Guatemala

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I had a decision to make. To step off of the plane in Guatemala City, forget all the turbulence that I had just endured, shaking up my emotional state, releasing feelings of doubt and insecurity alongside memories of past failure.  My stomach was churning and my mind was racing.

 “It’s not too late.” I attempted to convince myself.  “I can buy another plane ticket and turn around now. I don’t have to do this.”

But I did have to do this. It’s my calling, my adventure, my passion.

In opposition to the surging flow of past inadequacy that was seeping deep into my being through every pore and cranny, self-reassurance was my plan to attack the negativity pulsing within.

I can do this. I am supposed to do this. I am responsible for this.  

To not be returned of love is a deep fear that resonates within my soul. It holds in the lowest, deepest nooks of my existence that are tucked away neatly for very few to see. While I know I am loved by so many, and with an even greater love by the Creator of the Universe, the devil himself hits me where I am weak. Still, the call to love others draws me in. The greatest of these is love is more than a word from the mouth of the Holiest of Holiest or a few words on a page from the scriptures of 1 Corinthians. It is a call to love strangers, enemies, and family alike. And I will testify, it is hard.

And not only is it hard, but it is a call to be brave.

The vulnerability of love is undoubted. To say “I love you” is an action of pure nakedness, the heart laid out before someone with a feeling that is so sincere, so deep, so raw. The return of this love is not promised, it is not guaranteed, and that is what makes it a glorious exchange when it is returned in full throttle with the matching “I love you” to the first offered.

So I sucked it up and stepped off of the plane, stepping foot into a steamy Guatemalan airport bombarded with beautiful brown-skinned people and a jumbled language that makes my head ache.

The next three weeks would be mine to serve, working in a village where families lived on less than $2 a day. I would work on homes and share the love of Christ with children and families through service at their school. Wherever there was a need, I was called to reach out my hand in love.

Naturally I was drawn to a beautiful teenage girl, Bianca, with glowing smile and warm heart, surprisingly left on the outskirts of her community. I often noticed her watching from afar, not engaging too deeply with anyone, just observing the actions of humanity. Too often we made eye contact that was held longer than usual, like an awkward middle school crush with too many nerves to even say hello.

The tug in my heart called me in. Despite my inadequacy in the Spanish language alongside my distinguished awkward tendencies I approached her with cookies from my lunch to share. A bribe to be my friend, aha! I’ve figured this brave thing out. So I thought.

I offered my cookies to the young girl and she took them quickly so she wouldn’t have to share. I thought nervously to myself…what now? My plan had failed. There wasn’t even a “gracias” to create a conversation from. I was cookie-less, friend-less, and courageous-less now.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” I began to mutter but still her eyes matched mine and no words were said.

My turbulent emotions from the plane flooded back and my courageous love was dwindling. Our interaction was the same plane that I just landed on a few days previous, this time crashing down with a spiraling effect.

Be brave – a quiet reminder with huge implications.

To my rescue, Bianca attempted to make a response of squawky noises and suddenly I knew – Bianca is mute.

To love without words left me feeling even more vulnerable. An extra leap would have to be made to demonstrate the words I love you with a genuine heart.

Over the next few weeks Bianca began to find me in random places. She showed up at my bus stop, construction sites, and school. Our courageous love, enacted by both, found each other — a brave calling reciprocated by two.

Guatemala makes me brave. The country brings me to a greater understanding of my inmost being; my responsibility to love is expressed through the most vulnerable love of questioned return of genuine care. A call of courage to brave rejection and awkward conversation is the beautiful exchanged of fully embracing the greatest commandment: love one another.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Jostling in my seat like a rag doll as the bus navigates gaping holes in the road seemingly large enough to swallow us whole, I question why I have chosen this journey. I love traveling because it always opens up new horizons to worlds previously unimagined and brings out a sense of wonderment; but it can sometimes bring out the worst in me when physical discomfort sets into my aging body.

Although I’m feeling grouchy, a smile plays on my lips at the name Chicken Bus – an expression coined by travelers who have seen actual chickens on the bus going to market, as well as those who have had the most terrifying experiences of bus drivers “playing chicken” with other drivers on the switchback mountain roads which barely have room for one vehicle at a time! The rule of the road goes something like this: whoever wins at this game of chicken gets to drive forward – while the loser has to back up their bus (hoping one of their tires doesn’t slip off the unprotected edge of the mountain road) until they find a spot wide enough in the road where the two vehicles can pass with mere inches to spare!

