Category Archives: Unexpected Blessings

Grip Tightly with an Open Hand

I hate goodbyes. I really do. Maybe I’ve gotten better at them because in over a year of traveling I’ve had to make a lot of them. But it still hurts, each time. Maybe not at the moment, but certainly after I board the bus or plane comes the silence between the seat-belt and the start of the engine, I feel the emptiness of loss.

“That’s just life” they say. The hellos and the goodbyes. To have fully, and then to have nothing. Fullness and emptiness, the waves of course. I believe we instinctively try to avoid the things that bring us pain. We assemble our toolkits to protect ourselves from the pangs of goodbyes. I know, in my life, I’ve assembled and used three such tools, with the final, being a more recent discovery.

Hold Nothing and Keep an Open Hand

The first was called, “hold nothing” or “keep an open hand.” It was a strategy aimed at never letting anything in so it hurt less when I encountered pain or eventually had to say goodbye. I lived like that for awhile. It didn’t work. I spent the first part of my 10 months in England living with all of the experiences at an arm’s length. I thought that if I could just keep everything at a distance, then it’d be easier to take in and let go. But the problem is, you never really take it in, do you? It hurts, being disconnected. You never really let relationships become a part of you, you never really let the music move you, and you never really let the exotic flavors of culture seep into your soul.

That’s not really living at all.

Hold Tightly and Maintain a Closed Grip

After that first life experiment, I went back to the drawing board. Determined to grab life by the horns, and to seize the day, the second tool was called, “hold tightly” or “maintain a closed grip.” I started accumulating a lot of great things in my life in Richmond, VA. Great job, great friends, great church in a great city. It’s great when it’s great, but when it changes, it’s terribly hard.

When things start slipping through your hands, you try to hold on tighter. You try to hold onto what inevitably will be taken from you without your permission. The truth is, it does not matter how hard you hold onto things, they will change. I could sense that as friends started to move, or got married, and even as I was contemplating my own move overseas, it was incredibly hard to emotionally stay connected to something that was leaving or already left.

Sometimes life takes most everything whether you don’t hold on at all or try to hold onto everything. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you hold it, it stays or it leaves. Such uncertainly can drive you mad or it can bring you to a place of greater understanding. Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t reached a state of enlightenment and self-reliance, on the contrary, I think I’m beginning to see the importance of confusion and dependence. In other words:

“A surrender to the reality and a full admission to the enjoyment and sadness that comes and stays awhile and goes.”

After all, I’m not a god with power to speak things into or out of being. I’m just human.

For this, I’ve learned to rely on the Lord more and more. Through my dependence I feel an assurance that when the goodness comes and goes, there will be more goodness to come. From the same side, when the sadness comes, it will go, and there will be renewal and restoration from the provider of everything that I’ve ever had. God is in charge of the supply, and by shared and personal history, He has been good.

Grip Tightly with an Open Hand

So now, I call this most recent tool, “grip tightly with an open hand.” I’m trying to invest as much as I can and enjoy it for what it is. And when it’s gone, I will mourn and I will be sad, but certainly, the Lord will provide. It’s an example of living the famous quote by the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne,

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

We must open our hands and enjoy these experiences, but not try to crush them with remorse if they seek to fly away.

As a Doctor for Two Days – Part 1

On Friday, we drove an hour away from a very rural “city” to a sugar cane batey community. Within our micro-lending program we provide our associates the ability to receive medical treatment free of charge. Unfortunately, these services are few and far between, as they largely depend on the willingness and the resources of doctors or dentists from various organizations and churches.

We had the pleasure of working with two doctors and two nurses from Grace Community Church in Orlando, Florida. I was the translator for Scott, a doctor with an extensive career in primary care, ER, and sports medicine. In addition to various assignments, he was the Orlando Magic doctor for quite some time. He and his wife Cissy, have a heart to serve, and for the past couple years have been doing more Christian mission work. They’ve got two grown kids, and three adopted kids. One child is from China and the other two are adopted locally in Orlando.

