In The Way

What the devil?

This quote came up as Kyle Bowers and I dipped our cookies in Guatemalan hot chocolate, enjoying our after dinner snack with Elder. We talk often after meals, allowing time for digestion and an opportunity to practice Spanish.

Yesterday was “La Quema Del Diablo”, or “The Burning of the Devil”. This is a large wooden Devil burning, representing an anticipation for the pure day of Christ, Navidad (Christmas).

Photo Taken From the MSNBC Photo Blog

Elder told us tradition for families is to take objects from within their home to the fire, burning them in a purification ceremony. Apparently this year was different because of environmental complaints of burning trash including rubber tires.

I asked Elder if the locals ever throw tourists in, and he said, in Spanish, “Yes, tourists, dogs, tires, children, textbooks, lots of things”. We all laughed heartily when Kyle responded,

“Yeah, but Elder, we’re not tourists.”

We started this trip as tourists. We knew  little Spanish and knew  little of the customs, traditions, and culture of Guatemala. We came without gifts and with cameras, taking pictures of anything and everything.

This is our last week in Guatemala and I have an odd feeling, one I’ve missed for  7 months. I  feel welcome here. I feel like a part of a family made up of friends both Guatemalan and International. I have places to hang out that are not sponsored by Starbucks, and places to study. Antigua is a tourist town, and our shift away from tourists has been unexpected. After three months, I feel at home, a part of Antigua.

How did we go from being tourists to being students and friends?

Here are some of things that happened.

Students study, not spend. I’ve spent many nights at home studying Spanish instead of going out. Many tourists come and buy  souvenirs without having time to appreciate everything that makes up Antigua, Guatemala. Reading about the culture, studying Spanish, and talking with locals about the history and culture is more valuable than a turtle bobblehead.

Meet your neighbors. This is difficult in all urban environments, but thankfully Antigua is a walking town. If I see someone who lives on our block, I go out of my way to meet them. This once meant helping the head of Nuevo Acropolis  (an organization that carries T-shirts saying ‘DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE’) unload a large stack of plywood and signage from his truck at 11PM on a Friday night. We also greet people standing outside their house with, “Buenos Tardes”, “Que Tal, Vos?” or “Feliz Noche!”.

Visit the same place more than once. Or, find an awesome place and go there again and again. Some of my closest friends here in Guatemala I have met while hanging around our favorite cafe, “PorQue No?” or, “Why Not?”. By visiting this cafe daily we have developed a true sense of family. Just today I shared with the owner, Carlos, some Charlier Parker and John Coltrane music, as well as American-style gingerbread cookies.

These ideas aren’t crazy, but community is often simple. I am coming to appreciate a wonderful and simple life with neighbors, friends and family.

In the past I’ve used travelling as a form of escapism, getting away and exploring new things, meeting new people. Valerie and I met people this summer who knew their “backyard” well, when we were most definitely tourists. Our challenge is to invest, like they had, in one geographic area.

The challenge to get to know my own backyard is a challenge I hope to keep. A sort of localization of thoughts and experiences, focusing on the surroundings, not where I could be instead. Simplicity and satisfaction.

And really, it takes more than a few days to get to know a place like Antigua, Guatemala.

Here’s a dramatic video of what the devil it looked like yesterday.

Guatemala, I will miss you.


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