As I shift in my seat for the hundredth time to transfer the pressure from one butt-cheek to the other, the poor little girl who had just about dozed off on her wedge of seat falls onto the floor! Awakened from my pity-party, my heart opens wide as I remember once again this journey – in life AND in Guatemala – isn’t all about me! The little girl looks up at me and her lip quivers.

Suddenly, I am filled with unprecedented Grace and something opens up deep inside – a fissure creating a splinter of light which warms my heart; an aperture reminding me of the quintessential journeying passages of life which allow us to grow and become more fully who we are. In a moment of uninhibited openness and compassion, I scoop up the child and place her in my lap – gently and hesitantly so as not to frighten her or her family – smiling at the mother and asking the question with my eyes if this is okay?

The woman looks worn out and gives me a nod of consent, smiling tenderly at the child and giving her permission to relax in the arms of this larger-than-is-customary-in-their-world gringa with a lot more cushion than the seat of the bus she’s been trying to sit on unsuccessfully. We all begin to relax – chugging along on the bus, thrown from side-to-side with a rhythm which lulls the child into sleep.

Something miraculous and unexpected happens to my sore, aching body. My muscles relax. I find myself swaying with the motion of the bus rather than fighting it stiffly to keep from bothering the others in my seat. Like the passing trees outside my window bending and swaying with the wind in order to avoid being broken and damaged, I find myself rocking with the rhythm of the bus.

I feel my heart open more fully to the scenery passing gently outside my window. There are fields of land which evoke childhood memories of the patchwork quilts of my grandmother’s generation. I see at least 20 different shades of green, brown and yellow with accents of red, purple and white thrown into the mix of colors – like the flowers I remember dotting the quilts that covered me as a child – and I am in awe.

The beauty of the mist hanging in the valleys far below the steep mountainous road makes the land feel magical. It reminds me of the mysteries of life I came here to explore. My existence had become dull and hazy like an old mirror – the sheen worn off so the image was dark and cloudy rather than reflecting brightly all that is good in this world.

As I shift slightly in my seat, my arm tingles and awakens after holding it in the same position for too long so as not to disturb the sleeping child. This prickly sensation reminds me my soul is now awakening in a new way as well. I have found the freedom my heart has been longing for right here – on an over-stuffed “Chicken Bus” with this endearing, sticky girl with mud on her bare feet who sleeps soundly in my arms.

About the Author: Judi Puckett, M.A. is a Writer, Life-Traveler, Spiritual Midwife and Soul-Based Coach. She looks for the opportunity to see the mystical presence in her everyday experiences and finds travel to be the magical doorway to experiencing the joy and richness life has to offer!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

imageGuatemala is a beautiful and lovely place whether you are going as a place of tourism or if you are going to work with the young children of the isolated villages. I first was able to experience this mountainous country when I was in the 5th grade. The first place I encountered was an orphanage for children named Casa Aleluya located in San Bartolomé Milpas Altas, Guatemala, where two of my siblings happen to be adopted from.

I have visited the country six times after, but not always to the orphanage. Other place I also visited include: the beautiful artisan markets of Antigua, hiked the incredible volcano Pacaya, visited Chichicastenango, been to Lake Atitlan and visited the village of San Mateo. The city of Antigua was quite loud and complicated, because of the number of people and cars, with many intricate streets lined with shops and restaurants. Antigua also stands in the wake of the shadow of dormant volcano Agua.

From Antigua one can see the views of two other volcanos, which are very active and sometimes emit smoke. The volcano Pacaya was large and difficult to hike as an 11-year old, but turned out enjoyable and exciting, especially feeling as if you’re on top of the world. The trip up the volcano was done horseback, or on foot if you dared, and was around 7,000 feet of a hike. The market city of Chichicastenango was another boisterous and obnoxious city with lots of people shopping.

When I went I had blonde hair and that was seen as a rarity to the Guatemalans and they allowed themselves to feel my hair whenever they pleased because they had not seen it. It was a peculiar thing for me, being 11 years old and having people I didn’t know touch my hair. Lake Atitlan was one of the most beautiful and scariest places I have ever been. When I first went I was deathly afraid of boats, which was seen when we had one take us across the lake to our hotel and it began storming during the boat ride. When we did finally arrive at the hotel we had to hike up 400 steep, curvy steps with only the lights of cell phones (it was nighttime) as the only light source, with a group of 10.

