Greetings, one and all, from Antigua! I arrived here yesterday after a very, very long journey from the Boston area. I don’t think it was actually as long as my body thought it was, but my travels began at 3:30am, and it is a well-established fact that any adventure that starts before the local coffee shops are open is destined to be very, very long.
Undercaffeinated but tecnhically conscious, I arrived at Guatemala City airport shortly after noon local time. Here the smooth flow of events was briefly interrupted when customs asked lots of questions about the unopened cardboard box I was carrying as checked baggage. My limited Spanish could just about handle the basic questions–what’s in there? (curriculum) how much is it worth? (no idea, my friend bought it) what are you going to do with it? (bring it to my friend’s school)–but could NOT handle the follow-up questions. Fortunately, my friends could see me struggling on the other side of the glass doors and were able to come to the rescue and explain to the customs people that I was not, in fact, smuggling stuff into the country to resell. Though they are always encouraging us pastors to develop sidelines…
The rest of the day passed in a sleep-deprived blur of really good food, great conversation with my friends and hosts David and Jenn, and a visit to the orphanage where that contraband curriculum will soon go. The highlight of the day was meeting Gabby, a girl whose education my congregation has been sponsoring. Here, sponsors are called godparents, and so when Gabby came in to meet me, her teacher introduced me to her as her “matrina.” I said hello, and Gabby hid her face in her teacher’s shoulder. “This is Victoria,” her teacher told the top of Gabby’s head, which gave no sign of recognition. “This isn’t like her,” Jenn told me. “Wait until she warms up to you.”
This morning we returned to the orphanage. Gabby was already in the one-room school with the other little girls, and there was some hardcore coloring going on. Gabby was sitting near the door, and when she saw me, she made eye contact and smiled. I smiled back and went to sit down with her. I asked in my limited Spanish about what she was coloring, and she solemnly handed me a crayon. My friend David bent down to observe her coloring book. “Ella es mi matrina,” Gabby informed him. “Victoria.”
And from then on, every time a new girl wandered over to see who I was, Gabby introduced me, hugging my arm, touching my hair, gestures that the other girls quickly copied. The girls soon realized that I couldn’t speak a lot of Spanish, but communicated that they were very happy to have me there by randomly shouting my name at various intervals as the coloring proceeded.
The thing that keeps striking me when we visit the orphanage is how normal touch is. While in the States, and especially as a pastor, I’m incredibly careful about who and how I offer touch, it’s very normal for the kids to hug me as they meet me for the first time, to hug my arm, to lean on my lap, to play with my hair or my earrings. I expressed some surprise to Jenn, who explained: “This is a community that functions like a family. When I introduce someone who’s been connected to us from a distance and is visiting for the first time, it’s like I’m introducing a cousin they just haven’t met yet. They understand that you’re already part of the community.”
That’s good, because I don’t think I knew that. The experiential side of global accompaniment is powerful and surprising.
After a lunch of what I swear is one of the best Italian meals I’ve had in my life, Jenn and David brought me to Spanish school. I’ll be having lessons there most of the days I’m here, three or four hours at time. I had some private misgivings about this, unsure of how much Spanish I could really take in in a single week, and pessimimstic about the pleasure of spending four hours at a time in language learning. I kept trying to imagine if French class in high school would have been like that–I think I’d have run off screaming in perfectly accented francais.
Aside from the challenge of limited time, there’s the challenge of my knowledge of Spanish–I’ve had no formal instruction in Spanish, but have accrued a motley vocabulary through osmosis, the first unit of a “Learn Spanish while You Drive!” audiobook, and binge-watching “Jane the Virgin.” The resulting mess is that I know too much Spanish to begin at the beginning of most classes without getting bored, and too little Spanish to jump ahead.
What happened over the next three hours was the most fun I have ever had in language studies. The school, it transpired, teaches its students one-on-one, so I was paired with Giovanni. For the first fifteen minutes, he patiently asked me basic questions in Spanish, and listened to my halting, stumbling answers, offering a word here or there when I asked for it. And then he let me ask him questions, and there it was, right off the bat, I felt like I was having an actual conversation with a person, and he actually seemed to understand what I was trying to communicate! THE MARVEL!
Friends, you must understand: if I could wish for any superpower, I would ask to become a perfect polyglot. I want no power more than being able to understand and be understood, no matter what the language. So when Giovanni started me out with the impression that that superpower was within reach, even in the very small and limited way that 20 hours of instruction can get me–that man had me at “hola.”
After we were off to the races. I’ve never had the experience of being able to set my own pace in language learning with a teacher who was perfectly willing to follow me off into the rabbit holes of why this phrase is put together this way, or what vocabulary I needed to use that verb the way I wanted. I loved it. What Giovanni was doing was helping me follow my own mental map of language learning, handing me the information I wanted in exactly the moment I needed it so that I could arrange it all in my strange and complicated brain in a way that makes sense for me. Oh, the verb for “to look” is “mirar?” That sounds like “mirror!” What’s the word for mirror? El espejo. Excellent–now I practice conjugating: “I look in the mirror. You look in the mirror. She looks in the mirror.” Over and over, letting my brain find neat little shelves for the conjugation, the vocabulary, the pronunciation.
At one point, my teacher asked if I wanted a break. And I was like, “Already? We just started!”
It had been two hours.
Jenn and David took me to get ice cream to celebrate my first day of school (aww), and now, suddenly, somehow, it’s almost time for bed, and my brain is like an overexcited kid who’s had too much sugar: “No wait! We can’t go to bed until we make flashcards!”
There will be more tomorrow!
One Reply to “Guatemala: Day 1”
Sounds like you’re having a wonderful experience.