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A letter from YAV Andrew Jamieson in Guatemala

February 2011

I am on a three-week break from my work at Ventanas Abiertas (open windows), the library and resource center in San Miguel Dueñas, Guatemala, where I have been placed as a YAV. I had been doing any number of things while they were open — teaching piano to the kids in the music class every day, reading books with the kids, helping with their youth session in the evenings, translating letters, cutting cardboard squares for crafts, teaching English, etc. The Guatemalan school year goes from January until October every year, and so our “summer,” began around the time I first arrived in Dueñas. Ventanas Abiertas itself offered about two months of summer school classes and finally closed shortly before Christmas. Kids will be coming back in February. There may be a few things I can do to help them prepare this month, but not for at least another week.

But I have not yet gotten a break from being a YAV, and I suppose I may not as long as I am in Guatemala. Not if my work as a YAV includes building relationships with the people around me, experiencing and participating in a new culture, way of life and income level (not to mention a new language!), participating in local church activities and spending time and energy understanding God, from the perspective of our own life, as a small part of God’s entire world or something in between.

Since I am living with a host family, I cannot help but build relationships with the people around me. After all, there has to be at least a little interaction between us if we are going to share a bathroom or a pila and clothes line for laundry, let alone a meal together or share a trip to the next town over, (or once in a while a trip to the next country over). And I think our interaction must have gone somewhere beyond basic necessity when we have in depth conversations about our families or the Guatemalan or U.S. economy. Or when I am greeted with an “¡Hola Andrés!” (“Hello Andrew!”) when I am not looking. The kids here “promise” it is their parrots who inexplicably escape from their cage to come and greet me whenever I am around, but since it only happens when certain kids are nearby (and I have never seen the parrots outside their cage!), I am beginning to develop my doubts ... But this usually leads to a lively discussion, which might give way to some games or a few English or piano lessons or something else I did not expect. (I did not come to Guatemala with tons of experience with kids and I am learning a whole lot right now!) And it was certainly not necessary (although a lot of fun) for me to join my family last week on their monthly day-long (1:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.) trip to Tapachula, Mexico. Goods are cheaper there and they can go to buy things for their personal use as well as resale in Guatemala.

These same experiences are going to inevitably turn into experiences of a new culture and way of life, not to mention the fact that almost all of it takes place in my second language. The Guatemalans I am living with seem much more aware of the unequal economic systems in which we live than anyone else I have lived with. It is no secret to them that they are significantly below me and my country on the economic ladder (although my family is by no means the poorest of Guatemalans) and they are much more comfortable talking about that with me than I am. The realities of living with fewer luxuries are perhaps a bit easier to handle, as someone who has always felt called to a simple lifestyle. I still had to learn a few new things, like washing clothes by hand and to be careful not to drink from the faucet.

Observing and learning to understand my host family’s value system has perhaps been the greatest challenge. My own interpretation of the “parrot” greetings or things that the kids do to me is simply as a way for them to get the attention of an introverted and mildly autistic foreigner who is not yet automatically tuned into the way kids, especially Guatemalan kids think and act. I always appreciate this interaction as a way of getting myself out of my own world, and I am slowly finding ways of turning this into more productive interaction. The parents on the other hand label their kids’ behavior “molestando” (bothering), and do their best to get them to stop whenever they see it. By itself, this is not a big problem for me, because I can tell the parents that I do not mind, and that I know how to tell them to stop when they are doing something I do not like, and then trying to turn our interaction into an English lesson, or something.

What is harder for me are the times when the parents catch their kids molestando, and happen to be carrying a wooden spoon, with which they are ready to hit their kids at any moment. I have become more interested in perceiving than judging their culture and philosophies. I offer my own thoughts and opinions only when they are welcome and I am not interested in changing their parenting. Nevertheless, there is a part of me that feels I am letting down some people I respect back in the United States who might expect me to express disapproval or demand change. My greatest challenge is an inner challenge: to let go of expectations I perceive from my own culture, even when I may no longer agree.

Differing medical philosophies have also been a challenge. I was brought up to use natural mechanisms, like sleep, water to fight sickness, because a lot of medicine will bring more bad than good. Most Guatemalans I have met seem to believe that any symptom, no matter how small, is a reason to take some pills and avoid some things I thought were helpful, like drinking water. Personally, I never want to tell anyone around me how to take care of themselves, and I respect their own medical philosophies. But sometimes it seems like this favor only goes one way. Whenever I display a cold symptom, I am told that I need to take some kind of medicine. Sleep is not considered sufficient medicine. And certainly not water! I appreciate their efforts in caring for me the best way they know how, but it may take (at least) the rest of my YAV year for me to learn how to balance my respect with another culture with my form of respect for my body, and how (if at all) I can bring those together.

My host family’s church is called Fuego Santo (Holy Fire), and it is in San Antonio, Guatemala, the next town over. Although much of Central American culture seems to be linked to the Catholic Church, Fuego Santo is part of the sizable Protestant, Pentecostal influenced evangelica community in Guatemala. I think somewhere between 70 and 100 people come to the service ever Sunday afternoon, and only a slightly smaller number come for the one on Wednesday evening. I used to go with my host-uncle every Tuesday night for the recently discontinued men’s prayer: a short bible reading/sermon and a long prayer, mostly on our knees with almost everyone praying their own prayer — out loud — at the same time. But my favorite part at that church has been playing with their alabanza ministry — their band. I have learned the chords to a good number of Spanish-language popular Christian songs, although I have a good number more to learn. As long as I am able to get to rehearsals and services on time, I play along with them on their second keyboard, and I think all of us enjoy it a lot. I know I do!

And of course, we have had time and opportunity for reflection about our life with God. Our YAV group comes together for retreats every month or so to talk about our time and work in Guatemala. We also discuss a variety of topics, such as the Guatemalan civil war and economic injustice from a biblical perspective. We are currently reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the complexities of the U.S. food industry, so we can better understand what we are eating and how to make more informed choices about it.

But if the other YAVs are anything like me, it’s not just during the retreats that we spend our time on this kind of reflection. Every moment of challenge or joy this year in Guatemala has led me to reflect. I have discovered my own cultural biases as well as others in any new cultural experience. I am discovering my own role in an unjust economic system, and how I might best respond. I have carefully observed the extent to which I enjoy or am challenged by so many of my moments this year in Guatemala, and I am gaining a strong sense of my passions and callings for the rest of my life. I am in no hurry for this YAV year to end, but I am also excited for the new sense of calling and inspiration I will bring when I come back.

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