One of the first nights of being at the hotel we actually were able to see a volcano across the lake explode with flowing lava and smoke, which was beautiful at night. We then ventured across the lake to a city, Santiago Atitlan, where there were more markets and many churches, with one hutch that contained the heart of a priest in a box.

The next time I was able to visit Guatemala I was 14 years old, July of two years ago, and my cousins were living in Guatemala working with Clubhouse Guatemala. When I went for two weeks I was able to go with them to the village of San Mateo where we worked with children, providing them with food, games and also candy for their enjoyment. The team also worked with the farmers and cooks of the village, providing them with new stoves that properly disposed of smoke, since most of their previous stoves caused them lung damage.

Going to Guatemala is incredible because of the many features of the country, with beautiful black sand beaches on the Pacific, with the artisan markets and shops of Antigua, with the many volcanoes that are accessible to tourists, and with the many villages where working with the villagers is a privilege.

About the Author: Griffin Dirrim- I am a 16 year old male from Atlanta, GA who enjoys soccer and traveling to Guatemala. I have 4 siblings, three adopted from Guatemala and one biological.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

DSC_5954“And they climbed up to the top of the tree. But the tree begun to grow larger. It swelled in size. Thus when they wanted to come back down, One Batz and One Huen couldn’t climb down from the top of the tree… Thus they went up into the tops of the trees there in the small mountains and the great mountains. They went out into the forests, howling and chattering loudly in the branches of the trees.”
-Popol Vuh

You will hear them.
When the day and the night start to blend and the light becomes enchanted and purple, they begin to howl. They begin to cry, and to moan, and to roar, and to scream. You will hear, even when you are still miles away, the most heartbreaking cries, the most ominous moans, the most arrogant roars, the most melancholic screams. What wounded animals -or demons – could be, you will ask yourself, capable of such violent sadness?
Only a few miles southwest of the town of El Estor a river enters Lake Izabal. El Rio Polochic, the biggest tributary to the biggest lake in Guatemala forks in a few smaller channels before reaching the lake to create a basin, vast and remote, of intimate hidden bays surrounded by flat swampy shores where dense grasses, bushes, and trees form an impenetrable green mass. The abundance of tropical vegetation is hysterical.

The three boats drop anchor in a little protected bay. Here every day is blessedly the same. There are no other people. Nothing moves. A place entirely devoid of civilization. This is one of the world’s most bio diverse areas. The waters of the delta are kingdom of fish, otters, manatees, and crocodiles. Its shores are home to coyotes, jaguars, sloths, and giant anteaters. The skies are patrolled by over 250 species of birds, among which herons, toucans, and parrots.

But while all these creatures try, at all cost, to make themselves as elusive as possible: hiding hushed beneath the waters, behind grasses and bushes, there are those who announce themselves from the top of the trees as “the seers upon the face of the earth”. At the break of day and just before the night falls, their screams knife the forest penetrating your chest to chill your blood. You might think, as i did, these are the voices of some huge ghostly creatures, abandoned, hurting beyond hope. Or you might think, as i did, they are fierce and mean, messengers of Satan, and are probably devouring somebody right now. Such are their howls: deep and sinister as if coming from hell. The howls of the Black Howler Monkeys of Guatemala. We would hear them at dawn and at dusk, never got quite used to their unholy cries.

The first time we kayaked upriver we saw them far in the distance. It was a last chance kind-of-thing before darkness fell and swallowed their shapes. We saw them, a group of about 10-12 up in the tree without leaves. Silhouettes sleeping upon the branches. Then the night came. And the enigma: How ware these creatures, not larger than dogs, capable of such loud screams?

The next day, we saw them again. We went kayaking for five hours upriver and floated back downriver with the gentle current, and a couple of howlers were chilling just above our heads, in a big tree. We looked at them, and they looked at us. To me, this first close encounter with the wild animals was like some sort of a miracle.

They looked annoyed by us, watching us with mistrust and disapproval. We were trespassing. One kept chewing leaves, stuffing them in his mouth with a very slow motion, returning my stare, telling me: “Move on, can’t you see I am trying to eat here in peace. This is my private branch. How would you feel if I came to your window to stare at you while you are having supper?”