After a long day, we were in the late afternoon still seeing patients when Cissy came up to me with a few tears in her eyes, and said,

“Just to let you know, they next family has a son that is Autistic. They are probably unfamiliar with what that means, because the grandmother said that ‘the boy is missing half of his brain.’ When they sit down, let me know, because we’d like to talk with them a little more. One of our adopted daughters has Asperbergs syndrome.”

A tired and frustrated grandmother sits down with the 5 year old in her lap. The mother of the boy is resting at home. The grandmother says to me, “He’s missing ‘half of his brain’ and he doesn’t want to eat, walk, talk, or learn. What can you do?” We’d been rushing through the patients all day trying to see the 115 listed on the schedule as kindly and efficiently as we could manage. Here though, the change in environment was immediate. Scott and Cissy both sat down and leaned in toward the family. Scott took off his stethoscope and said to me, “Aaron, I’m not really sure we are going to be able to prescribe anything for the young man, but what we need to do is to teach them how to love and live with a son with special needs. We went through this process six years ago with our girl.”

For the next 20 minutes, Scott worked with the young boy to see what mental faculties were present. To our surprise, the boy could walk, talk, dance, play, and was intrigued by Scott snapping his fingers and mimicked the action with his own hand. We tried to talk with the family that the boy needs a lot of dynamic involvement in his life. He needs to be played with, he needs to be sung to, he needs to be danced with, and most importantly, he needs to be loved. It was difficult; very, very difficult. The grandmother spoke mostly Creole, so her friend spoke Spanish to me, I translated to Scott, and Scott spoke English to me, back to Spanish, and then to Creole.

It wasn’t really a language barrier. It was more a barrier of education in a community that lacked any sort of medical resources, let alone the ability to know and how to work with special needs. In a community of 800 people of sugar cane workers, I’m not sure how many people had any formal education or medical knowledge. Scott says sometimes people can think that children are “just being difficult” or worse, “possessed.” The family was still frustrated, but I believe that their countenance changed when I told them that Scott and Cissy had a child with similar issues, and six years later, the child was much more active and involved in family life.

They always say that you have “God moments” on trips like these. This was certainly one of them. And if I could point specifically to the most touching moment it would be when Cissy picked up the child in her arms and sang “Jesus loves me.” You can see from the picture here that he is completed enraptured in her eyes, and during the song he lifted up his arm to softly touch her face. I’m not sure if you can tell, but Cissy is weeping while she is singing.

By the end of our meeting with the family, the boy eased up and the family began to smile. Scott wanted one last hug with the child, and unlike the first time that he had the boy in his arms where the child was smacking his face, now, he was softly touching the side of his cheek. Scott too, was in tears. Both he and Cissy wanted to pray with the family. So I translated their prayer:

“God we know that you love each person as you created them. We know that you never make a mistake. We pray that you help us love him and nurture him. Give us the strength, the knowledge, and the patience to help him grow into what you have created him to be. May he know the love of his family, may he feel it deeply through song, through play, and through dance. And Lord, when we arrive in Heaven, we know that we will all be complete, and that we will all be able to celebrate and sing and dance and laugh as you intended us to be.”

We hugged the family, we smiled, we said our blessings, and they walked out of our clinic without any medications. We sat there kind of stunned. Cissy was still crying. Someone asked her what was wrong. She said, “Nothing’s wrong, I just want him to know that he is loved. I want him to know that he’s not sick, nor that he’s missing half of his brain. But that simply, his Heavenly father loves him and his family does too. Sometimes, we can get so frustrated and sidetracked by the condition that we forget to just love him. That’s all he needs.”

You can imagine what it must have felt like to be on holy ground there at our makeshift clinic. It was amazing how a little boy can reach out and touch us all.

A Response to Kindness

I’ve been thinking about my previous post, “The Transparency of Kindness” since I’ve been in the Dominican Republic, and I’ve seen yet more evidence of the goodness in this world.

