A community from Malacatancito, Guatemala, teaches students about hard work, simplicity, and family

June 2019

After a red-eye from Portland to LA to Guatemala city, we still had a long bus ride ahead. Throughout the day of travel, we experienced this feeling of suspension- that the trip has begun, but we still had no idea what to expect. We were so ready to start building. Twenty-four hours after we left Portland, we arrived in Malacatancito- a little dazed but thrilled to be there. 

The area we were staying was mostly farmland. The homes were far away from each other. There were dirt roads that round up, down, over, and around the rolling hills. Where we slept was about a mile walk up to the school, where we were building the court. That walk gave us time to reflect on our days or plan for what was ahead. There was a sweet symphony of moos, clucks, barks, and oinks that filled our quieter moments. We even got try our hand at milking cows. Unsurprisingly, we were not the most efficient milkers. 

Upon arriving, we learned that there were still a few things that needed to be done on the court before we could begin. Our group did such a great job, going with the flow, but we were so ready to get our hands dirty. What we couldn’t see then but became so apparent later was that this “downtime” was incredibly fruitful. We got to know each other, hear stories, tell stories, and that served us well once the hard work began.

Our first full day in Malacatancito, we were invited to a wedding. I tried to imagine the most relaxed, go with the flow bride I know, but even then I couldn’t believe she would be able to roll with 30 last-minute guests, but that’s just what she did. It was an honor to witness their marriage and the community coming together to in support of the couple. 

The next day we visited a Mayan archaeological site called Zaculeu outside of Huehuetenango. It was there that we met a group of Guatemalan high school students who were also there to see the ruins. We enjoyed getting to know them, and it made us eager to meet more members of the Malacatancito community. 

After returning from the ruins, some of our group went to play soccer and got caught in a downpour. The other part that we loved about the walk from the court to our sleeping quarters was that it gave us the perfect view to watch this group run through the rain. 

That night, we turned in early. It was still raining, and we were finally going to start working on the court the next morning. 

We hopped out of bed a little more eagerly than we had the previous mornings. It took us some time to get set up, but soon we were cruising right along. We divided up into four working groups, and each group rotated through the four stations: filling water buckets, filling buckets with rocks or sand for the mixer, taking wheelbarrows full of concrete to the section we were working on and break. Before we knew it, we had completed our first section. That afternoon, we finished our second of seven sections. 

A woman named Nora lovingly prepared the majority of our food. She made our breakfast lunch and dinner every day while we were in Malacatancito. That’s food for 27 people all cooked over a fire. Fresh handmade tortillas accompanied every meal. 

The next morning we were feeling ambitious and decided we were going to complete three sections. We ate our lunch in shifts, so we didn’t have to stop the mixer. We were working hard in each of our rotations, but the members of the community were taking on some of the hardest jobs- loading the rocks and sand into the mixer, shoveling the concrete into the wheelbarrows and everyone’s least favorite- leveling the next sections we could pour the concrete. We finished three sections and were looking forward to finishing the final two the next day. 

The other exciting part was that one of our group members birthday was that day. The chaperones had planned a small surprise party for her after dinner, but our host family took it the next level- cakes, a pinata, tamales and inviting some of the kids in the community to join in the celebration. Our whole group felt so loved that evening. 

We completed the final two sections by lunchtime the next day. We spend the afternoon in the sun. There’s nothing like a beautiful afternoon with great company (and no cellphones) to make you lose track of time. What was also surprising was our relationship to time- the ways we were aware of it and the ways we oblivious to it. Though there was always one person keeping track of our work group rotations, the rest of us were just working until the section was done. We ate around the same time, but much of our day was unstructured compared to what we’re used to. This was a change of pace from what we were used to. Throughout the week, we were much more present to the work and those around us. 

On our last full day, we painted lines on the court and dug ditches to make sure that rain wouldn’t run off into the school. After a morning of work, a delicious lunch, complete with tortillas, we made the trek back home to clean up and prepare for the court dedication ceremony. 

The ceremony was so much bigger than we anticipated. The mayor came! We sang our national anthems and then our group did the cha-cha slide while almost every Guatemalan there filmed our performance on their phone. We could be going viral in Guatemala for all we know. 

We ate an incredible dinner, but the best part was getting to play soccer on the finished court. What started as lighthearted soccer game took a turn for the competitive when a local team, complete with matching bright yellow uniforms, showed up. A couple of girls from our group joined in, and they held their own. It was so cool to watch them but also watch the little girls take it all in, 

The next morning we said our goodbyes and made our way to Lake Atitlan. The lake was amazing, the cherry on top of an incredible trip. – Grace, Central Catholic High School

“My favorite memory on the trip was my birthday.  I was nervous to be away from home in the beginning but pleasantly surprised.  Not only did the chaperones go out of their way to make my birthday away from home a little better but the host family went above and beyond.  They bought a cake, a piñata, invited the community to dinner, and made special enchiladas, which they only make on Christmas.  A family living without electricity in poverty spent their own money and effort to throw a practical stranger a birthday party.  I cried tears of appreciation as they shared Guatemalan birthday traditions with me.  I can honestly say it was the best birthday I have ever had and will never forget it.”- Seneca

“On this trip money doesn’t equal happiness.  At home we have so many advantages compared to the community.  The community had no clean water and many kids re-wore the same clothes the whole trip.  When I came I had multiple changes of clothes a day.  Nerveless, those kids always smiled and had fun.  In the US kids have every luxury and life for them will never amount to what the Guatemalans had.” – Nic

“I learned so many lessons throughout my experience in the community.  The main thing I learned is how they value love and happiness over material items.  They have very little but it is overshined by the great amount of love they showed towards us and the people around them.  They allowed me to see that I don’t need my phone or other items to bring me happiness.  I can find happiness through making connections with others and spreading love.” – Jillian

“I learned from the community that you can be incredibly happy from the little things in life.  The kids that I met had so little, but they still smiled and laughed the same way I did growing up.” – Stephanie

“One major stereotype I had coming into this trip was that those in poverty are suffering and deeply unhappy.  This was proved wrong almost immediately.  Despite the simplicity of their lives in contrast to my own, our community welcomed us in, expressing immense gratitude and joy to have us in their home.   We were welcomed in as if we belonged and had been there forever.  The people of Huehuetenago were so willing to share the little they had which also surprised me.  I assumed the people wouldn’t be as accommodating and generous with their belongings, due to the lack there of.  We all experienced the opposite whether it was piling our plates high with food each meal, refilling our shower water tank, or carrying down a generator, our community was incredibly selfless and generous throughout our stay.” -Siena

“From the community I learned the importance of handwork, simplicity, and family.  The community exhibited hardwork in many ways all throughout the trip.  One way that they did this was when the community members voluntarily helped us work on the court without taking a break.  The women on the trip worked all day to feed us three times a day, and woke up in the early morning to do so.” – Olivia

We have a lot of choices in our life, from food to occupation and education.  On my trip I met people who will be forced into manual labor jobs and have no choice in their future.  I have lots of opportunities and I now realize I should grab hold of them.” – McCaleb

“Something that I learned about myself is that I don’t need all of the things that I thought I needed to live a happy and full life.  This week I got to experience my life with the absence of running water, my phone, and all of the time I wasn’t even considering what I was missing because my life was filled with other more substantial things.  I got to strengthen friendships and experience moments with my own eyes as opposed to watching moments through my phone.  Living without things I thought I needed helped me to start to live more in the present and to make the most of each memory throughout the day.” – Maddie