This voyage has made me realize that it’s not about going out there to discover the meaning of life. It’s about collecting special moments that add up to measure one’s life. There are no ribbons or confetti, no big celebration at the end of each journey, simply a lingering smile, a faded photograph or a scar. The time to celebrate your life and the people you encounter is now. Here is the story of our trek to a remote Maya village, and returning with an ever growing compassion toward our fellow human.
It’s 7:30 am when a weathered mid-80’s Toyota pickup pulls into the boatyard. Two gentlemen climb out and introduce themselves. The passenger is Daniel Rabre, from the Guatemalan health department. Daniel will be our interpreter and diplomat for the expedition. The unnamed driver of the Toyota pickup gives us a nod; we later nickname him “El Toro.” The group is finally complete when a local, aspiring electrician named Oswaldo joins us. We load the pickup with food, water, camera gear, hammocks, a solar panel and gifts for kids. We give a tap on the roof and El Toro sets us on a path towards the misty mountains in the distance.
Going into this we only have a few facts. We know we’re headed to a small Mayan village by the name of Nuevo Nacimiento San Gil and that it’s a three hour jungle trek from Frontares where we’re anchored. However, Daniel and El Toro aren’t sure if the roads are passable by auto and no one in the group has ever stayed overnight in one of these villages before. To be honest we don’t know how the people of this community are going to treat a few gringos, a dog and a couple of Guatemalan guys from the big city.
The paved road quickly turns to gravel and then mud. We’re making a transition from the hustle of Fronteras to the slower rhythm of life in the Guatemalan countryside. The road zigs and zags through jungle, fincas and river after river. The mountains stand tall to the east and west, they are the lush foothills rolling away to the waters of the Golfete below.
The further we travel the more the jungle canopy engulfs the road. The ride puts us into an intoxicating trance. Looking up into the towering trees, the scarce sunlight flickers in our eyes. The smell of sweet wild flowers and fresh turned dirt fills our noses. It’s captivating. All cares about things to come or the time that has passed in our lives drifts off into the woods. This current moment in time is all there is. Like a day in childhood spent playing in the woods and daydreaming. No worries and no place to be but right here and right now. We had forgotten how to live in a passing moment, but the bumpy trip shakes us loose until all we can concentrate on is what’s around us.
After about two and a half hours of winding through the hills, the truck comes to a stop at a split in the road. Daniel opens his door and goes around to the 4 wheel locking hubs and turns them to 4x4. He points towards the split in the right that goes up the side of a mountain and says, “We start the real climb to the village now.”
The road is no wider than the truck and worn badly. There are exposed boulders every 10 feet and we can only muster up a couple miles per hour at full rev in granny low gear. We inch our way another few miles over sheer drop-offs and hairpin corners. As we top the next crest we see our first glimpse of the K'iche’ people; a little girl wearing a flowing traditional dress and a huge smile. She runs next to the truck waving us in and giggling. Her laughter gains a large crowd of followers which is when we realize, we’re in the right place.
There are no cars here in this village. The church is the only building with lights, powered by a donated generator. These people live very simply. Each family has their own little hill top and home with a thatch roof and dirt floors. The Quéche get their water from the streams that run through the community.
Followed by a brigade of kids, we pull up to the school and are welcomed by the teacher’s smiling face. All the kids have now lined up on the stoop of the school house ready to meet and investigate the new men that have arrived in their village. We climb out of the truck bed and shake their lil hands one-by-one. Besides the teacher and her parents, we’re almost sure that the whole village is made up of kids.
There are children of all ages running around in every direction. We can’t tell exactly how, but each child has some direct connection between them that is either biological, social or both. We see that they all take care of and watch out for one another. There’s a real sense of community in the people up here. The kids patiently teach us to say hello in their native tongue. We learn, “Banu” means hello which is met with, “HOOOO!” in response. They almost sing their words. It’s beautiful. The kids buzz with excitement. Even the teacher gives up on any kind of order for the day now that we’ve arrived.
After unloading our gear, El Toro starts his long journey back down the mountain before night fall. We watch him with the hope he’ll return tomorrow afternoon, but none of us are sure. All of us watch the dust from the pickup settle. We’re guests of the K'iche’ people now.
We brought a couple soccer balls for the kids to play with. A soccer game breaks out the second the ball is revealed. They yell, “Gringos, gringos!!” whenever one of us has the ball. The smiles on their faces and the energy they radiate is beyond infectious.
Their little legs tire and the game fizzles out, so we finally get to work on what we came here to accomplish: installing the solar panel and the lights it will power. When we climb up top, we see the school’s tin roof glows a rusty red and the walls boast a vibrant caribbean blue. The jungle comes right up to the school’s doorstep, providing a wild backdrop for the students’ lessons.
The children all gather around and just kinda watch from a couple feet away. Every time we turn around to grab a tool or run a wire, there’s inevitably one of the kids like a curious puppy at your heels. One girl even touches Brandon’s arm as we pass by in curiosity of his tattoos, something she may have never encountered.
The look in their eyes as the power goes on is full of mixed feelings. We can sense an inner dialogue taking place behind the eyes of each elder Maya. We think to ourselves, “Will this change their lives for the better?…How will they hold onto their culture and traditions with the constant pressure of the world around them?” Being here as agents of change makes us question things from the other side, but there’s no answering them right away. We stay hopeful because. It’s up to the K'iche’ to use it for what suits their lifestyle. The way we look at it, we’re simply helping share the practical gift of light.