It’s always a difficult process to switch from a place where you’ve felt comfortable to a place where you’ve never been, and you don’t speak the language. By the end of my three months in Guatemala, I felt like I could pretty much understand every conversation, and I could communicate myself fairly well. But, my first night in the DR with my new family, I felt like I knew zero Spanish. Between the accent and speed, my comprehension suffered greatly. I felt like an outsider again.

Like most difficult things, it got easier, and just a few days later, I started to have an ear for the accent and the speed. The Moreta Family helped me out tremendously. They fed me dinner even though I arrived when they were going to have a meeting at their church. They slowed down their conversation so I could understand what was going on. They gave me a room. They said I could set my stuff down, and they said that it was my place to rest.

I think about how strange it has to be for them to open up their house to a foreigner. They gave a room to someone they’ve never met. They let their kids crawl over this stranger and they serve him first at the table. So strange and so amazing. It’s this transparency of kindness that I have grown to love since I’ve been traveling. I feel like I am able to see it so clearly now, and I want to savor it as much as I can. I know that while I’ll be here for quite some time, I will eventually return to the states.

Does that mean I will lose the ability to see it?

I mentioned before that I believe that you don’t need to leave the country to see the goodness of this world, but I wonder if I will immediately fall back into my old mindset? I would like to believe that there are some things in this world that permanently shift the way you think about your life and the world you live in. There are some things you’ll never be able to turn your back on.

Hmm . . . will I turn my back on how people have helped me in each country I’ve visited? How easy it would be to say thanks and move on. How easy it has been to sit at the family dinner table and walk away when I’m finished eating. I guess I’m alluding to a fundamental question: does kindness demand a response? Is it enough to just be able to see the goodness of this world? Is it enough to say thanks? Is it enough to take a few photos and write a few posts about my gratitude?

I believe kindness begets kindness. And maybe, I can’t turn my back on my experience.

Oddly enough, as I was writing this post, the family came and told me that they had picked up my pile of laundry and they planned to do it with the rest of the family’s clothes. They just didn’t want me to be alarmed when I went back in my room and didn’t see my pile of dirty clothes. In the barrio in Santo Domingo where I’m living, the water and the electricity goes in and out, frequently, usually everyday. Rebeca mentioned this to me when she apologized for grabbing my clothes, “When there’s water, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”

At first I thought, “Well, that was nice of them.”

. . . Haha, is that all I’m going to think?

Sometimes kindness is clarity. Antonio was an orphan that probably would have died if the family didn’t provide for him. Today, if we didn’t do the laundry, we might not have the chance to do it for awhile.

Sometimes, it’s clear that kindness demands a response. If this family is going to feed me and give me a room, then maybe I can help them do laundry. After all, with two young boys, there are always dirty clothes to be cleaned. Rebeca knows this because she comes from a family of 11 siblings, and Federico from a family of 14 siblings. There was always laundry to be done, and you had to do it when you had the opportunity.

. . . I walked upstairs to hang up some clothes, end of story.

The Transparency of Kindness

I’ve experienced some amazing moments of kindness since I started traveling in August. Moments where I stop and realize that there is goodness in this world, and even though someone does not have money or status, they can change someone else’s life. To me, I thought that to make a difference in someone’s life, you needed to have enough money and education. You had to be in a position of power to positively affect someone else. But there were many moments, and continue to be experiences, where I realize that being educated, having money, skills or talents is irrelevant. Absolutely irrelevant. What matters most is desire, and the willingness to step forward and make yourself available.

Out of many, many examples over the past 4 months to illustrate this point, I’m going to talk about Antonio. Antonio is a Guatemalan in his thirties (possibly early forties). Early on in his life, his diminutive status and diminished mental capacity limited his ability to work led his family to cast him out in the streets to survive on his own. He’s an orphan, and because he never grew up around a family or had consistent relationships until he was 12, his language skills are limited. He doesn’t even speak Spanish. When you want to talk to him, you either have to know Tz’utujil or use body language, and work at it both until he understands. He has no wealth nor the potential for earning it. In the modern world, he has nothing to offer, but yet, he has a room in a home, three meals a day, and a family to call his own. How?