He looked sad, mean, and ugly, I thought. His teeth yellow and crooked, his fur black, full of lice. His tale long and thick holding the branch like a dark tentacle. His mouth, incapable even of the slightest smile, endowed him with a bitter melancholic expression. But what impressed me the most were his eyes: wet, deep, full of secrets. His eyes were the eyes of someone who remembers the times, forever lost, when he was a prince. When he and his twin-brother were punished in a cruel act of revenge and banished to live in the tops of the trees, in the small mountains and the great mountains, never to return to the world of men.

About the Author: Mira Nencheva is a writer, photographer, and a nomad. With her husband and two children she is on an extraordinary journey around the globe aboard a 38 feet catamaran Fata Morgana, exploring natural and cultural sites of interest, living off grid, volunteering, and making art for social change. Stories and photographs of their journey can be found at The Life Nomadik

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Before and After Maria and CarmenFrom Forced Labor To The Classroom:

Maria and Carmen’s Second Last Chance

Guest Post by Luke Maguire Armstrong

Today, everyone reading this has an opportunity to not just travel the world, but make a difference in the lives of those in need they encounter along the way.

It is difficult to believe that I first met Maria and Carmen four years ago. It was my second year as director of a development project in Guatemala and though I had seen a lot, I had not been prepared for the realities a visit to a garbage dump near the foot of the volcano Acatenango. A friend in colleague who ran the projects anti-human trafficking program first brought me there in his effort to help break out two families from their forced labor situation.

The garbage dump was perpetually on fire due to spontaneous combustion of chemicals trapped deep below. Above the roaring volcano let out occasional rumbles followed by a dusting of ash. “Hell,” my colleague called the place. But if this was hell, what had these children before me done to get here?

Amid the noxious chemicals, a half dozen children, shoeless and clad in rags, were collecting garbage. Every day during daylight hours they were sent into the refuse to salvage plastic bottles and aluminum cans, earning on a good day around forty cents.

Over weeks, months, and then years, the program I represented was able to take some of these children in and put them in school. Without that intervention the children likely would not be with us today, would still be in the garbage dump, or would have grown older and been put into the even more vicious sex trade.

WATCH: INTEGRAL HEART FOUNDATION DOCUMENTARY GUATEMALA

The years they spent in the project were at times a trying change for them to adjust to, but it was ultimately successful. Maria who attended school on the same grounds where my office was often appeared timidly at my door. I was perpetually busy, but always stepped away from my work when she came. We would color with crayons and talk. I remember in particular when my parents came to visit the warm embrace she gave my mom, overcoming her shyness for an instant. We promised these girls one thing, that if they continued to study, we would continue to support them.

After four years in the field, I returned to the United States to put writing on the front burner, while continuing to support development efforts when and where possible. I am not privy to the details of what led to them leaving the project. I do know that the anti-human trafficking state department grant that my colleague had procured was not renewed after our wake.

I doubt decision to discontinue promised ongoing support would  have been made were there other options. But whatever the reasons may have been, Maria and Carmen, after three years of schooling, were back out on the streets. That news felt like a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, to watch the things you gave your life to, broken.

Integral Heart Foundation
Integral Heart Foundation

Thankfully is not strong enough a word, but I’ll use it. Thankfully, in the end, this work was not broken and Maria and Carmen were not lost to the streets. Today they are supported in their home life and studies by a charity I have been close to since they were founded: The Integral Heart Foundation. Their simple model of “Nourish, Learn, Socialize, and Transform” is working. They continue to work to grow so that their efforts can continue to make tangible and sustainable differences.

Development is not about “saving people” it is about evening the playing field and giving children like Maria and Carmen the tools that they need to have the choice to do more than merely survive. Maria and Carmen have made their own decisions that they want to study to get an education and live a life where survival is not a daily struggle.

You, the reader, are part of a generation that is thirsty not only to experience the world, but to use its advantages to help ensure that the world does not forget about people like Maria and Carmen. The starting premise of philanthropy is that human beings do not just have the inner desire, but also possess the inner ability, to help reach out and help children like Maria and Carmen. You have this ability.

This giving season, this site is taking part in the Travel Bloggers Without Borders campaign to raise enough funds to provide education for 55 children in Guatemala such as Maria and Carmen. By clicking through (and asking others to do the same) and making a donation of whatever you can ($1, $15, $25, etc… ),  you contribute in a very real way to changing someone’s life.

Please help us by spreading the world and making a donation today. Don’t just travel the world; help make it a better place for everyone!

