that morning, and we passed it around along with water. When we got up to leave, everyone picked up random bags, not concerned about what belonged to each person but rather that everyone had a weight they could manage. I couldn’t help but think:
What if the world were more like this? More focused on empathy and connection?
In our little group, there were plenty of barriers, easy excuses. One guy couldn’t talk. Three only spoke Japanese, and two of us spoke Spanish. But we all shared the human ability to recognize each other’s emotions, and act accordingly. It’s a shared language beyond words. The kindness that my friends showed was definitely one of those little miracles that are worth appreciating.
And speaking of little miracles, the lake itself always takes my breath away.
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