When people ask me what I’ve thought about Central America, I usually respond that people are so kind, so incredibly gracious and welcoming. I say it because it is a point of contrast between the United States and the Central American culture. I say it because I’m a single, young American, without any dependencies, and everything I consider to be safe, secure, and good has come from hard work and the protection of what I’ve been given or earned. Sometimes, I think that to survive in this world you have to fight, and that to admit weakness, or softness is a dangerous admission into vulnerability.

Antonio lives with the Cortez family, and has lived with them for over 20 years. They found him on the street and felt sympathy for him and gave him a home, and more importantly, they gave him a family. He’s got a role in the family and it matters that he follows through with it. He has to fill the water into the outdoor sinks and replenish the firewood, or the food making (which starts at 6:00am) will not happen. I’ve seen him many times at 5:00am wearing a stocking cap and a winter coat carrying firewood up to the second floor. He always wants me to pass by him, and he won’t let me wait for him to finish his trek up the steps.

My perspective has been changing about how this world can work.  I have seen too much already to continue with my old mindset. While I haven’t usually taken the time to record my thoughts on this blog, or captured the moments with a photo, in some ways, I don’t want to. There is something special and unique about knowing that when a moment exists it will pass and will forever never be recorded in words or images. I believe these moments are precious, and they have become some of my fondest memories.

The first time I saw Antonio’s room was when I went up the steps one evening up to my room. The experience made me stop, mid-steps, and think about what it means to be an orphan, or a son, or a traveler in this world. His room, in a word, is “security.” The family gave him something that will always be his. He has a single bulb that lights up his small dwelling place. I saw a picture of the Cortez family, a picture of Jesus, a dresser, a neatly made bed, and his boots placed next to his shoes underneath his small coat rack. I paused on the steps, and thought about the preciousness of having a room to call your own. To have a place where you can set your stuff, fold and store your clothes, and rest in privacy. The times I’ve felt most comfortable while traveling in the past four months has been when someone has given me a room to my own. It’s then that I know that this place will be mine, and mine only, and I and my various possessions, will be safe here.

Antonio’s room is his firm grip on this world. Even though this world has been cold to him and deserted him so many times, this room is something that will not be taken away. It is his, and his only.

I don’t have a picture of Antonio’s room, and I will never have a picture of it. It’s his room. It’s where he feels safe. I’ll leave it in his possession.

I guess, one could say that you really need to leave the borders of the western world to see such kindness of the Cortez family, but I don’t think that’s fair to our society. Kindness exists in our culture every day, but it is so easy to overlook. We get lost in our schedules, in our obligations, and in our entertainment.

So I suppose what happened to me was not that the world was suddenly filled with these moments of real kindness, it’s that I was finally able to see them.

And now, I see it everywhere.

Always Pack a Second Sandwich

I had the opportunity to spend two days in San Jose, Costa Rica with the Meyer family who have been serving Latin American Mission at La Palabra de Vida school in San Jose. I got to spend some quality time with the family learning about their experiences living and serving overseas. On Sunday night, Josh was going to take me to the airport and he encouraged me to pack some sandwiches for the trip, “You never know how hungry you’ll be or who else is going to need one.”

There was a big group hanging out in the San Jose airport to catch the 2:05am flight to Fort Lauderdale. As I was standing in line to check in and there was a couple from the States, and we started talking about how early or late it was in the evening. The husband asked where I was from and when I told him “Virginia” he said that there was a young guy hanging out from Virginia who was having a problem with his debit card. The young man hadn’t yet gotten the deposit back from the rental car company, so he didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket home and was going to have to spend the night in the airport without any money or food. He was going to stay up as late as he could so that he would be able to sleep straight through until the morning because he didn’t want to wake up and be hungry and have no money and no food for the rest of the night. The couple wished there was something they could do.