About the Author: Luke Maguire Armstrong (TravelWriteSing.com) once fought a bear and almost died. Haters later claimed it was “only a raccoon” and he was “acting like a baby.” Luke took offence to this, since he used to be one. When he is not being mauled by animals, Luke is an author and travel writer who has spent the last five years working in human rights and development from Guatemala to Kenya to The Bronx. He is the author of four books, including “How We Are Human” and “iPoems For the Dolphins to Click Home About.” Follow him @LukeSpartacus and he will sing you songs.

DSC_6286“Are you afraid of death?” he asks me with the same intonation as if he is asking Do you like yellow flowers. I don’t know how to answer. My mouth becomes dry. “When you go to the graveyard, are you scared?” he clarifies.

“When I was a little girl, yes, I was scared of death and to go in graveyards, but now no. Now I am more afraid of the living than of the death.” We both lough at the joke.

We are walking on a dirt road through a vast plantation of palm trees, the guy and me, past a palm-oil treatment plant, across a wide shallow river, and into the shadow of a jungle-covered mountain. Ivo, Joni, and the two other guys are walking ahead of us. We met them this morning. We don’t know their names. We don’t know if they are good guys or bad guys. All we know is that they are young indigenous Q’eqchi men who agreed to take us to a cave in the mountain above their village. They are wearing jeans, t-shirts and black rubber boots, carrying small backpacks and machetes.

The whole thing happened spontaneously. We were sailing along the remote edge of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake. It was getting late; we had to find a place to anchor overnight. We approached the shore where a big column of grey smoke was coming out of the forest: a village, we thought, and that’s where we stopped. From the boats we saw a few houses on the banks of the lake. Tiny, made of thin logs and roofs of dry palm leaves. Behind them, the heavy humid mountains of Sierra de las Minas: white limestone covered with thick intensely green jungle. The night fell.

In the morning the entire village gathered on the shore to meet our kayak. Caxclampon Pataxte is a small community of a few hundred indigenous Q’eqchi, mostly children. Tourists don’t stop here often, and so our visit is a huge event.

“Are there caves near-by?” I ask. Only a few speak Spanish.

“Yes, there is a cave not too far; we can take you there if you like.” Thus begun our journey.

Once we enter the jungle and start climbing the mountain there is no road anymore. Our progress is slow and difficult. The guides use their machetes to cut a path through tangled vegetation and dig holes in the steep slopes making steps for us. The terrain is extremely harsh, at places seems impossible to pass.

By the time we reach the cave, our guides tell us all about their struggles against the Colombian palm-oil company which, since over a decade now, is exploiting and polluting their land. The vast plantations of palm trees we have seen on our way, the smoke of the palm-oil treatment plant, the channels dumping chemical waste in the lake, are all killing the trees, poisoning the water, and bringing disease to their children. They have been robbed of their ancestral land by a corporate giant and are now fighting to get it back.

By the time we come back from the cave, we have become friends. The kind of friends who can count on each other. We could count on them for protection against the village crooks and the company people who saw us taking pictures and filming around the palm-oil treatment plant; they could count on us to tell their story of struggle against injustice.

We get to the cave’s entrance after about three hours of extreme hiking through the jungle. It is a small hole in the grey rocks leading down. The three guys stop at the edge of the hole to say a muffled prayer in Q’eqchi before going in. We follow. It is a place they rarely visit, they say, a sacred site for prayers and rituals; for secrets and secret knowledge. We are the first white people to ever enter this cave.

They lead us into a narrow dark corridor, humid and cool. We get to a chamber. The light of a small flashlight illuminates scattered objects on the floor: yellow bones, human skulls, lower jaws with crooked teeth. Some are calcified to the cave’s walls; others lay loose on the ground. It is a Tomba Maya, they explain, a Mayan burial ground. The skeletons must be hundreds of years old, they say, from the times before the Conquista.

Being in the presence of ancient Mayan remains is something both strange and beautiful. In the dark, my mind begins to wander. The cave with its breath of a carnivorous flower becomes a temple; I become a ghost from a faraway land.

“I am honored and deeply grateful, I whisper, to be here with you: men with machetes, bones with souls, mountains with secrets.”

About the Author: Mira Nencheva is a writer, photographer, and a nomad. With her husband and two children she is on an extraordinary journey around the globe aboard a 38 feet catamaran Fata Morgana, exploring natural and cultural sites of interest, living off grid, volunteering, and making art for social change. Stories and photographs of their journey can be found on Facebook.

