According to a recent Gallup Poll, the happiest people on the planet live in Latin America. Seven out of the 10 top locations with people reporting the most positive emotions are in Latin America. Guatemala ranks #7.
Generally, my observation is that while the Guatemalan people may be lacking in many of the basic necessities of life including clean water, education, modern technology and tools, and basic health care, they approach these things much differently than let's say the average American approaches them. While many who are richer in these things spend much time in worry and frustration, I find faith and patience in the Guatemalan.
I experienced this type of happiness with Ismael, Orfe, and their extended family on a trip to the sea. Each step of this wild adventure was met with smiles by not only ourselves, but by everyone we seemed to meet along the way.
The trip was spontaneous. It was first mentioned on December 26 that some would like to visit the river (Rio Dulce) and the sea (Caribbean Sea). After lengthy attempts of search on the internet and a multitude of phone calls, no rooms were found to be available. So what would any adventurous Guatemalan family do in this situation? Go anyway! And that we did!
We managed to get chores completed and food and bags packed in order to leave Santa Ana shortly after 11:00 am on December 28. Ismael's trusty van was packed with 14 people: Ismael, Orfe, Hanssel (19), Jesse (17), Franklin (15) and Anita (1), along with Orfe's sister Hilma (28) and her son Francisco (5), Orfe's sister Lesbi and her three children Francini (12), Otto (10) and Marjori (2). Orfe's mom and me. What a motley crowd!
Keep in mind that NOTHING was pre-planned. That whatever happened next, happened next and was a total gift from the God of Surprises! Nothing this grand could have ever been planned! I spent the whole time smiling and wondering just what could possible happen next!!
And isn't that how God wishes we would respond throughout each day of our lives? With a joyful anticipation and acceptance of the present moment and the goodness that is its provident gift?
The drive through the countryside on the only good road to that area was lovely and went by quickly. Soon we found ourselves in Rio Dulce where we stopped for lunch. The group decided to go on to Livingston that same afternoon. After some searching and dealing, Ismael was able to get us a boat, and we arrived in Livingston after about 90 minutes just at dusk while the old and unsophisticated shrimp boats were leaving for a night on the water. It was a fun and gorgeous ride!
Whatever promises were made in the dealings before getting onto the boat did not materialize. So, upon arrival at dusk, we were now in need of a place to stay. A young man claimed that he could help us find a place. We loaded up our stuff on our backs and walked uphill among crowds of people having fun in the cool evening of that Friday night at the shore. No rooms. No rooms. No rooms. Hmmm. So, while the group of us waited, Ismael and this fellow went off and looked. In the meantime, Orfe noticed another group getting picked up and inquired of the driver. Yes, he had a room! After discussion, we took it. To me, I felt as if we were Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay on that first Christmas. Most notably was the fact that there was absolutely no panic, no worry, no grumbling, just simple patience and complete faith that something was going to turn up.
We pull up to a grand place! We had one large room on an upper level with 8 twin beds, four big windows, a bathroom and a pool! It was a palace especially compared to the places at the landing that had no rooms! We changed clothes and loaded up again into the man's chicken bus and went back to Livingston to find a place to eat. Ismael's 7 stopped at Buga Mama's to eat! The name of the place alone made me laugh out loud!
While in Buga Mama's a group of 5 men came in carrying traditional instruments: a turtle shell, a conch shell, two skin drums and a set of marachas. They said that they were going to play us some music for the holidays. You could tell right away that these guys could not really play the instruments and were just a bunch of guys hoping to get a few dollars from the crowd. Their first number was Feliz Navidad. It was hilarious! No two of them were on the same beat and they seemed to be the only ones who didn't notice! It was just fun!!! Then they passed the turtle shell!
After leaving the restaurant we followed the crowd to the main square: a soccer court. Here a band was playing as well as providing other entertainment. It was packed, but, of course, we managed to walk right in and find seats for all of us together right then and there. And, of course, these seats just happened to be right next to the other part of our group who had gone elsewhere to eat! No cost. No one saved seats. Lots of family fun and laughter! Then we walked up the hill and found the man waiting with the chicken bus to take us on another fun Cedar-Point-like ride back to the hotel.
Once back at the hotel, the gang went to the pool to cool off! Me included! I went back to the room early and snuck in a shower (yes!) before everyone returned. By then the beds had been re-arranged so that Orfe's two sisters and families with her mom could all crowd onto 3 of the beds pushed together. The evening was cool with the screenless windows open all night. It was heavenly! The first day.
So a new day dawned! The group dressed for the beach (which was no where in sight) and took along a few things. We left with our bags packed in the room because, unfortunately, but of course, this room had only been available for that night! We set out walking slowly. I just followed the person in front of me praying that I would not slip on the wet clay as we walked up and down lonely paths. Orfe knew where we were going, but I had no idea. Soon we came to where the river met the sea. We needed to cross the river to get to the beach! We all piled into the tippy boat and two boys rowed us to the other side.