After I checked in I headed toward the security and found the guy who looked like he was trying to get comfortable on an airport bench.

I said, “Hey, are you the guy from Virginia who’s stuck here overnight?”

He was like “Yeah, I ran into problems with my debit card and I have to wait until 8:00am to withdraw enough money to pay for a ticket back home. I haven’t eaten lunch or dinner and it’s been a ridiculously terrible day . . . How did you know about me?”

I responded, “There was a couple in line from Florida. They told me about your story and they felt bad that nowhere was open to buy you some food . . . but listen, from one Virginian to another, do you want a ham and cheese sandwich?”

“Are you serious??? I would love one! I haven’t eaten all day. Oh, that would be so awesome. You’re really serious?”

So I gave him the extra sandwich and a bag of peanuts and raisins I had in my bag. He was in such disbelief and was so grateful for the food, he just sat there looking at me. As I walked away he immediately tore into the sandwich.

I sat down at the gate and about 10 minutes later the couple came up and I saw the husband with a huge smile on his face. He reached out to shake my hand and he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. We felt so bad for that young guy but couldn’t do anything to help him out. I appreciate what you did back there.”

And I said, “Well if y’all hadn’t told me about it, then he’d still be hungry . . . I guess it was more of a combined effort.”

Both he and his wife smiled. They told me they were just coming back from their honeymoon, and the felt bad they couldn’t do anything for the guy.

6:17am in Fort Lauderdale we were picking up out bags from the baggage claim. The husband came up and wished me well for my upcoming trip, “Thanks again for helping out that guy in Costa Rica. It’s really good what you did. Blessings to you in the Dominican Republic. I know you’ll do great things.”

I stepped back and thought about this small event and how it really wasn’t me at all. It was first Josh who encouraged me to make another sandwich, and then it was probably the guy’s wife who felt terrible for the young man and encouraged her new husband to do something (I mean think about it, “Honey, are you going to let that young man starve? What if he was our son? Would you want him to be sitting in the airport all alone with no money and no food?”), and then there was the husband who was incredibly concerned but still powerless to do something about the situation.

And then there was me, the fourth person in the chain with an extra sandwich that got to help a neighbor in Virginia.

As simple as it sounds, from now on, I think I’ll pack an extra sandwich and begin a campaign for packing extra sandwiches. You never really know which person you’ll be as you wait for an early morning flight.

San Pedro is a Second Home

Coming back to San Pedro this time was much easier than my first arrival. I felt good about returning to a place  that I knew. I had a family to stay with, I had a few friends from my language school, and I knew a lot of the teachers that taught there. I got really excited as we crested the first mountain coming into the lake. I felt like I was coming home.

I think it’s important to dive into a new place. Dive in completely and try to make it your home. At first, I didn’t like that idea, because I wanted to stay true to my roots: Virginia. Somehow, it seemed that if I were to try to make a new home, sentiments for my old home would decrease. Nope, that’s not how it works. I’ve found that when you try to expand your heart, there is always room for a new home.

As I arrived to my house I heard a chorus of “Hola Aaron!!!” It was almost like they coordinated this greeting. There’s nothing like the feeling of coming home, or hearing your own name. I dropped a few of my bags and looked around for my little brother. Tiny Hector’s mom released him (as he was scrambling to get out of her arms) and he ran to me. He had a huge smile and reached out to hug me, but because of my size he just grabbed my leg. I leaned down and he gave me a high five. (My family told me that for a few days after I left Tiny Hector would come up to my room and knock on my door and say “RRROOONNNN!” He thought that I just had my door closed, he didn’t really know I left!)

My family was really happy to see me. They said they had a surprise for me. We walked closer to the kitchen and they opened the door to their room. But it wasn’t their room, it was a redecorated, rearranged room and there were streamers and balloons everyone.

Two more students had joined the family from the language school and my old room was taken. In order to make room for me, they moved to another room so that I could have a place to sleep. Their entire family sleeps in one room, and they moved everything to the small room to the side of the kitchen so that I could stay there.