27547_5240b6dc3e5cd7.58223664-big (1)“First the earth was created, the mountains and the valleys. The waterways were divided, their branches coursing among the mountains. Thus the waters were divided, revealing the great mountains. For thus was the creation of the earth, created then by Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth, as they are called. They were the first to conceive it.” -Popol Vuh

Very gently, like a thief entering a sleeping house, the fairy Morgana slides through the gates of the mountain: the mouth of Rio Dulce. It is the entrance to another world. Rocky shores (temples without roofs) overgrown with dark trees. Dark trees (sorcerers with sleeping birds and snakes in the hair) stretching thin fingers down, down to the green waters of the river. Green waters of the river (messenger of the tallest mountain and forgotten places) carrying aromas and the petrified reflections of ancient gods.

Nothing happens. Like in a vacuum. Like in a dream. Rocky shores, dark trees, green waters of the river-serpent. Only forest butterflies, men of maize in cayucos carved from trees fishing with nets made of Mayan secrets, and our alien boat sailing through the mountains perturb the slumber of this enchanted world.

Nothing happens for three days and three nights. We remain anchored near Cayo Quemado, a few mile before the town of Rio Dulce, unable to continue, slowly letting Guatemala soak in our bones through our skins, through our eyes, ears, and mouths.

Our mornings are populated by crystal drizzle, the smell of small fires, and the cry of a black forest bird.

A silent cayuco sneaks next to our boat. A mother with three children older than time are selling tamales. She made them this morning over the fire, with her hands and her magic. She put a chicken bone for a skeleton in the middle of corn-rolls and wrapped them, like a newborn baby, in palm leafs. Over the fire, under her spell. They taste of palm leafs, smoke and flesh.

Our afternoons move slowly in the heat of the summer and even stop for an hour or go backwards. Time here is not the same.

On the second day we meet the river people. Half human half fish they live in the river from the waist down and in the forest from the waist up. They have small wooden houses built on the river banks. Their cayucos glide like snakes on the surface of the waters. They have no other roads but the rivers. Their enemies are the invisible river crabs.

Our evenings are purple with white dots. Purple like the mountain. The white dots are the lilies near the shores and the egrets returning to sleep in the trees.

Our nights are filled with the distant songs of frogs and cicadas, and the melancholic cries of the river manatees.

About the Author: Mira Nencheva is a photographer, writer, and a nomad. Her house is a 38-foot sailboat called Fata Morgana. Mira, her husband, and two children travel around the glove exploring natural and cultural sites of interest, living off grid, volunteering, and making art for social change.

antiguaIn the spring of 2012 I was blessed with the opportunity to go with my school to Antigua, Guatemala to serve the schools, orphanages, and community. After much fundraising and hard work with my team, we went on our way to this beautiful city. It was as if I had gone back in time. The cobblestone streets, the ruins everywhere you look that have been standing for hundreds of years, untouched. These buildings emanate culture, history, and overwhelming beauty. There was always a smile in my heart. The love and appreciation that was welling up inside of me for this culture and place was weighty and abundant. As I walked those streets I left bits of my heart in many places.

Every sunset burst with light and life. Every human I encountered was unique and beautiful. Every building was big and strange with many steps, caves, and magnificent rooftops. There was color and sound everywhere. My senses were heightened. I noticed and enjoyed every detail. I sucked in all the experience and culture I could while I was there. Every morning was spent singing songs with my friend Allison as we walked along the old streets, covered in footsteps. Every place had a story, so many stories, in every building, on every street, in every soul.

I encountered many different humans. I saw and understood something different about life each time I touched someone’s hand or looked into someone’s eyes. It was as though everything was speaking the “Language of the World” that “The Alchemist” speaks of. This “language” is wordless but loud. It speaks directly to the soul and things are understood deep inside of you. You can’t explain them but you just know. At the end of each day I had dirt on my feet and life in my heart.

Along with traveling throughout the city serving the community and schools, there was one thing we were able to do that will never flee from my heart and mind; I won’t let it. Each day of the week we were there we visited a local orphanage called “Hermano Pedro” for a few hours. On the outside, the building was old, grand, yellow, and beautiful. On the inside, there was hurt, pain, and parentless children. But, in every dark place, there is always some kind of hope. This wasn’t just a normal orphanage. This was an orphanage for handicapped children. Although all were handicapped, I never saw a more diverse group of people. Some children were playing, some couldn’t move, some laughed with us, some didn’t have the ability to respond in any way, some were lively, and some were near death.

