On Friday, June 15, I was privileged to be able to take a bus ride on the tortuous route through the breathtaking countryside surrounding Lake Atitlan toward the small community of Santa Catalina. Located on the very edge of the lake and set just forward of Panajachel, a larger, developed, well-known town in the region, Santa Catalina is built up along the walls of the mountains receding from the lake, with a blanket of homes sweeping up towards the summits.
As nice as the view of the town was, its inhabitants were the object of my visit. After around an hour and a half drive, I pulled up in the town center, met one of the workers from the CFCA (Christian Foundation for Children and Aging), and was escorted up into the middle of town to a small home, where I met Juana, the older sister of my family’s sponsored child Olivia. Juana called up to the house in the Mayan language Kakchiquel, and a moment later, I saw Olivia.
It truly was powerful to meet her. In many ways Olivia has been like another daughter in our family. We have exchanged letters over the past 9 years, in which we’ve been able to learn about her family, her studies and the hard work she puts in at school, and basic information about her town. Since I was in high school, I have always entertained the nice but assuredly unattainable dream of perhaps visiting her one day, and it was that very thought that gave me the idea of coming to Guatemala this summer in the first place. I’ve been blessed to be involved in a great mission down here and to really experience the life of the San Lucas community, and that has truly been a special opportunity. But my entire experience of this place so far disappeared from my mind completely as I saw Olivia walk down the pathway to greet me. I could hardly believe my eyes. Nor that I was actually shaking her hand, walking with her, and speaking with her. It was surreal, and so real at the same time.
Olivia brought me to her family’s house, where I was able to meet her mother Rosa, her youngest sister, also Rosa, and two of her nephews. The family speaks Kakchiquel, and they have only learned Spanish either, as in Olivia’s case, through school, or, for the rest of the family, through work and interactions with people in Panajachel. Thus, much of our conversation took place via interpreter, a bizarre phenomenon for me, who have been acting as Spanish to English interpreter since the day I arrived for the North American volunteers who come to the mission.
Olivia told me about how she has just begun her first year of high school, something that is truly significant here since most people, unless they live in San Lucas where the mission school is, have to pay to send their children to school, and even in San Lucas the high schools are all private and expensive. Most young people here attend primary school until about the age of 13 or 14 and then begin to work to help support the family. Olivia and her mother both expressed how blessed they felt that she was able to attend school, especially because none of the other family members has ever gone to high school.
As we sat in Olivia’s small, simple home and conversed about our families and livelihoods, we were able to exchange a few simple gifts (a Spanish version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe among them). I was also able to travel with Olivia to the CFCA office and show her several pictures of my family members on one of the computers there; I think she was surprised how many of us there are!
The driver who brought me to Santa Catalina was gracious enough to transport us to Panajachel, and Olivia and I were able to go to a shoe store where she was able to choose a nice pair of shoes to wear to school, something I am sure, based on my experience having a plethora of sisters, meant a lot to her. We even went out for a bite to eat at a tiny eatery with delicious fried chicken, homemade jalapeño sauce, and fresh tamarindo juice. Olivia expressed a tremendous amount of gratitude and appreciation, and I was overjoyed to be able to represent my family and enact their desire to treat her to something special like the rest of us, her North American siblings.
At the end of our time together, we both thanked each other sincerely for the time we shared together. We told each other we and our families would continue to pray for each other, exchanged a hug, and parted ways. I can’t really put into words the bittersweetness of that farewell. It completely caught me by surprise to experience palpable heartache while driving away from her and from Santa Catalina, considering I had only just met her for the first time. I felt like I was parting with a dear family member whom I had known for a very long time. Even now, four days later, the simple recollection of that moment evokes the same emptiness in my chest. I can’t explain why I feel so close with my Guatemalan sister; I can only tell that I do, a statement I make with insufficient exaggeration.