Wow. Such graciousness and hospitality.

Many times I feel such a weight of gratitude, that it feels like a burden that I have to repay. But there isn’t a way I can repay them. They do it out of love and they expect nothing in return.

I suppose seeing the joy on my face is a down payment though.

The decorations were all Lolita’s idea. What a sweetheart.

Welcome home.

Tamales and Tiny Hector

I was playing guitar when Tiny Hector (my nickname for Hector’s nephew) walked into my room and presented me with a large banana leaf. The women were busy preparing a large batch of tamales and were going to wrap this mix of ground corn, chicken, and fruit with large banana leaves.  I asked Hector (his real name) if he had been helping the women wrap the 300 tamales that they had planned to make that evening. His response was a presentation of the leaf to me, so  I took it from him, looked it over, smiled, and then gave it back. He put some of it in his mouth, and proceeded to tear up the rest into tiny pieces.

I suppose this is how Tiny Hector helps when the women are working. I love this kid. He’s so sincere, so honest, and he doesn’t speak much of any language. Most of the family here speaks Spanish and Tz’utujil. (Tz’utujil is one of the local Mayan languages – I’ll write more on this later.) If nothing else, Tiny Hector provides a respite from the hard work during the nine hour marathon needed to prepare 300 tamales.

From what I understood with my limited Spanish, the women were making tamales for a special day of celebration. Twelve women had gathered from the local church at our house, and had been working all day to make these tamales. The Cortez family was excited for me to try tamales. Apparently, everyone loves tamales in Guatemala, and sometimes they get together to make them for special occasions. Hector asked me if it was ok that the women would be working on the tamales outside my room. He said they may be up late. I told him it wouldn’t bother me. So the women labored while I slept.

The next morning, at breakfast I asked Flori where Hector was. She said he was sleeping; he was up late last night. I asked her how late she and the women stayed up to make the tamales. She said she went to bed at 3:00 and woke up at 5:30 to begin the house work. “Wow,” I thought, “these women are so dedicated.”

Later, at lunch, I was talking about all the tomale making with Hector. He said he slept in because he was up late at night and up early in the morning to deliver some of the food to a local church and to drop the rest of the food off at his church. I asked, “Oh, so the tamales are for a celebration tonight at your church? You usually have church on a Tuesday, right.” He said that they did, but tonight was special. Tonight his brother was going to speak.

I made a new friend at church recently, his name is Nicholas, and he’s a farmer. He stands about 5’1” and wears black cowboy boots. The very first night I attended, he was the first person to greet me. He has a big family and has been very involved in the church. I asked Nicholas, “Is there always a dinner after church?” Nicholas responded, “No, tonight is a special celebration.”

I find it funny that since I don’t know how to speak Spanish well, I find myself gathering clues most of the time and trying to assemble a complete story. Very often, I ask the same questions, and with repeated answers, I eventually get the picture. Somehow, I still didn’t know why today was a big day.

The service proceeded as normal, and when the Pastor was finishing his message, he asked Hector’s brother to come up and say a few words. Hector’s brother is really involved in the church, as I’ve seen his name on the main board a few times as a deacon or a greeter.

Hector started talking about his past. He talked about his family and his job and how there was a period where things weren’t good. I gathered that some really bad things had happened, really bad, and as he humbly told his story, tears started to fall from his eyes. He had to pause to continue, but at the points where he thanked his family for their loyalty and their trust, he could barely speak.

The pastor came back up and put his arm around him and asked if people wanted to come forward to pray with the family. I felt like I was witnessing a very important event in the history of the church, in the history of Hector’s family, and something uniquely special about this community. It was a humble gathering, and hugs and kisses were exchanged by the family in front of the church. No pomp and circumstance, no loud music, just a community of people standing in the middle of the church happy to celebrate a man that came home.

The pastor announced that the youth would serve the church, the whole church. Regulars, full-fledged members, and people who just happened to walk in that night. Everyone would be fed.