When I first walked in and looked around, my heart was aching. The pain was emotional and physical. I felt heaviness inside of me for the brokenness in this world. I swallowed any fears I had and went to meet with some children. The heaviness was still there throughout the entire visit but what seemed like something so wrong and broken, was really great beauty and life; life like I have never encountered before. I sat with a little girl for a while. She stared blankly at the wall and never spoke. I didn’t care. I pushed her chair to the middle of the courtyard and sang to her. I placed small flowers throughout the dirty braid in her hair. About thirty minutes went by and she never responded or made a sound. I decided to put her chair back where it was and leave her be. As I parked her chair she began to cry and scream. She squeezed my hand with all her strength, begging me to stay. A light went on inside of me and as I looked into her eyes, I saw her soul. What I saw was her, the real her, her essence. I was in awe. I couldn’t speak. I could only stare, in that moment. I felt united with her, connected to her. It was a tacit conversation. This little girl, God’s beautiful creation, I realized, is a human being, just like me. Although I couldn’t see her expression of gratitude, as she squeezed my hand, I felt her emotions flow from her beautiful soul.

Yes, this little girl is handicapped. Yes, she can’t walk or talk. But, none of that makes her less of a human than I. In reality, we are all handicapped. We all have something that seems broken, messed up, or wrong. Her handicap is just seen on the outside. Regardless of her outward “hindrances” this little girl is a human with worth and purpose. God made no mistake. He uses her to express light and beauty in a way that is uncommon and strange but so compelling and noticeable. I sat with her and looked at her, in awe of the beauty of this human, this soul. Antigua is filled with many magnificent and beautiful things but I think the people are the most beautiful and awe-inspiring of it all. I am grateful for this diverse world with diverse people, who each have a soul and a story.

About the Author: My name is Bridgett Cockrell and I am a senior in high school. I have a desire for travel, a passion for different cultures, and a deep love for people. Travel has always been one of the most important things to me. I love to encounter a people and culture that transcends and expands my experience and knowledge of this world.

river caveThe River Cave Expedition is the first of series of expeditions we went on together with our friends, the Friendship crew and the Czechs, on the north and west shores of Lago Izabal, Guatemala’s biggest lake where we sailed together for two weeks.

The members of the River Cave Expedition include four adults, one teenager, and four kids. Josef and Katchka 4 (s/v Blizzard); Daeli, Noial 10, and Lovam 5 (s/v Friendship); and Ivo, Mira, Viktor 16, and Maya 10 (s/v Fata Morgana). Total of nine people.

We start at the Agua Caliente waterfall going up river. There is no other path but the riverbed. In the beginning it is wide and shallow surrounded by lush jungle vegetation. But soon it gets narrower and the water becomes deeper and faster, cutting a deep canyon through the mountain’s grey rocks. An awe-inspiring view.

Some places are difficult and dangerous to pass; we help the younger kids climb big boulders and swim across deeper waters. Josef has to carry Katchka most of the time. At least, she is not complaining. Lovam accepts help very rarely and only if he truly needs it trying to keep up with Maya and Noial who are jumping from rock to rock with great ease leading the expedition.

After a while we get to a small pool of green water where the river suddenly stops, turns towards the eastern wall of the canyon and enters a dark cave. We follow. The water inside the cave is still, deep, and freezing cold. This is the place where the river sleeps. We only have two submergible flashlights for nine people, so we keep one in front and one in back of the group. We swim in the dark cold water getting deeper and deeper into the cave until we don’t see light from the entrance any longer. The world becomes black. Colors never existed here; the sun has no memory of this place. We are blind.

It is a completely new and bizarre feeling swimming in a cave, in total darkness. We hear the tiny sounds of bats above our heads. We are trying to hold on to the wet slippery rock-walls covered with guano. Everything is mysterious. Who knows what thing without eyes is lurking in the waters beneath. Who knows what thing without soul is listening from the cave’s ceiling some 30-40 feet above our heads.

Only if you abandon yourself to the cave and its secrets you will be able to feel and enjoy it. Fear should not enter the river-cave.

Everyone is silent. At places there are big rocks we have to go over one by one helping each other. I am expecting some of the kids to start panicking in the darkness, but it seems they all are truly enjoying the ride, even Katchka, she is so brave! Even Viktor told me later this was his favorite of all expeditions so far.

