When someone gives you three minutes to talk to 200 people about a life changing experience writers block sets in. This is something I would have assumed to be true and now know it to be. Of course, to the person who asked, it wasn’t a life changing experience. They want three minutes on what it was like to spend time in Guatemala for a Habitat for Humanity build and they want it to be meaningful.
The challenge I was faced with doing this was not sharing my experience, it was sharing an experience that was so emotionally challenging and shaping to a group of people who wouldn’t get it anyways-because I didn’t even get it. When people asked me, back in March, “Oh, how was Guatemala?” I would say “Good”, “so hot”, “so eye opening” and all the other cliched things you say about a third world country. Not once did anyone shake me and say “no really, how was Guatemala?” in which case I would have responded “I have no idea. Because the person who went there never came back.”
I spent two weeks struggling over 300 words. A problem, I can assure you, I have never had before. Thousands of words roll off the tip of my ball pen a day without thought, reason, purpose, pride or even meaning-but I sat down to write this 14 days in a row and couldn’t stop hitting delete after the first sentence: “I never would have guessed…” DELETE, “Somewhere over Texas…” DELETE, “Humanitarian work has never…” DELETE. Finally, sixty minutes before I had to have it finished, perfected and ready to speak, I decided to just write.
The result, a 1021 word poorly edited version of my brain, is not what I intended on saying, and yet, what I intended on saying is no where near the tip of my pen, so therefore, the speech I have is the speech I’ll make. It is not my best, it is certainly not my all, but it will do. And I think it gets my point across:
The word “mission” has always made me feel uncomfortable, partially because I have associated it with the forceful definition of centuries past and partially because I have never been quite sure what it means to me.
When I made the decision to go to Guatemala as part of a Habitat for Humanity team this time last year I naively jumped to the conclusion that escaping the rain and congestion of the 2010 winter Olympics would be wonderful and that being a ‘humanitarian’ would be glamorous.
The night before I left for Guatemala I seemed to change my mind. For some reason, back in September I had felt quite capable and yet on the evening of February 8th I lay in bed asking myself peculiar questions. Who was I, thinking I could be of the slightest help building a house when to this day I can’t even load the dishwasher to someone’s satisfaction? What happened if I fell into a Volcano and should I write a will incase I did? Did I take the proper Malaria pills and did being allergic to mosquitoes make me more susceptible to the virus? And lastly, would I have any excuse to pack my favorite pair of high heels?
These questions spun me into a semi-dramatic panic attack and my memory keeps recalling a weak moment in which I Googled “how to fake appendicitis.” However, in the end, my panic attack pushed me into survival mode and I threw my ill-fitting carharts into my suitcase and promised myself that I would be fine.
I said Adios that night to every misconception I ever had about the word “Mission” and opened myself up to an experience which is, safe to say, something that changed my life.
By the time the rest of the Habitat team arrived in Guatemala City, I had already been there four days with Jon and Simon. I had sent over thirty homesick emails to friends and family, including a request to fly me a cell phone that would work internationally and a block of cheddar cheese, and while I learned so much in those first four days, my heart was making so many adjustments that I don’t feel it would be fair for me to attempt to remember the specifics. However, on February 13th I welcomed, along with Jon and Simon, the rest of the team and immediately went to work trying to find common ground with everyone.
When the team arrived in our build town, Champerico, we were greeted by 40 degrees and the most spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean I had ever seen. The people of the town were welcoming and curious and the first night there we sat down for a meal with the two families we would be building for. In broken English and broken Spanish we managed to all introduce ourselves and give our ages and relations to other people on the site. Both of the families had young children and the smiles around the table that night were some of the biggest I’ve ever seen.
The team was then split into two groups which would then be working on two separately located building sites and we all went our own ways to make sure we were well rested for our 6am wake up call.
Well-rested would soon become a foreign phrase, as sleep was nearly impossible with the lack of air conditioning. We struggled into our work pants and work boots and managed to get to our sites in time to receive building instructions from the Mason’s as to what we were to be doing that day. Which turned out to be a whole lot of digging. The heat, especially for the first few days, was so intense that working more than 15 minutes at a time was too much, and yet as the days wore on, the love and kinship that developed among the builders and the family we were there for seemed to build the house itself. The three young boys on the site all helped in the carrying of boulders and bricks and mixing the cement. The 3 year old daughter of the woman we were building for presented us with constant laughter and introduced us to her pet parrott on a stick, Lola. The women on the site taught us Spanish, gossiped about the Masons and washed our hair for us when we looked about ready to faint.
The five days we spent building a home were not enough (in my teams case) to see a roof bridge four simple walls, but they were enough to bridge the walls between two worlds which never would have collided if 12 people had not set out to realize what ‘Mission’ meant to them, nor if two families had not had the strength to ask for help.
The experience was more physically and emotionally challenging than I ever would have assumed. On every single page of my Journal from that trip I have written; “I didn’t know I had this strength, this is more than I knew I had to give.” And as I reflect on it, even now, I know that I couldn’t have given any more…I have used that phrase “I gave it my all” so many times, and yet looking back I can honestly say this has been the only time in my life I have really given it my all. And that, to me, is how I define “mission.” The gift of everything you can see fit to give. I didn’t write a cheque. I didn’t bring presents and adoption forms or Anti-biotics…because I didn’t have those to give. What I had, at that moment, was my hands and my heart.
On February 15th, the day we left Champerico, I wrote following in my Journal:
“I thought that I would find the meaning of love in Paris, or Rome, or in Holt Renfrew. To think I have found it here, on this one hot, stone rooftop in this hot, dusty Guatemalan no-where town is beyond what I ever thought myself capable of… and all I had to do was give.”