As the youth were coming out to serve everyone, I asked Nicholas to explain to me what tonight was about. He said that Hector’s brother was in a really bad place in his life, but a year ago on this day, he walked back into the church and turned his back on a lifestyle that had damaged his family. It was the anniversary of him becoming a Christian, of him coming home.

I keep having these moments where I feel like time slows down and all the Spanish clues I’ve gathered throughout the day are now forming a cohesive picture.

The women were up late.

The women labored while I slept.

The women stayed up until 3:00am to make over 300 tamales.

The men stayed up til 3:00 as well.

The men got up again at 4:30 to deliver the food.

They made over 300 tamales for their family, their friends, and for strangers.

For an entire day, a community labored to celebrate a man who came home. They thought it proper to have a banquet, but not just for the family. Everyone. Anyone. Anyone who walked in that door of the church got fed. Anyone with dirty clothes or dirty hands. Anyone who had already eaten that evening, and anyone that hadn’t yet eaten that day.

They all labored while I slept.

I couldn’t believe it.

Tiny Hector stood in my room with a banana leaf in hand smiling at me, wanting me to join in.

Tiny Hector is Hector’s brothers son.

Tiny Hector labored while I slept to celebrate his dad coming home.

Even now, as I write this. A heavy emotional weight pulls at my heart. All this kindness and sincerity. All the humble workers. All the ordinary people making food to eat. The lack of pomp and circumstance. The lack of applause. The lack of tables as we ate our food . . . we all ate the tamales in our laps.

It’s all so heavy in my heart.

And probably the best thing is what happened when we got home. After three hours of celebration, we returned home. Hector’s dad asked me if I had ever eaten a tamale before. I said I hadn’t, but I really, really liked them. He asked how many I ate today. I told him I ate four.

He opened up his mouth (which was missing six front teeth) and put his hands on his belly and laughed a big hearty full-bellied laugh.

“I had eight,” he said.

Somehow, it was clear to me that this was the last puzzle piece of this story. The one that seemed to make everything fit together.  The family labored while I slept so that everyone could celebrate, and anyone could eat. After all, eating is for family and for friends, and for foreigners. And when you eat tamales, those delicious tamales, the goal is to eat until you’re full, until the entire family is full.

The labor had been completed. We celebrated and ate until our bellies were full, and now it was time to rest, for everyone to rest.

I went back to my room and set down my things. I found a tiny piece of a banana leaf and set it on my desk, and I smiled as I turned out the light.

I Almost Joined A Worship Band

On Friday, I went to church with Hector and set in motion some plans to perform live in front of the entire congregation. Hector goes to an evangelical church called Nuevo Vino on the edge of town. We went early because he’s a greeter, which makes sense for Hector, because more and more I see how he knows everyone in this town of 13,000. It’s simply a joy to ride around in his truck. At every turn he will yell out the window to someone he knows and they will smile and respond with some Spanish slang.

While Hector is greeting people, I sit down in the 2nd row. I figure that the front is equivalent to the back of the church because I’m not really going to avoid people coming up to me and introducing themselves no matter where I sit. There just aren’t 6’3″ white people who hang out in Guatemalan churches on Friday nights.

A young man came up and introduced himself. He knew a bit of English, but he mostly spoke in Spanish. He said that Saturday night was a service for “jovenes” or “young people. He asked me if I played any instrument. I said that I played guitar and sang a bit. He was impressed. He said that I should come at 5:00. Someone else told me that the service was at 7:00. I was trying to figure out why there were two different times for the service, but like most things here, I just give up and go with the flow.

Saturday rolls around and Hector and I head to the church. There aren’t really that many people there at all. Only the young men that I met last night. One guy in particular, Andres, is very friendly, and as it turns out, he’s the piano player at the church. We walked up to the stage and I picked up a guitar and tried to tune it. It was old and wasn’t very good quality, so I had a lot of trouble with it, so he gave me a bass instead. I don’t really play bass.