The silence is filled with the muffled sound of water booming in the distance: an underground waterfall. The roar trapped in the cavern gets louder as we go further and soon we cannot hear each other anymore. We now feel the strong current against us. The waterfall is about fifteen feet tall and the only way to continue would be to climb over it. So we turn back. We now have to go to the beginning, the same way we came.

Exiting the cave is a happy moment. I think of Plato’s caveman and his amazement at the outside world. The trees, the river, the clouds, the rocks. We look at each other and we lough. Wow, what an experience!

TikalI was leery of the small plane waiting to whisk us to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. I am not a fan of heights and tolerate air travel only because I love visiting far-flung places difficult to reach any other way.

My sister and my niece grabbed their backpacks and dragged me forward. It was early morning, the sun shone and was already getting hot. We walked across the tarmac and boarded the plane.

The flight across the mountains and forests of Guatemala was beautiful, unhindered by the poor streets, highway bandits, and poverty we would have encountered along the road. Soon we were once again outside, squinting, getting accustomed to the light and searching for our tour guide.

Our guide Enrique enthralled us with tales of the ancient capital city, the Mayan people, and the land encompassing Tikal National Park. As we drove the van passed under a canopy of trees shielding us from the blinding sun. The park seemed devoid of activity, but it covers a huge expanse and the few people around were spread far and wide.

Walking through the thick jungle, our Mayan guide transported us back in time. We started to visualize the place as the center of a vibrant civilization, with a population at its peak, during the eighth century A.D., estimated as high as 120,000.

Some buildings are excavated, but most remain totally or mostly covered with a thousand years of jungle growth. Remnants of buildings poke out between trees, hinting at past greatness. Workers have carved wide walkways from the ruins of age-old roads.

Civilizations rise and fall for a variety of reasons. No one knows why Tikal declined, but speculation includes a combination of overpopulation, a series of agricultural failures, and wars lost. The city was abandoned before the twelfth century.

Local folklore remembered the grandeur of the past, and the overgrown, covered pyramids, temples, monuments and residences were rediscovered by the outside world in the nineteenth century.

Walking in the intense heat and climbing pyramids was exhausting. Only Enrique’s monologue and our whining about the heat broke the quietness.

We stopped in a clearing, taking shade under trees while our guide explained the buildings surrounding us, pyramids constructed in a design that gauged and emulated the seasons. A couple of low tables displayed small bouquets of fresh flowers and votive candles. Enrique explained this was a sacred place to Mayans. The people come to pray and leave tokens for their ancestors and deities.

Suddenly there was total, complete silence. A couple of birds cooed, a low sound breaching the stillness but not the peaceful atmosphere. Not a leaf stirred.

We looked around, observing the tall gray stone pyramids defining the clearing. We could almost see long-robed priests moving back and forth along the path between the structures.

The sound of a lute-like instrument unexpectedly broke the silence. Our guide had taken it from his pocket and began playing a slow, mournful tune.

After several minutes the music stopped.

“My grandfather taught me that song. He learned it from his father. It is a song of my people reaching back many, many generations.”

And then Enrique jolted us back to the twenty-first century.

He broke out singing an enthusiastic rendition of “Havah Nagilah,” a Hebrew folk song meaning, “let us rejoice”. A Mayan entertaining us with Israeli music in the midst of the Central American rainforest was mystifying.

Enrique had never left Guatemala. Where did he learn the Hebrew song?

“We get a lot of visitors from Israel. A group of young Israelis taught me the song. Now I love to sing it here.” The song resonated throughout the clearing.

Enrique finished, smiled and moved us along. We walked into what was once the main plaza.

Our imaginations took over. Weeds disappeared and the dislodged stones became roads, terraces and buildings, the disheveled wilderness transformed. A bustling metropolis emerged with people milling about, children playing ball and calling to their friends, vendors selling food and trinkets, and carts arriving from throughout the empire filled with merchandise, people, and news of their world.

A dead, long-buried city, crowded with ghosts of the past, messed with our minds. Their spirits spoke to us and we tipped our sun hats to them.

Our guide’s ancestors reached across centuries to their Mayan descendants, exhorting them to remember and be proud of their legacy.

We flew home a couple of days later, wondering about our civilization’s legacy and, centuries forward, who will remember. And what will they remember?

About the Author: I am a freelance writer and blogger enjoying a new flextime career after fifteen years in the financial field. I love the freedom of writing about anything that interests me, including and especially travel and food. Check out my blog Six Decades and Counting.