But after all is said and done we didn’t only come up here to install a couple of lights and a solar panel. We made a pilgrimage here in hopes of finding a group of people still living close to nature. We came here with hopes of being accepted for the short time we have with this community. And it does feel like we’ll be leaving with a sharper perspective of the people we share this planet with. It becomes clearer every day on this voyage, in spite of our differences and struggles, there’s common ground to be found between all humans. A smile, a laugh, a hug, a game, a story.
The sun is low on the horizon as we put the final screw in, the scent of dinner cooking on an open fire drifts its way to us. The teacher approaches Daniel and says something about comida, we know that word. Daniel turns to us and says that the teacher’s mother is preparing a Mayan dinner for all of us tonight and she hopes that we come hungry. The smell of chicken, rice and beans fills the air and gives our crew a burst of energy to clean up our tools and convert the schoolhouse into a dining hall.
Auburn light rests on the thatch roof homes and the smoke of the community cooking fires lingers through the village. The teacher and all of her family come up the hill carrying plates of hot hand-made tortillas, roasted chicken, peppers, rice, beans and a unique Mayan drink. Under the lights we just installed, we push two long tables from the classroom together to resemble something like the last supper.
The room begins to buzz with three different languages. Big smiles and a sense of familia are all around. Food flies across the long table and everyone is trying to translate for each other as best they can. All of our faces light up with gratitude as we take our first bites into the homemade tortillas. By the end, there isn’t a sliver of meat or a grain of rice left on that table. We sit back with full bellies and a feeling of satisfaction from the day’s work.
The mother of the teacher looks straight down the table, right at Bru. She says something in her native tongue and laughs. Then she says something to me, then to Scottsman. We look at Daniel for an explanation. With a huge smile he translates for us, “You, you remind me of Jesus Christo. And you remind me of Moses and you, Santiago.”
Dinner gets cleaned up and they leave us to set up our hammocks for the night. As she leaves, the mother insists that we come to church tonight. We gladly accepted.
With about half an hour til the service, we string out 5 hammocks from the main support beams in this old rickety school house and it becomes home for the night. We can hear the eruption of music from the structure where the service is being held just a stone’s throw away.
Just so you know what we’re about to walk into here, this is an Evangelistic Christian service. So we think there will surely be singing and dancing and such. The three of us walk into the front doors of the chapel and probably 40 of the 43 people turn to watch us take our seats in the very last row, like the newcomers and late-arrivals always do.
Four young men are up on the stage; three boys in the band and the pastor. The lavish drapes hang from the ceiling and the florescent light pulses in rhythm with the church music due to their elaborate set of speakers. The service begins and the pastor starts with a few words to the people, then right away he calls up a young female to the alter. She’s a young 20 something woman who seems reserved and quiet as she approaches the stage with nervous hands shaking. But once she sets her notes on the altar she takes one last deep breath and with pure confidence, belts out a melody that rang throughout the hills of San Gil. The three of us sit in awe. The whole church begins to sing along in support.
The pastor stands proud at the back of the stage clapping an off beat rhythm with his eyes closed in praise. One after another the women come up to sing the sermon. It goes on like this for what seems like hours. Eventually the pastor comes up to the edge of the stage and motions to the congregation. They all stand up and start moving the chairs to the edge of the room to make the whole church into a center stage. The young women and and men all fall into line and began dancing and singing in unison. The Elders clap and sing along in support of the young ones as they dance their hearts out for us.
After this grand finale, Daniel turns to us and says the pastor wants us to come up to the stage to be recognized for all of our efforts in their village today. Once again, we say, “But of course,” not really knowing what they want from us. The village ambassador begins to translate again and tells us that the whole church is sending us gratitude. We’ll be on the receiving end of their prayer for a safe voyage wherever we may end up on our journey.
The three of us wander around the the newly lit school house till about midnight, capturing it against the pollution-free night sky. The jungle is alive with the sounds of creatures howling and chirping just feet away. The milky way slowly moves across the night sky as we crawl into our hammocks for the night.
We awake to the morning light shining on a half-dozen little Mayan faces peering in at us while we sleep. The roosters crow and the smell of breakfast wafts in the air. We decide to take a morning walk around the village to say goodbye and see what their life looks like this early in the day. A couple of women stand in a small stream collecting snails for lunch. They look at us with big smiles as if we’re just another welcome part of their small community.
We go from hilltop to hilltop, stopping in on each family’s home just to see what their life is like. The mother’s wave us over to their houses proudly, still in their pajamas. The children gather all their brothers, sisters and favorite pets together to take a family photo. They wave and giggle afterward as we leave each homestead.
Everyone is so welcoming and warm this morning. None of us want to leave after seeing the village in this light. We keep saying, “We just need one more day here in San Gil.” We don’t have one more day though. El Toro is pulling up the drive.
We leave in the back of that old pick up just as we came. We wave goodbye and the dust settles behind us. The Mayans will go back to life as it has been for generations. We go back to our mothership anchored somewhere on the Rio Dulce.
The Quéche people of San Gil have left a mark on us that shows as we trek back down the mountains. We were perfect strangers living worlds apart. And now we’ve shared a brief, but edifying experience together.
We may not die rich men in the end, but journeys like these filled with fond memories of our fellow man enrich our lives in ways that money never will. So here’s to humanity and the hope that each of us can rediscover the harmony that still lives in all of our hearts.