We started jamming to some songs that I kind of knew and then he comes over to me and starts talking about the order of songs. He proceeds to explain what chords I need for the verse and then for the chorus. I’m having trouble with the songs because when Guatemalans write and read music they use the Solfeggio
(Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do) and not the notes (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C).

A few girls pick up microphones and start singing the songs. They sound like they know what they are doing. Another young man sits down and starts playing the drums. It’s at this point where I get a bit leery about the situation:

  • We’re singing Spanish songs that I’m not familiar with.
  • I’m playing a bass and I really can’t hear what notes I’m playing because it’s so loud.
  • I can’t transcribe his solfeggio annotations or my own handwriting.
  • It’s getting closer and closer to 7:00.
  • People are coming into the church.

I started praying one of those prayers for the Lord to have mercy on me. I’m not sure which transgressions merit the recompense of having to play 12 Spanish songs on a bass where I can’t even hear the notes. Yes, I am starting to freak out.

Just then, one of the girls lays down the microphone and says goodbye. The drummer looks at his watch and sticks the drumsticks in his pocket. I’m beginning to think my prayer has paid off.

Andres turns off the keyboard and I ask him if he’s in the group tonight.

“Tonight? No, tonight we sing with the CD.”

Whew . . . I almost joined a worship band. Thank goodness. Turns out, you can come at 5:00 if you want to practice music, otherwise, show up at 7:00 with the rest of the jovenes.

Angel with an Apron

Sometimes angels appear in most unusual places wearing the strangest accessories.

I will call this angel Abuelita which means “little grandmother” because she reminded me of my dad’s mother. In the tiny Hotel del Istmo in Guatemala City, she was leading the conversation of her two coworkers and the young lady working behind the desk. It was clear she was the matriarch. I immediately loved her composure. She laughed with her whole body and when she smiled, I saw all the white teeth that she had. Around her traditional, conservative dress she wore an apron that could hold quite a lot of things.

Sitting there in the lobby, Abuelita greeted a man who came up to her. This man owed her some money and she pulled out a huge stack of cash: dollars and quetzales. She must have been the money changer here. A lot of people probably came and went from this place and she was the one who controlled the bank.  I could tell she was in charge, and she liked taking the point of command as she gathered the questions of her friends and asked them to me in Spanish. She told me that I was very tall and quite handsome and she wanted to know how tall I was in centimeters. I told her I didn’t know, but I could tell her what I was in feet and inches. She said that was just fine and she said that I was much taller than one of her sons.

Out from the apron came an address book where she read to me the address of her son that lived in California and apparently was much shorter than me. Her well-worn address book contained all the addresses and phone numbers of her family, scribbled and rewritten as the places and numbers changed. She kept it close to her, in that apron, maybe a reminder that while the family she loved had moved far away, she always knew where they resided.

I first noticed this apron when I stepped into the Hotel del Istmo as the rain came pouring down in Guatemala City. From the apron appeared a cell phone which seemed much too flashy to come from such a modest woman. She asked if I needed to use the phone and I smiled and nodded that I did. Apparently, I had gotten off at the wrong station, and I had stepped inside to get out of the rain and to evade the taxi drivers. I must have looked confused as I stood there with my luggage, rain pouring down, wearing my beat up straw hat, and looking at an address scrawled on a piece of paper. It was with her smile and grace that she extended this loving hand to me with her cell phone in it. As I tried to read off the paper the address and phone number, she realized that she had better dial the number because there was no way I was going to be able to speak Spanish to whoever answered that line.

Abuelita asked me for a dollar to use her phone, I was more than happy to oblige, and now I know how she came to acquire such a wad of money. Alberto arrived 15 minutes later and helped me get my luggage into the vehicle. Strangely enough, Albert was the name of one of my grandfathers. I smiled and waved to the women of the hotel lobby and said “God Bless You” in Spanish. Abuelita returned those words to me with a smile, and waved one hand, the other she kept in the apron, to safeguard a few important things for travelers like me.