We walked some more and met only a few souls. This place was completely the opposite of the landing; it was quiet, uninhabited and peaceful in its raw beauty. Soon we came upon a place where we could eat breakfast. After a tasty traditional meal of eggs, plantains, beans and tortillas, we began to relax. I could not believe my eyes. There in front of me was a bamboo deck with three empty hammocks! I knew where I was headed!
While we were waiting for breakfast, Ismael had continued down the beach path in the hopes of finding a place to stay for the night. He found two rustic cabins, with four rooms, bathrooms, large screened windows, and 8 double beds located just off the beach! He and Hanssel spent much of the morning going back to the other hotel and getting our luggage to this new space. The family spent the day in the water, collecting shells, building sand castles, burying grama in the sand and resting in hammocks!!
There were not a lot of places for a family to camp out for the day along the length of the beach. There might have been 8 plastic tables with plastic chairs, 10 lounge type chairs and 5 hammocks in sight. What I noticed was that only one family claimed a spot for the day. At any given time, something was always free for the next person or family to use and move on. I felt that if this had been a scene on a beach in the USA, that the first groups would have staked their claims for the entire day. Most spent the day in the water or literally at the shore.
Evening came quickly and Ismael announced that most were going back to Livingston. He managed to get the owner of the only boat in sight to take us by water. It was dark, the boat had no lights or life preservers, but it sure was a beautiful ride under the full moon! The ladies got their hair braided, we bought ice cream, shopped a bit, ate a simple meal and soon found ourselves back on the boat. On the way back it started to pour! Amidst the laughter and the cold pellets of rain, there is a heavy tarp being passed forward from the back to the front seat where Jesse, Ismael and I were seated! We pulled the tarp arms length in front of us so that just our legs and feet were getting soaked...and we continued the bumpy ride to the shore....laughing and laughing!
I shared a room with Orfe's mom who calls me "Hija" (daughter). Though rested, I could not fall asleep until God sent the rain again which was such heavenly music and one of my favorite sounds through the open windows on the thatched roof! The second day.
Morning came. We ate breakfast at the little place next door (amidst the ever present stray dogs begging...even the stray dogs are patient!..you know that dog is resting his chin on my leg!) and packed up to leave. We walked back to the river using two boys with wheelbarrows as our helpers with the luggage.
Once again we were paddled across the river, this time in two shifts because of the luggage. We met other families on their way to the beach for the day. We hired a small chicken bus that took us back to the other shore where we once again got on our boat for the 90 minute ride down the river to Rio Dulce.
Whereas on the trip to Livingston we were paced to beat the dark, we had time to enjoy the tour on the way back. Our steersman took us through the lily pads, past a bird sanctuary and we stopped at a hot springs! It was one surprise after another of God's delights! As we were going down river, a small canoe with what looked like a mother and daughter were headed out into the river. They were headed right toward us, and neither of us appeared to be stopping or changing course. The two in the canoe grabbed our rails and I thought that perhaps they were hitching a ride. Then I looked down into their canoe....they were selling all sorts of trinkets...it was a market in a canoe!
We were now back to the banks at Rio Dulce and back into the van. Then another stop along the way. This time to the Spanish Fort, Castillo de San Felipe. Moat, cannons and the whole thing. It was a perfect location on the river for a fort as it was at a bend and had vision of both directions of the beautiful river. The passages were extremely narrow, convoluted and downright dangerous as it was totally dark in some places with steep steps and low ceilings! We ate a vendors food under a tent as it rained but did not dampen our spirits!) and then headed back to the bus for the trip home.
Perhaps this is the description of your worst nightmare rather than a dream vacation. It was all in the attitude of happiness, family spirit, acceptance and trust. I never heard one complaint from anyone. I never heard anyone wish for something different than what we had. I never heard one negative remark to, from, or about anyone else inside or outside of the group. It was Kairos time. It was a time to participate instead of anticipate (from TEC). It was love, joy and laughter! How this type of being, this type of attitude of complete dependence on God, could change a life....and our world.
That evening back at home in San Benito, I asked Franklin and Jesse what their favorite memory of the trip was. Franklin said that for him it was the trips on the river. Jesse looked at me and said, "Right now, this minute, is my favorite." What wisdom from a young soul.
Gracias, Senor, for the gift of these days together.
Postscript 1: Livingston seems to be located at the juncture of the former Spanish, French and British colonies and for that reason has an unusual population mixture even without the tourists. You may want to google for maps of Guatemala to locate the places cited in the blog.
Postscript 2: I observed Ismael throughout this adventure as the Jesus figure. Most of the time he was behind the scenes making sure that all was well and just watching the enjoyment of the family. He is the father or father-figure to all of the children on this trip. With all he shared love and care. One of my favorite memories of the trip was the view of Ismael and his three sons walking in the distance along the shore...Jesus and his disciples.
Postscript 3: I cannot help but wonder how long it will take for tourism to exploit this place of natural wonder, beauty and culture. For those chasing the dollar, the place is a gold mine. At present, it cost us little money to enjoy these priceless treasures.
Sr. Pam Buganski
Sr. Pam joined SewHope as our first American Project Coordinator in 2012